"We're not here to hurt you," Montrose said, her hands still raised.
The man pointed at Ruby and shouted in accusation.
Montrose grunted with frustration. She turned to Ruby. "Do you have one of those apps you spoke of for translation?"
"No, my phone's not that good."
"What about your translator boy? Can you contact him?"
"Eddie? He hasn't been answering my calls."
Ruby pulled out her phone and hugged it to her chest, dialing. After several rings, a hushed voice answered "Hello?"
"Eddie, are you there?"
"Ruby, this isn't a good—"
"Eddie, do you remember when you told me about that town that defied gravity?"
Eddie paused, probably confused. Ruby wanted to explain everything, to catch up with him and find out everything that had happened, but the sharp look from Montrose told her she'd tolerate no dawdling. Ruby explained that she was with Montrose.
"I can't hear your conversation," Montrose complained. "Can you make it so we can all hear?"
Ruby clicked the speaker icon. Montrose didn't wait for a confirmation. "Translator boy, I need you to help me talk to these people."
"I don't have a lot of—"
"Fine, we'll be brief."
Montrose took the phone from Ruby and turned to the man. "I am Montrose of the Knights of Truth. I mean you no harm."
"I can't translate to them if I haven't heard them speak," Eddie complained.
Montrose pushed the phone towards the man. "Say something."
The man looked from the phone to Montrose. He muttered a few words.
"He wants to know what devilry you intend," Eddie said.
"Tell them what I said," Montrose said. Eddie repeated her introduction in their language.
The man studied the phone. He spoke. Eddie translated. "I am Tedaeo, and this is my family and we mean you no harm either, but her..." he pointed at Ruby.
"What's wrong with her?" Montrose asked.
"We have had enough of omens and portents of doom. No good has come of such things, and now she appears."
"You have a statue that resembles her in your city."
"Do you know what the statue signifies?"
The man shook his head. "No."
"Yet you fear her."
"As I have said, in these dark times, any portents of mythology fulfilled cannot be good. We call her the Lady of Chaos."
Ruby stepped forward. "I'm no chaos lady. My name is Ruby Tanner, and I'm just a high school student."
"Basha was a student. And he has brought ruin to this world."
"Why are you out here in the woods?" Montrose asked. "Where are you going?"
"Away," said Tedaeo. "I cannot tolerate the atrocities carried out in the king's name, and I cannot fight back without endangering my family. They will kill many people when the fires of Kaj'jic rise."
"When will that be?"
"five days from now, in the early evening."
Ruby's breath stopped. In five days, they'd kill Mai. They'd kill the woman from the Vayna village. And if they got a chance, they'd kill Ruby.
"Do you believe this Basha is the foretold Usurper?" Montrose asked.
Tedaeo shook his head. "I don't know. The changes he has wrought in the world are undeniable. But he has not fulfilled the prophecy. And now, all prophets see either no future or too much. We can't rely on them to tell us what Basha might do next."
He touched the implant on his cheek. "There is no future. Not in Cavaheim. If there is hope beyond these mountains, I will find it with my family. If there is no hope for the world, then we are no worse off away from that monster. We will meet our doom on our own terms."
"They allowed you to leave the city?"
Tedaeo frowned. "Yes, but not without abuse from Jarrock's soldiers. They taunted us—told us we were committing ourselves to annihilation, rejecting the paradise Basha promised." He pointed at his blackened right eye. "They were not kind, but they allowed us to leave."
"You have the right to leave, but it is frowned upon by the soldiers."
"That's what I said."
"But you have the right. The law is still upheld in the city?"
Tedaeo shook his head. "A semblance of it. The law is now whatever Jarrock wills."
"He is head of the Ord enforcers."
"They are the dragon riders?"
"Yes, and the thugs who rule Cavaheim in Basha's name."
Before Montrose could ask another question, Eddie interrupted. "Listen, I have to go."
Montrose sighed. "Very well, but I will need your services again in the future."
"Take care of yourself, Eddie," said Ruby. "I hope we meet up soon."
"Yeah. Me too."
After she hung up, Montrose nodded at Tedaeo and turned onto the path he had followed, backtracking his steps.
Tedaeo called to Montrose, a tone of warning. Montrose waved a hand without turning back and continued on her path. Ruby hesitated a moment, then followed.
They did not speak for an hour. The rain had let up to a soft drizzle when they climbed a low rise and found themselves looking down at the high wall and gilded gates of the city.
"What's your plan?" Ruby asked.
"I will find this Basha and demand to know if he is who he claims."
"You're just going to march into whatever palace he lives in and ask him?"
"They might kill you."
"They might not."
"Why do you want to know so much?"
Montrose stopped and turned to her. "Because learning the truth is what I am sworn to do."
Ruby thought about that. "So, you're not here to, like, kill him or anything?"
"That is not my plan."
"But we have to stop him from killing all the people he kidnapped."
"That is your quest, not mine."
"You won't help me?"
"Not unless our goals coincide."
"But all those people—"
"I am not here to interfere. I do not make the truth and I do not hold one truth above another. I am here to gather the information and to understand. The fate of those people or this world are not my concern."
"But what if you die?"
"Then I will have lived attempting to understand all I can."
"But there will be no one left to learn from you."
"Teaching is not my mandate. Understanding is."
Montrose continued down the path. Ruby frowned down at her. She thought she had an ally. Montrose had given Ruby courage to come to this city, and now it turned out that Montrose would be no help at all. Ruby stared down at the open gates of the city. Soldiers in gold armor lined the entrance. If they took her prisoner, would Montrose resist them?
She considered turning back. If she escaped this place, Skylar would find her. The fixie would help her survive.
But where would she go? People were about to die down in that city, and whether Ruby believed she had a chance of helping or not, she could not turn back now. Hera believed in her. Was that enough to give her the courage to go on?
Ruby made no decision, but her feet carried her a few paces behind Montrose. She followed and tried not to think about what might await her.
A broad swath of bare land surrounded the city. Ruby and Montrose crossed a bridge running over a narrow body of water. As they descended, Ruby got her first good look at the open city gate where a small group awaited them. Four soldiers in gold armor held up the poles of a black cloth canopy. Beneath it, a short man in a simple brown robe stood waiting. He wore black sunglasses, an odd choice in the pale light of this rainy afternoon.
When they neared the gates, the little man walked forward to meet them, his hands clasped together across his stomach. The soldiers marched along with him, keeping the canopy over his head.
"Lady Montrose of the Knights of Truth," the little man said in a sharp, nasally accent. He stopped in front of her. "You are most welcome to Cavaheim. I am Dar'ja, minister to the high priest Jarrock, and First Level Adept of the Order of the Rat."
"You know me?" Montrose asked, standing boldly before the man and his soldiers.
"Your arrival has been foreseen."
"I have heard that prophecy had ceased."
"All is known to his highness, the Gahn Shikvaht." He turned to Ruby. "And you, Miss Tanner, are most welcome. Your arrival is a fortunate portent, a sign that the destiny of all peoples is at hand."
"You won't put me in prison?" Ruby asked, trying to sound brave.
"Certainly not. You will be an honored guest of the king."
He turned, motioning to his soldiers. "If you will follow me, I will take you to your accommodations."
Montrose said nothing but followed as if she had planned things to happen exactly this way. Ruby stood outside the gates, shuffling her feet. She could still run. The soldiers might follow. Most held long spears. Ruby didn't like her chances if they chased her. But what awaited her inside?
She clenched her teeth, her hands balled into fists, and followed Montrose and the others into the city. When the gilded gates slammed shut behind her, she flinched and turned back. No way out now, she told herself. She took a deep breath and followed the others.