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I awoke to a white flash expecting cold stone and bars but felt only warmth. I could hear hearth fire, boiling tea, a bird in a cage—could smell incense and dried blood. A shadow tended to the cozy abode, feeding the bird, pouring tea.

“Your senses will be slow to return, but you can understand me?” she asked. “Drink this.”

I nodded. She pressed a smoking cup into my hands and I drank. It was sweet with a coppery aftertaste, like medicine concealed by sugar. I heard a window shut, and felt her sit at my side.

“I was ordered to throw you into the Mud so that your body would be devoured,” she said, her voice steady and cold. “The Lorei-Kab elder will awake tomorrow, and we will explain to him that a guard witnessed you steal a bison and flee his company.”

Yet, I lived.

“I am Cila. I was born to this tribe but I am not them,” she continued. “I was a sacrifice, as will be the egg that was taken this morning. For reasons unknown to me, the headman did not find me suitable. I was dismissed.”

We sat in silence for a moment. The curtain lifted from my eyes, and I looked at her, the flickering firelight tracing her sullen face. It was the warrior woman from before, her expression focused, almost wicked.

“No, Kirdle is not the headman. Our true leader lives deep within the mausoleum. He sleeps with his eggs, always guarded by hideous dogs. He cares more for them than he does for his own people, but we are too dependent on his gifts to sway him otherwise. I’m told this region was as barren as any other Muds before he arrived. He knew of a way to cultivate it and asked for nothing in return. He would provide special fertilizer that if burned could turn Mud to soil. The village prospered before too long, and soon he was making demands.”

She was shaking, her eyes locked with mine.

“He wanted eggs,” she said. “At first it was one each year, then two, then his demands became so unreasonable that we began raiding. The only reason our population has not dwindled is because he rejects as many eggs as he accepts. Stores the ‘good’ eggs in his stomach and–”

She was looking at the window which was now open.

A slimy chord shot down from the ceiling, wrapping around her neck and pulling her in the air. As she struggled for breath, a grotesque, scaled dog clung to the ceiling, hissing and drooling. Before I could think, I was smashing the teacup and using the ceramic shard to slice the beast’s tongue. Cila dropped to the floor with a gasp, and the creature scurried across the roof like an insect.

I could not find my sword, so I dashed toward a kitchen knife stuck in a block of wood. The lizard-dog scrambled to intercept me, dropping down, aiming to cling to my head. I grasped at its throat as it fell, and it flailed, cutting me above my eye. I felt around for the knife as blood poured over my face, obscuring my vision. Cila stood coughing and pushed the knife near my hand. I gripped the handle and stabbed the monster through the roof of its mouth to its brain. It died, dangling in my hand like a rabbit in a hound’s mouth.

“It is too late for us,” Cila sighed. “Too late to run. What will you do?” She looked at me with defeated eyes.

Where is my sword?