2.9 Luminous Purple

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Cherise knelt next to the mangled remains of Dugwon.

The battle had ended with suddenness, although Cherise found it impossible to care how or why. She was vaguely aware that strangers were calling out in the accented slave tongue of this world.

"Do any of you belong to a mind reader?"

"Do any of you serve a Torth master?"

The strangers looked humanoid, despite their dripping black bandages. But if they were Torth, then they were unusual Torth, to ask questions out loud. The traumatized refugees gave confused answers, unsure what the humanoids wanted to hear. 

Not that any of that mattered to Cherise. She gripped the ionic knife by its hilt, too furious at herself to sheathe the blade. She had failed to protect Dugwon. She wasn't strong enough. She wasn't tough enough. With her human-length arms, she should have sliced more than a few wild zoved—but she'd been too afraid she might strike her friend by accident.

The quarters were so close. The creatures had attacked so suddenly. A nightmarish ape had sunk its teeth into Dugwon, and then a second wild zoved had ripped out her friend's throat.

Maybe Pung was right about the gods. He called them uncaring Torth, and if they existed at all, then they must be even less apologetic than Thomas. They had allowed beasts to savage someone sweet and gentle; an ummin who had shown compassion to a human girl who must look like a monstrous slave-owner.

If Cherise couldn't blame the gods, then she had to blame herself. She was a useless, pathetic nobody.

"Move away from those Torth," one of the strangers demanded.

"Yes," another said. "We'll get rid of them for you."

The strangers sounded hot-tempered, like a street gang. Cherise became aware that the surviving ummins had locked their arms to form a protective barrier around Alex and Margo, as well as around Thomas, and herself.

Alex slumped on the filthy ground. He supported himself with two hands, since his arm sling had slipped off. He looked like he was struggling with all his might not to keel all the way over.

Margo was burning up with fever and pain. She couldn't be fully cognizant of what was happening.

As for Thomas ... ummins tore off their rags in an attempt to wrap his injuries. Slashing claws and teeth must have destroyed the makeshift harness during the frantic battle, and Thomas had fallen off Irarjeg. He'd gotten trampled.

He was unconscious. If he didn't recover, they would lose their pilot.

"Expose your Torth," the most commanding of the strangers said, her voice seething. "This is our final warning."

The other three strangers trotted around, grabbing blaster gloves off of refugees. Ummins yelped and surrendered far too easily. Cherise squinted through the rain, trying to see if there were hidden attackers.

"We have no Torth among us," Kessa said in a clear, firm voice. "Our human friends resemble Torth, but they are runaway slaves, just like we are."

The strangers whispered to each other in an alien language.

If they needed to whisper—if they found it necessary to communicate out loud—then they couldn't be mind readers. But the refugees were scared. Even if these threatening strangers turned out to be friendly, they'd confiscated their blaster gloves, and a Torth army still hunted runaways in the rainy darkness.

One of the shadowy strangers drew a wickedly curved blade. The three others shouted harsh, foreign words, but the lone attacker moved inhumanly fast towards Margo, sickle blade held at a murderous angle.

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