...But You Can Never Leave
rating: +22+x

Cassandra Pike woke up in a hotel room, her head throbbing. She sat up and surveyed the room; it had two beds and a pull-out couch, all with purple sheets on them. The lighting was a dull shade of yellow, and a flat-screen TV was up against the opposite wall. Above the TV was a triangular mirror.

She didn't recognize her surroundings, but she did recognize those with her. Dr. Juliette Hobb, a thirty-something well-built woman was on the pull-out, and on the other bed was Frederick Engelhardt, a man in his sixties with grey hair, wrinkles indicating his face spent most of its time scowling.

"Fred?" Cassandra hissed. "Jules? You there?"

"Mnnn…" Hobb was the first to rouse, yawning. "Uh. Cass? Where are we?"

"I don't know," she swallowed. "But I don't like it." She rose from her bed, and looked at the desk, searching the drawer. Her heart sank when she saw the stationery within; an eye enclosed in a purple triangle, with the words 'The Pyramid Inn' printed beneath it. "Oh, fuck."

Fred jerked awake. "W-where are we? What the hell?"

"We're in the Pyramid Inn." Cassandra replied. "Anyone have a watch?"

Fred pulled out his iPhone, and frowned. "1/1/1969. That…" he rubbed his face. "That's impossible. iPhones can't be set to that date."

"We got whammied," Jules swallowed. "Bad."

"Let's recap," Fred looked at Juliette. "You dragged us out to Equinox Ridge…"


October 24th

Wisconsin was not known for its mountainous features, but every now and then, a cliff did stick out of the ground. Before this particular cliff was a rotted sign proclaiming "EQUINOX CAMPGROUNDS", which Juliette Hobb nearly ran over in her haste to make her way past it.

"Christ, Jules!" Pike rubbed at her shoulder, where the seatbelt was scraping at her skin. "What's gotten into you?"

"The name, Isimeria?" Juliette threw her phone back to Cassandra. "It's Greek. I recognize it from Krys's birthday party last month. It means Equinox."

"Okay, so?" Engelhardt frowned. "It's an odd name, but it can't have much association with…" He looked out the window at the cliff as they passed it. "That eyesore."

"It's Sloth's Pit, Fred." Juliette turned onto the road that led up the ridge. "There is no such thing as a coincidence within city limits."

"This thing's been around for literally eons! It didn't pop out of the ground during the sixties!" Engelhardt protested.

"I… gotta agree with Fred here," Cassandra frowned. "It's a huge stretch, Jules."

"Just… humor me on this, okay?" She turned up the road, and soon, they were at the summit of the cliff. She killed the engine, and alighted from the vehicle, looking towards the horizon.

Cassandra looked with her, towards the ever-present twilight, frowning. "We're up here. What did you think was going to happen?"

"Just… look for something? Some kind of clue?" Juliette sighed. "I… one of us nearly got their leg torn off. We need to find something that might help."

Fred put a hand over his eyes to shield from a non-existent glare and looked into the distance, towards the north. He frowned, and tapped Cassandra on the shoulder. "What do you see over there?"

"Huh?" Pike squinted in the distance, barely making out the specter of a Ferris wheel, about two miles off. "What the hell?"

"Is that the fairgrounds?" Juliette took out her phone and started zooming in as far as her camera would go. "Dammit. Resolution on this sucks. But…" she took a picture and presented it to them. "What do you see there?"

"Looks like something criss-crossing the wheel's spokes." Engelhardt adjusted his glasses. "Ivy, maybe? It looks organic."

"Hold on." Cassandra got low on the ground and started digging a pit in it, scoring the earth around it with various arcane symbols.

"What are you doing?" Engelhardt titled his head.

"I've attended a few cross-disciplinary seminars Sinclair has held. She taught us how to scry, so maybe I can get a better view of it from here?"

"Not everyone can do magic, Cass," Jules pointed out. "And… well, no offense, but don't you need some… willpower for that?"

The parazoologist looked at her colleague, brow quirking. "Sorry, what are you saying?"

"I'm just…" Jules coughed. "You're not exactly the most sound out of all of us."

"What she's trying to say is that you scored the lowest out of the entire department on every mental anomaly resistance test."

"FRED!" Jules gaped.

"I get it, I get it." Cassie sighed. "I'm not the most… well. But I've been learning. And coping. And getting therapy." She knelt by the circle, and focused, breathing some Will into the circle. It wasn't much, but it was enough.

The water in the pool shimmered, and brought forth an image of the fairgrounds; it flickered, as if viewed through a satellite TV connection in a storm. Still, she could make out a large, orange mass among the fairgrounds.

"Holy shit, you got it to work." Juliette knelt by her, and looked in the pool. "What's that orange thing?"

"It looks like a pum—" Cassie was interrupted by a hand reaching forth from the scrying pool and grabbing Juliette by the neck, strangling her and trying to drag her in. Juliette Hobb screamed.

Cassandra retreated, her movement scuffing the markings of the scrying spell, and severing the arm of whatever had grabbed her colleague.

Juliette got up and ran back to the van. Engelhardt and Pike followed suit, not even bothering to buckle up before the vehicle rumbled to life and went down the hill.

Something landed on the hood of the van with a loud thud. A figure, clad completely in black, with rotten-leaf teeth and eyes the color of the last light of summer, clung to the hood. Juliette swerved and knocked it off, while Cassandra dialed her phone.

"Claude? I need— I need help. Call the task force."


"And now, we're in the same place where six members of Sigma-10 went missing." Fred sighed. "Great."

"Went missing. We're not sure they're dead,"Juliette reminded him. "Last we saw, their vitals were still strong."

"We need to find a way out." Cassandra ran to the door, opening it— only to find a large, black space where the hallway should be. She quickly slammed the door. "Okay then."

The television turned itself on. All three of them stared at it, frozen, as the static spoke in a dark voice, whose gender could not be determined. "Hello."

"Jesus Christ what the fuck?" Cassandra stared at the screen.

"You're with Nina, aren't you? Her snack was most appreciated, but I'm still hungry, and this town… I've been stuck here for too long." The lights flickered. "Let's play a game. Three people have come in. In three hours, two of you will leave." The television screen became a digital countdown clock. "One will die. Don't attempt to cheat me."

"Are you Martha?" Cassandra asked.

"Martha? Oh, yes, Nina must have misheard my name. The phones in this hotel are awful." The voice laughed, and the room shook. "My name is Mavra."

The voice subsided.


02:51

The three sat in a room, contemplating what might have been their last moments. Dr. Pike had her head in her hands, and Dr. Hobb had curled up on her bed. Engelhardt had raided the mini-fridge and taken a can of Vanilla Coke out of it. "My favorite," he mused. "Service is good in the hotel, at least."

Cassandra sat up. "I… we need to look at this pragmatically." She rubbed her face. "You've got more valuable research. I took half a year off, and I've barely gotten back on my old projects since then."

"That's not a good measure." Engelhardt shook his head. "I'm turning seventy in a year. You know what I've accomplished in that time?" He knocked back the soda. "Scientifically, my research means dick. Same goes for everyone."

"You don't mean that," Hobb frowned.

"Let's face it!" Engelhardt slammed his soda on the dresser by the TV. "Who is going to read our papers? Other members of the Foundation. Who's going to improve on our work? Other members of the Foundation. Who's going to give two shits about us after we die?" He leaned against the dresser. "Short of a miracle, we're all going to die in anonymity, and the autopsy report won't even say how we really died. Heart attack for you, aneurysm for you, broken neck for him, your father got hit by a car coming home from work, she inhaled fumes in the lab, your son died because of an IED planted by a militia group in Michigan, I've heard it all, explained to grieving parents and children who don't know that their mother or father or son or daughter or niece or nephew died protecting them from something they can never know about!" He knocked the can to the floor.

"Fred," Cassie stood up. "You need to calm the fuck down. And this is me saying this."

He rubbed his face, and sighed. "It's true, though. When I first started this job, in the seventies, they had a form that you could fill out if you wanted a plausible cause of death. 'Suicide' was the most popular option."

"On the form?" Hobb asked.

"On the form, and also as a retirement policy. Jump off a roof, walk outside the capsule without a suit, shoot yourself in the head, didn't matter. Your family got benefits, you got to stop existing, and we were responsible for picking up your mess." He sighed. "Juliette. Have you filled out the family declaration forms yet?"

She shook her head. "As far as Krys knows, I'm working at the EPA. Though that's becoming less and less plausible by the day."

"Tell her the truth. Survive this, and tell her."

Cassandra rubbed her face. "Don't go being a white knight, Fred. None of us want to die."

"Well, one of us is going to!" Engelhardt glared at the time. "One of us is going to die. It should be me. I'm old, I have no family other than my cat!"

Juliette rubbed her forehead. "I… it's my fault that we're here. Rationally, I should be the one to get us out."

"Hell with that." Cassandra pulled at her hair. "That thing. It attacked you first. It could have gone after me, but it reached for you first. Why?" She paced around the room, and the clock ticked down behind them.


02:21

"You're wearing a hole in the carpet." Engelhardt looked at Pike as she paced. He'd found a pack of cards in the room, and was in the process of playing Solitaire.

"Why did she want you dead?" She had muttered this question to herself several times over the past half-hour. She frowned at Engelhardt. "You could help!"

Juliette scratched her hair. "It was probably just because I was the first thing we saw. But…"

"You were the one who brought us out there in the first place," Pike pointed out. "I… Mavra. Is that a Greek word, by any chance?"

Juliette blinked, and palmed her forehead, reaching into her pocket with her other hand and retrieving a list of names, the same ones that Hastings had sent them. "I'm an idiot! M. Isimeria! Mavra Isimeria! Black Equinox!"

"The Autumn Equinox." Cassandra's eyes widened, and she looked at her colleagues.

"The Black Autumn!" Fred forgot his game of Solitaire, and grinned. "We know its name!" He frowned. "Fat lot of good that'll do us."

"More than you would think." Cassandra looked in the minifridge, taking out a bottle of root beer and taking a swig from it. "Look in the drawers, find me some kind of writing utensil, and remind me to thank Dr. Sinclair when we get back."


01:49

"She seriously gave a seminar for this?" Engelhardt frowned. "How to bind demons and spirits?"

"Considering the weird shit we come up against in town, Fred? It's good to have some knowledge outside of your discipline." Cassie drew the last part of the sigil, a little horn on top of the symbol for mercury, before handing the pencil off to Juliette. "Can you write Greek?"

"Some, yeah. I know enough to write the name." She took the pencil, and began carefully writing the name in the seal.

"And you've… attended how many of these seminars?"

"Six or seven." Cassie shrugged. "I had to do something while getting my clearances reinstated after the whole thing with the collar."

"There we go." Juliette stepped back, having written the name. "Best I've managed. You know how to do the rest?"

"Never practiced it, but I know the theory." Cassandra cracked her knuckles, and placed her hand on the edge of the circle. She'd never done magic before. She gritted her snaggleteeth, and felt something flow through her arm; a soft push from her body, her mind's effort to not give into the being keeping them here, to see her friends again, to see her friends live. Her Will.

The pencil lines glowed with an awesome white light, and for a brief moment in time, black tendrils seemed to be sucked from the air, drawn into the circle, filling in the name on the center.

Fred grinned, and clapped his hands, looking at the ceiling, muttering a silent 'thank you' to whoever had given them mercy. Finally. They were getting out.

Or it seemed that way, until the light from the circle faded, the name only half-full of black essence, like a stuck loading bar on an old computer. Mavra Isimeria's name became smeared by an invisible hand, and then vanished entirely.

The voice laughed from all around them. "That actually got a good bit of my essence. You'd make a good mage. Gideon would've loved you.

"Gideon?" Juliette glared at the walls. "What Gideon?"

"Richard Gideon. The damn fool who summoned me, trapped me in this town, and bound me to this hotel. Traitor."

The voice then paused, and murmured, vibrations resonating through the air, before exploding, "UNBELIEVABLE! You bound enough of me that I have to tell you truths!" It laughed. "You're all so much more interesting than the snacks Nina sent over."

All of the researchers recoiled from the volume of the profanity, clutching their ears. "We know what you are!" Cassandra yelled. "We know your name!"

"Yes, and names have power. But you don't have my full name, and even then, most of my essence is contained in that damnable fairground. Now then, as to the matter of your time…"

The volume on the TV grew louder. they all turned, and saw that almost two hours had turned into twenty minutes. "What the fuck?!" Juliette screamed. "That's cheating!"

"You've angered me." Mavra intoned. "I'd like to see one of you die quicker than before. Now, one of you has twenty minutes to live. Make your peace, write your wills."

The voice faded, and the three of them were left, more alone than before.


00:15

The next several minutes were filled with silence. Death, let alone execution like Mavra was offering, was not something that a human being faced lightly. The three at least had the luxury of knowing something awaited them beyond the pain and the fade to white. The next great mystery, one they'd never be able to report on. Maybe they'd be ghosts, maybe they'd go to Nirvana, maybe Mekhane would take them into her metal bosom.

"I'm doing it," Frederick stood up.

"No," Cassie stood, trying to bring him back down. "You can't."

"I've spent over forty years here. I don't have anyone who's going to come calling for me." He looked at Cassandra. "I want you to take care my cat. Her name's Moxie, she's a Russian Blue. She refuses to eat chicken, and won't have baking soda in her litter box."

"Fred—" Cassie began.

Juliette Hobb stood, and put a hand on her shoulder, before stepping forward with him. "We'll turn away for when… when she does it."

"Report all this back to Mattings, Hennessy… whoever has a vested interest in this." He stood before the TV. "We've made our choice. I'm ready to die." Frederick Engelhardt stood proud, his entire form shaking. "I'm giving myself to you so my colleagues may live."

"Oh?" Mavra snickered, and then chuckled, and then laughed. "I said that two of you would live, and one would die. I never said you got to choose who died. But it was so, so amusing seeing you bicker and beg."

"No!" Juliette rushed forward and punched the TV. An ultimately pointless gesture, as the plastic cracked and did nothing other than make her knuckles bleed. "You fucking bitch!"

"I am the Black Autumn." The room turned dark. "And winter has come for Cassandra Pike."

There was a loud, wet sound from behind them, and they turned to find Cassandra Pike's shin perforated by a long, black knife, held by a being veiled in black. Cassie screamed, and fell down to the ground, the entity twisting the knife in her leg. She should have been out from the pain, but something kept her awake.

"You aren't unconscious yet?" Mavra asked, her voice dripping with sadism. "Oh, this is delicious. You're awake to feel every last beat of your heart. You don't even get to die in your sleep!" The knife twisted in Pike's leg, and blood sprayed into Mavra's mouth. She licked her lips.

"C-Claude," she gasped. "Claude…"

Engelhardt lunged for Mavra, letting out a scream of incoherent rage. He found himself blocked by another knife, this one aimed by his throat. "Ah-ah-ah." Mavra tsked. "I'm giving you mercy. You should leave, lest I decide to take it back." The knife stabbed her again, and Mavra lapped at Cassandra's blood. "You managed to bind me. Something as pathetic as you, binding me."

Cassandra Pike snarled, grabbing the knife with her palm. "Y-you don't know pathetic." She gasped, pain shooting through her "Pathetic is. Pathetic is… g-going to a containment cell, every night, to p-play with the ghost of your d-dead cat." She started drawing something with her blood, staining the carpet. "Pat… pathetic is… wanting to run away… because you're so scared, so utterly frightened of some… one you loved, w… who seemed to turn against you, because…" she closed a circle with her blood. "Because you're both angry, awful people AAAH!" She screamed when she felt the knife nick her artery.

"Feel that?" Mavra taunted. "That's a bone spur, traveling up your arteries, straight to your heart. You're dead, Cassandra Pike. Alone, unloved, pathetic."

Cassandra's eyes filled with tears. She saw the world start to fade to white, her eyes cloud over, her heart slow down. Then, something came from the light. It was the form of a cat, a grey tortoiseshell with a white bib on its chest, one of its sides a little wonky from a broken rib someone had given it with a kick to the side.

"No," Cassandra spat, as the cat started to nuzzle against her. She gripped his fur with a bloody hand and held him tight. "I'm not dying here. I'm not pathetic anymore."

One hand scratched her cat around the ears, while the other pushed Will into the circle she had made with her blood. "You have my blood on you, Mavra," she panted. Sinclair told her this needed an incantation. The best she could come up with was her cat's name, repeated over and over. "Oliver. Oliver. Oliver."

Mavra was hit with energy from the circle, forced back against the wall, where she screeched. Cassandra Pike, in that moment, wasn't sure the cat that had appeared before her was real, but it leaped over her, and she heard something clawing at the Black Autumn.

Frederick Engelhardt wrapped his shirt around her leg the best he could, and carried her out, with Juliette Hobb supporting her torso. They ran into a hallway that had suddenly appeared outside, and at the other end, task force agents moved in. One of them called for a stretcher.

Cassandra Pike's eyes closed, and she muttered an apology; not to the task force, not to Fred or Jules, but to the lonely-looking cat at the other end of the hall, sitting outside of Room 13.

"Sorry, Oliver," she muttered. "Momma can't play with you right now."

Cassandra Pike slumped in the arms of her colleagues.


October 27th

"How is she?" Frederick Engelhardt looked through the windows of a set of steel doors.

"Bad," Claude Mattings wavered, resting against the wall in front of the operating room. "Really bad. They… they might be able to reconstruct the femur. Doc says he's never seen anything like it." He took off his glasses and rubbed them violently; salt residue had coated them. "You know how much force it takes to shatter a human femur?"

"Will she live?" Juliette asked.

"They got enough blood in her that she won't die from a severed artery, at least. And they got out the bone spur." He put his hands over his face, and shook. "We need to stop this. Now. We- we've almost got the whole picture." Claude pulled one hand down and formed it into a fist, his nails digging into his palm. "It… it was stopped before. We need to figure out how to stop it again. We have… we have to find Gideon."

He glared at Hobb and Engelhardt with a glare that would kill a Basilisk. "We're going to show this thing why you don't screw with Sloth's Pit."

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