Interlude 3

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Author’s note: 

Hey guys. I know this one’s kinda late. My aplogies for that. I was planning out the next arc. But, that said. I intend to have the next chapter up by Tuesday, so, yay for that. Now, just like last time, and the time before, I’m putting a link in this chapter to the short story display that I, along with some other writers have contributed to. This one is called Cybercelestial, and it’s written by Shaeor.

Alrighty. Hope you all enjoy the chapter.

Tasha:

Tasha tugged at the binding around her knuckles with her free hand. It felt weird, having everything bound up so tightly, but at least the hand wasn’t throbbing with every shift of her weight anymore. She was glad of that. She had enough aches to deal with already, the bruises of the previous night still far from healed.

She turned her attention back to Hideyoshi a few dozen feet away, handing off their captive to the guards that now lined the edges of the park. Couldn’t he hurry up?

Her leg was sore, the spot where the bullet had struck bone ached like all hell. She grit her teeth and stomped over to a tree, looking to take some weight off of the damn thing. When she got close enough, she pivoted on her heel, throwing her shoulder against the trunk of it in an attempt to lean on it. The moment the freshly relocated joint hit the surface, she regretted it, lines of pain darting out into her torso. She swore, pushed herself away, and slumped down onto the ground on her backside, trying to ignore the myriad complaints in every bruised joint and tendon in her body.

She just wanted to be comfortable for five god damned seconds. She lay down on her back, hoping against hope that the soft grass would provide just a moment of relief. No luck. Now her back hurt. She shifted. Now it was her ribs. She took a deep breath, closed her good eye, and tried to wait it out. It didn’t help. She just became more aware of the itching, uncomfortable soreness under her other eyelid.

She only became aware of Hideyoshi’s return when she heard his voice above her.

“Ready to go?” He said, his tone businesslike.

“… Fuck off.” She muttered, shifting once more on the ground, and again, regretting it. “Just leave me alone and let me sleep.”

“You’re sleeping here?” He asked. “Isn’t that a little too uncomfortable?”

“No shit, asshat.” She replied, her tone bitter.

He chuckled at that. If she thought she could have hurt the man right then, she’d have punched him.

“Wouldn’t you rather use a bed for that?” He asked. “I’m sure you’d find it easier.”

That was a little too much to take. She opened her eyes, felt the scratching in the swollen one redouble, and glared at him.

“You’re a real asshole, you know that?” She shot at him. “Yeah, a bed would be better. Thanks for the tip, genius. I wish I had one, but since I don’t, then grass it is!”

To his credit, the old man’s smile dropped a fraction at that.

“… Homeless?”

“Fuck off.”

They stared at one another for a long few seconds, before the old man brought a tired hand to his face, rubbing momentarily at his eyes.

“Look,” he muttered. “It’s late. I’m tired. You’re beat to hell… You want some pie? I could use some pie right now.”

Tasha glared at him for another second in silence, before a quiet grumble from her stomach forced her hand.

“… Yeah. Pie’s good.”

Hideyoshi nodded, then extended a hand. For a moment, she thought he was offering to help her up, but then she felt herself begin to lift away from the ground beneath her, weightless. She opened her mouth to object, but the man preempted her, his tone gruff.

“I’ll put you down if you want, kid. But honestly, I can’t imagine walking’s very comfortable right now, seeing how stiffly you’ve been moving.”

“… I’ll walk.”

Hideyoshi shrugged, and she felt her weight return to her, dropping down onto her feet with a grunt. With that, the old man turned away and began to walk, Tasha grudgingly falling into step behind him. They were outside the bounds of the park before either of them spoke again.

“So,” Hideyoshi started, not looking back at her. “How’d you get hurt that badly anyway? Those bruises can’t all be from tonight. They’re too old.”

“Eh,” Tasha grunted. “I get into fights sometimes. That a problem?”

“No,” the older man allowed. “But you have super strength. I’m just trying to figure out who you could have been fighting to get hurt that badly. Can’t imagine a homeless girl having that many enem-”

“I’m not homeless,” she replied irritably. “Not anymore, anyways. I just… It’s not safe to go home right now.”

“Family trouble?” Hideyoshi asked.

Tasha let out a short laugh at that.

“No. I wish it was that. Then I could just beat them up and be done with it. I tried to save some kids from a prostitution thing… Kinda got myself tied to a chair. Think I broke a guy’s ribs when I escaped.”

The old man actually turned to look at her at that, an appraising look in his eye.

“These kids,” he asked. “I’m guessing disturbingly beautiful and far too happy about what’s happening to them?”

“… Yeah. How’d you know?”

“Because that’s the only child prostitution ring that currently operates in New York,” he shrugged. “They ran all the others out of town. Surprised you got away from them. They’re dangerous people.”

“I got lucky,” Tasha sighed. “God. It feels weird having a gun in your face, you know?”

“Yeah,” Hideyoshi chuckled. “I know the feeling. Nothing as small as a gun, but the same principle. Looking death in the face is an odd sensation.”

They stopped at a set of streetlights, the old man leaning against the metal post while they waited for the traffic to clear.

“So,” Tasha asked, doing her best to keep her tone free of judgement for now. “If you know about those assholes. I gotta ask, why are they still there? I don’t know what the hell you are, but you’re tough. Why haven’t you done anything?”

“Fair question,” he murmured. “To be honest, I’d like to. I have grandchildren in this city and that place disgusts me, but the honest fact is that fighting a group like the Family is complicated. My main reason, frankly, is that the man in charge of that place is one of maybe seven people on this earth that I doubt I’m powerful enough to kill.”

“Only seven?” Tasha asked drily. “Sorry, dude. I’m not buying that. You’re tough, sure, but I’m not buying you’re that tough.”

Hideyoshi shot her a grin.

“Choose to believe it or choose not to, your decision. Regardless, that’s my reason. They’re complicated, and you’re in over your head.”

Tasha grunted.

“Okay, fine. What about those government guys you were with, then? Why aren’t they doing something? Pretty sure what they’re doing is super illegal, so why is it still happening?”

“… Honest answer?” Hideyoshi sighed. “He’s too valuable.” He glanced sidelong at her, then gave his eyes another rub. “Alright, so, six years ago, a giant fucking space dragon tried to attack the planet. Don’t laugh. That’s what happened. It was very old, very dangerous, and we literally had to kill it with nuclear weapons and human sacrifices. That’s not the important part. The important part is that when it got close enough to Earth, other monsters started coming out of the woodwork. Monsters so big and violent that we had to raise full sized armies to take them down. My wife and I led the goblins against the Hydra, a friend of mine from Egypt trapped the Minotaur, the twins of Norway slew the Behemoth, and Father killed the Crow. You see? He’s too useful. He’s tough enough to kill demigods, and that earns him amnesty, no matter how many kids he fucks. I hate it, but it’s true. They won’t touch him.”

“… Well that’s bull,” Tasha grumbled eventually. “Bunch of cowards.”

“Well,” Hideyoshi chuckled. “I can’t disagree there. But I hope you at least catch my point. This is a task far too great in scope for you to take on. You’re not strong enough. You’d just wind up getting yourself killed.

“So I’m too weak.” Tasha didn’t put any emphasis on the words. She was too tired to really care. “Fine. So how do I get stronger, then?”

Hideyoshi snorted.

“Wow. And here I was thinking I’d need to convince you to let me train you. You want to get stronger? Easy enough. I can do that, if you like. We can start tomorrow, if you’re tough enough for it.”

Tasha gazed at the man for a few moments, then shrugged.

“Yeah, sure. Better than doing nothing and waiting all day. Pie first, though.”

With another tired chuckle, Hideyoshi nodded.

“Yeah. Pie first.”

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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: 3.13

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Tasha:

The man let out a panicked shout as James took his leave, scrambling to his feet on the damp grass upon which he’d landed and chasing after the boy’s shrinking form at a dead sprint. Another charge of electricity began rapidly building around his arm, ready to shock the boy out of the sky, when Tasha’s shoulder caught him around the middle, her whole weight thrown behind the impact, wrapping her arms around his chest and sending the both of them sprawling. His shot went wide, cutting a broad arc of light through the night sky.

The man screamed, his attention still focused on James’ now barely visible form, one arm reaching desperately for him. Tasha punched him, her fist striking him in the jaw, only to glance off as it met not with skin, but with some hard, smooth barrier that sent arcs of pain jarring up her arm in its refusal to give. For a moment, she thought she saw something above his skin flicker, like a window catching the light. She ignored it.

“Nope!” She yelled. “You focus on me! Not on him, cuz it’s me who’s gonna kick your ass!” To drive the point home, she struck him again with her other fist, feeling the same pain radiating up her arm as he simply took the blow, unflinching. Again, his skin seemed to flicker with a momentary light.

Slowly, he turned his face to her, and she was surprised to see a single tear trickling down his cheek. He looked her in the eye, his face contorted with rage and grief, and spat at her. It caught her on the chin. She raised a fist to punch him again and drove it down towards his face, only for it to bury itself in the ground as he disappeared out from under her.

“The fuck?”

She pushed herself to her feet, head turning this way and that, scanning the treeline around her for him. For a moment, she thought she saw a ripple in the air to her left, but dismissed it, continuing to cast her eyes about the field. Then, there was a small pop, and she felt something strike against the back of her shoulder, barely even hard enough to notice, followed a moment later by something much, much harder. She felt something give inside her, and let out a low growl of pain as her shoulder pulled itself free of its socket. The force of the impact spun her, sent her staggering. She caught sight of the man again just before his second strike hit, throwing her out across the grass. She hit the ground in a roll, the soft earth pressing again and again against her damaged arm. She grit her teeth.

He was ranting now, flecks of spittle flying from his mouth as he raved in some odd, flowing language. He raised a hand to point at her as she pulled herself to her feet, her body turned slightly to shield her damaged arm, and she heard a screech from somewhere far above her. She ignored it, keeping her eyes fixed on him as he stepped forward towards her. Then the first of the birds plunged down from the sky, talons outstretched, raking them across the side of her face. She let out a gasp of surprise and pain, flinching back for just a moment; the same moment that he chose to step forwards, and slam his fist into her stomach.

This strike was stronger than the last ones, Tasha realized as she felt her whole body lifted into the air by the force of it, the air shoved once more from her lungs, this time accompanied by a small amount of blood, splashing across the faded blue denim of his jacket. She hit the floor again, this time on her rear, and slumped to the side, wheezing. That had hurt. That had hurt a lot. She tried to force herself to breathe, and achieved nothing but a harsh coughing fit as something dragged painfully inside her chest.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him step over to her, standing above her and pausing for a moment, before leaning down, a hand outstretched towards her undamaged shoulder. She felt him take hold and begin tugging her upright, and chose that moment to make her counter. The moment she felt his hand on her arm, she swung it outwards, her fingers clenched into a fist, slamming it into his face in the fiercest hammerblow she could manage. Again, for a moment, his skin seemed to crackle with some momentary light, and she let out a growl as something in her hand crunched agonizingly against his face. This time, though, something was different. This time, his skin seemed less like steel, and more like layers of plasterboard, a few of them crumbling away before, for the briefest moment, her fist finally connected with his skin. For the first time, he actually seemed to feel the blow, the impact sending his head snapping to the side in its passing and drawing forth a grunt of genuine pain. He turned his face back to her, a small amount of blood building around his teeth, and raised his free hand to strike, the air seeming to bend around it just a little. Before he had a chance to hit her, however, she brought one of her splayed legs forward and kicked him in the knee with all her might.

Again, his weird forcefield flickered for a moment as she struck it; but it was slower now, the traceries of light more jagged. Again, she felt it give a little beneath her leg, and, with the most satisfying crunch she’d ever heard, she felt his knee give way against her, his leg bending unnaturally inwards. He hit the ground hard, yelping for all the world as if he’d been dealt a mortal blow. Tasha grimaced. Pussy.

Tasha didn’t waste a moment. One of her arms was loose of the socket, and she was pretty sure she’d broken a few bones in the fist she could still use. She didn’t care. She’d discovered this asshole’s weakness: Punching. Time to use it.

With a pained grunt, she pushed herself up into a crouch, before shifting herself forwards on top of him, half sitting on his waist to cut short his useless attempts to crawl away. He stared up at her and, for the first time, she could see fear in his eyes. Good. She raised her broken fist and struck him with it, ignoring the pain and watching him flinch as his barrier barely managed to absorb the blow, the flickering no longer fading away a few moments later, covering his skin with a layer of constant, crackling light. Damn it. She’d gone soft; reduced the strength of the blow in fear of the pain in her hand. That wouldn’t do. She needed to hit harder. She pulled her hand back again, when the birds struck again. They did it en masse this time, a bunch of them hitting her all at once, all flapping, scratching and pecking at her head. She felt a set of talons rake painfully across her right eye, and slammed her eyes shut just in time to feel another collide with the lid of her left. Instinctively, she brought her forearm up to shield her face, batting blindly at the things in some effort to get them clear.

She felt him land a strike against her stomach, weaker than the others, but enough to make her retch, all the same. No good. He was making her play defence. She needed to keep attacking. She let out a furious cry at the man below her, squeezing her legs tight around his waist and again, feeling the barrier give a little further under the pressure, before lowering her head, crunching her stomach, and forcing herself down in a blind headbutt. She felt something crunch against her forehead, and the man let out another yelp. Good. She reared back, braced herself, and did it again.

She felt his body vanish from underneath her once more as her forehead slammed into the soft earth, and, for a moment, was confused. Had he done the teleport thing again? God, being blind sucked. She pushed herself to her feet, ignoring the continual assaults of the birds as best she could, and peaked her left eye open just a crack.

It was next to useless. Even beyond the constant blur of feathers and beaks around her, she could barely see like this. She turned this way and that, heard a faint pop, and pivoted towards it. For a single moment, she thought she could see something bright blue crackling through her eyelids, before her whole world was engulfed by a wall of light and heat.

It only lasted a moment, a bright flash of orange flame all around her, burning through her eyelids. For the first second, she thought she was dead. Then, oddly, the smell of charring meat hit her nose, and the heat around her began to fade. Cautiously, she opened her good eye.

The man was still there in front of her, standing crooked on his one good leg, another glove of that weird lightning attack gathered around his arm. He wasn’t looking at her, though; he was staring at something far to the side of her, eyes wide with terror.

Tasha turned, noticing as she did so that the meat smell was rising from the dozen or so flame-scarred bird carcasses littering the ground around her, and caught sight of what seemed for all the world to be a person made of living fire.

It stood some thirty feet away, under the cover of the tree line and was advancing towards them at a slow trot, burning orange from head to toe. Still with that panicked look in his eye, the man raised his arm, sending his lightning bolt streaking towards the flame wreathed figure with a choked sounding cry.

It was less than useless. The bolt struck the figure dead in the chest, sparked briefly around its shoulders, then faded, leaving the thing apparently unscathed. The figure all but ignored him.

“Excuse me, miss,” a male voice called, the flame-person raising a hand towards her in a polite wave. “Is this fellow giving you trouble? I can take him off your hands for now, if you like.” As he spoke, his waving hand shifted to the side, extending outwards and giving a little flick of its wrist. Immediately, the flames surrounding the limb extended, forming a long, thick cord of solid fire, one end held in his hand like a whip.

“Who the fuck are you!?” She replied, for want of a better turn of phrase, before turning back towards her foe and stomping towards him.

“That’s nothing to concern yourself with, miss,” the fire guy replied calmly. “If you don’t mind, please just stand back and let me take care of this.” Without another word, the flame man turned his attention back towards their apparently mutual foe, giving his whip a demonstrative flick that sent the cord slashing over the damp earth, leaving it scorched. He extended his other hand towards her, and she let out a furious shout as she felt some invisible force pushing her back out of the way, releasing her when she was some fifty feet back from either of them.

James’ erstwhile attacker tried to take a step back from the man, and staggered, his bad leg failing to take his weight and leaving him to fall awkwardly against the grass. He didn’t seem to notice, his eyes fixed on the flaming man as he began once more gathering lightning around himself; not just one arm, this time, but both.

The flame man raised his whip, the other still forcing more and more lightning into his arms by the moment, before the flaming cord lashed forwards, and yet again, the man disappeared.

“Damn,” the fire guy muttered, turning slowly from side to side to scan the field. “Teleporter. That’s irritating.”

Tasha, on the other hand, did not hesitate. She’d already been sprinting forwards the moment the fire guy had released her, and now, she changed directions slightly, bending down and grabbing hold of a shoe mid stride before tearing it off of her foot with her one debatably good hand. She spotted the ripples in the air at the same time flame guy did, and he raised his free hand towards it casually, ready to strike. He never got the chance.

Her enemy returned to the world with the same loud pop she’d heard twice before, landing precariously on his good leg, and had about a tenth of a second to be surprised to see the flame guy waiting for him. Then her flung shoe struck him in the side of the head and sent him sprawling, his shield giving only the barest of resistance to the blow, his lightning discharging uselessly into the ground as he fumbled to catch himself. The flame guy turned to look at her, presumably surprised, and watched as she threw herself down on top of the fallen man, sat astride him, and punched him in the shoulder hard enough to feel something crunch beneath her throbbing knuckles.

“I don’t need your help, asshole!” She yelled over the fallen man’s screams. “Now just stand there and let me finish this!” With that, she pressed the flat of her palm against the man’s remaining shoulder, ignoring his feeble attempts at resistance, and pushed until she felt it pop. Then, she let herself roll off of him, and lay against the ground, exhausted. She closed her good eye, and was faintly aware of the firelight dying out against her eyelids, before a hand took hold of her shoulder, another positioned against her back, and unceremoniously shoved her dislocated arm back into place with an agonising crack.

She let out a loud, angry scream at that, opening her eye and catching sight of an elderly man crouched above her. Reflexively, she launched her damaged fist towards his face, then immediately regretted it as the blow collided with another of those damn shields. This one didn’t even flicker.

“That was quite impressively done, miss,” the man murmured, his lips curling in an amused smile. “My name’s Hideyoshi. May I ask for yours?”

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Escapism: 3.12

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James:

James glanced at his blank phone screen for the fourth time in as many minutes, before once more trying to return his eyes to the television. His grandmother’s arrival had, as always, brought with it a new box of japanese media for him to consume, and he was trying as hard as he could to enjoy it. No matter how hard he tried, however, he couldn’t shake that last nagging bit of doubt out of his head.

It was irritating, really. The birds were no longer really much of a worry for him; he was pretty sure he’d been overreacting earlier, and, for whatever reason, he couldn’t really bring himself to be all that worried about the Family. He’d made his stand to them, and no matter how much he knew he should be scared, the fear just wouldn’t seem to come there. No. What had him on edge now, stupid as it felt, was his phone.

They had said they’d call him, they both had. He’d been expecting word hours ago. Nothing huge, just a quick note from Tasha and Cas to let him know they were okay. The problem was that every second his phone continued refusing to ring set him just a little more on edge.

He gazed out of his bedroom window at the rapidly darkening sky for a long moment, then let out an aggravated sigh.

“Screw it,” he muttered. “I’ll go look myself.”

With that, he pushed himself up off of his bed and stepped over to his closet, reaching up behind the oddly assorted mess of books, old action figures, and the basketball he’d punctured some two years previously until his hands found what he was looking for, a small camping bag. He tugged it down, then searched among his clothes for something big enough to fit the other two. There wasn’t much, really; most of his clothes were, well, him sized, and the others were both bigger than he was. After a while, he settled for the loosest sweater he could find, and stuffed it into the bag. Tasha could probably stretch it to fit if she had to. From there, he left his room and made his way across the landing towards the linen closet to grab a couple of towels he was pretty sure his mom wouldn’t miss. Finally, he went downstairs towards the kitchen, moving quietly so as to avoid drawing the attention of Granny and Bex in the nearby playroom. He snagged some apples from the fruit bowl, some bread from the counter, and a couple fistfulls of salami from the fridge, dumping it all in a lunch bag before returning to his room.

That done, he stuffed all of his assorted objects into the satchel, along with a torch from his dresser as a last second idea, and changed into his flying clothes, augmenting them this time with a scarf wrapped around his face.

He couldn’t really do anything for Casper for now; not without knowing where he even was, for a start; but he could at least make sure Tasha was doing okay.

He pulled open his window, slung the bag over his back, and for the third night in a row, vaulted himself out into the open air.

He made his way to the park at speed, keeping high in the air to better avoid watching eyes. At his full speed, it took him minutes at most to make it there. He began to descend, noting, as he did so, the odd spots of light scattered about among the trees. Torches? Maybe someone was doing a game night in the park? Whatever it was, best to stay unseen.

He found the clearing he’d deposited Tasha on the night before, and allowed himself to float down, hovering some ten feet or so above the ground. He looked around, hoping to catch some sight of the girl laying sprawled out somewhere along the grass. Nothing to be seen.

He swore quietly to himself, and once more dipped a hand into his pocket for his phone, checking the screen. Still nothing.


Male:

The male watched from the branches of his tree as the figures moved below him, the devices in their hands throwing two thin beams of illumination out across the half-forest floor, sweeping from side to side lazily as they searched the ground for his trail. He had to restrain himself as they passed beneath him, perfectly positioned for him to pounce upon. He wanted so much to strike something, to work his frustration and rage out upon some hapless human hunters. But no. He couldn’t spare the energy. He had work to do.

It had been some time since he’d heard the echo of his partner’s death ringing out through the swarm, long enough for the sun to dip below the horizon, plunging this human world into darkness. It had been a blow, for certain. She had been his companion for years; decades, even, and had saved his life on many a hunt, but he had a job to do, and there would be time to grieve later. He had focused simply on regaining his energy, finding a den in amongst what little woodland life the humans allowed to remain near their homes and hiding among the trees.

It was only when he had attempted to leave the half-forest that he had realized they were tracking him. Perhaps he hadn’t abandoned the scene of his battle against the hobgoblin fast enough. It could be that he had been spotted, or maybe they were using some other means to trace him. What mattered was that he was trapped. The half-forest had been closed off, its exits placed under guard, and the humans had begun to search for him within. Frustrating, but not insurmountable.

He needed to get to the centre of this place; to the burrow where the captive humans were placed, awaiting transit home. He reached out with one of his lesser used spells, gathered what little of his partner’s swarm he could with his limited mastery, and brought them closer, watching the searching duo cast their lights fruitlessly in the dark as they trod away below him.

It took a moment to connect the swarm’s mind to his own. They were flighty, unused to being outside without a master to hold them in sway. They resisted. It took time, but soon enough, he had a bare dozen of the creatures wrangled. He sent them skywards, flying low above the treetops all around him. With their senses, he could see the humans approaching with more than enough time to spare. He nodded to himself, the plan cementing in his mind. He would skirt between the hunters, retrieve his buried catch, and take them home.

He felt the regret dig deep into his heart at that. To come home like this would be irredeemable. No partner at his side, and only eight weak humans to show for the loss. He would never outlive the shame. He shook himself. Even worse to never come home at all.

He crouched, dropped down from his perch towards the earthen ground, and began to move, slipping between the search parties with an almost consummate ease. He made it nearly halfway to the burrow before he felt it.

The scent passed through his swarm without incident, merely cataloged and sent along towards their master, but it was enough to stop him dead. It was faint, fast moving, and utterly overwhelming. He looked through the eyes of his beasts to gaze upon the newcomer himself, flying the creature in close for a better smell. There it was again. Power. He could hardly believe it. Raw and untrained, but vast; a deep reservoir of strength that was greater by far than any human had a right to be. It came to a stop in the air some distance away, floating above the earth, far from the searching eyes of the trackers.

Perhaps he should have devoted more of his mind to how a human could possibly hold might so far in excess of the norm for their kind, or to what reason such a creature could have for being here. It was in hubris, however, that he did not. His mind was too focused on the potential that presence offered. If he could carry home a catch of that level, he knew, all could be forgiven. The failure of his mission would be the smallest of trifles when compared to such a boon. In that scent, the male saw a chance at redemption. He felt his tired, angry frustration give way for a moment to a simple kind of hope. This was his only chance, and he would take it.


James:

He knew, honestly, that it had been stupid to expect Tasha to be in the same place a whole day after he’d dropped her here. He’d known that before he came out here, but it still kinda stung to not see her hanging around. Did they have to leave him in the dark like this?

He sighed, and half heartedly shrugged the camping pack off of his back, dropping it down onto the ground below with a thud. Tasha’d probably find it at some point if she was hanging around, and if not, then no huge loss. At least he’d done something.

He took a deep breath as he slowly began to rise back into the air, closing his eyes for a moment and allowing himself to enjoy the feeling of the wind brushing against his face. At least the flight out had helped relax him some. Maybe he’d take his time on the journey home; try and cool off.

The first bolt struck him between the shoulder blades with what felt like all the force of a freight train, bending him double, his neck jerking sharply as his shoulders were forced forwards. For all that it should have hurt, his body didn’t really seem to register it, too busy dealing with the tingling shock of electricity coursing through every inch of his body, contracting muscles and skin against themselves. He felt the air pushed from his lungs, forcing his mouth open in a silent, breathless cry. The world swam, the edges of his vision crawling with something akin to static. It took nearly a second for him to realize that he was falling, and another one for him to catch himself, his fingertips twitching as his body began to acclimate to the shock. He turned in midair, searching desperately for whatever had struck him. He momentarily lost hold of his flight, and by that alone avoided being hit by the second blast, which parted the sky where he had been floating just a moment before.

His still crackling eyes followed the lightning to its source and found what looked to be a bedraggled man standing on the ground below. Some half stunned part of his brain told him he needed to run and, dimly, he tried to obey, pushing himself back with his power, trying to get away. He saw the ground shift slightly beneath him as his body began to move, when the first of the birds attacked.

He had thought, in his numbed state, that his nerves didn’t have the coherence yet for pain. It came as something of a surprise, then, when the creatures talons slammed against his leg, digging a deep gash into the skin of his thigh. He let out a quiet choking sound, his muscles utterly unresponsive, and saw the thing circle around for another strike, joined by another, and another, and another. On the ground below, he could see the man readying another bolt, and realized belatedly that something had to be done. His body felt loose, all of his limbs lining up wrong with the scale he held for them in his head. In the bleary panic in which he found himself, he attempted to raise a hand to swat the distant figure away. A stupid idea, and no less so for the fact that it worked. James’ slowly rebooting mind felt a glimmer of surprise as the bedraggled man staggered, his whole body buffeted by some unseen force. His hand hadn’t even moved.

There was still the squadron of birds to deal with, though, and again, James tried his best to move a limb in response, lifting a forearm to shield his face. Again, his body didn’t move. Instead, the creatures soared in for another strike, only to veer off at the last moment, thrown aside by a violent gust of wind.

In the seconds that followed, the haze around his mind began to clear, the pain bringing the world into focus once more within his mind. The stranger below had abandoned lightning now, and had a hand extended towards him. He felt something begin to tug around his waist, pulling him down. His body began to sink slowly towards the figure. Without needing to think, he pulled back reflexively against it, and felt his descent begin to slow. The force pulling at him redoubled. He tried to scream, and again, found that his body wouldn’t move. Instead, from somewhere high above him, there came a sound like the crashing of stormwinds through a flute; half gale, half speech, like being shouted at by a hurricane. It was loud enough to make the air around him quake. He tried once more to fly away, pushing what felt like every inch of himself into his power as he wrestled against the stranger’s unerring grasp.

The man yelled something that James didn’t understand, his face contorting with effort and frustration as he raised his other hand, sparks of cobalt light coalescing once more within his palm.

James tried to bring his hands up in some futile move to block the oncoming strike, and again, his arms refused.

The lightning built up more and more within the attacker’s grasp, the electric glow building to a sharp, blinding white, before a teenaged form collided with his midsection, wrapped its arms around him, and literally threw him at the nearest tree. The man let out a growl of rage as his body struck the solid surface, the lightning gathered around his arm dispersing through the air surrounding him in a thousand short, spasmodic arcs.

The newcomer turned towards James for a moment, meeting his gaze with her own.

“Fucking run!” Tasha bellowed hoarsely at him before turning back to her opponent. Numbly, unsure of what in god’s name was happening, James obeyed, turning his limp form away from the fight and shooting off into the night.

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Escapism: 3.6

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Swarm:

The hunting birds were brought forth in a dark, cramped space. They couldn’t see the sky, and that made them panic. There was noise in the cave. The shouting of apes and flashes of bright, loud power. It drove them to a frenzy. They needed to be out, to be free. This cave was filled with power and noise; why had the masters brought them here? The apes smelled of power. Developed power, far too much of it for them to hunt. The prey had to be weaker. They had to get out.

They were undriven, uncontrolled; their mistress far too focused on other matters to give them a command. They swarmed, flapped and faught, cawing and crying and biting, desperate to make their way out into the light. Some were caught, shoved back by the stronger of the apes, broken against walls and winds, unable to fly. Most, however, managed to find their way out of that cramped, loud space. Some fled into the tunnels, better total darkness than the chaos of the apes. Others made it up the slope towards where the light was more natural, where they could see the sky.

The apes tried to stop them, fought in vain to corral them back with spells and nets. It did not work. They were too many. They flooded through into the light from every cave mouth, traversing the darkness of the tunnels until they found places of less incessant energies. By the end of the first hour, the swarm had taken flight above the city. From there, they began to hunt.

One hunter spied a female ape, traversing the strange, straight lined paths of this place undefended. It flew lower, and smelled her power. Untrained, unrefined. But there was potential there. It dove, silent, between the vast, geometric mountains, and raked its claws along her arm. The female shrieked, dropped a bag to the ground. But the hunter was already gone, the winds carrying it rapidly back into the skies. It opened its beak, tasted the blood now dripping from its talons, and felt confirmation. This one would do. It sent a message to the mistress, marked the female’s scent.

The hunter’s nearby fellows within the swarm received their orders from the mistress and, as one, they dove, aiding in the next task. The female wasn’t alone; surrounded by lesser apes, their scent nowhere near as potent. A minor concern. The swarm descended upon the humans in one quick, chaotic flurry, driving those around the female screaming and running, while chasing the target herself down into a dark space between two of the great stone towers. They drove her back into the shadows, where the mistress’ companion waited. The ape hit the ground before she knew what was happening. The swarm took to the air once more as the mistress’ companion carried his catch back to the nest, the mistress already guiding them, searching out their next prey.

The hunter found its next prey in a more comprehensible place. A forest, similar to those of its home, buried in the heart of this odd stone landscape. With its keen eyes, it saw the prey from afar, laying sprawled upon the grass, its skin covered in a patchwork of dark, barely healed wounds. This ape was different. Her smell more potent, yet still unrefined. The hunter moved in closer. The target seemed to be sleeping, eyes closed, breathing steady. Easy prey.

It dove, raking its claws once more along unprotected skin, drawing a shriek from the girl as she jerked from her rest. Too late to matter. The hunter licked at its talons… Nothing? Had it failed to pierce the ape’s hide? Strange. It turned in the air, swooped in low, and brought its claws to bear again, ready to slice along the ape’s flesh, harder, this time. It drew in close, ready to strike, and felt an impact ringing through its skull as the ape brought a palm up to strike it with surprising speed and force, knocking it out of the air and sending it crashing down into the damp soil. The hunter slowly pulled itself up, dizzy, staring back towards the ape as it growled its rage for all the world to hear.

Perhaps not this one.


Tasha:

“What. The fuck!?” The girl shouted after the fleeing bird as it awkwardly flapped away, the feathers down one side of its body left bedraggled by the blow. “I’ve had a shitty enough day already, so you can just LEAVE ME ALONE!”

Tasha stood straight and glanced around herself, massaging the skin of her palm with her other hand. She saw one or two passersby staring at her, eyes wide, and gave the closest of them the finger before stalking off to find herself some food.


James:

He’d seen the first of them at recess, staring at him from atop the school roof while he ate his granola bar. It looked like a hawk, he thought, but that could easily have been wrong. It wasn’t as if he knew very much about birds anyways. It was certainly eyeing him like a hawk, though. At first, he hadn’t really paid it much attention, assuming it was just interested in his food before shifting his focus back to discussing the viability of firework stockpiling with Charlie. He was quietly enjoying having a chance to hang out with some of his other friends. He’d been spending most of his time hanging around with Casper, lately. It was nice getting back to his more normal friends for a while; he felt a little guilty thinking that, to be honest.

The bird only returned to his thoughts when he went to put the wrapper for his snack in the bin, and caught sight of it once more, still staring at him. It hadn’t budged from it’s spot at all in the last few minutes, and kept its gaze on him as he returned to the outdoor table around which most of his friends were clustered. Something about it felt… odd. He tried to push it from his mind, returning his attention to the discussion at hand.

When the bell rang, signalling time to return to class, he caught sight of it again as he rose from his seat, still perched there, unblinking.

Experimentally, he threw a little wind at it, trying to send it elsewhere. The bird stumbled slightly in the sudden brief gale, but recovered, unmoving. Again, he tried to ignore it, heading back inside. When he reached the school doors, he chanced a glance back at it.

There were five now. As he watched, another one fluttered down from the sky and took up a perch on the table he’d been seated at. All of them were gazing at him, utterly still. He swallowed and stepped inside, sliding in among the crowd of students heading to their next classes.

He managed to keep the creatures from his mind for almost an hour, when, halfway through math, their teacher, Mr. Brown, had stopped talking for a moment; his attention caught by something outside the window. One at a time, the rest of the class turned to look, James among them.

There were over a hundred now, gathered on the tables, bins, and plastic rain roofs of the outside area, each gazing in at him. He felt something cold in his gut, and glanced around the class. No one seemed to have noticed where they were all looking, and none of his classmates was looking at him, either. He tried leaning slightly to the side in his chair, and watched as the birds’ heads moved to track him. This was just getting creepy.

He hid out in the library during lunch, finding himself a spot far away from any windows, and trying to make it look like he was busy reading. In truth, though, his mind was racing.

Who was doing this? Was it the family? Had they somehow caught sight of him after what happened last night? Was someone tracking him now? He tried to convince himself otherwise: told himself that he’d been careful, that he’d stayed off the ground; that he was just being paranoid. It didn’t work.

After lunch, it had gotten bad enough that their teachers made an announcement. Supposedly there was no cause for alarm. Apparently, birds were acting weird all over the place, some of them even attacking a few people in the street. That news did little to calm his fears. Why were they all still staring at him?


Tsuru:

She waited at the reception desk until the bell rang, eyeing the birds massing outside sourly. She wasn’t sure how to feel about them being here in these numbers. To have drawn down such a sizable flock, then her grandchildren must be powerful, which made her proud. At the same time, though, if they were drawing this much attention without even being spellcasters yet, then that would make it near impossible to keep them hidden from the elves. That limited her options.

The bell rang before long, and the students began to file out of their classrooms en-masse, each heading for the parking lots at the front and back of the school buildings. She stood, stretched, and waited for her grandson to descend the stairs, edging herself into a corner so as to avoid catching the boy’s eye. He wasn’t long in coming, and stood at the base of the staircase, staring out at the swarm outside, apparently psyching himself up. She took her chance, and stepped forward silently. He leapt a half foot into the air as she slapped her hand to his shoulder; she chuckled.

“Heya, squirt,” she murmured in Japanese. “You got taller.”

“… Granny?” the boy asked, dipping into the same language without apparent thought. Tsuru grinned. She liked it when he practiced speaking it with her, usually taking the opportunity to correct some of the few remaining flaws in his diction. “What’re you doing here?” He turned towards her, his expression just a bit too tense.

“Your father found some work for the firm to take on,” she replied, waving a hand dismissively. “Really, though, I just wanted an excuse to come down and hang out with you little brats for a while.” As she spoke, she pulled the boy into a hug, which he returned, somewhat half-heartedly, to her mind. “Now, come on,” she continued. “Car’s waiting. Let’s go.” With that, she grabbed his hand, stepped towards the school door, and pulled him outside. He squeaked slightly as they hit the open air, and she felt his fingers clench a little tighter around hers for a moment. She felt a momentary flash of approval at that. If the boy feared the birds, then he had good instincts. He needn’t have worried, though. The birds seemed content just to watch them, for now. Waiting.

Tsuru ignored them, holding her head high as she pulled her grandson towards the waiting car. After the first few seconds, she felt his grip relax a tad, and nodded. They made it to the car, and climbed inside, James joining his sister in the back, Tsuru climbing into the front seat alongside Sarah.

She gave her daughter in law a small nod as she strapped herself in, and received the same in turn. She held back a sigh. Sarah was a nice enough girl, she supposed, but it would have been infinitely preferable, to her mind, if Akira had chosen someone with some actual power to continue the family line. Hell, if Sarah had possessed a little power, then she wouldn’t have to be down here running protection detail. She pushed the thought from her mind. That wasn’t the point right now. Right now, she just had to keep the kids safe.

“Hi, Baba!” Rebecca shouted merrily, leaning forwards in her seat to give her grandmother a hug.

“Hello, little one.” Tsuru chuckled, wrapping her arms around the excitable child’s shoulders. “Wow, you got big!”

That was enough to set the girl to jabbering as Sarah started up the car, allowing Tsuru to keep an eye on the birds through the window as they traveled.

It wasn’t long before the gathered flock took off, following after the car and circling overhead. Well, that settled it. They were definitely following the kids. Either that, or they were interested in her. But she doubted that. It would have been very stupid for the hunters to design their hawks to pursue someone of her level.

She wasn’t the only one watching them, she noticed. Every minute or so, James would sneak a glance out of the window into the sky, his expression growing a little more nervous with each look. Had they gotten to him that much? Surprising. She grunted, filing the observation away for later.

“Problem?” Sarah asked from the driver’s seat, her voice tense. Tsuru couldn’t blame the girl for nerves. It must be hard being in a situation like this when you didn’t have any real training to draw from. To be honest, she felt it was almost cruel of Akira to have told the girl. Why put that stress on her?

“No,” she replied evenly. “Nothing major. Just watching the birds.”

Sarah nodded, her eyes on the road, and gripped the steering wheel a little tighter in her hands.

Tsuru sighed. At least Bex wasn’t on edge. Blessed girl.

They got to the house in short order, and Tsuru saw the other three inside before the swarm once again began to gather. There were more of them now, clustering on rooftops and driveways and whatever pathetic excuse Manhattan allowed for gardens. She glared at them. A strategy needed to be picked, and fast. She hated standing idle. Preferably something that would put her grandson’s mind at ease. She thought for a long while, staring at the birds while Sarah watched anxiously from the doorway. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw James through the living room window, gazing out at the birds as well, concern written clear on his face.

“… Can I borrow some bread?” she asked after a time, not turning her gaze from the birds. “I have an idea I want to try.”

Sarah didn’t respond, simply stepping back towards the kitchen, and returning a few moments later with a plastic wrapped loaf of bread, still cold from the fridge. Tsuru took it from the girl and nodded.

“Thank you. I won’t be a minute.” With that, she stepped towards one of the chairs sat on the tiny patch of grass that passed for her son’s front garden and sat down. James watched her, his expression anxious. “Might want to close the door.” Wordlessly, Sarah complied.

Now. How to do this without showing her hand to the boy? She thought for a moment, then reached into the bag, her fingers wrapping around the first thin slice of bread. Under her breath, she started whispering the words to one of her older spells, an old favorite she rarely had the occasion to use anymore.

In a few seconds, the magic took its hold, and she felt her mind expand, filling out a bubble around herself, no longer confined to the boundaries of her body. Calmly, she began crumbling the bread into small chunks between her fingers. The bubble swelled, expanding to fill the garden, then the house, then the street. She felt something press against her mind as the field expanded. Not people; the spell didn’t work on people. She pushed it further, the first of the birds becoming caught, unaware, as of yet. She needed a display of force. A warning. Something to convince the hunters to stay well away.

Easy enough.

She grew her bubble out further, feeling it make contact with what felt like hundreds, maybe even thousands of other minds. Each one tiny, diminutive compared to her. That should be enough. The bubble stopped growing. She took a moment to separate the ones she wanted to ignore from the rest. Household pets, local wildlife, the few small traces of amphibious life dwelling in the pipes far below. It was the birds she wanted.

She could feel something behind those minds: an energy, a will far more powerful and complex than a mere swarm of hunting birds. She looked closer, and felt the mind on the other end take notice, its focus homing in on her in an instant. She chuckled. Good. She had their attention.

She looked one of the birds in the eye, and smiled, pulling a piece of bread from the bag, and holding it in her hand.

The force behind the swarm made no move, confused. Then, the old witch made her power move. She pressed her spell against the first of the hawks, and felt resistance, the other mind offering a surprised counter to her attempt to take control. Tsuru kept smiling, pressing her spell further into the creature’s mind, slowly forcing her adversary back. She could feel the elf grow angry behind the mob; felt her command the other birds to strike. Nothing happened. The novice hadn’t even noticed when she took control.

She smiled a little wider and slowly, almost casually, forced the first of the hawks to flutter down from its roost and pluck the bread from her hand, before allowing it to fly away. She felt the other mage wrestling in her mind, furious, trying desperately to pry control of the swarm back from her. It was almost cute. She didn’t budge. Her grip was iron. She allowed the elf just enough control to be able to watch as she brought each of the birds down, small group by small group, and fed them all a single shred of bread.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw James begin to relax, happy to see the birds acting a touch more like he expected them to, before turning back towards the inside of the house.

‘Good,’ she thought. ‘Task number one: completed.’

She kept going for a good half hour, enjoying the feeling of the beastmaster growing angrier and angrier at her usurpation of the swarm. When she was down to the final one, she leaned in and patted it on the head, her final demonstration of supremacy.

Then, she released them back to their mistress and watched as, one by one, they flew away, defeated.

That done, she stood up, stretched, and dusted the breadcrumbs off of her knees, before going inside to spend some time with her grandkids.

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