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.
“Do you know what world it was?”
“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.”