The girl- Dulcie, held out her hand for a while. Aiden just stared blankly at her face before she broke the silence by letting out some nervous laughter and gently taking his hand in her own.
"Do you know how to shake hands?"
Aiden sputtered, then laughed and shook her hand. "Sorry, I'm just kinda... in shock."
Dulcie let go of his hand and smiled.
"Of course you are. Everyone is. You're not the first, and I doubt you'll be the last. He nodded. "Yeah, how often to people come here?"
"Not particularly often. It's the cause of some talk when it does happen, after all this things been running for twelve years and we only have like, a hundred members."
Aiden smiled. He had so many questions running through his mind, and Dulcie could see that.
"I'll answer all your questions once my brother gets here."
"You have a brother?"
"Yup! His name's Pollux. We were kind of surprises, because mom and dad didn't look at the ultrasound and we're twins. Our parents had names picked out for a boy and a girl, and according to my brother, Dulcie and Pollux mean 'sweet' in whatever."
She paused for a minute.
"Am I talking too much?"
Aiden shook his head. "No."
"That's good," Dulcie laughed. "If joining a rebellion and fighting against the Catago is sweet, then I'm the sweetest, and so is Pollux."
As she finished talking and Aiden's laughter died down, someone entered the room.
"Speak of the de- you're not Pollux."
Rico laughed as Dulcie flushed red with embarrassment. "No, I'm not. Anyway, Dulcie..." It was clear he was trying not to smile. "Could you not hit Curtis? Or swear at him?"
Dulcie smiled, a little uneasy.
Rico discreetly- but good-naturedly rolled his eyes. "Not very hard, though, see you!"
He laughed as he left, and Aiden heard a cheery voice say, "Hey, Rico."
Dulcie brightened. "Pollux! Over here!"
"I'm aware, Dulcie."
Aiden smiled and turned to face the boy who'd just entered the room. He was definitely Dulcie's brother.
He had ginger hair as well, though it was a lighter shade than Dulcie's, but they had the same eyes, skin, and freckles.
Pollux sat down and invited Dulcie and Aiden to do the same.
"Okay," Pollux said with a smile. "Questions first." He glanced at Dulcie to make sure she agreed.
She did, and both Pollux and Dulcie turned to Aiden with a smile.
Aiden shut his eyes, trying to think. "Rico seems awfully young. Like, young enough to be my brother."
Pollux answered. "I was expecting that. You see, this whole thing was started twelve years ago, by Rico's father. Bryson-"
"Let me finish. Bryson was second-in-command. If needed, he'd be leader. We weren't expecting Rico's dad to suddenly die, so Rico became leader when he was only sixteen."
Aiden paused. "Is Bryson still second-in-command?"
Dulcie nodded. "Yup. I'm honestly hoping that Bryson won't become leader. Bryson's great- you'll meet him soon, but I don't want Rico to die or step down."
Aiden nodded. "How do you stop the ravens from delivering messages to the wrong people?"
"They're taught," Dulcie answered simply.
Aiden paused for a minute. "People will want to know where I am. How will you stop them from reporting me missing to the Catago and tracking me down?"
Dulcie frowned. "Are you well known?"
"No. I think only the orphanage knows I exist."
The redhead smiled reassuringly. "Then I don't think it'll be much of a problem. The orphanage will report you missing, I'm sure, but we have spies. They pretend to be Catago, but they're really Ravens. The Catago are the only ones who have access to the records of the world, I'm sure the spies will waste no time in removing you from the records."
Aiden nodded. There was something nagging at him, but he couldn't place what it was.
Pollux spoke. "Do you mind if I ask you a couple questions?"
"Yeah, I mean, no," he shook his head. "Ask away."
"How old were you? When your parents..." He didn't finish his sentence. He didn't have to.
"Two," Aiden said quickly.
Pollux nodded. "Why weren't you adopted?"
Aiden tilted his head to the side. "It wasn't an orphanage, really. Everyone called it that, but it was more a temporary home, until we were eighteen or so. Then we'd move out."
Dulcie interjected with a question of her own. "Who's the head?"
"Ms. Carr. Well, we can call her Ms. Carr, Ada, or mom."
"What do you call her?" Pollux asked.
Aiden shrugged. "Ms. Carr or Ada. I don't think I've ever called her mom, she's never been that to me, really."
The twins went silent at that.
"Sorry about Curtis," Dulcie said quietly. "He's really not that bad, just..."
"Impulsive?" Pollux tried.
Dulcie nodded. "Yeah. Impulsive."
She sighed. "Sorry for my outburst, I suppose I'm impulsive too."
Pollux shot his sister an amused glance. "Did you swear at him?"
"Did you hit him?"
The door creaked open and Aiden just about jumped out of his skin.
"Sorry about that," Rico sighed, shutting the door behind him. "That thing's always been a tad creaky."
He watched the door intently, as if it could swing open at any moment.
"Well?" He faced Aiden now, one hand on the door. "Are you ready yet?"
Aiden gave the older man a perplexed look. "What? Ready for what?"
Rico sighed. "You seriously didn't tell him?" Rico asked, now looking at the twins. Dulcie shook her head. "Nah, that's always been your department."
Rico chuckled. "Fair enough. It is my idea, so..."
He walked over to the small group and gestured for Aiden to stand.
"Every time a new member arrives, I treat them to a normal day. We eat at a restaurant of the member's choosing. I'll buy them one or two luxury items. Things like that."
"Why?" Aiden recoiled when he realised how jerky the question sounded. A guy says he'll buy you food and nice things and you ask 'why?'
"I mean," he caught himself.
"Why spend money on people who are practically strangers? They're not poor, not starving... why?"
Rico relaxed. He'd tensed up a little at how Aiden put his question at first.
"New members need to experience a normal day." His face darkened.
"It's the last one they'll be experiencing for a long time."
Aiden’s mind was racing. There were so many thoughts, so many ideas, so many fears inside his head. This can’t be real, he thought. He knew he’d wake up soon, and it would all be over. He’d be back in reality and- “Are you alright?” He was jolted out of his thoughts by the sound of Rico’s voice. “Uh huh,” Aiden simply nodded. Dammit, real convincing. The older man shot him a smile. A smile that told him that he didn’t believe the younger boy. Aiden and Rico walked in silence, then stopped abruptly “What?!” Aiden said, just before he bumped into Rico. He backed up, confused. “Is something… wrong?” Rico smiled. “Not at all.” He reached out for Aiden’s hand, and the younger boy took it. “This might be a little scary,” Rico confessed. Aiden gripped his hand tighter. Rico grimaced. “Hey, that hurts. I can't help you if you break my hand!” Aiden loosened his grip, smiling uneasily. “Don't worry. Almost everyone is scared their first time.” “First time doing what?” Rico gestured in front of them, at a mosaic design on the ground. Aiden tilted his head to one side. “ I don't understand?” Rico walked forwards, to the centre of the mosaic, where a blue tile completed the centre. It was larger than the others, big enough for Rico and Siden to stand side by on. The rest of the mosaic spiralled out from in gold and red tiles. “I still don't understand.” Rico knelt down and pressed the heel of his hands on the tiles surrounding the center. To Aiden’s surprise, the tiles dipped down, into the ground. His mouth dropped open in shock as Rico pried open the center tile- no, the trapdoor, then watched as he slowly inched forward before leaping into the hole. There was a thud as he landed on the ground below. Aiden inched forward at Rico’s call that it was okay to go down. He sat there for a moment, contemplating this decision that he knew would probably change his life- for better or worse, he didn’t know. “You coming?!” Aiden nodded before remembering that Rico couldn’t see him, and meekly muttered, “yeah.” He winced. Even a five-year-old could tell that Aiden was scared. There was no turning back now, though. He’d disappoint everyone waiting below… and he didn’t know how many people that would be. He took one deep breath, inhale, exhale. Then again. Inhale, exhale. Aiden put his hands back, and stared down into the light below him.
He launched himself of the edge, narrowly missing hitting his head on the trapdoor. He flailed as he crashed down, then landed awkwardly on the ground. Aiden turned and bit back a yell. He was surrounded by at least a hundred people. They all wore black robes with a faint silver circle in the center. In the center of that circle there was the image of a raven, its wings outstretched. It was a symbol he’d seen many times, usually on wanted posters asking for people bearing that symbol to be turned in or… killed. The gravity of the situation hit Aiden like a freight train. By leaping into the hole he’d found a whole new world. A world that could put him behind bars. A world that could kill him. And even though he could now see the ladder leading up to the trapdoor- it wasn’t visible nor usable at the top, though- even if he climbed up and left the chamber, and never looked back, he could never leave this world. The fates of Rico, of all the people who ever set foot in the chamber would haunt him forever. Not to mention the guilt of inevitably disappointing these people. No, turning back was not an option, not anymore. He blinked at the crowd, and Rico shot him an encouraging smile. Aiden rose to his feet and smiled. Not at the crowd, though it might have looked like that from their perspectives. He was smiling at Rico. Say something intelligent. They’re waiting. “Hey…” Aiden tried. “You guys are famous.” A million different possibilities of what he could’ve, should’ve said rushed through his mind. His dark eyes flitted through the ground, seeing if he could spot anyone snickering, or hiding laughter. No one was laughing at him, that was good. But most people were expressionless, still waiting. Maybe I should introduce myself. “I’m Aiden… Parrish. I’m fourteen. Thakarian.” He smiled, this time it was at the crowd. “You can probably tell.” There were a few chuckles, and he breathed an internal sigh of relief. These people weren’t laughing at him, they were laughing with him. It was true, really. Aiden was the perfect image of a Thakarian. He had black hair that looked more than a little dusty, dark skin and eyes, and he looked youthful. Finally, someone spoke. “You don’t look half bad. Definitely Thakarian. Your clothes aren’t the best but then again, you’re an orphan.” A few heads turned, including Aiden’s to face the speaker. Italonian, definitely. He had blond hair, the bluest eyes Aiden had ever seen, pale skin, and had the dumbest grin plastered on his face. It wasn't a trying-too-hard-to-be-funny annoying, or a look-I’mso-funny annoying, it was a I-didn’t-do-anything-wrong annoying, which Aiden hated.
“I’m not an orphan,” Aiden said, his hands curling into fists. People turned away from the blond kid and looked at Aiden instead. They had annoying looks too- sorrow? Pity? He couldn’t tell, but he could tell that they thought they knew something he didn’t. “An orphan,” he said, his voice low and tense. “Has dead parents. Or, their parents abandoned them.” “Then where are your parents?” The blond kid pressed. Aiden decided right there and then that he didn’t like this guy very much. “The Catago,” he said. “They took them.” “Oh.” Just as Aiden thought the blond was done being so annoying, he spoke again. “Then they’re definitely working for then. Not by their own accord, probably, but…” Aiden didn’t know if he said anything else because suddenly, he felt like he was underwater. His hands were curled into tight fists and he wanted to run forwards and punch the blond with everything he had. He never got the chance to. Someone did it for him. It was a girl. All he saw a whip of sharp ginger hair and the ‘thud’ of flesh hitting flesh. He couldn’t see her face, so he didn’t know where she came from- he didn’t usually care about that, it was just something to occupy his thoughts. “YOU,” thud, “IDIOT,” thud, “DO YOU,” thud “HAVE ANYTHING RESEMBLING A BRAIN.” Thud. The blond guy stepped back to avoid more pummeling. “Technically,” he sputtered. “It’s against the rules to hit another Raven.” The redhead tossed a glance to Rico. “He doesn’t seem to care,” she said with a shrug. “Besides, that’s only if it’s unprovoked, and you were being a jerk and a dumbass.” The group disassembled except for the redhead, who walked towards Aiden. “Sorry about that.” She held out her hand. “Dulcie. That was Curtis, and as you already know, he’s a jerk.”
It was midnight, the clock on his nightstand told him so.
Or rather, it told him it was one in the morning. It was always an hour ahead.
Fourteen-year-old Aiden was deep in thought, but he looked more asleep than anything else. His eyes were shut and his clasped over his stomach, which rose and fell with each quiet breath. In fact, it would have fooled anyone who walked in and didn’t look closely.
After all, Aiden was awake. He knew he’d be awake for awhile, thoughts like the ones that plagued him at the moment didn’t tend to disappear.
He didn’t quite know how to describe his thoughts. His past? The world? Everything? Whatever it was, it was confusing. Unfortunately, it wasn’t only troubling thoughts that were confusing.
He’d been two when The Shift happened. His mother and father had fled with him out of Thakar, where the Catago had begun their attack. He and his family had lived on the streets for six months before entering the town of Vecuria, where they’d been caught and Turned.
Aiden, being two, had not been Turned. He wasn’t worth it and had been left to die until kindly Ms Carr had found him, sitting on the sidewalk.
No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t remember the events. He did remember, though, that he’d had a home that wasn’t the New Horizons Orphanage, a warm place run by the same Ada Carr, a woman in her forties with greying brown hair and the best smile.
Aiden didn’t mind not knowing his parents, at least not much. Ada was enough.
Once a week, he would find Ms Carr in her office and ask her to retell him the story of how she’d found him, to see if it would spark a memory.
It never did, but hope in such a dreary world was of utmost importance.
Rat tat tat.
The raven was the signature animal of The Ravens, the one group left still fighting against the Catago.
He slipped on the thick leather gloves on his bedstand- used for handling ravens that got too rowdy so they could be disposed of, as the orphanage called it, but everyone at New Horizons knew what really happened- they were released into the air, to fly back to The Ravens, wherever that was. He just hoped they found their way back. Frankly, he had no idea how the birds seemed to always find the right people. Some idealistic part of him liked to think that it was some sort of forgotten magic.
He grabbed the oil lamp, too, and set it alight.
Rat tat tat.
He fumbled clumsily with the hinges on the window until finally, he heard the last click and the hissing that came with the cold wind entering the room.
Aiden suddenly picked up on the loud flapping of wings, and no matter how hard he tried, the window wouldn’t open slowly and burst open- probably from a combination of the bird’s strength and the howling wind outside.
He threw himself to the ground, crashing into the wall. The shelf behind him teetered, and Aiden squeaked, propping it up just in time.
It was light enough for his body to support, but it was certainly heavy enough to awaken the entire orphanage. He only just barely propped it up- he was on his back, and he was lying on… something bulky.
Thankfully, the tall shelf didn’t slam into the floor, and he looked up at another issue, the loud mess of black feathers shrieking above his head. How could the ravens find their way if they couldn’t find a darned window?
Aiden saw the hall lights outside light up. Someone had heard him. He jumped onto his bed and managed to grab the raven, tugging it down. It shrieked again, and he wound up on his back.
He heard bumping and more shrieks, then heard the window sway, indicating that the raven had left his room.
He smiled uneasily as the door opened to reveal a very confused Ms Carr.
It had been such a tiny change, but it was such an emotional one. Times had reached “Raven,” he said. “In my room.” He paused. “I couldn’t catch it.”
There was silence before Ms Carr nodded. “Okay. You can clean up in the morning, you must be tired.”
“I am,” he lied. Right now, he could think of everything but sleep. The door closed, and Aiden flicked on his room lights to survey the damage.
There was a lot.
The shelf was moved- he could see that by the indentation on the carpet. That shelf had been in the same place for several years and had left its mark on the carpet.
His oil lamp had fallen- thank goodness, though, the flame had been quenched by his jacket, which must have fallen off the hook. That had to have been the thing digging into his back.
The thing that caught his eye, though, was not the wreckage, but the rolled up piece of paper on the ground, bound with a red elastic band that clearly crushed one end of the paper.. That hadn’t been in his room when he got into bed, that was for sure.
He picked it up and unfurled it.
Aiden, (Can’t say Dear, I don’t know you. Do you say Dear to everyone?)
My name is Rico. I am the leader of The Ravens, and I apologize for this letter- I can’t write one to save my life!
I know that your parents were Turned by the Catago, and from my dearly departed father, I also know that an odd prophecy appears to detail you. Actually, prophecy isn’t the right word. But hey, it’s cool to be in a prophecy, right? We’re in Parin, Ocean View Lane. Or Street, maybe Pass or Avenue. I can never remember.
With regards, Rico (That’s a good close, right?)
The letter dropped from Aiden’s hands, and a few shaky breaths tumbled out of his throat- carefully, he balled up the letter and threw it out his open window. Frankly, he wasn’t sure why he threw it out the window. Maybe this Rico guy was right. Maybe he did like cool things. Did cool even include throwing letters out of windows? Oh well.
He wasn’t too far off the ground, a mere six feet.
He leapt, hitting the dirt with a thud.
His breath turned to mist in the air, even though it was the tail end of August. Vecuria and the surrounding areas always had cold nights, so Parin wouldn’t be any different.
His hands were cold. His entire body was cold. He had no jacket, no source of warmth or food.
He sprinted away, hoping that running and activity would stop him from freezing.. There was a delivery to Parin today, he might be able to come along.
He ran for a few minutes before finding the cart.
“Can I come with you?” He panted. “I don’t have any money but…”
“You look like a nice kid,” he was cut off by the delivery man. “I’ll give ya a ride.”
Aiden silently thanked Vecuria for being so small and the citizens being so tightly knit and generous.
Aiden didn’t care that he had to ride in the back. He was going straight to Parin.
The rocking of the cart eventually put him to sleep.
The delivery man shook him awake. “We’re here, kid.”
“Hmm? Oh, thanks!”
Aiden climbed shakily out of the cart and left. He fought the urge to run, that would make him look suspicious. The man had already taken a huge risk letting a fourteen-year-old come to Parin with him, he didn't need to trouble the man by making it look like he’d been harbouring a fugitive.
He found Ocean View Lane after a while, and somebody grabbed his shoulder. “What’s your name, kiddo?”
The man immediately cringed at his own word selection and looked like he was about to throw himself into a corner and die.
Aiden stood at looked at the man standing before him. He knew his last name, somehow. “Yeah. How’d you know?” “You're the kid I’ve been looking for! You got my letter?” Aiden’s face lit up. “Great!” He let the man, Rico, he assumed, lead him. He trusted him at least a bit more than he normally would have if he’d just been a stranger, but it was still a little odd.
He followed him anyway.
Followed him to his destiny.
A dark-haired boy sat at a chair, the quiet squeaking of wheels and gentle tapping of his fingers on the desk were the only sounds in the entire circular room. It was maybe fifty feet big. The walls were made of peeling plaster that exposed the dirt underneath. The musty smell of wet dirt and fabric plagued the room. The boy smiled to himself. He remembered the day he’d first entered the room fondly. He looked up from the leather bound books in front of him and up at the walls, trying to remember how they looked when the plaster had only just begun peeling, the way his father had smiled. “We’ll have to get that fixed,” his father had said. The walls were never fixed, though. The peeling continued, worsened, until mounds of dirt were spilling out of the walls, and sections were held together with nothing but duct tape. A few dozen tables were scattered around the room. Some had chairs, some didn't. The materials and quality varied. Some chairs appeared to glow white, while others were a deep black. Some chairs were sturdy and held together well, while others were held together with the same duct tape that patched up holes and looked like they could collapse if you breathed too hard on them.
It had to be at least one in the morning. It wasn't as if the dark haired boy could tell, though. The room was illuminated by few lanterns, and it was always hard to tell what time it was. The sense of normalcy that came with the squeaking wheels and his tapping fingers was something the dark haired boy cherished. By seven, everyone would be awake, and just like that, his normalcy would be gone. He shuffled through the books until he found the one that bore his name; Rico Rico smiled at the writing. It wasn’t shabby for his ten-year-old self. He was eighteen now, though. He enjoyed writing in the book before him. His journal. He’d kept a journal before The Shift, and it felt familiar. He wrote a few things,
I am Rico.
I like coffee.
I hate tea.
His thoughts grew more and more personal, and as quickly as it had come, the normalcy slipped away.
I lead a group called The Ravens.
I’m too young for this.
My dad is dead.
He shouldn’t be.
The Shift happened.
The Shift had been an event twelve years prior. A group that called themselves Catago had seized control of the world. Twelve years ago, The Ravens came into existence. But Rico thought more of two years earlier. Two years ago, when his father had been killed. The Catago supposedly had lots of followers, but Rico knew better. He’d seen their blank eyes for himself. They weren’t following out of choice. The Ravens planned to fix their broken world. As the normalcy finished slipping away, Rico relaxed. He felt unhappy at losing it, but what was done was done. He shut his eyes and before he knew what he was thinking, his hand found its way to Ravens’ Rulebook. It wasn’t a book, just a single page pinned into a leather book. His father had never been big on having lots of rules, so the three rules kept it simple and to the point.
Rule One: Training can begin at ten, and becomes less of a focus at fourteen when missions begin. Training ends entirely at sixteen. If a member is mature and can handle the situation, they may go on missions before turning fourteen.
Rule Two: If the leader of The Ravens dies or steps down, their elder child will take their place. If the child has not completed their training, the second in command will become the leader.
Rule Three: You may not harm other members.
Rico had been holding off on something for months now. He didn’t want to change the rule, to do that would be an acceptance that times had reached their darkest. But he had to, and he did. The rule he was modifying was the first one. He took a deep breath and crossed out a few lines. He gazed at the new rule version, the beginnings of tears welling up in his eyes.
Rule One: Training can begin at ten and becomes less of a focus at fourteen when missions begin.. Training ends completely at sixteen. If a member is mature and can handle the situation, they may go on missions before turning fourteen. Missions begin when the member is needed to join one.
It had been such a tiny change, but it was such an emotional one. Times had reached their darkest. People were dying in the simplest of missions, which meant that Rico had to read the letter from his father. He remembered watching his father weaken, slip away from him, until the sixteen-year-old couldn't handle it anymore. He remembered leaving. He felt horribly sick when one of his kindly friends had brought him a letter. ‘He wanted you to read it if times become dark. ’His friend had tilted his head and told him, ‘good luck.’ It was hard for a person to formulate a decent response when someone's father had just died. For months after that fateful event two years ago, Rico had cried. He hadn’t done anything a leader needed to do. He’d had his father ripped away from him when he was far too young. He pried open the letter.
If you are reading this, I am likely dead, and times have reached their darkest. I was hoping that this moment would never come. But I assume it has, so please listen.
There is a boy. He is twelve years old right now and had his parents taken from him by the Catago. There is an odd prophecy which seems to detail him.
Seek him out at the New Horizons Orphanage in Vecuria.
Rico sighed and grabbed a new piece of paper, then began to write a letter. A letter that would be sent to a now fourteen-year-old boy. A letter that would change everything.