"Where did you say Thaddeus went?" Samuel spoke through a mouthful of pancakes.
He'd finished his breakfast in record time, then started in on Lara's nearly untouched plate with the vigor of a starving man. I had no idea where he got his appetite; we'd done nothing but sit on our butts for the past day-and-a-half, while endless miles of highway bumped away beneath us, and the lovely Lin gave us exactly zero information about where we were headed beyond a general direction of travel. We'd made several brief stops in various locations, each time learning the location of our next stop. Lin insisted that the only way for us to reach Graver was to follow a specific set of instructions he'd given her. Apparently one clue would lead to the next, and so on, dangling us along on some demented scavenger hunt, all while our Uncle Aaron's life hung in balance. It was infuriating, but none of us had any better options to offer, so we played along, keeping our complaints to a minimum.
"There's a bartender in this rubbish town who has information we need." Lin eyed the cafe around us with distain. "They won't let me in the bar while I'm under twenty-one, so Thaddeus had to go talk to him for me."
"This man has information about how to find Graver," Lara prompted, "or he has another clue for us to follow to some other crappy town?"
"Yes, something like that." Lin said.
I rolled my eyes, then took a look around the dingy dinner, with its faded linoleum floors and torn plastic seat covers. Our booth sat beside the large front windows, bathing us in late morning sun as it filtered through an undisturbed coating of dust on the glass. It was the kind of restaurant that stayed in business mostly because it was the only game in town. The locals would grumble about the poor quality food or the crappy service, but they'd still be back the next morning for their bacon and eggs, or the next evening for their coffee and apple pie. I watched a waitress in a dirty apron wipe down a table with an equally dirty looking wash rag. I didn't even want to think about what condition of sanitation the kitchen was likely to be in. I shook my head at Samuel's ongoing binge session and turned back to Lin.
"I still don't understand what we're doing." I said. "Why all this running round? I thought you already knew where Graver is."
"Of course I know where he is, smart arse," she responded, fixing me with dagger eyes, her Scottish accent sharpening the derision in her tone. "But we can'na just wander in the door like we're strollin' through the garden. We have to find a way to pick the lock first."
"Whatever that means," Samuel muttered.
We traded a look and he returned to his food.
In the little time I'd known Lin, it had become apparent to me that she was almost as crazy as she was beautiful. Still, there was something about the way she carried herself that I found compelling. Beneath all the fire and intensity she held a keen intelligence, and a sense of justice that dictated her responses to almost everything, as if she felt it was her responsibility to right all the wrongs in the world around her. Lin may have acted like a tough-kid who didn't care about anything, but I could see past that charade. It broke down in the wake of each selfless action she took and through her willingness to help us despite the danger it put her in. In fact, she seemed to enjoy the danger. It made me wonder about the kind of upbringing she'd had, growing up in Graver's home, which had shaped her into a young woman of such layered complexity.
Also, she was gorgeous. Which I found both pleasant and distracting.
"Graver is your adopted father, right?" I said. "If we have to unlock a door to reach him, it seems strange that he wouldn't have given you the key. Made sure you were able to find him again. How else are you supposed to come home?"
Lin dropped her eyes to the table.
"Maybe because he doesn't want me to come home."
It was the first vulnerability I'd seen from the warrior girl and a crack ran through the wall of my chest at the sight. The hardened shell that normally encased her lovely face softened to reveal a beautiful sadness I would never have expected to see.
"Why not," Lara asked.
She reached a hand out to Lin's arm, and Lin allowed the touch to linger for only a moment before slowly leaning back in her chair. Her mask returned, dropping onto her face like an iron curtain and closing us off from the tender young girl behind it.
"He decided it was for the best," She said. "If the world thinks he's cast me aside, they won't bother with hurtin' me to get to him."
"So he's protecting you," I said.
"I don't bloody need protectin'." A flame ignited behind her eyes, threatening to melt my face into my coffee cup.
I raised my hands in surrender.
"I believe you," I said.
She sat back, her intensity draining a bit.
"But yes, the fool thinks he's protectin' me." She rolled her eyes in a practiced expression. "For all the bloody good it's done. I mean, what's he wantin' me to do? Sit on my hands while the Steel Tower fights my family's battle for us? Not goin' happen."
I couldn't miss the accusation in her tone. Sitting on our hands was exactly what my family had been doing for the past couple decades, and every Holder of Light still in the battle seemed to know it. A pang of embarrassment shot through my chest, hung with icy threads of bitterness at the injustice of the feeling. My siblings and I were not responsible for the actions of our father, and yet we were left behind to suffer their consequences. We should have been out there, like Lin was, fighting against the Nameless Dark, and doing our part to protect the world from the creatures that served it. Instead we'd lived a sheltered childhood in small-town America, listening to fairytales told to us by the one person who should have taught us the truth. Those lies had burned to the ground along with our childhood home, and now long neglected responsibilities seemed to gather on my shoulders with every step I took away from that house, weighing me down like iron chains coiled around my neck.
"How long has it been since you left home?" Lara asked.
Lin sighed, her eyes loosing focus, disappearing into the past.
"Nearly two years."
Then she shook herself and snapped back to attention.
"And that's not nearly long enough, if you ask me. I'd just as soon spend my time huntin' down baddies in the night as return to Da an' his overprotective manipulations. Only reason I'm goin' back at all is to help you lot."
A dull clank sounded from the bell above the cafe door. We turned as one to see Thaddeus stride into the cafe, moving with purpose to join us at our booth. He passed an empty table and grabbed an available chair without slowing, spinning it into place at the end of our table and dropping into his improvised seat.
"We're good," he said.
"He gave you what we need?" Lin asked.
"It took a little persuading." Thaddeus indulged in a small smile, made slightly crooked by the light scarring on the left side of his otherwise handsome face. "He was expecting you. Didn't want to tell me a damn thing at first. But I convinced him."
"Nothing too permanent, I hope." Lin said.
Thaddeus smiled again.
"He'll live." He said, sliding a bar napkin across the table to Lin. "That's the address of our next stop."
"Good," Lin said. She pocketed the napkin without reading what was written on it. "Let's get movin'."
"Next stop," I repeated through carefully clenched teeth. "Exactly how many stops are looking at then? It's not like we're up to our ears in time, here. The clock is kinda ticking, you know?"
"That's right," said Thaddeus. "The clock is ticking. All the more reason to stow the questions and keep moving."
He stood and headed back toward the door, with Lin sliding out of her seat and following close behind him. I dug my fist into my thigh, thinking of Aaron, and wishing that we could just skip all the running in circles and get right to the business at hand, before my uncle became nothing more than a fond memory from the past. Just like my house. But until Lin was able to follow through on her promise and take us to Graver, I was along for the ride, and there was nothing I could do but tag along, powerless and ineffective. I wanted to curse in frustration and tell Thaddeus and Lin exactly where they could put their dogmatic attitude and calm pragmatism. But I knew that Thaddeus was right. We had to keep moving. If we wanted to see my uncle again we'd have to follow Lin's ridiculous clues and hope we all survived long enough to reach their end.
I bit my tongue and followed Samuel and Lara out the cafe door.
"Where are we headed now?" Samuel asked. "Another version of crap-town USA?"
Back in the van, the highway stretched in front of us once more, an endless line of asphalt leading to precisely nowhere. Our continued travel sucked away at my sense of time's passing, deadening my nerve endings and drying my eyes into sandpaper. I sat back in my seat, resting my head while Thaddeus offered one of his typically under-informative responses.
"South," Thaddeus said.
"South where," I said, rubbing at my eyes with a thumb and forefinger.
The lack of information from our closed-mouthed guides wore me down as efficiently as the endless, mind-numbing travel. And Lin was no help; as soon as we climbed back in the van, she'd leaned her head against the passenger window and fallen asleep, as evidenced by the light snoring from her seat. Neither of them seemed to consider it worth their time to share anything with us, and I'd had quite enough of being kept in the dark about everything.
"If you tell us where we're going," I said with careful words, my irritation peeking out from between their crisp edges, "maybe we'll be better prepared for whatever we encounter when we get there."
"No need," Thaddeus said in a dull monotone. "We won't be needing your help with anything."
"You know, Thaddeus," Samuel cut in, "I bet you were just the life-of-the-party in your youth."
I choked out a laugh, and Lara turned to Samuel with the delicate corners of her mouth turned down.
"Samuel, please." she said.
"What?" Samuel grinned, feeding off our sister's disapproval. "I'm just saying, I bet he was the talk-of-the-town, dazzling personality like that."
"Yeah," I chimed in, glad for the distraction from my cramped discomfort. "I bet the ladies loved him, and the boys wanted to choke him, and all his brothers and sisters were jealous of his keen fashion sense and popularity."
"My brother and sister are both dead." Thaddeus said in a rumble like distant thunder. "Along with the rest of my family."
Silence draped over the vehicle, broken only by the steady rhythm of its tires on the highway seams. Shame rose in my gut, realigning my self-centered thoughts, and casting a new light on our Steel Tower escort. I knew Thaddeus was a Holder of Light and a member of one of the Seven Families, but I'd never stopped to consider what had befallen his family when the Morrighan came into power, or what circumstances must have driven him to join with Esther in building the Steel Tower. His admission of his family's unfortunate fate brought the stark reality of our situation crashing back down onto my head.
'Thaddeus, I —"
"It's okay," he interrupted me, "You couldn't know about my family. And I understand your frustration. You're tired of being dragged along for the ride. You're sick of going nowhere, and accomplishing nothing, and being told even less."
"Yes," I said.
"Pretty much," Samuel agreed.
"And you want your uncle back." Thaddeus said.
"Very much." Lara said.
"I understand," Thaddeus repeated. "I want Aaron back too."
He paused for a moment, quiet ghosts swimming behind his eyes in the rearview mirror, as he watched the road without really seeing it.
"He was almost my brother-in-law, you know." He said. "Your Uncle, I mean. He was engaged to my sister, Debra."
"What?" I leaned forward in my seat.
"Seriously?" Lara said.
"You have got to be shitting me." Samuel looked at me, his expression betraying the same shock I felt.
"I am not," Thaddeus said. "Aaron and Debra weren't the perfect shining couple like your mom and dad were, but they loved each other very much. My brother, Shawn, used to call them the pyro-couple. All fire and fury and passion. When Debra and Shawn both died at the hands of the Morrighan, it broke something in Aaron. We was never the same after that."
A picture dropped into my head: Uncle Aaron sitting in his customary seat at the kitchen table, a glass of whiskey in one hand and a bottle in the other, his face a motionless mask and his eyes flat and dull. He had the look of a man who'd forgotten himself, the memory of his past life cast away in favor of a present filled with self-inflicted numbness. My father was still alive at the time. He would stomp into the kitchen and head for the fridge, tossing Aaron the same frown he used on his brother a dozen times a day. When I was younger they would argue about Aaron's drinking and his general lack of personhood, but eventually they settled into a begrudging silence. They'd both said all they needed to say many times over, and they each knew what the other thought about the state of things, so they resigned themselves to keeping their opinions alive through grunts and heavy-browed glares. So, Aaron would sit at the table each day, drowning his sorrows in cheap whiskey and wasting away.
I couldn't imagine Aaron being passionate about anything other than his booze. My entire childhood he'd been that quiet, surly old man at the kitchen table. I'd never stopped to consider what might have happened to him in the past to cause him to end up that way.
"I knew he had some pain in his past." Lara said. "I could feel it whenever he talked about old times, but had no idea he had that kind of love in his life."
"Debra was a wonder," he said. "She never stopped moving. Always running after some new adventure or meeting a challenge head-on. She did more living in her short time on Earth than most people do in a lifetime."
"Sounds like the opposite of Aaron." Samuel said.
Thaddeus smiled from the driver's seat, enjoying a private memory.
"They were good together," he said. "He kept her grounded, and she made sure he got out and lived a little."
"She sounds wonderful, Thaddeus," Lara said. "I wish I could have known her."
"She was." He nodded again.
His smile faded, replaced by a slow return of his usual stoic mask.
"After Debra and Shawn were gone, Aaron drowned his sorrow in drink, and I buried mine in war. I used the constant distraction of battle against the Nameless Dark to cope with the loss of my family. But there's never a day that I don't think about my brother and sister. I'd give anything to see them again. To see them all again."
I sat back in my seat again as Thaddeus's story washed over me in a wave of regret and bittersweet sadness. I looked at my brother and sister, trying to imagine what it would be like to lose them, considering what I would do to get them back and wondering what lengths I would go to. All that pain and death and loss had surrounded us our entire lives, but we'd been insulted from it, sheltered by our father and his ridiculous determination to keep to the shadows and hide from the fight. I couldn't imagine what the people in our lives had been through, losing so much at the hands of the Morrighan. Suddenly the idea of being left in the dark about the madness of our secret world didn't seem like such an injustice. Lara, Samuel, and I had been able to live a relatively normal childhood, until the death of our father threw our family into a downward spiral. Whatever my father's flaws, it was his leadership that had allowed us that opportunity, and I couldn't help but feel grateful for it.
But things were different now. The harsh realities of our dangerous heritage had come barreling through the protective walls of childhood ignorance, exposing us to a world more terrifying than I could have dreamt up. There was no going back now. And in all the uncertainty, there was one thing I was absolutely sure of: the Morrighan had to be stopped, and when the time came, I would make sure she paid dearly for the death she had brought to my family.
"So, where are we headed now?" Samuel asked again, in the exact same voice as before.
It broke the tension and sprinkled the van with careful laughter.
"South," Thaddeus said again, a small smile cracking his face, "to Colorado. We need to see a man about a horse."