I stood with Samuel at the top of the circular row of stairs overlooking the seating area and Graver's body. Lin was with him still. She'd arranged his limbs and closed his eyes, then knelt beside him. The girl had not moved in long moments. I didn't know if she was praying or meditating or performing some other ritual, but whatever grieving process she was in the midst of, it seemed very private. I didn't have the heart to interrupt her.
Behind us on the ground, was the unconscious form of Thaddeus. We'd bound his limbs as tight as we could, using strips of cloth stolen from the no longer needed uniform of an unfortunate Steel Tower soldier. While Samuel and I dealt with Thaddeus, Lara had begun sifting through the butchered bodies, searching for wounded survivors. Her compassion for the fallen combatants put me to shame. I knew I should have felt something in response to the tragic circumstances that found me manhandling the dead, mutilated body of some poor soul in order to repurpose his uniform. I should have felt guilt, or horror, or even just sadness. But nothing came. Just a mild sense of surprise that we had survived.
A throbbing numbness clung to me as I stood in one place and surveyed the carnage around me. Blood and gore blended together with the shredded cloth of fallen Steel Tower soldiers to create a sickening red and black tapestry. A movement caught my eye from the far side of the room; Aaron trudged toward us through the ruin, grim and bloody, dragging a dark figure behind him. It took me half a second to recognize Aaron's prize. It was Wiley. My Uncle had a grip on Wiley's cloak, and pulled him unceremoniously through the wreckage of twisted bodies and severed appendages. He made his slow way around to Samuel and me, pitching Wiley's body next to Thaddeus with a single toss. I returned Aaron's slim smile as we clapped our arms around each other, and a small surge of relief ran through me. Uncle Aaron was back.
Aaron greeted Samuel as well, and the three of us returned to our quiet vigil, waiting patiently for Lin.
The room was disturbingly calm in the aftermath of the battle. The Servants of Dark who had not been cut down had fled, and now the remaining Steel Tower soldiers, which appeared to be less than half of their original number, were left to sort through the mayhem and try to identify their fallen brothers and sisters at arms.
"What a freaking mess," Samuel said, the corners of his mouth turning down as he shook his head.
Aaron grunted what may have been an agreement.
"It's going to take them a while to gather their dead and transport them back to our world," he said, taking in the scene around him with an expression of distain. "We won't be burying them in this place."
"What about them?" I asked, nodding my head to indicate the motionless figures behind us. "Is Wiley..."
"He's alive," Aaron said. "Or what passes for alive with that miserable bastard. The Steel Tower will take him back to the Glacial Hall. Try to get some information out of him."
"They won't get anything, will they." Samuel said.
"No," Aaron shook his head. "Probably not."
My Uncle had changed since we last saw him in Pittsburgh. The rough edges of his visage had sharpened, and the steel in his eyes and set of his jaw seemed stronger and more piercing. He was wounded in places, the result of his contest with Wiley and whatever else he'd been through in order to reach us, but his injuries seemed small and insignificant next to the rigid strength he possessed. He was like a battle-worn sword, once rusted and chipped from years of disuse, now oiled and sharpened, and polished to a deadly gleam.
"Glad to have you back." I set my hand on his shoulder, and he gripped mine in return.
"So am I," Samuel said. "I thought we were goners for a minute there."
"I wasn't gonna let you fools have all the fun." Aaron punched Samuel's arm.
"It was quite the entrance." I said. "But how did you even get in here?"
"Yeah, and how in the hell did you find us?" Samuel added. "We're not even in the world right now. I think."
Aaron smirked to himself before responding. "I put a tracker in Thaddeus's jacket before we even left the Glacial Hall. You guys were all over the map for a while there, but once I put together where you were headed, I called in a favor from an old acquaintance who knows how to get into places like these."
Samuel laughed out loud.
"I'll be damned," he said. "I guess it's a good thing Lara is too dignified to go naked."
Aaron raised an eyebrow.
"We ditched our clothes," I explained. "Thaddeus hung on to the jacket for Lara."
"Ah," Aaron nodded. "Thaddeus always was inclined to do stupid things for the sake of being a gentleman."
"Speaking of Lara," Samuel said, "where in the heck is she?"
"What do you mean," I said turning around. "She was right —"
The words stuck in my throat.
Lara was about ten paces away, her eyes wide with surprise and a blade pressed to her throat. Thaddeus stood behind her, one arm wrapping her abdomen, pinning her against him, the other hooking her shoulder and holding the knife. Lara's face was alive not with fear, as I would have expected, but with the simmering burn of a barely contained rage. It was something I'd never seen from her before, and it surprised me almost as much as Thaddeus taking her captive.
The man who now held my sister's life in his hands was not the Thaddeus I knew. Gone was the hardened shell of the battle tested soldier. In its place was a wild eyed, jittery madman, consumed by desperation.
"I take it you boys didn't search him for weapons." Aaron growled.
"Sorry," Samuel said. "First time tying up a guy."
"Thaddeus," I held up my hands in a calming gesture and took a cautious step forward. "Thaddeus don't. Just take it easy"
"Thaddeus, if you hurt that girl..." Aaron warned.
"You don't understand," Thaddeus groaned, stepping back to maintain his distance, forcing Lara to move along with him in an awkward shuffle. "None of you understand. I don't have a choice."
I worked to keep by breath even and my mind calm, even as a desperate fear for my sister threatened to overwhelm my capability for rational thought. Lara's rage washed over me in a seething-hot wave, as whatever connection we shared seemed to amplify. It set my teeth on edge. I took another deep breath, and shoved the anger and fear away, replacing it with cool logic. There be a reason fro Thaddeus's actions. This was a man who had stayed in the fight when so many other Holders of Light had chosen to run and hide. He'd stood side-by-side with my Grandmother and built the Steel Tower into a global force for good, beating back the darkness one step at a time, and filling the gap left by the decimated Families of Light. He'd been a man of courage and conviction, a soldier, a leader. But then something had happened. Some circumstance had arisen that caused Thaddeus to abandon his values, turn against the organization he'd helped to build, and work alongside the very monsters he'd spent his life fighting.
"Why don't you have a choice, Thaddeus?" I tried. "What does the Morrighan have over you?"
At first I wasn't sure he was going to respond. There seemed to be some kind of war being waged inside him. After a long hesitation he looked at Aaron with pain plastered on in his face and watery tears welling up in his eyes.
"It's Debra," He said, his voice cracking with emotion. "She has Debra."
"Debra?" Samuel asked. "As in your sister?"
"Debra's dead, Thaddeus." Aaron shook his head, confusion breaking across his face. "You know that. She died ten years ago when the Morrighan came into power. She's gone, man."
"No," Thaddeus's voice was almost a whisper. "No she's alive. She's still alive."
"Liar!" Aaron screamed. "I watched her die. I saw it with my own eyes."
"It's true," Thaddeus said. "I swear it is."
"That's impossible," Aaron said. I turned to my uncle and saw doubt battling hope in his eyes.
"She's alive, Aaron," Thaddeus insisted. "I've seen her. The Morrighan has had her this whole time. I only found out about it a year ago, I..."
Aaron let out a roar of rage and frustration that filled the room. There was a sadness to the sound that stood in contrast to anything I'd ever heard from the man.
"So, you find out Debra is alive," Aaron said, "and your next move is to betray us all?"
"It was the only way," Thaddeus said. "It was the only way I could save her. If I hadn't done what the Morrighan wanted, she would have killed Debra. Or worse. You and I both know that demon is capable of things much more terrible then death. What would you have done Aaron? What if it was Miriam who was at the mercy of a creature like that."
"How dare you," Aaron rasped. "How dare you speak that name. Miriam is gone and you know it. If Debra is alive, you should have fought to free her. Fought to the death if you had to."
"I wasn't strong enough," Thaddeus almost whimpered, the strength his voice shredding along with his self-control. "To fight would have condemned her to death. I couldn't do that. Cooperation was the only way to keep her alive. What else was I supposed to do?"
"You could've told us!" Aaron shouted. "Jacob and I would've done anything. Anything! We would've moved heaven and earth to get her back. We would've stormed the gates of hell itself. I would have..."
Aaron cut off as a ragged sob escaped his throat and for a moment his eyes brimmed with actual tears. They ran down his face when he blinked leaving twin trails in the dust and blood. It was the first time I'd ever seen him lose his composure and give in to emotion of any kind. Whatever lies Thaddeus had fed us, he'd clearly told the truth about our Uncle Aaron's feelings for Debra.
"Thaddeus," Lara said, her fear and rage locked carefully behind a courageous composure. "Please let us help you. We can work together to save your sister."
"I'm sorry," Thaddeus said, tightening his grip on Lara and pressing the knife deeper into her throat. The blade broke the skin, drawing a thin trickle of blood. Lara closed her eyes. "You have no idea how sorry I am. But it's too late now. If I don't take you to her, Debra is as good as dead."
"Well, I guess you've got a little somethin' in common then, don't ya Laddie." A powerful Scottish voice thundered through the room.
I turned and there was Graver, standing near the same door Aaron had entered through, and looking exactly as he had before Thaddeus put a bullet through his skull. The mythic Scotsman seemed to occupy all the space around him, his presence an almost physical force, pulsing like the gravity of a small planet. His clothing was spotless and royal, and the wild red of his beard shone like a beacon-fire on the rocky coast of his homeland.
"Holy Shhh—" Samuel expressed the same shock I felt.
"Why so surprised, kiddies?" Graver went on, his booming voice drowning out the thud of my own pulse in my ears. "Did ya really think a wee bit of lead in the brain was enough ta end me?"
Graver clucked his tongue, a smug sneer landing on his face, and shook his head in mock disappointment.
No one moved a muscle, not even Thaddeus. Every person in the room, breathing or not, kept perfectly still and waited for what would happen next. In that small pause I stole a glance toward Lin. She still knelt in the same place where Graver had fallen, her hands folded, her head bowed. Graver's body was still there, just as dead as it had been a moment before. I did a double take, my eyes tracking back and forth between Graver and dead Graver, unable to comprehend what they were seeing.
As if in answer to my confusion, Graver looked straight at me and winked.
"What the hell is this?" Thaddeus hissed, finally recovered enough to find his voice. "How are you standing there? I shot you, I —"
"Do ya think I've never been shot before?" Graver bellowed.
His rage blew through the room like a gale force wind and shook the foundation of the castle. Bits of gravelly dust rained from the ceiling.
"Centuries I've walked the bloody wretched mud-hills of this world, with its mange-ridden dogs spewin' their unholy fire from iron tubes, burning their filth and blackness into the very ground tha' birthed them. Come now, laddie. Did ye truly believe tha' someone such as you could bring me low? Yer nothin' but a slime-bellied worm, crawling through the shite covered entrails of the Earth."
"But, the bullet was infused with Light." Thaddeus seemed to speak almost to himself, his voice dwindling and loosing substance.
Graver laughed, the full throated sound rattling my teeth and bones.
"Light and dark, day and night, heat and cold. I do na' care about such pitifully insignificant things. If you'd done yer homework, laddie, you'd 'ave known that."
Thaddeus was shaking now. His terror leaked from every pour, lending him the look of a cornered animal, wild eyed and manic. He clung to Lara like a lifeline, crushing her against himself while his attention remained fixated on the threat of a newly resurrected, and thoroughly pissed off, Graver. Lara's eyes remained closed. She turned her head as far as possible away from the knife, trying in vain to create space between her exposed skin and the unrelenting blade. I began to worry that in his panic, Thaddeus would slice her head from her shoulders by accident.
"Now," Graver said with finality, "I do believe it's time for you ta come out from behind that wee sparrow yer holdin'."
Graver raised an empty hand and suddenly it held a knife.
I looked back to Thaddeus and realized at the same moment he did that his hand, which had just been holding his knife to my sister's throat, was now empty. Thaddeus stared at his empty hand, flexing the fingers as if searching for a grip on something that wasn't there. He shook his head in disbelief, then looked up at Graver, an expression of defeat rolling the corners of his face toward the ground.
Graver held up the knife, thick fingers loose around the handle. He eyed the cold metal of the blade, still streaked with wisps of Lara's blood.
"There's only one thing t' do," he murmured, "with the dog that bit the child's hand."
Graver opened his fingers and the knife was gone.
I never saw the knife move; it simply disappeared from Graver's grip. An odd gurgling drew my attention back to Thaddeus. He still held Lara in his arms, his shoulders hunched defensively, his head still in the same position and his eyes on Graver. But now the handle of his own knife protruded from Thaddeus's forehead, its blade sunk deep between his eyes. Thaddeus's arms gradually slackened, and as they did, Lara stepped away, allowing the tall man to slump to the floor once more.
This time he would not be getting up.