Introduction of Noctilion
| Noctilion considered the darkness to be a friend, but not a loyal one. True, it hid him from the things that wanted to eat him, but it also hid the things he wanted to eat. This was the way of all things in the Lightless Land he thought to himself as he crept among the branches of the forest canopy. Give and take, pro and con, cost and benefit, he considered the only advantage between him and his prey to be his experience maximizing reward while mitigating risk. He reached a clawed foot out to grasp an adjacent branch as he peered over the foliage above the water. This pond divided the trees just enough to let a few beams of sunlight faintly illuminate the creature stirring beneath. Noctilion sized his distant target against similar beasts he’d encountered before. This one was large, even for a lung-thief.
As a creature that had once been relegated to deep subterranean caves, this lung-thief had adapted well to the pitch-black, prey-rich environment of the Lightless Land. In any other biome, its pale white skin and lidless eyes would have shriveled under the effects of the beating sun. Here though, the black-leaved tenebrous trees grew so thick as to absorb all light from above, long before the rays reach the lower levels. A typical lung-thief avoided the streams with bright sunlight for fear of being exposed to predators, but this monster was of such a size as to forgo such fears. It was vaguely shaped like a tadpole, but with deft legs, a tale rippling with muscle, and a flourishing set of blood-red gills coming out the sides of its head. Noctilion could see the gills flashing about, sucking all the oxygen out of the water, suffocating all other aquatic life in the area. He could hear the fish plop as their dead bodies floated to the surface. His sense of hearing was much more accurate than his sight, as his eyes were small as marbles and his broad ears fanned out from the sides of his head and curled upwards so that they resembled horns. The beast below might have fed on the carcasses of these breathless victims for days, and would then have moved on to the next pond or creek. Would have, if not for me, the hunter promised himself from his hidden balcony.
When he thought the creature was done stealing the air from the local riverbed, Noctilion began to unpack his hunting kit. He was by no means a small groll, but that thing was at least five times his size. If he wanted to return home with a prize in tow he would need patience, superior armament, and a greater will to survive than that of his quarry. He unwound a length of sturdy spider silk rope and tied it in a knot to form a large loop which he gently let down to the ground below him. After fastening the other end of the translucent rope to the thickest nearby branch, he drew a fish the size of his arm out of a sack and carefully tossed the corpse into the middle of the loop. The lung-thief stopped what it was doing and gave the fish a wary look. Otherwise occupied with another piece of flesh, it turned back to its meal, evidently ignoring the bait. The Groll made himself comfortable on his tree-branch, opting to wait for an opportune moment.
As the hours passed, Noctilion debated with himself as to whether or not the amphibian was truly worth the effort. He reasoned that there was enough meat on this one animal to have leftovers even if the whole village came out to celebrate his little sister’s revelation ceremony. On the other hand, it would be a rather grim party if everyone was mourning the death of a foolish hunter. He was familiar enough with death, as was anyone who lived in the Lightless Lands, but his death, in particular, could raise troubles for his community. Groll may not have governed by family dynasties as the humans did, but Noctilion knew he was being groomed to take his father’s place as chief when the time came. He still wasn’t sure how he felt about that. It was one thing to risk one’s life when hunting alone, but it was another to be entrusted with the safety of others. As sunlight gave way to moonlight, Noctilion concluded that he might as well make the most of his freedom before responsibility began limiting his options.
At last, sometime near midnight, the lung-thief moved to take the bait. Noctilion tensed up, he had made the mistake of striking too soon before and did not want to endure that frustration again. When the monster was fully engrossed in its food, he hauled on his rope, the knot securing it to the tree acted as a ratchet and prevented it from slipping back down. The loop came up around the lung-thief's neck and nearly lifted it out of the water. Noctilion had planned to lift its head all the way out and expose its soft throat to attack. However, it was much heavier than he had anticipated, and he could barely get its snout to the surface of the pond.
He drew a javelin out of the quiver on his back and jumped down to a lower branch to give himself a better shot. Drawing his arm back in position to throw the dart, he scanned the thrashing monster for a vulnerable point. He saw his chance when it opened its gaping mouth to bellow at him. The toxin he had dipped the javelin in earlier needed to enter the body in a location where the bloodstream would take it up and rapidly carry it through the rest of the victim. The throat and heart were good places, but the underside of the tongue would do.
Noctilion flung the spear down at his target, but the first volley knocked against a tooth and ricocheted harmlessly into the water. When the second shot was also rebutted, he stopped, took a deep breath, and refocused himself. The third throw found its mark and the toxin began its work. Once again Noctilion sat back in his perch and waited.
Just to be sure, he held back for several minutes after the lung-thief stopped moving. He could still remember watching a supposedly unconscious bone-mauler springing up and flattening his cousin against a cave wall. When Noctilion was sure it was safe, he crept down beside the creature, cautiously approached, and poked it with a spear. It remained where it was, floating by the edge of the pond. Grasping the rope which bound its neck, he pulled the head up onto the muddy shore. The toxin on the spears would keep it down for less than an hour, he needed a longer lasting solution.
He retrieved a clump of fungi from one of the pockets in his spider-silk pants, which had been dyed black to blend in with the environment. Then Noctilion mentally steadied himself for the worst part of hunting lung-thieves. Curling the fingers of his free hand under the lip of the upper jaw, he slowly began to lift. First the teeth were exposed, then those came apart to reveal the massive tongue. Tentatively, he slid the handful of fungi over the tongue and into the back of the throat. It did not matter that the beast was asleep, having one’s arm between its jaws was still unnerving. Having finished, Noctilion sat back on the shore for a brief moment to wash the viscous saliva out of his mousy fur.
The fungi needed to be ingested to take effect, but the lung-thief would now sleep for days. It would not even notice the village butcher hacking it apart. Before that though, Noctilion needed to get the huge mass of vulnerable meat through the most predator-infested lands known to Grollkind. Had he killed the lung-thief, the scent of its death, as well as the lack of a heartbeat would have emboldened the local wildlife to eat the body out from under Noctilion. He gathered several armloads of branches and lashed them to the body to make it float higher in the water. Then, selecting the longest stick to be his makeshift oar, he hopped on the back of his sleeping raft and pushed off from the shore.
He paddled until the pond came to the river that fed it, and then began to make his way upstream. His village was nestled in the bottom of the cliffs that hemmed the whole Lightless Land in like a cage. Rivers and groundwater from the plateaus above the cliffs ran off the edge and through the cave systems to pour out into the dark forest below. All Noctilion had to do to find his way home was follow the stream north to its source.
He heard the shrieks and squeals of the forests creatures both off in the distance, and close at hand. The tree trunks and bushes he passed reeked with the territorial scents of competing animals from all levels of the food chain. There was little that he could see in the darkness, but the multitude of sounds and smells filled his other senses. Noctilion scowled when he saw a slyth in the half shadows taking a drink from the stream. The species had been named by the humans because it looked like another which they called sloths. The slyth’s arms had three elbows each, and were folded like springs. It could fire these springs out, shooting forth wicked claws to pinch and slice with deadly accuracy. Looking up from its drink, the bizarre mammal stared at the equally bizarre raft and its lone passenger. Noctilion had always felt uneasy around slyths, and starring one down now convinced him that it was because their eyes were disturbingly human. Even its name was connected to those monsters. No, he did not like slyths at all.
It took him several hours, but he eventually came to a bend in the river. As he approached it, the environment gradually grew brighter. At last, he made the turn and exited the woods into a rocky clearing. On the far end of the clearing were the great cliffs, from which fell the waters feeding the river. He beached the lung-thief halfway between the cliffs and the forest on the shore by the boat-builder’s camp. The master and his apprentices were carving out a tenebrous wood canoe nearby, and they paused to wave as he passed into the village proper.
Set on the inside of a corner where two cliff faces met, Noon-Light village was so named because the massive walls of exposed rock to its west, north, and east kept it out of direct sunlight except for the brief period of time where the sun stood directly overhead. The ground was raised both at floor level and at the top of the cliffs, so the waterfalls fell to the sides of Noon-Light, but never directly onto it. As Noctilion left the river base, the stony terrain gave way to verdant grass. The well-worn path meandered north from the camp, then hugged the eastern cliffside before turning up the hill, dividing the houses from the eastern cliff face. This path was mirrored by another on the western side, and both met on top of the hill at the back of the village right where the cliffs met to form the V-shape. At this meeting of the paths stood a capacious gazebo from which the chief conducted most of his business.
Yangon currently served as Noon-Light’s chief, which meant that he sat in his seat most of the day listening to his people’s concerns and doing his best to resolve interpersonal conflicts. While this may be the day to day reality of a groll-chieftain, his true responsibility was two-fold: Officiate events such as weddings, apprentice graduations, revelation ceremonies, etc. and dealing with the Occupation’s tax-men.
By the time Noctilion made it to the gazebo, there were a few groll in line before him waiting to speak with Yangon. No problem, he thought, the lung-thief isn’t going anywhere. While he waited, he heard someone walk up behind him. He turned around to see a slightly rotund groll with a shrewish face and glossy black ears sticking sharply up from his burnished brown head.
“Hey Myzon, what are you up to?” Noctilion whispered, not wanting to interrupt his father's conversation
“I’ve discovered a cave route that opens out in the forest. I thought that Yangon might want to block it off or post guards to watch for monsters using it as a way into the village. How did your hunting trip go?”
“I caught a lung-thief. I don’t mean to brag, but it’s probably the biggest that anyone in Noon-Light has ever seen.”
Myzon snorted, “As if the great and humble Noctilion could ever stoop so low as to boast about his many accomplishments.” he said with a smirk.
“Ha, you should quit mapmaking and become a comedian. The village could always use a town fool.”
“Oh not to worry, I believe you have been filling that role finely. I’m sure the other hunters just keep you around so they don’t get bored sitting out in the woods all day.”
“I actually caught this one all by myself this time. Riddle me that sir jester.”
Myzon dropped the grin and asked in earnest, “You haven’t been solo hunting have you?”
“So what if I have?”
“By the blood of men and horses Noctilion, it’s the Lightless Land out there! What are you thinking?”
“The way I figure it, if something truly nasty comes along, like a bone-mauler, everyone in the hunting party dies anyway. This way, I’m the only one at risk, and no one else gets hurt.”
“Not only is that stupid, it’s selfish.”
“How is that selfish? I’m putting my life on the line for the sake of others. That is the opposite of selfish.”
“You are denying others the opportunity to do the same for you. A true leader knows when to delegate risk to those who are willing.”
“But I’m not a leader. Not yet anyway.”
“And you never will be if you keep this up. Promise me you won’t solo hunt ever again.”
“That’s not a promise I can...” Noctilion would have continued, but he was diverted by a racking cough coming from his father. He stepped in front of the groll ahead of him in line and knelt down beside Yangon. He had coughed into his hand, and Noctilion could see flecks of white in the closed fist.
“That’s enough for today,” he announced, “The chief needs to rest.” The others were disappointed that they had missed their turns, but nodded in agreement. Yangon drew a breath to reprimand his son, but was cut off by another round of spasmodic coughing. Noctilion hooked his arm under Yangon’s and lifted him up. When it seemed that the chief was too weak to even walk assisted, Myzon took up position under his other arm. Together they carried him to his house and laid him in bed. After collecting his thoughts for a moment, Yangon reached out and took Noctilion by the hand.
“I know what you are thinking, and I don’t want you to do it. I can tolerate you smuggling the nullstone to Rota, even if it’s behind my back, but I forbid you from stealing medicine that belongs to someone else. I’ve sent a petition to Rota, and they will send what we need. We must have faith. ”
Noctilion was taken aback when his father acknowledged Noon-Light’s black market dealings, but he still felt it necessary to take a stand for what he knew was the truth.
“The only things Rota reliably provides are tax collectors and injustice. Noon-Light needs medicine to fight the White Plague. If we don’t take it for ourselves, we will be wiped out.”
Yangon simply laid back and closed his wearied eyes. “We must have faith.” he repeated. Noctilion took a deep breath and exited the room. Myzon followed behind and closed the door behind them.
A silence passed between the two of them before Noctilion looked up from the floor and said “My sister’s ceremony is tomorrow morning. After that, I’m going to Rota. Are you with me?”
Myzon faced his friend and stood up straight. The time for joking comradery was over, this was serious.