Aid: 5.12

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Charlie:

The boy was peeking into the hallway when the house caught fire. It was very quick. One moment, he was trying to catch a glimpse of what was happening downstairs, then there was a flash of light, and half the hall lit up. He had a moment to register a searing wave of heat, before something grasped him by the shoulder and yanked him bodily back into the room, slamming the door shut behind him. He let out a pained yelp as he toppled, the heat still near to blistering the skin of his face and hands, and landed on his rear, watching the flames begin to crawl beneath the door.

In the confusion, he didn’t quite manage to process his mother kneeling beside him, her fingers still digging painfully into his shoulder. Somewhere on the floor below, there was a crack like thunder, and a man’s voice let out an almost bestial shout. Then the air itself grew parched, like being pushed inside an oven. He scrambled around blearily on the floor, looking for a place that didn’t hurt to sit, before his mother’s hand dragged him into her embrace, and with a few muttered words, the heat just died away. He could have sworn he saw a sheet of something blue pull a tint across his vision, before his mother’s voice muttered quietly in his ear.

“Charlie,” she said, her voice quiet; utterly calm. “I need you to listen to me right now, okay?”

Charlie wasn’t sure what to say. He wasn’t sure what was going on. There were people downstairs and his room was rapidly catching fire. At least his mom was calm. He took shelter in that idea, and gave her a shaky nod.

“Good boy,” she whispered. “Then when I say to go, we’re going to jump out of the window, and make a break for the house across the yard.”

Charlie shot a look at the house caught in silhouette beyond the window, and swallowed.

“I-it’s kind of a long fall,” he mumbled. “Are you gonna be coming with me?”

He felt her finger prod him gently in the shoulder.

“I’ll be right behind you,” she murmured, her voice surprisingly steady over the crashing sounds below. “I’m going to help you with the fall, and the moment you hit the floor, I’ll be coming along behind you.” She leaned in, her forehead bonking gently against his own. “You gonna be brave like I know you are?”

In the room below them, there was an infuriated cry, this one female, followed by an ominous kind of crunch as the floor beneath the bed began to split.

Charlie saw none of it, refused to see it. He just focused on his mom. He took a deep, steadying breath, and nodded.

“Good,” his mother gave him a final soothing smile, then directed him to the window with a shove. “Now go!”

It was probably for the best that Charlie didn’t think as he made that dash across his room towards the yard, angling his shoulder to the window so as to simply force himself through the glass.

He made it almost the whole way before the floor gave way, and suddenly he was falling.

He let out a terrified kind of shriek as the boards gave out beneath his feet, his hands scrabbling before him for something he could grasp. Pointless.

He had a single moment, as he fell, to register the hellscape roaring below him, the once gentle looking playroom now engulfed in flame and smoke. He hit the carpet with a thud, and felt a second of surprise at how little pain there was, before his new perch began to creak, threatening to plunge him into the basement down below.

By pure instinct, he scrambled to his right across the floor, half blind in the haze of heat and smoke, making his way towards the kitchen. No basement under there. Solid ground.

He was semi-aware of his mother shouting something up above, but among the cracks and source-less screams, he didn’t have a clue of what she said.

It was when he reached the kitchen, scrambling into a corner by the bench, that he finally caught a glimpse of them.

Two figures, dueling in the smoke, their light cutting through the haze like diabolic torches.

He huddled himself into a ball beneath the counter, and didn’t dare to make a sound.


Leanne:

When it came right down to it, Leanne was getting frustrated.

The elemental wasn’t quick. The increase to the raw force of his fire hadn’t made a change to that. He was sluggish in his attacks, and slow in his retreats. She, on the other hand, moved with lightning at her back, building up in a charge across her frame, before releasing in bursts within her, causing time itself to slow for a few brief moments at a time.

So why couldn’t she seem to hit him?

It was maddening, aiming shot after perfect shot towards her opponent’s skull, each so quick he shouldn’t even have been able to move, only for a blast to push her back, or for a shape within the flames to bat her fists aside mere inches from his frame. It was maddening, like the beast had some sense of what she’d do before she did it.

He was playing with her.

Leanne swore, dancing backwards as the elemental flicked his wrist, the tiny movement sending a hundred tiny tongues of flame dancing, whip-like through the space between them. Each lash left deep gouges in the floor and walls where it struck, the edges blackened like coal. It hardly mattered. It wasn’t as if the place could be set any more on fire.

She pulled into a crouch as her lightning gathered into another burst around her frame. Then dodged to the side with a growl as his back-swing raked a jagged arc through the floor where she had perched. Her shield may be stronger now, but she still wasn’t in any hurry to test it against his flames. At this point, they burned so hot across his form that even being close to him was marginally draining. Was that his plan? To just avoid her strikes and let his ever burning fire sap away her shields?

Reluctantly, Leanne pulled back, releasing that built up charge and retreating to a back room as time slowed to a crawl. She needed time to think.

It was then that she saw the boy, cowering in the kitchen, staring at her with utmost terror in his eyes. It gave her an idea. If the creature didn’t want to make mistakes, then maybe she could force one from him.

Leanne made no attempt to telegraph the move. There wouldn’t be a point. Their brief bout of combat had led her to believe the elemental could sense what went on within his fire, and as of now, both she and the boy were both well within his flames. Charlie had already turned to run when Leanne began her lunge, the elemental already giving chase from his position by the stairs.

She had almost made it to him when the ceiling above her head gave way. Then, with a flash of green and a roar like a vengeful God, Jacqueline Vance sent her crashing through the floor.


Charlie:

Charlie had already been running when the lightning figure came for him. He didn’t dare to look behind him as he ran, even as the sounds of yells and splintered wood filled the air behind him. He paid it no heed. There wasn’t room in his brain for anything but fear.

Maybe going for the front doorway was a bad choice, in retrospect. His blind dash through the dining room brought him face to chest with the burning man. What followed was the swiftest backpedal of Charlie’s life.

He wasn’t sure at first what it was that he backed into in his aborted attempt to flee, just that it wasn’t wasting any time in grabbing hold of him. He screamed, tried to push away, and was ignored. The next thing he knew, his captor had dashed past the flaming thing like it wasn’t even there, and had sent the both of them crashing through the window in a stream of glass and splintered wood.

The two of them landed in the grass in a sprawl, briefly blinded by the sudden lack of light. Had been in any state to think of it, he might have tried to pull away. As it was, both he and his captor were too busy having coughing fits. He hadn’t even noticed how short on air he’d been. Before he’d had a chance to fully recover, the grip around his waist grew tight once more, his captor pulling him to his feet. He didn’t have the energy left to fight.

“Come on, Charlie,” his mother’s voice croaked from just behind him. “Just a little further. We need to get away from here.”

Numbly; too tired to even think, Charles Vance began to move.


Hideyoshi:

Hideyoshi watched the pair retreating down the street, then shook his head.

That could have gone far worse.

Hard enough fighting a foe as powerful as that, let alone with hostages in play.

He threw another glance outside. There were people out there, now. Neighbors and friends, come to watch the fire on the chance that they could help, some of them following halfheartedly after the house’s former occupants. There were probably already firemen on the way. He shrugged. He doubted anyone but the boy had seen a thing. From the outside, most of this would be concealed by the smoke.

With a slow sigh, Hideyoshi turned his attention back towards his foe.

She wasn’t moving, as far as he could tell. His scanning spell seemed convinced that she was still just sitting in the basement where Jackie punted her. Feigning death? The idea made him chuckle.

Either way, best to get this done with quick.

He heard a crash from up above as some distant piece of roof gave way, but paid it no mind. It was very calming, standing in the flames.

His opponent’s passage into the basement had left a hole; a three foot section of the floorboards cutting off in ragged, rapidly blackening edges over the relative darkness of the floor below. He walked over to it, and cast his eye down after her.

She wasn’t hard to find. She hadn’t moved, instead just sitting in the rubble where she’d landed, one arm resting across her knee as she scowled up at him.

“Lost the will to fight?” he asked, barely audible above the flames.

For a moment, she simply glared. He responded with a smile.

“Shut up,” she muttered. “Just. Shut up.”

Hideyoshi chuckled. The woman swore.

“I’m done. Okay? I’m fucking done with this. I’m done with Thirteen. I’m done with you. I’m done with trying to be smart.” As she spoke, she pulled herself to her feet, dusting pieces of rubble from her clothes with her hands.

“I wanted to save my strength,” she spat, the lightning once more building to a charge across her shoulders. “Minimize the energy I spent on you just in case Thirteen turned out to be a problem. But no. No matter how clever I think I’m being, and no matter how much stronger and faster than you I am, you keep on managing to dodge me. So fuck it. You want to make me go all out? Fine.”

“Glad to hear it.” Hideyoshi grinned. “Does that mean I can, too?”

“If you want,” she muttered, the electrical glow about her shoulders now spreading down along her back, a good deal brighter than before. “It won’t matter, either way.”

At that, he simply shrugged.

‘Well, here goes,’ he thought as he pushed his flames outward, extending them beyond himself as far as they would go, ‘I hope you’re not just bluffing.’

It had been six years since Hideyoshi last assumed his stronger form. The feeling was… unique. Even more so in suburbia. As his clothes began to burn, his flesh giving way to living flame, he hoped that she’d survive him. He felt his mind spreading out throughout the house, his senses reaching wherever there was warmth. He watched the world fade to pulsing shades of heat as his vision fell away. For a moment, he stood there, inhuman; hotter than the surface of the sun.

Then, her knuckles pierced his wards, and the world was turned to glass.

His power died away.

He fell.

Previous Chapter:

Aid: 5.11

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Hideyoshi:

It took a minute or two for someone to answer the door. No surprise, really, given how late it was. Hideyoshi didn’t let it bother him, simply enjoying the low heat building beneath the surface of his skin, smiling lightly at the growing glow inside his chest.

There had been a time when he lived for this. A new enemy. New challenges. Another chance to grow.

He took a moment to turn a spell towards the house. Something simple, an easy scan. Two people inside, one male and young, the other older; female. Charles Vance was still upstairs, asleep in his room. Still alone. Hideyoshi nodded to himself. Good. He’d gotten here in time.

The woman, for her part, was moving, her pace directing her steadily towards the door. He took a moment to hide his smile. When the door finally cracked ajar, the woman behind it did not look happy, gazing balefully out at him, eyes half-lidded from sleep.

“It’s one in the morning. Who are you?”

“Jacqueline Vance?” he asked, giving her a nod. “Pleasure to meet you. My name’s Hideyoshi Toranaga. I believe you work with my son.”

The words earned him a cautious nod and a yawn.

“I’ll need to see some ID.”

Hideyoshi shrugged, then proffered a card from his wallet.

Jacqueline took it, gazed at it for a moment, then nodded.

“Alright,” she grunted, passing the card back, before closing the door. Hideyoshi waited a moment while she undid the chain latch, then opened it up again. “So what can I do for you in the middle of the night?”

“Long story short, I’ve received intelligence that your son has been targeted by a group of paranormal slavers. Their leader is en-route. I’m here to intercept.”

To her credit, what traces of residual exhaustion had been lingering on Jacqueline’s face vanished at that, replaced by maternal fear, covered only a moment later by a quiet kind of discipline. She stood a little straighter.

“Come in,” she murmured, pulling the door wide. Hideyoshi stepped inside and politely averted his eyes as she pulled her sleeping gown a little tighter around her form. “What’s your play, here?” she asked. “Capture and interrogate? Run protection until reinforcements arrive?”

“Capture,” Hideyoshi replied simply. “I’ll wait here to intercept. As for your boy; I assume he hasn’t manifested yet. Best to get him away before the fireworks start. Do you mind me leaving that to you?”

At that, Jackie simply nodded.

“I’ll take him to a pizza place,” she said, turning towards the stairs. “Tell him you’re here to fix a sewer pipe or something.”

“Gas leak,” Hideyoshi advised. “Gives you an explanation in case the place explodes.”

It may perhaps have said something that those words didn’t even give Jackie pause as she climbed the stairs, before heading down a hall towards her child’s bedroom.

“Please don’t set my house on fire.”

Hideyoshi chuckled.

“I only promise to try.”

He waited until she was out of sight, before stepping back towards the door, swinging it closed, and leaning himself against the wall, his body settling back into that anticipatory thrill as he expanded that simple scan to cover the surrounding block. He hoped this one was strong.

His opponent didn’t keep him waiting long.


Leanne:

Teleporting wasn’t even close to Leanne’s favored form of travel. It had too many costs; the inefficient use of energy, the inevitable sound, the difficulty of aiming. Worst of all, for jumps between countries, at least, were the four or five seconds spent in limbo, hanging between one frame of the world and the next, shot through by a twisting web of light. Ley-lines, her instructors had called them, trailing little lines of fire between every point on Earth. It was hard to put a planet into words, too large to perceive from the comfort of a single brain.

She emerged into a sitting room in the dark, passing into reality in mid-air, and seeming to hang there for a moment, before gravity lurched her out of her equilibrium towards the ground. She was too out of it to catch herself in time, colliding against the edge of something hard, before proceeding to the ground. She would have liked to say that she dissipated the energy of her jump discreetly, but she did not.

The hole she’d jumped through snapped shut behind her, then disgorged its energy into the room in a thunderclap of sound and force. As she let the waves of it wash around her, thanking whoever might be listening that she’d thought to make a shield before she jumped, she became aware of the sound of breaking glass, followed shortly after by a surprised shout from somewhere above. Leanne didn’t pay it much heed. She was too busy vomiting, chunks of chocolate lodging themselves in a richly colored rug.

The slamming of a door upstairs, followed by the thudding of feet against a stairway. She pulled herself to her feet with a groan, and lurched disorientedly towards the first doorway she could find. Before she quite made it there, however, a man barged through in front of her, holding a length of something in front of him like a shield. Before she had time to stop him, he’d pressed the whatever it was against her shoulders, and used it to force her back, stumbling over legs just starting to remember what they were.

“What the fuck’s going on down here?!” he bellowed, one hand fumbling against a wall and flicking something that filled the room with a painful amount of light. She shook herself.

‘It’s a lamp, Leanne. Focus. No time to be all dizzy.’ She grumbled something irritable to herself, then looked around the room.

‘Ah. Baseball bat. Such an American thing to defend a house with. At least I know I’m on the right continent. Oof. He won’t be happy when he sees what the shockwave did to his TV.’

She tried to feel bad about that for a moment, but failed. He’d damn near shoved her to the floor, and she was a little too out of it for sympathy.

The man was bellowing again, gesturing to the vomit on the rug, then the glass littering the floor. He was probably annoyed. She’d try and be sorry about that later, if she remembered.

Leanne’s eyes lit upon a window, and she moved towards it, her body regaining a sense of itself with every passing second. The man let out some indignant sounding shout, and moved to intercept her.

A small spell, designed to replicate a taser. He hit the floor in a heap. She confiscated the baseball bat.

Leanne pulled her phone from her pocket, and checked the map. Only a block or two from her destination. Good. She should be right on time. She continued her path towards the window, then, as an afterthought, flicked her wrist towards the mess she’d made of the rug, and watched as the vomit began to cleanse.

No need to be rude, after all.

She left the house without a further thought, and took a moment to regain herself. No need to make a cover for her entry. The government would do it, if they really cared so much. Once she had her feet under herself again, she set off towards her target, all concessions waived for speed.

By the time she’d rounded the final corner to the place, she’d forgotten precisely why she took the baseball bat. Disorientation did that, sometimes. Had she wanted a weapon?

‘Why would I take this? I have a gun. I don’t need it.’

Leanne suspected she might have just been acting petty.

She spent a few seconds awkwardly jamming the thing in a trash can, before setting her gaze on Charlie Vance’s home.

‘Decent chance there’s a Toranaga in there,’ she thought. ‘It’s what I’d do if Caleb gave the address. Wonder which one I’ll have to fight?’

She dug around in her pockets for a moment, fumbling for the infra-red gear, then gave up as she noticed the man gazing out at her from the window. Elderly. Brownish skin. Thinning grey hair with a hat covering a bald spot. It was the elemental.

For a moment, she simply gazed at him. Then he waved a hand, and she felt something smash against her form like the hand of God himself. She felt her body slam against a wall, saw her shields flicker away around her, and shunted the energy away from her with a scowl, watching the floor around her buckle at the weight. Good grief. That one attack had nearly drained her.

Her retaliatory blast sent him through a wall, his shields barely even flaring as he crashed into the room behind him.

‘Good,’ she thought, making no real effort to pretend the violence wasn’t satisfying. ‘If it were the witch, I might have wanted to be gentle.’

She watched the man pull himself to his feet, a disgruntled scowl clearly visible on his face as he dusted himself off. This was bad. She’d known the elemental would be tough. He was built that way, after all; but she’d hoped she could at least stand alone against his wrath. She might have underestimated.

Across the street, Hideyoshi Toranaga raised a hand, spoke a sentence or two she couldn’t hear, and beckoned for her to come.

Leanne sighed.

‘Nothing for it, then,’ she thought. ‘I guess it’s time to use the dogs.’

As the next wave of force rushed inescapably toward her, she dug into her skein; that near invisible network of lines inside her mind, each connected to a different dog. It made her angrier than expected, seeing what remained of Thirteen’s leash hanging broken in its place. The others were connected, though. She closed her eyes.

As the elemental’s second blow crushed what little remained of her shields, she took careful stock, unhurried.

Twenty Three was on a mission. Thirteen could not be accessed. The others, though, were fine, some asleep; over twenty vessels, each of them ripe for draining. She opened her eyes again. When the third wave struck, she stepped through it.


Hideyoshi:

Hideyoshi was disappointed. How could he not be? He wasn’t sure what else there was to feel, when the promise of an interesting fight was replaced with something frail. That woman’s shields barely lasted the first few blows. He hadn’t even been trying very hard. He shook a few more bits of wall dust from atop his coat, and let out a sigh.

‘And she ruined Jackie’s house. Kids these days.’

Speaking of Jacqueline, he could hear a door opening upstairs.

“What the heck was that!?” asked a young voice that Hideyoshi swore he recognized from somewhere. One of James’ friends?

“Back in your room!” said Jacqueline’s voice, her tone stern, before calling down to him. “He’s right, though, what the hell was that?”

Hideyoshi shrugged.

“Found the problem a little quicker than I thought I would,” he called back, casually raising a hand to line up his third shot on the woman outside. “I may have broken a shelving unit. Just keep the kid up there for a bit. I’ll fix it before I leave.”

He let off his final shot, and turned his head back towards the stairs, ready to speak, before something caught his eye.

His last strike didn’t seem to hit quite in the way the others had. In the last moment, the woman had pushed back to her feet, and he thought he’d caught her body seem to flicker, before the final wave obscured her for a moment in a cloud of loosened dust.

In the second or two it took the dust to settle, the woman had disappeared.

He turned his eyes back to the road, dipping into something of a fighting stance, more by instinct than necessity, and tapped back into that scanning spell to see where the woman had go-

‘Behind me.’

Hideyoshi threw himself downwards as the woman’s leg swung wide through the air towards his head, a hundred sparking lines of light dancing static in the air behind her. He felt the energy of it play across his shield as it passed above his scalp, making it flicker.

He had his counter ready before he hit the floor, his body twisting in the fall to send a tongue of fire darting from his hand towards her, hot enough to blacken ceramic. The woman swung out of the way, the lightning that had wreathed her leg crawling up to encase her form, growing brighter as it went. The flames missed her chest by inches, and she moved in for the kill.

Hideyoshi didn’t have time to think. He hit the ground and rolled. He didn’t use his legs to push himself upright. Human limbs. Too slow in a fight like this. He shoved himself off the ground by telekinetic force. Before he’d even found his feet, he saw her eyes glaring into his, and felt a lightning wreathed fist strike hard against his chest, tearing through his shields like so much cotton thread.

The blow lifted him into the air, sent him up against the ceiling, chunks of plaster suddenly tangling in his hair. Then, gravity found him again, and he hit the floor.

“I was almost hoping for better,” remarked an unfamiliar voice above him, the tone angry. “I thought the witch’s pet would be impressive.”

Hideyoshi tasted blood. He’d bitten his tongue at some point in the fall. Or maybe it had more to do with the burning pain seared into the flesh atop his ribs. He knew for a fact he’d lost a tooth.

On the floor above, a young boy’s voice shouted something about a shelving unit, his mother demanding an answer.

For his part, Hideyoshi simply pushed himself to his feet.

There was no room left for keeping Charlie unaware of this any more. Either the boy would see what happened next, or he would not. Hideyoshi didn’t have the leeway to hold back.

“Go back to your mistress,” his adversary said. “Tell her that I beat you.”

Hideyoshi turned his head towards the stairs.

“Just do what you can to keep the kid away,” he called, letting the flames begin to burn across his skin. “She’s stronger than I thought.”

If he was honest with himself, Hideyoshi thought, a part of him was happy.

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Aid: 5.7

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James:

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

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

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

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

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

At that, Hideyoshi snorted.

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

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

Beside him, Tasha shrugged.

“Maybe that’s only some of them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, why?”

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

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

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

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

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

“… Eww.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Across from her, Hideyoshi nodded.

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

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

Tsuru chuckled.

“Well, good for them. They’re wrong.”

Caleb shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks, Tasha.”

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


Manhattan Island. Evening.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Powerful. Good. Exactly what we need.

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

She smiled.

Looking forward to working with you, Charlie.

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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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