I crested the final rise and the trees broke away to reveal a breathtaking view of the Wyoming landscape, stark in the rigid moonlight. Rich brushstrokes of evergreen trees painted the open land, contrasting with the craggy stone from which they grew. Dark hollows curled up at the base of every bluff like living creatures, slumbering in the comfort of the shadows that contained them.
I stopped at the highest point I could find and stared out at the beauty of the sight, wishing immediately that I could share it with my brother and sister. Lara would find some meaning in it that I could never think of, somehow offering an insight that was both simple and profound. Samuel would crack a joke and find a way to tease me for my emotional reaction, but his eyes would sparkle with wonder, unable to look away. They would lift me out of the dark place I'd allowed myself to sink into. But they weren't here. I stood alone with my doubts and inadequacies.
I sighed, filling my lungs with frigid air, then watched my breath escape in a rolling puff and allowed my shoulders to sag.
"Okay, asshole," I said to myself, "time to get your crap together."
"You should try bein' a bit nicer to yourself," said a husky Scottish voice from the darkness behind me.
I whipped around to see Lin emerging from the trees, tall and lovely in the moonlight. I recovered from my shock as quickly as I could, turning back around to face the stunning view in front of me.
"How did you find me?" I asked as she stepped up beside me.
"Followed you," she shrugged. "This is quite a lovely view you've found."
"Yes it is." I narrowed my eyes at her. "You mean you were behind me this entire time?"
"No, not the entire time." She turned to meet my gaze. "Some of the time I was in front of you."
Lin's eyes shone with an openness that seemed almost vulnerable. It may have been a trick of the light, but she seemed to be offering something in her gaze, and looking for something from me in return. I froze, unable to speak, failing to comprehend anything beyond my own emotional awkwardness. I had no idea why she'd come or what she wanted from me. Clearly, I had precious little to offer anyone at the moment. After a pause, I turned away, closing the door on whatever I might be feeling for this girl I barely knew.
"So, are you here to bring me back?" I asked.
She didn't answer at first, and when she did, I thought I heard a tiny crack of disappointment in her voice.
"I just wanted to see that you were alright."
"I'll be fine," I said, not at all sure it was the truth.
She nodded, a slight but clear motion in the well-lit night.
"I pushed you into it, didn't I?" She asked. "That little experiment by the lake."
"Maybe," I said, "but it's not really your fault. I thought I could do it, too."
"That's just it, Jonas." She turned to me, drawing me in again with those spellbinding eyes. "Ya can do it. You've done it before. I saw what ya did in that field when you were runnin' from the Wasted. The mountain of ice ya called from the ground."
"That was a different situation. There was a certain motivating factor present. Like my own gory, bloody death chasing me down."
"No, ya do na' understand." Lin frowned, shaking her head and taking my hands in both of hers. "I've been trained as a Holder of Light since birth. My parents raised me in it and after they died Graver continued my trainin'. There's never been a time when I wasn't connected to the Light, but on my best day, I could never do anythin' like what you did in that field."
She tightened her grip my hands, holding my gaze with her own, willing me to understand. Something sparked inside me at her touch, a small flame that had nothing to do with my power danced to life in my chest, just as bright and real as the Light.
"What happened back there at the lake was not because of a lack of ability. It was because of all the things that you've shoved in your own way. I don't know everythin' in your past, but I know you've been through a lot, and you're lettin' it drag you down. Givin' it a power over you that it should na' have."
I shook my head, but held her gaze this time, feeling a tug of truth in her words.
"I tried, Lin. I don't know what more I can do. I can't change everything that's happened. It all falls on me: our house burning down, Aaron's capture; all of it. The more I try to make things right, the worse they seem to get."
"So let it go," she said, her voice lowering to a whisper filled with earnest intensity. "Stop tryin' to fix everythin' and just be Jonas. Be Jonas Acheson, second born son to Jacob and Rachel, Holder of Light and Conduit of Core Light for a new generation. Just be that person and everything else will begin to fall into place."
I nodded, feeling something deep within myself respond to her words.
"You believe that?"
Jian Shu Lin smiled. A full throttle, breathtaking smile, the first I'd ever seen from her. It was beautiful to me in way that I wasn't sure I understood, and that frightened me. I had enough to worry about without also needing to confront whatever these emotions were that I felt for Lin. Again, I shoved them down, backing away from the smoldering spark in my chest.
I returned her smile briefly and nodded my thanks.
"So Core Light," I said, changing the subject and breaking eye contact, "that's what happened back in that barn, isn't it? I used Core Light?"
Lin sighed, releasing my hands and moving a half step away.
"Yes," she said, her demeanor somewhat cooled. The vulnerability she'd revealed to me was safely hidden away again behind the curt, no-nonsense warrior face she displayed to the world. "I take it you know nothin' of Core Light or of the generational nature of the Seven Families?"
"Enlighten me," I said. "I've been in the dark long enough."
Lin nodded again.
"I suppose someone is goin' to have to explain it to you eventually. Might as well be me."
She looked behind us, then back toward the sky, as if checking the time by the position of the moon and stars.
"Come on," she said. "Let's head back. We can talk on the way."
The walk downhill should have been easier than the ascent, but with the covering of trees shutting out most of the moonlight, it became even more treacherous. Several times I stumbled, or stepped into an unseen dip, and nearly sent myself tumbling head first down a steep rocky slope. Lin seemed to be having no trouble at all in the dark. At one point, she reached a hand out to grip my arm and help steady me, and I felt a subtle pulse of Light at her touch. She was using it to heighten her senses and help her climb downhill without falling.
Why didn't I think of that?
I called up a small glow of Light inside me, allowing it to trickle through my body like stepping into a warm bath. Immediately my pulse quickened, my senses sharpened, and strength filled my limbs.
"Are you gonna tell me about Core Light?" I prompted Lin, able to catch my breath enough to converse now that my movements were fueled by my power.
"Alright," she said. "Just try not to fall on yer arse while I do, yes?"
"I'll do my best."
"See that you do. Now, how can I explain this t' you?" Lin paused for a moment to order her thoughts. "Every Holder of Light has a connection to the Light, yes? That spark of power that resides inside them."
"Ok," I said.
"Well, there are some of us who are also connected to that same energy in others. Understand?"
"Uh, no. Not really..."
"Just stay with me for a moment. So, in every generation of each Family, there is one Core Family. Always two brothers and a sister. Together, they have the ability to access a store of Light energy gathered from other people."
"You mean normal people?" I interrupted. "People who aren't Holders of Light?"
"Exactly. Most humans outside the Families aren't even aware of the power that radiates from inside them, and those who are can't use it. The Core Family of each generation is able to harness that power."
"And you're telling me that Lara, Samuel, and I..." I began.
"Are the Core Family of your generation, yes," she completed.
"So that's what I was able to tap into back in that barn when we were about to be slaughtered by the Wasted? Core Power gathered from other people? But wait, why was it inside Samuel?"
"Because he's the Vessel," she said.
Lin slowed her steps until we both came to a stop on a swath of level ground. She turned to me and when she spoke, her voice took on a rhythmic quality, as if she were reciting from memory.
"The Core of the Family numbers three: Vessel, Conduit, and Key."
"What does that mean?" I asked, not hiding my confusion. I felt I was on the brink of understanding something important and I was determined to see it through.
"It's just a sayin' we learn." she rolled her eyes, "Like a nursery rhyme. We teach it to our children when they're learnin' about Core Light. The Core Family of each generation is two brothers and one sister: three Holders of Light. The eldest brother, the Vessel, contains the power. He's like a sponge that absorbs Light energy from everyone around him and stores it inside himself. It's through his line that the Core Family of the next generation rises up. You with me?"
"I think so."
"Good. Now, the younger brother, that's you, is called the Conduit. He is the channel through which the Core Light flows. And their sister is the Key. Hers is the ability to unlock the Core Power so that it can be used."
"The Key..." I turned away, closing my eyes as I reasoned through what I was hearing. "That's why I wasn't able to access the Core Light until I reach out to Lara. She's the Key."
"Exactly." Lin gripped my shoulders and turned me toward her again. The intensity of her gaze was intimidating even in the dark. I could feel her power glowing from within her. It filtered through her hands where they touched me, rolling across my shoulders and tingling on my skin. "You and your brother and sister are the most powerful members of the Acheson family. You might be the most powerful Holders of Light in the world now that—"
She stopped, releasing me and turning away.
"What?" I prodded, reaching out to her.
She moved away, avoiding my touch and started climbing downhill again, leaving me to follow after.
"Nothin'," she said over her shoulder, "Thaddeus is already goin' to be furious with me fer tellin' you all of this. I do na' know what I was thinkin'."
"Lin, wait!" I quickened my pace, skidding down the hillside to fall in place beside her. "I need to know everything. We've been lied to and deceived our whole lives, by our own freaking family. I cannot be kept in the dark anymore. Please."
She stopped again, staring into space for a moment.
"Okay," she nodded. "You've heard how bad it got when the Morrighan came into her power, yes? Entire Families were slaughtered. My family..."
She couldn't finish the thought.
"I was part of the Core Family of my generation. I was the Key. Or I would have been, if my brothers had lived long enough. But that monster destroyed them, along with the rest of my family, and without them, I have no ability to use Core Light. And neither does anyone else. The Morrighan hunted them all down and now there are no Core Families left to stand against her. Not from any of the Seven Families."
Lin turned to me again, her eyes deeper than the star filled sky above us.
"Except you," she breathed. "Jonas, as far as any of us know, you and your brother and sister are the last complete Core Family alive. If there's anyone left who can defend this world from the Nameless Dark, it's you."
The shear crushing weight of her words settled onto my shoulders, stealing the breath from my lungs. I'd known that we had a responsibility to this world, that our gifts came with a calling and required action; but this was much bigger than I had realized. We'd been focused on surviving long enough to contact the other Families and staying out of the Morrighan's hands. Then, after losing Aaron, our priority had become recovering our Uncle in one piece. Learning our family's secrets and discovering the purpose that had been kept from us was a secondary consideration. But now, with this new information, it was that much more critical that we learn to use the Light effectively and take our place in the war against the Nameless Dark.
I felt Lin's hand slip into mine again, squeezing a gentle offer of comfort and support.
"I know what you're thinking, Jonas," She said, and the soothing sound of her voice pulled my eyes back to her. "It's a heavy load to carry, but you're not alone in this. Yes, you have an important role to play, but you also have friends; people who will stand beside you. You're not alone."
I nodded my thanks and sighed, turning back toward the darkness, wishing I could disappear inside it. I tugged my hand away, and started moving again. I wanted badly to reciprocate the openness and affection Lin had shown me, but I couldn't fight past the aching dread in the pit in my stomach.
"I appreciate the thought," I said, "but I'm not sure there's much any of you can do to help. We have to find Graver, contact the Families, learn to use Core Light, and then somehow track Aaron down and rescue him from a villain that all of the Seven Families couldn't defeat. Oh, and then I have to stop the Morrighan from enslaving the world, or whatever it is she wants to do. I'm just not sure if I can—"
I realized suddenly that Lin was not walking with me. I turned and found her still standing in the spot where we'd stopped last.
"Since you're so alone in all of this," she called, "you might as well find your way back to the Compound on your own as well. I have one final task to complete before we can locate Graver. I suppose I'll get to it, since, you know, time's a wastin'."
"Lin," I said, "I didn't mean to—"
"It's fine," she interrupted. "You do what you need to do, and I'll do the same. I'll be gone for a few days, so that should give you all some time to continue your lessons with Thaddeus. Just do me a favor, yes? Don't forget that as Holders of Light we are, first and foremost, a family. Don't take yours for granted. There are those of us who no longer have the option."
Before I could respond, Jian Shu Lin turned and disappeared into the bottomless dark.