The hut’s appearance from the outside was exactly indicative of that on the inside. It was run down, unkempt and not at all homely. It appeared that it was a temporary residence with no items of sentiment in sight.
The damaged table, the one room size, the dishes, dirty and scattered across it, yet curiously there was a tap at the sink, no doubt non functional, the energy required to keep the taps from freezing would be an unmerited expense.
There were guns on a rack by the door where the gruff light coloured man placed his. Boots also, prints where some had been. It was a home for men who had no home.
‘My name is Darius,’ the man said pointing to a chair, he grabbed two cups and took out two packets from under his coat. Removing his hat revealed a bald head, his brown eyes darted back and forth as he moved quickly and efficiently in his actions.
Military training? Lalang wondered. He went outside, the seal of the door giving way, he returned in a moment, the suction of the door sealing them in once more.
He dropped the two cups worth of snow into a small boiler, sat it on the Worobo. It was a mark seven Lalang noticed, a few years old but much newer than hers. The furnace was already on as they had walked in.
‘Tea?’ The man named Darius asked.
‘Yes please,’ as was customary, hospitality on the plains was sparsely given and not refused without offence. Although she was curious to try some tea as it was a luxury in these parts and appeared in tiny satchels, doled out in tiny pinches, yet the state of the cups made her wary. Darius placed a healthy pinch into each cup, rubbing some grime off the top of one. That must be for me, he’s trying to be courteous but doesn’t often have guests. The snow had now boiled and he poured the water into each cup, passing the hand-cleaned one to her. She nodded gratitude and took a sip, as was customary. The leaves were a fragrant perfume of bitterness and flavour, something utterly unique. She removed the state of the cups from her mind. Darius opened the other packet and placed another pinch of something onto his hand and sniffed it. Snuff. It was common to all, a little pick-me-up to keep people going during the long Light hours before the long rest of the Dark.
‘So can you do it?’ He asked abruptly sitting down and drinking from his cup.
‘Can I find the Mordon? Sure, finding one is easy enough, they’re fiercely territorial, you just walk the mountains until one attacks you.’
‘Not quite what I was after,’ he smiled. ‘I want to find one with purpose, find where it sleeps, do you know how to do it?’ He looked at her carefully, something told Lalang that he already knew the answer.
‘Yes,’ she nodded.
‘Good, could you find where one nests? Where they have young?’
‘Yes, but you wont get close, these creatures are the most dangerous on the plains, or over the plains I should say, we spend our time avoiding them.’
‘I can assure you, it is not the most dangerous on the plains,’ Darius smiled again as he casually took a sip. ‘It’s the most dangerous on this planet, and in fact the most dangerous in the entire system.’
Lalang paused and thought of his words. Off worlder then. ‘That is why I want to kill one, such a specimen would gain a big reward. Lalang nodded, she understood supply and demand well enough, a weight of fish was easy to get, therefore it had little value. Hunting for money seemed strange though, as the plains typically worked off a barter system, only a few small notes here and there were used by foreign traders.
Something he said came back to the forefront of her consciousness. Where they have young.
‘You want a young Mordon?’
‘Yes. The adult’s pelt will be worth enough to retire on, but a live specimen of their young would let me buy my own place on the other side of the system and retire nicely, can’t be here for the Wirinya.’
‘Yes,’ Lalang nodded, the great change, an offworlder would flee wouldn’t they? Why deal with such upheaval if given a choice?
‘There are four of you,’ she said suddenly, Darius drew back in his seat doing well to hide his surprise.
‘What makes you sat that lass?’
‘Very simple, there are boots or imprints of ones for four pairs by the door, that and you have four rifles.’
‘Perhaps I have two pairs of boots? Or maybe I use all the guns myself?’ Darius’s bushy eyebrows shot up. He’s testing me further.
‘Perhaps, but you don’t. The boots are all slightly different sizes, the guns are also different sizes, but same calibre, which means they have different owners but the same use.’ Darius stared at her a moment, smiled and then laughed.
‘What say you March?’ His eyes stayed on her, but the question went to Lalang’s left. She turned and realised what else she had seen but not really noticed. The one room hut was smaller on the inside. A sheet of metal slid away, a smaller second room was revealed as was the room’s occupant. A solid piece of a man, black skin, darker than anyone Lalang had seen before, shoulder length thick hair, a thin beard. The man’s muscles were such that he looked twice as wide as any man who lived on the plains.
‘She doesn’t look like much,’ he boomed with a thick voice of caramel. He walked towards the table, he wore no shirt and his stature made him intimidating indeed. It never occurred to Lalang that she could be in danger, it was simply unheard of that someone would suffer an ill fate after being invited into a stranger’s home, especially after revealing their location to a witness. Thus, even as the big man looked down on her as if she were nothing more than a piece of meat, she simply sipped her tea and waited. ‘But she does have some metal about her,’ he said slowly.
‘So can you do it?’ Darius asked. ‘Can you get us to a nest, to a young one?’
‘With only four men and those old guns there? Sure, but you wont survive, no one has ever got into a nest and survived, even armed with lasers.’
‘We’ll worry about the fighting,’ the one called March barged in, ‘can you do it?’
Lalang wondered, the thoughts and repercussions running through her mind. The people never hunted the Mordon, never. They stayed in the mountains, were only sighted occasionally, they were a cautionary tale told to children, ‘don’t go into the mountains, or the Mordon will get you’. Was hunting one ok? And this was not about eating the meat or trading it to feed your family, no this was about prestige, and money. She was not taught to do these things for such vain purposes.
‘You have an incredible knack for understanding right and wrong, don’t ever lose that.’ A voice from her past came back, she pushed it aside.
‘Good!’ March barked, she started from the noise, ‘we pay 2000 for a finder’s fee, if we get an adult pelt and the young one alive, it’s another 2000 each.’
‘6000?’ Lalang gaped. She had never contemplated such money in a life time of hard work, she could buy a new Furnace, she could buy a new hut and her and her mother could never want for anything for an entire life time! What was she saying, the money didn’t make it ok… But, the Change was coming, the plains would turn to oceans. If they didn’t have money to move away, what could she do? What would her mother do? She was torn, but a need to survive was a strong urge impossible to ignore. She nodded, reluctantly.
‘Good!’ March grinned, ‘We move in half an hour, call the others!’
There was a hive of activity as two more men came in from outside and all four loaded up their craft, weapons, stores, various containers all moved off with efficiency. It was shortly after noon when Lalang was herded into their craft, a battered old skip, one designed for atmospheric only travel. Its bright orange strips to be seen during Dark or snow storms were worn, faded and useless, and once inside the engine started with a cough.
Once away, Lalang gave the pilot, a short man, light complexion, a bearing to follow and the skip soared away with surprising ease. A full days walk to the hills took less than twenty minutes at speed, the distance slipped away beneath them, Lalang marveled at what was possible with such technology. This would make you lazy, she thought, but looked around at the four men, they were armed, fired up, skilled, these men were not lazy, they were dangerous, hunters, killers. March glanced at a scar on his right forearm and a small dagger in his hand, the grip was leather bound and elaborate in weave. The blade, a tooth torn from a previous hunt. The Jaruk, couldn’t stop us, this wont either he thought before looking up at their guide, she looked away, not nervous, she simply didn’t want to offend, but her eyes were on the knife. She wondered at it, he looked at it as if it were a trophy, this is a man that seeks prestige above all else she surmised, he was not to be trusted.
A call from the cockpit called March to the front, he gestured to Lalang, she undid her belt and followed.
‘Where to now?’ The pilot asked, only the second words he had uttered, she didn’t even get introduced to him.
‘There,’ she pointed, in front of them was a vast mountain range, the border of her beloved yet endangered plains. Near the top was a small flat outcropping, enough for the skip, enough to make camp.
Landing expertly, the men disgorged quickly from the craft, Lalang had her full winter gear on, despite the clear day, at this altitude the bite in the air was difficult to contend with. She wrapped the goggles and face shield around her, set it to day time, the tint became heavier. She straightened a strap on her pack and looked around, sniffing the air, even through the fabric that covered her nose couldn’t stop her senses. She walked quickly to March who was barking orders at his men. They were all covered from head to toe as well, but his build was unmistakable.
‘We must be quick, there is a storm coming,’ she said.
March looked around at the clear skies. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘Trust me, the storms move very quick here.’
‘Nothing on the sensors,’ the pilot said from behind.
‘Sensors don’t work on the plains, the storms move too quickly.’ March looked at her, unsure, calculating.
‘That’s why you hired her,’ Darius said quietly as he picked up a pack and strapped it to his back.
‘Ok,’ March nodded,’ double time it,’ and then to Lalang, ‘how long do we have?’
‘Two hours, at best, but it likely wont stay long, if we’re lucky it will clear before Dark sets in.’
‘Right,’ the men moved quickly, their gear sorted, guns on their backs, ‘Where to?’ Lalang pointed and began walking, they followed.
‘I must ask that you be still as possible, these creatures are fierce, incredible hunters.’ She said over her shoulder, she moved quickly but allowed her feet to sink gently into the snow cover.
Within minutes they found what she was looking for, exactly as it was, she thought as she pointed at an opening.
‘What?’ March gazed into the mountain around them, breeze blaring at them, flecks of snow flying around. Looking closer he finally saw it, a barely noticeable gap between the snow covered jagged rocks. It was down a sharp descent, a massive cavern below, but there was a cave entrance.
‘So it’s true,’ Darius’ muffled voice emerged behind them, ‘they burrow into the mountain.’
‘We are now in the creature’s territory, what happens is up to it more than us,’ she said solemnly.
March hoisted his rifle, grabbed a rope and metal fang, ‘not if I can help it,’ he muttered as he hammered the fang into the mountain side, the rope now allowed the group to move easily down to the cave entrance, but he stopped Lalang from following. ‘How deep does the cave go normally?’
‘Impossible to say, likely no more than a few hundred metres.’
‘You don’t know?’ Darius asked as he began to clamber down the icy wall.
‘I’ve never been in a nest before,’ she replied as if explaining the obvious, ‘I told you, no one has been in such a cave and survived.’
March sighed, ‘it doesn’t matter, but you stay here, you’re not trained.’ That made sense, also she was relieved. The three hunters hiked down the steep descent, the pilot took a hand signal from March, Lalang saw it, but didn’t understand it. He returned to their skip, Lalang waited.
She wondered as time past and the winds got stronger if she was doing the right thing. ‘You have an incredible knack for understanding right and wrong, don’t ever lose that.’ Her thoughts were shattered, as out of the dull scene there was suddenly a roar. She stood up, her body shaking, a Mordon! Within moments the three men came running from the cave, fleeing as fast as they could in the snow, trying desperately to reach the rope and safety. Lalang froze, what could she do? Nothing of course, it was up to them, she was no hunter of great beasts, but after it caught and killed them, she would have to hide, or she would be taken as well.
The men yelled and ran, a roar followed them, memories form the past flooded her mind, before suddenly, the huge white monster flew out of the cave, its white fur, the fangs, the blue eyes, those claws, The men ran, Lalang froze in place, what could she do?