Aphella froze. She could feel her heart beating, but everything else on her body seemed locked up, stiff, cold. Never had she encountered a beast of the wild that did not succumb to fire and heat, but the roaring mass of muscle and twisted hide on the other end of the pit was prove fire did not quell all life. The dreadtusk ended its roar and ground its feet into the wet earth of the pit. It shook its head and grunted, then vomited up part of the snuffler it had devoured a scant minute earlier. It appeared as a mass of black. With an effort, Aphella swallowed, pushing back bile. Her hands felt cold, but she could suddenly move them. She twisted her fingers around her spear again, gripping it as if readying for a swift strike and pointed it at the beast.
Oh Ty, she thought. Bring back Master Hamon, or anyone for that matter.
The head of the beast seemed to stare at her, though it was eyeless and lit only from the glow of the water below. In the faint light pits above the mouth looked almost like eyes. Aphella had heard that dreadtusks possessed other senses than smell and hearing; perhaps those sickly pits were part of that. The beast’s maw gaped open. Black drool and bile fell from its toothed jaws, and its long, curved tusks pointed at Aphella. It hunched its shoulders again, as if readying for a strike.
Aphella breathed out, trying force more light into her spear. At first it leapt to life, renewing a green glow, but just as quickly the light faded. Panicking, she breathed again, whispering her word for light, then speaking it, then nearly shouting it. The spear went dun.
“No! Not now!” She said aloud. “Please.” She backed up over the rocks the village wall, and hunched down, keeping the point of her spear out. She had really only ever used it as a focus for lightweaving, but the end was still sharp as an iron razor, and the dense bone it was made of was resilient. She found a nook in the rock wall and pushed the butt-end of the spear into it.
The dreadtusk snapped, and charged, huge bulk twisting under too-thick skin. As it barreled toward Aphella, it bellowed again, this time in a piercing, high-pitched scream. She tried to breathe more light into the spear, but again it focused nothing. Water splashed in torrents under the charging beast.
Aphella’s heart raced. Desperately, she quickened her breath, inhaling and exhaling deeply. Soon she could feel a burning in her lungs as she drew in air. The dreadtusk was closing, seemingly only paces away, and the world seemed to be darkening. The red light of the water drew in, and soon she could no longer see the edges of the pit, just the charging beast.
No! Not that too!
Hot, acrid breath was upon her. Tusks were pointed at her head. The light of the water fled, and darkness enveloped the beast, enveloped Aphella, enveloped everything as the colossal dreadtusk reared over the rocks.
Aphella could see nothing. She gritted her teeth and held tight to the braced spear, waiting for the tusks to impale her, or for the huge girth of the monster to crush her.
Fleeting moments passed, and no blow came. She released the breath she only just realized she had been holding, and with a sudden flash, her spear burst into bright, white light. Aphella flinched as she saw the hulk of the dreadtusk above her, two legs, each as large as she was, were suspended without motion. Tusks pointed down at her, and labored breath escaped from between them and a many-toothed mouth.
Aphella’s eyes quickly gathered fleeting reflections and refractions of her spear’s light, dancing like tiny lamps and fires. She realized a sheet of ice covered the lower extremities of the animal, drawn up from the pit, which was likewise frosted. As wonderstruck as she was, her mind still focused on the dreadtusk.
Feeling the light focusing through her spear, her body surged with strength from her fingertips through her arms to her chest and back, and even down into her tensed legs. The light had returned. Channeling all her thought and the light in her focus into motion and speed, she thrust the glowing spear into the exposed leathery chest of the beast. It cried in anguish as bone splintered and hard scales split apart. The spear entered the dreadtusk’s chest cavity like she had thrust it through water. She was only vaguely aware of resistance.
Light burst through the beast’s mouth, and the ice that surrounded it crumbled. Aphella stepped back as it fell to the ground. She felt a jolt of vibration and a pain that echoed up through her arm as her spear, an old family heirloom, cracked and broke with a loud snap under the pressure of the great animal falling.
Aphella fell to the ground, still clutching the butt-end of the spear. White light crackled around it randomly. The focus was broken. She felt wetness around her shins and ankles, and realized it was not ice melting, but blood pouring out of the slain beast. Like her spear, light crackled around the chest wound and exposed ribs began to dim. She could hear the sound of footsteps, and voices approaching.
“Aphella! Aphella!” She heard the cry of Ty in the darkness. Light filled the rocky spaces on the other side of the dreadtusk.
“I’m here!” She called back, feeling a dry pain in her throat. “I’m alive and I’m here.”
Two people scrambled around the corpse of the dreadtusk, carrying crystal lanterns. The one in front was unmistakably the small frame of Hamon, the village warder. The other belonged to Shaenyll, the time master. Both held their focuses out and aglow.
“Are you alright?” Hamon said in his characteristically pinched and gravelly voice. He tossed the lantern to the ground and grabbed Aphella by the arm, pulling her upward.
“Give her a moment, won’t you?” Shaenyll said. She used her focus to light up the ice, which was receding back into water. The dreadtusk was revealed in clarity. Even laying on its side it was as tall as a man, and its skin was as thick as stout board, and covered with large scales. “Creator hold me, but you’ve actually killed it.”
Aphella nodded silently as she struggled to her feet, swaying side to side and still clutching the remnants of her spear tightly.
“The ice,” The town warder said, looking around. “Did the beast do this?”
“I don’t know,” Aphella said.
“Beasts can do something like this?” Ty said, staring at the corpse.
“Dreadtusks can. They can drink light,” Hamon said. “Wait.” He held up his focus and squatted down, his eyes brightening suddenly to piercing beacons. “Did you hear that?”
“What?” Ty said.
“Shh.” Hamon looked into the dark landscape. An echoing boom sounded faintly. “There’s another. Maybe two.”