Chapter 2

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It was still dark when the crashing sounds of a stumbling horse and Galen's muttered curse yanked Virdon out of his pain-filled doze. Zana had fallen silent a long time ago, and he had sunk into a half-sleep, a blur of shadows and chirping cicadas at the edge of his mind, while he had been listening to the cacophony in his leg. He was dimly aware that they had been climbing steep inclines for a long while, but he hadn't been able to keep track. In his more confused moments, he had dreamed that they had already reached the mountains.

Still, he was grateful that he wasn't sitting on Tala; that sudden jerk would've probably thrown him off her back, or at least crippled him with white-hot pain. But waking up from his trance, as everyone stopped to take stock of the mare's state, was also painful. Everything was painful, and he was so sick and tired of it all.

„We have to let her rest for a few hours," he heard Galen's voice ahead of him. „She won't be of any use for us otherwise, and Ah-pachee could use a break, too, I'd wager."

„I could use some rest, thank you for asking," Zana sighed. „And I'm certain Alan will be happy, too, isn't that right, Alan?"

Despite his pain, and weariness, Virdon couldn't help but smile in the darkness. „I'm fine, Zana," he said reflexively. „But the horses should get a break, Galen's right about that."

Zana was there, though, to help him down from the horse, and to support him for the few steps to the little hollow in a grove - in the darkness, he couldn't determine what kind of trees grew there, and just hoped it wouldn't be some weird mutations.

„You should get some sleep, too, Pete," he said after he had crawled into the blankets that Zana had shaken out for him. He felt bad for having her wait on him, pregnant as she was, but he was too tired, and in too much pain, to protest much.

Pete was just a darker shadow in the already blinding darkness; after many clear days and nights, the sky had overcast. „Nah, it's all good, Al," Virdon heard his voice. „Someone needs to keep the hellhounds away, and that someone is Betsy and me."

Virdon sighed; he could've sworn he had heard Burke pat his gun.

Although his exhaustion even drowned out his pain, he didn't have the impression of being really asleep; some part of his mind was aware of every chirp and rustle in the underbrush, the ripping sounds of the horses' grazing, Zana's sighs, Galen's soft snoring, and the wind in the trees. Only Pete was a patch of silence in that tapestry of sounds, a watchful, motionless presence at the edge of his mind.

„Holy shit!"

With a gasp, Virdon jerked awake. The sky was a heavy gray above him, promising another torrent of rain. Pete was nowhere to be seen, but it had been his exclamation that had jolted him from a sleep that had crept up on him without him realizing. It felt as if no time had passed at all.

He sat up with a groan. The bedrolls were all empty, but when he turned around, he saw Pete and the apes standing at the crest of the little hill whose base had served as their camp. They were staring at something on the other side of that hill.

When he had finally made it up the slope with his crutch, the sight made him forget his pain and his empty stomach.

They had found another city.

Its architecture was bold, countless spires stabbing at the sky, with flat somethings winding around them and over each other in mid-air... highways? From his vantage point, Virdon couldn't make out any supporting structures for the floating bands. He also didn't recognize the skyline - it looked futuristic, as if the city had been built from scratch some time after their departure.

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