The door in the mountain was a pub carved into a rock.
Warm light spilled out into the night along with the hum of excited voices having a dozen conversations in one room. The pub was a lighthouse for the good and tired, but saved powerful discouragements for those it didn't like.
Inside, over three connected rooms, about a hundred men were having fun. The staff enjoyed their company and even the few customers who weren't part of this Cent had caught the mood. In walked a nervous boy. Girls on staff were clearly annoyed to see him. One of them came to shoo him away and he begged angrily "My sister was taken by a creature that these guys hunt. I saw it. Saw the whole thing. If you were taken, Venna, I'd be right here fighting for you. Show me five people who wouldn't be too busy to do the same for you." Venna relented.
"Every time I see you, you remind me of my worst fears. Do you know if she's still..?"
"I don't know exactly where she is but I know she's still alive." Venna's eyes widened and she walked away to do her job. The boy took that opportunity to make a beeline towards a soldier who promptly waved him away. The boy floundered for a moment until a fighter got up to use the toilet. He quickly took the man's place, caught his seatmate's eye, and started talking. A sentence in, he saw one listener catch a colleague's eye and then swap facial expressions.
"Eh, go talk to him."
"Thanks" The boy almost ran to the other guy. After explaining his story the man says "We're busy. Look, your job couldn't feed us and we're all too busy to do it as a side job." Before he finished, the boy interrupted saying "I'll pay whatever you want-"
"and if I was a heartless scout I'd take you up on that and make you miserable paying me back. You can do better."
"Child, in this business, you're not allowed to be a bad listener. Look at me. If I take your job and my buddy gets hurt because I wasn't there, my boss would be annoyed with me and that would make me annoyed with you. That guy over there looks lonely. Go talk to him." The boy braced himself, took a breath, and started walking.
"It'll all be okay, you'll see." Someone said to him.
"Don't lie to him. She's probably gone."
"If she is, still it'll be fine, leave it to-"
"Aaah Axe you ruin the mood. Let the boy rescue his kin. If you survived anyone can." There was laughter. The morose man looked embarrassed. "You're right, you're right."
The lone mercenary was watching all this. The victim's brother had gained more confidence. He approached the new stranger and started talking even before he got to sit down.
"There are monsters in the forest." He said. "You know this. Some of the villagers think you're one of them but I don't care. I'll pay if you can help me but 'last two guys I paid never came back."
"They probably left with your money." An eavesdropping waitress interjected, placing a drink in front of the black man. "He pays a pittance." She said referring to the boy. "I make more working two days in here. You alright Luck?" The mercenary named Luck nodded, still eyeing up the boy.
"If you come back, I'll rob her and pay you." He said. The girl laughed as she sauntered off. "Boy if I fought you, you'd die smiling." A nearby soldier whooped appreciatively.
"What's your name?" Luck asked.
"Denno. My sister's Denna. She's a pain in the ass. She hates her job but she's the best at it. All the workers ask after her. I don't know what to tell them. I have this sword." He put a small knife in front of him. "It gets big when monsters are nearby, you push this," He touched a thing that looked like a switch." Then the sword won't move until you move it. I had it when it took her. It went off ten whole seconds before the thing arrived you know? I knew it was coming for her. I knew it! You know? The soldiers; they get a sense too, y’know? I had that sense. I saw myself- I saw myself running, shoving this thing on the floor and just watching that sucker part as it rose up, isn't it?" Denno paused to think. "In my dreams I see the grabber open like a flower in the air but that didn't happen. Instead, I'm talking to you."
"What does your family do?"
"Oh we make boxes. We make weapons too but we mostly make boxes."
"Where do you think it took her?"
"Oh, I know exactly where it took her." Denno took out a heart shaped locket. "Grab the chain, here, think about finding her." The locket flew out of his hands. Denno caught it. Luck looked impressed despite himself.
"I made that." He said, then corrected himself. "I was on the team that made that." He took another breath. "Alright my sister made it but I know how it's made."
"How's it made?"
"I just do what I'm told." The boy looked defeated for a moment. Luck suppressed his judgement.
"We all care about things that no one else cares about. How much you got?"
Denno brightened up and instantly took out a bag and put it in his hand.
"Thank you thank you thank you!" Denno got up "It's against the law to renege on a job." He declared, walking away cheerfully, pumping the air downwards with open palms. "If you do, I'll put a hit out for your arrest, I'll make you miserable, please find her thank you!" Denno almost ran, forcing staff and customers to move out of his way.
Luck looked at the bag as Venna put some food out in front of him. "So. What are you thinking?"
Luck looked at her. "Am I about to risk my life for pocket change? Again!" She smiled.
"Welp, at least you got rid of him."
The next morning, after breakfast, the small army stood. Each had blades facing out from their forearms, some had axes, others spears, many had odd-looking weapons. Chairs were back on tables. When all was quiet the man with the loudest voice spoke. "Most of our species don't believe they exist. When they move, most folk can't see them. It's our luck to know them well. It means we can save our people. Let's go save our people." In twenty seconds the pub floor was empty but for staff.
Luck was upstairs just coming out of the bath, towelling his hair, getting water everywhere. The night shift was heading to bed even as the day shift prepared clean beds, washed plates, emptied bins, and took stock for the next supply run.
"You'll be back before we leave right?" Macie, the merchant and landlord's wife enquired.
"Ngng," Luck’s sound indicated that he barely heard what she said. In less than a minute he was dressed and headed out for coffee.
"Can I borrow a fighter and two horses?" He asked the duo, who were casually bookkeeping over breakfast.
"Not on your wage pay. Denna did us no favours when she had a chance. Take Otto." Otto was the strongest, cleverest and most vicious horse when cornered. He was also much too stubborn to enter the forest for anyone but Macie. Luck would have to hitch a ride back or walk. He masked his disappointment, gulped his coffee, and walked out.
Once the door was shut he had to mutter "I thought I was worth more than that."
Otto got him to the forest and threatened to buck him off. When Luck tried tying him to a tree Otto refused and clopped back home.
That is how Luck found himself alone in the middle of a forest, following a foolish boy’s little locket and trying to pretend he wasn't lost.
The flowers were beautiful. He imagined that one or two were actually posing animals, waiting for insects but that didn’t take away from their beauty and the peace this place generated. There were no threatening sounds or awful vibes, just sunlight poking through some too tall trees. The air was throbbing with plant smells, insect sounds, and wind rushing like a massive beast through miles worth of exotic leaves, swaying on all sides. It was mesmerising.
Luck had completely forgotten his mission by the time a butterfly crossed his sightline. It too was beautiful. Gold and brown, crisp patterns, minding its own business.
A far-off sound disturbed him, or was it his own surprise at being so off guard? Either way, he was now on high alert but his eyes saw nothing. An attack from a distance? He asked himself. Hearing nothing new, he had no idea where to duck for cover. Trees were as much help as hindrance. Looking up and looking down and around also told him nothing. There was just that butterfly floating too near on its way to a weird-looking bush. Luck almost waved his arm at it, still searching for danger. The very next thing he knew was that his arm had fallen off. His sword arm. The world was not the same. The world had cracked. He was not bleeding.
And just like that, the butterfly moved backward and his arm was back in place. It took too long to realise that the butterfly was the dangerous creature. Even though he had his sword back, he dared not use it. It had taken his blood and it was saying something he couldn't understand but not to him. Was it calling its friends? He needed to run but he didn't know in which direction. The locket wasn't helping. Luck stepped forward and the world changed again. He was in a clearing. A mud hut straight before him. The place was warded up the wazoo. He'd gone past two or three barriers but there were two or three more ahead of him. There was a fire pit, herbs in a pot. They smelled good. A woman came out of that hut unhurriedly and was surprised to see him.
"Denna." She was startled but not for long. She was wearing a flowery, blue and white dress.
"My brother sent you." He didn't know what to say. She clearly didn't need rescuing. He wanted to know where the monster that took her was and what kind of deal she made that meant she could use them like horses. More importantly, was she secretive enough to want to get rid of him. A woman living alone in a forest being so assured of her own safety meant she was packing weapons he couldn't see. He was scared.
"Alright, can you hear me?" He nodded like a child.
"I have a message for my brother. I want you to go tell him that I'm fine. You on the other hand are not fine. That butterfly that bit you got a taste of human blood. We're going to have to do something about it before that thing gets home." He nodded again wondering what the hell she was talking about.
"Now”, She checked to see if she had his attention. “What’s your name? It doesn’t matter. My life is none of your business. Okay? I shouldn't have to justify myself to you or take care of you or deal with the nonsense that you bring. Agreed?" He nodded.
"Are we agreed?" He nodded again.
"A mute, I like it." He smiled despite himself.
"Alright breakfast is getting cold. Potatoes or bread?"
Over an amazing meal, they spoke. "Do you know about the first disappearance?"
Luck shook his head no.
"It was an accident. A worm had a kind of blindness and thought it was transporting its own child. All those plants that our parents cleared when they landed, were chrysalis. We didn't know that and the authorities decided not to tell us in case we voted to look for another planet. The worms forgave us. The worms forgave us. The... sentiment -that’s what they call a public thought or command - came from their leader who worked out what happened and let it go. Forgiving tit for tat. Nala Blue Sun was the name of the mother of the child who was mistakenly taken. She tracked down this leader worm and attacked it, believing it to be the enemy. With her vengeance, she taught the worms that we were war-like creatures and delivered and expected the world we live in today.
Nala Blue Sun’s daughter is my teacher. We speak to these creatures, we learn from them." Even as his mind was being blown by this, Luck’s first response was "My wife was taken thirteen years ago", He breathed in. "Where-"
"There are different species. Givers, Takers, Movers. There are tribes within those species. A few live in the sky, many deep underground. Most of them have and want nothing to do with us. The door in the mountain and its surroundings are home to mountain worms. We made a deal with them to coexist there. That’s why the pub survives and the village too. We believe that a group of humans made similar deals with soldier worms. We don't know where they live. We only see them when they strike. They know a lot about this planet and how it works and we have to catch up.
"That's why the barriers."
"That's why the boxes and the barriers and the need for maximum privacy."
"Have you tested the barriers on-"
"Yes we stopped one. They responded by sending nine more. We weren't ready." Luck nodded. "We're interested in solutions other than fighting."
"Why? You want to have soup with them?!" Luck sounded ruder than he meant to. She was patient.
"What would you ask if you could speak to them? Where would you go if they could take you somewhere? Who would you be if you didn't shape your whole life around things you don't understand and can't control? What if they don't know what to do either? There are other questions to ask besides the ones you ask with your tools."
Luck nodded. He was almost dizzy with the heretical thoughts in his mind. "I appreciate your bravery." Was all he could say.
"Which brings me to the trouble with your little butterfly there." Denna touched his arm. He felt as if she electrified parts of him that he didn't know he had."
"It's fine no?"
"No it's not. We don't need more predators snacking on us. We can't stop them from doing it but we can make a contract to get as much as they receive. That's what I'll do for us. My intention was to use this contract for myself on a creature that I'd know from birth. This contract will protect us in future interactions with this species. I don't know what it will do for you." Luck shivered. He felt the world change around him. It made him dizzy. "Don't k-"
"I won't. I won't. You're as safe as I can make you." The world faded and he slept.
When he got up, there was a third empty plate on a seat next to him. Two sets of footprints right in front of him and an odd smell in the air.
"I feel as if you sowed an extra ear in my head." There was a snort from inside the hut. Barely audible. Denna was busy doing something else. Something he couldn't see. "In a way, we did. When the butterfly wakes up, introduce yourself. You'll be followed in case it takes over your mind. Good luck."
"I am..." Luck got up and promptly fell backward, dizzy. "Huh?"
"You have eight feet now. Six tiny ones and two big ones. Eight eyes too. Try thinking that and don't roll over and crush yourself, who knows what that would do."
"I have... eight... feet?"
"No, thinking you do might help." Who speaks nonsense with such authority? Luck thought.
"Magicians." It was a swear word. Denna huffed but she relented when she saw that her suggestion worked. Luck looked to her for more help but she was cold. Through almost angry, gritted teeth she caught his suffering eyes and waved him away saying “Shoo.”
Too scared to argue, he got up and swayed and stumbled forward. I have eight feet. He told himself every time he nearly fell. It seemed to help. I have eight feet. I have eight feet? He thought of his wife. Will she even recognise me? Determined tears made him touch his eyes.
“Amahle, I’m coming.”
I want to know what it took the best writers to get good. I'm curious. The minute Shakespeare, WC Williams, T Hughes, CA Duffy had done their best work must have felt like sky diving. We all should know what that deep catharsis feels like.