The adventurers were gone. They must have taken the road west, concluded Zihu. He had been traveling south for days now, and had not seen anyone on the roads. Tracks in the dirt were scarce, and led to small farms on the sides of hills. Rain clouds washed away everything else. Zihu was miserable. He found some small rabbits and ducks alongside the road and snared then with some makeshift traps. He filled his waterskin in the streams. The wound from the metal man still ached, but he could manage. Zihu’s physical health was perfectly normal. But he was increasingly lonely, and the nameless god who gave him the knowledge of the error of his ways was not speaking to him anymore.
Occasionally, Zihu hid off the road as a wagon passed by with a few travelers. Zihu wanted to speak to them but always stayed quiet and out of sight. He saw that the travelers carried bows and swords. He was yuan-ti. The adventurers maybe would have accepted him, but these simpler people would not. Not after the raids that his People had done for so many years.
As the sun set on the fifth day after the affair with the wolves, Zihu saw the lights of a town up ahead. “I had better stay out of sight,” he said to the clouds. “I cannot risk them noticing me, but I need supplies and food. I wonder what is this place?”
The sun was fully down when Zihu risked coming closer. The town had a stone outer wall around it, but it was no more than ten feet tall. Zihu very easily scaled the wall’s imperfect sides and slipped between two houses, entirely unnoticed. He waited at the windows of the houses and listened. He overheard conversations between men and women about the market tomorrow morning, some travelers going south to the rest of Caladmein, and news of Lotus Lake. Lotus Lake must be the name of that lake town from last week.
Two guards dressed in leathers walked by the alley where Zihu hid. They did not notice him, but rather kept walking, chatting between the two. Zihu wondered which one was in charge. Maybe neither. This culture outside the People was so interesting already. The children speak here! They are not hushed or beaten for speaking in front of an elder. The food the people eat is so strange and colorful! One larger building closer to the edge of town was very lively. Zihu heard music coming from it, but he could not identify the instruments they used. The instruments the People used were very exotic, but these instruments were played by plucking strings of some kind. Voices sang beautifully inside the building, and when the song was done, the people inside cheered.
Zihu wanted to keep listening to the tumult, but something away from the streetlamps caught his eye. He spied a building with a strange sign painted with blue letters on the front. An old human woman was ushering a pair of dwarves out of the door. They carried baskets with them, though Zihu wasn’t sure what the contents were. They said something to the old woman and the old woman closed the door. A moment later, the lights in the windows were snuffed out. Zihu followed the two dwarves past a few houses. They spoke happily to each other. One reached into the basket she held and pulled out a red object. She bit into it, chewed, and kept talking.
“That place must have food,” said Zihu to the sky again.
This was surely a mistake, he thought as he approached the backside of the building with the blue-lettered sign. Stealing was wrong, even by the standards of his People. But Zihu was starving. Food was scarce in the wilderness, and he needed to survive. He looked in the windows and saw that this building must have been a storehouse of some kind. There were large shelves in the main room, each containing an assortment of goods. He saw glass jars with different liquids in them. He saw barrels containing more of those red things that the dwarf woman had eaten. He saw cloths and linens, ropes, lanterns, and all manner of objects. Things Zihu might need to survive.
“Nameless god, I beg your pardon,” he said. “I cannot find the adventurers. I have lost my way. I need to rob this old woman, or I will perish before I find them and join them.”
The front door was shut tight and did not budge a hair’s breadth. Each of the windows, too, save one near the back of the building. The old woman must have accidentally left it open. Zihu discarded his sword and waterskin under the window, obscuring them with weeds growing in the nearby dirt. He looked around and saw no one around him, then turned to the window. He pressed the glass and the window’s hinge swung open without any noise. He clambered into the window as quiet as he could, then closed the window behind him.
This must have been a parlor of some kind, he assumed. There were shelves along the sides of the room and a large fireplace along the largest inner wall. The fire was burning down to nothing but coals now. Across from the fireplace was a large green chair. Zihu stepped forward and looked at the doors to other parts of the building. The one to the left would lead to the shelves and the supplies. The door beyond that led somewhere unimportant.
Zihu stood still and listened. He heard a faint rasping sound coming from ahead. The old woman must be sleeping already. He stepped forward as quiet as he could, but stopped and nearly jumped out of his own skin when he saw the old woman was sitting in the green chair just a few feet away. Her breathing was so quiet that Zihu had made the mistake of thinking she was much further away. The sound of her breath was actually just a very soft snore. She was fast asleep, sitting quietly in her chair.
Zihu dared not to breathe as he stepped past her to the door leading to the storeroom. The storeroom was much larger than he anticipated. The first thing he found was a leather pack. He would be able to pack food into it easily enough. The red object that the dwarf woman had eaten outside seemed good enough, so Zihu placed three into the pack. Next to the red food were some other similar items. They smelled like earth, but perhaps they were food, too. At least, Zihu assumed as much since they were stored next to the red food.
He spent the next several minutes gathering other things such as a lantern, a firestarter, and some rope. Just as he was about to leave, he heard the old woman rustling in the parlor room. Zihu quickly hid out of sight and peered into the room. The old woman had stood up and was going to the room at the far end of the parlor. Her sleeping chambers, possibly. In her hand was a large book with a green cover. Other books were laid on the chair that he had been sleeping on.
Zihu wondered about the importance of the books. The Ritualmaster had several, but the lower classes of yuan-ti were not allowed to read them. The purebloods specifically were punished if they even asked about them. Zihu waited until the old woman was gone, then snuck into the parlor. He gathered the three books she had left behind, then exited the house through the window.
When he was certain he was far enough away from town to safely light his newly acquired lantern or even a campfire, Zihu settled down to rest. He used the firestarter to light a bundle of branches from the woods. He went to light the lantern but stopped. He cursed himself for forgetting lantern oil. Instead, he dropped the branches on the ground, surrounded them with some large rocks, then threw some old twigs onto it. The campfire was soon giving off a faint light and warming his cold skin and scales.
The food! Zihu knew he needed to eat soon or he would start to feel very ill. He reached into the stolen bag and pulled out the red food. It was almost circular in shape, glistening in the light of the fire. The top of it was more bulbous than the bottom and it had what appeared to be a thin stick in the center. Zihu plucked the stick out and bit into the red food.
Juices of the red food flooded his mouth, surprising him. It was extremely sweet, almost disgustingly so. He forced himself to swallow its meat, but set the red food down again. Perhaps some of the other food tasted better. He pulled out the next attempt. It was similarly bulbous, but was brown and covered in dirt. Zihu tried his best to clean it, but he had no water to do so, and what was left of his waterskin was too important to waste. Zihu bit into the brown food and immediately spat it out onto the ground. The taste was far too bitter to stomach. At least the red food’s flavor wasn’t completely wretched.
Sadness. Guilt. These were emotions he had heard about. Now Zihu felt them. The nameless god that freed him from the People now gave him new emotions. He had wronged that old woman. He had stolen her food and supplies. Now the food was wretched and could not be eaten. Maybe the nameless god would poison him. Maybe he would strike him down with a bolt of lightning. Zihu needed to be punished.
With the People of the Night Serpent, punishment for wrongdoing was a beating. But there was no one out here who could beat him into his right mind. What brutal thing could he do to himself to make him remember that he, a yuan-ti, was trying to change and avoid the darkness of the Night Serpent? He could stab himself with his knife, but the punishment was never death with the People. The punishment should be awful, but not cause death. To die was to escape punishment. To suffer was to endure.
The fire was the obvious answer, then. Zihu lit a small branch then pressed it into his left arm. The skin burned and he cried out in pain, but he kept the brand against him, smelling his flesh singe and twist from the heat. The pain dulled as the branch lost its flame. Zihu shuddered, angry at himself for stealing from that old woman, but also angry for automatically returning so quickly to the ways of the Night Serpent and burning his own flesh for the atonement.
A thought came to his head, delirious from the pain. The people of this village would hate the yuan-ti, just as much as everyone else would. The hunters he saved from the wolves turned on him as soon as they saw his features. Zihu’s nose was flattened. He had patches of scales on his cheeks, eyebrows, forearms, and thighs. His tongue was forked. Maybe if he could hide these features, the people would accept him.
How could he hide this own body from their view? He needed a coat, a cloak, gloves, anything to cover himself. He had nothing but his shirt and pants. Hiding his body would not work. Could he remove these parts of his body instead?
Zihu lit the branch again. This time, he wasn’t going to chastise himself for some atonement to a dark god. He was going to do the will of the nameless god that gave him the courage to leave his People. He pressed the stick against the scales on his arm. But it was too much. It hurt too badly. He dropped the stick and cupped his hand over the injured scale. The smell of his flesh burning was too much, and he dropped to the ground and wretched, coughing up the red food he had eaten.
He had to try again, but his bravery to follow the will of the nameless god was weakened now. Perhaps he could come back to the scales at a later time? Surely the nameless god would not demand so much of him so soon.
Instead, he drew his knife. His tongue was a dead giveaway to his yuan-ti ancestry, so it had to go. “O nameless god, I… I will do your will if I must,” he said, looking up at the sky again. “I won’t be able to speak anymore, though, so with my final words, I promise I will trust in you.”
He raised his knife and extended his tongue. To his surprise, he couldn’t move. The courage evaporated and he was left with paralyzing fear. Was he really willing to cut out his own tongue for some god who wasn’t even speaking to him? But maybe that was what was necessary. The nameless god would not speak to him until Zihu could not speak for himself.
He raised the knife again and lowered it onto his tongue. But he could not press it down. Fear, again.
Zihu shouted out loud and flung his dagger into the woods. As soon as he did, he regretted the outburst. The dagger would be lost now. There was no way he could recover it. He slumped down by the fire and massaged his injured arm. The wound from the metal man still ached. His feet were sore from traveling so long. His boots were falling apart. And the shame of stealing from the woman was profoundly present in his mind.
“What a fool I am,” he said, looking up to the sky again. “I cannot cut out my tongue. Not yet, at any rate. I have more to say. I must… I must beg the woman forgiveness for stealing this food. How can I do that if I cannot speak?”
The town was quiet, same as before. There were fewer people in the streets now. The music and singing from the large building had quieted. Guards still patrolled the walls and streets, but Zihu was still able to sneak in unnoticed. He remembered the location of the large building with the blue-lettered sign. He remembered the window that was still open. Once again, he buried his sword and waterskin under the leaves and weeds from below the window, and crept in.
The parlor was more dim now that the fireplace was almost out. It was cooler inside, too, but it felt almost welcoming. Shame wracked Zihu’s mind, but it was slowly being replaced with thoughts of gladness as he was working to make things right. But what could he do about the food he tried to eat? He could not replace that.
“Who are you?” came a voice.
Zihu had been so preoccupied with thoughts of redemption that he hadn’t even noticed the old woman was back in the green chair, and she was looking right at him. He froze, not knowing what to do. His hand instinctively went to his belt, but no sword was found there. He mentally reprimanded himself for so blindly following the teachings of the Night Serpent again: if you are caught, you kill. But no weapon was at his side tonight. He didn’t need one anyway.