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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
… 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.”