Caleb extinguished the flames around his arm with a groan. The limb was less than useless; the sensations echoing out of it too profound and varied to even be called pain; from the omni-present throbbing of the bones in his shattered shoulder, to the deep, half-numbed agony leaking from the hole in his wrist. He tried to move his fingers. Barely a twitch. He sighed.
‘That better not be permanent.’
He glanced over at the boughs currently clearing from his path, then set about binding the wound.
Caleb wasn’t completely sure why, but the trees’ movements had slowed to a crawl since the boss had made her move. Perhaps something to do with the swath of destruction that had been left in the woman’s wake. Caleb didn’t care. It was annoying.
He wrapped a scrap of his shirt around his wrist, then clumsily tied it down with his teeth. No time for blood loss today.
He pushed through.
It was a fairly short path, all things considered, opening up into yet another clearing at the end. Unlike those that had come before, however, this one wasn’t closed off. Here, the walls branched out at odd intervals, gaps between the boughs showing occasional glimpses of further clearings beyond them.
When finished elbowing his way out of his narrow corridor and into the open space, he caught sight of a figure, kneeling in the mist beside one of the smoother boughs, facing away from him. If he’d had the energy to split his focus, he might perhaps have recognized her, even obscured as she was by the fog. As it was, the flames had already begun to cloak his functioning hand before her voice cut him short.
“You’re here,” Tsuru murmured, not bothering to look at him. “Good. Now we can proceed.”
Caleb didn’t have an answer for that at first. What small part of his mind there was that had any care for the outside world was trying to figure out how to feel. Where the hell had she been when the boss had made her move? Why so absent for the entirety of the fight? Why steer him through the grove like a rat chasing cheese?
Eventually, he let out a bitter sort of laugh.
“I could have died back there, you know.”
“You could have,” she agreed. “So could I. That’s the risk you take in a fight. I allowed her burn her way through my cage in whatever direction she chose. That’s what you do when you’re fighting an enemy so much more powerful than you. You let them waste as much energy as you can.”
She paused for a moment there, muttering something quiet under her breath, her fingers trailing symbols in the sand.
“There was a risk to it, certainly,” she continued. “But it’s a risk we had to take. In the best case, she would have burned through as many trees as she could, leaving her open for me to make my move. In the worst case, one or other of us would have died. As it stands, the woman you fought had just used three of her strongest spells in succession, and was therefore weakened enough for you to pierce her shield.”
Caleb absorbed that for a moment, then shook his head.
“You’re a shit ally, you know that?”
“I can be. I risk whoever I must in order to see my objective done. I’m a lot like you in that regard.”
One of Caleb’s eyelids twitched. Low blow.
“… I hope James never figures out how terrible you are.”
“You and me both. Now shut up. You’re not the only person I got hurt.”
She finished tracing her patterns in the sand, murmuring another quiet sentence to herself, and then the ground began to move.
It was slow, at first, a few stray roots and vines stirring in the silt, each no thicker than a toothpick. They coalesced, condensing from a wide web that stretched across the floor into the space where she had drawn her marks. Then, they began to rise; first one, then dozens; each and every one of them coiling around the rest as they pushed themselves further from the ground.
What finally emerged bore the rough shape of a child. No larger than a four year old, the latticework of vines that made up its form growing a skin composed of tiny white flowers.
Caleb was briefly surprised at that. He’d expected whatever controlled these trees to be just as dead as they were. Then, he saw the scorch marks darting across its frame, three lines of dry, blackened petals running the surface of its chest, arm, and thigh. It was hugging itself; shaking.
No sooner had the creature emerged than Tsuru leaned in to embrace it, cooing something that Caleb lacked the Japanese to understand, her tone almost parental. He watched, impatient, as it leant its head against her shoulder. For a moment, he could have sworn he heard it crying.
Tsuru raised a hand to stroke its head, and carried on her quiet cooing as her familiar began to fold itself back inside her form, petal and root alike fading into lines of black that crawled along her hand, under her sleeve. She stood, gestured for him to follow her down one of the branching paths, and the two of them began to move.
“How many are left,” he asked. “Do we have a plan to get them away from Twenty Three?”
At that, Tsuru merely chuckled.
“Just the one,” she said. “He’s already being handled.”
When consciousness finally returned to Leanne’s mind, it did not do so gently. First, there was pain; a horrid, aching heat that spanned itself across her scalp, she let out a groan, followed by a low whimper as the act of movement sent a spike of fresh pain driving through her skull.
There were things around her. She could feel them clawing at her skin, the faint remnants of her shield barely holding them at bay. She felt as one of them broke through above her thigh, something jagged cutting a thin, shallow trench in her flesh.
She called her powers.
A small wave was enough to push them off; directionless, unfocused. Why was she so drained?
She tried to open her eyes. One of them obeyed.
Rocky sand. The roots of trees glimpsed through an obscuring field of mist. It was quiet. Her head ached.
Power, destruction, rage. Searching for an enemy. The face of one of her hounds. Then fire.
She felt the confusion in her mind giving way to a grim, determined kind of hate.
She remembered now. The fight. His counter. His palm pressing itself against her face. The sensation as one of the eyes was seared from her skull. The terrifying lack of air within her lungs. The struggle. The dark.
She stood again.
She wasn’t done. She refused. He was less. He was not allowed to beat her.
Her shields flickered. She dug into her reserves. Empty. She dug into the reserves of the hounds. Still a little left. Good. She had feared, for a moment, that she’d been overwhelmed. Apparently not. The little shit had just been lucky enough to pierce her shields.
She looked around. Footprints in the sand. Flecks of blood, barely visible in the fog.
Good. Something for her to follow.
When Caleb and Tsuru arrived, it was to find the bulk of their work already done. When Caleb became aware of the shouting in the fog, he broke into a haggard run, his bruised legs aching with the effort. Then, he rounded a corner, and simply stopped.
There is a saying among filmmakers that a monster becomes less terrifying the more the audience can see it.
Clearly, Tsuru’s ghosts had disagreed.
They were everywhere. The clearing was simply full of them; packed so densely together that some were having to climb atop the rest to avoid the crush of bodies. Some of them were vaguely human by appearance. Most of them were not.
The whispers were gone; replaced, to Caleb’s surprise, not by snarling or growls, but by almost total silence. A silence broken only by the yells of those attempting to hold them off, and the rattling of claws on metal.
It took Caleb a moment or two to find them, his eyes scanning back and forth over the mass of the swarm, and coming up empty. Then, he watched one of the creatures fall, and directed his eyes upwards.
It was a van; a perfectly normal, utterly average van.
It was also hanging some twelve feet in the air, with yet another tree simply shunted through its midsection, leaving the rear end of it sloping slightly towards the ground, one of the rear doors hanging wide, the other apparently torn off by the creatures clambering along the walls.
As Caleb watched, one of the creatures tried to climb inside, only for the man standing at the lip to send it reeling back with a bolt of greenish light, the force of it loosening its grip on the vehicle’s underside. It fell to the ground; landed amidst the swarm of flesh, and began to climb again.
Then the next monster tried force its way inside. Then the next. Then the next.
Some of them were clawing at the walls now, peeling metal loose from the chassis, and attempting to force their heads inside.
Somewhere inside the van, a child’s voice began to scream, the shadowed interior of the van flaring with purple light.
Caleb caught a glimpse of his partner’s face.
Seeing someone surrounded by the dead should never inspire such relief. Caleb hadn’t even realized how tightly he was wound until it all released.
He grinned wider and more exhaustedly than he could ever remember grinning, and raised his remaining good hand to his lips.
“Hey!” he bellowed. “Twenty Three!”
Just like that, the monsters stopped. Every last one of them went still. Not even fighting to stay on top of one another.
Inside the van, on the other hand, only two of the occupants turned to look at him. He recognised them now. The man at the lip glanced down at him, his gaze filling with absolute contempt. Behind the man crouched the blank faced form of Seventeen, her eyes flickering briefly towards him, before she moved to shield a boy cowering near the point where the splaying branches of the tree stabbed through the walls. At a second glance, he recognised the boy as the one he’d been told to capture.
Caleb noted absently that the purple glow seemed to emanate from a disc floating between Charlie’s hands. The boy was staring at it. He felt a momentary pang of sympathy. This couldn’t be a pleasant time to manifest. Then, his focus returned to Twenty Three. Had he always felt this light?
For her part, his partner was still in motion, taking advantage of the momentary lull to shove one of the creatures back out through the hole it had burrowed into the wall by Charlie’s head. Caleb winced. Small wonder the kid had screamed.
Only then did she turn to look at him.
For a second, no one spoke. Caleb raised his good hand in a wave.
“Uh, hey,” he called awkwardly. “I’m here to save you.”
At that, Twenty Three simply stared. The agent, on the other hand, spat at him.
“Like hell you are, kid.”
He raised an arm, another bolt of pale, greenish light gathering between his fingers; loosed before Twenty Three had any time to intervene. Caleb knew he couldn’t dodge the shot. He was too tired and too stiff to even possibly get away in time. He didn’t even try. Instead, he put a shard of James’ power into a shield, and allowed the bolt to plink lightly off his chest, as threatening as a foam dart. Then, with a wordless yell, Twenty Three tackled the agent from behind, swept his legs out from under him, and began punching him in the face.
There was something about that response which Caleb found incredibly appealing.
When the beating finally stopped, Caleb gazed up at his erstwhile attacker. For a moment, he tried to be angry. The emotion wouldn’t come. He settled for a smile.
“You’re out of your depth, man,” he said, not unkindly. “Surrender now and I promise not to feed you to the swarm.”
Somewhere among the mass of shapes, he could have sworn he heard the finger girl snicker.
The bloodied agent simply glared at him. He did not, however, attempt to stand.
At the back of the van, the purple light once again went out.
“W-what the hell is going on?” a boy’s voice asked, its tone one of a mesmerised sort of fear.
Caleb felt a momentary pang of guilt. He owed it to James to make sure this kid was okay.
“Hey,” he called, trying to put something soothing in his voice. “You Charlie Vance?”
“Why does everyone know my fucking name?”
Caleb winced; shook his head; took a breath.
“Heh. Sorry about that. My name’s Caleb. I’m friends with kid called James Toranaga. He sent me here to get you home.”
“They set my house on fire.”
“Well, I can get you to your parents, then.”
There was silence for a moment then, broken when the agent swore. Caleb ignored him.
‘Let him be pointless. Why should I care?’
Finally, Charlie seemed to come to a decision:
“I-Is my Mom okay?” he asked. “The woman who grabbed me knocked her out.”
For a moment, Caleb contemplated lying; simply telling him she was fine. Fuck that. He was tired of lying.
“I dunno,” he admitted. “I don’t know what they would have hit her with; but I know these people don’t like killing without a reason. If you come with me, I promise I’ll stay with you until we find her.”
“… Yeah,” Charlie muttered. “Okay.”
“Charles, wait,” the Agent cut in, his voice a little distorted from the swelling in his jaw. “Think about this. You don’t know him. He could be lying through his te-”
For the second time, the interior of the van was lit with a neon glow; this one far brighter than before. That wasn’t, in itself, entirely unexpected. What did make Caleb jump, however, was the second disc; the one that opened some three feet wide and a little to his right. For the brief moment that it was open, Caleb saw the interior of the van painted over the portal’s surface, like a window framed in solid light. He took an unconscious step back as Charlie clambered through. No sooner was the boy through than the portal snapped shut behind him.
“Did you say you were friends with James?” he asked, glancing nervously at the now much closer mass of the swarm.
To Caleb’s credit, he didn’t stay surprised for long.
“Oh, right.” He grinned. “Yeah, I am. He saved my butt tonight, if I’m honest.”
Behind them, a voice whistled.
“Portal maker, eh?” Tsuru spoke, now leaned against a tree trunk a dozen or so feet back. “Hell of a skill you have there, Charlie.”
“… Aren’t you James’ Grandma?”
If Tsuru responded, Caleb didn’t hear it. He became somewhat distracted when his partner started yelling.
“Caleb!” she bellowed. “You have five seconds to tell me what’s going on, or I will punch you in the dick!”
“Right, shit, yeah,” he returned his attention to her in full. “You know those stupid escape plans I keep coming up with? Well, one of em worked.” He waited for her to respond. She did not. Her face had gone completely blank. “I’m free,” he repeated. “I got out. It cost me a broken arm and a ton of pride, but I did it. I’m gonna get you out, too.”
“… Prove it.”
“What?” he asked, nonplussed.
“I said prove it,” she snapped, her voice hard. “Prove you’re not just another one of those monsters down there. Or an illusion. Prove you’re Caleb, and prove you’re free.”
Caleb took a deep breath, then nodded.
“Yeah, okay. One sec.” He spent a few moments trying to shrug out of his Jacket without having to move his crushed shoulder, then gave up. “Hey, old lady, can you help me outta this so she can see my back?”
Tsuru gave no audible response, simply striding across the short distance between them, and helping him begin to shift free of his clothes.
“As for proving I’m really me-” he let out a quiet groan as his jacket pulled agonisingly against his arm. “-Fine. Stuff only you and I know, right? How about escape attempts? Remember my first one? When I was like, nine? I tried to convince you we could just make a run for it, and you slapped me so hard one of my teeth came loose?” He chuckled. “You brought me ice cream after that. Still have no idea where you got the money. How about the knife? Three years ago, last time I tried to get away; you snapped the blade under a paving slab. I told you I’d rather die than stay like this; you just hugged me and made me promise to never say stuff like that again. I remember we didn’t hang out for a while after that, cuz that was when I realised I had a crush on you.”
For the last few words, it was a genuine struggle to hold the older girl’s gaze. For her part, Twenty Three looked slightly sad.
“You know I don’t fe—” she started, but he cut her off.
“Of course I do,” he muttered. “Doesn’t stop me having a crush. Doesn’t have to go anywhere.”
Twenty Three opened her mouth to respond, then closed it again. In the end, she just nodded.
With Tsuru’s help, he finished extricating his upper body from his clothing, and stepped forwards, the creatures of the swarm parting gently before him. He turned around, and offered his partner a view of his neck, the brand scorched from his skin.
“Got a magic transfusion from a friend; used it to overload the spell. The boss can’t touch me now.”
A long, long silence; then a quiet sniff.
“She can always get to us, Caleb. They’re fucking everywhere.”
Caleb turned back around, and looked his friend in the eye. There was a single tear mark streaking down her cheek. He gave her a tired laugh.
“Well, I mean, they can try,” he admitted. “But last time the boss picked a fight with me, I left her on the ground with most of her face burned off. If she ever wakes up from that, she can go for it.”
That statement did not have quite the desired effect. Instead of elation, surprise, or maybe even a laugh, all it seemed to do was deepen his partner’s worry.
“But she’s awake right now,” Twenty Three replied, her brow furrowing. “I can feel her draining me.”
For what it was worth, Caleb didn’t waste time with disbelief.
“Twenty Three,” he said urgently. “I need you to get down here right no-”
It wasn’t worth much.
Behind him, Caleb heard a final, horrifying crack, before his vision sparked with neon blue, and something sent him hurtling across the clearing. He didn’t even feel the impact as his body struck who knew what; his senses too thrown to even register the sound.
The last sight his vision registered before the darkness took him was of Tsuru lunging for the van, her swarm already beginning to move, and of Leanne’s broken form holding Twenty Three and Charlie by the shoulders. Then the three of them vanished into nothing.
She was gone.
He had failed.