A Hero’s Welcome
by Abi Starck, ’16

The walls of the cavern began to shake and the ceiling started to crack. People rushed to leave, terrified of the ceiling caving in. Most of my familial unit decided to stay behind; they had heard that the land above was safe. They would not sway from their ideas. We wore our most resistant armor, the heavy cloth with metal plates sewn throughout, hoping that it would protect us from the intense light above. We pulled bits of fungi, the best air filters, from the exit of the tunnel. They became our masks that would give us the ability to breathe the hostile air. Then we armed ourselves, unsure of what we would find in the wasteland that sat on top of the bunkers, the home of the survivors. Our second lids shut in preparation to go into the world of the light.

We waited in the tunnel that led outside; we were nervous to go outside to a place that hadn’t been visited in a thousand years. Once we had mustered our courage and exited the tunnel, we heard the sounds like those of the excavation sites of the dark. The sounds shocked me: no one was on the surface. We were the only life left. I looked to the source of the sound and saw taller, lankier Darukai. They appeared to be harvesting metal just as we harvested our fungi. There was a giant structure next to them that grew up into the sky. If our legends were true, this tower would house cities high in the sky. The legends called the tower dwellers Lerangtai, but also stated that they had perished in the eruptions. Could they live here?

“The legends are true.” I heard one of the Darukai around me whisper. A Lerangtai harvester turned to look at us, nudging one of the men next to him and causing them to come towards us in a group. I pulled out my knives while the others chose their long distance weapons, but all of our hands ready to fight. The spears, knives and slings that launched sharp projectiles had been checked this morning before our departure. We waited for the Lerangtai to approach.

“Now.” A direct voice to my left ordered. We let the first volley of weapons fly before picking up our chosen weapon and throwing again. Many of the Lerangtai hit the ground and did not get up. Soon, our own began to fall. I noticed that the Lerangtai possessed a type of energy weapon something of extreme rarity below ground. I knew there was no way to win this now.

When I lifted one of the men onto my back and ran back into the darkness of our home, others followed, carrying the injured or dead. The Lerangtai, slowed by their suits, tried to approach. I placed the man on the ground of the tunnel and prepared myself to go back for the others that could not come home without aid.

“Dunia, NO.” The same direct voice ordered. “They’ll kill you.”
“I have to.” The social duty ingrained in me would not let me leave members of my unit.
“We can’t afford another death.”

“Child, let her go.” The comforting tone of our family’s elder halted the voice. Nobody would argue with the elder. “Please go help prepare the pyres,” she told the man, who went without arguing. It took me a long time to carefully bring all of our dead and wounded back into the dark. We said the prayers for the dead without lighting the pyres.

We ignored the vibrations of cracks forming in the ceiling. Screams pierced the silence of the night. We couldn’t tell the origin, though, as the tunnels connected to many different places, so instead we hurried into the low, long, and dark area of the bunker where we farmed fungi. The Lerangtai came into the open space of the bunker and stretched after walking bent over to avoid hitting their heads in the tunnels. The steps of the Lerangtai, our enemies, were strange and made a different sound and the vibrations that we felt were alien. Many Lerangtai emerged from the darkness, blinking as their eyes attempted to adjust. Their clothes were stained with the blood of the Darukai.

I looked at the grief-stricken faces of the surviving familial unit, watching ourselves hide in the fungi, our clothing blending in with the fungi clinging to the walls. The ceiling once more creaked and cracked, leaving the Lerangtai unsure of the safety of the cavern– our sanctuary.

And then we lit the funeral pyres.

“I have to find survivors,” I told the group, expecting the direct man, the guiding voice, to object; he instead nodded and stepped forward. The others began to set up camp as we walked into the darkness. Most of the caverns we explored contained only victims of the massacres, but in one bunker, we found a barricade that managed to hold, and when we opened it, we saw a group of children huddled together. Many bore marks of battle, revealing the imperfections of the barricade, and all of them had watched their families die. The direct man, Jakob, and I brought them back to our cavern for food and for the treatment of their wounds. I held hands with a young boy as we walked–he seemed scared. “There wasn’t anybody they wouldn’t kill,” he told me.

Over the next couple of weeks, we increased the defense of the fungi farm. The farm, once designated to support a city, supported only one familial unit. The gnoshers in the area were large and we hunted them for meat to help us maintain a semblance of life before the massacres. Before her death, the elder passed on her knowledge of fungi farming. She burned on her pyre for a day and a night as tradition dictated and then her ashes were sprinkled onto the ngchuad to pass on her wisdom.

We trained the young with weapons, wanting them to defend themselves in the case of an attack. The Darukai were slowly dying out and when the time came to decide on a new elder after the mourning period a vote was held, but I was not invited. My adopted son, Anton, the boy who had held my hand the day we had found them ran into our area calling for me. “Momma, Momma! You’re the Elder even though you ain’t the oldest.”

We survived trying to leave as little trace as possible. The large cracks in the ceiling stopped forming but we felt vibrations often. It proved difficult to keep the new babies quiet during Lerangtai patrols. We improved our weapons with the energy storing capabilities.

* * *
Four years after the massacres, the oldest children reached eighteen years of age. We celebrated for five days just as the Darukai always have. I refused to let our traditions go, because if we were to abandon tradition, the Lerangtai would defeat us. Anyway, the newly minted adults enjoyed holding their status over their teenage friends, and the children adapted to this new cavernous place–or so I had thought.
* * *

The years continued to pass and my son, Anton, was now ready to join with the ngchuad, our fungus that allowed our bodies to adapt faster. I was so proud of my boy.

“You did a good job,” Jakob told me as we watched the traditional ceremony.

“You did, too.” I smiled at him, his adopted daughter, Zlata, was the same age as Anton.

***
With Jakob and several other hunters, I soon the stronghold to try to find some larger gnoshers. While returning from the unsuccessful hunt, we heard a scream cut through the quiet night, reminding us of the massacre all those years ago. We found that some Lerangtai had been killed but there were others who still stood. I dismounted and drew my knives. I felt a blow but I couldn’t tell whether or not I was hurt.
When the Lerangtai around me fell, I craned my neck to see beyond the others, looking for Anton. He was in a corner sitting down; I rushed towards him, prepared to smother him with my love.

I suddenly felt sick upon realizing that he sat so still–he had not sat still for a minute in his life. Even in sleep, he was always fidgeting, but he had stopped, no part of him moved, not even his chest to show that there was breath. I knelt in front of my son and shook him before pulling him into a hug. He was cold. When I released him, my arms were covered in his blood–or maybe it was mine–or maybe it was a combination of the two. The axe that I had given him for his birthday sat on the ground next to him, its edge and handle covered in blood. A wail escaped my throat and it dared everyone to approach me.

I was alone again. My control had been destroyed and my entire body shook with the violent sobs tearing themselves from my lungs.

“Dunia.” I heard the voice of Jakob filled with pity calling my name. How long had I sat in front of my dead son? “Dunia, we have to light the pyre. We need to light his pyre.

I had no strength with which to fight. I lit the pyre of Anton before passing the torch to the parents of another fallen Darukai. The pyre burned a day and a night and I watched it every minute and when I slept, only nightmares would come. The others cared for the enemy dead, taking their supplies and piling their bodies for the herd of small gnoshers that we tried to domesticate. On several occasions I heard Jakob defend my position as the elder to those who wanted leadership.

“Give her time. She’ll come back.” But no one could console me: Anton had been my family. After a couple of weeks of mourning, I heard a voice.

“Momma,” Anton. “You gotta let me go. You can’t do nothin’ like this. Momma please, for me. They need you Momma.” I heard who Anton could have been, the man that I would never meet. My eyes flooded once more, but this time, when I had finished, I had no tears left. I went back into the colony and ate a little bit of dinner with the rest of the group, managing a meal for the first time in weeks. I slept for the first time since the attack.

Since the most recent attack, the training had been rigorous and all were prepared to fight. Even those who could barely lift a weapon used slingshots to hit their targets. The Darukai had become a warrior race, an adaption of culture like that of our physical appearance born from our tangible need.

Radiating, I stepped up and spoke:
“We lose a man, woman or child and we act as though it is a daily occurrence. There is no consequence for those who cause our pain. We act as though the death has no importance. We act as though we will allow the Lerangtai to continue this terror.’

“I believe that the Darukai are still strong. We are still here. We are not many, I know this, but we are still here. I know that the Lerangtai have more men but I also know that this is our home. The tunnels carefully constructed for us by our fathers and their fathers before them will not betray us.

“Is all of our training to fight off gnoshers? Is that why even the young can kill?’

I took a breath.

“Anton, Zinye, Lev, and Olgi were killed but a month ago. Will the murders and all the ones before go unpunished?”

I asked then stepped off the podium gesturing for someone to bring up their response, but none did.

“We will vote.” All remained standing. Tradition dictated that if you dislike the motion you sit. No one did. So we went. The first target was the original bunker, Solumque. We were close to it and it would be a signal that we were serious. The first bunker was a symbol to destroy and we could not afford to lose the opportunity.
We made noise as we rode and just as we had expected, the Lerangtai answered our call. The large group came towards us in tunnels too small for them. We mounted and had enough room to maneuver. Pym, my cholm, was old in good shape, a natural fighter. I pulled my knives, throwing them with deadly accuracy. The spears also hit their targets.

We retrieved and cleaned our weapons and left the bodies for the gnoshers. None of our men had been hit by the untrained opponents. We made our new, permanent camp in a small easily defended cavern off of Solumque. We overheard the Lerangtai talking of new fighters coming to help them.

“Fresh Meat?” Jakob asked.

“Fresh Gnosher food.” I confirmed. Jakob snickered at that before walking towards his corner of camp.

The next morning, before the lights turned on in occupied Solumque, I entered the large cavern and quickly located the place in which the Darukai kept their food. I released the spores of the fungus into the food stores, leaving little trace. The water received the same treatment. Anyway, the Lerangtai didn’t know how the fungi worked.

“I’m Home,” I called into the cavern in which the camp had been established.

“Good.” Jakob seemed relieved that I returned safely. I was pulled into his arms in a tight hug, lifting me off the ground and putting me down swiftly.

“Why are you so worried?” I asked.

“The Lerangtai said they caught something.”

“…So you thought it was me.” A nod served as the response. “Are we starting?” I asked him and once more received a nod. “Rodion! We need some of those things you made! The caps!” The young man, Rodion, had created bombs named after the capstone that can be on a volcano before it explodes. The caps were explosive and did heavy damage.

“Let’s make them build.” Rodion told us as he handed the caps to us.

We caused chaos, making things explode and causing the cavern to shake terrifying the Lerangtai. We set a violent explosion and when it exploded, Zlata, Jakob’s daughter, in her outfit of gems, metal and god glass, left to speak with the Lerangtai.

“I have come to warn you: the killing will end. Before 7 cycles have been made on the ring of fire, they will have their revenge.” The only danger in painting Zlata as a vengeful goddess was her prophetic speech. It got old fast. Still, the Lerangtai men were paranoid, expecting their death in each dark tunnel and around every corner. Our enemy, scared of their own shadow and of in the goddess against them, has lost.

* * *
Since the beginning of our campaign, 3 months have passed. The rest of our familial group had been slowly moving into our new home and adjusting. The Lerangtai send more “gnosher food” every week to account for those that go missing and those that refuse to stay any longer under the threat of the “goddess”. I wonder if they will ever run out of people to fight their war since the men who fight now are untrained. The tale of the “Cavern Goddess”, as the Lerangtai called it, has not been forgotten.

“It’s time.” Jakob tells me one day. I nod and we work and I sneak into the city.

We hurry to work within the time constraints set by the caps. We wear new gear gained from an exchange of our fungi and metal armor. The cholms we ride are also decorated. Even the gnoshers know who to attack. Zlata stands where she would be seen as the largest explosions occurred, the warriors waiting behind her out of the Lerangtai’s sight.

The big charges blow and the “goddess” appears through the fire. The smell of the fresh Lerangtai meat drives the gnoshers into a frenzy, charging in a wave of muscle and teeth down unto the city. After calling to Pym and Jakob, I climb on and we charge, ready to avenge the spirits of the dead who seem to be waiting at the bunker ceiling to welcome their heroes home. Soon, the spirit of Dunia rises above the battle.

She sits next to her son and watches as the battle rages on.

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