Which was crazy to me, but for Aaron it just seemed like Thursday.
"How did you know how to do that?" Samuel asked him. "Hotwire a car."
At first, Aaron didn't respond. Then the gravel tremor of his voice rumbled through the car.
"Our life used to be very different," he said. "Me, your dad... and Miriam."
I'd rarely heard my father my mention his sister, our Aunt Miriam, and Aaron had never said her name before that could remember. I knew she died before I was born, but that was about it. Samuel opened his mouth to ask another question, but Lara tapped his shoulder and shook her head. Aaron stared at she road in front of him like a man facing the approaching ghost of something long dead and forgotten. Clearly he did not want to talk anymore.
Samuel shut up.
The drive to Pennsylvania was shrouded in silence, all of us reeling from the loss of our home and the attack at the motel. I sat beside Lara in the back seat of a stolen Malibu and tried to keep myself from questioning Aaron, searching for answers. He looked away from the road only once, both hands on the steering wheel, and met my eyes in the rearview mirror. Sorrow haunted his gaze like the ghosts of whatever past had risen from the ground to terrorize our family. That look kept me silent. There would be a time to demand answers, but this was not it.
Outside our car, the rolling, wooded landscape of the Ohio River Valley was a blur of hollow motion. I turned from my uncle, resigning myself to the ache of unanswered questions, and stared out the window with unseeing eyes. There was so much that I didn't know. A realm of secrets had been opened up to me, teeming with monsters and shadows and whispered half-truths. I'd always known that my family had secrets, but I thought I knew what they were. I'd bought every line my Father fed me about our sacred duty to each other — to keep the family safe and stay hidden from the horrors of the world. Now it seemed as though our family was connected to those horrors in some way. Nothing was certain anymore, and as I began to question what I knew of my family, I couldn't help but question myself.
My father had always been hesitant to talk about our family history. He told us about our place in the world as one of seven Families of Light: ancient bloodlines who possessed an incredible power. Some said that power was connected to the creation of the universe we live in; that a piece of the spark that created our world resided in every person, and that we alone were able to tap into that spark and use it to effect the world around us. We called that power Light, and those who could wield it were the Holders of Light. Dad talked about the other Families, and about our own ancestors, as if they were some mythical beings long extinct. He spoke as if our lives were only connected to theirs in the loosest of ways, treating them like fairy tales and bedtime stories. But the power that rose up inside me when I called it was very real. Real enough to kill a man. And I was beginning to suspect that our power had a reason for existing beyond just hiding us away from the world and protecting us from the bad-guys who want to destroy our family.
I still believed my family had a purpose as Holders of Light, but I was no longer convinced that we were fulfilling it. Somewhere along the way, something had gone wrong. As I settled into my seat, feeling the miles bump away beneath me, I determined that I would find out what that purpose was at all costs. We'd been lied to and cheated out of the opportunity to do what we were born to do. But that ended the moment the sky was scorched by the fires of my failure. I'd done something terrible to bring these dark secrets into the light. Now, to atone for it, I would discover our true mission in this world or die trying. I stared out the window, unblinking as I felt the fire of determination spark to life inside me. I had not asked to be set on this new path, but I was resolved to see it through to its end.
The empty hours slithered by, pacing our little car in its crawl over the bleak November hills. A persistent rain grayed the landscape, freezing at times to pelt the window in front of my face. The afternoon wore on and I watched as a solid cluster of blocky silhouettes broke the approaching horizon. The steel city of Pittsburgh rose from the eastern edge the Ohio River Valley.
Downtown Pittsburgh rested between two rivers, seated comfortably inside the "Y" formed where the two smaller rivers came together to form a larger one, which I would later identify as the great Ohio River. The position gave the city a compact appearance, orderly and efficient. Lacking the urban sprawl of other metropolitan areas, it stood tall and firm like a silver-haired captain of industry from the golden age of American industrialism.
We ghosted into town on Interstate 376, one of the major arteries pumping traffic in and out of the city like the lifeblood of a living organism. Blending into the flow, we crossed one of the bridges spanning the smaller rivers and entered the city.
Aaron's ominous comment about Wiley's skill at hunting people clung to the back of my mind as I examined the buildings where they rose up on either side, feeling exposed on the busy streets and imagining danger on every corner. I imagined the demonic red glow of his eyes stabbing out from every alleyway, recalling the bone chilling sight of his skeletal finger pointing at me. Aaron claimed that the Morrighan was only interested in him, but this Wiley asshole sure seemed interested in me. I was shocked by how easily he'd singled me out as Trent's killer, as if that act had left some kind of permanent stain on my soul, only visible to other beings who'd committed similar acts of violence and death. The thought left me with the crippling sensation that I might spend the rest of my life running from the consequences of a single mistake.
I blinked the dark thoughts away, returning to the present but resolving to learn more about Wiley and his history with Aaron. The two of them clearly knew each other, and at some point, Aaron was going to have to tell us something more about the Morrighan and Wiley and any other threats that might be hunting our family.
"We're almost there." Aaron spoke for the first time in hours.
"Almost where?" I asked, trying to keep my irritation from invading my voice. "You still haven't told us where we're going."
"Your dad and I grew up here, you know," Aaron continued, ignoring my question. "Jacob and me, and our sister Miriam. This was our hometown."
That revelation gave me pause. My father never talked about his childhood, and I'd only heard him mention his sister by name once. I knew Miriam had died a dozen years before I was born, but no one in my family ever talked about her death. Anytime I asked about it, he would tell me to leave the past where it was. Thinking about the past, he said, distracted from the present and jeopardized the future. As the fiction he created for me and my siblings crumbled, I was learning things about him and his past that he'd never revealed to me. This man whom I loved and idolized until the day he died had begun to feel like a complete stranger.
"We were raised in the city," Aaron continued. "Attended school here. That's where your mom and dad met."
"I thought Mom grew up in Montana." Samuel's voice was distant as he watched the iron giants pass by from the passenger window.
"Her family moved to Pittsburgh when she was in her sophomore year of high school." Aaron explained, guiding our stolen car through the choked city streets. "She showed up in your Dad's physics class on the second day of school and the love-sick-fool never took his eyes off her again."
He was quiet for a moment, lost in a memory.
"She was an amazing girl, your mom. Being here — kinda feels like she's still with us."
Something I couldn't identify drifted across his voice. More cryptic phantoms from a past I've never heard. Stories never told.
We came to the busiest part of town and a monolithic tower rose up on our right. It was the tallest building we'd seen yet, jutting into the skyline like a black iron fortress, all straight lines and squared angles. Shaped roughly like a stack of triangles with the corners cut off, it stood tall and firm, lending a solidity to the cityscape around it as if the city itself could crumble away, but this one stalwart skyscraper would remain.
"What is this building?" I asked as Aaron turned into an underground parking garage beneath it.
"U.S. Steel Tower." Aaron said. "It's the tallest building in Pittsburgh."
"What are we doing here?" Lara asked, voicing my own question.
"We're here to see an old — friend," Aaron replied, pulling into an open parking space. "Someone who can keep us hidden and help us plan our next move."
He climbed out of the car, waving for us to follow.
We made our way back out to the street and headed toward the main entrance. As we crossed the wide brick courtyard, with its circular fountain sitting cold and empty in the chill air, I scanned the streets and buildings around us. I saw my nervousness reflected in the actions of my siblings. Samuel walked with shoulders hunched and hands in his jacket pockets. His head was lowered, but his eyes followed the few people we passed as we navigated the sparsely crowded courtyard. Even Lara seemed to move with more caution than usual. We were being hunted and all of us felt the stress of it breathing down our necks like an unseen monster shadowing our steps. Only Aaron was unaffected. He strode toward the front stairs of the building, never breaking his step, at home in the looming threat and spitting rain.
"What's a Watcher?" I fell into step with my uncle, forcing my stride to match his and drawing strength from the solid contact of shoes against the cold brick.
Aaron showed me a raised eyebrow.
"Back at the house, you said there must have been Watchers close by," I said. "What did you mean?"
"When we tap into Light," Aaron said, "it puts off a kind of energy signature. Some of our enemies are sensitive to that sorta thing. They can detect it when we use our power, especially when it's a big freaking light-show like you kicked off back in Ohio."
"That was an accident, dammit," Samuel cut in.
Aaron ignored him.
"Watchers are low-level operators. They're not powerful enough to be a real badass, but they have enough juice to sense it when something big is going down, so the big baddies pay them for information. The Morrighan has probably had Watchers all over the country looking for me."
"And why is she looking for you, Aaron?" Lara's tone was both sweet and accusing at the same time.
"No time to get into that now," Aaron spoke over his shoulder as we climbed the stairs. "When we get inside, stay calm no matter what happens. And don't use your Light. No matter what."
"Wait, what —?" Samuel stammered.
"Aaron, what's going to happen?" Lara asked.
"No matter what. Do you understand?" Aaron ordered.
Then he walked through the glass double doors.
The Lobby of the Steel Tower stretched the full width of the building, adorned in marble and glass with plenty of cold metal on display. Seating areas were scattered throughout, modern furniture resting on sections of colorful carpet laid in clever curving shapes. The ceiling was open to the second and third floors with balconies overlooking the room at odd angles and various businesses visible from the ground floor. I smelled coffee at the same moment I noticed the Starbucks on the second floor. Suddenly I was famished. We'd been surviving on vending machine food since we fled our house the night before and my stomach felt like a hollow tomb. It was nothing a cup of hot coffee and a pastry couldn't fix, but I doubted there would be time for that indulgence between battling mutants and running for our lives.
Directly opposite the main doors was a large marble reception counter attended by a courteous looking staff in sharp business attire. The whole scene struck a disturbingly civilized tone after the roughshod desperation of my past twenty-four hours.
Aaron strolled into the middle of the lobby and stopped about halfway to the reception desk. He stood there in the center of the wide-open space, taking in his surroundings, clearly waiting for something. The rest of us trailed over to him, hesitant after his cryptic warning. I stood to Aaron's left and searched the balconies above me for any sign of danger or any clue as to why our uncle had brought us here.
"Uh, Aaron?" Samuel questioned, moving into the space on Aaron's opposite side while Lara lingered in the background. "What are we up to, here?"
Aaron held up a finger to silence our questions. Then moved the same finger to point up and to the right.
"See the cameras?" He said. I followed his finger to the underside of the second floor balcony where a small black sphere hung. Its dark, shiny surface obscured its contents, pierced only by a single pinpoint of red light. I glanced around, identifying other miniature orbs, each one containing a red point of light. The cameras were recording. And they were all pointed at us.
"Any minute now." Aaron said.
I opened my mouth to question him again, but was cut off by a commotion from the other side of the room. To the left of the reception desk, an expansive hallway opened up access to a row of elevators on either side and a series of escalators leading to the second and third floor balconies. Beneath one of the escalators, a steel utility door burst open, banging into the wall behind it to clear the way for a row of armed security guards.
Dressed in tactical gear over standard guard uniforms, and armed with automatic weapons, the guards poured through the door at a run and headed straight for us. Echoed shouts drew my attention to either end of the lobby in time to see other groups of guards streaming in, weapons up and trained on my family. Multiple voices barked orders at us in military fashion, commanding that we not move a muscle.
I felt my eyes widen as I stepped closer to Aaron. My head swivel back and forth, my eyes darting from one side to the other and taking in the rapid movements of the guards and cold black of their weapons. Instinctively, I reached for Light, calling it up to hold it ready in my gut. I felt Samuel and Lara do the same, as their natural response to the flurry of potential danger around us mirrored my own.
"Easy—" Aaron cautioned us, standing still, tracking the motion around us with only his eyes.
In moments we were surrounded by an incredibly efficient, heavily armed security force. I stood frozen in place, a cold line of sweat tracing its path down my back. Aaron's words echoed in my head, warning me not to use my power on these people, but it took considerable effort to restrain myself from blasting away at these guards and clearing a path to run for the exit.
After a tense moment, the room quieted as the guards parted to form a path for a tall, dark-skinned soldier. This man's uniform was different from the other guards: dark and fitted, with a strange symbol adorning the left side of his chest. The emblem was shaped like a silver triangle, point down, with the corners missing. Lines crossed the interior of the shape, geometrically dividing it into seven sections, with the center section forming a second triangle, this one pointing up. The man with the silver emblem stepped through the ranks of guards and into the circle they had formed, facing Aaron from six feet away. He was obviously in charge here. His presence was commanding without arrogance and his eyes seemed to take in everything at once, deep and piercing like the dark counterpart to Aaron's blue eyes. His head was shaved to a smooth sheen and his face was lightly scarred on the left side, leaving the right unmarred and handsome. He looked to be about Aaron's age, and he had the same cautious wisdom in his bearing, but without the rough edges of my uncle's crass demeanor. The result was a quiet strength and nobility that I couldn't help but find disarming.
"Wish I could say it was good to see you, Aaron." The man's voice was low and smooth. "But I'm not sure you understand the kind of trouble you're causing me by walking in here."
"Awe, c'mon, Thaddeus," Aaron drawled. "Before we showed up you were half asleep with your feet up on a desk. I just made your day more interesting."
"Interesting doesn't quite cover it." Thaddeus countered, glancing around at the scene his security forces had caused. "This place has been like a powder keg since you boys set off that light-show in Ohio. And showing up here just tossed a match on the whole thing."
"I know —" Aaron shook his head, sighing as if he'd finally begun to feel the weight of what was happening. "I need to see her, Thaddeus."
"I'm sure you do," Thaddeus said with a slow nod. "We'll have to take your weapons first."
"We're unarmed." I said, surprised at the sound of my own voice.
Thaddeus glance over at me for the first time. He didn't look impressed.
"You'll have to forgive me if I don't take your word for it." He said, gesturing to his men. "I know your uncle a little too well for that."
Several guards stepped forward to check us for weapons.
"So, you know he's our uncle." I said, my arms in the air, grimacing at the rough pat-down. "That means you know who we are."
"But we don't know you." Samuel never took his eyes off Thaddeus as he spoke. He ignored the guard who searched him, focusing his anger on the tall commander in front of us.
"Your uncle and I go way back," Thaddeus said. "But you'll have to get the details from him. It's an interesting story, but it's not mine to t—"
There was a sharp impact from behind me and a loud grunt as someone collapsed to the ground. I turned to see one of Thaddeus's security personnel sprawling on the marble floor, blood leaking from a broken nose. Lara had already turned back toward Thaddeus, hands at her sides, looking natural as could be.
My sister's face had taken on a severity I'd only seen once before, when she'd stepped in to stop a group of neighborhood boys from tormenting an injured stray cat. They'd herded the wretched thing into the corner of a shed and poked at it with sticks, laughing at their own cruelty. Lara was eleven-years-old at the time, and even smaller then, but hadn't even used her power when she broke up their little party, elbowing one kid in the stomach and shoving another into the wall. She'd scooped up the cat in her arms and stared the other boys down with a look of righteous intensity that froze them in their tracks. Her face had the same expression now, as she locked eyes with Thaddeus.
Several guards rushed to help their injured comrade. Others turned their weapons toward Lara, clicking safeties off and edging closer to my tiny sister, gun barrels pointed at her head.
"Hold," Thaddeus ordered. "Leave her be for now."
He looked over Lara's bruised face with a knowing gaze, eyes darkening.
"Looks like she's been man-handled enough for one week."
He turned back to Aaron.
We were led away from the lobby, through the same security door that had burst open minutes before, and into the inner machinations of the Steel Tower. The hallways were wide, sterile utility corridors, drab with their faded white linoleum and beige painted walls. We followed Thaddeus and four other guards, hemmed in by the walls on either side and a group of eight guards behind us. Whatever these people thought they knew about us, they certainly weren't taking any chances.
We marched through the core of the building, down several long hallways, turning at random intersecting halls until I was completely lost.
I studied the guards as we walked. They seemed well trained: calm and steady, effortlessly aware of their surroundings, and vigilant as they watched every step we took. Their weapons were unlike anything I'd ever seen. I spent some time at a local shooting range as a kid, learning about firearms. My father had never had much use for them, but Aaron seemed to have a vast amount of knowledge on the subject, and he took it upon himself to pass some of it on to me and my siblings. I would have expected a private security team in an urban office building to be armed with handguns and shotguns, maybe a couple more high-powered weapons locked in a cage, just in case of a real terrorist threat. But the weapons carried by our escort looked like high-tech military armament, sleek and compact, with multiple high-capacity clips and laser sight attachments. This group was armed for war and I wondered who they worked for and how much they knew about my family.
Our trek ended at an elevator door.
It stood like an armored sentry at the end of a long hallway, a wide slab of solid steel, its surface polished to a reflective sheen. Etched into its center was the same triangular symbol I'd seen on Thaddeus's uniform. Mounted on the wall next to the door was a square plate with a slick-looking digital display of some kind. Thaddeus stepped to the side and pressed his hand against the plate. There was a quick flash of light from beneath his hand and the elevator door parted along an invisible seam, sliding open.
We filed into the elevator, cramming ourselves into the enclosed space, and the door slid together again to close us in with our guards. I scanned the sides of the door, searching for the familiar numbered buttons and hoping to see what floor Thaddeus would press. There were no buttons. A moment later, the lift slid into motion on its own, climbing up toward the apex of the tower.
We rode in silence. I kept my breathing even, working to remain in control despite my uncertainty. Aaron stood with his eyes forward, unmoving, like a granite carving of himself. I was tempted to kick him in his stubbly face. Whatever he'd gotten us into here, we were almost certainly unprepared for it. With every passing moment, I tired of having no idea what the hell was going on. I could only hope that wherever we ended up when the elevator doors opened, it would lead to answers.
I caught a quick smile from Lara, then met Samuel's eye. He nodded once to reassure me. None of us knew what to expect, but whatever came next, we would face it together.
The elevator slowed to a smooth stop.
"Fifty-six." Thaddeus said. "Everybody out."
The doors parted, and a cavern opened up in front of us.
We stepped off the elevator and I almost bumped into Aaron, unable to take my eyes off the unexpected sight. The entire fifty-sixth floor of the building had been hollowed out into a single vast space, and instead of a single story of height, eight stories of open air hovered over my head, ending at the roof of the Tower far above me. The walls on all sides were broken up in seemingly random places by balconies thrusting into the open air. Some were small and thin, more like walkways, while others covered most of a wall. Still others were encased in glass, like small rooms with transparent walls, ceiling, and floor. I could see vague furniture-like shapes through the glass, and some of the glass rooms appeared occupied, shadowed footsteps pacing across the floor.
One particularly large platform hung four stories above us on the opposite side of the space, open to the air, with no railing to guard the sides. I could see a group of soldiers in the midst of combat training. I watched as one unlucky participant was nearly thrown from the platform by his training partner, flipping through the air and just barely managing to catch the side of the platform with one hand and save himself from a four story drop.
At the bottom level, there were more groups of soldiers training. Most of the wide open space had been sectioned off into various training areas. All were occupied by groups of security personnel similar to the ones who brought us here, some engaged in hand-to-hand combat training, others drilling with weapons, and some learning other disciplines that I couldn't identify. The room appeared to be an entire city block, eight story high training facility for some kind of military force.
And that wasn't even the strange part.
As I finished taking in the scene, I looked straight above me and felt my jaw drop. High over my head, the distant ceiling was covered in what looked to be gigantic glimmering stalactites, hanging over us like the teeth and jaws of the building itself. After a brief moment of awe, I realized what I was seeing: icicles. The ceiling of the colossal space was thick with enormous, wicked looking icicles. They glimmered with an eerie blue light that slithered inside each of them and glowed in a sort of sparkling fog, hovering just below the line of their jagged looking points. I followed the glow to where it met the side walls and started down toward the floor where I stood, realizing that much of the light in the room emanated from the walls and ceiling themselves. Every surface of the room was awash in the ghostly blue light.
I walked over to the closest wall to examine the source of the glow. The surface of the wall was alive with miniature blue fireworks. Like ethereal sparks from a welder's torch that somehow burned cold instead of hot, they blanketed the entire surface of the wall, crawling through the air as though held in a gravitational field. I reached out my hand, mesmerized by the curious sight.
"I wouldn't do that." Thaddeus said from behind me. "Not unless you'd like to see your fingers freeze solid and fall to the floor in front of you."
"What is this place?" I asked, turning to face him.
My family gathered in close, eyes taking in the incredible sight.
"This," Thaddeus said, opening his arms to gesture with pride at the cavernous space around us, "is the Glacial Hall. Frozen heart of the Steel Tower."
Samuel shook his head.
"Whatever you say, Gandalf." He turned to face Aaron, his voice rising in agitation. "Is this for real? Who are these people? Why are they armed up like S.E.A.L Team Six? And why are the freaking walls glowing?"
"The ice keeps us hidden from thermal imaging," Said a new voice.
We all turned toward the sound as a small group of soldiers approached, led by a woman I had never seen before but felt I should already know.
She looked to be about sixty, but walked with the energy of a woman half that age. Her bearing was somewhere between matronly and presidential, with an air of authority radiating from her every move. Her sharp business suit was complimented by short, silvery hair, cut in a fashionable style. Her appearance should have seemed out of place in the setting, at odds with the strange mixture of military and magic. But she seemed to belong here in a way that was genuine and organic, as if everything around us had been built by her own hands, and everyone here was both her guest and her family.
She walked up to our small circle, regarding my siblings and me with strong, compassionate eyes. When she turned those eyes toward Aaron, they went cold as the ice-armored steel around us.
"Esther—" Aaron said.
Esther stepped forward and punched my uncle square in the face.
She threw a solid punch, driving forward from her rear foot, twisting her hips to add power. Aaron sat on the ground where he'd fallen, nodding and spitting blood from his lip.
"Okay," He said, holding up a hand as if to prevent another strike. "Okay, I deserved that."
"You certainly did." Esther's voice was clear and hard as rock, painted with a crisp British accent. "That and much more. You must have taken leave of your senses, Aaron, showing up here as you have."
"We had no choice, Esther." Aaron climbed to his feet as he spoke. "Things have taken a bad turn. We need your help."
"Yes," Esther turned to examine the rest of us, "it seems as though you do."
We must have looked in rough shape: my shoulder still bloody and weak from the bullet wound, all of us scraped and bruised from the fight at the motel. Aaron sported a large gash on his forehead and a bloodied right arm; he'd taken the worst damage from the Coyotes.
"You've been found then?" Esther focused a stern gaze on Aaron.
"You're fortunate to have lived long enough to reach us."
"It was nothing we couldn't handle." Samuel said.
"I see." Esther replied, glancing at my brother.
"No Core Light was used," she continued. "Thaddeus would have known if it was. How did you elude capture without using that source of power?"
"Core Light?" Lara asked, speaking her first words since entering the building.
I narrowed my eyes at our business-like host. "What is she talking about, Aaron?"
Esther paused, as if reassessing the situation.
"They don't know about any of this, do they?" She said to Aaron, clearly shocked by realization. "Did you and Jacob teach them nothing?"
There was more than a hint of shame evident in Aaron's response.
"Their father chose — to take another path."
I'd heard enough. I turned to my uncle, putting my back to our host.
"Aaron, who is this lady? How does she know so much about us?"
Aaron signed as if the weight of the world had settled onto his shoulders.
"Kids, this is Esther, founding member and leader of the Steel Tower." His voice was thick in his throat.
"She's your grandmother."