Lightning flickered along the nighttime horizon, beneath a black cloud that encompassed the entire sky. He wasn’t in his palatial bedchamber, or in the Hollander Home. Instead, he lay on the rocky ground of the desert. Abandoned. Unwanted. He would die alone, just as the slave Lynn had predicted.
The rocky ground writhed, shedding sand. Pebbles and dust collected into a massive, elongated figure with deep-set caverns for eyes. Although sand could not think, this was recognizable as Ariock, and the storm wind was his voice.
“I forgive you, Thomas.”
The sand giant blew apart into white flakes of snow. The rocky ground was ice, and he lay in freezing darkness, surrounded by pines with boughs that drooped with snow. No one wanted him. His mother walked away, gone forever. She would never touch him again, never turn around . . . except this time, she did.
Her face was a shredded horror. Blood leaked from her eye sockets, but she was close enough for him to sense her pain-soaked mind.
My son, she thought. I died so you had a chance to live the way I never could.
No. He had never deserved all that she’d given him. He had to escape, so he writhed, and fell onto a banquet table. Torth began to tear off chunks of his flesh and stuff them into their mouths. The Commander of All Living Things crunched on his fingers. The Swift Killer tore off his toes, and seemed to relish his cries of pain. The Upward Governess scooped parts of his brain out of his opened skull, and ate with big, hungry bites. He was going to die like this, in agony, and no one cared. No one in their right mind would want to save him.
A human slave watched in mute silence, tears leaking from behind her glasses. Cherise had trusted the wrong cowardly loser of a boy. Nothing could ever make things right. She would never trust him again, never talk to him, never help . . . but even so, the torn up remnant of their relationship glimmered in the deepest depths of her mind.
I still love you, Thomas.
Thomas startled awake in his palatial bedchamber.
It was nighttime. The wake-up he’d programmed—the gradual brightness of a holographic sunrise—had not happened yet, so something else had woken him up. A sound. A vocal cry of anguish.
His own voice.
His bedsheets were soaked with his nightmare sweat. One of his slaves, the ummin who fancied himself a smuggler, stared at him with wide-eyed shock. Torth did not scream or cry.
Yellow Thomas took deep breaths to let his sweat and his nerves cool down. He wanted a bath, but he signaled the slave to stay put. Anything the slave did or felt would be visible to anyone who peered through his eyes and mind. And he needed to ascend, because he needed to find out a few things (like whether or not Ariock was dead). He needed the local news.
Safely turned away from his slave, he ascended into the Megacosm almost before he could stop himself.
Images of a storm dominated conversations. New GoodLife WaterGarden City was engulfed in a dust cloud, which was slowly dissipating, after the worst storm in several decades had ravaged the region. Eyewitnesses shared glimpses of brilliant sheet lightning. Violent claps of thunder shook the air, so loud and so continuous that everyone who’d intended to watch the Giant die up close had been driven away.
Even the cameras were buried in sand. No one knew whether the Giant was alive or dead.
He must be dead, many silent Torth voices assured each other.
The wind-driven sand must have flayed him alive.
Or lightning must have burnt him on that ingenious metal cross.
Unless he died from hanging by his wrists for many hours in the sun.
Undercurrents of worry slithered beneath all the assurances. What if the Giant had used his powers to cause the freakish lightning storm to mask an attack? What if they’d failed to dose the Giant with enough of the inhibitor, and what if he broke free and went on a rampage?
The Majority thought that was ridiculous. The Giant must be a victim of the storm, they reiterated.
If he had use of his powers, he would topple the city.
Hundreds would die fighting him through tornadoes and lightning.
They had a point. Yeresunsa feats of magic could be cataclysmic. Jonathan Stead had single-handedly destroyed an army of Red Ranks, and eons before him, the Yeresunsa Order of ancient times had boiled oceans dry, and pummeled armies to death with hailstones. This measly lightning storm was already fizzling out. It might just be an act of nature, and even if the Giant had caused it, so what? He would never cause anything again.
Yellow Thomas descended, oh so carefully, away from inquiries and offers and praise.
Solitude, as usual, felt like a straightjacket. All the news told him was that Red Ranks and other Torth would soon fly into the desert, and if the Giant wasn’t dead yet, they would witness his dying breaths. If anyone was insane enough to try to rescue Ariock, then it had to happen soon. Within an hour.
Damp and cold, Yellow Thomas sat up on his satin pillows, aware that he truly belonged among Torth. He would never be safe among violent humans slaves. He could never trust Ariock, or anyone who was dominated by primitive urges rather than logic or rationality. He really shouldn’t throw away his life in an attempt to rescue savages. That was crazy. He ought to go back to sleep and . . .
Wake up screaming?
It was only a matter of time before other Torth learned about his nocturnal cry from the mind of his attentive slave. Any Torth who screamed, or sang, or masturbated, was taking a life-threatening risk. Yellow Thomas could bury the evidence only by murdering his slave.
Perhaps this was why so many Torth killed their personal slaves.
Yellow Thomas signaled for a face wash and a nectar drink. Alone, he felt insignificant and helpless. He was just a handicapped little boy without any friends. He didn’t matter. Did anything matter?
The city was lethargic after so many feasts for the tourists. That meant a unique window of opportunity, which would soon close.
Other pre-arranged factors began to coalesce in his mind, coming together to form a plan. It was terribly risky. Implications and ramifications unfurled, far beyond the scope of what most renegades even dreamt of attempting. He would have to be crazy to take such a huge risk for such a vanishingly small chance of success.
But it was all the things he used to live for.
It would stop his nightmares.
Yellow Thomas reached for his data tablet. “Pack my medical kit into my hoverchair compartment,” he commanded his slave. “Include prepared meals and canteens full of drinking water, as many as will fit.” He waited, impatient, because he had a lot more commands to give. Every second mattered.