DEFEND: Chapter 1

Chapter 1

“Awww… Look at the lovebirds, holding hands, ready to take on the world. Or, the underworld,” Jesse narrates like we’re in a movie trailer. “Underworld sounds a lot more dangerous.” He has no intention of keeping his conversation with Alexis sequestered to the back seat, speaking loudly enough to catch the attention of the driver, my mother. Her eyes immediately meet mine in the rearview mirror, then she unsubtly glances down to where Mateo’s hand covers mine.

“Shut. Up. You’re so annoying when you’re jealous.” Alexis is right, but Jesse’s only trying to get her attention. It’s my fault she’s been made to sit next to him in the third row of the Suburban. She’s also the tiniest of us all and didn’t mind summersaulting over the middle row of seats.

Mom’s been driving for hours, and we’ve all been trying to get some sleep. After my mom dropped the bomb that she and I were headed back underground to help the tribe, a.k.a. our people, everyone argued about coming along until we were all stuffed into her “work vehicle.” We had to remove a few of her earthquake-gear-thing-a-ma-bobs to get the back seat into place, but that extra row meant no one would be left behind.

I’d love to think that my friends had the best motives for joining us, but Keren’s were definitely the purest. Her determination to save the tribe and her willingness to set aside her own desires to do so reminded me of her older brother, Gabriel. The siblings wanted to live their own lives, but losing their mother when they were young and having a father deeply rooted in their tribe’s traditions caused them to develop an unshakable sense of loyalty. That dedication was even stronger to each other.

So, Gabriel stayed because he knew that Zadok, the tribe’s tyrant leader, would never stop. Gabriel also sent his sister Keren to the surface with me, because none of us are safe with Zadok on the loose. Zadok proved that he lost all devotion to his people, and even to his family, when he killed Gabriel and Keren’s father in front of us all.

“Hey, are you alright?” Mateo asks as he squeezes my hand.

“As right as I can be with those two flirt-fighting behind us,” I nod back to Alexis and Jesse, “and those two battle-bonding in front of us.” Mom and Keren hadn’t stopped talking. Between bouts of sleep, I gathered that they were devising a plan to get to the tribe under Zadok’s radar.

Mateo moves his hand, and before I can reach for its calming presence, he wraps his arm around me and pulls me in closer so I can rest my head on his shoulder.

“Is this better? Maybe it’ll muffle some of the noise.”

“I’m not sure if anything can cancel out the sound of Alexis and Jesse, but this is definitely better.” Nestling into Mateo’s space feels warm and normal, and I don’t have to think about the fact that I’m a descendant of a tribe blessed by God to live in an underground world, the realm where there are giant behemoths hiding in the next cavern and bloody animal sacrifices are a tradition. It’s just too bad that the behemoths are not the animals sacrificed.

I’m so thankful my friends are with me, but I can’t help but worry that Zadok could destroy us all. Mateo explained that he wouldn’t be leaving my side just before Keren insisted on joining us. While Keren is going to fight for her people, Mateo is going with me to help us stop my grandfather. I still can’t believe I’m related to Zadok. His greed and desire to control everything pushed his daughter away and up to the surface.

“Hold on, everyone.” My mother’s warning doesn’t prepare me for the sharp right turn or the force that pushes me closer to Mateo.

“Whoa! Ms. Miller, where’d you learn to drive?” Looking back at Jesse, I see that his elated smile is the exact opposite of Alexis’ mortified frown.

“That’s nothing,” Mom declares. “It’s about to get pretty rough, we’ll be off-roading for the next few miles.”

The front of the Suburban is airborne momentarily as we hit the first bump, and the top of my head meets the fabric covered roof. I fall back into my seat, but before my stomach can settle, the carriage of the vehicle rattles so violently I can feel it in my teeth. Sitting up and straightening my seat belt, I notice that everyone is gripping their respective “oh crap” handle. Texas is known for being flat, but they call this “hill country” for a reason.

“Mom!” I can’t decide if she’s cool or a complete embarrassment.

“Honey, this is the best way to get there. We’ve already discussed it, and you know we can’t trust that everyone will survive the fall into the chasm a second time. We also can’t go back the way you escaped, because of a certain suspicious park ranger.” She is right, and it isn’t like she is making all of the decisions either. We’d all agreed to use a different route to get to the tribe. Regardless of where the tribespeople travel, once I get into the labyrinth of caves, my noor should brighten and lead us to them.

“I know why we have to go this way, but it’s like you’ve cast yourself as Danica Patrick in a Fast & Furious movie.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment. Just remember, I didn’t want to bring you, any of you. The only reason I did is because I knew you’d try and follow me. At least I can keep an eye on you this way.” Mom lectures at me via the rearview mirror and deliberately adjusts it. Her glare is like a blanket that covers me with an awkward, clammy heat.

After several more minutes of feeling like one of the little critters in Whack-a-Mole, the ride stops feeling like an amusement park attraction, and I’m able to look out the window to get my bearings. We should be close to Frio Bat Cave.

“I’m going to check the radio again for any news about earthquakes.” Keren pushes one of the knobs on the dash, and a barrage of voices talking over each other surrounds us.

“I think that’s one of those political stations, try the Seekbutton.” My mom advises.

Two or three stations later, a woman’s voice clearly reports on seismic activity in North Texas. Mom quickly reaches for the tuner, intent on figuring out a pattern even though we know it’s an attack. In the last eight hours there’ve been two small earthquakes, and this makes three. It’s being referred to as a “scientific phenomenon.” The first two were less than a three on the Richter scale, but this one was closer to a five. As the SUV rolls to a stop, the radio report begins to detail the damage.

“That’s enough of that.” Mom turns the key, and the radio falls silent. “You’ll all need to get out on this side of the SUV.”

My tinted window is now completely black, because my mother has parked alongside some structure. I unbuckle and slide toward Mateo’s open door. After he steps down, he takes my hand to help me out, then he doesn’t let go.

“Hey, man. Aren’t you gonna help me out?” Jesse crawls over the middle seat with his hand in the air. “Chivalry is dead.”

Jesse steps down and Alexis isn’t too far behind. “It sure as heck is!”

“Calm down, kiddos. This is private property, and we don’t want to draw any unwanted attention our way,” my mom warns. “We’ll have to walk about a quarter mile, but the Suburban should be out of sight here.”

We each grab our packs out of the trunk, clipping and snapping them onto our backs. The cool summer night is serenaded by cicadas and the sound of our shoes trampling the dry grass. We start out following my mom in a clump formation, scared that someone might catch us and question what we’re up to. Mom set up the perfect alibi for everyone, and got everyone’s parents to agree on getting us some rest after our ordeal. She told them as much truth as she could, saying we’d head to hill country, but she stretched the truth about where we’d be staying. Mateo’s and Alexis’ families, the Vargases and the Hickses are under the impression that we’re headed to a campground for canoeing and archery, all compliments of an old friend.

“Is that it, over there?” I point to a pool of darkness that we’ll all have to trek into if I’m right. Mom nods, and we trudge on.

“Alright, we’re close enough to pull flashlights out. Just remember to keep them turned off until we absolutely need them. This will also be a good time to buddy up. Alexis, with me. Keren, you stick with Jesse. And, Ollie, how about you protect Mateo.” I couldn’t see my mom’s grin, but I could feel it.

“Ms. Miller, you know how this is called Frio Bat Cave?” Alexis tries to sound nonchalant, but scurries over to Mom. “It implies that bats must live here.”

“Yes, Sweetie, but most of them have left cave for the night.”

“Oh, okay.” Alexis releases a long breath.

“We will have to be on alert for bat guano. It is easy to slip on,” Keren informs the group as Jesse steps beside her.

“Ew,” Alexis and I agree.

“Cool. Guuuanoooo. Guano.” Jesse sounds impressed and entertained. “Guaaaaanooo.”

The group grows quiet and walks at a steady pace. Mateo’s hand is a consistent tether, as the world around us invades my senses. The dry grass thins, and rocks threaten to trip me. The cool air dampens and smells sweeter than the musky heat of a Texas summer day. From a distance, the mouth of the cave looks more like a hole in the ground. As we move closer, a strong breeze meets us carrying a pungent odor.

“Don’t tell me. Bat poo.” Alexis’ sarcasm is met with a loud screech, and despite the small creature’s caution, we continue to clamber into the unknown. Scratching and skittering echoes around us and as we travel further into the room, it narrows and the entrance fades.

As if responding to the distance we put between ourselves and the surface, a faint light winks into a shimmer above Keren, then a pale glow appears above my mother. Once Mateo and I reach the same area as the others, light levitates above me in a shining cloud. My noor looks brighter and not just more than the last time we were underground, but more lively than Keren’s or Mom’s noors.

“Would you rather Ollie lead us?” Keren asks once everyone has stopped gawking. I had a similar reaction the first time I saw the light, and this is the first time I’ve seen it assemble over individuals instead of the whole group.

“I don’t think that’s a great idea. You’ve grown up here and know the tunnels better than any of us,” I encourage her. All of our noors should be working together to guide us back to our people.

Supposedly, the noor is what keeps an individual linked to the tribe. “Once you are blessed with noor, it will never leave you in need,” Keren explains. “This light that has connected with me will guide me, but I still have the choice to make my own path.” She looks up into the radiant dust that floats above her, and it’s mesmerizing. I can’t imagine choosing not to follow it.

“The noor also protects our people from being exposed,” my mom chimes in. “When I was a child, some backpackers stumbled upon our village. The elders sent them back to the surface with a tribesman that had made the trek regularly for supplies. I asked my mother if they would come back to visit, and she explained that they would never remember our ancient home once they returned to the surface. Once they left the caves and separated themselves from the mysterious light, they would just remember wandering through the caves.”

“So, if you’d left Jesse and me up there,” Alexis points up like the surface is the next floor in an office building, “we’d have forgotten everything that happened? The behemoth, the lack of a plumbing system?”

Mom just nods her head, and while Alexis processes this new bit of information her face transforms from confused to angry. She steps backwards, away from my mother and looks to Keren and Jesse.

“You mean, we could have the memory of Keren’s father dying…” Alexis falters.

“Alexis, I’m with you on this. I’d love to have the image of an animal sacrifice erased from my mind.” Jesse takes Alexis’ hand. “But we didn’t choose to come back out of fear of forgetting, we chose to help our friends.”

“Could we really go through all of this and forget when we get back home?” Alexis asks my mom.

“As long as Ollie and I are a part of your life, I don’t think you’ll lose any of your memories. I’ll admit, I was afraid of leaving you and Jesse after Mateo said he was coming with us. I didn’t want to have to test my theory on you, and when you both decided to come on your own I was relieved.”

Our buddy system becomes skewed, and mom and Keren take the lead while Jesse and Alexis quietly remain in the middle of the pack. Carefully making our way down a corridor, the walls slowly become more confining. The noor is brighter in the enclosed space, revealing every crevice and mossy stone in the cave. The guiding light that led our tribe to safety thousands of years ago still moves with us. Over the centuries, some have found a way to manipulate the noor’s pure light for their own purely evil motives. The light that’s saved my life more than once is the same noor that Zadok purges for more power. So far that power has been used to create earthquakes that shake the surface, but none of us are sure of what his ultimate goal is.

“Mateo, do you mind switching buddies for a few minutes? I need to ask my mom a question.” I know that my people’s culture is foreign to me, and it’s not my fault. It’s still no excuse to waste this opportunity to learn more about them and maybe more about what Zadok could be up to.

“Just don’t leave me with Keren in the front for too long. I’d hate to run into an otherworldly beast without you.” Mateo gives my hand a squeeze then takes a few long strides to catch my mom. Tapping her on the shoulder, he nods in my direction, and she falls in step with me.

“I’m glad things have worked themselves out with Mateo, Honey,” my mom says as she threads an arm around mine.

“Worked themselves out? It only took us falling hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth, and almost being killed by a giant glow-in-the-dark scorpion to get things back on the right track.” To avoid tripping, I skip the eye roll, but I can’t help giggling at my own words.

“I have a feeling that the admiration of Keren’s brother Gabriel might have had Mateo second guessing his feelings. Sometimes we don’t know what we’ve lost until it’s gone.” Mom glances up at the light above us.

“Why isn’t your light as bright as mine, Mom?”

“I made the choice to leave our tribe when I was young, and I knew the consequences. To be honest, I’m surprised the noor still guides me.”

“Gabriel told me that it would always be with me, so by leaving the tribe you left your noor? Do we each have our own fairy dust? Do you think it could do something more than light our way, like make us fly? It has to have more uses. Zadok’s found an extremely destructive way to use it. Or maybe he’s destroying noor?” With my questions multiplying, it feels impossible that I’d be a part of any solution. “It doesn’t seem to matter that he’s covered by shadows, because he’s learned how to rob others of their noor.”

“It does matter, Ollie. The reason your light shines so bright is because you’ve chosen to invite it to be with you. When I left for the surface, so many years ago, I didn’t choose to live with it or follow it every day. I didn’t let it guide me, because I wanted to make my own way. I was surprised to see it above me when we walked in this place, and I’m thankful it still blesses me with its presence.”

“Can you tell me what it means? You know, for it to shine so bright?” I’m not sure I want to hear the answer to this question. Maybe I have super powers or maybe I’m a magnet for the super weird. Neither sound that bad, that is, until I have to live a lonely double life.

“The light chooses its path, and we learn to follow it. The noor was always with me when I needed it growing up. I believe you’ll need all of it to help you on this journey.” Mom opens her arms like she can carry it.

Well, great. Why do I need so much of this stuff to stop Zadok? If he’s destroying noor to wreak havoc on us all, won’t I be a glittering beacon? And, what am I supposed to do with it if it can be used to stop Zadok? Following it doesn’t seem like enough.

My mom interrupts my thoughts. “Honey, you need to focus on why you came back. These people will need you to help them, and the light you have will give our tribe hope. That’s the most powerful weapon we have to defeat Zadok.”

If you enjoyed this excerpt from Book 2, you can look forward to reading more in Spring 2015. If you haven’t read the first novel in the Lost Tribe Series, Descent, you can order it from any of the links below.