Our gracious host, clearly a man of few words, concluded the tour of his lake house by nodding once and plodding away to disappear around a corner. A moment later I heard his heavy footfall climbing to an upper floor of the house.
"Okay..." Samuel stared after the professor with eyebrow raised.
"He grows on you," Thaddeus said from his place near the front door. The wide front porch of the lake house led to a spacious entryway with room enough of all of us to gather for the Professor's welcome speech. "Why don't you kids head into the kitchen and find something to eat. Maybe grab some shuteye. I'll come find you after I've spoken with Bart."
I looked at my brother and we shrugged in unison, moving toward the kitchen door. It's never taken much convincing for Samuel and me to partake in free food.
"Come on, Sis," I said to Lara over my shoulder, looking back just in time to see Lin trailing after Thaddeus. Apparently, she would not be joining us for dinner.
The lake house was decorated in dark woods and furnished for practicality. Old maps and technical drawing hung framed on the walls alongside mounted specimens of antique tools and machinery. An army of weathered books stood upright on every available surface, thick with knowledge about every topic imaginable. The air smelled faintly of old parchment and gun oil. The place gave me the impression that its owner valued order for the sake of efficiency, and considered wisdom a form of strength.
We spent the next hours resting. For most of that time, Samuel, Bartholomew, and Lin stayed sequestered in the upper level of the lake house, which seemed to serve as some kind of operations center for whatever it was the Professor spent most of his time doing. My siblings and I were not invited up.
When we'd finished eating, sleeping, and bathing, we took the liberty of exploring the Compound. We examined the outbuildings first, most of which contained shelves stacked with mechanical components whose uses I couldn't begin to guess. There were also workshops and laboratories of various kinds, filled with power tools and electronic equipment and instruments for measuring and cataloging. In one particularly large lab area we discovered what looked like an enormous laser cannon aimed at a steel table. The ground around the table and the table top itself was blackened with scorch marks, except for an oddly shaped patch in the center of the table. Samuel wanted to turn the laser on and see what it did. It took me and Lara the better part of twenty minutes to talk him down.
"He's crazy." I kicked at a random hunk of scrap metal, sending it scampering across the floor like a tin mouse, the clipping of its tiny feet echoing along the bare walls.
"He just needs to let off some steam." Lara smirked.
She took my arm in hers as we left the strange laboratory and wandered down an empty hall. Samuel ranged ahead, enjoying the freedom of unrestricted snooping.
"What do think our elders are talking about?" I said.
"I don't know." Lara lowered her voice and and slowed her step a bit. "Whatever it is, I'm sure it's important. In fact, I get the feeling this entire hunt is more dire than anyone is letting on."
"What makes you say that?"
"Thaddeus acts like nothing touches him. But I can feel the tension and fear he keeps buried. It's always there. Hell, even the Professor is putting on a brave face, but the fear is there too. The only one who doesn't seem phased by any of this is Lin. Crazy as she is."
"Yeah well, there's plenty to be afraid of," I said. The sound of Samuel whooping about something reached us from somewhere in the building. "I just hope whatever they figure out, it happens soon, before Samuel finds a way to burn the place down."
We continued our aimless search. Every room we explored was abandoned, scattered with tools and equipment, and looking as though whatever team from NASA worked there had just stepped out for a smoke break. I doubted the Professor could be running this operation on his own, and yet we never saw another person the entire time.
When we ran out of buildings to investigate, we wiled away the hours wandering along the lakeshore, tossing rocks into the water and sending busy ripples racing away to break apart the pattern of an early evening rain. That was where Thaddeus and Lin found us.
The two of them had finally emerged from their private counsel with Bartholomew, where they had apparently exchanged all the information they had in their respective brains. Thaddeus refused to divulge the specifics of the meeting, other than to say it had been mutually instructive.
"Where the heck is everyone, Thaddeus?" I asked. "This place is a ghost town."
"Bart sent his staff home," Thaddeus said. "Gave them the rest of the year off when he picked up on our activities. He figured we may end up ringing his door bell."
"How would he know that?" I asked.
"The volcanic eruption in Ohio, our little drive through downtown Pittsburgh. Then there was your light show in that barn in Colorado. He knew something big was up and it was heading his way."
"So why send everyone away?" Lara asked. "With that kind of danger nipping at our heels, why hole-up all alone and unguarded , just waiting for us to bring the party to him."
"I never said he was unguarded" Thaddeus said "I imagine this place has defenses we know nothing about. Bart has been a busy boy since he parted ways with the Steel Tower. He's continued his R&D efforts on his own, probably developed all kinds of fancy new toys. And his information network has grown even bigger than we thought. It might even rival that of the Steel Tower at this point."
"Maybe he'll be into a little show-and-tell, eh?" Samuel bobbed his eyebrows up and down. "Give us a chance to play with some of those toys?"
"Ach, aye." Lin rolled her eyes. "I'm sure you boys'd love that. Probably wind up shearin' off yer manhood with a laser cannon."
Lara snorted her amusement.
"Sounds like a good time," Samuel winked at me.
"Maybe later," Thaddeus said. "Right now we have training to do."
"Hell yeah," Samuel grinned, "it's about freaking time."
I couldn't help but smile along with my brother, adrenaline rising at thought of learning how to use our gifts and crush our enemies.
"Now," Thaddeus clapped his hands, rubbing them together and gazing up and down the lakeshore, "we need a good place for a fire."
The rain had let up while we talked. The air was cool, and the fresh sent of pine filtered through the tall trees with each gentle breath of the wild woods around us. Safe within the borders of the Compound, I felt a clawing tension that had clung to my back for days begin to slide away from my shoulders and fall to the pebble strewn shore. The Professor may not have been the most gracious host, but for the moment he seemed willing to lend his considerable resources to our cause. Between that fortunate circumstance and Thaddeus's sudden willingness to train us in our use of the Light, hope became a possibility for the first time in many days.
We walked until we found a place along the lakeshore, a relatively flat shelf of rocky shore that jutted out into the lake to form a small peninsula. Gathering an armload of firewood, we seated ourselves near the water, watching Thaddeus with interest as he closed his eyes and disappeared into himself. He hadn't moved a muscle when the fire sprang to life. The stack of dry wood, lying cold and dead in the evening gloom, sparked into a small blaze in an instant, sending up a quick shower of glowing cinders.
Thaddeus sat with his eyes closed, his breathing slow. The fire he'd called to life seemed to pulse gradually in time with his breath, sinking gently with each inhale, then building again as he exhaled.
I waited for the lesson to begin, assuming Thaddeus would open his mouth at any moment and reveal the age-old secrets of kicking Nameless Dark ass with our innate awesomeness. But he just sat there. As the moments ticked by, and our stoic teacher failed to stir, the glow of my eager enthusiasm began to wane.
"This is ridiculous," Lin said, echoing my thoughts. "They're not goin' ta learn about Light sittin' in a circle holdin' hands around a bloody fire. You need to have them usin' it."
"Exactly," Samuel agreed. "This isn't summer camp. We need to learn to defend ourselves."
For a moment it seemed as if Thaddeus hadn't heard their objections. When he spoke, his low voice rose from a place deep inside his chest.
"My grandfather taught me," he said, "that wisdom begins with a quiet moment. Think we could try one out?"
Samuel and I groaned in unison.
"Just try it," Thaddeus repeated, his eyes still closed. "Calm yourself. And breathe with the fire."
I sighed, closing my eyes and feeling somewhat childish. The pebbled ground of the lake shore dug into my thighs as I sat cross-legged near the fire. The weather was still cold and damp, but Thaddeus's fire created a bubble of warmth that seemed to dissuade the rain from disturbing our lesson. The whole campfire thing seemed a little contrived, but I was willing to go along with just about anything if it meant finally learning more about the Light. I needed to know more, to be better, to grow stronger. It was the only way I could make up for the failures I'd racked up since the fight at the Snake River Bridge. I just hoped I was a quick enough study for it to make a difference.
I quieted myself and focused on my breathing, following Thaddeus's example. A subtle glow of Light began to warm me from the inside as the heat of the fire skipped across my skin. The sensation brought back a distant memory from my early childhood: the first time I felt the touch of my connection to the Light.
I was no more than eight years old at the time and my father had taken me on a camping trip. We'd left distractions behind and secluded ourselves in nature for one of those stereotypical father-son bonding rituals. He had led me to the top of a high ridge that looked out over three counties of farm land, and as we sat quietly, allowing the sounds and smells of the world to fill our senses, a strange warmth filled my chest, spreading through my limbs until my whole body was coursing with a gentle fire. It burned without pain, and seemed to open up parts of me that had been hidden away just for that moment. Before I could feel any fear, my Father told me that everything was all right. He explained that the Light was a special gift that our family had been given. It was beautiful and wonderful, but it also made the world a dangerous place for us. People didn't understand us, he said. They hated and feared us, looking for ways to steal our gift and use it for their own. Others simply wanted us dead and gone, and would stop at nothing to destroy us all. It was a lot to take in for a child, but my Father's strength had filled me with confidence. I knew that as long as he was with us, no harm could come to our family.
When he died, it was as if the ground I'd stood on my whole life had turned to smoke in an instant. Perhaps if I'd know the truth of his cowardice and the depth of his lies, I wouldn't have felt so lost with him gone.
Thaddeus's voice drifted through the fog of my memories, banishing painful thoughts of bitter betrayals.
"To grow stronger in the Light, you first need to understand what it is and how it affects the world around you. Your grandmother told you of the Nameless Dark, that it is the residual buildup of human depravity. The Light is not the same. While the Nameless Dark is a residue, the Light is an overflow."
"An overflow of what?" I asked.
"Each of the Seven Families has their own answer to that question," Thaddeus explained. "But we all agree that the source of the Light is human existence. Every man, woman, and child on this planet has a piece of it inside them. Call it the soul, the spirit, whatever. It's like a miniature nuclear reactor, powering our thoughts and emotions, our creativity and innovations. It's what drives us to do more than just survive. To make something of our lives and better the world around us."
He paused, taking a breath before continuing.
"All that power and energy doesn't stay contained in our fragile bodies. It radiates out into the world. And that overflow is the force that we know of as the Light."
"Ok, Obi Wan," Samuel cut in. I looked up and saw his eyes already open and dull with a practiced skepticism. "If the Light comes from inside everyone, why isn't everyone connected to it the same way we are?"
Thaddeus nodded, as though he'd expected the argument.
"Every Family has its own explanation for that too. Some believe we were chosen by God to wield the Light against the darkness. Others believe that we're a naturally occurring phenomenon, and some even claim that we are nothing more than an accident, a statistical anomaly. I've always felt that we were put here on purpose as a way to balance the scales. To safeguard the world from the Nameless Dark and keep the globe turning."
"Alright," I said. "But none of this explains how we're able to do the things we can do. Levitate objects, freeze water, light things on fire. We can do things that any high school physics professor would say shouldn't be possible."
Thaddeus nodded again.
"It helps to think about it this way: what if the Light, that spark of energy that resides inside every human being, is a tiny piece of the power of creation itself? Wouldn't it be able to affect the forces that are a part of that creation?"
Lara nodded, understanding dawning on her face.
"So, it controls the forces in nature," she said. "Heat, light, sound, gravity, everything that balances and sustains our world, the Light can control it all."
"Not so much control as manipulate," Thaddeus corrected. "We can nudge those forces in one direction or the other. If I feed heat into this fire, for example—"
The fire in front of us leapt into the air, roaring like a kiln. We all scrambled back, shielding our faces with our hands.
"And if I draw the heat away from the air around it—" Thaddeus shouted over the sound of the blaze.
The fire began to narrow, shrinking to a flaming pillar as wide as my forearm, and growing in height as the heat Thaddeus fed it was confined to a smaller space. The narrow column of fire shot into the sky. It roared like a jet engine, turning the rain to steam and punching a hole in the clouds. Thaddeus continued to pour heat into the fire, and the air around it crackled and swirled as the remaining drops of rain froze where they fell. Soon the raging pillar of fire was encased in a swirling ring of snow, whipping and diving like a miniature blizzard. The two opposing extremes embraced each other, caught in a perfect dance of hot and cold, intense and mad and impossibly beautiful.
The spectacle ended in an instant. The energies dispersed into the air in a massive, rolling cloud of steam, and the silence that followed filled my ears with a buzzing that wasn't there. I shook my head to try and clear it.
"Woah," was all I could manage to say. I think I may have heard a "holy shit" from Samuel.
"That's just manipulating one force: heat." Thaddeus said. "If I change the effect of gravity on an object, I can make it float. If I adjust the air pressure around it, I can move it through the air. You kids have spent your lives using Light on an instinctive level. But once you understand the forces you're manipulating, the possibilities are endless."
"Ok," Samuel said, awestruck. "Alright. That was a pretty good trick."
"Yes, very good, Thaddeus," Lin said, clapping her hands in mock applause. "That was quite a show. Very educational. And high marks for the visual effects."
Thaddeus frowned at her.
"Now," she continued, gazing around the fire at the rest of us, "as this is a trainin' session, I believe we're in need of a little student participation. How about a volunteer?"
"Lin..." Thaddeus cautioned.
She ignored him.
"What do you say, Jonas?" Lin caught my eyes in the tractor-beam of her own, pulling me out of my shock, back into the moment. "Give it a try?"
She nodded toward the fire, now dwindled to it's original size and fading as the last of the firewood twisted and blackened.
"You can do it," she said, speaking only to me. "Start by breathing. Just breathe, and feel the Light glowing inside you."
All I could feel at that moment was my heart racing in my chest as Lin stared more deeply into my eyes. Still, I nodded and tried to do as she asked, slowing my breathing and reaching for the Light. My pulse began to slow. Lin smiled her encouragement, and I felt my confidence grow.
"Now," she said, breaking eye contact at last, "keep breathing, and turn your focus to the fire. Pull heat into it slowly, a little at a time, just enough to frost the rocks around it."
I turned to the fire, allowing it to fill my vision, feeling the warm burn of the Light inside my chest. I imaged heat moving from the rocky ground, drifting into the fire and adding to its strength. Nothing happened.
"That's it," Lin encouraged. "Just keep breathing."
I breathed deeper, allowing the Light to burn brighter within me.
"Easy now," Thaddeus said, watching the fire intently. He appeared to be on-board with the exercise now that it was under way. "The Light is your connection. Let it do the work."
I tried harder, my frustration beginning to grow. Still nothing happened.
I had done more difficult things than this using Light. In fact, I'd done something exactly like this with the campfire near the Snake River Bridge on the night Trent died. This was a much more controlled effort, but it was technically the same. I just needed to put more effort into it. Dig deeper.
My thoughts of Trent's death returned me to a darker frame of mind, and I pushed harder, feeling tendrils of electric power spark to life around me.
"That's enough, Jonas." Lara said.
"You've got this," Lin pushed.
Lin's prodding and my sister's warning were a muffled buzzing in the back of my mind. Power continued to rise up inside me, pulsing around me and filling the air with a crackling hum.
"Thaddeus..." Lara said, fear edging into her voice.
"Jonas—" Thaddeus began.
I wasn't hearing any of them. I poured myself into the campfire, drawing heat from around it and infusing it with Light. All at once, fire and ice shot into the air. Huge chunks of ice stabbed into the night and were instantly melted by an eruption of white-hot fire, blasting dozens of feet into the sky in a massive, steaming wave of force. The concussion sent me tumbling backwards across the rocky shore and I came to rest face down with my feet and ankles dangling in the waters of the lake.
I dragged my feet from the water, crawling up to my knees. The others had also been blown back away from the fire, scattered along the shoreline. Samuel sprawled on his back in shallow water, laughing at the sky like a psychopath.
"That was awesome!" He howled.
I didn't share the sentiment.
"Everyone ok?" Thaddeus said. Somehow he'd kept his seat near the fire, unaffected by the concussion I'd cause.
"Bloody terrific," Lin said. She'd found her feet again and moved to help Lara up. "Nothin' like a face full of rocks to remind you yer alive."
"You're the one who encouraged him," Thaddeus reminded her. "That's exactly the kind of thing that I wanted to avoid."
"Yes, and if we'd done it your way, we'd all still be sittin' in a circle with our thumb up our arse. Instead, Jonas is now slightly more experienced than he was ten minutes ago."
"Sure," Thaddeus said, "experienced at blowing himself into next week."
They continued to argue as I dragged myself to my feet, still reeling from the shockwave I'd created and from my complete failure to control the Light in the way Thaddeus and Lin had asked. I didn't understand it. I'd been able to do some amazing things in the face of danger: the static electricity I'd used against the Coyotes, the ice formation I'd created during the battle with the Wasted, but those things had been done on pure instinct. When I tried to use Light deliberately to accomplish a specific task, I couldn't perform the most basic manipulation of heat.
I sighed, shaking my head and staring at my feet as I started walking down the lakeshore away from the Compound.
"Jonas?" Samuel said, "Where are you going?"
"Let him go," Lara said, her voice seeming to reach out to me from across the growing distance like a compassionate hand on my shoulder. "Let him be alone."
I appreciated her insight into my need for solitude. My family was everything to me, but some trials needed to be faced up to alone. I had no idea why I'd failed tonight, but I did know this: if we couldn't do any better than that against the Morrighan, Aaron was as good as dead, and the rest of us along with him.