Ruby crashed back to the ground, landing hard on the side of her leg. The rhythmic chants decayed into shouts of alarm, the once organic flow of the dance replaced by scattered bodies and flailing arms.
And above it all, the deep, birdlike shrieks of the dragons. Another swooped in, its talons stretched out, reaching for a boy. He fell forward, narrowly escaping capture.
Pulses of blue and green light rained on the villagers. A man froze in a beam of light and collapsed into the dirt. Another dodged around him.
A war cry rose from the edge of the fire. Devick and others arrived, wielding blowguns and spears. The fight was on.
Ruby watched with horror. She couldn't fight. Not really. She had to get out of here. She froze with indecision. What could she possibly...
"Skylar," she cried. "Skylar, I need you."
The Fixie instantly appeared before her. The distress on the tiny sprite's face made it clear she understood the danger.
"I need to get out of here," Ruby said. "Somewhere the dragons can't get me."
Skylar saluted and waved her arm for Ruby to follow.
Ducked low, Ruby followed the Fixie across the camp. She nearly ran right into the swooping form of a dragon, its talons poised to catch her mid-stride. Before it had her, a spear flashed from the darkness and connected with the creature's leg. It did not penetrate the dragon's scales, but the talons flinched back, and Ruby dodged out of their way.
Skylar appeared before Ruby again, urgently waving for her to follow. Ruby realized they were returning to the little jail. The parachute, Ruby realized. Skylar wants me to get on the platform.
The jail door was open, and the parachute was still there. Ruby pulled on her jacket, then the parachute. As she secured the straps around herself, Skylar disappeared under the platform. The platform shuddered with the sounds of light tapping and the groan of what might have been tightening springs. "What are you doing?" Ruby asked.
Skylar continued to make adjustments. Ruby waited.
" Kajic-findari," said a woman's voice outside the bars.
Ruby spun around. Silhouetted against the distant fire, a robed figure stood, her hand raised, a ring of glowing green in her palm.
Ruby retreated onto the platform, not taking her eyes off the attacker. "Out of time," Ruby whispered to Skylar. "I've got to go now."
Skylar appeared at Ruby's side and gave a thumbs up.
Ruby found the red button in the darkness. She pressed it.
As green light flashed, the platform sprang upwards with such force, Ruby experienced only an instant of alarm. She was above the village. Wind rushed past with such force, Ruby lost her breath. She was above the woods. She was above the world. Her last thought before passing out was that her Fixie had launched her into space.
* * *
A pale glow below her, cold wind whipping up her cheeks.
It was too vivid to be a dream, the sensations too horrifying. Ruby was plummeting towards the earth from an insane altitude. Beneath her, clouds glowed in starlight. She was actually above the clouds. One dark shape reached up from the distant surface, its perimeter ringed with lights. Ruby fell towards it.
Ripcord! She felt around and found the metallic handle on her left side. She pulled it.
A quick Shwish from her back. Then the parachute flopped open above her and wrenched her out of her fall, the shift in velocity forcing the air out of her lungs. When she tried to breathe a sigh of relief, she found the icy atmosphere too thin. The lack of oxygen brought on a moment's panic, and she fought back an urge to hyperventilate. There was air here. She had to be calm.
The black shape, with its perimeter of what might have been dim streetlights, loomed below her. It looked like an island floating high above the earth. She puzzled over how this might be possible. Was it a mountain peak? But where were the slopes?
She recalled the impossible mountains she'd seen the day before, three pinnacles of rock protruding into the sky. The Titan Spires. This was the top of one of them. She couldn't see the others in the darkness, but she suspected the Fixie's launching platform had sent her here. Ruby had asked to get away from the dragons. Perhaps the Fixie had thought this was her only safe option.
Her eyes had adjusted to the starlit night by the time she touched down on the rock. She hit hard, her legs collapsing beneath her. The parachute billowed around her, then drew to one side, caught in the wind. Ruby wrapped her arm around the parachute cord and drew it in. She didn't know how to pack a parachute, but she'd need it again to get off this rock.
She shoved the tangled chute into its pack and checked her surroundings. A bare, lichen covered rock. She was not on the highest point of the pinnacle. A higher platform stood a hundred feet above her. Dim lights ran along the rim of the pinnacle, tall lanterns emitting a pale blue glow. A brighter glow radiated out from the higher tier.
Ruby considered her next move when a reptilian screech chilled her already cold skin. An instant later, a dragon rose from over the edge of the pinnacle and landed. She wasn't safe after all. A dragon had followed her.
By the pale lantern, Ruby saw the outline of the rider on the dragon's back, robed and menacing, twenty feet from where she stood. The rider—a man this time—laughed and spoke in his own language. The dragon advanced on Ruby as she backed away.
She considered her options. Her back was to the steep incline. Should she try climbing to the higher tier? She might run laterally and jump off the spire, hoping her chute would open again. She tried running to one side. The dragon lunged forward and landed in front of her. It was much too fast for her to escape. The rider laughed. He raised his hand, a green glow growing in his palm.
From the edge of the cliff, a gruff voice called, "Hey!"
Both dragon and rider turned to face the unexpected stranger. He stood right at the edge, a broad-brimmed hat hiding his face. Ruby had seen that hat before. This was the same man that had rescued her and Mai in the woods from the wolfboar.
The dragon rider shouted something at the stranger. The stranger shouted back in their same language. Whatever he said infuriated the rider. He kicked the dragon into action, and the creature stretched its wings out and bounded towards him. It was almost upon him when he raised his crossbow and fired it into the dragon's face.
The monster roared with pain. It flailed its wings, jostling its rider from side to side. It tucked its head under its body, spun around, lost its footing and toppled over the side of the cliff.
Ruby watched with absolute astonishment. Once the dragon fell, everything went silent.
The stranger faced Ruby, his face still hidden by the brim of his hat.
"Um, thank you," Ruby said. She walked carefully over the rocky surface towards him. "You've saved me twice now, and I don't even know your—"
The stranger stepped back towards the cliff. Ruby froze. "I won't hurt you," she said. "I just want to thank you."
The stranger waved his hand. The bandage was gone now, and Ruby saw only three fingers on his hand. Dark scabs covered the place where the other two would have been.
"Are you hurt?" Ruby asked. "I could help—"
The stranger dropped his hand, nodded, and jumped off the edge of the pinnacle.