2.2 Whispers in the Dark

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Kessa judged that they must be slogging downward, towards the tower's base. She stretched through blinding darkness, slid, then dangled, hugging oily rubble with her face pressed to one side, until her bare feet encountered a cold surface to stand on.

She had given up on cleanliness. Her head cover was tucked into her supply pack, along with two gourd-canteens and Thomas's medicine case. It was just as well. Covered in black muck, Kessa and her friends had a chance to slip deep into the endless ruins and make the Torth feel like failures. She'd learned, from conversations with Thomas, that Torth cared overmuch about comparing their own status to that of their peers. The longer a Torth failed, the more wildly desperate they'd become—and desperate Torth were more likely to make blunders.

"Kessa," someone called softly from above. "Can't we hide here? It widens out a bit."

"Keep moving," she said.

Her friends kept whispering that they ought to steal one of the luxurious transports that blotted the sky. That had been a solid plan when Alex had his powers ... but now? Kessa knew they would get no such opportunity. Torth pilots weren't foolish enough to land in this filthy mess. Their transports descended only long enough to drop off or pick up troops, and those troops were extra wary, sweeping searchlights in all directions.

Kessa no longer saw any cloud-glow. She looked blindly downward, straining to see, but her eyes were useless. It was total darkness. Braver refugees pioneered the way ahead and whispered warnings about extra slippery areas, or narrow ledges.

Skittering sounds echoed up the passageway. Maybe the youngest members of their group, the children, were playing games? Throwing rocks?

It might just be clumped sludge falling off ledges.

"What was that?" The refugee ahead of Kessa stopped.

Someone behind her touched her supply pack. Gentle touch-checks were the best way to track each other in the darkness, since they had failed to pack any long ropes or twine.

Some time ago, they had encountered a dead-end when the climbing shaft descended into filthy sewage. That had forced the refugees to backtrack, exhausted. Varktezo had found this passageway over precipitous rubble, but judging by the echoing drips, there was a steep drop-off. A cliff.

A series of vague splashes echoed from the darkness below. It sounded like footsteps.

"Shh," Kessa whispered.

She strained to listen. According to Thomas, the Torth had thermal imaging goggles. They might see their prey, even in darkness, if they got close enough. But they couldn't wade through the ruins in complete silence. They were too big.

It was easy to mistake trickling slime for footsteps, or drooling, or chewing. Sometimes the wind sounded almost like a slave moaning around unseen corners.

Kessa nearly urged everyone onward. Then a voice pierced the silence, sounding lost and frightened.

"Help me!"

Another distant voice called, "I'm lost!"

Kessa felt colder than she had ever felt in her life. Soon after their crash-landing, a couple of refugees had gone missing during the battle. Ganleret and Uflan. Those were their names. They had slipped in their desperation to escape Torth attackers, and plunged out of sight, just like Weptolyso. Kessa thought Uflan had fallen off the edge of the tower, but maybe she'd been mistaken. What if both ummins were still alive?

They might be wandering, lost, though these ruins.

Thomas whispered in a low, dark tone. "They're Torth."

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