Aid: 5.14

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Tsuru:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was where the problem lay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Across the way, her foe was speaking once again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leanne:

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

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

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

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

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

From somewhere inside, Charlie Vance began to yell. 

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

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

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Aid: 5.13

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Leanne:

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

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

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

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

‘And the witch lets it fuck her.’

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

She shook herself.

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

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

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

No time for subtlety, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie didn’t move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie sniffed.

“What are you gonna do to us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… Why?”

At that, Leanne let out a sigh.

“Because I need your help to save the world”


Tsuru:

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

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

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

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

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

The bags were twitching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All eyes turned to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aid: 5.10

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Caleb:

He was a mountain. Those were the only words Caleb had to describe what he was feeling, the pool of newfound energy flowing out along his system. It felt vast, yet, weirdly delicate; like an ocean’s worth of water poured into a drinking glass. Every movement sent a tingle through his skin, his entire being radiating with an almost electric charge. He flexed the fingers of his right hand, then watched as, quite unbidden, a faint blue arc danced across his knuckles. He smelled ozone.

‘How the fuck does the kid even carry this much power?’

He took a breath. He needed to be steady. He needed to keep this in control.

His attempt at calm was cut short by the ringing from his phone. He swore. He knew that ringtone.

Caleb drew the device from his pocket, and heaved a sigh. Best not to ignore it. He only needed to maintain the facade a little while longer. He lifted the phone to his ear.

“Heya, Boss,” he opened, injecting a hopefully annoying note of cheer into his voice. “Need some-”

“Your first mistake,” the voice on the other end cut him off. “Was taking that power into yourself so early.”

Caleb felt his mouth go dry at that, his words catching themselves in his throat. She knew.

“The second,” she continued icily. “Was assuming I wouldn’t be watching to make sure you didn’t try to pull this shit.”

For a moment, Caleb was silent. He was thinking, his brain working at triple speed in an attempt to figure out what the next course should be. Eventually, he set the buzzing in his mind aside, and settled for a chuckle.

“Heh. You noticed my power up, huh?”

An angry sigh on her end, cutting through the line like static.

“Of course we did, Thirteen. That’s the bare minimum we’d need to keep you all in line. Now, if you honestly plan on keeping yourself and your partner alive, I’d suggest standing very still while I pull that power out of you.”

It was then that Caleb felt the marks along his neck growing warm, his borrowed power seeping out of him a single drop at a time. He barely even noticed. His focus was elsewhere.

“… Caleb,” he muttered.

“What?” she asked, her voice edging slowly back into the uncaring calm he knew so well.

Caleb wasn’t being rational. He knew he wasn’t. This wasn’t the smart choice. Not with so much on the line. He didn’t care. He dug into the sea of power still coursing beneath his skin, shaped it into a point within his mind, and drove it into the heat against his neck.

“My name’s Caleb,” he repeated. “You soulless cunt.”

There was a silence between them then as the brand upon his neck grew hot enough to burn his skin, before the spell broke with a sound like cracking glass.

“… Fine then,” she growled. “We’ll game this out, if you’re so set on being stupid. Option one. You try whatever half-assed plan you think is going to let you escape on your own, and I kill Twenty Three. Option two. You try and break Twenty Three out along with you, and she dies before you even get halfway to her. Option thre-”

“I’ve got allies now,” he snapped. “People strong enough to boost me this far without breaking a sweat. You kill my partner, and you make some of the strongest enemies the world has to offer.”

For what it was worth, the statement seemed to give the woman a momentary pause. Then, she let out a huff.

“One ally,” she grunted, her tone contemplative. “At most. You’ve sided with the Toranagas. It has to be. There are four people in New York with the power to do what you just did: Father, the old witch of Japan, her pet elemental, and that half-breed child of theirs.” Caleb had no difficulty discerning the contempt in those last few words.

“It can’t be Peter Toranaga,” she continued. “Because if he were involved, Manhattan would be swarming with feds by now. I doubt that it would be Father, because going to him just makes you a different kind of pet. That just leaves the witch and her beast, and one of them must have drained themselves dry to give you all that force.”

For a moment, Caleb almost laughed. He clamped down on the sound before it reached his lips. She was wrong. Best not to let her know.

“Not like that’s gonna last forever,” he said. “And they’re nasty enemies to have. So how about you just give me Twenty Three and I promise to call off the super wizards?”

“Not that easy, Thirteen,” she replied, her voice cold. “You’ve made things… complicated, I’ll admit, but the fact remains that I still have Twenty Three.”

“And I have the Toranagas,” he shot back. “Go ahead. Flip that coin.”

For the first time in Caleb’s memory, he heard his boss swear. There was an anger to it. Frustration. It gave him more satisfaction than it ought to have done, finally seeing her crack like that.

“… We’re extracting her from a dock on the south side of the city,” she growled finally. “I’ll send you the address.”

“What?” Caleb teased, barely suppressing a laugh. The victory felt good. Far too good. “I don’t think I heard that right.”

A sigh.

“I’ll be blunt, Thirteen. You don’t know a damn thing about what we’re trying to do. You don’t know a damn thing about how we’re going to do it. The single most important thing you could have told anyone is simply that we exist, and it sounds like that’s a move you’ve already made. All that’s left is an escaped hunting dog using bargaining chips he doesn’t know the value of. So fine. You win. Now just take the girl, take your leash, and get out of my way. There are adults at work right now and it’s harder with animals underfoot.”

Caleb grinned.

“Hell, I’ll take that. And you promise your extraction team won’t be trying to kill me?”

“Of course not,” she muttered. “I know exactly how strong you are right now. I’m not about to order my people to their deaths.”

“Smart choice,” he agreed. “Although, I gotta admit, I was kinda looking forward to smashing some hea-”

She hung up.

Caleb pocketed the phone with a chuckle, then took a breath. He barely noticed the text alert pinging from his pocket.

They were so close. He could feel it.


Northern Scandinavia: 6:34 AM.

The woman set her mobile down on her desk a little harder than intended. Talking to Thirteen was never easy, even back when he’d ostensibly towed the line. It was never a pleasant way to start the day. Even worse today, having to pretend to lose.

She sighed, and allowed herself a tired kind of chuckle. At least she’d never have to deal with it again. She lay her palms flat against the tabletop, and gazed down at them, impassive.

He’d called her a cunt. One of her knuckles twitched.

‘No time for that, Leanne. Take a chocolate and relax. There’s work to do today.’

She pulled one of her desk drawers open, and fumbled around for the bag of smarties tucked underneath her stapler.

The plan would need to be adjusted. Not a difficult thing to do, certainly, but made harder by the time constraints.

She popped a chocolate into her mouth, and gave it a crunch.

There was still a Toranaga active in New York. That meant no matter how she reorganized, there was still an element of risk. None of the nearby agents could reliably fight someone on that scale. Time to set some priorities, then.

She sat still for a few moments, faintly aware of the chocolate slowly melting on her tongue, then once more picked up her phone.

She dialled in the first number, and hit call, pushing herself up from her seat as it rang, and crossing to the window.

Her office was undersized. Economies of scale were a requisite concession when it came to keeping her facilities small enough to avoid notice. She didn’t mind it all too much. At least she had a view.

The phone line went live in her hand as her agent received the call. Then a gruff voice spoke, heavily accented.

“Nils here. Need something, boss?”

She swallowed her chocolate.

“You’re being reassigned,” she murmured. “Asset Thirteen won’t be delivering his target. Just make your way to the rendezvous and make sure Twenty Three remains uninformed.”

There was a moment’s pause at that. A rustling that Leanne struggled to place, followed by a small thump.

“… Confirmed,” came the man’s eventual reply, slightly husky. “And his target? Should we assign someone to-”

“Don’t mind that,” she murmured. “Charles Vance holds priority here, and there are threats about.”

It galled Leanne, having to travel there herself; but the Toranagas were a challenge. Better safe than sorry. She sighed.

“I’ll handle it myself. Expect me at the extraction point in ten minutes or so. I’d like Twenty Three removed before Thirteen arrives.”

There was another brief burst of sound as Nils cleared his throat.

“Understood, Ma’am.”

“Good.”

She disconnected the line, and heaved another sigh. She hated having to get involved herself. Resorting to force was so untidy.

She cast her eyes out at the scene beyond her window.

It was snowing out there, the summer holding little meaning this close to the arctic. She imagined she could see the faint line of the ski lifts running up and down one of the distant mountains.

She shook her head, then began gathering the energy for her trip.


New York: 12:40 AM.

The phone went dead in agent Nils’ hand as he lowered it back down, his hand a little shaky. He swallowed.

“Is that enough?” he asked, careful not to move his chin too close towards the flames beneath his throat. “Are you going to let me go now?”

“Depends what you mean by let you go,” the Japanese witch murmured. “Are we going to set you free? No. You’ve got more than a couple of questions left to answer; but you’ve spared yourself some pain, for now, at least.”

She plucked the phone from his grip, and turned towards her pet.

“Might as well put the fire out, dear. No use burning him tonight.”

The elemental snorted.

“How very rude of me.”

He pulled his hand away, a touch slower than Nils would have liked.

“So. One of us to the extraction point, one to intercept the boss?”

Tsuru Toranaga nodded absently as she flicked through Nils’ phone.

“That does sound like the optimal solution. Are you in the mood for a fight today?”

The elemental chuckled.

“Why not?” he murmured. “Could be fun.”

Nils bit his tongue at that, and simply focused on charging up his spell. There wasn’t room to fail here. The boss was counting on him now.

‘Just wait till they’re distracted,’ he thought. ‘Don’t let your capture be for nothing.’

Only a couple feet away, the witch was talking again.

“I suppose I’ll take the extraction point, then,” she murmured, pulling a second phone from her inside pocket. “I’ll let Caleb know the sco-”

Nils’ spell came into force in less than half a second, all the power he had available collecting itself into a dancing swarm across his fist. The moment it pulled itself into being, he threw himself at her, putting every ounce of his strength and weight into the blow.

He knew before he’d even began to move that he had been too slow. It was too late now, though. He might as well commit, even if he didn’t have a hope.

“Oh, right,” she muttered to her husband as he knocked the agent’s strike aside. “I’ll be needing his clothes as well.”

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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 the 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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