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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Bonus chapter two, Tuva.

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One week ago, Tuva:

Tuva stared at the small ceramic jar that sat upon her family’s coffee table, hands together, her fingers interlocked for her chin to rest on, her elbows braced against her knees.

It was ugly. More than anything else, that was the thought that she kept coming back to. The clay had been fired with a fairly expensive looking lacquer finish, a series of interlocked lines alternating between a deep blue and lime green with a ribbon of some sunset orange color running around the middle. In another context, she doubted she would have even given the object the thought needed to leave an impression in her mind. She might even have thought it was pretty. As it was, however, she couldn’t remember seeing anything quite as ugly as that jar. Liza would have hated it.

She took a deep breath through her nose and closed her eyes, letting all the old smells come back to her. The faint aroma of old leather and wood polish, the drifting waft of fresh coffee brewing on the stove two rooms away. It all felt so odd now, even after just a few months away. It was unfamiliar, out of place.

The flight had been delayed. She’d missed the cremation. Her parents hadn’t questioned her lateness, nor why they hadn’t heard from her in weeks. Her mother had simply hugged her as she stepped in the doorway, burying her tear stained face against her daughter’s shoulder in the closest approximation the shorter woman could make of a proper hug. Her father had simply placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder, his eyes dry, his expression stoic. Tuva didn’t think she’d ever seen anyone look so hollow as her father did in that moment. That was the most jarring thing of all, really. He had been such a jovial man before.

A part of Tuva wished her father had been angry at her, blamed her for being absent, screamed at her. Anything would be better than this blank, empty sort of silence.

She made no movement as the door into the kitchen slid open, the faint sounds of footsteps approaching through the narrow hall. She didn’t glance up as a hand placed the teacup down in front of her, nor did she offer any attention to the sound of a body coming to rest on one of the steps beside her chair.

Whoever it was, they didn’t speak for a while, and she was grateful for that. It made it easier to pretend she was alone. It didn’t last.

“You hate it here, don’t you.” The voice made her glance across, not expecting it. It was Hideyoshi. The man had accompanied her back from france, paying the zero warning travel fare for her without comment. Her parents hadn’t blinked twice at him arriving alongside her, offering some cursory explanation that she couldn’t be bothered to remember. Compassionate care or something.

Tuva was silent for a while, staring at her sister’s ashes for a solid minute before she finally responded.

“I’ve never seen them so broken.”

Hideyoshi nodded. Communication had been hard for them, at first, the two speaking in largely broken french, before realizing belatedly that they both spoke reasonable english.

“It’s going to be like that for a while,” he murmured. “They’ve lost a daughter. You can’t imagine the pain.”

“I’m not judging them,” she started, but he cut her off, shaking his head.

“Yes you are.” He murmured. “Just a little. I can see it in your eyes. You’re trying not to, but a little bit of you wants them to be who they were. I’ve seen a lot of grief. I know that look.”

“Well, that’s my problem.” She replied, her eyes dropping towards the floor, not really wanting to look at him in that moment.

“True enough.” Came the reply. Had Tuva expected more, she would have been disappointed. The two were silent once more for a time, until the old man spoke again.

“Take your time,” he murmured. “But we’re out of here in a few days. You need training, and I’m not wasting more than a week here helping you mourn.” With that, the old man stood, dusting himself off and walking away.

Tuva didn’t respond, returning her attention to the ugly jar. A part of her was grateful to the older man. Being here felt wrong. She wanted out.

Present, Tuva:

“You’re sure about this?” The young woman asked quietly, her gaze flicking momentarily away from the clearing that lay before them and towards her companion. “This thing killed a family and you want me to do this alone?” Hideyoshi gave a small nod, but did not speak, whether to avoid alerting their quarry or because he felt there wasn’t a need, she couldn’t tell. She hesitated, then nodded, turning her eyes back towards the target.

It lay perhaps a hundred feet away from them, utterly still but for the slow rise and fall of its chest as it breathed, apparently asleep. It was hard for her to really determine its size, being still enough that the pure white of its fur blended near perfectly with the still falling snow. Tuva took a deep breath, then another, before finally, she pulled her shadows towards her. It was harder out here, further from the centre of a city, where bad dreams gathered together in quantities vast enough to almost conjure shadow men on their own. Here, she could barely manage two of them, drawn from what little of that energy she could store within herself, but that was okay. Two was ideal, really. Any more and she’d struggle to control them with enough precision to matter. They emerged in silence, one forming as if from wisps of smoke in the shade of a snow laden tree, the other pooling like tar in the empty space beside her.

It took a few moments for them to fully form, coalescing themselves slowly into solid, hard edged shapes. They stood tall and still where they had grown, staring towards her. Tuva frowned. The one beneath the tree was obedient, not offering any real resistance within her as it waited for the next command. The one beside her, on the other hand, was angry; formed, she thought, from a more violent collection of nightmares. It hissed low and long, a knife edged hand raised at chest level as it turned towards her teacher. She glared at it, and it was still. Hideyoshi chuckled quietly. Tuva rolled her eyes, before sending her creatures forth.

The shadows moved in silence, their almost weightless bodies making no real sound upon the heavy snow as they approached the beast. When they drew close enough, she bid them begin to climb the trees, and they ascended, their sharp edges scraping faintly against bark and branches. Finally, she had them in position, and they pounced as one, diving down towards the faint shape of the creature’s slowly swelling chest. Their claws struck home, and the wolf let out a pained yelp, jerking awake as their blades caught in flesh and fur, pulling back to trace a long, red line across its ribs. Tuva hissed quietly. She’d hoped to end this in the first blow.

The wolf rolled to its feet, catching one shadow man beneath its form and pressing it into the snow, the other jumping back to safety. Against the background of the trees, its size was far easier to grasp than it had been against the snow. Tuva let out a quiet gasp. Beside her, Hideyoshi chuckled again.

“I told you they were big.” He murmured.

“You never said they were that big.” She replied, her voice low. That was, perhaps, unfair. Hideyoshi had stated quite plainly that it would be the size of a horse before the hunt began, but that, she felt, was underselling it. Horses were peaceful things, after all, and so the true implication of their size had failed to really register with her. This wolf, on the other hand, looked like it could win a fight with an angry bear, and so it left a far greater impression of its scale, helped along by the flecks of red decorating its maw.

The wolf turned its attention down towards the shadow caught between its feet, one arm trapped beneath a paw, and opened its jaws with a snarl, ready to bite. Tuva set her creation to clawing at its forelegs with its free hand. Her other shadow threw itself at the monsters neck, leaping up and wrapping its long, sticklike legs around the wolf’s shoulders, one hand digging into a shoulder blade for purchase while its other clawed at the monster’s face, drawing fresh lines of red soaking into its fur. The wolf growled low in its throat, but did not stop, craning its neck down and taking the pinned shadow’s torso between its jaws before biting down. There was a sharp noise, something akin to the cracking of glass, and the shadow began to fade, its form seeping oily black ooze onto the clean snow and into the creature’s mouth. The wolf gagged as the liquid met its throat, and tossed the broken shadow man to the ground, attempting vainly to wipe its mouth clean against the snow and leaving a faint, greyish trail behind it, the second shadow clinging to its hide as the snow pressed against it like a tide meant to wash it away.

Tuva glanced towards the prone shadow, and willed it upright. Obediently, it tried to stand, one leg twitching, its chest splitting and cracking like so much broken glassware. It remained on the ground. She cursed quietly to herself, and banished it back into smoke, returning her attention to the wolf.

It was hurting, she thought, but not massively so. For all their attacks, her shadows hadn’t really done anything to the beast besides draw some blood. She needed to fix that. Her clinging shadow opened its jaws, the featureless dome of its head seeming to split around the middle, the surface cracking into hundreds upon hundreds of thin, needle like points. It pulled itself up along the monster’s shoulder, and sunk its newfound teeth into the wolf’s neck, digging deep. The wolf let out a yelp as the blood began to flow in earnest, trying to shake the shadow off of itself. She willed it to cling on, and it did so, latching itself in tighter, claws burrowing into skin and grasping, tick-like, into flesh.

The wolf turned towards a tree and began to run, charging towards it with all the speed it could manage. She had the shadow bite again, perforating skin and muscle and vein, blood running down its chin, mixing to black with its muck. The wolf rammed the shadow against the tree with a crash and she felt something splinter within it as the spine shattered, the spindly legs falling to the ground below, dissolving into smoke. She bade the torso to hang on as the mouth opened once more, beginning to chew.

The wolf snarled, shaking itself violently in a futile attempt to once more rid itself of the parasite, before taking a few steps to the side, and throwing its shoulder back towards the tree, smashing the shadow against solid, winter hardened pine. There was a small crunch as the shadow finally pulled free, its form already beginning to dissolve; but its job was done. As it faded, one small object remained, sitting in the shadow’s rapidly dissipating jaws, a fist sized chunk of the dire wolf’s throat.

The wolf was panting, a slight whine rising from its throat with every heaving breath its lungs forced out. It was hurting. Tuva turned away, beginning to pick her way down from the rock upon which they stood, heading back towards the car.

“Going somewhere?” Hideyoshi asked, glancing back at her out of the corner of his eye.

“I ripped an artery open,” she replied, her voice cold. “It’s dying. I’m leaving.”

“Dire wolves don’t die that easy,” Came the reply. “Leave now, and you’ll only have left it with a bad scar.” He paused for a moment, then sighed. “Do you want me to finish it?”

“You wanted me to show I could control them,” she replied. “I did. I’ll be waiting in the car.” With that, she turned away and began trudging off through the thigh deep snow, trying to ignore the sudden wave of heat from behind her; the telltale sound of flames over the short lived whine of the wolf, before the air once more cooled to a winter chill.

She turned the neck of her coat up against the cold. At least it was better than home, she thought.

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Mistakes: 1.7

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4:30 PM, New York:

Peter rose from his desk with a sigh, clasping his hands together behind his head and pulling them backwards in an effort to stretch his cramped muscles. God damn he hated his job sometimes. He glanced back down at the mound of paperwork littering his work-space, each page marked with colored tabs, noting particular key words. He really would have preferred to do more of his work by computer, but the vast majority of his contacts refused to communicate via anything more electronically complicated than the early telegram. He let out a small collection of mumbled aggravations, picked up his coffee mug, drained it to the dregs, and exited his office, flicking off the light and throwing his jacket over himself as he went.

“Heading home early, Mr Toranaga?” His assistant asked, smiling at him from her own, slightly smaller desk.

“Yeah,” he replied, returning the smile. “Hoping to spend some time with the kids tonight. Could you wash my mug for me before you leave, Maya?”

“Sure,” The girl shrugged. “Just leave it on my desk and I’ll get to it. Would you like me to refill the cookie stash in your second drawer? I noticed it was running a little low.”

Peter chuckled. “Maya, what in god’s name would I do without you?”

“Crash and burn, sir.” She grinned. “Crash and burn.”

Peter shook his head wryly, set his mug down on Maya’s desk, and made his way down the hall towards the elevators. His phone buzzed in his pocket, a snatch of queen’s ‘Don’t stop me now’ emanating from it. He let out an instinctual groan as he reached into his pocket. That was his father’s text alert. His father never texted when he could speak, and that meant that he was deliberately trying to stay quiet. Peter checked the screen, and the sinking feeling in his stomach deepened.

‘Paris, Rue du Bac, could use a hand, if you’re free.’

Well, there went the next two hours of his life. Peter turned on his heel, walking away from the elevators and back towards his partner’s office, sliding his phone back into his pocket as he went. He opened the antechamber door and walked straight through, giving the assistant a perfunctory nod on the way through before knocking once or twice on the office door.

“Come in,” said a tired sounding female voice from the other side. Peter pushed it open and stepped inside. “If it’s about the budget statements, you’ll have them in an hou- Oh. Hey Peter, need something?” A middle aged woman sat at her desk, the glow of her computer screen casting unhealthy looking shadows across the wrinkles just beginning to edge their way out from her eyes and cheeks.

“Hey, Jackie,” Peter murmured, sliding the door closed. “Sorry. I’m afraid I need a favor. Can you open me a gate to Paris?” He pulled out his phone, showing her the message. “Family thing. Do you mind?”

Jackie groaned, pulling herself up from her seat and stepping towards a section of floor space kept clear specifically for making the gates to and from the office.

“You know, if your father needs your help as often as he seems to, maybe he should retire. No shame in being too old to hunt anymore.” As she spoke, she raised a hand into the air before her. A few dots began to emerge on a flat plane around her hand, glowing a faint blue in the empty air. She began drawing small lines between them with her fingers, leaving behind faint traceries of light behind her that slowly started to fill into a solid pattern of glyphs and signs.

“Heh,” Peter chuckled. “Don’t let it fool you. He doesn’t ask for help because he can’t handle things. He only does this when he wants to talk about something and doesn’t want me hanging up on him.”

“Well, can you get him to stop?” Jackie asked, her fingers tracing out patterns connecting the last of the little dots together. “I mean, not for nothing, but having a heart to heart with your father isn’t really big enough to justify building a planar gate between two completely separate continents. Do you have any idea how draining these are?” As she spoke the last few words, the glowing pattern shifted, the glyphs forming into a set of rings around one another as they began to rotate, each layer in a different direction to the ones on either side.

The rotations grew faster and faster, the glow intensifying as the rings began to condense, shrinking rapidly towards a central point. The disc shrank from perhaps two feet wide, to one foot, then an inch, then, for a single moment, condensed into a single point, smaller than a pinhead. Then, in less than a second, the point expanded, widening into a brightly glowing circle encompassing perhaps two meters of space. Within that ring, Peter saw the image of a darkened alleyway, tall buildings to either side. The image was so complete that it obscured his partner behind it.

“You’d better bring me back some decent coffee,” Jackie’s voice called out from behind the portal, oddly quiet, given the only two steps or so that divided them. “Real french stuff, none of that granulated swill.”

Peter snorted. “Of course not, Jacqueline, would I ever do that to you?”

He stepped through, the sound of his his friend grumbling “Don’t call me Jacqueline,” following him out into the cool parisian air. The portal winked out of existence behind him.


10:35 PM, Paris, Rue du Bac:

Peter stepped out of the alleyway and glanced around. The street was largely empty, but for a few late night wanderers, most of them clearly too young to be his father. He turned left, and set off along the sidewalk at a jog, eyes scanning his surroundings constantly. It would have been nice if his father had at least told him what they were hunting so that he could know what he should look out for. He found the man leaned against what looked to be a hotel wall, his slight form draped in a heavy trench coat despite the warmth of the nighttime air.

Hideyoshi Toranaga was not a large man, nor was he what anyone who didn’t know him may call even slightly physically imposing. Even draped in the heavy coat, his form was slight and small, even a little hunched. His hair was balding, covered for the moment by a brown fedora, and his face was almost uniformly unremarkable. He looked, in almost every way, the very definition of an unremarkable old man. Those who knew him better, however, knew this to be intentional.

“What took you so long, Akira?” The older man asked in quiet japanese. his fingers tearing the plastic free of a fresh packet of cigarettes and depositing it in a nearby trash bin, his other hand fishing in a pocket for his lighter. “I sent you that message nearly ten minutes ago.”

Peter rolled his eyes at his father’s use of his birth name, a habit the older man only tended to dip into when he was delivering reprimands.

“Might’ve gotten here quicker if you’d given me more info,” he grumbled back. “An address might have helped, or maybe a hint on what you were hunting.”

Hideyoshi flicked at his lighter a few times, swore quietly when nothing emerged from it, and snapped his thumb and forefinger together. A candle sized flame flickered to momentary life between his digits and he lit his cigarette, waving his hand a few times to extinguish the flame. He took a deep puff of the smoke, held it in his lungs for a moment, and exhaled.

“You really shouldn’t rely on supplied information so much.” He answered eventually. “Sets you up for situations where you have to make do without it.”

Peter considered this for a moment, weighed the idea in his mind, and eventually replied. “The hat makes you look stupid.”

The old man snorted. “Your mother likes it. Says it makes me look like a detective.”

“My mother is an angel and a liar,” Peter replied with a grin. “Now, where are we headed? I’d rather get home quickly, I did have plans for the evening.”

Hideyoshi nodded, pointing with the tip of his cigarette towards the river at the terminus of the road.

“Reports of shadow figures skulking about around an apartment block near the Pont Royal at night time.” He murmured. “A few random assaults in alleyways leaving people with perplexing injuries. A Swedish boy severely wounded at a local youth hostel, the girl who was traveling with him, one Tuva Bergqvist, hasn’t been seen since. I’m thinking someone developed some summoning powers.”

Peter glanced at his father, irritated. “Bogeymen, really? You needed my help dealing with some novice summoner who, by the sounds of it, can’t even keep a few bogeymen in command?”

“If I wanted to hunt them,” Hideyoshi replied. “Then yes, I could have done this myself, but this newbie has shown a little bit of talent. One of these bogeymen, if the report is right, remained corporeal even after being hit by a car. Besides, I’m fairly sure most of the harm done was accidental. I think the kid might be worth training. There might be one or two control issues, but there’s power there. Figured I might give them a shot.”

“Alright, fine,” Peter answered evenly. “But the fact remains, it’s not like you need any help to restrain some entry level summoner, even if they do have some skill.”

“I don’t speak french nearly as well as you,” said his father. “Let alone swedish. Figured you wouldn’t mind helping your old man talk the kid down and make the offer.” He turned a stony look across at Peter. “Seems like the least you could do, seeing as you keep refusing to let me train my grand kids.”

Peter took in a deep breath, closed his eyes, and focused on maintaining his calm. “That was a low blow, dad.”

Hideyoshi shrugged, offering the cigarette packet to his son. “I’ll stop bringing it up when you let me train them. Simple as that.”

“Is it really too much to ask that you just let your grand kids live normal, happy lives?” Peter asked, raising a hand in refusal of the offer.

“A little,” his father replied mildly. “At this point, I just wish you’d tell me what it is you’re so scared of. They’re your kids and my grand kids. There’s no doubt they’d be powerful, so what’s the problem?”

“The problem, dad,” Peter replied as they began walking together in the direction of the bridge, trying to pretend he wasn’t just repeating the same argument for the hundredth time. “Is the mortality rate. Spin it any way you like, but those two have a better chance of living long, healthy lives if they don’t know a damn thing about any of this.”

“And how are you going to stop them figuring out something’s amiss when they’re still around at a hundred and forty, hmm?” Hideyoshi asked. “Longevity is well established in our family, Peter, and your kids are included in that, even with their mother being as powerless as she is. Or what if one of them breaks an arm or something and manifests their powers?” He gave his son a pointed look. “I heard James just got out of hospital.”

“Dad,” Peter sighed. “I know. I’ve been keeping an eye on him ever since the injury, and he hasn’t shown any signs. I even set him up for a psych eval to see if he had any mental powers hidden away. Nothing, not for a week and a half. Looks like James is just a little too tough for a broken leg to do it.”

Hideyoshi grunted. “Well, he is my grandson. Of course he’d be hard to crack. You could at least teach the kid a martial art or something, you know. Who the hell is clumsy enough to break a leg on playground equipment?”

“Eh, the bars were slippery.” Peter muttered. The lie flowed surprisingly easily off his tongue. James had asked that no one know why he had been placed in the hospital, so a broken leg and playground equipment it was. “But hey, if it’d make you feel better to start teaching him martial arts, you are more than welcome to offer.”

Hideyoshi finished his cigarette in silence as they made their way towards the bridge, tossing the nub into the gutter.

“In any case,” he grunted eventually. “We’re nearly there.” He pointed towards a building on the opposite side of the road to them. “Most of the shadows seem to be originating from this apartment block. Given where most of the stories take place, I’d hazard that our summoner is holed up near the top somewhere. Feel like giving your old man a hand?”

Peter shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

The two wordlessly stepped inside, stepping shoulder to shoulder so as to fill the narrow hallways of the building as they made their way up to the upper floors. Peter had half expected to encounter a bogeyman before they even reached their destination, but the place was surprisingly quiet. He did notice, however, the way the shadows seemed to flicker and shift in the corners of his eyes, the dim light of the corridor lamps not quite penetrating the dark as far as it should, both classic signs of the entities, to be sure, but it was surprising to see them so non-aggressive. It took a lot to restrain their naturally violent tendencies. Bogeymen were, after all, usually formed of nightmares and negativity, and thus tended to be fairly… impulsive.

“Any ideas on narrowing down where this girl’s hiding?” Peter asked as they made their way up a flight of stairs to the highest floor.

“Not really,” Hideyoshi replied. “Thought we could scare her out, see how she handles the pressure.”

“Nice to see you still have your mean streak,” Peter snorted. “Sounds workable. Give me a few minutes to set something up.” He dug his phone out of a pocket, opening up a web browser, and finding an appropriate sound file. “If her shadows have hurt people in front of her, then she’s bound to be on edge. This should do the trick. You wait by the stairs to intercept. I’ll do the rest.”

Hideyoshi nodded, leaning casually against the stairway wall. Peter made his way along to the end of the top floor hallway, before pressing a few buttons on his phone. It began to emanate the sound of a french police siren, relatively quiet. He turned the speaker to its highest setting, before he began to speak, relatively loudly, transitioning easily from japanese to french.

The vast majority of powers that people tended to manifest had very noticeable effects; his father’s pyrokinetics, this Tuva girl’s monster summoning and Jackie’s intercontinental teleportation, to name a few. In his early career, his childhood especially, he had envied such powers to a degree. When his own power had been diagnosed to him as ‘intuitive linguistics,’ both he, and his parents, to a lesser degree, had been distinctly disappointed. Their family traditionally tended towards combat readiness in all things, and a power that helped one avoid conflict had seemed, at the time, counterintuitive at best. It was times like this one, however, when he couldn’t help but relish it a little.

“Tuva Bergqvist!” He bellowed over the sound of his phone’s klaxon wail, his Parisian accent nigh on perfect. “We have you surrounded! Please do not be alarmed! Please come out quietly with your hands over your head!”

The response was not long in coming. One or two confused looking heads poked out from behind apartment doors, gazing at the strange, shouty man apprehensively. One door, however, burst open with such force that the hinges were almost pried from the wall, causing the startled onlookers to rapidly return into the safety of their homes. A young woman emerged from within, surrounded on all sides by at least four separate and distinct shadow men. The girl sent one terrified glance towards Peter, before positively bolting down the hallway, all but one of her shadows running in stride with her. The remaining shadow turned towards Peter and spread its arms wide, not moving, but clearly intent on barring his path. He almost laughed, stepping forwards towards the thing. His right hand dipped into a pocket, his fingers threading through the grips of his knuckle dusters.

The creature, if that was even the correct word, opened what passed for its mouth, a gaping maw of glistening, oily looking teeth embedded in a featureless plane of a face, and let out a screeching wail that was half animal, half washing machine. It raised an arm high into the air, a massive, clawed hand poised to strike. Peter decked it in the face.

The creature briefly recoiled from the blow, only to rear up and let out another unnatural sounding wail. It made a break for the window at the end of the hallway.

Peter grimaced. It was not unexpected that the creature would run, bogeymen were surprisingly cowardly things. But broken windows tended to attract attention. He whirled around as it passed him, and slammed his fist once more into its odd, almost gaseous head. As with most apparitions, bogeymen tended to break if one applied too much damage to a given spot, so he aimed once again for the face. There was a sound like a glass cracking, and something similar to smoke began to billow from the creature’s head. Whatever physical presence the thing had, it began to lose it. He struck it again, and the shadow lost cohesion, its body exploding into a cloud of faintly foul smelling black smoke.

Peter stood, brushed himself off, and made his way after the girl at a brisk jog. He made it to the stairwell just in time to watch the last of the bogeymen disintegrate, immolated by his father’s flames. The old man hadn’t even moved from his position, leaning against the wall.

The girl, Tuva, was backing away from him, not looking behind herself and, as a result, she bumped into Peter in the attempt. She whirled on him with a little yelp, a look of undisguised terror in her eyes. Apparently by sheer instinct, the girl attempted to strike him. Peter caught her hand in his own with little effort, and said, not unkindly:

“Miss Tuva, please calm down. We’re here to help you.”

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