Episode 8 - Pilgrims

Page 6

"The girl is gone."

Eddie's eyes shot open. Devick stood over him.

Eddie sat up and pulled hair out of his eyes. "What?"

"The Vayna girl is missing." Devick spoke indifferently, as if she were commenting on the weather.

"Where did she go?"

"If I knew, she wouldn't be missing."

Eddie stooped and pulled his shoes on. "What time is it?"

"Late afternoon. We should go soon."

"Don't you care about Kai? She's Vayna, like you. Don't you feel any kinship?"

Devick blinked. "I'm a warrior, not a nursemaid."

Eddie glanced back at the bunks. Timmy lay curled up asleep on a top bunk. The colonel snored loudly in his own bed.

Eddie ran out the door. He circled the building, then headed through the university archway. He ran up and down allies, calling out Kai's name. Where would she have gone? She'd been nervous about this big city. Now she was off by herself? Why would she leave?

Or had she been kidnapped? Kardhoom was constantly after her. Whether they were guests of the university or not, the Ord might have found her too tempting to leave alone.

He passed a courtyard and froze. The movement of something huge caught his eye. Two dragons stood together, smaller than those he'd seen before—a little bigger than horses. They waited patiently as students dumped buckets of water over their backs and scrubbed with brushes along their flanks. One lowed its head, its attention fixed on the little Vayna girl as she stroked the side of its head.

"Kai!" Eddie ran to her. The dragon reared its head back.

Kai turned. "Shhh," she said. "You're scaring him."

"I'm scaring him?" Eddie stopped and took her hand. "He could eat me if he wanted."

Kai giggled. "He doesn't eat people, silly. He eats weasels. I saw them feed him."

"She's not hurting them," said one student, a girl Eddie's age, as she extended one of the dragon's wings and ran a towel over it. "The dragons are quite taken with her."

"As a meal maybe," Eddie muttered.

"No, she's got a gift with animals. They were both belligerent about their bath until she came along."

"She's safe here?" Eddie asked.

"Sure. I can look out for her if you need to be somewhere."

Eddie thought about this. He wasn't planning to take Kai to the palace anyway. "You're sure?"

"Sure I'm sure. I'll be training these two beasties for the next few hours. You're the new applicants? I can bring this little girl back to your rooms when we're done."

Eddie sighed with relief. "Thank you."

He stood and watched as the students worked. The dragons both returned their attention on Kai, staring at her as if hypnotized.

To the student, Eddie said, "How can you act so normal?"

She turned to him, confused. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, there's a king not far from here who wants to destroy most of the world. He's already done it once. Not to mention you've got a gang of priests who only come out at night, like vampires, who go around kidnapping whoever they find outside the city so they can throw them in a lava pit."

The girl flashed a nervous glance at her companion. The other student, a young man, pretended not to hear the conversation, scrubbing the talons on a dragon's back foot.

"Well, it's not exactly something we can control," she finally said.

"So you're not happy about it?"

She glanced at the other student again. "Many people think... it will all turn out for the best. Me, I try to focus on my work. If I stay busy..."

Eddie could see she didn't want to talk about it. He wondered what she'd say if she were alone. "Thanks again for looking after Kai," he said.

He returned to the dorm and told the others about Kai. The colonel was up now, preparing for their walk to the palace.

"We should leave the boy as well," Devick said. "He will only get in the way."

Eddie agreed, but Winnie's warning from the night before made him nervous. As long as Eddie had Timmy nearby, he wouldn't be in danger. Eddie didn't know what that meant, but leaving Timmy behind felt dangerous.

The colonel asked for a translation. When Eddie did, he said, "I agree. Both of the children will be safe at the university. That's what Chandra promised. There's no reason to endanger them if we get in trouble."

Timmy was still asleep. Eddie let him. "Okay, let's go." He grabbed the hat and sunglasses for his disguise, then thought about it. It was growing close to dusk. The sunglasses might draw unwanted attention.

It wasn't hard to find their way back to the palace. A steady stream of students and Cavaheim citizens made their way up the hill. All of the pedestrians appeared somber or scared or angry. Eddie caught snatches of conversation as they walked.

"...don't know how we can abide this any longer. Why doesn't somebody rise up and stop them?"

"Are you going to do it? What if paradise really is possible?"

"That's what we've been telling ourselves for two years. Things have only gotten worse."

"Yeah, and we're supposed to go about our day as if nothing was wrong. It's ludicrous."

"But things will be different this time. Haven't you seen Lady Chaos? I saw her walking down the street yesterday."

"It's just some girl. The Ord found someone who looks like the statue, and now they're trying to trick us."

Eddie didn't know who Lady Chaos was or what that had to do with anything. Was she another enemy they'd have to stop?

As they passed the Ord building, they found two Ord priests in place of the soldiers that had been there earlier. Eddie lowered his head, hiding his face under his hat. The priests didn't seem interested in him, however. Both held their eyes fixed on Devick.

"It was a mistake to walk this way," Eddie whispered.

"I behave like I belong here," Devick said. "You should do the same."

The Ord made no move to stop them. Eddie continued, the crowd around them growing more dense as they reached the palace square. The sun was already down, and the square was lit with gas lights and vessels of fire. The crowd was not united in their mood or attitude. Some were excited, some filled with religious rapture as a host of Ord priests filed out of the palace doors and lined up to flank the platform where Basha would speak. Others murmured under their breath and watched with contempt. Soldiers pushed through the crowd, looking for signs of weapons.

Then the crowd hushed, their silence so sudden and complete it was as if someone had thrown a light switch. Eddie turned to Devick and the colonel. Both appeared subdued, their eyes glazed. Eddie had seen this effect before. He stood on his tiptoes and scanned the crowd. Sure enough, Ord priests stood flanking the people, their hands up as if casting a spell. They were subduing the crowd, exactly as the soldiers in Graden had subdued the refugees.

Eddie was about to explain to Devick how to beat the spell when the Ord dropped their hands and withdrew a few paces. Slowly, the crowd began to speak again, but only in a low murmur.

Why did the priests subdue the crowd only to release them again, Eddie wondered. Perhaps it was a method of preparing them for Basha's speech. Or maybe they wanted the crowd to be quiet. Maybe they did it to show that they could.

A final procession of Ord priests filed out of the palace, followed by a man in shiny armor and a crown, a velvet cape flowing behind him. A young woman in a pale gown and a very tall man in Ord robes and an ornate hat followed.

"Jarrock," Devick muttered. "The tall one. That is how the girl described him."

Eddie watched them. The man in the crown was King Basha. He did a good job of playing the part, strolling out with majestic grace, raising his arms to the cheers of many in the crowd, his expression confident and regal. The young woman moved to his right side, the tall priest stopping behind him to his left.

Jarrock. That was the real enemy, the man who wanted to kill Bryce and dozens, maybe hundreds of others. He stood with his hands behind his back, his eyes fixed above the crowd.

Basha raised his hands again. "People of Cavaheim," he called. His voice was strong. He may have been a techno-geek at one time, but he'd been trained well to fill this role. Many cheered again. Those who had come with doubt did not speak up, perhaps for fear of the Ord.

"It is three days until the world you see will transform into a world of perfection. This valley will be a garden that surpasses the beauty of your greatest dreams. We will exist in a state of eternal bliss together.

"As I've stated before, this first world transformation was necessary. It taught me a great deal about the nature of the universe and its mysteries. There were elements that had not yet been set in place. Although I glimpsed heaven in the first transformation, I was not ready to bring it to you.

"But now, all the pieces are in place. The last piece came to me by providence, a power in the form of a person, the one who was prophesied to come and bring us hope at the end of the known world, the one commonly (and incorrectly) referred to as Lady Chaos."

He nodded at the young woman on his right, who smiled up at him.

Eddie took his first good look at the girl. Something about the way she moved was familiar. Her eyes flashed purple in the flickering firelight.

"In all of my study and meditation, I did not anticipate her role in the final chapter of this world and the new beginning we would make," the king continued. "But now that she is here, I can see that her coming was destiny. The missing element of my spell to transform the world was her love."

A few sighed in the crowd. No one grumbled. A hint of recognition itched at Eddie.

The king reached down and took her hand. Eddie watched with growing horror as she stepped closer. The king leaned down, and they kissed.

Was that...? Was that really...?

Basha turned back to the crowd. "And we have decided that, on the day before we transfigure the world, we will marry, sealing our love forever, leading us into the bright eternity that awaits us all. My people, I present to you your future queen, Ruby Tanner."

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page published 7/13/2017