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When the fog cloud fell, it did so with remarkable speed. Caleb didn’t see it at first, he was busy moving at speed, perhaps a half a mile or so from the point of the extraction. He was running over building tops, half-giddy at how close the plan was to success, half from the sheer exhilaration of the power moving through him. He could feel the static in his skin, occasional sparks darting across his chest, arms and legs as he sprinted across the lower heights of the Manhattan skyline, faster than he’d ever gone before.
He reached the edge of an apartment block, some six storeys up, took aim for a high office block across the double road, and leapt, letting out a wild, careless whoop as his body sailed through the night. The new building was taller, at least eight storeys, if he had to guess. On any other night, he’d have never made the jump. Tonight was different, though. Tonight, he was flying.
He struck the side of the building a ways down from the ledge, one foot stretching forwards towards the concrete wall, compacting in as the momentum pushed him in towards the side, then kicking off, forcing his body high, high up into the air. His fingers found a ledge, and with a heave that felt as easy as a breath, he pulled himself up atop the roof.
Then he was sprinting again.
It was in the free-fall down towards yet another rooftop when Caleb saw the fog, his vantage point allowing him a few moments of uninterrupted outlook over the roads on every side. It was still a distance off, clinging low to the ground, and spreading through streets faster than a man could run.
Caleb thought nothing of it at first, too caught up in the beauty of a moment. Was this what James felt like when he was in the air? It was only when the fog line passed below him, and the sounds of traffic noise abruptly died away, that he registered it with anything more than passing curiosity.
He paused for a moment, digging his heels in and pushing against the concrete to do away with his momentum. It was a fairly subtle thing. He could still hear the sounds of people moving around down there, cars and lights and the perpetual honking of taxi horns; but it was muted, lacking in echo, as if every sound came from just a little further away.
“What the hell?”
Caleb returned to his journey, his elation now undercut by a current of concern, watching the fog grow denser and denser with every passing leap. By the time he reached the pier, he could no longer see the ground. That was when he saw the tree.
He was on a lower rooftop now, some two storeys above the street, the fog line cutting off only a foot or so below the ledge. His destination ought to be in sight by now, the extraction point just a few dozen yards away from where he stood. At its centre, the fog was denser still, the weird sight of streetlights sticking their heads out above the top of it, casting patches of it in dim, barely permeating light. A ways away, he could see it rise, the vapour climbing like a shallow hill above the docks, before falling away gently on the other side.
Caleb thought he could see flashes from inside, occasional tints of green, purple and red casting momentary shadows on the surface. He peered into the fog bank, and let out a curse when something inside it let out a blinding burst of neon blue. For that moment, he could have sworn he caught a snatch of branches in amongst the gloom, the afterimage burning into his eyes.
Whatever was making that light, it wasn’t stationary, darting along the ground almost too fast to even track, before stopping short with a muffled crack. He caught the faintest tint of red as something within the shroud began to burn.
Well, he thought glumly. Looks like someone’s fighting for their lives. Here’s hoping it’s the boss.
Then, he stepped off the ledge, and plunged into the fog.
The first thing that Caleb noticed was how much easier it became to see once he was down below the fog-line. What he had taken from the outside to be a densely obscuring mass was, from the inside, surprisingly light, the vapour thinning out to a level slightly more amenable to visibility, walled off from the rest of the world by, well, walls of solid fog; like a bubble inside a cloud.
The second thing he noticed was the forest, and how some of it appeared to be on fire.
Perhaps forest was the wrong word. The thing only extended around fifty feet or so, each tree packed so tightly in against its neighbours that he couldn’t catch much more than glimpses of anything going on inside.
He could hear the yelling, though, six or seven voices all tumbling over one another, desperate to be heard over the snapping of wood and the constant, seemingly source-less whispers.
There was another flash, and one of the trees slid itself sideways into the grove, those on either side closing ranks behind it.
For a moment, Caleb simply stood there, unsure what to do, what course to take. Then, he recognised Twenty Three’s voice in amongst the yells, and set off for the tree line at a sprint.
He had expected to have to punch his way inside, a glove of emerald tinted flame already flowing into place around his forearm, readying his posture for a strike. Then, when he was no more than a foot or so from the wall, the trees simply moved aside. It would have been heroic to say he didn’t stumble. He did though, his momentum carrying him well within the threshold of the grove, his feet occasionally catching on the mix of roots and sand below.
By the time he’d reclaimed his balance, the entryway had already slid itself shut behind him.
It was a tunnel. Something like one, at least, the thick tree boughs pressing hard in against one another, the branches overhead knotting into a single piece of interlocking wood. If it weren’t for the flames around his arm, he doubted he’d have even been able to see.
The whispers were getting louder now, the yelling, oddly quiet.
He stepped forward. The trees shifted, each of them seeming to shuffle an inch or so to the side, re-configuring themselves around him.
“Fucking weird,” he muttered as he continued on.
There was an opening at the end of the corridor, two boughs splitting apart from one another in a gap just wide enough for him to pass through. He thought about ignoring it, but no. No use making whatever this was angry.
He sidled through the gap, and found himself in another narrow hall, this one somewhat looser than the one that came before, however; gaps between trees and branches allowing glimpses at whatever lay beyond. He caught a flash of something blue across to the side, only for the trees to constrict once more around him, cutting off his view.
He pushed forward.
It was two doorways later when he found the first of the bodies.
The grove played tricks. Whatever fog leaked in from outside combined itself with the shifting light and the constant movements of the trees to give the impression of things scurrying out of sight every time he turned his head. Once or twice, he could have sworn he saw glimpses of a person, dark hair and pale skin cast in soft relief in the glow from his fire, always in the periphery of his view. Then he’d shift his focus to them, and they would disappear. At first, he’d thought the squirming figure on the ground was just more of the same. Then he’d gotten closer.
It took Caleb a moment to process that the man wasn’t really conscious. The squirming wasn’t from anything he was doing. It had more to do with the hands seeming to crawl like worms across his skin. There were dozens of them, maybe hundreds; some wrinkled and lined with age, some of them children’s hands. Caleb did his best not to think about what they were doing, or about the fluid the man was lying in.
The whispers were growing louder.
He turned away from the body and, to his credit, managed not to yelp when he saw the girl sitting at the base of the nearest tree. There were fingers where her face should be.
She waved. He waved back. She smiled; hard to do with fingers. Then, she jerked a thumb towards a gap in the trees behind her, and they obediently opened up. For a few moments, the whispers seemed to die away, the hundred overlapping voices all falling quiet, except for one.
“Granny says stay quiet,” the girl’s voice breathed. “Trust the trees to keep you hidden. We’ll take you where you need to go.”
Ah, he thought. Well, that explains a lot.
He shot the girl a grin.
“Your granny’s a mad bint, you know that?”
He heard the sound of a distant giggle as the girl raised a finger to what passed for her lips. Then, she melted away, and the body behind him let out an awful sounding crack. He decided against checking what it was.
He moved forward quicker now, keeping himself quiet and low, the flames around his arm reduced to a level just high enough to see by. Once or twice, his path would abruptly shift, the hallways in which he found himself suddenly slamming shut, followed by the muffled sound of yells and tiny flashes through the gaps. Sometimes, the whispers grew too loud to hear anything else, figures dancing just beyond his sight.
He didn’t mind them so much now. Ghosts would do what ghosts would do.
It was almost a minute later when Caleb came upon another living person. Much to his annoyance, it wasn’t Twenty Three. It was, however, someone he recognised. It was Eighteen, the boy from the only other hunter squad in the area, operating out of Jersey. They’d worked together once or twice, whenever the boss wanted them to capture something big. The older boy was alone in a nine foot clearing, turning slowly on the spot, a length of rebar in his hands, a touch of mania in his eye.
“Thirteen,” he spoke, his voice charged. “Get over here and take my back; pale fuckers are everywhere.”
Caleb didn’t answer. He was too busy thinking. Had Tsuru brought him here to thin the herd? Sure, he was probably trusted enough to slip under this one’s guard… but if he missed the shot, there’d be trouble.
He stepped forward.
Caleb didn’t like Eighteen. The older boy was a specialized model. A beast. Whatever series of genetic mixes the bosses used to make their pets, it was normally used to make something like him and Twenty Three, a relative balance between enhanced senses, speed, and physicality, designed for pairs that could operate individually. For pairs like Seventeen and Eighteen, however, that balance was discarded. Eighteen didn’t have enhanced senses. No increases to smell, sight, or overall perception. Instead, he’d been bred with nothing but strength and speed in mind. Without James’ power there to back him up, Caleb doubted he’d have even stood a chance. That wasn’t why he didn’t like him, though. The guy liked kicking downwards. Caleb tended to be downwards.
I could free him, he thought as he stepped into place at Eighteen’s back. Didn’t take as much as I thought it would to break my chains. I could free him and still have enough left over for Twenty Three… But then I’ll have that much less left over to fight with. Or I could take him out; that’d cost me next to nothing. But if I miss, I’ll have to fight him. That’d cost too much time.
Eighteen was talking now, some low monologue about the level of Tsuru’s fuckery. Caleb wasn’t listening. He didn’t care. The smart move was to go for the kill. He clenched his fist. Eighteen was a dick. As for that dead-eyed girl he was partnered with… Caleb felt a knot in his stomach at that.
…God damn it.
“If we can break through some of the branches,” Eighteen was saying. “Use your fire spells to get on top of the canopy. Maybe we can use that to regroup with the others. Th-”
“Hey, asshole,” he interrupted, making no effort to hide the anger in his voice as he turned to grab the older boy by the wrist. “If I said I had a way to get you and Seventeen out of here, how much would you give to make it true?”
For a second, Eighteen was confused; then he was angry. The larger man lifted the length of rebar to his throat, making it nearly halfway through some furious intonation before Caleb finished shaping the power in his mind into a point, and pushed it across the barrier into Eighteen’s soul. After that, Eighteen was simply stunned.
The man began to speak. Caleb shook his head.
“Just follow my lead, okay?” he muttered. “We’re gonna get the others out.”
“Close your eyes.”
It was with a surprising amount of guilt that he watched the older boy fall, his body collapsing in the sand like a sack of loose potatoes.
“Sorry,” he muttered. “It was a dick move, I know. But you’re not worth Twenty Three. I need this all for her.”
He stooped to pull the length of rebar from Eighteen’s hand, then stepped over him as the next doorway began to open up.
“For what it’s worth, I’ll save you too, if I have anything left by the end.”
Very creative, creepy imagery, and a nice little dilemma at the end; I’ve been curious myself if Caleb or the others are planning to break out everyone else. Looking forward to more!
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Thank you! I’m kinda relieved the imagery seems to work. I was worried it’d come across kinda bland.
Pleased that Caleb is a “better” person than I’d thought initially… I didn’t realise at first that Eighteen dropped because Caleb *cold-cocked* him, not because Caleb had killed him for his own convenience. It pleases me because Caleb seems an instinctively (or naturally) good person, striving to piece together a personal morality while trapped within an amoral — or IMmoral — group like this Slaver’s Society, which offers a plethora of powerful ‘role-models’ (most of them bad) and an ethical framework (ditto), and it’s reassuring to see him avoid a mis-step.
And Rhythm, this next bit is discursive; prompted *by* you (or, at least, by Caleb) but not directed *at* you….
While on the topic of characters being better people than anticipated, it occurrs to me as a reader that “asshole protagonists” (APs) are increasingly en vogue, and have already been so for faaaaaaar too long. Thank-you for not presenting us with yet another example of the species! YMMV, but Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss, Paolo Bacigalupi, Jim Butcher and Laurell Hamilton are a few of the worst offenders as far as AP novels; AP webfiction — and here I am only skimming the surface of deep and noisome mire — includes what I’ve read by (Wildbow), (Wutosama), (Cthulhuraejepsen), (Pirateaba) and (D.D. Webb). I personally prefer my fictional assholes as ANtagonists, because that makes their intensely unsympathetic nature vaguely justified, and too few writers can create a AP work worth reading. Too many semi-competent writers believe that *their* AP represents a fascinating, ‘gritty’ and ‘original’ departure from the traditional narrative POV character, and will make a compelling, sympathetic hero.
Not in their hands it won’t. Most of the writers of APs don’t understand that sympathy for a character is less the reader thinking, “Ooh poor baby, how horrible for you!”, and more, “Yeah, I know how that is.” Fellow feeling; sympathy. If the writer can’t create that in the reader for this character, then the reader’s not going to care *what* happens to the character, no matter *how* much fan-service the writer dishes out… and writers of AP fiction dish it out by the sewer-full.
And no, it’s not even an original concept. Gritty, powerful, maybe even evil protagonist? That’s called an anti-hero… and it still requires competence to write. It was all the rage in the 1970s (and earlier)? Remember Elric of Melnibone? Wielder of the howling black sword Stormbringer? Slew thousands, betrayed his own nation and rendered his people almost extinct? But he did all that for the best of reasons (reader sympathy), and he did it without being an asshole (writer talent). I think the AP writers lack the talent (or experience) to write an engaging character (or have a DAMNED bizarre notion of what’s engaging), so the use of an AP is a short-cut, an abbreviation, an attempt by the writer to get the narrative benefits of an anti-hero without putting in the work.
And it seems to be all over the place these days, and webfiction is deservedly notorious for it. So when I say, “Thank-you,” it’s deeply and most sincerely meant.
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Huh. Well, uh. Fair enough. Thanks, Barrendur. I’m kinda weird when it comes to receiving compliments. The instinct is to be bashful. But, uh. Honestly, I haven’t read enough of the works you cite to be able to tell, really. I’ve listened to Worm, and while I found it engaging, I will agree that it wasn’t ever really Taylor’s more sociopathic tendencies that made it so.
As for where the AP archetype comes from, I honestly couldn’t tell you. My instinct is to say “gritty realism is vogue right now” but my problem with that is that a lot of “gritty realism” stories kinda focus on the grit and forget about the realism. That was kinda my intent when I started this project, in a sense. Touch started out as an exploration of rape tropes, and how they tend to be used to invoke way too much “grit” instead of exploring a person’s reaction to it. I prefer to think of realism in kind of the same way as this Alan Moore quote I found yesterday.
“Life isn’t divided into genres. It’s a horrifying, romantic, tragic, comical, science-fiction cowboy detective novel. You know, with a bit of pornography if you’re lucky.”
See, to me, realism simply means attempting to capture the whole human experience comprehensively, so I kinda like my characters to have reasons for doing things. Also, I just kinda don’t like the idea of people innately being dicks.
Woah, that reply dragged on a bit. Sorry.
Late to the party, but i agree. I think that evil characters are even scarier when they have a reason for their attitudes (instead of being evil for evil’s sake). That’s why i liked the sections that allowed us a glimpse into Leanne’s head. We get a chance to see some of the fantastic racism at work in this universe (their refusal to call Hideyoshi Tsuru’s husband, and insisting on calling him her “pet”). This really casts light on what Lewis’ motivations are, and what his experience must be like, without having to spell it out.
I liked the detail that Leanne hates Hideyoshi, not only for being (part?) elemental, but especially for being a descendant of the elves, because the whole time i was thinking “wait, you’re a mage. Aren’t you also descendant from elves?” Then again, Hitler was part Jewish.
Villains who have a degree of self-hatred, in my opinion, are the most frightening. Because their thinking is already warped, and there’s nothing really holding them back from crossing the moral event horizon.
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Ditto on the use of rape as a trope. I was initially hesitant about reading this fiction, because of James’ backstory. I hate works that treat rape simply as a way to add drama to a person’s backstory, or a means of making a bad character even more evil (by having them be a rapist, as well as what they were already doing). That feels so gratuitous and exploitative to me. And i especially hate reading about sexual abuse happening to children, especially if it not handled well (which it rarely is).
The two reasons i ended up reading anyway, were that 1) the story begins with James’ trauma already in the past, with things are getting (slowly) better from here on out, and 2) the trigger warnings at the beginning seemed to indicate that you understand the gravity of the topic, and could handle it respectfully. And i feel that you have. You’ve done a really good job of exploring the aftermath of sexual assault (something which is rarely done successfully), from James’ paralyzing fear of sexuality, and heartbreaking shame and anger over his marks, (i wanted to cry while reading James talking to Dr. Sharpe about them), to the utter helplessness felt by his parents in being unable to protect their son (despite his dad and grandparents being mages!), to other peoples trying to hide their horror (sometimes unsuccessfully) out of concern for James. Everything happens organically, without the narration trying to wring as much pathos as possible from the subject matter.
Even James’ attacker wasn’t portrayed as an easily-recognizable Bad Guy ™. He just seems like a regular person until we realize what he did (as is often the case in real life). I felt like he absolutely deserved what was coming to him, and yet found the scene where Hideyoshi and Tsuru torture him to death extremely uncomfortable to read.
So, well done.
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Well, heck. Now I’m smiling. Thank you. I’m glad you judge it so highly.
Also, I only really know about Patrick Rothfuss insofar as he relates to Critical Roll, and if you want a story with a genuinely nice, well meaning protagonist, I hear Inheritors is quite good.