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More than Iron

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MORE THAN IRON ❖

 

ZIHAYR

    Managing to get this far was a feat all on its own. Through dunes, then wilds, now bitter cold — the mountainous expanse was yet another hurdle on his aimless trek. He had evaded his pursuers time and time again, but now, he was going some place where they wouldn’t find him. Port Caelum — a way point in his wandering. It was the farthest, inhabited place away from The Enclave within Genesaris, and from what he had heard, it was filled with people who were like him. A perfect place for someone as distinct as himself to disappear.

 

    All that was standing in his way were The Cold Mountains and the chasms between them. It would not be too long a journey from what his traveling companion had described. Their estimation was seven days, so long as they took certain shortcuts. With this, he would be in Caelum in no time at all. Had he not this guide, he would have been lost in these labyrinth-like wastes or hunched over dead in the snow. The pines had already sapped much of his energy. It was his companion that made things survivable with their experience and knowledge. Zihayr silently hoped that the journey would ease, but to his dismay, the difficulty of travel only grew — as was mentioned.

 

    The fissure was as jagged as it was narrow. Two walls, stretching upward, seemingly endless in their height with bends at every turn. They had been traveling through them for what seemed like hours now. Soon, the sameness of it all became disorienting. Its closest likeness were the familiar, cramped alleyways of Dairut; although, it was a far cousin at best. The sky above was one such difference — a stark white opposed to the arid azures of the desert. He only saw hint of it, but it was a sunless sliver of light looming over them, framed by edges of dark, marbled stone. Another was the frost — somewhat like sand in its ubiquity, but far different in quality. Everything here was covered in it, making each surface as slick as oil.

 

    Despite a full coat of gray fur, Zihayr was not a beast bred for ice. While this form he held bore resemblance to the wolves of The South, he was by no means as hardy. Although the nights in the desert were cold, these parts were far colder — far more inhospitable. The terrain and weather proved treacherous for all but the most stubborn forms of life, and although Zihayr was stubborn, he was not immune. Yes, he earned his scars, survived The Pits, went days through a desert with no hope for solace, but he was only mortal. The Cold Mountains were pushing his resilience to its limit.

 

    Winds like winter phased through clothes and all, seemingly unaware as it meandered through the branching passages of the ravine. Every raw breath burned, so Zihayr pulled his cowl over his mouth. Hopefully it would capture some of the warmth which escaped him. Woosh — the flaps of his cloak danced wildly behind him as another wall of air slammed into him, glazing his eyes with unparalleled coolness. Crystalline lines streaked down from his face as even the tears from his frostbitten eyes froze over. The thin, elaborately patterned, baggy, Velhatian attire served no purpose save for concealing brands from a past life.

 

    He cursed the storm before trudging onward. He would not have went on this journey if he was “free” like most men.

 

    Beneath the airy cloth which wrapped around his neck was irrefutable proof that he was different. The proof strangled him, humiliated him — even chafed his flesh raw at times. It was a welded iron collar — one decorated in spells, curses, and sigils with numbers alike. It was his “identification” as a product. Merchandise for rent or purchase. Proof that he was a slave. Its magic once bound him and kept him in chains, but now its hold was tenuous and more flexible. Strangely though, it proved a boon in certain aspects relating to his condition; however, he was no longer anyone’s property. While it held his more base nature at bay, he hoped that when he arrived in Caelum, he would find an alternative. Perhaps those in that city would be more tolerant — more sympathetic for his circumstances….

 

    Soon, the duo came upon a fork in the path, and Zihayr looked towards his companion. He was becoming tired of all of these passageways, and hoped that the person would lead them to shelter soon.

 

    “Which way?” the wolf-man barked, too exhausted to speak gently. “It will be night soon, yes? Any place we can rest?”

 

@The Hummingbird

 

 

Edited by Artificer

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Valarys Evonash

Strength. Control. Perseverance. These were the words that drove him. Traits to survive by, creeds that guided him through the trial others called life. As he trudged through the ravine cutting through the treacherous mountain passes, he repeated these words silently, again and again. They became a mantra, a steady endless beat. Strength to empower him. Control to sustain him. Perseverance to preserve him. It was all about survival of the fittest, where Nature awarded nothing but the strongest breed. Nothing else mattered.

Nor should it.

Overhead the sky darkened, the onset of night. The icy winds blew harder, howling as they swept along the obscure trail they took. Already desperately cold, the temperature dropped sharply as the first swirling drifts of snow began to fall. Without shelter, few living things could survive the blizzard that was soon in coming. Exposure to the elements meant certain death.

Instead of stopping, Valarys Evonash sped his pace, stamping down ice and snow. He tightened his wool cloak around him, the stark white of it making him almost invisible. Underneath it he wore an assortment of black fox furs and tough, thick fabrics, all that kept him from freezing himself. Attached were buckles and bandoliers that fastened a loaded crossbow and four long knives, two crossed at the back and two across the chest, all that had kept him alive. Already they had been bloodied, killing the strange and savage creatures that haunted the mountains.

At Zihayr’s voice, Valarys looked back. His impatient eyes, an odd gold-flecked violet, took in the disgusting dog-man with barely concealed contempt. He turned away again and gestured sharply in a gesture to keep going.

It was five miserable minutes before Valarys suddenly took a sharp turn, leading them into a cave that had been carved into the fissure walls. Its angular structure suggested it was manmade. In fact, there was an old, burnt out lantern swinging from the ceiling and room enough for four bed pallets laid on the rough floor around a small firepit. There was a stockpile of logs and firewood nearby. It was far from luxury, but it would keep them safe and sheltered until morning.

“It’s called a Wayfarer’s Lodge,” Valarys said sharply before the dog-man could ask. “A courtesy left by other travelers better than us.” He shrugged off a rucksack, laying it down by a wall before examining the stockpile of wood, measuring how long it would last. It seemed to be enough as he nodded to himself. He dragged a few logs over to the firepit before bending down, drawing out a flint and steel, striking them together vigorously.

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ZIHAYR

    The sound of steel on stone was all too familiar. His silver-lined pupils reflected the sparks from the man’s flint, gaze transfixed. Had he been younger, he would have cringed, but he was accustomed to the grating of metal now. Still, he had always hated the sound. Many bad memories were preceded by it. Steel on steel — sword on sword — rust on rust — always the same sound. Death likely followed, as it had on numerous occasions. Thoughts drew back to his time as a servant, and then to his time in The Pits. An ear flickered as he felt the skin beneath the collar itch once more, as it did when his mind wandered. So tempted he was to scratch at it, but he was too lucid to risk revealing himself. A nervous habit to be practiced in private.

 

    He didn’t know much about Valarys nor why the man offered to accompany when there was clear disdain between the two; however, there was not much he could do. Maps of this region fetched a high price, and the Zihayr did not have the coin to purchase. It was far more common to go by the established highways, or by airship, but these methods had too many eyes. One slip, and someone might see his markings or collar. One slip, and he’d be revealed to be a runaway. People may have turned a blind eye if he were strictly human, but from experience, he knew this was not the case for him. He was lucky he found someone going in the same direction as he was.

 

    Still, luck could only get you so far. Making his way to a corner of the cavern, Zihayr unslung his bag and sat back against the wall. It was cold, as all things here were. There was a shing sound as his sword slid from its scabbard, its once-pristine surface now muddied with blackened blood and monster residue. He took out a rag, grabbed some snow, and crushed it against the flat of the metal. Globs of rehydrated grime slough off of in clumps as the caked layers of death thinned. A clean blade would cut through his obstacles better than a dirty one.

 

    “Better not lodge any more of those wolves or beasts we found earlier — seems like most of our shelters have found new tenants. Don't want to sleep with 'em,” he retorted with a bitter sneer.

 

    “Can’t blame 'em though — I can’t imagine staying outside in these nights.”

 

    Soon, the mouth of the cavern grew darker as the light of day faded. Sparks brightened the cavern with each strike, but fire was fickle. Not being in the wind helped with the cold, but a roaring blaze would do so much better. It was difficult imagining going another night without its warmth.

 

    “How far are we from the next Lodge?” he asked, resheathing his sword. “This is the first one we’ve found since reaching the mountains.”

 

    Conversation made for conversation’s sake. Zihayr was not one to ingratiate with idle banter, but he needed something to distract himself from the temperature. While the relationship between him and Valarys was professional at best, they were definitely not friendly. Strangers, they were — neither one talking much, save for battle. It would seem that both men had their secrets.

 

    Best not to be too personal, but best not continue their habit of silence.

 

@The Hummingbird

 

Edited by Artificer

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Short-lived shadows flickered along the cave walls as steel slid against stone. It was cold; flurries of snow spiraled and gathered outside, and Valarys growled as spark after spark failed to catch. At last though, after many vain attempts, he was rewarded with a small tongue of flame that persisted along the edge of a twig. Carefully adding tinder and kindling, Valarys bent down to blow on the growing flame, letting it feed on his breath until it was firmly established. Finally, a delicious warmth spread through the cave.

Valarys worked on banking the fire to make sure it would burn throughout the night. Not once did he ask Zihayr for help, or even respond to the overgrown dog’s comments. Once or twice he did glance up, shooting an ugly glare in the dog-boy’s direction, not bothering to conceal the scorn or clear disdain in his eyes. Even his movements, though smooth and skillful, were also abrupt and forceful, filled with annoyance and animosity.  But that, at least, was all.

Beside his pack he slung down his knives, crossbow, and last of all, a prize shot along the length of their journey; a thin but otherwise healthy arctic hare. He examined it, making sure the corpse was clear of infection or other signs of inedibility.

“How far are we from the next Lodge? This is the first one…”

Couldn’t he do anything but talk? Valarys turned… then suddenly flung the corpse at Zihayr. The sorry body hit the wall next to the dog with a sickening thud and slid down brokenly.

Nice.

“I caught the fucking hare, you can skin it,” Valarys snapped. “Unless all you can do is bark.” He turned away and dug into his rucksack, pulling out a wedge of cheese and a package of sourdough flatbread. Using one of his knives that had yet to be used, he began to slice the cheese into thin strips, occasionally checking the fire and the entrance of the cave. Thick snow was already blocking most of the view, but the storm could be heard as the wind wailed and rushed beyond the wall.

“Forty-five miles,” he suddenly, his voice a snarl. “Or more. Doesn’t matter. We’ll get there if you don’t slow us down. Although…” he shot another look at the cave entrance. “Might camp here for a day, unless you like being in snow.” He reached up, tugging at the end of a scarf he kept wrapped around his neck. It was an intricate, embroidered length of silk that he never removed once – perhaps the only thing he valued. “But if you like freezing alive, be my guest. I won’t miss you.”

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ZIHAYR

 

   Zihayr’s face did not change nor contort when the corpse came flying. He didn’t even wince. Didn’t take a breath. He wasn’t going to give Valarys that satisfaction. Instead, his eyes didn’t move from that man across the room. His gaze, almost murderous. No words; completely silent. Zihayr was a predator in the distance.

 

   Alright, the wolf-man thought, Alright.

 

   He was used to this by now, though. Humans no longer surprised him. If this is where their quips and retorts led, then so be it. From sarcasm to this? It wouldn’t bother him. Zihayr had been in company to men more hostile — more willing to keep pushing — than this.

 

   All that was left was disgust. The cold couldn't bother him now.

 

   Valarys must have forgotten who heard— no, smelled the wolves first for that very first ambush. Fast asleep, that man was. Not even a word of thanks after. Maybe Zihayr should have just let them have their way with Valarys. Zihayr knew the way back.

 

   Slowly, he bent his knees and picked up the hare’s corpse from the ground with one hand. With his other, he took out his knife. He brandished the dagger curiously and looked into its mirror-like finish, seeing his own eyes which burned of gold in the firelight. They shimmered and danced in the warm, fluctuating glow despite being devoid of emotion. He resheathed his blade.

 

   A job like this didn’t need steel.

 

   With his free hand, he punctured a small hole or two into the hide of the animal, cutting two circles around the ankles with just the tip of a claw. Next, he joined them with a line from thigh to thigh, circling around the tail end before slicing down the actual tail. The pelt was parted, and now came its removal. He held the hares feet with one hand as his other hand slid its fingers underneath. Then, like removing the casing of a sausage, he pulled it off with ease. In one hand, a flayed rabbit, and in the other, its inverted skin.

 

   He stood, approached slowly, blood dripping from his nails, and tossed the tube of flesh on top of the Valarys’s rucksack. Then, he tossed the hare as well, its eyes now wide and lidless. Clean meat — clean hide — Zihayr did his job. Wouldn’t want it to get dirtied by the floor.

 

   Keep slicing that cheese cutting your bread, he thought, as he walked away, head turned, eyes not leaving Valarys. That man’s words echoed in Zihayr's mind:

 

   But if you like freezing alive, be my guest. I won’t miss you.

 

   Funny, he would mention that. That wasn’t the only way you can die in these mountains.

 

   When he was back in his own corner of the cave, Zihayr muttered something to himself:

 

   “No better than a slaver….”

@The Hummingbird

 

 

Edited by Artificer

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Appreciation and approval were hard to gain. Valarys, who respected nothing but strength, power, and persistence, gave neither to the dog. Nor did he deign to look up as the skin was dropped on his sack, or as the hare came flying back at him. He caught it in the air by its skinned ears and promptly skewered it through with a stick, placing the body over a fire to roast. Without stopping to consider his work, he went back to cutting the bread and slicing the cheese.

He was finished making a few plain sandwiches when Zihayr dared to speak. It was barely more than a mutter, a growled whisper. Perhaps the dog-boy spoke louder than he meant to. Perhaps Valarys’ hearing was sharper than most men’s. Those few words could barely be heard above the howling wind outside, but Vaharys heard. Slowly, he stood up, sandwiches held in the left hand. Curiously, Valarys heaved a sigh, a heavy breath of air.

“Hm. What?”

So fast even Zihayr could barely see, Valarys was before him. His free hand seized hold of the fabric wrapped around the dog-boy’s throat. In an instant Zihayr was in the air. In the next he was slammed against the wall, and Valarys’ face was close, nearly touching Zihayr’s muzzle. His breath steamed in the air as he spoke, in his own deadly snarl.

What did you say?”

He leaned closer, his grip tightening on the cloth.

“What did you say, you fucking bitch?”

“No better than a slaver?” His voice rose with each word. “Bastard whoreson, say it again and I will kill you where you stand. I. am. Nothing! Like! THEM!” He was screaming now. For a few still seconds, it looked like he would kill Zihayr regardless of whether he repeated the offense or not.

Suddenly, the fury in his eyes flared and was gone. He dropped the dog-boy, and in Zihayr’s lap fell two sandwiches as Valarys stalked away. He sat back down and began cutting up the bread and cheese, making just one more sandwich before speaking again, his voice cold but calm.

“Keep your mouth shut or we’re going to have an altercation.” His unsettling violet eyes remained on Zihayr, as focused and trained as a falcon’s cruel stare as he bit into the sandwich. Over the fire, the hare began to cook, emitting the savory smell of roasting meat. What a delightful evening.

Edited by The Hummingbird

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ZIHAYR

   Winded — winded and pinned. His mind didn’t process what happened until he found every instinct within him screaming bloody murder. His hair stood on end as he felt the blood pumping wildy throughout his veins. Breathing quickened as eyes widened, brow and muzzle scrunching so far that the creases had folds which had creases in themselves. There was a bottomless hatred that was uncorked at that moment — one not directed at anyone or anything. Unlike before, there was no facade of calmness. He was no longer an emotionless wall.

 

   He had told Valarys never to touch him.

 

   Inches — his claws were mere inches from impaling themselves into Valarys’s stomach. Ripping out his guts. Letting them fall to the floor. Inches from the delight which came of watching that man die screaming again, bloodied body soiling those precious alabaster tiles… staining that abhorrent rug. Splayed out with that detestable expression he had… him begging for his life as he tried desperately to keep his insides inside. No — Zihayr did not see Valarys as Valarys anymore, but as someone else entirely.

 

   Faces shifted in his bloodshot eyes as Zihayr’s own vision deluded him. His memories blurred with reality. The string of insults — the slamming of his back into the wall — he needed to satisfy his murderous impulses.

 

   Bitch — Bastard — Whoreson. Words he had been called before — names he no longer went by; names he would let no one call him. This man just said all three. They were insults anchored in harsh truths, each one striking a different chord. Too jumbled to make any sense of, but each one hammering that stake further and further. Zihayr didn’t want to remember the details.

 

   He felt his claws barely touching the thick fabrics of the man in front of him. Daggers, curled and prepped for the final thrust by the palm. He was really going to kill him.

 

   But without warning, all of those feelings were suddenly overtaken.

 

   “— Say it again and I will kill you where you stand. I. am. Nothing! Like! THEM!”

 

   Confusion settled in. Absolute incredulity. The words rang and rang in his ears as he found himself slumping to the floor with brow softened to a furrow. Two sandwiches fell into his lap, but he didn’t notice. His chest was still pounding, but he was completely and utterly dumbfounded.

 

   What did Valarys just say? He looked back, but the man was back to cutting sandwiches.

 

   “— Keep your mouth shut or we’re going to have an altercation,” he muttered, and Zihayr did well to follow.

 

   No person — no one would speak with such passion unless they knew. Zihayr didn’t know if it was a father, mother, sibling, child — distant relative or close friend. The man hadn’t spoken a word about his past, but then again, the two didn’t speak much at all. Was Valarys also a runaway slave?

 

   He found his hand unconsciously readjusting his own cowl before scratching that which was underneath.

 

   Questions he wanted to ask right then and there, but in the end, were left unspoken. The air was already as heavy as lead. The foul mood within the cavern held taut in palpable tension.

 

   Valarys gave his death-stare as Zihayr stared back.

 

   The wolf-man was angry — oh, he was still furious —, but now, it would seem that Valarys, in the end, was justified. Zihayr took a bite of his sandwich, daring not to break eye-contact with the other man.

 

   So they sat there staring at each other, eating what little rations they had while sitting on the cold, uncomfortable, cave floor.

 

@The Hummingbird

 

Edited by Artificer

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On and on the blizzard roared. Snow fell in flurries now, swirling down from the dark sky, gathering in clumps before the cave. Eventually, the entrance – and exit – had become totally blocked. The snow made a good insulator, though, and the fire, tended and encouraged by Valarys, proved enough to keep the entire shelter warm. Unfortunately, while the temperature grew comfortable, temperament went unchanged. Valarys continued to stare at Zihayr in silence, eyes icy and unblinking.

The first one to break eye contact, then, was surprisingly Valarys as he moved to rotate the spitted hare to ensure even cooking. After that, he acted much as if nothing had happened, going about his usual business; checking supplies, sharpening his knives, and lastly, writing in a little book he kept. This last was a daily habit of Valarys, though due to the unfriendly environment the book hadn’t appeared for a few days. What he wrote was kept a mystery and he didn’t seem interested in sharing. Especially with a dog that probably couldn’t read anyway.

The rabbit was nicely browned and smelled wonderful when Valarys finally removed it from the fire. He cut it in two, giving Zihayr one half.

Valarys ate like it was an unwanted chore. When he was finished, he dug out a longer stick amid the woodpile and jammed it through the snow-covered entrance until he was sure it reached past the snow. It seemed an odd thing to do, but true survivors knew better; it was to let in fresh air.

After that, Valarys gave Zihayr one last malicious glare before adjusting his scarf, lying down, and closing his eyes. If he was worried about Zihayr killing him while he slept, he was either good at not showing it or… didn’t care. Still, it was a while before Valarys’ breathing slowed and deepened.

~

By morning, the blizzard’s winds still screamed in its unearthly voice. It shrieked through the ravine, the sound echoing off the walls, sounding hollow and haunted, like the cry of a thousand unified ghosts. Valarys paced for several minutes in front of the entrance, before taking his book and pen out.

“We’re stuck here,” he said flatly. “Might die here.” Whatever. “Get comfortable, cause who knows when the blizzard will stop.”

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ZIHAYR

   It was difficult to get any sleep that night. Yes, the weather was no longer an issue as their current hideout became warmer and warmer as time went on; however, his mind wouldn’t stop going. Even in semi-slumber, he was at the mercy of his memories and thoughts. Drifting, then shoved, then tossed into a spiral. Flashes of a past that haunted him appeared in no particular order.

 

   When he awoke, Zihayr sucked in a breath sharply. He could feel sweat soaking his own fur. Strangely, there was that taste of roasted meat lingering on his tongue, and no sooner did his stomach growl expectantly. Damned be the gods. This may have been the first time in weeks where his hunger might become an issue. Half a hare and two sandwiches were not enough to sustain him.

 

   Vision soon refocused as the blur of colors became clearer. He wiped the crust from his eyes with his wrist before turning his attention towards Valarys. He was scribbling in some book. As to what he was writing, Zihayr didn't really care. In the same second Zihayr's eyes focused in on the pen, Valarys must have sensed the wolf-man's awakening as the man spoke with the same, everpresent nonchalance without ever looking up.

 

   When he was done, Zihayr had decided. This man was irritating.

 

   His demeanor was grating — vexing even. Something about his attitude had irked Zihayr greatly since the first day they had begun traveling together. It was a brand of pessimism he was well-acquainted with although barely acknowledged. Familiar, but also annoying.

 

   The situation wasn’t looking good at all, and to that, Zihayr let out a quarter of a laugh and shook his head. He could have won a fortune with his luck.

 

   “I don’t think I’ll be dying here. Wouldn’t want the last thing I see to be your ugly face. I’ll claw my way out before I let that happen. Rather die out there in the storm.” He hated closed spaces.

 

   He made his way towards the slope of packed snow that now barricaded the mouth of the cave and began to shovel bit by bit away with his cupped hands. Had to make sure that, at the very minimum, the entrance hadn’t been buried too deep. They would have to tunnel their way out eventually — even if the blizzard stopped, the snow wouldn’t just disappear.

 

   Then, without thinking, he began to talk.

 

   “You’re a cold asshole, you know?” Zihayr said, throwing out another handful of snow. “You are, in fact, a lot of things. Arrogant? Absolutely. A dick? Definitely.”

 

   He paused for a moment, considering his next words carefully. Zihayr wasn’t the type to keep things on his chest.

 

   “I’ll admit though, I am no better than you. Back where I am from, I would have had my throat slit for saying what I did yesterday, so thank you for not slitting mine….” There was a long sigh before he resumed digging out the snow.

 

   “I apologize for saying what I said,” he said lowly, tail now nestled between his knelt knees. “You are no slaver.”

 

   No sooner than his apology did he look over his shoulder with a piercing glare.

 

   “Call me a bitch, whoreson, or bastard — you so much as touch me again —, I will gut you,” he snarled. “Refer to me by anything else, you may. Mutt, dog — whatever. I don't care.”

 

   “I’m used to it.”

 

@The Hummingbird

 

Edited by Artificer

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For a moment, there was silence. Intense and almost suffocating, interrupted only by the light scratching of pen on paper. Expression unreadable, Valarys did glance up once or twice at the dog-boy, only to go back to writing with nary a response. When he finished, he folded the corner of the page, marking his place, and stored it back in his rucksack. He leaned back against the cave wall and watched Zihayr shoveling out the snow bit by bit.

He wasn't making too much progress, and Valarys finally rose to his feet and began to help, scooping out the snow with vigorous swipes. The fire flickered as the cold of the outside seeped in.

It was a long time before Valarys spoke. When he did, despite his words, his voice was calm and emotionless. “Sorry for what I called you. My anger does get the best of me sometimes… but threaten me again and I’ll break your neck.” He turned to Zihayr, one eyebrow raised. “Or I’ll try. Probably won’t get very far with that collar around your neck.” His nails had scratched against it when he had seized the dog-boy earlier, and while most certainly a “dick”, Valarys wasn’t stupid or ignorant.

“You must be used to a lot of things, having been a slave,” Valarys continued, and he chuckled mirthlessly. A spiteful and contemptuous sound. “And like your masters, I don’t need your permission to call you anything, Zihayr.” It was the first time Valarys used his proper name.

The snow wall began to collapse, falling in great drifts and piles as they made headway. A blast of cold hit them both as the outside was revealed. In full force, the blizzard moaned and bayed like a slain beast, the temperature well below freezing. Ice rimmed the mouth of the cave; the stone was slick with it, and the snow fell heavily in great, slanted curtains of deathly white. Scarf flapping in the wind, Valarys looked out into the bleak landscape, one hand shielding his violet eyes. No signs of stopping, and it didn’t look good. While he said nothing on the matter, dying here didn’t strike him as pleasant either.

“What did they use you for?” he asked suddenly. “Hunting? Punching bag? Intercourse?” He smirked. “Though why anyone would want you is beyond me. Call me ugly? Heh.” Turning, he went back to fire, stirring the flames before adding more wood.

Edited by The Hummingbird

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ZIHAYR

   “You’d be surprised…,” he whispered softly in a dark, sardonic tone. There was a reason he didn’t like being touched. A very good reason.

 

   When the hole was large enough for one of them to fit through, Zihayr stopped his work, and retreated back to his side of the cavern. The loose cloth which composed his trousers was now thoroughly soaked from kneeling in the snow, and if there was one thing he hated, it was wet fur. He should have worn his long cloak whilst doing the job — at least that was a waterproof article of clothing.

 

   A good investment for a trip such as this.

 

   Zihayr removed the offending outerwear from his legs, leaving only his undergarments which looked suspiciously like normal shorts — save for a section modified at the back which made room for his swishing tail. It was hand-sewn, and shoddy work at best. While the wolf-man was many things, he was by no means a tailor. Afterwards, he wrung as much of the moisture he could before hanging the foreign fabric from the lantern-hook next to the firepit to dry.

 

   Next came his coat, and then, surprisingly, his cowl. The man in front of him already knew, so no need to hide it any longer. He laid those two beside him, leaving him with nothing but his plain shorts, a flowy undershirt, and of course, his irremovable, iron collar.

 

   The wolf-man sat down next to the now-roaring blaze and tried to get more comfortable, but to no avail. Slowly, he began to unwind the bandages which covered his hands and feet, and when they were removed, he held out his toes and frost-numbed fingers to the flame.

 

   His arms — now full revealed — were thin of hair and laden with scars and tattoos. The ink seemed to undulate and move, as if possessed, under the flame; each image shifting as if they were alive. Titles in different languages were bold in color, displaying his numerous accomplishments. Tallies and numbers without meaning appeared and disappeared. One said “Champion” — another said “Tartarus’s Hound” — one below said “Hawk-Eyes”; the other tattoos were inscrutable. Nearly hidden by his sleeve was a price mark followed by numbers which were scratched out vigorously.

 

   “I was a pit fighter in The Alcove,” he said hollowly, eyes empty as he stared into the fire, thinking back to what he was before that. “I killed someone, and was thrown in with the lot of them.” He killed a lot more people after that too.

 

   “Think I was nine at the time when I first found myself in the ring — think I’m around thirty now.”

 

   “You had your beat-them-to-a-pulps, break-a-limb matches, but mostly — where I was — there were mainly fight-to-the-deaths. Popular sport,” he said, bitter emphasis on the last word. Those games were tournaments of the most unsavory nature. He would slaughter all of the masters if he could.

 

   “Still here I guess,” Zihayr shrugged. He was a damn good fighter when he wanted to be.

 

   “Gotta get this thing off of me,” he said, tapping on one of the runes of his iron collar. One of the letters faintly glowed orange — an active tracking spell. “Itches like crazy, as you can imagine. Keeps me under control though, so I am going to need some kind of replacement when we get to Caelum.”

 

   “What about you, Valarys,” he said, coin-like eyes turning back to a matching, violet pair. The wolf-man’s face was grave and sober. “What’d they take from you? A brother, father, sister, mother? Don’t think I don’t know — you spoke like you knew them.”

 

   “You a slave too?”

 

@The Hummingbird

 

Edited by Artificer

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For the first time, Valarys’ eyes sparked with interest as he took in Zihayr’s many scars. Tokens of what he thought the dog didn’t have – strength. In body and mind, for fighting well and winning took both. But there were other inscriptions, too. Marks of the abused, of torture and humiliation, of shame and brutality. The tokens of a victim. The flesh was healed around the scars, but there were other scars –

“Touch me again and I will gut you.”

– couldn’t be healed. Valarys knew that well enough as he watched the scars shift and change, moving across the skin like water striders over a pond. He noted the titles Zihayr had earned for his victories, but saw also the names and numbers that claimed him as less than human. Not a person, but property. A thing to be judged and sold and used for whatever the owner wanted

“Hawk-Eyes?” He understood the others well enough, but he wondered about this one. Was Zihayr particularly gifted in sight?

The pit fighter champion talked about his dream of getting to Port Caelum, the fabled city that lay somewhere beyond the mountains, filed with people of all races. A place where those like Zihayr could find help, or vanish completely. A fine start to a new life of freedom, something Valarys once dreamed of.

when we get to Caelum…”

If, Valarys thought.

Maybe… but no, it was too late.

His eyes blinked and refocused, finding Zihayr staring at him, making assumptions that irritated him to no end. Fortunately, there was no use to hiding anything now, and if they were trapped here too long they would die anyway. There was piles of firewood, but it wouldn’t last forever and food was even more of a worry. They could melt snow for water, but their rations would not be enough.

Valarys looked away for a moment. He grumbled something about nosy dog-men. Then he looked Zihayr in the eye as he reached to grip the cloth of his scarf. He pulled it down, just enough to show the parallel lines that ran across his throat and around his neck.

“My master took my collar off when he freed me. I don’t remember my family, he said they sold me.” He snorted as he rewrapped the scarf around his neck, tossing the end over one shoulder. “He said he liked my eyes and bought me for fifty gold pieces. I wasn’t lucky enough to fight in the pits like you though. I was a toy.” He looked away, staring at the wall, lower lip curling in scorn. “He put me through the Circuit thrice, so I don’t pity you.” Not in the least. “After the third time, he said I learned and was old enough, so he took the collar off. Guess I was lucky in a way, most don’t get masters like that.”

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ZIHAYR

   Zihayr’s expression crumpled into a scowl when he heard the word “toy”. Everyone in the Alcove knew what The Circuit was and what it meant when you earned a spot in it. Anger rose and gripped him by the throat as he thought about it; the perverted sadists who ran that system were subhuman scum. Lucky was a way to put it. To the werewolf, The Circuit was one of the worst hells he knew — only tied with the likes of Pit Tartarus itself.

 

   He smirked — a gold fang shining in the amber glow; a blade-scar cut across his lips. Palm met forehead as he shook his head vigorously. It was similar. Far too similar. Zihayr had to laugh, not at Valarys, but at what he himself went through. He had to laugh, otherwise, he would break. The wolf-man’s punishment was on a different level than the others who just visited the pits. This man in front of him had visited a similar hell, no doubt. He was kin through shared hardship.

 

   Zihayr lowered his hands and rested them on his knees. His expression subdued. There was a long pause.

 

   “We’re not free,” he sighed, teeth grit, as if stating an obvious fact. “Not yet at least.”

 

   Mind wandered back to the night before — to the words Valarys said. No, this man was not free either. He still wore his collar.

 

   “You know as well as I that our kind is bound by more than iron.”

 

   Their kind carried burdens beyond the yoke of their former masters.

 

   It was then, at that last word, Zihayr felt his insides tie up in a knot — pain wracking his guts. Its sudden onset was enough to make the wolf-man flinch. He looked away from Valarys for a moment as eyes darted towards the entrance of the cave. He smelled something.

 

   Damn — already?

 

   He didn’t give Valarys a chance to respond as he got up from the fire and began hurriedly putting all of his clothes back on. He had been ignoring it for the most part, but the wringing in his stomach could no longer be overlooked. He was used to feeling this way when his feelings were high, but this was notably more potent. That inhuman urge to kill and maim — a bloodlust that couldn’t be tamed —

 

   A reminder that he was less than human.

 

   Was the spell around his neck weakening?

 

   He shook his head. Regardless, he needed meat, and he needed it now.

 

   Quickly, he rewrapped his hands in those dirty bandages before slinging on his sword, axe, and cloak, leaving his bag behind. The blizzard gales carried that strange odor into the cave — a musk of sorts —, and it was now swirling through his nostrils. If he was correct, its source was not too far from their encampment. If he was wrong, this would be a long day.

 

   Zihayr stepped towards the slope of snow and began climbing out through the hole. Flakes of ice and knife-like winds assaulted him as he poked his head out into the blackness. He took a second to look back towards Valarys.

 

   “I’m going to step outside for a bit,” he said, tone shifting. “Don’t follow me — I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

 

   He was going to get some food.

 

@The Hummingbird

 

Edited by Artificer

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Some kind of reaction was anticipated. Something – yes, something – was to be expected, but laughter was not it. Valarys was caught by surprise, and frowned in puzzlement and annoyance as Zihayr laughed shaking his head back and forth as if he found the whole thing wonderfully amusing. Did the dog not believe him? Or was he watching some kind of bizarre hysteria or odd act designed to show some kind of weird sympathy?

Pity was not something Valarys took kindly. In fact, he detested it. Pity made men weak; it seemed to condemn what had happened to them and justified man’s expected reaction of crumbling and weeping under the pressure. But Valarys believed all trials, if survived, made one stronger. He had not crumbled or wept for years. Pain was a part of life, and to denounce it was to denounce the whole of life itself. No, pity was unneeded, unwanted, unnecessary. Pity, so often seen as a kind offering, was a malevolent obstruction.

Still, Zihayr’s reaction confused and irritated him, and his poetic words didn’t make much sense either. Valarys rolled his eyes, deciding that the dog took his story as greatly exaggerated or even partly false. He turned his attention back to the fire, stirring it again and adding another log as Zihayr hurriedly dressed and told him he was going out.

Valarys looked sharply up, then shrugged. “Go freeze if you want. Have fun.” Idiot.

Valarys dismissed Zihayr with a scowl and a turn of the back. Going out in such a blizzard was a death sentence, even for pit fighter champions. But he accepted that Zihayr was strong. He had to be, to get this far. Valarys wasn’t a babysitter; the mutt could take care of himself. And if he went and got himself killed… well, he’d find his body later.

Left alone in the cave, Valarys paced around the shelter for a moment before taking out his book again, opening the leather covers. Soon the pen scratched against the surface of a thick, vellum page, the sound muffled by the crackling of the fire. Unfortunately, he found it hard to concentrate. Zihayr had dredged up memories better left buried in dust, and pain he thought was gone for good.

Bound by more than iron?

Maybe it was not just poetry after all.

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ZIHAYR

   An hour had past, and the blizzard went on unabated. In fact, one could say that the storm was merely in its embryonic phases, its ferocity slowly growing with time. One couldn’t even see the sun, its light completely obscured by darkness born of purest white. Each flake of snow was a beast among thousands, starved to devour whatever warmth and radiance there was before it touched the ground — leaving nothing for the creatures beneath it.

 

   Step by wary step, Zihayr trod through the ever-deepening snow, his body still warmed with both liquid vitality and an unearthly vigor. His condition was both a boon and curse — strength for sanity, and a trade he could not call willingly.

 

   He dragged the snow covered corpses, their trail obscured as soon as it was made. He did not know how far he had traveled from the cavern when his vision went nigh, but he knew he was getting closer. The wind liked to play its tricks, dragging and pulling on the scent so that Zihayr would circle, turn, and possibly drift farther away, but he trusted his instincts. With a tangled thread in the maze, he traced his way back.

 

   Turning around a corner, he caught the faintest crack of light.

 

   —

 

   The entrance to the cavern was nearly buried, save for a small hole peeking out into the cold oblivion. Valarys must have been still writing in his book, unconcerned with that outside which he could not change. He must have been surprised when, without warning, a clawed foot came crashing through, kicking aside the rims, knocking down chunks of snow onto the firelit floor.

 

   Two feet preceded a figure as it slid down faster then any sled on a hill, a plume of white dust nearly putting out the fire. Its silhouette was shrouded, although it quite obviously came down without grace. Moreover, it was not alone.

 

   One could see a hand gripped around the ankles of what seemed to be two white wolves, the other holding the leg of a third; all three dragged with little care, all were riddled with wounds. The one dragged alone was clearly missing half of its neck. As the snow settled, it was apparent that these hounds were dead, save for the one who brought them here. Getting up to his feet, three trophies in tow was, of course, Zihayr.

 

   The wolf-man looked almost feral, fur blown to the side in one direction and spiked with red frost. His cloak had countless tears and his sleeves were nearly torn off. There were numerous bite marks that were visible on his arms, as well as a large crimson stain soaking his cape. His pupils were pinpoints as his face held a wild expression. His mouth was agape, corners of his lips twisted in what seemed to be a smile — breath steamed out, blood smeared across one side of his face, chin painted sanguine.

 

   Crazed eyes settled on Valarys, peering into icy violet. The man was still clutching onto his book.

 

   With a swing, he lobbed one of the corpses towards the wall opposite of himself; the body collided with an squelching thud, its head now hanging on by a few tendons as it fell at Valarys's right.

 

   “I caught that one,” he panted, “You skin it.”

 

   His teeth shined red as he gave a toothy grin.

 

   “Hope you eat dog….”


   Zihayr collapsed onto the ground.

 

@The Hummingbird

 

Edited by Artificer

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