3.9 Torth Slayer

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Every sound echoed in the sewers. Kessa waded with as little noise as possible, because the wretched slaves that survived in the stinking cesspools below the slave Tunnels were said to be cannibalistic. Were the humans really worth this much trouble? They would need to exchange their stinking rag outfits for fresh ones, or else a random Torth would likely kill them during a work shift.

"I'm sorry, Kessa," Cherise said in her quiet tone.

Cherise was the only human who ever apologized anymore. The other two seemed to be forgetting how to speak. Lynn mutely sloshed after them, catatonic.

Margo had to be dragged. She babbled about freedom every time she spoke, and lately she kept repeating a rumor about a sewage canal that flowed into the desert. It was madness, but not even Cherise could slow her down.

For now, Margo let them lead her home, compliant and exhausted from searching, but Kessa suspected she'd try again during their next sleep period. And again. She'd seek freedom until it killed her. Only a fool would run after her in an attempt to save her.

Fool, Kessa cursed at herself. You old fool.

She turned to Cherise. "We must let Margo go next time."

"What?" Cherise sounded affronted.

"She has the madness of hope." Kessa tried to choose the best words in English. "She is becoming a dreamer." No explanation was needed, since dreamers were common among slaves. The symptoms were always the same. Silence. Confusion. Delusions of escape or freedom.

"No." Cherise stumbled, and had to steady herself on the wall. "You're wrong. And even if . . . well, I'm not going to stand by while my sister runs off and gets lost in the sewers. That's your way. It isn't our way."

Kessa tried not to sigh. She didn't want to breathe any more of the stench than she had to. Cherise sometimes implied that humans followed some secret code of behavior, incomprehensible and unknowable to ummins, govki, and all the other slave species. As if humans were superior. Like Torth.

"You are slaves." Kessa wished that Cherise would embrace that simple truth. Slaves who denied reality, like Margo, tended to become dreamers.

Distant voices echoed from around a corner, and Kessa tensed. All four of them had glowing collars because they were outside of their assigned bunk-room neighborhood during a sleep period. Any guard, gang, or cannibal might attack them.

But a flickering glow implied a rubbish campfire. The voices sounded jovial, and Kessa figured the unseen slaves were healthy enough to be civil. She led the way onward.

The humans drew unwanted attention, of course. Kessa kept a wary eye on the emaciated group of slaves who sat around a rubbish campfire.

"It's those Torth slaves," one of them said.

"The smuggler here was just telling us about them," said another.

Kessa took a closer look, and recognized Pung, with his filthy rags and lopsided hat. A pile of moldy bones near him probably meant that he'd won a few rounds of gambling. He studied her and the humans with hooded eyes.

"Peace, Pung." Kessa waded towards him. "How are you?"

"I've been owned," he said.

"My condolences." Kessa was secretly pleased. Pung would survive longer if he had value to at least one Torth. "Is that why I never see you anymore?"

Pung slid a murderous gaze towards the humans. "I suffer near Torth every work shift. I refuse to suffer with them down here, where I should be safe."

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