Care: 6.1

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Author’s Note: Hey, guys! Finally, we get to embark on arc six. This is one I’ve been wanting to get to for a long time. Now that we are here, it is once again time for the next Bonus Chapter vote. I’m trying something a little new this time. Instead of letting people vote on literally every character that has appeared in story thus far, I have selected several potential options for bonus chapters for y’all to choose from. The link can be found here, or you can just click on the Bonus Chapter Votes tab in the site menu. Until next time, guys.

Casper:

To call the silence that surrounded Casper awkward would have been the understatement of the month. Even the receptionist was staring; Tsuru was doing so with an intensity that bordered on hostility. For his part, Casper picked up his strawberry milk and drained it dry, before stepping up out of his uncomfortable excuse for a chair, and crossing the room to throw the empty carton in the bin.

He returned to his chair. Everyone was still staring.

“So,” Tsuru asked, her tone one of barely suppressed anger. “Has he fucked you yet?”

He leaned back against the seat cushion, and looked her in the eye.

“It’s not like that.”

“It’s Father,” Peter replied, managing his voice at least somewhat better than his mother. “It’s always like that. Do you honestly expect me to believe he hasn’t tried-”

“Oh, he tried,” Casper admitted. “I said no.”

“Bullshit,” replied Peter and Tsuru in unison. The two of them looked at one another. Peter gestured for his mother to proceed.

“You don’t say no to Father,” she growled. “No one says no to Father. Especially not an untrained, adolescent boy.”

“I’m not untrained,” he replied coldly. In any other mindset, the look she gave him then would have terrified him. He looked around. He still didn’t like the idea of telling them about his power, but how else to show them? He spotted a flowerpot by the reception desk, and stood, crossing the room towards it. “Plastic. Darn. I don’t suppose anyone has some flower seeds?”

He had intended it as a joke. A lame one, in retrospect. What he had not expected was for both Peter and Tsuru to begin digging in their pockets.

“Come here,” Peter muttered, pulling out his wallet and unzipping a small compartment on the side. Casper stepped towards him, and the older man shook a small selection of seeds into his palm.

“Thanks.”

With that, he returned to his seat, looked around for something suitably disposable, and settled on his half-eaten pastry. He picked it up, stuffed one of the smaller seeds into the casing, and focused on his spell.

Three weeks ago, this power had been almost inaccessible, like doing deadlifts with his brain. In those three weeks, however, he’d had the time to practice. 

For a few seconds, nothing happened. Then, the pastry’s exterior began to tear, exuding at first just a single flower blossom, then significantly more. Roots, leaves, stems. Casper kept going until the thing was a half foot wide, roots and creepers trailing around his hand and halfway up his arm. He could have pushed it further, but they got the point.

He peeled his hand free of the flower’s stems, and lobbed it lightly across at Tsuru. She caught it, examined it for a moment, then passed it to her son.

“Fine,” she murmured, apparently making a little more effort at maintaining some form of calm. “So you’re not a total novice. I still don’t think for a second that you could say no to a man like Father. I know trained combat mages who couldn’t manage that.”

“She has a point, you know,” Peter agreed, pressing a finger to one of the flower blossoms, only for it to begin shrinking in his hand, returning itself to a seed. “I don’t care if you can use your spells or not. Father has mind co-”

“Mind Control,” Casper cut him off. “Yeah. He does. It doesn’t work on me.”

“Doesn’t work on you?” Tsuru laughed, her voice sounding almost sickened. “Is that what he made you think? Casper. It’s magic. There’s no such thing as being immune.”

“I’m not immune,” he replied. “It just doesn’t work on me.”

At that, it was Peter’s turn to groan. 

“God, don’t you realize how inane that sounds?” he asked, his voice growing steadily louder, before Sarah’s hand on his leg prompted him to take a breath. “Look,” he muttered. “I get it. It’s like a drug. I’m guessing he found you when things were at their worst with your dad. When your life was sitting at its very lowest point. And he made you feel good. I’ll bet from there it was just easier to tell yourself you had a choice. That it was okay. That you hadn’t really lost anything.”

For a few moments, Casper simply stared at him.

“It’s a lie, Casper,” Peter continued. “You need to get away.”

After a long, long quiet, Casper finally replied:

“You really don’t get it, do you?” The older man opened his mouth, but Casper cut him off. “Shut up. You have no idea, okay? None. You think it just makes you happy? No. It’s the best thing you’ve ever felt. Could ever feel. It’s the happiest I’ve ever been, and I never want it to happen to me again!” It was Casper’s own voice that was rising now. James was stirring by his side. He didn’t care. “You don’t know shit. That power doesn’t just make you into a junkie. That stuff makes you so damn happy that you stop being who you were. You stop being you around him. You turn into some broken kind of child so horribly in love that you’d let him stab you in the gut with a smile.” He had to stop a moment there to set the memory aside. “And if you’re like me, if you’re lucky, then there’ll be just enough of the real you left inside to scream for it to stop.”

The other three just gazed at him at that. Beside him, James shifted back to consciousness with a groan.

“What’s wrong?” he mumbled blearily. “Why are people yelling?”

No one answered him. After a moment, Peter dropped his gaze to the floor.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “I shouldn’t have-”

“No,” Casper agreed. “You shouldn’t.”

“When did it happen?” Sarah asked, something indefinable in her voice.

“… The day before I came to live with you,” he muttered. “Back when the elves attacked. I’ve seen him a couple times since then.”

“Why, though?” Tsuru asked. “If you really think he can’t control you, then why do you let him in?”

Casper laughed at that.

“Cuz number one, he’s a freaking stalker. Even after I got away from him, he just tracked me back to where I was staying. And number two… we made a deal, okay? He gets to spend a couple hours with me every week, and I get-” He stopped. Why did he have to go and say that? “… Look, it doesn’t matter, okay? We agreed to hang out a little every week as long as he kept his hands to himself.”

James was fully upright now, looking between Casper and his family with a growing degree of concern.

“The hell are you guys talking about?” the other boy asked, frowning.

“Your grandad’s gonna be fine,” Casper grunted. “I got my teacher to have a look at him.”

“Casper,” Peter asked, his tone deliberately steady. “I promise not to judge you, but what exactly did Father offer you?”

Casper tried to glare at him. It hurt a bit too much to do it right.

“… Food,” he admitted. “Money. An apartment. Somewhere to stay in case I needed to run away again.”

“Why would you need to run away again?” Sarah asked, just a little hesitant.

Casper turned his gaze to the floor.

“Cuz I still don’t trust you.” He thanked the stars that Sarah was too far away for him to feel with his powers all wrapped in. The hurt emanating from James was bad enough. After a few seconds of it, he growled. “Look. I don’t need this from any of you, okay? Whether you like what I did or not, none of you were there, and everything I did just saved the old man’s life. You don’t get to judge me.”

“No one’s judging you, Casper,” said Sarah quietly. 

“Bullshit.”

“We’re not,” Tsuru replied. “You can’t judge someone for being mind controlled. None of it’s their fault.”

“So you’re calling me a victim, then,” Casper snapped. “You think that’s not a judgement? Go ahead and tell James that. See how that works out.”

The moment Casper said it, he regretted it. Once again, the room went very still.

“Screw you, Casper,” said Peter quietly. Sarah just tapped him on the shoulder.

“Go wait outside,” she said, pointing at the door. “It’s not about us. You need to cool off.”

With a mutter of something Casper couldn’t quite catch, Peter stood. Before he’d left the room, however, James’ voice spoke up:

“I want you to apologise to my parents,” he said, his own voice perfectly clear.

A part of Casper knew he should apologise; that what he’d said was out of line. But he wasn’t without his pride.

“Was I wrong?”

“I said I want you to apologise.”

Casper scowled.

“Yeah. Okay. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry too,” said Peter stiffly. “… And I’m sorry, James, if that really is how we made you feel.”

At a gesture from his wife, Peter sat back down.

“You know, I really don’t care about whether you trust us,” Tsuru muttered. “Making a deal with a child molester isn’t the best way to secure yourself an out. You want a backup? Fine. I’ll give Tasha some money. I know you’re friends. Go and live with her. You know she’d die before she kicked you out.”

Casper chuckled.

“Before she lived with you, Tasha’s place was neck deep in pizza boxes. Where do you think I was staying when I went on the run?”

“The point,” Tsuru replied. “Is that there are options. Lots of options. Better options.”

“There are,” Casper conceded. “And every single one of them comes with strings attached. At least with this one, I know where all the risks are.”

At that, Tsuru snorted.

“You know the risks. He gives you gifts. What next? Are you going to tell me you can fix him?”

“Would you shut up?” Casper asked. “I told you, it’s not like that.”

“Then why the hell are you giving him a chance?” she asked. “You know he’s dangerous. You admit he’s tried to molest you-”

“Wait, what!?” James interjected, shaking Bex momentarily from her doze. Tsuru ignored him.

“-And yet you’re still set on having him in your life. Why, Casper?”

Casper opened his mouth to reply. He closed it again. They were staring at him; James on the verge of panic. He felt small.

“… He saved my life,” he said quietly. “Back when the elves attacked. I was with some guys, but we got separated. One of them cornered me.”

“It was you,” Peter murmured in a voice of sudden realisation. “You’re the boy that Theo and Kym ran into. The one who nailed the female with a flash grenade.”

“Yeah. But afterwards, she came after me. Her birds were tearing me apart. I think she was gonna make them eat me.” Casper sniffed. “And then Father stabbed her in the gut. He saved me.”

“You don’t owe him anything,” Tsuru growled. “Take it from someone who’s just as powerful as he is, saving a kid from being cornered by a monster doesn’t make you a saint. It just makes you not as bad as you would have been if you stood there and let them die. It doesn’t cost him anything, and so you owe him nothing.”

“… Well, I don’t see it that way.”

Tsuru let out a huff.

“Of course you don’t.”

For a time, the conversation ended there. Then Casper voiced the one thought that had been nagging at him for weeks.

“Doesn’t it make you sad, though?” he asked. “Cuz you look at him there, with all those other kids, and it’s so obvious he’s trying to be good. Doesn’t it hurt you at all?”

The look that Tsuru gave him then was hard.

“There are plenty of good men in the world, Casper. But most of them don’t fuck kids.”

The silence that followed that was a good deal shorter.

“How did you know where my father was?” Peter asked. “You told him exactly where to go.”

Casper snickered.

“I think I’ve told you enough secrets for today.”

When Father finally returned to the waiting room, the atmosphere was tense. Everyone besides Casper turned to look at him, the level of disgust ranging from face to face. For his part, Father simply ignored them.

“I’ve repaired everything I can,” he said. “But I’m afraid it’s far from perfect. Some of the tissue was too burned to be brought back. There will be scars. And there was some damage to the spinal cord that I lack the-” he searched for the word. “-Let’s call it the dexterity to account for. He might find his legs a little stiff from now on. Other than that, he’s healing. Give him a few days to rest, and he should find his feet.”

“Thank you,” Casper said, refusing to meet anyone else’s gaze.

“What’s the price?” Tsuru asked. “What did Casper have to promise you to make you agree to this?”

Father sighed.

“There wasn’t a price, Tsuru. I couldn’t just stand there while one of Earth’s defenders lay dying. Even were that not the case, I’m not going to extort a boy just for trying to help a friend.”

Tsuru turned to Casper, waiting for a contradiction. None was offered.

“… Thank you,” she muttered. “For saving my husband’s life.”

Previous Chapter:

Interlude: Casper Sullivan

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Manhattan Island, Four Twenty Seven AM:

Of the many hospitals dotted across the eastern seaboard, there were few quite as storied, or as well regarded, as Mount Sinai. The place was huge, well equipped, and had doctors and nurses ready and waiting to handle whatever New York had to throw at them.

But Hideyoshi Toranaga had a three inch hole in his gut. It was a small miracle that he had even lasted long enough for the emergency response team to see him to the surgery.

As of this moment, Hideyoshi had been in surgery for hours. Every time a member of the medical staff came in or out of the waiting room, they looked increasingly grim.

Casper sat by his friend in the quiet, trying to piece together just what was going on. James had bags under his eyes. He wasn’t speaking. Every time he moved, his fingers seemed to shake. Casper was worried.

He hadn’t pushed; not even a little. When he’d woken up last night to the sound of Tasha flicking pebbles at his window, he hadn’t questioned it. When he’d opened up that window, only for her to scale the wall and pass a barely conscious James into his custody, he hadn’t asked. He’d simply escorted the other boy back to his room.

He was trying to be patient.

Now, however, as he sat there, listening to the emotions coursing through his friend’s mind; watching the grown ups talk quietly on their even grimmer side of the room; he found he couldn’t hold it back.

“… Hey,” he muttered, elbowing the other boy gently in the side. “We promised, remember? If we ever got into trouble bad enough we couldn’t fix…” he let the sentence hang. No need to press the point.

For a few moments, James didn’t respond. Casper could feel the shame and dread rattling around inside his skull, no doubt going in circles.

Eventually, his friend shook his head.

“No,” he mumbled, his voice a little croaky. “Every time I ask for help, it just gets someone hurt. What if I got Jiji killed?” he sniffled. “How could you help, anyway? You’re just a kid, like me.”

Casper rolled his eyes, and reached over to bonk his friend in the noggin with his knuckles.

“It’s not about whether I can help, you doof. It’s about being there when I know you need a hug.”

“I don’t need a hug,” James muttered, his cheeks going slightly red. “Anyways. If I did, I’d ask Tasha. She gives better hugs than you.”

“Oof,” Casper replied, prodding his friend gently in the ribs. “That smarts. Going for the nuts already?”

“… Maybe.”

For a moment, neither spoke.

“So, you’re really not gonna tell me anything, huh?”

A moment’s hesitation. That sense of guilt momentarily deepening in James’ mind as he shook his head. Casper sighed. 

“Yeah,” he murmured. “I figured.” He turned his gaze across the room towards where Bex sat, half asleep on Sarah’s knee, and raised his voice. “Hey, Bex. Your brother needs a hug and he’s too wimpy to let me do it. Can you come over here a sec?”

Slowly, with a gentle prod or two from her mother, the semi-conscious girl pulled herself up off of Sarah’s lap, and crossed the waiting room to her brother. James glared darkly at Casper as Bex positioned herself on his lap.

Casper didn’t care about that too much. All he cared about was that as James’ sister began dozing against his chest, the pain in his head began to dim, even if only by a little. Less than half an hour later, both James and Bex were fast asleep.

The adults were still keeping to themselves. Casper did likewise. He sat back in his uncomfortable chair, closed his eyes, and stretched his power out.

If he reached as far as he could go, he found the very edges of his field could touch the inside of the surgery room. There were minds he recognized, there; some he didn’t, too. A few frazzled staff members passing from the observation room, to the waiting room and back, all amidst a swarm of other routes, no doubt distracted by a dozen different tasks. The mind of Hideyoshi, muddled by a fog of anaesthesia. The minds of those who operated on him; all worry subsumed by an almost adamantine focus.

That last one was almost soothing.

Minutes passed this way. Maybe hours. It was hard to tell. He found himself gauging time by Peter’s habitual laps around the room.

Then, one of the staff members came out to meet the grown-ups, his mind somber. Casper kept his eyes closed, his ears pricked.

“-not going well,” the man was saying. “I think I need to talk with you in private.”

A rustling; a few snatches of conversation too quiet for him to hear, then the feeling of Sarah’s mind stepping briefly closer to him.

“Casper, are you awake?”

“Yeah,” he murmured, not bothering to open his eyes.

“Look after James and Bex, okay? We need to go and talk to the doctor.” He nodded, then felt a hand squeeze his wrist. “Thank you for being here for them. It really helps.”

He feigned a smile.

“Any time.”

As the clustered adults all stepped away, Casper let his mind follow them. Of the older members of James’ family, Sarah’s mix of worry and familial concern was the only one that played particularly true to him. For his part, Peter’s mind at least made sense; a layer of focus and intensity, sitting firmly over a roiling mass of fear. What really struck Casper out, however, was Tsuru. There was no anxiety there. Just a mournful kind of acceptance. He found it troubling, how little her mind seemed to run from the pain. How could she seem so comfortable like that, when the mere proximity of those feelings was enough to make his heart shake?

The four of them found an empty room a short way away, and Casper heard a momentary snatch of conversation, before the door clicked shut behind them.

It was aggravating, Casper thought. All of it. Trying to help when no one around would tell him anything. He opened his eyes, and swore quietly to himself.

The waiting room had a reception desk, apparently doubling as something of a dispensary. The lady working the counter gave him a sympathetic sort of look. He leaned his head back against the wall, and tried to let it go.

He failed.

“Hey,” he called to the one remaining staff member. “Is there like, a cafeteria or something? I kinda wanna get these guys some food.” He gestured at James and Bex, still snoozing gently in one another’s arms. “We’ve been here for a while.”

At that, the woman simply smiled.

“Down the hall to the left,” she murmured, leaning out past the counter and pointing out a path for him to follow. “There’s a stairwell that takes you to the third floor. You should be able to find them something there. You need me to call ahead for a coupon?”

“Yeah. Please.” He stood, his legs a little stiff. “Can you watch these guys while I’m gone?”

“Won’t take my eyes off them for a second, dear.”

“Thanks.”

He headed out into the hall, but did not go straight for the cafeteria. Instead, he walked until he was out of the lady’s sight, then took a right, heading for the room where all the adults were gathered.

Empty hallway. Good. The blinds on the door were closed. He tried listening at the door. No dice. All of them spoke too quietly.

Casper thought for a moment, then had an idea. There was a water dispenser a short way away, a plastic tube running along the side, full of plastic cups. He took a cup, then inverted it, and pressed it against the door. That carried the sound through a little better. He put his ear against it, and listened.

“— Severe damage to the liver and portions of the intestine, along with arcing burns to his kidneys, stomach, and lungs. I wish I could give you a more hopeful prognosis, but honestly, we’re struggling just to keep the man alive.”

“We already have a specialist heading in from L.A,” replied Peter’s voice, his tone mechanically calm. “What are his odds of surviving the next two hours?”

A pause.

“Not great. You asked for honesty. I’d give him fifteen percent odds of making it that long. Maybe less. Is there a chance you can make a portal?”

It was Tsuru’s voice that answered there, her own voice simply tired.

“New York’s portal maker is currently MIA,” she replied. “No available teleporters who can make the jump with passengers. I’d do it myself, but I’m spent. What about Caleb? The boy I brought in with me.”

Casper felt a momentary surprise in the doctor’s mind, then a diversion as his brain came back on track.

“Oh. One moment.”

The sound of paper being moved.

“He’s still in surgery. Luckily, none of his injuries were life threatening. We were able to bring him around long enough to free the other two you brought in, but he wasn’t exactly cogent.”

“I see.” Casper wasn’t sure he’d ever heard anything as tired as when Tsuru said those words.

A long quiet, then the doctor let out a sigh.

“Look,” he murmured. “We can keep his heart beating; artificially, if need be. We can keep his brain oxygenated. Hopefully, that will be enough for your specialist to work with, but I cannot say for sure.”

Casper stepped away from the door. He didn’t need to hear any further; the feel of the minds through the door said enough. He deposited the cup in a waste bin, and headed down the hallway towards the cafeteria. He might as well get the others some food.

He dipped a hand into his pocket as he walked, and pulled out his phone.

For a moment; For just a moment, Casper wondered if it was worth it.

Then, he remembered the agony playing around in his best friend’s brain.

He opened up the contacts list, pressed his thumb to the only name, and made the call.

Even this early in the morning, the man answered within the first few rings.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Father,” said Casper quietly. “I need to ask a favor.”


Manhattan Island, Five Thirteen AM:

Neither of the other two had roused by the time Casper returned to the waiting room, laden down with chocolate pastries and a three-pack of strawberry milk. He spent a moment weighing their probable hunger against the pressing need for sleep, and decided to let them rest.

He sat back down beside them, tore open the packaging on one of the pastries, and took a bite. Amazing; the thing had zero flavor. How did they manage to produce chocolate that didn’t have a taste?

He took another bite.

He didn’t respond when the adults shuffled their way back in, his only action being to pull one of the milk cartons out for a drink. It was no better than the pastry.

Where the adults had previously spoken quietly among themselves, now, they simply sat. He found himself wrapping his senses back in around himself, simply for the protection of his sanity.

There was a sound below. A door slamming. The padding of feet as they sprinted over stairs.

Casper took another bite of pastry.

Beside him, Bex began to rouse, either from the rapidly building sound, or the deceptively mouthwatering scent of chocolate. She rubbed a forearm against her face with a yawn, and opened a single crusty eye.

Casper picked a chunk of chocolate from his pastry, and held it up to the girl’s face. She took a sniff, opened her mouth, and allowed him to pop the chocolate inside. Then she groaned, her face crinkling in half-unconscious irritation, and began trying to burrow her head into her brother’s chest.

The sound grew louder. Tsuru turned her head to look, Peter and Sarah too focused on one another to pay it much attention.

Casper took another drag of milk.

The runner was in the hallway now. In the periphery of his vision, Casper watched as Tsuru’s face went from tired annoyance, to consternation, to aggression.

When Father finally arrived, he came without disguise. His form was the same as Casper remembered from the first time they had met. From most of their meetings, in fact. He was a man, today, not a teen.

Casper didn’t look at him beyond the first glance. He took another bite of pastry.

“Where is he?” Father asked, his breathing heavy. “Where’s Hideyoshi?”

“You shouldn’t be here, pederast,” Tsuru replied, her tone positively dripping with venom. “Leave, before I flay you of every skin you have.”

That proclamation shook both Peter and Sarah from their bubble. They looked to the newcomer, Sarah confused, Peter cold.

At that, Father simply swore.

“Don’t make this into a fight, Tsuru. You’re too tired to scrape a win.”

At that, Tsuru’s eyes flared. She opened her mouth to speak, but Peter beat her to it. He was on his feet in a blur, his fist arcing directly for Father’s face. The man simply bent out of the way, one palm rising to press against Peter’s ribs.

“You don’t get to use my mother’s name,” Peter growled. “Not now. Not ever. Do you understand me?”

Casper took another slurp of milk, glad that Bex seemed to have found her way back to sleep.

Tsuru too had found her feet by now. She had sparks dancing in her eyes.

Literally.

Green ones.

“If you value the twisted life you live,” she spat. “You will take your hand off my son.”

Father opened his mouth to respond to that, but Casper groaned.

“All of you shut up,” he muttered. “You’re gonna wake the kids.”

All at once, the entire room seemed to remember he was there.

The sparks stopped dancing in Tsuru’s eyes.

He dumped the flavorless pastry on a magazine table with a thump, before turning to look at Father.

“He’s through there,” he said, pointing to the door through which the doctors had moved. “Second doorway to the right. The surgery’s still going on.”

After a moment of hesitation, Father simply nodded.

“Thank you, Casper,” he murmured, before striding into the hall.

Tsuru did… something, to try and stop him, but whatever it was seemed to flicker off his skin.

In the silence following Father’s exit, all eyes turned themselves to Casper.

He shrugged.

“James’ grandad was gonna die,” he muttered, his tone bitter. “I called in a favor from a friend.”

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Aid: 5.17

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Caleb:

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?”

Tsuru shrugged.

“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.”

A laugh.

“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.”


Leanne:

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.

A memory.

Power, destruction, rage. Searching for an enemy. The face of one of her hounds. Then fire.

‘Thirteen.’

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.

She stumbled.

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.


Caleb:

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.

“… Huh.”

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 recognized 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 tree splaying branches of the tree stabbed through the walls. At a second glance, he recognized 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 mesmerized 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?”

A sniffle.

“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.”

Another sniffle.

“They set my house on fire.”

Caleb reevaluated.

“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 agonizingly 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 realized 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.

He fainted.

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Aid: 5.16

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Caleb:

The procession through the grove was a stilted one; Caleb making his way down passage after passage, his way lit only by the faint emerald glow still emanating from his arm; ever more aware of the omnipresent whispers in the mist. The ghosts weren’t really what unsettled him, though. He knew that they were, at least nominally, on his side. What bothered him was the quiet.

Caleb wasn’t sure if it was a property of the mist, the trees, or some tertiary enchantment Tsuru had laid down on the area around them, but whatever it was, it made things quiet.

He wasn’t used to being deaf to his own footsteps, unable to hear the beating of his heart, even as the thud of it sent vibrations through his chest. It threw him slightly. Disconnected.

Then, there were the lights. Infrequent bolts of wide-cast spells throwing shadows between the trees. Occasional glimpses of distant, fearful men.

One by one, those men fell, the calling of commands and muttered incantations giving way to short lived shrieks. There would come a few more bolts, aimed at the shapes that lumbered in the dark. Then, for a time, the quiet would resume.

It felt like watching something hunt.

Still no sign of Twenty Three.

He was growing… agitated; drawn taut. Adrenaline without a chance to move. A feeling that the seemingly endless procession of bleach barked corridors did nothing to appease. The grove couldn’t be that big. He hated it. The waiting; the hiding. Being led around by the nose while creatures from bad horror movies pulled off all the fighting. Here he was, stronger and freer than he’d ever been in his life, and the world was making him wait. He gripped the rebar tighter in his hand, his knuckles white.

In the end, when Tsuru’s plan finally went to shit, it was almost a relief. At least it put him back inside his world.

It started as another glow in the distance, a flicker of blue barely visible between the trees. Caleb ducked low, a shoulder pressed against a bough, listening.

Voices in the distance; muffled partly by the fog, then even further by the murmurs of Tsuru’s host. He closed his eyes, slowed his breath; listened.

“-eed to find the van. Your only job right now is to get Charles Vance out of here. Am I understood?”

Caleb grinned. He recognized that voice. It was the boss. She didn’t sound happy. He thought about launching an attack, wondered if he could manage to part the trees. The trail of thought was cut off by a voice that Caleb thought he might have recognized. He forced himself to focus once more.

“-an’t be serious. We’re surrounded. These trees are moving. How the hell am I supposed to-”

A cracking sound. The man stopped talking.

“I’m not here to hold your hand. Just get it done. Seventeen, Twenty Three, go with him and provide support. As for me, I’ll deal with the witch.”

Caleb’s breath hitched, his heart thudding harder and harder in his chest. He’d found her.

Silence for a moment, before:

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Caleb opened his eyes again and stood, that wide grin once more settling itself across his face.

Found you.

Absently, he tapped his steel bar against a tree trunk.

“You gonna take me to her, then?”

He could have sworn he heard a chuckle in the air as the trees once more began to shift. He didn’t care. He set off down his new path at a sprint. Then, from somewhere in the gloom, the boss began to yell.

“It was a good plan, you know,” she called, the faint blue between the trees starting to grow slowly more intense. “Boxing me in like this. Picking off my men. Forcing me to either play defence or waste my energy breaking free. Smart moves.” Caleb chuckled. There was something so satisfying about the anger in her voice. “But now you’ve managed to piss me off. So either let us go, or I will break this forest down tree by tree until I find you.”

For a moment, all was quiet, the stillness of the fog covering even the pounding of Caleb’s feet as he ran. Then, there was a chuckle in the gloom. A cold one. No humor to it.

“You sound like a five year old,” Tsuru said.

Silence once more as the glow built itself to a peak, the light throwing a dozen scattered shades of blue among the trees. For a moment, as Caleb ran, he could have sworn he caught a glimpse of a person at the centre, their shape surrounded by more of those crawling, creeping forms.

Then, with a quiet crack, the light went out.

What came next happened so fast that Caleb’s brain barely managed to parse it. It was like a shockwave. This streaking lance of neon blue that shot across the grove, moving faster than the human eye could even track, followed by the sharp, rolling roar as tree after tree simply crumpled in her wake. It passed outside of Caleb’s line of sight, and by the time he had managed to turn his head, it was gone.

In the seconds that followed, even the whispers of the ghosts grew still. Then, the fallen trees began to burn. For a moment, Caleb just stood there, stunned. Then, by way of a precaution, he pumped a measure of James’ energy into a shield.

Then came the second spark. Another bolt, streaking right to left across Caleb’s vision, passing bare yards in front of his face. Another wave of sound, another thunderous fall. The fire spread further. The trees were parting slower now, the path clearing barely fast enough to keep a pace with him. A few of the trees bore scorches. He ignored it.

Not far now. He had to be nearly there. Whatever the boss was doing didn’t concern him. He had to get to Twenty Three. That was all that mattered.

Then came the third spark. This one was different from the others. This one went for him.

Caleb didn’t register it when the bough to his left gave out, the dead wood splitting apart in a shower of bark and sparks. He didn’t register it when the boss’ fist caught him in the side. It was simply too quick for him to catch. What he did notice, however, was his shield popping away around his skin like an over glorified soap bubble. He noticed the pain arcing across his ribs. He noticed as his body struck a wall; the crunch of breaking bone.

For the first second, Caleb was simply dazed. His head pounded. His vision swam. He could feel something embedded in his arm. He looked down at his wrist, and dimly noted the hunk of rebar sticking through it, the metal slowly melting in the fire still shrouding his hand. His fingers twitched.

“Hello, Thirteen,” a voice murmured to his left, angry glee dripping from every word. “It’s convenient. Finding you like this. Maybe this can be a good day after all.”

It was hard to recognize the boss at first. The lightning currently dancing its way around her was one thing, but then there was the soot caking the entirety of her body, the hundred or so gashes torn into her clothes, and the utterly unmanaged nature of her hair. What really threw him off, however, was the formless mass of creatures currently grappled onto her; clawing, scratching; desperate to kill.

She ignored them.

When Caleb’s brain finally returned him to coherence, he had one thought: He did not care. Here was death, standing above him, and he simply did not care. He had a job to do.

“Go fuck yourself,” he muttered croakily as he pushed himself upright, cradling his impaled arm with his remaining good one, letting the fire build hotter and hotter around the wound so as to melt the metal away. He turned his back to her, and simply walked away. “Enjoy your game. I’m out of here.”

When the boss replied, her voice was cold.

“You called me a cunt, Thirteen. You don’t get to walk away.”

Something cracked behind him.

Caleb wasn’t dumb. Even like this. He knew what was coming next. He knew she wouldn’t let him leave. At least like this, he could maybe get her guard down.

He couldn’t hear her approach. That damned mist covered her footsteps far too well. He couldn’t see her. But the bird in his arm could smell her. A scent more powerful than anything he’d ever felt. Over a dozen different people squeezed inside a single body. Two steps away. One. None.

Now.

It was hard not to savor the surprise on his former master’s face as she stepped past him, her lightning clad fist passing inches from his form as he half bent, half fell out of her way. He laughed. She should have used the super speed. Then, his shoulder caught her in the middle, sending both of them toppling clumsily to the floor.

There was no grand strategy from there. Just a wounded boy fighting a painful grapple against a perfectly healthy woman.

But the woman didn’t have super strength.

She swore. He didn’t listen. She struck him. He ignored her. Somewhere in that flailing mess of limbs, his barely functional hand came up against her face. Her shield flickered. Then, only half aware of what he was doing, he opened up the gates of James’ power. His glove flared emerald green around his hand. He closed his fingers on her skull.

Leanne screamed.

Caleb held on.

She fought.

He held on.

The scent of burning meat.

He held on.

She stopped fighting.

Caleb forced himself to stand, his breathing heavy. He had a job to do.

He offered a single parting thought as he took his leave.

“You put a mark on me once. I guess we’re even now.”

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Aid: 5.15

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Caleb:

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.”

Eighteen nodded.

“Close your eyes.”

Eighteen obeyed.

Caleb struck.

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.”

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