Raindrops roused Zihu from his dreams. The dreams were pleasant this time. He had followed those strange adventurers back to the lake town and begged them to forgive him for being yuan-ti. They happily accepted him and took him with them on their journey. They hunted down the other yuan-ti and saved the children of many villages. They smiled at him, happy to have Zihu in their group.
But the reality of the world brought that dream to a cold and wet end. Zihu was soaked. Why did he not awaken earlier, before this rainstorm had hit? Zihu remembered his injury and his pallor from yesterday. He was weakened! That must be it. He should be on his way soon.
Zihu descended the mountain at a slow pace, careful to not slip on the wet rocks and mud. He passed his lookout site. His companion, that nameless yuan-ti pureblood, was dead in a puddle. Tradition of the yuan-ti said Zihu should eat him, or at least eat his liver. The thought utterly repulsed Zihu, though he didn’t know why. He had done it before, many times in fact. But this time, after the events of yesterday and turning against the teachings of the Night Serpent, the thought of participating in any yuan-ti ritual ever again was repugnant. However, his companion had some dead mice in his pack. Zihu ate these hungrily and sped down the mountain again.
The tracks of the adventurers and the people of the lake town were almost lost in the mud, but Zihu was able to find them after a while. The tracks, Zihu figured, led back to the lake town. That made the most sense. Rain continued to drizzle down all day, but after a few more hours of traveling, Zihu was sure he had found the road that led to the lake.
The lake was nestled in a small valley. Many small houses were built around its edge, though some houses were damaged. The road to the lake town followed a path that went down the steep wall of the valley. The tracks here were very certain now. But Zihu could approach no further. Two men were watching the road that led down in the valley, both armed with yuan-ti swords and spears. They looked frightened but stalwart.
Zihu hid behind a large tree in the nearby woods. Surely he could not go down into the valley as he was. He was yuan-ti. These people would certainly kill him. He wanted to find the adventurers and join with them, rescuing people and fighting fearsome beasts, just like in his dreams. But how could he get into the town like this?
“Did you hear that?” said one of the guards, raising up his sword and aiming it towards the woods. Zihu froze. He had been so careful. Did he make a noise? Or maybe he misheard it. He hadn’t spoken common in so long, he was starting to forget the language.
“Hear nothing, Raz,” said the other, also pointing but in a different direction. “I see it. Look! Over there.”
They were both looking into the woods now, but to the north away from Zihu. Zihu turned his gaze to follow their indication. His eyesight was superior to these humans in the dim light of the woods, but even then he could see nothing. He waited, not daring to breathe.
“Another snake,” said the one called Raz. “Ugly one, too. Argh! Just thinking about snakes puts me sour now. Come on then, Hino, let’s take care of it.”
“Come off it,” replied Hino. “It’s not hurting anyone.”
Zihu hissed below his breath. Of course it’s hurting someone, he thought angrily. Yuan-ti don’t do anything but hurt your kind. Well, he thought, except for me. Zihu turned his head in the direction again to try to find the yuan-ti they had seen, but still he could not find it. Were they mistaken? Nevertheless, Zihu thought this may be his chance to show to the humans that he can be trusted. Or at least, not killed on sight.
He moved as quietly as he could from his hiding place behind the tree. He paid close attention to where he planted his feet, carefully avoiding sticks and twigs. From the corner of his eye, he could perceive the louder steps of Raz and Hino. But as Zihu moved, he heard them stop. He turned around and saw them peering up in a tree.
“See, Raz?” said Hino. “It’s not hurting anyone. It just wants a mouse. Or something.”
Hino shuddered. “I hate snakes, Raz. We should kill it.”
Zihu stepped back towards the two humans, now glancing up in the tree. After a brief moment, he spotted it. There was a brown and blue snake, only a few feet long, coiled around a tree branch. It was just barely in reach of Raz’s spear. Zihu wanted to call out to them and get them to stop. The snake, just as Hino had said, was doing nothing to harm anyone or anything around it. But Zihu held his tongue. That would make things worse.
“Let’s go,” said Hino, shoving his companion with the back end of his spear. “We have to watch the town. Stop worrying about a stupid snake.”
Raz growled. “It’s one of theirs, I bet,” he said. “One of the yuan-ti’s little pets. It’s probably a spy.”
“Doesn’t matter, we have our duty,” replied Hino, shoving him again.
Raz relented and the two walked back to the road leading down into the valley. When they were out of sight, Zihu crept forward until he was under the snake in the tree. The snake’s tongue flicked out as it looked down and stared at Zihu.
“You should go, sister,” said Zihu. “The people here may harm you because of-”
He stopped himself. He wanted to say, “because you’re a snake”, but that wasn’t correct. They were only afraid. Zihu knew that the yuan-ti did not keep snakes as pets or spies, but the people of the lake town would not know that.
He continued. “They may harm you because you frighten them.” Zihu would certainly frighten them, too. He thought about sneaking into the lake town, but eventually decided against it. He would frighten the people and they might kill him. Perhaps it would be better if he found a way to meet a few of them separately and convince them he could be their friend.
Zihu stayed at the top of the valley, never daring to come too close to the road or the edge of the hills and cliffs. From his high vantage point, he could see the town below him. He focused on watching the people. They moved between the houses at speedy paces, talking to each other, smiling and laughing. These smiles and laughs were different from Zihu’s People, though. What was the word? Sincerity. They seemed happy. Happiness has no place in the People of the Night Servant, he was taught. It was a weakness. It was foolhardy. But the people of the lake town seemed well enough.
Zihu looked at the houses. Their construction was so much different than that of the People. No structure here was made of stone. They were made of wood, something that the scouts of the Ritualmaster had mentioned when searching for sacrifices. What a foolish construction, thought Zihu. Wood burns, so logically wooden houses must burn, too.
While focusing on one of the burned houses, Zihu could make out a new sound. The sound of… what was it? It was in distress, clearly. The voice was high. Perhaps it was one of their women. No, this was different. This was a child. Maybe it was only three or four winters old. But from the high wall of the valley, Zihu could not see what was making the sound. He thought about that sound as he climbed a tree to sleep for the night. What kind of noise was that child making? It was most disturbing.
Ziho woke with a start, hearing the same loud boom from two days ago when the metal man hit him with his strange weapon. Ziho grasped the tree branch to steady himself and gazed about, his eyes blurry from sleep. There was nothing around him. He ran his hands across his body but found no new wounds or injuries. His heart raced in his chest. What was he thinking? There was no way those adventurers would accept him, a yuan-ti and a monster, into their group.
He waited for what seemed like eternity, but no other sounds came. Cautiously, he climbed down the tree and waited. He was careful to keep his hand away from the sword at his hip so as to not alarm anyone who might be watching. His heartbeat steadied and he sighed. Zihu closed his eyes and tried to listen to the woods around him now. He could hear movement in the trees to the east. He could hear the bustle of the lake town again. But beyond that, the rest was silence.
He made his way towards the edge of the valley and looked down. The lake town seemed to be the same as yesterday. Children were in the streets, people were going to what looked like a small market. Zihu then noticed something else that caught his eye. A gathering of people, many of which had yuan-ti weapons, were going down the road that descended into the lake town. He looked behind them and saw far in the distance a small group of travelers with a wagon and a pair of horses. It took Zihu far too long to recognize them as the adventurers.
“No, wait, please wait for me,” he whispered to no one in particular.
They were far ahead already, and their pace was fast. What was out in that direction, Zihu wondered. But he had to keep up with them. That much he knew. He had to repent. He had to make amends for the People. He had to cast away everything about him from the Night Serpent. And if they saw fit to kill him, Zihu thought it would be a good death to die at the hands of noble adventurers such as them.
Zihu turned to gather his things, but thought better of it. His pack was soaked from yesterday and everything in it was already useless. He, like the other People, did not have much in the way of material possessions. The malisons saw to that. Zihu gathered only his water pouch and sword and snuck away, following the adventurers.
Zihu had lost the trail hours ago, and despair had caught up to him. Tracking these adventurers was harder than Zihu thought. He had kept far away, sometimes out of sight, so that they would not notice him behind them. This proved to be his undoing. He came to a crossroads, perhaps an hour after the adventurers had, and there were too many tracks to know which belonged to them and which belonged to other, less important people.
Zihu tried the northern trail first. He didn’t know much about the lands beyond the Peoples’ cities, but he knew that there was a small town to the north. Why would the adventurers go there? Maybe there was something important. They had already saved the people of that lake town. Perhaps they would go north to another small village and do the same. But a few hours later, Zihu turned around and returned to the crossroads. There were no more tracks up north. Unless the adventurers learned to fly, they almost certainly did not go north.
He thought about the circumstances for a moment. They had not gone north, and they probably did not go back to the east to the lake town again. There were roads leading west and south. What was in those directions? To the west was a city by the ocean. Zihu hoped they would not go there. He could easily lose them. To the south was another town, but he didn’t know its name. It was perhaps four or five days away.
“O nameless god that granted me wisdom,” he said, looking up to the clouds over his head. “I want to follow them and thank them for breaking the spell on me. Where shall I go?”
Once again, the sky replied with a resounding quiet. Birds chirped in the trees of the woods. A squirrel passed by, ignoring the yuan-ti man. Small bugs buzzed in the distance. But the sky was silent. Frustrated, Zihu turned on his heel and took the road south, hoping that the adventurers had gone that way.
Zihu rushed ahead, his sword drawn. He had heard the screams for help a few hours after following the road south. The cries were not far away. Maybe it was the adventurers! Maybe Zihu could show them he could be brave and helpful, too! Maybe they would accept him and he could learn from them.
Disappointment came to Zihu like a blow to the gut. In the clearing of the woods, he found not the adventurers that stopped the Ritualmaster, but instead two human hunters. They were high in a tree, shouting at a trio of gray wolves that snarled and encircled them from below. The humans, both men, were frightened. One was bleeding from the leg. The other had a crossbow, aimed down at the circling wolves. They shouted, but the wolves snarled.
Without thinking, Zihu howled and dashed forward. As he ran, he gathered a small stone in his right hand and hurled it. The stone struck one of the wolves in the side of the head. It spun around and howled. The other two wolves did the same, then charged for Zihu. The first drew upon him quickly, but Zihu had experience fighting wolves. These were no challenge for him. He deftly rolled to the side and swung in a wide arc, catching the flank of the wolf with his blade. With a yelp, the wolf backed away and whimpered into the woods, out of sight.
The other two surrounded Zihu. He feinted to the right, startling the wolves, before charging at the one on his left. The wolf tried to back away, but a crossbow bolt from one of the hunters struck it in the side. Zihu jumped and brought down his weapon, killing the wolf with the blow. The last wolf, seeing itself defeated, tucked its tail and sped away.
“Hey, there!” called the hunter with the crossbow. “I think you saved us!”
Zihu pulled his sword from the wolf’s body. He smiled as he did so, wanting to seem friendly somehow. As he did so, he questioned how this would be perceived. He had seen other people, non-People smile, and that seemed to make them happy. Zihu turned towards the treed hunters as they began making their way down.
But then, the one with the crossbow raised his weapon again. “You’re a… you’re a snakeman! You’re one of them!” he shouted. His companion, the one with the injured leg, began backing away, brandishing a small knife.
“No, I-” began Zihu, struggling to remember how to speak common.
The crossbow fired, but Zihu stepped aside. He expected this, deep down in his heart. Who would accept a yuan-ti? But maybe he could try to hypnotize them into accepting him. Zihu knew the spell. It could work, maybe-
The man was already loading another bolt into his crossbow, stepping forward. Perhaps he thought the wolves were less of a threat than Zihu.
Zihu turned around and ran as fast as he could, confused and angry. Hadn’t he just saved these two humans? Why were they so hostile? He could have hypnotized them, but that might have only made things worse. As he ran, deeper into the woods and down the path south, the answer was clear to him. It was just as the People had always told him. Anyone who was not one of his People was his enemy.
But why must that be so?