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Jailors who thought dropping Aleron Pitre into a dark, dank hole was any kind of real punishment were idiots. At least, that was Aleron's assessment. Small, insurmountable spaces were his specialty. Anyone with half a functioning brain cell should know that.
How did they think he'd stolen the Leriph Crosier? The only way in and out of the shrine, other than the all-too-public front door, was the network of tunnels that ran below the planet's surface. Some of the passes were barely big enough for him to squeeze through. He still had a scar along his left side where he'd scraped the skin raw shimmying back with the abbot's staff firmly strapped to his stomach.
So when they kicked him over the miry edge of the narrow breach, he laughed the whole way down. It didn't matter he fell the length of five men. The earth at the bottom was as soft as that above. His hip and shoulder took the worst of the impact. He would have attempted to slow his descent by clawing at the sodden walls, but the heavy cuffs they'd clamped on to him when they'd picked him up on the Athess Space Station were new models. They extended over his fingers like gloves and folded his thumb against his palm to render it useless. All they were good for was blunt force.
He knew that for a fact. He'd swung at the more brutish of the pair who'd cuffed him and felt the bones crunch beneath the blow. Few sounds were as satisfying as a thick-skulled thug's howls of pain.
Aleron rolled to his knees and straightened as gracefully as the muck would allow. Tantoret's pallid sun barely penetrated the hole, and he had to narrow his eyes to see anything in the darkness. What he'd first thought a hole was more like a rip in the planet's crust. It stretched indefinitely ahead and behind him, and a hollow whistling slithered along its towering sides. It curled around his bare ankles and crept up the loose pants they'd put on him on the landing craft. Goosebumps erupted along his legs.
Cruel laughter drifted down. "Welcome to your new home, Pitre!"
More laughter, harsh and mocking. An electronic pulse vibrated against his eardrums. A moment later, the cuffs fell from his hands and landed with a squelch in the mud.
Aleron crouched to pick them back up before the dampness ruined the mechanisms. Everything had a use. The trick was being patient long enough to discover it.
At the distant roar of the landing craft, he jerked his head upward again, though he saw nothing beyond the slice of yellow sky. The chasm vibrated from the force of the ship's take-off, loosening clumps of sod and rocks to rain around his head. He pressed his body to the wall and discovered something else about his so-called new home. The ground was alive. Through his shirt, he felt hundreds of individual movements, the wriggles of wormlike creatures, the crawling of those with legs. Tantoret might have been subjugated as a prison planet, but it was still capable of sustaining independent life. Those who thought to sculpt the universe in their own image, with their own narrow set of rules and tenets, had forgotten one very crucial element in selecting Tantoret to house criminals.
Life begat hope. And hope was all a man like Aleron needed to survive-and better, to escape.