1.17 The Edge of Hope

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Kessa figured the only reason she wasn't captured or dead was because she was small. She must look like a muck-covered piece of debris, or a shadow cast by fiery explosions.

She wasn't particularly fast. That was surely why the nussians had ignored her as a non-threat. That troop was dead now, but they'd been replaced by worse enemies.

Decades of city survival had honed Kessa's abilities to avoid notice. She stood motionless, surreptitiously blending with shadows whenever a Torth swiveled to look her way. Battle distracted the Torth often enough for Kessa to move on. Despite their streamlined armor, the Torth here seemed preoccupied, even jumpy, and she was able to scamper from one chained-up refugee to the next.

She'd seen enough Torth devices to figure out how to operate the release toggles. All she had to do was jiggle the release until chains snaked away. Refugees jumped up, freed.

At least Pung managed to evade capture. He wore a blaster glove on each hand, and he had a few more stuffed into his rag-tied belt. The Torth avoided him, along with other fierce ummins, like Dugwon and Choonhulm.

But most of Kessa's friends from Duin were packaged into miserable bundles at the feet of alert and wary Torth. She had to disregard a lot of pleas and cries. The captured refugees might as well be slaves in city streets, beyond anyone's ability to help. The thunderous sounds of wreckage and the chaotic winds, combined with explosions and shouts and screams ... it all blended together into a deafening background noise.

But then Alex turned towards someone's shrieks of pain. "Margo?" he said, searching.

That was when Kessa became aware that Margo must be terribly injured, to scream like that. She must be dying.

Alex's eyes sharpened with concern and lost their malevolent emptiness. His glowing shield of lightning died away. Explosions slammed into the ground next to him, spewing debris.

And he staggered.

Kessa knew when he lost his powers. Everyone probably knew, because the storm lost its roar, the Torth fleet bobbed into a stable configuration, and everyone seemed to stop what they were doing and hold their breath.

Torth straightened. The rainfall calmed down. The wind died. Wrecked skyscrapers remained slumped or leaning against each other, but chunks stopped hurtling through the air. The ground must be littered with destroyed transports, but the ones that remained afloat bobbed together, sporting dents.

Margo's screams faded to silence. Kessa glanced in that direction, and saw Cherise frantically tying a threadbare blanket around Margo's lower body or legs, doing what she could to doctor the wound. Margo must be unconscious or dead.

The battleground became as hushed as a Torth city, except for the eerie whisper of rainfall and the distant purr of transport engines. A charred smell underlaid the rotten stench. Beams of light crisscrossed the scene, causing every broken beam and pillar to cast a shadow.

Alex sank to one knee, curling in on himself. He might be uninjured, but he slumped in defeat. His helmeted head clanked onto his upright knee.

One by one, the armored Torth removed their smooth helmets, exposing clean, smug faces. No pupils or irises. They lacked expressions, really, but Kessa was familiar with the human faces of her friends, and she thought she detected hidden smirks.

So easy this was, their confidence seemed to insinuate. Slaves are so pathetic.

The Servants of All glided towards Alex, blaster gloves raised, ready to obliterate him.

Alex lifted his head. Within the shadows of his helmet, his gaze burned with a killing rage.

A few Torth hesitated. One even flinched. So they could feel fear, or whatever dull feeling they substituted for real emotions.

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