Science Fiction

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 30

Darker Stars Beta CoverSloe hugged Raven goodnight, but he couldn’t stop thinking about Silvie. He envied her ownership of travel objects; first, the baglamas, and now she had a pair of travel glasses like the pair her father, Valcas, used. From what Sloe saw, it could have been the same pair he’d seen Valcas wearing.

He sighed, wishing he could obtain an unofficial travel object for Raven, for her protection. Those without travel talents could at least use unofficial objects. The travel talents he and Silvie had were in addition to the ability to travel through time and space. The TSTA still regulated travel, though its control over unofficial objects had weakened and the line between what was official—such as a commissioned travel vehicle—and what was not, had blurred over time.

Sloe pressed a hand to the exit portal in Aboreal that would take him home to the Clock Tower. A one-way portal that led to a single, specific destination.

If he had a travel object like those Silvie had, he could have gone directly to her by conducting a search. The limits to his Time Keeper portal talent aggravated him. His talent was nothing without the Clock Tower, which acted as a bridge, an in-between. The realization hit him with a force that made him see stars: like his father, he was bound to the Clock Tower.

But those men…the cloaked men. What were they? It was as if their travel talent had mutated, evolved in a surprising new way. They weren’t bound to the Clock Tower. Their portals had a different, sinister quality. Sloe wasn’t sure he could defeat it. At least, not without help.

Sloe arrived at the Clock Tower; he clung to it for the span of a breath before reaching for the portal to Edgar. When the teardrop glowed, he pushed forward and slipped through.

The stars of Edgar gave off a light, a shade of blue so deep it could have been mistaken for black. Yet, the center of each star blazed white. His shoelaces reflected that light, causing them to appear brighter than they should have been.

Expecting Silvie hadn’t gone back to work that night, after her visit to Aboreal, he crept up to the Halls’ home and knocked on the door. He stood in silence, hoping Silvie would open the door so he wouldn’t have to explain his arrival to anyone else. When no one answered, he considered letting himself in.

Sloe reached out a hand, but left it hanging mid-air. I can’t, he thought. Not again.

He didn’t know how late it was, or how long ago everyone had gone to bed. He gave up for the night, mentally scolding himself for traveling there in the first place, and moved toward the hospital, then to the exit portal behind it.

Careful to keep his bright shoelaces hidden beneath the flowers as much as possible, his thoughts shifted back to the idea of travel objects. Silvie and her family could be somewhere else, for all he knew. She could be anywhere.

There were too many doors, too many portals, to step through to reach her.

In his mind, her method of travel was far more direct.

Maybe she’s right about stopping the cloaked men. His lips bowed into a guilty frown. I need her help, even though I betrayed her.

***

Sloe left the Clock Tower early the next morning. He found Silvie at the hospital making her rounds. The way she whistled and talked to herself and the recovering Lost made him smile. Until she noticed him lurking in a corner and caught his eye.

Her lips dropped open.

He pressed his palms forward. “I’m sure I’m the last person you expected to see here, but I’ve been thinking about what you said before leaving Aboreal. And you’re right. We must stop them.”

Silvie rested both fists on her hips, a motion so slow and cautious, Sloe swallowed several times before continuing. “I’m willing to do my part—whatever it takes to fix what I’ve done.”

“Of course I’m right,” Silvie snapped, spinning the world back to a regular speed.

After a glance down both sides of the hallway, Silvie gripped Sloe’s wrist and pulled him into a broom closet. “We need to talk. Now.”

Sloe caught his breath and forced back an awkward laugh. His forehead nearly touched Silvie’s. He tilted his head back, but it didn’t do much to hide how close they were inside the cramped room. He inhaled. Uncomfortably close.

“I have an idea,” Silvie whispered. “But we’ll have to run it by my father first.”

Sloe raised his eyebrows, then nodded.

“And we’ll need to tell your parents, too.”

“What? No!”

Silvie clamped her hand over his mouth. His eyes widened.

“You said you were willing to do your part, whatever it takes. This is your part, Sloe. You got us into this mess, so you don’t get to be picky about the plans for getting us out.”

“Mmm…kay, fine,” he mumbled beneath her fingers.

She let go as if he’d bit her, then frowned. “I traveled to the past to visit someone I trust, and I told her about our situation.”

“Who? When?”

“Don’t worry about it. She’s a silhouette in the past; she won’t tell anyone. She won’t even remember I went to visit.”

Something in Sloe’s stomach twisted at Silvie’s frown. She rubbed her eyes. One finger grazed the edge of her brow, smudging away its edge.

Sloe winced. His fingers twitched to smooth the edge of her opposite eyebrow to see if that would disappear, too.

“Anyway,” she said, redirecting his thoughts. “Moth—um, she suggested we combine our travel talents to stop the cloaked men. All last night and this morning, I’ve been thinking about how to do that. We’ll need to trap them. I have some ideas for how each of us can help, but we need more input, from my father and your parents to form a plan.”

Sloe clenched and unclenched his jaw, biting back another plea to keep his parents out of the matter. But he’d promised, and Silvie was right. Things had gone too far. They were in too deep. And, yet, hope shined in Silvie’s eyes, a hope that there was a way out.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s hear what your father has to say.”

***

Sloe lowered his head, his chin brushing against arms crushed against his chest. He was certain he wouldn’t have his bedroom door back anytime soon, not as long as he lived at the Clock Tower.

“So what you and your friends are saying, Son, is that the dreadful man who showed up here uninvited—the one in the cloak—was someone you’d met before?”

Nick towered over Sloe, next to the invisible portal behind their home. The talk with Valcas at the hospital had gone more smoothly than Sloe expected. Filling his parents in on the situation, on the other hand, was as nightmarish as he thought it would be.

Sloe swallowed. “Yes, I knew who he was.”

“And you didn’t think it wise to mention this before now?”

Valcas kicked up dust as he moved from his inspection of the ground where the portal sat and placed a hand on Sloe’s shoulder. “I expect he didn’t want to worry you or your family if he thought he had everything under control.”

“But he didn’t have everything under control, Valcas!” Ivory scowled. “Our son stole from your family and put both of your children in danger. They could have been killed. Raven could have died. Do you know what the death of an Aborealian would have meant for us?”

“We would have been ruined,” Nick added in a chilled voice. His gaze fell on Sloe. “We should have dealt with this when you and Raven first returned with your injuries.”

“It’s too late for that,” said Valcas. “You are welcome to discipline your son as you see fit, later. For now we must deal with what we have before us. The cloaked men will not be able to recover the baglamas where it’s currently hidden, but they will destroy us and our children in their race to find it. Should they fail, the man for whom they’re retrieving the instrument will either send someone else or come after it himself.”

Silvie grimaced each time the adults used the word children.

“How do we catch them first?” she asked.

“Yeah, and assuming we caught them, how do we keep them from escaping?” Sloe looked from his father to Valcas. “The cloaked men have travel talents different than what we’ve seen before; it’s as if the Time Keeper’s ability to open and unlock portals has evolved or mutated. These men can build portals as well as World Builders can build worlds. That means they can build their own escape.”

Valcas brought a fist to his lips and murmured something to himself. When he exhaled, his lips quirked to the side, forming a smirk. He answered loud enough for all to hear. “The trap need not be too big. It could be a small world just starting out. We’ll need to find something to lure them there, and only leave enough room for them and the world’s inherent entrance and exit portals—both of which could be locked by a Time Keeper.”

Ivory shrugged. “I supposed that could work. Could we put them in a cage or something to make it a little less difficult to squeeze in one of their own portal creations?”

“It will depend on how much time we have, but a trap could be built within the trap.”

“That’s so meta.” Ivory grinned, causing Sloe and Silvie to share the slightest of eye rolls.

“What do we use as bait?” asked Nick. “How exactly do we lure them to this new world?”

Silvie took a long look at Raven before answering. “I was thinking we show them what they want. Plant what we want to lead them there.”

Shivering, Raven shrunk into Sloe’s open arm.

“Not you, Raven,” said Silvie. “The baglamas.”

Ivory shook her head. “That’s sweet, hon, but Plaka left that for you. The baglamas should be kept safely locked away.”

Silvie sighed and turned to her brother, her lips already parted as if she were about to say something.

“Javis!” she gasped. “What’s wrong?”

He stood with one hand pressed against the tower, his other hand clutched at his chest. His knees shook and sagged beneath him.

“The white… I don’t… I don’t know.”

Valcas’s face paled to a sickening shade of white. In a swift motion he lunged forward and caught Javis as he collapsed, his hands cradling the young man’s head an inch above the ground. He exhaled. “Silvie?”

“I’m already here.”

“Oh, Valcas, will he be okay?”

Valcas squinted up at Ivory and the group of faces surrounding him and his family. “We need to get Javis home—to the hospital right away,” he answered. “We’ll continue our discussion later. I’ll be in contact soon.”

“I can whip up a batch of healing broth—”

“No.”

Valcas swallowed. In a tone less harsh he added, “Thank you, Ivory, but that won’t be necessary. Once Silvie gets him in a slightly better state, we’re traveling home.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 31, to be posted July 11. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 29 Dialog

Darker Stars Beta CoverMy chest burned while I ran from Aboreal. It took a great deal of focus to search without thinking about Sloe’s betrayal, his girlfriend, the threat on Raven’s life, or all the trouble we’d found.

I needed a comfort like no other, one I hoped would help me find the best way to discuss the situation with Father and give me the strength to protect those who jeopardized all I held dear.

As the white light faded, I entered a room. A glimpse of dark curls and a flash of orange blurred in front of me, before the ground violently trembled. I cradled the travel glasses to my face, cringing when I heard the crash of broken glass. Then, a yelp.

“Who is it? Who’s here?” The voice calling out was familiar, but alarmed.

Since when would she be afraid of the arrival of a traveler? The groaning and unsteadiness of the ground below wasn’t something that would frighten a seasoned traveler. Unless they didn’t want to be found.

When the rumblings subsided, I stood and removed the dark lenses from my eyes.

She gaped at me as she pulled herself up from behind a lab table covered with tubes and coils. Shards of glass that oozed with a bright, orange liquid littered the floor.

My heart plummeted into my bowels. I knew this room, a laboratory built beneath the home’s lower level; but I’d never seen anyone actually use it before. I attended science classes at the hospital under Father’s instruction and the tutelage of guests.

A trail of orange liquid flowed along the table’s edge and dripped onto the floor. I wrinkled my nose.

“Mother! Is that Edgar’s elixir?”

The woman before me, one I was learning I knew less and less about, wiped her lips.

“Mother?” She shot me a long, hard squint, then looked at the floor as if considering the arrival of a traveler from a different place and time. “Silvie, is that you?”

I exhaled, relieved she understood who I was, until I remembered what I was upset about. The new thing that upset me.

“Yes, here I am, all grown up,” I managed before scowling. “You’ve been making and drinking the youth elixir to extend your life, haven’t you? I thought you and Father had an agreement to live out your natural timelines.” Is that why she was afraid when I arrived—not of the arrival of a traveler, but afraid of being caught?

Her shoulders drooped forward. “This was the only way we could have children” she said, gesturing toward me. “Before I…”

Suddenly, the questions I’d had—and suppressed—about how Javis and I could both exist, and with different ages according to our timelines, began to make sense.

“But,” I sniffled, “using the elixir put you at risk of becoming Lost. Again.”

Mother smiled. “Edgar once told me there are many pathways in life. Some good. Some bad. But only one that will truly be yours.”

“That’s, um, philosophical.”

“I’m sure you’re disappointed in me,” she sighed. “But now that I see you like this, I know I did the right thing.”

Mother pulled a broom from a closet. She collected the glass shards and broken pieces before wiping away the orange liquid from the table and floor. She frowned.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered.

She clapped her hands after a final dab with the cloth. “I can deal with the rest later. Let me have a closer look at you.”

Barely breathing, I stood perfectly still while Mother inspected me.

“You look so much like Valcas.”

My cheeks warmed as her gaze landed at the spaces above my eyes. Her real eyebrows creased.

“Face paint,” I said, knowing her silhouette wouldn’t remember my earlier visit to the past.

“But…why?”

“Everyone else has them,” I admitted. My voice was calm. I’d given this explanation to Father countless times before he’d finally stopped asking. “No use making others feel uncomfortable. It’s not like the hospital gets recovering Lost from Chascadia to help me blend in.”

“You work at the hospital?” She grinned.

“Yes, and I’m a healer. Not that I get to heal much besides calming people down,” I huffed. I almost rolled my eyes at myself. Here I was about to complain about Father when we had far greater problems to deal with.

“Father’s still holding me back,” I said anyway, remembering Mr. Calcott. It was true, and now that the baglamas had been recovered, Father was even more impossible and overprotective.

“Well,” tutted Mother, “for what it’s worth, I’m proud of you.” She opened her arms.

Holding back sobs that seemed to have emerged out of nowhere, I fell into her embrace.

“Oh, it can’t be that bad. I was your age—not long ago, actually. I remember how difficult it was. But things will get better, Silvie.”

“That’s what I thought, until it got worse.”

She pulled back from me and searched my eyes. “What happened?” she breathed.

“I inherited Grandpa Plaka’s baglamas.”

As I explained everything from Sloe’s glance at the funeral to how he ported to Edgar, and how Javis and I retrieved the baglamas from the man in the tunic, I couldn’t help the way my voice rose higher and less controlled. I’d barely finished the part where I’d learned of Sloe’s betrayal when Mother stopped me.

“Silvie, slow down. Sloe and…Javis,” she said, testing out the latter name as if it felt unfamiliar. “From what you’ve told me, they both have remarkable travel talents. Sloe apologized, and he could be helpful.”

My lips pinched together. He and Raven had been so terrified when I spoke to them, by the time I left Aboreal, I’d convinced myself to leave them out of it. We must stop them had become I must stop them in my mind. But Mother was right. I couldn’t do this alone. No one could.

Mother gave me a small smile; her eyes were sad. “I don’t know what I would have done without your father, Ivory, Ray, and their talents to escape the Fire Falls. Or, without them, Nick, and your grandfather Plaka when I needed them the most. In Susana.”

“I get that you want us to combine our talents,” I said. “The tough part will be convincing Father. He’s hard enough on me. He barely lets Javis use his World Building talent at all.”

Mother’s jaw squared beneath eyes that morphed from sad to serious. “Your father sees me in you, Silvie, and in…Javis. But he also knows you must make your own lives, your own contributions to the worlds.”

“So then what do I do?”

She placed her palm beneath my chin. “You’ll need to figure that out. Do what you need to do, but include him in it.”

I swallowed a sigh. Part of me expected Mother would have the answer, a plan that would help me know exactly what to do—how to stop the cloaked men and their master, the man in the tunic. She’d only suggested we combine our abilities. Raven didn’t have any travel talent as far as I knew. Sloe was a Time Keeper, and I was a Remnant Transporter. Father and Javis were both World Builders, though Javis wasn’t often given opportunities to use his talent. Maybe this event would change everything. Unless Father decided Javis wasn’t ready yet and insisted on taking his place. I wasn’t so sure I’d disagree with Father. Given the strange darkness I’d felt in my brother, it was possible he was too sick to help. I certainly didn’t want him to pass out and need to go to the hospital in the middle of our mission.

I squirmed out of Mother’s hold on my chin and exhaled a shaky breath.

“Silvie, what’s wrong?”

“I noticed something odd when reaching out with my healing talent,” I said. “Something I’ve never felt before.”

“Can you describe it?”

“It was a darkness, a cloud that swelled deep inside the person—not attached to a particular organ or body part. But it was there, it was something. I could calm the person and begin healing those parts that were sick, but I couldn’t make the darkness go away. It was, I don’t know…stuck. Have you ever encountered this before?”

Mother paled. “I have, but never at the hospital. It wasn’t something that accompanied the Lost.”

Part of me was relieved this meant Javis was not on his way to becoming Lost. Mother was right. I’d never felt such a phenomenon in any of the recovering Lost. This was new to me.

“What is this darkness, and where did you come across it?” I asked.

“Your Grandpa Plaka called what you’re describing an Occlusion. He studied it for some time, noticing he sensed it in travelers who weren’t exercising the full potential of their talents. If he found a cure for it, he never mentioned it.”

“Oh,” I said, my eyes widening. “So you didn’t feel this in the Lost because they tend to be travelers who overuse their talents rather than underuse them?”

Mother glanced at the table, shaking her head at the remains of Edgar’s youth elixir. “Moderation in all things,” she muttered.

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing but an escaped thought.” Her lips formed a tight smile. “Have you been traveling far, Silvie?”

“Not often,” I said. “Other than recent events surrounding the stolen baglamas, I’ve spent most of my time on Edgar.”

Her eyebrows raised. “Then where did you find someone with an Occlusion?”

“At the hospital,” I said.

“But how’s that possible? Who has the Occlusion?”

I sighed. What good would it do to keep the information from her? She’d forget by the time I visited her again, anyway. After a deep breath, I looked into my mother’s eyes.

“Javis,” I said.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 30, to be posted July 8. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 28

Darker Stars Beta Cover“You want the opportunity to explain, after you said you weren’t going to tell me?”

Silvie’s face burned red from the tip of her chin to her forehead.

Sloe withered beneath her stare. He was paler, thinner than when he’d last seen her. He fell back down on the bench and looked up at the girl through his lashes, his stomach twisting with worry.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I didn’t want you find out like this. I was going to tell you…eventually. I wasn’t sure when, exactly, or how.”

“I’m here now. Explain.”

“I never would have considered stealing anything, from anybody—especially you or your family, Silvie. But it was to protect a life.”

Emerald eyes softened enough to widen. “Those men were going to kill you?”

“No.” Sloe’s gaze shifted to Raven, who swallowed hard beneath eyes that shined with tears.

“Oh. They threatened her life,” Silvie whispered.

He nodded, seemingly occupied with how Silvie’s eyebrow pointed in a perfect arc above her left eye. It had seemed thicker, blurrier the last time he’d seen her.

He looked away. “We were attacked while out…”

“Where?”

“On a date,” filled in Raven.

“I see.” The tip of Silvie’s shoe, the smaller one, fluttered against the ground. “How’d they know you knew about the baglamas?” she added, her voice tart but under such control that Sloe squirmed beneath her words.

He sighed and squared his jaw. “It was the night of your grandfather’s funeral. Afterward, I told Raven about the healer and how you’d inherited the baglamas. They must have overheard us.”

“Before grabbing us.” Raven sniffled. Her tears ran freely, staining the length of her cheeks.

Something in Silvie’s gaze softened. She lowered her head and rubbed the back of her neck.

“Sloe, why didn’t you tell me what happened? I’m sure Father could have—”

“Done what? Stopped them? If I hadn’t brought them the baglamas, Raven would be dead. That would have only bought time, and I wasn’t crazy about the price!”

“The scenario’s no different than where we are now, though, is it? These men want the instrument back, and now it’s hidden. I’m not giving it to them—or you—not after all Javis and I went through to get it back!”

Sloe’s head snapped toward Raven whose shoulders shook. “I understand.”

“We didn’t tell our parents about it, either,” Raven sputtered. “We were too afraid. I—I’m sorry.”

“Why should you be sorry?” Silvie growled, her face pinched.

“It’s all my fault. I wanted to visit a new world—one I hadn’t seen before. I chose the portal at the Clock Tower that led to the cloaked men.”

“You can’t take the blame for this,” said Sloe; his usually deep voice ran an octave higher.

Ignoring him, Raven spoke to Silvie with pleading eyes and a trembling lower lip. “I wanted him to tell you about this earlier, because I know he felt really bad about it. I do, too. But please, please don’t turn me over to them.”

Silvie frowned. “Handing you over to the cloaked men will do nothing to solve this situation. They’ll still want the baglamas, and so will the man they’re working for.”

“What do you mean?”

“They’ll come after Sloe, and me, and my family—anything they need to get what they want.”

“So, what do we do?”

Silvie puckered her lips. “Like your boyfriend almost admitted earlier, we must stop them.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 29, to be posted July 4. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 27 Heartbreak

Darker Stars Beta CoverJavis and I stood with our mouths gaping.

I turned to my brother and frowned. “What did the hooded man—the one with eyes like Eurig’s—say to you?” I had trouble getting out the words without shaking.

“He said ‘You can thank the Time Keeper for your pain.’”

My fingers clenched. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Javis eyed me warily, then shook his head.

“They came here to make us distrust Sloe,” I said, crossing my arms. “Let’s go to the Clock Tower, the way we’d planned, and we’ll prove they’re wrong.”

He stared, his lips twisted in a frown. Without taking his eyes off me he bent down and fished his travel glasses out of the flowers. He slipped them back inside his pocket and turned toward the house.

“Javis…” I caught up to him in three strides. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m not going.”

“Why?”

“Those men came here specifically for the baglamas. If they know Sloe, then Sloe probably knows them, too. They could be working together.”

Tears stung my eyes. I clasped my hand around my own pair of travel glasses. “Then I’ll go alone and find out for myself.”

“Fine,” he said through clenched teeth. “But if you’re not home before I go to bed tonight, I have no choice but to tell Father where you went.”

“You’re going to tell on me? What are you—a child?”

“No, not a child, Silvie,” he said, his eyes warming. “I’m worried you may be falling into a trap.”

My lower lip quivered, more at his accusation than his warmth. He was my brother, but he was abandoning me on my quest to find the truth. I couldn’t help but think this had something to do with the darkness I’d sensed in him. I had no proof, but I wondered whether it was affecting his mind. Yet, he smiled as if he truly cared about me, and with the same cocky confidence I’d always seen in him.

I shoved past Javis and stepped up; my feet stomped against the path. I slipped the travel glasses over my eyes, and ran, ignoring my brother’s cries that I stop, hoping when I removed the dark lenses, I’d have arrived at Sloe’s home, the Clock Tower.

When the white light faded, my gut dropped with the sensation of falling. Haven’t I already arrived? Or am I up in the air? My legs bent at the knees as my feet hit the ground. The crackle and tear of hardened soil was accompanied by a jingling sound that reminded me of bells chiming from the bedroom doors of the recovering Lost. Only, louder.

I placed a hand to my forehead and looked up. A mangled mess of clockwork and timepieces towered above me, swaying and banging together. I expected gears and flecks of paint to spray down at me, but they didn’t.

I stayed low to the ground until the rumblings subsided, then removed my travel glasses. I stood and brushed a velvety gray-brown soil from my legs before stepping forward, toward the tower.

“So, this is where Sloe lives,” I murmured.

The mossy scent of soil was not unpleasant, but it didn’t embrace the comfort and cheerfulness of the flowers at home. While the Clock Tower itself was impressive, the grounds around it, even the purple sky, were lonely and barren.

As I wandered, absorbing my new surroundings, curious how the portals on the Clock Tower worked, a door creaked open from the base of the tower.

“Hello?” called out a familiar voice.

“Ivory! Hi!”

The woman with white hair tilted her head to the side. Her eyes widened. “Silvie Hall?”

“Sorry for dropping by uninvited, but I was wondering…” Warmth filled my cheeks. “Is Sloe here?”

I expected Ivory to chuckle at my embarrassment, or at least ask questions about why I would want to see her son. But the tightness in her lips and the wariness in her eyes suggested something else.

“I’m sorry, hon, but he’s not here right now. I came out here thinking he’d returned early.”

“Oh,” I exhaled, my gut twisting. “Is he all right?”

“Yes.” She smiled. “There’s no need to worry. Would you like to come inside for something warm to drink?”

I looked down; I hadn’t realized I’d been rubbing my palms across my arms. Edgar’s golden suns, along with their warmth, were missing in Sloe’s world.

“Thank you, but I should get going. It was nice to see you.”

Ivory creased a brow. “Are you sure? I don’t know how long he’ll be gone, but you’re welcome to stay here and wait for him, if you like.”

I blinked. “Did he go out for a quick errand?”

“Not exactly. Honestly, I’m not sure how long he’ll be gone, but you’re welcome anyway.”

I smiled at that. “Thanks again for your kindness. I should go.”

“I’ll tell him you stopped by.”

“Um, okay.”

“Safe travels, Silvie. Send your father my best.”

“I will.”

Ivory nodded before closing the Clock Tower door.

More nervous to find and see Sloe than when I’d left Edgar, I slipped on the travel glasses. This time, before running, I didn’t focus on Sloe’s home. I thought of his dark hair and purple eyes, and the way he smiled at me when I last saw him.

I searched specifically for him, regardless of where and when he was.

***

I caught a glimpse of violet-blue sky before grounding. Blades of grass tickled my nose while I waited for the rumblings to subside.

The air sang to me. I knew this place, and I’d visited before.

I felt the world’s history in my blood and in my bones.

Aboreal.

What is Sloe doing in Aboreal?

I pushed up from the ground and shrugged. My grandmother Sable was gone, but it was possible Sloe had grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who still lived here. I wondered whether I had cousins in Aboreal, too.

My feet padded across a thick lawn. I’d traveled directly to Sloe, so I knew he must be close. What I didn’t know was whether he was alone.

Heat flooded my cheeks. How am I supposed to explain to his family why I’m here? The questions I needed to ask Sloe were personal. I hadn’t worked out exactly what I was going to say. Hey, Sloe, how’s it going? Did you, um, steal my baglamas and hand it over to creepy men wearing cloaks who gave it to an even creepier guy in a tunic? It sounded ridiculous.

And, then, what if he answered yes?

I paused mid-step to breathe, hoping it would loosen the twisting in my stomach. If Mother or Grandpa Plaka were alive, they could have calmed me instantly. But who heals the healer when you’re the only one left?

Shaking my head, I stepped forward and bit back additional self-pity. This was something I needed to face, alone. I would simply ask Sloe to step away for a moment while I asked him my questions. If he appeared genuinely confused, then I could believe he had nothing to do with it. If he admitted to taking the baglamas and being involved with the cloaked men, that’s something I would deal with when the time came.

I wandered onto a street, lined with houses on both sides. As I approached a home of brick and stone, the hairs at the back of my neck lifted. The male voice that swept through the air belonged to Sloe. I couldn’t make out individual words, but the tone in his voice cautioned me that he was speaking to someone else.

I crept along the side of the house, to where I imagined there would be a backyard.

“I don’t know, Raven,” said Sloe. His voice was low and cracked on the last word. Raven?

Frowning, I leaned forward and peered around the wall’s corner.

Sloe sat on a bench, his shoulders hunched over and elbows resting on his knees. Dark locks fell across his cheekbones. And a hand rested on his shoulder.

Lumps formed in my throat.

A young woman sat across from him. Her black hair twisted in a loop above her head, but she was bowed forward so her forehead rested against his. Certain there was an explanation for this, I wondered whether she was a healer, too.

Sloe was thinner than when I’d last seen him, his cheeks more hollow, like he’d been sick. Reaching out, I could feel hurt there, pain. Was that why he hadn’t visited me again—because he was sick? I could have helped him. He knew I was a healer. Why was he visiting her, Raven, instead?

I leaned forward, wondering what could have happened to make Sloe seem so broken, then nearly jolted out of my skin when Raven placed her hand in his.

“I still think you should tell Silvie,” she said, looking up.

My mouth dropped open at the sound of my name. There was a brightness in her eyes, a kindness there buried in the darkness. How did she know about me? Tell me what?

“I can’t tell her I took the baglamas.”

“Why haven’t you done that yet? What are you waiting for? Unless—” Raven’s face crumpled, though I couldn’t imagine why. He’d betrayed me. I waited for his reason.

“She’d never forgive me—not only for what I’ve done, but for what I’ll need to do again.”

Something rubbed against my leg and mewed. I yelped, and glared at a feline creature, white as snow, before looking up and pressing my hand to my mouth.

Two pairs of eyes darted in my direction.

There was no going back. I crossed my arms and stepped forward from my hiding space in the shadows.

“It was you?” I spat.

Shock sizzled in Sloe’s eyes. His lips began to tremble. “Silvie, I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to find out this way.”

“From the sound of it, you didn’t want me to find out in any way.”

Raven’s lips were pulled back from her teeth. Her scowl was one of horror and embarrassment instead of shock.

She narrowed her eyes. “You were eavesdropping on us!” she said, finally, after a thorough inspection of my outfit and hair.

“I was looking for Sloe,” I explained. “I traveled here to find him, and I found way more than I expected.”

I shook so badly, I didn’t know whether I wanted to cry or wring his neck. He helped the man in the tunic? He stole the baglamas? And he planned to help them take it from me again?

I wanted an explanation, but I was so disgusted I couldn’t look at him. The rip in my heart tore through my trust more than anything. And to top it off, here he was on a date with some Aborelian who seemed to know all about it! Someone he’d never mentioned to me.

But I had a surprise for him, too.

“I got it back the first time,” I said. “The baglamas has been hidden somewhere that cannot be easily accessed, so don’t bother trying to steal it again. The man in the tunic is not happy. I imagine he’ll be looking for you, so expect to refund whatever he gave you.”

Sloe raised his palms and yanked himself up from the bench. This earned a grump from Raven whose hand he’d dropped in order to do that.

“Silvie, let me explain.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 28, to be posted July 1. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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Read with your ears! The audio edition of Beacon has released!

This has truly been a busy week, but in a good way. Beacon, a second story set in Havenbrim, Llum (and in our world) is now available as an audiobook. Those who listened to my Wrapped in the Past novella will recognize the narrator, Janine Haynes. She does an excellent voicing of Serah Kettel and the other characters, and I can’t wait for you to hear it!

Download on Audible

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When Serah’s life in Havenbrim becomes unbearable, she accepts an apprenticeship with a celestial mechanic and glazier. Her master assigns her the task of opening a globe framed in copper. But the glass and seal are unbreakable. The solution to the puzzle traps Serah inside the globe and transports her to a world where she longs for home.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 20

Darker Stars Beta Cover“You’ve been quiet. What’s wrong?”

Sloe looked up from the game board but didn’t meet Raven’s eyes. “Nothing,” he muttered.

Raven’s eyelids fluttered. She pressed her elbows forward, onto the table, and cradled her chin in her hands. “Somehow I doubt that because I’m winning.” Her smile held a touch of sadness.

Sloe furrowed a brow at the black and white board covered in flattened black and white stones. “I guess I’m a bit off today.”

He studied the board closely. After flipping two stones and moving one diagonally across three spaces, he cracked a smile.

Raven groaned.

“See,” said Sloe, meeting her eyes. “Nothing’s wrong with me.”

She tilted her head and regarded him suspiciously. “Okay, then, if you weren’t thinking about the game earlier, what were you thinking about?”

“What do you mean?”

“When I asked you what was wrong, it seemed you finally focused on the game. And to do that, you had to stop thinking about something else.” She leaned in closer, her eyes narrowing. “What was it?”

He let out a slow, exaggerated breath and looked at her helplessly.

“Oooohhhh. It’s about the men who want the baglamas, isn’t it? What’s happening with that?”

“It’s been taken care of,” he said.

Her eyes grew wide. “You mean they have it? Now?”

He nodded.

“But how?” she sputtered. “And why didn’t you tell me?

“It’s a long story, and now that it’s dealt with I just want to put it in the past—to forget about it. And to be glad you’re safe.”

A rosy glow touched Raven’s cheeks. She smiled at him. Her smile faded when he looked away instead of returning the smile with one of his own.

She chewed on the insides of her cheeks. “Are you feeling bad about taking something that didn’t belong to you and giving it to someone else?”

Sloe’s face paled. “That’s part of it.”

“What’s the other part?”

He tilted the board, letting the stones slide to the table’s edge, where he caught them in a leather pouch. After gathering the remaining stones and adding them to the bag, he slowly folded the game board.

“Sloe?” Raven said more emphatically. “What’s the other part? What else is going on?”

He stood from the table and looked around before tilting his head toward hers. In a low voice he said, “The Clock Tower’s in danger, and it’s all my fault.”

Every last hint of rosy pink drained from Raven’s face. “Does this have anything to do with the cloaked men?”

He nodded. “The hooded man showed up at the Clock Tower. Instead of using a one-way exit portal, he left by walking into the portal backwards—a portal I’d never seen before.”

Raven let out a small gasp. “Where did the portal come from?”

“I don’t know, but do you remember the cloaked men talking about destroying portals?”

“Yes.”

“What if they can build them, too?”

Raven gulped.

“My Dad locked the portal as well as he could, but now that the hooded man has found the Clock Tower, what’s to stop him from creating another one? As the keeper of the Clock Tower, no one is supposed to be able to enter without my father’s permission, and I know he hadn’t given access to the hooded man.”

Raven steadied herself by placing a hand on the table. “This isn’t your fault, Sloe. It’s mine. We need to figure a way to fix this. I have to help you.”

Sloe shook his head.

Light flickered in Raven’s eyes. “I disagree, but if you don’t think I can help, then what about the person who owns the baglamas—the person you took it from, the Healer’s granddaughter? Can’t you explain to her what happened? If they’re so talented and powerful, maybe they can help find a way out of this.”

“No,” he said, his voice small. “We can’t do that.”

“Why not?” Raven’s face colored, her cheeks pinched. “If you hadn’t found the baglamas someone else would have found it for them. Maybe the cloaked men would have taken it from her directly. Either way, it would still be Silvie Hall’s problem, we just wouldn’t have known about it.”

Sloe shook his head. “Don’t you get it? That would have given her more time. We sped up the process and put her in danger sooner.”

“If you feel so bad about taking the baglamas, then why don’t you help her get it back?” She challenged him with a pout.

His lips moved, but all that escaped was wordless sputtering.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 21, to be posted June 6. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory and Nick exchanged a glance.

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

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

“What are you getting at, son?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They opened the door.

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

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

“How did you get here, friend?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowly, painfully, Sloe shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sloe and Nick drew identical intakes of breath.

“What is it?” whispered Ivory, squinting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory and Sloe looked at each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory scowled. “What does this mean?”

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

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

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

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

He nodded and held up a hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve locked the portal.”

“But what about the other side, Nick?”

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 17. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 13 Meeting

I opened my eyes to streams of glittering light and groaned. I glared at the blinds that covered my bedroom windows. No matter how tightly I pulled them shut, they didn’t keep out the morning light. I’d tried wearing a mask over my eyes at night, to help me stay asleep until my alarm went off, but it hadn’t worked. I’d only wake up the next morning to find the mask buried in my bedsheets or slung across the room. Every blanket I tried to cover the window with had been bleached by the suns. Perhaps it was time to invest in a heavy set of curtains.

I grumped as I left the warmth of my bed and opened my closet door. Hangers covered in blue uniforms, my work clothes, made up the greater part of my wardrobe. I stared longingly at the soft, comfortable sweaters and dark pants before grabbing one of the uniforms. It wasn’t the cutest look, style wise, but it would have to do for showing Sloe around the hospital.

It wasn’t like I had the day off…ever. Unless, of course, my Father decided to declare vacation time as a punishment. I gritted my teeth. I saw no way around introducing Sloe to my Father while making my rounds, though I was still annoyed with him. I considered asking Javis for help until I remembered that I was annoyed with him, too.

What I wouldn’t give for a few female friends, or a sister. I’d gotten close to some of the recovering Lost who were roughly my age, but their visits were temporary. Our goal was to help them heal so they could go home. Few of them ever came back to visit us on Edgar. My lips pinched into a frown as my eyes passed over the photograph on the table next to my bed. Things would be different if Mother were still here.

After getting ready for the day and grabbing a light breakfast, I stepped outside to a bright, warm sky. Another beautiful day. I pressed my hand to my brow, careful not to smudge my newly drawn eyebrows, and searched the field of flowers. My eyes shifted to the spot where Sloe had said there was an entrance portal to Edgar. No one had come through it, yet.

I tiptoed through the flowers to meet him there, hoping I wouldn’t have to wait long. I breathed in the fragrance of the flowers and tapped at my timepiece. I guess it wouldn’t hurt for me to start my shift later than usual. Sloe was a guest, and the recovering Lost perked up in general when we had outside visitors, which wasn’t often. This could work, I told myself, even though I still couldn’t shake a shade of suspicion that lingered, an intuitive feeling that something wasn’t quite right. I hoped I was wrong, but I knew I had to test the feeling, to protect the residents of Edgar—my family and the recovering Lost.

I rubbed at the bare skin of my forearms. They were already beginning to sting from the heat of the triple suns. I considered running back inside the house to grab a jacket or parasol. Tiny beads of perspiration formed across my forehead, dangerously close to my “upper eye” makeup. I swiftly dabbed them away with the handkerchief I kept in my pocket for that specific purpose.

“Come on, Sloe,” I muttered. “I can’t bake out here all day.”

Moments later, a pair of hands, followed by a pair of arms, and then the rest of a person stepped forward, not toward me but at an angle in front of me. It was like someone had walked through a blade of glass that had been empty on both sides. And instead of seeing the person walk through from behind the glass, there was no entrance, just an exit, as if the person had been invisible and then took form on the other side.

Sloe hiccupped when he saw me. “Oh, hey. I didn’t realize you’d be waiting for me.” When his face and body relaxed, I noticed how the sun’s light made his features more visible than they had the night before. Aborealian-black hair framed his face and made his eyes pop a glossy, lavender ice. His face was more angular, his cheekbones higher and more pronounced than I remembered. I’d seen him in full daylight only one other time, and that was at my grandfather’s funeral. But that was from farther away.

“Well, no portal bell, you know.” I smiled at him, more shyly now that he was this close, realizing that the brightness of the suns also made me more visible to him.

He smiled back at me, but there was a touch of wariness in his eyes. The expression went away when he looked down at my uniform. “So, you are a healer?”

“Yeah, though it feels like I’m still in training. So, um, ready for the grand tour?”

“Sure.” He smiled again, more relaxed this time.

“Right this way,” I said with an exaggerated arm flourish. “Edgar has only two buildings, and today we will be visiting Building Two.”

Sloe chuckled as he follow me onto and across the path. “That’s twice as many than the Clock Tower has. But, given how many portals there are attached to the outside of the tower, it doesn’t take me long to find more buildings if I really want to.”

I smiled. “My father grew up in world kind of like that—the White Tower. One building, but with an interior hallway that never ends. Each door on the inside leads to a new place.” I looked up at the suns. “I guess that’s kind of the opposite of your world, in a way.”

He scratched at the back of his head. “That’s different.”

“Father doesn’t visit there often, but maybe I could take you there sometime.” I blinked, surprised by how eagerly and effortlessly I’d said that.

“Really?”

I shrugged. “Just an idea.”

“I’d like that,” he said. He turned and kept his eyes on the path while walking.

“Do you have brothers or sisters?” I asked, wondering if they’d been at Grandpa Plaka’s funeral, too.

“No, it’s just me, Mom, and Dad. You?”

“One brother, Javis. He was at the funeral, but he got there late.”

Sloe nodded. “He was the guy who sat next to you at the reception, right?”

“Yes,” I said, surprised he’d noticed. “You’ll get to meet him here at the hospital. He should be making his rounds.”

I opened the door to the hospital, frowning. It sounded lonely at the Clock Tower. If that was his home, and the portals were on the outside of the tower, that meant he didn’t have neighbors like we did—a hospital full of recovering Lost. I felt ashamed of my earlier pouting over not having enough females around. Poor Sloe didn’t have much of anybody—male or female.
Several of the recovering Lost were walking along the hallways, some staring at the space before them; others attempted conversations with each other. I wrinkled my nose. Sometimes they confused each other with their stories about where they’d been searching and who they were looking for. By the time they were able to discuss more intelligible topics, it was almost time for them to go—to move on and to go home. This usually made me sad seeing as it seemed I was just getting to know them. But I was also happy for them—proud in a bittersweet way.

I looked sideways at Sloe to measure his reaction. His lips were set in a tight frown.

“Are these people similar to the lost travelers my mom told me about?” he said. “Like the Lost in Susana?”

I sucked in a breath. Father had told me that story, about how the TSTA had sent talented travelers on impossible missions to find their lost loved ones and then became lost themselves; only, their tortures were deeper and led them to a place of suffering: Susana.

“No,” I said quickly. “The recovering Lost here in Edgar are very sick, but Mother told me they’re nothing like the Lost were in Susana. She was,” I gulped, “one of them, actually. Before Father and Grandpa Plaka found her.”

Sloe frowned. “Sorry. I’m not sure I’ve heard the whole story—only pieces.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “You probably haven’t seen people like our recovering Lost.”

His lips quivered slightly.

Whoops, that was awkward. Where was Javis? He was so much better at putting people at ease through talking instead of touch. I balled my fists, half tempted to reach out and press my hand to Sloe’s shoulder, to calm him with my healing talent. But I didn’t want to freak him out.

“Down this hallway…” I pointed. “This is where I start my rounds. The recovering Lost like visitors, but we should probably do that in the gymnasium or in one of the common rooms.”

He held up his arms and his eyes went wide. “Yeah, no, I mean—I don’t want to invade anyone’s personal space.”

I rubbed my chin. “Maybe we should check in with Father, first.”

My eyes darted back and forth along the hallway. I frowned as I passed rooms I should have visited already. Where, oh where, is Javis? Suddenly, I wasn’t sure I could do this—juggle showing Sloe around with getting my morning shift work done. But I’d promised.

I figured it would be easier to visit Father with someone else there to help break the ice, anyway. “Yeah, let’s start with Father,” I said awkwardly.

His door was cracked open. I knocked softly below his nameplate, Valcas Hall, Superintendent, etched deeply in brass.

“Yes?”

“We have a visitor,” I said, making my voice sound as official as possible, which sounded ridiculous as soon as I heard myself aloud. “I thought we’d check in with you before I make my rounds.”

“Come in.”

I pushed the door open. Father sat at his desk, pen in hand, his desk scattered with documents. Glowing electronic devices covered the desk’s back corner, one of which had a red light that was blinking. He pressed a finger to the screen of the blinking device and looked up.

“This is Sloe,” I said. “He’s visiting us from the Clock Tower.”

His gaze flickered across me briefly, then landed on Sloe. He pressed his lower lip forward before standing and offering his hand. “It’s a pleasure.”

“Yes, sir,” said Sloe. Even though he was taller than me, he had to look up to meet Father’s eyes. His hand pressed firmly into the one Father held open as they shook. “Sorry if I’m keeping Silvie from her work,” he said, releasing their grip.

“If you’re from the Clock Tower, then you must be Nick and Ivory’s son.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are they well?”

Sloe shrugged. “They seem to be.”

“Give them my best. Your mother and I are old friends; I’m sorry I didn’t have more time to speak with her at the funeral.” He narrowed his eyes, sizing up Sloe’s appearance. “You resemble her father, Coal, but you have Nick’s eyes.”

“So I’ve heard.” Sloe smiled.

I suppressed a grin. I’d wondered why Sloe’s hair was Aborealian black when both of his parents had white hair. It made sense now that Ivory’s father had dark hair, especially if his name was Coal. What was weirder was how everyone standing in Father’s office had the exact same hair color. Father and I got our dark hair from my grandmother, Sable.

Father’s eyes passed between me and Sloe again, expectantly this time, almost as if he wanted to ask us why Sloe was here, now that it had been established that his parents were well.

He narrowed his eyes at me. “If you’d told me in advance that you were going to have a visitor, I could have found someone to cover your shifts.”

I frowned. “That’s not necessary. After a quick tour, I’ll catch up on both shifts. I’m sure Sloe has other plans for today, too. Well, I guess we should start—”

The rumbling of rolling wheels sounded from the hallway. The sound grew louder, then stopped. I suppressed a groan. Now you decide to show up?

Javis’s smiling face poked through the doorway, then scrunched up when he saw Sloe in there with us. “Hey,” he said. “You’re that guy from the funeral.”

Sloe’s eyes widened. “You remember me?”

“Yeah, you were the one checking out—” He grew quiet when Father’s eyes bored into his head. Javis cleared his throat. “You stood out because of your eye color. Purple’s not very Chascadian.”

Sloe exhaled and laughed.

I felt my cheeks warm. Had he known what Javis was going to say before changing his sentence? That Sloe was ‘the one checking out’ me? I really, really hoped he and Father hadn’t filled in the rest of the words in their own minds.

“Yeah, the purple eye color usually gets attention. I’m Sloe, by the way. Good to meet you, um…”

“Javis,” my brother said. He rolled his bin to the side of the hallway and stepped through the door. He raised a hand covered in a rubber glove before dropping it. “Sorry, caught me in the middle of my rounds.”

“No problem. You work here?”

“Yup.”

“Wow, all of you then.”

“Speaking of…” Father nodded toward the door. “I have some items I need to attend to. If you need anything, let me know.”

“Thank you, Mr. Hall.”

“You’re welcome, Sloe. Send your parents my best, and please remind them they are free to visit Edgar anytime. You are all welcome here.”

“Will do.”

As we turned to leave, I thought I heard Father mutter something under his breath. It was a soft whisper, difficult to hear, but I couldn’t help but think I heard the words, No use waiting for another funeral. Wow, Father. Depressing much? I frowned, thinking of Mother and Grandpa Plaka, and how much I missed them.

On our way out the door, Father added, “Silvie, are you sure you don’t need coverage for your shift?”

“No, I’ll be fine.” I slipped into the hallway, hoping my face cooled off before anyone else noticed.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 14. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sloe swallowed, remembering.

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

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

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

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

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

“Me?” Ivory laughed. “Not a chance.”

Sloe frowned.

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

“Why not?” he said, squirming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory’s lips puckered.

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

Sloe nodded.

“What did you see?”

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

Ivory and Nick exchanged a glance.

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

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

“You saw it?”

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

“You felt the portal?”

Sloe bobbed his head up and down.

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

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

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

The boy’s nose scrunched up. “Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory sucked in a breath.

“What is it, love?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

He stumbled forward.

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

“Hello,” he said, waving.

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

“From the tower.”

The boy frowned.

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

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

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

“A what?”

“It’s my travel talent.”

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

Sloe nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?” said Sloe.

“Winter. What’s yours?”

“Sloe.”

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

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

“No, I don’t think so,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s that?” whispered Winter.

He and Sloe frowned at one another.

Sloe shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sloe’s shoulders rounded forward.

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

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

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

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

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

“Can Winter come with us?”

“No. Now, run,” said the man.

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

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

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 13. >>>

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