Chapter 18: Locked Doors

"Glad to see you again, dad," Eugene responded, none too pleased. He still stood by James protectively. Teresa stood a little further back but was still close enough for the fire mage to jump to her side if in need.

"We've been testing human mutation." Alfred carried on as if he'd been the one to initiate the conversation in the first place.

Somehow despite all the man's intelligence, Alfred couldn't read a room or else he'd know that nobody in the room was genuinely interested in his experimentation. Even Karly seemed uneasy from having her spotlight pulled away so quickly.

"What about my children?" Dan demanded. "You mean you've-..."

"...And mom." Eugene added more timidly. "Have you been?"

"I haven't been testing on my wife," Alfred explained. "But yes the children you abandoned are part of our research project."

Dan cursed under his breath. As a teen, he would have tried to fight Alfred but he knew now this would only slow him down. He needed to see his kids as soon as possible encase -...

"How many children have you killed?" The dreaded thought crossed Dan's mind as he spoke it aloud. How close had his children been to death?

"I'd say there's about a 25% mortality rate," Alfred answered matter-of-factly.

"I want them back!" Dan demanded.

"And James," Eugene added. "This experimentation has to stop."

Harold didn't speak but he cautiously readied himself between Eugene and Dan in a defensive position. He knew he'd never completely see eye to eye with either Eugene or Dan. Likely the three of them would fall away from each other once this whole ordeal was over. Their goals were too dissimilar. But at this moment he was prepared to fight alongside them if Alfred tried anything.

Alfred sighed and slowly shook his head. "I'll take you to them soon. But I don't suppose you'll be willing to hear me out."

"We've heard you talk this entire time," Eugene growled. "Had this been important, you would have told us already, along with the hundreds of other things you won't shut up about."

"He's allowed to have pride in his work!" Karly argued.

"Not when it involves these lives!" Dan yelled. "...I'm glad I see that now."

It was then the large blonde woman stumbled into the room from the living room across the hall. She didn't speak but she stared, focused on Eugene. Did she recognize him? There was something so empty in her eyes, so unlike all of their past encounters. How much of her spirit did his father crush?

"Mom…" Eugene mouthed. The woman opened her mouth as if to confirm his suspicion, but no sound came out.

"Caroline, let's go back to the living room," Alfred said as tenderly as possible, extending a hand, but Eugene's mother pulled away and rushed towards her son instead.

Eugene hugged her, tears welling up in his eyes. "It's alright mom. I'm here." His mom seemed comforted by those words and somehow so did Eugene. "I'm sorry," He added though he wasn't sure why. What was he sorry for? Was he sorry this whole mess had to happen to her? Or was he sorry because maybe, he'd judged her too harshly?

"We never wanted to hurt you, Eugene," Alfred explained in the silence.

He looked to his son, holding his wife tightly in his arms. He missed the family he had given away. Were his experiments really worth it? There would always be someone like Karly, eager to pick up the pieces he left behind, but maybe he wasn't the guy for the job…. Not any more. He'd done this all of Eugene's life and now he wanted to retire. This wasn't worth continuing, especially not for another thirteen years.

"Seirios?" Alfred spoke the diary's name aloud, just above a whisper.

Yes, Master?

"I don't want you in my life anymore."

Though the others in the room seemed more focused on Eugene and his mother, Karly's eyes widened as she quickly realized what Alfred was doing.

"You can't!" Karly spurted. But it was too late.

'As you wish Master.' Seirios replied and his voice vanished entirely.

"Seirios!" Karly demanded, loud enough to attract the attention of all those around her. "I-I can't hear him anymore!"

"I'm sorry Karly," Alfred said, turning to the girl with a mixture of relief and remorse. "After the diary was taken from you, my desires may have been the only thing still keeping you in touch with it."

"So where is your diary?" Karly demanded.

Alfred shook his head. "Even if I told you, it wouldn't do any good. You remember the rule, don't you? Once the diary is out of your possession, you'll be forever locked out. It's not going to open again for either of us."

XXX

"I want to free you," Teddy confessed despite his better judgment. He avoided the wizard's glance. "What should I do?"

"What should you do?" The perplexed wizard repeated with a mocking tone. "Like I know!"

Teddy sighed. Had this been another mistake? He was trying to find somewhere he belonged, but the longer things went on the more he wondered whether he had made the right choice.

The entrance opened again, momentarily lighting up the room. Though Teddy could only catch a fleeting glimpse, he knew Guilda had entered the room.

"Teddy, what are you doing with the prisoner?"

"I-it's not what it looks like." Teddy stammered, reflexively stepping back. Sure, Teddy could empathize with wizards, but Guilda was another story entirely. Teddy doubted he could ever convince Guilda to see the other side of things.

"He was explaining my rights!" Gristlehowl explained, catching Teddy and Guilda both by surprise. Gristlehowl covering for him?

"What rights?" Guilda huffed through gritted teeth. But the question was rhetorical as she immediately moved onto her next thought. "Teddy, I've gotten word that magic activity is going on in Germany. We need to investigate. Roger will take us there."

"Alright," Teddy agreed and the two left the darkroom. In the panic, Teddy left so fast that he didn't bother giving Gristlehowl another look.

Was it worth looking back? Though Teddy wanted to be the hero he seriously doubted he'd be the one to free the wizard. No, he was still the same person. Sure, he could jump in front of a giant to save a friend, but when push came to shove - he couldn't do the right thing. He had no clue how anyone would even plan a rescue of that magnitude.

XXX

Alfred directed Eugene, Dan, and Karly through the hospital and into his part of the laboratory. They had left Harold at the house to look after Teresa, James, and Caroline. There was no point in showing Teresa these horrors or bringing James back unnecessarily.

"What are you going to do? We've got to keep this research up!" Karly still persisted. "We had a deadline and everything!"

"I'm going to leave that to you. I'm sorry." Alfred knew he was making the right choice but found it difficult to double down on this belief. Had he not been in the company of the other boys to assure him he was making the right choice, he feared he would have easily gone back to his past ways.

Dan approached a cage with two young kids, around Teresa and James' age. Maybe it was something instinctual but he knew immediately from the facial features these were his children.

Both kids were sleeping, huddled together for warmth but neither looked the slightest bit comfortable locked in such a tiny cage like an animal. Their arms were bruised, though not as bad as James' were.

He studied their faces for mutations. He'd love his children no matter how mutated they were but needed to know just how badly they'd been hurt. Both had bags under their eyes though that was to be expected - how could anyone get a good rest in this environment?

The boy Azubuike, seemed fine despite these flaws. It was surreal to see someone who looked so much like a miniature version of himself trapped in a cage and suffering. While both kids shared some features with Karly, they mainly took after him, dark hair and all. As for the girl, Kanis, her mouth was open, revealing animal-like fangs. His heart ached for her just as much.

"We need to get them out of cages," Dan demanded, turning to Alfred. The longer he looked around at these children - damaged as they were, the more anger he felt towards Alfred. But he tried to keep control of his anger as it would only slow things down. Besides, he also blamed himself almost as much for not stopping this sooner.

Eugene felt similar to Dan. He stayed further back, absently clutching his Reaper cloak. None of the children spoke, but those that were awake watched with blank expressions. To his relief, while all existed in horrific conditions, none appeared at first glance to be as horrifically mismanaged as James was. They're alive and breathing, they look sickly and horribly skinny, but we're going to free them. Eugene supposed that was a win.

"Dan," Alfred spoke to the dark mage. "People already hate me. I'll turn myself in after this, but I don't want to get Karly in trouble, nor do I want these kids to be marked by what happened to them. Could you use your powers to teleport us out of here; so that it tracks as little attention as possible?"

Dan thought for a moment and agreed reluctantly. While he wasn't crazy about Alfred's plan to protect Karly's identity, he didn't believe the kids deserved media attention. Plus, he didn't want to waste time arguing, he'd agree to whatever got them out of these cages the fastest. It didn't mean he had to follow through on the promise.

Eugene counted the kids. Dan would have to simultaneously transport thirteen bodies and that only counted for the children, many of whom were trapped two or more per cage. He hoped that Dan had gotten better at teleportation than the Bald Old Man was.

Alfred knelt by the cage with Kanis and Azubuike and quickly unlocked it. He stepped back, allowing Dan to move towards his children.

"Kanis, Azubuike, I'm your father…" He said gently, uncertain how to follow up this statement. "And I'm sorry for abandoning you so long."

Sleepily, the kids looked at him, not speaking. Dan was momentarily taken aback by Kanis' bright purple eyes, not brown like his or Azubuike's or green like Karly's. This had to be a result of her mutations.

"...I'm sorry," Dan repeated. He didn't expect them to forgive him, but he'd work towards giving these kids a normal life.

"Dan, it's time for you to teleport us," Alfred said after unlocking the last cage.

Dan nodded, he withdrew his wand from his pocket for the most accuracy, readying his magic. Despite his short magic training, the Bald Old Man's words stuck with him. The Bald Old Man had stressed the importance of carrying spells through. Nobody was responsible for a wizard's mistakes except for the wizards themselves. Even if it took a considerably longer time than most wizard spells, he wasn't going to release his magic until he was certain he could see the spell through. He visualized the faces of all thirteen kids he'd be transporting along with the adults, attempting to take in all their features. Maybe the Bald Old Man was a good mentor after all.

At last, they teleported. He wasn't taking them far, just a couple meters past the hospital towards a quiet alleyway. So the transportation process itself should be instantaneous… Right?

Well yes, and no. To Dan's relief, he had successfully managed to teleport everyone he meant to, but to his and everyone else's shock, he had teleported them to an unfamiliar forest location. This was especially bizarre as even when Dan's teleportation had missed the mark in the past, he had always ended up somewhere familiar, such as his home or out in front of the high school (surprising bypassers). Nothing about this forest seemed familiar.

"W-where are we?" Alfred stammered.

Honestly, Dan was hoping Alfred or Karly would have the answer. Had the Bald Old Man been here it would be comforting to hear someone with more experience in magic explain what may have gone wrong. But in this group, he feared he was the most experienced in magic.

"Human mutation… This is why wizards disgust me." A female's voice spoke with disdain. "Do you see this, Teddy?"

Dan and the others looked up to see three people looking down on them from atop the trees. The one who had spoken was a blonde, that may have resembled Karly if not for her shorter wavey hair and casual wear. Her nose and facial features were also much softer giving her a homely look. The other was a gruff elder, he reminded Dan of the Blood Ball host but stronger. Finally, Teddy stood, looking down timidly. Had this girl not said his name, perhaps he would have tried to hide. But as is, there was no point for him to try concealing his identity. This meetup had to be more than a coincidence. Though Dan couldn't prove it, he suspected these people had altered his teleportation somehow.