Dissonance: 4.5

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Author’s Note: Hey guys! I know this one’s late again, but my explanation for that is that it’s a long chapter, with a bunch of stuff going on behind the scenes. Secondly, along with this chapter, as promised, I am uploading the first two of the playlists of stuff that James and Tasha enjoy. They’ll grow over time, probably, as I find more music I think they’d rock out to. If you guys have any suggestions on hearing them, you can feel free to shoot me your ideas. Here they are: Tasha’s Beatz and James’ Tunez.

James:

The boy was odd. That was the first thing that came to James’ mind upon seeing him. It was hard to pin down; nothing about him was particularly eye-catching in and of itself. Just another teenager, his shaggy brown hair cut perhaps a bit too long, wearing a faded shirt, a leather jacket that looked at least a size too big for him, and a pair of jeans that either badly needed replacing, or had possessed those tears in the knees since their purchase. James probably wouldn’t have looked twice at him if they’d passed one another in the street, but the older boy was still staring at him, standing on the curb across the road, unmoving. The stranger raised his hand in a wave, and James copied it, confused.

“Oi, bud,” Tasha asked from the other end of the line. “You still there? You went quiet.”

“Oh, right,” he muttered. “Sorry. There’s a guy outside being weird.”

“How weird?”

The boy outside smiled, turning his raised hand mid-wave to beckon to him. James raised an eyebrow at that, then shook his head. The older boy scowled.

“Pretty weird. Mind if I call you back?”

“Sure. Lemme know if you need backup.” The line went dead.

The stranger was moving again, glancing from side to side around the deserted street, before looking back at James. Then, he raised his hands to chest height, holding them about a foot apart from one another. Then, for the briefest moment, something appeared between them, like the flickering of flames through water. It was there for just a moment, before it faded from between the other boy’s fingers. James stared.

This boy was magic? Why was he here? How had he found him? Again, the boy beckoned him to come outside. Once more, he shook his head.

This time, the boy outside didn’t scowl. Instead, he grinned, shifted his shoulders briefly in an exaggerated shrug, and began walking forwards, making his way across the street. James watched him, perplexed. Was this someone from the Family? Had someone seen him flying?

James watched as the boy reached the gate that separated his house from the rest of the street, placing a hand on the latch before vaulting it in a single neat jump. Then the boy approached the front door, and glanced back at his window, still grinning. Then, he held out a hand, conjuring more of that odd, slightly off-coloured flame above his palm, and raised his other hand to knock on the door.

James felt the dread sinking into his stomach in an instant. This boy was going to show his parents magic? Without thinking, he brought his hands up at shoulder height, fingers splayed out, and slowly shook his head.

The boy grinned a little wider at that, the flame flickering out in his palm, and once more gestured for James to follow him.

He hesitated for what felt like the longest few seconds of his life at that, before reluctantly pressing his fingers against the window, and sliding it open.

“Hey there,” the stranger murmured as James clambered awkwardly down out of his window, not wanting to show this newcomer his flight unless he had to. “Name’s Caleb. Sup?”

He didn’t answer right away, lowering himself down from the second storey window bracket by his fingers, before dropping lightly to the ground, using his power just a little to soften the fall. Then, he turned towards the other boy, and found that he was angry.

“I don’t care who you are,” he growled. “If you go near my family again, I’ll-”

“Whoa, now,” Caleb chuckled, splaying his hands out casually in front of him. “Easy, tiger. I just wanted to have a talk. No one’s doing anything to anyone’s family. C’mon. Let’s go somewhere a little less likely to get us noticed.” With that, he turned, walked back towards the gate, and once more vaulted easily out into the street, leaving an angrily sputtering James to follow in his wake.

The strange boy guided them in silence through the evening dimmed streets, either not listening to or just flat out ignoring the three or four questions James attempted before he finally gave up, lapsing into a stony quiet as he let the boy guide him.

After a few minutes, they reached a skatepark, only a block or two from James’ house, the last of its occupants just heading off as the two of them arrived. Without a word, Caleb strode up the side of the concrete pit, before stepping over the edge to slide neatly down the curved wall and into the basin below, balanced on the balls of his feet.

“There we go,” Caleb murmured, shooting James a grin. “Now we can have a little bit of privacy.”

“Good,” he muttered, still furious. “Now why were you near my family, what the heck do you want from me, and who sent you here?” He felt his hands balling into fists by his sides, and only half-heartedly tried to keep himself calm.

For his part, the other boy shrugged.

“Like I said,” he chuckled. “I just wanted to talk. As for who we are. I’ve already told you my name. It’s Caleb. Now it’s my turn to ask a question. How are you so powerful, kid? Special training? Some kind of rit-” James didn’t let him finish. He dug into his power, extending his senses into the hands beyond his hands, and used one of them to punch the other boy in the face. The gust of air struck Caleb hard enough to send him staggering, collecting in the back of his jacket and pulling him off his feet like some strange kind of kite. James struck him again, and he heard the sharp crack as the older boy’s head bounced off the curved wall of the pit.

“I don’t care about your questions,” he spat, glaring at the newcomer as hard as he could. “I want to know who sent you, and why you came to my house. Was it the lightning guy? The Family?” He wasn’t sure if it was a smart move to name the Family. He didn’t care. If it was them, he had to know. He’d need make a counter move; get his family somewhere safe. He wasn’t sure what he’d do, but it would be something.

The strange boy gazed up at him from his spot against the wall, and it was with some satisfaction that James noted that, for just a moment, he looked scared. It was only a moment, though. He raised a hand to the back of his head, checking the point where his skull had met the concrete, and let out a low, quiet chuckle when he saw that his hand now bore a trace of blood.

“So,” he murmured, pushing himself upright against the concrete. “That’s how it is, huh?” He let out another quiet snicker, then continued. “Fine. Well, if you’re gonna try and threaten me, I’m gonna make damn sure you’re strong enough to follow through. Tell you what. You beat me now, and I’ll tell you everything you wanna know; but if you can’t, then I’m gonna make you sorry.”

James felt his eyes narrow. This was a challenge. He nodded.

Caleb wasted no time in answering before he launched himself at James, kicking off of the wall for some extra speed. He was fast, very fast, making it nearly halfway towards him before the next wind blast caught him around the chest, catching once more in the back of his jacket as it pulled him back. To James’ surprise, the larger boy didn’t try to fight the attack, simply letting his arms go limp as the jacket pulled at him, shrugging it off and letting the wind throw it out of the skate park and into the street beyond. He paused, recovered his balance, then charged again. James met him with yet another blast, dancing backwards a few steps for distance. Caleb took the blast head on, bracing his arms in front of his face to shield his eyes from the gale. The sheer weight of it forced him backwards a few paces, his feet dragging on the floor.

James prepared another blast, gathering the wind in the fist beyond his fist, before bringing it forwards against the other boy with all the might he dared. This time, Caleb changed tack. The moment James let the strike loose, he threw himself to the side, not quite fast enough. James almost felt it as the outer edge of the thing caught the other boy, buffeting his body through the air. It wasn’t enough. Hit or not, the other boy had avoided the lion’s share of the blow.

Caleb landed on beveled wall of the skate rink, hands and feet splayed apart to catch himself against it. Then, before gravity had a chance to take a hold of him, he pressed off once more, shooting himself at James like a bullet. James flinched back, the other boy missing him by a hair, and turned to face him, another strike charging between his astral fingers.

Caleb landed on the ground some feet away, and pushed himself to his feet. He was grinning.

“Your body clenches up when you’re about to throw a shot,” he murmured amiably. For the first time, James noticed something weird about how he spoke. “It makes it easier to dodge.” What was that accent? English? Canadian?

James pushed the thought aside, and threw another blast, taking the opportunity to once more make some distance from his all too agile foe.

Again, Caleb was moving before the shot even hit him. This time, however, he dodged better. The blast barely even grazed him as he threw himself out of its path. He hit the ground on his feet, then made his way for James at a dead sprint.

James began to ready another strike, but he already knew it wouldn’t be done before the older boy had time to reach him. He tried to dodge, shifting to the right, towards the middle of the pit, but to no avail. Caleb swerved mid-lunge to match his new trajectory, and when he came within a few feet of him, pushed himself into the air in a little hop.

James briefly felt the weight of it as the older boy crashed against his chest, his knees raised as they collided to pin his arms to his sides. Caleb bore him down to the ground and sat atop him, hardly even panting.

“You see?” He asked, laughing in the lighthearted, easy kind of way that should have been reserved for poking fun at friends. “You made your attacks too obvious, kid. You need more than just big old strong attacks, cuz eventually, people are gonna start thinking their way around them.” As he spoke, James watched the boy wipe his arm across his nose. It came away bloody. Then, Caleb gazed down at him merrily, seemingly just waiting for him to respond.

“… Aren’t you gonna make me sorry?” He asked, caught between confusion and the feeling of his own heart thudding away in his chest. “You know, for threatening you?”

“What?” Caleb asked, momentarily surprised as he ran his fingers through his wind-swept hair. “Oh, that,” he laughed. “Eh, maybe later. Wanna take another shot at me first, though? Maybe try something that isn’t just standing there and shooting me?”

James felt his eyebrow begin to raise. What was with this boy? Why was he helping him? Eventually, he decided to push those questions aside. Caleb had said his body went tense when he fired off his shots. Maybe he could…

“Dude, don’t do it when I’m on top of you. I could crush your chest with my knees right now.”

“Oh, come on!” He protested, indignant. “How’d you know? I wasn’t even tensing that time!”

“Nah,” Caleb replied, climbing off of him. “But you went all limp like someone trying really hard not to tense. It’s kind of a dead giveaway, kid.”

“Would you stop calling me that?” James pushed himself to his feet with a scowl, ignoring the hand the other boy offered to help him up. “You’re like, what, four years older than me?”

“Hey, if you want to stop being kid, then maybe you should give me a name.” Caleb grinned, ambling back a ways and crouching into some kind of stance.

“… James.”

“It’s nice to meet you, James,” Caleb grinned. “Now this time, try to come at me like you’ve really got a brain, okay?”

James glowered at the older boy, and they began.

The second time went even worse than the first. This time, instead of heavy strikes, he had opted for something lighter, quicker to charge and aim, like the flicks he’d used in helping Tasha escape. No use. The larger boy had simply barreled through them, arms held up once more to shield his face as he charged at James in a tackle. Without thinking, he’d taken to the air. He’d made it barely a few feet before the hand had caught the back of his hoodie, and he’d felt an arm wrap firmly around his chest.

“Gotta make sure you’re hitting hard enough to stop me, don’t you think?” Caleb asked, the laughter in his voice loud enough to set James’ blood to boil.

The third time, he had cloaked himself in a hurricane, wrapping the wind around himself and urging it to spin faster and faster by the second. It had drawn a wild laugh from his lips as he watched the older boy attempt to strike him, only to be pushed to the side by the gale. It didn’t last. Caleb had cloaked himself in some kind of shimmering veil of blue, before simply striding through the gale towards him.

“Congrats,” he murmured a minute later, a hand resting companionably on James’ shoulder. “You made me use a single spell. And in exchange, all it cost you was any ability to move, dodge, or take offensive action. Real good trade.”

“Shut up,” James muttered, a hand at his chin as he thought. “I’m trying to think, okay?”

“About a way you might be able to beat me?”

“… Shut up.”

Caleb snorted.

“Right. Well, while you think about that, James, I’m gonna take off home. I’ve kinda got places to be this evening.”

“Wait, you’re leaving?” James asked, trying to push away the strange sense of upset that met him at the idea. “But I was just getting close!”

“Sure you were,” Caleb chuckled. “Fine. Tell you what. I’ll come back in a few days. Call it Wednesday. See if you can figure out a way to win by then.”

“… You still haven’t told me who sent you to my place.”

Again, Caleb only chuckled.

“Yeah, I know. And you still haven’t beaten me yet.” He shot James a wink as he stepped towards the wall. “I’ll tell you this for free, though. I’m not with the Family, and I wasn’t gonna do anything to your folks. I just wanted a way to see how tough you were.” With that, he turned, grasped the lip of the skatepark wall with his hands, and vaulted himself upward. “Later, kid. Try and make it harder for me next time, kay?”

“Not a kid!” James shouted after him. He didn’t get a response.

He gazed after the departed boy in silence for a long while. His heart was still hammering like a bass drum inside his chest. He could barely feel the scrapes and scratches where his arms had hit the ground. Why did he feel so much… better?

After a few moments, he shook himself, and hastily made his way back home.


Caleb:

Caleb tried to ignore the shakes that wracked themselves through his fingers as he went to retrieve his jacket. Walking through that wind-wall had been enough to drain him dry. That kid was way too powerful to be worth it. In any other hunt, he’d have called for twenty three, and told her he was out of his depth, but he couldn’t do that now.

It had been a Hail Mary shot, approaching the boy in his home. Too stupid and thoughtless to be worth a damn as a plan, but if the pretty boy’s threat before had shown him anything, it was that he didn’t have time to waste playing it safe. He’d been hoping for some information; had known that they’d likely just leave him bloody. Against all probability, however, it had worked. The kid had either been scared of him potentially attacking his parents, or he was afraid of them finding out he had powers. In the first case, it meant he was stupid. In the second, he’d be easier to isolate. Judging by how new the boy seemed when it came to fighting, and how he never seemed to shift to other spells when his tactics had been questioned, it was beginning to look like the latter.

James was powerful, he was untrained, and he was alone. Caleb tried to wipe away his smile. He’d forgotten what hope felt like.

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Dissonance: 4.4

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Author’s Note: Hey guys, sorry about the late update again. There are reasons. I promise. As an apology, I am currently putting together playlists of some of the music that our main characters tend to enjoy, which some of you might hopefully get a kick out of. I’ll try and post the first of them with the next chapter. Next item on the list. The short story anthology that I’ve been linking to is concluding this week, with a couple more guest stories by TeowiMike Spivak, and Revfitz, who is the awesome fellow who got us all together for it. There is also this page, where, until monday, people can vote for the story they enjoyed the most out of the bunch, including my own submission: Rainy Days. I had hoped to continue uploading a single link with each chapter, but I kinda ran out of time. 

Anyways. On with the story!

Caleb:

Caleb followed the figures through the mall at a distance, keeping his eyes locked on the two adults of the group. Why were they so powerful? When he’d caught their scent the previous night, he’d thought that the scraps of power floating past his new familiar’s senses must have come from some dangerous mercenary commune, or perhaps a government garrison house. But no. It was a normal family, as far as he could tell. He watched, perplexed, as the little girl tugged on her father’s sleeve for attention. Just what the hell were these people?

The bird’s sense was limited; annoyingly so. He kept wishing that they could split up a little to allow him to get a sense of them separately, and perhaps determine where exactly all that power lay. As it stood, the four of them were keeping far too close to one another to allow him to get a decent read, their scents mingling so as to disguise the source of it all. All he knew was that they had power. It grated at him. He needed to get a better read if he wanted to be able to use this. Maybe if he could risk getting closer?

He followed behind them as they made their way into a game store, sticking close to the entrance and pretending to flick through a bargain bin while his bird took another sniff. The levels shifted slightly as the boy stepped away from the rest of his family to examine a rack of console games, a sizeable chunk of the power breaking away with him. Caleb’s eyes went wide. The kid? Really? He’d assumed that a power this vast would be divided among the two adults in some fashion, with the children possessing perhaps some small, underdeveloped fraction of that same potential, but no. The boy was a mountain. His familiar took another sniff, and he flinched.

There was another power now, passing close beside him, barely more than a foot away; big enough to dwarf him. He turned his head just enough to see the two teens moving past him into the store. The older of the two was a pretty boy, perhaps a year or so older than him, with his hand on the shoulder of a younger, freckled boy who looked way too tired. The younger boy was staring at him. He pretended to look away, watching them still in the corner of his eye.

Where was all this power coming from?

Caleb watched, hardly daring to move, as the older of the two newcomers leaned in to whisper something into the younger one’s ear, before letting go of his shoulder and pushing him gently forwards. As the two of them broke apart, Caleb noted the change with his newfound sense. The freckled one was normal, in a nominal sense, at least, with a power level around equal to his own, without encumbrance. That news didn’t calm him, though. It meant the older boy was another freak. Humans weren’t meant to be this powerful. It was the one thing he and his masters could agree on.

He watched as the sandy haired boy made his way towards the family, his face breaking into a tired smile as the other kids noticed his presence and rushed to meet him, their parents lingering a short way behind. The little girl threw her arms around the blond boy’s waist as they reached one another, giggling as he tussled at her hair. Caleb wasn’t even surprised now as he caught the girl’s scent. She was as strong as her brother. Maybe even stronger. The older newcomer made no such contact, moving off to the side, unnoticed.

He closed his eyes to listen as the two younger boys began to speak, murmuring quietly so as to force him to rely on his own enhanced hearing to make it out.

“Hey, Cas. You okay?”

“Yeah. I think so. Just tired.”

“You wanna talk about it later?”

“Later? Yeah. Right now, though, I just want to sleep.”

He frowned. Curious words, but nothing useful. The family was grouping up around the boy now, the girl clambering uninvited up onto his shoulders as they moved towards the exit. Caleb checked his watch with a sigh. His time was nearly up. He needed to check in with Twenty Three soon. He’d have to return to this later.

He felt a hand on his shoulder as he turned to take his leave. He glanced around. It was the pretty boy, power still flowing off of him like smoke.

“I don’t know who you are,” the stranger murmured, eyes fixed on his. “But if you do something to hurt my Casper, I want you to know, you’ll pay for it.”


James:

James set his eyes on the freshly repaired basketball and frowned, once more willing the air trapped inside the thing upwards. After a few moments, the ball complied, rising into the air a mite less jerkily this time than in his previous attempts, the first of which had almost destroyed his lightbulb. He grinned, extending his hands to it, and tried to will it ever so slowly towards him.

The ball jumped forwards at the order, streaking its way across his room and passing perfectly between his outstretched hands, before striking off of his face with a resounding snap, bowling him back against the mattress. He lay there for a moment, dazed, as the ball bounced its way happily across his bedroom floor. He brought a hand up to rub at the fresh red patch blossoming across his forehead.

“Oww.” He muttered, glaring at the ball. “Freaking ow.”

Then, he went back to practicing.

He’d rather be talking to Casper right now, figuring out what had been going on in the last half week or so of movement, or even just chilling with the guy over another bad anime box set. But no. Casper didn’t want to talk. The moment they’d gotten home, he’d just fallen down on the nearest couch and started snoring. Even after the guy had woken up, he’d been quiet. In the first brief moment James had managed to snag alone with him, he’d just asked for him to drop it.

“Look,” he’d said. “Can we not, right now? I don’t know about you, but I kinda just wanna forget the weird stuff for a while. Can you just, I dunno, gimme a few days?”

James scowled at the memory. He’d agreed, reluctantly; unable to think of a way to push the issue without acting like a jerk.

“Stupid doof,” he muttered. “Not like I might have stuff to say. I only got hit by lightning yesterday. It’s no big deal.” He gave his power another flick towards the basketball a mite more forcefully than he’d intended and winced as the shot sent it slamming off of his TV stand hard enough to make the device wobble dangerously on its perch, before he once more used his power to catch it.

“Hey,” Peter called from downstairs. “Are you okay up there? Did you break something?”

“No,” he called back, giving his best effort to force the frustration out of his tone. “Just fixing my basketball!”

“James,” came the aggrieved sounding reply. “Don’t throw that thing around in the house! You’ll break our stuff!”

“Sorry.” He grumbled.

He had to admit. This was a bad way to train. It was just unfortunate that it was also the least bad way he’d been able to think of. If there was one thing that his adventures over the last few days had taught him, it was that he needed to get better with his powers. He didn’t want to get sidelined by them again like he had last night.

He gazed at the ball, once more sitting motionless on his bedroom floor, and stewed.

It was perhaps half an hour later when his phone rang. His anger had just begun to fizzle out into boredom, and he was distracting himself by sending the air to rustle around the sides of the ball, trying to spin it like a top when the device at his bedside began to trill.

He glanced sideways at the screen, uncaring, and didn’t recognize the number. He shrugged, then picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Hey, James. It’s Tasha. You okay?”

“Oh!” James breathed, relief for yet another nugget of pent up stress flooding through him. “Hey, Tasha! I’m fine. Are you fine? Please be fine. That guy was throwing lightning bolts!”

“Dude,” Tasha chuckled. “Chill out. I’m cool. I just had to punch the guy till he stopped being bullshit. Easy problem. Saw you got hit. You doing okay?”

“I think so,” he muttered. “Kinda made some weird stuff happen. I’m pretty sure I turned into a wind amoeba for a while. Better now, though.”

“… You what?”

“It’s a long story. You sure you’re okay? You got that food and stuff I left you, right?”

“Oh, shit, that was you? I thought I just stole it from some random camper. Yeah. I got it. That salami was good stuff, man.”

James leaned back against his headboard and let his body relax as he listened to his friend talk, feeling the tightness in his chest finally release. Casper was okay. Tasha was okay. Everything was good. He glanced in his dresser mirror, and saw that he was grinning. Tasha was still talking, but he wasn’t entirely sure what about.

“Casper’s safe,” he interrupted absently. “My Mom talked him into staying at our place until we can fix things up with his stuff.”

“You serious?” Tasha asked. “Oh, crap, man, that’s awesome! Hey. Tell him thanks for looking after my dog!”

“He looked after your dog?”

“Well, either that or someone broke into my place, stole most of my cash and fed Maxie a bunch of old cereal packs, and Casper’s the only guy I gave a key to my place, so, you know.”

“You mean you went back to your place?” James asked, nervous. “But aren’t those guys still looking for you?”

“Eh, probably,” she replied. “But nah. I sent some random old dude to pick my stuff up for me. I’m staying at his place for a while.”

“… Okay,” James mumbled, picking himself up off of the bed and beginning to pace as his brain tried to sort through all the snippets of new information. “But, I mean, what if they track the dog, or, like, figure out where you went or-”

“Dude,” Tasha cut him off. “Trust me. It’s fine. The guys I’m staying with know their stuff. You can chill.”

“… You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“… Okay.” He forced himself to stop, balancing on the balls of his feet, and took a breath. “Yeah. Okay. I’m calm.”

“Cool,” she chuckled. “Oh! Yeah. Also, new information. Magic’s a thing.”

James raised an eyebrow at that, gazing momentarily at the phone.

“… And?”

“What do you mean, ‘and’?” She asked, a touch annoyed. “I drop a bomb like magic and that’s all you give me?”

“Heh,” James chuckled. “Tasha, I’m a flying twelve year old who controls the wind, and yesterday, I got hit by lightning. Either magic’s real, or I’m supposed to unite all four elements and take on the Fire Lord.”

“… Man, now I just wish you were the Avatar.”

“Yeah,” he sighed, suddenly melancholy. “I know. I wanna be the Avatar.”

He moved across to the window, leaning on his elbows against the sill as he gazed out at the street below. In the early evening gloom, it took him a moment to notice the other boy gazing back at him.

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Dissonance: 4.1

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Author’s Note: Alrighty. Again, apologies for the late publication. I’m starting to sound like a broken record on that. Today, as well as starting arc number four, we are also continuing the linkthroughs into Revfitz’ ‘Everybody Dies’ collaboration. This time around, we have 1953 by A.M. Thorne. That said, on with the chapter!

Caleb:

The goblins moved in fast and low; four of them, each with blades held at the ready. He watched from his perch above them as they moved to surround the small flock that had gathered itself on the rooftop, occasionally squawking at one another, their cries oddly warped.

Caleb grunted. It made sense that the government would want to contain the hunting birds quickly. Now that the things were without a beastmaster, they’d probably resort to attacking at random, and that wouldn’t do anything to help the already fragile balance of secrecy. He allowed himself a grim chuckle at that idea. How in the hell they were going to explain away the events of the last few days was anyone’s guess. For now, though, that wasn’t a concern. He just needed to catch some birds.

Below him, the goblins fanned out, blades at the ready, just a second from their ambush. Caleb couldn’t help but grin when he cast his first spell, a simple noise maker, loud enough to send the flock fluttering free of its roost. He crouched down, peering over the lip of his rooftop, and watched the goblins scrambling to dispatch them all before they fled. He grinned a little wider. They didn’t even manage half.

The birds took to the air, and he readied his second spell, pinpointing a trio of the creatures whose trajectory should bring them just inside his range. He waited a moment, aimed, and took his shot.

The first flew true, and he felt his mind link itself to that of the hawk, seeing it seem to spasm for a moment in the air before resuming its flight. The same was true of the second. The third, however, went wide, the bird changing course in the half a second it took for the spell to connect. He cursed quietly to himself, then returned his attention to the two he’d managed. He needed to be quick, subjugate them in the few moments he had before they left his range once more and the connection severed. He pushed at their minds and felt resistance, the tiny minds scrabbling against him like claws digging into his brain. He grit his teeth and pushed harder.

It wasn’t too difficult to remove the birds from the swarm. He just flew them up high enough for the evening gloom to hide them, before guiding them straight back down towards him. He stooped down, picked up the pet carrier he’d been provided for the purpose, and opened the latch. He flew the first one, a robust looking male, down into the carrier and was about to do the same for the female when he felt the creature’s senses finally kick into gear inside his mind, his spell connecting up the last of the links between them.

It was a very strange feeling. He’d dealt with enhanced senses for most of his life, but what this bird could smell… It was overwhelming. Like the smell of grease when he was hungry, but a hundred, even a thousand times more intense, and it was everywhere. In the shock of it, he took a few seconds to even realize that the second bird hadn’t landed in the carrier, missing the entrance by at least a foot. He shook himself.

“Wow,” he muttered. “You guys are intense. No wonder the boss wants you so bad.” The birds, of course, said nothing, the male standing stiff as a board on the thinly padded floor of the carrier, the female sitting on the ground by his feet, staring off into nothing. He gazed down at it for a moment, considering; then he swung the carrier entry closed, and flicked the locks into place. “Screw it. What the boss doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Always wanted a familiar.”

He bade the hawk to flutter up onto his arm, its talons digging painfully into his forearm as it settled. He grunted. That was the one problem with the leashing spell, it didn’t exactly afford finesse in the things he took command of. This close to, he could smell himself through the hawk’s unnaturally powerful senses, that incredible hunger piercing once more into his mind at the scent. He laughed. The bird thought he smelled delicious?

“… Yeah. I’m keeping you,” he smiled. “You’re weird. Like me.” With that, he stooped, setting the pet carrier down on the ground beside him, and raised his hand towards its head. For a moment, a part of him thought he shouldn’t do it. The spell took too much energy, and his supply was limited enough already. It would make the next few days harder, having to wait for the trickle the overseers allowed him to replenish his reserves. He pushed the doubt to the back of his mind. Screw the overseers. They didn’t own him. No one did. He held the hawk very still, not even allowing it to breathe as he pressed his fingertip against its beak. The transition worked better that way. Then, he let off his spell, and felt the energy leak out of his body, practically draining him dry. The hawk shifted, the space around it warping and hollowing; becoming abstracted. He felt its talons recede from around his arm, followed by a sensation like a hundred marbles rolling across his skin towards his shoulder. When it stopped, the hawk was gone.

Caleb took a moment to admire his new tattoo, pulling back his sleeve to examine the hundred or so stylized feathers now etched in black all along the skin of his arm, running from the base of his wrist to well up along his torso.

“I should have been an artist,” he murmured. “You look awesome on me.”

The self admiration was disrupted rather when his phone rang, jerking him back into reality in the most unpleasant manner possible.

It was his boss on the line. He knew that immediately, because he’d assigned her the most annoyingly bad song he could find as a ringtone. It was still better than actually listening to her talk.

He pulled the phone from his pocket and, with a sigh, lifted it to his ear.

“Caleb here.”

The boss was on good form today. He almost missed the tiny note of irritation in her tone as she spoke.

“Asset Thirteen, have you obtained your targets?”

“One of them,” he lied brightly, slipping into an irish lilt as he spoke; that accent always seemed to annoy her the most. “Male. Seems healthy. Tried for a female too, but she got awa-”

“That’s fine,” she cut him off, her tone bored. “Another asset has managed to obtain a female. Transport the package two blocks west of your current position. Your handoff point is a woman in a purple scarf. You have six minutes.” Then the line went dead.

He gazed at the phone for a moment, then slid it back into his pocket with a shrug. It was a shame. He hadn’t even had a chance to start being really annoying yet. He rolled his sleeve back down to cover his new tattoo, and picked up the pet carrier, its solitary occupant still standing stiff as a board inside it. Then, he crossed to the edge of the rooftop, and glanced down. The goblins were long gone, but it was a solid six storey drop to get down to ground level, and he didn’t have the magic left over to shield himself from the fall. He glanced back at the fire escape behind him. No. Too easy. He wanted to be moving right now.

‘Welp,’ Caleb grinned. ‘Guess it’s time for some mad parkour skills.’

He crossed to the westernmost side of the rooftop, his eyes falling upon an ugly four-storey building on the other side of the street. Perfect. He backed up a few paces, braced himself, and threw himself into a full sprint before launching his body over the edge.

There was something unnaturally thrilling about the sensation of free-fall; a sense of speed and a rushing of wind that seemed to make a few moments last a good deal longer than they should. He watched the roads shoot along beneath him, then turned his eyes to the rooftop he had targeted. He’d gotten it just right. He angled himself backwards slightly in the air, holding the pet carrier out to the side, before hitting the rooftop at the very edge, the soles of his feet striking the exact point where roof met wall. He allowed his legs to bend slowly into the impact, absorbing the force of the fall while his own forward momentum carried him forwards into a roll. He tucked low, holding his body in a ball and letting his speed push him onward, before springing back to his feet and setting off for the next building along. It felt good. Going fast always helped to soothe.

It was over all too quickly, though. A few short jumps and a brief run, and it was over. He was out of levels to drop. He found an alleyway to descend to ground level in, and finished the trip at a brisk walk, his eyes peeled for the hand-off asset.

She didn’t take him too long to find; a brown haired young woman in a thick coat standing against a lamppost, a purple travelling scarf wrapped tight around her shoulders. He recognized her. The same woman he’d been assigned to ever since his deployment to the Americas. He shook his head. She couldn’t be that cold. It was still summer.

“Hey, babe!” He called, giving her a wave as he jogged the last of the distance between them. “What’s a cutie like you doing alone on a night like this?”

The woman turned, got her hand halfway up to return the wave, then aborted the attempt with a snort as his words reached her.

“Wow. Such a smooth talker. You ever flirt with girls your own age, Thirteen, or am I just special?”

“What can I say?” Caleb shrugged. “Girls my age don’t do it for me. Not enough boob.” He raised his free hand to the air in front of his chest and made a few squeezing motions with his fingers. “Besides. Maybe I just save it for the best girls.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she chuckled. “Give me the package, kiddo.  I wanna look it over before the deadline hits.”

“Sure, whatever.” Caleb held the carrier out to her and she took it, peering through the bars at the solitary occupant.

“… You’ve been free-running again, haven’t you?” She sighed.

“What makes you say that?” He asked, trying to keep his voice playful. “I promised to stop that last time, remember?”

“So then why does the capture look so beaten up?” She replied, pivoting the cage to show him the interior, the hawk inside now rather bedraggled after its assortment of falls. “And while we’re on the subject, you’ve gone and given it catatonia again. You need to get better with capture spells, Thirteen.”

“Can you please stop calling me that?” He groaned. “It’s Caleb, okay? Why do you even care? It’s not like it matters as long as they get the package, right?”

“It matters, Thirteen,” she ignored his long sigh at her use of the word. “Because if I can finally teach you to start cooperating, then maybe they’ll start treating you a little better. Don’t you want that? You know they give the good assets better food, right? Maybe you can even get a decent bed every once in a while.”

He gave his response to that with a huff.

“Yeah, no.” he replied, not looking at her. “Call me stupid, but I’d rather be Caleb.”

He couldn’t bring himself to look at her in the moments that followed, just glaring at his feet. After a few seconds, her phone rang. Her voice was cold as she answered.

“This is asset Twenty Three. I have received the package. Delivery will proceed as planned.” There was a short beep as the line disconnected.

They stood there in the dark for at least a minute, him staring at the floor, able to see her gazing at him in the corner of his eye.

When she finally spoke, her tone was soft.

“Are you gonna walk me home tonight? You know I like the company.”

He opened his mouth to answer, but nothing came out. He shook his head.

In his peripheral vision, he saw her step forwards for a hug. He didn’t back away. He tried not to blush too hard as she pulled him close. Enhanced senses sucked sometimes; they made it harder to ignore how nice she smelled.

“Hey,” she murmured. “Don’t sulk at me. You know I only said it cuz I care.”

“… That mean I finally get to cop a feel?” He asked, only mostly joking.

“Dream on, kiddo,” She flicked his nose with a fingernail. “Get back to your place soon, okay? Curfew’s in an hour tonight.”

“I will. Thanks.” With that, he broke away, turning quickly so she wouldn’t see the red on his cheeks. Probably not fast enough. He hated being fifteen; hated it with all his might. “Later, Twenty Three.”

“Later, Thirteen.”

In spite of his promise, he didn’t head back to his cage straight away that night. Instead, he dawdled. He had a brand new familiar to test out, after all.

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