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Ep. V Intermission: Cassandra

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Wednesday 28th August

Finally.”  Leila Cross said as Cassie came into the newspaper office.  “I’ve been texting you forever.  Where’ve you been?”

“Lessons, Leila.”  Cassandra was not, given the revelations and hellish events of yesterday, in much of a mood to deal with Leila’s brand of acerbic enthusiasm today.  “This is a school, y’know?”

“Never mind that!”  Leila said with a smirk.  “Some journo for the Helena Post is here – wants to do a piece on the school and Shelly.  Barry is meeting with him now.”  ‘Barry’ was what Leila called Mr Klent – at least out of lessons.  “He’s going to ask you to show the dude around, answer questions, kind of a job-shadow thing.”

“Great.”  Cassandra sighed, leaning against one of the tables.  Leila looked at her askance.

“Hey, I’m jealous.  It’s a sweet deal – you get to cut class and get credit for it.”  She leaned conspiratorially closer.  “Plus, the guy is kinda hawt if you like older men with the DILF vibe.”

“DILF vibe?”  Cassandra blinked, then made a face as she made the connection.  “Gross, Leila.”

“If you say so.”  Leila smirked.  “Wait till you see him before passing judgement.”  As if on cue, the door to Mr Klent’s office opened, and the bespectacled teacher in charge of the school paper walked out – followed by the Man in Black.

“Ah, Cassandra!”  Mr Klent smiled at her, his manner one of a man delighted to be giving a gift.  “This is Mr Lucero, a friend from the Helena Post.  He’s here in town doing a piece on Shelly’s Labor Day celebrations, like the Carousel.  A human-interest piece, you called it, right Troy?”

“Quite right, indeed, Barry.”  ‘Troy Lucero’ drawled as he smiled at Cassandra, his eyes like dark green leaves glinting with good humor.  “And this is Cass Allen, whose articles you send me?  Pleasure to meet you, young lady.  I confess Barry has volunteered me your services as a local guide, at least for today.  I hope that’s okay?”  He offered Cassie a hand, stepping closer.

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Cassandra's eyes widened on seeing him, and her heartbeat shot up in speed a few notches. Then she felt a shift in herself. On some level this felt like a power play by this guy. If he'd wanted to talk to her, he could have done that. If he'd wanted to attack, same thing. But no, he was coming at her through 'the real world,' showing off how easily he mastered that. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

Fuck that noise though, she was done running and hiding. Every second in his presence was a new chance to learn about someone/thing that up until now hadn't made any sense. She wasn't trapped in this situation with him...he was trapped in here with her.

She stepped up, took his hand and shook it a titch more firmly than decor would normally have her do, looking him in the eye.

"Yeah, I'm Cassandra Allen,"  she said, yanking her name back from him. "And it's more than okay. I wouldn't have it any other way. Lets get started right now, in fact."

Cass looked at Barry and asked, "So what's the deal then, he's following me around school, or I'm taking him to the Carousel or what?"

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"I've arranged for you to be excused class for the afternoon."  Barry Klent was beaming.  "You're to show Troy around town, the community hub spots, the historical sites, and of course the Carousel which is currently getting prepped for Labor Day.  Show him what makes Shelly unique, and see if you can persuade some of the locals to give him some anecdotes or impressions about Labor Day in these parts."

Behind 'Troy' and Mr Klent, Leila pantomimed a blowjob with her tongue pushing at the inside of her cheek, then made a crude humping gesture.  Cassie did her best to ignore her, actually thankful that Troy Lucero was not, in fact, Troy Lucero but rather an extremely long-lived agent of change and upheaval - at least if you believed Annette Giles.  If it merely had been a big city reporter standing there, Leila's antics might have caused Cass to giggle, but the prickling sense of... not danger, exactly, but gravity of the situation made keeping a straight face all too easy.

"I'm certain Ms Allen will be the perfect set of eyes through which I can view Shelly."  Lucero / Tatterdemalion / Mr Crow / Whoever the hell he was said, and Cassie got that weird feeling she sometimes got when talking to Jason - that the words being spoken had layers of unspoken meaning underneath.  The Man In Black's dark green eyes gleamed with mirth as they met hers, as though this was all a private joke between the two of them at the expense of Mr Klent and Leila and everyone else.

"And of course, I'm sure Cassie has plenty of questions about writing for the Post."  Mr Klent put in, still smiling happily.  Lucero looked back at him, nodding before turning his attention back to the pretty blonde seeress.

"I'd be happy to answer any questions she has."  he said, his smile taking on a mischievous air.  "Perhaps on a quid pro quo basis?" he asked teasingly, then gestured towards the door.  "Whenever you want to get started, Miss Allen."

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Cassandra nodded. "Like I said, now's good."

She led him outside.

"That's a neat trick, convincing a teacher that sending a teenage girl around with you all day with no supervision is a good idea," Cass mentioned as they walked away from the building. She glanced over at him. "More magic powers?"

"What is magic, really?" The man of indeterminate identity said casually as he strolled alongside her. "Just being able to do something other people don't." He fixed Cassie with a penetrating, albeit good-humored glance. "Is the magic strange and terrible power not of this Earthly realm? Or is it just having a keen insight and way with people? What do you think, Cassandra?" She realised he'd dropped the down-home, folksy accent, now sounding sort of trans-Atlantic, possibly European... It was hard to tell.

Cassie shook her head, dismissing the head games. "Gonna go with the strange and terrible power not of this Earthly realm. That is literally the definition."

"One definition, surely.  If you want to be a writer, you've got to be precise with your words."  The Man in Black tsked, shaking his head.  "Magic can also be 'an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source'.  Seemingly.  Just because you can't see how the trick is done, doesn't mean it's done with Radiance."

"So did you use any kind of supernatural power or influence on Klent, or was it just your gift for gab?" Cass pressed.

For a moment he was silent as they made their way down Main Street, then when he spoke it was without a trace of his prior amusement.  "Live long enough, you meet a lot of the same people.  Men like Barry, with his kind heart , his desire to help people, his hobbies and his wish to some day meet a nice woman and not be alone anymore.  They're all just a teensy bit different, but they're similar enough that it's easy to fascinate and befriend them.  Especially if you like them."

"Which is not false, but also not what I asked." Cassandra looked at him. "Well that was my first question. What's yours then?" She'd already come to the conclusion that learning from him directly was going to be a chore...but she figured just knowing what his interest was would reveal at least some of his hand.

"An easy one, to start."  Mr Black said breezily as they walked together.  "You're the Eyes.  You found the Dark yet?"

"Now look who needs to pick his words," she teased with a smirk. "There's more than one way to take that. Do you mean the Dark as in the alternate world that's all gross and...contaminated? Or the Dark as in the powers that the creatures from there seem to be...part of? Or maybe the Tree at the center of it all?" She lets that hang, then says, "I've found where it's closest to us, I think. At least around here."

He smiled slightly at her teasing.  "They're all related.  But yes, the source.  The Tree... that's not a tree at all.  It's more of a... like those worms that attach to sea creatures, and grow and burrow into it, spreading a canker all around the infection point.  A giant parasite that found it's way through a wound in the world a long time back, growing bigger every cycle of death and violence.  That's what the Dark is, seeress - At least, as you know it."

"So what does that make you?" Cass asks. "You've got some interest in this, but you don't seem to be helping it...or trying to stop it."

"There's that tricky word again.  'Seem'."  The Man in Black looked up at the sky, at the blue and the end of summer warmth permeating the air.  "There's only so much I can do.  Directly anyway.  For me to do more would only make things worse.  I am bound within certain rules, child, rules that restrict my power.  But I have worked long and hard to ensure that there will be those who are going to step up who don't have my restrictions."  He glanced at her meaningfully.

"So that's implying that you're the reason that people around here have psychic powers so often?" She thinks about that, her eyes never leaving his face. "And these restrictions you have...they're because of the Dark?"

"This land is special, because of what is buried beneath it.  That wasn't my doing - I was elsewhere at the time it happened.  I just arranged things so people with the right genes met, fell in love - or at least lust, and the usual natural things happened.  Moving grains of sand, over many generations, to get you all here, where those genes would express in the way I hoped they would."  He stopped, turning and facing her as a breeze flicked at the ends of his black coat.  "There's a barrier around your world, Cassandra, put there a long time back, that's supposed to stop the development of Radiance amongst your kind.  Something happened, and here in this place the barrier is weak.  See, there's a source of Radiance, powerful Radiance, buried in this place you call Montana.  And perversely, it coming here was what caused the wound that the Dark seeped through.  So you have a place unlike anywhere else on your planet."  He paused, scrutinising her.  "You understand?"

"No," Cassie replied. "There's a whole lot of context missing there. But we'll need to be gone more than an afternoon to chase everything down at once." She looked back ahead, to where downtown Shelly was visible some ways off. "So what we call 'Shine' you're calling 'Radiance.' Something from outside our world sort of...hit us, I guess, and made a weak place in a barrier. And now the Dark is taking advantage of that." She chews on that for a second, then says, "So people here have Shine because of this first thing. You're not the source of that, you're just...taking advantage of it."
Now she looks back at him. "Why?"

"Like I told your cold-eyed friend... I aim to cause upset to the established order."  Mr Black grinned a trifle wolfishly.  "Call me a rebel with a cause."  His grin faded, his manner turning sober again.  "It's important you kill the Dark before you go to Site B.  You have to.  What is at Site B, if you are able to free it - and you are - will feed the Dark exponentially if it is still alive.  The shadow world it casts will become your actual world.  It will possess people to kill their loved ones, then finally to turn on each other.  So you and your friends have to find the Dark, defeat the host of the spirit that serves it, and smash the skull.  That's the only way to cut the parasite off from what it needs to survive.  It will shrivel and die... Probably."

"Why can't it just feed off the Radiance in this thing?" she asks. "It's still outside the barrier, right?" In her head she was gnawing at another question entirely. The man's motivations. Cass didn't think he was lying, but he was definitely dancing around something significant. He wanted to be rid of the Dark, but was being forced to act very circumspectly. Why? He wanted to upset the established order. Why? She felt like the answers to those questions were the same.

"Or, you said 'free' it. So...it's sort of embedded?"

"Attagirl."  Mr Black nodded approvingly.  "It's not able to get at the source directly, and has to content itself with scraps of Shine it can glean only a few at a time."

"Something like this doesn't seem like it's an accident. You're saying the barrier's to keep us from getting Shine, but maybe it's to keep things like the Dark out. Which means, maybe this thing was trying to get somewhere safe. Is it...alive? Is it intelligent?"

"Yes."  He said simply.  "But it's not responsible for the barrier.  In fact, the barrier is what caused the accident that crashed it here anyway.  When you get there, and free it, you'll find out the whole story.  It's not my story to tell, you see.  The barrier is definitely there to stop humanity evolving Shine, though.  On that, I swear.  There's folks who don't want that to happen."

"Folks who probably aren't too happy with this thing being here," Cassandra observes. "Or with what you're doing."

"Probably!"  Mr Black answered with a merry air.  "They're going to be downright pissed when you unravel the mystery of Site B."

"Is that a good idea? Pissing off folks that surround an entire universe with an anti-Shine barrier?"

"Psh. Only your world."  He flapped a hand dismissively.  "And trust me, they'll be more scared than mad.  They'd love to get their hands on the prize that's buried in them thar hills - it's way beyond what they've got on their best day.  You'll see."
"And besides... Site B is where you have to go anyway, isn't it?"  he added with a sly smile.

"It's on the list," Cassandra says casually. The Man In Black was the one who'd manipulated her into finding that photograph of her dad, knowing where it would eventually send her. He knew damn well. "So basically, this tour...this is you protecting your investment. Making sure we don't screw it all up. So what can you tell us about the Dark itself then? How do we beat it?"

"You're the Eyes."  he replied enigmatically.  "You don't need me to tell you anything, Seeress."

"Yeah, but no," she parried. "Because if that was true, you wouldn't need to be doing this. You've never stepped forward before, so something's changed."

"Yes.  It has.  The spirit that serves the Tree is frantic.  He tried to get you at the hospital and failed.  He's going to do something else crazy and desperate soon - it's like he's half a terrified traumatised kid called Cody and half an ancient being of corrupted power mad with rage.  You all have a lot on your plate, so I'm stepping up and helping you focus, like a coach - but I won't play the game for you."  He motioned to her.  "You're the Eyes.  I've given you hints and even some straightforward instructions.  If you want more, you have the power to find it out."

Cassandra winced. So that's what happened to Cody. "Is that one of your restrictions?" she asked, "You can give some help, but only some? Is it because of these other 'folks?' or something else?"

He paused for a beat, then said with a perfectly straight face "Yes."

"Right." She looks around then, gestures with a sweep of her arm. "Behold downtown Shelly, in all its scenic grandeur. Anything else you can tell me?"

"I like ice cream."  he said as he glanced around, spotting Bunnees in the near-distance.  "I'm going to have some ice cream.  I think I'm all good for guidance right now, thanks.  You?  Well, you've got the afternoon off.  So have fun, get stoned, have casual sex, do a little scrying...  Whatever you crazy kids get up to these days when you play hooky."  He sauntered in the direction of the diner, waving a hand in farewell.  "You're welcome."

"Hey," Cassandra called after him. "What are you going to do once we get rid of the Dark and free this 'other thing?'"

He turned, walking backwards as he flashed a grin at her that made him seem boyish.  "Sleep." he called back, before turning and continuing on his way.

"Shit." Cassandra hurriedly grabbed her phone out of her pocket and held it up to snap a shot of 'Troy' walking off. Even zoomed in, it wasn't a great shot. She cursed under her breath and started dialing. The League of Extraordinary Teens needed to have a meeting.

But first, she had some 'seering' to do.

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It was later that afternoon, in her room at home with the scents of dinner cooking pressing around her door that Cassandra laid down on her bed and stared up at the ceiling. For a moment she just felt stupid. Even if the wall that the bulk of her powers were hidden behind had doors in it now, it still took a moment to really open them up. She could feel it though...

Then she could see it. Cassie's bedroom ceiling seemed to darken slightly in hue, and the shadows of clouds scudded over it. A heartbeat later it was transparent, like glass. She could see the twilight sky through it, the blazing orange sunset and the purple clouds...and then Shelly itself spreading out under her as the house faded away and Cassandra soared out and away. As tempting as it was to just fly ghostlike where she pleased, the guiding image of the Old Town Hall reeled her in.

Here the gloom of the oncoming night fell heavy, even though the sun wasn't quite down yet. Some trick of the long shadows cast the entire building under a pall. It was paint-peeled and ramshackle...the kind of building that most cities would either tear down as an eyesore, or label a 'Heritage Site' and renovate into a museum or something. For some reason Shelly had never done either. Now, through her sight beyond sight, Cassandra knew why.

Something akin to the grimy, fetid 'smog' that had erupted from the Medical Center was in the air around the Old Town Hall, but more subtle in its manifestation. Not quite in the world, but so close that it repulsed even the minuscule Shine that most living things had. People unconsciously avoided it. Even birds and animals found other places to haunt. Disembodied as she was, Cass could still feel it around her like the smoke from a greasefire. Thin and cloying and bitter. And getting thicker as she slowed and 'landed' in front of it. The...aura, or field or whatever it was...it was like a constant humming in her ears, a smell of burning tires, a faint miasma that softened the sharpness of even her psychic senses.

Invisibly she cased the place like a seasoned thief. There were stories in the walls...flashes of transients breaking in or sneaking in and vanishing, until the city council couldn't ignore it anymore, and commissioned waves of workers to finally seal the place up tightly. The work crews had trouble keeping workers, she felt echoing...they tended either to work a shift and not come back, or start falling ill if they worked too often. In the end though, it was done. The main door and the two fire escape doors padlocked and secured. The windows boarded. Totally secure.

Except...not.

As Cassandra circled the town hall building, even with the fogging of the 'darkness,' she heard something. A breeze picked up, and there was a faint scrape of wood. She wheeled about on the sound and followed it to one of the windows. Boarded, yes, but the nails on the bottom edge had either been pulled out, or perhaps corroded away. The bottom edge of the boards were now just dangling in front of the window. A way in, for someone of sufficient pluck and not too-impressive a physique.

She pressed in then. The inside of the town hall was perfectly in keeping with the outside. Barren and decrepit. Littered with thick cobwebs and accumulations of dust that were thick enough to have shallow drifts. Of the paint virtually nothing was left but flakes, and the wallpaper was little more than a substrate for exotic blooms of mold and water damage. The second floor and tiny attic were no different...but Cassandra sensed the beating heart of the place long before she visited it. The hideous presence that permeated the building and area around it got thicker still the lower down she was. It was no surprise when she found the stairs to a cellar tucked behind a door near the pantry.

There was no light down there. Fortunately whatever her remote viewing used to 'see,' it wasn't light...she could still detect what was down there. The strength of the interference was strong enough it took effort to cut through, the mental equivalent of shielding her eyes from noxious fumes with a hand. She passed the furnace room first, where an ancient cast iron boiler sat half off it's legs and canted at an angle, long dead and cold. Turning a corner, she spotted, finally, the 'nest.'

Tiny figures dangled from the ceiling on wire or bits of string and twine, almost like dolls at first glance. A closer look revealed fur coats, matted with blood. The ones that could be recognized were cats, small dogs, possums...the small game of the city, killed and strung up off the ground to keep scavengers from getting to them. Along one of the longer walls was a drawing made with what looked like charcoal...a bizarre, towering stick figure with something emerging from each side of its head...something like antlers, or tree branches perhaps. The dust on the floor was scuffed here, partly cleared there, and there were spatters of dark, dry fluid scattered about, most of it under the forest of carcasses that hung from above.

The interference in the room was palpable, pressing against her from all sides. It reminded her of the time she'd decided, as a little girl, to see how deep she could swim while at the lake. She'd always loved swimming down to the bottom of a swimming pool, where few people hung out and it was rather peaceful and calm for the few seconds she could stay. But the lake was deeper, and colder and darker, and past a certain point she'd felt the water change...start to gain a terrible weight that compressed every bit of her. Squeezing into her nose and ears and tightening around her arms and legs and pushing at her belly as if trying to make her expel that precious air she had stored. She was drowning in the Dark here, even though she was safe in bed. The memory of that panic chased her up and out...

...and she opened her eyes in her room, sucking in a desperate gasp of air, as if she'd been choking. For a minute she just lay there, breathing hard, lifting both hands to her neck and just holding herself.

Then Cassandra reached for her phone.

They needed to know what she'd seen. A special meeting was in order.

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Intermission wrapped:  + 3XP.  Good writing, nice characterisation, excellent collaborative effort and of course, tons and tons of Pluck.

 

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