A/N: Set a few years before Rahzthalt. It would be about four years prior to that novel. This novel, however, is not meant as a prequel. It is about a character who also appears in that novel, Egewe. Here, Egewe is the main character: the protagonist. As I have worked on this novel, I have grown to care deeply about Egewe. Hopefully you shall, as well.

Enjoy, and such!

He stood in the shadows, watching and hoping that the victim would not look in his direction. He hated it when any of them made eye contact with him, though it tended to happen from time to time. He pulled his robes tighter about himself, suppressing shivers that stemmed from a colder source than the late autumnal winds. Beneath his cowl, beneath the shadows, he grimaced.

The others were now chanting. That was always a sign of the ceremony's beginning. Egewe turned, burying himself amid the rows of robed figures. No one was watching him now. In so long as his pale blue hair was covered, with his matching eyes shadowed by the darkness of his hood, then the others were not likely to pay him any mind. He wanted to recede, to hide inside of some cold oblivion.

A hand clamped down upon his shoulder, forcing him to turn around. Ynsandrailia met his eyes with her own, offering her placid stare as she did so. "Lord Egewe," she began, giving him a title that he had never cared for. "You should be there to witness this sacrifice. It would do best with your approval." Her expression softened, becoming a smile. "As a friend, I implore you."

Her words were not spoken with any harsh undertones, yet her voice was laced with insistence. Egewe knew her well enough to know that she would not react well if he refused. Ynsandrailia was normally an even-tempered woman, but when rage was upon her, then she was deadly.

Egewe nodded and moved close, falling into step beside his friend. His stomach was sinking. He wanted to groan, or cry out. He could do neither, so he kept his hands at his sides and walked at a moderate pace, eyes glancing around at the priests and priestesses who had gathered for the sacrifice.

A part of him wished that he could desensitize himself. It would have been callous, but at least these events would not have hurt so much. He did not desire to be the odd one out, the one frowning when all others smiled, but his so-called gift ensured his placement as the only person who condemned what everyone else saw naught but glory within.

Watching the priests and priestesses, Egewe wondered at the duality of his desires. Where morality was concerned, he preferred to be as he was, witnessing all people through an inner pair of eyes that saw deeper truths. Yet, when it came to his own peace of mind, Egewe ached with envy for the others' lack of empathy.

Ynsandrailia effortlessly made her way through the crowd. With one quick movement of her hand, she pulled Egewe's hood down, uncovering his striking features. When this happened, Egewe felt his breath exit his body in a low hiss, sliding between his teeth and effectively voicing the deflation of his spirit. Once Ynsandrailia had removed his cloth shield of sorts, she may as well have stripped him naked. Now, he was exposed, and vulnerable.

When the shadowy figures turned enough to see who walked beside Ynsandrailia, then they were quick to move aside for her. Yet, many enough were too consumed with their private discussions to bother casting glances at anyone who brushed against their sable-clad bodies. Ynsandrailia simply pushed such people aside as she strode purposefully toward her destination. Egewe let himself be dragged along. He really had no choice in the matter. Ynsandrailia was of an age with himself, but she had undergone some amount of physical training. Egewe felt her strength as she tugged him gently but forcefully.

Quickly enough, both Egewe and Ynsandrailia stood at the foot of the dais. Delighted murmurs escaped the lips of all who were in the front line of the crowd. Ynsandrailia hurriedly began making her way up the staircase. Egewe followed, moving as he quickly as he dared to move in his current condition. Nausea was beginning to claim him. The anticipation of the crowd was too much. At every sacrifice, this immense wave of emotion overwhelmed his sense of empathy.

Vomiting would have actually made him feel better, he realized, but he knew that he could not do that. If the sacrifices had been in the summer, then Egewe would have freed his belly and used the seasonal heat as his excuse for illness. But of course, the sacrifices never took place at any time remotely near summer. They were always in late autumn, just before the harvest took hold. Others gauged the years as the revolutions of Ansana around Rusili Bya. To the priests and priestesses of Illi-Tay-Ynnaudraurios, each year was the time from one harvest to the next.

At the top of the dais, Ynsandrailia paused to give a brief smile to the man who stood across from her.

The High Priest, Zlatthanalian, returned the smile.

Egewe exhaled and inhaled sharply, as if some intake of air could still his body's reactions. Each year, when this ceremony began, he made an effort to mask his feelings as much as possible. He supposed that he had either become accustomed to doing so and was talented at it, or else the others were simply blinded by their devotion to the cause. In truth, Egewe imagined that both were accurate enough. Every new sacrifice weakened his resolve, however. Time was causing his strength to ebb. More and more, he thought that chinks must have been showing through his armor of feigned apathy.

Along with Zlatthanalian and Ynsandrailia, assorted guards were milling around the dais. There was one another person upon the platform, too. Egewe was trying to ignore her, though his peripheral vision had betrayed him by stealing a glance at the girl.

Her appearance was nondescript, as she had the same dark hair and dark eyes that most Wild Landers were born with. Those eyes were dull now, burdened with a sort of resignation, as well as a tremendous amount of self-pity. Egewe could not blame her for that. He had seen other victims with eyes like those. Mostly, however, the soon-to-be deceased people carried fiery, accusatory stares that could have given rivalry to the flames of Illi-Tay-Ynnaudraurios. Either kind of set was painful for Egewe.

He knew what was coming. He had felt it often enough before. Pain beyond pain would sear him. It was only a matter of time.

The bound girl was looking at him, Egewe noticed. He averted his own gaze, keeping it safely away from her, but he felt her condemning eyes as they bore into his back and shoulders. She was a young one, perhaps fourteen or so. She was resentful, melancholy, and terribly afraid. She was not struggling, though. She knew what her fate was to be. Physically, and mentally to a large extent, she had made her peace with that. Out of all of the girl's emotions, this hurt Egewe the most. Someone so young should not have awaited death with such grim, impeccable calmness.

There was nowhere to turn. Egewe knew that looking outward would mean seeing the crowd. He knew that, should he turned to his side, he would see Ynsandrailia's expectant face. Behind him and to his other side, there was the doomed girl. In front of Egewe, and across the dais from him, there was Zlatthanalian. Egewe certainly could not look him in the eyes.

Sometimes, it was difficult for Egewe to accept that others did not feel the world as he did. A little non-voice whispered that everyone could sense his hatred, his revulsion, and his misery. They must not have been able to do so, though. Otherwise, Zlatthanalian would certainly have given an indication of this knowledge. Although the others lacked his ability, Egewe did not understand how they could apparently be so blind to his emotions. He chanced a sideways glance at Ynsandrailia. She was smiling blithely, oblivious to all but her joy at serving Illi-Tay-Ynnaudraurios.

Egewe's eyes moved outward, gazing over the immense gathering that populated the grounds in front of the Temple of Yzableth-Ara.

"It is good to see you, Egewe," said Zlatthanalian, stepping forward. His heavy robes swirled about his feet. His lively purple eyes sparkled as he smirked in an almost mischievous fashion. "I thought that you might not be attending this ceremony. Is your dear sister nearby, do you know? I would have liked to have seen her here, as well."

"I believe she is busy, my lord," Egewe answered, hearing the swelling exhaustion in his voice. The exhaustion was purely mental. Physically, his day had been comprised of nothing save for sitting, praying to those forces whose names he knew not, and worrying. Those were the constants in his life. "She regrets that she cannot attend this event, though. Of that, I am certain."

Of course, it was a lie, but Egewe did not think that Zlatthanalian would notice, so blind had the man been to other plain truths.

Zlatthanalian placed his hands behind his back. He turned to the side, seeming to consider Egewe's words. "Yes," he began slowly. "Indeed. I am certain that she shall be sorry to have missed this occasion. Now, you know that you are dear to me, but--"

Egewe felt a chill pass through him. No sentence which began in such a manner could end well.

"But your sister's habits are--" Zlatthanalian paused, seeming to search for words. He was putting on a show, Egewe sensed through basic logic as opposed to his inborn empathy. The High Priest paced back and forth, gesticulating in an elegant fashion as he did so. "It is difficult to broach this subject. Your sister, speaking kindly, has something of the true Wild Lands in her."

"You speak of her sexual habits, I presume."

Zlatthanalian laughed gently, as if to suggest that Egewe was being facetious. He certainly knew better, and Egewe in turn knew that he knew better. Why would anyone put up such pretenses with a known empath? Egewe could not fathom human behaviour sometimes, empath or no.

"I would not be so blunt as that, but I would say that your sister's methods of earning Ba'Lifs are somewhat crude in nature. I also think that both she and yourself would be benefitted greatly if you were to suggest that she acquire another occupation. She could be a priestess, for instance."

"Priestesses are not paid for their services, my lord," Egewe said carefully, not wishing to arouse Zlatthanalian's anger by being overly frank with Efia's true reasons for not wishing to take on such a role.

"Ah, not in Ba'Lifs, no, but Illi-Tay-Ynnaudraurios rewards priestesses graciously." His stare became hard and dubious. At that moment, Egewe sensed a distinct feeling of impatience rising within the High Priest. "We live off of the land. We grow our own food, and tend to our own people. That is a noble way to live, is it not? Much better than some occupations, I suppose."

He would not specify the occupations that he spoke of, but Egewe knew. Zlatthanalian's remarkably full lips gave considerable emphasis to his words. He spoke them in a slow, rhythmic, almost hypnotic voice. This was the voice that the High Priest used to enchant his followers. Egewe was not touched by the tone nor the cadence, though he did admire the man's oratory skills.

"The land of the Wilds is not easy to live off of, my lord," said Egewe after a short time.

He was beginning to fear that he was pushing some tacit boundaries. The High Priest was a proud man, a man not used to being refuted or questioned. Egewe lowered his head a little, letting the shadows fall across his face. In so doing, he hoped that he appeared more passive.

Zlatthanalian cocked his head. "Not so easy, no, though we have ever survived and prospered, thanks to Illi-Tay-Ynnaudraurios."

Egewe could not say what he truly thought of that, for Zlatthanalian would not have taken kindly to it in the least. Yzableth-Ara was not a prosperous village. It was not so poor as some villages in the Wilds, but neither was it prosperous. Its largest claim to wealth was the smooth white temple that it housed, and even that was merely a vision of an earlier and perhaps better age. The citizens of Yzableth-Ara were mostly small shop owners and subsistence farmers.

The priests and priestesses in particular were devoted to agriculture, sacrificing to Illi-Tay-Ynnaudraurios for good weather, for light from Rusili Bya, and for better times in the future. Yzableth-Ara was a village possessed of the dream for something more and something better, but it was not a place where the something better had yet found a home.

"You are our hope, Egewe," Zlatthanalian whispered. His words were spoken with emphasis, making them hardly whispers at all. Given that the crowd was alive with murmurs, Egewe supposed that it did not matter that Zlatthanalian was being loud.

Egewe was not certain why Zlatthanalian was spending so much time speaking with him. The sacrifice was about to commence. Typically, the High Priest would have been focused on that. Something was different today. Taking Egewe aside by the arm, Zlatthanalian leaned close. His eyes darkened, becoming very somber. Egewe was afraid of this new and unexpected side of the High Priest, the man who normally regarded him with something not so unlike indifference.

"Listen. You are a gift from Illi-Tay-Ynnaudraurios himself. Do you understand me? Your birth was a miracle, a sign of the coming of Illi-Tay-Ynnaudraurios. When he comes, he shall give Yzableth-Ara the glory that it rightly deserves."

"Yes, High Priest," Egewe responded. He knew that meek agreement was certainly what Zlatthanalian wanted.

"I am not finished." Zlatthanalian studied Egewe, looking over his face as if trying to memorize the details. "Continue to listen. Do not think that you fool me, friend. I see the disgust in your eyes at the sight of what we do--what we must do."

Egewe lifted his head, making eye contact with the other man.

"I am serving the best interests of my people, the people of Yzableth-Ara. Do you believe this, Egewe?"

"I do believe it, my lord."

"Yet your eyes are troubled. What troubles them?"

"You would not wish to hear it, my lord."

"I would, else I would not have asked. Thus I shall ask again. What troubles you, Egewe? You have agreed that I am a man who is serving his people as best he may, yet your eyes betray your words. Does your mouth lie?"

"Not so, my lord." Egewe hesitated, looking around the gathering with a growing sense of trepidation. "It is only that I disagree with your methods. I know that you wish for nothing more than the prosperity of Yzableth-Ara, but I can never agree to the concept of sacrificing others so that Yzableth-Ara may find itself. I think it a horrible practice."

"Ah, so the truth arises." Zlatthanalian chuckled, smirking wryly. He nodded, extending his hands and gesticulating, as the priests often did during their sermons. "Your condemnation would have this matter seen in utterly simplistic morality codes. In order to achieve peace, must we not always sacrifice some of our own people?"

Egewe did not know how to answer that. The question must have been rhetorical, for Zlatthanalian then continued, "What is war? It is cruel; it is wicked, but it is necessary, and it is a means of achieving peace through sacrifices. You have seen what wonders Illi-Tay-Ynnaudraurios works when we give him what he desires. He is most kind to us. Have you not observed this?"

Egewe shifted uncomfortably amid his robes. He did not know whether he believed in the god's existence or not. To placate Zlatthanalian, he said, "I have, my lord. Illi-Tay-Ynnaudraurios is kind to those who serve him. However, as some gods are, he is quite prone to narcissism, and he deals only in rations." He paused, then added, "As to the sacrifices, I disagree that they are akin to war. While war is a terrible thing, many who enter war do so out of a desire to serve their lands and lords."

"Are you preaching?" Zlatthanalian laughed, his eyes narrowing. "I am the High Priest. If anyone should preach, it is I, yet here you are lecturing me on the ways of war. In my younger days, I participated in some battles in the Wilds. I have seen the effects of war upon the commons. Those who avoid entering the battle may suffer just as much if not more than those who march to fight." Zlatthanalian's mood sombered. "All life is achieved by death. We consume flesh for life when we eat. Sacrifices are no different."

Egewe sighed heavily. "I did not wish to have this argument, my lord. I do not think it is right to deliberately cause others pain and suffering for the sake of Yzableth-Ara's betterment. Those whom you sacrifice are a part of this village, as well, and what have we left of ourselves if we kill our own? What shall Illi-Tay-Ynnaudraurios bless, if not a village bereft of a soul? That is not so much to fight for, my lord. Not in my opinion, at least."

"We sustain the future with our actions. You think we are losing our souls in the process? Perhaps so, but there is our progeny to consider. They enter the world spotless and white, without the stains of iniquity upon them. If Illi-Tay-Ynnaudraurios abandons us, then so too does he abandon them, and it is their cause that we pursue, Egewe. We shall not be assisted by you regarding this situation in terms of such absolute right and wrong."

"No, I suppose you shan't be, my lord. Why do you inquire as to my thoughts, then?"

Zlatthanalian touched Egewe's shoulder with a gentleness that was almost affectionate. "Because I value your opinion, Egewe, as I value honesty."

Egewe's eyes widened in wonder. Zlatthanalian's expression had become one of neutrality. Shadows from the setting sun and the hood of his robe marked his face, making it so that his expression seemed to hold peculiar nuances.

"I do not agree with your beliefs, no, but it was good to hear the other side. If one forgets opposing arguments, then one may well forget the reasons why he does as he does. I had to make sure that my reasoning was still sound, not merely the byproduct of fanaticism. Arguing with you, I know that it is. I was able to give reasons for why I do as I do, and this pleases me. Thank you, my friend."

He paused, then added, "Though, there is one other thing I wished to speak to you about--"

Egewe blinked. "My lord?"

"You shall not run away. As I have said before, you are Illi-Tay-Ynnaudraurios's blessed gift unto Yzableth-Ara, and I'll not have you running away, abandoning the people that I love. They need you. Seeing you, they hope. Your powers and gifts inspire them to dream of better things. If they lost you, I can assure you that it would plunge them into despair. I shan't have you doing such to them for your own selfish reasons."

He took a step back, eyes smouldering with cool fire. "We must all make our own sacrifices, Egewe. This is yours."

So saying, Zlatthanalian turned upon his heels and sauntered off, preparing to make the expected sacrifice. Egewe watched him, feeling numb, as well as a little sick. He pushed the feelings down. They would do him no good. He could not fight what he thought wrong, nor could he avoid participating in it. The priests and priestesses would do as they saw fit, whether Egewe concurred or not.

He was, however, a symbol to the people of Yzableth-Ara. A child with great empathic powers had been born, a child who was partially Nymph and partially human. A blessed child. Or so people believed him to be.

Egewe turned away, almost slamming into Ynsandrailia. She flashed a smile at him, and Egewe saw the eagerness that radiated throughout her body. The setting sun painted her features with brilliant reds and oranges. Had her hair been freed from its hood, it would have been like a living blaze.

"It's beautiful, isn't it? Soon the fires shall rise into the sky, and we may feast and make merry, for Illi-Tay-Ynnaudraurios shall bless us once more." Her cheeks were flushed, hot with excitement. Egewe sensed her euphoria. "Think of the good harvest we shall have, and what fine crops may come next year, as well."

"Yes, indeed. Fine crops, I am certain." Egewe forced a smile, extending a hand to gently touch his comrade's forearm.

Ynsandrailia never suspected anything. She was as good a friend as Egewe could hope for, but she too was blinded by superstitions and the sheer power of her belief to the point that she never saw anything amiss in his behaviour, nor her own. Egewe did not look down upon her for this. In a way, he envied it. He wished that he did not have to feel everything as deeply as he did.

Egewe never took his eyes off Ynsandrailia, even as he heard cries ringing out behind him, even as he felt the heat of the flames that were springing up, even as he smelled smoke and burning flesh. He gritted his teeth and bit down so hard that his gums bled, hearing as the crowd roared its triumphant cheers. If anyone noticed the tears that were in Egewe's eyes, he would attribute them to being byproducts of the smoke that stung his face.

He would hold himself together; he would make his own necessary sacrifice. He could do nothing else.