Care: 6.9

Previous Chapter:

Charlie:

Charles Vance had spent a long few days unsure of what to think. Stuck alone in a cell with nothing but his thoughts and the passing attention of his wardens to distract him. Stress was too small a word for it.

He was angry, he was scared, he was tired, and his skin still itched beneath the bandages from where the base’s surgeons had laid their scalpels about his form, only barely possessing the decency to put him under first.

Most importantly of all, however, was this: for almost a week, Charles Vance had not known if his mother had survived the shot that brought her down. So when James Toranaga called to bring her in, it was almost enough to bring the boy to tears.

Almost.

“Wait, wait,” he asked, his prior train of thought brought to a sudden halt. “My mom’s there? She’s okay? Tell me she’s okay!”

“What?” James asked, his voice sounding just as frazzled as Charlie felt. “O-oh. Yeah. She’s fine. She’s been freaking the heck out about finding you, but she’s fine. My grandma’s gonna go and-” There was a muffled pop on the other end of the line. “-Just went to go get her.”

There were other voices speaking on James’ side of the phone; low voices growling words that Charlie couldn’t make out; James himself snapping angrily in retort. Charlie wasn’t paying attention. The relief was too intense. He was shaking. His breaths becoming rather shallow. He lowered the phone from his ear, and brought his forearm up against his eyes.

He wasn’t getting rid of tears. Of course not. Just scratching an itch. Why would he be crying? Crying would be a dumb thing to do right now.

“Okay,” he muttered, refusing to allow himself a sniffle. “She’s okay. Mom’s okay. Good. That’s good.”

A second or two passed like that, the argument on the other end of the phone line quietly raging as he tried to pull himself together. Then Twenty Three flicked him in the temple.

He glanced at her, confused; his thoughts slowed.

“We don’t have time for this,” she said, her eyes darting towards the empty hallway as she spoke. “We’ve gotta get this done. You can cry about it later.”

It took the words half a second or so to sink in; longer still for Charlie to force the dazed fog from his mind. She was right. They didn’t have time for this. He shook himself.

“I wasn’t crying,” he muttered, returning the phone to his ear. “James. I need to speak to someone strong. We need help over here. We’re stuck, and we need someone tough to get us out. Is your dad around? Or your grandpa?”

The response wasn’t quite what Charlie had expected.

“Oh, not you too!” James snapped. “You don’t get to kick me out of this. I’m not handing off the phone, and I am not waiting in the hallway! I’m part of this!” Another muffled growl from the end of the line. James gave his best approximation of a swear. “Freaking fine! Look, I’m putting you on speakerphone. My grandad’s here. He’s super strong. Okay?”

“Okay.”

There was a rustling noise, then the muffled voices on James’ side grew louder; each of them distinct.

One of them was speaking now; a male voice that Charlie vaguely recognized as James’ grandpa.

“I don’t care if you’re attracted to this boy, James. You’re not allowed to dictate who he talks to. That’s exactly the kind of rash decision making that proves you shouldn’t-”

“Jiji!” James snapped, his voice pitching rapidly towards a squeak. “He can hear you!”

Charlie had roughly half a second to process the knowledge that his best friend liked him before the older man continued.

“He can hear me? Good. Charlie. I need you to tell me everything you can. What’s your situation like. Can you see any landmarks. Are there any other captives with you?”

Charlie pushed the uncomfortable thought of James’ romantic inclinations away, and focused on the task at hand. A few months of burgeoning sexual awareness had taught Charlie that he was definitely into girls, but that was a conversation better saved for later.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “There’s a bunch of other prisoners in here too, but they’re all in their own cells. I haven’t got to talk to any of them yet. As for landmarks, there’s mountains outside the window, and it’s snowed most days since I got here-”

That was as far as he got before Twenty Three wrenched the phone from his hand and spoke into the mouthpiece, her tone curt:

“You’re trying to figure out where we are,” she said. “I’ll save you some time. We’re in Sweden. The facility is on the edge of a forest, about two miles east of Östra Kjolsjön’s southern tip. You can see Åreskutan through the window, so the cell block has to be on the south side of the complex.” With that, she pressed the phone back into Charlie’s hands. “First thing I did when I was planning this was track down a map.” She stepped towards the doorway. “Keep talking. I’m going to get a fresh disguise.”

Charlie returned the phone to his ear just in time to make out a question from a voice he didn’t recognize; male and faintly middle-eastern.

“Who was that?” the stranger asked. “Are there people with you? Can you trust them?”

“Yeah-” Charlie started, before cutting himself off. “I mean, I think so. I think she’s the one that Caleb guy was trying to save. She said she’d try and get me out.”

A distant grunt.

“Caleb will be thrilled,” Hideyoshi muttered. “And how’s the rescue progressing?”

“It’s, uh,” Charlie weighed up what he knew about the situation thus far in his head. “Not great.” He crossed the room to peak out through the doorway. He spotted Twenty Three almost immediately, an unconscious body he recognized as the guard who, ten minutes ago, had been patrolling the cell-block slung about her shoulder. “She’s taken out a bunch of guards, but they put a tracking chip inside me, so we can’t sneak away unless someone can punch a hole.”

There was a loud crunching noise from somewhere up above. Both Charlie and Twenty Three looked towards the ceiling.

“… And the roof just started glowing,” he added lamely. “No idea what that’s about.”

The sudden tide of questions that comment prompted was drowned out by Twenty Three’s response. Across the hallway, the young woman went from double speed to triple. She lugged the unconscious guard down the hall until she reached the first doorway with a simple handle instead of a secure lock, and quite simply kicked it open.

“Tell em I’m gonna get you out by car!” She shouted. “I need em to make some noise and make sure no one has a chance to follow us!”

Charlie nodded, returning his attention to the phone just in time for the flow of questions to suddenly come to a stop.

There was a quiet pop. Then silence.

“… Your mom’s here,” said James.

Charlie took a breath.

Keep it together.

“Hi, Mom.”

He was proud of that. His voice only caught a little.

No response. Just the muttered sounds of Hideyoshi relaying the situation to the new arrivals.

Then, in a voice of pure fact, Charlie’s mother spoke.

“Charlie,” she said. “I’m getting you out of there. We’re having enchilada wraps for dinner, and none of this is ever getting close to you again. You hear me?”

Charlie sniffed.

“… Yeah. Ok.”

When Jacqueline Vance spoke again, the words were not directed at her son.

“I’ll have a portal open in two minutes. Have a plan ready by then, or I’m leaving you behind.”

The middle-eastern voice answered first.

“I haven’t cast a spell in almost a day. I’m at full power.”

“Me as well,” Tsuru agreed. “Minus a couple of teleports. I don’t think raw force should be an issue. The only concern is the woman they’ve got in charge.”

The stranger started to reply, before Hideyoshi cut him off.

“You leave their leadership to me,” he said. “I have a score to settle with the woman who broke my spine.”

Charlie opened his mouth, but Tsuru spoke before he could.

“Absolutely not,” she said, her tone firm. “You are to stay in the rear in case we need artillery. I am not letting you fight her with an injury.”

Hideyoshi started to reply. This time, it was Charlie’s turn to interrupt.

“Do you mean the woman who teleported me?” he asked. “Cuz she’s dead. Twenty Three killed her the moment we got here.”

A moment’s quiet.

“How sure are you?” Tsuru asked.

“Pretty sure.” Charlie shrugged. “She got stabbed like, seven times cuz Twenty Three had a meltdown.” There was something deeply wrong, Charlie thought, about being able to say those words in so matter-of-fact a manner. “… I think I might need therapy.”

A chuckle.

“Right,” Tsuru resumed. “Hideyoshi will take the lead, then. Binyamin and I can stay in reserve.”

Hideyoshi let out a quiet mutter something along the lines of: “Trust your damned husband, woman.”

Charlie cleared his throat.

“Uh. Twenty Three says she’s gonna get me to a car. She needs you to hold em off while we-”

“Stay exactly where you are,” came Hideyoshi’s answer. “You’re in the southern cell-block. As long as I know that’s where you are, I can make sure you don’t get hit.”

Charlie glanced towards the ceiling.

“The roof’s still glowing.”

“That just means we have to hurry.”

A few ever tenser moments later, Jacqueline announced the portal ready, and Hideyoshi barked the order to advance, leaving Charlie presumably alone with James. The silence that followed then held a very different kind of tension.

“… Still there?” Charlie asked.

“Yeah,” James replied. “Me and your mom. She’s holding the portal open.”

“Right.” Charlie contemplated his life for a second, then took a breath. “So,” he tried. “I’m uh. I’m straight-”

“Right,” came James’ overly hastened reply. “Sure. Cool. Of course you are. Great.”

Another awkward moment’s quiet, then Charlie started laughing.

“Such, a freaking, dork.”

“… Shut up.”

“Never.”

In the quiet that followed, the elemental began laying down his siege.

Previous Chapter:

Care: 6.7

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Agent Sloan:

Sloan hated the night shift. It had always been a chore, even when they had the last generation of assets being grown and trained here, some of them more prone to restlessness than others. That had been almost a decade ago, though; before his age had started catching up with him. He didn’t relish the long nights. Nor the ache in his knees and back that invariably followed.

At least the drive was pleasant. He glanced out of his car’s side window, admiring the snowscape, dotted by hills, distant mountains, and patches of determined shrubs. He found it soothing.

Eyes back on the main road, he caught what he could have sworn to be a figure in the distant gloom. He squinted, tapped a thumb against a lever to switch from the car’s usual headlights to the floodlights, and caught a petite figure, arms waving in the air above their head.

Sloan raised an eyebrow. Quite far afield of a place to be stranded. The nearest town was a kilometre or two behind him on the road. Drawing closer, the figure became easier to identify, picked out a little clearer in the gloom.

A young woman, wrapped up warm against the chill. He drew his car up alongside her and came to a stop. He rolled down his window.

“Can I help you, miss?” he asked. “You seem lost.”

“Oh my gosh,” the girl replied, a heavy Bostonian accent undercut by a sniffle. “You stopped. Thank you. Yeah, I, um-” she gestured behind herself into the snowfield. “I-I had an accident. I was trying out one of those-” another sniffle. “Those snowmobile rentals. But I think I hit a rock or ran out of fuel or something because it won’t start up again. I don’t think I can make it back to the resort and it’s dark and I’m cold and-”

Sloan had raised three children to adulthood. He liked to think he had learned a thing or two from the experience. He knew, for example, what it looked like when one of them was building towards tears. He raised a hand.

“Now now, miss. Don’t you worry. I have some spare fuel in the back. We’ll sort you out.”

Another sniffle.

“Thanks.”

Sloan gave a wry smile. Damned tourists. At least this one was pretty.

He pulled a torch from his glove box, then pushed open the car door, climbed out of his car, and began crunching his way through the snow around his car.

“You from the States?” he asked, fumbling with his keys in the cold. “I have a daughter there. Works as a loan co-ordi-”

The first sharp palm blow against his larynx was enough to stop him talking. The second was likely just for flavor. He stumbled backwards, gagging for air. Then his instincts kicked in. He brought forth a shield. He swung the torch around himself, trying to catch a glimpse of his attacker.

The next strike caught him in the jaw. Not unarmed, this time. This was something heavier. Something metal. His shield bore the blow with only a minor complaint. The second one, not so much. He bit his tongue.

Sloan threw his torch aside, opting now for blind force. He swung wild and wide, great gouts of flame bursting madly into the world from his hands. He had no idea if he managed to land a hit. It didn’t matter. He kept going for half a minute, at least, until he was spent, no more energy to burn.

His throat ached. He couldn’t see, his night vision wrecked by the imprint of the fire against his eyes.

He fumbled in his pocket. He had to contact someone.

A pair of hands at his neck. Small hands. The girl. Not strangling; a choke hold, trying to knock him out. He reached up, some buried masculine instinct telling him he could simply push her off.

He was wrong.


Twenty Three:

There were fewer guards around than there had been when she was young. Far fewer. One in the front gate control, two in the courtyard.

Where was the man on the upper floor, watching from the sniper’s nest that ringed the topmost level of the compound? Where was the one disguised as a snow-clearer? Or the one with the dogs that kept watch on the tree line? The obstacles that had constantly challenged the planning of her youth?

The place felt empty now.

It had been five days since she had stabbed Leanne; each of them gruelling in their own ways. The first day had been spent trekking her way through the thigh deep snow towards the mountain with the ski-slopes, her journey slowed by having to first head out in the wrong direction through the trees, dusting behind herself to hide her tracks in the snow, before cutting a wide arc around the complex to avoid suspicion. The route had taken her four hours longer than it reasonably should have done. The path up the mountain itself had involved rock climbing. Barehanded, after hours in the cold.

Maybe the challenge of it had been a good thing, though. For one thing, it had kept her mind from wandering too far towards Caleb. For another, arriving at the resort shivering and exhausted had made getting what she needed almost trivial. All it had cost her was some pride.

Civilians were odd people. They had so much sympathy for a young woman in the snow. Acquiring food and clothes hadn’t taken effort on her part at all. She’d spun them a story about a senseless tourist with a stolen car, and the supplies had been practically forced on her. And money. And a place to stay, provided she washed dishes for a few hours a day at the resort’s canteen.

For days, she had gathered supplies, planned her route, and waited for a snowfall heavy enough to cover her return.

She’d been surveying the place for almost a day before doubling back to ambush a car. It was strange, seeing how security had changed since her childhood. There was so much less of it now. Perhaps because the organization was currently spread out across the world; perhaps because the next batch of slaves were being hosted in a different facility. Hard to say.

Regardless of the reason, the new security made plotting her ingress insultingly easy. Especially with Sloan’s unconscious form nestled in the back seat, hidden from view by a layer or two of blankets. She hadn’t been too gentle with his bindings.

When it finally came to it, she was able to drive right in through the front gate, the illusion of Sloan’s form wrapped around her like a cloak. The man guarding the gate asked for a key-card. She gave him Sloan’s. That was all there was to it. The gate opened.

Inwardly, Twenty Three was almost stunned. It was just so strange, seeing this all for the first time from the perspective of someone other than a prisoner. This was supposed to be so much harder.

She followed the road in underneath the complex to a smaller parking bay she had seen maybe once or twice before in her life. Then, she climbed out of the car, opened the back door, located the bulge in the blankets that indicated the rough placement of Sloan’s head, and gave it a quick whack about the jaw.

Best for him not to rouse while she was here. It would complicate things.

She closed the door, and looked around. It was strange, how much smaller the place felt when she viewed it as an adult. The few times she had passed through here in her youth, it had felt huge, even cavernous, every corner holding what she could only imagine to be layer on layer of extra bays. That impression was gone now. She could see it freely.

Even so, she found herself forcing back a flinch when her eye passed the security camera. She’d beaten the instinct into herself to avoid them. Even disguised, letting it pass over her felt wrong.

She shook herself. She was wasting time.

She strode towards a side door, stepped through, and began climbing the thick concrete steps into the complex proper.

The parking bay had been half full. There would still be people around. She moved quickly.

Through empty hallway after empty hallway, Twenty Three moved. Some rooms, she recognized; places she had spied in her explorations as a girl, or the rooms in which she’d trained.

There were some places, however, that were entirely new to her. A dark room holding a bank of computer terminals. A door labelled ‘breakroom’ that she was tempted to crack open just to see what luxuries her wardens had enjoyed. She ignored them. She knew her heading.

Mostly.

It had been tempting, at first, to simply head for the cell block where she had been held in her youth. To her knowledge, it was the only section of the complex where the doors could be locked from the outside. She had to assume it was where Charlie was being held.

She had opted against it.

The cell block was a risk. To her memory, it was the place in the facility with the highest density of cameras, and the most frequent patrols of guards. She wouldn’t go there unless she had to. Disguise or no disguise. Instead, she moved in what she had to hope was the direction of the security room; a place she had only ever glimpsed through the air ducts.

She didn’t like moving in the open like this. No shadows for her newly bulbous form to cling to; her pace limited to a brisk stride. It rankled.

Once or twice, she encountered others; a middle aged woman who gave a word of greeting as they passed each other by; a younger man who spared a wave. She bit down the urge to strike them.

The journey to the security room took a bit longer than she would have liked; her attempts at navigating through routes other than the air vents leading her into a couple of wrong turns, before finally bringing her to a door.

She knocked.

A second or two of quiet. She reached for the handle, but it swung open before she had time to grasp it, just wide enough for the man on the other side to stick his head through, a chain-lock holding the door from opening any further.

“Yeah, Sloan?” the man asked, shadows under his eyes and a patch of untidy bristles on his chin. “What do you ne-”

Twenty Three was inside the building now. She wouldn’t waste time conserving energy. She reached out, grasped the man by the hair, used a pulse of indigo flame to break his shield, then slammed his face against the doorframe. She watched his nose snap sideways with a crunch. He opened his mouth for a cry, and found her free hand pressed against his lips.

“Don’t say a word,” she spoke, her voice clear, quiet and calm. “Put your hands where I can see them. Now.”

For a moment, it seemed he wouldn’t comply, too shocked; his hands too busy scrabbling at her own. She gave his jaw a squeeze. He let out a muted whine.

“Stop moving,” she said. “Hands in view. Right now.”

With a small nod, the man raised his hands into her view, moisture building slowly in his eyes.

“Good,” she murmured. “Now keep them there. I’m going to let go of your mouth. Make a sound, and I will kill you.”

She looked into his eyes, waited for him to nod, then pulled her hand away. The man opened his mouth to scream. She punched him in the throat. His vocalizations stopped, his attention focused on simply trying to breathe.

She moved her fingers up along the chain that held the door closed, feeling at the latch. Too tight. There’d be no unlocking it without the door closed. She wouldn’t give the guard that chance to call for help, but pulling it from the frame would make noise. A simple enough problem to solve, but it meant more wasted energy. She sighed.

She cloaked her forefinger and thumb in fire, and gave the chain a squeeze, melting the metal through. Then, she pushed her way inside, the guard still grasped by the hair.

No one else inside. Good. She closed the door, and knocked out the guard.

So much for interrogation.

She turned her eyes to the camera feeds, gazing across one after the next. A dozen or so empty hallways. A cafeteria with all of three people inside. She pressed a switch, the screens flicking over to the cell block.

Interesting. Half the rooms were empty. The other half, as far as she could tell, held prisoners.

These prisoners were odd, though. They weren’t hunting dogs. She was sure of that. They were too disparate in their ages. Too much emotion behind their eyes. A muscular man sat on his bed, arms laden with tattoos, and fists resting on his lap, utterly calm. There were shadows dancing around his feet. In the next feed across, a little girl had her head buried in a pillow, her form shaking. As Twenty Three watched, another, seemingly identical little girl seemed to sprout from her shoulders, and began patting her on the back.

There were more. Over a dozen of them. Some with powers, some without. Then, she found what she was seeking.

A lone boy, an untouched meal sitting beside him on his bed, the edges of bandages barely visible beneath his clothes.

She checked the hallway feeds. Just a single guard.

Where were they all?

She pressed another switch. The west wing: almost empty. The second floor: deserted. She checked medical.

Another collection of rooms. All mostly empty, barring a few with people moving about them on hands and knees. One room, however, was full.

‘Ah,’ she thought. ‘So that’s what they did when the chains failed.’

Her fellow assets were at rest. She had to assume they were, at least. They didn’t seem to be struggling. They looked to be asleep. That may have had something to do with the medicine bags hooked up to their wrists. She recognized a few as assets from her batch. The others looked to be younger; perhaps part of Caleb’s group.

Some were laid in beds. But the medical ward only had four beds. There were more of them on the floor. They were under guard; men with guns at either end of the room, and another walking up and down. At least that explained where the security force had gone.

‘Kept in a coma the moment you couldn’t control them,’ said a bitter voice inside her head. ‘Why not just kill them?’

Then, she asked herself that question again, without the sarcasm.

Why hadn’t they just killed them?

She cast her eyes about again, then squinted at the workers crawling about the upper level. What were they doing? She watched one man pull something indistinct from his pocket, then place it on the ground, his hand tracing a shape on the floor around it.

She squinted.

‘Oh,’ she thought. ‘Shit, it’s a ritual.’

She took a moment to map out the camera feeds inside her head.

‘It’s a ritual centred around the medical ward.’

That was unsettling, to say the least. She felt a pain in her chest for those who, a long time ago, had been her friends. She pushed it aside. For now, she had a job to do, and for now, security was elsewhere. The rest could wait. When she had Charlie out of here, the government could burn it all in her wake.

She paused to bind the security guard and crush his phone, then set off.

One last guard, patrolling the halls of the cell block. She got the drop on him with ease, then dumped him in one of the empty cells. She took his keys, and allowed the illusion of Sloan’s form to fade. On to Charlie’s cell.

A knock at his door. No answer.

She knocked again.

“Go away.”

“Dude,” she muttered back. “It’s me. I’m here to get you out.”

“… Go away,” he repeated, his voice deeply tired.

“What?” she asked, not bothering to hide her surprise as she unlocked the door. “Charlie, come on. I told you. It’s Twenty Three. We’ve got to go.”

“I said fuck off!” came the reply, just as she swung the door open.

Charlie was glaring at her from his seat on the bed, his eyes red and swollen, a deep bruise covering his cheek. She could see him better, without the poor resolution of the screen. There were bandages at his waist, too, visible beneath the hem of his shirt. She wondered briefly how far the presumed injuries went.

“What happened?” she asked. “Why are you all cut up?”

For a second, Charlie didn’t answer. Then he shook his head.

“… They found out about my power,” he muttered. “Said I’m too important for them to lose.” He sniffed, then pulled back a sleeve, displaying yet more bandages travelling up around his arm. “They put a tracking chip in me. Said they’d made a whole bunch of extra cuts so I couldn’t tell where the real one was. Mr. Grey says no matter where I go, he can teleport right to me.”

‘Fuck.’

For his part, Charlie wasn’t done. He sniffed.

“What took you so long?” he asked, a sullen accusation in his voice. “I held out for days. Why the hell did you stay away so long?”

“Shut up,” she muttered. “I’m thinking.”

“Don’t tell me to shut up!” he snapped. “All of this is your fault! You lied to m-”

He was interrupted by the older girl taking two quick steps across the room and flicking him in the temple.

“Calm down, or we’re screwed,” she said flatly. “There might still be a way out. But I can’t find it with you yelling.”

Charlie glowered at her, but thankfully quieted.

Twenty Three sat herself down beside the boy, her mouth resting against her hands.

This was bad. This was very bad.

The whole plan, from start to finish, had revolved around being gone before any of the bodies she’d left behind were found. She could leave. Even now, she could turn around, get back in Sloan’s car, and leave. They wouldn’t figure out what had happened for at least the dozen or so minutes required to check the security feeds. But she couldn’t take Charlie with her.

No portals, either. Distance wouldn’t help.

It was a smart move. Putting a tracker in Charlie made it impossible to get him out without fighting their way through. Twenty Three groaned.

“No ideas, genius?” Charlie asked sarcastically. “I thought you could get us out of this with your eyes cl-”

“What we really need,” Twenty Three said, more to herself than to Charlie. “Is an attack. I’m not strong enough to get you out of here on my own. I’d need support from a heavy hitter, like the woman who backed up Caleb. Someone who could turn the tables here.”

“You mean James’ grandma?”

“What?” Twenty Three asked, annoyed. “Who?”

“The old lady who helped out your friend,” Charlie replied. “James’ grandma.”

“You know her?”

Charlie shrugged.

“Sure.”

“… Do you have her number?”

“No,” the boy replied. Twenty Three had already scrapped the idea and gone back to planning, when he continued. “I know James’ number, though. Why?”

For a moment, Twenty Three considered it. This solution was less than ideal. At worst, it wouldn’t help. At best, they’d be making their escape in the middle of a war-zone. She considered her other options.

“Fuck it,” she muttered, pulling out her phone. “I didn’t want to do this before I got you out of here, because I’m pretty sure these assholes track my phone calls, and it makes everything more dangerous, but we haven’t got any other options. We’re calling reinforcements.”

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Care: 6.3

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Two days ago, Twenty Three:


For the first few seconds, the three of them simply hung there in the void; falling, yet stationary; their minds forced open to the vastness of the world. It was hard to measure time like that. Hours? Days? The space of a breath? Hard to say.

She was vaguely aware of her companions moving through the space beside her, the boss still crackling with electricity, the boy simply frightened. Had she been less distracted in that moment by the sheer length and breadth of the world, she might have comprehended earlier. As it was, she took her time.

When she finally landed, the world took a while to reconstruct. They hit the ground in the dark, she lost her footing; scuffed her knees on the rough concrete. The air was freezing, the ground so cold it threatened to take the skin from her palms when she pulled her hands away. When the nausea hit, she retched. She wasn’t the only one. The sound of someone losing fluids in the gloom.

She closed her eyes. Sight was overwhelming for her then, even in the dark.

Teleporting sucked.

It was with that thought that Twenty Three’s consciousness resurfaced. Teleporting. Right. They’d teleported. They’d been in the van; the creatures attacking from the mists of the witch’s grove. There’d been fear and rage; the promise of freedom. As the thought came back to her, she felt some broken memory of hope. 

She shook her head; still groggy. Why was the hope just a memory? Why did it hurt to think of?

Twenty Three was glad she had her eyes closed when the lights came on, the colors growing brighter behind her eyelids. Judging by the muffled groan off to her left, the boss hadn’t been quite so lucky.

The boss. More flashes in her head. Fighting, the drain, the split-second image of Caleb’s body flung like a rag-doll across the clearing. She felt something numb settling in her chest.

They’d been so close. 

More retching to the side. Just the one voice now. Young, male; Charlie. Right. The boss had got him too.

“What the heck was that?” he asked, his voice small; his teeth chattering.

“My apologies,” came the boss’ reply, the words coming out as a pained mumble. “I had to get us out of there. Bit of a rough ride.”

Twenty Three opened her eyes. The light ached. That didn’t matter. She had one thought, something to latch onto with all her strength. 

Somewhere, bare feet away from her, the boss spoke.

“Twenty Three,” Leanne croaked. “Check on Charlie. See if he’s injured, then help me up.”

She scanned the ground around her. The world spun. The vague sense of shapes moving to her left. She forced her eyes to focus. 

Charlie sat a few feet to her left, arms curled up around his eyes as he tried to block out the light and the chill. She forced her gaze to the other shape. Leanne, on all fours, immobile. 

Twenty Three forced herself to her feet. The motion disoriented; another wave of nausea sliding against her brain. She closed her eyes, and took a step towards Leanne.

Her thoughts weren’t vocal in that moment; incoherent. All she had inside her was that crushing sense of loss. She wished the feeling could be less familiar.

She took another step, and felt her leg collide with something soft. She lowered herself to her knees beside the boss, confirming identity by touch rather than her still aching eyes.

“Charlie’s fine,” she muttered, orienting an arm under the woman’s shoulders, and exhaustedly heaving her upright, the two of them steadying one another as gravity itself seemed to ebb beneath them. “What do you want me to do?”

Leanne took a while before she answered, clearly forcing herself to think; barely conscious. 

“Get-” she shook her head. “Get inside. Find someone from medical. Send them across while I look after Charlie.”

Twenty Three forced a nod. It was mechanical; artificial; a built in response to having another layer of hope ripped out by the root. Obedience. That was how one avoided pain. It was the only way.

“… Yes, Maam.”

It was… surprisingly easy, letting her feelings go, keeping the hate out of her voice. She just had to forget she had a soul. Simple as breathing.

It just wasn’t something her sanity could stand. 

It wasn’t really a conscious choice, unclipping the knife from her belt. Maybe it should have been. Maybe she should have considered the odds for her survival. She didn’t. She was too busy playing back images inside her mind. The panic in Caleb’s eyes before the end. Twenty Four’s body growing cold against his bed. 

Leanne barely reacted when the blade pierced her gut. Just a faint surprise; a breath; the exhalation turned to mist by the chill.

Twenty Three withdrew the knife; stabbed again. Leanne’s hands came up to stop her; weaker than a child. She stabbed again.

“Everything,” Twenty Three whispered, one arm at the older woman’s back, holding her upright. “You broke every good thing there ever was in me. I can’t live like this.”

She felt Leanne’s touch inside her mind; the last dregs of power draining slowly out of her. She shook her head. Was this how Twenty Four had felt? The lifeblood leaching from his veins as he stood there in the snow? 

He must have been so lonely.

“Do it,” she murmured, forcing a smile even as the tears began to trickle along her cheeks. “Send me back to them. Please.”

Something broke inside her when the sound of Leanne’s breaths grew still. The hand inside her head stopped pulling at her. The woman’s form grew heavy in her arms.

Why was she still alive?

She shook Leanne’s body.

 “Wake up. You’re not done. I said wake up!” 

The boss’ head lolled to the side as she slapped it. No resistance. No pulse.

Twenty Three let the body fall to the floor, and put her head in her hands.

“No,” she whispered. “No, no, no. Not again. Don’t make me be alone again.”

“… Hey.”

She let the knife fall from her fingers with a clatter. Her fingers shook, her breaths short and shallow.

“Fuck. Fuck.” She shook herself. Nothing changed. She slapped herself. She failed to wake up.

“Hey!” 

Something struck her in the leg, hard enough to sting. She ignored it. It hit her again.

She opened her eyes.

It was the kid.

Charlie.

He was shivering. Barefoot and pajama clad in the freezing cold. He was also kicking her in the shins.

“Will. You. Stop. Flipping. Out!” he shouted, planting a fresh kick in the space between each word. “We’ve been kidnapped! Pull it together, or we’re screwed!”

She looked down at him, confused.

“But Caleb’s dead,” she said, the words coming out strangely hollow.

Charlie glared at her, his arms wrapping tight around himself for warmth, his feet tucking into the bottoms of his pajamas so as not to touch the ground.

“Who?” he asked. “Y-you mean the guy who tried to save us? I didn’t see him die. Did you see him die?”

“He-” she swallowed. “He got hit.”

Charlie shook his head.

“No,” he chittered. “S-shut up. That’s not what I said. Did. You. See. Him. Die?”

Twenty Three opened her mouth.

Twenty Three closed her mouth.

“Yeah,” Charlie muttered. “That’s what I thought. N-now. I’m gonna be honest. I just watched you stab someone. I don’t trust you. But we’re in this together. So, are you gonna help me get back to my mom or not?”

For a moment, she simply gazed at him. Then she began to laugh.

“… What?” he asked, one eyebrow crawling up his scalp.

“Ah.” She giggled. “It’s just- Oh, wow. My life is just a procession of little boys who need me to keep them alive.”

“I’m not a little boy.” He muttered, hands rubbing up and down along his sides in an attempt to ward off the cold.

“You’re totally a little boy.” Twenty Three opened a hand, allowing a mote of indigo flame to blossom between her fingers, before lobbing it down on the ground between them. It wasn’t much; little more than a space heater, really, but Charlie huddled himself around it like it was the warmest thing on Earth.

“Where the heck are we?” he asked. “How’s it so cold? It’s October.”

“It’s October, sure,” she muttered, taking a good look around for the first time since her landing. “But I’m pretty sure we’re back where I grew up. Near the arctic. Up in the mountains. Up here, October just means the snow storms are back.”

The first things she noted looking around were the shipping containers. Eight of them, organized around them in a neat, two-by-two stack. She could see the distant wall down one end, a sliding entryway just big enough for a hauler on the other side. All of it covered over by a low tin roof. 

They were back at the compound. 

She chuckled. For the last twelve years, being back here had been a feature of every nightmare she’d had. Strange that it could now be a cause for such relief. She’d been trying to break out of here for years. She knew the security of the place like the back of her hand.

“Well,” she muttered. First question. How about your portals? Think you could put us back in America somewhere?”

“Already tried it while you were freaking out,” he replied. “I don’t think I can make them go that far. The only one I managed opened up into a snow storm. Now they won’t open up at all. I think I’m out of power.”

“Right,” she sighed. “Well, that makes things harder.” She glanced across at Charlie, still warming himself by the meagre fire, and stripped off her jacket. She tossed it at him. “In a perfect world, we could just hide here until you got your power back.” She heaved another sigh. “But, the lights are on. And that means they’ll come looking in here soon. This warehouse isn’t big enough to hide in, and if we tried, it’d mean going without the fire. At best, we’d be caught. At worst, we’d freeze.”

Charlie wrapped the jacket around him as tightly as he could, burrowing in against the leather lining. 

“But I like the fire,” he muttered.

“Me too,” she replied, slumping down on the floor across from him. “Don’t wanna have to go without it. But there’s no hiding here with it. Now, we could make a run for it, but we’re up in the mountains, and it’s cold outside. It’s only going to get colder when nighttime hits. You’re not wearing shoes. Or any warm clothes. We could steal hers-” she pointed at Leanne’s corpse. 

“-but they won’t fit, and they aren’t enough. I have no idea how far away it is to the nearest town. Hell, I don’t even know where the nearest town is. There’s a ski resort, I think, on one of the mountains nearby, but as far as I could ever tell, that mountain is at least twelve miles away. So, to get us there, I’d have to carry you through the snow, in broad daylight, for about two hours. Best case, we get there and you only lose a few toes to the cold. Worst case, we get caught, and you still lose a couple toes. We could wait until nighttime in some of the trees on the other side of the compound, but that’d mean staying in the cold even longer. And we still might get caught.”

Charlie shook his head, his expression slightly queasy.

“Okay,” he muttered. “Thanks for the horror story, weirdo. Why are you telling me all this?”

“Because,” she groaned. “I want you to know your options. We could run, and we could maybe make it. But there’s a risk. And because you’re smaller, and your body doesn’t have superpowers, most of that risk is on you. But. The other option might be worse.”

Of all the possible responses, the boy somehow managed a chuckle.

“Worse than losing my toes?” he asked, poking his bare feet out from under the wrapping of the jacket, and wiggling them around near the fire. “Not likely. I like my toes.”

Twenty Three shook her head.

“Option two is you turn yourself in,” she muttered. His head jerked up at her at that. She held up a hand. “I know. I know. It sounds dumb. But these people wanted us to capture you. That means someone here is going to know your face. If you turn yourself in, they’ll keep you warm, and keep you safe. If you told them the boss got stabbed before she brought you here, they wouldn’t need to know about me. And that gives me enough time to get supplies, come back, and break you out.”

“… You really think you can just break me out of here?”

There was a lot more cynicism in Charlie’s voice than Twenty Three would have liked. She brushed it off with a grin.

“Kid. I spent my whole childhood figuring out how to break people out of here. Most of that was before I learned magic.”

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Aid: 5.17

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Caleb:

Caleb extinguished the flames around his arm with a groan. The limb was less than useless; the sensations echoing out of it too profound and varied to even be called pain; from the omni-present throbbing of the bones in his shattered shoulder, to the deep, half-numbed agony leaking from the hole in his wrist. He tried to move his fingers. Barely a twitch. He sighed.

‘That better not be permanent.’

He glanced over at the boughs currently clearing from his path, then set about binding the wound.

Caleb wasn’t completely sure why, but the trees’ movements had slowed to a crawl since the boss had made her move. Perhaps something to do with the swath of destruction that had been left in the woman’s wake. Caleb didn’t care. It was annoying.

He wrapped a scrap of his shirt around his wrist, then clumsily tied it down with his teeth. No time for blood loss today.

He pushed through.

It was a fairly short path, all things considered, opening up into yet another clearing at the end. Unlike those that had come before, however, this one wasn’t closed off. Here, the walls branched out at odd intervals, gaps between the boughs showing occasional glimpses of further clearings beyond them.

When finished elbowing his way out of his narrow corridor and into the open space, he caught sight of a figure, kneeling in the mist beside one of the smoother boughs, facing away from him. If he’d had the energy to split his focus, he might perhaps have recognized her, even obscured as she was by the fog. As it was, the flames had already begun to cloak his functioning hand before her voice cut him short.

“You’re here,” Tsuru murmured, not bothering to look at him. “Good. Now we can proceed.”

Caleb didn’t have an answer for that at first. What small part of his mind there was that had any care for the outside world was trying to figure out how to feel. Where the hell had she been when the boss had made her move? Why so absent for the entirety of the fight? Why steer him through the grove like a rat chasing cheese?

Eventually, he let out a bitter sort of laugh.

“I could have died back there, you know.”

“You could have,” she agreed. “So could I. That’s the risk you take in a fight. I allowed her burn her way through my cage in whatever direction she chose. That’s what you do when you’re fighting an enemy so much more powerful than you. You let them waste as much energy as you can.”

She paused for a moment there, muttering something quiet under her breath, her fingers trailing symbols in the sand.

“There was a risk to it, certainly,” she continued. “But it’s a risk we had to take. In the best case, she would have burned through as many trees as she could, leaving her open for me to make my move. In the worst case, one or other of us would have died. As it stands, the woman you fought had just used three of her strongest spells in succession, and was therefore weakened enough for you to pierce her shield.”

Caleb absorbed that for a moment, then shook his head.

“You’re a shit ally, you know that?”

Tsuru shrugged.

“I can be. I risk whoever I must in order to see my objective done. I’m a lot like you in that regard.”

One of Caleb’s eyelids twitched. Low blow.

“… I hope James never figures out how terrible you are.”

A laugh.

“You and me both. Now shut up. You’re not the only person I got hurt.”

She finished tracing her patterns in the sand, murmuring another quiet sentence to herself, and then the ground began to move.

It was slow, at first, a few stray roots and vines stirring in the silt, each no thicker than a toothpick. They coalesced, condensing from a wide web that stretched across the floor into the space where she had drawn her marks. Then, they began to rise; first one, then dozens; each and every one of them coiling around the rest as they pushed themselves further from the ground.

What finally emerged bore the rough shape of a child. No larger than a four year old, the latticework of vines that made up its form growing a skin composed of tiny white flowers.

Caleb was briefly surprised at that. He’d expected whatever controlled these trees to be just as dead as they were. Then, he saw the scorch marks darting across its frame, three lines of dry, blackened petals running the surface of its chest, arm, and thigh. It was hugging itself; shaking.

No sooner had the creature emerged than Tsuru leaned in to embrace it, cooing something that Caleb lacked the Japanese to understand, her tone almost parental. He watched, impatient, as it leant its head against her shoulder. For a moment, he could have sworn he heard it crying.

Tsuru raised a hand to stroke its head, and carried on her quiet cooing as her familiar began to fold itself back inside her form, petal and root alike fading into lines of black that crawled along her hand, under her sleeve. She stood, gestured for him to follow her down one of the branching paths, and the two of them began to move.

“How many are left,” he asked. “Do we have a plan to get them away from Twenty Three?”

At that, Tsuru merely chuckled.

“Just the one,” she said. “He’s already being handled.”


Leanne:

When consciousness finally returned to Leanne’s mind, it did not do so gently. First, there was pain; a horrid, aching heat that spanned itself across her scalp, she let out a groan, followed by a low whimper as the act of movement sent a spike of fresh pain driving through her skull.

There were things around her. She could feel them clawing at her skin, the faint remnants of her shield barely holding them at bay. She felt as one of them broke through above her thigh, something jagged cutting a thin, shallow trench in her flesh.

She called her powers.

A small wave was enough to push them off; directionless, unfocused. Why was she so drained?

She tried to open her eyes. One of them obeyed.

Rocky sand. The roots of trees glimpsed through an obscuring field of mist. It was quiet. Her head ached.

A memory.

Power, destruction, rage. Searching for an enemy. The face of one of her hounds. Then fire.

‘Thirteen.’

She felt the confusion in her mind giving way to a grim, determined kind of hate.

She remembered now. The fight. His counter. His palm pressing itself against her face. The sensation as one of the eyes was seared from her skull. The terrifying lack of air within her lungs. The struggle. The dark.

She stood.

She stumbled.

She stood again.

She wasn’t done. She refused. He was less. He was not allowed to beat her.

Her shields flickered. She dug into her reserves. Empty. She dug into the reserves of the hounds. Still a little left. Good. She had feared, for a moment, that she’d been overwhelmed. Apparently not. The little shit had just been lucky enough to pierce her shields.

She looked around. Footprints in the sand. Flecks of blood, barely visible in the fog.

Good. Something for her to follow.


Caleb:

When Caleb and Tsuru arrived, it was to find the bulk of their work already done. When Caleb became aware of the shouting in the fog, he broke into a haggard run, his bruised legs aching with the effort. Then, he rounded a corner, and simply stopped.

There is a saying among filmmakers that a monster becomes less terrifying the more the audience can see it.

Clearly, Tsuru’s ghosts had disagreed.

They were everywhere. The clearing was simply full of them; packed so densely together that some were having to climb atop the rest to avoid the crush of bodies. Some of them were vaguely human by appearance. Most of them were not.

The whispers were gone; replaced, to Caleb’s surprise, not by snarling or growls, but by almost total silence. A silence broken only by the yells of those attempting to hold them off, and the rattling of claws on metal.

It took Caleb a moment or two to find them, his eyes scanning back and forth over the mass of the swarm, and coming up empty. Then, he watched one of the creatures fall, and directed his eyes upwards.

“… Huh.”

It was a van; a perfectly normal, utterly average van.

It was also hanging some twelve feet in the air, with yet another tree simply shunted through its midsection, leaving the rear end of it sloping slightly towards the ground, one of the rear doors hanging wide, the other apparently torn off by the creatures clambering along the walls.

As Caleb watched, one of the creatures tried to climb inside, only for the man standing at the lip to send it reeling back with a bolt of greenish light, the force of it loosening its grip on the vehicle’s underside. It fell to the ground; landed amidst the swarm of flesh, and began to climb again.

Then the next monster tried force its way inside. Then the next. Then the next.

Some of them were clawing at the walls now, peeling metal loose from the chassis, and attempting to force their heads inside.

Somewhere inside the van, a child’s voice began to scream, the shadowed interior of the van flaring with purple light.

Caleb caught a glimpse of his partner’s face.

Seeing someone surrounded by the dead should never inspire such relief. Caleb hadn’t even realized how tightly he was wound until it all released.

He grinned wider and more exhaustedly than he could ever remember grinning, and raised his remaining good hand to his lips.

“Hey!” he bellowed. “Twenty Three!”

Just like that, the monsters stopped. Every last one of them went still. Not even fighting to stay on top of one another.

Inside the van, on the other hand, only two of the occupants turned to look at him. He recognised them now. The man at the lip glanced down at him, his gaze filling with absolute contempt. Behind the man crouched the blank faced form of Seventeen, her eyes flickering briefly towards him, before she moved to shield a boy cowering near the point where the splaying branches of the tree stabbed through the walls. At a second glance, he recognised the boy as the one he’d been told to capture.

Caleb noted absently that the purple glow seemed to emanate from a disc floating between Charlie’s hands. The boy was staring at it. He felt a momentary pang of sympathy. This couldn’t be a pleasant time to manifest. Then, his focus returned to Twenty Three. Had he always felt this light?

For her part, his partner was still in motion, taking advantage of the momentary lull to shove one of the creatures back out through the hole it had burrowed into the wall by Charlie’s head. Caleb winced. Small wonder the kid had screamed.

Only then did she turn to look at him.

For a second, no one spoke. Caleb raised his good hand in a wave.

“Uh, hey,” he called awkwardly. “I’m here to save you.”

At that, Twenty Three simply stared. The agent, on the other hand, spat at him.

“Like hell you are, kid.”

He raised an arm, another bolt of pale, greenish light gathering between his fingers; loosed before Twenty Three had any time to intervene. Caleb knew he couldn’t dodge the shot. He was too tired and too stiff to even possibly get away in time. He didn’t even try. Instead, he put a shard of James’ power into a shield, and allowed the bolt to plink lightly off his chest, as threatening as a foam dart. Then, with a wordless yell, Twenty Three tackled the agent from behind, swept his legs out from under him, and began punching him in the face.

There was something about that response which Caleb found incredibly appealing.

When the beating finally stopped, Caleb gazed up at his erstwhile attacker. For a moment, he tried to be angry. The emotion wouldn’t come. He settled for a smile.

“You’re out of your depth, man,” he said, not unkindly. “Surrender now and I promise not to feed you to the swarm.”

Somewhere among the mass of shapes, he could have sworn he heard the finger girl snicker.

The bloodied agent simply glared at him. He did not, however, attempt to stand.

At the back of the van, the purple light once again went out.

“W-what the hell is going on?” a boy’s voice asked, its tone one of a mesmerised sort of fear.

Caleb felt a momentary pang of guilt. He owed it to James to make sure this kid was okay.

“Hey,” he called, trying to put something soothing in his voice. “You Charlie Vance?”

A sniffle.

“Why does everyone know my fucking name?”

Caleb winced; shook his head; took a breath.

“Heh. Sorry about that. My name’s Caleb. I’m friends with kid called James Toranaga. He sent me here to get you home.”

Another sniffle.

“They set my house on fire.”

Caleb reevaluated.

“Well, I can get you to your parents, then.”

There was silence for a moment then, broken when the agent swore. Caleb ignored him.

‘Let him be pointless. Why should I care?’

Finally, Charlie seemed to come to a decision:

“I-Is my Mom okay?” he asked. “The woman who grabbed me knocked her out.”

For a moment, Caleb contemplated lying; simply telling him she was fine. Fuck that. He was tired of lying.

“I dunno,” he admitted. “I don’t know what they would have hit her with; but I know these people don’t like killing without a reason. If you come with me, I promise I’ll stay with you until we find her.”

“… Yeah,” Charlie muttered. “Okay.”

“Charles, wait,” the Agent cut in, his voice a little distorted from the swelling in his jaw. “Think about this. You don’t know him. He could be lying through his te-”

For the second time, the interior of the van was lit with a neon glow; this one far brighter than before. That wasn’t, in itself, entirely unexpected. What did make Caleb jump, however, was the second disc; the one that opened some three feet wide and a little to his right. For the brief moment that it was open, Caleb saw the interior of the van painted over the portal’s surface, like a window framed in solid light. He took an unconscious step back as Charlie clambered through. No sooner was the boy through than the portal snapped shut behind him.

“Did you say you were friends with James?” he asked, glancing nervously at the now much closer mass of the swarm.

To Caleb’s credit, he didn’t stay surprised for long.

“Oh, right.” He grinned. “Yeah, I am. He saved my butt tonight, if I’m honest.”

Behind them, a voice whistled.

“Portal maker, eh?” Tsuru spoke, now leaned against a tree trunk a dozen or so feet back. “Hell of a skill you have there, Charlie.”

“… Aren’t you James’ Grandma?”

If Tsuru responded, Caleb didn’t hear it. He became somewhat distracted when his partner started yelling.

“Caleb!” she bellowed. “You have five seconds to tell me what’s going on, or I will punch you in the dick!”

“Right, shit, yeah,” he returned his attention to her in full. “You know those stupid escape plans I keep coming up with? Well, one of em worked.” He waited for her to respond. She did not. Her face had gone completely blank. “I’m free,” he repeated. “I got out. It cost me a broken arm and a ton of pride, but I did it. I’m gonna get you out, too.”

“… Prove it.”

“What?” he asked, nonplussed.

“I said prove it,” she snapped, her voice hard. “Prove you’re not just another one of those monsters down there. Or an illusion. Prove you’re Caleb, and prove you’re free.”

Caleb took a deep breath, then nodded.

“Yeah, okay. One sec.” He spent a few moments trying to shrug out of his Jacket without having to move his crushed shoulder, then gave up. “Hey, old lady, can you help me outta this so she can see my back?”

Tsuru gave no audible response, simply striding across the short distance between them, and helping him begin to shift free of his clothes.

“As for proving I’m really me-” he let out a quiet groan as his jacket pulled agonisingly against his arm. “-Fine. Stuff only you and I know, right? How about escape attempts? Remember my first one? When I was like, nine? I tried to convince you we could just make a run for it, and you slapped me so hard one of my teeth came loose?” He chuckled. “You brought me ice cream after that. Still have no idea where you got the money. How about the knife? Three years ago, last time I tried to get away; you snapped the blade under a paving slab. I told you I’d rather die than stay like this; you just hugged me and made me promise to never say stuff like that again. I remember we didn’t hang out for a while after that, cuz that was when I realised I had a crush on you.”

For the last few words, it was a genuine struggle to hold the older girl’s gaze. For her part, Twenty Three looked slightly sad.

“You know I don’t fe—” she started, but he cut her off.

“Of course I do,” he muttered. “Doesn’t stop me having a crush. Doesn’t have to go anywhere.”

Twenty Three opened her mouth to respond, then closed it again. In the end, she just nodded.

With Tsuru’s help, he finished extricating his upper body from his clothing, and stepped forwards, the creatures of the swarm parting gently before him. He turned around, and offered his partner a view of his neck, the brand scorched from his skin.

“Got a magic transfusion from a friend; used it to overload the spell. The boss can’t touch me now.”

A long, long silence; then a quiet sniff.

“She can always get to us, Caleb. They’re fucking everywhere.”

Caleb turned back around, and looked his friend in the eye. There was a single tear mark streaking down her cheek. He gave her a tired laugh.

“Well, I mean, they can try,” he admitted. “But last time the boss picked a fight with me, I left her on the ground with most of her face burned off. If she ever wakes up from that, she can go for it.”

That statement did not have quite the desired effect. Instead of elation, surprise, or maybe even a laugh, all it seemed to do was deepen his partner’s worry.

“But she’s awake right now,” Twenty Three replied, her brow furrowing. “I can feel her draining me.”

For what it was worth, Caleb didn’t waste time with disbelief.

“Twenty Three,” he said urgently. “I need you to get down here right no-”

It wasn’t worth much.

Behind him, Caleb heard a final, horrifying crack, before his vision sparked with neon blue, and something sent him hurtling across the clearing. He didn’t even feel the impact as his body struck who knew what; his senses too thrown to even register the sound.

The last sight his vision registered before the darkness took him was of Tsuru lunging for the van, her swarm already beginning to move, and of Leanne’s broken form holding Twenty Three and Charlie by the shoulders. Then the three of them vanished into nothing.

She was gone.

He had failed.

He fainted.

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Aid: 5.16

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Caleb:

The procession through the grove was a stilted one; Caleb making his way down passage after passage, his way lit only by the faint emerald glow still emanating from his arm; ever more aware of the omnipresent whispers in the mist. The ghosts weren’t really what unsettled him, though. He knew that they were, at least nominally, on his side. What bothered him was the quiet.

Caleb wasn’t sure if it was a property of the mist, the trees, or some tertiary enchantment Tsuru had laid down on the area around them, but whatever it was, it made things quiet.

He wasn’t used to being deaf to his own footsteps, unable to hear the beating of his heart, even as the thud of it sent vibrations through his chest. It threw him slightly. Disconnected.

Then, there were the lights. Infrequent bolts of wide-cast spells throwing shadows between the trees. Occasional glimpses of distant, fearful men.

One by one, those men fell, the calling of commands and muttered incantations giving way to short lived shrieks. There would come a few more bolts, aimed at the shapes that lumbered in the dark. Then, for a time, the quiet would resume.

It felt like watching something hunt.

Still no sign of Twenty Three.

He was growing… agitated; drawn taut. Adrenaline without a chance to move. A feeling that the seemingly endless procession of bleach barked corridors did nothing to appease. The grove couldn’t be that big. He hated it. The waiting; the hiding. Being led around by the nose while creatures from bad horror movies pulled off all the fighting. Here he was, stronger and freer than he’d ever been in his life, and the world was making him wait. He gripped the rebar tighter in his hand, his knuckles white.

In the end, when Tsuru’s plan finally went to shit, it was almost a relief. At least it put him back inside his world.

It started as another glow in the distance, a flicker of blue barely visible between the trees. Caleb ducked low, a shoulder pressed against a bough, listening.

Voices in the distance; muffled partly by the fog, then even further by the murmurs of Tsuru’s host. He closed his eyes, slowed his breath; listened.

“-eed to find the van. Your only job right now is to get Charles Vance out of here. Am I understood?”

Caleb grinned. He recognized that voice. It was the boss. She didn’t sound happy. He thought about launching an attack, wondered if he could manage to part the trees. The trail of thought was cut off by a voice that Caleb thought he might have recognized. He forced himself to focus once more.

“-an’t be serious. We’re surrounded. These trees are moving. How the hell am I supposed to-”

A cracking sound. The man stopped talking.

“I’m not here to hold your hand. Just get it done. Seventeen, Twenty Three, go with him and provide support. As for me, I’ll deal with the witch.”

Caleb’s breath hitched, his heart thudding harder and harder in his chest. He’d found her.

Silence for a moment, before:

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Caleb opened his eyes again and stood, that wide grin once more settling itself across his face.

Found you.

Absently, he tapped his steel bar against a tree trunk.

“You gonna take me to her, then?”

He could have sworn he heard a chuckle in the air as the trees once more began to shift. He didn’t care. He set off down his new path at a sprint. Then, from somewhere in the gloom, the boss began to yell.

“It was a good plan, you know,” she called, the faint blue between the trees starting to grow slowly more intense. “Boxing me in like this. Picking off my men. Forcing me to either play defence or waste my energy breaking free. Smart moves.” Caleb chuckled. There was something so satisfying about the anger in her voice. “But now you’ve managed to piss me off. So either let us go, or I will break this forest down tree by tree until I find you.”

For a moment, all was quiet, the stillness of the fog covering even the pounding of Caleb’s feet as he ran. Then, there was a chuckle in the gloom. A cold one. No humor to it.

“You sound like a five year old,” Tsuru said.

Silence once more as the glow built itself to a peak, the light throwing a dozen scattered shades of blue among the trees. For a moment, as Caleb ran, he could have sworn he caught a glimpse of a person at the centre, their shape surrounded by more of those crawling, creeping forms.

Then, with a quiet crack, the light went out.

What came next happened so fast that Caleb’s brain barely managed to parse it. It was like a shockwave. This streaking lance of neon blue that shot across the grove, moving faster than the human eye could even track, followed by the sharp, rolling roar as tree after tree simply crumpled in her wake. It passed outside of Caleb’s line of sight, and by the time he had managed to turn his head, it was gone.

In the seconds that followed, even the whispers of the ghosts grew still. Then, the fallen trees began to burn. For a moment, Caleb just stood there, stunned. Then, by way of a precaution, he pumped a measure of James’ energy into a shield.

Then came the second spark. Another bolt, streaking right to left across Caleb’s vision, passing bare yards in front of his face. Another wave of sound, another thunderous fall. The fire spread further. The trees were parting slower now, the path clearing barely fast enough to keep a pace with him. A few of the trees bore scorches. He ignored it.

Not far now. He had to be nearly there. Whatever the boss was doing didn’t concern him. He had to get to Twenty Three. That was all that mattered.

Then came the third spark. This one was different from the others. This one went for him.

Caleb didn’t register it when the bough to his left gave out, the dead wood splitting apart in a shower of bark and sparks. He didn’t register it when the boss’ fist caught him in the side. It was simply too quick for him to catch. What he did notice, however, was his shield popping away around his skin like an over glorified soap bubble. He noticed the pain arcing across his ribs. He noticed as his body struck a wall; the crunch of breaking bone.

For the first second, Caleb was simply dazed. His head pounded. His vision swam. He could feel something embedded in his arm. He looked down at his wrist, and dimly noted the hunk of rebar sticking through it, the metal slowly melting in the fire still shrouding his hand. His fingers twitched.

“Hello, Thirteen,” a voice murmured to his left, angry glee dripping from every word. “It’s convenient. Finding you like this. Maybe this can be a good day after all.”

It was hard to recognize the boss at first. The lightning currently dancing its way around her was one thing, but then there was the soot caking the entirety of her body, the hundred or so gashes torn into her clothes, and the utterly unmanaged nature of her hair. What really threw him off, however, was the formless mass of creatures currently grappled onto her; clawing, scratching; desperate to kill.

She ignored them.

When Caleb’s brain finally returned him to coherence, he had one thought: He did not care. Here was death, standing above him, and he simply did not care. He had a job to do.

“Go fuck yourself,” he muttered croakily as he pushed himself upright, cradling his impaled arm with his remaining good one, letting the fire build hotter and hotter around the wound so as to melt the metal away. He turned his back to her, and simply walked away. “Enjoy your game. I’m out of here.”

When the boss replied, her voice was cold.

“You called me a cunt, Thirteen. You don’t get to walk away.”

Something cracked behind him.

Caleb wasn’t dumb. Even like this. He knew what was coming next. He knew she wouldn’t let him leave. At least like this, he could maybe get her guard down.

He couldn’t hear her approach. That damned mist covered her footsteps far too well. He couldn’t see her. But the bird in his arm could smell her. A scent more powerful than anything he’d ever felt. Over a dozen different people squeezed inside a single body. Two steps away. One. None.

Now.

It was hard not to savor the surprise on his former master’s face as she stepped past him, her lightning clad fist passing inches from his form as he half bent, half fell out of her way. He laughed. She should have used the super speed. Then, his shoulder caught her in the middle, sending both of them toppling clumsily to the floor.

There was no grand strategy from there. Just a wounded boy fighting a painful grapple against a perfectly healthy woman.

But the woman didn’t have super strength.

She swore. He didn’t listen. She struck him. He ignored her. Somewhere in that flailing mess of limbs, his barely functional hand came up against her face. Her shield flickered. Then, only half aware of what he was doing, he opened up the gates of James’ power. His glove flared emerald green around his hand. He closed his fingers on her skull.

Leanne screamed.

Caleb held on.

She fought.

He held on.

The scent of burning meat.

He held on.

She stopped fighting.

Caleb forced himself to stand, his breathing heavy. He had a job to do.

He offered a single parting thought as he took his leave.

“You put a mark on me once. I guess we’re even now.”

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