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.

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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: 5.10

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Caleb:

He was a mountain. Those were the only words Caleb had to describe what he was feeling, the pool of newfound energy flowing out along his system. It felt vast, yet, weirdly delicate; like an ocean’s worth of water poured into a drinking glass. Every movement sent a tingle through his skin, his entire being radiating with an almost electric charge. He flexed the fingers of his right hand, then watched as, quite unbidden, a faint blue arc danced across his knuckles. He smelled ozone.

‘How the fuck does the kid even carry this much power?’

He took a breath. He needed to be steady. He needed to keep this in control.

His attempt at calm was cut short by the ringing from his phone. He swore. He knew that ringtone.

Caleb drew the device from his pocket, and heaved a sigh. Best not to ignore it. He only needed to maintain the facade a little while longer. He lifted the phone to his ear.

“Heya, Boss,” he opened, injecting a hopefully annoying note of cheer into his voice. “Need some-”

“Your first mistake,” the voice on the other end cut him off. “Was taking that power into yourself so early.”

Caleb felt his mouth go dry at that, his words catching themselves in his throat. She knew.

“The second,” she continued icily. “Was assuming I wouldn’t be watching to make sure you didn’t try to pull this shit.”

For a moment, Caleb was silent. He was thinking, his brain working at triple speed in an attempt to figure out what the next course should be. Eventually, he set the buzzing in his mind aside, and settled for a chuckle.

“Heh. You noticed my power up, huh?”

An angry sigh on her end, cutting through the line like static.

“Of course we did, Thirteen. That’s the bare minimum we’d need to keep you all in line. Now, if you honestly plan on keeping yourself and your partner alive, I’d suggest standing very still while I pull that power out of you.”

It was then that Caleb felt the marks along his neck growing warm, his borrowed power seeping out of him a single drop at a time. He barely even noticed. His focus was elsewhere.

“… Caleb,” he muttered.

“What?” she asked, her voice edging slowly back into the uncaring calm he knew so well.

Caleb wasn’t being rational. He knew he wasn’t. This wasn’t the smart choice. Not with so much on the line. He didn’t care. He dug into the sea of power still coursing beneath his skin, shaped it into a point within his mind, and drove it into the heat against his neck.

“My name’s Caleb,” he repeated. “You soulless cunt.”

There was a silence between them then as the brand upon his neck grew hot enough to burn his skin, before the spell broke with a sound like cracking glass.

“… Fine then,” she growled. “We’ll game this out, if you’re so set on being stupid. Option one. You try whatever half-assed plan you think is going to let you escape on your own, and I kill Twenty Three. Option two. You try and break Twenty Three out along with you, and she dies before you even get halfway to her. Option thre-”

“I’ve got allies now,” he snapped. “People strong enough to boost me this far without breaking a sweat. You kill my partner, and you make some of the strongest enemies the world has to offer.”

For what it was worth, the statement seemed to give the woman a momentary pause. Then, she let out a huff.

“One ally,” she grunted, her tone contemplative. “At most. You’ve sided with the Toranagas. It has to be. There are four people in New York with the power to do what you just did: Father, the old witch of Japan, her pet elemental, and that half-breed child of theirs.” Caleb had no difficulty discerning the contempt in those last few words.

“It can’t be Peter Toranaga,” she continued. “Because if he were involved, Manhattan would be swarming with feds by now. I doubt that it would be Father, because going to him just makes you a different kind of pet. That just leaves the witch and her beast, and one of them must have drained themselves dry to give you all that force.”

For a moment, Caleb almost laughed. He clamped down on the sound before it reached his lips. She was wrong. Best not to let her know.

“Not like that’s gonna last forever,” he said. “And they’re nasty enemies to have. So how about you just give me Twenty Three and I promise to call off the super wizards?”

“Not that easy, Thirteen,” she replied, her voice cold. “You’ve made things… complicated, I’ll admit, but the fact remains that I still have Twenty Three.”

“And I have the Toranagas,” he shot back. “Go ahead. Flip that coin.”

For the first time in Caleb’s memory, he heard his boss swear. There was an anger to it. Frustration. It gave him more satisfaction than it ought to have done, finally seeing her crack like that.

“… We’re extracting her from a dock on the south side of the city,” she growled finally. “I’ll send you the address.”

“What?” Caleb teased, barely suppressing a laugh. The victory felt good. Far too good. “I don’t think I heard that right.”

A sigh.

“I’ll be blunt, Thirteen. You don’t know a damn thing about what we’re trying to do. You don’t know a damn thing about how we’re going to do it. The single most important thing you could have told anyone is simply that we exist, and it sounds like that’s a move you’ve already made. All that’s left is an escaped hunting dog using bargaining chips he doesn’t know the value of. So fine. You win. Now just take the girl, take your leash, and get out of my way. There are adults at work right now and it’s harder with animals underfoot.”

Caleb grinned.

“Hell, I’ll take that. And you promise your extraction team won’t be trying to kill me?”

“Of course not,” she muttered. “I know exactly how strong you are right now. I’m not about to order my people to their deaths.”

“Smart choice,” he agreed. “Although, I gotta admit, I was kinda looking forward to smashing some hea-”

She hung up.

Caleb pocketed the phone with a chuckle, then took a breath. He barely noticed the text alert pinging from his pocket.

They were so close. He could feel it.


Northern Scandinavia: 6:34 AM.

The woman set her mobile down on her desk a little harder than intended. Talking to Thirteen was never easy, even back when he’d ostensibly towed the line. It was never a pleasant way to start the day. Even worse today, having to pretend to lose.

She sighed, and allowed herself a tired kind of chuckle. At least she’d never have to deal with it again. She lay her palms flat against the tabletop, and gazed down at them, impassive.

He’d called her a cunt. One of her knuckles twitched.

‘No time for that, Leanne. Take a chocolate and relax. There’s work to do today.’

She pulled one of her desk drawers open, and fumbled around for the bag of smarties tucked underneath her stapler.

The plan would need to be adjusted. Not a difficult thing to do, certainly, but made harder by the time constraints.

She popped a chocolate into her mouth, and gave it a crunch.

There was still a Toranaga active in New York. That meant no matter how she reorganized, there was still an element of risk. None of the nearby agents could reliably fight someone on that scale. Time to set some priorities, then.

She sat still for a few moments, faintly aware of the chocolate slowly melting on her tongue, then once more picked up her phone.

She dialled in the first number, and hit call, pushing herself up from her seat as it rang, and crossing to the window.

Her office was undersized. Economies of scale were a requisite concession when it came to keeping her facilities small enough to avoid notice. She didn’t mind it all too much. At least she had a view.

The phone line went live in her hand as her agent received the call. Then a gruff voice spoke, heavily accented.

“Nils here. Need something, boss?”

She swallowed her chocolate.

“You’re being reassigned,” she murmured. “Asset Thirteen won’t be delivering his target. Just make your way to the rendezvous and make sure Twenty Three remains uninformed.”

There was a moment’s pause at that. A rustling that Leanne struggled to place, followed by a small thump.

“… Confirmed,” came the man’s eventual reply, slightly husky. “And his target? Should we assign someone to-”

“Don’t mind that,” she murmured. “Charles Vance holds priority here, and there are threats about.”

It galled Leanne, having to travel there herself; but the Toranagas were a challenge. Better safe than sorry. She sighed.

“I’ll handle it myself. Expect me at the extraction point in ten minutes or so. I’d like Twenty Three removed before Thirteen arrives.”

There was another brief burst of sound as Nils cleared his throat.

“Understood, Ma’am.”

“Good.”

She disconnected the line, and heaved another sigh. She hated having to get involved herself. Resorting to force was so untidy.

She cast her eyes out at the scene beyond her window.

It was snowing out there, the summer holding little meaning this close to the arctic. She imagined she could see the faint line of the ski lifts running up and down one of the distant mountains.

She shook her head, then began gathering the energy for her trip.


New York: 12:40 AM.

The phone went dead in agent Nils’ hand as he lowered it back down, his hand a little shaky. He swallowed.

“Is that enough?” he asked, careful not to move his chin too close towards the flames beneath his throat. “Are you going to let me go now?”

“Depends what you mean by let you go,” the Japanese witch murmured. “Are we going to set you free? No. You’ve got more than a couple of questions left to answer; but you’ve spared yourself some pain, for now, at least.”

She plucked the phone from his grip, and turned towards her pet.

“Might as well put the fire out, dear. No use burning him tonight.”

The elemental snorted.

“How very rude of me.”

He pulled his hand away, a touch slower than Nils would have liked.

“So. One of us to the extraction point, one to intercept the boss?”

Tsuru Toranaga nodded absently as she flicked through Nils’ phone.

“That does sound like the optimal solution. Are you in the mood for a fight today?”

The elemental chuckled.

“Why not?” he murmured. “Could be fun.”

Nils bit his tongue at that, and simply focused on charging up his spell. There wasn’t room to fail here. The boss was counting on him now.

‘Just wait till they’re distracted,’ he thought. ‘Don’t let your capture be for nothing.’

Only a couple feet away, the witch was talking again.

“I suppose I’ll take the extraction point, then,” she murmured, pulling a second phone from her inside pocket. “I’ll let Caleb know the sco-”

Nils’ spell came into force in less than half a second, all the power he had available collecting itself into a dancing swarm across his fist. The moment it pulled itself into being, he threw himself at her, putting every ounce of his strength and weight into the blow.

He knew before he’d even began to move that he had been too slow. It was too late now, though. He might as well commit, even if he didn’t have a hope.

“Oh, right,” she muttered to her husband as he knocked the agent’s strike aside. “I’ll be needing his clothes as well.”

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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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Aid: 5.6

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Caleb:

“So you’re the slave, eh?” the old woman asked.

She was frowning at him from the doorway, the narrowing of her eyes pulling each wrinkle a little deeper into her face. He returned her gaze with a scowl.

“Yeah. I guess.” He tried to keep the annoyance out of his tone.

James stood between them, a little awkward.

“Uhh,” he muttered. “Baba, this, uh. This is Caleb. Cal-”

He was stopped short when the woman thrust out a hand.

“Tsuru Toranaga,” she said. “James’ grandmother. Heard you could use some help.”

Caleb gazed for a moment at the woman’s outstretched hand, and wondered briefly if he could afford to be rude to her.

He tapped into his familiar’s senses and gave her power level a sniff.

Christ.

He shook her hand.

“Caleb,” he muttered. “Just call me Caleb.”

At that, the woman merely chuckled, before standing aside and waving the pair of them through the door.

James gave her a hug on the way by, the two conversing quietly for a moment in what Caleb took to be Japanese.

He pretended not to notice, setting his eyes instead on the interior of the place.

It was a penthouse, as far as he could tell, the chamber after the elevator leading out into a curved hallway that wrapped around it, splitting off into a corridor on either side, lined with doors. It was all wood panelling everywhere he looked. Expensive. Thick carpets, too. These guys must be loaded.

He tried not to be jealous. He really did.

“Nice place,” he muttered behind himself. Neither of them seemed to hear him. “… Suit yourselves.”

He opted to leave the pair of them behind, and wandered off down the better lit of the two hallways, down which he could hear the faint, familiar sounds of exertion over the occasional thudding impacts of a body against the floor. Someone was training.

After a few dozen feet, the hallway fed into a large, open plan room littered with bookcases and loose furniture, the thick carpet giving way to a hardwood floor. The sounds, he realized quickly enough, were coming from a padded mat in the middle of the room, where a familiar girl seemed to be having the time of her life. He scowled.

It was Tasha; the girl who’d gotten him in this mess to begin with. She was growling, engaged in a losing grapple with a male figure that, to Caleb, appeared to have been carved from solid granite. He made no effort to pretend it wasn’t satisfying when the statue eventually floored her.

There were others about as well, of course; a slightly balding man seated on a couch beside the training mat,his back to Caleb, presumably controlling the statue. At the far end of the room was a pale woman he’d have placed in her early twenties, seated halfway up the steps leading to some second level, her face buried in a book, a set of headphones wrapped around her ears and a shaggy looking golden retriever sprawled against her legs.

It was Tasha who noticed Caleb first, the statue pulled away, and she pushed herself to her feet, panting, only to catch him standing there as she dusted herself off. Immediately, her energized grin gave way to a scowl.

“Hey, teach,” she muttered. “Looks like the asshole’s here.”

Caleb snorted.

“Fuck you too, Tasha.”

From the changes to her face alone, Caleb could tell the girl was furious, but before Tasha had a chance to respond in kind, her teacher cut in.

“So you’re Caleb, huh?” he asked, pushing himself upright and turning around to face him. “Well, I’m Hideyoshi Toranaga, and Tasha tells me you’ve been lying to my grandson.” For the life of him, Caleb couldn’t read the expression on the old man’s face.

Yup, groaned a voice inside his mind. This is gonna go great.

Outwardly, however, he only sighed.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “I guess that’s one way to say it.”

At that, the old man allowed himself a grunt.

“Good,” he rumbled. “If you’d tried to make excuses, I might have had to burn you.”

Caleb shrugged. He almost wished the threat of harm still meant something to him.

“I don’t like to lie about the shitty things I do. I only do it when I have to.”

“Good answer,” Hideyoshi replied. “Because it’s time for you to be honest now. James told me you’re a slave. Who’s your owner, then? Who made you, and why?”

Again, Caleb only shrugged.

“No idea,” he muttered. “They keep us in the dark about that kind of stuff, where they can. Makes it harder to spill information to the feds or whoever else turns up. I know they trained me some place north. It was cold there. The ground had ice in it maybe nine months out of every year. Snowed sometimes. Pretty sure the locals didn’t speak much english.”

“Great,” Hideyoshi growled, annoyed. “That’s real helpful. Only narrows it down to maybe seven countries in Europe alone. And that’s not even counting the entirety of northern Rus-”

“Settle down, Yoshi,” called a familiar voice from the hall behind Caleb’s back; James’ grandma. He glanced behind himself, and saw her heading idly over, hand in hand with James. “There’s still plenty of knowledge we can glean from this. Let’s try not to get excited.”

For a moment, Hideyoshi simply glowered at her. Then, the man reluctantly closed his eyes, and took a breath.

“Yes, dear.”

“Sorry about that,” Tsuru continued evenly, returning her gaze to Caleb. “My husband gets a little short with people who betray our family’s trust.”

Caleb didn’t answer that at first. There didn’t seem to be any response that would help him here.

He glanced around the room, first at James, gazing over at him with an apologetic sort of confusion on his face, then at Tasha, still glaring, her arms folded tight across her chest, then finally at the girl on the stairs, still just listening to her music, one hand absently scratching behind the dog’s ears. He wished he could be that far above it all.

“It’s fine.”

“Hmm,” Tsuru hummed. “Thought it might be. Now then. Tell me about their organizational structure. How are you managed? Who do you answer to?”

“Two man teams,” Caleb replied, watching as Hideyoshi led Tasha reluctantly away to resume their training. She still glared from time to time. “A boy and a girl, usually. Usually, we’re the same age as each other, but I think something happened to my partner’s old one, cuz she’s about eight years older than I am. She handles most of the stuff about dealing with the higher ups. Only handler I know about is the boss. I talk to her on the phone when she gives me targets. She sounds American, but that’s not really worth much,” he dropped the Canadian accent for a moment, switching to his Irish lilt. “They teach us how to change our voices, so I figure the boss might be doing the same.”

It felt strange, confiding this all to strangers; like breaking a kind of taboo. He caught James’ expression shifting when he made the changes to his voice, a touch of surprise lighting upon his face.

Guess you didn’t know me as well as you thought, did you, James?

There was a surprising bitterness to that.

For her part, Tsuru was nodding.

“Very loose structure, then,” she murmured. “Hard to maintain a thing like that with slaves. They must really have something over you, huh?”

“Brands,” he agreed. “Base of the neck. Built to kill us if we step out of line.”

If the proclamation caught the woman by surprise, not a hint of it appeared across her features.

“Show me.”

Caleb gave the woman a shrug and started peeling off his shirt, noting with a touch of amusement how James again averted his gaze, his cheeks red.

They’re just abs, James. Grow a pair.

He dropped the covering to the floor, and turned his back to the older woman, putting the brand on display. He caught Tasha gazing over at him, her eyes flicking momentarily to his chest, and shot her a smirk. She glowered back at him, before returning her attention to her task.

A moment later, he felt a touch upon his neck, the old woman murmuring something to herself as she prodded and poked the skin. He didn’t care.

“Hmm,” she grunted. “Energy siphon. Tied in deep, too. It must see a lot of use.”

“Every day,” he muttered. “They like to keep me at about a fifth of my power. Stop me getting any ideas.”

“And the familiar?” she asked, tapping the tattoo that ran across his arm with the side of her thumb. “Seems recent. They know about it?”

“No,” he chuckled. “I stole it. Last hunt they sent me on was to pick up some of those hunting birds after the elves attacked. I kept one. I’m a dead man if they notice it, but it seemed like the best chance I’d get. It’s how I found James.”

At his back, Tsuru simply swore.

“Damn,” she muttered. “I’d hoped we’d killed them all before any third parties got involved. Any idea what they want with them?”

“Just that they wanted a breeding pair.”

Tsuru chuckled.

“Well, good luck trying to make any more of them. Those things aren’t built to survive on Earth long term. Not enough magic in the air.”

Caleb shrugged. At least that explained why his own bird seemed to be growing weaker lately.

“Dunno what to tell you there. All I know is they wanted em and we did it for them.”

Behind him, the old woman simply grunted, then he felt the touch upon his back ease off.

“Well, put your shirt back on. We’ve other things to do.”

The next few hours passed at a glacial pace, to Caleb’s view. Irritable as James’ grandfather may be, his grandmother seemed almost brutally efficient. First came the questions, ranging from his training as a hunter, to the tasks he had performed, to the points of contact he held with the organization at large. The woman showed not even the barest hint of frustration at how little information his experiences had allowed him to glean.

Then came the tests of strength and skill, pitting him first against Tasha, then against Hideyoshi’s golem as they measured each of his powers in turn. He picked up more than a few new bruises there. Neither Tasha nor her teacher seemed to have any wish to be gentle with him.

James observed all this at first, curious; but over time, his attention seemed to wane, and he wandered off to where the stranger sat with the dog, the two of them chatting in voices too low to really make out, the dog shifting over on its side to allow James to rub its belly. When she caught him glancing at them, Tsuru said the girl’s name was Tuva. That was all the explanation he got.

Eventually, Hideyoshi pulled away from the seemingly constant bouts of training and retired to the open kitchen, pulling a pack of steaks from the fridge and rubbing them with herbs, before roasting them with fire directly from his hands alongside some chopped potatoes.

The aroma made Caleb’s mouth water. His masters rarely supplied him rations more complex than an instant pizza. He almost cried when they offered one to him.

It was while the six of them ate, Caleb doing what he could to savor the experience of actual food, that things seemed to finally come to a head.

“So you’re telling me there’s nothing,” Tsuru murmured evenly, watching James pick at his potatoes. “Nothing at all, that might tell us who these people are, or what the hell they want?”

“Well, no,” Caleb muttered. “I have a pretty good idea, I think. It’s just I’m not sure if it’s true or not.”

“Oh?” She turned to look at him, everyone besides Tuva doing the same in turn. “And what’s that?”

“To be honest,” he shrugged. “I think they want to start a war.”

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