1.7 Sanctuary

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Thomas expected the native slaves to know every cave in the area, since they mined salt blocks. But if they had a secret cave, that begged the question of why their Brown Rank overseers didn't know about it. Random mind probes were a part of every slave's life.

The only unusual data point he knew about this farm—without prying into anyone's secrets—was that they tended to breed healthier and more industrious slaves than those from neighboring farms. The Torth Empire attributed that prosperity to a local orchard. Extra fruits probably gave the slaves extra strength in their mining duties.

But perhaps the Torth Empire was wrong. Maybe it wasn't extra fruits, but a secret stockpile of food and equipment. Thomas just couldn't guess how any slaves could be so incredibly, amazingly good at concealing things from mind readers.

Up ahead, horrified dismay spiked from Margo. "Do they even understand the danger?"

She hurried past an ummin-sized hut, which was built from paddle trees and adobe. Then another hut. Soon Thomas and his companions were parading through a shady village of slave huts.

Ummins peeked furtively through uneven, round windows, then ducked out of sight. Alex and Weptolyso were especially noticeable. They towered above the vine-strewn rooftops.

"We can't be seen," Kessa called out, exasperated.

Their guide, a junior elder with pouches and bags tied to her waistband, glanced back with a look of mistrust. Then she led them down another dusty alleyway.

Thomas sensed well-justified fear and frustration boiling inside his companions as they followed. Lynn had the ionic dagger gripped in both hands, ready to slide it free of its sheath.

Kessa jogged to catch up with their guide. "This won't be a visit from a couple of Brown Ranks," she said. "This will be worse than anything in your experience. The Torth could kill everyone in this village, if they find you hiding us here."

"Have faith, city slave," the guide said.

With that, she darted into one of the dingy huts, seemingly at random. A web of knotted ropes hung over the crude doorway, swinging from her passage.

Kessa stopped, and so did the rest of them. None of the huts looked strong enough to withstand a strong wind, let alone an invading army of Red Ranks.

"I should have used my powers to make a cave for us." Alex's huge shoulders slumped in defeat. "I'm sorry."

"It's all right," Margo said, although she sounded less than certain.

Cherise ducked into the hut where their guide had gone. Thomas didn't need to be within range to guess her thoughts. She might not fully trust these farm slaves, but she trusted Thomas even less. She would do anything to escape from him, to stop feeling reliant on him.

Not that he could blame her. If he died from torture, maybe that would be karmic justice for what he'd done to her.

He almost looked forward to his upcoming death, no matter what form it took. His future was guaranteed to be miserable as well as brief. He was far more aware of his bodily discomforts than he had ever been as a Yellow Rank, since he no longer had caretakers or slaves, and he couldn't escape his own aches and limitations without ascending into the Megacosm.

He had been a god in that realm. Now he felt trapped, unable to run or fly, unable to stroll through exotic landscapes as a passenger in someone else's mind. His easy absorption of massive amounts of knowledge was at an end. He was unwanted, an 0utcast from Torth and slaves.

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