“Go on, get out of here!” a tall, yellow salamander yelled, hurling what looked like an apple at Ink.
“Just leave!” a red one screamed.
“I am sorry, noble friends,” Ink said. He cringed back, his shoulders hunched. “I was just trying to help my friend.”
Fiver and I were headed back to the edge of the village when we’d found a crowd of salamanders yelling at Ink and throwing old fruit at him.
“He was helping me,” I said. An array of bulging, amphibian eyes turned my way. “He rescued me,” I added, trying to keep my back straight under the weight of all those big, relentless eyes.
“Well, he couldn’t save us,” the yellow salamander said. “We banished him for a reason.”
“I didn’t enter the village,” Ink objected.
“Ten feet! You know the rules!” a pink salamander with a feminine voice cried.
Ink took several pronounced steps back. “Is that better? I’m leaving,” the salamander said. His big, black eyes were lowered, a tear sliding down one mottled cheek.
I wanted to walk around the crowd, but the opening in the fence was here. I hesitated, but Fiver didn’t seem to care.
“Comin’ through,” he said, pushing into the crowd. I followed on his heels, moving through a small mob of glaring, muttering salamanders. Most of them were dressed in dirty, stained robes.
“Drattin’ lizards,” he complained when we had stepped over the fence and joined Ink. “What was that about?”
“I am not welcome in my former home,” Ink replied. “It’s a long story.”
“We got a good walk ahead of us,” Fiver replied. “Plenty of time for stories.”
“This is Corporal Fiver,” I told Ink. “He knows a secret entrance into the castle.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Ink replied, clasping his hands and bowing. “I am known as Ink.”
“Likewise,” Fiver replied. He didn’t return the bow or take a palm off his laser gun to shake hands.
We started walking down the dirt road. It was afternoon now. The path was pleasant in the daylight. Insects buzzed in the shade of trees that grew beside the road, but they left us alone.
“Why were they so angry with you, Ink?” I asked.
“The bandits,” he replied, eyes lowered to his sandaled feet. “When I was an apprentice samurai, many years ago, I was charged with keeping watch over the village at night. We had heard tales of marauding monsters, and we wanted to be prepared if they showed up. I was sitting atop a haystack just outside the village. Only two moons were out, an unusually dark night. Despite my samurai training, I was lazy. In the hours before dawn, I let myself fall asleep. My village was attacked while I slumbered.”
“I’m sorry,” I replied.
“As am I, noble friend,” Ink said, his voice hoarse. “Now my village must pay tributes once a month to the bandits. Much of our food goes to appeasing them.”
“Who are these bandits?” I asked. “Are they toads?”
“No, even the toads pay tribute to the bandits.”
“You beat those toads on the road,” I said. “Five of them! Couldn’t you fight the bandits off?”
“Swords are no good against those beasts. They have armored skin.”
“Well then. . . . What could you’ve done anyway?” Corporal Fiver asked.
“I could have called a warning. My people could have been ready. The bandits didn’t want us dead, just subdued. Caught by surprise; there was confusion.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“People died,” he said, so quiet I barely heard the words. We walked in silence for a few seconds. The only sounds were the crunch of our footsteps and the insects droning.
“My people,” Ink continued, “I was banished for my failure.”
“That doesn’t seem fair,” I said.
“It is the punishment my master found fitting. Master Davin ended my training and proclaimed me ronin. As a ronin, I wander and give aid to any who need it. I can only watch while others toil to keep the bandits happy. I am forbidden to aid in farming, and I lost my name.”
“They took your name?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied. “I must earn it back through a life of service and solitude.”
“I still don’t think it sounds fair,” I said. I’d made mistakes before. I couldn’t imagine spending my whole life trying to pay for them. You’ve never gotten anyone killed, though, I thought to myself. A failure like that would be hard to live with.
The castle loomed high to our left. “Best keep our voices down now,” Corporal Fiver said. “Enemy territory.”
We walked through a field between two lines of green sprouts. The silos we’d seen earlier cast long shadows in the afternoon heat. No one was tending this field, but hunched figures were working on the other side of the towers.
“Where’s this sewage drain?” I asked, keeping my voice just above a whisper.
Fiver nodded toward a canal that ran between the two fields. The ground just past the silos sloped toward the water. On our side of the hill was a round opening about two feet tall. A thin line of suspicious brown water was leaking out.
We stopped in front of the drain. It sat low enough that we couldn’t be seen from either field.
“That’s how you escaped?” I asked, wrinkling my nose. I couldn’t help eyeing the corporal’s uniform.
“I had a spare set,” he said, catching my glance.
Ink sighed. “This is not what I had in mind, noble friend.”
“You don’t have to come with me,” I said, doing my best to keep my voice level and expression blank as I spoke. “This is my duty.”
I didn’t want to influence his decision, but I desperately hoped Ink wouldn’t leave me. Now that the moment was upon us, I wasn’t feeling so brave. All through the walk, I had been trying not to think about the fact that we were heading into a place a trained soldier was so terrified of he wouldn’t go back.
“I told you that I would aid your quest noble friend, and I intend to see it through. I will survive.”
“Thank you,” I replied, relieved.
“Well, best of luck kid,” Fiver said. “Hope you can save your sister.”
“Thanks for your help,” I said. “I hope you find your way back.”
“Emmitt’s pretty smart for a bug. I think I’ve got a chance. Take care of yourselves.
“You too,” I replied.
I held out my hand, and he grasped it firmly in a huge, callused palm. Ink bowed quickly, hands at his sides. The soldier turned and walked away, leaving us to our fate.
We said goodbye, I realized. Like we’ll never see each other again. I didn’t know what the future held, but I had to hope we would be finding a way back out of the castle, whether it was this sewage drain or right out the front door.
I shrugged out of my jacket and shoved it into my backpack. “Do you want to put your robe in here?” I asked.
Ink nodded and removed his robe, revealing a sleeveless shirt and a wrap around his waist. Once full, the backpack bulged uncomfortably. Getting through the tunnel would be awkward, but at least some of our clothes would be protected. I thought about taking my pants off too, but I didn’t like the idea of crawling into a strange place in my underwear.
“Well, onward noble friend!” Ink said. “Let’s save your sister!” Now that he had taken off his robe, he seemed in a hurry to get moving. He took the lead, slipping inside without looking back. With his belt off, he held his sheathed sword in one hand.
The pipe smelled as foul as it looked. We staggered through in the dark, crouching as low as we could and doing our best not to touch anything. We carried the backpack between us. Ink grasped one strap and I held the other.
“I’m bringing taller boots next time,” I complained when a bit of liquid sloshed against my socks, which were still damp from the swamp.
“Next time, noble friend, I think we should take our chances breaking down the front door.” The poor salamander sounded as miserable as I felt.
“We could have scaled the wall,” I added.
“Master Davin could smash stone blocks with his fists. I could learn to bust down walls.”
“My gauntlet might be able to fry a doorknob,” I said. Or blast the door to splinters, I added mentally.
“We could have lured all the toads out somehow,” Ink replied. “Perhaps with a cake.”
“A cake?” I asked with a laugh. “Do toads eat cake?”
“I don’t know. I think I’m just hungry, noble friend.”
“Do you want to turn back?” I asked. Our alternative ideas were ridiculous, of course, but maybe we could make something else work. “We could—”
“We’re almost out,” Ink said. “I can see a light ahead. Let us persevere, noble friend.”
We continued on until the light grew bright enough that I could make out Ink’s silhouette shuffling ahead of me. The light came from the roof of the pipe.
I had a moment of panic when I realized we might have to climb out of a toilet, but we were passing under an access hatch, not a toilet. A small, metal grate with vertical slits had been placed over a square opening in the pipe.
Ink peered up through the slits, studying the room above for several seconds before reaching up and carefully, slowly, sliding the grate aside. He let go of the backpack strap and clambered up. One hand was on the hilt of his sword, ready to draw. After a moment he waved for me to climb up.
I was grateful for the relatively fresh air of the castle. We were in a small storage room. Shelves had been packed into every space. They were lined with what looked like jars, but it was so dark I couldn’t be certain. The only light came from a crack under the door.
Ink shivered. “Could I have my robe, noble friend?” he asked. “I do not fare well far from the sun.”
Of course. Amphibians are cold-blooded. Ink couldn’t generate his own body heat.
Ink was half dressed when the door swung open. I was beginning to put my jacket on. A toad jaunted in, whistling a lively tune. Light shone into the room, illuminating dozens of wooden shelves groaning with big, glass jars filled with murky liquid and oddly shaped bits of goo.
The toad’s face was bruised, one eye black. He wore a cheerfully bright, yellow robe. He grabbed a jar and swung away, closing the door behind himself. He continued to whistle as he walked away, the sound fading as we crouched in the dark with hands on the hilts of our swords.
He hadn’t seen us.
“Wow, that was lucky,” I whispered.
“There is no such thing as luck, noble friend,” Ink said, gently pushing past me to kneel and look under the wide opening between the stone floor and the wooden door.
“We are clear to depart,” he said, opening the door.
Backpack and jacket in place, I nodded. “Ready.”
We should probably have a plan; I thought as he opened the door. Oh well. We would sneak as long as we could sneak, and fight as much as we needed to fight. I wasn’t leaving here without my sister. Not willingly, at least.
Ink and I stepped out into a drafty, open room. A gentle breeze wafted from somewhere. Ancient tapestries hung on the walls. Their designs were faded, edges unraveling to where strings dangled against the floor. A toad in a red robe slammed right into Ink.
“INT—” the toad began before Ink shoved an elbow into his stomach, tripped him with a leg sweep, and smacked him across the back of the head with the flat of his sword blade.
“I thought you said the coast was clear,” I hissed. I studied the exits in the room. Two open doorways straight across and a hallway to the left curving out of sight.
“The coast? The ocean is far from here, noble friend.”
“Not that coast,” I said. “I meant the area?”
“Yes, he must have been down the hall. I’m surprised I didn’t hear his footsteps, though. What is our plan now?”
“We find my sister,” I replied.
“The castle is quite large, do you think—” Ink was cut off when the toad at his feet suddenly lurched upward and grabbed the hem of the salamander’s robe. Ink was yanked to the ground. I bit back a yelp of surprise and drew my sword.
I have no idea how to use this thing.
Ink and the toad began to wrestle on the ground, neither one letting the other draw a sword. I raised my blade, trying to copy the fluid way Ink swung his own sword. I hoped to strike the toad across the back of the head the way the salamander did. My sword struck stone with a loud clink!
Ink and the toad struggled on the ground for a minute longer before Ink straddled the toad, pressing his forearm against his opponent’s windpipe. He pressed a knee into the toad’s belly. Its legs writhed as it kicked uselessly at the air.
Ink drew his sword and raised it high. “Go to sleep!” he cried, bringing down the blade, flat-side first. This time the toad was firmly unconscious. “Quite a resilient fellow,” Ink said, dusting his hands off as he stood up.
“INTRUDERS!” a toad cried from across the room. A jar fell to the floor, shattering loudly. It was the whistler with the black eye. Cries of alarm and slapping footsteps came from behind the toad as the castle responded to the alarm.
I took a deep breath. I had known this was possible. I would just have to stay calm and remember why I was here.
“Where is my sister?” I asked the black-eyed toad. “Let her go, and we’ll leave.”
“We do our duty,” the toad said. “We give our lives. Protect Senna. Protect the Ancients. Send them down, send them down, send them all down.”
“Um. . . . What?” I didn’t know what to make of all that.
Four more toads had joined the first few, and I could hear more coming.
“Are you ready, noble friend?” Ink asked. “We will have to fight. Watch that you are not struck by a Moonstone.” Another pair had joined the crowd.
Ink darted right into the mob of toads. They bore weapons of all kinds. Swords, axes, spears and even a few bows. The salamander moved in a blur, parrying strikes and dodging blows, then somehow finding space to strike back at the creatures every few seconds.
I stood with my sword and gauntlet at the ready, feeling useless. To the left, I heard more toads coming. I raised my gauntlet and fired upward. A jagged burst of light launched from my palm, striking the stone blocks of the hallway ceiling.
There was a massive rumble as the giant bricks fell. That entrance to the room was blocked now. I could hear toads yelling from the other side.
I looked back to Ink. He stood over a pile of unconscious toads, breathing hard.
“That was quite easy! Nice work. Would you like a robe now?” Ink asked, nudging one of the toads with his foot. “Your pants smell quite bad, noble—YEEAAARGH.” Ink let out a terrible howl and collapsed, twitching.
A large, dark green toad in a black robe stepped from behind Ink. His face was covered by war paint, half red half blue. He held a crossbow in both hands. He’d struck Ink with some kind of electrical dart. Little bolts of electricity danced across the salamander’s skin.
The big toad began winding a crank on the side of the crossbow. A string ran from the bolt to the crossbow. It coiled up as he worked.
I stood protectively over Ink, ready to defend the salamander with my life. “I’m just trying to find my sister,” I cried.
“Give your life, protect Senna, protect the Ancients. Send them all down!”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
The toad didn’t answer. Something caught on the crossbow wench, and he threw the weapon to the ground with an impatient snarl. He drew a double-bladed sword in one hand and what looked like a knife on a chain in the other. The toad advanced, swinging the chain and twirling the sword. There was an easy grace in every movement. He reminded me of Ink.
“Nope!” I said, aiming my gauntlet at his feet and blasting the floor. The big toad was knocked back against the far wall, dazed but alive. His weapons went flying. The double-bladed sword spun in an arc past my head, nearly cutting my cheek. The chain landed with a clatter amidst the array of sleeping toads.
“Okay . . . that hurt,” Ink said, propping himself up on one elbow.
I sighed with relief as the salamander stood. We’d beaten them all. Well, almost all. The ones on the other side of the cave-in were still shouting. They seemed to be moving rubble instead of trying to go around.
“Any of them awake yet?” Ink asked. He walked over to the double-bladed sword, weighing it with one hand. Apparently satisfied, he returned to my side.
I surveyed the slumped forms around us. “The one with the black eye,” I said. He was breathing funny and had his eyes pressed too tightly shut. “He’s just pretending to be out of it.”
“Gah!” the toad cried, lurching to his feet. Ink was on him in a blue flash, holding his sword to the creature’s bulging neck.
“Don’t struggle,” Ink said.
“What did you do with my sister?” I asked. “A girl with dark hair? And a bald man?”
“Give your life, give your life!” he cried. “I’ll tell you nothing.”
“Don’t be a fool, boy.” Ink replied. “He’s an Ancient. If you’re supposed to protect them, why wouldn’t you be allowed to answer his questions?”
“Dragonlaugh’s orders,” the toad said, nodding at the bigger toad I’d taken out with my gauntlet. “He says the Ancients are confused. They don’t know up from down anymore.”
“Where is my sister?” I asked again.
“The angry one?” The toad sighed. “We threw her and the fearful one into the Well of the Ancients. Not before she gave me this.” The toad started to point toward his bruised face, but Ink pressed the tip of his sword closer in warning.
“You did what?” I asked, sputtering.
“Take us there,” Ink ordered. He searched the toad’s pockets, carefully withdrawing a Moonstone.
“Fine,” the black-eyed toad replied with a strange look in his eyes. He nodded toward a set of doors behind us, just through one of the open entryways.
“Lead the way,” Ink commanded. He stopped briefly to make sure the big toad called Dragonlaugh was knocked out; then he took the sheath for the double-bladed sword.
Leaving the room, we moved down a long hallway lined with more ancient tapestries. Most of these were in even worse shape, decayed by time so badly that even from just a foot away I couldn’t tell what any of them were meant to depict.
“Why do you toads guard this castle?” I asked as we walked.
“‘Twas commanded by the Ancients long ago,” the toad replied, frowning and studying the stone floor as he walked. Ink walked behind him with his sword to the creature’s back. I followed behind the pair.
“How long ago?” Ink asked.
“Many centuries,” the toad said.
“Why take us by force?” I said when the toad offered no more information.
“Like I said foolish friend, the Ancients don’t even know up from down anymore.”
Before I could ask more, the hall opened up into a cavernous chamber with two huge doors at the far end. High above us, balconies and open staircases lead up into the heights of the castle. Torches and braziers lined the walls, granting spotty illumination. A smaller set of double doors lay to the left. I could see light shining through the crack between them. The way outside? This room had seemed so dark before. A toad stood to either side of the doors.
“Why were the lights out last time we came here?” I asked.
“It was nighttime, foolish friend,” the toad said. His tone made it clear he thought I was an idiot for asking.
“Your people stand guard in the dark?” Ink asked.
“They sleep at their posts,” he replied.
“That doesn’t seem smart,” I said.
“Did you make it through the front door?” the toad replied with a smirk.
He had me there.
“Where’s the well?” I asked.
“Through the doors.”
“What’s going on, Rainsong?” one of the guard toads asked, stepping forward with his hand on the hilt of his sword. The other one readied a bow.
Rainsong held out a hand to calm the pair. “I’ve got this. These two want to see the Well of the Ancients, and I’m going to grant their wish. No need for a fight. They’ll just best us anyway.”
“Alright, holler if they try to hurt you,” the swordsman toad said, returning to his post.
That was too easy, I thought. Rainsong motioned toward the double doors, and I pushed them open. The room beyond was enormous, at least a forty feet wide. It was dominated by a wide, black pit that took up at least thirty of those forty feet. It was cut from natural stone, gray instead of reddish-brown like the bricks everywhere else in the castle.
“This is the well?” I asked, stepping forward. The air in the room was freezing, colder than outside by at least thirty degrees. Even with my jacket, the sudden temperature drop made me shiver.
“This is it,” the toad said.
“Perhaps we could get a rope, noble friend?” Ink asked, looking to me.
I leaned over the edge. I couldn’t see anything but blackness. The hole seemed to descend forever.
A second Pit.
I shivered, but not from the cold this time. Did another world lay at my feet?
“Lena?” I called. My voice echoed downward.
“You might need to get a little closer,” Rainsong said. He darted under Ink’s sword and delivered a vicious kick to the salamander’s midsection. Caught off guard, Ink took a half-step back, one hand on his belly. He recovered quickly, but not fast enough. The toad gave me a powerful shove. I was sent hurling out into blackness. I grasped at air with one hand, falling. . . .
And grabbed Rainsong’s wrist with the other hand. The toad’s eyes bulged with panic as we were both hauled toward the dark portal. Our descent halted when Ink grabbed Rainsong’s other wrist.
“Hold on,” Ink said, straining. “I will pull you up.” He shoved his sword into a crack in the stone and used the blade to anchor himself.
“No. You won’t.” Rainsong pressed both feet against the stone side of the Pit, then pulled with all his might. Already strained to his limits, Ink could resist gravity no longer. He lost his grip on the sword, and all three of us tumbled down.
Into the Pit.
Love what you read then
Prepare to enter...
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.