The boy couldn’t have been asleep for very long when a set of light thumps in the surrounding earth saw him roused. He hadn’t been dreaming; not quite, at least. There had been something there when the world around him went away, but it hadn’t been anything quite as solid as a dream. More like an ache; a few sparking wires of his imagination throwing up images of a dodge-ball rolling in smooth, slow circles in a patch of sand. It had been soothing, in a way.
He wondered where he’d gotten the image of a dodge-ball from. He couldn’t remember ever having seen one.
A shuffling beside him. He lolled his head in the direction of the noise, and forced open one of his eyes.
Oh. It was just the creature back to check on him; gazing at his face with a pair of overlarge blue eyes. The boy liked this creature. He was pretty sure he did, at least. It had brought him food; although he did wish it wouldn’t chatter quite so much. It made sleeping difficult.
True to form, the moment it saw that he was awake, the creature opened up its jaws to resume its noise. To the boy’s distinct surprise, he found he could understand it now.
“Charlie!” it squeaked. “I won! I freaking won! Plus, look!-” It waved its forelegs in the air. “I got clothes!”
The boy turned his eyes briefly to the creature’s form. For some reason, it appeared to have encased itself in a layer of darkened leather.
The creature seemed pleased though, so it was fine. It started jabbering again; something about trees and fights and Batman; each concept barely comprehensible in isolation, let alone in combination. He struggled to parse a meaning from any of it.
Well, besides Batman. That concept was easier to understand, for some reason.
Something sparked inside his brain. A faint flash of memory. Words a boy had once used to irritate a friend.
“Superman’s better,” he echoed.
The creature fell silent. The boy began to wonder if he’d said it wrong. He wouldn’t be surprised. He wasn’t completely sure he’d been able to speak in the first place, let alone now, in his fractured state. At least it seemed to have quieted the creature dow-
The boy blinked as the creature wrapped its forelimbs tight around his ribs, its forehead buried against his chest.
“You take that back,” it sniffled.
Ah. Clearly, he had done it wrong. This was worse. Perhaps he didn’t know how to speak after all. He shrugged. Oh well. It wasn’t as if he was currently tired enough to sleep. Besides, the creature was small enough to be easily dislodged should its contact become a problem for him. He resolved to let it have its way, awkwardly raising a hand to pat it on the head. He was fairly sure animals were supposed to like that. The creature cocked its head to the side.
“A-are you petting me?”
The boy shushed it.
His focus turned inward. The thing in the water was still at work within his brain; the slow eddies of its presence gradually shifting more and more pieces of him into place. It was almost unpleasant, the comforting numbness of its presence breaking sporadically as fragments of a past he was unfamiliar with slammed into his skull. New faculties, new notions, every one of them surprising. Every time, he found himself forced to readjust; to take stock; to come to grips with this new thing that he apparently always was. He found it exhausting.
The boy was fairly sure he liked the presence in the water, although, much as with the creature now nestled against his chest, he wasn’t completely sure. The process was uncomfortable, to be sure, but he had to admit, he much preferred the stillness it gave his mind over the screaming that had filled his head before. Much as with the smaller creature, though, he wished it would shut up.
To call it speech would have been inaccurate. The presence wasn’t using words of any kind; at least not in any form the boy could recognize. It was still talking, though; communication parsed by color and intent. It brought to mind the smell of apples, then the sting of loss, then the shock of reconnected memory. He shook his head. It wasn’t the first attempt that had been made, and he still couldn’t fathom what was meant by it. The presence was undeterred. It would try again.
The not-quite-sound died away for a time as the thing drifted off along his thoughts, passing over fragments and playing back memories, cataloging the pieces of his mind in a way he probably should have found invasive.
When it had learned some more, he knew it would return, and, just as before, the next attempt would be made with greater nuance. He waited patiently for it to return, and when it finally did, the scent of apples bore a new inflection: the memory of an older woman’s face; the echoed recollection of a voice.
For the first time, he was able to parse an emotion. Melancholy. He gave the presence a slow nod, trying, in whatever way he could, to be encouraging.
The presence tried again. Hours passed that way, and, as he and the entity learned more of him in lockstep, it managed to send him its intent.
It was making a request. He considered it. It didn’t sound unreasonable, but as with many things, the boy struggled to be sure. He was, however, aware that he owed the entity something of a debt. After a minute or two of thought, he agreed to try.
He would be sleeping deeply after this.
James stretched his arms out into the sleeves, hoping that, somehow, his hands might make it all the way to the ends this time.
They did not. He sighed.
He shouldn’t really have been surprised. Bors was a large man; a solid six foot two, with broad shoulders to match, whereas James, much to his own chagrin, was undersized, even for a twelve year old. What had, to Bors, been a mid-sized jacket was, for him, closer to a trench coat, the hem falling a short way past his knees.
Well, the important thing was no longer being naked. As for the rest, he’d make it work.
Right. Okay. Just a little bit of cutting.
His powers had been a little weird, since coming to this place. They were more reactive than he was used to, less effort required to achieve the same result; a wind blast produced with what amounted to a flick instead of a punch. It made precision work a bit more complicated.
Take it slow, he told himself. That’s all you gotta do.
He reached into the wind, collecting a few loose strands of air and compressing them into a single line. Then, he held out an arm, and guided that line slowly down into the material around his elbow. The leather shifted to the side against his arm, not severed so much as simply pushed aside.
Screw it. Careful’s for wimps.
He took a fistful of air and clamped it down on the end of his sleeve, then gave the thing a tug.
There was an awful tearing noise as the material ripped open about the shoulder seam. James briefly remembered Bors asking if he’d ever get it back, then did the same with the other sleeve.
Good. Success. He once more had access to his hands. As an added bonus, he was pretty sure he looked like Rambo now. He considered that a win.
He glanced up through the thin canopy of the clearing. The sun was nearing the midpoint of its journey along the sky. Almost noon – or whatever time approximated noon on an alien magic world. He should get going soon if he wanted to catch another search team off guard before they had a chance to notice that anyone was gone. He shook his head. They probably already had. If everyone had radios like the last guys had, then they probably checked in with each other every now and again. He folded his arms. Batman would plan for the worst in a situation like this and so should he.
Right. One more attack before they all regroup. Use the color of the sky to make yourself invisible, and hit ‘em as hard and fast as you can. If someone manages to hold you back, then run away like you’re Casper playing Dark Souls. Nothing to it.
He nodded. It sounded like a good plan, and he was proud of it. He could do this.
“Hey, Charlie,” he called, glancing across the clearing to where his companion still sat, his back to him. “I’m gonna go for another run. I need you to stay here till I- The heck?”
Something had sparked briefly along the outline of Charlie’s form. James set his other thoughts aside for a moment, and put his focus on his friend.
“Charlie?” he asked. “You doing okay, man?”
Once again, something sparked around his friend; his cheeks and shoulders lighting up with a momentary flash of indigo. There was a sound like a balloon being popped.
James stood up.
“Hey,” he called as he edged slowly towards the other boy. “Come on, dude. Talk to me. What’s going on?”
James had grown so accustomed to his friend’s quiet that he was a little surprised by the older boy’s response.
“Help,” Charlie murmured.
James shook his head.
“It keeps saying ‘Help’.” Charlie turned around to look James in the eye, his expression oddly distant. “Hey. Did we used to be friends a while back?”
James took a few more careful steps forward.
“We’re still friends,” he replied, doing the best he could to keep his voice calm. “We never stopped being… Who’s saying ‘hel-’”
This time, James was close enough to watch as the next spark made its presence known in Charlie’s lap, a disc of purple light flexing and warping between his hands like pressurized sheet-metal. For a moment, the entire clearing glowed a vibrant purple. Then, something in its structure broke, and it vanished with a faint crack. James gaped.
“This is harder than it should be,” he muttered. “Can’t figure out how I’m s’posed to make it work.”
James shook himself.
Right. Yes. Charlie had powers. He’d been told about that. This wasn’t the time. He put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder.
“Hey,” he said. “Dude. I need you to stop. Okay? Whatever you’re doing, just make it stop.”
Charlie gave him a confused look at that.
“Why?” he asked. “It wants me to connect us up.”
James shook his head, the concern mounting rapidly inside his brain.
“I don’t care,” he said. “Just trust me. Whatever it is. Whatever it’s saying. Don’t.”
“Why?” he asked. “It’s helping me. Shouldn’t I try and help it back?”
“What the heck are you even talking about?” James snapped, only barely keeping his voice below a yell. “What is it!?”
Charlie raised an eyebrow.
“You mean you can’t hear it?” he asked. “The thing in the water?”
Something leaden fell through James’ stomach.
“Oh, crap, no. Don’t you even think abo-”
Charlie wasn’t listening. Even as the other boy’s words grew loud and shrill in his ear, he returned his attention to the task at hand.
The light came again. It was even brighter this time, the entirety of the clearing momentarily picked out in vibrant neon. The disc in Charlie’s hands was bigger now, flaring almost white as he turned his full attention towards it.
James tried to give the boy a shove. Charlie simply shrugged him off. The disc grew brighter still. James readied his wind.
There was a quiet ‘pop’ in the space behind them.
“So this is where you’ve been hiding him,” said Mr. Grey. “Well, you had a good run, while it-”
That was as far as he got before James’ wind-blast caught him in the face, sending his shield sparking up around him and his body stumbling back. James turned to face his foe just as, with a quiet pop, the man vanished into thin air.
James turned, wrapped his arms around his friend, and prayed for dear life that he could hold on long enough to fly the two of them out of there. The light was almost blinding now.
“Hold on, Charlie!” he yelled. “I’m gonna get us-”
Another pop. James felt the tip of something cold press against his head. He froze. Then let out a pained cry as a hand yanked roughly at his hair, pulling him from his friend.
“Bad move,” Mr. Grey’s voice hissed in his ear. “Charles, if you want your friend to live, you’re going to do exactly as I say. Understood?”
James tried to protest, then let out another cry as the man wrenched once more at his hair.
Charlie didn’t even look at them. He simply kept on gazing at his disc, letting the light grow ever brighter.
As the gun-barrel pressed even harder against his skull, James had a single, desperate thought.
Please don’t see me. Please don’t see me-
Sebastian was flung across the clearing as James’ form exploded. He hit the ground, caught himself, and raised his revolver, now having to squint to see in the omnipresent glare, trying to find a spot of light in a place that held very little else.
Then James punched him. His shield flickered. James punched him harder.
The man teleported again, taking aim this time for Charlie, and made it halfway through a threat before another blow brought him to his knees.
“Stop! Being! EVIL!” James bellowed, raining blow after furious blow down against his foe; Grey’s shield splintering more and more around him by the moment.
That was when the light died down.
The two of them might have kept on fighting, were it not for the presence that encroached upon their minds right then. Like talons latching on the soul.
As one, they turned their gazes first to Charlie, and then to the portal he had just created.
Through that hole, however, all that could be seen was inky blackness, discernible from pure void only by the faint glisten as something a dozen or so feet from the aperture caught the light. For a few moments, they all simply watched as whatever hid below the water drifted closer. James thought it might have been scales. Or leather. Somewhere between the two.
Then, the surface parted, and they found themselves gazing into a milky-pale eye. An eye that was easily two feet wide.
The thing in the water turned its gaze to James.
“No,” Grey said flatly. Then, with a final ‘pop’, he vanished.