Aid: 5.17

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Caleb:

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

‘That better not be permanent.’

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

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

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

He pushed through.

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

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

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

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

Eventually, he let out a bitter sort of laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a shit ally, you know that?”

Tsuru shrugged.

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

One of Caleb’s eyelids twitched. Low blow.

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

A laugh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At that, Tsuru merely chuckled.

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


Leanne:

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

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

She called her powers.

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

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

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

A memory.

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

‘Thirteen.’

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

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

She stood.

She stumbled.

She stood again.

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

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

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

Good. Something for her to follow.


Caleb:

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

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

Clearly, Tsuru’s ghosts had disagreed.

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

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

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

“… Huh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caleb caught a glimpse of his partner’s face.

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

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

“Hey!” he bellowed. “Twenty Three!”

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

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

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

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

Only then did she turn to look at him.

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

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

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

“Like hell you are, kid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sniffle.

“Why does everyone know my fucking name?”

Caleb winced; shook his head; took a breath.

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

Another sniffle.

“They set my house on fire.”

Caleb reevaluated.

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

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

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

Finally, Charlie seemed to come to a decision:

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

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

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

“… Yeah,” Charlie muttered. “Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

Behind them, a voice whistled.

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

“… Aren’t you James’ Grandma?”

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

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

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

“… Prove it.”

“What?” he asked, nonplussed.

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

Caleb took a deep breath, then nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A long, long silence; then a quiet sniff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t worth much.

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

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

She was gone.

He had failed.

He fainted.

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Aid: 5.16

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Caleb:

The procession through the grove was a stilted one; Caleb making his way down passage after passage, his way lit only by the faint emerald glow still emanating from his arm; ever more aware of the omnipresent whispers in the mist. The ghosts weren’t really what unsettled him, though. He knew that they were, at least nominally, on his side. What bothered him was the quiet.

Caleb wasn’t sure if it was a property of the mist, the trees, or some tertiary enchantment Tsuru had laid down on the area around them, but whatever it was, it made things quiet.

He wasn’t used to being deaf to his own footsteps, unable to hear the beating of his heart, even as the thud of it sent vibrations through his chest. It threw him slightly. Disconnected.

Then, there were the lights. Infrequent bolts of wide-cast spells throwing shadows between the trees. Occasional glimpses of distant, fearful men.

One by one, those men fell, the calling of commands and muttered incantations giving way to short lived shrieks. There would come a few more bolts, aimed at the shapes that lumbered in the dark. Then, for a time, the quiet would resume.

It felt like watching something hunt.

Still no sign of Twenty Three.

He was growing… agitated; drawn taut. Adrenaline without a chance to move. A feeling that the seemingly endless procession of bleach barked corridors did nothing to appease. The grove couldn’t be that big. He hated it. The waiting; the hiding. Being led around by the nose while creatures from bad horror movies pulled off all the fighting. Here he was, stronger and freer than he’d ever been in his life, and the world was making him wait. He gripped the rebar tighter in his hand, his knuckles white.

In the end, when Tsuru’s plan finally went to shit, it was almost a relief. At least it put him back inside his world.

It started as another glow in the distance, a flicker of blue barely visible between the trees. Caleb ducked low, a shoulder pressed against a bough, listening.

Voices in the distance; muffled partly by the fog, then even further by the murmurs of Tsuru’s host. He closed his eyes, slowed his breath; listened.

“-eed to find the van. Your only job right now is to get Charles Vance out of here. Am I understood?”

Caleb grinned. He recognized that voice. It was the boss. She didn’t sound happy. He thought about launching an attack, wondered if he could manage to part the trees. The trail of thought was cut off by a voice that Caleb thought he might have recognized. He forced himself to focus once more.

“-an’t be serious. We’re surrounded. These trees are moving. How the hell am I supposed to-”

A cracking sound. The man stopped talking.

“I’m not here to hold your hand. Just get it done. Seventeen, Twenty Three, go with him and provide support. As for me, I’ll deal with the witch.”

Caleb’s breath hitched, his heart thudding harder and harder in his chest. He’d found her.

Silence for a moment, before:

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Caleb opened his eyes again and stood, that wide grin once more settling itself across his face.

Found you.

Absently, he tapped his steel bar against a tree trunk.

“You gonna take me to her, then?”

He could have sworn he heard a chuckle in the air as the trees once more began to shift. He didn’t care. He set off down his new path at a sprint. Then, from somewhere in the gloom, the boss began to yell.

“It was a good plan, you know,” she called, the faint blue between the trees starting to grow slowly more intense. “Boxing me in like this. Picking off my men. Forcing me to either play defence or waste my energy breaking free. Smart moves.” Caleb chuckled. There was something so satisfying about the anger in her voice. “But now you’ve managed to piss me off. So either let us go, or I will break this forest down tree by tree until I find you.”

For a moment, all was quiet, the stillness of the fog covering even the pounding of Caleb’s feet as he ran. Then, there was a chuckle in the gloom. A cold one. No humor to it.

“You sound like a five year old,” Tsuru said.

Silence once more as the glow built itself to a peak, the light throwing a dozen scattered shades of blue among the trees. For a moment, as Caleb ran, he could have sworn he caught a glimpse of a person at the centre, their shape surrounded by more of those crawling, creeping forms.

Then, with a quiet crack, the light went out.

What came next happened so fast that Caleb’s brain barely managed to parse it. It was like a shockwave. This streaking lance of neon blue that shot across the grove, moving faster than the human eye could even track, followed by the sharp, rolling roar as tree after tree simply crumpled in her wake. It passed outside of Caleb’s line of sight, and by the time he had managed to turn his head, it was gone.

In the seconds that followed, even the whispers of the ghosts grew still. Then, the fallen trees began to burn. For a moment, Caleb just stood there, stunned. Then, by way of a precaution, he pumped a measure of James’ energy into a shield.

Then came the second spark. Another bolt, streaking right to left across Caleb’s vision, passing bare yards in front of his face. Another wave of sound, another thunderous fall. The fire spread further. The trees were parting slower now, the path clearing barely fast enough to keep a pace with him. A few of the trees bore scorches. He ignored it.

Not far now. He had to be nearly there. Whatever the boss was doing didn’t concern him. He had to get to Twenty Three. That was all that mattered.

Then came the third spark. This one was different from the others. This one went for him.

Caleb didn’t register it when the bough to his left gave out, the dead wood splitting apart in a shower of bark and sparks. He didn’t register it when the boss’ fist caught him in the side. It was simply too quick for him to catch. What he did notice, however, was his shield popping away around his skin like an over glorified soap bubble. He noticed the pain arcing across his ribs. He noticed as his body struck a wall; the crunch of breaking bone.

For the first second, Caleb was simply dazed. His head pounded. His vision swam. He could feel something embedded in his arm. He looked down at his wrist, and dimly noted the hunk of rebar sticking through it, the metal slowly melting in the fire still shrouding his hand. His fingers twitched.

“Hello, Thirteen,” a voice murmured to his left, angry glee dripping from every word. “It’s convenient. Finding you like this. Maybe this can be a good day after all.”

It was hard to recognize the boss at first. The lightning currently dancing its way around her was one thing, but then there was the soot caking the entirety of her body, the hundred or so gashes torn into her clothes, and the utterly unmanaged nature of her hair. What really threw him off, however, was the formless mass of creatures currently grappled onto her; clawing, scratching; desperate to kill.

She ignored them.

When Caleb’s brain finally returned him to coherence, he had one thought: He did not care. Here was death, standing above him, and he simply did not care. He had a job to do.

“Go fuck yourself,” he muttered croakily as he pushed himself upright, cradling his impaled arm with his remaining good one, letting the fire build hotter and hotter around the wound so as to melt the metal away. He turned his back to her, and simply walked away. “Enjoy your game. I’m out of here.”

When the boss replied, her voice was cold.

“You called me a cunt, Thirteen. You don’t get to walk away.”

Something cracked behind him.

Caleb wasn’t dumb. Even like this. He knew what was coming next. He knew she wouldn’t let him leave. At least like this, he could maybe get her guard down.

He couldn’t hear her approach. That damned mist covered her footsteps far too well. He couldn’t see her. But the bird in his arm could smell her. A scent more powerful than anything he’d ever felt. Over a dozen different people squeezed inside a single body. Two steps away. One. None.

Now.

It was hard not to savor the surprise on his former master’s face as she stepped past him, her lightning clad fist passing inches from his form as he half bent, half fell out of her way. He laughed. She should have used the super speed. Then, his shoulder caught her in the middle, sending both of them toppling clumsily to the floor.

There was no grand strategy from there. Just a wounded boy fighting a painful grapple against a perfectly healthy woman.

But the woman didn’t have super strength.

She swore. He didn’t listen. She struck him. He ignored her. Somewhere in that flailing mess of limbs, his barely functional hand came up against her face. Her shield flickered. Then, only half aware of what he was doing, he opened up the gates of James’ power. His glove flared emerald green around his hand. He closed his fingers on her skull.

Leanne screamed.

Caleb held on.

She fought.

He held on.

The scent of burning meat.

He held on.

She stopped fighting.

Caleb forced himself to stand, his breathing heavy. He had a job to do.

He offered a single parting thought as he took his leave.

“You put a mark on me once. I guess we’re even now.”

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Aid: 5.14

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Tsuru:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was where the problem lay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Across the way, her foe was speaking once again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leanne:

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

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

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

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

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

From somewhere inside, Charlie Vance began to yell. 

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

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

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Aid: 5.13

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Leanne:

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

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

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

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

‘And the witch lets it fuck her.’

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

She shook herself.

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

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

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

No time for subtlety, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie didn’t move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie sniffed.

“What are you gonna do to us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… Why?”

At that, Leanne let out a sigh.

“Because I need your help to save the world”


Tsuru:

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

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

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

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

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

The bags were twitching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All eyes turned to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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