Posted by: lordkyler | February 4, 2017

Cassandra’s Child – Short Story

Sequel to He Who Speaks With Birds


I wanted to get back on the bus about three seconds after I got off.

It was a perfect day, as far as the weather was concerned: not too hot, not too cold, not a cloud in the sky. As far as I was concerned, that was a problem. No clouds meant no information, on a day when I desperately needed it – like cramming for a final exam with a blank textbook.

Luckily, I wasn’t completely blind. A playful breeze wrote messages in the way it moved litter around the parking lot, gave me glimpses of things beyond sight as it made the flags and pennants of the stadium dance. There were plenty of birds as well, mostly seagulls and crows come to scavenge from the aftermath of picnics, tailgate parties, and countless concessions.

I still wished I had clouds. Birds and breezes were useful, but they spoke to me in different ways; about different things. Miss Green had left me a letter explaining the basics of divination. There were dozens of forms, she said, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and specialities. They could divine people, relationships, or events; peer into past, future or present; see near or far, deep or broad.

She had also urged me not to pursue this path. The gift and the curse were inextricably linked, and attempts to convince the ungifted always ended in disaster. She had provided several pages of historical examples, which I had only skimmed. I couldn’t afford to have that kind of baggage in my brain. It didn’t matter how many people had tried and failed in the past. I’ve seen the clouds – apocalypse literally looming overhead – and I cannot stay silent. I will find a way, because people need to know.

But that meant getting to people who had power to actually do something at national and international levels. That meant a trip to Washington D.C., and that meant money for a bus ticket, food and shelter. Money I didn’t have. Yet.

I shrugged on my backpack and made my way across the parking lot, grateful for the chance to stretch my legs. I’d spent too many long nights trying to brainstorm and research every possible angle, filling in the blanks my powers couldn’t provide. I wasn’t much for sports, but I was a good runner, and I even knew a little bit of parkour – nothing impressive, but it was fun, and I could get around well enough when I needed to.

I reached the entrance feeling a little better. The wind whispered excitement, but I didn’t sense any danger. A raven perched on top of the ticket booth, studying me with bright, beady eyes. It squawked once, but I was too focused on what lay ahead to study it for further signs.

The lines were short, and the entrance was surprisingly cheap, but still more than I’d like. Every dollar mattered. The ticket-taker gave me a funny look as she counted out my change. I’d withdrawn my entire savings account, one hundred and three dollars, which was also how the teller had given it to me. I stuffed the handful of bills in my pocket, keeping my hand there in case the rumors of pickpockets turned out to be true. I couldn’t afford to take chances.

The raven flew off as I made my way through security. I got a few suspicious looks there, as well, but once they’d checked my backpack and found nothing dangerous, they let me pass without incident. None of them seemed to care in the slightest that I was ditching school, so long as I was paying to do it here.

I didn’t really follow these things, but from what I’d learned in my studies, today’s event was a big one. The main thoroughfare was an anthill of activity, hundreds of people, each moving with their own agendas and goals. Crowds clustered around concessions and restrooms, streams of spectators flowed to and from the bleachers, while certain groups huddled together like rocks in the midst of rapids, laughing or arguing as traffic swirled around them.

Watching the madness, I was hit by a strange sensation, almost like deja vu. It was mesmerizing, almost hypnotic. There was a sort of rhythm to it all, patterns in the midst of chaos, almost like the currents and eddies of the wind, or the swell of a flock moving in concert. There was information there – I could feel the shape of it – but it remained just outside of my reach, like trying to decode a sentence in French a year after you’d taken the class. And gotten a “B-.”

I shook my head, squeezed my eyes shut, and purged the thoughts from my head. I needed to focus. I had a mission, and a deadline. Squaring my shoulders, I opened my eyes, found my destination, and dove into the crowd. Along the way, I picked up a brochure someone had discarded. Inside, I found everything I needed – a list of times, odds, and most importantly, racehorses.

One of these lucky animals was going to be my ride to D.C. Figuratively.

I studied it as I walked, focusing mostly on the horses. When I reached the line for the automated betting machines, I stuck the brochure in my pocket and turned to reading the sky instead. Large windows revealed dozens of seagulls surfing the breeze, wheeling and crying. In their movement, I saw the answers I needed as clearly as though they’d been printed on the page.

It took a long time to reach the machines, and every minute put another twist in my stomach. I almost considered going up to the windows with actual people, but decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Legally, I wasn’t old enough to gamble, so I’d borrowed my brother’s driver’s license. It would likely work in a pinch, but I’d rather not test it.

Finally it was my turn. The system was simple enough to figure out. I placed my bet quickly – ninety-eight dollars in one of the most profitable types of bet – what they called the superfecta; calling the winners of first, second, third and forth place, in order.

I knew the prediction was accurate, as well as I knew my own name, but my hand still shook as I finalized the transaction, and I snatched the ticket as soon as it finished printing, holding on like it was the long-lost map to El Dorado.

When I turned around, the guy behind me didn’t move. He was at least three times my size, with a beard and ponytail. I flinched at the mere sight of him. He studied me for a moment, as though trying to see through my skin and find something beneath. Then he shook his head in disbelief. “Ya got balls, kid,” he rumbled. “I’ll be almost sad to take your money when you lose.”

He must have been watching over my shoulder. I swallowed hard and shrugged, pushing my way past the man. I knew people weren’t supposed to believe the prophecies we made, but I’d hoped this would fall into a sort of gray area. If anything, the curse worked in my favor here. If they didn’t believe my prediction, the odds would be slanted toward an even bigger payoff, and they couldn’t deny the results after I’d won, could they?

Logically, it made sense. In practice… well, I would have to be discreet. As soon as the race was over, I would collect my winnings and book it for the back door. With luck, I could catch the evening bus and reach D.C. by tomorrow.

In the meantime, I made my way to the bleachers, An announcer’s voice boomed overhead, announcing that the next race would begin in a few minutes. Rather than sitting down, I found an out of the way spot where I could lean against the rail and get a decent view of the track. The excitement in the air was now a buzz, building until I thought it would burst with the slightest provocation. The horses were already at the starting gates, stamping and snorting as their jockeys settled into the saddle, raring to race.

It was still surreal to me, even weeks after understanding my gift. Unreal, even. Their enthusiasm, their excitement.. it all hinged on the unknown, the possibility of surprise. But I knew what was going to happen. To me, it was just history I hadn’t lived through yet. It was like being an adult at a puppet show, surrounded by children too little to really understand the script being followed or the forces pulling the strings.

I scanned the crowd for a moment, taking in the smiling faces, and felt a moment of pity. But I wasn’t sure whether it was for them or for me. Were they better off not knowing about their impending doom? Could they change anything if they knew, or would it only make things worse?

My gaze snagged on a face in the crowd, drawing a double-take. There was something strange about him, but for the life of me I couldn’t say what. Maybe we’d just made eye contact for a moment, or maybe I’d seen him around town somewhere before. He seemed to be looking at something in his lap, but I couldn’t see…

“And they’re off!” the announcer cried. I spun back to the race, stranger forgotten. Horses were thundering down the track, and the roar of the crowd nearly drowned out the rapid-fire commentary from the loudspeakers, not that I could really understand it.

All the horses had weird names, so I hadn’t bothered to memorize them. I picked them out by number instead. Fourteen, the once and future champion, was a sleek black stallion with a jockey in fittingly royal blue. Second, third and fourth were already in their appropriate places just behind him, white/red, roan/orange, and gray/maroon, respectively. There was only one problem.

The entire string of winners were solidly in the middle of the herd, and being pushed to the outside by the maneuvering of the other horses. The horse currently in the lead was Number Thirty-three, a big palomino with a rider in matching gold. They were already half a horse further than the rest, and increasing their lead with every moment.

Something was wrong. The situation in front of me didn’t match the picture in my head. Had I messed up somehow? I’d never gone looking for a specific answer before. Had I changed the future by trying to predict it? Or was this something else entirely? Suddenly I wished I’d studied Miss Green’s examples, if only to avoid their mistakes.

Everything was riding on this one stupid race. If things went off the tracks here, things were going to get messy. I’d already made choices that would be nearly impossible to undo – burning my bridges behind me. Feeling like I might faint, I searched desperately for a bird, for a stir in the air or a wisp of cloud, anything that might give me a clue.

As if it was waiting for me, the raven I’d seen earlier was perched on the railing of the track, just before the finish line. Again, it looked directly at me, then ruffled its feathers and cawed, though I couldn’t hear it over the commotion of the crowds. Almost involuntarily, I shivered, and found myself mouthing a single word. Why?

In response, the raven took off, swooping low over the track and then vanishing behind a row of bleachers to the left. In it I read the same prediction as before – victory for Number Fourteen, as clear as the sun in the sky – but now there were new elements to it, details and subtexts that I hadn’t read from the seagull’s flight. Elements of disaster. Disappointment. And, like a handwritten message scrawled in the margins, a personal warning that seemed to come from the raven itself. Danger.

I should have left. But I needed to see how things unfolded. I needed to see the prophecy fulfilled despite all evidence to the contrary, and, if it was, I needed my winnings more than ever.

So I stayed, clinging to the handrail so hard I thought I might leave fingerprints in the steel. While I had been processing the latest information, the horses had entered the final stretch, pushing themselves the limits. Hooves flew and nostrils flared, jockeys used every trick they knew to coax more speed from their mounts, and none of it seemed to matter, because none of the horses were in the right order, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle hammered into the wrong place. Less than a hundred feet to go, and everything was still backwards. It hurt my head to look at it.

Then Number Thirty-three, the palomino in the lead, reached the place where the raven had flown.

I didn’t see exactly what happened next – the palomino might have gotten spooked, or stumbled, or had a heart attack – but all at once the lead horse collapsed, and chaos cascaded behind it. Some horses shied away from their fallen opponent, others tried to leap over the obstacle, and yet others skidded to a halt, rearing up and screaming in fear.

I was too breathless to make a sound, but the collected gasps and screams from the crowd gave voice to my growing horror. I hadn’t seen this. I should have seen this. Had I missed it, focusing too closely on what I wanted to see? Was this my fault, or something destined?

Almost unnoticed, the four horses I’d chosen raced past the pandemonium. Their position on the outside had allowed them to avoid the fallout of the accident, and while they were already beginning to turn around and offer help, they had already crossed the finish line. Exactly the way they were supposed to.

Suddenly sick, I turned away and found a trash can. After retching for a few seconds, I realized nothing was going to come up. Somehow that was worse. Fighting nausea, I leaned against a nearby pillar and tried to get my head back in order. I felt like I’d just been punched in the gut, though I couldn’t quite say why. I certainly hadn’t caused the accident, and while I’d felt some bad premonitions, I’d never imagined it would be something like that. Even if I had, how could I have stopped it?

Excuses. There were a million ways to explain away my mistakes, but none of that changed the facts. If I hadn’t been so focused on winning a bet, I could have seen this coming, and at least tried to stop it.

Distantly, I could hear voices over the loudspeaker, urging people to remain calm and let the medics do their job. I grabbed my head in my hands, took a deep breath, and tried to shut everything out. It didn’t work.

Instead, I did the next best thing and got moving. My horses had won in the end, and I could manage the guilt of profiting from disaster by knowing that the money was going to prevent even greater calamities. There would be plenty of time to sort things out on the bus to the Capitol.

I made my way back to the thoroughfare, focusing on keeping my breath steady and not running into anyone. I did take pains to study the sky every few seconds, getting glimpses of the immediate future and scanning for anything the universe was willing to tell me. I wouldn’t make the same mistakes again.

That precaution was the only reason I noticed the scowling security guards near the ticket-cashing window, and the man talking to them. A man with a beard and ponytail. There was something very bad happening there. As if that wasn’t enough, the raven reappeared at the windows, hovering for a moment before turning back around. A warning and a way out. If this kept up, I was going to owe that bird a lunch.

I spun around, heading back to the stands in the hopes of laying low, but someone called out behind me. “Hey, kid!”

Like an idiot, I turned and looked, making eye contact with a pair of security guards. They were looking for me, no doubt about it. Did they think I’d rigged the race somehow? Was that how the curse of disbelief worked, after the fact? Whatever the reason, it didn’t take an augur to know that getting caught wouldn’t end well. After a heartbeat of hesitation, I took off running.

Working by instinct, I turned back the way I’d come, racing up the stairs towards the stands. I could hear shouts of alarm behind me as the two guards bulldozed their way through the crowds, moving a lot quicker than I was comfortable with. I was younger, quicker, and small enough to duck past passersby most of the time, but the guards had the advantage of numbers, knowledge, and probably endurance. I was not a distance runner.

So much for the money. I’d be lucky to get out of here without being arrested. My only hope was to push my gift to its limits and hope it didn’t backfire on me somehow. It was freaking hard to get in the right state of mind while running at full speed, but I did my best to banish useless worries and act on instinct, not even stopping to think, just reading and reacting in the same moment.

I squeezed between an elderly couple at the top of the stairs, only to find another guard only a few feet away, with his back to me. He was listening to his radio, already in the middle of ratting me out. “…last seen headed for the east stairway. Suspect is a teenage male with dark curly hair and a backpack…”

The guard spun around to check the stairs, but he spun the wrong way, and I managed to slip past without catching his attention. It only bought me a few seconds, but it was working. That thought somehow made it easier to keep going, and before long I was nearly in a trance, moving through the crowd like a fish through water. Every breeze painted a path for me to follow, guiding me through momentary gaps, warning me of obstacles. I felt like I was following the steps of some intricate dance, never a missed step. I could feel it in the heaving of my own chest, reading the very air I breathed.

Focused like this, I couldn’t see beyond the next few seconds, but in the span of those few seconds, I could see everything, a near-sighted god. Untouchable.

Then I blacked out.

I didn’t fall unconscious, exactly, but my mind was no longer my own. Images flashed through my head at lightning speed, a thousand views of the area around me, each one from a slightly different angle in time and space. Each one was considered, codified, and compiled, assembling a jigsaw puzzle with a million pieces. The process was both impossibly fast and tediously exhaustive.

I suddenly remembered that I’d been through this before, when Miss Green had confronted me and the birds responded. Too much information, overwhelming my mind. I’d largely forgotten the experience, but I should have known better. I shouldn’t have –

I opened my eyes to see the security guards leaning over me. One checked my pulse, while the other was on the radio, calling for an ambulance. There was something wet on my lip – blood, by the taste. I had a nosebleed. Creepy.

What happened? Had I pushed myself too hard? A stupid mistake. I probably hadn’t been out for more than a few seconds, but it had cost me. I would have to be more careful next time – limit that level of concentration to short bursts. Assuming there was a next time.

When the guard saw I was awake, he placed a firm hand on my chest. “Stay put, kid,” he said shortly. “We need to get you checked out.”

I couldn’t tell if he meant medically or criminally, but either way meant trouble. I needed a way out of here, and quick. But how? Glancing around, I saw a total of four guards next to me, all bigger and stronger than I was. There was no chance of escaping all four, especially not while I was still light-headed and woozy from my fainting spell.

My gift wasn’t much use in this situation. I needed to find a specific version of the future where I got away, but my talents didn’t work that way. I saw the way things were, and the way they would unfold without my interference. Right now, I knew I was surrounded, and that medics and police officers would arrive sometime within the next half hour.

How was I going to explain any of this? No, officer, the birds told me who would win. Well, of course you don’t – you’re not one of the special people with magic powers from Apollo. Have I told you about the end of the world yet? One way ticket to a rubber room.

I tried to sit up and look around for some sort of hint, any information I could use to weasel my way out of this, but the guard wouldn’t let me up. Sighing, I stared at the cloudless sky. That seemed like a sign unto itself. What was I doing? I had no answers. I was a fifteen-year-old kid trying to save the world from armageddon, and I couldn’t even beat a small racetrack security team. Should I just give up and make the best of things? There were other people more equipped to handle this, augurs with decades of experience.

Augurs that had given up or given in.

Tears welled up out of nowhere, and I squeezed my eyes shut, letting them fall. The guard scoffed, cynical, but I didn’t care. I cried out in silence, a distress call to the heavens. Hey, higher powers! God, wizards, aliens – wherever this comes from. I didn’t ask for any of this crap, but I’m trying to help people, okay? Maybe messing with me is all part of some master plan, or maybe you just like playing with people. Just… give me a chance, okay? That’s all I’m asking. 

My all-frequencies prayer was interrupted by commotion from the guards, strangled curses and cries of alarm. I opened my eyes to find the raven in the guard’s midst, flapping in their faces and clawing at their clothes, a jet-black avenging angel. As my jaw dropped, it let out a hoarse battle cry, so clear to me it might as well have been English. Run.

As far as religions went, I wasn’t sure what I believed anymore, but I wasn’t about to turn down a miracle. While the guards were occupied with my new feathered friend, I forced myself to my feet and took off as fast as I could, an unsteady jog. A rough hand snatched at my backpack, dragging me back, but the raven appeared in a frenzy, beak stabbing viciously, and I was able to break free.

The crowds had largely cleared out by now, and I had a clear path to the stairs. I let myself enter the trance again, but I kept myself from falling too far in – no Matrix moves this time, just a general awareness of upcoming events and a sense of my surroundings. A moment later, the raven reappeared, gliding alongside me at one shoulder.

“Which way?” I asked. I was too deep into things to feel stupid about talking to a bird. It banked to the left, heading not toward the exit, but the racetrack. I didn’t question, just followed.

There was a gate blocking the way, but I managed to kick off the wall next to it and haul myself over the top. I hit the ground on the other side badly, jarring my ankle, but I kept going. Only seconds later, the raven fluttered a wing, directing me toward a stack of empty garbage cans. I dove behind them just as a pair of men in a golf cart drove by. After a second to catch my breath and soothe my ankle, the raven urged me on again, flying ahead to make sure the way was clear. I owed this bird a lot more than a lunch. Or did he somehow owe me? Tomato potato.

With no sign of trouble in the air, I ran straight across the field, following the bid’s lead. It looked like we were heading for the racer’s entrance, escaping through the stables, where security would be lighter. For now, anyway. I could hear the guards still searching for me back in the thoroughfare, but none of them seemed to notice my escape.

It looked like I was going to make it out of this after all. I’d lost my savings, but that was a small enough price for a get-out-of-jail-free card. I wasn’t happy about it, but as long as I was free, I could figure something out.

After all the problems earlier, it was almost too easy to get out through the stables. One gate meant to keep horses out, a wide open hallway, and then I was outside – clear of the stadium itself. I could practically smell my freedom waiting for me. And manure.

The area was bustling, but everyone was too busy to notice a bird and a boy sneaking around the perimeter. Trucks with horse trailers were lining up, preparing to load up and head for home. Some men were hauling food and water for tired steeds, while others worked to brush them down and check for injuries. A few had clearly been hurt in the accident, bandaged up or limping heavily, snorting with pain.

An ambulance was parked to on side, E.M.T.s working diligently on injured jockeys. Some lay on stretchers, not moving. Please let them be alive, I thought, directing the request to whoever had answered last time. I headed the other way, toward the parking lot.

I didn’t stop running until the stadium was well behind us, at the very corner of the parking lot, where an ancient VW van waited for us, apparently unmoved for months. Exhausted, I slumped against the rusted side, waiting for my heart to stop beating like a heavy metal drum solo.

The raven landed on the sideview mirror, flaring its wings as the flimsy metal nearly buckled under its weight. Once it was stable, it cocked its head, studying me with bright, intelligent eyes. Time to pay up, I guessed.

Taking a deep breath, I shrugged off my backpack and dug in the pockets, searching for the granola bars I had somewhere. The pockets were jammed full of clothing, toiletries, snacks, and real essentials, like my Nintendo DS. Everything I needed for an extended trip.

I finally found the granola bar and tossed a piece to the bird. It snatched it out of the air, but didn’t eat it, just kept staring at me. I shoved the rest of the bar into my mouth and stared back, noting all the little details I hadn’t had time to see before – the glossy, jet-black feathers, the middle toe with a missing claw, the beard-like puff of feathers under its beak. It was kind of an ominous creature, but I kind of liked that.

“So,” I said, talking with my mouth full. “Is this like a thing? We’re buddies?”

The raven cawed, nearly dropping its piece of the bar. The answer was complex, with ideas I couldn’t quite understand, but in essence, it meant yes. Or it could be.

“Cool,” I mumbled “So… if we’re going to hang out, you’re going to need a name.” I stopped, squinting at the thing suspiciously. “Do you already have a name?”

Flared wings and a screech like a rusted hinge, going berserk. I jerked away in surprise, blurting out an R-rated word and a mouthful of crumbs. Before I could figure out what had happened, there was a sharp crack, and the window of the van cracked. Stunned, I stared at the chips of falling glass, and caught a glimpse of something metallic ricocheting from the impact. A throwing knife, sharp enough that it stuck point-first in the asphalt when it landed.

Warning delivered, the raven threw itself into the sky, barely avoiding the silvery blur of a second knife. I flinched at the sight of a third on my peripheral vision, bringing my backpack up in front of me by pure instinct. The blade punched through canvas and layers of clothes, an impact that nearly jolted the entire thing out of my hands.

I started running, more out of panic than strategy, making my way toward cover on clumsy feet. Not that I had much choice – I was in the middle of an almost empty parking lot. Besides the van, my cover options were limited to uselessly slender lamp posts and crumpled beer cans. Against somebody this skilled, I wasn’t sure the van would even be enough.

In the few seconds it took me to reach the other side of the van, I had to fend off three more attacks, frantically reading the wind and using my backpack to shield myself. Knives snuck past my protection, nicking my ears and fingers, and were followed by a freaking tomahawk, thrown like a frisbee and aimed for my unguarded kneecaps. I dove to one side, hoping to tuck and roll the rest of the way to safety, but the pain of the tomahawk’s handle hitting my shin turned that into a flop and tumble instead.

For a second, all I could do was grit my teeth and try not to curse out loud, but I couldn’t afford to sit and wait for the pain to fade. I compromised by whispering a few choice phrases and limping to my feet, using the side of van to brace myself. Peering as best I could through the cracked and grimy windows, I finally managed to get a decent look at my attacker.

One look was enough to dispel my admittedly half-baked theories about it being a rogue racetrack guard with ninja skills. No, what I saw was more chilling than any psycho from security. I knew, instantly and completely, that this person was deadly, a killer through and through.

The assassin was an older man, with weathered dark skin and close-cropped gray hair, but he was tall and fit, and he moved like a predator, stalking me with single-minded obsession, eyes alight with intensity. His clothing was simple but practical, with a lot of pockets –  sturdy hiking boots, well-fitted cargo pants, and a nondescript jacket – not the typical suburban outfit, but nothing that would draw undue attention. No, most people’s attention would be drawn by the ten-foot snake curled around his shoulders.

I didn’t know much about snakes, but this one was way bigger than any snake had a right to be, not bulky like a python, but a sleek, streamlined viper with slate-gray scales. As I stared, it shifted its position to look back, beady eyes regarding me with an uncanny intelligence. Then – I swear – it turned and whispered in the assassin’s ear, forked tongue flicking in and out like it was trying to tickle him. The man listened, nodded, and reached into one of his many pockets.

With a practiced, almost ritualistic motion, he produced a pinch of black powder and scattered it to the wind, giving only a glance to the result. Like the movement of the crowds earlier, I found I could almost understand it myself, reading the wind between the lines of dust.

The bottom dropped out of my stomach. As if being a knife-wielding, snake-charming assassin wasn’t enough, this guy was an augur as well? I’d managed to escape a whole crew of security guards by seeing into the future. What damage could a trained fighter accomplish? And what happened when two seers fought each other? Was one of them simply fated to lose?

I looked to the raven for help, but it was occupied, circling the assassin, perhaps looking for a chance to attack, but the presence of the snake kept it at bay. When the assassin noticed, he drew and threw a knife in one motion. The raven squawked and rolled to one side, barely avoiding being skewered, then abandoned me, heading back to the safety of the stadium.

I guess it had already gone beyond the call of duty, but I was still annoyed to see it running just when I needed the most help. All the other birds seemed to have fled already, perhaps scared off by the assassin beforehand. Not a single sparrow or scrap of cirrus to help me, only a failing and barely visible breeze. This was bad.

Now that the bird was gone, the assassin started approaching once more, stealing forward like a panther, slow and supremely confident. I backed away, keeping the van between us, but there was nowhere to run, all open ground, and he’d already proved he could nail me from a long distance. When a person is in panic, they say your basic instincts are fight, flight, or freeze. I was plenty panicked, but those instincts would get me killed.

That left me to think my way out of this. Options. I needed options. Without taking my eyes off the assassin, I found the knife buried in my backpack and pulled it free, gripping the handle so tightly that my hand shook. I knew it was nearly worthless against a trained killer, but I might be able to use it as a tool or a moment’s distraction. I thought about ditching the dead weight of the backpack, but it had already proved its use as a shield, so I shrugged it back on. If I had to run, it would shield my vital organs from behind.

With my other hand, I got out my phone. It was an cheap, old-school flip-phone, only intended for emergencies, but this had to count. Who was I supposed to call? The cops? They were already on their way to the stadium, but that was a risky move at best. Sure, it could save my life, but I’d be in so much trouble it might not be worth it. I would be watching the world end from juvenile hall, unable to change anything. I thought of calling Miss Green, but what was she supposed to do against a psycho with a pet snake?

The psycho in question began circling to the left of the van, so I circled to the right, like a deadly version of keep-away. As serious as the situation was, it felt stupid to play things out like this, dancing around a hunk of junk like a couple of kids on the playground. It wasn’t sustainable, but it kept me alive for a moment longer. Whoever this guy was, he probably didn’t want complications, so any delays ought to work in my favor. Unless he’d already foreseen that there would be no complications, or at least how to arrange things that way. I wondered if the security guards had felt anything like this, trying to catch a kid that literally moved like the wind.

The thought spurred me into the half-trance I’d followed earlier, though I was careful to avoid overloading again. There wasn’t a whole lot of wind left, but it was better than nothing. But when I tried to get a read on the assassin, that’s all I got – nothing.

Less than that, actually. Usually, listening to the wind was like listening to the radio, with any gaps in the signal covered by the blank roar of static, meaningless noise. The future around the snake charmer wasn’t like that. It was a hole in reality, a silence that screamed to be filled. The man trying to kill me might as well have been a ghost, leaving no imprint on the future, as though he should cease to exist with every passing moment. The further ahead I looked, the further the nothingness spread, growing through the space-time continuum like a cancer. Swallowing my own future.

I could guess what was happening. If I foresaw the assassin’s actions and changed my response, he would see my reaction and change his own plans, a pattern that repeated itself over and over like a feedback loop, growing larger as the scope of our possible futures increased. If that was true, he should have the same blind spot when it came to me, at least since I’d known about him. Maybe I could use that.

Unless I was totally wrong and the gods were just playing with me.

When I looked closer, though, I was still able to learn a few things. At the edges of the void, I could see ghostly glimpses of possible outcomes, not our direct actions, but the fallout from battles unfought. Glass flying from broken windows, blood spraying from unseen wounds, images and impressions with no real explanation. Somehow I doubted those were events that played out in my favor.

Okay, action was out. Help was unlikely. What did that leave? Talk. Bluff. Stall. Wonderful. I could barely form two consecutive sentences without tripping over myself, and now it was my only hope of survival. Ironic tragedies – something else Greek gods were fond of.

“Who are you?” I demanded, still dancing to stay on the other side of the van from the killer. “I’m like a juven– I’m just a kid, man!”

I was surprised when the assassin actually answered, his words calm, measured, and laced with a smooth French accent. “I think we both know you are not an ordinary boy, hmm? Let us not play games.”

“I… I didn’t do anything.”

“You have, you are, you will… it makes no difference. You are a danger to a delicate system, and must be eliminated from the equation.”

“That is… eloquent,” I admitted, dodging to the left before he could draw a bead on me. “And, like, insane? You can’t just–”

“I can, I will, I must. It is inevitable.”

“Inevitable?” I could barely get the word out. “You think… you don’t… it’s not! Nothing is. It can’t be.”

“So men have said for centuries, but death found them all in the end.”

“That’s not what – wait, did you kill them?”

“More than I would like, and less than I should have. I find no pleasure in ending you, child, but so it must be.”

I couldn’t even find an answer to that. This guy was either too crazy or too serious, and I wasn’t sure which was scarier. After ducking a knife lobbed over the van, the assassin paused, tossing another pinch of powder into the air. I didn’t see help approaching any time soon. Weren’t there supposed to be cop cars by now?

I glanced at the phone. Couldn’t call my family. No real friends. And I was already getting tired. Maybe taking a risky option was better than doing nothing. If only I could make my head stop spinning.

I started punching in the numbers by feel, keeping both eyes on the man trying to kill me. I was just about to duck another arching throw when a fiery piercing pain lanced up my leg.

Gasping, I tripped and fell flat on my back, jarring half the bones in my body, but my attention was completely consumed by the snake stapled to my knee, hypodermic fangs injecting their venomous payload. The pain – even the sheer shock of this thing attacking me – it was unbearable. So I did the first thing that came into my frazzled thoughts. I reached out and grabbed the snake by the throat. If a snake had a throat, anyway. Just behind the head. Grabbed and pulled like a toddler picking flowers, yanking it out by the roots.

The pain nearly swallowed me, but I clutched the dry, squirmy snake like a lifeline, finding strength in my anger and outrage. “I’m trying to freaking help people, you freaking… freaking…” I couldn’t think of a properly scathing word, so I jumped straight to threats, hauling the length of the snake toward me and jammed my borrowed knife into the black flesh of the creature’s mouth, ready to ram the point through its brain.

The assassin came to a halt only a few feet from me, though his knife continued to spin between his fingers like an animated icon on a loading screen. Gritting my teeth against the pain crawling up my leg, I met his eye and gave one of those cool tough-guy laughs, though it probably sounded more like a grunt.

“I’m guessing… this snake… is important to you. Right? Yeah? So… let’s work something out.”

This time the assassin didn’t have any poetic threats for me. I stamped my foot against the ground and bit off a curse, but I didn’t close my eyes for a second. The snake squirmed, starting to coil around my leg, but a prick to its gums stopped that. I continued.

“I know you have to have – hnngh – I know you’ve got a cure for this. Too professional not to. Trade? Anti-venom for your evil… venom machine?”

“My mission-”

“Nope. Not talking about your mission. Snake for snake medicine, or else I skewer this noodle.”

“Noodle? That is a black mamba, the deadliest–”

“Shut up and answer the question.”

A moment of silence. The assassin crouched down, sifting a handful of sand between his fingers. “You realize this will not change the situation? You and I must still wage our war.”

“I’m not giving up,” I countered. “Neither of us know exactly how this will play out, but if I don’t get a cure for this – gah! – freaking poison, I don’t have a prayer.”

The man cocked his head, as though trying to see me from a new angle. “You are unusual. The sand shows me you will keep your word, even to a man that seeks to end you. You fight against all odds. Most curious.”

“So why kill me? Huh? I’m trying to do good. Maybe not in the best way, but I want to help. I mean, you know what’s coming, right?”

“I have not seen it directly,” the assassin said. “My talents are more of divination than  true prophecy, but I know of what you speak.”

“Do you?” I challenged. “Because it’s awfully hard to describe just how bad things get.” I paused and tried to apply pressure to my leg using my elbows. It didn’t help. “I think if anybody with even a shred of conscience saw what was coming, they would do everything in their power to prevent it. Anything.”

“You think highly of humanity,” the assassin said, but he seemed evasive. I got the feeling he considered himself a good person, murder notwithstanding. But he didn’t budge. “I will make this trade,” he said at last. “But there are too many machinations at play to leave you free.”

“So you say.” The snake started squirming again, and no amount of pricking and prodding would still it.

“But if you are sincere in your desire to help, perhaps there is a way. A compromise.”

“Antivenom first,” I said. I was growing woozy, more the result of stress and fear than the actual venom, though if this was really a black mamba, that would probably change soon.

The assassin reached into one of his jacket pockets and pulled out a metallic vial stamped with the word ANTIVENIN. Carefully, he rolled the vial across the pavement, where it stopped when it met my hip. But how to pick it up without letting go of the snake? I needed one hand for the knife, and I didn’t trust my twitching legs to hold the snake in place safely. I certainly didn’t trust the killer to do it.

Or did I? He’d spoken about compromise, and there was something about him that did seem honorable, in a weird way. Maybe that was augury, maybe it was stupidity, but I had to give it a shot either way. Even a quick death afterward would be better than a long, painful decline.

I let go of the snake and snatched up the vial, popping off the cap and plunging the needle into my leg as quickly as I dared. It stung almost as bad as the bite itself, but for once I welcomed it.

The snake broke free, sliding toward its master like quicksilver and climbing his leg as he stood. The man sheathed his knife, though I knew he could draw it again in an eyeblink. “My name is Luther,” he said, nearly bowing. “I work for an order of augurs that seek to safeguard humankind from the influence of our kind. We allow civilization to develop naturally, prevent the gifted from seizing control of those less endowed, and prevent the chaos and confusion that results from dire prophecy and cult followings. Alex, if you truly wish to accomplish the greatest good, join us.”

When I couldn’t speak, flabbergasted, he took that as invitation to continue. “You have great potential, Alex. With training, you could become one of our most powerful members, a defender of justice, a protector of the people. If you are willing to join me as a… what is the word? Acolyte? Apprentice? Ah, well, you understand. If you wish, I can spare your life in exchange for a vow to join our cause. I am confident I can convince the council to approve it.”

And what, kill innocent people? I thought. Not a chance. I was tempted to tell Luther where he could stick his offer, but maybe if I stalled just a little longer…

“I couldn’t join without knowing more about your organization,” I said. I made sure to phrase the statement without lying, in case he had a way to detect B.S. “Where do you come from? Who becomes a target, and how do you deal with them?”

Luther frowned. “There is no time to elaborate further, but I swear to you that our cause is noble. May my word suffice for the moment?”

“I’m not sure I can trust someone that came here to kill me. This could easily be a trap.”

“I did not…” Luther stopped mid-sentence, finally noticing the hand I’d stuck in my pocket. In a heartbeat, his eyes turned cold, his voice sharp. “What are you doing?”

Why lie? “I’m calling the cops,” I said with surprising confidence. The display showed I’d already been on the line with 9-1-1 for a solid minute. “I doubt they’ll understand or believe what we’ve been talking about, but it should be more than enough to get their attention. They’ve probably already tri-”

A silver streak flashed through the air, and my phone exploded in a shower of sparks and plastic pieces. “Triangulated its position,” I finished. Luther drew another knife before I’d even finished the sentence, but he didn’t throw it, and with his game face on, I had no idea what he was thinking or why I was still alive. Mere logistical problems? Fear? Actual human compassion?

“The cops will be here any second,” I said. “Come on. Do I really deserve this? Alive, I can do some good. Dead, I’m useless, and things get very messy for you. Maybe even dangerous. Please.”

Luther inhaled loudly, then exhaled slowly, clearly trying to control his temper. “You misunderstand, child. You must be removed from the equation. My offer of alliance is the only compromise possible. You will not join us?”

“No.”

“Then I have no choice but to eliminate you.”

“What about the cops?” I said, voice shrill

“You brought them into this, Alexander. I must accomplish my mission at all costs. Their blood is on your hands, not mine.”

For some reason, that idea scared me more than my own impending death. “You can’t just– there are at least three cop cars coming! Do you seriously think you can beat that many armed officers?”

Luther considered, then scattered another handful of dust. “It seems so,” he said, matter-of-factly. He twirled the knife in his fingers once more. “I am truly sorry, Alex, but your time is at an end. Paix à son âme.”

“No, wait–”

Too late. Everything happened at once – Luther’s arm snapped out, too fast to even try predicting by any means. I tried to dodge, throwing myself backward, but the bulk of the backpack kept me from dropping more than a few inches. The knife practically whistled as it pierced the air. And, in a flurry of feathers, the raven returned, striking the assassin’s arm just in time to throw off his aim.

The thrill of deliverance was short lived. Luther’s throw had been deflected, not stopped. The knife hit me in the knee, almost in the exact same spot where I’d been bitten, where the flesh was swollen and tender. White-hot pain exploded in my leg, like I’d just stepped on a land mine, and for a good few seconds I wished it had just killed me instead. It was as though my leg had turned traitor, transforming from “trusted support” to “murderous foreign entity” in an instant.

Eventually, the pain died down to mere agony, and I was able to think again, even if I couldn’t do anything. Luther was fighting the raven, trying to shield his eyes from the dangerous beak and claws. As soon as he found a moment to draw a weapon, the raven was away, screeching defiance. Luther made a weird hissing sound, probably calling for his pet, then looked behind him and spat some sort of French curse. Drawing an elegant sword I hadn’t even noticed, he turned to face this new threat. And… was it just me, or was he worried?

From his reaction, I expected sirens and flashing lights, the long awaited arrival of the cavalry. Instead, I heard actual cavalry – the pounding rhythm of galloping hooves ringing out against the pavement. Gritting my teeth against the pain of movement, I rolled onto my side to see what was going on.

Coming from the direction of the horse trailers, I beheld a woman astride a pale horse, like one of the four horsemen. She was middle-aged, with a plain, weathered face and a no-nonsense expression, dressed like a typical wrangler – jeans, boots, checkered shirt – but she held a sword in one hand and a shield in the other, riding without saddle or reins.

She wasted no time on banter or explanation. “You must be Luther,” she said. Her voice was cold and commanding, with a regal British accent giving her words an impressive amount of weight. “I trust you have heard of me?”

“Victoria Koenig,” Luther said tersely.

“Precisely,” Victoria said. She held up her sword, letting the mirror surface catch the sun. “They say you can read blades, assassin. What does mine tell you?”

Luther had no answer to that. Victoria tilted her chin back, the very picture of triumph. She leveled the tip of her sword directly at me. “I lay claim to the boy.”

Slowly, Luther sheathed his sword. “You know this changes nothing. We shall come again.”

“And I will be waiting for you. Now depart!”

Depart? I wondered distantly. Maybe it was just the pain, shock, and mayhem, but I was starting to feel more like I was watching a melodramatic action flick rather than a real-life event with my life in the balance. Mostly I just wished my leg would stop hurting.

Luther turned and left without another word, walking so casually that I almost thought I’d blanked out and missed something, until I saw the snake racing to his side. If he had any reaction to how events had played out, he masked it well – the guy seemed as cold-blooded as his pet. That frightened me more than any tantrum.

Victoria’s horse made a noise behind me, and I looked up to find the woman herself dismounting, shoving the sword through her belt with practiced ease, the blade naked by her side. I exhaled for what felt like the first time in minutes. My rescuer wasn’t exactly beautiful, but at that moment she was an angel to me.

“Thank you,” I sighed, relaxing.

Without acknowledging my thanks or even looking me in the eye, she knelt by my side and studied my wound. The area around the snakebite hadn’t gotten better, but it hadn’t gotten worse, either. The knife was still embedded in my knee, up to the hilt, and would probably require surgery to remove safely.

Victoria pulled it out and tossed it away like an oversized splinter. I screamed before I even felt the pain consciously, the fiery burn in my leg flared into an inferno, like I’d been stabbed all over again. Apparently uncaring, Victoria grabbed an article of clothing from of my backpack and knotted it around the wound, stopping most of the bleeding at the cost of my favorite shirt. Still focused on fighting the pain, I didn’t resist as she picked me up and slung me over her horse’s back, as easily as a sack of potatoes. I might as well have been a corpse, for all the care and consideration she showed. Had she actually meant it when she “laid claim” on me?

I decided to keep talking until I got her to acknowledge me, though I had to force the words out one at a time between grunts and gasps. “Where – are we – going?”

Victoria only whistled, calling the horse to follow her back to the trailers. “Hey!” I wheezed, struggling to keep my balance. “What are – you doing – with me?”

This time she answered, though she didn’t raise her voice or bother to look back. “You play at games beyond your skill or understanding, boy. It is time you met the forces you trifle with.”

“I can’t. I need – to go – to D.C.”

“That is not an option. You will come with me and obey my commands.”

“You don’t – understand.”

“You will obey or you will suffer,” she clarified. “I have saved your life – it is mine to use as I will.”

“Are you – freaking–”

This time she did look back, her expression harsh. “Speak no further, or feel my wrath. Do you understand?”

I had a dozen objections and a hundred questions, but I was in no condition to fight or run, and whatever this cowgirl warrior queen had in mind, she wasn’t trying to kill me. I nodded yes, though I’m sure I looked sullen.

“Good.” She said it the way you do to an obedient dog. Glancing up at the sky, she hesitated for a moment, and I thought I saw a flicker of actual empathy cross her face. “You have a familiar? You may answer.”

I followed her gaze to see the raven following us, though it kept a healthy distance. I had heard of familiars before – animal companions to those with supernatural gifts – but I hadn’t known they were real until today. Did Miss Green have one? She hadn’t mentioned them in the letter.  “I guess I do,” I said. “It just sort of… showed up.”

The raven croaked in response, and Victoria watched it warily, but didn’t offer any helpful information. She did reach up, almost subconsciously, to give her horse a scratch on the neck, and it nuzzled her in return.

She sighed. “It would be easier without, but if you swear it will do me no mischief, you may bring it with you.”

I hadn’t met the bird before today, but all at once I knew that separation would hurt me worse than my wounds ever would. We were linked, two souls entwined by luck or by fate in a way I didn’t understand.

Without speaking, I asked the raven if it would keep this oath, and without speaking, it answered in the affirmative. I felt a strange stirring of emotions, my heart surging, but I couldn’t stop to pick them apart or think about what had just happened. I turned to Victoria and nodded, confirming the promise.

“So be it,” she intoned gravely. “Has she a name?”

“She?” I asked, but I knew she was right as soon as I asked. “Umm…”

“True names are not chosen,” Victoria said, almost kindly. She stroked her horse again. “I did not name Hessa, she simply was. Ask the winds, and they will bring it to you.”

I didn’t know how to ask, exactly, and I wasn’t in the best frame of mind for prophecy, but I tried. Not for Victoria’s sake, but for myself. This was important. Victoria waited patiently, and for a moment there was peace, broken only by the far-distant wail of sirens. What had delayed the police for so long?

They grew gradually closer as the moment wore on, but I could already see they wouldn’t make it in time to matter. Like it or not, I was with Victoria for the moment, and she was waiting for an answer.

In the end, I didn’t find it in the touch of the wayward wind, or the complex dance of flocks in flight, but hidden on the horizon, in the dark guise of a summer storm. More than a word – it was  a name: identity, history, destiny, a hundred levels of meaning all crammed into a few syllables.

Morrigan.

“Morrigan,” Victoria said, sounding out the word as though it were sharp. I hadn’t realized I’d said it out loud. “A troubling portent.”

Still in pain and trying to understand what I’d just seen, I failed to watch my words. “Portent? Really? Did you just step out of Pride and Prejudice?”

Victoria backhanded me automatically, and by the time my head stopped spinning, she was back to her imperial manners, leading Hessa into an old horse trailer. She set me in a small compartment at the front, then saw that her horse was properly situated. Morrigan hopped through the barred windows and landed on my shoulder, giving the other familiar a warning to keep her distance.

Before leaving, Victoria handed me my backpack, a bottle of pain medication, and a small leather-bound book with a strangely familiar symbol of the cover. “Rest while you can,” she ordered. “Sleep when you are able. But you must memorize this book before we reach the conclave, if you wish to survive their judgement.”

She left, locking the door behind her, and within the minute, we were on the road, destination unknown. Morrigan cawed once in sympathy, then shook out her feathers and tucked her head beneath her wing in order to sleep. Softly, I banged my head agains the metal side of the trailer, exhausted.

I had gained a companion, but I had also gained an enemy, and I’d lost nearly everything – health, savings, family, freedom – all gone in a single day. Because I was trying to help save the world. I wasn’t about to give up on that goal – I couldn’t – but I was beginning to see just how much it might cost me.

And yet, as bad as it might become, the future was all I had left.

Settling in as well as I could, I took some pills, opened the strange little book Victoria had given me, and began to read.

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