Charles Vance gazed out into the slow snowfall beyond his cell’s window, and once more tried to convince himself that staying at the compound had been a good idea. It was harder than it should have been. Everything Twenty Three had told him had been true. It was just annoying how little that actually helped.
Charlie let his eyes scan slowly back and forth across the snow-clad mountainscape, searching once again for evidence of a ski-slope. It was hard to make out anything from this distance, even without the snow.
Behind him, he heard the latch of his cell door click open. He turned. The person at the door was familiar. Bors; a blond man in what were either his late teens or early twenties, with slate grey eyes and a tendency towards unsolicited smiles. The man was carrying a metal tray, a bowl of some thick, meat-filled soup steaming faintly atop it. Charlie scowled.
Please don’t talk to me. Please don’t talk to me. Please don-
“Hello, Charles,” said Bors, his voice accented with something Charlie stood no chance of identifying. “How are we doing today?” As he spoke, the man stepped properly into the room, depositing the food on the table beside his bed.
Charlie didn’t answer. Instead, he just turned his head back towards the window, and continued searching for a ski-slope. One week, he’d decided. He’d give Twenty Three one week to make contact with him, then he’d make his best guess at an inhabited mountain, and portal his way out.
“Still don’t feel like talking, huh?” Bors said, masking his disappointment with a chuckle. “It’d be better for all of us if you did, you know. I can’t imagine how many questions you must have bottled away in there. I’d be happy to explain some things.”
Charlie shook his head. This was one of the most frustrating things about this place. Everyone was too damn polite.
“Kid down the hall was crying again last night,” he muttered. “When are we going home?”
Bors’ smile dropped a fraction.
“I don’t have an answer there,” he replied, mimicking yesterday’s response verbatim. “We can’t know how long we’ll need to keep you, or anyone, until we know what you can do.”
“You keep saying that like you’re expecting something big,” Charlie muttered, turning so as to look Bors in the eye. “Whatever it is, I don’t have it. So just let me go.”
“That is bullshit, Charles,” Bors replied. Then he sighed. “My apologies. I shouldn’t swear in front of a boy.” He took a step back towards the door, and gestured to Charlie’s meal. “Eat your soup. You might feel better with something warm in your belly.”
Charlie glanced at his soup, then looked back at Bors. The man smiled again, almost encouraging. That made the decision for him. In four steps, he traversed the space to his bed, sat himself down, and picked up the bowl.
It hit Bors in the chest, hot soup exploding out across a formerly pristine grey uniform and scalding at his skin. He let out a yell, first in pain, then in rage, crossing the distance between them in two steps. Charlie didn’t flinch, even when Bors’ retaliatory strike caught him in the cheek, snapping his head to the side.
To say it didn’t hurt would have been a lie. Charlie could taste the blood in his mouth, his tongue suddenly a little too big for his teeth. Unsurprising. Bors was twice his size, after all. Given his last few days, however, it was next to nothing.
Charlie looked up at the older man, wiped the blood from his mouth with a sleeve, and grinned.
See that? You’re a kidnapping asshole. Stop pretending.
It took Bors a few moments to reclaim his composure. Eventually, however, his stance relaxed, his hand slowly unclenching from a fist. He wasn’t smiling anymore; not even trying. There was a touch of regret behind his eyes.
“Boy,” he murmured, wiping a measure of the soup from his face. “If you were a year older, I’d have made you lose a tooth for that.” Charlie laughed with as much derision as he could at that. Bors ignored him. “Come on.” He gestured to the door. “You still need to eat something.”
Charlie would have refused. He was still feeling petty; but he could smell the soup now coating a good portion of the room. His stomach growled. He felt a momentary regret for the aching in his jaw.
It was perhaps twenty steps out into the hallway before Bors spoke up again.
“You need to stop treating us like the enemy,” he muttered. “I know it’s hard to see right now, but I promise you; we’re on the same side.”
“Your boss set my house on fire,” he replied. “Knocked out my mom and left her in the street. I’m not on your side. Your side sucks.”
“Leanne gave her life to see you here safely,” Bors snapped. “Have some respect or I’ll show you the back of my hand again.”
“You’re really bad at this whole ‘not my enemy’ thing, you know that?”
The rest of their trip was made in blessed silence, Bors still scowling, Charlie trying to commit the layout of the place to memory. He wasn’t able to glean much. Just a bunch of narrow hallways and a depressing amount of security cameras.
Their arrival at the kitchen almost came as a relief. It was the biggest room Charlie had seen in days, four rows of sturdy wooden tables and orthopedic seats. Only one of those seats was currently in use, a dull, suit-clad man who Charlie would have guessed to be in his early seventies, eating a bowl of the same soup that coated Bors. The man glanced up as they entered, and nodded. Charlie nodded back, half-hearted, then began to look for food.
Bors had made a B-line for a set of stoves, at the top of which simmered a vat of yet more soup. He looked to Charlie, then gestured meaningfully at the soup. He was ignored.
Charlie had been on this world for almost thirteen years. He had a loving mother and he knew exactly what she would let him get away with.
Charlie knew how to raid a kitchen.
Bors didn’t try to stop him as he moved from shelf to shelf, filling his pockets with every sugar encrusted object he could find. A glance at his expression told Charlie all he needed to know. He had decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Good. Charlie would make use of that.
Eventually, however, his pockets ran out of space. So did his hands. Judging his task completed, Charlie sat himself down on a tabletop, pulled open the foil on a packet of some unrecognizable european candy, and tipped it into his mouth.
Bors scowled. Charlie grinned at him as he chewed, pointedly ignoring the pain in his jaw. At this point, annoying Bors was the only entertainment he had available.
“So,” he said, not bothering to swallow his food. “You said you’d explain stuff. What are you planning here?”
“Can’t tell you that.” Bors huffed.
“That figures.” Charlie swallowed his food. “Okay. Can you tell me where we are?”
“Can you tell me who you guys are?”
An angry groan.
“Are we in Germany? You sound kinda German. Is this some kind of Nazi thin-”
“I’m from Luxembourg!” Bors snapped. “And no. We are not Nazis.”
“What part of Luxembourg?”
Bors put a palm against his face, and didn’t answer.
“You promised you’d tell me stuff.”
“Then give me something I can answer!”
The chuckling behind Charlie’s back almost him jump. He turned around, and caught sight of the elderly man in the suit, currently on the last few spoonfuls of his soup. The man waved.
“He can’t tell you anything important,” he said, his voice almost boringly English. “He doesn’t have the required clearance, and doesn’t know how much he’s allowed to say.”
“Who the hell are you, old man?”
The man shrugged, pulled an ID card from his pocket, and tossed it to Bors.
“Sebastian Grey. I’m the new CEO. Or the old one, I suppose. Leanne had me removed when she took over.” He ate another mouthful of soup. “She’s dead now. I’m here to clean up her mess.” Bors bristled. He was ignored. “Check my ID if you don’t believe me. For now, though, I need you to leave. I’ll be speaking with Mr. Vance alone.”
Bors didn’t move. His fists were clenched.
“Leanne was a good woman,” he growled, his teeth bared. “Do not-”
Mr Grey flicked two fingers in Bors’ direction. There was a loud snap, and Bors disappeared.
“I swear. Leanne let everything important slip while I was gone.”
Charlie watched the whole confrontation, at first confused, then alarmed.
“The heck did you just do?”
“Just a teleport,” the man shrugged. “I don’t like having my time wasted.”
Sebastian finished the last of his soup, and turned to look at him.
“Did your mother ever tell you anything about elves, son?”
“Uh, what?” Charlie asked, one eyebrow crawling slowly up his scalp.
“I’ll take that as a no then,” Mr Grey nodded, pushed his soup bowl to one side, and began picking at the lid of his yogurt carton, his fingers a little clumsy. He grunted. “Damned arthritis. I’m sorry, would you mind?” He proffered the carton to Charlie, who moved forward to pull the tab free without thinking; too busy being perplexed. “Thank you. Now then. As you have recently discovered, Charles, magic is real. People who have it are able to use what you could think of as specialized superpowers. Your mother has powers, I have powers, and as we both know, you have powers.”
“I don’t-” Charlie started, but Mr. Grey cut him off.
“No use denying it. We could tell your powers had manifested the moment you set foot inside this building.”
Charlie crossed his arms and let out a huff.
Mr. Grey cracked a dry smile.
“That was a lie, but your response was quite informative.”
Charlie scowled even harder at that. It was a dumb trick, even when it worked.
Mr. Grey produced a clean spoon from his jacket pocket and gave his yogurt a stir.
“The situation is fairly complex, but all you really need to know is that our species is at war. There are some people who accept this fact, and there are some who don’t. Your mother is one of the people who do not. She, along with most of the rest of the world, would rather ignore the elves building portals to our world and hunting us like dogs. They do this because it is easier. That is their choice.” He gave Charlie a cold look. “They’re cowards.”
“Screw you,” Charlie replied on general principle. “My Mom’s not a coward.”
Mr. Grey continued on as if Charlie hadn’t spoken.
“Historically, of course, there hasn’t really been anything our species could do about these attacks. We have powerful people, but our planet doesn’t have the energy to keep us at full strength. Even our best mages are working with maybe a fifth of their actual power. The elves don’t have that problem. They put us on this planet to keep us low. They cheated us out of our power because they want to stay on top. One day, we will grow strong enough to make them fear our potential. Either by our numbers, or by our technology. They have already seen what nuclear arms can do. They are already wary of us. One day, the war will start in full. Do you understand me, Charles?”
Charlie reluctantly nodded. He was listening now, in spite of himself, arms folded and cross-legged atop his table.
“… So what are you doing?”
Sebastian took another mouthful of his yogurt, and reclined a little in his chair. “My organisation-” he gestured vaguely at the space around them. “Has spent the last four decades doing everything we could. We have gathered materials, made weapons, and trained soldiers. All this time, we have been preparing for a war that we couldn’t find a way to win. Then, six years ago, circumstances changed.”
The man paused there, gazing calmly across at him over the dregs of his dessert. Was he awaiting a response?
“Uh,” Charlie muttered. “Okay. What happened six years ago?”
“We were attacked,” Mr. Grey answered, finishing the last full bite of his yogurt and scraping his spoon around the inside of the container for the dregs. “It turns out that not only are the elves willing to exploit us to remain on top; they are also negligent towards the responsibilities that come with that position. A creature they were supposed to be guarding got out. It made its way to Earth, and when it got close enough, it started creating monsters. It made five of them before a man named Ethan Gale sacrificed himself to contain it. Of those five, this planet’s defenders only managed to deal with four of them.”
The man put his spoon down and started ticking off names on his fingers.
“There was the Minotaur: a brute of a thing that almost made its way to Cairo before a space warper trapped it in an endless spiral. Then there was the Hydra: a regenerating sea-snake that flattened an entire coastal town before Tsuru Toranaga and her pet elemental burned out the inside of its skull.”
“Wait. James’ grandma?” Charlie asked. Mr. Grey ignored him.
“Then there was the Crow. We think it was some kind of psychically attuned teleporter, because it assassinated a total of seventy four politicians and celebrities before a pedophile shattered its wings.” He took the last bite of his yogurt. “All evidence suggests that the Behemoth would have been disastrous, but it emerged in Norway, so the twins took care of it before it became an issue. The one that has value here, though, was called the Whale.” He caught sight of the unimpressed look on Charlie’s face, and gave a humorless laugh.
“I know. Not an impressive name. Not very apt, either. Whales are peaceful creatures.” He sighed. “We don’t know how the fight played out. We just know that the team that was sent to fight it broke radio contact a minute or so before the thing was supposed to arrive. A search party found their bodies on the beach a few hours later, all of them brain-dead, aside from the ones fortunate enough to have drowned.”
Charlie just gazed at the older man then. He had no response to that. Was he supposed to be sad? Scared? Should he want to know more? It felt too much like something out of a cartoon.
Sebastian sniffed, picked up his yogurt cup, and crumpled it, before pushing out of his chair towards the trash can.
“No one wanted to go near the creature after that,” he murmured. “Understandable, I suppose. The Americans tracked its movements via satellite and aerial patrols. The Japanese sent submarines. Their torpedoes didn’t even make it past its shield. When it started moving in towards Bermuda, the Americans and the British started scrambling everything they could.” He smiled. “Wasted effort, in the end. It was still a few dozen miles out when it tore a jagged hole in space-time and moved into another world.”
“Wait, what?” Charlie asked, confused. “It just left?”
“It just left.” Sebastian agreed, depositing his yogurt cup in the trash and stepping back towards his companion, leaning himself against a table. “We were surprised too. You see, the world that this creature traveled into used to be inaccessible. We didn’t even know it was there until we watched the Whale flee. And as it turns out, the hole that it left behind has never truly healed over. The fabric is weaker there. My organisation was able to send some probes through. Do you know what we found?”
Charlie mutely shook his head. The old man grinned.
“We found the perfect planet. It’s empty over there. We couldn’t find anything for miles. Just tropical islands, calm seas, and an atmosphere so untouched that it practically vibrates with ambient magic.” That grin grew wider. “Do you see it yet, Charles? We could use that place to build an army. A real army, on a planet with only one way in and one way out. No ambushes from other worlds. No spying from elven seers. We could be powerful, defensible, and invisible. We could win the war.”
“Um. Okay… But what about the magic death whale?”
Mr. Grey shrugged.
“It’s a sea creature. We can stick to landmasses easily enough. But first, we need to get there.” He reached a hand inside his jacket. For a moment, Charlie was confused as to why the older man had lost his grin. Then he felt the tip of the revolver press against his head.
“Your mother,” Sebastian said calmly. “Is one of the finest transportation mages on the face of the Earth. She can move a squad of men from London to Jakarta in less than a minute, with pinpoint accuracy. She is one of the few people in the world who could make the kind of bridge we need. If you have those same abilities, you have value to me. If not,” he sighed. “Then I’ll have to rely on the less pedigreed assets Leanne acquired. Don’t look at the gun, Charles. Look at me.”
With what felt like the greatest struggle of will he had ever undergone, Charlie pulled his gaze from the weapon still pressed against his skull, and looked his captor in the eye. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. He could feel the touch of the metal radiating like ice cubes through every inch of him.
“Please don’t kill me.”
“That really depends on what you can bring to the table,” he said, his voice cold. “Now, I’m going to ask you nicely.” He pulled back the gun’s hammer with his thumb. “Would you mind showing me your powers?”