“Honestly, I was planning to kill you.”
At first, James’ only response was to laugh. The statement was just too silly; more like something out of a morning cartoon script than real life. He snorted, then shook his head, and turned his gaze to Caleb… only to see that the other boy wasn’t laughing. He felt something cold settle in his stomach.
“… You’re serious,” he murmured, the words coming out faint, half-shocked.
“I wouldn’t joke about this.” Caleb replied, his voice deeply tired. “I… Look. No offence. You’re a cool kid, and I honestly kinda like hanging out with you, but… God damn it.” He brought a hand up against his forehead, and let out a groan. “It was the only way for me to escape, okay?”
In response, James simply stared. The other boy’s explanation, far from adding clarity, had only added another layer of confusion. Caleb peeked out from under his hand, saw James’ expression, and shook his head.
“Okay, look. In the simplest terms, I’m a slave, alright?”
“… You’re a what?”
“A slave,” Caleb repeated, his tone bitter. “I’m not gonna say it again. It’s not a fun thing to admit. My masters bred me and the others like me to hunt monsters. They wanted a hunting dog that was smart enough to do most of the work on its own without too much oversight; so, about thirty years ago, they started collecting half-breeds. People with a little bit of werewolf, or vampire, or whatever else, and began trying to get the right mix for a really good hunter. That’s why I’ve got a bunch of tiny powers instead of one big one.”
Caleb stopped there for a moment, and turned his gaze skywards, apparently waiting for James to comment. For his part, however, James had no idea what to say. This was… Too much of a curveball. He opened and closed his mouth a few times, before finally managing a quiet:
Caleb let out a single dark chuckle at that.
“Yeah. Pretty fucked up.” The boy fell silent then, returning his gaze to the stars while James muddled it all through inside his head. He was too tired for this.
“… Can’t you just, you know, run away?” he asked.
“I could,” Caleb agreed. “And I’d make it maybe four hours before they killed me. They put sort of a…” he stopped for a moment, seemingly in thought, then shrugged. “Meh, I might as well just show you. It’s easier than explaining, you know?”
James did not know. The other boy had thus far left him utterly confused; a feeling that redoubled when, without any further warning, Caleb shrugged off his jacket, and started peeling his shirt up away from his chest. James had a moment to glimpse a surprisingly developed set of muscles being revealed beneath the hem, before he turned away, his cheeks very red.
“… Are you gonna look or not?” Caleb asked, the faintest hint of annoyance running momentarily through his voice. “It’s cold out here.”
James hesitated for a long moment, before turning to look. Caleb had his back to him now, one hand pointing to the patch of skin just below his neck.
It was a tattoo, James thought; a series of flowing lines and oddly shaped symbols stitching themselves together into a circle between the boy’s shoulder blades, etched in black against the skin. James wasn’t sure if he was imagining it, but in the evening gloom, he thought he might have caught it glowing.
“They give us these brands on the day they start teaching us magic,” Caleb muttered. “It lets them drain the magic out of us when they want to. It’s way harder to prep an escape if you only have enough for a spell or two every day.” He turned to look at James, and began to pull his shirt back on.
“But that’s not the bad part. See, if you start to disobey, or they start to think you’ve run away, then they just keep draining you till it kills you. There’s no running away from it.”
“… And killing me was supposed to help with that?” James asked, his confusion finally finding something concrete to latch onto, and allowing the betrayal to finally register inside his mind.
“… No,” Caleb admitted sourly. “I was gonna use you to get myself free, but that wasn’t the part that was gonna kill you. I’ve been sort of scavenging little bits and pieces around the place that could maybe help me get myself out of this.” At that, he pushed off from the ledge, allowing his body to slide down the incline into the skating pit. He trudged towards the basketball, and gave it a kick.
“It was small stuff,” he murmured. “Ingredients for spells that no one would miss, recipes for rituals that could maybe help me get away clean. I picked one up about a year ago that was supposed to let me pull the magic out of someone for a while, maybe supercharge myself enough to overload my brand and run. And then I found you; a kid who was so powerful it might even be enough to let me free two people. I got greedy.”
James gazed down at the other boy, unsure of what to feel. A part of him still wanted to be furious. Another part of him was angry at himself for that. He shook his head.
“Who are they?” he asked. “This other person you wanted to save?”
“… She’s called Twenty Three,” Caleb muttered. “They don’t really give us names. She’s my… I dunno. My partner, I guess.”
James tactfully ignored the faint trace of red dusting the other boy’s cheeks at that.
“So, why do you have a name, then?”
“I don’t,” Caleb grunted. “I’m a number too. I chose Caleb.”
“Don’t,” Caleb cut him off. “Please, just. Just let me be Caleb, okay? I’d like to have just one person who didn’t think of me as a number.”
Caleb folded his arms, then gave him a nod.
“So,” he continued. “That ritual. I was gonna call you out for training, set it up, and snare you. Then, while you were weakened, I was gonna knock you out and call my masters to tell them I captured an extremely potent cross-breed.”
“… The heck?” James asked, something akin to rage rekindling itself inside his gut. “Who does that, Ca-”
“I told you I was planning to kill you,” Caleb interjected tonelessly. “Handing you over to them would have meant they’d take you to their main facility to get you branded. Then, all I’d have to do is tell your family where you were, and that you’d been kidnapped by my boss, and suddenly my masters would be too busy dealing with a family of angry mega mages to notice me and my partner escaping. You either die in the crossfire, or get killed because my master would rather kill you than let you get away. I make it out clean, and spend the rest of my life trying not to think about the kid I killed.” He took a deep breath, and turned his eyes to the stars.
“But then that friend of yours fucked it all up.”
“You were going to use my family as a weapon?!” James asked, incensed.
“Yes,” Caleb replied, his tone deeply bitter. “I was. But then you go and you start talking to that Tasha girl about your family and she hands you off to talk to some dude she lives with, and you call him your grandpa. So, suddenly, if I ever actually DO try and kidnap you, the first thing she’ll do is tell your grandad about this guy you’ve been hanging out with who she totally doesn’t trust. Suddenly, your family won’t be going after my master at all. Suddenly, they’ll be going after me. All that work, for fucking noth-”
The wind blast hit Caleb in the side, slamming his shoulder against the concrete wall of the pit with the force of a small car. There was a loud crack, and he let out a yelp of surprise and pain. He turned back to look at James, and got halfway through a curse word, before the second one struck him in the nose.
A part of James wondered why the other boy hadn’t bothered trying to dodge. In the end, though, he couldn’t bring himself to care. He struck again, and Caleb fell to his knees. He struck again.
He wanted to shout. He wanted to scream. If he could have thought of the words, then perhaps he would have done so. As it was, however, James kept silent as he beat his former friend. Five, ten, fifteen blows. He kept going until the rage that filled him had burned itself down to merely a slight tremor running through his fingers, before finally, he spoke, his voice quiet.
“You don’t use my family like that, Caleb.”
The bloodied boy took a few moments to push himself upright, then gazed at James, his expression cold.
“I wasn’t asking you to forgive me,” he muttered, pausing briefly to wipe the blood from his lip with a sleeve. “I just wanted you to know. Try and have someone in the world who knows that I’m a pers-”
“Shut up,” James muttered. “I don’t care what you want. I wish I could, but I don’t. Just-” he hesitated for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts. “… Just tell me about this ritual. Will it let me get my power back after?”
“… What?” Caleb asked, one eye going wide in shock, the other swollen closed where it had struck against the concrete.
James rolled his eyes.
“I mean, obviously, I’m gonna need to know how this thing works if we’re gonna figure out how to get you and your partner free, aren’t I?”
For a long time, Caleb simply gazed at him, his mouth hanging ever so slightly open as fresh blood oozed towards his chin.
“You…” he mumbled. “You mean you’re just gonna let me drain you?”
James gazed stonily at the older boy for a moment, then let out a sigh.
“Caleb,” he murmured.
“You’re an idiot.”