Hunt: 8.10

Previous Chapter:

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.”

Previous Chapter:

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

Previous Chapter:                                                                                         Next Chapter:

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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Hunt: 8.7

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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.

Industrious creatures.

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.


James:

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.’

James grinned.

‘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:

“Something funny?”

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.

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.

… Right.

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.” 

Cody shrugged. 

“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.

“Ready?”

“Ready.”

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.”

James snorted.

“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.

Crap.

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.

“GET OFF!”

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. 

Thanks, Caleb.

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.

“This.”

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.

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Hunt: 8.6

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Cody:

By the time they arrived at the far shore of Rockford lake, both James and Cody were breathing heavily. It had turned out that, in spite of being a magically superpowered monster-detective, James really wasn’t much of a runner. Maybe it was just that his legs were shorter. Cody had wound up half-dragging the other boy most of the way through the woods. 

The boys hit the edge of the forest at a sprint, breaking the treeline with their heels digging in the ground, stopping just short of falling face first in the lake.

“What the fuck was that thing?” Cody asked, his breathing heavy. “It was huge!”

“I don’t know!” James panted, taking a moment to catch his breath, his hands against his knees, before heaving himself upright and scanning the treeline for signs of movement. “I-I mean, it was some kind of spirit or something, but since when are there angry spirits in the middle of freaking Oregon!?”

Cody didn’t answer. Nothing from the trees. He hadn’t had much of a chance to look behind him as they ran, but the sounds of the fight had faded into the distance only a couple minutes after their escape. Still no sign of Finch.

“… Is he gonna be okay?”

“I don’t know,” James muttered, sounding almost guilty. “The most important thing was getting you outta the danger-zone.” He glanced in the direction of the town, a few of the rooftops barely visible in the distance through the rain. “You should be safe from here. I need you to head back to the diner. I’m gonna go help F-”

 

There was a distant pop, before agent Finch hit the surface of the lake with a loud splash and a muffled curse.

“… Or not.”

The two watched as the bedraggled man broke the surface, then looked around. Both boys winced on instinct. The man had a slash running down the side of his face, from just above his eye, all the way to his cheek.

The man looked around, spotted the two of them and, with a groan, started paddling his way to shore. A few seconds later, he was spread out on the rocks, his clothes ragged, skin bloody.

“Good job, Cody,” Finch murmured, his eyes closed. “You led us right to it.”

“Uh. You’re welcome,” Cody answered uncertainly. “You uh… You doing okay, sir?”

Finch responded with a low groan.

“Yeah. I’m fine. I just need a minute.”

The boys watched in awkward silence for a minute as Finch caught his breath, then, he sighed.

“Why the fuck is there an angry spirit in the middle of Oregon, and what is our next move?”

“I got nothing,” James admitted. “I mean, it’s Oregon. You can’t get much more nature-ey than this without leaving the U.S. It’s not like there’s anyone tearing up the reserve, right?”

He looked to Finch for confirmation. The older man shook his head.

“Nothing like that in the reports. I can do a deeper check now that we’ve got some idea of what to look for. There’s gotta be something.”

“Um,” Cody piped up, glancing between the other two, the adrenal afterglow fading to a level of confusion. “Not for nothing… Do we care? Like. I get that it’s probably pissed about something, but why does that matter when it’s an angry water monster that wants to flood my town?”

The other two looked at him, then James sighed, shrugged, and plopped himself down in a puddle, raising another of those air bubbles to shield them from the rain while he explained.

“Spirits are weird,” he began. “They’re kind of borderline immortal. They don’t have bodies, so you can’t normally hurt ‘em unless your magic’s super funky. That means when they go postal, you have to choose between figuring out how to calm them down, or trying to catch them like a spazzed out pokemon. The first one’s hard. The second one’s basically impossible unless you’re my grandma.”

He shrugged.

“Figuring out why it’s angry’s the easiest way to make it go away.”

Cody nodded. That made sense.

A few seconds of silence while the group thought.

“We have a lumber mill,” Cody suggested. “Maybe it’s pissed we’re making so much firewood?”

James made a noncommittal noise.

“I mean, maybe, but hasn’t that place been going for years?”

“Couple decades, yeah.”

James nodded.

“So, probably not that. We’re looking for something that started in the last couple months.”

“Not necessarily,” Finch murmured, pulling himself to his feet with a quiet groan. “Spirits can be slow. They often move around in their chosen domain. They might take years to notice something they don’t like. Or maybe it just decided it’s not okay with it anymore. We can’t rule anything out.”

James nodded, opening his mouth to continue, before Finch sighed.

“We should have this conversation later. Once I’ve got myself patched up. I’m heading back to the motel. Come join me once you’re done here, yeah? We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

“Uh, sure,” James muttered, a little wrong-footed. “I guess that works.”

Finch hadn’t waited for the answer, already turning and setting off around the lake’s perimeter towards the town, slightly favoring his left leg. He glanced back at Cody as he took his leave. “Thanks for your help, Cody,” he said. “You saved us a lot of trouble.”

“… Did I just get kicked out of this?” Cody asked.

James laughed, a little awkward.

“I think you did, yeah. We’re at the dangerous part now. Sorry.”

Cody tried not to feel too put out at that. He only partly managed it.

“I guess the date’s ruined, huh?” he murmured, half-joking, half-bitter.

James smiled.

“I dunno. I had some fun.” He glanced behind himself at the agent’s retreating back, hesitated for a moment, then proffered a hand, his cheeks a little red. “Can I walk you home?”

Cody grinned.

“I’d like that.”


It wasn’t a long walk home, only half a mile or so, first moving to the townward side of the lake, then over the pair of crosswalks that made up the entire breadth of Rockford township. Cody made sure to drag his feet as best he could. James’ hand was very warm in the chill of the rain.

They didn’t talk all that much. A few words. A part of Cody was annoyed at that. He ought to be making better use of his time in the other boy’s company. He was just too comfortable, the inconsequential chatter fading out under the constant rain.

It was only when they reached his house, approaching around the back so as to avoid being seen by his parents in the diner, that Cody asked a question he deemed important. Both boys stood there for a time, leaned against the wall, still holding hands, neither wanting to admit that they’d run out of steps to walk.

“That was fucking terrifying,” he murmured. James glanced up at him at that, face turning away from the perpetual spattering of a nearby puddle, one eyebrow raised. “Back at the cave, I mean. Have you dealt with shit like that before?”

James chuckled.

“Couple times, yeah. It’s usually bigger than that, though. You kinda get used to it after a while.”

Cody turned that thought over in his mind a couple times, then shook his head.

“How do you get used to being attacked by giant monsters?”

A quiet snicker.

“No idea. You just kinda wake up after a while and all the fear’s a little quieter. Still there, but easier to ignore, you know?” he chuckled ruefully, his gaze returning to the ground. “I had a pretty heavy couple months after I got my powers.”

Cody had no response to that. What were you supposed to say when your first date started talking like a Vietnam vet? He gave the shorter boy’s hand a little squeeze. Opened his mouth. Closed it again.

“Can I kiss you?” James asked, his voice a little small. Cody looked at him. His eyes were still determinedly pointed at the ground, a faint blush partly hidden by the waterlogged scruff of his hair. “I know it wasn’t a great first date, but you’re really cute and I sorta want to try again and-” he took a breath. “… I wanna see what kissing’s like when it’s not with your best friend.”

Cody’s heart beat suddenly felt a touch louder against his ribs.

“Sure,” he said, doing his best to sound casual. “I’m down for that.”

James nodded, then awkwardly rotated himself, one shoulder leaning against the wall, facing Cody. After a few seconds, the two of them locked eyes, the younger boy trying not to make it obvious as he shifted upwards against the wall, standing on the tips of his toes.

Even then, he was half an inch too short. Cody bent down a little.

Contact. Surprisingly soft. Not quite on the lips. One second. Two seconds. They broke away. James broke eye contact, his cheeks crimson. Cody grinned.

“Feels kinda weird.”

James tilted his head away to hide a smile.

“Yeah. Little bit. See you later, Cody.”

“Bye, James.”

Cody watched the other boy leave before he stepped inside.

It was odd, he thought to himself as he pulled out a dry set of clothes. Even after the rain, he felt extremely warm.


James:

James couldn’t help but smile a little as he made the journey back to the motel. He’d been half expecting to feel guilty, especially if he actually wound up enjoying it, but no. Instead, there was just a sort of afterglow.

The kiss had been cool. He hadn’t been sure if he’d be able to muster the courage.

It was nice; being okay with it all after the fact. Hopeful. He liked hopeful.

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