Esther stepped off the same elevator we'd rode up from the ground floor and strode into her office with a clipped step, followed by Aaron, Samuel, Lara and me. Thaddeus brought up the rear, ever vigilant even here in the center of his army.
We'd made a brief visit to the infirmary to tend to our injuries; mostly minor scrapes and bruises. My bullet wound was the worst of it, and that was already healing nicely. Aaron's impromptu treatment as we fled the farm house had sealed everything up, and my use of Light during our battle with Wiley and his coyotes had mended much of the muscle trauma and nerve damage. The worst part of it for me was the bullet hole in my favorite sweatshirt. At least the Celtic knot-work on the front was intact. I took Thaddeus up on his offer to have it cleaned, counting on the deep red color to hide any lingering bloodstain.
The medical care and laundry were a welcome distraction, but they couldn't stop my mind from reeling after meeting a grandmother I never knew existed. I'd asked my mother about her parents before, but she only shook her head and said they weren't a part of her life and hadn't been for a long time. I'd had no idea who they were, where they came from, or if they were even still alive. Asking questions about our extended family had always been discouraged, our father insisting that questions about the past could only lead to trouble.
"This is our family," he would say. "This house and the people inside its walls are your past, present, and future. They're all the history you need."
Why had he kept Esther from us? And why had our mother gone along with it? I knew they must have had reasons, but I couldn't imagine any that were good enough to justify what they'd done. With every new revelation of deception, a place of resentment hardened inside me, encasing my memories of my father in bitterness and anger.
After our medical treatment we'd been marched to the elevator and rode all the way to the top floor, stepping off into our Grandmother's private office. A shiver punched through me as I stepped into the ice-room. The air was warm enough, but there was a solemnity to the atmosphere that I couldn't deny, as if life and death were decided within these walls. The gravity of it was awe inspiring and oppressive, and I suspected it was entirely intentional. Esther wanted her visitors to understand that whatever problems they carried into the room were of minuscule significance compared to the weighty matters that crossed her desk every day. And I got the feeling that even her grandchildren would be no exception.
"We can speak freely here." Esther informed us. "This room was designed to be impenetrable to surveillance. Thermal imaging, X-ray, radio waves, even sound waves, all are repelled or contained by the exterior casing."
"Good." Samuel said, stopping a few paces into the room. "Someone needs to start talking." He stood with feet planted and arms crossed as if he had no intention of going any farther until someone complied.
"This way, please." Esther instructed, ignoring my brother. Our grandmother did not seem the type for warm family reunions. She continued through the room without looking back or breaking her stride, forcing us to follow and bring the conversation to her. She took the seat at the far end of the conference table and waited while the rest of us gathered around, seating ourselves on either side, Samuel and I on her right, Aaron and Lara on her left. Thaddeus remained standing beside Esther, watching the room, the door, and all of us. When we were all settled, Esther folded her hands on the table in front of her and nodded once, as if calling the meeting to order.
"Ask your questions, then."
Samuel looked at me.
"Jonas?" He said, allowing me to take the lead. Situations like this were not Samuel's strong suit; too much thought, not enough action.
I glanced at Aaron and he nodded, giving me the floor. My mind was awash with unanswered questions, whiting out my clarity of thought like a snow storm in my head. I'd just met my grandmother for the first time and was still reeling from it. There were dozens of questions I wanted to ask her that had nothing to do with our current predicament. Such as, where had she been for the past seventeen years of my life? Here, I supposed, at the top of this tower, presiding over all this insanity.
I sighed, sitting up in my seat and turning back toward my new-found grandmother.
"The Steel Tower," I said, "It's more than just this building, isn't it?"
"Yes." Ether said, betraying the ghost of a smile as if approving of my line of questioning. "We are the Steel Tower. Myself, Thaddeus, everyone you saw below. This building is our base of operations and the physical representation of our presence in the world."
"Base of operations," I repeated. "What kind of operations? Are you military contractors? Mercenaries? Private security?"
"Nothing so commonplace." Esther said. "The Steel Tower was created to —" she considered her words, "to stand in the gap."
"The gap," Thaddeus spoke up, "left when your family chose to run away and hide." He was less cautious with his unforgiving tone, facing my uncle with hard-eyed judgement.
"You know we had no choice." Aaron growled "There were lives at stake."
"There is always a choice." Esther replied "And how many lives were lost because you were not there to protect them?" Turning back to me, she continued. "When your father married my daughter, Rachel, he had already been through so much. He was a man haunted by the evils he saw in the world around him, plagued by the absence of the things he'd lost. Jacob no longer saw a way forward for the Families. The final blow was struck when the majority of his gift was stolen from him by someone he trusted. He looked ahead and saw what he believed to be the end of our world. He'd lost his hope for the future and chose to delay the destruction he saw coming by running from it. So, with the help of your uncle Aaron, he erected a wall of protection around all of you and disappeared."
"I don't believe this." Samuel's head was in his hands. "I can't believe how many lies he told us." He looked up at me. "Dad looked us in the eye and fed us these lies as if they were the absolute truth. How could he do that?"
I shook my head, opening my mouth to speak, but no words would come. The pain of betrayal I saw in my brother's eyes was an echo of the roiling ache I felt growing in the pit of my stomach. I wanted to say something helpful, to offer some reasonable explanation for our father's actions and ease some of Samuel's hurt. But the truth was, I had no idea what Jacob Acheson's motivations had been for deceiving his children and hiding them away from the world. I felt trapped by my ignorance and anger, like a fly caught in an ever-expanding spider web. Each time I thought I'd reached its edge and could finally step into the free air, I discovered another layer of sticky, silken webbing tangling my limbs and dragging me back down into the dark.
"Your father loved you." Aaron said. "Right or wrong, he did what he thought was best."
"Right," I snorted my amusement, refusing to look at Aaron and turning instead to my grandmother.
"And, where were you in all this?" I asked Esther.
"I was an observer then." she explained, "I knew who your father was because I'd made it my business to know. When Rachel became involved with him, I used my considerable resources to learn everything I could about his family. And the things that I learned chilled me to the bone. I kept a close watch over Rachel and Jacob in their early marriage, but I was away on business in England the day your father's worst fears came to pass and he lost the Core of his family's power for an entire generation. He was betrayed by one of his own and it snuffed out the light within him."
"The Morrighan." I said.
"Yes," Esther nodded. "I learned what had happened and came looking for Jacob and Rachel, afraid for my daughter's life. But they were gone."
"Then, he was already broken." Lara said, speaking for the first time since we entered the room. Her gaze was distant as she examined the past with new eyes. "I always thought Mother's death had been the source of his torment. But he'd already been shattered by that betrayal."
Esther nodded again, pausing in her story.
"A new enemy had risen up," She continued a moment later. "Your father had disappeared along with my daughter. The rest of the Seven Families were in chaos, leaving other parts of the world to descend into darkness. I refused to do the same. I could not stand idly by and watch as the world became overrun by evil. If your father and Uncle would not stand against the tide, then someone else would have to. I reached out to the other Families, searching for those who would stand with me. Some, like Thaddeus, chose to leave their family and rejoin the fight."
I looked at Thaddeus. "You're a Holder of Light?"
Thaddeus said nothing, but nodded once from his place at Esther's side.
"And he helped me build this," Esther gestured to indicate the vast space outside the ice-walled office. "Together, with the help of a few others, we founded the Steel Tower, with the Glacial Hall serving as the nerve center of our global operation. We are the new face of this war, fighting to protect mankind from threats they do not even know exist."
The pride in her voice was unmistakable.
The whole thing seemed a bit over the top to me: a secret society fighting a clandestine war; I felt like I'd seen that movie before. But when I thought back on the events of the past twenty-four hours, the destructive forces we'd witnessed, the monsters we'd fought or run from, I couldn't deny that there was something deeper going on here, some danger that threatened not only my family but the world around us as well. We'd left a trail of destruction in our wake. One person was dead already and it was only by sheer luck that more innocent bystanders hadn't been injured or killed. Those clueless people who came into contact with the mess we left behind would have to clean up after my family, never understanding what they had seen or how close they had come to becoming collateral damage.
What would happen if we were caught by these things that hunted us? What if the Morrighan came strolling through the front doors right now? We'd be dead, of course, but I didn't believe for a second that the danger would disappear along with us. It would move on to the next victim, devouring everything in its path. That was the nature of evil. If there was something we could do to stop it, we had a responsibility to try. This must have been what Esther felt when she chose to create the Steel Tower.
"Tell me about the war." I said. "It's not just the Morrighan we're up against, is it. What is this all-important fight that our father ran away from?"
Esther was quiet. She met Thaddeus's eye and a silent look passed between them. Then she turned to Aaron, raising her thin eyebrows in a question as if seeking his permission to continue. It was the first time she had surrendered her command to anyone since we arrived.
Aaron crossed his arms and nodded.
"Go ahead." He said. "They might just as well hear it from you as anybody."
Esther tipped her head to him, accepting the responsibility.
When she spoke, her voice was low and grave, almost a whisper, as though speaking the words out loud could stir them to life right there in the room.
"There is a dark power in this world." She said. "It slithers in the shadows, lurking within the hidden places of the Earth. It boils under the surface of every wicked deed performed out of greed, jealousy, or rage. It is the residue of human wickedness, shapeless and void, but sentient in a way. It seeks always to subvert the hearts of humankind, to turn us against one another. To consume us."
She closed her eyes and shuddered, as if reliving her own experiences with the horror she described. At her side, Thaddeus's look was dark and fathomless. Even Aaron had adopted the look of man faced with his greatest fear, his eyebrows furrowed and jaw clenched against some unspoken terror.
"There are those who seek to wield this dark power," Esther continued, "to claim its loathsome strength as their own. Ultimately this will lead to their destruction, but while this withering of their souls takes place, they have access to a terrible power fueled by an unspeakable evil. They are the Servants of Dark; he corrupted and the corruptors. They are at the heart of every unexplainable horror that plagues mankind and drags innocent lives away into night. This is the enemy we face: a formless corruption, a faceless evil."
She paused again, siting up straight in her seat, steeling herself against her next words.
"It is known," she rasped, "as the Nameless Dark."
Something changed in the room when she said that name. It may not have actually gotten colder, and the light may not really have dimmed, but the effect was the same. A slight, unexplained sadness crept into my bones, as if some of the hope and optimism that kept it at bay had leeched away and left me exposed to the sorrow in the world. I found unhappy memories flashing through my mind from some hidden corner of my memory, sliding past my vision like a death shroud drawn across my face. The feeling was instantaneous, but very noticeable, and looking around the table, I could tell that everyone else had felt it too.
"Enough." Aaron stood up and stepped away from the table as if it were too painful for him to remain sitting there. "That's enough of story hour. We don't have the time for all this hand-holding."
"Aaron, wait," I tried, hoping to salvage the conversation. We were just beginning to find some answers and I wanted to hear more.
"No," my uncle growled. His eyes were daggers in my chest, stopping me cold with the intensity of his gaze. "We need to keep moving. There's too much at stake to slow down for family-night."
The room was quiet for a moment, thick with the seething tension of tempers threatening to boil. Then the moment passed and I relaxed into my chair, feeling like we had narrowly avoided something bad.
"What next, then?" Esther asked. "What will be your next move?"
"We need your help," Aaron said, "to reach the other Families of Light. Whoever's left out there, we need to find them and convince them to help hide us from her."
Esther shook her head, her look one of disbelief mixed with contempt.
"The Families have long since gone into hiding themselves," She spat, her words dripping venom like blood from a blade. "The old communications networks have crumbled. There is no longer any way to contact the heads of the Families. They cower in their corners, shaking with fear that the Morrighan may one day darken their door."
"It got bad after you left," Thaddeus cut in. "The Morrighan couldn't find you or Jacob, so she went after the other families. People died."
Aaron shook his head. "Did no one try to fight?"
"Of course they tried," Esther said, "but they had no idea how to combat something like her — someone with the power of both Dark and Light at her command. Those who chose to fight died, and the rest panicked and hid. It was a terrible time."
I watched Aaron closely as they spoke. A shadow seemed to pass across his face, like a storm cloud smothering the moon and bringing with it echoes of a broken past. He looked older in that moment, bending beneath the crushing weight of guilt, and I saw my own guilt mirrored in my Uncle.
"That terror will be nothing," Aaron breathed, "compared to what will happen if she gets a hold of me."
On that, everyone seemed to agree.