I lost count of the minutes. I lost count of how many ladder rungs there were. All I know was when my feet scraped the bottom, my legs were shaky, my arms were sore, and I knew I was far under the ground. Why would my mother have a place like this? What would she need it for? I reached my arms out on each side of me to find the wall and turn around. Once again, I didn't think everything through. It was dark in here and I didn't think to bring a light of any kind. Maybe Sarah had thought ahead once again and snuck one into my pocket. I was right. In my left pocket on my leather jacket there was a small flashlight. I held it above my head and clicked it on. Before me was a long, dark tunnel. My feet moved forward as if they had a mind of their own. I kept my ears peeled for any sound and my right hand ready; gripping the hilt of Menedhil at the sight of any trouble.
The further through the tunnel I went, the colder the air got. I quickened my pace to keep warm. What time was it when I left? How much time had passed since I began walking?
I looked ahead and noticed the tunnel branched off in three ways: straight, left, or right. I looked at the glove holding the flashlight. It was covered in ash from when I uncovered the trapdoor. I made a capital R on the wall to my left to remember which way I had come from. I followed the tunnel to the left and after five minutes I reached a dead-end. I quickly glanced around to make sure I didn't miss any cracks in the walls or other entrances. I walked back to the R and went to the right side. Same thing: a dead-end awaited me. I walked back and headed down the straight path. It seemed to go on and on as if it would never end.
At the end of the tunnel was a single door. The air seemed stale and I felt some sort of energy radiating from the other side. I quickly marked another R on the wall by the door. I tried the handle and it turned. I pushed the door open, revealing a large, circular room, lit with torches. There was a large bed surrounded with canopies, blocking off the view to whoever was on the bed. I silently closed the door and clicked off the flashlight. I crept along the wall, attempting to stay in the shadows of the torches. I reached a vanity and hid under it just as the canopy was thrown open.
There was a woman with shoulder-length, dark hair. Her back was towards me and she slowly lowered herself off of the grand bed. She walked to a different door in the room and went inside. The door I had come through opened and Calelon stepped inside the room. Shocked, I jumped and hit my head on the wood above me, creating a loud bang. He was in front of me within seconds, the point of his sword against my neck.
"Anika?" He said lowering the sword.
"Calelon, where have you been all day? And how did you find me? How'd you even know I was here?" I asked.
"I told you something when we were in Aelmere…" He said. I thought back and smiled as I remembered the kissing. "Do you remember?" He asked looking into my face and helping me to my feet. I shook my head. "I told you I had discovered the whereabouts of your mother." He said solemnly. I looked around. I looked at the door the woman had gone through.
"She's…?" He nodded. I tried to run over to the door she had gone into, but Calelon caught me around the waist, holding me back.
"Wait until she returns. She might die of shock." He looked at me. I nodded as he led me over to the edge of the bed. I sat down facing the door she had gone into as I heard a toilet flush. So it was a bathroom, but how did she have plumbing down here? Calelon sat next to me and grasped my hand. I squeezed his.
I heard a shuffle come from the other room and then the door opened. My mother looked up and stopped in her tracks. I looked at her and stifled my sob. She appeared to be skin and bones. She was deathly pale and had dark bags under her eyes.
"Is that my Anika?" She said in a frail voice. I nodded.
"Mom!" I cried as I rushed over to her and hugged her.
"Anika! How are you here?"
"Why are you underground? What happened to you?" I asked. She motioned me to the bed. We sat down.
"After you disappeared, it was like I was awoken from a dream. I realized how much of a failure I had been as your mother." I tried to speak but she put her hand up to silence me. "Don't try to defend me. I know I was awful. Your grandmother raised you well, though, and I am grateful for her. I know I wasn't there for you growing up…but I promise you I will be there for you now." She said as she pulled me into a hug. She wiped the tears from her eyes and continued, "What happened to you?" She asked. I looked into my lap.
"We were ambushed." I said.
"What do you mean?"
"Do you know about the Renegades?" I asked her. She nodded. "Well, after grandmother stepped down, I became their leader." I said. She gasped and looked at me with wide eyes.
"You're the leader of the only rebellion group on Dracmere?" She asked.
"How did you escape the Authorities then?"
"I wasn't captured. Noah and I were able to escape when we were ambushed."
"Where did you go?"
"The Wastes." I said waiting for the same reaction everyone else gives me. But it didn't come.
"Good." She said.
"But mom –"
"I know about Falkron Woods." She interrupted.
"I'll leave you two alone," Calelon said as he got up and made a move for the door.
"No, you're staying right there!" I said to him. "What do you mean you know about Falkron? How?" I asked.
"Your father and his family were from there."
"Well, what happened to the rest of his family?" I asked.
"Your grandmother and grandfather both fought and died during the Continent War." She said.
"And that's it? That's all the family on his side…and they're all dead?" I asked. She shook her head.
"He has a brother. And last I checked he still resided in Falkron." She said. But no, there's no way… "His name is Darren."
"Please tell me this is some sort of sick joke." I said as I stood up. She looked at me confused. "Darren Walker?" I asked her.
"No, he would have our last name. Unless…"
"Unless what?!" I shouted. She shook her head.
"He just must've changed it…but my dear, what is the matter?" I let the tears fall.
"Mom, if it really is him, I've just lived with him for the past five months! And he didn't mention it once!" I said. Then I remembered the subtle hints he gave me. He would tell me I'm not alone…that he is my family… "Mom, I need to go back there. I need to speak with him." I said. She stood up and slowly made her way over to me.
"Do not leave me down here," she said with a quiver in her voice. My anger dissipated. I came here to find her and the Renegades.
"Who did this to you?" I asked.
"I do not know. They came when I was sleeping during the night. They were in all black and put me down here. I didn't even know it existed."
"The Authorities. But mother, how did you not know this existed?" I asked her.
"Maybe your father created it before we met." She said.
"Okay whatever, let's leave," I said not wanting to be under the ground any longer. Calelon helped my mother up and they followed me out of the door and straight down the long tunnel until we reached the ladder.
"Calelon, you should go first. I won't be able to stand on the ladder and push open the door." I said, he nodded and began climbing.
"Anika, will you stay with me, in Dellyn for a while?" She asked.
"No mother. There's nowhere to stay." I said.
"Of course there is! You can have your old room back and you could stay before you go back to Falkron." She said with hope in her voice. I shook my head.
"There is no home anymore, mom. There was an explosion. Actually…I'm surprised this didn't collapse." I said. I heard a thud from above and then Calelon called down.
"It's safe to come up!"
"You first, mom." I said in case she were to fall. Slowly she climbed the ladder and I waited patiently at the bottom until I heard Calelon give the okay. I began the long climb up the ladder and into the cold night. My mother was standing where the door to her room used to be and was silently crying. I looked up at Calelon and snuck a brief kiss onto his lips: mine barely brushing his. I walked over to my mom and hugged her.
"What am I going to do?" She asked me.
"Well…something happened that caused me to be away for a week. But for the past day I've stayed with Sarah." I said to her as I instinctively reached for the bite scars.
"Sarah…Fieler? The young one?" She asked.
"Yeah, but she's sixteen now, mom." I said to her. "And I'm eighteen…" I said.
"What day is it?" She asked suddenly.
"It's the fourth…of April."
"I am so sorry!" She said as she hugged me and began crying all over again. "It's your birthday! The most important one!" She said.
"Mom, it's okay. I had a great time thanks to Sarah," I said, half lying, half telling the truth. "I'm tired, though. Can we get going?" I said as I tried to pull her along. Despite her frail appearance, she wouldn't budge. "Mom, I know. I don't want to leave it either. The Authorities said they'd check our name for insurance, though. We can rebuild," I said as she finally moved. "I'm sure Sarah can find a room for you. And food." I said.
"Oh my god, Mrs. Cardin!" Sarah said as she helped her through the door. "What happened to you?"
"A lot, my child."
"Ugh, this is awful! Someone come help me!" She called out. Three fellow Renegades all rushed to the door. "You, fill up the bath, you put a towel in the dryer so it's fresh for when she's out. And you, find some pajamas and a spare room, even if you have to kick someone else out!" She said directing them around.
"I don't want to impose on anyone. And please, call me Joanne."
"Don't worry about it, Joanne. We're here to help those that the Authorities have wronged." She said suddenly serious. I said goodnight to my mother then pulled Calelon with me into my room.
"So you knew she was down there the whole time?" I asked him.
"Yes, I am sorry I did not tell you sooner." He said.
"It's fine. It's just…how long do you think she was down there?" I asked him.
"I do not know, Anika. But I think the Authorities have been keeping tabs on you."
"They seem to know your every movement. Except I do not think they saw this one coming."
"Good. I'd like to stay ahead of them from now on. I think I'm going to go back to Falkron in a day or two." I said. Darren might be my uncle. I took off the boots, jacket and gloves, removed Menedhil, my bow and quiver, and my twin daggers, and then crawled into the small bed. Calelon lied down with me. "Calelon?"
"I want to go back to Aelmere sometime." I said. He nodded to me.
"What is this city called?" He asked out of nowhere.
"It's Dellyn. I don't know what its name was before the war, or if it was built after it. But I like the name." I said. "Do you know what time it is?" I asked him.
"Based on how you humans measure it, it is 11:53 at night. Which means it's still your birthday." He said as he reached for something. He sat up and presented to me an intricately carved wooden box. "For you," he said as he placed it in my hands.
I opened the lid and inside was a photo. I took it out of the box and noticed another one beneath it. And more beneath that one. They were my photos. The photos which had covered my walls. I threw my arms around Calelon's neck as tears welled into my eyes.
"Calelon, how did you get these!?" I said wiping my eyes.
"When we went to retrieve some of your clothes, I had a feeling something was going to happen. I took down all of your photos and kept them for you. I knew your birthday was coming up because your fake mother had said so."
"Thank you, thank you, thank you! Gah! I'm so happy, Calelon." I said as I looked at him. I put the photos back in the box and put the box under the bed. I leaned in and kissed his soft lips before lying back down and pulling the covers up to my face.
I woke up early the next morning with Calelon by my side. I thought it was impossible, but he looked even more beautiful when he was asleep. I planted a soft kiss on his cheek before making my way to the bathroom. I had a quick shower then got dressed in a change of clothes Sarah lent me. I walked into the kitchen and met with my mother.
"Good morning, Anika. Coffee?" She offered.
"No," I said shaking my head. I walked over to the fridge and opened it. My birthday cake was in it so I cut myself a piece then made my way to the table. I sat down and my mother joined me. She drank her coffee and I ate in silence.
"Anika, I don't want you to leave me, again." She finally said.
"Mom, Dellyn is not my home anymore. There's a whole world out there with secrets that humans have yet discovered. It all starts with Falkron. It is my home now." I said. Her lip quivered but she didn't say anything, just nodded. "Mom, I'm sorry. I love you, but I can't stay here. I will be back though to help the Renegades fight the Authorities."
"Is that all that matters in your life?" She asked. Automatically I thought of Calelon and then Noah. And Darren, all alone in his cabin right now.
"No. There are a lot of people in my life who matter, mother." I said.
"I'm sorry." She said.
"It's okay, mom. I'm sorry too." I said as I put my plate in the sink and headed back to my room. Calelon greeted me with a kiss then pulled me on top of him on the bed. I lied on his chest for a while, looking out the window. Slowly, the house filled up with chatter and Sarah told everyone to meet her in the backyard. It was sunny outside and everyone sat in the shade of the house.
"Okay, listen up everybody!" Sarah called. "I want you to know that if we are going to continue calling ourselves The Renegades, we need to act like rebels, renegades, insurrectionists! We need to train and fight!" She said. And to think she had said no one was the leader… "Anika?"
"Come up here!" She said. I made my way over to the picnic table she was standing on and she pulled me on to it with her. "We need your help," she said.
"We need to learn to fight."
"So you want me to train you?" I asked.
"Yes!" She exclaimed.
"I don't know, Sarah. I was planning on leaving soon." I said.
"Please Anika. We need to fight them and win." She said.
"Okay. But I am only instructing you, you can teach the rest of them, and I still plan to leave. But let me warn you it will be hard and I will not go easy on you." I said to her as I stepped down from the table and made my way inside.
"Anika, can we start?" Sarah asked as she opened my door.
"Yeah, sorry, I was just changing." I said. "What exactly do you want me to teach you, anyways?" She shrugged.
"Everything you can: hand to hand combat, aiming a gun properly. Maybe even some sword tricks!"
"They're not tricks. They're moves that will help you or bring you to your downfall if you don't know how to execute them." I said.
"Have you ever fought? Like for real?" She asked. I nodded.
"You can start by changing out of those skin-tight jeans" I said.
"Sure thing!" She said as she merrily skipped away.
"I don't like this." Sarah whined.
"Jeez, you almost sound like me!" I said as I threw a punch that would be easy for her to block, but she still missed it and I made contact with her stomach. "You need to try! You need to fight back! Do you think any Authority would hesitate for one second?" I asked her. This got her attention and she was suddenly standing a little straighter. "Good. Fists up! Fight back, Sarah!" We stayed like that for a while, practicing hand-to-hand combat. The small crowd of Renegades watching us steadily grew.
"How many of you are there now?" I asked Sarah. Only five months ago there were only fourteen of us.
"That's a good question. I think there's close to forty. Of course, not all of them stay here, that's why there are quiet breaks throughout the day because they go home. Also, they can't just stop showing up for their classes. That would raise suspicions." She said as we finally stopped our combat.
"I'm happy people care this much."
"So when can we start with the guns?" She asked.
"No. There's no way we'd be able to get away with firing guns. We can get away with physical fighting thanks to the tall fences, but guns are loud. However, if you want to learn the way with bow I can teach you that. But you need to make a few targets or dummies…" I said.
"You heard the woman!" Sarah called to the crowd. They all began rushing around and I was in awe at how they were so quick to do anything for her. I looked over at her smiling. "What?"
"And you said no one had taken leadership." I said.
"I didn't want you to feel replaced."
"That's not how I would've felt – it isn't. The group needed a leader and I'm glad you were here to step up to the plate. There would be no more Renegades otherwise. And besides, I can't lead them anymore. There are other things I need to do."
"But we need you!" She pleaded, I shook my head.
"No, you don't. Maybe I can help direct you guys but as for now, you're fine on your own. But let me know when you're storming the headquarters. I wouldn't miss it for the world," I said as a smile spread across my face.
I trained several of the Renegades, with Calelon's help, in archery. Some were better than others but they all tried hard and gave it their best.
"Anika, this is the last time I will bring it up…I do not want you to leave me here." My mother said.
"Mom, I don't want to leave you here. But I have to leave, there are things that need to be finished," I said as I thought of Daechir and his need to capture me.
"Okay. But you will always have a home here…with me." She said.
"I know mom. Let's take a walk and see if the Authorities still have their setup near the old house." I said. We walked back to our house and were relieved to see that it was there. I entered the tent.
"Can I help you?"
"I was here yesterday, about insurance on our home." I said to the man. He looked at me and then my mother, and then nodded.
"I was able to find your files in the system, Mrs. Cardin." He said to my mother. "Your husband ensured that." He said.
"What do you mean?" She asked.
"Before he went away, he made sure you two would be taken care of." The man said.
"Oh, of course. We were his pride and joy." She said back with a smile on her face. Suddenly the tent felt warm…too warm.
"I need to go outside." I said to my mom. She looked at me worried but nodded. I sat on the curb looking at my house. Everything I knew. All my memories seemed pointless. I thought of the box Calelon had given me then felt butterflies in my stomach. After fifteen minutes my mother emerged from the tent.
"They will start building in a week. They have offered me a room at Dellyn's finest hotel free of charge until it is complete. Is there anything special you want added to your room, dear?" She asked me. I thought about it. Everything I could think of would raise suspicions.
"No, mom. Just a normal room is fine." I said to her. "I'm going to head back and get my things together, though. I love you," I said to her and gave a hand a quick squeeze.
"Anika, we are all going to miss you a lot!" Sarah said as she hugged me the next afternoon.
"I'm going to miss you too! Thank you for everything, all of you!" I said as I handed Sarah a small piece of paper. "You can reach me by that number. Don't give it out; it's for your eyes only. It'd be best if you memorized it then burnt the paper," I said into Sarah's ear. She nodded and slipped it into her pocket.
"I hope you finish what you need to so you can come back to us soon." Sarah said. I smiled at her and hugged her one last time before making my way over to my mom.
"When you come back there will be a house for you to return to." My mother said as she hugged me. I willed myself not to cry and hugged her back.
"And I will be thinking of it all the time. Try not to change too much of it." I said to her. I smiled at her. "And make sure the Authorities don't install cameras. I know they don't want me out on my own but to arrest me would lead to them telling the people what they have done, too. They would be overrun in a day if that were to happen. So they probably will try to hook up cameras to watch me…but I won't be there. Find them and remove them as quickly as you can. And they also might try to check up on 'us'. Please mom, don't let them know I am gone." I said.
"Okay sweetie. I love you," She said as she gave me a final hug and a kiss on the forehead. I double checked to make sure I had my weapons and the box. I lifted the pack over my shoulders and turned to leave with Calelon, back to Falkron. The thought made me happy. As much freedom it could offer me, being the hunted and all, training again. Not needing to worry about the Authorities breathing down my neck. I smiled as Calelon and I walked down the streets.
When we were turning onto the street that led to Falkron Calelon stopped me. He motioned for me to look. They were blocking off the area. Panic rose in my body.
"How are we going to get back?" I asked.
"There are other ways," Calelon said.
"Where?" I asked.
"We need to find Norburn Lake." Calelon said. That sounded familiar…was it another one of the Authorities 'polluted' water bodies? I nodded and followed him as we turned around and continued going straight for nearly three hours. We left around five and the sun was beginning to set when we finally saw the fenced up lake.
"What now?" I asked.
"Why do they pretend this water is polluted and unsafe?" Calelon asked pointing to the sign.
"To stay in control. But do we just follow the perimeter?" I asked him.
"Yes. The lake will eventually become Southborough River which goes by the field you used to train in."
"Okay…let's get walking. I just want to get to Darren's and sleep." I said.
Calelon and I walked for hours. We eventually reached the river then followed it, both of us cautious of what might be lurking in the dark. We walked with our weapons bared. Nothing came forward and we continued on, my body becoming wary as we reached the field. I knew it was a short walk, and an even shorter horse ride to Darren's from here. So I stood tall and breathed slowly until we came into his clearing. The lights were on, creating a homely atmosphere. Despite my tired legs I ran to the door of the cabin and barged in, startling Darren, causing him to spill his tea.
"Darren! Ha! I'm sorry. Oh my goodness, it feels so nice to be back in Falkron, wow." I said.
"I knew you'd miss me!" He laughed. My smiled disappeared. "Is everything okay, Anika?" He asked me, giving me the fatherly look I had come to know so well. I shook my head.
"No, I have one hell of a story to tell you." I said sitting down as Calelon joined us.