When Ink had told me there was an “Ancient” in the village, the words barely registered. I’d been in a hurry to get to the castle. Now that we couldn’t get inside, I had time to think, and I realized what a big deal his words were. The salamander said the Ancients were human, so that meant the man or woman in the village could be a member of my crew.
Someone from my crew and a Pitworlder.
How many kinds of bug people could there be? If there was an insect in the village, I was willing to bet it had to be from the Pitworld.
We walked back to the village. I wanted to hurry, but Ink insisted we take our time. I was still dizzy, though I didn’t have to concentrate as hard to walk straight.
“The effects should wear off soon,” he told me. The windmill was just coming back into view. I tried not to think about my sister, and what the toads might be doing to her.
We reached a low wooden fence and Ink stopped. Part of the fence had fallen here, creating an opening. “Third house to the left of the windmill,” he said. “Knock twice, wait a beat, then once more. It’s a sign in our village of good intentions. I will wait for you here.”
“You’re not coming with me?” I asked, eyebrows lifting in surprise.
“I would like to spend some time in contemplation, noble friend. You will be fine. This is a friendly village.”
I glanced at the array of houses. Two young salamanders rushed down a thin dirt lane, laughing and shoving each other. “Alright,” I said. I gripped the straps of my backpack, took a deep breath, and stepped into the village.
The salamander kids stopped to stare at me for a few seconds, then both dashed off, laughing again.
“Should I be offended?” I asked, too quietly for anyone to hear.
The lane lead in a circle through the outskirts of the village. I followed it past a few houses and stopped in front of the windmill. A bigger hut occupied the center of the little town. A meeting hall, maybe. The dizziness was gone. I was grateful for that. I didn’t know what I was walking into here.
I felt certain the “Ancient” had to be a member of my crew. There was no reason to think any other humans would be on this strange planet with us. I rounded the bend and stepped up to the simple, flimsy-looking door of the third house down. While the roof was thatch, I saw that the walls of the hut were made of dried mud. Straw was mixed into the hardened clay, making the building appear as though it was mostly grass.
I heard the low buzz of conversation inside. I reached up to rap on the door. Two, then one, I reminded myself.
The door flew open before I could knock. I stumbled backward, narrowly avoiding getting my arm and nose hit. A tall, muscular man stood in the doorway. He had shaggy hair and an unkempt beard. My heart sank when I saw him. Not a crew member. Of course, I should have seen what a long-shot finding someone from my crew here was.
“What do you kids—” the man began, then stopped. “Whoa,” he said. “Whoa. Come in!” He popped his head out and glanced in both directions as if to see if anyone was watching. When he leaned forward, I saw an enormous laser gun in his hands, a heavy, rapid-fire model. I hesitated. The man stepped toward me, placed a hand on my back, and steered me inside.
“Do any of those frog things know you’re here?” he asked. The man wore the black uniform of a C-Marine. It was ripped in places. The sleeves had been cut off, revealing the soldier’s beefy arms.
“In the village? You mean the toads?” I replied. “No. I don’t think so.”
“I mean here, on this world. Have they seen you?”
“Yes,” I said. “More than one,” I added, remembering all the unconscious toads we’d left on the road.
The man growled and shook his head. “That’s just great.” He turned to the room’s other occupant. “Do you think they’ll come sniffing?” he asked a tall, insect-like being laid out on a cot. The creature was a living match for the glass statue we’d seen in the Pitworld village. He had green skin and enormous amber eyes. He was propped up on his two left-side elbows. A thick, white bandage covered one leg.
“Yesssss,” the bug said, hissing the word out. It let out what sounded like a sigh. “We will need to leave.”
“This dratted hiding spot was too close anyway,” he said. “I was going crazy staying inside all day.” He sized me up, taking in my wet boots, dirty pants, and disheveled hair. “What are you doing here? You’re too young for a rescue party.”
“Rescue party?” I asked.
“I’m the last C-Marine left. Three of us got left behind. The lieutenant swore he’d send a rescue party.” With a grunt, the soldier laid his gun on a low table. The wood groaned under the weight of the enormous weapon.
“I think our commander covered it all up somehow,” I said. “He hid the trouble you ran into so he could still lead the expedition to the Pitworld. I never found out why. I was an intern on the expedition.”
“Thissss commander knew the Pit wasss deadly, and he came anyway?” the insect-man asked.
“And he brought drattin’ children?” the C-Marine added.
“I guess so,” I replied. Coming on the expedition had seemed like a fantastic opportunity at the time. Now I wasn’t so sure.
“How many of you were there?” the C-Marine asked. “What happened to everyone else?”
I recounted my story, the descent into the Pit, the flight from the spiders, meeting Ink, and following my sister’s trail to the castle.
Once I was done, both the soldier and the insect-man were quiet for a moment. “Drattin’ children,” the C-Marine muttered.
“What happened to you?” I asked. I still wasn’t sure why Ink thought the pair could help us get into the castle.
“My platoon was sent to explore the Pitworld,” he said. “We had troops all over . . . the cities, the farms, even forests, and wilderness areas. The Pit was a focus, though; we wanted to find out why it was there and what it was for, and—”
“And did you?” I asked, realizing too late that I was interrupting. “Find out why?”
“No, we didn’t. We thought we found Pitworlders,” the soldier continued, nodding towards the reclining insect-man. “But it turns out they’re from this world.”
“Actually we hail from one of the moonsss above,” the insect-man clarified.
“But you speak English too?” I asked.
“We all sssspeak the tongue of the Ancientsss, do we not?” the insect-man replied.
“So the Ancients were English-speaking humans?” I asked. That did fit with what I had learned so far. It just seemed so . . .
The soldier must have sensed my confusion. He let out a short, humorless laugh and shrugged. “As far as I can tell, kid. I don’t get it either.”
“Nor do I,” the insect-man added. “My people were exploring the cave when we ran into the spider beasts.” He seemed to hiss less the longer he talked. “We came to Senna searching for something called the Portal World. I am the only member of my team that survived.”
“Senna? Portal World?” I asked. “What does that mean?”
“Senna is what the locals call this drattin’ planet,” the soldier said.
“The Portal World is a mythical planet said to contain gateways to all the habitable worlds in the universe,” the insect-man added. “We had heard stories of strange visitors emerging from a hillside cavern in the area and decided to investigate.”
“If he’s from up there,” I began, pointing up and looking at the soldier. “Then who lived on the Pitworld? How did a glass statue get all the way up there?”
“That was probably Cresatusix, my brother,” the insect-man said. “The spider venom does not work as quickly on my people. The last time I saw him, he was climbing out of this Pit.”
“As to who lived there and where they went, still a drattin’ mystery,” the soldier said. “Anyway, the name’s Fiver. Corporal Carl Fiver.” He held out a hand, and I shook it.
“Prometheus Jones,” I said. “You can call me Theus.”
“Theus, my name is Aamanatusix,” the insect man said.
That’s a mouthful, I thought. “Nice to meet you,” I said aloud.
“I just call him Emmitt,” Corporal Fiver said.
“I still don’t like that,” Emmitt said. “What does ‘Emmitt’ even mean?”
“I have no idea,” Fiver replied.
“It is a step above ‘bug-man’ though; I’ll give you that,” Emmitt admitted.
“How did you two wind up together?” I asked. I was still missing a piece of the puzzle.
“My squad was exploring the Pit, right?” Fiver asked. “We found Emmitt’s people after an attack. They were slowly turning into glass. We were trying to help the bug-men when the spiders came back. I’m a medic, so I was doing what I could to bandage ‘em up. My brothers fought back, but our weapons are no good against the drattin’ beasts. The lieutenant called for a retreat, but I had spiders between me and the hover platform. I picked Emmitt here up—he hadn’t been bit, just had a leg wound from a nasty fall—and we high-tailed it out of there through a tunnel that led outside. That was all about a month ago.”
“He hasss been taking care of me,” the insect-man said. “And I have been giving him information about thisss world.”
“This might be home, best to learn what I can,” the soldier said. “We’re going to try to find the Portal World together. If rescue isn’t coming, it seems like my best chance to find a way home.”
I nodded. Now seemed like a good time to ask what I’d come here to ask. “Do you know how to get into the House of the Ancients? The castle?”
Corporal Fiver swallowed hard. “Why do you want to know about that? Those frogs—toads, whatever you want to call them. They captured me. Happened not long after I got here. Drattin’ frogs took me inside. I think they were going to kill me. I escaped using a sewage tunnel.”
“Can you show me where?” I asked.
“Can I ask again, why?” I was dismayed at the reluctance in his voice. The ease with which Ink had dealt with the toads on the road had caused me to underestimate the creatures.
“They took my sister,” I replied. “I have to save her.”
“Oh, hey man, I’m sorry. You really shouldn’t go in there. She’s . . . it’s probably already too late. I’ll take you if I can’t talk you out of it, but I can’t go back inside. Somethin’ not right about those toads, or that castle.”
“What’s going on in there?” I asked, my voice small.
“Evil, that’s all I know. Pure evil.”
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A mysterious world is discovered with a massive, miles-wide pit torn through one continent. The planet is strewn with the remains of a fallen civilization. What happened to the locals, and what were they digging for so desperately? A young intern assigned to the first expedition into the Pit will be among the first to find out...
J.L. Ender was born on planet Earth, third planet in the Sol system, which is located in a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy. Ender enjoys coffee, Mexican food, and devastating robot apocalypses. He has tamed a member of the local wildlife, a thing called a dog. In a fit of confusion he named it Bear and often finds himself walking the creature.