“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.”
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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.