The iron gate stood open, allowing us easy access into a wide stone courtyard. On the far side of the empty yard, the main doors to the house were also ajar, hefty wooden things set in an arched doorway.
"Does this seem suspiciously easy to anyone else?" I asked.
No one responded.
We crossed the yard on our toes, stealing glances at the high walls around us. An uneasiness crept over me at the sight of all that enclosing stone, as if the walls themselves radiated hostility at our intrusion into their space. Lin stopped at the bottom of a wide stone staircase that led up to the doors. She faced the rest of us, speaking in a hushed tone, her words barely managing to cross the short distance, stifled as they were by the stillness of the place.
"You'll be wantin' to stay behind me and walk where I walk," she cautioned. "This house is never entirely safe, even when the place hasn't been invaded by unknown enemies. Stay close and keep an eye on our surroundin's. And for heaven's sake, don't touch anythin'."
We climbed the stairs and passed through the doorway to the interior of Graver's home.
A short entryway opened into an enormous hall lined on both sides by battered suits of armor standing at attention. They brandished swords and spears and other weapons I couldn't name, all looking well used and sharp. On all sides of the hall the walls were hung with lavish tapestries, and the stonework floor was carpeted in rich furs and intricately woven rugs. Along one wall, a massive stone hearth sat cold and dead; any fire it once held had fled, leaving the plush furnishings that ringed the fireplace devoid of any warmth. Despite the richness of the decor, the place felt like a tomb. Heavy silence hung thick in the air, menacing in its emptiness. We crept into the hall as silently as we could, as if to keep from disturbing the sleep of whatever ghosts had chosen this lifeless place for their final rest.
Thaddeus held his gun in one hand and Lin had drawn her sword. I opened and closed my fingers, palms itching for something heavy and dangerous to hold. Despite my newfound abilities at using Light, I couldn't help but wish for a weapon of some kind. Yet I felt on some instinctive level that any weapons we might carry here were meaningless when faced with the kind of ancient power that could make this place its home. It was a realization both threatening and diminishing in its certainty, and I clenched my jaw against a feeling of irrational insignificance.
We moved through the great hall and passed under another arched doorway on the far side. As we burrowed deeper into the interior of the castle, the emptiness of the place began to seep into me. Frigid fingers of fear coiled around me like a serpent, brushing along my skin and chilling my bones. It syphoned away every good and hopeful thought and stripped me of my confidence, grinding my face into the rigid reality of our situation.
I was in over my head.
I'd let the fate of my family become entwined with killers and monsters and beings older and more powerful than I could even comprehend. The power we held might be great, but in the end, what were we other than a bunch of small town kids with precious little experience out in the wide world? Yes, we'd seen horrors and faced death over the past several weeks, but each time we'd survived only because we got help, or we got lucky. This time might not turn out that way. Aaron was lost to us, and the Steel Tower had its own wars to fight; even Thaddeus and Lin could only do so much to hold our hands through the dangers we faced. Eventually our luck was sure to run out, and when it did, there would be no-one there to pull us up out of the mire. The hopelessness of it all was so blindingly obvious I had no idea why I didn't see it sooner. We were all doomed.
Lara groaned out loud, snapping me back into the moment.
"Easy, Sis." Samuel reached out to steady her as she stumbled.
"Something isn't right," She said. Her voice was a dry husk, scraping out along with her quick, shallow breathing. "There's so much sadness here. So much terror. It's too much. I can't —"
She cut off with another groan, burying her face in her palms and shaking her head in small, rapid motions.
"I can feel it too," I agreed. "Almost shut me down for a minute there."
"What you're feeling," Thaddeus said from behind us, "is called a blackwave, It's a side effect of the Nameless Dark." I turned to see him scanning our surroundings with a set jaw and narrow eyes, gun held ready at his side. "It happens when there's a large concentration of Servants of Dark in one place. Something bad is happening here."
"That's why we need t' keep movin'," Lin cut it, motioning us forward with a nod of her head. "This way. Graver will be in his study."
Samuel and I moved to either side of Lara and helped her along as we walked through empty corridors of frigid stone. The soul crushing weight of the blackwave grew stronger with every step we took, but it wasn't the effects of that phenomenon alone that pulled my thoughts into the dark. They were joined by my lack of confidence and my growing certainty that I was leading my brother and sister into a terrible end.
More than anything, I wanted us to step into the gap our father had left and fulfill our family's mission, but all I'd managed to do so far was to barely escape death half a dozen times, and to stand by doing nothing while my uncle was captured and hauled off to face some unknown, horrible fate. It was almost comical how badly things had gone since that night at the Snake River Bridge. I thought back through the events that had led me here, beginning with Trent's death, and reliving that colossal failure along with every one that followed. Then I started again with the killing of Trent, and this time went backwards in time, recalling other failings and shortcomings, moments where I'd not lived up to expectations and seen disappointment in my father's and my big brother's eyes. It didn't seem like much of a stretch to say that the only thing I was truly good at was failing.
I'd made great strides in recent weeks with my use and understanding of Light, but I couldn't bring myself to believe that it would be enough. All of these doubts and fears haunted me as I walked, clinging like sucking swamp mud and resisting my every step.
We rounded a corner that took us down a short corridor ending at another arched doorway, this one high but narrow enough that only one person could enter at a time.
"This is it," Lin said. "Stay close."
She quickened her step down the corridor, clearly anxious to find her adoptive father, and passed through the doorway with the rest of us trailing behind.
Graver's private study brimmed with books.
More books than I'd ever seen in one place, many of which appeared far older than seemed possible, crowded every available space. The walls of the massive, oval shaped room were lined with bookshelves and the surfaces of every table and desk, as well as many of the chairs, were piled high with seemingly random stacks of ancient tomes in every size imaginable. Even the floor in some places served as an overflow location for even more books. The smell of the place matched the decor, assaulting my nostrils as soon as I stepped into the space with the dusty tang of old parchment.
The effects of the blackwave were stronger here, smothering my emotions with a swell of sickening darkness that seemed at odds with the bookish surroundings and luxurious decor.
We descended a small set of steps to the main level of the room, moving slowly and taking in our surroundings. The book-lined walls were interrupted in three other places by doors like the one we'd entered through, with similar sets of stairs. In the center of the room, a three-hundred-sixty degree curved staircase that mimicked the oval shape of the room descended further to a lower level containing a seating area of plush, overstuffed leather furnishings. The lavish seating area currently hosted a single occupant. Seated there, in a high wingback chair, with one leg comfortably crossed over the other and book in one hand, was a very ordinary looking man.
His dark hair and beard were both cropped close to a thin, moderately handsome face that could have been anywhere between thirty-five and fifty years old. With his green "Mr. Rogers" sweater and corduroy slacks, the guy looked exactly like every high school English professor known to man.
"Pa," Lin sighed her relief, hurrying toward the curved row of stairs that lead down to the seating level from all directions.
The man, whom I assumed must be the infamous Graver, continued reading his book in apparent indifference to our intrusion. He held up one hand in a stop motion and Lin froze in her tracks, obeying his wordless command with a confused look on her face.
Graver closed his book and placed it on the table next to him, finally looking up and acknowledging our presence.
"Well, Achesons, you've found me at last. Just in bloody time t' be far too fongin' late."
Graver's Scottish accent was even stronger that Lin's. I had to concentrate to understand his words.
"This is Graver?" Samuel said, turning to Thaddeus with an expression of disbelief and mild disappointment.
"Don't let him fool you." Thaddeus never took his eyes off the Scotsman. "He's just putting on a friendly face to make you drop your guard."
"I'm the one doin' the foolin', am I?" Graver pointed a thumb at his own chest. "Well, I suppose it takes a snake-in-the-grass t' seek out another. Wouldn't ya say, Thaddeus Three Spears? But then, I'm not the one standin' with one foot in the sunshine and one in the shade, am I laddie."
"What is he talking about?" Samuel asked.
"He's crazy," Thaddeus said.
"What did you mean, when you said we're too late?" Lara's voice was thin and tight, as if she spoke through pain. She stepped forward, addressing Graver directly.
"Ach, lass, I only meant to inform you," Graver's voice grew from a soft reply, building to a harsh growl, "that while you lot were busy stompin' around in your own shite, the enemy has already slipped inside the gate!"
On the last word Graver stood to his feet, and as he rose from his chair, a transformation took place that was subtle and terrifying. Gravers hair and beard lengthened, the color transitioning from midnight black to a flaming red. He seemed to grow taller and more broad, dominating the space around him with his sheer physicality, and His clothes melted away, leaving behind the rugged finery of a 13th century Scottish lord.
"Holy freaking what?" Samuel whispered, surprise sandpapering his voice.
"Pa, what in the world are you--"
Lin never finished her sentence.
The monstrous figure of one of the Wasted slammed into her from above, driving her into the ground.
Other creatures appeared as well, dropping into existence from nowhere and surrounding us in an instant like a moving labyrinth of withered, rotting flesh. Their wretched sounds erupted through the room, stabbing my ears like a rusty blade. I rushed to help Lin, screaming her name as terror shot through my veins like ice water; but only made it a few steps before I was yanked backward by the collar of my shirt, garroting my throat and choking off my breath. Two of the Wasted gripped my arms, trapping them with frigid fingers. Three others came for Samuel, using their numbers and working to surround my brother as he fought with a rage born from desperation and fear. I couldn't see Lara but I heard her cry out and felt the pulsing surge of Light from both her and Samuel as they brought their power to bear. I struggled against my attackers, fighting to get to Lin where she remained pinned beneath the Wasted that had taken her by surprise. The creatures held me fast, their hands like cold iron shackles, digging into to my skin. I poured a panicked burst of Light into my limbs, using the strength that rushed through me in a wild, unfiltered wave to thrust my arms together, crushing the Wasted into one another. With my arms now free, I ran towards Lin, only to have my face ground into the floor as the creatures moved with unnatural speed to tackle me from behind.
In seconds the room had become a hurricane of violence, and the only rational thought I could manage to hold onto in the chaos was an urgent need to reach Lin.
I braced my palms against the ground, grinding my teeth and feeling my eyes widen like a panic as I through a wave for into the air around me. The weight disappeared from my back and I found my feet again.
For a few moments we held our own, each of us calling on our power, fueled by our fear and determination. I was almost able to believe that we might turn the tables on these monsters as I pulled heat from the air around me, gathering it around my fists and hurling fire at the Wasted. The monsters were driven back and my power rose up within me, building into a terrifying force and spreading throughout my body like the shockwave of an under ocean tremor.
I had just begun to crack a confident smile when I was hit once more from behind, this time by a mass of snarling fur. Twin lines of pain burned across my back as packs of Wiley's hideous Coyotes burst into the room from every door, leaping into the battle and overwhelming us by their numbers and their ferocity.
It was over in seconds.
I was pinned to the floor where I had fallen by the crushing weight of half a dozen enemies; some former dogs, some former humans, all were monsters without the capacity for mercy or restraint.
In the relative quiet that followed, the sound of my companions and I struggling against our captors was overshadowed by the manic laughter that echoed through the room. With one eye buried in the Persian rug beneath me, I used the other to observe Wiley strolling into the room through the doorway on the opposite side from where we'd entered.
"Well, that was almost too much fun." The hood of Wiley's cloak was down revealing the skeletal smile that rode the bone-sharp ridges of his gaunt face. "Maybe we should go another round, see if we can bloody it up a bit more, ay, Gravy Train?"
Graver had not moved. He stood with proud authority, watching the proceedings with utter distain. His eyes strayed to his adoptive daughter, a brief concern flashing behind his mask of indifference, but he kept his place, his hands clasped loosely in front of him, unmoving and unafraid. His lack of response to such violence in his home surprised me, and served to highlight how little I know about this man who might not be a man.
"I think you're a fool t' be here, William," Graver shot at Wiley. "Yer nothin' but an ugly arse fish, treadin' water in the shark tank."
"My name," Wiley said, his smooth voice deepening to a growl, "is Wiley. Nobody calls me William and lives. But then, your fate has already been decided, Graver."
He spat the name out like a curse.
"Ah, that might be," Graver said, "but this was never really your plan at all, now was it, boy-o."
He turned toward us, his face hardening in a way that didn't seem natural, as if the skin had actually taken on some of the properties of stone.
"Go ahead then, laddie," he snarled, "if you've got the stones, that is."
I had no idea what the crazy Scotsman was talking about, or who he was speaking to. I struggled against the weight on my back until I could lift my head enough to see where Graver was looking. Thaddeus stood where I'd last seen him, gun held loosely at his side. The Wasted and the Coyotes that had swarmed and overwhelmed the rest of us had kept their distance from Thaddeus, leaving a bubble of space undisturbed by the swirling chaos. Thaddeus stood alone, separating himself from both the Holders of Light he'd led into this mess and the Servants of Dark he'd been protecting them from. His shoulders slumped and there was something in his eyes; a haunted quality that I'd never seen there before.
"Do it, ya goddamn bloody backstabbing coward!" Graver screamed, spittle flying through the air, wetting his beard.
Thaddeus raised his gun and shot Graver between the eyes.