Chapter 1: Dreadtusk
Aphella sat on the rocks, watching the hold’s herd of snufflers amble about in the moss pit. Beyond it was impenetrable, unending darkness. Above, there was nothingness. Behind her, the village was alive with light, though she knew the greater majority of the people there would be sleeping. That light of the village gave only a faint image of the moss pit, and ever Aphella’s gaze fell on the end of that light. The dimness and the loneliness was what made times up on the wall, watching the animals, boring and frightening at the same time.
The moss pit, which was filled with ankle-deep water from the local hot spring, was life to the Bright Children of Mock’s hold, though they partook of little of the moss directly. It provided food for the snufflers, the almost cute livestock, with perked ears and long, twitching noses, that the hold relied on for meat, skins, and other materials. The various types of moss not fed to the snufflers provided medicine, drink, and when needed, long-lasting but ill-tasting food.
The little animals wouldn’t run off, but that was not why you watched. You watched for the beasts of darkened wilds. The elders said they had been coming in further in recent years, bursting forth into the open with blood lust and mad hunger. And so Protecting the snufflers had become a near constant job.
Occasionally one of the snufflers would look up at her, water dripping from its snout, and snort softly. Unlike the wild animals of the world, they had eyes. Dun eyes, but eyes still. This made them seem tame and docile, even more so than even a steam lizard, which was as benign a creature as Aphella could imagine. It also made them dependent on the bright children. Aphella wondered how they ever could have existed without her people, as there was as far as she knew, very little light elsewhere in the world.
She got bored after a long hour and cast a light spell. It wasn’t the sort of spell most of the other younglings in the village could cast, which was usually a steady, dim ball of light. This was a larger spell, and Aphella enjoyed the satisfaction of being able to cast it. She pointed the tip of her bone spear, now glowing with a soft, green light, at the water, and soon the entire pool lit up to a warm effervescence. The snufflers picked up the speed of their rooting, seeing more clearly the clumps of hot moss. They dared to wander a few spans further away from natural, comforting green glow of Aphella’s eyes.
She smiled as she watched them. She glanced over the stone wall and at the empty streets, well-lit as always by crystal lamps hanging from arched posts. Quietly, she slipped down from the top and landed beside the shallow water of the moss pit. A snuffler looked up at her passively before dipping his snout back into the water. Aphella found a rock and eased herself down, leaning her spear against her shoulder. She glanced around again, then dipped her hands into the pool.
Her wet hand glowed softly as she withdrew it. She began to run the water through her long, raven-black hair, dipping her hand back into the pit as her hair took the moisture up. Soon her hair was glowing a pale yellow-green. She held it out in front of her face and willed it to change to a lighter yellow hue, and the water in her hair complied. She leaned over the rocky edge of the pit and looked at the water. Softly, she blew on the surface and put out the mellow green near to the water’s edge. Her reflection appeared as the light receded, the water rippling slightly with the movements of the snufflers a few dozen paces away. Aphella sighed at the sight.
“I don’t mind it being black.”
Aphella jerked up and immediately drew the light away from her hair, which returned to its dark color, now dripping flat over shoulders. A yellow-haired boy, slim and swimming in decorative long jacket, was walking casually along the space between the moss pit and the town wall, a lantern hanging from a long pole resting on his shoulder, putting out a crisp, white light.
“Ty,” Aphella said, and stood up quickly. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”
“I was up late with a few of the elders. They got a message in from a trader that should be arriving sometime during the waking,” Ty said. He stepped next to Aphella and looked out at the moss pit, smirking. His tall high-heeled boots pushed his head up just past her own. Aphella was tall, especially for a woman, but slender, and though not large in the bust she not easily mistaken for a man, even when standing beside the diminutive Ty.
“I assume your father paid them for passing along the message,” Aphella said.
“Of course. If we could buy the beacon I’m sure they would be paying us.” A sly smirk crossed his smooth face as he watched the snufflers.
“So the trader is a strong light weaver,” Aphella said. Her heart beat with a pang of anticipation she tried not to show on her face.
“He’d have to be to activate the beacon from the road.”
“He might have a beacon with him,” Ty said.
“Can you carry a beacon around with you?” Aphella said. “That much stone, and-”
“Our ancestors carried one here, didn’t they? If we could find out how to acquire our own beacon…” Ty shook his head. “Lots of opportunity.” He looked at Aphella and added, “For all of us, of course.”
Aphella stood quietly for a moment. “Tomorrow is the quarter-seasonal.”
“I’m sure our traveler will be invited to attend.”
Aphella found herself smiling, then tried to consciously relax her mouth.
“Listen, Aphella,” Ty continued in an apologetic tone. “My father has already arranged my escort. He didn’t consult me.”
Aphella turned her head back and looked at Ty. “Oh? Don’t worry about that. I’m sure it’s fine.”
“Don’t you want to know who it is?”
Aphella found herself staring at the blackened end of the moss pit, trying to discern the movement of the snufflers, who looked like they were grouping together. “Um… Sure, I suppose.”
Ty narrowed his eyes. “It’s Maeven. I know you don’t like her, but my father… Hey, are you listening?”
“Where’s your focus? Your spear?” Aphella said. Her gaze remained on the far end of the moss pit.
“Why would I walk around town with a spear?” Ty said. Aphella didn’t answer. In the silence that fell between them, he heard a deep rumbling sound. The snufflers at the far end of the pit began to walk back toward the wall, then broke into a run, splashing torrents of glowing water in the air.
On the far bank of the pit, lit only by the soft glow of the water, something appeared. Two long, curving spikes of white pushed their way over the water. Between them hung mandibles of sickly yellow, with globs of drool that dripped into the water.