2.3 A Troubled Chasm

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Bright searchlights pierced the gloom every time a Torth transport whooshed past. Transports flew low between the toppled remnants of towers, always without warning.

So Kessa dared not sneak in the open. Instead, she sent volunteers to cautiously scout ahead and find secret paths. In that manner, she led everyone from one ruined building to the next, and the next.

She chose dark zones. Never mind the slithery animals that lived in sludge swamps, occasionally rearing back to strike in pitch black darkness. The wristwatch shed feeble light, and now that Weptolyso carried Margo over one of his massive shoulders, Cherise held their sharpest weapon; the wavy-edged ionic knife.

At one point, Cherise sliced through a serpentine sludge creature before it could stab its fangs into an ummin child.

When the creature's ugly head fell off, Kessa glimpsed only slits alongside its maw, like two sets of nostrils instead of eyes. The animals of this world were blind.

No one complained. The surviving refugees seemed determined to prove their bravery. Cherise seemed proud to carry an injured ummin on her back, showing her strength, although no one asked her to carry Thomas. Kessa suspected she would refuse that burden if asked.

They came to the lip of a cliff. The scope of flattened buildings here looked even larger in scale than what Alex had done. An ancient cataclysm had blasted the dead city into a crater. The destruction extended into gloom, further than Kessa could see. Perhaps the ceaseless rainfall collected at the base of the cliff in a dark lake or an inky-black river, but she saw no way to get down there.

"We can't stay in the open like this," Cherise said. "The Torth will see us."

Kessa veered towards the inner darkness of a ruin, but skinny shapes leaped and climbed over rubble in that direction.

The monsters of this world ought to be satiated. Kessa had hoped they would learn to associate ummins with difficult meals. But now ...

She led her people back towards the edge of the chasm.

They slogged for what Kessa judged to be more than a work shift. No time for sleep. Whenever a transport showed up, everyone ducked and hid. Perhaps they looked like pieces of rubble. When the danger passed, Kessa kept trudging, determined to make the Torth Empire work to find her.

In the far distance, beyond the crumbling cliff, the Stratower loomed over the horizon. Its countless windows were like stars in a hazy night, almost too vague to see through the rainfall.

"Kessa?" Pung's voice was familiar, but she jumped after such a long time in silence.

"Is that where we need to go?" Pung gestured towards the Stratower.

"Yes. We need to get to the living city." Kessa could hardly believe how far their stolen ship—and Alex's powers—had carried them in a short span of time. Now the living city seemed impossibly far away. The barest hint of its glow limned that horizon.

"We will get there." Kessa made herself sound confident. People seemed to believe her.

But Alex's rest breaks were becoming more frequent. If he noticed the destruction he'd wrought—the place behind them, where almost no buildings were left standing in the jagged skyline—he gave no sign of it. He was no longer capable of shaking the ground or hurling skyscrapers. Instead, he slogged alongside refugees with a look of grim focus. His helmet was gone. His hair was matted by toxic rain, and his armor was likewise coated by grime.

"I can carry you," Weptolyso offered.

He made that offer several times, but each time, Alex refused. Perhaps he did not want to take Margo's place on the nussian's shoulders.

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