Tide: 7.4

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Bermuda, Peter:

Peter would be first upon the breach. There had been no argument on that; though he could tell his father had wanted to. The topic had not been broached. 

His parents had failed. There was no judgement to that. No recrimination. They knew it just as well as he did. They had failed to protect his son. This was his job now.

When the portal opened, he would be the one to storm the gap, however fortified the enemy had made it. He would pass through, he would destroy, and he would find his son. It was that simple. There was nothing to fear.

That didn’t mean there was no tension in the air as the assembled team waited for the gate to open. They were all quiet. Peter struggled to look at Jackie as she worked, kneeling in the ground as she searched for the tear her son had left in their reality. Was that how he looked to the rest of them? That ironclad look of calm? That stiffness in her shoulders? Those eyes that still radiated fear?

No. Of course not. Why would he look like that? There was nothing to be scared of. He was going to fix this.

He should say something to her. Something reassuring. She was his friend, after all. He opened his mouth, hesitated, then closed it again. No. It would be over soon enough anyway. Better to let the woman do her work. 

He sighed.

Minutes passed. A whistling of the wind. The lapping of waves against the shore.

“Found it,” Jackie murmured, the lights already starting to spark blue around her as she spoke. “Bridging the gap in one minute.”

Peter unclipped his belt-flask and weighed it in his palm. Almost full. Several months of stockpiled power. Enough to fill out his reserves a dozen or so times over. He shook his head. Endurance would be pointless on the other side. His enemy would be flooded with magical energy. He would have to be as well.

He glanced at Jackie’s work, waited until she was only twenty seconds or so from the completion of her spell, then unscrewed the cap. 

The fluid was just as foul as always. He swallowed every drop.

His skin began to glow.

It had perhaps been inevitable that Peter Toranaga would one day find an elemental form, his father being what he was. Such was the way with half-breeds, after all; to draw from the nature of their parents in some or other manner. For Peter, though, it had taken time. He had been well into his adolescence by the time he was powerful enough to make the shift, and even then, it was nowhere near as pure.

When his father touched the flame, it was to become something else entirely; devoid of substance or weight; of anything, save the heat. 

For Peter, the transformation wasn’t quite so clean. He was fire, true enough; yet his body still possessed solidity. He didn’t grow, or fly, or feel a shift in his perception. Instead, he flowed, the heat gathering at his fingertips and falling in droplets to the earth. The sand fused into glass about his feet. 

He would save his son.

The worlds connected. He felt the scratching in his mind. His calm broke at that.

Whatever it was, scrabbling at his soul, James had been stuck here with it for almost a day. He felt his son’s odds of survival plummet.

Behind him, his father had begun to speak. He stepped forward through the aperture.

‘Don’t panic,’ he told himself. ‘He’s a smart kid. He probably ran the moment he felt that thing nearby.’

The reassurance didn’t help. 

It was almost a relief when the first attack came. At least it gave him something else to focus on. He didn’t have to wait long. The moment his feet touched the surface of the new world, there was a snap, something green and slender tearing free of the ground around him, sending sand plumes high into the air, lunging from everywhere at once. A good opening move; too quick for him to dodge. 

He didn’t have time for this. He reached into his gathered energy well and used it to press his shield out. The barrier swelled around him like a bubble, crackling for a moment as the emerald cord slammed itself around it, a loop of lightning trying to constrict. He pushed his shield out further.

It wasn’t exactly surprising that they’d set up a trap. It was the only logical choice if his quarry ever expected to leave this world again. They had to have known his team would pursue them when they fled, and they had to know that his family would be unbeatable if allowed to absorb the power of this planet. Better to fight his people here, with the bottleneck of the portal and the time to prepare an ambush. This had been expected, but he’d thought they’d make a greater effort.

The lightning coil hissed with unspent energy as it tried yet harder to crush itself upon him, its one directive to cut his form to shreds. He pushed his shield out further, forcing the coil out with a sound like grinding rust. He glanced around. Crystal sands, red-boughed trees, and a gentle tide. 

Still no sign of an ambush. Had they thought the lightning coil would be enough? Had they fled the psychic noise? It made no sen-

There was a faint pop a few dozen feet to Peter’s right. He glanced over, and met the eyes of an old, sallow looking man, a series of faint burns still healing on his face. 

The man swore. Peter continued pushing his shield out. The lighting cord began to flicker. The enemy aimed his gun at Peter’s chest. 

The first shot struck his shield with a force to split the sky, the sound of it piercing the relative quiet with an almost whiplike crack. His barrier sang with the weight of it. 

‘Stop wasting my time.’

The lightning cord was there to waste his time. Hold him down while the gunman poured out shot after shot against him. It had to go. He dug into his power. A brief incantation, then his shield pulsed. The binding tore apart with a sound like crunching gravel.

Another empowered bullet set his shield thrumming like a base drum. Then another. He looked his attacker in the eye, shrunk his barrier down, and simply let the bastard shoot him, all the while pressing his power into the ground about his feet. He waited for the man to empty out his gun before he spoke, the sand glowing rose-pink with the heat of his abilities.

“Tell me where the children are,” he said plainly. “And I will try as hard as I can to let you live.”

Something rippled from the ocean then, a distortion in the air. The scratching in Peter’s head grew stronger. There was no time for this.

At his words, the enemy simply clicked open his revolver, and started to reload.

‘Well, I tried.’

He raised a hand towards his foe. The man popped out of existence a mere fraction of a second before a spire of molten glass rose to fill the space where he had been.

He cocked his head towards the portal.

“Kill him.”

When Sebastian Grey re-emerged, it was to find the full might of the Toranaga family arrayed against him. To his credit, he did not buckle. There was no pleading. No attempt to flee. Neither action would have saved him.

Once the fight was done, the three gathered. The traps were disposed of. They had their foothold. Now to begin the search.

Peter raised his arm toward the sea, the sunset glow of his transformation pushing through the fresh-made markings on his forearm to create an odd, faintly purple light. Hopefully this new familiar could find them.

Caleb had resisted at first, when told to hand it over, gratitude for his partner’s safe return warring with deeply coded paranoia. It was only when told the use to which it would be put that he relented. It had taken more patience than Peter was proud of not to take it from the boy by force.

“Well?” Hideyoshi asked. “Anything?”

Peter raised a hand for quiet. He had to focus. The bird’s senses were foggy; weakened by weeks of starvation on a planet that lacked the energy to sustain it and clouded by the newfound weight of magic in the air. It took time. There was something at the bottom of the sea. Something leaking its power into the water. It had a scent that seemed to terrify the hunting bird. He shifted his arm, searching for new trails on the wind. 

Eventually, the bird caught a trace of something more familiar; the same scent that it had found scattered about his house. The smell of his son, along with something that could have been Charlie, were it not so tainted by the scent of burning plastic. He pointed.

“There,” he said, his eyes alighting on one of the distant islands. “Smells like Charlie’s with him. No doubt the other kidnappers are still out hunting fo-”

That was when the ocean split, the surface shearing apart a mile or so from the shore to send a plume of spray hundreds of feet into the air. When it cleared, all that was left behind was a long, wide trench, caving into itself in a set of hard right angles, as if someone had cut the water like a birthday cake.

Peter stopped talking, he and his parents turning as one to stare.

At that distance, it took a second or so for the sound of it to reach them, an echoing boom, followed by a low, rumbling roar, like the crashing of a distant storm. Then came the words, clear as a bell, even at such a distance.

“Give him back,” said his son.

‘James.’

As one, the three of them began to move, leaving Sebastian’s body to cool beneath a mound of faintly glowing glass.

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Tide: 7.2

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Charlie:

The boy couldn’t have been asleep for very long when a set of light thumps in the surrounding earth saw him roused. He hadn’t been dreaming; not quite, at least. There had been something there when the world around him went away, but it hadn’t been anything quite as solid as a dream. More like an ache; a few sparking wires of his imagination throwing up images of a dodge-ball rolling in smooth, slow circles in a patch of sand. It had been soothing, in a way. 

He wondered where he’d gotten the image of a dodge-ball from. He couldn’t remember ever having seen one.

A shuffling beside him. He lolled his head in the direction of the noise, and forced open one of his eyes.

Oh. It was just the creature back to check on him; gazing at his face with a pair of overlarge blue eyes. The boy liked this creature. He was pretty sure he did, at least. It had brought him food; although he did wish it wouldn’t chatter quite so much. It made sleeping difficult.

True to form, the moment it saw that he was awake, the creature opened up its jaws to resume its noise. To the boy’s distinct surprise, he found he could understand it now.

“Charlie!” it squeaked. “I won! I freaking won! Plus, look!-” It waved its forelegs in the air. “I got clothes!”

The boy turned his eyes briefly to the creature’s form. For some reason, it appeared to have encased itself in a layer of darkened leather.

Weird. 

The creature seemed pleased though, so it was fine. It started jabbering again; something about trees and fights and Batman; each concept barely comprehensible in isolation, let alone in combination. He struggled to parse a meaning from any of it. 

Well, besides Batman. That concept was easier to understand, for some reason.

Something sparked inside his brain. A faint flash of memory. Words a boy had once used to irritate a friend.

“Superman’s better,” he echoed.

The creature fell silent. The boy began to wonder if he’d said it wrong. He wouldn’t be surprised. He wasn’t completely sure he’d been able to speak in the first place, let alone now, in his fractured state. At least it seemed to have quieted the creature dow-

The boy blinked as the creature wrapped its forelimbs tight around his ribs, its forehead buried against his chest. 

“You take that back,” it sniffled.

Ah. Clearly, he had done it wrong. This was worse. Perhaps he didn’t know how to speak after all. He shrugged. Oh well. It wasn’t as if he was currently tired enough to sleep. Besides, the creature was small enough to be easily dislodged should its contact become a problem for him. He resolved to let it have its way, awkwardly raising a hand to pat it on the head. He was fairly sure animals were supposed to like that.The creature cocked its head to the side.

“A-are you petting me?”

The boy shushed it.

His focus turned inward. The thing in the water was still at work within his brain; the slow eddies of its presence gradually shifting more and more pieces of him into place. It was almost unpleasant, the comforting numbness of its presence breaking sporadically as fragments of a past he was unfamiliar with slammed into his skull. New faculties, new notions, every one of them surprising. Every time, he found himself forced to readjust; to take stock; to come to grips with this new thing that he apparently always was. He found it exhausting.

The boy was fairly sure he liked the presence in the water, although, much as with the creature now nestled against his chest, he wasn’t completely sure. The process was uncomfortable, to be sure, but he had to admit, he much preferred the stillness it gave his mind over the screaming that had filled his head before. Much as with the smaller creature, though, he wished it would shut up.

To call it speech would have been inaccurate. The presence wasn’t using words of any kind; at least not in any form the boy could recognize. It was still talking, though; communication parsed by color and intent. It brought to mind the smell of apples, then the sting of loss, then the shock of reconnected memory. He shook his head. It wasn’t the first attempt that had been made, and he still couldn’t fathom what was meant by it. The presence was undeterred. It would try again. 

The not-quite-sound died away for a time as the thing drifted off along his thoughts, passing over fragments and playing back memories, cataloging the pieces of his mind in a way he probably should have found invasive.

When it had learned some more, he knew it would return, and, just as before, the next attempt would be made with greater nuance. He waited patiently for it to return, and when it finally did, the scent of apples bore a new inflection: the memory of an older woman’s face; the echoed recollection of a voice.

For the first time, he was able to parse an emotion. Melancholy. He gave the presence a slow nod, trying, in whatever way he could, to be encouraging.

The presence tried again. Hours passed that way, and, as he and the entity learned more of him in lockstep, it managed to send him its intent.

It was making a request. He considered it. It didn’t sound unreasonable, but as with many things, the boy struggled to be sure. He was, however, aware that he owed the entity something of a debt. After a minute or two of thought, he agreed to try.

He would be sleeping deeply after this.


James:

James stretched his arms out into the sleeves, hoping that, somehow, his hands might make it all the way to the ends this time.

They did not. He sighed.

He shouldn’t really have been surprised. Bors was a large man; a solid six foot two, with broad shoulders to match, whereas James, much to his own chagrin, was undersized, even for a twelve year old. What had, to Bors, been a mid-sized jacket was, for him, closer to a trench coat, the hem falling a short way past his knees.

Well, the important thing was no longer being naked. As for the rest, he’d make it work.

Right. Okay. Just a little bit of cutting.

James focused. 

His powers had been a little weird, since coming to this place. They were more reactive than he was used to, less effort required to achieve the same result; a wind blast produced with what amounted to a flick instead of a punch. It made precision work a bit more complicated.

Take it slow, he told himself. That’s all you gotta do.

He reached into the wind, collecting a few loose strands of air and compressing them into a single line. Then, he held out an arm, and guided that line slowly down into the material around his elbow. The leather shifted to the side against his arm, not severed so much as simply pushed aside.

He sighed.

Screw it. Careful’s for wimps.

He took a fistful of air and clamped it down on the end of his sleeve, then gave the thing a tug.

There was an awful tearing noise as the material ripped open about the shoulder seam. James briefly remembered Bors asking if he’d ever get it back, then did the same with the other sleeve. 

Good. Success. He once more had access to his hands. As an added bonus, he was pretty sure he looked like Rambo now. He considered that a win.

He glanced up through the thin canopy of the clearing. The sun was nearing the midpoint of its journey along the sky. Almost noon – or whatever time approximated noon on an alien magic world. He should get going soon if he wanted to catch another search team off guard before they had a chance to notice that anyone was gone. He shook his head. They probably already had. If everyone had radios like the last guys had, then they probably checked in with each other every now and again. He folded his arms. Batman would plan for the worst in a situation like this and so should he.

Right. One more attack before they all regroup. Use the color of the sky to make yourself invisible, and hit ‘em as hard and fast as you can. If someone manages to hold you back, then run away like you’re Casper playing Dark Souls. Nothing to it.

He nodded. It sounded like a good plan, and he was proud of it. He could do this.

“Hey, Charlie,” he called, glancing across the clearing to where his companion still sat, his back to him. “I’m gonna go for another run. I need you to stay here till I- The heck?”

Something had sparked briefly along the outline of Charlie’s form. James set his other thoughts aside for a moment, and put his focus on his friend.

“Charlie?” he asked. “You doing okay, man?”

Once again, something sparked around his friend; his cheeks and shoulders lighting up with a momentary flash of indigo. There was a sound like a balloon being popped.

James stood up.

“Hey,” he called as he edged slowly towards the other boy. “Come on, dude. Talk to me. What’s going on?”

James had grown so accustomed to his friend’s quiet that he was a little surprised by the older boy’s response.

“Help,” Charlie murmured. 

James shook his head.

“Uh. What?”

“It keeps saying ‘Help’.” Charlie turned around to look James in the eye, his expression oddly distant. “Hey. Did we used to be friends a while back?”

James took a few more careful steps forward.

“We’re still friends,” he replied, doing the best he could to keep his voice calm. “We never stopped being… Who’s saying ‘hel-’”

This time, James was close enough to watch as the next spark made its presence known in Charlie’s lap, a disc of purple light flexing and warping between his hands like pressurized sheet-metal. For a moment, the entire clearing glowed a vibrant purple. Then, something in its structure broke, and it vanished with a faint crack. James gaped. 

Charlie sighed.

“This is harder than it should be,” he muttered. “Can’t figure out how I’m s’posed to make it work.”

James shook himself.

Right. Yes. Charlie had powers. He’d been told about that. This wasn’t the time. He put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder.

“Hey,” he said. “Dude. I need you to stop. Okay? Whatever you’re doing, just make it stop.”

Charlie gave him a confused look at that.

“Why?” he asked. “It wants me to connect us up.”

James shook his head, the concern mounting rapidly inside his brain.

“I don’t care,” he said. “Just trust me. Whatever it is. Whatever it’s saying. Don’t.”

Charlie frowned.

“Why?” he asked. “It’s helping me. Shouldn’t I try and help it back?”

“What the heck are you even talking about?” James snapped, only barely keeping his voice below a yell. “What is it!?

Charlie raised an eyebrow.

“You mean you can’t hear it?” he asked. “The thing in the water?”

Something leaden fell through James’ stomach.

“Oh, crap, no. Don’t you even think abo-”

Charlie wasn’t listening. Even as the other boy’s words grew loud and shrill in his ear, he returned his attention to the task at hand.

The light came again. It was even brighter this time, the entirety of the clearing momentarily picked out in vibrant neon. The disc in Charlie’s hands was bigger now, flaring almost white as he turned his full attention towards it.

James tried to give the boy a shove. Charlie simply shrugged him off. The disc grew brighter still. James readied his wind.

There was a quiet ‘pop’ in the space behind them.

Someone sniffed.

“So this is where you’ve been hiding him,” said Mr. Grey. “Well, you had a good run, while it-”

That was as far as he got before James’ wind-blast caught him in the face, sending his shield sparking up around him and his body stumbling back. James turned to face his foe just as, with a quiet pop, the man vanished into thin air.

Not good.

James turned, wrapped his arms around his friend, and prayed for dear life that he could hold on long enough to fly the two of them out of there. The light was almost blinding now.

“Hold on, Charlie!” he yelled. “I’m gonna get us-”

Another pop. James felt the tip of something cold press against his head. He froze. Then let out a pained cry as a hand yanked roughly at his hair, pulling him from his friend.

“Bad move,” Mr. Grey’s voice hissed in his ear. “Charles, if you want your friend to live, you’re going to do exactly as I say. Understood?”

James tried to protest, then let out another cry as the man wrenched once more at his hair.

Charlie didn’t even look at them. He simply kept on gazing at his disc, letting the light grow ever brighter.

The light.

As the gun-barrel pressed even harder against his skull, James had a single, desperate thought.

Please don’t see me. Please don’t see me-

Sebastian was flung across the clearing as James’ form exploded. He hit the ground, caught himself, and raised his revolver, now having to squint to see in the omnipresent glare, trying to find a spot of light in a place that held very little else.

Then James punched him. His shield flickered. James punched him harder.

The man teleported again, taking aim this time for Charlie, and made it halfway through a threat before another blow brought him to his knees.

“Stop! Being! EVIL!” James bellowed, raining blow after furious blow down against his foe; Grey’s shield splintering more and more around him by the moment.

That was when the light died down.

The two of them might have kept on fighting, were it not for the presence that encroached upon their minds right then. Like talons latching on the soul.

As one, they turned their gazes first to Charlie, and then to the portal he had just created.

Through that hole, however, all that could be seen was inky blackness, discernible from pure void only by the faint glisten as something a dozen or so feet from the aperture caught the light. For a few moments, they all simply watched as whatever hid below the water drifted closer. James thought it might have been scales. Or leather. Somewhere between the two.

Then, the surface parted, and they found themselves gazing into a milky-pale eye. An eye that was easily two feet wide.

The thing in the water turned its gaze to James.

“No,” Grey said flatly. Then, with a final ‘pop’, he vanished.

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Care: 6.11

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Charlie:

For a few moments, the room was still; all eyes on Charlie; his own eyes on Mr. Grey. Outside, there was a muted roar, then a crash like glass breaking all around them.

“… You won’t shoot me,” Charlie muttered, trying his damndest to ignore the thudding in his chest. “You need a portal, and that’s either me or my mom. Good luck getting her help with me gone.”

There was a gunshot from outside.

Sebastian reoriented his revolver to point at one of Charlie’s legs.

“No dice,” he said flatly. “You can survive without kneecaps. I told you before. How well you make it out of this depends on what you bring to the table. Drink the damn potion.”

Somewhere beyond the left-most wall, something crumpled as though struck by a speeding car.

No one moved.

Mr. Grey sighed.

“Force it down his throat.”

Two of the agents to Charlie’s right began to move.

The room flashed indigo as Charlie tore a portal open onto a random patch of arctic snow, then simply tossed the potion through it. That was all he had time for before the agents reached him, his body forced against the wall; arms locked uncomfortably in behind his back.

Five seconds, he told himself. Help’s coming. Just gotta make it five more seconds.

One of the agents not currently pinning him against the wall made a dash for the open portal.

Charlie snapped it closed with a thought, at the exact same moment that Sebastian vanished from the room.

Something hit him in the stomach. His vision went white and foggy, his muscles fighting against the men holding him down in their attempts to double him over.

His focus shifted to trying to breathe.

A daze; confusion; eight or nine voices talking urgently over one another. Charlie could have sworn he heard someone shout his name. He felt something small and metal press against his skull.

Then the roof gave out.

Charlie was too out of it to see, more’s the pity, when James Toranaga’s wind-formed hand gouged a ten foot chunk out of the building’s roof, tossing it behind him like a child digging in the sand.

He heard his name, though, bellowed in his friend’s voice as if from everywhere at once.

There was another faint pop, followed by a bellow, and the deafening noise of a dozen sidearms opening up at once.

Someone bellowed. He felt heat. Someone grabbed him by the shoulder. Another pop.

The world shifted.

They were back in the kitchens; himself and a half dozen or so of the guards, all of them looking just as surprised as he was, guns raised in defense against what was now just a perfectly normal ceiling.

The hand on Charlie’s shoulder shifted to his jaw, a thumb pressing against his cheek, forcing its way between his teeth. The scorched face of Mr. Grey swam into view, eyes wide and manic.

“Nice try,” he spat, raising his free hand into Charlie’s view, the glowing bottle clenched between his fingers. “But you need to be quicker on the draw.”

Once more, he heard the distant sound as someone screamed his name. He did his best to answer, only for the lip of the bottle to be jammed between his teeth.

It tasted foul. Charlie tried to gag or fight, but the agents gathered around him simply pushed him against the wall and made him swallow.

Gulp after gulp. Bitter. Nauseating.

He tried to yell. There was no air.

Then, whatever it was began to take effect.

It felt like someone was dumping lightning in his lungs.

Even then, though, there was still more of it to drink. He threw up. They made him swallow that down too.

His eyes ached.

Another gulp.

His bones grew ice and barnacles.

Another gulp.

He could feel insects clawing at his skin; trying to pry their way loose through the half-healed incision wounds dotted about his form.

The bottle clattered to the ground.

Charlie pulled in a pained gasp of air, then let it out in a choked sob. He squeezed his eyes shut, weakly pushing at the agents with his hands even as they began to step away.

It didn’t help. His eyes still hurt. He could still see, even with the lids closed. He saw himself, cowering against the wall, his clothes slowly soaking through with vomit and faintly glowing sweat. He saw the agents surrounding him.

He saw Sebastian standing over him.

He shook his head, the movement grinding beneath his skin as though his neck was made of chalk.

He wanted to go home.

The first portal opened up beside an agent’s waist. He reached for the man’s knife.

Sebastian’s foot connected with his jaw.

He swallowed a tooth. At least it helped clear away the taste.

He let out a dazed cry, and opened another portal. Then more. Then more. Why not? He had the energy.

That was the only thing he was sure of right now; he had energy to spare.

For one moment, the whole of the facility was lit by the indigo glow of over a hundred spatial holes, every single one of them connecting back to him. His perspective opened up high in the sky above. He glimpsed the shadow of a titan wreathed in fog.

Then his head was slammed against the wall and the connections all snapped shut.

The world went fluid.

He felt fingers tangling in his hair.

“–Not for you to use, boy,” a voice said coldly in his ear. “I’ll be the pilot now.”

Then he felt a spike being driven through his mind.

He screamed. In a thousand fragments of a voice, Charlie screamed.

There was someone else inside his brain. Bigger. Stronger. Hateful.

He tried to push them out, clawed at their throat, tried to drown them in the haze behind his eyes. He was ignored.

The hand clenched against his skull tugged him painfully to his feet. Someone whispered in his ear:

“First Bermuda-”

Time stopped. The planet opened up around him; that foreign thing inside his brain forcing him to see across the length and breadth of the world. A journey of five thousand miles slammed against his mind. Then it made him comprehend.

A piece of Charlie cracked right then. His body sagged.

The portal snapped open, bigger and brighter than any he’d ever made before; wide enough for a pair of men to pass abreast.

Sebastian shifted his grip on Charlie’s now unresisting form, holding him aloft by the scruff of the neck.

In his broken state, the boy managed a single quiet groan.

“Get out of my head.”

Sebastian chuckled.

“Not yet. We’ve still got one more gateway left to build. It’s time to follow behind the Whale.”

What happened next was, quite simply, beyond description. What Charles felt as that thing pushed his powers out was a sense of distance that, to put it plainly, could not be held within a human brain.

It was infinite; simple as that. A chasm of such impossible breadth and scope that to encompass it would crush him.

He tried to fight, fevered and exhausted as he was. He tried to shy away. It didn’t help. The thing inside his mind wouldn’t let him.

Charlie no longer had the strength to scream.


Sebastian:

Mr. Grey lowered the husk of Charles Vance to the ground, and shot the agents to either side of him a careful look.

More than one of them was still gazing at the boy, power still bleeding molten indigo from his eyes. He couldn’t blame them. It was never pretty, watching someone break. Least of all a child.

“Well, go on,” he muttered. “Get yourselves through before it closes.”

For a second, no one moved.

“… Sir,” muttered Bors. “Was that necessary?”

Something crashed through the floor a few rooms away. If he could have, he’d have simply teleported them all through. But no. Forcing this thing open had spent the last of his reserves. Sebastian sighed. There wasn’t time for this.

“I told you to move,” he answered coldly. “If you’d rather burn, then feel free to stay.”

He hefted Charlie’s limp form under one arm, and began to make his way towards the portal; pearl and alabaster sands glittering invitingly beyond it. He stopped a single step shy of the aperture.

“Last chance, you lot.”

One by one, his agents stepped past him into the new world. He waited for the last of them to pass him, then turned to give their ruined fortress one last look.

That was when the far wall caved in.

A torrent of wind. A shaking in the earth. A small glowing core amidst a fog shrouded torso. He smiled.

So the Toranagas have another elemental, do they?

He stepped backwards through the portal, and raised his revolver, the tip aimed squarely at the glowing mass, even as it barrelled down towards him.

No. There are enough monsters in the world already.

He pulled the trigger.

Space bent.

Sebastian Grey had half a second to wonder how exactly he could have missed, before James Toranaga slammed into him with a frenzied scream and all the force that he could muster.

The next thing Sebastian knew, he was on his back, sun dappled sand caked about his shoulders; the whole of his body filled with a low, aching sort of pain. He heard yelling, the crack of attack spells being launched into the open sky.

He forced his eyes open, swung his gaze to either side, and caught a flurry of disturbed sand and water as the young elemental fled towards the horizon, their only portal maker now clutched firmly in his grip.

With a sense of dawning horror, he turned back towards the portal, just in time to watch it snapping shut.

… Right.


James:

The new world was beautiful; there was no denying that. It felt… Tropical wasn’t quite the word for it. If it had been tropical, the thick-grouped trees running the length of the peninsula towards the greater archipelago would have been shorter, their branches and leaves all clustered at the tops like the palm trees of Hawaii or L.A., as opposed to the tall, red-boughed conifers that lined this place, looking more at home in a winter shrouded wood than on the shores of some dozy coastline.

A few dozen feet from the shore, the thick forest growth gave way to pristine, faintly salt encrusted sand, sparkling faintly under the wan light of three gently glowing moons, each hanging large and heavy in the sky.

It was this shore on which James sat, his feet just barely touching the point at which the sands gave way to sea; warm ocean ripples tickling at his toes. Beyond those waters, an uncountable mass of sea life swam and thrived in the space between this island and the next, some of them bringing forth their own brief bouts of luminescence, deep blues and reds and electrical greens dancing through the water like lanterns in ballet.

“It’s so pretty here,” he said quietly, gazing at a thousand fish that none before him had ever even thought to name. “The air’s so clean. It’s like I’m breathing life.” He made an aborted attempt to snicker at himself, took a breath, and turned his eyes towards the sky. He sniffed.

“… I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stars at once.” He tried to smile as he reached for Charlie’s hand beside him. The other boy didn’t resist as he tangled their fingers together.

Charlie didn’t move at all.

James gave his hand a squeeze.

“The sky’s so bright, you know?” he mumbled, half-failing to hide a sniffle, the first tears building in his eyes even as he tried to hold them back. “The sand’s so soft.”

That was as far as he got before the tears began to fall. His voice caught.

“I wish I could share it with you, dude.”

Charlie didn’t move.

The taller boy just lay at James’ side, gazing up at the starry sky with eyes that hadn’t blinked in hours; nought but the slight rise and fall of his chest giving any real sign of life.

“Please wake up.”

James gave the other boy a shake, the tears trickling slowly down his cheeks.

Charlie didn’t move.

James’ next attempt was less than a whisper.

“Please.”

No response.

“Please don’t leave me alone.”

The lunar trio shone its light upon the shore throughout the night, the sparkling sands touched by the lightest trace of a warming summer breeze.


Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Care: 6.10

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Hideyoshi:

Hideyoshi Toranaga had never been a particularly subtle man. It wasn’t something that had ever truly been expected, nor, indeed, desired of him. Not even in his youth. He had been taught the opposite, in fact.

He was fire. What use did fire have for restraint?

It had taken centuries for the boy that he had been to address the severity of that mistake; instilling, over time, a passable head for tactics within himself.

Even now, however, subtlety didn’t come naturally to him.

The portal led the trio out into a snowfield, a half-mile or so from their target, and a few feet deep in the lightly falling snow. Laying eyes on the facility took time, half buried by the snowfall as it was; the search aided only somewhat by the slowly building glow emanating from the compound’s upper floors.

When the Egyptian set his gaze upon it, one arm rising to point it out, Hideyoshi simply sniffed. He extended a tendril of his power towards the place, and felt a flicker.

“Shielded,” he murmured. “I’ll deal with it.”

His companions took a few steps back towards the portal at that, their forms cutting waist-deep trenches in the powder, faint trails of lightning-light dancing around them as they first strengthened, then doubled down on their shields.

For his part, Hideyoshi’s feet left no imprint on the ground. Why walk when he had yet to recover most of the feeling in his legs? The man set his gaze upon the place. Then, he began to drift slowly upward.

Below him, his wife quietly winced. He smiled.

Hideyoshi Toranaga had never gotten the hang of subtlety.


For the few men assigned to remain on guard of the facility’s outer wall as the ritual entered its final stages, the first wave was difficult to parse as an attack.

It was closer to the birth of a star.

For the man at the gate-house, there was just enough time to catch sight of a distant speck of color in the sky. Then some buried primate instinct slammed his eyes closed before the light could finish scorching through his retinas.

The attack wasn’t something to be measured in seconds. More like frames; each one a photo in a sequence.

For the first microsecond, Hideyoshi simply hung there in the sky, the lie of that ancient form shucked from his skin. His flaming figure was lithe now; slender, and small. Not quite a child, yet eternally touched by youth.

Had they been able to look on him without being rendered blind, the defenders might have taken him for an angel.

Then came the heat.

It wasn’t flame yet. Fire takes time to catch, and all of this was over in an instant. The heat pressed out from the elemental like a wave, washing the cold from the winter air with the ease of a passing thought.

The heat permeated.

In the next frame, the air around the compound seemed to ripple, catching the light of Hideyoshi’s flame and the distant sun as though the entire building was held within a snowglobe. For its part, the surrounding snowfield had become a lake, sitting like a miracle on flat land as the powder was heated from below freezing to well above boiling.

In the frame after that came pressure; a few hundred thousand tonnes of water abruptly realizing that it needed to be a gas.

To call it an explosion would have been to undersell it. The shockwave was such that, for perhaps a tenth of a second, the landscape was held in vacuum; the weight of the sky itself not quite heavy enough to pierce it.

For the defenders in their fort, however, the results were a mite less cataclysmic. The air about the building cracked, the thunderclap of the explosion rolling over it and sending fissures radiating through the air like lightning caught in glass. Behind that injured barrier, the walls stood firm, even if the very shaking of the ground was enough to shatter every window on the compound’s upper floor.

It almost surprised him when a door burst open on the building’s roof, a single figure darting out towards the building’s edge. Strange. Hideyoshi hadn’t felt any particular heat behind that door, or from anywhere else within the building’s walls, for that matter. Perhaps it was the barrier, partially shrouding the place from his new form’s senses. He uttered a charm to reassert his human eyesight, and the image came through clearer.

The figure had a rifle in hand, eyes covered by dark, heavy lidded goggles.

Hideyoshi chuckled. At least the enemy adapted fast.

The sniper readied the weapon, took aim, and made the shot.

Their aim was perfect. Hideyoshi didn’t move, simply intensifying the wall of heat radiating from his unencumbered form. The bullet was reduced to vapor before it even reached him.

Cute.

Almost lazily, Hideyoshi raised an arm.

It felt so strange, being in this body again. He’d grown used to the feigned stoop of his older self. The slight croak of his voice, the inevitable stiffness in his joints.

The pretense of infirmity necessitated such things.

He’d forgotten what it was like to be this small: the slender god; the dancing sprite at the heart of the inferno.

His movements felt so fluid now.

He flicked a wrist, and a tongue of flame leapt across the gap between himself and the fortification, lashing at the barrier with such might that the air itself thrummed with the force of the blow. The cracks grew; his flame tearing through their wall like claws through an eggshell.

The barrier flickered. He readied another blow.

A faint crack, then a new figure popped into existence on the rooftop; suit-clad, straight-backed, and elderly. The figure was looking right at him, his eyes unprotected.

The light didn’t even make him flinch.

Hideyoshi struck again, the half-mile cord of flame splitting into a hundred smaller skeins to dance in spark and ember on the enemy’s defences.

It was at that point that the steam made by Hideyoshi’s first assault began to return itself to earth; the superheated vapor having risen up, then rapidly cooled itself in the still arctic air beyond the upper bounds of his domain. It sank back down upon them now as fog, light, at first, but building; soon to cover all below in a densely clouded haze.

The man spoke then, and Hideyoshi knew that he was meant to hear, for the words carried, despite the breadth of the gap between them.

“This is your real face, elemental,” he said coldly, the words quiet, despite their clarity. “Not some old wise man, but a monster out of books and children’s tales. The kind of demon that heroes used to hunt; capable of nothing more than holding our species back.” If his eyes had still been physical things at that moment, Hideyoshi would have rolled them. He didn’t care. He drew his tendrils back for yet another strike. Then, the man continued: “That’s why things like you deserve to die.”

There was another quiet crack, then a much louder one as, for the briefest moment, the man hung in the air just a few feet to Hideyoshi’s right, his shield already peeling away layer by layer from just the ambient heat of being so close to the elemental’s form.

The man had a revolver aimed at Hideyoshi’s head.

He pulled the trigger.

What followed bore about the same relation to a gunshot as lightning does to a spark. Instead of the usual flash of light and harmless spray of lead, his form was sent hurtling through the sky by a bolt of raw force that left a trail of silver light hanging in the air behind it. His shield split, his firelight thrown into disarray by the refraction all around him.

Enchanted bullets. Powerful ones.

Hideyoshi responded quicker than a thought, spinning in the air like a top, his hundred skeins dancing towards his foe like a latticework of death.

The gunman was already gone.

His expanded senses were enough to tell him of the change in heat on the ground below that marked the gunner’s relocation. That, in turn, was enough to allow him the very narrowest of dodges as the second round cleaved the sky in two like a lance of solid starlight.

He brought his force to bear on the ground below, just in time for his enemy to vanish once again. He let out a growl, the sound strangely musical now that it lacked the imperfections of age, and bore the gunner’s third shot directly on his shield. He didn’t try to dodge. His focus was on other matters. He prepped a spell.

He swung to face his foe again, and once again, the man was gone.

No room for error here. Another hit would be the death of him.

At the edge of the forest, the gunner reappeared, weapon already raised, thumb to the hammer.

Hideyoshi teleported.

No sooner had the fourth shot left his opponent’s gun than the elemental re-emerged. He was at ground level now, his enemy less than a foot away.

The air parched.

The gunner flinched; his seemingly indomitable focus cracking for but a second as his shield faded to a shred and his skin slowly but surely began to burn.

Hideyoshi reached a slender arm towards the revolver, one finger stretching out, ready to simply melt the barrel down the middle.

The gunner vanished.

This time, Hideyoshi didn’t feel him reappear; his exit point either well beyond the elemental’s range, or obscured by whatever enchantments lined the compound’s walls. He huffed.

Off to lick his wounds. Weak.


Charlie:

“So your grandad’s the fire dude?” Charlie asked, trying simultaneously to both peer out of his cell’s small window and stay as far away from it as the boundaries of the room would allow. “He’s freaking terrifying.”

On the other end of the line, James snickered.

“He’s not that bad,” he admonished. “He’s my grandpa. He just gets kind of intense when he’s doing good guy stuff.”

“Dude. He made the floor explode.”

Whatever James’ answer was, the loud crack as the charred form of Sebastian Grey materialized in the middle of the room was enough to drown it out.

Charlie flinched, moving reflexively to stow his borrowed phone. Not fast enough.

“… So you’re the reason they found us,” the older man muttered, his voice cold. “You’ll pay for that.”

“Wait,” crackled James’ voice, his tone alarmed. “Who-”

The sounds died as Sebastian’s fingers wrenched the phone from Charlie’s grip, his gun hand closing like a vice on the boy’s shoulder.

Sebastian’s skin was burned.

He raised the phone to his mouth, and uttered one sharp phrase into the mouthpiece:

“You can have him back when I’m done with him. Not before.”

With that, he tossed the phone aside, and the world popped out of place before Charlie’s eyes.

In the next second, the two were standing in a medical bay; dozens of people, both vertical and horizontal, spaced around it. Most of the conscious ones were positioned by the doors, weapons at the ready.

There was something glowing on the floor.

“Um,” was all Charlie had time to say before Sebastian shoved him back against the wall, and strode towards the glowing mass in the centre of the room.

“You threw the wrench into this plan, Charles,” he said, quiet fury etched into every word as he picked whatever it was up off the floor. “And I will make sure that you’re the one to fix it.”

He tossed the thing to Charlie. Charlie caught it.

It was a water bottle, filled to the brim with a glowing, oddly pearlescent fluid.

Sebastian leveled his revolver at Charlie’s chest.

“Drink it.”


Hideyoshi:

A glance towards the forest, and the fires stilled as quick as they had started. The light and heat around him dimmed to that of a campfire; barely visible in the fog. No point in leaving the landscape scarred. No doubt it was his light that had allowed the gunner such an easy target.

“Interesting enemy you’ve got there,” murmured Tsuru’s voice. He didn’t bother looking up. He could feel her presence drifting toward him through the mist; still a few dozen feet away, Binyamin not far behind her. “Precision teleporter. It’s an admirable skill, to achieve so many in succession like that.”

Hideyoshi grunted, absentmindedly pumping fresh energy into his wards.

“Weak shields, though,” he muttered. “I didn’t even have to hit him to burn them out. I doubt he’ll be capable of much once he’s out of ammunition.”

His wife chuckled.

“Ah, Yoshi,” she murmured, her voice shifting to archaic Japanese to hide the words from their companion. “I’d forgotten your voice could sound so young.”

Hideyoshi gave her a smile.

“You should do the same from time to time. The mind forgets how much more easily the body moved in youth. I find it helps to be reminded.”

“I will, dear,” she replied, crossing the last of the distance between them and resting her hand on his head. “Just as soon as Bex learns the truth. No use pretending to be mortal after that.” She tussled the flames that presently constituted his hair, her shield flickering almost imperceptibly. “I think I’ll wait it out until then.”

Hideyoshi shook his head.

“Twelve years in the body of a crone,” he muttered. “Your patience astounds me, love.”

With that, the moment broke. His words returned to english.

“The two of you finish breaking down that barrier. Get the hostages out while I deal with the gu-”

That was as far as Hideyoshi got before, with a roar of pure, panicked rage, James Toranaga slammed his titan form into the compound’s shield with all the force that he could muster.

The barrier shattered.

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Care: 6.5

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

Charlie:

Charles Vance gazed out into the slow snowfall beyond his cell’s window, and once more tried to convince himself that staying at the compound had been a good idea. It was harder than it should have been. Everything Twenty Three had told him had been true. It was just annoying how little that actually helped.

Charlie let his eyes scan slowly back and forth across the snow-clad mountainscape, searching once again for evidence of a ski-slope. It was hard to make out anything from this distance, even without the snow.

Behind him, he heard the latch of his cell door click open. He turned. The person at the door was familiar. Bors; a blond man in what were either his late teens or early twenties, with slate grey eyes and a tendency towards unsolicited smiles. The man was carrying a metal tray, a bowl of some thick, meat-filled soup steaming faintly atop it. Charlie scowled.

Please don’t talk to me. Please don’t talk to me. Please don-

“Hello, Charles,” said Bors, his voice accented with something Charlie stood no chance of identifying.  “How are we doing today?” As he spoke, the man stepped properly into the room, depositing the food on the table beside his bed.

Charlie didn’t answer. Instead, he just turned his head back towards the window, and continued searching for a ski-slope. One week, he’d decided. He’d give Twenty Three one week to make contact with him, then he’d make his best guess at an inhabited mountain, and portal his way out.

“Still don’t feel like talking, huh?” Bors said, masking his disappointment with a chuckle. “It’d be better for all of us if you did, you know. I can’t imagine how many questions you must have bottled away in there. I’d be happy to explain some things.”

Charlie shook his head. This was one of the most frustrating things about this place. Everyone was too damn polite.

“Kid down the hall was crying again last night,” he muttered. “When are we going home?”

Bors’ smile dropped a fraction.

“I don’t have an answer there,” he replied, mimicking yesterday’s response verbatim. “We can’t know how long we’ll need to keep you, or anyone, until we know what you can do.”

“You keep saying that like you’re expecting something big,” Charlie muttered, turning so as to look Bors in the eye. “Whatever it is, I don’t have it. So just let me go.”

“That is bullshit, Charles,” Bors replied. Then he sighed. “My apologies. I shouldn’t swear in front of a boy.” He took a step back towards the door, and gestured to Charlie’s meal. “Eat your soup. You might feel better with something warm in your belly.”

Charlie glanced at his soup, then looked back at Bors. The man smiled again, almost encouraging. That made the decision for him. In four steps, he traversed the space to his bed, sat himself down, and picked up the bowl.

It hit Bors in the chest, hot soup exploding out across a formerly pristine grey uniform and scalding at his skin. He let out a yell, first in pain, then in rage, crossing the distance between them in two steps. Charlie didn’t flinch, even when Bors’ retaliatory strike caught him in the cheek, snapping his head to the side.

To say it didn’t hurt would have been a lie. Charlie could taste the blood in his mouth, his tongue suddenly a little too big for his teeth. Unsurprising. Bors was twice his size, after all. Given his last few days, however, it was next to nothing.

Charlie looked up at the older man, wiped the blood from his mouth with a sleeve, and grinned.

See that? You’re a kidnapping asshole. Stop pretending.

It took Bors a few moments to reclaim his composure. Eventually, however, his stance relaxed, his hand slowly unclenching from a fist. He wasn’t smiling anymore; not even trying. There was a touch of regret behind his eyes.

“Boy,” he murmured, wiping a measure of the soup from his face. “If you were a year older, I’d have made you lose a tooth for that.” Charlie laughed with as much derision as he could at that. Bors ignored him. “Come on.” He gestured to the door. “You still need to eat something.”

Charlie would have refused. He was still feeling petty; but he could smell the soup now coating a good portion of the room. His stomach growled. He felt a momentary regret for the aching in his jaw.

“… Fine.”

It was perhaps twenty steps out into the hallway before Bors spoke up again.

“You need to stop treating us like the enemy,” he muttered. “I know it’s hard to see right now, but I promise you; we’re on the same side.”

Charlie snickered.

“Your boss set my house on fire,” he replied. “Knocked out my mom and left her in the street. I’m not on your side. Your side sucks.”

“Leanne gave her life to see you here safely,” Bors snapped. “Have some respect or I’ll show you the back of my hand again.”

“You’re really bad at this whole ‘not my enemy’ thing, you know that?”

The rest of their trip was made in blessed silence, Bors still scowling, Charlie trying to commit the layout of the place to memory. He wasn’t able to glean much. Just a bunch of narrow hallways and a depressing amount of security cameras. 

Their arrival at the kitchen almost came as a relief. It was the biggest room Charlie had seen in days, four rows of sturdy wooden tables and orthopedic seats. Only one of those seats was currently in use, a dull, suit-clad man who Charlie would have guessed to be in his early seventies, eating a bowl of the same soup that coated Bors. The man glanced up as they entered, and nodded. Charlie nodded back, half-hearted, then began to look for food.

Bors had made a B-line for a set of stoves, at the top of which simmered a vat of yet more soup. He looked to Charlie, then gestured meaningfully at the soup. He was ignored.

Charlie had been on this world for almost thirteen years. He had a loving mother and he knew exactly what she would let him get away with. 

Charlie knew how to raid a kitchen.

Bors didn’t try to stop him as he moved from shelf to shelf, filling his pockets with every sugar encrusted object he could find. A glance at his expression told Charlie all he needed to know. He had decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Good. Charlie would make use of that.

Eventually, however, his pockets ran out of space. So did his hands. Judging his task completed, Charlie sat himself down on a tabletop, pulled open the foil on a packet of some unrecognizable european candy, and tipped it into his mouth. 

Bors scowled. Charlie grinned at him as he chewed, pointedly ignoring the pain in his jaw. At this point, annoying Bors was the only entertainment he had available.

“So,” he said, not bothering to swallow his food. “You said you’d explain stuff. What are you planning here?”

“Can’t tell you that.” Bors huffed.

“That figures.” Charlie swallowed his food. “Okay. Can you tell me where we are?”

“No.”

“Can you tell me who you guys are?”

An angry groan.

“No.”

“Are we in Germany? You sound kinda German. Is this some kind of Nazi thin-”

“I’m from Luxembourg!” Bors snapped. “And no. We are not Nazis.”

Charlie shrugged.

“What part of Luxembourg?”

Bors put a palm against his face, and didn’t answer.

Charlie scowled.

“You promised you’d tell me stuff.”

“Then give me something I can answer!”

Charlie snorted.

“Like what?”

The chuckling behind Charlie’s back almost him jump. He turned around, and caught sight of the elderly man in the suit, currently on the last few spoonfuls of his soup. The man waved.

“He can’t tell you anything important,” he said, his voice almost boringly English. “He doesn’t have the required clearance, and doesn’t know how much he’s allowed to say.”

Bors glared.

“Who the hell are you, old man?”

The man shrugged, pulled an ID card from his pocket, and tossed it to Bors.

“Sebastian Grey. I’m the new CEO. Or the old one, I suppose. Leanne had me removed when she took over.” He ate another mouthful of soup. “She’s dead now. I’m here to clean up her mess.” Bors bristled. He was ignored. “Check my ID if you don’t believe me. For now, though, I need you to leave. I’ll be speaking with Mr. Vance alone.”

Bors didn’t move. His fists were clenched.

“Leanne was a good woman,” he growled, his teeth bared. “Do not-”

Mr Grey flicked two fingers in Bors’ direction. There was a loud snap, and Bors disappeared. 

“I swear. Leanne let everything important slip while I was gone.”

Charlie watched the whole confrontation, at first confused, then alarmed. 

“The heck did you just do?”

“Just a teleport,” the man shrugged. “I don’t like having my time wasted.”

Sebastian finished the last of his soup, and turned to look at him.

“Did your mother ever tell you anything about elves, son?”

“Uh, what?” Charlie asked, one eyebrow crawling slowly up his scalp.

“I’ll take that as a no then,” Mr Grey nodded, pushed his soup bowl to one side, and began picking at the lid of his yogurt carton, his fingers a little clumsy. He grunted. “Damned arthritis. I’m sorry, would you mind?” He proffered the carton to Charlie, who moved forward to pull the tab free without thinking; too busy being perplexed. “Thank you. Now then. As you have recently discovered, Charles, magic is real. People who have it are able to use what you could think of as specialized superpowers. Your mother has powers, I have powers, and as we both know, you have powers.”

“I don’t-” Charlie started, but Mr. Grey cut him off.

“No use denying it. We could tell your powers had manifested the moment you set foot inside this building.”

Charlie crossed his arms and let out a huff.

Mr. Grey cracked a dry smile.

“That was a lie, but your response was quite informative.” 

Charlie scowled even harder at that. It was a dumb trick, even when it worked.

Mr. Grey produced a clean spoon from his jacket pocket and gave his yogurt a stir.

“The situation is fairly complex, but all you really need to know is that our species is at war. There are some people who accept this fact, and there are some who don’t. Your mother is one of the people who do not. She, along with most of the rest of the world, would rather ignore the elves building portals to our world and hunting us like dogs. They do this because it is easier. That is their choice.” He gave Charlie a cold look. “They’re cowards.”

“Screw you,” Charlie replied on general principle. “My Mom’s not a coward.”

Mr. Grey continued on as if Charlie hadn’t spoken.

“Historically, of course, there hasn’t really been anything our species could do about these attacks. We have powerful people, but our planet doesn’t have the energy to keep us at full strength. Even our best mages are working with maybe a fifth of their actual power. The elves don’t have that problem. They put us on this planet to keep us low. They cheated us out of our power because they want to stay on top. One day, we will grow strong enough to make them fear our potential. Either by our numbers, or by our technology. They have already seen what nuclear arms can do. They are already wary of us. One day, the war will start in full. Do you understand me, Charles?” 

Charlie reluctantly nodded. He was listening now, in spite of himself, arms folded and cross-legged atop his table.

“… So what are you doing?”

Sebastian took another mouthful of his yogurt, and reclined a little in his chair. “My organisation-” he gestured vaguely at the space around them. “Has spent the last four decades doing everything we could. We have gathered materials, made weapons, and trained soldiers. All this time, we have been preparing for a war that we couldn’t find a way to win. Then, six years ago, circumstances changed.”

The man paused there, gazing calmly across at him over the dregs of his dessert. Was he awaiting a response?

“Uh,” Charlie muttered. “Okay. What happened six years ago?”

“We were attacked,” Mr. Grey answered, finishing the last full bite of his yogurt and scraping his spoon around the inside of the container for the dregs. “It turns out that not only are the elves willing to exploit us to remain on top; they are also negligent towards the responsibilities that come with that position. A creature they were supposed to be guarding got out. It made its way to Earth, and when it got close enough, it started creating monsters. It made five of them before a man named Ethan Gale sacrificed himself to contain it. Of those five, this planet’s defenders only managed to deal with four of them.”

The man put his spoon down and started ticking off names on his fingers.

“There was the Minotaur: a brute of a thing that almost made its way to Cairo before a space warper trapped it in an endless spiral. Then there was the Hydra: a regenerating sea-snake that flattened an entire coastal town before Tsuru Toranaga and her pet elemental burned out the inside of its skull.”

“Wait. James’ grandma?” Charlie asked. Mr. Grey ignored him.

“Then there was the Crow. We think it was some kind of psychically attuned teleporter, because it assassinated a total of seventy four politicians and celebrities before a pedophile shattered its wings.” He took the last bite of his yogurt. “All evidence suggests that the Behemoth would have been disastrous, but it emerged in Norway, so the twins took care of it before it became an issue. The one that has value here, though, was called the Whale.” He caught sight of the unimpressed look on Charlie’s face, and gave a humorless laugh.

“I know. Not an impressive name. Not very apt, either. Whales are peaceful creatures.” He sighed. “We don’t know how the fight played out. We just know that the team that was sent to fight it broke radio contact a minute or so before the thing was supposed to arrive. A search party found their bodies on the beach a few hours later, all of them brain-dead, aside from the ones fortunate enough to have drowned.”

Charlie just gazed at the older man then. He had no response to that. Was he supposed to be sad? Scared? Should he want to know more? It felt too much like something out of a cartoon.

Sebastian sniffed, picked up his yogurt cup, and crumpled it, before pushing out of his chair towards the trash can. 

“No one wanted to go near the creature after that,” he murmured. “Understandable, I suppose. The Americans tracked its movements via satellite and aerial patrols. The Japanese sent submarines. Their torpedoes didn’t even make it past its shield. When it started moving in towards Bermuda, the Americans and the British started scrambling everything they could.” He smiled. “Wasted effort, in the end. It was still a few dozen miles out when it tore a jagged hole in space-time and moved into another world.”

“Wait, what?” Charlie asked, confused. “It just left?”

“It just left.” Sebastian agreed, depositing his yogurt cup in the trash and stepping back towards his companion, leaning himself against a table. “We were surprised too. You see, the world that this creature traveled into used to be inaccessible. We didn’t even know it was there until we watched the Whale flee. And as it turns out, the hole that it left behind has never truly healed over. The fabric is weaker there. My organisation was able to send some probes through. Do you know what we found?”

Charlie mutely shook his head. The old man grinned.

“We found the perfect planet. It’s empty over there. We couldn’t find anything for miles. Just tropical islands, calm seas, and an atmosphere so untouched that it practically vibrates with ambient magic.” That grin grew wider. “Do you see it yet, Charles? We could use that place to build an army. A real army, on a planet with only one way in and one way out. No ambushes from other worlds. No spying from elven seers. We could be powerful, defensible, and invisible. We could win the war.”

“Um. Okay… But what about the magic death whale?”

Mr. Grey shrugged.

“It’s a sea creature. We can stick to landmasses easily enough. But first, we need to get there.” He reached a hand inside his jacket. For a moment, Charlie was confused as to why the older man had lost his grin. Then he felt the tip of the revolver press against his head.

Charlie squeaked.

“Your mother,” Sebastian said calmly. “Is one of the finest transportation mages on the face of the Earth. She can move a squad of men from London to Jakarta in less than a minute, with pinpoint accuracy. She is one of the few people in the world who could make the kind of bridge we need. If you have those same abilities, you have value to me. If not,” he sighed. “Then I’ll have to rely on the less pedigreed assets Leanne acquired. Don’t look at the gun, Charles. Look at me.”

With what felt like the greatest struggle of will he had ever undergone, Charlie pulled his gaze from the weapon still pressed against his skull, and looked his captor in the eye. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. He could feel the touch of the metal radiating like ice cubes through every inch of him.

“Please don’t kill me.”

Sebastian sniffed.

“That really depends on what you can bring to the table,” he said, his voice cold. “Now, I’m going to ask you nicely.” He pulled back the gun’s hammer with his thumb. “Would you mind showing me your powers?”

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter: