“So what were you doing for a year before you wound up here?” I asked. We were headed back to Lantern City to meet with the Pitworlder. We’d abandoned the camp, putting out the fire and packing up.
“Traveling,” Hondo said, shifting the straps on the hefty pack he wore. He didn’t elaborate any further, so we walked in silence, the only sound the clomp of shoes on dirt and the clank of Gareth’s metal feet. Something was wrong with the robot’s left foot, and it clattered with every third step. This time travel business was confusing, but my goals were clear. Save Lena, help Hondo. I decided I would focus on what I could understand for the time being.
Lantern City didn’t look quite so remarkable in the sunny mid-morning light. Most of the lanterns that gave the place its name were extinguished. The only flames I saw burning were in two large copper bowls hanging by chains to either side of the city’s single entrance.
The drawbridge was lowered. A thin line of bedraggled traffic wearily made its way inside. We joined the stream. Gareth pulled up the hood of his cloak and clutched the folds tight to his body, somehow turning in an instant from a tall warrior-like robot into a hunched, beggarly figure. Even the rattle in his leg quieted.
“Why—” I began.
“They don’t like robots around here,” Hondo whispered.
“I was chased out of town once,” Gareth said quietly. “Children ran after me with sticks. Some of the lantern rangers threw rocks.”
Guards in white masks stood at both ends of the bridge, but they didn’t seem to notice Hondo or Gareth. In fact, they barely seemed to be paying attention to anything.
I glanced over the drawbridge as we crossed it. Fluffy clouds hung beneath us.
“How is there sky beneath us?” I asked.
“Lantern City is attached to a shard of Frostbane that broke off from the planet over a hundred years ago,” Hondo said.
“The shard is drifting away at a slow but steady pace,” Gareth added. “Somehow it still has oxygen and gravity, but it has been growing colder here by an average of a half a degree per year. Eventually, this place will turn into a frozen wasteland.”
“It’ll be pretty cold in about 142 years,” I said.
“Exactly!” Gareth said, more excited than necessary. “By then it will be too cold for a human to survive longer than a few minutes.”
My foot ached at the memory of nearly getting frostbite. “If that,” I said as we passed the second set of guards. One of them eyed my feet, apparently noting my lack of shoes.
Ink grabbed my wrist once we were inside the city. “Hang back when you can,” he whispered so faintly I barely heard. Gareth tilted his head in confusion at almost the same moment, but said nothing.
Upon entering Lantern City, we found ourselves standing at the edge of an enormous plaza. Stalls had been set up nearby in several sloppy rows. Shoppers and sellers bustled around. There was a surprising array of peoples. Humans, salamanders, toads, turtles, and what looked like bird-people.
The bird-people had either blue or brown feathers and long, stilt-like legs that made them at least a head taller than everyone else in the crowd. Pointy, feathered crests made them seem even taller. Now that I knew what to look for, I noticed that some of the lantern rangers standing guard were actually bird-men.
I let Hondo walk ahead. He was scanning the various booths, though I wasn’t sure if he was looking for boots, or someone he knew, or both. He hadn’t said much about the Pitworlder we were here to meet. Gareth slipped by, followed by Rainsong, who muttered about slow-walking lizards as he passed.
Ink stepped up to my side. “How well do you know Hondo, noble friend?” he asked. He eyed one of the bird-people as they passed, casually resting a hand on the hilt of his sword.
“He’s my best friend,” I replied. “He got me the internship that got me started on this whole adventure.”
“Why did he get you involved with this ‘Pitworld’?” he asked.
“He knew I wanted to be an explorer,” I said. “And that my little sister wants to be a scientist. Why do you ask?”
“He seems . . . off. He didn’t want to answer your questions at the campsite.”
“He’s uncomfortable about a future version of himself running around making trouble,” I answered. “I would be too!”
“Be that as it may, I think we should be careful, noble friend. I am pledged to your quest. I will do everything I can to help you find your sister, but I can sense the danger is growing.” He shivered a little as he said this, and seemed to try to clutch the coat a little tighter before stopping himself. The frozen waste had been even harder for him and Rainsong than it had been for me.
“I know, and thank—” I began.
“Hey!” Hondo called from twenty feet down one of the haphazard aisles. “You guys coming?”
I nodded, and we took several steps toward our waiting companions. “You liked his coffee well enough,” I couldn’t resist pointing out.
“Do you have coffee on your star vessel?” he asked. “I would like more coffee, noble friend.”
“You should go to Earth sometime!” I said. “They’re nuts about coffee back home!”
“I would like that,” he said. “Are there salamanders on Earth?”
“Eh . . . sort of,” I didn’t have the heart to tell him they were just animals where I came from. “Maybe we can go there together someday, when this is all over. The Roseworld is nice and all, but I miss my home planet.”
“As I do mine, noble friend.” That got me thinking about Senna and the Pitworld. We had fallen a long way to get here. How would we ever get back?
We caught up with Rainsong and Gareth. Seeing our approach, Hondo had moved on ahead, eagerly scanning booths hung with colorful cloth. Merchants of all kinds called out their wares. We passed a table piled high with smoked fish, then a tent full of dresses, then a bookseller. This last caught my eye. I wasn’t much of a reader, but I was curious what sort of books might be waiting for me on this strange world. Would they be written in English?
The next stall was completely shrouded in black drapes. A hooded figure leaned out, studying us with glowing, golden eyes.
“Hondo,” the figure rasped in a harsh electronic voice.
He had walked past already, intently scanning the next booth.
“Hondo!” I called, a little louder than I’d intended. Dozens of eyes turned to stare.
Whoops, I thought. Hondo hadn’t wanted us to call attention to ourselves. . . .
“Get inside,” the hooded figure hissed.
Hondo entered first, following by Gareth. Ink and I were about to enter when we noticed Rainsong standing a few feet back with arms crossed.
“You coming?” I asked.
“I’m not going in there. I’ll wait here, foolish friends.”
“Okay, try not to get into trouble,” I replied.
“Ha! You are the trouble!” he answered with a derisive snort.
Ink shrugged as we crossed the threshold into the tent. It was dimly illuminated inside, and I had to strain to see my companions.
The glowing eyes belonged to a robot. It had an oddly shaped head, and two half-circles split by an I-shaped column. An eye shone from each half-circle. Standing next to it was a man. I couldn’t see his features or clothing well do to the poor lighting.
“Hello, Ravio,” Hondo said, nodding to the man.
“You brought strangers,” Ravio said in an accent I couldn’t recognize. “That’s not what we discussed.”
“They’re friends,” Hondo said quickly. “You can trust them same as you can trust me.”
“I don’t trust you, kid. This arrangement we’ve come to . . . it’s business. Don’t forget that.”
“Got it,” Hondo replied.
Ravio turned to me, eyed Ink, then looked to me again. “I don’t know what the kid here told you, so I’m going to give you what my people call the full weight. These Pits are bad news, and not just because the digs are dangerous, even though they are. These portals to other worlds, they were all dug a real long time ago, then buried a long time after that. I think it might have even been our people who closed them all up. Why, pray tell, do you think a magical portal to another world would be sealed up?”
I was quiet for a moment, taking in the man’s words. The full weight had been an apt way to put it.
“That wasn’t a rhetorical question,” Ravio continued. “Why does anyone bury anything, or close anything?”
“To keep people out,” I replied.
“Clap for your buddy here, Hondo. He figured it out faster than you did. These Pits need to stay closed. I think if we keep digging from world to world we’re going to stumble on something that was meant to stay buried.”
“What do you think they’ll find?” I asked.
“I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. Better if we put a hard cease and desist on all of this.”
“Why did you flee your world in the first place?” Ink asked.
“Our idiot king started swearing up and down about something his scientists discovered in their history books; a thing called the Cataclysm. He thought it was coming for Chronos, and we needed to find a way—any way at all—to get off the planet. Spaceflight wasn’t an option, but the king’s men found that Pit and boom, here we are.”
“You don’t believe in the Cataclysm, then?” I asked. All of this talk of going up or down through the Pit reminded me of the toads who guarded the House of the Ancients. “They don’t know up from down anymore,” Rainsong had said. In the future, the toads were trying to keep people down, here on Frostbane or perhaps even lower, on the next world down. That seemed to hint that the danger came from upward, just like the Pitworlder king seemed to believe.
“Nope,” Ravio answered. “It was crazy to abandon our home planet over a myth. Anyway, I think I can get us an audience with the Lantern Emperor. We need to head to the palace right away.”
“Excellent,” Hondo said.
“You really think you can stop the dig?” Ravio asked.
“We’ve got to try,” Hondo replied. “You said it yourself. Bad news.” He shifted his weight, playing with the straps of his backpack. His eyes turned down, and he bit his lip. I wondered if he was thinking about his future self.
“Alright, do or die I guess. Let’s go.” Ravio waved toward the exit. “Stay here, Robot.”
“Yes sir,” the robot replied.
“You really should give him a name,” Hondo said, pulling the curtain aside so Gareth could get out. The knight-like robot pulled his hood down over his large, black eyes.
“This is easier. I can say ‘hey Robot!’ without having to worry about getting his name right.”
We stepped outside. The sky was beginning to gray, threatening rain. Ravio led the way, heading toward the far end of the square, where a palace with a single, tall tower lay.
“How does all this work?” I asked.
“I got one of his advisors to agree to hear us out. It helps when you don’t dress like a vagrant,” Ravio said with a sniff, looking with disdain at Hondo’s unkempt appearance.
“Where are you going?” Rainsong called out, falling into step behind us.
“You mean where are we going?” I asked.
“What trouble are we in now?” the toad replied.
“You would know if you had gone inside with us, friend.” Ink said.
“I need to talk to you,” I said to Rainsong in a low voice. “I’ll fill you in.” I wanted information from the toad. Maybe he would trade with me. Ink gave me a searching look but turned away and kept walking.
“What have you gotten us into?” Rainsong asked again, matching my tone this time.
“We’re headed to a palace, hopefully to gain an audience with the emperor,” I said. “I need to know . . .” I paused, gathering my thoughts. My head was a little dizzy from all the up and down talk. Up through a Pit meant traveling to one world, down meant going to another. Worse, everyone believed an evil was out there, but no one seemed to agree on where it was coming from.
“I need to know a few things,” I finally continued. “About the Ancients.” The palace’s thin tower speared the sky like a knife blade. I felt an urgency to finish our conversation before we got inside and got distracted. Something bothered me about this Cataclysm business.
“I’m not supposed to talk about that,” Rainsong said.
“I’ll tell you what we learned from the Pitworlder,” I offered. “If you tell me about your people. Why do you send people away, and why do you think we Ancients are confused about up and down?”
“We send people down for their own protection. It isn’t safe for Ancients in Senna. Dragonlaugh says that we were told by the Ancients themselves to safeguard Senna and keep all humans away.”
“And the rest?” I asked.
“Sometime after leaving, the Ancients got confused. They tried to come back up through the Well of the Ancients en masse, and we had to stop them.”
“You’re saying Ancients tried to leave Frostbane and come up through to the House of the Ancients, and the toads stopped them?”
“Oh yes, thousands upon thousands of Ancients. They were frantic! Their confusion and panic were terrible, but my people did not waver from our duty! We sent them all back down!”
Red stone steps led the way up to the palace. Fires glowed within glass orbs on pillars lining both sides of the broad staircase. Seven guards in silver masks stood on the left side of the stairs, one per step. Rainsong’s words haunted me as we approached.
At some point between the past where we were now, and the present where we had come from, the Pitworlders had tried to come back to their homeworld. What could that mean?
Three figures stood on the lowest step, talking to the guard stationed there. A girl maybe a few years older than me with a wild tangle of black hair flanked by two tall, black robots with smooth, featureless faces.
“Hey, now it’s your turn,” Rainsong began.
“Shhh, not now,” I whispered.
“—instructed not to let you in,” the guard was saying. “The emperor’s time is valuable.”
“I am Queen Ophelia of Chronos!” the girl snapped. She wore a sky blue sweater and feathery black skirts. “He can make time!” She had the same accent as Ravio.
“This is your fifth request today, Your Majesty,” the next guard up said. “If we ask the emperor again, it’ll be our necks on the line this time.”
“Yes, yes. Wouldn’t want that,” the queen huffed, fists balled. “My people need help! When can I see him?”
“I don’t know, Majesty,” the same guard replied. “Sorry.”
“We have an appointment,” Ravio said from behind Queen Ophelia and her robots. We formed a small crowd behind him.
“With who?” the first guard asked, sounding annoyed. The queen turned to study us, but her robots kept their eyes trained on the guards.
“Second Minister Kallus,” Ravio replied. Now that we were out of the dimly lit tent, I saw he wore black pants, a tan shirt, and a black vest.
The first guard sighed. “Check the list.”
Five steps up a guard checked a scroll. “Ravio Faaron?” he asked.
“Got it in one,” Ravio replied.
“Very well, you may follow me. Is this your entourage?” he asked, indicating Ink, Rainsong, Hondo, Gareth and myself.
What an odd bunch we are, I thought. The look the guard gave us seemed to say the same thing.
“Yep. Well except for the frog. Never seem him before.”
“He’s with us,” I said.
“I’m a toad,” Rainsong added.
“He’s glaring at me. I don’t like the way he’s glaring at me,” Ravio replied. “He stays outside.”
“What!” Raingsong cried. “I am not staying outside again!”
“I don’t care,” the fifth guard said. “Follow me.” He beckoned us up the stairs.
We started off, not through the front door, but along a raised stone walk that ran along the front of the palace and around the righthand corner. Rainsong started to follow, but the bottommost guard lowered his spear, blocking the toad’s entry.
“Oh come on,” he said, throwing his arms in the air.
I shrugged. “Sorry.”
“You owe me, troublesome friend!” he called from below.
The Queen of Chronos studied me as I walked past, then suddenly reached out and grabbed my elbow. “I’m with them!” she cried. “Second Minister Kipper, my favorite!”
“Kallus,” the third guard corrected.
Big, brown eyes bored into mine. “Please,” she mouthed, barely uttering the word aloud.
“Yeah, she’s with me,” I said.
The first guard looked at me, then Ravio, then the fifth guard, now standing at the top of the stairs. “What do I do?” he asked. He still had his spear held out to block Rainsong.
“Oh let her go,” the fifth replied, shaking his head.
“It’ll get her out of our hair,” the second guard noted.
We strode upward, the queen never letting go of my elbow. The touch made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t feel like I could pull away.
The robots tried to follow, but this time the second guard lowered his spear. “None of that. You know clockwork men aren’t permitted in the holy palace of our emperor. You’re lucky we let them in the city.”
“Baltaan, Eowaard, leave the city and wait for me outside the gate.”
Without a word the two robots turned and clanked off, barely giving the first guard time to raise his spear.
“He’s not my emperor,” the girl added, too quietly for anyone but me to hear.
It didn’t escape my notice that Gareth probably should have waited outside too, but everything happened so fast I didn’t get the chance to say anything before the guard was well ahead. We had to hustle just to keep up with Ravio, who followed on the guard’s heels. I figured if the robot’s disguise had worked so far, why not just let it be?
We followed the walkway around a corner. “Thank you,” Queen Ophelia said. “I just really need to see the emperor.”
“Glad I could help,” I replied, wondering what I was getting myself into now. Maybe Rainsong was right, and I was just trouble.
No, I told myself. Don’t start thinking that way. I had a sister to rescue, and a friend to help. I couldn’t afford to doubt myself.
“You’re trying to help your people?” I asked. This girl . . . she seemed young, too young to be the leader of an entire planet. We followed the guard through a side door into a broad, open hallway lined with a red velvet rug.
“Yes, the dig. I’m sure you’ve heard about the dig,” she said with a small sigh. It’s important to me that we continue. But the conditions my people are living and working under . . . they are suffering; some are dying. I cannot stand for it.” She said the words with a firm undercurrent of anger. Whatever else this girl was, I got the sense she genuinely cared for her people.
“What are you digging for?” I asked, wanting to hear the words right from the source. Ravio had mentioned a king, but surely a queen would know just as much.
“We are digging for the stars. We seek to escape an evil my father called the Cataclysm. It was his life’s work to evacuate our home planet to come here. Now he’s gone, and I fear I’ve led my people into ruin.”
We were there to stop the dig altogether. I wondered what the queen would think if she knew. I didn’t want a queen for an enemy, but I was committed to helping Hondo stop the dig.
“How did your father learn of this Cataclysm?” I asked.
“He read of it in ancient history texts. Thousands of years ago my people dug a Pit that somehow acts as a portal to another world. On that other world they dug another portal leading to another world, and on that third world, they dug a third portal, and so on. They knew that one day we would need to escape our planet.”
“What specifically did the text say about escaping?” I said. I had a bad feeling that everyone was missing something.
“Flee the homeland!” she replied. “The texts said very specifically that we needed to flee our homeward to escape the coming evil.”
“Well no, of course not! There was much talk of the portals. How they’re made and such, and where one was buried on our world.”
“You know how to make new ones?” I asked.
“No, it seems to require a device we don’t have. Ancient technology my people no longer know how to build. That’s why we’re using the old portals even though the old texts say not to.”
“They seriously say not to—”
“Are you coming, noble friend?” Ink called. I’d gotten so caught up in our conversation I hadn’t realized the queen and I had stopped. We were standing halfway down the hall, several paces from a door where the rest of our group was waiting. She still had my elbow in hers.
I took a step to the side, deciding it was okay to pull away from her now.
“Yes, we’re coming,” I said. We began to move again. My companions began to file into the room ahead. We walked in silence for most of the way while I debated what I should tell the queen about our own reason for entering the palace.
“You should know we plan to stop the dig,” I blurted out. So much for tact.
“You . . . that’s why you’re here?” she asked, eyebrows lifting in surprise.
“Yes,” I replied. “My friend, Hondo, thinks that—”
“Good,” she interrupted, cutting me off. “I want it stopped too.”
It was my turn to be surprised, but we were at the door now. We couldn’t talk more without holding everyone up even further, so I slipped inside. The dig had seemed important to her. She must truly have felt her people were in serious danger to be willing to have it halted.
The cluttered office we found ourselves in looked like it belonged more to a professor than an advisor to royalty. There were books everywhere. They lined the walls in shelves; they were piled high on every table and most of the chairs in the room. Several precarious stacks lay near the edges of the room, looking ready to tumble and spill their knowledge all over the floor.
An elderly man in a red robe sat behind a desk messy with papers and maps. Second Minister Kallus. “No, I don’t mind talking to you about the dig,” he was saying to Ravio. “Frankly, I think the conditions we’ve got the workers toiling under to be—Oh galloping grapefruit! Your Majesty!” he cried, noticing the queen had entered his chambers. The man rose to his feet, nearly knocking his chair over in his haste to rise and bow.
“Yes, yes, it’s me,” she said, waving a hand as though brushing aside the man’s attention.
“Well, I wasn’t expecting to entertain royalty,” he began, licking his lips and casting a nervous eye around his office. He rose a hand to his thinning, gray hair and scratched at his scalp.
“That’s quite alright,” she said, waving her hand again. “I’m just here to listen. I’d like to hear Mr. Faaron’s proposal.”
“We want an audience with Emperor Titus. We think the Pit being dug down below is dangerous,” Ravio replied.
“On what grounds?” Second Minister Kallus asked, settling back down.
“Buried things should stay buried. The ancient texts that brought us here even warn against the dangers of entering one of these Pits. We were supposed to make new portals, not use the old ones.
“There’s more,” I said, deciding it was time I speak up. I had put it all together. What Rainsong had said was absolute proof. Eventually, everyone digging downward now was going to turn and try to flee back up, only to be stopped by the toads of Senna. “They’re digging in the wrong direction. The Cataclysm won’t come from above.”
I took a deep breath, briefly meeting Queen Ophelia’s eyes.
“The danger is below. You’re headed right for the Cataclysm.”
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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.