A familiar smell pulled Allie from her nap. She was usually a deep sleeper, even if it was just a nap, but this smell was unique. It was a smell so significant to her that it could rouse her from the dead. She hopped out of bed, dressed, and left her room a woman on a mission.
She followed her nose to the kitchen, where she found what she was seeking. Goldie was baking. A tray of fresh cookies cooled on a rack near the stove, and the young succubus was industriously making cookie balls and rolling them in a lightly colored powder.
“Goldie, are you baking snickerdoodles?” Allie said, eyeing the cooling cookies with dangerous intensity.
“Yes!” Goldie replied, her blue eyes sparkling with pride. “Do they smell good?”
Allie nodded. She needed to show at least a little restraint. “Can I have some?”
“Sure, but-” Goldie couldn’t finish her sentence before Allie had descended on the tray and stuffed one whole cookie into her mouth.
Goldie was gifted at making cookies. The rich cinnamon flavor ran down Allie’s spine like a lovers finger. The body of the cookie was cloud-light but just firm enough to feel between her teeth. The whole thing melted on her tongue like ice on a summer’s day. Allie stamped her foot and moaned obscenely.
“They are hot. Okay! Right!” Goldie said as she turned, wide-eyed, back to prepping her next batch.
“I felt that in my knees,” Allie mumbled, bracing herself on the counter.
“I’m glad you like them,” Goldie said.
“Like them? If these cookies were a guy, I’d give ’em kids.” Allie said, eating another.
“Careful, Goldie,” Don said from the doorway. “She’s a complete maniac when it comes to snickerdoodles. She spent an afternoon trying to mind-control me out of some my mom made once.”
“That was a long time ago,” Allie grumbled around her mouthful.
“That was six months ago! And you stole them in the end.”
“Do I give you shit over your vices?” Allie said, slowing down to eat her next cookie in two bites.
“Are you joking right now?” Don asked. “Goldie, sweetheart, I hope you made a big batch because she’s gonna eat those things until I stop her and she’s pretty feisty during the first dozen.”
“Well, I was making them for my friends, so it’s fine,” Goldie said, cheerfully.
“And while we’re being judgy, you could put on some clothes,” Allie said with as much dignity she could muster.
“Oh, now you want me clothed,” Don said, impishly.
“Listen here, Heifer-” The doorbell cut Allie off before she could get the momentum she wanted.
“Who’s here this late?” Goldie muttered with concern as she headed for the door.
“Maybe I should get dressed,” Don said. “Just in case.”
“Please. And wake Amber up,” Alice said as she walked past her partner, stuffing one last snickerdoodle in her mouth.
The fact that Goldie seemed concerned with a late visitor was enough to put Allie on edge. Amber’s home was fairly open by design. Save for the hallway that led to the three bedrooms, most of the house was visible from anywhere you stood. Allie was more interested in seeing who was at the door before they saw her, so she moved into the hall and reached out with her mind.
The presence was bright, clear, and thankfully alone. Allie brushed the mind with the delicacy of a butterfly.
You should just come to the door. It would be more polite than this, An exhausted voice echoed back.
Allie snapped herself back in alarm. She ducked around the corner, hoping to stop Goldie before she opened the door to whoever it was who’d detected her probing. She found she was not fast enough, as the door was open and Goldie was cheerfully greeting the visitor.
“Hi, Jack!” Goldie said. “Are you looking for my mom? Maybe for me?”
“Neither,” a warm, smooth voice said from just beyond sight. “May I come in?”
“Sure,” Goldie said as she moved aside.
The man that walked in was the worse kind of familiar. He was familiar not because Allie had met him, but because she’d seen pictures of him in books and a single painting of him as a child. She had been educated on what to do and who to call if she met him. He hadn’t been seen since the war and the emotion she felt from seeing him was that particular terror one might experience from looking a Tiger in the eyes and knowing they see you too. Allie took an involuntary step back, followed by a voluntary one.
It was the Seventh Scion of the Abomination, and Goldie had just invited him in.
“I take it from your reaction that you recognize me?” Jack said, looking directly into Allie’s eyes.
Allie nodded. It was too late to play dumb as she was already radiating fear.
The ancient Worldborn sighed and folded his hands behind his back. “I’d hoped you wouldn’t. It’s difficult to communicate with people who are too terror-stricken to think. Is it safe to assume you are the esper who touched my mind just now?”
Allie again nodded.
Jack studied her for a moment, shook his head, and clapped sharply. The sound shocked Allie out of her stupor.
“Don!” Allie barked.
“Is everything okay?” Don asked appearing from the hallway.
Allie pointed at Jack.
“So, no then,” Don said, easing Allie back with one arm.
“How are you all still so jumpy after this much time?” Jack asked with an exhausted expression. “We’ve had over a hundred years of peace. I have no intentions of changing that now. I’m surprised you even recognize me.”
“Recognize who?” Amber said as she walked into the room. She looked at Jack and then to the Allie and Don. “Is something wrong?”
“It’s the Seventh Scion,” Don said. “Jack is-“
“What?” Amber said as her face contorted into a look of confusion. “Foolishness. That thing is dead.”
“I was fond of hiding my face before the end of the war,” Jack said. “Forgive me for not living up to expectations.”
Amber looked at Jack for a moment, her expression changing slowly from confusion to absolute hatred. “Get out,” She snarled.
“Wait, I’m not here for myself. Please,” Jack said as he dropped his head. He stepped to the side and pulled a young man from behind himself. “I’m here for him.”
Allie started. Where had this boy come from? He looked to be in his mid to early teens. He was slim, but not overly remarkable. He seemed very uncomfortable and mildly confused. Allie had not felt his mind, however, and she had been looking. A gnawing concern grew in her thoughts.
“Who is this? Have you finally abandoned the one redeeming trait you had?” Amber asked. “Goldie, get away from him. He is filth. His whole family is nothing but filth.”
Goldie hurried away from Jack and the boy and stood behind her mother.
“I’m not filth,” The boy said. “Neither is my uncle. You take that back.”
“Shush, Lucian,” Jack said.
“You are a mother?” Jack said, holding his hand up in front of Lucian’s face. “I apologize for not realizing sooner. I am sorry.”
“Amber, can you allow him to tell us what he wants?” Allie asked. Amber’s race and Jack’s family of aberrations had a profound historical animus, and they wouldn’t get anywhere if Jack had to keep begging her forgiveness just for existing.
Amber’s jaw tightened, but she nodded. “Speak your piece.” She all but spat.
“Thank you. I am currently called Jackson King. This boy is Lucian King. His mother died tonight protecting him from an abnormally powerful homunculus,” Jack said. His tone was matter of fact, but an obvious pain was visible in his eyes. “I have reason to believe whatever brought the choir to this place is related to this, so I come to you to ensure Lucian’s continued safety.”
“Lucille is dead?” Amber said, startled.
“The little guy seems pretty sedate for someone who just lost their mom,” Don said skeptically.
“There is an explanation for that, but…” Jack glanced at Lucian.
“We’ll move past it for now,” Allie said, sensing Jack’s reluctance. “Why do you think there is a connection?”
“You fought a homunculus in the camp, correct? I am confident it was a servant of whoever created the ones I fought tonight. They were unusually powerful, had built in spells, and their cores exploded when damaged. The traits are fairly unique.”
“So you saw that? If that thing was your enemy, a little help might have been nice,” Don grumbled.
“There are… circumstances to my presence here that prevented my earlier intervention.”
“I suppose you need us to move past that detail as well?” Allie asked.
“I know this is all suspect, but I have my reasons.”
“So the only thing you can tell us is that this boy is being targeted?”
“Uncle Jack?” Lucian said softly, only to be immediately shushed.
“Jackson, is this boy of your family in any way?” Allie asked.
Allie watched the boy’s visceral reaction to that fact. He looked sick and shocked. Numerous emotions chased themselves across his face before settling into a deep sadness and palpable loneliness. She reached out to Lucian directly and again found nothing there. It was almost as if the boy didn’t exist.
“So he’s just some kid?” Don asked.
“Are you?” Jack replied.
Allie though back to Mary’s unusual muttering from before and now understood what she was referencing, but she needed to confirm it.
“Lucian, was it? can you come here?” Allie said.
Lucian looked at Jack who nodded in return. The boy stepped forward.
“Allie-” Don began.
“I need to confirm something,” Allie said as she approached Lucian.
Allie walked around Lucian, circling him and watching his reactions. The boy seemed uncomfortable with the scrutiny and began to fidget. She stopped in front of him. “Don’t move,” She said as she reached up and touched Lucian’s temples with both hands.
Where once there was nothing, a young mind now stood. Bright and clear, but cracked and damaged. Lucian had been magically tampered with, but it wasn’t the cause of his lack of mental presence. His emotions moved in abnormal currents, and a deep dive would be needed to get more information, but he was human, and he was real.
“Well?” Jack asked.
Allie nodded. “He doesn’t exist until I touch him.” Allie pulled out her phone and called Mary. “It doesn’t tell me much, but it tells me enough. I have to report this.”
“Report what?” Don asked.
“I think this boy is a Shadowed.”
“Whoa? What? Those are super rare!”
“A Shadowed?” Amber said, raw fear creeping into her voice. She gathered Goldie into her arms and took a step back.
“Mom?” Goldie said. “What’s the matter?”
“Amber, take a breath. He’s just a kid.” Don said stepping between Lucian and Amber.
“Those things are real? I thought they were simply rumors and one is here?” Amber said as she took another step back.
“I get that might be scary, but the war was a long time ago. Shadowed are rare, and this is just a boy. You have nothing to be scared of.”
“Uncle Jack, what is happening? What is a shadowed? Why is she so scared of me?” Lucian asked.
“It’s complex,” Jack said calmly. “To be brief, you have a power that hides or erases your spiritual presence. You are impossible to detect or track without physically doing so. A long time ago there was a secret war where the ability was used to devastating effect. The Shadowed were bogeymen to a society of bogeymen.”
“I don’t understand,” Lucian scratched his head.
“Does this boy have any knowledge of the true nature of the world?” Allie asked.
“None,” Jack sighed. “His mother sought to keep him ignorant. I respected her choice, but I fear that was a terrible mistake.”
“Hello?” Mary’s voice came from the phone.
“Mary, it’s Allie,” Allie said. “I think we have our known unknown. There was a shadowed child in the camp. His mother owned the place and died today fighting a homunculus.”
“A shadowed child? I see. Give me a moment,” Mary said. The phone went silent for a moment. “Alright, what happened?”
“The Seventh Scion is also here. He’s connected to the kid in some way he won’t explain, but he is claiming that the boy is the target of our mage.”
“The Sev-. Put me on speaker, Dear.”
Allie put the call on speaker and held the phone on her open palm. “You are on speaker, Mary.”
“Evandrus?” Mary said.
“It’s been some time since I was called that,” Jack said. “I go by Jack these days.”
“I see. Jack, then. Sir, are you acting on behalf of your Father?”
“My Father does not know of my actions. I have not communicated with him since the war.”
“Thank you, Sir. Are you acting as a Child of Contrition?”
“No. This is a personal matter.”
“Thank you, Sir. This shadowed child, is he your Ward or your Scion?”
“He is my Ward. Nothing more.”
“Thank you, Sir. Can you please elaborate on your involvement?”
“Only that my Ward Lucian was targeted by someone capable of creating Homunculi of great power and in large numbers. One of the homunculi was not just human in shape and appearance, it spoke plainly and wielded nature magic fluently. This is on top of two other semi-human ones with built in spells and the one that almost killed your agent here.”
Don whistled in amazement. Allie was shocked. Homunculi were smart, but for one to speak plainly and wield magic directly was unheard of.
“Mary, I really think we must have a legion of witches and warlocks here to make something so obscene,” Allie said. “It has to be an unbelievably powerful coven.”
“Big too,” Don interjected. “It could be half the town!”
“No,” Mary said. “Based on the evidence, there is a single mage. All the other information has been accurate.”
Mary was dancing around the existence of the prophecy. It wasn’t something to talk about in front of worldborn. The idea that a single mage was capable of what was being described was both terrifying and unthinkable.
“The only way to make something that powerful without killing yourself is to use sacrificial souls,” Allie said. “They have to be willing though.”
“We must accept then, that our mage has found a way around that restriction,” Mary said.
“Then my memories returned might help,” Amber said. “Over the years, numerous children have died in similar ways at that camp. Drowning in the night and in alarming numbers. Not just nine years ago, but for several before that. The numbers were smaller but still bizarre. The spell sealing my memories must be something affecting the whole town for such flagrant numbers of dead human children to be ignored like this. There had to have been a total of thirteen deaths over the years, not including the one this year.”
“That sounds like sacrifices to me. Willing or unwilling,” Don said.
“Then that means our mage want’s Lucian’s soul,” Allie said.
“He called me a meal,” Lucian interjected.
“Allie, I suspect your earlier thoughts might be closer to true than we realized,” Mary said.
“About infernal enhancement of nature magic?” Allie said.
“If we take what we know is happening and add the knowledge of Lucian’s shadowed nature, we could assume the Thief is trying to steal his soul to gain his power. If the Thief is also commandeering these souls without permission, it wouldn’t be a huge jump to think they might also be able to consume the souls personally.”
“Like a demon?”
“Exactly like a demon.”
“The Thief would be an undetectable mage with undetectable magic,” Don said softly.
“Powerful beyond measure and growing stronger without restraint,” Mary added.
“We’ve seen where that road leads already,” Jack said. “It’s how the Choir won the war, after all.”