"Excuse me. Young lady?"
Ruby's eyes fluttered open. The sunlight of morning cast slanted shadows of her jail's bars across the straw. "What?"
"I apologize for waking you, but the situation is a bit urgent."
Ruby sat up and rubbed her eyes. "What situation?"
A stout man stooped outside the bars, watching her. He wore tweed trousers and a dirty white button-down shirt. He had a ruddy sunburnt face, unkempt hair and round-eyed spectacles. "It's the Vayna. They're concerned about the modifications you've made to their jail cell."
"Modification? What are you talking about? Who..."
As she scanned the primitive prison, she found that one end had been completely altered. Half the roof was now open to the sky, folded back on a pair of metallic hinges that Ruby was certain hadn't been there the night before. A square platform stood a few inches above the straw, its silvery surface studded like diamond plate. On one end of the platform, a rectangular panel jutted up with a single red button on its surface. Next to the platform lay a backpack with straps and buckles. On the side of the backpack, a red handle connected to a cord that ran into the pack. A parachute? The Fixie had been busy while she had slept. Where was it now?
Ruby stared at these new features with confusion. It occurred to her that she was alone in the cell now. "Where's Mai?"
"Where's your what?" the man asked.
"No, Mai. The girl that was here with me."
"Ah, I see. Well, that's another point on which the Vayna are most curious. Your companion appears to have fled the coop, as it were, presumably using that contraption. No one saw her leave, but they heard her scream as she left early this morning."
"Scream?" Ruby rubbed her face, feeling overwhelmed. "What is happening? Who are you?"
The man smiled. "Ah, yes. Introductions." He stood. "I am Professor Phineas J. Gordon, natural philosopher from the University of Oxford. I am here studying the indigenous people of North America. I've been living among the Vayna for the past year. A fascinating people, the Vayna."
He frowned. "Surely you've heard of the Vayna."
"But their feats are legendary. In battle, they are unmatched. Their temples are among the wonders of the world. They are—"
"I don't know if you've noticed, but the world has changed," Ruby interrupted.
Professor Gordon's face grew grim. "Aye, so it has. This tiny village was once part of a network of villages that formed a great community. Alas, the community is gone, replaced by thick woods and those wicked-looking mountains."
"The Titan Spires?"
"You know of them?"
"It's what a friend called them."
Professor Gordon nodded. "An appropriate name. The warrior chief dispatched a team of scouts to investigate the spires. They should have been back two days ago."
"Young lady, what is your name?"
"And where are you from, Miss Tanner? Your accent is rather unusual."
"Rapid City, South Dakota."
"I've never heard of such a place."
"That's because it doesn't exist anymore."
"South Dakota was part of the United States of America."
"The what of America?"
Ruby shook her head. "Everything's different now. You may find there's no Oxford anymore."
Professor Gordon considered this, a look of horror spreading over his face.
Ruby considered her situation. Mai had left her. Presumably, she'd stepped on the platform and pushed the red button. It had... what? Launched her into the sky? Ruby hoped Mal had been wearing a parachute. Then again, if she hadn't, it would serve her right for not waking Ruby first. Ruby could escape the same way. If it worked for Mai, it would work for Ruby.
"We are getting sidetracked," Professor Gordon said as two large gray-skinned men approached the cell. One unlatched the door to the jail and pulled it open. The other stepped inside, moving towards Ruby.
Ruby recoiled. "Wait? What's going on?"
"They are taking you to the village Kinsha," Professor Gordon explained.
Ruby jumped to her feet and backed up against the bars. Could she get past this man, put on a parachute and jump on the platform before he could stop her? She dodged toward the platform, but he caught her by the wrist.
"Leave me alone," Ruby cried, squirming to get free. The man yanked her towards the door.
"Don't be afraid, Miss Tanner," Professor Gordon said. "They won't harm you."
"What are they going to do to me?" Ruby asked as the men dragged her out the door and into the village.
"It's their way. Strangers go to the village Kinsha. He weighs their heart to find if they are worthy."
"Worthy of what?"
"To... er... to not die."
* * *
At the top level of a three-tiered structure built around a broad chestnut tree, an old man sat cross-legged on the floor, his pale robe stretched across his knees. Ruby stood before him, her retreat blocked by the two men who had brought her.
The man made no sign he had noticed her. He sat still, his face serene. After five minutes of waiting, Ruby grew impatient. "Am I supposed to do something?"
The man said nothing.
"So, are you the Kinsha?" She waited. "What do I have to do to be considered worthy?"
Five more minutes passed. Ruby wanted to pace, wanted to rant and complain. But if this was the man that decided her fate, she didn't want to piss him off. She finally decided that the best course would be to sit cross-legged and behave as he did. She tried to relax, slowed her breathing and cleared her mind.
But clearing her mind was not easy. So much had happened in the past day. The Fixie. Where was it now? Had it run out of power? Was it off recharging somewhere? Could it recharge her phone? Were there more people out there with working phones? And was her mother still alive? Did she cease to exist when... well, whatever happened happened?
Then there was the story that Eddie and Bryce had told her. Dragons, trolls, wizards? Gray-skinned warriors were strange enough, but wizards?
The more she thought about that conversation, something else occurred to her. Eddie seemed sad. He was happy to talk to her, but something had happened to him that he hadn't told her. Something bad. She wasn't sure how she knew. The knowledge came from somewhere deep. Eddie had lost something. No. Someone. His heart was wounded from the loss.
The Kinsha cleared his throat. Ruby's eyes sprang open. He sat across from her, grinning. He whistled once, and the two guards climbed the stairs and waited. The Kinsha spoke several words in his own language. One guard bowed and retreated down the stairs. The other waited, watching Ruby.
"So, did I pass the test?" Ruby asked.
The Kinsha continued to smile. His nodded and spoke a few more words.
"If you're smiling, I must be okay, right?"
He nodded again.
"Are you nodding because I'm okay?"
Footsteps ascended the stairs. Two people emerged. One was Professor Gordon. The other Ruby recognized as the woman she'd encountered in the woods the day before, the one that had shot her with a blow dart.
The Kinsha spoke a few words. Professor Gordon translated. "This young lady is gifted with spark. She is naïve of her gifts."
"What gift?" Ruby asked. "What do you mean by 'spark?'"
The Kinsha continued. Gordon translated: "She has lost her people, an orphan in this strange new world. She may leave if she chooses, but if she stays, she would benefit our tribe."
The woman warrior complained. Before Professor Gordon could translate, the Kinsha put up a hand to silence her. He spoke again. "Devick, if my service as your Kinsha has any value, take my advice now. Train this girl as a warrior."