“Why would we go down there?” I asked. “What happened to you after we left?” The idea of entering another Pit made me feel sick. I kept getting further and further from home. I didn’t want to take one more step in the wrong direction.
“We moved on,” Queen Ophelia said. Her hair was much shorter now. And lighter, as if she’d spent a great deal of time in the sun. Her skin was heavily freckled now as well. “The agreement went as planned. At first, anyway. Minister Brink and the emperor held up their end of the bargain. Brink actually went with us. Anyway, that isn’t important right now. Much has changed. We should get moving.”
“You owe us more of an explanation than that,” I said. “We just missed one hundred forty-two years.”
“One hundred forty-one, actually. That’s why I had such a hard time finding you. One last parting shot from your pal. That man really hates you, Prometheus Jones.”
“He sure does,” I said softly. One year further away from Lena. If Hondo had been telling the truth about sending her forward two-hundred years, that meant we were separated by fifty-nine years now. I would be 72 by then.
“I’ve never seen someone so happy to enact such cold-hearted plans. You should be careful if you ever cross paths with him again.”
“I agree,” Ink said. “A dangerous fellow indeed.”
“Unless he found the secret to immortality, he’s been gone a long time,” I pointed out.
“In a way, that’s exactly what he has. Thanks to the Moonstones, the agents of the End can travel through time. That’s where we’re headed, by the way. The Moonstone laboratory.”
“There’s a Moonstone laboratory?” I asked.
“You’re taking us back to Senna, noble queen?” Ink asked.
“No, I’m aware of the Moonstone lab run by the insect-people. The End has his own, closer to the seat of his power. Can we go now? It’s best if I don’t say too much.”
“Why won’t you tell us more, Queen Ophelia?” I asked. I could tell she was holding back, trying to rush us into the Pit without answering our questions.
Queen Ophelia pointed to her head, indicating the lack of a crown. “I am no queen. Not anymore.” She sighed. We remained silent. I could tell she was about to say more.
“I’ve been to the future,” she said. “I have knowledge of what’s to come.”
“You . . . really?” I said. “You can’t change the past.”
“This is my future,” Ophelia pointed out. “I’m aware of what Hondo Brink told you, but he’s only half right. The past is set in stone. Whatever happened, happened. But that doesn’t mean our actions don’t matter. Just by talking to you, I’m changing your present, right?”
“Right?” I agreed, trying to understand. All this time travel business hurt my brain, but it made a certain amount of sense.
“But I can’t travel back in our past and save Lena. If I was going to do that, it would have already happened. That’s the thing about moving into the past. It already happened, so when we go back in time and change things, we’re just doing whatever needs to happen to make the present and the future come out the way they were always going to. Make sense?”
“I think so,” I said.
“Great,” she declared. “I’m under orders to say as little as possible, and that explanation took a lot of words. Let’s go.”
“Orders from who?” I asked. “This wasn’t adding up. What could she be so afraid to tell us?
“Will you come with me if I don’t tell you?”
“No.” I didn’t even have to think about my answer.
She growled in frustration. “Let’s just say the Cataclysm isn’t the only ancient beast throwing its weight around, and leave it at that. There is another.”
“Another monster like the Emissary?”
Ophelia let out a humorless laugh. “The Emissary was just a lackey of the monster who calls itself the End. We call it by another name. Cataclysm.”
“The same Cataclysm that drove you from your home planet, noble friend?” Ink asked.
“So,” I said. “You want us to head toward a monster so terrible you emptied an entire planet to escape it?”
I sighed. “Figures. Alright, I’ll go. I need a Moonstone to find my sister. Wait, you’ve been to the future. Have you seen Lena?”
“No, Prometheus. I’m sorry.” A strange look crossed her face. An expression of worry, as if she were thinking about something to come, an unpleasantness in our futures.
“We’re all going to die, aren’t we?” I didn’t mean to blurt it out, but I’d just figured out why she was so secretive. “That’s why you won’t tell us everything.”
“I didn’t say that,” she replied with an emphatic shake of her head.
But she didn’t deny it, either. Maybe only some of us were going to die. Even if just one of us was going to die, knowing beforehand would have a dramatic impact on our actions.
“Who’s going to die?” Rainsong spluttered, coming awake suddenly. He was still draped over Gareth’s shoulder. The robot didn’t seem to mind the extra weight. “Wait, where is everyone?” His head lay against Gareth’s back, facing away from us.
“You speak into my armpit, my bold companion!” Gareth told the toad. The robot righted the toad and set him on his feet. “Everyone is over here,” he said.
“What’s going on?” Rainsong asked. “Why is it day? Did we win?”
We filled Rainsong in. He was quiet for a long time before he finally spoke in a small voice. “I want to go home.” The toad didn’t seem himself without his usual foul mood.
“Me too,” I said, though I wasn’t sure where home was. I hadn’t fit in on the Roseworld, or Earth. “But I need to find my sister. She’s the only family I have, and I’m all she’s got.”
“I understand that,” he said. “And I wish you the best of luck, but I must return to the temple.”
“The Pit that leads back to Senna is three miles that way,” Ophelia said, pointing. “You’ll have to climb a mountain.”
He nodded. “I will make my way as best I can.” He bowed deeply at the waist. “Truly, Godspeed to you all, even the lizard-boy.”
“Godspeed?” I asked. The combination of words didn’t quite make sense to me.
“It is a blessing on our world,” Ink said. He bowed in return. “Godspeed to you,” he said to Rainsong.
“Thank you for everything,” I said. I mostly meant in the battle against Hondo and the Emissary. Not for getting us hurled down the Pit to Frostbane, even if that had somehow led to finding Lena, Hondo, and Gareth.
Raingsong turned and began to walk in the direction Ophelia had indicated. I could hardly believe the grumpy little toad was gone. We’d been through so much together.
Ophelia was unfazed. She held a hand out toward the Pit. “Let’s go.”
I stepped back toward the hole and stared into the abyss. As I looked down, I began to feel dizzy. I’d never had a problem with heights, but this particular drop. I was feeling something I’d never truly known before.
I was afraid.
Afraid of what was to come, afraid of failure. The fear was almost overwhelming. My hands began to tremble. I remembered suddenly a story I’d read a long time ago, in a crumbling library on Earth. A story about a girl chasing a rabbit down a hole and into another world. It occurred to me I couldn’t remember what happened at the end.
“Does Alice ever find the rabbit?” I asked softly. My voice sounded hollow and strange to my own ears.
“I am not sure what you mean, noble friend.” I hadn’t heard the salamander come close. Had barely realized I’d asked my question out loud.
“I don’t know if I can do it,” I said in the same quiet tone, hating to admit the weakness but unable to see another way forward.
“Acting quickly is a strength,” Ink said. “You must simply temper quick action with care and wisdom. Your first lesson as my apprentice will be to learn to trust your instincts again.”
And then he placed a hand against the small of my back and shoved me into the Pit.
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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.