Ernie the Hero
Someone had carved a massive door into the mountain. None could say who. Some thought it was the final remnant of an ancient civilization, forgotten by time. Others claimed the gods themselves had done it. And still others claimed it wasn’t a door at all, but just a natural rock formation replete with gargoyles and columns and a very big inscription, NEVER EVER OPEN. EVER.
All anyone knew for certain was that the door in the mountain had been closed for as long as anyone could remember. Most believed it was for the best. Whatever horrors lurked in the mountain were best left there.
Simon thought differently. He made regular pilgrimages to the door to study it. The runes carved into it were indecipherable by the greatest scholars in the land, and Simon, having only a few books he’d bought from questionable traveling merchants, hadn’t made any progress. But he walked the twenty miles once a week from his village to check the door. Life as a villager was boring enough that a giant door of untold mystery was the only thing worth visiting. That, and the tree that looked like it had bosoms growing out of its trunk.
He always went alone. He wouldn’t have minded some company, but the combination of superstitious peasantry and oaken titillation were enough to keep everyone else away.
Today, he arrived at the door to find he wasn’t alone. A one-armed skeleton stood before the door.
It just stood there. Its tattered gray cloak flapped in the chilly breeze. It wasn’t even looking at the door. It stared off in the distance, at the yellow trees growing in the valley below. Simon watched the skeleton for some time, waiting for it to do something. Anything. When his patience ended, he stepped out and called to it from a good distance, just in case in needed to run for it. The red sword in the skeleton’s hand looked dreadfully sharp.
The skeleton turned its skull in Simon’s direction, sort of looking at him with its empty eye sockets. It didn’t move. It didn’t say anything. He hadn’t expected it to, but he also hadn’t expected it not to. It was a magical, walking skeleton. Expectations were tricky things.
“Are you here for the door too?” asked Simon.
The skeleton pivoted. This time, looking directly at Simon for a moment before turning completely around, putting its back to him, facing the massive door.
“Did someone send you?” asked Simon. “A wizard too lazy to come himself? The gods?”
The skeleton didn’t answer. Simon edged forward slowly until he was within striking distance. He opened the vial around the skeleton’s neck and read the parchment within.
This is Ernie. It read. He’s here to help.
Simon returned the parchment. Ernie stood quietly.
“Is something going to happen? Is that why you’re here?”
Ernie, unsurprisingly, offered no answers.
Simon sensed no malice in the skeleton warrior. He sensed nothing much, in fact. Just a pile of magically animated bones.
“I don’t know if you realize this or not, but you picked a great day. I think I figured it out. Today is the day I open the door.”
Ernie lowered his skull to peer skeptically at Simon. Or perhaps studying a beetle trudging past his feet.
“It’s true!” said Simon. “I know. I’ve said this before, but this time. . . ” –He pulled out his notes, a scrawl of half-formed musings and random ideas— “this time, I’ve got it.”
There was no way for Ernie to know that Simon had spent fifteen years attempting to open the door. Trying and failing. He had made the door rumble once, shaking some dust off its immense stone frame. No one believed him, claiming it was only a coincidental earthquake. But Simon knew. It was his destiny to get it open. The other villagers might laugh at his dream, but Ernie only stood there, silently judging Simon.
“It’s all about the magic words,” said Simon. “Find the right ones, and it’ll open. You’ll see. I’ll open this mountain.”
Ernie’s head turned to the side in a curious look. His jaws parted slightly.
“Of course it’s a good thing! Everyone thinks it’s full of monsters, but I know better. It’s a treasure trove. Gold, jewels, ancient books filled with wisdom. That signs just there to scare away the faint of heart.”
Ernie’s teeth clamped shut together with a sharp snap.
“Okay, so I don’t know for certain,” said Simon, “but it’s probably not monsters. And if it is, it’s safe to say the monsters inside have starved to death by now.”
Ernie turned and trudged away.
“Fine. Be that way,” said Simon. “You’re going to kick yourself for missing this. And don’t think you get a share of the treasure.”
Ernie, his back to Simon, stared into the sun.
Simon stood before the door, reading through his notes that didn’t always make sense to him either, if he was being completely honest to himself. He shouted the latest version of the words of power and prepared himself for the door to open, its mysteries to reveal themselves to him.
It didn’t move.
“I didn’t think that would work” said Simon. “But you have to find what doesn’t’ work before you can find what does, right?”
Ernie, his back still to Simon, mocked him with silence.
“Who asked you?”
Simon sat on the hard ground and shouted at the door for an hour. Each incantation was met with indifference by the mountain and Ernie, but Simon’s optimism remained unfaltering. He would open the door next week. He was certain of that.
He packed up his notes and bid Ernie good-bye.
The mountain rumbled, ever so slightly. Fractures appeared in the door. Simon and Ernie moved closer.
“See? It’s working,” said Simon. “I’m getting closer. It’s only a matter of time.”
The earth thundered, and the fractures spread into thick fissures throughout the door.
Ernie held out his red sword, pointing it toward the door.
“What are you going to do? Cut your way through it?” Simon chuckled. It was a stupid plan, but what could one expect from a skeleton.
Ernie tapped his blade against the door. The skies darkened. The tremors increased. Pieces of the door fell away.
“Hey, no fair!” shouted Simon. “No fair! No fair! It’s mine! Not yours! I did all the work. You can’t just come here and—”
A second strike from the crimson sword caused the door to crumble into a pile of stone. Hot wind blasted out of the portal, stinking of must and fungus.
“You asshole! That was my door! What gives you the right to open it with your stupid sword? I could’ve opened it years ago if I had a stupid magic sword!”
Ernie raised his stupid magic sword and moved toward Simon.
Simon realized he’d made a terrible mistake. “Okay, okay! It’s yours! Take it! I don’t want it! I don’t want it!”
Another blast of hot air came out of the open door, accompanied by a rumble. Not the mountain, but something else. Something big within the darkened interior. It stirred.
Simon couldn’t see it, but he could sense it. Like sensing the earth moving beneath his feet.
The thing in the mountain howled, and several boulders cracked in half. The great beast stomped, and acrid, red rain fell from the dark, cloudless skies.
Simon pointed to Ernie. “He did it!”
A long, thick tendril, perhaps a tentacle or a tail, whipped out from the dark and snatched up Ernie, yanking him into the mountain. Simon backed away from the howls and shrieks of the thing. He thought about running for it, but he didn’t think there would be anyplace to run once the thing was finished with Ernie.
A boot, still holding Ernie’s right tibia and fibula, sailed out and nearly hit Simon in the head. The mountain shook, threatening to collapse with each roar, and this went on for a few minutes.
And then, silence. So sudden, so unexpected, Simon assumed he’d gone deaf at first, what with the blood coming out of his ears and his vibrating body. He didn’t move closer toward the doorway, but instead, sat where he’d fallen in all the chaos.
The rain stopped. The skies brightened. And thick, oily liquid spread out from the door.
“Hello! Are you still alive . . . are you still in there?”
Ernie, his gray bones, covered in ichor, climbed over the rubble and tumbled out of the threshold. He attempted to rise to his feet, but the slippery goo and his missing leg made it difficult.
“I think this is yours.” Simon threw the boot at Ernie. It landed a few feet away, righted itself, and hopped back into place. Ernie rose.
“What was that? Did you kill it?”
Ernie grinned silently.
“Never mind. I guess it’s a good thing you were here. Though you did almost let it out in the first place. I mean, I just said a few words. They didn’t do anything, right? The door was probably going to open on its own anyway. Oh, why am I asking you? You’re not going to admit to anything.”
The gooped skeleton marched down the mountain, and Simon followed.
“Where are you going now? Off to slay more monsters? Maybe help the downtrodden? I bet that’s it. That’s what you do, right? Don’t worry. It’s a rhetorical question. I’ve always heard heroes need companions, squires or whatever. Someone to help pick up their legs after the battle is over, maybe help clean the goo off their bones. Maybe you’d like some help? I promise I won’t get in the way, and I’m great at getting slime off of old cloaks.”
Ernie paused, still staring straight ahead.
“Okay, so maybe I’m not great at it, but I can learn.”
Ernie, his bones rattling, marched onward.
“Well,” said Simon. “He didn’t say no.”
He chased after his new, fleshless master.