If cardboard could be liquefied in a blender, it would taste exactly like Breakfast Nutrient Blend #3. Only hunger could bring Ruby to choke down the hideous nutrition shake.
"You get used to it after a while," Kevin said, drinking his own. "Number three is the one that gives me the kick I need to start my day."
They sat at the tiny kitchen table, the morning sun warming them through a high window.
"And what's better," Kevin said, holding up his coffee mug. "The coffee doesn't suck."
"Yeah," Ruby said, not taking her eyes off the parachute, packed and ready beside the wall.
Hera was surprisingly quiet. She stared at the floor, drinking her nutrition shake, frowning.
"I can't believe you're actually going to jump," Kevin said.
"I can't either."
"I hope you don't pass out."
"You don't have to do this."
"Of course I do."
"You think you can get us food up here?"
"I'll make it Skylar's mission, once we get down."
"Your fixie is so cool. You know how much those things cost?"
They continued to eat in silence. Ruby ran a silent mantra through her head. I can do this. I can do this I can do this I can I can I can.
"I can do this," she said. She stood and pulled the chute pack over her shoulders.
A minute later, she stood on the edge of the cliff once more. She stared down. The ground below was miles away. Her legs shook. Skylar hovered over her left shoulder, also looking down apprehensively.
"Are you ready, Skylar?"
Skylar nodded but didn't smile. She zipped down to Ruby's jacket pocket and crawled inside.
"Anything else I need to know about Cavaheim?"
"You're going there?" Hera asked through the translator.
Ruby thought of Mai on the video feed footage. She'd never much cared for Mai, but Mai was at least someone she knew. Mai and who knew how many other people would die. If Ruby could do anything, she'd at least have to try.
"If I survive the next few minutes, I'll go there."
Hera stepped forward and gave Ruby a great hug. Ruby stood stunned a moment, then hugged back.
"Be careful of the Ord," Hera said. "Many of them seem brutish and stupid, but they're devious and calculating—all of them. Also, there's a scholar named Farook. If you go to the university and ask for him, he can help you."
"Good to know."
They all stared at each other. Ruby knew she was stalling. It was becoming awkward.
"Ah, screw it," she said. She turned, sprinted for the open sky and jumped.
The larger part of her brain protested this mad act. She was jumping off the highest cliff in the world. Her feet flailed mid-air. She fell. Her belly lurched, and she feared she'd fill the sky with regurgitated Breakfast Nutrient Blend #3.
Icy wind whipped across her face. She took a breath of frigid air and found nothing in it to sustain her. Her vision grew blurry. Things went gray and stayed that way for a while. When she came to her senses, she found the ground much closer below her. Her arms warbled in the air behind her. The rock wall blurred past. Below, the cliff face bowed out towards her. The ground was still so far from her, but if she didn't pull the cord, she'd strike the side of the spire.
Her hand couldn't find the cord handle. She searched herself, panicked. Finally, her hand closed on the handle and she yanked at it. Something gave behind her, and then with a Wump, her body jerked back, the parachute catching the air.
Ruby's head spun. Wisps of cloud vapor drifted up around her, the other spires firm sentinels across the valley.
Above, her parachute glowed in the morning sunlight, a taut canopy of bright red. She gave a sigh of relief, but her breath caught when she realized her danger. The red was a startling contrast to the blue morning sky and the gray crags of the mountain. She was in full view of the entire valley, her red parachute a beacon to anyone who might glance this way. Why hadn't she considered this when she packed the chute?
She scanned the valley. She was still hundreds of feet up. Close beneath her, she found only dense forest, but in the far distance she saw the buildings of Cavaheim. Surely someone out there saw her.
Her descent suddenly halted. She felt a great lurch in her chest, and her back slammed against the rock wall of the spire.
Her parachute had caught an outcropping of rock. She must have drifted back towards the wall. Now she hung by the cords, her red parachute advertising her location to everyone within ten miles, pinned to the wall like a bug on a display board.
She bent and writhed to turn herself around. Once turned, she found herself stuck on a sheer wall. The wall continued down for more than a hundred feet before sharp crags cut into the face, creating a shallow crevice with fang-like rocks protruding upwards. Above her, the outcropping upon which her parachute hung appeared as a solitary stab of rock in the otherwise smooth surface. Ruby was trapped.
As she studied the cliff face below, looking for a safe place to land, her eyes caught motion further below. The figure was distant but still high above the tree tops on the valley floor, its wings gliding on an air current, moving as smooth as rain on glass. She saw another, moving in the opposite direction, then more.
They circled below like vultures. They had no riders, but somehow, that made them seem more threatening. A rider might direct its mount to capture her, but a dragon alone might see her as an easy meal. The creatures did not look up, perhaps not yet aware of her presence.
She turned to face the wall again, searching for anything to hold on to. She found a narrow chunk of rock protruding out just above her left hand. It wasn't much, but if she found more like it, she might find a way to climb to the side. As she pulled herself toward the rock, it came free, falling, knocking against the cliff face, then hitting the crags below and bounced around like a stone pinball.
A red dragon reared back to look. Ruby's eyes met the distant creature's, and it heaved out a reptilian roar.
They'd discovered her. All the dragons, at least six or seven of them, joined the chorus of roars and flapped their wings, fighting the wind and gravity for altitude. Ruby desperately felt along the cliff face, looking for anything that might provide a handhold. She found nothing.
She pushed herself off the rock with her feet to get a better look. As she did, the parachute shifted above her, and she dropped another foot.
If she shifted around enough, she thought, her parachute might come free. What then? She would fall right into the dragons, a meal sent airmail to their waiting fangs. Then again, she might find herself in the crags in the wall below her. Perhaps she could hide in there somewhere.
The dragons climbed against the wind. Their roars echoed off the wall. When they were close, she imagined the noise would be deafening.
Her eyes found a rough patch in the cliff wall to her left. It was fifteen feet away, but if she could reach it, she'd have much more to hold on to. With a little slack in her chute, she might be able to pull it free. She shuffled sideways along the cliff to her left, the parachute cords drawing taught as she moved. After six paces, gravity and the length of the cords stopped her. She knelt, dug her nails into tiny fractures of the cliff and pulled herself two more feet. As she reached for anything to hold onto, her tenuous grip slipped and she swung back, her nails dragging across the rock.
Despair held on only for a second. As she swung past her original position, she realized she could use that momentum. She crawled as quickly as she could in the opposite direction. The apex of her swing wasn't as far as she'd gone to the left, but now she had a rhythm. She pulled as far as she could, then let go, allowing herself to swing back. When she'd swung four feet to the left, she increased the momentum with her legs and hands, scrabbling over the rock, pulling herself onward. This time, she made it to within three feet of a solid handhold.
The parachute shifted as she swung back. She dropped a foot, increasing the momentum of her swing. She repeated the process, swinging left, pulling herself as far as she could, then drawing her arms and legs back to allow herself to swing as far as she could to the right.
Ruby was about to hang on at the apex of her swing when the parachute slipped from the rock above, sending her dropping. She slid down three feet before catching herself on another ledge. The parachute cords tangled around her as the parachute fell.
As she hung there, her feet probing the wall for a foothold, the parachute caught the wind. One of the cord's now tightened around her neck, and she nearly lost her grip. Her right foot found purchase in a narrow lip of rock. She pulled the cord free of her neck with one hand. The parachute continued to tug her, and she did her best to use the momentum, edging sideways from one handhold to another.
Below, a dragon had reached the height of the craggy gap in the rock below. It bellowed up at her. She fought to ignore it, keeping her attention on the rock face. One handhold, then another, then a place for her foot. She moved methodically to the left, but she found nothing that might provide an escape from the beasts rising below her. Handhold, handhold foothold, handhold...reach...handhold...
She felt the gust of a beating wing and caught the stench of carrion as a dragon passed right next to her. The creature flew past, followed by another, even closer. She turned to the right, just in time to see a huge reptilian face coming straight at her.
Ruby closed her eyes, held her breath, and let go of the cliff.
She dropped. For two seconds, she was in freefall, Then she hit something. A surprised roar beneath her, and she pushed herself off of a dragon's head. The creature dodged away, bellowing in indignation. She kicked off its maw and swung forward, the parachute cords tensing as the chute caught her weight again. She swung forward for a moment, and then the chute cords became tangled in the dragon's wing. Her downward velocity increased as the creature above bellowed with anger. Now, not only was she falling to her death, but a monster was falling on top of her, tethered to her by the chute cord.
She heard screaming. Her screaming.
Her body crashed once more into the rock, this time hitting it an angle. She tumbled and rolled, the chute cord pulling at her, then the dragon's back hit against her and they tangled together in a rolling heap of limbs and wings. The dragon bellowed protests as it fought to catch the stone with its claws. The cord pinned Ruby to its back. The creature had righted itself and slid on its belly for a few seconds, then its claw caught a crag and it lurched sideways, rolling, and Ruby swung face first down onto the stone.
The dragon's weight wasn't as bone crushing as she'd feared. It pinned her to the smooth stone for a second, forcing her air out, bruising her knees and her shoulder. Then she swung over the creature once more.
The dragon thrust its legs out again, this time stopping itself from rolling. The slope eased, and it swung around, its head now uphill. It dug its claws into the rock and caught hold.
Ruby hung sideways on the dragon's back. In the sudden lull, Ruby fought the buckles of her parachute harness. She unbuckled her legs, then moved to her shoulders. She was down to one shoulder buckle when the dragon thrashed about, attempting to free itself from the tangled cords around its neck. The chute harness pinned Ruby to the monster by her right shoulder. Every time she reached for the buckle, the dragon yanked and shook, and she flopped from side to side.
Above her, more dragons descended, diving like hawks with their talons poised to snatch her.
She yanked her arm out of the harness and rolled onto the creature's wing. The wing snapped, flinging her into the air like a tennis ball off a racquet. She soared, her legs flailing, her body descending into the thick brush of the forest. Tree branches whipped past her, scraping her face and arms. She landed in the ferns across the forest floor, rolling to a stop.
For a moment, she lay there, panting, her eyes finding patches of blue sky through a mesh of quaking leaves in the wind.
She was alive. She'd survived the fall. She'd survived the dragons.
Then a roar above startled her to her feet. She wasn't free yet.