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Boom.

Twenty feet below her, Jane’s ball of ice exploded another landmine, sending shockwaves through the earth and nearby walls. The fire beneath Jane’s feet flickered and for an instant she dropped before catching herself. Jane grimaced, hovering precariously. She wasn’t yet good at this.

Her eyes found a nearby drywall and she descended, landing in a wobble on the unsteady outcrop of rock. Jane’s arms spun to regain her balance, and then she steadied and surveyed her surroundings. The ruins were quiet. She’d done a full lap of the farmstead, a zig-zagging aerial reconnaissance, and was reasonably confident she’d got a look inside each of the decrepit structures. None of them held anything interesting – indeed, the entire place looked like it hadn’t been inhabited by anything bigger than a fieldmouse since long before she was born. Yet there was obviously someone here, from the sheer concentration of landmines and wire traps. It just didn’t make sense, otherwise, unless somebody really hated wandering cows.

Jane chewed her lip, feeling a growing sense of concern. What was the point of all these booby-traps if there was nothing here worth protecting? Had the clairvoyant moved? Was it all just misdirection? A colossal waste of their time? Her eyes scanned out over the ruins, searching for movement. A cool breeze flicked over Jane’s ears and in the dark her mouth twitched into a frown.

She needed to reconvene. With Matt at least, the others maybe, though she wasn’t sure she’d cleared all the traps. Still frowning, Jane turned back towards where she’d left the faux clairvoyant and leapt wall‑top to wall-top with short, controlled bursts.

Wait. Her eyes focused as she approached the edge of the farmstead, the darkened corner between buildings where she’d last seen Matt. Wait. She leapt from a rooftop and landed skidding in the mud, her heartbeat accelerating. There was no one there. She’d sworn this was- Jane spun around wildly, eyes snapping from broken wall to broken wall. This was right where she’d left him, she was sure of it, unless- had she got confused? Maybe in the darkness she’d gotten turned around, got the wrong patch of ruins, but she thought… she thought…

“Matt!” Jane cried out, searching in the shadows, turning rapidly around. Panic rose in her chest and she leapt into the air, flames streaming from her hands. “MATT!”

*

Ten feet below ground, in a tomb of earth and darkness, Matt Callaghan stared into the twin pits of the seer’s gouged-out eyes and felt true, curdling fear.

“Oh God,” he whispered.

“No, not yet,” the woman replied calmly, “Not for another few months.” She paused, turning her head away, and the scars around her empty eye sockets were once again swallowed by the darkness. “I’m sorry dear one. I forget how this must seem to you, how distressing all this-” she gestured vaguely at her face, “‑must be. I’m sorry. If there was another way, we would’ve taken it. I would have.”

“How…” Matt whispered. The words could barely claw their way out from his throat. “How did‑?”

“I did it myself,” she replied matter-of-factly, as though the topic of her gouging out her own eyeballs was a disappointing tennis score, “Not long after he came to me. Helped me focus, you see. Too much interference. Too many distractions from the tapestry.”

“You… you…” Matt felt his head grow lighter, his breaths starting to come quick. “You’re insane,” he whispered. The old woman smiled.

“No, my dear boy, sadly, I am not. I am, however, doomed, in about…” she gingerly lowered the tip of her ring finger down into the liquid she was drinking, “…three-quarters of a teacup. But that is entirely another matter.”

A surreal lightness snapped at the edge of Matt’s vision. He shook his head. “What do you want from me?” he asked. But the old woman only smiled.

“I want nothing from you dear one. Nothing more than what you’re already going to do.” And to Matt’s utter shock, although her smile never wavered, a shining tear leaked down her cheek. “I’m so sorry it has to be like this. For the pain you’re going to go through. We both are.”

Matt’s stomach churned. “I thought you said-”

“Oh not now,” the old woman said dismissively with another wave of her hand. She leant down and gently blew across the tea. “Not me, no. I’d never hurt you. Even if I wanted to, he’d never let me. Gods above.”

“What do you mean?” Matt demanded, gritting his teeth, “What you talking about? Who’s ‘he’? What the hell is going on?”

“What’s going on, Matthew Callaghan, and I’ll mind you watch your profanity, is a distraction. All of this is, all of us are. One tantalising distraction after another, shadow after shadow for him to chase, and before you know it it’s been a year if it’s been a decade. But it’s all over now. I’m to be the last. He has stalled him for as long as he can, but he’s getting impatient and there’s no pushing sand back up the hourglass. He has you in his sights now, and you’re ready, as ready as you can be. You have a part to play, Matt Callaghan, as do we all, and if we don’t rightly play it, we will all horribly die.”

Silence.

Matt squeezed his eyes shut a second, trying to draw sense from the gibberish, feeling like his brain was on fire. “You keep saying ‘he’. He said this. He appeared to you. Who?” Matt hesitated for a long moment, reluctant to articulate his next thought. “Jesus?”

For the first time since he’d gotten down there, the old woman erupted in a loud, booming laugh. She shook her head.

“No dear boy. Nothing so theological. He’s not a god. At least so he insists.” For some reason this caused her mouth to crease with a knowing smirk. “Although one could argue it’s genetic.”

“Right,” said Matt, his heart hammering, still not understanding a word, “So, uh, who is he?”

“Ah, it’s not quite time for that,” the woman said simply, taking another sip of her tea, “You’ll figure it out. Eventually. Just know this.” Her head turned and she looked at him directly. “He loves you. Both of you. So much.” Her trembling hands put down her mug and her voice stretched out, warm and melodic into the dark. “You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but he does. He’s so full of love. And he wouldn’t do this, any of this, if there was any other way.”

Another rumble. Another mine.

“Why isn’t he here then?” Matt asked. His mind swam but he pushed forward, trying to get something, anything, leaning into the delusions. “This person, whoever he is. Who wants to talk, who loves me so much. Why isn’t he talking to me himself?”

The woman’s face scowled. “Him.” Her head tilted towards the ceiling, to the single lightbulb flickering overhead. “That abomination. That coward. He’s above us right now. Watching. Pah.” She spat with surprising violence on the ground. “Let him scramble, let him frustrate. These walls are lead lined. He’ll get nothing, traitor, nor step into my mind.”

“Wait who?” said Matt, “What? Is, is this a different person? Who are we talking about now?”

“He who I shall not honour naming. That would be king, that murderer, consumed by greed and fear. Weak little boy, pale and heartless as your forebears, I’ve seen the truth of you. So terrified of losing, so far come, so much to lose. Biding his precious time.” The woman snarled. “He frets and skulks and plots. Tyrant. Terrified, now that he is within reach, so close to the crown. Standing on the precipice, this so‑called conqueror. This boy who would be king.” She turned to Matt, her empty eyes gleaming. “How can he know who’s coming for him? What’s a king to a god? What’s a god to a non‑believer?”

The old woman shook her head, as if any of this made sense. “But one cannot be too cautious. He’s watching you, closely, and though he can slip here and there unnoticed when his attention is turned he cannot risk him ever finding out. It would change everything, you know? Forget his pursuit of you. Ha!” The sudden bark of laughter made Matt jump. “The horror he’d unleash if he got even a whiff of his power. It’s hard to know how far a mind reaches. And nothing moves faster than thought.”

She sighed, idly stirring the remnants of her tea. “Hence me. Hence you, wonderful boy. An airgap, if you will, to protect that separation.” And then she smiled at him, and to Matt’s horror and disbelief, the next words she spoke were not sound, but thought.

We all know your mind’s like a trap.

“Gah!” Matt recoiled, throwing his hands up, barriers scrambling wildly. He breathed heavily, his eyes wide. “You’re… you’re…”

“Not a clairvoyant,” Cassandra smiled, “Like I said. None of us were.”

“Then what were you?”

“Conduits. Distractions. All a very specific demographic. All willing to buy you more time.”

Up above there came the sound of more booms, the vibrations shaking dust from the earthen ceiling, closer and closer, still so far away. Matt’s heart hammered in his chest. “Time for what?”

And in the flickering lamplight, the old woman beamed.

“Time to win,” she said simply. Then in a single, fluid movement she rose and flung open her gown, revealing the explosives wired beneath.

“HOLY FU-”

Matt yelped, stumbled, scrambling back, his armour slamming into the wall. He turned, spinning, scrambling desperately for an exit, but there was nowhere to go, no way out. He turned back to Cassandra.

“Please,” he begged her, “Please. You don’t have to do this. Whatever it is you’re going through, whoever you think is after you, we can fix it, I can help!”

“My darling boy,” she smiled softly, staring at him with empty eyes, “All I am going through is time, and I have already gone far beyond my allocated amount. And as for who is after me, well, this is how I beat him.”

Matt stared at her, heart fluttering in his throat. “You said you wouldn’t hurt me,” he whispered.

“I won’t.”

“You said I had a part to play!”

“You do.”

“Why then? What am I supposed to do? Why did you bring me here? Why are you doing this?!”

“Why?” said Cassandra, and she raised the detonator in her hand, “Why? Because next month’s winning lottery numbers are 4, 7, 13, 18, 21, 26, 32 and 3. Because love is more powerful than hate. Because true souls can disagree on the colour of a garden. Because you are human. And because he has waited a long, long time to save you, and it is my privilege to call him my friend."

Another boom, the loudest one yet. The wooden shelves clattered against the walls. The old woman smiled.

“It’s almost time. He’s getting impatient. He’d come down on us in about eighty more seconds, but thankfully she’ll get there first.” The old woman smiled. “Take care of her Matt Callaghan. Even when it’s not easy.”

“I don’t understand,” whispered Matt. There were sounds now, a thudding, getting closer. The walls seemed to close around. “Please. Please don’t do this. Please.”

“Ten,” Cassandra whispered, “Nine.”

Matt ran. He sprinted, ducking under the woman’s outstretched arms, barrelling past the table to the other side of the room. Cassandra didn’t move.

“Eight. Seven.”

He dove, hands and knees, clawing at the rockfall, the staircase, the passageway blocked. He scrambled, furiously, his fingers drawing blood. But the rocks wouldn’t move.

“HELP!” he screamed, “HELP!”

“Six.”

Matt leapt to his feet, heart hammering, eyes flying around the room, looking for something, anything-

“Five.”

The table. He raced forward, heaving it up with a wordless cry, pulling it on its side, as above him there came another boom, and he was dragging it-

“Four.”

-dragging it backwards, away from her, still standing there with her back to him, with her horrific empty eyes, as far as he could go, as far as he could manage-

“Three.”

-until his foot stumbled on the bottom of the staircase and he cowered, leaning desperately into the wood, his eyes clenched shut-

“Two.”

There was another shuddering boom and the air around Matt grew hot. Suddenly there was a wave of force, a roar from behind him, and a hand wrenched Matt back.

Cassandra’s head turned. Her scarred face gazed down at Matt and the figure standing between them. Her finger hovered on the detonator. The world began to darken.

And for the briefest moment, Cassandra’s mouth twitched into a crooked smile.

“One,” she whispered.

And then she pressed the button.

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMM

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About the author

Benjamin Keyworth

  • Australia

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).

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