Ophelia had been planning to send us to the past all along. There was no time to think, no time to worry over Ink. I turned and fled, hoping that if I could make it outside, I could figure something out, some way out of this mess.
Rainsong was waiting outside. He was leaning on a sword stained black with oil; the bow and its explosive arrows apparently gone. “He lives! Glad to see you made it, kid—”
“Run!” I cried, but I was too late. An arrow hit him in the chest, and he too was gone. I turned back for a split second and caught sight of Ophelia and Hondo backlit in the pyramid’s entrance. Were they in league with each other? I couldn’t say.
He was the only one left. I had to find him. Sure, the robot was a little crazy, but crazy help was better than no help at all. I ducked behind a stunted tree, heart hammering in my chest.
“You are one stone-cold lady,” I heard Hondo say to Ophelia.
“Shut up and help me find him,” the former queen snapped in reply.
“This is your show,” Hondo replied. “I’m just repaying my debt to Theus.”
Funny way of helping, I thought.
“He hasn’t been reunited with his sister yet,” Ophelia pointed out. I heard footsteps crunching over dry leaves. She’d left the pyramid.
“Yeah,” Hondo conceded, “but I gave him a nudge in the right direction. That’s all I can do.” I could tell from the way he pitched his voice he still stood near the great spaceship.
“You hope it’s the right direction.” Her voice was close, but that could be to my advantage. Running away wouldn’t work. We were in the middle of a field. With a bow, putting distance between us would only help Ophelia.
“All we ever do is hope,” he replied. “Hope we’re moving down the right path. Hope everything will work out, that we’re doing what we should be doing.”
I quit listening, focusing on the sound of Ophelia’s footsteps. She couldn’t be more than a few steps away.
I have three people to find now, I realized. Two friends in the past, and a sister in the future. The thought was so overwhelming I was nearly paralyzed.
No, I told myself. You have to move.
“Victory is ours!” Gareth cried from several yards off.
“No!” I cried, inadvertently revealing myself.
“Forgive me, master,” Ophelia said. Her third arrow clanged off of Gareth’s armor, and the robot was gone with a whumph as air rushed to fill the space he’d vacated.
Now I was truly alone.
There was no one within a hundred years or a million miles that I could count on.
And I’d revealed myself.
Out of options, I charged toward Ophelia, sword ready. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I had to fight this. I couldn’t just go quietly, not when a chance to find my sister might be back in the city behind me.
“Where are you sending them?” I cried as I burst toward her. “Why are you doing this?”
She had an arrow ready for me, but I was too close. I shoved the bow away and brought my knee up, into her gut. She doubled over, coughing. I snatched at her bow. The fingers of my free hand closed over it, and I dashed a few yards away.
She climbed to her feet and rushed toward me, but I held up my sword to fend her off. I placed one end of the bow against the ground. My first instinct was to snap it by bending it, but bows are made to be flexible, it might take too long or not even work. I raised my sword instead, ready to bring it down hard.
“Theus, please no! That’s—”
I dropped my sword with an angry snarl and sliced the bow in two.
“—A family heirloom,” Ophelia said, her shoulders slumping a little. A light breeze tugged at her cloak.
And then she pulled another bow out of her quiver and shot me in the leg.
I didn’t vanish. It was just a normal arrow. I hit the dirt hard, blood pulsing out of my thigh. It didn’t seem like a serious wound, but it hurt.
In the Vault she’d been happy she had five arrows left, but had only needed four to launch Moonstones at myself and my friends. Four to fire at us, one to disable me.
But why not just send me back like the others? I clutched at my leg, trying to staunch the steady trickle of blood. The arrow was stuck in the side of my leg. I knew there was an important artery there, but Ophelia had placed her shot well enough to miss it.
“I do what I must,” Ophelia said, as if in answer to my earlier question. “For my people. I may not have a kingdom anymore, but I will always be a queen. I would die for them. I would betray for them. The End took them all away, and I will do anything, anything to rescue them.”
“I’m sorry about your leg, but I don’t have the element of surprise with you like I did the others. I couldn’t risk missing the shot. You are a worthy opponent, Prometheus Jones. I wish it could have been different. We’re on the same side. Someday you’ll see that.”
She nocked her final arrow. At its tip was the next-to-last Moonstone.
“Help me!” I cried to Hondo, tears stinging my eyes. “Please!”
“I’m sorry, Theus,” he replied. “This was always going to happen. This is the past. It was always set in stone.”
I turned back to Ophelia. “Please! I trusted you!”
I had failed again. Perhaps even more miserably than last time.
“I know,” she replied. She was crying herself now. “But the Dawn insists this is the only way for me to find my people.” She took two steps closer, making the shot even more certain.
“I’m not going,” I said. I reached for my sword. I’d dropped it in the dirt when I’d been struck down.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “But I’m not giving you a choice. I’ll see you soon. I hope you can forgive me.”
I had a tight grip on my sword. I struggled to stand, but I couldn’t put any weight on my wounded leg. I squirmed and managed to stagger to my feet, relying on my uninjured side to keep me upright.
Useless. A vain gesture. All I accomplished was spilling more of my own blood. A sob tried to force its way out of my throat, but I choked it down. I didn’t want to break down, not here in front of Ophelia and Hondo. Not ever, if I could help it.
I glanced back at the city. The dark silhouette of a ruined civilization. I’d been so close. Like a fool I’d let my chance slip by. “Lena,” I whispered.
And then Ophelia’s final arrow struck me in the chest, and the Crossroads World vanished. It wasn’t like before, where I just disappeared from one time and appeared in another. There was a feeling of falling that made my stomach lurch, and the world went black for several seconds.
I appeared in the middle of a desert. I could feel the lingering pain from the impact of the Moonstone arrow. Tall dunes rose around me like ocean waves sculpted from sand; a light breeze ruffling their caps. Fine grit dusted my face and stuck to the bloodstains on my worn trousers.
“Where . . . ?” I wondered aloud.
These Moonstones hadn’t just moved me in time. I could feel it, this wasn’t the same place.
I tried to walk, but my leg buckled, and I fell.
“Ink!” I called out. As I yelled, Hondo’s words came to mind.
“All we ever do is hope.”
A face appeared from around one of the nearby dunes. I caught sight of dark fur and pointed ears. Not one of my friends.
“Tsk-tsk-tsk,” the creature tutted scornfully. “What’s this what’s this?” It spoke almost too fast for me to understand.
The creature stepped out, revealing itself to be a cat. Or at least, an alien who looked a lot like a cat. It had big eyes with slitted pupils, white whiskers, and a little, pink button nose. The cat-creature wore a simple, skirt-like garment and no shirt. I thought they looked familiar, from history books. The clothes, not the cat.
“Injured ourselves, have we?” it said.
“No,” I groaned. “I was shot.”
“Same thing, says Tonna,” it replied with a wide grin. I was getting better at keeping up with its rapid speech. It stepped forward and knelt to inspect the wound. “Next time try dodging.”
“Ha ha,” I replied. “Are you Tonna?”
“Yep yep, that’s me that’s me,” it replied. “Well, slave, come with Tonna to the city.”
“Slave?” I asked.
“Yes, Tonna will save your leg from getting chopped off, and you’ll be her slave, yes? Tonna tried to take the swordsman lizards, but they were too strong. You’re perfect!”
“You saw . . . wait, lizards?” Maybe the cat-creature didn’t know what a toad was? I took solace in knowing my friends were here. I hadn’t exactly had time to worry, but it had occurred to me they could have been sent to a completely different era.
“Yes, one with a smooth, smooth voice. He was terrifying, so so fast with his sword!” That had to be Ink. “And a silly lizard with a strange helmet and a rude way.”
I chuckled. “Sounds like my friends. Can you take me to them?”
The cat-creature shrugged. “They went to the city. Everyone goes to the city. Tonna will take you to the city too, slave.”
“Okay, thanks, Tonna. But I can’t be your slave.”
“You’ll love it! Tonna will be a kind master!”
I sighed. My leg hurt, and I’d had a truly terrible day. We could argue about it later. “Where’s the city?”
Tonna the Cat helped me up and put an arm over his shoulders to help me limp along. I sheathed my sword. The cat didn’t seem at all bothered about letting me stay armed.
We stepped through a slender pathway between two dunes. The ground sloped down toward a city that spread near an enormous river. My heart skipped a beat.
I knew exactly what planet I was on at a glance.
It wasn’t the broad river that gave it away, with its birds and plants flourishing along the banks. It wasn’t the tall, stone pyramids rising in the distance. It wasn’t the people in the bustling marketplace below, a comfortable mix of humans, bird-men, and cat-men.
It was the Moon.
The Moon that had shone from above for every night of my childhood hung in the sky above, bigger than I’d ever seen it. There could be no mistaking its distinct, face-like appearance, and no mistaking exactly where I was.
Somehow, impossibly, I was not only in the distant past; I was in Ancient Egypt.
I was on 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.