Introduction to Pteron, Groll culture, and Noctilion's plans
There is always a guard watching over the Vigil Cave when a young groll is deciding their future. This guard is not only responsible for warding off monsters, but also ensures that the young one remains in the cave until two days and two nights have passed in isolation. These guards work in shifts, and Noctilion had chosen to take the last shift of his sister’s vigil.
For two days and two nights, she had been reflecting on her life, and the direction she would go. The cave was furnished with a fireplace, washpot, cushioned armchair and a carved desk. On this desk were set books detailing the laws and occupations of her people. She had food brought to her, materials with which to write, and an amazing view.
The Vigil Cave was set high in the cliff face, overlooking the black expanse of the Lightless Land. She had watched as the sun and moon arced over her home and felt the movement of time. She had taken in the law, and knew its meaning. She had read the teachings of masters and learned a little of what lay down each road of occupation. In the fires of solitude and silence, she had hammered out an identity for herself.
Groll are not named at birth. When a child feels ready, they go up to the Vigil Cave and come down as adults. They come down with a name of their own making.
As the light of dawn bathed the cliffs in orange, Noctilion’s sister emerged from her seclusion with a victorious grin. Though she had not known beforehand who was on watch, she was not at all surprised to see her brother smiling down on her from a ledge above. He jumped down and stood facing her, smiling. The two did not speak, but he knew her triumph, and she knew his pride in her.
He let her go first on the way down. Their clawed feet gripped the skinny staircase carved into the stone. At the bottom, they met Yangin, who was recovering well from his earlier weakness. Taking his daughter by the hand, Yangin led his family back into the village and all the way up to his gazebo. Nearly the whole population of Noon-Light, more than two hundred groll, had gathered for her revelation. Noctilion also had an announcement to make, but he knew this was his sister’s moment in the center of attention. She got up on a podium and turned to face the crowd.
“My name is Pteron!” she declared.
Heads turned to one another in confusion. “Isn’t that a masculine name?” someone called out.
“I made it up for myself.” she said, “there’s a silent ‘P’ out front.”
“Ah...” murmured the crowd, as if the silent ‘P’ changed the matter entirely. They quieted down and waited to hear what job she had decided on.
“I have decided...”, she paused for dramatic effect, “to move to Web-Wall and work alongside their beast tamers.”
Shocked gasps erupted from the mass of groll; no one was expecting this. It was not uncommon for young groll to move to another village, but she had done so well under the silk-weavers that they’d lept to assumptions.
Pteron hopped down from the podium and Yangin turned to face the crowd. He began reciting the customary response.
“As chief of this village, I hereby accept the revelation of Pteron and honor her decisions of choice. Now, let there be food!” As soon as he said this he got down from the gazebo and joined the ensuing rush to the butcher’s house down by the base of the village. Out in front of the butchery was an enormous bed of coals over which was skewered the lung-thief Noctilion had caught the previous day. It had been skinned and gutted, and now the meat glowed a golden-brown tone. Tables had been set up in the street nearby which were stacked with bowls of beetles, both cooked and live. There were pans of sticky-sweet fruit cobbles and plates of spider legs with dipping sauce.
Noctilion grabbed a handful of mothwing chips and made his way over to Pteron. He found her trapped in a circle of well-wishers and questioning voices.
“...but you were so good at silk-weaving, why did you choose beast-taming... You’ve never even had beast-taming experience… how can you possibly think it’s worth your time... Is this about your mother?”
Noctilion made a breach in the circle to put a stop to the one-sided conversation.
“Hey sis,” he said, wrapping an arm around her slender shoulders, “You absolutely have to try these lung-thief ribs.”
They left the circle and he led her over to the coal bed where the butcher was handing out ribs the size of a groll’s forearm. He ordered one for each of them.
“Thanks,” Pteron said.
“Your welcome. Those folks don’t know when to keep their jaws shut.” Noctilion replied.
“I meant thanks for the rib. I was about to hand them a ribbing myself when you came in and ruined my verbal vanquishing.”
“What, did you find a particularly awful word in that thesaurus of yours?”
“Beslubbering. As in: ‘I was initially going to be an artless, beslubbering codpiece but then I realised that I’d never measure up to professionals such as yourselves.’”
“And you wonder why you have no friends.”
They continued talking as Pteron followed her brother into a cave that opened into the village and tunneled up to the cliffside. The cave ran parallel to the cliff face and windows had been cut out of one side to let sunlight in. As the two ascended, and they found themselves alone, Noctilion changed the subject.
“Why Pteron?” he asked.
“Because it sounds like terror; which I plan to drive like a stake through the hearts of my enemies,” she said, wearing a faux-serious face.
“Or... maybe I just wanted to have a name all to myself and Pteron sounded cool. I think. Is Pteron a stupid name?”
“No, it’s fine. How cool it is will depend on how you use it. If you do something memorable with your life, I’m sure that other young groll will be naming themselves Pteron for generations to come. Most don’t think to come up with their own original name, myself included.”
“Realy? I’ve never heard of any other Noctilions.”
“That’s because it’s not a popular name. The last guy didn’t do so well. I’m surprised you didn’t read about him in any of your history books.”
“I skimmed a lot of it. History is boring.”
Noctilion was almost going to dispute that, but he decided that proving the wisdom of history was a battle to fight another day.
“To make a long story short,” he said instead, “He is popularly blamed as the reason that the eastern wall of Rota fell, which ultimately cost us the war. He was the commander of eastern terrace defences and wasn’t at his post at a critical time. He has been accused of everything from cowardice to treachery.”
“If that’s true, why would you name yourself after him?”
“Because I don’t believe it’s true. I’ve done extensive research on that breach, and I’ve turned up some evidence for my theory. You see, the major breach was opened by some suicidal horse hopped up on speed enhancing armor cannoning himself into the wall. It had never happened before and was impossible to predict. Some reports I’ve dug up imply that at the time, Noctilion was further down the wall shoring up a smaller breach that had opened earlier in the battle.”
“So he’s been misjudged, the question still stands as to why you’d name yourself after him?”
“I figured that if people remember all the brilliant stuff that I’m going to do, the name of Noctilion will come back into common use. I want to bring honor back to our people, and I tried to tie my name in with that theme of restoration.”
“And you wonder why people think you’re so full of yourself?”
They reached the end of the tunnel and exited onto the rocky plateau above the cliffs. There was a small group of groll gathered at the edge. At the signal of the guard on duty, they leaped off one by one. Noctilion and Pteron threw away their finished ribs and got in line. The line grew shorter. It was Pteron’s revelation day, so she got to go first when it came to their turn. She took a few steps back to make space for a running start. She sprinted towards the edge and pushed off the precipice with all her might. Noctilion stood back as she fell out of view. After a moment the guard, who was the only one allowed to lean over the edge, gave the thumbs up. Noctilion calmly walked out into the emptiness.
Falling. No, flying. The sky cupped him in its hands and the world gave way before him. Air rushed through his fur like a comb and slipped between his fingers. In the same instinctual way that crouching in a dark cave corner made him feel safe, this made Noctilion feel alive. His mind accelerated and he could process all the information flowing around him. The smell of the feast nearby joined a banquet of woodland scents, each unique and distinguishable. The laughter of groll below and the cacophony of creatures hidden by the tree line was barely audible above the buffeting wind. His eyes were turned upwards, lost in the blue sky of a new day.
Suddenly he hit the immense spider-string net stretched out beneath this section of cliff. He felt the dramatic slowing, a momentary pause, and a snapback up into the air. The net was angled so that he was flung into another which hung vertically down and out from the cliff. He clung to the vertical net to stop his momentum and looked around for his sister. He noticed her clambering her way down to the ground and moved to join her, crawling along the ropes with hands and clawed feet. As he was falling, he’d had an idea and was eager to share it.
“Pteron!” he called as he hit the ground, “Do you want to have some fun?”
“That depends; what kind of fun are we talking about?”
“How about a game of torches?”
Pteron's eyes lit up. “For real? I can actually play with you guys?”
“Sure! You’re an adult now. You can be trusted to handle yourself,” he turned to one of the others who had just come off the net.
“Teropodon! Get the gangs together. We’re playing torches!”
“Whoop! Whoop!” Came the reply as other thrill-seekers heard the summons and went off to gather their teams.
The siblings left the jumping grounds and hiked up to a cave entrance near the top of the village. Fifty groll, most of the younger side of adulthood, stood in the cavern by the time everyone was assembled. Noctilion jumped up onto a rock and called for the crowd’s attention.
“Are you ready to play with fire!” he hollered.
“YEAH!” the crowd replied.
“Alright! We have some new players today so I’ll quickly go over the rules. Each team gets a lit torch. You can play anywhere inside the cave system, but you’ll be disqualified if you set foot outside. When the judge calls, all teams gather here under truce. The teams that still have torches win and those without are the losers. All forms of fighting short of what would cause permanent maiming or death are allowed. Any questions?”
Pteron raised her hand. “If we lose our torch but the judge hasn’t called yet, are we allowed to steal another team’s torch?”
“Yes,” Noctilion said, “Anything else?”
“Then let’s get started! There are 50 of us now, so five teams of ten should work. Divvy up!”
Noctilion drew Pteron, Myzon, and seven others around him. The teams were given a few moments to gather and plan ahead. Noctilion introduced Pteron to the different formations and codewords in rapid succession. She couldn’t understand everything he said but expected it would come to her after some practise.
When the judge came by to distribute the torches, Noctilion insisted that Pteron hold theirs. When everything was ready, the judge sounded her horn. Two teams immediately surged towards each other hoping to score an early win. The other three took off into the tunnels.
“Myzon! Take us to that new opening you found!” Noctilion ordered as he ran.
Myzon led the pack as they made their way through the subterranean environment. Each section they passed was shaped like a bubble. The spheres came in all sizes, some barely more than shoulder-width in diameter, others large enough to seat everyone in Noon-Light. Some sections merged smoothly, while others had obviously been broken through with hammers and picks. The map that Myson had memorised resembled a whirlpool of bubbles, only with rock instead of water. This cave was not a natural formation.
Different species of glow-worms hung from the ceilings. The rainbow of colors was too dim to light the floor, and Pteron had to be near the front to light the way with the torch. Occasionally, a lost swarm of red glow-flies would drift past in the cavernous spaces. Spider-silk ladders and wooden floorboards assisted them in navigating the treacherous passes.
They came to the edge of a bubble and Myzon squeezed through a small crack in the surface. One by one they passed through, looking over their shoulders to watch for an ambush while they were vulnerable. The other side was another sphere, this one with foliage covering the far side from the crack. Noctilion smiled.
“Pteron and Teropodon, you are orange team. Myzon, you will lead yellow team, and I will head red team.” Noctilion said as he pointed out who went where. “Orange team will guard the torch. Find a cleft nearby, stash the fire, and hide. Yellow team will go out into the caves and attract an enemy team with their torch into the chamber connected to this one. Red team and I will start disturbing this foliage so when the enemy arrives we can pull it down. The disparity in air temperatures will cause a rush of wind in this section of the caves, blowing out the enemy’s torch. Is that clear?”
The others saluted with their left hand covering the right fist. ”Yes, sir!”
Noctilion shouted, “Break!” and they ran off to their objectives. Red team began pulling out the branches holding up the leafy structure. As he worked, Noctilion wondered if perhaps he shouldn’t have given his sister such an important role. This was her first time playing, and she already had enough social issues. She could get hurt or make a fool of herself. A serious blunder could permanently estrange her from the rest of Noon-Light. These were irrational thoughts of course, and he knew that. He knew some responsibility would be good for her, and he knew she could handle herself. He didn’t know that the other team was arriving early.
“Red team! DO IT NOW!” Myzon shouted out from the adjacent chamber. The sound of pounding footsteps confirmed that yellow team had returned with another group immediately behind them. Thinking fast, Noctilion took the heavy branch in his arms and hurled it at the weakest point in the leafy wall. The whole structure began to tremble and fall, aided by red team throwing their sticks and stones at its base. A crash resounded through the cavern as the framework collapsed under the assault. A rushing wind blew past Noctilion and into the crack behind him.
Cries of despair echoed from the other side as their opponents realised what had happened. Suddenly the cries turned to angry shouting as yellow team came under attack.
“Make them tell us where their torch is! We still have a chance!” someone shouted from beyond the crack.
Noctilion quieted his red team and told them to sneak back through and catch the enemy unaware. With the torch put out, the cave had been submerged in darkness, enabling red team to silently slip through to the larger chamber and join the melee from behind the attackers. They had surprise on their side, but the other group had two more groll than they did, and the advantages evened out. Noctilion jumped on the back of someone by chance and wrestled them down to the ground and into a headlock. “Geko”, he hissed in their ear. When they failed to give the corresponding codeword, he began to choke his enemy. The other guy nailed him in the ribs with an elbow as they rolled across the stone floor. Someone’s foot materialised out of the blackness and came down on Noctilion’s nose, which began to bleed profusely.
“HEY FOOT KISSERS!” Pteron’s voice rose over the grunts and shouts of fighting. “We lost our torch too. We couldn’t get far enough away in time.”
Moans of disappointment came from the teams as they pulled themselves apart from each other. Noctilion released his captive and stood up, holding his nose and tipping his head forward to staunch the bleeding. “I have a proposal!” he said as the other group was leaving. “If we work together, we stand a greater chance of finding another team’s torch. Then we can fight it out. What do you say?”
‘’Ha!” Came the voice of the other group’s leader. “I remember what happened the last time we made a truce with you. We won’t make that mistake again.” And then they were gone.
“Alright then, time for the backup plan to the backup plan.” Noctilion said, drawing his team in with the sound of his voice, “Everyone pair up and pick a tunnel. If you find a torch, try to steal it stealthily and outrun the other guys until the judge calls an end to the game. Good luck!”
He grabbed Pteron by the hand and they took off into the cave system. They eventually emerged through a crack onto a stone shelf. The dim light of bioluminescent insects hinted at a rope bridge extending across a deep ravine in front of them. Noctilion took the first step onto the swaying, wooden boards and Pteron followed immediately behind. Halfway over he felt her stop and he turned around to face her. The faint red glow from a passing swarm of glow-flies illuminated her sullen face.
“Do you really think we can still win?” she asked.
“It’s possible, and I have seen teams come back from worse,” he replied.
“And how often does that happen?”
He paused, then said, “Very rarely.”
“So it’s my fault we lost.”
“Nobody’s saying that.”
“Teropodon did, and he’s right. When I heard the other team coming down the tunnel I ducked into a crack. It was exactly where all the wind blew through. We would still have our torch if I’d gone anywhere else.”
“Anyone could have made that mistake. All you need is some practice and experience.”
“Yeah, well, whatever. All I can think about is how everyone groaned like ‘Of course she failed. Why did we trust her with anything?’ Ugh! I could just punch them all in the face!”
“You’ve got a lot of inner rage. Good. Let’s go find a team with a torch and take it out on them.” Noctilion turned back around and started jogging over the bridge.
“That’s the best plan you’ve had all day.” she said as she ran after him.
Time, however, was against them. They had not gone very far before the blast of the signal horn echoed through the caves. The pair were not far from the gathering cavern and made it there before anyone else. Pteron fidgeted restlessly beside her brother as they watched the other players trickle in. Some came in small groups of two or three, others in whole teams. One in every four seemed to have bloodied faces and torn clothing. One was even carried in, his right leg bent in ways it shouldn’t be. So far no one was holding a torch, and Noctilion began to hope it would be a tie, but then the last group arrived.
Their torchbearer was sitting on a teammate’s shoulders waving the burning stick high above his head. They sauntered merrily past the losers and presented their burnt offering to the judge. She took it, verified that it was one of the original torches, and passed it back to the winning team. They carried it outside and down to the grassy clearing between the village and the forest's edge. There the torch was tossed onto a towering stack of logs and kindling.
As evening drew near and the stars began to shine above them, most of the groll of Noon-Light gathered around the great bonfire. The harpist was playing softly as groll talked amongst themselves and finished off the leftovers of the earlier feast. Now was the time for Noctilion’s announcement. He climbed up on the reserve woodpile so everyone could see him.
“Excuse me everyone!” he said, “I’m going to be leaving for Rota in the morning. My primary mission will be to conduct trade on behalf of Noon-Light and obtain the medicine we need to fight off this White Plague attacking our loved ones. I will send back someone with the medicine as fast as I can. Secondly, I intend to interview the groll in Rota and as many villages as I can to get an idea of how the occupation has affected our people and our culture. Thirdly, I’ll be taking Pteron with me and dropping her off in Web-Wall on the way back. I’d appreciate it if you could show her some support and wish her luck before she leaves. If you’re interested in joining me on this journey, please let me know and find someone to cover your work before sunrise.”
He jumped off the woodpile and began organizing the expedition with his close friends and supporters. It worked out that they would have 12 groll in their company, most of whom had been on Noctilion’s team for the game of torches. A few wanted to sell their wares in the city, while most were curious to see the other villages and maybe meet some new faces. As far as young, attractive singles go, Noon-Light had a very small pool to choose from.
They loaded up supplies onto the boats with four groll to each canoe. The sun was barely peeking over the horizon when the small convoy set out into the Lightless Lands.