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Cassandra Allen

Wascally Wabbits [Ep. V Side Fic]

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Posted (edited)

Saturday, August 31. Evening.

Cassandra rode over to the intersection across from the Old Town Hall at the appointed hour...the one she and Autumn had agreed to over a flurry of texts that was...on her bike wearing suicidally dark clothes. This mission called for stealth. They had to be sneaky.

Glancing around she didn't spot Autumn, and with another look at her watch she realized why. The bike ride from her house to here was apparently shorter than she'd estimated. That, or she'd been riding pretty fast without realizing it. That meant Cassie had a few minutes to herself. It felt oddly uncomfortable. It felt like she was wasting time, like any minutes spent not making tangible progress towards the goal was a failure. Why?

Well, because there was a timer, and not a very long one. And the Man in Black had made it pretty clear there was cause for haste.

...and that led her back to the Man himself. No sooner than she'd summoned up his image in her head than pieces socked together in her head, and her eyes widened.

Holy shit. No way.

It fit though. It did. It was pure speculation on her part, and the only evidence was circumstantial at best. But...it fit.

It explained at a stroke all her questions. Why had he come here? Why was he so invested in their success? What did he hope to gain from their efforts?

She looked around, half-hoping to spot that too-tall, lanky figure ambling along down the street under the nearby streetlamp. There was nothing though.

Then, somehow, Cass heard the distant metal rattle of spokes and gears and sat up straighter to twist around and look. A lone bicycle rider was approaching, flitting between the lengthening shadows of dusk. They didn't have much daylight left, but that was good right? Sneaky? Even if it would magnify the creep factor as well.

Cassandra waved at Autumn as she rode over towards her and as she came up alongside her said, "Hey! Okay do you have everything you need? I brought some extra stuff just in case."

 

Edited by Vivi OOC
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It had been a couple of hours since the low rumble of the Charger's engine faded into the distance, but the parting words of the green-eyed devil who'd tamed that growling beast still rang in Autumn's ears: "Care over curiosity." For all his stoicism and evenness of temperament, there was a note of something she thought she recognized as concern in Jason's voice as they'd said their goodbyes on the front porch. Keeping that in mind, she'd considered carefully what to wear, what to carry- although she'd never broken into a building before, a little Googling suggested that most "urban explorer" kits consisted mostly of common-sense gear anyway. Well, common-sense for someone who went on solo hikes into the Montana woods for fun, at least. 

She’d dressed for practicality in dark green weatherproof, rip-stop climbing pants and belt, with a long-sleeved button-down shirt over the requisite tee, the ever-present hoodie, and hiking boots, her hair French-braided and covered with a navy bandana; Marissa would have been apoplectic at the mere sight. Everything else fit into a backpack, and the heavy pry bar would just get strapped to the frame of her bike once she got outside.

The only issue she really agonized over was whether or not to bring the bracelets her grandfather had been keeping... but without knowing how they worked, or whether they’d cause a reaction like the one Cassie’d had when she came in contact with Devin’s, it was hard to justify the risk- even if they might be useful. 

“Mom, I’m going out,” she called as she jogged lightly down the stairs, shouldering the small, lightweight pack after reviewing its contents one last time. 

 

“Out?” Dana inquired, her head appearing over the back of the couch where she and the four other residents of the Keane household were relaxing after the unexpected events of the evening. 

 

“Yep! Remember, I said earlier I was going to hang out with Cassie Allen for a little while?”

 

“Don’t you think one adventure in a day is enough?” the elder redhead retorted dryly, reflecting on her first meeting with the intense, inscrutable young man who’d just left earlier. Disquieting as the pretty vet found him, the fact that his presence seemed to have put her daughter in high spirits was undeniable. 

 

“Nope!” came the breezy reply as Autumn swept into the living room and gave her mother a cheerful kiss. “And don’t worry. Cass is cool. She’s on the newspaper, good student, wants to be a journalist. We have Chem together, with Jase,” she added by way of explanation. “She’s one of the people I want to invite up to the camp site later, if everything works out. Actually,” she paused for a moment, considering. They had planned to go to the Rez, hadn’t they? “We’re getting together with a couple of the others from school tomorrow morning, so I can just have them meet up here and introduce you, if you want?”

 

“Sure,” Dana agreed with a faint smile, hazel eyes sparkling. It was hard to say no to that face, so open and earnest and obviously excited, as much as her protective maternal instinct might urge her to do so, particularly after that business at school, and the medical center. “As long as this introduction doesn’t turn out the same way the last one did.”

 

“Hey,” Autumn protested, her cheeks growing warm under her mother’s bemused scrutiny. “It’s current year. Besides,” she added impishly, her own blue eyes warming with mischief, “even if it did, there’s no chance this one could possibly give you grandkids.” 

 

“Oh, for- Autumn Rae!” the woman too young to be a grandmother spluttered, her attempt to sound indignant failing miserably in the face of her daughter’s teasing. The adventurous teen just grinned in response, her nose crinkling slightly as Dana sighed in mock resignation, trying not to laugh as she shook her head. “Fine. Go on, then, and don’t be out too late.”

 

“I won’t,” the younger Keane reassured her, pressing another quick kiss to her mother’s forehead and looping an arm around her shoulders in a brief squeeze as she turned to go.

 

 “...And keep your phone turned on!” Her mother’s voice followed her out of the room.

 

“I will,” Autumn called from the hallway, the laughter evident in her voice even across the house..

 

 “And be careful, and remember I love you!” came the inevitable reminder, followed by the familiar response. 

 

“I know, I love you too!” 

 

Within just a few minutes of the door closing behind her, she was on her way down the narrow road that wound between acres of shadowy pines dotted with hidden glades. The long, solitary ride to the Old Town Hall was quiet and uneventful as the sun sank inexorably toward the horizon, wooded hills giving way to the seemingly endless miles of flat, unremarkable farmland. It was, more or less, the same trip Autumn made almost every morning, though typically with a greater sense of urgency after having overslept. This time, there was no rush, and by the time she got to Shelly proper she could just begin to feel the muscles of her calves and thighs growing warm. Despite the deepening twilight and the ominous nature of the task before the pair of intrepid explorers, it was a clear, beautiful late summer evening. Her spirits buoyed by the prospect of being able to contribute to the group’s efforts and help unravel some of the mysteries surrounding them, the redhead drew in a deep lungful of clean air and pedalled a little faster.

 

The thought that a certain someone would be going with them in the morning was totally, absolutely not lingering in the back of her mind, keeping her cheeks warm despite the rush of wind past her face. Nope. Not even a little.

 

Catching sight of a dark-clad figure near the next intersection, just outside the circle of light cast by the street lamp, Autumn lifted a hand in greeting as Cass waved her over. “Hey,” she replied with an enthusiastic smile, putting one foot down to stop herself. “I think I’m good. I looked up a couple of websites on urban exploration, and the only things I didn’t bother with, apart from all the camera stuff, were a respirator and coveralls. Light, snacks, water, first aid, and tools… Um, pepper spray, too, just in case someone’s living in there. I’m not really sure what to expect, to be honest, so I tried to pack light in case we need to get out in a hurry.” Nudging the kickstand down, she knelt next to her bike and unstrapped the velcro bindings keeping a sturdy-looking two-foot wrecking bar tight against the frame. “This, um, wasn’t on any of the lists,” the perpetual Girl Scout admitted a little sheepishly. “I just didn’t know how locked-down the building would be.”

 

She glanced across at the silent, derelict building, suppressing a shiver. "Do you think we should hide our bikes somewhere? I haven't really done anything like this before."

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"Most of the ways in are boarded up, but there's a window around back," Cassandra said in a hushed tone. She was frankly rather impressed with Autumn's array of gear. She really was a Girl Scout, it seemed like. "Lets bring the bikes up to the side of the buildings, over by those bushes. We can just lean them there. Shouldn't have to worry about anyone stealing them from here."

She dug out her own flashlight, which had been modified with one of those dashboard mobile phone holders. It made the tool a little ungainly, but it let her attach her phone to the flashlight with the camera facing forward so she didn't need both hands. Despite this Cassie said, "Lets not use the lights at least until we're inside. I don't know if he's home. I don't think he is...but he could have come back since I did my woo-woo thing."

Bikes left nestled in an overgrown bush, Cassandra then led Autumn around the Old Town Hall building, navigating the unkempt grounds like someone who'd been there before, making a beeline for the window she'd discovered where the boards were just stuck loosely onto it, not preventing it from being opened.

"Okay. I'll hold the window open for you, and you hold the pepper spray or that wrench thingy as you go through...just in case there's trouble. I'll be like three seconds behind you."

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Posted (edited)

Sure enough, the window was there, the board across the lower half hanging loosely on it's bent and rusty nails.  Autumn was pretty confident she could just take the prybar and take the whole damn board off with one good pull... but that would leave too-visible a sign that they had been here.  Cassie, careful of stray nails, pulled the loose edge of the board aside, allowing her redheaded companion to slide agilely through the gap, wrecking bar in hand.  Autumn's hiking boots hit the floor inside lightly and she took a pace into the room, allowing Cass to enter behind her as her own eyes adapted to the dank gloom within.  The sight that met her eyes was not reassuring.  This had likely been an office once, but the Old Town Hall had been shut down before even telephones were commonplace.  Warped floorboards creaked underfoot, the wallpaper was rotted and hanging off in patches, giving the place a leprous look, and the paintwork - what there was of it - was similarly mold-covered and patchy.

Worse, though, was the feeling of wrongness about the place.  That oily, slick, sickly feeling she had felt when in the burned woods of the Other Side and earlier this week, when the monsters had come hunting in the Marias Medical Center was here, like a spiritual(?) tar stain on the cloth of reality.  Perhaps most shocking is that, this time, the sensation was not surprising.  It still sucked, to be sure, but the wrenching shock of the laws of nature being twisted, whilst still unsettling, did not leave her as rattled as last time.  There was a soft grunt and shuffle from Cassandra as she slid through the window, straightened and looked around, and Autumn could see on her friend's face that the 'Eyes' felt the sensation too.  The pair looked at each other and, barely perceptibly, nodded, each taking a deep breath and steeling their resolve.

To Cassie's senses, the place had a 'they just stepped out' feeling.  The Old Town Hall was not a large building.  A hallway and four rooms on the ground floor, and a large open office space above.  And, of course, the basement.  The place felt lived-in, despite it's derelict and rotting facade.  Not-Quite-Cody wasn't home right now... she thought so, anyway.  She was pretty sure.

Almost.  Like, ninety-  eighty-  Uh, seventy percent sure.

Edited by GDP_ST
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No backing out now.

Not that she would have- probably not even that she could have, if she'd wanted to. Grimacing slightly at the musty smell of decaying wood and creeping mold, Autumn exhaled quietly and unclipped the sturdy little tactical flashlight from her belt. Even in broad daylight, there was no way to tell what color it had originally been painted, so scuffed and abraded was the aluminum;  it had seen its share of adventures, and the redhead felt a little better just feeling the metal grow warm in her palm. With her thumb on the button, she pointed it downward, clicking it quickly on and off to make sure- one last time- that it was working before they set out. Directed at the floorboards, the bright strobe of the blue-white beam wasn't quite blinding, but it was enough to make her wince.

Maybe next time I shouldn't wait until my eyes are adjusted to the dark. ...If, y'know, there is a next time. There were, after all, plenty of reasons there might not be.

Rather than focus on any of them, however, Autumn blinked rapidly to clear her vision and gave herself a quick final check-over as Cassie did the same. Multi-tool. Camp knife. Crowbar. Pepper spray. Flashlight. Everything she might need quickly was either in hand already, or near to it, and the rest was bundled up in her backpack and out of the way. Maybe none of it would be necessary.  Hopefully none of it would be necessary, she reminded herself, but it was always better to have and not need, than need and not have. There could be very mundane, practical problems quite apart from those of Not-Cody and whatever hellish things might be hanging out in his creepy AF bachelor pad- the websites she'd looked at for UrbEx resources put wild animals, vagrants, and structural damage at the top of the list of hazards. She guessed those people had probably never spent time in Shelly, or they might have prioritized a little differently.

"Okay," she murmured, her voice barely audible in her own ears over the steady, rapid drum of her heartbeat. "On the up-side, I don't think we have a lot of ground to cover, and it should be pretty hard to get lost in here. We just need to do a quick check, see what's up, and move on. I know you said you were looking through to wherever Cody was, but do you remember, or did you see, where it connected to our side?" Even in the shadowy interior of the building, Cassandra could just make out the way her freckled companion angled toward the sagging doorframe, all her attention directed toward the darker rectangle in the decaying walls. "I was thinking we're gonna want to be as thorough as we can, so nobody's blind-sided when we come back here." There was a brief pause, after which the redhead added, her thumb idly rubbing the button on the end of her flashlight, "Hopefully."

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Cassandra nodded and whispered back, "The basement's where his...lair is, I guess. But yeah, lets take a look around before we head down there. When I was doing the vision quest thing, I didn't stop and look for details. But...well...I don't feel like Cody's here, but he could come back any time so lets not take too much time doing it."

She started her phone camera recording, and swing her flashlight around a bit, checking to see how it was dealing with the low light. Not great...the 'image' was grainy at best, and most of the time was just not useful. When Cass flicked the flashlight on though, it worked fine...the beam landing nearly right on the center of the camera's field of view. It taken her forever to get that alignment right.

The flashlight winked out again, but she left the recording running for audio.

"Okay, room by room, we stick together. Lets start with this one." She motioned towards the room closest to their point of entry and moved towards its doorframe...testing each step before putting weight on it to try to minimize squeaking.

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Meanwhile

"How long is it for?"  Sophia asked plaintively, with an understandable pout of her lower lip.  After all, she had just gotten Charlie to be her boyfriend, and now he was going away.

"Eight weeks."  Charlie replied, his own feelings mixed on the matter.  On the one hand, the exclusive theater and performing arts workshop camp that his father had sprung on him was a massive stepping stone for someone who wanted to make a career on the stage.  It would look brilliant on his resume when time came to pick the right stage school post-graduation.  On the other hand, he was leaving his girlfriend... and his friends to face unknowable peril and exciting adventures without him.  "I go after Homecoming, and will be back before Thanksgiving, so it's not so bad."  he said as much to himself as her.  After all, he'd get to take Sophia to Homecoming - and he wouldn't be abandoning the team when they needed him most, taking down Cody and the Dark.  After all, that had to happen before Homecoming, according to Cassie's vision.  It was odd for Charlie to think of himself as the tank - though his Dwarven cleric in Sean's game was pretty resilient, he wasn't the frontline lynchpin of the group.  But now real life had bestowed powers on Charlie that made him a literal combat monster - Devin's jokes about him being Zoidberg aside.  That was an important role to play, and though he was as scared as any of the Fellowship - apart from Jase, he mentally appended - he was eager to be there for his friends.

"I guess it's not so bad."  Sophia grumped, snuggling up against him.  The TV loaned it's flicker to the soft warm illumination of the lamps in the lounge, and the busty girl smiled, a naughty little smile, as she realised something.  "Say, your mom is gone till Monday, right?"

"Yeah."  Charlie's attention was torn between the snuggling and the comedy special on the TV, so he was momentarily surprised as he felt nimble fingers tugging at his fly zipper.  "Uh, something on your mind?" he asked with a grin starting on his lips.  Sophia gave a soft, breathy giggle and leaned in, kissing him soundly.

"Yeah.  Making sure I'm on your mind when all those theater hoes start trying too hard."  she murmured, kissing him again as she felt him stirring under her questing fingers.  "Call it safeguarding my investment."  she quipped as she lowered her head to his lap.

"Investment?"  Charlie asked, a laugh in his voice which swiftly faded as he felt her warm breath on his skin...

 

Team Pluck

The search of the ground floor had yielded nothing except more creeping unease.  The sibilance of whispers seemed to be caught and echoed a little too readily by the derelict building , so the intrepid duo conversed in low murmurs.  The rooms were all bare, not even old desks or furniture yielding up to the perfunctory search.  The walls were the same patchy leprousness throughout, though here and there like ancient cave paintings were stick-figure drawings depicting disturbing images - at least, they were disturbing to Cassie and Autumn.  Apparently no more than childish scrawls, in a variety of pigments, they were all variations on a single theme:

A cluster of small stick figures, under...

A larger stick figure with antlers growing from his head, standing before...

A large, dark tree.

In some of the drawings, the antlered figure seemed to be chasing the smaller figures.  In others, the smaller ones seemed to be worshipping him.  And in all the depictions of the tree, it was shown the same way: bare of branch, black, twisted, gnarled.

Cassie realised that the drawings were all of varying ages, some more faded than others, as if drawn in different decades.  She pointed this out to Autumn, who swallowed and nodded.

"How old did you say this place was?" she asked.  Cassie took a quick snapshot of one of the wall paintings before answering.

"It was built in 1923.  Before that, there was an old railway shed on this site.  The town hall was supposed to put Shelly on the map, but like Jase pointed out in his mini-lecture, for some reason Shelly never boomed.  Almost like someone didn't want it to."

Autumn nodded, thinking of the possible suspects, all with their own reasons for keeping Shelly low-key.  Heck, even her own family and the local Blackfeet might have preferred it that way.  There were so many reasons to keep the world away from Shelly - but now with the Aeon Society on one hand and the mysterious Crossroads on the other, parts of the world had realised Shelly was unusual, which loaned an urgency to everything even without the imminent threat of a crazy possessed boy doing something horrible before Homecoming.

A tour of the top floor yielded more of the same, the single-room loft office containing only cobwebs, mouse turds and, on the east wall, a larger version of the stick-figure paintings.  This one had been made in a rusty brown pigment, and it wasn't until Cassie stepped closer that she realised that the source of the 'paint' was lying in a heap at the bottom of the wall.

Cats.  Several of them, dead as doornails with flies crawling on the dusty fur of their limp little bodies.  They had been slashed open and the blood used as... as...

Holy fucking shit, both teens thought with an almost identical urge to throw up rising in their stomachs.

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She'd heard the occasional complaint about someone's pet going missing lately, mostly from her mom, but hawks, coyotes, wolves, inattentive drivers- there were all kinds of perils to be blamed for Mittens not coming home. Now, though? Now they knew the real reason, for all that she wished they didn't.

"Ohgod," Autumn managed hoarsely, choking back the bile she could taste at the back of her throat. The nausea was as much a response to the sight itself, to the smell of the small flyblown corpses now that they were close enough, as to the pointless savagery of the cats' deaths and the haphazard disposal of their bodies. Even when hunting, the goal was supposed to be to make the kill as quick and painless as possible, to treat the animal with respect because it was going to feed you and keep you alive. This was... It was as wrong, in its way, as the oil-slick feeling of the air on her skin, or the burnt-sugar smell of those other woods. She shook her head as the reality of what Cass had told them about Not-Cody finally began to sink in. The instant she'd processed how brutally they'd been killed and casually disposed of, another, more gut-wrenching thought occurred to the horrified redhead: what if they were still-

No. Nuh-uh. Absolutely fucking not, Autumn Keane. Not right now, because if you don't move your ass, you might find out for sure. Worry about it when you get what you need and both of you get the fuck out of here.

It was hard to argue the logic.

Grimacing at both the scene and the dull ache in the pit of her stomach, the redhead exhaled slowly and swallowed. Hard. They hadn't even gotten to the basement yet, and she wondered, not for the first time that day, what she was even doing.

"Get a picture, and let's, um. Let's go." Turning back toward the door they'd come through, Autumn lingered just inside the room, waiting and listening to the quiet creaks of the near-century-old building. "Do you..." She hesitated, her voice barely more than a whisper. "Do you think Cody did this?"

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Cassandra nodded as she solemnly lifted her flashlight-phone and snapped a shot...first of the wall marking, then of the victims used to make it.

"Definitely," she whispered. "There's more in the basement. Animals strung up. I didn't know why before, but...yeah, collecting blood could be one reason. Also I think it may be what he's eating?" Cass winced at that. "This is why I wanted to come back though. Remote viewing is kind of...wispy...it's not like being here."

She shook her head and looked away, feeling her stomach move uneasily. Even prepared as she was for what they'd find, there was something profoundly more disturbing actually seeing it. It was the smell, maybe...or the feel of the old, dusty dry air on her arms. Standing here she could imagine what it must have been like when Cody had been here, killing this creature. Holding it. Cutting it. Letting blood just...pour out.

"Damnit," she muttered, then reprimanded her brain privately. Not the time!

"Okay...I think we've seen enough up here. Just the basement left. It's..." Cassandra gave Autumn an apologetic look. "...it's worse than this. A lot worse. Just so you know."

Then she headed back down to the dry, worryingly bendy stairs to get to the ground floor...and from there, to the basement stairs. Where they would be both very grateful, and very unhappy, that they had flashlights.

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Team Pluck

The basement door was ajar, a fact that gave both fearless, plucky explorers pause, during which they glanced at one another as if to remind themselves that yes, they had company and yes, they were indeed as plucky as they had initially believed.  Both gripped their flashlights tightly, and Autumn's grip on the prybar was white-knuckled as she reached out and gently prodded the door further open, ready to thwack anything that popped out of the gloom at them.  The door swung open in relative silence, only a whispering groan from the hinges betraying that it had been moved, and both girls tensed for a long moment.  Cassie stepped forward then, playing her flashlight down the stairs, half-expecting to see some skeletal, clawed version of Cody come lunging up at her with the light shining red in his feral eyes...  But nothing was there.  Just bare stone steps and the floor at the base of them.  She glanced back at Autumn with a smile she didn't feel.

"Imagine if Devin suddenly popped out of nowhere right now." she said with a smirk.  "I think I'd shriek loud enough to break glass."

"Don't even joke."  Autumn felt the faintest of urges to giggle, nervous tension warring with the grimness of the place.  She waggled the prybar.  "He can be an asshat, but I don't actually want to brain him with this thing."

"Yeah."  Cassie looked back down the stone steps and took a deep breath.  "Okay.  Let's do this."

"Let me go first. "  Autumn firmly suggested as she stepped up.  "Anyone or thing grabs me, I've got this plus my Shine to fight with."  For a moment Cassie wanted to argue, but reluctantly conceded the point and nodded, then nodded again as Autumn handed her the pepper spray.  Thus armed, the two of them started down a few paces apart...

 

Meanwhile

He stood in the shadows and watched the two of them together, eyes burning with conflicting hungers as the conjoined minds of Cody Sikes and the Horned Man took in the sight of Charlie and Sophia coupling on the TV room couch.  Cody was barely aware he was Cody anymore.  Every day, it seemed, he was less Cody and more Araun, something that he realised dimly in some parts of his mind that were still his own was not what he had bargained for when he had struck this deal.  Araun had promised him accolades, and girls, and revenge on those who thought themselves better than him, and most of all he had been promised power.  Power to achieve his dreams.  First Homecoming King, then star player for the team, then college on a scholarship ride...

But he didn't dream of those things anymore, did he?  Now when he tried to think of what he wanted, he saw blood flowing black in the moonlight, he heard screams and felt soft flesh rending under his claws.  He dreamed of chasing girls as prey, girls he'd once dreamed of fucking, only now sex wasn't the only thing he wanted from them.  He wondered if that was why he'd wanted so badly to hurt Coraline, with her long legs and pretty smile.  Had he always been Araun's creature?

No, the thought came back to him.  No, he was his own person when he'd had those urges.  All Araun did was strip away the pretentious morality that told him such things were bad.  The strong did as they pleased, the weak suffered what they must.  Once, Cody had been weak and afraid.  Now, he wasn't afraid of anything, was he?

No, Cody decided as he listened to Sophia's gasping cries and Charlie's soft climactic grunts, watching the sweat bead on their skins as they screwed like rabbits.  He wasn't afraid of anything anymore.  It was time for them to be afraid.  

And then, to be dead.

 

Team Pluck

The cellar was much as Cassandra's vision had described it.  A large, gloomy, dank space, unfurnished but for an old oil furnace at one end, long gone to rust.  Well, almost unfurnished.  As Cassie had hinted, there were dead animals hanging from the low ceiling, strung up with nails and wire or twine.   Cats... possums... small dogs... all killed and then strung up like gross, perverse hunting trophies.  The smell of old death and decay was noticeable here, but not quite overpowering.

"Shit."  Autumn muttered.  "Oh, shit."

"Yeah."  Cassie replied, her mood somber as she played her torch over the walls and floor.  Scrawled in black charcoal or some similar substance on one wall, just as her vision had shown, was a weird cave-painting stick figure of the large man with antlers branching from his skull.  The floor bore scuffs, footprints in the dust and, most disturbingly, bloody drag-marks as though something had been dragged across the floor.  Perhaps most eerily, the drag marks disappeared at the wall with the antlered man drawn on it, with no sign that of going anywhere else.

"Look."  Autumn said in a low voice.  Cassie followed the beam of her flashlight and saw a small shoe.  A child's sneaker, laying in one corner, a patina of dust on the fluorescent strips on it's sides.

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"Fuck." The thought and the its vocalization were simultaneous, the latter being more quietly intense- an anguished exhalation at the sight of the abandoned shoe and the recognition of what it signified. "Jesus fucking..." The strained whisper trailed off into silence. As the bright beam of her flashlight wavered, the wide-eyed redhead stepped somnolently forward, gaze fixed on the reflective yellow-green-silver stripes as they flashed bright in the darkness. Blazed like a beacon.

Like a warning.

The blue-white circle of light shrank as Autumn got closer, knelt down beside the little shoe that looked so painfully out of place down here. She didn't want to look. Didn't want to see it. Didn't want to think about it. Something in her brain rebelled against every movement, an instinctual urge for self-preservation that extended not only to her physical well-being, but the retention of her sanity as well, as if the unconscious part of her was somehow aware that this single, mundane object was more dangerous to her peace of mind than all the nightmare beasts and inter-dimensional horrors she'd experienced thus far. That any of them had experienced thus far. And yet...

Before she realized it, her hand was outstretched, trembling fingertips brushing against the dingy white faux-leather. The thin, superficial layer of dust smudged easily, and the mold prevalent throughout the building had only just begun to creep over its surface; it couldn't have been here more than a couple of months, at most. Even as the pragmatic portion of her brain processed that, synthesizing this new information with what had -before her involvement with all of this insanity- seemed sad, if fairly ordinary news at the time, a soft, despairing whimper clawed past the lump in Autumn's throat as the child-sized shoe rolled toward her.

The rust-brown smudges, the dark flecks on the gently-worn interior fabric and embedded in the rough texture of the tiny velcro closures, were neither mold nor dirt.

Oh god. Ohgod, ohgodohfuckfuckfuck

Skittering gracelessly backward and falling into an awkward seated position on the dirty floor, Autumn clamped a hand over her mouth as hot tears streamed down suddenly ashen cheeks. The animals were bad enough, but this... Dimly aware that it was just a child's shoe, that there was no broken little body left behind, no garish resolution to the implication of its abandonment here save for the marks leading to the wall, the girl's chest hitched painfully, spasmodically, her sobs stifled only through sheer force of will and the fear of being discovered. All thoughts of whether Not-Cody could ever be Cody again, of the decades-old drawings on the walls, of secret government facilities and implausible family legacies and strange powers, fled abruptly in the face of this forlorn little remnant of a lost boy's life.

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Cassandra froze on seeing the shoe, both mentally and physically. Like a passenger in her body she could only watch as Autumn knelt down and examined it more closely. All she could focus on was a phrase that kept repeating in her head, like a panicked mantra.

I didn't see this. I didn't see this. I didn't see this.

It was a feeble attempt at a denial. If she hadn't seen it, it couldn't be. If she hadn't seen it, it wasn't her fault. She couldn't have stopped it. Stopped...wait, stopped what?

Scuffs on the floor. Leading to a wall. Bloody marks. Blood on the shoe...but not a lot of blood? Maybe?

She leaned down and took hold of Autumn's shoulder. Her eyes were too wide, her breath was too fast, but there was a frantic clarity shining through the horror and instinctive disgust. They didn't KNOW yet.

"Autumn, we have to get through that wall," Cassie whispered. "They might still be alive. We have to find them." Everything else could wait. The panic, the disbelief, the guilt. They could wait.

She brought her light up and shone it on the wall, on the disquieting image that had been scrawled on it. It didn't make sense. A secret door? In a town hall? Why?

Start simple. Start basic.

Cassie moved up to the wall and pressed her palm against it, trying to see if it would move...or even if it was real at all. At this point there was almost nothing she wouldn't believe.

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"I don't... I don't know, Cass," she replied distantly, the sound of the other girl's voice and the light pressure on her shoulder dragging the horror-stricken young woman back from the nightmarish precipice. She blinked, turning to focus on vague shape of the pretty blonde who, in the grayish ambience of their flashlights, was also visibly struggling to keep from totally losing her shit. "I mean, maybe...? But this looks like it's been here a few weeks, at least." As she spoke, something clicked into place, a puzzle piece that suddenly fit. "...Since before Cody disappeared. Oh, fuck." Never the most studious or intellectual of her peers, Autumn was nevertheless faced with what seemed, in the face of what they'd seen in the last few minutes, to be an inevitable conclusion: Cody Sikes probably wasn't the first, or the only person aiding the Dark in Shelly. If the drawings were any indication, there may even have been other "Codys" before him. The whole cycle-thing had been going on for decades- generations, really- but was it always like this? This... horned, skeletal figure? Someone being possessed? Like a, a cult, or something... And if so, could some of the people from the last time, people who weren't stopped, still be in town? She kind of wished she'd gone through some of those old journals, now, but that'd have to wait. A shiver rippled down her spine that had nothing to do with the chill in the dank air, or the ticklish trickle of icy sweat that rolled down her neck. Slowly, she got to her feet, freezing as the end of the pry bar scraped in angry protest against the grimy concrete floor, but only the ordinary sounds of old buildings filled that aeons-long moment of tense silence, the muffled groans of aged wood and the skittering of mice insinuating themselves into the space between heartbeats. The tense, hard line of her jaw softened fractionally, and the redhead took a shaky breath before exhaling.

"Listen, um." She hesitated, joining the young seer next to the ominous sketch on the wall. "If you want to find out what happened..." The earnest, wide-eyed adventuress peering at Cassandra from the shadows of the basement hesitated, her free hand instinctively rising in a placating gesture, fingers spread. "And if you don't want to do it, I totally get it, and it's fine, because this is a whole lot and I kind of want to just set the building on fire and walk away, but we still have stuff to do, so... Maybe you could do the thing from Dr. Cook's office? On the, uh... On the shoe, I mean. And, maybe you're right, you know?" Autumn continued, attempting to inject what she thought sounded like optimism into her voice. "Maybe somebody was just... I don't know, just playing down here, and nothing happened, right? But we'll know for sure, and then we can just not worry about it and focus on all the other stuff."

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Cassandra stopped pushing on the wall when Autumn made her case and just stood there for a moment. It looked like she was using the wall to hold herself up more than trying to open it. Her eyes dropped down to the shoe again, but she didn't say anything.

There were a dozen reasons not to do it. Or, at least to wait to do it. If the shoe really had been there that long, it didn't seem likely another hour would change anything. And she remembered well how the presence of the Dark had made it hard to focus on her vision down here. And also she just was really unsure she wanted to see what had happened to the owner of this shoe.

But this was kind of her thing, right? What good was an eye that refused to open?

She pushed off from the wall and bent over to scoop the forlorn little shoe up in her hand. Her eyes never left it as she spoke to Autumn.

"I'll give it a try, but...the Dark is boiling in the air here. It made it hard to see through before. And if it does work...there is a fair to...to average chance I may freak out or something? Because I think I get it. What happened to this...to whoever had this."

Cassie nodded at the drawing on the wall, the one the trail ended at.

"That's not a secret door. I remember it now. It's the spot the Dark was strongest. I think it must be where Cody can push through. And...I guess he can take other people with him."

The wannabe reporter let out a shuddering breath.

"I don't want to do it, but...I think I have to try. If there's even a chance they're still alive, we need to know about it now."

 

Spoiler

Will consult with the GM on the rolls necessary tomorrow!

 

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Taking a deep breath - or six - Cassandra looked around, nose wrinkling slightly as she considered her options.  The thought of sitting on the floor made her flesh crawl and yet she didn't want to risk spazzing out, falling over and cracking her head.  Not at the best of times, and certainly not here.  With a grimace of distaste, she lowered herself to sit cross-legged, facing the ominous mural on one wall of the cellar, and tried to unfocus her regular senses, throwing light on the hazy grey clouds of her... what did Jason and Sean call it?  Sub-quantum awareness?  A layer of reality where time and distance did not matter - at least to the degree they normally did.  Devin could connect points in space, Sean could pull encoded electronic information from the air, and she - in theory - could know...  Everything?  Or at least, anything she needed to and pointed her awareness at.  In part to distract herself from the thought of the little animal bodies hanging from the ceiling and the looming horror of what she might discover, Cass mused what it would be like to truly know everything, all the time, past, present and future.  Like the world's most pervasive surveillance system.  Sometimes that seemed cool, and other times seemed... too much.  Like when she'd first awakened to her power and sensed the vast gulf looming and waiting to swallow her whole.

The slick, oily miasma she was semi-familiar with hung over this place, so strong and thick that it was almost choking, a tarry smog that laid over everything, spilling out into the world from that wall.  She was right - that was a doorway, the wound that Mr Black had described.  The stones and air resonated with a sickness so strong it felt evil, a spiritual pestilence that swirled around her and Autumn, kept at bay by the light that spilled from them.  A flash of insight - a normal person would gradually be infected by this sickness, becoming twisted in mind and body.  The effect would be strongest here, but then would spread out into the town, subtle radiation, a silent twister of minds.  This, then, was the source of all Shelly's tragic, bloody history.

It was hard, to force herself to focus through the psychic smog.  The aura of this place was innately antithetical to Shine.  As Autumn collected herself, wiping tears from reddened eyes and moving to keep an eye and ear on the basement stairs, Cassie tried several times before finally feeling the bonds of her physical form on her spirit loosen and then...

...she was still in the the cellar, not long ago in the scheme of things.  There were less dead animals here, but the large black sooty image on the wall still leered out at the world.  The gloom of the basement was as oppressive as ever, though.  Cassie waited, trusting the vision to show her what she needed to-

There.  From the steps leading up, the sounds of someone - or something - coming.  A weird shuffling step, accompanied by muttering and a kind of muffled sobbing sound.  Dread rose in Cassandra's soul, telling her to close her 'third eye', to not see... but stronger than her fear was the need to bear witness.  Something terrible was about to happen - from her perspective had already happened - and she needed to know.  She was the Eyes, she told herself sternly.  Her job was to See.

Two figures, one large and one small, emerged from the stairwell.  A man who lurched and shuffled like a zombie, carrying in his arms a struggling - ohgod - a child.

The man was wide-eyed, twitching like a meth-head, his gaze darting around the gloom of the cellar fearfully.  With a sudden shock of recognition, Cassie realised this was the same man who had accosted her and Devin in the woods on the night of the party before being swallowed up by the weird fanged starfish thing.  The Air Force dude.  Captain Cooper, dressed in civilian clothing.  The child in his arms was maybe seven or eight years old, squirming and crying, tied hand and foot with their voice muffled by a gag over their mouth.  Cooper brought his captive to the center of the basement room, looking around and then tossing the child he carried down before the mural.

"Stay there.  You stay."  he hissed, pointing at the kid, a small boy.  "I'm so close now.  So close.  He promised me this would work, and that I would see."

The child - a small boy - sobbed in blind fear as Cooper started to whisper something, over and over.  Something that sounded Gaelic to Cassandra's ears, with harsh throat noises and the occasional growling syllable.  The whispers filled the room, rebounding from the walls as Cooper chanted whatever it was repeatedly for what seemed like half an hour, before falling silent.

Nothing happened.

Cooper sighed, a deep exhalation of mingled relief and disappointment.  "He lied.  Enterich lied." he muttered, scratching at his left arm with his right hand.  "I knew he was lying.  I knew it wasn't real.  Now I can get that psych eval and tell-"

And then Hell broke loose.

There was a thin screeching at first, a whistling moan as of wind through wire fencing.  The bricks of the wall under the mural seemed to dance, to waver, to shift and then simply dissipated as though never there.  Captain Cooper - and Cassandra - stared through at what was beyond.  At least one of them had seen the sight before, however.

A plain of bones.  Pools of stagnant, half-clotted blood.  An empty throne surmounted with an antlered human-shaped skull.  The Tree.

Pulsing with terrible, perverse life, it spread it's foul roots and branches over the now-kneeling Captain Cooper.  Whispers filled the air, urging the Captain to step through.  To sit down on the throne.  To claim his reward.  Cassie could see a sudden awful realisation strike the man as he saw what he had conjured, could see him shake his head and draw back from this final stage.

"No!  No.  This is wrong."  he muttered, tottering to his feet.  "No.  This is fucked up.  I thought it was just a scam.  A hazing.  An initiation.  Not real.  Not real!"  This last was screeched and Cooper stepped forward, bending down and grabbing at the child, plainly intending to pull them away and flee.

Anger pulsed from the consciousness beyond the Door even as dark, sickly tendrils crept through, coiling around the bound child on the floor.  The boy screamed.  Cooper screamed.  The foul-smelling charnel-house stink from beyond the door washed over them both.  Cooper tugged frantically, his hands around the boy's ankles, heaving with all his might as more thick, fibrous pseudopods wrapped around legs, arms, and neck.

"Let the fuck go!"  Cooper howled, his beset mind suddenly latching onto a desperate idea.  "I withdraw my offering.  I withdraw my offering!"

A sudden withering emanation of rage from the skull was accompanied by sepulchral laughter.  The offering had been made, and could not be withdrawn.  The tendrils around the small body tightened their grasp, and Cooper's eyes lost the last of their flame of sanity at what he saw as an abysmal wet, crackling, tearing sound filled the air...

...and the Door closed as Cooper fell back, unprepared for the sudden lack of resistance in his tug of war.  The cellar was dark again, no longer lit by the rotten bloody radiance from beyond.  The figure on the wall leered down at him as he stared blankly at the single, solitary sneaker in his hand, blood staining its lining.  And he screamed and screamed and screamed...

 

Spoiler

Cassie, I need a Resolve roll, Diff +2, to avoid a barfing / screaming freakout.  Iron Will applies.

 

Edited by GDP_ST

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"Jesus shit!" Cassandra yelped, and she tried to yank herself back from the vision, tried NOT to see, to close her Eye...but it wasn't as easy as a physical eyelid was. The image of it pursued her even as she batted at her eyes and tried reflexively to cover them. At the same time the raw fear, and the anguish, drilled like augers into her mind from the people she was witnessing. She wasn't even aware of herself falling over backwards.

Coming back out meant passing through the choking, cloying Darkness, and it closed fingers around her throat...or maybe it was just panic...or maybe it was the same thing. She couldn't scream along with Cooper because she couldn't breathe. She tried to grab the floor under her, fingers scratching ineffectually at old concrete. The world was moving too fast. There wasn't any oxygen in the air. And all the while black tendrils reached out, reached for her, questing, gripping, tearing...

"Cassie!"

Autumn's voice reached her finally, and her eyes opened wide, terrified. She looked up to see Autumn's face, wracked by fear for her. Just seeing that she wasn't alone was like a splash of water, cleaning the Dark away...or at least easing it. With a whimper Cassandra sat up and flung her arms around her friend, clutching her like a drowning woman.

"Oh my god," Cass whispered. "Oh my god. I saw it. He was just a little boy." With those words out, there was nothing left but to break into tears.

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At first, there was nothing but the sounds of the building slowly decaying over their heads as Autumn waited, glancing now and then at Cass who sat still as stone on the floor with the dusty, blood-flecked shoe in her hands. Restless and on-edge, the red-haired young woman shifted from one foot to the other, occasionally giving the heavy wrecking bar an experimental swing. It was reassuringly heavy, solid, something tangible to hold onto as the minutes crept ponderously by in the oppressive gloom. The past two days had flown past, but now- when she wanted time to go quickly- her concept of what time even meant seemed to just sort of... dissolve. It left nowhere to direct her energy, nothing to do but wait, as if her entire body were a bowstring drawn without an arrow.

Directionless. Unfocused. Nothing to concentrate on but the smell of death, the sound of the old Hall breathing around them in the darkness, and the awful image of dark rust-red stains on a small white shoe.

Then Cassie cried out in alarm, and all of that potential translated into movement: the beam of her flashlight cutting through the shadows, the pry bar falling to the filthy concrete like the angry tolling of an iron bell, her hiking boots striking the floor in a quick flurry of steps that brought her to the pretty blonde's side.

"It's okay," Autumn replied automatically as awareness dawned on her companion's face at the sound of her name, her arms going around Cassandra's shoulders even as she tried to slow the mad surging of her own heartbeat. The horrors the young seer had borne witness to manifested in violent trembling as the redhead squeezed her close, resting her chin atop the other girl's hair. "It's okay," she tried again, wanting to at least sound as if she believed it, attempting to summon forth some of the confident reassurance her mom used with agitated animals

and what are panicking teenagers but seriously agitated animals

but... Could it be okay? Even without hearing any specifics, it was pretty obvious from Cass's reaction that whoever had owned that little shoe didn't miraculously escape the basement to return home safe and sound. The same awful feeling she'd had on seeing it- really seeing it and recognizing what it meant- constricted around her heart, mingling horror and despair into an unfamiliar weight in her chest.

Things like this didn't happen in the world she knew.

But does that world even exist anymore? Did it ever?

These weren't questions to be considered in the dark, surrounded by tiny furred bodies and ominous drawings and the almost unbearable psychic miasma of suffering and fear. Swallowing her nerves and revulsion, Autumn slowly got to her feet and glanced from the door to the Door, pulling Cass carefully up with her.

"Hey, listen... Let's get out of here," she all-but whispered as she gave the plucky reporter another quick squeeze, almost succeeding in keeping the quaver from her voice. There was no guarantee that just because no-one had caught them there yet, no one would, and she had absolutely zero desire to be there any longer than absolutely necessary. "I need some fresh air and a whole lot of sugar, and not to be here." She was quiet for a moment and then added soberly, "...without a couple of gas cans and some matches."

Before long the two girls, both looking dishevelled and ill-at-ease, were seated on opposite sides of a massive basket of fries, the overhead lights of Bunnee's relegating literal darkness to the world outside the diner. Carbohydrate therapy was a time-honored and well-documented practice, and one of which Autumn was particularly fond. As she scraped a pile of golden-fried deliciousness onto her plate, she peered across the table at her friend- because after the hospital and now this, Cassie had to be a friend, right?- and then back at the crowded restaurant. Saturday night in Shelly.

"What kind of milkshake are you thinking?" the redhead began conversationally, breaking the relative silence. "I mean, I know we probably need to talk about... Well." Shrugging uncomfortably, she made a vague gesture with the fork in her hand. "About what you saw. I just kind of wanted to, I don't know... Just breathe for a little bit, first, you know?" Pause. "Also, we should probably text Devin, because I don't trust him to not grab Jason and go looking for us." She managed to muster up what felt like a smile and took a sip of her soda, pulling her phone from the zippered side pocket of the pack sitting next to her on the seat. Swiping the screen with her thumb, Autumn savored the comforting normality of French fries and a Coke before tapping out a quick message to the teleporter.

[We're out. No search party needed. Meet at my house for breakfast in the AM, 0830ish if you're hungry. Will let Cass and Jase know. Ask if you need directions.]

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"Chocolate," Cassandra said automatically. "Definitely chocolate."

The brief bike ride and the smell of deliciously unhealthy food were helping drive the lingering nightmare-dust off of her brain. It'd be a long time before she'd be able to eat pasta again though, that was for sure.

She dabbed the end of a napkin into her complimentary glass of water and then dabbed it under her eyes, trying to keep them from getting all 'cry-eyed,' There were words hanging between them. Words like 'thanks for helping me when I was freaking out' that Cassandra felt like she ought to say, but also felt awkward about saying, and reminding them both of the whole incident. Better, easier, to focus on what had been gained than on the price paid to gain it.

"I saw who was serving the tree before Cody," she said in a low voice after Autumn finished her text. "It was that guy. That...guy from the little cabin near where we had the party back when this all started. The guy that me and Devin saw get...cephaloed up." Cass frowned, realizing something. "Wait, did we ever tell you that story?"

Autumn gave Cassandra a wry look. "The 'cephalogina'?" she asked, making air quotes.

Cassie winced slightly. "Okay, yeah, you heard it. Anyway, he was the one doing it...BUT...he wasn't totally possessed by the Dark is the thing." She tapped the table, as if trying to get Autumn's attention. Totally unnecessary in this case. "He was put up to it by someone named Enterich. Some kind of ritual sacrifice. He changed his mind at the last second and tried to stop it...but..." Cassandra shook her head and took a quick drink from her soda, trying to wash away the memory as it came back up.

"Anyway. The point is that this Enterich guy must have known...everything. We have to find him."

Edited by Cassandra Allen

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Enterich... Enterich. Hmm. Autumn chewed over Cassie's revelations along with a bite of her fries, resting her phone on her thigh. It didn't sound like a Shelly name, if there was such a thing; a lot of the older families had Irish roots, and this sounded sort of German. Someone from Marias, or the military, maybe? If he had something to do with Bulwark, that could explain how he knew Cody's... What would you even call him? His predecessor, she guessed. There were other possibilities, sure, apart from being someone on the base- that it wasn't his real name, that it was part of some crazy-convoluted plot by Mr. Black as he played chess with peoples' lives, that he might be Mr. Black himself, or that through the miracle of the internet the guy wasn't even geographically anywhere near them, like some rando on a subreddit. That didn't explain how Cody got involved, though, did it? There were probably- no, definitely- options she couldn't even imagine. Cass was right, regardless: if this guy was involved, whoever he was, they needed to find him and figure out the part he was playing in what was happening. What she'd said about ritual sacrifice did, in an awful way, sort of fit with what they'd found in the Old Town Hall, especially those weird drawings scattered around. Which meant maybe this Enterich had been the one to bring Cody into it.

There were other thoughts, too, or at least fragments of them, but after what they'd seen down there, it was hard to put them in any kind of order; every time she tried, the image of those little reflective strips glowing incandescent in the shadows filled her mind's eye. The ride to Bunnee's had helped a little, the fresh air both cleansing her lungs and drying the faint trails her tears had left in the smudges of dirt on her cheeks, while salt and grease (somewhat ironically) were helping with the lingering nausea. Once the food was gone, though, and this was over... She shivered involuntarily and took another drink of her soda. Just focus on what you can do right now, she reminded herself. There was a time and a place for meltdowns, and as the past week had illustrated so very clearly, it was almost always going to be "later," and "not here."

"It doesn't sound familiar to me," the red-haired teen finally replied, her brows knitting together in an uncharacteristically thoughtful frown. "So either he's not from Shelly originally, or-"

"Hey, ladies, have you decided?" Their waitress, a somewhat matronly woman who, despite looking generally exhausted with life was still making a laudable effort to sound pleasant, derailed Autumn's train of thought.

"Oh, hey, sorry. Um, yeah," the redhead replied, picking up the menu she hadn't really given more than a cursory glance yet. Aware of the warmth flooding her cheeks under Connie's polite scrutiny, her eyes flicked across the table at Cass in a silent plea.

"Right! So, I'm thinking the extra thick chocolate shake looks good," Cassie chimed in helpfully. "What exactly makes it 'extra thick,' though?" As the weary server patiently explained that they used three times the normal serving of chocolate ice cream, so it was almost impossible to drink it through a straw, Autumn quickly scanned the list of flavor options and silently thanked whatever innate telepathy girls seemed to share. "Oooh, good to know," the future Pulitzer winner chirped brightly. "Yeah, I'll have that. And maybe a spoon. Autumn?"

"Umm... Yeah, I think I'm gonna go with the strawberry shortcake shake this time. Thanks." Smiling up at the obviously overworked waitress, she waited until the older woman was almost back to the counter before continuing. Just in case. "Okay, so... Where was I?"

"He's not from Shelly, or..."

"Right, yeah. Okay. So, maybe he's not a native, or maybe it's not his real name, but you're right. If he was the one who put Air Force guy up to..." Autumn hesitated, sucked in a sharp breath, and pushed onward. "Up to that, then we need to know more about him. God, this is all crazy. It's like, the more we find out, the more we realize how much we don't know. You know?"

 

Meanwhile

The Jauntsen compound, as their neighbors joked, lit up the Montana horizon with a brilliant dome of soft white light visible from quite a distance away.  It originated from the training yard the family had constructed about two years ago.  It was a large area, roughly a fifty yard square on their property that was dedicated to various gymnastic and acrobatic athletic endeavors separated by stretching and rest stations throughout.  Like a fifty yard by fifty yard gymnastic obstacle course in possessed nearly everything from space of a floor show to station for rings to one for vaulting.  Uneven bars and parallel bars were about half way through the course, since those were what Devin favored the least, making sure he had to do use them or live with knowing he skipped them and left his work out incomplete.  It was a sly trick on his father's part, preying on his son's ego and 'not a quitter' attitude.

Carl Jauntsen had the construction commissioned a couple years back so his son would have something to do while he was bored in Shelly.  Most of the equipment itself wasn't difficult to obtain inexpensively on line once the workers had cleared and leveled the land.  Since then it was where his son had retired nearly every evening for no less than an hour, often times longer and when he was particularly stressed or irritated, Devin could spend all day on the course.  Marissa, to a lesser degree, would use the stretching station and open floor for yoga and stretching exercises.  It allowed the twins more time together and kept them out of their parents' hair.

Devin and Marissa were out there now, talking and carrying on about whatever the twin's found time to gossip about.  They lowered closer and closer to ground as their legs slipped further and further apart until they were both doing the splits side by side.  Marissa leaned to right and left, stretching her body and leaning forward so her chest touched the mat.  Devin was no less flexible.  Resting his palms on the mat he slowly lifted himself until he was horizontal, then pushing himself up until he was in a handstand with his legs still in the splits.

"Look!  Look!" His voice was strained trying to get his sister's attention under his own weight.  "I got it!  Do I get a laser sword now?"

"What?  Like a Jedi?"  Marissa answers, looking back in his direction as she continued stretching.  "And they're called 'lightsabers', dumbass. Also, I don't think so. You have to be able to do that with nothing but your magical space body parasites or something... I don't know. I was never really a big fan of Star Wars. It's so convoluted. I mean, Terry Brooks might be wordy, but at least he's always made sense and not changed his mind mid-story.”

“Nerd.” He grunted, as he continued to push himself up slowly, bringing his legs together in an attempt to rise to a full hand stand.

“I'm not a nerd, I just read. You know, books? Those things with pages and all the words.” When the blinking of Devin's phone caught her eye she rolled from her stretching and scooped it up, swiping it on to take a look at who was texting. “Texts from Autumn, huh? She says they're all good.”

Devin's arms wobbled from the exertion but his legs came together and he allowed himself to arch forward swiftly, bending until legs touched the mat and he swung himself up until he was standing next to his sister. “Better,” she critiqued. “You need more strength training though, you're still too wobbly.”

“Yeah,” he nodded in agreement. “It's harder than I thought it would be. Lemme see,” he accepted his phone from her and took a look at the screen. “Looks like they're done with the Scooby Dooing.”

Glaring at the screen he tapped out a response. [Nice, Scrappy. Good to know you two are okay. If you and Velma need anything, HMU.] He set down his phone and scooped up a towel, padding himself across his shoulders and forehead. He quieted a bit as he dried himself from his exertions.

“Alright, what's up?” His sister sighed, noticing he was a bit less interesting after replying to their text. “Spill.”

“Huh? Oh, nothing really,” Devin had both ends of the towel and looped up and over the back his neck. “It's just, being current year, I don't want to be all macho and smother them when they go out to do something stupid like that alone, I mean, I dunno.”

“You're worried about them.” Marissa said plainly, dabbing her abdomen with her own towel and letting it drape over one shoulder before twisting the cap off a bottle of water.

“Yeah, I mean, I trust them, sure, but, if something were to happen and I wasn't there-”

“Then you'd be either dead or dying right along with them,” Shelly's Queen Bee put it simply. “Those two want to explore spooky ruins on their own without thinking of taking an obvious, instant, emergency exit along with them 'just in case', then I say Darwinism will simply do the work that social media, bullying and public schooling have failed at. Pick your battles, Galahad.”

“You're all heart, Emjay.” Devin smirked. “Alright, two more sets, lets go.” The twins stepped away from their phones and went back to their exercises.

Edited by GDP_ST

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Charlie

Laying on the bed, grinning up at the ceiling as he heard the shower start, Charlie was feeling pretty good about life.  Sure, the problems he'd pondered earlier were still at his doorstep - in a week or so he'd be leaving Shelly, his friends and their struggles, and his girlfriend behind for what seemed like too long a time.  But it was hard to be morose with that many endorphins and post-sex feel-good hormones rushing around his body.  Sophia had definitely achieved her goal of being memorable, that was for certain.  For a moment, he reconsidered his acceptance of the theater camp placement.  Sure, it was only a few weeks.  But then, it was a few weeks without Sophia.  Sighing, he sat up and swung his legs over so his feet touched the floor.  At least it was after Homecoming.  At least he'd be able to help fight the Dark with his friends, rather than leave it roaming free in Shelly where it might even conceivably hurt Sophia.  He remembered what he'd said to her, in the conference room under the Marias Medical Center when she'd asked what the Dark was.

"Evil force of evil." Charlie had whispered to her. "But I'll never let it hurt you."  It was important, that promise.  It had seemed casual when he'd uttered it, a bit of bravado to allay her fears (and his own).  But he found, reflecting on that moment, that he meant it, powers or no.

Standing, he stretched, then turned and frowned at the state of the sheets and blankets before quickly stripping the bed.  After all, they were both getting showers, so clean sheets was probably a good thing too, right?  Dumping the sheets in the hamper, he quickly re-made the bed with fresh ones then, hearing the shower still running, decided to go and get them both a drink.  Humming, he pulled on a pair of shorts and headed downstairs.

The lights were turned down in the lounge, the flickering of the TV screen still casting shadow-puppets on the walls.  They'd moved their shenanigans from the couch to upstairs without bothering with niceties like thumbing the remote.  Grinning at that, Charlie picked up the remote and flicked the TV off, leaving the lounge quieter and darker, the shadow of a tree cast across one wall by light from the street.  Barefoot, he ambled into the kitchen and opened up the fridge, rummaging around for some suitable refreshment and finding a couple of bottled wine coolers near the back.  He stared at them for a moment, doubt nagging at his mind.  His mom wasn't likely to raise hell over the wine coolers, but it would lead to questions, which would lead to awkward conversation... He shrugged, grabbing the bottles. The hell with it.

But the nagging doubt persisted, causing him to frown as he opened the bottles and poured them into a pair of glasses.  Something was off.  Something was-  He paused as he set a bottle down, staring blankly at the doorway to the lounge.  Then it occurred to him with a chilling realisation:  The shadow.  On the wall.

There was no tree in the yard to cast a shadow from the streetlights.

Fuck, he thought as he moved to the lounge doorway and peered inside.  The light from outside shone on the wall unblemished, no shadow cast across it.  Had he imagined it?  A prickling on the back of his neck said that no, he hadn't.  Lately, Charlie had learned to trust that cold prickle.  He'd felt it looking into Jason's eyes.  He'd felt it more strongly meeting the mysterious Mr Enterich.  And right now, he felt it most strongly of all, accompanied by a slick, oily cold slithering sensation that crawled his flesh.  He knew what that meant.  Cold prickles were one thing, gut feelings.  But this was something else. 

This was the presence of the Dark.

He turned, his first thought to get upstairs, to get to Sophia, his mind filled with fears of her being vulnerable and alone, easy prey.  And ran into a solid figure that had, unheard, slipped behind him in the gloom of the downstairs hallway.  In his instinctive concern, he hadn't recalled what they had learned as a group.  The Dark didn't really care about regular folks.  It needed the deaths of those with a little extra.  Those with Shine.

Not-Cody grinned down at him, a skeletal noseless mockery of a human face, crowned with spreading antlers, his mouth a red sideways gash lined with scalpel-like teeth.  Charlie felt a bony hand grip his shoulder, the points of claws digging into his flesh, smelled the rotten charnel reek of Cody's breath as the monster's other hand moved from here to there.  Staring, in shock, Charlie dimly registered a pulling across his abdomen, a warmth that flashed into hot pain, cold around the edges, and some part of his panicked mind registered that he had just been opened up like one of Cade's landed trout.  A stink filled the air.  That's me, he dimly thought.  That's my insides.  That jolted another realisation.  I'm dying.

Setting his teeth against the pain, he started to shapeshift, chitinous armor plate beginning to form as his hands shifted to ferocious clawed appendages.  Cody / The Horned Man laughed, a glottal sound of sick amusement, and his long arm with a hand tipped with claws flashed once more across Charlie's field of vision.  The teen felt his blood gout, hot vital fluid drenching his bare chest as his throat was opened from ear to ear.  Choking, he lost his concentration, shapeshift forgotten as he dropped to his knees, drowning as his lungs filled.

Cody squatted on his haunches, grinning his awful shark grin.  "I'll never let it hurt you." he said in a deep, hoarse voice that, despite it's inhumanity, nevertheless conveyed mockery.  "Oh, but I will hurt her, boy.  She will satisfy my many hungers until there is nothing left."  Red-rimmed eyes flared hellishly as a clawed finger swiped through Charlie's pooling blood and came up to the beast's mouth, a long tongue cleaning the talon.  "Picture it as you die.  Hear her screams.  Know despair!"

Charlie opened his mouth, shut it again, gaping like a fish in air.  He couldn't speak... but perhaps he didn't need to.  The thing had quoted his own words at him.  Perhaps it was reading his mind.  His vision darkened, contracting around the red eyes glowering at him from a face no longer human, and Charlie put all the effort he could into one final thought.

My friends... are gonna fuck you up.  They'll beat your ass till you scream and fry you in your own skin.  He cast the thought at the creature with every ounce of defiance and dark amusement he could muster, and was rewarded with a hiss of anger and, dare he say, fear.  You'll lose. Charlie added with a sense of fatalistic triumph.  So you despair, fucker.

Hissing louder, almost a shriek of rage, the creature half-rose and struck out.  Charlie, his vision dimmed, saw the taloned hand sweep towards his-

The creature that had been Cody Sikes stood, breathing deeply as it looked down at the body at his feet.  The defiance had not tasted good, and it was with a growl that he brought the still-warm heart to his maw and devoured it in several bites.  The warmth of the boy's Radiance was delicious, a tingling sensation that spread through Cody's limbs and brought a low moan of pleasure from his throat.  Somewhere, he knew the Tree was likewise pleased, the conduit between them transferring the Radiance to it, nourishing it.

"Charlie?"  The girl's voice from upstairs, laced with mischief.  "I need some help washing my back."  A giggle, then the sound of the bathroom door shutting.

Cody looked up the stairs, a grin that was equal parts snarl crossing his deformed features.  Turning from the now-useless husk at his feet, he moved to the foot of the stairs and started up them.

The night's hunt had been productive, but after all, he had many hungers.

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"Right, yeah. Okay. So, maybe he's not a native, or maybe it's not his real name, but you're right. If he was the one who put Air Force guy up to..." Autumn hesitated, sucked in a sharp breath, and pushed onward. "Up to that, then we need to know more about him. God, this is all crazy. It's like, the more we find out, the more we realize how much we don't know. You know?"

Cassandra nodded as she slurped up her milkshake. The horror was still there, hiding in the shadows of her mind...but here in the bright, cheerful restaurant, eating delicious food that was really bad for her, that horror was muted, like a dream.

"I'll start online. I mean, it's a weird name. I can probably just google 'enterich shelly montana' and find SOMEthing. I figure he's almost gotta be at the base...or maybe the prison. Remember how their mad scientist had basically moved in there and made it his playground? He could be part of that. It'd explain him knowing so much..."

She rubbed her temple.

"Ugh. Okay, I feel like once I get off the sugar rush from this, I'm going to pass out. We should get home. Get some rest. I'll look into Enterich, and we'll get everyone together and let them know what we found out. Sound good?"

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As Autumn watched Cassandra pedal away, the reflectors on the spokes of her wheels catching the light, the redhead shuddered at the sensation of icy, intangible fingers trailing down her spine. It was just a glint of flickering brightness against the shadows lining the road- not even the right color- but again, the image of a child's shoe appeared unbidden in her mind, and the saccharine sweetness of the ice cream lingering on her tongue was suddenly bitter ash in her mouth. Her mother was waiting for her; she, like the pretty reporter, would get to go home tonight. But, as she nudged the kickstand up and placed her feet on the pedals, it wasn't toward home that her handlebars turned. Not yet.

 

It was nearly 11:30, after what seemed an eternity spent racing down country roads between pale, moonlit fields, that the building came into view. Even then, some instinct kept Autumn from looking back the way she'd come, now that she was more familiar with that sense of creeping unease at her back- dread- than she'd been the first time she traveled this path alone. Instead, she let that feeling spur her forward, overriding the dull ache in her lungs and the burning in her thighs. What had once seemed to her the lair of Shelly's most fearsome boogeyman was now simply a house rising up from the surrounding farmlands; having seen the den of an actual monster, the Bannon farm was an inviting sanctuary by comparison. 

 

Muscle memory applied the brake as gravel crunched beneath her bicycle tires, dropped the kickstand and carried her up the porch steps. There was as little thought in the movement as there'd been in leaving the diner parking lot, for once no inner dialogue or contemplation on the ride. Similarly, there was no real consideration of the time, or circumstance, as she knocked quietly at the door.

 

Quiet rumble of male voices from inside, a scrape of a chair, a footfall. The door opened, revealing Gar Bannon, a plainly surprised look on his face at the sight of the young woman. He started to speak, then peered closely at her face. "Autumn." Whatever tone of surprise he'd initially intended to speak her name with was muted, overlaid by concern at something he saw in the shadowed pools of her eyes. "You, uh, here to speak to Jase?"

 

Swallowing past the sudden tightness in her throat, the red-haired girl nodded. "Hi, Mr. Ban- Gar," she corrected herself for what would likely not be the last time. She liked Jason's dad, and despite knowing he'd been present for their last encounter with the nightmare hellbeasts, it seemed wrong somehow to relate the combination of otherworldly and mundane awfulness that brought her to his door. "I'm sorry to bother you, I know it's late. Would it be okay if..." She rubbed her palms against her thighs to still their trembling, the polite smile on her lips taut. Uncertain. "Is, um- is he still up?"

 

"If he's not," Gar stated gravely, stepping aside and waving her in. "He'd want to be, I'm sure." His gaze was filled with questions, but with a stoic practicality that seemed very much like his son's he set them aside and focused on the matter at hand. Closing the door, he went to the foot of the stairs and called up in a low, but carrying voice. "Jase?" There was a pause, then a door opened somewhere above them. 

 

"Yes?" came the familiar tone, crisp and alert-sounding, curiosity a faint note rather than the substance that the word suggested. A creak of floorboards, a shadow moved on the wall above the bookcases that lined the staircase. 

 

"Autumn's here. You decent?" Gar smiled faintly, winking at the girl. There was another pause. 

 

"Sure." Now there was curiosity in his voice. Gar gave Autumn a nod and indicated the carpeted stairs.

 

"Thank you," the subdued redhead replied, her gaze following the neat rows of books she'd noticed the last time she was here, though she'd had no reason then to venture upstairs. Now, suddenly, Autumn was conscious of the state of her hair, the film of sweat and dust and... probably worse that clung to her skin and her clothes, but it was too late to turn around, wasn't it? She was here, even if she wasn't entirely sure why, and the only thing to do was climb. Ascending the steps slowly, she noted the sheer number of volumes present as well as the apparent variety of subjects covered; while most of the books downstairs were related to cooking or practical household concerns, these seemed more esoteric. A few sets of what looked like very old encyclopedias, noteworthy for their impressive leather and gilt spines, stood next to well-worn science textbooks, botanical field guides, and ones marked with characters she couldn't even read. It occurred to Jason's brand-new, very first girlfriend that he'd probably read all of them more than once. Reaching the landing at the top, Autumn unzipped her jacket and exhaled, counting to four.

 

He was standing on the landing, in the dim gold radiance cast by an overhead bulb that picked out the bronze tones of his hair and features and warmed the glacial pallidity of his gaze as it studied her. His head tilted slightly, something she now surmised was a deliberate visible cue rather than an unconscious one, something he added for the benefit of others. Part of his 'peopling'. "Autumn." He didn't smile, despite the warmth in his voice as he uttered her name, the glittering interrogation of his gaze at odds with the warmth also there as he stepped towards her.

 

"Jase," she replied, and took another deep breath, her fingers tangling themselves in the fabric of her hoodie. Even with everything that had happened, even with the uncomfortable way her t-shirt was sticking to her skin, there was something about those cool, not-wholly dispassionate jade eyes that made it difficult to think of anything else. Focus, Autumn. "Listen, I know it's really late, and I kind of just showed up, and we've only been dating for like a day, but I have a favor to ask." She paused, then amended, "Two favors. If it's okay, I would really like a shower, and a hug. In that order." There was another pause, another slow exhalation. "Please."

 

A half-beat of her heart and then "Okay." The word was simply and sincerely spoken, without fanfare, and Jason half-turned, gesturing towards a doorway. "The bathroom is there. One moment, and I'll get you a towel." He started to move towards a closet, his manner composed. So composed, in fact, that Autumn experienced a weird but not-unpleasant sense of surprise. 

 

"Wait." she managed, causing him to stop and look at her. Then she wondered why she'd spoken up. It was just odd, the way he accepted without questioning or demanding to know what was going on. Jason considered her a moment as she stood, silently trying to put into words the question in her blue eyes. 

 

"You're upset." he said by way of answer to the unvoiced query. "Shower first, hug second. My curiosity can wait." He turned and retrieved a large dark blue towel from the closet, along with a matching washcloth. "I'll get you something to wear. Leave your clothes outside the door and I'll get them cleaned up." He led her to the bathroom door, then handed her the towel and cloth.

 

No argument. No inquiry. No demands. Just... "Okay," and "I can wait." As if the explanation for her completely unreasonable request- after showing up unexpectedly in the middle of the night- was less important than the fact she'd made it. Autumn blinked up at him, surprised, in the soft golden light, her eyes the murky, indeterminate grey-blue-green of the ocean in the wake of a storm, and then nodded as he pressed the bath linens into her hands. She'd half-expected to be pinned to the wall by that piercing crystalline stare, questioned in precise and excruciating detail about why she'd shown up and what had happened, but... "Okay." At least for the moment, she didn't have to explain anything, to really even say anything at all, except- 

 

"Thank you," she breathed, cool fingertips lingering just a moment on the backs of his hands as she took the towel and turned, closing the bathroom door quietly behind her. For the span of several heartbeats, the redhead sagged back against that door, the thick wood panel reassuringly solid against her shoulders and spine as the reality that she was safe slowly penetrated the fog of apprehension she'd been moving through all night. With that recognition, a growing awareness of physical discomfort replaced psychological unease. She was sore. She was sweaty. She could actually feel the grime on her skin, and although being in the Old Town Hall had effectively granted her temporary immunity to its smell, she was pretty sure no one around her could boast the same. Ugh. Her nose crinkled in displeasure at the thought. In less time than it would have taken to list the layers of clothing she was wearing, she'd managed to tear them all off- opening the door just enough to confirm no one was watching before leaving them just outside. 

 

As Jason found something for her to wear and explained to his father, briefly, that she'd be staying for a little while, Autumn did her best to scrub away the physical residue of the night. At least she wasn’t sick, this time. The hot water was a soothing balm to both achy muscles and jangled nerves. It rinsed away the faint traces of earlier tears as well as the ones that spilled out unbidden beneath the spray, and banished the visible evidence of the girls’ adventures down the drain in a dark swirl, surrounding her in the clean scent of unidentifiable herbs and green, growing things. Jason’s soap. Jason’s shampoo. She lingered there a few minutes longer than was strictly necessary, the idea of his smell on her skin warming her as thoroughly on the inside as the shower was outside, and by degrees, the red-haired young woman felt herself relax. 

 

Wringing the water from her hair and combing through the damp curls with her fingers as she finished up and dried off, Autumn drew in what felt like the first full breath she’d had all evening. One of Jase’s oversized t-shirts and a pair of shorts with a drawstring waist lay on the counter, neatly folded, and she allowed herself a little smile as she pulled them on, her still-pink cheeks flushing a slightly deeper shade of rose as it occurred to her that her underwear had gone with everything else she’d been wearing. Although, she reflected with a faint grin, the most effective way to deal with most of it… except her hoodie… was probably just shoving it in a furnace and walking away. Between the fries, the ice cream, the exertion of the ride, and the luxury of a shower and clean clothes, she could almost convince herself that things were okay. Almost. As she stepped out of the bathroom, Autumn’s eyes caught on a sliver of light escaping a half-open door across the way. 

 

Padding across the carpet, she peeked inside, rapping her knuckles against the door frame in a quiet knock. “Jase?”

 

The room was another library, shelves lining the walls from floor to ceiling and broken only by a closet door, the large sash window and a desk in one corner. The center of the room was largely dominated by a low bed consisting of a king size mattress only slightly set above the floor - a futon style, she thought it was called. As her eyes took in the room, it's lack of pop culture posters, or art, or photos, the lack of clothing strewn about and, most notably, the absence of eau-de-sock, it struck Autumn that this was by far the tidiest teenagers - especially teenage boy's - room she had ever seen. The only marked disarray was the couple of piles of books next to the bed - which the room's occupant currently sat on, long legs stretching out in front of him as he leaned back against the wall, reading by the light of a lamp. 

 

Jase looked up as she knocked, smiling slightly in that way he did - the faintest of crinkles at the corners of his eyes as they took in her freshly-washed self. Heat flickered in the depths of his gaze as it rested on her pink-tinged cheeks, but all he did was close the book he'd been passing the time with and set it aside, watching her as he motioned for her to enter. "Come on in." he invited. A touch of a wry smile graced his lips. "I believe you would be the only person other than my father who has."

 

"Thanks," she replied with a faint, answering smile, pleased at the inclusion in such a select group as she stepped over the threshold and into the decidedly un-hoardlike inner sanctum of Bannon the Magnificent, he of the spear-like claws and teeth of swords. Then again... Scanning row upon row of books, it occurred to the curious redhead that the library in the rest of the house wasn't singular at all. It must instead have spilled forth from this room, the accumulated knowledge of minds great and good and simply novel overflowing down the stairs and into the kitchen and- she assumed- probably elsewhere, as well, like so many gold bars and gleaming gems amassed for his pleasure. A cave of wonders, of mysteries and secrets, treasures for the brilliant young man's keen intellect to peruse at his leisure. "It suits you." 

 

Autumn's footfalls were silent on the rug as she closed the distance between them, hesitating for little more than the span of a heartbeat before she perched on the edge of the bed next to Jason, feet on the floor. The camping trip had been one thing, but this was his room. Girlfriend or not, there were rules for this kind of thing, right? Some kind of protocol to be observed? Angling toward him, she turned slightly, pressing her lips together as her eyes moved thoughtfully over his face. She'd just seen him earlier that evening, had spent almost two full days with him, but in that instant it didn't feel like even that had been enough. "So, um, the hug. Should I just...?" Meeting Jase's gaze, his companion gestured vaguely toward him as if asking permission.

 

His head tilted slightly, the wry smile widening for a moment and revealing a hint of dimple in each smooth cheek, then Jason simply held out a hand to her. "Come here." It wasn't quite a command, and wasn't quite a request, and contained warmth of emotion not usually present in his habitually precise and clinical manner. She took the long, strong fingers in her own, folding her hand around his, letting him draw her to him as she shuffled closer until she felt his arm slide around her shoulders and tug her into an embrace.

 

"You never need to ask to touch me." he murmured with his lips on her damp hair, his free hand stroking the ends of her curls, fingers toying with them. "That privilege is yours."

 

In answer, Autumn simply nodded, pressing her face against his chest as her other arm curled around his side. Her fingertips slid under the hem of his shirt, finding the warm, bare skin of his back beneath the cotton and exhaling a long, shaky breath that seemed to come from her toes. Her eyelids drifted shut at the feel of Jason's breath on her hair, the pressure of his arm, the dextrous fingers entwined with hers; although she didn't feel the least bit sleepy, it was the first time since she and Cass had left the basement that she'd seen nothing at all when she closed her eyes. That alone was worth the ride through the dark Montana night. 

 

"Same," she murmured against his collarbone, drawing her pale legs up onto the bed and all but melting against the reclining youth. The awfulness was still there, that haunting chill that whispered that things weren't at all okay, and that they might never again be okay, but at least for the moment it seemed distant, muted by the heat radiating from Jase's lean form next to hers. "You have really good hugs, you know?" his potentially biased girlfriend opined quietly, her thumb moving lightly over his knuckles. "For an alien."

 

In the diamond-etched crystal prism of his mind, Jason was hard at work analysing Autumn's appearance, manner, and possible reasons for being here. He was also focused intently on the feel of her wet hair, cool on his fingertips, and the warmth of her touch on his skin. That connection, that sense of being touched and the vulnerability of being close to another, was deeply personal to the strange young man - which is why he tolerated very few people within arm's length. It was also fair to say that Autumn's proximity, after his earlier wrestling with the remembrance of their sensual play of the night before, was performing an excellent job of undoing the locks of his self-discipline like a practiced seducer's fingers would unfasten the buttons on a shirt. 

 

"It must be part of the genetic superiority." he joked softly. "Intelligence, aggression, fearlessness... and really good hugs." He breathed in deeply, his eyes half-closing as he struggled with the urge to change the nature of his caresses, to seek her mouth with his and draw out gasps of pleasure, to bury his fingers deep in her hair and crane her head back so her ivory throat would be laid bare for his lips... He breathed out again, feeling his center stabilise once more. It was apparent to him that Autumn hadn't come seeking sex. She had seen something, or experienced something, that had upset her deeply and needing comfort she had come... to him? Perhaps. Perhaps she had also been scared, and so wanted a sense of protection? It was hard to say with any certainty, at least for him. So he concentrated instead on what he did know. Autumn wanted to be held. That he could do, and so his arm snugged her closer as, in a gesture of comfort he'd seen others do, he softly kissed her forehead.

 

"Mhmm," the redhead agreed, smiling in spite of herself at the gentle brush of his lips. Even in this, she realized, Jase was a fast learner, and a part of her wondered what he'd be like when he was older, more experienced with life and women and, well. Everything. That was a question for future Autumn to answer, though, as current Autumn had more pressing concerns. "Must be. The other stuff just makes it hard for people to figure that out. Lucky me, huh?" Shifting slightly in his arms, she tilted her head back to catch Jason's eye and smiled, one corner of her mouth curving upward. "Probably all the Irish in my family." 

 

Even under questionable circumstances such as these, it was impossible to remain completely unaffected by his nearness, the firefly glimmer of gold in his gaze, the lingering hint of tobacco just underneath the verdant, crisp scent she'd come to associate with Jason Bannon. Feeling her face growing warmer as she studied his features, the blue-eyed teen caught her lower lip in her teeth, biting down just hard enough to remind herself that was definitely not why she'd come out here. Probably. Then again, it hadn't really been a conscious choice on her part, had it? 

 

"You said earlier you were curious," she stated, focusing on the here-and-now of those pale green eyes. "And you've done both the favors I asked for, so I kind of owe you some explanation. Would it be okay with you if we stayed like this while we talked, though?"

 

Neat white teeth worried at her lower lip, causing it to redden enticingly, and Jason almost lost his struggle there before getting control once more, remonstrating sternly with himself and more than a little concerned. This was not like him, to feel so easily pulled like this. 

 

"It's more than okay to stay like this." he said in answer to her question, his eyes studying her upturned features with a gaze that was half analytical, and half appreciative. "And you can give as much, or as light of an explanation as you choose right now. I kind of get the impression the scouting was... unpleasant?"

 

Autumn snorted softly in something like laughter, though there was nothing at all to laugh about. It was just easier, preferable to the alternative, which was to start crying again. "Yeah. The two of us went to Bunnee's, after," she explained, resting her cheek against the smooth plane of his Jase's chest, turning his hand over in hers and studying the faint marks on his palm, the whorls on the pads of his fingertips as she traced them with her own. "We talked about it a little, but I don't think either of us have really processed, yet. There's a lot of pieces of ideas kind of floating around in my head right now, and I don't know how much help it'll be. If at all." Exhaling, the animated redhead frowned, rearranging herself again as if to get closer. When she began again, her voice was quiet, distant in the way it had been when she'd spoken of her grandfather on the porch a week before. 

 

"It was a lot like Cassie said when she described it, but worse. The darkness, the smell... Awful. Cody wasn't there, though. Just us, and all the, um." Her voice wavered, a sudden shiver prickling the freckled skin on the backs of her arms. "The animals he'd killed. There were a whole lot of them, and not just in the basement, and most of them had been there for a while." There had been so many of them, their little bodies just mangled, brutalized and tortured and then discarded like trash... Her eyes darkened, lashes trembling slightly at the memory as she fixed her gaze on the lines encircling the base of his thumb. Focus, Autumn. You have to be able to talk about it. She inhaled, counting silently in her head and holding the breath before releasing it again. "He wasn't around, but it felt like... If you walk into a room where someone was just standing, and you know that they were there? Like, there's no hot coffee cup, or lit cigarette, or anything to give you a definite clue, just that feeling. They just stepped out, but they might be back any second. Sort of like that."

 

"Well, that settles the matter of where we go to find him." Jason murmured, part of his mind examining the description of the place. Mangled, tortured animals. To him, no more than distasteful, and more so due to the apparent senselessness, but from recent experience he knew it was more than that for his girlfriend. He gave her what he judged was a reassuring squeeze, and upon feeling her make a small noise, tighten her embrace of him and press her face into his chest assessed that the comfort was well-received. "Tomorrow, if you feel capable, I'd like you and Cassie to do a floorplan of the place for us to study. To describe it so that we're as ready as we can be. We know we're on a clock with taking him down, so the sooner we prepare the better." 

 

"But that can wait till tomorrow. This is hug time." he added with another small kiss on the top of Autumn's head, breathing in his shampoo mingling with the warm smell of her hair - of her. His scent on her. Odd how that affected him so strongly, causing not just arousal but also provoking urges of protection, of possession. Mine, the urges rumbled, and the diamond-clarity of Jason's thoughts resolved to keep a strong watch on that, lest it come on him at a bad time, or lead to... unproductive confrontations. "Was there anything more? Either of you get hurt?" he inquired with mild concern. He had initially assumed that, if that was the case, Autumn would have led with it. But people were strange sometimes - it would not surprise him for Autumn to disregard a wound in her distress over the dead animals.

 

"No, not hurt. Freaked out, scared, angry, yeah, but not hurt. The place sounded like it'd fall on our heads the whole time, but it seemed pretty solid. Some of the old stairs were out, broken railings, stuff like that, but I mean, that's what you expect, right?" She sat quietly for a moment, weaving her pale, cinnamon-flecked fingers through Jason's long, tan ones. The actual physical aspect of the place was easy to describe, just a practical assessment of its construction and how time and the occasional vagrant or animal incursion had changed it; its effect, however, wasn't quite so simple for the earnest young woman to relate. "I know we'll probably talk a lot more about it tomorrow, and Cass took a lot of pictures, so you guys can see exactly what we found- there were drawings all over the place, but not like graffiti. More like creepy cave paintings of the… monster, I guess? That she talked about. Cody, or the spirit, or whatever. Skull, antlers." 

 

Wait. 

 

Autumn leaned back suddenly, straightening to meet Jase’s eyes. Whatever questions or ideas she had about the meaning of those primitive scrawls, their origin, or what they might suggest about the historical goings-on in Shelly could wait until everyone was together. That was just details. It might help them come up with a working hypothesis, or add some color to the outline of events they were sketching, but it didn’t seem immediately useful. …Except in one instance. "Not just drawings, though. There’s a big one, on one of the walls down in the basement, and we’re pretty sure that’s the Door,” she added soberly, a subtle emphasis on the last word. “Cassie felt it there, I think, and-“ The redhead blinked, wide, dark pupils constricting sharply at the memory of the marks on the floor, the rust-red flecks on Velcro, the fluorescent stripes, as she tensed. “-and there was a little boy’s shoe, and… And that’s- the wall is where the blood stopped,” she finished tautly.

 

He remained silent for a moment, his eyes on hers as he absorbed everything. A Door, audibly capitalised. A boy's shoe. Blood. Autumn's pupillary constriction and the way the colour drained from her ivory skin, throwing the dusting of freckles into high contrast. The way her voice tightened and the tremor in her fingers around his. 

 

"That'll do for now." he decided softly, tugging her back to snuggle against him, resuming the gentle stroking of her hair, fingertips lightly brushing strands back from her cheek and ear, resting his jaw and cheek on the top of her fiery curls. "Did I tell you yet today that I admire your courage?" he murmured with a soft smile that would have astonished practically everyone in the Fellowship, except possibly Sean. 

 

"Don't feel brave." Autumn muttered, her eyes closing as she listened to his heartbeat against her ear and breathed in his scent. 

 

"And yet you are. You're scared, and do what needs to be done anyway." Jase said firmly, his voice still low as he dropped another kiss on her brow. "I'm not an expert, but I'm pretty sure that's the definition of bravery most people agree with."

 

"Mmmm," his girlfriend hummed noncommittally, too preoccupied with allowing him to spoil her for a little bit longer to contest the point. This wasn't at all what she'd expected, this tenderness in his manner- Jason was clinical, pragmatic, and, yes, passionate, if the last twenty four hours had been any indication, but this was an entirely different sort of intimacy. For all its strangeness, though, the feeling of gentle fingers in her hair, the rise and fall of his chest, the warmth of his breath on her skin and the faint resonance of his Shine interacting with hers... It felt pleasantly familiar. He'd offered actual comfort- not empty platitudes or reassurances that everything was going to be fine, but simple physical presence. Connection. He'd told her not so long ago that if she ever had a bad day, he'd be right there, and she was pretty freaking sure that tonight qualified. ...And he was true to his word, wasn't he? He listened. Even if it wasn't something he knew anything about, or had any experience with, he'd actually been there. It wasn't just something he'd said to make her feel better.

 

"Okay, Professor Bannon," Autumn conceded after a moment, inhaling tobacco, something crisply botanical, and what she could only identify as 'Jase' under that. "I'll take your word for it." Releasing his fingers, the freshly-showered young woman wrapped both her arms around the laconic youth's spare, wiry torso, her hands sliding beneath the hem of his shirt as she attempted vainly to get closer to him. The journals, the trip to the reservation, talking about the basement and how to handle it- all of that could wait a little longer, she decided. At least until tomorrow, and that seemed, at the moment, to be very far away.

 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

It was a little while later. 

 

Jason had recited poetry to Autumn - poetry in various languages, spoken in a soft voice - as she'd cuddled close, and whether it was his voice, or choice of poems, her emotional exhaustion, his smell or some mixture of them all she had fallen into a doze, lips curved in a faint smile as she occasionally made 'mmh'-ing noises and wriggled as though it were possible to snuggle closer. 

 

"His spots are the joy of the Leopard, his horns are the Buffalo's pride." Jase said softly, smiling a little at the drowsing redhead as he quoted Kipling. "Be clean, for the strength of the hunter is known by the gloss of his hide. If you find that the bullock can toss you, or the heavy-browed Sambhur can gore-" Whatever came next was interrupted as a text tone went off from Autumn's phone and her eyes snapped open. 

 

"How'd that get here?" she asked, blinking a little. What time was it? 

 

"It was in your hoodie. I retrieved it when you put your clothes outside the bathroom." Jason explained, passing it to her without glancing at the screen.

 

With a murmured 'thanks,' Autumn tapped her phone, visibly reluctant to shake off the reverie as she sat up with a little huff and swiped away the broad field of wildflowers that appeared on her lock screen. Maybe Cass was checking in, or her mom, or- "Oh. It's from..." Copper brows knit together in confusion as she checked the name. "Marissa." There was a hint of a question in the word, a note of surprise, and then she tapped the screen again. 

 

[Wow, heard from Devin you're sleeping with Jason? Nice, Autumn. Nice.] 

 

"Wait, how did- ?" she murmured, re-reading the text one more time. Fully awake now, the companionable warmth she'd been drowsily enjoying seemed to rush suddenly upward, flooding the girl's bronze-flecked cheeks with scarlet. It didn't really bother her that Marissa knew, but she'd meant to tell the beautiful fashionista herself, and... Autumn had never actually been congratulated on making out with a guy before. This whole 'having a female best friend' thing was a little different from having a guy best friend. Huh. Grinning in spite of herself at the prospect of being able to actually talk to another girl about things like this, of having a 'bestie' who wouldn't show up to threaten the guy she was seeing, Autumn leaned back against Jason's chest. Still blushing, she tapped out a quick reply. 

 

[No, not sleeping! 😂 Will tell you about it tomorrow!] 

 

Marissa's response was almost immediate: [Can. Not. Wait.] 

 

The redhead's smile widened as she read the emphatic reply and set the phone on the bed, her rosy flush deepening by degrees as she peered up into the pale green eyes in such close proximity to her own. "I guess the cat's out of the bag with Marissa. Apparently Devin said something to her about us."

 

"Devin knew we were going camping. Though it's improbable he knows what happened there." Jase noted, running his thumb along Autumn's lower lip as his palm caressed her cheek. He paused, reflecting. "I did ask him if perhaps your behaviour towards me indicated attraction. I wasn't sure, and didn't want to presume and make another mistake." 

 

"You talked to Devin about me?" Autumn asked, embarrassment warring with the little skip her heart made at the confession. 

 

"Not by name - I just described the behaviour and asked his opinion. Though he might have put two and two together." Jason smiled a tiny amount. "He's far from blind or stupid." 

 

"You're taking girl advice from Devin?" Autumn didn't know whether to laugh or be aghast. Jason shrugged, smiling. 

 

"He was pretty helpful. Said the best way to find out was to test the waters. It didn't occur to me to do so until that moment by the fire, though." He lightly brushed his lips over hers. "I'm glad I did." he murmured against her mouth.

 

His pink-cheeked companion was glad, too; in fact, she spent the next few minutes communicating her satisfaction at the arrangement with quiet enthusiasm, heated kisses stealing the breath from their lungs and ardent caresses igniting incandescent sparks along their nerve endings. That it went no further was a testament to Jason's strength of will and Autumn's fear of being sent off to a remote convent on a mountaintop in Eastern Europe, and before the hour was too late to be considered "wholly unacceptable" by weekend standards, he offered to drive her home. Unlike the last time she'd visited, there was no argument or debate over whether she'd traverse the dark roads on her bicycle. As she changed back into her own clothes, somewhat reluctantly relinquishing the t-shirt he'd loaned her, she was silently grateful not to have to make the trip on her own after everything that had happened that night. 

 

"Oh, hey, I forgot to mention it earlier." Twisting her still-damp curls up at the nape of her neck, Autumn rolled the little elastic band off her wrist and looped it around the knot to secure it in place as she sat on the edge of the bed, getting ready to leave. "My mom said if you guys come by around 8:30 or so, we can all have breakfast before we head over to the Rez. Normally I'd just text you, but, you know. Sort of not an option." She grinned over at him, nose crinkling slightly as she leaned down to pull on her hiking boots. "Nothing crazy. Waffles. Bacon. Probably whatever fruit she picked up from the farmer's market. Coffee, of course. Wanna come?"

 

A smile curved Jase's lips. "Having me over twice in two days for a meal? People will talk." he teased her, enjoyed the renewed dark rose that flooded her cheeks even as she smiled back at him.

 

"What do you think they'll say?" she asked, playing along. Jason pretended to consider as he stood, moving to shuffle his feet into his own boots. 

 

"Probably that you're leading me astray by means of feeding me." He gave a small grin as he opened the door for her and followed her down the stairs. Autumn chuckled as Jason quickly told his dad - and Hank, who was still trying to beat Gar at chess - that he was driving her home, and as the pair headed out onto the porch, collected Autumn's bike, and headed over to the smaller barn she nudged him with an elbow. 

 

"Is the food method working?" 

 

"Definitely." Jason nodded, deadpan. "I'm totally led astray." He popped the trunk of his car and helped her hoist the bike into it, giving her a smile across the roof of the Charger as they moved to the driver and passenger doors. "Now let's get you home before Dana rescinds the offer to feed me."

 

Edited by Autumn Keane

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Side Fic wrapped:  +2XP for Cassie and Autumn.  Good investigative work with plenty of pluckiness and description of how the place affected the characters.

 

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