[RO] pattern recognition
September 2018.

In September, as she approached her first birthday, they moved again.

She had become fond of the little cabin with the tree growing out of the side room, but the silence of the forest had begun to wear her down. Despite ample and abundant wildlife, it always felt quiet. Her brother was soft-spoken and her mother was either exhausting or exhausted.

Fiction wished she had anyone else to talk to. As the summer waned, fewer travelers passed by their home, and she became more and more desperate to learn and know more about what life was like beyond their "territory."

She had already forgotten the specifics of travel when she had been young. She had memories of riding in saddlebags and watching hills and mountains go by, but she couldn't remember being small enough to be tucked away in a cloth pouch and carried around.

And she couldn't remember other people.

She knew they'd met her grandfather before his death, but she remembered her sadness and fear more than the old man or the place they'd been when he died.

Strangers without names blurred together easily, though here and there she remembered random features, like a scarred face or a shiny ring or a particularly accented voice.

Cassandra was wary of strangers, though Fiction often thought that it was strangers that should be wary of Cassandra.

She often didn't know what to make of her mother. Cassandra was aloof and confident, a picture of someone who had long relied on herself. Even as her health waned, she never asked for help — though she usually accepted it begrudgingly if it was offered. She was not afraid to try new things and worked every day, still, to improve her technique with teeth and blade, tricks and traps, in spite of her blindness.

Fiction was often in awe, but the pallid woman's personality was difficult, too.

Cassandra seemed almost to be a compulsive liar when faced with strangers. She lit up with fake smiles, fake laughter, false names, and pretend histories.

She did not shy away from asking favours or gifts from them, manipulating them shamelessly for her ends. It was almost infuriating to Fiction how good she was at it.

Cassandra's persona of a foolish, girlish, blind woman in need of kindness and pity was effective, but it was so far from her true personality that Fiction found the act bewildering every time. And she wondered whether she could ever believe what she saw or heard in others, if her mother could play at such falsehoods without faltering once.

To her children, Cassandra seemed to always tell the truth, though there were plenty of instances where she simply would not elaborate on the detail of things.

Cassandra spoke fondly of her own childhood and the small piece of her family that she acknowledged. She knew little about her extended family, but she also seemed not to care at all. Beyond this, Fiction had to piece together stories and timelines on her own, but it seemed that Cassandra had been alone for most of her life.

In retrospect, Fiction was not at all surprised that the woman had stolen them from some unfortunate couple, nor that she had told them so. Both were entirely in line with her perplexing personality.

Fiction had no way to tell whether Cassandra was a good mother comparatively. Other mothers probably did not steal their children from people she'd killed. Occasionally, the girl wondered what things might have been like with her real parents, but after the initial shock, she had found it easy enough to come to terms with the fact that it didn't matter. She'd never know.

In the end, Cassandra had raised her. The strange, lonely woman had protected her and fed her and taught her, and Fiction was grateful.

They made their way south.

The empty forest stretched on for a long time before it turned into prairie, and then suddenly there were many more human ruins than she'd ever seen before. She did not like the cities — they were dark, grey, sombre places full of strange smells and uncertain footing. The concrete towers in various stages of collapse were terrifying, and the long cracks in the abnormal, craggy rock surfaces seemed like they would split open at any time.

But the human ruins outside of those concentrated grey places were much more pleasant.

There were quaint homes, similar to the cabin, but bigger, more colorful, even as they faded from their former glory. There were long fences, providing a visual for what had surely once been partitions of human territories.

Fiction did not know if humans had lived in packs, but the fenced off fields with a few buildings alongside them seemed to indicate such, even if the area seemed far too small to hunt in. The proportion of fields to homes seemed off, too, but she enjoyed debating idly about all her speculative ideas while they trotted through.

It was subtle to be sure, but Cassandra's mood seemed to improve with their travel. She was quieter, but gave thoughtful responses to Fiction's endless ideas about humans. The pallid woman kept to her halfling form, keeping an easy pace with the horse, which Soliloquy and Fiction took turns riding.

As they passed the last of the empty fields, Fiction asked, "How do you think they died?"

"A disease," was Cassandra's immediate response, which surprised her mottled daughter. "A terrible one that spread quickly among them, to every corner of the world. I think they had a thousand ways to destroy themselves, but this one would leave all their buildings intact while their bodies rotted in the street."

"Do you think there might be a disease like that for us one day?"

"It could happen," the woman said. "Why not? We can't control disease."

"But the plants you grow and keep... the medicines you make..."

"Half of them are poisons," Cassandra said matter-of-factly. "It's funny how a small bit of poison makes us feel better sometimes... but they still aren't cure-alls. There are plenty of injuries that can't be healed, so I suppose it follows the same would be so for disease. Not all things can be fixed.

"The humans were around for a long time, though. Long enough to build all of these places. I don't know how long they've been gone, but things we build certainly wouldn't stick around for more than a few years afterwards — so many of the human ruins look like they've been around forever. Dozens of years, lifetimes.

"So we haven't been around nearly as long. Maybe disease will take us too, in the end, or maybe not, but I don't think it's something we need to worry about, personally. We'll be dead long before it happens. Maybe our species will die from disease in the end, but we are more likely to die by teeth or blade or old age."

It almost hurt Fiction's head to think about the implications of "lifetimes." She had a scant year of life behind her, and if she was lucky, perhaps five or ten more ahead of her. It was difficult to imagine the scale of time for humans, if they had truly been around for hundreds of years or longer. Or if their ruins have been.

The idea that the cabin they'd lived in had been standing for far longer than even her mother had been alive was astounding, and she was only just realising it.

They made their way through the prairies and veered east. Eventually, there came a huge river — the biggest she'd ever seen, and Cassandra said the same.

Following it south, they came upon gentle hills and temperate forests which sloped up towards a mountain. There were packs there, but they were scattered, with ample space between them for loners to roam and pass by.

The little family found another cabin in the shadow of a hill, buttressed with an aged oak and many saplings. From a distance, the building was nearly invisible, hidden by the growth and the slope of the land. This description certainly appealed to her mother, though she could not see it for herself.

While Fiction and Cassandra began excavating the building, Soliloquy took the horse to scout the area. He reported two packs to the north with average-sized territories, though he had yet encountered any of the members.

"They're probably not that smart, if you skirted their territories long enough to estimate size and they had no patrollers out to see you," Cassandra remarked.

"Better to overestimate them than underestimate them though, right?" Soliloquy said, echoing a phrase that the woman had imparted before.

The pallid woman laughed. "You're right, of course. Even if they're stupid, they outnumber us, so it's best to plan accordingly."

"You said packs don't really care about loners though," Fiction said. "Should we be worried?"

"Probably not. As long as we don't offend them, there's no reason they should take any particular interest, but it's always better to be prepared."

"What preparations should we make then?" Soliloquy asked.

Cassandra grinned. "A fantastic cover story."

Fiction sighed. "Isn't the real story harmless enough? We're such a small family — surely we're no threat to them. If we lie and they find out, wouldn't that be worse?"

The older woman shrugged. "Perhaps. Perhaps not."

This was Cassandra's ingrained habit showing itself in the way Fiction found most frustrating. There was never a reason given for why Cassandra thought the way she did about packs, though it was obvious that she didn't trust them at all. It was strange to the Fiction that Cassandra could be so candid with them, but it was not even a consideration when it came to dealing with others, and packs in particular.

"What if I want to join a pack?" Fiction asked.

"Go ahead," Cassandra said automatically. She turned to her daughter. "You wouldn't expect me to stop you, would you?"

"Do you want me to join a pack?"


Fiction sighed loudly to make it perfectly clear how annoyed she was. "Why do you hate packs so much?"

"They're full of people who can't think for themselves, or who never learned how."

"What do you mean?"

"Packs are groups that rely on each other. Sometimes beliefs spread in such communities, and because of that implicit trust, everyone just goes along with those ideas. Over time, the ideas evolve and still, no one questions them. It's dangerous."

"How do you know this happens with every pack?"

"I don't," Cassandra said. "But why take the risk?"

"It can't always be terrible to be in a group," Fiction said. "It must be nice to be able to depend on others."

"Sure, until the day they stop being dependable."

Fiction sighed again and retreated back into the new cabin. It was larger than the previous one, but there had been fewer things inside. Given the proximity of the packs, she figured that most of the usable items had been taken away long ago. What remained had been a collection of broken furniture, ruined artifacts of various sorts, and items that they weren't really sure of the use.

Most of those things were outside now, and the bare cabin was comfortably cavernous. Aside from the main room, there were three others: two bedrooms and the usual small room with the cracked, porcelain throne. There was no tree growing out of this one though, and Fiction missed the old one, just a little bit.

"Mother, please—"

Outside, Soliloquy was trying to convince Cassandra to let him dispose of the various garbage so she could rest. The evening waned more quickly as autumn settled in. They had moved to a mostly diurnal schedule now, but Cassandra still stayed up late and woke late. She never complained about the sun, but they all knew she hated it.

"Come on, Momma," Fiction said tiredly as she stepped back outside. "You can help me bring our blankets and saddlebags inside, okay? Let Soli clean up outside and get dinner."

Cassandra curled a lip at her, but acquiesced. Her body seemed to slouch a little, unexpectedly worn down by the argument and the failure to assert her ability and desire to do things the way she wanted.

And Fiction felt a bad for her.

She guessed that coming to terms with old age was difficult for everyone, but for someone as headstrong and fiercely independent as Cassandra Asylum, it was surely humiliating and shameful. There was still a lot that the pallid woman could do, but her strength waned with the seasons, and she was coming up against her limit more and more often without realising.

Her children could see her exhausting long before she'd begin to admit it, and having that pointed out to her every day was wearing her down. Fiction could see it, but what could she do but continue to ask that Cassandra mind her limits?

[Image: flora0-the.png]

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