Asher shrank back, and so did everyone else in the room, then Courtney rushed up to her brother and hugged him. "Stanley! I knew you were bottling something up, but this?"
Stanley tried to shove her away, but she held onto him tight. "Stanley, why couldn't you just talk to me? I could have been there for you. I could have!"
Stanley shoved and shoved again until she finally let go. "I thought I was crazy, Courtney, but it wouldn't have made a difference if you had known. Who the fuck is supposed to help someone like me? It's not like people know squat about this kind of thing. I'm alone. Just alone."
Asher's head was reeling. He was torn by the urge to comfort Stanley and a feeling of incredible wariness. Stanley had known his past self. He had recognized Asher. He was like Evelyn, an enemy warlock, and he was dangerous, right?
Looking at Stanley, Asher tried to see anything he should be afraid of. He tried to see the water golem chasing the screaming museum visitors, hear the echoing creepy voice of the warlock who'd tried to kill Terry and Celie. He tried to see an enemy in Stanley, but Asher felt just as stumped as he had with Evelyn, if not more so. In his eyes Stanley was innocent.
"Stanley," he said hesitantly, but Stanley cut him off.
"I don't want to hear it, Asher. You chose the Light Order even after knowing everything they did. You died in that warehouse, and you just left Evelyn locked up."
Asher was stunned. How did Stanley know that? Stanley stared at him accusingly. "I heard you talking with those friends of yours. You left your own wife all alone and locked up!"
"No, I didn't!" Asher yelled back fiercely. "I broke her out!"
Stanley's mouth was agape. "You what?" Then his eyes narrowed. "How the hell are you not locked up then?"
"I was," Asher said more quietly, his anger dying into tiredness. "I was locked up these last several days before they made me stand trial."
"And you were ruled innocent? How?" Stanley accused.
Asher didn't have an answer for once. He just struggled to find words for a good minute. "That's what I can't figure out."
Courtney was watching them and the whole scene with tears in her eyes. "It's like two people I know suddenly turned into strangers! What happened to my brother?"
Asher actually stared incredulously at her. "Courtney, we're not strangers. Stanley is still your brother. I'm still a sixteen year old foster kid. We just have some extra baggage.
"Mine's subconscious and it's been there since I was little. For example I've liked to draw since I was a kid, and I'm crazy good at it. I'm almost positive it's something I used to enjoy in past lives too. The brother you grew up with is still right there in front of you. Right, Arthur?" he said gesturing to Stanley, then his eyes widened in shock.
"Wait, Arthur?" Dante snickered despite himself and the crazy situation. "Did you just call him Arthur? Like, no one has that name."
Asher barely heard him as he stared into Stanley's mutually surprised eyes which quickly turned into relief. Asher's chest was beginning to rise in panic, though. He had remembered another name. What was he doing? He was betraying everyone and breaking all the rules right now. What if he remembered something he shouldn't?
Looking away from Stanley...no Arthur, in sudden fear, Asher clenched his fists and looked down. "I'm not supposed to remember. I can't let myself hurt innocent people again. I don't want to kill anyone!"
Asher flinched away from Stanley's touch. "You're not letting yourself remember, but you can, can't you?"
Coldly, Asher replied, "I don't know, but I can't afford to find out. I shouldn't have told you all this much either. They might make me talk under a truth spell again too."
"I already planned for that, Asher," Stanley said calmly.
"What?" Asher said looking up at him in shock. "Are you insane? What about you or Courtney getting caught or something?"
"I mean," Stanley continued calmly, "I planned ahead for this conversation. I know what I needed to find out, so just forget this conversation ever happened."
Asher laughed humorlessly. "It doesn't work that way, Arthur. They're going to find ou–" Suddenly Asher cut his sentence off short, his mind running a blank. "Um, what was I saying?"
"Not sure," said Courtney non-nonchalantly. "When's that pizza getting here anyway? I'm bored. Like, this is a seriously boring party. Nothing's happened."
"Yeah," Dante yawned. "No offense, Asher, but you and your house are really boring."
Asher scratched his head, feeling like he should remember something, but he came up blank. Looking around in a slight daze, probably from his long day, Asher's eyes rested on Stanley. He almost looked smug about something.
"What?" Asher asked.
"Nothing," said Stanley. "Really. I was just thinking about how I'm really good at something." He then looked out the window and asked, "When is the pizza coming?"
The next morning, Asher got a very different kind of greeting from Terry and Celie. Cold silence. There he sat in the back of their red convertible, feeling more awkward than he ever had around them.
Finally he said, "Sorry I snapped yesterday, okay? I was just really tired. I don't get why you're so quiet so–"
Terry silenced him with a murderous glare that took Asher aback. "I'm so quiet because I have nothing to say to the freak I'm forced to escort, so shut up, or are you going to break any more rules?"
Asher's entire body cringed in horror. This was exactly the reaction he'd expected from Terry and Celie in his worst nightmares. Celie looked sharply at Terry.
"Terry, we talked about this. I thought you were going to give Asher the benefit of the doubt!"
Terry looked away from them both. "No, Celie. I was giving you the benefit of the doubt. You seemed so sure he was innocent, that there was some big mistake, but I don't see it. He blabbed about Shila in front of those magic users and hung out with them for who knows how long. He sure must be chummy with them for the four of them to have shown up."
"Terry!" Celie yelled furiously. "You're overreacting!"
"No. I'm not! You're underreacting, Celie!"
Asher couldn't take this anymore. Holding back tears of hurt and guilt and pain, he slid out the side of the convertible and started running away.
"Asher! No! Wait!" Celie called after him. "We're supposed to escort you!"
Asher didn't respond back. He just ran to the farthest alley he could find and sank against the wall. Then he cried.
Things were never going to be the same again. He'd ruined everything. He should have known long before now that his life couldn't go anywhere but downhill.
"Um, excuse me, young man, but are you well?" a raspy older man's voice snapped Asher out of his sobs, and he quickly wiped the tears off his face. He stood up and tried to look less pitiful than he felt.
"Um, fine sir. Nothing's wrong. I'm just..." Asher trailed off to see a very unconvinced looking hunched figure.
He was wearing a dark brown, fall coat with a mop of gray hair tied back into a ponytail. A pair of rather worn looking spectacles framed kindly blue eyes. They had a hint of teasing in them too, and Asher knew he wasn't fooling anyone.
"Okay, not fine," he admitted.
"Well," the old man said with a slight chuckle, "at least you can be honest about it. Don't catch a chill out here, though."
Asher pulled his hoodie a little more tightly around himself then. It was pretty cold today.
"Want to take a moment to settle down in the shop before heading to school?" the man offered.
"Huh?" Asher asked almost warily. "How do you know I'm even in school?"
The older man guffawed. "You don't look old enough to be seventeen yet, young man. I thought it should be obvious, and I do respect a young person's education. It's also against the law for you to be out of school at your age."
Asher sighed and rolled his eyes. "Like I need school anyway, but I'm actually going to the museum today for a field trip, and it's closer. It kind of got rescheduled for today, and my carpooling plans went south."
"Oh?" the old man asked curiously. "How strange. My grandson was supposed to go to the museum with me today for the free day, but he got a nasty virus. I suppose I could drive you down there and not miss out after all. I do like museums, but I rarely have the time to do much running this ice cream shop."
Asher looked at the building they were near and saw that it was, indeed, an ice cream parlor. He weighed his options. He really ought to know not to get in cars with strangers by now, but what did he have to fear from an old man who served ice cream?
"That's very considerate of you, sir, but are you sure?"
The man cackled. "Sir? What a funny thing. Kids never call me sir these days, but yes, I'm very sure. I'm sure my grandson would love to hear about the museum when I get back, so at least that's something I can do to make us both happy."
Asher smiled slightly and nodded, then he shook the man's hand. "Nice to meet you then. I'm Asher."
"Ah, that's a nice name. I'm Mr. Ross."
Asher smiled and followed Mr. Ross over to a slightly beat up but beautiful vintage car. Asher knew without having ever looked it up that it was made in the heart of the fifties. Its artistic, chrome steel exterior with classic wings made Asher's eyes light up. He ran his hand over the car with some affection.
"That is a seriously amazing car you have there, Mr. Ross."
Mr. Ross cackled. "Hah! That's a first. Don't kids your age like Ferraris more than these?"
Asher shrugged. "I like old fashioned stuff," he said and got in.
"So," Mr. Ross asked as they drove, "Asher, what do your parents do?"
Asher's stomach churned a little. "No idea. Never met them. I'm in foster care."
"Oh..." Mr. Ross sounded quite sad. "I'm very sorry to hear that." Asher didn't know what to say to that, so he just sat in silence a little longer.
"I do hope they take care of you there," Mr. Ross said. "You look rather worse for wear."
Asher laughed uncomfortably. "Oh, yeah. I just got out of the hospital. It's nothing."
"No such thing as nothing," Mr. Ross said with a shake of his head. "Bullies at school get ya?"
Asher looked away uncomfortably. "Yeah. Something like that."
Not long after those words, they arrived in the museum parking lot. Asher was inclined to say goodbye, but then he saw Mr. Ross pull a cane out of the trunk and start walking on it.
"Need any help?" Asher asked uncertainly.
"Oh, no, young man. I can manage just fine with this."
Asher wasn't feeling convinced as he watched Mr. Ross struggle to the front steps, and he made sure not to stay far behind him. That turned out to be a good thing when Mr. Ross tripped and almost fell. Asher caught his arm quickly and helped him through the doors.
"You sure you're alright?" Asher asked with a hint of good natured sarcasm.
Mr. Ross sighed, looking a little wistful. "This is where my grandson was supposed help me out, I suppose."
"Well," said Asher, "since you drove me here and hopefully spared me any more weeks of detention, the least I can do is stand in for him a bit. Maybe you could stick around my class group so I can keep you from falling into any wax figures up on the second floor. Napoleon especially, since he's holding a pretty wicked looking sword."
His eyes were teasing, but his intent was real enough, and Mr. Ross seemed to know it. "Oh, all right then," he sighed. "You can stand in for my grandson just for today." Then he winked at Asher and they looked for his school group.
His classmates were all already there that Wednesday morning, including an incredulous looking Celie and Terry. Terry rushed up to Asher and grabbed his arm roughly, glaring him in the face. Asher cringed.
"What were you thinking, freak? Running off like that won't look good for you, not that I'm surprised."
Asher felt like crying again, but he forced himself not to out in public. He just looked back at Terry with very sad eyes. That's when, to Asher's surprise, Dante, Fernando, Courtney and Stanley showed up and forced Terry's iron grip off of Asher.
"Hey, got a problem with our friend here? Cus I thought he was supposed to be your friend, but you aren't really acting like it lately," Dante said, getting all in his face.
Terry gritted his teeth with barely restrained violence and hatred plain across his face. "Get off me, freak."
That took Dante a little off guard, long enough for Terry to uncoil himself and get away. "He called me a freak. Does that mean he knows?"
"Nah," said Asher quickly. "He just calls everyone he hates that. Apparently me too now," Asher said with a falling face. "Thanks, by the way."
"No problem," said Stanley with a smile. "Not that I actually did anything."
"You showed up," Asher said. "That still means a lot Arth– I mean, Stanley."
Asher scratched his head in confusion. "That's weird. Why did I almost call you Arthur?"
"I dunno," Courtney said with a shrug. Then she looked off to the side in a panic. "Oh, crap! We're falling behind the rest of the class!"
From behind them a raspy old voice said, "I was about say so too."
"Oh, hey Mr. Ross," said Asher. "Ready?"
Stanley raised a large eyebrow at Asher, hiding barely controlled anxiety. "Wait, who's this old guy, and where did you find him?"
"He's Mr. Ross," said Asher. "He helped me make it here on time because he wanted to come for the free day, and his grandson was too sick to make it, so I'm standing in."
The four other teens looked at Asher incredulously, and he rolled his eyes. "What are you waiting for? We're gonna be late."
Then the lot of them managed to catch up with the rest of the students. Asher and Mr. Ross trailed the furthest behind, but they managed. Asher examined the exhibits with a bit more interest this time around, but ancient Egypt still wasn't all that exciting to him. He was thrilled when they finally made it to the eighteenth century exhibit, though.
"And this," he said, giving Mr. Ross a knowing look, "is where we need to watch out for Napoleon and his sword."
Mr. Ross cackled, and they walked around the exhibit. Asher drank in the sights once again, loving the paintings, the dioramas, the wax figures, the pure culture of it. His face fell, though, as he saw Terry watching him with disgust. At least Celie gave Asher a sympathetic look, but she wasn't taking any action for him either.
Asher sighed sadly but was snapped out of his reverie when Mr. Ross asked, "Is this supposed to be Napoleon?"
"Oh, no. No way," he answered. "That's King George the Third." So he led Mr. Ross a little ways away. "This one here, that's Napoleon."
On display was a wax figure of a bold and well dressed man, valiantly riding a horse as if into battle with a deadly looking sword in hand. Fortunately, the display was roped off or it might have actually posed a threat to the guests.
"So," said Mr. Ross, looking up at the figure, "what do you know about Napoleon?"
Asher thought about that for a second. "Well, in a nutshell, let's just say if he wanted to conquer the world, he made a massive mistake. He underestimated both his allies and his enemies, and didn't try understand them. So he lost most of his army in the cold of Russia."
"Well, I'll be," said Mr. Ross. "You really know your history."
Asher shrugged. "Like I said, I don't really need school."
Before Mr. Ross could respond to that, it was time to move onto the next exhibit. Asher left the eighteenth century exhibit wistfully and followed his class into the next one. When he saw which one it was, he filled with dread and remembered fear.
Struggling to calm and compose himself, he walked inside the large medieval themed room and examined it for damage. There wasn't a blemish left. Not a single indication of what had happened that fateful day with the water golem.
Asher quickly looked away and pretended to be very interested in a nearby tapestry, then someone grabbed his wrist. He looked up to see that it was Courtney. She was smiling hugely.
"What is it, Courtney?" he asked.
Instead of answering, she just dragged him along and over to the part of the exhibit he was trying the hardest to avoid. He sighed with dread. The secluded occult section was just as he remembered it, and he didn't like it one bit.
"I think it's legit," said Courtney excitedly. "This stuff is so cool!"
Asher noticed a particularly large crowd of students in the area examining the items with hungry excited looks. It made Asher uncomfortable to see so many people in the spot, and he wondered if they were all here because they were magic users. Here he was too, lumped right in with the rest of them. It was a bit of a spectacle to some of the guests, and Asher hoped the extra attention wouldn't be a problem.
"Asher, you listening?" Courtney waved a hand in front of his face.
"Um, sorry. No."
She rolled her eyes. "I was saying I want to show you the coolest part here. Check out that."
She then pointed to a large leather bound book encased in glass. Asher recognized it from before with a chilling feeling of both fear and excitement. Why did he feel excitement and longing when he looked at it? It worried him, and he tried to get away, but Courtney stopped him.
"Asher, what's your problem? This is the coolest part! It's a grimoire. A whole massive book full of spells, probably tons that no one knows about anymore. It's a treasure trove! Man, it's so infuriating that the museum owns it. I would totally read it otherwise."
Asher looked at Courtney seriously then. "I shouldn't be seen here. It's where my registration incident happened."
A look of knowing horror spread across her face, then excitement. "So you reacted to the grimoire. That was the object, wasn't it?"
Asher shook his head and looked around warily at the crowd. "No. It was a mirror. A silver mirror. Can I go now?"
Courtney shook her head and dragged him to another table. On it sat the silver mirror, back on full display. "Not until you show me what happened with this mirror," she demanded.
Asher was getting panicked. Man, she was so pushy. Sighing and trying to work his way out of this, he said, "It probably won't do the same thing twice, but I saw something in it. That's all."
Excitedly, Courtney looked into the mirror, then she frowned at Asher with disappointment. "I can't see anything but my reflection. You try."
Reluctantly, Asher looked into the mirror again. He also only saw his reflection and felt a wave of disappointment. A big part of him had really wanted to see Evelyn. Without thinking and just feeling, the mirror reacted to his uncontrolled wish. Courtney gasped in excitement, and Asher felt a wave of relief at what he saw.
Evelyn was brushing her hair in a small, ornate bedroom. She was off to the side and humming a melodic tune, but Asher could see sadness on her face. He wanted to call out to her, but it was too risky. Besides, Courtney was right next to him. At the very least he knew she was safe and alive, and that took a huge weight off his shoulders he hadn't even known he'd been holding. Just having that confirmation was a wonderful feeling.
"What's with the weird happy face, Asher. You're weirding me out," Courtney said with a sour expression.
That's when Evelyn turned her head in their direction as if she heard them and dropped her hairbrush to the ground. "Asher?" she said sounding shocked. "What are you doing at the museum?"
Asher's face blanched, and he didn't have the heart to answer her. He could see understanding and then anger touch her face as she understood. Nothing had changed. They were still on different sides.
Courtney was staring between Asher and the mirror in stunned surprise. "Holy shit. You can talk through this thing, can't you? You know her, don't you?"
"Courtney," Asher warned. "Don't make a scene in public. You're not being careful."
"And you are?" Courtney asked accusingly. "Don't tell me you didn't make her show up in that mirror. Who is she anyway?"
It took Asher a moment to see the jealousy in Courtney's expression, and he finally got it. "Courtney, it's not going to happen, okay. I'm with someone else, and that's not changing."
Courtney winced then looked back at the mirror. "Her? Are you serious? You like some girl in a mirror who's almost old enough to be your aunt?!"
Asher shook his head in disgust. "I am not going to explain this to you. Just drop it here, will you?"
Fuming, Courtney stalked off, and Asher sighed. He looked back at the mirror where Evelyn was watching the whole spectacle with barely contained amusement. The whole situation was so bizarre, that if Asher hadn't already been through everything he had recently, he would have broken down in hysterical laughter. As it was, he just looked at Evelyn sadly and willed the mirror image away with as much concentration as he could manage.
That's when Terry came out of nowhere and yanked Asher aside. "What the hell were you just doing? Conversing with your freak wife again?"
Asher shoved Terry off of him with a glare. "I just wanted to see if she was okay, and I have. That's all."
Terry glowered at Asher but didn't say a word. Frustrated and sick of this behavior, Asher lost it and yelled in Terry's face. "What if it was Celie? What would you have done?!"
Terry fumed and growled out his next words with pure hate. "Never compare Celie to that–"
"To that what? Say it! I dare you!" Asher challenged with barely contained fury.
"Not here," Terry growled. "Later. You and me. One on one," and with that Terry stormed off.
Asher winced as he saw he had an audience. People were staring incredulously and then looking away quickly. Asher was about to walk out of this dreadful area for good when a scream rippled through the room along with the cry of shattering glass. Feeling butterflies in pit of his stomach, Asher spun around to see a shocking spectacle.
A middle-aged brunette man had crushed the glass encasing the grimoire with his bare arm. A blank look was on his face that quickly turned to horror and shock. "What the hell?"
Then a blond woman next to him grabbed the book out of its broken case and ran off with it. Asher caught a glimpse of the same blank look on her face. What was this? Panic and fear filled his chest, but also determination.
He raced after the woman and tackled her down. Then she looked up at him in horror, screaming, "What the hell? Why did I even grab that book?"
"Sorry," Asher squeaked, and he swiftly looked around for another person with the book. A little boy was running off with it.
"Daniel!" a panicked woman who must have been his mother called after him. "Daniel! Come back this instant!"
Asher quickly ran after the boy and his mother. The mother beat him to it. "Give that book back to the museum! What's gotten into you, Daniel?!"
To Asher's shock, the boy elbowed his mother hard in the chest and said in a strange monotone, "Daniel isn't here right now," then he ran off again at full speed.
Feeling growing horror at this strange phenomenon and hoping he wasn't next, Asher raced after the little boy. He chased him through the halls, down escalators, and past hoards of shocked museum visitors. They were almost to the front doors of the museum before the boy slowed down and handed the book to an old man in a brown jacket. His gray hair was in a terrifyingly familiar ponytail.
Asher looked up at Mr. Ross in horror, expecting to see the same zombie-like expression on his face. Instead, he saw that the man had discarded his glasses and wore a satisfied, triumphant smirk. He was no longer hunched either, standing tall with ease.
Cold in the pit of his stomach, Asher looked at the man as if for the first time. "You're not actually a Mr. Ross," he stated simply with a voice devoid of kindness.
"My, my Asher, you really are so gullible at this age. It's quite amusing actually."
Dread and fear filled Asher as he recognized the chilling voice. It was the warlock from the water golem incident. Swallowing his terror, Asher said coolly, "I'll admit it, I seem to get played a lot lately, but that doesn't mean you're getting away with that grimoire."
"So you know what it is." The warlock didn't sound surprised. "And you suppose you can stop me with your lack of experience? Come now, little grandson? You're smarter than that, aren't you?"
Asher's eyes widened in shock. Grandson? He was the grandson?
Did that make this man his grandfather, or was this all some sick game? Gathering a fair dose of skepticism and what nerve he could, Asher zeroed his focus on the grimoire and thought of the night he'd teleported Evelyn. Asher willed it to go as far into the basement of the museum as he could get it, and it started flying fast out of the old man's hands. To Asher's shock, though, with a flick of his wrist, the warlock had it back in his grip as if nothing had happened.
"Like I haven't seen that one before," he said with a dark laugh. "Who do you think taught you that move?"
Asher gritted his teeth in frustration, but he smiled. "Then maybe you know it's a bit draining. Let's see who can keep it up the longest."
It then became a game of teleportation. Asher kept willing the book deep into the basement, and his opponent kept getting the best of him every time. Asher couldn't see him tiring either, although he couldn't say the same for himself.
Dammit! What was he doing wrong? He shouldn't be wearing out this fast, so why was he getting so tired?
"Do you give up yet, Asher?" the warlock asked tauntingly.
Asher shook his head with a look of determination. "No way. I could do this all day, old man!" he yelled. Then he renewed his efforts.
For some reason the words seemed to amuse the warlock even more, but finally Asher had had enough. His energy was almost used up, and he collapsed to the floor. Glaring in disbelief at his opponent, he asked, "Why aren't you tired at all?!"
The warlock looked at Asher with mock sympathy. "Alas. Your history skills are far better than your magical ones. I suppose Theo could be to blame for that. Using a spell he didn't understand was a foolish thing to do, but no matter. I think that's fixable."
"You didn't answer my question," Asher gasped, struggling to get up off the floor and failing miserably.
"Well it's quite simple, boy," the warlock said. "Thanks to a spell, I was able to use your energy to teleport the grimoire back into my hand instead of using my energy. Thus, you used up twice as much energy, and I used up none."
Asher felt helplessly stupid at that moment and horribly defeated. It was humiliating. "Ah, don't fret," the warlock said, looming over him. "It's not your fault you were raised so poorly in this life. No magical education whatsoever and no memories to guide you. It's unforgivable, really, but I'll fix that. Just you see."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Asher was getting annoyed with the old man's prattling and nonsense.
If he was going to be honest with himself, though, everything was starting to sound like nonsense. His eyelids were getting heavier by the minute, too. The last thing Asher saw before he fell unconscious was an old man reading a book over his head.