Aid: 5.9

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James:

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

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

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

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

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

“… Fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out loud, he only managed a mutter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

“… Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Huh. Weird.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… I’m fine.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

“… Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Caleb:

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

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

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

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

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

Tasha didn’t budge.

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

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

“… You okay?” Tasha asked.

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

“Peachy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

Previous Chapter:

Aid: 5.8

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Twenty Three:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She took a breath.

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

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

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

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

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


Caleb:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaylee was a kind name.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… Are you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A laugh.

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

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

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

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

“… Yeah,” he muttered. “I promise.”

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

Fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aid: 5.7

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James:

The silence that followed Caleb’s proclamation was a long one, Interrupted only by the bopping of Tuva’s music in her headphones. For the first few moments, no one moved. James’ grandparents still gazing across at the older boy, their expressions slightly stern. Tasha still looked angry. Eventually, Caleb lowered his eyes to the table, his cheeks a little red.

“Wow,” he muttered. “That sounds so dumb out loud.”

Across the table, Hideyoshi leaned back a little in his chair, his fingers tenting against his chin. James went back to fiddling with his potatoes. He wasn’t really hungry.

“War with whom?” asked Tsuru, calm as ever.

“The elves, I think,” Caleb replied. “Growing up at the training place, you’d catch like, these little bits of conversation when the masters didn’t think we were close enough to hear.” He chuckled. “I never heard much, but it always sounded like they wanted elves to die.”

At that, Hideyoshi snorted.

“Of course that’s what they want,” he rumbled. “Some damn fool war that won’t do any good for anyone. When do people ever want anything else?”

“Wait,” James asked. “Aren’t elves, like, those people who tried to kidnap me? Why’s fighting them a bad idea?”

Beside him, Tasha shrugged.

“Maybe that’s only some of them.”

“I’m afraid that’s most of them, really,” Tsuru sighed. “Their society runs off of those kidnappings.”

“Uhm, what?” James asked, cocking an eyebrow at his grandmother. He wasn’t the only one looking at her strangely. Caleb and Tasha followed suit. “How can they need-”

“It’s a long story,” she cut him off. “And one we try to keep quiet.” She hesitated for a moment there, before sighing and continuing. “Well, you’ll need to know at some point; you’re already involved, after all. It’s pretty well known that the elves kidnap people, but what isn’t so well known is why.” At that, she picked her water glass off the table and drained it. Then, she leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes, and spoke.

“In the simplest terms, they think of us as livestock.” She paused, one eye drifting open to see if anyone was going to interject. No one did, so she continued. “You three already know that some of the stronger spells out there need rituals, and rituals need ingredients. Well, for the more powerful rituals out there, those ingredients are people.”

For a while after that, no one really spoke. Tsuru once again went quiet, giving the three of them a moment to absorb the implications.

“… What kind of spells?” James asked. “What were they gonna do to me?”

His grandmother opened her mouth to reply, then closed it again, thoughtful. Whatever her compunction, Hideyoshi didn’t share it.

“A kid as powerful as you?” his grandfather rumbled. “They’d probably save you for the big one. Use your soul to punch a hole into whatever place magic comes from and flood their world with energy. Would have kept their planet saturated for a couple of years, at least; made every one of them stronger.” Tsuru shot him a glare, and he scowled. “We can’t sugarcoat this. Not if we want him to be informed.”

“… Oh,” James mumbled. What else was there for him to say? From the seat beside him, he felt Tasha’s fist bump gently against his shoulder. He gave her a smile. Today was a weird day.

“They used to sacrifice other elves, of course,” Hideyoshi continued, picking up for Tsuru, herself still busy scowling at him. “But then they reached the top, and I guess they started wondering why they had to sacrifice each other when someone else would do. So, they started looking for a replacement. First, they tried it vegan; twisting things with spells; growing mushrooms into vessels just elvish enough to carry a soul worth selling. That didn’t work out so well. It turned out the mushrooms didn’t like having their souls removed, and were willing to fight them over it.” He chuckled. “And that, kids, is where goblins come from.”

“… Mushroom men?” James asked. “Really?”

“Not men,” Hideyoshi clarified. “They’re agender; reproduce by spores. That’s another reason it didn’t work out so well.”

“Uh, why?”

“A lot of sacrifices need specific things,” Tsuru supplied, finally calling off her glare and turning her gaze to her grandson. “Sometimes, they need someone who’s suffered burns. Sometimes, they need to be a certain age. Sometimes, it’s a loss of virginity.” She shrugged. “You can’t have virgins in a species without sex.”

James giggled at that. He wasn’t even really sure why. He just did. It sounded funny.

“So,” Hideyoshi continued. “The elves went looking for something new. A better race of cattle. Eventually, on a world far away from their home reality, on a planet with far less magic, they found a race of cavemen.” He sighed. “We were perfect. Weak enough that we couldn’t defend ourselves. Basic enough that they could pretend we were simple monkeys. Just one problem, really. Our souls weren’t big enough to be worth a damn. So they added some Elf to the mix.”

“Wait,” James asked. “Are you saying-”

“They fucked us, James,” the older man grunted. “Just to make something a little bit more valuable. Be glad they did it, too. We wouldn’t have any mages if they hadn’t.”

“… Eww.”

“Then, they gave us the facial marks,” Hideyoshi continued. “Easiest way to tell if someone fits the conditions for a ritual. They put a spell on the planet to cattle brand anyone who’s born here.” He gestured absently at his face as he spoke, moving his fingers from point to point. “Extreme pain, virginity, joy, murder, surviving a deathly illness. The list goes on, and they all go right on your face, for all the world to see.”

It took James a second or two to process that. The words just kind of bounced around inside his head. He felt gross. Really, really gross. His grandfather was still talking, but the words weren’t even registering inside his brain.

“Are-” he tried, his voice cracking slightly. Hideyoshi stopped speaking, turning to look at him. “Are you telling me I’ve… I’ve got those-” He struggled for words, then gave up. “Those things on my face… Just cuz some mage somewhere wanted a barcode?”

There was silence around the table at that. Hideyoshi gazed first at James, then at Tsuru, before regretfully turning back to James. He let out a long sigh, and nodded.

“Can anyone tell me why we’re not fighting these guys, already?” Tasha asked. “They sound like assholes.”

“Because they’re strong,” answered Tsuru. “They live on a group of worlds practically drowning in ambient magic, and their mages are stronger by far than almost anything we have to offer. The only advantages we have are better technology, and superior numbers, neither of which is of much use when we have barely any mages who can make a dimensional hole wide enough to travel through.”

Across from her, Hideyoshi nodded.

“Fighting the elves is a losing proposition,” he agreed. “Even if we found a way to win, the war itself would last decades, and we’d lose far more people than the kidnappings cost us.”

“Pretty sure that’s not how my bosses see it,” Caleb muttered.

Tsuru chuckled.

“Well, good for them. They’re wrong.”

Caleb shrugged.

“Maybe,” he admitted, his voice even. “Honestly, I don’t care if they’re right or not. I just wanna get me and my partner free. They can burn in hell for all I care.”

James gazed down at his plate, barely listening. He didn’t care. It was all too big; wars and plots and politics. His head felt muddled enough as it was. Every few moments, his thoughts kept pulling him back to his marks, and the image of his mother trying not to cry the first time she’d helped to hide them.

He was vaguely aware of the conversation moving on; his grandparents discussing something about an egyptian and some portals, with occasional comment from the others. He ignored them. He was too busy feeling sick.

It was a few minutes before a splash of water on his face pulled his attention back into the present. He turned his gaze towards the culprit, already glowering.

“Oi,” Hideyoshi grunted, dipping his fingers back into his glass in preparation to splash him again. “You awake there, James? It’s important that you know this. Now, it’s best if we do the ritual on Wednesday night, three days from now. That should give our contacts time to set up an escape route these people won’t be able to tra-”

“Sounds good,” James cut him off, pushing himself up from the table. “But I can’t be here right now. I gotta punch something or I’m gonna throw up.”

Neither Hideyoshi nor Tsuru seemed to know how to answer that; both of them simply gazing at him, apparently surprised. Caleb just shrugged.

He was already walking away when Tasha’s voice called after him.

“Second door, down the hall. Grab some gloves so you don’t mess up your hands. We can tell you this stuff later.”

“Thanks, Tasha.”

With that, he left the others to their planning, and headed off to vent.


Manhattan Island. Evening.

The organizer didn’t like this city. It was too crowded; all those different motivations and ideas swirling around in their brains. All that possibility. It set her teeth on edge.

It made it even worse that the place was big, of course; more than large enough for the government to hold a presence here. Said government would be even more alert now, in the wake of that catastrophe with the elves. Yet another reason to remain on edge.

She checked her phone, and took a left at the next set of traffic lights. She sighed. Ah, well. If she got this last inspection done with quickly, she could be out of there before the night set in. She’d like that. It was better, sleeping on the road.

This last one had better have more potential than the others, she thought. New York would be a waste of time, otherwise. A whole day spent ticking off the targets on her list, sniffing out which could be a viable acquisition, and almost all of it wasted. Most of these people didn’t have the energy to fuel a fireball, let alone anything of any scale. Of all the dozens of items on her list, she’d thus far only found one who might have the power to back up the traits required.

Hopefully this last one would change that, though. This last one had a pedigree. A parent in the government: One Jacqueline Vance; the portal maker. The organizer could only hope the son would be something like his mother.

She followed her phone’s directions down a side lane, and found her mind turning to the past few weeks.

It had been hectic, of course, trying to scout out every city on their list in the few weeks time they’d had. She couldn’t remember her last good night’s sleep. It would have been easier, of course, if they’d had more hunting birds to work with, but limitations were what they were. Breeding the things hadn’t been as tenable as they’d hoped.

She pulled the car to a stop along a side street, and stepped out to approach her final mark. For the last few inspections, she’d simply claimed to be a pizza girl given the wrong address. She had to be more careful here. Potential or no, this one lived with powerful people. It would be best not to even let them see her.

The scouting reports on this one’s file told her his bedroom was on the second floor, facing away from the street itself. Easy enough. A quick scan of the street showed her a good dozen or so convenient places to climb.

Getting onto the roof was child’s play. One spell to ease the climb, another to make spotting her more difficult. She didn’t even have to jump to make the crossing to the right house. The buildings here were connected; crushed together by the crowded nature of the cityscape. She crossed the roof, peaked down over the edge to find the right window, then eased herself down to look inside.

The boy was studying; one arm resting on the pages of a textbook as he worked his way through an answer sheet. He didn’t even notice as she slid the window open for the few moments it took her hunting bird to take a sniff.

Powerful. Good. Exactly what we need.

She slid the window closed, and took her leave. When she got back to her car, she found the boy’s name in her list, and put a tick beside it. Charles Vance.

She smiled.

Looking forward to working with you, Charlie.

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Aid: 5.6

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Caleb:

“So you’re the slave, eh?” the old woman asked.

She was frowning at him from the doorway, the narrowing of her eyes pulling each wrinkle a little deeper into her face. He returned her gaze with a scowl.

“Yeah. I guess.” He tried to keep the annoyance out of his tone.

James stood between them, a little awkward.

“Uhh,” he muttered. “Baba, this, uh. This is Caleb. Cal-”

He was stopped short when the woman thrust out a hand.

“Tsuru Toranaga,” she said. “James’ grandmother. Heard you could use some help.”

Caleb gazed for a moment at the woman’s outstretched hand, and wondered briefly if he could afford to be rude to her.

He tapped into his familiar’s senses and gave her power level a sniff.

Christ.

He shook her hand.

“Caleb,” he muttered. “Just call me Caleb.”

At that, the woman merely chuckled, before standing aside and waving the pair of them through the door.

James gave her a hug on the way by, the two conversing quietly for a moment in what Caleb took to be Japanese.

He pretended not to notice, setting his eyes instead on the interior of the place.

It was a penthouse, as far as he could tell, the chamber after the elevator leading out into a curved hallway that wrapped around it, splitting off into a corridor on either side, lined with doors. It was all wood panelling everywhere he looked. Expensive. Thick carpets, too. These guys must be loaded.

He tried not to be jealous. He really did.

“Nice place,” he muttered behind himself. Neither of them seemed to hear him. “… Suit yourselves.”

He opted to leave the pair of them behind, and wandered off down the better lit of the two hallways, down which he could hear the faint, familiar sounds of exertion over the occasional thudding impacts of a body against the floor. Someone was training.

After a few dozen feet, the hallway fed into a large, open plan room littered with bookcases and loose furniture, the thick carpet giving way to a hardwood floor. The sounds, he realized quickly enough, were coming from a padded mat in the middle of the room, where a familiar girl seemed to be having the time of her life. He scowled.

It was Tasha; the girl who’d gotten him in this mess to begin with. She was growling, engaged in a losing grapple with a male figure that, to Caleb, appeared to have been carved from solid granite. He made no effort to pretend it wasn’t satisfying when the statue eventually floored her.

There were others about as well, of course; a slightly balding man seated on a couch beside the training mat,his back to Caleb, presumably controlling the statue. At the far end of the room was a pale woman he’d have placed in her early twenties, seated halfway up the steps leading to some second level, her face buried in a book, a set of headphones wrapped around her ears and a shaggy looking golden retriever sprawled against her legs.

It was Tasha who noticed Caleb first, the statue pulled away, and she pushed herself to her feet, panting, only to catch him standing there as she dusted herself off. Immediately, her energized grin gave way to a scowl.

“Hey, teach,” she muttered. “Looks like the asshole’s here.”

Caleb snorted.

“Fuck you too, Tasha.”

From the changes to her face alone, Caleb could tell the girl was furious, but before Tasha had a chance to respond in kind, her teacher cut in.

“So you’re Caleb, huh?” he asked, pushing himself upright and turning around to face him. “Well, I’m Hideyoshi Toranaga, and Tasha tells me you’ve been lying to my grandson.” For the life of him, Caleb couldn’t read the expression on the old man’s face.

Yup, groaned a voice inside his mind. This is gonna go great.

Outwardly, however, he only sighed.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “I guess that’s one way to say it.”

At that, the old man allowed himself a grunt.

“Good,” he rumbled. “If you’d tried to make excuses, I might have had to burn you.”

Caleb shrugged. He almost wished the threat of harm still meant something to him.

“I don’t like to lie about the shitty things I do. I only do it when I have to.”

“Good answer,” Hideyoshi replied. “Because it’s time for you to be honest now. James told me you’re a slave. Who’s your owner, then? Who made you, and why?”

Again, Caleb only shrugged.

“No idea,” he muttered. “They keep us in the dark about that kind of stuff, where they can. Makes it harder to spill information to the feds or whoever else turns up. I know they trained me some place north. It was cold there. The ground had ice in it maybe nine months out of every year. Snowed sometimes. Pretty sure the locals didn’t speak much english.”

“Great,” Hideyoshi growled, annoyed. “That’s real helpful. Only narrows it down to maybe seven countries in Europe alone. And that’s not even counting the entirety of northern Rus-”

“Settle down, Yoshi,” called a familiar voice from the hall behind Caleb’s back; James’ grandma. He glanced behind himself, and saw her heading idly over, hand in hand with James. “There’s still plenty of knowledge we can glean from this. Let’s try not to get excited.”

For a moment, Hideyoshi simply glowered at her. Then, the man reluctantly closed his eyes, and took a breath.

“Yes, dear.”

“Sorry about that,” Tsuru continued evenly, returning her gaze to Caleb. “My husband gets a little short with people who betray our family’s trust.”

Caleb didn’t answer that at first. There didn’t seem to be any response that would help him here.

He glanced around the room, first at James, gazing over at him with an apologetic sort of confusion on his face, then at Tasha, still glaring, her arms folded tight across her chest, then finally at the girl on the stairs, still just listening to her music, one hand absently scratching behind the dog’s ears. He wished he could be that far above it all.

“It’s fine.”

“Hmm,” Tsuru hummed. “Thought it might be. Now then. Tell me about their organizational structure. How are you managed? Who do you answer to?”

“Two man teams,” Caleb replied, watching as Hideyoshi led Tasha reluctantly away to resume their training. She still glared from time to time. “A boy and a girl, usually. Usually, we’re the same age as each other, but I think something happened to my partner’s old one, cuz she’s about eight years older than I am. She handles most of the stuff about dealing with the higher ups. Only handler I know about is the boss. I talk to her on the phone when she gives me targets. She sounds American, but that’s not really worth much,” he dropped the Canadian accent for a moment, switching to his Irish lilt. “They teach us how to change our voices, so I figure the boss might be doing the same.”

It felt strange, confiding this all to strangers; like breaking a kind of taboo. He caught James’ expression shifting when he made the changes to his voice, a touch of surprise lighting upon his face.

Guess you didn’t know me as well as you thought, did you, James?

There was a surprising bitterness to that.

For her part, Tsuru was nodding.

“Very loose structure, then,” she murmured. “Hard to maintain a thing like that with slaves. They must really have something over you, huh?”

“Brands,” he agreed. “Base of the neck. Built to kill us if we step out of line.”

If the proclamation caught the woman by surprise, not a hint of it appeared across her features.

“Show me.”

Caleb gave the woman a shrug and started peeling off his shirt, noting with a touch of amusement how James again averted his gaze, his cheeks red.

They’re just abs, James. Grow a pair.

He dropped covering to the floor, and turned his back to the older woman, putting the brand on display. He caught Tasha gazing over at him, her eyes flicking momentarily to his chest, and shot her a smirk. She glowered back at him, before returning her attention to her task.

A moment later, he felt a touch upon his neck, the old woman murmuring something to herself as she prodded and poked the skin. He didn’t care.

“Hmm,” she grunted. “Energy siphon. Tied in deep, too. It must see a lot of use.”

“Every day,” he muttered. “They like to keep me at about a fifth of my power. Stop me getting any ideas.”

“And the familiar?” she asked, tapping the tattoo that ran across his arm with the side of her thumb. “Seems recent. They know about it?”

“No,” he chuckled. “I stole it. Last hunt they sent me on was to pick up some of those hunting birds after the elves attacked. I kept one. I’m a dead man if they notice it, but it seemed like the best chance I’d get. It’s how I found James.”

At his back, Tsuru simply swore.

“Damn,” she muttered. “I’d hoped we’d killed them all before any third parties got involved. Any idea what they want with them?”

“Just that they wanted a breeding pair.”

Tsuru chuckled.

“Well, good luck trying to make any more of them. Those things aren’t built to survive on Earth long term. Not enough magic in the air.”

Caleb shrugged. At least that explained why his own bird seemed to be growing weaker lately.

“Dunno what to tell you there. All I know is they wanted em and we did it for them.”

Behind him, the old woman simply grunted, then he felt the touch upon his back ease off.

“Well, put your shirt back on. We’ve other things to do.”

The next few hours passed at a glacial pace, to Caleb’s view. Irritable as James’ grandfather may be, his grandmother seemed almost brutally efficient. First came the questions, ranging from his training as a hunter, to the tasks he had performed, to the points of contact he held with the organization at large. The woman showed not even the barest hint of frustration at how little information his experiences had allowed him to glean.

Then came the tests of strength and skill, pitting him first against Tasha, then against Hideyoshi’s golem as they measured each of his powers in turn. He picked up more than a few new bruises there. Neither Tasha nor her teacher seemed to have any wish to be gentle with him.

James observed all this at first, curious; but over time, his attention seemed to wane, and he wandered off to where the stranger sat with the dog, the two of them chatting in voices too low to really make out, the dog shifting over on its side to allow James to rub its belly. When she caught him glancing at them, Tsuru said the girl’s name was Tuva. That was all the explanation he got.

Eventually, Hideyoshi pulled away from the seemingly constant bouts of training and retired to the open kitchen, pulling a pack of steaks from the fridge and rubbing them with herbs, before roasting them with fire directly from his hands alongside some chopped potatoes.

The aroma made Caleb’s mouth water. His masters rarely supplied him rations more complex than an instant pizza. He almost cried when they offered one to him.

It was while the six of them ate, Caleb doing what he could to savor the experience of actual food, that things seemed to finally come to a head.

“So you’re telling me there’s nothing,” Tsuru murmured evenly, watching James pick at his potatoes. “Nothing at all, that might tell us who these people are, or what the hell they want?”

“Well, no,” Caleb muttered. “I have a pretty good idea, I think. It’s just I’m not sure if it’s true or not.”

“Oh?” She turned to look at him, everyone besides Tuva doing the same in turn. “And what’s that?”

“To be honest,” he shrugged. “I think they want to start a war.”

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Aid: 5.5

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Author’s Note: Okay. First up, sorry for being gone so long. First, I was just getting ready for university, then I was helping a family member move house, then I was getting acquainted with a new job. Basically, I’ve had stuff going on. My apologies. Secondly, this is a pretty short chapter, I know. It was a sequence that was too small to make a full sized chapter out of, but it was also too big to just staple it onto another chapter without breaking flow. So, you’re getting this chapter now, and hopefully, another one in a few days time. Thanks for being so patient with me. Enjoy.


James:

“Well, my grandpa says you weren’t lying about the ritual,” James mumbled, resting the phone tiredly against his ear, his head lolling gently against his hands. It was seven PM, and he’d had the longest day. “But it sounds like we’d better wait a couple days to get it done. He said something about setting up a hideout for you with a friend of his.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Caleb replied on the other end of the line. “I don’t think so, at least. Our bosses might make us pull another hunt by then, but I guess I’ll just have to grit my teeth and give em what they want, right?”

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Guess so. Oh yeah, and Tasha says she wants to put you in a headlock while you’re doing it. Just in case. You know?”

At that, Caleb’s voice only chuckled.

“Hey. She can try it if she wants. See how that goes down.”

James snickered.

“She’d kick your butt.”

“She’d try.”

James allowed himself a small smile, and shook his head. Right. That was one job done. Now he just had to apologize to Cas-

“There might be one small problem,” Caleb admitted. “I’m, uh. I’m pretty sure Twenty Three’s figured something’s up. I don’t think she’ll come quietly when we try to free her.”

James put the phone in his lap, rested his head in his hands, and groaned. First the training session, then therapy, and now this. When would today just end?

“… I’ll talk to Tasha about maybe backing you up,” he grumbled. “You shouldn’t need that much help though, right? I thought you said that stuff was gonna supercharge you.”

“Yeah,” Caleb’s voice replied. “That’s the hope, at least.”

From outside of the room, James heard the front door click, and the muted sounds of speech in the hallway below. Casper, finally back from wherever the heck he’d gone. Twelve seconds ago, that realization would have filled James with another wave of dread at the last of the evening’s obstacles. Now, though, it gave him an excuse to end this talk with Caleb before any more problems were added to the pile.

“Hey,” he said. “I gotta go, alright? Got some stuff to do before bed. I’ll get Tasha to message you in the morning. They wanna meet up with you anyways.”

He hung up before Caleb had quite finished his reply. It was rude, but he figured the older boy owed him one on that. Then, he put the phone aside, leant his palms against his knees, and tried to psych himself up for the task.

Okay, James, he said inside his mind, listening to the faint thumps as Casper climbed the stairs towards his room. You’ve hung out with Jiji. You’ve gone to therapy. You’ve planned a rescue. Now you just gotta tell Casper you’re sorry you yelled. Easy peasy, right?

James hated the voice in his head, sometimes. Nevertheless, he pushed himself up off his bed with a groan.

The aches and pains had come and gone sporadically in the hours since his mishap with the skeet, seeming to fade away for a while on their drive back to manhattan, before returning with a vengeance in the hours since his session with Doctor Sharpe. It was fine as long as he was moving, but he really didn’t feel like moving now. He’d have rather flown, but he couldn’t. Bex was around, and as far as his parents knew, Casper still had zero clue what magic was.

He stood, spent a few seconds creakily straightening up, then stepped forwards towards the door, and out onto the landing.

It took James longer than he’d have liked to traverse the distance between his and Casper’s rooms; only partially because of the stiffness in his joints. He didn’t want to do this. Apologizing sucked.

He took a deep breath, then a second one, and raised a hand to the door, knuckles poised to knock.

Half a minute later, he lowered it back down again.

Come on, James. Stop being a wuss. Just put on your big boy pants and-

“Dude,” Casper’s voice called through the door, sounding almost as tired as James felt. “Just make up your mind already. You coming in or not?”

Friggen’ radar brain.

Regretfully, James pushed the door open, and stepped inside.

Casper was sitting on the bed, a video game controller in his lap, his gaze set determinedly on the TV screen. James shut the door behind him, and leaned himself against the wall, his arms folded in tight over his chest. Neither spoke.

After a few moments, Casper’s television chimed, a game loading up on the screen.

Just say you’re sorry.

James opened his mouth to speak, and Casper turned to look at him. Nothing came out. Casper returned his gaze to the TV.

Why was this so hard?

James shook himself, and tried again. What eventually came out wasn’t exactly what he’d planned.

“… His name’s Caleb,” he muttered. “The guy I was sneaking out to meet.”

For a moment, James regretted it; spilling the secret like that. But this was Casper. This was important.

This time, when Casper turned to face him, he wasn’t frowning. Now, he looked concerned.

“Who is he?” the other boy asked. “What’s he want?”

“He, uh,” James swallowed. “Stuff. He wanted to do some really stupid stuff to rescue a girl he likes. So, that’s what I’ve been dealing with.”

For a few moments, Casper simply gazed at him.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” James took a deep breath, and let it out in a sigh, before moving to sit beside his friend. “And, uh. Sorry I got mad at you.”

At that, Casper shook his head.

“Sorry I pushed like I did,” he muttered back. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“Yeah.”

The two were silent then for a time, James simply sitting beside his friend while Casper moved his character aimlessly through a level.

It was surprising, really. That had been far less painful than James had been expecting. It was nice, being comfortable like this again. Maybe he was just tired.

Eventually, Casper spoke again.

“So, that thing about the phone.”

That got his attention.

“Yeah?”

“So…” Casper seemed to hesitate for half a second, before apparently coming to a decision. “The thing is, when I ran away from home… I kinda got myself a magic teacher.”

“Really?” James asked, honestly surprised. “I thought you kinda just wanted to forget about it.”

Casper chuckled.

“It’s hard to forget about when you can’t turn it off, dude. You know that, Mr. ‘I weigh thirty pounds.’”

James conceded the point with a sigh. The changes to his body weight hadn’t gotten any easier to deal with in the last few weeks. There’d been one embarrassing incident when he’d tried to take a bath, only to find himself floating upwards in the water, bobbing along the surface like an oversized rubber duck.

“So, I got myself a teacher,” Casper continued. “Didn’t wanna tell you because getting training when you’re not registered’s kind of a legal no-no, but yeah. The phone’s how he’s been staying in contact with me.”

“… And asking you about your school day?”

“Yeah,” Casper groaned. “He’s also kind of a creep.”

“… You okay?”

“Yeah,” James felt Casper’s fist bonk him gently on the shoulder. “I’m okay.”

“Good,” James muttered. “You’re still a doof, though.”

Casper chuckled.

“Yeah. You too.”

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