Nyla Woethief

People say they'd take a friend's pain if they could. I'm not so sure; I've done it for my foes. I am Woethief. writing.exchange/@NylaWoethief

001 Nyl Fights Ankor

I last died 57 days earlier. I strapped my rusted dagger to my right forearm. My hood obscured my face from the crowd’s prying ears. Booing erupted as I stepped into the arena. Ankor, my opponent, sneered at me from his place on the platform. A beautiful, full-blood leaned on his shoulder.

“Don't kill this hag too quickly; I want to see her suffer.” she thrummed into him and spat at me.

The shrieks, of the men in the stadium followed her as she exited the platform. Each man wished she belonged to him.

After the King formally introduced us combatants, Ankor and I sipped pure water from the ceremonial cup. A courier carried away the chalice as soon as it left my lips. Rather than examining my plentiful weaknesses, Ankor thrummed forth his venom.

“Will you murder me today, like you’ve already done to many others.” Ankor sent vibrations from his feet into the ground beneath us to communicate his words.

How does he know what I am? Did my mistress tell him or is he just guessing?

“I not kill you.” I emulated the vibrations of their language with my mouth, because I could not thrum like the others of my world.

“Everyone knows who you are. Don't think you're fooling anyone. You're a murderess and you can't get a man either. You're not pretty enough, nothing like my girl.”

His words eroded my confidence. They stung so deeply because I knew they were true. I was ever too plain to become Princess. No one wanted or expected a slave girl to progress so far in this contest, especially not a girl with my past. Every man resented me. If I were beautiful, then they might receive me. They might overlook my crimes. At least the crowd did not seem to recognize me. Once they did, all hope of becoming Princess would evaporate.

“Are the combatants ready” the King’s question asked through the vibration machines jarred me from my troubled thoughts and shook the arena like a stone-shuddering.

“Ready,” Ankor replied smugly.

“Aye,” I stammered.

Two more fights and I am heir to the throne. Then I will be free from my past and Gemma and from men like this fool and Him...

My quivering body tensed as I unsheathed my dagger. The blast of sound that emanated from the arena’s walls initiated the duel. The continuous screeching which the crowd used to visualize their surroundings with their ears, intensified my perpetual headache.

He advanced first. With each blow from his unseen blade, I scrambled to parry, recovering just in time for the next attack. When I concentrated, I felt the presence of his emotions and assigned a vague location to my foe. I sidestepped a thrust to my chest and yanked on his arm. As our skin touched, I absorbed some of his aggression into myself. He nearly lost his balance, but recovered in time to parry my slash at his neck with his dagger.

Just when I seemed to gain the advantage, Ankor tore his arm away from me and spoke again.

“I've seen you with him, did he make you feel beautiful before she replaced you?”

How does Ankor know? I have tried so hard to conceal my past! Ankor will pay dearly for his insults!

I surrendered to my rage and the rage I stole from Ankor. My dagger danced 'round my enemy in wild maneuvers, which he countered with ease. His blade streaked across my arm like a swooping bat. Pain seized me as my weapon clattered to the ground. His bare fist slammed into my left eye with the force of a miner's pickaxe.

The tip of Ankor's blade rested on my throat. What I did next put my life in jeopardy, but I could not surrender. My mistress would have forced me to return to my previous occupation if I did. With a sudden movement of my right hand, I recovered my dagger and slashed off two of his eight legs. As he hobbled away from me, I blasted the pommel of my weapon into his brow. He crumpled as if he bowed before me. His girl rushed onto the platform to her fallen lover, folding her wings around herself in shame. I pitied her despite her cruelty toward me. By loving a half-blood, she became a fool to the crowd.

She just collapsed on the platform beside Ankor with quiet sobs spilling out across the arena. As Ankor exited on a stretcher, she followed not. Her champion failed her and left her alone in her shame and rage. She charged me and clamped her clawed hands around my throat before I could react. My body absorbed her anger and grief, which caused her to release her stranglehold and wander away confused.

I slumped on the arena floor and wept for the loss of Ankor, experiencing the fullness of the girl's grief in her stead.

The warden omitted to declare me the winner of the duel and the crowds filed out of the arena while bemoaning Ankor's defeat. The rabble felt cheated that a mere blind girl had defeated their best when he should have vanquished her so easily. No one offered to guide me to my dwelling. The journey took hours.

Once alone in my apartment in the slums, tears of blood cascaded down my cheeks. Ankor seemed to know what He had done to me. I thought I had managed to conceal the betrayal of the Man who still haunted my dreams. Or perhaps Ankor did not know; maybe he just happened to strike at my deepest wound.

Only time stood as a barrier against what my body would soon reveal. The daughter inside my womb would evidence herself as a bulge in my stomach. Then all would know and accuse me of terrible iniquities which I did not commit and He would escape all punishment as men always do. No one would believe, or care if they did believe, that He divorced me due to no fault of my own. He was royalty and I was merely a peasant to discard whenever he grew bored.

002 Nyl Hired for Unknown Job

I dreaded the coming feast which primarily existed to allow time for placing bets. While I clumsily clothed myself in a dress tailored for people of another race, a clawed hand grabbed my shoulder.

“Follow me, quickly!” my mistress, Gemma, who burst into my apartment without knocking, ordered through the vibrations in her fingertips.

“Why?”

“I’ve sold you to one of the honored guests at the feast tonight. The fool paid ten times what you're worth, so I'd best deliver you promptly and hear that you're properly dressed.”

“What my job?”

“How should I know? All I care for is the silver he offered.”

“What his name?”

“I didn’t actually meet him. Stop asking so many questions!” she struck me; damaging my face would not reduce the amount of silver she would receive.

My mistress massaged my forehead with her thumbs as she morphed my body into that of a mildly pretty halfling woman, a disguise which would dissolve by the morning. I wished ever so much that it would last. Then maybe someone would purchase me to perform tedious chores rather than criminal operations.

Death had robbed my body of its strength and form too many times already and would steal from me again tomorrow. I feared most for my daughter. If I died, she would not resurrect with me. My mistress always charged her customers extra if they killed me after a job, but no amount of silver could compensate for the life of my precious child. They always killed me. After whatever crime they hired me for, anything from assassination to forgery, it was best if I died so as not to snitch on them.

Tomorrow it would be the same, I would resurrect to find my abdomen void of the precious life I carried. I had hoped to hold her at least once.

Gemma roughly dragged me to the great hall where the feast in honor of the great tournament would be held.

“You can find your way from here,” my mistress declared. “Your new master is 100 throses away, straight ahead of you.”

“Yes,” I replied, knowing I could not find my new master without aid.

What will he be like?

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003 Nyl Attacked by Mob

The cacophony of emotions around me overwhelmed and disoriented me, making navigation even more difficult. I successfully traveled about ten throses before I collided with someone in the crowd. Instantly, a hand clenched around my throat and squeezed.

“You think you can just barge into me without consequences?” his fingers thrummed into my neck, communicating his message without an instrument so clumsy as the mouth.

“Please sir,” I gasped. “I blind. Not mean to.”

“You are bold to speak to me with your mouth!”

“Please sir, I can not thrum. I not rude.” Each word stung my throat, for it was not created to communicate in their thunderous language.

“Dumb and blind?”

“Yes, please let go.”

“Very well.”

He threw me to the ground and stomped away in rage. As I rose, another man tripped over my legs and crashed into a stone pillar. Within seconds, the fallen man lashed out against me with his claws, tearing away the disguise that my mistress gave me. I kicked at the man's stomach, but missed. Dozens of others joined in the “fight” and beat me while I tried to defend myself. They cursed me because I had defeated so many of their champions in the arena, but now I could not resist.

The contagion of the violence spread and soon the entire hall gathered round me shouting their curses. My false skin disintegrated into ribbons which clung to my enemies' claws. I dared not cry out lest I anger them further, but merely shielded my face with my arms, longing to be free from my tormentors and the auras of malice that surrounded them.

A scream escaped the feet of a dying man and the fighting redirected toward the scream. I heard bodies thud to the ground next to me as an unseen foe slashed through the mob with his blade. Swords clashed and I heard many men cock their air guns to shoot at the newcomer. The fighting ceased as the King's guard rushed through the hall to subdue the brawl.

Someone crouched next to me and dripped water into my mouth as he supported my head.

“Thank,” I mumbled.

“Why did they beat you so?” a boy’s claws thrummed gently into my shoulder.

Fear overran me because I knew his kindness to be feigned.

“You not know me? I beat men in duels. Please sir, I reach my rent..., friend,” I corrected myself. “I not mean harm to them.”

The boy laid his cloak over me to hide my tattered body from their prying ears and carried me into a private room at the side of the hall despite my protests. The touch of his spider-like fingers terrified me. He ordered a servant girl to fetch a healer and new garments for me.

“Why save me? You should hate me. I beat your man in duel.”

“I rescued you because I protect what’s mine. I'm your new master and the one who’ll oppose you tomorrow,” the boy thrummed without any evidence of emotion.

“You let me die. Then you win.”

“And where would be the challenge in that? I’m a man of honor. I'd gladly lose to you tomorrow knowing I fought fairly and well.”

“Why call me yours?” I shuddered, at the possible meaning of his words. I longed to escape his presence.

“Your mistress did not tell you? I have purchased you permanently.”

Permanently?

“Why buy me? Cost great sum!”

“Only one hundred thousand pieces of silver. ‘Tis nothing compared to the money I’ve gained from my victories. By law I receive ten percent of every bet placed on me and now that I own you, I'll get your ten percent if you win tomorrow.”

“What done to me if I lose?”

“I’ll free you, but I hope you’ll stay with me as a companion. I didn't just buy you for the money I’ll get from your bets. I'll give you half of all I earn. I don't intend to buy your friendship; I only want to be fair to you.”

“Why care for me? I not done good for you.” Skepticism poured out in my words.

“But you have. You’ve always eased my pain. Whenever I needed you, you visited me in my dreams to comfort me with your kind words. I bought you because you have called into the darkness of your nightmares so many times, begging for someone to free you... free you from your slavery.”

Can this be the man who protected me from the terrors of my dreams? I asked in my own mind.

“I am that man. I will gladly protect you waking or dreaming.”

You know my thoughts? I asked, mortified.

“Yes, some of them.”

Then you know what I have done. You know who I am.

“I know what you were. You were forced to steal the woes of many. I also know the noose of slavery. I know what it is like to be forced to do shameful things.”

There is nothing you have done that can be worse than the guilt I carry. I am vile. I am shame!

He said no more, but embraced me despite my rotting flesh and the blood that drenched me. As he cradled my head in his spidery hand and held me against his bosom, Gemma made her presence known in my mind. Her will forced me to remain enfolded in his wings.

I probed his soul. There I found much pain mingled with love for me and a peace which I had never encountered in anyone else. I gritted my teeth and drew as much of his pain into myself as I could. It didn’t hurt as much to steal pain out of love rather than under coercion.

“Thank you, Nyla.” He kissed my lips lightly as if I were his kin.

“That is why I love you so, because you’re selfless. You’re in such torment, yet you steal my woes. I only wish someone would steal yours.”

I too longed for relief from my shame. Only the death of the one who gave me their guilt could free me, but there were so many thousands who had used me. I longed for vengeance, but at the same time I pitied them. Who would take their guilt in the after death?

The servant girl returned with a healer, who refused to bind my wounds when he heard that I was an unanimal. My lack of bat or spider blood rendered me the most despicable creature, second only to a lacerator. My new master condescended to bind my wounds himself, since no one else would do the job. He tried to be tender, but the salve burned so and I nearly screamed whenever he tightened a bandage. Fear filled me as I thought of how he would be forced to treat the wounds on every section of my body, for my enemies’ claws had left no part of me unmarred. Instead, he retrieved my dagger, handed it to me, and left the room. The knife morphed into a roll of bandages which wrapped themselves about me of their own accord. Awe filled me. I dressed myself in the garments that the slave girl had brought. The dress was woven from the purest silk and fit my form so poorly that I could scarcely keep it from sliding off my shoulders. Slits were cut in the sides to allow for wings, which I did not possess, to pass through uninhibited. The immodesty of the dress mattered little, since my entire form was covered in gauze.

When he returned to the room, my master also provided me with a short-sword and hand-dagger, which fit over my left hand with a blade that stretched just past my fingertips.

“You’re quite lovely, Nyla,” he thrummed through his hand, which rested on my shoulder.

Surely you jest. No one has ever accused me of possessing beauty unless I was in disguise. I lack even the basic prettiness of a child.

“I never jest. I see you now as you appeared in my dreams. I only wish you could see yourself as I do.”

He spoke truthfully; I knew because I could peer into his soul. But I feared that perhaps he was able to mask his soul from me. I tried to send the images he saw with his ears to my mind, but failed.

Would you please describe my appearance, since I cannot hear on my own? I asked to make it seem as if I believed his words.

“You have scarred skin, like the walls in a mine that yields the purest silver. Your lips drip the nectar of encouraging words. Your eyes are gorgeous. They exude compassion and tenderness.”

You mock me. My eyes are the mark of the cursed.

“No, Nyla, your eyes are lovelier than even the Queen’s gems.”

You didn’t say everything that you saw. I know you withheld something.

“Well, You’re rather peculiar. You appear as if you possess no animal blood.”

“Thank you.” I said dejectedly. Even in my ideal form, I was only beautiful in the way that a rare stone is beautiful, as a curiosity. None of my loveliness stemmed from my physical form but rather from my supposed good character. If he knew what I had done, he would not think me lovely.

I know this may seem petty, I started. But may I feel your face? I wish to know what you are like.

“Of course.”

I placed my hands on his face being careful not to harm him with my hand-dagger. My bandaged fingertips brushed across ears which streaked from above his head all the way across his face to his wet nose. Fangs protruded slightly from his mouth. Overall, he was very becoming to others of his race; to me he was terror incarnate. Bats and spiders comprised the material which formed the agony of my nightmares.

“Come, sister, a feast awaits us.”

004 Nyl Flees Feast

He escorted me into the hall and we were forced to part. A servant guided me to my seat at the end of the table farthest from the King. Those near me were obscure military officers and relations of relations of the royal families.

Despite ignorance of my new master’s name, I almost longed for him to think of me as more than just a sister. In the hour that I had been with him, he had almost made it impossible to not love him. But I knew the foolishness of those feelings. I would not let his flattery and feigned respect fool me. I had to protect my daughter. I knew what men were like. None could be trusted; ever!

I ate in silence as the many courses were served and tried my best to avoid contact with the other guests. My hood concealed my face to prevent recognition; very few people bore the curse of eyes. As I expected, few of the delicacies were edible; deer blood and raw meat did not appetize me.

Even with all my care, I still managed to spill the goblet of the man to my left. Before he could strike, I absorbed his anger into myself and tried to restrain my new-found rage. My defense had worked and the man returned to eating. Violent shuddering overtook me as I recognized the man. He killed me on twelve different occasions. Death shouldn’t have bothered me after it stole me so many times, but it did bother me. The worst thing about my enemy was that I carried the guilt of my own deaths as if I were the murderer.

I wept quietly and dared not stir for the remainder of the feast lest I anger him. Rage filled me along with a longing to slay my enemy and be free from some of my guilt, but I knew it would only bring on new guilt. I killed one of my clients once, in defense of my life, however my mistress ensured through several torturous deaths that I would never do it again.

My new master received much attention and many honors that night, while I sat in obscurity. Even though I tried to rejoice for him, jealousy poisoned my heart. Many people had stolen the glory I deserved, or at least I thought they had, I had long since lost the ability to differentiate my memories from the memories of those who used me.

One last Man began His thrumming, amplified like a stone-shudder throughout the hall. I recognized His voice. I had never absorbed all of anyone’s guilt, except His and my mistress's, all the tens of thousands of years of His guilt.

I could not endure His presence any longer. I fled the hall. As I left the main entrance of the hall and sped into a tunnel, I tripped. I clutched my broken wrist. The festivities in the hall muffled my screams. I lifted myself off the ground. Blood gushed freely onto my dress, staining the silk of the fabric. Bone protruded from the injury.

I removed the cord that held my hair in place and tightened it around my wrist to stop the bleeding. To make my pain bearable, I converted it from the sharp pain centralized in my wrist to a dull ache across my entire body. I didn’t know how to treat myself, but no one would help me, so I pressed the bone back into my flesh and bound the injury tightly. I knew I did the wrong thing, but I couldn’t risk the anger of my new master. Clumsy slaves became dead slaves.

After a long cry, I wiped the blood from my face and reentered the hall to find my master despite my fears. The drunkenness of the feasters, sent chaotic feelings of joy throughout the hall and made me stagger as if I were drunk myself.

“Ah, Nyl, I found you.”

He failed to notice the fresh wound on my wrist, because of all my other bloodied bandages. I knew I would lose the duel on the next morning. I feared what would become of me and my child if my master won. He was surely lying when he offered to free me.

005 Gemma Overtakes Nyl

“I trust that you enjoyed the feast,” my master began. “The others said loaf-plant was particularly fresh tonight.”

“I am glad that you have enjoyed yourself, Master, but I take little pleasure in this sort of event.” My fingers thrummed into his hand from a non-broken hand. Whenever I thrummed, trouble followed quickly.

“And what do you take pleasure in?”

Gemma overtook my mind. I became an attractive full-blood. My body threw its arms about him and buried its lips in his. The man immediately thrust Gemma away in disgust.

“I take pleasure in you. Am I not beautiful?” she thrummed. “I could not refrain from your embrace. I am powerless in your presence.”

She embedded her fangs in his shoulder to drink his blood and dispense her venom. Pain seared his flesh. Confusion clouded his mind. I lost all contact with my body and floated about in a void while my mistress tormented the man with her advances. Any love he might possibly, maybe, potentially have borne for me evaporated.

My mind crashed into my physical frame without warning. Dizziness drove me to my knees before my new master. My beautiful guise fled.

Very little, I am afraid… Oh, but I do not yet know your name. I resumed our conversation as if Gemma had never interfered.

“I am Faithful.” He cocked his ears at me, askant. He doubted my sanity.

I hope his character matches his name.

I staggered after him dutifully throughout the night as agony assaulted my frail body. Neither of us spoke. Gemma prevented me from telling him what had happened. Only a few more hours and I would be permitted to retire. Sleep rarely visited me and when it did, it brought its dreaded nightmares. Still, I longed to be free from the chaotic auras of the crowd.

As I stumbled along, the drums of Natia announced the entrance of her priestesses. With their approach on my position, the beat's tempo increased to match the pounding of my terrified hearts. I hated Natia more than anything else. In her name, the people of my world committed their atrocities. It was her power that kept so many women in bondage to the basest passions of the other sex.

Because of the great importance of tomorrow's duel, the finest silver statue of Natia condescended leave her temple. Fabric and wings rustled as everyone in the hall, including the royal family bowed to their goddess. The flapping of her priestesses’ many wings made balancing difficult, but I stood in defiance to the great idol before me.

To my surprise, my master also remained erect. I clenched my fists in rage against Natia, then froze when they arrived. Rather than expressing condemnation, the priestesses greeted us exuberantly and thrummed pleasant words into the ground beneath us.

“Greetings Faithful, you who are highly esteemed by Natia. We have come to present the blessings which she has prepared for your enjoyment. Shall we present our gift?”

“I do not serve your Natia.”

They paused briefly, then continued.

“That is well known to Natia. She has elected to show her goodwill toward you and wishes you victory in tomorrow’s dual.”

All she can do is wish it, not cause it? She is obviously a great goddess.

The priestesses formed a semi-circle around Faithful and seized his head. Despite his protests, they drew a dull stone knife across his left cheek. Blood streamed across his face, then dripped slowly to the floor.

A bat-spider lapped up the pooled blood and slowly morphed into the form of a girl. Soon, gentle fingers took the place of the blood that stained his face and poisoned lips hovered above his own waiting to touch. Before the girl’s body had fully formed, Faithful shoved her away as he had done to me. He fled the hall despite his obligation to accept this gift in worship of Natia. I feared the consequences of his action.

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006 Impossible Love

“Wait!” I shouted once I had fought my way outside of the hall.

He turned to face me.

“I suppose you will rebuke my folly in refusing that girl.”

No, I admire you because of it. You are unlike other men. You do not allow lust to control your actions. You are the only man capable of resisting her. I hate Natia and her priestesses! They destroy so many men who might otherwise be quite decent. I will never serve her.

“You think it took great courage to deny her; it didn't. I've never been more afraid. Nothing terrifies me more than lovely women.”

You do not seem terrified.

“I never seem terrified. I can't express my emotions in the same way that others do. Surely you noticed that I didn't react with pleasure to the food or music. I cannot.”

If you are so terrified of women as you say, then why are you unafraid of me. You yourself called me lovely.

“Centin, drafted me into the King’s personal guard” I cringed at the very name of King’s Chief Adviser. “He devised a method to remove desires and emotions which would impede us. I was stolen from my parents as an infant and tortured all through my childhood. Whenever I cried out or complained, the torture worsened, so I just stopped crying. I can't express myself as you can. I fear women because my master trained me to. He showed me carvings or statues of gorgeous women then branded me when I beheld them. He had other methods which I will not share. I didn't qualify for the King's Guard, so I remained a slave until now.”

I am very sorry for their cruelty. What they did to you was wrong, and I wish I could right such an evil.

My hunger for pain rose to the surface of my consciousness. I longed for the agony of his past as much as I dreaded taking it.

“I'm not sorry. I don't know what it means to feel self-pity. Perhaps it's better that I never know that pain. I don't fear you because though you are beautiful, you are nothing like other women, not beautiful in the same way as them.”

His words stung. I resembled his people in no way. He walked with his hands as forefeet, yet I stood on two legs. I knew that he could never love me as more than a friend or perhaps as a sister. Though he did not say it, I knew he believed me to be a monster.

If you do not fear me, then what do I make you feel?

“Jealousy.”

I make you jealous?

“You don't make me jealous. I'm jealous to protect your honor. I'm devoted to you because you always comforted me in my despair. You’re the only person I’ve ever been able to love,” he said with a dispassionate voice, but I knew that he was earnest.

“I al-ways love you,” I whispered into his ear as I embraced him.

I gathered my strength and withdrew all of his fear into myself. As by body tremored, I shoved him away in my terror and collapsed at his feet.

I was powerless to resist when he lifted me and carried me toward his apartments. My attraction to him went beyond mere appreciation of his character. The agony of fear thrashed at my soul as he conveyed me to my doom. I trusted him as much I trusted myself. No one had ever been so contemptible to me. I peered into his mind and it was full of honor and purity. I wondered what filth he concealed from me. I longed for him as a prisoner longs for freedom. I longed to escape him as if he were aflame. I loved him. I hated him.

007 What to Do about the Girl

The sound of a dirge drifted through the cramped passageways and darkness. The girl, who had tried to seduce Faithful, rubbed her many pairs of spider-legs together as she sang her lament from his doorway.

She threw herself before Faithful and clutched at his feet. Her ears drooped in dejection and her spider-legs wrapped tightly round her body as if she were dying.

“Please, sir, you must accept me. They will kill me if you don't.”

She grovelled in the darkness with her hair and legs and wings all tangled together. Faithful set me down before he stooped and raised her to her claw-feet. She quickly morphed her wings and spider-legs into a tasteful gown.

“Explain yourself,” Faithful ordered.

“Natia decreed that a priestess must serve each finalist on the night before the tournament,” she thrummed into the ground. “None desired you, so Natia personized me to serve you. If you accept me, I shall remain with you for life. I will serve your God. Please, I beg you to take me or they will destroy me with fire.”

“If she is new, how she know so much?” I asked.

“I was granted all necessary knowledge to fulfill my duty,” she replied. Fear of her loveliness overcame me. I sat there below them as rigid as the stones at my feet, saying nothing and doing nothing.

Faithful’s thoughts again penetrated my mind. “You know that I must honor her. If she speaks the truth, it would be like murder to send her away.”

You aim to accept her?

“Yes, it's the only noble thing to do.”

She is lying. I cannot tell you how I know, but she is surely lying.

“Nyla, your fear is hindering your judgment.”

He bore no remembrance of the fear and the torture of his childhood that I had taken into myself. Grief filled me as the girl before me destroyed any chance that the one man who might love me ever would.

A mob of priestesses and devotees of Natia trampled toward us.

“You would refuse the gift of Natia?” the chief priestess demanded with raised weapons.

Faithful stepped in front of his new slave in her defense. “You offered me this girl as a trifle to win my allegiance to Natia. You intended for me to dishonor her. I will accept her, but not in worship of your Natia. I take her because my God demands that I preserve her life. This woman is now my wife and when I have vanquished in the duel tomorrow, she shall be my princess.”

008 Faithful’s Bride

They lowered their weapons and tried to be diplomatic in their reply. “As we said, Natia does not wish you any harm. If this creature has persuaded you to keep her, then so be it. We cannot see how such a lowly animal can be worthy to wed, but if you desire her, then I pronounce her your wife. Natia will be displeased that you have treated her gift so strangely. However, this creature is yours to do with as you will. Take heed that you do not anger Natia. She intended to gain your friendship, but if you blaspheme her thus, you have condemned yourself as her enemy.”

I could not endure the way that they spoke to my master. Before they could respond, I sprang forward and stole their enmity toward him. Loathing for my master blasted into my soul. Only my terror of him prevented me from springing forth and slaying him.

“We are greatly pleased that you have accepted Natia’s gift so willingly. May she continue to bestow her blessings upon you. May your bride be granted eternal youthfulness and innumerable offspring,” the chief priestess announced.

As they marched away, the emboldened Faithful embraced his prize, oblivious to the ordeal of winning her. I had changed history or at least the memory the past and no one would thank me.

“You are able to love one who is as despised as me?” he thrummed.

“Yes,” she thrummed back.

Their conversation stalled as neither knew how lovers should speak.

Praise her beauty? I suggested.

“I don't know how?”

As we thought to each other, her formless body, comprised entirely of blood, began to take on shape and flesh.

You have the loveliest girl in all the Barren Caverns standing before you, yet you cannot praise her? Her beauty exceeds even the Queen's. At least kiss her.

Faithful tapped his lips to hers as if she would shatter at his touch.

No, No, no! Embrace her with passion. Make her know she is the only woman in the world.

“But she is not.”

Make her feel as if she is.

Whatever do you mean?”

She must know that no woman can compete for your affections, that you will never forsake her.

“No other woman can compete for my affections.” I rubbed my hands on my temples and groaned. Can you not hear her? Do you not have ears? Study her and find something to complement.

“I don’t know how.”

Try.

She truly was beautiful by Ildallyn or human standards. As Faithful's fingers ran through her fine hair, her body grew more distinct features and transitioned from formless blood to the form of a marvelous young woman shaped after his deepest yearnings.

A glorious smile encircled her fangs which dripped the most delectable nectar and flicked in and out of her mouth in excitement. Hair comprised of webs, silver strands, spider legs, and bat-fur flowed over her sharp ears. Large eyes blinked into existence. She unfurled her bat-wings, revealing a silk gown and pulled him toward her with a web that she wove from the spinnerets in her wrists.

Many impossibly thin spider legs of varying lengths protruded from her waist, forming a skirt and stabilizing her against the walls of the apartment's entrance. Her wings undulated gently as if a breeze blew across them. The tips terminated in fingers each a quarter throse long, with pure silver claws at the ends. Her unblemished fur, which flowed gently from her neck to her clawed feet, could not be improved. Another spinneret rested at her navel. Her hips marked the termination of her wings and led to powerful legs and clawed hand-feet.

“What is your name?” Faithful resumed the conversation.

“Whatever you wish it to be.” Here he stalled again.

Faithful's presence in the room and my mind agonized me. The hatred from the priestesses still remained. To free myself from the pain, I took their hands in mine and granted Faithful the ability to speak to his bride's mind. The hatred and fear fled along with my link to Faithful.

Never again will he comfort me in the perils of my nightmares.

“Does Silver please you? It matches your fur; it’s so fine and smooth,” He ran his fingers through her hair and thrummed with pleasure. Their mental communion removed all obstacles to affection.

“Yes, Silver pleases me, but any good name needs a second part.”

“Then you are Silver Nectarfang…”

I retired to the guest bower after asking where it was and hoped Faithful would be able to keep the conversation alive.

I laid on my bed of spider-silk alone. Sleep eluded me when the concerns of the coming day crashed into my mind like a collapsing tunnel. By refusing the girl publicly with so many witnesses, Faithful effectively declared himself an enemy of Natia’s order. The citizens of the Unlit Realms hated both of us. Faithful was once a slave, did not serve the country's gods, and did not share their addiction to women and wine. They despised me because I was a woman, unanimal, and a slave. Soon, they would despise me for carrying a child which no man would claim.

I did not wish to rob Faithful’s chance to become heir, but neither did I did not wish to rob my daughter of the status which would be afforded her. Conflicting desires tore at my soul. If I won, then I could perhaps gain the power to destroy Centin. The torment of Faithful’s past afflicted me in the form of nightmares, robbing me of the rest my scarce sleep should have afforded.

As I moaned in my bed, Silver's lovely form stooped over my mind.

“I wish he didn’t have to die tomorrow,” she thought to me.

What do you mean? I certainly do not intend to kill him.

“Of course you do. Think of all the pain he has put you through tonight. Think of how he forsook you for a stranger created to appeal to his passion. You have comforted him for his entire life, yet he does not show the same comfort to you. Instead he gives you all of his pain.”

I took his pain willingly.

“Do you actually believe that?”

I love him.

“Yet you also hate him.”

Yes. I have stolen so many woes tonight that I cannot help but do both.

“Do you know who I am?”

No.

“I am Gemma. My 'creation' was a rather convincing trick, was it not?”

I tried to warn him. I knew you were false!

“Don’t worry darling. He won't suffer much longer. Tomorrow you will slay him just like you have slaughtered all those who have ever loved you. Do you remember Ana? Do you remember how you strangled her in her bed after how kind she was to you? Do you remember the terror in her dying thrum?”

*You forced me to kill her. You overtook my mind. I could do nothing to save her.

“Murderer,” her gentle voice imparted condemnation on my soul.

“Tomorrow, you will slaughter him in the dual. You will not stop hacking at his body until he is an emaciated heap of death.”

No, I will resist you this time. Why do you torment me so? What did I do to earn your hatred?

“Do you really want me to recount all of your treacheries? All of the murders? All of the betrayals?”

No, no, please no!

“You will not warn him about me and you will make a widow of me tomorrow. Sleep well my darling.”

The same monstrosity that haunted my dreams barged into my mind and violently expelled the offender. The she-monster took occupancy. It horrified me more than Gemma ever could. I felt the gaze from her eyes melt through my soul and examine all the depths of my depravity. No one heard my internal screams; no one could deliver me. I missed Faithful already.

Why did I not beg him to marry me? Why did I let Gemma steal him?

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009 Preparations for the Duel

Gentle rapping on my door roused me from my troubled sleep. I admitted Faithful and Silver into my room.

“I trust you slept well and are prepared for our duel,” Silver spoke, feigning politeness.

How could anyone sleep before such a momentous event?

“I slept an hour. I fear duel. Not read-y,” I snapped.

“I am sorry to anger you. I was only trying to be friendly.”

I threw myself on her neck as the bottles of my tears were unstopped. Somehow, she had the same effect on me that Faithful did even though I knew who she really was.

“Duel cause much fear. I not want win, not wish loss. Not wish hurt your fu-ture.”

“Regardless of who wins, the three of us will still have each another. We won't desert you if I win,” declared Faithful.

“That not scare me. I not want hurt you like I did them. One man left fight with-out his hand. And, and…”

“What is it, Nyl?”

“I with child,” I whispered. “Not want her hurt.”

“Then I'll cede my victory to you. I will not endanger your child.”

“They not let you give up. If you do, all hate you. Not fair to wife.”

“I'm already despised by all, save the two of you. Your safety is more important than my reputation.”

My mistress prevented me from warning my only friend of his death and spoke to my mind.

“I hope you will enjoy killing him today.”

“You not give up. I for-bid it!” I crossed my arms and attempted to increase my stature.

“You can't forbid it. I'm your master.”

“If I not for-bid it, I be heir with right to for-bid you…” I stopped before I said something even more ludicrous. “Why risk self for child of vile slave?”

“Because the child is innocent. Whatever was done to you isn't your fault.”

“You not blame me?”

“Should he?” Silver asked her thrumming was gentle, but the sarcasm in her mind stung.

“I did no wrong! He trick me to wed him. He div-or-ced me one month. I want win. Then I kill him!”

Silver didn’t respond at first. She just held me until I quelled my weeping.

“Nyla, you won’t really kill him will you?” She thrummed quietly.

“How I not kill if you make me?” I whispered back.

“Force you to? Why would I? I love him.”

“But you told me kill him?”

“I did not. That was Centin. He ordered me on this hit to poison both of you, but I couldn’t do it. I traded all of my power for this body, so I could start a new life. Should I want to, I would not be able to overtake you.”

When I reached into her mind, I found no vestiges of the power she once possessed.

“I spent half of last night weeping as I told Faithful everything I’ve done to you. As you slept, I tried to steal back the pain and shame I had given you. I think I regained some and I won't send you any more.”

Her words were true, the river of guilt which perpetually flowed from her had stopped.

“Why do this?”

“Faithful told me of his God. I did it because I might just be able to earn redemption for myself. Perhaps if I can replace my hatred for you with devotion to my husband, God might forgive my iniquities.”

“There no good you can do to clean bad of past.” I told her, knowing it was also true for myself. “If you for-giv-en, it be by woe-thief more great than me.”

After Faithful left, Silver helped me to dress in trousers with a short gown over the top. In the night, my bandages had disappeared and left rough scars across my skin. I tied back my hair, fastened my dagger which was no longer gauze, to a sheath my right forearm; armor and hand-daggers were illegal for this duel. My left arm, hung useless in a sling. It throbbed with pain.

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010 Guards Insult Nyla

As we exited Faithful’s apartments, mobs of Ildalynn full-bloods and both breeds of halflings accosted us. Only their hatred of us proved strong enough to unite the three hostile races. Faithful held his bride close to shield her from the stones and insults that showered us. A cohort of the King’s best soldiers forced their way through the crowds to escort us. After beating back the masses with their clubs, the guards led us into a tunnel safe from the danger of stones, but not from words.

“So, which did you enjoy more last night” their captain asked. The other guards snickered through their hands and feet.

“What are you insinuating?” Faithful replied coolly.

“You know what I mean. The two look lovely next to...”

Faithful wrapped his hands around the Ild’s throat and slammed him into the wall.

“No one will so grossly insult my wife. As for my slave, she is a woman of honor. You might not understand this, but she's not bound to the same petty lusts as you. Soon, my wife will be my princess. Show her the respect she is due. Retract your words,” rage did not taint his voice. He fulfilled his duty to us without passion or hatred.

“I needn’t obey you.”

Faithful’s grip tightened until the guard lost consciousness. Once the captain’s limp body thudded to the floor, we moved on. Two guards stayed behind to wait for him to awake.

“If any of you so much as listens at either of them in an improper manner, worse will happen to him.”

We traveled to the arena in haste, but I managed to ask Faithful the question that nagged my mind all night.

“You still wish let me win?” I whispered into his right ear.

“Yes.”

“Must not. Not fair to wife,” I said as urgently as possible.

I could not explain why, but I hoped that he could somehow reform her. I hoped that she could find redemption and become the woman of honor that he deserved. I would forgive her all that she had done against me if only it would make Faithful happy.

He remained silent for a time, leaving me in extreme anxiety while I awaited his answer. Either decision could destroy the lives of me and my child.

“Very well. I'll respect you in this matter, for my wife’s sake.”

“Thank”

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