Aid: 5.16

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Caleb:

The procession through the grove was a stilted one; Caleb making his way down passage after passage, his way lit only by the faint emerald glow still emanating from his arm; ever more aware of the omnipresent whispers in the mist. The ghosts weren’t really what unsettled him, though. He knew that they were, at least nominally, on his side. What bothered him was the quiet.

Caleb wasn’t sure if it was a property of the mist, the trees, or some tertiary enchantment Tsuru had laid down on the area around them, but whatever it was, it made things quiet.

He wasn’t used to being deaf to his own footsteps, unable to hear the beating of his heart, even as the thud of it sent vibrations through his chest. It threw him slightly. Disconnected.

Then, there were the lights. Infrequent bolts of wide-cast spells throwing shadows between the trees. Occasional glimpses of distant, fearful men.

One by one, those men fell, the calling of commands and muttered incantations giving way to short lived shrieks. There would come a few more bolts, aimed at the shapes that lumbered in the dark. Then, for a time, the quiet would resume.

It felt like watching something hunt.

Still no sign of Twenty Three.

He was growing… agitated; drawn taut. Adrenaline without a chance to move. A feeling that the seemingly endless procession of bleach barked corridors did nothing to appease. The grove couldn’t be that big. He hated it. The waiting; the hiding. Being led around by the nose while creatures from bad horror movies pulled off all the fighting. Here he was, stronger and freer than he’d ever been in his life, and the world was making him wait. He gripped the rebar tighter in his hand, his knuckles white.

In the end, when Tsuru’s plan finally went to shit, it was almost a relief. At least it put him back inside his world.

It started as another glow in the distance, a flicker of blue barely visible between the trees. Caleb ducked low, a shoulder pressed against a bough, listening.

Voices in the distance; muffled partly by the fog, then even further by the murmurs of Tsuru’s host. He closed his eyes, slowed his breath; listened.

“-eed to find the van. Your only job right now is to get Charles Vance out of here. Am I understood?”

Caleb grinned. He recognized that voice. It was the boss. She didn’t sound happy. He thought about launching an attack, wondered if he could manage to part the trees. The trail of thought was cut off by a voice that Caleb thought he might have recognized. He forced himself to focus once more.

“-an’t be serious. We’re surrounded. These trees are moving. How the hell am I supposed to-”

A cracking sound. The man stopped talking.

“I’m not here to hold your hand. Just get it done. Seventeen, Twenty Three, go with him and provide support. As for me, I’ll deal with the witch.”

Caleb’s breath hitched, his heart thudding harder and harder in his chest. He’d found her.

Silence for a moment, before:

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Caleb opened his eyes again and stood, that wide grin once more settling itself across his face.

Found you.

Absently, he tapped his steel bar against a tree trunk.

“You gonna take me to her, then?”

He could have sworn he heard a chuckle in the air as the trees once more began to shift. He didn’t care. He set off down his new path at a sprint. Then, from somewhere in the gloom, the boss began to yell.

“It was a good plan, you know,” she called, the faint blue between the trees starting to grow slowly more intense. “Boxing me in like this. Picking off my men. Forcing me to either play defence or waste my energy breaking free. Smart moves.” Caleb chuckled. There was something so satisfying about the anger in her voice. “But now you’ve managed to piss me off. So either let us go, or I will break this forest down tree by tree until I find you.”

For a moment, all was quiet, the stillness of the fog covering even the pounding of Caleb’s feet as he ran. Then, there was a chuckle in the gloom. A cold one. No humor to it.

“You sound like a five year old,” Tsuru said.

Silence once more as the glow built itself to a peak, the light throwing a dozen scattered shades of blue among the trees. For a moment, as Caleb ran, he could have sworn he caught a glimpse of a person at the centre, their shape surrounded by more of those crawling, creeping forms.

Then, with a quiet crack, the light went out.

What came next happened so fast that Caleb’s brain barely managed to parse it. It was like a shockwave. This streaking lance of neon blue that shot across the grove, moving faster than the human eye could even track, followed by the sharp, rolling roar as tree after tree simply crumpled in her wake. It passed outside of Caleb’s line of sight, and by the time he had managed to turn his head, it was gone.

In the seconds that followed, even the whispers of the ghosts grew still. Then, the fallen trees began to burn. For a moment, Caleb just stood there, stunned. Then, by way of a precaution, he pumped a measure of James’ energy into a shield.

Then came the second spark. Another bolt, streaking right to left across Caleb’s vision, passing bare yards in front of his face. Another wave of sound, another thunderous fall. The fire spread further. The trees were parting slower now, the path clearing barely fast enough to keep a pace with him. A few of the trees bore scorches. He ignored it.

Not far now. He had to be nearly there. Whatever the boss was doing didn’t concern him. He had to get to Twenty Three. That was all that mattered.

Then came the third spark. This one was different from the others. This one went for him.

Caleb didn’t register it when the bough to his left gave out, the dead wood splitting apart in a shower of bark and sparks. He didn’t register it when the boss’ fist caught him in the side. It was simply too quick for him to catch. What he did notice, however, was his shield popping away around his skin like an over glorified soap bubble. He noticed the pain arcing across his ribs. He noticed as his body struck a wall; the crunch of breaking bone.

For the first second, Caleb was simply dazed. His head pounded. His vision swam. He could feel something embedded in his arm. He looked down at his wrist, and dimly noted the hunk of rebar sticking through it, the metal slowly melting in the fire still shrouding his hand. His fingers twitched.

“Hello, Thirteen,” a voice murmured to his left, angry glee dripping from every word. “It’s convenient. Finding you like this. Maybe this can be a good day after all.”

It was hard to recognize the boss at first. The lightning currently dancing its way around her was one thing, but then there was the soot caking the entirety of her body, the hundred or so gashes torn into her clothes, and the utterly unmanaged nature of her hair. What really threw him off, however, was the formless mass of creatures currently grappled onto her; clawing, scratching; desperate to kill.

She ignored them.

When Caleb’s brain finally returned him to coherence, he had one thought: He did not care. Here was death, standing above him, and he simply did not care. He had a job to do.

“Go fuck yourself,” he muttered croakily as he pushed himself upright, cradling his impaled arm with his remaining good one, letting the fire build hotter and hotter around the wound so as to melt the metal away. He turned his back to her, and simply walked away. “Enjoy your game. I’m out of here.”

When the boss replied, her voice was cold.

“You called me a cunt, Thirteen. You don’t get to walk away.”

Something cracked behind him.

Caleb wasn’t dumb. Even like this. He knew what was coming next. He knew she wouldn’t let him leave. At least like this, he could maybe get her guard down.

He couldn’t hear her approach. That damned mist covered her footsteps far too well. He couldn’t see her. But the bird in his arm could smell her. A scent more powerful than anything he’d ever felt. Over a dozen different people squeezed inside a single body. Two steps away. One. None.

Now.

It was hard not to savor the surprise on his former master’s face as she stepped past him, her lightning clad fist passing inches from his form as he half bent, half fell out of her way. He laughed. She should have used the super speed. Then, his shoulder caught her in the middle, sending both of them toppling clumsily to the floor.

There was no grand strategy from there. Just a wounded boy fighting a painful grapple against a perfectly healthy woman.

But the woman didn’t have super strength.

She swore. He didn’t listen. She struck him. He ignored her. Somewhere in that flailing mess of limbs, his barely functional hand came up against her face. Her shield flickered. Then, only half aware of what he was doing, he opened up the gates of James’ power. His glove flared emerald green around his hand. He closed his fingers on her skull.

Leanne screamed.

Caleb held on.

She fought.

He held on.

The scent of burning meat.

He held on.

She stopped fighting.

Caleb forced himself to stand, his breathing heavy. He had a job to do.

He offered a single parting thought as he took his leave.

“You put a mark on me once. I guess we’re even now.”

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Aid: 5.15

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Caleb:

When the fog cloud fell, it did so with remarkable speed. Caleb didn’t see it at first, he was busy moving at speed, perhaps a half a mile or so from the point of the extraction. He was running over building tops, half-giddy at how close the plan was to success, half from the sheer exhilaration of the power moving through him. He could feel the static in his skin, occasional sparks darting across his chest, arms and legs as he sprinted across the lower heights of the Manhattan skyline, faster than he’d ever gone before.

He reached the edge of an apartment block, some six storeys up, took aim for a high office block across the double road, and leapt, letting out a wild, careless whoop as his body sailed through the night. The new building was taller, at least eight storeys, if he had to guess. On any other night, he’d have never made the jump. Tonight was different, though. Tonight, he was flying.

He struck the side of the building a ways down from the ledge, one foot stretching forwards towards the concrete wall, compacting in as the momentum pushed him in towards the side, then kicking off, forcing his body high, high up into the air. His fingers found a ledge, and with a heave that felt as easy as a breath, he pulled himself up atop the roof.

Then he was sprinting again.

It was in the free-fall down towards yet another rooftop when Caleb saw the fog, his vantage point allowing him a few moments of uninterrupted outlook over the roads on every side. It was still a distance off, clinging low to the ground, and spreading through streets faster than a man could run.

Caleb thought nothing of it at first, too caught up in the beauty of a moment. Was this what James felt like when he was in the air? It was only when the fog line passed below him, and the sounds of traffic noise abruptly died away, that he registered it with anything more than passing curiosity.

He paused for a moment, digging his heels in and pushing against the concrete to do away with his momentum. It was a fairly subtle thing. He could still hear the sounds of people moving around down there, cars and lights and the perpetual honking of taxi horns; but it was muted, lacking in echo, as if every sound came from just a little further away.

“What the hell?”

Caleb returned to his journey, his elation now undercut by a current of concern, watching the fog grow denser and denser with every passing leap. By the time he reached the pier, he could no longer see the ground. That was when he saw the tree.

He was on a lower rooftop now, some two storeys above the street, the fog line cutting off only a foot or so below the ledge. His destination ought to be in sight by now, the extraction point just a few dozen yards away from where he stood. At its centre, the fog was denser still, the weird sight of streetlights sticking their heads out above the top of it, casting patches of it in dim, barely permeating light. A ways away, he could see it rise, the vapour climbing like a shallow hill above the docks, before falling away gently on the other side.

Caleb thought he could see flashes from inside, occasional tints of green, purple and red casting momentary shadows on the surface. He peered into the fog bank, and let out a curse when something inside it let out a blinding burst of neon blue. For that moment, he could have sworn he caught a snatch of branches in amongst the gloom, the afterimage burning into his eyes.

Whatever was making that light, it wasn’t stationary, darting along the ground almost too fast to even track, before stopping short with a muffled crack. He caught the faintest tint of red as something within the shroud began to burn.

Well, he thought glumly. Looks like someone’s fighting for their lives. Here’s hoping it’s the boss.

Then, he stepped off the ledge, and plunged into the fog.

The first thing that Caleb noticed was how much easier it became to see once he was down below the fog-line. What he had taken from the outside to be a densely obscuring mass was, from the inside, surprisingly light, the vapour thinning out to a level slightly more amenable to visibility, walled off from the rest of the world by, well, walls of solid fog; like a bubble inside a cloud.

The second thing he noticed was the forest, and how some of it appeared to be on fire.

Perhaps forest was the wrong word. The thing only extended around fifty feet or so, each tree packed so tightly in against its neighbours that he couldn’t catch much more than glimpses of anything going on inside.

He could hear the yelling, though, six or seven voices all tumbling over one another, desperate to be heard over the snapping of wood and the constant, seemingly source-less whispers.

There was another flash, and one of the trees slid itself sideways into the grove, those on either side closing ranks behind it.

For a moment, Caleb simply stood there, unsure what to do, what course to take. Then, he recognised Twenty Three’s voice in amongst the yells, and set off for the tree line at a sprint.

He had expected to have to punch his way inside, a glove of emerald tinted flame already flowing into place around his forearm, readying his posture for a strike. Then, when he was no more than a foot or so from the wall, the trees simply moved aside. It would have been heroic to say he didn’t stumble. He did though, his momentum carrying him well within the threshold of the grove, his feet occasionally catching on the mix of roots and sand below.

By the time he’d reclaimed his balance, the entryway had already slid itself shut behind him.

It was a tunnel. Something like one, at least, the thick tree boughs pressing hard in against one another, the branches overhead knotting into a single piece of interlocking wood. If it weren’t for the flames around his arm, he doubted he’d have even been able to see.

The whispers were getting louder now, the yelling, oddly quiet.

He stepped forward. The trees shifted, each of them seeming to shuffle an inch or so to the side, re-configuring themselves around him.

“Fucking weird,” he muttered as he continued on.

There was an opening at the end of the corridor, two boughs splitting apart from one another in a gap just wide enough for him to pass through. He thought about ignoring it, but no. No use making whatever this was angry.

He sidled through the gap, and found himself in another narrow hall, this one somewhat looser than the one that came before, however; gaps between trees and branches allowing glimpses at whatever lay beyond. He caught a flash of something blue across to the side, only for the trees to constrict once more around him, cutting off his view.

He pushed forward.

It was two doorways later when he found the first of the bodies.

The grove played tricks. Whatever fog leaked in from outside combined itself with the shifting light and the constant movements of the trees to give the impression of things scurrying out of sight every time he turned his head. Once or twice, he could have sworn he saw glimpses of a person, dark hair and pale skin cast in soft relief in the glow from his fire, always in the periphery of his view. Then he’d shift his focus to them, and they would disappear. At first, he’d thought the squirming figure on the ground was just more of the same. Then he’d gotten closer.

It took Caleb a moment to process that the man wasn’t really conscious. The squirming wasn’t from anything he was doing. It had more to do with the hands seeming to crawl like worms across his skin. There were dozens of them, maybe hundreds; some wrinkled and lined with age, some of them children’s hands. Caleb did his best not to think about what they were doing, or about the fluid the man was lying in.

The whispers were growing louder.

He turned away from the body and, to his credit, managed not to yelp when he saw the girl sitting at the base of the nearest tree. There were fingers where her face should be.

She waved. He waved back. She smiled; hard to do with fingers. Then, she jerked a thumb towards a gap in the trees behind her, and they obediently opened up. For a few moments, the whispers seemed to die away, the hundred overlapping voices all falling quiet, except for one.

“Granny says stay quiet,” the girl’s voice breathed. “Trust the trees to keep you hidden. We’ll take you where you need to go.”

Ah, he thought. Well, that explains a lot.

He shot the girl a grin.

“Your granny’s a mad bint, you know that?”

He heard the sound of a distant giggle as the girl raised a finger to what passed for her lips. Then, she melted away, and the body behind him let out an awful sounding crack. He decided against checking what it was.

He moved forward quicker now, keeping himself quiet and low, the flames around his arm reduced to a level just high enough to see by. Once or twice, his path would abruptly shift, the hallways in which he found himself suddenly slamming shut, followed by the muffled sound of yells and tiny flashes through the gaps. Sometimes, the whispers grew too loud to hear anything else, figures dancing just beyond his sight.

He didn’t mind them so much now. Ghosts would do what ghosts would do.

It was almost a minute later when Caleb came upon another living person. Much to his annoyance, it wasn’t Twenty Three. It was, however, someone he recognised. It was Eighteen, the boy from the only other hunter squad in the area, operating out of Jersey. They’d worked together once or twice, whenever the boss wanted them to capture something big. The older boy was alone in a nine foot clearing, turning slowly on the spot, a length of rebar in his hands, a touch of mania in his eye.

“Thirteen,” he spoke, his voice charged. “Get over here and take my back; pale fuckers are everywhere.”

Caleb didn’t answer. He was too busy thinking. Had Tsuru brought him here to thin the herd? Sure, he was probably trusted enough to slip under this one’s guard… but if he missed the shot, there’d be trouble.

He stepped forward.

Caleb didn’t like Eighteen. The older boy was a specialized model. A beast. Whatever series of genetic mixes the bosses used to make their pets, it was normally used to make something like him and Twenty Three, a relative balance between enhanced senses, speed, and physicality, designed for pairs that could operate individually. For pairs like Seventeen and Eighteen, however, that balance was discarded. Eighteen didn’t have enhanced senses. No increases to smell, sight, or overall perception. Instead, he’d been bred with nothing but strength and speed in mind. Without James’ power there to back him up, Caleb doubted he’d have even stood a chance. That wasn’t why he didn’t like him, though. The guy liked kicking downwards. Caleb tended to be downwards.

I could free him, he thought as he stepped into place at Eighteen’s back. Didn’t take as much as I thought it would to break my chains. I could free him and still have enough left over for Twenty Three… But then I’ll have that much less left over to fight with. Or I could take him out; that’d cost me next to nothing. But if I miss, I’ll have to fight him. That’d cost too much time.

Eighteen was talking now, some low monologue about the level of Tsuru’s fuckery. Caleb wasn’t listening. He didn’t care. The smart move was to go for the kill. He clenched his fist. Eighteen was a dick. As for that dead-eyed girl he was partnered with… Caleb felt a knot in his stomach at that.

…God damn it.

“If we can break through some of the branches,” Eighteen was saying. “Use your fire spells to get on top of the canopy. Maybe we can use that to regroup with the others. Th-”

“Hey, asshole,” he interrupted, making no effort to hide the anger in his voice as he turned to grab the older boy by the wrist. “If I said I had a way to get you and Seventeen out of here, how much would you give to make it true?”

For a second, Eighteen was confused; then he was angry. The larger man lifted the length of rebar to his throat, making it nearly halfway through some furious intonation before Caleb finished shaping the power in his mind into a point, and pushed it across the barrier into Eighteen’s soul. After that, Eighteen was simply stunned.

The man began to speak. Caleb shook his head.

“Just follow my lead, okay?” he muttered. “We’re gonna get the others out.”

Eighteen nodded.

“Close your eyes.”

Eighteen obeyed.

Caleb struck.

It was with a surprising amount of guilt that he watched the older boy fall, his body collapsing in the sand like a sack of loose potatoes.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “It was a dick move, I know. But you’re not worth Twenty Three. I need this all for her.”

He stooped to pull the length of rebar from Eighteen’s hand, then stepped over him as the next doorway began to open up.

“For what it’s worth, I’ll save you too, if I have anything left by the end.”

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Aid: 5.14

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Tsuru:

Tsuru was…heightened. There wasn’t really another word for it. 

Across the street, the boss was making her way towards the extraction site with an unhappy looking boy following in her wake; one of James’ friends. A ways to the left of that, Caleb’s partner was being led by her overseer in ferrying her catch towards the van where the other slaves both sat, their masters chatting casually against the side of it. 

She was aware of all of it. Every detail. The frustration etched in her adversary’s face, the muttered words of the agents’ conversation, even the distant hum of the helicopter rotor whirring into life across the way. A hundred little details, all working towards a plan.

Tsuru was angry, deeply so; but for the moment, that wouldn’t help. Anger was a distraction unless it had a direction in which to face. She set it low; used it to focus.

Quite casually, she raised a fabric covered forearm to her mouth, for all appearances, simply stifling a yawn. Then, she spoke, her voice undisguised and quiet, dropping into a more archaic form of Japanese.

“Kindly kodama, the protector of Jomon Sugi requires aid from you today. Hide me well.”

The response was immediate; a soft chill at the tips of her fingers, like brushing snow from the petals of winter’s early flowers. That gentle cold spread up along her arm, the dense latticework of tattoos beneath her disguise shifting across her skin as Yuki Yanagi began to move.

She reached into a pocket, popped open the side pouch on her wallet, and plucked out a pinch of seeds. Her friend preferred to work with flora native to Japan. The moment the seeds made contact with her skin, she felt something flowing free of her. She pulled her fingers from her pocket, and rubbed them together, letting the seeds fall lightly to the ground.

There were three objectives, to her mind. Two old, one new. Number one: Get Caleb’s partner out. That much hadn’t changed. Number two: Get as many of these kids to safety as she could. To her perspective, that just meant waiting for Caleb to arrive. When all was said and done, those two would be a simple matter, so long as she could achieve objective three: Destroy the woman who had dared to hurt her husband.

That was where the problem lay.

Tsuru pushed herself up off of the bonnet of her car and began making her way towards the van, her pace matched to Twenty Three and her escort, heading for the two agents against the side. She kept her pace steady, her expression calm. Best not to seem like she was in a rush.

There was no way around the fact that, whoever this woman was, she was powerful enough to fight off Hideyoshi. Tsuru knew her limits. If this woman was stronger than her husband, then there was no chance for a win if it came to a straight up fight. She had to think more tactically than that. 

The real issue here was time. Tsuru needed Caleb here before these slaves could be freed, but she doubted the boss would allow his partner to remain on the ground now that the extraction was prepared. Yuki Yanagi could buy her time, she knew, but he too would need a moment to prepare.

With that thought in mind, she opted for a more visceral form of distraction. Her next spirit was more recent. The ghost of a schoolgirl found haunting a tower block in the early 1990s. Tsuru smiled. The child had been something of a horror buff.

“Tomoko,” she murmured, her speech returning to a more modern form of Japanese. “I could do with a distraction. If you wouldn’t mind doing something horrible when I give the word?”

Again, the response was immediate; the lightest of taps against her thigh, the echoing sound of a teenager laughing in her ear. She felt the ghost trying to dig itself into the magic of her disguise, and freely gave the girl control. She felt her flesh shifting slightly as another tattoo worked itself free of the skin along her leg.

Across the way, her foe was speaking once again.

“I’ve received word that Thirteen’s been delayed. We’ll proceed with the extraction as we are. I’ll remain behind to retrieve him.”

Tsuru glanced at Twenty Three, curious. The lie must be for her benefit, yet from the look on the girl’s face, it only served to make her nervous. Tsuru filed the thought away for later. If they were extracting now, then she was well and truly out of time. She snapped her fingers a few times to signal Tomoko, before retrieving her possessions from Nils’ clothes, and setting another spell aside; some weakened form of intangibility; not her best option for situations such as this, but the illusion still draped around her was…limiting.

Tsuru waited until the visage of Nils around her form began to shake, letting out a noise caught somewhere between a gurgle and a whine, before ducking to the side. Her spell allowed her to slip between his clothes, her form built more of gas for now than flesh.

For a moment, she worried that perhaps she might be seen, her form holding the rough physicality of a shadow; but Tomoko put paid to that. All eyes had gone to Nils when his body began to writhe, and all eyes stayed on him as his head began to rotate backwards on his neck, letting out a high pitched scream that cut short when something in his spine abruptly popped.

To their credit, her opponents responded fast. By the time Tomoko’s puppet hit the floor, his skin melting like hot wax into the pavement, the boss had taken her captured child by the shoulder and started double timing his protesting form towards the van, before shoving him inside. At her instruction, the two slaves inside jumped out, forming into a rough semicircle with the assembled agents, guarding those inside. Even Caleb’s partner followed suit, depositing her own target behind the boy and taking up position.

For a few seconds, all was quiet, Tsuru staying low and still, quietly praying that her semi-invisible nature and Tomoko’s distraction would be enough to keep their eyes from her long enough for Yuki to make his move. 

It was just as the darting eyed girl found her, one arm half-raising to point towards her position, her mouth opening to speak, when the concrete beneath her feet split apart with a sound like a canon, the thick slab fracturing into a mess of cracks and fissures, radiating out from the van’s rear wheels with a downright unsettling speed. Whatever sign the girl had been about to give was lost as the boss once more began bellowing commands, only to be cut short as she caught sight of the tiny spots of brown shifting beneath her feet. 

Tree roots; thousands of them, each no thicker than a toothpick, had begun poking themselves up through the shattered paving slabs, wrapping themselves around the larger remaining chunks, and breaking them apart. A few of the agents panicked at that, lashing out with the lesser spells at their disposal at any creeper that came too close.

For her part, Tsuru let out a sigh. Yuki had cut that far too close. Well, at least the objective was complete. The enemy was waylaid. Now to start whittling them down.

No need to hide anymore. Time to face her foes head on. She set her shadow form aside and stood, attracting the attention of her enemy by way of a short, sharp whistle, shrill enough to be audible even above the crunching of the rocks beneath their feet. 

Tsuru hadn’t expected them to know who she was. It was a point of deep satisfaction, however, when upon catching sight of her, her enemy went white as a sheet.

“Oh, fuck no,” the woman muttered, a cloak of lightning coalescing rapidly about her shoulders. “No, no. Not you. You’re meant to be drained right now.”

Tsuru gave no answer there, instead simply taking a step forward.

“You hurt my husband,” she said, her voice calm. “Congratulations. You now have my attention.”

The boss may perhaps have replied, but she never got the chance. Tsuru was already setting loose her host.


Leanne:

The last Leanne saw of Tsuru Toranaga before her vision was obscured were the dozens, if not hundreds of faint, mist-wreathed shapes flowing one by one from the woman’s skin, each one bringing with it wave upon wave of fog. If there had been time, Leanne would have swore. There was not. 

Beneath her feet, the ground had gone quiet, the twisting, writhing roots below her having pulverised the concrete floor to nothing more than sand, interrupted occasionally by strips of rebar and chunks of upturned rock. Their job apparently done, the tendrils had sunk back beneath the sand. Now, however, the ground began to move, the grit shifting around as though a panoply of tiny creatures burrowed around beneath it.

“Oslos,” she murmured to the agent to her right, forcing her gaze to remain on the approaching fog. “I’ll hold her back. For now, I need you to get the chi-”

That was as far as Leanne got, her words stopped short by the sounds of screeching metal at her back. She spun around, fists raised, and for a moment, simply gaped at what she saw. 

It was a dead tree; a huge one, rising a good forty feet from the dust beneath the van, its trunk piercing the vehicle’s middle and lifting the whole thing skyward, its branches punching out through windows, wheels, and walls as though they weren’t even there.

From somewhere inside, Charlie Vance began to yell. 

Tearing her eyes away from it, Leanne watched the others beginning to emerge, surrounding them on all sides with a canopy of thick, bleach-barked wood.

Then, the fog hit, and she felt the touch of ghosts upon her skin.

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Aid: 5.13

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Leanne:

It was with no great joy that Leanne watched her opponent crumple, his form coalescing back into solid matter around her lightning coated hand, her fingers covered in a patina of quickly drying blood. She pulled her arm back, and looked him in the eye.

The elemental took a moment to fall. He met her gaze, his expression determined, disconnected from the pain. He took a step back, and for a moment, she thought he might somehow keep his feet. He let out a guttural kind of growl, a few embers sparking in his hands. Then, something broke behind his eyes, and he sagged, his body falling in a heap against the scorched floor.

For a moment, Leanne simply stood there, gazing down at her fallen adversary’s form. She’d wanted to test herself against the elemental for years, but the victory felt hollow. Too much wasted energy; too long spent being outmaneuvered.

In that moment, looking down at his broken form, she would have dearly liked to kill him. Not just for outclassing her, but for being what he was; a crossbreed, and the worst of them; his blood drawn from the same kind of monsters that held her planet hostage. It was an insult to everything decent that he’d been allowed to grow so strong, let alone walk free. There was barely any human to be found in him.

‘And the witch lets it fuck her.’

It was with some surprise that she noticed how the lightning shifted around her at the thought, building into gauntlets about her fists.

She shook herself.

‘It’s a stupid move, Leanne. The witch will be angry enough without you murdering her pet. No use making enemies.’

It took more out of her than she wanted to admit, just leaving him there. It itched. She ignored it. She had a job to do.

It had been maybe four minutes since the flames in the house had become visible from outside. She had perhaps two more before the emergency vehicles arrived. That wasn’t too much of an issue. She was done here. More to the point, though, Charles and his mother had been gone for at least a minute already. If Jacqueline decided to build her son a portal, then the trail would be cold in seconds.

No time for subtlety, then.

In the next breath, she was perched on a rooftop just across the street, the air blessedly clear of smoke once more. The breath after that, her familiar was searching for their scents.

It didn’t take her long. They hadn’t gotten far. Jacqueline had ducked her son into the first empty alleyway she could find, and had started on a portal. 

Leanne watched from the roof above. Her first instinct had been to stop the other woman short; knock her cold before the portal was done, and take Charles to a place where he could do some good. She stayed her hand.

Whatever questions he had, Charlie wasn’t speaking. He was too focused on watching his mother at work, the faint traceries of light flickering at her palms as she bridged two points together. Leanne could understand why he’d be in awe. Jacqueline Vance was unique; one of the best portal makers humanity had to offer. The boy deserved to see his mother’s work before she took him away.

It wasn’t a particularly drastic shift when the glyphs filling the air reformed into a gate, just a quiet show of motion, each layer of them swirling counterways against one another as they condensed into a point. Then, that point expanded, and Leanne caught a glimpse of darkened carpet.

“Go on,” Jacqueline murmured, gesturing the stunned boy forwards. “James’ dad can look after things while we figure out what’s going on.”

Charlie didn’t move.

“… What the hell, Mom? Just- What the hell?”

On the other side of the portal, a male voice called out something Leanne wasn’t close enough to hear. She sighed. Time to move again.

“Sweetie,” Jackie murmured, a hand moving to grip her child by the shoulder. “I promise. I’ll tell you everything once I’ve figured it out mys-”

The bolt caught her between the shoulder blades, sending lightning sparkling down the woman’s spine. Her portal snapped shut as quickly as it had opened, and her body hit the floor.

“Sorry,” Leane murmured, stepping casually off the roof and dropping the two storeys to the ground. “That was rude of me. Hi, Charlie.”

To his credit, Charles Vance managed to hold his calm, his lip quivering only slightly as he turned to face her, eyes downcast.

“What’d you do to my mom?” he asked, his voice quiet.

“I knocked her out,” she replied. “She’ll be fine in a while. For now, though, I needed to talk to you in private.”

Charlie sniffed.

“What are you gonna do to us?”

Leanne considered the question for a moment, then set it aside. Better to deal with it later. She might as well try to soften him first; an olive branch.

“Your mother’s a mage,” she murmured. “One of the best. That’s how she got you out of your house, and how she made that port-”

“That’s not what I asked,” he interrupted. “I don’t care about that right now. I asked you what you’re gonna do.” As he spoke, Charlie stepped forwards, placing himself between her and his mother.

Leanne considered him for a moment. It would be so much easier to just knock him out too; but he deserved better, and she needed him cooperative. Eventually, she shrugged.

“To your mother? Nothing. I already know she doesn’t have what I need. As for you? For now, you’re coming with me.”

In answer, Charles Vance simply nodded. Brave kid. She did her best not to feel guilty, watching him dig his fingernails against his palms; seeing him set his jaw against the fear, every muscle pulling taut.

“… Why?”

At that, Leanne let out a sigh.

“Because I need your help to save the world”


Tsuru:

The disguise was uncomfortable; deeply so. Tsuru had never enjoyed wearing other forms, but male ones were always the worst. Nils was tall and broad, the illusion of his body draping around her form like some ridiculous kind of tent. Even worse were the spots where her own body had to shift, her chest collapsing inwards against her ribs, her torso and legs stretching themselves like taffy to fit within his profile. Hardly the most pleasant method of disguise, but all the others took longer to prepare. As it was, she’d had to spend minutes just learning how to walk like this.

‘Ah well,’ she chided herself, leaning back against the hood of Nils’ car and once more casting her eyes around. ‘It won’t be too much longer. Just until Caleb arrives. Not as if you don’t have things to do here, at any rate.’

She hadn’t been the first to arrive for the extraction. No. First had been the man beside the van, giving her a nod as she exited her vehicle. She made no effort to return it.

It was actually a rather tidy operation, once she had a chance to look at it, the meeting point itself nothing more than an open, windowless van, boxed in on three sides by a loose arrangement of shipping crates a short way from the pier, itself holding an old commercial flier seated atop a helipad. Hardly out of place, in an area like this. She doubted she’d have even noticed it, had she not been looking.

As for the duo of twenty-somethings seated inside the van, they were harder to ignore. It wasn’t the general scruffiness of young man’s attire as he dumped his duffel pack on the floor; nor was it the way the girl sat staring out the van’s rear door, her eyes darting across her entire field of view; first to Tsuru, then to a crate on the far side of the street, then a passerby, then back to Tsuru. No. That wasn’t what made the pair of them visible. What made them visible were the duffel bag now slumped on the van’s floor, and the oversized travelling pack squeezed between the girl’s legs.

The bags were twitching.

‘More Hunters like Caleb, I suppose,’ Tsuru thought, shaking her head. ‘Slavers. Always so damn macabre.’

Those two, she had watched arrive, each escorted from a different car by their handlers. She’d watched the two be checked, the overseers making no allowances for privacy as they examined first the hunters, then their packs, before stepping away to join the driver.

Tsuru bit her tongue. The boy’s handler had been far more thorough than he needed to be when it came to frisking the girl. She acted like she didn’t even notice, even as his hand slid below her belt-line, her eyes continuing to scan the nearly empty lot. For his part, the boy just stared at his master as he worked, a look in those exhausted eyes like he was committing every detail of the act to memory.

‘One thing at a time. No pity for these ones until Twenty Three is safe. They can be next in line.’

The next few minutes were tense; tense for Tsuru, at least. The other three overseers stood in their little cluster, murmuring quietly amongst themselves while the driver had a smoke. For her part, she set her focus on the slaves. 

The girl’s demeanour hadn’t changed. Hell, Tsuru wasn’t sure if she’d even blinked. As for the boy, he looked dead inside. She turned her head away, pretending not to see, as he gave his duffel bag a kick.

It didn’t react. The occupant couldn’t have been larger than a child.

She watched him pull his foot back for another swing, and pursed her lips, letting out a short, sharp whistle.

All eyes turned to her.

Tsuru returned the boy’s gaze, and gave her head a single shake. He put his foot back down. Two of the handlers went back to their conversation, the driver wandering off towards the helipad. The girl’s eyes resumed their search.

It came as something of a relief when Twenty Three’s escort finally arrived. Tsuru watched the girl climb from her vehicle, and forced herself to take a breath.

‘Still can’t move until Caleb arrives. Can’t break her free without him.’

At least this one didn’t seem as broken as the others; merely sad.

Tsuru pushed away from the bonnet of her car, intent on at least protecting the girl from the other overseer’s groping, before a call from across the street stopped her.

“Ah. Twenty Three’s already here. Good. We can get this under way.”

The voice sent a chill down Tsuru’s spine. It was the same voice she’d heard on the phone; the boss.

“Apologies for the delay,” Leanne continued. “The Toranagas set their monster on me. Breaking it took longer than expected.”

Quite calmly, Tsuru Toranaga set her rescue plans aside, and began deciding who to kill.

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Aid: 5.12

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Charlie:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He felt her finger prod him gently in the shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leanne:

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

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

So why couldn’t she seem to hit him?

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

He was playing with her.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Charlie:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hideyoshi:

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

That could have gone far worse.

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

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

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

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

Either way, best to get this done with quick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hideyoshi chuckled. The woman swore.

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

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

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

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

At that, he simply shrugged.

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

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

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

His power died away.

He fell.

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