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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 14

Deep in the forest, two men crouched over the crackle of fire. The pale light of the flames highlighted hands lined with scars. The unhooded man pulled his hands back and sat on his heels.

He turned to his companion.

“How long do we wait?”

“It won’t be long. If we hide, he’ll find us. It will only make matters worse.”

The hooded man grunted. He stared in the direction of the world’s entrance portal. Instead of sitting on his heels, he squatted, ready to pounce. His hand rested on the hilt of a weapon hidden beneath his cloak.

A hand, followed by a pair of arms, and a body emerged from the portal.

The man in the tunic smiled broadly.

“Do you have it?” he called out as he worked his way to the fire. Slowly. He tugged at the tunic that tugged at his steps.

The cloaked men stood from the ground. The unhooded man’s lips remained silent in a face as cold and hard as stone. His companion did not move.

Sharp eyes glittered through slits in their visitor’s mask. “Well, where is it? Where is the baglamas?”

“We will have it soon,” said the hooded man. “It’s not in our possession, but we have found someone who will retrieve it.”

The man in the tunic squeezed his chin before responding with a roar of laughter. “We have found someone who will retrieve it,” echoed the man in the tunic, his voice mimicking the blood curdling pitch of the hooded man’s voice. “That,” he said sharply, “is what I have asked you to do. You were to retrieve the baglamas and bring it to me.”

He turned from the fire. The rear of his tunic shook violently.

The heads of the cloaked men turned toward one another, snapping back in position when the body of their unwelcome visitor stilled.

The man in the tunic inhaled deeply and turned to the cloaked men. The pallor of the fire reached his face, highlighting the redness there. It was not clear whether the sudden flush came about through anger or glee. Or, perhaps, a little of both.

He scratched his head. “So, let me get this straight. You asked someone to go and get the baglamas for you, and they’re going to do that and bring it to you?”

“It was an order accompanied by a threat,” said the hooded man.

“Ah, good!” The man in the tunic clapped his hands. “It seems you’re finally learning something.” He glanced at the ground as if considering how he would seat himself by the fire. “That boulder over there,” he said, pointing. “Bring it here, and place it in front of the fire. I’d like to hear more about your plan, and who it is that will retrieve the baglamas.”

The hooded man grunted. He pulled the boulder from the earth. Soil and vine clung to it as he carried it to the fire and dropped it before the man in the tunic.

The man in the tunic bent forward and brushed off the top of the boulder before easing backward into a semi-seated position.

“Go on, tell me,” he said with a wave of his hands.

The unhooded man crossed his arms. “We found a Time Keeper.”

The mouth of the man in the tunic dropped open. “One who reads and unlocks portals?”

“Yes. He arrived here with a girl. We captured both of them and threatened the girl’s life if he did not agree to find the baglamas.”

More clapping came from the man in the tunic. He squinted up at the cloaked men. “Does he—the Time Keeper—know where it is?”

“He has seen the instrument. He attended the Healer’s funeral. We overheard him talking about it. He has a lead, and if he knows what’s good for him, he is currently looking for it.”

“Why didn’t you ask him where he thought it could be? It could have shortened the process, and then you could have gone and looked for it yourselves.”

“We couldn’t be certain that he wouldn’t warn whomever he was going to take it from. It would have been necessary to threaten the girl’s life either way. And if he was a guest at the funeral, he has an insider’s advantage.”

“You know very well we can’t leave here for long periods of time,” added his companion.

The man in the tunic nodded. He grinned widely. “And where is the girl?”

“She was of no use to us. She has no travel talents, so we let her return with the Time Keeper in exchange for his promise.”

“In other words, you let both of them escape. You fools!”

“But he cares for the girl,” gargled the hooded man. “If he doesn’t deliver the baglamas soon, we will catch her. We could use a portal trap. The Time Keeper may not be fooled, but she will be.”

His companion grinned. “Especially if we make it nice and sparkly.”

“She has no travel talents. She will want to impress the boy—to be like him.”

The man in the tunic sat still with his hands clasped at this lap. “To impress him.” He smiled. “And if that doesn’t work?”

“Then we find the girl and bring her here.”

“No.”

The hooded man made a choking sound before speaking. “Why not?”

“I don’t trust you to keep her here. If and when she arrives, whether by portal trap or brute force, you will bring her to me.”

“She is not part of the deal.”

“Oh, but you see,” said the man in the tunic. He pulled at the lower half of his garments as he struggled to bend and stand. “You have made her part of the deal. By bringing her and the boy into my problem, my secrets—”

“Your secrets?”

“I had no intention of making my desire for the baglamas known to anyone except to you, whom I’ve arranged to help me with this task.” The clenching and unclenching of his jaw made small crunching and popping sounds. “And now there are two others who know about this. I ask you again: what were you thinking?”

“We didn’t tell them about you. For all they know, we want the baglamas.”

The man in the tunic chuckled. “Is that what’s happening here? Are you planning to betray me by keeping the instrument for yourselves?”

“No,” growled the hooded man. He towered over the man in the tunic, with his face so close that his hood grazed the smaller man’s brow. “We agreed that we will give you the baglamas, and then you will set us free. Your terms, not ours. Trying to confuse us won’t work.”

The man in the tunic stepped backward. His lips formed an indignant smile. “Be sure to keep your end of the bargain.” He scanned the dark woods, stretching his neck toward the river that flowed through it, and smiled more graciously. “Because if you don’t, you will be tied to this world, to this wasteland in time and space, for always.”

The crunch of bone chomping bone or teeth gnashing teeth could be heard from beneath the hooded man’s cowl. He cracked the knuckles along his hands. “Enough of your talk and your reminders. If you’re finished here, let us be. We’ll contact you when we have the baglamas.”

“Strong words for someone with less power than he thinks. But I sense I’m not welcome here. I will leave for now. Don’t keep me waiting.”

The man in the tunic clasped his hands and shot a simpering grin in the direction of the river. “Have you been able to open that portal?” he said. “The one atop the island of stone?”

The hooded man grunted. “No. We’ve tried. It’s locked, and we’re unsure where it leads.”

“That’s too bad,” he said with a wicked grin. He looked down at his tunic and then wistfully toward the river. “On the other hand, had you been able to leave this place through that portal, the pain would get to you, eventually. I’d try it myself, of course, but I have other means…”

The cloaked man who wore no hood snorted, his gaze fixed on the cumbersome tunic. “I’d like to see you try to navigate the river and climb the rock.”

“Enough,” said the man in the tunic. “I’m overstaying my welcome. You must be delirious with sleep. You no longer make sense.”

He turned and walked back to the portal he’d entered, only instead of stepping through the way he came, he walked to the space behind it, and turned his back toward the portal. Then, with small steps, he walked backwards until he disappeared.

“It’s a good thing he left,” growled the hooded man, cracking his knuckles again. “I grow tired of him more quickly each time we meet.”

“Agreed, though it would have been worth it to see him try to get to the portal on the rock.” He chuckled darkly.

“To see him smack his face on the water?”

“Exactly.”

“Then to see him curse at not being able to open it.” The hooded man lazily threw more wood on the fire. Warmth and light spread, throwing shadows across him and his companion.

“And what if he could? What if the portal opened for him—what would that mean?”

“That he’s a talent like none seen before.”

The man who wore no hood stretched forward and rubbed his hands over the revived blaze. “It is frustrating that we can build portals and travel through those we build. But we cannot unlock this one. If he’s right—that temporary separation from this world will cause us pain—it would be worth seeing where it goes. Even if we got lost.”

The hooded man grunted. “That’s the only reason keeping me from destroying the portal on the rock. I’ve seen others like it, in other worlds. It’s as if each entrance portal has a companion portal that cannot be unlocked by anyone but a Time Keeper.”

“What do you mean?”

“The entrance portal here can be accessed because it is not locked on this side. But its companion portal, and others similar to the portal on the rock, are always locked.”

The man who wore no hood cleared the grit from his throat and sat back on a log. He stared at the portal, thoughtfully. “If the boy, the Time Keeper, was able to take the girl through, then he could port us, too.”

“I have no doubt of that. In fact, I’ve already considered it. But first, we must collect the baglamas.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 15, to be posted May 16. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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 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. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 5 Healer

Footsteps clapped in my direction, and the door swung open. My shoulders tightened, and my face flushed out of empathy for the man, Mr. Calcott. I knew what it was like to be close to a brother, or in his case, sister. Though, I suspected he hadn’t intended his conversation with Father to be overheard.

My lips tensed into a guilty smile.

Father frowned. “Mr. Calcott, this is my daughter, Silvie.”

The man’s lips twitched as he stared at me. I braced myself for words of anger, directed at me for eavesdropping. But, instead, the man knelt down before me.

“Silvie Hall,” he said.

My heart lurched at the rasp in his voice. He sounded like he was about to cry.

He lifted his arms in the air, as if he were going to circle them around my knees, but then dropped them and clasped his hands together.

“Please, please, Miss Hall. I am a Chascadian man, like your grandfather was. I was there for his funeral. I saw you with the baglamas.” His dark curly hair touched the floor and muffled his words as he bent lower and pressed his hands to my feet.

My mouth opened and closed. What kind of person would I have to be not to feel bad for this man? The pain in his heart had torn it in two ragged pieces.

“You are a Remnant Transporter, the only one,” he continued in his thick Chascadian accent. “If what your father says is true, then you can help me. You can find my sister and begin her healing.”

I sucked in a breath. I’d accepted what would become my vocation years ago, but I couldn’t believe it was happening so soon.

“Enough,” roared Father. “Sylvie is only sixteen under our timeline, a child. I will not have this responsibility forced upon her.”

The man sat back on his heels and tilted his head. “Is that so, Mister Hall? Or is it that you are afraid to lose her as well?”

Father’s lips curled into a scowl.

My head snapped back and forth between the two men. I wanted to say something, but the onslaught of emotions that tugged at my heart also juggled the words in my brain.

“I’ll see you out, Mr. Calcott,” Father said. His sudden slackness of jaw made his expression alarmingly calm. But the fury in his eyes was undeniable. He pulled Mr. Calcott to his feet and, after a long look at me, he dragged the man through the hallway.

“Remember me, Miss Hall!” called out the man, pressing his hands to his chest. “I beg you—do not forget Chascadia.”

My fingers shook so violently that I almost dropped the plates of cake before he and Father disappeared around the bend in the hallway. My breath came and went in gasps. I left one of the slices of vanilla cinnamon cake on Father’s desk, next to a folder of papers and an instrument that looked like a tiny telescope.

Mother smiled at me from the corner of his desk. I brushed dust from a metal frame that was as cold as it was dusty. This photograph of Mother was from the same year as the photograph of her I kept in the bathroom, one of many Father had taken after they married.

“What do I do?” I whispered.

The cowardice in me wanted to hide behind Father’s explanation that I was too young to undertake the mission Mr. Calcott requested. Mother would have left immediately—as soon as she’d gathered enough information for her search; and the hospital would have a new resident when she returned.

These thoughts followed me as I moved on to Madeline’s room. White hallways streaked past me as ghosts of the man’s voice echoed in my ears—the struggle and desperation in his plea for help. I hadn’t even asked for his sister’s name, and I knew Father wouldn’t tell me.

I stopped at a door lined in chains. Tiny bell-shaped charms dangled from delicate metal links. None of the doors had interior locks, but the residents didn’t seem to mind. What bothered them more was being alone, isolated behind closed doors, which is why many of the residents left their doors cracked open during the day.

The door to Madeline’s room was closed.

“Madeline,” I called out with a quick rap at the door. The bells jingled and rang cheerful, high-pitched notes. “Are you in here?”

I hesitated, uncomfortable with opening doors on people, invading their privacy. But also concerned for their safety. Without looking inside, I opened the door a crack, causing the bells to sway and jingle. I enjoyed the music they created almost as much as I appreciated their announcement to Madeline that someone was opening her door.

“Madeline?”

“Come in.”

I exhaled a breath and swung the door open.

Madeline sat at the foot of her bed with her legs crossed. Her carrot-colored hair was braided and hung down her back. Edges of bone from her thin frame stabbed at the fabric of her sleeping gown. She faced a screen mounted on the wall.

“Were you watching something?” I said, following her gaze.

“Yes,” she said mildly.

“Has it ended?”

She shook her head.

I frowned and walked up to the screen. It was dark and blank. I pressed a fingertip to the glass. It was cold, as if it hadn’t been powered on recently. When I turned around to face her, gray eyes that were slightly out of focus were looking past me.

“What were you watching, Madeline?”

“A memory.”

“A memory? Then why were you looking at the screen?”

“The pictures in my head are clearer when I pretend I’m watching some else’s life projected on a screen.”

My mouth dropped open. This was the most Madeline had hinted at her travel talent, at least to me.

When my lips closed again they stretched into a wide grin. “You’re playing back your recordings?”

Madeline blinked, then nodded. She patted her fists to her head. “I’m trying to remember. It’s in here somewhere.”

“What are you trying to remember?”

She turned and looked into my eyes. Then, as if acknowledging my presence for the first time, she smiled.

Her head tilted to the side as she took in the open door behind me.

I whispered another apology and swallowed. “Madeline, do you have the Detail Technician talent?”

She smoothed her fingers along her braid and stared at me with an intense focus. Her eyes roved from my face to my hands where I still held the slice of cake.

“Yes.” Her breath was quick, her words almost a whisper. “I see pictures, and I know there are more. But I can’t find them.”

I pressed a hand to her shoulder, grimacing at how her bones stuck out from beneath muscle and skin. But my heart thudded against the insides of my chest. Detail Technicians were able to record what they saw and heard by burning sounds and images into their minds where they would remain, stored, for long periods of time. When needed, travelers with this talent could retrieve the sights and sounds and play them back in perfect detail. Learning the talents of the recovering Lost when they were well enough to communicate them to me was one of the best parts of my job.

“It’s okay, Madeline,” I said. “You don’t have to find the pictures right now. You’re here with us, at the hospital, and you’re safe.”

I set aside my curiosity and focused on calming Madeline’s agitation. As much as I wanted to know more about what pictures she wanted to retrieve from her memory, those questions would need to wait. I wondered whether Javis already knew the answers, given how much time they spent together.

“Thank you,” she said, her breath slowing as she relaxed.

I smiled at how her eyes never left the slice of cake. “I brought you breakfast,” I said, pulling my hand away from her shoulder. I offered the plate and a plastic fork.

Her eyes brightened. She brought the cake to her nose and inhaled deeply.

“Javis made it,” I said.

Madeline’s cheeks pinked and her lips quirked into a grin. “For me?”

My shoulders tensed. I took a deep, calming breath, hoping Madeline hadn’t noticed. The recovering Lost were emotionally impressionable, and so those of us who worked at the hospital had to be as calm as possible at all times, which meant making great efforts to keep our own feelings in check.

But how could I tell Madeline that Javis hadn’t been thinking of her when he made the cake? That he’d baked it for me?

The pink in her cheeks gave her a healthy glow, and I liked seeing her feel better. I didn’t want to ruin that.

She looked up at me with concern in her large, gray eyes, still expecting an answer.

“He made it for both of us,” I said while trying to make my smile convincing. “Javis baked the cake for my birthday, but I’m sure he knew I’d share it,” I muttered quickly. I had mentioned to him that Madeline would love a slice, and he didn’t deny it.

She dug the fork into the slice and took a dainty bite. Her eyes widened. “I know these flavors. Vanilla—” She took another, larger bite.

Her brow, red with strands of copper and gold, pinched into a sharpened arch above her left eyelid. “And cinnamon?”

“That’s right,” I said, my voice suddenly sounding far away. “Is there anything else I can get you? Maybe a glass of milk?”

Madeline shook her head. She took one more bite before uncurling her legs from beneath her and carrying the plate to her desk. She opened the bottom desk drawer, which held a small refrigerator and placed the cake inside.

“Are you full? Already?” I grimaced. It was no wonder she was so thin. I would have brought her a few more slices if I knew she’d eat them.

“I want to save some for later, for Javis.”

“For Javis?”

She bobbed her head. Her eyes crinkled at the edges. “If Javis baked the cake for you and me, then he was not thinking of himself. Which means he didn’t get any.”

The skin of my cheeks slackened as I felt them grow warm. I’d been so concerned about myself and getting to the hospital that I never offered Javis a slice. The perception and ability for empathy—the reasoning, even—of the Lost travelers never failed to amaze me. All this from a girl who, moments ago, was staring at a blank screen trying to remember.

I pressed my lips together, taking in short breaths through my nose as I calmed myself—not for anything Madeline had done wrong, but to soothe my embarrassment for what she’d pointed out that was right.

“Javis would love that,” I said, finally. “I need to go—to make my rounds. But if I see him, I’ll let him know to come visit you.”

“Thank you, Silvie.” She wandered back to the foot of her bed and resumed her sitting position.

“Oh, wait,” I said, eyeing her sleeping gown. “Before Javis visits, you may want to get dressed for the day. Is it okay if I close the door so you can do that?”

If I hadn’t been paying careful attention to her reaction, I wouldn’t have noticed the slightest of nods, given before she directed her attention back to the screen.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 6. >>>

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