“Rendy,” Ry said as she opened the curtain to peek in at them, “Where do you need to go?”
Orenda scuttled forward and handed her the paper.
“Oh,” Rychelle breathed lightly and spoke quietly, “The mage academy.” She chewed on her lip and said, “I have no reason to call upon them, no pretense I could use to gain entrance. I may have to drop you off. Do you think you can get inside on your own?”
“Yes,” Orenda said simply and without hesitation. She had been on her own before, after all, and this was no different.
“The school is on the other side of the city,” Rychelle told her, “away from the Lady’s mansion. It’s a little isolated, but absolutely unmistakable. It’s made from the Alabaster that people use when they want to look fancy, and is set a decent way back from the city proper. It’s a large campus, so listen closely. There is a fence around the property that gives way to plant life. Get into the treeline when you can and make your way around the back. Once you get through the back gate, you will see many buildings and an open courtyard. Move cautiously, and do not let any of the students see you. You will see slave quarters, but that is not where you are going- we don’t know how many of them follow the path of order.”
Orenda was still processing the idea that there existed humans who were not on their side, so she nodded instead of responding, because if she opened her mouth she was afraid she would speak in judgement of them.
“The main building, the one in the middle, will be larger than the others,” Rychelle continued, “That is where you are going. You’ll see a small wooden door- not the big archway, a smaller door to the side. That is where you are going.” She paused, in thought, and added, “I hope I’ve told you right. I’ve not been there in some time. I’ve had no reason to.”
“This is the side of the city that we’re already on?” Orenda asked.
“Yes,” Rychelle told her, “Walk towards the mountains in the distance. You’ll come upon it.”
“Then I should be going,” Orenda decided. “I thank you, both of you, for your help.”
“I’ll try to find a way to see you again, Orenda,” Rychelle said, “It’s important to me that you stay safe.”
“I will stay alive,” Orenda promised, and was surprised when the woman leaned in to hug her. Orenda had not thought that they had been close enough for that, emotionally.
“Ellie spoke so highly of you,” Rychelle whispered, “She thought of you as a daughter.”
Orenda nodded, and did not have the heart to tell her that Ellie had never mentioned Rychelle once in the entire time she had stayed with her. But then again, that could have been for security reasons.
“Good luck, Orenda,” Rychelle said when she released her, then she closed the curtain, and Orenda pulled up her hood.
“Were your eyes not yellow, but a brown or green or somesuch,” Ali told her, “With the hood up, you could pass for an earth elf.”
“Do all elves look the same to you?” Orenda teased.
“No,” He said solemnly, “You’re one of the good ones.”
“Goodbye, Ali,” Orenda said and moved to the back of the cart, but before she could leave, he grabbed her wrist.
“Rendy,” He said, staring into her eyes, “I’ll scry you, once I get settled. It may be a little while, but I’ll talk to you. This isn’t goodbye. We will see each other again. We’re Knights of Order, remember that. We walk the path of order.”
“I’ll see you later, then,” Orenda said and he nodded.
Orenda parted the curtain just enough to climb from the cart and watched Ali tie it shut. Ry pretended not to see her, clicked to her horse to get it moving, and they rolled away, out of Orenda’s life, as she stepped out of the street to watch them go.
Orenda was intrigued to see how crowded the city was, even during the night. Some of the buildings shut down, but others were alive with lights, music, and smells that she recognized from the inn where she had met Rychelle and Ali. She traveled toward the mountains in the same manner she had traveled through the town before, sticking to the darkest alleyways that she could.
She was becoming accustomed to how little the people paid attention to her- but was more surprised by how little they paid attention to each other. As she came onto one street, she saw an earth elven man in tattered priest’s robes, standing right in the middle of the walkway and shouting.
“Our savior has abandoned us!” He screamed, waving around pieces of parchment and trying to hand them to people who politely pretended not to see or feel him, “The false prophet would have you believe that she rules by divine right, because the pedestal sits empty. There is no sword in the stone! Xandra did not pull the sword! Xandra does not wield the sword!”
Orenda passed him and tried her best, as the rest of the crowd around her had done, to politely ignore him, but he shrieked at her as she passed.
“You are walking the wrong path!” He screamed, “You are following a false prophet! Thesis will reign death and destruction upon us all!” He shoved one of his papers into Orenda’s face, and she had no choice but to take it. Everyone else he had done this to had thrown them upon the ground, and they littered the area around him.
“We are living in the end times!” He shouted to the crowd that ignored him, “We must all repent! We must throw off the chains of the false prophet! We must reject the lies we have been fed! The sky is falling around us! The truth shall set you free!”
Orenda moved away from him, crossing the street as quickly as possible, yet still she heard him.
“The Chosen Child will awaken!” he screamed, “The Chosen Child will wield the sacred sword, and will bring about the vengeance of a neglected god! The hubris of elvenkind will come to an end! Those who follow a false prophet will be cursed, just as those who followed the demon Morgani Magnus were cursed! Listen to me! Save your souls! Repent! Do not believe the lies!”
Orenda ducked into another alleyway and out of earshot before she looked at the paper she had been handed. It looked hand-made, as if the lunatic had spent some time writing them all out. It had an illustration that was actually quite good, and Orenda thought he should have made a career using his artistic talent, but had probably had difficulty because of his madness. The illustration was of a sword, one that looked more ceremonial than battle-ready. Orenda did not think his Chosen Child would have been able to use it to cut through anyone, as the blade had been covered in runes and etchings of flowers that she thought would weaken any metal. But she had, admittedly, no knowledge of swords in the slightest, so she knew her assessment may not be correct.
The flier reiterated all the points that he had made, but did flesh them out a little more. The man, or at least the flier that she supposed he was the author of, told Orenda that far away across the sea in the Urilian capital, there existed a temple honoring Thesis. The temple existed in that spot, and in fact the capital had been built in that spot, because long ago when the god Thesis created the world, he had also created a special sword, which he plunged into the very living rock of Xren at that location. One day, the flier told her, Thesis would inhabit the body of a mortal elf, and in order to prove this fact, would take the sword from its resting place, which no one else could do.
The flier further explained that Xandra claimed that she had or was this chosen one, and that she was in possession of the sword. However, it had not been seen for three centuries, which the gentleman screaming on the street felt was suspicious, and that she should, if this was true, be carrying the sword with her, for public appearances and the like.
The man apparently believed that the chosen one had appeared, and was wandering the world. He extrapolated from this that the chosen one would soon kill not only Xandra, but everyone who had sided with her. Orenda wondered how long it would be before the man was taken into custody and killed for his treasonous and somewhat far-fetched, beliefs.
But she did like the drawing of the sword, and if she had dared to open her sheet, she would have stuck it inside the book about fire elves. But she wouldn’t like to do that on the street, even in a dark alleyway, so she rolled it up and stuck it in her pocket instead.
She was delighted to see that the flyer-writing gentleman was not the only loud person on the street attempting to grab attention. As she came out of the alley, she saw a small crowd gathered around a duo; two earth elves, male and female, were playing fiddles, loudly, and apparently in a rather aggressive way. They seemed to be having some sort of musical argument, and she watched people in the crowd, or passerby, toss coins at them.
Orenda realized that she was at the point in her life where she could probably do with some money, but she was not willing to bring attention to herself to get it, so she crossed the street and into yet another alleyway. The mountains never seemed to get any closer, but, she reminded herself, there was a large stretch of wilderness between the city and the range that the Urillians considered a ‘wasteland’; she had seen it on the maps in geography books at the library.
Though she could not see them because of the cloud cover, the tops of many of the mountains were covered in snow. As it became hotter on the way down, it melted, and trickled down the side in streams, sometimes with force great enough to classify those streams as rivers. Because the area had once been volcanic, the ash had made the earth there fertile, and over the years this combination had given way to a tropical forest that separated the civilized places from the wastelands. On the other side of the mountains, the sea meant nothing, and could not regulate the temperature, so it was excruciatingly hot during the day when the sun bore down, and freezing cold during the nights when the moons drifted across the void that encompassed eternity.
It was commonly thought that no one could survive in the desert, but Ali’s existence had proven that idea wrong. Orenda wondered what other things were commonly thought that were objectively untrue as she moved into another street and saw, stretching above the other buildings in the distance, tall white towers that glistened in the moonlight. They fit the description that Rychelle had given her and Orenda picked up the pace, not exactly running, but giving the air of someone who was late to a very important date.
Orenda was surprised as she came into the next alleyway and saw that part of the wall of the building to her left had been covered in a somewhat sloppy white painting, as if the artist had acted hastily. It was quite high up on the wall, as if the artist had been rather tall, or perhaps had stood on something, though Orenda saw nothing that could be used to construct such a scaffold.
It depicted the same symbol Gareth had drawn next to his signature when he had written Orenda on the winter solstice, but now, seeing it larger like this, she realized that the face was unmistakably a mask. Crossed below it were a sword and the contraption that she could not identify, though now it was rendered in more detail. It had a handle, a long cylinder, some sort of short protrusion at the back, and some kind of something that she could not identify on the bottom, between the cylinder and handle.
Above the artwork, tall letters spelled out:
Below the artwork the message continued, in the same arched design:
Catch me if you can, Glenlen.
I’ve outrun the Emerald Knight.
What are you going to do that hasn’t already been done to me?
Don’t go down that rabbit hole.
Orenda recognized the handwriting.