Zihu pulled the cloak tighter around his shoulders, shivering in the cold. He had been waiting outside for the halflings for almost an hour, and snow was collecting on the brim of his hat. It was sagging over his eyes, making it very difficult for him to see. The halflings should have been here by now, the yuan-ti thought. Zihu looked around Vagrant’s Rest. The wind was howling. There was no one around, no one looking out their shuttered windows. Zihu was the only one outside in the storm. He pulled off his hat and shook the snow away.
“What are you still doing out here?” called Arryn from the front door.
Startled, Zihu quickly shoved the hat back on his head before he turned towards her. “You said to wait. The halflings did not… did not come to town,” he replied, daring a quick glance at Arryn before looking down at his feet in embarrassment. She was so pretty today. Her black hair was tied up with pink and purple ribbons, matching the purple cloak she wore around her body.
Arryn walked out the door over to him, her black boots sinking deeply in the snow. “The storm is worse than expected. They probably went back to their farm. Why are you standing out in the snow? Aren’t you cold?”
Zihu nodded. “You said to wait for them. I am waiting.”
“I didn’t mean to wait outside for an hour. You could have just waited inside at the door,” she said, turning back. “Come inside, Zihu. We need to speak with you.”
Nevrida coughed again. It seemed like she was always coughing lately. Zihu sat quietly, not knowing what to do while Arryn gathered a plate of food and set down before the three of them. Arryn shot a glance at Zihu and Zihu stared back for a moment before he remembered that Arryn told him that her grandmother should drink the tea to help her cough. He quickly poured the kettle into a small cup and passed it to Nevrida.
“So,” said Nevrida, blowing on the tea to cool it. “Are you going out again this evening?”
“G-going out?” stammered Zihu.
Arryn scoffed. “Oh, please, Zihu. We know you leave the house at night.”
Zihu looked down at the plate in front of him. It was true. Ever since he had helped the guards capture those bandits a month ago, he had been sneaking out almost every night to help the watch. Zihu had stolen a black and white mask from the store, always careful to return it the next morning so Nevrida and Arryn did not notice. The guards never knew he was out there with them. Most nights were uneventful, but occasionally there was something happening in Vagrant’s Rest after dark. A man was chasing a woman, and it seemed that the woman did not care for his company, so Zihu shoved him away from her. An elderly dwarf was trying to get home from the tavern but was too drunk to step lively, and Zihu helped him home. Only on one other occasion did Zihu find bandits again. Two of them had broken into a home and were fleeing Vagrant’s Rest with a pouch of coins. Zihu broke their arms and left them for the guards to find.
He was always so careful to sneak out, but it seemed that Arryn and Nevrida knew about it. The sound of their voices and the looks on their faces told him that he should feel remorseful for sneaking out like that. In reality, he felt nothing but amusement for his adventures. He still dreamed of the adventurers that he wanted to meet, the Great Ones. Maybe they would accept him if he could be heroic like them. Defeating the bandits made him happy.
“I am sorry,” he said, keeping his hat low so they could not see the smile on his face. “I like the cold air at night.”
Arryn narrowed her eyes at Zihu, but Nevrida said, “It’s alright, Zihu. Don’t feel bad. You’re welcome to go out and enjoy the snow and crisp air. Just don’t sneak out anymore. Tell us if you’re going out so we can keep the fire going for you.”
Zihu ate his meal in silence as Nevrida and Arryn talked to each other. They spoke about the store and the prices for winter vegetables. They talked for a bit about Arryn’s father, someone whose name Zihu could not remember, who still lived in Everdusk and occasionally sent letters to Arryn. They spoke about closing the store early and cleaning the bookshelves in the parlor. All the while, Zihu thought about the important matter at hand outside: for the past four nights, he had overheard the town guards talking about how some sheep were disappearing from the farms on the edge of town. An impulse was in his head. He had to find out what was going on. Last week, he snuck into Arryn’s room to recover the sword he had left behind under her mattress. Armed now, he was ready to defend the farms from thieves. The thought was exciting and-
“Are you not hungry, boy?” interrupted Nevrida.
“What?” he asked.
She pointed to his plate. “You haven’t eaten the duck yet. Just the potatoes.”
Zihu was embarrassed. He had noticed long ago that Arryn did not eat meat. He found that incredible considering meat was so very delicious and a staple food of the yuan-ti. And yet, she never suffered or starved for preferring fruits, vegetables, and nuts for sustenance. Though she hated him, Zihu was always captivated by everything she did. The way she dressed. The way she moved. The way she spoke. Even the way she ate. A week ago, he decided to emulate this part of her, and had stopped eating meat. The change was difficult. He felt very hungry after meals until he started eating a larger portion of the rest of the food. He replied, “Duck is good, but I like potatoes better.”
“Give it to me, then,” said Nevrida, sliding her plate over to Zihu’s. “Go on and take my potatoes. I don’t think I want them anyway.”
Arryn’s eyes were still narrowed at Zihu, but she said nothing.
This time, Zihu did not sneak out of Nevrida’s Mercantile. Nevrida and Arryn bade him farewell as he went outside in his customary oversized hat, cloak, and gloves. Underneath his cloak, he had stolen the black and white mask again. He slipped off the hat and placed it under the deck before slipping the mask onto his face. He leapt off the deck onto a barrel, then some crates, then across the deck of the neighboring building. He did not want to leave tracks in the snow.
The only sounds of Vagrant’s Rest this late at night were the usual bustling noises of the tavern and the occasional crunch of snow beneath the boots of the wandering town guards. Zihu was able to move between the buildings without much difficulty, especially tonight. The snowstorm that morning had left most people homebound, and with the sun setting as early as it did in winter, the townsfolk tended to go to sleep much earlier than usual. Vagrant’s Rest was customarily quiet. Zihu could move through town without his boots touching the snow. He left no tracks behind him.
He reached the edge of town. The stone wall and its large gate kept the way shut, but Zihu knew the easiest way to clamber over the wall and move into the wilderness without being seen. The guards were tired and cold, and it made their perception of the world around them dulled. In a moment Zihu was sprinting through the snow towards the woods and the farm with the missing sheep.
The farm was quiet as ever, just like the previous few nights. The family living here was already asleep, save for one of the boys who sat huddled under a fur cloak on the porch. He must have been put on watch for the sheep in the barn, thought Zihu. But look at how young he is! Certainly this boy is no more than thirteen or fourteen winters. The sword at his side is too large for him. If thieves come to steal sheep again tonight, this boy will be utterly worthless.
What a foul word.
No, he thought. The boy would not be worthless. He is untrained and scrawny, that’s all. Perhaps he will be stronger someday. If there was one good thing about the Night Serpent’s teachings, it was that all of the People could be useful. Worthless was just a punishment title for sin. That’s what Zihu told himself, anyway.
Zihu stood near a tree by the barn, watching and waiting for any sign of movement. He saw the lantern next to the boy move slightly. Another boy, older this time, had appeared and was speaking to him. The younger boy disappeared into the house and the older one took his place, huddled under the blanket, shivering in the cold.
As Zihu watched, wondering how old and strong this new boy was, he heard a shuffle in the woods behind him. He turned and stared out into the dark. There was a shape, larger than him, slinking between the trees, staying low and almost out of sight. A wolf, perhaps? But how could a wolf be breaking into a barn and stealing sheep? Zihu stepped away from his tree and moved closer to the shape in the darkness, careful to step on logs or rocks with little snow. His feet made almost imperceptible sounds as he moved forward.
Nevertheless, he was heard. A deep voice came from the darkness to him, “Hail, Worthless.” It was speaking draconic.
Zihu stopped. His hand went for the hilt of his sword. “Who are you? How do you know who I am?” he hissed.
“Questions, questions,” mused the voice. “Someone like yourself has no right to ask someone like myself such things.”
The shape moved again, still behind the trees ahead of Zihu. It was perhaps fifty or sixty feet away. Zihu wished he had stolen a crossbow. It kept itself from Zihu’s view, moving stealthily around him until it came to the clearing near the farm. It was in the form of a long snake.
“Yuan-ti,” spat Zihu. “You are not welcome here.”
“Yuan-ti?” sneered the voice. “I am not yuan-ti, Worthless, but I know your kind. Your… People and I get along quite well. But do not mistake me for one of you.”
It moved closer, menacing in the darkness. As it approached, Zihu could see it now. It was a dragon, long and black, with folded leathery wings at its side. Its eyes were infinite pools of darkness, not reflecting any light from the moons above. But it was small, smaller than Zihu expected. It couldn’t be more than ten feet long from end to end.
“Are you the one that has been-”
“Eating sheep?” laughed the dragon. “Of course I am. But what are you doing out here?”
Zihu drew his sword and leveled it towards the dragon, standing as tall as he could. “I am a defender of this town. You’re not welcome here.”
The dragon stared for a moment before a deep, guttural sound came from its throat. “Don’t make me laugh. I have spoken to your chiefs. I am allied with your People. I know you are Worthless. But even the Worthless do not abandon the People and live in wretched hovels such as this.”
Zihu ignored the comment about allying with the People. “Leave this place, dragon. Or I will cut you down.”
The dragon stepped forward again, his head lowering closer to the ground. The wings began to unfold. “They’ll come for you, you know. They want revenge. I heard about what you did to your own People.”
“They are not my people!”
The dragon lunged. The wings sprawled out fully and it flew through the air, straight at Zihu. Zihu expected the attack, though, and threw himself to the ground. The dragon’s claws and teeth barely missed him, ripping a small part of his cloak. Zihu swung his sword, slashing across the dragon’s left wing. It let out a tremendous roar, louder than Zihu expected for its small size.
Zihu raised his sword for a second strike. The dragon arched its back and tucked itself out of harm’s way. It inhaled deeply, and Zihu knew what would come next. The fire breath would scorch him. He looked around him and started rushing towards the nearest bank of snow. But the breath attack was not fire. Instead, a different burning sensation struck him, wracking him in pain and throwing him violently to the cold ground.
The dragon laughed again and charged. Zihu threw off his cloak before the acid breath could eat entirely through it and onto his flesh. He raised himself up again and swung wildly. The sword missed as the dragon dodged to the side. It reacted with a flick of its tail, striking Zihu directly in the face.
Stunned as he was, Zihu could hear the sound of a horn. He couldn’t place how far away it was, but it was unmistakably the horn of the guards. They must have heard the fight. The dragon heard it, too. It raised itself up to bite down on Zihu, but thought better and turned to flee.
Zihu threw off the broken mask from his face. His eyes burned as he tried to hypnotize the dragon. “I suggest we finish this fight, dragon, before those guards arrive and kill you themselves. You’re not through with me, and I am not through with you.”
The dragon stopped and turned back to face Zihu. The spell must have worked! The guards would maybe see him kill a dragon and save the sheep and the farmers!
Both Zihu and the dragon hissed at each other before springing. The spell on the dragon from Zihu’s hypnosis made it angry, but clumsy. It tried to bite him but clamped down onto Zihu’s sword instead. Blood rushed from its mouth. Zihu tried to pull the sword free but as he did, the dragon drew its claws across his chest. He fell down, grasping at the wound as his blood colored the snow. The dragon threw the sword aside, but it did not bear down at the injured Zihu below him. Or, perhaps it meant to. It stared at him for a very long while, blood gushing from its mouth. It’s forked tongue was almost severed, flopping back and forth with the dragon’s heavy breathing.
Then, it suddenly slumped over onto the snow. Zihu saw a pair of arrows sticking out of its back, both lodged deeply. The dragon shuddered and groaned before it became as silent as the snow around it. Zihu crawled away from it and reached for his sword.
“Stay your hand,” said the guard closest to him. Zihu looked up and saw a crossbow aimed at his chest.