The roof of the pavilion sizzled with the sound of rain. By the time Ruby finished her story, it was almost deafening. She was grateful for the shelter.
Montrose had grilled her with questions throughout her story. She was fascinated by Ruby's description of the man in the cocoon of light, and she demanded every detail Ruby could recall. The Vayna and their magic drew less interest from the Truth Knight, and she had no interest at all in the mysterious figure that had rescued Ruby on the spire. When Ruby spoke of the things Kevin had shown her in his video feeds, Montrose said nothing at all. But when Ruby had finished her descriptions of the footage and the image of the man reaching towards a light, Montrose gasped.
"What?" Ruby asked.
"Tell me again," Montrose said. "All of it. The moving pictures and what you saw in them. And describe this man for me."
"He was naked."
"He was bald—sort of skinny. I don't know. It was impossible to see a lot. The picture was so washed out."
Eventually, she got to telling Hera's story of Cavaheim. Again, Montrose grilled her for details.
When she was done, Montrose frowned. "This is much to take in."
"I know, right?"
"I'll sleep on it. You can tell me your story again tomorrow while we're on our way."
"On our way where?"
"To Cavaheim, of course. We are both duty-bound to go there."
"Duty bound..." Ruby shivered and pulled her jacket tighter around herself. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do there."
"And you won't find out until you get there. Your apprehension cannot bring you clarity, so ignore it."
Ruby hunched. "That's easy to say."
Ruby didn't think she could sleep. She'd been unconscious most of the day. She lay back in her fern bed and listened to the patter of rain on the roof above. Where was Skylar? Off fixing something or lying dormant, recharging? Ruby hoped they could help Kevin and Hera. She hoped Eddie was still out there. She hadn't heard from him in days.
And only a few miles away, Cavaheim awaited. The people there tried to kidnap her. They wanted to make her a human sacrifice. Now she was going to march through the city and knock on the door of those who wanted her dead.
Fear kept her up, but not for long. Soon she drifted into sleep.
In the morning, she found Skylar standing in the ferns in front of her face, hands on hips, tapping her toe. Ruby flinched back. "Whoah!"
Skylar tapped at her wrist, an invisible watch.
Ruby sat up. The pale glow of a gray rainy morning greeted her. Montrose's gear sat in a shoulder bag beside a support beam. The Truth Knight was not inside the pavilion.
"What have you been up to?" Ruby asked Skylar.
Skylar pointed outside, then up. Then she pointed towards her mouth.
"Kevin and Hera. You've gotten food to them? Where did you find it? What did you..."
Skyler shook her head. She tapped her watch again.
Ruby considered this. "You... are still working on it."
"So why did you take the empty shells?"
Skyler pointed. On a picnic table, three shells stood upright, along with a straw hat.
"You filled the shells?"
"And what's that behind them? Did you weave me a hat?"
"Skylar, you're amazing."
The fixie blushed at this. She put a hand over her mouth and gave a silent chuckle, her shoulders bouncing.
"So why have you been waiting for me?"
Skylar reached into her pocket and pulled out a stethoscope.
"What, a checkup? Are you a doctor too?"
Skylar rocked her hand back and forth. Kind of. Then she flew forward and planted the stethoscope on Ruby's chest. She listened for a moment, then moved down a few inches and repeated the process. Skylar flew up, looked Ruby in the eye, drew out a tiny flashlight and examined Ruby's pupil. She flew around Ruby, poking and prodding here and there with her tiny hands. When she was done, she dropped to the fern bed and held up a thumb.
"Are you okay?"
"I was afraid the fall might have hurt you."
Skylar shrugged. She pulled out a wrench.
"You fixed yourself?"
"Good. Listen. I might need your help later. I'm going to that big city on the other side of the valley. I want you to keep helping Kevin and Hera, but if you get a chance, could you check on me from time to time? There's a chance they might put me in prison there."
Skylar pulled out her blow torch and flashed it on.
"I know. I can count on you to bust me out."
Skylar saluted and zipped away into the rain.
Ruby pulled on her shoes and coat. The straw hat Skylar had woven was sealed with a soft waxy substance, appearing waterproof. Ruby put it on, sat on the picnic table and waited.
Montrose returned a minute later, wearing a green nylon poncho. She held up a black root.
Ruby took it. The root was tough but sweet.
"The terrain is tough, but we should reach the city by this evening," Montrose said as she shouldered her bag.
They said little as they hiked. The rain was cold and Ruby was grateful for Skylar's straw hat. Her feet were wet within ten minutes, and she considered asking Skylar about waterproofing options.
"So..." Ruby said as they walked. "I heard you had a nice motorcycle. What happened to that?"
"Unsuitable for the terrain," Montrose said.
"Are motorcycles common where you come from?"
"But you road one anyway. Was it hard to learn?"
"What's it like where you come from?"
"Tell me again about the footage you saw, of many realities. You said there were two seconds of footage. 'Down to the nanosecond', you said."
"Can't I ask questions?"
"Are you a Truth Knight?"
"My questions are more urgent. How can you know it was exactly two seconds?"
"What does it matter?"
"It mattered to Kevin too, but I don't see why it's so important."
"A timing that precise implies that what happened to this world was of a mechanical origin. It is unlikely that a magic spell would be so precisely timed."
Ruby thought about this. "I don't know how Kevin knew, but he would have spent a lot of time making sure he was right."
"I would like to meet this Kevin."
For the next few hours, as they meandered through the forest, Montrose continued her interrogation, drawing out more details. Ruby grew tired of answering and even more tired of hiking. Montrose did not take breaks, and by mid afternoon, Ruby was ready to collapse. She sat on a fallen log, let out a long sigh and said, "It's lunch time."
Montrose frowned down at her. "Do you have food?"
"No, don't you?"
"What about that blackroot?"
"That was not blackroot. It was daggorbeet. And I have seen none since this morning."
"Anything else around here edible?"
"Not to my knowledge. Much of the vegetation here is unfamiliar to—"
Montrose turned, scanning the trees.
"What is—" Ruby began, but Montrose put an urgent finger to her lips.
Ruby heard only the rain. She watched Montrose as she bounded up a low hill, graceful as a fox. She stood behind a tree, crouched and studied the distance below.
Ruby tiptoed up behind her and looked down through the trees. Five figures moved down there wearing matching garb of sandy-colored wools, the smallest two only children. Each shouldered a heavy pack, their apparent leader doubled over with the largest pack of all.
"Not armed," Montrose said. "Or at least, not dangerous."
"How can you tell?"
"The only one capable of putting up a fight has weighed himself down. They do not expect conflict." Montrose stepped out from behind the tree, put up her hands in a gesture of peace and descended the hill. "Greetings," she called.
A woman cried in alarm. The large man at the front of the group turned, reached inside his poncho and pulled out a knife.
Montrose didn't hesitate. Ruby bit her lip and followed her down.
Montrose stopped five feet from the man, her hands remained raised. "I'm not here to hurt anyone. My name is Montrose, a Truth Knight, and I come on a peaceful mission of learning."
The man spoke his own language, his warning tone colored by desperation.
As Ruby approached, she guessed she was looking at a family. Two adults, a girl a bit younger than Ruby, and two small boys. The adults wore implants under their left eyes.
One of the boys stared at Ruby as she approached. His eyes grew wide. He pointed, shouted something and hid behind his father.
The father noticed her next. He broke off his threatening tirade, and for a moment, he stared dumbfounded into Ruby's eyes. Then he dropped the knife, took a step back and held up his hands.
The girl spotted Ruby and screamed.