A second later the wound began to spark, throwing out random bits of energy like a downed electrical wire. The effect spread down his limbs until he was lit up like a Christmas tree from head to toe, electricity arcing and sputtering across every surface of his body. His skin glowed a pale red as if it were lit up from within by some unknown source of power.
Then the light show fizzled out and Graver's body slumped to the floor.
In the aftermath, I felt my mind slip into a black haze. I couldn't make sense of what I'd just seen. We had been through so much hardship to reach this place, each of us braving unspeakable horrors and mortal danger, barely escaping with our lives, all to reach the mysterious Graver in hopes that he could help us. Now, in the blink of an eye, the object of our search, our only hope to contact the other Families, was little more than a slab of well-dressed meat cooling on the ground. He'd died at the hands of a man whom I had trusted, whom we had all trusted with our lives. Over the past several weeks, Thaddeus had become like family to my brother and sister and me. When Aaron was taken and we'd been forced to run for our lives, the stoic Steel Tower commander had filled the gap left by the loss of our Uncle, becoming a guide, mentor, and friend. He'd taught us to use Core Light, and educated us about the mysteries of the incredible power we held. He'd walked alongside us through every treacherous step, right up until the moment he pulled the trigger and crushed the bond we'd built under the weight of his betrayal.
A pressure began to build inside my skull as undiluted rage washed over me, consuming my rationality in a wildfire that blazed cross my vision to color the world red. A frenzied roar leapt from my throat and I railed against my captors, flailing and fighting, tasting blood in my mouth as my teeth closed on my tongue. I called up Light on instinct, but it was directionless, burning nothing but air in an impotent display of useless rage. My captors beat my efforts back with brutal precision. Sharp points of pain pierced my skin and cruel pressure ground into my limbs, holding me fast and containing my fury.
To the left and right of me, I heard my brother and sister screaming their own anger at our enemies. Flashes of Light burst from Samuel's directions. Coyote's roared and snarled, meeting my brother's violence with their own until the frenzy of our struggle died out and silence reclaimed the room.
The anger left me quickly, its flame fizzling out and leaving a numb expanse of deadened emotion strewn across the ashes of my mind. Rough hands hauled me up to my knees while Samuel and Laura we're both dragged over to kneel on either side of me. Brilliant stabs of pain flared in my chest with each breath, telling of cracked ribs or worse, and other minor jabs of injury wracked my limbs with their nagging sting. Samuel and Lara looked as battered as I felt, their heads hung in exhaustion while bitter disappointment fled their starving lungs with each rattling breath. From somewhere to my left, I heard Lin thrashing on the ground, still grunting and cussing, straining against the beasts that held her down. I wanted to help her, to save her from what I knew she was feeling. But I couldn't bring myself to look in her direction.
My eyes stayed glued to Thaddeus.
Our former teacher stood off to one side, a blank, glassy-eyed expression on his statuesque face. There was no shame or guilt or even anger in his demeanor, just a cold emptiness, as if everything alive inside of him had died along with Graver.
"Why'd you do it, Thaddeus?" I asked him quietly. "You already had us. Why kill Graver?"
"Oh my," Wiley cut in, dancing into view like a demented Broadway player. "Someone has an over-inflated view of himself. What makes you shit-eating toddlers think that any of this was about you?"
I saw it then. All the pieces snapped into place in my head and I saw the whole picture laid out in front of me like a jigsaw puzzle from hell. I pictured the sequence of events that had brought us here. How the Wasted seemed to find us at every turn, no matter what precautions we took. Lin joining our cause, persuaded by Thaddeus to show us exactly what needed to be done to reach Graver. Then there was the unexplained animosity towards our family from Trent and his piece of shit Uncle. I heard again the uncles' words when he'd come face to face with Samuel's power: I know what you are. You and that whole family of yours. Pathetic little demons if you ask me. All that dark juju and not one of you is worth the spit on my boot. I could see now how he'd been manipulated, poisoned against my family. Even the death of our father was suspicious: a freak accident at the factory where he worked that should never have been able to bring down a battle-hardened Holder of Light. There'd been a puppet-master pulling our strings from the start.
"It was all a set up," I said to no one, staring into empty space as the revelation took hold. The stale air in the room began to dry out my eyes as they widened in disbelief. "Everything. All of it. From start to finish."
I turned back to Thaddeus, seeing his traitorous face in a new and terrible light.
"You set this all up so we'd lead you to Graver."
"My God," Laura whispered.
"Oh, your darling uncle was a target too," Wiley cooed, pacing the floor in wide circles around us. "But we could've grabbed him anytime we wanted. No, Graver was the real challenge. We had no way of getting to him, and no way to draw him out since he really doesn't care about anything."
Wiley's sunken eyes strayed to Lin with a condescending smirk.
"Sorry, sweetheart. The truth hurts."
Lin had gone quiet. I risked a glance in her direction and found her staring at Thaddeus with dagger eyes, as if she would peel the flesh from his bones with just her gaze.
So," Wiley continued, "we created a situation where you would have no choice but to seek out that deranged, egotistical Scotsman, and then we allowed you to lead us to him."
"But why kill him?" I asked, confusion still clouding my brain. "I mean, why go to all the trouble? You know damn well he doesn't side with us anymore than he does with you. Why take the risk?"
"Power," Thaddeus answered in a deep, rasping whisper. "Graver was one of the only powers left in this world that could oppose her. Now there's one less obstacle between the Morrighan and everything she wants."
"And what does she want?" Lara asked, still kneeling to my left and gritting her teeth against the blackwave as it continued to smother out hope and confidence, pouring fuel on our darker emotions. "What's her endgame? What's the Morrighan's prize at the end of all this?"
"For starters, she wants you." Wiley turned from his pacing to face us again. "Well, she wants you three, anyway."
He pointed a skeletal finger at Samuel, Lara, and I, waving it back and forth.
"And what the hell makes you think we're going to come along quietly?" Samuel growled.
My brother sat up straighter, recovering a measure of his proud fury, and I felt power begin to stir inside him like a furnace sparking to life. Buoyed by my big brothers' defiance, I called on my own as well, preparing to fight back one last time. I reached out to Lara and Samuel with my power, feeling affirmation from both. This time we would fight together, with everything we had, and we wouldn't stop until we were dead or they were.
"That's right," I said to Wiley. "We've got a few tricks you haven't seen yet, you zombie-meth-addict-looking bastard."
"Oh, I'm sure you do," Wiley sneered. "But have you stopped to consider this?"
He held his boney hand out toward Lin as if offering an invitation.
The creatures that had been holding her down responded by dragging her to her feet. One of the Wasted stepped in front of her, a large creature with long, thin arms that ended in curved, claw-like fingernails, like the decaying talons of a dead bird of prey. It cocked its head at Lin like a curious animal, and one of its hands shot up to grip her neck in a crushing chokehold, lifting her off the ground. Lin gagged, sputtering for air, her eyes bulging from her head in pain and abject terror. Crimson droplets blossomed at the end of the monster's crooked fingers where they dug into her flesh, trailing red streaks down the surface of her neck.
"You see," Wiley chuckled, resuming his pacing, "if I feel any of you precious little kiddos tapping into the smallest sparkling drop of that sunshiny-happy Core Power you're packing," suddenly he was screaming, eyes glowing red inside their sunken hollows and strange black lines growing from their sockets to creep across his pale face, "I will rip your girlfriend's throat from her body and scatter her blood and guts across this dusty ass floor!"
I froze, fear crushing the air from my lungs. My heart threw itself against the walls of my chest as if trying to break free and run to Lin.
"Wait." I said, my voice cracking and my vision blurring behind sudden tears. I released the Light I'd been building inside me, allowing it to recede like a wave returning to the ocean. "Wait, don't."
I couldn't entirely understand the terror that shot through my veins at Wiley's words. Fear for my own life had become a regular thing for me lately, and fear for the safety of my family was just an extension of that same phenomenon. Our fates were entwined, and what happened to one of us impacted us all. But this was something different. The sight of Lin in danger, in pain, caused a visceral reaction that I could't control. I absolutely could not let any harm come to that girl. If anything bad happened to Lin, and I could have done something to prevent it, I wouldn't survive. I might actually cease to exist.
"I thought that would get your attention, young Conduit," Wiley mocked. "You're just like your Uncle Aaron, aren't you? Thinking with your little-bitty-man-parts instead of your brain. I wonder, how will you manage to play chess once we've removed your tiny balls?"
Wiley's insane laugh echoed through the room, pulling a grimace from my face and bile into my throat.
"Thaddeus," Lara pleaded. The misery and despair in her voice was a knife in my ribs. "Thaddeus, please."
I turned to look at our former mentor. His head hung low and his eyes were black holes beneath a furrowed brow. The dark skin of his granite face, once smooth and handsome, appeared ashen and sickly slick with sweat.
"You're really going to let this happen, you son of a bitch?" Samuel spat, his anger a cruel sword, sharpening his tongue. "You'd let them turn us over to her? You're going to stand there with your thumb in your ass and allow evil to grow stronger in the world?"
"I'm sorry." Thaddeus's reply was less a spoken phrase than a rumbled emotion.
He looked at us for the first time since murdering our only hope. The hardened cast of his expression began to crack around the edges and his eyes seemed to plead with us to understand what he had done, as if any of us could ever forgive his wretched betrayal.
"I don't have a choice," he murmured.
"There's always a choice, Thaddeus." Growled another voice, this one full of iron and grit, and accompanied by the crackling hum of arcing electricity.
I whipped my head toward the voice, surprise knifing through my chest.
Uncle Aaron stood in the doorway, wreathed in coils of blue-white energy, his eyes burning like miniature stars and his face a chiseled cowl of stone, like vengeance come to life.