The water was rising again.
“Move with a purpose, people,” Rainsong said. He dumped the water out of his helmet and plunked it back on his head. Gareth rowed frantically, mechanical arms moving in a blur. The little boat tore through the water, nearly capsizing as we sped along the waves. There was no more time to bail out water. We just held on for dear life. Eventually the water seemed to darken. The color beneath us transformed to a deep, almost indigo color in a ring all around us.
“The Pit is beneath us, noble friends,” Ink said.
“Yes,” Ophelia agreed. “And not a moment too soon.” Fist sized globs of water were rising in the air. The nearest islands were submerged now, only the crowns of a few trees visible.
Time for the next step of the journey.
We would plunge back through the water and make for the Pit. It should have been easy, in theory. All we had to do was sink after all, but if we ran out of air before we reached the Pit, Ophelia and I would be in real trouble. We’d found a lot of equipment on the island we’d raided, but nothing that would help us breathe underwater. Ophelia described a network of emergency air tubes, long rubber hoses that had been used to keep stranded swimmers alive. The Pitworlders had also used them to traverse the ocean up and down when needed. We’d found the remnants of one such tube, so rotted through it crumbled at my touch.
I reached into the pack Gareth had brought and pulled out a head-sized stone. Ophelia grabbed one too. My rock was a smooth, gray, river stone. A weight to pull me down quick. Between it and the supplies stuffed into my tattered backpack, I expected to get through the ocean fast.
“I’m ready,” I said, shimmying up onto the rim of the boat. Water was flying upward in little droplets all around us, and the waves were growing taller by the second.
“As am I. I should tell you before we depart though—” Ophelia began. I never got to hear what she had to say because I slipped on the wet gunwale and fell into the water. The heavy stone in my hands pressed against my chest, dragging me down deep into the ocean.
I hadn’t taken a full breath.
Had I even taken half a breath? My lungs already felt as though they were on fire. Hadn’t I just been through this? I hated the powerlessness of diving deep. The pressure against my body seemed to grow, but I told myself I had to be imagining most of it. Ophelia had assured us that water pressure would not be an issue once high tide was underway; though I wasn’t sure that made any sense.
The darkness grew, but I couldn’t decide if it was because I was truly sinking deeper or because I was about to black out again. I had the panicked thought that maybe the stone wouldn’t be enough. The ocean would keep going up, and it would take me with it, and I would drown, separated by decades from the only family I had. The evil of the End would go unchecked and . . .
My fearful spin of terrible thoughts was cut off by open air.
I fell right out of the flying ocean. I took a deep breath, grateful for the air that filled my lungs. The water floated above me. The Pit yawned below. The sea was twenty feet above the ground and rising. I saw a flash of the seafloor, the same swamp we’d hurtled desperately across not long ago, with its stunted trees and waving vines. Then I was in darkness, falling into the Pit. I couldn’t see anything through the water above but murky shapes and the distant, much-diffused light of Skywater’s faraway sun.
I fell for several minutes . . .
. . . Minutes stretched into hours . . .
. . . I was dizzy and exhausted when I crashed into the next world. My throat was parched and dry. My eyes and face chapped by the wind of falling constantly for so long. I didn’t hit the ground when I stopped falling but got tangled up in thick vines.
I squirmed and struggled like a fly in a spiderweb, unable to see much. Whatever world I was in, it was nighttime dark here. I wriggled my way through a thick tangle of vines. I caught glimmers of light, but I couldn’t see where I was. Eventually I managed to shimmy my way onto hard stone. Using the vines for leverage, I heaved myself onto land and stood.
A shattered moon shone with bright, but fragmented, light in the sky above. I stood at the lip of a small Pit maybe eight feet wide. It was overgrown with thick vegetation, but I could still discern the outline of it. I scanned the horizon. A ruined city loomed in the middle distance, inky and unlit. I was near the edge of a field scattered with decaying garbage and loose stones. The Pit seemed to butt right up against the ruins of a house. Walls of forest rose nearby, hemming the field in.
I turned around. Opposite the city, a massive pyramid loomed, its edges ragged. The topmost point of the pyramid was gone. It was as dark as the buildings of the city, not a light shining anywhere. Wasn’t this where Ophelia’s people had settled? Where was everyone?
I tested my ankle as I gulped from a small, glass, bottle of water. Still slightly tender but not so swollen. I could walk without pain. My black eye was better too. I was sore, tired, and hungry, but I could keep moving for now.
I walked a cracked and overgrown sidewalk choked with decades of weeds. What I had taken for trees were actually the walls of houses thick with vines. The darkness and the wild growth had given the appearance of woods.
I heard a muffled grunt and sounds of struggle coming from the Pit. I turned back and helped Ophelia out. A moment later Ink cut his way free of the vines and climbed out. Rainsong was next.
“Ugh, help me up!” the toad cried. His coveted weapons and armor had gotten all tangled up in snaking vines. Ink cut plant limbs away, and Ophelia and I pulled him out.
Rainsong put a hand to his helmet, righting the tall, red plume. “That was awful,” he said, blinking bulging eyes that shone white in the diffused moonlight. “We fell forever!” He’d lost a sword but didn’t seem to have noticed. I could see it snared in the center of the Pit, but I wasn’t going to say anything and risk having him crawl out there after it.
“Certainly the longest Pit yet,” Ink agreed.
“You can’t complain about every Pit,” Ophelia replied.
“I don’t see why not,” Rainsong objected. “I’m quite hungry. Where’s Gareth? He had all the snacks.”
A look of panic crossed Ophelia’s face. “You said if I went first you would make sure he got through okay.”
“I thought he was ahead of me,” Ink said, “but I lost him on the way down.”
“Eh, my helmet may have gotten in my eyes,” Rainsong admitted, self-consciously fingering the edge of its plume.
“Unhand me, foul villain!” a tinny, electronic voice cried from our feet. Gareth had arrived. By then the vines covering the Pit were mostly tattered, but the robot had managed to find a few to get wrapped up in. The heavy pack was still strapped to his back, and it took all four of us to haul the robot and his cargo out of the Pit.
As soon as we had Gareth up, Rainsong leapt onto his back and perched there precariously. The toad fished through the robot’s satchel with one hand, mumbling to himself, gear clacking.
“Grab me something too,” I told Rainsong. My stomach growled as if in agreement. I had food in my backpack, but I didn’t feel like digging.
“Where are we, noble friend?” Ink asked Ophelia.
“The city of Tellosphere, situated in the eastern hemisphere of the largest continent on the planet known as the Crossroads World,” Ophelia told us with a grand sweep of her hand.”
“Your people built all this?” I asked.
“They did.” Even though it was dark, I could see the glint of pride in her eyes. “Though I wasn’t around for most of it. Oh my word, what happened to the moon?” she asked, studying the night sky with lines of worry etched all over her face. She was far too young for an expression like that. It was the face of an old woman, filled with regret.
“The moon wasn’t like that before?” I asked. “How long have you been gone?”
“At least forty years. Well, there’s no oceans on this planet. Not the worst thing, I suppose.”
“Why is everything abandoned?” Rainsong asked with his mouth full. “Or are you going to say—”
“I can’t tell you,” Ophelia replied, right on cue.
“That.” Rainsong finished.
“Where’s mine?” I asked the toad. I couldn’t tell what he’d found, and I didn’t care. He tossed me a slim, rectangular packet. I unwrapped some sort of energy bar and dug in. The breakfast provided by Hondo felt like a hundred years ago. A hundred and fifty, to be exact, I thought, taking a huge bite.
“I would like food as well, noble friend,” Ink said.
“Find your own, lizard boy,” Rainsong replied, almost unintelligible with his mouth stuffed with some sort of crunchy snack.
“Very well, Mr. Frog.” Ink replied, hopping up onto Gareth’s shoulder, opposite the toad.
“Hey!” Rainsong cried when the salamander almost unbalanced the robot.
“I am not a carousel!” Gareth protested. “Please get off!”
“No problem,” Ink said. He grabbed a snack and hopped down, flipping in the air and landing on his feet with the wrapper already off his energy bar.
“Thank you,” Gareth said, straightening out his cloak. Rainsong didn’t get down, but the robot didn’t seem to notice. The toad stuck his long tongue out at Ink and kept munching away. The samurai chose not to notice, taking a small bite of his own food.
“Where’s the lab?” I asked. “Let’s get on with this. I want to find my sister and go home.”
As soon as I said the word, I felt a flutter of anxiety in my chest. I had no home. Not on Earth, not on the Roseworld, and certainly not here at this abandoned Crossroads.
“It’s in the city,” Ophelia said, setting off at once. Her voice cracked a little as she spoke. She rubbed at her eyes with the back of one hand. Was the older girl crying? I wished we could get a better explanation out of her. Were all her people dead, or had they moved on to yet another world?
If the rest of my companions noticed the former queen’s tears, they gave no sign. Ink and Rainsong argued about food while Gareth patiently trundled along like a pack mule. We followed Ophelia through more overgrown ruins, exploring a world slowly but surely transforming from metropolis to jungle. The buildings grew taller but no less draped in greenery.
After a few minutes, Ophelia glanced back. With the queen ahead and the rest of my friends lagging behind, I walked alone. “You want to go home?” she asked me.
There was no good answer to that question.
“I want to find my sister,” I said instead.
“You’ll see her again,” Ophelia replied.
“Is that a promise from the future?” I asked.
“Unfortunately, no. Just a bit of faith. You’re a good person. That’s why I traveled across time to seek your help.”
“What can I do?” I asked. “I’m just a kid, barely a teenager. This isn’t my fight.” A week ago, I probably would have jumped at the chance to join the fight against the End. I wouldn’t have even had to think. Now . . . after failing to save Lena and stop Hondo?
“A kid who has fought powerful enemies and come out alive. A kid who will do anything for his family. A kid who . . .” she hesitated. “A kid who will change everything,” she finally finished softly.
“Tell me what you know,” I implored. I stopped walking. “Please. Just tell us everything.” I wanted to know it would all be okay. That everything would turn out right.
Ophelia paused again. “It’s too dangerous,” she said after a moment. The words were half-hearted, as though she were reconsidering. “I can’t risk it. . . .”
“Come on,” I argued, hope rising. “We need to know what we’re walking into. We can’t keep stumbling around blind.”
“Well . . .” she began, but I never heard the end of the sentence. A sudden wail cut through the streets of the abandoned city.
“Oh no,” Ophelia said. Her face had gone pale as a sheet. She was reaching unconsciously for the bow strapped to her waist.
“What is that?” I asked as another screech echoed off nearby buildings.
“They’ve come. The Emissaries of the End.” The former queen drew her bow and nocked an arrow. “It’s how they communicate with each other,” she said, wincing at the sound.
“We beat them once,” I said.
Another screech joined the first, then several more. The sound was terrible. I clapped my hands to my ears.
“You defeated one!” Ophelia yelled over the sound. “This is an army!”
The ground shook. A tentacle emerged from around a corner twenty feet ahead. It was followed by the towering body of an Emissary. I felt the ground shake from a different direction, and another Emissary appeared. Another one crawled over the buildings themselves, shredding vines and leaves as it walked. All of them let out that horrible, electronic screaming.
We were surrounded.
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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.