My brother's quick action saved my life.
Samuel's hand latched onto the back of my sweatshirt and yanked me backward just as the rushing lava punched through the air where my head had been. The air around us was super-heated into steam, throwing Samuel and me backward away from the stream of molten rock and scalding our skin as we fell.
We landed in a heap of thrashing limbs and singed extremities. I scrambled backward on panicked hands and feet, watching in terrified fascination as the eruption of molten lava rocketed into the sky. I expected it to reach the peak of its ascent and then fall back to earth, but it just kept shooting upward — higher and higher — pouring from the earth in an endless, angry river of liquid stone. Samuel and I climbed to our feet and stood dumbfounded as the seething column of crimson magma rose into the frigid air until it met the clouds and began to spread across the sky in all directions. The clouds began to boil, surging like an angry sea as a sickly red-orange stain spread from the pillar of rushing magma and claimed more and more of the overcast sky. As I turned to meet Samuel's eyes, a slow rain of black ash began to fall, coating our clothes and skin in dingy soot. Heat flared along my flesh where the falling ash touched me, like tongues of living fire slithering over my skin. I saw my own fear and uncertainty mirrored in my brother's eyes.
We ran for our lives.
My heart hammered in my chest, pumping fear along with blood into my limbs. My senses were on overload, fighting hard against the impossible sensations they were being fed. Clearly this could not be happening. This was not how the world worked. Volcanic eruptions didn't happen in rural Ohio, and lava couldn't defy gravity, surging into the atmosphere to paint the sky in hellish shades of red and black. But it was happening, and so I poured every ounce of speed I possessed into my flailing limbs. I felt as though I'd slipped into a dream where some nameless terror chased me and my legs wouldn't move fast enough, made sluggish and heavy by some invisible weight. Visions of my mother and father flashed through my mind, both young and strong as they smiled down at me. I bit my tongue to keep myself from crying out to them, lowering my head and running harder.
The broken ground of the field was made even more treacherous by the tremors rumbling through the earth. Samuel and I both stumbled and fell more than once, each time stopping to drag the other to his feet again and continue our panicked flight. Once I hit the ground hard enough to knock the wind from my lungs. I spent long seconds in the trembling dirt, gagging and choking on the ash filled air. Samuel finally hauled me upright as the world around us descended further into madness. The sound of the eruption was an endless deafening roar and the acrid stench of sulphur mingled with the pungent scent of overturned soil. Volcanic ash rained down in a thick sheet of smoldering soot, turning our reality into a spectral world of black and gray. High above our heads, just barely visible through the falling ash, that otherworldly crimson glow continued to crawl its way toward the horizon like the unstoppable courier of some inevitable doom.
When we reached the edge of the field and found the smoother surface of the bike trail, we picked up speed, running as hard as we could to escape whatever fate had come for us.
I had no idea what was happening, but I knew it would be bad for our family. We were all in danger. I could feel it in my bones like the warning ache of a coming storm, growing stronger and more threatening with each passing moment until my vision blurred and my heart beat as though it would jump from my chest. Only one rational thought crawled its way to the surface of my mind to rise above the panic and fear: We had to get home and warn Lara and Uncle Aaron. Whatever was coming, the only way we stood any chance of escaping it was together. Our family was gifted with a terrible strength and power, each of us possessing an equal share. Alone, we were formidable, but my father had always taught us that, together, we were unstoppable. Samuel and I needed to get home so we could face the consequences that my actions had brought down on our family together.
I ran as though my life depended on it, because if even half of the stories my Father had told us were true, it just might.
The sturdy old farmhouse we called home had stood tall and unchanged for the past hundred years. It was a white sentry on a hilltop overlooking miles of what used to be fertile Ohio farmland. Now most of that land had been consumed by the slow spread of housing developments, gradually conforming to the needs of the modern age. The nearby city of Columbus had spilled its excess housing needs into the surrounding counties and transformed much of the countryside into a series of small dusty towns buried in suburban sprawl. Our little town, like so many others, was mostly unchanged for the past century except to become poorer and more dependent on the employment opportunities offered by the city. Our home was a last remnant of a dying age — a lone holdout, too stubborn to succumb to the changes taking place in the world around it. As Samuel and I crested the hill and hurried toward the house, every window glowed with warm light as if the house was defying the night to test its endurance. The world behind us had fallen into chaos, but our house welcomed us home.
Samuel leaped up the steps of the covered porch and burst through the front door. I followed as quickly as I could, nearly falling again as I stumbled through the door. Our two mile sprint home had taken every ounce of strength I had, my body still in shock from the bullet wound in my shoulder. The aching numbness had spread, starting from the bullet's entry point, and painting the left side of my body in a slow icy burn. I'd lost a lot of blood as we ran, and I felt a fresh warmth soak the back of my shirt with each beat of my pulse.
I caught up with Samuel just inside the door, near a staircase that led to the upstairs bedrooms. To the right was the living room and to the left, a short hallway that opened into the kitchen. Our Uncle Aaron stood unmoving in the kitchen doorway as though he'd been waiting for us in that spot for hours.
Aaron was a tall man, thin and slightly hunched, but solid, like the trunk of an old, weathered pine tree, still flexible enough to bend with the winds, but strong enough to stand upright again after the storm's passing. His care worn face turned toward us, handsome in its own way, with skin that was tough and tanned from days spent in the sun and a beard that was never fully grown out but never shaved completely smooth. With his dark hair cropped close to his head and the lean sturdiness of his frame, Aaron always reminded me of a retired Roman centurion, battle worn and wise.
"What have you fool kids done?" Aaron's voice was low, but held an intensity that matched his piercing blue eyes. He addressed us both, but his eyes were locked onto Samuel.
"Haven't I warned you?" He spoke more loudly as he moved down the hall with quickening steps toward where Samuel and I stood by the stairs. "Haven't I told you that your damn temper would get us all killed one day?"
I felt a stirring of Light spark to life as Aaron called on his power in anger. His arm shot out to seize the front of Samuel's jacket with an iron grip, lifting my brother off the ground with one arm.
"Now it's happened!" Aaron was shouting now, not the raving scream of an angry drunk, but the controlled shout of a military commander. "We're all dead now, and for what? So you could have your childish revenge against some worthless loser of a small town kid?"
Samuel hung in the air by the arms of his jacket and took Uncle Aaron's harsh rebuke in silence, a hard defiance in his eyes. I was tempted to let him hang there. This had all started with his foolhardy vendetta and he deserved a strong rebuke from Aaron. But then the scene from the Snake River Bridge replayed itself in my head, and I felt my stomach tighten into knots as Trent's lifeless face hovered in my mind's eye.
"Put him down, Aaron," I mumbled. "This was my fault."
There was a gasp from the top of the stairs and all three of us turned as one to see Lara. My sister's bruises had begun to darken, casting a shadow over the left side of her face. Her features were small, but strong, framed by soft sheets of black hair. Even with one eye swollen nearly shut and blood still crusting her lower lip, there was not an ounce of fragility in her. She had the steadfast beauty of a noble lady from some harsh northern kingdom. I always pictured her climbing out of a carriage and striding across the rocky shore of a windswept coast, her simple gown whipping behind her in the breeze. Lara and I had always had a special bond; we never fought like I did with Samuel. She was my younger sister, but I looked up to her in many ways. She was the best person I knew, her kindness somehow never at odds with her self-confidence and strength. As I looked up at her now, the disappointment I saw as our eyes met was like a dagger in my chest.
"You did this, Jonas?" The hurt in Lara's voice twisted the knife in my heart and the burning from the very real bullet in my shoulder returned with a vengeance.
"I —" I tried to speak but the words caught in my throat and the world began to dim around me.
"Is he dead, then?" Lara drifted down a few stairs, her face a mask of careful concern.
"It's not his fault," Samuel said. "He was just protecting me."
Their words faded into white noise as pain and exhaustion washed over me. I staggered, my knees beginning to buckle, and a moment later I found myself looking up at the ceiling.
"Jonas!" Lara cried.
She was down the remaining stairs in an instant.
"Aaron, he's hurt," she said, looking up from my side. "We have to get him to a hospi—"
Lara was cut off mid-sentence by a noise from outside the house. It was an unnatural noise, cutting through the walls like ten-thousand dead leaves scraping across the concrete, or the wordless whispers of countless things long dead. The sound froze the blood in my veins, injecting a mindless terror into my thoughts.
"My God," Aaron breathed. His eyes glazed over as he searched for the source of the sound using senses other people don't have. "So quickly. She must have had Watchers nearby."
"What the hell is that noise?" Samuel asked, fear smudging the edges of his voice.
Lara gripped my arm, her breathing loud in my ear.
"How could anyone have found us so quickly?" She asked.
"Volcanic eruptions aren't exactly common in the Midwestern U.S." Aaron eyes remained distant as he spoke. "Kinda draws attention."
"It wasn't natural, Aaron," Samuel said, casting his gaze around the room as if searching for someone to fight. "It was like the world was falling apart. Like Armageddon or something."
"This is what happens, boy, when you break something that was powerful enough to keep us hidden all these years. The blowback is a little intense."
I groaned as I fought through the pain that threatened to smother me, struggling to remain conscious.
Lara placed a cool hand on the side of my face.
"He needs help," she said, concern thickening her voice.
"No time for an ambulance," Aaron said, his focus returning. "We have to go now. Samuel, bring Jonas."
Aaron started toward the kitchen.
A fresh surge of pain stabbed my shoulder as my brother lifted me off the floor. I stiffened, but then forced myself to relax into Samuel. The pain lessened a bit as I allowed him to carry me like a child.
"Hang in there, little bro." Samuel moved as if I weighed nothing, hurrying through the house after Uncle Aaron.
At the back of the kitchen was a door leading to the basement. We descended the stairs and Aaron slammed the door behind us, lowering a thick metal bar I'd never noticed before and dropping it into place across the door frame. We followed Aaron past the furnace to a far corner of the unfinished basement where a stack of storage boxes had sat untouched for years.
"What are we doing down here?" Samuel asked, adjusting my position in his arms and causing a spike of pain in my shoulder.
"It's too late to walk out the front door," Aaron grunted, moving some of the heavy boxes to the side. "She's already here. We have to go another way."
"Who?" Lara asked, bending to help him. "Aaron, who is here?"
Aaron paused and looked up at the three of us. "The Morrighan."
I saw my own blank expression mirrored on my brother and sister's faces.
"Who is —" Lara started.
"You don't wanna know." Aaron said, turning back to the boxes.
"This is stupid. Why are we running?" Samuel's muscles tensed beneath me as a stubborn anger crept into his voice. He shifted his feet on the concrete floor, burning off anxious energy. "If this Morrighan is after us, we should stand and fight. Dad always said we were strongest together. There's no way she could take all four of us."
"You don't know what you're talking about, boy." Aaron growled, tossing the final box aside and revealing a hidden hatch in the floor. He stood to face me and Samuel with an intensity I'd rarely seen from him. "This is not someone you fight. This is someone you run away from and hope to God you never actually meet."
As if to drive Aaron's point home, a sudden crash thundered through the house.
"Lara, get that thing open." Aaron gestured to the hatch.
It was a solid square of metal about two and a half feet wide with an indented handle on one side. It sat level with the floor, creating a smooth surface, which the boxes had been stacked on. As Lara bent to her task, Aaron turned back to me.
"We won't be able to carry you down there, Jonas. We'll have to get you back on your feet. Set him down, Samuel."
Samuel looked at me and I nodded, attempting a reassuring smile through the pain and fear. Samuel carefully lowered me to my feet and held me upright with my good arm around his shoulders. I should have been able to use my power as a source of strength while I healed, flooding Light into my body and speeding my recovery. But even a Holder of Light had limits. I'd lost a lot of blood during our flight home, and the open wound in my shoulder continued to leak, sapping me of my strength.
"Try to hold still, boy." Aaron stepped up to my left side. "This is gonna hurt."
He placed his hands on either side of my shoulder, closing his eyes in concentration. Pain erupted through the left side of my body in a single brutal wave. I would have collapsed to the floor if not for my brother's support. I felt a single point of fire deep in my shoulder begin to shift toward the back of my body. I gritted my teeth as inch by excruciating inch, it moved, following the path of the wound like a live ember crawling through my flesh. After a few painful moments, I felt the fire leave my body and heard a tiny click of metal on concrete at my feet. I looked down and saw the bullet that had just been in my shoulder lying on the floor.
I looked up at Aaron, but before I could speak a white hot flame seared into the back of my shoulder. I almost passed out. The burning disappeared quickly, replaced by a cool, numbing sensation.
"That should stop the bleeding." Aaron opened his eyes. He gripped my chin with iron fingers and looked me in the eye. "You good?"
I cradled my left arm to my side, but nodded, feeling a bit stronger with the bullet gone and the wound sealed up.
"Good." Aaron nodded once. "Let's move."
Lara had raised the hatch, exposing a tunnel in the earth with a ladder on one side. Aaron handed us each a small flashlight and, one at a time, we descended into the dark with Aaron bringing up the rear. I held the small flashlight between my teeth, bracing my back against the side wall of the tunnel and using only my right hand to grip the rungs. The ladder ended after ten feet at a narrow cement-lined passage. We gathered at the bottom and waited while Aaron closed the hatch. There was a brief flash of Light from above and then Aaron was stepping off the ladder beside us.
"That should hold them off long enough," Aaron said.
"How did this get here, Aaron?" I asked, clicking my flashlight to life and peering down the passageway into the darkness. "And where does it lead?"
"Your dad and I built this, years ago." Aaron explained, joining us at the mouth of the passageway. "It comes out on the far side of the Snake River, about a mile west of the bridge. We wanted a quick get-away in case something like this ever happened. I'm almost glad your Dad didn't live to see the day —"
He was cut off by the sound of an explosion above us. It reverberated off the tunnel walls in a huge concussive wave followed by a trailing rumble, like an avalanche triggered by a missile strike.
"What was that?" Lara shouted over the noise.
"The roof, I'd say," Aaron grumbled, shouldering his way to the front. "Say goodbye to the house, kids. We won't be coming back here."
He trudged down the passageway into the pitch-black world beyond.
As the others moved to follow, I turned my eyes to the darkness above me and the unseen foundation of the only home I'd ever had. I closed my eyes in a silent goodbye, then turned and followed my family into the unknown.