Lilim leaned nonchalantly against the rough gray stone of the cavern, her form barely visible in the wan moonlight seeping through the tunnel’s distant entrance, and regarded the short figure that stood across from her. It was staring off at something only it could see, and was likewise cloaked in shadows. Unbidden, a memory leapt to her mind…
“Lilim, wait up!!!”
Lilim winced. The voice was annoyingly high-pitched even when speaking normally; shouting made it unbearable. She stopped and turned before its owner had cause to yell again.
“Lilim, you walk so fast, slow down once in a while,” Poison (Pixie/????) said once she had caught up to her. With her dark blue hair, wickedly pointed scarlet horns, black leather outfit, and skin that was almost unnaturally pale, Poison looked tough and devilish. She didn’t act it. “How come you never talk much to me? Or anyone, for that matter?”
“Maybe I don’t have much to say.” Lilim resumed walking, hoping Poison wouldn’t follow. She did.
“And how come you’re so obsessed with darkness?”
Lilim slowed for a moment, then stopped completely to stare at Poison. The other Pixie took a few steps, then came to a dead halt when she realized Lilim wasn’t following.
“Well,” Poison began, “Every time I see you, you always seem to be lurking in the shadows, all by yourself. You never seem to get too close to anyone. It’s like all you want to do is stay alone in the darkness all the time.”
“So I’m not social,” Lilim sighed. “Sue me.”
“I’m just a little concerned about you, that’s all, Lilim.”
About the last thing Lilim wanted was her concern, but Poison didn’t – or wouldn’t – seem to realize this.
“There are some people who spend their whole lives in the dark,” Poison continued. “Sometimes I wonder…is it because they don’t want to get too close to the light? Or because they think they can’t?”
Lilim forcibly yanked her mind back to the present. She had known Poison over 1,000 years ago, centuries before she had first met Thorn. That had been before she had become the immortal little witch, at a time when she still thought she would die just like everyone else…
“You care more than you pretend to, Lilim,” the other’s voice cut into her thoughts.
Lilim didn’t lose her air of nonchalance, although she was annoyed at the other’s remark.
“I didn’t come all this way just to chat,” she said. “Now, will you help me or not?”
“You’ve been through more than anyone should, Lilim,” the other said, ignoring her question. “I pity you. I know what it is to lose the ones you love. My family was slaughtered because of the powers, and the feud, that I inherited.”
Lilim bridled inwardly at the other’s words. She didn’t need anyone’s pity. She was immortal – of course she had outlived everyone she had ever grown close to, with the exception of Irene. It had become an inevitable part of her life, much as sleeping or breathing. It hadn’t been easy to lose so many…until they had become mere pieces in the game.
But the other’s pity was useful.
“Are you going to do as I’ve asked?” Lilim repeated.
The other stared at her with cold, black eyes, then nodded slowly.
“So, my pity is useful, is it?” it asked. “I’m glad you find it so. Yes, I’ll help you, Lilim. I don’t like Naga being here anymore than you do.”
Lilim smiled slowly, her small, white fangs visible despite the encroaching darkness. “Good,” she said. “I’ll be waiting.”
The other found itself alone, with only shadows left to fill the space where Lilim had stood.
Elsewhere, a few hours later…
It was a bright enough day – so bright that just looking at the sky hurt my eyes. I kept my gaze on the ground as Big Blue trudged along. At times I hadn’t been sure whether I wasn’t just moving through a dream. I was tired, for no apparent reason; it gave everything around me a strange, unreal quality. I felt like I had risen this morning, but somehow forgotten to wake up.
My name is Pixie; but you knew that, of course.
I wasn’t sure how long it had been since Thorn had been swallowed by the darkness. It couldn’t have been more than a few days. The silence still felt so empty.
Big Blue turned toward where the trees were thinning further. We were still wandering through a forest, but the road had long since vanished. The range of mountains where Naga kept his lair was looming ever larger in the distance as we approached it. When we reached the base of the mountains, we would turn and head west, away from the lair. With any luck we would find an easy pass.
“How exactly are we supposed to find them?”
Kyoko paused in flight to glance back at the Vanity who had spoken.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “But I’m open to suggestions.”
Kyoko waited for a moment, sweeping her emerald eyes over each of them. When no one spoke, she sighed.
“Lilim said they were heading this way,” she explained. “With any luck, we’ll find them eventually.”
Suddenly one of the Vanities gasped and pointed. “There they are!”
And there the traitors were, emerging from the forest and beginning to head west along the mountains.
“They’re heading the wrong way,” Kyoko said, even though it was pretty obvious. “We’ll have to chase them toward the east. Follow me.”
I took to the air as a Sonic Beam exploded a portion of the ground in front of us, startled into wakefulness, and was instantly hit with a Psychic Kick as well as a shower of loose earth. Big Blue was blasted backward a few inches by a Fireball, followed closely by a Bang. I looked up and cursed. It was those Vanities again.
“BIG BANG!” I shouted, then cursed again as they easily dodged my attack.
“Master Pixie, there’s too many!”
And Big Blue couldn’t hit them. All they’d have to do was stay in the air and use their long distance attacks, and Big Blue would be easy prey. And I couldn’t fight off so many alone.
“Then let’s go, Blue!”
We turned and fled in the opposite direction, but still the Vanities pursued us. Fortunately for us their aim was terrible. Their attacks always landed just a little behind or to the side of us; the worst we were hit with was a bunch of loose earth. But sooner or later they’d manage to hit us – bad aim wouldn’t last forever, and neither would our stamina. We had to find some sort of shelter…
I scanned the mountainside intently as I flew. There had to be…there!
“Hurry, Blue!” I shouted, then flew into the cave I had spotted. Big Blue thundered in a moment later. I rested for a moment to catch my breath, leaning against a cavern wall, and allowed myself to feel relieved. The cave was perfect, with just enough room for Big Blue to stand comfortably, but not enough room to fly or maneuver very well. The Vanities could only enter a few at a time, and there was no way for them to avoid Big Blue in the close confines of the cave. If they came in after us, they were basically committing suicide.
My relief ended when two long purple claws embedded themselves in the stone on either side of my throat.
The handful of Vanities that had been headed toward the cave halted instantly at the sound of Kyoko’s voice.
“If you go in there, you deserve every epithet Lilim’s come up with,” Kyoko continued. “We’d be easy prey for Big Blue if we tried to follow them.”
“Then what are we supposed to do?” asked a Vanity.
“We’ll wait here for as long as we can without giving Naga cause for suspicion,” Kyoko decided. “Then we’ll return to the lair, and try to locate the traitors tomorrow. There isn’t much else we can do.”
The Vanities nodded, then settled down to wait.
After all this time, you’d think I’d remember to keep my guard up.
The Kato’s face betrayed nothing, but his dark eyes blazed like cold fire. I hadn’t even known he was there until his claws were around my throat. If he hadn’t kept his middle claw retracted…
“You would be dead,” the Kato snarled, completing my thought for me. “Surprised? I can read your mind as easily as a book. You hate yourself because your friend was willing to die for you. I may be a hypocrite, but don’t blame yourself. You didn’t ask her to fight. She knew she could die if she did. She took that risk of her own volition. She wouldn’t want you to hate yourself, and you know it.”
“That isn’t any of your business,” I growled, trying to act as though the fact that he could kill me at any second meant nothing; trying to act as though he couldn’t see my every thought.
I glanced at Big Blue for help, but he was still guarding the mouth of the cave, warily watching the Vanities outside. It was as though he hadn’t even noticed…
“He hasn’t,” the Kato said. “Not only do I have the power to read minds, I can play games with them as well. Your Golem friend thinks you’re still right beside him, catching your breath.”
I didn’t think it was possible for the situation to look more hopeless than it already was; I had just been proven wrong. I had the sinking feeling I would be again.
“Alright, who are you and what do you want?” I demanded.
“Crescent,” the Kato answered.
I felt my eyes go wide. Crescent, the Kato/???? who had taken a forbidden drink to gain such powers as he had demonstrated?
“Actually, that whole forbidden drink story is a myth. I inherited my powers, and the feud that goes with them. Just as my father did before me, from his father, who inherited it from his father, and so on and so forth.”
It made no difference. The situation was still hopeless. It was disturbing how easily the Kato could rifle through my mind without me even feeling it…how he had gained the power to do so didn’t make it any less disturbing.
“Would you prefer to feel it?” Crescent asked with a sneer. His emotionless black eyes bored into my own.
The physical world dissolved in a wave of pain as something…unclean entered my mind and began tearing it apart. Crescent’s presence felt unspeakably dirty somehow, but I couldn’t move away. He was inside me, slowly slicing my mind apart with his long, bloodstained claws. When the pain finally stopped, each piece was picked up, scrutinized. Every memory, every dream, every unspoken thought…and I was helpless to do anything that could stop it. Somehow, feeling him look at my private memories like they were nothing to be cherished hurt even more than the earlier torture…
It took a moment after he had released me to realize that the scream echoing off the walls of the cave was my own.
“I thought not,” Crescent remarked.
My body was drenched in cold sweat, and every muscle was quivering with tension. I wanted to slump against the wall, but the claws around my throat gave me no leeway to do so.
Big Blue had not stirred. The Vanities hadn’t moved. It took only one look at Crescent’s dark eyes to see that he had made sure he was the only one to hear my scream. Somehow, that only made things seem worse.
“What the hell do you want?” I gasped, far too shaken to keep up the pretense of being unconcerned.
“You and your Golem friend are going to Naga’s lair,” Crescent said. “Whether you do so on your own or as my puppets is of little concern to me. You’ve seen how defenseless you are against me. In my life, I’ve only met one creature who could stand against my powers. Not to mention that I could kill you now if I chose.”
I stared at him for a moment, trying to think of a way out, but there was none.
“Looks like I don’t have much of a choice,” I said at last.
“You don’t have *any* choice.”
Crescent retracted his claws and stepped back.
If I could just stun him long enough to escape…
Pain exploded through my mind before I could even complete the thought. When it ended I found myself on my knees, clutching the sides of my head in pain. I rose and glared at Crescent as soon as I had recovered. He glared right back, the coldness in his eyes enough to freeze the Phoenix’s fire.
“Don’t even think about it,” the Kato snarled. “And I’m one of the few who can say that and mean it.” Then, after a pause, “You’d best go explain the situation to your Golem friend. I’ll be waiting here to guide you through the mountain.”
How was I supposed to explain this to Big Blue?
“That,” Crescent said. “Is your problem.”
Lilim paused in flight as an alien thought tapped at her mind. Crescent had left her a message.
~I have them.~
Simple, as usual. Crescent wasn’t one to waste words.
Infuriating as the Kato could be at times, he was also useful. He didn’t know the entire story – the reason for her immortality had taken care to hide itself. But he knew the price she had paid because of it.
And Crescent, the cold, unyielding Crescent, had pitied her, the last person in the world who wanted pity. But because of that pity, he had done her a favor…he would get Pixie and Big Blue to the lair.
Lilim smirked. Soon those few pesky pieces wouldn’t trouble her any more…
The author stared blankly at what she had just typed.
She hadn’t even known that someone as cruel as Crescent existed; had been even less aware of Lilim’s connection to him. She had needed Pixie and Big Blue to get to the lair, but doing this to them…
It was out of her hands; there was nothing she could do about it. Lilim was keeping her end of the deal; the author would have to do the same.
No, what was perhaps worse was that there was something she could do; she could eliminate Crescent, and make an easy path to the lair for the Vanities to chase the traitors down. But in another sense, she couldn’t; it would be like being dishonest, not to mention that it would make a really boring story. No matter what she wrote, this was what had happened. She couldn’t do anything to alter it.
She could only hope that the future would make up for it. She already knew some of what the future held for Lilim…and she knew the “little witch” wouldn’t like it very much. But like what had happened with Crescent, it was set in stone… That was reason enough to honor the deal.
The author shook her head at the convoluted mess of events she had begun. Then she laughed. She had gone much too far to ever turn back; even if she could, she didn’t want to turn back. The author saved her work so far, then continued typing.
In the mountains…
Big Blue’s first reaction to what I had told him was to throttle Crescent.
His second reaction was to scream.
Crescent’s eyes remained cold and emotionless. He released Blue from the pain as soon as the Golem dropped him.
I had never heard Big Blue scream before, not like that. More than anything Crescent could do to me, that scared me.
We probably would have been better off taking our chances with those Vanities…
Crescent straightened his rumpled fur. “If you’re through being foolish, I suggest you follow me. I’m not the only danger within these tunnels.”
As the Kato walked off, I flew up to Big Blue.
“You okay, Blue?” I asked.
Big Blue nodded. “Master Pixie…”
“Come on, I don’t have all day.” Crescent’s voice came from some distance down a tunnel in the far wall of the cave, one I had failed to notice when we entered.
I gasped as my body was jerked forward against my will. Beside me, I saw the same happen to Big Blue.
“I’ll do that the whole way if you don’t want to walk.”
I glanced at Big Blue, and saw the rage that was gathering within me mirrored in his eyes. But it was so useless…
“Let’s go, Blue,” I said, unable to keep my voice from shaking slightly. “It’s not like we have much of a choice.”
As we started walking down the tunnel, Crescent’s voice drifted back to us.
“You don’t have *any* choice.”
I’m not sure how long we were walking before something very odd happened. The walls of the tunnel melted away – literally melted. They ran down themselves like water, then vanished entirely, leaving us in a strange darkness that somehow still allowed us to see each other perfectly. A faint glimmer of light shone from somewhere far ahead of us.
“Stay close,” Crescent warned. “There’s a light up ahead, but stray too far and you’ll never reach it.” Before I could even form the question, he answered it. “And I don’t know what happens to those who stray…I only know that they never return.”
I did what I had been doing since we started walking – ignored the Kato and stayed as close as I could to Big Blue. The roof of the tunnel had been far too low for me to ride on his shoulder, so I had been forced to settle for walking by his side.
We hadn’t gone far when a familiar voice drifted out of the darkness.
I stopped for a moment, searching the darkness. Where…?
Big Blue halted as well.
“Are ya there?”
It couldn’t be…
“Thorn?” I called out.
“Pixie!” The joy and relief was evident in her voice, although she sounded weak. “I thought I’d never see ya again…”
I looked all around, but still didn’t see her. Big Blue had the same problem.
“Where are you?” he called.
“I don’t know, Blue…it’s all dark…please try and find me. I need your help.”
I took a step forward towards where her voice was coming from. Before I could go any further, a paw had firmly clamped itself around my wrist. I glanced downwards to glare into Crescent’s cold, dark eyes.
“Since when,” he asked slowly, “did that one ever ask for help?”
He was right; I knew he was right. Thorn had always refused help when she was strong enough; she had even tried to refuse help when she wasn’t. And she never used the name Blue; it was always Big Blue when she spoke. But still, if there was any chance that it was her…
“It isn’t,” Crescent asserted. “Your friend isn’t here. I’d be able to sense her thoughts if she was. Her link with the Power of Darkness isn’t enough to shield her completely.”
She couldn’t be here; Thorn was dead. That curse had been meant for me…that Wracky wouldn’t have let me live… Then what…
“I don’t know. If there’s anything living out there, I can’t sense it. But whatever is there has been for quite some time. I’ve heard many different voices calling from the darkness…but none of them have ever really been there. Now, come quickly. I’d like to leave here before Big Hands shows up.”
Who in the world…
“An old enemy,” Crescent answered, again before I could complete the thought. “Inherited from a long lasting feud. Trust me, you don’t want to meet him.”
He released me and began walking off, heading towards that faint ray of light, that had only seemed to get fainter as we approached it. I turned to Big Blue.
“C’mon, Blue,” I said. “Thorn is dead. There’s no way she could have gotten here.”
Big Blue nodded, and we both walked after Crescent’s receding form.
“Pixie? Big Blue? Are ya still there?”
We kept on walking.
“Please…ya can’t leave me here alone…I need your help…”
We reached the light, now a mere pinpoint against the dark. The Kato was waiting for us there. He nodded to us once, then stepped into the darkness that contained the tiny light. His form instantly disappeared from view. After a moment, Big Blue and I followed.
I thought I heard Thorn’s voice calling out for us to come back, and hoped I wasn’t making a mistake. Then suddenly the gray stone of the mountain snapped into place around us once more. Once again, Crescent was waiting for us.
“It isn’t far now,” he said simply, then walked off again.
We had been walking for only a few moments more when the air suddenly grew cold, and frost began to form, delicately patterning the tunnel walls. Crescent swore under his breath.
“Big Hands,” he said by way of an explanation, the words turning to vapor in the chill air. “We need to hurry.”
Before we could begin to do so, an ear-shattering roar reverberated through the tunnels. A blur of white and red dropped down from somewhere above us, seeming to shake the very mountain upon impact. It was a Jill/????, the biggest Jill I had ever seen. Its body was a strange whitish gray, but its hands and feet were stained crimson, the same shade as the savagery that burned within its eyes.
“Crescent!” Big Hands bellowed. “The time has come for you to die!”
He didn’t move. He only stood there, blocking our path with his bulk, seeming to deliberate about what to do next.
“Listen,” Crescent said urgently. “Big Hands has powers similar to mine. You have to get out of here as soon as you can…”
I’m not quite sure why, but at that moment I felt compelled to turn and look at Big Hands, and found his crimson eyes locked on mine. I couldn’t turn my gaze away, no matter how hard I tried. There was no unclean feeling, as with Crescent, but slowly I felt barriers arise in my mind, surrounding me. By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late even to struggle. The barriers had sealed me inside my own mind, leaving my body susceptible to Big Hands control.
I still felt it when I flapped my wings and rose beside Big Hands; still felt it when I charged a Lightning attack and launched it at Crescent. But I couldn’t control any of it.
Crescent nimbly leapt out of the way of the attack, which fizzled out on the stone tunnel floor. His cold eyes flashed and he snarled at the Jill.
“Coward!” he shouted. “Using innocent bystanders to fight your battles!”
The Kato unsheathed his claws and charged at Big Hands, slashing at the Jill’s arm. The shaggy fur did little to impede the claws, and the skin was torn open, leaving bright flecks of blood to contrast with its whiteness.
Big Hands yawped and flailed his arms wildly at the Kato, who was hard-pressed to dodge the flurry of blows. Then Big Hands forced me to fly up behind Crescent and Lightning him.
Crescent recovered quickly, and the physical battle continued. But another battle soon began…
I shuddered as I felt the…filthiness…that was the Kato enter my mind. He paid no heed to me, but went straight for Big Hands, leaving me trapped within the barriers as the two of them fought each other for control. Occasionally I saw myself fire an attack as one or the other gained the upper hand temporarily. I once caught a glimpse of Big Blue, standing to one side, completely unsure of what to do.
Pressure began to build within my mind as a result of the battle, and I felt the barriers begin to tremble. Slowly they began to crack, allowing some of the pressure in. I watched, in pain, as both battles continued. It wouldn’t due me any good if the barriers collapsed like this – without them I would be torn apart by the forces created from the battle. They continued to break, the cracks spider webbing outward. It didn’t matter who one; if this continued much longer, there’d be nothing left of me but an empty shell…and I couldn’t even scream.
Walking slightly behind the rebels, Thorn abruptly stopped dead. Her spring green eyes filled with horror. Had anyone been looking, it would have been obvious to them that the girl was no longer seeing what went on around her, but was in another place entirely.
“Pixie,” Thorn whispered.
She slowly clasped her right hand over her heart, and, still staring into space, began to softly glow.
In the mountains…
Pale green light flooded my vision, and the two combatants were flung out of my mind.
“Thorn?” I whispered as the barriers lifted.
Crescent and Big Hands were thrown against the far wall in another flash of green light.
“Master Pixie?” Big Blue asked, uncertain.
I glanced at the still fighting Jill and Kato, who were now blocking the way we had come. “I’m alright, Blue. Let’s go.”
We practically ran out of the mountain, and found ourselves smack in the middle of the range to which it belonged. There was only one road besides the way we had come – the road that led straight to Naga’s lair. Crescent had achieved his goal. Like it or not, we were going to the lair. But the Kato had done us a favor.
“Thorn’s alive, Blue,” I said softly, flying up to perch on his shoulder once more. “I don’t know how, but no one else could’ve done that back there.”
Big Blue nodded his agreement, then began walking along the road.
Not too far away…
With a soft sigh, Thorn stopped glowing and fell to her knees. Golem noticed instantly.
“Thorn!” he cried, running to her side. The other rebels quickly followed.
“I’ll be okay,” Thorn said, stubbornly forcing herself to her feet. She nearly fell right back down again – would have, if Holly hadn’t caught her and steadied her. Thorn inwardly grimaced at this, but didn’t want to offend Holly. She looked up at the seven anxious faces, still wondering what had happened. “Pixie needed my help,” she explained, answering the unspoken question.
“And you somehow knew this, and managed to help her?” Suezo asked.
“How’d you manage that?”
“I don’t know. I just did.” Thorn shrugged.
“Does that mean that Pixie’s nearby?” Genki asked.
Thorn shrugged again.
“I don’t know about Pixie, but I’ll tell you what is around here,” Tiger said.
Mocchi turned to the blue wolf. “What is, chi?”
There was a bit of a shocked silence at this, then Hare spoke up.
“For once I think you’re right, Tiger,” Hare said. “I’ve spoken to monsters who used to live in this area. By my calculations, it should only be a day or two before we reach the lair.”
“Alright, then!” Genki shouted. “We’ll go on and defeat Naga, and then we’ll have beaten all of Moo’s Big Bad Four!”
“But Genki,” Holly protested. “I don’t know if we’re strong enough to fight Naga yet…”
“Of course we’re strong enough!” Genki shouted determinedly. “And we’ll have Thorn here to help us, too!” He turned to Thorn and smiled. “Right, Thorn?”
Thorn nodded, smiling back. “Right.” It was good to be able to repay them for their kindness…
“Well then, what are we waiting for?” asked Genki. He leaped into the air and shouted his next words. “LET’S GO!”