Thunder exploded above us, a monster roaring its outrage at our attempt to submit its feral nature to our will. I held on to the flame of Light that burned in my chest, clinging to my power and allowing it to feed strength into my body. Without it, I was certain I would have been blown from my feet. I could feel Light burning inside Lara and Samuel as well, as we merged our strength in a common effort to remain standing. Head bowed and eyes closed, I allowed an old familiar determination to rise up inside me. This was the moment we'd been practicing for over the past three days, ever since Lin left the Compound to pursue her errand. I'd shared with my siblings what I learned from Lin, and the revelation of our importance in the war against the Nameless Dark had inspired us all to redouble our efforts. Thaddeus had led us through countless exercises, using our power for increasingly complicated tasks and expanding our control over its effects.
We had done well, he said, but this was to be the real test: Core Light verses thunder storm. One of the most powerful forces in nature would serve as a surrogate for our enemy, allowing us to simulate a battle with a force far more vast and powerful than any of us.
The storm had reached its peak around us, hammering into us with a vengeance. I took a wider stance, moving my feet to the sides, my right foot forward. Head bowed, I closed my eyes and reached for my brother and sister with Light, finding the now familiar reserve of Core Power roiling inside Samuel and linking up with Lara to unlock it. Instantly the world flashed white and my mind went numb with power.
I was on fire again. My entire being burned like a barely contained explosion threatening to scatter destruction across the hillside and pulverize rock and tree.
Thaddeus had warned me that this would be difficult.
"You are the Conduit," He'd told me. "You are the channel through which the Core Power will flow. It's up to you to control it; to bend it at the correct angle and aim it in the direction of your choosing, then coax it into accomplishing something meaningful. It's an extremely difficult task."
I supposed he would know. After all, Thaddeus had told us that he was once the Conduit of Core Light for his family. His brother, Titus, and sister, Debra, had been killed by the Morrighan like so many others, but not before they'd been able to use their Core Light to help build the Steel Tower's Glacial Hall. It shamed me to realize that, while my father and uncle had used their power to build a wall for us to hide behind, Thaddeus and his family had used theirs to add strength to the Tower. They had taken the fight to a new battlefield, founding the organization that became a new hope in the war against the Nameless Dark. Faced with such humiliating guilt, I found a renewed determination to lead my family into taking our place in the world once more. I used that fire as fuel in my training efforts.
Core Light filled me and I held it inside myself, allowing it to consume my entire being until I became nothing but pure, blinding, earth-shattering power. I was fire. I was rage. I felt as though I could fill the sky, brushing away the storm clouds with a wave of my hand. I could crack the earth open and draw forth oceans of lava to devour the feeble ground. I could boil the waters of the lake far below us and shake the very hills on which we stood, snapping every tree at once like a single toothpick.
But that was not why we were up here.
We needed to learn control. We had to be able to direct the Light to accomplish our purposes, rather than just unleashing its raw force into the world. So I took a breath and held that incredible power in my core, willing it to be still. After a moment of intense struggle, I felt the pressure subside a bit, just enough for me to regain my capability for rational thought.
I didn't know much about storms, but I thought they had something to do with hot and cold air. Where the two temperature extremes met, they created an acute air pressure difference rotating the air and giving rise to the storm. It stood to reason that if the air temperature were to normalize, with the hot air cooling and the cool air warming, the air pressure should stabilize as well.
"Turn off the storm," Thaddeus had said, pointing us up into the hills where a menacing line of clouds rolled slowly into view, hanging low above the rocky bluffs. He'd offered no other instruction or advice.
The Professor had laughed out loud, a full bodied cackle at our expense, which I felt sounded more gleeful than was necessary.
"Good luck, pups," he'd said. "Don't forget to wipe yer paws on the mat when you come scamperin' back."
"Thanks for the vote of confidence." Samuel had said.
The Professor had only clapped him on the shoulder, grinning like a madman, then clomped away in his rubber boots, which he never seemed to take off.
Maybe Bartholomew didn't think we could actually beat the storm, and maybe Thaddeus didn't either, but I was going to do my best to prove them both wrong. I took another short moment to gather myself for the effort, then sent Core Light streaming into the sky.
It was a strange sensation, merging with a force of nature; like diving into a swimming pool and then melting into the water until I could feel every ripple and wave. I sensed the temperature difference in the storm immediately. Hot and cold collided in startling contrast hundreds of feet above the surface of the Earth, forcing the air into rotation and coaxing all sorts of extreme elemental reactions from the atmosphere. I targeted the hot air, drawing the heat into the cold part of the sky.
The effect wasn't instantaneous, but gradually the air pressure in the atmosphere began to normalize and the rotation of the air began to slow. At the same time, the intensity of the storm itself decreased and after a few moments of swirling hesitation, the storm clouds broke apart into randomly sized pieces, scattering their final, lackluster drops of rain across the sky.
I released the Core Light and sank to one knee, exhausted from our efforts.
"Holy crap," Samuel said, dropping my hand and rubbing the back of his neck with his own. "Did we really just do that?"
I shook my head, disbelief clouding my mind. Was I crazy or had we just effected the weather?
"I think we did," I said. "I think we just turned off the storm."
"Hell yeah, we did!" Samuel threw his head back and howled like a wolf. "Suck on that, Professor," he shouted in the general direction of the lake house below.
"That was amazing." Lara's smile was alive with excitement and I found myself smiling along with her despite my state of shock.
"It was, wasn't it," I said.
It felt good to have achieved a goal, however unimportant it might have been. We were beginning to get the hang of this Core Light thing. I stood and Lara stepped up beside me to wrap her arm around my waist.
"Good work, Jonas," she said.
"Yep," Samuel agreed, punching my good arm. "Nice work, little bro. That Morrighan hag better watch her back. The Acheson kids are in town."
Their approval meant the world to me, and for a moment, I let it wash over me and warm some of the more frigid places in my heart. But even as I joined my brother and sister in our proud moment, I held the full force of my elation in reserve, stacking it behind a carefully constructed wall of realism. The storm had been wild and powerful, but it had not been fighting back. It had no capacity to scheme or conspire, and no compulsion to defend itself. Unlike our enemies, the storm had not been seeking to destroy us. I was under no illusion that a confrontation with the Morrighan and her servants would be anywhere near as easy as our battle with the storm had been. Still, Lara and Samuel had been through a lot, and they deserved a moment of confidence and happiness away from all the horror.
"Don't worry, Samuel," I shoved his shoulder with my fingertips, knocking him off balance. "I'm sure she'll turn tail and run when she smells you coming."
"Oh, really," Samuel said. He jumped at me and snaked an arm around my head before I could move away. "What are you trying to say, huh?"
I laughed and threw my weight back and forth against my brother's headlock.
"Ok, children," Lara giggled.
"Ouch!" Samuel cried as I stomped on his instep and wormed my head out of his grasp, pushing him away again. "Not fair, cheater."
"I might be a cheater," I said, "but you squeal like a girl."
"Like a what?" Lara asked in mock indignation. "Don't make me take you both to the ground. Thaddeus would never let you live it down if you got your butts kicked by a girl."
"Speaking of Thaddeus," I said, still laughing and out of breath, "we should get back down there so he can present us with our official Jedi robes and ponytails."
"Psh." Samuel waved the thought away. "We'll probably just get another Yoda lecture or something."
Lara shook her head. "Nerds."
"Do, or do not, sis." I dropped my arm across Lara's shoulders as we started back down the trail.
"That's right," Samuel said, spinning around to jog backwards in front of us. "There is no try. Oops—"
He tripped on an unseen tree root and landed flat on his back, flailing like a fish on a hook. We laughed for at least five minutes before we were able to walk again.
When we reached the Compound fence a half hour later, all was quiet. Despite the size of the place and its apparent purpose as a research or engineering facility of some kind, we still had not seen any sign of the staff that Thaddeus had mentioned. Besides our little fellowship, no one had set foot inside the Compound but Professor himself. I'd asked Bartholomew about his operation one evening as we all sat together eating a meal around an outdoor fireplace near the lake house. His response had been almost as useless as I'd expected.
"What are you, CIA?" He'd said, tossing his empty beer can into the fire. "FBI? You running an inquisition now?"
"No," I said, "I was just wondering..."
"Yeah?" he said. "Why don't you wonder your way back into the house and bring me another beer."
Thaddeus had chuckled to himself while I got the Professor a beer.
The interior of the Compound appeared empty as ever when the three of us scuffed into the dirt yard, still grinning and joking around, riding the tide of our victory over the thunder storm. I noticed nothing unusual until Lara gasped, stopping in her tracks and staring toward the lake house steps.
"Sis?" I asked. Then I followed her gazed and my breath caught in my lungs.
Lin stood near the lake house, her gigantic sword gripped in one hand. Both girl and blade were covered in blood.
In her other hand Lin held the head of something truly terrible. I didn't look at the severed head too closely, but it seemed vaguely horse shaped, with far too many human-like qualities to have been an actual horse. The grotesque thing was all leathery skin and jutting bone, with thick veins coiling in unnatural ways. The warrior girl held her prize by the hair, which look disturbingly more similar to human hair than a horse's mane. Blood dripped from the mangled neck, pooling in a thick black stain on the ground and forming weird designs in the dirt where it mingled with Lin's own blood, which trickled from the many cuts and scrapes that crisscrossed her body. She was wounded and tired, but somehow she still looked strong and frighteningly fierce.
At the same moment we saw Lin, Thaddeus and Bartholomew came piling through the door, grinning in our direction, sarcastic remarks gathered behind their smiles.
They both saw Lin at the same time and stopped halfway down the front steps.
"Lin?" Thaddeus asked, his deep voice cracking in surprise.
"I've got what we need," She snarled, tossing her repulsive souvenir out into the middle of the yard. It hit the wet dirt with a disgusting slap.
"It's time to go see Graver."