Escapism: 3.8

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Swarm:

The Mistress was scared. The swarm could feel it through their connection with her, but none of them could truly understand why. They felt it as she issued the first of her commands, pulling them back from the scent of the strange cave where the other mistress had dwelt. The other mistress had been so much stronger than the first, and stronger made for greater prey. None among the swarm could see why that should be a thing to fear. Perhaps it was the smooth ones that had begun to hunt them, stalking among the more lumbering apes in ones and twos, plucking hunters steadily from the skies. No. The mistress did not fear them. The smooth ones only made her angry. The mistress spurred her hunters onwards, driving them to seek further, gathering them in tighter groups to overwhelm the smooth ones’ attempts to defend the apes from them.

One hunter found a new ape traversing the concrete pathways that lined this strange, angular mountainscape. This one was young, only partly grown, but he smelled of power, and that was enough to please the mistress. The hunter dove in silence, and tore a ragged strip from the covering on the new prey’s back. The hunter was not surprised when the ape tried to dodge, acting to avoid the attack before either sight or sound could have reached it. The hunter did not care at all, for its attack landed, and the taste of the blood was good. This one would make for fine prey. The swarm felt the momentary annoyance from the mistress as a pair of the smooth ones made their approach, drawn by the sight of the attack, but she soon calmed. They were a minor concern, at worst. Her companion could remove them if they became too troublesome. The hunter’s brethren began to gather, the mistress drawing the swarm down upon the surfaces surrounding their new target, keeping them out of sight. When her partner was in position, they would strike.


Casper:

If Casper hadn’t been holding his powers stretched out so far to keep track of the birds, he doubted he ever would have noticed the two figures following him. Heck, it was only because of how tightly his nerves were wound that he was even able to twig that something was off about them to begin with.

At first, he’d thought they were dogs. Their emotions held that same light, autumnal orange quality as Maxie’s had. It had only been when he glanced behind himself and caught sight of the pair that he’d realized there was something wrong. They were people; at least, they looked like people. By appearances, he’d have said they were both in their early twenties, dressed in matching pin-striped suits and bowler hats, like they’d just walked out of a detective movie. When the one on the left caught him looking at them, they murmured something to their companion, and the two quickened their pace towards him.

Please don’t be following me, he wished silently to himself as he turned away, speeding up a little to keep ahead of them. Please just be regular, normal people who aren’t about to chase me across town.

At the next intersection, Casper changed streets, hoping to leave the pair behind. It didn’t take, and his pursuers sped up. The two were closing now, only sixty or so feet away.

Casper resisted the urge to glance behind himself again; he didn’t see any way it could really help. Instead, he took a peak at their minds. Neither of them was feeling anything aggressive, not that that really did anything to alleviate his fears. Lewis hadn’t felt any aggression, even when he’d done whatever it was that’d paralyzed Tasha. The one on the left was determined, while the one on the right was a little nervous, touched by a hint of what he’d almost call protectiveness. Well, that was unhelpful.

If this had happened before yesterday, Casper might have panicked. He probably would have started sprinting and simply hoped to get away in time. Since Lewis, though, he’d spent a little time thinking.

He glanced around the street and caught sight the sign for a bagel house just a few doors away. His power told him there were a fair number of people inside, too. Perfect.

He forced himself to keep his pace steady as he approached the shop, determined not to draw them in quicker, then, when he reached the door, he ducked inside, the strangers still some forty feet behind him.

The inside of the bagel place was fairly small, just five or six inexpensive round tables and some chairs sandwiched between a few self-serve drinks fridges and a bakery counter where a freckled girl in her twenties was chattering merrily to one of her customers. Apparently, they knew each other. The girl shot him a cheery sort of grin as he stepped inside, and he tried to return it, but something in the attempt made her frown. He noted the concern edging in at the corners of her mind, and turned his face to the floor, sliding himself through the thin gap between the first few seats and the counter until he found a table that wasn’t occupied and sat down, choosing the seat in the clearest view of the security camera.

There, he told himself, trying to calm his nerves. I’m in a public, crowded place. There’s a bunch of witnesses, and I’m under a camera. They can’t do anything to me without it causing trouble. Much as he tried, however, his thoughts refused to bring themselves to calm.

Casper watched as the two strangers approached the front of the store, their eyes roaming the interior until one caught sight of him and alerted the other. This close, he was able to see how odd they both looked. Both figures were slender, short, and finely featured; androgynous to such an extreme that he couldn’t tell for the life of him if either of the two was a man or a woman. They reminded him of the children from the Family. Just a little too well made to be natural.

He felt his heart beat a little faster as the shorter of them pushed the door open and stepped inside, the other taking up a position outside of it that he could only think of as ‘guarding.’

Please just be buying a bagel. Please just be buying a bagel.

Casper tried to hide behind his hands as the newcomer began maneuvering their way through the cramped space towards him, completely ignoring the girl at the counter, whose mind was growing more and more concerned by the moment. Casper tried to ignore that. He didn’t need any additional fear.

That was when the window pane split.

It came as something of a surprise, the single, long crack radiating out across the storefront with a sound like a plate striking the ground. Everyone in the shop turned to look at it for a moment, surprised. It made the strangers nervous. Casper used the momentary distraction to his advantage, and began to quietly push himself out of his chair, turning towards the kitchen area of the shop where, he hoped, he might find some kind of back exit. He never had the chance to find out if there was one, however, because before he was even half way, he felt the birds gathered around the block take flight.

Those still looking at the window were momentarily confused by the mottled black and brown swarm that rose from every rooftop in sight, many of them taking it for some strange kind of smoke, temporarily blocking out the light of the mid afternoon sky. Then the swarm began to dive, and the inhabitants of the shop became afraid. The first few birds that struck the window were harmless, simply bouncing off of the heavy glass frame without effect, dazing themselves. Then, however, they began to strike in bulk, and their sheer weight of numbers began to place pressure on the fissure in the surface, and the crack began to spread.

The stranger who had remained outside was being mobbed by the things, furiously batting them away as they pecked and clawed at anything they could reach. That confused Casper. Weren’t they on the same side?

Casper was halfway towards the back rooms when the stranger turned back to face him, a spike of sudden panic embedding itself into their mind as they strode across the short distance to him. He began to run, but it was no use. He felt a hand close around his shoulder, just as the window finally gave, and the inside of the room was filled with claws and the squawking, cacophonous cries of a hundred hunting birds.

All around him, people were panicking, adults frantically shielding children, customers cowering under the indiscriminate assault of talons and beaks. One particularly quick thinking man had hefted a table, and was struggling to shift it up against the broken window frame in an attempt to halt the influx of new attackers. It didn’t help.

Casper jerked away from the hand gripping his shoulder, trying to free himself to run, but it held firm.

“Let go of me!” He yelled, barely able to hear his own words above the din.

“We need to get you out of here!” His assailant shouted back, tugging him back towards the shop front. “I work with the government! We’re taking you to a safe house!”

If nothing else, that gave Casper pause. Not the words themselves, but the degree of desperate honesty that he felt radiating from the stranger as they spoke them. He didn’t know how to respond to it; but he had nothing better to go with. Belatedly, he stopped struggling.

“…Where?”

“Follow me.”

The stranger pulled Casper in beside them as they moved, using their bulk to shield him from the majority of the birds, his other side pressed against the bakery counter as a makeshift barrier. A few feet away, he caught sight of the one who had been in front of the door struggling through the swarm towards them. He thought he glimpsed them pulling a cylindrical object from a pocket, before the one beside him pressed a hand to his eyes. A second or two later, he gagged as something acrid and cloying met his nose, soaking into his lungs and sitting there like mud. He began to choke, every breath pulling more of that horrid vapour into him, like trying to breathe sand. Whatever this stuff was, it seemed to upset the birds even worse than it did him, because their attention seemed to shift. He felt it as their focus broke, that cold, complete hunger giving way to an almost mind numbing panic. As one, they ceased their attack, focusing instead on trying to get away, each of them scrabbling and fighting against one another in their haste to vacate the tiny space. Some were left behind, knocked to the floor by the wings of their fellows. He watched one of them fall to the ground, its whole body seemingly in spasm.

“Christ, that stuff’s foul,” the stranger beside him muttered, coughing slightly as they spoke. “C’mon, kid. We gotta move!”

Before anyone else within the shop managed to come to grips with what had just happened, Casper’s new companions each grabbed him by a shoulder, and he found himself being lifted up onto the tall one’s back. He tried to protest, but he couldn’t gather the breath. His lungs felt like they were made of lead. Underneath him, his supposed rescuers carried him out of the store and began to run. In other circumstances, he might have panicked, but as it was, he couldn’t bring his mind together enough for fear. It was all he could do just to hold on.

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Escapism: 3.7

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Casper:

Casper grinned down at the tiny flower pot that Mel had placed before him, sweat trailing a thin line from his brow to the lining of his shirt. He’d done it. It had taken three tries, and what had felt like the mental equivalent of a three hundred pound deadlift, but he’d done it. He wiped the moisture from his face with a sleeve and turned to his teacher, giddy.

“I did it!” He crowed. “I made a flower!”

“You made a daffodil,” Mel corrected from her seat off to the side, gracing the boy with a small chuckle, a note of genuine surprise sounding out in her mind. “Or a seedling of one, at least. Good job, kid. It usually takes weeks for newbies to build up the reserves for a new spell. Guess you must have been training with your power a lot, huh?”

“Eh,” Casper laughed tiredly. “More like I never figured out how to turn it off. Guess that counts as training, sorta.”

“I guess it does,” Mel agreed. “Right. Now, you get to go home. You’re done for the day. Practice that spell every day until you can cast it without feeling like you’re passing a gall-stone, and then you should be about ready to choose what you wanna focus on.”

“Focus?” The boy asked. “What do you mean?”

“What you want to specialize in,” Mel shrugged. Then, seeing the blank look he was giving her, she sighed. “Right, sorry. Forgot you’re a newbie.” She leaned back against a drawer, shifting around for a moment until she was more comfortable, then continued.

“Okay,” she started, her tone businesslike. “So, the first thing you need to know is that there’s basically two kinds of spells out there. Number one-” she held up a finger demonstratively. “-Is what you call your innate magic, or Sorcery. This is a spell that’s completely unique to you, and that only you can ever really cast; your power.” She glanced across at Casper to make sure he was listening. He nodded, and she continued. “This is a spell that’s basically just the magical representation of your soul. Your personality, your genetics; a little bit of everything, really. Distill that all down, and you get your first spell. You can’t really teach it, because you don’t even consciously know the steps you’re taking to cast it.”

Casper nodded again, listening to the older woman intently.

“Now, type number two-” Mel raised a second finger. “-Is what you’d call learned magic, or wizardry. These are the spells that can be learned because the steps needed to cast them are simple enough that they can be memorized and passed from person to person. The flower growth would be your first wizard spell. Now, these spells tend to be a lot weaker and less flexible than your innate spell at first, because your soul is having to waste a lot of energy doing something that isn’t familiar to it.” She chuckled again. “That’s why you’re so tired after only making half a flower. Don’t worry, though, that becomes less of a problem with practice. You’ll develop a bigger supply of energy, and the spells will cost you less as your soul becomes more familiar with them. The more you use a spell, the less it costs.”

“Okay,” Casper nodded. “That makes sense, I guess.”

“Good,” Mel grinned. “Now shush, I’m not done. Thing is, that one intuitive spell you’ve got there isn’t the only one you’ll have, in the end. See, the more new spells you learn, the more new information and material your soul has to base all new innate spells on. So every once in a while, it’ll start growing new spells out of all the stuff it’s learned, combined with all the bits of you that made your first spell.”

“Uh,” Casper began, confused. “I… think I get it?”

Mel shook her head.

“Here,” she chuckled. “I’ll give you an example. Say your base spell is that you can breathe fire, right? And you spend a whole lot of time learning spells that are all about being able to move things around with your mind. Eventually, your soul might develop a new power based around controlling the fire with your mind, or you might learn to control stuff by breathing on it. It’s a stupid example, but basically that.”

Casper sat there for a long while, gazing blankly across at the older woman while he absorbed that new information. After a few minutes, she spoke again.

“You’re trying to think of cool things to mix your power with, aren’t you?”

“… Maybe.”

“Good,” she grinned. “Then you’re starting to understand what I mean by choosing what to focus on. Let’s take Freja as an example,” she gestured absently at the corridor leading back into the shop. “She started out with a power based on enchantment. She could make things a little harder to break when she touched them. So, she decided to focus on that enchantment part of her power. She started to learn as many different kinds of magic as she could, because she wanted to be able to put a bunch of different magical effects into the things she touched. She became an enchantment specialist. Your job, while you’re mastering that plant growth spell, is to figure out how you want your magic to grow from here on out. Do you want to focus on feeding your innate powers and try to learn a little bit of everything, or do you want to learn a lot of one particular kind of spell to try and grow your magic in a more specialized direction?”

Casper opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again, thoughtful. That was a big question. Mel patted him on the shoulder.

“No need to answer right away,” she said, her tone brusque. “Just take some time to think about it, okay?” She thought for a moment, then added: “Don’t worry. It’s easier than it sounds. You just need to figure out what you want to be.”

Yup. Big question.


Casper stepped out of the Rose Bouquet that afternoon feeling utterly drained. His pocket was a good two hundred dollars lighter and he had been instructed to keep the small flowerpot that he now held clutched under his arm, but for now, he didn’t really care about it. Right now, he wanted a donut. Everything else could wait.

He stepped out onto the street and, seeing the people still littered about the sidewalk, took a moment to compact his power back down to allow him a modicum of privacy. Now, where to find a good donut? Thinking about it, he thought he recalled seeing a small bakery on his way over from Tasha’s place. That would do. He would go there, sit down, and devour as much sugar as he could find. Casper nodded to himself and set off down the street at a jog, hunger winning over against his exhaustion.

He felt the thing enter his power’s range just a split second before it struck him. In the single moment that he had with it inside of his awareness, he registered that it was small, fast moving, and very, very hungry. Had his power been extended to its fullest range, he might have had time to move himself out of the creature’s path, but as it was, he felt it impact against the back of his shoulder before he’d even had time to move, heard something tearing at the fabric of his shirt, then felt something sharp digging a number of thin, shallow lines along his skin.

He let out a cry of surprise and pain, swatting blindly at the thing with his free hand in an attempt to dislodge it dropping his flower pot in the attempt and sending his seedling spilling out onto the pavement. He felt the creature pull away, taking to the skies with a rustle of its wings. Casper stared after the thing as it flew away, the first instinctive traces of tears drawing themselves unbidden to the corners of his eyes. Was that a bird? It looked like one, but he’d never felt a bird so… focused. What the hell had just happened? He tried to move his shoulder and winced. Whatever it was, it had done a number on his back, tearing a ragged strip of his shirt free in its attempt to burrow towards his skin. He tried to turn his head far back enough to check the injury by eye, but couldn’t quite manage it. He settled for checking it by hand, twisting his arm behind his back to brush his fingertips against the skin, trying to ignore the sting of it.

When he pulled the limb back, he saw his fingertips coated with a thin layer of blood. Well, that sucked. A few people around the street were looking at him, most with a degree of sympathy to their expressions, one or two with surprise. He ignored them. Instead, he focused his attention on pressing his power outwards, swelling it out to encompass the full length of his range, trying to find that bird again. It felt weird, and he wanted to know why.

What he found was not reassuring.

There were more of them, now. Gathering on the insides of rooftops, flying in low so as to keep the sky clear, hiding; all of them with that same, insatiable sense of hunger. He frowned. This was not how birds were supposed to act.

Nervously, Casper continued his route home, keeping his power unfurled, painfully aware of the swarm continuing to gather on the rooftops around him. Whole groups of them were flitting from building to building as he moved.

They were following him.

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Escapism: 3.6

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Swarm:

The hunting birds were brought forth in a dark, cramped space. They couldn’t see the sky, and that made them panic. There was noise in the cave. The shouting of apes and flashes of bright, loud power. It drove them to a frenzy. They needed to be out, to be free. This cave was filled with power and noise; why had the masters brought them here? The apes smelled of power. Developed power, far too much of it for them to hunt. The prey had to be weaker. They had to get out.

They were undriven, uncontrolled; their mistress far too focused on other matters to give them a command. They swarmed, flapped and faught, cawing and crying and biting, desperate to make their way out into the light. Some were caught, shoved back by the stronger of the apes, broken against walls and winds, unable to fly. Most, however, managed to find their way out of that cramped, loud space. Some fled into the tunnels, better total darkness than the chaos of the apes. Others made it up the slope towards where the light was more natural, where they could see the sky.

The apes tried to stop them, fought in vain to corral them back with spells and nets. It did not work. They were too many. They flooded through into the light from every cave mouth, traversing the darkness of the tunnels until they found places of less incessant energies. By the end of the first hour, the swarm had taken flight above the city. From there, they began to hunt.

One hunter spied a female ape, traversing the strange, straight lined paths of this place undefended. It flew lower, and smelled her power. Untrained, unrefined. But there was potential there. It dove, silent, between the vast, geometric mountains, and raked its claws along her arm. The female shrieked, dropped a bag to the ground. But the hunter was already gone, the winds carrying it rapidly back into the skies. It opened its beak, tasted the blood now dripping from its talons, and felt confirmation. This one would do. It sent a message to the mistress, marked the female’s scent.

The hunter’s nearby fellows within the swarm received their orders from the mistress and, as one, they dove, aiding in the next task. The female wasn’t alone; surrounded by lesser apes, their scent nowhere near as potent. A minor concern. The swarm descended upon the humans in one quick, chaotic flurry, driving those around the female screaming and running, while chasing the target herself down into a dark space between two of the great stone towers. They drove her back into the shadows, where the mistress’ companion waited. The ape hit the ground before she knew what was happening. The swarm took to the air once more as the mistress’ companion carried his catch back to the nest, the mistress already guiding them, searching out their next prey.

The hunter found its next prey in a more comprehensible place. A forest, similar to those of its home, buried in the heart of this odd stone landscape. With its keen eyes, it saw the prey from afar, laying sprawled upon the grass, its skin covered in a patchwork of dark, barely healed wounds. This ape was different. Her smell more potent, yet still unrefined. The hunter moved in closer. The target seemed to be sleeping, eyes closed, breathing steady. Easy prey.

It dove, raking its claws once more along unprotected skin, drawing a shriek from the girl as she jerked from her rest. Too late to matter. The hunter licked at its talons… Nothing? Had it failed to pierce the ape’s hide? Strange. It turned in the air, swooped in low, and brought its claws to bear again, ready to slice along the ape’s flesh, harder, this time. It drew in close, ready to strike, and felt an impact ringing through its skull as the ape brought a palm up to strike it with surprising speed and force, knocking it out of the air and sending it crashing down into the damp soil. The hunter slowly pulled itself up, dizzy, staring back towards the ape as it growled its rage for all the world to hear.

Perhaps not this one.


Tasha:

“What. The fuck!?” The girl shouted after the fleeing bird as it awkwardly flapped away, the feathers down one side of its body left bedraggled by the blow. “I’ve had a shitty enough day already, so you can just LEAVE ME ALONE!”

Tasha stood straight and glanced around herself, massaging the skin of her palm with her other hand. She saw one or two passersby staring at her, eyes wide, and gave the closest of them the finger before stalking off to find herself some food.


James:

He’d seen the first of them at recess, staring at him from atop the school roof while he ate his granola bar. It looked like a hawk, he thought, but that could easily have been wrong. It wasn’t as if he knew very much about birds anyways. It was certainly eyeing him like a hawk, though. At first, he hadn’t really paid it much attention, assuming it was just interested in his food before shifting his focus back to discussing the viability of firework stockpiling with Charlie. He was quietly enjoying having a chance to hang out with some of his other friends. He’d been spending most of his time hanging around with Casper, lately. It was nice getting back to his more normal friends for a while; he felt a little guilty thinking that, to be honest.

The bird only returned to his thoughts when he went to put the wrapper for his snack in the bin, and caught sight of it once more, still staring at him. It hadn’t budged from it’s spot at all in the last few minutes, and kept its gaze on him as he returned to the outdoor table around which most of his friends were clustered. Something about it felt… odd. He tried to push it from his mind, returning his attention to the discussion at hand.

When the bell rang, signalling time to return to class, he caught sight of it again as he rose from his seat, still perched there, unblinking.

Experimentally, he threw a little wind at it, trying to send it elsewhere. The bird stumbled slightly in the sudden brief gale, but recovered, unmoving. Again, he tried to ignore it, heading back inside. When he reached the school doors, he chanced a glance back at it.

There were five now. As he watched, another one fluttered down from the sky and took up a perch on the table he’d been seated at. All of them were gazing at him, utterly still. He swallowed and stepped inside, sliding in among the crowd of students heading to their next classes.

He managed to keep the creatures from his mind for almost an hour, when, halfway through math, their teacher, Mr Brown, had stopped talking for a moment; his attention caught by something outside the window. One at a time, the rest of the class turned to look, James among them.

There were over a hundred now, gathered on the tables, bins, and plastic rain roofs of the outside area, each gazing in at him. He felt something cold in his gut, and glanced around the class. No one seemed to have noticed where they were all looking, and none of his classmates was looking at him, either. He tried leaning slightly to the side in his chair, and watched as the birds’ heads moved to track him. This was just getting creepy.

He hid out in the library during lunch, finding himself a spot far away from any windows, and trying to make it look like he was busy reading. In truth, though, his mind was racing.

Who was doing this? Was it the family? Had they somehow caught sight of him after what happened last night? Was someone tracking him now? He tried to convince himself otherwise: told himself that he’d been careful, that he’d stayed off the ground; that he was just being paranoid. It didn’t work.

After lunch, it had gotten bad enough that their teachers made an announcement. Supposedly there was no cause for alarm. Apparently, birds were acting weird all over the place, some of them even attacking a few people in the street. That news did little to calm his fears. Why were they all still staring at him?


Tsuru:

She waited at the reception desk until the bell rang, eyeing the birds massing outside sourly. She wasn’t sure how to feel about them being here in these numbers. To have drawn down such a sizeable flock, then her grandchildren must be powerful, which made her proud. At the same time, though, if they were drawing this much attention without even being spellcasters yet, then that would make it near impossible to keep them hidden from the elves. That limited her options.

The bell rang before long, and the students began to file out of their classrooms en masse, each heading for the parking lots at the front and back of the school buildings. She stood, stretched, and waited for her grandson to descend the stairs, edging herself into a corner so as to avoid catching the boy’s eye. He wasn’t long in coming, and stood at the base of the staircase, staring out at the swarm outside, apparently psyching himself up. She took her chance, and stepped forward silently. He leapt a half foot into the air as she slapped her hand to his shoulder; she chuckled.

“Heya, squirt,” she murmured in Japanese. “You got taller.”

“… Granny?” The boy asked, dipping into the same language without apparent thought. Tsuru grinned. She liked it when he practiced speaking it with her, usually taking the opportunity to correct some of the few remaining flaws in his diction. “What’re you doing here?” He turned towards her, his expression just a bit too tense.

“Your father found some work for the firm to take on,” she replied, waving a hand dismissively. “Really, though, I just wanted an excuse to come down and hang out with you little brats for a while.” As she spoke, she pulled the boy into a hug, which he returned, somewhat half-heartedly, to her mind. “Now, come on,” she continued. “Car’s waiting. Let’s go.” With that, she grabbed his hand, stepped towards the school door, and pulled him outside. He squeaked slightly as they hit the open air, and she felt his fingers clench a little tighter around hers for a moment. She felt a momentary flash of approval at that. If the boy feared the birds, then he had good instincts. He needn’t have worried, though. The birds seemed content just to watch them, for now. Waiting.

Tsuru ignored them, holding her head high as she pulled her grandson towards the waiting car. After the first few seconds, she felt his grip relax a tad, and nodded. They made it to the car, and climbed inside, James joining his sister in the back, Tsuru climbing into the front seat alongside Sarah.

She gave her daughter in law a small nod as she strapped herself in, and received the same in turn. She held back a sigh. Sarah was a nice enough girl, she supposed, but it would have been infinitely preferable, to her mind, if Akira had chosen someone with some actual power to continue the family line. Hell, if Sarah had possessed a little power, then she wouldn’t have to be down here running protection detail. She pushed the thought from her mind. That wasn’t the point right now. Right now, she just had to keep the kids safe.

“Hi, Baba!” Rebecca shouted merrily, leaning forwards in her seat to give her grandmother a hug.

“Hello, little one.” Tsuru chuckled, wrapping her arms around the excitable child’s shoulders. “Wow, you got big!”

That was enough to set the girl to jabbering as Sarah started up the car, allowing Tsuru to keep an eye on the birds through the window as they traveled.

It wasn’t long before the gathered flock took off, following after the car and circling overhead. Well, that settled it. They were definitely following the kids. Either that, or they were interested in her. But she doubted that. It would have been very stupid for the hunters to design their hawks to pursue someone of her level.

She wasn’t the only one watching them, she noticed. Every minute or so, James would sneak a glance out of the window into the sky, his expression growing a little more nervous with each look. Had they gotten to him that much? Surprising. She grunted, filing the observation away for later.

“Problem?” Sarah asked from the driver’s seat, her voice tense. Tsuru couldn’t blame the girl for nerves. It must be hard being in a situation like this when you didn’t have any real training to draw from. To be honest, she felt it was almost cruel of Akira to have told the girl. Why put that stress on her?

“No,” she replied evenly. “Nothing major. Just watching the birds.”

Sarah nodded, her eyes on the road, and gripped the steering wheel a little tighter in her hands.

Tsuru sighed. At least Bex wasn’t on edge. Blessed girl.

They got to the house in short order, and Tsuru saw the other three inside before the swarm once again began to gather. There were more of them now, clustering on rooftops and driveways and whatever pathetic excuse Manhattan allowed for gardens. She glared at them. A strategy needed to be picked, and fast. She hated standing idle. Preferably something that would put her grandson’s mind at ease. She thought for a long while, staring at the birds while Sarah watched anxiously from the doorway. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw James through the living room window, gazing out at the birds as well, concern written clear on his face.

“… Can I borrow some bread?” She asked after a time, not turning her gaze from the birds. “I have an idea I want to try.”

Sarah didn’t respond, simply stepping back towards the kitchen, and returning a few moments later with a plastic wrapped loaf of bread, still cold from the fridge. Tsuru took it from the girl and nodded.

“Thank you. I won’t be a minute.” With that, she stepped towards one of the chairs sat on the tiny patch of grass that passed for her son’s front garden and sat down. James watched her, his expression anxious. “Might want to close the door.” Wordlessly, Sarah complied.

Now. How to do this without showing her hand to the boy? She thought for a moment, then reached into the bag, her fingers wrapping around the first thin slice of bread. Under her breath, she started whispering the words to one of her older spells, an old favorite she rarely had the occasion to use anymore.

In a few seconds, the magic took its hold, and she felt her mind expand, filling out a bubble around herself, no longer confined to the boundaries of her body. Calmly, she began crumbling the bread into small chunks between her fingers. The bubble swelled, expanding to fill the garden, then the house, then the street. She felt something press against her mind as the field expanded. Not people; the spell didn’t work on people. She pushed it further, the first of the birds becoming caught, unaware, as of yet. She needed a display of force. A warning. Something to convince the hunters to stay well away.

Easy enough.

She grew her bubble out further, feeling it make contact with what felt like hundreds, maybe even thousands of other minds. Each one tiny, diminutive compared to her. That should be enough. The bubble stopped growing. She took a moment to separate the ones she wanted to ignore from the rest. Household pets, local wildlife, the few small traces of amphibious life dwelling in the pipes far below. It was the birds she wanted.

She could feel something behind those minds: an energy, a will far more powerful and complex than a mere swarm of hunting birds. She looked closer, and felt the mind on the other end take notice, its focus homing in on her in an instant. She chuckled. Good. She had their attention.

She looked one of the birds in the eye, and smiled, pulling a piece of bread from the bag, and holding it in her hand.

The force behind the swarm made no move, confused. Then, the old witch made her power move. She pressed her spell against the first of the hawks, and felt resistance, the other mind offering a surprised counter to her attempt to take control. Tsuru kept smiling, pressing her spell further into the creature’s mind, slowly forcing her adversary back. She could feel the elf grow angry behind the mob; felt her command the other birds to strike. Nothing happened. The novice hadn’t even noticed when she took control.

She smiled a little wider and slowly, almost casually, forced the first of the hawks to flutter down from its roost and pluck the bread from her hand, before allowing it to fly away. She felt the other mage wrestling in her mind, furious, trying desperately to pry control of the swarm back from her. It was almost cute. She didn’t budge. Her grip was iron. She allowed the elf just enough control to be able to watch as she brought each of the birds down, small group by small group, and fed them all a single shred of bread.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw James begin to relax, happy to see the birds acting a touch more like he expected them to, before turning back towards the inside of the house.

‘Good,’ she thought. ‘Task number one: completed.’

She kept going for a good half hour, enjoying the feeling of the beastmaster growing angrier and angrier at her usurpation of the swarm. When she was down to the final one, she leaned in and patted it on the head, her final demonstration of supremacy.

Then, she released them back to their mistress and watched as, one by one, they flew away, defeated.

That done, she stood up, stretched, and dusted the breadcrumbs off of her knees, before going inside to spend some time with her grandkids.

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Escapism: 3.5

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Strangers:

The gate bloomed forth in the shadows, hidden well below the urban sprawl that spanned from end to end of the human metropolis. They emerged in a tunnel, underground, the gloom around them near enough all encompassing. By the light flooding forth from the other side of the gate, they could see the iron tracks that lay along the uneven ground. The man knew by experience that these structures were for moving great carts of men and women from one end of the vast city to the other. He chuckled. It was such a novel idea, that a being could be so weak as to need the aid of metal for travel.

His companion silenced him, a motion of a hand alerting him to a new danger. The plan had failed. The enchantments surrounding the city stretched down into these tunnels as well. The humans were alerted. They would be mobilizing soon. The male swore. It had taken so much effort to work a gate precise enough to end in one of these tunnels, all for nothing.

It had once been so easy. The humans had lacked the organization to pose a threat to their hunters, the few mages they possessed with the skills to find them before the job was done being too weak on their own to fight them. The male remembered those times, when it hadn’t been necessary to hunt in pairs.

The female guided them forwards through the gloom, her ears attuned to the sounds in the dark, seeing blind, as the bats did. They moved quickly, intent on being far distant when the human alphas came to defend their precious herd.

It wasn’t long before the male saw lights distant in the tunnel, a platform of raised stone, built of the single, smooth hewn stonelike blocks that had so fascinated him in recent years, its surfaces tiled in gleaming white and dirty grey alike, painted in garish yellows with no heed to aesthetic or craft.

Before he had a chance to draw close, the female held out a hand to block him, signalling in silence, barely visible in the sheer darkness of the man made cave. They were too late. The place had been emptied of its normal inhabitants, and now stood guarded by two figures, each garbed in cold grey, their faces covered by cumbersome masks of metal and glass. He almost laughed. Why so few of them? Perhaps this tunnel had more than one terminus nearby.

He nodded, slowing his pace, the female doing the same in front of him. Best to smash through this small defence and be gone before reinforcements could come. The female readied her spell in silence while the male stood watch. She was the one more skilled in striking without warning. He left the guards to her.

Then, the plan went awry. One of the watchers looked up from his task and, it would seem, somehow caught a glimpse of them both in the darkness. He let out a deep bark of noise toward his companion, who immediately turned to run, digging a hand into a pocket of his coat.

The female let it loose her spell with all the force she desired as the male charged, firing forth a dozen lines of black, ichorus fire from her palms, the weapons spearing through the dark towards their foes, both the standing guard, and the fleeing.

The standing guard raised his hands with a cry as he moved himself into the path of the shots aimed for his companion, pulling forth a bubble of some transparent force. The darts met his shield with a screech like the call of a hunting bird, and the dome collapsed, the man thrown against the tiled wall hard enough to send shards of it tumbling to the ground around him. He fell to the floor in a heap, unmoving.

The fleeing man pulled forth a pair of devices from his garment as he ran, tapping one furiously with his thumb, tossing the other behind himself as he began to ascend the stairs.

The thrown device was an odd thing, cylindrical, covered in grooves and lines and buttons. The male ignored it as he ran, and was caught as it began to spew forth a cloud of thin foul, smelling smoke of a sort that stung his eyes and caught harshly in his lungs. He readied a counter without even thinking, and shielded himself with a gust of wind, pushing the smoke clear of him. He coughed painfully, and looked up at the fleeing man, angry. The air here was putrid enough already.

The fleeing guard gave the device in his hand a few more desperate taps, before flinging it up the stairwell away from himself. Then, he turned, fear in his eyes, to face his pursuer.

The male was angry. His eyes stung, his lungs burned. This human world had pushed enough indignities on him already, and this little speck of a being now had the audacity to add a further insult. He raised his hands, building his power in his palms.

The human shook slightly as he did the same, some smoky, viscous force bubbling to the surface of his skin like a man become mist. The male chuckled. This would not take long. He raised his palms to strike, when he felt a tug at his back, something grasping him about the middle, pulling him. His feet left the steps, his spell flickering out of being as his focus was forced to falter, before that same unseen force slammed him down against the ground with a sound like thunder itself. It was all he could do to shield himself from the blow.

The male scrambled to his feet, furious, turning back towards the platform. There, separating him from the female, stood a lone man, beside a strange, lightless portal leading into a dim room. The newcomer frowned, his face set in hard lines of rage and, much to the male’s surprise, spoke to them in the hunters’ tongue.

“You should not be here.”


Peter:

This wasn’t good. The hunters were working in a pair. Pearson was down and Greys, bless his soul, wasn’t powerful enough to be anything more than a brief distraction to their enemies. He knew his limits. He was smart enough to handle one hunter, if he was lucky, but two at once? That was the sort of challenge he happily left to his father.

They were an odd pair, he thought. The male dressed in a badly faded denim jacket, over a torn t-shirt for a concert some twenty years out of date, his pants ripped and scuffed. So, they’d started stealing clothes now? Fantastic.

He glanced behind himself for a moment at the female, dressed with a similarly apparent lack of awareness, before returning his gaze to the male. He knew Jackie was watching through the portal. She’d warn him if the female made a move. Neither foe did.

“… You speak our tongue,” The male murmured, surprised, cocking his head slightly to the side, his long hair spilling carelessly over a shoulder. “How?”

Peter ignored him.

“You should not be here.” He repeated, reaching down to his belt and pulling his flask free, before lifting it to his lips.

The male tried to stop him, raising a hand and sending a plume of some white, crackling energy towards it, but he deflected it, batting the bolt of energy aside with the palm of his free hand, expending far more energy on doing so than he would have liked. It was necessary, though. Hunters cared about power. He needed to make his defence look effortless. The bolt struck the tiled floor, and didn’t stop, carving a glowing white hole into the ground for who knew how far. Behind him, he heard the female attempt something similar, and he heard the grunt of effort as Jackie shielded him. He had to be quick here.

He took a swig from the flask and winced. Bitter. Way too bitter.

“What was that?” The female asked, on edge, her voice radiating suspicion and disgust.

Again, he ignored the words.

“You are launching an unprovoked attack on the citizens of New York,” he murmured, allowing a hint of his anger to bubble up to the surface in his words. “If you continue, I will hold you here until reinforcements arrive, and then we will crush you with all the fury you kidnapping bastards deserve. You have ten seconds to leave this place, or I will rain down fire upon you. Do I make myself clear?”

“Reinforcements due in forty seconds,” he heard Jackie murmur in english. He nodded. Behind the male, he saw Greys pull out a grenade, and revised his opinion of the man. Momentary distractions could be very handy, really. He flicked a hand towards Pearson’s unconscious form, shielding him as best he could without it being obvious, and then simply stood there, waiting.

The female laughed haughtily. The male, for his part, looked concerned.

“And how exactly does a human plan to hold us here?” She asked, her voice laden with contempt.

Peter didn’t answer. Instead, he jerked his wrist to the side easily. It was a small motion, easy to dismiss, but Greys knew what it meant. He pulled the pin on the grenade, held it in his hand for a moment, and tossed it down the stairs, before setting off at a run.

Peter didn’t waste a second. He turned towards the female and raised a hand, expressing out all the energy he’d been storing since the conversation had begun, and let loose a bolt of lightning towards her. She raised her hands to defend, just a moment too slow, and it caught her around the middle, flinging her backwards against the subway wall. He wondered how much damage had made it past her barriers. Nowhere near enough, probably.

Behind him, the male was doubtless readying some counter move, but was caught off guard when the grenade went off by his feet, flinging him across the platform, wisps of his own dissipating attack forming contrails behind him as he flew. The shockwave hit Peter too, but he was ready for it, and even though he stumbled, he felt Jackie’s arm reach out of the portal to hold him steady. The male landed in a sprawl, confusion and rage playing out on his face in equal measure. Peter struck him with a telekinetic blast just as he’d used to pull him back from Greys before. He wished he could do something stronger, but his energy was expended for the moment on his strike against the female.

The male took the blast halfway through an attempt to stand, and was struck against the paneled side of the terminal with a painful sounding crack. He growled, glaring at his opponent with a raw, pure fury.

Overwhelm. Peter reminded himself. You can’t win here. Just hold them down long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

He glanced to the female, already recovering from the lightning strike, her hands raising for some kind of blast.

“Jackie!” He cried, running towards the male in a dead sprint. “Cover me!”

He could almost see it playing out in his mind’s eye; the female calling forth a spray of some powerful, dangerous magic, only to be deflected with the last of his partner’s energy. Right on time, he heard the detonation behind him, just as expected, followed by the loud, rattling blasts of Jackie’s counterattack. He spared a single breath for a chuckle. Jackie relied more heavily on guns than any mage he knew.

The male was on his feet before Peter reached him. But they both knew he didn’t have the time to ready a spell with the power needed to stop him, so instead, the enemy drew his knife; a slim, greenish blade that seemed to shift and slide through the air like a mirage. Peter dipped a hand into a pocket for his knuckle dusters, his other hand going for his gun, fumbling, not enough time.

The enemy lunged at him, swinging the blade in a wide arc at chest height and he ducked, crouching beneath it before bringing his metal clad fist up into his opponent’s jaw with all the force he could muster. The male barely even flinched, twisting the knife in his grip and swinging it down towards his side. He shifted back, out of the way, but the blade moved, the shifting, mirage like echoes of its edge catching against his jacket, far more solid than it should have been. He felt a sharp pain as the blade carved a shallow trench in his side, and ignored it. On impulse, he pooled his gathered energy into his leg, reinforcing it as he pivoted on one foot, making use of the momentum of his dodge to slam a fierce kick into the enemy’s midsection. He felt something crunch satisfyingly underfoot, and saw the male wince in genuine pain.

The victory was short lived, as his enemy pushed forward with his free hand, coated, he realized belatedly, with a bubble of kinetic force. The hand didn’t even make contact with him, and yet the blast sent him slamming back some thirty feet against a pillar, struggling to keep his feet. He coughed, the air forced from his lungs, momentarily choking him.

From this new vantage point, he could see the portal, Jackie barely holding her own behind it, resorting to dodging to the side and allowing the female’s attacks to strike the wall of her office as she emptied shot after shot against her with her pistols.

The male growled, barely audible, as he stared towards Peter, massaging his side with a hand. He looked tired, physically, at least. Peter unclipped his flask, and took another gulp. Goddamn, that stuff was disgusting; but it did its job. He was renewed.

The male charged, knife held ready in one hand, the force held cloaking his other hand no doubt charged to its very peak. Peter snorted. With his newfound reserves, he extended a palm towards the male, letting loose a barrage of telekinetic energy that contained all the power he had available.

The wave struck the male dead on, flinging him backwards with enough force to send a deep fissure radiating not only through the tiles of the station, but through the thick concrete on which it was built. The knife flew from his grip, and landed on the train track, the blade hitting a rail and carving through it like nothing more than soft clay.

The male landed hard on his feet, unsteady, then dropped to his knees, and vomited. The female stopped, mid strike, staring at Peter, a little scared.

“Do you really want to continue?” He asked, making an effort to stand straight, despite the aches in his back and side, and making a show of dusting off his suit. “Because I have far more force to bring to bear here.”

For a long moment, neither intruder moved, staring at him, weighing their options.

Internally, Peter was praying for this to end. He could continue, he knew. He had enough tricks up his sleeve to drag this fight on for a long time, but Jackie was spent. They’d wasted too much of her energy on first the portal, and then on holding off the female. Every second that this continued was another chance for her to die. They stood there for a time, in stalemate, before a single sound sent them all into motion. The pounding of feet from the other side of the portal. Jackie’s reinforcements were here.

The male surged to his feet at speed, his injuries apparently forgotten, and made towards Peter at a run. In response, he abandoned his attempt at force, and simply focused all his power on shielding himself. They were about to have all the force they needed. The female was making some movements with her hands, a series of words flowing thick and fast from her mouth, even as a stream of agents began to flood from Jackie’s portal, guns levelled, spells ready. Then, all was madness.

Birds, hundreds of them, began to flow forth from the space around the female, swooping and screeching and filling the confined space with feathers and claws and chaos. Between them, Peter caught glimpses of what was happening. Agents trying to beat the things away, Jackie trying to close her portal while a few who had made it through clawed and pecked at her hair. He felt something thud against his chest, forcing its way past him. There were too many. He couldn’t see. He needed to fix that.

He gathered up his reserve, and fired out another blast, aimed in every direction at once, too weak to dislodge a grown man, but, he hoped, enough to force back the birds. It worked, partly. There was a mess of squawks and cries and crunching sounds as the hunting birds were blown away, striking walls or floors, or simply being flung out over the tracks. It didn’t catch all of them, but it cleared them enough that he could see. The intruders were gone. He swore.

As the agents began doing what little they could to corral what remained of the swarm, even as they escaped into the subway lines and up the stairway by the dozens, he pulled out his phone, and dialed a number. It rang for only a few seconds, before the man on the other end picked up.

“Dad,” he muttered into it, his voice tight. “Get Mom and come here now. We’ve got elves loose in New York.”

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Escapism: 3.4

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Casper:

It took nearly two hours, all said, for Casper to find what he was looking for. Even with a calm achieved, itself a task that he doubted he would have managed without his teacher’s mind as a reference, it took him a while to find the right part of himself. It wasn’t, as Freja had described, like a light inside his mind. He had tried envisioning it that way at first, and it had felt stilted, out of shape. When he finally found it, the idea it brought to mind was, for him, something a good deal more quiet. A single head of dandelion seeds in an empty field of grass, swaying gently in the breeze. The picture was oddly detailed for a mental image, vivid and consistent enough that he could count the individual seeds branching off of it. When he relayed the image to her, his teacher let out a dry chuckle.

“That so, huh?” She asked. “Well, try using your power. See if your flower changes at all.”

“Well, uh…” Casper started. “Thing about that is… My power’s always on… I’m never not using it.”

Freja grunted.

“I see.” She paused for a moment, then continued. “Well, can you change it somehow? Put more energy into it or something?”

The boy nodded, closing his eyes and focusing for a moment on his power. He began to swell his boundary out, from just large enough to encompass him and Freja, to large enough to fill the whole room, then even bigger. He pushed it out far enough that he could feel the minds of those passing in the street outside, the happy woman still selling her flowers. In his mind’s eye, the dandelion shifted, grew larger, the individual bristles of it opening up a touch wider. It was a strange feeling, watching what felt like an imaginary picture change without any conscious input from himself.

“It’s doing stuff,” he said aloud. “Changing shape the more I use it. Getting bigger.”

“Yup,” Freja murmured, nodding. “Good job, kid. You’re a mage. That flower you’re seeing is your spell. You’ll probably start seeing more of them turn up as you start learning new spells.”

New spells.

Casper took a moment to absorb that idea, the image of the flower in his mind nearly slipping from his mind as a wave of excitement threatened to push him from his present calm. He thought for a moment, before asking a question that had been lingering in the back of his mind for what felt like weeks.

“Is… is there some way I can turn it off?” He asked, earning himself a look of confusion from his teacher. “M-my spell, I mean. It… gets in the way of life, sometimes. I’d like to not have to deal with it all the time.”

“Ah,” she nodded, understanding. “Sure. There’s a couple ways you could turn it off for a while, I think. You could probably play around with it for a while and see if you can find an off switch-”

“No,” he cut her off. “I tried that. Three months. Couldn’t figure it out.”

Freja gave him another nod.

“Fair enough. Thought you might say that. Well, I could probably put together an amulet or something to keep your spell suppressed,” she raised a hand to forestall the boy as he opened his mouth to speak, excited. “Don’t get all yappy yet. It’d take a few weeks, I’d have to take a very close look at what your spell does, and it’d cost you about twenty grand.” She chuckled slightly as his face fell once more. “Easiest answer? Just keep yourself exhausted, I guess. A spell won’t work if you don’t have enough energy in you to fuel it. Start learning some other spells and just work all your energy out on them so your power goes away for a while.”

Casper sat for a moment, mulling it all over in his mind, then nodded with a sigh. It wasn’t ideal, but at least it was something he could do. Better than just holding his bubble close and hoping.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Okay. So, how do I learn new spells?”

“Simple,” Freja shrugged. “You get someone to teach you.” She pulled herself to her feet. “For that, gimme a sec.” With that, she walked out of the room, leaving him alone.

Curious, and lacking anything better to do, Casper followed the older woman with his power, tracing her mind back through the narrow hallway and into the shop, then out onto the street, where she came to a stop beside the cheerful flower woman. He felt their emotions fluctuate briefly, flickering slightly in minute response to concepts introduced and discussed. He felt the flower woman become a touch excited, Freja a little amused, before the two apparently swapped places, his teacher remaining out by the flowers while the second woman made her way inside, passing through the cluttered shop and into the hallway behind him.

“So,” she called out cheerfully as she caught sight of him. “You’re the new kid, huh?”

“Guess so,” he answered, glancing behind himself towards the same, slightly portly woman who’d been selling flowers when he’d arrived. She was carrying, to his momentary confusion, a pair of small, cheap, plastic flower pots, each apparently filled with plain garden soil. “My name’s Cas. Hi.”

“Nice to meet you, Cas,” she replied, stepping forwards into the room and bending at the waist to place one of the pots beside the boy. “I’m Mel. Now then. Let’s not waste time. Freja said you’d earned yourself a particular spell, and I’m better at teaching this one than she is, so watch closely.”

Casper nodded and Mel lowered herself down into a sitting position off to his side with just a touch more ease than Freja had before. She lifted the second flower pot in her hand, holding it just below eye level between them. Casper gazed at it, waiting. He didn’t have to wait long.

It started out relatively small, a slight disturbance in the soil filling the container, before a tiny nub of green poked its way out from underneath; a seedling. The tiny plant grew a little faster now, extending into a stem like a video in time lapse. The stem sprouted leaves, grew higher, and formed a bud, which quickly colored itself into a light, orangish pink, before dividing out into petals that then spread apart into a flower bulb. The whole process had taken perhaps eleven seconds. Mel placed the newborn flower on the floor between them, and turned her eyes towards the boy.

“Thoughts?” She asked, her tone suddenly very serious, matched by what he felt in her mind.

Casper hesitated. It felt to him like his teacher was waiting for him to judge her. He could feel a note of something that almost felt like anticipation in her mind. Like she was waiting for him to miss the point somehow; to say the wrong thing. In the end, he opted for honesty.

“Well,” he began. “I gotta admit, a little bit of me’s disappointed that nothing caught fire and exploded.”

Mel rolled her eyes, a momentary amusement touching inside her mind.

“Kids,” she snorted. “They never change. We don’t teach combat magic to children we’ve only just met, Cas.”

“Yeah, I figured,” He admitted, returning his eyes to the plant between them. “… What sort of flower is it?”

“This?” She asked, gesturing down at it absently. “It’s a tulip.”

Casper nodded.

“It’s pretty,” he said eventually. He meant it, too. He liked flowers. Growing up in the city, they were a little bit of a rarity. “The petals make me think of sunsets.”

Mel gazed at him as he spoke, her eyes narrowing slightly as she considered him. Then, she smiled, a surprisingly powerful note of pride settling down in her thoughts as his words hit home.

“Aww,” she chuckled. “Such a nice boy.” With that, she leaned forwards a little, her hands coming to rest on her knees. “Yup, that’s good enough for me. You’re learning this one.”

Casper cocked an eyebrow at that. Had he just passed a wizard test by complimenting a flower?

“This one?” He asked. “You mean there’s other ones I could learn instead?”

“Yup,” Mel nodded, gesturing a hand absently towards the tulip, which slowly began to swell once more. “There’s a bunch of other ones. Freja could teach you any number of flashy spells, and you’ll probably learn some of them too, in time, but this one’s a little special. I only teach it to the kids I like. Not every youngster gets to be a nature mage, you know.”

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