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.
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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.