A scream and the flicker of flames.
The scream came from Rainsong, who had been startled awake just seconds before I had. We were encircled by six men in strange masks. The masks covered their entire faces and had long, curling horns. The men bore lanterns and rode what I can only describe as legless, purple, flying horses. Night had fallen, and from the stiffness in my bones, I knew we’d been sleeping for a terribly long time. The brook was a silver, moonlit ribbon in the night.
True to form, Ink was already up and crouching in a ready stance, double-bladed sword held in one hand.
“What do you people want?” I blurted out, too groggy and irritable to hold my tongue. I was the last to rise to my feet.
“What brings a frog, a lizard, and a boy to the Wastewood?” One of the men asked in reply. His mask was gold with huge, angry eyes painted in orange and black. “I didn’t believe the reports. I had to come here and see with my own eyes.”
“I’m a salamander,” Ink said. Neither of us bothered to correct him about Rainsong.
“We came . . .” I was about to say we came from another world, but I wasn’t sure they would believe us. “We are travelers. We came from far away.”
“Across the Poisoned Sea?” the man in the golden mask asked.
“Something like that,” I said.
This caused several of the masked men to murmur amongst themselves. I hoped I hadn’t just made a mistake.
“That’s quite a journey,” a man in a silver mask said.
I nodded. “Sure,” I said with no enthusiasm, nervous now about saying the wrong thing.
Rainsong made a noise like clearing his throat. He was frowning, hand hovering where a sword hilt would have been if he’d had a weapon strapped to his belt.
I frowned at him and shook my head. Don’t start a fight, I mouthed. The toad cast me a lurid grin in reply, his bulging eyes glowing like pearls in the firelight.
I turned back to the man in the gold mask. I knew it was a long shot, but I had to ask. “You didn’t see a girl come through here, possibly with by a bald man?”
“You’re the first strangers I’ve seen in the Wastewood since I don’t know when, boy,” the man in the gold mask said. “Visitors are rare out here. Mixed company like you lot even more so.”
My shoulders slumped. I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. I didn’t know how we’d escaped the frozen land if that had been the past, the future, or another world. I didn’t like the idea of Lena and Darkeson being trapped there. If this fair-weather world was somehow the same as icebound one, perhaps she’d been luckier than us and landed when it was warmer.
“You come out here looking for someone?” Gold Mask asked.
“Yeah, my sister and a friend,” I replied.
“What’s his story?” a man in a white mask asked, nodding at Rainsong. The toad was glaring daggers at the masked men.
“I honestly don’t know,” I said with a shrug. “My friend and I,” —I waved at Ink— “only just met him.”
“Well, keep him under control,” Gold Mask said. “Some lantern rangers would cut him down just for staring like that. Lucky for you we’re an easygoing squad. You should look for your sister in Lantern City. Everything winds up there sooner or later in these parts. Nothing waiting for you out here but an early grave.”
“We will, sir. Thank you, sir,” I said, at last remembering some manners.
“Where could we find Lantern City?” Ink asked. He sheathed his own sword but kept a hand casually resting against the grip. It was the same stance Rainsong had taken, with none of the hostility the toad was showing.
“It’s just to the west,” the man in the gold mask said. “Follow the brook downstream, and you can’t miss it.”
“Would you like us to guide you there?” asked another man in a white mask. The remaining men who hadn’t spoken yet all wore plain white masks that made their faces look smooth and featureless.
I glanced at Rainsong. He seemed as though he were on the verge of doing something stupid. I didn’t want to travel with the toad, but for now, we were linked in the minds of these soldiers. Best to avoid tempting the angry amphibian.
I shook my head. “We’ll be fine,” I told the lantern rangers.
“Alright kid. I’m sure you’ve heard, but I like to remind travelers all the same. Don’t follow the sound.”
“What did you say?” I asked, not quite able to believe I’d heard correctly.
“Don’t follow the sound. You’re bound to here something out there. Everyone does. Anyway, bye.”
“Good luck,” said the man in the silver mask.
The lantern rangers rode off, their alien mounts snuffling and snorting like Earth horses as they flew away. As they took off, tentacles unfolded from beneath their bodies and waggled in the air. Each one had six.
“Abominations!” Raingsong hissed under his breath as the masked men rode into the night, leaving us with nothing but the scant illumination of a single moon and a dusting of stars.
“What is your problem?” I said. “You could have gotten us all killed.”
“That is unlikely, noble friend.” Ink broke in. “I am quite sure I could have beaten them. The white masks were all novices. The man in the golden mask is the only one who would have been a challenge.”
“Not. Helping.” I shook my head. “We’re going to this Lantern City,” I told Rainsong. If you want to come with us, you have to behave yourself.”
“For the time being it seems we are stuck together, foolish friend,” Rainsong replied. “But I intend to return home as soon as possible. I have sacrificed all to do my duty. There is no more the House of the Ancients can ask of me.”
“Whatever, man.” I shook my head again and snapped up my backpack, sliding it onto my shoulders. I cast about for my lost boot, but it was gone. Left behind on the ice world. I suppressed a sigh and slid off my remaining boot, shoving it into my bag. I thought about taking off my socks too, but the ground was cold, and I was light years past caring whether they got dirty.
We followed the stream as it ambled through the night into a dense pine forest. The rangers had gone this way. Whatever dangers the man in the golden mask had been talking about, I didn’t plan to stay long enough to learn more.
I had only made it a few steps when my foot landed on something small and hard. The Moonstone. I crouched to pick it up. “Can we use this again?” I asked. “What if Lena’s back on that frozen planet?”
“Moonstones only work once without the light of Senna’s moons to shine upon them, noble friend,” Ink told me.
I sighed and pocketed the stone. Going back had always been a long shot. I would’ve had only seconds to search for Lena before I froze to death anyway.
Ink walked beside me as we continued on our way. My stomach growled. I dug in my backpack and fished out a protein bar. I broke it apart and gave half to the salamander.
I turned back to the toad. He had his arms crossed. He followed us ten feet back, muttering to himself. “You want some?” I asked, waggling the snack bar at Rainsong.
“I would sooner perish than take the food of an Ancient,” Rainsong replied.
I shrugged and shoved the whole rest of the bar into my mouth. “Suit yourself,” I mumbled around a mouthful of food.
“I don’t understand,” Ink said. “I thought your mission was to protect the Ancients. Why such disdain?”
“Dragonlaugh teaches us that the Ancients have lost their way. Like ignorant children, we must help them learn up from down. They try to travel up; we send them back down where it is safe. I do as I have always been taught, but that doesn’t mean I have to like what fools your people have become.”
“And why does that mean you don’t want my food?” I asked.
“Because you need it. Like I said, I still do my duty.”
“And yet you resent the Ancients for needing you,” Ink said. “Quite the conundrum.”
The scents of fir trees and wet rocks were strong in the forest. The air had an invigorating chill to it. I wanted to guess we were at a high altitude, but I couldn’t be sure. The trees were so thick all around us; I could only see straight ahead and behind. I followed Ink’s example and kept a hand on the hilt of my sword.
“THEUS!” Lena’s voice called from the trees to my right. I spun to see my sister standing deeper in the woods, between two tall pines thirty feet away. She wore a plain, white dress I’d never seen before. “Theus!” she called again. “Come quickly!”
I was halfway to the tree-line when Ink grabbed my wrist. “That’s her,” I said. “That’s my sister.”
“The lantern ranger said not to follow the sound, noble friend. Perhaps we should heed his advice.”
I caught a glimpse of Rainsong. He stood by the brook, arms crossed. Waiting.
“I . . .” My voice trailed off. I looked back to where I’d seen Lena. She glowed faintly, I noticed now. I nodded to Ink and drew my sword.
“We go together,” he whispered, drawing his own blade. We crept through the trees. Ink was proving himself an invaluable friend all over again. We had both figured out this was some sort of trap, but he knew I would have to check anyway.
“Theus! Come quickly!” Lena called again as we approached. She spoke in the exact same tone as before, as if her voice were a recording on repeat. The words were tinny and sounded further away than they should have.
We were a few feet away when the image of Lena vanished, revealing a hideous octopus creature with the head of a wolf. Its skin was a deep black, so dark it nearly blended in with the heavy forest gloom. We both raised our blades as writhing tentacles reached for us. I swung awkwardly and cut one of the flailing tentacles away. Ink neatly severed three in one swift strike.
“Theus! Come quickly!” the creature repeated in Lena’s voice. It let out a howl of inhuman rage and flew off, wetly sliding between the tree trunks as it fled.
For a moment Ink and I just stared, swords held in the air. Ink was the first to sheath his weapon. I followed suit after a moment.
“She must have read my mind somehow,” I said. She? I thought. That wasn’t Lena. “It,” I corrected. “It must have read my mind.”
Ink nodded thoughtfully but didn’t speak.
“You. . . . That was seriously disturbing,” Rainsong said. “You are a magnet for trouble, foolish friend. I can already tell.”
“Thanks for the help,” I replied, trying to keep my voice level. I didn’t want to fight with a toad in a strange forest on who knew what planet, but I couldn’t help feeling irritable.
“Lizard Boy had things under control,” the toad replied. “Besides, I’m unarmed.”
“I am a salamander, friend. And thirty-three. I had heard frogs don’t have good eyesight; I suppose this confirms it.” The salamander winked at me as he said the words.
“You know perfectly well I am a bona fide toad!” Rainsong replied with an indignant stamp of his webbed foot. “A junior guardsman in the House of the Ancients!”
“Let’s just keep moving,” I said. “The sooner we get out of here and find this Lantern City the better.”
We walked for miles. I lost track of time and distance as we settled into a rhythm, Ink and I walking side by side, Rainsong several feet back. The toad would mutter to himself occasionally, but otherwise, he was content to merely follow and leave us be. I told Ink the story of how I’d gotten us here. We tried to figure out where we were but came to no conclusions.
Ink was the first to spot Lantern City. It sat on a promontory past the forest that jutted from the edge of a cliff, which backed up my theory that we were at high altitude. Massive stone walls rose forty feet into the air. Towers along the length of the fortress-like structure were nearly twice that height. The city derived its name from thousands of lanterns hanging off hooks from nearly every available surface. Most of them were swaying in a gentle breeze. Lantern City lit up the night like a firecracker that had somehow been paused in the sky, a thousand lights scattered in all directions.
The city was surrounded by what looked like a moat. There was no water I could see, just a drop-off. A raised drawbridge blocked access inside. Men in white masks stalked the battlements of the city’s high wall. They carried long, spear-like weapons that glinted above their heads in the city’s scattered glow.
“Maybe we’ll find Hondo here,” I said.
“He said ‘see you on the other side’, did he not?” Ink asked.
“Yes, but he seemed different somehow. Older.”
We were less than twenty feet from the drawbridge when it began to drop. A loud groaning and clanking filled the night as it was lowered on chains. I looked over the edge of the chasm and saw that there was no water in the moat, the drop-off just descended into something I had never expected to see beneath my feet again.
What have we gotten ourselves into? I thought. This world was much stranger than the last. As far as I could tell, Lantern City was just floating in place, and that was just one among a dozen oddities we’d encountered in the space of a few short hours.
I was about to nudge Ink and have him take a look when two men in silver masks strode across the drawbridge. They were followed by a man in a golden mask who bore one of the tall spears.
The two men in front were dragging someone between them.
“Stay out this time, you lousy beggar!” the man in the gold mask shouted. Not the same voice as the man we’d spoken to in the Wastewood. Gold seemed to indicate higher authority, but apparently, there was more than one of them. “We’ll have no more interruptions from you!”
The two silver masks grabbed their prisoner by the shoulders and gave him a solid heave off the drawbridge and onto solid ground. He scrambled to his feet, shouting in a familiar voice. “You don’t understand!” he cried. “You can’t finish the Pit!”
He was closer to the proper age this time, younger than when I’d seen him in the frozen wasteland, but I’d have known my old friend anywhere.
“Hondo!” I called out.
Love what you read then
Prepare to enter...
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.