Niomir sat in darkness, the walls of the hut closing around him. Distant voices seeped through the small opening in the hut’s wall. Close by, Grower’s breathing was slow and even. The tribe scavenged their entire supply of the precious herb that could smother a man’s pain and gave it to Grower to ingest.

They were alone in the hut. The others were still labouring for the comfort of the newly arrived tribesmen.

“He knew,” Niomir said. His voice was raw. “Flat Face. He knew I started it.”

“Of course he knew,” Grower muttered in the gloom.

“Then why punish you?”

“Because he was punishing you.” Besides dulling pain, the herb had other effects as well. In his peculiar state, Grower was barely able to form words. “You had to stand there… and watch someone taking it in your stead.”

Niomir could not speak. Eventually words came trickling out of him. “I… refuse… to live… in a tribe… that treats its people this way.”

“Sometimes,” Grower murmured, “we do not get the choice.”

“There is always a choice,” Niomir said very quietly.

A moment of silence passed between them.

“No.” Grower’s voice was low and surprisingly strong.

“There are rumours…” Niomir began.

“I know all about the rumours,” Grower spat.

“Joining with Isurion…”

“Do not mention that name!” Grower hissed. He tried to rise. “You will be beaten or worse!”

Strength failed him. Grower collapsed back on the mat with a thud, panting.

“What could be worse than… this?” said Niomir.

Grower sighed. “Going to live with his band of outcasts is not a solution. Isurion gave up on his tribe.”

“Do not be naïve,” said Niomir.

“He abandoned everyone who depended on him. I will not abandon these men.”

Niomir said nothing. Grower’s regular breathing was the only sound in the night. For some strange reason, Niomir’s thoughts went to the oldest bits of tribal lore. “The Alvor are descendants of the spirits who chose to embody imperfect flesh rather than exist in perfect but immaterial form. But when I look at you, I see nothing but a piece of abused meat.” There was no disgust in his voice, only pity. “You are even less than the beasts I used to hunt.” Tears glimmered in his eyes. “This is not a life worthy of a spirit descended onto earth.”

He heard Grower snicker. “You still believe that story?” His words were slurred. “Perhaps you are the naïve one.” After that, Grower said no more. The effect of the herbs pulled him into blessed unconsciousness.

That night, Niomir could not sleep. The brutal punishment Grower received had shook him to the core. Even more so, he was struck by the words Grower had uttered just before he passed out.

Is it true? Am I really naive for believing the old stories? They’ve always been a part of his life, ever since he was a juvenile. He had no cause to doubt them. But now…

We used to live off the hunt. Now we squabble in the dirt. Are we slowly turning into the beasts that we used to hunt? Are we nothing but meat? Panic rose in him like a wall. Sweat poured over him. His heart hammered against the ribcage and refused to slow down. He leapt to his feet and dashed outside, unable to breathe.

He caught his breath only when the huts were nothing but tiny mounds in the distance. He begged his mind to relent but it mercilessly ploughed ahead with the terrifying thought.

What if this is actually happening? What if there are no more spirits? What if this meat is all we shall ever be?

What if all of THIS is for nothing?