James had, as it happened, been correct. His instincts had led him true. His splitting of the ocean had found just the right spot to pinpoint both his targets; Charlie and the beast now both floundering on the seabed.
He had found them, even if his titan’s arms were already shaking from the weight of the water pressing against his form. Even if Charlie spared him little more than a glare as he clambered to his feet, before returning his attention to his captor. He’d still found them.
He could still hope.
It was huge. Swollen. Inches of ichorous oil sitting thick over skin that could have been either leather or foetid scale. Fins the width of football posts flared wide along a trio of tendrils, each themselves like elongated train cars, flailing in its efforts to swim through the empty air.
He felt a moment’s satisfaction there, marred when Charlie clambered up beside it and pressed his shoulder to its centre mass, heaving with all his might to push it back towards the surf.
The thing was big.
He was bigger.
He could do this. Maybe even fight it; drag it up onto the shoreline and hold it there until the sun, the air, or its own crushing weight brought it to its end.
He could win.
“Give. Him. Back.”
Charlie wasn’t listening. The boy didn’t even bother to turn around.
The Whale did, though. Its two side tendrils heaved against the silt to twist its centre skywards. A single bloodshot eye glared up at him.
James forced himself to smile at it.
Then it drove a spike into his brain.
It was the strangest feeling, having his coherence stripped away; like pain, but carried by sight and sound and smell. The world grew dark and clammy; not that he any longer cared to note the difference.
If he’d remembered how, he would have screamed.
His arms went limp. The water walls began to give, a billion tonnes of surf breaking into first geysers, then floods, ready to sink his quarry to the depths.
His titan form failed.
He lacked the capacity to care.
He was in the abyss now; nothing to see or hear in all the world.
Except it’s jaws upon his soul.
His life was saved by a flash of light that burned a line of fire through the sky, before coming to a halt a yard or two away from him. In some distant recess of himself, he thought it might be Jeremy the firebird.
It hung there briefly; a point of flame, smaller than a candle.
First, it swelled.
Then it warped.
Something white-hot streaked from it towards the creature’s centre mass, the bolt striking just as the water rose back up to coat the beast. For a moment, the water fizzed where it had struck, the bolt reduced to a pale glow beneath the surf. Then it exploded.
The monster screamed.
The world lost its thorns.
Clarity returned itself with surprising haste. James shuddered.
‘Okay. That sucked.’
James turned his gaze toward the fire, half expecting to now owe his life to a random bird. Instead, he found a finely featured boy hanging in the air before him, built of solid flame.
“Get back, James,” said the fire boy, not looking at him. “Right now.”
“Who-” James tried.
The world snapped out.
For one moment, he hung suspended in the void, his mind trying to acclimate to the sensation of being everywhere at once.
Then the world snapped back.
He was on a beach.
A hand clamped down on his scalp. He yelped, turned to strike-
-His grandmother pulled him into a hug.
“You are in so much trouble,” she said, her voice catching.
He hugged her back. It was a reflex. Why was he shaking?
“Baba! Charlie’s-” he gagged. “Charlie-”
“I know,” she said, gently prying him off of her and standing upright. “We’re dealing with it. You stay here, okay?”
James began to protest. His head snapped to the side. His cheek stung.
That took a second for him to process.
Tsuru lowered her hand, her expression stony.
“I’m not losing you to that thing, James. Don’t make me knock you out.”
With that, she stepped off towards the shoreline, beyond which could still be seen the flaming figure floating above the water, now disgorging a gout of flame on the water’s surface.
As James’ brain slowly came back online, Tsuru’s outline began to flow. It was like mist or pipe-smoke, a trio of pale shapes rising from her skin and hanging in the air behind her, each of them slowly gaining solidity.
Soldiers. At least, that was what it looked like to James. Two with swords at waist, one in modern flak gear; colorless, like thickened smoke.
“Shield his mind,” she ordered in Japanese. “Keep him safe. Do not let him follow me.” She was gone before her men had time to nod.
The one in flak gear turned to James.
“You heard that, right, kid?” a male voice echoed. “You did good, but this is above your pay grade.”
Behind the first figure, one of the others raised an arm. James watched something flicker across his vision. The residual itching in his mind began to fade.
He turned his gaze toward the horizon, the flaming figure he now suspected to be his grandfather dodging and weaving through the air as the sea raised itself in columns to try and douse him.
“Kid,” the soldier asked. “You listening?”
James raised a hand to massage his still stinging cheek. He remembered the loosened pain of that thing gnawing on his soul. He remembered Charlie glaring at him.
“Fine,” he grumbled. “I promise I won’t try anything.”
“Unless they start losing.”
There was something about all this that the boy found unsettling. An unrest that went beyond the faint discomfort he had felt as he’d watched his companion devour his once-friend’s mind. It nagged him more with every passing second as he watched the dancing of the lights above the water. Something buried in his head. Flashes of a half-connected memory.
A star above a snowfield.
That fire in the sky was a threat.
They should leave. They ought to run.
His companion didn’t listen. It was angry. It had never been burned before. He could feel it bleeding through every facet of their connection.
Its rage was so much more than him.
It was a struggle not to drown in it.
Far above, the star-man loosed a bolt of piercing heat, plunging it down into the depths, highlighting all around it in a momentary orange glow. His companion dodged; far more agile, now that it was in the water, fins and tendrils flexing to spin it to the side, the boy clinging to its centre mass by force of mutual will.
The flame-spark hung there for a moment in the water, far more stable than it should have been. The boy understood the threat and sent his friend a warning a mere moment before the spark dispersed, the water all around it flashing into steam.
His companion laboured to shield the vastness of its form, but it did not have the time.
He didn’t need a link to hear it scream.
It fought back, its powers reaching through the water, twisting waves and torrents towards the star-man in the hope of quenching him.
The star-man dodged them easily.
His companion was not built for this. How was it to fight something that didn’t touch the water? He felt it searching through itself for something that could help. Words from languages it never spoke. Skills that it lacked the hands to use. A thousand spells, only a fraction of which it understood. Unable to even determine what could be of use.
As the light and heat began to fade, the boy caught sight of something new. A point on the ocean floor had begun to glow.
The spread of it was hard to tell, the silt covered over with a few years of his companion’s slime. All he could tell was that it was growing. A spot of heat an inch or so wide. Then a foot, then more.
He had a sinking feeling that he knew what would come next.
That feeling was proven right as a glowing hand pushed itself free of the molten silt, a man of flowing lava pulling himself into view.
For a moment, the two monsters just gazed at one another.
Then the lava man raised his arms, and a spire of molten substrate rose from the seafloor like some wretched sort of spear, impure glass forming and cracking on its surface as internal heat battled against the cooling forces of the water.
His companion pulled away before it struck. The lava man shifted pose. The spire exploded, ripping through the ocean in a thousand jagged spikes.
His companion’s fury echoed through the sea, and they were sand again.
This wasn’t good. Two adversaries now, both too strong to be ignored. His friend had barely been able to hold against the first.
He had to do something. He couldn’t just sit waiting on the sidelines. There had to be something he could do.
He had an idea.
The boy gave his companion a gentle pat, a thousand tiny ridges of cartilage and scale brushing beneath his fingers.
‘I can help,’ he said. ‘You have to let me go.’
He wasn’t prepared for the force of his companion’s denial. It was angry. It was scared. It didn’t want to be away from him.
He leaned forward, his forehead resting against its back.
‘You have to trust me.’
A moment of agonized deliberation, then whatever force had held him shackled to the creature’s back eased off.
He pushed away from it, trying to resist being buffeted as its gigantic form sent eddies through the water. He swam down towards the lava man, his focus split between navigating the depths and searching for something he’d glimpsed being tossed aside in his companion’s mind.
It didn’t take long for the lava man to spot him. A moment of surprise flickered across what passed for the being’s face, followed by determination. As the boy continued for the depths, the man waded forth to meet him, each step slowed by a cold and pressure that the boy no longer felt.
Above them, his companion and the star-man warred, each bout sending heat and fury rippling through the sea. The boy ignored it all, even when a third combattant came upon them, this one carried by a long, snake-like drake of a size with his companion.
He could worry about that later. He had to stay on task.
He had nearly reached the lava man. He thought he saw compassion in what now passed for the figure’s eyes. It was hard to tell, so distant from the sun.
The boy reached out a hand.
His enemy did the same.
He found what he’d been looking for in his companion’s mind:
A thousand spells it didn’t know how to use.
It was all Peter Toranaga could do to keep from being torn apart as the boy he had come to save reached into a well of power far larger than himself, and loosed a bolt of amber from his palm.
He let it catch him by surprise. He should have been prepared.
What struck his shield then was, to Peter’s estimation, the most powerful attack that he had ever witnessed. It didn’t so much strike into him as break around him, the light blooming out across his chest, then out into the water like the flow of an aurora.
His shields were reinforced by more than a month’s collected energy. The spell carved through them like a butter knife.
He felt pain in the places it had flowed, a half-dozen trenches simply burrowed through him by an ocean-weight of force. He would bleed when he returned to human form.
To his credit, he reacted fast.
‘Shield his mind. Get him out of its control.’
Charlie was already paddling backwards in the water; but he was hardly the strongest swimmer.
Peter loosed his spell, watching in grim satisfaction as the faintly glowing barrier pulsed into being around the boy’s form.
He hadn’t expected for the Whale to panic, nor for Charlie to do the same. Panic they did, though, the Whale jerking around in the water above them, breaking loose its grapple with his mother’s dragon, before thrashing its way towards them like a raging bull.
Bad as that was, Charlie’s response was even worse.
Charlie started drowning.