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: 7.3

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James:

James Toranaga had never, in all his life, felt such a quantity of nope.

He could… feel it inside of him. Inside his mind. Inside his thoughts; slender fingers flicking through his memories like they were records in a vinyl store. When he tried to face it; to rid himself of that scratching in his brain, he found himself staring at a void. A featureless darkness that could not be moved without being fallen into.

There was no fighting this. There couldn’t be a shield against nothing.

The great eye bored into him, unblinking.

He could almost see it now, inside himself. Tall. Shrouded. Its pale arms ending in long, many-jointed fingers. It had no face. It had no eyes; leastways, not in this form. There were just more holes.

It reached for him. He flinched.

“Get out,” he mumbled. “Get out. Pleasepleaseplease get out.”

In the real world, Charlie grinned.

“I want you to meet my friend,” he murmured. He glanced back in what he seemed to assume was James’ general direction. “We’re friends, right?” He held a hand towards his portal. Something slick slid from the dark to grasp it.

The thing in James’ head began to drink.

James shut down. There is a depth of wrongness beyond which the human mind fails at comprehension. James had reached it now. Lost in that space; faced with something so vast and hungry as to leave no trace of him behind, much of him simply broke.

This did not mean that he gave up. Far from it. What broke in that boy was fear, was consciousness, was even the attempt to understand. All that was left, right at the core of him, was desperation; the simple instinct to survive.

That was the state in which he found himself as he raised a titan arm high, and jabbed two wind-formed fingers into that ghastly eye with all the strength he had.

“Get out of my head!”

The Whale screamed. It had no mouth, but it screamed.

What followed then wasn’t quite a shockwave, although it did kill an awful lot of fish. The pulse of it traveled first across the surface of the portal, then outward from the ocean floor to rip across the archipelago, seeming to almost bend the air around it in its passing.

To James, it was as if his eardrums had just blown out. He doubled over, his voice choking; trying not to scream. It was his own fault when he reverted back to human form. It was instinct, really; an attempt to shut out some of the noise. He clutched his skull and retched.

At least that thing was no longer in his head.

He turned his gaze to Charlie.

If he’d seen it in a calmer moment, he’d have done a double-take.

The portal was still open. His friend was still half-crouching down beside it; the eye still fully visible on the other side. It was foggy now, dark clouds spreading across the half-foot or so of space between the creature and the opening. Blood. He must have hurt it.

What really shocked him, though, was Charlie.

The guy was comforting it.

“Hey, hey,” the boy cooed. “It’s okay! You’re okay. You’re okay-”

The older boy leaned himself against the portal, pushing a little harder than ought to have been needed to pass through water. He sank his hand in towards the Whale. Then his wrist, all the way up to his shoulder, stopping only when his fingers found the monster’s skin. James watched, appalled, as his friend began to pet it, mumbling gentle nothings all the while.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Whale leaned into it, the eye turning itself on Charlie as the monster’s body drifted closer in the water.

Oh, hell no.

James stumbled forwards, but before he’d even made it a few steps, the older boy turned to look at him, a look of betrayal on his face.

“I thought you were cool,” he said quietly.

James did not care. He straight up did not care. He lacked both the coherence, and the energy. Charlie was angry. Sure. He was also cuddling a sea-monster. There were bigger things to deal with.

James raised an arm, the wind gathering around him as it readied itself to simply rip the other boy away.

“Nope. We’re leaving. Right now.”

He reached forward.

Charlie’s skin flickered as James’ power gathered around him, as though, for a few seconds, he was only half there. He pulled. Charlie didn’t move.

James saw it then, if only for a moment. It caught the sun as his power pulled against it. A dozen layered planes of light twisting themselves over Charlie’s form like a cocoon or the bud of a rose, the ends of it winding down along Charlie’s arm towards the Whale. He tugged again, harder. The skein glowed brighter.

Charlie shook his head.

“No,” he said flatly. “I’m not going anywhere with you. You hurt my friend.”

That comment was, frankly, the last thing James needed. He had already been scared, angry, and desperate. Now he was offended.

“Your friend!?” he asked, utterly appalled. Then he shook himself. No. That was it. That was the last straw. He was done negotiating. He would get Charlie back, then he would slap the guy sensible himself. “It was eating my brain, you dumbass!”

He didn’t mean to shout.

Charlie shrugged.

“You’re a liar,” he said.

James didn’t answer. He was too busy doing everything in his power to bust through Charlie’s shield. He started with sheer brutality; resuming his titan form in under a second and bringing his hands upon it with all his might. The skein barely even flickered. Charlie stood, his eyes glowing a faint purple as he weathered James’ blows. He pulled his arm free of the water, and placed his hands against the surface of the portal.

The aperture began to grow.

No. James thought. No. No. No. Not happening.

He cast his eyes about the clearing in a panic, looking for something, anything to help him. Nothing but sand and a bunch of trees.

That would do.

The monster drifted backwards in the water as the portal opened wider, the light dancing off of oil slickened skin; the faintest outline in the deep. The thing was vast.

No time to ponder that. James reached for the largest tree that he could see, wrapped a fist around the trunk, and yanked it from the ground. Then, he pulled it back, and swung it into Charlie’s form like a fucking baseball bat.

Charlie didn’t even flinch. There was a thunderous crunching sound as the tree shattered, the trunk splitting into pieces as it made contact with his shield, the severed end of it carving a trench in the ground as it rolled. He let his hands drop. The portal was taller than he was now. He stepped forwards, pressing himself bodily into the slime.

To James, it was as though his very soul had turned to ice.

Charlie paddled a foot or so from his portal, then spun himself around to face his friend.

His eyes were cold.

“Charlie,” James begged. “Please. Don’t do th-”

The portal snapped shut.

For a second, James just hung there, gazing at the space that Charlie had so recently occupied. Then he shook himself.

“No.” He sniffed. “Nope. That’s not how it ends. Not even.”

He turned his gaze towards the water. He could feel the monster’s presence inside his skull, whatever reprieve he’d bought by wounding it slowly dying away as its aura flowed out once more across the archipelago.

Big mistake. That just meant he could find it.

He turned his shoulders towards the sea, his titan’s hands balling into fists.

There was an instinct in him that told him this was dumb; screamed it, really. It was the same voice that had told him to stay clear of the greater ocean; the part of him that feared the clawing in his skull. That was what he looked for now; the piece of the deep that made him want to run away the most. It wasn’t hard to find. What was more challenging was stepping towards it.

It was easier if he didn’t think about it.

Within the first few strides, he’d reached the shore. But how to get down there? He was air. Air sucked at being underwater.

Air didn’t normally try that hard.

He reached outward with his power, his tendrils extending as far as he could make them go. For one moment, James Toranaga cupped the sky between his hands. Then, with childish impetuosity, he drove it into the surface of the sea.

The ocean split.

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Tide: 7.2

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Charlie:

The boy couldn’t have been asleep for very long when a set of light thumps in the surrounding earth saw him roused. He hadn’t been dreaming; not quite, at least. There had been something there when the world around him went away, but it hadn’t been anything quite as solid as a dream. More like an ache; a few sparking wires of his imagination throwing up images of a dodge-ball rolling in smooth, slow circles in a patch of sand. It had been soothing, in a way. 

He wondered where he’d gotten the image of a dodge-ball from. He couldn’t remember ever having seen one.

A shuffling beside him. He lolled his head in the direction of the noise, and forced open one of his eyes.

Oh. It was just the creature back to check on him; gazing at his face with a pair of overlarge blue eyes. The boy liked this creature. He was pretty sure he did, at least. It had brought him food; although he did wish it wouldn’t chatter quite so much. It made sleeping difficult.

True to form, the moment it saw that he was awake, the creature opened up its jaws to resume its noise. To the boy’s distinct surprise, he found he could understand it now.

“Charlie!” it squeaked. “I won! I freaking won! Plus, look!-” It waved its forelegs in the air. “I got clothes!”

The boy turned his eyes briefly to the creature’s form. For some reason, it appeared to have encased itself in a layer of darkened leather.

Weird. 

The creature seemed pleased though, so it was fine. It started jabbering again; something about trees and fights and Batman; each concept barely comprehensible in isolation, let alone in combination. He struggled to parse a meaning from any of it. 

Well, besides Batman. That concept was easier to understand, for some reason.

Something sparked inside his brain. A faint flash of memory. Words a boy had once used to irritate a friend.

“Superman’s better,” he echoed.

The creature fell silent. The boy began to wonder if he’d said it wrong. He wouldn’t be surprised. He wasn’t completely sure he’d been able to speak in the first place, let alone now, in his fractured state. At least it seemed to have quieted the creature dow-

The boy blinked as the creature wrapped its forelimbs tight around his ribs, its forehead buried against his chest. 

“You take that back,” it sniffled.

Ah. Clearly, he had done it wrong. This was worse. Perhaps he didn’t know how to speak after all. He shrugged. Oh well. It wasn’t as if he was currently tired enough to sleep. Besides, the creature was small enough to be easily dislodged should its contact become a problem for him. He resolved to let it have its way, awkwardly raising a hand to pat it on the head. He was fairly sure animals were supposed to like that.The creature cocked its head to the side.

“A-are you petting me?”

The boy shushed it.

His focus turned inward. The thing in the water was still at work within his brain; the slow eddies of its presence gradually shifting more and more pieces of him into place. It was almost unpleasant, the comforting numbness of its presence breaking sporadically as fragments of a past he was unfamiliar with slammed into his skull. New faculties, new notions, every one of them surprising. Every time, he found himself forced to readjust; to take stock; to come to grips with this new thing that he apparently always was. He found it exhausting.

The boy was fairly sure he liked the presence in the water, although, much as with the creature now nestled against his chest, he wasn’t completely sure. The process was uncomfortable, to be sure, but he had to admit, he much preferred the stillness it gave his mind over the screaming that had filled his head before. Much as with the smaller creature, though, he wished it would shut up.

To call it speech would have been inaccurate. The presence wasn’t using words of any kind; at least not in any form the boy could recognize. It was still talking, though; communication parsed by color and intent. It brought to mind the smell of apples, then the sting of loss, then the shock of reconnected memory. He shook his head. It wasn’t the first attempt that had been made, and he still couldn’t fathom what was meant by it. The presence was undeterred. It would try again. 

The not-quite-sound died away for a time as the thing drifted off along his thoughts, passing over fragments and playing back memories, cataloging the pieces of his mind in a way he probably should have found invasive.

When it had learned some more, he knew it would return, and, just as before, the next attempt would be made with greater nuance. He waited patiently for it to return, and when it finally did, the scent of apples bore a new inflection: the memory of an older woman’s face; the echoed recollection of a voice.

For the first time, he was able to parse an emotion. Melancholy. He gave the presence a slow nod, trying, in whatever way he could, to be encouraging.

The presence tried again. Hours passed that way, and, as he and the entity learned more of him in lockstep, it managed to send him its intent.

It was making a request. He considered it. It didn’t sound unreasonable, but as with many things, the boy struggled to be sure. He was, however, aware that he owed the entity something of a debt. After a minute or two of thought, he agreed to try.

He would be sleeping deeply after this.


James:

James stretched his arms out into the sleeves, hoping that, somehow, his hands might make it all the way to the ends this time.

They did not. He sighed.

He shouldn’t really have been surprised. Bors was a large man; a solid six foot two, with broad shoulders to match, whereas James, much to his own chagrin, was undersized, even for a twelve year old. What had, to Bors, been a mid-sized jacket was, for him, closer to a trench coat, the hem falling a short way past his knees.

Well, the important thing was no longer being naked. As for the rest, he’d make it work.

Right. Okay. Just a little bit of cutting.

James focused. 

His powers had been a little weird, since coming to this place. They were more reactive than he was used to, less effort required to achieve the same result; a wind blast produced with what amounted to a flick instead of a punch. It made precision work a bit more complicated.

Take it slow, he told himself. That’s all you gotta do.

He reached into the wind, collecting a few loose strands of air and compressing them into a single line. Then, he held out an arm, and guided that line slowly down into the material around his elbow. The leather shifted to the side against his arm, not severed so much as simply pushed aside.

He sighed.

Screw it. Careful’s for wimps.

He took a fistful of air and clamped it down on the end of his sleeve, then gave the thing a tug.

There was an awful tearing noise as the material ripped open about the shoulder seam. James briefly remembered Bors asking if he’d ever get it back, then did the same with the other sleeve. 

Good. Success. He once more had access to his hands. As an added bonus, he was pretty sure he looked like Rambo now. He considered that a win.

He glanced up through the thin canopy of the clearing. The sun was nearing the midpoint of its journey along the sky. Almost noon – or whatever time approximated noon on an alien magic world. He should get going soon if he wanted to catch another search team off guard before they had a chance to notice that anyone was gone. He shook his head. They probably already had. If everyone had radios like the last guys had, then they probably checked in with each other every now and again. He folded his arms. Batman would plan for the worst in a situation like this and so should he.

Right. One more attack before they all regroup. Use the color of the sky to make yourself invisible, and hit ‘em as hard and fast as you can. If someone manages to hold you back, then run away like you’re Casper playing Dark Souls. Nothing to it.

He nodded. It sounded like a good plan, and he was proud of it. He could do this.

“Hey, Charlie,” he called, glancing across the clearing to where his companion still sat, his back to him. “I’m gonna go for another run. I need you to stay here till I- The heck?”

Something had sparked briefly along the outline of Charlie’s form. James set his other thoughts aside for a moment, and put his focus on his friend.

“Charlie?” he asked. “You doing okay, man?”

Once again, something sparked around his friend; his cheeks and shoulders lighting up with a momentary flash of indigo. There was a sound like a balloon being popped.

James stood up.

“Hey,” he called as he edged slowly towards the other boy. “Come on, dude. Talk to me. What’s going on?”

James had grown so accustomed to his friend’s quiet that he was a little surprised by the older boy’s response.

“Help,” Charlie murmured. 

James shook his head.

“Uh. What?”

“It keeps saying ‘Help’.” Charlie turned around to look James in the eye, his expression oddly distant. “Hey. Did we used to be friends a while back?”

James took a few more careful steps forward.

“We’re still friends,” he replied, doing the best he could to keep his voice calm. “We never stopped being… Who’s saying ‘hel-’”

This time, James was close enough to watch as the next spark made its presence known in Charlie’s lap, a disc of purple light flexing and warping between his hands like pressurized sheet-metal. For a moment, the entire clearing glowed a vibrant purple. Then, something in its structure broke, and it vanished with a faint crack. James gaped. 

Charlie sighed.

“This is harder than it should be,” he muttered. “Can’t figure out how I’m s’posed to make it work.”

James shook himself.

Right. Yes. Charlie had powers. He’d been told about that. This wasn’t the time. He put a hand on Charlie’s shoulder.

“Hey,” he said. “Dude. I need you to stop. Okay? Whatever you’re doing, just make it stop.”

Charlie gave him a confused look at that.

“Why?” he asked. “It wants me to connect us up.”

James shook his head, the concern mounting rapidly inside his brain.

“I don’t care,” he said. “Just trust me. Whatever it is. Whatever it’s saying. Don’t.”

Charlie frowned.

“Why?” he asked. “It’s helping me. Shouldn’t I try and help it back?”

“What the heck are you even talking about?” James snapped, only barely keeping his voice below a yell. “What is it!?

Charlie raised an eyebrow.

“You mean you can’t hear it?” he asked. “The thing in the water?”

Something leaden fell through James’ stomach.

“Oh, crap, no. Don’t you even think abo-”

Charlie wasn’t listening. Even as the other boy’s words grew loud and shrill in his ear, he returned his attention to the task at hand.

The light came again. It was even brighter this time, the entirety of the clearing momentarily picked out in vibrant neon. The disc in Charlie’s hands was bigger now, flaring almost white as he turned his full attention towards it.

James tried to give the boy a shove. Charlie simply shrugged him off. The disc grew brighter still. James readied his wind.

There was a quiet ‘pop’ in the space behind them.

Someone sniffed.

“So this is where you’ve been hiding him,” said Mr. Grey. “Well, you had a good run, while it-”

That was as far as he got before James’ wind-blast caught him in the face, sending his shield sparking up around him and his body stumbling back. James turned to face his foe just as, with a quiet pop, the man vanished into thin air.

Not good.

James turned, wrapped his arms around his friend, and prayed for dear life that he could hold on long enough to fly the two of them out of there. The light was almost blinding now.

“Hold on, Charlie!” he yelled. “I’m gonna get us-”

Another pop. James felt the tip of something cold press against his head. He froze. Then let out a pained cry as a hand yanked roughly at his hair, pulling him from his friend.

“Bad move,” Mr. Grey’s voice hissed in his ear. “Charles, if you want your friend to live, you’re going to do exactly as I say. Understood?”

James tried to protest, then let out another cry as the man wrenched once more at his hair.

Charlie didn’t even look at them. He simply kept on gazing at his disc, letting the light grow ever brighter.

The light.

As the gun-barrel pressed even harder against his skull, James had a single, desperate thought.

Please don’t see me. Please don’t see me-

Sebastian was flung across the clearing as James’ form exploded. He hit the ground, caught himself, and raised his revolver, now having to squint to see in the omnipresent glare, trying to find a spot of light in a place that held very little else.

Then James punched him. His shield flickered. James punched him harder.

The man teleported again, taking aim this time for Charlie, and made it halfway through a threat before another blow brought him to his knees.

“Stop! Being! EVIL!” James bellowed, raining blow after furious blow down against his foe; Grey’s shield splintering more and more around him by the moment.

That was when the light died down.

The two of them might have kept on fighting, were it not for the presence that encroached upon their minds right then. Like talons latching on the soul.

As one, they turned their gazes first to Charlie, and then to the portal he had just created.

Through that hole, however, all that could be seen was inky blackness, discernible from pure void only by the faint glisten as something a dozen or so feet from the aperture caught the light. For a few moments, they all simply watched as whatever hid below the water drifted closer. James thought it might have been scales. Or leather. Somewhere between the two.

Then, the surface parted, and they found themselves gazing into a milky-pale eye. An eye that was easily two feet wide.

The thing in the water turned its gaze to James.

“No,” Grey said flatly. Then, with a final ‘pop’, he vanished.

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