young adult

Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 17 Memories

Darker Stars Beta CoverWhen the last of Sloe’s form vanished through the exit portal, I squeezed my arms across my ribs, feeling anxious and, strangely, alone.

Sighing, I peered up at the sky. The brightness of the day stars had faded enough for the light of the night stars to begin to shine through. Starlight mixed with the brown and gold shadows of midday.

I turned around and stepped toward the hospital’s rear entrance, then made my way to the area where we kept short-term residents. I expected that’s where Javis was being monitored before going home.

I poked my head through a couple doorways before finding him, then immediately wished I’d brought food with me. He looked up at me, pale and slightly on edge.

“How are you doing?” I said.

One foot kicked at a blanket bunched at the bottom of his bed. I grinned. He was still wearing his work uniform pants, but the orderlies had managed to remove his shoes and cover his top half with a hospital gown.

“I’d be better if Father would let me go home,” he said. “I have to wait until he approves.”

“Makes sense.” Javis and I weren’t legal adults yet, so Father got to make the final decision on such things.

I wasn’t sure what else to say. There was an awkwardness between us that had never been there before. I wondered if he knew how involved I’d been in his healing—that I’d sensed the weakness, the darkness, inside of him. I wasn’t sure how to bring that up without sounding invasive or creepy.

“I’m glad to see you’re all right,” I said, meaning every word of it. “I don’t understand how this happened. How did you fall over in the ladies’ room?”

He dipped his head and rubbed his palm across his forehead and eyes. “I’m not sure.”

“Do you remember a sudden pain, or tripping over something?”

“No. Everything disappeared into whiteness.” He coughed. “Like my body was empty and weak.”

My shoulders tensed. Was that the same weakness I’d felt while healing him, or something else? I wanted Javis to say more, to see if we were talking about the same thing, if the two were connected. I opened my lips to speak, then hesitated.

“Silvie.”

I twisted my head to the door, to who’d spoken my name. I hadn’t heard anyone approach.

“Father,” I said.

He looked at me as if he intended for me to say something more. I had no idea what. I swallowed.

“Yes?”

He glanced at Javis, then back to me, and frowned. “While you were showing Sloe out, I asked someone to cover your rounds.”

“Oh,” I said, my heart sinking. The day was half over, and with all the excitement and drama, I hadn’t finished my early shift. I hadn’t started it, either, seeing as I’d been showing Sloe around the hospital.

I lowered my eyes. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. You’ve done enough healing for one day. Thank you for using your talent to help your brother.”

I raised my eyes to his, this time recognizing Father showed no signs of being upset, at least not with me. His face was drawn in a way that suggested he was tired, and sad.

Stepping closer, he reached inside his jacket pocket and placed something in Javis’s hands, then mine. My jaw dropped as I stared at a pair of dark glasses.

“This is your pair,” I whispered.

“Yes, and now Javis has Calla’s. I recommend that you not use them to travel, given the effects they have on one’s eyes. But they’re yours now, and it’s up to you as far as what to do with them.”

I frowned. At one time, Father’s eyes were as green as mine, and Mother’s were as dark as Javis’s.

“If we’re not supposed to use the travel glasses to travel, then why do you want us to have them?” Father was offering us a precious gift, wrapped with memories of his life with Mother.

“I won’t be with you forever,” he said. “I want our memories to be your memories. You will be able to visit past versions of us, as needed.”

“How are you going to travel without these?”

“Perhaps it’s time I obtained a commissioned TSTA vehicle.”

Javis and I wrinkled our noses at each other. He reached out in an attempt to return his pair to Father.

“I don’t understand,” said Javis. “All we ever heard growing up is how much you hate the TSTA and its rules. Why give up now?”

“In a matter of years, I’ve lost my mother, my wife, and my healer. I’ve made peace with the fact that no matter what I do, the worlds will move on without me.”

A lump formed in my throat. “But you still have us.”

Father’s lips rose at their corners. “I can’t keep you here forever, Silvie. I saw you with Sloe and how you work with the recovering Lost. You’re growing up. You’ve inherited Plaka’s baglamas. The worlds are yours to explore now.”

“Are you hinting that it’s time for Silvie to leave Edgar?” Javis’s face paled. I wasn’t as concerned with that being the issue as what Father saw when he saw me with Sloe? I knew Father wanted us to stay as long as possible. But what did he mean about Sloe? Was it that obvious?

“No, you can come and go as you please. Both of you.”

I squirmed at Javis’s defeated look. We loved Edgar, the world—and life—Father had built for Mother. We didn’t want to leave. Or, was it that Father wanted to be alone?

I turned the pair of travel glasses in my hands. It had dark frames and equally dark lenses. I’d seen Father wear them so many times, they looked like an ordinary accessory. Memories. I could search Father’s memories—those he’d burned inside the glasses.

I could see pictures of Mother…and hear her voice. Something I’d wanted to hear for so long. Tears filled my eyes. It was an amazing gift. But that didn’t make me feel any less worried about Father, or Javis.

***

Loneliness lingered as I left the hospital. Father decided to keep Javis there overnight, just in case. I expected he would stay with him until the early hours of the morning. Javis was his favorite, and I was okay with that.

I patted the pair of sunglasses in my pocket. I had Mother with me.

As soon as I grabbed a snack, I headed up to my bedroom. Even though I usually accompanied Mother when we’d traveled with the travel glasses, Father had explained to me how to search, and had let me practice with his pair several times.

There were different types of searches. A traveler could search to travel somewhere by focusing on a person, place, time, or some combination of the three. This, I could already do with Grandpa Plaka’s baglamas.

The travel glasses offered something more. They could be used to communicate. Two people wearing the travel glasses at the same time could see and speak to each other.

But that wasn’t the best part.

Father had burned his memories of Mother inside the glasses. Mother had recorded her memories inside the pair that was now Javis’s pair. At some point, I learned Father had copied memories, a form of data, from one pair to another. Mother had taken his original pair, and he’d had a backup pair. But parts were missing. I had no idea how often they synced the recordings inside the glasses, or whether Father had synced the pairs before giving them to us.

Father had lived longer than Mother, so it was possible his pair had later recordings of me and Javis. It didn’t matter to me whether I had Father’s pair or Mother’s pair. I was sure there were more than enough memories of Mother burned into both.

Retrieving the recordings—the memories—burned inside the glasses required a special bond between the person who was searching for the memories, and the person who’d recorded them. Obviously, this worked if the same person recorded and searched. But when the recorder and searcher were two different people, the bond had to be strong.

I relied on my bond with my Father, who’d recorded memories of Mother, as I searched for pictures of her inside the travel glasses.

Still shots of her face appeared, followed by moving pictures with sound. My heart leapt at the sound of her voice.

Mother smiled or scowled at the recorder, from various points of her life. The scowling ones made me laugh. There must have been times that Father frustrated her as much as he frustrated me. Her eyes changed color from a dark, rich brown to a pale shade of gray. The travel glasses had affected her eyes, just like Father said.

It felt like scanning through a digital photo album that showed only pictures and movies I wanted to see. The brighter, more vivid, recordings, I knew, were taken of persons who were real and living at the time they were recorded. Recordings of past versions, from having traveled to their past, were washed out; they seemed illusory because they were recordings of silhouettes.

This was nice for a while, but it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t stand it anymore. I needed to go back in time to visit Mother, the same way she used to travel to the past to ask questions of her mentor, Edgar Hall.

The women at the hospital were friends, but they were not family. I had to speak to a woman, someone I knew well. The men didn’t get me. Father, Javis, probably even Sloe. I couldn’t talk to them the way I needed to. It was too difficult, and awkward.

More than anything, I wanted Mother to be in front of me, hearing my words and giving me words of her own, words not intended for whomever was recording, but words and a message meant for me.

I ran downstairs and outside the house to where I stood at the beginning of the path that led to the hospital. I slipped the travel glasses on my face and searched for a memory, one of my mother—the way I remembered her best from when I was younger. The way I’ll always picture her. With dark curly hair streaked with white, and eyes as gray as Earth’s sky before a storm’s first raindrops. The way she smiled at me and at Father.

She was a young woman when she gave birth to me. But after Javis was born, Mother aged rapidly. Or maybe I was just more aware of it.

And then, suddenly, she was gone.

I pressed my lips together to still their trembling and continued to focus on this version of Mother. I pictured her here in Edgar, relaxing in front of the fireplace after a day of work at the hospital.

My feet pounded against the ground to gain speed for the transport. My lips pursed in concentration. The path, the flowers, the house, the hospital—all of it disappeared, bleached out by a white, blinding light.

The white light faded, replaced by a yellow-orange glow and a warmth that comforted me and made me suddenly sleepy.

Flames from a fireplace flickered before me. I was in the family room, in our home in Edgar. In the past.

A woman sat in my favorite reading chair, holding a mug. Her large gray eyes were opened wide, her lips caught mid-sip.

My breath hitched as a lump formed in my throat, bringing along with it tears that stung my eyes.

The woman, Mother, rose from her chair. She took another look at the mug before her eyes darted to the fire.

“Quickly,” she said. “To the ground.”

My heart pounded, guiltily, for having landed somewhere where grounding would bring a danger to my family and home.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered. I lowered myself into a grounding stance. I should have searched for her outside, but I couldn’t get the homey image of Mother out of my mind during travel. This is where and when I wanted to be.

Mother emptied the contents of the mug into the fire before pulling a screen across the fireplace. She held the mug to her chest, protecting it as she pressed an arm and knee to the ground.

The ground quaked, as if angry that I’d created a tear to enter this time and place. Like it knew I’d made a poor choice. I cringed, feeling as if I deserved every bit of it.

Out of the side of my vision, I stole a glance at the fireplace. The flames spewed sparks that didn’t quite reach the screen Mother had closed, but the wood that fueled the fire bounced, creating an ominous cloud of smoke.

I held my palm to my nose and mouth to fend off the stench and the urge to cough.

When the rumblings subsided, Mother opened windows. She frowned in the direction of the couch, and the blankets and pillows there I expected would smell like smoke for a long time afterwards.

“I’m sorry,” I said again.

At least nothing had caught fire as a result of my carelessness.

Mother turned to face me. Her gazed followed the travel glasses as I removed them from my eyes and propped them on the top of my head. Afterwards, she looked me up and down suspiciously, as if she knew me from somewhere but couldn’t quite place it.

My fingers shook as I waited for her to recognize me, to remember. Even though she’d never seen me at my present age, part of me expected her to know me anyway. That the bond between mother and daughter would have meant more than logic.

If anything, given her role as a healer, and her work at the hospital, I thought she might ask if I needed help. That she would reach out and see if I was well.

But her body language held the opposite. I hadn’t expected her to be guarded.

“Are you from the future or the past?” she said, finally. Hearing her voice again should have warmed me, but the tone was so full of worry. Her eyebrows twisted in a puzzled expression as she took a step backward.

“The future,” I admitted.

She shuddered. “Then I’m a silhouette?”

I blinked. “Yes.”

Mother crossed her arms. “I would have guessed you to be a younger version of my mother-in-law, Sable Hall. You have her eyes, her hair… But if you’re from the future—” Her eyes flickered to the pair of travel glasses on my head.

Her frown deepened. “Who are you?”

“You don’t know me?”

Mother opened her mouth and shut it again. She did that twice more before taking a step forward.

My lips twisted in an involuntary pout.

Her eyes widened slightly before they shot up to a place above my eyes, in the spaces where my eyebrows should be, and that I’d drawn in with paint.

Mother reached out a hand. “May I?”

I nodded, expecting her to rest her hand on my shoulder, the way she would to sense a person’s wellness or calm the recovering Lost when they were upset. But, instead, she pressed a thumb to my left brow bone.

I sucked in a breath when she smeared the face paint upward.

“No!” My hand reflexively moved to cover the ruined brow. I couldn’t see the result, but I imagined part of it was missing.

Mother studied the paint print on her thumb. She looked up, her real eyebrows furrowed.

“Silvie?”

Warmth and relief swelled in my chest. I smiled. “Mother.”

“I can’t believe it,” she said, pulling me to her and squeezing me to her chest. “I know you as the small child I just put to bed,” she laughed. “And, now, here you are, all grown up.”

Her eyes filled with tears. She let go of me and swiped a hand across her face. “I didn’t think I’d ever get to see you like this.”

Her expression went somber once again. “And I’ll never remember it. Are you visiting me from the future to warn me of something? Because, I won’t remember without you creating a Daily Reminder that will change the past.”

“No, don’t worry. It’s nothing like that. Father drilled the not changing the past rule into me and Javis. I don’t think I could—”

“Javis?” Her hand pressed lightly to her lower stomach. She didn’t look pregnant, at least it wasn’t showing.

“My brother,” I said, unable to pull my eyes from where she rested her hand.

Tears filled her eyes. “Are you both well?”

I nodded, but even I wasn’t convinced by my response.

“Silvie, what’s wrong? Do you need help?”

“Not in the way you think. I’m healthy.” My lower lip trembled. “It’s just tough sometimes without another female to talk to, and I needed to see you.”

This version of Mother didn’t know Javis yet, and I wasn’t sure how to bring up the weakness I’d felt in him. I would need to visit a later version of her, and to learn whether she’d ever encountered such a thing, in Javis or in someone else, with her own healing talent.

She tilted her head to the side, studying me. “I left you too soon, I must have. I’m so sorry. But I see that you have the travel glasses now,” she said, gesturing. “Is Valcas…?”

“Dead? No, no. He recently gifted his pair of travel glasses to me.”

Her lips pulled into a wide grin. “So now you can visit me any time you like.”

I smiled. Her words of welcome were good to hear, even though I knew I’d have to reintroduce myself each time. At least now I knew what her reaction might be.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 18, to be posted May 27. Read Darker Stars from the beginning, and learn more about its serialization here.

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 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What happened here, son?”

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

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

Sloe nodded.

“Do you know what world it was?”

“No.”

“Ah, but do you remember which portal?”

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

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

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

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

Ivory frowned. “Nick…”

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

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

“What were you thinking, son?”

“I wanted to impress her, I guess.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The red cuts slowly melted away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, there were more than one?”

He swallowed. “Two.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sloe,” said Raven softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sloe dipped his chin.

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

“I promise.”

Continue the adventure with Chapter 9. >>>

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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 6

The last waves of electricity from the purple-blue tunnel tingled along Sloe’s arms. He’d kept his palm above Raven’s hand and wrapped his other arm around her, holding her close as they ported.

He squinted when the tunnel cleared, until he recognized the jagged outline of trees. The sky was filled with clouds, but the twinkling of stars could still be seen through the gaps between them.

Raven’s shoulders shook. “What is this place?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know of any world that has the crystal sundial as its timepiece?”

“No.”

“Is the exit portal near where we are now?” Her question came as a whisper as she searched blindly in the dark.

Sloe frowned and held out a hand. He waved it in the air before dropping both hands to the ground. “I don’t sense it nearby. But, don’t worry, I’ll feel for it as we explore.”

Raven’s trembling grew more violent. She wrapped her arms around herself.

“What’s wrong?” said Sloe, wrapping his arm back around her again. “I’ve never seen you this worried.

“Something just doesn’t feel…right…about this place.”

“If it will make you less worried, we can find the portal and go back to the Clock Tower. From there, we can go somewhere else, or I can take you back home.”

Raven sighed in relief. “Thanks. Maybe we should. It’s kind of creepy out here.”

The quiet continued. No creature shifted or showed itself. The darkness hid the slightest of whispers, until a loud crack sounded from behind them.

Raven jumped inside Sloe’s arms. He squeezed her more tightly.

“Do you hear that?” he said, looking around.

“Of course,” snapped Raven. “It was ridiculously loud.”

“No, not the snap.” He paused, listening. “It sounds like running water.”

Raven’s body went still. “Maybe I can hear it, a little.”

Sloe let go of Raven and grasped her hand. It felt small and cold in his. He wondered how frightened she was.

“Let’s follow the sound, and take a look. Hopefully it will lead us to the portal.”

“Yeah, the portal. Okay.”

They passed through more trees and brush. The ground was covered in foliage, with no discernable path. But someone or something had trampled it down so it was walkable. Sloe released a breath after taking another look at Raven’s outfit and shoes. Hopefully she won’t mind getting both of them ruined. Or at least muddy, he thought.

By the time the soil beneath the brush became softer, stickier, glints of light sparkled off something in the distance. The sounds of rushing liquid grew stronger. The air there held more of a chill.

Sloe stepped lightly, trying not to let his feet sink too deep in the mud. Beside him, Raven pulled at his hand; her stride quickened, each step releasing a sucking sound.

A river came into view at the same time Sloe’s foot hit more solid ground, the slippery edge of rock. He stumbled slightly, tightening his hand around Raven’s as he regained balance.

“Are you all right?” she said, her voice low.

“Yes.” His eyes danced along the body of water before him. Clear ripples of water shined gray-blue beneath the night sky. They bent and twisted around rocks that breached the water’s surface.

“A river.”

Raven let go of Sloe’s hand and turned, slowly, all round her, taking in the view. She exhaled in a slow whistle. “Nice work, Sloe of Time.”

He rolled his eyes, despite being relieved that Raven seemed to have finally calmed down, and that she was beginning to enjoy the view. Still, he reached out to feel for the exit portal as he’d promised.

“Had my parents let me choose my own name,” he said, “I would have taken Sloe of Aboreal.”

“Your father must really hate Aboreal to have changed his name.”

Sloe shrugged. “He had his reasons, but they’re complicated.” If only she knew he’d changed his first name too, thought Sloe. Maybe she does. But he hoped she wouldn’t ask about it—how his father Travertine of Aboreal had disowned his home world (after it disowned him) and became Nick of Time. Parts of the explanation were still murky for him, too.

Raven moved closer to Sloe and rested her head on his shoulder. He draped an arm around her and fought against his tendency to grin too widely.

“Your mother kept of Aboreal, though, like my name?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t blame her.”

Sloe sniffed, thinking about how often his parents bickered about that.

“So, tell me about that funeral you went to—for the Healer. Was he really a Remnant Transporter?”

“Apparently,” he said softly.

“Woah.” Raven sucked in a breath. “And his family was there?”

“Of course.”

“Then you got to see a Remnant Transporter?”

“I did.”

“Was it the man’s son or daughter?”

“No. It was weird. The family is a mix of people from different worlds.”

“That’s not so weird,” she said, nudging him in the ribs with her elbow.

“It is in the sense that their worlds have different timelines. The man’s daughter was a Remnant Transporter like him, but she’d been Earth-born, and he outlived her natural lifespan.”

“Oh.” Raven frowned. “That’s sad.”

“His daughter’s husband and children were there. The granddaughter inherited the man’s travel object, a baglamas. According to my mother—and also the whispers and table gossip—she not only inherited his travel talent; she has the ability to heal.”

Raven wrinkled her nose. “Was the granddaughter born of Earth too?”

“No, she was born of a new world, built by the Healer’s son-in-law. Mother said the grandchildren’s timelines are long there, like the father’s.”

“That’s good, I guess. That should mean the new Remnant Transporter will be around for a long time.”

Sloe didn’t answer. He was thinking about the girl, Silvie, from the funeral. She’d caught him studying her at the reception, but he didn’t get a chance to introduce himself before returning home.

“Sloe?”

“Yes,” he murmured.

“What was the granddaughter like?”

“Pretty,” he blurted.

Raven tensed, and he regretted what he said immediately.

He chose his next words more carefully.

“Silvie Hall looked Aborealian, with black hair and green eyes.” He passed a hand over the top of Raven’s head, stopping when his finger bumped the clip of flowers. “The same even tone of black, and gemlike eyes. Only hers were emeralds.”

“Interesting,” Raven said tightly. “If her mother was Earth-born, then I suppose the Aborealian features came from her father’s side.”

“That’s what my mother said, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from looking at Silvie’s father, Valcas. When he wasn’t wearing his dark glasses, his eyes were a murky gray.”

“Really?” Raven smirked. “He sounds creepy.”

“Totally creepy.”

Raven chuckled. “I can’t imagine going to an event with so many important people—World Builders, Remnant Transporters… You’re a Time Keeper and your mom’s a Chauffeur. All of you have travel talents. Unlike me.”

Sloe’s shoulders sagged. He wanted to say something comforting, like how people can be talented and important without travel talents. That it was no big deal. But he wouldn’t give up his ability to read and unlock portals for anything. It was his favorite part of himself, and of life itself.

As he floundered for words of comfort that didn’t sound stupid, he sensed a shifting in the shadows, shapes that were rounder, less jagged than the trees.

“Raven,” he whispered. “Did you see that?”

She huffed. “No Sloe. Don’t you get it? I don’t feel and see extraordinary things—not like you and Silvie Hall. I don’t have those abilities.”

“That’s not what I meant. I think there’s something else out here.” Prickles of fear trailed along his arms and legs.

Raven screamed in his ear; he felt her being pulled from him.

A thick arm grabbed Sloe around the middle, from behind. A hand pressed roughly against his mouth and covered part of his nose. He could barely get enough air to breathe or to scream. A pounding thudded in his head. His eyes darted back and forth frantically.

Raven had gone silent.

The arm at his middle pressed painfully tight and he felt himself being lifted from the ground. His shoes scraped rock before everything from his toes to his waist prickled with an icy wetness. He stumbled, half floating, as his lower half was pulled through a liquid that seemed to be pushing him from another direction. Realization set in that he was being dragged through the same river that, moments ago, had seemed romantic.

Splashing and grunting from nearby suggested Raven was being forced across the river, too.

Sloe struggled, only to find that his arms were pinned against his sides. He kicked his legs back and forth, propelling himself forward. His face smacked the river’s cold surface. Water bubbled up his nose.

“Stop being difficult if you want to stay alive.” The words were louder than the rushing water and the voice more undulating as it bounced back and forth between a scratchy baritone and a high, shrieking squeal.

Sloe’s legs grew colder as he was pulled out of the water. His feet had no time to touch the ground before he was thrown forward and landed on his side. Pain lanced through his right arm and leg. But the pressure around his middle and face were gone.

His breath came and went in gasps as he scrambled to his feet, searching for his attacker who’d seemed to have blended into the darkness.

He heard a thud and a muffled squeal behind him.

He spun around. A man in a cloak held Raven in one arm. His hand was so thick that it covered the lower half of her face. Everything, including her dark eyes, shook with fear.

“Let her go.”

The man in the cloak smiled. “I could, you see, but my friend…well, he wouldn’t like it.”

Another cloaked man, this one wearing a hood that covered his eyes, stepped out from behind the shadows. The lower half of his cloak was drenched with water.

“You,” croaked Sloe. “You were the one who dragged me through the river. What do you want?”

The hooded man stepped closer. “You have information.”

“What do you want to know? Just let her go.”

“The Healer’s granddaughter—you said she is in possession of his travel object, the baglamas, yes?”

Sloe’s teeth chattered. They were eavesdropping in the shadows at the other side of the river. He glared at the men. “Who are you?”

“I asked you a question,” the hooded man half-growled, half-shrieked.

His companion squeezed Raven more tightly. She yelped through his fingers.

A sickness overwhelmed Sloe’s stomach and crawled its way up into his throat. “Yes, the granddaughter has the baglamas. Now let her go.”

“We will, momentarily. But first, tell me, how did you reach this world?”

“Through a portal.”

Raven’s captor grinned. A scar across his cheek extended his lips past their natural ending point. Scars covered his hand that squeezed Raven’s face. “And how do you plan to return from where you came?”

“By finding the exit portal.” Sloe heard his own words, numb to the sensation of having spoken.

The cloaked men glanced at one another. “You have the ability to read and pass through portals?” said the man who wore no hood.

“Yes, now, let her go. Please.”

“Not yet,” said the hooded man. “In fact, for such a talented traveler as you, I will grant a favor. We will tell you exactly where the exit portal is, and we will release the girl.”

Sloe stood motionless; his breath had stopped, knowing that there would be a condition. These were not the type of men to graciously grant favors.

“But only if you promise—”

“What do you want?”

“Find the Healer’s granddaughter, and bring the baglamas to me.”

The sickness in Sloe’s stomach sloshed and twisted in waves. That would be stealing, and I barely know her. Actually, I don’t really know her at all.

“Hurry, boy. If you don’t choose quickly, we’ll choose for you.”

Raven grunted. Sloe snapped his head in her direction as her eyes rolled back in her head and her body went limp and lifeless.

“I’ll do it! Let her go.”

“Good. Remember this place and how you arrived here. The next time we see you, we expect you’ll be entering the portal with the baglamas. Is that clear?”

“Yes.”

Raven’s body dropped to the ground. The man who wore no hood receded into the shadows before Sloe could reach her.

“There is an exit portal,” said the hooded man, “at the stepping rock at the river’s center.” The finger of his outstretched hand waggled downstream. “Be quick about it. Waiting will make us less…gentle, next time.”

Sloe seethed—his heart a mixture of hate and fear—as he lifted Raven in his arms. “I’m ashamed to be a Time Keeper, if it means sharing the talent with men like you.”

The hooded man laughed. “Our talents differ more than you think. We see the portals, not because we feel them, like you. We see them because we build them.”

Sloe narrowed his eyes. He’d never heard of such a talent, knew of no name for it. “What are you?”

The hooded man tapped a finger to his wrist. “Time’s wasting. You’d better hurry. Because what we build, we can also destroy.” Laughter gurgled from his throat, in hiccups that were as twisted and pitchy as his voice.

Sloe’s back seized with fear. He lumbered forward into the darkness, along the river’s edge. The weight of another person reawakened injuries that had numbed.

He stepped into the water, wincing at how Raven’s legs hung limply from his arms. His shoulders ached with the extra effort he took to keep her head and arms above the rushing water. When he reached the rock, he set the girl down before stepping up. The rock domed from the river and parted the water’s course. His feet slipped along the rock’s edges until he reached its level crest.

He lifted Raven again, adjusting her position so she rested on his left side. He stretched out his free arm. The portal crackled and popped at his touch.

A second fear seized him as he traveled back to the Clock Tower. He didn’t know who would want to kill him more after seeing Raven’s condition—her parents, or his.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 7. >>>

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Flash Tales Release Day!

This collection is special to me because I feel like I could tell a personal story about each piece. I wrote the fable,”Morning and the Moon,” as a gift to a family member, and “What a Clown Reads” was my first creative work that won an award. I’ve read from the manuscripts of each story at open mics, and now I’m sharing them with you.

Discover the magic of music, sail with a feisty pirate, and view the stars and moon in a whole new light. Stories range from middle grade adventures to tales that can be enjoyed by teen readers.

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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. >>>

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

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Darker Stars BETA: Chapter 2

Darkness cast a hush over the burial grounds. The teardrop moons of Chascadia shined more brightly as the sun faded. A shadow that stretched across the Healer’s grave melted away.

A woman with hair as white as snow stood at the foot of the stone. The skin around her eyes and lips crinkled, deepening wrinkles that had grown with age. She drew in a breath.

“I suppose you had to leave us sooner or later, Healer.”

She studied the glint of light reflecting off the crown of laurel and rose gold.

“I’d say nice crown if I knew it would have suited you. But rose gold?” Her lips quirked into a grin. “Overkill, really.”

A tear slipped from her eye.

“I will miss you.”

The woman, Ivory of Aboreal, brushed a hand across her cheek and stilled the trembling of her lips. The Healer’s wife and daughter had been absent from the ceremony. Both were Earth-born with shorter timelines. They’d passed on before him. A pang of loss twisted inside Ivory’s chest. It was the price of having friends from other worlds and time schemes.

Footsteps interrupted her thoughts.

“Mom?”

A young man approached. His dark hair blended in with his robe, the black and gold funeral garb of Aboreal. Beneath the light of the moons, his eyes of purple ice shined warm and gray.

“Some event, wasn’t it, Sloe?”

He shrugged. “It was tolerable—for a funeral. Are you all right? You missed dinner.”

“I’m fine. Not hungry, that’s all.” She nudged him with an elbow. “Chascadian grub’s good though, isn’t it?”

He nodded and stared at the ground.

Ivory wrapped her hands around his shoulders. “Thank you for coming with me and putting up with all this. Let’s go home. There should be time left for you to meet up with Raven tonight.”

Sloe’s lips lifted at the corners. “Thanks, Mom.”

“You could have invited her to join us.” Ivory smacked herself in the head. “Why didn’t I think of that sooner? You could have had dinner together, and I wouldn’t feel so bad about leaving you at a table with strangers.”

At her son’s expression of horror, Ivory quickly added, “But who invites a girl to a funeral, right? Because that would be dumb, which is why I never should have suggested it.”

She frowned, trying to remember what dating was like at Sloe’s age, unsure whether he and Raven were a couple. Part of her wasn’t sure she wanted to know. Aborealian years were long, and memories of her own teen years had begun to fade.

“It’s all right, Mom.” Sloe laughed. “Let’s just go.”

She smiled at her son, thankful he’d been born in a world with a timeline that was long like Aboreal’s. Sloe meant the worlds to her, and she was certain the Healer had felt that way about his own daughter, Calla. Ivory shrunk beneath the image burned in her mind—that of the pain in the Healer’s eyes at Calla’s funeral. His daughter’s lifetime had progressed rapidly compared to his own.

Ivory dropped her hands from Sloe’s shoulders and followed him to the back of the burial grounds. They passed through a gate and continued walking until they reached the center of two paths that crossed in the clearing.

Sloe reached out a hand and waved his arms through the air before pressing both palms to the ground.

Though Ivory couldn’t see the exit portal, Sloe had left a marking here, in this spot in Chascadia. She recognized the two scratches of dirt in the land that formed the letter x.

When Sloe lifted his hands again, Ivory’s ears filled with the buzzing and popping of electricity, the signal that the portal had been opened.

Like his father, Sloe was a Time Keeper with the ability to unlock portals between place and time. But the talent had advanced.

“It’s ready, Mom.”

Ivory caught her son’s outstretched hand and looped her arm through his. She narrowed her eyes. Waves of electric current traveled across her face and body, tingling her nerve endings and raising the hair at the nape of her neck.

The portal remained invisible and would remain unseen to passersby, to anyone without the Time Keeper talent. But colors flooded the crackling and popping of electricity that accompanied Ivory and Sloe home. Purples and deep blues swirled around them, pulling them along a tunnel of electric charge.

The last of the sparks faded beneath an amethyst sky.

“Home sweet home,” whispered Ivory. Her hands gripped twisted shapes that branched from a mangled tower of clockwork, gears, and timepieces. She huffed. “Well, as sweet and homelike as a Clock Tower can be.”

Sloe chuckled from a space beside her. “Come on, Mom, let’s ground.”

Freeing his hands, he pressed his feet to the tower and kicked, propelling his body backward. He soared into a double backflip before lithely landing on his feet.

“I wish you’d stop doing that. It scares me every time.”

“But it’s way faster than your route,” he called from the ground below. “You should try it.”

“Not a chance.”

Ivory groaned through gritted teeth before repositioning her hands and feet to grasp handholds and reach footholds, a task she repeated every step of the descent. As she scrambled down the tower, she passed clocks of all shapes and sizes—mantle clocks, digital clocks, and cuckoo clocks; some were simple watch faces or sundials. Before reaching the ground, she hopped over a gargantuan pocket watch set in silver.

“How’s that for sticking my landing?”

Sloe sniffed. He’d already pressed a hand and knee to the ground. Ivory knelt next to her son and did the same.

The ground rumbled, sending a wave of jolts up along the Clock Tower. Timepieces chimed from above, clanging and jingling as they bounced against each other and the tower.

When the rumblings subsided, Sloe rose and brushed dust from his knees. He caught Ivory squinting at a mound of raspberry blue metal piled in the distance, the ruined remains of a jet.

“Do you miss it?” he said. “Traveling by flight? Being a Chauffeur for the Time and Space Travel Agency?”

She jutted her chin and wrapped an arm around his neck. “Sometimes. I’d think about it less if we found somewhere to trash that heap of junk.”

Sloe frowned.

“Don’t get old, kid. Your eyesight dulls, and suddenly no one needs you anymore.”

“But you still have your talent.”

Ivory chuckled darkly. “Yeah, well, it doesn’t do much good while in hiding.”

She exhaled and opened a door—not a portal, but a physical door—that led inside the Clock Tower.

Continue the adventure with Chapter 3. >>>

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

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