Slither the Day Away
By Gerry Torbert
Darmon should have had a solid night's sleep, but again, the pleasure of its respite eluded him. He was thinking of olden times. He had been playing in the woods with some friends as a child. The other children knew of a certain pit that was covered with twigs and leaves in the late fall. Or so they said. Looking back on the event, Darmon still insists they knew of the pit and covered it. Either way, they all leaped over it as they ran, all but Darmon. He fell about ten feet, landing awkwardly and slipping on a wet branch at the bottom, breaking his lower left leg.
But what helped to cushion his fall was a living, writhing mass of some very irate woods snakes. They were harmless, if their bites were treated, but a few were over twelve feet long. He screamed for help, but his friends were far off and didn't return for what seemed to be an eternity. They extricated him from his prison, but not until he suffered several bites and a blow to the psyche. Since then, he hadn't seen a snake he could stand.
But there were things in this deep under-world that fascinated him. How an entire race of drow could live in such a world without contact or trade with the surface was a mystery. Where did they find food? How did many of the things he used to take for granted appear, such as air and light? Was much of this provided by surface trade with captives or threatened surface farmers, for instance? He coundn't imaging a life of servitude to an unseen race, appearing out of nowhere, taking whatever, and whomever, they wanted. He gritted his teeth at the thought of so many good Creags down here, working for them.
He was brought back to reality by Cellian, an obnoxious, bigoted, haughty little tyrant of a drow who believed, as did most of his bretheren, that humans should be nothing more than slaves, to be beaten, raped, and used as battle fodder. Cellian, the sadistic drow who had tricked him into agreeing (not that he had much choice) to serving as the attendant to Nurmm'siss, a yuan-ti. Eloise had tried to describe the mysterious snake-man, but she couldn't find the words.
Cellian reached for his hand and placed his ring against the manacle, freeing Darmon, who rubbed some life into the cramped left arm. "Is it always the left arm, master? I like to sleep on my other side," chided Darmon with a smile.
Cellian sighed. "Your failed attempts at humor do nothing more than annoy me, human pig. Shut your mouth or you'll have no breakfast, either. This collar fits the neck, too." He turned and walked out the entrance, looking back. "Food, Kax'Eloise, he'll need it today. Eat quickly, pigs. Nurmm'siss awaits." He left, laughing aloud.
Darmon chuckled. "Such a pleasant lad, Eloise. I'd like ta go drinkin' wi' 'im, someday. . ." He looked at Eloise's astonished face, adding, ". . .an' stuff 'im in a mug, whip and all." Eloise smiled, turning to get breakfast.
Cellian returned just as they finished the meal. He didn't need to say a thing. Darmon stood and began to walk out, as Eloise grabbed his hand to hold on for a moment longer. "Be careful, Dar. . .Kax'Darmon." He looked back to her and flashed his best assuring smile. He couldn't mask his fear, though. Immortal or not, he felt it.
They walked through the entries, twisting upward and downward, left and right, passing other thralls who were being whipped and beaten for slothfulness. They came upon a narrower entryway and turned into it as it ascended and turned. There were few other caves along the way, and a brief thought of isolation crossed Darmon's mind: No one could hear you scream back here. . .
"Wait here!" said Cellian, as he walked the last twenty feet by himself. He approached the entrance to the cave slowly, calling the yuan-ti's name. A hissing sound echoed down the last part of the passageway, piercing Darmon's bones, almost as if his body was sympathetically vibrating with the gruesome sound. After a few words in drow and a few more hisses, Cellian turned back to the Creag. "Slave, here, right now. Your slow walking has Nurmm'siss mad now, are you happy?" Darmon walked quickly, each step taking more and more energy, it seemed.
Cellian passed him and handed him the torch. "Here, you'll need this. Attend to him. Do what he wants. If you fail, you'll know, very quickly. The Yuan-ti do not accept mistakes. I'll be back at the end of the day. . .," he said, and then looked up into his eyes, smiling, ". . .if there's anything left of you!" He laughed as he left.
Darmon watched as Cellian walked away. He turned to the cave, holding his torch up to see what awaited him. He heard a slurping, sliding sound that almost turned his stomach. Visions of the woods snakes danced through his head. He could make out the barest of shadows as they moved past and over one another. "Ssss. . .humansss. . .come inssss. . .do notssss make me madssss. . ."
The flickering of the torch cast telltale dances of light and shadows on the cave walls as Darmon's hands shook uncontrollably. He began to walk but knew it would be best if he answered him, at least, and avoid angering him. "Yes, master. . .I am coming. The footing is slippery. . ."
The shadows within the cave were becoming clearer now. Black and charcoal scales clicked as the tail and the legs, or arms, or body slowly slid over one another. Slime from under the scales lubricated its thick skin, making the clicks even more sickening. It was all Darmon could do to maintain what was left of his composure.
The hissing that preceeded its speech shocked the man into a sweat. What he thought was a tail slowly wrapped its way around his waist, sliding, feeling, exploring this slave. "ssYesss. . .you'll do finessss. . ..getssss me foodssss. . . first cave you reachsssss. . . nowsss. . ." Darmon retreated. "Yes, master. You must be hungry." He turned and stumbled down the path.
Darmon hurried along the path, torch in hand. The small opening to a cave loomed in the shadows. He walked to the entrance and turned into it. His foot hit something slimy, rubbery, wet. He brought the torch in front of him to illuminate the hole. It was then that he wished he was back in Nurmm'siss' cave.
Squealing from beneath his foot was the gray body of a two-foot long slug. It looked back at its attacker and wheeled around to attempt to bite Darmon's foot. He nearly fell as he pulled back the leg that supported him, just missing the slow but fierce mollusk. He looked ahead and saw the entire floor of the cave, about thirty feet back, covered with the slimy creatures. They slowly crawled over one another, the sickening slurp of their lubricant assaulting Darmon's senses. Three of them nearest Darmon began to crawl toward him, their crops open and tiny hooklike teeth bared as they hissed.
But beneath them he saw what would far outstrip his distaste of this scene. Several bones, then a skull, were uncovered as the slugs headed slowly toward him. He backed up and, holding the torch out, he could see dozens of complete skeletons, picked clean. He visibly shook at the sight, then the thoughts, then the understanding of what faced him. Slaves, used up and old, were employed to feed these beasts, and in turn, they became yuan-ti food.
All seemed to follow a logical path, one of efficient management of unwanted biomass. He nearly lost his breakfast. But he did notice that the torch chased the slugs backward - either the heat or light - or both - was their natural enemy. It didn't matter to Darmon, though, as he grabbed several by the tail as they crawled away. They both tried to curl back and attack his hand, but their weight was too much for their muscles, which weren't often used for that motion.
He grabbed another, holding them out with the torch to prevent himself being bitten. He wasn't worried about the bites, but just the thought of them. He returned to Nurmm'siss.
He approached the cave. "Master, I have food for you. I assume these are. . .what you wanted?" Out of the shadows darted a snake's head, easily a foot wide and snatched a slug from his grip. The worm squealed as the jaws snapped shut with a nauseating squirt of juices and a stifled squeal. A gulp followed, and soon the head darted back for a second of the slippery morsels. "I sssaved lasss. . . one for ussss. . . sharesss. . ." The unmistakable sound of what would pass for a chuckle came eerily from the darkness.
Darmon turned pale - a good thing that the room was dark. "Thank ya, master, but I've a'ready eaten breakfast. I like me slugs cooked, anyway." The yuan-ti shook his head. "Put slugsss. . .down. . ." Darmon dropped the ghastly gastropod to the floor.
Nurmm'siss walked over a little closer to it and bent over as it tried to crawl away. Darmon could see him concentrating on the slug, then saw it start to vibrate, first slowly, then faster. It screamed and its skin began to hiss, steam shooting from its mouth. Soon, it burst in half, the gut-wrenching skin peeling back to reveal organs popping with steam and muscle fiber snapping and curling as if it was on a spit, over a fire. Fat and grease mingled with bubbling blood as the putrid animal was transformed into a delicacy, in the yuan-ti's mind. He stopped and slowly backed up, offering Darmon the fine lunch with a sweep of his hand.
Darmon resisted the urge to gag as he picked his lunch from the floor. He was well aware that he would have to eat the slug, or at least half of it, to begin to relate to the snake-man and gain his trust. He picked one hunk of muscle from the back - probably the best part, he thought - and ate. Hmmm. . .tastes like chicken. . . he thought. He searched for more muscles and downed them. After eating much of the meat, he slid the rest to his benefactor Nurmm'siss, who picked it up and ate it whole. "Notsss. . .as good as rawsss. . .," he said.
The yuan-ti hacked a few times. "You firsss. . .human who eat withsss. . . me. . . others became my foodsss. . . Not sure if slugsss. . . tasted better. . . " He hacked a laugh again. "I'm honored, master," was the reply. Nurmm'siss slowly retreated back into the cave a few feet. "Comesss in, humanssss. . . I need companyssss. . ." Darmon took a deep breath and walked forward.
As the torch shed its light around the room, he could see some startling items. Along the left side, he noticed a table and chair, with parchment and pens. To the right he saw a stack of books on another table. Another chair was placed against the far wall. The pungent smell of body slime and defecation filled the air, but the floor was clean. He noticed another torch along the wall, so he lit it and placed his in a hole beside it.
He then noticed Nurmm'siss himself. The creature's body was that of a very large snake, much fatter in proportion to its length than what he would have expected. His tail made up half of his body's length, and his neck was easily six feet from shoulder to jaw. The arms and legs were heavily muscled, necessarily so, because the yuan-ti probably weighed in at five hundred pounds of meat.
Then Darmon noticed the head. Although it was that of a snake, with few features of a humanoid or drow, it was beautiful. The lines of the jaw, the crown of the eyebrows, the strength of the neck, all worked together to form a graceful creature. And the eyes - piercing, reddish, powerful - seemed capable of dealing instant death or displaying great intelligence. Suddenly, Darmon was at peace. He didn't fear his master. He smiled. His mistake. . .
The yuan-ti reared his head, standing tall. "You. . .slavessss. . .bare you teethssss. . .at me, after I notssss. . ..kill youssss. . .." He snapped his head toward Darmon's chest. The man moved slightly backward and the fangs scraped his chest only enough to draw two grooves of blood as the snake-man withdrew. "No, Master! I am not attacking you! This is a smile, a sign of good will among humans!"
Nurmm'siss reared his head again, looking Darmon in the eyes. He cocked his head to the sides, assessing his opponent. "Hmmmssss. . . hurgnas. . . hurgnas. . . emullgasss. . . hmmmsss. . . hack, hack, hack, hacksss. . ." He nodded, almost convulsively. Darmon took this ancient language as laughter. "Neversss. . . see. . . smilesss. . . from slavessss. . .. Is goodssss. . . will healsss you. . ." He reached with his hand slowly toward Darmon, but pulled his arm back. He noticed the wounds healing very quickly. . .
"You. . .special, magicalsss?... healsss self. . . why you slave, magicssss. . .manssss. . .?"
Darmon smiled, this time a little more slowly. "It's a long story, master. A long, sad story."
"One thingsss. . . Nrum'siss havesss. . . is timesss. . . " He motioned to the chair by the table. Darmon sat. And talked. The work day grew short.
As Nurmm'siss listened, Darmon realized the great intelligence within the creature. He glanced at the books as he talked. At a lull in the conversation, Nurmm'siss motioned to them. "You readsss. . . bookssss? Old manuscriptsss. . . Drow lawssss. . . hissstory of Drowsss. . . Duergarsss storiesss. . . read them sssmanysss times. . . one I likesss. . . on bottom. . . " Darmon picked the others off carefully, and there on the bottom was a book of songs and poetry written by elves. Darmon looked to Nurmm'siss questioningly. "Is 'is one a little bit of contraband, master?"
The yuan-ti hacked a little. "Yes, I havesss. . . to hide booksss. . . from bastard Celliansss. . ., Dulim notsss. . . appreciate Elvessss. . . like I do. . ." Darmon chuckled. "I dunna think the jackasses unnerstan' good readin' like you an' I' master. I've read the one on the bottom, meself, an' find it calming. Ya dunna like these bastard Drow, do ya, master?"
Nurmm'siss nodded. "Yousss. . . seem to understandsss. . . to feel thingsss. . . you are rightsss. . . slave. . . what is your namesss. . .?"
"Kax'Stuart, master. In line for the throne of our land, I am. At least, I was. Darmon Stuart's me given name."
Nurm'siss nodded at the mention of his name, then stared for a moment, as if he knew it. He looked down, then shook his head as if he wasn't sure. "Drow - yesss. . . I hate themsss. . . they made our racesss. . . but we are very strongsss. . . we have many powerssss. . . they keep usss. . . apartsss. . . have not ssseensss. . . family. . . can notsss. . . leave cave, drowsss. . . sorcerer too strongsss. . ."
Darmon sighed and put the books back. "'Tis a shame, master. A being of your knowledge, a man of my stature, and here we are, captors of a bunch o' twisted arses. Just who do these Drow think they are, anyway? They've gotta know they're no match for the whole of Farland." He saw a chance to make a connection through a common enemy.
Suddenly, Nurmm'siss lifted his hand toward Darmon. The Creag made a move to avert him, but stopped, knowing that nothing he could do would prevent the snake from harming him, even if he was to heal himself. Nurmm'siss hacked again, nodding. "Try to makesss. . . Nurmm'siss fight drowsss. . .? We live for Salystrassss. . .. Like they do. . . let me see whatsss. . . you think. . . "
Darmon felt a surge of power entering his mind. The yuan-ti was reading it. Some of his thoughts were being brought to the surface, and he relived them as if they were happening at the very moment. Many of them were painful - those nearest him who died, his transgressions toward Tanarus, his curse. But mainly his desires were being explored. It seemed that the yuan-ti had a more direct approach of determining his opponent's intentions.
It took only a few seconds, but to Darmon it seemed as though years had passed. Nurmm'siss broke the bond and stepped back, leaving a flushed and panting Creag. "You know that I could easily eats yousss. . . Darmonstuart. . . like I have othersss. . . but you are rightsss in your assessment. . . we have common. . . captorsss. . . besides, might be hard to eatsss. . . human that heals selfsss. . . and I may then be ssstricken with your cursss. . . "
"The Drow aresss. . . powerful beings, changed by a powerfulsss. . . artifact long since lossss. . . they changed some of themselves, makingsss. . . Yuan-ti. . . but made us very intelligentsss. . . we can use minds to move thingsss. . . make things happensss. . . but even more powerful when we gathersss. . . "
"Drow know thisss. . . they keep us apart, but many of usss. . . live further on down in cavesss. . . they have too much powersss. . . to fight, at least nowsss. . . but we need more of us to gathersss. . . to defeat them. But for now, Drowsss. . . use us for battle. . . not care whatsss. . . happen to us. . . just do their biddingsss. . . "
Darmon thought of his situation. Could he side with this being, even knowing the creature might be as evil, as destructive as the Drow? And did this one have enough power to help him escape? Would he be trading one master for another? Did it matter, at this point? Could he trust one who worshipped the same evil god as the Drow? There was much to ponder.
The rest of the day was spent building a little more trust, and little more understanding, a little less fear. They discussed Darmon's situation, and he didn't mind telling all of it - how was he to be sure Nurmm'siss hadn't seen it all, anyway? They discussed the similarities of their predicaments - both cursed, both slaves to someone else's whims, both victims of circumstances beyond their control. They both realized their similarities. The day passed quickly.
Nurm'siss leaned back on one of the chairs. "Will you returnsss. . . tomorrowsss. . .?"
"I dunno, master. Depends on Cellian. I'd like ta. Seems all they think I'm good for here is 'eavy work, probably later on it'll be battle."
"You seem very calmsss. . . when around Cellian. . . he is brutalsss. . . but that doesn't seemsss. . . to bother you at all."
Darmon nodded. "'E can only 'urt me so much, an' it's only pain. I'm trainin' meself ta live through the pain, because that's the only thing 'e 'as over me."
Nurmm'siss nodded. "He'sss limited in his abilitiesss. . . some others have more powers, but sorcerer is one to give you worrysss. . . speaking of Cellian, is heresss. . . now. . . do not worrysss. . . I take caresss. . . of himsss. . ."
The sound of footsteps became closer. How the yuan-ti knew, Darmon could only guess. Cellian entered the cave. "Time to take you back, pig. Move, now!" Cellian suddenly looked forward and stopped, staring at Nurmm'siss. He slowly said, "Yes, I will bring him back tomorrow. . .yes. . ." He turned to the entrance, almost mechanically. Darmon looked back at Nurmm'siss and smiled as he began to walk out and follow the drow. "I'll bring ye a good dinna on my way tomorra, master." Nurmm'siss nodded and hacked, an intelligent-and evil?-gleam in his eyes.