I’m worthless. All of this is pointless.
Adorin gritted his teeth before collapsing onto a musty bare mattress that lay catty-cornered across the floor. It took up most of the small room, which was barely big enough to take a few steps in. How long would he be able to continue living like this?
He’d never been so lonely, despite living in a city of nearly twenty-thousand. It felt like he was the only dark-skinned person on the planet, and the citizens never let him forget it. There were only a handful of merchants that would trade with him and that number dwindled by the year.
Nau was rumored to be a city of opportunity. The economy boomed, and there were plenty of mentors desperate to take on new apprentices, though the young man would find out the reason for that desperation. It was more a ploy for cheap labor than an actual apprenticeship.
Adorin hailed from Alacotl, which had one small city for the wealthy and many rural villages for the poor that sprawled like satellites from the city’s heart. They existed on the ever-shrinking border of human lands, left exposed to fend for themselves against the might of the G’yel. It was the same result each time. Slaughter. Destruction.
He never understood the G’yel’s hostility. Humans and beastmen coexisted on Alacotl and other sky islands for hundreds of years. Neither species intermingled, but there was peace, at least. He often wondered if they were driven to war by desperation or something more sinister. Whatever their reasons, they weren’t good enough to redeem the beasts in his eyes.
Though things were tough, Adorin considered himself to be one of the most fortunate unfortunate people in the world. He lost his mother and his home, but he had Lydia, the hedgewitch. She adored Adorin, taking him in as a teenager and teaching him what she could in the little time she had left.
The second week of Xule would mark two years since she died—one month away. Lydia left everything she owned to him, and it was just enough to get him here. He bet everything he had on Nau and lost. If he could do it over again, Carthia would have been his choice.
It seemed the longer he lived in that wretched city, the poorer he got. The only master of medicine that would take him in was Nindo Tauh. Denoting him as master was a stretch, considering Adorin knew more about healing as a child than the old man. Tauh may have been more experienced in medicine, but he had no knowledge beyond the science.
Healing was more than throwing a few leaves in a clay bowl of solution. It was spiritual, and it came from the soul itself. It flowed from the veins to the patient through touch and empathy. There were other more magical things Lydia taught him; she was a witch, after all. But those lessons came with stark warnings.
She made him promise he would never use magic to heal directly, only to assist in healing. He could fortify tonics, potions, and topical creams, or use his touch to soothe a patient during treatment. However, once he began using magic to pull people from death, he risked losing years of his own life.
Dear child, the world needs balance. In order for mortals to create, they must destroy. One cannot create something from nothing, such knowledge belongs only to the realm of the gods themselves. Magic is also balance, no matter what form it takes. We cannot prevent mortality without giving up something in exchange. I have tried to find a way around this, and I wish I had known when I was younger what it would cost me. I do not want that to be your fate.
She wasn’t old when she died, merely forty-three. However, she looked many decades older. She had given up half of her life to save those who would leave her to languish in the wilds, and they would never truly comprehend the sacrifice she made. They would all die in fire, anyway.
It was hard to think her a fool for what she did. There was not a soul alive as caring, and she devoted herself to all life—beast or man. The gods called her back to become one of them for sure. He often thought of her watching over him while he slept. It gave him comfort and encouraged him to keep going despite the many misfortunes and tragedies of his own life.
Adorin lay in bed, eyes closed as he thought of Lydia’s soft smile and kind eyes as she taught him all of those lessons. The days he spent forgetting his troubles as she walked alongside him through the woods, teaching him about healing herbs, plants, and trees were now his most precious memories.
Lydia’s lessons were all about balance, and perhaps the same concept applied to the events of one’s life as well. After so much misery, there must have been something amazing waiting for him in the future. He had to believe that.
“Rin,” the old man spat as he waddled into the alchemy lab, eying Adorin sitting at the workbench, skillfully milking spring nettle into a glass vial. Tauh never once called him Adorin. In Nauan society, shortening one’s name was the ultimate sign of disrespect. Symbolically, when one used part of someone’s name, they were not relevant enough to be considered a full person.
“Yes, Master Tauh,” Adorin replied blankly, not taking his eyes off the white sap dripping into the tube.
“Lord Yanth is expecting to show his new possession to the other nobles later this afternoon.” The young man closed his eyes and swallowed as Tauh brushed by him. “Tend to the beast’s feet again.”
“Master, please, I—” The old man cut him off.
“Did you die yesterday?”
“Well, no. But…”
“Then you won’t die today,” Tauh mumbled, snatching the vial out of Adorin’s hand. “If that luck of yours holds true.”
“Sir, he growled at me,” Adorin said, barely able to get the words out. He was lucky to get close enough to lure the beast to sleep using soothing magic, but he feared the G’yel. They were the creatures that still haunted his nightmares from childhood.
“It growls at everyone. That’s what they do.”
“They also kill people.”
“How many black bones do you owe me, Rin?”
With that, Adorin sighed as he stood. He took another deep, shaky breath before nervously shuffling through the door. The pit wasn’t far, but it was enough of a walk for him to agonize for minutes about how the next encounter would go. That beast hated him; he could see it in his eyes, feel it pulsing from him in waves.
Tauh didn’t care what happened. Though he made clear the best outcome would be him obtaining a new apprentice and Adorin having his bones picked clean by a hungry G’yel. The beast was exhausted yesterday, so it was easy to touch him. Today he’d be restless and irritable.
“Back to the pit today, healer?” A guard said, opening the heavy iron door that sealed the hall off from his destination. It was strange to have doorways in the middle of corridors, but they served a purpose. If someone escaped their cell in the pit, they would be met with armed guards and nowhere to escape.
Adorin blushed as he raised his gaze from the ground. That was Vicco Sa’an, an officer of the Lord’s guard and one of the few people that treated Adorin with any ounce of humanity. He was in his late twenties, tall and thick from years of training.
Vicco’s skin was whiter than his, but darker than the merchants and nobles in the city that could remain inside, away from the punishing heat of the suns. A thick black patch of facial hair grew from his chin, stretching to his bushy sideburns and jet-colored, curly hair.
He was handsome, and Adorin’s body responded to the man each time he passed by. Such indecent thoughts were taboo in Nauan society, and he kept his desires well-hidden. It was yet another reason to escape Nau and live in a freer society. His unusual interests in lovers made him feel more out of place, but at least he could hide that.
Adorin cleared his throat while bowing his head. “Yes.”
“Treating the beast again?”
Adorin nodded, and a gauntlet-clad hand fell to his shoulder.
“You’ve got balls of steel, my friend. With a little bulking up, you’d make a good soldier.”
The young man’s face went hot. This wasn’t something he did by choice, in fact, none of what he did daily was his choice. Adorin wasn’t a fighter. The very thought of him being a soldier and killing people went against everything he stood for. He saved lives; soldiers took them.
Not wanting his face to betray his emotions, he brushed past Vicco, waving back at him without a word. Knowing he’d regret it, he turned his head and glanced at the guard who smiled at him. His legs went weak as he nodded and turned back to his front, pushing himself faster down the hall.
As he approached the pit, he noticed the door was slightly ajar, deep laughter and snarls echoing from it. People were in there with the beast, and judging by the sounds he made, they were likely teasing him. That was just what he needed, more of a reason for the G’yel to tear out his throat.
He walked into the pit and down the steps, watching in horror as two guards poked the G’yel with sharpened poles. Adorin cleared his throat, and the men turned to face him.
“I—I am here to prepare the G’yel.” Both guards cocked their heads and laughed.
“You?” one of them said with a snort. “That thing will eat you and shit your bones later.”
Adorin bowed his head respectfully. “If I am not needed, then I will let the lord know that you will be bringing the G’yel to him, uninjured and presentable.” He paused and looked back up, his eyes serious. “Uninjured,” he repeated.
The guards glanced at one another, their faces turning a grayish-pale.
“No, boy,” the other man said. Adorin hated being called ‘boy’ by the other men. These guards were not much older than he. “It was a mistake. We thought the beast was fodder for the show.”
“I—I would not mind some assistance,” the young man said, his eyes pleading as the men walked by him. “You both riled him up, and he may get violent.”
“The lord asked you, did he not?” One of the guards stopped in the doorway and shook his head. There was fear written on his face. He knew the moment that cell was opened, the beast would likely get its revenge. One G’yel was stronger than three or four men combined. “We have to be back on the wall; only came by for a bit of fun.”
“Please,” Adorin implored. The guard ignored him and disappeared into the hall, metal boot steps getting softer as they rounded the corner.
The beast growled, his glare fixed on the young man like a wolf would eye its next meal. He was pissed, and rightfully so. There were small streams of blood trailing his chest and stomach where the guards had prodded him with those sharp poles.
He sat his medicine basket on the corner table and removed salve, cloth and bandages, hands shaking as he prepared to himself. Perhaps the beast would understand he wasn’t like the guards who tortured him. But he was a human, and G’yel hated all humans, regardless.
Adorin grabbed the ring that hung from the wall and walked over to the door, sliding the key into the hole, clicking the lock before pulling the cell door open. He didn’t look up at the G’yel, but he could feel the beast’s furious glare beating him down.
He heard a slight rustle and a tapping on the floor prompting him to lift his head. To his amazement, the G’yel was seated on the floor, his claws tapping on concrete before pointing to his paws. The young man exhaled in relief as he slowly dropped to his knees and lifted the beast’s heavy left paw to his lap, undoing the dirty bandage that wrapped it.
Adorin swallowed hard and looked up at the creature whose head was back against the wall, eyes closed with a slight, toothy grin on his face. Did he enjoy having his paws tended to? The wealthier humans often went to the steam springs to have their feet washed and rubbed by the servants.
It was all rather silly, and he wasn’t sure why people enjoyed having their feet touched by strangers. The soles of his feet were sensitive, ticklish. The experience would likely leave him in fits of laughter to the point of pissing himself.
Adorin was momentarily lost in thought, forgetting what he was doing. One of the beast’s eyes opened, and he snarled, prompting the young healer to continue.
As he gently washed the foot paw with the damp cloth, he shook his head. Even a G’yel outranked him in Nau. He felt like a servant rather than a respected healer who only wished to offer his aid. Judging by the expectant tapping from earlier, the G’yel likely thought of him as the lowly servant.
It was more humorous than humiliating.
This can’t last forever. There’s got to be something better.
There was so much he wanted to say to anyone who would listen, but there was no one. It had been a while since he had any kind of release. He used to run to the edge of Ke’chetah, away from the city, to scream into the wastelands below, which was always obscured by steam and clouds.
In Alacotl, he’d sit on the edge of the sky island, staring out into the billowing mist which had a reddish glow at night. Lydia told him that long ago there were vast expanses of water in this world. One could stand on the edge of the land and look out into an endless, shimmering blue. It seemed a ridiculous tale, but he often imagined it.
He dipped two fingers into the salve and rubbed it into the beast’s rough padded paws. Though it was humiliating to be a G’yel’s servant, the motion of his hand seemed to please the beast, keeping him calm.
“I hate you,” Adorin said calmly as he continued to massage, letting his fingers slide between the beast’s clawed toes. The creature wasn’t a person, and he couldn’t understand what Adorin said, but he was there. If he kept the G’yel calm long enough, he could vent.
The G’yel half-opened an eye as he heard the human’s voice.
“Your kind took everything from me, and here I am rubbing your filthy feet.” The human let out a sad laugh before shaking his head. “I guess we’re both trapped here, aren’t we? You’re going to die in the coliseum, and I’m locked into indentured servitude.” A hiss of air left his nose. “Not sure whether to envy or pity you.”
The beast tapped the ground, pulling Adorin’s attention as he pointed impatiently to the other paw.
“Of course,” the human muttered. “Your majesty.”
Adorin could have sworn he heard laughter just then. His eyes snapped to the beast’s face, which was expressionless as usual. He gently bandaged the left paw and let it rest on the floor before lifting the right one into his lap, repeating the process.
“Maybe I don’t hate you,” Adorin whispered. “You haven’t killed me yet, so I guess that’s something.” The man sighed as he examined the beast’s giant paw. It was about three hands wide with claws half a hand in length. They weren’t that sharp, having been worn into dull nubs from walking on rough ground most of his life.
Adorin grabbed the bandage and wrapped, securing the end in a tight knot. He sat the appendage on the floor and looked up at the beast’s bloody midsection.
He dipped the cloth in water and cautiously moved to the G’yel’s side. Adorin didn’t have to do this, but he also didn’t want to leave wounds untreated. Given the filthy conditions the beast was forced to endure, even superficial wounds like these could lead to deadly infection.
As soon as the wet cloth touched the G’yel’s chest, a powerful hand grabbed his forearm. Adorin looked up at the beast’s maw, his teeth bared. Perhaps this was the boundary, and the human crossed it.
“You are hurt,” the human said softly, his eyes darting to the side in fear. There was something familiar about this. The beast’s expression shifted almost instantly, and he cocked his head, releasing Adorin’s hand. “Let me finish, and you’ll be rid of me.”
He thought about using soothing magic like last time, but it always took a lot out of him. Since the creature’s aggression eased, he decided to work without draining himself for the entire day.
After wiping the dried blood away, he dipped his finger in spring nettle sap, gently applying it to the wounds on the beast’s chest and abdomen.
“You have an interesting face,” Adorin said, pulling away before neatly setting his vials and dirty rags back into the basket.
The G’yel raised his brows before his countenance turned glassy and confused, his broad ears resting to the sides of his head.
Adorin stumbled to his feet and bowed, letting out a soft chuckle when he realized what he did. He bowed so much lately that it was an automatic response.
“Be well,” he said, turning away before walking through the cell door. He let it rest against the frame with a light metallic clank before turning the key to lock it. The beast sat there staring up at him, this time the gaze was much softer than when he entered.
What an odd creature.
Adorin decided not to return to the lab. Master Tauh would likely berate him tomorrow, but after the stress of today, he needed to have a moment to himself, away from the noisy, crowded city.
It wouldn’t take long to reach the edge of Ke’chetah from the eastern exit of the city. The jungle wasn’t as dense the further one was from the sky island’s center. It was why Nau was built where it was. The land was free from the thick, almost impenetrable vines that covered every tree and rock. They were a beautiful blue-green with vibrant orange and red flowers that bloomed year-round. They looked harmless, and that was why they were so deadly.
If one wasn’t paying attention, the thousands of hooked thorns on the vines could grab onto flesh like a serpent’s teeth, locking someone into place. They would wrap around the unfortunate person or animal, squeezing them to death. As the body decomposed, the plants drew from the nutrients.
The miners and lumberjacks of Nau learned how to deal with the lethal nuisance, but tragedies happened all the time to those that were careless or complacent.
The vines were also a rather efficient way to execute the worst criminals as well. Nau was creative with their punishments. For even the pettiest crimes, the consequences depended on the status of who was wronged. For instance, if one stole from a lord they’d end up in the coliseum, used as entertainment during intermissions.
They were often equipped with small round bucklers and scimitars, but no armor as they faced whatever the beast of the day was. It always ended the same way, and the crowd loved it. It was disgusting how people loved watching death. The bloodier the better.
Civilized society was anything but that. The more people hid behind the façade of banal etiquette and customs, the more barbaric they were beneath the surface. Watching and cheering during a brutal fight to the death brought about the release they all sought.
Adorin never understood why people were forced to hide their true selves away for fear of persecution, but whether or not they knew it, the resentment of such constraints manifested in other, more malicious ways. He saw the way it poisoned this society, its peoples’ appetites for violence growing stronger by the day. Insatiable.
In the distance, he saw someone, plate armor reflecting the light of the suns. He stood, looking out over billowing white. Adorin wasn’t the only one who needed to break away from the controlled chaos of Nau.
The closer he got, the more he recognized the figure. His heart fluttered as he glimpsed the curly black hair cut short above the neck. Why was Vicco out here?
Adorin slowed before stopping, jumping behind a mossy boulder as he watched the man from afar. He didn’t want to get close, for obvious reasons. It wasn’t often he got to take in the strikingly handsome image of the soldier for longer than a minute.
He felt odd staring, but he’d probably never get this chance again. If he could keep staring long enough, the image would burn into his memory. The fantasies alone would be enough to sustain him through the loneliest moments.
Adorin exhaled, finally turning back around before sliding to the ground out of sight. He wished he could draw. Vicco was perfect, his pose proud as he surveyed the skies. What a beautiful picture that could be.
He’d need to wait for the officer to leave before he made his way to the edge. He also thought about going further north, but he didn’t want to venture too far from the city. After a few moments, he leaned over and glanced back at the island’s edge. Vicco was gone.
Adorin pushed himself to his feet and walked out from behind the boulder, shuffling toward the edge while scanning the area.
“I knew you were here,” a deep voice rang out from behind. Adorin jumped, turning to see a smirking Vicco leaning against the boulder, his plate-covered arms crossed with one foot kicked up behind him against the rock’s face. How had he kept so quiet wearing all that armor?
“I apologize, sir,” Adorin whispered as he looked down, barely able to control his breathing. “I did not wish to disturb you.”
“Stop with the sir and the bowing,” he muttered. He let the foot that pressed against the boulder fall to the ground. “What’s your name, healer?”
“A—Adorin,” he replied, still not able to meet the man’s intense stare.
Vicco approached, extending his armored hand. “I don’t think we’ve ever officially introduced ourselves,” he said. The younger man’s fingers wrapped around the thick gauntlet. “It’s nice to meet you, Adorin. I’m—”
“Vicco, sir… I mean—” The younger man stopped himself after realizing he’d interrupted. His nerves got the better of him, and he was still breathless as he struggled to raise his head.
“Just because I’m an officer doesn’t mean you have to be so formal.” He shook Adorin’s hand before letting go. “You can call me Vic. Everyone does.”
The younger man’s brows furrowed in confusion. Why would a Nauan officer who commanded respect want his name shortened?
“That does not offend you?” Adorin asked, looking at the older man’s face.
“Not with friends,” he responded, his eyes squinting as he grinned. “I’ve watched you for a while. Didn’t think you’d last this long under Tauh. You’re his seventh apprentice in five years. Most quit after a few months.”
“I have little choice,” Adorin said, bitterness spitting from his lips. He caught himself and thought about something better. “It is rewarding though.”
“Of course.” Adorin turned away from the man and looked out at the clouds. It was easier to talk when he wasn’t so focused on gauging the man’s reaction. “If I can save them…” He trailed off for a moment. “If I can take away their pain and watch them get better, the look of joy and relief on their faces keeps me going.”
“But they all die,” Vicco said sternly, causing Adorin to grit his teeth and squeeze his eyes closed.
“Yes,” he muttered. “They die.”
Vicco’s heavy hand fell to Adorin’s shoulder.
“This place breaks people,” the man whispered. “Good people like you. Don’t waste your youth trying to heal those that are already dead.”
It was a cold way of putting it, but there was truth. Was he really doing any good here? His skills allowed Lord Yanth to milk every drop of entertainment and coin from one man’s misfortune. He’d pull a man back from the jaws of death only for him to kill or maim another he’d once cared for. Or the fighter’s luck would finally run out.
It was like running on a wheel, getting nowhere. He wasn’t healing. All he did was prolong the suffering.
“Come, drink with us sometime,” Vicco said, letting his hand slide off of Adorin’s shoulder before walking to his front. “You probably don’t go out much.”
“There is no money to go out.” Adorin crossed his arms, now able to look at the man’s face without blushing. Something changed. Vicco’s indifference to human lives made him less appealing. Yes, some men who died were criminals, but most were slaves. All were people. “And I don’t drink, anyway.”
The young man walked toward the edge of the island where Vicco stood earlier, not looking back at the man. He heard plate rub against plate dissipating into silence as the officer headed back toward town. Perhaps that was too rude of him, and the last thing he wanted to do was draw the ire of a high-ranking soldier.
As he thought about why he was so angry, he came to a realization that made him feel foolish. Adorin was more upset that it only took a few words for Vicco to tear down the fantasy he’d built up in his mind.
Though he understood this, it didn’t make it hurt any less. A fantasy would only be that, and what man could ever live up to those standards? He’d need to apologize later, but for now he wanted to stare out into the vastness, wishing for the day he would soar through it, far away from this place.