Our black SUV burned through the late night city streets like a rocket ship, squealing around corners and weaving through traffic without slowing. Thaddeus worked the steering wheel with one hand while the other held some sort of global positioning device, which he used to keep track of enemy movements. He glanced down every few seconds, making sharp turns and accelerating down straightaways, guided by real-time information from his hand-held GPS.
"Graver is the only chance we have of contacting the Families," Thaddeus insisted, cranking the wheel and sending us through another screeching turn.
From my place in the third row of the large vehicle, I was tossed around by the violent motion of our race through town. My seatbelt was all that stopped me from tumbling to the opposite side of the car. Samuel had managed to snag the front passenger seat while Aaron and Laura occupied the middle row.
"He's insane," Aaron growled. "He's just as likely to kill us as he is to help us."
"Well, you're not wrong about that," Thaddeus muttered.
"Who the hell is this Graver guy?" Samuel asked, his arms and feet braced against the dashboard and passenger side door.
Thaddeus glanced at Samuel then down at his GPS, yanking the wheel and sending us into a skidding right turn. I was thrown against the side of the car, the bullet wound in my shoulder flaring to life with angry lashes of searing pain. The vehicle seemed to float on two wheels through the second half of the turn, then righted itself on a new course down a side-street and I lurched back into my seat.
"Graver is a very dangerous man," Thaddeus said.
"The most dangerous man alive," Aaron corrected. "If he's even a man at all. No one's really sure."
Aaron's nervousness sent a creeping chill up my spine. My Uncle was a pretty dangerous man himself, and when Wiley and his coyotes tore into our hotel room like a cartoon cast from hell, be never batted an eye. Even now, as we fled for our lives again, running with our collective tail between our legs from whatever was hunting us this time, Aaron hadn't expressed more than a churlish irritation. To see him display this level of apprehension at the mention of Graver's name was enough to make me wish for a very deep hole to hide in. I did not want to look for Graver, and I definitely didn't want to find him, but it seemed that we didn't have a choice if we wanted to contact the Families of Light and secure their help in surviving this madness. Still, it was difficult for me to feel confident running toward another danger when I knew so little about the original threat. I would need to find a time to confront Aaron and force the issue. We needed to know more about the Morrighan and why she was so desperate to get her hands on Aaron. Of course, that would have to wait until we survived the next half hour.
"We're being boxed in," Lara said. It was the first time she'd spoken since we left the hangar below the Steel Tower.
Thaddeus had led us to a row of identical shiny black SUVs. We'd piled into one, and departed using a vehicle elevator at the far end of the hangar. We had emerged on the lower level of a parking garage several blocks from the Steel Tower, and made our way to the surface. A light rain began to fall as we crept our way through the city streets, blending with the traffic and trying to remain inconspicuous. Our quiet escape was spoiled when Thaddeus's GPS device belted out a high pitched warning. We'd been spotted.
I had yet to see any of our pursuers, but the imminent threat was apparent from the evasive action Thaddeus took, racing through town as if we were running for our lives. Which we probably were.
Now we all peered out our windows as we drove, scanning the rooftops for any sign of what Lara had seen. Drops of rainwater trailed down the glass in sudden bursts, and I used the heel of my hand to clear the window in front of my face where my breath had cast a film of fog across its surface.
"There," Aaron said, pointing to a rooftop half a block away on our right side.
It was difficult to see much in the dim light of the street lights, but the buildings around us were silhouetted just enough to make out their outline against the greying sky. I watched the place Aaron had pointed out and as we approached it there was a flicker of movement.
A shadowy figure melted into view at the edge of the rooftop.
I couldn't tell what it was from a distance, but it didn't look like Wiley or any of his Coyote creatures. It was roughly human in size and shape, but its form was insubstantial, like tattered cloth in the wind. I had only a brief glimpse before my examination was interrupted by a thunderous crash and our vehicle came to an instantaneous, bone-crushing halt.
The full weight of my body in motion crushed into my seatbelt like a lead bar swung into my chest. My head impacted the seat in front of me, then rebounded back into the headrest behind me like a baseball smacking into the cradle of a catcher's glove. Detonations of jagged white light shot across my vision.
I lost all awareness of the world as time slowed to a fraction of its normal speed and a few seconds stretched into a decade. The sound around me was reduced to a muffled, distant version of itself, accompanied by a steady, high-pitched tone ringing in my ears. I felt as if something important was happening, but I couldn't seem to think of what it was. My body had stopped moving, but my mind had continued on without me and I no longer had access to it.
When the world snapped back into focus, all hell had broken loose.
The front of the car was gone. In its place was a stone wall, which made no sense because we were still in the middle of the road. Our vehicle sat at a downward angle, with the back wheels off the ground, and my weight resting against the seatbelt in front of me. Sound returned, and I could hear the other passengers coughing and sputtering in the aftermath of the crash.
"Everyone okay?" Thaddeus climbed slowly out of the driver's seat, dripping blood from a cut on his head and holding a small knife, which he'd used to cut his seatbelt. He moved to check on Samuel next to him.
Aaron grunted an affirmative, moving to try the door with eyes scanning outside the vehicle for incoming danger.
"I'm good" Lara said.
"Me too," I agreed, mentally examining myself and searching for any new pain or numbness. My chest felt like it had been buried under a mountain of bricks, and my neck would be sore for many days to come, but the seatbelt had done its job. I'd survived.
"Samuel's out cold," Thaddeus's voice was thick with pain, "But I think he'll be alright. I don't see much blood and nothing seems broken."
"We need to get out of here now." Aaron hissed through clenched teeth, straining at the door handle. "They'll be closing in for the kill."
The frame of the car must have bent from the impact and side door wouldn't budge.
I tried my seatbelt latch and it clicked free, dropping me into the seat-back in front of me. Fighting through the throbbing pain in my chest, I crawled over to help Aaron with the door and between the two of us we managed to force it open enough for one person to squeeze through.
I heard Samuel moan.
"He's coming around," Thaddeus said. "Everybody out. Stay close to the car and stay low. We don't know what's out there."
Aaron went first, forcing his frame through the small opening and then dropping into a crouch when his feet hit the ground, moving to his right to clear the way for the rest of us. He kept his back to the car and his eyes on the rooftops, and I felt his power spark to life as he scanned our surroundings for any immediate threat. Lara followed him out, slipping through the door like a cat and moving left to take a defensive position opposite Aaron.
I looked at Samuel, who was just beginning to move in his seat, then turned to Thaddeus.
"How is he?"
"I'll get him out." Thaddeus nodded to the door. "You next."
I slid through the opening, careful not to bump my injured shoulder, and dropped to the pavement. Moving to the side next to Lara, I glanced at the front of the vehicle.
It was an incredible sight.
An entire corner of a building had somehow broken free and landed on the hood of our car. The piece was as wide as the car itself and taller than Samuel. It had come from a building made of some type of stone, light in color and decorated with intricate carvings around the edges. Broken off in a rough pyramid shape, the surfaces of the two walls and roof came together at a carved point opposite the jagged edge where it had broken free from the building. The point had been driven through our car, as if the large chunk of stone had been aimed like an arrow. This was definitely not an accident. Someone or something had just thrown part of a building at us.
I turned to join Aaron and Lara in scanning our surroundings, a sudden dread freezing the blood in my veins. What kind of creature could break off the corner of a building with such precision and throw it with that kind of accuracy? Whatever it was, I did not want to meet it.
I reached inside myself, calling up Light and casting it out into the air in search of hidden dangers. My senses were immediately assaulted by an overwhelming darkness radiating from multiple points in the city around us. Each one was a filmy black ooze slogging through my mind, raising the hair on the back of my neck and sending shivers down my spine. The feeling was similar to what I'd felt from Coyote creatures we'd fought in the motel room, but stronger and more invasive. And getting closer.
"We have to go," I said out loud, mostly to myself. "We have to go now."
Aaron was helping Samuel extract himself from the ruined SUV. Samuel's large frame had gotten stuck in the small opening and Aaron pulled on the outside of the door while Thaddeus pushed from the inside. I joined Aaron, pulling as hard as I could and after a moment of struggle, felt the door give just enough for Samuel to squeeze through the rest of the way. He was still dazed from the accident, eyes unfocused and blood trickling from his nose and mouth. I moved to help my older brother, dragging his arm across my shoulders and taking some of his weight.
Once Thaddeus had finally climbed out, we gathered into a tight group against the side of the car, eyes on the buildings around us. The scene on the street looked like something out of a disaster movie. People were running away in all directions, hauling their husbands, wives or children after them. Others were standing still, gaping at the destruction in shock and awe, or filming the whole thing with their cell phones. Behind our demolished car there was a pile-up of other vehicles that had collided with one another when our car was stuck. Most had been abandoned by their drivers, presumably out of fear of further destruction from the skies. One overzealous older man had pulled a shotgun from his pickup truck and aimed it at the chunk of stone that had crushed the front of our car, as if the city itself had come alive to attack us and he was going to hold it at bay. People sat bleeding on the sidewalks in obvious shock while emergency sirens drifted towards us in the near distance.
"These people need help," Lara said, eyes full of strength and compassion as she took in the terrible scene.
"The best way for us to help them is to take the danger somewhere else," Aaron said.
"He's right," Thaddeus agreed. "There's nothing we can do for them. If we don't move now we'll all be dead and many of them will die with us."
He held his GPS device, which he'd managed to bring with him from the wrecked vehicle. The screen was cracked, but it appeared to be functioning.
"There's an alleyway half a block behind us that will take us to a tunnel system beneath the city," He said "If we can make it there we can use the tunnels to reach our fallback extraction point."
"You want to trap us underground?" I said. An image flashed through my mind of crawling through the earth like a tunneling rat, dirt and stone enclosing me on all sides, cutting me off from precious air and open sky. "We'll have nowhere to run. All they'll have to do is come at us from both sides and that's it, game-over."
"This way we take the fight off the streets and away from the general population," Thaddeus said. "And we won't be trapped. This is our city. Trust me; the Steel Tower has resources here that these bastards know nothing about."
Thaddeus drew a handgun from the small of his back and took the lead as we started back down the road the way we had come. I felt little confidence in Thaddeus's plan, but anything was better than staying here to die in the street at the hands of some monstrous thing. So I followed, moving at a slow run and trying to imitate Thaddeus as he kept his head low and stayed close to parked vehicles, using them as cover. Samuel and Lara were close on my heels, and Aaron brought up the rear, swells of power radiating from his every move.
I scanned the rooftops as we went, searching for signs of the creatures hunting us, and battling to control the fear that threatened to rise within my chest and turn my blood to stone. A flash of motion pulled my attention to a building on the left side of the street just in time to see a figure disappear from the edge. It looked similar to the one we'd seen from inside the car, tattered cloth winding and coiling in a vaguely human shape. Ragged bits of cloth trailed behind as it faded from view. We continued to weave between the cars, our feet splashing up rainwater as it drained toward the gutters, and more of the same creatures began to appear on the rooflines from both sides of the street. They ghosted in and out of view so quickly that I saw most of them only in my peripheral vision. But I could hear them clearly: dead leaves scraping across the concrete. It was the same sound we'd heard the night our house burned down. The noise crawled into my ears, injecting frost into my thoughts and sending icy shivers down my spine. I couldn't get an accurate impression of the creatures' numbers, but there were many. And they were closing in on us.
"What the hell are these things?" I breathed. "That's not Wiley up there."
"No," Thaddeus said. "These are the Morrighan's creatures. Wiley must be working with her, hunting you down for a bounty and using her monsters to do it."
I shook my head. "When we ran into Wiley before, he told us no one had sent him. Said he was working alone."
"Wiley's a treacherous lying bastard. Who knows why he says anything?"
Our tall escort quickened his pace, and I fell silent, working to keep the air in my lungs as we ran for our lives.
An ominous tension rose in the air like smoke from a burning home, thickening the breath in my lungs and pulling beads of sweat from my forehead. The mouth of the alley came into view up ahead, gaping like the jaws of some monstrous beast waiting to swallow us whole. We reached the opening and rounded the corner, driven by the terrible sound of our pursuers. I heard a rustle from overhead and looked up to see one of the creatures leaping across the top of the alley from one rooftop to another. Two others ran along the edges of the roofs, coming towards us from the opposite end of the alley.
I turned back toward Thaddeus where he'd led our group into the alley.
"Um, we need to hurry—"
Thaddeus was gone.
I examined the alley in quick, desperate glances. It was exactly what I expected a downtown alley to be: brick walls on either side, faded asphalt at my feet, complete with random stacks of newspaper or cardboard, scattered bottles and trash, and a small green dumpster. The only thing missing was a large, dark-skinned Holder of Light in the uniform of the Steel Tower.
"Over here! Let's move!"
Thaddeus's voice seemed to come from nowhere.
I looked at Lara, who'd entered the alley right behind me, and she shrugged. We moved deeper into the alley and after a few steps, passed through some sort of invisible barrier. The air shimmered like the walls of the Glacial Hall and I felt as if I were walking through a thin veil of frigid water. When we reached the other side of the barrier, the alley had changed.
The brick and asphalt were still there but the garbage littering the corners was gone, as was the dumpster. In its place, a large steel door was set into the wall of the alley, its cool solidity and strength at odds with the faded brick around it. The doorway's simple frame held a single metal door engraved with the triangular symbol of the Steel Tower, cold and dull in the low light of the alley. Thaddeus stood near the door, his gun aimed above him as the tattered creatures who hunted us close in around our position.
Samuel appeared beside me, eyebrows raised as he caught my eye.
"Woh." He said
"Yeah." I had never seen Light used in this way. I found myself struck by my own limited understanding of what our power was capable of achieving. I felt I should be angry to learn of all that had been kept from me, but instead I felt only a swell of hope in the new-found knowledge that our gifts could be used for purposes other than death and destruction. Perhaps I could find a way of using my abilities to better the world around me, and in some small way, acquit myself of the guilt of Trent's death. But first I would need to survive the night.
"Quickly." Aaron said shouldering his way past us. He lifted one hand, stepped up to the metal door, and power flared to life around his fingers like the blue flame of a furnace. He touched his palm to the door and immediately it began to open, rising soundlessly up into the wall to reveal a dim stairway that descended into the ground.
"Let's move." Thaddeus said, lowering his weapon and leading the way into the tunnels below the city.
Lara and Samuel followed close behind him, while Aaron stood guard near the door, his power still burning in cold fury around a clenched fist. The creatures above us continued their frenzy, growing more intense as we moved to elude them, clawing at our ears with their grating noise. I paused at the mouth of the doorway and turned to my uncle, unsure if I should leave him to cover our escape alone. He met my gaze and his weathered face was like stone, as if he'd been carved into the side of a mountain centuries ago and stood there still, enduring the ravages of time. He nodded once to reassure me.
I stepped through the doorway just as something large and blindingly fast slammed into Aaron and drove him to the ground.
My first up-close look at the monsters who'd been hunting us told me little about them. The thing was clothed in bits of ragged cloth, as if it wore one layer of clothes until they began to rot away, then put another layer over them, repeating the process until it was shrouded in dozens of layers of cloth in various states of disintegration. Where there were breaks in the ragged cloth, I saw limbs of blackened flesh, like the singed branches of a recently burnt tree. Its head was wrapped in layers of cloth as well, but what I could see of its face was horrible. If a human face were melted in a fire, and then left to rot for a year, only to be reanimated with shards of red flame where its eyes should be, it might look something like this abomination.
Ashen fingers tipped in jagged claws raked at Aaron as he struggled with the beast. They thrashed for a moment on the pavement, then Aaron threw off his attacker with a blue burst of power, dashing it against the wall on the far side of the alley. A moment later a second creature dropped onto his back from above, crushing him back to the asphalt. The first creature recovered, leaping into the fight again, and both of the loathsome things piled onto my uncle, clawing like demons.
I finally found my voice and screamed for Samuel, calling up Light as I moved to Aaron's aid.
Aaron and his attackers thrashed on the ground, moving almost too fast to see. The wicked points of red light that were the monster's eyes blurred into lines of fire in the air, split by burst of fierce blue flame as Aaron brought Light to bear against them. Aaron fought like a man possessed, his face like pale granite in the glow of his power. His fists struck like iron as they drove into the beasts, and brick and asphalt crumbled where they met his hands and feet.
As I stepped through the doorway back into the alley, Aaron threw one of the monsters into the wall again and lifted the other into the air, his hand crushing its foul neck in an iron grip. He looked up to the roof line where more of the creatures circled, then back toward me as I rushed to assist him.
His expression was hard and unchanging as he flicked his free hand in my direction. I felt a soft force hit my chest, just hard enough to shove me back through the doorway and into Samuel who was coming up the stairs behind me. My arms cartwheeled above my head, then wrapped around Samuel as we both nearly tumbled backward down the stairs. I met Samuel's eye, then looked back toward the doorway.
"Aaron!" I screamed above the concussive noise of the battle in the alley.
It was all I managed to do as Samuel and I watched the steel door slide closed in front of us, wreathed in the blue glow of Aaron's power.