Catharsis. 2.12

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James:

James gazed out of his window into the evening sky, his hands resting gently against the windowsill. A part of him, if he was honest, had wanted to do nothing, to go home and pretend nothing had ever happened; but he just couldn’t quite bring himself to leave it. It went against the grain. Eventually, he had come to a decision. He would try to help, but if there was nothing he could do, or if it looked like it might go badly for him, he would leave.

He stepped back from the window for a moment, taking a second to change. Dark clothing, as before. He chose a hoodie, pulling the hood down over his face and pulling the string ties to scrunch the fabric up over his face, leaving him just enough room to see. He took a breath. His parents were downstairs, watching a movie. Not much chance of either of them moving for the next hour or so. Bex was in bed, a story read to her, and a glass of water already set up by her bedside. If he was going to leave, now was the time. He returned to the window and pulled it open, then breathed deep again.

One… Two… Three.

James threw himself through the window, squeezing his eyes shut as if diving into a freezing pool. As before, he willed himself upwards as fast as his power could carry him. By the time he had the drive to will his eyes open, the streets were but tiny lines below him, illuminated by the sparse lights of cars and streetlights. He felt that momentary thrill, that giddy high of pure, positive vertigo, and pushed it from his mind. More important things at hand. He turned himself towards the place the text had specified, then pushed himself into the gloom at speed.

As before, it was not a long journey, two or three minutes, at most. He suspected he could have gone faster, but he was wary of pushing too far, running out of power in midair. The idea made him shudder. He floated some three hundred feet or so above the building, surveying the area from on high to assure himself that his plan would work.

There was a degree of traffic along the small street, but it was night, and far enough from the central districts that flow was relatively sparse. He allowed himself to hope that no one would notice, before choosing an alleyway opposite his target, and descending into it as fast as he dared. He didn’t allow himself to touch the ground. The text had warned that these people tracked by smell, and he had reasoned that his best defense was to stay high up enough that they would be left without a scent to follow. He hovered against a brick wall, hugging himself tight against the building’s shadow.

‘Corner room closest to traffic light,’ the text had said. James’ eyes fell upon a window, the curtains inside drawn against his view. He took another deep, steadying breath, and began to muster his power.

His plan was not the best, he had to admit. It had dozens of things that could easily go wrong, even if his newfound ability was strong enough to do what he wanted it to. More of them floated to the surface of his mind as he tried to focus. What if Tasha was too wounded to move? What if the drugs hadn’t worn off? What if his plan worked too well, and he hurt her? He did his best to ignore them. If it failed, he told himself, then at least he had tried. If it got too dangerous, he could leave with a clear conscience. He tried to believe it.

James extended his reach beyond himself, just as he had done the night before, feeling the strands of the light evening breeze beneath fingers that, to his newfound sense, were feeling less and less like fingers by the second. He extended further, collecting the strands and drawing them together in his grasp, letting them flow together, strengthening. When he felt he had enough, he drew them all together, bundling them up together tightly into a single imaginary fist, before pushing it forth against the building’s wall with all his might.

The result was not as he had hoped for.


Tasha:

Pain, everywhere.

That woman -Lara, the others had called her- had not gone easy. She had laid into Tasha with her own bat across every inch of her body while the soft voiced man delivered bullshit line after bullshit line.

‘They didn’t want to hurt her. She’d left them no choice.’ As if she gave a fuck. She’d done her best to tune him out after a time. In the hours that had followed, as the feeling slowly began to seep back into her nerves, she had slowly began to become aware of the pain, a dull, powerful ache across every inch of herself. She wanted to move, offer an insult, or at least do something to prove to them that they hadn’t beaten her, but she knew that the moment she did, not only would she lose the element of surprise, but the pain would become far worse. She had tested it with a few small flexes of her arms, and had barely managed to suppress the groan of pain as her battered muscles tugged along bruised, bloodied skin.

The one called Marcus had gone to bed, declaring something about seeing to the children as he took his leave. Lara and Samson had remained, Lara sitting on the floor with her back against the wall, the bat resting along her knees and a smug grin on her oh so punchable face. Of her captors, Lara had seemed the only one to actively enjoy the beating they had given her. Samson had seemed indifferent, passively watching with his gun at his hip, a pose he had held ever since, and Marcus had been almost apologetic, but Lara had enjoyed it. Tasha was grateful for that, in a way. Marcus confused her, Samson made her angry, but only Lara had done enough to really let Tasha hate her.

No one spoke. No one moved. It seemed like these two were content to watch her, unwavering, until their so called “Father” came to take her. For her part, however, Tasha was planning. Samson had the gun at his hip. That meant he would take at least half a second or so to raise it and point it at her. If she could move fast enough, then she could throw the chair at him before he had time to fire. If she could manage that, then she’d only have to deal with Lara. She just needed a single moment of distraction. That was the problem. Nothing was happening. Nothing had been happening for hours, besides the growing ache in every inch of her body. She needed to be alert, ready to capitalize on any distraction the moment it happened, but trying to keep herself that focused for so long was exhausting. She found her attention beginning to drift, a small part of her mind conjuring a scenario of what she was going to do to Lara when she got out of here. The ideas it presented were attractive, and she found more and more of her focus drawn towards it, figuring out what she’d break, what she’d say. That was when it struck.

It all happened so fast that Tasha barely had time to register what was happening, let alone try to make sense of it. There was a sudden, violent cracking sound, easily the loudest thing Tasha had ever heard, and at precisely the same time, the window imploded, shards of glass catching in the curtains and tearing them free, peppering the inside of the room with a hail of jagged shards. Tasha felt a few new tears emerge along the skin of her arms and face as she was thrown back in her chair, landing painfully on the ground. The room went dark, the solitary light bulb that hung from the ceiling exploding in the sudden wave of force. She brought up her hands by instinct, breaking her bonds with ease in some attempt to catch herself.

As she tried to work through the surprise, her ears ringing shrilly in the aftershock, a voice inside Tasha’s mind told her to move, to act. This was her chance. She had to take it. She reached down her hands grasping the edges of her chair to arm herself, but before she had a chance to go any further, a form stepped into view above her. In the sudden gloom, it was difficult to make out the face, but the shape of the gun aimed at her was unmistakable. She thought he might have said something, a command of some sort, but the ringing in her ears was too loud for her to make it out. The gun, however, sent a very clear message. Very slowly, she drew her hands back away from the chair. The gun jerked, gesturing her up, so she rose, her every muscle protesting angrily, to her feet. Lara stood at the window, a hand pressed to her ear. It was hard to tell, but Tasha could have sworn she was shouting something.

Whatever she was saying, it probably didn’t work, as another invisible wave struck her about the face. It was not as strong as the first, not by a long shot, but it was enough to make the woman stumble. She turned her gaze towards Tasha for a moment, her expression furious, before another wave struck her from behind, sending her off balance just in time for a third to knock her off her feet.

Tasha felt a hand grab her by the collar, and looked around. Samson had his gun against her cheek. He pulled her along with him, stepping around Lara’s form as she woozily pushed herself upright, a small trail of blood dripping down from her ears. The ringing had begun to subside a little, and Tasha was able to make out Samson’s words just fine as he shouted calmly out into the street.

“Keep attacking and I shoot her.”

Nothing happened. The ringing slowly died away to a low buzz as the two of them stood staring out at the empty street.

“Good,” Samson said eventually. “Now, show yourself, or I will shoot her. I swear to God.”

Again, nothing happened. Tasha glanced at her captor out of the corner of her eye. He was bleeding, a small shard of glass embedded in the flesh of his cheek, but he was calm, his eyes slowly roaming the darkened street. After a few moments, he pushed her to the side, shoving her against the window frame, his expression not changing in the slightest.

“You have to the count of five. Four, three,”

He still wasn’t looking at her. Tasha had an idea. A very stupid one, but one that, she hoped, would be enough to save her life.

Moving as fast as her aching arm was able, she swung her hand upwards, slapping her palm towards Samson’s wrist with all the force she could muster. Samson, still focused on scanning the street below, never saw it coming.

Tasha felt her hand connect, wrapping her fingers around the larger man’s wrist and forcefully wrenching the gun to the side, pointing it away from her, into the street. He squeezed the trigger, just a moment too late, firing off a loud, echoing shot into the wall of a nearby building. Tasha absently hoped there was no one inside as she reached out with her other hand, grabbed the gun, and wrenched it from his grip. He resisted, but not enough. She lowered her hand to his chest and, her back still braced against the window bracket, shoved him hard enough to launch him into the wall. She felt a few of his ribs crack under her fingers.

For a moment, Tasha contemplated leaving through the window, but then she realized, she had the gun. She had her strength, she had a gun, and Lara was doing only slightly better than her. With the surge of adrenaline pumping through her system, she couldn’t even really feel the pain in her muscles right now. She had promised to tear this place to the ground. Time to make good on that. With a wide grin, she turned back towards the more hated of her captors, just in time to see her finally rise to her feet.

Tasha raised the gun, but Lara was quicker. She opened her mouth, and Tasha felt something grasp her, pushing every inch of her backwards out of the open window. She let out a surprised yelp as she fell. Then, she felt the strangest thing beneath her. It was like wind, but stronger, much stronger, pressing her upwards, slowing her fall. She hit the ground on her back, nowhere near as hard as she should have done, and pushed herself to her feet. Before she had a chance to choose a direction, Lara peaked her head out of the window, her mouth already open as she exposed herself. Apparently she had started firing before she even left cover, because a chunk of the wall connected to the window split, the brickwork cracking away and sending out a fine plume of dust. Before Tasha had a chance to fire, the shot hit her. It was less focused now, and further away, but it still struck her dead on, knocking her off her feet once more. She landed on her knees, began slowly forcing her way to her feet, expecting a shot to the back, but none came. She turned, glanced up at the window. Lara had her arms braced against her face, seemingly trying to ward off some invisible force as it struck at her again and again, sending her hair frizzing out in every direction as she tried and failed to line up another shot. Tasha took the opportunity, and began to run.

Tasha ran a long way. She wasn’t sure if it was minutes, or an hour. All she knew was that by the end, the adrenaline had worn off, leaving her every muscle aching and screaming for her to stop. She ignored the pain, and kept running, gasping for breath with every other step. It took almost everything she had to keep going, her head lowering towards the ground, staring at her feet as she simply willed her feet to press forwards.

The first gust of wind was ignored, registered and written off as merely another trial for her aching body to overcome. The second, however, was stronger, sending her stumbling against a wall. She looked up, trying to identify the source. It took her a few moments to recognize it.

A figure, floating in the air to her left, a dozen or so feet above the road that divided the street. Small, child sized, dressed in thick, dark clothing that concealed their face almost completely. Tasha allowed herself an exhausted grin.

“Hey man, you here to give me a hand?”

The figure raised a hand, beckoning, and Tasha took a deep breath, building up the last of her strength, before she pushed herself away from the wall and launched herself up into the air. It was a relatively short distance for her, and yet she barely made it, her arms wrapping around the small form with what little strength remained and clinging tight. The moment they were connected, James took off into the sky, fast as he could go.

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Catharsis: 2.11

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Tasha:

Her captor had deposited her in a chair, her body slumped uncomfortably against the rigid wooden frame, before taking his leave, abandoning her to these three perverts. Tasha recognized each of them. The woman with the force breath was talking in a low voice to the guy with the broken hand while the man with the gun busied himself doing something behind her back.

“Why are you doing that?” the younger man asked. “It’s not like she can move and when that drug wears off, it’s not like a few cable ties will hold her.”

“They’re not supposed to hold her down,” the larger man grunted from behind Tasha, making her wish she had enough control to at least look at him so she could see how she was being tied. “They’re just supposed to make a noise if she breaks out of them. I’m keeping watch, and if I get distracted by something, these should stop her getting the drop on me. I hear a peep out of her, I shoot her.”

The force breath woman nodded.

“Makes sense,” she murmured, stepping forwards to peer into Tasha’s eyes. “Can she hear us?”

“Should do,” the broken handed one replied with a shrug. “Lewis said the drug just paralyzed. She’s perfectly aware.”

“Good,” the woman said. Without warning, she brought her hand sideways in a wide sweep, striking Tasha across the jaw. Numb as she was, she didn’t even feel it. Did they not realize her nerves just weren’t working? That being said, the strike disoriented, throwing her mind out of order for a moment. It made her angry. Very, very angry. The woman stood straight again, massaging her fingers with her other hand. “Might as well get some work in while we wait for it to wear off.”

“Yeah,” broken hand agreed. “Best if the punishment’s done with before she’s able to scream. I don’t want the kids having to listen to that.”

“Good call,” force breath nodded. “Where’d you put her bat, Samson?”

“Careful,” the older man replied, standing from his position behind her and moving to lean against the wall beside a window with its curtains drawn, a hand drifting under his jacket to unholster his gun and holding it casually pointed towards the floor. “If you hurt her too much, Father won’t be able to heal her. You’ll be in trouble, then.”

“Yeah yeah,” she replied. “Stop your fussing. I know when to stop. So, where is it?”

Samson shrugged, jerking a thumb towards some point behind Tasha.

“Storage closet. End of the hall.”

The woman took her leave and the two men waited in silence, both simply gazing at Tasha coolly. She tried to move again, but failed. This was hell. This was absolutely hell.


Casper:

Lewis led him out of the building, taking a left down the street, apparently headed towards the nearby subway terminal.

“So,” he murmured evenly. “I’m betting you have questions, so go ahead. Hit me.”

Casper shrugged. As much as he hated to admit it, he’d done all he could for Tasha at the moment. He may as well make use of the chance to learn some things.

“Well,” he said. “Big one first, I guess. Why doesn’t the whole world know about us?”

Lewis laughed as though he’d said something deeply funny.

“Truth is, they used to,” he replied. “Back before science got big and all the governments had so much control. The world used to be full of monsters and wizards and all sorts of stuff in between.” He paused for a moment, glancing back at Casper, who nodded, more to show his interest than anything else. “But that stopped being a thing over time. It used to be that the mages and monster hunters barely managed to keep all the bad stuff away, but then we started learning and inventing useful stuff, like guns, and suddenly the monsters weren’t so hard to fight any more. We started managing to keep them back a bit better, so the people being kept safe eventually stopped believing all the stories about monsters and magic and all the rest of it. Truth is, most of the governments active at the time liked that people were starting to forget. Less people knowing about magic and stuff means less people trying to mess with something powerful and getting everyone around them in trouble. So, most of them started trying to help everyone ignore it all.”

“So there really is a cover up?” Casper asked, uncertain.

“Only sort of,” Lewis grunted. “You get punished for telling normal people without a good reason, sure, but it’s usually a slap on the wrist, basically the same as a parking ticket, really.”

Casper considered this as Lewis led him down a set of stairs and into the crowded subway terminal, a small part of him wondering where he was being taken, the rest focused elsewhere.

“… I don’t get it,” he admitted eventually. “If it’s just a slap on the wrist, then why don’t we have superheroes turning up all over the place? People finding out they have powers and putting on costumes to go fight crime.”

“Well,” Lewis replied after a moment. “A couple things there. First, sometimes, that does happen. First gens like you getting ice breath or whatever and figuring they’re the chosen ones. They don’t usually last long. The moment they do anything big enough to get noticed, the government figures out where they are, someone way better at using powers brings them in  and everything gets made to look like a really well done hoax. A youtube video becomes a really cool CGI short film, a photo becomes part of an online scavenger hunt. It’s pretty easy to do, really, they just have to make the explanation sound more reasonable than a person in a costume who can literally breathe ice. Same goes for some of the stuff that’s just too common to hide. Magic effects like the purity marks get explained away by a dude in a lab coat pretending it’s just natural biology.”

Casper swallowed at that, unsure he liked where the conversation was headed, a small part of him surprised by the revelation that something as mundane as purity marks actually had some magical component.

“… What happens to the guy with ice breath, then?” he asked, his voice quivering just a little.

“Depends what he did,” Lewis grunted. “If he broke the secret to a few dozen people, he might get fined a few hundred bucks. If he hurt anyone, he might get a bit of jail time. Thing is, first gens get treated pretty evenly when they’re taken in. Suddenly developing superpowers can be enough to make you start acting real stupid, even make you a bit delusional. So it kinda gets treated like temporary insanity.” Casper nodded at that, relieved. “Different story for people who know about all this before, of course,” the hunter continued. “That’s why you don’t see people like me pulling superhero stuff. Vigilantism is a crime in this world just as much as it is in the normal one, and using powers to do it is treated a lot like using a gun to do it.” Again, Casper nodded. That made sense.

The two stopped talking a few moments as Lewis guided Casper onto a train car and they sat down, utterly ignored by those around them.

“So… I’m guessing a lot of people with powers wind up in gangs and stuff, right?” Casper asked, trying to think of a way to phrase it better and failing.

“Some of us,” Lewis replied evenly. “Depends what sort of person they are and what they can do. It comes in all flavors. Some of us set up shops, join the government, or start using our powers to do normal jobs in easier ways without attracting attention. Some of us have a bit less choice than that.” The hunter smiled at that, and it looked genuine, but under it, Casper felt a swell of bitterness from him.

“… What’s that mean?”

The hunter shrugged.

“Some of us have powers that are just too useful not to be used. Me, for example. I’m a tracker, a good one, too. I can find anything as long as I have its scent. My mom was like that, too. She was pretty well known for it. So when she died, I suddenly had a lot of people wanting the same services from me. A lot of the time, that was from people you can’t say no to easily. So I started taking jobs, and I told them that if anyone tried to make me work for them exclusively, I’d put a lighter up my nose and kill my power.” He gave Casper a hard look, before continuing. “Problem with that is, I have to be useful to everyone at least some of the time, or what’s to stop them just getting rid of me to stop the others having access? So sometimes I have to take jobs I really don’t want to do, like helping the Family track down some teenager.”

Casper wasn’t sure what to say to that. The hunter’s feelings weren’t giving him much to go on, either. Lewis’ emotions were cold. He wasn’t pleading, nor was he fishing for forgiveness, so why was he offering any explanation at all?

“… Why tell me this?” Casper asked eventually. “It doesn’t feel like something you’d just tell someone, so why tell me?”

Lewis shrugged, leaning back in his seat and gazing stonily at him across the train car.

“Because you’re the same as me,” he said dryly. “You’ve got the potential to be a tracker, and unlike me, your power probably wouldn’t be so easy to get rid of, so I’m giving you a warning. Keep quiet about it, or someone might force you to do things you really don’t like. Don’t even tell the government, if you can avoid it. They’re no better than the criminals, sometimes.”

Again, Casper wasn’t sure what to say. Something in the back of his mind told him that ‘thank you’ was a bad choice. Eventually, he settled on:

“Where are you taking me?”

“My place,” Lewis replied, shrugging. “I thought you might wanna talk to some kids your own age about all this. Help sort it all out in your head.”

Casper nodded, staring quietly at the floor, unsure of what to say once more.


James:

‘James. Come see me.’

He glanced briefly at the message as he unpacked his bag and shrugged. Maybe Casper was nervous again about what had happened at school.

“Hey, Mom?” he called into the hallway, opening his bedroom door. “Casper says he wants to meet up with me. Is it okay if I go to the mall for a bit?”

There was a momentary hesitation before Sarah’s voice replied from the living room on the floor below.

“Sure, sweetie. You want a ride? I was just about to go pick Bex up, anyways.” Her acting was good, James almost failed to notice the tightness in her voice.

“Yeah,” he replied. “Please. Should I call you when I’m done?”

“Yeah,” said Sarah, her head poking out into the stairwell. “If you could. Just tell me when you want to go, kay?”

James nodded, stepping briefly back into his room to change out of his school clothes, then headed down the stairs, flicking Casper a quick text in response.

‘Sure. Meet up at the GameStop near my place?’

He tracked down his mother and the two of them loaded into the car, spending most of the three minute journey to the mall in silence.

“You sure are spending a lot of time with Casper, lately,” Sarah murmured, eyes on the road. “You do remember you have other friends, right?”

“Yeah,” James replied with a chuckle. “I do. He’s just goofier than they are.”

“…He’s a nice boy,” she said after a moment, apparently more to herself than to him.

“Yeah,” he smiled. “He is.”

The rest of the trip passed in silence, Sarah depositing him at the entrance to the mall with another hug, and staying long enough to watch him step inside. He made his way to the GameStop and waited there for a few minutes, eventually taking out his phone and loading up a game to pass the time on. The game had just reached the opening screen when the text alert pinged. He closed the game for a moment to check the text. It was from a number he didn’t recognize, and only contained a single line of text, an address he didn’t know off the top of his head.

He gazed at the message for a few moments, confused, before the phone pinged again and another text emerged. His eyes drifted down to it, perplexed, then went wide. He felt his legs begin to shake a little, allowing his weight to shift down to the floor as he stared at the screen. This was not good. Not even a little. Forcing himself to be calm as best he could, he re-read the message, hoping against hope that he had somehow just read it wrong.

‘Tasha kidnapped. Using her phone. Second floor. Corner room closest to traffic light. They track by smell. She’s drugged. Wait an hour.’

He felt the panic begin to rise in his gut, and forced himself to breathe deep, shutting off the phone and closing his eyes.

Okay… Now what?

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Catharsis: 2.6

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Family:

The woman leaned against the shattered window, her fingers clenching occasionally against the scarred wooden frame. Marcus watched from his position against the wall, trying to figure out how best to approach her. He allowed himself a momentary irritation that dealing with Father’s dispatches was his job now instead of Samson’s. The older man had busied himself in calming the customers and seeing the children back to bed, leaving him to deal with the pissed off superhuman.

“So,” he ventured eventually. “What now, Lara?”

“Now?” She asked, her tone clipped, not looking at him. “Now we find the girl. Much as it pains me to admit, she beat me in a fair fight. She passed the entrance test. Now we just need to get her to Father. The tracker’s still active in New York, right? I don’t feel like waiting for her to come back here again.”

“I’ll contact him,” Marcus nodded. “Is the main family paying, or is this one on the New York branch?”

“We’ll cover the cost,” she allowed. “Looks like you’ll have enough to deal with for now getting the building repaired.”

“Yeah,” Marcus laughed. “You know, before I was put in charge here, I used to wish I’d wind up with powers like that. Now I just look at the walls and see a pile of repair bills.”

Lara let out a short, forced laugh, her knuckles still clenched hard against the window frame.

“You’re not alone in that. When I was still training, Father used to say I should write a receipt every time I opened my mouth, just in case.”

The two were silent for a while, her staring out of the window, him gazing cautiously at her back. After a time, she sighed.

“Just let me be angry for a while, kay? I’ll stay here till I’m calm, best for Father’s representative to not be furious in front of the children. You go call the tracker.”

For a moment, Marcus considered contesting the issue, trying to talk things out. He decided against it. He pushed away from the wall, pulling his phone from his pocket as he stepped towards the open doorway.

“She was gonna break my legs,” Lara murmured, Marcus wasn’t entirely sure if she was speaking to herself or not. “She’s gonna pay for that before Father gets her.”

“She threatened the little ones,” he replied quietly, his broken hand emitting a momentary ache as the fingers reflexively tried to clench against the bandages. “You’re right. She’ll pay.”


Tasha:

The girl let out a hiss of pain as the knife blade pierced the meat of her lower leg, the flesh parting with a slight puff of oddly savory smelling steam. She tried to ignore the sting as she pulled the handle to the side, carving a shallow trench in the skin a few inches below her knee. The bullet had gone in from the side, and, as far as she could tell, had been stopped short by bone, leaving it buried a few millimeters beneath the skin, while at the same time, nearly an inch from the point of entry. After some consideration, Tasha had decided that she’d rather just cut it out that try rooting around inside the bullet hole for the slug, so now she sat on the small, largely unused kitchen counter beside the stove that she had been using to heat the knife. She wasn’t entirely sure whether her body had anything to really fear from infection, but she figured she may as well warm the blade just in case.

After a few moments of work and an uncomfortable degree of pain, she felt the blade catch on something hard and jagged. She tossed the knife in the sink, and reached down with her other hand, placing a finger on either side of the fresh incision, pulling the hole open while the fingers of her other hand fumbled inside of it, grasping the exposed section of the slug and tugging it free with a grunt. She brought it up to her eye, examining it closely. The soft  metal was warped and cracked, but, as far as she could tell, largely intact. She tossed it into the sink after the knife and pushed herself down off of the counter, taking the landing largely on her uninjured leg. Experimentally, she pressed her other foot to the ground, testing the damage. It hurt, but the pain was a little better now. She tried walking, and managed a decent limp, heading into the small bathroom to wash the wound clean under the shower tap, stopping briefly to fend off Maxie on the way through; he was a good boy, but she’d picked him up too late to really train him at all, and she groaned as he jumped up on her, his paws pushing her off-balance against the hallway wall as he tried and failed to lick her face. She pushed him away with a groan and allowed him a grudging tickle behind the ears, sending him back to his room, tail wagging, before finishing her journey to the bathroom.

The bad guys had powers. Well no shit. Tasha chuckled angrily to herself, trying to ignore the sting as the cold water soaked between the torn flesh of the injury, momentarily regretting not having warmed the water first. Of course the bad guys would have powers. It made sense, in retrospect. If superpowers were just getting handed out to random kids, it made sense that some of those kids would grow up letting it go to their heads. She allowed herself a grin. At least she’d beat the bitch. If it hadn’t been for the dickbag with the gun, she let out a sigh. Losing, as it turned out, was not fun, and it felt doubly shitty because she’d overcome the main threat without issue. It was cheating. It was unfair.

Her phone pinged, pulling her out of her lamentations for a moment. She dug in her pocket, pulling out the device, almost out of power, and checked the screen.

‘You gonna be okay? James says he wants to help you out. Cas.’

Tasha gazed at the screen for a few moments, then sighed. She’d lost tonight because she was outnumbered. She had no doubts there, but James was twelve. If she was going to be a hero, then she needed to find another way to win, something that didn’t put a kid in danger, let alone a kid whose power probably wouldn’t even be much use in a fight. Seeing the phone battery tick down another percent, she typed in a quick response.

‘I’m good. Heal quick. Phone dying. I’ll talk him out of it.’

After a few seconds, a new message came up on the screen with a ping.

‘Thanks.’

Any response she might have made was cut short by the phone shutting off. She chuckled. It was nice to see the little guy with a friend his own age. He was a bit more delicate than her. He needed other people. Tasha shut off the tap, found a rag, and mopped herself dry, before finding an unused shirt to wrap around the wound. Then, she limped back into the main room, flopped down on the couch, and went to sleep. As she began to fade, she felt something warm against her stomach as Maxie clambered up alongside her, resting his head against her side.


Hunter:

The cell phone alarm went off at six AM, the familiar staccato sound of piano chords cut short after a few seconds by an irritated flick of his thumb. Must have forgotten to turn it off. He hated that alarm. Not unusual, perhaps. He supposed most people likely hated the sound of their alarms after a time. That didn’t matter for now, though. He’d already been up for hours. It was always best to rise early when he had a new target to locate, before the movement of the day diluted the scents his targets left behind, making them all that much harder to track.

He began at the street below a broken window, from which he had been assured that the girl in question had thrown herself the night before. Sure enough, there was a scent there. A powerful one, full of the telltale notes of blood and sweat and dog hair. He chuckled to himself. This girl needed to take better care of herself. The chuckle was cut short as he remembered just who he was hunting her for. Knowing what the Family tended to do to kids, it wasn’t particularly likely that she’d be neglecting her hygiene for very much longer. He suppressed a shudder at the implications of the idea, and pushed it from his mind. It wasn’t that he begrudged them his services, but he had to admit, the Family weren’t exactly his first choice of customer.

He shrugged. Best not to think about that sort of thing. He knelt down slightly, allowing himself to get a better whiff of the target’s scent. It was distinctive, easy to track. He followed it across the road to where one of the children had said they saw the target jump to a rooftop. The front entrance to the place was closed, but that wasn’t much of a concern. He made his way across to one of the buildings alongside it, and found a fire escape. It was easy enough to jump up to, and he ascended, bringing himself a little above level with the roof the girl had jumped to. He climbed up onto the handrail, then launched himself across. He made it, narrowly, hitting the surface in a roll before coming to his feet, dusting himself off. Better remember to give himself more height next time he tried that. The scent was nearby, a strong concentration, collected in a solid line leading from one end of the building to the other. Ah, so the girl had been bleeding as she made the journey, then. He followed to the ledge where the scent ended. Easy enough to guess she’d tried jumping again. He was surprised she’d made it if she’d been bleeding that badly. By the direction of the blood trail, he made a guess as to the building she’d gone for and nodded, before descending back to ground level with relative ease.

The second ascent was easier than the first. The building was open this time, and he was able to make his way up to the roof via the stairs. Again, the scent was easy to discern. It was everywhere around this rooftop, collected on small, torn lumps of metal sheeting and foil. He picked one up, took a sniff, examined it. Was this meant to be armor? He laughed. Not that it would be useless. Hell, maybe it’d even be enough to stop a low impact round, but judging by the blood, and how the armor had been discarded, he had to assume the gun she’d been shot with was a little more than expected. He moved to the edge of the roof, and began to walk around the perimeter, searching for the point where the scent was strongest, where she was most likely to have jumped.

It was after almost ten minutes of searching like this that he realized he’d made more than one lap of the rooftop, and had found nothing. So she hadn’t jumped. Had she gone inside? No. He would have smelled her on the way up. He searched closer. There were other scents, a few individuals who must have been around in the last few days or so, their odor mixed largely with tobacco smoke and food. He needed something more recent, an explanation. He moved to the center of the area, where the majority of the armor pieces lay, and took another sniff. His eyes widened slightly. The scent went up into the air. Surprising. So she had jumped, after all. How, though? Some kind of glider? Unlikely, but possible. There was something else there, though. Something confusing. Another scent. Male, and young, but fainter, much fainter. At a guess, he would have said it was days old, maybe even a week, but it intertwined closely with that of the girl, rising up into the air with hers in such a way that it could not be a coincidence. What an unusual boy, to have such a weak scent. He grunted. Well, if she’d gotten away by air, he had no way of pursuing her from here. Best to retrace his steps.

He made his way back to the Family building, and stood outside the entrance, taking another breath. If he couldn’t track the girl by her escape route, best to track her by the approach instead. He set off at a jog, interrupted briefly by his phone’s secondary alarm going off at six twenty.

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Catharsis: 2.2

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Tasha:

The brown haired man was smiling. His trap had worked, and now he leaned once more against the corridor wall, smugness practically radiating from every inch of him. The attacker, for her part, was still for the moment, seemingly content to allow Tasha to make the first move. She took a few seconds, tensing and relaxing every muscle group in her body, ascertaining that everything was still working as it should be. Good, nothing was broken, that was something, at least.

The floor was not a good position to attack from, at least not in this position, with her legs in front of her and her arms to the side, she lacked any way to build her footing before another of those attacks, whatever it had been, hit her. Cautiously, hoping against hope that it wouldn’t provoke a response, Tasha pushed herself upright, then stood. Surprisingly, the woman let her, a small smile spreading across her face.

“…You’re testing me?” She asked, leaning back against the wall and trying her absolute best to make it seem natural. Her hands found the solid surface of it and braced themselves against it. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her baseball bat, laying perhaps ten or so feet away, too far for her to grab it without giving her adversary another opening. She’d do this barehanded, then.

“That’s the idea,” the woman replied coolly. “If I like what I see, you might even have a place with us. I’ll be honest, though, you’re not doing all that well so far. You got yourself baited into an ambush, that’s a rookie move. Try and be a little smarter from now on, kay?”

Tasha grit her teeth at the woman’s words, and nodded, more to distract than for any other reason. She needed to take this one by surprise. Think it through. First step, get more information.

“And if I fail?” She asked, her muscles tensing, ready to spring. “What happens then?”

“Then I guess I kill you,” the woman replied, sounding unconcerned. “You did attack us after al-”

Tasha pushed herself off of the wall with all her might, her hands and feet digging into the ground and wall as she forced herself from complete stillness to a dead sprint in under a second, not so much running as throwing herself at her foe like a battering ram.

The woman barely even moved. She stopped talking mid word, and opened her mouth wide, letting out what may have been called a scream, if a scream were able to happen without sound. The shockwave struck tasha before she was even halfway towards her new foe, and for a moment, she strained against it, the force of it battling against her own momentum, before it launched her back, harder than before. She struck the wall, and, with a crunch, felt it give way beneath her. She landed on her back, the new room around her utterly dark. Tasha was prepared this time, more ready for the second blow than she had been for the first, and wasted not a moment in shoving herself to the side, out of the small field of dim light pooling in from the hole into the hallway. Somewhere in the darkness of the room, a young voice screamed. Tasha grimaced; so this was a bedroom, then.

“No blind shots,” came the man’s voice from the other side of the wall. “You might hit Ellie!”

“I know!” The woman’s voice snapped. “Just stay back and let me work, will you?” The man did not respond, and it seemed the woman turned her attention to Tasha. “That’s two really bad calls in a row now. Gonna go for three?”

Tasha moved towards the punctured wall, and pressed herself against it, as far from the hole as she could get, then squeezed her eyes shut, trying to force her eyes to adjust to the darkness as fast as possible. When she opened them again, she could see.

The room was small, set up similarly to the others she had seen. A bed against one wall, a single window, the curtains closed against the night, and a free standing dresser to one side. A small scuffling sound from the bed drew her eye, and she caught sight of the room’s only occupant, a girl a little older than her, by appearances, crawling beneath the bed. Tasha nodded to herself, best the girl stay out of the way, where possible. There were sounds of movement coming from outside the door. She was running out of time.

Tasha shook herself. She needed time to think, to make a plan. Easiest way to get time was to make distance. She nodded to herself, then turned towards the wall adjoining this bedroom to the next one along. With one deep breath, praying quietly to herself that this would work, Tasha threw herself at the connecting wall, her shoulder slamming into it with full force. The old plasterboard gave with a crunch, and she found herself in another bedroom. The light was on. She smashed it. The inhabitant of this room was a boy. He did not scream, merely glared at her.

Glancing momentarily into the room behind, Tasha saw the woman standing in the doorway, peering owlishly through the dark as her eyes began to adjust. It would be perhaps a few seconds before she could see well enough to fire off another blast without risking hitting a bystander. That was the hope, at least. Tasha crossed the bedroom, aiming to put her next hole in the opposite corner to the one through which she had come so as to break the line of sight. She charged, and the wall gave just as easily as the last.

This room was empty of its inhabitant, presumably one of those dealing with the ‘customers’ outside, and that gave Tasha an idea. She crossed to the window, tore away the curtains, and slammed her forearm into the glass, shattering it. Then, she made for the next connecting wall, this time aiming to make a hole by the dresser that stood against it, just as in every room, it seemed. Tasha aimed low, intent on making the hole as small and low to the ground as possible this time. The moment she was through, she reached behind herself, taking hold of the dresser by a leg, and tugged it along the floor until its bulk covered her exit hole. Glancing around, she made eye contact with the inhabitant of this new room, this one a teen, and held a finger to her lips, the other hand curling into a fist. The girl got the message, and remained quiet. Tasha returned her attention to the dresser covering her, and lowered her head to lay flat on the floor, gazing into the vacated room through the space between its legs.

From this new vantage point, Tasha watched a pair of feet step into the empty room, before making their way towards the broken window. The woman swore under her breath, and spoke in a low murmur, apparently to herself.

“Going out into an open street when your enemy can use ranged attacks. That’s another mistake. Stupid girl.”

Tasha moved in near silence, positioning herself to sit facing the gap between the two rooms, bracing herself with her hands on the edges of the hole, before placing her feet against the dresser. Tasha took a deep breath, trying to picture the remembered location of the woman’s feet as accurately as possible, before thrusting her feet outward towards it, sending the dresser skidding towards the woman across the floor. Without waiting to see if the first attack made contact, Tasha pulled herself forward through the hole with her hands, and forced herself off of it as hard as she could, throwing herself through the air towards the woman.

The noise of the maneuver caught the woman’s attention, and she turned away from the window, catching sight of the dresser just in time to blast it aside with another of those strange, silent screams, her eyes going wide with surprise. She did not have time, however, to stop the other attack, and Tasha impacted against her in an uncontrolled tackle, bowling her down onto the bed against which she stood. Tasha wasted no time in wrestling the woman into submission, forcing her into a headlock so as to prevent her taking any new targets.

“There,” Tasha grunted, frustrated beyond belief. “Now, If we’re done with the bullshit, I’m gonna finish robbing you.”

As she spoke, she pulled herself to her feet and the woman was dragged stumbling along with her. She tried to speak, her words coming out hoarse and halting through Tasha’s grip on her throat, but before she could get out anything coherent, the girl shifted her grip, cutting her off.

“Nope!” She snapped. “No talking for you. You sell kids for sex, you threatened to kill me, and you punched me through a wall. We’re gonna go get my bat, and then I’m gonna break your legs.”

They reached the door, and Tasha lashed out with a foot, forcing it free of its hinges with a loud crack. She tugged the struggling woman into the hallway, glancing left and right for her bat.

Tasha registered the impact before she noticed the man holding the gun. The sound of the gunshot rang in her ears, far louder than tv shows made it seem. She felt her leg give way under her, and toppled sideways against her captive, who herself was forced against the doorframe, barely keeping the two of them upright. This change in their profile was likely the only thing that spared Tasha of a second shot. There was a pain in her left leg, somewhere below the knee, a hot, sharp sort of feeling, but that was not the main concern. A small part of her mind realized that her homemade armor had failed to deflect a bullet, and that she needed to get away. The rest of her mind, too busy reeling from the shock and the rapidly building pain, obeyed the impulse. She clumsily tugged the woman forwards, placing a hand at her waist, and another at the back of her neck, before hoisting her up and throwing her bodily down the hall towards her attacker, who, she realized belatedly, was the same man who had threatened her with the gun on her last visit. The woman screamed, and the man fumbled to catch her, the weight of momentum forcing them both to the floor.

Tasha turned, grasping the sides of the doorframe in either hand, and faced herself towards the window. The room was on the second story. This was not going to be fun. She grit her teeth, then threw herself towards the opening, glad that at the very least, the glass had already been removed from the frame. She hit the windowsill at an angle, the injured leg striking the wall on the way through and eliciting a wave of genuine pain. She yelled in defiance of it, her body tumbling the five or so meters to the pavement below and landing on her arms, managing luckily to absorb most of the impact. She would have liked to remain still for a moment, take some time to adjust to the pain, but she knew they’d be right behind her, and so dragged herself to her feet, grasping the side of a public bin to aid the effort. No chance of getting away at ground level, she knew that. Best get to a rooftop then, and fast. She tested her undamaged leg against the pavement, and felt no real pain from it. Good, that gave her a chance. She crouched low, trying to keep as much of her weight off the damaged leg as possible, then pushed off from the ground with all her might, launching herself across the street and up into the air. She fell short of her intended target, the rooftop of the building opposite her jumping point, and found her chest colliding hard against the edge of it, her legs dangling uselessly in the air below as her hands scrabbled for purchase. She caught a hand on the edge of the brickwork, and pulled herself up onto the roof, letting her body slump down onto the ground, concealed by the short, slightly raised lip of the rooftop that, hopefully, would help hide her from the eyes of anyone in that damned whorehouse. If she wanted to get away, she had to stay hidden; had to stay silent.

Slowly, fighting against the urge to gasp in pain as her damaged leg scraped against the rooftop, Tasha began to crawl. Finally, she made her way to the other end of the rooftop, and after a laborious climb to her feet, she launched herself across the gap once more to another rooftop. Only then did she allow herself to succumb to the pain and sheer frustration of it all. She raged in silence, slamming her fists against the ground again and again, tears streaming down her cheeks. She had been so close.

For a time, Tasha lay still. She would not bleed out, she knew that well enough. Of the many strange little quirks to her biology that seemed to have accompanied her newfound strength, one of the more commonly used was a far enhanced ability to withstand punishment. So for the moment, Tasha simply lay there, letting it all sink in. Then, once the tears had run dry from her eyes, she dug clumsily in her pocket for her phone. She dialed the number without much thought. It rang into the silence a few times, before a quiet voice answered on the other end.

“Yeah?” It asked.

“H-hey, Casper,” Tasha mumbled, trying to ignore the shame building painfully in her gut. “I-I kinda got myself in trouble… I need a favor.”

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Catharsis: 2.1

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Tasha:

The girl stood at the entrance to the apartment block, feeling strangely self conscious, even in the empty, moonlit street. Of all the changes she’d made to her attire in the past few days, the dark green cloak that now shrouded her was debatably the most flamboyant, competing with the cheap white plastic theater mask that now covered her face. She shook herself. Appearance didn’t matter. What mattered was effectiveness, and if these new additions helped give her an edge in this second round, then that was all that mattered. Tasha clenched her fist slightly around the handle of her sturdy new metal bat, then pushed the door open, stepping back inside the lush interior of the building.

The halls were empty, as before, and Tasha wasted no time in heading for the stairs. She had her goal, and she was determined.

The girl made it perhaps halfway along the corridor before her plans went awry. A door opened, and a boy stepped out into the hall. He was wearing pajamas, a toothbrush sticking out of one side of his mouth, and for the first few moments, was apparently far too focused on scratching the side of his head to notice her. Tasha stopped in her tracks, unsure how to proceed. She wasn’t here to hurt the kids, but if he got in the way, what was she to do?

The boy stretched, his hands reaching high into the air as he tried to pull the muscles in his shoulders loose. His head lolled gently to the side, which was when he noticed her, his eyes going wide.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, Tasha realized that she recognized this boy. He was the one who had called her ugly on her previous visit here. The boy, on the other hand, did not recognize her, concealed as she was in her ostentatious new costume. Lacking anything else to do, she tried to seem bigger than she was, more impressive. She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could get a word out, the boy bolted, the toothbrush falling forgotten from his mouth as he made his way up the staircase two at a time.

Tasha swore to herself as she began her pursuit, sprinting towards the stairs after him, her feet thudding on the thick carpet. He saw her following, and redoubled his speed. The boy was faster. She hadn’t even reached the bend in the stairway when the sounds of people speaking stopped her short.

“Alistair,” murmured a woman’s voice, a note of suppressed anger clear under a forced calm. “What are you doing up here? It’s not your night for taking custo-”

“Weirdo downstairs,” the boy cut her off, just a little out of breath. “Has a baseball bat! Chased me up here!”

“What?” A mature sounding male voice cut in, agitated. “Men, block the stairs.”

There was no audible response, but Tasha hadn’t been expecting any. She grinned. Time to give these guys a show. The girl crouched slightly, gazing up at the wall opposite. She’d practiced stuff like this before, and was more than a little pumped at the thought of getting to try it out for real. She coiled like a spring, then released, launching herself up from the midpoint of the stairway and high along the plaster covered wall. If they were expecting someone to come at them up the stairs, then she’d come from somewhere else. Tasha pivoted in midair, feeling her back and feet connect with the ceiling and wall, the plaster cracking slightly with the impact. She reached out her free hand and dug her fingers into the wall, holding herself in place. With this shift in perspective, she caught sight of the men who were, indeed, blocking the stairway door. Four of them, adults, dressed in close fitting business gear and matching shades, short batons and knuckle dusters in hand. If it was possible for someone to look like a gangster, it was these guys. They were gazing at her with a unilateral look of surprise. Before they had time to do more than stare, she pushed off from the wall with her feet, holding the bat sideways before her with both hands, and shot into their barricade like a cannonball.

To his credit, one of the four men was quick enough to dodge to the side. The other three, however, took the impact dead on, the metal beam colliding with weapons, arms and rib-cages with a loud, solid crunch as she bowled them back onto the floor. One groaned, clutching his wrist, another began to stand. The one whos ribs she had struck lay still. No time to think about that now. The one who had avoided her strike stepped forwards, pivoting on one foot to kick her in the side with all his might. Had this been a few days ago, that might have stopped her. It would at least have served the purpose of throwing her off balance, slowing her down and forcing her onto the defensive. As it was now, however, his foot bounced off her homemade armor with a metallic ring, and the only thing that spared him of a broken foot was his shoe, apparently steel toed. He let out a confused ‘huh,’ and she chuckled, swinging the bat sideways into the knee he was still using to stand. It bent sideways around the weapon, and the man dropped to the ground, screaming. As he grasped his shattered leg, eyes wide, the skin of his cheek began to shift and flush, the dark, intricate pattern of the mark of pain emerging on the forefront of his skin, interlocking with the mark of purity under his eye. Tasha pushed herself to her feet, taking a moment to take stock of her surroundings.

The room was quite full, just as it had been in the previous instance, a collection of attractive men and women of varying ages occupied the space, dressed as though they were all attending some cocktail party somewhere. Their faces, she noted, were all oddly unblemished by the marks of purity or pain that she might have expected them to carry. She hadn’t noticed that before.

Unlike before, however, there were others interspersed among them. Four or five, at most. Older, and, to varying degrees, far less attractive. Customers?

The man with the broken hand pushed himself to his feet, face set in a determined line, and came at her, swinging a short baton in his uninjured hand. She brought her bat around to intercept, and stopped the blow dead with ease, before slapping it down against his knuckles. He didn’t fall, even as the mark of pain began to bloom across his cheek like black smoke, but merely backed away, cradling his broken hands and glaring at her.

For just a moment, all was silent, the twenty or so people staring at her as one. Tasha, for her part, was pumped. For this one moment, everything in the room revolved around her. When she moved, they all moved in response to her. Time for some answers. She had her suspicions, time to test them.

“Right,” she spoke, loud enough for the room at large to hear. “Now then, who came here to fuck some whores?” No response. She raised her bat. “Honesty, or I start hitting things. This is a sex place, right?”

Now the people around her were looking at her less like she were an angry person with a baseball bat, and more like she were a confused toddler somewhere she shouldn’t be.

“… Yes.” Replied a thirty something woman in a black dress suit, a little too formal to be one of the residents. “Are… are you really asking? Do you actually not know who you’re attacking right now?”

“Pretty much,” Tasha admitted with a slight chuckle. “I’m not really a figuring it out ahead of time type of gal. Now, everyone who came here for sex, pockets empty please, money on the floor in front of me, or I start breaking thumbs.”

Around the room, the four or five ‘customers’ began turning out their pockets. The woman did so with something of a grin.

“I know it sounds cliche, but you have no idea how much trouble you’re in right now.”

Tasha wasn’t listening. She was distracted, for the moment, by the fact that the suited men and woman had deposited what looked to be well over a thousand dollars on the floor before her, amassed as a collection of crisp, neatly folded bills.

“Man,” she murmured. “I should mug buildings more often.” That said, she lowered herself to the ground, bending her knees rather than her back so as not to open herself up to attack, and picked up the cash, stuffing it into the cloak’s pocket with some difficulty, the thick material of her costume gloves impeding her grip a little. Then, she stood. “Right. Time to free everyone.”

The crowd followed her, more perplexed it seemed than genuinely concerned, as she strode on into the corridor. She tried the first door, and found it locked. She pulled back with her bat, and swung it down towards the handle. The metal and wood gave out with a loud snap, and on the other side of the door, she heard a yelp of alarm. She kicked it open and looked inside.

The interior of the room was furnished just as opulently as the hallways, a lush carpet running the floor of the small space, covered at one end by a mid sized wooden dresser, and at the other by a large, comfortable looking double bed, on which sat a small girl, perhaps eight or nine years old, staring at her wide eyed.

‘So Casper was right,’ Tasha thought to herself with a note of anger. ‘They are using kids for this.’ Out loud, she only said “Come on. I’m getting you out of here.” Before turning away from the door and moving on to the next.

Before she had a chance to break the door open, however, a voice stopped her, a familiar softness to it.

“Hello, miss. A pleasure to see you again.”

Tasha looked up, catching sight of the same, brown haired young man whose hand she had broken on her last visit. He stood in the corner, where the corridor turned along the wall of the building. His hand, she noted with some satisfaction, was heavily bandaged. She lowered the bat, and turned to face him.

“Want something?” She asked. “You should know, I don’t like people who waste my time.”

“Oh good,” the man smiled. “So it is you under all those clothes. Great. I was hoping we’d get another chance to talk.”

“Not interested in talking,” Tasha replied evenly. “I just wanna get the money, and the whores, and get them somewhere safe. Away from dickbags like you.”

The man let out a genuine laugh at that, as did a few of those following behind her.

“They’re all very safe, thank you,” he smiled again. “And perfectly happy where they are. Although,” he dropped the smile. “We don’t like being called whores.”

“Don’t care,” Tasha said bluntly. “I’m taking them away from you, where no one is gonna sell them to anyone ever again.”

“And where might that be?” The man snorted. “Where exactly are you planning to take my family once you’ve kidnapped them, hmm? I assume you have somewhere set up already for them. And that’s assuming they even want to come with you, which, believe me, they don’t.”

Tasha ignored him, turning back to the task at hand. She stoved in the doorknob with the hilt of her bat, and kicked it open. The occupant was a boy this time. He looked to be around twelve, and was staring at her, confusion and fear warring on his face.

“Come on,” she said gently to him. “We’re getting you out of here.”

The boy didn’t move, instead simply staring at her.

“M-Marcus?” He called out, his voice tremulous. “W-what’s going on?”

“Don’t worry about it, Leo,” the brown haired man called back, his voice calm. “Just some outsider being weird. Go back to sleep, kay?”

“…Kay.” The boy gazed at Tasha for a few more moments, before turning in his bed and laying himself back down against the pillows, his back to her.

Tasha stared at the boy, then directed her gaze back towards Marcus.

“What… the fuck?”

In reply, he only shrugged.

“The kids like it here,” he murmured. “And why wouldn’t they? They have love, and family, and food and a warm bed at night. Are you trying to take that away?”

“And in exchange, you sell them for sex?” Tasha asked, feeling a little sick. “No dice. I’m not leaving till I’ve torn this whole fucked up place to the ground.”

Marcus sighed, then pushed off from the wall he had been leaned up against.

“Well, if that’s how it is. You’ll have to start with me.” He shifted positions into some sort of fighting stance., his legs spreading slightly and his shoulder turned towards her, holding his undamaged arm at mid height, the bandaged one behind his back. Tasha almost laughed. She raised her bat, grasped the handle firmly with both hands, and charged.

She made it within perhaps two feet of him, before something struck her with what felt like all the force of a truck, lifting her off her feet and slamming her into the wall. She fell to the floor with a thump, too dazed to catch herself.

“So,” said a new female voice that Tasha didn’t recognize. “You’re the girl Father called me out here to test? You sure are convenient. We weren’t expecting you to come to us on your own like this.”

Tasha’s whole body ached. She pushed herself up off the ground, staring. Standing across from her, previously concealed by the bend in the hallway, was a young woman, perhaps only five or so years older than Tasha, with a face that, were she to guess, she would have called Middle eastern. This girl too was utterly unmarked and, equally strangely, was oddly, unnaturally beautiful.

“Well then,” her attacker murmured. “Let’s get started, shall we?”

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