Three days had trudged by since our flight from Pittsburg, and with every day that passed, I lost a small piece of hope that we would ever see Aaron again. This latest delay seemed like an even more colossal waste of time than our previous stops had been. Thaddeus and Lin had gone to visit a particular horse ranch, with the apparent intention of speaking to one of the horses. It was just the latest in a long list of nonsensical errands that had led us across the central United States in a meandering course that brought us gradually closer to the Rocky Mountains.
It was mid-afternoon when they'd dropped us off in the middle of nowhere with a meager supply of snacks and bottled water, and drove west, disappearing into the distance along with the long, straight line of asphalt we'd been traveling. A far off smudge of mountains on the horizon provided the only break in the flat expanse of dried up grassland that rambled off in all directions. The park itself rested on a mound of grassy earth raised to match the level of the road. Other than the dilapidated picnic table, there was a thin gravel parking space, and a short wooden post with a bronze plaque mounted at an angle on top. Etched on the plaque was a list of seven names, financial donors who'd contributed money to the building of the minuscule park. Perhaps if they'd been more generous, we'd have had a decent place to sit, or a bit of shade against the relentless late-afternoon sun during our long wait.
Now, with the light fading out and the temperature dropping, I shivered in the cooling air, unable to escape the chilling thoughts that had crawled through my head all afternoon.
My Uncle Aaron's face flashed through my mind often, rough and unyielding, stern against the dangers we faced. Whether out of stubbornness or courage, Aaron could always be counted on to stand his ground no matter what the cost, just as he had done in that alley in Pittsburg. I wondered what he was faced with at that moment. Was he in pain? Did the Morrighan have him now? Was he even still alive? I wished selfishly that he was here with us to take charge of our situation with a surly word of wisdom or scrap of rugged common sense. His absence was like a lead weight in my chest, belaboring my breathing and dragging me closer to the ground. With our mother and father both gone and our grandmother basically a stranger, Aaron was the last parental figure left in my life. And now he'd been taken from me too.
It was not fair. I hadn't asked for any of this. My siblings and I had been born into a family with a great destiny, and then lied to and manipulated into living in fear instead of being driven by purpose. And now that the house of cards we'd lived in all our lives had collapsed, where was our father? Where was the man who taught us to run away and hide instead of facing down the demons in our path? He was gone.
We'd been left to clean up the scattered pieces of our family, paying the price for Jacob Acheson's failure. Our lives were in turmoil, with Samuel and Aaron both struggling to fill my father's shoes, and now Aaron may have paid an even greater price to keep us all safe. And yet, despite the anger and bitterness I felt toward my father, I couldn't shake the soul-crushing certainty that all of this was my fault. Dad had at least been able to keep our family safe all these years. He'd been gone less than a year and already I'd managed to kill a local kid and break the wall of protection around our family. I had shattered the decades of careful concealment my father and uncle had crafted for us, and brought our enemies crashing down upon our heads. My father had his failings, but he couldn't be blamed for our current situation. Whatever Aaron faced right now, the burden of guilt was on me.
"He'll be okay, Jonas." The soft glow of Lara's voice broke through the downward spiral of my thoughts.
I turned to my sister, her blue eyes as bright and impossibly deep as ever. Somehow in the worst of circumstances, Lara always managed to consider others before herself. It was part of her gift, I knew, but it was also an intrinsic part of her personality. Here I sat, wallowing in self-pity, while Lara turned her efforts to pulling me back up from the mire. It put me to shame.
"He'll be ok," she said again, bumping my shoulder with her own.
"How can you know that?" I said, fighting to keep the tremor from my voice and the tears from my eyes.
"Because I have faith in Aaron," she replied, her tender voice somehow undergirded with a stone-like certainty. "And I have faith in us."
I held my sister's gaze and the confidence I saw there flooded into me as well. Despite my misgivings, I couldn't help but believe that she might be right. Lara offered a small smile and I returned it, taking comfort in the close connection we shared. If Lara's kind compassion was a green mountain meadow, her courage was the mountain itself. I couldn't have survived any of this madness without her by my side.
"So, what do you think about Lin's suggestion?" I asked her, turning back to watch the quiet evening draw down around us.
"I think she's right." Lara sighed. "It's about time we learned what we're capable of. I wish Aaron were here to teach us, but he's not. It might as well be Thaddeus."
"If he'll agree to it," I said. "He didn't seem too keen on the idea when she brought it up."
Lara nodded. "Lin said she could handle Thaddeus. I think she'll bring him around."
Hours of interstate travel had given us a chance to learn about our mysterious rescuer and guide. Lin was of the Jian Shu family, Holders of Light from northern China who had protected their corner of the world from the Nameless Dark for centuries. They had lived in near seclusion, maintaining a firm connection to their ancestral past. When the Morrighan came into power, Lin's family had stood against her. There were five living generations at the time, all raised from birth to give themselves fully to their purpose as Holders of Light and to wield the Light with strength and honor, defending those who could not defend themselves from the ravages of the Nameless Dark. They were perhaps the most powerful of the Seven Families, but they had been no match for the Morrighan. She'd destroyed them all.
Lin was just a baby at the time, and her parents had the wisdom and foresight to send her away before facing off with the Morrighan, giving her into Graver's care for "safe keeping". I was not convinced of how truly safe she could have been with someone like Graver, but for better or worse, the enigmatic Scotsman had taken a liking to Lin. With her family decimated and the rest of the Seven Families fighting for survival, Graver had kept Lin with him and raised her as his own.
It was Lin who had suggested that Thaddeus become our teacher. We had an instinctive ability to the use the Light, but there was still so much we didn't know. Our father, for whatever reason, had chosen not to instruct us in its uses, and instead had concealed from us the true potential of our abilities. Now, more than ever, we needed every advantage we could gain against the numerous, powerful enemies who were determined to destroy us. We needed to know everything we could about the legacy we'd been born into and the war that had been raging in our family's absence. Lin could see that, and she seemed to have no hesitation in broaching the subject with Thaddeus in her own, direct way.
"If you're through watchin' these amateurs have their bloody faces drug through the muck," She'd said to Thaddeus, "Ya might think about teachin' them somethin'."
Thaddeus seemed reluctant to agree. That type of instruction was usually handled within the family, passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. He claimed it was not his place to teach us of our legacy as Holders of Light, but we had no one else left to instruct us. It had to be Thaddeus. I hoped Lin would be able to convince him to step into that role for me and my siblings. Whether we wanted it or not, this was our fight now, and we needed every bit of knowledge we could get in the conflict with the Morrighan.
I looked up as the thudding of Samuel's footsteps carried him towards our picnic table.
"They should be back by now." His anger at having been abandoned on the side of the road and excluded from the action seemed to have cooled. In its place was an obvious nervousness. He shifted his feet where he stood in front of me, clenching and unclenching his hands, his breathing rapid.
"We should do something," He said, drilling us with a look of intensity. "Go looking for them or something."
I'd seen my brother like this before. He was all potential energy, coiled tight and ready to spring at any moment. Samuel had never been good at inaction.
"Relax," I said. "Thaddeus said to wait here, so we wait."
"What he said," Lara added, "was not to leave this park under any circumstances."
"I know what he said," Samuel snapped. "But we can't just sit here forever. If something happened to them, how would we know it? They might need our help. We know which direction they headed. We should go after them. Make sure everything's alright."
"C'mon, bro." I stood up, gripping my big brother's shoulder and tossing him a look that I hoped was brimming with confidence. "Thaddeus can handle himself. And you saw just as well as I did what Lin is capable of with that sword. I doubt either one of them needs rescuing from us."
"Don't be naive, Jonas." Samuel shrugged my hand off his shoulder. "These things hunting us are monsters. They're demons. Who knows what they're capable of? Thaddeus and Lin can handle a lot, but what if the Morrighan found them? Maybe Aaron broke and told her where we're going and what we're trying to do."
"That's bullshit," I said. Anger boiled up inside me, fueled by my feelings of guilt at Uncle Aaron's capture. "Aaron would never talk and you know it. He would die before he betrayed us like that!"
"Guys, please," Lara intervened. "We have to stop this —"
Without warning, the deep tremor of Thaddeus's voice cut through our bickering and silenced us.
"Let's go kids. This way."
We all turned to where the voice had come from, on the far side of the park, away from the road. Thaddeus stood at the edge of the park, his gun in his hand, scanning the empty landscape around us and glancing back every few seconds and waiting for us to comply. In the failing light, his dark skin and clothing cast his form into shadow, but his tall, solid frame and commanding stance were as unmistakable as the authority in his voice.
"Where the hell did you come from?" Samuel asked, his tone of voice reflecting the same shock that I felt.
"Where's the car?" I asked. "Where is Lin?"
I searched the area behind Thaddeus for any sign of the lovely and dangerous Jian Shu Lin. She was nowhere to be seen.
"They're about a mile behind me, waiting for us." Thaddeus said. "We had a little trouble, but no time for that now. We have to move."
He turned without waiting for us to follow and headed out into the dim landscape of dry grass and scrub brush.
Samuel, Lara, and I exchanged confused looks, still reeling at the unexpected appearance of our Steel Tower escort.
"What the —" Samuel said.
"I don't know," I cut in, glancing out to where Thaddeus was disappearing into the twilight haze, "But we'd better catch up with him and find out what's going on."
I set off at a jog, with Samuel and Lara on my heels, shouting for Thaddeus to slow his pace.
I was surprised to find Samuel allowing me to take the lead. He was still hot-tempered, argumentative, and opinionated as all hell, but he didn't seem to be asserting himself as leader of the family since everything that happened in Pittsburg. With Aaron missing, and no-one around to challenge his authority, I'd expected Samuel to dive head first into bossy and arrogant, but more and more he just seemed uncertain. I had no desire to be responsible for leading us into another catastrophe when our current situation was all my fault to begin with, but anytime I did take the lead, Samuel seemed willing to fall in line. It wasn't like him at all and it worried me.
The empty night closed in around us as we crunched our way across the flat terrain, hurrying after Thaddeus. The moment we stepped outside the park and into the open space behind it, the evening air grew stale and wilted, drained of all its life. Even the nighttime sounds seemed to reach me from a great distance, is if they were afraid to draw in close. A cool, dry breeze clung to my clothes, like skeletal fingers tracing along my limbs.
Something didn't feel right.
I couldn't understand why Thaddeus would come back for us this way, creeping through night. What was it he had said when they dropped us off at the roadside park?
"Do not leave this park under any circumstances," Thaddeus had instructed. "Lin and I will return together from that direction." He'd nodded west, the same way they drove to find the horse ranch they were looking for. "Just wait here until we get back."
It was strange, he'd made a point to say that they would return together, and from which way they would come. Then he'd showed up alone, arriving from another direction, with some vague story about running into trouble. I supposed something could have happened to change the plan, but I wasn't so sure.
I looked ahead to where Thaddeus plodded onward, only a few yards away as we closed the distance. Behind us, the park where we'd been waiting had faded into the background, no longer visible in the evening gloom. On a hunch, I called up a bit of my power, casting Light gently forward, reaching toward Thaddeus in search of a telltale spark of Light from within our guide and protector.
What I found there froze the marrow in my bones.
There was no warm glow of Light as I expected. Instead my senses were assaulted with a nauseating, soul-sucking darkness. Like the blackest pit at the bottom of hell, it gaped open, drawing me in and threatening to overwhelm my will to fight or move or even breath. I staggered under the weight of it, driving a shoulder into my brother who had been walking beside me.
"Jonas!" Samuel shot an arm around me before I could fall, surprise cracking through his voice.
At the same moment, I became aware of a new sound. Faint but growing, it scratched its way through the darkness, closing in on all sides. Dry leaves scraping on concrete. I heard Lara gasp as she realized what was happening, coming to the conclusion on instinct alone.
"The Wasted." She hissed.
I fought my way back from the shock of my discovery and found my voice, screaming into the black curtain of night as it fell around us.