Author’s note: Okay, so, just a quick note. I am revising my bonus chapter scheme. Instead of one per month, I am setting it to two per arc. This, hopefully, will allow me to slot the bonus chapters in a little more gracefully alongside the interludes or, if you happen to vote for something that becomes relevant to the arc in question, then it allows me to format the bonus chapter more organically into the lineup. So, yeah. There’s that. As for the bonus chapters to come at the end of this arc, well, the top contender at present is Natalie Sharpe, the therapist. All that being said, let’s get on with the chapter!
The two strangers ran in silence for a time. How long exactly was hard for Casper to judge. He was too busy trying not to choke as the numb, claggy feeling in his lungs continued to spread. He couldn’t breathe, could barely think. What little air he could draw in tasted of burned metal and plastic fumes, enough to make him gag. He could feel his heart beating harder and faster in his chest, thumping out of sync against his ribs as his grip on the taller one’s back slowly began to weaken.
His power was flickering, the bubble around him sputtering and dimming as he tried and failed to keep an eye on their surroundings for any more of the birds. He thought he felt someone following them, someone angry, but before he had the chance to really check, his powers had collapsed inwards another few feet, and they were left beyond his reach. He tried to push his senses out again, but it was like willing a sleeping limb to work; his bubble barely even moved.
Neither of his supposed rescuers paid much heed to his troubles as they fled, save for the one carrying him shifting their grip a little to allow him a better purchase on their back, a hand raising itself against his back to steady him. Beyond that, however, they kept their attention focused on the task at hand, the taller one keeping their eyes forward as they ran, the other glancing constantly from side to side, watching for new attackers. Every pounding step they took jolted him again, testing his steadily failing grip with every stride and shaking what little air he could draw in free of him. He felt tears begin to work their way slowly down his cheeks as the fear spread its way deeper into his mind. He lost the feeling in his hands just a second or two before his grip finally gave way, and he was falling, his descent stopped short by the tall one’s hand pressed against his back. He felt a momentary panic jolting through his taller companion’s skull as they noticed his arms going limp around their neck. From what felt like very far away, he thought he felt something press against his chest, but he couldn’t see clearly enough anymore to say for sure. He could have sworn he heard someone shouting, or possibly swearing, but his mind was too muddled to make out the words.
He felt the last of the emotions in his mind fade away as the world around him slowed. Then, it all went black, and he felt nothing.
He watched from a distance as the boy’s condition continued to worsen, the taller of his attempted saviors lowering him quickly to the ground to provide what emergency care they could. He allowed himself an angry smile as he slowed his approach, observing as the boy’s limbs began to seize, his body writhing fitfully as the goblins set about him with their antidotes. Their plan had backfired. They were distracted. Now was the time to strike. The birds were gone. No matter. He could do this by himself.
He spared a moment to place a charm on the few humans that would be near enough to the group to notice his oncoming attack. A simple spell, really. He planted a looseness within their minds, a disruption to focus and memory. Enough that he’d be long gone with the boy before they had time to become aware of a fight. It was easier that way. Weak as the humans were, they tended to call to stronger ones for aid, and that held the potential to make this harder.
With the onlookers suitably distracted, he stepped forth, allowing the pair just enough time to administer their antidote, before leaping from his rooftop without a sound and diving down to land amongst them. The taller of the two turned and stared for a moment, his sudden presence taking it by a momentary surprise. The shorter one, however, did not hesitate, reaching into its belt for a blade.
He didn’t allow either of them time to make the first move. Goblins may have been lacking somewhat in terms of magical potential, but they were truly gifted little things when it came to speed. He had to act first. His dagger had been lost in the battle underground, but he had other means.
He swung his arms out towards his foes, each fist clad in a gauntlet of roiling kinetic force, and felt his right hand strike the larger one square in the jaw. The creature had been slow to react, surprise stripping it of the advantage granted by natural speed, and the blow connected against its face with a force great enough to shatter trees, flinging it roughly against the hull of one of the strange metal carts the humans used. The thin roof of the thing warped slightly under the impact.
The smaller of the two, however, was quicker on the uptake. It ducked smoothly under his attack, the ripples of his gauntlet discharging just close enough to it to tear the back of its garment to shreds, before it launched its knife towards his gut. He felt the weapon tear through his barriers, and let out a growl. Strong as this one may have been, there was no way that such a strike would have penetrated his wards had he still been fresh. He felt the tip of the blade graze against his belly, drawing forth a thin trail of blood, and bared his teeth. The goblin darted back from him before he had a chance to counter and hefted the boy up onto its back with one arm, the knife still held towards the male at chest height. Its companion was slowly pulling itself upright off of the vehicle, apparently still conscious. He growled. It must have been a hob to survive that strike. This was not how it had been supposed to happen.
The taller adversary peeled itself free of the metal cart and rolled its neck with a series of low, short clicks, stepping forward to interpose itself between him and the lesser goblin. As he watched, the hobgoblin began to grow, its frame expanding from a touch above five feet to almost seven in a matter of seconds. Its dainty, almost elvish features gave way to something a good deal rougher as the garments encasing its form drew taut around its flesh, then began to tear. The hobgoblin growled a few words to its companion, who nodded, took the boy up in its arms, and began to run.
The male made to pursue, but found his path blocked as the hobgoblin side stepped once more into his path, standing between him and his fleeing prey. The hob jabbed its slab-like fist towards his face in a boxer’s punch which he barely managed to dodge in time, feeling one of his few remaining barriers crumble to nothing in its passing. He aimed a counter punch at the creatures ribs, wrapping what little force around the blow that he could muster in such a short time. His fist struck home with a thunderous crack, but the brute barely even seemed to notice, jabbing a second meaty fist towards his jaw, just a touch too slow to connect. He swore.
Fine. He’d deal with this one first.
“Hey, kid. You awake?”
Casper groaned irritably as he felt a hand gently slapping at his cheeks, the sensation slowly bringing him back to wakefulness. He was uncomfortable enough as it was without being bothered. His muscles ached, his eyes stung, and his lungs felt like they’d been scrubbed with a wire brush.
“Nh… Go away…” he mumbled blearily, his mind slowly starting to warm back up as he tried to recall what exactly was going on and where he was supposed to be. Everything felt weird: his chest felt too hot, his limbs felt too cold, and there was a light behind his eyelids that was just bright enough to deny him the chance to drift off again. He wanted to go back to sleep. At least sleep didn’t feel like a bad migraine. His thoughts of rest were cut abruptly short by another slap, this one far harder than those that had preceded it. He yelped, his eyes flicking open as the pain forced his mind into alertness. He winced as the light dug painfully into his eyes, and looked around.
As far as he could make out, he was in a car. Whose car, he couldn’t tell. It certainly wasn’t one he recognized, the interior of it surfaced in functional black plastics and felt as opposed to the opulent cream and brown leather of his parents’ cars.
Off to his side, a figure was gazing at him from the driver’s seat, an expression of mild concern written across their features. He spent a few bleary moments trying to place the figure’s face. It was familiar, somehow, too soft in the cheeks and jaw to be a man, and yet too angular to really register as female. Then, he remembered what had been happening before he fell asleep, and jolted upright in his seat.
“Where are we?” He asked urgently, hastily pressing his power out to search their surroundings for birds. “Did we get away? What the heck was that stuff? Who are yo-”
“Calm down,” the stranger murmured quietly, turning back towards the wheel once they had verified that he was awake, and twisting a set of keys into the ignition. “Yeah. We got away… sort of. My partner’s buying us an out.” Casper felt a momentary pang of worry from them at those words. “I got you into the car about thirty seconds ago.”
Casper hesitated for a moment, unsure of what to say about that, then eventually settled for:
“… Is your partner gonna be okay?”
His rescuer didn’t reply, instead flicking the gearbox into reverse and pulling out of the parking bay, their focus determinedly fixed on the task at hand. Casper felt the concern eating into his companion’s mind, and chose not to repeat the question.
Eventually, the driver spoke again, their tone a touch more apologetic.
“As for the stuff that knocked you out… It was a gas grenade. They’re designed for hostage situation work. Non lethal. Supposed to feed on a person’s magic and convert it into a paralysis effect. It was supposed to just ward off the birds, but it looks like it took you out, too. Sorry about that. It’s honestly pretty rare to see a kid as young as you powerful enough for the gas to knock them out of the park like that. We weren’t expecting it.”
Casper nodded. At least that answered one of his questions. He settled back in his seat as the stranger drove, and resolved to simply stay quiet, keeping his power unfurled so as to watch the skies for birds.
It wasn’t long before the swarm began to grow again, gathering one by one above the car.