Eddie, Devick, Colonel Martin, Timmy and Kai walked over the bridge, the city gates only a hundred yards ahead. Each held a pine branch in their right hand. Soldiers stood at attention as they approached.
"I'm scared," Timmy said.
"So am I," Eddie said. "But if what Chandra said is right, the safest place for you is at the university."
"And if she's wrong," the Colonel added, "Then we're leading these children into a trap."
Devick growled. "Speak Vayna."
"We're talking about the kids," Eddie explained. "Are we leading them into danger or out of it?"
"There is no need for discussion. This is the plan. It is too late for speculation."
They followed the road to the city gate, the soldiers watching with alarm as they approached. When Eddie and the others were close, they stopped. Eddie held up his pine branch as if it were a torch.
"We are pilgrim scholars seeking sanctuary within the hallowed walls of Cavaheim," Eddie called to the soldiers.
The soldiers stared. No one spoke for a moment. Finally one soldier muttered, "Is he serious?"
"The old protocols?" said another. "Do we still do that?"
"They've got the pine branches."
"What do those even mean? Where's the captain?"
"We request, um, sanctuary," Eddie repeated, trying to keep the uncertainty out of his voice.
One soldier left, returning a minute later with a man dressed in an officer's uniform. They approached Eddie and the others.
The officer studied Eddie's group. He took the pine branch from Eddie and looked it over. "You claim to be scholar pilgrims?"
"Yes sir," said Eddie.
"That's not possible. The world outside has been transformed. No one outside this valley can know of our university or its traditions."
"Travelers from your city have spread the word of this sanctuary of knowledge."
"Travelers," the officer repeated. "You mean defectors."
"I only know what I've been told. These children have agreed to live lives of scholarly service in exchange for the education they can receive within the halls of the masters. This man and woman," Eddie paused to indicate the colonel and Devick, "Are their guardians."
"Is that so?" The officer eyed Devick. "This woman matches the description of an invader our soldiers pursued outside our city walls last night."
"She's not an invader, but she was pursued. She didn't understand your protocols until she met up with me this morning. She intends no harm. She only seeks the well-being of her child."
The officer's eyes didn't leave Devick's face. She returned his gaze impassively.
"The Ord will want to interrogate her," said the soldier at the officer's side.
"That would go against our protocols."
"You're actually going to give them sanctuary?"
The officer turned to the soldier. "That is our tradition, isn't it?"
"But the Ord... the king..."
"Son, this city has been a place of learning for hundreds of years. This is one of our oldest traditions. The Ord have not changed that."
The officer turned to Eddie. "What's your story? Are you here to pledge yourself to the university as well?"
"If they'll have me."
The officer nodded. "Very well." He turned to his soldier. "Send for a scholar."
"But sir! The Ord—"
"The Ord are not here. Those vampires only come out at night."
The soldier looked stunned.
"I gave you an order, soldier."
The soldier stammered, saluted, and rushed back into the city.
"Your timing is suspicious," the officer said to Eddie.
"That can't be helped," Eddie said. "I've been told that things may change here. If we don't get into the university soon, it may be too late."
"Then again, you may be safer anywhere else but here. There have been riots. And morale among the city guard is low."
"It's no picnic outside the city either," Eddie said.
"No, I suppose not. I have not been out of the city since the transformation, and we have only the reports of the Ord to tell us what it's like out there."
As they waited for the scholar, Eddie told him about what he'd seen, the impossible city of Holcomb, the turnpike with its mushroom forests, the vast desert to the west. He described the frog brothers and the spider creatures and mentioned the gurgs. The officer was fascinated and a little doubtful.
At last the soldier returned with a scholar. The young man strode forward, stopped before Eddie and bowed. "You are the pilgrims seeking knowledge in our halls?"
"I am, and these two children. The others are the children's present guardians."
"Good. I am Democritus." He knelt before Timmy and Kai. "And what are your names?"
Timmy and Kai looked nervous. Kai buried her face in Eddie's side.
"I'm afraid they don't speak Starrik?"
"Really? What do they speak?"
"He speaks English. She speaks Vayna."
Democritus frowned. "Never heard of Vayna. But English..." He tapped at the black earpiece in his right ear, muttered a few words under his breath and repeated in English, "I am Democritus, and I'm glad to have you in our city. What's your name?"
Timmy stared. "Uh, Timothy Barlow."
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Timothy. You want to grow up to be a brilliant scholar?"
"I guess so."
Democritus laughed. "Sure you do." He ruffled Timmy's hair. Timmy took a step back looking horror stricken.
Democritus stood. "We haven't had applicants for a long time. Not since Basha became king. It's good to have new faces at last. If you are accepted, these two children will be the youngest in our ranks."
"If we are accepted?" Eddie repeated.
"Of course. There will be tests, interviews, that kind of thing. If you get through your preliminary evaluations, you'll each stand before the elders for a final evaluation." Democritus stopped and frowned. "But of course, none of that may happen until after the... erm... the world ends."
Neither of them spoke for a moment. Democritus studied Devick, who stared back without expression.
"Follow me," Democritus said.
"We should give them an escort," the soldier muttered to his captain. "The Ord will want to know what they're up to."
The captain scoffed. "The all-knowing Ord can watch them themselves. You are free to go, Democritus."
Eddie and the others followed the scholar into the city. Democritus offered them a tour as they walked. "You chose the city gate furthest from the university I'm afraid," he explained. "So, we'll be passing a lot of historically significant sites including the king's palace, once known as the Palace of Wisdom."
As Democritus walked, he rambled on about each building they passed. Devick grew impatient. "Ask him where Jarrock is? We should kill him now."
Eddie frowned. "It's a good thing our guide doesn't speak Vayna. Remember that they can watch us and hear us. If the Ord understood Vayna, you might have given us away."
"Well, use that gadget in your pocket to kill their scorpions."
"They might notice, don't you think?"
"Then what's the point of having it?"
"It's good for emergencies."
"They hold my people as prisoners here, and these bastards want to kill them with fire. I think it's an emergency."
Devick groaned. She nodded towards Democritus. "What is this imbecile prattling on about?"
"He's telling us about the buildings we're passing."
"You might. He said this one is being used for Ord intelligence. This is where the Ord gather for secret meetings."
Devick looked up sharply, taking in the stone three-story building. Soldiers flanked the steps leading up to the front doors. "Ask him if Jarrock is here."
Eddie moved up closer to Democritus. "Excuse me," Eddie said. "Is this where the leaders of the Ord live?"
The scholar turned. "Live? No, this is their place of planning. Some say they watch the city from here."
"Watch the city?"
"Yes. The Ord have a surveillance net— Um, that's not common knowledge. Anyway, the Ord use this building."
"Where do the Ord live?"
Democritus looked uncomfortable. "Why do you want to know?"
"Well, it's just... where are they? I haven't seen any since we entered the city."
"The Ord usually sleep during the day. I can't tell you where they dwell because I don't know."
"Do you know where their leaders live?"
Democritus frowned. "No." He folded his arms. "These are dangerous questions you're asking. This isn't some sort of subterfuge, is it? You aren't terrorists?"
Eddie put up his hands. "Not at all. We're legit. In fact, Master Farook is expecting us."
Democritus considered this and smiled. "Well, that's a high recommendation. I'll take you to Master Farook when we get to the university."
They continued. Beyond the Ord building was an open lawn in front of a huge palace. "And that is the palace of King Basha," Democritus said. "Formerly the Palace of Wisdom. Basha will address the people there this evening. You ought to go. It might prove interesting."
After his English translation, Eddie exchanged a look with the colonel. "We'll do that," Eddie said.