Ruby crouched beside a tree, assessing the damage she'd sustained in her fall. There were scratches along her cheeks and across her forehead, a bloody gash at her right temple, scrapes all over her legs and hands. She'd be bruised and scabbed, but her limbs and neck worked. It hurt to breathe, and she wondered if she'd bruised a rib. Worst of all, she was dizzy. Her head pounded, and she wasn't sure she was thinking clearly.
The dragons circled above the lattice of tree branches that concealed her. How long before they came crashing through?
She ducked low, took two steps and staggered. The trees spun around her. Her eyes lost their focus. Had she suffered a concussion? She righted herself beside a tree and stumbled onward, down the sloping forest floor.
She'd only made it fifty feet when the violent crack of tree branches snapping behind her drew her around. A blue dragon touched down in a pool of sunlight, leaves raining all around it and dust rising from the ground. It roared.
Ruby had no weapon. She turned and stumbled onward. The dragon roared again and pursued, the sound of trees snapping as it pushed through. Unless she found a hiding place, Ruby would be the monster's breakfast in less than a minute. She leapt down a sharp incline, picked up speed, then tripped on a vine. She fell face down in a bed of matted ferns, leaving her disoriented. She struggled to regain her feet, stumbled onward, then stopped.
A sharp-eyed woman stood before her, a shotgun raised to her shoulder, aiming in Ruby's direction.
Ruby froze. She stared at the woman. The woman glared back.
"Get down, you idiot," the woman snapped.
Ruby ducked. A crack of thunder hammered Ruby's ears, and an angry roar behind her answered.
The woman pumped her shotgun and fired again. The dragon fell back a pace, roared again, then turned and retreated the way it had come.
Ruby's ears rung. She remained face down on hands and knees, waiting for something horrible to happen.
"Get up," the woman ordered.
Ruby complied. She rubbed at a sore shoulder and regarded the woman.
Her savior wore a sword at her side and a shotgun holster over her back. A gold medallion hung on her chest. She frowned down at Ruby. "You like to make a dramatic entrance, don't you?" she said.
"I parachuted. It was the only way down from the top of the spire."
"What were you doing on top of the spire?"
"It's a long story."
"I'll hear it then."
Ruby blinked at the woman. Where to start? "I was... well, I was in my room, waiting for a text, when..." She stopped herself. "I was... in this village when these dragon riders came and..."
She tried again, her dizziness increasing. "It's this thing with the observatory, and..."
The world faded to gray. She felt a carousel giddiness in her stomach, and then all went...
* * *
Ruby awoke in a bed of ferns and vines, a blanket of thin nylon over her. She sat up and found herself covered by her parachute.
The mysterious woman hunkered beside a fire in a stone pit, the meaty remnants of some forest creature roasting on a spit above. Over them hung a roof of timber and thatch. They were in a stone pavilion, an open-air picnic area with a broad stone fireplace on one end and a fire pit at the opposite edge. Picnic tables lined one side of the covered space. Her own fern bed nestled beside the stones of the fireplace. It was night now, and rain hammered the roof of their shelter.
When the woman noticed Ruby awake, she turned. "You should lie down. You took some damage in your fall and you've been out all day."
Ruby lay back down, exhausted. She found a bandage on her left arm. She flexed her fingers, stiff but working.
"You tangled with a dragon. I doubt many have survived such a foolish encounter."
"I didn't plan it that way."
The woman removed the spit from the fire, inspected the meat, then placed it back over the flames.
"What is your name?" the woman asked.
"Ruby Tanner. You?"
"I am Montrose of the Knights of Truth."
Ruby frowned. The name was familiar. Someone...
And then she remembered. Bryce had been telling the story of all that happened to them over the phone. He mentioned her, but Eddie filled in the gaps to cover all the things that happened when Bryce had been unconscious.
"You're the ninja knight."
"A friend of mine told me about you. He was in jail with you, and you fought a dragon rider."
Montrose frowned. "What does your friend look like?"
"Blond hair, kind of a mess."
"Short," Montrose added. "With a leather vest."
"I don't know about a leather vest. He's about my height."
"He's a translator. Where is he? I could have used him countless times on my journey."
"He's... I don't know where he is. I haven't been able to reach him by phone."
"Yeah, my mobile phone. Where's my jacket? I had my phone in one pocket, and in the other pocket, I had..."
A stab of fear prodded Ruby upright. "Skylar!"
"Where's my jacket?" She spotted it a few feet away. She crawled to it and rummaged in her pockets. Skylar was gone. "I had a... well, it's called a fixie. She's tiny, and I think when I fell, she might have gotten..."
"If you are referring to the mechanical fairy, it was here. It brought you the parachute for a blanket, collected my empty shotgun shells and left."
"I have no powder, so I saw no point in stopping it from taking them."
Ruby puzzled over this. "Huh."
She pulled out her phone and called Eddie. Again, there was no answer.
"You can communicate with the translator boy with that device?" Montrose asked.
"Yes. But he doesn't answer."
"I see." Montrose jabbed the meat on the spit with a knife and peeled off a strip. She took a bite, then held it out for Ruby. Ruby took the offered morsel.
"I want to know everything you know about this valley and the city on the other side."
"I don't know a lot. I'm not from around here."
"But you do know some."
"I know..." She thought about all she'd learned in the observatory. Kevin was still up there, sitting on a mountain of knowledge. Ruby may have been ignorant, but she still knew more about what's happened than most people in the world.
"My story will take a while."
"We won't be moving on until dawn. You have plenty of time to tell me everything."