They took a tunnel out beneath the Academy grounds and teleported once they were beyond range of the Distruptances. The six of them appeared on a hillside in the night air, gathered in a circle around Will, each with a hand on his arm, chest or back. The moon shone bright overhead, and a cool breeze rustled a sea of long, calf-high grass. Matt immediately needed to hurl.
“Huhgluh,” he heaved, pushing away from the teleporter and doubling over. Nothing came out. Matt paused, his stomach continuing to churn, and tried one or two more half-hearted dry retches. A moment later, he felt a hand gently patting him on the back.
“Hey man,” came Will’s voice, concerned, “Sorry. You alright?”
“Yep,” Matt whispered, though his voice and legs kept wobbling, “All good. Fine.” Out of the corner of his eye he saw Jane similarly bent down and breathing heavily in the darkness, although she too had managed to hold down her lunch. Giselle had gone to stand beside her and was gently rubbing her back, murmuring soft words of reassurance and concern. Beside them, James stared out over the moonlit countryside, seemingly oblivious.
“How far we out?” he asked, “Are we alone?” He glanced down at Natalia, standing glumly at his side. “Nat?”
The psychic pressed a finger to her temple, and Matt involuntarily felt his insides clench. There was no rush of psychic assault however, and a moment later Natalia opened her eyes.
“No blips for two miles,” she stated, dropping her hand and glancing up at James. The strongman nodded. Beside him, Matt felt Will stiffen.
“I got us on point,” he said, turning to scowl at Natalia as Matt straightened up. “We’re a half mile out, just like Winters asked.”
“Who’s saying we’re not?” Natalia glowered. Her black hair was tied up in a bun, which combined with her sallow, angular face and sour expression gave the impression of a habitually disgruntled librarian.
“Well you’re implying I’m-”
“Enough,” James groaned, “God, it’s the same dumb argument every time. Let it go.”
“I’m good,” protested Jane, shooing Giselle’s hand away and standing back upright. “I’m good, let’s do it, let’s go.” Like Matt, the well-worn body armour she’d been put in was white-grey and colourless, making the pair of them stand out next to the four sleek Senior Acolytes like lone teeth against crimson gums. Unlike Matt however, Jane’s armour actually looked like it fit her, or at the very least her physique was sufficiently tall and athletic that she didn’t look like a child playing dress-up.
To Matt’s surprise however, Jane’s proclamation of readiness was not echoed by anyone else. On the contrary, and to Matt’s slight confusion, far from being excited, serious or ‘mission-ready’, the rest of the Acolytes just looked kind of… glum?
James sighed and rubbed the back of his head. “Giselle, can you grab some firewood?”
“Thanks.” He glanced over at Matt as Giselle vanished, the rush of air from her departure barely rising above the wind sweeping over the hillside. “Sit down kid,” the strongman told him. He began patting a circle flat on the ground with his enormous hands. “Get comfortable.”
“Wait,” said Jane. She walked over as Natalia and Will spread out around James’ circle, the psychic standing with her arms crossed, the teleporter sitting atop the grass. “What’s going on?” She flinched slightly as Giselle returned, her arms laden with sticks, which the speedster began wordlessly arranging into a pointed stack. “Why do we need a fire? Shouldn’t we strike quickly? What about the element of surprise?”
Natalia muttered something inaudible under her breath. Across from her Will laughed bitterly, his arms crossed over his chest.
“First rule of hunting clairvoyants, empath,” he said, not sparing Jane any eye contact, “There are only bad surprises.”
James just shook his head and kept patting down the grass.
“Just light the fire,” he said, sounding more resigned than annoyed. Jane’s mouth moved as if to protest and she glanced over at Matt, who was struggling to articulate anything as his stomach veered between confusion, helplessness and terror. Eventually, grumbling, she gave up and flicked a quick stream of fire from her hands. The sticks ignited, crackling happily in the centre of the depression, and a thin trail of smoke began drifting along with the breeze.
“Good,” said James. He leaned down into sitting, the plates of his armour squeaking beneath his bulk. “Now pop a squat. There’s some stuff we gotta cover.”
“What about the mission?” Jane protested, pointing her hand towards the rising hill, “What about the-”
“Oh my god, shut up,” growled Natalia, pinching between her eyes, “This is not about you, you stupid dumb-”
“Screw you, you piece of-”
“Shut up,” demanded James, scowling at them, “Both of you.” Natalia fell silent, though she continued to stare at Jane with obvious venom. The gigantic man glared. “Empath: sit down.”
For a few moments Jane remained standing, grumbling under her breath, but eventually under the group’s withering gaze she dropped to the ground, shuffling into a cross-legged glower to Matt’s right. Matt, for his part, was still completely dazed, feeling like he was sleepwalking through some surreal waking dream. Slowly though, from beneath the waves of adrenaline, his brain began sifting through everything that had been said.
“Wait,” he said hoarsely, raising his head to look at Will. “What do you mean ‘the first rule of hunting clairvoyants?’” He turned to James, the giant’s face lit by the fire’s cracking shadows. “And back at the mansion, Winters said they’d found ‘another one’.” Matt looked round at his classmates, who were all avoiding his eyes. “Have you guys hunted clairvoyants before?!”
“You’re the seer,” muttered Natalia.
“Nat,” James grunted, though again more placating than annoyed. He turned back to Matt and sat up a little straighter in the firelight. “You’re right. This ain’t the first clairvoyant we’ve gone after. And the others… well… they went…”
“Bad,” finished Will. He didn’t meet Matt’s eyes, staring directly into the fire. “They went bad.”
“Bad,” agreed James. He sighed and leaned back on his massive hands, pushing divots into the ground. A few moments passed as James gazed up at the night sky and Matt stared at him with concerned incredulity, before eventually the strongman shook his head and spoke.
“Alright, so, the thing you gotta know is,” James began, sounding like someone’s boss explaining why they weren’t getting a raise, “The Legion’s been hearing rumours about clairvoyants for decades. Least according to Farrington anyway.”
“Farrington?” Matt asked, “Who’s-”
“Chuck Farrington,” said James, “Ashes. The fire guy?” Matt just stared blankly. Beside him, Jane spat out a little huff of disbelief. James waved a brief, indifferent hand. “Doesn’t matter. Anyway, after the Black Death, well, obviously they’re pretty keen to find one, so the Ashes keep their ears to the ground. Finally, a lead pops up, and they send Winters to check it out.” He gestured at Matt. “You know, meet and greet. You wanna join our clubhouse. That sorta thing.”
“Right,” said Matt, having himself been met and greeted.
“Right. So Winters finds this guy,” James continued, and in the flickering firelight Matt could almost see images of the story dancing in the flames, “Up in the Appalachian mountains, border of West Virginia, small little cabin somewhere in the woods. Winters flies down, usual immaculate self, says hi to the guy, guy says hi back, they shake hands, and then Winters has a perfectly pleasant conversation about who he is and what he wants and how great it is to join the Legion. The guy says yessir, thank you sir, that all sounds great, won’t you come inside for a biscuit, got some coffee on the boil, now just wait there a moment, I need to step out back. Next thing you know, Winters hears this krrrrsh-krrrrsh-KRAK-!” James slapped his hands together and both Matt and Jane jumped, “-and suddenly the whole cabin’s full of smoke.” He paused and looked between the two of them. “Winters races round back to find the man with one hand clasped either side of a generator, body and soul fried completely effin’ black.”
“What?” Matt whispered. James grimaced, as around the campfire the other Acolytes averted their eyes.
“Yep. Electrocuted himself. Couldn’t be more dead if he tried. Winters said it was the worst thing he ever saw, and all the more horrifying because half a minute ago this guy had been all politeness and smiles. Smelled something fierce too, apparently.”
Across the campfire, Giselle clutched her legs to her chest, looking decidedly sick.
“I don’t understand,” said Matt, “Why did he-?”
“Good question,” James answered, “Winters, well, he was obviously pretty shook up, but he chalks it up to that one dude being a crazy person and tries to move on. Anyway, a year or two later, another rumour pans out, so Winters goes again – this time brings Cross along for, what-” he looked at Will, “‑comfort?”
“Moral support,” said the teleporter.
“Moral support. Anyway, they find this next lady, what was she, Indian-?”
“Tamil,” corrected Giselle, still looking uncomfortable.
“Tamil. Right. Well, this nice little eighty-something-year-old grandma, I don’t think they ever properly established her name, she’s been giving predictions to people for a while there in a little lone house up in the hills, so Cross and Winters go to see her, and about ten feet out from her house they start smelling gas.”
“Oh no,” whispered Matt.
“Oh yes,” James replied, his voice torn between incensed, incredulous and grave, “Little old lady fireballed herself so bad it took a week to identify her remains. But you know the crazy part?” He leaned in towards Matt and Jane. “She waved at them beforehand. Stuck her head out the window and waved ‘em a big gummy smile, then flicked a lighter and blew herself up. Cross and Winters saw the whole damn thing.”
“But why?” said Jane, visibly confused, “Why would she-?”
James held up his hand. “No. See, it’s not just her. Not just him neither. All of them; every single one. There’s been what, six over the years? Seven? I lose count.” He shook his head. “Next one after Sri Lanka, Winters took Natalia. Guess the plan was to sniff out crazy ahead of time. How’d that go Nat?”
“Claymore,” the psychic said glumly.
“Claymore,” confirmed James, “Military-grade god-damn anti-personnel mine, which I don’t even know how you find on a sheep farm in Scotland, but damn if he didn’t set it up right inside the barn door.”
“I reached out to him,” explained Natalia, leaning towards Matt, clearly feeling the need to elaborate, “We were about half a mile away. That’s what’s-” she swore, “-insane. I was chatting to him as we walked, barely brushed his mind. He was perfectly happy. Perfectly calm.”
“Tell them the conversation,” James encouraged. Natalia sighed, cleared her throat and began miming out two people talking.
“Hello, sir? My name’s Natalia Baroque. I’m sorry to bother you but-”
“Natalia! Good morning! Lovely t'meet ya. Beautiful weather innet?”
“It is – sir if we could have just a moment of your time-”
“Aye sorry lass, not today. But if innae too much of a bother, I’d be ever so grateful if ya could round up the sheep afterwards.”
“I- what? After what?”
“They spook at loud noises I’m afraid, and three spritelier ones’ll clear the fence right smart – daft buggers be halfwayta Glasgow this time tommora if ya dinnae stoppem.”
“I’m sorry, loud noises? What do you-”
“Don’t fret love. This innet your fault.”
The psychic paused and puffed out her cheeks. “Boom. No hesitation. Took out half the sodding barn.” Matt gaped at her, and the psychic shook her head. “Bloody awful.”
“He was right too,” James added, ruefully chipper, “After the explosion the sheep freaked out. Three of them made a break for it. Winters had to spend twenty minutes flying around trying to catch ‘em.”
“The thing is,” Natalia interjected, cutting over James’s words, “He wasn’t crazy. He wasn’t scared. He just… killed himself.” She shivered. “Like it was the most normal thing in the world.”
A horrible silence spread out around the campfire.
“Well,” James continued eventually, reaching up to pat Natalia gingerly on the arm, “After that, Winters starts going in heavy, coz man, he is freaked. ‘Course, the Legion’s not reformed yet and they’re not technically supposed to be doing missions so it’s all on the hush-hush – but he’s got me, Will, Nat and Giselle as backup, and he has us going in armoured and… well….”
James trailed off, then shook his head. “Look,” he said, “Don’t get me wrong. I ain’t a stranger to violence. I ain’t queasy. But these clairvoyants, man, god-damn, they are a creative bunch.” He threw a dark, humourless look at Giselle. “Remember that one guy who dropped an anvil on himself?”
“Please don’t,” the speedster murmured, not looking up.
“And there was that other one, this crazy guy – you won’t believe this – rigged like fourteen shotguns, all in this one tiny cabin, could barely freaking move,” James continued, powering obliviously on, “All pointed at different angles, all tied up on a single string. Craziest, most Home Alone thing I have ever seen in my entire god-damn life. Pulled it right as we walked in the door.”
“Oh God, can we not?” moaned Giselle.
“This is making me feel, mmm, somewhat concerned,” said Matt, in what was possibly the understatement of the decade.
“Yo James,” Will piped up, ignoring Matt’s distress, “Remember the woodchipper?”
“Son, I ain’t gonna be able to forget the woodchipper until the day I mercifully die.”
“What the hell?” breathed Jane. Matt stared at James in mute, aghast agreement. The strongman just shook his head.
“That’s just it man. Nobody knows. No one’s got the faintest clue. It’s not like we’re going there to assault these folks, cause ‘em any kind of harm, not in the slightest. Legit, all we want to do is talk. But like clockwork, every time we do they just… kill themselves.”
James paused. In the flickering firelight, his expression grew dark. “Makes you wonder,” he murmured, “Makes you wonder what they’re seeing. What fate was in store for them that they’d rather die than even talking to the Legion.”
Death stalks Morningstar, whispered in the back of Matt’s skull, and despite the fire's warmth he shuddered.
For a moment, nobody said anything. Then James piqued back up, sounding much cheerier.
“‘Least, that was what everyone was thinking, right before you came along. I gotta say man, that was a god-damn re-lief. Like-” the strongman raised a hand and began counting off his sausage-sized fingers, “‑you were on the Register. You lived in a normal home. You weren’t a crazy person. And you didn’t immediately try and off yourself the minute Winters walked up. I don’t know. I for one found that very comforting.” He smiled genially around the group with a false sort of positivity that was in no way reciprocated.
Implications – horrible, horrible implications – rampaged through Matt’s mind. Eventually, he managed to cobble together some words.
“But this one,” he managed to stammer, “This clairvoyant. She… she walked in front of the camera. She must’ve known it would see her, and that we’d see it, and that we’d find her… so maybe… she…”
But James shook his massive head. “Nuh-uh. Sorry. That’s the pattern too. See, it’s never easy to find these folks. Not one of them lives anywhere populated and none of them are registered. If we try to ID them, it comes back fake. They all live off the grid – waaaay off the grid. Except for when they don’t.”
He kneaded his giant hands slowly into the dirt. “The year or so leading up to finding one of these guys, the Legion starts hearing ‘bout these crazy thefts. It’s like the one Winters told you about. You seen that movie Groundhog Day?” He paused, and when Matt didn’t respond, powered on regardless. “Remember that bit where the guy just walks over and lifts money out of the armoured car because he knows exactly what’s going to happen? It’s exactly like that. These dudes, these clairvoyants, they just walk in, flawless, impeccable timing, take whatever they want and walk out. Security is helpless, the cameras never see them – never get more than a glimpse or the top of a head through a smudge on a lens or something. Until they want them to. Until one day they go to a bank, walk out with a sack full o’ money, turn to the camera and just… smile.”
James shook his head again and fell silent. After a few moments Giselle picked up where he’d left off.
“They don’t just steal money either,” she told them. Her lips twitched into a grimace. “Factories, tech companies, military facilities – and that’s just the stuff we know about. Half the time it’s not reported. Half the time we’re not even sure it’s them. And half the time whoever it is that’s been stolen from doesn’t figure out they’ve even been robbed until weeks afterwards. It’s so seamless.”
“And a lot of it doesn’t make sense either,” piped up Will, “Like the shotgun guy, we think he might’ve hit a medical lab, some high-tech place, and made off with some… what, regenerative cream?”
“Serum,” Natalia corrected, rolling her eyes.
“Serum, whatever,” Will scowled, “Doesn’t really matter, because two months later he blew himself to bits. That’s what I’m saying. Like, why bother? Even if it works, and who knows if it did, what’s the point of stealing, like, high-tech bed-sore medicine if you’re going to kill yourself in two freaking months?”
“Ain’t no cream in the world fixing fourteen shotguns,” James agreed.
“Serum!” snapped Natalia.
“And we never find it,” Giselle continued, ignoring the others, “Not the money, not anything we think they stole, none of it. They never make anything, they never buy anything. There just doesn’t seem to be any point.”
A long silence stretched out across the hillside. The fire was starting to burn low. Beside him, Jane turned slowly towards Matt, her features carefully arranged in discrete, horrified panic.
“So,” she said, her voice unusually high, “Then. Um. What’s the plan?”
James grinned at Giselle and cracked his knuckles. “This time,” he told them, “It’ll be different. We’ve turned a corner, I can feel it. We’ve got a clairvoyant with us now, a good one, and this time we can follow your lead. Any traps, anything like that, you’ll see it coming. And when you get close enough, maybe, just maybe you can see what’s got these other clairvoyants so messed up and you can get through to them, help them see we’re not the bad guys, convince them to talk.”
“Or alternatively,” Natalia posited dryly, “You’ll also see what’s causing them to lose their minds and you’ll go psycho and kill yourself.”
“No you won’t,” scowled Giselle, staring daggers at the psychic, “That’s not going to happen. Matt, the minute you start feeling anything’s wrong, okay, you just yell as loud as you can and I’ll come get you out of there. There’s nothing so bad that can happen that we can’t talk about it, and that we can’t work through as a team. Okay?” She leaned over and squeezed his hand. “I promise. We’ll get through this. Whatever it is you see.”
Will and James nodded in agreement. Natalia just rolled her eyes. Slowly, Matt turned to look at Jane sitting beside him, and the pair stared at each other with wide, terrified eyes.
Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).