Aid: 5.15

Previous Chapter:

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.”

Previous Chapter:

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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Aid: 5.9

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James:

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

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

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

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

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

“… Fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out loud, he only managed a mutter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

“… Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Huh. Weird.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… I’m fine.”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

“… Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Caleb:

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

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

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

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

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

Tasha didn’t budge.

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

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

“… You okay?” Tasha asked.

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

“Peachy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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Aid: 5.8

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Twenty Three:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She took a breath.

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

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

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

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

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


Caleb:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kaylee was a kind name.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… Are you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A laugh.

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

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

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

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

“… Yeah,” he muttered. “I promise.”

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

Fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aid: 5.7

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James:

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

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

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

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

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

At that, Hideyoshi snorted.

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

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

Beside him, Tasha shrugged.

“Maybe that’s only some of them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, why?”

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

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

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

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

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

“… Eww.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Across from her, Hideyoshi nodded.

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

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

Tsuru chuckled.

“Well, good for them. They’re wrong.”

Caleb shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, Tasha.”

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


Manhattan Island. Evening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Powerful. Good. Exactly what we need.

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

She smiled.

Looking forward to working with you, Charlie.

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