The young troll crouched in the rain, staring ahead to where the path faltered in the face of the jungle’s dense undergrowth. The sunlight could not penetrate that foliage, nor could the breeze. That part of the island was called First Home, and nobody went there besides shadow hunters and fools.
Vol’jin was no shadow hunter.
He felt the water running in rivulets between his toes. It was a fierce rain, and each drop that hit his back pushed him toward First Home. Sometimes the shadow hunters returned, but the fools never did. Behind Vol’jin, another troll sheltered under a great palm leaf.
Zalazane was no shadow hunter either.
“We not ready,” Zalazane said, chewing noisily on hunks of kommu meat. “De judgment be for older trolls who already done mighty things. We be young nobodies.”
“I just young; you the nobody.” Vol’jin chuckled and stood up. “We got to. My papa, he stared into a fire for many hours last night, and now he actin’ like his doom be upon him. I think he saw a vision. Change comin’, and we got to be ready.”
“You think the loa goin’ to make you a shadow hunter?”
“They gonna judge me, for sure. Test me. I don’t know what dat mean, though.”
“They say the loa gonna take our minds,” Zalazane said grimly. “They gonna warp us and twist us around and make us see visions.”
“Many tests, I hear. If they find me worthy, I be a shadow hunter,” Vol’jin answered. “If they find me unworthy… nothing can save us.”
“Oh, they gonna be impressed with me.” Zalazane smiled knowingly.
“But they gonna laugh at you.” He stepped into the mud and ambled over to stand beside his friend. They looked at each other for a moment and broke into wide grins, tusks bared. Throughout their entire childhood in the Darkspear village, this had always been a sure sign that Vol’jin and Zalazane were about to do something particularly stupid.
With a mighty cry, they ran headlong into First Home. They crashed through grasping vines and roots. The place teemed with death both sudden and slow, but they were young, and they were sure they couldn’t really die.
But there were loa here. The ancient spirits of those who had transcended death could grant wondrous boons or inflict terrible punishments. Loa could give a troll second sight—or drive him mad so that he would pull out his own eyes. Their judgment was vicious, swift, and unpredictable.
Vol’jin and Zalazane ran for a time, and both began to wonder if the legends of First Home had been exaggerated. There did not seem to be any great threat. Two huge fronds blocked the path ahead. With a twitch, they slid to either side, exposing a large carnivorous plant: a nambu. Furry lips parted wide, waiting for them. Fibrous teeth writhed eagerly in the gaping maw, and Vol’jin could not stop in time. He threw himself to the left, grazing the side of the nambu.
Twisting, flailing, he skidded into something hard and scaly. He staggered back, dazed, shaking his head. That something turned, revealing that it was a very angry, very large raptor—by far the biggest Vol’jin had ever seen. He fell back farther, aware that the nambu was somewhere behind him. He could hear Zalazane making strange, muffled sounds, but Vol’jin had lost track of his friend.
The raptor darted its head down at Vol’jin, and he tumbled to his left. Immense jaws snapped shut where he’d just been standing. Ribbons of saliva flew from the creature’s mouth. The nambu reacted to the motion with lightning speed, locking its teeth onto the raptor, funneling poison into the beast’s torn flesh. Vol’jin had only a few heartbeats to take advantage of the distraction: he drew his glaive and stalked around the nambu, assessing. Zalazane was on the far side of the plant, thrashing in a nest of alchu bugs that had swarmed over him, biting and stinging. He would be no help for a time.
The raptor ripped the nambu from the ground, tearing roots and flinging the plant far away. The beast’s tiny, enraged eyes settled on Zalazane, attracted to the troll’s frantic motions.