James glanced at his blank phone screen for the fourth time in as many minutes, before once more trying to return his eyes to the television. His grandmother’s arrival had, as always, brought with it a new box of japanese media for him to consume, and he was trying as hard as he could to enjoy it. No matter how hard he tried, however, he couldn’t shake that last nagging bit of doubt out of his head.
It was irritating, really. The birds were no longer really much of a worry for him; he was pretty sure he’d been overreacting earlier, and, for whatever reason, he couldn’t really bring himself to be all that worried about the Family. He’d made his stand to them, and no matter how much he knew he should be scared, the fear just wouldn’t seem to come there. No. What had him on edge now, stupid as it felt, was his phone.
They had said they’d call him, they both had. He’d been expecting word hours ago. Nothing huge, just a quick note from Tasha and Cas to let him know they were okay. The problem was that every second his phone continued refusing to ring set him just a little more on edge.
He gazed out of his bedroom window at the rapidly darkening sky for a long moment, then let out an aggravated sigh.
“Screw it,” he muttered. “I’ll go look myself.”
With that, he pushed himself up off of his bed and stepped over to his closet, reaching up behind the oddly assorted mess of books, old action figures, and the basketball he’d punctured some two years previously until his hands found what he was looking for, a small camping bag. He tugged it down, then searched among his clothes for something big enough to fit the other two. There wasn’t much, really; most of his clothes were, well, him sized, and the others were both bigger than he was. After a while, he settled for the loosest sweater he could find, and stuffed it into the bag. Tasha could probably stretch it to fit if she had to. From there, he left his room and made his way across the landing towards the linen closet to grab a couple of towels he was pretty sure his mom wouldn’t miss. Finally, he went downstairs towards the kitchen, moving quietly so as to avoid drawing the attention of Granny and Bex in the nearby playroom. He snagged some apples from the fruit bowl, some bread from the counter, and a couple fistfulls of salami from the fridge, dumping it all in a lunch bag before returning to his room.
That done, he stuffed all of his assorted objects into the satchel, along with a torch from his dresser as a last second idea, and changed into his flying clothes, augmenting them this time with a scarf wrapped around his face.
He couldn’t really do anything for Casper for now; not without knowing where he even was, for a start; but he could at least make sure Tasha was doing okay.
He pulled open his window, slung the bag over his back, and for the third night in a row, vaulted himself out into the open air.
He made his way to the park at speed, keeping high in the air to better avoid watching eyes. At his full speed, it took him minutes at most to make it there. He began to descend, noting, as he did so, the odd spots of light scattered about among the trees. Torches? Maybe someone was doing a game night in the park? Whatever it was, best to stay unseen.
He found the clearing he’d deposited Tasha on the night before, and allowed himself to float down, hovering some ten feet or so above the ground. He looked around, hoping to catch some sight of the girl laying sprawled out somewhere along the grass. Nothing to be seen.
He swore quietly to himself, and once more dipped a hand into his pocket for his phone, checking the screen. Still nothing.
The male watched from the branches of his tree as the figures moved below him, the devices in their hands throwing two thin beams of illumination out across the half-forest floor, sweeping from side to side lazily as they searched the ground for his trail. He had to restrain himself as they passed beneath him, perfectly positioned for him to pounce upon. He wanted so much to strike something, to work his frustration and rage out upon some hapless human hunters. But no. He couldn’t spare the energy. He had work to do.
It had been some time since he’d heard the echo of his partner’s death ringing out through the swarm, long enough for the sun to dip below the horizon, plunging this human world into darkness. It had been a blow, for certain. She had been his companion for years; decades, even, and had saved his life on many a hunt, but he had a job to do, and there would be time to grieve later. He had focused simply on regaining his energy, finding a den in amongst what little woodland life the humans allowed to remain near their homes and hiding among the trees.
It was only when he had attempted to leave the half-forest that he had realized they were tracking him. Perhaps he hadn’t abandoned the scene of his battle against the hobgoblin fast enough. It could be that he had been spotted, or maybe they were using some other means to trace him. What mattered was that he was trapped. The half-forest had been closed off, its exits placed under guard, and the humans had begun to search for him within. Frustrating, but not insurmountable.
He needed to get to the centre of this place; to the burrow where the captive humans were placed, awaiting transit home. He reached out with one of his lesser used spells, gathered what little of his partner’s swarm he could with his limited mastery, and brought them closer, watching the searching duo cast their lights fruitlessly in the dark as they trod away below him.
It took a moment to connect the swarm’s mind to his own. They were flighty, unused to being outside without a master to hold them in sway. They resisted. It took time, but soon enough, he had a bare dozen of the creatures wrangled. He sent them skywards, flying low above the treetops all around him. With their senses, he could see the humans approaching with more than enough time to spare. He nodded to himself, the plan cementing in his mind. He would skirt between the hunters, retrieve his buried catch, and take them home.
He felt the regret dig deep into his heart at that. To come home like this would be irredeemable. No partner at his side, and only eight weak humans to show for the loss. He would never outlive the shame. He shook himself. Even worse to never come home at all.
He crouched, dropped down from his perch towards the earthen ground, and began to move, slipping between the search parties with an almost consummate ease. He made it nearly halfway to the burrow before he felt it.
The scent passed through his swarm without incident, merely catalogued and sent along towards their master, but it was enough to stop him dead. It was faint, fast moving, and utterly overwhelming. He looked through the eyes of his beasts to gaze upon the newcomer himself, flying the creature in close for a better smell. There it was again. Power. He could hardly believe it. Raw and untrained, but vast; a deep reservoir of strength that was greater by far than any human had a right to be. It came to a stop in the air some distance away, floating above the earth, far from the searching eyes of the trackers.
Perhaps he should have devoted more of his mind to how a human could possibly hold might so far in excess of the norm for their kind, or to what reason such a creature could have for being here. It was in hubris, however, that he did not. His mind was too focused on the potential that presence offered. If he could carry home a catch of that level, he knew, all could be forgiven. The failure of his mission would be the smallest of trifles when compared to such a boon. In that scent, the male saw a chance at redemption. He felt his tired, angry frustration give way for a moment to a simple kind of hope. This was his only chance, and he would take it.
He knew, honestly, that it had been stupid to expect Tasha to be in the same place a whole day after he’d dropped her here. He’d known that before he came out here, but it still kinda stung to not see her hanging around. Did they have to leave him in the dark like this?
He sighed, and half heartedly shrugged the camping pack off of his back, dropping it down onto the ground below with a thud. Tasha’d probably find it at some point if she was hanging around, and if not, then no huge loss. At least he’d done something.
He took a deep breath as he slowly began to rise back into the air, closing his eyes for a moment and allowing himself to enjoy the feeling of the wind brushing against his face. At least the flight out had helped relax him some. Maybe he’d take his time on the journey home; try and cool off.
The first bolt struck him between the shoulder blades with what felt like all the force of a freight train, bending him double, his neck jerking sharply as his shoulders were forced forwards. For all that it should have hurt, his body didn’t really seem to register it, too busy dealing with the tingling shock of electricity coursing through every inch of his body, contracting muscles and skin against themselves. He felt the air pushed from his lungs, forcing his mouth open in a silent, breathless cry. The world swam, the edges of his vision crawling with something akin to static. It took nearly a second for him to realize that he was falling, and another one for him to catch himself, his fingertips twitching as his body began to acclimate to the shock. He turned in midair, searching desperately for whatever had struck him. He momentarily lost hold of his flight, and by that alone avoided being hit by the second blast, which parted the sky where he had been floating just a moment before.
His still crackling eyes followed the lightning to its source and found what looked to be a bedraggled man standing on the ground below. Some half stunned part of his brain told him he needed to run and, dimly, he tried to obey, pushing himself back with his power, trying to get away. He saw the ground shift slightly beneath him as his body began to move, when the first of the birds attacked.
He had thought, in his numbed state, that his nerves didn’t have the coherence yet for pain. It came as something of a surprise, then, when the creatures talons slammed against his leg, digging a deep gash into the skin of his thigh. He let out a quiet choking sound, his muscles utterly unresponsive, and saw the thing circle around for another strike, joined by another, and another, and another. On the ground below, he could see the man readying another bolt, and realized belatedly that something had to be done. His body felt loose, all of his limbs lining up wrong with the scale he held for them in his head. In the bleary panic in which he found himself, he attempted to raise a hand to swat the distant figure away. A stupid idea, and no less so for the fact that it worked. James’ slowly rebooting mind felt a glimmer of surprise as the bedraggled man staggered, his whole body buffeted by some unseen force. His hand hadn’t even moved.
There was still the squadron of birds to deal with, though, and again, James tried his best to move a limb in response, lifting a forearm to shield his face. Again, his body didn’t move. Instead, the creatures soared in for another strike, only to veer off at the last moment, thrown aside by a violent gust of wind.
In the seconds that followed, the haze around his mind began to clear, the pain bringing the world into focus once more within his mind. The stranger below had abandoned lightning now, and had a hand extended towards him. He felt something begin to tug around his waist, pulling him down. His body began to sink slowly towards the figure. Without needing to think, he pulled back reflexively against it, and felt his descent begin to slow. The force pulling at him redoubled. He tried to scream, and again, found that his body wouldn’t move. Instead, from somewhere high above him, there came a sound like the crashing of stormwinds through a flute; half gale, half speech, like being shouted at by a hurricane. It was loud enough to make the air around him quake. He tried once more to fly away, pushing what felt like every inch of himself into his power as he wrestled against the stranger’s unerring grasp.
The man yelled something that James didn’t understand, his face contorting with effort and frustration as he raised his other hand, sparks of cobalt light coalescing once more within his palm.
James tried to bring his hands up in some futile move to block the oncoming strike, and again, his arms refused.
The lightning built up more and more within the attacker’s grasp, the electric glow building to a sharp, blinding white, before a teenaged form collided with his midsection, wrapped its arms around him, and literally threw him at the nearest tree. The man let out a growl of rage as his body struck the solid surface, the lightning gathered around his arm dispersing through the air surrounding him in a thousand short, spasmodic arcs.
The newcomer turned towards James for a moment, meeting his gaze with her own.
“Fucking run!” Tasha bellowed hoarsely at him before turning back to her opponent. Numbly, unsure of what in god’s name was happening, James obeyed, turning his limp form away from the fight and shooting off into the night.