The bird was odd looking; six broad wings spaced unevenly across a body that had to be three or four feet long. Four were spaced around the creature’s upper mass, a pair at both the top and bottom of a slender set of ribs, with the third positioned at the end of a long, snake-like tail. It cut an unusual figure as it moved, not so much flying as… almost swimming through the sky. Like an eel given flight, its head crested with what, for all the world, looked like armored plates the same off-bronze color as its beak.
It was also on fire.
It seemed to be fine with this.
James hovered in the air some twenty feet distant from the firebird, watching carefully as it flitted between the branches of the trees that lined their small peninsula. Some of the trees bore fruits, of a sort: large, hazelnut-like things about the size of a mango. James had tried splitting one open, but had been too put off by the way the contents sparkled in the light to risk actually consuming it.
Instead, he watched the firebird, its wings barely moving beyond occasional flicks as it inspected the contents of the branches.
The creature approached one of the nuts, its head moving some two inches from the surface, inspecting it by eye. He drifted closer.
For a moment, the bird looked back at him. He pretended to be doing something else, casting his gaze to the side, and feigning interest in the distant shoreline.
“Don’t mind me,” he muttered. “Do your thing, dude.”
The bird gazed balefully at him for a moment, then went back to perusing its nut. James stopped pretending to care about the shoreline.
After a time, the firebird appeared to decide the fruit was suitable, and brought its long tail around to wrap across the surface of it, the wings flattening into its sides as it coiled around the object like a snake. As James watched, it began tapping at the nut’s surface with its arrow-like beak. The nut made a deep nut-noise. The bird pressed its head against it at that, listening.
James was perhaps half a minute from losing interest when, quick as a flash, the bird struck, a foot or so of its body slithering free of the surface and arching back, before snapping itself towards the nut like a viper striking home.
There was a wet cracking sound as the bird plunged into the nut’s core, then a strange slurping noise as it devoured whatever part of the thing was apparently safe to eat.
The process took perhaps half a minute in totality, the firebird eventually peeling itself free of the fruit, its head and neck now glistening with the same sparkling fluid that had filled the inside of the nut. It hung in the air for a moment, then shot a glance at James.
The firebird let out a caw, the flames around its form growing brighter and brighter by the moment, before it swivelled in the air, and shot towards the horizon like a bullet, leaving a trail of slowly fading fire in its wake. About a mile distant, James could have sworn it broke the sound barrier.
… I shall name you Jeremy.
He inspected the remains of the nut. It was charred, the hole in its surface faintly blackened at the edges. Inside, however, the thing seemed drained; absent the majority of the fluid that ought to fill its core; the flesh of its interior slightly nibbled.
Right. That should work. He had found his breakfast. He snagged a pair of the fruits, and headed back towards the beach.
Charlie hadn’t moved in the time since James had left him; his body slumped awkwardly against the bough of a beachside tree in the vague hope of keeping him out of sight.
“Hey, man. Feeling any better?”
Charlie didn’t answer. He did blink, though. James took that as a good sign.
He set one of the fruits down and, with a careful bit of wind, sliced the second one neatly down the middle.
He set one of the halves down too, then, very carefully, dipped the half he was still holding until a few drops of the fluid within trickled from the cavity and onto the sandy ground.
He waited a few moments. The ground failed to catch fire. He drank the fluid.
It tasted surprisingly good. Halfway between coconut water and orange juice.
He placed the other half on Charlie’s lap and gave him an awkward pat on the knee.
“Try and eat something, okay? I don’t wanna have to figure out how to feed you.”
Charlie didn’t respond.
James didn’t want to start crying again, so he returned his attention to his food. He peeled a strip of the flesh from its interior and stuck it in his mouth.
James turned his gaze towards the ocean, one of the planet’s moons still stubbornly hanging over the horizon, bathing in the early morning light.
The water was intimidating here. There was something else beneath the surface. Something beyond the thousands of sparkling, many-colored fish. Something that lurked.
He could feel it occasionally brushing at his mind, the edges of it grazing at his being like a fingertip sliding along his skin.
He didn’t dare spend too long out there. That was the only reason he and Charlie had remained within the bounds of the archipelago. Better this than whatever had scraped against his mind when he’d tried to truly flee.
It was about a minute later, still munching on his fruit, when a motion to the right made him jump.
It was Charlie.
He had moved one hand from where it rested by his side towards the fruit portion sitting in his lap. As James watched, hardly daring to breathe, the other hand began to move as well.
It was all James could do to keep his joy at the level of a wide grin instead of something vocal.
Come on, Charlie. You can do it! Come on!
Slowly; painfully slowly, Charlie lifted the fruit to his lips and tipped it back, a faint line of fluid dribbling down his chin as he clumsily gulped it down.
It took everything in James’ power not to whoop at that.
It wasn’t much. But Charlie was alive. More than that, though; at least on some level, he was conscious.
It was hope.
Charlie drained his piece of fruit and lowered it back down. James hurried to open up the second one. This was good. This was very, very good.
Now he could focus on other things.
Things like the massive amount of danger they were both in.
James passed his friend another piece of fruit, and cast his eyes in the direction of the shoreline, across the wide span of water that stretched between the islands of the archipelago.
This place was small, the islands all clumped together in a mass no bigger than a couple miles in any given direction. Not enough space to hide long-term. They were probably already combing the archipelago for him. What was worse, though, these guys weren’t like Father or the Family. These guys wanted him dead.
That was terrifying.
He shook himself. That wasn’t important. What mattered right now was just staying alive and keeping Charlie safe. He took a deep breath.
Don’t flip out. Be smart. You can do this. Just figure out the problem one bit at a time.
Problem one: He was outnumbered. Badly.
That was big.
Problem two: There wasn’t enough space to hide for long and they’d probably get the jump on him if he tried.
That was also big.
Problem three: He had to keep Charlie safe.
That one felt more do-able, but he had no idea where to start.
Also clothes. Clothes would be good. He’d left his last set behind him when he went to rescue Charlie.
He needed to think tactically. This was a superhero problem. He had to find a superhero answer.
“Okay,” he muttered, tossing the thought back and forth inside his head. “So… What would Batman do?”
Overall, Bors thought, there were worse places in the world to end up stranded. The sun was warm, the food was plentiful, and the view from the shoreline was breathtaking. He could practically feel the ambient energy of this place soaking through his skin, setting his nerves and thoughts on fire as it passed. It was a unique feeling, even stranger when coupled with the idea that all of it was him. His once average shield now felt strong enough to weather a tank shell. For the first time in his life, he was powerful.
It almost made what they’d been through worth it. Almost.
Bors shot a glance towards Liza in the tree-line. She shook her head. No sightings on her end either. He nodded, then returned his eyes to the beach. They were on the side facing away from the greater archipelago now. They’d need to be extra careful. They’d agreed to search the islands in groups of two, at the least, just in case the baby elemental got the drop on them. The plan was fairly simple. Find Charles, or find his captor, and radio back to Sebastian on the double. Under no circumstances were they to try and engage a Toranaga on their own, even an adolescent one. Bors struggled to disagree with that. If his own abilities had been so magnified by this place, he could only shudder to think of what power that half-breed held.
Better to let Sebastian deal with it. Either he’d buy them all a victory on his own, or he’d finally get his comeuppance for being such a prick; Bors would take it as a win either way. Charles’ fate had left a bitter taste in his mouth. Worse still was the vindictive glee Sebastian had seemed to take in it. Bors didn’t think he’d mind too much watching that man die.
The attack came without much in the way of warning. Bors was looking behind himself, checking the tide-line to be sure that the waves were still managing to scrub away his footprints, when an entire tree trunk slammed against his side with the force of- well, a tree trunk.
He hadn’t been wrong. His shield definitely was tougher now. Had he been struck by such a blow back on Earth, it likely would have ended him. Even on this world, though, it was enough to make his shields crack. Lines of light danced jagged across the surface of his skin as his body was sent crashing into the water without even the time to yelp.
His first half-second beneath the surface was disorienting, his sight obscured by bubbles and the sparking of his shield. He flailed briefly beneath the waves, then found his vision captured by the myriad points of light that filled the water. An odd thing to catch his focus, really; the ambient light of fish.
Then he felt something scrape against his mind.
It was looking at him.
Oh, God, no.
He had to get out of the water. He had to get out right now.
He spun about, then kicked madly for the surface.
The first thing to catch Bors’ eye when his eyes found air was Liza being thrown against the sand. She rolled shoulder over shoulder for a moment, before stumbling to her feet and sending a bolt of violet light into the treeline. Her shield was in tatters. That was a problem for later. He had to get out of the water first. He would not be food for the creature in the depths. He made for the shore as fast as he could go.
Liza was struggling now; screaming obscenities for all the world to hear as the elemental first scooped her legs from under her, then pinned her to the floor, the shape of a single giant hand imprinting in the sand about her torso while something else tugged the stun-gun from her belt.
Bors was almost to the shore. He fumbled for his radio. He unclipped it from his waist and brought it to his ear, before something carved a gash out of the shields around his cheek, and his radio sliced itself in half.
“Don’t even,” growled the elemental. “Don’t. You. Dare.”
“Fuck,” muttered Bors by reflex.
It took James Toranaga a few tries to figure out Liza’s taser; a moment spent figuring out its function and a few more trying fruitlessly to penetrate her shields. Bors stumbled to the shore, and, for lack of anything better to do, began scanning the sky for the monster’s core.
A few moments of desperate searching later, he found it; a hint of silver-blue against a far more vibrant sky. He readied a spell; took his aim.
“I said don’t!” the voice yelled, filling the whole of the space around them, before a wall of solid air slammed the agent off his feet. His shot went wide. He tried to stand, but the moment his shoulders began to rise, a vast weight pressed them right back down, his shield flaring dangerously at the strain.
It felt like a foot; the outline of giant toes against his ribs. The elemental was standing on him.
He was offended.
The elemental turned its attention back to Bors’ partner.
“Turn off your shield so I can taze you,” it said.
Liza simply swore.
The creature groaned.
“Okay, pretty please let me taze you?”
Liza spat at it, a trail of saliva briefly hovering against the windbound hand above her chest.
Some distance away, the abandoned tree-trunk wrenched itself out of the sand.
“Wait,” said Bors, watching as dreadful understanding dawned in Liza’s eyes, followed soon thereafter by cold acceptance. “Don’t. You can’t-”
“Can’t what?” the elemental snapped, the tree trunk positioning itself over Liza’s form like a pestle above a mortar. “I can’t taze her with her shields up, so now I have to knock ‘em down! You’re the ones making me do it this way!”
Liza didn’t answer. Her shield simply flared amber as she pumped all of her energy into it.
“I’ll do it,” he growled. “Let me up and I’ll break her shield for you.”
Liza glared at him. He ignored her.
The monster hesitated.
“You promise you won’t try shooting me again?”
Bors gritted his teeth.
“… Okay.” The tree lowered itself back down against the sand. Bors felt the weight lifting from his chest. “But if I even think you’re gonna try something, I’ll dump you in the water as far out as I can.”
Bors didn’t respond to that. There was no point. He wasn’t about to take another shot. He shifted across the sand toward his partner, then pressed a hand against her shoulder, a field of glowing sparks laying themselves above her skin as he broke her shield down one layer at a time. Liza glared coldly at him as he worked. He glared back. He wasn’t in the mood.
“Traitor,” she told him.
“We lost, Liza,” he said flatly. “I’m just saving you some broken bones.”
She swore at him. He tuned her out.
He wound up knocking her out himself; he had a spell more suited to it than the taser. It was almost a relief when it was done.
Then it was just him and the elemental. It made for an especially awkward type of quiet.
“How’s Charles?” he asked eventually. “The portal-maker. Is he doing any better?”
“… Why do you care?” the monster asked. “You’re the ones who hurt him in the first place.”
Bors shook his head at that.
“Grey never told us that would happen. Charles was an arrogant little shit, but I didn’t want to see him break.”
The elemental didn’t answer. Bors turned his eyes towards the sea. For a few moments, all was still.
“I don’t have any spells for knocking people out,” the elemental muttered. “That means I’ll have to hurt them really badly if I wanna stop them coming after me.”
There wasn’t any need to finish off the thought. Bors already understood.
“You want me to keep them unconscious for you,” he muttered. “Save you the trouble of dirtying your hands.” Part of him wanted to reject it, but he was too busy being bitter. Here he was, more powerful than he’d ever been before, and it didn’t change a thing. “Fine. Just tell me how the kid’s doing first.”
“… Better,” the creature admitted. “He’s moving around and eating on his own.” The voice hesitated for a moment there, before adding: “He’s gonna be okay. He’s tougher than you guys are.”
Bors nodded. The news was a relief, if only a small one.
“That’s good to hear, at least,” he muttered. “… Careful with Grey. The man teleports like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Thanks,” came the reply. “I’ll check in on you in a couple hours. Just-… Don’t be lying to me, okay? I don’t wanna have to hurt you.”
There was silence again, then. He was fairly certain the monster had simply drifted off, before a final statement made him jump.
“Also, I want your jacket.”
“Your jacket,” James Toranaga repeated. “Gimme.”