Zihu sat quietly on the cot in the jailhouse. He had no books, no paints, nothing with him. They had taken away his gloves and clothes, and gave him some old, dirty rags to cover himself. The fireplace just outside of his cell was too far away to feel any real warmth, so Zihu sat silently on his cot with the itchy wool blanket over him. There were no windows but one tiny holy close to the ceiling, providing not much beyond a memory of what fresh air felt like.
The cell was drafty and miserable, but Zihu couldn’t help but feel so much confusion. He saved the sheep! He saved the farm! And yet he was captured? The guards did not kill him outright, though. Maybe there was a slight chance that he could stay here in Vagrant’s Rest. Surely the people must hate the yuan-ti as much as he hated himself, but he was still alive. The nameless god must have been watching over him again.
At least, those were his thoughts for the first few days. During that time, he hoped that Nevrida or Arryn would come to see him. The guards recognized him as Nevrida’s hireling almost immediately, so they certainly would have told her something when he never returned home that night. Perhaps Nevrida would find a way to get him released and recognized for the good he had done. But no one came. Zihu was left with nothing but the dark thoughts in his head, constant reminders of how Worthless he was.
Zihu passed his time trying his best to remember emotions and their names. His mind was muddled, going back and forth between happiness for saving the sheep and confusion for his lack of visitors. He felt disgust at not having previously removed his scales and tongue. He should have ripped them out ages ago. Determination to get out of jail and go back to helping people. Shame for lying to everyone for so long. Anxiety because no doubt Nevrida and Arryn knew he was yuan-ti now. Confusion because, even so, why did they not come to see him? Even if they came and screamed at him, at least he would have someone to talk to. Desire to speak with Arryn again, to be around her, to see her, even if she would hate him. Satisfaction for knowing what he had done was a good thing.
But he felt a familiar emotion now. Hatred. Hatred for the yuan-ti. Hatred for giving him the title Worthless. Hatred for the dragon that ruined his life here in Vagrant’s Rest. Hatred for himself and the atrocities he committed in the name of the Night Serpent. Hatred must be what the villagers felt for him. Nevrida would hate him. Arryn already did.
For four days, no one saw Zihu except for a guard who brought food twice per day and a small mouse, similar to the one living in Nevrida’s Mercantile. Loneliness was this emotion. The other emotions were beginning to dull when the jail’s main chamber door opened with a metallic screech. Zihu looked up expectantly and was elated to see Arryn walking towards him.
“Arryn!” he cried.
“Can I speak to him alone?” she said cooly to the guard next to her. The guard shrugged and walked away.
For a while, neither of them spoke. They just stared at one another on the opposite side of the bars. Zihy felt his heart beating through his chest. Arryn was here.
“You’re yuan-ti,” she said finally. It wasn’t a question.
Zihu nodded. “I am… Worthless.”
“I’ve heard you say that before. You call yourself that sometimes. What does it mean?”
Zihu swallowed, trying to think of the words in common. “I do not live as yuan-ti. My People, they kill, they sacrifice, they do rituals. I do not. The teachings of the Night Serpent are false and cruel. I will not partake in their cruelty anymore. For that, they call me Worthless. Because I am Worthless.”
He could tell she didn’t believe him. She had never really trusted him. How could he show it to her?
“Look down there,” he pointed. “You see the dish? I do not eat the meat.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” she retorted. “Are you mocking my desire to not eat meat?”
“No, no!” he cried. “The People, the yuan-ti, they eat meat and flesh. They do not eat the things that grow from the ground, from farms. They might eat bread, but they do not make it themselves. But you see? I do not eat the meat. I am-” He paused, not knowing how to finish the sentence. After a moment, he continued, “I do not want to be yuan-ti.”
Her eyes bored into his. “They want to kill you. Did you know that?”
He nodded. He had figured this back when they took him. “Because of my ancestry. Because of the rituals.”
“The yuan-ti are evil,” she replied.
“Yes. They- we are.”
“They’ve done horrible things,” she continued. “Killed countless people. They’re ruthless, cold-blooded.”
“Our blood is warm,” he said, confused by the statement. “But yes, the yuan-ti do evil. But I will not. I will not follow the Night Serpent. I will be… g-good.”
She knelt down to his eye level. “How can we trust you? How can anyone trust you? Look at you, Zihu. You wore clothes to hide what you truly are from us. You sneak around at night doing gods know what. What could you possibly do to make us have faith in you?”
Zihu had thought about this for months now, and knew the answer immediately. “Give me a knife.”
She recoiled. Her face was twisted with anger and shock. “A knife?”
“Yes, please give,” he confirmed. “I will cut my skin. I will remove the scales. I will cut out my tongue for you. I will stop being yuan-ti.”
“You would maim yourself?”
“What does ‘maim’ mean?”
She huffed. “It means you would do bodily harm to yourself. Great injury.”
“Oh,” he said. “Then yes. I would do that.” She stepped away from the bars again, though Zihu never got up from the cot. “I do not wish to be yuan-ti anymore. I wish to be… to be beautiful. Like you.”
Arryn turned on her heel and ran to the door. She said something to the guard that Zihu could not hear. But it didn’t matter. He thought about calling out to Arryn before she left, but he couldn’t think of what to say. Perhaps nothing could convince her that he was trustworthy. Unless he could cut away his ties, physical and emotional, to the yuan-ti, he would never be one of the people of Vagrant’s Rest.
The sound of cries, snarls, and clashing swords woke Zihu very suddenly. He sprang out of bed and reached for his sword, momentarily forgetting he was jailed. He looked up to the small window. It was night, but he could see a flickering orange glow. The sounds of chaos came from outside.
“This is your doing, isn’t it?” snapped the guard outside his cell. He had his sword in hand and was facing the door. The door to the jailhouse was bolted shut, and sounds of battle came from the outside. This guard must have been ordered to guard the prisoners.
Not understanding, Zihu quickly climbed the wall to see out the small window. As expected, houses were burning. Perhaps three or four nearby. The streets were filled with people, scattering about and crying. He heard the sound of weapons crashing against each other. In the dim light of the fire, he could see the attackers.
“Yuan-ti!” he hissed.
“Yeah, your brothers,” the guard cried. “You called them here, didn’t you? You monster!”
“This was not me,” cried Zihu, climbing back down and approaching the bars. “Please let me out, I can help defend the town and my friends.”
“Friends?” jabbed the guard. “Stay where you are or I’ll cut you down.” He turned towards the bars, his sword gleaming in the torchlight.
A wretched sound came from outside. A familiar sound. One of the yuan-ti had killed someone. They were probably ripping out the poor person’s throat right now.
“Please,” pleaded Zihu. “I can help you!”
“Back!” shouted the guard, clanging his sword against the bars.
Zihu had no choice. He promised himself he would not do it, but the situation was dire. He focused his eyes on the guard. “I suggest you unlock these bars and help me defend Vagrant’s Rest. Please, friend, open the cell and arm me.”
The man squinted, trying to resist the spell. His eyes twitched slightly, then relaxed. “Alright, hang on a second,” he said, his voice magically calmed. He pulled the large iron key from the opposite wall and fitted it into the lock. With a twist and a loud click, the jail cell unlocked. The guard passed his sword to Zihu as he stepped out. Just as he did so, the suggestion spell wore off and the man’s face darkened as realization hit him.
“You! What did you do to me?” he cried, falling back. He was unarmed now, and was terrified of Zihu.
“Do not fear me,” tried Zihu, reaching out with his free hand and resting it on the guard’s shoulder. “Though you may not want to believe it, I am not like them. I will not harm anyone but the yuan-ti today.” Zihu turned toward the door and unbolted it with his free hand. He looked back at the guard, still standing frightened by the cell. Zihu spied a dagger on the table by the door. “Here, you keep the sword. It is yours anyway. I will take the dagger. Show no fear, not of me or the yuan-ti outside. We must both be brave. Come, and follow me.”
Zihu dropped the sword onto the table and picked up the knife. He inhaled deeply, steadying himself, then flung open the door. To his surprise, a yuan-ti malison was slithering right up to the jail and was upon him in half a second. Zihu bellowed and dashed forward, meeting the malison head-on and impaling it in the throat with his dagger. The malison gasped and choked, flailing in vain against Zihu. Zihu stabbed again, wildly, until the malison fell to the ground and bled to death.
He turned back to the jailhouse. The guard was there, sword in hand, watching in horror.
“No fear,” reprimanded Zihu. “Your townspeople are dying. No fear! Defend them!”
The guard nodded. Though he was still visibly shaken, he sped off towards the skirmishes around him. Zihu watched him come to the aid of an old man and swing his sword down, cutting off the arm of a pureblood. Other guards soon surrounded him and they pushed against the yuan-ti invaders. Convinced, Zihu withdrew the dagger from the malison’s throat and dashed down the street through the snow and mud towards Nevrida’s Mercantile, stabbing and slashing at any yuan-ti unlucky enough to be in his path.
He arrived at the store, but maybe too late. The doors of the store were wide open, and Arryn and Nevrida were outside. Nevrida was on the ground, her eyes closed, with blood staining her nightgown. Arryn stood over her, holding Nevrida’s cane in her hand. Three yuan-ti opposed her: one pureblood and two brutish malisons, all wielding long curved blades.
“No!” cried Zihu. He charged. The yuan-ti turned around. Their swords dripped with sticky red blood. They smiled when they saw him.
“Worthless! Worthless!” they jeered.
In the light of the housefires, he recognized them. They were his People. They were attacking his town. They knew him.
“Kill him!” they hissed. “Kill him and eat his liver!”
Zihu saw Nevrida, the kind and blind woman, sprawled out in the snow, possibly dying. He saw Arryn with nothing to defend herself but a walking cane. He couldn’t let anyone hurt them. No one would hurt his new people. The pureblood attacked first, but he was dead in an instant, dropping immediately when Zihu’s knife impaled his skull. The malisons charged next, but a mad and desperate hatred coursed through Zihu’s veins. He dodged their attacks and brought them both to a violent and bloody end.
Arryn did not see the pureblood sneaking up behind her. It raised an axe but Zihu flung his dagger through the air, catching the pureblood in the throat. Arryn screamed and swung her cane, striking the pureblood in the head and casting it to the ground to die of its wounds.
“Zihu!” cried Arryn.
“What happened to-” he began, but he was interrupted when an arrow pierced his chest, and he collapsed onto the ground.
Zihu rolled to the side, avoiding the spear of the malison behind him. The other had a longbow and was preparing to fire. Nevrida! Arryn! Zihu couldn’t do anything. The arrow. He was too weak. Too slow.
A shimmering light erupted around him. The malison slithering over him suddenly shrieked in pain. The light burned Zihu, too, but the pain was nothing compared to the thought of losing Nevrida or Arryn. He tried to get up, but his strength left him, and he fell to the ground and remembered nothing more.