Bonus Chapter: Small Worlds.

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Bonus chapter: Small Worlds.


Eleven years ago:

Asset Eighteen awoke with a groan to the sound of his phone going off.

For a second, he just lay there in bed, eyes closed, trying to pretend he was still asleep. There wasn’t a reason to get up. None at all. Who sent texts at Two in the morning? The bosses didn’t matter. Seventeen could wait.

He let himself pretend that for a solid twenty seconds, before pulling his body upright. He rubbed bleariness from his eyes, propped his butt against his pillow, and checked his phone.

The message was from Seventeen.

It was only one word long:

‘Help.’


The residents of New Jersey were clearly quite surprised to see the twelve year old sprinting barefoot down the street, a line of scavenged linen fluttering in the wind behind him. He heard some of them call out to him; dodged between the ones who tried to stop him. He didn’t care about them. He just clutched the jumbled fabric a little tighter and sprinted for all he was worth.

He reached the block containing his partner’s cage in a matter of minutes. He didn’t bother with the stairs. If this was what he thought it was, Seventeen wouldn’t be in a state to open the door. Instead, he climbed the fire escape, vaulting up the ladder and taking the steps three or four at a time. He reached her window, loosened the latch with a muttered spell, yanked it open, and climbed inside.

He found Seventeen curled up in the corner of the room, her pillow wrapped tight around her head. There was vomit on the floor. She was shaking.

She knew he was there. Of course she knew. That was the problem in a nutshell. She was his counterpart, bred for enhanced senses just as he was for physicality. Even with that pillow around her head, she could tell him exactly where he was.

And where everyone else in the building was. And the location of every dumpster. And what they all held.

“Help me,” she whispered, her arms squeezing the pillow convulsively around her ears. “The world’s too big. Help.”

To Eighteen’s credit, he did not hesitate. He strode across the room, casually ignoring the vomit on the floor, and picked her up.

She clung to him.

He carried her to her bed, deposited her gently on the sheets, and wrapped them around her like a burrito. Her whimpers softened, just a little. He repeated the action with the linen from his own cage, burying her under seven or so layers of bundled fabric. She sniffled.

He nodded, satisfied. The treatment was starting to take effect. Good. He picked his friend-burrito up, carried her through to her tiny bathroom, and dumped her in the shower, before returning to the main room. Then, he closed the window, and started searching the place for more material. Her curtains were terrible. Cheap plastic things that crinkled as they moved. Perfect.

He pulled them down, bundling them up in his arms along with a towel and assorted shirts. From there, he returned to the bathroom, unfolded the plastic curtains, and draped them over Seventeen’s head, followed in short order by the fabrics. Okay. That was the main structure in place. Now he just had to finish it up.

He closed the door into the main room, and turned off the light.

Great. He was now completely blind.

“Hey,” he murmured, quiet as he could. “Seventeen. You know who’s a huge dummy and can’t see in the dark?”

From the rough direction of the shower, there was a snuffly kind of laugh.

“O-one step forwards,” she mumbled.

Eighteen allowed himself a small smile, closed his eyes, and stepped blindly forwards.

“Two steps left.”

Eighteen obeyed.

“Turn around a little bit.”

He turned. She giggled.

“The other way, doofus.”

“I knew that,” he muttered, turning the other way.

“Sure you did. One step forward, then one step right.”

He stepped.

“You found me.”

“I found you,” he echoed, reaching down and patting the rough area where he assumed her head to be. He was pretty sure he got it. “Good work, ground control. Engaging operation domino fortress. Ready to proceed?”

A wet snicker.

“Roger, Alpha One.”

He spent a few awkward seconds fumbling in the dark for the shower handle, before turning on the water, and soaking the both of them with a lukewarm spray. He gave it just enough time for the water to run warm, then turned it back off. he got down on his hands and knees, lifted the edge of the fabric draped over Seventeen’s head, and climbed in under it with her.

It was disconcerting to him. Under the curtain, muffled by layers of liquid sodden cloth, he couldn’t hear a damn thing besides her breathing.

That was the point. Put the rest of the world as far away as possible.

He reached out, took his friend-burrito by the shoulders, and propped her up between his knees for a hug. Now he had only one job left. Listen to her breathing, and keep her calm.

She nuzzled her face against his shoulder. He pretended not to notice the moisture in her eyes.

“It’s still so loud,” she sniffed. “It’s everywhere.”

“No it’s not,” he muttered. “It’s far away from us. The world’s just you and me right now.” He pulled her in a little tighter, his hand rubbing gently at her back.

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

Eighteen kept her snuggled there until her breathing evened out. He wasn’t sure exactly when she fell asleep. He nodded off himself not long after.


Two Days Ago:

Eighteen sat in the visitor’s chair, gazing down at his hands. He’d taken days drumming up the courage to come here. He didn’t even know what he wanted to say. Instead, he just sat there, glaring at the plastic cuff wrapped around his wrist.

A tracking device. The irony was painful.

He shot a look at his minder by the door. The man raised an eyebrow. Eighteen scowled at him. The minder just shrugged.

He took a breath.

‘Just get it over with.’

He looked at Thirteen. The kid looked back, right in his eyes. He looked away.

The sound of fingers snapping together. His head jerked up. It was Seventeen. She was still standing exactly where she had been for the last half hour, out in the hallway, back against the wall by the open door as her eyes scanned mechanically back and forth across her field of view. She didn’t look at him.

She did speak, though, in a fashion. The tiniest jerk of her head towards the hospital bed. That was about as vocal as she ever got in public.

He sighed.

“Yeah. I know.”

Another tiny movement of her head towards the bed. There was no arguing with her sometimes.

“I was a dick,” he said. “I’m sorry.” He looked the wounded boy in the eye. Thirteen’s gaze was cold. Eighteen kept going. “If there’s anything I can do to pay you back, no matter what, I’ll do it. I promise.”

Thirteen’s expression remained unchanged. Eighteen returned his gaze to the floor.

When a response finally came, it was barely louder than a croak. Hardly surprising. The kid’s throat was just as torn up as the rest of him.

“You’re not worth it,” he said. “Not worth her. Neither of you are.”

Eighteen took the words on the chest as best he could.

“Fuck you,” he murmured. “We’re worth plenty.”

Thirteen let out a noise that began as a laugh, but finished as more of a pained groan.

“She’s broken and you’re an asshole,” he replied. “Twenty Three’s worth more than both of you.”

Eighteen closed his eyes and took a breath. He had promised himself that no matter what Thirteen said, he’d take it. He deserved everything the kid could dish out and more. He forced himself to give the guy a chance.

“She’s not broken,” he said quietly. “Take it back.”

“Prove me wrong,” Thirteen replied, glaring at him.

Eighteen opened his mouth to reply, not entirely sure of what he was even going to say, when a knocking from the corridor stopped him short. The two of them looked around. Eighteen grinned.

Seventeen had her arm stuck through the doorway. She was giving Thirteen the finger.

“So,” he asked. “You want that in writing?”


Seventeen years ago:

The first strike caught him in the mouth. Hard, blunt; a lightning line of pain cracking through his teeth. He tasted blood.

It sent him reeling, blind, thumping against the bed. He let out a noise; not quite anger, not quite fear, and raised a hand in an attempt to pull the bag away from his eyes.

That earned him a blow across the hand, something solid colliding with his thumb. He felt the bone split, and was unable to hold back the quiet whine of pain that escaped his desire for defiance. He hunched over, half-cradling his broken hand, then felt the butt of something jab against his abdomen, driving all the air from his lungs in a single, violent heave.

He lost some of the contents of his stomach, too. The lip of the bag kept them stuck around his neck.

He spent the next half second trying to simultaneously breathe and retch, before another strike impacted like a hammer blow against his shoulder.

He let the force of it push him off his knees; allowed his body to hit the floor, taking the landing on his one uninjured shoulder, and using the movement to roll himself to his feet.

He was used to pain. Used to discomfort. They’d been drilling him for this since the day he was born.

He closed his eyes. No use to him with the bag in the way. He relied on sound. His assailant moved loudly; breathed heavy. Big. Male.

He dodged the next swing by pure, blind instinct, ducking under a swing probably meant to ring his skull like a bell, and surged forwards, head first, bringing his forehead into his attacker’s crotch as hard as he could.

The man yelled.

Eighteen grinned.

Then the man’s knee made him swallow one of his teeth.

‘Worth it.’

That was the last thought he had for a while. A pair of hands clapped against his ears; made stars jump around inside his brain.

It was a relief, in a way; made him less able to register the pain of every hit. After a minute or so, he was left laying there, just quietly wondering why.

Were they going to kill him?

Had he disobeyed?

When the world finally began to swim back into focus, the first things he noticed were the shrieks. Inarticulate, horrified.

He knew that voice.

Another strike. His gut this time. Then a voice he lacked the capacity to recognize called them off.

“Enough. She’s manifested. It’s done.”

For a moment, he simply lay there, his mind a loose associative mess of pain and tired confusion. Then, they pulled the vomit and blood soaked bag off his head, and he saw something that turned the world cold.

‘Seventeen.’

She had tear marks streaking down her cheeks. They’d strapped her to a chair.

“Why?” he croaked, for all the world, just bitter. “Why’d you make her watch?”

They ignored him.

“Right,” muttered the same voice as before. “Hold him down. Let’s get this over with.”

He didn’t resist the hands as they took hold of his wrists. He was too tired. Too sore. Defiance was only worth so much.

His perspective changed when the first fist caught Seventeen about the cheek, knocking her chair sideways to the floor. Then, his very blood caught fire.

He didn’t know how long it went on. Just that he fought them with all his might for every single second of it. Every blow. Every drop of her blood across the floor.

He felt something breaking loose inside his brain.


Night:

He awoke in rage.

Hands at his shoulders. Weight against his chest. Still holding him down.

‘No.’

He struck blind. Too dark to see. Couldn’t think.

The flaring of a shield in the gloom; a ringing pain in his wrist. He let out a wordless curse, grabbed his attacker by the middle, and wrenched her off of him. Shield or no, there was no competing with his strength. He grappled; pinned her down; glared down at the figure in the dark, his heart racing, his mind scarlet.

“Let her go,” he said. It was all he had the space in his head to say. He closed his grip around her wrists, and squeezed. The shield flickered; a momentary light casting focus on his adversary’s skin.

He let Seventeen go; pulled himself backwards across his bed, ashamed.

He spent the next few minutes glaring at his feet, something painful jammed inside his throat.

It had been a long time since he’d had that nightmare.

“I-” he tried, his voice catching somewhere along the line. “I’m sorry. I’m-”

“Shh,” she murmured, the mattress shifting slightly as she slid herself across it. “Stop being a dummy.”

There was some part of him that wasn’t quite able to stop the smile at that.

“… Ok.”

He felt her head come to rest gently against his shoulder.

“Good.”

They sat together like that for a long while; just quiet; the both of them listening as his heart began to slow.

He felt her lips brush against his cheek.

“You gonna say the words?” she asked, just above a whisper.

“No,” he complained, his smile growing a fraction wider. “They feel stupid now.”

She shrugged.

“Well, I still want to hear them.”

He sighed. There was no arguing with her.

“It’s far away from us,” he recited, the warmth spreading slowly through his tired brain. “The world’s just you and me right now.”

“You promise?”

He chuckled as he felt her lips once more trace their way across his jaw.

“I promise.”

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Aid: 5.17

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Caleb:

Caleb extinguished the flames around his arm with a groan. The limb was less than useless; the sensations echoing out of it too profound and varied to even be called pain; from the omni-present throbbing of the bones in his shattered shoulder, to the deep, half-numbed agony leaking from the hole in his wrist. He tried to move his fingers. Barely a twitch. He sighed.

‘That better not be permanent.’

He glanced over at the boughs currently clearing from his path, then set about binding the wound.

Caleb wasn’t completely sure why, but the trees’ movements had slowed to a crawl since the boss had made her move. Perhaps something to do with the swath of destruction that had been left in the woman’s wake. Caleb didn’t care. It was annoying.

He wrapped a scrap of his shirt around his wrist, then clumsily tied it down with his teeth. No time for blood loss today.

He pushed through.

It was a fairly short path, all things considered, opening up into yet another clearing at the end. Unlike those that had come before, however, this one wasn’t closed off. Here, the walls branched out at odd intervals, gaps between the boughs showing occasional glimpses of further clearings beyond them.

When finished elbowing his way out of his narrow corridor and into the open space, he caught sight of a figure, kneeling in the mist beside one of the smoother boughs, facing away from him. If he’d had the energy to split his focus, he might perhaps have recognized her, even obscured as she was by the fog. As it was, the flames had already begun to cloak his functioning hand before her voice cut him short.

“You’re here,” Tsuru murmured, not bothering to look at him. “Good. Now we can proceed.”

Caleb didn’t have an answer for that at first. What small part of his mind there was that had any care for the outside world was trying to figure out how to feel. Where the hell had she been when the boss had made her move? Why so absent for the entirety of the fight? Why steer him through the grove like a rat chasing cheese?

Eventually, he let out a bitter sort of laugh.

“I could have died back there, you know.”

“You could have,” she agreed. “So could I. That’s the risk you take in a fight. I allowed her burn her way through my cage in whatever direction she chose. That’s what you do when you’re fighting an enemy so much more powerful than you. You let them waste as much energy as you can.”

She paused for a moment there, muttering something quiet under her breath, her fingers trailing symbols in the sand.

“There was a risk to it, certainly,” she continued. “But it’s a risk we had to take. In the best case, she would have burned through as many trees as she could, leaving her open for me to make my move. In the worst case, one or other of us would have died. As it stands, the woman you fought had just used three of her strongest spells in succession, and was therefore weakened enough for you to pierce her shield.”

Caleb absorbed that for a moment, then shook his head.

“You’re a shit ally, you know that?”

Tsuru shrugged.

“I can be. I risk whoever I must in order to see my objective done. I’m a lot like you in that regard.”

One of Caleb’s eyelids twitched. Low blow.

“… I hope James never figures out how terrible you are.”

A laugh.

“You and me both. Now shut up. You’re not the only person I got hurt.”

She finished tracing her patterns in the sand, murmuring another quiet sentence to herself, and then the ground began to move.

It was slow, at first, a few stray roots and vines stirring in the silt, each no thicker than a toothpick. They coalesced, condensing from a wide web that stretched across the floor into the space where she had drawn her marks. Then, they began to rise; first one, then dozens; each and every one of them coiling around the rest as they pushed themselves further from the ground.

What finally emerged bore the rough shape of a child. No larger than a four year old, the latticework of vines that made up its form growing a skin composed of tiny white flowers.

Caleb was briefly surprised at that. He’d expected whatever controlled these trees to be just as dead as they were. Then, he saw the scorch marks darting across its frame, three lines of dry, blackened petals running the surface of its chest, arm, and thigh. It was hugging itself; shaking.

No sooner had the creature emerged than Tsuru leaned in to embrace it, cooing something that Caleb lacked the Japanese to understand, her tone almost parental. He watched, impatient, as it leant its head against her shoulder. For a moment, he could have sworn he heard it crying.

Tsuru raised a hand to stroke its head, and carried on her quiet cooing as her familiar began to fold itself back inside her form, petal and root alike fading into lines of black that crawled along her hand, under her sleeve. She stood, gestured for him to follow her down one of the branching paths, and the two of them began to move.

“How many are left,” he asked. “Do we have a plan to get them away from Twenty Three?”

At that, Tsuru merely chuckled.

“Just the one,” she said. “He’s already being handled.”


Leanne:

When consciousness finally returned to Leanne’s mind, it did not do so gently. First, there was pain; a horrid, aching heat that spanned itself across her scalp, she let out a groan, followed by a low whimper as the act of movement sent a spike of fresh pain driving through her skull.

There were things around her. She could feel them clawing at her skin, the faint remnants of her shield barely holding them at bay. She felt as one of them broke through above her thigh, something jagged cutting a thin, shallow trench in her flesh.

She called her powers.

A small wave was enough to push them off; directionless, unfocused. Why was she so drained?

She tried to open her eyes. One of them obeyed.

Rocky sand. The roots of trees glimpsed through an obscuring field of mist. It was quiet. Her head ached.

A memory.

Power, destruction, rage. Searching for an enemy. The face of one of her hounds. Then fire.

‘Thirteen.’

She felt the confusion in her mind giving way to a grim, determined kind of hate.

She remembered now. The fight. His counter. His palm pressing itself against her face. The sensation as one of the eyes was seared from her skull. The terrifying lack of air within her lungs. The struggle. The dark.

She stood.

She stumbled.

She stood again.

She wasn’t done. She refused. He was less. He was not allowed to beat her.

Her shields flickered. She dug into her reserves. Empty. She dug into the reserves of the hounds. Still a little left. Good. She had feared, for a moment, that she’d been overwhelmed. Apparently not. The little shit had just been lucky enough to pierce her shields.

She looked around. Footprints in the sand. Flecks of blood, barely visible in the fog.

Good. Something for her to follow.


Caleb:

When Caleb and Tsuru arrived, it was to find the bulk of their work already done. When Caleb became aware of the shouting in the fog, he broke into a haggard run, his bruised legs aching with the effort. Then, he rounded a corner, and simply stopped.

There is a saying among filmmakers that a monster becomes less terrifying the more the audience can see it.

Clearly, Tsuru’s ghosts had disagreed.

They were everywhere. The clearing was simply full of them; packed so densely together that some were having to climb atop the rest to avoid the crush of bodies. Some of them were vaguely human by appearance. Most of them were not.

The whispers were gone; replaced, to Caleb’s surprise, not by snarling or growls, but by almost total silence. A silence broken only by the yells of those attempting to hold them off, and the rattling of claws on metal.

It took Caleb a moment or two to find them, his eyes scanning back and forth over the mass of the swarm, and coming up empty. Then, he watched one of the creatures fall, and directed his eyes upwards.

“… Huh.”

It was a van; a perfectly normal, utterly average van.

It was also hanging some twelve feet in the air, with yet another tree simply shunted through its midsection, leaving the rear end of it sloping slightly towards the ground, one of the rear doors hanging wide, the other apparently torn off by the creatures clambering along the walls.

As Caleb watched, one of the creatures tried to climb inside, only for the man standing at the lip to send it reeling back with a bolt of greenish light, the force of it loosening its grip on the vehicle’s underside. It fell to the ground; landed amidst the swarm of flesh, and began to climb again.

Then the next monster tried force its way inside. Then the next. Then the next.

Some of them were clawing at the walls now, peeling metal loose from the chassis, and attempting to force their heads inside.

Somewhere inside the van, a child’s voice began to scream, the shadowed interior of the van flaring with purple light.

Caleb caught a glimpse of his partner’s face.

Seeing someone surrounded by the dead should never inspire such relief. Caleb hadn’t even realized how tightly he was wound until it all released.

He grinned wider and more exhaustedly than he could ever remember grinning, and raised his remaining good hand to his lips.

“Hey!” he bellowed. “Twenty Three!”

Just like that, the monsters stopped. Every last one of them went still. Not even fighting to stay on top of one another.

Inside the van, on the other hand, only two of the occupants turned to look at him. He recognised them now. The man at the lip glanced down at him, his gaze filling with absolute contempt. Behind the man crouched the blank faced form of Seventeen, her eyes flickering briefly towards him, before she moved to shield a boy cowering near the point where the splaying branches of the tree stabbed through the walls. At a second glance, he recognised the boy as the one he’d been told to capture.

Caleb noted absently that the purple glow seemed to emanate from a disc floating between Charlie’s hands. The boy was staring at it. He felt a momentary pang of sympathy. This couldn’t be a pleasant time to manifest. Then, his focus returned to Twenty Three. Had he always felt this light?

For her part, his partner was still in motion, taking advantage of the momentary lull to shove one of the creatures back out through the hole it had burrowed into the wall by Charlie’s head. Caleb winced. Small wonder the kid had screamed.

Only then did she turn to look at him.

For a second, no one spoke. Caleb raised his good hand in a wave.

“Uh, hey,” he called awkwardly. “I’m here to save you.”

At that, Twenty Three simply stared. The agent, on the other hand, spat at him.

“Like hell you are, kid.”

He raised an arm, another bolt of pale, greenish light gathering between his fingers; loosed before Twenty Three had any time to intervene. Caleb knew he couldn’t dodge the shot. He was too tired and too stiff to even possibly get away in time. He didn’t even try. Instead, he put a shard of James’ power into a shield, and allowed the bolt to plink lightly off his chest, as threatening as a foam dart. Then, with a wordless yell, Twenty Three tackled the agent from behind, swept his legs out from under him, and began punching him in the face.

There was something about that response which Caleb found incredibly appealing.

When the beating finally stopped, Caleb gazed up at his erstwhile attacker. For a moment, he tried to be angry. The emotion wouldn’t come. He settled for a smile.

“You’re out of your depth, man,” he said, not unkindly. “Surrender now and I promise not to feed you to the swarm.”

Somewhere among the mass of shapes, he could have sworn he heard the finger girl snicker.

The bloodied agent simply glared at him. He did not, however, attempt to stand.

At the back of the van, the purple light once again went out.

“W-what the hell is going on?” a boy’s voice asked, its tone one of a mesmerised sort of fear.

Caleb felt a momentary pang of guilt. He owed it to James to make sure this kid was okay.

“Hey,” he called, trying to put something soothing in his voice. “You Charlie Vance?”

A sniffle.

“Why does everyone know my fucking name?”

Caleb winced; shook his head; took a breath.

“Heh. Sorry about that. My name’s Caleb. I’m friends with kid called James Toranaga. He sent me here to get you home.”

Another sniffle.

“They set my house on fire.”

Caleb reevaluated.

“Well, I can get you to your parents, then.”

There was silence for a moment then, broken when the agent swore. Caleb ignored him.

‘Let him be pointless. Why should I care?’

Finally, Charlie seemed to come to a decision:

“I-Is my Mom okay?” he asked. “The woman who grabbed me knocked her out.”

For a moment, Caleb contemplated lying; simply telling him she was fine. Fuck that. He was tired of lying.

“I dunno,” he admitted. “I don’t know what they would have hit her with; but I know these people don’t like killing without a reason. If you come with me, I promise I’ll stay with you until we find her.”

“… Yeah,” Charlie muttered. “Okay.”

“Charles, wait,” the Agent cut in, his voice a little distorted from the swelling in his jaw. “Think about this. You don’t know him. He could be lying through his te-”

For the second time, the interior of the van was lit with a neon glow; this one far brighter than before. That wasn’t, in itself, entirely unexpected. What did make Caleb jump, however, was the second disc; the one that opened some three feet wide and a little to his right. For the brief moment that it was open, Caleb saw the interior of the van painted over the portal’s surface, like a window framed in solid light. He took an unconscious step back as Charlie clambered through. No sooner was the boy through than the portal snapped shut behind him.

“Did you say you were friends with James?” he asked, glancing nervously at the now much closer mass of the swarm.

To Caleb’s credit, he didn’t stay surprised for long.

“Oh, right.” He grinned. “Yeah, I am. He saved my butt tonight, if I’m honest.”

Behind them, a voice whistled.

“Portal maker, eh?” Tsuru spoke, now leaned against a tree trunk a dozen or so feet back. “Hell of a skill you have there, Charlie.”

“… Aren’t you James’ Grandma?”

If Tsuru responded, Caleb didn’t hear it. He became somewhat distracted when his partner started yelling.

“Caleb!” she bellowed. “You have five seconds to tell me what’s going on, or I will punch you in the dick!”

“Right, shit, yeah,” he returned his attention to her in full. “You know those stupid escape plans I keep coming up with? Well, one of em worked.” He waited for her to respond. She did not. Her face had gone completely blank. “I’m free,” he repeated. “I got out. It cost me a broken arm and a ton of pride, but I did it. I’m gonna get you out, too.”

“… Prove it.”

“What?” he asked, nonplussed.

“I said prove it,” she snapped, her voice hard. “Prove you’re not just another one of those monsters down there. Or an illusion. Prove you’re Caleb, and prove you’re free.”

Caleb took a deep breath, then nodded.

“Yeah, okay. One sec.” He spent a few moments trying to shrug out of his Jacket without having to move his crushed shoulder, then gave up. “Hey, old lady, can you help me outta this so she can see my back?”

Tsuru gave no audible response, simply striding across the short distance between them, and helping him begin to shift free of his clothes.

“As for proving I’m really me-” he let out a quiet groan as his jacket pulled agonisingly against his arm. “-Fine. Stuff only you and I know, right? How about escape attempts? Remember my first one? When I was like, nine? I tried to convince you we could just make a run for it, and you slapped me so hard one of my teeth came loose?” He chuckled. “You brought me ice cream after that. Still have no idea where you got the money. How about the knife? Three years ago, last time I tried to get away; you snapped the blade under a paving slab. I told you I’d rather die than stay like this; you just hugged me and made me promise to never say stuff like that again. I remember we didn’t hang out for a while after that, cuz that was when I realised I had a crush on you.”

For the last few words, it was a genuine struggle to hold the older girl’s gaze. For her part, Twenty Three looked slightly sad.

“You know I don’t fe—” she started, but he cut her off.

“Of course I do,” he muttered. “Doesn’t stop me having a crush. Doesn’t have to go anywhere.”

Twenty Three opened her mouth to respond, then closed it again. In the end, she just nodded.

With Tsuru’s help, he finished extricating his upper body from his clothing, and stepped forwards, the creatures of the swarm parting gently before him. He turned around, and offered his partner a view of his neck, the brand scorched from his skin.

“Got a magic transfusion from a friend; used it to overload the spell. The boss can’t touch me now.”

A long, long silence; then a quiet sniff.

“She can always get to us, Caleb. They’re fucking everywhere.”

Caleb turned back around, and looked his friend in the eye. There was a single tear mark streaking down her cheek. He gave her a tired laugh.

“Well, I mean, they can try,” he admitted. “But last time the boss picked a fight with me, I left her on the ground with most of her face burned off. If she ever wakes up from that, she can go for it.”

That statement did not have quite the desired effect. Instead of elation, surprise, or maybe even a laugh, all it seemed to do was deepen his partner’s worry.

“But she’s awake right now,” Twenty Three replied, her brow furrowing. “I can feel her draining me.”

For what it was worth, Caleb didn’t waste time with disbelief.

“Twenty Three,” he said urgently. “I need you to get down here right no-”

It wasn’t worth much.

Behind him, Caleb heard a final, horrifying crack, before his vision sparked with neon blue, and something sent him hurtling across the clearing. He didn’t even feel the impact as his body struck who knew what; his senses too thrown to even register the sound.

The last sight his vision registered before the darkness took him was of Tsuru lunging for the van, her swarm already beginning to move, and of Leanne’s broken form holding Twenty Three and Charlie by the shoulders. Then the three of them vanished into nothing.

She was gone.

He had failed.

He fainted.

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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: 5.10

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Caleb:

He was a mountain. Those were the only words Caleb had to describe what he was feeling, the pool of newfound energy flowing out along his system. It felt vast, yet, weirdly delicate; like an ocean’s worth of water poured into a drinking glass. Every movement sent a tingle through his skin, his entire being radiating with an almost electric charge. He flexed the fingers of his right hand, then watched as, quite unbidden, a faint blue arc danced across his knuckles. He smelled ozone.

‘How the fuck does the kid even carry this much power?’

He took a breath. He needed to be steady. He needed to keep this in control.

His attempt at calm was cut short by the ringing from his phone. He swore. He knew that ringtone.

Caleb drew the device from his pocket, and heaved a sigh. Best not to ignore it. He only needed to maintain the facade a little while longer. He lifted the phone to his ear.

“Heya, Boss,” he opened, injecting a hopefully annoying note of cheer into his voice. “Need some-”

“Your first mistake,” the voice on the other end cut him off. “Was taking that power into yourself so early.”

Caleb felt his mouth go dry at that, his words catching themselves in his throat. She knew.

“The second,” she continued icily. “Was assuming I wouldn’t be watching to make sure you didn’t try to pull this shit.”

For a moment, Caleb was silent. He was thinking, his brain working at triple speed in an attempt to figure out what the next course should be. Eventually, he set the buzzing in his mind aside, and settled for a chuckle.

“Heh. You noticed my power up, huh?”

An angry sigh on her end, cutting through the line like static.

“Of course we did, Thirteen. That’s the bare minimum we’d need to keep you all in line. Now, if you honestly plan on keeping yourself and your partner alive, I’d suggest standing very still while I pull that power out of you.”

It was then that Caleb felt the marks along his neck growing warm, his borrowed power seeping out of him a single drop at a time. He barely even noticed. His focus was elsewhere.

“… Caleb,” he muttered.

“What?” she asked, her voice edging slowly back into the uncaring calm he knew so well.

Caleb wasn’t being rational. He knew he wasn’t. This wasn’t the smart choice. Not with so much on the line. He didn’t care. He dug into the sea of power still coursing beneath his skin, shaped it into a point within his mind, and drove it into the heat against his neck.

“My name’s Caleb,” he repeated. “You soulless cunt.”

There was a silence between them then as the brand upon his neck grew hot enough to burn his skin, before the spell broke with a sound like cracking glass.

“… Fine then,” she growled. “We’ll game this out, if you’re so set on being stupid. Option one. You try whatever half-assed plan you think is going to let you escape on your own, and I kill Twenty Three. Option two. You try and break Twenty Three out along with you, and she dies before you even get halfway to her. Option thre-”

“I’ve got allies now,” he snapped. “People strong enough to boost me this far without breaking a sweat. You kill my partner, and you make some of the strongest enemies the world has to offer.”

For what it was worth, the statement seemed to give the woman a momentary pause. Then, she let out a huff.

“One ally,” she grunted, her tone contemplative. “At most. You’ve sided with the Toranagas. It has to be. There are four people in New York with the power to do what you just did: Father, the old witch of Japan, her pet elemental, and that half-breed child of theirs.” Caleb had no difficulty discerning the contempt in those last few words.

“It can’t be Peter Toranaga,” she continued. “Because if he were involved, Manhattan would be swarming with feds by now. I doubt that it would be Father, because going to him just makes you a different kind of pet. That just leaves the witch and her beast, and one of them must have drained themselves dry to give you all that force.”

For a moment, Caleb almost laughed. He clamped down on the sound before it reached his lips. She was wrong. Best not to let her know.

“Not like that’s gonna last forever,” he said. “And they’re nasty enemies to have. So how about you just give me Twenty Three and I promise to call off the super wizards?”

“Not that easy, Thirteen,” she replied, her voice cold. “You’ve made things… complicated, I’ll admit, but the fact remains that I still have Twenty Three.”

“And I have the Toranagas,” he shot back. “Go ahead. Flip that coin.”

For the first time in Caleb’s memory, he heard his boss swear. There was an anger to it. Frustration. It gave him more satisfaction than it ought to have done, finally seeing her crack like that.

“… We’re extracting her from a dock on the south side of the city,” she growled finally. “I’ll send you the address.”

“What?” Caleb teased, barely suppressing a laugh. The victory felt good. Far too good. “I don’t think I heard that right.”

A sigh.

“I’ll be blunt, Thirteen. You don’t know a damn thing about what we’re trying to do. You don’t know a damn thing about how we’re going to do it. The single most important thing you could have told anyone is simply that we exist, and it sounds like that’s a move you’ve already made. All that’s left is an escaped hunting dog using bargaining chips he doesn’t know the value of. So fine. You win. Now just take the girl, take your leash, and get out of my way. There are adults at work right now and it’s harder with animals underfoot.”

Caleb grinned.

“Hell, I’ll take that. And you promise your extraction team won’t be trying to kill me?”

“Of course not,” she muttered. “I know exactly how strong you are right now. I’m not about to order my people to their deaths.”

“Smart choice,” he agreed. “Although, I gotta admit, I was kinda looking forward to smashing some hea-”

She hung up.

Caleb pocketed the phone with a chuckle, then took a breath. He barely noticed the text alert pinging from his pocket.

They were so close. He could feel it.


Northern Scandinavia: 6:34 AM.

The woman set her mobile down on her desk a little harder than intended. Talking to Thirteen was never easy, even back when he’d ostensibly towed the line. It was never a pleasant way to start the day. Even worse today, having to pretend to lose.

She sighed, and allowed herself a tired kind of chuckle. At least she’d never have to deal with it again. She lay her palms flat against the tabletop, and gazed down at them, impassive.

He’d called her a cunt. One of her knuckles twitched.

‘No time for that, Leanne. Take a chocolate and relax. There’s work to do today.’

She pulled one of her desk drawers open, and fumbled around for the bag of smarties tucked underneath her stapler.

The plan would need to be adjusted. Not a difficult thing to do, certainly, but made harder by the time constraints.

She popped a chocolate into her mouth, and gave it a crunch.

There was still a Toranaga active in New York. That meant no matter how she reorganized, there was still an element of risk. None of the nearby agents could reliably fight someone on that scale. Time to set some priorities, then.

She sat still for a few moments, faintly aware of the chocolate slowly melting on her tongue, then once more picked up her phone.

She dialled in the first number, and hit call, pushing herself up from her seat as it rang, and crossing to the window.

Her office was undersized. Economies of scale were a requisite concession when it came to keeping her facilities small enough to avoid notice. She didn’t mind it all too much. At least she had a view.

The phone line went live in her hand as her agent received the call. Then a gruff voice spoke, heavily accented.

“Nils here. Need something, boss?”

She swallowed her chocolate.

“You’re being reassigned,” she murmured. “Asset Thirteen won’t be delivering his target. Just make your way to the rendezvous and make sure Twenty Three remains uninformed.”

There was a moment’s pause at that. A rustling that Leanne struggled to place, followed by a small thump.

“… Confirmed,” came the man’s eventual reply, slightly husky. “And his target? Should we assign someone to-”

“Don’t mind that,” she murmured. “Charles Vance holds priority here, and there are threats about.”

It galled Leanne, having to travel there herself; but the Toranagas were a challenge. Better safe than sorry. She sighed.

“I’ll handle it myself. Expect me at the extraction point in ten minutes or so. I’d like Twenty Three removed before Thirteen arrives.”

There was another brief burst of sound as Nils cleared his throat.

“Understood, Ma’am.”

“Good.”

She disconnected the line, and heaved another sigh. She hated having to get involved herself. Resorting to force was so untidy.

She cast her eyes out at the scene beyond her window.

It was snowing out there, the summer holding little meaning this close to the arctic. She imagined she could see the faint line of the ski lifts running up and down one of the distant mountains.

She shook her head, then began gathering the energy for her trip.


New York: 12:40 AM.

The phone went dead in agent Nils’ hand as he lowered it back down, his hand a little shaky. He swallowed.

“Is that enough?” he asked, careful not to move his chin too close towards the flames beneath his throat. “Are you going to let me go now?”

“Depends what you mean by let you go,” the Japanese witch murmured. “Are we going to set you free? No. You’ve got more than a couple of questions left to answer; but you’ve spared yourself some pain, for now, at least.”

She plucked the phone from his grip, and turned towards her pet.

“Might as well put the fire out, dear. No use burning him tonight.”

The elemental snorted.

“How very rude of me.”

He pulled his hand away, a touch slower than Nils would have liked.

“So. One of us to the extraction point, one to intercept the boss?”

Tsuru Toranaga nodded absently as she flicked through Nils’ phone.

“That does sound like the optimal solution. Are you in the mood for a fight today?”

The elemental chuckled.

“Why not?” he murmured. “Could be fun.”

Nils bit his tongue at that, and simply focused on charging up his spell. There wasn’t room to fail here. The boss was counting on him now.

‘Just wait till they’re distracted,’ he thought. ‘Don’t let your capture be for nothing.’

Only a couple feet away, the witch was talking again.

“I suppose I’ll take the extraction point, then,” she murmured, pulling a second phone from her inside pocket. “I’ll let Caleb know the sco-”

Nils’ spell came into force in less than half a second, all the power he had available collecting itself into a dancing swarm across his fist. The moment it pulled itself into being, he threw himself at her, putting every ounce of his strength and weight into the blow.

He knew before he’d even began to move that he had been too slow. It was too late now, though. He might as well commit, even if he didn’t have a hope.

“Oh, right,” she muttered to her husband as he knocked the agent’s strike aside. “I’ll be needing his clothes as well.”

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