"Let the kids go, Wiley," Aaron growled, "and maybe I won't roast you into a pile of charred asshole."
Aaron stood tall on the top step. He filled in the doorway with his angry figure, alive with writhing bolts of energy. I didn't want to believe what I was seeing; the fear that it would turn out to be some demented trick or desperate hallucination nagged at the back of my brain. But I knew my uncle when I saw him, his rugged strength, his crass demeanor, the rasp of his voice as he gnawed on his words like a caged grizzly bear. I had no idea how he'd managed to find us after all these weeks, but this was him, Aaron Acheson, in the flesh.
Something stirred to life inside me at the sight of my uncle. Some hopeful part of me that had been curled up in a corner waiting to die, rose to join the fight once more. I found myself grinning like a lunatic, my hands forming eager fists, my lungs heaving in time with a quickened heartbeat. I glanced at Samuel and Lara, seeing the same manic elation reflected on their faces. It was on now.
"You know," Wiley took slow steps toward Aaron, keeping a wide distance from Samuel, Lara, and me. "I was a little peeved at you for giving us the slip in Pittsburgh. Honestly, I'd hoped you had crawled into a hole somewhere and died of your injuries."
Aaron took a menacing step down the stairs and Wiley stopped, raising one hand. The Wasted holding Lin shook her once, drawing a fresh gurgling cry from her throat. Aaron growled, retreating to the top step.
"But this is even better," Wiley continued. "You waltzing in here all by your lonesome, gunning to save your family like some braindead cowboy, and delivering your ugly corpse right to us. It's almost too perfect. I mean you see what I've got to work with here, right?"
Wiley spun a slow circle, gesturing to the horde of monsters around him.
"Maybe we should all tie one arm behind our back, just to make this a little more interesting."
Aaron glanced over at my siblings and I, throwing us a quick wink.
"Who said I wandered in here alone, Wiley?" Aaron asked.
His grimace warped into a wolfish half smile, taunt lips parting over gritted teeth, smug confidence solidifying in his cold blue eyes.
"I never said that."
Wiley stopped in his tracks, his arrogant swagger giving way to a stiff apprehension.
Before he could react, the room was filled with sudden concussive flashes of light, a barrage of little explosions scattering across the space. The first struck the monster that held Lynn, incinerating its arm in a single blast and freeing her from its grip. In seconds the room was flooded with dozens of black clad figures, wielding lightning and throwing fire like Olympians of old.
The Steel Tower had arrived.
Soldiers of the Steel Tower moved into the room like the efficient military unit they were. Pouring through the doors on every side, they took up positions along the walls, working in pairs with one soldier holding up an Ice-blade in its shield form, and the other firing their weapon from behind it. They used some type of rifle that seemed to be powered by Light energy. I could feel the expulsion of Light with each blinding flash. The weapons could only fire a few shots, three or four at the most, but where they struck the Wasted and Coyotes, they did massive damage, disintegrating entire portions of the creature's bodies. I saw three of the monsters go down missing limbs or giant sections of torso, and two more received head shots that dropped them for good. When the soldiers had emptied their weapons, they went to work with their Ice-blades, closing their fists to extend the amazing Light powered sword blades, then charging into the midst of the Servants of Dark.
Aaron leapt from his place at the door. Leading the Steel Tower into battle, he shot through the room like a rocket, a deadly rain of lighting cascading behind him, and flew straight at Wiley with an earth shaking roar. Wiley flew into the air to meet him, screaming in return, his a cry of rage and desperation. His cloak became a blur of loathsome darkness around him and his hands and eyes left trails of ghostly red energy in their wake. The two collided in mid-air with a sickening crunch and fell to the ground, grappling in a vicious contest of might as forces of Light and Dark sizzled and flashed around them.
The chaos that followed was a distorted version of reality where nothing existed except blood and destruction and mind-numbing noise. The Steel Tower soldiers were well trained and heavily armed with weapons designed for fighting Servant of Dark, but they were still very much human. Where their skills, weapons, or numbers failed, they were overwhelmed and torn into gory pieces by the creatures they faced. I saw two brave soldiers beating back one of the Wasted with their iceBlades, severing one of its arms and skewering its midsection. One of the men was caught from behind by a Coyote and driven to the ground, where a second beast joined the first in ripping the organs from his body. The other soldier was left alone to face the Wasted, which caved in his skull with its remaining fist, pummeling the man's head into bloody, gray pulp. In another corner of the battle, a female Steel Tower soldier fired three direct blasts of Light into the Wasted that had pinned her to the wall before her weapon was drained of power. The monster managed to ignore the giant oozing hole through its middle long enough to shred the unfortunate woman's throat into thin scarlet ribbons.
A movement at the corner of my eye spurred me to dive into Lara on instinct, carrying us both to the ground just as one of the Wasted who'd been guarding us took a swipe at my sister, its clawed fingers sliced a ragged line through the space where she'd just been kneeling. Samuel move just as fast, calling up Light and sending a quick lance of power into the creature, hurling in backward and away from us, and creating a small island of momentary peace in the hurricane of battle that raged all around.
Everywhere violence, blood, and death rose up to consume my vision, turning the edges of the world black like the sooty sludge at the corners of an overused fireplace. The madness swirling around me hammered my every rational thought into dust, but despite the insanity, a singular idea remained lodged at the forefront of my mind, piercing the fog like a lighthouse.
I turned to Samuel, gripping his shoulder and drawing his eyes away from the carnage.
"Lin!" I shouted.
My brother met my gazing, nodding once. Then he turned to focus his eyes to where Thaddeus stood apart from the battle, holding his gun at the ready and watching the violence unfold. Aaron was locked in combat with Wiley, and the Steel Tower engaged the horde of monsters; that left only Thaddeus.
"Go," Samuel said. "Lara and I have an ass-whooping to hand out."
Lara squeezed my hand.
"Be careful," She said.
I kissed her forehead, then moved away, turning back once to see Lara and Samuel wading into the chaos on a direct path to Thaddeus. Lara strode forward with her head high, the pain of the blackwave forgotten; Samuel walked at her side, his heavy step telling of scores to be settled. I turned away again, hurrying toward where I'd last seen Lin.
Twice as I ran through the fray I was nearly mauled by one of Wiley's rabid beasts. The Coyotes flew straight at me, materializing from the tempestuous surroundings to target my throat with gaping jaws. I threw them aside with bursts of Light, seeking only to clear a path. With the second Coyote out of the way, I caught a glimpse of Lin through the crowd of monstrosities. The Wasted that had held her by the neck was on the floor in two pieces, but she'd somehow ended up pinned to the ground beneath another of the creatures. The warrior girl struggled valiantly, warding off every attack from the monster above her with furious desperation, Light flashing in defensive bursts. I could tell she wouldn't last much longer.
I quickened my feet, fear fueling my steps, and as I passed a small pile of twisted Coyote corpses, a glint of metal caught my eye. On instinct I stooped, shooting a hand out as I passed the object. My fingers closed around the handle of Lin's broadsword, buried hilt deep in the body of a dead Coyote. The motion of my body ripped the blade from its victim, freeing the weapon as I took the final steps to close the distance with Lin's attacker. The sword was lighter than I expected and incredibly well balanced, moving like an extension of my arm as I poured Light into my limbs and swung the blade in a tight arc with all my enhanced strength. I felt the sword edge bite deep into rotting flesh. The body of the Wasted fell to one side, while its head hit ground and rolled to the other.
Lin looked up at me from her back, bleeding from an ugly gash near her left eye; her arm on the same side, still held in a defensive position, looked shredded in ways I didn't want to think about. Despite the abuse she'd suffered, Lin's face was set in a firm expression of equal parts anger and sadness. The pain behind her eyes went far deeper than her physical injuries. She gripped my hand when I offered it, allowing me to lift her to her feet and gather her into a tight embrace. I pulled her to me without thinking, wrapping her lithe figure in my arms for the first time. The lean strength of her limbs encircled me and the sharp solidity of her angular frame softened in a way wouldn't have thought possible as she melted against me. I felt a shudder run through her as she allowed herself a small moment of vulnerability. It was like an exchange of gifts, my offer of comfort returned in kind as Lin allowed me to glimpse a side of her that few would ever see.
"Thanks." Lin spoke into my shoulder.
"No problem," I said. "I was just in the neighborhood. Thought I'd stop by."
I could feel her grin as she smiled against me. Then after a moment, it faded.
"I need to protect his body," She raised her head as her eyes sought out the place where Graver had fallen. "I can na' allow these bloody freaks to have him."
I nodded, stepping away and offering Jian Shu Lin her sword.
The trembling of her hand seemed to still as it closed around the grip; she stood a little taller and her almond eyes reclaimed a bit of their fire.
"I'm glad you're ok," I said.
Lin smiled and stepped in close, pressing a soft-lipped kiss against my cheek, then turned without a word and strode into the chaos.
A concussive sound shot through air, breaking the spell of Lin's unexpected kiss, and yanking my attention to the other side of the room where Samuel and Lara had gone to confront Thaddeus. The noise thundered and screamed like a grenade tossed into the heart a roaring jet engine; flashes of light splashed across the walls and ceiling. I turned toward the sound, feeling myself pulled backward by the need to rejoin my family and fight alongside them.
I moved in that direction as quickly as I could, dodging outstretched claws and whirling ice blades, leaping over the mangled bodies of monsters and Steel Tower soldiers. I sprinted across the killing field and came to an opening in the thick press of combatants where the floor was charred and blackened, scattered with crumbled bits of stone from the ceiling.
Lara knelt on the ground to one side, cradling one arm with the other, fresh bruises blossoming across her delicate features. In the center of the scorched space, Thaddeus and Samuel grappled on their feet, gripping each other with bloodied hands and throwing knees and elbows in whipping strikes. Light blazed around them in coils of snaking energy; it lanced across the walls and ceiling in crackling bursts, leaving trails of burnt destruction.
Samuel fought like a man possessed, teeth bared in unrestrained fury, and eyes alight with the fire of revenge. Thaddeus, by contrast, was cold as stone and just as solid; the flames of Samuel's rage broke against him like waves against a rocky shore. I watched as Thaddeus thrust himself forward, driving his weight into Samuel and forcing the boy to respond with equal pressure. Thaddeus was taller than Samuel and just as broad, but my brother held his own despite the height difference. Without warning, Thaddeus reversed his direction, spinning to turn his back to my brother and dropping his hips low; Thaddeus used Samuel's own forward pressure to carry him up and over, slamming the boy to the ground. Without hesitation Thaddeus raise his fist, wrapping it in energy and preparing a killing strike.
On instinct, I lashed out with my power, sending a shockwave of force into Thaddeus and driving him away from Samuel. With my brother out of immediate danger, I ran to Lara, helping her to her feet with an arm around her waist.
"Are you ok?" I asked her as we crossed the floor toward Samuel.
"I'm fine," she spat, a fierce defiance undergirding her voice. "Arm's broken, but I'll live. Lin?"
"She's good." I glanced over my shoulder in the direction of Graver's body. Lin was out of sight on the lower level of Graver's study; I couldn't tell what was happening down there. On the far side of the room, I saw flashes of light and eruptions of fire from the where Aaron still battled Wiley.
Samuel was in the slow process of struggling to stand. He looked rattled and a bit disoriented, but mostly he just looked mad.
"Took you long enough," Samuel grunted, grimacing at me through blood smeared lips as Lara and I pulled him up the rest of the way.
"I was gone for two minutes and you already got your ass handed to you."
"Whatever." Samuel shook his head. "That S.O.B. is tough as hell."
"So let's take him down a few notches." Lara said. I followed her icy gaze to where Thaddeus was climbing out of the pile of rubble I'd blasted him into; his face was a blank slate, lacking any sign of emotion or remorse.
"Here comes the Terminator," I said, stepping forward and calling my power to life.
Thaddeus came for us with the slow inevitability of a steam roller, heavy steps crunching through the stone wreckage, hooded eyes fixing on me with a murderous intensity. Fear emanated from the man. It was in the whites of his eyes, in the tension in his shoulders, in the set of his jaw. He had the look of a cornered predator, preparing to turn on its hunters and demonstrate the ferocity that inspired fear in its own prey.
"Why are you doing this, Thaddeus?" I asked, pausing my advance.
"I told you, boy. I don't have a choice." I could see his pain now. Cracks appeared in the hard edges of his face, tiny fissures marring the stone mask he'd created. "I have to take you to her. That, or I have to kill you all."
"What does she have on you, man?" Samuel asked.
Thaddeus didn't respond, other than to call Light to his arms, encasing them in jagged tendrils of energy.
"Okay then," I said. "If that's the way it has to be."
I reached out to Samuel and Lara, unlocking our Core power and drawing it into myself in a careful flow. White hot fire ignited in my bones, surging through me and threatening to overwhelm my senses. The rising power was as forceful as ever, but I could feel my increased control as I worked to contain the Core Light, just as Thaddeus had taught me. I recalled those lessons with our teacher and friend, his patient encouragement coaxing out the best in us, and a newly raw feeling of betrayal carved its ragged mark into the memories. It had all been a lie, a ruse to gain our confidence and take advantage of our need to find Graver. Now Graver was dead, murdered in cold blood, and our one chance to reconnect with the rest of the Seven Families was gone. Thaddeus had deceived and betrayed us, and now it was time for a reckoning.
I focused on our former teacher and thrust my hands forward, unleashing the power I'd gathered. A pillar of blind white fire shot from me, roaring like an avalanche, and slammed into Thaddeus.
And nothing happened.
Thaddeus didn't even move to defend himself. He simply stood in one place and waited while the Core Light washed over him like a river parting around a tall rock. I released the power, allowing it to recede back into the well from which it came, and stared at Thaddeus in astonishment. He was completely unharmed.
"What the hell?" Samuel sounded as shocked as I was.
"My thoughts exactly," Lara added in a thin monotone.
"Sorry, kids," Thaddeus rumbled, "I may have left a few things out during our lessons. The thing about Light, even Core Light, is that it's extremely useful for manipulating forces, or enhancing our strength, or burning Servants of Dark into ash, but if you try to use it directly against another Holder of Light," he spread his arms, presenting himself as evidence, "it doesn't do anything at all."
"Not good," I said, glancing around in a quick search for something that could help us. I didn't know what I was looking for. There was nothing.
I met Samuel's eye, and then Lara's. My brother and sister looked as defeated as I felt. We were the Core Family of our generation: Vessel, Conduit, and Key, the last complete Core Family alive, as far as anyone knew. But here, in this place that didn't exist, faced with an inconceivable betrayal, all our incredible power amounted to jack shit.
I'd never felt so powerless.
In that moment I knew how my father must have felt when he'd had his power stripped from him by the Morrighan. That power had been a part of him. It gave him his identity as the Vessel, it was how he fulfilled his purpose in the world, and without it he must've felt worthless. That was why he'd chosen to run. His reason for existing in this world had been stolen from him, and he didn't see a way forward through the pain.
Now I found myself faced with a similar choice.
Thaddeus was a skilled soldier and he was determined to capture or kill us. To stand against him weaponless was most likely suicide. We could make a run for it: create a distraction of some kind, grab Lin, and head back to the land of the living. In all the chaos, we might even have a shot at making it out. But then what? The Morrighan would never stop coming for us. Wiley would continue to hunt us and Thaddeus would help, tracking us to the furthest edges of the Earth, and all the while darkness would continue to grow, gaining power in our absence.
I couldn't allow that to happen.
I took a slow breath. My ribs ached and my body protested against itself from a dozen minor injuries. I was cold and afraid, trapped with my enemies in a place beyond death and time. But none of that mattered. I was not my father. I couldn't just run away and leave the world to suffer for my cowardice.
"We have to end this now," I said, turning to Samuel and Lara. They were both battered and bloody, but they stood with me, courage and determination driving out the fear in their eyes.
"He's probably gonna tear us apart." Lara sighed, shaking her head with a slight frown that was almost cute despite the bruising on her face. I felt a small surge of Light as she stretched her broken arm, using her power to strengthen the damaged limb.
"Let him try." Samuel's eyes were locked on Thaddeus. "He'll have to deal with all three of us, and we're not going to make it easy."
As Thaddeus stalked toward us once more, a slow wind began to move through the room. It picked up speed, fanning the pages of books and hurling stinging bits of rubble against the side of my face. At first I thought it was Thaddeus that caused the movement in the air, but I saw him look behind me with curiosity in his eyes and I turned to see what had distracted him. On the other side of the room, the battle between Aaron and Wiley had reached a fever pitch. They hung in the air, locked in a terrible contest of wills, like Greek Titans wrestling their way across the sky. Competing energies moved around them; blue-white lightning chased an insidious blackness shot through with veins of blood red, creating a swirling maelstrom that threatened to tear the room apart. I stared in slack-jawed amazement, unable to look away from such an awesome display of power.
"Jonas," Lara cried out.
I turned back to find that Thaddeus had used our moment of distraction to close the distance again. Samuel stepped up to intercept him, throwing a fist at his face, while I moved left and Lara went to the right. Thaddeus easily avoided the strike, leaning back and out of range while shooting a foot into the air. His heel connected with my jaw snapping my head backwards and pitching me to the ground.
The room went dark in for a second.
When I came back to myself, a throbbing ache had taken root in my skull. I looked up to watch Lara take a back hand across the face while Samuel moved around to Thaddeus's back, attempting to snake an arm around his throat. Thaddeus drove an elbow into my brother's ribcage, then ducked under his arm, spinning to slam a fist into the same spot. Samuel gagged and staggered backwards in time to take a straight right across to the nose. Samuel went down.
This wasn't working. Trying to fight Thaddeus without relying on our power was an impossible task. It was even more difficult than facing down a thunderstorm had been. With the storm, we were able to bend it to our will by manipulating the forces of nature that had formed it, but our contest with Thaddeus was completely different.
Or maybe it wasn't.
I noticed again the motion of the air around me, hurling book pages and other litter throughout the room. Core Light couldn't harm Thaddeus directly, but we could still use it to manipulate natural forces. Even here in Graver's study, we could exert some level of control over the atmosphere around us, just like Aaron and Wiley were doing as they battled.
I knew what I had to do and I didn't hesitate.
Reaching out to Samuel and Laura once more, I drew Core Light to myself, sending it immediately into the air around Thaddeus. I pulled heat out of the air above him, using it to superheat the air near the ground in a donut shaped circle around him. The effect was almost immediate. The hot air rush up toward the cold I'd just created, forming a vertical tunnel of upward moving air with Thaddeus at its center. The violent wind that was already gusting through the room interacted with the tunnel of hot air, causing rotation around Thaddeus. It swirled faster and faster as I continue to manipulate the temperature until it formed into a small tornado, encasing Thaddeus in a tight cylinder of wind. The rotating winds pulled the breathable oxygen from the center of tornado, trapping Thaddeus in a vacuum.
Samuel and Lara were blown back, away from Thaddeus. I saw the tall man's stern expression break with realization and fear. Then his face was lost to me, obscured by the paper and rubble and other identified things that spiraled through the air around him. Thaddeus's shape became a vague shadow in the midst of the whirling debris, jerking and wavering as he struggled to break free. I kept it going until I saw the outline of his shadow go limp inside the twister, then I shut off the flow of power. The wind died down and the tornado disappeared, dissipating into the air in the room.
Thaddeus slumped to the ground, unconscious.