“Will you shut up!” Jane hissed.
It was still night. They were crouched in the mud at the edge of a small patch of forest, pressed side‑by‑side against a grey deciduous beech. Above, the sky spread in a swirling violet dome over the valley, the moon’s light shining down between occasional wisps of cloud, illuminating the ruined property below. Nothing stirred. The farmstead, or what had once been a farmstead, was long-since abandoned, a maze of crumbling bricks and rotting stockades, dark single-story cottages with collapsed roofs and fallen dry‑stone walls. Long grass grew up around shadowed doorways, and creepers twisted silently through pane-less windows into the darkness beyond. Somewhere inside, apparently, was the clairvoyant. Right now there was no sign of her – no light, no movement, no noise. The cold night air was silent, save for crickets calling from the undergrowth, the occasional hooting of an owl, and…
It was just the two of them. After James had finished his enlightening but thoroughly unsettling explanation, the Acolytes had set out towards their target with Matt and Jane exchanging frantic panicked sign-language in the rear. A few hundred feet out, at a small grove of crooked beech trees, they’d stopped and at Matt’s insistence he and Jane had gone on ahead for the sake of ‘reconnaissance’. Then, once he’d made sure that they were far enough away that no one could hear them, Matt had allowed himself the indulgence of freaking out.
A sudden, stinging pain rang out across Matt’s cheek, causing him to recoil, cowering and clutching defensively at his face. Jane raised her hand for a second slap.
“Ow!” he whispered, glaring at her. The empath glared right back. “Don’t!”
“Calm. Down,” she snarled, leaning close, her eyes wild. Beneath mottled shadows and moonlight, the angles of her face turned inhuman and deranged. “Get. Yourself. Together.”
“I am allowed to freak out!” Matt hissed furiously. Nevertheless, he sunk back down into seething, terrified silence. They stared out over the ruins.
“What are we going to do?” Jane asked after a minute or two. She kept her voice level but seemed unable to stop intertwining her fingers, her jaw clenched.
“Jesus freaking Christ Jane, what a pertinent question,” said Matt, unable to help himself. Now that he’d found his voice, the words tumbled out in an unstoppable torrent. “Really glad I brought you here to penetrate into the central logistical conundrum!”
“Sorry. Sorry!” Matt forced himself to take a deep, shuddering breath. He ran his hands, shaking, through his clammy, sweaty hair. “Okay. Okay. This is bad.”
“Yes, I do. I do think. Okay. Okay.” Matt closed his eyes, feeling like his heart was trying to beat itself out of his ribcage. If he had been standing he would have started to pace, but as the two of them were trying to be stealth-like, crouched uncomfortably against the tree, he settled for rocking back and forth on the spot.
Jane shook her head, her face pale in the moonlight.
“You’ve got to call it,” she murmured.
“You’ve got to call it. Give up, before this goes any further. Tell them the truth about what you are.”
“Are you insane?!” Matt hissed, rounding on her completely, “I can’t do that, I’ll-”
“You are not a clairvoyant!” Jane hissed back, cutting him off, “Were you listening?! Did you hear all that back there?! They think you’re an actual clairvoyant! Like these actual clairvoyants! Who are actually killing themselves, horribly, rather than letting the Legion talk to them!”
She took a deep breath and rubbed her temples, clearly working hard to steady her voice. “Look,” she said, “I have gone along with this so far, and I have kept my stupid mouth shut, but this is not a goddamn game anymore. This is not freaking crows in backpacks. This is real-” she chained together several violent swear words “‑danger! People have actually died! You’ve got to come clean! You can’t keep lying!”
“Absolutely not,” Matt said, vehemently shaking his head, “No goddamn way. Have you lost your mind? What about the child? Have you forgotten what he said?”
Jane paused. “Stay hidden or the world ends,” she conceded.
“Exactly,” said Matt, “This has to be what he’s talking about.”
“And you believe him?!”
“Well- I don’t know!” Matt turned towards the farmstead then looked back helplessly at Jane. “I don’t want to end the world!”
For a moment the empath looked like she was preparing a derogatory retort, but eventually settled for just shaking her head. “This is insane,” she muttered.
“I know,” said Matt. He forced himself to take a deep breath. “Okay. Look, I agree, this is less than ideal. Let’s… let’s just see if there’s actually anyone down there. Maybe it’s a dead end. Maybe this will all sort itself out.”
Jane murmured something under her breath, but nevertheless begrudgingly got to her feet and likewise pulled Matt into standing. Crouching low, the two of them began a slow, cautious descent down the hill.
“Wait,” said Jane, barely a minute later as they approached the outer edges of the ruins, a line of rotting wooden fenceposts. Her eyes narrowed and she stepped forward, reaching out blindly into the night air with searching, wary fingertips. After a moment or two, she stopped short, clearly having found something. Matt squinted to try and see.
“Wire. Yep. Get behind me.” She spread one hand and a thin shield of fire flared between them and the posts. “Back up.” They retreated several steps up the hill, then with the flaming shield still active Jane raised her other hand and conjured a small, jagged ball of loose ice. Gingerly, she lobbed the ball at the wire, strung almost invisibly between fenceposts. Matt cringed and plugged his ears, waiting for an explosion, but instead the ice just sailed in a low arc, hit the wire and cut cleanly in half, falling to the ground with a soft hiss of slush.
“Trap,” Jane grunted. Matt looked up at her.
“No. Line’s tense. Trap’s not for us.” She lowered her hand and the fire shield snuffed out.
“Who’s it for?”
“Giselle,” Jane muttered darkly. She looked back at Matt. “Piano wire. It’s a ghetto anti-speedster trick. Difficult to see when they’re running and if they go through it-”
“-sliced like a deli sandwich.” Matt grimaced and swallowed. “Guess that answers whether they know we’re coming or not.”
“Guess it does.” Jane paused. “Want to keep going?”
“Do we have a choice?” Matt replied.
“I mean, you could go back and tell them you foresee disaster or something. Get everyone to leave.”
Matt grimaced. “Raises too many questions. Besides, I don’t know if ‘disaster’ will be enough. Were you listening back there? This is like the seventh time the Legion’s found a clairvoyant. Every one of them has been a-” he swore, “‑disaster, and here they are again, un-de-freaking-terred.” He shook his head. “Cross is already getting suspicious. I’ve been making vague predictions for weeks, if I bail on this with something hazy she’ll crucify me.”
“Still though,” Jane frowned, “Aren’t they supposed to be listening to you?”
“Sure,” said Matt, “People love listening, right up until you tell them they can’t do something they want to.”
Jane made a face. “So through the piano wire then.”
“Yep.” Matt pointed to the rotting fenceposts. “Guessing it’s glued to that?”
“Or tied, or wedged somehow.”
“Great. Burn it. If and when I scream very loudly, I want Giselle to be able to run in and rescue us.”
“Sounds good.” Jane stepped warily forward and incinerated the fenceposts, and in the light of the moon Matt saw something thin and silvery fall to the ground.
Slowly, steadily, they continued onwards, passing cautiously through the fence-line, keeping their eyes open for additional surprises. This time, as they advanced towards the farmstead, it was Matt who spotted the trap.
“There,” he said, pointing at a gap between two walls which might have once been an alleyway, “Right there, look, there’s a gap in the grass. The earth’s been dug up.”
“I see it,” confirmed Jane, and again she drew the two of them back, raising the fire shield. She knelt and placed her other palm on the ground, and a thick trail of frost began snaking out across the mud. The ice continued to spread and thicken, and sure enough, when it reached the section of dug up earth there was a sudden boom, and Matt felt a rush of force.
“Landmine?” he asked, straightening up.
“Landmine,” Jane confirmed. They exchanged a look. “Low-yield. Probably homemade.”
“Retreat. Retreat and ponder our options.” They withdrew back up the hill, Jane scanning around suspiciously at the geography, Matt sticking close to her side. They’d almost gotten to the edge of the beech grove when Jane touched a finger to her head.
“It’s Natalia,” she informed him, “They’re asking if we’re alright. They heard the boom.”
“Tell her we’re fine. Tell her what we’ve found. I need a minute or two to think.”
Jane nodded, put her finger to her temple and scrunched up her eyes. “She says she can sense someone in the ruins,” she told him, dropping her hand with a scowl, “Now that she’s looking for them. Can’t pin down an exact location though. Apparently they’re using Psy-Block. ‘The legitimate thing’, she says.” Jane smirked. “Wonder who that’s directed at.”
“Great,” Matt muttered, “Another amazing coincidence.” He clenched and unclenched his hands, his fingers stiff and freezing despite the uncomfortable heat in his chest. “So we can be fairly certain they know we’re coming. And their attitude towards guests.”
Jane paused, staring at him. “What do we do? How do we get out of this?”
For a moment, it was all Matt could do not to panic; to run, screaming, as far away from this haunted‑looking place as fast as his stumpy legs could carry him, find a nice pile of sand and bury his head in it. Eventually though the worry on Jane’s face as well her (seemingly unconscious) iron grip on his arm forced him to slow his breathing and try vainly to reassert some measure of control.
“Okay,” he muttered. He sucked a few long breaths between his teeth. “Think. Let me think. I’m thinking.”
A moment passed.
“Shut up!” he hissed, “I’m still… Okay. Alright.” He took a deep breath and forced himself to stand up straight, peering out over the darkened farmland beyond.
“It seems fair to say this is a real clairvoyant,” he said.
“Gathering from all the evidence Winters found, plus the traps being tailored for each of us.”
“Are they?” Jane sounded sceptical. Matt nodded.
“You said it yourself. The piano wire’s meant for Giselle. And the landmines, they might not go off fast enough if she ran over them, but they sure as hell would if James came stomping through. Strength’s not much use against explosives.”
“Plus the Psy-Block.”
“Plus the Psy-Block,” Matt agreed, “And I’m betting if Will tried to jump in there he’d find a Disruptance blocking him too. Whoever this woman is, she’s tailor-made traps for each of the other four.”
“Which means either she’s got insider knowledge-”
“-or she’s a clairvoyant.”
“A real clairvoyant,” Jane added.
“Thank you,” Matt glowered, glaring at her in the dark, “Yes, a real clairvoyant. And if she really is a real clairvoyant, then she knows we’re coming.”
“And she knows we know that she knows that we’re coming.”
“And she knows we know she knows that we know that she knows that we’re coming-” he waved around his hand, “-off ad infinitum. Right?”
“Right. Which raises a whole lot of very difficult philosophical questions,” Matt continued, furrowing his brow, “Like if she knows what’s going to happen, can she stop it? Can we stop it? Is there even such a thing as free will? Is our entire existence pre-determined?”
“Um… I don’t know,” replied Jane, her face paling.
Matt shook his head like a dog trying to clear water from its ears. “No. It’s irrelevant. We can’t get bogged down in philosophy. It is what it is, time is what it is, the future remains to be written. Or it doesn’t. It doesn’t matter. Either way, we still feel like we’ve got a choice.”
“Right,” confirmed Jane, sounding semi-back on board.
Matt screwed up his eyes, trying to think. “This lady walked in front of the camera knowing the Legion would come here. And if she knew that’d happen, then she knew they’d send me to try and talk to her. And if she knew that, and she didn’t leave, that means either she wanted it, or she doesn’t care.”
“Right,” said Jane, “Except, the landmines.”
“The landmines, yes. Those indicate a pretty strong preference for being left alone.”
“And they might not have just been for James either. They could blow you up.”
“Yes,” Matt conceded, but then a moment later: “No,” he said, contradicting himself, “They couldn’t. Because think about it. If they knew I was coming, then they knew you were coming. And they knew you could clear the landmines with your ground icy thing.”
“Yeah,” said Matt, suddenly bizarrely certain, “Think about it. You’re a counter to all the traps. Your fire burns wherever the piano wire’s attached to. And you can roll the ice forward from a safe distance, clear a path through the mines.”
“Which means you’re meant to come with me,” Matt murmured. He ran his hands again through his hair. “You, not any of the others.”
“Are you sure?” said Jane, “What if I’m supposed to clear a path, and then we come in with the others? All together?”
Matt made a face. “No, because then…” He hesitated, chewing his lip. “If we were just going to clear them all and come in anyway, why put any traps to begin with?” Thoughts came rapidly and unbidden. “It’s like… the traps aren’t actually traps, you know? They’re not supposed to be. The clairvoyant’s trying to tell us how to approach her, we… we’re square pegs. They’re square holes.”
Jane’s face was pained. “Are you sure?”
“No,” Matt breathed, “Not at all.” He turned to her. “But it’s the only thing that makes sense.”
“None of this makes sense,” Jane lamented. Matt ignored her.
“Think about it. They knew I was going to be here. They knew I’d bring you. They knew what powers you have and they knew…” he swallowed, “…they knew what I can do. That I can’t go back empty handed. So either this is all some huge trap‑”
“-or somebody wants me in that house.” The pair fell silent. Matt look at Jane. “We’ve got to go.”
“Are you sure?”
“No. Not in any way, shape or form. But what other choice do we have? I can’t leave. And I can’t send Giselle or James in first, they’ll get killed. Besides, I’ve just got a feeling. Occam’s Razor.” He glanced at Jane as she gave him a puzzled look. “Simple solutions. If this clairvoyant wanted me dead, all she needed to do was put a landmine exactly where she knew I’d land when we teleported. She didn’t do that, so she mustn’t want to do that.” He glanced over at the farmstead. “Which means I need to talk to her.”
For a few moments Jane just stared at him. “My head hurts,” she admitted. Matt distractedly waved her concerns away.
“Mine too. It doesn’t matter. I have no idea what I’m doing. Nobody has any idea what they’re doing. I feel like I’m going insane. Please don’t let me die?”
“I’ll goddamn try. We doing this?”
“Oh God, I think so. Hnnnngh. Jesus Christ. What am I doing? Why is this happening? Why couldn’t I just stay home?”
“You lie too well.”
“Thanks. I think. Oh God this is a bad dream. This isn’t happening.” He shook his hands and fingers, sucking in deep, shaky breaths.
“You got this? You good? Want to freak out a bit more?”
“No. Yes. Maybe just a little. Pfffff. Pfffff.” Matt closed his eyes, trying to find his mental centre. “Okay. Okay. Let’s do this.”
“Let me go first, I’ll ice it.”
They set back off down the hill, Jane in the lead, Matt following closely behind, keeping his left hand warily on her right shoulder. Once they passed the line of broken fenceposts, the empath conjured a thick ball of ice the height of a car tyre, which she sent rolling at a steady pace some hundred feet ahead. The pair continued, if possible, even more slowly this time, and Matt found himself struggling not to jump at the slightest movement or sound.
They reached the edge of the farmyard, collapsed brick walls and wooden palings that at some point might have herded stock. They ducked underneath some piano wire, which Jane incinerated, and a few seconds later a hundred feet away the ice ball exploded. Jane waved her hands silently to conjure another one, and the pair advanced into the ruins.
All around them, debris loomed – lines of stones and walls of crumbling bricks, buildings only marginally taller than Matt with purposes as long-lost as their roofs. Some were flecked with peeling paint, others rusted and bare; weeds grew out between cracks in the brick, and many of the walls were pock-marked with fist-sized gaps, blank, stony eyes which only darkness stared through. Every step they took drew them deeper in, until it seemed like the whole world was this looming, crumbling maze, this rural rabbit warren of stone and rot. Ahead, the ice ball rounded a corner and there was another explosion, and the side of the building ahead of them collapsed. Matt’s heart pounded in his chest.
“Wait,” said Jane abruptly. She came to a stop, causing Matt to almost run into her. She turned to him, her brows furrowed.
“What the hell are we doing?” she asked as they stood between the walls of two ruined houses.
“Trying to find a clairvoyant?” Matt answered. Jane’s face scrunched into a dissatisfied scowl.
“No,” she replied, “I mean what am I doing? Why the hell am I letting you come along?”
“You’re a civilian,” Jane said, and then evidently realised that she thought that was insulting because she immediately added, “I mean not technically, not like a civilian-civilian, but still, you don’t have any powers. You shouldn’t be anywhere near this.”
“Shouldn’t I?” Matt asked, a little perplexed.
“No,” Jane scowled. She shook her head as if she had just woken up. “God, what the hell am I doing? I should’ve swept this whole place. Clear then advance. That’s what they taught us in VIP Extraction.”
“Glad you think I’m very important,” said Matt. Jane rolled her eyes.
“Stay there,” she commanded, rising abruptly into the air on a pillar of fire, “Don’t go anywhere, don’t step anywhere, don’t go walking on anything. I can scout out the area, see if I can see anyone, clear out the mines.”
“Wait-” Matt started to protest, but before he could say anything Jane was off, rocketing from wall-top to wall-top like she had jetpacks on her feet. There was a crack of ice and a distant, dusty boom, and then the light of Jane’s fire-powers began receding into the distance. Alone in the darkness, Matt watched her go.
“Wait,” he whispered ineffectually, the words falling hoarse from his lips. He glanced nervously at his surroundings, the crumbling walls and skulking shadows looming precariously all around. Matt drew a deep breath, willing his hands not to shake.
“Horror movies,” he muttered, more to himself than anybody, “Never seen a single freaking horror movie in her entire goddamn life… yeah just split up, go on then… don’t mind me, I’ll just wait… alone...”
Matt breathed deep, trying to keep his thoughts from spiralling wildly. He looked up at the stars, focusing on the patterns, trying to see if there were any he could recognise. Astronomy. That was a stupid hobby he could take up when he got back to the Academy, if he actually survived. Maybe he could tie it into astrology, traditional stupid future‑telling stuff. Maybe Ed could order him a telescope. Breathe. Just breathe. The air smelled of damp and dirt and despite the night time cold sweat beaded on Matt’s brow.
It made sense, he tried to reassure himself, what Jane was doing made sense. This would save them wandering around blindly, and heck, half the buildings here didn’t have roofs – maybe she could spot the clairvoyant from the sky. There had to be some signal right? Some light or sign of life? Clairvoyant or no, she was still a person – still had a normal person’s needs. She was just better at anticipating them. At anticipating everything. Perfectly.
Suddenly, Matt realised his mistake.
“JANE-!” he began to cry – but before the words could come out there was a snap and a rush and a rumbling, and the ground beneath Matt opened into a blackened pit and he tumbled down into darkness.
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).