Aid: 5.14

Previous Chapter:

Tsuru:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was where the problem lay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Across the way, her foe was speaking once again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Leanne:

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

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

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

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

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

From somewhere inside, Charlie Vance began to yell. 

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

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

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Aid: 5.13

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Leanne:

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

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

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

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

‘And the witch lets it fuck her.’

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

She shook herself.

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

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

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

No time for subtlety, then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie didn’t move.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlie sniffed.

“What are you gonna do to us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“… Why?”

At that, Leanne let out a sigh.

“Because I need your help to save the world”


Tsuru:

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

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

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

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

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

The bags were twitching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All eyes turned to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aid: 5.8

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Twenty Three:

Thirteen’s apartment was tiny; just a single room, really, with little more than the formality of a wall separating the toilet from the rest of the living space to justify the usage of the term. Twenty Three couldn’t bring herself to truly be upset about that. It was just one of the tiny ways her partner’s constant sass had of biting him in the rear. She contented herself that at least his punishment wasn’t something more severe.

She moved to the bed, and one by one started pulling sheets up off the mattress.

At least being smaller made the place quicker for her to search.

She examined the bedding by touch as she pulled it apart. Nothing there that wasn’t supposed to be. She checked the mattress, then dumped the sheets back down on top of it. She’d remake it when she was done, if there was time. She moved on to search the trunk.

Thirteen hadn’t been talking lately; ignoring offers of food or company and rarely even messaging her more than once every couple of days. That never bode well. When Thirteen went quiet, it always meant he was trying to keep things from her. She sighed. Thirteen only hid the things that led to fights.

The last time, it had been a kitchen knife; a small thing, embedded with a dozen or so pitifully small enchantments. He’d had some damn fool idea about just cutting the brands out of their skin. She would have laughed if the thought alone wasn’t enough to get him killed. That was years ago now, though. She’d thought he’d given up trying.

The knife had led to the biggest fight she could remember. He’d cried as he watched her break it; hadn’t spoken to her for months after that.

She wondered how long the silent treatment would last this time around.

The trunk was a bust. Nothing in there besides a few clothes and the small assortment of possessions their masters had allowed him to maintain. There was a Tardis shirt in there, a good three sizes too small for him now. It had been a task and a half just getting the thing for him. She’d thought he would have thrown it out by now. It wasn’t as if he could wear it any more.

She closed the trunk back up, then moved her search to the bathroom.

Nothing under the sink. No gaps in the walls or floor. No loose tiles under which he could be hiding things. She sighed, for a moment allowing herself to hope. Maybe there was nothing here to find. Maybe he really had given up. It felt wrong, having that be what she hoped for.

She moved to the toilet, and began pulling apart the water housing. No bags inside. Nothing there that wasn’t meant to be.

Maybe he was just trying to get some space from her? Maybe he wanted her to make the first move? Maybe he was just being a moody shit. Teenagers were difficult, even at the best of times.

She returned to the main room, and started re-dressing the bed. Maybe she could just invite him over for a while; just talk things out.

She made it halfway through getting the final sheet back in place when her phone pinged.

Great, she thought drily. A new target. Just what I needed.

She pulled the phone from her pocket and glanced at the screen, and that little scrap of hope shrivel away inside her chest.

“So,” she whispered. “This is how they finally break us, huh?”

The target was a girl. A human girl; about eight or nine, if she had to guess, and she was smiling. Why did she have to be smiling? That just made it so much worse. There were words as well, collected underneath the picture, half concealed by the border of the screen.

Numbly, Asset Twenty Three scrolled down and read through the target information; then she stood there, just letting it all sink in.

They told me her name, she thought. They told me her fucking name.

She took a breath.

Just say no. Take your phone, and go to the government. Right here. Right now. Let them kill you. What does it even matter? What kind of life have you got to lose?

For a moment, she almost managed to be convinced. But then there was another voice inside her head.

They’ll kill Caleb too, you know. You being obedient is the only thing that kept him alive so far.

Twenty Three allowed herself just a few more moments to pretend she had a choice, then put the phone back in her pocket with a laugh.

It didn’t matter anyway. She was a hunting dog. She did as she was told.


Caleb:

Caleb made his way back to his cage by a casual route that night. He was in no hurry. There were no tasks that day that remained for him to do, the night air was cool, and his curfew alarms weren’t set to go off for another hour, at least. Even leaving all of that aside, however, there was something else in play.

For the first time in a long while, Caleb was in a good mood. He was in a really good mood. He had a reason to be. The plan was coming together well.

In the two days since his talk with James’ stupidly powerful family, things had been right on track. According to the updates James had given him, the escape route was well on its way to full completion, and he’d spent most of yesterday training with Tasha in preparation for subduing Twenty Three.

He rolled his neck slowly around atop his shoulders for a second at that, trying unsuccessfully to ease the few remaining aches and pains. His technical ally hadn’t even tried to pull her punches. That was okay, though. He hadn’t either. If this thing really did go off without a hitch, he might even be big enough to thank her.

He was grinning by the time his cage came into view. A thought had struck him on his walk, and it was a good one.

Twenty Three would be free this time tomorrow. Maybe she’d finally be willing to give herself a name. He’d mulled it over in his head for the last half hour or so, and while it was her choice he wouldn’t dream of taking it away from her, he thought he’d like it if she chose to go with Kaylee.

Kaylee was a kind name.

His good mood lasted all the way inside his run-down apartment block, up the stairs, and halfway down the narrow hallway that led towards his cage.

Then he saw his doorway was ajar. Someone else had been inside.

He dropped his smile, slowing his pace a fraction; alert. Someone in his cage meant one of two things. Either someone had broken in, or he had a superior up the ranks that had decided not to trust him. For the first time in his life, Caleb found himself dearly hoping he’d just been robbed. Suspicion would just make the whole plan harder.

He neared the door and, quiet as he could, reached forward to push it open. Before his hand even touched the handle, however, the door swung open from the other side. What he saw behind it was not a supervisor, and that was not a relief.

“Hey, Thirteen,” Twenty Three murmured, barely even pausing to look at him as she stepped out past him into the hallway. “Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“You searched my room?” he asked, his voice quiet.

She stopped walking at that, her back to him. Then, in the most exhausted voice Caleb had ever heard, she spoke.

“I don’t wanna fight about this, Caleb,” she muttered. “Not right now. Please. I’m too tired.”

Caleb felt his eyes draw wide at that. She’d never used the name before. That alone was enough to quiet whatever anger had been building in his gut; replacing it with a concern he couldn’t seem to put a cause to.

“… Are you okay?”

Twenty Three let out a short laugh at that, followed by a weary kind of sigh.

“No,” she said. “I’m not. I’m in pain, Caleb. I wanted to ask you a favor.”

“Anything,” he replied without even a moment’s hesitation. “Whatever I can do.”

A pause, then; long enough that Caleb wondered if she’d even heard him. Then, her shoulders seemed to slump.

“Can you stop trying?” she asked. “For me? Just give up and let this be your life?” She turned around to give him a broken sort of smile. “It’d be easier for both of us if you did.”

Whatever thoughts had been winding their way through Caleb’s head came to a halt at that. She might as well have been asking him to die.

“… I really don’t think I can do that.”

“It’s easier than you’d think,” she replied. “And you won’t be alone for it, I promise. I just-” she halted there, regret for what came next written plain as day across her face. “It just hurts, you know? You’re the only good thing in my life, and the moments I get with you… they make it bearable. Can you stop making those moments hurt by making me betray you?”

“… You don’t have to keep betraying me.”

A laugh.

“I do if I want to keep your butt alive.”

There it was; the impasse. For a while, neither of them moved. There was nothing they could say. No compromise to be had.

“I care about you, you know?” Caleb gave the older girl a smile, and she gave him one back that made him feel cold inside.

“Yeah,” she replied. “Me too. Promise you’ll think about what I said?”

“… Yeah,” he muttered. “I promise.”

“Thank you.”

With that, Twenty Three turned away, and once more set off down the hall. Caleb did his best to brush the nausea aside.

It doesn’t matter, said a voice inside his haid. Tomorrow, we’ll be gone, and all of this’ll shift. It’s fi-

“You’ve got another escape attempt lined up, don’t you?” Twenty Three murmured behind her as she reached the stairs. When he didn’t reply, she simply sighed. “… Well, I guess it doesn’t matter now, anyways. Just try and get rid of it before we leave, okay?”

“What?”

Twenty Three didn’t say any more, simply stepping onward out of sight. A minute or two later, his phone pinged from inside his jacket. Feeling a little numb, he pulled it out, and checked the screen.

The photograph was more perplexing to him than anything else at first, a distance shot of a young boy, apparently taken through a window. Then he saw the words sitting underneath.

‘Target Name: Charles Vance. High priority. Retrieve unharmed and move to designated site to await your relocation. Harm to target will result in your termination. Failure to deliver will result in termination. You have three hours. Locations enclosed.’

Fuck.

Caleb set off down the corridor at a sprint. He had to get to Twenty Three. He had to get to her right fucking now and stop this. He reached the stairs, and didn’t even bother to run, simply vaulting across the breadth of them and landing on the floor. The plan was gone. He had to get the two of them away and he had to do it now.

She was already long gone by the time he hit the street. It took everything he had not to simply punch something.

No time, Caleb. You can be pissed about this later. Bigger problems right now. No plan. No partner. Gotta find her before she leaves. Think quickly.

He had the phone back out of his pocket before he’d even consciously decided on a choice, dialing in a number and pressing it against his ear while the rest of his body set off down the street at a sprint.

It took James almost a minute to answer the call, the young voice coming across the line husky and slowed.

“Caleb,” James groaned. “It’s midnight. Why the heck are yo-”

“We’re doing the ritual now,” Caleb cut him off, sparing a moment for his surroundings before cutting off down a side street. The bin he had to get to was three blocks away. There wasn’t time to waste. “No time to wait for it anymore.”

“What?” James asked, surprised, his voice still just shaking itself from sleep. “No, Caleb. That’s tomorrow. We’ve gotta wait for the-”

“They’ve given us new targets,” Caleb said shortly. “But it’s not creatures. We were always hunting beasts before, but now they’re sending us after humans.”

“What?” To his credit, the tiredness seemed to have abandoned James’ voice at that. “What humans? Why’re they taking them?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, taking the final turn into another darkened street and catching sight of the bin he needed. He kept speaking as he sprinted across to it, then ducked down, and tugged his ritual supplies from the packet he’d kept sticky taped underneath it. “I just know they want me to deliver some kid named Charles Vance. They’re gonna relocate me if I do, and they’re gonna kill me if I don’t. We don’t have any time to figure this out, Ja-”

“Charlie,” the other boy interrupted, his voice suddenly cold. “His name’s Charlie. They’re sending you after my friend.”

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Aid: 5.3

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Sixteen years ago, Asset Twenty Three:

“We can get out of here. I know we can. Together.”


The air vent was sticky; hot wind blowing constantly through a space so cramped that even she, the smallest of the children, could barely fit inside it. Twenty Three ignored the heat, and focused on keeping her breathing even. Trainer Sloan was about to leave for the night, and he always left his keycard in the second drawer of his desk. She just had to be still for a few more minutes.

She was sweating, droplets of liquid soaking into the joints of her fatigues, making them chafe. Some of it was from the heat, some from the stress. This was their only chance; they’d be moved to the new facility soon.

Through the slats in the heating vent, she watched as Sloan signed off his computer, stood up from his desk, and stretched. Twenty Three scowled. She didn’t like Sloan. He was fat, and loud, and he always got so angry if her scores dropped on any of her exercises. Sloan was mean.

Twenty three breathed a quiet sigh of relief as the man finally made to move towards the door, stowing his keycard in the drawer and grabbing his coat off the rack, just as planned. Twenty Three waited until a few seconds after the door had swung closed behind him, then set to work at the screws that bolted the heating vent into the wall.

For the longest time, figuring out a way to unbolt the vents and sneak into the offices had been the biggest obstacle in their plan, but then the beating night had happened, and unscrewing them by hand had ceased to be an issue. She was stronger now.

Twenty seconds of effort later, she was out of the sweltering vent, and in the office. She didn’t waste her time. They had to be quick here. She moved to the drawer, grasped the handle, and pulled.

It didn’t budge. From her new perspective, she was able, for the first time, to see the stainless steel lock embedded in the drawer’s front end.

“Crap.”

Okay, Twenty Three. Time to think. You can do this. Twenty Four’s counting on you. Make a plan.

For almost seven seconds, the girl wracked her brain. Her first idea was dumb. Really, incredibly, dumb. She didn’t have time to think of anything else. She moved to the door, cracked it ajar, and poked her head out into the unfamiliar hallway.

More office doors. No people though; not for now, at least. No cameras, either. She counted that as a blessing, and closed her eyes.

Footsteps, moving away from her, to the left, then down a bend. More to the right, these ones moving towards her. The ones to her left were heavy; more weight sitting behind each impact against the carpet. Without even a second of hesitation, Twenty Three began to run.

The footsteps behind her were drawing closer now. She glanced behind herself, and saw an unfamiliar figure rounding the bend in the hall. She had a second, at most, before they saw her. No time to think.

Twenty Three glanced around herself, and dove for the first cover she could find. An ornamental flower pot sporting a large, plastic molded fern; fake leaves branching in every direction at once. She landed, caught herself, and curled into as tight of a ball as she could be.

Too slow. She’d been too slow. She knew it. Whoever it was had to have seen her dive. She’d failed. She closed her eyes, didn’t even dare to breathe. One second. Two seconds. Three…

The footsteps were heading right for her. For the first time in her short life, Twenty Three found herself in prayer. Not to god. What little education she’d been given with regard to God had said that he was reserved for people better than her.

In lieu of God, Twenty Three prayed to the small things. She prayed to Twenty Four. She prayed to watching the stars together through the window of their cell. She prayed to making faces together when their instructors’ backs were turned. She prayed to the happy things.

The footsteps drew nearer still.

It took everything the girl had to resist the urge to bolt; just to sit there, shaking silently, and hope for fate to save her.

By the time the footsteps stopped, they were barely a yard away. She prayed harder.

Three… Two… One…

On the other side of the flower pot, she heard a door creak open, and her pursuer’s footsteps moving further away.

She didn’t allow herself a moment to be relieved. She didn’t have the time. Slan’s footsteps were growing more and more distant by the second. She ran. Keeping low, keeping quiet, Twenty Three pursued that man faster than she’d ever moved before.

She caught him in a foyer, heard the low murmur as he spoke to a woman behind a desk, leaning casually against the counter.

He’d always told her she was a clumsy little creature, but he didn’t even notice when she swept the keys from his pocket. She took no time to gloat, however. The moment she had them, it was back to the office, as fast as she could go.

Drawer open. Keycard retrieved. Drawer locked back up again. She left the keys on top of his desk. Hopefully, he’d just think he forgot them. Then, she got back inside the vent, and set to work screwing the frame back into place against the wall. She was running late. Her detour had cost them almost a minute. Twenty Four would be wondering where she was. She did her best to ignore the heat as she crept her way back through the ducts towards her partner.

The warden was easy enough to dodge as she made the short trip back through the common area to her cell, doing the best she could to act like nothing was wrong. She didn’t like the warden. His breath smelled of fish when he leaned in close.

No sooner had she made it back through the door than something struck her in the side, and she felt something begin to wrap around her, binding her tightly. She was wound up so tightly that she was already filling her lungs to scream before her brain kicked back in, and she recognized him.

It was Twenty Four, his breathing was ragged. She hugged him back.

“What took you so long!?” the boy asked, his voice an urgent whisper. “You were gone ages!”

“Fattie’s desk had a lock on it,” she muttered, patting her partner gently on the back to calm him. “Grabbed his keys. We’re okay.”

In the back of his throat, her partner let out a growl.

“I hate him,” he muttered, giving her another quick squeeze before he pulled away. “I hate him so much! He doesn’t even let stealing from him be easy!”

At that, Twenty Three let out a giggle.

“He’s Fattie,” she answered. “It’s his job to make things suck.”

Twenty Four grinned.

“Well, anyway. You got the card?”

“Yup!” she nodded. “You did your bit?”

At that, Twenty Four’s grin widened.

“Yeah. I found us some big winter coats and a bunch of socks. If we wear enough, we should be okay outside without shoes; even in the snow. I even managed to sneak some food.”

“Okay,” Twenty Three nodded. “That’s everything. Now, we just gotta do it and we’re free.” Saying those words, the girl felt something, like a buzzing in her stomach. It felt like fear, but more charged, more excited. Their freedom was so close. She dug the keycard out of her pocket, and passed it across to the boy.

Much as she hated it, Twenty Three knew that this part of the plan had to be Twenty Four’s. He was the one with access to the ever crowded laundry rooms. Now, all that was left was for him to sneak through to the exit with their supplies, get past the gate, and use the card to open up a path for her to follow. She’d know it was her chance when he signalled her through the window.

There were few words exchanged in the moments before he took his leave. Just a second of awkward silence, followed by the tightest hug they’d ever shared.

“Stay safe, okay?” she said, her heart already thudding in her chest.

“Course I will,” he mumbled back. “… Just three more minutes, kay? Three minutes, and then we’ll be free.”

Twenty Three had nothing to say to that. She could hardly even believe it. She nodded into her partner’s shoulder.

“… You gonna let me go, then?” he asked, his tone just a little light; joking, in spite of it all.

“No,” she muttered back, before pulling away. She sniffed. “… See you soon.”

Twenty Four nodded. Then, without another word, he slipped through the door, shutting it behind himself with a quiet thud.

Twenty Three took a deep breath, and forced herself to be calm. Well, she tried, at least. Within a few seconds, she was pacing. Then, she was stretching; running on the spot in the middle of the room, just to dissipate the nervous energy.

This’ll work, she told herself. It has to.

After a little over a minute, she gave up trying to play it cool, and gathered up her things, before moving across the room, and climbing up to the window sill to wait.

The next two minutes were the longest she had ever felt. Longer by far, however, were the two minutes after those, and the next.

And the next.

At first, Twenty Three was merely scared. Maybe he’d been caught. Maybe the card had failed. She pushed those thoughts down, and kept her gaze affixed to the snowscape beyond her window.

After ten minutes, however, when no alarms were heard, and none of the adults came in to snatch her, she felt a different kind of fear.

What if he’d left her alone? What if he’d just gone through the gate and ran? What if he hadn’t thought of her?

She pushed those thoughts aside. No. This was Twenty Four. He was her partner. He was her soul. He was her friend. They’d been together since before she’d had memories.

She didn’t want to die alone.

She was still watching through the window long after the night had come. She didn’t look away when the sun fell. She didn’t look away when the dinner call was sounded. She didn’t even look away when she heard the door opening behind her, and two of the grown ups came in to deposit something heavy on the sheets of Twenty Four’s bed.

She didn’t look away when the tears began crawling down her cheeks.

They left him on that bed all night.

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Dissonance: 4.1

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Author’s Note: Alrighty. Again, apologies for the late publication. I’m starting to sound like a broken record on that. Today, as well as starting arc number four, we are also continuing the linkthroughs into Revfitz’ ‘Everybody Dies’ collaboration. This time around, we have 1953 by A.M. Thorne. That said, on with the chapter!

Caleb:

The goblins moved in fast and low; four of them, each with blades held at the ready. He watched from his perch above them as they moved to surround the small flock that had gathered itself on the rooftop, occasionally squawking at one another, their cries oddly warped.

Caleb grunted. It made sense that the government would want to contain the hunting birds quickly. Now that the things were without a beastmaster, they’d probably resort to attacking at random, and that wouldn’t do anything to help the already fragile balance of secrecy. He allowed himself a grim chuckle at that idea. How in the hell they were going to explain away the events of the last few days was anyone’s guess. For now, though, that wasn’t a concern. He just needed to catch some birds.

Below him, the goblins fanned out, blades at the ready, just a second from their ambush. Caleb couldn’t help but grin when he cast his first spell, a simple noise maker, loud enough to send the flock fluttering free of its roost. He crouched down, peering over the lip of his rooftop, and watched the goblins scrambling to dispatch them all before they fled. He grinned a little wider. They didn’t even manage half.

The birds took to the air, and he readied his second spell, pinpointing a trio of the creatures whose trajectory should bring them just inside his range. He waited a moment, aimed, and took his shot.

The first flew true, and he felt his mind link itself to that of the hawk, seeing it seem to spasm for a moment in the air before resuming its flight. The same was true of the second. The third, however, went wide, the bird changing course in the half a second it took for the spell to connect. He cursed quietly to himself, then returned his attention to the two he’d managed. He needed to be quick, subjugate them in the few moments he had before they left his range once more and the connection severed. He pushed at their minds and felt resistance, the tiny minds scrabbling against him like claws digging into his brain. He grit his teeth and pushed harder.

It wasn’t too difficult to remove the birds from the swarm. He just flew them up high enough for the evening gloom to hide them, before guiding them straight back down towards him. He stooped down, picked up the pet carrier he’d been provided for the purpose, and opened the latch. He flew the first one, a robust looking male, down into the carrier and was about to do the same for the female when he felt the creature’s senses finally kick into gear inside his mind, his spell connecting up the last of the links between them.

It was a very strange feeling. He’d dealt with enhanced senses for most of his life, but what this bird could smell… It was overwhelming. Like the smell of grease when he was hungry, but a hundred, even a thousand times more intense, and it was everywhere. In the shock of it, he took a few seconds to even realize that the second bird hadn’t landed in the carrier, missing the entrance by at least a foot. He shook himself.

“Wow,” he muttered. “You guys are intense. No wonder the boss wants you so bad.” The birds, of course, said nothing, the male standing stiff as a board on the thinly padded floor of the carrier, the female sitting on the ground by his feet, staring off into nothing. He gazed down at it for a moment, considering; then he swung the carrier entry closed, and flicked the locks into place. “Screw it. What the boss doesn’t know won’t hurt her. Always wanted a familiar.”

He bade the hawk to flutter up onto his arm, its talons digging painfully into his forearm as it settled. He grunted. That was the one problem with the leashing spell, it didn’t exactly afford finesse in the things he took command of. This close to, he could smell himself through the hawk’s unnaturally powerful senses, that incredible hunger piercing once more into his mind at the scent. He laughed. The bird thought he smelled delicious?

“… Yeah. I’m keeping you,” he smiled. “You’re weird. Like me.” With that, he stooped, setting the pet carrier down on the ground beside him, and raised his hand towards its head. For a moment, a part of him thought he shouldn’t do it. The spell took too much energy, and his supply was limited enough already. It would make the next few days harder, having to wait for the trickle the overseers allowed him to replenish his reserves. He pushed the doubt to the back of his mind. Screw the overseers. They didn’t own him. No one did. He held the hawk very still, not even allowing it to breathe as he pressed his fingertip against its beak. The transition worked better that way. Then, he let off his spell, and felt the energy leak out of his body, practically draining him dry. The hawk shifted, the space around it warping and hollowing; becoming abstracted. He felt its talons recede from around his arm, followed by a sensation like a hundred marbles rolling across his skin towards his shoulder. When it stopped, the hawk was gone.

Caleb took a moment to admire his new tattoo, pulling back his sleeve to examine the hundred or so stylized feathers now etched in black all along the skin of his arm, running from the base of his wrist to well up along his torso.

“I should have been an artist,” he murmured. “You look awesome on me.”

The self admiration was disrupted rather when his phone rang, jerking him back into reality in the most unpleasant manner possible.

It was his boss on the line. He knew that immediately, because he’d assigned her the most annoyingly bad song he could find as a ringtone. It was still better than actually listening to her talk.

He pulled the phone from his pocket and, with a sigh, lifted it to his ear.

“Caleb here.”

The boss was on good form today. He almost missed the tiny note of irritation in her tone as she spoke.

“Asset Thirteen, have you obtained your targets?”

“One of them,” he lied brightly, slipping into an irish lilt as he spoke; that accent always seemed to annoy her the most. “Male. Seems healthy. Tried for a female too, but she got awa-”

“That’s fine,” she cut him off, her tone bored. “Another asset has managed to obtain a female. Transport the package two blocks west of your current position. Your handoff point is a woman in a purple scarf. You have six minutes.” Then the line went dead.

He gazed at the phone for a moment, then slid it back into his pocket with a shrug. It was a shame. He hadn’t even had a chance to start being really annoying yet. He rolled his sleeve back down to cover his new tattoo, and picked up the pet carrier, its solitary occupant still standing stiff as a board inside it. Then, he crossed to the edge of the rooftop, and glanced down. The goblins were long gone, but it was a solid six storey drop to get down to ground level, and he didn’t have the magic left over to shield himself from the fall. He glanced back at the fire escape behind him. No. Too easy. He wanted to be moving right now.

‘Welp,’ Caleb grinned. ‘Guess it’s time for some mad parkour skills.’

He crossed to the westernmost side of the rooftop, his eyes falling upon an ugly four-storey building on the other side of the street. Perfect. He backed up a few paces, braced himself, and threw himself into a full sprint before launching his body over the edge.

There was something unnaturally thrilling about the sensation of free-fall; a sense of speed and a rushing of wind that seemed to make a few moments last a good deal longer than they should. He watched the roads shoot along beneath him, then turned his eyes to the rooftop he had targeted. He’d gotten it just right. He angled himself backwards slightly in the air, holding the pet carrier out to the side, before hitting the rooftop at the very edge, the soles of his feet striking the exact point where roof met wall. He allowed his legs to bend slowly into the impact, absorbing the force of the fall while his own forward momentum carried him forwards into a roll. He tucked low, holding his body in a ball and letting his speed push him onward, before springing back to his feet and setting off for the next building along. It felt good. Going fast always helped to soothe.

It was over all too quickly, though. A few short jumps and a brief run, and it was over. He was out of levels to drop. He found an alleyway to descend to ground level in, and finished the trip at a brisk walk, his eyes peeled for the hand-off asset.

She didn’t take him too long to find; a brown haired young woman in a thick coat standing against a lamppost, a purple travelling scarf wrapped tight around her shoulders. He recognized her. The same woman he’d been assigned to ever since his deployment to the Americas. He shook his head. She couldn’t be that cold. It was still summer.

“Hey, babe!” He called, giving her a wave as he jogged the last of the distance between them. “What’s a cutie like you doing alone on a night like this?”

The woman turned, got her hand halfway up to return the wave, then aborted the attempt with a snort as his words reached her.

“Wow. Such a smooth talker. You ever flirt with girls your own age, Thirteen, or am I just special?”

“What can I say?” Caleb shrugged. “Girls my age don’t do it for me. Not enough boob.” He raised his free hand to the air in front of his chest and made a few squeezing motions with his fingers. “Besides. Maybe I just save it for the best girls.”

“Yeah, yeah,” she chuckled. “Give me the package, kiddo.  I wanna look it over before the deadline hits.”

“Sure, whatever.” Caleb held the carrier out to her and she took it, peering through the bars at the solitary occupant.

“… You’ve been free-running again, haven’t you?” She sighed.

“What makes you say that?” He asked, trying to keep his voice playful. “I promised to stop that last time, remember?”

“So then why does the capture look so beaten up?” She replied, pivoting the cage to show him the interior, the hawk inside now rather bedraggled after its assortment of falls. “And while we’re on the subject, you’ve gone and given it catatonia again. You need to get better with capture spells, Thirteen.”

“Can you please stop calling me that?” He groaned. “It’s Caleb, okay? Why do you even care? It’s not like it matters as long as they get the package, right?”

“It matters, Thirteen,” she ignored his long sigh at her use of the word. “Because if I can finally teach you to start cooperating, then maybe they’ll start treating you a little better. Don’t you want that? You know they give the good assets better food, right? Maybe you can even get a decent bed every once in a while.”

He gave his response to that with a huff.

“Yeah, no.” he replied, not looking at her. “Call me stupid, but I’d rather be Caleb.”

He couldn’t bring himself to look at her in the moments that followed, just glaring at his feet. After a few seconds, her phone rang. Her voice was cold as she answered.

“This is asset Twenty Three. I have received the package. Delivery will proceed as planned.” There was a short beep as the line disconnected.

They stood there in the dark for at least a minute, him staring at the floor, able to see her gazing at him in the corner of his eye.

When she finally spoke, her tone was soft.

“Are you gonna walk me home tonight? You know I like the company.”

He opened his mouth to answer, but nothing came out. He shook his head.

In his peripheral vision, he saw her step forwards for a hug. He didn’t back away. He tried not to blush too hard as she pulled him close. Enhanced senses sucked sometimes; they made it harder to ignore how nice she smelled.

“Hey,” she murmured. “Don’t sulk at me. You know I only said it cuz I care.”

“… That mean I finally get to cop a feel?” He asked, only mostly joking.

“Dream on, kiddo,” She flicked his nose with a fingernail. “Get back to your place soon, okay? Curfew’s in an hour tonight.”

“I will. Thanks.” With that, he broke away, turning quickly so she wouldn’t see the red on his cheeks. Probably not fast enough. He hated being fifteen; hated it with all his might. “Later, Twenty Three.”

“Later, Thirteen.”

In spite of his promise, he didn’t head back to his cage straight away that night. Instead, he dawdled. He had a brand new familiar to test out, after all.

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