Jayson was in agony.
He’d faced darkness that would’ve made most men weep with fear. He’d taken punishment that had drawn the color from the faces of onlookers. He’d endured for years the slings and arrows of outrageous expectation, the yoke of destiny. None of it compared to here and now, to the existential horror wailing at him like a banshee from the driver’s seat of their Ford F-150.
“Cause when the night falls! My lonely heart caaaaaaaaaaaaalls…!”
“Good lord, Aidan,” Jayson interrupted, rubbing his temples. “Just leave the singing to Whitney…”
“I want to dance with somebody!” Aidan ignored his protests. “What do I want to do, Jay?”
“Feel the heat with somebody,” Jayson deadpanned.
“And who do I want to feel that heat with?”
“Ostensibly, with somebody who loves you. Now shut up.”
“No way. This is the last chorus, bruh. Don’t you wanna dance? Say you wanna dance…”
Jayson tore his attention from the radio he’d contemplated melting with a flame spell. The rear-view mirror caught his attention, and he winced as it dawned on him that their passengers had been witness to his twin’s impromptu concert. Stone-faced kids, years younger than the Brothers Grayson, who’d needed a ride from the meeting of the Order to which they all belonged. Jayson shook his head as he took in their faces.
They were still kids, really. Maybe eighteen. But the scars of battle and the hardening of trauma had already left lines on their cherubic faces. In their youthful fervor, they had joined in the general discontent when it was announced that the Hunter Order would be pulling out of the central United States to consolidate their resources on the more populous East Coast, where the monsters that lurked in the shadows had less open country to hide in. Aidan and Jayson were among the only Hunters who saw this as a positive move. If fewer kids like Bradley, Walter, and Nora had to put their lives on the line, then the tactical retreat was a victory. Many others hadn’t been as lucky as they.
“Well, I think it could be worse, ” Aidan supplied when Radio Whitney Houston had finished her song.
“Excuse me?” Jayson snapped from his thoughts back to the present.
“I mean, everybody got all dramatic with the announcement we were pulling out of here,” Aidan said, gesturing out the window and before him as he drove. “There were even tears, y’all. ‘We’ll defend this place to each blade of grass! The good fight for humanity is here in Appalachia!’” He gestured again at said Appalachia, at earthen rounds, verdant trees, and gravely inclines. “The only thing I’ve encountered since we left Charleston is dirt, trees, and humidity. Where we’re going? New York City? Boston? Bars, babes, and theatre. I call that an upgrade.”
“Would that we were mustering in the Hawaiian Islands,” Jayson quipped. He let his eyes meet the kid in the middle, Bradley’s, through the mirror. “Right?”
Bradley just blinked, and looked left and right at his companions. Still silence. Jayson couldn’t help but offer a wry grin at that. Silence and awkward pauses were Aidan’s mortal enemy. He’d always find a way to fill them, if he could – with a joke, with a song, with a conversation starter on some out-of-the-blue topic. These young operatives looked like they’d rather lose their tongues than use them.
“Do I have something on my face?” Jayson asked them, his half-smile still on his face.
“Might as well socialize, folks,” Aidan added. “I’ve been serenading y’all for the better part of an hour, we’re past that. We’re there.”
The three in the back finally broke into a smile and Jayson felt the tension in the air ease to something decidedly less palpable.
“You’re the Graysons,” Bradley said simply.
“I can’t believe you’re, like, here,” Nora added.
Jayson made a show of pinching himself. “Neither can I, sometimes. But here I am.”
Bradley and Nora glanced at each other, breath clearly bated, unspoken titters and whispers going between them. Walter, their much stoic, possibly slightly older, companion even gave them a put upon rolling of the eyes and slouched even deeper into his seat.
“If you guys are going to ask to stop for ice cream,” Aidan said, clearly on the same wavelength, “I’m gonna just let you know right now, I’m a soft serve guy. Soft serve only.”
The pair blushed, and Jayson couldn’t help but chuckle before chucking them a lifeline. “You guys clearly have something important to say. Let’s hear it. We don’t bite.”
“Hard,” Aidan finished. Aidan was always the jester, the diffuser of tension, the man who could relax friend and foe alike and take them off their guard. Jayson, the good or bad cop, the “two” in the one-two punch, charming or threatening as was necessary. They navigated social interaction as one unit. It had become instinctual for Aidan. Jayson, more conscious of the dynamic, got to bask in how effectively their teamwork always seemed to deliver results. Bradley and Nora’s blushes faded into beaming smiles, and Jayson smirked right back at them.
“Could we, maybe…” Bradley started.
“Get a picture? Show the other operatives we were on assignment with you?” Nora finished. Walter huffed his disdain, his only contribution thus far.
“Do you one better,” Aidan answered, his smile reaching the thousand watt strength of the teenagers. “Take a video. Put it on the Mybook Live.”
“Facebook,” Bradley and Nora corrected as if on autopilot, only to blush again. Walter surged forward in his seat, looking at them bug-eyed, making some kind of ‘What the hell?’ gesture. Aidan chortled, and Jayson elbowed him lightly in the side.
“You’re terrible,” Jayson scolded.
“I am, absolutely,” Aidan deflected. “This is not news to me.”
“You have a Facebook site.”
“Oh? Why not?”
“I have no idea how to use it.”
“Take the damn picture, kids,” Jayson said, the levity in his tone contrasting with the brevity of his words. Aidan smoothly, slowly pulled off the the side of the one lane road, put on the parking brake, and, with a motion so smooth and in-sync it must have looked practiced, turned back to the teens with his brother and posed: Aidan with a “hang-ten” sign and a goofy grin, and Jayson with his trademark smolder. Bradley and Nora, fumbling with their phones, took a slew of shots, and Walter scoffed all the while.
“What crawled up your butt, Walt?” Aidan put the young man on the spot immediately, and Jayson nearly laughed out loud and how quickly the kid started to squirm.
“Excuse me?” He tried to sound strong, but his words came out high-pitched, choked.
“Something is currently lodged up your ass. Get it out and show the class, or I’ll come back there and pull it out. It’s not good to store stuff up there, ya know,” Aidan needled, pulling the car back onto the road and continuing their long trek back to civilization.
What a lonely stretch of highway, Jayson mused.
“Are we really pulling back? We can’t. People out here need us.” Walter finally spat, suddenly and viciously, eyes blazing. Bradley and Nora glanced at each other, frowning, but looked sympathetically at their friend with gazes that mixed pity with agreement. Jayson’s heart jumped into his throat for them. He’d been that kid, once. And he hadn’t enjoyed being told what to do and where to go, whether he’d liked it or not.
Hell, He thought. In a way, they’re still doing that to us. Just giving us a bit more autonomy and pats on the back to wash the bullshit down with.
“No choice, kid,” Aidan answered, shrugging. “We don’t have the manpower to police this country.”
“Cities are where these battles will be fought,” Jayson added. “We need to concentrate on urban centers. If we try to protect everything, we’ll end up protecting nothing.” Jayson caught Aidan’s dissatisfied twitch. They sounded like their father.
Bradley and Nora nodded slowly, seeming to understand. Walter just scowled. The kid was a warrior and didn’t like being told something was impossible.
Good, Jayson thought. We need to make ‘em that tough. We’ve raised a generation of Hunters who enjoy the trappings of mundanity and shy away from the violence that is our mission. Walter is a dick, but he’s the future.
They fell into silence after that. Several miles of awkward, uncomfortable void. Jayson counted the markers on the road, waiting for Aidan to become bothered enough by the quiet to chime in again. He got to four.
“Used to be country like this was the monster’s favorite territory,” Aidan’s voice was quiet now. “Seems the urban jungle is their new haunt.”
“It’ll be alright,” Jayson brought his own volume down as well. “Fighting the good fight is admirable, but so is fighting the fight that’s needed.”
“Wherever we can protect humanity, we will,” Bradley responded, forcefully. No point in trying to talk privately when folks with enhanced senses were within ten feet.
“Good. That’s… good, “ Jayson finished, almost lamely. There wasn’t much more to offer. Really, he thought bleakly, there isn’t a comforting lie to tell they’d fall for.
The last several years had been nothing but defeats for the Order of the Hunters. Some were immediate, involving loss of life in the Operative Corps in the middle of the country, including a blood bath in the Ozarks that had nearly lost the Grayson patriarch, their father, his job as head honcho. Others had been drawn out and slow, like losing hearts and minds in places like West Virginia, through which they now drove, where the local populations of the supernaturally-inclined saw them as oppressive invaders looking to lay down a foreign and hateful law.
We’ve behaved too much like conquerors and crusaders, Jayson mused darkly. Not enough like heroes and servants.
He wouldn’t betray his father by sharing the man’s unspoken secret with these youngsters: that he regretted nearly every move he’d made for the last several decades. The ugliness with the wolves. The ill-advised effort to establish greater presence in less-populated areas, which he was now walking back. And, of course, worst of all, the loss of so many men to desertion of their cause. Death during the hunt was an acceptable, if dearly felt casualty and a reality every recruit was aware of. Losing people to desertion, to disappearance, to disillusionment? This was the Order’s unspoken problem, and it was growing acute on this side of the Atlantic. Jayson suspected that this was perhaps the true purpose behind the retreat to the coastal cities: to concentrate the young with the veterans, and to perhaps use that proximity to ferret out dissension and crush it.
So they’d called the Brothers Grayson, scions to the legendary Grayson clan of Irish mages that had long provided the nucleus of elite talent and leadership for the entire Order. Aidan and Jayson had been instructed to buy a car and, starting with upstate New York, descend down the line of the Appalachians, stopping at each Order outpost to formally reassign their garrisons to the closest major city with a port. Jayson saw it as a waste of their talent, and a sign of desperation. Bluntly, they killed monsters – and did it better than anybody else. To be used to gussy up retreat in some dog and pony show, using celebrity that wasn’t earned and credibility that had been dearly bought was insulting. Demeaning, even.
“How many more?” Aidan asked Jayson quietly.
“At least a dozen. We’ll finish at Birmingham.”
“And then, we’ll see…”
“I’m hoping for a break,” Aidan confided. “My Trance’s been a little…uncomfortable to use, as of late.”
“You still struggling with that?” Jayson asked, concerned.
“More every hunt. The monster in me is hungry, and I can’t seem to feed it enough.”
“What’s wrong with it?” That was Nora, in the back. Damn, Jayson thought. The two just weren’t used to company.
“Nothing important,” Aidan responded breezily, admirably covering for the concerned tone he’d used earlier. “We spent so long fighting the bad guys before we set off on this little trip, it’s just feeling a little…potent. You know how it gets when your blood gets up.” Aidan was a terrible liar, but one of the more masterful deflectors Jayson had ever seen in action.
“Y’all’s Trance is acting up?” Her eyes widened, nervousness suddenly present in her voice. Jayson couldn’t help but wince. Dark times led to dark men and women, but that still wasn’t something anybody in the Order wanted to admit.
Hunters were warriors who allowed a little monster to grow in them so they could fight bigger monsters. Centuries ago, they had concluded that hocus pocus wasn’t enough to keep up with some of the nastier stuff out there, and the Order had made a deal with a devil to gain a physical edge that put them on a level with the ghouls and goblins of the world. Jayson understood better than most that they had to be careful, lest they become what they so ardently opposed.
“Not ours,” Aidan deflected. “Just mine. Jayson doesn’t use the trance.”
“No,” Jayson agreed. “No, I do not. I find it inelegant.”
“Bullshit,” Aidan joked. “You just don’t like to blacken your piercing blue eyes.”
The drew a chuckle out of the two Grayson fans in the back, and prompted another dramatic rolling of the eyes and disengagement from the brooding one.
“Truthfully,” Jayson shared as a loud aside to the teens in the back. “I just prefer magic.”
“And who wouldn’t, considering his magic,” Aidan finished with a light punch to Jayson’s shoulder. Jayson smiled at that.
“Jayson Grayson…” he teed his brother up.
“The most gifted mage alive,” Aidan finished, eyes dancing.
“What the hell?” Aidan switched gears suddenly, sounding dumbfounded. No sooner had he stopped speaking then the loud, violent pounding of rainfall swallowed all silence. Jayson peered out the window and frowned. It was pouring.
“Where did this come from?” Aidan complained, and that was the last clear sentence he spoke before the air filled with the din of a downpour. The skies opened up as if angry at them, pelting them with so much rain so quickly that the windshield wipers on the truck, respectable and hefty though they were, could scarcely compete.
“Slow down, slow down!” Jayson instructed, the hairs on the back of his neck standing up as, just as suddenly, fog poured in around them as if off the bay of San Francisco. What little visibility they had left was swallowed by an ethereal haze. This wasn’t right. This had come on too suddenly. Jayson reached under his seat, withdrew something rigid, and set it in his lap. Aidan glanced over, and nodded.
“What’s going on?” One of the kids in the back. Shit. Jayson kept forgetting they had passengers.
“Nothing,” Jayson replied, trying to add a comforting tone to his voice as he turned around to face the three. “Just being paranoid and careful, you know how things get…”
“Can we stop this shit?” Aidan asked.
“Probably,” Jayson called back. They were practically screaming at each other; The rain was coming down so torrentially that it sounded like hail.
Aidan nodded, and halted the truck carefully using the emergency brake to guide its bulk into a controlled skid that ended with them stopped in the middle of the road, perpendicular to the direction of traffic. The three teens in the back were clearly on edge, but leaned forward in their seats. They seemed prepared to take instruction, and possibly even eager for action.
“Sit tight, folks,” Aidan instructed, forcing some cheer into his voice. “We’re going to take care of the rain real quick.”
Jayson deduced the supernatural nature of the downpour the moment they stepped out into it. Mother Nature is capable of flooding the backwoods just fine on her own, but she was usually ladylike enough to give some warning. This storm had come on out of nowhere.
Jayson reconvened with his brother about ten feet from the truck, sodden and stooped over from the shelling they were receiving from the heavens.
“Can you really stop this? Cause I sure as hell can’t!” AIdan was nothing if not honest.
“The aeromancer can’t control the weather?” Jayson ribbed back.
“I’m more of a subscriber to the Using Wind and Lightning to Kill Shit school!” Aidan retorted testily.
“Fair enough!” Jayson closed his eyes, and called. It came first as a tingle, a light dancing of fingers that weren’t there over every inch of his skin. Then came the weight, an ambrosial ache, painful and rapturious, like muscles after exercise. His power came rushing to him from the ether, and he felt absolutely alight with it.
He loved this feeling. Aidan described calling his magic like a pleasurable current passing through him. Jayson felt as if he was channeling an eldritch lightning bolt, so potent was the energy he could summon from the other side of reality.
Banishing the storm was taking too long.
Jayson was galled to be inconvenienced by a weather spell, and spent several additional seconds summoning the power for a counterattack targeting whoever had called it. His concentration was broken at the very last moment by the truck spontaneously combusting.
Time seemed to slow as the brothers turned to face their now ruined ride, a burning husk of steel and rubber.
“No,” Aidan spoke, simply.
“The kids,” Jayson breathed. Aidan surged forward, back towards the truck, but Jayson stopped him with an insistent hand on the shoulder.
“We need to get to the treeline, we need some cover.”
“Could not have survived that. Not without seeing it coming. We’ll end up joining them if we don’t move!”
The rain stopped, just as suddenly as it came. All that remained was fog.
“Set up?” Aidan asked.
“Ambush,” Jayson answered, his voice low and filled to the brim with rage.
Neither of the brothers had to shove the other out of the way. Either would have dived on a grenade or taken a bullets, but they’d been in enough fights that instinct protected each of them, so no heroic sacrifice was necessary. They pounced out of the way simultaneously as a blinding flash of blue light filled the space where they had previously stood. Jayson screwed his eyes shut, feeling white hot chunks of dirt and rock pelt his face.
What a blast!
He could barely see Aidan in the fog, but he heard his brother cry the most comforting word he could imagine under the current circumstances.
Good call, Aidan. “Aegis!” he repeated.
Twin half-domes of green energy emerged before each man like Spartan shields of yore, and they hurried to each other’s side. Jayson and Aidan Grayson, companions in too many battles to count, came together. Their barriers resonated with each other, obeying their master’s wills and merging into a single, solid barricade. Not a moment too soon, either, as another blast of blue light collided with it. The force was so mighty that Jayson felt it cascade up his arm as if he’d struck a massive tuning fork.
“We’re not going to stop too many more of those,” he spat like a curse.
“This asshole killed those kids,” Aidan snarled.
“Yeah,” Jayson agreed. “Let’s return the favor.”
“I’m going to go at him,” Aidan’s voice was steely calm, but about an octave lower than it had been last he’d spoken. Jayson looked over at his brother, met his eyes, and found they were black. “The fog’s as much cover for me as it is for jackass. I’ll suss him out, use the my speed in the Trance to flank him. Drive him to you.”
“I look forward to it. I’ll burn him to ash.”
“Not a doubt in my mind.” With that, Aidan clapped Jayson on the shoulder, and took off into the fog at a pace closer to that of an animalistic predator than even the fastest man. Aidan was braver than most.
Nobody else I’d rather fight alongside, Jayson grinned.
He waited, several tense moments that seemed to stretch to eternity.
Come on, you bastard. Come at me. Charging into hell is safer. Let’s see how you do-
“I’d have probably not separated, but you’re nothing if not confident, aren’t you, Jayson?”
Jayson wheeled about to try to put a face to the new voice, but only caught sight of a silhouette: male, tall and broad. The attacker jolted off another flash of blue light with the effortlessness of a basic basketball chest pass. Jayson felt no pain, but the impact lifted him off his feet. He didn’t know how high or how far he was flung, but he hit the ground hard enough for light to dance in his vision. His vision swam and began to go blurry. He was losing consciousness.
Jayson Grayson, defeated with one strike. Even without the presence of mind to truly grasp the implications of such an occurrence, Jayson still felt a twinge of fear.
He opened his mouth, tried to call for his brother, for his aid..
The hulking silhouette filled his vision, leaning down. Jayson felt triumph ooze off of the figure in waves.
Then there was a fist, and Jayson knew no more.