“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.”
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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.