other worlds

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 6

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

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” snapped Raven. “It was ridiculously loud.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, the portal. Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A river.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“I don’t blame her.”

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

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

“Apparently,” he said softly.

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

“Of course.”

“Then you got to see a Remnant Transporter?”

“I did.”

“Was it the man’s son or daughter?”

“No. It was weird. The family is a mix of people from different worlds.”

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

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

“Oh.” Raven frowned. “That’s sad.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sloe?”

“Yes,” he murmured.

“What was the granddaughter like?”

“Pretty,” he blurted.

Raven tensed, and he regretted what he said immediately.

He chose his next words more carefully.

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

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

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

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

“Totally creepy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raven had gone silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He heard a thud and a muffled squeal behind him.

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

“Let her go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Through a portal.”

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

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

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

“Yes, now, let her go. Please.”

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

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

“But only if you promise—”

“What do you want?”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll do it! Let her go.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 7, to be posted April 18. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 5 Healer

Footsteps 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 as he stared at me. 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, as if he were going to circle them around my knees, but then dropped them and clasped his hands together.

“Please, please, Miss Hall. I am a Chascadian man, like your grandfather was. I was there 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 that 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 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 from her thin frame 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 some 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, to be posted April 15. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.