2.8 Specters in Ruins

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The urgent whisper came from Pung. Kessa was tempted to ignore him. They were all exhausted. Minor emergencies kept happening, from an ummin twisting his ankle to a sludge serpent that had bitten another refugee.

Kessa marveled that Jonathan Stead—and a thousand escaped prisoners—had managed to survive in this frigid, dark swamp of endless ruins. Even with Yeresunsa powers to keep them alive, they must have stolen a lot of water and light. 

And then Jonathan Stead had stolen a ship so he could fly home to the paradise known as Earth. He'd left the escapees stranded here. Alone. In the dark.

They could not have survived. Those liberated slaves could not have grown old, or had descendants, Kessa was sure. They could not have remained free.

Slobbering sounds hounded Kessa past every sagging hole in the ruins. She imagined the rain was masking hushed whispers in a completely alien tongue. Determined to figure out if the whispers were real, she stopped once, and held her breath, listening carefully.

But the whispers stopped. She figured it must be a trick of the wind and rain.

"Kessa." This time it was Cherise, tugging on her ragged sleeve. "It's Alex. He's stopped moving."

Kessa wanted Cherise to be wrong. But when she turned and followed her friends, she found Alex leaning heavily on Weptolyso. His eyes were closed in pain. Everyone was plastered with grime, but the smidges of skin that were exposed on Alex looked like the wrong color, to Kessa. Too chalky.

Weptolyso looked as exhausted as Kessa felt, with drooping spikes and slumped shoulders. He was weighed down by Margo and Alex. His low rumble was a nussian sound of anguish.

"If we just had water," Cherise said.

Her voice was hollow and eroded-sounding. They had run out of water maybe two or three work shifts ago, by Kessa's reckoning. The human types were always thirsty.

"Do you have water, Naglitay?" Choonhulm paced from person to person, checking their empty gourds, as if they might be hoarding water. Kessa figured his intentions were good. He was trying to prove that he cared about Thomas and the humans, and that he was useful.

But it was futile.

Kessa clicked her beak and searched for Thomas in the gloom. He'd become listless and feverish, but he should still be capable of answering questions.

She found him strapped to Irarjeg. The ummin was taking a rest break, sitting on debris, and Kessa sat next to them.

"Thomas," she said.

Thomas was close enough to read her mind, so she shouldn't need to explain what was needed or why their situation was so desperate. But his eyes were closed and he looked worse off than many of the more severely injured refugees. Fever radiated from him.

She kept her voice low and even. At least no one else nearby would understand her words in the human tongue. "Why don't either of you have your powers back, yet?"

Thomas rolled his face away and muttered something inaudible.

"We have been hiking for three wake cycles," Kessa said. That was an estimate, but as a slave, Kessa had developed an ability to judge the length of every work shift. She felt certain that she was right about the passage of time.

They had even tried to sleep once, with everyone curled in a big heap. It was too uncomfortable, wet and cold, with everyone almost crushing one another. No one had slept much.

"You should have your powers," Kessa said. "Can you try to spread your awareness? I just need a direction."

Thomas opened his eyes as if his eyelids were the heaviest things in existence. "Our powers," he wheezed, "are connected to our health."

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