The creature was bigger than the others we'd seen and most of its ragged clothing had rotted away, exposing long ashen limbs corded with sinewy, rope-like muscle. Its face was a scabbed-over mass of shapeless flesh, cut through with a single ragged red gash of an eye. Its muscled back hunched in heaping mounds above its bulbous head, and its massive jaw hung open revealing a gaping, grave-like mouth set with oddly spaced rows of jagged teeth.
Samuel screamed in anger and fear, calling up Light from within himself as he ran. Instantly his entire upper body ignited into coiling blue flame, burning the night like a raging star. He thrust his arm into the air behind us, hurling a column of fire at the creature and engulfing it in a furnace of white-hot fury. Lara was half a second behind Samuel. She joined him in attempting to cover our escape, throwing flashes of light at the monster, like diamonds streaking through the dark. I was a few steps behind them, moving a little slower as I concentrated. On instinct, I threw my senses out into the night, searching the area in all directions with as much precision as I could manage while running. I found what I was looking for and shouted for Samuel and Lara to follow my lead.
We took off into the empty landscape with as much speed as we could manage, leaving the creature that wasn't Thaddeus to burn. I could hear its furious cries scraping through the nighttime sky like nails across a blackboard. It wasn't dead. I wasn't even sure we'd hurt it.
My frantic search had revealed a structure of some kind half a mile to our east. I had no idea what kind of building was out there, but I figured any protection at all would be better than nothing. I headed straight for it, sprinting across the barren countryside.
I caught flickers of movement from the left and right. The Wasted were boxing us in, just like they had done in Pittsburgh.
I ran faster. My lungs burned with the effort and my arms and legs grew numb except for a prickling tingle in my fingers and toes. I wished desperately that Aaron was here to fight alongside us. Or that he had at least taught us how to use the Light against creatures such as these.
Samuel and Lara caught up to me, out-pacing my fastest sprint. I sensed a warm glow of Light emitting from both of them. Taking a cue from my siblings, I called up a spark of power from inside me, holding its gentle burn in the center of my chest and allowing it to spread throughout my body. Strength flooded into my limbs and breath into my lungs. I felt as if I could run forever. I leapt ahead with a surge of enhanced speed, overtaking my brother and sister, and reveling in the thrill of power as Light coursed through my body. I was unstoppable, tearing through the night like a force of nature. The darkness was my wings, propelling me forward with ferocious strength. At the same time, I once again experienced a heightening of my senses, just as I had while stalking Trent at the Snake River Bridge. I could feel the pulse of the night air around me like the breath of a living thing. As my eyesight sharpened, I saw clearly the rambling barn-like structure I had found in my search moments before. Our frenzied run carried us toward the front of the abandoned building. For a moment I believed we could actually reach it before our pursuers caught up with us.
That thought lasted only a heartbeat before the ground in front of us erupted like a meteor striking the Earth.
Dirt and rock shot into the air in a massive, billowing cloud, raining down on the three of us as we came to a sudden skidding halt. The dust cleared and crouching in front of us, like a mountain of blackened hell, was the Wasted that had taken Thaddeus's form and lured us into this trap. What remained of its tattered clothes had been burned away, leaving exposed its elongated limbs and torso caked with heaps of ashen flesh. I suddenly regretted my heightened eyesight.
Samuel called up his power again, stepping in front of Lara and me. I searched frantically for an escape, whipping my head to the sides and behind us. Shadowy forms of other Wasted drifted through the dark, indistinct and blacker than the night around them. We couldn't go back the way we had come. Our only chance was to get past this monster and reach the relative safety of the building behind it.
I cast my power out again, this time searching below us, underneath the barren earth. I knew there were things we could do with our power that might help us, ways for us to control the forces around us like I had done in the motel room with the static electricity. I just needed to find something I could use.
And then I found it.
Back at the Steel Tower, we'd seen some amazing things done with ice. The Glacial Hall itself was a wonder I could barely wrap my head around. I knew that Light could be used to manipulate water in some way, and about ten feet below the surface was an unseen source of that same element. Acting once again on pure instinct, I pushed my way in front of Samuel, tendrils of power encircling my hand as I raised it toward the monster in our path. I reached for the water, pulling it up toward the surface and trying to think frigid thoughts.
It worked better than I'd hoped.
Massive shards of jagged ice shot up from the ground beneath the monster in our path, ripping through the dirt at random angles like frozen daggers piercing the earth. The creature was caught off guard as one large spear of ice punctured its midsection and another impaled its thigh, lifting the thing off the ground. It writhed like a fish on a harpoon, flailing its powerful limbs and screeching its terrible anger into the clouded night sky. The beast was furious and I could tell it would not be held in place for long.
"Come on!" I shouted, releasing my hold on the water and snatching Lara's hand, dragging her after me.
We ran a circle around the ice and made for the old barn. I glanced behind us once to see the Wasted still skewered on the ice. It had stopped its thrashing and a low green glow had begun to spread into the shards of ice around it. Water puddled on the ground beneath it as the ice was melted away. We needed to hurry.
As we drew closer to the building, its details came into sharp focus under my enhanced vision. The structure had been constructed in another era, at a time when things were built to last. The faded wood siding hadn't seen a coat of paint in decades, but the strength of the building was evident in the square solidity of its frame. This building had stood the test of time, surviving storms and wind and blasting heat. I hoped it still had a bit of that fortitude left. We were going to need it.
We reached the wide double doors on the front of the barn, just as the monster behind us let out a victorious roar and the sound of cracking ice echoed through the night. One of the barn doors stood slightly open and we slipped through the gap into the gloom of the interior. I turned immediately and threw my weight against the door.
"Help me with this," I said.
The ancient door hinges were rusted in place and the weight of the door had dragged it down to rest against the floor. It took all three of us to lift it and force it closed against the frame.
"Find something to barricade it." I turned from the door to examine the interior of the building.
It was big for a barn, and mostly open. Pieces of odd looking, rusted out machinery sagged against the wall on one side. Most of the wall space was hung with a wide assortment of tools and equipment, all in various stages of corrosion.
"Here," Lara said from the rear of the building.
I made my way back to where my sister struggled to pull something down from the wall. It was a huge yoke, the kind I imagined was once used to tether oxen to a wagon for long trips hauling heavy items. Samuel and I joined her, each taking one side of the yoke, and lifted it down from the pegs that had held it aloft.
"How did you do that?" Samuel asked me, as we carried the heavy item back across the dirt floor toward the doors.
"Do what?" I grunted, straining under the weight.
"The thing with the ice," Samuel said, shaking his head, exasperation coloring his voice. "How did you know how to do that? How did you even think of it?"
We reached the doors and hefted the yoke into place across them, dropping it inside the large metal hooks that were fixed to the door facing up.
"I don't know, I just did." I said, not wanting to explain myself further. I wasn't even sure how to answer. The truth was, I had no idea how I'd done it. I was operating on pure fear and adrenaline, searching for anything that might give us an edge and help us survive.
"You just did?" Samuel shook his head again as we moved into place on either side of the door, ready for whatever came through it. "Jonas, I've never seen anything like that, not even from Dad. I mean, if I get mad enough, I could probably tear down a house, but to do something that intricate, to exercise that kind of control over your power, I just don't get where that came from."
The awe I heard in Samuel's voice brought an irrational swell of pride to my chest. I was a little kid again, hoping to impress my big brother. Samuel was the oldest, and our Father's pride and joy. I'd spend much of my childhood in his shadow, feeding off occasional bits of affirmation that bounced off of him and fell to me. I didn't mind it much. I loved my brother, and I was never one to seek attention, preferring to keep to the comfort of the background, but I had always envied Samuel's confidence and capability. For him to look at me with wonder in his eyes was a priceless moment in my life. It was too bad it had to happen when my life was about to end horribly.
"Hey guys..." The tension in Lara's voice cut through my warm fuzzy feelings, returning the chill to my spine. "Do you hear that?"
She stood on my side of the door, crouched like a leopard ready to pounce. Her eyes were everywhere but on us, throwing her gaze around the dim interior of the barn.
"Hear what?" Samuel asked.
"Nothing." Lara said. "There's no sound from outside."
She was right. The evening had gone still. I could hear nothing beyond the sound of our nervous breathing and the slow tick of the old wooden barn settling farther into itself. If the Wasted were still out there, they had gone into stealth mode.
"What are they waiting for?" I asked no one in particular.
"Maybe they gave up." Samuel shrugged. "That ice trick was probably unexpected. Maybe they decided to cut their losses and try again another day."
"I don't think so," I said. "We threw our best punches at that thing and it barely seemed annoyed by it. They're still out there."
I paused for a moment, following a train of thought.
Thaddeus had indicated that these creatures were being controlled. Puppets, he'd called them. They belonged to the Nameless Dark, but their strings were being pulled by Wiley and the Morrighan. That meant that there could be an intelligent, calculating mind at work behind our slobbering brainless attackers. A feral animal would be clawing at the door by now, taking the most direct path, but Wiley was a hunter, and hunters employ strategy in stalking their prey.
"Shit," I hissed. "Get in the middle of the barn."
"What?" Samuel asked.
"They're not coming through the door," I said.
We moved out into the open space of the barn. As if on cue, the walls and roof of the building erupted with percussive sound. The Wasted had encircled us. While we cowered in the dark, they had moved in silence, surrounding the barn and closing off any hope of escape. The attack was sudden and terrifying, tearing into our shelter from every direction at once. The walls and ceiling rattled as if they'd come to life. Slow gaps began to appear in their surface as the monsters outside broke the weathered wood into splinters, raking with gnarled, ashen fingers.
"Circle up." I said, fear clawing through my voice and threatening to overwhelm my thoughts. "Back to back."
We closed ranks in the center of the space and I felt the flame of our power ignite as the three of us called up the Light, preparing to fight for our lives. Blue-white lightening flashed and coiled around us like a hungry beast snapping its jaws. I let the power grow, building to a white-hot burn in my chest. A low growl rose from Samuel's throat, vibrating my shoulder where it leaned against his.
Grotesque arms and faces appeared through the ever-widening holes in the wooden walls and ceiling.
They came for us.
First it was a slow trickle, one at a time as they clawed their way through the walls. I felt the expulsion of power and heard the screaming sizzle as Samuel unleashed his fury on the first attacker. Lara was out of her element, standing in one place and going toe-to-toe with these monsters. I knew she was at her strongest when she was in motion, dancing like a lioness among the herd. But she stood her ground beside us, courageous as ever, throwing blasts of sparkling power at the creatures as they came.
Two of them burst through the wall on my side while a third dropped from the ceiling even closer to me. I dug deep, searching for the rage that I'd tapped into in the empty field where Trent had died. I shot heat and force at the monsters, blasting them back through the wall and into the night. Vicious sounds erupted through the barn, scraping snarls and the scream of arching electricity. Samuel fought hard, shouting his anger and fear into the universe. All of it was a delaying tactic. We were being overwhelmed and, when it was over, my family would be no more.
I had to do something.
In desperation, I quested out toward Samuel with my power again, just as I had in the motel room. It was there. The same well of untapped power, vast and incredible, pulsed just beneath the surface. I reached for that source and again I was blocked, shut out by some thin but impenetrable veil. It was maddening. This power, locked away inside my unsuspecting brother, could save us. It was right there, but I couldn't touch it, and neither could Samuel apparently or he would have used it by now and burned these monsters to dust. If I could find a way to reach it, maybe we could make it out of this together.
Our father had always said that together we were unstoppable.
I reached out to my sister, stretching toward Lara with a tentative finger of Light.
Something clicked into place.
It was like a door was thrown open. Power flooded into me in a single crushing wave. It shot through my body, burning me from the inside and boiling the blood in my veins. I was a nuclear reactor melting down, pressure building and threatening to spread fallout in every direction.
It was too much.
I had to let the power go, to get it out of me before I was destroyed completely. My mind was flooded with noise, canceling all thoughts and whiting out my capacity for reason. Not knowing what else to do, I threw my arms back and my head into to the sky and released the power.
It shot straight up, incinerating the ceiling in an instant and sending a column of blinding white into the tar-black clouds. The power flowing through me was intoxicating. Like skydiving in a hurricane, it was the most exhilarating thing I'd ever felt. A long, ragged sound cut through the torrential noise and after a moment I recognized my own voice crying out in exaltation.
Then the door slammed closed again and the power was gone.
I found myself slumped on the dirt floor of the now roofless barn, breathing in heaving gasps with raw and aching lungs. Samuel and Lara lay near me, sputtering and moaning.
"What the hell..." Samuel rocked on his back, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes.
"I... I don't..." I couldn't quite speak, still struggling to catch my breath.
"Look," Lara whispered. She was on her stomach, one arm cradling her head and the other extended. One finger was raised off the dirt of the floor, pointing toward the ruined wall of the barn.
The Wasted. They were still here.
The creatures had been blown back by the force of the power I'd expended, but I had sent all of it up into the air. I hadn't directed any of it at our attackers. Now they were crawling back into the building, one crooked limb at a time, surrounding us again. I struggled up to one elbow, search for the strength to keep fighting, but I had nothing left. The use of that much power all at once had completely drained me. Samuel stumbled to his feet and stood unsteadily, mostly as an act of defiance. Clearly he had no strength left either.
There was a loud crash near the door of the barn and I turned to see the large Wasted that had impersonated Thaddeus amble through the door. The ox yoke we had used to bar the door was in pieces, scattered across the dirt floor, as if the monster had chosen to enter through the door just to show us how futile our efforts had been.
The Wasted were everywhere now, dozens of them, closing in on all sides. They were all I could see, their tattered rags trailing behind them, exposing random pieces of disfigured flesh. I waited for my life to flash before my eyes. It would have been a welcome distraction. But it never happened. I had nothing to watch other than my own destruction moving in to bring an end to my family tree.
And then Lin was there.
One moment I was staring at a sea of monsters, and next she was among them, whirling and slashing with her enormous sword. Light exploded from her weapon as she hacked at the monsters, cutting them down with lethal precision. There was no fancy flourish to her movements, just deadly efficiency. Each motion severed a limb or punctured a torso. She was an angel of death and the demons fell before her like wheat to the harvest.
The huge Wasted turned from the door and moved to intercept Lin, roaring in fury. It took two steps and then its scream was cut off as its head exploded in a flash of blue Light. Other creatures began to drop, miniature explosions leaving gaping holes in their twisted forms as a series of loud concussions shot through the stale air. I looked for the source of the sound and there at the far end of the barn stood Thaddeus. The real Thaddeus. Stance wide, arms extended, and gun in hand, his weapon and both arms were wreathed in crackling power. He fired over and over into the mob of screeching Wasted, and each bullet trailing a streaking line of energy. His dark face, lit by the glow of his power, was set like stone in a calm expression of determination. This was Thaddeus in his element, and seeing his noble strength in action, I wasn't sure how I'd been fooled by the imposter.
In a matter of seconds, half of our attackers had been destroyed. The remaining monsters turned as one, as if they were receiving direction from a single source, and fled through the broken walls. Lin cut a few more down as they tried to make their escape, and then it was over.
Silence descended to cover the barn in a soft blanket of nighttime quiet.
Thaddeus moved toward the demolished double doors, his feet impacting the dirt with authority.
"Stay with them," he said to Lin, then disappeared through the door.
I struggled up to my knees, bracing my hands on the floor and trying to stop the room from spinning. Lin ambled over and gripped my arm, pulling me to my feet. She kept both hands on me for a moment, supporting my weight. Her dark eyes met mine, so large and impossibly deep, they held me captive in a prison wasn't sure I would ever want to leave.
"First time ya did that, wasn't it?" She spoke softly and I heard sympathy in her voice.
I nodded, working my jaw and trying to remember how to speak. She nodded as well, as if agreeing with me in some way.
"The weakness'll pass soon enough." She said.
"What... what was that?" I managed.
"That, my boyo, was Core Light."
"Oh," I said, not really comprehending her words.
She squeezed my arm once and left me to stand on my own limited strength. Her eyes lingered on mine as she moved away to help Lara.
Thaddeus returned and offered a hand to Samuel.
"I love you." Samuel croaked, taking the hand and climbing to his feet.
"Save it, boy." Thaddeus said. The stern edge in his voice was hard to miss. "I told you to stay in the park. The park is warded against these monsters. You would have been safe there. Whose idiot idea was it to leave?"
I shuffled over to where he and Samuel stood.
"Actually," I said, "it was yours."
Lin let out a low whistle as she and Lara joined us. Her eyes were on the ceiling. Or where the ceiling used to be.
"That," she said, "is quite a hole."
We all raised our eyes to where the night sky was now exposed. Most of the clouds had moved on and the stars were blinking at us, as if they agreed with Lin's assessment.
"So, Thaddeus," She said, "now would ya like to teach them a little somethin' about Core Light?"
"Yes," Thaddeus said. "Now, I think we'd better."