As October advanced, the first signs of snow began appearing around Morningstar’s grounds, dusting the grass with frost and lending the trees the appearance of having been dipped in powdered sugar. Biting winds blown in from between the mountains howled and snapped at Acolytes’ exposed skin as they moved between classes, and there was an outbreak of thick parkas amongst the students – with the exception of Celeste, who forwent any protective clothing and instead waddled around as a variety of bears and the occasional caribou. Reluctantly, the cold turn found Matt scaling back his hiking and bird-watching activities, as even rugged up he’d often return to Morningstar to find a previously-undiscovered cut or gash, probably inflicted by a stray stick, bleeding along one of his numbed and clumsy limbs. Not that there were many birds out anyway – the few that hadn’t fled the snows seemed to have been scared away by the swarms of shutterbugs infecting the surrounding countryside.
In the weeks following the Darkest Day, the plague of paparazzi stalking Legion land had not abated nor shown any signs of letting up. Indeed on more than one time-wasting walk, despite not even looking for them, Matt had personally stumbled across several photographers – some slinking around through the snow, others perched in pine trees like big ugly birds with telescopic lenses, and all of whom inevitably fled for their lives as soon as they saw him. The third time he found one, Matt was tempted to call Giselle and unleash her on the fleeing fat man and his ugly camo jacket, but refrained from doing so on the grounds that it might impair his impartiality as a bookie.
Despite the enjoyment many Acolytes were deriving from either repelling the trespassers or betting on those who were, a general irritability at the paparazzi’s presence nevertheless spread through Morningstar like a slow infection. Exercises were being disrupted, lectures spied upon; range practice had to be interrupted one morning to shoot down two photographers taking aerial shots three thousand feet in the air. The Ashes in particular were taking the violation of their honoured institution very, very poorly, to the point where Selwyn was actually spending their morning meditation sessions astral-scouting the nearby countryside and relaying the location of any photographers he found. But no matter how many paparazzi they roughed up or turned away, there always seemed to be another one willing, eager and stupid enough to take their place – and all, Matt thought sadly, for a picture of one girl who wasn’t doing anything wrong, and who just wanted to be left alone.
True to her word, Jane had been following Winters’ advice and engulfing herself in a veil of flames when walking between training grounds or moving anywhere she could potentially be seen, which on the upside insulated her from the cold, but unfortunately also equated any momentary lapse in concentration with the partial incineration of whatever she was wearing. Having to study and train with holes burnt into your clothing would have been annoying enough for a regular person, but Jane didn’t own that many clothes and it was only a matter of time before nearly everything she had was fire-damaged. Before long, feelings of paranoia, exposure and vulnerability from being under constant surveillance permanently niggled at the back of Jane’s head, chewing away at her concentration – and exacerbated by many of the other Acolytes, who blamed her for the whole situation. An Acolyte petition calling for Jane’s removal circulated through the Academy, gathering more than a hundred supporters – inspired perhaps by an almost identically-worded one lodged on Change.org the week before which had attracted over twelve million signatures. Despite the numbers, the Ashes’ response to the applications remained the same – a bluntly-worded reminder that neither Acolytes nor the outside world had any say in who attended their Academy.
This fact was not lost on Matt, who – despite his vain, now half-hearted struggles – continued to remain un‑expelled. It seemed inescapable now – a week after he’d handed them to Cross, Cassandra Atropos’ numbers came good, and the Ashes woman was able to walk into Winters’ office the following morning and inform the administrator that Matt could have won five million dollars. Not that he actually did – Cross had expressly prohibited Matt or anyone acting for him from buying a lottery ticket, citing some high-minded concern about abuse of powers, disclosure obligations and the Legion’s public image. Matt, who would have liked five million dollars, suffered this further indignity in grating silence, on the one hand glad that the numbers had worked out, on the other feeling resentful and resigned.
What did it prove, beyond that Cassandra had seen the future? It did little to reveal the who, the how or the why of the woman’s warnings, and seemed to achieve nothing besides turning Cross’ attitude towards Matt on its head. This was ultimately a good thing, on balance – but Matt still couldn’t help but feeling like all he’d managed to achieve was handing his assessor a rope to tie around his neck.
Not that he needed much help in that regard. If Cassandra Atropos had supplied the coffin, it seemed fate was content to supply the nails – because one by one Matt’s stupid “predictions” kept coming “true”. It was such a run of good luck, it was almost bad – a Kentucky senator was caught in a men’s “health spa”, a royal commission was opened into the Australian priesthood and to top it all off, Cross herself was asked to consult at an international audio-visual conference where she met a man who (against all odds) seemed interested in her.
“It was just like you said,” she told Matt, uncharacteristically gushing, in the assessment the week after, “He asked me to dance. He was even wearing a white shirt.” (Fancy that, thought Matt flatly, a man in a suit wearing a white shirt). Matt smiled mechanically, inwardly struggling to think of a way out of this and to keep a lid on his looming despair. With Cassandra’s ramblings and the child’s threats looming over him, maintaining his deception would always be his top priority, but Matt couldn’t help but fear that soon there wouldn’t be anything he could do which Cross wouldn’t excuse. Like Jane’s paparazzi, the Ashes woman’s probing, and her desire for a seer she could control, did not seem to be things which would be readily going away.
And so it was, with their respective spectres looming over them, that Matt and Jane found themselves in the unusual position of being in the same mind about the upcoming break for Thanksgiving. For Matt, any excuse to get away from the Legion, even temporarily, was welcome, and though it pained Jane to pause her training and she hated the thought of being the scruffy tumour plonked uncomfortably in the Callaghans' Christmas card photo, she couldn’t deny that there was some appeal in going somewhere there wouldn’t be photographers hiding in the trees.
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).