"What do you mean, he's gone?" Theo asked incredulously.
The awkward, scrawny man in front of him was shifting uncomfortably in his boots. The Light Order uniform did not fit his size or lanky physique. Swallowing hard he said, "I mean a teacher found Asher's tracker in a school bathroom, but not Asher. He's missing. We're downloading security footage from the school now to try and find out what happened and when."
Theo took a moment to process the words. Panic and dismay threatened to hit him harder than it had in centuries, but he forced himself to keep it at bay. He could just be drawing the wrong conclusion here. Maybe Asher had been cornered and kidnapped. This didn't mean he'd left willingly. Not again.
Theo couldn't stand the thought, not after the impossible thing he'd hoped for was so close to happening. He'd given up hope that Asher would ever change a long time ago, but in these past sixteen years, something had happened that changed everything. It made him wonder if the universe had finally turned the tables in Theo's favor.
Not letting himself waste any time, Theo went with the agent and over to a large collection of screens. Theo watched them load each of the very old, very neglected school cameras and their recordings. It took a rewinding of only a few hours to find what had happened. It left Theo feeling hollow and sick to his stomach.
His hopelessness and despair returned then. It was too late. It had always been too late, hadn't it? He had been a fool for hoping otherwise. The footage played over again a few times for clarity, and it was unmistakably damning.
Asher was talking to a fellow student with an unmistakable and familiar identity. It had taken awhile to trigger any recognition in Asher, but everything went downhill from there. Even without any sound in the footage, Theo felt like he could hear that tracker clatter to the floor as surely as if his heart had shattered like glass.
"Um, Mr. Theo Sir," the awkward agent asked, "is that who I think it is? He's supposed to be dead."
As empty and hollow as Theo felt, he forced himself back into action. After everything that had been lost, working with the Light Order was how he coped. They had given him a purpose again, and he was not about to ignore that purpose or his duties.
With a grim and serious expression, Theo answered the agent. "Yes. I do believe that is who we think it is. What were the odds of there being, not only one but two, reincarnation types in that school? They're just too rare for that to have even seemed possible."
With a mutually grim but determined expression, the agent began typing rapidly and pulling up everything he could about the student in question. His name was Stanley Saunders in this life. He had perfect grades and a perfectly clean record, that was until recently.
Theo now remembered Asher mentioning the incident that had landed him in detention. If only Theo had known who it was with. Curious to understand the situation better, despite how hopeless everything had turned out, Theo ordered the agent to pull up every piece of school footage that had both Arthur and Asher in it. Facial recognition analysis took awhile, but it was speedy enough with the technology at their disposal.
They had been sharing several classes for over a year, it seemed, but they never really looked at each other. They didn't even seem to notice each other, that was until the day after Asher's sixteenth birthday. They had been cornered by a couple of bullies and beat up by them.
To Theo's slight surprise, Arthur looked more confused than recognizing. There was no indication in any of this footage that they seemed to be anything other than ordinary students hanging out. Even when they finally made it to the cafeteria footage from the day before, they just looked like a bunch of kids horsing around.
Things got more interesting when they'd gone outside afterwards, though. Theo had already heard the story from these students, but he hadn't actually seen it, and now he didn't know if they'd even been telling the truth. He noted how upset and protective Asher seemed when the sprites came and threatened them, but that wasn't protectiveness towards Arthur. It was still protectiveness towards Terry and Celie.
Unfortunately the scanned footage was currently only able to show them clips where both Asher and Arthur were in the shot, so it skipped ahead to when Arthur had gotten back from looking for Asher. There was still nothing incriminating or suspicious looking about any of this, though. Even when they got to the last available clips from the day before, there was nothing indicating Asher or Arthur were anything other than a couple of students with a knack for trouble.
What had changed then? What had happened since last night? Asher had seemed like himself the last time Theo had talked to him and waved goodbye. Theo cringed inwardly, and his face contorted with pain and sadness. That had been their last goodbye, hadn't it?
Despite how much this hurt him inside, Theo quickly covered it up and smoothed out his expression. He had never told the Light Order his secret, and he wasn't about let them find out what it was. He had to appear cool and collected about this.
Sighing tiredly, the agent said, "Nothing looked incriminating, Sir. Would you like me to pull up anything else?"
Theo nodded, thinking only for a moment longer before giving more orders. "Yesterday during the sprite incident, let's see what happened between those students once Asher left."
Going back to the original sea of school security footage, the agent found what they were looking for as quickly as he could. This footage was more incriminating than the rest. By the looks of it, Arthur had told all these students something shell shocking.
The scene looked quite emotional, even from the distant aerial view they saw it from. Whatever negativity had been there turned to positivity and excitement as they spoke things through. Then Arthur left.
The question was, where did he leave to? Was it really to go find Asher? Theo knew he hadn't succeeded in that, so maybe it was to go find help. He had a very good idea who that help might be.
Quickly, he asked, "Is there any way to see where Arthur went after that?"
The agent nodded and swiftly put his fingers back on the keyboard. Typing away, he pulled up the necessary permissions and cameras of nearby areas. Those cameras followed Arthur to a somewhat shady looking neighborhood and into a back alley. He seemed to disappear through a door that Theo couldn't quite see.
Awhile later, he came outside again and periodically checked his phone. Well over an hour passed, then he got a call and instantly left in a run. His face was full of relief. The cameras then followed him back to the school where he reunited with Asher and the other students.
"Well," said Theo grimly. "We don't know why Asher seems to suddenly remember enough to desert the Light Order. We do, however, seem to have found the location of the ice cream shop. I'd imagine that's where they all are right now. I believe General Hardwick needs some informing, and the sooner the better."
Despite mobilizing as quickly and powerfully as they could, Theo's earlier suspicions proved disappointingly correct. They had arrived full force, only to find an empty building instead of an ice cream shop. Obviously, whatever portal had been there was disconnected. The actual location of the ice cream parlor was still a mystery. The door was incriminating enough, though, and it left a valuable clue.
Painted raven feathers on doors, hmm? he thought.
Now that was going to keep a lot of people on their toes for a good while. For now, though, they had other things to worry about. He knew this was a hunt the general would postpone for now.
Halloween was always just too busy for the Light Order. It was a violent ghost's most ideal playground. Still, this new idea of teleporting to venues was a big breakthrough, and they were closer than ever to finding where their enemies hid. Theo only wished, not the for the first time, that Asher wasn't one of them.
"That was too close," Arthur said with a shaky voice. "How did they find this place so fast?"
Asher wasn't sure, and it made his stomach churn too. "Maybe," he suggested, "there actually are security cameras at school and also around Kingston. Maybe they just don't usually look at them, considering they never thought students would pose any threat."
His grandfather and Evelyn looked grim at those words. "That means then," said Evelyn fearfully, "they could have cameras that can see and find us at any time. We can't risk going outside with a possibility like that."
"That's not the worst of it," Asher's grandfather said darkly. "We already barely risk excursions in public, but now they know what to look for to find portals to venues. That painted raven feather symbol is on doors all over town, and they're made to automatically connect to our venues when we want to switch up locations. It's only a matter of time before they find too many of those doors and leave us with very few places to hide."
Asher was trembling now, with fear and with anger. Why couldn't they just leave them all in peace? Why did every beautiful moment he had have to get interrupted and ruined like this?
Arthur was the next to speak. "We need to warn the other venue owners. Is Somie still in charge of Masquerade?"
Evelyn nodded, "Yes, and I've seen her since I've come back, but you shouldn't go to any of these places yet, Arthur. There is too much explaining involved, and people may find your appearance suspicious. No one knows you're a reincarnation type yet, and it's going to take a lot more time than we have right now to convince them."
Arthur's face fell almost to the floor. "Figures," he muttered. "Am I useless for this then?"
Asher's grandfather shook his head and put a strong hand on Arthur's shoulder. "Not useless at all. We need to you to stay here with Asher and the others. Keep them and this place as safe as you can while we're gone."
Arthur nodded seriously and watched grimly as Evelyn and Alistair exited through a back door. Asher's heart filled with dread then. "Are they actually going out in public for this?" he asked nervously. Surely they were smarter than that. Then again, his grandfather had gone out in public and even to the museum as Mr. Ross.
"No," said Arthur, shaking his head. He tried to give Asher a reassuring smile then, but it fell short. "I guess you don't remember, but there are back rooms in these venues, including ones full of portals to other places. They're just going to give everyone a heads up."
Asher only felt slightly better. Even if Evelyn and his grandfather weren't in immediate danger, something much worse was on the way. "This is really bad," he finally said with dismay. "They're going to be looking for those doors everywhere."
He shuddered then, thinking of the warehouse incident. Asher got the feeling that the abandoned warehouse had been a hideout of sorts. There hadn't been any portals involved, but it had still been considered a safe haven, kind of like this ice cream shop.
The Light Order was out to destroy every place of refuge they had, and Asher could picture that destruction all too well. He'd seen it. He'd seen them destroy that warehouse and almost everyone in it.
Seeming to know what he was thinking, Arthur put a comforting hand on Asher's shoulder. Asher hardly noticed it was there. After awhile Asher finally broke the silence.
"Damn it!" he said, slamming a fist against the table. "What the hell are we going to do?"
Not to his surprise, no one seemed to have an answer. It was usually Asher and his grandfather who had the answers at times like these, wasn't it? Some second in command he was.
He couldn't even admit that, deep down, he was still a Raven. More than even that, Asher was completely useless right now. He was years behind on experience and the skills he needed to help or save anyone.
Sure, he could technically invent spells and use magic without them, but he didn't remember the mechanics of it all. Not to mention things seemed to go horribly wrong when he blindly tried things. The sharpies exploding out of the school was not supposed to happen, and it had been a disaster. He couldn't even duel his grandfather without being easily outsmarted and turning into an unconscious lump on the floor. The only thing he'd managed to do right with his magic, even if it had felt nearly impossible, was getting that sprite out of Celie. Terry had managed to kick his out on his own at least.
Asher felt torn and empty then. Terry and Celie, huh? They were once his only friends, but they had slowly grown to hate him and become his enemies.
He imagined their looks of disgust the moment they found out what Asher had done today. Asher doubted they would be very surprised, though. They were too hateful and mistrustful towards him for that.
What a pitiful thing to be raised into the Light Order, and with such a limited black and white view of the world too. Asher supposed the Raven wasn't all that different in that regard, though. There were more shades of gray with them, but only to an extent. They killed humans as mercilessly as the Light Order killed monsters and enemy magic users.
Asher still didn't want to kill anyone, and he didn't want anyone to be killed either. His inclination towards inaction was sickening to a part of himself, but it was for the best. After all, the way he was right now, he'd only make things worse if he tried anything. He was still a clueless, helpless little kid with only a few memories of who he'd been before.
Thinking of whose fault that was, anger filled in his chest, and a damning sentence formed in his mind. Curse you, Theo!
Shila stared up at her prison cell's ceiling. She was sick and tired of staring up at it every day, but there was literally nothing else she could do lately. It made her almost as angry with herself as she was at Asher and Evelyn. Almost.
She might have messed up on a very serious operation and lost her cool, but her actions were justified. How could the rest of the Light Order not see it? At least her uncle had. He'd been on the same page that night too. It was funny how they hadn't even consulted each other about things before they'd both tried sending Asher into oblivion. Too bad it had backfired so horribly on them.
Honestly, Shila had found solace, despite growing up without parents, only because she thought they had been avenged. They could rest in peace while Shila, her uncle and the rest of the Light Order worked on finishing off the Raven for good. Asher, her father's killer was dead. Evelyn, her mother's killer, was locked up and worse than dead. All that was left was to wipe the remains of the Raven coven from the face of the earth.
It was what her parents would have wanted her to do. It was how she was honoring them, but things had turned horrifically upside down. Everything Shila thought she had known, everything she had found peace in, was ruined the moment Asher had resurfaced, and as one of her schoolmates too. It was sickening.
She brooded in her own world of thoughts like this for hours more, like she did every day, but then something different happened. To her utter shock, she heard her full cell door unlock and swing open. She sat up with a jolt, ready to fight some enemy at a moment's notice. Despite her instincts to lash out, she restrained herself instantly when she saw who was in the door. She eyed the two familiar faces uncertainly. It was General Hardwick and Theo.
"Shila Robinson," the general said with a grim and serious expression, "you and your uncle have been cleared of your charges by the higher ups. You both have everyone's most sincere apologies and are requested back for active duty."
Shila's mouth opened and closed in bewilderment. Was she dreaming? Surely this wasn't really happening, right?
She almost gaped when Theo himself actually bowed his head towards her. "You especially have my apologies, Shila. You and your uncle were terribly right about Asher all along. We had all hoped he would be a valuable enough asset to be worth the risk, but we were wrong. He's begun to remember enough to turn on us."
Shila smiled with both relief and disgust. Well, maybe she really ought to have seen this coming. "Okay, I borderline forgive you," she said with her infamous Robinson attitude. If she had been anyone else's niece that might have backfired, but everyone was used to it by now. "What active duty am I assigned to this year for Halloween?"
General Hardwick was the one who answered her question. "It's the usual violent ghost hunts this year, but with a twist."
Shila cocked her head curiously. "A twist?"
"Yes," said the general. "We've made a rather groundbreaking discovery. It seems those elusive venues enemy magic users and monsters crowd towards have a special quirk. While their actual locations are still unknown, they do link to various doors, or portals as I should say, around town. They switch them up, it seems, but they can be found now that we know what to look for. So yes, Shila, you will be hunting ghosts, but the twist is to change plans and call for backup if you believe you've found a portal to a venue."
Shila grinned with wicked excitement. Now this was going to be a seriously fun Halloween. She couldn't wait to see her uncle and tell him all about it. For now, though, she figured she had her work cut out for her, so she got up and went with her superiors. It was back to Kingston for her, and even better, back into action.
Asher, Evelyn, she thought with narrowed eyes, I'm coming for you.
It was awhile before both Evelyn and Asher's grandfather came back. They'd looked stressed but slightly reassured. The current plan was to have extra guards and lookouts on alert, which would help. After hearing about that, Asher felt slightly better too, but Fernando was still nervous. Finally getting the guts to speak up at all, he had asked if he could let his brother know where he was and not to come home.
Grandfather looked ever so slightly annoyed by the lack of coven etiquette, but considering Fernando hadn't been taught it yet, he was more tolerant. After allowing the request, Fernando left as soon as possible. His face was full of worry. Asher felt sorry for his friends then, remembering they had their own predicaments. He hoped Fernando would have better luck than everyone else had with their families.
Seeming in the same line of thought, Arthur muttered, "I guess it's hard to blame so many magic users for being cowards. Not everyone is made to be a fighter."
Asher shrugged, thinking of his own unwillingness to take action too. He didn't want to admit it yet, but there was going to come a time when he had to fight again. His mind was still holding back, though. It was still blocking and repressing almost everything he had remembered. He was honestly scared to look at his memories. He guessed that made him a coward too.
It was quiet and uneventful for the rest of that day, except for a bit of scouting and guard duty. When nightfall came, Evelyn took Asher to a back room full of portals with the appearance of doors. They all had logos and titles to where they led except for one of them.
Evelyn led him through the undecorated door, and Asher found himself inside a very large house. He didn't recognize it, though, even if he probably ought to. He just had too few memories for this.
Seeing the lack of recognition in his eyes, Evelyn looked sad. Without saying much, she showed him upstairs and into a bedroom. Asher almost reddened, wondering if she intended to share the bed with him, but she didn't follow him inside.
"Welcome home, Asher," she said sadly. "I'll see you in the morning," then she closed to door behind him and left him alone in the room.
Asher looked around at the room, trying to see anything about it that seemed familiar or relatable. There were paintings on the walls, possibly ones he'd made himself, but it still didn't feel like his room. That made him feel nervous and a little sad, but he managed to push his feelings away for later. He was too tired for this.
He quickly found himself in an unfamiliar looking bathroom. It had everything he could possibly need, including a new toothbrush and tube of toothpaste. He brushed his teeth and took a shower then.
Afterwards, he found some pjs in a dresser drawer. They were too big for him, and he knew why. He had been older the last time he'd worn them. He shivered slightly, thinking of how strange this all was. Getting into the large cushy bed with royal blue covers, he took a very long time to fall asleep.
At least there aren't any headaches this time, he thought, drifting back into his dreaded dreams.
"Mother! No!" he screamed, his seven year old body writhing in agony as his mother washed his painful blackened body with a clear acidic liquid. He cast a hollow bitter look at what was left of the onions she had made it from.
Tears were in her eyes as she worked on him desperately. "This is for your own good, Lucas! I have to heal you, even if I can heal no one else!"
The plague had swiftly overtaken their village. The terrible blackened spots sprouted on almost everyone Lucas had ever known. More and more people were dying every day.
They were saying it was the wrath of God, especially now that even their village healer had fallen ill. That healer was his mother, and Lucas saw even through his agony and distress, that she was in just as much pain as he was. She was tiring and running out of time.
Growing delirious and running out of time himself, he lay on his cot in pain and exhaustion. His mother watched him helplessly as yet another cure idea failed. She had already tried every herb and salve she knew. She had even tried removing the black spots with a blade, but it was no good. As he lay on his deathbed, his time shorter than ever before, he saw something in his mother break, and a haunted look of resolution entered her eyes.
"Perhaps God shall never forgive me, my son, but you must live!" she said vehemently.
Grabbing a dusty old box that went far back into her family, she opened it and looked at the scrap of leather in it grimly. It was as if she were looking evil itself in the face when she saw it. "It seems I must go to hell for you, my son, but at least you will live."
Was he dreaming? How could his mother possibly even think such a thing? She was so kind and loving and good. She had done everything she could for the village even when it was killing her.
"Mother," he rasped, "I don't understand!"
She caressed his face lovingly with tears in her eyes, but a smile was on her face too. "And I pray to God, Lucas, that you never have to understand."
With those words, she withdrew her hand and took the piece of leather from the old box. There seemed to be some strange writing on it. Taking deep gasping breaths mixed with sobs, she looked down at it and spoke strange sounding words over him. She repeated those words over and over, growing weaker by the minute. Strangely, Lucas found himself growing stronger as she did.
To his utter astonishment, the terrible black marks were disappearing from his body, and he was rapidly regaining his health. When he finally sat up with full coherency, he looked down at his mother in horror. She was pale and cold with rattling raspy breaths. When she looked up at him, healed and whole, tears of joy and peace fell from her eyes.
With the last of her strength, she smiled lovingly at him and said, "I love you, my son. Please live your life, and do whatever it takes."
Then she died right before his eyes, going still forevermore. Lucas was thunderstruck. He tried to shake her shoulders and wake her up. He called for her over and over with haunted tears in his eyes. He didn't fully understand what had happened, but one thing seemed horribly clear. His mother had given her life and health to heal him. He was only alive and well because she was dead.
By the time morning came, his tears had ceased, reduced to a sort of horrible numb shock. Soon he heard the familiar and horrible words as the men outside shouted, "Bring out your dead!"
Not even knowing what else to do anymore, Lucas opened his door and struggled with all his strength to draw his mother's body into the square. Gasps of horror came from all who saw him and their dead healer. Seeing his struggles, he soon got help from the strange men in their terrifying beaked masks. Their appearance reminded Lucas of leathery birds of prey.
Moving all the bodies into the square, the men prepared to set fire to them, but before they could, one of them burst out of Lucas's home holding the leather scrap his mother had taken from the box. "Wait! Do not burn her with our dead! Do you not see the deviltry at work here? In our healer's home I have found the devil's writing. Do you not see how her son is in perfect health while she is dead? This is terrible blood magic! Our healer was a witch all this time. She must have brought this calamity from God upon our village!"
Lucas stared at the now shocked and angry villagers in stunned horror. Could they be right? Was that why he was alive? The hoards of angry men and women grabbed him then and tossed him atop his mother's lifeless body. Separately from the rest of the dead, they prepared to burn him alive.
"Now the devil child and his witch mother shall be sent to hell!" one of the bird men cried.
Lucas stared in absolute shock and horror at the familiar faces who had all once shown him kindness and smiles. Now he was a monster to them, and in the back of his mind, he knew exactly what kind of monster that was. He couldn't quite explain it to himself, but he knew what they meant to do to him and why.
His mother's last words echoed in his mind over and over. Please live your life, and do whatever it takes.
Whatever it takes? He felt sick to his stomach with the horrible thought, but as they brought torches towards him, ready to set him ablaze, something inside of him snapped.
With a devastated desperate cry, pure power shot out from him and sent everyone flying yards away in a burst of potent blue light. Shocked for a moment, but determined to save himself despite everything, Lucas ran for his life. He sprinted out of town as fast as he could and into the woods.
For many months afterwards, he hid in those woods, living almost like an animal. The men and women of the village often came out to hunt and find him, but every time they tried, he hunted them first. He had to live, whatever it took. His mother's death would not be in vain. He would make sure of that, no matter what he had to do.
Even more time passed after that until Lucas's clothes began growing far too small for him, ripping and tearing not just from wear anymore. All the while he was haunted by dreams. Some of them were terrible and reminiscent of his life right now, but others were beautiful. How he wished those dreams could be real instead of this cursed life of his.
One day, he saw two more people come into the woods for him. It was a man and a woman this time. He glowered at them, ready to end them like all the others, but something stopped him. Maybe it was the way they were dressed, considering it was too fancy for people of his village. Maybe it was also that they looked familiar to him in a different way than usual.
Cautiously, he watched them, hiding behind trees as he did. He thought he was being careful as he studied them, but soon a twig snapped beneath his foot. The two people spun around in surprise and finally saw him. He quickly lit up his hand with blue magic as if to scare them away, fear and a readiness to defend himself was in his eyes. Still, something stopped him from using it on these people.
Why was that? Was it those strange dreams he had? He was so sure he'd seen these people in his dreams, but he also knew for a fact he wasn't dreaming right now. Was this even possible, or had he truly lost his mind?
"Asher," the woman said with fear and grief, "don't you remember us?"
The name sent waves of recognition though Lucas, or was that even his name? He shook his head in confusion. Asher? Wasn't that his name too? It was his name in the dreams, wasn't it?
He looked long and hard at the two people with sadness and desperation on his face. "Are the dreams I have real? Are you real?"
He was so afraid to hope that the other life he wished for so much actually existed. As the two people nodded seriously and looked at him with as much haunted sadness in their eyes as his own, he withdrew his magic. The violent air calmed, and he took a reluctant step forward, as if the two of them would vanish at any moment.
"Evelyn? Grandfather? Is...is that really you?"
Sobbing now, Evelyn rushed up and hugged him, just like she used to. Asher cried too then, not having felt love and comfort since his mother had died. He was finally home again. He was safe and loved, and now that he was, he hoped his mother could finally rest in peace.
Asher woke up with a start, feeling particularly awful. He clutched his pillows and his mattress like a lifeline. As unfamiliar as this place was, he was insanely grateful for it now. It seriously beat living through the black plague by a long shot.
Stumbling to his feet and shaking slightly, Asher brushed his teeth and washed his face. He debated whether or not to get dressed into something other than these too big pjs, but he figured he was better off wearing them than his other baggy clothes. Sighing and hoping he wouldn't look utterly ridiculous in them, he stepped out of his room and struggled to find his way around the unfamiliar house. Fortunately, his nose soon led him into a kitchen. Evelyn, Arthur and Asher's grandfather were there cooking breakfast.
Asher watched them groggily for a moment before Arthur spotted him. "Aw, man!" he said in disappointment. "We were totally going to bring you breakfast in bed."
Despite himself, Asher laughed a little. "Thanks anyway. I'll take the thought." He looked around then in some confusion. "Is anyone else coming?" he asked.
Arthur looked a little uncomfortable then. "Dante's staying with Fernando and his brother right now. Courtney's here, still in bed, but most people don't get to find out about this place, especially newcomers. After recent events, it pays off to be careful who we trust."
That confused Asher. "Wait? Recent events?" he asked.
His grandfather sighed then. "We don't need to ruin breakfast, do we?"
Asher must have looked pretty worried, because his grandfather caved. "Fine. Let's just say for now, that when I thought I could trust Shila even a little bit, I came to regret it. If she had known about this place and plenty of other things, it would have been even worse."
Asher cringed and looked down. He hadn't thought about Shila for awhile. The thought of her made him feel slightly sick.
"Oh," he said simply. "I see your point then. She was a real piece of work."
No one seemed to know what to say to that, so things went quiet while they finished cooking. When their omelets and pancakes we're done, they sat at the kitchen table and began to eat. Asher couldn't help noticing that everyone had onions in their omelets except him. He actually laughed just a little. Considering his dream, he guessed he knew now why he'd always found onions so disgusting. Apparently they all knew it too.
"What's so funny?" asked Arthur.
Asher just shrugged and said, "I was just thinking about food. Thanks for breakfast."