Slowly but steadily, our battle of attrition bore fruit. Their numbers diminished, and as they did so, it became easier to finish off those that remained. I made a point to crush the severed heads to slow down their reformation until I realized that the smaller humanoids they turned into were consistently fleeing back towards the rim.
Straight back to the giant. Must be why the invaders it was sending our way soon slowed to a trickle, then stopped coming altogether. It knew that we’d figured out its secret. That it no longer stood a chance of defeating us.
But then, who cares why it stops so long as it does? The others seemed unbelieving, swords still at the ready as I waved mine in wide, lazy circles about my head, whooping with raucous abandon.
Eel mouth followed suit, laughing with relief, then broke into song. The rest joined in, mobbing the two of us as we carried on. When at last that revelry died down, we got to work dragging our slain comrades to the black pool.
One by one we submerged them. An unholy baptism. One by one, they crawled out of the sludge without so much as a scratch on their bodies. Sometimes an extra eyeball or finger though. The black pool gives, but it also takes away.
I couldn’t feel bothered by it then. Still hopped up on adrenaline from the battle, so narrowly won. After setting the pile of bodies ablaze, we gathered for a celebratory feast presided over by the village chief.
His multifarious tendrils doled out roasted, split insect legs to everyone present. Quite like crab legs, good enough eating under normal circumstances but sweetened considerably by the exhaustion of battle.
After eating their fill, several villagers made a bonfire and danced around it to the sound of a drum set consisting of human skulls, played merrily by a mutant with six arms and at least as many eyes. As I ate, Eel Mouth took the seat next to me.
“I really did know you’d come back.” I didn’t dispute it, but only because my mouth was full of insect meat. His words were like jagged bone daggers thrust into my chest. My self doubt must’ve been plain as day, because he then qualified what he’d said.
“All that matters in the end are our actions, so it’s enough for me that you returned. However unsure you were at the time, that’s how it is for everybody in their critical moment. One of those scant few chances in your life to massively change its trajectory for the better. I don’t need to know how long it took to decide, or what went through your mind before you pulled the trigger. All I know is that you came back, and that counts for everything.”
I teared up, and when he leaned in to hug me I not only allowed it, but returned his embrace. Over the next hour or so I recounted to him the details of my journey, from when I last left the village to my arrival at the battlefield.
When I described Horatio’s death, his eyes softened. He put a hand on my shoulder and confessed that they all went through something similar at various points. It surprised me to find my experience was not unique, though I suppose it shouldn’t have.
It made me reflect on the commonality of human experience, and how emotionally encapsulated my old life was. My suffering, my brief moments of happiness, my struggles and triumphs were all relatable milestones also experienced by countless generations before me. I just couldn’t see it that way.
So much I couldn’t see until it was ripped away. The illusory nature of separation. The notion that we lead totally separate lives, when simply being the same species means our life experiences will greatly overlap. Stubbornly imagining nobody could understand my misery, while rejecting anybody who attempted to.
It’s all so clear when viewed from the bottom of this pit. Only when engulfed in darkness, with the aid of its contrast, could I at last see the light. With the last of the weight removed from my heart, I found I could no longer feel sorry for myself. For what happened to me following my abduction.
Only brutal punishment and prolonged, grinding misery could dislodge my stubborn heart, so entrenched in its dismal view of the world. Of humanity. For that matter, I didn’t even value my own humanity and connection to other humans until I grew as outwardly inhuman as I’d allowed my insides to become.
What a pitiful fool I’ve been. What a blind, stubborn fool! That admission didn’t provoke the shame I expected. I felt only elation. A sudden unburdening, the shackles on my heart finally cast off. I felt…free. So I got up, meaning to join the others dancing around the fire.
Eel mouth grabbed my wrist. When I looked back in confusion, wondering if he intended to come with me, he instead dropped a bombshell. “I know where the shaft is.” I met his gaze, now trembling, unsure if he could possibly mean what I thought.
He did. “We found it during a raid, not long after you left. It looked awfully familiar to me. Everything was much more advanced, you know. Further along. But then, I was taken from Earth some centuries back. It certainly matched details I remembered from your description though, I can lead you right to it.”
I should’ve leapt at the chance. But something within me, something new, held me back. I was in no hurry to leave just then. Surrounded by friends, feasting, dancing and song. If I left now, I thought, what will I be leaving to?
A world which reviles me as a monster. Where I don’t know anyone and never wanted to. A world where I’ve already burned every bridge, and a community to which I am now as alien as they always were to me.
Still, there was my family to think about. I at least wanted them to know I was alright. I partied with the others well into the evening, and spent the night in the same tent I was given before. Could I really leave this place, I wondered. This place, and these people.
You can indeed become comfortable at the bottom of a deep, dark pit. You just have to belong there. But if you can find belonging in such a place, isn’t that good enough? Isn’t that what’s truly important, what so many spend their lives in search of? Wandering through a cold, dark abyss, a world every bit as strange and hostile as this one, hoping to find some measure of warmth?
It’s so bizarre down here. But home can look like anything! Often how you least expect it to. Home isn’t a place, after all, it’s people. Or even grotesque, mutated monstrosities, so long as you accept each other.
The more I dwelled on it, the more difficult a decision it became. But in the end, even after sleeping on it, I decided I couldn’t make it by myself. I still had connections to my old life, people who care about me back on the surface that I couldn’t ignore.
So it was that upon sharing my story with the others over breakfast, and packing for the journey, I once again set off from the village. Wondering, as I did so, if I wasn’t making as terrible a mistake this time as it was before. Having Eel mouth with me afforded a degree of comfort.
The mounts we chose were docile enough. Agile too. I was obsessively careful this time to scan my surroundings for any trace of danger. If I were to be shot down again… but no airships appeared. No floating, bioluminescent mass of sharpened tendrils.
All in all, an uneventful flight. Eel mouth set down on the pillar rim first, then I followed suit. Sensing my anxiety, Eel mouth handed me a short sword. “I don’t expect you’ll need it” he assured me.
I didn’t. We rode our mounts to the black pool without incident. I half expected the others to still be there. Instead, it was crawling with bugs. I looked to Eel mouth for explanation. “They raid the surface just as we do. The tunnels only reliably stay open for the bugs anyway, so we often time our raids close to theirs.”
Stay Tuned for Part 25!