"This looks like a good place to stop for tonight," Holly commented, looking around at the small clearing. Golem nodded in silent agreement and sat down, carefully cradling his precious burden in his arms for a moment more before setting Hare down on the ground.
"Hey, how ya doing, buddy?" Genki asked, leaning forward to gaze worriedly at his friend. Hare smiled groggily up at the boy, testing out his legs, then sighed as he slumped to the ground, obviously drained.
"I’m okay," he replied, "just tired. I’m kinda upset that it’s taken me this long to recover from the fight…"
"Well, you used a lot of power fighting Naga," Holly replied, smiling gently as she helped him to his feet and led him over to a place where he could lie down. "It’s no wonder you’re still tired."
"Yeah," Suezo agreed, "you shoulda seen yourself, Hare! I wish I had power like that…"
"If you had power like that, Suezo, we’d all be in a lot of trouble," Tiger muttered darkly from a few feet away.
"But I don’t remember anything," Hare muttered, frustrated. "As much as I’ve tried, the last thing I remember from the fight is Naga hitting Mocchi with an attack, and Mocchi giving me back the Phoenix’s Tear. After that…"
His voice trailed off, and Hare shrugged helplessly, grimacing with frustration at his inability to remember. Holly and the other rebels exchanged glances; they had already privately decided that it was probably for the best that Hare not know everything that had happened. Mocchi had recovered shortly after the fight, and was his old self again, and they had already informed their friends that Pixie and Big Blue had decided to stay and search for survivors of Naga’s reign. Other than that…
"Let’s just relax," Holly said at length, smiling. "We’ve been traveling a long time today, and we need some rest. Now, who wants some dinner before we get some sleep?"
* * *
It didn’t take very long for the rebels to get comfortable, and by the time the moon rose into the star-studded sky, everyone had fallen asleep. Genki and Mocchi leaned against each other’s backs; Holly’s head rested on Suezo’s tail; Golem had placed himself equal distances from where they and Hare slept; and Tiger was on the edge of the group, tail curled around his paws for warmth. A chilly breeze whirled though the valley, stirring the soft green grass till it waved gently back and forth, finishing off the serenity of the scene. Tiger’s eyes abruptly opened, twin slits of gold glittering in the starlight. He silently rose, scanning the campsite, his allies, for any sign that they were not already asleep. The only movement that came to his searching eyes was the gentle rise and fall of his friends’ chests: he was the only one who was still awake.
Exactly the way he had hoped for. The blue wolf stalked forward quietly, continuing to keep a wary eye on the others, moving carefully to avoid making any noise that might awaken them and jeopardize his self-assigned mission. As he stepped past Genki, the youth suddenly yawned and rolled over, the tips of his fingers brushing against Tiger’s leg. Tiger froze, tensing involuntarily as the boy groaned in his sleep, and remained standing perfectly still, not daring to breathe. Genki’s fingers clenched around his paw, and Tiger resisted the temptation to yank his leg back, instead waiting to see what would happen.
"Mmm…you’re gonna get it, Moo!" Genki muttered, tightening his grip around Tiger’s leg until the blue wolf had to bite his tongue to keep from yelping. "With this sword, I’ll cut you to ribbons! I won’t let you turn any more monsters into baddies!"
Oh great, Tiger swore inwardly, although he didn’t make a sound, he’s dreaming. What the hell am I gonna do if he tries to use this ‘sword’? Fortunately, he didn’t have to find out, as Genki soon released his leg and rolled over, mumbling something along the lines of, "Hah! You missed me, Moo! You can’t beat me, ‘cause I’m the Monster Champ!" Tiger couldn’t keep himself from smirking slightly as he heard that, yet his eyes remained solemn as he regarded the boy, making certain that he wasn’t about to wake up. After a few moments, he carefully moved past, watching him like a hawk the entire time. Only when he was safely past Genki –and out of his reach– did he breathe a sigh of relief. Turning around, Tiger’s eyes narrowed into golden slits as he gazed at a sleeping form just a few feet away from him.
A cold breeze swept through the small clearing, and Hare shivered slightly, instinctively curling himself into a ball without waking. Tiger regarded him coolly, eyes glittering as if lit from within, and his thoughts drifted back to the events of just a few days before. He still couldn’t believe what had happened. He had gone over the events at least a dozen times since then, probably more, trying to understand just what had happened during the fight, and still nothing made much sense to him. He had only managed to reach one conclusion that made any sense to him, one that he couldn’t share with any of the other rebels.
Hare had to die.
It was simple in his eyes: the power he had witnessed Hare unleashing on Naga and his minions was something that was far too dangerous to allow to exist. Over and over again, his mind repeated the same questions: what if something had gone wrong? What if Pixie had not been there, or had not poured all of her strength into keeping up her shields, the one thing that had kept them from sharing the same fate as Naga’s warriors? What if Hare had lost complete control –if he had any at all during that fight– and turned on the others, deliberately trying to hurt them? What if –and this was the possibility that really bothered the blue wolf– Moo managed to get hold of Hare and turned him into a baddie, just as he had done with Grey Wolf?
The answer to this was obvious: if anything like that happened, then they would all die. It was as simple as that: there was no way that they could possibly hope to stand up against such power, if it ever came to something like that. There was only one way that it could be avoided: Hare’s death. That was the one path open, and Tiger was willing to take it if it meant saving the others.
Naturally, he had not informed Genki and the other rebels of his decision. He knew what would happen if he did: they would try to stop him, talk him out of it. Genki would undoubtedly accuse him of being heartless again, something the others would be quick to agree on if he tried to convince them that this was the best path to take. Mocchi would start crying, Suezo would glare at him, Golem would quickly make certain that there was no chance of him getting close enough to do what had to be done. They all would be watching him.
But this was the only way for them to be able to move on; this was the only path Tiger could take to ensure the safety of the others. The power of the Phoenix’s Tear was simply too strong, too strong to risk allowing to survive. It would have to destroyed, and the only way that he could accomplish that was by eliminating its user. Now, while he was still weak from unleashing so much energy, while he was still unable to stay awake and alert for more than a few hours at a time, while he still needed to recover: this might be the only chance that Tiger would ever get. Any further delay might result in tragedy for the searchers.
He was standing directly above his quarry now, gazing down at his back. Lightning crackled into existence around his horns, casting shadows over the blue wolf’s solemn face. Golden eyes gleamed with an inner light, taking on an almost incandescent glow as the blue-tinted electricity pulsing around his horns grew in strength, crackling faintly. Tiger took a deep breath, then every muscle in his body tensed as he prepared to launch his attack.
Suddenly Hare rolled over in his sleep, and Tiger paused for a moment as he got a look at the little rabbit’s relaxed face. It was almost serene, a stark contrast to the danger he was currently in, and he continued to breathe evenly, fast asleep, blissfully unaware of the fact that death hovered above him, sparkling and arcing impatiently, waiting to be unleashed. Tiger stared down at the little rabbit, a strange, almost pitiful look coming over his face for a moment.
Then, gritting his teeth, Tiger made his decision, and a howl of rage erupted from his lungs as electrical energy crashed from his horns. His golden eyes winced shut as he fired, and his howl became a wail that echoed through the valley, miraculously not waking the other rebels as it rose and faded away, leaving behind a deafening silence. Tiger bowed his head, golden eyes wavering, and a single tear squeezed out of his reluctant eye, tracing a path down his scar before falling upon the scorched earth at the blue wolf’s paws.
And a bare inch away, Hare lay fast asleep, his chest rising and falling with his gentle breathing. His fur was not even singed by the blast which Tiger had deliberately struck the ground with instead of the little rabbit. The blue wolf watched him for a moment, then turned away, stalking off as silently as he had come up to him. (Why? Why couldn’t I kill him? I’d be better off if he was dead, wouldn’t I? What’s wrong with me?)
Tiger flopped onto the ground, wondering this to himself. The sweet smell of the fresh grass beneath him filled his nose, slowly driving away the stench of scorched dirt that still hung over him. He buried his face in the grass, forcing his eyes to close in some mimicry of sleep, although they would not close completely for him. Finally, he relaxed enough for his eyes to become golden slits, and he gazed over at the other sleeping rebels, his gaze drawn against his will to where Hare lay, still fast asleep.
* * *
The next morning, the rebels stared at the smoking patch of earth, completely puzzled.
"That’s strange," Genki finally commented at length. "Wonder what happened…"
"Do you think that maybe the Phoenix’s Tear reacted to something?" Suezo asked. "An enemy, maybe?"
"I don’t know, maybe," Hare replied, fingering the crystal thoughtfully. "But you’d think that if that was the case, that it would have woken me up instead of just flaring up. Maybe there wasn’t any time, and it just blasted whatever it was."
"But if it blasted an enemy, wouldn’t we see a lost disc somewhere?" "It might have just been driven off, whatever it was," Holly said, shivering a bit. She was a little thankful that there wasn’t a lost disc sitting there: that was not exactly a pleasant sight to wake up to in the morning by any stretch of the imagination.
"Hare okay?" Golem asked. Hare smiled reassuringly up at the stone giant, nodding.
"Yeah, I’m okay. Whatever it was that caused this didn’t hurt me, and I’m feeling a lot better than I did yesterday. I think I’m finally recovered from the fight."
He started to walk forward, then suddenly moaned softly and slumped forward slightly, taking a few steps to steady himself. Turning around, he smiled a little wistfully at the others.
Golem just smiled as he bent and lifted Hare back into his arms, even as the little rabbit insisted that he was feeling a lot better now, he could walk on his own now, and didn’t need to be carried anymore. Holly giggled a little at his protesting, and Suezo just rolled his eye in mock exasperation. Grinning, Genki ran to the front of the group, Mocchi directly behind him, and called for the others to follow him.
"Let’s go find that Phoenix!"
The courageous seven set off again; continuing their journey, already putting the strange patch of burned ground out of their minds as they headed forward. Only one of their members stayed behind, the only one who knew the truth about that small area. Golden eyes gleamed as he took one last look at it, then Tiger of the Wind turned away and followed after his allies, lost in his own dark thoughts. He did not look back.