The voice from beneath the hood was smooth and natural. A man's voice. The skeletal finger continued to point, and a quiet chuckle followed its path straight to me.
"You're the one who did the dirty-deed. I can smell the death on you, kid." The figure in the hood took slow steps forward as he spoke. "It's mouth-watering. Like a neighbor throwing a barbecue. I followed it right to your backyard."
Shock numbed my mind and clouded out the meaning behind the hooded man's words. I sprawled on the floor, unable to think of a response, unclear of what this creature was saying or why he said it to me. The one conclusion I was able to draw was that this person was not the Morrighan.
Aaron was not as slow to recover his senses. As he climbed to his feet, the air shimmered in front of me. I became aware of a pulsing power emanating from Aaron and realized he hadn't just been sitting immobile in his chair as I thought. Instead, he had created a wall of power between our room and the next, shielding us from our attackers. He must have put it up the moment the motel room wall imploded, never flinching or cowering, but reacting instantly to the danger. I examined the wavering air in front of me with fingers of my own power. I'd never seen such an intricate expression of Light. Each time I'd used my own power to affect the physical world, it came out in a huge wave of energy. Like a belly-flop into a pool of water. This shield of Aaron's was a swan dive: beautiful, precise, and complicated. Yet he'd accomplished it in a split second, and with no apparent effort. It seemed that Aaron was right; there were a few things our father had neglected to teach us. I was beginning to wonder how much of what he did tell us was true.
"That's enough, Wiley." Aaron stood easy, hands at his sides and head high, as though he was in his element among the violence and danger.
The hooded man stopped, and the twin red flames that were his eyes began to fade as he raised his bony hands to the hood of his dark cloak. He lowered the hood revealing a gaunt face beneath a smooth, hairless head. He looked like a caricature of the grim reaper with his sunken, red-rimmed eyes buried inside the bone-white peaks of his skeletal face. An ugly crater of a smile displayed surprisingly straight teeth, like a bleached skull grinning from an open grave.
"Aaron Acheson." Wiley stretched out my uncle's name with that eerily natural voice. "It's been a long time. How the hell are you?"
"Better before you broke my motel room," Aaron responded. "I see you still have a flair for the dramatic."
"And you still like to spend your time hiding inside a bottle. I can smell the booze on you from here."
"Cut the garbage, Wiley," Aaron snapped with iron in his voice. "We both know why you're here. Who sent you for me?"
"Oh, I didn't need to be sent on this hunt. It's open season on the Achesons. There's a whole host of nasty-nasties looking for you. It presents an interesting scenario for an opportunist such as myself."
I recovered from my shock and climbed to my feet as they bantered. Samuel walked over and took his place next to Aaron. I followed him, standing a step behind my big brother, drawing strength from his firm presence. To our left, Lara maintained her place, perched upon the motel bed.
"Who is this creepy-looking joker?" Samuel eyed the spectral man with derision.
"This is Wiley." Aaron's eyes never left the intruder. "He's an old — acquaintance."
Wiley smiled at Aaron's use of the term.
"That's right. And I'm looking forward to getting re-acquainted before I sell you to the highest bidder." His eyes narrowed, their wicked red glow returning to wreath them in flame. "I think we both know who that will be."
Wiley turned from us and lowered his voice.
"We need Aaron alive, my beauties, but feel free to kill the children."
Six hulking shapes shot toward the missing wall. I'd almost forgotten about Wiley's companions crouched throughout the room, covered in drywall dust and nearly invisible amid the rubble. One moment they were statues and the next they were a blur, moving faster than any natural creature. They hurled themselves against Aaron's barrier, rebounding backward with a brief flash of energy, then turning back to attack the wall of Light again. The barrier held, and as the creatures probed its length searching for a weakness, I got my first look at the beasts.
Puppies on steroids came to mind.
They had once been dogs, but something had been done to alter them. Now they stood about four feet tall at the head. Their shoulders and front legs bulged with muscle, rippling and veiny like some demented K9 version of a pro-wrestler. Random bald spots interrupted shoots of bristling, spine-like fur in a sickly patchwork along their hides. Their skulls were flattened out and their snouts were too wide — barbed with far too many razor-sharp looking teeth. They jumped against Aaron's shield, snapping and snarling, pounding with paws that looked more dexterous than they should be. Wherever they collided with the barrier there was a flash of energy and a shimmering in the air as they were thrown back.
The sight sped the breath from my lungs in quick bursts and the pounding in my chest redoubled with every blast of energy from Aaron's shield. A hot haze began to gather in my head and razor-edged chill sliced my spine in two. I shifted on watery feet as the duel sensation stole the courage from my veins.
"What the hell are those things, Aaron?" I asked, working to keep the tremor from my voice.
"Wiley's favorite pets." Aaron grimaced at the beasts in distaste. "He calls them his Coyotes. Animal transmutation is one of the two things that asshole is really good at."
"What's the second thing?" Lara asked quietly.
"Hunting people." Aaron said.
He stood his ground against the assault, but I could see the strain of holding up the shield begin to show on Aaron's face. Sweat dripped down his brow and he shook slightly from the effort.
"Listen, kids," Aaron warned, "when those things find a way through, and they will, don't hold anything back. Pick a target and give it everything you've got."
I slid a half step closer to my Uncle, glancing around at my family. Samuel stood tall and confident, somehow mirroring Aaron's strength and fortitude despite lacking his experience. Lara hadn't moved from her stance on top of the bed. There was a determination in her face that I found lacking in myself. She was the smallest and physically weakest of us, but she held herself with the courageous bearing of an Amazon warrior. I focused on the threat and tried to stir up some of that same confidence, reaching for my power and letting Light fill my limbs with the tingle of ready energy.
On the far side of Aaron's barrier, the Coyotes continued their frenzied assault while their master haunted the background. I watched as the beasts moved to the edges of the shimmering barrier, testing its fringes and searching for a weakness. Eventually one of them reached the lower right corner where there was still a small section of the wall remaining. The beast began to tear into the drywall and plaster, ripping with claws and teeth. The other Coyotes gathered around the first, their fervor increasing in anticipation of the coming slaughter. They packed themselves into the tight space in a seething mountain of muscle, fur, and fangs. The corner of the wall on our side began to crack and crumble to the floor.
"They're coming through." Aaron said. "Get ready."
I pulled together all the power I had and held it in the pit of my stomach. The comfortable burn of Light eased some of my fear. I can do this, I told myself. I was pretty sure I was full of shit.
The first of the Coyotes burst through the hole and flew straight at Aaron. I felt his barrier drop as he turned his attention to the incoming monster. The rest of the snarling beasts rushed through the opening in a burst of violent speed. Aaron stepped forward to meet them, placing himself between us and our attackers and taking the brunt of the attack on himself. His hands glowed with power and blue-white fire rimmed his eyes until they disappeared behind the brilliant glow. The air in the room swirled around him, whipping at his cloths and scattering dust in all directions. The lead Coyote reach him, leaping with a snarl, jaws gapping open like the gates of hell. Aaron drove his glowing fist forward, straight into the creature's teeth. There was a concussive impact and the Coyote flew back through the missing wall and landed in the other room, flailing among the rubble.
Aaron had time for a single breath before two more were on him. A moment later I was too distracted to follow Aaron's fight as the remaining Coyotes came for the rest of us.
I readied my power, building Light inside me until it rushed around me in tendrils of white lightening. One of the monsters rushed at me, charging in the same manner as its companions. There was no cunning in their attacks. The things seemed to have been bred for sheer ferocity, never varying their strategy from the direct, go-for-the-throat approach.
As the monstrous thing leaped, I unleashed the power I'd gathered in a single burst. Light barreled into the Coyote, hammering it back into the other room. This one managed to flip itself around in mid-air and land on all four paws, like a cat thrown out the front door and onto the lawn. It skidded to a halt and fixed its black eyes on me with a fresh, bloodthirsty growl.
That had been my best shot. I'd put every ounce of power I could gather up from within me into that one strike, and seeing how little damage it did, I suddenly understood how much trouble we were in.
I glanced around me at the battle taking place.
Aaron struggled mightily against his three assailants, beating them back with precise blows laced with incandescent power. For all his skill and experience, he was out-numbered and was having a hard time keeping himself from being surrounded. Already he bled from multiple wounds, one along his jaw line and another on the back of his right arm. Samuel had gotten his arms around his attacker, thrashing on the carpet and trying to overpower the monstrous thing. Lara was a dazzling sight to behold. She danced throughout the room, staying a step ahead of the Coyote, leaping through the air and throwing small blasts of Light in carefully timed counters.
They fought bravely but they were already beginning to tire. I could see it in their movements, read it on their faces. None of us had been trained for this type of combat except Aaron, and he'd spent the better part of the past decade drinking at the kitchen table. We were not going to last very long like this.
It wasn't right. We were supposed to be stronger than this. Together we should be powerful beyond measure, or so my father had led us to believe. Had he lied about this as well? I couldn't accept that. There had to be something we were missing.
The Coyote I'd blasted stalked forward again, readying itself for another attack. It moved low to the ground, freakish muscles taunt and bulging. A deep growl cut through the sounds of combat as the beast advanced, sending a shiver down my spine. Terrified, I quested out toward Samuel with my power, searching for some way to join forces against our attackers.
There was something there.
I could feel it pulsing behind some kind of thin vail — an untapped source of power. It radiated from my brother, leaking through in thin streams, like water vapor trapped behind a porous barrier. Samuel tapped into the little bits of it that leaked through, using it to fuel his motions. A thrill of hope rose up within me as the Coyote sprang forward, launching itself through the ruined wall in a frenzy of blood-lust, its black claws extending like daggers, its mouth gaping wide like the jaws of death itself. I reached for the power I'd discovered —
— and hit a wall.
Something kept me out, denying me access to the well of Light I'd found inside Samuel. It was like a sheet of Kevlar mesh, thin and strong. It could bend and flex as I push against it, searching desperately for a way through, but I couldn't penetrate the barrier. I had no way to access that power.
At the last moment, I called up every ounce of Light I had left and threw it up in front of me. The Coyote plowed into me like freight train. We hit the ground hard, my attacker on top of me, snapping and snarling, just barely held back by the fading force of my power.
In that moment I knew I was dead.
It wasn't my entire life that flashed before my eyes as I stared into the face of the monster that would kill me. It was a single moment. A happy moment that happened in a motel room much like this one. I was about six years old. My mother was still alive and we had not yet moved into the big farm house on the hill. We were staying in a motel, though I couldn't remember why. There were fragmented images of intense whispering between my mother and father, arguments stifled for their children's sake. Something bad was happening in the grown-up world, but as a boy, I was sheltered from the worst of it. The moment that flashed across the theater of my mind as I waited to die wasn't one of the tense ones. It was a moment of laughter between me and my father.
Science was not my best subject. I never learned why there tends to be so much static electricity in the air during the cold months of winter. I do know that water can discharge static, so maybe it has to do with the way running the furnace can suck all the moisture out of the air. Whatever the reason, our motel room that evening hummed with static electricity. My dad and I gave in to our mischievousness and took turns chasing each other around the room, scuffing our feet along the carpet to build up static, and then snapping each other with the touch of an index finger. I jumped at the shock every time, giggling in childish joy. It was a wonderful memory, one of the few I had of my father before the death of my mother broke him and changed our family forever. I clung to the memory as I waited for death, struggling to keep the Coyote at bay as the last of my power and strength drained away.
And I had an idea.
If there was that much static electricity in the motel room that night with my dad, there should be a similar amount present now.
The bullet hole in my shoulder burned and I shook with the effort of keeping my power brought to bear. I ignored the pain and closed my eyes, focusing on my goal and reaching with Light into the room around me. It was there. Static electricity hovered along the carpet and walls throughout the entire room. I went farther, stretching my senses into the surrounding rooms and finding more static, pulsing benignly along every surface of the motel. I began to gather it to me. I'm not sure how I did it. I'd never done anything like it before, but desperation drove me and somehow I made it happen. The energy flowed from every corner of the motel, moving through every surface that could conduct it, skipping and sparking along the floors. I gathered all I could find, pulling static electricity into me until my body began to hum with potential energy.
The Coyote thrashed and snarled above me, its snapping jaws inching closer until I could feel the wind of its monstrous teeth slamming together. I waited until I had gathered all the static electricity I could find. My chest filled with a white-hot glow and my limbs vibrated with energy searching for release. I held it until I felt my body might shake itself apart and then I opened my eyes and struck.
I unleash the energy all at once in a massive arcing surge. It shot out of every pore in my body, hammering into the Coyote and slamming it upward into the ceiling. The gathered electricity, once harmless in its static form, became a deadly bolt of blinding white lightening, frying the beast against the ceiling and blackening the plaster around it.
A second later it was over.
The Coyote landed three feet away from me, hitting the ground with a sickening wet crunch of breaking bones and bursting flesh. I sat up, shaking from the pain of my efforts. The chaos around me had been shocked into stillness. There was a panicked cry from the other room, dripping with sorrow and rage. Wiley leaped through the missing wall, dark cloak flying around him. He knelt beside the fallen Coyote, caressing its head with stick-like fingers and whispering to it in gentle tones.
The beast was still alive, moving slightly and whimpering. I had no idea how much punishment Wiley's mutations could withstand, but this one looked like it was out of commission. At least for now. Wiley looked up at me, anger burning in his blood red eyes.
"When I've finished with you, boy," he hissed, "you'll wish my beauties had killed you today."
Wiley closed his eyes and a windstorm erupted in the room. It swirled like a hurricane, throwing objects in all directions, pulling bits of plaster from the walls and ceiling. Wind and debris hammered into me and I covered my head, peeking from beneath my arms as a huge black tornado came together in the center of the room. The sound was thunderous in the confines of the space, roaring like a monster and threatening to pull me off the ground. The roof was torn off our room as the twister shot into the sky.
Then it was gone. And so were Wiley and all his Coyotes.
In the aftermath, Aaron sagged to one knee. I flopped onto my back, still lying in the spot where the Coyote had tackled me.
"Well," I said, staring at the open sky where the ceiling used to be, "that sucked."
"Yeah." Samuel wandered over and dropped onto one of the beds among the wreckage of the demolished roof. He'd gotten over his disdain for the worn and filthy motel sheets.
"At least it stopped raining," said Aaron, limping into view and cradling one arm with the other. There was blood on his face and his shirt sleeve.
"Aaron, you're hurt." Lara hopped over me to look at Aaron's wounds. Of all of us, she seemed to be the least effected by our battle.
"It's fine." Aaron growled. "We can patch me up later. Right now we need to get out of here before something worse shows up."
"There's worse?" Samuel asked.
Aaron looked at him pointedly.
I sat up, fighting through a mind numbing exhaustion that accompanied the pain in my shoulder.
"Aaron's right, Samuel," I said. "We can't fight things like this. There's still too much we don't know. We have to run. We have to find somewhere to hide. At least until we get some answers."
I looked at Aaron, and he glanced away, refusing to meet my eye.
"Ok," Samuel sat up on the bed, eyes glazed over and looking as exhausted as I felt. "Where can we go?"
"Aaron?" I said. We turned to our Uncle. He kept his eyes lowered to the ground.
"I know a place." He grumbled. Wherever it was, he clearly did not want to go there. He grimaced, as the wail of sirens in the distance cut through the late morning quiet. He shook his head and looked around us. I followed his gaze, taking in the destruction of our motel room. It looked exactly like a tornado had struck these two rooms, while leaving the rest of the building untouched.
"Alright kids, let's move." Aaron said.
"Where are we going?" Lara asked.