Dissonance: 4.3

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Author’s Note: Alrighty, guys. Once more, I am linking to the ongoing one shot anthology thing being run by Revfitz. This week, the story I’m linking to is called Curse of The Magi and it’s written by Walter. Now that that’s been said, ON WITH THE STORY!!

Casper:

Casper held the toothbrush under the tap for a second, then lifted it to his mouth. It was the third time he’d brushed his teeth that morning. The first two had been to get rid of the lingering taste of vomit. This one was in hopes of chasing away the memory of Father’s lips. He ran the brush over his tongue, forcing the minty foam in between his taste buds in an attempt to force everything else out. It didn’t work. He brushed harder.

He heard a knock on the bathroom door behind him, then heard Mel’s voice speaking through it.

“Casper? Freja went out and picked up some clean clothes for you. I’m leaving them by the door.”

“Thank you.” He replied, his words muffled by the foam coating the inside of his mouth as he stepped towards the door.

For a brief moment, he felt Mel’s mind inside his bubble before she stepped away. The woman was practically radiating concern. He felt a pang of guilt at that. He must have been quite the sight when he’d turned up on her doorstep the night before, his ragged clothes covered in a mixture of bile, dirt and his own blood. She’d ushered him up to the apartment above the shop and sat him down on her couch before setting off to get Freja. He’d been asleep by the time either of them got back.

Casper sighed. He still wasn’t sure how he was going to explain this to them.

He opened the door a crack, saw the neatly folded shirt and pants sitting just outside, and grabbed them. He got halfway through taking off his current shirt before deciding he needed a shower. He hoped Mel wouldn’t mind.

He stepped out of the bathroom twenty minutes later cleaner than he had been in days, the soiled remnants of his old clothes held in a loose bundle under one arm.

Mel and Freja were waiting for him outside, sitting at Mel’s small breakfast table, a pot of tea between them. Both women turned to look at him as he stepped through the door.

“… Thanks for the clothes,” he mumbled. “… And for letting me sleep here.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Freja murmured. “Are you gonna tell us what happened?”

“I…” He paused, trying to think through the events of the last day enough to even make sense of them for himself, let alone anyone else. “Honestly, I don’t know.” Freja raised an eyebrow at that. Mel opened her mouth to speak, but he clarified before she got a word out. “I mean. I sorta know what happened; it just doesn’t make any sense, you know?”

Neither Mel nor Freja said anything at that; they simply gazed at him, waiting for him to continue. After a moment’s awkward silence, he sighed, stepping over to the couch on which he’d spent the night asleep and planting himself on the arm of it so that he was facing them. He spent a moment looking for an appropriate place to deposit his old clothes that wouldn’t seem rude, before Mel flicked a finger and the entire foul smelling bundle pulled itself from his hands, wrapped itself into a tight ball, and launched itself into the kitchen, where it landed in a bin with a clang. On any other day, Casper would have been impressed. Today, however, he barely even noticed.

Instead, he took a long breath, and began to speak. He told his teachers about the birds, about the strangers he’d found following him, and their mutual flight from the swarm. He told them about the attack on the bridge; he tried to play off his trick with the grenade as more of a lucky shot than anything related to his power. Through all of it, the two women just listened; Mel occasionally nodding, Freja impassive. He left out his encounter with Father, however. It was too… embarrassing? No. That wasn’t quite the word. Whatever it was, it wasn’t something he wanted to share with a pair of near-strangers. Instead, he simply said that the agent had healed him before he ran. Neither of them questioned it.

“So, yeah,” he murmured as his tale drew to a close. “I came here cuz… well, it was the only place I could think of that might be safe to spend the night with all the stuff going on. Sorry.”

Freja nodded at that.

“Fair call,” she murmured. “So, you got caught up in that mess with the elves, huh? We heard about that. You’re lucky you got away. Far as I can tell, most of the other victims were found unconscious in a cavern below central park.”

“Elves?” Casper asked. He dimly recalled Father making some mention of them the day before. But couldn’t remember any explanation. “What does them being elves have to do with it?”

“Because that’s what elves do,” Freja grunted. “Hop across the border to our world every couple months to kidnap people with magical potential. It’s rare that they target cities, though. Too many people who can fight back.”

“You should be safe now, though.” Mel added. “Word is that the last of them was captured last night. The birds have been rounded up, too.”

Casper spent a few moments trying to absorb that new piece of information. He didn’t succeed. Superpowered interdimensional kidnappers was too much to take in when he was still so tired. Instead, he set the idea aside for later.

“… Is there a phone I can borrow?” He asked. “I need to call some people. Kinda promised a friend I’d let him know I’m okay.” Mel nodded, pulling a battered looking flip phone from her pocket and tossing it across to him. “Thanks.”

He dialed the number by memory, watching Freja take her leave as the line connected. The person on the other end didn’t speak.

“Hey, James,” he murmured, trying to push some of the tiredness out of his voice. “It’s Cas. Are you there? I… I could really use someone to talk to right now.”

“James isn’t here right now, Casper,” Replied a man’s voice. “This is his father.”

“Oh.” He mumbled. “Uh, hi, Mr Toranaga. Can uhh… Can you tell me when he’s gonna be back?”

“Oh, he’s home,” the older man replied. “He’s downstairs. I’ll take you to him in a minute. I just wanted to ask you a few things first, okay?”

“… Is this about me running away?”

“Yes.”

“… Did James tell you?”

“No, your dad did. He’s very worried about y-”

“I don’t care if he’s worried.” Casper grumbled. “He deserves to be.” He didn’t have the energy to be truly angry. He settled for disappointed. Couldn’t the universe just let him talk to his friend for a bit without making things all complicated?

“… Yeah, I can understand that,” there was a deep sigh on the other end of the line. “Doesn’t stop it being true, though.” The reaction caught Casper off guard. He’d been expecting judgement.

“… How much did he tell you?” He asked.

“That he hurt you,” came the reply. “That it’s his fault you ran away.”

“… Well,” Casper muttered. “He’s not wrong.”

“Are you still in New York?”

“… Yeah.”

“Good. In that case, I’m going to give you a phone number for a place that will make sure you’re housed and fed while all of this is sorted out, okay?”

Casper was silent for a few seconds at that, trying to force his exhausted brain to think through the implications of the idea.

“… Is there a nice way of saying I don’t trust you?” He asked.

It was a long while before the older man answered.

“That stings, Casper,” he said quietly. “I haven’t done anything to earn that from you.”

“Sorry,” Casper lied. “But it’s true. How do I know I won’t go there and find my parents waiting for me? I’d rather just handle it myself.”

“Oh come on,” Mr Toranaga replied, annoyed. “That’s just dumb. You’re a thirteen year old boy. You know you can’t do it all on your own.”

“I’m not on my own,” he snapped back, irritated. He could feel Mel’s eyes watching him from across the room. He didn’t look at her. This was his business. “I’m staying at a friend’s place. I’m handling it fine!”

He heard the other man begin to retort, before being cut off by another voice, too quiet for him to make out the words. The two seemed to argue back and forth for a few moments, before there was a rustling noise, and a woman’s voice spoke into the line. It was one he recognized; James’ mom.

“Hey, Casper,” she started, sounding almost as tired as he felt. “I’m sorry about Peter. He gets stupid about stuff he cares about.”

Casper forced himself not to groan. Great. Another adult to deal with. All he wanted was to speak to his friend. Was that so hard?

“Look,” he pleaded, raising his fingers to pinch the bridge of his nose. “If I let you give me the number, will you just let me talk to James?”

The older woman sighed at that.

“Okay,” she said, her tone calm. “That was sort of rude, but I’m gonna let it slide because we both know you’re not having the best time right now. I get it. You probably feel really ganged up on and you’re worried we want to send you back to your parents and maybe a hundred other things I haven’t thought of. But this is a conversation you need to have with someone, because running away just isn’t enough of an answer on its own. Would it help if I brought James up here to join us? Give you someone you know for sure is on your side?”

“… Yeah,” he muttered. “Yeah. Do that, please.”

There was another quiet exchange on the other end of the line, before Sarah’s voice came back.

“Right. Peter’s just getting him. I’m gonna put you on speakerphone, okay? It’ll be just you, me and James. Peter will be here too, but he’s going to be being quiet just in case he starts being dumb again.”

“… Okay.”

Once again, the phone line rustled, then he heard a thump, and what sounded like the distant blaring of a television.

“Hey, Casper,” murmured James’ voice into the following quiet. “You doing okay?” It was a surprising relief, hearing that. Casper felt himself sag slightly in his seat, muscles that he hadn’t even realized were clenched suddenly going loose once more.

“Heh,” he chuckled. “God. I hope I am. It’s good to hear from you, bud.”

“Good to hear from you too,” the other boy replied. “I was worried, you know?”

“Yeah. Sorry.” Casper leaned back in his seat, letting himself fall back off of the arm of the couch and into the cushions. “I’ve had a long couple of days.”

Before James had a chance to respond, Sarah cleared her throat.

“Anyway,” she murmured. “Back to the big issue here, alright? Casper. I know you don’t trust us, but I want to ask you something about that, okay?”

“… Yeah?”

“Is there any reason I’d be on your parents’ side here?” She asked. “I like you, Casper. You’re a nice kid, you’re kind to Bex, and from what I’ve heard, you’ve been helping James deal with some of the things that happened to him that he doesn’t feel comfortable bringing to us. Your parents, on the other hand, are two people I’ve never met, who apparently abuse their son. So, again, why in God’s name do you think either one of us would not be on your side?”

Casper opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again. He could think of no real counter there.

“… Sorry.”

“Okay,” Sarah murmured. “Moving on. I’ve been thinking it over, and I have an idea that I’d like you to think about, okay?”

“Sure.”

“Right,” she continued. “So, you don’t really trust the number we were going to give you. That’s okay. But the fact remains, we need to get you to a place where everyone can be sure that you’re getting all of the things you need, and where you’re around people you can trust. So hear me out. What if Peter and I called your parents, and told them that you were going to be staying at our house until we can get everything sorted out that needs to be sorted out? That way, we can be sure that you’re safe and secure and are even able to go to the same school as normal.”

“That’s a thing we can do?” James asked excitedly. “You promise?”

“Depends if Linda and Ray are willing to agree to it,” Peter spoke up. “But if they’re given a choice between him staying with us and living on the streets, I’m pretty sure they’ll agree to it.”

“Well, Casper?” Sarah asked. “What do you think?”

Casper didn’t answer. He was busy thinking. It sounded like a good plan; a really good plan. Almost too good to be true, if he was honest, but he wanted to be sure.

“Cas?” James asked. “You okay?”

“Do you promise my parents won’t be allowed to come near me till I say so?” He asked, his voice quiet.

“… No,” Sarah replied. “Only your parents can promise that.”

“We can promise they won’t be allowed inside our house until you say so, though.” Peter interjected. “If they do, I’ll have to punch your dad in the face again.”

“You punched my dad?” Casper asked, surprised.

“He’d just told me he was beating his kid. What was I supposed to do?”

“… I like you now.”

“Peter,” Sarah chided. “Shush. You’re being quiet now, remember? Well, Casper? Is that everything? Now’s the time to ask.”

“If my parents agree to it all,” Casper muttered. “Then sure… But only if they promise to stay away from me.”

“I’ll make the call.” Said Peter.

From their end of the line, Casper thought he heard a door swing closed, the distant sounds of the tv shutting off in its wake. For the next few minutes, no one spoke, all three of them simply waiting for the verdict, breath bated. Then, the door opened again, and Peter spoke.

“Well, they agreed to it,” he murmured. “Not sure if Ray wants to hug me or kill me right now, but they agreed.”

Casper let out that stored up breath in a long, low sigh.

“So,” he mumbled, somehow even more exhausted than he had been a moment ago. “If I’m at the GameStop near your house in an hour, can we meet up there?”

“We’ll be there,” Sarah murmured. “James, too.”

“Yup!” James agreed brightly. “Holy heck, it feels so much better knowing you’re okay!”

“Heh,” Casper chuckled. He really needed to teach James some real swear words. “Yeah. It does. See you there.” With that, he hung up, leaned his head back against the couch cushions, and closed his eyes. Why did everything feel so much lighter now?

“So,” Mel’s voice asked. “You have a place to go now?”

“Yeah,” he replied exhaustedly. “I do. Thanks for all your help, Mel. How much do I owe you guys for the clothes? Cuz I’m pretty sure there’s, like, three thousand dollars in those pants you threw in the garbage.”

Mel snorted. Casper grinned.

Fifteen minutes later, he bid his teacher goodbye and made his way down the narrow steps that led from her apartment to the Rose Bouquet. The store was almost empty when he stepped inside, in spite of the veritable crowds of people making their way along the pavement outside. He gave Freja a wave on his way by and received a curt nod in return. Apart from the two of them, there was only one other person in the place, a well dressed boy who looked perhaps a year or two older than Casper himself, perusing what looked like a collection of birthstones on one of the shelves. Casper glanced casually at them as he passed, wondering what had the older boy’s interest. That was when he felt it.

He had his bubble wrapped in close around himself, too tired to willingly take on too much of the emotions of those around him. Because of this, he only felt the other boy’s mind touch his own when they came within a few feet of one another. Casper didn’t recognize the boy’s face at all; but he recognized the feel of his mind immediately. Calm, collected, and just a little bit kind.

Father.

He began to run.

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Dissonance: 4.2

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Author’s Note: Finally catching up on my chapter backlog. Yaaaaaay.

Okay, this week, I am once more linking to the story collab being hosted by Revfitz. This time around, we have Angel, by Megajoule. Now that all of that’s been said, on with the chapter!

James:

“Hey.”

James grumbled something, buried his face in his pillow, and let out a snore.

“Heeey.”

Something cold prodded the back of his skull, pushing his head a fraction of an inch to the side and forcing him just a little more awake. Then, his barely conscious mind registered the voice.

“Heeey! Get up. I want pancakes.”

“Noooo,” he mumbled, his voice muffled by the pillow still wedged against his face. “Go away, Bex. I wanna sleep.”

For a few seconds, the world was quiet, and for once, he thought it might have worked. Then he felt himself being prodded again.

“Hey. Paaancaaaakes.”

“Lemme sleep!” He groaned, irritated, finally turning his head towards his sister and forcing his eyes open. “I’m tired!”

“But I want pancakes!” Bex whined, frowning down at him in that way that told him a fight was imminent if he failed to comply. “If you don’t make em, then I’ll do it!”

He gazed up at her for a moment, then sighed.

“… Worst sister.”

He pushed himself upright, his arms aching slightly as he moved, then glanced down.

“… Can you at least go outside while I get dressed?”

At that, Bex grinned, hopped her way out of his room, and closed the door.

James yawned, then rubbed his eyes. How early was it? He checked his clock.

Five twenty five?

“Beeeeex,” he whined. “It’s not even six yet. TV time doesn’t start for an hour!”

“Pancakes.” The girl replied through the door. “Now!”

James rolled his eyes. Then, without really thinking about it, pulled himself into the air. It was easier than going to the effort of standing up on his own. Still rubbing his knuckles against his eyelids, he floated to his closet, taking a moment to orient himself so he was upright, and grabbed the first pair of pajama pants that caught his eye. He pulled them on and stretched, before checking himself briefly in the mirror.

His marks were showing.

James raised a finger to his cheek, curious. He hadn’t taken the skin patch off, had he? Then, he remembered last night, and the momentary loss of his body. He grabbed himself a fresh one, then regretfully lowered himself to his feet, before mooching over to the bedroom door and stepping out to greet his sister.

She was grinning. Of course she was grinning. She loved Saturday mornings. It was her favorite time of the week. It bugged him. He couldn’t wait for her to be his age, and actually need sleep like a real person. He reached out, placed a finger against the smaller girl’s head, and flicked her in the temple, ignoring the outraged squeak he got in response.

“No going in my room, remember?” He muttered by way of explanation before stomping past her towards the stairs.

“Says you!” She whispered after him, way too loud.

“Says Mom,” He replied, a touch quieter. “Now shush. You’re gonna wake the big people.”

“Too late,” Came a groan from the doorway across the landing. “James. Much coffee. Soon, please.”

“I hate Saturdays,” he grumbled, before calling back. “Yes, Dad.”

“Thank you,” The voice called back with a yawn. “And tell Bex no TV till she’s made her bed.”

James looked at his sister, one eyebrow raised. She scowled at him, turning on her heel and stalking off in the direction of her room. He snickered after her, before making his way down the stairs towards the kitchen.

He set some water boiling on the stove, before opening up the fridge and digging around inside it for a minute or so until he had all the ingredients he needed. Eggs, flour, milk, butter… whisk? He checked the baking drawer for the whisk. Then he checked the utensil drawer, just in case it had been put in the wrong place. Nope. No whisk. Upstairs, he heard a door slam, followed by the stomping of a tiny pair of feet down the stairs.

“I’m gonna check it’s done before you get any pancakes.” He called into the hallway. Bex didn’t dignify the words with a response as she stomped off towards the TV room. He shook his head with a sigh.

His continued search for a whisk was disrupted by the sound of the water boiling on the stove, so he put his mixing bowl down and made his parents their morning coffee. So much work. Being the older one sucked.

As the coffee brewed, he thought of Tasha. He hoped she was okay. She should be fine, he reasoned. After all, the last he’d seen of her, she’d already been launching that lightning guy into a tree. He doubted the fight could have lasted much longer after that. Still, though, who was that guy?

The coffee made, he stifled another yawn, before carefully making his way upstairs with the two cups held carefully aloft. He found himself spilling it from time to time.

“Mom, Dad,” he called through the crack in the doorway. “Coffee.”

“Thanks, kiddo,” came his father’s voice, sounding a little more awake now than it had been. “Come on in.”

James nudged the door open with his foot, then sidled his way inside, ready to avert his eyes at a moment’s notice lest he be faced with the terrible fate of catching one of his parents changing. His caution, however, turned out to be unneeded. Peter lay in the bed, a large shirt draped over his form and the covers pulled up around his waist, a book balanced on his lap. Sarah’s place in the bed was empty; a fact that probably had to do with the sounds of the shower running in the room’s en-suite.

“Can we get Bex to sleep longer on weekends?” he asked, moving forward to place one of the mugs on his mother’s side table, before moving the second across to his father. “I wanted to sleep in today.”

“Heh,” Peter chuckled. “I got used to it after a while.” He took the coffee gratefully and took a sip. “You were just the same at her age. All cuddles and story times and never turning off. You just have to muscle your way through it, I’m afraid. Sorry.” He gave his son a wink.

James scowled at that.

“Easy for you to say,” he grumbled, turning back towards the door. “You’re not the ones she asks for pancakes every time.”

That earned the boy a genuine laugh from his father.

“Then learn to say no.” Peter chuckled. He took another long slurp of his coffee, then his tone grew more serious. “So. I wanted to talk to you about that friend of yours. Casper.”

James stopped mid-stride, his hand on the door handle. Something in his father’s tone made it clear this was more than just asking about a new friend. Had they made an error somewhere? Slipped up on something?

“… What about him?” He asked, doing his best to keep his tone level.

“He ran away from home two nights ago.” Peter murmured. “His parents are terrified.”

“… Maybe they shouldn’t have been hurting him, then.” James muttered bitterly. He regretted the words even as he spoke them, trying to figure out whether that was something he’d been allowed to let slip or not. He couldn’t bring himself not to say them, though. They were the truth.

Behind him, he heard his father take another sip of his coffee.

“So you know about that, do you?”

“… Yeah. He told me.”

“… Did he tell you he was running away?”

James hesitated for a long time at that, then sighed.

“Only after he did it. He said he was gonna break his phone afterwards. Didn’t want to be followed.” He chanced a glance back to his dad. Peter was gazing at him over the rim of his cup; calm, unblinking.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” There was no accusation in the words, but still, James felt blamed. He had his answer ready, though. Again, he went with the truth.

“Why should I have?” He asked. “I mean, the school was probably gonna tell you anyway, so it’s not like I knew anything you didn’t.”

Peter nodded at that, conceding the point.

“Fair,” he murmured. “But sometimes, we have more information about things than we think we do. For example, now that we know he spoke to you last, we know he might try to speak to you again. That means we have a chance for an adult to talk to him and make sure he’s safe.” He took another slow sip of his coffee, then continued. “Give me your phone, James.”

“… I don’t want to.”

“Why not?”

“… I don’t want Casper to go back there.” James wanted to look away from his father then. He didn’t, though. This was too important. It mattered. Even so, it hurt to see the sorrow flash momentarily across the older man’s face.

“James,” Peter sighed, setting his coffee down on the side table and climbing to his feet. “You know me. I’m your father. I’ve been your father for twelve years. Less than one month ago, I saw someone hurt my son, and the sight of it nearly broke me. Do you really think I’d send your friend back to someone who hurts him against his will?” He took a step forward.

“… No.” James admitted. He wished he could think of a counter to that, but he couldn’t. The words made him feel small. Now, even more than before, he wanted to look away. He forced himself to hold the man’s gaze. He wasn’t sure why.

“And do you know how to make sure he has everything he needs?” Peter asked. “Clean clothes, somewhere to sleep, food that won’t make him sick?” He took another few steps forward, already halfway towards his son. James couldn’t look at him any more. He dropped his gaze to the floor.

“… No.”

“Then I’d like to borrow your phone, please.” In the periphery of his vision, he saw the older man’s pajama clad legs step into view. Peter extended a hand level with James’ chest; palm up, waiting.

In all his life, he couldn’t remember ever feeling smaller than when he dipped his hand into his hoodie pocket and pulled out his phone. His father plucked it from his hand, then, in a much quieter tone, murmured:

“Thank you.”

“… Are you angry at me?” He asked, still not looking at his father.

“No,” replied Peter in that same quiet, sad voice. “Honestly? I’m mostly proud. You were trying to keep your friend safe, even from me. That’s very brave.” James didn’t move as the older man pulled him into a hug. “I’m just sad because you thought you couldn’t trust me.”

“I’m sorry.” He mumbled, ashamed.

“Don’t be,” the arms around his shoulders gave him a squeeze. “Love you, buddy.”

“… Yeah,” James muttered, raising his arms to return the hug. “Love you too.”

“Good,” Peter let him go. “Now, go make your sister some pancakes before she starts complaining, kay?”

A part of him wanted to return his father’s teasing, but he honestly couldn’t find the words. He turned around, stepped back out onto the landing, and took a deep breath.

Then, he went downstairs and made his sister pancakes.

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Bonus chapter: Ray Sullivan.

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Author’s Note: Okay, here’s our first bonus chapter of the set. Hope you all enjoy it. Last time, I provided a link to a different story I wrote as a guest on Revfitz’s site, and I’m going to continue that by this time linking to the next story in the sequence. This one’s called scourge, and it’s written by Re’sheet Schultz.

Ray:

Ray rubbed his eyes wearily, trying to force out the ache that had been building up behind them for hours now. It didn’t help that the park around him was so dimly lit, forcing him to strain his eyes as he searched, following the thin trail of light thrown out by his torch. He shook his head, and told himself to focus. He didn’t have time to be tired right now. It barely helped.

He hadn’t slept the night before. Nor had Linda. It would have been odd if they had, after receiving those two soul destroying messages from their son.

‘I think I hate you.’

Ray pushed the memory from his mind. He’d lost count of how many times those words had floated up in his brain in the last twenty four hours. The first few dozen had engendered pain. By now, though, they were familiar enough to him that they only managed to induce a dull ache, like a bruise where his lungs should be.

They had, of course, done what they could to find him, calling the school, calling his phone, driving endlessly up and down along each of the routes they knew he walked well into the early hours of the morning. The search had netted them nothing. Casper hadn’t even read the texts they’d sent.

They had barely spoken a word to one another while they worked. Ray wasn’t sure how his wife felt, but for him, it hurt to even look at her right now.

Then, they’d received the alert from work. Elves were loose in the city. People with magic in their blood were being hunted in the streets, and their son was nowhere to be found. Ray’s knuckles still ached from the force with which he’d punched the wall in the aftermath of that news. He’d only stopped when he felt Linda’s hand on his shoulder, and turned to see the look in her eyes.

“Do that later,” she’d said, her tone cold. “For now, we focus on the problem.”

It had taken him a few minutes to force himself to focus; then they had gone to work. Ray called in, liasing with the other department heads about the present approaches to the issue. No one had made mention of his absence for the earlier parts of the morning. There were bigger concerns to deal with for now.

The goblins had been called in, and were reinforcing the government teams in tracking and retrieving the civilians, before escorting them to a secured facility. Ray had assigned himself to guard the safe house, quietly hoping that Casper might be among those escorted there. Linda, for her part, had been placed in the rapid response team, one of the few dozen people in new york with powerful enough magic to make a difference against the elves. Neither had had any luck. The day had wore on, and there had been no word of their son.

When word had come of the death of the Female, Ray been far from reassured. The news had been sent in by Father, after all, and the knowledge of New York now playing host to a nigh unstoppable pedophile was far from reassuring. Linda had abandoned the response team when the male went to ground, presumably searching the city in whatever manner her all too rational mind could conjure. He, on the other hand, had joined the search party in the dim hope that Casper might still be among those kidnapped by the elves. It was the strangest thing, he thought, to find himself actually hoping that his son had been captured, because at least then he could be saved.

He shifted his torch once more across the path and saw nothing, his tired eyes barely even managing to follow the beam through the dark. In the distance, however, he caught sight of another light coming towards him. He turned his light on the figure holding it, and had to strain his eyes for a moment before he recognized them. His search partner was his opposite number: Peter Toranaga, head of interspecies relations. They’d split up some time ago in the attempt to cover more ground, unconcerned by the weaker agents’ need for safety in numbers.

“Anything?” Peter asked as the two of them passed within earshot of one another.

“Nothing,” Ray replied, too tired to really be frustrated. “Can’t see a thing in this light.”

Toranaga grunted at that, then shifted his torch slightly, throwing the beam over Ray’s face, no doubt catching sight of the bags underneath his eyes. He opened his mouth to say something, before the radio at his hip buzzed to life, an older man’s voice speaking through it.

“This is the specialist. I’ve found him. Looks like he’s trying to nab some civilian that got caught in the cordon. Going in now. Directors, close on the south-west block. Other units, hang clear.”

Without a word, the two men set off towards the south at a sprint, Peter giving his radio two short clicks in acknowledgement.

They weren’t far off from it, in the end, a three minute sprint at most, but it was still long since over by the time either one of them arrived. Ray focused on keeping the hope buried inside his chest. If he focused too much on the chance of finding his son, it could get in the way. He crushed it.

Eventually, they came upon a small clearing, catching sight as they approached of the three figures it held. A short, elderly man in a trenchcoat that was perhaps half a size too large for him, standing watch over another, younger looking man who lay prone, a bruised looking young woman sitting on the grass some way away, rummaging through a bag she held clenched between her knees.

The man waved as they approached, the girl simply eyeing them distrustfully.

“Directors,” The specialist called amicably. “Target subdued. Ready for interrogation if you are, Peter.”

Peter nodded, casting his eye momentarily towards the girl.

“The civilian okay?” He asked. “She looks a little beaten up.”

The specialist shrugged.

“A few aches and pains,” he murmured, allowing himself a chuckle. “Her own fault. She refused to stay out of the fight after I got there. Wound up doing most of the work herself.”

That earned the girl another glance from the two directors. She glared back stonily, fishing in the bag with her less damaged arm, pulling out what looked like a chunk of salami and pushing it awkwardly into her mouth with a palm.

“The girl did it?” Ray asked, surprised. “She’s a kid.”

“Yes,” the older man allowed, his tone amused. “A feisty kid, though. Super strength, at a guess. Broke her hand taking down his barriers, but just kept on punching him.”

“Dad,” Peter grumbled. “You’ve already got an apprentice. Stop being so pleased with this.”

That caught Ray’s attention, turning his gaze back towards the specialist for a moment. So this was Hideyoshi Toranaga, then. Huh. Shorter than expected. He pushed the thought from his mind, and turned his attention to the elf, only half aware of the other men as they began to bicker.

The elf wasn’t paying any attention either, gazing up at the clouds high above, his eyes glassy, tears occasionally trickling down his cheeks, lost. Ray looked away. Sympathy wasn’t what he needed to feel right now.

“Shall we get on with this?” He asked abruptly, breaking up whatever argument the other two were having. “The sooner we get the information we need, the sooner we can pull those people out of wherever they’re being kept and start putting all of this bullshit to rest.”

The two Toranagas glanced at him, and the younger one gave him a nod.

“Fair point,” he admitted. “Let’s get this over with. Ray, can you call in the capture? This shouldn’t take too long.”

Ray nodded, stepping away from the other two, and briefly pulling out his radio and conveying what he needed to, before clicking it back off with a sigh. He glanced back towards the girl, still glaring darkly towards his erstwhile companions as she chewed. She looked pretty bloodied. Probably best to make sure she was okay. He made a few tentative steps towards her, trying to work through what he was supposed to say after something like this. He opened his mouth as he approached, but she beat him to it.

“Fuck off, dude,” she grumbled. “Whatever you’re gonna say, I don’t wanna hear it. I’ve had a hell of a day.”

Ray chuckled at that. There was nothing else he could think to do.

“Yeah,” he replied. “Me too. Me too.”

With that, he turned away from her, and sat down, watching the interrogation for lack of anything else to do. After a few seconds, he found his eyes glazing it over, not really seeing it. God, he was tired.

He was brought out of his reverie briefly when something hit him in the shoulder with a thunk. He looked down. It was an apple. He glanced up at the girl, and saw that she had another just like it held in her good hand. She met his gaze, and gave him a shrug, before taking a bite.

He let out a breath, gave her a nod, and picked up the apple, biting down. It was something to do, at least.

He ate slowly, trying to ration what little distraction he had while he waited for the others to extract the information, but it didn’t work. He’d long since run out of bites when Peter turned around and gave him a nod.

“Got it,” he called. “You coming? I’ve already called for a retrieval crew. We can take it from here.”

“No.” Ray replied, pulling himself to his feet. “I’m accompanying. I want to assess the damage in person here.”

Peter nodded, waiting for Ray to reach him before setting turning back towards the trees and setting off at a walk. Behind them, he was dimly aware of Hideyoshi pulling the elf up over his shoulder and calling the girl to follow, saying something about teaching her to make a splint for her hand before leading her off towards the cordon.

It was a long walk, and they did it in silence, Ray trying with every step to keep himself detached. He couldn’t risk putting all his hopes on this, not if he wanted to keep on moving afterwards.

After a few minutes, Peter spoke into the quiet.

“So, what’s wrong, Ray? You look exhausted. Something wrong?”

Ray shook his head automatically.

“It’s fine. Just tired. Nothing you need to worry about.”

“… Huh,” the other director replied. “… Let me rephrase, then. You came on an elf hunt while barely even conscious, and you look like you’ve been told you have a week to live. Tell me what’s wrong.”

“… Family troubles.” Ray admitted, giving his head a little shake. He was too tired for this. “Don’t worry about it.”

Peter thought about that for a moment, then shrugged.

“Fine. I won’t pry.”

Ray grunted at that, and went back to staring at the path ahead of them, his mind settling back into its malaise. Then, for a moment, those words floated once more in front of his eyes.

‘I think I hate you.’

He chuckled angrily at himself, then, on impulse, said out loud the words he’d been thinking all day. For years, really.

“I’m a terrible father.”

He said it plainly, without emphasis. It was surprising how little the words stung, in the end.

“Huh,” Peter muttered after a moment. “… So it’s something about your kid, then? You’re Casper’s dad, right? He’s friends with my son.”

“Your son?” Ray asked without inflection. “I didn’t know.”

“They met at school a week or two ago,” Peter supplied. “He’s come over a few times.”

“Oh,” Ray murmured. “So that’s where he’s been going. He didn’t tell me. I figured he just didn’t want to talk to me.”

“… What’s wrong?” Peter asked, his tone changing now to what seemed like genuine concern. “Has something happened?”

Ray laughed at that, a single burst of humorless sound. “Something” was such an understatement.

“I tried to help him manifest,” he muttered, hating himself. “First few times, I thought I’d been soft; that I just hadn’t made him scared enough to make it happen. So I kept trying.” He paused there for a moment, the park ground in front of him momentarily giving way to the image of his son huddled against the wall, tears streaming down his face as he cradled his arm, the mark of pain steadily flowing into place across his cheek. He didn’t push this one away, instead forcing himself to look at it long and hard. Peter was silent beside him; either judging or waiting, he couldn’t tell. He forced himself to continue. “… He ran away from home last night.”

There was a long silence after that, before Peter swore quietly to himself.

“Christ, Ray. I thought you were better than that.”

Ray let out a huff, feeling a sudden touch of anger towards the other man.

“Don’t give me that,” he muttered. “I know it’s shit, but you know as well as I do that powers need stress to manifest. They’re always going to be traumatic. Surely it’s better to do it yourself, and give the kid as much help as they need in the aftermath. Yeah, I’m a crap dad, but I wasn’t wrong for trying to make it easier.” For a moment, he remembered his own father doing much the same. Afterwards, he’d been given ice cream.

“You say that,” the other man replied angrily. “But the way I see it, you just drove your kid out of his home. Powers aren’t worth that, Ray.”

Ray grunted.

“Wouldn’t have expected that, coming from you. You’re a Toranaga, after all. Are you really telling me Japan’s foremost wizarding line doesn’t help their children manifest? I waited until Casper was nine. How old were you, huh?”

The strike caught him in the cheek, sent him stumbling. There was less force to it than he might have thought. He righted himself, and met the other man’s glare.

“… That was the wrong road to take with me, Ray,” said Peter, his voice cold. “But fine. You want your answer? I was seven.” They stared at one another for a long moment. “Do you know what a faun is, Ray?”

Ray brought a finger to his lip, felt a trace of blood, and nodded.

“Yeah,” he replied evenly. “I know what a f-”

“Not the modern faun,” Peter cut him off. “Not C.S. Lewis. I’m talking about the old myths. The tricksters and the monsters. Pan and the Satyrs. Those myths come from somewhere, Ray; and one day, my parents went out and caught one.”

Ray cocked an eyebrow at that, confused, but Peter didn’t seem to notice.

“Turns out, they have a defense mechanism,” he continued bitterly. “And it’s a good one. They generate fear. That’s all. Just fear. So my parents caught one, chained it to a wall, and locked me in a room with it.”

It took a moment for the implications of Peter’s words to sink in.

“… Ah.” He said, for lack of anything better.

“They knew it had worked after three hours, when I started begging them to let me out. In turkish. Powers aren’t worth it, Ray. It’s just child abuse.”

“… I disagree,” Ray grumbled after a long quiet. “We need them. They keep us safe.”

Peter sighed, his shoulders sagging slightly.

“Well, you’re not wrong,” he murmured. “But that doesn’t make it better.” He took a deep breath, then shook his head. “We’ll find your son, Ray, but I think we both know you’ll need to spend your whole life making this up to him.”

“Yeah. I know.”

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Escapism: 3.5

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Strangers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You should not be here.”


Peter:

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

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

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

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

Peter ignored him.

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

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

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

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

Again, he ignored the words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bonus chapter one, Bex.

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December first, seven years ago:

There is a creaking. Far from earth. Far from any realm humans have traversed, there is a creaking. A gate, built in ages long past by beings long since gone reverberates with the sound. Buried somewhere deep, the doorway flung into a void beyond the bounds of creation, it rattles. The thing on the other side is slow. Unused to dwelling in a realm where time has but one direction. It is angry, and the gate rattles again, ancient barriers quaking under the force of its blows. It is hungry, but that is alright. If it can hold on, it will soon have a chance to feast. It was their smell that awoke it. A populace grown beyond any conceivable measure. Each one small and weak on their own, not enough to sate it, but in these numbers? They could sustain it for an age. The gate rattles again, and a lock snaps. Good. Only four more to go.

The sound of the break is loud and violent, carrying up through the emptiness, and reaching the ears of a lone sentry. The noise awakens a fear in her, but she is strong. She carries out her duty, and sends warning along lines established millenia ago, readying her people. She is a watcher, assigned to guard the gates since time immemorial, a task performed so long that she no longer remembers what she was before. None of them do, really. Her people spread out, giving their signs, spreading the news to anyone and everyone they meet.

‘A beast awakens.’

It is primordial, powerful, one of the first things that lived upon the many worlds, when magic was young, but it has not moved in an age. Its muscles ache. Its body is slow to respond. It spent too long asleep. The gate shatters, and the barriers break with such force that it echoes through the minds of every magician in the adjacent worlds. Any whom the watchers did not inform, the societies that were born and grew in the time since their watch began, are soon alerted. Among them, the humans.

It takes time to break the gate. Longer still to squeeze its lumbering body through the gap. In the time required, an army is formed. Elves, for the most part, acting more on obligation than by altruism. Their mages are strong and numerous. The foe is strong, but together, they are stronger. The gate will be rebuilt, the key crushed and its shards thrown to the winds.

They mass themselves at the entrance to its cavern, over a hundred strong of the mightiest mages from the mightiest magical race, they watch as it slowly forces its way into their realm. They prepare their spells. It feels them there, feels its hunger, takes a breath. They smell strong, the power wafting off of them enough to make it ravenous; but it knows they are too many. It will not win. It will only be able to devour a few before it is forced back behind the gate. That is not enough to sate it. It opts for a different approach.

The gathered mages watch, stoic, as the creature finishes its journey, the end of its tail too wide to fit through the opening, smashing it wider. It glances up at them, and slips sideways from their view. It does not move sideways in a manner that those watching are built to comprehend, however. It slips not through a dimension, but out of it. The creature emerges into the void between the world spheres, and begins to swim. There is no air here, no magic to sustain itself on. It will be weakened when it reaches its destination. That is acceptable. There is much food awaiting it.

The mages are helpless to intervene as the creature passes them by, able, with effort, to sense the thing, but it is beyond their reach. They cannot stop it there. The elves decide they have done their part. They retreat to their home, almost all of their kin from across the many worlds following suit. It cannot breach their home when all of their power rests within it. Together, they are too strong.

Across the many realms, the sundry mages watch as the thing advances, its edges nudging gently at the world spheres as it slips between them. In the worlds it passes by too closely, things are born, springing forth from earth and rock, feral. Soon enough, its destination is determined. The creature heads for earth.

The humans are aware, and many panic. They are saved from chaos only by their secrecy. It is kept quiet. Most of them are not aware of magic. Even among those who are, it is kept quiet. Their communities converse, desperately at first, in fear of the thing. They seek aid from allies in other worlds, but there is little forthcoming.

The dwarves are of no real help against the beast. Their inclinations lie towards the technical, and they offer what help they can, but it is little. The gnomes are of little aid as well. They are spread too thin, their own mages divided between defense of their own homes, and the great cities of the dwarves, with whom they have been allies for far longer. The elves care for their own, and while they would mourn the loss of the human world, they reason that they can easily find different cattle to farm.

The only true aid comes in the form of the goblins, the humans’ newest, greatest ally. They go forth en masse, and their soldiers are there to stand with the race of man when the time comes. They share that world, after all, and it makes sense that they defend it as one.

Slowly, the governments of the human world come to calm. Efforts begin to mount, a cooperation is achieved. The hope is slim; the humans do not have power like the elves or the gnomes, and what few mages they possess are often of a poor calibre, their power largely drawn from interbreeding with other, stronger species. In spite of this, they gather together.

A plan is formed. The humans know their magic is weak, so they devise other means. Unlike the elves, they are learned in the ways that must be used to traverse the spaces between worlds. They, like the dwarves, have learned to craft miracles of metal and stone. The work is undergone with dwarvish aid, a vessel crafted to traverse the emptiness between stars, enchanted to slip outside of reality and face the creature. It is built to carry a weapon, an adaptation of a device used by the humans in decades past to tear whole cities asunder. It will be packed heavy with loose sand and metal, brought up close to the beast, and then the pilot will set the void aflame. The task bears no chance of survival, and of the scarce few with the skills to carry it out, none are forced to take the role. There is more than one volunteer.


November ninth, six years ago:

The vessel is complete. Only hours ago was it finally finished. When debate began over what it should be called, the chosen pilot made a request that no one present had the words to refuse. The ship is named Samantha, in memory of a daughter lost.

The beast approaches, and the ship is launched. The pilot speaks no words as she guides the craft towards it, but for a small gasp as she catches sight of her foe for the first time. Across a dozen worlds, seers watch the strange confrontation. The odd magic of dwarves and men is not well understood in the realms where true magic flows, and they wonder amongst themselves at what strange trickery the humans have in mind. Most agree that it bears no chance of working.

The beast smells a life within the craft, and alters its course. It has swum for a long time, and it is famished. It edges towards the craft, claws ready to tear open the casing and devour its occupant whole. It clamps its talons into the metal as worlds watch.

The pilot utters a last goodbye and presses a photograph of a loved one to her lips, before flicking a single switch. The many worlds gasp as one as the beast is engulfed in a storm of fire and rock. Several seers are rendered blind by a light that, for a single moment, outshines the stars themselves.

When the light clears, the beast is hurting. Its flesh is torn, scales ripped away, its fins ragged and ripped. It is angry, but the flame renewed its strength. It moves faster now.

They have months, at most.


December eighteenth, six years ago.

As the beast draws nearer, the human world falls slowly to chaos. The beast is a wellspring of primordial life, and on its approach, new horrors come to plague the world within its sight. Five of them. Across the earth, hunters gather to fight them, aided by the force of goblin armies, killing these new abominations as and when they are born. Every fight draws a toll. One charge is made against a serpent that tangles an island between its tails. The final blow is dealt by an odd pair: A man who brings forth flame from his hands, and a woman wielding a staff of carven wood.

The many nations scramble to hide the truth from their people, their agencies desperate to find a new, workable plan of attack. The effort is led by a man who speaks in many tongues, traveling the world and calling forth all he can find with a very specific gift. It is a plan inspired by the workings of the gnomes, who fight monsters by giving their champions power from among their people. In every country, those bearing the ability to empower others, regardless of the form, are gathered together, almost a thousand strong, but this is not the challenging part. The world scours itself for an individual with the capacity to bear their aid without both body and mind being torn asunder. It is in the few days prior to the beast’s arrival that one finally comes forth. Not the strongest among them, to be sure, but the strongest of those willing to try.

They wait until the last possible moment, unsure of how long, if at all, their champion will last under the weight of his enchantments. It is only when the beast flickers through into the realm of man that the task is begun. Many hundreds of hands lay themselves upon the champion, layering him with enchantments so numerous and esoteric as to defy rational reason. As the beast begins to breach the upper atmosphere, the man begins to scream.

It is unknown, in the aftermath, how the champion held on. It is known from the accounts of those around him that he ascended into the sky in a bolt of light. The last words the recording device placed on him was able to pick up, beyond the growls and the screaming, were him begging for his mother.

The creature is found in a crater on the Isle of Skye, most of its body burned away, unconscious. It is contained within a mound of molten steel that is then allowed to cool around it, before being layered with runes to seal it.

The champion is found four kilometers to the south, three days later. He is still screaming. His skin cannot be located. He is transferred to a medical facility in Norway, where he is visited once a day by a small girl with the power to induce a peaceful sleep.

The man who speaks in many tongues leads a mission to ferry the beast’s container back to the elves, where they may return it to the watchers for safekeeping. There, he barters concessions from them, and strikes their high lord in the face. One of the oldest among the elves watches this, amused, and, unknown to the human, places a small spell upon him. Then, he and his retinue return home. He returns to his family, holds his son close, and reaffirms his love to his wife, happy simply to be alive. Nine months later, a girl is born.


The present day.

Bex lay asleep in her bed, a small smile on her face as she explored the myriad wonderful and exciting adventures that her dreamscape held in store for her. She reoriented slightly against her pillows, and clutched her teddy a little tighter to her chest.

 

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