I beat my fists against the cruel metal of the door and screamed for Aaron, my voice raw with dread.
"Open the door!" Samuel's shout reverberated off the concrete walls of the tunnel behind me.
"I can't," Thaddeus said, and drops of sorrow fell from his voice to sting my ears. "Aaron sealed it. I don't have the strength of Light to open it now."
I turned to Thaddeus, my eyes tracking to the gun in his hand and narrowing in suspicion.
"You're a Holder of Light," I said, taking an angry step down the stairs towards him. "But I haven't seen you use it. We're being hunted by the nastiest freaking monsters imaginable, and you've been relying on your gun the whole time."
"It's my responsibility to power the weapons of the Steel Tower with Light." Thaddeus met my eye with pangs of guilt twisting his expression. "The effort leaves me drained of power much of the time. I'm sorry, but I can't open the door."
"What about us?" I said, calling up my power and sending it into my hand to spark a soft blue glow. "We could open it."
"There's no time for me to teach you how," Thaddeus said. "It's a complicated use of Light, not like pushing a button or turning a doorknob."
"Is there another way into the alley?" Lara asked.
"Please." Samuel gripped Thaddeus by the arm. I expected anger from Samuel, but instead I saw fear in the pale blue of his eyes. "We have to get back out there."
Thaddeus lowered his head.
"By the time we go around," he said, his voice heavy with regret, "whatever is going to happen out there will already have happened."
"We can't just leave him." I said, my voice hollow as the fire of my rage cooled to a dull throb in my chest. "He's the whole reason we've been running. He's the one she wants."
"That's right," Thaddeus said. "And if Wiley has your uncle now, it won't be long until the Morrighan gets her crooked fingers on him. That's all the more reason to find Graver and contact the Families. Maybe they can help get Aaron back."
I turned back toward the door where it stood cold and heartless in our path, raising my bloodied hand to its unforgiving surface. On the other side, just six inches away from my fingertips, a cool rain fell into the alley, perhaps washing away my uncle's blood. A feeling of utter powerlessness punched into my core, injecting its bitter poison into my heart. We were out-matched. How could we expect to prevail against such powerful evil when it was so hell-bent on destroying us? Even if we found Graver, and if he chose to help us, and if he was able to contact the Families, and if they agreed to help as well, would they stand any better chance against the Morrighan and her demons than we did? If there was no chance of victory, why should we even try?
This must have been what my father felt when he chose to go into hiding. In a moment just like this one, Jacob Acheson had lost all hope and chosen the coward's path. He chose to quit. And what did he gain through his cowardice? Decades of crawling into corners and slinking through the shadows. And then an early grave.
I would not make the same decision. If death and destruction were coming for me, then let them come now and be done with it. They would find me ready for a fight when they arrived.
"What if we blast through the wall?" Samuel said. "I think I could do it."
"The walls are lined with solid steel," Thaddeus said. "There's no way to get through them. The only way out is down."
"Thaddeus is right," I cut in. "We have to move forward. Aaron bought our escape, now it's up to us to make good use of it."
"I agree." Lara said, meeting my eye. Her gaze held a knowing sympathy as if she'd been watching the struggle play out in my head.
Samuel growled, punching the concrete wall with a defeated fist.
Lara placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, then turned to Thaddeus.
"Lead the way."
The stairs led a short way down to a tunnel that stretched into the distance. We walked at a comfortable pace and it was an odd sensation to not be in any immediate danger. I felt like I should be running from something. But there was nothing to fear down here except the cruelty of our own thoughts, and the uncertainty of what might be waiting for us when we emerged.
The most interesting thing about the tunnels was that they were clearly not made by the city. There were no water pipes or electrical conduit running along their lengths. There were no markings on the walls indicating where we were in the city and no ladders leading up to manhole covers in the street. The walls, floor and ceiling were made of solid sheets of concrete and there did not appear to be any seams in their surface. I wasn't sure how such construction was even possible. A slight breeze tugged at my sweatshirt, as some kind of ventilation system fed fresh air into the place. A faint but adequate light seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, as if it were wandering through the tunnel on its own.
The ceiling was a comfortable height and the walls were far enough apart to walk in twos. I found myself walking next to Lara, and she slipped her arm through mine, gripping my bicep with her other hand as if we were joining forces against cold silence of the tunnels. With nothing to look at but endless rivers of concrete, my mind began to wander back to the alley where we'd left our Uncle to some unknown, and almost certainly unpleasant, fate. I didn't think they would kill him right away; the Morrighan must have wanted him for some purpose. But I allowed myself no illusions that she might spare his life once that purpose was fulfilled. I knew with an unshakable certainty that we had to find Uncle Aaron quickly, or he would die. And that brought me back to the mysterious Graver — our only hope — and I knew nothing at all about him except the name.
I couldn't think this through completely with such limited information. If I was going to formulate a plan to find Graver, secure his help, contact the Families, and convince them to help us save Aaron, I needed to know more.
I placed my hand on top of Lara's where it rested on my arm, squeezed her hand once and winked. Then I jogged past Samuel and fell into step beside Thaddeus.
He glanced at me, nodding once, and we walked for a moment in silence.
"I'd like you to tell me about Graver," I began.
He didn't answer at first, but continued his steady march down the endlessly barren tunnel like it was his sole purpose in life to reach its end. After a moment he sighed, shaking his head in resignation.
"He claims to be Scottish," Thaddeus said, his deep voice rumbling to life as if it were reluctant to be a part of the discussion. "That's about all anyone knows about his past. The man has — unusual abilities that no one quite understands."
"Is he a Holder of Light?" I asked.
"No," Thaddeus shook his head again. "He's something else. He can do things that even we can't. He knows things that he shouldn't know and shows up in places he couldn't possibly be. Sometimes he dies. But he always appears again later as if nothing happened. No one knows how old he is, but he's been around since at least the late 1800s."
I stared at Thaddeus, my eyes wide, and nearly tripped over my own feet.
"Are you serious?" I said to Thaddeus, glancing back to catch Samuel's eye. My brother rolled his eyes, not appearing to buy into the theatrics.
"As a heart attack," Thaddeus said. "There's plenty of photographic evidence. I've seen some of it. Graver is something we can't quite explain, more a force of nature than a man. Oh, and he's certifiably crazy."
Thaddeus paused his speech, as if second guessing for a moment our decision to try to find this person.
"But, if there's anyone who can get a message to the other Families," he continued, "it's him."
"And you think he'll help us?"
"There's no way to know what he'll do. Graver doesn't fight on our side. He doesn't fight at all. Refuses to get involved in the war between the Nameless Dark and Holders of Light."
"And we're going to ask him to make an exception," I said. "That should go over well."
We fell silent again as I worked to wrap my head around this new information. As usual, one answered question raised a dozen more, and I had difficulty ordering my thoughts around them. We hadn't rested since the motel and the exhaustion had begun to take its toll on my mind as well as my body.
I knew that it was a bad idea to go looking for someone or something as dangerous as Graver, but if he was our only shot at getting Aaron back we'd have to take the risk. The stakes were much higher now that our uncle was about to be handed over to the Morrighan.
"So how do we find him?" I said, breaking the silence again.
"We can't," Thaddeus said. "No one can find Graver unless they already know where he is. And there are very few people who do."
"Very few?" Samuel spoke up from behind us. "How many is very few?"
"One, that I know of," Thaddeus replied, turning to address my brother. "And she happens to be a friend of the Steel Tower. We were on our way to meet her when we got— sidetracked."
"People get sidetracked," I said, "when they see a cute puppy or bump into a friend on the street. We had a building fall on us."
"In any case, our guide will have been informed of our change of plans by now, and should be on her way to our new extraction point." Thaddeus quickened his pace, as if he'd just remembered that we had somewhere to be. "She may even be there already."
I had more questions burning in my mind, and I desperately wanted to ask them, but I could tell I would be getting no more from our closed-mouthed leader right now. I glanced at Thaddeus again, wondering at his history with my family. He and Aaron seemed to have a past of some kind, as if they had once been rivals in some way, though they did seem to have a begrudging respect for one another. I had never before seen Aaron treat anyone as a peer in that way except for my father. Thaddeus was the first Holder of Light I'd met from another one of the Seven Families. I wanted to learn about his family, where they came from, and more importantly, where they were now. If we ever had a quiet moment to talk, when there were no monsters chasing us or lost family members to save, I was determined to ask him about it.
We walked for what felt like a long time, ignoring the other tunnel branches that crossed our path from time to time. We left our straight path only once, turning right at a crossing tunnel and following the new path until a sound like rushing water rose to fill the tunnel on every side.
"We're under the river now," Thaddeus said above the noise.
I looked around, trying to identify the source of the sound. There were no gaps in the all-encasing concrete of the tunnel to explain how the noise reached us. Thaddeus offered no explanation, continuing down the tunnel until the river noise faded into the distance behind us.
As the sound of the river left us, we took another right-hand turn down a small side-tunnel. This passage was more narrow than the tunnels we'd been traveling and we had to walk in single file. The tunnel ended after a short distance at another set of stairs leading up toward the surface. A wisp of fresh, late-night air drifted down from above us, running its fingers through my hair as if welcoming me to the end of a long journey.
We climbed the stairs in silence, our feet scraping their exhaustion against the concrete steps. At the top stood another steel door identical to the one through which we'd entered the tunnels. Thaddeus bowed his head, closing his eyes and taking a moment to gather himself. Then he raised his hand to the door, allowing a dim, blue flicker of power to play across his fingers. The door slid up into the concrete ceiling above us, revealing a large, flat gravel lot surrounded by dead fields of farm land.
"Where are we?" I said to Thaddeus.
"A large farm just outside of Pittsburgh," Thaddeus explained. "The owner is a friend to the Steel Tower. This tunnel opens at one of his out-buildings."
The early morning chill held aloft an ink-black sky pierced only by an occasional star and the angry scar of a blood red moon. The gravel expanse in front of us was a parking area of some kind, with two large combines sitting off to one side, waiting to be put to use again, and a single, battered old pickup truck parked nearby. The space appeared abandoned until a shadowed movement caught my eye, and at the same moment I heard a sharp intake of breath from Lara behind me.
"They're here," She hissed, her voice like a whispered motion in the dark.
At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. Extreme exhaustion can cause the mind to perform all kinds of dirty deeds for its own amusement. I was sure that must be happening now, since I could not be seeing what I thought I was seeing. Then the movement came again and I saw them clearly.
In the center of the gravel lot stood two of the tattered creatures that had hunted us through Pittsburgh.
Thaddeus let out a curse. "How did they know to find us here?"
"I don't know," Samuel replied, stepping forward as if to place himself between us and the monsters. "But the more important question is, what are we going to do about it?"
"Wait." Thaddeus stopped him with a hand on his chest. "They can't see us yet. Until we step through the doorway, we're invisible to them."
"Great," I sighed. "So we're perfectly safe, as long as we never leave."
Thaddeus frowned at me, then turned to examine the landscape around us, searching for a solution. I looked the creatures over, studying their ragged forms with equal parts fear and fascination. Their limbs beneath the layers of rotting cloth appeared basically human in form. They stood hunched and twitching, as if in constant pain, but their chests and shoulders were oddly still, never rising or falling with any sort of rhythm. They didn't appear to be breathing.
"Thaddeus, what are those things?" I asked, disgust crawling across my voice like cockroaches on a kitchen floor. "You said they're the Morrighan's creatures?"
Thaddeus snorted. "Well, the Morrighan may be directing them, and Wiley may be holding their leash at the moment, but in reality these creatures belong only to the Nameless Dark. They are known as the Wasted. Men and women who tried to use the power of the Nameless Dark for their own purposes, but were not strong enough to withstand its destructive influence."
"They were people once?" I asked, staring at the monstrous things in shock and revulsion.
"They were," Thaddeus said, his voice tinged with sorrow at the fate of those poor souls. "But not anymore. Everything that made them human is gone. They're just empty shells now — puppets for the Nameless Dark and tools in the hands of its servants. The same fate waits for every Servant of Dark, eventually."
"That's all very interesting, professor," Samuel said, "but how do we get past them?"
"He's right," I said to Thaddeus. "We can't just stay here. If these Wasted creatures are here, that means somehow Wiley knew of our possible escape routes. There could be more of them on their way. We have to move now while we have the chance."
"The only way past them," Thaddeus said, "is through them. I'm going out there to distract them. I'll try to lead them away from this door. As soon as it's clear, I want you three to run for that pickup truck. Can any of you hot-wire a car?"
"No way." Samuel shook his head. "We're not doing it like that. We're not leaving you behind like we did Aaron."
"This is not a discussion," Thaddeus said, an iron-clad authority hardening his deep voice. "The three of you are my responsibility for the time being and we're doing this my way. I want you to drive east. There's a town about 5 miles from here in that direction. I'll do what I can with these monsters and meet you there."
I took a slow breath, counting up our mounting losses in my head. Trent was dead, our house destroyed, Aaron captured, our grandmother was more interested in her war than in helping her grandchildren, and now we'd been sent off on a hopeless errand to find a person who was both impossible to find and dangerous in ways that frightened even Aaron. The creatures hunting us were things from my darkest nightmares, and now our only ally and protector was about to sacrifice himself to secure our escape. But even if we made it out, what would we do if Thaddeus were killed by these monsters? Where could we go? Who would help us find Graver and contact the Families? And more importantly, how many more people would have to suffer and die to keep us away from the Morrighan? There was no way we could abandon Thaddeus; too much had been lost already. Just the thought of it made my blood begin to boil and my fingers curl into fists.
"Now," Thaddeus was saying, "can any of you hot-wire that truck?"
"Samuel can," I said.
I met my brother's eye, fire rising in his gaze and burning into me. Then his anger cooled as a silent understanding passed between us. I met Lara's eyes as well, their cool confidence mirroring my resolve. We were not running for the truck. When the fighting started, we were going to help Thaddeus destroy those Wasted or die trying.
"Good," Thaddeus said. "Get it started as quickly as you can." He looked at each of us in turn, nodding his reassurance, then stepped through the doorway.
The Wasted reacted at once.
They both turned to Thaddeus and dropped simultaneously into a crouch. By the time they launched themselves after Thaddeus, he was already moving to the right, his gun appearing in his hand as he ran. He fired at the creatures as they closed on him, bits of blue fire streaking behind each bullet, and I could feel the small pulses of power as he infused his weapon with Light. His aim was good and the shots slowed his pursuers, but not by much. The Wasted were too fast, and Thaddeus was already drained of much of his power. I could see he would not last long against these demons. We had to help.
I met Samuel's eye again and he nodded, preparing to leap into action. Maybe if we could take the creatures by surprise and hit them hard enough—
"Wait." Lara's hands appeared on our shoulders. "There's someone else out there."
As if to confirm her claim, one of the Wasted cried out in that dreadful, scraping noise of theirs. We turned back to the action and saw one of the creatures stopped in midair. A point of light had appeared on the side of its body. It took me a moment to realize that I was seeing the tip of a blade. The monster had been skewered in mid-run, and now thrashed in hot agony on the end of whatever had impaled it. The next instant the blade point disappeared from its side and a lighting fast swirl of blue energy shot through the air in a tight arc, passing right through the creature. The Wasted hit the ground in two pieces.
Behind the slain monster, holding an intensely large sword, stood the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen.
She was of Asian descent, her features somehow both fierce and gentle, like a tiger you'd like to hug if it doesn't eat you first. She was above average height and her long, jet-black hair flowed in wild silken waves around her lithe form. Her dark clothing blended with the night, giving her the look of a vengeful shadow come to life.
The sword she held looked medieval, its long, straight blade sharp on both sides and tapered at the end to a wicked point. She wielded the gigantic thing in both hands, swirling it in smooth, controlled arcs as if it were an extension of her body.
The sight of her stopped me dead in my tracks. It was like witnessing a marvel of nature, beautiful and terrifying, and I found it impossible to look away.
The other Wasted had turned away from Thaddeus, sensing the new threat, and charged toward the mysterious girl with murderous speed. Without hesitation, the girl leapt through the air to meet it, trailing streaks of pale blue fire from her blade.
The two met in midair with quick flashes of light as the warrior girl whipped her sword through a series of vicious slashing attacks. The second monster fell to the ground as swiftly as the first had.
It was over before I'd begun to process what had happened. I crept out into the gravel yard beside my brother and sister, glancing around me, wary that there might be other threats in the area. But the night was quiet as a tomb.
The gravel crunched beneath our feet, cracking the silence, and the crisp night air condensed around my clothing, wetting my skin as we walked. Thaddeus stood with our mysterious rescuer and scanned our surroundings with a watchful eye. She did the same, still holding the sword, loose fingers dangling from the handle and the blade resting in the crook of her arm. We made our slow way over and joined them. I tried not to stare at the girl, but found my eyes drawn to her exotic beauty and dark intensity in a way I'd never experienced before. She was still now, but I felt I could somehow sense the potential danger hidden in her limbs. Her calm was like that of an ocean before a storm, wild beauty and terrible violence hovering just below the rolling surface of the waves.
"You're a bloody fool, Thaddeus." The girl spoke with a voice soft and low, shot through with a sharp Scottish accent. "You were very nearly killed just then."
Thaddeus shrugged. "I couldn't exactly tell you my plan, could I? But I knew you'd catch on."
"You knew she was there?" Samuel asked.
"Of course I did," Thaddeus grinned, his bone white teeth bright in the early morning darkness. "Do you think I'm suicidal, taking those things on alone with so much of my Light drained away?"
"You could have told us," I said, exasperated at what he'd just put us through. We'd been lied to enough in our lives, by nearly everyone we loved and trusted. Being kept in the dark was quickly becoming one of my least favorite things.
Thaddeus shook his head. "I needed you three as far away as possible when Lin made her appearance."
"Yes, you're a right clever bastard, aren't you." Lin rolled her eyes. "Now can we get on? I'd rather not be here when Wiley comes looking for his beasties."
"Get on to where?" I said.
Lin looked at me for the first time and my heart stopped. I wanted to look away in embarrassment but I couldn't drag my gaze from her large, expressive eyes. They were deep brown, almost black, yet they were bright somehow, as if the cunning intelligence they held could light up the night around us. I wouldn't have been surprised to discover that she had learned everything there was to know about me in that single glance.
"Kids," Thaddeus said, "this is Jian Shu Lin, last remaining Holder of Light from the Jian Shu family. She's also Graver's adopted daughter and has agreed to lead us to him."
"If you're sure that's what you want," Lin said. The warning in her voice was unmistakable.
"Wow," Samuel muttered. Which was more than I was able to say.
"Uh..." Was all I managed, still transfixed by the fearsome Lin and her incredible eyes.
Lara stepped forward, throwing a disgusted look at both Samuel and me.
"It's nice to meet you," She said.
"You as well." Lin shook my sister's hand with a careful grip, then turned to Thaddeus. "We can finish the introductions when we're well away from here. My vehicle is this way."
She led us around the side of the building we'd come from and I overheard Thaddeus question her in quiet tones.
"I suppose Graver won't be happy to see us?"
Lin snorted. "I should say not. He'll probably feed one of you to his dogs just to make the point."
She paused, looking up at Thaddeus, and her voice softened in obvious respect for the man.
"Are you sure you want to go through with this?"
"We don't have another option."
I knew he was right, yet I couldn't help but wonder if we were trading one horrific fate for another just as heinous.