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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Dissonance: 4.12

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Author’s Note: Well, this one should be interesting. Sorry it took so long. So. First up, here’s a link to the bonus chapter vote for this arc, and secondly, an awesome dude called Sharkerbob has done a dramatic read-through of one of my chapters. Both of those things are cool, especially Sharker. So, moving on, let’s do the chapter.

James:

“I don’t get why I have to meet them, though,” Casper grumbled, following grudgingly along in the other boy’s wake. James rolled his eyes.

“Cuz you need more friends, Casper,” he replied shortly, lowering his voice a little as they approached the table. “Just me isn’t enough. Besides, I’m tired of having to choose between you and them every day.” At that, he raised his voice again. “Hey, guys! This is Casper. He’s a doof. Can we friend him?”

The table was mostly empty today, most of the group having likely set off once again for a game. Charlie was there, though, along with Nailah. At James’ call, the two of them glanced up from the array of monster cards scattered across the tabletop. Charlie’s freckle dusted face split into a grin.

“Hey, James!” he called. “Hey, Casper. Give us like, two seconds, okay? I’m so close to a win here.”

Nailah snorted at that.

“Nope,” she murmured back, laying down a fresh card. “I cast ‘Barrel of Explodium’. That’s you out of life points. Again.”

“What? No,” Charlie protested. “That’s six damage. I had seven left. I know I did!”

James chuckled at that, tugging Casper in behind him as he sat.

“Don’t argue maths with Nai; she’ll just make you lose harder.”

Charlie shot him a scowl. He countered with the most innocent smile he could manage. Beside him, Casper sat down on the bench, frowning, eyes on the table.

James sighed, and prodded the older boy in the ribs.

“Oi. No clamming up for you.” When Casper didn’t respond, he turned his gaze to the others. “Casper runs a light deck. Keeps trying to beat me with just human soldiers and enchantments.”

“Well that’s lame,” Charlie replied, picking up James’ lead and thankfully running with it. “Humans are like, one/one monsters across the board, right? How can you win without any decent champions?”

For a few moments, the words hung dead in the air, Casper still frowning quietly down at the tabletop. James had to force himself not to roll his eyes. Nailah had just opened her mouth to speak, when Casper replied, his voice small.

“Didn’t you just try and beat fire with a forest deck?”

The words earned him a smile from Nailah, and a playful glare from Charlie.

“Hey,” he shot back. “Don’t you go dissing my green deck. I’ll take the whole world on with nothing but bunnies and tiger spells.”

“Say that after you beat me, kay?” Nailah countered. “My fire shall reign forever.”

“… I totally need to bring my deck sometime,” Casper murmured, giving the girl a small smile. “My humans will destroy you.”

“Foolish mortal,” Charlie countered as he gathered up his cards. “It takes more than mere men to counter the gods.” He gave James a nudge on the shoulder. “You bring your deck today?”

“Nope.” James shrugged. “I had some other stuff going on. Got kinda distracted. Sorry.”

“Wanna play with mine?” Charlie held up his freshly collected deck. “See if you can beat the fire queen?”

“Uh, sure.” James took the proffered deck, and shuffled around the table to sit across from Nailah. Charlie shifted a little to give him some room, then, out of nowhere, grabbed him by the shoulder, and gave him a noogie, ignoring both his outrage and his protests.

“You can do this, squire. I believe in you.”

“Hah!” Nailah cackled, apparently getting rather into her fire queen bit. “You expect me lose to the likes of him? He is but a child with a borrowed deck!”

James didn’t answer immediately, he was too busy fixing his hair. He shot Charlie a glare, and the taller boy smiled back, sunny as ever. He slung an arm around James’ shoulders, and leaned in to murmur a loud stage whisper into his ear.

“She is weak, young padawan. Her fire runs only on stolen power. You can unseat her, child. It is your destiny.”

James took a moment to respond to that. He wanted to be annoyed at the taller boy for messing up his hair, but it was hard. He found himself distracted for a moment by the weight of the arm over his shoulders, his attention somehow drawn to how close Charlie’s lips were to his ear. He felt his cheeks grow a little warm.

Nope.

He wrenched his mind away from that particular line of thought with all the force he could muster, and shook himself.

“Not a child,” he grumbled, managing a decent approximation of irritation as he ducked out from under the other boy’s arm. “I’m a grown up now. My dad even let me say the F word.”

“He let you say fuck?” Casper asked, grinning. “Wow, such a cool dad.”

“Yeah,” Nailah murmured, shooting him a wink. “I wish my dad let me say fuck. That’d be so ace.”

“… Shut up.”

“I guess I’ll have to stick with good ol’ Gee Willikers,” Casper continued. “Cuz I’m just not a real grown up yet.”

James glowered at him.

“Come on, guys,” Charlie cut in, his tone placating. “Don’t be mean. Saying the F word is very grown up.” James had just enough time to feel grateful, before the boy added a follow up. “I’m sure he’d be happy to demonstrate for us, too. Go on, James.”

“… What?” James looked into the other boy’s face at that, ready to protest. Charlie’s eyes were very blue under the auburn of his hair. He looked away.

“Swear,” Charlie murmured, humor teasing at the edges of his tone. “Say fuck, since you’re such a cool adult and all.”

“… I was only s’posed to say it once,” he muttered, glaring at his legs.

“Such an adult.”

“I hate all of you.”


The rest of the day passed largely uneventfully. James played cards with his friends, debated TV shows with Casper, and went to class. It was soothing, to an extent. Everything felt right again. All things in their place. He went home, did his homework, and played with Bex while Casper worked in the kitchen. When dinner came, he was honestly surprised. Turned out the other kid really knew how to cook. It was some kind of pasta, and it was delicious.

The only hiccup came when he and Casper moved to his room that evening, deciding to watch more shows while the other boy caught up on his school work.

He was sitting on the floor, muddling through an overlarge case of DVDs, when the other boy spoke, his voice quiet.

“So, Charlie’s kinda cool.”

James smiled to himself at that, still flicking through page after page of discs.

“I know, right?” he murmured. “It’s super cool you two are friends now. We do choir practice together, and he sings really we-”

“He’s cute, too,” Casper continued, his tone casual. “Don’t you think?”

James froze for a moment at that, his hands halting midway through tugging the right disc from its sleeve. It took his mind a few moments to wind back into motion.

“… What was that?” He glanced back at Casper. The boy was gazing at him, his expression calm.

“Charlie,” Casper repeated. “You think he’s cute.”

“… No I don’t,” James muttered, returning his gaze to the discs. “Don’t be dumb.”

“I’m not being dumb,” the other boy replied. “Empath, remember? Why’d you go all weird when he got close to you? Cuz it felt a like you were having sexy thou-”

“Can you not?” James asked, his voice caught between pleading and irritation. “Please? I felt weird for a couple seconds, that’s all. You don’t need to put any other stuff into it.” He pressed the button to open up the DVD player, and let out a huff. “… This is why being friends with you is weird. I never get to just deal with stuff on my own.”

For a few seconds, Casper didn’t respond. A part of James wondered if he’d hurt the other boy. He refused to look at him. When the older boy finally spoke, his voice was quiet.

“… You know there’s nothing wrong with liking boys, right?”

James let out an aggravated grunt at that.

“Of course I do,” he snapped. “I know there’s nothing wrong with it, but I don’t. Like. Boys.” He put as much emphasis as he could into the last few words, then shot his friend a scowl. Casper was still just sitting there, utterly calm. “Even if I did, I don’t want to deal with all the sexy stuff right now. It’s gross!”

For a few minutes, the two of them were quiet. James was angry. He wasn’t even all that sure why. He just knew that Casper was making him angry, with those stupid calm words and that stupid calm face. He glared at it.

After a long while, Casper sighed.

“Empathy sucks sometimes, you know?”

James didn’t answer. Instead, he just turned on the TV, and finished setting up the show. He got up, plopped himself down on the furthest edge of the bed from Casper that he could, and set his eyes to the screen, not really seeing it. Neither of them spoke.

He was still angry when, ten minutes later, his phone rang. He picked it up without bothering to look at the screen, and pressed it to his ear.

“Hello?”

“Hey, James. It’s Caleb.”

For the briefest moment, James felt a tiny flicker of relief undercut his rage. He’d been worried for a while there that Caleb might not want to speak to him.

“Hey,” he murmured, ignoring the way Casper’s gaze shifted across to him. “You uh… You doing okay?”

At the other end of the line, Caleb let out a tired laugh.

“No. Not really. I uh. I was hoping you could maybe come see me? I… Kinda wanted to explain some stuff.”

“Sure,” James replied, perplexed. “You got a time ready to do a meet up or-”

“I’m at the park near your place,” Caleb cut him off. “The one with the skateboards. Can you meet me? It’s kind of important.”

For a moment, James considered saying no. His parents were home. It was already getting dark. Then he glanced at Casper, felt another twinge of anger.

“Sure. Just give me a couple minutes. Kay?” He didn’t wait for a response before he hung up. He dropped the phone in his pocket, and stood up. The basketball sat in the far corner of the room, and he extended a hand, his power reaching out along with it to grasp the air inside the sphere. The practice bouts had helped a lot with his control, and now, the ball flew straight as he pulled it towards his hand, its movement quick, but steady.

“I’m going out,” he muttered behind himself. “I have some stuff to do.”

“… Stuff we’re allowed to talk about?” Casper asked, his tone a tad concerned.

“No,” James replied shortly. “Other stuff.”


It wasn’t too hard for James to get his parents to let him outside. They might be a little restrictive, but it was still early enough in the evening, and they knew he could defend himself. He promised to be back in an hour, and stepped outside, the ball tucked under an arm.

One short walk later, he found Caleb at the park, sitting alone on the lip of the skate rink. Without a word, he walked over, and sat himself alongside him.

Caleb didn’t look too good. There were shadows under his eyes, a trace of blood and dust still clinging to his clothes from yesterday’s fight. James didn’t ask about the fresher blood on his knuckles, nor the dried tears across his cheeks.

“… What’s up?” he asked, turning his gaze down into the skating pit. He absently tossed the basketball down into it, and watched the thing as it bounced.

“… I’ve been lying to you,” came the response, Caleb, like himself, opting to just watch the ball as it moved. “Wanted to say sorry I’m a shitty friend.”

James wanted to say the words were surprising, but they weren’t. He wasn’t an idiot.

“You mean you’re not a teenage monster hunter?” he asked, his voice deadpan.

Caleb chuckled.

“Actually, that’s the only thing I told you that was true. It’s the rest that was all BS. I am a monster hunter, but I wasn’t trying to train you.” James chanced a glance at the older boy. Caleb was still just watching the ball, his hands clasping together in his lap, still gently dripping blood. He returned his gaze to the ball, and gave it a little push with his wind to keep it bouncing.

“… What were you trying to do, then?”

At that, Caleb allowed himself another short chuckle, and closed his eyes.

“Honestly, I was planning to kill you.”

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