Dissonance: 4.3

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Author’s Note: Alrighty, guys. Once more, I am linking to the ongoing one shot anthology thing being run by Revfitz. This week, the story I’m linking to is called Curse of The Magi and it’s written by Walter. Now that that’s been said, ON WITH THE STORY!!

Casper:

Casper held the toothbrush under the tap for a second, then lifted it to his mouth. It was the third time he’d brushed his teeth that morning. The first two had been to get rid of the lingering taste of vomit. This one was in hopes of chasing away the memory of Father’s lips. He ran the brush over his tongue, forcing the minty foam in between his taste buds in an attempt to force everything else out. It didn’t work. He brushed harder.

He heard a knock on the bathroom door behind him, then heard Mel’s voice speaking through it.

“Casper? Freja went out and picked up some clean clothes for you. I’m leaving them by the door.”

“Thank you.” He replied, his words muffled by the foam coating the inside of his mouth as he stepped towards the door.

For a brief moment, he felt Mel’s mind inside his bubble before she stepped away. The woman was practically radiating concern. He felt a pang of guilt at that. He must have been quite the sight when he’d turned up on her doorstep the night before, his ragged clothes covered in a mixture of bile, dirt and his own blood. She’d ushered him up to the apartment above the shop and sat him down on her couch before setting off to get Freja. He’d been asleep by the time either of them got back.

Casper sighed. He still wasn’t sure how he was going to explain this to them.

He opened the door a crack, saw the neatly folded shirt and pants sitting just outside, and grabbed them. He got halfway through taking off his current shirt before deciding he needed a shower. He hoped Mel wouldn’t mind.

He stepped out of the bathroom twenty minutes later cleaner than he had been in days, the soiled remnants of his old clothes held in a loose bundle under one arm.

Mel and Freja were waiting for him outside, sitting at Mel’s small breakfast table, a pot of tea between them. Both women turned to look at him as he stepped through the door.

“… Thanks for the clothes,” he mumbled. “… And for letting me sleep here.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Freja murmured. “Are you gonna tell us what happened?”

“I…” He paused, trying to think through the events of the last day enough to even make sense of them for himself, let alone anyone else. “Honestly, I don’t know.” Freja raised an eyebrow at that. Mel opened her mouth to speak, but he clarified before she got a word out. “I mean. I sorta know what happened; it just doesn’t make any sense, you know?”

Neither Mel nor Freja said anything at that; they simply gazed at him, waiting for him to continue. After a moment’s awkward silence, he sighed, stepping over to the couch on which he’d spent the night asleep and planting himself on the arm of it so that he was facing them. He spent a moment looking for an appropriate place to deposit his old clothes that wouldn’t seem rude, before Mel flicked a finger and the entire foul smelling bundle pulled itself from his hands, wrapped itself into a tight ball, and launched itself into the kitchen, where it landed in a bin with a clang. On any other day, Casper would have been impressed. Today, however, he barely even noticed.

Instead, he took a long breath, and began to speak. He told his teachers about the birds, about the strangers he’d found following him, and their mutual flight from the swarm. He told them about the attack on the bridge; he tried to play off his trick with the grenade as more of a lucky shot than anything related to his power. Through all of it, the two women just listened; Mel occasionally nodding, Freja impassive. He left out his encounter with Father, however. It was too… embarrassing? No. That wasn’t quite the word. Whatever it was, it wasn’t something he wanted to share with a pair of near-strangers. Instead, he simply said that the agent had healed him before he ran. Neither of them questioned it.

“So, yeah,” he murmured as his tale drew to a close. “I came here cuz… well, it was the only place I could think of that might be safe to spend the night with all the stuff going on. Sorry.”

Freja nodded at that.

“Fair call,” she murmured. “So, you got caught up in that mess with the elves, huh? We heard about that. You’re lucky you got away. Far as I can tell, most of the other victims were found unconscious in a cavern below central park.”

“Elves?” Casper asked. He dimly recalled Father making some mention of them the day before. But couldn’t remember any explanation. “What does them being elves have to do with it?”

“Because that’s what elves do,” Freja grunted. “Hop across the border to our world every couple months to kidnap people with magical potential. It’s rare that they target cities, though. Too many people who can fight back.”

“You should be safe now, though.” Mel added. “Word is that the last of them was captured last night. The birds have been rounded up, too.”

Casper spent a few moments trying to absorb that new piece of information. He didn’t succeed. Superpowered interdimensional kidnappers was too much to take in when he was still so tired. Instead, he set the idea aside for later.

“… Is there a phone I can borrow?” He asked. “I need to call some people. Kinda promised a friend I’d let him know I’m okay.” Mel nodded, pulling a battered looking flip phone from her pocket and tossing it across to him. “Thanks.”

He dialed the number by memory, watching Freja take her leave as the line connected. The person on the other end didn’t speak.

“Hey, James,” he murmured, trying to push some of the tiredness out of his voice. “It’s Cas. Are you there? I… I could really use someone to talk to right now.”

“James isn’t here right now, Casper,” Replied a man’s voice. “This is his father.”

“Oh.” He mumbled. “Uh, hi, Mr Toranaga. Can uhh… Can you tell me when he’s gonna be back?”

“Oh, he’s home,” the older man replied. “He’s downstairs. I’ll take you to him in a minute. I just wanted to ask you a few things first, okay?”

“… Is this about me running away?”

“Yes.”

“… Did James tell you?”

“No, your dad did. He’s very worried about y-”

“I don’t care if he’s worried.” Casper grumbled. “He deserves to be.” He didn’t have the energy to be truly angry. He settled for disappointed. Couldn’t the universe just let him talk to his friend for a bit without making things all complicated?

“… Yeah, I can understand that,” there was a deep sigh on the other end of the line. “Doesn’t stop it being true, though.” The reaction caught Casper off guard. He’d been expecting judgement.

“… How much did he tell you?” He asked.

“That he hurt you,” came the reply. “That it’s his fault you ran away.”

“… Well,” Casper muttered. “He’s not wrong.”

“Are you still in New York?”

“… Yeah.”

“Good. In that case, I’m going to give you a phone number for a place that will make sure you’re housed and fed while all of this is sorted out, okay?”

Casper was silent for a few seconds at that, trying to force his exhausted brain to think through the implications of the idea.

“… Is there a nice way of saying I don’t trust you?” He asked.

It was a long while before the older man answered.

“That stings, Casper,” he said quietly. “I haven’t done anything to earn that from you.”

“Sorry,” Casper lied. “But it’s true. How do I know I won’t go there and find my parents waiting for me? I’d rather just handle it myself.”

“Oh come on,” Mr Toranaga replied, annoyed. “That’s just dumb. You’re a thirteen year old boy. You know you can’t do it all on your own.”

“I’m not on my own,” he snapped back, irritated. He could feel Mel’s eyes watching him from across the room. He didn’t look at her. This was his business. “I’m staying at a friend’s place. I’m handling it fine!”

He heard the other man begin to retort, before being cut off by another voice, too quiet for him to make out the words. The two seemed to argue back and forth for a few moments, before there was a rustling noise, and a woman’s voice spoke into the line. It was one he recognized; James’ mom.

“Hey, Casper,” she started, sounding almost as tired as he felt. “I’m sorry about Peter. He gets stupid about stuff he cares about.”

Casper forced himself not to groan. Great. Another adult to deal with. All he wanted was to speak to his friend. Was that so hard?

“Look,” he pleaded, raising his fingers to pinch the bridge of his nose. “If I let you give me the number, will you just let me talk to James?”

The older woman sighed at that.

“Okay,” she said, her tone calm. “That was sort of rude, but I’m gonna let it slide because we both know you’re not having the best time right now. I get it. You probably feel really ganged up on and you’re worried we want to send you back to your parents and maybe a hundred other things I haven’t thought of. But this is a conversation you need to have with someone, because running away just isn’t enough of an answer on its own. Would it help if I brought James up here to join us? Give you someone you know for sure is on your side?”

“… Yeah,” he muttered. “Yeah. Do that, please.”

There was another quiet exchange on the other end of the line, before Sarah’s voice came back.

“Right. Peter’s just getting him. I’m gonna put you on speakerphone, okay? It’ll be just you, me and James. Peter will be here too, but he’s going to be being quiet just in case he starts being dumb again.”

“… Okay.”

Once again, the phone line rustled, then he heard a thump, and what sounded like the distant blaring of a television.

“Hey, Casper,” murmured James’ voice into the following quiet. “You doing okay?” It was a surprising relief, hearing that. Casper felt himself sag slightly in his seat, muscles that he hadn’t even realized were clenched suddenly going loose once more.

“Heh,” he chuckled. “God. I hope I am. It’s good to hear from you, bud.”

“Good to hear from you too,” the other boy replied. “I was worried, you know?”

“Yeah. Sorry.” Casper leaned back in his seat, letting himself fall back off of the arm of the couch and into the cushions. “I’ve had a long couple of days.”

Before James had a chance to respond, Sarah cleared her throat.

“Anyway,” she murmured. “Back to the big issue here, alright? Casper. I know you don’t trust us, but I want to ask you something about that, okay?”

“… Yeah?”

“Is there any reason I’d be on your parents’ side here?” She asked. “I like you, Casper. You’re a nice kid, you’re kind to Bex, and from what I’ve heard, you’ve been helping James deal with some of the things that happened to him that he doesn’t feel comfortable bringing to us. Your parents, on the other hand, are two people I’ve never met, who apparently abuse their son. So, again, why in God’s name do you think either one of us would not be on your side?”

Casper opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again. He could think of no real counter there.

“… Sorry.”

“Okay,” Sarah murmured. “Moving on. I’ve been thinking it over, and I have an idea that I’d like you to think about, okay?”

“Sure.”

“Right,” she continued. “So, you don’t really trust the number we were going to give you. That’s okay. But the fact remains, we need to get you to a place where everyone can be sure that you’re getting all of the things you need, and where you’re around people you can trust. So hear me out. What if Peter and I called your parents, and told them that you were going to be staying at our house until we can get everything sorted out that needs to be sorted out? That way, we can be sure that you’re safe and secure and are even able to go to the same school as normal.”

“That’s a thing we can do?” James asked excitedly. “You promise?”

“Depends if Linda and Ray are willing to agree to it,” Peter spoke up. “But if they’re given a choice between him staying with us and living on the streets, I’m pretty sure they’ll agree to it.”

“Well, Casper?” Sarah asked. “What do you think?”

Casper didn’t answer. He was busy thinking. It sounded like a good plan; a really good plan. Almost too good to be true, if he was honest, but he wanted to be sure.

“Cas?” James asked. “You okay?”

“Do you promise my parents won’t be allowed to come near me till I say so?” He asked, his voice quiet.

“… No,” Sarah replied. “Only your parents can promise that.”

“We can promise they won’t be allowed inside our house until you say so, though.” Peter interjected. “If they do, I’ll have to punch your dad in the face again.”

“You punched my dad?” Casper asked, surprised.

“He’d just told me he was beating his kid. What was I supposed to do?”

“… I like you now.”

“Peter,” Sarah chided. “Shush. You’re being quiet now, remember? Well, Casper? Is that everything? Now’s the time to ask.”

“If my parents agree to it all,” Casper muttered. “Then sure… But only if they promise to stay away from me.”

“I’ll make the call.” Said Peter.

From their end of the line, Casper thought he heard a door swing closed, the distant sounds of the tv shutting off in its wake. For the next few minutes, no one spoke, all three of them simply waiting for the verdict, breath bated. Then, the door opened again, and Peter spoke.

“Well, they agreed to it,” he murmured. “Not sure if Ray wants to hug me or kill me right now, but they agreed.”

Casper let out that stored up breath in a long, low sigh.

“So,” he mumbled, somehow even more exhausted than he had been a moment ago. “If I’m at the GameStop near your house in an hour, can we meet up there?”

“We’ll be there,” Sarah murmured. “James, too.”

“Yup!” James agreed brightly. “Holy heck, it feels so much better knowing you’re okay!”

“Heh,” Casper chuckled. He really needed to teach James some real swear words. “Yeah. It does. See you there.” With that, he hung up, leaned his head back against the couch cushions, and closed his eyes. Why did everything feel so much lighter now?

“So,” Mel’s voice asked. “You have a place to go now?”

“Yeah,” he replied exhaustedly. “I do. Thanks for all your help, Mel. How much do I owe you guys for the clothes? Cuz I’m pretty sure there’s, like, three thousand dollars in those pants you threw in the garbage.”

Mel snorted. Casper grinned.

Fifteen minutes later, he bid his teacher goodbye and made his way down the narrow steps that led from her apartment to the Rose Bouquet. The store was almost empty when he stepped inside, in spite of the veritable crowds of people making their way along the pavement outside. He gave Freja a wave on his way by and received a curt nod in return. Apart from the two of them, there was only one other person in the place, a well dressed boy who looked perhaps a year or two older than Casper himself, perusing what looked like a collection of birthstones on one of the shelves. Casper glanced casually at them as he passed, wondering what had the older boy’s interest. That was when he felt it.

He had his bubble wrapped in close around himself, too tired willingly take on too much of the emotions of those around him. Because of this, he only felt the other boy’s mind touch his own when they came within a few feet of one another. Casper didn’t recognize the boy’s face at all; but he recognized the feel of his mind immediately. Calm, collected, and just a little bit kind.

Father.

He began to run.

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Escapism: 3.11

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Casper:

In the back of his mind, hidden somewhere deep, Casper could have sworn he could hear a part of himself screaming as his new protector turned towards his former foe. He couldn’t think why, though. What possible reason could he have for panic when this new man was around? What could possibly be wrong when he was able to be this happy? Perhaps it was just the last traces of fear from before the man had come for him. Yes, that was probably it. After all, he could still feel the newcomer within his power, and he was still perfectly calm, so there couldn’t really be a reason to scream, now could there? He resolved simply to sit and bask in his newfound joy while he waited for the panic in his mind to fade and, sure enough, just as he felt the new man’s calm escape his senses, the tiny voice subsided, leaving only joy.

Casper smiled, propping himself against the wall on his no longer aching arms and watching his saviour curiously as the older man bent down to pick up the blade his former attacker had dropped. The man stepped towards the fallen woman, still quietly giggling to herself as the tears ran slowly down her face, and lowered himself down on his haunches to look her in the eye.

“I’m sorry, my dear,” he said in that quiet, soothing voice, raising his free hand to the side of her face and stroking her cheek with his palm, his thumb slowly wiping clean the thin trail of tears still curving its way down towards her jaw. “I am so sorry, but you have sinned. You attacked a little one, and as punishment, I cannot allow you to die in the warm. You just don’t deserve it, I’m afraid.”

The woman didn’t respond to that with words, simply nuzzling her cheek against his hand with another quiet, happy little laugh. She didn’t even flinch as he drove the knife into her gut with his other hand, still just giggling tearfully to herself as she basked, much as Casper was, in the glorious warmth of the newcomer’s light.

Casper saw the man readying the blade, and he was happy; saw him drive it into her stomach, and he was happy. Why shouldn’t he be? This was all for him. He was safe now.

The woman’s strength gave out soon enough, her body slumping sideways towards the ground as something inside of her fell apart. As the man returned to his standing height, her rapturous crying slowly began to subside, her sobs slowly becoming bitter and cold as she bled. Casper paid her no mind. His attention was back on his protector.

He noticed, with just the faintest hint of annoyance, as the yelling in the back of his mind returned upon the man coming back within his range, his calm now touched by the barest hint of remorse at what he had been forced to do. Casper didn’t blame the man. He had been right to do what he did, after all. How could he not be?

The beautiful man stood before his slumped form, and reached down, offering him a hand.

“Are you alright?” He asked gently, that soft voice sending warmth washing though Casper’s mind like a dip in a hot bath.

“Yeah,” the boy replied quietly as he took the proffered hand, honestly meaning it for the first time in who knew how long. “I-I am… thank you.” He gave the man a smile as he felt himself being pulled to his feet, and within the man’s mind, he felt a momentary trace of the same warmth he’d felt in a hundred minds before, the slight, tingling thrill of attraction. He let out a small laugh at that, completely ignoring it as the shouting in the back of his mind grew just the tiniest bit louder. He liked that the man felt that way; wondered if he could use it to repay him, somehow. “… What do I call you?”

“I’m Father,” the older man smiled. “Call me that. It’s the only name I need. What do I call you?”

“Casper,” he replied. “Casper Sullivan.”

“Well, Casper,” Father murmured. “Do you have a home? Somewhere I can drop you off to make sure you’re safe?”

Father wanted to leave him behind somewhere? That felt like something Casper should be sad about, and for a moment, he tried to be, but it didn’t take; he was just too warm inside. He thought the question over for a moment, his mind a little fuzzy, and shook his head.

“Sorry,” he murmured. “But not really. My apartment isn’t safe right now, and I don’t wanna go back to my parents yet.”

“Why not your parents?” Father asked, a note of curiosity playing in the back of his mind as he absently raised a hand to Casper’s head and began running his fingers through his hair.

“They hurt me,” he replied with a contented sort of sigh, almost taken aback by himself; that had been so much harder to say before, but now it didn’t hurt at all. Maybe it was Father’s fingers pressing at his scalp. “Wanted me to get my powers. Kept hurting me when I kept them hidden. I ran away.” He listened inside the older man’s mind as curiosity and faint arousal gave way to a protective sort of sorrow. “…Are you gonna take me back there?”

“No,” Father replied quickly, his tone sharp for just a fraction of a moment, then Casper felt him force himself to calm as he resumed stroking his young companion’s hair. “… No. I don’t want to see a boy like you hurt, especially not by your own family. Family isn’t meant to do that.”

“I know,” he agreed, the tiny voice in the back of his mind building to a shrill, faintly annoying scream. “… I really wanna hate them for it.”

“… You’re a good boy, Casper,” Father murmured, glancing momentarily back to the still sobbing form of the woman behind him. “… and you must be pretty powerful to have the elves going after you like that. Are you a mage?”

“Since this morning, yeah,” he grinned. “I learned how to make flowers grow.”

Father didn’t respond to that for a time, a quiet tide of emotions rising and falling inside his mind as he thought to himself. Eventually, he seemed to come to a decision, and gave Casper a smile, his deep, ocean green eyes twinkling slightly down at him.

“I have a family,” Father murmured. “It’s a very happy one, and I promise, we never hurt each other like your parents did to you. Would you like to be a part of my family, Casper?”

The older man was leaning in now, his face just an inch or so away from Casper’s, his breath tickling off the boy’s skin. Father was aroused now, he could feel it. Inside himself, he felt that little voice turn from panic to a disgusted sort of fear, but again, he couldn’t see why. Everything was fine.

“I think I would,” he smiled. “If you’ll have me.”

“That’s good, Casper,” Father breathed. “It makes me very happy to hear.” Then, he moved forwards, and Casper felt the older man’s lips press against his own.

It was… surprisingly warm; almost soft, really. That little voice inside his head was still screaming in horror, struggling pointlessly against something he couldn’t really see. Again, it annoyed him. Why wouldn’t it just go away and let him enjoy his time with his newfound warmth? When Father finally pulled back, he was smiling, that gentle twinkle still dancing away inside his eyes. He dropped his hand from Casper’s hair, and took his hand.

“Come on then, little one,” Father murmured. “Let’s go get a milkshake and talk about your training.”

Casper chuckled lightly at the smile on his father’s face, and nodded, allowing himself to be tugged gently along down the alleyway, back the way they came. It happened just as they were passing the fallen woman’s form; her prone body was shoved inside the range of his shrunken bubble for a moment, and a tide of frustration and sadness fell against his mind with the weight of a collapsing house. At his first instinct, he tried to pull back, but something stopped him; that little voice inside his head. It wasn’t so little now. It was growing, and it wouldn’t let him look away. He stopped walking, and felt the sadness rushing into his mind, beating the happiness back, enforcing an equilibrium. In the centre of it all, treading that delicate line between emotional absolutes, the little voice held sway inside his mind.

“Something wrong, little one?”

The first thing Casper did upon regaining some sense of himself was to push his power out, expanding it as wide around his body as it could go. Five metres, ten metres, further and further, scrabbling for every mind he could get within his reach, trying to force this horrifying happiness down, make it as small a fraction of himself as he could manage. It was a cacophony, like a dozen sirens playing loud inside his head, and he welcomed it. Better anything than that cheerful, mellowed kind of subservience.

“Hey,” Father spoke again, shaking his hand slightly this time, a note of concern playing soft and low inside his mind. “Are you alright?”

Casper looked back at the man, and was almost sickened. He was still attractive; still had that glint in his eyes. Even as Casper feverishly tried to muffle it, he could still feel that damnable thing inside his mind telling him everything was going to be okay. He wanted to be sick.

“I-I’m alright,” he mumbled, forcing himself to look down towards the silently sobbing woman still bleeding on the floor. Best to pretend he was still under sway. He hated himself for doing it, but he lacked another choice. He dug into the happiness still seeping through into his mind, and used it to make his voice sound light as he asked: “… Is she gonna die?”

He felt a momentary regret inside the older man’s mind, touched by a lingering confusion, before the fingers wrapped around his hand gave it a little squeeze.

“Yeah,” Father murmured sadly. “I wish she didn’t have to, but she tried to take one of my children away to die. I’m afraid I’m not kind enough to let that go.”

Casper nodded. He couldn’t really bring himself to feel bad about the crying woman; he had bigger issues to focus on now, anyway. For the moment, best to pretend he was still under this creep’s power, then find his chance to slip away. He gave the older man his most convincing smile.

“Did you say milkshake?”

He felt Father’s mind settle back to paternal warmth at that. The older man grinned.

“Yup. Whatever flavor you like.”

“Kay.”


Their journey to find a cafe together passed largely in silence, Casper focused largely on balancing the mad jumble of emotions continually shifting against one another inside his mind, Father apparently pleased simply by their silent companionship.

It was a difficult act to balance, and Casper was acutely aware of it all grating away at his mind, eating into what little remained of his mental endurance. He doubted he could hold on for long.

Eventually, Father led the two of them into a small roadside diner, asking the boy what flavor he wanted, before sending him to sit at an empty table to wait for him to make the order.

Casper went and sat, and took the opportunity to wipe the sweat from his brow. A few of the other customers were staring at him, and he couldn’t say he was really surprised. He expected he looked awful, his clothes torn to ribbons and more than a little stained with blood. There was a new problem here, though. Everyone was too calm, either kind of happy, which didn’t help to balance him against his opponent’s powers, or just relaxed, some mildly curious; not offering enough in the way of contrast. He felt the happiness digging slowly back into his mind; felt his thoughts growing fuzzy, and was only barely saved by his own perpetual fear.

Soon enough, Father turned, and made his way over to a seat opposite him, leaning his elbows lightly on the table and flashing a smile.

“So, my boy,” he said, his voice low. “What sort of powers do you have?”

Casper was struggling. He knew he needed to lie here, but he couldn’t think. Everything was too loud, too slow, and too fuzzy. After a few seconds, all he could manage in answer was a small shrug.

“It’s… kinda hard to describe,” he tried, fighting to keep a smile on his face. “I… don’t really know how it works myself.” His lip twitched and he was having to force himself to breathe. He swallowed. Was he sweating again?

Father cocked an eyebrow at him and leaned in, confused, slightly worried.

“Are you okay?” He asked. “Is there something I forgot to heal?” He reached out a hand across the table towards him. “Here, let me chec-”

“Please don’t touch me,” Casper blurted out, unthinking. He felt sick. “… I’m sorry. I don’t know what my powers do, so… Please?”

He felt the man’s concern deepen, a touch of pain edging at his mind.

“… You’re lying to me.” Father said quietly, his tone caught between astonishment and hurt. “Why? How? What’s wrong, little one?”

Casper had a moment to realize that he was done for, before he felt the happiness inside his mind begin to swell as the appalling man across the table attempted to calm him. It nearly made him gag.

“Don’t!” He yelped, panicked. “No more happy! Stop it!” The noises were pounding inside his head. He couldn’t breathe.

Father pulled away at that for a moment, recoiling his power from him as if bitten. In an instant, he felt the unnatural joy fade away inside of him, leaving him caught tangled in the noise of the people all around him. By instinct, he pulled his bubble tight once more around himself. Later, he realized that doing that had been a mistake, but now, in this moment, he needed to be alone inside his head. He needed to leave.

He pushed himself up from the table and stood on shaking legs, Father staring blankly at him, apparently stunned. He made it two slow, dizzied steps, before he fell to his knees, dropped forwards against his hands, and retched, sending the contents of his stomach out onto the greasy orange tiles of the floor.

All around him, people were turning now, staring, muttering amongst themselves about whether or not he was okay. He didn’t care. It was all wrong. He felt his empty stomach heave again, and let out a loud, strangled cry.

“Little one!” Father shouted from somewhere behind him. “Tell me what’s wrong. Let me help you!”

He felt Father’s power press against his mind once more as the man himself stepped falteringly inside his bubble, presumably in an attempt to aid him, his mind all confused fear and worry.

“Get out of my head!” He screamed, shoving himself back against the order counter, swinging his fist blindly at the older man. The happiness ceased building within him as Father flinched away. The last thing he felt from the man’s mind as he stepped back was a lost kind of hurt. He scrabbled at the surface of the counter, seized what handholds he could, and used them to pull himself to his feet. He leaned against it for a time, his breathing ragged as he desperately tried to pull his mind to calm. For the longest moment, no one moved.

When he finally had himself steady enough to think, if even a little, he turned his gaze back at his erstwhile rescuer, tears running gently down his cheeks, and spoke with all the venom his tired voice could bring to bear.

“If you ever do that to me again, I will find a way to make it hurt. Do you understand?”

With that, he ran, sprinting through the open door and out into the street. He had half expected the man to follow him, to try and stop him; but nothing did. He didn’t care anymore; he just ran.


Father:

The kind father stood there for a time, simply stunned as he stared after the departed boy. What the hell was that? Never, in all his years, had he seen a child react so badly to his light. Certainly, there were mages out in the world who were powerful enough to resist his warmth; but this wasn’t that. His newest child hadn’t been resisting him. He hadn’t forsaken the shelter he provided, so how had he reacted so poorly? What had gone wrong? What was different?

Still dazed, the father sank back into the faded leather of his seat, and tried to think. He was interrupted by a hand grasping at his shoulder; rough, angry.

“What the fuck did you do to that kid?” The stranger asked, his voice low, furious.

Father glanced around himself. The man wasn’t alone. The entirety of the eatery were staring at him now, most suspicious, some angry. They didn’t understand.

“Nothing you should worry about,” he murmured quietly, readying his power once more. “Best you all forget about it, really.” He pressed his light out into the room at large, and felt the man’s grip around his shoulder loosen, the rage and ignorance around him giving way to a calmer, gentler understanding. In the back of his mind, it was a relief. So his light wasn’t broken, then. “Don’t you worry about it, my friend,” he patted the now grinning man on the shoulder. “I’m sure I’ll soon sort him out.”

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Escapism: 3.10

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Male:

The hobgoblin was a powerful one. Dangerous, even if he weren’t in the depleted state he found himself in. He had to be quick. The foe launched a strike towards his shoulder, and he evaded, dropping the last of his wards so as to better focus his energies on building towards his next attack. It wasn’t as if they would have been strong enough to parry the strike in their current state. It should have thrilled him. The moments were rare when one of his kind was ever placed in genuine danger, and it had been centuries since he’d last faced a genuine hunt. But here, deprived of his wards, with a malformed aberrant going for his blood, he felt only frustration. He dodged one blow, then another, the creature’s fist carving a short trench into the angular stonework of the building alongside them. He let out a single, angry chuckle. Strong as the hobgoblin may have been, it was not the fastest of its kin, and the added force of its transformation did nothing to aid in the landing of its blows. He built up what remained of his power, pushed it into a single point at the tip of an index finger, and made his strike.

The goblin was overextended, the bulk of its less familiar form and the restrictions of its garments hindering it as much as they helped. Every punch left an opening, and he exploited it. He ducked under the next blow, stepping forwards, and jabbed his charged finger in towards the joint of the creatures arm, where the shoulder and chest connected. He let out his power as a pulse, a shockwave of sorts, dampened slightly by the properties of the hobgoblin’s hide, but powerful enough to do the trick. The force of it echoed through the animal’s form, forcing bones and muscle apart from one another. He heard the pop as the goblin’s shoulder was forced free of its socket, and grinned, a moment too late to realize his mistake.

The hobgoblin’s other arm struck him in the side, hard, carried by the force of a movement made before his own attack had landed. There was no magic to it, no charge, only the force of a strong beast, and he had no shields to stop it. He was sent reeling as the goblin fell, the force wave crashing through its body and sending organs, bone and fiber into disarray. For his part, his body struck one of the human carts, the glass pane across the side of it cracking against his ribs. He felt his head collide with something hard, and everything went hazy. He wasn’t sure how long he lay crumpled against the vehicle. In the aftermath, he presumed it to be only a few seconds, but in the moment, he really couldn’t tell.

It was his partner’s voice that brought him back to himself, echoing inside his mind as she reached to him through what little of her swarm remained nearby.

‘The humans are coming. Get out of there. Run.’

Dimly, he realized that he was far too spent for another encounter. He needed to get away, to recharge. He swore, and in a strange way, the act gave him energy. He pulled himself up off of the cart, and swore again, louder, forcing his mind into focus. He glanced about himself, ignoring the crumpled form of his latest foe, and found somewhere shadowy. An alcove between two buildings. He began to run, hobbling at first as his senses slowly returned to him, but regaining his coherence fast enough. His partner could take care of things from here. He needed to hide. For now, that was all that mattered.


Casper:

The car moved in silence for a time as the swarm continued to slowly grow itself around them. The birds were sneakier now; whatever it was that was holding them together had them hanging back from the car, only crossing from rooftop to rooftop in places just beyond their line of sight. Without his power, Casper doubted he’d have even glimpsed them. Unfortunately, that put him in a bit of a conundrum. Did he warn his companion, and potentially reveal the workings of his power, or did he stay silent, and allow them both to be led into a trap… Actually, putting it that way made the answer fairly clear.

“Uhh,” he started, more than a little nervous. “Agent government person?”

“Theo,” the driver offered, eyes still fixed on the road. “My name’s Theo.”

“Right. Theo, if I tell you something, do you promise not to ask how I know?”

His companion looked at him, one eyebrow raised quizzically as he guided the car up towards a river bridge, the vehicle slowing significantly in the traffic.

“I’m… really not sure what you mean, kid.”

Casper shook his head with a sigh.

Whatever.

“Look,” he muttered glumly. “Those birds that attacked us earlier? There’s more of them now. They’re staying out of sight, but they’re following the car. They’re kind of everywhere.”

Theo gazed across at him for a few moments at that, then returned his eyes to the road. While his expression remained neutral, Casper could feel the dread sinking into his skull at the new information.

“Great,” he murmured, his tone heavy with frustration. “And of course we can’t call for backup, because my partner had the only radio.” He glanced across at Casper again. “You don’t have a phone on you, by any chance?”

Casper thought back to last night, and the feeling of slamming his foot down against the back of his phone, smashing it against the iron grill of a street gutter. He swore.

Theo grunted at that, his mood darkening yet again.

“Yeah. This is gonna suck.” He thought for a moment, then spoke. “Okay, change of plans. The safe house is too far away to get you there in time, but there should be another rescue team about half a mile that way.” He pointed a finger towards the buildings at the far end of the bridge. “If we can get to them, then we should have enough manpower to keep you safe the rest of the way. If we don’t, then I am going to keep it off you while you run the hell aw-”

Before Theo had a chance to finish the thought, something ahead of the car exploded, and the birds gathered on the rooftops behind them took flight.

Theo swore loudly as the car in front of them came to a sudden halt, slamming his foot on the brakes with enough force to send them both jolting forwards harshly in their seats. Before Casper had the time for a thought, his companion was already moving. He felt a hand grasp him roughly around the collar, yanking him against the harness of his seatbelt. Then, there was a flash of something sharp and shiny, and he felt the straps come loose around him. In mere seconds, Theo had him out of the car and on his back, clinging on for dear life as he vaulted them over the roof of their stalled out car and sprinted towards the near side of the road with a truly ungodly degree of speed. Casper had half a second to realize that they had already been halfway up the ramp connecting the road to the bridge, before his companion jumped, and they were falling.

The drop was a solid twenty feet, and Casper let out a pained wheeze as the air was forced out of his lungs, the impact driving his rescuer’s shoulder up into his ribs. Theo hardly even seemed to notice. Above them, Casper could feel the birds gathering, searching, until one caught sight of them again, and the swarm dove. There was another mind up there now, larger than the birds and distinct from the drivers on the road because, unlike them, her mind was filled not with confusion or fear, but with rage. He heard a crash as something else above them exploded, and a few of the minds around it winked out.

“New plan!” Theo yelled, pivoting on the spot to dart in underneath the bridge, sprinting along the bank of the river, a pair of short knives in his hands that Casper could have sworn had not been there a moment ago. “Grenades in my jacket pocket! Rough means smoke bomb, smooth means flashbang! Smoke when they catch us!”

Numbly, still coughing, Casper reached down with one of the arms still clinging to his companion’s torso, and fumbled at the pockets lining the inside of the older man’s coat. The birds were nearly upon them now, moving near twice as fast as Theo’s already prodigious level of speed. He felt his fingers connect with a pair of solid, oblong shapes, and scrambled briefly for the lip of the pocket containing it.

Then, the birds were upon them, beaks and claws prying at everything within reach, digging and tearing madly. Casper yelped in pain as strike after strike rained down upon his back, tearing through his shirt and cutting his skin to ribbons.

“Now!” Theo yelled, staggering under the weight of a hundred tiny impacts, the force of it almost knocking him off his feet as the omnipresent claws continued to tear and cut, his knives swiping uselessly at each of them in turn, only striking a few.

Casper’s fingers finally found what he was looking for, pulling the rougher of the two objects free of the agent’s pocket, feeling a catch, and flicking it open. Underneath, he felt the imprint of a button. He pressed the button, then dropped the device as though it was, well, a bomb, squeezing his eyes shut and holding his breath.

The effect was immediate. Casper had been expecting the stuff to take a while to build up, but either the movies had that particular idea wrong, or this wasn’t a normal smoke bomb, because the black cloud that it created was pumped out so fast that it bordered on the uncanny. Even with his breath held, Casper could smell the stuff pressing inside his nose. It wasn’t the same acrid scent of the gas, however. This was different, like wood smoke.

Around them, the birds began to disperse, confused; their senses thrown off by the smoke billowing all around them. A few stuck to them, managing to stay close enough in the confusion to keep attacking despite the sudden dark, but he felt the agent move subtly beneath him, and the lights of their minds went out.

“Good job, kid,” Theo panted. “Now, if we can just wait down here long enough for the smoke to spread, we can make a run for it. Hopefully, someone’s seen what’s going on and we’ll have reinforcements coming before too long.”

Casper wasn’t listening. He was too busy focusing on what was going on above them. Their pursuer wasn’t giving up; they were striding towards the point where Theo had jumped from amid a rising tide of panicked voices shouting in confusion, each one trying to be heard over the rest. They were furious. Frustration and anger boiling up inside them to such a degree that Casper was amazed they even had room for it all. He felt a brush of air across his cheek, a touch of wind that slowly began to grow. Around them, the smoke ever so slowly began to clear.

“No,” Theo moaned, utterly crestfallen. “Don’t have wind spells, you cheating bitch.”

Again, Casper wasn’t listening. He felt the mind above them step up on top of the edge of the ramp, their pursuer readying to jump down after them, and he had an idea.

He acted before he had really had time to think, and, when it came down to it, that was probably a good thing, because he doubted he’d ever have had the nerve to try this if he’d had time to consider it. He reached his hand back down into Theo’s jacket, and plucked the remaining grenade from the Agent’s pocket. Theo apparently noticed the movement, and he heard an objection ring out in the older man’s mind, but before the agent had time to voice it, he had already flicked off the safety catch. He thumbed the button underneath, and tossed the flashbang down on the ground, almost exactly beneath where their pursuer was about to land.

He thought he heard the agent shouting at him, his mind touched by a momentary rage as he brought his hands up to block his ears, but he couldn’t be sure.

In the moment before he squeezed his eyes shut, he saw a thin, hipster looking woman drop down from above them amidst the last of the clearing smoke. She scanned her surroundings, caught sight of them, and turned, a hand raising towards them as a bluish green sort of energy began crackling across her palm. Theo shifted around under him, turning to position himself between the boy and the attack. He had a moment to think that she wasn’t what he had expected, before the grenade detonated beneath her feet with the loudest bang Casper had ever heard.

Even with his ears blocked, it was enough to almost deafen him, accompanied by a flash of light that was like staring into the sun even with his eyes closed. He felt in their attacker’s mind as fury rapidly shifted to confusion and shock. He felt it in Theo’s mind as anger and fear gave way to a surprised kind of elation, supplanted almost immediately by a powerful determination. He felt himself being lowered to the ground, and opened his eyes blearily. Theo was grinning down at him, shouting something that he couldn’t quite make out through the continual ringing in his ears as the woman staggered blindly behind him. What the agent meant when he turned the boy back towards the city and gave him a shove, however, was very clear. With a nod, Casper began to run back towards the cityscape as fast as his legs could carry him, leaving the agent behind him to do battle with their dazed pursuer.


Casper wasn’t sure how long he was running for, the steady thudding of his feet against the pavement just slightly out of synch with the continual rapid pounding of his heart against his ribs. He crossed the road connecting the bridge to the rest of the city, slipping himself between the stalled traffic lines leading towards the chaos that had been put there in the past few minutes. Then, he hit an alleyway, and bolted down it. He kept running, changing direction at random, trying to make his path as winding and unintuitive as possible.

After a time, however, he felt the adrenaline begin to fade from his limbs, leaving his every limb aching and sore. He allowed himself a few minutes to rest, leaning against a wall and panting heavily as he tried to muster the energy to send himself a little bit further. He coughed, dry and painful. His lungs had felt awful even before his dead sprint out of there. Now that exertion had combined itself with the aftereffects of that gas, he felt like his insides had been rubbed with sandpaper. He shook his head. No. He was done. At the next street, he’d flag down a taxi, and get himself delivered somewhere safe. Maybe Lewis? He chuckled, then groaned as the movement drew another sharp spike of pain from his lungs. No. Lewis wasn’t safe. Not with the Family still looking for Tasha. Freja and Mel, maybe? Freja had seemed to like him well enough, and Mel seemed to have genuinely enjoyed his company. It was better than nothing, surely. He nodded. It was a plan. He pushed himself upright, and began to walk again.

That was when he felt it. A brushing against his mind from somewhere high above. It was tiny. It was hungry. With a desperate whine, Casper began to run again, all thought of going easy on himself forgotten as he made for the open street. He felt another tiny mind above him, diving this time, headed straight for him. He pushed his aching body to the side as the bird shot past, its talons skittering against the grimy concrete, missing him by inches. He turned another corner, and saw the open street ahead of him, only forty feet away. He told himself he’d make it; that he’d know what to do once he was out in the open. As long as he could get to the street, he had a chance. He felt another pair of birds dive down from the swarm slowly gathering together above him. Again, he pushed off of the alleyway wall, and managed to avoid the first of them. The second, however, struck his thigh, its sharp claws tearing at his jeans. He stumbled. Then, they were done playing with him, and the rest of the swarm descended as one. He tried to avoid them, but he didn’t stand a chance.

He kept his feet under him for the first few blows, but the third saw him down to his knees. He felt the pain of their beaks, but by now, that was almost secondary to him. Feeling more hopeless and exhausted than he could remember being in his life, he tried to continue crawling his way forwards, foot by slow foot.

Every second, there were more of them upon him; pecking, biting, clawing at his skin. He gave up crawling on his hands, and instead simply focused his efforts on protecting his eyes from the onslaught. He screamed.

He could feel her approaching now. She was angry. Not the same kind of angry as before, however. It was colder now, calmer. The frustration had boiled away, replaced by simple, direct focus. He could hear her footsteps drawing closer as he squirmed and writhed under the continued attacks of the swarm, until they too stopped. The swarm broke away, returning to the sky, and he opened his eyes, pushing himself upright on bloodied arms to look back down the alleyway at her. He had to pause for a moment to wipe his eyes. When had he started crying?

His pursuer was not at her best. Her formerly straight hair was bedraggled. Her clothes were torn and nicked, and she had a long, deep looking cut running all the way down from her left shoulder towards her wrist. It wasn’t bleeding as much as it should have been. In the hand beneath the cut, she was holding a knife. It was one of Theo’s.

For lack of any other real course to take, Casper turned his back to the woman, and began to run again. He didn’t even make it a foot before he felt something strike the back of his leg, and the limb went numb. He fell to the floor once more, catching himself on the palms of his hands, and felt the pavement dig raggedly into his skin. He let out a long, pained moan as he tried to crawl, and felt another bolt strike one of his arms. He lost his balance then, fully half of his body numb and unresponsive, the other half almost too heavy with exhaustion to move.

He cried bitterly into the ground as he felt her take another few steps towards him, and then stopped, confused, as something cracked through the air with a sound like thunder, and she staggered, the confident, slow rage in her mind giving way to a sudden, almost painful panic.

Casper pushed himself towards a wall with his one remaining good arm and, with what felt like a gargantuan effort, pulled himself up into something resembling a sitting position. This time, he was able to watch as the second strike struck home, the woman glancing madly this way and that in search of her attacker. Casper didn’t follow her gaze. He already knew where to look. He could feel them approaching around the bend in the alleyway, their mind calm, collected, and just a tiny bit angry. The air around her head distorted, seeming almost to flex, like a reflection in a bending mirror. Then, with another loud crack, she was thrown against the wall. The knife clattering to the floor, abandoned as she tried to catch herself against the impact. Then, she began to run, her swarm descending once more around her, trying to block her from this new, unseen attacker. This time, it wasn’t just the air around her that distorted; it was the whole alleyway. The walls, floor, and sky as one seemed to bend inwards around them. As it all snapped back into place, the birds that had filled the space seemed to be shunted outwards, some thrown up into the air, others ejected against the walls and floor. Casper noted, somewhat bemusedly, that none of them even seemed to have been harmed by it. At the final crack, the woman had stopped running, and Casper could see why.

She was… happy. That was the only word Casper had for it, and yet, it didn’t do the experience justice. Happiness wasn’t enough to describe it. In that moment, in her mind, he felt a greater concentration of joy than he had ever thought any single person was capable of. It was all he could do to pull his power away from her; he doubted he could have even done that were it not for the minds of the birds and their perpetual hunger helping to shield him from her all-consuming joy.

Glancing down the alleyway, Casper watched as a young man crossed the corner at a walk, his face serene, calm, and utterly without flaw.

“I won’t have you running away from me, now,” the stranger called softly. “Not when you’ve been hurting little ones.”

Casper watched, dumbfounded, as the woman sank to her knees and began to weep; half giggling, half crying as her body simply failed to come to terms with the sheer, boundless euphoria she was no doubt still experiencing.

The man turned his gaze to Casper, and began to walk easily towards him as the birds around the alleyway began to disperse. He tried to push himself to his feet, to run, but before he’d even managed to heft himself off the ground, he felt something press against his mind, and in a single moment, he was happy. He sagged, felt his aching body relax against the wall as his muscles finally allowed themselves to go limp. Everything was fine now. He was safe. All was well. The man crossed the last of the distance between them, stepping casually around the still weeping form of his erstwhile attacker. He felt the man’s mind press against the boundaries of his power, and saw that he was calm. It made him happy. The figure knelt down in front of him and, for a moment, Casper thought it was funny. Somehow, this man was even more beautiful up close. The figure reached up a hand and gently pressed a finger to his forehead. He giggled, noticing, as if from very far away, how the pain in his limbs was slowly starting to fade.

“It’s alright now, little one,” the man murmured in that soft, kind voice, before turning his attention towards the woman. “Father is here, and Father protects.”

Author’s Note: And you guys thought Father was creepy before! XD Sorry this chapter’s like, a day late, but I’m making up for it by having it be nearly twice as long as normal, so, cool? Cool. Till next time, guys!

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Escapism: 3.9

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Author’s note: Okay, so, just a quick note. I am revising my bonus chapter scheme. Instead of one per month, I am setting it to two per arc. This, hopefully, will allow me to slot the bonus chapters in a little more gracefully alongside the interludes or, if you happen to vote for something that becomes relevant to the arc in question, then it allows me to format the bonus chapter more organically into the lineup. So, yeah. There’s that. As for the bonus chapters to come at the end of this arc, well, the top contender at present is Natalie Sharpe, the therapist. All that being said, let’s get on with the chapter!


Casper:

The two strangers ran in silence for a time. How long exactly was hard for Casper to judge. He was too busy trying not to choke as the numb, claggy feeling in his lungs continued to spread. He couldn’t breathe, could barely think. What little air he could draw in tasted of burned metal and plastic fumes, enough to make him gag. He could feel his heart beating harder and faster in his chest, thumping out of sync against his ribs as his grip on the taller one’s back slowly began to weaken.

His power was flickering, the bubble around him sputtering and dimming as he tried and failed to keep an eye on their surroundings for any more of the birds. He thought he felt someone following them, someone angry, but before he had the chance to really check, his powers had collapsed inwards another few feet, and they were left beyond his reach. He tried to push his senses out again, but it was like willing a sleeping limb to work; his bubble barely even moved.

Neither of his supposed rescuers paid much heed to his troubles as they fled, save for the one carrying him shifting their grip a little to allow him a better purchase on their back, a hand raising itself against his back to steady him. Beyond that, however, they kept their attention focused on the task at hand, the taller one keeping their eyes forward as they ran, the other glancing constantly from side to side, watching for new attackers. Every pounding step they took jolted him again, testing his steadily failing grip with every stride and shaking what little air he could draw in free of him. He felt tears begin to work their way slowly down his cheeks as the fear spread its way deeper into his mind. He lost the feeling in his hands just a second or two before his grip finally gave way, and he was falling, his descent stopped short by the tall one’s hand pressed against his back. He felt a momentary panic jolting through his taller companion’s skull as they noticed his arms going limp around their neck. From what felt like very far away, he thought he felt something press against his chest, but he couldn’t see clearly enough anymore to say for sure. He could have sworn he heard someone shouting, or possibly swearing, but his mind was too muddled to make out the words.

He felt the last of the emotions in his mind fade away as the world around him slowed. Then, it all went black, and he felt nothing.


Male:

He watched from a distance as the boy’s condition continued to worsen, the taller of his attempted saviours lowering him quickly to the ground to provide what emergency care they could. He allowed himself an angry smile as he slowed his approach, observing as the boy’s limbs began to seize, his body writhing fitfully as the goblins set about him with their antidotes. Their plan had backfired. They were distracted. Now was the time to strike. The birds were gone. No matter. He could do this by himself.

He spared a moment to place a charm on the few humans that would be near enough to the group to notice his oncoming attack. A simple spell, really. He planted a looseness within their minds, a disruption to focus and memory. Enough that he’d be long gone with the boy before they had time to become aware of a fight. It was easier that way. Weak as the humans were, they tended to call to stronger ones for aid, and that held the potential to make this harder.

With the onlookers suitably distracted, he stepped forth, allowing the pair just enough time to administer their antidote, before leaping from his rooftop without a sound and diving down to land amongst them. The taller of the two turned and stared for a moment, his sudden presence taking it by a momentary surprise. The shorter one, however, did not hesitate, reaching into its belt for a blade.

He didn’t allow either of them time to make the first move. Goblins may have been lacking somewhat in terms of magical potential, but they were truly gifted little things when it came to speed. He had to act first. His dagger had been lost in the battle underground, but he had other means.

He swung his arms out towards his foes, each fist clad in a gauntlet of roiling kinetic force, and felt his right hand strike the larger one square in the jaw. The creature had been slow to react, surprise stripping it of the advantage granted by natural speed, and the blow connected against its face with a force great enough to shatter trees, flinging it roughly against the hull of one of the strange metal carts the humans used. The thin roof of the thing warped slightly under the impact.

The smaller of the two, however, was quicker on the uptake. It ducked smoothly under his attack, the ripples of his gauntlet discharging just close enough to it to tear the back of its garment to shreds, before it launched its knife towards his gut. He felt the weapon tear through his barriers, and let out a growl. Strong as this one may have been, there was no way that such a strike would have penetrated his wards had he still been fresh. He felt the tip of the blade graze against his belly, drawing forth a thin trail of blood, and bared his teeth. The goblin darted back from him before he had a chance to counter and hefted the boy up onto its back with one arm, the knife still held towards the male at chest height. Its companion was slowly pulling itself upright off of the vehicle, apparently still conscious. He growled. It must have been a hob to survive that strike. This was not how it had been supposed to happen.

The taller adversary peeled itself free of the metal cart and rolled its neck with a series of low, short clicks, stepping forward to interpose itself between him and the lesser goblin. As he watched, the hobgoblin began to grow, its frame expanding from a touch above five feet to almost seven in a matter of seconds. Its dainty, almost elvish features gave way to something a good deal rougher as the garments encasing its form drew taut around its flesh, then began to tear. The hobgoblin growled a few words to its companion, who nodded, took the boy up in its arms, and began to run.

The male made to pursue, but found his path blocked as the hobgoblin side stepped once more into his path, standing between him and his fleeing prey. The hob jabbed its slab-like fist towards his face in a boxer’s punch which he barely  managed to dodge in time, feeling one of his few remaining barriers crumble to nothing in its passing. He aimed a counter punch at the creatures ribs, wrapping what little force around the blow that he could muster in such a short time. His fist struck home with a thunderous crack, but the brute barely even seemed to notice, jabbing a second meaty fist towards his jaw, just a touch too slow to connect. He swore.

Fine. He’d deal with this one first.


Casper:

“Hey, kid. You awake?”

Casper groaned irritably as he felt a hand gently slapping at his cheeks, the sensation slowly bringing him back to wakefulness. He was uncomfortable enough as it was without being bothered. His muscles ached, his eyes stung, and his lungs felt like they’d been scrubbed with a wire brush.

“Nh… Go away…” he mumbled blearily, his mind slowly starting to warm back up as he tried to recall what exactly was going on and where he was supposed to be. Everything felt weird: his chest felt too hot, his limbs felt too cold, and there was a light behind his eyelids that was just bright enough to deny him the chance to drift off again. He wanted to go back to sleep. At least sleep didn’t feel like a bad migraine. His thoughts of rest were cut abruptly short by another slap, this one far harder than those that had preceded it. He yelped, his eyes flicking open as the pain forced his mind into alertness. He winced as the light dug painfully into his eyes, and looked around.

As far as he could make out, he was in a car. Whose car, he couldn’t tell. It certainly wasn’t one he recognized, the interior of it surfaced in functional black plastics and felt as opposed to the opulent cream and brown leather of his parents’ cars.

Off to his side, a figure was gazing at him from the driver’s seat, an expression of mild concern written across their features. He spent a few bleary moments trying to place the figure’s face. It was familiar, somehow, too soft in the cheeks and jaw to be a man, and yet too angular to really register as female. Then, he remembered what had been happening before he fell asleep, and jolted upright in his seat.

“Where are we?” He asked urgently, hastily pressing his power out to search their surroundings for birds. “Did we get away? What the heck was that stuff? Who are yo-”

“Calm down,” the stranger murmured quietly, turning back towards the wheel once they had verified that he was awake, and twisting a set of keys into the ignition. “Yeah. We got away… sort of. My partner’s buying us an out.” Casper felt a momentary pang of worry from them at those words. “I got you into the car about thirty seconds ago.”

Casper hesitated for a moment, unsure of what to say about that, then eventually settled for:

“… Is your partner gonna be okay?”

His rescuer didn’t reply, instead flicking the gearbox into reverse and pulling out of the parking bay, their focus determinedly fixed on the task at hand. Casper felt the concern eating into his companion’s mind, and chose not to repeat the question.

Eventually, the driver spoke again, their tone a touch more apologetic.

“As for the stuff that knocked you out… It was a gas grenade. They’re designed for hostage situation work. Non lethal. Supposed to feed on a person’s magic and convert it into a paralysis effect. It was supposed to just ward off the birds, but it looks like it took you out, too. Sorry about that. It’s honestly pretty rare to see a kid as young as you powerful enough for the gas to knock them out of the park like that. We weren’t expecting it.”

Casper nodded. At least that answered one of his questions. He settled back in his seat as the stranger drove, and resolved to simply stay quiet, keeping his power unfurled so as to watch the skies for birds.

It wasn’t long before the swarm began to grow again, gathering one by one above the car.

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Escapism: 3.8

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Swarm:

The Mistress was scared. The swarm could feel it through their connection with her, but none of them could truly understand why. They felt it as she issued the first of her commands, pulling them back from the scent of the strange cave where the other mistress had dwelt. The other mistress had been so much stronger than the first, and stronger made for greater prey. None among the swarm could see why that should be a thing to fear. Perhaps it was the smooth ones that had begun to hunt them, stalking among the more lumbering apes in ones and twos, plucking hunters steadily from the skies. No. The mistress did not fear them. The smooth ones only made her angry. The mistress spurred her hunters onwards, driving them to seek further, gathering them in tighter groups to overwhelm the smooth ones’ attempts to defend the apes from them.

One hunter found a new ape traversing the concrete pathways that lined this strange, angular mountainscape. This one was young, only partly grown, but he smelled of power, and that was enough to please the mistress. The hunter dove in silence, and tore a ragged strip from the covering on the new prey’s back. The hunter was not surprised when the ape tried to dodge, acting to avoid the attack before either sight or sound could have reached it. The hunter did not care at all, for its attack landed, and the taste of the blood was good. This one would make for fine prey. The swarm felt the momentary annoyance from the mistress as a pair of the smooth ones made their approach, drawn by the sight of the attack, but she soon calmed. They were a minor concern, at worst. Her companion could remove them if they became too troublesome. The hunter’s brethren began to gather, the mistress drawing the swarm down upon the surfaces surrounding their new target, keeping them out of sight. When her partner was in position, they would strike.


Casper:

If Casper hadn’t been holding his powers stretched out so far to keep track of the birds, he doubted he ever would have noticed the two figures following him. Heck, it was only because of how tightly his nerves were wound that he was even able to twig that something was off about them to begin with.

At first, he’d thought they were dogs. Their emotions held that same light, autumnal orange quality as Maxie’s had. It had only been when he glanced behind himself and caught sight of the pair that he’d realized there was something wrong. They were people; at least, they looked like people. By appearances, he’d have said they were both in their early twenties, dressed in matching pin-striped suits and bowler hats, like they’d just walked out of a detective movie. When the one on the left caught him looking at them, they murmured something to their companion, and the two quickened their pace towards him.

Please don’t be following me, he wished silently to himself as he turned away, speeding up a little to keep ahead of them. Please just be regular, normal people who aren’t about to chase me across town.

At the next intersection, Casper changed streets, hoping to leave the pair behind. It didn’t take, and his pursuers sped up. The two were closing now, only sixty or so feet away.

Casper resisted the urge to glance behind himself again; he didn’t see any way it could really help. Instead, he took a peak at their minds. Neither of them was feeling anything aggressive, not that that really did anything to alleviate his fears. Lewis hadn’t felt any aggression, even when he’d done whatever it was that’d paralyzed Tasha. The one on the left was determined, while the one on the right was a little nervous, touched by a hint of what he’d almost call protectiveness. Well, that was unhelpful.

If this had happened before yesterday, Casper might have panicked. He probably would have started sprinting and simply hoped to get away in time. Since Lewis, though, he’d spent a little time thinking.

He glanced around the street and caught sight the sign for a bagel house just a few doors away. His power told him there were a fair number of people inside, too. Perfect.

He forced himself to keep his pace steady as he approached the shop, determined not to draw them in quicker, then, when he reached the door, he ducked inside, the strangers still some forty feet behind him.

The inside of the bagel place was fairly small, just five or six inexpensive round tables and some chairs sandwiched between a few self-serve drinks fridges and a bakery counter where a freckled girl in her twenties was chattering merrily to one of her customers. Apparently, they knew each other. The girl shot him a cheery sort of grin as he stepped inside, and he tried to return it, but something in the attempt made her frown. He noted the concern edging in at the corners of her mind, and turned his face to the floor, sliding himself through the thin gap between the first few seats and the counter until he found a table that wasn’t occupied and sat down, choosing the seat in the clearest view of the security camera.

There, he told himself, trying to calm his nerves. I’m in a public, crowded place. There’s a bunch of witnesses, and I’m under a camera. They can’t do anything to me without it causing trouble. Much as he tried, however, his thoughts refused to bring themselves to calm.

Casper watched as the two strangers approached the front of the store, their eyes roaming the interior until one caught sight of him and alerted the other. This close, he was able to see how odd they both looked. Both figures were slender, short, and finely featured; androgynous to such an extreme that he couldn’t tell for the life of him if either of the two was a man or a woman. They reminded him of the children from the Family. Just a little too well made to be natural.

He felt his heart beat a little faster as the shorter of them pushed the door open and stepped inside, the other taking up a position outside of it that he could only think of as ‘guarding.’

Please just be buying a bagel. Please just be buying a bagel.

Casper tried to hide behind his hands as the newcomer began maneuvering their way through the cramped space towards him, completely ignoring the girl at the counter, whose mind was growing more and more concerned by the moment. Casper tried to ignore that. He didn’t need any additional fear.

That was when the window pane split.

It came as something of a surprise, the single, long crack radiating out across the storefront with a sound like a plate striking the ground. Everyone in the shop turned to look at it for a moment, surprised. It made the strangers nervous. Casper used the momentary distraction to his advantage, and began to quietly push himself out of his chair, turning towards the kitchen area of the shop where, he hoped, he might find some kind of back exit. He never had the chance to find out if there was one, however, because before he was even half way, he felt the birds gathered around the block take flight.

Those still looking at the window were momentarily confused by the mottled black and brown swarm that rose from every rooftop in sight, many of them taking it for some strange kind of smoke, temporarily blocking out the light of the mid afternoon sky. Then the swarm began to dive, and the inhabitants of the shop became afraid. The first few birds that struck the window were harmless, simply bouncing off of the heavy glass frame without effect, dazing themselves. Then, however, they began to strike in bulk, and their sheer weight of numbers began to place pressure on the fissure in the surface, and the crack began to spread.

The stranger who had remained outside was being mobbed by the things, furiously batting them away as they pecked and clawed at anything they could reach. That confused Casper. Weren’t they on the same side?

Casper was halfway towards the back rooms when the stranger turned back to face him, a spike of sudden panic embedding itself into their mind as they strode across the short distance to him. He began to run, but it was no use. He felt a hand close around his shoulder, just as the window finally gave, and the inside of the room was filled with claws and the squawking, cacophonous cries of a hundred hunting birds.

All around him, people were panicking, adults frantically shielding children, customers cowering under the indiscriminate assault of talons and beaks. One particularly quick thinking man had hefted a table, and was struggling to shift it up against the broken window frame in an attempt to halt the influx of new attackers. It didn’t help.

Casper jerked away from the hand gripping his shoulder, trying to free himself to run, but it held firm.

“Let go of me!” He yelled, barely able to hear his own words above the din.

“We need to get you out of here!” His assailant shouted back, tugging him back towards the shop front. “I work with the government! We’re taking you to a safe house!”

If nothing else, that gave Casper pause. Not the words themselves, but the degree of desperate honesty that he felt radiating from the stranger as they spoke them. He didn’t know how to respond to it; but he had nothing better to go with. Belatedly, he stopped struggling.

“…Where?”

“Follow me.”

The stranger pulled Casper in beside them as they moved, using their bulk to shield him from the majority of the birds, his other side pressed against the bakery counter as a makeshift barrier. A few feet away, he caught sight of the one who had been in front of the door struggling through the swarm towards them. He thought he glimpsed them pulling a cylindrical object from a pocket, before the one beside him pressed a hand to his eyes. A second or two later, he gagged as something acrid and cloying met his nose, soaking into his lungs and sitting there like mud. He began to choke, every breath pulling more of that horrid vapour into him, like trying to breathe sand. Whatever this stuff was, it seemed to upset the birds even worse than it did him, because their attention seemed to shift. He felt it as their focus broke, that cold, complete hunger giving way to an almost mind numbing panic. As one, they ceased their attack, focusing instead on trying to get away, each of them scrabbling and fighting against one another in their haste to vacate the tiny space. Some were left behind, knocked to the floor by the wings of their fellows. He watched one of them fall to the ground, its whole body seemingly in spasm.

“Christ, that stuff’s foul,” the stranger beside him muttered, coughing slightly as they spoke. “C’mon, kid. We gotta move!”

Before anyone else within the shop managed to come to grips with what had just happened, Casper’s new companions each grabbed him by a shoulder, and he found himself being lifted up onto the tall one’s back. He tried to protest, but he couldn’t gather the breath. His lungs felt like they were made of lead. Underneath him, his supposed rescuers carried him out of the store and began to run. In other circumstances, he might have panicked, but as it was, he couldn’t bring his mind together enough for fear. It was all he could do just to hold on.

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