Two days ago, Twenty Three:
For the first few seconds, the three of them simply hung there in the void; falling, yet stationary; their minds forced open to the vastness of the world. It was hard to measure time like that. Hours? Days? The space of a breath? Hard to say.
She was vaguely aware of her companions moving through the space beside her, the boss still crackling with electricity, the boy simply frightened. Had she been less distracted in that moment by the sheer length and breadth of the world, she might have comprehended earlier. As it was, she took her time.
When she finally landed, the world took a while to reconstruct. They hit the ground in the dark, she lost her footing; scuffed her knees on the rough concrete. The air was freezing, the ground so cold it threatened to take the skin from her palms when she pulled her hands away. When the nausea hit, she retched. She wasn’t the only one. The sound of someone losing fluids in the gloom.
She closed her eyes. Sight was overwhelming for her then, even in the dark.
It was with that thought that Twenty Three’s consciousness resurfaced. Teleporting. Right. They’d teleported. They’d been in the van; the creatures attacking from the mists of the witch’s grove. There’d been fear and rage; the promise of freedom. As the thought came back to her, she felt some broken memory of hope.
She shook her head; still groggy. Why was the hope just a memory? Why did it hurt to think of?
Twenty Three was glad she had her eyes closed when the lights came on, the colors growing brighter behind her eyelids. Judging by the muffled groan off to her left, the boss hadn’t been quite so lucky.
The boss. More flashes in her head. Fighting, the drain, the split-second image of Caleb’s body flung like a rag-doll across the clearing. She felt something numb settling in her chest.
They’d been so close.
More retching to the side. Just the one voice now. Young, male; Charlie. Right. The boss had got him too.
“What the heck was that?” he asked, his voice small; his teeth chattering.
“My apologies,” came the boss’ reply, the words coming out as a pained mumble. “I had to get us out of there. Bit of a rough ride.”
Twenty Three opened her eyes. The light ached. That didn’t matter. She had one thought, something to latch onto with all her strength.
Somewhere, bare feet away from her, the boss spoke.
“Twenty Three,” Leanne croaked. “Check on Charlie. See if he’s injured, then help me up.”
She scanned the ground around her. The world spun. The vague sense of shapes moving to her left. She forced her eyes to focus.
Charlie sat a few feet to her left, arms curled up around his eyes as he tried to block out the light and the chill. She forced her gaze to the other shape. Leanne, on all fours, immobile.
Twenty Three forced herself to her feet. The motion disoriented; another wave of nausea sliding against her brain. She closed her eyes, and took a step towards Leanne.
Her thoughts weren’t vocal in that moment; incoherent. All she had inside her was that crushing sense of loss. She wished the feeling could be less familiar.
She took another step, and felt her leg collide with something soft. She lowered herself to her knees beside the boss, confirming identity by touch rather than her still aching eyes.
“Charlie’s fine,” she muttered, orienting an arm under the woman’s shoulders, and exhaustedly heaving her upright, the two of them steadying one another as gravity itself seemed to ebb beneath them. “What do you want me to do?”
Leanne took a while before she answered, clearly forcing herself to think; barely conscious.
“Get-” she shook her head. “Get inside. Find someone from medical. Send them across while I look after Charlie.”
Twenty Three forced a nod. It was mechanical; artificial; a built in response to having another layer of hope ripped out by the root. Obedience. That was how one avoided pain. It was the only way.
“… Yes, Maam.”
It was… surprisingly easy, letting her feelings go, keeping the hate out of her voice. She just had to forget she had a soul. Simple as breathing.
It just wasn’t something her sanity could stand.
It wasn’t really a conscious choice, unclipping the knife from her belt. Maybe it should have been. Maybe she should have considered the odds for her survival. She didn’t. She was too busy playing back images inside her mind. The panic in Caleb’s eyes before the end. Twenty Four’s body growing cold against his bed.
Leanne barely reacted when the blade pierced her gut. Just a faint surprise; a breath; the exhalation turned to mist by the chill.
Twenty Three withdrew the knife; stabbed again. Leanne’s hands came up to stop her; weaker than a child. She stabbed again.
“Everything,” Twenty Three whispered, one arm at the older woman’s back, holding her upright. “You broke every good thing there ever was in me. I can’t live like this.”
She felt Leanne’s touch inside her mind; the last dregs of power draining slowly out of her. She shook her head. Was this how Twenty Four had felt? The lifeblood leaching from his veins as he stood there in the snow?
He must have been so lonely.
“Do it,” she murmured, forcing a smile even as the tears began to trickle along her cheeks. “Send me back to them. Please.”
Something broke inside her when the sound of Leanne’s breaths grew still. The hand inside her head stopped pulling at her. The woman’s form grew heavy in her arms.
Why was she still alive?
She shook Leanne’s body.
“Wake up. You’re not done. I said wake up!”
The boss’ head lolled to the side as she slapped it. No resistance. No pulse.
Twenty Three let the body fall to the floor, and put her head in her hands.
“No,” she whispered. “No, no, no. Not again. Don’t make me be alone again.”
She let the knife fall from her fingers with a clatter. Her fingers shook, her breaths short and shallow.
“Fuck. Fuck.” She shook herself. Nothing changed. She slapped herself. She failed to wake up.
Something struck her in the leg, hard enough to sting. She ignored it. It hit her again.
She opened her eyes.
It was the kid.
He was shivering. Barefoot and pajama clad in the freezing cold. He was also kicking her in the shins.
“Will. You. Stop. Flipping. Out!” he shouted, planting a fresh kick in the space between each word. “We’ve been kidnapped! Pull it together, or we’re screwed!”
She looked down at him, confused.
“But Caleb’s dead,” she said, the words coming out strangely hollow.
Charlie glared at her, his arms wrapping tight around himself for warmth, his feet tucking into the bottoms of his pajamas so as not to touch the ground.
“Who?” he asked. “Y-you mean the guy who tried to save us? I didn’t see him die. Did you see him die?”
“He-” she swallowed. “He got hit.”
Charlie shook his head.
“No,” he chittered. “S-shut up. That’s not what I said. Did. You. See. Him. Die?”
Twenty Three opened her mouth.
Twenty Three closed her mouth.
“Yeah,” Charlie muttered. “That’s what I thought. N-now. I’m gonna be honest. I just watched you stab someone. I don’t trust you. But we’re in this together. So, are you gonna help me get back to my mom or not?”
For a moment, she simply gazed at him. Then she began to laugh.
“… What?” he asked, one eyebrow crawling up his scalp.
“Ah.” She giggled. “It’s just- Oh, wow. My life is just a procession of little boys who need me to keep them alive.”
“I’m not a little boy.” He muttered, hands rubbing up and down along his sides in an attempt to ward off the cold.
“You’re totally a little boy.” Twenty Three opened a hand, allowing a mote of indigo flame to blossom between her fingers, before lobbing it down on the ground between them. It wasn’t much; little more than a space heater, really, but Charlie huddled himself around it like it was the warmest thing on Earth.
“Where the heck are we?” he asked. “How’s it so cold? It’s October.”
“It’s October, sure,” she muttered, taking a good look around for the first time since her landing. “But I’m pretty sure we’re back where I grew up. Near the arctic. Up in the mountains. Up here, October just means the snow storms are back.”
The first things she noted looking around were the shipping containers. Eight of them, organized around them in a neat, two-by-two stack. She could see the distant wall down one end, a sliding entryway just big enough for a hauler on the other side. All of it covered over by a low tin roof.
They were back at the compound.
She chuckled. For the last twelve years, being back here had been a feature of every nightmare she’d had. Strange that it could now be a cause for such relief. She’d been trying to break out of here for years. She knew the security of the place like the back of her hand.
“Well,” she muttered. First question. How about your portals? Think you could put us back in America somewhere?”
“Already tried it while you were freaking out,” he replied. “I don’t think I can make them go that far. The only one I managed opened up into a snow storm. Now they won’t open up at all. I think I’m out of power.”
“Right,” she sighed. “Well, that makes things harder.” She glanced across at Charlie, still warming himself by the meagre fire, and stripped off her jacket. She tossed it at him. “In a perfect world, we could just hide here until you got your power back.” She heaved another sigh. “But, the lights are on. And that means they’ll come looking in here soon. This warehouse isn’t big enough to hide in, and if we tried, it’d mean going without the fire. At best, we’d be caught. At worst, we’d freeze.”
Charlie wrapped the jacket around him as tightly as he could, burrowing in against the leather lining.
“But I like the fire,” he muttered.
“Me too,” she replied, slumping down on the floor across from him. “Don’t wanna have to go without it. But there’s no hiding here with it. Now, we could make a run for it, but we’re up in the mountains, and it’s cold outside. It’s only going to get colder when nighttime hits. You’re not wearing shoes. Or any warm clothes. We could steal hers-” she pointed at Leanne’s corpse.
“-but they won’t fit, and they aren’t enough. I have no idea how far away it is to the nearest town. Hell, I don’t even know where the nearest town is. There’s a ski resort, I think, on one of the mountains nearby, but as far as I could ever tell, that mountain is at least twelve miles away. So, to get us there, I’d have to carry you through the snow, in broad daylight, for about two hours. Best case, we get there and you only lose a few toes to the cold. Worst case, we get caught, and you still lose a couple toes. We could wait until nighttime in some of the trees on the other side of the compound, but that’d mean staying in the cold even longer. And we still might get caught.”
Charlie shook his head, his expression slightly queasy.
“Okay,” he muttered. “Thanks for the horror story, weirdo. Why are you telling me all this?”
“Because,” she groaned. “I want you to know your options. We could run, and we could maybe make it. But there’s a risk. And because you’re smaller, and your body doesn’t have superpowers, most of that risk is on you. But. The other option might be worse.”
Of all the possible responses, the boy somehow managed a chuckle.
“Worse than losing my toes?” he asked, poking his bare feet out from under the wrapping of the jacket, and wiggling them around near the fire. “Not likely. I like my toes.”
Twenty Three shook her head.
“Option two is you turn yourself in,” she muttered. His head jerked up at her at that. She held up a hand. “I know. I know. It sounds dumb. But these people wanted us to capture you. That means someone here is going to know your face. If you turn yourself in, they’ll keep you warm, and keep you safe. If you told them the boss got stabbed before she brought you here, they wouldn’t need to know about me. And that gives me enough time to get supplies, come back, and break you out.”
“… You really think you can just break me out of here?”
There was a lot more cynicism in Charlie’s voice than Twenty Three would have liked. She brushed it off with a grin.
“Kid. I spent my whole childhood figuring out how to break people out of here. Most of that was before I learned magic.”