”You’ve never heard that story?” The young ummin sounded surprised. “The elders of my slave farm told it often.” He must be fresh off that farm, with his pristine hat and smooth skin, not yet wrinkled from indoor humidity. “It’s about a Torth who frees slaves and brings them to paradise.”
“That’s unusual.” Kessa had never heard of a heroic Torth until now.
Weptolyso had pushed his way closer. Now he spoke in his gravelly voice. “I’ve heard a few versions of this tale, and neither version described Jonathan Stead as a Torth. He was a nussian, or a govki, who was so loyal to his owner that he killed his own parents and children at his owner’s command. Then his owner revealed herself to be a powerful ancient god, and she rewarded him by transforming him into a Torth.”
“That is not what I heard.” The ummin sounded timid, afraid to contradict a hall guard. “My elders said that Jonathan Stead was a god himself.”
“Interesting.” Weptolyso sounded mild, as usual. “What is your version of the story?”
The ummin chuckled, as if ashamed. “My elders said that Jonathan Stead was the god of storms. The other gods urged him to stay away from people, but a storm cannot help but be curious. It blows through every crevice of every building.” He hesitated, his voice wispy. “I am not very good at storytelling.”
“Go on,” Weptolyso said.
The ummin coughed. “All right. Well. Jonathan Stead heard the prayers of desperate slaves, and he wanted to free them. But wind cannot release slave collars. Not even a strong wind. So he begged his fellow gods for help, and they agreed to gather their strength and use their powers to transform him into a Torth. That way he would be able to release slave collars.”
The humans listened with rapt attention. Everyone else in the tunnel seemed to observe them for the first time. Slaves crowded every doorway, but everyone was listening.
The young ummin coughed. “I cannot tell this story as well as my elders did.”
“Please, go on,” Kessa said.
“Well, Jonathan Stead used his storm powers to slay a thousand Torth,” the ummin said. “He summoned lightening before they could shoot him with their blaster gloves. Then he freed a thousand slaves, and he led those slaves away from their city and into paradise. They live there still, with their children, and their children’s children.” He sounded morose. “That is what my elders said.”
“It’s a bedtime story.” Ghelvae was dismissive. “Sooner or later, someone was bound to invent one about a heroic Torth.”
At any other time, Kessa would have agreed. Some slaves believed the bedtime tales they’d grown with, and would defend “the truth” with their lives. Cozu had been like that. But Kessa had heard many heroic stories, and she suspected they were the dying embers of a time long forgotten, when gods and spirits interfered with mortals. Such things no longer happened, if they ever had.
“There’s more to it, in the versions I’ve heard,” Weptolyso said.
Kessa studied him. “How many versions have you heard?” She had not heard it even once.
Weptolyso hunched his shoulders in defense. “I collect stories. It is the same way some slaves collect scraps to make musical instruments. There is naught for me to do but listen. To me, this legend holds a certain allure. Every species repeats it. Even guards. In every version, Jonathan Stead slays a thousand Torth and frees a thousand slaves, and leads the slaves to paradise. He is always described as having a power to make storms. And he is described as a Torth.” Weptolyso paused. “He is the only heroic Torth I’ve ever heard of.”
“The humans know his name,” someone said in a hushed tone of awe.
“They’re pretending,” Ghelvae said with disgust.
“No.” The gang leader looked unnerved, appraising the humans with new curiosity. “You say they’ve pretended ignorance for everything. They’re not pretending for this.”
Weptolyso peeled himself away from wall, spikes popping out. “Maybe all humans have godlike powers.” He looked ready to defend the humans with his life. “We must find out.”
Kessa had to squash her dangerous excitement. It was no good, jumping to conclusions over an obscure tale.
The timid ummin cleared his throat. “After Jonathan Stead led the slaves to paradise, he returned to the city in order to help more slaves. But the Torth were ready. They blasted Jonathan Stead to pieces, but gods cannot truly die, and he swore with his last breath that he would return in another body and slay all Torth.” The ummin looked dazed, staring at the humans. “He promised to return. With his last breath, he promised to return.”
Maybe the hero had returned in a frail new Torth body and with a new name.
Absolute silence reigned in the tunnel. All gazes turned to the humans, assessing them with fervent respect.