"I don't hate Eddie," Bryce said as they flew down from the observatory. "I know he didn't expect to blow up reality."
"But he's afraid everyone hates him now," Ruby said.
She sat in the front passenger seat, Hera and Farook chatting quietly in the back. Hera feared returning to Cavaheim, and Farook gave her constant reassurance.
"Truth is," Bryce said, "I'm not sure how I feel about him. We've gotten through a few tough scrapes together, and I couldn't have made it without him. But... I mean, this whole mess is his fault. My sister—my neice—they're gone. Are they still alive? Did they cease to exist?"
"Kevin said they may still be out there somewhere, on some parallel world."
"Kevin doesn't know shit. He's just throwing out ideas. We don't know what really happened. Eddie set reality on fire, and this world is the leftover scraps."
"All he did was walk through a door."
Bryce sighed. "I know. And that's why I don't hate him. I don't blame him. I just... don't want to look at him right now. I'll get over it. Probably."
They were quiet for a while. Ruby stared down at the distant forest. The last time she'd left the peak, she'd plummeted in free-fall and tangled with wild dragons. She'd had a lot of terrifying moments since then. She'd found courage she didn't know she had. She fought Ord and stood up to a troll. She'd met the man who destroyed the world. She'd saved people from dying.
But at that moment, the only one Ruby wanted to save was Eddie. He seemed so broken, and there didn't seem to be any way to bring him back. The weight he carried was too great.
For all her courage, she'd diverted the kiss meant for Eddie's mouth, planting it on his cheek instead. She almost aborted the kiss altogether, but once she'd leaned in, she had to do something. What if she'd kissed his mouth? Would he have kissed her back? Would that have snapped him out of the funk he was in?
As she stared down at the trees, she noticed movement under the branches. She leaned closer to the window, peering straight down. The forest floor was alive with movement as far as she could see.
"What is that down there?" she asked. "Does anyone else see that?"
Bryce pushed the wheel forward, sending them into a steeper dive. Before them, the main road leading towards Cavaheim was alive with scattered people walking, sometimes staggering towards the city.
"Who are they?" Ruby asked.
Farook leaned forward, peering between the seats. "I can't tell from this distance, but they might be deserters returning to the city now that the Ord are no longer in power."
Farook frowned. "No."
"Get close to the road," Ruby said. "Let's talk to them."
It took another minute for Bryce to descend to a point where they could get a good look. These were not citizens of Cavaheim. The people who stumbled down the road were both men and women, their clothes often in rags, their hair matted, their heads upright but eyes glazed. They didn't appear to be from any specific social group or culture. A man in a ratty business suit walked next to woman in a black bikini who walked next to a Vayna warrior who walked next to what appeared to be a dwarf from a Tolkien novel.
Bryce stopped about twenty feet above the crowd. Ruby rolled down her window. "Excuse me," she called. "Where are you all going?"
The crowd stopped and looked up. They all smiled at Ruby with bright grins. The woman in the bikini answered. "It's a beautiful day."
"Eh, yeah," Ruby agreed.
Dried blood caked the woman's chin and neck. "So beautiful, and I'm happy to be here to see it. Everything is wonderful."
"It sure is. Everything is wonderful. Where are you going?"
"I felt like going for a stroll on such a sunny morning as this."
"Sure. And you brought thousands of your best friends with you?"
"Why aren't you smiling?" the woman asked, cocking her head to one side.
Farook leaned out the open window. "Look below us."
Ruby leaned over the door. Directly below, all the people had stopped walking. They gazed up at the hovering car, their arms outstretched, each person grinning.
"Okay," Bryce said. "This is like night of the living smiley faces. Who are these people?"
"No clue, but they're heading towards Cavaheim."
"I wish Ed was here."
"Too bad he wasn't invited," Ruby said. She pulled out her phone.
"You calling him?"
"Skyping, if it works."
Ruby waited. A moment later, Eddie's face appeared on her screen. "I'm not sure I'm ready to talk," he said.
"I need to show you something," Ruby said. "There's these people in the valley walking towards Cavaheim. They're all... I mean, well, look." She turned the phone and held it out the window so Eddie could see the crowd.
She kept it held there for several seconds.
"Ruby," Eddie cried.
She pulled the phone back to her face. "Hmm?"
"You need to get as far away from them as possible. You understand? Somewhere safe. Come back up here."
"But what are they?"
"They're Simps, and they're very dangerous."
"What's a Simp?"
"They're like joy zombies. Some kind of virus has taken over their minds, making them stupid wandering robots who talk about how happy they are and try to bite you."
"Are you in pain?" the woman in the bikini said below. "I can ease your pain." Her jaw slammed shut so hard, Ruby heard the click.
"They're headed for Cavaheim," Ruby said.
"Forget about the city," Eddie said. "If they're not ready for what's coming, everyone in the city will get bitten."
"And that will spread the virus?"
"That's right. The virus will spread and all the people will end up grinning, wandering machines."
"I can't let that happen," Ruby said.
"You can't stop it. The Simps always find a way."
Ruby grew angry. "I have to try, Eddie. I can't abandon the people."
"But you don't know how dangerous the Simps are."
"I'm not running away," she snapped. "You can be a coward if you want, but we need to save the city." Ruby ended the call before he could say anything else.