Before the strange woman appeared at the balcony door, Ruby had been sitting on her bed in her nightshirt, wondering why Ord priests didn't drag her off to prison for her insolence. She'd seen the cells in the dungeon. They had plenty of room down there for her.
She'd talked to Skylar about her problems, but Skylar couldn't do much more than look sympathetic. There wasn't anything in the room for her to repair. The Fixie caught and disabled a few more scorpion bots and then laid down to sleep beside a vase on a pedestal.
Ruby brooded. She'd forgotten to ask Basha about Mai. If Ruby hadn't insulted the man, she might have at least rescued one prisoner. She growled with frustration. What was she doing here?
Something tapped at the French doors leading out to the balcony. Ruby turned to Skylar, who still slept. It wasn't her. Ruby stared at the doors.
It was more frustration than bravery that led Ruby to approach the door. She drew it open only a crack and peered out into the darkness.
A figure in a gray cloak stood outside, her face hidden by the cloak's hood—a cloak identical to the one that Ruby had used to sneak into the dungeon.
The woman whispered in her own language. "Lady Chaos, I am here on behalf of Elric. I know you understand my words."
Ruby stared at her. She muttered the words "Translate for me." To the woman, she whispered, "What do you want?" The earpiece translated, and she repeated the words in Starrik.
"We strike the prison tomorrow morning," she whispered. "Elric has asked that you join us."
"Who is Elric?" Ruby asked.
"I do not know."
"Will Elric be there at the attack?"
"I doubt it."
"Why attack the prison?"
"It is the beginning of a larger campaign. I can say no more now. Will you join us?"
It sounded terrifying, and Ruby wanted to ask a dozen more questions. She understood none of this. But her frustration at having spent most of the day in her room sitting uselessly won out over all her hesitation. "Yes," she said.
The woman nodded and retreated into the dark of night.
Ruby remained at the balcony, gazing out at the dimly lit city. What did they expect of her? What could she do? Free prisoners? Then what?
A trilling came from inside the room. Ruby froze for a moment, wondering what new threat had arrived. Then she realized it was her cellphone. She leaped across her bed and grabbed it from the night stand.
"Ruby, you there?" It was Eddie's voice, but it was choppy. His signal was weak.
"Eddie. How are you? You okay? You didn't answer earlier, and..."
"Ruby, Thank God. At least you're okay. Where are you?"
"Cavaheim. The palace."
Eddie's reply came through in bursts of static. "Cava....re you a prison.... ...uby, you.... there..."
"Eddie? I can barely hear you."
"...I'm coming... way... after Bryce and..." The noise of static grew to a crashing crescendo. Then the call ended.
Ruby tried calling him back. The phone rang twenty times without answer or voicemail.
She barely slept that night, constantly turning to her phone or looking out the window. What would happen at dawn? What was wrong with Eddie?
She felt like she'd just dozed off when another tap came at the balcony doors.
It was the same woman. "Just a minute," Ruby told her in English.
"We must go now," the woman replied.
Ruby realized only now that she had no clothing for sneaking out. Servants had taken everything for laundering except for the shoes she wore the day before. She pulled them on, pulled the cloak over her nightshirt and headed for the balcony.
"Skylar," she whispered.
Skylar stirred on the pedestal.
"I need your help."
The Fixie stood, saluted, and flew to her shoulder.
If the woman saw Skylar, she didn't acknowledge her. She led Ruby back out to the balcony.
The faint fingers of pale dawn reached across the sky to the East. Ruby shuffled in the dark and ran into the woman.
"Get off me" the woman hissed.
"Where are we going?" Ruby asked, again speaking English.
The woman climbed over the rail and pulled Ruby's hand towards a rung on a ladder. Ruby gripped it as the woman descended. Ruby followed. She couldn't see Skylar, but she heard the faint buzz of her wings as she passed overhead.
"You got her?" asked another voice at the bottom.
"Yes, and she's clumsy as a drunk."
Ruby engaged her translation device. "I'm sorry," she whispered in English and then in Starrik.
When she was down, two others pulled the ladder away. Ruby couldn't tell how many were in the group. Someone said, "follow us," and they all ran in the darkness.
Ruby barely had time to take stock of the situation. She ran in the dark, following complete strangers who wouldn't show their faces, off to some unknown destination to participate in a fight she didn't understand to rescue more people she didn't know, all because a girl she'd known for only a day told her she was the only hope for a city she'd never heard of. Free prisoners? Fight magicians? This was all crazy!
But she didn't turn around. She didn't know what she could to do, but she believed she needed to do something. It wasn't the statue that convinced her, although that was convincing enough. She wasn't sure why she believed it. Perhaps it was because she'd lasted this long, against all odds, and seen so much. The world was reduced to chaos, and yet she was here, now, alive, while so many others had disappeared. That may be random chance, and it wasn't enough to affirm her belief, and yet, she still believed. She'd follow these strangers in the dark because... just because.
They moved fast. Soon, Ruby was gasping for breath. They ran across streets and ducked in shadows, moving further and further up hill towards the mountain. "Can't we rest?" Ruby gasped as they ducked into an alleyway.
One of the hooded figures, a man, moved up beside Ruby. "If we don't make it to the prison walls before the dragon riders return, they'll spot us for sure."
"But our cloaks—"
"These cloaks work on the king's surveillance, but the Ord see our spark, and we are out during curfew."
They followed an alley running between two rows of buildings, dodging through patches of light, moving as silent as the wind. At the end of the alley, figures stepped out of the darkness to meet them. Ruby released a soft yelp.
"That's the rest of our group," someone whispered.
A tall wooden gate opened, leading into a fenced courtyard. The light within was dim, but Ruby could see her companions. There wasn't more than a dozen of them.
"You have her?" asked a familiar voice. Farook stepped forward and pulled his hood away.
"She's useless," the woman replied.
"And our task is hopeless, but she may give us the edge we need. Elric thinks so."
"Elric," the woman said with a scoff. "Where is Elric? Why isn't he risking his life with the rest of us?"
"He's kept us alive this long. He gave us these cloaks. He has already helped us free the political prisoners in the palace dungeon."
Ruby thought of all the empty cells beneath the palace. Once, they were full. These people had rescued whoever was there before.
"Elric is a coward," the woman said. "He pulls our strings."
"Perhaps he cannot help us if he is exposed. And perhaps we haven't earned his trust yet." Farook turned to another cloaked form. "Antonio, do you have the weapons?"
A row of spears leaned propped against the fence. The hooded figure Antonio took one and held it up. "We've tested them. They're useful, but they're not as good as the Ord Rings."
"If they can knock a man unconscious," said another, "Then they will serve our purpose. And their points will kill, same as any spear."
There were dozens of spears, far more than this little group needed. "Who are all the spears for?" Ruby asked.
"For the prisoners," Farook answered. "We do not have an army, but if we can reach the prisoners and if they want freedom, they will fight with us." He pushed a spear into her hand. "Aim the point of this spear at an attacker, focus your attention on them and use your spark to knock them unconscious."
"But I don't even know how to use magic," Ruby protested.
"This morning you will learn," Farook said. "Or you won't last long."