Aid: 5.12

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Charlie:

The boy was peeking into the hallway when the house caught fire. It was very quick. One moment, he was trying to catch a glimpse of what was happening downstairs, then there was a flash of light, and half the hall lit up. He had a moment to register a searing wave of heat, before something grasped him by the shoulder and yanked him bodily back into the room, slamming the door shut behind him. He let out a pained yelp as he toppled, the heat still near to blistering the skin of his face and hands, and landed on his rear, watching the flames begin to crawl beneath the door.

In the confusion, he didn’t quite manage to process his mother kneeling beside him, her fingers still digging painfully into his shoulder. Somewhere on the floor below, there was a crack like thunder, and a man’s voice let out an almost bestial shout. Then the air itself grew parched, like being pushed inside an oven. He scrambled around blearily on the floor, looking for a place that didn’t hurt to sit, before his mother’s hand dragged him into her embrace, and with a few muttered words, the heat just died away. He could have sworn he saw a sheet of something blue pull a tint across his vision, before his mother’s voice muttered quietly in his ear.

“Charlie,” she said, her voice quiet; utterly calm. “I need you to listen to me right now, okay?”

Charlie wasn’t sure what to say. He wasn’t sure what was going on. There were people downstairs and his room was rapidly catching fire. At least his mom was calm. He took shelter in that idea, and gave her a shaky nod.

“Good boy,” she whispered. “Then when I say to go, we’re going to jump out of the window, and make a break for the house across the yard.”

Charlie shot a look at the house caught in silhouette beyond the window, and swallowed.

“I-it’s kind of a long fall,” he mumbled. “Are you gonna be coming with me?”

He felt her finger prod him gently in the shoulder.

“I’ll be right behind you,” she murmured, her voice surprisingly steady over the crashing sounds below. “I’m going to help you with the fall, and the moment you hit the floor, I’ll be coming along behind you.” She leaned in, her forehead bonking gently against his own. “You gonna be brave like I know you are?”

In the room below them, there was an infuriated cry, this one female, followed by an ominous kind of crunch as the floor beneath the bed began to split.

Charlie saw none of it, refused to see it. He just focused on his mom. He took a deep, steadying breath, and nodded.

“Good,” his mother gave him a final soothing smile, then directed him to the window with a shove. “Now go!”

It was probably for the best that Charlie didn’t think as he made that dash across his room towards the yard, angling his shoulder to the window so as to simply force himself through the glass.

He made it almost the whole way before the floor gave way, and suddenly he was falling.

He let out a terrified kind of shriek as the boards gave out beneath his feet, his hands scrabbling before him for something he could grasp. Pointless.

He had a single moment, as he fell, to register the hellscape roaring below him, the once gentle looking playroom now engulfed in flame and smoke. He hit the carpet with a thud, and felt a second of surprise at how little pain there was, before his new perch began to creak, threatening to plunge him into the basement down below.

By pure instinct, he scrambled to his right across the floor, half blind in the haze of heat and smoke, making his way towards the kitchen. No basement under there. Solid ground.

He was semi-aware of his mother shouting something up above, but among the cracks and source-less screams, he didn’t have a clue of what she said.

It was when he reached the kitchen, scrambling into a corner by the bench, that he finally caught a glimpse of them.

Two figures, dueling in the smoke, their light cutting through the haze like diabolic torches.

He huddled himself into a ball beneath the counter, and didn’t dare to make a sound.


Leanne:

When it came right down to it, Leanne was getting frustrated.

The elemental wasn’t quick. The increase to the raw force of his fire hadn’t made a change to that. He was sluggish in his attacks, and slow in his retreats. She, on the other hand, moved with lightning at her back, building up in a charge across her frame, before releasing in bursts within her, causing time itself to slow for a few brief moments at a time.

So why couldn’t she seem to hit him?

It was maddening, aiming shot after perfect shot towards her opponent’s skull, each so quick he shouldn’t even have been able to move, only for a blast to push her back, or for a shape within the flames to bat her fists aside mere inches from his frame. It was maddening, like the beast had some sense of what she’d do before she did it.

He was playing with her.

Leanne swore, dancing backwards as the elemental flicked his wrist, the tiny movement sending a hundred tiny tongues of flame dancing, whip-like through the space between them. Each lash left deep gouges in the floor and walls where it struck, the edges blackened like coal. It hardly mattered. It wasn’t as if the place could be set any more on fire.

She pulled into a crouch as her lightning gathered into another burst around her frame. Then dodged to the side with a growl as his back-swing raked a jagged arc through the floor where she had perched. Her shield may be stronger now, but she still wasn’t in any hurry to test it against his flames. At this point, they burned so hot across his form that even being close to him was marginally draining. Was that his plan? To just avoid her strikes and let his ever burning fire sap away her shields?

Reluctantly, Leanne pulled back, releasing that built up charge and retreating to a back room as time slowed to a crawl. She needed time to think.

It was then that she saw the boy, cowering in the kitchen, staring at her with utmost terror in his eyes. It gave her an idea. If the creature didn’t want to make mistakes, then maybe she could force one from him.

Leanne made no attempt to telegraph the move. There wouldn’t be a point. Their brief bout of combat had led her to believe the elemental could sense what went on within his fire, and as of now, both she and the boy were both well within his flames. Charlie had already turned to run when Leanne began her lunge, the elemental already giving chase from his position by the stairs.

She had almost made it to him when the ceiling above her head gave way. Then, with a flash of green and a roar like a vengeful God, Jacqueline Vance sent her crashing through the floor.


Charlie:

Charlie had already been running when the lightning figure came for him. He didn’t dare to look behind him as he ran, even as the sounds of yells and splintered wood filled the air behind him. He paid it no heed. There wasn’t room in his brain for anything but fear.

Maybe going for the front doorway was a bad choice, in retrospect. His blind dash through the dining room brought him face to chest with the burning man. What followed was the swiftest backpedal of Charlie’s life.

He wasn’t sure at first what it was that he backed into in his aborted attempt to flee, just that it wasn’t wasting any time in grabbing hold of him. He screamed, tried to push away, and was ignored. The next thing he knew, his captor had dashed past the flaming thing like it wasn’t even there, and had sent the both of them crashing through the window in a stream of glass and splintered wood.

The two of them landed in the grass in a sprawl, briefly blinded by the sudden lack of light. Had been in any state to think of it, he might have tried to pull away. As it was, both he and his captor were too busy having coughing fits. He hadn’t even noticed how short on air he’d been. Before he’d had a chance to fully recover, the grip around his waist grew tight once more, his captor pulling him to his feet. He didn’t have the energy left to fight.

“Come on, Charlie,” his mother’s voice croaked from just behind him. “Just a little further. We need to get away from here.”

Numbly; too tired to even think, Charles Vance began to move.


Hideyoshi:

Hideyoshi watched the pair retreating down the street, then shook his head.

That could have gone far worse.

Hard enough fighting a foe as powerful as that, let alone with hostages in play.

He threw another glance outside. There were people out there, now. Neighbors and friends, come to watch the fire on the chance that they could help, some of them following halfheartedly after the house’s former occupants. There were probably already firemen on the way. He shrugged. He doubted anyone but the boy had seen a thing. From the outside, most of this would be concealed by the smoke.

With a slow sigh, Hideyoshi turned his attention back towards his foe.

She wasn’t moving, as far as he could tell. His scanning spell seemed convinced that she was still just sitting in the basement where Jackie punted her. Feigning death? The idea made him chuckle.

Either way, best to get this done with quick.

He heard a crash from up above as some distant piece of roof gave way, but paid it no mind. It was very calming, standing in the flames.

His opponent’s passage into the basement had left a hole; a three foot section of the floorboards cutting off in ragged, rapidly blackening edges over the relative darkness of the floor below. He walked over to it, and cast his eye down after her.

She wasn’t hard to find. She hadn’t moved, instead just sitting in the rubble where she’d landed, one arm resting across her knee as she scowled up at him.

“Lost the will to fight?” he asked, barely audible above the flames.

For a moment, she simply glared. He responded with a smile.

“Shut up,” she muttered. “Just. Shut up.”

Hideyoshi chuckled. The woman swore.

“I’m done. Okay? I’m fucking done with this. I’m done with Thirteen. I’m done with you. I’m done with trying to be smart.” As she spoke, she pulled herself to her feet, dusting pieces of rubble from her clothes with her hands.

“I wanted to save my strength,” she spat, the lightning once more building to a charge across her shoulders. “Minimize the energy I spent on you just in case Thirteen turned out to be a problem. But no. No matter how clever I think I’m being, and no matter how much stronger and faster than you I am, you keep on managing to dodge me. So fuck it. You want to make me go all out? Fine.”

“Glad to hear it.” Hideyoshi grinned. “Does that mean I can, too?”

“If you want,” she muttered, the electrical glow about her shoulders now spreading down along her back, a good deal brighter than before. “It won’t matter, either way.”

At that, he simply shrugged.

‘Well, here goes,’ he thought as he pushed his flames outward, extending them beyond himself as far as they would go, ‘I hope you’re not just bluffing.’

It had been six years since Hideyoshi last assumed his stronger form. The feeling was… unique. Even more so in suburbia. As his clothes began to burn, his flesh giving way to living flame, he hoped that she’d survive him. He felt his mind spreading out throughout the house, his senses reaching wherever there was warmth. He watched the world fade to pulsing shades of heat as his vision fell away. For a moment, he stood there, inhuman; hotter than the surface of the sun.

Then, her knuckles pierced his wards, and the world was turned to glass.

His power died away.

He fell.

Previous Chapter:

Aid: 5.11

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Hideyoshi:

It took a minute or two for someone to answer the door. No surprise, really, given how late it was. Hideyoshi didn’t let it bother him, simply enjoying the low heat building beneath the surface of his skin, smiling lightly at the growing glow inside his chest.

There had been a time when he lived for this. A new enemy. New challenges. Another chance to grow.

He took a moment to turn a spell towards the house. Something simple, an easy scan. Two people inside, one male and young, the other older; female. Charles Vance was still upstairs, asleep in his room. Still alone. Hideyoshi nodded to himself. Good. He’d gotten here in time.

The woman, for her part, was moving, her pace directing her steadily towards the door. He took a moment to hide his smile. When the door finally cracked ajar, the woman behind it did not look happy, gazing balefully out at him, eyes half-lidded from sleep.

“It’s one in the morning. Who are you?”

“Jacqueline Vance?” he asked, giving her a nod. “Pleasure to meet you. My name’s Hideyoshi Toranaga. I believe you work with my son.”

The words earned him a cautious nod and a yawn.

“I’ll need to see some ID.”

Hideyoshi shrugged, then proffered a card from his wallet.

Jacqueline took it, gazed at it for a moment, then nodded.

“Alright,” she grunted, passing the card back, before closing the door. Hideyoshi waited a moment while she undid the chain latch, then opened it up again. “So what can I do for you in the middle of the night?”

“Long story short, I’ve received intelligence that your son has been targeted by a group of paranormal slavers. Their leader is en-route. I’m here to intercept.”

To her credit, what traces of residual exhaustion had been lingering on Jacqueline’s face vanished at that, replaced by maternal fear, covered only a moment later by a quiet kind of discipline. She stood a little straighter.

“Come in,” she murmured, pulling the door wide. Hideyoshi stepped inside and politely averted his eyes as she pulled her sleeping gown a little tighter around her form. “What’s your play, here?” she asked. “Capture and interrogate? Run protection until reinforcements arrive?”

“Capture,” Hideyoshi replied simply. “I’ll wait here to intercept. As for your boy; I assume he hasn’t manifested yet. Best to get him away before the fireworks start. Do you mind me leaving that to you?”

At that, Jackie simply nodded.

“I’ll take him to a pizza place,” she said, turning towards the stairs. “Tell him you’re here to fix a sewer pipe or something.”

“Gas leak,” Hideyoshi advised. “Gives you an explanation in case the place explodes.”

It may perhaps have said something that those words didn’t even give Jackie pause as she climbed the stairs, before heading down a hall towards her child’s bedroom.

“Please don’t set my house on fire.”

Hideyoshi chuckled.

“I only promise to try.”

He waited until she was out of sight, before stepping back towards the door, swinging it closed, and leaning himself against the wall, his body settling back into that anticipatory thrill as he expanded that simple scan to cover the surrounding block. He hoped this one was strong.

His opponent didn’t keep him waiting long.


Leanne:

Teleporting wasn’t even close to Leanne’s favored form of travel. It had too many costs; the inefficient use of energy, the inevitable sound, the difficulty of aiming. Worst of all, for jumps between countries, at least, were the four or five seconds spent in limbo, hanging between one frame of the world and the next, shot through by a twisting web of light. Ley-lines, her instructors had called them, trailing little lines of fire between every point on Earth. It was hard to put a planet into words, too large to perceive from the comfort of a single brain.

She emerged into a sitting room in the dark, passing into reality in mid-air, and seeming to hang there for a moment, before gravity lurched her out of her equilibrium towards the ground. She was too out of it to catch herself in time, colliding against the edge of something hard, before proceeding to the ground. She would have liked to say that she dissipated the energy of her jump discreetly, but she did not.

The hole she’d jumped through snapped shut behind her, then disgorged its energy into the room in a thunderclap of sound and force. As she let the waves of it wash around her, thanking whoever might be listening that she’d thought to make a shield before she jumped, she became aware of the sound of breaking glass, followed shortly after by a surprised shout from somewhere above. Leanne didn’t pay it much heed. She was too busy vomiting, chunks of chocolate lodging themselves in a richly colored rug.

The slamming of a door upstairs, followed by the thudding of feet against a stairway. She pulled herself to her feet with a groan, and lurched disorientedly towards the first doorway she could find. Before she quite made it there, however, a man barged through in front of her, holding a length of something in front of him like a shield. Before she had time to stop him, he’d pressed the whatever it was against her shoulders, and used it to force her back, stumbling over legs just starting to remember what they were.

“What the fuck’s going on down here?!” he bellowed, one hand fumbling against a wall and flicking something that filled the room with a painful amount of light. She shook herself.

‘It’s a lamp, Leanne. Focus. No time to be all dizzy.’ She grumbled something irritable to herself, then looked around the room.

‘Ah. Baseball bat. Such an American thing to defend a house with. At least I know I’m on the right continent. Oof. He won’t be happy when he sees what the shockwave did to his TV.’

She tried to feel bad about that for a moment, but failed. He’d damn near shoved her to the floor, and she was a little too out of it for sympathy.

The man was bellowing again, gesturing to the vomit on the rug, then the glass littering the floor. He was probably annoyed. She’d try and be sorry about that later, if she remembered.

Leanne’s eyes lit upon a window, and she moved towards it, her body regaining a sense of itself with every passing second. The man let out some indignant sounding shout, and moved to intercept her.

A small spell, designed to replicate a taser. He hit the floor in a heap. She confiscated the baseball bat.

Leanne pulled her phone from her pocket, and checked the map. Only a block or two from her destination. Good. She should be right on time. She continued her path towards the window, then, as an afterthought, flicked her wrist towards the mess she’d made of the rug, and watched as the vomit began to cleanse.

No need to be rude, after all.

She left the house without a further thought, and took a moment to regain herself. No need to make a cover for her entry. The government would do it, if they really cared so much. Once she had her feet under herself again, she set off towards her target, all concessions waived for speed.

By the time she’d rounded the final corner to the place, she’d forgotten precisely why she took the baseball bat. Disorientation did that, sometimes. Had she wanted a weapon?

‘Why would I take this? I have a gun. I don’t need it.’

Leanne suspected she might have just been acting petty.

She spent a few seconds awkwardly jamming the thing in a trash can, before setting her gaze on Charlie Vance’s home.

‘Decent chance there’s a Toranaga in there,’ she thought. ‘It’s what I’d do if Caleb gave the address. Wonder which one I’ll have to fight?’

She dug around in her pockets for a moment, fumbling for the infra-red gear, then gave up as she noticed the man gazing out at her from the window. Elderly. Brownish skin. Thinning grey hair with a hat covering a bald spot. It was the elemental.

For a moment, she simply gazed at him. Then he waved a hand, and she felt something smash against her form like the hand of God himself. She felt her body slam against a wall, saw her shields flicker away around her, and shunted the energy away from her with a scowl, watching the floor around her buckle at the weight. Good grief. That one attack had nearly drained her.

Her retaliatory blast sent him through a wall, his shields barely even flaring as he crashed into the room behind him.

‘Good,’ she thought, making no real effort to pretend the violence wasn’t satisfying. ‘If it were the witch, I might have wanted to be gentle.’

She watched the man pull himself to his feet, a disgruntled scowl clearly visible on his face as he dusted himself off. This was bad. She’d known the elemental would be tough. He was built that way, after all; but she’d hoped she could at least stand alone against his wrath. She might have underestimated.

Across the street, Hideyoshi Toranaga raised a hand, spoke a sentence or two she couldn’t hear, and beckoned for her to come.

Leanne sighed.

‘Nothing for it, then,’ she thought. ‘I guess it’s time to use the dogs.’

As the next wave of force rushed inescapably toward her, she dug into her skein; that near invisible network of lines inside her mind, each connected to a different dog. It made her angrier than expected, seeing what remained of Thirteen’s leash hanging broken in its place. The others were connected, though. She closed her eyes.

As the elemental’s second blow crushed what little remained of her shields, she took careful stock, unhurried.

Twenty Three was on a mission. Thirteen could not be accessed. The others, though, were fine, some asleep; over twenty vessels, each of them ripe for draining. She opened her eyes again. When the third wave struck, she stepped through it.


Hideyoshi:

Hideyoshi was disappointed. How could he not be? He wasn’t sure what else there was to feel, when the promise of an interesting fight was replaced with something frail. That woman’s shields barely lasted the first few blows. He hadn’t even been trying very hard. He shook a few more bits of wall dust from atop his coat, and let out a sigh.

‘And she ruined Jackie’s house. Kids these days.’

Speaking of Jacqueline, he could hear a door opening upstairs.

“What the heck was that!?” asked a young voice that Hideyoshi swore he recognized from somewhere. One of James’ friends?

“Back in your room!” said Jacqueline’s voice, her tone stern, before calling down to him. “He’s right, though, what the hell was that?”

Hideyoshi shrugged.

“Found the problem a little quicker than I thought I would,” he called back, casually raising a hand to line up his third shot on the woman outside. “I may have broken a shelving unit. Just keep the kid up there for a bit. I’ll fix it before I leave.”

He let off his final shot, and turned his head back towards the stairs, ready to speak, before something caught his eye.

His last strike didn’t seem to hit quite in the way the others had. In the last moment, the woman had pushed back to her feet, and he thought he’d caught her body seem to flicker, before the final wave obscured her for a moment in a cloud of loosened dust.

In the second or two it took the dust to settle, the woman had disappeared.

He turned his eyes back to the road, dipping into something of a fighting stance, more by instinct than necessity, and tapped back into that scanning spell to see where the woman had go-

‘Behind me.’

Hideyoshi threw himself downwards as the woman’s leg swung wide through the air towards his head, a hundred sparking lines of light dancing static in the air behind her. He felt the energy of it play across his shield as it passed above his scalp, making it flicker.

He had his counter ready before he hit the floor, his body twisting in the fall to send a tongue of fire darting from his hand towards her, hot enough to blacken ceramic. The woman swung out of the way, the lightning that had wreathed her leg crawling up to encase her form, growing brighter as it went. The flames missed her chest by inches, and she moved in for the kill.

Hideyoshi didn’t have time to think. He hit the ground and rolled. He didn’t use his legs to push himself upright. Human limbs. Too slow in a fight like this. He shoved himself off the ground by telekinetic force. Before he’d even found his feet, he saw her eyes glaring into his, and felt a lightning wreathed fist strike hard against his chest, tearing through his shields like so much cotton thread.

The blow lifted him into the air, sent him up against the ceiling, chunks of plaster suddenly tangling in his hair. Then, gravity found him again, and he hit the floor.

“I was almost hoping for better,” remarked an unfamiliar voice above him, the tone angry. “I thought the witch’s pet would be impressive.”

Hideyoshi tasted blood. He’d bitten his tongue at some point in the fall. Or maybe it had more to do with the burning pain seared into the flesh atop his ribs. He knew for a fact he’d lost a tooth.

On the floor above, a young boy’s voice shouted something about a shelving unit, his mother demanding an answer.

For his part, Hideyoshi simply pushed himself to his feet.

There was no room left for keeping Charlie unaware of this any more. Either the boy would see what happened next, or he would not. Hideyoshi didn’t have the leeway to hold back.

“Go back to your mistress,” his adversary said. “Tell her that I beat you.”

Hideyoshi turned his head towards the stairs.

“Just do what you can to keep the kid away,” he called, letting the flames begin to burn across his skin. “She’s stronger than I thought.”

If he was honest with himself, Hideyoshi thought, a part of him was happy.

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Aid: 5.10

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Caleb:

He was a mountain. Those were the only words Caleb had to describe what he was feeling, the pool of newfound energy flowing out along his system. It felt vast, yet, weirdly delicate; like an ocean’s worth of water poured into a drinking glass. Every movement sent a tingle through his skin, his entire being radiating with an almost electric charge. He flexed the fingers of his right hand, then watched as, quite unbidden, a faint blue arc danced across his knuckles. He smelled ozone.

‘How the fuck does the kid even carry this much power?’

He took a breath. He needed to be steady. He needed to keep this in control.

His attempt at calm was cut short by the ringing from his phone. He swore. He knew that ringtone.

Caleb drew the device from his pocket, and heaved a sigh. Best not to ignore it. He only needed to maintain the facade a little while longer. He lifted the phone to his ear.

“Heya, Boss,” he opened, injecting a hopefully annoying note of cheer into his voice. “Need some-”

“Your first mistake,” the voice on the other end cut him off. “Was taking that power into yourself so early.”

Caleb felt his mouth go dry at that, his words catching themselves in his throat. She knew.

“The second,” she continued icily. “Was assuming I wouldn’t be watching to make sure you didn’t try to pull this shit.”

For a moment, Caleb was silent. He was thinking, his brain working at triple speed in an attempt to figure out what the next course should be. Eventually, he set the buzzing in his mind aside, and settled for a chuckle.

“Heh. You noticed my power up, huh?”

An angry sigh on her end, cutting through the line like static.

“Of course we did, Thirteen. That’s the bare minimum we’d need to keep you all in line. Now, if you honestly plan on keeping yourself and your partner alive, I’d suggest standing very still while I pull that power out of you.”

It was then that Caleb felt the marks along his neck growing warm, his borrowed power seeping out of him a single drop at a time. He barely even noticed. His focus was elsewhere.

“… Caleb,” he muttered.

“What?” she asked, her voice edging slowly back into the uncaring calm he knew so well.

Caleb wasn’t being rational. He knew he wasn’t. This wasn’t the smart choice. Not with so much on the line. He didn’t care. He dug into the sea of power still coursing beneath his skin, shaped it into a point within his mind, and drove it into the heat against his neck.

“My name’s Caleb,” he repeated. “You soulless cunt.”

There was a silence between them then as the brand upon his neck grew hot enough to burn his skin, before the spell broke with a sound like cracking glass.

“… Fine then,” she growled. “We’ll game this out, if you’re so set on being stupid. Option one. You try whatever half-assed plan you think is going to let you escape on your own, and I kill Twenty Three. Option two. You try and break Twenty Three out along with you, and she dies before you even get halfway to her. Option thre-”

“I’ve got allies now,” he snapped. “People strong enough to boost me this far without breaking a sweat. You kill my partner, and you make some of the strongest enemies the world has to offer.”

For what it was worth, the statement seemed to give the woman a momentary pause. Then, she let out a huff.

“One ally,” she grunted, her tone contemplative. “At most. You’ve sided with the Toranagas. It has to be. There are four people in New York with the power to do what you just did: Father, the old witch of Japan, her pet elemental, and that half-breed child of theirs.” Caleb had no difficulty discerning the contempt in those last few words.

“It can’t be Peter Toranaga,” she continued. “Because if he were involved, Manhattan would be swarming with feds by now. I doubt that it would be Father, because going to him just makes you a different kind of pet. That just leaves the witch and her beast, and one of them must have drained themselves dry to give you all that force.”

For a moment, Caleb almost laughed. He clamped down on the sound before it reached his lips. She was wrong. Best not to let her know.

“Not like that’s gonna last forever,” he said. “And they’re nasty enemies to have. So how about you just give me Twenty Three and I promise to call off the super wizards?”

“Not that easy, Thirteen,” she replied, her voice cold. “You’ve made things… complicated, I’ll admit, but the fact remains that I still have Twenty Three.”

“And I have the Toranagas,” he shot back. “Go ahead. Flip that coin.”

For the first time in Caleb’s memory, he heard his boss swear. There was an anger to it. Frustration. It gave him more satisfaction than it ought to have done, finally seeing her crack like that.

“… We’re extracting her from a dock on the south side of the city,” she growled finally. “I’ll send you the address.”

“What?” Caleb teased, barely suppressing a laugh. The victory felt good. Far too good. “I don’t think I heard that right.”

A sigh.

“I’ll be blunt, Thirteen. You don’t know a damn thing about what we’re trying to do. You don’t know a damn thing about how we’re going to do it. The single most important thing you could have told anyone is simply that we exist, and it sounds like that’s a move you’ve already made. All that’s left is an escaped hunting dog using bargaining chips he doesn’t know the value of. So fine. You win. Now just take the girl, take your leash, and get out of my way. There are adults at work right now and it’s harder with animals underfoot.”

Caleb grinned.

“Hell, I’ll take that. And you promise your extraction team won’t be trying to kill me?”

“Of course not,” she muttered. “I know exactly how strong you are right now. I’m not about to order my people to their deaths.”

“Smart choice,” he agreed. “Although, I gotta admit, I was kinda looking forward to smashing some hea-”

She hung up.

Caleb pocketed the phone with a chuckle, then took a breath. He barely noticed the text alert pinging from his pocket.

They were so close. He could feel it.


Northern Scandinavia: 6:34 AM.

The woman set her mobile down on her desk a little harder than intended. Talking to Thirteen was never easy, even back when he’d ostensibly towed the line. It was never a pleasant way to start the day. Even worse today, having to pretend to lose.

She sighed, and allowed herself a tired kind of chuckle. At least she’d never have to deal with it again. She lay her palms flat against the tabletop, and gazed down at them, impassive.

He’d called her a cunt. One of her knuckles twitched.

‘No time for that, Leanne. Take a chocolate and relax. There’s work to do today.’

She pulled one of her desk drawers open, and fumbled around for the bag of smarties tucked underneath her stapler.

The plan would need to be adjusted. Not a difficult thing to do, certainly, but made harder by the time constraints.

She popped a chocolate into her mouth, and gave it a crunch.

There was still a Toranaga active in New York. That meant no matter how she reorganized, there was still an element of risk. None of the nearby agents could reliably fight someone on that scale. Time to set some priorities, then.

She sat still for a few moments, faintly aware of the chocolate slowly melting on her tongue, then once more picked up her phone.

She dialled in the first number, and hit call, pushing herself up from her seat as it rang, and crossing to the window.

Her office was undersized. Economies of scale were a requisite concession when it came to keeping her facilities small enough to avoid notice. She didn’t mind it all too much. At least she had a view.

The phone line went live in her hand as her agent received the call. Then a gruff voice spoke, heavily accented.

“Nils here. Need something, boss?”

She swallowed her chocolate.

“You’re being reassigned,” she murmured. “Asset Thirteen won’t be delivering his target. Just make your way to the rendezvous and make sure Twenty Three remains uninformed.”

There was a moment’s pause at that. A rustling that Leanne struggled to place, followed by a small thump.

“… Confirmed,” came the man’s eventual reply, slightly husky. “And his target? Should we assign someone to-”

“Don’t mind that,” she murmured. “Charles Vance holds priority here, and there are threats about.”

It galled Leanne, having to travel there herself; but the Toranagas were a challenge. Better safe than sorry. She sighed.

“I’ll handle it myself. Expect me at the extraction point in ten minutes or so. I’d like Twenty Three removed before Thirteen arrives.”

There was another brief burst of sound as Nils cleared his throat.

“Understood, Ma’am.”

“Good.”

She disconnected the line, and heaved another sigh. She hated having to get involved herself. Resorting to force was so untidy.

She cast her eyes out at the scene beyond her window.

It was snowing out there, the summer holding little meaning this close to the arctic. She imagined she could see the faint line of the ski lifts running up and down one of the distant mountains.

She shook her head, then began gathering the energy for her trip.


New York: 12:40 AM.

The phone went dead in agent Nils’ hand as he lowered it back down, his hand a little shaky. He swallowed.

“Is that enough?” he asked, careful not to move his chin too close towards the flames beneath his throat. “Are you going to let me go now?”

“Depends what you mean by let you go,” the Japanese witch murmured. “Are we going to set you free? No. You’ve got more than a couple of questions left to answer; but you’ve spared yourself some pain, for now, at least.”

She plucked the phone from his grip, and turned towards her pet.

“Might as well put the fire out, dear. No use burning him tonight.”

The elemental snorted.

“How very rude of me.”

He pulled his hand away, a touch slower than Nils would have liked.

“So. One of us to the extraction point, one to intercept the boss?”

Tsuru Toranaga nodded absently as she flicked through Nils’ phone.

“That does sound like the optimal solution. Are you in the mood for a fight today?”

The elemental chuckled.

“Why not?” he murmured. “Could be fun.”

Nils bit his tongue at that, and simply focused on charging up his spell. There wasn’t room to fail here. The boss was counting on him now.

‘Just wait till they’re distracted,’ he thought. ‘Don’t let your capture be for nothing.’

Only a couple feet away, the witch was talking again.

“I suppose I’ll take the extraction point, then,” she murmured, pulling a second phone from her inside pocket. “I’ll let Caleb know the sco-”

Nils’ spell came into force in less than half a second, all the power he had available collecting itself into a dancing swarm across his fist. The moment it pulled itself into being, he threw himself at her, putting every ounce of his strength and weight into the blow.

He knew before he’d even began to move that he had been too slow. It was too late now, though. He might as well commit, even if he didn’t have a hope.

“Oh, right,” she muttered to her husband as he knocked the agent’s strike aside. “I’ll be needing his clothes as well.”

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Aid: 5.9

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James:

James Toranaga was still in his pajamas. He hadn’t bothered to change. The matter at hand was too important. He soared fast and low above the moonlit city, his phone pressed up against his ear. He’d already given his grandparents Charlie’s home address.

“Tasha’s heading across town now,” Tsuru’s voice spoke from her end of the phone line, forced calm permeating every note of it. “Whatever you do, you can’t let Caleb start until she’s there to support you.”

“We don’t have time for that, Baba,” James muttered. “We need to get this done as fast as we ca-”

“James,” she cut him off, her voice hard. “There is every single chance that this is all a con. Suddenly being in a rush doesn’t change that. In fact, if I wanted to make someone abandon their plans and do whatever I said without thought, then pretending everything was falling apart is exactly what I would do. You get there, you wait, and you only let him do this once Tasha’s there to snap his fucking neck if he betrays you.”

James listened, he absorbed, and he shook his head. His grandma had a point. He wished she didn’t, but she did. He wished his heart would just stop pounding in his ears.

“… Fine.”

Tsuru gave the boy a single affirmative grunt, then hung up.

He caught sight of his school building coming into view below, and altered course. Not too far now.

It was less than half a minute before James was at the factory building. The sliding gate was open. Caleb must already be here. He shot in through the tiny opening, pivoted towards the stairs, and stopped. Something on the upper floor was glowing; a faint, ghostly green light casting the railings that lined the stairway into a misty sort of shadow. He could hear Caleb moving about up there, the older boy muttering either incantations or bundled swear words rapidly under his breath.

… Maybe it’d be better if he just stayed down here for now. Whether he was lying or not, Caleb was sure to want to set this thing in motion the moment he turned up. Maybe he should just stay out of sight till Tasha arrived. No need to start a fight. He shot another troubled glance up the stairwell, then sighed, and reluctantly drifted down towards to the floor.

The moment his feet touched the ground, the glow from the upper level flared, shifting from a neon green to an almost cobalt blue. The light grew brighter; far brighter. He sucked in a breath, and the blueish mist seeping down the stairway almost seemed to pulse.

“James?” asked Caleb’s voice from above, a little too quick in the delivery to be genuinely calm. “That you? Get up here. I’m almost done setting up.”

‘Well,’ he sighed. ‘There goes that idea.’

Out loud, he only managed a mutter.

“Not till Tasha gets here,” he said. “Sorry.”

Caleb’s reaction was less severe than James had been expecting. The older boy’s head poked out over the metal railing, shooting him a glare. James held his gaze as best he could. It would have been easier if holding off didn’t feel like such a big betrayal.

After a few seconds, Caleb swore under his breath, moving back away from James’ view.

“Fine,” he growled. “We’ll wait. Just stay down there and start pulling your power together. You can at least be ready for the damn thing when she gets here.”

James opened his mouth to respond to that, then thought better of it. Instead, he simply complied, sitting himself cross-legged on the ground, and digging into his power as best as he was able.

The next three minutes may well have been the slowest in James’ life. Caleb was done with his setup in only a dozen seconds or so, and from there, moved to sit at the top of the staircase, his legs fidgeting in place as he scowled down at the boy below, his fists clenching and unclenching harder by the second. James tried not to look at him. It set his teeth on edge. It didn’t help that he had no idea what ‘pulling his power together’ was even supposed to be.

He considered asking Caleb, but just the look on the older boy’s face told him no. Best not to push any triggers at all, in that regard. He took his best guess, and dug into his powers.

Nothing happened.

James felt Caleb’s eyes boring into him as he sat there, letting the seconds tick by.

Eventually, Caleb closed his eyes, and let out a long, slow sigh.

“You know that feeling you get when you use a spell?” he asked. “Like there’s something leaving your body?”

“… Yeah?”

“Try to do that,” Caleb muttered. “But do it without actually casting the spell, so the energy doesn’t have anywhere to go but you.”

James gave the older boy an awkward sort of nod, and tried.

It felt weird, trying to access his magic without really using it; like opening a faucet and trying to will the water to stay exactly where it was. It took a few tries, Caleb’s fidgeting growing more and more pronounced by the second, before he finally felt something change inside his form. It was like some kind of pressure; like a layer of viscous goop pressing its way out beneath his skin. The glow above them grew stronger still.

Seeing that, Caleb’s twitching slowed, just a little.

It was the sound of feet thudding hard and fast against distant pavement that alerted the two of them to Tasha’s eventual arrival. James turned his head to glance out through the open doorway, and thought he could spot her silhouette in among the distant gloom.

“Fucking finally,” Caleb muttered, pushing off of the step with his hands and rising to his feet. “James, c’mon. We need to get this thing started right now.”

For a moment, James considered holding the line. That line of thought didn’t last long. It felt like too much of a dick move, continuing to delay it all when Tasha was literally in sight. He pushed himself upright and followed Caleb up the stairs at a jog.

A part of him had wandered what could be producing such a glow. That part of him was vaguely disappointed when it turned out to be a water bottle. Not even a nice one, either; just one of those mountain springwater bottles you could get for like, a dollar fifty from any store in history. He could still see the crinkled label on the side, advertising a twist of lemon flavoring.

He made no comment when Caleb picked him up, and began carrying him across the floor towards the thing, presumably in an effort to avoid disturbing the intricate web of glyphs, feathers, and a dozen or so other assorted knick knacks that now lay strewn across the already untidy factory floor.

“… What’s the bottle for?” he asked, wobbling a little on his feet as Caleb dumped him unceremoniously on the floor beside it.

“It holds the potion,” Caleb grunted, gesturing at a space in the central glyph devoid of any larger markings. “Sit there. I’ll get us started now. Just a warning, this is probably gonna hurt like hell. The mage I learned it from said it was like a cattle prod to the kidneys.”

James merely shook his head at that as he took his seat in the centre of it all. He tried to ignore the way the patterns on the floor began to shift the moment he took his place, moving along the concrete floor like leaves on water.

“Yeah. I figured it’d suck,” he muttered, his tone grim. “Doesn’t matter right now. Just do it.”

Caleb apparently needed no further pushing. He moved back outside the still moving ring of glyphs, oddities and symbols, and gave his incantation. It wasn’t long; just a few words, really, in a language that sorta sounded like arabic. For his part, James clenched his teeth in preparation for the pain. What he got was underwhelming.

It started as an ache, at first. Small, just a barely noticeable tingling at the tips of his fingers, like putting his tongue against a battery. It spread slowly up his hands, then his arms, before it hit the point where that pressure still lingered beneath his skin. Where the two sensations mixed, it almost began to tickle. The misty light flowing all around him changed its hue again, becoming a vibrant, almost electrical kind of blue.

‘Huh. Weird.’

From the floor below, the sound of stomping feet grew louder, accompanied by a metallic rattle as something slammed against the tin of the door in passing.

James cocked his head towards the stairwell where Caleb stood, confused.

“Hey, I thought you said this stuff was gonna hurt.”

Caleb opened his mouth at that, but before he had a chance to answer, there was sound like snapping metal, and Tasha’s body collided against his chest with what looked like the force of a freight train. Whatever he had been about to say was lost as the air left his lungs in a sharp, unintended wheeze, his eyes going wide with the sudden pain.

James watched, more than a little taken aback, as she grabbed the staggering boy by the shoulder, and proceeded to simply slam him against the wall.

“James,” she said, her voice completely calm. “You better tell me you’re okay, or I will snap him like a twig.”

“… I’m fine.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

“… Okay.”

Caleb coughed long and hard as Tasha let him go, slumping forward against himself, and pressing his hands against his knees for balance. It took him a few seconds just to catch his breath.

“C-christ, Tasha,” he managed. “What the hell was that for?”

“We told you to wait till I was here, asshat,” came Tasha’s reply. “The whole point was to have me here to stop you hurting James.”

Whatever Caleb’s reply had been, it was lost on James. He found his attention drawn inward, as the glowing light that filled the room converged upon his skin, and that gentle tingle within his veins began turning itself to spikes.

The first wave was enough to simply shake him, over too soon to really register as pain so much as a spasm across his form. He squeaked.

To Caleb and Tasha’s credit, the noise halted their brewing row in its tracks. He had just enough time to register Tasha’s voice asking if he was okay, before the second spasm hit, and his body curled in upon itself like a knot pulling taut. He screwed his eyes shut, and did the best he could to restrict the noise to a low, quiet whine. This one wasn’t over quick. He counted at least five long, agonizing seconds before it ended. When he opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was the sheen of sweat drops dotted along his hands, each emitting a vibrantly colored glow.

“… Is there anything we can do?” Caleb’s voice asked from somewhere nearby, sounding almost awkward.

“… Yeah,” he mumbled back, watching as the film of liquid began to move, forming a dozen thin, cobalt colored lines as they trickled across his skin towards the bottle. “Get out. Both of you. Right now.”

“… Put something in your mouth,” Caleb muttered. “Stop you biting off your tongue.”

As the third spasm hit, James could only hope they had heeded his request.


Caleb:

Neither teen spoke as they stood together at the roadside. There wasn’t anything to say. It was tense, oddly charged; the two of them torn between mutual aggression, and trying to ignore the whimpered sounds of pain still ringing out from the factory floor. Caleb made the best attempt he could not to let it bother him, simply slipping his hands into his pockets, and digging his nails into his palms. This wasn’t right. None of it was right.

“… When today’s over,” he murmured, half to Tasha, half just to cover the sounds of retching from inside. “I want you to punch me in the face as hard as you can.”

“I’m going to,” Tasha agreed through gritted teeth, her eyes fixed on the road. “Just trust me on that. It’s happening.”

It took far too long for those awful sounds to stop. When they finally did, Caleb turned back towards the door, and took a step towards it. He felt Tasha’s hand closing around his wrist, and turned to meet her glare with his.

“I wanna make sure he’s okay,” he said evenly. “Let me go.”

Tasha didn’t budge.

Caleb barely had to give a thought before his free hand had cloaked itself in flame. He felt Tasha’s fingers squeeze a little tighter at his wrist.

“Stop it,” muttered a small voice from the open doorway, caught between bitterness and exhaustion. Caleb turned, and saw James, looking smaller and more ruffled than he’d ever seen him before. The boy stepped across the short distance between them, his arms wrapped in tight around his form. He sniffled.

“… You okay?” Tasha asked.

The look James gave her could only be described as withering.

“Peachy.”

They both pretended not to notice the tear marks streaking down along his face.

James unfolded his arms, and pressed the water bottle into Caleb’s hands, perhaps now one fifth full of some glowing, almost pearlescent fluid.

“Go save our friends,” he muttered. “I’m going back to bed.”

With that, James pushed past them, and stumbled his way out into the street, heading for his home.

Caleb gave Tasha a look. She simply nodded, before stepping up, and hefting the boy up off the ground onto her back.

“… Don’t need your help,” he grumbled, already burying his face against her shoulder. Tasha gave the boy a hug. No further complaints were made.

“See him home. We’ll meet up later on.”

“Yeah.”

Caleb watched the other two fading away into the night, and turned his gaze to the bottle with a sigh. This had better work.

He raised the bottle to his lips, and gagged. It was, without a doubt, the most disgusting thing he’d ever tasted. He swallowed.

‘Oh,’ murmured that little voice inside his brain. ‘So that’s what being a god feels like.’

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Aid: 5.8

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Twenty Three:

Thirteen’s apartment was tiny; just a single room, really, with little more than the formality of a wall separating the toilet from the rest of the living space to justify the usage of the term. Twenty Three couldn’t bring herself to truly be upset about that. It was just one of the tiny ways her partner’s constant sass had of biting him in the rear. She contented herself that at least his punishment wasn’t something more severe.

She moved to the bed, and one by one started pulling sheets up off the mattress.

At least being smaller made the place quicker for her to search.

She examined the bedding by touch as she pulled it apart. Nothing there that wasn’t supposed to be. She checked the mattress, then dumped the sheets back down on top of it. She’d remake it when she was done, if there was time. She moved on to search the trunk.

Thirteen hadn’t been talking lately; ignoring offers of food or company and rarely even messaging her more than once every couple of days. That never bode well. When Thirteen went quiet, it always meant he was trying to keep things from her. She sighed. Thirteen only hid the things that led to fights.

The last time, it had been a kitchen knife; a small thing, embedded with a dozen or so pitifully small enchantments. He’d had some damn fool idea about just cutting the brands out of their skin. She would have laughed if the thought alone wasn’t enough to get him killed. That was years ago now, though. She’d thought he’d given up trying.

The knife had led to the biggest fight she could remember. He’d cried as he watched her break it; hadn’t spoken to her for months after that.

She wondered how long the silent treatment would last this time around.

The trunk was a bust. Nothing in there besides a few clothes and the small assortment of possessions their masters had allowed him to maintain. There was a Tardis shirt in there, a good three sizes too small for him now. It had been a task and a half just getting the thing for him. She’d thought he would have thrown it out by now. It wasn’t as if he could wear it any more.

She closed the trunk back up, then moved her search to the bathroom.

Nothing under the sink. No gaps in the walls or floor. No loose tiles under which he could be hiding things. She sighed, for a moment allowing herself to hope. Maybe there was nothing here to find. Maybe he really had given up. It felt wrong, having that be what she hoped for.

She moved to the toilet, and began pulling apart the water housing. No bags inside. Nothing there that wasn’t meant to be.

Maybe he was just trying to get some space from her? Maybe he wanted her to make the first move? Maybe he was just being a moody shit. Teenagers were difficult, even at the best of times.

She returned to the main room, and started re-dressing the bed. Maybe she could just invite him over for a while; just talk things out.

She made it halfway through getting the final sheet back in place when her phone pinged.

Great, she thought drily. A new target. Just what I needed.

She pulled the phone from her pocket and glanced at the screen, and that little scrap of hope shrivel away inside her chest.

“So,” she whispered. “This is how they finally break us, huh?”

The target was a girl. A human girl; about eight or nine, if she had to guess, and she was smiling. Why did she have to be smiling? That just made it so much worse. There were words as well, collected underneath the picture, half concealed by the border of the screen.

Numbly, Asset Twenty Three scrolled down and read through the target information; then she stood there, just letting it all sink in.

They told me her name, she thought. They told me her fucking name.

She took a breath.

Just say no. Take your phone, and go to the government. Right here. Right now. Let them kill you. What does it even matter? What kind of life have you got to lose?

For a moment, she almost managed to be convinced. But then there was another voice inside her head.

They’ll kill Caleb too, you know. You being obedient is the only thing that kept him alive so far.

Twenty Three allowed herself just a few more moments to pretend she had a choice, then put the phone back in her pocket with a laugh.

It didn’t matter anyway. She was a hunting dog. She did as she was told.


Caleb:

Caleb made his way back to his cage by a casual route that night. He was in no hurry. There were no tasks that day that remained for him to do, the night air was cool, and his curfew alarms weren’t set to go off for another hour, at least. Even leaving all of that aside, however, there was something else in play.

For the first time in a long while, Caleb was in a good mood. He was in a really good mood. He had a reason to be. The plan was coming together well.

In the two days since his talk with James’ stupidly powerful family, things had been right on track. According to the updates James had given him, the escape route was well on its way to full completion, and he’d spent most of yesterday training with Tasha in preparation for subduing Twenty Three.

He rolled his neck slowly around atop his shoulders for a second at that, trying unsuccessfully to ease the few remaining aches and pains. His technical ally hadn’t even tried to pull her punches. That was okay, though. He hadn’t either. If this thing really did go off without a hitch, he might even be big enough to thank her.

He was grinning by the time his cage came into view. A thought had struck him on his walk, and it was a good one.

Twenty Three would be free this time tomorrow. Maybe she’d finally be willing to give herself a name. He’d mulled it over in his head for the last half hour or so, and while it was her choice he wouldn’t dream of taking it away from her, he thought he’d like it if she chose to go with Kaylee.

Kaylee was a kind name.

His good mood lasted all the way inside his run-down apartment block, up the stairs, and halfway down the narrow hallway that led towards his cage.

Then he saw his doorway was ajar. Someone else had been inside.

He dropped his smile, slowing his pace a fraction; alert. Someone in his cage meant one of two things. Either someone had broken in, or he had a superior up the ranks that had decided not to trust him. For the first time in his life, Caleb found himself dearly hoping he’d just been robbed. Suspicion would just make the whole plan harder.

He neared the door and, quiet as he could, reached forward to push it open. Before his hand even touched the handle, however, the door swung open from the other side. What he saw behind it was not a supervisor, and that was not a relief.

“Hey, Thirteen,” Twenty Three murmured, barely even pausing to look at him as she stepped out past him into the hallway. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“You searched my room?” he asked, his voice quiet.

She stopped walking at that, her back to him. Then, in the most exhausted voice Caleb had ever heard, she spoke.

“I don’t wanna fight about this, Caleb,” she muttered. “Not right now. Please. I’m too tired.”

Caleb felt his eyes draw wide at that. She’d never used the name before. That alone was enough to quiet whatever anger had been building in his gut; replacing it with a concern he couldn’t seem to put a cause to.

“… Are you okay?”

Twenty Three let out a short laugh at that, followed by a weary kind of sigh.

“No,” she said. “I’m not. I’m in pain, Caleb. I wanted to ask you a favor.”

“Anything,” he replied without even a moment’s hesitation. “Whatever I can do.”

A pause, then; long enough that Caleb wondered if she’d even heard him. Then, her shoulders seemed to slump.

“Can you stop trying?” she asked. “For me? Just give up and let this be your life?” She turned around to give him a broken sort of smile. “It’d be easier for both of us if you did.”

Whatever thoughts had been winding their way through Caleb’s head came to a halt at that. She might as well have been asking him to die.

“… I really don’t think I can do that.”

“It’s easier than you’d think,” she replied. “And you won’t be alone for it, I promise. I just-” she halted there, regret for what came next written plain as day across her face. “It just hurts, you know? You’re the only good thing in my life, and the moments I get with you… they make it bearable. Can you stop making those moments hurt by making me betray you?”

“… You don’t have to keep betraying me.”

A laugh.

“I do if I want to keep your butt alive.”

There it was; the impasse. For a while, neither of them moved. There was nothing they could say. No compromise to be had.

“I care about you, you know?” Caleb gave the older girl a smile, and she gave him one back that made him feel cold inside.

“Yeah,” she replied. “Me too. Promise you’ll think about what I said?”

“… Yeah,” he muttered. “I promise.”

“Thank you.”

With that, Twenty Three turned away, and once more set off down the hall. Caleb did his best to brush the nausea aside.

It doesn’t matter, said a voice inside his haid. Tomorrow, we’ll be gone, and all of this’ll shift. It’s fi-

“You’ve got another escape attempt lined up, don’t you?” Twenty Three murmured behind her as she reached the stairs. When he didn’t reply, she simply sighed. “… Well, I guess it doesn’t matter now, anyways. Just try and get rid of it before we leave, okay?”

“What?”

Twenty Three didn’t say any more, simply stepping onward out of sight. A minute or two later, his phone pinged from inside his jacket. Feeling a little numb, he pulled it out, and checked the screen.

The photograph was more perplexing to him than anything else at first, a distance shot of a young boy, apparently taken through a window. Then he saw the words sitting underneath.

‘Target Name: Charles Vance. High priority. Retrieve unharmed and move to designated site to await your relocation. Harm to target will result in your termination. Failure to deliver will result in termination. You have three hours. Locations enclosed.’

Fuck.

Caleb set off down the corridor at a sprint. He had to get to Twenty Three. He had to get to her right fucking now and stop this. He reached the stairs, and didn’t even bother to run, simply vaulting across the breadth of them and landing on the floor. The plan was gone. He had to get the two of them away and he had to do it now.

She was already long gone by the time he hit the street. It took everything he had not to simply punch something.

No time, Caleb. You can be pissed about this later. Bigger problems right now. No plan. No partner. Gotta find her before she leaves. Think quickly.

He had the phone back out of his pocket before he’d even consciously decided on a choice, dialing in a number and pressing it against his ear while the rest of his body set off down the street at a sprint.

It took James almost a minute to answer the call, the young voice coming across the line husky and slowed.

“Caleb,” James groaned. “It’s midnight. Why the heck are yo-”

“We’re doing the ritual now,” Caleb cut him off, sparing a moment for his surroundings before cutting off down a side street. The bin he had to get to was three blocks away. There wasn’t time to waste. “No time to wait for it anymore.”

“What?” James asked, surprised, his voice still just shaking itself from sleep. “No, Caleb. That’s tomorrow. We’ve gotta wait for the-”

“They’ve given us new targets,” Caleb said shortly. “But it’s not creatures. We were always hunting beasts before, but now they’re sending us after humans.”

“What?” To his credit, the tiredness seemed to have abandoned James’ voice at that. “What humans? Why’re they taking them?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, taking the final turn into another darkened street and catching sight of the bin he needed. He kept speaking as he sprinted across to it, then ducked down, and tugged his ritual supplies from the packet he’d kept sticky taped underneath it. “I just know they want me to deliver some kid named Charles Vance. They’re gonna relocate me if I do, and they’re gonna kill me if I don’t. We don’t have any time to figure this out, Ja-”

“Charlie,” the other boy interrupted, his voice suddenly cold. “His name’s Charlie. They’re sending you after my friend.”

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