Tiny tunnels ran beneath the darkest of places. Narrow walkways bored through thick earth allowing access to all the lands. The scent of wet grass and mud filled the little holes. The creatures that lived there carried the same scent, leaving traces of it behind on pillows after turning through thoughts and gathering what they needed. Most of the time they went unnoticed in the rest of the realm. Occasionally a lockett would slip up and get discovered. Those poor locketts didn’t usually get to return home.
The locketts lived like most Huditrain natives. They had places to eat and shop, families to care for, and their individual jobs and skills that kept the days full. Their customs, of course, different from most. The tiny bark-skinned creatures cared to wear worms for warmth and snack on the dampest of soil. The routine little roots they were, undoubtedly made the lockett’s work ethic more fierce than other beings.
With a quick glance these little creatures appear nothing but mischief makers and thieves—though they were those things—they’re also guardians. Locketts didn’t work for appreciation or glory. They worked for Huditra. Keeping the lands safe was in their blood just as the dirt they grew from. A big undertaking for something the size of a songbird. Their colonies stretched the width of the world.
A plump lockett rolled an egg-shaped rock down the south corridor, right before The Dizzy Bug, a preferred pub in the outer pass. He grunted happily as he did so. Most locketts were content with their missions and never sought more. He rounded a sharp bend continuing to press the rock forth. The odd edge caught on a groove over head. The thick of the stone blocked the opening to Readers Nook. Toki already frustrated in her failed searches to find answers popped up from a small stool. She tossed the book at the rock.
“Watch it!” She shouted now officially frustrated with her entire world, as if that one stuck rock tipped all her frets over—the trunk on the rokenbear’s back.
“Sorry, Working on it! Stones have hard heads.” He chuckled pleased with himself, then gave the stone a harsh shove. It didn’t budge.
“I don’t have my digger!” Toki banged the stone with her petite fist. For all the times to leave my burrow with it out, she thought.
“Breath Toki,” the calm lockett mumbled relatively unfazed by Toki’s temper.
After a series of grunts and stone scraping, he forced it past and continued on his way. Toki poked her bottle-capped eyes around the edge of the doorway. She had enough of flipping through pages. Some things could be read, others needed to be discovered. If the stone blocking her in wasn’t a sign to go, she didn’t think there would ever be one.
Without another thought Toki ran to her quarters to grab her digger and a few other needed items. Excitement pulsed in her miniature feet. Toki ran past the gathering for supper. She had no interest in eating or talking about rocks. Once Overseer commanded all to ignore the northern realms she became obsessed with finding out why. Once he called the colonies further in, she ceased sleeping. Toki tried to be good, of course, sticking to the information caves and chatter around the gas pits. It wasn’t enough. Living beneath the legends churned inside her feet, begging her to run, to explore beyond the warren. The thrill of danger made her unwilling to turn away from other minds. A troublesome problem for a mind searcher to have. Others in her guild shuffled thoughts around no different than the stone turners. Toki held each thought a moment longer than necessary in hopes of soaking in some greatness.
She stormed into her home much like a screaming spider ready to eat. Toki flung open the tattered red curtain and pulled a patchwork sack from the top shelf. She scooped up a change of clothes, a thermos, and her bag of coins then shoved them into her pack. With a quick frantic glance she decided to grab the grub muffins and squirimunk-milk cheese. Her pointed elbow knocked into the copper water jug. It fell to the floor taking two pans with it. A loud clamor filled the room and blew her spot.
Berki’s rounded face peered into her small house. His black eyes accounted her packed bag and panicked state. He stepped in, crossing his arms near his chest. Yellow and green leaf-life hair poked from his head. “You’re leaving,” his breath-washed voice stated. Berki had a knack for stating the obvious.
“Got a job to do,” Toki mumbled tossing her bag onto her back.
“Long missions are canceled,” he crossed him arms drawing his mouth in concern. His wispy brows creased nearly covering his eyes.
“We all went to the meeting Berki,” Toki widened her eyes as she scooted around him. “If I’m late again, Lead Vana is gonna have my head and cut my worms.” With that Toki hustled down the passway.
“Toki!” Berki hollered.
Toki turned to look at her big brother without slowing her pace.
“Don’t be troublesome!” He pleaded.
“Yeah! Yeah!” Toki dismissed disappearing around a bend, kicking up loose dirt as she went.
After quite some time and tunnels later Toki slowed toward a surface hole. Fresh, moving air reached at its opening. Flecks or colors teased her further. Purples and blues weren’t colors found in burrows. Toki grabbed roots pulling herself up. Once her foot reached one she grabbed for another, until she was out. Tall trees and sweeping mountains surrounded her reminding her how small she was compared to everything else. For a good long while she stood just at the opening with her eyes and arms draw to the stars overhead. Dark clouds traveled close gaining on her flawless stars.
A chill crawled up her freckled, bumpy skin. A jittery feeling entered Toki’s body revealing that she was anything but calm in her new surrounding.
Something isn’t quite right after all, she chewed on her bottom lip.
A soft hum traveled through the brush. A sweet calm melody. Possibly a mother soothing her child, Toki thought scampering silently toward the song.
In a small clearing, a circle of cloaked beings sat around a dimming fire. Smaller than most both a great larger than herself. She couldn’t make out the mumbling of two on farthest side. Haphazard tents constructed of fallen branches and animal hide surrounded their humble gathering. Toki could tell by the crude structures and their nightfall fire that they weren’t seasoned travelers. No experienced adventurer would light a fire after nightfall.
Conjurers, she thought, what are conjurers doing so far north? Toki shuffled up the side of a leaning oak to get a better look. She tucked her little plant colored body into a crook between two meeting limbs. Being tiny and easily camouflaged aided greatly in eavesdropping ventures.
“Staying here isn’t safe, we should keep moving,” a deep male voice spoke. A crimson hood framed his deep wrinkled face and gray hair. His dark, round eyes flooded with fear. “I sense it coming. We need to move.”
“We need to stay and fight!” The smallest of the eight stood up. The movement altered her cloak causing the hood of it to slide down her narrow shoulders. Pointed pink-hued ears poked out from shaggy blue hair.
“We aren’t fighters,” the man replied, folding his hands on his lap.
“We’re cowards!” The girl kicked at a loose rock. “I hate running.”
“We aren’t cowards Lena. Each being has their purpose,” a woman spoke, her voice a melody. She carefully laid her baby wrapped in fur on a mat near her feet.
Toki stood up, leaning around a notch in the tree to get a clear look at the baby. The pure thoughts of children were some of Toki’s favorite to sort through. Idealistic views and strong imaginations gave Toki a sense anything was possible.
The ground shook. A loud thunderous noise stampeded over the quiet ground. Toki lost her balance tumbling down the tree. She hit the mossy ground with a silent thud. Toki shuffled to her feet andslipped behind a protruding root bigger than most lockett homes.
The shaking ground grew in intensity. All who sat around the fire bounded to their feet. The mother grabbed her child. All their eyes searched for the source of the vibrations. The girl with blue hair pulled out a small metal instrument as the tips of her ears twitched. Her large purple eyes filled with panic. Toki had never seen someone so beautiful.
A loud hiss cutting through the night interrupted her admiration for the stranger. The source of the quakes were unseen, though their proximity was deafening. A rotting stench flooded the air until everything fresh about it disappeared. A dark fog trickled in between the trees.
Toki searched for her hole entrance. The vibrating earth jostled loose dirt, rocks, and Toki. Her frantic hands dug at the ground as she sniffed for the scent of home. A stomping sound edged closer. The gatherers grabbed what they could and ran into the thick.
Should I follow them? She asked then shook her head in reply. I need to find home.
In that small moment the clearing went still. Air moved as it had minutes earlier. The fog froze eight pines in. Toki caught a whiff of a lockett. Not her home trail but an actual lockett. The scent was overwhelmingly familiar. Her stomach twisted as she cast her eyes to find the source of the scent.
Berki stood on the opposite side of the camp, his eyes set wide on something Toki couldn’t see. What was my brother thinking? Why did he follow me?
She waved her hand over her head without success. She was too quick-headed to shout to him. Toki had no choice but to cross the camp. A murmur of panicked voices rustled in the wind as the leaves did. Toki hopped over the jostled stones unsettled by her hidden hole. The ground continued to vibrate. The thunderous motions scattered in a circle around the clearing. The direction they were coming from uncertain. A scatter of shadows swirled above the dying fire. Toki froze in her tracks. Screams and anguished cries cut between the trees. Toki’s mouth formed a loose circle as she backed up. Statues made of stone, glowing with purple forced through the forest. Their large bodies knocked into trees causing a trail of devastation in their wake. The smell of rotting bodies grew thicker. Toki ran to her brother dodging a falling birch. The ground continued to rumble. A group of shadows crawled in the small spaces behind the stone golems. Monsters made of rock pushed a small part of the group back toward the fire. Another scream broke out in the distance.
Toki sucked in as much breath as she could without choking on the putrid fog seeping thicker and thicker in the clearing. She ran as fast her miniature bark-skinned legs could manage. Her hands grabbed her brother and pushed him behind a big stone.
“Muckhead,” she whispered as she tucked herself closer to her brother. Both their eyes stuck on the scene.
The deep shadows circled the separated group. Hisses and whispers followed their image. The purple glowed brighter. Stone giants closed in around them. The fog’s darkness painted the surroundings.
“That’s cypher magic,” Berki whispered.
Toki put her hand over his pouty mouth. Her heart climbed into her throat. The truth her brother spoke fed her fear. As her heart rate increased, a shadow moved closer to her. It swayed and hissed as it glided forth.
It senses my fear. Toki grabbed a handful of dirt, shoved her bulbous nose in the small heap and breathed in. The shadow moved away, slowing makes its way back to their other hostages.
The hooded campers had nowhere to run. The purpled-aura golems advanced toward them. The hopelessness flanked by the darkness. Toki and Berki’s eyes desperately searched for a way out.