He was a mountain. Those were the only words Caleb had to describe what he was feeling, the pool of newfound energy flowing out along his system. It felt vast, yet, weirdly delicate; like an ocean’s worth of water poured into a drinking glass. Every movement sent a tingle through his skin, his entire being radiating with an almost electric charge. He flexed the fingers of his right hand, then watched as, quite unbidden, a faint blue arc danced across his knuckles. He smelled ozone.
‘How the fuck does the kid even carry this much power?’
He took a breath. He needed to be steady. He needed to keep this in control.
His attempt at calm was cut short by the ringing from his phone. He swore. He knew that ringtone.
Caleb drew the device from his pocket, and heaved a sigh. Best not to ignore it. He only needed to maintain the facade a little while longer. He lifted the phone to his ear.
“Heya, Boss,” he opened, injecting a hopefully annoying note of cheer into his voice. “Need some-”
“Your first mistake,” the voice on the other end cut him off. “Was taking that power into yourself so early.”
Caleb felt his mouth go dry at that, his words catching themselves in his throat. She knew.
“The second,” she continued icily. “Was assuming I wouldn’t be watching to make sure you didn’t try to pull this shit.”
For a moment, Caleb was silent. He was thinking, his brain working at triple speed in an attempt to figure out what the next course should be. Eventually, he set the buzzing in his mind aside, and settled for a chuckle.
“Heh. You noticed my power up, huh?”
An angry sigh on her end, cutting through the line like static.
“Of course we did, Thirteen. That’s the bare minimum we’d need to keep you all in line. Now, if you honestly plan on keeping yourself and your partner alive, I’d suggest standing very still while I pull that power out of you.”
It was then that Caleb felt the marks along his neck growing warm, his borrowed power seeping out of him a single drop at a time. He barely even noticed. His focus was elsewhere.
“… Caleb,” he muttered.
“What?” she asked, her voice edging slowly back into the uncaring calm he knew so well.
Caleb wasn’t being rational. He knew he wasn’t. This wasn’t the smart choice. Not with so much on the line. He didn’t care. He dug into the sea of power still coursing beneath his skin, shaped it into a point within his mind, and drove it into the heat against his neck.
“My name’s Caleb,” he repeated. “You soulless cunt.”
There was a silence between them then as the brand upon his neck grew hot enough to burn his skin, before the spell broke with a sound like cracking glass.
“… Fine then,” she growled. “We’ll game this out, if you’re so set on being stupid. Option one. You try whatever half-assed plan you think is going to let you escape on your own, and I kill Twenty Three. Option two. You try and break Twenty Three out along with you, and she dies before you even get halfway to her. Option thre-”
“I’ve got allies now,” he snapped. “People strong enough to boost me this far without breaking a sweat. You kill my partner, and you make some of the strongest enemies the world has to offer.”
For what it was worth, the statement seemed to give the woman a momentary pause. Then, she let out a huff.
“One ally,” she grunted, her tone contemplative. “At most. You’ve sided with the Toranagas. It has to be. There are four people in New York with the power to do what you just did: Father, the old witch of Japan, her pet elemental, and that half-breed child of theirs.” Caleb had no difficulty discerning the contempt in those last few words.
“It can’t be Peter Toranaga,” she continued. “Because if he were involved, Manhattan would be swarming with feds by now. I doubt that it would be Father, because going to him just makes you a different kind of pet. That just leaves the witch and her beast, and one of them must have drained themselves dry to give you all that force.”
For a moment, Caleb almost laughed. He clamped down on the sound before it reached his lips. She was wrong. Best not to let her know.
“Not like that’s gonna last forever,” he said. “And they’re nasty enemies to have. So how about you just give me Twenty Three and I promise to call off the super wizards?”
“Not that easy, Thirteen,” she replied, her voice cold. “You’ve made things… complicated, I’ll admit, but the fact remains that I still have Twenty Three.”
“And I have the Toranagas,” he shot back. “Go ahead. Flip that coin.”
For the first time in Caleb’s memory, he heard his boss swear. There was an anger to it. Frustration. It gave him more satisfaction than it ought to have done, finally seeing her crack like that.
“… We’re extracting her from a dock on the south side of the city,” she growled finally. “I’ll send you the address.”
“What?” Caleb teased, barely suppressing a laugh. The victory felt good. Far too good. “I don’t think I heard that right.”
“I’ll be blunt, Thirteen. You don’t know a damn thing about what we’re trying to do. You don’t know a damn thing about how we’re going to do it. The single most important thing you could have told anyone is simply that we exist, and it sounds like that’s a move you’ve already made. All that’s left is an escaped hunting dog using bargaining chips he doesn’t know the value of. So fine. You win. Now just take the girl, take your leash, and get out of my way. There are adults at work right now and it’s harder with animals underfoot.”
“Hell, I’ll take that. And you promise your extraction team won’t be trying to kill me?”
“Of course not,” she muttered. “I know exactly how strong you are right now. I’m not about to order my people to their deaths.”
“Smart choice,” he agreed. “Although, I gotta admit, I was kinda looking forward to smashing some hea-”
She hung up.
Caleb pocketed the phone with a chuckle, then took a breath. He barely noticed the text alert pinging from his pocket.
They were so close. He could feel it.
Northern Scandinavia: 6:34 AM.
The woman set her mobile down on her desk a little harder than intended. Talking to Thirteen was never easy, even back when he’d ostensibly towed the line. It was never a pleasant way to start the day. Even worse today, having to pretend to lose.
She sighed, and allowed herself a tired kind of chuckle. At least she’d never have to deal with it again. She lay her palms flat against the tabletop, and gazed down at them, impassive.
He’d called her a cunt. One of her knuckles twitched.
‘No time for that, Leanne. Take a chocolate and relax. There’s work to do today.’
She pulled one of her desk drawers open, and fumbled around for the bag of smarties tucked underneath her stapler.
The plan would need to be adjusted. Not a difficult thing to do, certainly, but made harder by the time constraints.
She popped a chocolate into her mouth, and gave it a crunch.
There was still a Toranaga active in New York. That meant no matter how she reorganized, there was still an element of risk. None of the nearby agents could reliably fight someone on that scale. Time to set some priorities, then.
She sat still for a few moments, faintly aware of the chocolate slowly melting on her tongue, then once more picked up her phone.
She dialled in the first number, and hit call, pushing herself up from her seat as it rang, and crossing to the window.
Her office was undersized. Economies of scale were a requisite concession when it came to keeping her facilities small enough to avoid notice. She didn’t mind it all too much. At least she had a view.
The phone line went live in her hand as her agent received the call. Then a gruff voice spoke, heavily accented.
“Nils here. Need something, boss?”
She swallowed her chocolate.
“You’re being reassigned,” she murmured. “Asset Thirteen won’t be delivering his target. Just make your way to the rendezvous and make sure Twenty Three remains uninformed.”
There was a moment’s pause at that. A rustling that Leanne struggled to place, followed by a small thump.
“… Confirmed,” came the man’s eventual reply, slightly husky. “And his target? Should we assign someone to-”
“Don’t mind that,” she murmured. “Charles Vance holds priority here, and there are threats about.”
It galled Leanne, having to travel there herself; but the Toranagas were a challenge. Better safe than sorry. She sighed.
“I’ll handle it myself. Expect me at the extraction point in ten minutes or so. I’d like Twenty Three removed before Thirteen arrives.”
There was another brief burst of sound as Nils cleared his throat.
She disconnected the line, and heaved another sigh. She hated having to get involved herself. Resorting to force was so untidy.
She cast her eyes out at the scene beyond her window.
It was snowing out there, the summer holding little meaning this close to the arctic. She imagined she could see the faint line of the ski lifts running up and down one of the distant mountains.
She shook her head, then began gathering the energy for her trip.
New York: 12:40 AM.
The phone went dead in agent Nils’ hand as he lowered it back down, his hand a little shaky. He swallowed.
“Is that enough?” he asked, careful not to move his chin too close towards the flames beneath his throat. “Are you going to let me go now?”
“Depends what you mean by let you go,” the Japanese witch murmured. “Are we going to set you free? No. You’ve got more than a couple of questions left to answer; but you’ve spared yourself some pain, for now, at least.”
She plucked the phone from his grip, and turned towards her pet.
“Might as well put the fire out, dear. No use burning him tonight.”
The elemental snorted.
“How very rude of me.”
He pulled his hand away, a touch slower than Nils would have liked.
“So. One of us to the extraction point, one to intercept the boss?”
Tsuru Toranaga nodded absently as she flicked through Nils’ phone.
“That does sound like the optimal solution. Are you in the mood for a fight today?”
The elemental chuckled.
“Why not?” he murmured. “Could be fun.”
Nils bit his tongue at that, and simply focused on charging up his spell. There wasn’t room to fail here. The boss was counting on him now.
‘Just wait till they’re distracted,’ he thought. ‘Don’t let your capture be for nothing.’
Only a couple feet away, the witch was talking again.
“I suppose I’ll take the extraction point, then,” she murmured, pulling a second phone from her inside pocket. “I’ll let Caleb know the sco-”
Nils’ spell came into force in less than half a second, all the power he had available collecting itself into a dancing swarm across his fist. The moment it pulled itself into being, he threw himself at her, putting every ounce of his strength and weight into the blow.
He knew before he’d even began to move that he had been too slow. It was too late now, though. He might as well commit, even if he didn’t have a hope.
“Oh, right,” she muttered to her husband as he knocked the agent’s strike aside. “I’ll be needing his clothes as well.”