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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 26

Darker Stars Beta CoverSparks of purple and blue crackled through the tunnel of time and space.

The cloaked man held on to the ankle of his companion.

“The curse must be stronger now, our time shorter.”

“Yannan must be desperate to get his hands on the instrument.”

Struggling against the current of wind and flash of electricity, the hooded man pulled his cowl more tightly over his face.

“We must work faster.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 27, to be posted June 27. Yes, I’m totally serious. 😉 That was it for Chapter 26. Right now, it’s the shortest chapter in the book.

New to the story? Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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

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

Download on Audible

Download on Amazon

Download on iTunes

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

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 23 Discord

Darker Stars Beta CoverFootsteps jolted me awake.

I bolted to a sitting position and stretched against the cramping in my back and neck.

My eyes focused on a face grinning down at me, through the bars of my cell. The man in the tunic patted Eurig’s head. His smile was upside down from my viewpoint. Drowsily, I goggled for clues as to what made him so pleased with himself.

Pain flashed across my cheeks along with a scowl I couldn’t hold back. Tucked beneath the folds of his opposite sleeve was my baglamas.

“Good morning, children,” he said, glancing back and forth between my cell and Javis’s. “I was hoping we could get along better today.”

He pulled the instrument from his arm and held it out to me. “I brought entertainment.”

Then, as if he couldn’t get any creepier, he slipped the baglamas through the bars of my cell. His grin widened. “Do you play?”

I cradled the baglamas in my hands and stared at it. I wanted to crush it against my chest, to play music, and to travel…to a place far away from here. I wanted to go home and journey the worlds with Javis and Sloe and Father. And then travel back in time to visit Mother—to tell her about our adventures, to see her smile when she learned how happy we were, even though we missed her and wished she’d been with us during each and every moment.

But I couldn’t.

The man in the tunic looked at me expectantly, the same way I must have appeared to one of the recovering Lost when I couldn’t quite figure out what they were thinking or needed in a given moment.

He curled his fingers around the cell bars. “Play the instrument.”

I continued to hold the baglamas, stupidly, as if I didn’t know what it was, then trailed a finger across its strings. My touch made the strings buzz with a soft, tinkling sound, nothing fancy, but it sounded better than what I’d heard the man in the tunic play. Unfortunately, this made him grin again.

Play ugly music, ugly notes, I thought to myself. After taking into consideration his thick, stubby fingers, I plucked a string with two of mine. The string responded with a tart, sassy plink. Motivated to continue, I set aside everything I’d learned about music—all my training—and threw it out the window. I told my fingers to forget, to be temporary idiots attached to my hands. Then cringed at the resulting chaos.

I might have been better at making the baglamas sound bad than the man in the tunic did. Grandpa Plaka was probably rolling in his grave, or at least pressing his hands to his ears. I could only imagine what Javis was thinking in the next cell over.

“Stop,” said the man in the tunic, clearly convinced I had no idea what I was doing.

That’s when he realized his mistake.

I sat in my cell. He stood on the other side, with the bars between us. And I was left holding the baglamas.

He reach out a hand. “Return the instrument to me.”

I shook my head, and pressed the baglamas to my chest. I was trying to look stubborn, but I wasn’t sure he understood. So, I started playing again, this time as if I were truly enjoying making all the horrible sounds with the strings.

“I said stop,” he growled.

My fingers paused above the strings.

As much as I wanted to gage Eurig’s reaction, I did my best to avoid looking at her for fear of meeting her glowing eyes. I didn’t want the dog’s words in my head. She probably would have told me to hand over the baglamas, too.

But now that I’d laid my hands on it, I couldn’t give it up. The man in the tunic wasn’t going to get it back without a fight.

I stood up from my seated position and raised my knee. With both hands, I held the baglamas in front of me and pulled it down, quickly, pretending I intended to break it in half.

“No!”

I stopped, with the instrument just barely brushing my kneecap. Despite myself, I smirked. He’d understood my message: If I couldn’t keep the baglamas, then he wasn’t going to get it either. What he didn’t know was that, in my opinion, the worlds would be better off without such a powerful instrument in his hands.

“Come, Eurig. Let’s have her keep it for a while. She’ll eventually grow tired of the toy.”

He turned to the guard. “I’ll send other men, to take the instrument from her and to bring the boy to me. We may have better luck with the boy, alone.”

The guard nodded without taking his eyes off me.

I sniffed at him and retreated to the back corner in the cell, then slipped the travel glasses over my eyes. “Javis,” I whispered.

His face appeared against the all-white background. He said nothing, but his eyebrows were raised.

“The hallway that runs along the cells is long enough for us to gain enough momentum to travel.”

I detected the slightest nod from him. I interpreted his silence to mean his guard was keeping a close watch on him.

Coughing to disguise some of my words, I added, “When our cells are opened, we’ll need to run. But we’ll need to split up. I’ll run to the left with my travel glasses, and you’ll need to go to the right, with yours.”

Javis’s lips tightened; he released a breath. “Okay,” he coughed.

We sat in silence, staring at each other. His face was pinched, reflecting the same tension I was certain he saw in me. Sorry for having dragged him into this mess, I longed to reach out, into our connection through the travel glasses, and calm him.

Instead, I flexed, loosening my ankles and knees, ready to pounce when the cell door opened.

The cloaked men announced their arrival with the clack of boot heels and the rattling of metal, like chains being dragged across the floor. My back and shoulders trembled.

“Ready?” I whispered.

“Yes.”

I closed my eyes and shook the image of Javis from my mind.

Peering up over the glasses, to where I could better see in the dim light, I glared at a cloaked man who was already twisting a key inside the lock. I stretched my neck, searching for the man in the tunic, but he and Eurig were not there.

Another man passed by my cell; with him, the grating of metal intensified. My gaze lowered to his shoes. One of his ankles was cuffed. A chain of iron spheres and bells that didn’t ring dangled from the cuff and scratched along the floor.

I noticed a similar cuff attached to the man who’d unlocked my door and was walking toward me. Even the guards are prisoners here, I worried. Then smiled. The cuff added a limp to the man’s gait that slowed him down almost as much as the man in the tunic.

I squeezed the baglamas to me and focused on home, on Edgar, opening a search using the travel glasses. The baglamas would have taken too long to ready for travel. I also didn’t want the guards to know how it worked.

The guard sneered and reached for me. I dodged his arm and twisted past him to where I could see the metal tails of his ankle cuff. I gave the chains a sharp kick. Pain pulsed through my foot as he wobbled and spun around. His lips opened as the realization set in as to what I’d done.

He was off balance. I didn’t wait to see whether he would topple over.

I burst through the cell door. Tensing at the crashing thud behind me, I caught a glimpse of Javis running down the other side of the hallway.

I set my jaw against the pain and sprinted in the opposite direction.

***

Tears stung my eyes when the bright light faded. I coughed a lungful of air. I’d been breathing so hard the flowers’ fragrance had overwhelmed me.

“Javis?” I wheezed.

“Over here.”

I steadied my palms and grounded without looking up. I breathed evenly, allowing my heartbeat to slow and throb in sync with the pain in my foot. Javis was with me and the baglamas was safe, for now.

“We’ll need to tell Father,” I said, my voice barely audible over the rumbling. “The man in the tunic will be back for the baglamas. He’ll track us down—he probably already knows where we live.” I swallowed a lump in my throat. “We’ll need to hide it someplace safe.”

Gritting my teeth, I tested my foot’s ability to bear my weight. The pain hit so sharply I couldn’t bite back a groan. I fell to the ground.

“What happened to you?”

“I wasn’t sure I could outrun the guard, even with the cuff,” I said. “So I kicked his chain.”

Javis shook his head and snorted. With both hands, he pulled me up and slung my arm over his shoulders.

“Thanks. The chain was heavier…and harder…than I thought it would be.” I rolled my eyes as I tried to explain myself.

“Running on the injured foot probably didn’t help,” he said. “Let’s get you to the hospital. We can talk to Father about the baglamas while we find out whether you broke anything.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 24, to be posted June 17. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 21 Capture

Darker Stars Beta CoverWe grounded to the soothing fragrance of flowers. It would have been difficult not to, seeing as our arms, legs, and faces were buried in them.

“What was that?” Javis was wild-eyed as he brushed pollen from the legs of his pants.

“I don’t know, but we have to go back. Let’s give it a day or two,” I said, pacing. “I need to think this through.”

“A day or two? I don’t trust that man, and we have no idea what type of time scheme his world has.”

“Okay, fine. We’ll go back tomorrow, the same time we left today, if possible. That will give us some idea of the day cycle there; and if it’s around the same time when we get there, we may get to see him outside again. Maybe one of us can distract him long enough to leave behind the baglamas, and the other can grab it. Then we can both transport home using our own pairs of travel glasses.”

“That plan makes more sense than anything else I’ve seen today.” Javis tapped at his head with a fist. “Or heard. How do we get past the dog?”

“You heard it, too? The voice telling us to leave?”

His scowl was replaced with an expression that reeked of I told you so. “That man was talking to the dog, responding to her whimpers and the words she put inside his head. I knew it!”

I huffed, leaving him standing there, ankle-deep in flowers, as I stepped up onto the path. He followed me, mumbling about how smart he was or something. I didn’t know because I’d stopped paying attention.

There was a group of people standing in front of the hospital. I pushed through to find two of the recovering Lost, with tears streaming down their faces, pounding at the door.

I pulled the nearest recovering Lost, a girl named Maya, into my arm as I rifled through my pockets for my key. She yelped when she recognized me, and then fell into a fit of loud, wet sobs.

“What happened?”

“He pushed us out. He—he said we should wait until you return.”

The lock clicked when I turned the key. I held the door open. Javis caught up to me once everyone had scrambled inside.

“Who said that, Maya? Who can’t deal with you anymore?”

“Valcas, I mean…Mr. Hall.”

The spaces behind my eyes burned with the information. How could he?

I placed my hands on the girl’s shoulders and held her out at arms-length. “Explain.”

“Curt and I had scheduled visitors…”

I nodded, acknowledging that the visitors must be the other people who’d been standing outside with the recovering Lost.

“You and Javis weren’t here, so we went to Mr. Hall’s office to check in our visitors. He sent us outside and told us to wait for you.”

Javis and I exchanged a glance.

“But afterwards, I remembered I left my sketchpad in my room, and I wanted to show my drawings to my brother. I tried to go back in to get it.” Her lower lip quivered. “But the door was locked.”

With the baglamas momentarily forgotten, I stormed through the hallway, with Javis at my heels. Father’s door was closed. I peppered the door with loud, angry knocks.

“Come in,” he called from inside the room.

I threw open the door and placed a hand on my hip. “Why did you send two of the recovering Lost and their visitors outside?”

He didn’t bother looking up from his papers. “I was busy, and it is a beautiful day. The flowers and suns help your mood, Silvie. Why shouldn’t they help theirs too?”

I hadn’t expected such a reasonable answer. He didn’t seem upset at all. If anything, he was eerily calm, and his words disarmed me. I dropped my hand from my hip and looked to Javis for help.

“After everyone went outside, one of the recovering Lost tried to get back inside, but she couldn’t.” Javis worked his jaw, as if he wasn’t sure how to raise such a serious accusation against Father. “The door was locked.”

Father looked up from his papers, finally, and gave Javis his full attention. “What do you mean the door was locked?”

“Silvie used her key to let everyone back inside. So, you mean you didn’t do it?”

I winced at Father’s tightly set lips. His eyes were filled with astonishment and pain.

“Of course not,” he said.

“Oh,” Javis said, his voice weak. I would have to thank him for putting himself out there, later. “Then that means…”

Father sat back in his chair and squeezed the bridge of his nose. “The hospital’s security has been breached.”

Javis and I checked in on each of the residents while Father initiated a flurry of activity, which involved inspections of both the house and the hospital and the installation of replacement locks on the doors.

When no one suspicious was found on the premises, Father handed me and Javis new keys. I bit my lip, unable to handle the disappointed look he gave us. I couldn’t believe I’d thought Father had locked out the recovering Lost. I’d been so taken back by what we found when we returned to Edgar. Not to mention my state of mind after our attempt to find my baglamas. Still, I was ashamed I’d let these events make me mistrust Father. He’d done nothing to deserve that.

***

Javis and I attempted to retrieve the baglamas the next day, before my morning shift.

I removed the travel glasses from my face to better see our surroundings. I couldn’t decipher any noise over the rumblings that announced our arrival. But by the time we’d finished grounding, a shriek erupted that made my skin crawl and tingle all over.

My gut reaction was to help someone who was in pain.

Javis held me back. “Silvie, no. Remember what the man in the tunic said about no one coming to visit him.”

“I know but—”

“Let’s check it out, carefully. Maybe he’s out for a walk…” He frowned. “In the dark with his creepy dog.”

“Then why would he be screaming?”

My question was answered a moment later when Javis and I stumbled upon the man and his dog. We’d been circling backwards, staying covered behind trees and looking through them, instead of behind us. When we backed up, something caught my foot and I flew backwards, landing on my butt.

The shrieking started again, only now it was right in front of me.

Javis ran to my side and pulled me up and away from the man in the tunic who was lying on his back. He rocked back and forth and pushed at the ground with his arms, struggling to get up. His feet wobbled up and down in front of him, without bending at the knees.

Eurig, his dog, sat at his side. She turned to Javis and me, catching both of us with her glowing eyes, and whimpered.

Your earthquake made him fall. You should not have returned.

She broke eye contact with us more quickly than she had during our last visit. As soon as I regained my wits, I pulled Javis out to an open space where we could run.

“Our earthquake?” I mumbled. “She must mean the impact of our arrival.”

“Yup, let’s bail. We’ll come back at a better time, if such a thing exists.”

“Call for help, Eurig!” the man yelled. “Make sure someone catches them!”

I shuddered at the wolfish howl that followed, a deep grow that swelled an octave higher before scooping back down again.

“Okay, here,” I said, indicating the open space before us with plenty of room to gain momentum for travel.

I slipped on the travel glasses and squeezed Javis’s hand.

We made it three steps before a half dozen men wearing tunics closed in on us and pulled us to the ground. I clawed at them with my fingernails, kicking at them as they tied my hands behind my back. Pain flashed behind my eyes. They’d nearly dislocated my shoulders in the process.

Three of the men dragged me and three dragged Javis through the gate and into the house. Without the brightness of the world’s moon, it took me a moment to adjust to the lack of light inside the house. Flames from torches flickered along the walls, mingling with the light from above—chandeliers filled with lit candles.

The men said nothing to us the entire time, even when they dropped us on the floor in front of a chaise lounge. I wriggled my shoulders to relieve the stiffness that had set in since my hands had been tied. I looked up and scowled. The man in the tunic lifted his head from a pillow and rolled to his side, resting his weight on a propped up arm.

Eurig sat next to him, curled up in a sleeping position, her eyes closed.

“Thank you, men,” said the man in the tunic. “I have something to say to our visitors, and then you will move them to a cell.”

The men grunted and stepped backward in a single file behind us, blocking the only exit I could find in the room.

I pulled at the binding around my hands, a material that had the silkiness of ribbon and the strength of rope. A cell?

The man in the tunic grinned at us. “My home has experienced unlikely weather conditions as of late. I felt the rumblings of an earthquake yesterday evening. Eurig and I went out for a walk this evening to be nearer, should the phenomenon repeat itself.” He grinned widely, showing us his full set of teeth. “And sure enough, it did.”

I bit my lip, frantically trying to figure how to get out of there. He hadn’t asked us a question, and I had nothing to say to him, so I kept my mouth shut. Javis sat with his legs crossed next to me, shaking.

“How did you arrive here?” the man in the tunic said, his eyes pinning me to the ground.

“We traveled,” I choked out.

A flicker of surprise shone in his eyes. “Using what method?”

Javis shot me a pointed look, but it wasn’t necessary. I had no intention of telling our captor about the travel glasses. Or that I knew anything about the baglamas.

“My men have ways of making you answer, children,” he warned. He shifted his weight back slightly.

I glared at him.

“Surely you two are able to speak. Eurig, we heard them outside when the girl tripped over me, didn’t we?”

The dog opened her eyes and tilted her head toward him. I couldn’t see the moon-glow in her eyes from where I sat when she let out a soft whimper.

“Eurig agrees with me, children. She says you can speak.”

My lips pulled into a frown. I hadn’t heard Eurig say anything. I hadn’t heard her words inside my head. But I had heard her whimper. Did Eurig have to be looking at a specific person, capturing them with her eyes, to be able to drop words in their head?

Javis and I exchanged a worried glance.

“I tire of waiting. Take them away.”

The men along the wall rushed forward, breaking out of their single file like marching band members scattering in different directions. Half of the men surrounded me, while the other half surrounded Javis. I don’t know why so many of them were necessary given our hands were tied behind our backs.

One of the men lifted me up in his arms and slung me over his back, with his companions flanking his sides. The more I kicked, the more he pinned my legs to his chest. But I didn’t yell out. I bit my tongue. The man in the tunic did not deserve my words.

Javis appeared not to be doing much better than I was. He was younger than me, but larger and stronger. Two of the men, both a head taller than him, had grabbed him beneath his armpits and were dragging him so that when he kicked, they lifted him up higher, leaving his legs to flail in the air.

Before we left the room, Eurig’s glowing eyes locked with mine. Her whimper was low and gritty, more of a growl.

I told you to leave. You should not have returned.

The man in the tunic stroked her head. “What’s wrong, my pet?”

She broke her gaze from mine and leaned into his petting before curling back into her sleeping position.

The men dragged Javis and me to separate cells, instead of the one cell the man in the tunic had warned us about.

“We’ll untie you,” one of the men said, his lips close to my ear. “But you should fear no less. We can rewrap your wrist as quickly as we did the last time,” he warned.

I twisted my face in horror at the sound of his voice. It was as if he literally gargled broken glass. I’d heard that expression before and thought I had an idea of what it meant, but now I had a real life audio-visual. His words undulated between low and high-pitched sounds, with the awful texture of sandpaper.

He stepped back and laughed at my reaction. “The punishments here are cruel,” he said, rubbing a hand across his throat. Then he clenched his jaw and sneered, as if he didn’t find the joke funny anymore.

His companion kept his strong grip around me while the man with the garbled voice untied and pulled at my bindings. The third man stood guard near the cell’s door, careful to allow himself and his companions to exit while leaving me trapped inside. The guard stayed behind and pressed his back against the opposite wall.

I shook out my arms and rubbed my wrists as I paced back and forth along the cell floor.

I looked out through the bars of the left front corner of my cell, noticing a man in a tunic who stood watching roughly ten feet away from where my guard stood across the wall in front of me.

I took this to mean that our cells were side by side. But I couldn’t see Javis because of the heavy wall between us. I also guessed his cell had metal bars in front like mine.

My teeth gnashed together.

The men had deprived us of being able to communicate in whispers, gestures, and glances. If we had something to say, we had to speak loudly enough for everyone to hear us, including those men who’d stayed behind and stood guard outside our cells.

I blinked at my guard.

He locked his gaze on me. This turned into a staring contest that continued until I began to feel uncomfortable. I switched to averting my eyes every time he caught me looking at him.

I slipped the travel glasses over my eyes and snickered, knowing the lenses were so dark the guard wouldn’t be able to tell whether I was looking at him or not.

“Silvie?”

I blinked and the guard faded from view, replaced by an all-white background. Javis’s face appeared like a cardboard cutout against it.

“Silvie,” he whispered.

“Excellent idea to call me using your pair of travel glasses,” I said, keeping my voice level at a low murmur.

“You too,” he said. “I was hoping you’d think of this, eventually.”

My lips pressed into a guilty grin. I shrugged. I didn’t want to tell him the real reason I was wearing the travel glasses, and the fewer words the guard overheard the better.

I retreated to the deepest corner of the cell and pressed my back to the wall and rested my cheek on my hand so the guard no longer had a head-on view of my lips moving. I hoped he’d think I was sick of our awkward staring contest. I leaned back slightly in an attempt to look like I was trying to get into a comfortable enough position to fall asleep.

“There isn’t enough room in my cell to gain the momentum needed for travel,” said Javis, his lips barely moving.

I peered up, over the glasses, briefly, to gain a sense of how high the cell was—to judge whether we could gain vertical momentum as opposed to running horizontally. The ceiling was no higher than the track on the upper level gymnasium. Even that wasn’t high enough for me to risk dropping to my death before the travel glasses ported me home.

“It’s not high enough, either,” I said. “Not that there’s anything in here I could use to get up there.”

“So what do we do? How do we get out of here?”

“We’ll have to wait until the doors open. Maybe then we’ll figure something out.”

“But we’ll be outnumbered.”

I cringed. He was right. The man in the tunic had too many of his lackeys on us. There was no use trying to mess with the cell door with our guards staring at us, either.

My guard cleared his throat.

“We should stop now, before they suspect something,” I said.

Javis tilted his head in a barely perceptible nod before letting out a huge yawn.

The skin above my eyes twisted. Oh shoot. My painted on eyebrows were probably smeared off by now. I rubbed my eyes anyway, taking Javis’s hint that we should look like we were falling asleep. He didn’t have to be so obvious, though.

He and the white background faded, leaving my cell feeling darker than before.

I left the travel glasses on my face and closed my eyes.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 22, to be posted June 10. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 20

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

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

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

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

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

Raven groaned.

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

“It’s been taken care of,” he said.

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

He nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the other part?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“What if they can build them, too?”

Raven gulped.

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

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

Sloe shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 18

Darker Stars Beta CoverSloe paced, shivering each time he passed the hole where his bedroom door used to be. His parents were in the upper rooms discussing what had happened and considered him not adult enough to be much help. So, he’d left.

He couldn’t shake the dread he’d felt when his father had wanted him to test the portal—to see where it went. Sloe had never been so grateful for his mother’s interference on his behalf. He almost didn’t care how much of a coward it made him feel.

He was more concerned for Raven. If the hooded man showed up here at the Clock Tower, does that mean he could also visit Raven’s home? Convinced the hooded man’s appearance was a warning, he knew he had to speed up the process. He had to find the baglamas and give it to the cloaked men.

It hadn’t been long since he’d left Silvie’s world of Edgar. Their timelines weren’t as different as the Clock Tower was with other worlds. He needed to go back—as soon as possible.

“If caught,” he murmured, “I’ll say I wanted to see how Javis and Silvie were doing after everything that happened during the hospital tour.” He pressed his lips together tightly. If I’m not caught, then I’ll do some exploring on my own.

With his mind made up, he exited the Clock Tower and climbed to the portal to Edgar.

A quiet calm enveloped him as he slipped through the portal. He stepped over flowers and navigated the path to the Halls’ front door. Building Number One, he thought, smiling. He was sure the baglamas would be kept somewhere in Silvie’s home. And he hoped she, her father, and Javis hadn’t left the hospital.

Sloe knocked on the door. He waited, inwardly reciting the lines intended to explain why he was there.

When no answer came, he twisted the doorknob. He caught his breath when he realized the door wasn’t locked.

His stomach churned with disappointment at himself as his feet crossed the threshold of the Halls’ home. But the hooded man’s warning and concerned for Raven compelled him forward.

He sucked in a breath while attempting to absorb what he found inside the house. The front room was larger than the Clock Tower’s upper rooms put together. There was a sculpture, with a plaque, like dedications he’d seen at museums on other worlds. He considered taking a closer look before giving himself a sharp reminder that he had little time.

Instead of one staircase leading to the next floor, there were two. One led to the left, and the other to the right. He gritted his teeth. This will take forever.

Muttering excuses to himself, he searched the first floor. After ruling out the kitchen, and an adjacent dining room, he found himself standing in a library with a fireplace. The shelves held books and globes. A grand piano sat wedged against a window that was barely visible behind layers of curtains.

Sloe flipped through pages of sheet music, all written for the piano. Glancing around the room, he tried to picture Silvie sitting before the fireplace, strumming the baglamas. He remembered how closely she’d held the instrument to herself at the funeral.

“She wouldn’t play it here,” he whispered aloud. If I had an instrument like that, I’d hang out in my bedroom all day and practice. His eyes widened.

He held his breath as he reentered the front room. His heartbeat pulsed, reminding him of the passing time. One of the Halls could show up at any moment. After snapping his head back and forth between the two staircases, he ascended the stairs to the left.

Sloe swabbed beads of perspiration from his forehead. He kept his steps light as he wandered through the hallway, testing doorknobs as he went.

The first unlocked door creaked open. He flipped a switch along the wall and the room brightened. Squinting, he focused on a stack of shirts, a comb, and a bottle of cologne on top of a dresser. The shirts were dark blue, the same color as Javis’s uniform. I doubt they’d keep the baglamas in here, thought Sloe. He gave the rest of the room little thought before concluding it was Javis’s bedroom and turning off the light switch. The next door opened into a closet with shelves filled with towels and soaps. Next was a bathroom, then a second closet.

Sloe opened a door that led to another bedroom. He flipped a light switch and exhaled. A smile lit his face as he focused on an object that made him lose interest in everything else. On top of a bed, resting against a pillow was a stringed instrument. The baglamas.

He removed his jacket and stuffed the instrument inside, tucking the ends and tying the sleeves into a handle. Despite all the excuses he’d invented to explain his presence there, he didn’t know how to explain why he’d taken the baglamas and hoped no one would ask what was wrapped inside his jacket.

With his heart in his throat, Sloe closed the door to Silvie’s bedroom; he tiptoed down the stairs and out of the house. Outside, the flowers’ scent had faded. He sighed, grateful for a clear path between the house and the exit portal. As quickly as his feet could carry him without crushing petals and leaves, he marched to the exit portal.

He was within three feet of his goal when the ground began to tremble. He sharply released a breath. Someone was coming, or was already there, but not from the hospital or from the house. Another traveler would reach him before he reached the portal with enough time to open it and travel through.

With clenched teeth, Sloe grounded, burying the wrapped baglamas and himself in the flowers.

When he looked up, he saw another figure crouched along the ground, not far from him—someone wearing dark glasses.

“Sorry!” a voice called out a female voice.

Sloe brought himself to his feet at the same time she did, and pressed a hand to his lips.

Silvie had removed the sunglasses from her eyes and was walking toward him, smiling.

He cleared his throat and waved. His foot caught the bundle containing the baglamas, which he attempted to shift to a space further behind him.

Silvie glanced at the space behind him. “Leaving already?”

Sloe felt the heat creeping up his neck and face. “I, um—I wanted to check in on how you and Javis were doing, but you weren’t here,” he lied. “So I figured I’d go home and come back at a later time.”

“You didn’t go in the hospital? It’s right behind you.”

“No, not without you. I knocked at the front door to your house, but nobody answered so I figured I’d try later. I don’t want to bother anyone.”

Silvie smiled brightly. “Not at all! Javis is staying at the hospital overnight. He probably doesn’t need to stay there at all, but Father insists as a precaution.”

“So he’s fine, then?”

She scrunched her nose. “I hope so.”

“Stressful day,” he said with an awkward chuckle.

“Yes.” Silvie blinked, then smiled again. “Well, since you’re here, why don’t you come inside for a snack?”

Sloe winced, searching for an answer.

“I distinctly remember you saying that you came here to check in on me, too, not just Javis.”

“Oh, yeah.” His eyes flickered to the baglamas hidden in the flowers. When Silvie’s smile began to fade, he quickly added, “I can’t stay long, and I’m really not hungry.”

“A quick tour, then? I promise I won’t keep you long. I feel bad about how the earlier tour went, and that you came out here twice today for nothing.”

“Sure, thanks,” he said, caught by his own excuses.

Silvie all but skipped back to the house. “I just came back from traveling, too,” she said, indicating the travel glasses. Sloe wanted to ask why she didn’t use the baglamas, then mentally kicked himself in the head. This was not the time to bring up the instrument he’d nearly gotten away with stealing before her arrival.

He cringed as Silvie slipped a key into the lock, then frowned.

“That’s funny,” she said. “The door’s already opened.”

Sloe attempted to mimic her confusion.

“I was in such a hurry to travel, I must have forgotten to lock the door.” She added in a lower voice, “Please don’t say anything about this to Father. He would not be pleased.”

“Of course.”

Sloe tried to keep himself from suffocating with guilt as he reentered the Halls’ home; but more than that he worried about whether the baglamas would still be near the exit portal to retrieve on his way home. Worse yet, it was wrapped in his jacket—a glaring clue as to who had taken it.

Silvie led Sloe through the entryway and library he’d already seen. He wiped his palms across his dark pants and pretended to admire the room with the fireplace all over again. After he politely declined food a second time, he followed her upstairs.

“Father’s room is farther down the hallway, where the hall dead ends,” she said. “And here is my room.”

Sloe swallowed a lump in his throat. What if she sees the gaping hole on her bed where the baglamas used to be? He attempted to show appreciation, meanwhile trying to find something to talk about—to draw her attention to other things in the room. His gaze fell on the photograph propped on her nightstand.

“Is that your mother?” he said. He instantly regretted it, knowing her mother was no longer living. But as bad as he felt, he hoped it would distract Silvie from seeing what was missing on her bed.

“Yes. That’s who I was visiting before I found you.”

Sloe’s eyes widened.

“Father recently gifted me his pair of travel glasses, and I used them to travel to the past to visit my mother.”

“You traveled to a past version of her? A silhouette?”

Silvie nodded.

He tried not to cringe as she began describing how she’d found her mother’s silhouette in the library. Silvie blinked back tears. “Even though I was away, I really wasn’t that far from here at all…”

That’s where she was while I wandered through her house and stole the baglamas? What am I doing to this family? Silvie’s father rescued me from Aboreal when I first traveled alone. But I’m in too deep. I have to keep my promise to the cloaked men. I’ll need to find some way to make it up to Silvie and the Halls later.

“I, um, Silvie. I really should go.”

“I’m sorry for being depressing.”

He shrugged. “Really, it’s getting late, and my parents didn’t know I left to come back here and—”

“I understand. We can meet up again later.”

The sincerity in her voice cut him like a knife.

“Yeah, sure,” he said, angry with himself that he was lying again, knowing he wouldn’t be able to face her again after today.

Silvie moved to walk him outside.

“No, it’s all right,” he said. “You’ve had a rough day. I can find my way out.” He ignored the crinkling of her nose, unable to breathe again until she stopped at the Halls’ front door and locked it behind him.

When his foot found the baglamas wrapped in his jacket, hidden beneath the flowers, Sloe almost sighed in relief. He slipped his arm through the handle of the bundle and propped it over his shoulder. Then he brought the exit portal to life with his hands and mind.

Moments later, he clung to the Clock Tower. His knee hit hard against a cogwheel, tearing a gash in his pants, when he reached for the sundial portal to make it glow. The air popped and sizzled with purple and blue. He surged forward and pushed through before the impact of his arrival hit and anyone noticed the trembling from the inside of the tower.

The tang of smoke from a campfire reached his nostrils at the same time a high-pitched gurgling reached his ears. He squinted, adjusting to the lack of light.

The hooded man sat laughing. He and his companion were bent over a fire.

“I could taste their terror,” said the hooded man. “I expect the baglamas will arrive soon.”

Sloe sucked in a breath, his veins surging with anger. They were talking about his family, laughing at his fear. He unwrapped the baglamas and pulled on his jacket.

He stalked toward the men, intending each crunch from the ground below him so that their heads turned toward him.

“Here,” he said, thrusting the baglamas forward. “Take it.”

The hooded man gargled laughter as his scarred hands closed around the instrument. He slid a thumb across its strings. “Well done.”

“Now promise you’ll leave us alone.”

“That will require the appropriate confirmation,” said the man who wore no hood.

“What are you talking about?”

“These orders come from powers higher than ours. We will first need to guarantee that this is exactly what we asked for, and that you haven’t given us an imitation, something other than the Healer’s baglamas.”

Sloe’s blood turned to ice in his veins. For the first time he questioned the authenticity of the instrument. Had Silvie had a copy made, just in case someone tried to take the real travel object? His hands shook involuntarily.

“How soon will you know?” he said.

“Soon enough,” said the hooded man. “And if we find out it’s a counterfeit, you and your family can expect another visit from me. Only, this time, I might not be as gracious a guest.”

Sloe clenched and unclenched his hands. “But you’ll let Raven alone.”

“We won’t promise that.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 19. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory and Nick exchanged a glance.

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

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

“What are you getting at, son?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They opened the door.

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

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

“How did you get here, friend?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowly, painfully, Sloe shook his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sloe and Nick drew identical intakes of breath.

“What is it?” whispered Ivory, squinting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory and Sloe looked at each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory scowled. “What does this mean?”

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

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

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

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

He nodded and held up a hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ve locked the portal.”

“But what about the other side, Nick?”

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 17. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 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. >>>

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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. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sloe swallowed, remembering.

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

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

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

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

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

“Me?” Ivory laughed. “Not a chance.”

Sloe frowned.

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

“Why not?” he said, squirming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory’s lips puckered.

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

Sloe nodded.

“What did you see?”

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

Ivory and Nick exchanged a glance.

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

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

“You saw it?”

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

“You felt the portal?”

Sloe bobbed his head up and down.

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

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

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

The boy’s nose scrunched up. “Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory sucked in a breath.

“What is it, love?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

He stumbled forward.

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

“Hello,” he said, waving.

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

“From the tower.”

The boy frowned.

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

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

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

“A what?”

“It’s my travel talent.”

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

Sloe nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?” said Sloe.

“Winter. What’s yours?”

“Sloe.”

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

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

“No, I don’t think so,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s that?” whispered Winter.

He and Sloe frowned at one another.

Sloe shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sloe’s shoulders rounded forward.

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

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

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

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

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

“Can Winter come with us?”

“No. Now, run,” said the man.

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

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

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 13. >>>

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