I watched the exchange from the side of the training area near the glowing, ice covered wall of the Glacial Hall. Looking up, I could see the bottom floor of Esther's office high above me. There was a slight darkening of the ice floor behind the massive frozen desk where Esther sat, still angry after our meeting ended badly a short time ago. Aaron had continued pushing for Esther's help in contacting the Seven Families, and Esther refused, insisting that it was not the Families' fight anymore. They'd given up their chance to defend the world from this threat. That responsibility now belonged to the Steel Tower.
Eventually, Aaron had stormed out, trailing a cloud of seething frustration in his wake.
I clenched and unclenched my fist at my side, still feeling some of the same anger toward Aaron that Esther did, though for different reasons. We'd finally begun to find some answers, and Aaron had shut it down.
I'd wanted to punch him.
My brother, sister, and I had just met our Grandmother for the first time, and there was so much that we needed to ask her, so many pieces of our shadowed past that she could help bring into the light. We had just begun to learn the truth about who we are and what we were meant to do with our power. Esther's chilling words about Nameless Dark had struck a chord inside me, like a rope pulled at the front gate of some mysterious house, a bell tolling deep in the interior. We only needed to open the gate and step inside to find the answers hidden within walls of stone and silence. But Aaron seemed determined to rip that opportunity away from us, to keep us on the outside out of fear of what we might learn.
It was always fear that held us down.
Fear had kept us in the dark. It had held us chained to a fiction that rendered us ineffective in our mission and damaged our view of our family and of the world. Fear was our enemy as much as monsters in the dark, and I refused to live by its rules anymore. Aaron might give in to fear and Samuel to rage, but I would no longer allow myself to be controlled. I would find a way to free my family from that fate.
After the abrupt end of our meeting, Esther had stayed, sitting stoic and angry behind her iconic desk, while Thaddeus showed the rest of us to the cafeteria. Lara, Samuel, and I had eaten in silence, devouring our first real food in thirty-six hours. All of us were numb from the shock of emotional trauma and over-information.
After our meal, Lara wandered off in search of a comfortable place to rest and Thaddeus invited Samuel to a sparring session on the training floor. I'd trailed along behind my brother, cradling my wounded shoulder, lost in my own thoughts.
Watching from the sidelines now, it was clear that Samuel was outmatched. Thaddeus was taking it easy on him, but the discrepancy of skill and experience was painfully obvious. My brother was not at all used to losing in physical confrontations, but despite his gifts, he was just a high school jock and small-town brawler. He'd never taken a swing at anyone who was truly skilled at fighting. Thaddeus moved like he was born for combat, each move quick and confident, with zero wasted motion. At times he barely seemed to move at all, and yet my brother would find himself sprawling on the mat with his arm in a joint lock or Thaddeus's boot on his chest.
I observed their contest for a time, then grew bored and allowed my mind to wander. It was a struggle not to jump when I noticed a presence beside me. I turned to find Esther standing next to me, watching the sparring match with pursed lips and hands at her back. Her dark suit still looked freshly pressed and her shock of silver hair was fierce as the fire in her sharp, green eyes.
I turned back toward the training mat, unsure if I should speak, my thoughts broken by the sudden appearance of my grandmother. She was quiet for a few moments, then she sighed and spoke softly.
"People are rarely the same as what you imagine them to be before you've met." There was a tenderness in her voice that I hadn't heard before. She faced me, her eyes softening as they met mine. "I can see your mother in you, Jonas. She had the same calm intelligence. The same drive to know the truth, even if it hurt to discover it. I know we've only just met, but I believe my daughter would be quite proud of the young man you've become."
I felt the significance of her words like the pleasant weight of a gold medal pinned to my chest. This was not a woman who offered praise lightly. In that moment, I would have done anything to continue to feel that approval from her. Esther was the only parent I had left, and my last remaining link to my mother. I wanted to make her proud — to make my whole family proud. But more than that, I wanted to succeed where my father had not. His purpose was now my purpose, and in order to fulfill it, I would need Esther's help.
I met my grandmother's eye again, seeing echoes of my mother in their canny depths.
"Why do you refuse to help Uncle Aaron contact the Families?" I asked.
She sighed, retreating a small degree back into her ridged posture.
"Aaron is on a fool's mission. He believes he can run from what he fears, but that is not the way life works. Our fears will always find us in the end. Your father knew that."
Across the room, Aaron entered through the elevator doors, stepping into the Hall with the slow, even stride of a man resigned to his fate. He acknowledged me with a nod, then turned to watch Samuel and Thaddeus work. The two had moved on from their sparing session and were running through some punching combinations using focus mitts. Thaddeus held up the mitts while Samuel fired off a quick series of short, powerful strikes. He slipped aside as Thaddeus thrust one of the mitts at his head, then completed the sequence with a vicious right cross, impacting the mitt with a solid pop.
I turned back toward Esther.
"I know I'm young in your eyes, Grandmother." My use of the name pulled her startled gaze back toward me. "But my childhood hasn't exactly been a dull one. I've seen things that most people don't even know exist."
"I do not doubt the depth of your life experience, child. Nor that of your siblings. You've all been through a great deal of hardship."
"Then believe me when I tell you that in my experience, running from your fears usually brings you right back around to face them." I felt my voice crack as images of Trent's broken body flashed through my mind. "And sometimes, you have to exhaust every other avenue before you finally find the courage to face your fears head on."
We both looked back to Aaron as he started across the room towards us, following the narrow pathway between the training areas. With the slump of his shoulders and some of the fire in his stride burned away, he could have been my father, crossing the open space with a quiet resignation.
"Maybe Aaron needs to take his own path," I said, "in order to find that courage himself."
Esther's reply was cut off.
Without warning, the entire room was bombarded by the ear crushing blare of a piercing alarm. I clapped my hands over my ears, wincing at the sound as red emergency lights flared to life at every exit and the soft blue glow of the ice along the walls and ceiling morphed into an angry red, bathing the room in a bloody haze.
The Glacial Hall burst into a flurry of activity. Armed soldiers rushed to take up positions at the exits and elevators, and the off duty men and women on the training floor scurried to arm themselves. Thaddeus appeared at Esther's side, his dark skin still slick with sweat from his workout. A gun had somehow appeared in his hand and he spoke into a small communications device in his ear.
Samuel trailed over a moment later and stood next to me looking ready for a fight.
"What's going on?" I asked Esther as Aaron jogged up to join us.
"A breach of some kind in the city." She responded, raising her voice over the alarm as it continued to pummel our ears, piercing and persistent. She moved toward the back of the hall, motioning for us to follow. "We've gone into lockdown, which can only mean one thing: the Steel Tower is at risk."
Thaddeus kept his place at her side, with the rest of us close behind, as we approached a small elevator in the far corner of the glacial hall, partially hidden behind a large rack of bladed weapons.
"We have scouts reporting sightings from all over the city," Thaddeus said. "Servants of Dark and creatures under their control. All moving into town and spiraling toward the center of the city."
I traded a nervous look with Samuel, and he shook his head, disbelief plastered to his face. It looked like we were on the run again. I couldn't understand it. How had we been found again so quickly? If we weren't safe here at the Steel Tower, surrounded by a heavily armed security force and layers of protective Light, where could we possibly go? I started to suspect that Aaron was right; we needed to find the other Families of Light before Wiley and the Morrighan caught up with us. Hiding wasn't working, and we couldn't fight creatures such as these ourselves and hope to survive. We needed help, but I had no idea how we would find the Seven Families, or if there were enough of them left alive to make a difference against the Morrighan. Of course, none of that would matter if we were found and killed today.
"It's a search pattern," Esther was saying. She turned to Aaron. "They're looking for you."
"And they'll find us." He growled. "They probably don't know about the Steel Tower yet. But they will, if we don't get out of here fast."
"How did they track us?" Samuel asked, stepping onto the elevator first. We crammed into the small space, filling the air with quick breaths of nervous energy and adrenaline. The door slid shut, chopping off the sound of the alarm and reducing it to a muffled tone from outside the door accompanied by a repetitive buzzing from the elevator speakers.
"They seem to know you're in Pittsburg." Esther said into the heavy quiet as the elevator began to descend toward the ground. I watched my grandmother stand in the center of the space with her eyes fixed firmly ahead. She had all the solidity of the Tower itself, and I wished for a moment that I had inherited just a fraction of that steely confidence.
"But they don't yet know where," she continued. "They must have followed a trail of some kind. Likely they assumed you would continue on into the city when that trail went cold."
"You were all in rough shape when you arrived," Thaddeus probed. "Someone bad found you very quickly. Who was it?"
Aaron hesitated, looking like he wanted to dodge the question.
"It was Wiley." he said finally.
Thaddeus and Esther drilled Aaron with the same hard look, both expressions betraying a flicker of apprehension.
"Wiley?!" Thaddeus shifted from apprehensive to angry. "You've had that maniac on your tail this whole time and you never thought to mention it."
"It didn't come up." Aaron said.
"Yes, well, now you've led him straight to our doorstep, haven't you," Esther chided, her tone as severe as the steel in her eyes. "Wiley is our problem now, as much as yours. We will deal with him and his allies in our own way."
We continued our descent in silence, heartbeats pounding heavy rhythms in the close confines of the elevator. Fear wrestled determination in my chest as I fought to keep my breath even and my hands from shaking at my sides. The ride went on for long minutes until I was sure we had passed the ground level and continued into the earth. When the elevator speakers chimed and the door slid open, I had no idea how far below ground we were.
We stepped off the elevator into what looked like an enormous airplane hangar. The walls and ceiling were formed by sheets of corrugated steel shaped into a half cylinder, like a massive tunnel, eighty feet high and half a mile long. It was stocked not with aircraft, but with long gleaming rows of land vehicles in every variety imaginable. Civilian vehicles in dozens of makes, models, and colors were contrasted by standard military transport vehicles, Humvees, tanks and many others that I couldn't identify. Some were strange and futuristic, some were sleek and fast looking, others were hulking and powerful and looked capable of bringing down a building.
Thaddeus directed us to the side and instructed us to wait. We stood close together and watched as Thaddeus rejoined Esther where she met with a small group of what looked to be senior officers of the Steel Tower. A moment later, the elevator doors opened and Lara stepped off, guided by a young man in uniform.
"Special delivery," she said, handing me my hoodie as she joined us.
"Thanks," I mumbled.
I felt slightly better with my sister at my side. Whatever happened now, at least we would all be together.
Lara, it seemed, took after our Grandmother a bit more than I did, taking everything in with calm and calculating eyes. Aaron inspected our surroundings with a begrudging respect, while Samuel and I just stared in wide-eyed amazement.
The hangar was alive with activity. Steel Tower soldiers flowed through the place like bees in a hive, rushing from one task to the next with the clockwork efficiency of a military unit. Every one of them was encased in ballistic armor of some kind, and armed with high-powered weaponry. I'd never been in the military, but if I were to imagine what it looks like to prepare for war, this would be it. I saw an armory station set up where a line of soldiers were waiting to exchange their standard combat rifle for some type of weapon worn on their arm. The weapon looked something like a Medieval gauntlet made of a modern looking, dull black material. The wrist and fingers were composed of multiple pieces, like the scales of a dragon, and a wicked blue glow emanated from underneath the scales.
"Ice-blades," Aaron said, noticing my glance. "The Tower uses them against the Servants of Dark. Evens things up a bit."
I watched as one soldier, a tall Norse looking woman with short platinum blond hair, raised her hand in front of her face and spread her fingers in one quick practiced motion. The ice-blade on her arm flared to life with a flash, and a field of pale blue energy spread out in front of her to form a glowing shield. It looked startlingly similar to the wall of power Aaron had created to protect us from Wiley and his Coyotes.
I raised an eyebrow at Aaron.
He shrugged. "I helped Esther and her team develop them years ago. She's made some improvements since then, but the basic design is the same."
"Shields made of Light energy?" I asked.
"Core Light energy," he said. "And they're a shield and a sword." He nodded toward the female soldier.
I looked over in time to see her lower her hand to form a fist. The energy shield retracted, coalescing around her hand and then shooting up from the top of her fist in the rough shape of a double edged sword, glowing and sputtering a deadly pale blue.
"That is awesome!" Samuel said. He'd been following our exchange from a few feet away. Now he joined us, clapping Aaron on the back and grinning like a teenaged nerd watching his first lightsaber battle.
"Yeah," I said, turning back to Aaron. "Awesome. But tell me this, what the heck is Core Light? Esther mentioned it before as if we should all know what it means."
Aaron looked away, his expression hardening into a stone likeness of himself.
"More secrets, Aaron?" Lara asked, tiny bits of iron creeping into her voice.
"It'll have to wait," Aaron rumbled, nodding his head to where Esther approached with Thaddeus in tow.
"Time to be going," She ordered.
"Going where?" Aaron's arms crossed.
"We're getting you out of here," Thaddeus said.
"You're just kicking us out?" Samuel demanded, anger darkening the pale blue of his eyes.
"I could do that, young man," Esther replied. "And perhaps I should, but no. I'm not sending you away unaided."
"Esther has decided to help you after all," Thaddeus added, clearly unhappy with the development. "Though, God only knows why."
Aaron turned to Esther. "Why the change of heart?"
"I think you're a fool to keep running," She said. "The Morrighan will catch up to you eventually."
She met my eye and her voice grew softer.
"But sometimes we need to walk our own path for while in order to find the strength to face what we fear. Perhaps helping you down this path you've chosen will lead you to a better one."
"Thank you," I said, a low ache building in my chest at my Grandmother's words, like the stinging memory of a missing loved one, painful and sweet.
"But I thought the old communication networks were destroyed," Aaron said "How can you help us?"
Esther paused, staring Aaron down, the cool steel in her eyes pressing against the smoldering fire in his.
"There may yet be a way for you to contact the Seven Families," Esther said.
"How?" I asked.
The silence that followed brimmed with tension, as if the bad news was coming next.
Thaddeus sighed. "We're going to find Graver."
Aaron made a sound and I turned to find a sight I could not remember seeing before. Fear in my Uncle's eyes.
"Uh, who's Graver?" I asked.
No one responded at first. Then Aaron grunted again, lowering his head and pressing a thumb and forefinger to his eyes.
"— shit," He said. "This just got a whole lot worse."