The air had grown colder and a slow rain began to fall, dampening our clothing. I drew the hood up on my sweatshirt but kept my hands free of my pockets, ready to act quickly if the need arose. As I moved through the darkness, I curled my fingers into fists, clenching them to still their shaking. I told myself it was the cold that sank into my skin and pulled tremors from my limbs, but I knew it was more than that. Life had been in a constant state of upheaval since our father died six months earlier. In his absence, the remnants of my family had carved out our own warped sense of normal, struggling from one day to the next with a rugged stubbornness. Now, I could sense another jarring change in the air, and the uncertainty nagged at the back of my mind and sent chills down my spine. For comfort, I turned to the power inside me, calling it to life like a torch in the dark.
The steady glow of Light became a furnace in my core, fueling my movements and warming me from the inside. Somewhere to my left, Samuel moved in the dark. I could sense his firm presence and the steady pulse of his power, mirroring my own. As we drew closer to the bridge, an unnatural focus came over me. There was a growing clarity of sight and sound as my senses adapted themselves to the hunt. In moments I could see almost as clearly in the dark as I could in the daylight. I heard every nighttime sound as if it had been amplified in my direction. This was a new experience for me. My whole life I had worked hard to conceal and contain my abilities. Now, as I used them to hunt an enemy, something primal had awakened inside me. Like a mouse suddenly discovering itself to be a cat. Once prey, now fearsome predator.
Samuel and I met at the mouth of the bridge. We stood in the rain and stared down its short length into the darkness beyond. A strange tension hung in the air, pricking my skin and setting my nerves on edge. I took a steadying breath, ignoring the sensation, and focused on the task at hand.
Turning to Samuel, I caught his eye with a questioning look. Were we actually going to do this? Samuel nodded once, his jaw clenching in dogged determination. I knew my brother could be a stubborn ass, and I was used to cleaning up his messes when the harsh realities of the world collided with whatever alternate scenario had taken root inside his thick skull, but this felt different. This time the stakes were much higher. I knew that Samuel was only doing what he thought was right, but I couldn't help feeling like I was grasping at sea swells trying to prevent them from dashing themselves into pieces against the shore. I closed my eyes, briefly steeling myself to see this through, then nodded to Samuel in return.
My brother and I stepped onto the bridge without a sound and crossed to the far side. Beyond the narrow tree line, dead unplanted farmland stretched into the darkness. An earthy dampness clung to the air, mingling with the pungent sent of wood decay. The muddy clearing we'd seen from the far side of the river rested against the river bank beside the bridge. Used as a place to park farm equipment during planting and harvest, it was empty now except for the improvised fire pit at its center. Three boys huddled around the dying fire, sitting low inside their jackets and watching the fire sizzle and fade as the rain gradually extinguished its already weak flame. They were all grubby trailer park kids in worn cloths and long greasy hair.
One of them was Trent.
Samuel and I stepped out of the darkness and into the fragile firelight like ghosts materializing out of the gloom. All three boys started at our sudden appearance. Recognition played across Trent's face as he realized who we were, followed by fear. He knew why we were there.
"Hey, guys." Samuel's tone was conversational, but an unmistakable threat lurked beneath it. "Nice night, isn't it?"
The fear in Trent's expression gave way to a smarmy arrogance as he looked from my brother and me to his two friends on either side of him and realized that he had us outnumbered. It took him a few seconds too long to do the math.
He stood up slowly, joined by his buddies, and faced us from across the sputtering bonfire. Trent was a tank of a kid at six feet three inches tall, two hundred ten pounds. He could have been a linebacker on our high school football team if his grades were better. Instead, he used his size and strength to bully and intimidate fellow students, teachers, and pretty much anyone who stood between him and something he wanted.
I knew the two boys with him by reputation: the Sanders brothers. A couple of assholes like Trent, though they weren't quite as big and scary. They tended to follow Trent around like disciples and scrape up the crumbs he left behind from whatever trouble they got into.
Trent pointed a thick chin at us and flashed an ugly, gap toothed grin.
"Yeah, I'm having a pretty good night, Acheson." He said our last name like a curse, spitting on the ground like his uncle had. "But, I hear your sister didn't have such a fun day."
"You son of a —" Samuel took a step forward, his fists trembling at his sides with barely contained anger.
My mind was racing. This was going to happen and it didn't look like there was much I could do to stop it. Trent had no idea of the danger he was in. He was accustomed to being feared by everyone. Though Samuel was tall and strong, Trent towered over him, and with my brother and I outnumber three to two, a fair fight would only turn out one way. Trent was not going to back down.
Neither was Samuel. And the truth was, this was not a fair fight.
I watched as steam began to rise from Samuel's head and shoulders. The steady drops of rain that hit him turned to vapor, disappearing as quickly as his self control seemed to be. I knew my brother's temper, and if he lost control completely, Trent was as good as dead. Then the real danger would begin.
I honestly had no idea what would happen if it came to that. Neither of us did. All we had were stories passed down from our parents. Vague descriptions of an unseen protection: some mystical force that covered our family and concealed us from our enemies. The only thing that could remove this protection, and expose us to a world full of ruthless adversaries bent on our destruction, was for a member of our family to use their power in committing an act of evil. Then all bets were off. The curtain would fall and it would be open season on the Achesons. For decades we had avoided that fate and now, standing in this muddy, back-woods clearing in the middle of Nowheresville, USA, it was all about to come crashing down.
I had to try to stop it.
"Samuel —" I started.
I never got any farther than that before all hell broke loose.
Samuel shouted his fury and punched both hands into the air. Blinding white energy flashed around each fist, wrapping his arms in a network of lighting and flame. The Sanders boys had no time to cry out before they were hit by a wave of pure force. Both were sent flopping along the dirt like rag dolls.
It was incredible. I'd never seen such a terrifying display of power. From deep within me a hunger stirred to let loose and join my brother. Some part of me longed to unleash my power and destroy my enemies. I wanted to burn them all to dust and howl my victory at the stars. The feeling was frightening in its intensity, rising from inside me and threatening to overwhelm my self-control.
I fought the feeling down, beating it into submission by a sheer effort of will.
Next to me, Samuel focused his cold eyes on Trent. I could see the same hunger in them that I was feeling. It twisted my brother's face into a horrible mask of ferocity and death. He brought his right hand up, palm toward the sky and Trent was lifted violently into the air.
Fear had returned to Trent's face along with pain as Samuel exerted unseen forces against his body. Trent struggled against what was being done to him, arching his back and roaring in anger and fear.
I had only seconds to act if I was going to stop this.
I closed my eyes briefly to still my mind and gather my will. Thrusting a hand toward the drowned bonfire, I called up Light from deep inside my chest and sent it into the embers with all the heat and rage I could muster.
The result was somewhat larger than I expected.
Fire exploded twenty feet into the air and spread in both directions creating a massive wall of flame between Samuel and Trent. Samuel cried out in surprise and threw his arms up to protect his face from the heat.
I nearly lost it then. The fire that rose up from the core of my being felt every bit as intense as the inferno I had just created. Power, raw and unfettered, consumed every part of me. It radiated from my bones, coursing through muscle, and raking across my flesh like live embers under the skin. It was thrilling beyond words. It felt as though, for the first time in my life, I was truly alive. If this was how Samuel felt when he expended this much power, it was no wonder he'd lost control.
With an effort, I reined the power in, leaving it simmering just below the surface where I could easily call it up again. The wall of flames subsided to a dull burn along the muddy ground. The rain, still falling gently to the dirt, helped to lessen the flames to the point where I could once again see the other side of the clearing. I caught sight of the Sander's brothers as they disappeared into the dark fields behind the clearing, running for their lives. Trent sat in the mud where he had fallen. He leaned back on his hands and stared in wide eyed horror at the space in the air where the wall of flame had been. Between Samuel's abuse and my explosion, he had been left bloodied and burned. The hair on his head and face had been singed and blood leaked in thin trails from his nose and ears. As I watched, he climbed to his feet, the fear in his eyes turning to rage as his gaze locked in on Samuel.
My brother stood still, his boots sunken into the mud, breathing heavily, face frozen in a mask of shock and surprise.
Trent's face flickered as something murderous crossed his burnt and bloodied features. His right hand moved to the small of his back and a dull glint of metal cut through the night.
Trent had a gun.
And it was pointed at Samuel's head.
Through the thin drops of rain that continued to fall, I saw the look of fear and hatred in Trent's eyes. In that moment, I could almost hear the voice of his cruel uncle whispering in his ear. Those Acheson's are demons, boy. Monsters and worthless cowards. You ever get one alone, you shoot first and don't ask questions later.
I didn't know exactly what Earl had told him about us, but I was certain he had spoken of my family. He'd poisoned Trent's mind with paranoid fears and delusions; stoked the fires of hatred with harsh words and drunken curses. That was why Trent hurt my sister the way he had. He hated and feared our family like so many before him, frightened of the things about us that they didn't understand, or coveting our power for themselves. Trent was no different from all of the enemies my Father had warned us about as Samuel, Lara, and I were growing up: those who had hunted us throughout the centuries, seeking to destroy our family and end our bloodline. Trent was infected with the same anger and violent jealousy that had driven my family into hiding.
It was then that I knew Trent was going to pull the trigger.
I had to save my brother.
The gun went off ten feet from where I stood with a flash that lit up the late night darkness. Thunder echoed through the cold air as I dove toward Samuel, throwing my body between my brother and the gun.
The bullet slammed into my back with a sickening smack. White hot flame erupted in my left shoulder as the impact sent me sprawling into Samuel and carried us both to the ground. We hit the mud together in a tangle as the shock of the impacting bullet spread from my shoulder, carrying waves of frozen pain throughout my body. A searing cold spread from my shoulder, numbing my flesh and setting off a throbbing ache in my bones.
I had to move quickly now. Trent's gun most likely had more bullets and he seemed determined to end this bloody. As if to confirm my thoughts, more gunshots erupted from the far side of the clearing as Trent opened fire again. I detangled myself from Samuel, and spun up to one knee just as the slap of a bullet hit the mud where I had been. Staying low, I once again called up Light from within me, directing it this time at the huge kid with the gun who was trying to kill us.
I held nothing back.
Waves of pure force shot out from the air around me and slammed into Trent like a freight train. His body flew back and up, spiraling through the air end over end for dozens of feet, and slammed into the earth in the middle of a field. He collided with the ground in a thudding concussion, kicking up dirt and rocks like a meteor falling to the Earth. The impact reverberated through the countryside, punctuated by the staccato sound of soil falling back to the ground.
In the quiet aftermath, Samuel found his feet again. He stood staring after Trent and shaking his head in disbelief. I joined him at the edge of the clearing, just as shocked at what I had done as my brother appeared to be. A wordless look passed between us, one of uncertainty and apprehension, and we made our way out into the middle of the field.
A four foot wide trench cut across the barren earth, twenty feet long and ending three feet deep in the rich farm soil. Samuel and I picked our way carefully across the field and approached the trench with reverent steps. A pervasive hush had fallen over the world, as though all of creation had witnessed some earth-shattering event, and now waited with baited breath to see what would happen next. I knew what I would find at the end of the trench, but I needed to see it for myself. I stepped up to the hole in the ground, careful not to disturb anything. It felt important that I leave the scene just as it was, the terrible result of my actions preserved for all to see.
At the bottom of the trench in the middle of that field was the broken body of Trent the trailer park thug, the boy who had hurt my sister, tried to kill my brother, and shot me. My family was avenged. Our honor was restored.
I felt hollow.
The bullet wound in my shoulder bred an aching numbness throughout my body. It matched the seeping cold inside me. Samuel placed a hand on my good shoulder, lending his support. I shook my head, staring down at the corpse that I had caused, the life that I had taken, trying to feel something. Nothing came, just a vague understanding that everything was about to change. A line had been crossed and our world would be disrupted now, though in what way, I didn't know. All I knew for sure was that whatever happened next, it would be my fault.
That was when the earth cracked open in front of us and spewed blood into the sky.