Care: 6.5

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Charlie:

Charles Vance gazed out into the slow snowfall beyond his cell’s window, and once more tried to convince himself that staying at the compound had been a good idea. It was harder than it should have been. Everything Twenty Three had told him had been true. It was just annoying how little that actually helped.

Charlie let his eyes scan slowly back and forth across the snow-clad mountainscape, searching once again for evidence of a ski-slope. It was hard to make out anything from this distance, even without the snow.

Behind him, he heard the latch of his cell door click open. He turned. The person at the door was familiar. Bors; a blond man in what were either his late teens or early twenties, with slate grey eyes and a tendency towards unsolicited smiles. The man was carrying a metal tray, a bowl of some thick, meat-filled soup steaming faintly atop it. Charlie scowled.

Please don’t talk to me. Please don’t talk to me. Please don-

“Hello, Charles,” said Bors, his voice accented with something Charlie stood no chance of identifying.  “How are we doing today?” As he spoke, the man stepped properly into the room, depositing the food on the table beside his bed.

Charlie didn’t answer. Instead, he just turned his head back towards the window, and continued searching for a ski-slope. One week, he’d decided. He’d give Twenty Three one week to make contact with him, then he’d make his best guess at an inhabited mountain, and portal his way out.

“Still don’t feel like talking, huh?” Bors said, masking his disappointment with a chuckle. “It’d be better for all of us if you did, you know. I can’t imagine how many questions you must have bottled away in there. I’d be happy to explain some things.”

Charlie shook his head. This was one of the most frustrating things about this place. Everyone was too damn polite.

“Kid down the hall was crying again last night,” he muttered. “When are we going home?”

Bors’ smile dropped a fraction.

“I don’t have an answer there,” he replied, mimicking yesterday’s response verbatim. “We can’t know how long we’ll need to keep you, or anyone, until we know what you can do.”

“You keep saying that like you’re expecting something big,” Charlie muttered, turning so as to look Bors in the eye. “Whatever it is, I don’t have it. So just let me go.”

“That is bullshit, Charles,” Bors replied. Then he sighed. “My apologies. I shouldn’t swear in front of a boy.” He took a step back towards the door, and gestured to Charlie’s meal. “Eat your soup. You might feel better with something warm in your belly.”

Charlie glanced at his soup, then looked back at Bors. The man smiled again, almost encouraging. That made the decision for him. In four steps, he traversed the space to his bed, sat himself down, and picked up the bowl.

It hit Bors in the chest, hot soup exploding out across a formerly pristine grey uniform and scalding at his skin. He let out a yell, first in pain, then in rage, crossing the distance between them in two steps. Charlie didn’t flinch, even when Bors’ retaliatory strike caught him in the cheek, snapping his head to the side.

To say it didn’t hurt would have been a lie. Charlie could taste the blood in his mouth, his tongue suddenly a little too big for his teeth. Unsurprising. Bors was twice his size, after all. Given his last few days, however, it was next to nothing.

Charlie looked up at the older man, wiped the blood from his mouth with a sleeve, and grinned.

See that? You’re a kidnapping asshole. Stop pretending.

It took Bors a few moments to reclaim his composure. Eventually, however, his stance relaxed, his hand slowly unclenching from a fist. He wasn’t smiling anymore; not even trying. There was a touch of regret behind his eyes.

“Boy,” he murmured, wiping a measure of the soup from his face. “If you were a year older, I’d have made you lose a tooth for that.” Charlie laughed with as much derision as he could at that. Bors ignored him. “Come on.” He gestured to the door. “You still need to eat something.”

Charlie would have refused. He was still feeling petty; but he could smell the soup now coating a good portion of the room. His stomach growled. He felt a momentary regret for the aching in his jaw.

“… Fine.”

It was perhaps twenty steps out into the hallway before Bors spoke up again.

“You need to stop treating us like the enemy,” he muttered. “I know it’s hard to see right now, but I promise you; we’re on the same side.”

Charlie snickered.

“Your boss set my house on fire,” he replied. “Knocked out my mom and left her in the street. I’m not on your side. Your side sucks.”

“Leanne gave her life to see you here safely,” Bors snapped. “Have some respect or I’ll show you the back of my hand again.”

“You’re really bad at this whole ‘not my enemy’ thing, you know that?”

The rest of their trip was made in blessed silence, Bors still scowling, Charlie trying to commit the layout of the place to memory. He wasn’t able to glean much. Just a bunch of narrow hallways and a depressing amount of security cameras. 

Their arrival at the kitchen almost came as a relief. It was the biggest room Charlie had seen in days, four rows of sturdy wooden tables and orthopedic seats. Only one of those seats was currently in use, a dull, suit-clad man who Charlie would have guessed to be in his early seventies, eating a bowl of the same soup that coated Bors. The man glanced up as they entered, and nodded. Charlie nodded back, half-hearted, then began to look for food.

Bors had made a B-line for a set of stoves, at the top of which simmered a vat of yet more soup. He looked to Charlie, then gestured meaningfully at the soup. He was ignored.

Charlie had been on this world for almost thirteen years. He had a loving mother and he knew exactly what she would let him get away with. 

Charlie knew how to raid a kitchen.

Bors didn’t try to stop him as he moved from shelf to shelf, filling his pockets with every sugar encrusted object he could find. A glance at his expression told Charlie all he needed to know. He had decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Good. Charlie would make use of that.

Eventually, however, his pockets ran out of space. So did his hands. Judging his task completed, Charlie sat himself down on a tabletop, pulled open the foil on a packet of some unrecognizable european candy, and tipped it into his mouth. 

Bors scowled. Charlie grinned at him as he chewed, pointedly ignoring the pain in his jaw. At this point, annoying Bors was the only entertainment he had available.

“So,” he said, not bothering to swallow his food. “You said you’d explain stuff. What are you planning here?”

“Can’t tell you that.” Bors huffed.

“That figures.” Charlie swallowed his food. “Okay. Can you tell me where we are?”

“No.”

“Can you tell me who you guys are?”

An angry groan.

“No.”

“Are we in Germany? You sound kinda German. Is this some kind of Nazi thin-”

“I’m from Luxembourg!” Bors snapped. “And no. We are not Nazis.”

Charlie shrugged.

“What part of Luxembourg?”

Bors put a palm against his face, and didn’t answer.

Charlie scowled.

“You promised you’d tell me stuff.”

“Then give me something I can answer!”

Charlie snorted.

“Like what?”

The chuckling behind Charlie’s back almost him jump. He turned around, and caught sight of the elderly man in the suit, currently on the last few spoonfuls of his soup. The man waved.

“He can’t tell you anything important,” he said, his voice almost boringly English. “He doesn’t have the required clearance, and doesn’t know how much he’s allowed to say.”

Bors glared.

“Who the hell are you, old man?”

The man shrugged, pulled an ID card from his pocket, and tossed it to Bors.

“Sebastian Grey. I’m the new CEO. Or the old one, I suppose. Leanne had me removed when she took over.” He ate another mouthful of soup. “She’s dead now. I’m here to clean up her mess.” Bors bristled. He was ignored. “Check my ID if you don’t believe me. For now, though, I need you to leave. I’ll be speaking with Mr. Vance alone.”

Bors didn’t move. His fists were clenched.

“Leanne was a good woman,” he growled, his teeth bared. “Do not-”

Mr Grey flicked two fingers in Bors’ direction. There was a loud snap, and Bors disappeared. 

“I swear. Leanne let everything important slip while I was gone.”

Charlie watched the whole confrontation, at first confused, then alarmed. 

“The heck did you just do?”

“Just a teleport,” the man shrugged. “I don’t like having my time wasted.”

Sebastian finished the last of his soup, and turned to look at him.

“Did your mother ever tell you anything about elves, son?”

“Uh, what?” Charlie asked, one eyebrow crawling slowly up his scalp.

“I’ll take that as a no then,” Mr Grey nodded, pushed his soup bowl to one side, and began picking at the lid of his yogurt carton, his fingers a little clumsy. He grunted. “Damned arthritis. I’m sorry, would you mind?” He proffered the carton to Charlie, who moved forward to pull the tab free without thinking; too busy being perplexed. “Thank you. Now then. As you have recently discovered, Charles, magic is real. People who have it are able to use what you could think of as specialized superpowers. Your mother has powers, I have powers, and as we both know, you have powers.”

“I don’t-” Charlie started, but Mr. Grey cut him off.

“No use denying it. We could tell your powers had manifested the moment you set foot inside this building.”

Charlie crossed his arms and let out a huff.

Mr. Grey cracked a dry smile.

“That was a lie, but your response was quite informative.” 

Charlie scowled even harder at that. It was a dumb trick, even when it worked.

Mr. Grey produced a clean spoon from his jacket pocket and gave his yogurt a stir.

“The situation is fairly complex, but all you really need to know is that our species is at war. There are some people who accept this fact, and there are some who don’t. Your mother is one of the people who do not. She, along with most of the rest of the world, would rather ignore the elves building portals to our world and hunting us like dogs. They do this because it is easier. That is their choice.” He gave Charlie a cold look. “They’re cowards.”

“Screw you,” Charlie replied on general principle. “My Mom’s not a coward.”

Mr. Grey continued on as if Charlie hadn’t spoken.

“Historically, of course, there hasn’t really been anything our species could do about these attacks. We have powerful people, but our planet doesn’t have the energy to keep us at full strength. Even our best mages are working with maybe a fifth of their actual power. The elves don’t have that problem. They put us on this planet to keep us low. They cheated us out of our power because they want to stay on top. One day, we will grow strong enough to make them fear our potential. Either by our numbers, or by our technology. They have already seen what nuclear arms can do. They are already wary of us. One day, the war will start in full. Do you understand me, Charles?” 

Charlie reluctantly nodded. He was listening now, in spite of himself, arms folded and cross-legged atop his table.

“… So what are you doing?”

Sebastian took another mouthful of his yogurt, and reclined a little in his chair. “My organisation-” he gestured vaguely at the space around them. “Has spent the last four decades doing everything we could. We have gathered materials, made weapons, and trained soldiers. All this time, we have been preparing for a war that we couldn’t find a way to win. Then, six years ago, circumstances changed.”

The man paused there, gazing calmly across at him over the dregs of his dessert. Was he awaiting a response?

“Uh,” Charlie muttered. “Okay. What happened six years ago?”

“We were attacked,” Mr. Grey answered, finishing the last full bite of his yogurt and scraping his spoon around the inside of the container for the dregs. “It turns out that not only are the elves willing to exploit us to remain on top; they are also negligent towards the responsibilities that come with that position. A creature they were supposed to be guarding got out. It made its way to Earth, and when it got close enough, it started creating monsters. It made five of them before a man named Ethan Gale sacrificed himself to contain it. Of those five, this planet’s defenders only managed to deal with four of them.”

The man put his spoon down and started ticking off names on his fingers.

“There was the Minotaur: a brute of a thing that almost made its way to Cairo before a space warper trapped it in an endless spiral. Then there was the Hydra: a regenerating sea-snake that flattened an entire coastal town before Tsuru Toranaga and her pet elemental burned out the inside of its skull.”

“Wait. James’ grandma?” Charlie asked. Mr. Grey ignored him.

“Then there was the Crow. We think it was some kind of psychically attuned teleporter, because it assassinated a total of seventy four politicians and celebrities before a pedophile shattered its wings.” He took the last bite of his yogurt. “All evidence suggests that the Behemoth would have been disastrous, but it emerged in Norway, so the twins took care of it before it became an issue. The one that has value here, though, was called the Whale.” He caught sight of the unimpressed look on Charlie’s face, and gave a humorless laugh.

“I know. Not an impressive name. Not very apt, either. Whales are peaceful creatures.” He sighed. “We don’t know how the fight played out. We just know that the team that was sent to fight it broke radio contact a minute or so before the thing was supposed to arrive. A search party found their bodies on the beach a few hours later, all of them brain-dead, aside from the ones fortunate enough to have drowned.”

Charlie just gazed at the older man then. He had no response to that. Was he supposed to be sad? Scared? Should he want to know more? It felt too much like something out of a cartoon.

Sebastian sniffed, picked up his yogurt cup, and crumpled it, before pushing out of his chair towards the trash can. 

“No one wanted to go near the creature after that,” he murmured. “Understandable, I suppose. The Americans tracked its movements via satellite and aerial patrols. The Japanese sent submarines. Their torpedoes didn’t even make it past its shield. When it started moving in towards Bermuda, the Americans and the British started scrambling everything they could.” He smiled. “Wasted effort, in the end. It was still a few dozen miles out when it tore a jagged hole in space-time and moved into another world.”

“Wait, what?” Charlie asked, confused. “It just left?”

“It just left.” Sebastian agreed, depositing his yogurt cup in the trash and stepping back towards his companion, leaning himself against a table. “We were surprised too. You see, the world that this creature traveled into used to be inaccessible. We didn’t even know it was there until we watched the Whale flee. And as it turns out, the hole that it left behind has never truly healed over. The fabric is weaker there. My organisation was able to send some probes through. Do you know what we found?”

Charlie mutely shook his head. The old man grinned.

“We found the perfect planet. It’s empty over there. We couldn’t find anything for miles. Just tropical islands, calm seas, and an atmosphere so untouched that it practically vibrates with ambient magic.” That grin grew wider. “Do you see it yet, Charles? We could use that place to build an army. A real army, on a planet with only one way in and one way out. No ambushes from other worlds. No spying from elven seers. We could be powerful, defensible, and invisible. We could win the war.”

“Um. Okay… But what about the magic death whale?”

Mr. Grey shrugged.

“It’s a sea creature. We can stick to landmasses easily enough. But first, we need to get there.” He reached a hand inside his jacket. For a moment, Charlie was confused as to why the older man had lost his grin. Then he felt the tip of the revolver press against his head.

Charlie squeaked.

“Your mother,” Sebastian said calmly. “Is one of the finest transportation mages on the face of the Earth. She can move a squad of men from London to Jakarta in less than a minute, with pinpoint accuracy. She is one of the few people in the world who could make the kind of bridge we need. If you have those same abilities, you have value to me. If not,” he sighed. “Then I’ll have to rely on the less pedigreed assets Leanne acquired. Don’t look at the gun, Charles. Look at me.”

With what felt like the greatest struggle of will he had ever undergone, Charlie pulled his gaze from the weapon still pressed against his skull, and looked his captor in the eye. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. He could feel the touch of the metal radiating like ice cubes through every inch of him.

“Please don’t kill me.”

Sebastian sniffed.

“That really depends on what you can bring to the table,” he said, his voice cold. “Now, I’m going to ask you nicely.” He pulled back the gun’s hammer with his thumb. “Would you mind showing me your powers?”

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Care: 6.3

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Two days ago, Twenty Three:


For the first few seconds, the three of them simply hung there in the void; falling, yet stationary; their minds forced open to the vastness of the world. It was hard to measure time like that. Hours? Days? The space of a breath? Hard to say.

She was vaguely aware of her companions moving through the space beside her, the boss still crackling with electricity, the boy simply frightened. Had she been less distracted in that moment by the sheer length and breadth of the world, she might have comprehended earlier. As it was, she took her time.

When she finally landed, the world took a while to reconstruct. They hit the ground in the dark, she lost her footing; scuffed her knees on the rough concrete. The air was freezing, the ground so cold it threatened to take the skin from her palms when she pulled her hands away. When the nausea hit, she retched. She wasn’t the only one. The sound of someone losing fluids in the gloom.

She closed her eyes. Sight was overwhelming for her then, even in the dark.

Teleporting sucked.

It was with that thought that Twenty Three’s consciousness resurfaced. Teleporting. Right. They’d teleported. They’d been in the van; the creatures attacking from the mists of the witch’s grove. There’d been fear and rage; the promise of freedom. As the thought came back to her, she felt some broken memory of hope. 

She shook her head; still groggy. Why was the hope just a memory? Why did it hurt to think of?

Twenty Three was glad she had her eyes closed when the lights came on, the colors growing brighter behind her eyelids. Judging by the muffled groan off to her left, the boss hadn’t been quite so lucky.

The boss. More flashes in her head. Fighting, the drain, the split-second image of Caleb’s body flung like a rag-doll across the clearing. She felt something numb settling in her chest.

They’d been so close. 

More retching to the side. Just the one voice now. Young, male; Charlie. Right. The boss had got him too.

“What the heck was that?” he asked, his voice small; his teeth chattering.

“My apologies,” came the boss’ reply, the words coming out as a pained mumble. “I had to get us out of there. Bit of a rough ride.”

Twenty Three opened her eyes. The light ached. That didn’t matter. She had one thought, something to latch onto with all her strength. 

Somewhere, bare feet away from her, the boss spoke.

“Twenty Three,” Leanne croaked. “Check on Charlie. See if he’s injured, then help me up.”

She scanned the ground around her. The world spun. The vague sense of shapes moving to her left. She forced her eyes to focus. 

Charlie sat a few feet to her left, arms curled up around his eyes as he tried to block out the light and the chill. She forced her gaze to the other shape. Leanne, on all fours, immobile. 

Twenty Three forced herself to her feet. The motion disoriented; another wave of nausea sliding against her brain. She closed her eyes, and took a step towards Leanne.

Her thoughts weren’t vocal in that moment; incoherent. All she had inside her was that crushing sense of loss. She wished the feeling could be less familiar.

She took another step, and felt her leg collide with something soft. She lowered herself to her knees beside the boss, confirming identity by touch rather than her still aching eyes.

“Charlie’s fine,” she muttered, orienting an arm under the woman’s shoulders, and exhaustedly heaving her upright, the two of them steadying one another as gravity itself seemed to ebb beneath them. “What do you want me to do?”

Leanne took a while before she answered, clearly forcing herself to think; barely conscious. 

“Get-” she shook her head. “Get inside. Find someone from medical. Send them across while I look after Charlie.”

Twenty Three forced a nod. It was mechanical; artificial; a built in response to having another layer of hope ripped out by the root. Obedience. That was how one avoided pain. It was the only way.

“… Yes, Maam.”

It was… surprisingly easy, letting her feelings go, keeping the hate out of her voice. She just had to forget she had a soul. Simple as breathing.

It just wasn’t something her sanity could stand. 

It wasn’t really a conscious choice, unclipping the knife from her belt. Maybe it should have been. Maybe she should have considered the odds for her survival. She didn’t. She was too busy playing back images inside her mind. The panic in Caleb’s eyes before the end. Twenty Four’s body growing cold against his bed. 

Leanne barely reacted when the blade pierced her gut. Just a faint surprise; a breath; the exhalation turned to mist by the chill.

Twenty Three withdrew the knife; stabbed again. Leanne’s hands came up to stop her; weaker than a child. She stabbed again.

“Everything,” Twenty Three whispered, one arm at the older woman’s back, holding her upright. “You broke every good thing there ever was in me. I can’t live like this.”

She felt Leanne’s touch inside her mind; the last dregs of power draining slowly out of her. She shook her head. Was this how Twenty Four had felt? The lifeblood leaching from his veins as he stood there in the snow? 

He must have been so lonely.

“Do it,” she murmured, forcing a smile even as the tears began to trickle along her cheeks. “Send me back to them. Please.”

Something broke inside her when the sound of Leanne’s breaths grew still. The hand inside her head stopped pulling at her. The woman’s form grew heavy in her arms.

Why was she still alive?

She shook Leanne’s body.

 “Wake up. You’re not done. I said wake up!” 

The boss’ head lolled to the side as she slapped it. No resistance. No pulse.

Twenty Three let the body fall to the floor, and put her head in her hands.

“No,” she whispered. “No, no, no. Not again. Don’t make me be alone again.”

“… Hey.”

She let the knife fall from her fingers with a clatter. Her fingers shook, her breaths short and shallow.

“Fuck. Fuck.” She shook herself. Nothing changed. She slapped herself. She failed to wake up.

“Hey!” 

Something struck her in the leg, hard enough to sting. She ignored it. It hit her again.

She opened her eyes.

It was the kid.

Charlie.

He was shivering. Barefoot and pajama clad in the freezing cold. He was also kicking her in the shins.

“Will. You. Stop. Flipping. Out!” he shouted, planting a fresh kick in the space between each word. “We’ve been kidnapped! Pull it together, or we’re screwed!”

She looked down at him, confused.

“But Caleb’s dead,” she said, the words coming out strangely hollow.

Charlie glared at her, his arms wrapping tight around himself for warmth, his feet tucking into the bottoms of his pajamas so as not to touch the ground.

“Who?” he asked. “Y-you mean the guy who tried to save us? I didn’t see him die. Did you see him die?”

“He-” she swallowed. “He got hit.”

Charlie shook his head.

“No,” he chittered. “S-shut up. That’s not what I said. Did. You. See. Him. Die?”

Twenty Three opened her mouth.

Twenty Three closed her mouth.

“Yeah,” Charlie muttered. “That’s what I thought. N-now. I’m gonna be honest. I just watched you stab someone. I don’t trust you. But we’re in this together. So, are you gonna help me get back to my mom or not?”

For a moment, she simply gazed at him. Then she began to laugh.

“… What?” he asked, one eyebrow crawling up his scalp.

“Ah.” She giggled. “It’s just- Oh, wow. My life is just a procession of little boys who need me to keep them alive.”

“I’m not a little boy.” He muttered, hands rubbing up and down along his sides in an attempt to ward off the cold.

“You’re totally a little boy.” Twenty Three opened a hand, allowing a mote of indigo flame to blossom between her fingers, before lobbing it down on the ground between them. It wasn’t much; little more than a space heater, really, but Charlie huddled himself around it like it was the warmest thing on Earth.

“Where the heck are we?” he asked. “How’s it so cold? It’s October.”

“It’s October, sure,” she muttered, taking a good look around for the first time since her landing. “But I’m pretty sure we’re back where I grew up. Near the arctic. Up in the mountains. Up here, October just means the snow storms are back.”

The first things she noted looking around were the shipping containers. Eight of them, organized around them in a neat, two-by-two stack. She could see the distant wall down one end, a sliding entryway just big enough for a hauler on the other side. All of it covered over by a low tin roof. 

They were back at the compound. 

She chuckled. For the last twelve years, being back here had been a feature of every nightmare she’d had. Strange that it could now be a cause for such relief. She’d been trying to break out of here for years. She knew the security of the place like the back of her hand.

“Well,” she muttered. First question. How about your portals? Think you could put us back in America somewhere?”

“Already tried it while you were freaking out,” he replied. “I don’t think I can make them go that far. The only one I managed opened up into a snow storm. Now they won’t open up at all. I think I’m out of power.”

“Right,” she sighed. “Well, that makes things harder.” She glanced across at Charlie, still warming himself by the meagre fire, and stripped off her jacket. She tossed it at him. “In a perfect world, we could just hide here until you got your power back.” She heaved another sigh. “But, the lights are on. And that means they’ll come looking in here soon. This warehouse isn’t big enough to hide in, and if we tried, it’d mean going without the fire. At best, we’d be caught. At worst, we’d freeze.”

Charlie wrapped the jacket around him as tightly as he could, burrowing in against the leather lining. 

“But I like the fire,” he muttered.

“Me too,” she replied, slumping down on the floor across from him. “Don’t wanna have to go without it. But there’s no hiding here with it. Now, we could make a run for it, but we’re up in the mountains, and it’s cold outside. It’s only going to get colder when nighttime hits. You’re not wearing shoes. Or any warm clothes. We could steal hers-” she pointed at Leanne’s corpse. 

“-but they won’t fit, and they aren’t enough. I have no idea how far away it is to the nearest town. Hell, I don’t even know where the nearest town is. There’s a ski resort, I think, on one of the mountains nearby, but as far as I could ever tell, that mountain is at least twelve miles away. So, to get us there, I’d have to carry you through the snow, in broad daylight, for about two hours. Best case, we get there and you only lose a few toes to the cold. Worst case, we get caught, and you still lose a couple toes. We could wait until nighttime in some of the trees on the other side of the compound, but that’d mean staying in the cold even longer. And we still might get caught.”

Charlie shook his head, his expression slightly queasy.

“Okay,” he muttered. “Thanks for the horror story, weirdo. Why are you telling me all this?”

“Because,” she groaned. “I want you to know your options. We could run, and we could maybe make it. But there’s a risk. And because you’re smaller, and your body doesn’t have superpowers, most of that risk is on you. But. The other option might be worse.”

Of all the possible responses, the boy somehow managed a chuckle.

“Worse than losing my toes?” he asked, poking his bare feet out from under the wrapping of the jacket, and wiggling them around near the fire. “Not likely. I like my toes.”

Twenty Three shook her head.

“Option two is you turn yourself in,” she muttered. His head jerked up at her at that. She held up a hand. “I know. I know. It sounds dumb. But these people wanted us to capture you. That means someone here is going to know your face. If you turn yourself in, they’ll keep you warm, and keep you safe. If you told them the boss got stabbed before she brought you here, they wouldn’t need to know about me. And that gives me enough time to get supplies, come back, and break you out.”

“… You really think you can just break me out of here?”

There was a lot more cynicism in Charlie’s voice than Twenty Three would have liked. She brushed it off with a grin.

“Kid. I spent my whole childhood figuring out how to break people out of here. Most of that was before I learned magic.”

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Aid: 5.17

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Caleb:

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

‘That better not be permanent.’

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

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

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

He pushed through.

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

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

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

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

Eventually, he let out a bitter sort of laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a shit ally, you know that?”

Tsuru shrugged.

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

One of Caleb’s eyelids twitched. Low blow.

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

A laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At that, Tsuru merely chuckled.

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


Leanne:

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

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

She called her powers.

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

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

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

A memory.

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

‘Thirteen.’

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

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

She stood.

She stumbled.

She stood again.

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

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

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

Good. Something for her to follow.


Caleb:

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

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

Clearly, Tsuru’s ghosts had disagreed.

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

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

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

“… Huh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caleb caught a glimpse of his partner’s face.

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

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

“Hey!” he bellowed. “Twenty Three!”

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

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

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

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

Only then did she turn to look at him.

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

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

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

“Like hell you are, kid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sniffle.

“Why does everyone know my fucking name?”

Caleb winced; shook his head; took a breath.

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

Another sniffle.

“They set my house on fire.”

Caleb reevaluated.

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

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

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

Finally, Charlie seemed to come to a decision:

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

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

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

“… Yeah,” Charlie muttered. “Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

Behind them, a voice whistled.

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

“… Aren’t you James’ Grandma?”

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

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

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

“… Prove it.”

“What?” he asked, nonplussed.

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

Caleb took a deep breath, then nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A long, long silence; then a quiet sniff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t worth much.

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

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

She was gone.

He had failed.

He fainted.

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Aid: 5.14

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Tsuru:

Tsuru was…heightened. There wasn’t really another word for it. 

Across the street, the boss was making her way towards the extraction site with an unhappy looking boy following in her wake; one of James’ friends. A ways to the left of that, Caleb’s partner was being led by her overseer in ferrying her catch towards the van where the other slaves both sat, their masters chatting casually against the side of it. 

She was aware of all of it. Every detail. The frustration etched in her adversary’s face, the muttered words of the agents’ conversation, even the distant hum of the helicopter rotor whirring into life across the way. A hundred little details, all working towards a plan.

Tsuru was angry, deeply so; but for the moment, that wouldn’t help. Anger was a distraction unless it had a direction in which to face. She set it low; used it to focus.

Quite casually, she raised a fabric covered forearm to her mouth, for all appearances, simply stifling a yawn. Then, she spoke, her voice undisguised and quiet, dropping into a more archaic form of Japanese.

“Kindly kodama, the protector of Jomon Sugi requires aid from you today. Hide me well.”

The response was immediate; a soft chill at the tips of her fingers, like brushing snow from the petals of winter’s early flowers. That gentle cold spread up along her arm, the dense latticework of tattoos beneath her disguise shifting across her skin as Yuki Yanagi began to move.

She reached into a pocket, popped open the side pouch on her wallet, and plucked out a pinch of seeds. Her friend preferred to work with flora native to Japan. The moment the seeds made contact with her skin, she felt something flowing free of her. She pulled her fingers from her pocket, and rubbed them together, letting the seeds fall lightly to the ground.

There were three objectives, to her mind. Two old, one new. Number one: Get Caleb’s partner out. That much hadn’t changed. Number two: Get as many of these kids to safety as she could. To her perspective, that just meant waiting for Caleb to arrive. When all was said and done, those two would be a simple matter, so long as she could achieve objective three: Destroy the woman who had dared to hurt her husband.

That was where the problem lay.

Tsuru pushed herself up off of the bonnet of her car and began making her way towards the van, her pace matched to Twenty Three and her escort, heading for the two agents against the side. She kept her pace steady, her expression calm. Best not to seem like she was in a rush.

There was no way around the fact that, whoever this woman was, she was powerful enough to fight off Hideyoshi. Tsuru knew her limits. If this woman was stronger than her husband, then there was no chance for a win if it came to a straight up fight. She had to think more tactically than that. 

The real issue here was time. Tsuru needed Caleb here before these slaves could be freed, but she doubted the boss would allow his partner to remain on the ground now that the extraction was prepared. Yuki Yanagi could buy her time, she knew, but he too would need a moment to prepare.

With that thought in mind, she opted for a more visceral form of distraction. Her next spirit was more recent. The ghost of a schoolgirl found haunting a tower block in the early 1990s. Tsuru smiled. The child had been something of a horror buff.

“Tomoko,” she murmured, her speech returning to a more modern form of Japanese. “I could do with a distraction. If you wouldn’t mind doing something horrible when I give the word?”

Again, the response was immediate; the lightest of taps against her thigh, the echoing sound of a teenager laughing in her ear. She felt the ghost trying to dig itself into the magic of her disguise, and freely gave the girl control. She felt her flesh shifting slightly as another tattoo worked itself free of the skin along her leg.

Across the way, her foe was speaking once again.

“I’ve received word that Thirteen’s been delayed. We’ll proceed with the extraction as we are. I’ll remain behind to retrieve him.”

Tsuru glanced at Twenty Three, curious. The lie must be for her benefit, yet from the look on the girl’s face, it only served to make her nervous. Tsuru filed the thought away for later. If they were extracting now, then she was well and truly out of time. She snapped her fingers a few times to signal Tomoko, before retrieving her possessions from Nils’ clothes, and setting another spell aside; some weakened form of intangibility; not her best option for situations such as this, but the illusion still draped around her was…limiting.

Tsuru waited until the visage of Nils around her form began to shake, letting out a noise caught somewhere between a gurgle and a whine, before ducking to the side. Her spell allowed her to slip between his clothes, her form built more of gas for now than flesh.

For a moment, she worried that perhaps she might be seen, her form holding the rough physicality of a shadow; but Tomoko put paid to that. All eyes had gone to Nils when his body began to writhe, and all eyes stayed on him as his head began to rotate backwards on his neck, letting out a high pitched scream that cut short when something in his spine abruptly popped.

To their credit, her opponents responded fast. By the time Tomoko’s puppet hit the floor, his skin melting like hot wax into the pavement, the boss had taken her captured child by the shoulder and started double timing his protesting form towards the van, before shoving him inside. At her instruction, the two slaves inside jumped out, forming into a rough semicircle with the assembled agents, guarding those inside. Even Caleb’s partner followed suit, depositing her own target behind the boy and taking up position.

For a few seconds, all was quiet, Tsuru staying low and still, quietly praying that her semi-invisible nature and Tomoko’s distraction would be enough to keep their eyes from her long enough for Yuki to make his move. 

It was just as the darting eyed girl found her, one arm half-raising to point towards her position, her mouth opening to speak, when the concrete beneath her feet split apart with a sound like a canon, the thick slab fracturing into a mess of cracks and fissures, radiating out from the van’s rear wheels with a downright unsettling speed. Whatever sign the girl had been about to give was lost as the boss once more began bellowing commands, only to be cut short as she caught sight of the tiny spots of brown shifting beneath her feet. 

Tree roots; thousands of them, each no thicker than a toothpick, had begun poking themselves up through the shattered paving slabs, wrapping themselves around the larger remaining chunks, and breaking them apart. A few of the agents panicked at that, lashing out with the lesser spells at their disposal at any creeper that came too close.

For her part, Tsuru let out a sigh. Yuki had cut that far too close. Well, at least the objective was complete. The enemy was waylaid. Now to start whittling them down.

No need to hide anymore. Time to face her foes head on. She set her shadow form aside and stood, attracting the attention of her enemy by way of a short, sharp whistle, shrill enough to be audible even above the crunching of the rocks beneath their feet. 

Tsuru hadn’t expected them to know who she was. It was a point of deep satisfaction, however, when upon catching sight of her, her enemy went white as a sheet.

“Oh, fuck no,” the woman muttered, a cloak of lightning coalescing rapidly about her shoulders. “No, no. Not you. You’re meant to be drained right now.”

Tsuru gave no answer there, instead simply taking a step forward.

“You hurt my husband,” she said, her voice calm. “Congratulations. You now have my attention.”

The boss may perhaps have replied, but she never got the chance. Tsuru was already setting loose her host.


Leanne:

The last Leanne saw of Tsuru Toranaga before her vision was obscured were the dozens, if not hundreds of faint, mist-wreathed shapes flowing one by one from the woman’s skin, each one bringing with it wave upon wave of fog. If there had been time, Leanne would have swore. There was not. 

Beneath her feet, the ground had gone quiet, the twisting, writhing roots below her having pulverised the concrete floor to nothing more than sand, interrupted occasionally by strips of rebar and chunks of upturned rock. Their job apparently done, the tendrils had sunk back beneath the sand. Now, however, the ground began to move, the grit shifting around as though a panoply of tiny creatures burrowed around beneath it.

“Oslos,” she murmured to the agent to her right, forcing her gaze to remain on the approaching fog. “I’ll hold her back. For now, I need you to get the chi-”

That was as far as Leanne got, her words stopped short by the sounds of screeching metal at her back. She spun around, fists raised, and for a moment, simply gaped at what she saw. 

It was a dead tree; a huge one, rising a good forty feet from the dust beneath the van, its trunk piercing the vehicle’s middle and lifting the whole thing skyward, its branches punching out through windows, wheels, and walls as though they weren’t even there.

From somewhere inside, Charlie Vance began to yell. 

Tearing her eyes away from it, Leanne watched the others beginning to emerge, surrounding them on all sides with a canopy of thick, bleach-barked wood.

Then, the fog hit, and she felt the touch of ghosts upon her skin.

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Aid: 5.13

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Leanne:

It was with no great joy that Leanne watched her opponent crumple, his form coalescing back into solid matter around her lightning coated hand, her fingers covered in a patina of quickly drying blood. She pulled her arm back, and looked him in the eye.

The elemental took a moment to fall. He met her gaze, his expression determined, disconnected from the pain. He took a step back, and for a moment, she thought he might somehow keep his feet. He let out a guttural kind of growl, a few embers sparking in his hands. Then, something broke behind his eyes, and he sagged, his body falling in a heap against the scorched floor.

For a moment, Leanne simply stood there, gazing down at her fallen adversary’s form. She’d wanted to test herself against the elemental for years, but the victory felt hollow. Too much wasted energy; too long spent being outmaneuvered.

In that moment, looking down at his broken form, she would have dearly liked to kill him. Not just for outclassing her, but for being what he was; a crossbreed, and the worst of them; his blood drawn from the same kind of monsters that held her planet hostage. It was an insult to everything decent that he’d been allowed to grow so strong, let alone walk free. There was barely any human to be found in him.

‘And the witch lets it fuck her.’

It was with some surprise that she noticed how the lightning shifted around her at the thought, building into gauntlets about her fists.

She shook herself.

‘It’s a stupid move, Leanne. The witch will be angry enough without you murdering her pet. No use making enemies.’

It took more out of her than she wanted to admit, just leaving him there. It itched. She ignored it. She had a job to do.

It had been maybe four minutes since the flames in the house had become visible from outside. She had perhaps two more before the emergency vehicles arrived. That wasn’t too much of an issue. She was done here. More to the point, though, Charles and his mother had been gone for at least a minute already. If Jacqueline decided to build her son a portal, then the trail would be cold in seconds.

No time for subtlety, then.

In the next breath, she was perched on a rooftop just across the street, the air blessedly clear of smoke once more. The breath after that, her familiar was searching for their scents.

It didn’t take her long. They hadn’t gotten far. Jacqueline had ducked her son into the first empty alleyway she could find, and had started on a portal. 

Leanne watched from the roof above. Her first instinct had been to stop the other woman short; knock her cold before the portal was done, and take Charles to a place where he could do some good. She stayed her hand.

Whatever questions he had, Charlie wasn’t speaking. He was too focused on watching his mother at work, the faint traceries of light flickering at her palms as she bridged two points together. Leanne could understand why he’d be in awe. Jacqueline Vance was unique; one of the best portal makers humanity had to offer. The boy deserved to see his mother’s work before she took him away.

It wasn’t a particularly drastic shift when the glyphs filling the air reformed into a gate, just a quiet show of motion, each layer of them swirling counterways against one another as they condensed into a point. Then, that point expanded, and Leanne caught a glimpse of darkened carpet.

“Go on,” Jacqueline murmured, gesturing the stunned boy forwards. “James’ dad can look after things while we figure out what’s going on.”

Charlie didn’t move.

“… What the hell, Mom? Just- What the hell?”

On the other side of the portal, a male voice called out something Leanne wasn’t close enough to hear. She sighed. Time to move again.

“Sweetie,” Jackie murmured, a hand moving to grip her child by the shoulder. “I promise. I’ll tell you everything once I’ve figured it out mys-”

The bolt caught her between the shoulder blades, sending lightning sparkling down the woman’s spine. Her portal snapped shut as quickly as it had opened, and her body hit the floor.

“Sorry,” Leane murmured, stepping casually off the roof and dropping the two storeys to the ground. “That was rude of me. Hi, Charlie.”

To his credit, Charles Vance managed to hold his calm, his lip quivering only slightly as he turned to face her, eyes downcast.

“What’d you do to my mom?” he asked, his voice quiet.

“I knocked her out,” she replied. “She’ll be fine in a while. For now, though, I needed to talk to you in private.”

Charlie sniffed.

“What are you gonna do to us?”

Leanne considered the question for a moment, then set it aside. Better to deal with it later. She might as well try to soften him first; an olive branch.

“Your mother’s a mage,” she murmured. “One of the best. That’s how she got you out of your house, and how she made that port-”

“That’s not what I asked,” he interrupted. “I don’t care about that right now. I asked you what you’re gonna do.” As he spoke, Charlie stepped forwards, placing himself between her and his mother.

Leanne considered him for a moment. It would be so much easier to just knock him out too; but he deserved better, and she needed him cooperative. Eventually, she shrugged.

“To your mother? Nothing. I already know she doesn’t have what I need. As for you? For now, you’re coming with me.”

In answer, Charles Vance simply nodded. Brave kid. She did her best not to feel guilty, watching him dig his fingernails against his palms; seeing him set his jaw against the fear, every muscle pulling taut.

“… Why?”

At that, Leanne let out a sigh.

“Because I need your help to save the world”


Tsuru:

The disguise was uncomfortable; deeply so. Tsuru had never enjoyed wearing other forms, but male ones were always the worst. Nils was tall and broad, the illusion of his body draping around her form like some ridiculous kind of tent. Even worse were the spots where her own body had to shift, her chest collapsing inwards against her ribs, her torso and legs stretching themselves like taffy to fit within his profile. Hardly the most pleasant method of disguise, but all the others took longer to prepare. As it was, she’d had to spend minutes just learning how to walk like this.

‘Ah well,’ she chided herself, leaning back against the hood of Nils’ car and once more casting her eyes around. ‘It won’t be too much longer. Just until Caleb arrives. Not as if you don’t have things to do here, at any rate.’

She hadn’t been the first to arrive for the extraction. No. First had been the man beside the van, giving her a nod as she exited her vehicle. She made no effort to return it.

It was actually a rather tidy operation, once she had a chance to look at it, the meeting point itself nothing more than an open, windowless van, boxed in on three sides by a loose arrangement of shipping crates a short way from the pier, itself holding an old commercial flier seated atop a helipad. Hardly out of place, in an area like this. She doubted she’d have even noticed it, had she not been looking.

As for the duo of twenty-somethings seated inside the van, they were harder to ignore. It wasn’t the general scruffiness of young man’s attire as he dumped his duffel pack on the floor; nor was it the way the girl sat staring out the van’s rear door, her eyes darting across her entire field of view; first to Tsuru, then to a crate on the far side of the street, then a passerby, then back to Tsuru. No. That wasn’t what made the pair of them visible. What made them visible were the duffel bag now slumped on the van’s floor, and the oversized travelling pack squeezed between the girl’s legs.

The bags were twitching.

‘More Hunters like Caleb, I suppose,’ Tsuru thought, shaking her head. ‘Slavers. Always so damn macabre.’

Those two, she had watched arrive, each escorted from a different car by their handlers. She’d watched the two be checked, the overseers making no allowances for privacy as they examined first the hunters, then their packs, before stepping away to join the driver.

Tsuru bit her tongue. The boy’s handler had been far more thorough than he needed to be when it came to frisking the girl. She acted like she didn’t even notice, even as his hand slid below her belt-line, her eyes continuing to scan the nearly empty lot. For his part, the boy just stared at his master as he worked, a look in those exhausted eyes like he was committing every detail of the act to memory.

‘One thing at a time. No pity for these ones until Twenty Three is safe. They can be next in line.’

The next few minutes were tense; tense for Tsuru, at least. The other three overseers stood in their little cluster, murmuring quietly amongst themselves while the driver had a smoke. For her part, she set her focus on the slaves. 

The girl’s demeanour hadn’t changed. Hell, Tsuru wasn’t sure if she’d even blinked. As for the boy, he looked dead inside. She turned her head away, pretending not to see, as he gave his duffel bag a kick.

It didn’t react. The occupant couldn’t have been larger than a child.

She watched him pull his foot back for another swing, and pursed her lips, letting out a short, sharp whistle.

All eyes turned to her.

Tsuru returned the boy’s gaze, and gave her head a single shake. He put his foot back down. Two of the handlers went back to their conversation, the driver wandering off towards the helipad. The girl’s eyes resumed their search.

It came as something of a relief when Twenty Three’s escort finally arrived. Tsuru watched the girl climb from her vehicle, and forced herself to take a breath.

‘Still can’t move until Caleb arrives. Can’t break her free without him.’

At least this one didn’t seem as broken as the others; merely sad.

Tsuru pushed away from the bonnet of her car, intent on at least protecting the girl from the other overseer’s groping, before a call from across the street stopped her.

“Ah. Twenty Three’s already here. Good. We can get this under way.”

The voice sent a chill down Tsuru’s spine. It was the same voice she’d heard on the phone; the boss.

“Apologies for the delay,” Leanne continued. “The Toranagas set their monster on me. Breaking it took longer than expected.”

Quite calmly, Tsuru Toranaga set her rescue plans aside, and began deciding who to kill.

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