We had survived the ordeal and lived to fight another day, but at a heavy cost. Nearly a dozen Steel Tower soldiers had lost their lives, brave men and women who'd charged into harm's way to save me and my family. Thaddeus was also gone, and his death hurt almost as much as the depth of his betrayal, especially in light of what we'd learned about the reason for his treachery. He may have chosen the wrong path, sinking into a darkness just as black and twisted and as our enemies, but in the end, he'd done it all to save his sister. He had been willing to go to impossible lengths to protect his family. Just like me. Thinking back on the events surrounding Trent's death, and my own hand in that tragedy, I couldn't help but wonder just how different Thaddeus and I truly were.
The thought made me sick to my stomach.
If one redeeming outcome emerged from this mess, it was that, despite how horribly wrong things had gone, we'd actually achieved what we set out to do: we'd found Graver, and secured his assistance. After his apparent return from the grave, our host seemed much more sympathetic to our cause than anyone had expected him to be. Aaron had tried to capitalize on our good fortune and recruit the Scotsman to our larger purpose.
"Someone like you," Aaron had said, sincerity chiseled on his face, "could make a very big difference in the fight against the Dark."
Graver's response had not been the one my uncle hoped for.
"I'm the only someone there is like me, boyo." He said "And I'll not be takin' sides in yer little pissin' match."
He paused for a moment, surveying the wreckage of his study with a thoughtful stroke of his beard. Mixed in with all of the blood and gore were the shredded remains of many books and manuscripts. It was possible that hundreds of years' worth of written words had been destroyed in the battle.
"Now, on the other hand," Graver said, "it was the Morrighan's creatures who brought that bloody war into my home to spew its stinking bile all over my work."
He grimaced, showing his gritted teeth like an angry hound dog.
"I might have been able to let that go, but then the bastards went an' killed my dogs. An' that just pisses me right off. So, in the interest of settlin' scores, I do believe I'll help ya after all, though not in the way yer askin'. I'll grant you the request that you originally came here to make."
"You'll help us contact the other Families of Light?" I'd asked.
"I'll do ya one better than that, Laddie," Graver had said. "I'll contact the slippery buggers for ya. As a matter of fact, I already have. You lot just make yer way on back to ol' Bartholomew Thompson's Compound. I imagine you'll be hearin' from 'em before ya know it. And in the meantime, you've earned yer selves a moment's peace. I'd suggest ya bloody well enjoy it. It may be the last ya encounter for a long, long while."
I wasn't sure what that last part meant, but I did relish the prospect of a few days of rest. The past few weeks had seemed like an eternity and I found it difficult to remember what it felt like not to be hunted. We all agreed that some downtime, hidden away at the Compound, recovering from our injuries and planning our next move, would be ideal.
I'd left the others to work out the details and crept from the room alone. In the absence of the blackwave, Graver's house had lost its menace and I could appreciate the fine artistry that met my gaze at every turn. I'd made my way back out to the front gate and found a comfortable rock to perch on, staring into the distance and losing myself in thought.
A soft scrape behind me drew my attention and I turned as Lin slid into place beside me. She offered a small smile and we both turned back to the view in front of us, comfortable in the silence of each other's company. After a moment, I felt Lin's hand slip into mine.
I smiled as an irrational contentment washed over me.
"You knew Graver wasn't dead, didn't you?" I said. "That's why you wanted to protect his body."
"He was dead," Lin said. "Technically. But I'd hoped he'd be comin' back. Graver is na' connected to this world in terms of alive or dead the way you and I are."
"Like those horse-faced Mamian things?" I asked.
Lin made a face.
"A bit, I suppose. Though I'd never compare the two in front of Graver."
"So that's why he was able to build his castle in this place?" I reasoned "Because he's not really connected to our world?"
Lin nodded. "He's a very big mystery. Even to me."
"Will you stay with him now?"
Lin sighed, hesitating to respond.
"I left Graver's house over a year ago," she said finally. "He wanted me gone for m'own safety, but there were many other reasons why I couldn't stay here any longer. And none of them have changed."
I nodded and squeezed her hand gently, wanting to appear understanding though I didn't fully understand. There was clearly more to the story, but I could tell Lin wasn't ready to share it.
"You could always come to the Compound with us." I offered "I know how fond you are of the Professor, after all. And besides, I think Lara would miss you if you stayed behind."
It was difficult to make out her smile in the failing light, but I could hear it in her voice.
"Oh, Lara's goin' to miss me, ay?"
"Yeah, you know. She's outnumbered with all us dudes around. You ladies could make girl-talk and paint each other's nails or something."
Lin bumped her shoulder into mine hard enough to jar me. I grinned to myself.
"I don't do girl-talk," she said, then continued in a softer voice. "But I suppose I could tag along. Just for a little while."
"Yeah," I said, feeling a warmth spread through my chest that had nothing to do with Light. "For a little while."
"There's something I still don't understand." Samuel was saying.
We sat together on the back deck of the Professor's lake house, enjoying a quiet meal by the outdoor fireplace and looking out over the still water of the lake. The Compound was peaceful around us, nestled comfortably in its furry bed of wild Wyoming forestland. The place had the feel of a sleeping bear, warm and cozy on the surface, with an incredible power hidden just beneath. There were secrets to be discovered here, but this wasn't the time to search them out. For now, I simply enjoyed the possibility of a future adventure. After what we'd been through in Graver's house, any future at all seemed like a cause for celebration.
"Are you sure it's only the one thing you don't understand?" I winked at Samuel and he lobbed a potato chip at my head. I used my cat-like reflexes to duck and was struck on the forehead by a second chip he'd thrown right after the first. My wounded body protested the movement in a dozen ways, but I laughed anyway, ignoring the discomfort.
"Bite me, Jonas," Samuel grinned. "Anyway, I don't get why Thaddeus kept giving away our location. If the plan was to follow us to Graver, why tip Wiley off to where we were and have him come after us? Why try to attack us at all?"
"I don't think he did tip them off," I said. "I mean, he probably called it in to the Morrighan when we showed up at the Steel Tower, but after we lost Aaron, I think Thaddeus actually was protecting us."
"He's right," Lin added.
She sat next to me on a bench seat near the fire, our thighs just barely touching. We hadn't said anything to the group about our new-found connection, but everyone seemed to accept it without explanation. I even caught an occasional wink from Samuel or a knowing smile from Lara.
"That roadside park we left you in really is warded against their kind." Lin went on. "An' I was with Thaddeus when we discovered you missin' and had to follow the signs o' battle to that old barn. He was genuinely surprised about the attack."
Samuel nodded in agreement.
"And then he brought us here," He said. "To the Compound. I guess this place is basically invisible to the Servants of Dark?"
"It's more than invisible," the Professor cut in with an indignant grunt. "It's toxic to 'em. Any of those bastards ever do find this place, they're in for an unhappy surprise when they try to set foot on this land."
Bartholomew had not taken the news of Thaddeus's betrayal well. It had launched him into an hour long tirade using language I'd never heard spoken aloud. My swearing vocabulary more than doubled in size just listening to it. We'd told him about Graver's instruction and he'd agree to allow us residence at the Compound while we waited for the Families to make contact and planned our next move. It was another step back into the war he'd walked away from. I hoped he wouldn't come to regret the decision.
"It makes no sense," I said. "Why help us at all if he was just going to betray us? Why hide us from Wiley? Why teach us to use Core Light?"
"Maybe his heart wasn't in it," Lara said. "Maybe becoming our teacher and protector for a while was his way of trying to make up for some of the wrong he was doing in working with Wiley."
"Maybe," Aaron said, his eyes glued to the fire as if he were looking through it into another world. "But I don't think Thaddeus was working with Wiley. They were both working for the Morrighan, but I think Wiley had his own agenda."
Aaron had been quiet since our return from Graver's castle. His eyes had adopted a haunted quality, always wandering off into the distance as if distracted by some apparition none of us could see. I knew the revelation about Thaddeus's sister had hit him hard, and I worried about his focus in the coming weeks. Things were sure to get dangerous again and we needed my Uncle at the top of his game. I enjoyed breathing too much to voice my concerns to Aaron, but I'd resolved to stay near him and lend what support I could.
"Maybe the Steel Tower will get something out of him," I suggested. "Some clue as to what his angle was in all of this."
"I doubt it." Aaron said. "Knowing Wiley, he'll be busted out of the Steel Tower and in the wind by this time next week."
"So what's our next move, Aaron?" Samuel leaned forward into his question, looking eager as ever for some action. "Are we just supposed to sit here on our asses and wait until the Families get around to contacting us?"
"No." I surprised myself by answering in Aaron's place, my response coming out more forcefully than I'd intended. "We're going on the offensive."
I caught Aaron's eye and held it.
"We're going to take the fight to the Morrighan. Aren't we."
Aaron's smile was vicious and something in his eyes came to life again, like a sword being drawn from its sheath.
"That's right," he said. "That evil witch is holding one of our own. We're going to get her back."
"What about the Families of Light?" Samuel asked. "They'll be looking for us here. At the Compound."
"Bartholomew can intercept any messages that come in," Aaron turned to the Professor. "When the Families make contact, let then know we're looking for any information about the location of the Morrighan, specifically where she might be hiding long-term prisoners."
"I can do that." The Professor said without expression. Aaron nodded nodded his thanks.
"And one other thing, Bart," Aaron said. "I know you've built an information network. Probably bigger than the Tower at this point."
The Professor smirked, but said nothing.
"Could you put the word out? We need to find something."
"A weapon. Something that will give us an edge against the Morrighan. You understand what I'm asking?"
The Professor nodded, a scraggly frown peering through the gray of his beard.
"I'll see what I can find out. But, Aaron, you know we're probably come up empty-handed."
"I know," Aaron said, "but we have to try. The Morrighan tore through the Families of Light like tissue paper. If we're going to go up against her and get Debra back, we need to be prepared."
"Alright," the Professor said. "I'll see what I can do."
"Good." Aaron sat back in his seat, downing the last of his beer in one gulp. "We'll follow up on any information that comes in, and we'll stay in touch as much as we can. I'm not leaving Debra with that devil woman one second longer than I have to. We're done running; we're through hiding. It's time to take our place in this war again. And God help the foolish bastard who gets in our way."
At Aaron's words, a simmering heat began to rise in my blood. My friends and family encircling the fireplace reflected the same eagerness and grim determination I felt, casting the group in a whole other light. Gone were the fresh-faced small-town kids and their surly, drunken uncle. In their place was a ring of soldiers. Battle hardened warriors with steel in their bones and fire in their veins met each other's eyes with the stringent confidence of those who have faced death together and come out the other side. I saw in that moment what we could become: a strong family, living out their purpose, empowered by their legacy, committed to their cause. A powerful force against the Nameless Dark and all those who served it.
I understood then what my Father had meant when he said, "alone we're formidable, but together we're unstoppable." I'd thought it was a lame sort of team-building nonsense, then I learned about Core Light and thought he may have been referring to the three of us working together, Vessel, Conduit, and Key. But that wasn't it either. It was this moment he'd been talking about: our family united; combining our strengths, working together toward something greater than ourselves.
I'd always seen my family as some broken thing in need of fixing, but the truth was, we had everything we needed to be whole right here in front of us. And now that we knew it, we had a chance to become stronger than ever. A Nameless Dark had been rising in this world, unchecked by those who were duty bound to oppose it, but now the Achesons were prepared to rise up in return.
And God help the foolish bastard who got in our way.
Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, ShaneWrite a Review