“Okay, people, do not engage,” Ophelia ordered. We were pinned between three of the monsters, with more screeching electronic howls echoing from somewhere out of sight.
“We shall slaughter them all in glorious battle! Their oil will soak the streets like blood!” Gareth cried, waving his sword in the air.
“No, there’s too many of them. Follow me! And close your eyes!” Ophelia darted toward a back alley to our left, opposite the looming Emissary above.
“We can’t close our eyes and run!” Rainsong protested.
“Squint and look at the ground!” The queen fired one arrow high into the air as she ran. I did as instructed, watching Ophelia’s heels so I would know where to go.
The arrow burst like a firework. A dazzling light flashed, bright even against half-closed eyes. The Emissary robots let out more horrible screeches in protest. One of them cried out in English. “We saw you, Ophelia the Fallen! We’ve come for you!”
“It’d be super if we knew what was going on!” Rainsong protested as we hurtled down the alley. He’d finally given up on riding on Gareth’s back and was racing alongside him. There was an intersection ahead leading left and right.
“Giant robots are trying to kill us, and we’re trying to find a lab filled with time traveling rocks,” Ophelia said over her shoulder as she led us around a corner and down an even narrower back street. “What don’t you get?”
“Well, when you put it that way,” the toad mumbled, hopping over a root that sprawled across the ground.
“I believe we are out of immediate danger, noble friends,” Ink said. The sounds of the End’s servants had grown more distant.
Ophelia nodded. “This way,” she said. She’d led us to a steel slab of a door. Heavy-duty rivets stood out along its surface. The walls here were far less overgrown than elsewhere in the city. I could see the building on the right was made of small, red bricks.
To my surprise Ophelia ignored the door and turned to the opposite side of the alley. She tapped a brick at forehead height. A hidden door slid aside, revealing darkness within. The obvious door was a decoy or else just led somewhere less important. Anyone in pursuit would have searched the wrong building first.
“Your laboratory has a hidden door?” I asked.
“Everything about this lab had to be of the utmost secrecy,” Ophelia said, fumbling along one wall for a light. “I didn’t want the power of time travel in the wrong hands. In fact, I only wanted it in my own hands. Not that it mattered in the end. The End.” She chuckled wryly. “The Cataclysm still got ahold of this place.”
“Then why are we even here?” Rainsong asked, pushing his helmet away from his eyes.
“I kept most of the more powerful Moonstones locked in a special vault,” she told us, stepping to type on a dusty control panel. The ceiling gave a gentle hum and lights recessed in the ceiling whirred to life. We stood at the far end of a cramped and dusty hallway, the light filtering through a veil of cobwebs. “The fact that this building hasn’t been torn to pieces tells me the Dawn was right, and they’re still here at the Crossroads. The last time I saw them, they were in my office.”
“The Dawn?” Ink said.
“Forget I mentioned that,” Ophelia replied.
“She can’t tell us,” Rainsong explained with a roll of his bulging eyes.
“What he said,” the former queen added.
“That line is getting pretty old,” I told her. I sighed. I was annoyed, but we’d gone too far to turn back, or even look back.
Ever further down the rabbit hole.
As long as Ophelia was my only link to finding Lena, I’d follow her. I’d all but given up on ever seeing my long lost crew again, but I needed to find them too, if possible. Home, wherever and whenever, was a distant third goal.
Silly words filled with hope that the future would somehow work out, that a lost boy would somehow find his sister, his crew, and a place he belonged. I didn’t think it was a coincidence that if possible sounded a lot like impossible.
“Where’s your office?” I asked Ophelia.
“Just this way,” she said, waving a hand toward a staircase barely wide enough for walking single file. It was so choked with cobwebs Ophelia had to use an arrow to sweep them all away, grimacing when a few strands stuck to the shaft as she slid it back into her quiver.
There was a door every ten steps up. Ophelia ignored the first one, then opened the second, revealing an enormous atrium. We peered over the shoulders of the former queen. Ornate crystal chandeliers loomed above a floor checkered with tiny, black and white tiles. The spiders had made palaces of them all. Diffuse moonlight shone through tall picture windows high above.
Tarnished brass doors sat at haphazard angles, giving us a view of the street outside. I could hear the Emissaries’ electronic screaming. It echoed distantly, as if they’d moved off somewhere, perhaps hunting the city for us. A winding staircase spiraled up into darkness, most of its spindles broken and strewn across the tile floor.
“Wrong door,” Ophelia whispered. She pulled it closed, and we strode up another flight of stairs. The next door opened into an office.
Or perhaps more accurately, what used to be an office before it was clearly trashed by people looking for something.
Torn papers yellowed with age drifted in the gentle breeze admitted by a shattered corner of a window. The moonlight threw mysterious, hulking shadows against the walls, cast by the shapes of furniture broken to pieces. Paintings slumped against the same walls, all of them shredded. A quiet scene of past destruction.
“No!” Ophelia cried. “No! No! No!” she was staring at a hole in the wall behind a moldering pile of wood that might have once been a desk.
“Let me guess,” Rainsong began.
“They found your secret stash?” I cut in.
“I was going to say that,” the toad said, sticking his long tongue out at me.
“Yes,” she said. “They must have.”
A howl broke the calm, reminding us of the enemy outside.
“How did you not see this coming?” I asked. “I narrowed my eyes. Did you see this coming?”
“No!” she cried, defensive. “My future knowledge has . . .” she frowned. “Gaps. I mean, I didn’t live all this. I just learned about it secondhand from the Dawn.”
The Dawn again.
“Who is the Dawn?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about that,” she said. “We need to get out of here. I know we’re going to find the Moonstones. I just don’t know where . . .”
“But how can that be, if the End has them?” Ink asked.
Ophelia shrugged, then frowned again. “Ugh, I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this.”
“Come to what?” I asked.
“She can’t tell you,” said Rainsong.
“Glorious battle!” Gareth cried. “We shall fight our way to freedom!”
“Um. No. Follow me, you’ll find out soon enough,” Ophelia said, turning back toward the hidden passageway. The door was still hanging open. “Close it behind you,” she ordered.
We went back down the stairs to one of the doors we’d passed by earlier. Ophelia shoved it open, letting it bang against the wall. Clearly stealth was not a concern. At least, not on this floor.
We piled out after her into a freezing cold room filled with enormous glass pods. The pill-shaped chambers lay atop apparatus and computer terminals that blinked with small red and yellow lights. I counted nine pods all laid out in a row down one line of the room. Eight of them were just clear, dusty glass, but the final one was frosted with ice so thick I couldn’t see what was inside.
“There’s more than one way to travel through time,” she said. “I had my best scientists working on Moonstones for years to mimic the rocks of Senna’s moons. When they told me it would take decades to achieve that level of technology, I came up with a backup plan. Hibernation.”
“Uh, time travel by sleeping?” Rainsong asked.
“Like a bear?” I added, having read about bears hibernating for the winter on Earth.
“How can a nap keep you young?” Rainsong said.
“It’s not exactly like that. These pods freeze tissue on contact, allowing the person inside to sleep without aging indefinitely. It was far ahead of anything we had when we got here. Luckily I was able to use an old Moonstone to skip about forty years of research and development. Then I slept off and on for another forty-five.”
“That leaves quite a bit of time unaccounted for,” I said. “What about the other . . .” I couldn’t do the math quickly. “Sixty or so years?”
A pained look crossed the former queen’s face, and she looked away. A touchy subject, apparently.
“It’s only forty-seven missing years,” Rainsong said. “Don’t you know how to do math?”
“Forty-three, actually,” Ophelia corrected. “I was with my people for five years before I started skipping time. You have to understand. We were in a time of crisis, moving from one inhospitable world to another. When we got here, and everything seemed to be going well, I couldn’t just trust it. I had to be sure.
“I needed to be certain that my people could flourish. I didn’t want peace and prosperity to end with my death. So I used the Moonstones and the pod to extend my rule indefinitely. The people thought I was immortal, but in truth, I formed a small council to rule in my absence. Five men and women who alone knew what was really going on. Well, them and a few scientists. After I left for good about forty years ago, the council used one of my pods as a form of exile. They trapped a war criminal inside, so I could deal with them personally.”
“Who is it?” I asked, swallowing a lump in my throat. I had a sneaking suspicion I knew exactly who.
“See for yourself,” Ophelia said. She walked over to the occupied hibernation pod and began fiddling with the controls on the side. A warning chime began to sound, and a pressurized hiss sounded. Steam leaked out of the pod as the ice began to melt.
“What happened to your people, noble friend?” Ink asked. I glanced at the salamander, wondering if he was thinking what I was. Whatever had happened to Ophelia’s people was the key to figuring out her strange behavior.
The former queen seemed to ignore the question, but she turned away, rubbing at her eyes with her wrist. Wiping away a tear, I thought.
The pod lowered itself, then tilted at an angle so that the occupant would be able to step right out. The steam cleared, and I saw the face of the person inside. I wasn’t surprised, but my stomach lurched anyway. It was the face of the man who had exiled my sister into the future.
The water was rising again.
“Move with a purpose, people,” Rainsong said. He dumped the water out of his helmet and plunked it back on his head. Gareth rowed frantically, mechanical arms moving in a blur. The little boat tore through the water, nearly capsizing as we sped along the waves. There was no more time to bail out water. We just held on for dear life. Eventually the water seemed to darken. The color beneath us transformed to a deep, almost indigo color in a ring all around us.
“The Pit is beneath us, noble friends,” Ink said.
“Yes,” Ophelia agreed. “And not a moment too soon.” Fist sized globs of water were rising in the air. The nearest islands were submerged now, only the crowns of a few trees visible.
Time for the next step of the journey.
We would plunge back through the water and make for the Pit. It should have been easy, in theory. All we had to do was sink after all, but if we ran out of air before we reached the Pit, Ophelia and I would be in real trouble. We’d found a lot of equipment on the island we’d raided, but nothing that would help us breathe underwater. Ophelia described a network of emergency air tubes, long rubber hoses that had been used to keep stranded swimmers alive. The Pitworlders had also used them to traverse the ocean up and down when needed. We’d found the remnants of one such tube, so rotted through it crumbled at my touch.
I reached into the pack Gareth had brought and pulled out a head-sized stone. Ophelia grabbed one too. My rock was a smooth, gray, river stone. A weight to pull me down quick. Between it and the supplies stuffed into my tattered backpack, I expected to get through the ocean fast.
“I’m ready,” I said, shimmying up onto the rim of the boat. Water was flying upward in little droplets all around us, and the waves were growing taller by the second.
“As am I. I should tell you before we depart though—” Ophelia began. I never got to hear what she had to say because I slipped on the wet gunwale and fell into the water. The heavy stone in my hands pressed against my chest, dragging me down deep into the ocean.
I hadn’t taken a full breath.
Had I even taken half a breath? My lungs already felt as though they were on fire. Hadn’t I just been through this? I hated the powerlessness of diving deep. The pressure against my body seemed to grow, but I told myself I had to be imagining most of it. Ophelia had assured us that water pressure would not be an issue once high tide was underway; though I wasn’t sure that made any sense.
The darkness grew, but I couldn’t decide if it was because I was truly sinking deeper or because I was about to black out again. I had the panicked thought that maybe the stone wouldn’t be enough. The ocean would keep going up, and it would take me with it, and I would drown, separated by decades from the only family I had. The evil of the End would go unchecked and . . .
My fearful spin of terrible thoughts was cut off by open air.
I fell right out of the flying ocean. I took a deep breath, grateful for the air that filled my lungs. The water floated above me. The Pit yawned below. The sea was twenty feet above the ground and rising. I saw a flash of the seafloor, the same swamp we’d hurtled desperately across not long ago, with its stunted trees and waving vines. Then I was in darkness, falling into the Pit. I couldn’t see anything through the water above but murky shapes and the distant, much-diffused light of Skywater’s faraway sun.
I fell for several minutes . . .
. . . Minutes stretched into hours . . .
. . . I was dizzy and exhausted when I crashed into the next world. My throat was parched and dry. My eyes and face chapped by the wind of falling constantly for so long. I didn’t hit the ground when I stopped falling but got tangled up in thick vines.
I squirmed and struggled like a fly in a spiderweb, unable to see much. Whatever world I was in, it was nighttime dark here. I wriggled my way through a thick tangle of vines. I caught glimmers of light, but I couldn’t see where I was. Eventually I managed to shimmy my way onto hard stone. Using the vines for leverage, I heaved myself onto land and stood.
A shattered moon shone with bright, but fragmented, light in the sky above. I stood at the lip of a small Pit maybe eight feet wide. It was overgrown with thick vegetation, but I could still discern the outline of it. I scanned the horizon. A ruined city loomed in the middle distance, inky and unlit. I was near the edge of a field scattered with decaying garbage and loose stones. The Pit seemed to butt right up against the ruins of a house. Walls of forest rose nearby, hemming the field in.
I turned around. Opposite the city, a massive pyramid loomed, its edges ragged. The topmost point of the pyramid was gone. It was as dark as the buildings of the city, not a light shining anywhere. Wasn’t this where Ophelia’s people had settled? Where was everyone?
I tested my ankle as I gulped from a small, glass, bottle of water. Still slightly tender but not so swollen. I could walk without pain. My black eye was better too. I was sore, tired, and hungry, but I could keep moving for now.
I walked a cracked and overgrown sidewalk choked with decades of weeds. What I had taken for trees were actually the walls of houses thick with vines. The darkness and the wild growth had given the appearance of woods.
I heard a muffled grunt and sounds of struggle coming from the Pit. I turned back and helped Ophelia out. A moment later Ink cut his way free of the vines and climbed out. Rainsong was next.
“Ugh, help me up!” the toad cried. His coveted weapons and armor had gotten all tangled up in snaking vines. Ink cut plant limbs away, and Ophelia and I pulled him out.
Rainsong put a hand to his helmet, righting the tall, red plume. “That was awful,” he said, blinking bulging eyes that shone white in the diffused moonlight. “We fell forever!” He’d lost a sword but didn’t seem to have noticed. I could see it snared in the center of the Pit, but I wasn’t going to say anything and risk having him crawl out there after it.
“Certainly the longest Pit yet,” Ink agreed.
“You can’t complain about every Pit,” Ophelia replied.
“I don’t see why not,” Rainsong objected. “I’m quite hungry. Where’s Gareth? He had all the snacks.”
A look of panic crossed Ophelia’s face. “You said if I went first you would make sure he got through okay.”
“I thought he was ahead of me,” Ink said, “but I lost him on the way down.”
“Eh, my helmet may have gotten in my eyes,” Rainsong admitted, self-consciously fingering the edge of its plume.
“Unhand me, foul villain!” a tinny, electronic voice cried from our feet. Gareth had arrived. By then the vines covering the Pit were mostly tattered, but the robot had managed to find a few to get wrapped up in. The heavy pack was still strapped to his back, and it took all four of us to haul the robot and his cargo out of the Pit.
As soon as we had Gareth up, Rainsong leapt onto his back and perched there precariously. The toad fished through the robot’s satchel with one hand, mumbling to himself, gear clacking.
“Grab me something too,” I told Rainsong. My stomach growled as if in agreement. I had food in my backpack, but I didn’t feel like digging.
“Where are we, noble friend?” Ink asked Ophelia.
“The city of Tellosphere, situated in the eastern hemisphere of the largest continent on the planet known as the Crossroads World,” Ophelia told us with a grand sweep of her hand.”
“Your people built all this?” I asked.
“They did.” Even though it was dark, I could see the glint of pride in her eyes. “Though I wasn’t around for most of it. Oh my word, what happened to the moon?” she asked, studying the night sky with lines of worry etched all over her face. She was far too young for an expression like that. It was the face of an old woman, filled with regret.
“The moon wasn’t like that before?” I asked. “How long have you been gone?”
“At least forty years. Well, there’s no oceans on this planet. Not the worst thing, I suppose.”
“Why is everything abandoned?” Rainsong asked with his mouth full. “Or are you going to say—”
“I can’t tell you,” Ophelia replied, right on cue.
“That.” Rainsong finished.
“Where’s mine?” I asked the toad. I couldn’t tell what he’d found, and I didn’t care. He tossed me a slim, rectangular packet. I unwrapped some sort of energy bar and dug in. The breakfast provided by Hondo felt like a hundred years ago. A hundred and fifty, to be exact, I thought, taking a huge bite.
“I would like food as well, noble friend,” Ink said.
“Find your own, lizard boy,” Rainsong replied, almost unintelligible with his mouth stuffed with some sort of crunchy snack.
“Very well, Mr. Frog.” Ink replied, hopping up onto Gareth’s shoulder, opposite the toad.
“Hey!” Rainsong cried when the salamander almost unbalanced the robot.
“I am not a carousel!” Gareth protested. “Please get off!”
“No problem,” Ink said. He grabbed a snack and hopped down, flipping in the air and landing on his feet with the wrapper already off his energy bar.
“Thank you,” Gareth said, straightening out his cloak. Rainsong didn’t get down, but the robot didn’t seem to notice. The toad stuck his long tongue out at Ink and kept munching away. The samurai chose not to notice, taking a small bite of his own food.
“Where’s the lab?” I asked. “Let’s get on with this. I want to find my sister and go home.”
As soon as I said the word, I felt a flutter of anxiety in my chest. I had no home. Not on Earth, not on the Roseworld, and certainly not here at this abandoned Crossroads.
“It’s in the city,” Ophelia said, setting off at once. Her voice cracked a little as she spoke. She rubbed at her eyes with the back of one hand. Was the older girl crying? I wished we could get a better explanation out of her. Were all her people dead, or had they moved on to yet another world?
If the rest of my companions noticed the former queen’s tears, they gave no sign. Ink and Rainsong argued about food while Gareth patiently trundled along like a pack mule. We followed Ophelia through more overgrown ruins, exploring a world slowly but surely transforming from metropolis to jungle. The buildings grew taller but no less draped in greenery.
After a few minutes, Ophelia glanced back. With the queen ahead and the rest of my friends lagging behind, I walked alone. “You want to go home?” she asked me.
There was no good answer to that question.
“I want to find my sister,” I said instead.
“You’ll see her again,” Ophelia replied.
“Is that a promise from the future?” I asked.
“Unfortunately, no. Just a bit of faith. You’re a good person. That’s why I traveled across time to seek your help.”
“What can I do?” I asked. “I’m just a kid, barely a teenager. This isn’t my fight.” A week ago, I probably would have jumped at the chance to join the fight against the End. I wouldn’t have even had to think. Now . . . after failing to save Lena and stop Hondo?
“A kid who has fought powerful enemies and come out alive. A kid who will do anything for his family. A kid who . . .” she hesitated. “A kid who will change everything,” she finally finished softly.
“Tell me what you know,” I implored. I stopped walking. “Please. Just tell us everything.” I wanted to know it would all be okay. That everything would turn out right.
Ophelia paused again. “It’s too dangerous,” she said after a moment. The words were half-hearted, as though she were reconsidering. “I can’t risk it. . . .”
“Come on,” I argued, hope rising. “We need to know what we’re walking into. We can’t keep stumbling around blind.”
“Well . . .” she began, but I never heard the end of the sentence. A sudden wail cut through the streets of the abandoned city.
“Oh no,” Ophelia said. Her face had gone pale as a sheet. She was reaching unconsciously for the bow strapped to her waist.
“What is that?” I asked as another screech echoed off nearby buildings.
“They’ve come. The Emissaries of the End.” The former queen drew her bow and nocked an arrow. “It’s how they communicate with each other,” she said, wincing at the sound.
“We beat them once,” I said.
Another screech joined the first, then several more. The sound was terrible. I clapped my hands to my ears.
“You defeated one!” Ophelia yelled over the sound. “This is an army!”
The ground shook. A tentacle emerged from around a corner twenty feet ahead. It was followed by the towering body of an Emissary. I felt the ground shake from a different direction, and another Emissary appeared. Another one crawled over the buildings themselves, shredding vines and leaves as it walked. All of them let out that horrible, electronic screaming.
We were surrounded.
“You came back,” I said after spitting out a mouthful of water.
“I couldn’t just leave you knuckleheads to die!” Rainsong responded. “I knew you needed me.”
It was hard to argue when he’d just saved my life. We were treading water in the middle of a sea that stretched for miles. A few of the taller hills in the area had become islands.
“I went to that Pit,” he continued. “And I looked down into it, and I realized I didn’t want to just go home. How could I fit in now? I’ve seen so much, and yet I feel like there’s so much of the universe I’ve never seen. There’s got to be more to life than guarding a hole in the ground, right?”
I nodded, unable to think of anything to say. There was such earnestness to his voice, a longing mingled with confusion. It was a side of the toad I’d never seen before. He’s lost, I thought. Another lost boy. Maybe all of us were at least a little bit lost.
Tell the truth, I told myself.
“I’m glad you came back,” I found myself saying.
“Don’t go soft on me, Prometheus Jones,” the toad said, but he smiled a little. “Where’s the lizard-boy?”
As if on cue, Ophelia and Ink burst from beneath the water with huge gasps for air. Ink seemed to have pulled Ophelia up the same way Rainsong had rescued me.
Ophelia floundered for a moment before seeming to gain her bearings. “Welcome to Skywater,” she said after spitting out a mouthful of seawater.
“You knew,” I said, brow furrowed. “Why didn’t you warn us?”
“I told you! I can’t tell you anything!” she replied, defensive now that I was truly getting angry.
“Why should we trust you, then?” I said. “If you’re not even going to warn us of danger!”
“Do we really have to hash this out again, in the ocean? Let’s swim to that island and dry off before we get any colder.” We began to paddle for a small hilltop that had become an island.
“Whatever,” I said. I hated to concede, but I couldn’t argue when my teeth were starting to chatter. “Let’s go.” The water was biting cold, perhaps a product of having been floating up at high altitude. I’d been sweating from the heat only moments ago, but that warmth was just a memory now. I stroked for the island, grateful for the chance to get moving and warm myself up a little.
“You came back,” I heard Ink say to Rainsong behind me. The salamander sounded surprised to see the toad and in little hurry to get out of the water. It wasn’t as cold as the frozen wasteland, but it was still uncomfortable.
“Yeah, yeah. It beat mopping floors in a dusty old castle. Besides, someone’s got to look out for the kid.” Rainsong surged past me, shooting through the water like a missile. I thought maybe he was embarrassed that he’d given up his ticket home to come back and join us on another weird planet.
“Do you know why the ocean flies upward, noble friend?” Ink asked Ophelia, swimming beside her. I understood then why he wasn’t in any rush. He and Rainsong were such strong swimmers they could reach the island in a fraction the time it would take us humans. Ink was taking his time for our sakes. Rainsong was by far the strongest swimmer among us. He stayed several yards ahead and pretended he couldn’t hear us talk.
“Nope. Never figured that one out. The running theory was wicked gravitational forces, like a crazy high tide. Three black holes up in space surround this planet.””
“How’d you live here then?” I asked.
“We couldn’t. That’s exactly why we had to move on as soon as we could. We tried—” she spluttered and spat out water. “Can we talk on the island? Can’t swim and talk without getting water in my mouth.”
“Sure,” I said.
Ophelia and I dragged our tired bodies onto a crumbly beach that was mostly dirt and long, tangly vines. I collapsed. Ink trotted out of the water and began wringing out his robe. Ophelia stood watching the water, eyes seeming to study the distant horizon. Long tangles of dark hair dripped with water, but she didn’t seem to notice. There was nothing to see but the ocean and a few distant islands like the one we’d stumbled onto. The air was cold now, a fog veiling the edges of the world in mist.
Despite arriving first, Rainsong was last out of the water. “Are there any monsters we need to know about?” he asked.
“Nah,” Ophelia replied, finally moving. She squeezed some water out of her cloak. “Everything on this planet lives in the ocean. With the ocean up and down all the time, the land isn’t really safe.”
Rainsong hurried out of the water, feet slapping up a spray of water.
“I’m more worried about falling into the sky,” Ink said. “Tell us more about this flying ocean.”
‘We’ve got a few hours until we need to move.” She sat down and hugged her knees to her chest, not tearing her eyes away from the shore.
“Is there perhaps some method I could use to start a fire?” Ink asked, eyes roving the ground in a hopeless search for firewood.
“Nope, and we’re not staying long enough for it to be worth the effort. You know, we tried building houses on these hilltops, but if you’re not careful, you can get sucked right up into the sky.”
“So how do we get back down to the . . . to the sea floor?” I asked. It still seemed odd to think of the swamp as the bottom of an ocean, but that’s what it was now.
“The same way we got up here,” the former queen answered. “Through the water.”
“How did you ever stay on such a wretched planet?” Rainsong asked.
“We lived underground. There are old houses and storage caverns built into most of these hill-islands. Some of them have tunnels that lead under the sea floor. Where is that blasted robot?”
“Why do you care so much about Gareth?” I asked.
“I can’t leave anyone behind, robots included.”
Before we could get any more out of Ophelia, a sword burst from the ocean near the shore. Gareth stumbled out of the water, blade held high. Seaweeds clung to his metal body, and a fat, purple starfish was wrapped around one side of his head.
“Victory is mine!” he proclaimed, sheathing his sword. Despite the dip in saltwater, he didn’t look much the worse for wear. A little battered maybe. They’d been making robots waterproof for centuries, so there was no issue there.
“You beat the ocean?” Rainsong asked with a sneer. “Looks like it got the better of you.”
“Nonsense!” the robot replied. “What’s the plan of action, companions?” he asked.
“We were just discussing that,” I said. “Where’s this lab you talked about?” I asked Ophelia.
“Next world over,” she answered. “On a planet called Proxima. The minions of the End call it the Crossroads World.” Something about the name Proxima rang a bell for me.
“You said it was closer to the End,” I said, trying to put my finger on where I remembered the name.
“Two worlds closer,” she replied.
“Well obviously,” Rainsong cut in. “What we want to know is where the End lives?”
“Is there a Pit leading to the End on Proxima?”
“Yes and no,” Ophelia said. “One of the newer portals has been built there.”
“Newer portals, noble friend?” Ink asked.
“The End has access to the portal technology used by the Ancients. He used it to create a new portal leading right from his world to Proxima.”
“The Ancients?” I asked. “I thought your people were the Ancients, Ophelia,” I said with a glance toward Ink and Rainsong.
Ophelia snorted. “Maybe compared to modern Senna civilization, but no. The people who actually built the portals and buried them lived thousands of years ago. They’re the true Ancients.”
“I suppose Ancient can depend on your perspective,” Ink said.
“And which side of history you’re standing on,” I added.
“All right,” Ophelia said. “Enough chit-chat.” She started to walk inland.
“No,” I said. “I want more answers before we follow you anywhere.”
“You’re not getting them,” she replied. “Besides, what choice do you have? You follow me through the Pit to the next world, or you wait here until you fly up into the sky and freeze to death.”
“Where are you going, anyway?” I asked. I folded my arms in anger, but I took a step inland. She had a point. What else could we do?
“Where else?” she replied with a shrug. “To get a boat.”
- - -
“How much time do we have left?” Rainsong asked as we carried the boat into the shallow water at the shore of the island. Balancing his corner of the boat with one hand, he pushed his helmet back from his eyes.
The water had warmed up a little, but it was still a chilly shock as it soaked my tattered pants legs up to the knees. I was grateful for the cold this time though. It numbed my ankle, which was painfully swollen after a long trek across the little hill-island.
“Almost an hour,” Ophelia replied in annoyance. “Still. It’s only been like five minutes since the last time you asked.”
The former queen had led us to a cache of supplies hidden near the heart of the little island. Inside we had found non-perishable food, clean water, clothing (none of which had fit me, unfortunately), a length of rope (too rotten to use), some rusty weapons and armor (which Rainsong had helped himself to), a massive electronic device that apparently functioned as a radio (broken), and three small canoes.
And no tunnel to the world beneath the ocean.
We’d carried one of the boats back across the island, and now we were set to paddle out across the ocean back toward the waiting Pit. Ophelia, Ink, Rainsong, and I had each taken a corner. Gareth followed behind, weighted down with a massive pack stuffed with supplies and a pair of worn, chipped, wooden oars.
“You’d move a lot faster if you dumped all that gear,” I told Rainsong.
“Not going to happen, kid,” the toad replied, pushing the helmet back from his eyes again. A tall, red plume fading with age bounced with every step Rainsong took. He had also gotten ahold of a broadsword, a battle-axe, and a big, round shield. They clattered on his back as he walked. The toad had wanted to take a full set of the ancient armor, but the arms and legs had been too big for his skinny limbs, and the breastplate too small for his barrel chest, so he’d been forced to make do with everything else.
Ink, Ophelia, Rainsong, and I hopped into the boat, then took the pack from Gareth and helped the robot in. The boat sank noticeably in the water when the heavy robot clanked into a seat with his overstuffed satchel. I’d wanted his help carrying the canoe, but we’d weighed him down too much with supplies.
“Knew we should have brought two boats,” Ophelia muttered. She reached for an oar, but Gareth took them both and began to row, quickly paddling us out to sea. It had been hard enough to get one canoe to the shore. I couldn’t imagine trying to carry two. The little boats weren’t huge, but they were made from sturdy wood. Sturdy enough that the added weight was hard on my ankle.
We left the island behind, floating into open ocean. Ophelia guided us. It all looked like mist and waves to me, but Ophelia seemed to know where to go. The water was choppy, with waves splashing over the sides of the boat. Soon Rainsong was using his helmet to bail us out while the rest of us cupped our hands, everyone desperately trying to keep the little canoe afloat long enough for us to reach our destination.
“How long do you think we have now?” Rainsong asked after what felt like an eternity struggling against the waves.
“About half an hour,” Ophelia said, brushing a hair out of her eyes. She’d fished a small, metal cup out of the supplies bag and was using it to hurl seawater back out of the boat.
“Are you sure?” Rainsong asked.
“Mostly. Why do you want to know?”
Without speaking, the toad held his helmet out toward her. It was upside down and filled with water. Or at least, it had been full. Several droplets were rising into the air in tiny, glistening spheres. High tide had arrived, and we were on the wrong side of the ocean again.
“I’d say we’re out of time,” Rainsong said.
I landed in swamp water. I rolled across the ground, getting thoroughly coated in muck. I stood slowly, shaking off all the goop I could. It didn’t smell as bad as I would have expected. I was grateful for that. The air had a sharp, salty tang. It was incredibly humid, so much so I felt as though I could drink the air.
I glanced upward. Blue sky above, not a cloud in sight. A small rock formation stood behind me covered in fluttering, green vines that waved cheerfully in a light breeze. A large cave dominated most of the closest rock, which was also the biggest. I’d fallen out of it, I realized. Gravity must have shifted somehow when I’d neared the exit.
Move, I told myself.
I stepped to the side just in time. Ink came tumbling out, followed shortly by Gareth and Ophelia. For a moment I half expected to see Rainsong too, but he never appeared. It was just the four of us now.
A samurai, a robot, a fallen queen, and a lost boy.
“That was a long fall,” Ink said. “Was that Pit longer than the last?”
“It seemed long,” I agreed.
“They vary in length,” Ophelia told us.
“What now?” I asked Ophelia. Swampland stretched in every direction, a wild jumble of bogs and short, green trees. Waving vines seemed to wreathe every available surface.
“This way,” she said, taking the lead. A slender path twined through the swamp; a little ribbon of dry dirt mere inches taller than the surrounding landscape.
I turned to follow Ophelia, then stopped. I glanced back at the cave. Stupid. Rainsong isn’t coming. Why did I miss him anyway? Maybe I wanted safety in numbers; the protection and comfort of a bigger group. I’d never felt such fear before; it was like electricity in my veins, making my palms sweat and my heart race.
I didn’t even know what planet I was on. My hands were shaking again. I balled them into fists and forced myself to start walking. I had to hurry to catch up. A drop of water splashed against the back of my hand as jogged after my friends.
“The next Pit is less than a mile away,” Ophelia was saying to Ink.
“How long did you live on this world?” I asked.
Ophelia hesitated. “Not long.” It was the briefest pause, but it set me on edge. She knew things we didn’t. What did she know about this world?
A bigger glob of water smacked against the back of my head. Ice cold water slid down my neck and dripped onto my shoulders. I glanced up at the sky. Not a cloud in sight. Deep blue sky and nothing more. I stared upward as I walked. I could have almost sworn I saw the sky . . . no, I told myself. That’s ridiculous.
But I thought I saw the sky move.
Gareth seemed to notice my interest in the sky. He turned his eyes up as I brought mine back down to the ground.
“Why did you move on?” I asked, trying not to think about what could make the heavens wrinkle like waves on an ocean surface.
“We didn’t think staying too close to Frostbane was wise,” she replied. “Things didn’t end well with Hondo. We tried to leave him here.”
“Okay you can’t just say things like that and not tell us the whole story,” I said.
“I would like to hear more as well,” Ink added.
“I believe the sky is attacking us,” Gareth said suddenly. He still had his head tilted back, electronic eyes aimed upward.
I tilted my own head up to study the sky again. I saw that same strange flutter, like waves moving on an ocean surface.
No. Not like waves.
Actual waves. Somehow there was an ocean above us, and it was coming down.
Gareth drew his sword and waved it at the heavens.
“There’s an ocean in the sky!” I cried. “And it’s falling!”
“What?” Ink asked. He glanced upward himself.
“We need to get to the next Pit,” Ophelia said. “It’s not far. You can see the Pit from here.” She waved a hand in the direction we’d been walking. The ground sloped gently downward, and I could see what looked like a big, black disc maybe half a mile away.
“How is there an ocean in the sky?” I asked.
“Shut up, and RUN,” Ophelia replied.
She’d already taken off. Ink and I moved to follow. Gareth was still brandishing his weapon. Without stopping, I turned to yell at him. “Gareth, you can’t fight an ocean, you crazy robot! Come on!”
“Duly noted, sir,” the robot replied, turning to run with us. He caught up in a few long strides. My ankle still throbbed with pain, but I gritted my teeth and forced myself to keep going.
I risked a glance upward, trying not to slow down as I studied the sky. Already the ocean looked much closer. A thousand feet above us at most. The brief glance made me dizzy. It seemed as though I was flying high above the ocean even though my feet were on the ground.
“Did you know this was going to happen?” I called out to Ophelia. More water was splashing down here and there, droplets the size of fists thunking wetly against the ground. The former queen pretended not to hear me.
I knew almost immediately that we weren’t going to get there in time. The Pit was too far; the ocean descending too fast.
“We’re not going to make it,” I said.
“THEN RUN FASTER,” Ophelia shouted.
I hurtled myself along the skinny path as hard as I could. More water kept falling on me. It didn’t feel like rain. The drops were huge. They were scattered at first but increasing as the ocean grew closer. By the time the Pit was in sight, I was soaked through, the water a mere hundred yards above our heads.
Ophelia stopped with her hands on her knees, breathing hard. “We’re not going to make it,” she said.
“I said that,” I told her, unable to resist. “And it’s falling faster! Isn’t it going to hurt when it lands?”
“I have a shield,” Ophelia replied. “We should be fine.”
“Should, noble friend?” Ink asked.
“If everything goes according to plan,” she mumbled.
“So this right here is according to plan?” I cried, waving a hand at the ocean falling on us.
“It’s a work in progress! Get close to me! The shield has a radius of four feet.”
We did as we’d been instructed. All three of us.
“Where’s Gareth?” I asked as a protective bubble of orange light appeared around us.
‘You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ophelia growled.“He’s half the reason I’m here!”
“What?” I asked, just as the water finished its descent, crashing down on us. Water hit like rain on a metal roof, drumming loudly for several seconds as the ocean settled back onto the seafloor. The sound of it hitting the shield drowned out whatever Ophelia said next. Water kept falling until the water rose far above our heads. In just a few seconds the world had transformed from a swamp that wasn’t even knee-deep into a mighty ocean.
The shield flickered a few times, but it held. We stared upward. I couldn’t see the sun, but that was no change from before. The water was murky. I couldn’t tell how far the surface was, but judging from how dark it was under the sea, getting up there would be no easy swim.
“How much water is above us, noble friend?” Ink asked.
“How should I know?” I replied.
“I was talking to Ophelia,” the salamander replied.
“Oh,” I answered.
“It’s kind of confusing when you don’t use our names,” Ophelia said. The shield flickered again, and a few droplets of water splashed us in the face. “Oh crud.”
“Crud?” I asked.
Before she could say anything more, the shield flickered out and water crashed in. I took as deep a breath as I could before I was swept into the ocean. Salty water stung at my eyes. Plants waved all around us. I tried to get my bearings. Which way was the Pit? I pictured it emptying this sudden sea like a bathtub drain, but if that was happening, it wasn’t going fast enough.
I kicked desperately for the surface, hoping I would make it in time. I knew how to swim, but I couldn’t hold my breath for very long. I could only hope Ophelia and Ink would be okay. I hadn’t seen them anywhere nearby.
After several seconds of swimming, I decided I wasn’t going to make it. As if I hadn’t failed enough on the last planet, this one was going to kill me in the first hour. Lost boy.
There was at least ten feet of ocean left to go when I ran out of air. The light had grown brighter. I could see the sunlight waiting for me. I merely needed to go a little further, but my chest burned with a terrible fire. Spots danced before my eyes. My brain screamed at me to inhale NOW even though it would only mean a lungful of water.
My arm broke the surface. My vision went black around the edges; a black that grew like an oncoming tunnel. The cold air of a sea breeze blew across my fingertips. The tunnel vision grew tighter and tighter as if I were falling into a Pit. My other arm broke the surface, but it was too late.
My vision went black.
Death. You’re about to die.
A slick, slimy hand grabbed my wrist as another hand wrapped around my chest forcing me up and into the cold air. I gasped a deep, reflexive breath, filling my starved and empty lungs. After a few dazed moments trying to tread water, I turned to look my rescuer in the eye.
A pair of bulging, white orbs stared back.
“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.
I glanced back and forth between Lena and Hondo, feeling sick to my stomach.
“Please,” Hondo said. “Get us out of this.” He was crying, tears making tracks through the dirt and blood staining his face.
Ink leaned up on his elbows. The salamander didn’t get up immediately, just watched us with his big black eyes. Gareth was shuddering. “System reboot in progress . . .” I heard a soft female voice murmur. Rainsong was still sprawled out following the electrical shock the Emissary had delivered, but I could see his chest rise and fall, so I knew he was alive. Queen Ophelia was gone from the lookout tower.
“I can’t choose,” I said. “I won’t.” I loosened my fingers, ready to drop the Moonstone to the dirt.
“You’d better,” Future Hondo said. He pulled a laser pistol from his long, black coat and pointed it at Lena’s head. “Or spirited Miss Helena gets emergency laser surgery.”
“Why?” I said again, though I’d resigned myself to never getting an answer that would make sense. This wasn’t my friend Hondo. This was his future; a man twisted toward darkness by terrible circumstances.
“I do as the End commands,” Future Hondo replied. “We’re slaves to the past. All of this has already happened, whether we realize it or not. You can’t change the past. You’ve always done whatever you did. Travel backward in time a thousand times, and it’ll all happen the same.”
“So you’re saying I have no choice?” I asked. “Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of forcing me to choose?”
“Just because your choice is set in stone doesn’t mean it wasn’t and isn’t yours,” he replied. “Now hurry up, and send me to the past.”
I studied Lena. My sister. We’d survived the streets of ruined New York, played the rocket game, gone to the Roseworld. Together. How could I not save her? But if I send her to the past, I thought, I change the past. Maybe that was the key. Send Lena to the past instead.
But if this was what became of Hondo ...
I couldn’t do that to my sister. I couldn’t take that risk. I truly had no good option. Refuse to act, and Lena died. Send Lena back, and I lose my sister. Send Hondo back, and I lose my best friend.
I felt a tear slide down my cheek as I realized what I was about to do. “I’m sorry, Hondo,” I said, taking a step toward the older boy.
“Don’t you dare!” he screeched, sliding backward on his butt, crying himself now. “Don’t do it, Theus! Please!”
“Make sure you release as you strike,” Future Hondo said. “Otherwise you’ll go with him—I mean me—and we can’t have that.
I took another step toward Hondo. Could I go back with him? It was worth a try. Ten years would certainly be enough time to save Lena, and maybe I could prevent Hondo from turning into Future Hondo. It was the only option. I raised the stone and closed my eyes, ready to go back to the past with my friend.
Hondo cried out and raised a hand to shield himself. His palm struck the rock as I lowered it. I lost my grip as my hand struck his, surprised by the erratic swing. He vanished from sight, an odd pop! sounding as air rushed to fill in the space he’d just vacated.
“I was going to go with him,” I said, my voice small and defeated.
“Wow, you really are a moron,” Future Hondo said. “You. Can’t. Change. The. Past. It’s set in stone, dum-dum.” He took a deep breath, inhaling slowly. “Do you feel that?” he asked.
“What?” I could barely dredge up the will to speak.
“It’s the future! I have finally escaped the shadow of my past. Today I escape the prison you dropped me into.”
Now that I knew why Future Hondo hated me, it didn’t seem fair. He’d forced the choice on me. I remembered one of the lessons I’d learned early in life, struggling in the slum where I’d been born.
Life isn’t fair.
“Do you know what’s going to happen next?” Future Hondo asked, sounding giddy. “Because I don’t! Well, that’s not precisely true. Couple little things to cross off our to-do list! Let’s get Lena here gone!”
He pulled a Moonstone out of his pocket. Lena kicked and struggled, and Future Hondo danced a little back and forth, waiting for his opening. After a moment he darted forward and struck Lena on the shoulder, then leapt back. She vanished, taking the manacles and a strip of pipe with her.
I watched with an air of defeat. I could only hope Future Hondo was going to keep his promise and give us a Moonstone so we could follow.
“Oh, maybe I should have told you this sooner, but I super lied about little sis. I sent her two hundred years into the future, and your Moonstone is calibrated for the present, one hundred and forty-two years in the future. Hope you like waiting! You’ll be an old man before you see her again!”
“No,” I breathed. I took a step back, stunned. “You... how could you?” The enormity of what he’d just done hit me like a brick wall. My little sister was lost in the future now.
I charged forward. Laser pistol or not, I was going to kick his butt. To my left, Ink crouched with sword in hand, waiting for the right moment to spring. In that moment he seemed more lithe jungle cat than salamander.
“Buh-buh-buh,” Future Hondo said. “One more step and I vaporize you both.” We both stopped. I clenched and unclenched my un-gauntleted hand in fury. “You’re quick with that hand ray thing,” he continued. “But I’m pretty fast too. Maybe you won’t get me before I get you and your salamander buddy.”
“Isn’t that rich?” Future Hondo went on. “You just ruined our friendship, and you don’t even get what you want!” He stepped close. He smelled like dirt and sweat with a fading hint of cologne. His face and his tone darkened with barely restrained fury. “Consider this my revenge.” He gave me a hard shove backward. I landed hard on the ground.
I was speechless. I crawled backward on my butt, crying freely now.
“I am keeping one promise though,” Future Hondo said, holding a single finger up. “You and your band of freaks are going back to the present.”
“What happened to you?” I asked, rubbing at my eyes and trying to get ahold of myself. “This is about more than a trip back in time.” He seemed like a completely different person. Could ten years really do so much?
“YOU DON’T KNOW ME,” he roared suddenly. He dropped to his knees and punched me across the eye in one swift motion. Ink tore forward.
“Stand back!” Future Hondo ordered, pressing the nozzle of the laser pistol into my forehead. “Lower the sword.”
Ink did as commanded.
Future Hondo laughed. “Let’s take this down a notch, shall we? Done is done. No use fighting it anymore. Just do as you’re told, and we all get out of this alive.”
“No,” I said. I could feel my eye puffing up. “You’ll send me after Lena.”
“Couldn’t if I wanted to,” he replied, passing his pistol to his off hand and shaking the one he’d punched me with. “The stones were all preset a long dang time ago.”
“I’m not going anywhere but after Lena,” I said.
“You say that like I’m giving you a choice. Can we just get on with this?”
“Perhaps Hondo is right, noble friend,” Ink said. “To be returned to the present is better than trapped in the past.”
I hung my head in defeat and nodded. “Give me the stone,” I said without raising my eyes.
A moment later the Moonstone was dropped into my hands. I glanced around for my sword but couldn’t find it. I picked up the lighter sword I’d tried to use against Hondo.
“Is Rainsong awake?” I asked Ink. He was crouching by the toad’s limp form.
Ink shook his head.
“Gather him up,” I mumbled. A few more tears slid down my cheeks as I stumbled to Gareth. The robot sat up. “R-r-ready for battle, sir!” he shouted, mechanical hands fumbling for the gigantic sword he fought with.
“It’s over, Gareth. Time to go back to the present.”
“Oh!” he said, sounding surprised. He took in the scene around us with unblinking eyes. “Did we win?”
“Yeah, buddy, we won,” I said. I didn’t want to lie, but it seemed safer than the unstable robot starting something.
Gareth and I walked to where Ink had thrown Rainsong over his shoulder. I could barely see out of my swollen left eye. What a pathetic band we made.
“Wait!” Queen Ophelia cried from the edge of the forest. “What’s going on?” She had her bow trained on Future Hondo. I started to raise my gauntlet. Perhaps now would be my opening?
Future Hondo jumped and pulled a second pistol from his coat. “Holy—I forgot about you,” he said. “Ugh, not knowing what’s going to happen next makes everything so much harder.”
“We’re going back to the future now,” I said. “You can come with us.” I sighed and lowered my hand. There really was no point in blasting Future Hondo anyway. It would accomplish nothing.
“You really are time travelers?” she asked. “I never knew whether I really believed it or not. My place is with my people. Could you take us all with you?” she asked hopefully.
“The weight of roughly six people is the maximum,” a dour voice said, Merc floated from behind a towering digging apparatus. He looked worn. All the shine was gone from his finish, which was covered in scratches. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he somehow looked even older than when I’d seen him above on the planetshard.
“Merc?” I asked. “You’ve been here all along? You could have helped us!”
“I serve a different master now,” the little robot said. “You and your foolish crew will never give me another stupid order again!”
I sighed again. “Whatever.”
“Mercury, my old friend!” Gareth called.
“Oh rust off, you malfunctioning scrap heap,” the robot replied.
I turned back to Queen Ophelia. “I’m sorry we couldn’t be more help.”
“Well,” she replied. “For better or worse the dig is completed. We’ll go on to the next world. Farewell, my friend.”
“Farewell, Queen Ophelia. You won’t try to stop them?” I asked Future Hondo.
“That’s actually exactly what I want them to do,” he replied. That wasn’t comforting, but I didn’t know what more we could do here, even if we stayed.
“This isn’t over,” I told the man.
“No,” he agreed, “but it will be in a few seconds.”
Linking arms with Gareth and Ink, I smacked the Moonstone against my palm.
The night vanished, and I was dropped into day. I half expected to be returned to the frozen wasteland, but that had been on the planet shard far above, so we were safe. The machines were still there, now reduced to jagged heaps of rusting metal beams. The grass had returned, the field overgrown with knee-high vegetation. There was no one around.
I was safe, but Lena was... where? When?
There was nowhere to hide from the pain, the shame, of having lost my little sister. I disentangled myself from my friends and staggered to the edge of the Pit. I dropped to my knees with a wordless scream, hot tears sliding down my cheeks.
I’d never felt so beaten. Having Lena so close only to lose her made me feel so worthless. So completely useless.
After a few minutes of kneeling there, crying and staring into the endless abyss, I heard the crunch of Ink’s footsteps. I could tell it was him because of their lightness. Gareth clattered, and Rainsong slapped the ground, but Ink always glided.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said, hating how pathetic I sounded. I’d led us into such a mess, and now it was all for nothing. I’d been bumbling from one situation to another, spared from my own stupidity by some incredible fortune. Now the curtain had been pulled back, and I was exposed. I was a helpless idiot, lucky to even be alive.
“Put your hands in the dirt, noble friend,” Ink told me, “and you pick yourself up. That’s all there ever is. You pick yourself up, and we go find your sister.”
I stared into the darkness, wondering what planet lay on the other side of this Pit, and what planet might wait beyond that. What had become of Queen Ophelia’s people? I’d failed them too. The dig had been completed, but Future Hondo had hinted he still had plans for the Pitworlders.
And Hondo was a bad man now. I’d turned him into one. I knew it wasn’t all my fault, but I was still grieved by what had become of him. I’d been too weak to change anything. Hondo had said I couldn’t change the past? I was so weak I couldn’t change the future, either. Where did that leave me?
I’d never felt more desperate, more lost, or more miserable.
“Teach me,” I whispered.
“What’s that, noble friend?” Ink asked.
“Teach me,” I said again, louder. “The way of the sword.” Next time trouble came, I wanted to be stronger. Next time I wanted to be more like Ink.
“To be a Senna samurai is more than swordplay. You must know when to pick up a blade, and when to put it down. We seek peace first, and we do not kill.”
“All of it,” I said. “I need all of it. Please.” A well of desperation in my chest was trying to burst out in terrible sobs, but I held it back. At some point I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and get moving again. I’d come to the end of myself a complete failure, and now it was time to do as Ink said: to pick myself up and try again.
“Very well, noble friend. I would be honored to take you as my apprentice. You are quick and clever, and—”
Whatever else Ink was going to say was lost when Queen Ophelia suddenly materialized a few feet from us, dropping to the soft grass. She appeared between the Pit and where Gareth waited holding an unconscious Rainsong, some fifteen feet back.
“Oh, thank goodness I finally found you,” she said. The Queen was maybe a year or two older, and a little taller. Her crown and her royal trappings were all gone, replaced by a dark tunic and hooded cloak. A quiver of arrows peeked from under her cloak, a bow hung from her waist.
We stared, struck speechless.
How did you get here?” I asked.
“A Moonstone, obviously,” she replied. “There will be time enough for explanations. Best for now if we get moving.”
“Moving where?” I asked.
“Where else?” she said, jerking her head towards the gaping hole at my knees. “Into the Pit.”
Future Hondo knew everything we were going to do. How easy for him to get us right where he wanted us, when he was with us. We should have knocked Hondo unconscious and tucked him away somewhere, I thought. I brushed aside the cruel idea. Too late now. We would just have to deal with things as best we could.
“Back away,” Hondo called, straightening his bow and squinting to sight down the arrow. His grip was awkward. He seemed to be pulling too hard on the arrow, drawing it back too far.
“We just need the old man,” the Emissary said. “I want to kill the rest of them.”
“Patience,” Future Hondo said. He was still stroking that long, thin scar of his.
“No, Hondo!” I called. “Wait!”
“It’ll be okay, Theus,” Hondo said. He let his arrow fly. The bowstring snapped, slashing Hondo across the face. He let out a terrible shriek of pain. His arrow flew straight regardless. The older boy’s aim was perfect. The arrow thudded against one of the beetle monster’s eyes and bounced away harmlessly.
“That really hurt, you know,” Future Hondo said. He took a spear from one of the nearby bird-men.
“Enough! Get off of me!” the Emissary shook his back, sending the two robots flying. One of them fell into the Pit without a sound. The other landed on its feet near me. Ink crouched and managed to stay balanced for a few seconds longer, just enough time to raise his heavy sword, leap into the air, and drive the blade into the beetle monster’s back. The salamander let out a brief howl of pain as electricity danced from the sword and ran through his arms.
Ink fell to the ground, dropping nearly fifteen feet. I tried to run forward to catch him, but I was too slow. Queen Ophelia’s remaining bodyguard managed to catch the salamander instead. It gently lowered him to the ground, the salamander twitching as he recovered from the shock.
I raised my hand to fire my gauntlet up at the beast. “None of that!” Hondo yelled, smacking my hand with the butt of the spear. The blast I launched flew harmlessly into the sky. I swung my sword in a clumsy arc, cutting the tip off the wooden weapon. Hondo laughed and dropped the spear, not threatened in the least.
This was all turning into a real mess. I was surrounded by enemies, and my friends were dropping left and right. The bodyguard stood protectively over Ink. I was glad the salamander was safe, but as the most capable fighter among us, he was the most likely to have been able to get us out of this alive.
One of the bird-men in a white mask drew his sword. He had finally overcome his shock at the arrival of the monster, me, and my friends. “Orders, Minister Brink?” he asked, as if waking from a stupor. Several others raised their own weapons. Swords, bows, and spears quietly slid out of sheathes, straps, and quivers.
“Capture them all,” Future Hondo said with a shrug. “Or try to, at least.”
“May we kill, sir?” a bird-man in a silver mask asked.
“You can try,” Future Hondo said, his tone amused.
One of the men fell suddenly, an arrow in his knee. Rainsong let out a gleeful chuckle, then raised his bow and fired again, taking out another guard.
“At last, I’m armed!” he cried. I would have never expected to be happy about that, but I was relieved to have the help.
“Yes!” Gareth shouted, pumping a mechanical fist in the air. “Fight, frog man!” The knight-robot was engaged in battle himself with several lantern rangers. With his arm laser gone, he was stuck fighting them sword to sword.
“I’m not a—you know what, never mind.” Rainsong launched an arrow at Future Hondo, but the man stepped to the side, and it bounced off one of the beetle monster’s legs.
I looked at Hondo where he crouched on the crates, a hand to his bleeding face. He had one eye open as he watched the battle unfold around him.
“Hondo! Close your eyes!” I called out, but he couldn’t hear me. A second later I was forced to duck to the side as a lantern ranger swung his sword at me. I fired my gauntlet at his feet. The bird-man and a spray of dirt flew up.
I took several steps toward the bodyguard robot, trying to take stock of the situation. Most of the Pitworlder workers had fled into the woods. There were still almost a dozen lantern rangers in the fight, all of them swift, well-trained bird-men. Ink and Hondo were down. Gareth, Rainsong, the bodyguard, and I were the only ones left able to fight.
The bodyguard robot rose from Ink’s limp form to enter the fray. The beetle monster snorted and swung an arm to bat the smaller robot away. With a terrible screech of metal on metal, the robot flew upward in pieces. The broken remains scattered along the treeline.
I was at the edge of the battle. Four guards faced me, ready to fight. I suspected the monster didn’t kill me for fear of taking out one of his own people, or else he was worried about losing another tentacle. Future Hondo stood behind them, watching everything unfold for the second time in his life.
I raised my gauntlet intent on trying to blast the beetle monster again.
The gauntlet was drained of energy. I’d never tried to use it more than three times in a row before. It was powered by kinetic energy, so the more I moved my hand the faster it charged, but I’d never actually drained it before. I had no idea what it would take to fill it back up.
I held my sword before me in a tight grasp as the four rangers advanced on me. Four swords, all about to slice me to ribbons. They seemed hesitant, perhaps afraid of my gauntlet—down for the count or not. I tried to picture Ink’s fighting stance, his grip, anything that might help me stay alive for a few minutes longer.
The rightmost ranger got tired of waiting and darted forward. I raised my blade in a clumsy parry and almost dropped the weapon as our swords clanged. I tightened my grip even more to keep hold of the weapon. Another ranger was already upon me. He was about to skewer me right in the side when an arrow suddenly seemed to sprout from his knee. He dropped away, and I barely managed to block another stab from the first ranger. The impact made my wrist ache, but I kept hold of my sword. The weapon was my lifeline, the only thing keeping me alive. The third and fourth rangers stepped forward. Desperate, I tried firing a blast at their feet. The gauntlet delivered, releasing a small blast that sent the two bird-men stumbling backward.
One stubborn lantern ranger remained. He charged again, and this time when I blocked his sword, he twisted his blade upward. My weapon went flying. I could see the triumph in the bird-man’s eyes as he brought his sword up to finish me off. The light went out of his eyes as an arrow hit home in his chest. I stumbled back as his sword lost momentum and nearly landed in my foot.
I looked up to thank Rainsong but was surprised to see that he’d abandoned his bow in favor of a stolen sword. I saw a figure in one of the lookout towers, and Queen Ophelia waved, a bow in one hand.
The lantern rangers were all on the ground now, most of them moaning from arm and leg wounds.
On the battlefield, only five remained standing. Gareth, Rainsong, Future Hondo, the Emissary, and myself
“You told me you were going to win this battle!” the Emissary raged. Again he had the chance to kill me with a blow of his tentacle, but he ran the risk of losing another one if I blasted it off.
“Oh, I win,” Future Hondo replied with a smug grin. “Maybe just not the way you’d hoped.”
My stomach plummeted as I sensed the confidence in his voice. I felt on the verge of throwing up. What did Future Hondo already know? Were my friends and I all about to die?
“Your insolence will not endear you to the End!” the monster roared. “I’ll finish this myself if you aren’t capable!”
The air suddenly became charged with static electricity. I could feel the hair on my arms and neck stand up. My shirt clung uncomfortably to my chest. A burst of electricity flashed outward from the beetle monster, dropping all of us to our knees, even Gareth. I heard Lena cry out; the first sound I’d heard from her since I’d lost sight of her on Senna so long ago.
Lighting skittered over the ground, leaping from one metal object to the next, using swords and ruined robot parts to move. It struck me in the stomach, and every muscle in my body seemed to catch fire. The electricity was gone almost as fast as it came, but it left me breathless and weak, every muscle excruciatingly sore.
I put a hand to the dirt to steady myself and took stock of the battlefield. The Emissary was the only one standing now. The blast had even struck Future Hondo. He was crouching like me, holding his chest and wincing. Rainsong and Gareth were both down, either unconscious or...
I wouldn’t consider that possibility. No more death today.
After a moment, Future Hondo leapt to his feet. Despite the shock, he still looked happy. Of course, he’d known it was going to happen, had been able to brace himself for it.
“On with the show!” he said, grinning. “You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for this moment. Ten years! I’ve had this day hanging over my head for ten years.”
“Get on with it!” the Emissary yelled down.
“Mother of pearl, you are obnoxious,” Future Hondo said, rolling his eyes. “Do us a favor,” Future Hondo said to me. “Blast him away.”
“What did you say?” the Emissary screeched.
“Why do you hate me?” I asked.
“Let’s talk, just you and me,” Future Hondo said. “Go on, blast him to pieces.” He pointed to a spot where the beetle monster’s front-most legs connected to his chest. “Right there and boom, done for.”
“Will you tell me why you hate me so much?” I asked again. It felt weird, being ordered to kill the monster. I’d been trying to do it just seconds ago, but it felt wrong somehow now that I was being told to kill it.
“KILL HIM,” Future Hondo roared, flecks of spit flying out from his sudden rage. “I already know you’re going to do it, just get on with it!”
“I am not to be trifled with,” the monster roared. “The End will not suffer this insolence!”
It’s just a robot, I told myself, and I raised my gauntlet and fired a blast, full power right where I’d been told to.
The robotic monster let out a terrible, metallic shriek. Its remaining tentacles scrabbled for purchase on the sloping edge of the Pit as its abdomen burned.
“Have you forgotten we have your future self? I’ll have your head for this!” it cried, its voice rising to a piercing screech as it struggled to stay alive. The proud robot seemed pitiful now. I felt a pang of sympathy until I remembered what it had done to Queen Ophelia’s robots, and almost done with the rest of us.
“You won’t, actually. Give the End my regards,” Future Hondo said. He turned to me. “That’s better. Ugh, I hate that guy. Didn’t think I’d really go through with that, honestly. Gonna get me in some hot water, but it’s not a deal breaker. In the end, the End needs me.” He chuckled. “Lighten up, I made a funny. And besides, he’s not really dead anyway. He’ll get downloaded back into the End’s mainframe.”
“What is the End?” I asked.
“The End is the end. The end of war and chaos and death. The End is going to change everything.”
“Really?” I replied. “And what does he need with our crew?”
“Eh, that would be telling. You know enough to be trouble. Speaking of trouble, let us get on with the show!”
“What are you doing with Darkeson and Lena?” I asked. “I need you to let them go.”
“Can’t let Darkeson go, sadly. He’s the last piece in a puzzle I’ve spent ten years putting together. Your sister though, I could be talked into releasing her. You and she aren’t terribly important to the End, beyond being a thorn in the butt-ocks.” He was amped up, way too happy about the way things had gone. We were in the middle of a battlefield, and he was carrying himself like he’d just won the lottery.
“So release her,” I said. I knew I should try to save Darkeson too, but maybe that would have to wait for another day.
Future Hondo all but pranced over to where Lena was chained to the digging machine. “Hear that, little sister, big brother Prometheus is gonna get you all rescued!”
“You’re an idiot,” Lena replied. Her voice was scratchy; her face covered in bruises. “Blast him!” she said, nodding at Future Hondo.
“Ah, there’s the famous Helena spirit!” Future Hondo said gleefully. “You’re scary when you’re angry!”
He ran over to the crates where his past self was still crouched atop a crate, hands against his wound in an effort to stop the bleeding. “Come on down,” he told Hondo. “Time for you to meet your destiny!”
“Now,” Future Hondo continued, looking at me. “I’ve got three Moonstones. One for handsome young Hondo here, one for little Miss Lena over there, and one for you and your buddies to use. You’re going to send somebody back to the past. My past self, or your little sister, your choice. Then you’re going to send someone back to the present, one hundred and forty-two years in the future. Then you and your bizarre little posse are going back to the future to join the lucky winner.”
“Why are you doing this?” I asked.
“Are you kidding me?” he replied. “That gives us almost a century and a half with you out of our hair! The grownups need time to work, Prometheus. Time to plan. I know what you’re thinking, I can fight my way out of this. But please don’t try.”
I bent to the ground and picked up a sword. It was lighter than the one I’d lost, maybe better suited to my size. That little bit of good fortune gave me hope. “You know I have to,” I said.
“Yep.” His eyes darted along the ground until he found what he liked. He picked up a small dagger and held it in a loose, lazy grip. “En guarde.”
I stepped forward cautiously. His blade was so much shorter. I could strike without having to get too close. I tried an experimental stab. He sidestepped and swung his knife down so hard onto my sword I nearly dropped it. He laughed, then darted forward, danced under my clumsy swing, then swept a leg across my ankles. I landed hard on my back, letting go of my weapon as I fell. Future Hondo grabbed my sword out of the air, gingerly catching it by the hilt with deft fingers.
“Yield,” he said, holding the sword at my throat. His eyes were electric; his smile broad and genuine. “You can’t beat me.”
I nodded, and he dropped the sword at my feet. “You can keep it,” he said. “You’ll probably need it.”
I stood and raised my gauntlet. “Let us go,” I said. I tried to keep my voice level, but it shook.
Future Hondo laughed. He didn’t even turn to face me, feeling no need to acknowledge the threat. The younger Hondo was still on the crates. Future Hondo dragged him down, pulling him over to where Lena and Darkeson were chained up.
“But... why make me choose?” I didn’t understand. It just seemed cruel.
“I didn’t get it either, not at first. But it’s how I was born,” he said, patting his own chest. “Your impending betrayal is what made me the man I’ve become today. I’ve spent ten years living in the shadow of this day, hating you, waiting for the moment when my future could do it.
Just like he knew what I’d decide.
When Future Hondo spoke again, all traces of glee were gone from his voice; the words stripped down to hard rage.
I’ve had a lot of experience hurtling toward what felt like certain doom. Careening off the whale was even worse than falling into a Pit. There was no mystery here. The world was waiting below to crush me. I could see water beneath me, the broad, blue expanse of a crystal clear lake, but that was small comfort. Water will kill if you hit it hard enough, and I was going far too fast to survive.
Ravio was just above me. A thin trail of blood streamed out of his neck like a bright, red ribbon flapping in a breeze.
There was no time to think about it though. I was going to join him if I didn’t do something. I had my sword, my gauntlet, a half empty backpack, and a used up Moonstone. Nothing that could save my life.
Unless . . .
I held my gauntleted hand out below me and closed my eyes against the rushing wind, shutting out the sight of the lake zooming toward me. I focused on letting out just a little puff of energy. Not a full blast. Using the gauntlet at full power would just launch me higher into the air. I’d wind up falling even faster than I was now, and get just as dead when I splatted against the water.
A little ball of yellow light like a tiny sun emerged from the gauntlet. The energy worked like a small jet, slowing me down. Or rather, it slowed my hand down. The rest of me kept falling. I expected to continue plunging down and get hurled into the lake at only slightly slower speed, but the ball clung to the air as though caught on an invisible thread. I stopped in midair, my shoulder nearly wrenching out of its socket.
I hung like that for a second. I was still dropping, but at a much slower speed. The water was almost fifteen feet below. Ravio’s body hit with a splash, the water soaking my ragged socks. I lost my concentration, and the ball vanished. I crashed into the water hard enough to knock the wind out of my lungs.
I struggled in icy water, fighting to keep my lips closed as I thrashed for the surface. The water wasn’t deep. When I stood, it came up to my chin. I gasped in the chilly water, fighting to catch my breath. Ravio floated nearby.
I can’t leave him, I thought. And I can’t take him with me. There was no time for a proper burial. An enemy was out there. I scanned the low hills that lined the lake, looking for the source of the arrows that had gotten me knocked out of the sky. Two lookout towers rose in the distance, tall and thin like giant needles sprouting from the ground. More of the conical mountains rose beyond the towers.
I couldn’t see my friends.
Had they been shot down? Flown over the hills? Retreated back to the floating planet shard? There was no way to know. For now, all I could do was continue with the mission. I would investigate the dig site, then decide what to do next, once I checked the area out.
I eyed the lookout towers again. They were capped by small, roofed platforms. Each one was manned by two lantern rangers. The platforms were so small they had to be standing room only. I couldn’t see their faces. I would have to hope I was too far away to be a viable target. I had to get out of the water.
I glanced back at Ravio’s body again. His body. He was dead. Someone had died. That thought kept racing through my brain on an endless loop. Someone was dead. It didn’t matter that I had hardly known him; didn’t make it any less horrible that I hadn’t lost a friend. So far on this long, strange journey, no one had actually been killed. Situations before had seemed dangerous, but everyone had come out okay.
A plan formed in my mind as I studied the floating corpse. Perhaps the Pitworlder could help me one last time before I said goodbye.
Holding on to Ravio’s ankles, I pushed his body ahead of me, swimming with most of my own body below the surface. That way, if anyone did try to shoot, they would hopefully aim for Ravio and miss me. Using the man as a decoy made me feel sick, but I had to stay alive. I was determined that there would be no more death.
Including my own.
Sneaking into a hostile camp might not seem like the best way to survive, but as I swam, I became more determined than ever to stop the dig. These people needed to be stopped. They deserved to have their plans ruined. Queen Ophelia was right. There was evil afoot, and we needed to do something about it before anyone else died.
I reached the shore without getting shot, or having Ravio turn into a pincushion. I left his body on the rocky beach, stepping gingerly to avoid cutting my feet. Maybe it was the adrenaline, or the cold, or some combination, but my ankle had stopped bothering me. My teeth were starting to chatter, but the sun was still out. I was confident I would warm up soon enough. It seemed like afternoon now, but I didn’t know what season it was on Frostbane, so there was no way to know how long the day would last.
I was all alone on a strange planet. Enemies ahead, but nowhere else to go.
I kept my eyes on the towers as I crept in the shadow of the hills. Tall, hedge-like shrubs grew along the side of one hill, creating perfect natural cover. I had to assume the guards would be on high alert. That didn’t mean I couldn’t sneak into the dig site; it just meant I would have to be clever and careful.
I could see the guards more clearly now. Two bird-men stood in each tower. Each one had a bow held in a loose grip, a sword and quiver slung on their backs. They were scanning the horizon, perhaps watching wherever Jimmy and his passengers had disappeared to.
The dig site was open. There were no walls or barriers I could see. Towering machines rumbled and clanked as they worked. Through the valley between hills, I could see the metal struts of one device rising to my left. I couldn’t see the actual Pit yet, merely machinery and the workers tending them. I also didn’t spot any guards beyond the hill where I crouched, but I could hear the scratchy voices of bird-men commanding workers, so I knew I would still have to be careful to avoid detection.
I needed a diversion so I could get closer to the Pit and look around. Perhaps sabotage would be as simple as damaging one of their great digging machines.
I scanned the area for a rock, but discarded the plan even as my eyes roved the ground. There were four bird-men above, which meant four pairs of eyes. A simple little sound might not be enough. I needed all eyes away from the valley.
I stared down at my gauntlet. A blast in the right spot would certainly draw attention. Perhaps if I knocked out a strut for one of their lookout towers.
I was raising a hand, poised to fire, when suddenly a burst of blue light lit up the area, bright against the hilltops and machines. I heard several shouts of surprise, and moments later, an odd clamor as machinery shut down. The steady thrum faded away, leaving an eerie silence in its wake.
I craned my neck upward. The guards were definitely not watching me now.
I slipped closer. The next bend in the valley revealed tall, wooden crates to the right and a broad, open plain to the left. A massive Pit dominated much of the plain, which was heavily trampled from the workers hustling back and forth. A few sad patches of grass struggled to survive. Hulking machines surrounded the Pit, contraptions that looked exactly like the ones I’d seen on the Pitworld, save with no trace of rust or advanced age.
The blue glow shone from inside the Pit. It washed the workers and bird-men ranged nearby in a ghostly light.
I hid behind the crates to watch, afraid a lookout would glance down and spot me if I stayed gawking out in the open.
A pair of writhing black tentacles reached from inside the Pit and gripped the edge. A nightmare stretched its body up and out. A black body with dozens of glistening black eyes rose on even more tentacles, higher and higher until it loomed over the watching crowd. It had no mouth that I could see.
Another tentacle reached up, out of the Pit, and the monster hoisted itself fully out of the Pit. The tentacles were long, sinuous legs, I realized. It had six of them, and a body shaped like a beetle. Small mandible-like digits clattered all over its underbelly.
I shivered in fear and revulsion. I’d never seen anything so hideous.
“Where is Hondo Brink?” it called in a voice like a crypt tearing open. There was an odd stereo effect to the words, as if three voices were saying the same words at the same time.
“I’m here, my lord,” I heard Future Hondo yell back. He stood at the front of the crowd, kneeling as he spoke.
“You have done as commanded?” it hissed.
“Yes, My Lord. I have the final crew member with me,” he replied.
The final crew member? I thought. What did that mean? My mind jumped to the crew of the Endeavor, and my heart leapt into my throat. I scanned the area anxiously for my long-lost crew. Wondering how any of them could possibly be here, over a century in the past.
My eyes fell on two figures chained to a pipe on one of the excavation devices, and my pulse quickened even further, my palms tingling.
She was here.
Lena and Darkeson were impossibly here. After so much searching, and the longest, craziest journey of my life, I had finally found her, and when I hadn’t even been looking.
My brain told me now was the time to be careful. To hide and keep watching, and wait for the right opportunity to slink forward and free them.
Not a chance.
Throwing fear and caution both aside, I tore from my hiding spot, letting out a wordless scream of defiance. I drew my sword and held it high as I burst across the plain.
Heads snapped my way as I ran. The crowd seemed too surprised to react quickly, even the guards. They’d already been stunned by the arrival of the great beetle monster. A boy appearing out of nowhere waving a sword must have been too much for them.
I had covered half the trampled ground before I realized I had no plan.
Kill the giant monster and save everyone.
That was plan enough for me.
The beetle monster was the only one who didn’t seem stunned. “What is this, Brink?” it cried in its moaning, stereophonic voice.
It raised a tentacle to strike, and I swung my sword in a wild arc. It pinged off the creature’s limb and flew out of my hand.
Undeterred, I raised my gauntlet and fired even as my blade slid across the dirt. A burst of light struck the limb before it could snatch me and blew it clean off, spraying me in the face with black liquid. The monster screamed and thrashed a long stump, its leg shorter now by several feet.
The liquid had an acrid scent. Motor oil, I realized. Was I fighting a robot? The severed tentacle-leg thrashed on the ground, black oil gushing out in thick splurts.
The monster stretched out another tentacle and grabbed my backpack. I was yanked into the air, the straps digging into my shoulders.
The creature voice radiated fury. “Who is this insect?”
It hoisted me to face level, studying me with massive, unblinking eyes that shone with pinpricks of light, making it appear as though every eyeball were somehow packed with starlight.
“Prometheus, you truly are an idiot,” Future Hondo said from somewhere below. He sounded amused.
I kicked and struggled, trying to free myself, but I had cinched my backpack tight on purpose so it wouldn’t flop around. I couldn’t slide out unless the monster loosened his grip. I raised my gauntleted hand again, ready to fire another blast right into the monster’s face.
“I am the Emissary of the End. I will be afforded the respect I deserve!”
Before I could fire another blast, the creature threw me to the ground. I caught a brief glimpse of sky at my feet, then crashed painfully to the ground near my sword. The wind was thoroughly knocked out of me. For a moment I lay there, stunned and trying to assure myself no bones had broken in the fall.
I stared at the sky, helpless as the beast entered my field of vision, towering high above. Hondo and a few bird-men also approached.
“This is the one you hate?” it asked Future Hondo.
“Yes, Lord Emissary,” Future Hondo said. “Ever the fool,” he said to me. “Rushing in to save the day without stopping to think about the consequences!”
I rose to a crouching position, breathing hard, desperate to pull enough oxygen back into my lungs. My sword was at my feet, for all the good it would do. I couldn’t beat anyone here in combat. I looked past Future Hondo, my eyes locking onto Lena’s. Her face was drawn, her cheeks pinched and pale as salt. Darkeson looked even worse, his bald head covered in scratches and bruises. One of the old scientist’s eyes was swollen shut.
“Why?” I asked. “Why do you hate me?”
“You’ll know soon enough,” he replied.
A fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into this time, Prometheus Jones, I thought. I didn’t like any of my options. I could have used some help from my friends just then.
“Now’s a good time for the cavalry to save the day, wouldn’t you think?” Future Hondo asked, as though reading my mind.
“Leave him alone!” Hondo called. He stood atop the heap of crates I’d been hiding behind.
He held a bow, an arrow notched and ready.
“Careful, he’s got a bow and arrows,” Future Hondo taunted with dry, almost lazy sarcasm.
“Do we even know how to use that thing?” he added, fingering the scar on his chin.
“To battle, friends!” Gareth cried, coming through the same gap in the hills I’d snuck through earlier. Sword held low, cap flapping regally behind him, the robot was an impressive sight. Rainsong was running behind him, holding a bow. I glanced up at the guard towers. Sure enough, they were both empty now.
Ink landed atop the Emissary’s back. Queen Ophelia’s bodyguard robots dropped to either side of him with heavy thumps.
“I do not know what a cavalry is, but we have arrived to save the day,” Ink called down.
“You had better be right about this,” the Emissary thundered, apparently speaking to Future Hondo. I couldn’t understand what the words meant at first.
Then I realized what I should have seen all along.
This is a trap.
“You brought a robot with you?” Queen Ophelia asked. “Of all the . . .” her voice trailed off.
“It’s been a long time, Prometheus,” Future Hondo said, eyeing me with that ugly smile on his face.
He hates me, I thought. I could see it. But why?
“Still hanging around with that clanking rust pile?” another familiar voice called. An unhappy voice.
“Merc?” I asked. The Endeavor’s robotic mechanic had floated up to Future Hondo, hovering near one shoulder. Unlike Gareth, he didn’t look unchanged by the passage of time.
“We should go, noble friend,” Ink said, tugging on the hem of my shirt.
I glanced back at the doorway leading into Kallus’s office. He was the only one standing there. Hondo, Ravio, Gareth, and Queen Ophelia had already fled.
“It’s time to run away, isn’t it?” I asked with a sigh.
“I should think that was obvious, noble friend,” Ink replied.
Two guards were advancing from the throne room entrance, stepping past Merc and Future Hondo with swords drawn. Both wore gold masks.
“Through here,” Ink said, heading back toward the door we’d come through.
“Palpitating pineapples!” Kallus cried, slamming his door shut. I heard the loud click of a bolt slamming into place.
“What’s with you and fruit?” I cried, angrily hammering a fist against the door.
“It seems we must fight our way out,” Ink said, drawing his sword.
I reached for my own weapon, for all the good it would do me. The imperial guard would undoubtedly be better trained than I was.
Ink lunged forward, parrying strikes from both the lantern rangers. Their swords were long and slender, so thin they wiggled as the men slashed. With his far heavier claymore Ink was hard-pressed to keep up, but he never let an attack through. I stepped forward with my own blade, trying to figure out where I should step in. One of the guards eyed me, but both kept most of their attention on Ink. I was good for a little distraction, at least.
Ink stepped back, so we were side-by-side, then let the tip of his hefty sword hit the tile floor with a loud clink. “We must end this conflict quickly, noble friend.”
I nodded. More guards would be here any second. There was no more time to speak before the lantern rangers were on us again. Ink kept his sword down until the last possible second, then raised it with a roar and swung so hard both men were disarmed as their blades collided with his. Their weapons flew back into the wall and stuck there, hilts shivering up and down. They took several steps back, hands raised as if to hold us off.
“Let’s go!” I said. Tall double doors waited ahead. A few robed courtiers cowered in the corners of the room. Even as my words echoed across the throne room, more guards piled in through the front entrance. Future Hondo stood to our right, near the throne. Merc hovered between the man and the emperor.
“I don’t know if we can fight them all, noble friend,” Ink said. “They are quite well trained.”
I eyed my gauntlet, all but forgotten in the chaos. “I have another idea,” I said. I turned back to the doorway Kallus had closed and charged forward. I raised my hand, concentrating the way I always did right before I fired.
“Kallus, step away from the door!” I called.
I heard a muffled protest that sounded like “Flatulent figs!” from the other side of the door.
A moment later I let a burst of energy fly from my gauntlet. The door vaporized, along with part of a rug. The far wall was singed, but not too badly. The more I used the gauntlet, the more my fine control improved. I just didn’t get to use it too often. . . .
We tore through the second minister’s office, through the long hallway beyond, and burst out into daylight. The brightness momentarily dazzled my eyes. I studied the crowd, looking for my friends and where they might have fled. No sign of anyone.
The stone walkway led back around to the front of the palace, but that was about the last place we wanted to be just then. Ink hopped the wrought iron railing that lined the walk. I sheathed my sword and followed a second later, only to realize on the way down we were several feet higher than I’d expected. I stumbled as I hit hard stone, spraining my ankle and banging my knee. Maybe that was why there were no guards at this entrance; it was difficult to reach without the benefit of that path.
“Quickly, Prometheus,” Ink said, helping me up. I staggered to my feet. We ran for the city gates, back through the marketplace. I limped after Ink as best as I could, desperate not to slow us down. The guards at the gate were in an uproar, but word didn’t seem to have spread yet to the rangers on the city walls. Maybe if we hurried, we could get out safely.
“Why did I expect anything other than trouble!” Rainsong called out from behind us. “What did you do this time?”
“It’s not my fault!” I yelled over my shoulder. “Hurry up if you’re coming with us!”
“Likely story, troublesome friend!” Rainsong replied, but he hurried up to my side as he spoke. For all his bluster, I could tell the toad was afraid of being left behind. “Why are you limping?” he asked. “We’d be able to run a lot faster if you’d stop that.”
I grunted in pain as my ankle protested the slight weight I put on it. I bit back an angry, sarcastic answer. “We’d be able to move even faster if you carry me,” I replied instead.
“Nonsense, you’re far too large for me to—”
“We are near the gate, friends.” Ink interrupted. “We should slow down to avoid suspicion.” Onlookers in the crowd had taken a great deal of interest in our flight, but the guards ahead looked as bored and disinterested as they had on our way in.
We slowed to a walk. At first, I was grateful for the break from running, but after a few steps, my foot began to throb. I forced myself not to limp, to stride as normally as I could, biting my lip each time my ankle came down. We stepped out onto the drawbridge. Clouds hung below us again. My eyes began to water from the pain. Traffic had slowed. A human and a toad—both dressed in dirt-stained overalls—were coming from the other direction.
“Hey! The king wants them detained!” a ranger in a white mask yelled, pointing at the three of us with a sword.
“Poop,” I muttered, readying myself to dash past the last pair of guards.
“Now is really not the time, noble friend,” Ink said.
“You should have taken care of that in the forest,” Rainsong added with disgust. Then the two stared at each other as if surprised they’d agreed about something.
“Not what I—RUN!” I cried, giving up on explaining myself. I led the way, staggering past the guards. One of them grasped at my shirt and managed to grab a fistful. He let go with a grunt of pain as Ink brought down his sword—still in the sheath—down on the man’s arm.
The three of us raced down the road outside the city. I scanned for our friends, wondering where Hondo, Gareth, Ravio, and Queen Ophelia had gotten to. I spotted them standing just beyond the edge of the forest, apparently watching for us. The queen’s robotic bodyguards stood behind her, a pair of deadly shadows.
“What took so long?” Queen Ophelia asked.
“We had to fight our way out,” I replied, wincing at the pain in my ankle.
“Were you injured?” she asked with concern.
“No,” I replied. “I’m fine.” I was too proud to admit I’d hurt myself.
“Good,” she said, then spun on her heel and began to walk. “Let’s go.” Her robots turned and followed her without a word. The head of one turned to face forward. The head of the other didn’t move. Its eyes stayed trained on me even as the robot moved away. I decided not to let it creep me out.
“Go?” I asked. I glanced back, wary of being followed. No sign of pursuit.
“If you want the dig stopped,” she answered without turning, “then you’ll have to come with me to the surface. We’re going to stop it the old fashioned way.”
“What’s the old fashioned way?” I asked, following the girl into the forest.
Queen Ophelia stopped and turned, sweeping back dark curls and pushing her precarious crown higher onto her head. She favored me with a sly smile.
“Why sabotage, of course, sweetie.”
- - -
“A flying whale?” I asked again, needing to hear the words repeated for a third time. I’d seen one high in the sky when we’d first arrived on Frostbane, but it was still hard to believe. How could a creature so large stay airborne?
“Yes, it’s how I got here,” Queen Ophelia replied, losing her patience. “What don’t you understand? You’ve seen whales before.”
“Yes, but most of them weren’t of the flying variety.”
“Have you been living under a rock? Flying whales are all over the place on this world.”
“We come from a different world,” Ink replied. “Actually, multiple different worlds.”
“You told me that, but still. . . .” She laughed. A light, pleasant sound after so much stress and danger. “You’re in for a treat. It’s the only way to travel.”
We had been trudging through the forest for nearly an hour. The novelty of smelling fresh pine began to wear off, and breakfast seemed like something that had happened to someone else. I walked near the back of the group. One of the queen’s robots led the way, while one brought up the rear. Everyone else was ranged out in front of us. I hadn’t been able to hide my injury for long, but so far it hadn’t been a problem. I could limp along well enough, and the lantern rangers seemed to have given up on catching us, so there was no need to run.
“Might we have more of that delicious coffee?” Ink asked Hondo.
“Coffee is disgusting,” Raingsong cut in. “Is that your way of asking for a break? If you need a break, we can stop for you. There’s no shame in it. Well, other than being outpaced by a crippled child.” He finished his short diatribe with a wave toward me.
“I’m not crippled,” I said. “Or a child.”
“The emperor seemed to think you were quite young,” Gareth said.
“He was a bird! How would he know?” I protested. Traitorous robot, I thought.
“There’s no need to stop,” Queen Ophelia said. “We’re almost there.”
“In fact, he seemed surprised by how young you were,” Gareth continued as if he hadn’t heard. “I am not programmed to understand the nuances of human puberty, but I would guess you haven’t even started—”
“Gareth?” I interrupted.
“Don’t ever use the word ‘puberty’ again.”
“Ah, yes sir.”
Queen Ophelia giggled, and then the lead robot brushed aside a tree branch. An open vista spread before us. The world dropped away, and we could see the planet below. Jagged, conical mountains soared up toward the little shard of planet we stood on. I couldn’t tell how big the broken-off planetoid was, but the land stretched to either side out of sight.
The flying whale lounged near the edge of the drop-off. An elongated blue blob, it looked like a cartoonish representation of an Earth whale, with huge eyes and a jolly, smiling mouth. The biggest difference was its fins, which were longer, broader and more wing-like. Leather straps on the side facing us formed a ladder leading up to the beast’s broad back.
“Our fair steed,” Queen Ophelia said, fondly patting the monstrous creature’s side. “I call him Jimmy.” It was almost forty feet long. It waggled one of its fins and let out a friendly burbling sound as though happy to see the queen.
“Aww, hello to you too, buddy,” the queen said, trying to wrap her arms around the whale. The result was the girl leaning against a wall of pale, blue flesh with her arms outstretched.
“This is very touching and whatever,” Ravio said, “but shouldn’t we get moving?”
“Yes, of course,” the queen said. “Okay, buddy,” she said to the whale. “We’re gonna ride on your back. Don’t buck anyone off this time!”
“That’s happened before?” I asked, eyeing Jimmy the Whale dubiously.
“I’ll wait here,” Rainsong said, taking a big step backward.
“We might not be coming back,” I replied.
“I want to go home.” Rainsong spoke in an almost pleading tone, wide eyes studying Jimmy the Whale.
“So far, going backward hasn’t been an option,” I said.
“Oh, it was just a robot,” Queen Ophelia chided.
“That does not inspire confidence!” Gareth said, “but I will follow Hondo and his friends into certain death!”
“No one’s going to die,” I told the robot, wishing I felt as certain as I was trying to sound.
“You are way too excited about ‘certain death,’” Hondo scolded.
“I was programmed for glorious battle!” the robot replied, swinging his fists as though boxing an unseen enemy.
“No, you were programmed for security,” I said. Something was definitely wrong with the aged android. Too many years in the forest?
“We gonna talk all day, or get riding?” Ravio asked.
“Let’s go,” I said. At my words, everyone filed over to the ladder and began to make their way up, led by Queen Ophelia and her robotic bodyguards. It made me uncomfortable how quickly everyone followed my lead, but whatever helped me find my sister I would go with.
My sister who was over a hundred years in the future.
One thing at a time, I told myself. We would stop this dig, then try to find a working Moonstone. The Pit that led back to Senna would be nearby. Despite what I’d told Rainsong, I was determined to return. What else could I do?
The whale’s back was as soft and squishy as a waterbed, giving under our feet. I felt wobbly as I walked, and I could see why someone—even a robot—could have fallen off.
“Where are the handholds?” Rainsong asked as he climbed up. He was the last to come aboard. I was glad to see him; I’d been worried he’d really try to stay behind. I refused to admit that maybe I was growing fond of the grumpy amphibian.
The leather strap for the ladder ran across the width of the creature’s back. Queen Ophelia tapped it with her foot. “You can hold on to this.”
We all sprawled out, and took hold of the strap. The queen’s robots settled in on the far left. I wound up in the middle, with Ravio on my left and Hondo on my right.
Queen Ophelia was the only one who didn’t hold on. She crawled forward and sprawled on Jimmy’s head, between the creature’s enormous eyes. She whispered something to the vast creature I couldn’t make out, and the whale lifted off the ground with an unsettling lurch, then tilted as it flew away from the floating planetoid, nearly knocking all of us flying in the process.
I let out a nervous laugh as we soared upward, the ground suddenly a mile away. Ink began to whisper a prayer. Rainsong let loose a string of what sounded like bad words. Ravio just grimaced and held on tight. The robots were silent. Hondo watched the sky with a distant expression on his face, perhaps thinking about his future self.
The queen kept on murmuring to the whale. I wished I’d asked how far it was to the dig site. I didn’t want to travel too far from the area. My only link to my sister was behind us. It occurred to me I didn’t even know where the previous Pit was. We’d seemed to emerge from the sky into a frozen wasteland. I assumed that meant the gateway to Senna was on the planet below somewhere. Ink, Rainsong, and I had been spit out to land on the broken off fragment, then traveled back to a time when that fragment was livable.
I turned back to study the planetoid. It was huge. Even though we’d flown out several hundred feet, it still stretched out of sight to the right and left. It floated somehow above the planet, a broad, flat chunk of dirt and rock hundreds of miles wide. It seemed like it should have fallen out of the sky to crash into the planet below, but there it remained.
An oddity occurred to me. The planet had been above before, but now it lay below us. Somehow in the time gap either it flipped, or the planet did.
“Does the little planet chunk rotate?” I called out to Gareth, who was on the other side of Ravio.
He turned and stared at me for a moment, as though surprised by my question. “Yes,” he replied after a moment. “Very slowly. “And yet somehow, it keeps gravity. I’ve never fallen off, at least.”
“I’ll settle for not falling off this whale!” I replied.
“Yes, that would be bad. We are high enough that you would reach terminal velocity as you hurtled toward the planet. You fleshly beings might even fall unconscious before you hit the ground! Not us robots though, we’d be awake through the whole, agonizing descent, and—”
“Gareth?” I interrupted.
“Sir?” the robot replied.
“Hey, what is that?” Rainsong called out. The last to board the whale, he was on its far right side. I followed his gaze and saw a small, dark shape hurtling across the sky. It looked like someone riding one of those octopus-horse creatures we’d seen when we’d first arrived.
“A lantern ranger leaving the city?” Hondo guessed. He was between Rainsong and me.
“Has to be someone with connections,” Ravio said from my left. “They don’t let just anyone fly those monsters.”
“That is the future version of Hondo,” Gareth said.
We flew on in silence for several minutes. Cone-shaped mountains towered to either side. I couldn’t see the ground from where I lay. My hands began to ache from holding on. I decided to risk loosening them for a moment and stretch my fingers. The flight had been smooth and uneventful. I didn’t see any reason to worry now.
“Hey, we’re almost there!” Ophelia called back to us. She had been up by the whale’s head through the entire strange voyage. Relief filled me.
“Whoa, what’s that?” Hondo cried.
“What?” I asked. Something whizzed between us, buzzing angrily. A high-flying insect?
“We’re under attack! Glorious battle!” Gareth cried. Something clanked off his face. An arrow had struck one metal cheek, leaving a dent. The robot didn’t seem at all fazed. He drew his sword from beneath his cloak, for all the good it would do.
“Get down!” Queen Ophelia cried. “I can’t believe they’re shooting at us! Hold on tight. I’m going to angle us away! Those arrows won’t hurt Jimmy!”
We’d fled the court of an emperor. Now we were about to pay the consequences. I didn’t think it was a coincidence that Future Hondo had flown by, and now we were under attack.
I heard a grunt, and suddenly Ravio flopped over onto me. “Hey,” I yelled. “You need to hold on!” In all the confusion, I hadn’t reaffirmed my own grip. The momentum of Ravio’s impact knocked me loose, just as the right side of the whale began to tilt down. It wasn’t a steep grade, but since I wasn’t holding on, I couldn’t hope to stay put. I rolled over Hondo and Rainsong, grasping desperately for a handhold and finding only smooth, blue skin.
I caught sight of Ravio, glassy-eyed, an arrow sticking out of his neck. Hondo grabbed at my arm, but he was too late. Rainsong tried to get ahold of my ankle, but my foot slid through his grasp. I saw Ravio’s body tumbling after me, couldn’t process the Pitworlder’s fate.
I slipped over the edge and fell off the whale, right out into open air.
“How do you know all this?” Kallus asked, drilling me with a hard stare.
“Just putting the pieces together,” I replied. “The portal inside the Pit was obviously meant to be sealed away. The Cataclysm has to be below!” I didn’t feel very convincing, but I didn’t know what else to say. I couldn’t tell them how I’d really connected the dots. I didn’t expect anyone to believe we’d come from another time and had knowledge of what would happen in the distant future. I barely believed it myself!
“This is all very interesting, but I’m going to need more evidence before I can bother Emperor Titus with this,” Kallus said, frowning as he studied our faces, apparently trying to decide whether we were serious or crazy. “Do you have any of these ancient texts?”
“I’m not in the habit of carrying history books on my person,” the Queen of Chronos replied with a sniff. “Can’t you take our word for it? I want that dig stopped until the safety of my people can be guaranteed. Your men are working them far too hard!”
“Do you want it stopped temporarily . . . or permanently?” he asked. “I’m confused.”
“Permanently,” Ravio said.
“Temporarily,” Queen Ophelia said, at almost the same time. Ravio scowled at this, but she didn’t seem to notice. “At least, until we can determine whether it’s safe and that my people can dig under better working conditions. Anyway, I’m not here to talk to you. Is the emperor through here?” she asked, waving a hand towards a hefty, wooden door on the left side of the office.
“Whimpering watermelon, you can’t go through there!” Kallus cried.
She moved to the door anyway and wrenched it open while the second minister stuttered protests. I followed, hoping the Queen wasn’t about to get us both arrested. If Emperor Titus could help, I wanted to see him directly, not be held off by one of his advisors.
A short hallway separated the minister’s office from the next chamber, which was a tall, narrow throne room. In one sweeping glance, I took in the high stone walls, the small square windows above, the onyx throne, the bird-man emperor sitting at court. And the man kneeling on the carpet before the dais on which the throne sat.
The future one.
I choked down a gasp and stumbled backward. I tried to hide behind Queen Ophelia, but she was too thin to conceal me. As the bird-man turned a sharp gaze upon the queen, I slipped into the shadows at the edge of the hallway. A curtain hung there, all bunched up to one side of the wall. I peeked around its folds, able to see into the room without being seen.
“Are you hiding?” the Queen of Chronos hissed. “Coward!” She didn’t out me, though.
I couldn’t say what impulse made me want to hide from Future Hondo. Something in the way he’d acted in the wasteland, and in the way the Hondo I knew had described him.
“What are you doing here?” Emperor Titus asked. “I told my men to keep you out.”
“Did you now?” Queen Ophelia asked with hands on hips. “Well, that’s not acceptable to me. The dig must end. Your men are working my people too hard.”
“We have a schedule to keep,” the emperor replied. “You promised me a world of riches if I helped you. Riches I need to pay off my debts.”
“I promised you a world,” the queen said. “A world of untapped potential. We have no way of knowing how rich the next world down will be. And none of it will do us any good if my people don’t survive to make it to the world after that.”
“Well, if you don’t like it, you can take it up with Minister Brink here,” the emperor said, waving a wing-like arm toward Hondo, who still bowed on one knee.
“I will do no such thing. I am a queen, and I will be treated with respect!”
“You are a queen without a queendom,” the emperor replied. “A fact you seem to keep forgetting.”
“I sleep in a tent in woods. My people are laboring to dig a portal to another world I’ve never been to, after fleeing worlds where we didn’t belong. I will never forget that my kingdom is long behind me. Neither will I let my people die while I draw breath!”
“You exaggerate,” Future Hondo said. I heard a rustle as he stood. “Only three workers have died, and they all chose their own fates.”
“Three lives lost is too many!” the queen answered, balling her fists at her sides.
“I’d be inclined to agree with your majesty,” the emperor said, “but until Minister Brink got involved, this project was stalling. Perhaps your people need motivation to work hard. I’ve always found humans to be lazy myself.”
Queen Ophelia let out a low, frustrated growl. “I’m not leaving until you do something about this,” she said.
“Well, that’s fine. I’m about to retire for midday meal. You can sit on the throne if you like. You could pretend you have a scrap of power or sway here.”
This conversation was going downhill fast. The emperor seemed indifferent to the queen’s plight. By this time the rest of my companions along with Second Minister Kallus had crowded into the doorway. The emperor could see them, but I didn’t think either of the two Hondos could see each other.
“What’s this riffraff you brought in?” the emperor asked, curiosity seemingly piqued.
“Just a few . . . friends,” Queen Ophelia replied with a shrug. The gesture didn’t seem regal, or at all natural to the girl. She was trying too hard to be casual.
“Step forward friends,” the emperor commanded. “What’s with the hood?” he asked, apparently speaking to Gareth. “I don’t allow head coverings in my presence.” He turned to the front of the throne room and spoke to someone I couldn’t see.
“Whoever let them in is no longer a ranger,” he said.
“Yes, Majesty,” a stiff voice replied.
“Pull that hood back at once,” the emperor said to Gareth. I felt a pang of dread in the pit of my stomach. Hondo’s eyes went wide. Ink reached for his sword without seeming to realize what he was doing. I hoped the emperor wouldn’t see that as another insult.
Gareth’s mechanical hands reached for his hood, but he hesitated. Even from a distance, it had to be obvious he was a robot. They should have gotten him gloves, I thought. Or we could have left him outside with Rainsong.
“Go ahead, Prometheus,” Future Hondo said. “Tell him to pull it back.” He’d walked closer to the throne, so he could see into the side door. I felt another pang of dread.
Queen Ophelia stared at me. “Is he talking to you?” she whispered. “That’s a strange name for a boy, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I whispered back. “I mean no, it’s a perfectly good name,” I added, leaning against the wall and trying to decide what to do. Of course, Future Hondo knew I was here. I was standing five feet from his past self! I’d been an idiot to think I could hide from him.
We had both been stupid to think we could hide from him.
I eyed Hondo standing next to Gareth. The older boy shrugged helplessly. His wide eyes caught my gaze in a way that seemed to beg for me to fix this mess.
“Do as he says, Gareth,” I finally said. I stepped away from the wall and into the sight of the emperor and Future Hondo. Emperor Titus was glaring, while Future Hondo had a vicious smirk on his face.
“Okay what was that child doing hiding in my curtains?” the emperor said. “I don’t know how they do things on Chronos, Queen Ophelia, but on my world we show our rulers respect. We don’t hide little boys in the drapery!”
“I’m not little,” I replied defensively. “I’m almost thirteen!”
“Oh excuse me, you’re only mostly a little boy. I swear, all you featherless creatures look the same to me. Second Minister! Is this your doing? Explain yourself!”
Kallus opened his mouth to speak, but only a weak groan stumbled past his lips.
“Never mind!” the emperor replied, too fast for the minister to really reply anyway. “Didn’t I command the robed one to remove that hood? Why are they still standing there, hands up like they forgot how clothing works?” Emperor Titus’s eyes narrowed and his whole body began shaking with rage. I could hardly remember the last time I’d seen such anger. Not since my days as a child on Earth, living off scraps in a decrepit slum.
Gareth did as he was told, revealing his mechanical face.
The feathers on Emperor Titus’s crest seemed to stand straighter. I expected him to scream, to rage and kick and cry out; so great was the look of fury in his sharp, predatory eyes. Instead, he spoke in a low, dangerous voice just above a whisper.
“Guards . . . seize these intruders. Destroy the robot.”
“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.”
The Two Hondo Paradox
“How did you wind up here?” I asked as I helped my friend up. The sky was growing lighter. I could see the sun behind Lantern City trying to burn through a few small clouds.
“It’s been a long time, brother,” Hondo said after taking my hand. He brushed himself off and sighed. He wore a strange brown tunic and green pants. His dark hair was long, dirty and unkempt. He eyed Ink and Rainsong, but neither of us were able to spare a thought for the two just then.
“It’s been a day,” I replied. “Maybe two. But it’s good to see you.”
“It’s been almost a year for me,” Hondo said, meeting my gaze with an odd look in his eyes. “Much has changed.”
“How is that possible?” I asked, though I had an idea. I’d already experienced time travel once.
Hondo gave me a strange look. “You don’t know? Special stones from the moons of a planet called Senna. They let you travel through time.”
I nodded. “We used one to get here. It still just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Do you know where we are now?” I asked.
“This planet is called Frostbane. We’re one hundred and forty-two years in the past. That’s Lantern City,” he said with a wave toward the waiting fortress. “Those fools that just kicked me out are the Imperial Guard.”
One hundred and forty-two years. Nearly a century and a half now separated me from my sister. I didn’t know what to say to this, so I decided to move on for now.
“This is my friend, Ink,” I said. “He’s been helping me.”
“A samurai of Senna,” Hondo said. He bowed with hands clasped, exactly as I’d seen Ink do. “An honor to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Ink said, returning the bow with a pleased smile on his face. He still had my jacket, I realized. I’d forgotten about the coat in all the confusion. The salamander had thrown it over his robes, but he wasn’t using the sleeves. They hung loose, flapping as he walked.
“I’ve been trying to find Lena. Have you seen her?” I asked. “Or the rest of the crew?”
Rainsong loudly cleared his throat. “This is Rainsong,” I said, waving toward the toad.
“A member of the House Guard?” Hondo asked. “Nice to meet you.”
The toad mumbled something rude in reply. I rolled my eyes.
“How did you get here?” I asked again.
“Why don’t you come to my camp? We can talk there and come up with a plan. I’ll update you, and you can tell me what you’ve been up to yourself.” He started to walk into the pine forest opposite the direction we’d come from.
“Is that a good idea?” I asked, following him nonetheless. “I feel like I should check the city for my sister.” Lost in the past or not, I was still going to cover my bases. If Hondo was here, why not Lena too?
“We will. It’s market day. The fools can throw me out, but it’s easy as pie to slip back inside on market day, as long as we don’t call too much attention to ourselves. I’ve got eggs and coffee back at the camp. You look like you could use a good meal.” My stomach gave a mutinous growl in response to this. The protein bar I’d eaten on our hike felt long gone.
“You drink coffee?” I asked, surprised. He’d always complained when the adults on the crew drank it, claiming he hated the smell.
Hondo shrugged. “I’ve learned to like it.”
We followed a narrow trail through tall, tightly packed trees. After a few minutes Hondo paused, then veered left. We stepped off the path. I followed the older boy, pushing aside shrubbery and branches thick with needles. Ink and Rainsong followed, trading insults every so often.
A small fire flickered against the crisp morning air inside a circle of smooth gray stones. A robot sat on a stump before the flames, poking a burning log with a stick.
“Ah, hello, Prometheus!” a familiar voice crackled.
“Gareth?” I asked. The robot was dressed in a black cloak, worn open to reveal his once shiny, silver plating was scuffed and scratched. One of his limbs had been replaced with a skeletal, black arm ending in a clumsy claw-hand.
“The one and only,” the robot replied cheerfully. There was a crackle to the words again. It sounded like his voice box no longer worked properly.
“He’s been in these woods for decades,” Hondo said. “Not sure how he got here.”
“I’ve suffered memory loss,” Gareth said with an enthusiastic nod of his head. After battling the glass spiders, the last thing I remember is waking up in this forest several miles from here. That was twenty-seven years ago.”
“And you’ve been here ever since?” I asked.
“Yes. I have been following my secondary directive—to aid those in need. These woods are strange and dangerous, so travelers often need help and guidance.”
“He’s been killing the brain beasts,” Hondo added.
“The octopus monsters?” I asked. “We fought one in the forest.”
“Yep,” Hondo replied. “They read your brain waves and show you things they think you want to see, to lure you deeper into the forest.”
“What have you been up to?” I asked Hondo.
“Let me get some eggs on,” he said, sitting on a log and fumbling through an oversized backpack. “They’re fresh! Got them right from a farm a few miles out from a generous farmer. Tell me your story while I cook.”
He pulled out a small kettle and filled it with water from a leather flask, then set the kettle near the base of the campfire. This done, he pulled out a battered skillet and got to work cracking eggs. He seemed to be dodging my questions. I had been hoping he would go first, but I didn’t mind. I told him everything I had been through so far.
He finished preparing the eggs and coffee about halfway through my story. I didn’t like coffee—particularly not black the way Hondo drank it—but the drink was warm, so I sipped a cup anyway as I talked. Ink seemed fascinated by coffee and gulped down two cups, along with a helping of eggs. Rainsong refused any food or drink.
“This older version of me . . .” Hondo began. Sunny, yellow eggs sat on his plate, untouched and cooling. “What did he look like?”
“He . . . you . . . were several years older. I don’t know, twenty-five maybe? You . . . he . . . had a long, nasty scar. You seemed different.”
“Different how?” he asked.
“Colder, somehow,” I admitted with a shrug. I wasn’t sure what else to say. He’d all but left me to die in a frozen wasteland.
“I can’t imagine leaving you like that,” Hondo replied. He squirmed in his seat a little. He was clearly uncomfortable with the idea of a future version of himself running around. “I must have had a reason. Maybe I saved Lena too.”
“I hope so,” I said. “I don’t think anyone could last long in that cold.” The memory of that bone-biting chill made me shiver.
“The scar on his chin, could you tell how he got it?” Hondo said the words with his eyes on the fire, refusing to meet my gaze. He was using his fork to shift his eggs around.
“No, I couldn’t see the whole—wait. I never said it was on his chin. How did you know about that?” I took a bite of egg. Mine was already cold, but I was hungry, so I didn’t care.
“I saw my future self in Lantern City,” Hondo admitted in a hoarse whisper. “I don’t know if it’s the injury or what, but something changed me. I’m scared of him. We’ll have to be on our guard. I do not want to run into myself again.”
“Did you see you before?” Hondo gave me a quizzical look when I said this. “Did he see you?” I clarified.
“No, it was in passing. He was arguing with a merchant about the price of digging tools. I think he’s involved with the new Pit. I recognized myself and kept my head down while I eavesdropped.”
“There’s a new Pit?” I asked.
“Yes, the people of the Pitworld--which they call Chronos--are here digging another Pit,” Hondo said. “My future self seems to be leading the dig.”
“And . . . why do you want to stop this new Pit now if you’re working on it in the future?” I asked.
“That’s what gave me the idea to oppose it! The future version of me was so angry. I don’t want to wind up like that. I don’t want to be him. If I refuse to help with this new Pit, it’s a way for me to change my future.” This seemed like fishy logic to me, but I was just beginning to puzzle over time travel, so I didn’t mention my doubts.
“Is that the only reason you want to stop the Pit?” I asked.
“No . . . these Pits. There’s something off about this whole thing. Did you know the Pitworlders are humans? Humans that speak English? How did they get to the Chronos, a strange planet in unexplored space? What made them decide to flee that planet? Why are the toads of Senna trying to send people here? And how does a hole in the ground lead to another planet, anyway? I just have a bad feeling about this whole thing, and one of the Pitworlders I talked to agreed, something stinks about the dig on Frostbane.”
“You’ve spoken to a Pitworlder?” I asked, feeling my eyes widen in surprise.
“Oh yes,” Hondo said. “Who do you think is digging the new Pit?”
“What was he like?” I asked.
“Human,” Hondo said with the shrug. “You can meet him when we go back to the city. I need to speak to him anyway. I have to let him know I failed to gain an audience with the emperor.”
“You were trying to meet with an emperor, honored friend?” Ink asked.
“Yes. He’s backing the dig. I was hoping I could convince him to withdraw his support. If I can do that, the dig will stop. No dig, no Pit. No Pit, no evil future version of me running around.”
“Well, what are waiting for?” I asked, standing and brushing off my dirty pants. “Let’s go!”
“Sure thing,” Hondo said. “And maybe we’ll get you some shoes.”
Ink stared longingly into his empty coffee mug. “Could I have one more cup, honored friend?”
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.
We fell through darkness, careening downward at a sickening pace. Brief flashes of light came from what looked like underground tunnels. I saw stalactites and small torches, and once I thought I saw a little girl, but everything went by so quick I couldn’t be sure.
We were falling so fast the wind whistled in my ears. Ink shouted something, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. Spinning end over end at high speed, it didn’t take me long to lose my backpack, jacket, and right boot. I have a history of losing my right boot.
I was worried about my sword coming loose and skewering someone, so I did my best to keep my hand on the hilt. I lost all sense of time as we fell. I couldn’t tell if it was fifteen minutes, or thirty, or an hour. We seemed to drop out of time itself, crashing through blackness into the unknown.
Just when it seemed like we might fall forever. . . .
We seemed to be hanging in mid-air. I still couldn’t see, but I could hear again. My face and arms burned from the rush of wind continually striking against my skin, and my head was throbbing. Moving carefully—afraid I would somehow knock myself off an invisible perch—I rubbed at my eyes, wiping away tears. I should have kept them closed as we fell, but I’d been afraid I’d miss Lena.
“Is everyone okay?” I called out. I could hear Ink and Rainsong breathing in the darkness.
“I am alright, noble friend,” Ink replied.
No answer from the toad.
“I think our adversary has fainted,” the salamander said after a moment.
“Where are we?” I asked. I reached my hands out—still being cautious—but couldn’t feel anything. I strained my eyes trying to see, but all was pitch dark.
“I’m not sure, noble friend. I don’t think we’ve arrived yet. We are still descending.”
“We . . . what?” I was quiet for a moment. He was right. I could still feel myself moving; we were just going so much slower now. At first, it felt as though we’d stopped.
The air was cold, and getting colder the lower we dropped. Whatever world we were headed into, it was going to be bad for me and worse for Ink and Rainsong.
Without warning, we began to pick up speed. Gravity took hold, pulling us through darkness. We burst into open air, and a frigid wind tore through us. Ink cried out in pain. An arctic landscape spread before us. As we fell, I saw mountains in the distance. Strange, angular clouds drooped from the sky. We landed on ice. Not hard enough to break bones, just enough to knock the wind out of me.
I gasped, running bare hands through an inch of snow that had fallen over the ice. The cold was like nothing I’d ever felt. My fingertips were already going numb, and I could feel my damp socks freezing against my feet. I crawled to Ink.
“Ink!” I cried. “Stay awake!” He mumbled insensibly. You weren’t supposed to sleep when you were extremely cold. How were we going to get out of this? I searched for the toad. He was a few feet away, still unconscious. “Rainsong!” I called. I got no reply.
I swung around, studying the frozen land. I found my boot, my jacket, and my backpack. The jacket was close. I grabbed it and threw it over Ink. I stared at the backpack, trying to think. Did I have anything warm in there? I couldn’t seem to concentrate anymore. I was shivering violently now, my body trying to keep the chill at bay.
I staggered toward the boot. I had almost reached it when I saw a shadow moving between gusts of swirling snow. A figure walking toward us. Footsteps crunched on the snow. He wore a warm fur cloak, the hem flapping in the gentle but frosty breeze.
“Hondo?” I asked in disbelief, barely able to mumble the words.
“Use the moonstone,” Hondo said. He seemed different. Older by at least a few years. A long, stitched-up wound ran from the edge of his chin down to his neckline. “Strike it against your own hand. See you on the other side.”
And with that, he turned and walked away.
“Hondo!” I called. “Help us! We’re—I’m dying!” I tried to follow him and slipped on a shallow rut in the snow, falling painfully to my knees. “Come back!” He returned to the shadows. After a few seconds, I could no longer see anything but craggy ice and falling snow.
Could it really help us? What good would moving six hours in time do?
It’s better than nothing, I thought. Use it while you still can.
I staggered back to Ink. One of my feet felt like it was on fire. I’d never put on my other boot. I’d been too worried about losing my companions. I fished through Ink’s pockets, but I couldn’t find the stone.
“Take us to daylight,” Ink whispered, and the moonstone slipped out of his palm onto the ice. I grabbed it, then looked at Rainsong. Even though he was an enemy, I couldn’t leave him here to die. I shuffled over to the toad and dragged him next to Ink, grabbing my bag on the way. I slid my left arm through a strap, then I awkwardly pinned one of Ink’s arms and one of Rainsong’s beneath my left elbow, hoping that would be enough.
I raised the moonstone with my right hand and struck it as hard as I could against my left palm. This time there was a violent flash of light. I felt even dizzier than before. The world seemed to turn green, and warmth flooded my body.
The world had turned green; I realized as I studied our new surroundings. The cold and all the terror it brought with it were gone. It was replaced with a meadow carpeted with soft grass. A forest grew tall to my left. In the shadows, I saw the glimmer of fireflies. A brook babbled quietly to my right. The warmth of a hot, yellow sun shone on my face.
Could this be Earth? I thought.
I tried to stand, and the dizziness took me, the green grass and blue sky spinning together. I was also bone-tired. My limbs felt like they weighed a thousand pounds each. It took all my strength just to stay sitting up. I laid a heavy hand on Ink’s neck, then Rainsong’s, checking for pulses. Both of them were still alive. Their skin was deathly pale, but the color was starting to come back.
Something huge blotted out the sun above. It looked like a whale. A flying whale.
“We’re gonna go with not Earth,” I said aloud, my voice hoarse and dry. Was this the same world as the frozen wasteland? It seemed so peaceful and so perfect. The weariness deep in my bones tugged with a power like gravity. My eyelids drooped. My day had started with a spacewalk. That seemed like a hundred years ago now.
Where would Lena be now? There had been no sign of her or Darkeson in the frozen land. I wanted to call out and search for her, and I wanted to tend to Ink and Rainsong and make sure they were okay, but I was utterly exhausted. I peeled off my socks. The ice had begun to melt, but they were still cold. My feet were beet red. No sign of frostbite, thankfully. I let my toes curl into the soft grass.
I was concerned about my safety, my companions, my sister, and my lost crew, but I let myself drift off into a deep sleep, and all my worries flitted away like fireflies on a summer breeze.
“Go on, get out of here!” a tall, yellow salamander yelled, hurling what looked like an apple at Ink.
“Just leave!” a red one screamed.
“I am sorry, noble friends,” Ink said. He cringed back, his shoulders hunched. “I was just trying to help my friend.”
Fiver and I were headed back to the edge of the village when we’d found a crowd of salamanders yelling at Ink and throwing old fruit at him.
“He was helping me,” I said. An array of bulging, amphibian eyes turned my way. “He rescued me,” I added, trying to keep my back straight under the weight of all those big, relentless eyes.
“Well, he couldn’t save us,” the yellow salamander said. “We banished him for a reason.”
“I didn’t enter the village,” Ink objected.
“Ten feet! You know the rules!” a pink salamander with a feminine voice cried.
Ink took several pronounced steps back. “Is that better? I’m leaving,” the salamander said. His big, black eyes were lowered, a tear sliding down one mottled cheek.
I wanted to walk around the crowd, but the opening in the fence was here. I hesitated, but Fiver didn’t seem to care.
“Comin’ through,” he said, pushing into the crowd. I followed on his heels, moving through a small mob of glaring, muttering salamanders. Most of them were dressed in dirty, stained robes.
“Drattin’ lizards,” he complained when we had stepped over the fence and joined Ink. “What was that about?”
“I am not welcome in my former home,” Ink replied. “It’s a long story.”
“We got a good walk ahead of us,” Fiver replied. “Plenty of time for stories.”
“This is Corporal Fiver,” I told Ink. “He knows a secret entrance into the castle.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Ink replied, clasping his hands and bowing. “I am known as Ink.”
“Likewise,” Fiver replied. He didn’t return the bow or take a palm off his laser gun to shake hands.
We started walking down the dirt road. It was afternoon now. The path was pleasant in the daylight. Insects buzzed in the shade of trees that grew beside the road, but they left us alone.
“Why were they so angry with you, Ink?” I asked.
“The bandits,” he replied, eyes lowered to his sandaled feet. “When I was an apprentice samurai, many years ago, I was charged with keeping watch over the village at night. We had heard tales of marauding monsters, and we wanted to be prepared if they showed up. I was sitting atop a haystack just outside the village. Only two moons were out, an unusually dark night. Despite my samurai training, I was lazy. In the hours before dawn, I let myself fall asleep. My village was attacked while I slumbered.”
“I’m sorry,” I replied.
“As am I, noble friend,” Ink said, his voice hoarse. “Now my village must pay tributes once a month to the bandits. Much of our food goes to appeasing them.”
“Who are these bandits?” I asked. “Are they toads?”
“No, even the toads pay tribute to the bandits.”
“You beat those toads on the road,” I said. “Five of them! Couldn’t you fight the bandits off?”
“Swords are no good against those beasts. They have armored skin.”
“Well then. . . . What could you’ve done anyway?” Corporal Fiver asked.
“I could have called a warning. My people could have been ready. The bandits didn’t want us dead, just subdued. Caught by surprise; there was confusion.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“People died,” he said, so quiet I barely heard the words. We walked in silence for a few seconds. The only sounds were the crunch of our footsteps and the insects droning.
“My people,” Ink continued, “I was banished for my failure.”
“That doesn’t seem fair,” I said.
“It is the punishment my master found fitting. Master Davin ended my training and proclaimed me ronin. As a ronin, I wander and give aid to any who need it. I can only watch while others toil to keep the bandits happy. I am forbidden to aid in farming, and I lost my name.”
“They took your name?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. “I must earn it back through a life of service and solitude.”
“I still don’t think it sounds fair,” I said. I’d made mistakes before. I couldn’t imagine spending my whole life trying to pay for them. You’ve never gotten anyone killed, though, I thought to myself. A failure like that would be hard to live with.
The castle loomed high to our left. “Best keep our voices down now,” Corporal Fiver said. “Enemy territory.”
We walked through a field between two lines of green sprouts. The silos we’d seen earlier cast long shadows in the afternoon heat. No one was tending this field, but hunched figures were working on the other side of the towers.
“Where’s this sewage drain?” I asked, keeping my voice just above a whisper.
Fiver nodded toward a canal that ran between the two fields. The ground just past the silos sloped toward the water. On our side of the hill was a round opening about two feet tall. A thin line of suspicious brown water was leaking out.
We stopped in front of the drain. It sat low enough that we couldn’t be seen from either field.
“That’s how you escaped?” I asked, wrinkling my nose. I couldn’t help eyeing the corporal’s uniform.
“I had a spare set,” he said, catching my glance.
Ink sighed. “This is not what I had in mind, noble friend.”
“You don’t have to come with me,” I said, doing my best to keep my voice level and expression blank as I spoke. “This is my duty.”
I didn’t want to influence his decision, but I desperately hoped Ink wouldn’t leave me. Now that the moment was upon us, I wasn’t feeling so brave. All through the walk, I had been trying not to think about the fact that we were heading into a place a trained soldier was so terrified of he wouldn’t go back.
“I told you that I would aid your quest noble friend, and I intend to see it through. I will survive.”
“Thank you,” I replied, relieved.
“Well, best of luck kid,” Fiver said. “Hope you can save your sister.”
“Thanks for your help,” I said. “I hope you find your way back.”
“Emmitt’s pretty smart for a bug. I think I’ve got a chance. Take care of yourselves.
“You too,” I replied.
I held out my hand, and he grasped it firmly in a huge, callused palm. Ink bowed quickly, hands at his sides. The soldier turned and walked away, leaving us to our fate.
We said goodbye, I realized. Like we’ll never see each other again. I didn’t know what the future held, but I had to hope we would be finding a way back out of the castle, whether it was this sewage drain or right out the front door.
I shrugged out of my jacket and shoved it into my backpack. “Do you want to put your robe in here?” I asked.
Ink nodded and removed his robe, revealing a sleeveless shirt and a wrap around his waist. Once full, the backpack bulged uncomfortably. Getting through the tunnel would be awkward, but at least some of our clothes would be protected. I thought about taking my pants off too, but I didn’t like the idea of crawling into a strange place in my underwear.
“Well, onward noble friend!” Ink said. “Let’s save your sister!” Now that he had taken off his robe, he seemed in a hurry to get moving. He took the lead, slipping inside without looking back. With his belt off, he held his sheathed sword in one hand.
The pipe smelled as foul as it looked. We staggered through in the dark, crouching as low as we could and doing our best not to touch anything. We carried the backpack between us. Ink grasped one strap and I held the other.
“I’m bringing taller boots next time,” I complained when a bit of liquid sloshed against my socks, which were still damp from the swamp.
“Next time, noble friend, I think we should take our chances breaking down the front door.” The poor salamander sounded as miserable as I felt.
“We could have scaled the wall,” I added.
“Master Davin could smash stone blocks with his fists. I could learn to bust down walls.”
“My gauntlet might be able to fry a doorknob,” I said. Or blast the door to splinters, I added mentally.
“We could have lured all the toads out somehow,” Ink replied. “Perhaps with a cake.”
“A cake?” I asked with a laugh. “Do toads eat cake?”
“I don’t know. I think I’m just hungry, noble friend.”
“Do you want to turn back?” I asked. Our alternative ideas were ridiculous, of course, but maybe we could make something else work. “We could—”
“We’re almost out,” Ink said. “I can see a light ahead. Let us persevere, noble friend.”
We continued on until the light grew bright enough that I could make out Ink’s silhouette shuffling ahead of me. The light came from the roof of the pipe.
I had a moment of panic when I realized we might have to climb out of a toilet, but we were passing under an access hatch, not a toilet. A small, metal grate with vertical slits had been placed over a square opening in the pipe.
Ink peered up through the slits, studying the room above for several seconds before reaching up and carefully, slowly, sliding the grate aside. He let go of the backpack strap and clambered up. One hand was on the hilt of his sword, ready to draw. After a moment he waved for me to climb up.
I was grateful for the relatively fresh air of the castle. We were in a small storage room. Shelves had been packed into every space. They were lined with what looked like jars, but it was so dark I couldn’t be certain. The only light came from a crack under the door.
Ink shivered. “Could I have my robe, noble friend?” he asked. “I do not fare well far from the sun.”
Of course. Amphibians are cold-blooded. Ink couldn’t generate his own body heat.
Ink was half dressed when the door swung open. I was beginning to put my jacket on. A toad jaunted in, whistling a lively tune. Light shone into the room, illuminating dozens of wooden shelves groaning with big, glass jars filled with murky liquid and oddly shaped bits of goo.
The toad’s face was bruised, one eye black. He wore a cheerfully bright, yellow robe. He grabbed a jar and swung away, closing the door behind himself. He continued to whistle as he walked away, the sound fading as we crouched in the dark with hands on the hilts of our swords.
He hadn’t seen us.
“Wow, that was lucky,” I whispered.
“There is no such thing as luck, noble friend,” Ink said, gently pushing past me to kneel and look under the wide opening between the stone floor and the wooden door.
“We are clear to depart,” he said, opening the door.
Backpack and jacket in place, I nodded. “Ready.”
We should probably have a plan; I thought as he opened the door. Oh well. We would sneak as long as we could sneak, and fight as much as we needed to fight. I wasn’t leaving here without my sister. Not willingly, at least.
Ink and I stepped out into a drafty, open room. A gentle breeze wafted from somewhere. Ancient tapestries hung on the walls. Their designs were faded, edges unraveling to where strings dangled against the floor. A toad in a red robe slammed right into Ink.
“INT—” the toad began before Ink shoved an elbow into his stomach, tripped him with a leg sweep, and smacked him across the back of the head with the flat of his sword blade.
“I thought you said the coast was clear,” I hissed. I studied the exits in the room. Two open doorways straight across and a hallway to the left curving out of sight.
“The coast? The ocean is far from here, noble friend.”
“Not that coast,” I said. “I meant the area?”
“Yes, he must have been down the hall. I’m surprised I didn’t hear his footsteps, though. What is our plan now?”
“We find my sister,” I replied.
“The castle is quite large, do you think—” Ink was cut off when the toad at his feet suddenly lurched upward and grabbed the hem of the salamander’s robe. Ink was yanked to the ground. I bit back a yelp of surprise and drew my sword.
I have no idea how to use this thing.
Ink and the toad began to wrestle on the ground, neither one letting the other draw a sword. I raised my blade, trying to copy the fluid way Ink swung his own sword. I hoped to strike the toad across the back of the head the way the salamander did. My sword struck stone with a loud clink!
Ink and the toad struggled on the ground for a minute longer before Ink straddled the toad, pressing his forearm against his opponent’s windpipe. He pressed a knee into the toad’s belly. Its legs writhed as it kicked uselessly at the air.
Ink drew his sword and raised it high. “Go to sleep!” he cried, bringing down the blade, flat-side first. This time the toad was firmly unconscious. “Quite a resilient fellow,” Ink said, dusting his hands off as he stood up.
“INTRUDERS!” a toad cried from across the room. A jar fell to the floor, shattering loudly. It was the whistler with the black eye. Cries of alarm and slapping footsteps came from behind the toad as the castle responded to the alarm.
I took a deep breath. I had known this was possible. I would just have to stay calm and remember why I was here.
“Where is my sister?” I asked the black-eyed toad. “Let her go, and we’ll leave.”
“We do our duty,” the toad said. “We give our lives. Protect Senna. Protect the Ancients. Send them down, send them down, send them all down.”
“Um. . . . What?” I didn’t know what to make of all that.
Four more toads had joined the first few, and I could hear more coming.
“Are you ready, noble friend?” Ink asked. “We will have to fight. Watch that you are not struck by a Moonstone.” Another pair had joined the crowd.
Ink darted right into the mob of toads. They bore weapons of all kinds. Swords, axes, spears and even a few bows. The salamander moved in a blur, parrying strikes and dodging blows, then somehow finding space to strike back at the creatures every few seconds.
I stood with my sword and gauntlet at the ready, feeling useless. To the left, I heard more toads coming. I raised my gauntlet and fired upward. A jagged burst of light launched from my palm, striking the stone blocks of the hallway ceiling.
There was a massive rumble as the giant bricks fell. That entrance to the room was blocked now. I could hear toads yelling from the other side.
I looked back to Ink. He stood over a pile of unconscious toads, breathing hard.
“That was quite easy! Nice work. Would you like a robe now?” Ink asked, nudging one of the toads with his foot. “Your pants smell quite bad, noble—YEEAAARGH.” Ink let out a terrible howl and collapsed, twitching.
A large, dark green toad in a black robe stepped from behind Ink. His face was covered by war paint, half red half blue. He held a crossbow in both hands. He’d struck Ink with some kind of electrical dart. Little bolts of electricity danced across the salamander’s skin.
The big toad began winding a crank on the side of the crossbow. A string ran from the bolt to the crossbow. It coiled up as he worked.
I stood protectively over Ink, ready to defend the salamander with my life. “I’m just trying to find my sister,” I cried.
“Give your life, protect Senna, protect the Ancients. Send them all down!”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
The toad didn’t answer. Something caught on the crossbow wench, and he threw the weapon to the ground with an impatient snarl. He drew a double-bladed sword in one hand and what looked like a knife on a chain in the other. The toad advanced, swinging the chain and twirling the sword. There was an easy grace in every movement. He reminded me of Ink.
“Nope!” I said, aiming my gauntlet at his feet and blasting the floor. The big toad was knocked back against the far wall, dazed but alive. His weapons went flying. The double-bladed sword spun in an arc past my head, nearly cutting my cheek. The chain landed with a clatter amidst the array of sleeping toads.
“Okay . . . that hurt,” Ink said, propping himself up on one elbow.
I sighed with relief as the salamander stood. We’d beaten them all. Well, almost all. The ones on the other side of the cave-in were still shouting. They seemed to be moving rubble instead of trying to go around.
“Any of them awake yet?” Ink asked. He walked over to the double-bladed sword, weighing it with one hand. Apparently satisfied, he returned to my side.
I surveyed the slumped forms around us. “The one with the black eye,” I said. He was breathing funny and had his eyes pressed too tightly shut. “He’s just pretending to be out of it.”
“Gah!” the toad cried, lurching to his feet. Ink was on him in a blue flash, holding his sword to the creature’s bulging neck.
“Don’t struggle,” Ink said.
“What did you do with my sister?” I asked. “A girl with dark hair? And a bald man?”
“Give your life, give your life!” he cried. “I’ll tell you nothing.”
“Don’t be a fool, boy.” Ink replied. “He’s an Ancient. If you’re supposed to protect them, why wouldn’t you be allowed to answer his questions?”
“Dragonlaugh’s orders,” the toad said, nodding at the bigger toad I’d taken out with my gauntlet. “He says the Ancients are confused. They don’t know up from down anymore.”
“Where is my sister?” I asked again.
“The angry one?” The toad sighed. “We threw her and the fearful one into the Well of the Ancients. Not before she gave me this.” The toad started to point toward his bruised face, but Ink pressed the tip of his sword closer in warning.
“You did what?” I asked, sputtering.
“Take us there,” Ink ordered. He searched the toad’s pockets, carefully withdrawing a Moonstone.
“Fine,” the black-eyed toad replied with a strange look in his eyes. He nodded toward a set of doors behind us, just through one of the open entryways.
“Lead the way,” Ink commanded. He stopped briefly to make sure the big toad called Dragonlaugh was knocked out; then he took the sheath for the double-bladed sword.
Leaving the room, we moved down a long hallway lined with more ancient tapestries. Most of these were in even worse shape, decayed by time so badly that even from just a foot away I couldn’t tell what any of them were meant to depict.
“Why do you toads guard this castle?” I asked as we walked.
“‘Twas commanded by the Ancients long ago,” the toad replied, frowning and studying the stone floor as he walked. Ink walked behind him with his sword to the creature’s back. I followed behind the pair.
“How long ago?” Ink asked.
“Many centuries,” the toad said.
“Why take us by force?” I said when the toad offered no more information.
“Like I said foolish friend, the Ancients don’t even know up from down anymore.”
Before I could ask more, the hall opened up into a cavernous chamber with two huge doors at the far end. High above us, balconies and open staircases lead up into the heights of the castle. Torches and braziers lined the walls, granting spotty illumination. A smaller set of double doors lay to the left. I could see light shining through the crack between them. The way outside? This room had seemed so dark before. A toad stood to either side of the doors.
“Why were the lights out last time we came here?” I asked.
“It was nighttime, foolish friend,” the toad said. His tone made it clear he thought I was an idiot for asking.
“Your people stand guard in the dark?” Ink asked.
“They sleep at their posts,” he replied.
“That doesn’t seem smart,” I said.
“Did you make it through the front door?” the toad replied with a smirk.
He had me there.
“Where’s the well?” I asked.
“Through the doors.”
“What’s going on, Rainsong?” one of the guard toads asked, stepping forward with his hand on the hilt of his sword. The other one readied a bow.
Rainsong held out a hand to calm the pair. “I’ve got this. These two want to see the Well of the Ancients, and I’m going to grant their wish. No need for a fight. They’ll just best us anyway.”
“Alright, holler if they try to hurt you,” the swordsman toad said, returning to his post.
That was too easy, I thought. Rainsong motioned toward the double doors, and I pushed them open. The room beyond was enormous, at least a forty feet wide. It was dominated by a wide, black pit that took up at least thirty of those forty feet. It was cut from natural stone, gray instead of reddish-brown like the bricks everywhere else in the castle.
“This is the well?” I asked, stepping forward. The air in the room was freezing, colder than outside by at least thirty degrees. Even with my jacket, the sudden temperature drop made me shiver.
“This is it,” the toad said.
“Perhaps we could get a rope, noble friend?” Ink asked, looking to me.
I leaned over the edge. I couldn’t see anything but blackness. The hole seemed to descend forever.
A second Pit.
I shivered, but not from the cold this time. Did another world lay at my feet?
“Lena?” I called. My voice echoed downward.
“You might need to get a little closer,” Rainsong said. He darted under Ink’s sword and delivered a vicious kick to the salamander’s midsection. Caught off guard, Ink took a half-step back, one hand on his belly. He recovered quickly, but not fast enough. The toad gave me a powerful shove. I was sent hurling out into blackness. I grasped at air with one hand, falling. . . .
And grabbed Rainsong’s wrist with the other hand. The toad’s eyes bulged with panic as we were both hauled toward the dark portal. Our descent halted when Ink grabbed Rainsong’s other wrist.
“Hold on,” Ink said, straining. “I will pull you up.” He shoved his sword into a crack in the stone and used the blade to anchor himself.
“No. You won’t.” Rainsong pressed both feet against the stone side of the Pit, then pulled with all his might. Already strained to his limits, Ink could resist gravity no longer. He lost his grip on the sword, and all three of us tumbled down.
Into the Pit.
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.”
“I’m not a lizard; I’m a salamander. We’re amphibians,” the swordsman explained, picking up his hat and dusting it off. “I knew a lizard once. He still owes me money.” He shook his fist when he said it, frowning. “Never lend anything to a strange reptile, noble friend.”
“I’m Prometheus Jones,” I said. “What’s your name?”
He hesitated. “You can call me Ink,” he replied.
I eyed the unconscious frogs slumped on the road behind us. “Did you notice a girl come this way?” I asked. I was eager to get moving again.
“Was she as ug—” the salamander coughed. “Did she look like you? I did see a caravan of toads pass this way with two um . . .”
“Humans?” I supplied, trying to decide how I felt about giant toads.
“Yes, noble friend, that’s the word. If your sister was with toads, she is almost certainly bound for the House of the Ancients.”
“The giant castle?” I guessed.
“Yes . . . the Ancients built it long ago. The toads have been guarding it for centuries. The stories say there is a magic well inside, though they differ on what the well actually does.”
“Who were the Ancients? Did they look like giant insects?”
Ink gave me a funny look, as though I’d said something strange. “Are you not one of the Ancients yourself, noble friend?”
“Um . . . no, I think the Ancients were insects.”
“I am not one for arguing, but I do not think so. A bug man and an Ancient live in that village, though. Perhaps you should ask them.”
I glanced at the little huddle of grass huts and the great windmill spinning lazily against a bright, purplish night sky. “Who else lives in that village?” I asked.
“Mostly salamanders like myself.” Ink looked down when he said it, seemingly embarrassed about something.
“Well, I’ve got to go to the castle, this House of the Ancients. I think my sister and a friend might be there. If I get the chance I’ll come back and talk to them, thank you for your help.” I started to walk away, assuming that would be the end of it.
“Your sister, noble friend?” the salamander asked, following after me. “Are. . . . You’re not on a quest, are you?” Ink’s voice betrayed his excitement.
“I suppose, yes. I’m on a quest. A very important one.”
“Allow me to assist you then, noble friend! I am a ronin, I wander and give aid to those I meet on the road.” I didn’t think twice. I didn’t know this salamander man. He seemed strange, but he had proven himself a friend, and I couldn’t afford to turn away help.
“That would be welcome; I will take whatever help you can give me,” I said.
“You will not be disappointed, noble friend. Do you know how to use a sword?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I’ve just got this gauntlet.”
“Yes, I saw your single glove. No doubt it protects your hand very well, noble friend, but I prefer a sword for defense personally.”
I debated explaining the gauntlet, but I didn’t even fully understand how it worked myself. I decided to take the advice of the wandering, English-speaking swordsman salamander, and pick up a sword. I didn’t know how to use one, but it could still come in handy. I chose the one that had been flicked away from the first toad by Ink’s initial strike. It had a long blade with a slight curve. The handle had no hilt, just a polished wooden handle wrapped in thick blue thread. A katana.
“Take his scabbard too, noble friend,” Ink said, tossing me a plain, bronze sheath. “Do you want his robe?” he asked, eyeing my clothes, then glancing down at one of the unconscious toads. I strapped the sheath to my belt and slid the sword home.
“Um . . . that’s okay,” I said. “We should go.”
We jogged onward in the night, past the village, the lake, and into the mass of rolling hills where I had first spotted Lena and the frogs. As we ran, I couldn’t help thinking about Hondo and the rest of the crew. Hondo had been one of my first friends on the Roseworld. For now, I could only hope they were all okay without me. The sword was annoying, slapping at my knees every fourth or fifth step. I would have preferred strapping the blade to my back, but I didn’t want to stop to mess with it.
The castle speared the starry sky, more angular than I had noticed from a distance. It was shaped somewhat like a skyscraper, considerably taller than it was wide. It was also further away than I’d initially thought, and far larger. It loomed hundreds of feet tall. Now that we were close, I had to crane my neck just to see the small, peaked towers near the roof.
The castle was situated on a broad, flat hill lined with a teeming forest on three sides. The road snaked through a swamp on the east side, the side facing us. The boggy land was scattered with trees and shrubbery, everything overgrown with moss. North of the swamp, farmland stretched to the horizon in green and gold ribbons. The tall, gray cylinders of grain silos loomed in the middle-distance in a line that divided the plowed fields.
I stared at the marshy ground in distaste. The dirt lane continued on through, but it grew very narrow in places and completely submerged in others. I glanced down at my shoes. I wore a sturdy pair of boots that came up past my ankle. Not tall enough to keep my feet dry.
I sighed. I’m packing extra socks next time, I thought.
We slogged through the swamp, boots sticking to the wet spots, pulling up with an obnoxious squelch. My feet were left wet, my toes cold. The air smelled fetid, the odor of rotting vegetation heavy in the air.
The doors to the castle were undefended. Or so it looked anyway. As we climbed the hill and approached the door, I kept a careful eye out for guards, or arrow slits, or windows, or peepholes of any kind. I found nothing but mossy stone bricks until forty feet up. If anyone watched from on high, I couldn’t tell.
I reached for one of the tall, oaken doors as soon as they were within reach. I was ready to storm the castle and save my sister.
“We must be stealthy, noble friend,” Ink cautioned. “We will come under attack if the toads detect our presence. I think perhaps—”
“There’s no time to lose,” I said. “Besides, no one is around.” I pushed on the door, and nothing happened. There were two large, steel rings where knobs would normally be. I tried grabbing one and giving it a tug. The door swung open easily on greased hinges, silent as a tomb. A wave of warm, greasy air gushed out. The smell inside the castle matched the smell of the swamp. It was dark inside, no torches, lamps, or lights of any kind.
“Intruders!” a thick voice burbled. A figure launched itself at me out of the darkness. Forgetting my sword, I raised my gauntlet . . . and I hesitated. If the toads were intelligent, like people, I couldn’t kill them. Before I could come to a decision, a wet hand slapped something against my forehead. It was hard, small, and rough, like a rock.
I stumbled backward. Sudden daylight dazzled my eyes.
Somehow in the span of mere seconds, the blue sun had risen, and the moons slipped to the northern horizon. I rubbed at my forehead. Had I been knocked out? I was still half sitting up, palms in the dirt to support my body. Not the position of someone knocked unconscious.
I glanced at the castle. The toad that had attacked me was gone, the doors shut. Ink sat a few feet away. He knelt with both legs folded under his body. He had his eyes closed, hands resting on his sword, which sat on his lap unsheathed. The ashen remains of a fire long burned out lay nearby.
“What . . .” I took a deep breath. “What in the world just happened?” I asked.
Ink popped one eye open. “Moonstone. You got displaced in time. That was about six hours ago.”
“Moonstone? What? Displaced?” I took another deep breath, trying to make sense of the salamander’s words. My head spun. Something about the transition had made me dizzy.
Ink closed his one eye and spoke without looking at me. “Leftover from the time of the Ancients, noble friend. No one understands the moonstones. They move you forward or backward in time . . . slightly.”
“How is that possible?” I asked.
The salamander shrugged. “Magic, I suppose.”
“There’s no such thing. Sometimes technology can seem like magic, though.”
“I’m not sure what. . . . Technology, you say? I’m not sure what that is, noble friend.”
“Like the windmill. Or a sword. Technology is things that have been built by hu— people.”
“Then I suppose it’s technology. Does that mean it can’t also be magic?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I don’t think so.”
“Well, this conversation has been most enlightening, noble friend. Now would you like to enter the castle through the back entrance?”
“There’s a back entrance?” I asked. “Why didn’t you say so?”
“I would have, given the chance.” For the first time, the salamander seemed annoyed, if only for a brief moment.
I nodded. “I should have followed your lead. Are you ready to go?”
“Noble friend, I have eaten, made a pot of tea, practiced my forms, and slept four hours while waiting on you, and still had time to pray.” There was amusement in his voice now. “I am quite ready.”
We moved around to the side of the castle. I was still shaky. I had to focus and force myself to walk straight. The forest pressed right up against the wall, tall trees with white trunks. In the night they had looked like bony fingers sprouting from the ground, but in the daylight with a gentle breeze ruffling their leaves, the forest didn’t seem so threatening.
Near the corner where the side wall met the back was a small metal door. I let Ink slip forward and try the brass doorknob. Locked.
“How strange. They used to leave this door unlocked,” Ink said. “Even in times of danger. I would have tried it while I waited on you had I suspected this.”
“Why would anyone leave their back door unlocked?” I asked.
“The toads rarely lock any door. They are confident that any intruders can be repelled by their battle skills. And usually, they would be right. I used to sneak through this door and steal cinnamon rolls from the kitchen while I was still an apprentice. I was only caught once.”
“What happened then?”
“I learned to be stealthier next time. Come, I think I know someone who can get us into the castle.”
“Who?” I asked.
“The bug man and his companion, the Ancient. The one who hails from a place called Earth.”
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?”
The clicking tink-tink-tink grew louder as we stood there, like a melodic wave roaring toward shore. The eleven of us stared uncertainly at each other, faces pale. The terror in our eyes could be seen starkly in the rough light of the hoverplatform’s running lights.
Something was on its way.
Commander Brink took control of the situation, resuming his authority like a sweater he’d shrugged off. “We need to get out of here now,” he ordered. “Everyone back on the hoverplatform.”
Despite the misgivings we had about the commander, we hurried back towards the platform and safety. I risked a quick glance skyward and saw the entrance to the Pit—a thing so massive from above—as nothing more than a little circle of blue light.
Eerie glints of light appeared around the hoverplatform. Something strange was catching the light and throwing it in different directions.
Glass, I realized as we neared. Or at least, what looked like glass. Transparent spiders poured out of a cave opposite the side of the Pit we’d been exploring. Thousands of them. Most were the size of my hand, but some were much bigger. A few would have come up to my knee—if I’d had any intention of ever getting that close to one.
One giant further back in the crowd was enormous, at least eight feet wide from leg to leg and taller than any of the scientists. He let out a jarring hiss and clacked his mandibles when I shined my lantern light in his glassy eyes.
I skidded to a halt in horror, heart thumping. Everyone stopped. Woole and Hadrex raised their laser rifles. Brink fumbled with a tablet computer. Hondo and Lena stood to my right. Doc Taryn was just to my left, still holding her own tablet. The bright screen displayed little human-shaped figures with diagnostics next to them. The rest of the crew was fanned out behind us.
“Everyone stay back,” Woole ordered, holding a hand out to motion us back. He and Hadrex opened fire. Red flashes of light burst across the Pit floor, flying into the mass of spiders.
The laser bolts bounced harmlessly away.
The two kept shooting for a few more seconds until one of the laser bolts almost ricocheted back into Hadrex’s face. By then the nearest spiders were close, less than ten feet away. They didn’t seem to care about us yet, but what would happen if we tried to get on the hoverplatform?
“This isn’t working,” Woole said, looking to Brink. “What now?”
Brink nodded toward the seething mass.
With a roar, Gareth came to life on the hoverplatform. His electronic battle cry echoed across the Pit. The robot had laser guns set into both of us his palms, and he immediately began firing at the creatures. Light blazed in all directions, a few bolts of light nearly striking us. Darkeson ducked with a shriek when a blast whizzed past his ear.
Seeing his efforts fail, Gareth gave up and reached for a sword strapped to his back. The blade looked like an ancient medieval weapon, but it was capable of emitting an electrical charge.
“It’s no good, companions!” Gareth called out. “These creatures are quite tough! I suggest you flee!” With a chink he dropped his sword, cleaving one of the spiders in two. It was just one among hundreds, though, and more were still emerging from the far cavern.
We stepped backward. I moved my lantern toward the walls, searching for a safe exit. Several spiders followed my light, crawling after the beam as I moved it across the Pit floor. In the background, I heard another chink as Gareth killed a spider.
“They like light!” I called out. “Maybe we can use it to move them away from the platform.”
“Great idea,” Hadrex said. “Gareth! Turn off the lights on the hoverplatform!” he called out.
“Wait! No!” Brink cried. “That would mean—”
Gareth flipped a switch at the pilot’s station, throwing the Pit into darkness.
For a moment we stood motionless in the near-darkness. The only light came from the flashlights we held.
“Well . . . ” Woole said after a moment. “That was dumb.”
“Sorry,” Hadrex replied, breathing hard with fear. “I panicked.”
The spiders moved toward our flashlights, their tiny legs clattering against the stone.
“What now?” Hondo asked.
“Gareth, turn the lights back on!” Brink ordered.
There was a click, but nothing happened. “I’m afraid it’s not working, friends!” the robot called from somewhere in the darkness. “The little devils seem to have damaged the controls!”
“They’re coming toward us!” Lena shouted, turning off her flashlight. I turned mine off, too. The sudden rush of darkness was disorienting. I could still hear the tick-tick of the spiders’ legs. Knowing they were there but not being able to see them was so much worse. I slipped off my backpack and reached inside for my gauntlet. I didn’t know if it was better than a laser gun it would sure beat nothing.
Doc Taryn had become still. I turned to look at her. Hadrex shined a flashlight right through her; the light glowed on my face. She’d been transformed into a glass statue. Squinting through the brightness, I could see spiders crawling along her transparent body. Her tablet computer dropped to the ground, landing with a thud. It was still lit up.
“RUN!” someone screamed.
The crew fled. Everyone scattered as they ran in terror. Someone slammed into me, the force almost knocking the wind out of me. I powered on my lantern. The giant spider loomed a mere eight feet away. I raised my gauntlet. I just had to think the command. The glove released a jagged burst of energy. The transparent body of the spider absorbed the jolt. The captured light inside its bulbous torso turned from yellow to red.
Nothing good was about to happen.
“Prometheus!” Lena called out.
I turned and ran. Behind me, I heard the spider click its mandibles at me, and then the beam of light shot back down, destroying the ground where I’d stood a moment earlier. I tore into the nearest cave. I couldn’t see a thing with the lights out and my eyes dazzled by the flash from the spider.
“This way, this way!” Hondo cried out from somewhere in the darkness ahead.
I reached out and felt the wall of the cave, using it as a guide. I heard people ahead screaming and shouting at each other, and spiders pursuing behind, but I couldn’t tell where anyone was. Protect Lena, I told myself. She was smart and capable, but she was also the youngest member of the crew and my baby sister. I wouldn’t hesitate to take on glass spiders again to protect her.
The maddening tinkling followed me as the spiders pursued us. They were hungry for more light.
What were beings that craved light doing this far underground? Doc Taryn had been turned into a glass statue like the Pitworlders we’d seen. If that what had killed the rest of the Pitworlders, why weren’t there more glass statues around?
These questions crashed through my mind as I clawed my way along the wall of the cave, trying to keep ahead of the endless tink-tink-tink of the spiders’ legs on stone.
After a few minutes of running, I felt wind on my face. The tunnel opened up.
“Hello,” I called out. “Lena?”
The only sound was the musical clatter of death crawling closer.
They’re coming anyway, I told myself. May as well risk the light.
I turned on my flashlight. I stood at a round junction that split no less than seven ways.
Four ahead, two to the left, one to the right. Glancing at the walls and the floor, I couldn’t see any sign of the crew. Just more of those stupid purple vines.
“Well . . . poop,” I said, my voice echoing ahead of me.
“Hello?” I called again, cupping my hands over my mouth this time and yelling as loud as I could.
“Prometheus!” a voice replied. The words came from a distance. I couldn’t decide if it sounded like Lena or not.
“Straight ahead,” I said to myself. Of course, in the dark, you would keep going in roughly the same direction, or follow the wall.
I turned around and jumped as I realized I’d almost let the spiders catch up. They were a mere six feet back and closing the distance fast. Whoops.
I bolted toward the middle tunnel, intent on finding Lena.
“Hey, turn off that light,” someone called. A figure burst from the tunnel just left of the one I wanted.
“Don’t go that way,” Hadrex said, waving a hand behind himself. He held his rifle ready. A sheen of sweat glistening on his forehead in the glow of my flashlight, his breath coming in gasps.
Behind him, I heard more spiders tink-tink-tink as they crawled after him.
“This way,” I said, and began to leave. My lantern could hardly cut through the waiting darkness.
“Turn off that light!” Hadrex said again, more fearful this time.
I heard the sizzle of a laser weapon being fired somewhere to the left.
“That sounded like Donald,” Hadrex said. “We need to go this way. They might need our help.”
I thought again of the voice. I’d decided I was certain it had been my sister. “I’m going this way,” I said indicating the waiting tunnel. “I heard my sister... I have to find her.”
“Suit yourself,” he said, and ran down one of the left-side tunnels, darting between two hordes of glass spiders. He fired his laser as he ran, but as before it had no effect. Red light bounced off the creatures.
I broke into a run, hoping the spiders would leave my tunnel alone. “Lena?” I called out.
Behind me, I heard several spiders continuing to follow me. I sighed. Not my day. After several minutes of running, I saw a bright, blue light ahead.
I doubled my pace and burst into a jungle.
A fat, blue sun shone in the sky. It hung low, seemingly about to rise or set. There was a faint blue tint to the world, though the trees and ferns that waved their leaves over my head were all still green.
Seven moons hung dead center in the sky, all in a perfectly straight line.
Behind me, the spiders hissed and clacked their mandibles. They didn’t seem to like it out here. They liked yellow light, ignored red, and hated blue.
I swiveled, hoping to spy some sign of Lena or my crew.
There was no way all this could be hidden inside a planet. There could be no denying it.
I was on another world.
“Are you crazy?” Commander Brink asked, his face turning an alarming shade of red. I’d never seen the commander so angry before. Woole was taking Brink’s rage in stride, keeping his face expressionless. He kept his hands in his pockets, his posture relaxed.
The three of us were standing before the hoverplatform. Everyone else was loaded up and ready to go. Woole and I hadn’t returned fast enough, and everyone had been waiting and worrying at the drop site with no clue where we had gone.
“A rogue spacewalk was one thing. You did your job and did it well, so I didn’t complain, but wandering off on an alien planet? That wasn’t a rhetorical question. Are. You. Crazy?”
“No sir, sorry sir. Just wanted to investigate.”
“And what was it? What did you find?”
“Just a C-Marine prank, sir.”
“Well, thanks for the gray hairs. You wander off like that again, and you’ll stay on the ship for the rest of the mission. We hardly need a linguist to explore a doggone hole in the ground.” He took a deep breath as though winding up for something.
“And you,” he said, turning to me. Then for some reason, he almost deflated as he locked eyes with me, shoulders sagging so slightly I nearly missed it. “You might think on the company you keep.” He spoke more softly than I’d expected, but it was clear he was still angry. “In life, there are followers and leaders. Decide which one you want to be.” He had a point. I had risked getting in trouble because of Woole twice now in one day.
The commander waved a hand towards the waiting platform, bowing slightly as he mocked us. “If it’s not too much time out of your busy schedule, you gentlemen could climb aboard.”
We hopped up a few stairs past a little pilot station where Jon Hadrex sat at the controls. Teena Mae was talking to Hadrex, twirling a strand of dark hair around her fingertip as she talked.
I made my way to the front of the platform, adjusting the straps on my backpack. I was grateful I’d left it ready to go at the drop site. If I’d forgotten it on the ship, I would have had to do without it. It contained snacks, a small lantern, a notebook, a bottle of water, and my gauntlet. These items could prove useful once we got down there.
The rest of the crew was up there, every one of them staring down at the waiting Pit with wide eyes. It yawned ever outward, a vast, empty darkness that stretched out of sight. The only one not paying attention other than Hadrex and chatty Teena Mae was Doc Taryn, who was glued to her tablet computer again. What she looked at all day was anyone’s guess, though Hondo had told me he thought the unsmiling, unfriendly doctor was keeping an eye on our vitals. I didn’t like the idea of someone that grumpy watching my heart rate, but I didn’t have much say in the matter.
The robots Gareth and Merc were strapped in near the pilot station. They were powered down to conserve battery since their solar panels would be useless down below. I liked Merc better shut off.
“You may begin, Jon.” Commander Brink told our pilot.
The hoverplatform jittered, the engine whining as the jets below lifted us into the air. Most hovercraft—like the hoversled we’d used for cargo—could only move a few feet off the ground, but this one was designed to float higher and descend at a comfortable speed. If we’d tried to use our hoversled to enter the Pit, it would be a much shorter and messier trip. Whoooosh, boom, splat, in other words.
We moved outward, hovering over the darkness. “Take us down,” Commander Brink ordered, nodding to Hadrex. The platform began to lower. The eastern edge of the Pit towered above us; the western edge lost somewhere on the horizon.
Entering the Pit reminded me of a trip into space. Flying a small craft into a huge darkness bound for the mysterious unknown. I was excited about the possibilities, but the glass statue and the warning weighed on my mind. Weren’t pranks like that supposed to be funny? I couldn’t help thinking we were missing something there, something important.
We descended for several minutes in silence. Even Teena Mae was quiet. We were awed by the size of the Pit and just floated downward together, taking it in. After an hour or so, the Pit narrowed. It wasn’t Delaware-wide all the way, it seemed. Soon we could see the western edge in the distance, then it was merely a few hundred feet out. At some point—maybe two hours into our descent—it was almost close enough to touch. Whatever the scope of the Pit had been initially, the Pitworlders had eventually scaled their plans down considerably.
Even with the sun straight overhead—as it was when we reached this last narrowing—it soon grew pitch-black in the Pit. Running lights on the hoverplatform lit the area well enough, but they could only push the darkness back, not drive it away completely. It felt odd to see the darkness that way, as something to press off. This far underground the feeling of being pushed down on grew and grew, as the darkness and the dirt soared ever higher over our heads. That cheery, Earth-like world receded like a strange dream.
Four hours in and we reached the bottom.
We hit the ground with a light thump as Jon Hadrex brought the hoverplatform to a stop. The Pit widened at the bottom into a clearing about a hundred feet wide. The tunnel we had flown through to get here was a little blue circle high above our heads.
For a moment, we were all quiet. I could hardly contain my energy, though. I hopped over the railing and off the platform, landing not on a rock, but dirt. I took one step and tripped over something thick and branch-like, nearly falling. A vine.
“Prometheus Jones!” Commander Brink called, using my full name in his anger like a scolding parent.
“I’m okay,” I called.
“I don’t care if you’re okay! We disembark together,” he said. A hint of amusement in his tone ruined the scolding words. Feeling stupid anyway, I came around and waited by the gate while everyone stepped down from the hoverplatform.
“Why’d it widen here?” Commander Brink asked Darkeson.
“I suspect this is a natural cavern, though I’ll have to get a closer look at the walls before I can say for sure,” the geologist replied, nibbling at a thumbnail as he finished the words.
“You mean they tunneled into an existing cave?” Hadrex asked.
“It would appear so,” Darkeson said.
I scanned the Pit floor as I waited for everyone. It was so dark, the edges were almost lost in shadow. The running lights on the hoverplatform could only penetrate so far. I made out arching patches of darker shadows. These, I assumed, were tunnels leading outward from the Pit floor.
Woole and Hadrex descended last; laser rifles slung over their shoulders. The sight of weapons struck me as odd. Why bring guns to explore an empty pit? The place had been cleared by the C-Marines, explored and declared safe.
“Why do we need guns?” Lena asked, apparently thinking along the same lines. She stood by my side, taking everything in with careful eyes.
“Just a precaution,” Commander Brink assured us. He laid a hand on, but did not draw, a pistol strapped to his belt. It was half hidden by the thin coat he wore, but I’d seen it when I’d first arrived at the drop site, a sleek energy weapon that could burn from a distance. He seemed to be reassuring himself it was still there.
I was half-tempted to double-check on my own weapon. I had a gauntlet in my backpack, a treasure gained from a previous adventure. It could shoot energy beams like a pistol. I’d used it to save myself from robots before. I didn’t like to wear it, though. I preferred less violent weapons when I needed to defend myself, and I saw the gauntlet as a last resort.
The expedition spread out, the adults interested in different parts of the Pit. One by one we activated our lanterns and flashlights, pushing the darkness a little further into the recesses of the cavern. Over the next several minutes we wandered away from the hoverplatform.
Teena Mae crouched to examine the vines that slithered across the floor. The plants were fat and purple, with small leaves sprouting here and there along their length. As Hondo had said, broken glass was scattered among the curling vines. It glimmered in the light of the hoverplatform and the lantern light.
Darkeson studied the walls. He murmured to himself as he walked, holding his lantern high above his head and peering closely at the smooth, stone surface.
Doc Taryn paced near the hoverplatform, only occasionally glancing up at from her tablet.
Hadrex and Woole chatted several paces out, near one of the caves leading away from the bottom of the Pit.
Commander Brink examined a small device from his pack near the middle of the Pit, standing right below the hole to the aboveground world. His expeditionary job was studying alien technology. “Can’t get a read from the old Pitworlder satellites down here,” he mumbled to himself.
Hondo, Lena and I wandered. I counted the tunnels leading away from the Pit. Seven. We were on the expedition to help as needed. This sometimes meant going from extreme busyness to extreme boredom when the adults had no work for us.
I was examining one of the arching tunnel entrances when Teena Mae approached. She walked in a goofy, squatting position, picking up a vine as she went and studying underneath, then moving on a few feet, picking it up again, and peering underneath, then shuffling forward and doing it all over again. Honestly, she looked ridiculous, but she didn’t seem to mind. She had a little smile on her face, her eyes intent on her work.
Suddenly Teena Mae let out a little shriek and crab-crawled backward. I looked up and jumped myself. The biologist had dropped her flashlight on the vine-swathed ground. It shone onto another glass statue. We’d both been startled by the sight. Our nerves must have been raw from the tension of exploring a dark, unknown place. The light was scattered behind the statue into colorful prisms, creating an eerie, backlit effect. Another insect-man like the one Woole and I had seen.
“What is that?” Lena asked.
“Them,” Commander Brink said, striding forward.
“It’s a statue,” Woole pointed out. “We saw one above.”
“Yes, but it’s a statue of one of them,” Brink added. He licked his lips and stooped to pick up Teena Mae’s flashlight. “Images of the Pitworlders were classified.”
“Classified from us?” Teena Mae asked. “We’re part of the first expedition to understand them!”
Commander Brink hesitated. For once, he didn’t seem in control. In fact, he appeared nervous.
“How do you even have pictures of them?” Woole asked. “I thought the planet was empty.”
“The C-Marines found computer archives. We have some data on their history, just nothing about the Pit or why it was being dug.”
“I thought you said the Pitworlders didn’t like their image being captured,” Hadrex said. “From what I read, Pitworlder culture considered photographs and video taboo, and that’s why we don’t know what they looked like.”
“That’s true.” The commander licked his lips again. “They don’t. We didn’t find any pictures of them. For all their technology, the Pitworlders don’t have cameras of any kind.”
“Then how. How do you know what they look like?” Woole pressed.
Commander Brink took a deep breath. “The C-Marines encountered a few of them down here.” He sighed, ran a hand through his hair, licked his lips, then continued. “The C-Marines found two dying Pitworlders upon descent. The soldiers didn’t learn much before they ran. The platoon came under attack by some unknown force and was forced to flee back to the world above. Fearing for their safety the C-Marines quickly left the planet.”
“So you mean . . . ” Woole asked.
“We were never supposed to come here. This planet is not safe.”
Cries of outrage burst from several of the adults, but I barely noticed.
Behind me, I heard a soft, musical sound. A tink-tink-tink of something clattering against a stone.
I remembered the warning then, the one from the beehive house above. Don’t follow the sound.
We didn’t need to.
The sound was coming to us.
“Hey, careful, rookie!”
I jumped as a hand grabbed my shoulder, startled from staring down into the depths of the Pit. “Whoa man, calm down,” Hondo said. “We need to get back to the ship. We got equipment and supplies to unload.” He didn’t move, though. His eyes were glued to the Pit.
I looked around and saw that everyone had followed me. Most of the crew was standing nearby—though no one as close as Hondo and I—all looking down into that vast emptiness. Everyone but the ship’s doctor, Taryn Jacks. She still stood a few feet from the ship, studying a tablet computer. Either she wasn’t interested, or she wanted us to think she wasn’t. She was like a mirror of cheerful Teena Mae, who tended to be glued to her tablet. The main difference was that Teena Mae was actually nice.
“Glory be,” Wallace Darkson murmured.
“Speaking of careful,” I said, giving my friend a playful shove, “probably best not to startle someone standing at the edge of a giant pit.”
“Oh, you’d be fine. Little kids bounce.”
“Har har. If I fall, I’m pulling you with me,” I replied.
“Works for me, At least I’d have your head for something soft to land on.”
“You know what—” I began.
“Interns!” Doc Taryn called. In addition to being medic for the crew, Taryn Jacks was also quartermaster. This meant she kept track of everything we’d brought for the expedition. We would mostly report to her, at least for the first leg of the mission.
Lena stood next to the boarding ramp where the doctor was waiting for us. Tall and severe, the Doc had her hair tied up in a bun that looked painfully tight.
“Yes, Doc Taryn?” Hondo asked, clasping his hands behind his back.
“Interns, start hauling out the supplies.” Doc Taryn was the least friendly of the adults on the crew. No matter which of us she was talking to, she always addressed us as “intern” or “the interns”. She had a sharp voice and rigid posture, and she never looked comfortable about anything, anytime, anywhere.
“Yes ma’am,” I said.
“Get the hoversled out of the cargo hold,” she added. She never pried her eyes away from her tablet, never looked at us as she gave us orders. “The C-Marines set up a temporary camp during their exploration. I want everything moved there.”
“I’ll come with,” Donald Woole said, running a hand through his short, sandy blond hair. “Y’all might need my help. The hoversled was acting up the last time I tested the antigrav.”
Moving boxes wasn’t exactly my idea of a good time, but we had to earn our keep. We stepped aboard the ship and made our way to the rear of the vessel, where the cargo hold lay. The hold was packed floor to ceiling with hefty silver crates. Near the back was a second boarding ramp large enough to handle a hoversled loaded with boxes.
“Have we arrived at last, then?” a voice called from the wall near the cargo ramp. Our Knight clomped forward, silver body almost blending in with the stacks of crates. Gareth the Knight was a security robot, brought along as a precaution, should the Pit prove more dangerous than expected. His model were called Knights because, oddly enough, he had been built to resemble a medieval suit of armor. No one on the crew seemed to know why, but the result was intimidating enough. His name didn’t seem that intimidating to me, but apparently, that was borrowed from a knight, too.
“Of course we have,” a second robot said, rising from the hoversled. “Can’t you tell the engines have stopped, you Dark Age monstrosity?” Mercury was a sphere the size of a basketball. Capable of flight, the little robot was blessed with two small arms, a wealth of mechanical knowledge, and a surprisingly sour attitude.
“Now Merc,” Lena said. “Be nice to your buddy.”
“He’s not my buddy, he’s my ball and chain,” the little robot said.
“Stop sulking, little one,” she replied. For some reason, the girl had become fond of the grumpy little mech.
“Plenty of cause for good cheer, companion,” Gareth said. Despite his frightening appearance, the Knight was polite and cheerful to a fault. Robots with personalities were a new invention. I couldn’t help thinking they needed a little work. The security robot seemed peaceful while the mechanic and messenger was a sour jerk.
Woole lowered the ramp, letting a fresh breeze stir the air in the cargo hold. We went to work, loading supplies into the hoversled. When we were finished the little sled was loaded nearly ten feet high. I clambered on top of the pile so I could ride it down the ramp.
Together the three of us hauled the supplies to the drop site while the adults gawked at the Pit. That’s not entirely fair. We gawked at the Pit too, but we did it while we took the hoversled over to a site that had been put in place by the C-Marines. A few weeks before our arrival, they’d checked out the city, the houses nearby, the abandoned digging equipment, and the Pit, all to make sure the place was safe for us to study.
I noticed one of the alien digging machines as we neared the drop site. The hulking thing towered over a hundred feet into the air. A massive, saw-blade like contraption quietly rusted into red dust against a cheerful blue sky. The dark vastness of the Pit stretched beyond.
The drop site consisted of a small pop-up shed, a heavy duty hoverplatform not unlike our cargo sled, and an abandoned pile of crates and garbage the C-Marines had failed to haul out. We parked near the shed and began to unload boxes.
“Why couldn’t we just land down there?” Lena asked, waving a hand toward the nearby dropoff. “The Pit is huge!”
“The C-Marines said not to,” Hondo said. “Told the commander it wasn’t safe. The Pit narrows eventually, and there’s vines and broken glass scattered around the bottom.”
“Vines?” I asked.
“Broken glass?” Lena added.
“Yeah, I guess there’s these fat purple vines all twined around shards of glass.” Hondo’s eyes grew wider as he told his story. “The Marines couldn’t figure out why. No sunlight, no obvious water source for the vines, and no sign of what the locals might have been up to.”
“Are we saying we trusting the word of C-Marines?” Merc asked. He floated near Lena’s shoulder. I was not sure why he’d come with us. The little robot slapped a hand at an empty metal crate. “They couldn’t even be bothered to pick up after themselves!”
“That doesn’t seem like C-Marines,” Hondo said. ‘They’re usually tidy to a fault.” He stared at the pile of trash and frowned as though puzzling it over. It looked to me as though they’d left in a hurry.
“Vines and broken glass,” Lena said. “How strange. We better wear good boots.”
I shrugged. Vines I could make sense of. Plants can grow in all kinds of strange environments, but what was the glass from?
“We’ll see soon enough,” Hondo said, studying the drop site. For now, our work here was done. I didn’t know how soon we would be back for the trip into the Pit. The commander had wanted to decide on a schedule after landing. I hoped it would be soon. I was eager to get down there and start exploring.
We flew the now empty hoversled back to the Endeavor. It zipped over the green grass, pushing the tall, waving stalks down as it flew over them. When we neared the ship, I slowed to let Lena and Hondo off to find out what our next task would be. It only took one to pilot the empty hoversled, which was little more than a floating platform with guardrails and a tiny piloting station.
Donald Woole was still in the cargo hold. An access hatch in the floor was open. Being in the back of the ship, the hold was near the engines, and some of their inner workings could be accessed through the floor.
As I parked the sled, Woole stood, replaced the cover, and wiped hands black with grease on an old rag.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
The mechanic nodded. “Just wanted to take a look. Still don’t fully understand what made the ray shield fail. Thought the engines might have been affected too.”
I nodded. “Glad she’s still working,” I said. This planet seemed nice enough so far, but it was also empty and creepy, and I didn’t want to be stranded.
Lena raced up to the ramp as we stepped down. “Commander Brink wants us ready to enter the Pit in twenty minutes!” she told us, then ran off as fast as she’d come, already on another job for a member of the crew. We were often used as messengers by the adults. I could tell Lena was excited. I began to feel it too, a jittery, palm-slick sweat kind of feeling, like being on a rocket about to launch.
I walked a few steps toward the Pit before I noticed Woole wasn’t following. I looked back and saw he was still standing near the Endeavor; head cocked to the side. He hadn’t even acknowledged Lena’s message. He looked like he was listening to some far-off sound.
“Something wrong?” I asked.
The older mechanic held up a single finger to quiet me. “Do you hear that?” he asked.
I shook my head, not having noticed anything. I tilted my head and closed my eyes, listening.
I heard . . . .
No. After a few seconds, I noticed the faintest tinkling of . . . music.
“I hear music,” I said, wondering how that was possible. The C-Marines had been adamant that every city on the planet was empty. They’d scanned the entire planet—as had we—and checked out the city near our landing site.
Woole grinned at me, then headed back inside the ship.
“What are you doing?” I asked, moving closer to the loading ramp.
“Getting a weapon,” he said. “We’re gonna go find out what’s making that noise.”
“But we’re supposed to go down into the Pit,” I said, waving a hand towards the giant fissure.
“We’ll be back in plenty of time,” Woole said. He dug through a cupboard set into the wall near the ramp controls. “It can’t be far, not if we can hear it.” I thought the sound was pretty faint and had to be some ways off, but I wasn’t sure that objection would get me anywhere.
“Shouldn’t we tell Commander Brink before we head out?” I asked.
“He’s busy,” Woole said. He pulled out a laser rifle and checked the meter on the side. Satisfied, he let it rest on one shoulder. “You coming, kid?”
“Yeah, I’m coming.” I was curious too, and I couldn’t let him go out alone. “I just don’t want them to go down into the Pit without us.”
Woole laughed. “They won’t! We’ll hurry!”
“Can I get a weapon?” I asked.
“We’ll be fine,” he replied. “And like you said, we need to hurry!” He started to jog across the grass toward the nearest of the beehive-like houses.
That’s not exactly what I said, I thought to myself, but I followed. I looked back once to see if anyone noticed us slipping away. Our escape was blocked from view by the elongated shape of the Endeavor. I couldn’t see our crew mates, and they couldn’t see us.
After a few minutes, we stepped onto a street made of loose, black gravel. Houses ran in a meandering path that followed the road. Each one was identical to the next. A beehive house, a small green lawn, and what looked like a badly overgrown garden enclosed by a white picket fence. Once again, the similarities to Earth were eerie.
The music had grown a little louder.
The road ran to our right and left, but the sound seemed to be coming from dead ahead. Instead of following the gravel lane, we walked across it. I got a strange feeling as we passed the nearest beehive house. I felt certain someone would walk out, someone would yell at us for crossing their lawn. I expected dogs to bark and birds to chirp, things I remembered from an early childhood spent on Earth. And yet, nothing happened.
Nobody stepped out of the house. No animals made noises. No shadows peered at us through the round windows of the beehives on either side of us. We just kept walking undisturbed by a quietly abandoned world.
We stepped onto a second gravel lane. The stones of this lane were a vivid purple. These were the bands of color I’d seen from the Endeavor. That explained why they’d been spread out like roads. They were roads.
The music was much louder. It sounded familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on why.
I glanced at the array of beehives on this street. One of them was different from the others. There was a glass statue out front, and words had been painted in vivid red over the rounded door. I couldn’t make out the words from where we stood. The music was definitely coming from inside. The sound was still faint, but distinct enough now to pinpoint a source. It sounded as if I ought to know the tune.
Woole checked the energy reading on his gun again—a nervous habit, perhaps—and walked toward the strange beehive house. The crunch of our footsteps on gravel seemed amplified by the extreme silence of the Pitworld neighborhood. The glass statue on the front lawn was an insect-like being. It was as tall as a man, with wings tucked against its back and four agile-looking hands with thin fingers. Woole kept his gun trained on it until he seemed satisfied it was just a statue.
“I don’t remember glass statues in the C-Marine report,” Woole said in a low voice just above a whisper. “Thought we didn’t even know what the Pitworlders looked like.” I could only shrug at this; I hadn’t been allowed to read the report.
We were close enough now that I could read the words scrawled on the beehive house. They were painted over the house’s rounded doorway.
DON’T FOLLOW THE SOUND
“Do you think it’s a warning?” I asked. I whispered too. It felt a little silly after being assured the planet was empty, but this was such a strange, creepy place.
“Probably a C-Marine,” Woole said. “Advising us the music is a waste of time. Written in our language, after all.”
A good point.
“May as well go inside,” Woole said. He lowered his rifle and casually walked toward the beehive house’s wooden door. Beyond its bell shape, the house was constructed like any home on Earth, with wooden siding, a slate tile roof, and even decorative brick in a frame around the doorway.
The doorknob was in the middle of the door. Woole grasped it and gave a solid tug. It swung open easily. The bottom of the door was damaged. As we crossed the threshold, I saw that the bolt for the door slid down into the floor, rather than into the wall like on Earth and the Roseworld. The door had been forced at some point, probably by an investigating C-Marine.
The music had kept up all this time, growing louder the closer we got to the house, and then when we stepped inside. It stopped.
Woole and I both froze. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. Woole raised his rifle, but there was no one to shoot. We stood in an empty room. Oddly shaped chairs framed a rounded brick fireplace. Two egg-shaped doorways led out of the room, one to the left and one straight ahead.
“How?” I breathed, barely daring to speak.
“Motion sensor, maybe.” Woole said, speaking so quietly I could barely hear him.
We stepped forward. Woole pointed his gun into the room to the left. A staircase led up into darkness. The room straight ahead was a kitchen full of appliances I couldn’t recognize. There was mildew on a few of them and mold on the walls. Signs of a home rotting away.
“Up the stairs?” I asked. We needed to keep moving. We only had a few minutes left before we were due back at the Pit.
He nodded, and we walked up the stairs. Stairs seemed like a waste for a being with wings, but whatever. I guess we couldn’t assume that glass statue outside actually represented the aliens that had left. Not until we found photographs or video records, or anything visual. We would have to explore the planet itself eventually, but for now, the priority was discovering the purpose of the Pit and what dangers it might hide within.
After a climb up short, narrow steps we stood on a landing with three more egg-shaped doorways—all with no actual doors—into bedrooms with oddly shaped, cocoon-like beds. Apparently, the Pitworlders were not big on privacy.
“These houses aren’t in bad shape,” Woole said, knocking on a wooden wall. There was no paint; so far nothing alien-made on the planet had been colorful other than the gravel streets.
“You thinking maybe . . . ” I began.
“Yeah, what if the colonists just moved in? I would say that—”
The music started up again, cutting Woole off and making both of us jump. The mechanic’s rifle snapped up, and I grasped at the air uselessly. Unarmed.
The music came from a small table in one of the bedrooms. A little circular window overlooked the street we’d walked down. In the distance, I could see the sprawling shape of the Endeavor and the black lip of the Pit, which stretched north and south out sight.
A small device lay there, attached to a solar panel. When the sun hit just right, the device received enough power to blast its music, which I now realized was classical music from Earth.
“That’s Mozart,” Woole said. “This is weird. Why go to all this trouble to get us out here?”
“Could it be a joke?” I asked. “A C-Marine prank?”
“That’s my guess. We’re going to have to talk to the commanding officer of that platoon.” He sounded kind of angry at having his time wasted coming all the way out here.
“We better hurry,” I said. “Only a few minutes till we’re supposed to be back.”
“You’re right, Theus. Let’s get out of here. If we run it won’t take long.”
We hurried out of the house. I closed the door behind us, just in case Woole was right about the houses being livable someday. I found myself staring at the glass statue as we raced by. It looked so lifelike. Why was there just the one? The Pitworlders, at least the ones who lived in these houses, seemed to live so simply. The statue just didn’t quite fit. Perhaps in all the chaos of abandoning the planet, it had been stolen or left by some rich insect-man on his way into the Pit. A glass statue didn’t seem important to me, but the aliens would have a completely different culture and history, different views and different values. What made sense to them might not make sense to me.
What drove them to build a giant Pit in the first place? What drove them all away?
The sudden and complete emptiness of the planet struck me again.
Where was everyone?
A haunting tune played on violin followed us all the way back to our spaceship and the waiting Pit.
From space, the planet looked like it had been shot with a giant cannonball. One continent—the second largest—had a massive crater bored just north of the center. A round, black hole that was far too perfect to have been caused by any asteroid. It was several miles wide, so big you could stand on one side and not see the far end.
“How?” I asked, raising a gloved hand towards the Pit. I was outside our ship, the Endeavor, making repairs with our mechanic, Donald Woole. I’d been told about the planet, even seen pictures, but being confronted with the Pit directly made it more real.
“That’s what we’re here to find out, rookie.” The voice of Hondo, an older boy on the crew, crackled in my earpiece. “Stay focused; you’ve got a job to do.”
I nodded my helmeted head and turned back to the instrument panel where Woole, was working. He was the ship’s mechanic. Like all six of the adults on the crew, he had multiple jobs and was also a linguist, an expert on languages.
He grunted as he twisted a spanner over a bolt. “Hondo’s right,” Woole said. “Best get this ray shield running. Be a shame to come all this way just to burn up entering the atmosphere.” Despite the grim words, he grinned through his visor. The mechanic always seemed to enjoy his job. “You should hand me a smaller spanner. This one’s slipping.”
I reached for the toolbox tethered to my hip. Every tool inside was individually strapped in, so they couldn’t go floating off. I grabbed the one he’d asked for and handed it over, doing my best not to look down as I did.
Because there was no down.
There was nothing above, nothing below, nothing to the left or right. Just a sea of stars, a mechanic, and a boy. And before us, a planet with a hole punched halfway through it
As Woole worked, I focused on the planet, dubbed the Pitworld, to take my mind off the weightlessness and nothingness. The Pit lay smack in the middle of a green swath of prairie that spread across most of the continent. The black grid of a large city sprawled to the east of the crater. The Pit was the size of Delaware, a place on Earth. In planetary standards, Delaware wasn’t very large, but for a pit it was huge.
I tore my gaze away from the great pit to examine the rest of the planet. Large green landmasses set against deep blue seas, with clumps of fluffy white clouds dolloped about. The planet looked so like Earth. The similarities between this planet and our home made the differences seem all that much stranger.
We were there to explore the planet, myself, my sister and our friend, and a crew of six scientists. We were interns, there to run chores so that the team could focus on official expedition business, cracking the secrets of the Pit. My sister and I had been on the crew for just a few months, the time it had taken to travel all the way out here.
The planet had been discovered recently. Universally speaking, it wasn’t far from Earth. Just one spiral arm over. The system had been missed during earlier mapping explorations due to a sort of interstellar electrical storm that had made the area dangerous for decades. When it had cleared a planet had been discovered, an apparently perfect planet. The locals had been thriving, too. In terms of spaceflight, they hadn’t progressed far, but they’d spread across and conquered most of their planet and both their moons.
And they were all gone.
People on Earth were eager for a new planet to colonize, so we’d been sent to find out whether it was safe to send worldships here.
Where had everyone gone? Had they been attacked? Had they all died? That was the mystery of the Pitworld. A popular theory was that the Pit had been dug to escape some sort of cataclysm. But if that was the case, why was it so big? And why had the people not come back out?
“Theus? I need the screwdriver.”
But if that was the case, why was it so big?
“Theus, I need the screwdriver!” Woole repeated.
“Yes, sir,” I said, fumbling with the toolbox. “Sorry, sir.” I still had the larger spanner in my hand; I’d never put it away. I strapped in the spanner and grabbed for a screwdriver.
“No, the flathead,” Woole said with a tone that suggested I was about a half second from being sent back into the Endeavor.
Glamorous as they may sound, spacewalks are dangerous and uncomfortable. One wrong move and you could fly off into the darkness. And even worse, there’s no way to go to the bathroom until you get back inside. I handed him the flathead. I was about to refocus on the Pit when a shadow moving across the roof of the Endeavor caught my attention.
“Did you see that?” I asked, looking at Woole.
“See what?” Woole’s attention was fully absorbed in fixing the ray shield.
I glanced up again. The shadow was gone. I struggled to make sense of what I’d seen. I wanted to say the shadow had looked like a person, but that was impossible. It was just the two of us out here, in an abandoned solar system far from civilization.
“What did you see?” Hondo asked from inside.
“It’s nothing,” I said, feeling silly. “Just my eyes playing tricks on me.” I tried to rub my eyes, but of course, my helmet was there, preventing me from clearing away the sweat dripping down my forehead.
“Done here,” Woole said. “Let’s head inside.” I’d never heard better news. I’d had the urge to pee within about half a minute of my suit getting zipped up.
We used a tether to guide ourselves back to the airlock. The second the tiny room pressurized and oxygen levels were normal, I tore my helmet off and rubbed the sweat from my forehead.
“You fixed the ray shielding?” Hondo asked Woole as the older man took off his own helmet. Hondo had been monitoring our walk from inside to make sure we were safe.
Woole nodded. He seemed more relaxed than me, less desperate to do all the things you can’t do on a spacewalk. He tugged his gloves off a finger at a time. “Housing just came loose. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was sabotage!” He laughed as he said it, and Hondo and I chuckled along. The nine-person crew of the Endeavor were the only people around for millions of miles.
“Glad it’s fixed,” Hondo said. “Now we can get on with the mission.”
“Just a few loose bolts,” Woole assured him. “Space gremlins. Happens during these long voyages between stars. I’d be more surprised if we didn’t need at least one spacewalk after a crossing, honestly.”
It was a common joke on starships out of the Roseworld, blaming a failure on phantom space gremlins. Songs had even been written about the space gremlins.
Hondo took my helmet and helped me unstrap my space suit.
“Were there any asteroids or space debris while we were out there?” I asked.
“Did you see something?” Hondo asked. “There wasn’t anything on the scopes.”
“I’m sure it was nothing,” I said with a shrug. “Just my eyes playing tricks on me, maybe the sweat in my eyes.”
Commander Brink strode down the corridor. The tall, gray-haired man was followed by Wallace Darkeson, a geologist. He would be charged with studying the actual formation of the Pit. A stern, gloomy man, his shipboard job was flight engineer. He monitored the ship’s instruments and made sure everything ran correctly. The job seemed to stress him out all the time. He always seemed to be biting his nails or chewing his lip. And he was almost always angry with Woole, who was in charge of fixing whatever broke on the Endeavor.
“You should have told me you were going on a spacewalk,” Darkeson said to Woole before Brink could speak. “I’m the Endeavour’s engineer. It’s my job to know what’s being repaired and why.”
“Now you know. Besides, I was confident we could get things up to snuff on our own,” Woole said. His posture and tone were relaxed. He didn’t seem at all bothered by Darkeson’s anger. He never did.
“Snuff?” Darkeson asked, rubbing at his smooth scalp. “Snuff? What does that even mean? I’m responsible for monitoring the Endeavor; you know that. We’re scientists on an expedition into unknown territory. ‘Up to snuff’ won’t cut it! We need to be able to trust you!”
“Look, I’m sorry,” Woole said, still untroubled. “Won’t happen again.”
Hondo glanced at me. We suspected that wasn’t true. Woole tended to do what he wanted.
“Thank you.” The geologist seemed appeased, though not happy. He slinked away, nibbling furiously at a thumbnail.
“Everything good to go?” Commander Brink asked. I could tell he was giving Donald Woole his best stare. He had a way of stopping everything and staring someone in the eye intently. The commander did that stare with almost every question, as though the answer were the most important thing in the universe. And in a way, it was. If the ray shielding failed, we would burn up on our way through the atmosphere and land on the Pitworld crispy fried.
“Yessir,” Woole said. “Ray shielding should be operational.”
“Should be?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Is, sir. Everything is in order,” Woole corrected himself.
“Great, I want everyone on the bridge and strapped in. We’re preparing for landing.” Commander Brink turned and strode off back the way he’d come from.
“Yessir,” Hondo and I said.
“Aye, sir,” said Woole.
We strode to the Endeavor’s bridge together. All nine members of the crew were there, waiting for us. Commander Brink settled into the pilot’s seat. The bridge was small. There were four chairs up front where the piloting controls lay. Two more seats were behind these. Off to the sides, these were for diagnostics and other shipboard systems. These were all taken up by the adults of the crew.
“Bring us in for landing, Jon,” The commander said to the pilot.
Jon Hadrex was a friendly man who seemed to loved nothing more than flying spaceships. For the expedition, he was an expert on alien cultures and would try to learn what had become of the people who had once lived on the Pitworld.
We’d circled the whole Pitworld twice, scanning the planet and both moons, searching for any signs of life. Other than a few ancient and badly battered satellites, there’d been nothing to find that suggested recent activity. The Commander had tried to connect to the satellites and get a signal, but they weren’t broadcasting as far as any of our systems could pick up.
With the ray shield fixed and the planet quiet, we were all set to land. The ship turned, so we were aimed directly for the pit. Teena Mae, the Endeavor’s copilot, and a biologist, sucked in a sharp breath as the enormous hole filled the viewport. “I never get used to seeing that,” she said. “It’s crazy.”
“Come on, rookie,” Hondo said, pulling on my shirt. “It’s about to get bumpy. Time to strap in.”
Two benches lined the back of the bridge on either side of the door. My sister Helena—or Lena as we usually called her—was already strapped into one of them. Hondo fumbled with his straps as he sat down. Hondo had been our friend for years. Commander Brink’s nephew, he’d gotten us our positions on the mission. I appreciated his help in landing us the internship, even though he was using his experience on prior expeditions to call us both “rookie”.
I sat down and strapped in. I was grateful for the ship’s artificial gravity that allowed me to actually sit. Being weightless was strange. It had been amazing on the first spacewalk, but with each additional walk I’d gone on, the shine had worn off. Gravity could be a hassle, but at least you could count on it. Weightlessness made everything so unpredictable.
The bridge viewport was obscured by the crew in their seats, but the portholes next to our benches gave a small but unblocked view of the outside. Now that the ship had turned, all I could see was starlight, which faded as we descended. One of the Pitworld’s moons, a lumpy brown sphere, slid past our view. It was about half the size of Earth’s moon.
The Endeavor bucked as we approached. The ray shield began to glow red hot from the heat of entering the Pitworld’s atmosphere. Lena groaned. She didn’t like flying and especially hated any kind of turbulence. Just getting her to come on the Pit expedition had taken a little convincing.
“Lena, you can’t let one little crash ruin your whole perspective on flight,” Hondo said.
“Sure I can,” she replied through gritted teeth. Lena could be a little stubborn. She grabbed my hand, though, in a grip tight as a vice. Hondo shook his head, smirking.
Eventually, the heat of re-entry eased off, and the turbulence along with it. Lena didn’t relax even then, keeping her grip tight as we flew. Ignoring the pain in my hand, I focused on the viewport. At first, all I could see was green and black. The green was fields and forests; the black was the cities. Here and there were splashes of bright blue—lakes and ponds—and ribbon-thin bands of brighter colors. The bands came in every color of the rainbow and were sprawled about like roads, but I couldn’t make out what they were made of.
The ship approached the the eastern curve of the Pit. We landed with a light bump in a grassy meadow near the outskirts of an abandoned metropolis. My last sight before I tore my eyes away from the porthole was of distant skyscrapers overgrown with vines, and nearer to the ship were rows of smaller buildings.
“You can let go now,” I said to Lena, unbuckling my safety harness. She released my hand, and we exited the bridge. People always said we looked alike, but I never saw it. Lena was a year older than me, a few inches taller with dark hair.
As we walked down the main hallway, all I could think about was that alien landscape waiting outside. I’d spent the last few years living on a colony on the Roseworld, a planet encased in a protective glass sphere tinted pink. No blue skies there. Then six months aboard the Endeavor. Our ship was large compared to most research vessels, but after weeks of interstellar travel, it had begun to seem cramped. No blue skies there either.
“You’re sure it’s safe?” Lena asked Teena Mae as Hondo lowered the boarding ramp.
“Safe by every standard known to man!” she confirmed, not tearing her eyes away from a small tablet computer.
I was the first one to step outside. I bounded down the ramp the second it touched down on that soft, green grass. I wasn’t the first to set foot on the planet; that honor went to a C-Marine. A platoon had checked out the area and even gone down the Pit before we had been sent out.
The grass was overgrown, coming up to just above my knees. The rest of the crew ranged out behind me, taking in the sight. The small buildings I’d seen from inside were beehive-shaped houses, clustered neatly in little neighborhoods. All the skyscrapers in the distant city had the same shape too, wide and rounded in tiers that got smaller as they neared the sky.
An immense blue sky dotted with clouds stretched above us. It’s easy to take a thing like the sky for granted. We had grass and open spaces on the Roseworld, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t Earth. This planet felt so much like Earth it struck up a profound homesickness in me.
I could see the Pit a few hundred feet off. Just seeing the edge of it made me dizzy. Without thinking of the danger, I started toward it, tearing through the tall grasses of the field. I didn’t notice if the rest of the team was following me or not. I walked right up to the edge, so close I kicked a few pebbles down. There were no fences, just a sudden drop like a black hole. The rocks I’d disturbed clattered against the edges of the Pit for a few seconds. I never heard them hit the bottom. Wherever the Pit ended, it was a long way from here.
I stared down. The sides of the Pit were smooth. Dirt and loose rock for several hundred feet, then solid rock, and then darkness. The Pit yawned out to either side. Except for where it stopped right at my feet, I couldn’t see where it ended in any direction. It seemed endless, an eternal mouth opening to swallow us all
I shivered. Not in fear. I was eager. It was the anticipation.
We would be going down there.
Right into the throat of the planet.
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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.