Interlude 2

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Casper:

Casper made his way home that evening feeling heavy, the flurry of activity that had been the last twelve hours having drained him more than anything he could readily remember. The hunter had seen him back to his train line, and after a short ride from there, he had begun making his way slowly home under the dim orange light of the early evening sun.

The trip to Lewis’ apartment had… not been what he had expected, in any form. It confused him. He had expected the place to be austere, office like, in a vein with the workspaces of the detectives in old black and white movies. The true experience, by contrast, was almost pleasant. It had been an airy, open space, wide windows allowing light from the late afternoon sun in while he had talked to Lewis’ two young companions -he hadn’t gotten up the nerve to ask exactly what their relation was to one another, though he doubted that they were siblings, the older girl’s pale skin and slightly nordic accent offering evidence to the contrary, given the younger boy’s browned skin tone and slightly hispanic lilt.- They had been a nice pair, overall, and their perspective had been helpful, even allowing him to ask some questions he hadn’t dared ask Lewis. He had even enjoyed parts of the visit, feeling almost a touch of shame in acknowledging the fact. The hunter had, after all, kidnapped his friend, and it felt like almost a betrayal to be feeling grateful to him.

He turned the last corner onto his home street and paused briefly, his hand reaching into a pocket for what felt like the dozenth time that evening, reassuring himself that the small slip of paper was still there where he had left it. The paper bore, to his mind, the single most important piece of information he had managed to obtain from the whole encounter. It had taken him nearly half an hour to build up the courage to ask, but eventually, he had done so, mid way through a Smash Bros fight, setting down his controller with a sigh and asking, somewhat shakily:


“Is… is there a way to turn them off?” The other two glanced at him, their minds momentarily confused. The boy gestured questioningly at the game console before Casper elaborated. “M-my powers, sorry. I… I wanna be able to stop having them all the time, you know?” He took care to phrase it in a manner that didn’t reveal what he could do. Before departing to his office, Lewis had instructed the three of them in no uncertain terms that they weren’t to tell each other about what they could do, or to swap their names. Casper did his best to comply.

“Depends what you are,” the boy replied evenly. “Mage, you can probably get some help. Cross breed, maybe not.”

“Cross breed?” Casper asked, raising an eyebrow. “No idea what you’re saying, sorry.”

Behind the boy, the pale girl shrugged.

“Pretty simple, really,” she said, her voice quiet. “A cross breed’s someone who gets their power from a bunch of magical genetic stuff in their family,” She jerked a thumb behind herself towards the doorway Lewis had departed through. “Like, say, if you had a lycan for a mom, you might get a really good nose and be a bit faster and stronger, right? It’s a power that’s kinda built into your body a little bit, so you can’t really turn it off. Mages, though, when they get powers, they’re really just using spells they haven’t figured out how to control yet. If you’re like that, then you could probably figure out how to use it better; might help if you got a teacher.”

“Teacher?” Casper asked, eyes going wide, a not insubstantial part of his mind perking up immensely at the idea of getting to literally learn magic. “I… yeah. I definitely want that. Is there one in New York?”

“Sure,” the boy chipped in, grinning, a note of amusement playing in his mind at Casper’s largely suppressed reaction. “Depends if you’re cool with getting government registered or not. A government teacher’s cheaper, but if you’re hanging out with Lewis, then you’re probably not gonna like being in the system, right?”

Casper considered for a moment, then nodded.

“Y-yeah. I wanna keep it quiet. Is th-”

“Then it’s gonna be expensive.” The boy continued, cutting him off. “I can give you a number, but the guy charges a couple hundred bucks a session.”

Casper didn’t even hesitate.

“Yeah, I’d like the number.” Finally, he might actually have a use for the money Tasha had kept splitting with him. He’d mostly just been collecting it all up inside an old pillow case.


Casper tucked the paper a little deeper into his pocket, and resumed his walking. It was only a short way remaining to his house and, as he crossed close enough, he expanded out his power, sensing inside. He was glad that he did.

Almost immediately, he felt his father’s mind, standing in the kitchen, judging by the distance, his mother not too far away. Ray’s mind was angry, frustration and exhaustion seeping out from his consciousness in equal measure, tinted with not a small amount of defiance, a note of fear. Linda’s mind, on the other hand, was determined, her feelings focused. A note of remorse clung on underneath it all, but every time it began to swell, he could feel her pushing it back down. They were fighting.

Casper took a deep breath as he drew close, trying to calm himself as best he could. It was never good when his parents fought. He wondered in the back of his mind why his mother pushed his father as she did. What did she think there was to gain? He bit back another pang of fear as he reached the door, and tried the handle slowly; it shifted around quietly, absent the usual click forcing the mechanism to stop. It wasn’t locked. Great. That meant that if he was lucky, he might be able to sneak upstairs without drawing any attention to himself.

As slow as he dared, Casper twisted the handle down, then carefully pushed the door open, shrugging off his bag into his free hand so as to avoid having to open the door wide enough for it to creak. He slid himself inside, his bag clutched behind him, then began to close the door again. It was then that his parents’ words began to reach him, the first of them stopping him dead.

“This is your fault, you know,” she said quietly, her voice bitter. “If you’d just hit him hard enough the first time, we wouldn’t be in this mess.” The words were insincere, Casper knew, lacking any feeling behind them, intended more as a means of venting frustration than for honesty. Even so, they struck him hard enough to freeze him solid.

“You can fuck right off,” Ray replied, his voice louder, less restrained. “He was nine! You think I should have given him another black eye?”

Casper felt something cold swelling in his gut. He remembered that beating. It had been the first. He shuddered a little at the memory. What the hell was going on here?

“Honestly?” His mother retorted, her mind lit by a sudden flash of defensive anger. “Yeah, I think you should have given him two. I think you should have kept going till he manifested, or at least been man enough to admit that you were gonna be soft, and let my dad or someone else do it for you. If you’d done that, then maybe he wouldn’t have had to wait this long before we could start teaching him!”

“He doesn’t have powers, Linda!” Ray shouted, his frustration building to a peak. “I broke his fucking arm and it did nothing! When are you going to admit that he’s just a normal goddamn boy!?”

There it was. Understanding. Suddenly, everything clicked into place in Casper’s mind. He had wondered, in the months since his power had awakened, exactly why his father’s mind so often turned to regret when he looked at him, why his mother had felt no fear when Ray had first turned his fists on her. They had been trying to push him. They knew everything.

Casper felt sick. He felt wrong. His parents were still speaking, but he couldn’t bring himself to register the words. Without really thinking about it, without knowing exactly what he planned to do next, he turned back towards the still open front door, and slipped back outside, closing it silently behind himself.

He stood there for a long time, feeling the angry ebb and flow of his parents’ minds in the background of his thoughts as their argument continued. After a few minutes, he came to a decision. He needed time to think, and he needed to be away from his parents while he did it. In the previous months, he had allowed himself to believe that if he only understood the cause of his father’s actions, of his mother’s seemingly paradoxical lack of care for both him and herself, that he might be able to accept it all. In reality, though, he found that understanding was only bringing him anger. He considered the idea of just going up to his room, pretending he hadn’t heard anything, and almost gagged. No, he needed to be away from them for now. Just away.

He turned his gaze to the pavement a few feet away, where the architects had placed a small hole filled with soil in order to allow a tree to grow. He moved towards it, and began digging. It only took him a few seconds to find what he was looking for under the dirt. A small rock, a seam running almost invisibly along it. He lowered it to the ground, and struck it by the edge against the pavement, popping the seam open. A small object fell from the false stone and hit the ground with a clink. He picked it up. Tasha’s spare apartment key. She’d given it to him a month ago, just in case. Better than having nowhere to go.

He stood, digging around in his pocket for a moment for his phone, and pulling it out. He turned it back on, then pulled up his father’s number, opting for a text rather than having to hear the man’s voice again. He thought long and hard over what he wanted to say, but eventually got it down.

‘Not coming home tonight. Don’t wanna look at you right now.’

He only hesitated a moment before he hit send. Then, on the spur of the moment, he sent another.

‘I think I hate you.’

He lingered on the street for just long enough to feel the fear begin to overwhelm his parent’s minds, then he began to run. He made it two whole blocks before he started to cry.

Previous Chapter:

Bonus chapter one, Bex.

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December first, seven years ago:

There is a creaking. Far from earth. Far from any realm humans have traversed, there is a creaking. A gate, built in ages long past by beings long since gone reverberates with the sound. Buried somewhere deep, the doorway flung into a void beyond the bounds of creation, it rattles. The thing on the other side is slow. Unused to dwelling in a realm where time has but one direction. It is angry, and the gate rattles again, ancient barriers quaking under the force of its blows. It is hungry, but that is alright. If it can hold on, it will soon have a chance to feast. It was their smell that awoke it. A populace grown beyond any conceivable measure. Each one small and weak on their own, not enough to sate it, but in these numbers? They could sustain it for an age. The gate rattles again, and a lock snaps. Good. Only four more to go.

The sound of the break is loud and violent, carrying up through the emptiness, and reaching the ears of a lone sentry. The noise awakens a fear in her, but she is strong. She carries out her duty, and sends warning along lines established millenia ago, readying her people. She is a watcher, assigned to guard the gates since time immemorial, a task performed so long that she no longer remembers what she was before. None of them do, really. Her people spread out, giving their signs, spreading the news to anyone and everyone they meet.

‘A beast awakens.’

It is primordial, powerful, one of the first things that lived upon the many worlds, when magic was young, but it has not moved in an age. Its muscles ache. Its body is slow to respond. It spent too long asleep. The gate shatters, and the barriers break with such force that it echoes through the minds of every magician in the adjacent worlds. Any whom the watchers did not inform, the societies that were born and grew in the time since their watch began, are soon alerted. Among them, the humans.

It takes time to break the gate. Longer still to squeeze its lumbering body through the gap. In the time required, an army is formed. Elves, for the most part, acting more on obligation than by altruism. Their mages are strong and numerous. The foe is strong, but together, they are stronger. The gate will be rebuilt, the key crushed and its shards thrown to the winds.

They mass themselves at the entrance to its cavern, over a hundred strong of the mightiest mages from the mightiest magical race, they watch as it slowly forces its way into their realm. They prepare their spells. It feels them there, feels its hunger, takes a breath. They smell strong, the power wafting off of them enough to make it ravenous; but it knows they are too many. It will not win. It will only be able to devour a few before it is forced back behind the gate. That is not enough to sate it. It opts for a different approach.

The gathered mages watch, stoic, as the creature finishes its journey, the end of its tail too wide to fit through the opening, smashing it wider. It glances up at them, and slips sideways from their view. It does not move sideways in a manner that those watching are built to comprehend, however. It slips not through a dimension, but out of it. The creature emerges into the void between the world spheres, and begins to swim. There is no air here, no magic to sustain itself on. It will be weakened when it reaches its destination. That is acceptable. There is much food awaiting it.

The mages are helpless to intervene as the creature passes them by, able, with effort, to sense the thing, but it is beyond their reach. They cannot stop it there. The elves decide they have done their part. They retreat to their home, almost all of their kin from across the many worlds following suit. It cannot breach their home when all of their power rests within it. Together, they are too strong.

Across the many realms, the sundry mages watch as the thing advances, its edges nudging gently at the world spheres as it slips between them. In the worlds it passes by too closely, things are born, springing forth from earth and rock, feral. Soon enough, its destination is determined. The creature heads for earth.

The humans are aware, and many panic. They are saved from chaos only by their secrecy. It is kept quiet. Most of them are not aware of magic. Even among those who are, it is kept quiet. Their communities converse, desperately at first, in fear of the thing. They seek aid from allies in other worlds, but there is little forthcoming.

The dwarves are of no real help against the beast. Their inclinations lie towards the technical, and they offer what help they can, but it is little. The gnomes are of little aid as well. They are spread too thin, their own mages divided between defense of their own homes, and the great cities of the dwarves, with whom they have been allies for far longer. The elves care for their own, and while they would mourn the loss of the human world, they reason that they can easily find different cattle to farm.

The only true aid comes in the form of the goblins, the humans’ newest, greatest ally. They go forth en masse, and their soldiers are there to stand with the race of man when the time comes. They share that world, after all, and it makes sense that they defend it as one.

Slowly, the governments of the human world come to calm. Efforts begin to mount, a cooperation is achieved. The hope is slim; the humans do not have power like the elves or the gnomes, and what few mages they possess are often of a poor calibre, their power largely drawn from interbreeding with other, stronger species. In spite of this, they gather together.

A plan is formed. The humans know their magic is weak, so they devise other means. Unlike the elves, they are learned in the ways that must be used to traverse the spaces between worlds. They, like the dwarves, have learned to craft miracles of metal and stone. The work is undergone with dwarvish aid, a vessel crafted to traverse the emptiness between stars, enchanted to slip outside of reality and face the creature. It is built to carry a weapon, an adaptation of a device used by the humans in decades past to tear whole cities asunder. It will be packed heavy with loose sand and metal, brought up close to the beast, and then the pilot will set the void aflame. The task bears no chance of survival, and of the scarce few with the skills to carry it out, none are forced to take the role. There is more than one volunteer.


November ninth, six years ago:

The vessel is complete. Only hours ago was it finally finished. When debate began over what it should be called, the chosen pilot made a request that no one present had the words to refuse. The ship is named Samantha, in memory of a daughter lost.

The beast approaches, and the ship is launched. The pilot speaks no words as she guides the craft towards it, but for a small gasp as she catches sight of her foe for the first time. Across a dozen worlds, seers watch the strange confrontation. The odd magic of dwarves and men is not well understood in the realms where true magic flows, and they wonder amongst themselves at what strange trickery the humans have in mind. Most agree that it bears no chance of working.

The beast smells a life within the craft, and alters its course. It has swum for a long time, and it is famished. It edges towards the craft, claws ready to tear open the casing and devour its occupant whole. It clamps its talons into the metal as worlds watch.

The pilot utters a last goodbye and presses a photograph of a loved one to her lips, before flicking a single switch. The many worlds gasp as one as the beast is engulfed in a storm of fire and rock. Several seers are rendered blind by a light that, for a single moment, outshines the stars themselves.

When the light clears, the beast is hurting. Its flesh is torn, scales ripped away, its fins ragged and ripped. It is angry, but the flame renewed its strength. It moves faster now.

They have months, at most.


December eighteenth, six years ago.

As the beast draws nearer, the human world falls slowly to chaos. The beast is a wellspring of primordial life, and on its approach, new horrors come to plague the world within its sight. Five of them. Across the earth, hunters gather to fight them, aided by the force of goblin armies, killing these new abominations as and when they are born. Every fight draws a toll. One charge is made against a serpent that tangles an island between its tails. The final blow is dealt by an odd pair: A man who brings forth flame from his hands, and a woman wielding a staff of carven wood.

The many nations scramble to hide the truth from their people, their agencies desperate to find a new, workable plan of attack. The effort is led by a man who speaks in many tongues, traveling the world and calling forth all he can find with a very specific gift. It is a plan inspired by the workings of the gnomes, who fight monsters by giving their champions power from among their people. In every country, those bearing the ability to empower others, regardless of the form, are gathered together, almost a thousand strong, but this is not the challenging part. The world scours itself for an individual with the capacity to bear their aid without both body and mind being torn asunder. It is in the few days prior to the beast’s arrival that one finally comes forth. Not the strongest among them, to be sure, but the strongest of those willing to try.

They wait until the last possible moment, unsure of how long, if at all, their champion will last under the weight of his enchantments. It is only when the beast flickers through into the realm of man that the task is begun. Many hundreds of hands lay themselves upon the champion, layering him with enchantments so numerous and esoteric as to defy rational reason. As the beast begins to breach the upper atmosphere, the man begins to scream.

It is unknown, in the aftermath, how the champion held on. It is known from the accounts of those around him that he ascended into the sky in a bolt of light. The last words the recording device placed on him was able to pick up, beyond the growls and the screaming, were him begging for his mother.

The creature is found in a crater on the Isle of Skye, most of its body burned away, unconscious. It is contained within a mound of molten steel that is then allowed to cool around it, before being layered with runes to seal it.

The champion is found four kilometers to the south, three days later. He is still screaming. His skin cannot be located. He is transferred to a medical facility in Norway, where he is visited once a day by a small girl with the power to induce a peaceful sleep.

The man who speaks in many tongues leads a mission to ferry the beast’s container back to the elves, where they may return it to the watchers for safekeeping. There, he barters concessions from them, and strikes their high lord in the face. One of the oldest among the elves watches this, amused, and, unknown to the human, places a small spell upon him. Then, he and his retinue return home. He returns to his family, holds his son close, and reaffirms his love to his wife, happy simply to be alive. Nine months later, a girl is born.


The present day.

Bex lay asleep in her bed, a small smile on her face as she explored the myriad wonderful and exciting adventures that her dreamscape held in store for her. She reoriented slightly against her pillows, and clutched her teddy a little tighter to her chest.

 

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Catharsis. 2.12

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James:

James gazed out of his window into the evening sky, his hands resting gently against the windowsill. A part of him, if he was honest, had wanted to do nothing, to just go home and pretend nothing had ever happened, but he just couldn’t quite bring himself to just leave it. It went against the grain. Eventually, he had come to a decision. He would try to help, but if there was nothing he could do, or if it looked like it might go badly for him, he would leave.

He stepped back from the window for a moment, taking a second to change. Dark clothing, as before. He chose a hoodie, pulling the hood down over his face and pulling the string ties to bunch the fabric up over his face, leaving him just enough room to see. He took a breath. His parents were downstairs, watching a movie. Not much chance of either of them moving for the next hour or so. Bex was in bed, a story read to her, and a glass of water already set up by her bedside. If he was going to leave, now was the time. He returned to the window and pulled it open, then breathed deep again.

One… Two… Three.

James threw himself through the window, squeezing his eyes shut as if diving into a freezing pool. As before, he willed himself upwards as fast as his power could carry him. By the time he had the drive to will his eyes open, the streets were but tiny lines below him, illuminated by the sparse lights of cars and streetlights. He felt that momentary thrill, that giddy high of pure, positive vertigo, and pushed it from his mind. More important things at hand. He turned himself towards the place the text had specified, then pushed himself into the gloom at speed.

As before, it was not a long journey, two or three minutes, at most. He suspected he could have gone faster, but he was wary of pushing too far, running out of power in midair. The idea made him shudder. He floated some three hundred feet or so above the building, surveying the area from on high to assure himself that his plan would work.

There was a degree of traffic along the small street, but it was night, and far enough from the central districts that flow was relatively small. He allowed himself to hope that no one would notice, before choosing an alleyway opposite his target, and descending into it as fast as he dared. He didn’t allow himself to touch the ground. The text had warned that these people tracked by smell, and he had reasoned that his best defense was to stay high up enough that they would be left without a scent to follow. He hovered against a brick wall, hugging himself tight against the building’s shadow.

‘Corner room closest to traffic light.’ The text had said. James’ eyes fell upon a window, the curtains inside drawn against his view. He took another deep, steadying breath, and began to muster his power.

His plan was not the best, he had to admit. It had dozens of things that could easily go wrong, even if his newfound ability was strong enough to do what he wanted it to. More of them floated to the surface of his mind as he tried to focus. What if Tasha was too wounded to move? What if the drugs hadn’t worn off? What if his plan worked too well, and he hurt her? He did his best to ignore them. If it failed, he told himself, then at least he had tried. If it got too dangerous, he could leave with a clear conscience. He tried to believe it.

James extended his reach beyond himself, just as he had done the night before, feeling the strands of the light evening breeze beneath fingers that, to his newfound sense, were feeling less and less like fingers by the second. He extended further, collecting the strands and drawing them together in his grasp, letting them flow together, strengthening. When he felt he had enough, he drew them all together, bundling them up together tightly into a single imaginary fist, before pushing it forth against the building’s wall with all his might.

The result was not as he had hoped for.


Tasha:

Pain, everywhere.

That woman, Lara, the others had called her, had not gone easy. She had laid into Tasha with her own bat across every inch of her body while the soft voiced man delivered bullshit line after bullshit line.

‘They didn’t want to hurt her. She’d left them no choice.’ As if she gave a fuck. She’d done her best to tune him out after a time. In the hours that had followed, as the feeling slowly began to seep back into her nerves, she had slowly began to become aware of the pain, a dull, powerful ache across every inch of herself. She wanted to move, offer an insult, or at least do something to prove to them that they hadn’t beaten her, but she knew that the moment she did, not only would she lose the element of surprise, but the pain would become far worse. She had tested it with a few small flexes of her arms, and had barely managed to suppress the groan of pain as her battered muscles tugged along bruised, bloodied skin.

The one called Marcus had gone to bed, declaring something about seeing to the children as he took his leave. Lara and Samson had remained, Lara sitting on the floor with her back against the wall, the bat resting along her knees and a smug grin on her oh so punchable face. Of her captors, Lara had seemed the only one to actively enjoy the beating they had given her. Samson had seemed indifferent, passively watching with his gun at his hip, a pose he had held ever since, and Marcus had been almost apologetic, but Lara had enjoyed it. Tasha was grateful for that, in a way. Marcus confused her, Samson made her angry, but only Lara had done enough to really let Tasha hate her.

No one spoke. No one moved. It seemed like these two were content to watch her, unwavering, until their so called “Father” came to take her. For her part, however, Tasha was planning. Samson had the gun at his hip. That meant he would take at least half a second or so to raise it and point it at her. If she could move fast enough, then she could throw the chair at him before he had time to fire. If she could manage that, then she’d only have to deal with Lara. She just needed a single moment of distraction. That was the problem. Nothing was happening. Nothing had been happening for hours, besides the growing ache in every inch of her body. She needed to be alert, ready to capitalize on any distraction the moment it happened, but trying to keep herself that focused for so long was exhausting. She found her attention beginning to drift, a small part of her mind conjuring a scenario of what she was going to do to Lara when she got out of here. The ideas it presented were attractive, and she found more and more of her focus drawn towards it, figuring out what she’d break, what she’d say. That was when it struck.

It all happened so fast that Tasha barely had time to register what was happening, let alone try to make sense of it. There was a sudden, violent cracking sound, easily the loudest thing Tasha had ever heard, and at precisely the same time, the window imploded, shards of glass catching in the curtains and tearing them free, peppering the inside of the room with a hail of jagged shards. Tasha felt a few new tears emerge along the skin of her arms and face as she was thrown back in her chair, landing painfully on the ground. The room went dark, the solitary light bulb that hung from the ceiling exploding in the sudden wave of force. She brought up her hands by instinct, breaking her bonds with ease in some attempt to catch herself.

As she tried to work through the surprise, her ears ringing shrilly in the aftershock, a voice inside Tasha’s mind told her to move, to act. This was her chance. She had to take it. She reached down her hands grasping the edges of her chair to arm herself, but before she had a chance to go any further, a form stepped into view above her. In the sudden gloom, it was difficult to make out the face, but the shape of the gun aimed at her was unmistakable. She thought he might have said something, a command of some sort, but the ringing in her ears was too loud for her to make it out. The gun, however, sent a very clear message. Very slowly, she drew her hands back away from the chair. The gun jerked, gesturing her up, so she rose, her every muscle protesting angrily, to her feet. Lara stood at the window, a hand pressed to her ear. It was hard to tell, but Tasha could have sworn she was shouting something.

Whatever she was saying, it probably didn’t work, as another invisible wave struck her about the face. It was not as strong as the first, not by a long shot, but it was enough to make the woman stumble. She turned her gaze towards Tasha for a moment, her expression furious, before another wave struck her from behind, sending her off balance just in time for a third to knock her off her feet.

Tasha felt a hand grab her by the collar, and looked around. Samson had his gun against her cheek. He pulled her along with him, stepping around Lara’s form as she woozily pushed herself upright, a small trail of blood dripping down from her ears. The ringing had begun to subside a little, and Tasha was able to make out Samson’s words just fine as he shouted calmly out into the street.

“Keep attacking and I shoot her.”

Nothing happened. The ringing slowly died away to a low buzz as the two of them stood staring out at the empty street.

“Good,” Samson said eventually. “Now, show yourself, or I will shoot her. I swear to God.”

Again, nothing happened. Tasha glanced at her captor out of the corner of her eye. He was bleeding, a small shard of glass embedded in the flesh of his cheek, but he was calm, his eyes slowly roaming the darkened street. After a few moments, he pushed her to the side, shoving her against the window frame, his expression not changing in the slightest.

“You have to the count of five. Four, three,”

He still wasn’t looking at her. Tasha had an idea. A very stupid one, but one that, she hoped, would be enough to save her life.

Moving as fast as her aching arm was able, she swung her hand upwards, slapping her palm towards Samson’s wrist with all the force she could muster. Samson, still focused on scanning the street below, never saw it coming.

Tasha felt her hand connect, wrapping her fingers around the larger man’s wrist and forcefully wrenching the gun to the side, pointing it away from her, into the street. He squeezed the trigger, just a moment too late, firing off a loud, echoing shot into the wall of a nearby building. Tasha absently hoped there was no one inside as she reached out with her other hand, grabbed the gun, and wrenched it from his grip. He resisted, but not enough. She lowered her hand to his chest and, her back still braced against the window bracket, shoved him hard enough to launch him into the wall. She felt a few of his ribs crack under her fingers.

For a moment, Tasha contemplated leaving through the window, but then she realized, she had the gun. She had her strength, she had a gun, and Lara was doing only slightly better than her. With the surge of adrenaline pumping through her system, she couldn’t even really feel the pain in her muscles right now. She had promised to tear this place to the ground. Time to make good on that. She turned, grinning widely, back towards the more hated of her captors, just in time to see her finally rise to her feet.

Tasha raised the gun, but Lara was quicker. She opened her mouth, and Tasha felt something grasp her, pushing every inch of her backwards out of the open window. She let out a surprised yelp as she fell. Then, she felt the strangest thing beneath her. It was like wind, but stronger, much stronger, pressing her upwards, slowing her fall. She hit the ground on her back, nowhere near as hard as she should have done, and pushed herself to her feet. Before she had a chance to choose a direction, Lara peaked her head out of the window, her mouth already open as she exposed herself. Apparently she had started firing before she even left cover, because a chunk of the wall connected to the window split, the brickwork cracking away and sending out a fine plume of dust. Before Tasha had a chance to fire, the shot hit her. It was less focused now, and further away, but it still struck her dead on, knocking her off her feet once more. She landed on her knees, began slowly forcing her way to her feet, expecting a shot to the back, but none came. She turned, glanced up at the window. Lara had her arms braced against her face, seemingly trying to ward off some invisible force as it struck at her again and again, sending her hair frizzing out in every direction as she tried and failed to line up another shot. Tasha took the opportunity, and began to run.

Tasha ran a long way. She wasn’t sure if it was minutes, or an hour. All she knew was that by the end, the adrenaline had worn off, leaving her every muscle aching and screaming for her to stop. She ignored the pain, and kept running, gasping for breath with every other step. It took almost everything she had to keep going, her head lowering towards the ground, staring at her feet as she simply willed her feet to press forwards.

The first gust of wind was ignored, registered and written off as merely another trial for her aching body to overcome. The second, however, was stronger, sending her stumbling against a wall. She looked up, trying to identify the source. It took her a few moments to recognize it.

A figure, floating in the air to her left, a dozen or so feet above the road that divided the street. Small, child sized, dressed in thick, dark clothing that concealed their face almost completely. Tasha allowed herself an exhausted grin.

“Hey man, you here to give me a hand?”

The figure raised a hand, beckoning, and Tasha took a deep breath, building up the last of her strength, before she pushed herself away from the wall and launched herself up into the air. It was a relatively short distance for her, and yet she barely made it, her arms wrapping around the small form with what little strength remained and clinging tight. The moment they were connected, James took off into the sky, fast as he could go.

Author’s Note: Hey guys. This marks the end of our second arc, Catharsis. Over the next few days, I intend to publish a couple of bonus chapters, one prior to the interlude, one after, and then we will be ready to begin our third arc, which I believe will be called Escapism. Thank you all for reading, and I hope you enjoyed, see you next time.

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Catharsis: 2.11

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Tasha:

Her captor had deposited her in a chair, her body slumped uncomfortably against the rigid wooden frame, before taking his leave, abandoning her to these three perverts. Tasha recognized each of them. The woman with the force breath was talking in a low voice to the man with the broken hand while the older man with the gun busied himself doing something behind her back.

“Why are you doing that?” The younger man asked. “It’s not like she can move, and when that drug wears off, it’s not like a few cable ties will hold her.”

“They’re not supposed to hold her down.” The larger man grunted from behind Tasha, making her wish she had enough control to at least look at him so she could see how she was being tied. “They’re just supposed to make a noise if she breaks out of them. I’m keeping watch, and if I get distracted by something, these should stop her getting the drop on me. I hear a peep out of her, I shoot her.”

The force breath woman nodded.

“Makes sense,” she murmured, stepping forwards to peer into Tasha’s eyes. “Can she hear us?”

“Should do,” the broken handed one replied with a shrug. “Lewis said the drug just paralyzed. She’s perfectly aware.”

“Good,” the woman said. Without warning, she brought her hand sideways in a wide sweep, striking Tasha across the jaw. Numb as she was, she didn’t even feel it. Did they not realize her nerves just weren’t working? That being said, the strike disoriented, throwing her mind out of order for a moment. It made her angry. Very, very angry. The woman stood straight again, massaging her fingers with her other hand. “Might as well get some work in while we wait for it to wear off.”

“Yeah,” broken hand agreed. “Best if the punishment’s done with before she’s able to scream. I don’t want the kids having to listen to that.”

“Good call,” Force breath nodded. “Where’d you put her bat, Samson?”

“Careful,” the older man replied, standing from his position behind her and moving to lean against the wall beside a window with its curtains drawn, a hand drifting under his jacket to unholster his gun and holding it casually pointed towards the floor. “If you hurt her too much, Father won’t be able to heal her. You’ll be in trouble, then.”

“Yeah yeah,” she replied. “Stop your fussing. I know when to stop. So, where is it?”

Samson shrugged, jerking a thumb towards some point behind Tasha.

“Storage closet. End of the hall.”

The woman took her leave and the two men waited in silence, both simply gazing at Tasha coolly. She tried to move again, but failed. This was hell. This was absolutely hell.


Casper:

Lewis led him out of the building, taking a left down the street, apparently headed towards the nearby subway terminal.

“So,” he murmured evenly. “I’m betting you have questions, so go ahead, hit me.”

Casper shrugged. As much as he hated to admit it, he’d done all he could for Tasha at the moment. He may as well make use of the chance to learn some things.

“Well,” he said. “Big one first, I guess. Why doesn’t the whole world know about us?”

Lewis laughed as though he’d said something deeply funny.

“Truth is, they used to,” he replied. “Back before science got big and all the governments had so much control. The world used to be full of monsters and wizards and all sorts of stuff in between.” He paused for a moment, glancing back at Casper, who nodded, more to show his interest than anything else. “But that stopped being a thing over time. It used to be that the mages and monster hunters barely managed to keep all the bad stuff away, but then we started learning and inventing useful stuff, like guns, and suddenly the monsters weren’t so hard to fight any more. We started managing to keep them back a bit better, so the people being kept safe eventually stopped believing all the stories about monsters and magic and all the rest of it. Truth is, most of the governments active at the time liked that people were starting to forget. Less people knowing about magic and stuff means less people trying to mess with something powerful and getting everyone around them in trouble. So, most of them started trying to help everyone ignore it all.”

“So there really is a cover up?” Casper asked, uncertain.

“Only sort of,” Lewis grunted. “You get punished for telling normal people without a good reason, sure, but it’s usually a slap on the wrist, basically the same as a parking ticket, really.”

Casper considered this as Lewis led him down a set of stairs and into the crowded subway terminal, a small part of him wondering where he was being taken, the rest focused elsewhere.

“… I don’t get it,” he admitted eventually. “If it’s just a slap on the wrist, then why don’t we have superheroes turning up all over the place? People finding out they have powers and putting on costumes to go fight crime.”

“Well,” Lewis replied after a moment. “A couple things there. First, sometimes, that does happen. First gens like you getting ice breath or whatever and figuring they’re the chosen ones. They don’t usually last long. The moment they do anything big enough to get noticed, the government figures out where they are, someone way better at using powers brings them in  and everything gets made to look like a really well done hoax. A youtube video becomes a really cool CGI short film, a photo becomes part of an online scavenger hunt. It’s pretty easy to do, really, they just have to make the explanation sound more reasonable than a person in a costume who can literally breathe ice. Same goes for some of the stuff that’s just too common to hide. Magic effects like the purity marks get explained away by a dude in a lab coat pretending it’s just natural biology.”

Casper swallowed at that, unsure he liked where the conversation was headed, a small part of him surprised by the revelation that something as mundane as purity marks actually had some magical component.

“… What happens to the guy with ice breath, then?” He asked, his voice quivering just a little.

“Depends what he did,” Lewis grunted. “If he broke the secret to a few dozen people, he might get fined a few hundred bucks. If he hurt anyone, he might get a bit of jail time. Thing is, first gens get treated pretty evenly when they’re taken in. Suddenly developing superpowers can be enough to make you start acting real stupid, even make you a bit delusional. So it kinda gets treated like temporary insanity.” Casper nodded at that, relieved. “Different story for people who know about all this before, of course,” the hunter continued. “That’s why you don’t see people like me pulling superhero stuff. Vigilantism is a crime in this world just as much as it is in the normal one, and using powers to do it is treated a lot like using a gun to do it.” Again, Casper nodded. That made sense.

The two stopped talking a few moments as Lewis guided Casper onto a train car and they sat down, utterly ignored by those around them.

“So… I’m guessing a lot of people with powers wind up in gangs and stuff, right?” Casper asked, trying to think of a way to phrase it better and failing.

“Some of us,” Lewis replied evenly. “Depends what sort of person they are and what they can do. It comes in all flavors. Some of us set up shops, join the government, or start using our powers to do normal jobs in easier ways without attracting attention. Some of us have a bit less choice than that.” The hunter smiled at that, and it looked genuine, but under it, Casper felt a swell of bitterness from him.

“… What’s that mean?” He asked cautiously.

The hunter shrugged.

“Some of us have powers that are just too useful not to be used. Me, for example. I’m a tracker, a good one, too. I can find anything as long as I have its scent. My mom was like that, too. She was pretty well known for it. So when she died, I suddenly had a lot of people wanting the same services from me. A lot of the time, that was from people you can’t say no to easily. So I started taking jobs, and I told them that if anyone tried to make me work for them exclusively, I’d put a lighter up my nose and kill my power.” He gave Casper a hard look, before continuing. “Problem with that is, I have to be useful to everyone at least some of the time, or what’s to stop them just getting rid of me to stop the others having access? So sometimes I have to take jobs I really don’t want to do, like helping the Family track down some teenager.”

Casper wasn’t sure what to say to that. The hunter’s feelings weren’t giving him much to go on, either. Lewis’ emotions were cold. He wasn’t pleading, nor was he fishing for forgiveness, so why was he offering any explanation at all?

“… Why tell me this?” Casper asked eventually. “It doesn’t feel like something you’d just tell someone, so why tell me?”

Lewis shrugged, leaning back in his seat and gazing stonily at him across the train car.

“Because you’re the same as me,” he said dryly. “You’ve got the potential to be a tracker, and unlike me, your power probably wouldn’t be so easy to get rid of, so I’m giving you a warning. Keep quiet about it, or someone might force you to do things you really don’t like. Don’t even tell the government, if you can avoid it. They’re no better than the criminals, sometimes.”

Again, Casper wasn’t sure what to say. Something in the back of his mind told him that ‘thank you’ was a bad choice. Eventually, he settled on:

“Where are you taking me?”

“My place,” Lewis replied, shrugging. “I thought you might wanna talk to some kids your own age about all this. Help sort it all out in your head.”

Casper nodded, staring quietly at the floor, unsure of what to say once more.


James:

‘James. Come see me.’

He glanced briefly at the message as he unpacked his bag and shrugged. Maybe Casper was nervous again about what had happened at school.

“Hey, Mom?” He called into the hallway, opening his bedroom door. “Casper says he wants to meet up with me. Is it okay if I go to the mall for a bit?”

There was a momentary hesitation before Sarah’s voice replied from the living room on the floor below.

“Sure, sweetie. You want a ride? I was just about to go pick up Bex, anyways.” Her acting was good, James almost failed to notice the tightness in her voice.

“Yeah,” he replied. “Please. Should I call you when I’m done?”

“Yeah.” Said Sarah, her head poking out into the stairwell. “If you could. Just tell me when you want to go, kay?”

James nodded, stepping briefly back into his room to change out of his school clothes, then headed down the stairs, flicking Casper a quick text in response.

‘Sure. Meet up at the GameStop near my place?’

He tracked down his mother and the two of them loaded into the car, spending most of the three minute journey to the mall in silence.

“You sure are spending a lot of time with Casper lately,” Sarah murmured, eyes on the road. “You do remember you have other friends, right?”

“Yeah,” James replied with a chuckle. “I do. He’s just goofier than they are.”

“…He’s a nice boy.” She said after a moment, apparently more to herself than to him.

“Yeah,” he smiled. “He is.”

The rest of the trip passed in silence, Sarah depositing him at the entrance to the mall with another hug, and staying long enough to watch him step inside. He made his way to the GameStop and waited there for a few minutes, eventually taking out his phone and loading up a game to pass the time on. The game had just reached the opening screen when the text alert pinged. He closed the game for a moment to check the text. It was from a number he didn’t recognize, and only contained a single line of text, an address he didn’t know off the top of his head.

He gazed at the message for a few moments, confused, before the phone pinged again and another text emerged. His eyes drifted down to it, perplexed, then went wide. He felt his legs begin to shake a little, allowing his weight to shift down to the floor as he stared at the screen. This was not good. Not even a little. Forcing himself to be calm as best he could, he re-read the message, hoping against hope that he had somehow just read it wrong.

‘Tasha kidnapped, using her phone. Second floor. Corner room closest to traffic light. They track by smell. She’s drugged. Wait an hour.’

He felt the panic begin to rise in his gut, and forced himself to breathe deep, shutting off the phone and closing his eyes.

Okay… Now what?

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Catharsis: 2.10

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AN: Okay, so, before I even begin, quick note. My computer died, so I’m working with a new keyboard with a slightly different layout, and as a touch typist, I’m gonna be occasionally tapping the wrong keys from time to time and I may not catch all the spelling errors in my editing readthrough. So, if you see any errors, please be a champ and point them out in the comments, okay? Okay! Let’s do this!


Casper:

It felt… odd, moving through the building with Lewis, the minds in the rooms all around varying between mild happiness and moderate boredom sat at odds with the faint waves of contempt emanating from his guide, and the far stronger feeling of it flooding from Tasha. Casper tried to push it out of his mind. Gathering info was the focus for now. Lewis carried his captive up along the hall, shifting his grip on her to a more comfortable carry now that they were away from prying eyes. Neither he nor Casper spoke as they moved along, climbing a cramped stairway into a small room where half a dozen people were gathered; mostly adults, a few around Casper’s age, their dress surprisingly casual for the moment.

They glanced up as Lewis approached, Casper close behind him, the old stairs creaking slightly underfoot, and Casper felt the emotions in the room change. Mild trepidation in the younger minds, a sense of something akin to triumph in the older ones. One of their number, a startlingly pretty woman in a simple shirt and pants pushed off from where she leaned against the wall, facing the three of them.

“I’m guessing that’s the girl who tried to take the kids away, huh?” Casper would have caught the note of anger in her voice, even if he couldn’t trace it in her mind. “Stay here. I’ll go get Marcus.”

Lewis nodded and the woman took her leave, stepping briskly off down the corridor and around the corner. Casper followed her mind with his power, tracing her as she moved, down the hall to a room against the far wall, where it would be pressed to the corner of the building. She gathered three others, each from a different room, before starting back towards them. He was uncomfortably aware that a few of the people nearby were gazing at him, one of the other kids had an eyebrow raised. There was no aggression in the attention, and he knew it, but it was unsettling, nonetheless. He swallowed.

“Who’s the kid?” One of the older ones asked, a hand raised towards him.

“New trainee,” Lewis replied shortly. “Giving him a bit of a tour.”

Before the conversation had the chance to continue, the woman returned.

“Right,” she muttered, gesturing to Lewis to follow her. “Come on. They’re waiting for you.”

The hunter turned his attention briefly to Casper. “Stay here while I deal with this, okay? I should only be a minute or two.” With that, he strode off after the woman, Tasha still slung unceremoniously over his back.

For a moment, all was quiet. Casper stood nervously in the center of the small room, uncomfortably aware of all the eyes on him, trying as best he could to simply hold his focus on Tasha and ignore all else.

“Soo…” A teenager asked from his space by the small window, a glint of curiosity suffusing itself into his voice. “You’re one of Lewis’ new trainees? What do you do, then?”

“Uhh, what?” He replied, uncertain.

“You know,” The other boy continued, slightly annoyed. “You have powers, right? I mean, why else would the hunter be training you. So what do you do?”

“I…” Casper hesitated, before dropping his shoulders with a frustrated sigh. “Not much, really.”

“Holy crap,” the older boy murmured in a tone of feigned awe. “A superhuman who isn’t full of himself! I never thought I’d see one of those.”

A few of the younger teens snickered, amused, but Casper felt a flash of irritation from one of the older girls just a moment before she piped up.

“Alistair,” she chided. “Mind your manners.” The younger teen ignored her, so she turned her attention to Casper. “You want something to drink? You look kinda nervous.”

In spite of himself, he chuckled, allowing himself a momentary relief from the tension.

“Is it that obvious?”

There were a couple of nods around the room.

“You’re shaking like a leaf, buddy. Lemme guess, first time in a Family building?”

“I… I have no idea what that is,” he answered. “I’m… kinda new.”

The boy named Alistair laughed gently.

“Well then, I bet you have some questions, and we have some time to kill. Why not go ahead and ask?” As he spoke, the older girl rose from her chair and walked off into the hall, hanging a right into one of the doorways that branched off of it. She returned a moment later, a can of lemonade clasped in a hand. She offered it to him, and he accepted, unsure what else to really do.

At the other end of the building, he felt Tasha changing hands, her fury replaced now by dread, accompanied by something else; not quite what he would call fear, but close. There were three other people in there with her now, besides the hunter. Two felt angry. The third was colder, more detached.

Casper popped the can open and took a sip, taking a few steps to one side and perching himself on the edge of one of the small armchairs that littered the space. For some reason, the first question that came to mind was also the most pointless, in a lot of ways.

“Why are you all so… you know… perfect looking?” He asked, his cheeks flushing slightly. Tasha had mentioned it a few times in the week since her first encounter with the inhabitants of the place and, looking around, he couldn’t say he disagreed. Among the faces of those in the room, he couldn’t spot a single blemish, all vibrantly colored eyes and perfect teeth. It was a little unnerving, actually.

Alistair grinned.

“That’s father’s work,” he said with a note of pride. “Every new brother or sister gets his touch so he can make us into our perfect selves. Then all you have to do is exercise, eat right and remember to brush.”

Casper cocked an eyebrow at that, unsure what there really was that he could say. He gazed down at his soda can, thinking. Their father made them pretty? And they were all okay with that, even knowing why? What really confused him, though, was the cheer that the idea seemed to bring to them all. At Alistair’s words, they had all begun to smile, a faint note of happiness playing through each of them in turn. Then a thought occurred, and he shook himself. He was missing a prime opportunity here.

“Hey,” he mumbled. “Is… is there a bathroom I can use somewhere?”

“Sure,” the older girl answered, still smiling that strange smile. “Go downstairs, first door on the left.”

With a word of thanks, Casper rose from his seat and turned to leave. He made his way down the stairs as slowly as he thought he could manage without seeming off, then found the bathroom and went inside. It was a public style affair, luckily enough, a number of oddly luxurious cubicles running along a far wall. He stepped inside one, locked the door behind him, and pulled out Tasha’s phone.

Above him, he could feel Lewis departing the room with the three unknowns, leaving Tasha behind him. He cursed himself silently for not having done this earlier on. He keyed in the code to unlock the phone, then pulled up the text screen. He had entered James’ number by the time the man was back in the room with Alistair. Casper felt a momentary suspicion from him, only partially allayed a moment later when the other boy no doubt told him where Casper had gone. He hastened to write his message, tapping as fast as his fingers would allow as he attempted to relay all the relevant information in the limited time he had. Lewis was coming down the stairs. He had twenty seconds, maybe. He finished the message, and tapped send, then, without a moment’s pause, he turned off the phone, leaned down, and dropped it in the toilet, praying to god that the flush would be strong enough to carry it away. He heard the sound of a door swinging open, then Lewis spoke.

“You in here, little guy?”

“Uhh, yeah?” Casper replied, trying to make his voice sound confused rather than scared. Acting on a sudden realization, he undid his fly, and began to pee. “You mind waiting outside? I’m nearly done.” He could feel the suspicion still emanating from the man.

“… You know I’m gonna break your thumbs if you fuck with me, right?”

Casper shuddered, then forced himself to calm.

“Y-yeah. I know that.”

“Just making sure you remembered. Get a move on, will you? I don’t like this place.”

With that, Lewis left, closing the door behind him. Casper breathed a sigh of relief, then finished peeing. His captor had enhanced smell. He needed to actually go to the bathroom, or the lie would be obvious. Luckily, terror was good for that.

He finished his business, and hit the flush, silently praying for this to work. The phone rattled slightly against the basin as the current picked it up, before carrying it thankfully out of sight. Casper took a moment to be grateful that Tasha’s phone was an older, smaller model than his own, before shakily making his way outside, stopping only to wash his hands.

He opened the door to the hallway and was only half surprised when the older man immediately grasped him by the collar, pulling him somewhat off balance in the process, and began patting him down. He bore with it in silence until Lewis was satisfied that he wasn’t carrying anything, whereupon the hunter demanded to be shown the contents of his schoolbag. Eventually, the hunter was calmed, his suspicions allayed for the moment. He sighed, handing Casper back his school bag almost tiredly.

“Alright,” he murmured evenly. “Now it’s time to teach you about this world we’re in.”

Casper nodded, putting his arms back through the loops of his bag, trying not to let the relief show on his face.

“Yeah,” he answered quietly. “… I think there’s a lot I need to learn.”

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