The air had grown colder over the past two days and the wind howled outside the cave. I worried for Star as she stood outside amongst the trees, doing her best to shield herself from the weather. I’d suggested to Benebarak that we could let her stay just inside the mouth of the cave and he replied by spitting on the ground and mumbling something about foul beasts. I knew she had weathered plenty of storms in her lifetime, but in truth, she reminded me of Ellie and I enjoyed having her close.
“Wot’re ye thinkin’ bout?”
My captor’s voice shook me from my daydream. “Nothing really. Just thinking about home, I guess. A person back there I worry about. I’m supposed to be finding a way to get us off this planet safely.”
“She’s mad.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Ellie? Nah. She wouldn’t be mad. She’d be worried. She must be beside herself with worry right now.” As the words fell from my mouth, a knot grew in the pit of my stomach. Ellie had never been without me for this long. How long had I been gone anyway? I realized I had lost track of the days. Quickly, I took a peek at my watch. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It had been nearly the full month. I’d estimated that the weather would turn and the planet would become uninhabitable sooner than my superiors had imagined. Luckily for us, I was more of a warrior than a scientist. It appeared that we had a little more time.
“Not yer bitch, undergrounder. The great mother. She’s mad. Been growin’ er rage since tha days yer people lived up ‘ere.” Beneberak bit into another chunk of meat, chewing loudly as he spoke. “Yer people’s tha ones tha’ made ’er mad. She done run ya out once.”
I tried to wrap my mind around what this crazy barbarian was speaking about. From what I could gather, he’d referred to the earth as the great mother. I’d listened to his story about the Stormriders before, but I took it to be just a legend that his people had passed down in order to make themselves feel more important. He, on the other hand, seemed to genuinely believe his words.
“I’m not sure we’ve done anything to enrage the great mother. We just want to leave,” I replied, reminding myself that I really did want to leave. I had a mission and needed to complete it, for myself and for Ellie.
“Yer people’s tha ones caused tha storms. Ye caused ’em, then ye run away like a buncha pansies.” He chuckled a little, the thought of people escaping the raging storms apparently amusing him. “Ye dun need ta leave, undergrounder. Ye need ta accept yer fate. If yer strong, the great mother will share ’er po’er.” He belched loudly.
“Is that why your name means ‘bringer of lightning’? Can you control the storms?” I asked, half chuckling.
“’Er po’er is serious, undergrounder. Best not to joke…” He was interrupted by a terrible screech from within the cave. Something terrible seemed to be going on deep within the tunnels. I could see on Benebarak’s face that even he was concerned.
Benebarak jumped up from his seat on the floor and stood over me, prepared to tie my binds. I assumed the position and he managed to get the rough rope around my hands before another screech was hurled from the innards of the tunnels. The sound was so high pitched that it even made him wince. He grabbed his blade without a word and headed into the darkness of the passageways.
I had barely a breath of time to watch him disappear down the corridor to where the cave divided into tunnels, into that blackness before a Stormrider twice the size of Benebarak came through the front of the cave. He lifted me off my feet with one hand by my hair and dragged me towards the screaming.
“Don’ know ‘ow we missed you. A bit bony for eatin’ but we’ll boil yer bones for soup or summin.”
“Wait, I know Benebarak! I’ve been working for him!” I began kicking with all my might, but I may as well have been a mosquito. I was a slight annoyance to the gargantuan man, nothing more.
When we entered a massive room that was located in the vein of one of the tunnels, I was appalled by what I saw. They had at least ten of my men chained to the wall naked and were flaying chunks of meat from their bones while they screamed. Those were the shrieks I had heard at the entrance to the cave. My own men crying out for their lives.
“Ye know the rules, Artair! Never alive! We kill em ‘fore we remove the meat. Don’ wan ter anger the great mother by letting her sacrifices suffer. An’ ne’er more ’an we need!”
“Benebarak, ye grows soft! Ye even left the one measly undergrounder ye bring as sacrifice.” Growled the behemoth that was still in possession of my hair, regardless of my attempts of trying to escape.
“’E’s not me sacrifice, Caddock! ‘E’s me slave and me own property, ye’d be doin’ yerself a favor by droppin’ ’im now.” The words were spoken softly, but there was an undertone that was full of threat.
“Ye want me to drop ’im do yah? Make me.” Caddock had drawn his line in the sand, and it was up to Benebarak to either cross it, or let the Stormriders kill, and eat me.
In the midst of their commotion, it all clicked. I had been eating humans. My own men, as a matter of fact, by the looks of the rucksacks, canteens, uniforms, and pile of bones that lay strewn around the room. Beneberak had mentioned that the Stormriders considered us food, but it had never once occurred to me that he’d been bringing me slices of my own unit to consume.
My stomach lurched and I projectile vomited all over my front and part of Caddock’s leg.
He dropped me then.
“Weak! This is why we kill ’em Benebarak, not keep ’em as pets. ’Ey’re below us on the food chain. Fer our survival, no better ’an deer or bears. Pathetic.”
“I dun care, Caddock. ‘E’s me property and ye’ll be gettin’ ’im over me dead body.”
A great yell came from Caddock and the fight was on. I was suddenly forgotten and thrown to the floor watching Benebarak take on Caddock and Artair, and two other nameless Stormriders on his own. As impressive and as fast as Benebarak was, the odds were just too uneven. They were slicing and stabbing him as if he were a side of pork, no different than their usual conquests. I searched the room for something to try to help Benebarak and finally saw it. I noticed a blade sticking out of one of my men’s packs, and I scooted over to it, completely ignored with all the disorder. I painstakingly cut my binds from my wrists, knicking myself fairly badly in the process, but I was free.
Benebarak had fallen to his knees from his wounds, but it was then I saw what he meant about not joking about the great mother’s power because he chose to use the last tool in his arsenal. He raised his hands skyward and lightning began raining down in and around the tunnel, hitting at least two of the Stormriders, but not killing them. They withstood all of that voltage and it barely buckled their knees.
My god, what are these things? It was impressive and terrifying all in the same breath. It may not have injured them gravely, but it scared them off enough to retreat.
“I insulted my brothers fer ye undergrounder. “Ey’ll ave me dead before the sun rises on us. Go. Run. Ye’ve earned yer freedom.”
I knew it was stupid as I glanced around me and saw the red ruin of my men, but in that moment, Benebarak was the man I chose not to leave behind. It was too late for the men chained to the walls, they’d lost too much blood, arteries severed, they’d never make it. Benebarak may have a chance.
I walked over to the giant man and let him use me as a crutch. It took every ounce of strength I had to remain upright, but I got us to the mouth of the cave where Star stood, waiting patiently as if she knew we were coming.
“Girl, if you’ve ever understood me, I need you to understand me now. We’re both going to climb on and you have to take us as far away from here as possible, preferably to safety.” Star whinnied and shook her head up and down as if to indicate that she understood. Somehow, I got us both onto her back and we took off into the night, putting distance between us and the monsters, all of them, with any luck.
“Kai, when can I go back to work? The greenhouse needs my expertise, especially now that the generators are barely functioning and we’re rationing power.” Ellie was determined to return to some semblance of her normal life. Besides, Kai had informed her that he found nothing new on his most recent excursion Topside, so maybe it really was up to her to save everyone.