Science Fiction

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory and Nick exchanged a glance.

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

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

“What are you getting at, son?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They opened the door.

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

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

“How did you get here, friend?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowly, painfully, Sloe shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sloe and Nick drew identical intakes of breath.

“What is it?” whispered Ivory, squinting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory and Sloe looked at each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory scowled. “What does this mean?”

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

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

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

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

He nodded and held up a hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve locked the portal.”

“But what about the other side, Nick?”

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 17, to be posted May 23. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 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, to be posted May 13. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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, to be posted May 9. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 6

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

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, the portal. Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A river.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“I don’t blame her.”

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

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

“Apparently,” he said softly.

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

“Of course.”

“Then you got to see a Remnant Transporter?”

“I did.”

“Was it the man’s son or daughter?”

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

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

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

“Oh.” Raven frowned. “That’s sad.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Sloe?”

“Yes,” he murmured.

“What was the granddaughter like?”

“Pretty,” he blurted.

Raven tensed, and he regretted what he said immediately.

He chose his next words more carefully.

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

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

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

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

“Totally creepy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raven had gone silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He heard a thud and a muffled squeal behind him.

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

“Let her go.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Through a portal.”

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

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

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

“Yes, now, let her go. Please.”

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

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

“But only if you promise—”

“What do you want?”

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

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

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

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

“I’ll do it! Let her go.”

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 7. >>>

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

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 4

Sloe did not follow his mother up the stairs of the Clock Tower to its lofted quarters. He rounded the hallway at the base of the staircase and passed by the family’s shower room. The door to his bedroom was open, revealing an unmade bed and posters of worlds beyond his own. At least that’s how it was meant to look.

He halted before the doorway and pressed his hand to an invisible barrier. It glimmered and warped at his touch, blurring the scene of the unmade bed and posters. He smiled when he heard a bolt unhitch, the classic kind that signals the unlocking of a door—completely unnecessary for the technology but satisfying to hear.

He entered a room that had very little resemblance to the scene on the illusory door.

Sloe’s bed, positioned in the room’s center, was not only made, it was pristine with perfectly cornered sheets and blanket crafted in dark shades of green. A labyrinth of shelves, black and white Aborealian trunks, and writing desks surrounded the bed and branched outward to the walls of the room.

The wall farthest from the door curved in a half circle, following the interior curvature of the Clock Tower. The walls were bare, except for the strips of light that glowed along the upper angles that met the ceiling.

Sloe opened one of the trunks and pulled out a sweater and an old pair of dress slacks that were faded and worn. He folded the black and gold funeral robe and dropped it, along with his used shirt and slacks, in a basket next to the trunk.

He combed his fingers through his hair and would have considered adding a dab of cologne if he’d had any left. He’d used the rest of it last time he’d visited Raven. Since asking his mother for more would have spiraled into another awkward conversation about dating, he made a mental note to himself to bring it up later with his father.

After shaking the tension from his hands, he turned to leave the room. From this side, there was a space on the wall that looked like an entrance to an unlit tunnel. Sloe pressed his hand to the space and stepped through.

He exited the Clock Tower before beginning the climb, up along its exterior surface. Timepieces glowed as he touched them and faded when he moved on. He stepped over light bulbs and electrical wires, and dodged gears and other fixtures that stuck out from the tower.

Sloe stopped in front of an hourglass. The Clock Tower had many versions of this timepiece, but only one of them represented the world of Aboreal. His hand landed on an hourglass with alternating streams of black and white sand. The glass between the two metal ends of the timepiece glowed brightly, spraying beams of light across the purple sky.

Crackling and popping sounds filled his ears as fingers of electricity wriggled across his hand. He pressed forward, letting the currents absorb him and pull him through, into a tunnel filled with blue and purple light.

When the crackling subsided, he stepped into a world with a violet-blue sky that had no moon or stars. Without a sun to orbit, there was no day or night. The sky swallowed and reflected back light from the vegetation below. Lights from streets and homes added to the world’s brightness.

Sloe breathed in the air and smiled up at the violet-blue sky. In a way that had always made him uncomfortable, this world felt similar to home.

He followed a path toward a horizon of green grasses and trees, colors absent from the Clock Tower’s landscape. Felines roamed the street, mewing and licking themselves clean. Rabbits and other lapine creatures hopped along the grasses, some stopping to eye him curiously before springing forward and scurrying away. Each animal’s fur was either the darkest of night or the brightest of snow, with no shades in between.

The path widened as Sloe reached a village. Though this was not his first trip to Aboreal, he marveled at the likeness of the homes. They were constructed with different building materials, in a range of sizes, but they all had the same basic shapes, with defined tops and bottoms. Pointed roofs sat upon rectangular bases, all houses that looked nothing like the mangled mess of the Clock Tower where he lived. Compared to homes like Raven’s, he often wondered at how his parents had considered it livable.

Sloe reached a house made of brick and stone, built twice as tall as it was wide. A brassy beam ran along the edges of its pointed roof tiled with a material that had been cut from Aborealian trees.

He bounced in place and shook his hands again to release the edge from his nerves, then knocked on the door.

When the door opened, a lump formed in his throat.

Light from inside the home haloed a young woman wearing a fluffy purple hoody and matching sweatpants. Her glossy black hair was gathered in a loop at the top of her head and set in place with a comb of glittering flowers. Shining black eyes, the color of onyx, opened widely with recognition. “Sloe!”

“Hey, Raven.” He scratched the back of his head. “That, um, funeral thing finished sooner than I expected. Want to hang out?”

“Of course. I’ll be right out. I’ll just let my parents know I’ll be gone for a while. Do you know where we’re going, in case they ask?”

“Oh, um.” Sloe frowned, thinking. “I hadn’t planned that far ahead. We can go wherever you like.”

Raven leaned a shoulder against the doorframe. “So, basically, you want me to tell them it’s a surprise?”

“Sure.” He grinned. “That would work.”

“I doubt it,” she said, lowering her voice. “If they knew we left Aboreal as often as we do, we wouldn’t be seeing each other again.”

Sloe swallowed. “Then we’ll stay here, maybe hang out with your parents. We could play cards or something.”

“Oh no, anything but that. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” She spun around, leaving the door open with Sloe standing outside.

He smirked at not being invited inside. The last time he visited Raven and her parents, he felt like he was on a date with Raven’s father. Like he was interviewing for a position to be the man’s best friend. That was the last time Raven let him physically enter the house. She’d made sure they’d gone out ever since.

“Okay, we’re good.” Raven returned smiling and slightly out of breath. “They’re helping Snow with his lessons. That should give us plenty of time.”

She slipped her arm through his. “Ready?”

Sloe smiled as they walked together to the exit portal that led back to the Clock Tower.

“Where’d you tell your parents we were going?”

“They didn’t ask, specifically. So I said I was going out with you and that I’d be back to help clean up whatever mess they were making with Snow’s lessons.”

Sloe laughed. Technology and calculations had changed so much since his parents last had lessons, too. The worlds were different and in a constant stage of discovery and change.

“Well, in that case,” he said, “let’s try someplace new.”

He memorized Raven’s grin, and the way the crackling purple sparks framed her face, as he accessed the portal and pulled them through.

Moments later they were still arm-in-arm, holding on to the Aborealian hourglass attached to the Clock Tower.

Raven smiled up at the purple sky. “This world doesn’t look much different than Aboreal,” she teased. “Should we ground?”

Sloe shook his head. “Not if we leave fast enough. The rumbling will still happen here without us.”

“You don’t want to tell your parents where we’re going either?”

He shrugged. “If we don’t like it, we can come right back and try someplace else. What’s the point of wasting time in between?”

Raven nodded slowly.

“We can always go back to that world with the air balloons,” he said. “You liked that one. But if we do, we might miss out on something better.”

“Then how do we choose?”

“I don’t know. But we’ll have to hurry before the impact of our arrival hits and knocks us off the tower.”

Raven hesitated.

“Which one looks interesting to you?” said Sloe.

Her eyes flashed to a sundial with a clear gnomon—a triangular blade sticking up from the center—with a matching crystal rim along the dial plate. She twisted her body to where she could reach out and touch it. But it did nothing in response.

Sloe placed his hand above hers. The sundial began to glow.

“Where does it go?” whispered Raven.

“I don’t know, but I feel it singing to me. It will be easy to unlock.”

“What kind of world do you think it will be?”

“I really can’t say.” He grinned. “Let’s find out.”

His words faded as the crackling heightened and waves of electricity allowed them to pass through.

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 3 Edgar

I splashed my face with water and rubbed away what was left of my eyebrows. The spaces above my eyes worked the same way I imagined real eyebrows did, with muscle twisting skin over the brow bone. But the skin was hairless and smooth.

The skin above my eyelids warped and pinched as I tried to wriggle absent brows. I scowled at the grotesqueness that made me look like an alien from science fiction movies watched by the Earth-born.

Javis and Father both had eyebrows, and so had Mother and Grandpa Plaka. How was I the only person in my immediate family to have manifested this Chascadian gene? The trait was exclusive to females, which made it even less fair.

I opened a jar of face paint and dipped my brush. With sweeping strokes, I drew a fresh pair of arches along my brow bone—full and thick, and tapered at the outside edges, the way Mother’s used to be. She smiled at me from inside a picture frame I kept in the bathroom, where I could see her every day. I painted my skin to match hers as closely as possible.

The dark arches emphasized shining green eyes, the color Father’s once were. This time, when I wriggled my “brows,” I almost looked normal. But, as uncomfortable as I was without them, I felt I was hiding part of myself.

I twisted my long, dark hair in a messy bun and slipped on my uniform, a blue shirt and a matching pair of pants that Mother used to call scrubs. Even though I grieved the loss of Grandpa Plaka, there was work to do at the hospital. There were recovering Lost who needed me. And there was no way I was going to let them down. I packed up my healing kit and made my way downstairs.

Smells from the kitchen made me pause, and my mouth began to water. Vanilla and cinnamon. Mixed together, they reminded me of a flavor of cake Mother used to make for my birthday. My stomach twisted, both out of hunger and regret. Grandpa Plaka’s funeral had been on my birthday, but the closest thing to a birthday cake had been the funeral cake. The taste of lemon still lingered; I wasn’t sure I’d ever eat it again. But worse than that, I felt selfish for being disappointed that no one had said happy birthday.

I stepped inside the kitchen to find Javis sitting at the table, drumming his fingertips against the wood. When he looked up, a smile stretched across his face, ending in the faintest of dimples.

“Good morning, cupcake,” he said.

I rolled my eyes.

“Who said I was talking to you?”

I frowned. “If you weren’t talking to me, then who were you talking to?”

He curled his upper lip and stared at me. “Did something happen to your ears? Didn’t you hear what I said?”

Crossing my arms. I scowled back at him. Javis was my best friend, but his sense of humor was maddening.

“I blame your lack of maturity on having been born later in time than me,” I huffed.

He scratched at the curls that covered the back of his shirt collar. His dark eyes sparkled. As much as he looked like Mother, his mischievous grin was all Father’s—the way he’d smiled before Mother died.

Javis touched a finger to his lips and closed his eyes, presumably instructing me to listen.

“I don’t have time to stand here all day.” I slouched forward, indicating my uniform. “As you can see, I’m on my way to the hospital. I stopped by for a snack.”

His finger stayed pressed to his lips, the sides of which curled at the edges.

A bell rang. I nearly jumped out of my skin, and then audibly sucked in a breath. “You set that up!”

Laughing, Javis opened the oven door and removed a round baking pan. He set it on the table.

“No!” I screeched, scrambling through cupboard drawers. “You need to put a cooling rack or trivet down first or the pan will burn the table top.”

He chuckled. “I would have, if the pan were hot.”

I wrinkled my nose and looked over my shoulder. “What are you doing, Javis?”

“The pan already cooled. When I heard you stomping around upstairs I hid it inside the stove and set a timer.”

He dragged a knife along the inside edge of the pan and tipped the cake forward before setting it on a plate. It was a single muffin the size of a dinner plate.

Smugly, he walked past me to the refrigerator and returned with a bowl of whipped frosting. My jaw dropped and mouth started watering again—not a good combination if you’re trying not to drool all over yourself—as he mounded spoonful after spoonful of fluffy white frosting on top of the cake and smoothed it with a spatula.

With a finishing swipe, he stood back and admired his work. So did I.

“It looks great, Javis. What’s the occasion, and why the secret?”

He gave me that look again, the one with the curled lip, as if he couldn’t believe I was this stupid. His fingers pointed at something in the air like he was calculating figures. He shrugged.

“Okay,” he said, a little too seriously. “Earlier I said, good morning, cupcake, and now here it is. Happy Birthday, Silvie, one day late.”

Tears prickled my eyes. “You did all this for me?”

He hung his head and handed me a paper napkin. “I felt bad about how we spent your birthday.”

I dabbed at my eyes, letting the napkin soak up the moisture before it had a chance to ruin my brow paint.

“Thank you.”

I stuck a fork in the edge of the frosting and dug until I captured a small amount of the cake, too. I popped the forkful into my mouth and chewed. The vanilla and cinnamon shot waves of flavor through me, along with memories of Mother.

“Does it taste bad? What’s wrong?” The space between Javis’s perfect brows creased.

“No, nothing,” I said, though I’m sure my smile was bittersweet. “It’s delicious. If the hospital cafeteria ever needs more staff, you should apply for the job.” I winked.

His eyes were serious, thoughtful. “I miss her, too,” he said, seeing through my attempt at humor.

The cake left in my mouth turned to dust. I nodded, blinking.

Javis handed me another paper napkin, then looked away. I wondered whether he was fighting back tears, too.

“Thanks again,” I said, pulling myself together. “I’m guessing Father’s already at the hospital, so I’ll wrap this and take him some. I bet Madeline would love a slice.”

Javis smiled when I mentioned the girl’s name. She was one of the recovering Lost, a teen girl from Earth, with fiery red hair. Her eyes were gray now, but she told us they’d been blue at one time, before her travels through time and space. Before she’d become Lost. She was a special case, but only in the sense that Javis spent so much time with her.

“I’ll see you later?” I said. “At the hospital?”

He nodded with smiling eyes and a grin that was once again mischievous.

***

I opened the front door and stepped beneath a sky filled with golden light. Three suns hung in the sky. A path of bricks led from our house to the hospital. Flowers flooded the ground along both sides, such that the path was effectively a bridge between both buildings. On other worlds I’d visited, the ground was covered with patches of grass, rock, and soil. But, here, the flowers had outgrown the grass long ago.

Father built the world of Edgar—our world—for Mother. Something new blossomed each day, adding to the air’s fragrance, a mixture of honeysuckle, jasmine, rose, gardenia, freesia, and my favorite, the stargazer lily. The rainbow-studded fields looked and smelled delicious. The flowers and the warmth of the suns lifted my spirits.

I hugged the cake Javis made close to my heart and smiled at the sign above the hospital door. Center for Recovery of the Lost. After taking another, deeper breath of the fragrant air, I opened the door.

A few of the recovering patients walked through the hallway, holding on to hand bars along the walls. Mother insisted on them being available for those that had been weakened by Uproar attacks while traveling through time and space. Uproars were ethereal beings of white light that attacked their victims by knocking them to the ground. Their impact sapped the life out of the travelers until they became sick and ended up in our hospital. But only if we were able to find them.

A woman smiled at me as I passed. Her hair was neatly combed and gathered beneath a headband. She wore a red dress with stripes that matched the silver gleam of her shoes.

“Good morning, Chelsie,” I said.

She glanced at the cake I held in my arms.

“Would you like some? Javis made it.”

Her smiled broadened as she followed me to one of the kitchens. I unwrapped the cake and set two slices aside, one for Father and one for Madeline. I chose a larger slice and set it on a plate.

“This one’s yours,” I said holding it out to Chelsie.

Her murky eyes watered. She carried the plate to a table and broke it into smaller pieces. When I offered a fork, she shook her head and proceeded to eat the sticky gobs of cake with her fingers.

I scooped up the slices I set aside and headed to Father’s office, leaving the rest of the cake behind. Each of the recovering Lost had their issues, but they were not selfish. I expected the cake to slowly disappear throughout the day. The thought made me smile.

I greeted each of the recovering Lost by name as I slipped through the hallway. Father’s office was past the gymnasium and a block of empty rooms. Empty in the sense that he hadn’t reached out with his World-Builder talent to fill them yet. He could create more than rooms behind the doors; he could build what some would consider entire worlds—lands and skies filled with plant life, suns, moons, and stars. It was a talent the Time and Space Travel Agency, or TSTA, still had under its control.

Father’s office door was wedged open, allowing for the mumbling of voices to pass through into the hallway.

“I’m truly sorry, Mr. Calcott,” said Father. “Before your sister can be admitted, someone will need to find her. We cannot begin the process of healing the Lost before they are found.”

“How long will it take for someone to find her?”

Father’s frown could be heard in his silence.

“Please, Mister Hall, we’ve looked everywhere.”

“I will send a traveler to locate her, but I cannot guarantee she will be found, or that, if found, she will be ready to join the center. The safety of our current residents remain our priority.”

“I understand.”

I cringed at the defeat in the man’s voice. More extraordinary than the healing that took place at the hospital was how the recovering Lost arrived there. Until now, Remnant Transporters found and brought them to our world. Healing was a special gift, but there could be no healing until we found those in need of it. And the healing began long before the Lost were brought to Edgar.

My stomach twisted. Now that Mother and Grandpa Plaka were gone, there was no one to begin that process, except for me.

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 2

Darkness cast a hush over the burial grounds. The teardrop moons of Chascadia shined more brightly as the sun faded. A shadow that stretched across the Healer’s grave melted away.

A woman with hair as white as snow stood at the foot of the stone. The skin around her eyes and lips crinkled, deepening wrinkles that had grown with age. She drew in a breath.

“I suppose you had to leave us sooner or later, Healer.”

She studied the glint of light reflecting off the crown of laurel and rose gold.

“I’d say nice crown if I knew it would have suited you. But rose gold?” Her lips quirked into a grin. “Overkill, really.”

A tear slipped from her eye.

“I will miss you.”

The woman, Ivory of Aboreal, brushed a hand across her cheek and stilled the trembling of her lips. The Healer’s wife and daughter had been absent from the ceremony. Both were Earth-born with shorter timelines. They’d passed on before him. A pang of loss twisted inside Ivory’s chest. It was the price of having friends from other worlds and time schemes.

Footsteps interrupted her thoughts.

“Mom?”

A young man approached. His dark hair blended in with his robe, the black and gold funeral garb of Aboreal. Beneath the light of the moons, his eyes of purple ice shined warm and gray.

“Some event, wasn’t it, Sloe?”

He shrugged. “It was tolerable—for a funeral. Are you all right? You missed dinner.”

“I’m fine. Not hungry, that’s all.” She nudged him with an elbow. “Chascadian grub’s good though, isn’t it?”

He nodded and stared at the ground.

Ivory wrapped her hands around his shoulders. “Thank you for coming with me and putting up with all this. Let’s go home. There should be time left for you to meet up with Raven tonight.”

Sloe’s lips lifted at the corners. “Thanks, Mom.”

“You could have invited her to join us.” Ivory smacked herself in the head. “Why didn’t I think of that sooner? You could have had dinner together, and I wouldn’t feel so bad about leaving you at a table with strangers.”

At her son’s expression of horror, Ivory quickly added, “But who invites a girl to a funeral, right? Because that would be dumb, which is why I never should have suggested it.”

She frowned, trying to remember what dating was like at Sloe’s age, unsure whether he and Raven were a couple. Part of her wasn’t sure she wanted to know. Aborealian years were long, and memories of her own teen years had begun to fade.

“It’s all right, Mom.” Sloe laughed. “Let’s just go.”

She smiled at her son, thankful he’d been born in a world with a timeline that was long like Aboreal’s. Sloe meant the worlds to her, and she was certain the Healer had felt that way about his own daughter, Calla. Ivory shrunk beneath the image burned in her mind—that of the pain in the Healer’s eyes at Calla’s funeral. His daughter’s lifetime had progressed rapidly compared to his own.

Ivory dropped her hands from Sloe’s shoulders and followed him to the back of the burial grounds. They passed through a gate and continued walking until they reached the center of two paths that crossed in the clearing.

Sloe reached out a hand and waved his arms through the air before pressing both palms to the ground.

Though Ivory couldn’t see the exit portal, Sloe had left a marking here, in this spot in Chascadia. She recognized the two scratches of dirt in the land that formed the letter x.

When Sloe lifted his hands again, Ivory’s ears filled with the buzzing and popping of electricity, the signal that the portal had been opened.

Like his father, Sloe was a Time Keeper with the ability to unlock portals between place and time. But the talent had advanced.

“It’s ready, Mom.”

Ivory caught her son’s outstretched hand and looped her arm through his. She narrowed her eyes. Waves of electric current traveled across her face and body, tingling her nerve endings and raising the hair at the nape of her neck.

The portal remained invisible and would remain unseen to passersby, to anyone without the Time Keeper talent. But colors flooded the crackling and popping of electricity that accompanied Ivory and Sloe home. Purples and deep blues swirled around them, pulling them along a tunnel of electric charge.

The last of the sparks faded beneath an amethyst sky.

“Home sweet home,” whispered Ivory. Her hands gripped twisted shapes that branched from a mangled tower of clockwork, gears, and timepieces. She huffed. “Well, as sweet and homelike as a Clock Tower can be.”

Sloe chuckled from a space beside her. “Come on, Mom, let’s ground.”

Freeing his hands, he pressed his feet to the tower and kicked, propelling his body backward. He soared into a double backflip before lithely landing on his feet.

“I wish you’d stop doing that. It scares me every time.”

“But it’s way faster than your route,” he called from the ground below. “You should try it.”

“Not a chance.”

Ivory groaned through gritted teeth before repositioning her hands and feet to grasp handholds and reach footholds, a task she repeated every step of the descent. As she scrambled down the tower, she passed clocks of all shapes and sizes—mantle clocks, digital clocks, and cuckoo clocks; some were simple watch faces or sundials. Before reaching the ground, she hopped over a gargantuan pocket watch set in silver.

“How’s that for sticking my landing?”

Sloe sniffed. He’d already pressed a hand and knee to the ground. Ivory knelt next to her son and did the same.

The ground rumbled, sending a wave of jolts up along the Clock Tower. Timepieces chimed from above, clanging and jingling as they bounced against each other and the tower.

When the rumblings subsided, Sloe rose and brushed dust from his knees. He caught Ivory squinting at a mound of raspberry blue metal piled in the distance, the ruined remains of a jet.

“Do you miss it?” he said. “Traveling by flight? Being a Chauffeur for the Time and Space Travel Agency?”

She jutted her chin and wrapped an arm around his neck. “Sometimes. I’d think about it less if we found somewhere to trash that heap of junk.”

Sloe frowned.

“Don’t get old, kid. Your eyesight dulls, and suddenly no one needs you anymore.”

“But you still have your talent.”

Ivory chuckled darkly. “Yeah, well, it doesn’t do much good while in hiding.”

She exhaled and opened a door—not a portal, but a physical door—that led inside the Clock Tower.

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 1 Legacy

Inheriting a baglamas that travelled through time would have made me smile on my birthday, had I not received it at my grandfather’s funeral. The rounded body of the instrument shined with centuries of wear. Its wood sat smooth and heavy in my hands. Trailing my fingers across its strings, I lifted my head to Father and frowned.

“I’m sorry, Silvie. I wanted to save this for later, but you’ll be expected to be seen with the baglamas.”

I ran the back of my hand across my eyes, careful to keep the tears away from the spaces above my eyelids. “Another reminder of Grandpa Plaka and Mother,” I said.

Father held his arms open to me. I took a long look at him before falling into them. His hands puckered with wrinkles. The lines of his once smooth face sagged at the edges. His hair had no streaks of gray like Grandpa Plaka’s had, but that brought me no comfort. Father was getting old. Before long, he would be gone too.

“You will be fine,” he said. His voice trembled. “We will be fine.”

“Valcas,” called a woman from outside the door. “Please accept my apologies, Mister Hall. You and Silvia are needed. The laurel ceremony is about to begin.”

Sniffling, I let go of Father and looked up at the woman. Her hair was braided and wrapped in a crown around her head. Combs accented with laurel leaves bound the braids together.

“Of course, Madam Sideris,” said Father. He took my arm in his. “We will go now.”

The bare skin above the woman’s eyelids pinched and twisted in my direction before she left the room. I couldn’t tell whether she did so out of jealousy, or whether she knew my secret.

I exhaled a breath and looked up at Father. He straightened his frown and tugged at my arm. Together, we followed Madam Sideris outside, to the burial grounds of Chascadia.

We passed through thick folds of people, some openly grieving and others looking on with widened eyes, their smiles somber. All were assembled in rows facing a hollowed rectangle in the ground. Dust and dirt gleamed copper beneath the sky’s golden light. A sun eclipsed the teardrop moons that were present both day and night.

A woman stood at the edge of what would become my grandfather’s grave. She looked at me with eyes that lacked expression. Her lips pinched together the way Father’s did, with no hint of smile or frown. Like most of the women present, she wore a loose dress, belted at the waist with braids of gold.

“That’s Madam Gazis,” Father whispered. “The reigning leader of Chascadia chose her to officiate the ceremony.”

I nodded, though I was admittedly not up to date on who currently governed Chascadia. If they were somewhere in the crowd they certainly didn’t flaunt their positions. Mother once told me a story about meeting Spyros and Andriana Tagma who ruled when Mother was still alive. I made a mental note to learn more about Chascadia’s history when I returned home, to Edgar.

I was more interested in what Madam Gazis held in her arms. A chest made of marble lay open, its lid pulling against the hinges. Garlands of fruit, sculpted into the marble and inset with colored glass, decorated the walls of the chest. I craned my neck, looking for what was inside. But it appeared to be empty.

Softly, I brushed my thumb along the strings of the baglamas, enough to absorb comfort from their presence but with too little pressure to produce sound.

Madam Gazis’s gaze flickered in my direction. She, too, appeared to be made of marble, but with the bronzed features of Earth’s Mediterranean. I froze, worrying she’d heard a vibration in the strings.

She looked past me and lifted her chin. “Welcome, everyone,” she called out.

A calm stillness spread across the crowd.

“Today we honor the life and death of a man dear to Chascadia,” continued Madam Gazis. “He was a traveler, a Remnant Transporter, and a Healer. Basileios Plaka.”

Moments of silence followed as those to my left and right bowed their heads. I dipped my chin toward the ground, but my eyes stayed focused on the chest.

Madam Gazis inhaled as she lifted her arms. “I present the burial trunk, the coin for which was donated by the Hall family.”

I turned to Father and frowned. He hadn’t mentioned the trunk to me, and I couldn’t help feeling left out of something important. I wondered whether Javis knew about the burial trunk. My teeth clenched together. Where was he?

“Are there any items that the family wishes to be buried with the deceased?” Madam Gazis spoke loud enough to address the crowd, but she lowered the trunk toward me.

I pressed the baglamas to my chest.

“The baglamas was all Plaka kept close to him,” said Father. The tremble in his voice twisted at my stomach. “He kept no sword or firearm at his belt. He was a man of peace.”

Madam Gazis nodded, eyeing the baglamas.

Father cleared the emotion from his voice and pressed a hand to my shoulder. “My wife, Plaka’s daughter, is also deceased. The instrument belongs to Silvie now.”

A shift in the crowd accompanied murmurs. My cheeks flushed pink as I took in the guests’ awkward glances.

Madam Gazis’s lips formed a polite smile, but not fast enough to disguise the twitch in her nose and pinching of skin above her eyelids. “Do you wish the burial trunk to remain empty?”

Father’s face paled, but he said nothing.

“Very well,” she said, tilting the lid of the trunk forward.

“Wait!”

I whipped my head to the right, searching for who had spoken. One of the guests, a woman with dark eyes and short white hair, pushed her way through the crowd. Studded boots crunched against the ground, sending streams of dust behind her. White locks brushed the collar of her black and gold robe. Her eyebrows were so white that, at first, I mistook her for a Chascadian. But as she neared, they became visible against her copper complexion. Her eyelashes, too, were as frosty as her hair. But nothing was as icy as her demeanor.

I sucked in a breath. “Is she Aborealian?”

Father’s sickened expression transformed to one of relief. “Ivory,” he whispered.

“We can’t let Plaka believe we weren’t thinking of him, Valcas.” The woman—Ivory of Aboreal—held up a clear plastic tube so that it was visible to everyone present. She bent its middle until it popped. The stick glowed orange.

“Put this inside your trunk,” she said to Madam Gazis. “Let the light guide Plaka to the great beyond, in hidden times and places those of us have yet to travel. Or whatever mushy stuff people say at events like this.”

I snickered at Madam Gazis’s look of bewilderment as she watched the yellow-orange light stick land inside the burial trunk. The skin beneath her chin wobbled as if she’d just swallowed something dry and distasteful.

But she didn’t argue or reject Ivory’s offering. She bowed and gently closed the trunk. And then she tightened its straps until the clasp clicked in place.

Ivory winked in our direction and smirked before turning and disappearing into the crowd.

Still as a statue, Madam Gazis stood by as four Chascadian men marched forward with a body wrapped in a shroud. A lump formed in my throat as they lowered Grandpa Plaka into the grave. One of the men reached out and accepted the burial trunk from Madam Gazis and placed it alongside the body.

I tried not to look at Madam Gazis who seemed relieved that she was no longer burdened with the weight of the trunk. Her fists rested at her hips, the same way my Grandpa Plaka’s had when he observed something serious.

Instead of covering the hole with dirt, another set of men followed, carrying a flat stone that was as wide and tall as the arm span and height of the largest of the men. On the stone was a painting of a man in a cloak playing a wind instrument, probably an ancient flute. Engraved on the stone, beneath the painting, was my grandfather’s name along with the inscription Healer and Singer of Time.

With the stone set in place, two women stepped forward with a crown of laurel and rose gold. Together, they bent forward and placed the crown at the foot of the stone. The smaller of the two women touched her lips to her fingertips and then pressed her hand to the crown.

“A symbol of this man’s contributions as a healer,” she said. Her voice was somber and sweet. She stood and clasped her hands. “Since we were unable to mark the exact time and place of Basileios Plaka’s death, we commemorate him here where his body will remain and rest.”

An icy chill trailed along my spine. If they were unable to figure out where and how he died, then how were they sure this was his body? And who delivered it to Chascadia? I wanted to ask Father what he thought of what the Chascadian woman had said, but one look at his grief-stricken face told me that now was not the best time.

Gently, Father squeezed my arm. “The last of your family to receive such a burial was your great-grandmother, Dara Plaka, a Remnant Transporter like your grandfather, mother, and you.” His voice was thick.

He pinched the bridge of his nose before continuing. “Are you ready for the exit procession, Silvie?”

Unfortunately, the day was far from over. I still had to make it through the reception. I glanced at my timepiece and sighed, wondering where Javis could be and whether Father would rebuke him for his absence during the burial ceremony. I doubted it, but I suppose everything has its first time, and I looked forward to witnessing such a moment.

“Silvie?”

I managed a smile. “Yes, Father, I’m ready.”

Arm in arm, we followed Madam Sideris and Madam Gazis out of the burial grounds and back inside the funeral hall. Eyes from the crowd gazed reverently, not at me or Father, but at the baglamas I held at my side.

Rows of Chascadian men greeted us inside the hall where we were led to a table filled with delicacies, the same foods Grandpa Plaka brought to Edgar, my home world, during holidays and special occasions. There were plates of sugared figs, sliced and layered with slivers of Chascadian beef, alongside platters of fish stuffed with fried cheeses. Bowls of olives and vegetable salads dotted the spaces between rolls of minced lamb wrapped in leaves. It smelled wonderful, especially the tangy sweetness from the cakes made with lemon and olive oil, the best food I’d ever tasted. I scooped a small slice of cake onto my plate. Under the circumstances, I wasn’t sure my stomach would be able to handle any of it.

I settled into a chair next to Father to soak up the quarter of my heritage I knew the least about. Grandpa Plaka was from this world, Chascadia, whereas my parental grandfather, James Hall, was born of Earth. My Mother, Calla Winston-Hall, was born of a different part of Earth. And then there was my paternal grandmother, Sable Hall, formerly known as Sable of Aboreal. That made me one-half Earthling, one quarter Aborealian, and one quarter Chascadian, a veritable intergalactic mutt.

I sighed and closed my eyes. Tinkling from stringed instruments floated across tables. Though I longed to join the musicians, I’d already tied the baglamas to my belt. Playing the instrument resulted in more than music if one was not careful, and I wasn’t sure how cautious I could be in my present state, especially given how much I longed to be somewhere and somewhen else.

I nibbled at the lemon cake and slouched in my seat. After scowling at Javis’s empty chair, I amused myself by studying the Chascadians. The men who’d greeted us wore what my mother called tuxedos, formal suits with cummerbunds hugging their middles beneath jackets with satin-lined lapels. Matching satin stripes ran down the sides of their trousers. Each man wore his hair tied in a tail, and a sash with a medal over his jacket. It was an attractive combination, so it didn’t surprise me that tuxedos were common to both Earth and Chascadia.

Father’s attire was quite different. He usually wore dark trousers with a shirt and leather jacket. But, today, he wore a jewel-encrusted cloak clasped over a formal suit. The cloak was similar in style to the black and gold robe Ivory wore, but it was brighter and trailed several feet behind him. It looked ridiculous next to all the tuxedos, and I hoped he hadn’t asked Javis to wear something similar.

My own dress was unlike those worn by the majority of female guests. I wore it because I thought—or, rather, I hoped—it would make me invisible. I smoothed my hands across my lap. The dress was a gift from Mother, a simple black sheath with a belt that was perfect for attaching the baglamas. But it didn’t make me stand out any less—for reasons that had nothing to do with the dress or the baglamas. The true culprit was on a place the dress couldn’t hide, something plainly visible and drawn on my face.

Like Madam Sideris, the other Chascadian women did nothing to hide the fact that they had no eyebrows. Most glances cast my way were laced with suspicion. But some of the younger women openly admired the paint applied to the spaces above my eyes, where one’s eyebrows should be.

All of this was forgotten when Javis entered the room.

“Late, as usual,” I grumbled to no one but myself. The seats on both sides of me were empty. Father had gone to get glasses of honeyed kraspota for the toast to Grandpa Plaka.

As annoyed as I was, I couldn’t stop smiling. Javis’s gait of arrogant ease mesmerized the women—young and old—as he looked back and forth among the Chascadians with his deep, brown eyes. I sighed, grateful he hadn’t worn a silly cloak like Father, and then beamed a smile of gratitude as my younger brother approached our table.

“I’ve been waiting forever for them to look at someone else besides me,” I whispered. “You missed the entire laurel ceremony! What took you so long to get here?”

“The hostess out front wouldn’t stop talking about how sorry she was. You would have thought her family member had just died.” He crossed his arms, grinning as he scanned the room. “Tough crowd? I thought Chascadians were known for their warm hospitality.”

“Me too,” I said, shrinking beneath more stares due to my proximity to Javis. “I’m not sure they like me much, though.”

He laughed. “Why should they? You’ve inherited Grandpa Plaka’s legacy. That makes you prime marriage material. Come on, Silvie. Haven’t you noticed the guys looking at you?”

I wrinkled my nose. “Matchmaking at a funeral is disgusting.”

“Not to that guy over there,” he said, nudging me. “Though, there’s no way he’s Chascadian.”

“You’re terrible.” I half smiled in the direction of a figure with coal-black hair falling over his eyes and ears. He definitely wasn’t disgusting, but there was something different about him. Squinting, I added, “You’re right. Are his eyes really light purple? Weird.” Attractive, too, but I wasn’t going to admit that to Javis.

“Yeah, so? You’re one of the few women here with eyebrows.” He snickered. “Well, sort of…”

“Enough,” I hissed.

Before he could reply, Father shoved a drink in Javis’s hand; his eyes were sharp with disappointment tinged with warning.

Madam Gazis raised her glass and offered a few words of kindness before encouraging us to drink to the life and death of Grandpa Plaka.

I thought about the woman who’d knelt at his grave and said they’d been unable to mark the time and place of his death. I hadn’t seen the body beneath the shroud.

If he’s truly dead, I thought as I raised my glass in his honor and sipped at the sweet drink.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 2. >>>

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

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Darker Stars BETA: Prologue

The Healer knew he was aging.

His body was too frail to continue traveling through time and space. Soon, he would complete his calling, and his vocation would pass on to someone else. He’d accepted these truths, but that didn’t make being awakened by the pain in his joints any easier.

After completing a routine of bending and stretching, he rose from his bed.

He gathered the spirals of gray that hung to his waist and tied them behind his head. His cloak hung on a chair next to where he’d been sleeping. He rolled his head from shoulder to shoulder to loosen his back muscles before wrapping the cloak around him and fastening its clasp at his neck.

The Healer buried his hand in a jar filled with chewing sticks cut from a Peelu tree, and pulled out a twig. He peeled bark from the twig’s edge. Placing the peeled end between his teeth, he chewed until its fibers frayed and formed a brush.

He wandered out the door to his home, chewing and brushing as he began his morning walk.

Trees rustled with the song of the morning breeze, and the air held an aftertaste of winter pine.

The Healer breathed deeply. He squinted, his eyes having been uncovered and unprotected from the megastars that brought the morning light. He paused to close and to rub the remaining sleepiness from his eyes. When he opened them, there was a twinkling in the thick of woods that had not been there before.

He blinked and chewed, and rubbed his eyes again.

His knees creaked as he stepped toward the twinkling.

When he passed a hand through the outer edges of the space, his fingers disappeared as if they’d moved through an invisible door. The chewing stick fell from his lips and landed in the dirt.

After testing his opposite hand and a foot, the Healer bent forward and pressed his head inside.

His ears filled with the rush of wind and a faint tinkle of chimes.

Blue-green eyes, the color of shallow waters, struggled to absorb and understand what they were seeing.

Transfixed, the Healer continued forward.

Dark clouds hovered in the sky. Light from stars shone and faded through gaps between the clouds. Wherever he was now, it was no longer morning.

There were more trees on this side of the twinkling, but also a river the Healer had never seen. It was not part of the grounds near his home. It was not part of his world.

He tapped a finger to his lips. “How is this possible? A portal, perhaps—but why now? And in the middle of nowhere, outside my home?”

Still, the Healer grinned as he observed the twinkling from this side, from a viewpoint within a realm unknown to him. It was no more than an outline, wider than his shoulders and higher than the stature of an average man. Lines along the edges of the twinkling shimmered, but so softly that most of the area blended in with its surroundings, a faint light peering through a tear in space.

He stood, with his fists resting at his hips and his eyes glistening, completely absorbed in studying the new world, when two men approached.

Both wore cloaks clasped at the neck, like the Healer, except that one of them had an attached hood that drooped over his forehead and eyes.

“Good eventide,” said the hooded man. His voice was croaky, with the persistent change of pitch of one whose vocal chords had been twisted and scrambled.

“Yes, the evening here is quite good.”

The Healer hadn’t intended his reply to be thoughtless or unfriendly. At any other time, he would have cringed at a voice like the hooded man’s. He would have wanted to help soothe the man’s pain. But he was so rapt by his discovery of the portal he hadn’t thought to press his hand to the man’s throat to heal him.

The hooded man grabbed the Healer by the throat instead.

Choking, the Healer clawed at hooded man’s hand to loosen the vice on his airways. But by the time the bloodied hand let go, the hooded man’s companion had pulled the Healer’s cloak over his head and around his arms, leaving him blind and defenseless.

The hooded man landed three blows to the Healer’s head before kicking him toward his companion. Both men hissed and jeered at the Healer’s attempts to dodge their attacks as he teetered back and forth between them.

With a ringing snap, the clasp at the Healer’s neck opened, freeing him from the prison of fabric that allowed him to be beaten in the dark.

But it was too late.

With one eye open and the other swollen shut, he reached for the twinkling, knowing he would not pass through before his battered body fell. He reached anyway, until his fingernails clipped soil and his teeth cracked against the ground.

Air spilled from his lungs, constricted from the impact. He no longer moved.

Only then did the cloaked men stop to wipe the blood from their fists.

A third man emerged from the shadows. He was masked, and wore no cloak, but his tunic flowed to the ground. A shallow split in the fabric limited his mobility by slowing his stride. When he reached the heap on the ground that was the Healer, he slipped the mask he wore from his eyes. What began as a nervous chuckle grew into a full belly roar.

“Such a great man, but so distracted,” he wheezed, his body shaking with laughter. “Fine work setting the portal trap.”

The cloaked men grunted.

“Get a good look at his face. Be sure it is the right man.”

The unhooded man bent forward and knelt to the ground, something the man in the unwieldy tunic could not do. “I am certain it is he.”

“Basileios Plaka, we have you at last.” The man in the tunic threw his head back. His laughter echoed through the trees.

The cloaked men listened. Neither cracked a smile.

“Why do you stay silent instead of laughing with me?”

Ignoring his question, the hooded man spoke. “Are you finished with us?”

“Almost. Where is the instrument—the baglamas?”

The unhooded man trembled as he raised hands marked with scars, cupping them outward to show they were empty. “I have checked his person. The instrument was not tied to his belt. It is nowhere to be found.”

The face of the man in the tunic went rigid and paled. He attempted to kick at the body, but was caught short by his tunic.

He set his foot back down and paused to regain his composure. “No matter. He won’t need the baglamas where he’s going.”

“No weapons, either.” The unhooded man’s voice was sharper, more controlled, than before. “He couldn’t have defended himself. They will think us animals.”

“I care not what anyone thinks of you. Make sure he is dead, and then remove his body from this place. Have it sent back to Chascadia.”

The cloaked men looked at one another.

“We will do as you say,” the hooded man croaked.

“Good. Once that is finished, you will find the instrument and bring it to me. Then, I will be finished with you.”

The men’s voices traveled through the Healer’s ears. He heard their conversation the way he would have imagined an outsider listening to someone else’s dream. His lack of strength left him unable to speak or move. He hadn’t the breath to groan. He knew he would die, alone and unable to tell his loved ones what had happened or to reveal the identity of his attackers.

Awareness ebbed as his heartbeat slowed.

The worlds as he knew them melted together, enveloping him in waves of peace and embracing him in a curtain of white light.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 1. >>>

Learn more about the serialization of Darker Stars here.

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Be a Live Beta Reader for Darker Stars!

I’m going to try something different this year. I’ll be blogging beta chapters of the first book in my new series, and I’d love to hear what you think about it.

The chapters will post twice per week. Most will have already had alpha reader eyes on them and some editing, but they are otherwise raw. This means anyone reading or following this blog can be a beta reader and give feedback in the comments for each chapter. The final chapters will go through additional rounds of editing, copy editing, proofreading, and formatting prior to publication. And, yes, do not worrythere will be a replacement cover.

You don’t need to read The Call to Search Everywhen to understand the story, but there will likely be spoilers. You have been warned. 😉

Join me and Silvie Hall in this online adventure! It starts now:

Begin Reading Darker Stars (The Song of Everywhen, #1)

Travel talents have evolved far past what the Time and Space Travel Agency imagined, leaving it unable to keep travelers under their control. Silvie Hall is a descendant of Chascadia, Aboreal, and an ancient Earth. The Remnant Transporter talent flows through her blood, giving her the ability to transport silhouettes from different times and places to help heal lost loved ones. But will it be enough to stop the darker talents that threaten her legacy and her home?