2.4 Downturn

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Faint light outlined broken towers. Certain buildings, and even certain intersections, looked familiar to Alex in some eerie way. Maybe it reminded him of Earth cities he'd visited as a child—except scum coated everything, and the rain seemed to hide whispering voices.

He approached the scaffold in a haze of pain. What long-ago cataclysm had carved up the dead city after the ancient war, he wondered? Had Jonathan Stead fought here? Or had it been another monstrous Yeresunsa; someone else like himself?

His lack of power made him furious. This hellish trek would fall apart soon if he didn't do something miraculous. His friends had chosen to accompany him to another world, believing that he would shepherd them to safety. He couldn't fail them. That was unacceptable. That wasn't an option.

"Son of Storms." Weptolyso adjusted Margo on his shoulder. "Can I carry you?"

"No." Alex tried to sound strong, although he felt as if steel wool kept scraping his wound raw. "You need to carry Margo."

To Alex's horror, Weptolyso gently moved Margo off his shoulder. She moaned in pain.

"No," Alex said. As much as he wanted to carry Margo—he owed it to her, for failing to protect her—he was nearing a point of collapse. If he tried to climb, pain would make him lose his grip on the oily struts. Even his jaw hurt, from clenching his teeth against the pain of every step. It took all of his focus just to keep going.

Weptolyso set Margo atop a grimy pile of muck that might have once been a concrete wall or a vehicle. Whatever it used to be in the distant past, now it was a dilapidated ruin.

"What are you doing?" Alex tried to convey his urgency to the nussian. "We need your help." He struggled to find the correct words in the slave tongue, substituting English when he didn't know the word. "Don't abandon Margo. I'm staying. You go." He gestured.

Weptolyso looked exhausted. He had not uttered a single complaint, yet his short legs were not built for slogging through muck and across slippery boulders. Maybe he was done. If so, then it meant a disastrous end for Margo and probably for everyone else.

The filthy, knobby apes moved closer, strings of drool hanging from their massive jaws.

Alex let his supply pack fall off his good shoulder and into his armored hand. It wasn't a weapon, but if he needed to fight, he wanted something solid in his grasp. The creatures should not get a chance to bite Margo or any of his friends.

"They're mind readers," Thomas said, his quiet voice barely audible over the patter of rain.

"What?" Kessa asked.

Thomas was a grimy mess, strapped onto the bent back of Choonhulm. The stocky ummin looked miserable.

"Wild zoved," Thomas said listlessly. "The creatures. They want to eat us."

Alex turned creakily to survey the horde of apes. If they could read minds, that explained how coordinated they were, far more so than monkeys or wolves. One row moved one way, while another row moved in the opposite direction, and a further row closed off any possibility of escape.

"Wait." Kessa looked at Thomas with a stunned expression. "Did you control them in that battle?"

Alex did not remember the end of the battle, but he'd heard about it. Now he stared hard at Thomas. If the boy still had his power to twist minds ... if the Torth had failed to dose him with the inhibitor ... why hadn't he said so? He had the power to save them all.

"No." Thomas laughed weakly. "The Torth got me. All I can do is hear their minds. I can't control them."

"But ..." Kessa backed closer to Alex and the eroded scaffold. "You saved us on that tower. Didn't you?" She seemed certain of it. "You told the ... wild zoved? ... to attack the Torth."

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