TW: mental health reference (vague), references to cops/gangs
I came to slowly, glimpses of memory mingling with whatever I’d been dreaming about. Ophis’s hair, pale blonde like cornwisps escaping from her bun—dappled forest glades, but I doubted those were real—the quicksilver glimmer of Kiera’s skin shifting, and screaming.
The stars I’d been staring at turned into a fuzzy light on the back of my eyelids, and when I opened my eyes, I was staring up at the scattered dots of a dropped linoleum ceiling. I would have sat up, but my entire body was aching. Adrenaline took its toll.
“Are you awake, or do you just sleep with your eyes open?”
“The first. I’m not enough of a freak for the second,” I mumbled. My mouth was dry.
I supposed the owner of the voice was Ophis—it sounded like her, and from what I could remember, I’d followed her home. Speaking of which—
“How much should I worry about the fact that I can’t remember how I got here?”
“Don’t,” Ophis replied. “You’re traumatized. It’s normal.”
Ah, yes, Traumatized. That word was coming up a lot. “More likely I’m over-tired,” I grumbled, then sat up to try take in my surroundings. At first, I thought she was just short of furniture, but then I saw the stack of chairs and scattered desks at the far end, and looked over at Ophis scribbling on a chalkboard.
“Why am I sleeping in a classroom?”
“Because I live here.”
That was blunt. That was a nice change. I looked up at the fluorescent bar lights, then poked the cheap mattress I was sitting on. Whatever school this was, nobody had used it in a long time.
She paused in the middle of her drawing, then chuckled. “You are good. Yes, we’re downtown.”
The old Tech school had been closed before I was born, but it’d been one of the first high schools ever opened in Ottawa. These days, most people just knew it as an empty sprawling building on Albert Street, with the occasional class or support group inside. I could see its appeal as a hideout.
I propped myself up against the wall, then realized what she was writing—or rather, drawing. It was a mandala, something I only recognized from the six or sessions of court-mandated therapy I’d been forced into after Johara’s accident. They were meant to calm you down, center your mind. She must have been nervous, not that I could tell from the cool way she carried herself. It was odd. When she’d shown up on that rooftop, she had looked so put together. I’m sure lots of people would have seen her exactly the same way now—she still had the suit on, and the bun of gold-white hair gathered at the nape of her neck.
We’re all a little fucked up.
It was the careful way she was concentrating on the mandala, I decided. Living in an abandoned school was another big giveaway. Little pieces and clues.
“So, you can fly.”
“You noticed,” she replied, voice dripping with sarcasm.
I laughed despite myself. “Will didn’t get around to explaining that one, but I’m guessing that’s Air?”
“I suppose it’s one of the more obvious ones.” She put down the chalk and turned to face me. Her face was so blank that I wondered if it was on purpose—I couldn’t tell whether I’d pissed her off personally or if she was just like this.
“My turn for questions.”
I shrugged. I didn’t know what she could possibly ask. I was pretty much what I seemed.
“You’re a private detective?”
“Yeah. I mean… Sort of.”
“I’m seventeen and my first case involved a dead body. I’m rethinking my career choices.”
She stifled a smile at that, and I decided I liked her, ice queen or not. “I can understand that.”
“Is your name actually Ophis?”
“No, that’s just what Will calls me in her phone. I’m the Cassandra.”
I blinked. “The Cassandra? I’ve met like, six Cassandras.”
“It’s a title. But also my name.”
“With or without the ‘the?’”
She waved her hand at me in irritation. “It confers authority.”
“I’m sure it does,” I said as evenly as I could. If I didn’t, I was going to crack up.
She glared at me, but I could see a twitch of a smile at the corner of her mouth. She wasn’t that much older than me, and I could see her stony mask conflicting with a friendlier impulse. I got that. She didn’t trust me yet.
“Anyway,” she said, getting to her feet. “Apparently Willow and Avery gave you a bit of an incomplete picture of things. They rushed it—and you’re too important. So given your, ah, precarious position, I’ve brought you here so we can brainstorm the best strategy to protect you.”
…Well. That was a shift in the wind. I’d heard all the stuff about how there were only two Salts left, but it still took me by surprise. I wasn’t anything special. Except due to some mass-murderer, apparently, now I was.
Which brought up the main issue.
“Protect me from—Kiera? Who—or what, I guess—is Kiera?”
Cassandra paused, and I could see the uncertainty in her face. Probably deciding how much to tell me. For all that she was promising me useful answers, I wasn’t dumb enough to trust her completely. Whatever ‘the Cassandra’ was supposed to imply, she had some sort of power over Avery and Will. “Um, a wild card. We’re not sure if she’s actually responsible, but she’s not helping.”
“A Mercury elemental. Yeah?”
“Yes, but—something else as well.”
“We don’t know,” she admitted. “She showed up a few months ago.”
“And she’s the one killing the Salts.”
“Like I said, we have no actual proof.” Her eyes flashed cold. I could guess what her opinion on the matter was. “But she’s certainly dangerous.”
“No shit, Sherlock.” A shudder ran up my spine thinking about the way she’d talked to me. Looked at me. It had to be because of my powers. Nothing else. “I’m guessing she’s after me for the same reason everybody else is.”
“Afraid so. Hence why we want to protect you—”
Hence. Freakin’ rich kids. Whoever she was now, I had to guess she’d grown up with money. Then I held up a finger. “Wait, wait. Back up. You, Avery, Will—you keep insisting this isn’t a secret society. So who’s we?”
Cassandra paused, then a smile spread across her face. Finally. There was somebody I thought maybe I’d like to know. “What do you know about anarchism?”
“Okay, that’s a bit of a strange start. Not much. Rejection of society?”
“Sort of. It’s a rejection of organized government and law in a broader sense, because, well… It’s not like it’s helped most of us.”
It sounded ridiculous, but to be honest, it kinda made sense. All the same, I had to crack a joke. “Getting a lecture on political systems in a silent classroom. It’s high school all over again.”
Cassandra crossed her arms, unimpressed. “You wanted to know.”
“Okay, so you’re anarchists. What does that mean, other than the fact that you’re on the internet too much?”
“Oh my god.”
“The point is, we organize horizontally, as much as is practical. Cooperation over coercion, and community over tyranny.”
“I’ll pretend that makes sense. And what does that make you?”
“Well, we have leaders in a way.” Cassandra shifted a bit. “I’m in charge of the downtown area but that means more that I coordinate what I can, keep things levelheaded, intervene when necessary… Sometimes people need a tiebreaker.”
“Uh huh. And when somebody decides they wanna be in control?”
“It’s a lot less appealing for somebody to use their powers to screw around or hurt people if there’s ten other people with powers ready to stop them.” She sighed. “And let’s face it, it’s not like we can call the cops.”
I snorted. “Okay, that’s the first thing you’ve said that makes sense. I guess that’s why all of Will’s texts were encrypted.”
“Among other reasons. You better not have broken it.”
“Her phone is fine,” I muttered. “But you’re all basically off the grid. Right?”
“To some degree or another. I’m completely underground for reasons of my own. Avery legally exists but stays out of trouble. Willow’s in a grey zone.”
I was curious about the implications of Cassandra not legally existing, but now wasn’t the time to ask. “And you’re telling me all of this because…?”
Now she was smirking. “You can go tell the cops if you want to. Have fun explaining.”
…Crap. “Point. Okay, next question—”
“My turn,” she interrupted. “How’d you get involved with Kiera?”
“I didn’t. I was working on a case.”
“Okay, how’d you get involved with that? I had somebody check, and you’re not a registered private detective.” She added, somewhat unnecessarily, “Not that you could be, legally. For one, you have to have graduated high school.”
“Do you ever shut up?”
“On occasion, but rarely.”
I sighed, leaning back and bonking my head against the plaster wall. “I put up a Facebook ad for investigative services. Mrs. Chaudhury showed up at my office. One thing happened after another.”
“Speaking of, how come you aren’t all out there being superheroes? Especially you, flygirl.”
“Never call me that again. And aside from the inherent impracticality of vigilante justice? We don’t have time.”
“Oh, come on. Who needs a job when you’re psychic?”
“And who’s going to pay somebody who isn’t supposed to exist? Besides, we’re not all psychics.”
I was being facetious, but I couldn’t help it. It all sounded too… perfect. Besides, Cassandra was more spouting theory than really explaining how it worked.
I remembered Lila, and what she’d said. Her turf. Her territory. To be honest, that sounded a lot more like gangs. That figured—there was more than one leader, which worked with whatever semi-structured thing Cassandra was talking about. And Lila had been pretty forceful in trying to get me to come with.
Just like everywhere else. Lots of pretty theory and ideas, but underneath, it was just the same shit as usual. Then it clicked—that was why Cassandra looked so uncomfortable. Her system was breaking down, and she knew it.
I was a power play. And if their community was so perfect and welcoming and about uniting people with powers—well, where had they been when I needed them?