Book Two: Winter. Prologue.

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Bermuda:

Peter’s teleport brought him into being a dozen or so yards from the cabin’s entrance. It wasn’t a big thing; just a four walled, prefab box placed on the micro-island years ago to house the equipment and solar cells they used to monitor the bridge-scar the whale had left behind when it fled. It had never been intended for long-term habitation.

Peter sighed, then hitched his rucksack a little higher on his back. He already knew she wouldn’t be talked down, but he owed it to her to keep on trying. He trudged the short distance through the pristine sand, and knocked on the cabin door.

No answer. Not surprising, really. She was probably out again, frantically searching, as was her way these past nine months. He dug the spare key out of his pocket, and let himself in.

What he found inside was neither encouraging, nor surprising. The place was a mess. To the left of the door sat a small office desk, built around the mess of radio equipment, scanning gear, and miscellaneous electronics that had been the initial purpose of the outpost, now buried under half-eaten food containers and what had to be at least half a dozen empty liquor bottles. To the right, the small cot designed to give at least nominal comfort to whoever drew the month-long monitoring duty. The sheets were unmade. He suspected at a glance that they hadn’t been changed since he himself had done so on his prior resupply.

Peter took a deep breath, lowered his rucksack to the floor, and reluctantly prepared a garbage bag. He likely had some time before she came back. He could at least try and make her situation a bit more liveable. He spent the next half hour hard at work. The discarded rations and bottles were shoved into the garbage bag. The used clothes that littered the floor went into a duffel, replaced with a stack of fresh ones. He re-made his partner’s bed.

He was part way through restocking the cabin’s fridge when the sounds from the shoreline alerted him to a portal being opened. He continued his work. He’d just finished placing the last box of instant tortellini when Jacqueline Vance stepped inside. He turned to look at her. It wasn’t good.

Jackie looked as though she hadn’t slept in days. Or bathed. Or even bothered sitting down. Her hair was an unkempt mess, her skin a mottled mismatch of wind-dried and sunburned. There were shadows under her eyes, of the sort that only formed when one was worked beyond exhaustion. She barely even looked at him.

“Hi, Peter,” she muttered, trudging past him and pulling open the fridge he’d just finished stocking. She pulled out a box at random, and shoved it into the microwave without looking at the contents. Then, she moved to the computer.

“Been a while, Jackie,” Peter murmured. “How are you holding up?”

His partner grunted.

“I’m fine.” She tapped the power button on the computer case, before lifting a voice recorder from the desk, and speaking into it. “Expedition report number two hundred and sixty four. No signs of activity in areas B-12, B-9, or B-14. New landmass identified one hundred and forty eight miles south by southwest, no signs of habitation beyond native flora and fauna. Weather patterns consistent with projected range. Tertiary moon remained in a state of partial lunar eclipse for twelve minutes, eighteen seconds estimated. Report concludes.”

The microwave beeped. Jackie ignored it.

“You don’t seem fine,” Peter said evenly. No response. He leaned his back against the fridge. “James asked me to give you a hug from him, next time I came to see you. Says he’s worried about you. I’m worried too.” Again, he was ignored.

The computer finished powering on. Jackie shifted her attention to the keyboard, logging in, setting up tabs, eyes drifting over scanning data from dozens of machines. She started mouthing silently to herself as she worked.

Peter took a breath, and tried again.

“Come home, Jackie. Please. You can stay with my family while you find a new place. We’ll get you back on your feet. I’ve checked with Sarah, and she agrees. James and Bex would love to-”

“Did you bring any whiskey?” Jackie asked, pushing the computer keyboard away with a jerk like she’d seen a spider, then shifting from her seat towards the microwave.

Peter hesitated.

“… No,” he answered. “I didn’t. I cleared out the last of your supply here, as well. It’s not healthy, Jackie. You know how many bottles I found empty?”

In response, Jackie only grunted. She pulled the now hot container of prawn tagliatelle from the cooker, and tugged the seal open with her teeth.

“It’s fine,” she muttered. “I’m heading to the mainland in a couple hours. I can pick up some more then.”

Peter resisted the urge to growl. This was Jackie. He owed her better.

“… How goes the search, Jackie?”

For once, his partner actually responded.

“Nothing yet.” She shrugged, pulling a disposable fork from a tub on a countertop, and ladling some of the pasta into her mouth.

“… That’s because Charlie’s dead, Jackie.”

It felt wrong. Here he was, trying to crush the hope out of one of his closest friends. But, if it brought her home, he’d do it. She went back to ignoring him.

“He’s dead,” he repeated, hating himself. “The Whale took him, and he’s gone. There’s nothing out there for you to find. Just his bones.”

No response. Jackie returned her attention to the computer.

Peter swore to himself.

“He wouldn’t want this for you,” he tried. “You know that, right? It’s killing you. You’ve been searching for nine months. What have you even fou-”

“Nice talking to you, Peter,” Jackie murmured, not looking at him. “Thanks for stopping by.”

Peter frowned.

“Don’t try and shoo me away, Jackie. I care about you. Come hom-”

Jackie waved a hand, and Peter blinked away, held in limbo for the few seconds it would take to return him to New York. She wondered briefly if he’d bother trying to return. She could always send him back again. Nine months wandering the scapes of that other world, tearing open portals between dimensions on the daily, had done wonders for her powers. She’d outlast him easily, and he knew it, unless he was willing to burn through some of his precious stockpiled energy to force the issue.

A few minutes passed in silence, just the lapping of waves against the shore outside. He didn’t bother teleporting back. She returned to her work.

“My son’s alive, Peter,” she said to no one in particular. “He has to be.”


New York:

Peter blinked back into being in Jackie’s office, that wide section of floor space kept perpetually clear to allow for easy use of portals. He swore, then grabbed for the flask about his belt. If she wanted to make him push for this, he would oblige. He gave the contents a shake to see how much he had, unscrewed the cap, and lifted it to his lips.

Then he stopped.

What would it change? She wasn’t going to listen, and pushing any further would just drive her deeper inside her shell. He couldn’t even blame her. He’d been much the same when James was lost. The only difference was that her son had never made it home.

‘And that was your fault.’

He threw the flask across the office with a yell. It knocked a picture off the wall, its precious contents spilling out across the floor.

Through the clear glass of Jackie’s office windows, he saw one of the interns staring in at him, a look of shock sitting clear as day on the young man’s face. Peter glared at the kid until he went away, then tried to force himself back to calm.

“We were so. Fucking. Close.”


Bermuda:

The portal snapped open in near-silence, besides the sounds of new waves and winds crossing the divide from a different shoreline. The boy who stepped through the aperture did so with trepidation. Things felt wrong on this side; subtly so. The sand had a different texture beneath his feet. This ocean had an unfamiliar smell to it. Seaweed and saltwater. The night was too dark here, the planet’s solitary moon providing nowhere near the light needed to navigate comfortably in the absence of the sun.

His companion looked around him through his eyes, and provided an assurance. This place was roughly as it remembered. He wasn’t sure whether that should comfort him.

The boy steeled himself. He wasn’t here for familiarity, nor comfort. He was here to speak to her. He glanced back through the portal, towards waters beneath which, he knew, his companion watched and waited. It cared for him. He knew that with every fibre of himself. That was why he had to do this.

Across their shared space, his companion reached out one more time. Gentle. Plaintive. Childish, in a way. It hated when he left it on its own.

He met its touch, and offered reassurance.

‘I’ll be back soon. I promise.’

Reluctant acceptance. The hope that he wouldn’t be gone too long.

He snapped the portal shut between them with a thought, and shuddered. He hated this part; the disconnect; being alone inside his head again. Around him, the world changed. Just a little. The night air grew chill. The sand beneath his feet grew a fraction rougher. A hundred tiny protections afforded him by his companion, all severed. He was on his own now. Something about that felt very isolating.

He pushed his focus back to the task at hand. The sooner he was done here, the sooner he’d return. He panned his gaze about the shoreline, and, nestled in the gloom, he found the cabin.

He stepped forward, bare feet crunching quietly in the foreign sand. Closer to, the place had a light to it, the faint glow of a computer monitor half visible through a fly-screen doorway. There was a figure slumped in front of it, not moving. He felt his heart catch a moment on catching sight of her. He shook himself.

Another silent portal brought him inside the cabin, the interior lit momentarily by a flare of brilliant indigo, before returning to near black. He gazed down at the figure by the desk. He had to snicker, just a little. She’d fallen asleep against the keyboard, an open word document flickering on the screen as page after page of j’s scrawled themselves across it.

She was a mess, he realized. This place had a different odor to the outside air. Petrified food and liquor, harsh against a nose that barely recognized the smells. Her hair was matted. A part of him pointed out he could hardly judge. His hair was a mess now, too.

For the first time in near enough a year, the boy was suddenly self-conscious. He glanced around himself for a mirror, and found one sitting above the sink. He tiptoed over to it, and looked himself over in the dark.

His hair was slick with oil and water, hanging down about his shoulders in a loose, unintelligible tangle. He was pretty sure he’d been supposed to keep his hair tidy in the past. Impressions were important. He leaned in close, trying to see as best he could in the bare light of the computer screen, and began awkwardly trying to give himself a haircut.

It wasn’t going well. The powers he’d spent his months gleaning and refining from his companion were not suited for such a small scale task. He’d focused near exclusively on things that allowed him to fight, or move, or defend himself. None of it was really suitable for hair. He found a spell eventually, an amber spark that, when rendered down as small as he could go, made for a serviceable cutting tool. He set to work, shearing lock after lock of damp, slime encrusted hair into the sink where it sat in a clog atop the drain.

Then, he squeezed himself some hand soap, and started lathering it through what remained of his rough-shorn hair.

It was as he leaned down beneath the tap to rinse himself off that the woman finally awoke.

“Mmh. Who’s there?”

The boy started, flinching upright by instinct, only to crack the back of his skull against the faucet.

He let out a yelp of pain, and a stream of muttered swearwords that had, by this point in his isolation, become the primary part of his vocabulary. In a haphazard fashion, he ducked behind the short table at the centre of the cabin.

A fluorescent globe flickered on above him, flooding the room with too-white light. When the woman spoke again, she was awake, her voice alert.

“Whoever you are, you have five seconds to show yourself before I attack. Five. Four. Three-”

The boy let out a frustrated sigh, and showed himself.

The woman stared.

“Charlie?” she breathed.

“Hi, Mom,” he mumbled, his face flushing slightly in embarrassment. “It’s been a while, huh.”

His mother didn’t speak. She barely even seemed to breathe. She moved forwards. He took a half step back, but it didn’t matter. He was pulled into a hug regardless. He winced. He hadn’t wanted this. He’d feared that it would just make leaving harder, but no. Instead, it was just uncomfortable. Constrictive in a way that had once been comforting. Nevertheless, he hugged her back.

“… Missed you.”

“Am I dreaming?” his mother asked. “… No, no, this feels real. I’m-I’m lucid. I’m awake. How did you get back from there?”

“Same way you did,” he muttered. “I made a door… Please let go of me.” His mother didn’t seem to hear him, so he reluctantly allowed a few more seconds of contact, before trying to shrug her off. She clung on all the tighter, so instead, he teleported. The world snapped briefly in and out, and he was deposited on the shore outside the cabin.

It was better out here. Able to feel the waves lapping at his toes; the sand beneath his feet, unfamiliar as it was. Why was it all so disconnected? He sat down in the surf, and waited for his mother to collect herself. It didn’t take long. He was staring at the moon again when she opened up the door to join him. She had tear-marks on her cheeks, deep shadows under her eyes.

She didn’t come too close this time, at least aware enough to have registered his discomfort. She kept her distance, squatting in the sand a half dozen feet away.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, her voice quiet.

‘None of this feels real anymore.’

He didn’t say that. Instead, he gave her the only truth he could.

“I’m okay, Mom,” he murmured, gazing out over the water. “I came back here so you’d know I was okay.” he took a deep breath. “But I’m not staying.”

“What?” his mother scoffed, either unable or simply unwilling to comprehend it. “Of course you’re staying. You’re home. I’m never letting you be taken away from me again.”

Charlie took a while to answer that. He drew his knees up against his chest, gently hugging them. Why was it so hard to meet her gaze?

“I don’t-” he hesitated, trying to find the words. “I don’t belong here anymore, Mom. The moon’s too dark. The sand’s all wrong. Even hugging my Mom is gross. It doesn’t fit anymore. I’m not staying, and  I’m not coming back… I came here cuz I want you to stop searching for me.”

To her credit, his mother kept her calm. She didn’t shout, or beg, or demand he change his mind. Instead, she chuckled, wiping a few stray tears from her eyes with her shirt sleeve.

“Where will you go?” she asked.

“Back where I’ve been. With my friend. It… It cares about me.”

Jackie nodded her head a few times, and sniffed, tears still gently streaming down her cheeks.

“You know I’m not strong enough to let you leave, right?” her expression gained a touch of sorrow. “But I’m more than strong enough to make you stay.”

Charlie looked away from her right then. It hurt, somewhere in his chest.

“… No you’re not.”

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Hunt: 8.11

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James:

The two boys walked the earthen pathway back to town in relative quiet; both half-marvelling at the newfound stillness of their environment. The patter of the rain had become such a constant that James had almost tuned it out. Now that it was gone, its absence almost rang in his ears.

It was nice, a break in the clouds allowing the last thin shafts of early evening sunlight to splay across the canopy, picking out the rich greens and browns of the reserve in a gentle orange. James liked the smell; rich earth and freshness.

“So,” Cody asked as they crested a small hill. “What happens now?”

James shrugged.

“I dunno, really,” he said. “I’ve never done this part before. We tell Finch, I guess. Then he can take it to the home office, and they’ll see what they can do now that Whiskers is being an adult.”

“Think they can get ‘em home?”

James sighed at that.

“Probably not,” he admitted. “Getting through to other worlds is super hard. There’s only a handful of people who can do it. Even then, finding the right planet’s really tough. Maybe if they find the hole that it got dumped here through? Not much chance outside of that.”

Cody cocked his head at that, starting slowly down the hill towards the lake.

“So… Going to other planets is still a thing, right? You’re not just messing with me?”

“Oh, yeah,” James replied. “I was on one for a while. It was… pretty.”

Cody snickered, then shook his head.

“You’re kinda surreal, you know that?”

James raised an eyebrow.

“I am?”

“Yeah.” Cody glanced back at him, and caught the surprise in his expression. He elaborated: “Okay. Like… How’d you know all this stuff?” he asked. “Where’d you learn it?”

“My grandparents, mostly.” James shrugged. “They’ve been doing monster hunter stuff for a couple hundred years- and, yeah, I get it. It feels weird for me too. I’ve been surrounded by it all for a year now, and some of it used to freak me out, too. I know it’s a lot. Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Cody murmured. 

James wasn’t really sure why he had. It felt awkward.

A short quiet, then Cody carried on:

“It’s not a bad thing. Just…. Intense. I don’t know what to do with it sometimes. Like when you start talking like a war vet, or I find out you’re a rape survivor, and I’m not supposed to mention it. Just a lot of stuff where I don’t know what to say.”

James winced.

“Trust me. With the rape stuff, just leave it. If I wanna talk, I will.”

“Okay. Fair,” Cody answered hurriedly. “But, I mean… I’m your boyfriend. Aren’t we supposed to be able to talk about this stuff?”

James laughed at that, then raised a placating hand when Cody scowled.

“I mean, yeah. You’re my boyfriend, but… I mean. I’ve known you for like. Five days. I don’t even tell my parents or my therapist some of what’s up here.” He tapped his head. “We made out one time. There’s kind of a gap there.”

Cody conceded the point with a sigh.

“Well… You should talk to someone.”

I usually talk to Casper.

James did not say that. It felt like the wrong time to admit that he confided more with his cute roommate than with his somewhat boyfriend. Life was weird. He changed the subject.

“Speaking of. What do we do with that?”

“Hmm?” Cody hummed. “Do with what?”

“Well,” James shrugged. “I’m done here, right? I’m probably gonna be heading home in a couple days. Does that mean we break it off, or…?”

There was an uncomfortable shared silence there.

“We could try long distance?” Cody pointed out. “I heard it sucks, but at least it’s something… Do you want to keep this going?”

James considered that a moment. Did he? That was a hard question, now that he thought about it.

“I don’t know,” he muttered. “… Not really?” He raised a placating hand when Cody winced. “I know. I’m sorry. I just… I kinda thought you were gonna be a vacation boyfriend. Like. Try some stuff together, then go home and get on with my life, you know?”

Cody sighed, but nodded.

“Yeah, I do.”

James took a breath.

“But it feels unfair, cuz we never went on a real date, with all the monster fights, and I… Kinda feel like I owe you more?”

“Dude,” Cody snickered. “You don’t owe me anything. I knew you were gonna be leaving when I asked you out. It’s fine.”

James gave a weak smile.

“… Thanks, Cody. You were a good boyfriend, for what it’s worth.”

The silence after that lasted just long enough to become awkward.

“C’mon,” Cody muttered. “Let’s get back. They’ll be worried.”


Finch:

Not for the first time, Agent Finch tried calling James’ phone.

“The number you are calling has been disconnected.” 

He swore, then went back to scanning the mud beneath his feet.

He’d given up tracking James early on. The boy’s footprints were surprisingly hard to make out along the mossy ground, even with the cessation of the rain. He was too light. His tracks weren’t deep, and he had a tendency to float without thinking for a few dozen feet at a time when there weren’t any civilians around. It made following after him near impossible. Luckily, the trail the nature spirit left behind was a little clearer.

The situation in Rockford had been sorted; he’d knocked down a tree into the hole in the cinema wall before the solitary staff member had noticed it was even there. No witnesses. They’d been lucky. Then, with that particular crisis averted, he’d set off after his companion, as fast as he could go.

James was a good kid. He was strong, and smart, and surprisingly capable, for his age. Finch couldn’t fault him for how he’d handled the Spirit’s attack. But he was still thirteen. He was still a kid, and kids made mistakes. That made him vulnerable, no matter the foe. Finch was worried. He’d been at it for over half an hour already, and he was growing more aware with each passing second that he was losing ground.

It was as he drew near the sunken cave where he and James had first encountered the nature Spirit that he finally caught sight of them: Two figures walking together through the trees a couple hundred feet away, the evening sunlight playing oddly about their outlines. He squinted.

Young figures. Male. Adolescent, by their height. One with a rain jacket about his waist, the other with a shock of waterlogged black hair. It seemed like they were talking.

‘James? The fuck is he doing out here with Cody?’

He took a breath to call out to them both, before a new voice forestalled him, this one significantly closer.

“Please don’t. I’d like to talk to you alone.”

Finch’s head snapped around at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, his hand already half-raised into a casting stance, before he caught sight of who was speaking. An old woman leaned against the trunk of a nearby tree, arms wrapped in around herself, shoulders covered by a cardigan utterly unfit for rain, refusing to shiver in the cold. He recognized her in under a second, a face right out of his mission briefing.

“… Lady Toranaga. May I ask what’s going on?”

The older woman shrugged.

“Not a lot to tell. The spirit situation’s handled, for the moment. My grandson called for some advice. I decided to observe.”

Finch scowled.

“Little shit,” he muttered. “He should have called me.”

Another shrug.

“Broke his phone. I lent him mine, but I doubt he has your number memorized.”

Finch grunted.

“And Cody?” he asked. “Is there a point to calling his boyfriend out here?”

Tsuru smirked.

“So that’s Cody, is it?” she said wrily. “I did wonder. He was called to bring out a peace offering after my grandson had the spirit subjugated.” She turned her eyes to him for a moment. “You’re the one in charge of taking James down, aren’t you.”

Finch winced. There wasn’t any point in lying. She wouldn’t have asked if she didn’t already know the answer. He nodded.

“Who told you?”

Tsuru snickered.

“No one. But, your government developed a counter strategy for my son. It stands to reason that you’d do so with my grandson too. His first full mission was the most opportune time to get a sense of him, so I assumed. What’s your plan, so far?”

He hesitated for a moment, then answered with a resigned shrug.

“Sedatives,” he admitted. “Aerosolized for inhalation. If that failed, probably a coordinated attack from myself and members of my team.” He saw her grin at that, and shrugged. “He’s strong, and you’ve got his instincts honed surprisingly well already. His reflexes are great, but he’s prone to tunnel vision. An arrayed attack lets us catch him off guard and crack his shield so someone has a chance to tranq him.”

A snicker.

“Good start,” Tsuru allowed. “But don’t rely on tunnel vision. I may have trained that out of him before too long.”

Finch heaved a sigh.

“Noted,” he muttered. “What about you?”

“Me?” she asked, one eyebrow raised.

Finch gestured to her.

“You’re here, aren’t you? Interrogating me on the plan. Digging for information. What’s your angle? Will you try and stop us, if it comes to it?”

The witch considered him for a moment.

“That depends on your side, I think,” she said at length. “If there’s cause for it, I might support you. That’s why I allow these plans at all. Better you have an option that keeps him safe. On the other hand, if it’s done to attack my family, I’ll put an end to it. That’s all there is to say.”

Finch wasn’t sure what to say to that; either to the intimation that this woman would turn on his country if given half a mind, or to the idea of how much harm she’d cause. He kept his peace.

“I’ll pray it never comes to that,” he said evenly.

Tsuru laughed.

“Likewise. Now, come on.” She gestured towards the distant boys. “They’re almost at the lake. We might as well go meet them.” She smiled. “Not everyday you get to embarrass your grandson in front of his date.”

Finch forced a laugh.

“You’re a cruel woman, Ma’am.”

“I can be.”

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Hunt: 8.10

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Cody:

Cody would have struggled to express what was going through his head as he rinsed out his mother’s old camping thermos and started hunting for the cocoa mix. He hadn’t been able to sit still for even one moment of the last six hours.

It was all an adrenaline heavy blur. Sprinting through the rain to find Finch, his heart going a mile a minute in his chest. The expression on the older man’s face as he’d explained. The sinking feeling in his gut as the agent’s look went from bemusement, to worry, to simple military intensity.

Finch had gone into problem solving mode; fabricating excuses for the sudden hole in the cinema wall with the determined calm of a practiced expert. He’d instructed Cody to go home and wait. He’d said that James would be okay. Cody had hated every second of it.

But that was fine. It was all fine. James was okay. He sounded happy and tired and weird, but he was okay, and that would do. He’d go meet him, hand over the cocoa, and then maybe they’d get to go on a date without getting interrupted by a giant monster.

Cody felt a quiet stab of pride at that. He couldn’t help it.

‘I threw a brick at a kaiju today,’ he thought. To protect James. I’m a fucking badass. So what if it did nothing? I still did it.’

He waited for the milk to heat through, then poured it into the thermos atop the cocoa mix. He screwed the cap closed, and gave the thing a shake.

‘Right. Marshmallows.’

He grabbed a mini marshmallow pack and stuffed it in his pocket.

‘Let’s go see my boyfriend.’

“Mom! I’m heading out! I’ll see ya later!”

With that, he grabbed his waterproof, and the thermos, and stepped out into the rain. 

The jog across town was short, and when he hit the treeline by the side of the lake, he picked up speed, crashing through puddles and underbrush, all caution to the wind. He wanted this to be done with. He at least wanted to be involved.

His ten minute sprint brought him, panting lightly, to the cave mouth. He spotted James from a distance, sitting on a boulder taller than he was, one cheek resting on his palm, gazing at the phone in his other hand. The sight was nothing short of a relief.

“Hey,” Cody called as he broke the treeline. “Hey, James! Over here!”

James glanced up at the new arrival, and his expression brightened. He waved, the back of his hand slightly glowing.

“Hey, Cody. You got the cocoa?”

“Yeah,” Cody replied. “I got your cocoa, weirdo. What do ya need it for, anyways?”

James shrugged, slipping the phone into his pocket and hopping down off the boulder to greet him. He fell a tad slower than he should have done.

“Eh, nothing much. I managed to stop the Spirit trying to kill me, but now it’s upset and I promised it a treat. May I?”

He held out a hand for the thermos, but Cody didn’t move.

Purity marks, sitting dark and heavy on the skin around James’ left eye; beneath them, on his cheek, the marks of pain.

He’s had sex. He’s had sex and he didn’t tell me. Was it today? Was he hiding them? Was he lying?

James caught the staring after the first half second, and raised an eyebrow.

“Dude. You okay? What’s wrong?”

Then, realization. His face fell.

James stepped forward, and tugged the thermos from Cody’s hand.

“… I got raped last year,” he muttered, his voice low, even defensive. “It’s how I got my powers. Do me a favor and pretend you never saw, okay?”

“Oh,” Cody mumbled, suddenly deeply ashamed. “… Okay.”


James:

James kept his breathing calm and steady. This wasn’t how he’d wanted things to go. He hadn’t wanted Cody to find out. He gave a resigned internal shrug, and stepped towards the water’s edge, now sitting rather lower than it had before. He laid a palm flat against it.

“Mr. Whiskers?” he murmured. “I got the stuff. You can come out now.”

For a few seconds, nothing happened. James glanced back towards the still perturbed looking Cody.

“Oh. Uh. Cody? Just a warning. The Spirit’s gonna be here in a minute.”

Cody nodded, his expression setting into something like worry, then determination. Then, his attention shifted. Following his gaze, James saw why.

For the first time, the Spirit rose from the cave without a form; not water, wood, or gravel. It was spectral now; green foxfire glowing about its form, picking out hints of otherwise translucent fur. At least it wasn’t huge this time.

His feet left the shore as he floated forward.

“Hey,” he murmured, keeping his voice low, his emotions as level as he could. “We got the cocoa.”

There was a mild shudder as the spirit’s mind once more brushed against his own. It was oddly uncomfortable; exposed, no privacy. Was this what Casper’s power felt like? He brushed the thought aside.

The spirit hardly seemed to notice, translucent paws padding atop the water’s surface as it crossed the gap toward him. It lowered its head to the thermos, and gave it a sniff, a touch of curiosity bubbling up through the still present layer of resentment.

James chuckled.

“C’mon. Give it a try.”

He drifted back towards the shoreline at that, unscrewing the cap and setting it down on the rocks. Then, carefully, he poured the tiger some hot cocoa.

The spirit was tentative, at first, prowling, examining. It didn’t trust him.

Fair enough.

He backed away a little, letting it draw closer. The spirit stooped down, and lapped at the slightly steaming fluid.

Consideration, then grudging satisfaction.

James had a sister. He knew the sensation well.

“Do we have any marshmallows?” he asked, shooting an over the shoulder glance at Cody.

“Oh,” the other boy muttered, fumbling awkwardly in his coat pocket. “Right. Sure. Yeah.” A moment later, he produced a clear plastic packet, and tossed it across to James, who peeled it open.

“Right,” said James. “Mr. Whiskers, these are called mini-marshmallows, and they are going to change your life, okay?” He poured a couple into his hand, and proffered it towards the spirit.

For its part, the spirit stepped forward, examined the spongy mass for a moment, then scooped it out of James’ palm.

The sensation as a tongue that wasn’t entirely solid licked partway through his hand to get at the treat was almost impossible to describe. The spirit chewed for a moment, swallowed, then let out a huff, seeming to shrug.

“… Well, I think they’re cool.”

He sat at that, aware of the uncomfortable equilibrium in which they found themselves. The tiger, for its part, went back to the hot chocolate.

What to do now?

He thought in silence for a while, only brought out of it when the tiger let out a grunt, gently headbutting the side of the thermos flask.

“Oh. You want some more? Okay.”

He poured another cup, and, in the clearest way he could, asked the biggest question on his mind:

Pictures of the rain; the lake slowly overflowing, the puddles, the damp. He projected it forward into their shared mental space, and laced it through with as much curiosity as he could.

‘Why?’

If he hadn’t been able to feel what the spirit was feeling, he’d have thought it had ignored him. It lowered its head for another drink, fresh emotions roiling in its head, pushing that weakening resentment to the side.

Loss. Pain. Fear. Loneliness. A sense of longing. The gradual death of hope.

The creature pushed each of those emotions forward; an explanation.

James winced. He’d felt something similar before, his night spent stranded in the other world with Charlie. He composed his answer.

He shared a memory. Himself, sitting on a beach, with the body of a comatose friend, staring at a trio of unfamiliar moons. He put forward each of those same emotions in their turn, then another; sympathy. The spirit wouldn’t look at him at that. He reached out, his knuckles grazing at the creature’s jaw. It didn’t pull away. He scritched it behind the ear.

“Long way from home, huh?” he murmured, his voice low.

Well, maybe that was something they could fix.

Awkwardly, not one hundred percent sure of how to word it, James put his question forward.

An image of himself, then an image of his house. Pictures of his room, and how it felt to sink into the pillows of his bed after a long day’s work. Pictures of his sister, and the feeling of how she drove him crazy, and how he’d do anything to keep her safe. Pictures of Casper, and that feeling of comfy familiarity. The satisfaction of a friendship, and the lingering awkwardness of attraction- He moved on from Casper. He showed images of his parents, and shared with it how safe they made him feel. Then, he pulled away from that, and showed the picture of his house again, cramming as many of those feelings inside that image as he could. Then, he showed a picture of the spirit, that ghostly green mega tiger, and coupled it with curiosity.

‘Where is home for you?’

There was a quiet moment, before the spirit finally responded.

He had expected an image of a forest. Maybe something with a landmark that could be used to guide the creature home. What he got was a good deal more:

Standing at the edge of a cliff, overlooking a canyon that one could run through for days without seeming to reach the end. The majesty of it. 

The sight of diminutive paradise birds dancing in the air, swooping and gliding to impress potential partners, their coats casting rainbow glimmers over a rapid flowing stream. Their grace. Their elegance. 

Running under the belly of a canyon crawler as it strode above the trees, like a towering, crystal axolotl; the largest of all the creatures in its realm.

The sensation of running and roaring for days and nights through fallen leaves of every color, shedded by the trees above as they made ready for the coming winter.

The brisk cold at the highest peak of its domain. The grandeur of its home sprawling out below. A cloak of life about the world.

Standing before an unknown biped. A struggle, then stranded in an unfamiliar place.

Then came grief. Then came rain.

“Oh,” James realized. “I… Uh. I don’t know how to help with that.”

“Help with what?” Cody asked, confused.

“It’s not from Earth,” James replied, a little stunned. “It’s from somewhere else and it can’t get home. That’s why it’s pissed off.”

“… So,” Cody muttered. “… It’s an alien?”

James gave a bemused kind of shrug.

“I mean, kinda. Yeah.”

He pondered that for a minute. He couldn’t offer to send it home. He wasn’t even sure if they could find where the spirit’s home was, and that was with help. He settled for showing it his sympathy.

It huffed.

He sighed.

“I’m gonna… try a thing,” he muttered. “Not sure if it’s gonna work.”

“Try what?” Cody asked, stopping momentarily in his slow movement towards the spirit.

“I dunno,” James replied. “Relating to it, I guess?”

He hesitated, then posed his next question as Cody finished his brave advance, and cautiously began patting the creature on the shoulder.

Images of the reserve, drenched in rain. The few brief glimpses of wildlife he’d seen out here. Squirrels. The monster from the lake. He put forward a tentative sense of joy, then curiosity.

‘Is there anything here you like?’

The spirit didn’t look at him. Instead, it turned a baleful eye on Cody. The boy didn’t quite flinch, but his petting halted. It grunted, and nuzzled his wrist with the side of its head.

Cody awkwardly started scratching its head, and it returned its eyes to James.

An image; industrious creatures building a fortress in a pond, assembling it from fallen sticks and timber. A sense of satisfaction.

“… Huh. Beavers,” James murmured, a little underwhelmed. The spirit growled. “Nono, that’s fine! Beavers are cool, we have more stuff like that.” He fumbled hurriedly around for a memory to share. A few visits to a zoo. He showed it a giraffe.

Curiosity.

“Okay. Okay, cool. You like animals. Well, check out this one.” He showed it a kangaroo.

The spirit cocked its head, confused.

“Yeah, no,” James snickered. “We don’t get it either. Australians are weird.”

“James?” Cody murmured.

“Hold up,” James replied. “I wanna show em a koala-”

“Dude,” the other boy insisted, flicking him on the shoulder. “Look. The rain’s stopped.”

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Hunt: 8.9

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James:

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.”

No response.

Right.

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.

Nothing happened.

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.”


Guardian:

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.

Not again.

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.


James:

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.

Frick!

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.

‘Your fault!’

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. 

‘My fault?’

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.

‘Sure. Whatever.’

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?”

“… What?”

James shrugged.

“Y’know, enough to share.”

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Hunt: 8.8

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James:

James knelt on the ground, fully dressed once more, debating whether or not to bother with his one remaining shoe.

What to do now?

The spirit was still hunting him. He could feel it nearby, moving through the underbrush, surprisingly stealthy, given it’s bulk. He’d glimpsed it once, about half an hour ago, its oaken hide shifting against the backdrop, growing a patina of moss and loose bark, matching its environment like a chameleon; near invisible.

He’d given up on tracking it by eye after that, instead setting loose tendrils of his power to float about himself, tracking his surroundings by disturbances in the air. An approach which only occasionally led to him being unduly startled by a passing squirrel. It worked, though. He could sense it.

What to do? If he let it pounce, he could take it by surprise, but every time it got its jaws around his shield, it took another measure of his energy to recover. That was the problem, here. He was stronger than this thing. There wasn’t a single move it could make that he didn’t have a way to counter; but he was broadly mortal, and it wasn’t. He could wail on it with all his might until his energy ran dry, and he’d get nothing out of it except maybe scaring it off. For the spirit’s part, all it had to do was wait till he fell asleep.

He felt its enormous form crouch low in the underbrush, moving slow so as to avoid alerting him. He stood, then turned to face it. His opponent froze, just as he’d hoped. It was a hunter, after all. It knew that he was strong enough to hurt it. It wouldn’t attack while he was facing it. Its disguise was alarmingly good. Even looking directly at it, he could barely make the spirit out, part of his brain telling him it was just another fallen tree and some bushes, its edges blending so well into the underbrush that its outline was impossible to discern. Good. It wouldn’t move while he was watching. That earned him some thinking time.

If I don’t do something, this thing’s gonna wear me down to the bone. C’mon, James. What would Batman do?

Distressingly, the answer he eventually came up with was not something Batman would have ever done.

In a calm, unhurried manner, James slipped a hand into his pocket, and pulled out his phone, before dialling in a number. He pressed call, and put it to his ear, still staring at the spirit’s half-concealed form.

The person on the other end picked up after the first five rings.

“Hello, squirt,” his grandmother murmured. “How goes the hunt?”

For once, it was James who shifted the conversation into Japanese, just on the off chance that the spirit understood english.

“Hey, Baba. Quick work question. How do you deal with an angry forest spirit?”

A momentary pause while his grandmother considered.

“That’s a lot bigger than we thought you would be facing. Are you okay?”

James noticed a faint greenish glow beginning to build around the frozen spirit’s outline, and began slowly backing away, working as best he could to keep his voice level.

“I’m fine so far. It’s weaker than me, but I can’t make it go away. It’s gonna be a problem when I have to sleep. I had to push it into the reserve cuz it picked a fight with me in town. Staying out here for now. Giant wooden tiger thing. Don’t want it following me back.”

There was a brief pause as his grandmother considered. For his part, James stopped backing away from the spirit, if only because his back had hit a tree. It had stopped glowing now.

“I see,” Tsuru murmured, a note of concern buried in her voice. “Are you still in danger? Is it close by?”

“Pretty close,” he answered, his voice tight. “It’s hunting me.”

When his grandmother answered, it was with a good deal more intensity.

“Right. First, you’ll need to-”

The attack came at him from behind; a vast mass of compacted earth and gravel that charged through his sensory web at top speed, before smashing the tree at his back as though it wasn’t even there. With what little warning he had, he made it all of half a step before it struck him in the back, the sheer force of it launching him through the undergrowth, his shield sparking static all around him. His motion only halted when, ironically enough, he struck the still stationary form of the spirit’s prior incarnation. Even with his shield up, the impact hurt, a knobbled mass of wood that had once been the creature’s front paw slamming into his gut, cutting him off, mid-scream.

Had it not been for nine months of combat training, James Toranaga might have died right then. Nine months ago, he would have stayed on the floor. Nine months ago, he’d have spent a second being stunned. That second would have given the spirit’s follow up attack the time to land.

As it was, however, his reaction time was rather good. Still gagging, he shoved himself upwards into the air, avoiding the earthen tiger’s jaws by less than a foot.

As he climbed up above the canopy, the monster roared its fury up from underneath him. He shot an ineffectual wind-blast at its face on general principle.

“Not your friggen chew toy,” he mumbled, still coughing. “Better not have broke my phone.”

He moved back over the top of the canopy, spying the ground below for his phone. The spirit, seemingly out of sheer bloody mindedness, prowled along beneath him, snarling occasionally up at its prey.

James was not in the mood.

He spotted his phone, still intact, about half a second before the spirit positioned itself above it.

“… Move.”

The monster raised its head, bared its earthen fangs, and roared.

… Nope. I’m done. Screw this and screw you.

James dug into his spellbook.

Unlikely as it may have seemed, Hideyoshi and Tsuru Toranaga were actually very responsible teachers. James’ training under them had never been allowed out of hand, had always emphasized safety and control, and, most importantly, had been based near entirely on the more defensive points of combat.

They would not, in a million years, have taught him a spell as dangerous as the one he now dug into. Unfortunately for them, his powers had developed this one on their own. He wasn’t in a hurry to tell anyone about it, either.

“Get off my phone.”

The spirit glowered at him as hard as a giant tiger made of rocks can glower. He raised a hand, fingers splayed, energy just starting to gather at his palm.

“Last warning. I wanna talk to Baba.”

The spirit didn’t move.

James scowled darkly at it.

“Your funeral.”

For a moment, James’ powers seemed to weaken, his body growing heavy in the air, his shield fading to a bare bubble above his skin. He felt gravity begin to tug him down towards the ground.

There was a sound like a power line short-circuiting, then he shot the spirit in the shoulder with a bolt of lightning.

The monster roared; not in anger, this time, but in agony. It reared back as the bolt seared through the gravel about its back and side, molten slag trickling from the point of impact like blood from an open wound. To James’ surprise, it fled, its left foreleg giving out as it tried to put weight on its now half melted shoulder. It fell on its side and scrabbled in the dirt for a moment in its haste to get away, paws carving deep trenches in the earth.

“Yeah!” James shouted after his retreating foe, understandably annoyed. “You like that, hecker!? I am your God, and I am pissed!”

He belatedly retrieved his phone, and brought it to his ear.

“Baba? You still there?”

No reply.

He pulled the phone back from his ear, and looked at the screen. There was a nasty crack running all the way down it. The picture was glitched and frozen, halfway between the call screen and the home screen.

Son of a flip!

James was still trying to decide whether or not to extract a painful revenge for his fallen phone, before he heard a distant, very human sounding scream.

Crap.

He set off in the direction of the noise, images of some terrified camper crossing paths with the wounded spirit playing vividly in his brain.

“-ames!”

… Wait. What?

He drew closer, sticking to the canopy, the leaves keeping him largely hidden from those beneath him as he moved. He recognised that voice. It was louder now. Easier to discern.

“James! Where are you!?”

“Baba?” he muttered, uncertain.

Sure enough, as he floated near, he caught sight of his grandmother sprinting through the sodden treeline, an expression of utter panic on her face, and a mobile phone held against her head.

“I don’t know what happened, Peter. One second, we were talking. The next, he screamed and the line went dead. I ported to where the phone finder app said he’d be, but he’s not-”

She stopped dead when she saw him floating there, gazing bemusedly down at her in the rain.

“… Hi, Baba. Sorry. Whiskers the Wondercat broke my phone.”

“False alarm,” his grandmother muttered belatedly into her phone. “There was a problem. He handled it. He’s fine. Talk later.”

She hung up the call, put her phone in her pocket, and waved her grandson down towards her.

“Young man, you have precisely five seconds to give your grandmother a hug.”

James wisely did as he was told. His grandmother’s grip was much tighter than usual, he noted, and she was in no hurry to let him go.

“Sorry I scared you,” he mumbled into her shoulder.

“It’s fine,” she replied, reluctantly releasing him. “You’re safe. That’s all I care about. Now, you said you needed some advice? Something about a forest spirit?”

“Ugh, yeah,” James grumbled. “It’s been trying to kill me for like, three hours. It ate one of my sneakers. I need to figure out why it’s so pissed so I can calm it down. Otherwise, I think it’s gonna keep on trying till it works.”

“Hmm,” Tsuru murmured. “Tricky. You don’t often see a spirit holding grudges without a reason. Can you think of anything you might’ve done?”

James gave a helpless kind of shrug.

“I mean, not really? I found it like, two days ago, while I was cave diving, and it’s been trying to eat me ever since. Cody thinks it maybe tried to skip town when me and Finch got here.”

“Cody?” Tsuru asked.

“Just a kid I know from town,” he replied, a bit too quickly. “Nothing special.” There was a moment’s awkward silence at that. “Um… D’you wanna see the body it left behind? It made a new one out of rocks to get the drop on me.”

Tsuru gave him an appraising look of the kind that told him she knew he was hiding something, then shrugged.

“Lead the way.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“So, about this Cody-”
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