Aid: 5.7

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James:

The silence that followed Caleb’s proclamation was a long one, Interrupted only by the bopping of Tuva’s music in her headphones. For the first few moments, no one moved. James’ grandparents still gazing across at the older boy, their expressions slightly stern. Tasha still looked angry. Eventually, Caleb lowered his eyes to the table, his cheeks a little red.

“Wow,” he muttered. “That sounds so dumb out loud.”

Across the table, Hideyoshi leaned back a little in his chair, his fingers tenting against his chin. James went back to fiddling with his potatoes. He wasn’t really hungry.

“War with whom?” asked Tsuru, calm as ever.

“The elves, I think,” Caleb replied. “Growing up at the training place, you’d catch like, these little bits of conversation when the masters didn’t think we were close enough to hear.” He chuckled. “I never heard much, but it always sounded like they wanted elves to die.”

At that, Hideyoshi snorted.

“Of course that’s what they want,” he rumbled. “Some damn fool war that won’t do any good for anyone. When do people ever want anything else?”

“Wait,” James asked. “Aren’t elves, like, those people who tried to kidnap me? Why’s fighting them a bad idea?”

Beside him, Tasha shrugged.

“Maybe that’s only some of them.”

“I’m afraid that’s most of them, really,” Tsuru sighed. “Their society runs off of those kidnappings.”

“Uhm, what?” James asked, cocking an eyebrow at his grandmother. He wasn’t the only one looking at her strangely. Caleb and Tasha followed suit. “How can they need-”

“It’s a long story,” she cut him off. “And one we try to keep quiet.” She hesitated for a moment there, before sighing and continuing. “Well, you’ll need to know at some point; you’re already involved, after all. It’s pretty well known that the elves kidnap people, but what isn’t so well known is why.” At that, she picked her water glass off the table and drained it. Then, she leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes, and spoke.

“In the simplest terms, they think of us as livestock.” She paused, one eye drifting open to see if anyone was going to interject. No one did, so she continued. “You three already know that some of the stronger spells out there need rituals, and rituals need ingredients. Well, for the more powerful rituals out there, those ingredients are people.”

For a while after that, no one really spoke. Tsuru once again went quiet, giving the three of them a moment to absorb the implications.

“… What kind of spells?” James asked. “What were they gonna do to me?”

His grandmother opened her mouth to reply, then closed it again, thoughtful. Whatever her compunction, Hideyoshi didn’t share it.

“A kid as powerful as you?” his grandfather rumbled. “They’d probably save you for the big one. Use your soul to punch a hole into whatever place magic comes from and flood their world with energy. Would have kept their planet saturated for a couple of years, at least; made every one of them stronger.” Tsuru shot him a glare, and he scowled. “We can’t sugarcoat this. Not if we want him to be informed.”

“… Oh,” James mumbled. What else was there for him to say? From the seat beside him, he felt Tasha’s fist bump gently against his shoulder. He gave her a smile. Today was a weird day.

“They used to sacrifice other elves, of course,” Hideyoshi continued, picking up for Tsuru, herself still busy scowling at him. “But then they reached the top, and I guess they started wondering why they had to sacrifice each other when someone else would do. So, they started looking for a replacement. First, they tried it vegan; twisting things with spells; growing mushrooms into vessels just elvish enough to carry a soul worth selling. That didn’t work out so well. It turned out the mushrooms didn’t like having their souls removed, and were willing to fight them over it.” He chuckled. “And that, kids, is where goblins come from.”

“… Mushroom men?” James asked. “Really?”

“Not men,” Hideyoshi clarified. “They’re agender; reproduce by spores. That’s another reason it didn’t work out so well.”

“Uh, why?”

“A lot of sacrifices need specific things,” Tsuru supplied, finally calling off her glare and turning her gaze to her grandson. “Sometimes, they need someone who’s suffered burns. Sometimes, they need to be a certain age. Sometimes, it’s a loss of virginity.” She shrugged. “You can’t have virgins in a species without sex.”

James giggled at that. He wasn’t even really sure why. He just did. It sounded funny.

“So,” Hideyoshi continued. “The elves went looking for something new. A better race of cattle. Eventually, on a world far away from their home reality, on a planet with far less magic, they found a race of cavemen.” He sighed. “We were perfect. Weak enough that we couldn’t defend ourselves. Basic enough that they could pretend we were simple monkeys. Just one problem, really. Our souls weren’t big enough to be worth a damn. So they added some Elf to the mix.”

“Wait,” James asked. “Are you saying-”

“They fucked us, James,” the older man grunted. “Just to make something a little bit more valuable. Be glad they did it, too. We wouldn’t have any mages if they hadn’t.”

“… Eww.”

“Then, they gave us the facial marks,” Hideyoshi continued. “Easiest way to tell if someone fits the conditions for a ritual. They put a spell on the planet to cattle brand anyone who’s born here.” He gestured absently at his face as he spoke, moving his fingers from point to point. “Extreme pain, virginity, joy, murder, surviving a deathly illness. The list goes on, and they all go right on your face, for all the world to see.”

It took James a second or two to process that. The words just kind of bounced around inside his head. He felt gross. Really, really gross. His grandfather was still talking, but the words weren’t even registering inside his brain.

“Are-” he tried, his voice cracking slightly. Hideyoshi stopped speaking, turning to look at him. “Are you telling me I’ve… I’ve got those-” He struggled for words, then gave up. “Those things on my face… Just cuz some mage somewhere wanted a barcode?”

There was silence around the table at that. Hideyoshi gazed first at James, then at Tsuru, before regretfully turning back to James. He let out a long sigh, and nodded.

“Can anyone tell me why we’re not fighting these guys, already?” Tasha asked. “They sound like assholes.”

“Because they’re strong,” answered Tsuru. “They live on a group of worlds practically drowning in ambient magic, and their mages are stronger by far than almost anything we have to offer. The only advantages we have are better technology, and superior numbers, neither of which is of much use when we have barely any mages who can make a dimensional hole wide enough to travel through.”

Across from her, Hideyoshi nodded.

“Fighting the elves is a losing proposition,” he agreed. “Even if we found a way to win, the war itself would last decades, and we’d lose far more people than the kidnappings cost us.”

“Pretty sure that’s not how my bosses see it,” Caleb muttered.

Tsuru chuckled.

“Well, good for them. They’re wrong.”

Caleb shrugged.

“Maybe,” he admitted, his voice even. “Honestly, I don’t care if they’re right or not. I just wanna get me and my partner free. They can burn in hell for all I care.”

James gazed down at his plate, barely listening. He didn’t care. It was all too big; wars and plots and politics. His head felt muddled enough as it was. Every few moments, his thoughts kept pulling him back to his marks, and the image of his mother trying not to cry the first time she’d helped to hide them.

He was vaguely aware of the conversation moving on; his grandparents discussing something about an egyptian and some portals, with occasional comment from the others. He ignored them. He was too busy feeling sick.

It was a few minutes before a splash of water on his face pulled his attention back into the present. He turned his gaze towards the culprit, already glowering.

“Oi,” Hideyoshi grunted, dipping his fingers back into his glass in preparation to splash him again. “You awake there, James? It’s important that you know this. Now, it’s best if we do the ritual on Wednesday night, three days from now. That should give our contacts time to set up an escape route these people won’t be able to tra-”

“Sounds good,” James cut him off, pushing himself up from the table. “But I can’t be here right now. I gotta punch something or I’m gonna throw up.”

Neither Hideyoshi nor Tsuru seemed to know how to answer that; both of them simply gazing at him, apparently surprised. Caleb just shrugged.

He was already walking away when Tasha’s voice called after him.

“Second door, down the hall. Grab some gloves so you don’t mess up your hands. We can tell you this stuff later.”

“Thanks, Tasha.”

With that, he left the others to their planning, and headed off to vent.


Manhattan Island. Evening.

The organizer didn’t like this city. It was too crowded; all those different motivations and ideas swirling around in their brains. All that possibility. It set her teeth on edge.

It made it even worse that the place was big, of course; more than large enough for the government to hold a presence here. Said government would be even more alert now, in the wake of that catastrophe with the elves. Yet another reason to remain on edge.

She checked her phone, and took a left at the next set of traffic lights. She sighed. Ah, well. If she got this last inspection done with quickly, she could be out of there before the night set in. She’d like that. It was better, sleeping on the road.

This last one had better have more potential than the others, she thought. New York would be a waste of time, otherwise. A whole day spent ticking off the targets on her list, sniffing out which could be a viable acquisition, and almost all of it wasted. Most of these people didn’t have the energy to fuel a fireball, let alone anything of any scale. Of all the dozens of items on her list, she’d thus far only found one who might have the power to back up the traits required.

Hopefully this last one would change that, though. This last one had a pedigree. A parent in the government: One Jacqueline Vance; the portal maker. The organizer could only hope the son would be something like his mother.

She followed her phone’s directions down a side lane, and found her mind turning to the past few weeks.

It had been hectic, of course, trying to scout out every city on their list in the few weeks time they’d had. She couldn’t remember her last good night’s sleep. It would have been easier, of course, if they’d had more hunting birds to work with, but limitations were what they were. Breeding the things hadn’t been as tenable as they’d hoped.

She pulled the car to a stop along a side street, and stepped out to approach her final mark. For the last few inspections, she’d simply claimed to be a pizza girl given the wrong address. She had to be more careful here. Potential or no, this one lived with powerful people. It would be best not to even let them see her.

The scouting reports on this one’s file told her his bedroom was on the second floor, facing away from the street itself. Easy enough. A quick scan of the street showed her a good dozen or so convenient places to climb.

Getting onto the roof was child’s play. One spell to ease the climb, another to make spotting her more difficult. She didn’t even have to jump to make the crossing to the right house. The buildings here were connected; crushed together by the crowded nature of the cityscape. She crossed the roof, peaked down over the edge to find the right window, then eased herself down to look inside.

The boy was studying; one arm resting on the pages of a textbook as he worked his way through an answer sheet. He didn’t even notice as she slid the window open for the few moments it took her hunting bird to take a sniff.

Powerful. Good. Exactly what we need.

She slid the window closed, and took her leave. When she got back to her car, she found the boy’s name in her list, and put a tick beside it. Charles Vance.

She smiled.

Looking forward to working with you, Charlie.

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Aid: 5.6

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Caleb:

“So you’re the slave, eh?” the old woman asked.

She was frowning at him from the doorway, the narrowing of her eyes pulling each wrinkle a little deeper into her face. He returned her gaze with a scowl.

“Yeah. I guess.” He tried to keep the annoyance out of his tone.

James stood between them, a little awkward.

“Uhh,” he muttered. “Baba, this, uh. This is Caleb. Cal-”

He was stopped short when the woman thrust out a hand.

“Tsuru Toranaga,” she said. “James’ grandmother. Heard you could use some help.”

Caleb gazed for a moment at the woman’s outstretched hand, and wondered briefly if he could afford to be rude to her.

He tapped into his familiar’s senses and gave her power level a sniff.

Christ.

He shook her hand.

“Caleb,” he muttered. “Just call me Caleb.”

At that, the woman merely chuckled, before standing aside and waving the pair of them through the door.

James gave her a hug on the way by, the two conversing quietly for a moment in what Caleb took to be Japanese.

He pretended not to notice, setting his eyes instead on the interior of the place.

It was a penthouse, as far as he could tell, the chamber after the elevator leading out into a curved hallway that wrapped around it, splitting off into a corridor on either side, lined with doors. It was all wood panelling everywhere he looked. Expensive. Thick carpets, too. These guys must be loaded.

He tried not to be jealous. He really did.

“Nice place,” he muttered behind himself. Neither of them seemed to hear him. “… Suit yourselves.”

He opted to leave the pair of them behind, and wandered off down the better lit of the two hallways, down which he could hear the faint, familiar sounds of exertion over the occasional thudding impacts of a body against the floor. Someone was training.

After a few dozen feet, the hallway fed into a large, open plan room littered with bookcases and loose furniture, the thick carpet giving way to a hardwood floor. The sounds, he realized quickly enough, were coming from a padded mat in the middle of the room, where a familiar girl seemed to be having the time of her life. He scowled.

It was Tasha; the girl who’d gotten him in this mess to begin with. She was growling, engaged in a losing grapple with a male figure that, to Caleb, appeared to have been carved from solid granite. He made no effort to pretend it wasn’t satisfying when the statue eventually floored her.

There were others about as well, of course; a slightly balding man seated on a couch beside the training mat,his back to Caleb, presumably controlling the statue. At the far end of the room was a pale woman he’d have placed in her early twenties, seated halfway up the steps leading to some second level, her face buried in a book, a set of headphones wrapped around her ears and a shaggy looking golden retriever sprawled against her legs.

It was Tasha who noticed Caleb first, the statue pulled away, and she pushed herself to her feet, panting, only to catch him standing there as she dusted herself off. Immediately, her energized grin gave way to a scowl.

“Hey, teach,” she muttered. “Looks like the asshole’s here.”

Caleb snorted.

“Fuck you too, Tasha.”

From the changes to her face alone, Caleb could tell the girl was furious, but before Tasha had a chance to respond in kind, her teacher cut in.

“So you’re Caleb, huh?” he asked, pushing himself upright and turning around to face him. “Well, I’m Hideyoshi Toranaga, and Tasha tells me you’ve been lying to my grandson.” For the life of him, Caleb couldn’t read the expression on the old man’s face.

Yup, groaned a voice inside his mind. This is gonna go great.

Outwardly, however, he only sighed.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “I guess that’s one way to say it.”

At that, the old man allowed himself a grunt.

“Good,” he rumbled. “If you’d tried to make excuses, I might have had to burn you.”

Caleb shrugged. He almost wished the threat of harm still meant something to him.

“I don’t like to lie about the shitty things I do. I only do it when I have to.”

“Good answer,” Hideyoshi replied. “Because it’s time for you to be honest now. James told me you’re a slave. Who’s your owner, then? Who made you, and why?”

Again, Caleb only shrugged.

“No idea,” he muttered. “They keep us in the dark about that kind of stuff, where they can. Makes it harder to spill information to the feds or whoever else turns up. I know they trained me some place north. It was cold there. The ground had ice in it maybe nine months out of every year. Snowed sometimes. Pretty sure the locals didn’t speak much english.”

“Great,” Hideyoshi growled, annoyed. “That’s real helpful. Only narrows it down to maybe seven countries in Europe alone. And that’s not even counting the entirety of northern Rus-”

“Settle down, Yoshi,” called a familiar voice from the hall behind Caleb’s back; James’ grandma. He glanced behind himself, and saw her heading idly over, hand in hand with James. “There’s still plenty of knowledge we can glean from this. Let’s try not to get excited.”

For a moment, Hideyoshi simply glowered at her. Then, the man reluctantly closed his eyes, and took a breath.

“Yes, dear.”

“Sorry about that,” Tsuru continued evenly, returning her gaze to Caleb. “My husband gets a little short with people who betray our family’s trust.”

Caleb didn’t answer that at first. There didn’t seem to be any response that would help him here.

He glanced around the room, first at James, gazing over at him with an apologetic sort of confusion on his face, then at Tasha, still glaring, her arms folded tight across her chest, then finally at the girl on the stairs, still just listening to her music, one hand absently scratching behind the dog’s ears. He wished he could be that far above it all.

“It’s fine.”

“Hmm,” Tsuru hummed. “Thought it might be. Now then. Tell me about their organizational structure. How are you managed? Who do you answer to?”

“Two man teams,” Caleb replied, watching as Hideyoshi led Tasha reluctantly away to resume their training. She still glared from time to time. “A boy and a girl, usually. Usually, we’re the same age as each other, but I think something happened to my partner’s old one, cuz she’s about eight years older than I am. She handles most of the stuff about dealing with the higher ups. Only handler I know about is the boss. I talk to her on the phone when she gives me targets. She sounds American, but that’s not really worth much,” he dropped the Canadian accent for a moment, switching to his Irish lilt. “They teach us how to change our voices, so I figure the boss might be doing the same.”

It felt strange, confiding this all to strangers; like breaking a kind of taboo. He caught James’ expression shifting when he made the changes to his voice, a touch of surprise lighting upon his face.

Guess you didn’t know me as well as you thought, did you, James?

There was a surprising bitterness to that.

For her part, Tsuru was nodding.

“Very loose structure, then,” she murmured. “Hard to maintain a thing like that with slaves. They must really have something over you, huh?”

“Brands,” he agreed. “Base of the neck. Built to kill us if we step out of line.”

If the proclamation caught the woman by surprise, not a hint of it appeared across her features.

“Show me.”

Caleb gave the woman a shrug and started peeling off his shirt, noting with a touch of amusement how James again averted his gaze, his cheeks red.

They’re just abs, James. Grow a pair.

He dropped covering to the floor, and turned his back to the older woman, putting the brand on display. He caught Tasha gazing over at him, her eyes flicking momentarily to his chest, and shot her a smirk. She glowered back at him, before returning her attention to her task.

A moment later, he felt a touch upon his neck, the old woman murmuring something to herself as she prodded and poked the skin. He didn’t care.

“Hmm,” she grunted. “Energy siphon. Tied in deep, too. It must see a lot of use.”

“Every day,” he muttered. “They like to keep me at about a fifth of my power. Stop me getting any ideas.”

“And the familiar?” she asked, tapping the tattoo that ran across his arm with the side of her thumb. “Seems recent. They know about it?”

“No,” he chuckled. “I stole it. Last hunt they sent me on was to pick up some of those hunting birds after the elves attacked. I kept one. I’m a dead man if they notice it, but it seemed like the best chance I’d get. It’s how I found James.”

At his back, Tsuru simply swore.

“Damn,” she muttered. “I’d hoped we’d killed them all before any third parties got involved. Any idea what they want with them?”

“Just that they wanted a breeding pair.”

Tsuru chuckled.

“Well, good luck trying to make any more of them. Those things aren’t built to survive on Earth long term. Not enough magic in the air.”

Caleb shrugged. At least that explained why his own bird seemed to be growing weaker lately.

“Dunno what to tell you there. All I know is they wanted em and we did it for them.”

Behind him, the old woman simply grunted, then he felt the touch upon his back ease off.

“Well, put your shirt back on. We’ve other things to do.”

The next few hours passed at a glacial pace, to Caleb’s view. Irritable as James’ grandfather may be, his grandmother seemed almost brutally efficient. First came the questions, ranging from his training as a hunter, to the tasks he had performed, to the points of contact he held with the organization at large. The woman showed not even the barest hint of frustration at how little information his experiences had allowed him to glean.

Then came the tests of strength and skill, pitting him first against Tasha, then against Hideyoshi’s golem as they measured each of his powers in turn. He picked up more than a few new bruises there. Neither Tasha nor her teacher seemed to have any wish to be gentle with him.

James observed all this at first, curious; but over time, his attention seemed to wane, and he wandered off to where the stranger sat with the dog, the two of them chatting in voices too low to really make out, the dog shifting over on its side to allow James to rub its belly. When she caught him glancing at them, Tsuru said the girl’s name was Tuva. That was all the explanation he got.

Eventually, Hideyoshi pulled away from the seemingly constant bouts of training and retired to the open kitchen, pulling a pack of steaks from the fridge and rubbing them with herbs, before roasting them with fire directly from his hands alongside some chopped potatoes.

The aroma made Caleb’s mouth water. His masters rarely supplied him rations more complex than an instant pizza. He almost cried when they offered one to him.

It was while the six of them ate, Caleb doing what he could to savor the experience of actual food, that things seemed to finally come to a head.

“So you’re telling me there’s nothing,” Tsuru murmured evenly, watching James pick at his potatoes. “Nothing at all, that might tell us who these people are, or what the hell they want?”

“Well, no,” Caleb muttered. “I have a pretty good idea, I think. It’s just I’m not sure if it’s true or not.”

“Oh?” She turned to look at him, everyone besides Tuva doing the same in turn. “And what’s that?”

“To be honest,” he shrugged. “I think they want to start a war.”

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Interlude: Lee.

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Author’s Note: Hey, guys. So, I’ve recently noticed that I kinda forgot to ever actually link my site to my Patreon… which explains a couple things. So, uh, yeah. You might note a new Patreon link in the banner menu. Yay. On with the chapter.

Lee:

The final hours of Lee Shyver’s life were exceptionally dull.


“Sorry, man. I’m stuck in traffic. Gimme like, ten minutes, okay?”

Lee moved the phone away from his cheek for a moment so Lauren wouldn’t hear him sigh, and glanced at the clock. She was already half an hour late. He took a breath, then returned the phone to his cheek.

“Sure, fine. But try and make this the last time, kay? I’m getting kinda tired of having to cover for you like this.”

The girl got maybe halfway through thanking him, before he hung up, and stepped back out of the office into the main area. Still no customers. He sighed. At least serving someone would have given having to work late some sense of purpose.

Across the way, Evan shot him a grin as he dragged the mop over the grease laden floor.

“You cut her way too much slack, dude. I mean. I get she’s got a cute ass, but still.”

Lee managed to restrain himself to merely frowning at the boy at that.

Not his fault, he reminded himself. He’s seventeen. All seventeen year olds are idiots. Just let it go.

“She’s a good worker,” he murmured, casting a cursory glance around the store for something to do, and settling for checking the till. “Better than you when she gets here on time.”

Evan brushed off the rebuke with nothing more than a snicker.

“Sure, man. That’s why you keep her around,” he replied, his tone dripping sarcasm. “Got nothing to do with that rack. Come on, dude. You know you’d tap that.”

Lee didn’t respond to that with words. Instead, he just caught the younger man’s gaze and held it, his expression calm. He watched, with just a hint of satisfaction, as Evan slowly realized he’d put his foot in it, and the grin slowly faded from his face.

“That… Uh,” Evan muttered, his cheeks going a little red. “… Too far?”

“She’s your fucking co-worker,” Lee murmured, folding his arms. “Show her some respect, or I’ll put you on toilet duty for a month.”

Evan returned his eyes to his task, ashamed.

“… Sorry.”

Lee didn’t answer right away, instead, he just let the kid stew while he counted out the money in the first till.

“One day, Evan,” he murmured, not really bothering to look at him. “You’ll meet a girl, you’ll fall in love, and you’ll realize it feels kinda bad to see people treating her like a set of boobs on legs. Not your fault you haven’t learned that yet, but I’ll let you know for free, the sooner you learn it, the more likely you are to find a girl that sticks around.”

“… What are you, some kinda guru now?”

“Heh,” Lee chuckled. “Nah. Just a guy who’s telling you how he sees the world.” He raised his eyes to Evan then. “Besides, It’s kinda annoying to see you talking shit when I know she likes you.”

Evan had been looking away from him until then, purposely averting his eyes as he continued to mop the floor, not really making it any cleaner. At those words, though, he jerked, turning his gaze to his manager in shock.

“She what!?”

Lee only laughed at that, returning his attention to the till.

“Why’d you think I’ve been putting you two on shifts together all month?” He asked. “Cuz she’s been waiting for you to nut up and ask her out, you doof.”

Evan opened his mouth, then closed it again; a process that repeated more than once. Lee chuckled. Given even the simplest prospect of romance, and the kid was glubbing like a fish. Eventually, Evan managed a single question.

“… What do I do?”

Lee considered it the greatest act of mercy he had ever performed that he didn’t simply cackle at the boy right then. Instead, he settled on a grin.

“Well, first thing I’d advise is maybe don’t keep talking about her rack. She likes YA movies. Maybe ask her to see one with you.” He watched as Evan gave a quiet nod, then decided to test him.

“You’re right, though,” he murmured. “Girl has the best tits.”

Almost immediately, Evan’s expression changed, shifting from absent shock to anger.

“Hey,” he growled. “Don’t be that guy, you dick!”

“See?” Lee asked, trying and failing to hide his smirk. “It’s different when she likes you back.”


Lee vacated the store almost the moment Lauren arrived, stopping only to pat the terrified looking Evan on the shoulder as he passed. Then, because he was an adult, he gave the boy a none too subtle wink from behind her back, just to watch him squirm.

He stepped out to his car, climbed in, and in line with his tradition, pulled off his manager’s badge before chucking it in the back seat with all the contempt he could muster. He picked up a burger on his way home. Double patty, extra chips. The late shift always left him hungry.

The drive was a short one. Half an hour or so, at most. He enjoyed it, for the most part, using it to unwind. Evan was a good kid, but his idiocy got under his skin sometimes. He put on some music on the way home, and did his best to let the rhythm wash it all away. He ate his burger on the road, a couple bites for every set of traffic lights, washed down with over-sweetened coke.

Eventually, he made it home, pulled in at the tiny parking lot beside his apartment block, and climbed out. A shower sounded great right now. A really long one.

His apartment was on the ground floor, and it was dark, the blinds in the tiny main room pulled closed against what little light the moon had to give. As such, he didn’t notice the figure sitting on his couch. He drained the last of his coke, then stuffed the burger wrapper inside the empty cup, and crumpled it into a ball with the chip packet. He tossed them in the bin on his way through to the shower.

The figure on the couch watched him from the shadows in silence; surprisingly calm.

Lee groaned as he upended the shampoo bottle over his head and squeezed, only for nothing but air to come out. Just his luck. He knew he’d forgotten something earlier. He shook his head, and opted to just stand under the spray for a while, letting the warmth soak through his tired muscles. It was a workout day tomorrow. He looked forward to being even more achy afterwards. But hey, it was working. He looked better and better every day. He chuckled. Not that it was any use to him, really.

He stepped out of the shower and brushed his teeth in the nude, letting most of the water simply drain off of him as he stood before the mirror. He considered shaving, then decided he couldn’t be bothered. He found a towel, wrapped it around his middle, and stepped out of the bathroom. Maybe he’d watch a movie or something before be-

“Good of you to take your clothes off first,” murmured a male voice in the dark, bearing just the faintest hint of an accent. “It saves some effort dealing with you later.”

Lee bolted by instinct before the man had even finished speaking, his wet feet padding through the thin carpet as he made for his door, some wordless exclamation of surprise and fear hanging from his lips. The man on the couch made no move to stop him as he pulled the front door wide. There was no need.

There was a woman standing in the hallway; elderly; stern. He tried to push past her, and let out a wordless yelp as something caught against his midsection, hurling him back into the dark in a tangle of limbs and fear. He felt something glass-like break against his back; shards of it digging into his skin as some solid kind of frame hunched his shoulders forward. Of all the things he could think in that moment, he felt a pang of loss for his television.

The woman stepped inside, her expression unchanged, and closed the door behind her. All was dark again.

For a moment, all was quiet but for Lee’s breathing and the thudding of his heart inside his chest. What was that? Who were these people? What the fuck was going on?

“We’re not going to be gentle with you, Lee,” the woman’s voice murmured in the dark. “You don’t deserve it. Not even the barest shred of mercy.”

There was something in that voice that was less than human. Too calm. Too cold. The words shook him to his core.

“… Why?” he asked, his voice small; afraid.

No answer. Instead, from the rough position of the couch, he saw a light begin to flicker pale orange in the darkness, the faint shape of a hand caught in silhouette around it. The hand gave a tiny flick, and the fire was upon him.

In the hours that followed, Lee Shyver forgot his name. All he knew was pain, heat, and the ever present glow of that sunset orange light.

In the moments before they took his ears, the man spoke one final thing:

“You really shouldn’t have touched my grandson.”

In the final minutes of his life, Lee Shyver felt regret.

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Dissonance: 4.11

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Author’s Note: Hey, guys. So, I made a discord, just in case any of you wanted to sorta see what I’m like and have a chat. Might not be anyone’s kind of thing, might be kinda cool. So, yeah. I’ll leave the link here.

Kay. On with the chapter.

James:

“Yeah,” James replied, unsure of what else there really was to say. “Yeah. I guess I’m a mage, now.”

“… Right.”

“… Yup.”

For a long while, neither spoke. Whatever awkward feeling there had been in the air before was growing faster now, building more and more in the silence with every other moment. Then, after more than a minute of that ever deepening quiet, Peter clapped his hands together.

“Well,” he said, injecting into his voice what had to be the most forced note of cheer that James had ever heard. “Good talk. I’ll uh. I’ll get out of your hair.”

“… Kay,” James murmured, not quite managing to hold his father’s gaze. “Love you, Dad.”

James thought he heard a touch of sadness in his father’s tone as the older man replied:

“Love you too, Kiddo.”

At that, Peter pulled the door behind him open and stepped outside, before swinging it closed again. James didn’t look up as the man took his leave. He sighed.

It was like that sometimes, between him and his dad. They talked fine when there was nothing much to talk about, and his dad was just really to the point when there was something serious going on; but at other times, when there was stuff just going along unsaid…

James sighed again, and let himself fall back atop his bed, staring at the ceiling.

“I really wanted to talk to you about this, da-”

There was another noise as the door once again swung open, before slamming closed a little harder than it needed to.

“Okay, no,” Peter began, his tone firm. “No. We need to have a talk, and I’m not leaving here till we have it. James, why didn’t you tell your mother and I that you had powers?”

“I did,” James protested quietly, caught for a moment between surprise and relief. “I only found out about Jiji in the first place cuz I was looking for ways to tell you.”

“Yeah,” Peter replied, stepping forwards across the space between them and plomping down beside his son. “But that photo that caught you happened two weeks ago. Why didn’t you tell us before now, huh?” As he spoke, he reached down and placed a hand on James’ shoulder.

“Because I was scared you’d freak out,” he muttered back, turning his head against the mattress to look his father in the eye. “I mean, you can’t exactly just walk into your parents’ bedroom and say ‘Hey, Mom, hey, Dad. I had a dream about the rape last night and when I woke up I was flying’, can you?”

“… No, you’re right,” Peter sighed, giving James’ shoulder a little pat, before lowering himself down alongside him. James shifted across an inch or so to give his dad some room. “I guess you can’t just say that; but jeez, Kiddo.” James felt an arm worm its way underneath him to wrap his shoulders in a loose hug. “It really took you two whole weeks to muscle up and tell us?”

James thought back for a moment to what had happened before Central Park. The fight, the escape, the gun, and decided he agreed with Hideyoshi. There were some things his parents just didn’t need to know. In the end, he merely shrugged, shuffling over on the bed to rest his head against his father’s shoulder.

“Yeah,” he murmured. “It took me a while. But it was a big thing to try and tell you. Why didn’t you guys tell me I was magic in the first place?”

At that, James heard his father sigh.

“Yeah. That would have been harder for us to do than it sounds like. The way powers work, you kinda need to be put under a lot of stress to unlock them, and that stress is harder for you to achieve if you have a little voice in the back of your head saying ‘It’s okay, my magic’ll turn up and save me soon.’”

“So, what,” James twisted around a little to look his dad in the eye. “The more you told me, the less chance it’d really happen?”

“Pretty much, yeah.” James felt his head shift a little as his father shrugged. “It’s a tough problem. That’s why you get so many parents who try and force their kids to manifest. Just beat the crap out of them until they think they’re gonna die, then stop when it happens and apologize like hell in the aftermath.” Peter let out a long, bitter sigh. “Fucking disgusting.”

“Hey,” James muttered, lifting a hand to prod his father in the side. “No swearing.”

“What?” the older man asked, sounding genuinely perplexed.

“You said a bad word.” James gave his dad a scowl.

Peter raised an eyebrow at that, then let out a dry chuckle.

“Some people are bad enough to deserve that word.” James narrowed his eyes, unconvinced, before his father shot him a grin. “… You wanna try it?”

“What?”

“Don’t ‘what’ me.” Peter laughed. “The F word. Wanna try it? I promise not to tell your mom.”

“… Really?”

“Yeah.” His father gave him a wink. “Just this once. Throw a bad word at the people who abuse their kids. Just remember. I get to be the cool dad, now.”

James thought about it long and hard. This was a big step. A big step on a journey he hadn’t even realized he’d been taking. Was he really about to do this? Was he ready to take this plunge?

“… fuck.”

The word came out a little smaller than intended; quiet, as if its very utterance was accompanied by an unspoken apology. It had still happened, though, whatever the flaws. James took a breath. He felt taller.

“Good job, kid.” His father gave his shoulders another squeeze, before pulling himself upright. “Well. I dunno about you, but I’m all tapped out of difficult conversation energy. Let’s do the rest another time.”

“… Yeah.”

Peter began to walk away at that, before stopping as he pulled the door ajar.

“I feel kinda lighter now,” he murmured, his tone deeply tired. “Do you feel any lighter, James?”

James turned his gaze to the ceiling, and smiled.

“Yeah. Just a little.”


Western Manhattan, 2:14 AM:

The man in the shadows didn’t even try to dodge as Lewis swung the blade towards him, simply letting it strike off the curve of his jawbone, the edge now slightly nicked. His shield didn’t flicker. He barely even flinched.

It didn’t matter. Lewis was already running.

“You’re running out of chances to do this amicably, tracker,” came the voice from behind him as he fled, sounding faintly annoyed now. Lewis swore behind himself as he made his retreat, relying on his natural speed, enhanced by whatever gifts his mother’s genes had left him, to gain some distance on the stranger.

Once that was achieved, Lewis kept running. For seconds, at first. Then minutes. Then nearly an hour. He kept going long after the man’s charcoal tinted scent had left his nose, only stopping when his winding path finally led him to the water at the island’s edge. Then, panting heavily, he found a road, and hailed himself a taxi.

He directed the perplexed driver to the opposite edge of the city, then got out, and went to find a subway. Whoever that wizard had been, he was powerful. Lewis had to give the guy the slip before he even considered going back to the kids. He sighed. It was going to take him hours to do this right. He had work in the morning.

Lewis found himself a subway station, and hopped aboard a random train, blending in as best he could amongst the mixed assortment of night folk that moved throughout the city that never slept. He found a chair, and allowed himself to fall into something of a doze.

He was exhausted. The last of the adrenaline had burned its way through his system in his journey in the taxi-cab, and his day before had hardly been uneventful. He tugged out his phone, set an alarm for four AM, and let himself fade out in the faintly musty train car.


He awoke to the familiar piano riff, and the sensation of the ground moving against the wheels far below. His head hurt. His mind ached. Half an hour wasn’t nearly enough to call a sleep. It was barely even a breather. But at least he could see a little clearer now.

Lewis pulled himself upright at the next station, and trudged out into the nearly empty terminal. He turned his coat up in preparation for the nightly cold, and stepped towards the map along the wall. He had to figure out how to get home. He barely noticed the woman following him. The one who smelled of sandalwood.

He climbed the steps out into the street, and took a left. It was going to be a long walk ho-

A scent. Charcoal.

Fuck.

Lewis turned mid-stride in the empty street, and began to run, only to find his path blocked by a woman who hadn’t been there a second ago.

The smell of sandalwood again.

He swore, then pulled his fist back, and struck her. She didn’t move. He thought something might have broken in his hand.

He had no time to check, however, as before he had a chance to move, something vast and strong scooped him off the ground, and tossed him, like a ragdoll, all the way across the street. He landed in a sprawl in an alleyway, and thought he tasted blood.

“Who the fuck are you people?” he asked, turning his face in the direction of his pursuers, only to find that there was no one there. The smell of charcoal was stronger now.

“The time to ask that, Mr. Themps,” spoke that same disgruntled voice from earlier. “Was before you tried to run away from me. I’m a very reasonable man.”

“You’re a son of a bitch is what you are,” Lewis growled, pulling himself to his feet, and turning to face the man, once more concealed among the shadows. “Whatever the hell you want from me, you can shove it up your ass!”

What happened next confused Lewis. He felt the strike against his gut. He knew that for certain; powerful enough to send him to his knees, something viscous pouring from his mouth. Why was there no pain to it? Surely, there should be pain by now.

For a moment, he considered just staying on the ground. It seemed a little easier than standing up to face these people. Unfortunately, it was not to him to make that choice. He felt something take him by the chin, and then there was no ground beneath his form. He couldn’t think; could barely see. The smell of charcoal and sandalwood; that ever fragrant sandalwood; growing stronger and stronger in his mind.

“Now. If you’re done trying to make a statement,” the voice murmured. “Perhaps we can get on with things in the civilized manner that I’d intended.” Lewis gave no response to that, so the voice continued. “We’re going to make you an offer, Mr. Themps, and I’m afraid we’re in too much of a rush to be letting you say no right now.”

Lewis opened his mouth to swear, but felt something leaden press against his tongue. He gagged.

“I really wouldn’t, Mr. Themps. My partner and I are in a bad mood. The deal is quite straightforward. We want you to find someone for us. One man. In exchange, for the first and perhaps only time in our long lives, we are willing to let you name your price. Be it money, or protection, or a better quality of life for those two teens you care for. We are in a hurry, Mr. Themps. Think quickly.”

A moment later, Lewis felt that leaden weight ease itself off his tongue. He could speak. He could fight. This man still had him by the chin.

“… And If I say no?” he asked.

There was a sigh, before another voice spoke, a woman this time. Sandalwood.

“I’m afraid this means a lot to us,” she said. “Refusing would be the last thing your tongue ever did.”

Lewis took a breath, and closed his eyes. That hadn’t been a threat. It was a promise. Her tone had been too flat to be a bluff.

“… Who do you want me to find,” he asked, hating himself just a little for the words. “… I want to know the job before I choose if it’s worth my tongue.”

There was movement then, and he felt the ground once more beneath his feet. The thing around his chin released its grip, and he felt himself collapsing back against the alleyway wall. Not long after that, the world faded back into view before his eyes, a little blurry. His two aggressors stood there above him, quite composed. The man had a fleck of his blood across one cheek.

Sandalwood raised a hand towards a pocket of her coat and produced a zip-lock bag with what looked to be a swath of fabric stowed inside. She tossed it down to him.

“Give it a smell,” she instructed.

For a moment, he debated again what a tongue was worth. Then he took the bag, and reluctantly pried it open.

The thing inside was potent. It reeked. The stink of soap and fear and sweat, and the all too recognizable smell of sex.

The old man caught Lewis’ eye as he knelt down, before pulling the undersized shirt out of the bag, and holding it up.

“Mr. Themps,” Hideyoshi murmured, his eyes hard. “We will give you anything you want, if you find the man who raped our grandson.”

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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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