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

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 15 Calling

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

Sloe waved a hand. “Have fun.”

“Yeah,” chuckled Javis. “Fun.”

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

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

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

I blanched at narrowed eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled.

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

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

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

Sloe looked at me, worried and visibly puzzled.

“This is unusual,” I breathed.

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

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

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

As I approached, I reached out with my palm.

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

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

“If it’s not you, then who is it?”

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

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

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

“Javis! What happened?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Help me get him out to the hallway.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Will he be all right?”

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

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

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

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

I sucked in a breath and pressed harder.

Javis shook with my efforts, his eyes still closed.

Then he bolted upward and yelped.

Sloe and I gasped at the same time.

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

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

“What happened?”

He frowned. “I don’t know.”

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

Footsteps sounded from down the hall, earlier than expected.

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

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

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

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

I frowned as she looked down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened here?”

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

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

His jaw tightened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 14

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

He turned to his companion.

“How long do we wait?”

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

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

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

The man in the tunic smiled broadly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

“She is not part of the deal.”

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

“Your secrets?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sloe swallowed, remembering.

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

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

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

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

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

“Me?” Ivory laughed. “Not a chance.”

Sloe frowned.

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

“Why not?” he said, squirming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory’s lips puckered.

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

Sloe nodded.

“What did you see?”

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

Ivory and Nick exchanged a glance.

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

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

“You saw it?”

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

“You felt the portal?”

Sloe bobbed his head up and down.

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

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

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

The boy’s nose scrunched up. “Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ivory sucked in a breath.

“What is it, love?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

He stumbled forward.

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

“Hello,” he said, waving.

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

“From the tower.”

The boy frowned.

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

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

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

“A what?”

“It’s my travel talent.”

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

Sloe nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?” said Sloe.

“Winter. What’s yours?”

“Sloe.”

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

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

“No, I don’t think so,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s that?” whispered Winter.

He and Sloe frowned at one another.

Sloe shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sloe’s shoulders rounded forward.

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

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

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

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

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

“Can Winter come with us?”

“No. Now, run,” said the man.

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

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

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 13, to be posted May 9. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 7 Talents

“Hey, Silvie.”

I spun around. Though the voice had been familiar, it had come from around the corner. “Don’t do that to me,” I said, catching my breath.

Javis laughed. He tilted his head. “You seem tense. What’s wrong?”

“Besides being snuck up on? Nothing,” I promised. I’d buried the mixed emotions from my visit with Madeline for the time being, and was ready to visit with more of the residents.

“Rounds?”

“Yeah. I already stopped by Madeline’s room. I’m making my way around the perimeter, and then I’ll check on anyone in the gymnasium.”

Javis nodded. The gymnasium was located at the center of each of the hospital’s two levels, surrounded by the residents’ rooms and offices. This way, everyone had easy access from its north, south, east, and west entrances. The layout was Mother’s idea, and it was brilliant.

Since Javis wasn’t a Healer, his daily tasks at the hospital were different than mine. But he often followed the course I took on my rounds. He opened a door, disappearing a moment before he rolled out a trash bin. He looked over the bin’s shelf attachment filled with cleaning supplies and tucked a dusting cloth inside his back pocket. His uniform was a darker shade of blue, but like mine, it had a patch on the sleeve, bearing the teardrop emblem of Edgar, a symbol derived from the teardrop moons of Chascadia that represented Mother’s Chascadian heritage.

After knocking on a few doors to rooms whose residents had already gone elsewhere, I paused in front of another bell-spangled door. This one belonged to my favorite resident, Katrina. From what we could tell, she was an Aborealian with the ability to change her language and accent to match wherever and whenever she traveled. The TSTA or Time and Space Travel Agency, called individuals with this talent Babel Decoders. Not only could she blend in better in different times and places, but anyone who traveled with her had the benefit of a translator.

Katrina fussed with her frosty white hair, which was much like Ivory of Aboreal’s, with the same flat and even hue. But her name wasn’t quite right. I suspected she’d either forgotten or changed it because Aborealians, traditionally, had first names that represented either the black or white color of their hair. Perhaps the more obvious giveaway of her heritage was her eye color, a deep pink, making her appear albino at first sight. But as one neared, the luster of her eyes gleamed like two pink sapphires. Aborealians had eye colors that mimicked the colors of gemstones. Pink was one of the least common colors across all known worlds, possibly rarer than the lavender eyes of the guy at Grandpa Plaka’s funeral.

Javis rolled the trash bin into the room and busily got to work emptying Katrina’s wastebasket and making her bed.

“Thank you, Javis,” she said with a small smile playing across her lips. Like most of the younger female residents, she had an obvious interest in my brother. But she had a way of making me feel like I was still present in the room.

“Do you need anything, Katrina? I left a cake in the east kitchen. You’re welcome to have a slice if there’s any left.”

She smiled, causing a dimple to form at the lower left edge of her chin. “That sounds nice, but I already ate breakfast in the south kitchen.”

I toyed with the idea of telling her Javis had made the cake to see if that would change her appetite. Maybe it would help wipe that smirk off Javis’s face, too. He shook back stray curls from his face, slyly checking himself out in the mirror as he fluffed pillows. Um, yeah, maybe not.

I stifled a laugh by focusing on my work. Katrina was visibly calm today, so I completed the routine tasks of recording her blood pressure and temperature. Her test results confirmed she was quite well. But, like most of our residents, recovering from being Lost was less of a physical ailment and something intangible. Advanced Healers who wrote papers I’d studied referred to an individual’s emotional and mental states, and some considered the effects to be spiritual. Grandpa Plaka had agreed to some degree, though he refused to read any paper I put in front of him.

Mother explained that he was too stubborn to change his thinking on the matter; he felt his time was better spent healing and trusting his instincts—a deep and accurate sense of what was helping and what was not, something he and Mother had called Insight. Even though I had some understanding of this type of awareness, by having felt it myself, the test results captured inside books and papers spoke to me. Something about the fixed words, charts, and diagrams made them seem more believable, more official, somehow.

These thoughts carried the image of Madeline staring at a screen, searching for something captured—fixed—inside her mind, a copy of information she’d seen or heard with her own eyes and ears.

“Javis,” I blurted, before we reached the next door, “did you know Madeline was a Detail Technician?”

He smiled. “She might have mentioned it.”

I pressed my fists to my hips and raised my voice so it could be easily heard over the rolling of the trash bin. “That would have been useful information to tell me, you know.”

“I thought you’d figure it out sooner or later. And you did, so what’s the problem?”

“Do you know who or what she’s been searching for?”

“No, but I’m sure that will be something you’ll uncover, eventually.” He shrugged. “It could be an ex-boyfriend for all we know.”

“Interesting thought,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “Though, she’s waiting for you to visit her.”

His eyes bugged out of his head. Sometimes I couldn’t tell whether he truly cared for her or not—whether he was nice for the sake of humoring a sick person or if he was oblivious to her admiration.

He paused to rearrange a couple items on the bin shelf. “What did she say?”

“Not a whole lot, as usual, but she has a surprise for you and is waiting for you to stop by for a visit.”

I grinned as he turned about-face and rolled his bin down the hallway.

***

When Javis caught up with me later in the day, we entered the gymnasium’s west side from the first level. I looked up to the second floor where residents made their way around the track that overlooked the main level. Metal bars filled in with safety glass lined the outside of the track. The goal was for the open layout to have everyone there feel more connected and to be active together.

Some of the recovering Lost walked, some jogged. I waved up to Mrs. Pentlemeyer, a sweet older lady who’d stayed on to help with the cooking. She’d recovered years ago, only to find that her husband, the person she’d been searching for, was no longer living. She loved life on Edgar so much that she wanted to stay. We couldn’t turn her away.

Javis dragged his feet as he walked, a sure sign that something was on his mind.

I broke my gaze from Mrs. Pentlemeyer and tilted my head toward him, then blinked. Javis’s lips were creased in a deep frown. His eyes were fixed on the honeycombed mats covering the floor.

“Uh oh. What happened?” I hoped it didn’t have anything to do with his visit to Madeline. My shoulders tensed while I waited for his response, wondering whether I would need to console a lovesick girl.

“Father’s locked himself up in his office. When I knocked to ask if he needed anything, he grumped at me to keep an eye on you, instead.”

My chest tightened. “He said that?”

“No, but it was obvious that’s what he meant when he said I should be farther along on my rounds. He never says that. What did you do to upset him, Silvie?”

“I didn’t do anything.” My words sounded angrier aloud than they had in my head before speaking. I crossed my arms as I scanned the room and thought about how to explain.

The weight machines were empty, but several of the stationary bicycles and rowing machines were in use. The thud, thud, thud of someone bouncing a basketball could be heard across the room.

With a sigh, I told Javis what happened with Mr. Calcott—how he’d practically begged me to use my travel talents to help him find and heal his sister.

Javis hung his head. “I see.”

“What would you have done?” I glanced at him through the side of my vision. “Would you have accepted?”

“Sure.” He shrugged. “But no one asks me to use my travel talent for anything.”

“Seriously, Javis? You’re going to make this problem about you?” I loved my brother, but he moped for the stupidest reasons sometimes. He had an extraordinary travel talent. He was a World Builder, someone who could create entire worlds by filling blank spaces, using only his creativity and his mind.

“You could have taken a few weeks off and left immediately,” he said. “You don’t need to obtain a permit from the TSTA every time you want to use your talents, which, you know, requires a discussion with Father every single time. So, yes, I would have helped the man, like Mother would have.”

I caught my breath, not only at the impact of Javis’s words but at his expression. His curls shook as he peered at me with dark eyes. Javis was more like Mother than I was—confident and guided by the heart, which meant he was often reckless. It also didn’t help that he was physically the male version of her. But he was right. Mother would have gone. No wouldn’t have been an option.

“I’m taking my break now,” I said, keeping my voice low and even. I could feel my ears burning.

“Silvie, I’m sorry—”

Yeah, you’re sorry—for yourself, Javis. It always amazed me how readily everyone was to offer hypothetical help when faced with someone else’s reality. Advice flowed freely where there were no consequences to the adviser.

I grabbed a resistance band someone had left on the floor. Stretching the rubber tubing with my fists, I aimed it above a bin of medicine balls and let go. The band snapped and flew forward, hitting the wall with a smack before it landed inside the bin.

“Um, nice shot.” Javis’s eyes were opened wide, his attempt at a snicker forced and uncomfortable.

I glared, as long as I could still see him, on my way out of the gymnasium. I’d never been happier to complete my rounds for the early shift.

I stopped in the kitchen where’d I’d left the cake before going back to the house. A few crumbs were left sticking to the plate. Well, that went over well. At least the recovering Lost were able to enjoy my birthday. I was glad they’d taken every slice. I had no taste for cake at the moment.

I crinkled the outer packaging before disposing of it, and scrubbed and dried the plate before exiting the kitchen and the hospital.

The suns had begun to fade by the time I made it outside. Outlines from millions of tinier stars were starting to appear. Mother would have called this time of day Afternoon, but Edgar didn’t have a Noon, much less a Before or After. Instead, all the stars, including the three suns, brightened at intervals, replicating day and night.

I walked past the sea of flowers, inhaling their scent and hoping they’d improve my mood.

My feet ached slightly from having walked almost nonstop during the early shift. I looked forward to resting.

Our three-story home stretched up from the flowers and into the sky. The suns’ light glimmered off roof tiles, built from a shining material and tiled in a style similar to those of Aboreal. Father didn’t visit Aboreal as often as he had before Grandma Sable passed away. He’d said that once he’d settled his mother’s estate and sold her parents’ home, there was little left for him there. He’d kept his birthplace, his home-world known as the White Tower, but left its maintenance to someone else. As a child, I liked to play there when Father took us to visit. I remembered running through the hallway and opening silver doorknobs from rows of doors that never seemed to end. Now, Father used the White Tower as a training place for Javis. Many of the white doors were empty inside—the perfect place for a World Builder to create and shape and fill with contents. But, as Javis said—as if he needed to remind me—each of these training sessions required a permit from the TSTA, and Javis’s creations were closely supervised by Father.

I pressed my lips together, squinting at passing lilies and bluebells, as I considered how Father monitored Javis’s talent. I suspected it had something to do with guarding Javis from being charged with a TSTA infraction. Even though Father readily admitted how many times he’d been accused and convicted for breaking the travel agency’s rules, so much so that he seemed proud of it, he was adamant that Javis follow the rules perfectly. What happened today with Mr. Calcott reinforced something for me. What Mr. Calcott had said was true: Father was afraid of losing me. But he was likely more afraid of losing Javis.

I twisted the knob to our front door and sighed. The front room was open and round. A podium at the room’s center held an enormous glass teardrop etched with three suns. A metal plate affixed to the base of the sculpture held the following caption: In loving memory of Edgar Hall. Next to it hung a photograph of an old man with wisps of white hair and round glasses that framed droopy gray eyes. His smile was bright, almost childlike, as if he couldn’t decide whether he was happier about having his picture taken or who was there with him, on the other side of the camera.

Something about the photograph wrapped me in a bittersweet sadness each time I looked at it. Instead of being brightly colored—true to life—the way most photographs were that I’d taken or seen. This one was faded and pale, as if the ink forming the picture was far away.

Mother told me she’d gone back in time to capture this photograph of her mentor and friend, something she wished she’d done while he was still alive. This meant the photograph was of Edgar’s silhouette, and not a living, existing version of him that hadn’t already been fixed in the past. His portrait was a memory of a memory. No wonder it seemed so far away.

I glanced to the left hallway that led to the kitchen, family, and dining rooms. The air still smelled of cake and frosting, sugar and spice. It was as if Javis had somehow planned to make me not be able to stay mad at him. But that wasn’t necessary. It was difficult to stay annoyed with him in general, and I was already feeling better—enough to start thinking about what kind of peace offering I could come up with and have ready for him before my late shift.

Past the sculpture, there were two staircases, one that led to three bedrooms: mine, Javis’s and Father’s, and one that veered off to the east side of the house with four more bedrooms and a shared bath. Sometimes, when the recovering Lost were particularly frightened we let them stay with us before moving them to the hospital. Our house helpers, Kade and Milleg, traveled to our world each day using their travel talents. I smiled at the thought of inter-world commutes as I stepped upstairs to my room.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 8. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 5 Healer

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

My lips tensed into a guilty smile.

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

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

“Silvie Hall,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father’s lips curled into a scowl.

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

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

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

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

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

“What do I do?” I whispered.

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

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

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

The door to Madeline’s room was closed.

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

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

“Madeline?”

“Come in.”

I exhaled a breath and swung the door open.

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

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

“Yes,” she said mildly.

“Has it ended?”

She shook her head.

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

“What were you watching, Madeline?”

“A memory.”

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you trying to remember?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Javis made it,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For Javis?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 6. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 3 Edgar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good morning, cupcake,” he said.

I rolled my eyes.

“Who said I was talking to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Good morning, Chelsie,” I said.

She glanced at the cake I held in my arms.

“Would you like some? Javis made it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Father’s frown could be heard in his silence.

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

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

“I understand.”

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

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 4. >>>

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Darker Stars BETA: Prologue

The Healer knew he was aging.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He blinked and chewed, and rubbed his eyes again.

His knees creaked as he stepped toward the twinkling.

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

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

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

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

Transfixed, the Healer continued forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, the evening here is quite good.”

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

The hooded man grabbed the Healer by the throat instead.

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

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

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

But it was too late.

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

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

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

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

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

The cloaked men grunted.

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

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

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

The cloaked men listened. Neither cracked a smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cloaked men looked at one another.

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

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

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

Awareness ebbed as his heartbeat slowed.

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

Continue the adventure with Chapter 1. >>>

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Help me find the aces. ♣ ♥ ♠ ◆

yaces-profileYAces is an indie young adult book club that went up on Goodreads yesterday.

Join us for monthly group reads featuring books by YA indie authors! The focus will be on fiction of various genres including fantasy, science fiction, and contemporary books, but nonfiction suggestions are also welcome.

We expect to begin the first group read in early March. Nominations are now open.

I’ve started this group for a couple reasons. First, I’m grateful because my books have been featured as group and buddy reads in multiple Goodreads groups. Second, who doesn’t like book clubs? I love reading in a group setting and would like to see more indie authors get discovered this way.

Help me find the hidden gems, the aces.

🏮Beacon (Lantern, #2) is live!🏮

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Return to Havenbrim and meet Machin’s next apprentice! I’m excited to share a new novella set in the world of my YA fantasy, Lantern. The release price is $0.99 for a limited time!

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