other worlds

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 31 Locked

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

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

“Looking for something?”

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

“I…um.”

“What’s wrong, Silvie?”

“Nothing—I—”

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

I grimaced. “I hope you’re right.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m worried about you,” I said.

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

A huff escaped my lips.

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

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

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

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

“What did your mother say?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you haven’t done anything wrong!”

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

“For what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 18

Darker Stars Beta CoverSloe paced, shivering each time he passed the hole where his bedroom door used to be. His parents were in the upper rooms discussing what had happened and considered him not adult enough to be much help. So, he’d left.

He couldn’t shake the dread he’d felt when his father had wanted him to test the portal—to see where it went. Sloe had never been so grateful for his mother’s interference on his behalf. He almost didn’t care how much of a coward it made him feel.

He was more concerned for Raven. If the hooded man showed up here at the Clock Tower, does that mean he could also visit Raven’s home? Convinced the hooded man’s appearance was a warning, he knew he had to speed up the process. He had to find the baglamas and give it to the cloaked men.

It hadn’t been long since he’d left Silvie’s world of Edgar. Their timelines weren’t as different as the Clock Tower was with other worlds. He needed to go back—as soon as possible.

“If caught,” he murmured, “I’ll say I wanted to see how Javis and Silvie were doing after everything that happened during the hospital tour.” He pressed his lips together tightly. If I’m not caught, then I’ll do some exploring on my own.

With his mind made up, he exited the Clock Tower and climbed to the portal to Edgar.

A quiet calm enveloped him as he slipped through the portal. He stepped over flowers and navigated the path to the Halls’ front door. Building Number One, he thought, smiling. He was sure the baglamas would be kept somewhere in Silvie’s home. And he hoped she, her father, and Javis hadn’t left the hospital.

Sloe knocked on the door. He waited, inwardly reciting the lines intended to explain why he was there.

When no answer came, he twisted the doorknob. He caught his breath when he realized the door wasn’t locked.

His stomach churned with disappointment at himself as his feet crossed the threshold of the Halls’ home. But the hooded man’s warning and concerned for Raven compelled him forward.

He sucked in a breath while attempting to absorb what he found inside the house. The front room was larger than the Clock Tower’s upper rooms put together. There was a sculpture, with a plaque, like dedications he’d seen at museums on other worlds. He considered taking a closer look before giving himself a sharp reminder that he had little time.

Instead of one staircase leading to the next floor, there were two. One led to the left, and the other to the right. He gritted his teeth. This will take forever.

Muttering excuses to himself, he searched the first floor. After ruling out the kitchen, and an adjacent dining room, he found himself standing in a library with a fireplace. The shelves held books and globes. A grand piano sat wedged against a window that was barely visible behind layers of curtains.

Sloe flipped through pages of sheet music, all written for the piano. Glancing around the room, he tried to picture Silvie sitting before the fireplace, strumming the baglamas. He remembered how closely she’d held the instrument to herself at the funeral.

“She wouldn’t play it here,” he whispered aloud. If I had an instrument like that, I’d hang out in my bedroom all day and practice. His eyes widened.

He held his breath as he reentered the front room. His heartbeat pulsed, reminding him of the passing time. One of the Halls could show up at any moment. After snapping his head back and forth between the two staircases, he ascended the stairs to the left.

Sloe swabbed beads of perspiration from his forehead. He kept his steps light as he wandered through the hallway, testing doorknobs as he went.

The first unlocked door creaked open. He flipped a switch along the wall and the room brightened. Squinting, he focused on a stack of shirts, a comb, and a bottle of cologne on top of a dresser. The shirts were dark blue, the same color as Javis’s uniform. I doubt they’d keep the baglamas in here, thought Sloe. He gave the rest of the room little thought before concluding it was Javis’s bedroom and turning off the light switch. The next door opened into a closet with shelves filled with towels and soaps. Next was a bathroom, then a second closet.

Sloe opened a door that led to another bedroom. He flipped a light switch and exhaled. A smile lit his face as he focused on an object that made him lose interest in everything else. On top of a bed, resting against a pillow was a stringed instrument. The baglamas.

He removed his jacket and stuffed the instrument inside, tucking the ends and tying the sleeves into a handle. Despite all the excuses he’d invented to explain his presence there, he didn’t know how to explain why he’d taken the baglamas and hoped no one would ask what was wrapped inside his jacket.

With his heart in his throat, Sloe closed the door to Silvie’s bedroom; he tiptoed down the stairs and out of the house. Outside, the flowers’ scent had faded. He sighed, grateful for a clear path between the house and the exit portal. As quickly as his feet could carry him without crushing petals and leaves, he marched to the exit portal.

He was within three feet of his goal when the ground began to tremble. He sharply released a breath. Someone was coming, or was already there, but not from the hospital or from the house. Another traveler would reach him before he reached the portal with enough time to open it and travel through.

With clenched teeth, Sloe grounded, burying the wrapped baglamas and himself in the flowers.

When he looked up, he saw another figure crouched along the ground, not far from him—someone wearing dark glasses.

“Sorry!” a voice called out a female voice.

Sloe brought himself to his feet at the same time she did, and pressed a hand to his lips.

Silvie had removed the sunglasses from her eyes and was walking toward him, smiling.

He cleared his throat and waved. His foot caught the bundle containing the baglamas, which he attempted to shift to a space further behind him.

Silvie glanced at the space behind him. “Leaving already?”

Sloe felt the heat creeping up his neck and face. “I, um—I wanted to check in on how you and Javis were doing, but you weren’t here,” he lied. “So I figured I’d go home and come back at a later time.”

“You didn’t go in the hospital? It’s right behind you.”

“No, not without you. I knocked at the front door to your house, but nobody answered so I figured I’d try later. I don’t want to bother anyone.”

Silvie smiled brightly. “Not at all! Javis is staying at the hospital overnight. He probably doesn’t need to stay there at all, but Father insists as a precaution.”

“So he’s fine, then?”

She scrunched her nose. “I hope so.”

“Stressful day,” he said with an awkward chuckle.

“Yes.” Silvie blinked, then smiled again. “Well, since you’re here, why don’t you come inside for a snack?”

Sloe winced, searching for an answer.

“I distinctly remember you saying that you came here to check in on me, too, not just Javis.”

“Oh, yeah.” His eyes flickered to the baglamas hidden in the flowers. When Silvie’s smile began to fade, he quickly added, “I can’t stay long, and I’m really not hungry.”

“A quick tour, then? I promise I won’t keep you long. I feel bad about how the earlier tour went, and that you came out here twice today for nothing.”

“Sure, thanks,” he said, caught by his own excuses.

Silvie all but skipped back to the house. “I just came back from traveling, too,” she said, indicating the travel glasses. Sloe wanted to ask why she didn’t use the baglamas, then mentally kicked himself in the head. This was not the time to bring up the instrument he’d nearly gotten away with stealing before her arrival.

He cringed as Silvie slipped a key into the lock, then frowned.

“That’s funny,” she said. “The door’s already opened.”

Sloe attempted to mimic her confusion.

“I was in such a hurry to travel, I must have forgotten to lock the door.” She added in a lower voice, “Please don’t say anything about this to Father. He would not be pleased.”

“Of course.”

Sloe tried to keep himself from suffocating with guilt as he reentered the Halls’ home; but more than that he worried about whether the baglamas would still be near the exit portal to retrieve on his way home. Worse yet, it was wrapped in his jacket—a glaring clue as to who had taken it.

Silvie led Sloe through the entryway and library he’d already seen. He wiped his palms across his dark pants and pretended to admire the room with the fireplace all over again. After he politely declined food a second time, he followed her upstairs.

“Father’s room is farther down the hallway, where the hall dead ends,” she said. “And here is my room.”

Sloe swallowed a lump in his throat. What if she sees the gaping hole on her bed where the baglamas used to be? He attempted to show appreciation, meanwhile trying to find something to talk about—to draw her attention to other things in the room. His gaze fell on the photograph propped on her nightstand.

“Is that your mother?” he said. He instantly regretted it, knowing her mother was no longer living. But as bad as he felt, he hoped it would distract Silvie from seeing what was missing on her bed.

“Yes. That’s who I was visiting before I found you.”

Sloe’s eyes widened.

“Father recently gifted me his pair of travel glasses, and I used them to travel to the past to visit my mother.”

“You traveled to a past version of her? A silhouette?”

Silvie nodded.

He tried not to cringe as she began describing how she’d found her mother’s silhouette in the library. Silvie blinked back tears. “Even though I was away, I really wasn’t that far from here at all…”

That’s where she was while I wandered through her house and stole the baglamas? What am I doing to this family? Silvie’s father rescued me from Aboreal when I first traveled alone. But I’m in too deep. I have to keep my promise to the cloaked men. I’ll need to find some way to make it up to Silvie and the Halls later.

“I, um, Silvie. I really should go.”

“I’m sorry for being depressing.”

He shrugged. “Really, it’s getting late, and my parents didn’t know I left to come back here and—”

“I understand. We can meet up again later.”

The sincerity in her voice cut him like a knife.

“Yeah, sure,” he said, angry with himself that he was lying again, knowing he wouldn’t be able to face her again after today.

Silvie moved to walk him outside.

“No, it’s all right,” he said. “You’ve had a rough day. I can find my way out.” He ignored the crinkling of her nose, unable to breathe again until she stopped at the Halls’ front door and locked it behind him.

When his foot found the baglamas wrapped in his jacket, hidden beneath the flowers, Sloe almost sighed in relief. He slipped his arm through the handle of the bundle and propped it over his shoulder. Then he brought the exit portal to life with his hands and mind.

Moments later, he clung to the Clock Tower. His knee hit hard against a cogwheel, tearing a gash in his pants, when he reached for the sundial portal to make it glow. The air popped and sizzled with purple and blue. He surged forward and pushed through before the impact of his arrival hit and anyone noticed the trembling from the inside of the tower.

The tang of smoke from a campfire reached his nostrils at the same time a high-pitched gurgling reached his ears. He squinted, adjusting to the lack of light.

The hooded man sat laughing. He and his companion were bent over a fire.

“I could taste their terror,” said the hooded man. “I expect the baglamas will arrive soon.”

Sloe sucked in a breath, his veins surging with anger. They were talking about his family, laughing at his fear. He unwrapped the baglamas and pulled on his jacket.

He stalked toward the men, intending each crunch from the ground below him so that their heads turned toward him.

“Here,” he said, thrusting the baglamas forward. “Take it.”

The hooded man gargled laughter as his scarred hands closed around the instrument. He slid a thumb across its strings. “Well done.”

“Now promise you’ll leave us alone.”

“That will require the appropriate confirmation,” said the man who wore no hood.

“What are you talking about?”

“These orders come from powers higher than ours. We will first need to guarantee that this is exactly what we asked for, and that you haven’t given us an imitation, something other than the Healer’s baglamas.”

Sloe’s blood turned to ice in his veins. For the first time he questioned the authenticity of the instrument. Had Silvie had a copy made, just in case someone tried to take the real travel object? His hands shook involuntarily.

“How soon will you know?” he said.

“Soon enough,” said the hooded man. “And if we find out it’s a counterfeit, you and your family can expect another visit from me. Only, this time, I might not be as gracious a guest.”

Sloe clenched and unclenched his hands. “But you’ll let Raven alone.”

“We won’t promise that.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 19. >>>

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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. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 6

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

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course. It was ridiculously loud.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, the portal. Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A river.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“I don’t blame her.”

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

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

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

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

“Of course.”

“Then you got to see a Remnant Transporter?”

“I did.”

“Was it the man’s son or daughter?”

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

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

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

“Oh.” Raven frowned. “That’s sad.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sloe?”

“Yes,” he murmured.

“What was the granddaughter like?”

“Pretty,” he blurted.

Raven tensed, and he regretted what he said immediately.

He chose his next words more carefully.

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

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

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

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

“Totally creepy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raven had gone silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He heard a thud and a muffled squeal behind him.

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

“Let her go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Through a portal.”

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

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

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

“Yes, now, let her go. Please.”

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

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

“But only if you promise—”

“What do you want?”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll do it! Let her go.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 7. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 5 Healer

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

My lips tensed into a guilty smile.

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

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

“Silvie Hall,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father’s lips curled into a scowl.

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

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

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

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

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

“What do I do?” I whispered.

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

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

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

The door to Madeline’s room was closed.

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

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

“Madeline?”

“Come in.”

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

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

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

“Yes,” she said mildly.

“Has it ended?”

She shook her head.

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

“What were you watching, Madeline?”

“A memory.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you trying to remember?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Javis made it,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For Javis?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 6. >>>

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