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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 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.
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.
Nothing changed. Charlie took a breath.
“If you don’t back off, I’m gonna die.”
The yelling stopped.
“… What?” his friend asked. “How?”
“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.”