James made landfall at the mouth of the sunken cave, the stick his grandmother had given him clutched in an ever so slightly trembling hand.
This was a dumb idea. Just a really, really, really dumb idea.
He took a deep breath, held it in his lungs for a moment, then let it out.
Just treat it like a person. Easy. Do it.
“Um. Hello?” He called, his voice somewhat muted by the downpour. “Are you in there? I’m sorry for blasting you, even though you totally deserved it.”
Maybe it wasn’t home? James shook the idea from his head. He’d followed the trail left behind as it had fled, right back to where he had first encountered it. It had to be here. He took a breath, and tried again.
“Mr. Wondercat? You in there? I wanna talk. You know, like adults?”
Again, no response.
James heaved a sigh.
“Ok. Well… Just keep ignoring me for like, five minutes, kay? I gotta set up this magic circle thing.”
He looked around at that. The ground around the cave mouth was hard, all jutting rocks and tide pools. Not many places to draw a decent magic circle. Eventually, his eyes alighted on a patch of moss, not yet washed from the bank by the constant rain. That would do.
He pulled his grandma’s phone from his pocket, and checked the picture she’d shown him.
Looks easy enough to copy down… Okay.
With a confidence he was at this point, a shade too tired to really feel, he stepped forward and knelt down in the moss. Then, he began scraping out glyph-work with the end of his stick. It took a while, and by the end, his knees were soaked; but if it let him talk to the spirit, then he would deal.
He sat down in the wet, crossed his legs, and charged the spell. He’d never cast this one before. It took time, and no small amount of effort, pushing at the barriers around his mind; unable to even make them budge. Then, just as his grandmother had said they would, the symbols on the floor began to glow.
He checked the backs of his hands; one of them still covered by the temporary housing for the creature from the lake, and waited.
This was taking way too long. More than that, though, it was draining him of too much power. Every second the spell went on, his reserves shrank a little further; depleted all too fast by this unfamiliar enchantment.
Just a little more, he told himself. You gotta trust Baba. She always pulls through.
That was when the backs of his hands began to glow.
It was small, at first, the faintest specks of blue beneath his skin. Then, as the glyphs around him began to fade, the lights in his hands grew stronger, expanding out until it almost touched the bases of his wrists and knuckles. The enchantment was done. His power ceased to ebb.
… Okay. So. How’s this supposed to help me, Baba?
He still didn’t feel any different. Nothing to do but test it out, he supposed.
“Ready or not, Spirit guy. Here I come.”
The entity abandoned its physical form only a short way from the cave mouth. The diminutive creature’s final attack had burned deep, searing pain into the very structure of the guardian’s makeshift body. With that pain had come yet more fear.
They had hurt it again, and the thing above still sought it. The guardian no longer felt surprise. The bipeds were cruel; not even willing to let it run away.
The guardian had acquiesced. What else was there to do? It left its form behind, and fled back to the deep and dark.
It sat now in the depths, spectral once more, left to nurse its wounds.
The pain was the least of those injuries, though. It was the wound to its pride that truly stung. Ousted from its home. Brought low by that first dull hunter; left to search in fevered fear for whoever knew how long, and just as all hope was set aside, they had sent a mere cub to lay it low.
Pride. The Guardian was not used to being challenged. Even less familiar in all of its unfathomable lifespan than the feeling of physical pain.
The Guardian felt that self same cub make landing up above, a scrap of its wooden body clenched inside his fist as he mewled out his challenge in an unfamiliar tongue.
Yet another insult? The spirit bore it without emotion, shrinking deeper into the cave. It would not push this fight. The bipeds were not worth it. There would be no retaliation unless the cub pushed into its home.
Another high-pitched challenge from above. Were the bipeds truly so aggressive in their youth? The Guardian sank down as far as it could go.
A hundred breaths, maybe more, before the cub gave a final challenge, and stepped forth into the depths.
The Guardian breathed deeply of the water.
So be it. The bipeds could war, and hurt and scratch at it as they liked. It would survive, however battered. But they would not oust it from its refuge.
The cub drifted slowly downward through the cave as the spirit began gathering the tide about it as a cloak, his navigation limited by the pale light emitted by the tiny lantern in his paw. He was less than halfway down by the time his adversary had readied itself for war.
The cub would learn a lesson in respect before his end. The Guardian would make sure of that.
It was as he descended past the midpoint that the spirit made its move, shifting invisible through rock and tide, moving behind him, quiet. In the gathered mass of water, it brought forth its strongest incarnation; the form most suitable for war.
There was something new about the cub this time. A faint light about the backs of his palms. Some new enchantment? No way to know for certain. Best be careful. The cub drifted further down, and it approached; ready to strike.
Trepidation. Uncertainty. Quiet determination.
The spirit jerked back. Those emotions had not come from its own mind. The cub yelped, darting away in the water as it spun around to bring its forelimbs to bear.
So that was what it had been. Some kind of sensor; there to alert the cub to enemies behind him. Clever.
The spirit bared its tide-formed teeth, allowing the glow of its soul to once more permeate the water.
In the fresh light, the cub looked terrified, back pressed against the far wall, one paw flexing unconsciously as if to comfort itself through motion. He was right to be frightened. The spirit wasn’t done.
It prowled toward its cornered foe, blocking the cub’s escape through bulk alone. Why had he come down into the water when distance had been all that saved him in the past? The cub was foolish, he raised a forelimb as if to ward it off, palm flat, fingers splayed. The same stance he had taken before firing that bolt into its shoulder. The Guardian couldn’t help but flinch, its advance halting in spite of itself. It was unused to fear.
No lightning came. Not for the space of several breaths. Then, tentatively, the cub drifted forwards.
Please don’t hurt me. Mr. Wondercat. I’m not gonna blast you. I promise-
The spirit growled as he drew closer, its green-tinged form looming vast before him in the water. He did not want to fight this thing again. He stopped his motion. Growling meant stop. He didn’t need a spell to tell him that.
There had been a moment, when he’d felt its mind brush against his own.
Anger, hurt, sorrow; a depth of wounded pride.
He felt maybe a little bad about that.
For a moment, they simply hung there, facing one another in the gloom, unmoving.
It was gazing at his hand, raised in desperate placation. When he tried to move it, the creature flinched.
It’s scared of my hand? Oh. Right. Cuz I beat it up.
Very slowly. Very, very carefully, he shifted his outstretched arm, lifting the other one to match, holding them out to either side, as unthreatening as he could be.
I’m not gonna fire punch you. No more lightning bolts, I promise. Not unless you make me. Please be chill.
He held for a few moments, then, slowly drifted forwards.
The spirit’s lips drew back, baring its jaws, each tooth the size of James’ hand. It was bigger than ever now. Even so, it made no move to stop him.
He felt it as whatever enchantment his grandmother had given him took effect once more. He felt the spirit’s mind brush against his own.
Rage and fear, balanced in equal measure. Only a hair’s breadth from attacking him. He tried not to take it personally. He took a breath.
It’s a spirit, he reminded himself. The most important thing is being sincere.
No doubt it could feel in his mind too. He did what he could, looking inside himself, and focusing as hard as he could manage on the slight guilt inside his chest. It wasn’t much, but it was as sincere as he could be.
‘I’m sorry that I hurt you.’
The response was only half of what he’d hoped for. First, the spirit shifted, momentarily losing that tension about its frame; anger now touched by a note of surprise. For a second, James thought it had worked, before the creature struck at him, one massive forepaw sweeping through the water, too fast for him to dodge, sending him spinning through the water, his shields flaring.
He righted himself just in time to hear the creature snarl.
It surged forwards then, pressing that empathic bubble back together; forcing him back against the wall; forcing its mind against his own. It was better at this than him, thoughts and images springing into his mind from a place entirely beyond himself.
Pain. Isolation. Grief. The fear of being hunted. Images of himself and Finch. Oppression.
It raised a paw against his chest, pinned his back against the wall, and roared.
By his own admission, James was not a perfect being. He had faults. He had a temper. More than either of those, however, he had a little sister, with whom he often argued.
He didn’t like being blamed for things that other people did.
For a brief moment, it was as if a hurricane had slipped beneath the water. One second, James was pinned firmly to the wall, a giant monster screaming at him like an angry toddler. The next, he was bound in wind.
The spirit tried and failed to hold its place against him as the bubble of air expanded to fill the space around himself, scrabbling for purchase as the pressure pushed it back across the cavern. When his body finished forming, he filled almost half the space; twice again as large as the spirit was.
It saw his centre; that glowing mass that constituted his biggest weakness in this form, and lunged for it.
‘Uh uh. Not happening.’
The monster yelped as his hands took hold, one wrapping firm around its head, the other pressing it hard against the ground, legs struggling to keep it upright.
He brought himself in close, and, with all the petulant anger he could summon, thought of its jaws wrapping hard around his foot.
‘You started this.’
The spirit yowled and roared, struggling in his grip as he made his point. This was absolutely not what his grandmother had told him he should do. Well, screw it. Four times, this thing had attacked him now. He wasn’t going to take that lying down. He brought forth his memory of Cody, barely protected from the rushing water as the spirit tried to crush them.
‘You started it every time.’
The spirit tried to struggle free, but this time, it was James who roared.
When he was done, the thing lay still. Cowed. Point made. He could feel resentment bubbling in its skin. He didn’t care.
He let the spirit go, and reverted to his human form as it found its feet, glowering down at him like the world’s most intimidating four year old.
He took a second to force himself to calm, then let out a burst of bubbles in a subaquatic sigh.
He’d made his point. If having a sister had taught him anything, it was that now was the time for a peace offering.
He moved close enough for their minds to once more touch, and, as earnestly as he was able, conjured a memory of something nice. He made the offer.
The spirit let out a low growl, followed by a huff.
Resignation and despondency.
James smiled. This was progress. He’d take it. He retrieved his grandmother’s phone from where it lay, and returned to the entrance of the cave. The water level sat a good deal lower now.
When he hit air, he dialled in a number.
One ring. Two. Three.
“Hello?” Cody asked on the other end.
“Hey, Cody,” James replied, his smile growing a little wider. “Look, I kind of need a favor-”
“James!” Cody yelped. “Are you okay? What happened to you? Are you safe!?”
James just chuckled tiredly at that.
“Yeah. I’m okay. Stuff got heavy, but I think I’ve made a breakthrough. I kinda need your help now, though.”
“Anything,” Cody answered without hesitation, his voice hard. “Say the word and I’m there.”
“Awesome. I’m at the cave where the spirit tried to kill us. Can you bring me some hot cocoa?”
“Y’know, enough to share.”