I stared at the sky for several minutes.
Seven moons and a blue sun stared back.
Eventually, I managed to pull my eyes away to take in the foreign landscape rising around me. The jungle towered high above my head, made up of trees with odd, triangular leaves and hefty ferns that came up to my neck. Vines crisscrossed among them. The growth was so thick that the forest ahead seemed almost impenetrable, but I thought I could see a glimpse of a green hill through the waving trees branches.
The forest reached all the way to the cave behind me. I looked into the blackness I’d emerged from. I couldn’t see the spiders anymore. I glanced up, expecting to find a titanic mountain tearing into the sky. The cave was set into a rocky hill. Merely a finite hill, nothing that could house a whole planet. Not that a giant mountain would have eased my confusion. No mountain could account for what had happened to me. I’d been transported somehow.
“Lena?” I called out. My voice cracked, the sound not carrying as far as I’d intended.
I thought I heard a reply, but I couldn’t be sure with the mess of strange bird and insect noises bursting from the trees.
“I’m starting to hate jungles,” I muttered, taking a couple steps forward, debating which direction to go. I’d been stranded in a jungle once before. That adventure had ended well enough, but I still didn’t like jungles.
“Where do I go?” I said.
Stop talking to yourself, I thought. “It’s the first sign you’re going crazy,” I said aloud.
I turned on my heel and dropped my backpack to the ground. If I was going to run into the jungle, I ought to leave a note for the rest of the crew. I didn’t know if anyone would read it, or if it would do any good, but it was all I could think to do. I crouched in the grass and dug through my pack and fished out my notebook.
Grabbing my pen, I scribbled down the first thing that came into my head in large, all capital letters.
GONE SEARCHING FOR LENA.
WILL RETURN WHEN I CAN.
I weighed down one corner with a rock and stood, dusting off my hands. The note didn’t seem like much, but it was better than nothing.
Now the same question returned. Where to?
I couldn’t see anything but forest on three sides and rock behind. I thought about climbing the rocks, but the hill looked too steep on this side.
“Lena?” I yelled again, louder than before. If I got another reply, maybe I could pinpoint a direction.
The insects and birds were quiet for a moment, creating a creepy silence that lingered for several seconds before the animal noises picked back up. No other answer to my shout.
I’d better be careful, I thought. Who knew what was out here? What would follow my voice?
Forward, I decided. If there really was a hill through the trees, I could use it to get the lay of the land and search for Lena and any other crew members that might have made it out here. The sun was setting, but with so many moons above, the light didn’t seem to be diminishing much, just transitioning from bright colors to grayscale.
I pushed through the jungle. Now that I’d chosen a direction, I decided to hurry, letting my indecision slide away. I didn’t know what I’d find ahead, but I couldn’t afford to second guess myself.
I charged out of the forest and into a clearing that ran to the edge of a drop-off. Below, the land rolled away in a series of undulating hills. An enormous castle dominated the landscape, a mountainous stone building covered in what looked like ivy. In the middle-distance to the right, was a small village with thatch-roofed houses. A windmill spun behind the homes like a watchful shepherd. To the left a lake sprawled, surface shimmering with a riot of colors thanks to the variety of the moonlight shining down. A ribbon of road snaked between the village and the lake.
On it . . . a small line of seven figures headed toward the castle.
They were too far for me to make out perfectly, but one of them looked the right size and shape to be my little sister.
Five of the others were odd. Robed, they had a strange gait, and seemed too broad-shouldered and hunched to be men. The last one looked human but tall and bald. Darkeson?
“Hey!” I called out, full volume again. My throat was starting to hurt from yelling.
They were too distant to hear me, about to disappear behind a hill on the far side of the village. I looked below. The route downhill was steep and treacherous, nothing that lent itself to a frenzied race downhill. Unfortunately, that was what it would take to keep Lena in view.
I’m no good to anyone with my head cracked open, I told myself, searching for the safest route down. I tended to look before I leapt, but this time I couldn’t afford to. Sighing in frustration, I began to stagger downhill. There were five outcroppings of rock switchbacking their way down, and I used them to mark my progress. When I reached the second to last, I stopped for a brief moment to search for Lena. Even though I’d been expecting it, my heart sank.
Out of sight.
I was tired and thirsty, but I pushed myself on without rest, sliding to the base of the hill and taking off. A small grove of trees grew along either side of the road, a dirt path that was shrouded in shadow where it rolled beside the foot of the hill. Birds and insects stopped crying as I neared, this time without my having made more noise than a few grunts as I descended.
“Still creepy,” I muttered. I ran along the road. The sun had set in this direction, so I decided I would call it west. I moved toward the village, the castle, and my last sighting of Lena. Whatever the locals intended for her and Darkeson, I would have to hope the pair would be okay until I could help them.
After the terror of the Pit, it felt good to run in the fresh air of a new world. The scents of hay and pond-water drifted on a gentle breeze. I would have loved to explore and pour over every detail, but I had to hurry onward.
I had been running for several minutes when I noticed someone was running beside me. I turned to see what looked like a lizard keeping pace with me, his hand on the hilt of a sword strapped to his waist. He had a wide, flat head and big eyes, his skin a deep navy blue with spots of light blue. His robe was spotless white above the waist, shimmering blue and gray stripes below. A conical straw hat was perched on his head.
“Hello,” the lizard said cheerfully when he noticed me staring at him. I adjusted the straps on my backpack as I jogged. He didn’t seem to be a fast runner. He had a wide stance and bowed legs that churned up the dust of the road as he raced beside me.
“Um . . . hello,” I replied. “How do you do?” I added, trying to remember my manners. The creature had spoken in a kind, polite voice. I never once felt like I was in danger from him.
“I am rather well, noble friend, thank you for asking. We’re both about to be attacked by murderous toads.” Behind us, I heard the rumble of footsteps coming our way. There was no time to think about the reality of a swordsman lizard that somehow spoke perfect English.
“We’re what?” I asked, looking backward. I yelped. Five frog-like beings tore down the road after us. Three were armed with swords, two with battle-axes.
“Don’t worry!” the swordsman said. “I’ve got it under control. Could you hold my hat?”
Without waiting for an answer, the lizard tossed his hat at my face and leapt. The swordsman sprang powerfully into the air. He drew his blade mid-jump and parried a strike from one of the toads. With a twist of his wrist, the swordsman disarmed the toad, then smacked the creature across the head with the flat of his sword blade, knocking it unconscious. With a neat spin, he turned and gave another of the creatures a mighty kick with one of his little legs. The strike didn’t seem harsh, but the toad’s fleshy head snapped back, and it too was knocked out.
Fumbling with the hat, I threw it aside and raised my gauntlet, prepared to fire. The swordsman pushed off the dirt, then sprang again, this time landing behind two of the toads. In the same fluid motion, he hit one with the flat of his blade and headbutted the other. Both fell at almost the same time.
The fifth dropped his sword and fled.
The battle was over faster than I’d been able to react.
The swordsman hopped down. “Well, noble friend. That was enjoyable. No need to thank me! It is my duty and privilege to assist the weak and faint of heart.” He looked at my hands, taking in the gauntlet I wore, hairless eyebrows creasing in confusion.
“Where’s my hat?”
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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.