Escapism: 3.11

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Casper:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Something wrong, little one?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you say milkshake?”

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

“Yup. Whatever flavor you like.”

“Kay.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Father:

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

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

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

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

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

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Escapism: 3.10

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Male:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Casper:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casper shook his head with a sigh.

Whatever.

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

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

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

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

Theo grunted at that, his mood darkening yet again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Escapism: 3.5

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Strangers:

The gate bloomed forth in the shadows, hidden well below the urban sprawl that spanned from end to end of the human metropolis. They emerged in a tunnel, underground, the gloom around them near enough all encompassing. By the light flooding forth from the other side of the gate, they could see the iron tracks that lay along the uneven ground. The man knew by experience that these structures were for moving great carts of men and women from one end of the vast city to the other. He chuckled. It was such a novel idea, that a being could be so weak as to need the aid of metal for travel.

His companion silenced him, a motion of a hand alerting him to a new danger. The plan had failed. The enchantments surrounding the city stretched down into these tunnels as well. The humans were alerted. They would be mobilizing soon. The male swore. It had taken so much effort to work a gate precise enough to end in one of these tunnels, all for nothing.

It had once been so easy. The humans had lacked the organization to pose a threat to their hunters, the few mages they possessed with the skills to find them before the job was done being too weak on their own to fight them. The male remembered those times, when it hadn’t been necessary to hunt in pairs.

The female guided them forwards through the gloom, her ears attuned to the sounds in the dark, seeing blind, as the bats did. They moved quickly, intent on being far distant when the human alphas came to defend their precious herd.

It wasn’t long before the male saw lights distant in the tunnel, a platform of raised stone, built of the single, smooth hewn stonelike blocks that had so fascinated him in recent years, its surfaces tiled in gleaming white and dirty grey alike, painted in garish yellows with no heed to aesthetic or craft.

Before he had a chance to draw close, the female held out a hand to block him, signalling in silence, barely visible in the sheer darkness of the man made cave. They were too late. The place had been emptied of its normal inhabitants, and now stood guarded by two figures, each garbed in cold grey, their faces covered by cumbersome masks of metal and glass. He almost laughed. Why so few of them? Perhaps this tunnel had more than one terminus nearby.

He nodded, slowing his pace, the female doing the same in front of him. Best to smash through this small defence and be gone before reinforcements could come. The female readied her spell in silence while the male stood watch. She was the one more skilled in striking without warning. He left the guards to her.

Then, the plan went awry. One of the watchers looked up from his task and, it would seem, somehow caught a glimpse of them both in the darkness. He let out a deep bark of noise toward his companion, who immediately turned to run, digging a hand into a pocket of his coat.

The female let it loose her spell with all the force she desired as the male charged, firing forth a dozen lines of black, ichorus fire from her palms, the weapons spearing through the dark towards their foes, both the standing guard, and the fleeing.

The standing guard raised his hands with a cry as he moved himself into the path of the shots aimed for his companion, pulling forth a bubble of some transparent force. The darts met his shield with a screech like the call of a hunting bird, and the dome collapsed, the man thrown against the tiled wall hard enough to send shards of it tumbling to the ground around him. He fell to the floor in a heap, unmoving.

The fleeing man pulled forth a pair of devices from his garment as he ran, tapping one furiously with his thumb, tossing the other behind himself as he began to ascend the stairs.

The thrown device was an odd thing, cylindrical, covered in grooves and lines and buttons. The male ignored it as he ran, and was caught as it began to spew forth a cloud of thin foul, smelling smoke of a sort that stung his eyes and caught harshly in his lungs. He readied a counter without even thinking, and shielded himself with a gust of wind, pushing the smoke clear of him. He coughed painfully, and looked up at the fleeing man, angry. The air here was putrid enough already.

The fleeing guard gave the device in his hand a few more desperate taps, before flinging it up the stairwell away from himself. Then, he turned, fear in his eyes, to face his pursuer.

The male was angry. His eyes stung, his lungs burned. This human world had pushed enough indignities on him already, and this little speck of a being now had the audacity to add a further insult. He raised his hands, building his power in his palms.

The human shook slightly as he did the same, some smoky, viscous force bubbling to the surface of his skin like a man become mist. The male chuckled. This would not take long. He raised his palms to strike, when he felt a tug at his back, something grasping him about the middle, pulling him. His feet left the steps, his spell flickering out of being as his focus was forced to falter, before that same unseen force slammed him down against the ground with a sound like thunder itself. It was all he could do to shield himself from the blow.

The male scrambled to his feet, furious, turning back towards the platform. There, separating him from the female, stood a lone man, beside a strange, lightless portal leading into a dim room. The newcomer frowned, his face set in hard lines of rage and, much to the male’s surprise, spoke to them in the hunters’ tongue.

“You should not be here.”


Peter:

This wasn’t good. The hunters were working in a pair. Pearson was down and Greys, bless his soul, wasn’t powerful enough to be anything more than a brief distraction to their enemies. He knew his limits. He was smart enough to handle one hunter, if he was lucky, but two at once? That was the sort of challenge he happily left to his father.

They were an odd pair, he thought. The male dressed in a badly faded denim jacket, over a torn t-shirt for a concert some twenty years out of date, his pants ripped and scuffed. So, they’d started stealing clothes now? Fantastic.

He glanced behind himself for a moment at the female, dressed with a similarly apparent lack of awareness, before returning his gaze to the male. He knew Jackie was watching through the portal. She’d warn him if the female made a move. Neither foe did.

“… You speak our tongue,” The male murmured, surprised, cocking his head slightly to the side, his long hair spilling carelessly over a shoulder. “How?”

Peter ignored him.

“You should not be here.” He repeated, reaching down to his belt and pulling his flask free, before lifting it to his lips.

The male tried to stop him, raising a hand and sending a plume of some white, crackling energy towards it, but he deflected it, batting the bolt of energy aside with the palm of his free hand, expending far more energy on doing so than he would have liked. It was necessary, though. Hunters cared about power. He needed to make his defence look effortless. The bolt struck the tiled floor, and didn’t stop, carving a glowing white hole into the ground for who knew how far. Behind him, he heard the female attempt something similar, and he heard the grunt of effort as Jackie shielded him. He had to be quick here.

He took a swig from the flask and winced. Bitter. Way too bitter.

“What was that?” The female asked, on edge, her voice radiating suspicion and disgust.

Again, he ignored the words.

“You are launching an unprovoked attack on the citizens of New York,” he murmured, allowing a hint of his anger to bubble up to the surface in his words. “If you continue, I will hold you here until reinforcements arrive, and then we will crush you with all the fury you kidnapping bastards deserve. You have ten seconds to leave this place, or I will rain down fire upon you. Do I make myself clear?”

“Reinforcements due in forty seconds,” he heard Jackie murmur in english. He nodded. Behind the male, he saw Greys pull out a grenade, and revised his opinion of the man. Momentary distractions could be very handy, really. He flicked a hand towards Pearson’s unconscious form, shielding him as best he could without it being obvious, and then simply stood there, waiting.

The female laughed haughtily. The male, for his part, looked concerned.

“And how exactly does a human plan to hold us here?” She asked, her voice laden with contempt.

Peter didn’t answer. Instead, he jerked his wrist to the side easily. It was a small motion, easy to dismiss, but Greys knew what it meant. He pulled the pin on the grenade, held it in his hand for a moment, and tossed it down the stairs, before setting off at a run.

Peter didn’t waste a second. He turned towards the female and raised a hand, expressing out all the energy he’d been storing since the conversation had begun, and let loose a bolt of lightning towards her. She raised her hands to defend, just a moment too slow, and it caught her around the middle, flinging her backwards against the subway wall. He wondered how much damage had made it past her barriers. Nowhere near enough, probably.

Behind him, the male was doubtless readying some counter move, but was caught off guard when the grenade went off by his feet, flinging him across the platform, wisps of his own dissipating attack forming contrails behind him as he flew. The shockwave hit Peter too, but he was ready for it, and even though he stumbled, he felt Jackie’s arm reach out of the portal to hold him steady. The male landed in a sprawl, confusion and rage playing out on his face in equal measure. Peter struck him with a telekinetic blast just as he’d used to pull him back from Greys before. He wished he could do something stronger, but his energy was expended for the moment on his strike against the female.

The male took the blast halfway through an attempt to stand, and was struck against the paneled side of the terminal with a painful sounding crack. He growled, glaring at his opponent with a raw, pure fury.

Overwhelm. Peter reminded himself. You can’t win here. Just hold them down long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

He glanced to the female, already recovering from the lightning strike, her hands raising for some kind of blast.

“Jackie!” He cried, running towards the male in a dead sprint. “Cover me!”

He could almost see it playing out in his mind’s eye; the female calling forth a spray of some powerful, dangerous magic, only to be deflected with the last of his partner’s energy. Right on time, he heard the detonation behind him, just as expected, followed by the loud, rattling blasts of Jackie’s counterattack. He spared a single breath for a chuckle. Jackie relied more heavily on guns than any mage he knew.

The male was on his feet before Peter reached him. But they both knew he didn’t have the time to ready a spell with the power needed to stop him, so instead, the enemy drew his knife; a slim, greenish blade that seemed to shift and slide through the air like a mirage. Peter dipped a hand into a pocket for his knuckle dusters, his other hand going for his gun, fumbling, not enough time.

The enemy lunged at him, swinging the blade in a wide arc at chest height and he ducked, crouching beneath it before bringing his metal clad fist up into his opponent’s jaw with all the force he could muster. The male barely even flinched, twisting the knife in his grip and swinging it down towards his side. He shifted back, out of the way, but the blade moved, the shifting, mirage like echoes of its edge catching against his jacket, far more solid than it should have been. He felt a sharp pain as the blade carved a shallow trench in his side, and ignored it. On impulse, he pooled his gathered energy into his leg, reinforcing it as he pivoted on one foot, making use of the momentum of his dodge to slam a fierce kick into the enemy’s midsection. He felt something crunch satisfyingly underfoot, and saw the male wince in genuine pain.

The victory was short lived, as his enemy pushed forward with his free hand, coated, he realized belatedly, with a bubble of kinetic force. The hand didn’t even make contact with him, and yet the blast sent him slamming back some thirty feet against a pillar, struggling to keep his feet. He coughed, the air forced from his lungs, momentarily choking him.

From this new vantage point, he could see the portal, Jackie barely holding her own behind it, resorting to dodging to the side and allowing the female’s attacks to strike the wall of her office as she emptied shot after shot against her with her pistols.

The male growled, barely audible, as he stared towards Peter, massaging his side with a hand. He looked tired, physically, at least. Peter unclipped his flask, and took another gulp. Goddamn, that stuff was disgusting; but it did its job. He was renewed.

The male charged, knife held ready in one hand, the force held cloaking his other hand no doubt charged to its very peak. Peter snorted. With his newfound reserves, he extended a palm towards the male, letting loose a barrage of telekinetic energy that contained all the power he had available.

The wave struck the male dead on, flinging him backwards with enough force to send a deep fissure radiating not only through the tiles of the station, but through the thick concrete on which it was built. The knife flew from his grip, and landed on the train track, the blade hitting a rail and carving through it like nothing more than soft clay.

The male landed hard on his feet, unsteady, then dropped to his knees, and vomited. The female stopped, mid strike, staring at Peter, a little scared.

“Do you really want to continue?” He asked, making an effort to stand straight, despite the aches in his back and side, and making a show of dusting off his suit. “Because I have far more force to bring to bear here.”

For a long moment, neither intruder moved, staring at him, weighing their options.

Internally, Peter was praying for this to end. He could continue, he knew. He had enough tricks up his sleeve to drag this fight on for a long time, but Jackie was spent. They’d wasted too much of her energy on first the portal, and then on holding off the female. Every second that this continued was another chance for her to die. They stood there for a time, in stalemate, before a single sound sent them all into motion. The pounding of feet from the other side of the portal. Jackie’s reinforcements were here.

The male surged to his feet at speed, his injuries apparently forgotten, and made towards Peter at a run. In response, he abandoned his attempt at force, and simply focused all his power on shielding himself. They were about to have all the force they needed. The female was making some movements with her hands, a series of words flowing thick and fast from her mouth, even as a stream of agents began to flood from Jackie’s portal, guns levelled, spells ready. Then, all was madness.

Birds, hundreds of them, began to flow forth from the space around the female, swooping and screeching and filling the confined space with feathers and claws and chaos. Between them, Peter caught glimpses of what was happening. Agents trying to beat the things away, Jackie trying to close her portal while a few who had made it through clawed and pecked at her hair. He felt something thud against his chest, forcing its way past him. There were too many. He couldn’t see. He needed to fix that.

He gathered up his reserve, and fired out another blast, aimed in every direction at once, too weak to dislodge a grown man, but, he hoped, enough to force back the birds. It worked, partly. There was a mess of squawks and cries and crunching sounds as the hunting birds were blown away, striking walls or floors, or simply being flung out over the tracks. It didn’t catch all of them, but it cleared them enough that he could see. The intruders were gone. He swore.

As the agents began doing what little they could to corral what remained of the swarm, even as they escaped into the subway lines and up the stairway by the dozens, he pulled out his phone, and dialed a number. It rang for only a few seconds, before the man on the other end picked up.

“Dad,” he muttered into it, his voice tight. “Get Mom and come here now. We’ve got elves loose in New York.”

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