“I am Worthless,” said Zihu, repeating what the commander and everyone else had said to him.
“Yes, you are,” she hissed, whipping her serpentine tail around her. Zihu knew it was coming, but he knew better than to try to dodge or jump. The tail struck him in the back of the legs. His knees buckled and he fell down on the stones of the mountain. The cold stone stung against his face and wrists, but he quickly picked himself up and stood to attention once again.
“Say it again, worm,” sneered the commander.
Zihu nodded. “I am Worthless,” he repeated.
The commander nodded in approval. “Good, and don’t you forget it,” she said, turning to the others. “There is no thought up here on the Unwelcoming Peak. There is no will but mine and the Ritualmaster’s. Am I understood?”
“Yea, commander!” cried the voices of twenty more soldiers. Zihu said it, too, loud enough to make sure the commander heard him say it.
The yuan-ti commander was a great creature. Her upper half was that of the Lessers, man-like in form with thick arms and tight muscles through the chest and torso. The head was that of a pureblood’s, also man-like, but with inset slitted eyes and long, cruel fangs. Her lower half was a long snake’s tail, almost twenty feet in length, the pride of all the yuan-ti. All the yuan-ti wanted to be strong like her, a mighty malison and the symbol of the People of the Night Serpent. Zihu, on the other hand, was merely a pureblood, man-like in every way save for a few scales on his limbs and face, and the forked tongue in his mouth.
The word pureblood was not a word in good favor with the yuan-ti. This kind of purity was scorned by the People, as their blood was not mixed enough with that of snakekind. The Night Serpent’s blessings had not yet come to the purebloods, the Ritualmaster had said, but it soon would in due time. The purebloods of the People were thrilled by this prophecy. They yearned for it, strictly obeying the commands of the malisons and pitmasters without fail, just to be in the front of the line when the ritual was complete and the Night Serpent would make them beautiful.
This prophecy was nothing short of a struggle for Zihu. The yuan-ti had long eschewed emotion and thought from their warriors, but Zihu could not understand any of this. To him, the thought of becoming a malison was abhorrent, not to mention questionable. For all his life, he could not understand the benefit of losing his legs in place of a serpent’s tail. His legs were strong. They could carry him for miles without tiring. Why would he trade this for a tail, something that must be protected from errant rocks in the path. The malisons had to fight to climb stairs or trees, a task that Zihu’s legs made easy work. Even breeding would be a chore once a malison’s anatomy was reconfigured.
But to question the teachings of the Ritualmaster or the commander was a grave error on his part. Zihu had been adequately whipped for it, and reminded of how worthless he was. He felt a familiar uneasiness about the ritual, just as he always had in the many years past. Likely he would be at the very back of the line when the Night Serpent’s blessing came upon them tonight. At least, that was Zihu’s hope.
“Come, Worthless,” said a voice to his left. It was his companion of war, a tall pureblood man whose name Zihu did not care to remember. “Gather your weapon off the rocks. We are to move further down.”
Good, thought Zihu. Just as he had hoped, he was going to be as far away from the ritual on the Unwelcoming Peak as possible. When the sacrifices were dead and the ritual was over, he would very happily be at the bottom of the mountain, keeping his legs for another year.
It was midday already, thought Zihu. He brushed his long black hair out of his face, letting the sun warm his skin. He fiddled with his sword, drawing and sheathing it over and over, his mind bothered by the ritual at the top of the mountain. His companion, the other pureblood, did not speak. He just watched the horizon in silence. Zihu did not speak to him either. Occasionally, Zihu and the other pureblood glanced up the Unforgiving Peak to the summit. The Ritualmaster and the sacrifices would be near the top by now. The ritual would begin in a few hours. Zihu could tell his companion was itching to ascend and witness the carnage.
“You should just go,” said Zihu. “You want to go up, don’t you?”
“Be silent,” the companion replied. “I do as I am told. It would serve you well to do the-”
The sound roused both of them. Zihu drew his sword, a long silver blade. His companion pulled out a red-tipped arrow and strung it into his longbow. The sound was down the mountain, out of view. Zihu waited and listened, hearing the sound of approaching boots, stamping up the mountain path.
“Look!” said Zihu to the other. “There are people coming.”
“Lake people?” asked the other.
Zihu squinted his eyes. “I don’t think so,” he replied. “Their clothes are different. These are…” He paused as the realization came to him.
The other was frightened. “These are what, Zihu?” he hissed, breaking tradition and calling Zihu by his name well before the Reviling Time was over.
“Did you hear the stories from the commander? These are the adventurers from the lake town,” said Zihu. “Yes, I can see them now. They are making haste up the mountain. I wonder if they’re here to rescue the sacrifices.”
“Stop wondering, and get out of my way!” roared the other. He jumped forward and kicked Zihu in the ribs, sprawling him out on the rocks. The other aimed his bow and fired. Zihu looked on as the arrow flew through the air but fell harmlessly on the rocks. The adventurers from the lake were upon them in an instant.
The first to appear in their midst was an elf man in a long black cloak. From his wrists sprang a pair of curved blades. He dashed at Zihu’s companion, swinging wildly at him. The companion took a cut to the arm and fell backwards, dropping his bow and brandishing a knife of his own. But before he could move, a dwarf sprang after him. Zihu rolled out of the way and into a nearby bush, trying to hide. The dwarf was wearing armor covered in small, metal spikes, and he wielded a mighty battle axe. Zihu’s companion kicked the elf away and charged at the dwarf, but in a quick movement, the dwarf beheaded the companion.
“There’s one over there,” said the elf, pointing directly at Zihu.
Zihu began to shrink back, dropping his sword. The dwarf took a step towards him, but a strange and hollow voice shouted to him. “Leave that one,” it said, speaking in the common tongue. “The threat is up the mountain. We can deal with him and the other yuan-ti later.”
Zihu looked around the corner and saw the rest of the adventurers. The one that spoke was a tall man made of metal and stone who wore a large had and long, dirty coat. Behind him was another tall elf, a female with long white hair. Next came a small yellow tabaxi girl and a strange gnome woman with scales on her face. Last was a greenish, brown creature that Zihu had never seen before, riding on top of a very large spotted pig. The green creature wielded a crossbow and aimed it at Zihu.
“No, Hebo, leave that one,” said the elf woman. “Nine said to keep going. We can still save them. Are you okay? Are you tired?”
The one called Hebo lowered his crossbow and grinned a strange, toothy smile. “I am fine! Not tired at all! Spoink is good, too. Let’s keep going!” He kicked his feet at the back of the pig and it dashed forward, now leading the group. The rest of the adventuring group charged forward, continuing up the path.
Zihu stepped out of the bush and picked up his sword. He cried out in common, “You will… you will die up there!” But as soon as he said it, he thought of how stupid that must have sounded. These were his enemies, the enemy of the People. Surely they would have heard that as a threat, even though Zihu meant it as a warning. He wanted to follow up with another cry, telling them that they would be too late, and that the Ritualmaster would be completing the ritual to the Night Serpent very soon.
“Worthless!” shouted a voice from afar. Zihu looked up the mountain and saw a small group of yuan-ti purebloods and malisons scaling the mountain, clambering after the group of adventurers. “Worthless!” cried the voice again, one of the purebloods. “We must go! We must protect the Ritualmaster!”
Zihu grabbed his sword and dashed up the mountain. As he ran, he couldn’t help but be amused by the disability of the malisons. Their snake tails were making mountain climbing far more difficult than it should have been, and the purebloods were climbing very quickly, easily passing the malisons. Zihu caught up to the malisons without difficulty.
“Why do they climb?” asked Zihu. “Don’t they know the ritual cannot be stopped?”
“You are wrong!” hissed a malison. “The Ritualmaster is not prepared. It will still be an hour. They could climb it that fast. We must make haste!”
The ritual was not ready? But that would mean…
That would mean it would be ready by the time Zihu got to the Unwelcoming Peak. If that happened, the adventurers would be killed, there was no doubt about it. There were too many yuan-ti coming up behind them. And the Night Serpent would send out his blessings to the purebloods. To Zihu.
He thought about stopping, about dropping his weapon and staying put on the side of the mountain. He did not want this. He did not want to be a malison. It was… wrong somehow, though he couldn’t describe why. But if he stopped, the People would surely kill him. The malisons behind him would see it, and they would punish him for betraying the Night Serpent.
Zihu’s sword first met with the head of the malison on his right. It never saw the attack coming and was dead in an instant. Next, the blade spun to the malison on his left. This yuan-ti tried to parry the blow with its axe, but the block came too late and Zihu’s sword sunk into its side. Black and red blood splattered to the ground as the malison collapsed. The last malison was behind Zihu. She raised a pike but her snake body slipped on some loose branches. Zihu jumped on her and stabbed at her neck with his knife until she collapsed, too.
The adventurers! The sacrifices! The thought sprung into Zihu’s head. They’ll be killed! I… I have to protect them!
Where did that thought come from? Zihu had always remembered struggling with a sort of inner turmoil that made him the brunt of vicious mockery and rebuttal from the People. He felt a strange shame in doing the will of the Night Serpent. He felt nothing but emptiness when he slept. When the People had come back from the take own with twenty men, women, and children, all bound in ropes and sent to the Unwelcoming Peak and the Ritualmaster, he felt… guilt. Shame. A kind of discomfort he could not fully explain. The yuan-ti traditions taught that such emotions were sin in the eyes of the Night Serpent, but Zihu could not deny them. He could not deny them now.
Zihu attacked his own People. He met them on their way up the mountain. He brought his sword and dagger upon them, killing them as quickly as he could. Something told him to be quick about it, anyway. He felt the strange compulsion. To save the people from being sacrificed to the Night Serpent. To stop the Ritualmaster. What the yuan-ti were doing was wrong, and Zihu knew it. As Zihu climbed the mountain, he slew his People, covering himself in their blood as he went. He had to reach the adventurers. He had to repent of the ways of the yuan-ti. He had to-
A sensation of excruciating pain ripped into Zihu’s side. It was so surprising, coming so fast. Was it an arrow? No, arrows could be seen, even when fired from the largest of longbows. This attack was silent, at least until a resounding boom came from the summit. It was the same sound that Zihu had heard from the summit. No doubt it was the large iron weapon that the metal man wielded. The metal man had turned it on Zihu, seeing him only as a yuan-ti and nothing more. The boom deafened Zihu and the pain in his side caused him to finally fall backwards.
He slid down the mountainside for a few feet before his hands clung desperately to a tree root, keeping him from tumbling further down. The injury was in his left side. It hurt to breathe. The world spun all around him, but the sounds were muted. Zihu dragged himself to the side of the mountain’s path, curling into a ball behind a large rock. He looked down at his side. The wound was not an arrow, to be sure. Whatever it was, it had passed entirely through him and he was bleeding badly.
Zihu wasn’t sure how much time had passed before he heard footsteps nearby. He had packed some leaves and moss against his wound to stop the bleeding, but it wasn’t working as well as he hoped. His skin was beginning to pale. The footsteps, he figured, would be from the Ritualmaster and the People. They would probably have to redo the ritual tomorrow.
To Zihu’s surprise, he saw the adventurers coming down the path. They looked shaken and injured, but were mostly in good health. The dwarf was covered in blood, but it appeared to be the blood of his enemies, the yuan-ti. The sacrifices – no, the people the yuan-ti had taken last night – were fine, too. One young boy was injured, but the tabaxi girl was at his side, chanting in some strange foreign language. The sounds of the mountain were silent, save the footsteps of the adventurers and the folks they had saved. Surely, the Ritualmaster was dead! Zihu whispered a short appreciation for whatever god out there had given him the courage to fight his People, and had spared these lake town folk from the Night Serpent’s rituals.
Zihu looked down the mountain. He could see the People fleeing from the adventurers. He thought about calling to the adventurers and asking if they would help heal his injury. After all, he had cleared their path for them! He made the mountain path safe by destroying the purebloods and malisons that were following. But before Zihu could speak, he saw a survivor. One of the purebloods he had killed. She was yet alive! In the one arm that remained on her body, she weakly grasped a spear and charged at the adventurers. Zihu tried to call out, “Watch out!” but the pain took his breath away, and he could only rasp feebly. The elf man drew a bow and fired an arrow with lightning fast reflexes. The pureblood woman fell down, the arrow piercing her right eye.
Zihu shrank back. No, they would never accept him. He was yuan-ti. He was worthless in their eyes. The adventurers continued onward, not looking around for Zihu, or anyone else. The lake town folk followed along, clutching the weapons of the fallen yuan-ti. In the hands of the elf woman, Zihu could see the the Ritualmaster’s black knife.
That confirmed two things for Zihu. First of all, the Ritualmaster was dead and Zihu could keep his legs. Second, his People were scattered now and he would have no place with them.
Zihu waited patiently for the adventurers to be well out of sight before he moved from behind the boulder. He knew that the commander kept healing potions in her bag. If she was around here, he might find one and heal his injury. Zihu searched for an hour before he found the commander’s body just as the sun began to set. Sure enough, the healing potion was in a small pouch around her snake tail. Zihu drank half of it, feeling the rush of energy seep into his bloodstream. He poured the other half over his wound and watched wide-eyed as the wound began to close. The other wounds on his body began to seal up, too.
Zihu stood up, invigorated to a very small degree. He was exhausted, but he was alive. And the sacrifices were alive, too. Zihu noticed with surprise that he was smiling. Not a sneer like he was taught, but a real smile. What a strange feeling, this elation.
The sun was setting, almost gone beyond the horizon. The world would be getting cold soon. Zihu sheathed his sword and set himself down by one of the yuan-ti campsites on the mountain. Without fear, he built himself a fire and huddled near it for warmth. If the other People were around, they would have killed him already for his betrayal. But they were long gone now.
Zihu looked up to the stars in the sky. “Who are you, O nameless god, that saved me?” he asked no one in particular. For a brief moment, he almost expected a reply. “Who is it that gave me these thoughts? That showed me the People are wrong?”
The sky was as silent as the dead around him.
“Very well,” he muttered. “I am not one of the People. The Night Serpent has nothing to offer me. It matters not if you do not show yourself to me, nameless god of the skies, or earth, or forests. Whatever you are, spirit, you have my thanks. I will not live in the darkness of the People any longer.”