I needed to get some distance.
I stood under the overhang of the single story motel, sheltered from the cold sting of November rain, but feeling exposed in a way I didn't really understand. Our house was gone. It was the only home I had ever known and represented the only stability in my life.
My mother died when I was very young. Now my Father was gone as well, taken from us six months earlier in a freak accident that shouldn't have been able to kill a man with that kind of power. He was probably the first Holder of Light ever to die in a car accident. None of us believed it was possible, but the police found no evidence of foul play, and when Aaron snuck into the police impound to investigate the car himself, he came away empty handed. Our dad was simply gone.
The loss had broken our family and left us all in a state of self-imposed solitude. I found myself wandering the house aimlessly, staring out the windows into the countryside, unsure of what I was looking for. I knew in my head that my father wasn't coming home, but I couldn't stop the feeling that I was waiting for the missing fragments of my life to fall back into place. Uncle Aaron stayed sullen and drunk most of the time. Samuel kept everyone at arm's length, busy under the hood of a car. Even Lara would sometimes look at me with an unexplained pity in her eyes, as though she could read loneliness on my face and knew she could do nothing to ease it. Close friends and extracurricular involvements at school were out of the question. They drew too much attention to the family, and attention was dangerous. The Achesons had to keep a low profile, blending in and concealing our abilities. Often that left only the house for company. It was old and drafty, but my family had taken good care of the property, repairing any damage and polishing every floor. It was like a warmhearted friend, always ready to place a comforting arm around my shoulders. I loved that house.
And now it was ash.
The tunnel that provided our escape from the house had ended at another ladder topped by yet another hatch. This one opened into a thorn-riddled thicket. The overgrowth, intended to conceal the opening to the tunnel, provided a painful exit and extracted muttered curses from both Aaron and Samuel. As I climbed my way out and joined the others at the edge of the thicket, I saw the wicked glow of the fire in the distance. It hovered on the eastern horizon, casting a crimson framed silhouette to the trees along the river. Fingers of angry red stretched into the night sky, foreshadowing a fate that I felt pressing into me like the heat of the fire itself. Maybe we would all burn down. Just like the house.
Standing outside the motel hours later, I let the quiet cool of the rain wash over me, working to center my thoughts. I knew I should be focused on the danger at hand, but my mind kept wandering back to the moment that started all this. I could still see Trent's battered body, buried in the broken earth. It was the first time I'd seen death with my own eyes, and I had been the one who caused it. Even with the gun, Trent had never stood a stance, and that guilt was like a pile of bricks heaped upon my soul, driving me lower than the loss of my house or my fear of an impending doom.
I dug my palms into my eyes, shaking my head.
The door behind me closed gently and I turned as Lara stepped up beside me.
"It's brutal in there." She shivered slightly in the chill air, hugging herself and bumping shoulders with me.
"Yeah, well," I looked back toward the muffled voices filtering through the door. "They're upset. And afraid. This is how they deal with it."
"At least they're alive." She sighed.
"Yes they are. No thanks to me."
Lara rested her head on my shoulder. As small as I was, my sister was tiny. Her weight felt like a feather as she leaned against me.
"I know you think this is all your fault," She said softly, "But it isn't. Samuel told me what happened in that field. He got into trouble, just like always, and you did what you had to do to get him out. Just like always. It's just that this time, the stakes were higher."
"I killed that boy, Lara." I looked at the ground where bits of ice had begun to mix with the rain as it struck the motel parking lot in miniature frozen daggers. "And the thing is, part of me wanted to do it."
"You were angry." Lara's hand strayed to her black eye, testing the wound with gentle finger-tips.
"No, it wasn't just that he hurt you. I mean, yes, I wanted revenge. But it was more than that. It was like everything I'd been holding back my whole life was trying to break free. And I wanted to set it loose. That's the worst part of this. I can say I was just defending Samuel, but the fact is, I lost control, and Trent wound up dead. And now I have to live with that."
"I don't know what you felt back there, Jonas." Lara placed an arm around my waist. "But I do know that you're a good person. And I believe you would never hurt someone intentionally. Not without a good reason."
I smiled at the rain, and leaned my head against my sister's.
"Yeah, well, we can debate my exact level of awesomeness later. Right now we need to figure out what to do next, and we can't do that until we get those two to stop fighting."
"You're the one with all the awesomeness." She stepped away, shivering a bit and smirking at me. "Go for it, slick."
"I don't suppose you wanna back me up?"
"Sorry," she grimaced. "You're on your own. Emotions are running a bit too high in there for me." Lara had always been deeply affected by the emotions of others. Especially those in our family. "I think I'm gonna take a walk."
I nodded and she turned away, heading toward the vending machines outside the motel office. I faced the door to our room and sighed. I was going to have to shut this grudge match down on my own.
"This isn't your decision," Samuel was saying as I crept into the room. "I'm the oldest of my generation. I'm the head of this family now —"
"So you keep saying," Aaron interrupted. "But I haven't seen anything from you yet that has me lacin' up my boots to follow you down the highway-to-hell, boy."
"That's not the way it works and you know it." Samuel was on his feet, waving his hands as he spoke, while Aaron sat in the only chair the room had to offer, taking slow sips of brandy from a motel glass.
An old flask sat on the table next to his chair. That figured. The whole world came crashing down around us and Aaron managed to remember his booze.
"The oldest brother leads," Samuel recited. "That's what Dad taught us. You know that, Aaron. You were there."
"Yes I was," Aaron snapped, a cold fire sparking to life behind his eyes. "I was there when your father and I put up the wall of protection around our family. I was there when he taught you of your duty to this family." He stood, meeting Samuel's stubborn gaze. "And I was there to watch you fail to uphold that duty. Your dad told you that nothing comes before this family. But you chose to put your own selfish desires ahead of your responsibility."
"Be careful, Uncle." Samuel's hands curled into fists and power flickered along the edges of his knuckles.
"I'm not afraid of you, boy," Aaron growled. "Your dad taught you a lot of things, but not everything."
I watched their exchange from the doorway as the room began to hum with power, both men calling it up from inside them. I needed to intervene or there wouldn't be enough motel left to keep us dry.
Aaron stood inches away from Samuel and shook his head in disgust.
"If your father could see you right now, he'd be ashamed."
"Don't you talk to me about him," Samuel shouted. "You don't have this burden on your shoulders like I do. This family is my responsibility now that he's gone. I'm the one who has to try to fill his shoes."
"Well, you've done a piss-poor job of it so far."
"Guys." I said.
"Screw you, Uncle Aaron. I haven't heard you offer any help or explanation for any of this. You just want to run away and keep running. You know what I'd call that? Cowardice."
"Guys." I tried again, a little louder.
"You don't understand what we're up against here, kid," Aaron jabbed a finger into Samuel's chest. "This is not some game."
"Of course I don't understand," Samuel countered. He slapped Aaron's hand away and stepped in close, his nose inches from my our Uncle's. "You refuse to tell us anything."
"Hey!" I shouted, lacing my words with Light. My voice filled the room like a gunshot and stopped my brother and uncle in their tracks.
"Thank you," I said more quietly.
"Samuel's right, Aaron." I stepped into the room, closing ranks with my brother and uncle and turning their boxing-ring into a war council. "We need answers. We have to know who we're fighting here. Or who we're running from, if that's what we decide to do. Maybe the keep-em-in-the-dark approach worked while we were still protected. But now we're exposed. We're on the run and none of us have any idea what we're running from except you."
"Exactly." Samuel nodded his agreement. "We need to know, Aaron. Dad always said that alone we're formidable, but together we're unstoppable. Now you're telling us there's something out there that's so powerful and dangerous, it can defeat all four of us? Who is it that's after us?"
Aaron lowered his head, shaking it as he stepped away and dropped back into the chair. He lifted the glass to his lips and took another pull, eyes distant, as if contemplating something the rest of us couldn't see. He took on a haggard look as weary lines etched their way across his face, and I felt a stab of sympathy at the sight of my uncle in such a state. Aaron was a solid fixture in my life: surly and unreasonable, but strong as an oak and just as stubborn. The sight of him looking so defeated was enough to send a tremor fear through my spine. I had no idea what or who could possibly cause such a reaction in Aaron, and I wished very much that I did not have to find out.
When Aaron spoke again, his voice was like gravel.
"She calls herself the Morrighan." He pushed the words through his teeth as though they struggled to stay inside him, reluctant to bring such dark thoughts to the light.
"She's the Phantom Queen, the Raven of Death, the Crow upon the killing field." He waved his glass in the air. "It's all very dramatic. Suffice it to say, she's a monster. She's something that never should have existed."
"Who is she to us?" I asked, taking a seat on one of the double beds in our dingy room. Samuel eyed the faded sheets covering the other bed and chose to remain standing.
"Death," Aaron said, "If we let her find us."
He fell silent, retreating into his thoughts. The rain had picked up outside, and it drummed on the roof, casting a blanket of white-noise over the room. I thought Aaron had said all he all he was going to say, but he continued in a hushed, almost reverent tone.
"She wasn't always the monster she is now," he said "She used to be like us."
"She was human?" Samuel asked.
"No." Aaron looked up. "She used to be like us. She was one of us."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
"She was a Holder of Light?" I said.
The door opened and Lara came in carrying a soda from the vending machines and shaking rainwater from her dark hair. She saw us and stopped in the doorway.
"What'd I miss?" She asked
I gestured with my head for her to join us.
"Bad lady. Used to be one of us. Now she wants to kill us. I'll catch you up on the rest later."
"Peachy." She dropped onto the bed that Samuel was avoiding, tucking her feet underneath her.
"There's something I still don't get," I said, turning back to Aaron. "So, the Morrighan was a Holder of Light, then she went all Vader and turned into a monster — but why is she after us now?"
"She isn't after all of us." Aaron stared into his brandy as if he would set it on fire with his gaze. The rain stopped abruptly, plunging the room into an eerie silence, windows and walls ticking in the stillness.
"She's after me."
I had no time to register the statement before the wall beside me imploded.
It was like a black hole opened up in the next room and ripped the entire wall inward all at once. The sound was immense, shattering the stillness and blasting through my skull. I dove to the floor beside the bed, covering my head with my hands. The first thought that flew through my mind was: she found us.
The Morrighan is here.
A moment later, the silence returned, broken every few seconds by a piece of plaster falling or the popping of an electrical wire. I raised myself onto one elbow, shaking my head to clear my vision and fighting to focus through the ringing in my ears.
Samuel was in a crouch in front of the bed, one arm up to shield his face. Lara stood upon her bed, her stance wide and her hands up in a fighting position. Blue-white power glowed around her fingers. Only Aaron was unmoved, still sitting in his chair like a statue as if waiting to see what would happen next before deciding whether or not to act.
The room next door was a demolition zone. Rubble was everywhere, scattered like corpses on a battle field. Dust and smoke hung thick in the air, choking my airway and obscuring my view of the room beyond the demolished wall.
As the dust in the other room settled, half a dozen dark forms resolved, hunched among the wreckage. I felt a pulsing menace radiate from them, as if they could broadcast their desire to kill and maim like murderous radio waves.
In the middle of the room, a single figure stood tall and cloaked. Red eyes burned beneath a heavy hood and a skeletal hand stabbed a bony finger directly at me.