serialization

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 15 Calling

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

Sloe waved a hand. “Have fun.”

“Yeah,” chuckled Javis. “Fun.”

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

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

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

I blanched at narrowed eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled.

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

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

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

Sloe looked at me, worried and visibly puzzled.

“This is unusual,” I breathed.

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

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

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

As I approached, I reached out with my palm.

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

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

“If it’s not you, then who is it?”

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

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

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

“Javis! What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Help me get him out to the hallway.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Will he be all right?”

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

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

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

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

I sucked in a breath and pressed harder.

Javis shook with my efforts, his eyes still closed.

Then he bolted upward and yelped.

Sloe and I gasped at the same time.

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

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

“What happened?”

He frowned. “I don’t know.”

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

Footsteps sounded from down the hall, earlier than expected.

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

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

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

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

I frowned as she looked down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened here?”

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

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

His jaw tightened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 11 Travel

After the huge blowup with Father, I went outside to cool off. How dare he replace my shift—replace me with someone else?

I pulled at the opening to my jacket and pulled it tightly around me as I wandered down the path from the house to the hospital. I inhaled deeply, attempting to pull in the scent of the flowers that calmed me the most: lavender and rose, and chamomile.

I counted under my breath as I exhaled, and I closed my eyes during each inhale.

One moment my eyes were open, and the flowers in front of me swayed in the night sky, some of their petals already tucked in for the night.

On my next breath, when I opened my eyes, a figure appeared at the edge of the path. The person appeared to be male, with dark hair. And he was walking toward the hospital.

Frowning, I changed direction, and began walking across the flowers, careful not to crush their delicate stems and leaves. But the ground was thick with them, and bunches flattened beneath my feet as I walked.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, trying to fluff as many back up along the way.

I stopped where the path curved and stepped onto its solid layout of bricks. With my hands resting at the back of my hips, I stopped there and waited. Could it be one of the recovering Lost who’d wandered off while I wasn’t working? How did they get out here without someone accompanying them? If it was one of the Lost, Father would surely hear about it. Part of me couldn’t wait to complain to him about what happened. He needed to know the seriousness of what could go wrong when he pulled me off a shift.

As the person neared, his features became clearer. His dark hair wasn’t just black; it was the flat, even black of Aboreal. My jaw tightened when he finally noticed me and stopped walking.

His eyes opened into round circles before narrowing. Irises of purple ice glared at me. I’d seen his face before, only it had been smiling at me from across the room in Chascadia, at Grandpa Plaka’s funeral.

The way he looked at me now made me feel as if I should apologize for intruding, even though I lived here, not him. My lips twisted to the side as I continued to study him. This was my world, not his.

“Hello?” I called out. Maybe he was in trouble. What I took to be an unfriendly gaze could be one of pain. He certainly didn’t look happy to be here. But I had trouble believing that he’d somehow gotten lost. Entering Edgar required the ability to travel through time and space, and from what I could see, he wore no visible object of travel.

He pulled back the foot he’d been in the process of stepping forward with when he froze. I thought I saw a slight tinge to his cheeks. Like he’d been caught.

“Can I help you with something?” I said, hoping it didn’t come across as too smug.

He suddenly seemed interested in his feet. “I, um.”

His discomfort relaxed me. Maybe he had a friend or family member in the hospital. I couldn’t think of any recovering Lost who were expecting a visitor, but then Father’s interference with my later shift could have prevented me from learning about it.

I forced a smile that I hoped was welcoming. “Are you here to visit someone at the hospital? Because if you are, I’m happy to escort you there.”

He frowned at the building at the far end of the path. “No, I don’t know anyone there, I’m sorry.” He exhaled. “The hospital…”

“Who are you, and why are you here?”

His body physically jerked backward from me. I narrowed my eyes.

“Yeah, sorry. My name’s Sloe.”

I crossed my arms and waited for him to answer the second half of my question.

He stared at me, his face stricken. Yep, definitely pain.

I approached Sloe to get a better look at him and to see if I could figure out how he’d arrived. I’d figure it out one way or another, even if he refused to tell me.

Directly behind where he stood on the path, lay a trail of trampled flowers. I wrinkled my nose.

“Sorry,” he said, following my gaze. “I came through over there. Unfortunately, the entrance portal isn’t on the path.”

“What entrance portal?” I passed by him, struggling to avoid the flowers he’d smashed with his feet. He followed me, but stepped carefully, mimicking my steps.

I’d never seen a portal on Edgar. My family and I always traveled with either the baglamas or a pair of travel glasses.

The trail of trampled flowers stopped, suddenly, as if he’d fallen from the sky and landed in the spot where I stood now. No larger than the rest of the path, it just ended.

“From the size of this space, it doesn’t even look like you’ve grounded.” I turned to face him. “How did you get here, Sloe?” I said, my voice low.

He gulped. “Through the portal.”

“What portal?” I said, waving an arm at the empty space. “There’s nothing here.”

He gaped, visibly panicked. I’d seen the expression before, on the faces of the recovering Lost who’d been caught wandering the halls during quiet hours when they were supposed to be in bed, with no explanation of how they got there.

“Do you need help?” I cringed at the tinge of condescension in my voice.

He shook his head. “You can’t see the portal because it’s invisible to you. The entrance portal, and also this world’s exit portal, can only be read or unlocked by a Time Keeper.”

“You’re a Time Keeper?” I couldn’t believe it. Faced with such an extraordinary talent, I almost forgot how annoyed I was with him. “Where’s the exit portal?”

“I haven’t found it yet,” he admitted. “But I’m happy to search for it now and get out of your way.”

I winced. “I’m sorry. I haven’t given you much of a welcome. But you showed up unannounced, and it surprised me.”

“I can see that.”

We stood there, sizing each other up for a moment. The only Time Keeper I’d heard of was Ivory’s husband, Nick. And that he was the only one, having taken over when the prior Time Keeper moved on.

I cracked a smile that was only minimally haughty. “So, let me guess, you were portal hopping for fun and decided to show up here and see what was on the other side?”

He shrugged. “Sometimes I do that.”

“You do?” Okay, I hadn’t expected my joke scenario to be on point.

His face relaxed into a smile. “Do you mind if I take a look around for the exit portal?”

“No, but—” I took another look at where the trampled trail stopped. I bent down, inspecting both sides of it. “Didn’t you have to ground here?”

“Grounding isn’t necessary upon arrival when going outbound from the Clock Tower.”

I felt my eyes widen. Mother had told me about the Clock Tower—stories about how she and Father, Ivory, Nick, Grandpa Plaka, and Ray had used the Clock Tower for the most massive rescue of the Lost in history.

The Clock Tower?”

“Yeah, that Clock Tower.”

“You’re Ivory and Nick’s son?”

“Yes.”

I grinned. “Ivory of Aboreal. And Nick of Time? So, that would make you…”

He rolled his eyes. “Sloe of Time. Yeah, that’s what they call me. Terrible, I know.”

I pressed both hands to my mouth. I didn’t like that I felt sorry. Nor did I want to apologize for something that wasn’t my fault.

The skin above my left eye pinched and twisted. Who he was also didn’t make up for, much less explain, what he was doing here. But maybe he had only been exploring. I couldn’t blame him for that. I liked traveling, too, and I couldn’t imagine having all the worlds at my fingertips in quite the same the way he and Nick had—the ability to read and unlock portals unseen by others, all without the need for a travel object.

I lifted a hand toward him. “I guess I should officially introduce myself, if it’s not too late. I’m Silvie Hall.”

“I know.” He smiled, gathering my hand in his for a quick shake. “I remember you from your grandfather’s funeral, but I didn’t get a chance to talk to you there.”

I pulled my jacket more tightly around me, noticing the drop in temperature now that the suns had faded. “I need to go soon,” I said, glancing at the house. “I have to work in the morning, at the hospital. If you come back tomorrow, I can show you around.”

“Thanks.” He smiled again. “As soon as I finish my morning lessons, I will.”

“Great.” I cringed at the trampled flowers. “You’re sure you can’t land on the path?”

“This is the only entrance portal to this world,” he said, gesturing toward an empty space above the flowers. “I can’t fly, but I can promise to step more carefully.”

I squinted past where he indicated with his hands, but there wasn’t anything there. Nothing I could see. Not the tiniest glimmer or ripple in the air.

“Thank you, Sloe,” I said, wishing my grin wasn’t so wide. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, unsure whether I should go inside or wait to see him home. I was curious to watch him disappear from the exit portal, and also wanted to see where it was.

He treaded carefully across the flowers this time, possibly for my benefit; either way, his consideration warmed me. Maybe he wasn’t so bad, after all.

“Do you mind me following you?” I said, shadowing his steps across the expanse of flowers toward the back of our house.

“No, it’s your place anyway.” He managed to shrug with both arms raised in the air. He wriggled his fingers and waved his hands around, like he was feeling for something.

Sloe of Time paused and closed his eyes. I bit my lip to keep a straight face. His actions were amusing to me, and I still couldn’t get past his goofy name. Javis would have been spellbound by this if he were here, and would likely tease me later about the smirk on my face—a look I’d inherited from Father.

I crossed my arms and exhaled, allowing Sloe what I figured would be the appropriate seriousness for the occasion, though at the moment he was parting the flowers like he was looking for bugs or something, and pressing his hands to the ground.

“What are you looking for?” I whispered. I couldn’t help it. He’d come through an invisible portal in the air. What business did he have rustling up our flowers and palpating the ground?

“I can sense the pulse of electricity in the air. The portal’s calling to me, but I can’t see it yet. Sometimes it helps if I feel along the ground, where its energy spreads out like roots or tentacles that lead to its center.”

“Interesting,” I said.

Though I didn’t have his Time Keeper talent, something about Sloe’s explanation calmed me. There was something identifiable in his words. There was truth. The pulse and energy he spoke of sounded similar. Like waves of music, of song. I thought of Grandpa Plaka’s baglamas sitting in my room, nestled against the pillows on a chair near my bed.

Sloe smiled slightly, still squatting forward, as he made a half-turn to the right. “This way,” he said.

I followed him across the rear of our house. My eyes bulged open. We were headed toward the hospital’s rear entrance.

I shivered. “Sloe, is it possible for someone to step through one of these invisible portals by accident?”

He shook his head. “Anyone else will walk through it as if nothing were there, they wouldn’t feel it and they wouldn’t be transported. Even if the person could see the portal, it would still need to be unlocked before he or she could enter and pass through.”

I released a breath, grateful that none of the recovering Lost were Time Keepers who could wander through a portal located behind the hospital’s back door.

He looked over and up at the building next to us. “Concerned for your residents?”

“Yes.”

“Well, don’t worry. The exit portal is right here.” Again, he pointed to something I couldn’t see. “And I doubt anyone has noticed it.”

I squinted, then blinked. “Can we install an alarm on it, one that can be connected to the hospital, just in case?”

His lips pulled up in shy grin. “I don’t think so, but it’s not a bad idea.”

“Well, if you think of anything, let me know. I wouldn’t mind having something similar—at least a doorbell—for our entrance portal.” I smirked.

His entire body stiffened as he caught a sharp breath. I couldn’t help wondering whether he was impressed by my idea, or if it frightened him. The poor Time Keeper wouldn’t be able to slip inside others’ worlds like a spy if the portal contained a mechanism that announced his arrival.

Sloe pressed his hand to the air and looked over his shoulder at me with narrowed eyes. “A portal bell?”

His jawline clenched and sharpened as he stared at me.

My eyes locked with his. “Exactly.”

“Hmm.” His features softened, but he still didn’t seem either impressed or excited about my idea.

“Is there a problem with the portal?” I asked, waiting.

“No, I—” He dropped his hands and turned to me. His eyes glanced slowly back and forth between the house and the hospital, as if he were trying to memorize their positions.

He shrugged. “Thanks for inviting me to visit again tomorrow, Silvie. Sorry for dropping by so late. And, um, have a goodnight.”

I tilted my head, absorbing his words, trying to figure him out. Sure, he was nice enough and kind of cute, but there was something I couldn’t lay a finger on. Something he wasn’t telling me. He’d admitted that others who couldn’t unlock the portals couldn’t travel through by accident. He’d slipped into our world, which obviously meant he’d unlocked our portal. Who does that without it being on purpose? Even if he truly was exploring at random, as he’d suggested, he hadn’t stayed long to explore. Had he already seen enough of Edgar to satisfy his curiosity?

I needed to find out.

“Goodnight to you too, Sloe,” I said through a smile I hoped radiated warmth rather than suspicion. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

He furrowed his brow as he nodded and pressed his hand to the empty space in the air. His body stiffened and trembled slightly with an energy or force I could imagine but couldn’t see. Then, he stepped forward into an invisible wall, into nothingness, and disappeared.

I touched the space where Sloe disappeared, reaching for the pulse and the song, sensations similar to traveling with the baglamas. My fingertips quavered through the empty air. A slight tingle spread across the palms of my hands, vanishing as quickly as it came.

I was left wondering whether I’d felt anything, or whether it was only in my mind.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 12. >>>

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

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 8

Sloe yelped through a hitched breath and gnashed his teeth together. Bruises itched and stung from portal sparks lighting them on fire all over again. Muscles ached from his efforts at making sure Raven didn’t get separated from him during travel. She lay in his arms, still unconscious.

Their descent from the tower seemed too short as he weighed his options. Once he reached the tower’s base, he lay Raven gently on the ground, wrapping one arm across her middle and placing a hand beneath her head as he knelt and waited for the impact of their arrival to subside.

Raven murmured during the rumbling, her face round and childlike, in a restless fit of sleep. Sloe placed a hand on her cheek and murmured words of comfort until her breathing slowed again.

He lifted the girl in his arms and brought her inside the tower, cringing at each step taken toward the tower’s upper rooms. His heart pounded; and his breath was labored by the time he reached the top. Slumping forward, he knocked on the door.

“Oh good, you’re back. You probably haven’t eaten since the funeral so I—” Ivory’s face paled; her knuckles whitened at the door’s edge.

“Nick,” she whispered. Her lips pulled back from her teeth. “Nick, come here!”

She opened her arms to take Sloe’s burden from him and carried the girl to a flat, framed piece of furniture topped with pillows. “What happened, Sloe?” she said, checking over the girl’s bruises and brushing matted hair from her forehead.

At Sloe’s pained look, Ivory turned and wrapped his face in her hands. “You’re hurt, too.” She swallowed, gently pulling Sloe to a chair. “And you’re both soaking wet and cold. Nick! Come out here and help me!”

A door opened from the far side of the room. “I don’t see the point of having a separate bath in the loft, love, when there’s never a moment to relax.”

The man who’d spoken stepped into the room, wearing a bathrobe with blue and gray stripes. White hair that was wet and tangled hung past his shoulders. He crossed his arms as he took in the situation. White brows furrowed above eyes of purple ice.

“What happened here, son?”

“R-raven and I went for a walk…someplace new.” Sloe shivered. His attackers, and the scrambled voice of the hooded man, flashed in his mind. He hesitated, knowing he couldn’t reveal the entire story, at least not yet. He didn’t want his parents to be in danger, too. He’d made the promise, for which he was solely responsible; and he was sure stealing the baglamas from the daughter of his parents’ friends would not go over well. “I’m sorry,” he said, finally.

“And may we assume this someplace new was accessed through one of the portals on the tower?” Nick led with his chin.

Sloe nodded.

“Do you know what world it was?”

“No.”

“Ah, but do you remember which portal?”

Sloe kept his eyes fixed on the floor, remembering exactly which portal, and how the sundial had sung to him.

“Well, son, I can’t see how the details of this date would fail to be memorable. Let’s hope your date doesn’t wake with the same form of amnesia you seemingly have right now.”

“Nick,” Ivory spat. “Can’t you see they’re hurt? Sloe’s possibly in shock. Stop talking nonsense, and go find dry clothes for both of them.” She gestured toward the girl. “We can’t send her back to Aboreal like this!”

“Yes, of course, love.” He looked down at his robe and shook his head before heading downstairs. “Son, come with me.”

Ivory frowned. “Nick…”

When his father didn’t answer, Sloe stood up and followed. His socks and shoes left watery footprints behind him.

Sloe’s foot landed on the bottom floor when Nick turned.

“What were you thinking, son?”

“I wanted to impress her, I guess.”

“And you couldn’t find another way to do that, or a different place to go?” He raised his gangly arms with a measure of disgust and disbelief. “You brought a citizen of Aboreal here to the Clock Tower and whisked her away to somewhere else at random because you feared her disapproval more than mine?”

Sloe’s eyes began to sting as much as his bruises. He blinked rapidly to avoid crying in front of his father.

“I will ask you one more time,” said Nick. “What world did you enter, and through which portal?”

Sloe clenched his teeth and remained silent until forced to suck a phlegmy breath in through his nose.

“Very well.” Nick’s eyes darkened. He pressed the palm of his hand to Sloe’s doorway. The scene of a messy room with posters on the wall wobbled beneath his touch. “I can’t remove your talents, nor would I wish them to be taken from you, but they need to be handled with better discretion, son. Until I’m convinced you can do that, you’re losing certain privileges.”

Nick brought his fingers together and clamped them against his palm. The wobbling surface peeled back from the doorway’s edges and shrank until it disappeared behind his fist, revealing Sloe’s room for what it was. He released a breath and entered Sloe’s perfectly kept room.

A tear rolled down Sloe’s cheek at the loss of his door, his custom portal, his privacy. He wanted to shout, why are you doing this? But he already knew the answer, and some part of him agreed with the punishment, a light one considering he’d risked Raven’s life.

Sloe wiped his face with a sleeve that was already damp and followed his father, who was rifling through one of the Aborealian trunks.

“This should do.” A pile of blankets and some of Sloe’s older shirts and pants—things he’d kept but no longer fit him—filled Nick’s arms. “Change into dry clothing and come back upstairs,” he said as he left the room.

Before peeling off his wet clothes, Sloe hung a sheet across the exposed doorway, which was all he’d had before his father had gifted him the bedroom portal.

***

Sloe stood in the doorway to the upper rooms, feeling both better and worse about what had happened.

Raven was propped up on the furniture with pillows. The sleeves of the shirt she’d borrowed was rolled back to her elbows, revealing a series of bloody gashes along her skin. She cradled a mug in her hands and sipped at its contents.

“That’s right, my sweet,” said Ivory. “You keep drinking that broth. It took me several Aborealian years to get that recipe from a stubborn old mule.”

A tiny smile played across Raven’s lips. “It’s good,” she said. The side of her lip was bandaged, too, as well as most of her forehead.

Ivory stuck her finger in a jar and scooped out a glob of blue-green goo. “Though, this stuff was more painful to collect.”

Sloe watched, breathless, as Ivory dabbed the gooey substance across Raven’s arms. He slipped inside the room and sat next to her.

Raven’s lips pulled back in disgust before morphing into a relaxed smile. She set down the broth and stretched her arms out in front of her.

The red cuts slowly melted away.

Blinking, Raven smoothed away some of the blue-green goo. The skin underneath was smooth and free of blemish. “That’s…unbelievable. Where’d you get it?”

“Behind the Fire Falls.” Ivory acknowledged Sloe’s presence with a glance and shuddered, perhaps a bit too dramatically for his benefit. “Like I said, painful.”

Raven’s lips circled in astonishment. “You mean, The Fire Falls? The curtain of pouring fire the healer, Basileios Plaka, ran through and was trapped behind for so long?”

Ivory smirked. “You’ve heard that story already? Fun. Well, I happened to be part of the team that helped find him and bring him back to the other side of the falls.” She frowned. “It’s too bad he’s gone, but I guess all the healing balm in the worlds couldn’t prevent that—even this stuff I went back and collected from the balm layer behind the falls.”

She coughed and caught Sloe’s eye. “Anyway, I suppose you could use some of this, too.”

Sloe held out his arms and tilted his face up as Ivory applied globs of blue-green goo. A chill wrapped the skin where it touched, soothing and calming cuts and bruises. He sighed as the pain dulled, then blinked at dark eyes that were locked with his.

“That must have been some chat with your father,” Ivory said. “He hasn’t left his bath since dropping off clothes for Raven. He’s still in there, probably turned into a prune by now.”

“Sorry,” whispered Sloe. “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.”

Ivory clucked her tongue. “No one usually does. Cheer up, kid. After this healing gunk works its magic, you can port Raven home. I’ve been drying her clothes by the oven, and once she’s suited up, it will be like none of this ever happened.”

Sloe stared at the floor and tried not to spit out something sarcastic. Mom has no idea. My problems have only begun.

Raven, however, smiled. “Thank you so much.”

“No problem, my sweet. So, um,” Ivory continued, narrowing her eyes. “What did all this anyway? The cuts and bruises, not to mention the soaked clothes. What’d you do—get into a fight with a water dragon?”

Sloe exchanged a glance with Raven and exhaled. “We were attacked by something. Raven passed out, and I carried her to the world’s exit portal, which happed to be on top of a rock in the middle of a river.”

Ivory frowned. “Okay,” she said, slowly. “Do you know what it was that attacked you?”

Sloe squirmed beneath the glare of his mother’s black, onyx eyes, but he tried not to let it show. He hoped whatever nervousness that escaped through would be mistaken for being shaken up by everything that had happened.

“Beings bigger than we were,” he said, finally.

“So, there were more than one?”

He swallowed. “Two.”

Ivory sucked in a breath. She turned to Raven who sat with her fingers clasped tightly around the edge of the pillow beneath her.

“I’m sorry,” whispered Ivory. “We can talk about this later, when the fear isn’t as fresh. Are you going to be okay?”

Raven nodded. “You helped a lot. Thanks again, but if I don’t get home soon, my parents will be worried about me, and there will be more questions.”

“Of course.” Ivory stood up and grabbed the clothing that hung by the oven. “Here, take your clothes and change in that room,” she said, pointing. “That’s the bedroom Nick built when I’d had enough of this loft being a giant multi-purpose room. Sloe will take you home when you’re dressed.”

“Thanks, Mom,” said Sloe as he waited.

Ivory draped an arm around him and gave him a light squeeze. “No problem, kid.”

He stared at the floor until Raven returned from his parents’ bedroom. Her clothes had a couple of leaves stuck to them, but she was smiling, and her hoodie and matching pants were dry. She’d smoothed her hair back into the dark, shining loop atop her head. But there was less of a sparkle there; something was missing.

“You lost your comb,” said Sloe, frowning.

“That’s okay. It wasn’t expensive.” Raven shot him a sharp look. “And don’t say you’re sorry. It’s not your fault.”

He exhaled a slow, unsmiling breath, and shook his head. “Let’s get you home.”

Ivory followed them down stairs and lingered in the Clock Tower’s front door. “Sloe, when you get back, come upstairs. You should eat something before going to bed,” she said.

“Okay, Mom.” He stood with Raven, waiting, not budging until Ivory closed the door with a firm thud.

His shoulders slumped forward as he and Raven climbed the exterior of the tower. He paused before the hourglass with the black and white sand. He held out a hand. The hourglass began to glow.

“Why didn’t you tell your mother the truth, the full version, about the men who wanted to steal the baglamas?”

“To protect you. If your parents—or mine—find out what really happened, they won’t let us go anywhere. And if I don’t get that baglamas those men are going to…” He swallowed.

She placed her hand in his. “Then I’ll help you get it. I was the one who chose the portal to that world. You can’t take the blame for this.”

Sloe frowned. He offered no response as he stepped through the portal to Aboreal, pulling Raven along with him.

When they arrived, Sloe silently thanked his mother for having used the healing balm and handling the situation with Raven’s clothes. Despite the leaves and the missing comb, Raven looked well. He had trouble not staring at her face and thinking about how beautiful it was beneath Aboreal’s sky.

It was neither night nor day—Aboreal didn’t orbit a sun and so days and work activities weren’t measured, with one exception. Like the purpose of Chascadia’s water clock or clepsydra, Aboreal’s hourglass, or more accurately sand glass, was used to capture a short measurement of time, a device used for fairness in terms of length of speeches and taking turns during a game. Oddly enough, the Aborealians related time to recreation; to them, time was something to play with.

“Sloe,” said Raven softly.

He stared at the house in front of him, surprised he was there already, at Raven’s home, and would need to say goodbye. He shifted from one foot to the other. It was possible this good-bye would need to last a long time. Once Mom gets over her initial freak out, she’s going to be on me about being responsible—just like Dad.

Sloe reached out and rested a shoulder on Raven’s arm. “It was good seeing you. I’m sorry about everything. I’ll find—” He looked around and lowered his voice. “I’ll find the baglamas and give it to the men. I’ll go to Silvie’s world tomorrow. Stay safe, and I’ll visit when I know everything’s okay.”

Raven glanced down at his hand and frowned. She wriggled closer so his arm went around her, then brought her lips to his ear. “I may not be able to pass through portals, but I’m not useless. Please, let me help.”

The back of his neck shivered. “I can’t.”

She pulled away and snorted. “Really, Sloe? You’re going to be my hero now?”

“That’s not what I meant. You know as well as I do that we put more than ourselves in danger anytime we port back and forth between Aboreal and the Clock Tower, let alone getting mixed up in new worlds.”

Raven studied his face. Her expression softened. “You’re worried about your family—your father?”

Sloe dipped his chin.

She squeezed him. “Okay. I still don’t think you should be doing this alone, but promise to let me know how it’s going.”

“I promise.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 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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