The Clan called it the Yellowing Death, an infection that thickened the blood and sickened the pale blues and greens of lizardfolk flesh to a fungal yellow. It had cousins, too, which stole about the land and drank the vitality of its inhabitants: the Sap Aflame which torched the bogwillows, the Bloody Blinding that choked the shores with rotting fish, the Wolf's Last Laugh that so ominously drove out the packs. Fearful alphas cast out those afflicted wolves, who choked to death on such an unnatural, involuntary sound. It grew for many years; Dhutlo recalled the first tainted season predating their birth, but not even by a generation. By their fifteenth year, they would find themselves the only survivor.
Dhutlo K'smani of Clan Quxot'l, Clan of the Tadpole, Protectors of G'xbenmi Fen, chosen by the shaman of their hearth B'xnamsa K'smani to inherit her legacy as dignitary to the spirits, to their history everlasting of all things and all time -- Dhutlo liked to fight. Lizardfolk young fight for play, to mimick their elders who hunt and defend, and one does not learn to do so in anger, but an errant pride taught Dhutlo that a sufficient insult to one's honor can force a conflict. An overconfident elder, tired of their barbs, found himself humbled at their feet. Even after everything that would happen, the smile never left their face. B'xnamsa knew then, amid the cackling and hissing uproar, what Dhutlo's strength and speed augured.
B'xnamsa adopted Dhutlo into the K'smani hearth and taught them an ancient language of tooth and claw as a malevolence spread through the mists. Beneath bloody suns and starless skies, amid trees blossoming only to freeze and shedding foliage when they should be alight with shoots, they practiced forms and motions and gestures to defeat, to disarm, to confuse and bewilder and drive mad; to remember, to dream, even to forget. Dhutlo learned movements steeped in the history of their people, so that to defend oneself became akin to speaking, to silently orating missives from their ancestors. They harried B'xnamsa with questions so often presumed that one could forget they had answers: why do we hunt animals? why do we set traps? why do humans come to fight us? B'xnamsa parried with her own questions: what is the meaning of violence? what are its limits? what goes where it cannot tread? Dhutlo fought to understand, and in the conviction of their form B'xnamsa saw them possessed by the mystery of battle.
When too little life remained in the Fen to support the clan, still the elders refused to leave, though in truth no one suggested it. This will pass, they assured themselves; no famine lasts forever. B'xnamsa thought, no person lives forever, and it is not the famine who starves, but she did not say these things. She too knew that if they left, there would be no place for them. They would be left to wander lands conquered by beasts more vicious than themselves, and their ancestral home would be consumed by the tide of Man. At least if they stayed, she did not say, their anguished spirits could always remain its protectors. So Winter fell hard upon their dens and lodges, and the Yellowing Death spread and spread amid the biting winds and frigid snow as the clan slept. Hearthfires went out when there remained no one to stoke them, and the lethargy of those who remained precluded action, much less awareness. B'xnamsa rose before her death and cast the last of their peat upon the fire, then slumped back into the pile of her hearthmates.
Dhutlo awoke to the mixed smells of Spring, death, and burning. The fire had been out for weeks, and no other hearthmate had been generating body heat for nearly as long. Paralysed by their cold blood, Dhutlo could do nothing as torch-wielding humans set ablaze the clan's lodges and threw the yellowed lizardfolk into mass graves. The heat of the man who would have thrown them there too conferred the strength to resist, and with a snap of the wrist and a lash of the claw they told this interloper of Gresixma Ut'qunis who protected her frozen den from the flesh-eating hippo. Blood gushed from a throat slit with a letter from Erlislo T'xnuqua who devoured the mad king, warning that what he had consumed now consumed him. The settlers drew weapons but Dhutlo cast them down, told them to get out, demanded with all the force in their heart that these covetous trespassers should quit this place or be locked forevermore in its poisoned depths, and every word broke skin and bone alike.
When at last the settlers retreated and Dhutlo held the broken pleading body of their enemy, standing amid the blood and ruin they wondered what they had accomplished. They dropped this last man, who lacked even the strength to flee and so who merely cried out in pain and fear. Dhutlo issued a mercy that ended the cries like a period, and for a moment grinned. B'xnamsa will be proud of my form, they thought. We will celebrate this defense, they thought. Then they saw. Then they understood. They had defended nothing. There was nothing left to defend. One could not drink the water that ran thick with foam and rust, and in all the Fen no animals remained to hunt -- none that swam, none that walked, none that flew or even crawled. Even the sky seemed yellow. Their grin shriveled to a stagnant, immobile grimace occupying the carapace of a smile. Only B'xnamsa's magic kept Dhutlo alive then.
What had they fought for? What had the settlers come to take? Should they dig their own grave? Dhutlo asked the gleaming haze above many times amid stuttering, swallowed clicking sounds -- the way a lizardfolk sobs. Something told them to move on, to keep going -- to carry on Clan Quxot'l, to protect G'xbenmi Fen who had borne them, that still lived through their body. So they did, and for moons they walked. They crossed bog and plains and forest and came upon a road, stumbling wearily from the brush upon a human woman traveling alone. Dhutlo snapped to awareness and took an aggressive stance, but the woman spoke to them in their native Draconic and said, "We do not need to be enemies." Bewildered by the idea of a human speaking Draconic but captured by the portent of it, Dhutlo relaxed and said, "No, we do not."
They made camp together. The human, Bellatris Al-Astriva, gave Dhutlo food and water and fire, and her spare tent. She asked them where they were going, but Dhutlo had nothing to say. She asked where they wanted to go, and Dhutlo said, "I must defend the Fen," and then felt silly for saying so. "No," they continued, "The Fen is gone."
Bellatris sensed the pain in Dhutlo's words, and the loneliness. She asked, "Would you like to come with me? Life for a lizardfolk without a clan can be difficult, but I can make paths for you, give you a kind of protection, a kind of freedom, even if it is among humans." A human that speaks Draconic, who offers a life among humans -- Dhutlo could not ignore the signs. They considered the stranger warily and asked, "What would you have me do?"
"I would have you fight. It is clear you can fight, even from the way you hold yourself. A person of many origins can make a decent living as a prize fighter, as long as they can afford a healer. Come with me and I will train you in the business and the art of it."
This astounded the lizardfolk. They would live to fight humans, at their invitiation! They threw their head back, hissing and clicking at the hilarity of it with a wide open jaw. Oh, the odes they would inflict upon their enemies! "Yes human, I will fight your comrades! Bwahahaha!"
Bellatris was a Swordlord of Restov, returning to that city on business. Walking into town with a grinning lizardfolk speaking broken Common started a few rumors, but it was beneath her. She arranged a room for Dhutlo near the river, under the auspices of a friendly if nervous landlady whose wife she had helped. Marina Lisira oversaw a small block of tenaments, doing her best to protect and represent them to the broader forces at work across Restov. After a short time, she found the young adult endearing and lively. The sound of their hiss-clicking laughter made her burst out giggling.
Prize fighting came easily to them too. The rules and the limits, the economics and the psychology, Dhutlo was grateful to have Bellatris teach them. The tactics and techniques of a round, however, Bellatris struggled to impart as she struggled to defeat Dhutlo. They ducked and dodged, floated and stung; rarely could she land a blow, or sustain an offensive. The reptile beamed with pride.
When Dhutlo started to headline matches, laying out contenders whether one or many, great and cunning alike, a reputation emerged. Someone always wanted to challenge the lizard, and humans always thought they had the edge, so Dhutlo read their follies to their faces and took their money night after night. Healing their own wounds, Dhutlo felt invincible.
But the Fen did not headline matches. Humans did not come to honor G'xbenmi or to sue for peace. They came to make fools of themselves, dreaming of making you a fool too. Their money was as worthless as their trinkets. Dhutlo had survived, and the Fen and the Clan survived through them, but this was only that: survival. To give the Clan a future, they would need more. How could they get it? Where was the path?
Dhutlo thought on these things as they returned to Marina's tenament. Deciduous trees holding the street's cobbled soil together shed their red and yellow leaves. Despite the sinewy strength hiding in their muscles, they always moved more slowly in the colder months. They stooped to enter and bobbed their head at Marina, signaling hello. Bellatris sat at the dining table with a carnation-scaled kobold.
"Bellatris, it is ominous that you are here. I must speak to you," Dhutlo said in Common. Then, gesturing toward the kobold, "Who is this?"
"This is Egriv Argyllum, a sorceress -- and a thief," she replied with a smirk. The kobold perked up at the sound of her name, then flushed with embarrassment. Dhutlo turned to the guest and announced their titles in Draconic -- a fearsome cacophony to Marina's ears. They hoped to hear of this stranger's clan and ties, but the little one looked at them with wide eyes and said in stuttering Draconic only, "You say words like I say words." Who was this kobold who spoke with a human's tongue?
Bellatris continued, "I know what you want, Dhutlo. I've seen it in your face. You want to leave."
They opened their mouth in surprise, and laughed. "You are a wise human. So I ask you this: where shall I go?"
Bellatris Al-Astriva, Swordlord of Restov, tossed them a scroll -- a charter, they found as they unrolled it.
"You're going to the Stolen Lands."