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