Chapter 6: Miasma

The sun shone down on Lake Ontario. It was the end of summer, school was only just beginning, and Cassandra was playing hooky with Kintaro. He had been reluctant at first, complaining, but she’d been able to browbeat him until he’d agreed to meet her out here. it was a perfect Monday for fishing, and the two of them sat together on the small raft. Kintaro checked his phone for the twentieth time, and Cassandra let out an aggravated sigh. “If your mom’s going to call you, wouldn’t you not want to answer? Come on, Kintaro! Show some guts!” She smirked at him over her shoulder, and shame-faced, he placed it back on the surface of the rubber raft.

“I just don’t want her to worry, alright?” His voice was soft. Most people didn’t think much of Kintaro. They bullied him, they excluded him, they didn’t understand him. But she did. More than anyone else, she knew what he was capable of. And she loved him for it, even if she got frustrated by what a wimp he could be. She could **see** him.

She wasn’t sure when she’d first started **seeing** people. It seemed like as as long as she’d been alive, she’d been able to see who people really were. Like a shadow, but with color, and definition. Her father’s shadow was a towering man, with a huge gut, a sleepy expression, and skin as red as a boiled lobster. Two huge horns emerged from his forehead, and every time they were at a party, and someone had alcohol out, he’d stare and lick his lips with the expression of a hungry dog. Then he’d look at Mrs Hirosata, and the shadow would cringe with embarrassment.

Her mother’s shadow looked a lot like her mom. Short, petite, not particularly frightening, except for her eyes. Her irises were the color of steel, gray and deadly. When she was angry, they grew cold, and the shadow dropped into a fighting stance. When she bared her teeth, they were sharp, like a cat’s. Cassandra admired her mom. Nobody ever messed with her when she was angry. Cassandra tried to be as much like her as she could. She’d brought up the shadows to her mother, once. Her mother had gone stiff, but a fierce, iron-toothed smile had shown on the face of the shadow. Cassandra didn’t mention the scar, though. The missing breast. It reminded her of Miss Content, who had gotten cancer, and who had needed to get a mastectomy. She didn’t quite know what it meant that her mom shared that scar. Sometimes, the shadows told what was going to happen to people in the future. Sometimes it said what had happened to them in the past. Cassandra had gotten very interested in mammograms after learning about that, and she insisted that her mom get one every six months. Not that her mom ever listened to her. Nobody did.

Kintaro’s shadow was golden. Its skin glowed in the sunlight. She could see the strength in his shadow. He was going to be a hero like nobody else. And she was going to be there along his side. The two of them would be like Mister Constantinou and his wife, or her own parents. They’d go out into the world, together, and do great things, and nobody would ever be able to tell them what to do, or hold them back. The fierce smile on her lips hurt a little, it was so wide. Then, the fish tugged at her line, and she began pulling. Kintaro looked over his shoulder at her, and grabbed on to help. His arms were around her shoulders. The two of them struggled with the fish, as she reeled it in. He held her in place, and she reeled, pulling the rod back as the raft tilted under them.

Finally, the fish came out of the water. Forty inches long, wriggling and writhing wildly, it struggled furiously. Then it spoke to her. “Please! Young lady! I am a prince, transformed, into a-” She groaned, sliding the fishhook out of its mouth. She threw it back into the water. Half the fish she caught nowadays used that trick. Honestly, she didn’t want any wishes. Everything she wanted out of life was already hers. She simply didn’t want to eat anything that could talk back to her. And they always screamed when she took out the knife gut them, which always convinced her to throw them back.

Kintaro stared. He was dressed in a white tank-top, and a pair of shorts, the same thing that she was wearing. “Cassandra! That fish was huge! We could’ve cooked it for lunch-” She shook her head, and gave a long-suffering sigh. It was hard being the only person who could understand these things. Kintaro was going to be great someday, but for now, he asked way too many questions.

“Kintaro, it wasn’t a good fish. Trust me on this. It would’ve just made life more difficult.” She grinned over her shoulder at him. Then, she shoved him off the raft. The boy sputtered as he fell into the water, splashing and kicking. She giggled as she took the paddle, and began paddling furiously back to shore as he swam after her. She paddled as hard as she could just to keep ahead of him, giggling wildly as his fingers scrabbled for purchase on the raft’s slick rubber. Whether it was to dump her into the chilly water or climb aboard didn’t matter. She was going to have her fun with him. He needed a little fun in his life. She knew how others at their school would pick on him, because he was soft spoken, and refused to protect himself. For just a moment, she entertained the mental image of Kintaro turning on those bullying bastards, and making them pay. But he never would. She sighed, and smiled as she kept rowing. That was a part of what she liked about him, though.

She saw shadows of everyone in the town. Like Mister Constantinou, whose shadow wore a bear-skin, and carried a club. Or the local deli store owner, who had a shadow like a giant shaggy ape, which breathed out winter mist and always had a man’s arm in her hand. She had asked her father about that once, and he had told her that she had an active imagination. When he did, though, the big man that was his shadow had gulped and cast his eyes over to Cassandra’s mother. They always lied to her because she was a teenager. As though she couldn’t handle the truth, if she saw it. She giggled as she landed on the sand, grinning as she ran inland. Kintaro was still wading up out of the water, but he’d catch up with her soon enough. That was okay, too. He still didn’t stand a chance at wrestling with her, and he always got really embarrassed when he tried. She wasn’t proud, she’d take any advantage she could get in putting him in his place. It wouldn’t do to be too obvious that she liked him, after all. She sprinted into the sand dunes, laughing merrily. The sun sparkled down on a perfect day.

It became obvious that something was wrong when he hadn’t caught up with her in a few seconds. She stood at the top of the bluff, and looked back. Kintaro was standing at the bottom of the small valley between the two bluffs, staring at a patch of grass. Cassandra slid down the side of the slope, sand running across her bare feet. It burned a bit under her heels, but she was at the bottom of the valley in seconds. Tears were glistening in Kintaro’s eyes. She followed his gaze to the patch of grass.

It was strange that she’d missed it when she’d run past it. Dean Constantinou was instantly recognizable in his letterman jacket. Laying on the ground, one arm stretched out. The thick-packed sand and grass obscured him slightly, but there was no question that it was him. His head was tilted to the side. His eyes stared at nothing. He wasn’t breathing. She reached forward, and touched his hand. It was cold. And there was a smell around him. It reminded her of when she had found a dead deer in the woods. The deer had seemed whole, but there was a smell like rancid meat in the air. She had reached down, to try roll it around onto its back, and she had seen just a hint of red. She had known, somehow, that it would have been too terrible to see the thing, hollowed out, and what nature was doing to it. The same feeling filled her, now. So she wrapped her arms tightly around Kintaro, hugging him, as much to calm herself as him. “Do you have your phone?” He nodded, eyes full of tears. He was such a soft-hearted person. It was part of why people picked on him. It was part of why she cared about him. “Call the police, okay?” He nodded, slipping the phone out of his pocket, and dialing. They’d get in trouble, but that wasn’t important. The perfect day had turned rotten and hollowed out, just like the deer.

The police arrived in no time. They’d been disbelieving at first on the phone, but Kintaro had persisted, and Chief Pearl had been notified. She always took them seriously. A fiery-eyed centurion stood behind her, the shadow of who she was. Sergeant Dio was walking alongside her. His shadow was a curly-haired man, wearing nothing but a cape and a spear. Cassandra didn’t look. **Seeing** was an embarrassing thing to have to live with sometimes, but right now, her mind was on the dead body. They were pulling on gloves, moving to kneel next to Dean. “No! Please, don’t- don’t roll him over.”

Sergeant Dio frowned at her. “Cassandra, we need to check him. See if we can find anything. You don’t have to watch.” He crouched down next to Dean. Cassandra watched, her heart pounding, her breath catching in her throat, as the boy was rolled over. Dean flopped limply onto his back, and a great snake hissed wildly beneath him. It lunged at the officer.

Cassandra came to. Her head was on Kintaro’s lap, as he looked into her eyes with obvious concern. She shook him off, grunting at him as she sat up. The two police officers were lifting Dean’s body into a body bag, and zipping it up. She watched those cold, glassy eyes. She and Kintaro were gently ushered into Pearl’s cruiser, and allowed to sit together on the front seat, although the seat belt couldn’t quite zip across both of them. “Are we in trouble for skipping school?” Kintaro asked nervously, his eyes down on his lap.

“I won’t worry your mother about it. I know that she’s not in the best shape, and the skipping school can be an important part of growing up.” Pearl gave the two of them a stern look. Cassandra met her gaze. She never shied away when an adult tried this trick on her. Kintaro couldn’t make eye contact with the police chief, though. “Make sure it’s in moderation, though.” Cassandra nodded, leaning against Kintaro. “Did you two kids see anyone? Was there any sign of a struggle?”

Cassandra shook her head. “No, Chief Pearl. We didn’t see anyone else, and it looked like he’d just fallen down there.” The police officer frowned down at her. Cassandra knew it was strange for her to show that much respect for authority. Maybe the sight of Dean lying there had affected her more than she had thought. She’d actually passed out. Swooned, like some kind of wimp. The very idea of it was a little bit embarrassing. But Dean was… her mind twisted. He was dead. The very idea hurt. “Are you going to catch the person who did this?”

Pearl was quiet for a moment. “Cassandra, what makes you think that this was a murder, and not just an accident? There hasn’t been a murder in this city as long as it’s been around.” Cassandra gritted her teeth.

“Don’t fuck around with me!” she shouted, the anger blossoming. Kintaro went pale, and Pearl looked surprised. But Cassandra hated this. Being treated like an idiot. Being treated as if she couldn’t possibly understand what was happening. Being treated as if she couldn’t see the monsters and the heroes in the city. “He’s dead, and it’s someone’s fault! I know it, because I could see it on him! There was a snake under him, and it’s the one that was responsible for his death! We’ve got to do something about this! He’s dead, and you can’t just let that stand, because things are going to become horrible if you do! I know it, the same way I know that you’re burning inside!” She pointed an accusatory finger. Pearl’s expression didn’t change, but that fiery shadow’s face went wide-eyed, flames licking out of the corners of her lips. “And the same way I know you were surprised when I said that!”

“Kintaro. I’m going to drop you off. Then, I’m going to chat with Cassandra a bit, and drop her off. Give her parents a call, so they know that she’s okay.” Kintaro opened his mouth, clearly about to protest. Not willing to stand up to bullies when they shoved him, but willing to stand up for Cassandra to the chief of police, defiance in his eyes. Cassandra reached out, and rested a hand on his shoulder, the anger leaving her as quickly as it had arrived..

“It’s okay, Kintaro. I’ll be fine. Go see your mom, okay? This is between me and Pearl.” She smiled encouragingly at him. He gave her a doubtful look, but sighed, and nodded. She also liked when he could take a hint. She didn’t need him to protect her. Not at the moment, anyway. The car stopped in the suburban lot where they lived together. Kintaro got out of the car, giving her one last doubtful look. She smiled bracingly at him, and he walked to the front door. The car continued driving. The car stopped at the beach-side, and Pearl got out, taking a pack of cigarettes with her. “I didn’t think you smoked, Pearl.” Cassandra climbed out of the car. Pearl sat on the hood, lighting the cigarette with a flick of a finger. There wasn’t a lighter in her hand. Cassandra reached out for the pack, and Pearl gave her a long, hard stare. “Sheesh. Fine. It’s been a long day for me, too, you know.” Pearl’s look told her that Cassandra’s day could have included a visit to a serial killer’s torture-dungeon, and it still wouldn’t have been long enough to earn a cigarette. The girl sat against the car’s hood, an annoyed frown on her face.

“You know the story of Cassandra?” Pearl asked. The young woman frowned up at Pearl. “I’ll take that as a no. Greek legend. A real good one. The god Apollo decides that he wants to seduce a woman. Being a god, he does so by giving her the gift of prophecy. Gods can afford to get really flashy gifts like that. The problem was, Cassandra had sworn to be a virgin for all her life. To honor him, ironically enough. She refused him. So he spat in her mouth, and cursed her to never be believed when she foresaw the future. She spent most of the Trojan War, warning everyone who was around that they were going to get their city destroyed. She warned Paris about Helen, warned the people of Troy about her, warned them about the Trojan Horse, and warned Odysseus about his long journey home. She warned them all, and nobody listened.” Pearl looked at her. “How do you tell the difference between a seer who is never believed, and a fraud?”

Cassandra stared. It was just a name, it didn’t mean anything. Pearl puffed a couple of times on the cigarette before she continued. “You’ve not been told the truth about the city yet, though. I know that your parents wouldn’t break that rule. And you saw me for what I really am.” Pearl puffed again, sighing. “I told your parents it would be a godawful mess if they got married.” The chief frowned, the cigarette flaring, smoke wrapping around her head. Fire burned in the mouth of her shadow, a halo of black smoke forming around the helmet. It always looked like someone had attached a janitor’s broom to the crown of the helmet. “I’m going to call in a favor. I think that I can get someone from outside of the city here. A champion. Because Her hand is in this whole thing.” She puffed at the cigarette. “Try to stay out of this, alright? Cassandra didn’t have a very happy life, because she couldn’t hold back her warnings. You’ve got to be more subtle about it than her. People get wiggy when you tell them that things are foretold. Even in this city.” She smiled softly. “You’re probably right about what you see coming. I know that won’t be much comfort when nobody believes you. But you found Dean, and you might have enough foresight to keep safe.” She sighed softly. “Alright. You want a ride home?”

Cassandra was staring out at the lake. “What? No, no- That’s okay. I have something I want to do out here, actually, while I’m here. I…” She looked up at Pearl. “So, nobody believed her when she warned them?”

Pearl chuckled. “No. She almost burned down and chopped open the Trojan Horse, in fact. She could’ve spoiled Odysseus’ plan before it ever got off the ground, if her own people hadn’t stopped her. Sometimes, you can’t just tell people what’s going to happen. You’ve got to show them for yourself.” Cassandra nodded, absently, as Pearl put out the cigarette, and climbed back into the car. Then, she ran down the beach. When she reached the place where she’d been with Kintaro, the raft was still there. She checked the box of bait. Still plenty. She pushed out onto the lake, paddling hard. She stared down into the waters, as she lifted the fishing rod. She sat for the better part of half an hour, casting and re-casting, until she got a bite. The fish came twirling out of the water as she reeled it in.

“Can you talk?” she asked, grasping the fish firmly just below its gills. It was a sparkling salmon, eyes wild.

“Yes, child, I am a transformed god! If you will throw me back into the water-”

“Can you bring Dean Constantinou back from the dead?”

“Of course, my child, of course-”

“That’s my wish. Bring him back. Alright?” She unhooked the fish, tossed it into the water, and watched it dart away, scales shining like gems in the water. She took a deep breath, and baited the hook again, casting it out. And so she fished, for hours, until the sun was setting, wishing on fishes. She knew that it probably wouldn’t do a damned thing. But it was the only productive idea she had.

The next day, the entire school was full of teary-eyed people. Everyone expressing their grief openly. Dean had been a beloved figure for nearly everyone in the school. A stranger to the town, not born here, but charming and kind. His death had been a blow. She looked around the large auditorium. They’d been called in to hear from Megara Drakos, the twelfth grade teacher. The great serpent shadow, a woman with the body of a snake, stood behind Megara. Tears streamed down the soft blue cheeks of the principal’s shadow, eyes red-rimmed and shoulders heaving. A red-scaled tail twisted and revolved, the tail of a great snake which lashed across the entire stage, obviously agitated. Megara herself showed none of it. She stood sternly at the front of the auditorium, and gave a speech, explaining that Dean had been found dead, that he would be gravely missed. A whole bunch of words that meant nothing at all, hiding her real feelings. Cassandra scanned the crowd. There they were. Isabelle and Susan, the two girls who had been the closest friends with Dean. They sat close together, whispering. Their shadows were intertwined, a pair of serpents, one white, one green. Cassandra had never seen the two shadows so close together. She frowned inwardly, as the speech continued. The small notepad in her hands was full of observations. She paid attention to the people in the school. The ones whose shadows were behaving strangely. And she wrote it all down.

She wasn’t entirely sure what she’d do with the information. Pearl didn’t seem to be able to do things on her own. Every time that Cassandra walked past her, the chief’s shadow was robed in more and more chains, locks latching them around her body. They seemed to drag her down, making her posture stooped, and weighing heavily even on the shape that everyone could see. Nobody else seemed to know how to fix this. But she’d heard a few rumors. Her parents had been talking about an FBI agent being called in. She thought she might give them to him.

A week passed, and she gathered her evidence. She was sitting in the diner one morning, when the stranger walked in. Technically, she was supposed to be at school. She’d decided to visit the diner instead for breakfast. The man drew her eyes for two reasons. First, he had no shadow. Everyone she’d met, even perfectly normal people passing through, had a shadow that she could **see**, even if it was sometimes just themselves. Second, he had no face. He had the suggestion of a face, but his eyes were gone, open sockets covered by drooping lids. His lips were absent, leaving teeth exposed. His cheeks were split wide open, revealing molars. His nose had been chopped away, leaving nothing but a pair of slits in his face. He had no ears. He sat there, a maimed thing, and she sat tightly in her booth, her whole body shaking as she tried to hide. She stared down at the notepad. Her heart pounded as her nails dug into the table-top. She waited, glad that she was out of view, pressing her back into the faux leather. “Lemme know when you’ve picked out your order, G-man. Try not to make a federal case out of it, alright?” asked Ariel.

“I’ll just have coffee and scrambled eggs.” His words came out in a slow, hissing croak, as though someone had taken a pipe cleaner to his voicebox. Nobody who looked like that should be able to speak. They shouldn’t be able to live. The conversation continued as Cassandra quavered in her seat. How could Ariel not see it? Why hadn’t the strange, spritely woman screamed at the sight of him?

“You figured out a place to stay while you’re here on whatever government business?”

“FBI, actually.” Her heart sank. It was him. This was the person who Pearl had called in to help.

When he finally left, she snuck out the back. She had her phone out in a minute, calling Pearl’s number. It rang a few times, and then the voice-mail received it. “Pearl. This guy you called in. Whoever he is, he’s bad news. He just arrived at the diner, and he doesn’t have a face, or a shadow, or anything. I think there’s something seriously wrong with him.” She snapped the phone shut, and went to the school. She arrived just before the bell. By the time lunch came around, she calmed somewhat. She and Kintaro ate their lunch together, and she traded him the stuffed grape leaves her mother made for one of the cucumber sandwiches his mother packed for him. She had almost managed to forget about the man by the time she returned home.

The door bell rung. Cassandra sat up from her desk, moving to the stairs, homework momentarily forgotten. “…about the circumstances of his death.” floated up from the stairwell. She walked down, and looked out the door. Pearl was standing there, talking with her parents.

“Mom. It’s alright.” She gave Pearl a grin. “Hey, Pearl.”

“Chief Pearl, Cassandra. What happened to your nose?” Cassandra snorted, and rubbed her nose. Kintaro’d accidentally gotten her in the nose while they were fighting the night before. He didn’t want her to keep going out at night. He was worried for her. She’d blown him off, and put him in a half nelson. It still brought a smile to her face to think of the way he’d headbutted her.

“Wrestling with Kintaro, Pearl. Come on, do we really have to stand on ceremony? After all this time we’ve known each other?” Then she saw him, as her father stepped out of the way. The faceless man, giving her a cheerful smile with a lipless mouth, his eyes empty and staring, far too many white teeth shining as gore dripped over them. She felt her heart hammer her ribs as the terror gripped her. “Are you crazy, bringing him here?!”

Pearl frowned. “Cassandra, Agent Nash is here to help-” Nash rested a hand on her shoulder. Blood was dripping down his fingers. He looked as though he’d bathed his hands in someone’s open wounds. It dripped onto Pearl’s outfit, leaving thick, ruddy stains.

“It’s alright.” He turned his head towards her, that horrific slashed-open smile spread wide. “Cassandra, I don’t know who you’ve mistaken me for, but I’ll wait in the car, alright? But I am here to help.”

Cassandra narrowed her eyes. The horror was leering at her, as he let go of Pearl. “You’re not a hero, you know. You’re a killer. You’re just going to make things worse as long as you’re here. Why don’t you just leave, before everything falls apart?” The faceless figure looked surprised as he stood up straight, and walked towards the car, turning away from her. Cassandra became aware of the eyes on her. Her parents, shocked at her behavior, and Pearl, looking angrier than Cassandra had ever seen. “Let’s go inside, and talk.” She waved Pearl in. Her parents walked into the next room, shooting Pearl concerned looks, but she gave them a bracing smile as Cassandra led her into the dining room.

“What in the HELL were you thinking?” Pearl asked, her voice low, hissing, her eyes enraged. The shadow puffed like a volcano, smoke curling around that brush-topped helmet.

“What were you thinking?! Can’t you see that man’s face?! Can’t you see- he’s a fucking horror show! He’s full of something hideous, and it’s going to eat us all alive if he’s given half the chance! I can feel the murder on him. I thought you were going to bring in some kind of hero, someone who was going to be able to find justice! Not- That!” She shivered violently. “You’ve been saying I can see the future. I’m telling you, right here, right now. That guy is the worst news I’ve ever seen.” The memory was still haunting her. The sight of those open, staring eye sockets, and the red inside. She felt a wave of nausea pass over her, her stomach heaving at the thought of it.

“Of course I can. I suspect half the people in this city, the monsters at least, can feel what he is. He is touched by one of the Horsemen. That is why he is here.” Pearl saw the confused look on Cassandra’s face, and sighed. “It is something you are too young to understand, I’m afraid. But believe me. That man is our best hope at saving this city. Now, what do you know?”

Cassandra tried not to bristle at the ‘too young to understand’ comment. That was nothing new. “I’ve been taking down notes. I have an idea of some of the people who might be responsible. I saw a snake, when officer Dio turned Dean over. I think that means something, and there are only a handful of people whose shadows look like snakes, in the whole city.” Cassandra frowned down at the notepad. “Why can’t you help?” she asked, softly. Even though she could see the chains.

“If I interfered, I would invite the interference of others. We exist in a delicate balance. Nobody who’s a part of this city can see what the real problem is. Not even you, although you’ve been doing a damn good job of trying, Cassandra. You’ve got to trust him.”

“But he’s not a hero! He’s not anyone! He’s just-”

“Broken, and tortured. I know.” Pearl stared at Cassandra for a few long seconds. There was a look of disappointment on her face. “For a while there, I really thought you could see people for who they really were.”

“Maybe you’re the one who doesn’t see,” Cassandra managed, but without much conviction. She couldn’t meet Pearl’s gaze. Then, there was a shout from outside. The two of them were out of the door, just in time to see the FBI agent, Mister Nash, running down the street after nothing. Cassandra frowned. The man was insane. He was chasing after air. She looked up at Pearl. “So, I guess we’re hosed, then.”

The next day passed without incident. As evening fell, Cassandra’s cellphone buzzed. She was sitting in her room, studying the note pad. An english essay sat abandoned on her desk. it really didn’t seem to matter all that much to her at the moment. There were more important things in this world than studying to get into a good college. The world was bigger than a well-paying job and financial security. There were better uses of her time. Of course, she’d never dare to tell her parents that. She swiped open the phone. An unfamiliar number had sent the message. It read ‘Come to the shack.’ She’d seen the shack a few times. It wasn’t a large town. There was only one shack worth talking about. She frowned. Probably some hormonal teenage boy mistaking ‘punk’ for ‘easy’ again. She shut it off. It buzzed again. ‘The FBI agent is going to die if you are not at the shack within half an hour.’ She stared. It buzzed again. ‘If he dies, so will everyone you love and care about. Your family. Kintaro. Pearl. Everyone will die.’

She was out of the front door in no time. Her legs pumped as she ran down the street to Kintaro’s house. He had left his bike out in the yard. It was the kind of town where people did that. She promised herself that she’d bring it back. She pumped the pedals as stormclouds gathered over Lake Ontario. She couldn’t say why she was doing this. The text-messages had been more like a prank than anything else. But the world was changing in horrible, frightening ways. She swallowed hard as the road turned to gravel, and then dirt, the bike bouncing wildly. She was going to be aching the next day. She made it to the base of the bluff, just as the sky cracked open with a blast of lightning, and rain began to fall. She stared up at the shack, sitting there, mocking her like a fat, smug toad atop the hill. She’d been an idiot. Of course it was just a prank. She was cursing herself for being so gullible when the shack exploded. There was a concussive blast that nearly knocked her on her ass, and the sound of shattering glass. She watched as someone fell out of the window, tumbling and spinning. She closed her eyes, as they fell towards the jagged rocks at the base of the bluff. There was a gust of wind. When she opened her eyes, the FBI agent was lying among the rocks. He was scorched, his shirt torn, looking in bad shape, but he was clearly alive. She ran over to him, and grabbed his hand. He stood up, moving like he was drunk. His eyes weren’t focused. “Why do you hate me?” he asked softly.

She stared at that maimed face. At eye-sockets that were filling up with water. At the hole in his face, on the sides of his head, that should have been a nose and ears. At those bared teeth. She shivered. There were frightening things in the town. But nobody made her feel the same sense of dread that she did when she saw him. “You scare the hell out of me.” He seemed to stand there for a long few seconds, as she watched him, growing more nervous by the second. Then, he started walking. She watched as he took several steps, and then ran to keep up. She came level with him, and stared. His arm was surrounded by a shimmering serpent, which hissed and writhed as it sank its teeth into him. In the darkness, its scales refused to resolve as any color. It was monochrome, almost, but had a great hood like a cobra’s. She looked up at him. His gait was unsteady, and he seemed to be seeing things that weren’t there. His mouth opened.

“Why don’t you help?” She flushed, and lifted his arm over her shoulder. He was taller than her, but he felt light as a feather, as she slung his arm over his shoulder. He seemed to be listening as he stumbled. A few seconds passed, and then he spoke again. “What, we should pray to gods to help us? You don’t think we can accomplish it on our own?” His voice was low, a croak, and she frowned.

“You think you can walk on your own, buddy? Feel free to try it.” She gritted her teeth. He was lighter than he should be at his size, but it was still a strain. She really hoped that the bike wasn’t going to get rusted in the rain.

“Why?” She gave him a quick look. He wasn’t looking at her, but she had been wondering that herself. Why come out here? Why walk through the rain, to help someone who terrified her? Not because it was the right thing to do, that much was certain.

“Because someone threatened my family, and the people I love, to get me to save you. And I’m never going to forgive you for that.” It wasn’t as though he’d ever remember what she said, in his current lunatic state.

The two of them walked in silence for several long minutes, entering the forest. They walked past a large rock, and the FBI agent cast his eyes to either side, stopping for a moment. Cassandra swallowed, her eyes traveling to the gun in its shoulder holster. She was walking through the woods with a man, twice her age, who looked like a horror movie serial killer, and who was acting like there were things around him that she couldn’t see. She didn’t like this. She started to pull away from him.

“Why did you die?” She froze, staring at him. He was away from her. Then he turned towards her. Those empty eyes held her gaze, kept her standing still. She swallowed hard. “Was he supposed to die?” She stared for a few seconds, and thought about the question.

“I don’t think he was.”

Nash frowned. “Did you kill him?”

She stared. The question was nonsensical, but most of them were. “Of course not.” She whispered. He was probably speaking to someone who wasn’t even there. He walked in a trance, his head swaying and lolling from side to side. He couldn’t even hear her. His fingers were twitching. Drool ran down his chin. She felt a little bit of panic. The poison was killing him, and not nearly fast enough for her comfort.

“Is there a reason that he should live? So many other people die every day, murdered, their lives stolen away. What makes your son different? Why does he deserve to have life, when nobody else does? When my mother didn’t?” She frowned at the question.

“Dean…? He was supposed to do more. He was destined for great things. Now wasn’t the time he was supposed to die.” She whispered softly. She knew, somehow, that that was right. Her gift should have told her, if he was going to die. She was supposed to know about those things. She was supposed to see them coming. She kept walking, her eyes down. Then she heard the crunch. She turned, and stared at the FBI agent. He was lying face-down in the gravel. He wasn’t breathing. “Sir?”

She got closer to him, and ran her fingers over his head. “Please, get up.” She bit her lip. She looked around, and took out her cell phone. A hand reached out, and grabbed her wrist. Cassandra looked up, and a dark-skinned woman in red smiled. Her eyes were green, and her hair glowed red. She held a finger over her lips, smiling. Cassandra didn’t dare to look at the woman’s shadow. She could see it in her peripheral vision, a nightmare of steel and flame and smoke. She kept her gaze very solidly on the woman’s face, as the strange woman bent forward. She pulled the FBI agent to his feet, as Cassandra watched. Then she whispered softly. “Come and get me.” With that, she disappeared, and the agent ran.

Cassandra ran after him through the cold dark night. He’d been on the verge of death, seconds before, and now she couldn’t keep up with him. He accelerated into the darkness, running with all of his strength, and she fell behind. She caught up with him at the town clinic. The small one-story building glowed in the rain, its lights still on. Cassandra’s clothes were soaked. She was miserable. The town doctor was standing at the entrance to the place, looking surprised as the FBI agent approached her. Cassandra could hear her speak to him. “Jesus, are you alright?” The man collapsed on the ground by way of an answer.

“He’s been bitten by a snake! He’s hallucinating badly, I think it was cobra venom!” Megan Smith, the town’s only doctor, turned towards her, mouth opening, clearly about to ask questions. “Look- Just trust me, alright?!” She flipped Nash over with great effort, pointing towards the puncture marks on his arm. “We need to save him!” Megan’s shadow puffed on a pipe, clearly thinking. Then, the older woman crouched down, and the two of them carried Nash into the clinic. Megan took out a small vial of antivenom, and applied it with a needle. Cassandra didn’t watch it, but she could hear the EKG as his heart started to beat regularly again. Her strength spent, Cassandra slumped down into a chair. She didn’t wake up when her mother arrived to drive her home. She didn’t wake up on the car ride. She didn’t wake up, in fact, until the riot the next day.

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