Interlude arc: Hunt

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Special Response Team Lead; Nicholas Finch:

The single hardest task during an emergency was going to sleep. It was almost impossible. You walked out of the briefing with fire pumping through your veins. Enemies on the front. Civilians in trouble. Evacuations needed. And yet, two times out of three, your orders were to sleep. To be on call.

It made sense, in an abstract manner. If the response teams deployed everyone at once, there’d be no one well rested enough to take charge of the situation beyond the first twelve hours or so. Even combat forces needed sleep to be at their best.

Even so, Finch hated it. He’d been told to sleep when the elves attacked last year; only brought onto active work for the latter half of the event. Forcing the male to go to ground in central park. Helping the goblin teams dispose of the hunting birds in the aftermath.

He remembered every second of that supposed nap, eyes glued to his computer monitor, watching the updates come in. One confirmed kidnapping. Two. Three.

When the number hit five, he’d crushed his coffee cup.

There were some moments when agent Finch truly hated his job. This new assignment was one of them.


“A thirteen year old?” he asked, gazing at the image on his desk. “You want my team to take down a thirteen year old?”

The woman from the planning department shrugged.

“God no,” she replied. “Activating you against him would be a disaster. But we’re the government. We’re the ones who have to have a plan in place if everything goes to shit. And that’s what we want you to do. Figure out how to stop him if everything goes wrong.”

“He’s thirteen,” Finch replied, halfway between perplexed and insulted. “My team was trained for an inter-dimensional terror response, and you want us to come up with a kill plan for an adolescent civilian?

The woman frowned.

“Did you see his surname?”

He glanced at the file again, and swore.

“His dad’s my fucking boss.”

“We know,” came the response. “That’s part of why you’re being called in. Normally, we’d rely on one of the Toranagas for this. But clearly, they’re not the right people for the job.”

Nick let out an aggrieved sigh, a residual note of stubbornness telling him to keep on fighting, even if he knew he had to do it.

“What makes you think he’s even a threat?”

His opposite number shrugged.

“We don’t,” she replied. “We have every reason to hope that he will never become a problem. But we’ve identified some side factors that pose additional risk.” Nick glanced up at her, and she started listing off items on her fingers. “First, he was molested about a year ago. It was quite traumatic, if the latter reports are to be believed. He was also actively targeted during the elvish raid-” Nick felt a momentary pang of guilt at that. “- and has been the target of at least one other attempted kidnapping that we know of.”

He began to object, but the woman wasn’t done.

“We also have evidence that he made unshielded contact with Father on at least two, possibly three occasions.”

Finch fell silent at that, his objections dying in his throat. He might have kept on fighting if the list was simply trauma. That was what the therapists were for. But this was Father. He glanced at the image on his desk, and winced.

Short. Slender. Androgynous. The kid was exactly Father’s type.

“What level of contact?” he asked.

The woman laughed. Nick didn’t really see the joke.

“A few minutes of exposure at Mount Sinai hospital,” she murmured, digging out her phone and flicking at the screen. “The contact was minimal, and he had enough protective supervision to ensure his safety. The incident we know less about is this one. One of the Toranagas’ students uploaded it last week.”

She passed the phone across Finch’s desk, and he took it.

It was set to a youtube video, only thirty seconds long. He pressed play.

A few seconds of top down footage on an empty stretch of wall. Then a muffled thump, before the wall exploded outwards with a crash. The camera panned away from the wall for a moment, just long enough to catch the freshly made hole in the building opposite. A brief glimpse of the legs of whoever was holding the camera as they dropped the three or four storeys to ground level. A few seconds of incomprehensible shaking as the person crossed the gap, then the camera steadied, now focused on a bedraggled looking man, embedded in the side of a rusted heavy goods vehicle, blood trickling slowly from his temple.

Finch paused the video, and looked closer.

“… And we’re sure that’s Father?” he asked. “Man’s a shapeshifter after all. He could’ve-”

“The form’s consistent with what Father has looked like for the last few years,” came the response. “And there aren’t many other people in New York who could’ve survived the blast.”

He nodded, then resumed the feed.

A single arm reached out from behind the camera, took Father by the shoulder, then wrenched his body free of the broken chassis, his shields flaring faintly all the while. There was something very satisfying about seeing the bastard half-concussed.

A few more seconds of shakycam, then the feed settled on the hole in the factory wall, this time viewed from ground level.

At first, Nick struggled to make out the interior in the gloom; then James Toranaga floated forward, tourmaline mist rising from his eyes.

The sound quality was terrible. Finch couldn’t make out the first few words.

“-ever hurt my friend, I will hurt you. Got it?”

Finch fought down a grin.

“I like this kid.”

“Noted,” his opposite number replied with a smirk. “But the fact remains. He has had at least one meeting with Father in which there were no witnesses, and for which he had no protection. That, on its own, is enough to consider him compromised.”

Finch nodded.

“Can’t say I disagree,” he admitted, passing back the phone. “What are the parameters?”

“Complicated,” came the reply. “This boy attends school with some of the most important magical children in the country, and has the rough destructive potential of an M1 Abrams tank. You are advised to consider this a mission of national security. Your team is to figure out how to incapacitate him-” she raised a finger up between them. “-without pissing off his entire family.”

Nick gave her a slow nod.

“Okay,” he murmured. “What’s my cover?”


James:

“But I don’t need a supervisor,” James complained, floating out of the elevator behind his father, and proceeding down a narrow hallway. “I’ve been training super hard!”

“It’s your first hunt,” Peter replied sternly. “Your mother would kill me if I let you go out there alone.” The next words held a trace of mirth: “You need an adult there to help look after you.”

James glowered.

“Like hell I do.”

“Language,” his dad rebuked.

“… Sorry.”

“Good.” They were silent for a minute or so then, before James felt a bracing hand on his shoulder. “Cheer up, squirt. You’ll like him, I promise. Finch is cool. He’s in spec-ops.”

In the past nine months, James Toranaga had had more than enough time to get used to the idea of his father being a secret government agent. And his grandparents. And most of his friends’ parents.

“So?” he asked, determined to remain annoyed. “That doesn’t make him cool. Just makes him one of your dorky work friends.”

Peter laughed at that.

“Ouch,” he murmured, feigning a wince. “Kitty has claws today.”

“I’m not a kitty,” James grumbled, stung. “I’m a fighter. I’m tough.”

“Really?” Peter asked. “Good. Then you can stop being such a grump and come say hi to your new supervisor.”

James spent a few moments searching for a way out of his dad’s trap, and failed to locate one. That was sneaky.

“…Fine,” he muttered.

Peter cocked an ear.

“Didn’t catch that. Sorry.”

James refused to grin.

“Fiiiiiiine,” he groaned.

“Good,” Peter murmured, reaching the end of the long corridor, and pushing a bar to open the heavy door. “We’re here.”

James flitted in over his father’s shoulder.

It was a gym. Or a warehouse. Or both. The place had to be six hundred feet from end to end, high ceilinged and half filled with exercise equipment, a dozen or so people working their way between machines.

James spotted a pool to the far side. And a basketball court. And a large, thickly matted area with a number of deep looking gouges in the walls. James floated over to a machine with a set of weights fitted to each of the hand bars. He counted the weight. Half a tonne.

“… Huh.”

Peter tapped him on the shoulder.

“He said he’d be over in the basketball court,” he said. “Come on. Don’t wanna keep him waiting.”

“Right.”

James couldn’t help but drift ahead while his father navigated the equipment on the floor. One of the weird things about moving around by air. It took far less time to get to a place.

He arrived a minute or so before the older man, therefore, and found the court surprisingly well populated. Four people, two to a side, currently battling it out towards the furthest hoop.

One of them, a fit man in what looked to be his early thirties, noticed his approach and turned to wave, allowing a lithe woman to dodge past him and dunk the ball.

“Hey!” he called. “You must be James. Come on down.”

The moment the man spoke, the game stopped, the other three turning as one to gaze at the boy above them. James floated forwards, raising a hand in automatic greeting.

“Hi. Agent Finch, right?”

“Yup,” the man replied with a grin. “Drop the ‘agent’, though, yeah? Just call me Finch.”

“Sure.” James touched down and shot a glance behind the agent. “And these guys?” he asked, gesturing to the other three. The lithe woman waved.

“Oh, right,” Finch replied. “Introducing special agents Mulaney-” he gestured to the lithe woman. “Conroy-” a tall man who looked like he did pushups in his sleep. “-And Sye.” He gestured to the least muscular member of the group, a slim figure whose gender James failed to immediately place. He noted the lightness of their stance, the skin just a touch too airbrushed to be normal, and, more tellingly, the single throwing knife strapped to the upper thigh.

‘Ah,’ he realized. ‘Goblin.’

“He or she?” he asked, gesturing across at Sye. “I know most of you guys use ‘he’, but-”

“I go with ‘she’,” the goblin answered. “Thanks for asking. Most people just get it wrong.”

James smiled back, not sure what else to say.

A second of awkward quiet, then Finch spoke up.

“So. You play basketball?”

“Used to,” James shrugged. “Stopped when I got my powers. Hard to play without my friends seeing how weak I am now.” He felt a pang of regret at that. He missed sports.

“Wanna play a game?”

James cast a dubious glance towards one of the hoops. It wasn’t even close to kid height.

“I don’t think I can shoot that high.”

“Then fly,” Finch shrugged. “We’re supposed to be seeing what you can do here anyway.”

“… You sure?”

“Yep.”

The lithe woman picked up the ball, then tossed it across to James. He looked down at it.

“Uh. Ok. Sure.”

He took to the court, Finch taking up a position opposite him as the other three moved off toward the sidelines.

“You’re sure I’m allowed to fly?” he asked. It felt like cheating.

Finch grinned.

“Absolutely.”

James reluctantly took to the air.

“Ready?” Finch asked. “We start in three, two-”

The agent vanished into thin air with a quiet pop.

‘Oh, crap, not this again.’

He darted to one side in the air, hoping to clear the space before-

“-One!”

Finch reappeared around half a foot to James’ side. He felt a hand slap the basketball from his grip as the man began to fall.

“Wha-Hey!” he yelped. “No fair!”

Finch ignored him, already sprinting across the court. James was quicker. He shot in to block it, his arms spreading wide in front of the hoop just as Finch leaped-

Only for the man to shove him to the side and dunk the ball.

Finch hit the ground, looked up at James, and grinned.

“Get dunked on, kid.”

James blinked. So this was what outrage felt like.

“Wanna go again?” Finch asked. “See if you can touch the ball before I score again?”

‘… So that’s how it’s gonna be, huh?’

James forced himself to take a breath before he spoke.

“Make a forcefield,” he muttered. “I don’t wanna break you.”

Finch snickered.

“Someone’s cocky. Alrighty, forcefield on-” a web of light flickered into place above his skin as he returned to his side of the court, the ball held lightly under his arm. “Ready to go on three, tw-”


Peter:

Peter Toranaga caught up with his son just in time to see Agent Finch’s body slam into the gymnasium wall hard enough to crack the plaster. He watched as his son floated over, took the basketball off of his supervisor, and grumpily dumped it through the hoop.

He decided not to ask.

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Author’s Note:

Wow. Two months off and howdy gee do I feel rusty.

Also, yes. I took two months off. I really needed it. Thank you for being patient with me.

Tide: 7.6

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Charlie:

There’s a kind of primal panic in suffocation. A kind of shock. Limbs act of their own accord. Lungs wrestle against themselves. The conscious mind is put on hold, supplanted by instincts and an ice-white fear.

‘I can’t breathe.’

The boy had never experienced it before.

There was water in his throat. He flailed, his legs kicking for the far distant surface, his hands rising to his neck, trying to do something about the pressure in his chest. He tried to scream, water passing painfully across his vocal chords.

He was going to die.

The lava man reached for him, then recoiled as the boy sent another amber bolt spinning through the water, a bare fraction as powerful as the last. Above them, his companion screamed, the stress of it seeming to almost bend the water around them out of shape.

He had to hold on.

A portal. If he could just make a portal. He tried to focus. His lungs seized. His legs curled themselves in against his chest, even as he tried to paddle his way up. He was sinking.

The lava man stepped towards him, a glow of buried light shining up from underneath them.

His body hit the seafloor with a muffled thump. Whatever barriers had been placed over him were fading. He felt his skin grow hot.

He didn’t want to die like this.

The edges of his vision began to fade as the lava man stood over him, a single burning hand reaching down towards his chest. He felt his skin cooking even as he tried to pull away.

His companion reached them with a soundless roar, bearing down with desperate speed. Forty feet. Twenty. The lava man jerked towards it, one burning hand clamping down on Charlie’s wrist, his free arm raising as the ground below them split, another spire of molten glass spewing forth from underneath. His companion neither countered, nor dodged, instead slamming itself against the lava man’s counter at ramming speed.

The ocean roared. The earth shook. The boy had a moment to register the sea of molten glass beneath the oily floor, before his companion’s body struck them, and all three were plunged down into it.

Pain. Glass. Fire.

He felt it pulsing across his being, writhing as if every inch of him was on fire. The shock was such that it took a moment to realize the agony wasn’t his.

He’d stopped choking. His throat still ached and his lungs still heaved with the strain of trying to breathe; but he wasn’t dying. His barrier was back as well, flaring gently around him as tonne after tonne of melted silt flowed on about his form. For a moment, he was confused. Then he understood.

His companion was suffering. He could feel it nearby, half-buried in the molten silt and boiling sea, its barriers thrown aside in the need to keep him safe. He tried to offer it some comfort, but his voice was too quiet.

He started swimming through the glass, already searching frantically through the spells buried inside the creature’s mind. Attacks. Transmission of energies. Summoned allies. No. No. He needed healing. He had to help. A spell for cold? Cold would do. He latched on to his companion’s power, and began to shape it in his mind.

He made it less than halfway towards his friend before the lava man re-emerged, darting up before him as he made his approach; barely visible amidst the glow, even from a foot or so away. The man looked to the boy, then to his companion, his expression angry, puzzled. The boy had no time for him.

The lava man reached forwards, something sparking power about his arms. The boy was too quick for him.

The cold-snap left his body in a pulse, omni-directional and quick. The ambient glow faded just as fast as it had filled his sight, his world now solid; his movement hindered. His friend’s pain died down a tad at that. He wondered if he’d managed to freeze the ocean overhead.

The boy wasn’t the only one stuck, it seemed. The lava man went still as the world around them turned to crystal, the light of his own form fading to a barely present glow.

That wasn’t to last for long, it seemed. Even as the boy watched, the man once more began to move, the heat flowing out around him as his inner light returned. The glass softened. The man inched forward.

The boy had neither the time nor the inclination to be gentle. He plunged into his companion’s mind, and pulled out the most violent power he could find. He gritted his teeth as the glass around him split, then pushed his body forwards.

Pure kinetic force. Unfocused. Angry.

His punch was such that the world around them broke, the newly contiguous plateau of frozen silt fracturing into a hundred thousand shards as the lava man passed through it. The boy spared no thought for how far the man had gone. He was focused on his friend.

The creature was struggling, its tendrils writhing against the bedrock in an effort to pull it free, even as every motion tore new wounds in its fire-blackened skin.

Its voice was plaintive in his mind. Fearful. Small.

He moved to its side and gave what help he could. A spell to dig at the shell of rock around it, another one to push it free.

When they found the water again, the lava man was gone. So too was the creature that had tried to wrestle with his friend. Looking up, though, the boy still saw the star man up above. He could have sworn he saw the light of it glowing brighter.

For the first time, his companion wanted them to run. The boy shook his head. The star man would only follow them if they fled. The boy had no intent to let him.

His companion’s energy was weakening; five spells’ worth of borrowed force, each cast with a mountain-weight of strength, and each made wasteful by his total lack of skill. Their power waned. He had to think this through.


Hideyoshi:

Hideyoshi watched his wife retreat, and gave a nod. Good. That should be far enough.

It was going well, all things considered. Whatever Peter had done before Charlie sent his body flying from the water had clearly caused the Whale harm. It moved slower now, each tendril jerking spasmodically as it tried and failed to swim without causing its body further harm. Something had broken down its shield. Perhaps it was weakened by whatever powers Charlie was digging into.

It didn’t matter. Tsuru and Peter were clear. This would all be over soon. He put his hands together, and readied his attack.

He would use everything he had for this. Every drop of power, compressed first into an orb between his hands. Then he would cast it into the depths. A harpoon of solid sunlight, built to skewer him a Whale. He charged it up.

The portal opened some twenty feet above him, a two foot hole in spacetime, letting forth a torrent of water. He let it sizzle off him with a laugh.

‘Nice try, Charlie. Water might dampen fire, but you’ll need more of it than tha-’

The boy’s body heat vanished from below him, only to re-emerge above his head.

Hideyoshi put all his strength into his shield. Then Charlie punted him into the sea.


Charlie:

Another portal saw him back at his companion’s side just as the sea above began to burn. He couldn’t help but spare a glance at it as he pulled himself into place on his companion’s back.

It was quite a sight, the star-man’s body flaring sporadically amidst an ever expanding plume of subaquatic steam, the heat of his body doing its utmost to hold back the rushing tide around him.

It wasn’t enough. The boy watched as the star man began his climb towards the surface. Slow, fighting for every inch of distance, yet making headway all the same. The boy shrugged. It wouldn’t kill him, but it would do. He placed a hand on one of his companion’s fins.

It was time for them to run.

The creature moved slowly, at first; limping, injured. He told it to go faster and, scarred skin creaking and cracking at the stress, his friend complied. He did his best to share the pain. They could not afford to slow.

Already, he could feel the enemy gaining ground, even if every glance behind them showed him nought but empty water. He knew their third pursuer wasn’t giving up.

Sure enough, after less than a minute, there it was, the elongated shape of that silvered water-dragon winding ever onward in their slipstream, so vast that the depths obscured it well before he had a chance to spy the tail. The boy doubted his friend could make it through another bout with the thing. He silently begged for greater speed.

Already close to breaking with the pain, his friend complied.

The following minutes were tense. That final burst of effort had been enough. They were pulling ahead once more. Their progress was slow, painfully slow, every second of it a strain. Inch by inch, the boy and his beast regained their ground.

The dragon’s head was barely more than a distant shadow in the water when the final disaster struck. When it did, it was something of a surprise.

A faint pop.

A spark of light below them.

He cast his gaze around. Nothing.

One second. Two. Three.

A female figure suspended above them in the water, sparking green light dancing about her form.

The sight connected to something in his brain. A forest full of long dead trees and fog.

‘Aw, crap. It’s James’ grandma.’

What unfolded from the woman then was like sewing thread, a thousand or more strands of it, floating loose of her and extending through the water; the closest thing to a jellyfish this ocean had ever seen.

They tried to swim beneath it. Tsuru Toranaga drifted down to meet them. The strands began to catch, and where they caught, they stuck, anchoring on his companion’s flesh like steel cords and superglue.

His companion thrashed, trying to pull away. That only caused more of them to catch, tangling on tendrils and fins. Binding. Slowing.

Behind them, the dragon started gaining ground.

The beast roared. The boy did the same.

This wasn’t fair. They had almost nothing left. He glared at the woman up above them, then launched himself towards her.

To his credit, this action caught the woman by surprise. Partly because it was dumb. Within the first few feet, he was entangled. By the time he reached her, he could barely move.

But he did reach her.

He dug into what remained of his companion’s might. As the dragon bore down upon them, the boy twisted a palm towards Tsuru Toranaga, a bolt of amber aimed towards her gut, too close for her to dodge.

The woman vanished with a quiet pop.

So did the threads.

They were free. The dragon was right behind them.

He re-connected with his companion. The two began to flee once mo-

The ocean split.

That was when James Toranaga plunged his wind-bound hand through the sea, wrapped his fingers around the creature’s form, and began to drag it up.

That was all it took for the dragon to catch up, its snakelike body coiling and wrapping about his friend, its claws scratching. Teeth ripping. His friend barely had the strength left to fight. All the while, James yelled, dragging them ever closer to the surface.

He knew that voice. He knew the face that it connected to. He knew James, whether in part or in full, he wasn’t sure. He knew that yell. James cared too much about things, sometimes. God, he could be loud. The boy was his friend. That was why this was going to suck.

James’ arm had punched a hole, a pillar of stable air between his companion and the surface. Charlie stepped into it.

“James?”

Nothing changed. Charlie took a breath.

“If you don’t back off, I’m gonna die.”

The yelling stopped.

“… What?” his friend asked. “How?”

Charlie shrugged.

“I dunno. I guess I’ll find a way.”

When James spoke again, his voice was angry.

“Dude,” he muttered. “I swear, if you give me any more of your stupid crap. I’m gonna-”

Charlie raised a finger to his throat, the tip of it slightly glowing. James stopped.

This felt shitty. He wished he knew how to explain.

“Look,” he tried. “I’m… broken. It’s-” he gestured to the beast beneath his feet. “My friend. It’s fixing me. I don’t want it to stop.”

“… You’re not gonna kill yourself, Charlie.”

At that, all the boy could do was shrug.

“Maybe,” he said honestly. “I dunno. I just-” he swept a loose gesture with his free arm about himself. “I don’t like this. At all. Don’t make me figure out how it has to end.”

For a long time, the two were quiet; beneath them, even the beasts had fallen still. Tsuru emerged overhead. She didn’t speak. She was frowning.

“Charlie,” James tried, his voice almost pleading. “This is wrong.”

“Yeah.” Charlie muttered. “Sorry.”

“Don’t follow me.”

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Tide: 7.5

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James:

James had, as it happened, been correct. His instincts had led him true. His splitting of the ocean had found just the right spot to pinpoint both his targets; Charlie and the beast now both floundering on the seabed.

He had found them, even if his titan’s arms were already shaking from the weight of the water pressing against his form. Even if Charlie spared him little more than a glare as he clambered to his feet, before returning his attention to his captor. He’d still found them.

He could still hope. 

It was huge. Swollen. Inches of ichorous oil sitting thick over skin that could have been either leather or foetid scale. Fins the width of football posts flared wide along a trio of tendrils, each themselves like elongated train cars, flailing in its efforts to swim through the empty air. 

He felt a moment’s satisfaction there, marred when Charlie clambered up beside it and pressed his shoulder to its centre mass, heaving with all his might to push it back towards the surf.

The thing was big.

He was bigger.

He could do this. Maybe even fight it; drag it up onto the shoreline and hold it there until the sun, the air, or its own crushing weight brought it to its end.

He could win.

“Give. Him. Back.”

Charlie wasn’t listening. The boy didn’t even bother to turn around.

The Whale did, though. Its two side tendrils heaved against the silt to twist its centre skywards. A single bloodshot eye glared up at him.

James forced himself to smile at it.

Then it drove a spike into his brain.

It was the strangest feeling, having his coherence stripped away; like pain, but carried by sight and sound and smell. The world grew dark and clammy; not that he any longer cared to note the difference.

If he’d remembered how, he would have screamed.

His arms went limp. The water walls began to give, a billion tonnes of surf breaking into first geysers, then floods, ready to sink his quarry to the depths.

His titan form failed.

He lacked the capacity to care. 

He was in the abyss now; nothing to see or hear in all the world.

Except it’s jaws upon his soul.

His life was saved by a flash of light that burned a line of fire through the sky, before coming to a halt a yard or two away from him. In some distant recess of himself, he thought it might be Jeremy the firebird.

It hung there briefly; a point of flame, smaller than a candle.

First, it swelled.

Then it warped.

Something white-hot streaked from it towards the creature’s centre mass, the bolt striking just as the water rose back up to coat the beast. For a moment, the water fizzed where it had struck, the bolt reduced to a pale glow beneath the surf. Then it exploded. 

The monster screamed.

The world lost its thorns.

Clarity returned itself with surprising haste. James shuddered.

‘Okay. That sucked.’

James turned his gaze toward the fire, half expecting to now owe his life to a random bird. Instead, he found a finely featured boy hanging in the air before him, built of solid flame.

“Get back, James,” said the fire boy, not looking at him. “Right now.”

“Who-” James tried.

The world snapped out. 

For one moment, he hung suspended in the void, his mind trying to acclimate to the sensation of being everywhere at once.

Then the world snapped back.

He was on a beach.

He spluttered.

“What?!”

A hand clamped down on his scalp. He yelped, turned to strike-

-His grandmother pulled him into a hug.

“You are in so much trouble,” she said, her voice catching. 

He hugged her back. It was a reflex. Why was he shaking?

“Baba! Charlie’s-” he gagged. “Charlie-”

“I know,” she said, gently prying him off of her and standing upright. “We’re dealing with it. You stay here, okay?”

James began to protest. His head snapped to the side. His cheek stung.

That took a second for him to process.

Tsuru lowered her hand, her expression stony.

“I’m not losing you to that thing, James. Don’t make me knock you out.”

With that, she stepped off towards the shoreline, beyond which could still be seen the flaming figure floating above the water, now disgorging a gout of flame on the water’s surface. 

As James’ brain slowly came back online, Tsuru’s outline began to flow. It was like mist or pipe-smoke, a trio of pale shapes rising from her skin and hanging in the air behind her, each of them slowly gaining solidity.

Soldiers. At least, that was what it looked like to James. Two with swords at waist, one in modern flak gear; colorless, like thickened smoke.

“Shield his mind,” she ordered in Japanese. “Keep him safe. Do not let him follow me.” She was gone before her men had time to nod.

The one in flak gear turned to James.

“You heard that, right, kid?” a male voice echoed. “You did good, but this is above your pay grade.”

Behind the first figure, one of the others raised an arm. James watched something flicker across his vision. The residual itching in his mind began to fade.

He turned his gaze toward the horizon, the flaming figure he now suspected to be his grandfather dodging and weaving through the air as the sea raised itself in columns to try and douse him.

“Kid,” the soldier asked. “You listening?”

James raised a hand to massage his still stinging cheek. He remembered the loosened pain of that thing gnawing on his soul. He remembered Charlie glaring at him.

“Fine,” he grumbled. “I promise I won’t try anything.” 

“Unless they start losing.”


Charlie:

There was something about all this that the boy found unsettling. An unrest that went beyond the faint discomfort he had felt as he’d watched his companion devour his once-friend’s mind. It nagged him more with every passing second as he watched the dancing of the lights above the water. Something buried in his head. Flashes of a half-connected memory. 

A star above a snowfield.

That fire in the sky was a threat.

They should leave. They ought to run.

His companion didn’t listen. It was angry. It had never been burned before. He could feel it bleeding through every facet of their connection.

Its rage was so much more than him.

It was a struggle not to drown in it.

Far above, the star-man loosed a bolt of piercing heat, plunging it down into the depths, highlighting all around it in a momentary orange glow. His companion dodged; far more agile, now that it was in the water, fins and tendrils flexing to spin it to the side, the boy clinging to its centre mass by force of mutual will.

The flame-spark hung there for a moment in the water, far more stable than it should have been. The boy understood the threat and sent his friend a warning a mere moment before the spark dispersed, the water all around it flashing into steam.

His companion laboured to shield the vastness of its form, but it did not have the time.

He didn’t need a link to hear it scream.

It fought back, its powers reaching through the water, twisting waves and torrents towards the star-man in the hope of quenching him.

The star-man dodged them easily.

Frustration.

His companion was not built for this. How was it to fight something that didn’t touch the water? He felt it searching through itself for something that could help. Words from languages it never spoke. Skills that it lacked the hands to use. A thousand spells, only a fraction of which it understood. Unable to even determine what could be of use.

As the light and heat began to fade, the boy caught sight of something new. A point on the ocean floor had begun to glow.

The spread of it was hard to tell, the silt covered over with a few years of his companion’s slime. All he could tell was that it was growing. A spot of heat an inch or so wide. Then a foot, then more.

He had a sinking feeling that he knew what would come next. 

That feeling was proven right as a glowing hand pushed itself free of the molten silt, a man of flowing lava pulling himself into view. 

For a moment, the two monsters just gazed at one another. 

Then the lava man raised his arms, and a spire of molten substrate rose from the seafloor like some wretched sort of spear, impure glass forming and cracking on its surface as internal heat battled against the cooling forces of the water. 

His companion pulled away before it struck. The lava man shifted pose. The spire exploded, ripping through the ocean in a thousand jagged spikes.

His companion’s fury echoed through the sea, and they were sand again.

This wasn’t good. Two adversaries now, both too strong to be ignored. His friend had barely been able to hold against the first. 

He had to do something. He couldn’t just sit waiting on the sidelines. There had to be something he could do.

He had an idea.

The boy gave his companion a gentle pat, a thousand tiny ridges of cartilage and scale brushing beneath his fingers.

‘I can help,’ he said. ‘You have to let me go.’ 

He wasn’t prepared for the force of his companion’s denial. It was angry. It was scared. It didn’t want to be away from him.

He leaned forward, his forehead resting against its back.

‘You have to trust me.’

A moment of agonized deliberation, then whatever force had held him shackled to the creature’s back eased off.

He pushed away from it, trying to resist being buffeted as its gigantic form sent eddies through the water. He swam down towards the lava man, his focus split between navigating the depths and searching for something he’d glimpsed being tossed aside in his companion’s mind.

It didn’t take long for the lava man to spot him. A moment of surprise flickered across what passed for the being’s face, followed by determination. As the boy continued for the depths, the man waded forth to meet him, each step slowed by a cold and pressure that the boy no longer felt.

Above them, his companion and the star-man warred, each bout sending heat and fury rippling through the sea. The boy ignored it all, even when a third combattant came upon them, this one carried by a long, snake-like drake of a size with his companion.

He could worry about that later. He had to stay on task.

He had nearly reached the lava man. He thought he saw compassion in what now passed for the figure’s eyes. It was hard to tell, so distant from the sun.

The boy reached out a hand.

His enemy did the same.

He found what he’d been looking for in his companion’s mind:

A thousand spells it didn’t know how to use.


Peter:

It was all Peter Toranaga could do to keep from being torn apart as the boy he had come to save reached into a well of power far larger than himself, and loosed a bolt of amber from his palm.

He let it catch him by surprise. He should have been prepared.

What struck his shield then was, to Peter’s estimation, the most powerful attack that he had ever witnessed. It didn’t so much strike into him as break around him, the light blooming out across his chest, then out into the water like the flow of an aurora.

His shields were reinforced by more than a month’s collected energy. The spell carved through them like a butter knife.

He felt pain in the places it had flowed, a half-dozen trenches simply burrowed through him by an ocean-weight of force. He would bleed when he returned to human form.

To his credit, he reacted fast. 

‘Shield his mind. Get him out of its control.’

Charlie was already paddling backwards in the water; but he was hardly the strongest swimmer.

Peter loosed his spell, watching in grim satisfaction as the faintly glowing barrier pulsed into being around the boy’s form.

He hadn’t expected for the Whale to panic, nor for Charlie to do the same. Panic they did, though, the Whale jerking around in the water above them, breaking loose its grapple with his mother’s dragon, before thrashing its way towards them like a raging bull.

Bad as that was, Charlie’s response was even worse.

Charlie started drowning.

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Tide: 7.4

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Bermuda, Peter:

Peter would be first upon the breach. There had been no argument on that; though he could tell his father had wanted to. The topic had not been broached. 

His parents had failed. There was no judgement to that. No recrimination. They knew it just as well as he did. They had failed to protect his son. This was his job now.

When the portal opened, he would be the one to storm the gap, however fortified the enemy had made it. He would pass through, he would destroy, and he would find his son. It was that simple. There was nothing to fear.

That didn’t mean there was no tension in the air as the assembled team waited for the gate to open. They were all quiet. Peter struggled to look at Jackie as she worked, kneeling in the ground as she searched for the tear her son had left in their reality. Was that how he looked to the rest of them? That ironclad look of calm? That stiffness in her shoulders? Those eyes that still radiated fear?

No. Of course not. Why would he look like that? There was nothing to be scared of. He was going to fix this.

He should say something to her. Something reassuring. She was his friend, after all. He opened his mouth, hesitated, then closed it again. No. It would be over soon enough anyway. Better to let the woman do her work. 

He sighed.

Minutes passed. A whistling of the wind. The lapping of waves against the shore.

“Found it,” Jackie murmured, the lights already starting to spark blue around her as she spoke. “Bridging the gap in one minute.”

Peter unclipped his belt-flask and weighed it in his palm. Almost full. Several months of stockpiled power. Enough to fill out his reserves a dozen or so times over. He shook his head. Endurance would be pointless on the other side. His enemy would be flooded with magical energy. He would have to be as well.

He glanced at Jackie’s work, waited until she was only twenty seconds or so from the completion of her spell, then unscrewed the cap. 

The fluid was just as foul as always. He swallowed every drop.

His skin began to glow.

It had perhaps been inevitable that Peter Toranaga would one day find an elemental form, his father being what he was. Such was the way with half-breeds, after all; to draw from the nature of their parents in some or other manner. For Peter, though, it had taken time. He had been well into his adolescence by the time he was powerful enough to make the shift, and even then, it was nowhere near as pure.

When his father touched the flame, it was to become something else entirely; devoid of substance or weight; of anything, save the heat. 

For Peter, the transformation wasn’t quite so clean. He was fire, true enough; yet his body still possessed solidity. He didn’t grow, or fly, or feel a shift in his perception. Instead, he flowed, the heat gathering at his fingertips and falling in droplets to the earth. The sand fused into glass about his feet. 

He would save his son.

The worlds connected. He felt the scratching in his mind. His calm broke at that.

Whatever it was, scrabbling at his soul, James had been stuck here with it for almost a day. He felt his son’s odds of survival plummet.

Behind him, his father had begun to speak. He stepped forward through the aperture.

‘Don’t panic,’ he told himself. ‘He’s a smart kid. He probably ran the moment he felt that thing nearby.’

The reassurance didn’t help. 

It was almost a relief when the first attack came. At least it gave him something else to focus on. He didn’t have to wait long. The moment his feet touched the surface of the new world, there was a snap, something green and slender tearing free of the ground around him, sending sand plumes high into the air, lunging from everywhere at once. A good opening move; too quick for him to dodge. 

He didn’t have time for this. He reached into his gathered energy well and used it to press his shield out. The barrier swelled around him like a bubble, crackling for a moment as the emerald cord slammed itself around it, a loop of lightning trying to constrict. He pushed his shield out further.

It wasn’t exactly surprising that they’d set up a trap. It was the only logical choice if his quarry ever expected to leave this world again. They had to have known his team would pursue them when they fled, and they had to know that his family would be unbeatable if allowed to absorb the power of this planet. Better to fight his people here, with the bottleneck of the portal and the time to prepare an ambush. This had been expected, but he’d thought they’d make a greater effort.

The lightning coil hissed with unspent energy as it tried yet harder to crush itself upon him, its one directive to cut his form to shreds. He pushed his shield out further, forcing the coil out with a sound like grinding rust. He glanced around. Crystal sands, red-boughed trees, and a gentle tide. 

Still no sign of an ambush. Had they thought the lightning coil would be enough? Had they fled the psychic noise? It made no sen-

There was a faint pop a few dozen feet to Peter’s right. He glanced over, and met the eyes of an old, sallow looking man, a series of faint burns still healing on his face. 

The man swore. Peter continued pushing his shield out. The lighting cord began to flicker. The enemy aimed his gun at Peter’s chest. 

The first shot struck his shield with a force to split the sky, the sound of it piercing the relative quiet with an almost whiplike crack. His barrier sang with the weight of it. 

‘Stop wasting my time.’

The lightning cord was there to waste his time. Hold him down while the gunman poured out shot after shot against him. It had to go. He dug into his power. A brief incantation, then his shield pulsed. The binding tore apart with a sound like crunching gravel.

Another empowered bullet set his shield thrumming like a base drum. Then another. He looked his attacker in the eye, shrunk his barrier down, and simply let the bastard shoot him, all the while pressing his power into the ground about his feet. He waited for the man to empty out his gun before he spoke, the sand glowing rose-pink with the heat of his abilities.

“Tell me where the children are,” he said plainly. “And I will try as hard as I can to let you live.”

Something rippled from the ocean then, a distortion in the air. The scratching in Peter’s head grew stronger. There was no time for this.

At his words, the enemy simply clicked open his revolver, and started to reload.

‘Well, I tried.’

He raised a hand towards his foe. The man popped out of existence a mere fraction of a second before a spire of molten glass rose to fill the space where he had been.

He cocked his head towards the portal.

“Kill him.”

When Sebastian Grey re-emerged, it was to find the full might of the Toranaga family arrayed against him. To his credit, he did not buckle. There was no pleading. No attempt to flee. Neither action would have saved him.

Once the fight was done, the three gathered. The traps were disposed of. They had their foothold. Now to begin the search.

Peter raised his arm toward the sea, the sunset glow of his transformation pushing through the fresh-made markings on his forearm to create an odd, faintly purple light. Hopefully this new familiar could find them.

Caleb had resisted at first, when told to hand it over, gratitude for his partner’s safe return warring with deeply coded paranoia. It was only when told the use to which it would be put that he relented. It had taken more patience than Peter was proud of not to take it from the boy by force.

“Well?” Hideyoshi asked. “Anything?”

Peter raised a hand for quiet. He had to focus. The bird’s senses were foggy; weakened by weeks of starvation on a planet that lacked the energy to sustain it and clouded by the newfound weight of magic in the air. It took time. There was something at the bottom of the sea. Something leaking its power into the water. It had a scent that seemed to terrify the hunting bird. He shifted his arm, searching for new trails on the wind. 

Eventually, the bird caught a trace of something more familiar; the same scent that it had found scattered about his house. The smell of his son, along with something that could have been Charlie, were it not so tainted by the scent of burning plastic. He pointed.

“There,” he said, his eyes alighting on one of the distant islands. “Smells like Charlie’s with him. No doubt the other kidnappers are still out hunting fo-”

That was when the ocean split, the surface shearing apart a mile or so from the shore to send a plume of spray hundreds of feet into the air. When it cleared, all that was left behind was a long, wide trench, caving into itself in a set of hard right angles, as if someone had cut the water like a birthday cake.

Peter stopped talking, he and his parents turning as one to stare.

At that distance, it took a second or so for the sound of it to reach them, an echoing boom, followed by a low, rumbling roar, like the crashing of a distant storm. Then came the words, clear as a bell, even at such a distance.

“Give him back,” said his son.

‘James.’

As one, the three of them began to move, leaving Sebastian’s body to cool beneath a mound of faintly glowing glass.

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Interlude: Waves.

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Sarah:

Sarah Toranaga sat quietly on the couch beside her husband, letting the words and actions flow all around her. A part of her couldn’t think. Another part refused to stop. She was pleading; a low, desperate chant playing over and over inside a mother’s brain.

Not again, she begged. Please, God. Please don’t hurt my son again.

“How did it happen?” Peter asked quietly beside her, his tone less one of rage and more a cold, tired kind of dread. “How did you lose him? He’s my son, Dad. How do you lose a twelve year old boy?”

Hideyoshi’s head was in his hands, the words coming out a little muffled.

“It was a dynamic situation, Peter,” said the older man, his voice a dull monotone. “We told him to stay out of it, but he threw himself in anyway. We didn’t have time to pull him back.” He shook his head. “Binyamin was the only one who had eyes on him when it happened.”

“And he lost him?” Peter asked, incredulous. “Who the hell would even let him out of sigh-”

“James tried to go after the teleporter I was fighting before he could make off with Charlie,” Hideyoshi droned. “The man had an enchanted gun. Binyamin was too busy bending the bullet away from the kid to stop him going through the portal.” He sighed.

“By the time we got there, the thing was already closed. Jacqueline traced it back to an island in Bermuda. Apparently there’s a bridge-scar there leading off-world. She’s already gathering the energy to open it back up. Then we’ll follow them through.”

“Bermuda,” Peter whispered. “They’re with the Whale?”

Sarah’s heart went dead inside her chest. Peter gave her hand a squeeze.

Hideyoshi nodded.

“Looks like it,” he murmured. “…I’m sorry, Peter.”

There was a hollow sounding thud as Peter struck him.

“Don’t you dare,” he snapped. “Don’t you dare be sorry. Being sorry right now means you’ve given up on my son. You can be sorry when we’ve got him back. Until then, we’ve got a job to do.”

After less than a second’s hesitation. Hideyoshi nodded. The pair began to plan.

Sarah wasn’t listening. There was nothing she could add to this. No power, no skills, no history of tactical acumen. She was a sideliner; a supporting role, the one who stayed at home and cared while someone else went out to do the fighting.

And now James was lost. And there was nothing she could do. She hated it.

Peter gave her hand another squeeze. She pulled it from his grip.

The men glanced across at her as she stood. She didn’t look at them.

As she walked towards the hall, she spoke the one thought that she could truly put to words:

“You will not be part of this family until I see my son again,” she said quietly. “However long that takes.”

A momentary quiet, then Hideyoshi inclined his head.

“Yeah,” he murmured. “I know.”

The words didn’t help. She left.

She needed to be somewhere quiet. A place where she could rage or yell or throw things. A place where she wasn’t useless.

A place like that didn’t exist right now.

She moved downstairs into the basement. A part of her, a big part, had wanted to go and find her daughter; hold Rebeccah in her arms and remind herself that something, anything she cared about was truly safe. But no. Bex was in her room. She didn’t know about this. She didn’t need to know about this. To see her mother in such pain would only serve to frighten her. Sarah wasn’t about to put that weight on her.

There was a mattress in the basement; a broad futon resting over the frame of a fold-out couch. She made her way to it without bothering to turn on the lights. She tripped on something in the dark. It gave her an excuse to punch the floor.

She found the futon and sat herself upon it.

It was dark here; open and empty; a void with only the distant thrumming of the boiler to remind her she had weight.

She could yell here, just like she wanted. Peter knew better than to bother her. She could shout, rage, tear things and scream until it somehow made James safe again.

Sarah put her head in her hands, and began to cry.

“Just let him be alive,” she begged of no one. “That’s all I need, okay? Just let him be alive so I can hold him again.”

The darkness didn’t answer.

There was an image that had hovered in the back of Sarah’s mind for months, waiting to torment her when everything was calm; the memory of James in his hospital bed, his eyes full of fear and hurt.

The image that came for her now was so much worse. The image of her boy with nothing in his eyes at all. Cold.

Please no.

She clutched her head.

Don’t show me that.

The image came through again, clearer now. The warmth of her child’s skin cooled to coagulated wax. She screwed her eyes shut.

“Stop it.”

The pinkish brown of his cheeks becoming a chalky not-quite-white.

She gagged.

The air felt heavy on her shoulders. A room full. A house full. The vastness of the atmosphere above.

It felt like it was crushing her.

She needed it to move.

She pushed.

Something in the frame beneath her snapped, sturdy pine giving way like a toothpick under stress.

Not enough. She pushed again.

Something rippled out of her through the shadows. She could hear a distant cabinet tearing itself apart.

“Not this,” she moaned. “Not now.”

Somewhere on the landing above, the door clicked closed. There was someone in here with her.

“Leave me alone,” she mumbled.

“Manifesting, huh?” Casper’s voice murmured back. “It’s pretty intense, right?”

Sarah shook her head.

“Just get out. Please?”

A moment’s quiet. Then the sound of something coming to rest against the staircase.

“He’s gonna be okay,” Casper murmured quietly. “You know that, right?”

Sarah took a long, shaky breath, and pulled her hands from her head, resting her chin against her fists.

“What makes you so sure about that?” she asked. “How do you know he’s even still alive?”

Casper chuckled.

“Cuz I hang out with one of the most dangerous dudes on the planet. A guy so dangerous and crazy that he can molest little kids in the middle of New York without anyone trying to stop him.” Casper hesitated there for just for a moment before continuing:

“But a couple days ago, James punched him through a concrete wall. Just for being a creep. That’s how powerful your son is. Trust me. When Peter or Hideyoshi or whoever else you send gets through there, all they’re gonna find is James and Charlie sitting on a beach somewhere, along with a bunch of beat up bad guys.”

Sarah snorted in spite of herself at that.

“Oh, Casper,” she murmured. “I wish that helped.”


Charlie:

The boy was broken. Shattered was the better word, really; his mind fractured into a thousand smaller segments, each of them firing stress neurons and pulses of randomly selected memory across the surface of his brain, none of it really managing to connect.

His eyes were open; currently beyond the reaches of his faculties, or even his own comprehension of muscle control. Some disconnected part of him vaguely registered a star-scape up above, but there wasn’t an emotion to attach it to, so it held as little meaning as the memories.

Whatever small, infantile fragment of the boy there was that was still trying vainly to collect himself, clawing half-heartedly at the forgotten remnants of a being he could only guess at, was aware that the thing which broke him had been vast. So much so that even the faint memory of it sent tingles of something not-quite-pain shooting down his side.

He was tired. So very tired. But he had forgotten how to sleep.

That was when the thing beneath the water found him.

Its presence was subtle, at first, like the tide; a gentle ebb and flow of water slowly building around the splintered fragments of his mind. A broken window in a puddle. He wouldn’t have noticed it at all, but for how it eased the screaming in his soul. It grew quiet. He could hear himself think again.

Who am I?

The presence had no answer for him. Rather, if it had an answer, it wasn’t something he could presently understand. The response it gave was low and deep, like a thrumming just beyond his hearing.

The boy who had once been Charlie did his best to shrug. The answer didn’t matter anyway. At least the world was quiet now.

Around the many pieces of himself, the water began to flow, like a trickling at the bottom of a bathtub; a single shard of glass drifting lightly in the current. He watched it move inside himself; idly curious. Was that shard the price he had to pay for the absence of the pain? He accepted that. It wasn’t as if the piece had any value.

The trickle bore his fragment on, winding through the wreckage of his psyche, before apparently reaching its destination. His shard slid up alongside another; this one bigger; its edges jagged and wrong. The fragment found a place where its edges aligned with the other, and without a sound, it slotted into place.

It was like a lightning strike had smacked into his brain.

His eyes were open. Right. Of course. How had he not noticed that before? There were stars above him; thousands of them.

He didn’t have much of an opinion on that yet. For all that this newfound shard had given him perception, he still had no idea where lay any of his thoughts. What was he supposed to think of stars?

The water moved again, the trickle shifting to another tiny portion of himself, and slowly pushing it into place within his mind. The boy wasn’t bothered. The water could do what it wanted so long as it stilled the pain.

There was a certain comfort to be found in being numb.

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