In the Reserve:
The creatures were small; some of the scuttling rodents that seemed ever present in the underbrush of the forest, not driven out by the perpetual rain as some had been. Far from it, in fact. These ones seemed to thrive. The Guardian watched with interest.
They were stout little things, their tails replaced by a broad, thick flipper that they used to navigate the now abundant water. It was a whole family of them, the Guardian noted, working in concert, some dragging short logs towards a tiny island in a freshly flooded pond, while others collected stones for the foundation.
They were building themselves a bastion, as the bipeds did. The Guardian could not fault them for it; they really were quite small.
One of them was chewing at the base of a tree, tearing away chunks in tiny increments to weaken its foundation. It was nearly halfway through.
The Guardian was curious, so it brought a paw into being from amidst the water, pressing it against the trunk.
A little pressure, then a snapping sound. The rodent skittered for safety as the tree collapsed. Then, its fellows began working at the branches, stripping them off as some combination of sustenance and building fodder.
The Guardian found it satisfying. For a while, it chased away the fear.
This whole place was wrong. Unfamiliar.
The Guardian was not used to unfamiliarity. It was frightening. Leagues upon leagues of fertile land, and not a single known thing to be found.
Where was home?
For days, it had searched; weeks, roaming the land for the welcome boughs of its home, first in confusion, then in desperation. Finally, the search had, in pain, turned to finding anything at all that felt like home.
Where was home?
That was when it had begun to weep.
Its thoughts turned then from the morose to the embittered. The hunters had come next; the grown one weak, yet skilled enough to leave it hurting, the other small, yet mountainous. Their presence had been enough to drive it into the woods. But that had not been enough for them. They had sought it out. Determined to oust it yet further from its home.
No. It would not stand. Could not. The Guardian had already lost too much. It would not be assaulted here as well.
It left the rodents to their work, and turned towards the biped settlement. Even now, it could feel the power radiating from the smaller of its hunters, seeping out across the land like a lake about to flood.
It would not be prey.
Finch lowered the phone from his ear, and glanced across at James.
“Right. That’s the lumber mill shut off. Who next?”
James glanced at his laptop screen.
“Uh. Right. Looks like… Wildfire prevention team clearing out some fire lines up north. It’s a pretty long way outside the rain, but-”
“But it’s still worth shutting down while we figure this thing out,” Finch agreed. “Have we got a number for them?”
James shook his head.
“Just the main office.”
“That works. Give it here.”
James read out the number, then switched back over to his social media while Finch made the call.
There was a new message from Cody.
‘Wanna go see a movie? There’s a cinema at the edge of town.’
‘Yeah. I wanna. I’m still working, tho.’
Cody sent him a frowny face. He snickered. Finch raised an eyebrow from across the room, but he ignored it.
They’d been working at all of this for two days, first hunched over their respective laptops while they researched the area, brainstormed problems, and tried to lay out every single thing that might be pissing the forest spirit off, before then going through the numbers for each like a miniature call centre.
The room had started to smell faintly of coffee and delivery pizza.
‘Can’t you sneak out?’ Cody asked.
James rolled his eyes.
‘I’m being graded on this stuff. I can’t sneak out the back just cuz I have a date-’
A spoken word from Finch interrupted him before he could press send:
James glanced up at the older man, and shrugged.
“Just Cody being a dork. He wants me to sneak out for a movie date.”
“Sure. Go for it.”
“Wait, what?” James asked, surprised. “But we’ve still got stuff to do here-”
“No we don’t,” Finch replied. “We’ve done your bit. The research is done. The calls are gonna take hours, and you can’t help, cuz you’re a kid. Just give me the list of numbers and go hang out with your boyfriend.”
James went a little red.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” he muttered, unsure as to why. “We’ve only been on one-”
“Don’t care,” Finch grunted. “Just go before I change my mind. Boredom loves company.”
James was coming dangerously close to liking the older man. He decided not to push his luck.
“Thanks, Finch,” he said, a little awkward, before returning his attention to his laptop and holding a victorious finger down on the backspace.
‘Finch says I can go,’ he sent.
A few moments’ wait for a response, before:
‘Dude. You suck at sneaking out.’
It was the weakest excuse for a cinema James had ever seen.
The place was tiny.
He was used to the cinema attached to the mall back home. The one with twelve different viewing theatres and a candy bar that needed four whole people to keep it running.
This was just a snack shop wedged between a pair of oversized living rooms, staffed by a lone teenager who was reading a comic with her headphones on.
Experimentally, James took a packet of skittles from one of the standing racks and slipped it into his pocket.
The teenager flipped to the next page of her comic.
He returned the stolen skittles to their proper place.
There was a jingle from the door.
“Pretty cool, huh?” Cody asked, carrying a pair of 7/11 slushies that he wasn’t even remotely bothering to hide and shaking rainwater from his hair. “Looks like a slow day. Got the whole place to ourselves.”
“One day, I am going to show you what a city’s like.”
Cody took the comment on the chin and grinned.
“I’d like that.” He gestured at the wall. “So, what are we watching?”
That was another way in which this cinema apparently differed from real ones. It didn’t do movie showings, or even new releases. Instead, there were several racks of DVDs with price tags on them.
Apparently, the place doubled as a rental store.
“I dunno.” James shrugged, ambling over to examine the shelves. “Superhero movie? There’s nothing new.”
“Yeah. We don’t get new movies here till you can buy them on dvd.”
“Right…” James thought for a few seconds, before plucking a case from the shelf. “How ‘bout this one?”
Cody glanced over his shoulder at the box.
“Batman?” he asked.
“Yeah. I missed this one cuz Bex wasn’t old enough to go with.”
“Okay, that works.” Cody grinned. “Better than a crappy romance movie.”
He trotted off to set it up while James lingered behind to buy skittles.
On following after the other boy, James again had to marvel at how tiny it all really was. He doubted the room could sit much more than forty people. Instead of the wide, high ceilinged cinema boxes he was used to, this place had the feel of a repurposed lounge room, an oversized projector screen dangling from a far wall.
He watched Cody fiddling with a dvd player at the back. He found a seat over where Cody had left the slushies, and soon enough, the other boy joined him, tv remote in hand.
Cody pushed a button on the remote, and with an audibly distressed hum, the projector came to life.
James slipped a hand under the seat divide, trying to locate Cody’s own without looking down. It took a few tries. They held hands.
“This is the one where he fights Mecha Penguin, right?” Cody asked.
James tried to think back to the ads.
“I think so,” he murmured. Then, he grinned. “Or the one where Bane gets force lightning.”
“Nah,” Cody replied with a snicker, not missing a beat. “That was the last one. I remember cuz Alfred had to stop him with the chaos emeralds.”
“Hah. You’re funny.”
“Damn right I am,” Cody agreed, raising the remote and pressing play.
That was when the far wall let out a loud crunch, the black gloss paint splitting apart in a long fissure, a plume of brick dust puffing out across the nearby seats.
“What the heck?” James asked, just as Cody muttered something similar, their gazes turning toward the fractured wall. He raised a shield on general principle, then pushed out of his seat, silently gesturing for Cody to get back.
The other boy didn’t need telling twice.
The wall crunched again, a few feet closer to him. James shifted a careful few steps forward, slipping out into the lane between each row of chairs, and edging quietly towards the fissure.
There was a quiet, animal growl from the other side.
He took to the air, darting backwards just as the theatre wall caved in, the familiar form of the nature spirit crashing through it by the shoulder, not quite as huge, this time, but still larger than anything else in the reserve; not water anymore, but wood.
The moment it caught sight of him, it lunged.
He dodged sideways in the air with a yelp, his shield sparking violently as its jaws closed hard around his foot.
“Nope!” he shot a blast of wind into its face, that succeeded only in ruffling its hair. A dozen or so yards to the side, Cody yelled, tossing a fallen brick at the spirit’s form. It didn’t even seem to notice.
The spirit growled, then bit down harder.
There was a shriek like metal on glass, then James’ shield cracked. He felt a tooth scrape a thin cut into the skin above his ankle. He screamed.
A dip into his spellbook, a whimpered word, and his right arm burst into cobalt flames. He clenched his stomach, tugged with his leg, and punched it in the face with all the minimal strength that he could muster.
His fist sank half an inch into the wood before the creature finally recoiled, yowling loud, batting at the fire about its skull with its oaken formed front paws, one of his sneakers still stuck between its teeth.
James shot a panicked glance towards his foot. He was bleeding, a thin trail of red slowly staining into the fabric of his sock. That was way too close.
He returned his gaze to the spirit, catching Cody in the periphery, hanging close to the exit, his expression panicked.
The spirit was prowling now. Circling him; chairs crunching into plastic chunks beneath its bulk; cautious, angry.
James bared his teeth.
“That hurt, you dick!”
He shouldn’t have swore.
In response, the spirit only snarled.
This was bad. It was in town. Why was it in town? They were going to be seen. He forced himself to think.
“You okay, Cody?” he called, his voice shaking.
“Fuck that,” Cody called back, his voice panicked. “Are you okay?!”
“I’m fine,” he replied, eyes still fixed on the creature. They were lucky. The cinema was at the very edge of Rockford town. The treeline wasn’t that far from the broken wall. It was possible the spirit hadn’t been spotted yet. That was the hope, at least. “I need you to lock the door, then go out through the hole in the wall. Tell Finch what’s going on. He’ll know what to do.”
“… What are you gonna do?”
The spirit stopped its pacing. Lowering itself towards the ground, wood-formed muscles pulling taut along its frame. Out of time.
For the first time in weeks, James Toranaga pushed his power out.
The spirit lunged, feet digging in ruined carpet and the metal anchors of the seats. James shifted sideways, felt its jaws clench tight around his arm as it bore him to the ground.
Then, he no longer had an arm to bite. He was windbound now.
The spirit was big, this new incarnation easily half again the size of Finch’s car.
He’d punched bigger.
The spirit’s snarling reflexively redoubled as he wrapped a titan hand around it’s bulk. Then it became a yelp as he launched it back towards the forest like a shotput.
He spared a glance behind him towards a dumbstruck Cody.
“Lock the door. Find Finch,” he repeated, before scooping up his clothes, and rushing for the trees as fast as he could go.