I’ve had a lot of experience hurtling toward what felt like certain doom. Careening off the whale was even worse than falling into a Pit. There was no mystery here. The world was waiting below to crush me. I could see water beneath me, the broad, blue expanse of a crystal clear lake, but that was small comfort. Water will kill if you hit it hard enough, and I was going far too fast to survive.
Ravio was just above me. A thin trail of blood streamed out of his neck like a bright, red ribbon flapping in a breeze.
There was no time to think about it though. I was going to join him if I didn’t do something. I had my sword, my gauntlet, a half empty backpack, and a used up Moonstone. Nothing that could save my life.
Unless . . .
I held my gauntleted hand out below me and closed my eyes against the rushing wind, shutting out the sight of the lake zooming toward me. I focused on letting out just a little puff of energy. Not a full blast. Using the gauntlet at full power would just launch me higher into the air. I’d wind up falling even faster than I was now, and get just as dead when I splatted against the water.
A little ball of yellow light like a tiny sun emerged from the gauntlet. The energy worked like a small jet, slowing me down. Or rather, it slowed my hand down. The rest of me kept falling. I expected to continue plunging down and get hurled into the lake at only slightly slower speed, but the ball clung to the air as though caught on an invisible thread. I stopped in midair, my shoulder nearly wrenching out of its socket.
I hung like that for a second. I was still dropping, but at a much slower speed. The water was almost fifteen feet below. Ravio’s body hit with a splash, the water soaking my ragged socks. I lost my concentration, and the ball vanished. I crashed into the water hard enough to knock the wind out of my lungs.
I struggled in icy water, fighting to keep my lips closed as I thrashed for the surface. The water wasn’t deep. When I stood, it came up to my chin. I gasped in the chilly water, fighting to catch my breath. Ravio floated nearby.
I can’t leave him, I thought. And I can’t take him with me. There was no time for a proper burial. An enemy was out there. I scanned the low hills that lined the lake, looking for the source of the arrows that had gotten me knocked out of the sky. Two lookout towers rose in the distance, tall and thin like giant needles sprouting from the ground. More of the conical mountains rose beyond the towers.
I couldn’t see my friends.
Had they been shot down? Flown over the hills? Retreated back to the floating planet shard? There was no way to know. For now, all I could do was continue with the mission. I would investigate the dig site, then decide what to do next, once I checked the area out.
I eyed the lookout towers again. They were capped by small, roofed platforms. Each one was manned by two lantern rangers. The platforms were so small they had to be standing room only. I couldn’t see their faces. I would have to hope I was too far away to be a viable target. I had to get out of the water.
I glanced back at Ravio’s body again. His body. He was dead. Someone had died. That thought kept racing through my brain on an endless loop. Someone was dead. It didn’t matter that I had hardly known him; didn’t make it any less horrible that I hadn’t lost a friend. So far on this long, strange journey, no one had actually been killed. Situations before had seemed dangerous, but everyone had come out okay.
A plan formed in my mind as I studied the floating corpse. Perhaps the Pitworlder could help me one last time before I said goodbye.
Holding on to Ravio’s ankles, I pushed his body ahead of me, swimming with most of my own body below the surface. That way, if anyone did try to shoot, they would hopefully aim for Ravio and miss me. Using the man as a decoy made me feel sick, but I had to stay alive. I was determined that there would be no more death.
Including my own.
Sneaking into a hostile camp might not seem like the best way to survive, but as I swam, I became more determined than ever to stop the dig. These people needed to be stopped. They deserved to have their plans ruined. Queen Ophelia was right. There was evil afoot, and we needed to do something about it before anyone else died.
I reached the shore without getting shot, or having Ravio turn into a pincushion. I left his body on the rocky beach, stepping gingerly to avoid cutting my feet. Maybe it was the adrenaline, or the cold, or some combination, but my ankle had stopped bothering me. My teeth were starting to chatter, but the sun was still out. I was confident I would warm up soon enough. It seemed like afternoon now, but I didn’t know what season it was on Frostbane, so there was no way to know how long the day would last.
I was all alone on a strange planet. Enemies ahead, but nowhere else to go.
I kept my eyes on the towers as I crept in the shadow of the hills. Tall, hedge-like shrubs grew along the side of one hill, creating perfect natural cover. I had to assume the guards would be on high alert. That didn’t mean I couldn’t sneak into the dig site; it just meant I would have to be clever and careful.
I could see the guards more clearly now. Two bird-men stood in each tower. Each one had a bow held in a loose grip, a sword and quiver slung on their backs. They were scanning the horizon, perhaps watching wherever Jimmy and his passengers had disappeared to.
The dig site was open. There were no walls or barriers I could see. Towering machines rumbled and clanked as they worked. Through the valley between hills, I could see the metal struts of one device rising to my left. I couldn’t see the actual Pit yet, merely machinery and the workers tending them. I also didn’t spot any guards beyond the hill where I crouched, but I could hear the scratchy voices of bird-men commanding workers, so I knew I would still have to be careful to avoid detection.
I needed a diversion so I could get closer to the Pit and look around. Perhaps sabotage would be as simple as damaging one of their great digging machines.
I scanned the area for a rock, but discarded the plan even as my eyes roved the ground. There were four bird-men above, which meant four pairs of eyes. A simple little sound might not be enough. I needed all eyes away from the valley.
I stared down at my gauntlet. A blast in the right spot would certainly draw attention. Perhaps if I knocked out a strut for one of their lookout towers.
I was raising a hand, poised to fire, when suddenly a burst of blue light lit up the area, bright against the hilltops and machines. I heard several shouts of surprise, and moments later, an odd clamor as machinery shut down. The steady thrum faded away, leaving an eerie silence in its wake.
I craned my neck upward. The guards were definitely not watching me now.
I slipped closer. The next bend in the valley revealed tall, wooden crates to the right and a broad, open plain to the left. A massive Pit dominated much of the plain, which was heavily trampled from the workers hustling back and forth. A few sad patches of grass struggled to survive. Hulking machines surrounded the Pit, contraptions that looked exactly like the ones I’d seen on the Pitworld, save with no trace of rust or advanced age.
The blue glow shone from inside the Pit. It washed the workers and bird-men ranged nearby in a ghostly light.
I hid behind the crates to watch, afraid a lookout would glance down and spot me if I stayed gawking out in the open.
A pair of writhing black tentacles reached from inside the Pit and gripped the edge. A nightmare stretched its body up and out. A black body with dozens of glistening black eyes rose on even more tentacles, higher and higher until it loomed over the watching crowd. It had no mouth that I could see.
Another tentacle reached up, out of the Pit, and the monster hoisted itself fully out of the Pit. The tentacles were long, sinuous legs, I realized. It had six of them, and a body shaped like a beetle. Small mandible-like digits clattered all over its underbelly.
I shivered in fear and revulsion. I’d never seen anything so hideous.
“Where is Hondo Brink?” it called in a voice like a crypt tearing open. There was an odd stereo effect to the words, as if three voices were saying the same words at the same time.
“I’m here, my lord,” I heard Future Hondo yell back. He stood at the front of the crowd, kneeling as he spoke.
“You have done as commanded?” it hissed.
“Yes, My Lord. I have the final crew member with me,” he replied.
The final crew member? I thought. What did that mean? My mind jumped to the crew of the Endeavor, and my heart leapt into my throat. I scanned the area anxiously for my long-lost crew. Wondering how any of them could possibly be here, over a century in the past.
My eyes fell on two figures chained to a pipe on one of the excavation devices, and my pulse quickened even further, my palms tingling.
She was here.
Lena and Darkeson were impossibly here. After so much searching, and the longest, craziest journey of my life, I had finally found her, and when I hadn’t even been looking.
My brain told me now was the time to be careful. To hide and keep watching, and wait for the right opportunity to slink forward and free them.
Not a chance.
Throwing fear and caution both aside, I tore from my hiding spot, letting out a wordless scream of defiance. I drew my sword and held it high as I burst across the plain.
Heads snapped my way as I ran. The crowd seemed too surprised to react quickly, even the guards. They’d already been stunned by the arrival of the great beetle monster. A boy appearing out of nowhere waving a sword must have been too much for them.
I had covered half the trampled ground before I realized I had no plan.
Kill the giant monster and save everyone.
That was plan enough for me.
The beetle monster was the only one who didn’t seem stunned. “What is this, Brink?” it cried in its moaning, stereophonic voice.
It raised a tentacle to strike, and I swung my sword in a wild arc. It pinged off the creature’s limb and flew out of my hand.
Undeterred, I raised my gauntlet and fired even as my blade slid across the dirt. A burst of light struck the limb before it could snatch me and blew it clean off, spraying me in the face with black liquid. The monster screamed and thrashed a long stump, its leg shorter now by several feet.
The liquid had an acrid scent. Motor oil, I realized. Was I fighting a robot? The severed tentacle-leg thrashed on the ground, black oil gushing out in thick splurts.
The monster stretched out another tentacle and grabbed my backpack. I was yanked into the air, the straps digging into my shoulders.
The creature voice radiated fury. “Who is this insect?”
It hoisted me to face level, studying me with massive, unblinking eyes that shone with pinpricks of light, making it appear as though every eyeball were somehow packed with starlight.
“Prometheus, you truly are an idiot,” Future Hondo said from somewhere below. He sounded amused.
I kicked and struggled, trying to free myself, but I had cinched my backpack tight on purpose so it wouldn’t flop around. I couldn’t slide out unless the monster loosened his grip. I raised my gauntleted hand again, ready to fire another blast right into the monster’s face.
“I am the Emissary of the End. I will be afforded the respect I deserve!”
Before I could fire another blast, the creature threw me to the ground. I caught a brief glimpse of sky at my feet, then crashed painfully to the ground near my sword. The wind was thoroughly knocked out of me. For a moment I lay there, stunned and trying to assure myself no bones had broken in the fall.
I stared at the sky, helpless as the beast entered my field of vision, towering high above. Hondo and a few bird-men also approached.
“This is the one you hate?” it asked Future Hondo.
“Yes, Lord Emissary,” Future Hondo said. “Ever the fool,” he said to me. “Rushing in to save the day without stopping to think about the consequences!”
I rose to a crouching position, breathing hard, desperate to pull enough oxygen back into my lungs. My sword was at my feet, for all the good it would do. I couldn’t beat anyone here in combat. I looked past Future Hondo, my eyes locking onto Lena’s. Her face was drawn, her cheeks pinched and pale as salt. Darkeson looked even worse, his bald head covered in scratches and bruises. One of the old scientist’s eyes was swollen shut.
“Why?” I asked. “Why do you hate me?”
“You’ll know soon enough,” he replied.
A fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into this time, Prometheus Jones, I thought. I didn’t like any of my options. I could have used some help from my friends just then.
“Now’s a good time for the cavalry to save the day, wouldn’t you think?” Future Hondo asked, as though reading my mind.
“Leave him alone!” Hondo called. He stood atop the heap of crates I’d been hiding behind.
He held a bow, an arrow notched and ready.
“Careful, he’s got a bow and arrows,” Future Hondo taunted with dry, almost lazy sarcasm.
“Do we even know how to use that thing?” he added, fingering the scar on his chin.
“To battle, friends!” Gareth cried, coming through the same gap in the hills I’d snuck through earlier. Sword held low, cap flapping regally behind him, the robot was an impressive sight. Rainsong was running behind him, holding a bow. I glanced up at the guard towers. Sure enough, they were both empty now.
Ink landed atop the Emissary’s back. Queen Ophelia’s bodyguard robots dropped to either side of him with heavy thumps.
“I do not know what a cavalry is, but we have arrived to save the day,” Ink called down.
“You had better be right about this,” the Emissary thundered, apparently speaking to Future Hondo. I couldn’t understand what the words meant at first.
Then I realized what I should have seen all along.
This is a trap.
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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.