2.12 Heads

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The passageway forced everyone to walk single-file. Alex bent at an awkward angle due to a ceiling that was built for small people. Every time he passed a flickering torch on the wall, he edged carefully past it, trying not to knock it askew.

Yeresunsa must have carved this tunnel using their powers. It was too engineered, too square-shaped, for natural processes. Even the torches looked clever, fed by polished stone dishes of oil. Alex was exhausted and in pain ... but after the dangers and rot of the dead city, this underground place might easily be the "paradise" where Jonathan Stead had found safety.

He kept going because Margo needed him. She lay draped over Weptolyso's shoulder, shivering, and she seemed to blame herself for her predicament.

But it was Alex's fault. The Bringer of Hope, or whatever title they used for him ... by now, everyone must know that he was unfit for the role.

His mother had known it. His father, too. 

That was why he needed to save Margo and Thomas. If Alex failed to save his friends, then he might as well be dead, because so many colossal failures would prove beyond a shred of doubt that he only brought death and suffering to the people who mattered most. Either he was the Bringer of Hope—or he was a hopeless burden.

These mysterious Yeresunsa might offer a way for him to recover use of his powers. They hadn't given him much, in terms of healing—he still felt weak, exhausted, starved, and in horrendous pain—but where one healer existed, there might be more. A few dozen rounds of healing might actually make him strong again. 

Then he'd be able to heal his friends and figure out a way to bring them home to Earth, and maybe he come become the hero everyone wanted him to be.

Alex sighed in relief when the tunnel emptied into a vaulted, lamplit chamber with a soaring ceiling. He took a deep breath, glad to straighten his back ... and caught his breath when he noticed all the very human-looking skulls.

Yellowed skulls hung in clusters, impaled on black spikes, arranged around the chamber like trees. Empty eyes sockets stared. Jawbones hung from attached wires.

Some of the skulls had mummified flesh attached. Those jaws hung agape, as if yawning or screaming.

One still had a face. It was blackened by rot, the eyes gone, but even without any telltale eye color, Alex guessed the head had belonged to a Torth. The precise haircut gave it away. That was the level of grooming that a slave could provide.

The lead warrior, Jinishta, caught up with the rest of their group, and everyone listened attentively as she spoke. 

Maybe she was explaining the thousands of decapitated heads. Alex wished he could understand the slave tongue.

"She says we will rest here for a brief time." Kessa sounded worried. "My guess is that she is stalling, so that her people will be prepared to meet a mind reader." She hesitated. "This might be like our arrival in the slave farm of Duin."

Alex looked down at Kessa in gratitude for her guesswork. The ummin elder had plenty of people to watch over, but she'd chosen to give her opinions to him, instead of to other refugees.

"They say these are Torth they've slain." Kessa gestured uneasily to the spiked skulls.

One of the black-wrapped warriors pointed to the rotted head with its hair and face still somewhat intact. He spoke in a proud tone, perhaps bragging about a kill he'd made.

"Haz says that he enjoys hunting and killing mind readers," Kessa said. "He has killed two Torth, but Jinishta has slain five. They've used this Hall of Heads for many generations." She shuddered. "They let cannibals devour the headless bodies of the Torth they kill, and then they slay the sated cannibals, so that other cannibals find them and devour them. The remains of Torth cannot be found by other Torth."

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