It was with no great joy that Leanne watched her opponent crumple, his form coalescing back into solid matter around her lightning coated hand, her fingers covered in a patina of quickly drying blood. She pulled her arm back, and looked him in the eye.
The elemental took a moment to fall. He met her gaze, his expression determined, disconnected from the pain. He took a step back, and for a moment, she thought he might somehow keep his feet. He let out a guttural kind of growl, a few embers sparking in his hands. Then, something broke behind his eyes, and he sagged, his body falling in a heap against the scorched floor.
For a moment, Leanne simply stood there, gazing down at her fallen adversary’s form. She’d wanted to test herself against the elemental for years, but the victory felt hollow. Too much wasted energy; too long spent being outmaneuvered.
In that moment, looking down at his broken form, she would have dearly liked to kill him. Not just for outclassing her, but for being what he was; a crossbreed, and the worst of them; his blood drawn from the same kind of monsters that held her planet hostage. It was an insult to everything decent that he’d been allowed to grow so strong, let alone walk free. There was barely any human to be found in him.
‘And the witch lets it fuck her.’
It was with some surprise that she noticed how the lightning shifted around her at the thought, building into gauntlets about her fists.
She shook herself.
‘It’s a stupid move, Leanne. The witch will be angry enough without you murdering her pet. No use making enemies.’
It took more out of her than she wanted to admit, just leaving him there. It itched. She ignored it. She had a job to do.
It had been maybe four minutes since the flames in the house had become visible from outside. She had perhaps two more before the emergency vehicles arrived. That wasn’t too much of an issue. She was done here. More to the point, though, Charles and his mother had been gone for at least a minute already. If Jacqueline decided to build her son a portal, then the trail would be cold in seconds.
No time for subtlety, then.
In the next breath, she was perched on a rooftop just across the street, the air blessedly clear of smoke once more. The breath after that, her familiar was searching for their scents.
It didn’t take her long. They hadn’t gotten far. Jacqueline had ducked her son into the first empty alleyway she could find, and had started on a portal.
Leanne watched from the roof above. Her first instinct had been to stop the other woman short; knock her cold before the portal was done, and take Charles to a place where he could do some good. She stayed her hand.
Whatever questions he had, Charlie wasn’t speaking. He was too focused on watching his mother at work, the faint traceries of light flickering at her palms as she bridged two points together. Leanne could understand why he’d be in awe. Jacqueline Vance was unique; one of the best portal makers humanity had to offer. The boy deserved to see his mother’s work before she took him away.
It wasn’t a particularly drastic shift when the glyphs filling the air reformed into a gate, just a quiet show of motion, each layer of them swirling counterways against one another as they condensed into a point. Then, that point expanded, and Leanne caught a glimpse of darkened carpet.
“Go on,” Jacqueline murmured, gesturing the stunned boy forwards. “James’ dad can look after things while we figure out what’s going on.”
Charlie didn’t move.
“… What the hell, Mom? Just- What the hell?”
On the other side of the portal, a male voice called out something Leanne wasn’t close enough to hear. She sighed. Time to move again.
“Sweetie,” Jackie murmured, a hand moving to grip her child by the shoulder. “I promise. I’ll tell you everything once I’ve figured it out mys-”
The bolt caught her between the shoulder blades, sending lightning sparkling down the woman’s spine. Her portal snapped shut as quickly as it had opened, and her body hit the floor.
“Sorry,” Leane murmured, stepping casually off the roof and dropping the two storeys to the ground. “That was rude of me. Hi, Charlie.”
To his credit, Charles Vance managed to hold his calm, his lip quivering only slightly as he turned to face her, eyes downcast.
“What’d you do to my mom?” he asked, his voice quiet.
“I knocked her out,” she replied. “She’ll be fine in a while. For now, though, I needed to talk to you in private.”
“What are you gonna do to us?”
Leanne considered the question for a moment, then set it aside. Better to deal with it later. She might as well try to soften him first; an olive branch.
“Your mother’s a mage,” she murmured. “One of the best. That’s how she got you out of your house, and how she made that port-”
“That’s not what I asked,” he interrupted. “I don’t care about that right now. I asked you what you’re gonna do.” As he spoke, Charlie stepped forwards, placing himself between her and his mother.
Leanne considered him for a moment. It would be so much easier to just knock him out too; but he deserved better, and she needed him cooperative. Eventually, she shrugged.
“To your mother? Nothing. I already know she doesn’t have what I need. As for you? For now, you’re coming with me.”
In answer, Charles Vance simply nodded. Brave kid. She did her best not to feel guilty, watching him dig his fingernails against his palms; seeing him set his jaw against the fear, every muscle pulling taut.
At that, Leanne let out a sigh.
“Because I need your help to save the world”
The disguise was uncomfortable; deeply so. Tsuru had never enjoyed wearing other forms, but male ones were always the worst. Nils was tall and broad, the illusion of his body draping around her form like some ridiculous kind of tent. Even worse were the spots where her own body had to shift, her chest collapsing inwards against her ribs, her torso and legs stretching themselves like taffy to fit within his profile. Hardly the most pleasant method of disguise, but all the others took longer to prepare. As it was, she’d had to spend minutes just learning how to walk like this.
‘Ah well,’ she chided herself, leaning back against the hood of Nils’ car and once more casting her eyes around. ‘It won’t be too much longer. Just until Caleb arrives. Not as if you don’t have things to do here, at any rate.’
She hadn’t been the first to arrive for the extraction. No. First had been the man beside the van, giving her a nod as she exited her vehicle. She made no effort to return it.
It was actually a rather tidy operation, once she had a chance to look at it, the meeting point itself nothing more than an open, windowless van, boxed in on three sides by a loose arrangement of shipping crates a short way from the pier, itself holding an old commercial flier seated atop a helipad. Hardly out of place, in an area like this. She doubted she’d have even noticed it, had she not been looking.
As for the duo of twenty-somethings seated inside the van, they were harder to ignore. It wasn’t the general scruffiness of young man’s attire as he dumped his duffel pack on the floor; nor was it the way the girl sat staring out the van’s rear door, her eyes darting across her entire field of view; first to Tsuru, then to a crate on the far side of the street, then a passerby, then back to Tsuru. No. That wasn’t what made the pair of them visible. What made them visible were the duffel bag now slumped on the van’s floor, and the oversized travelling pack squeezed between the girl’s legs.
The bags were twitching.
‘More Hunters like Caleb, I suppose,’ Tsuru thought, shaking her head. ‘Slavers. Always so damn macabre.’
Those two, she had watched arrive, each escorted from a different car by their handlers. She’d watched the two be checked, the overseers making no allowances for privacy as they examined first the hunters, then their packs, before stepping away to join the driver.
Tsuru bit her tongue. The boy’s handler had been far more thorough than he needed to be when it came to frisking the girl. She acted like she didn’t even notice, even as his hand slid below her belt-line, her eyes continuing to scan the nearly empty lot. For his part, the boy just stared at his master as he worked, a look in those exhausted eyes like he was committing every detail of the act to memory.
‘One thing at a time. No pity for these ones until Twenty Three is safe. They can be next in line.’
The next few minutes were tense; tense for Tsuru, at least. The other three overseers stood in their little cluster, murmuring quietly amongst themselves while the driver had a smoke. For her part, she set her focus on the slaves.
The girl’s demeanour hadn’t changed. Hell, Tsuru wasn’t sure if she’d even blinked. As for the boy, he looked dead inside. She turned her head away, pretending not to see, as he gave his duffel bag a kick.
It didn’t react. The occupant couldn’t have been larger than a child.
She watched him pull his foot back for another swing, and pursed her lips, letting out a short, sharp whistle.
All eyes turned to her.
Tsuru returned the boy’s gaze, and gave her head a single shake. He put his foot back down. Two of the handlers went back to their conversation, the driver wandering off towards the helipad. The girl’s eyes resumed their search.
It came as something of a relief when Twenty Three’s escort finally arrived. Tsuru watched the girl climb from her vehicle, and forced herself to take a breath.
‘Still can’t move until Caleb arrives. Can’t break her free without him.’
At least this one didn’t seem as broken as the others; merely sad.
Tsuru pushed away from the bonnet of her car, intent on at least protecting the girl from the other overseer’s groping, before a call from across the street stopped her.
“Ah. Twenty Three’s already here. Good. We can get this under way.”
The voice sent a chill down Tsuru’s spine. It was the same voice she’d heard on the phone; the boss.
“Apologies for the delay,” Leanne continued. “The Toranagas set their monster on me. Breaking it took longer than expected.”
Quite calmly, Tsuru Toranaga set her rescue plans aside, and began deciding who to kill.