All of them.
Thaddeus had no idea how the Servants of Dark had managed to hunt us down at every turn. He claimed the roadside park where he'd left us to wait was warded against their dark powers, insisting they must be using some technological means of tracking us.
And so, the clothes.
"I'm not getting naked right here in this freaking barn! It's freezing in here." I tried to sound as manly as possible while refusing to expose myself to one-and-all. I was pretty sure it came off sounding like a whiney six-year-old.
"Would you rather be cold, or would you rather be dead." Thaddeus crossed his arms over his chest, as severe and unmoving as block of stone. He tilted his head toward the mangled bodies of the Wasted that littered the floor of the barn. "Those monsters are finding you somehow. The only way to be certain we lose whatever it is they're using to track you is to leave everything here. Clothes, cell phones, pocket lint. Everything."
Samuel whooped out-loud, hopping up and down and swinging his arms like he was warming up for a marathon.
"Come on, baby bro. It's just a little brisk, that's all."
"Stop jumping, you beast," I said, unzipping my hoodie. "This is awkward enough without you putting on a show."
I had no desire to bare myself in front of one-and-all while freezing my uncovered manhood off, but I was also getting very tired of almost dying. If a little awkwardness and discomfort could prevent the next attempted wholesale slaughter of my family and me, then I was willing to suffer both the indignity and the frost bitten man-bits. And, embarrassing or not, I was grateful for Thaddeus's guidance. With Aaron MIA, we needed someone else to take the lead, someone with the wisdom and field experience to keep us a step ahead of the monsters who hunted us. Thaddeus may not have possessed the most winsome personality, but stoic though the man was, he had connections we needed, he knew how to remain under the Morrighan's radar, and he certainly knew his way around a firearm. If the Thaddeus said we had to ditch our clothes, I was willing to go along with it.
We turned away while Lara held her head high and removed her clothes with a dignity that was at odds with the ridiculousness of the moment.
"Here," Thaddeus said, removing his jacket and offering it to my sister.
She accepted the large, dark-brown garment and wrapped it around her shoulders. It came down to her knees, engulfing her tiny frame.
"Couldn't that jacket be bugged or something?" I asked, shivering in the cool night air. I wasn't sure if I should hug myself for warmth or use my hands to cover other things.
"Most likely it's one of you kids being traced," Thaddeus said. "The Morrighan's agents have been on your heels ever since you left home, long before you showed up at the Steel Tower. I'll leave the rest of my things here, but I think we can risk bringing the jacket along, at least until we find somewhere to buy some new clothes."
"Perfect," I said, sarcasm dripping from my voice.
Only Lin escaped our humiliating fate. She stood to one side, smirking at my discomfort, and pointedly not averting her eyes. Thaddeus turned to the tall warrior girl, indicating that it was her turn to disrobe. He seemed to think better of it when the point of her sword appeared at his throat.
"I'll not be a part of the evenin's entertainment, Thaddeus," She said, the smirk never leaving her eyes.
Thaddeus raised his hands and backed away. It seemed like a good decision.
The walk back to the roadside park was a cold one. But that discomfort was nothing compared the embarrassment of riding in an enclosed vehicle with my brother, my sister, and Thaddeus, all of us in our birthday finest. Even in the late-night dark, I felt exposed and vulnerable. Fortunately, we were in a minivan, and none of us had to cram into a seat next to anyone else.
We drove for an hour like that, Samuel whistling "Blue Moon" and making light of our uncomfortable circumstances, until the sight of a general store on the outskirts of the next town rescued me from despair. The neon OPEN sign, glowing a soft red despite the late hour, was like a small miracle falling from heaven. It was the best thing that had happened to me in at least a week.
Lin was the only one of us fully dress, so we recruited her to scout the store in search of clothing. She shot me a final smirk, her eyes alive with amusement, then ducked out of the van and headed inside.
"I think you have an admirer." Samuel waggled his eyebrows in my direction.
"Don't talk to me when you're naked," I said, feeling my face flush to what I was sure was not a very masculine color.
Samuel chuckled, but turned away, leaving me alone with my embarrassment.
I couldn't deny being enchanted by the mysterious Lin. She was the most beautifully dangerous creature I'd ever laid eyes on, her ferocity and brazened candor wrapped around layers of keen intelligence and courage. And there was something else I'd seen in her as well. A distant pain that flashed behind her eyes when she spoke of Graver. It was like some sentimental item that she'd cast away into a sea of unwanted memories, and now she stood at the shoreline and watched as it bobbed on the waves, unable to turn and walk away. I wanted to know more, to learn everything I could about whatever tragedies were hidden in her past. But there was no time for that now. I had to remain focused on finding Graver, contacting the Families, and securing their help in getting Aaron back. Any feelings I had for Jian Shu Lin would have to wait.
"What's the plan now?" Samuel was asking Thaddeus.
"We need to regroup," Thaddeus said. "I know a place. Somewhere safe where we can rest up. Somewhere we can train without interruption."
"Sounds good," Samuel said.
"Aaron," Lara said. Her voice was quiet and distant, like a muffled echo of itself. "Every day we rest is another day that Aaron is lost to us."
I could feel my sister's pain radiating through the small space. It dug into my core, triggering the despair I'd fought so hard to keep contained. I felt the same way Lara did, but I kept silent, slouching in my seat as the weight of our circumstances settled onto my shoulders. I was glad for the darkness. It provided a measure of privacy, concealing my exposed skin and the tears welling up in my eyes.
"We'll get Aaron back," Thaddeus said, "but we need to be ready for the coming fight. It won't do your uncle any good for us to walk in unprepared. Do that, and we'll be giving the Morrighan exactly what she wants."
"What does she want?" I said, my voice dry and dull, like an old parchment. "Aaron said she was after him. If she has him now, why is she still hunting us.?"
"What she wants is power." Thaddeus said. "And your family is standing in the way of her getting it. She needs Aaron, so she'll keep him alive for now, but she has no choice but to destroy the rest of you. You're too big a threat to her."
"Why?" Lara said. "What could we possibly do to stop her? And why does she need Aaron? What is he to her?"
Thaddeus shook his head. "It's not my place to answer that. Some secrets should only come from family."
I locked eyes with my brother and sister, wanting to know more, and silent understanding passed between my siblings and me. We would find a way to get to the bottom of this. Before this ordeal was over, we would learn about our connection to the Morrighan, even if I had to grip Thaddeus by the throat and strangle the truth out of him.
Lin returned a moment later, backing through the glass double doors of the convenience store, her arms loaded with plastic grocery bags. She'd found a small display of clothes, and bought what she could, mostly wrangler blue jeans and cheap T-shirts sporting tractor company logos. The clothes fit none of us well, but they were better than the alternative and I was grateful for the relative warmth and the modesty.
"Everyone settle in," Thaddeus said as he steered the van out onto the empty road. "We have a long a drive to get where we're going."
"Which is where?" Lin asked.
Thaddeus glanced over and met her eye.
"We're headed to the Compound."
"Of course." Lin rolled her eyes, perturbed by Thaddeus's choice of destination. But she said no more, instead relaxing into her seat and closing her eyes.
None of the rest of us bothered to ask about the Compound. We were all too tired to care. I leaned my head back against my seat, allowing waves of exhaustion to roll over me, and slipped into a sea of murky dreams.
I woke to a world of steady rain falling from an ugly gray sky. Raindrops beat against the windows of the van in tired desperation, lost souls searching for an escape. I couldn't tell what time of day it was, but I assumed it was sometime after noon based on the kink in my neck from sleeping at a strange angle for so many hours. I dragged myself up from the mire of unconsciousness and sat quietly in my seat, not caring how much time passed, where we were going, or what waited for us when we got there.
It didn't matter to me anymore.
Days of living in constant fear, worrying for Aaron, and being racked with guilt over Trent's death had left me empty as a fallen tree, hollowed by decay and weather and the ravages of time.
Like a match, struck and burned, all the fire of determination and purpose had fled from me.
Recalling the events of the previous night only served to darken my mood further. I had managed to tap into a well of power that my siblings and I hadn't even known existed, unlocking a weapon that could prove invaluable in our fight against the Morrighan: Core Light. But I had also failed utterly to control it. I should have been able to turn that incredible power against our enemies and burn them all to ash, but I'd lost it again, just as I had lost control when I unleashed my fury on Trent and stole his life. This time my failure was so complete that if Thaddeus and Lin hadn't found us when they did, my brother and sister and I would be nothing but a gory stain in the middle of that ancient barn. It was strange to have so much power at my command and still feel so powerless. The sensation left me floating in a mindless daze while the world flashed by my van window like a surrealist painting.
I hardly noticed when we turned off the road we'd been traveling and onto a long, gravel track that stretched into the surrounding evergreen woods. The vibrant green of the damp trees was a stunning contrast to the drab sky above them. I could almost smell the mixing of cold pine and wet earth. Samuel looked up from whatever thoughts he'd been lost in, and Lara stared doggedly ahead as the van tires crunched against the rocky terrain. They looked as drained and inanimate as I felt.
We followed the gravel lane as it wound through the trees, and Samuel finally found his voice, along with enough curiosity to use it.
"Where are we?" he asked, his voice ragged from sleep. He sounded like Aaron.
"Wyoming," Thaddeus explained. "Near the Medicine Bow National Forest. This is the home of an old friend and former member of the Steel Tower. Bartholomew Thompson, Senior. We called him the Professor."
"Like Professor X?" I asked, surprised by the sound of my own voice.
Samuel snorted at the joke.
"He's an engineer," Thaddeus continued, ignoring my comment. "A genius. He helped me devise the Ice-blades and a lot of the other tech we use to fight the Servants of Dark. He was a vital part of our operations until he— left."
"Let me guess," Samuel said. "He didn't like the uniforms?"
"Actually," Thaddeus said, "Bart's departure was a little more— eventful than that. Let's just say we haven't made his Christmas card list in a while."
We rounded a final turn and came to a high chain-link fence topped with barbed wire and set with a massive swinging gate where it crossed the gravel track. Standing in front of the gate was a short, thick figure in a green, hooded rain-slicker and rubber boots. I could see a grizzly, gray beard poking out from beneath the hood and a double-barreled shotgun clutched in both hands.
As we approached the fence, the rugged looking man raised the long gun to his shoulder and aimed the business end at our minivan.
Thaddeus brought us to a careful stop. The rain continued its steady thrumming on the roof and washed down the windows in a rippling sheet, obscuring the gunman and adding to his ominous appearance.
The hooded man waited, still as a statue, as if daring us to make the next move. Clearly our options were limited. We would either have to go back the way we came, or try our luck with the shotgun.
Samuel cleared his throat.
"So..." he said, pointing to the front. "The Professor, I take it?"
"Everyone stay put," Thaddeus sighed. "I'm going to talk to him."
"If he doesn't blow the lips off your face with that cannon." I said.
"The Professor and I go way back." Thaddeus kept his eyes to the front and a focused wariness crept into his voice. "It was Esther he had the falling out with. I had nothing to do with all of that and he knows it. Once he sees that it's me, he won't shoot."
Thaddeus opened the driver door and step out of the vehicle.
I held my breath. An old man with a gun shouldn't be much of a threat to a Holder of Light, especially one who was also an experienced soldier like Thaddeus, but if our fearsome protector was this cautious of his old ally, the man must be exceptionally dangerous.
Outside the vehicle Thaddeus raised his empty hands and stepped forward, looking around him in all directions as if watching out for some hidden danger. Samuel, Lara, and I leaned forward in our seats, straining to see what we could of the exchange through the rain-streaked windshield. Lin sat in the front passenger seat looking bored and impatient.
The two men stood in the rain talking for only a moment, then the Professor lowered his weapon and rested the barrel against one shoulder. I exhaled my relief and felt a mountain of tension lift from my chest. Thaddeus shook hands with his friend and hustled back to the van, pulling random drops of rain inside with him as he slid into the driver's seat.
"See," He said. "No problem."
"Right," I responded, sitting back in my seat again. "Let's all pretend that we didn't just dodge a bullet."
Thaddeus said nothing, shifting the van into gear once more as our new host pushed open the massive swinging gate to allow us entry.
"Oh, for heaven's sake." Lin's eye roll was exaggerated enough to see from the back of the vehicle. "The man's not that scary. I mean, did ya get a look a' those boots? He probably couldn't run more than a few steps in those ghastly things without plantin' his face in muck."
"It isn't his feet that you need to be careful of," Thaddeus said. "Bart has one of the quickest minds I've ever encountered. He's a genius level engineer and a master of strategic thinking. It doesn't matter how smart you think you are, he's always a dozen steps ahead of you. If you're standing in a room with him, he's already been to that room a thousand times in his mind and planned for every possible scenario. The good news is, if he's letting us into the Compound, he already knows why we're here and he's already decided to help us."
"Great," Samuel said, his tone sharp with sarcasm. "The Compound. Super."
Thaddeus drove the car forward. We passed through the gate into the interior of the fence and I got the impression we had just crossed a powerful boundary. All I could see was the thin barrier of chain-link and the stiff but yielding covering of pine trees, but it felt somehow as though we were inside a fortress of some kind. I doubted we would have been able to get past the fence without having been invited by the Professor. The feeling made me curious about what sort of place we had just entered, or more importantly, what kind of person had built it.
A short drive later, we crested a hill and the trees fell away, revealing a small lake fed by a river on one side. In a flat clearing of land by a lake stood a cluster of low, sturdy buildings surrounded by a second fence. The buildings themselves were of various sizes, and looked modern and industrial. The one exception was a large and pleasant looking lake house resting up against the shore. The house glowed with a warm light, nudging back the gloomy weather, and behind it, lake water danced in the mid-afternoon rain, clear and beautiful. The overall impression was a very secure and welcoming place for those who'd been invited inside. It didn't seem to care at all about my dark thoughts or my flagging hope.
"What is this place?" I ask, speaking mostly to myself.
"Bart built this place as his own personal base of operations after his falling out with the Steel Tower," Thaddeus answered. "The Compound, as he calls it, is probably the safest place in the country for friends of the Light, except maybe the Steel Tower itself. Only, this place has the added benefit of being completely off the radar of the Nameless Dark. The Professor works very hard to keep it that way."
"He's taking a big risk, helping us like this," Lara said. "Isn't he."
"It's bigger than that," Lin said, looking at Thaddeus for confirmation. "Takin' us in this way is more than just a kindness on his part. The ol' Professor has just reentered the war."
Thaddeus nodded and drove forward once more, riding the brake downhill toward the lake.
"Yes," he said. "Let's try not to get him killed for it."