"Hare's Secret" By: Falco-chan




* * * Chapter One: Tiger’s Paranoia * * *

"Rain, rain, go away-chi, come again another day," Mocchi sang forlornly.

Suezo glanced outside the cave, where the rain was still coming down in torrents. "Didn’t work kiddo."

"Suezo," Holly sighed, "please don’t start." Like all of the others, she was feeling more than a little upset by the fact that they’d had to delay their search for the Phoenix once more because of rain.

"Is it just me," Hare asked, "or do we spend most of our time waiting for storms to blow over?"

"It’s just you," Tiger of the Wind answered. Hare glared at the monster, and Holly sighed again. The last thing they needed right now was those two going at it again.

"Come on, cheer up!" Genki urged, seeing how depressed his friends were. "At least we’re out of the rain! We’ve got a roof over our heads-"

"I don’t count a smelly, dingy cave as being a decent roof, kiddo," Suezo mumbled, keeping the comment carefully under his breath so the others wouldn’t glare at him.

"-And we’ve got each other! So cheer up!" Genki finished.

"Cheer up-chi!" Mocchi echoed, caught up by Genki’s spirit.

Holly smiled, more to satisfy the younger boy than because of any sort of happiness she felt. After all, he tried so hard to keep everyone motivated. She wanted him to feel like he was helping the group’s morale with his words.

And it was a little difficult to stay depressed with the living ball of energy bouncing around calling for his friends to cheer up. After a few moments, she felt her soft smile relax into one a bit more genuine. Genki, seeing her smiling gently, grinned even wider.

"See, nothing to worry about!" he insisted.

"Whatever you say, kid," Suezo mumbled. Genki frowned, and flopped down on a rock to think. How could he get the others to stop thinking about the rain?

Once before, he recalled, he had asked the others to tell stories about their pasts. Holly had ended up telling the group a sad story about how she had lost her village and friends in an attack by Moo, and how she and Suezo had been the only survivors, entrusted with the Magic Stone and the awesome responsibility to find and unlock the Phoenix. She had been really upset after she finished her story, but Genki had managed to cheer her up with a little help from the others. Afterwards, she had even said that the rain would make her happy instead of sad from that moment on. Maybe he could pull that off again?…

The biggest problem was that he had no idea who he could ask to tell their story. Golem, he knew, had spent most of his life watching over a field of lost discs: not the type of job that created a lot of interesting stories, or any experiences one liked to talk about. Suezo was Holly’s monster, and his story had more or less been told when Holly related her tale. Tiger of the Wind had been a bandit, and had already told the story of his scar and losing his little brother Grey Wolf once before, to Genki alone after he had been brought back from certain death by the group. There was no way he could get the dog-like monster to relate that painful little memory again. And there was no point in asking Mocchi…

Wait. There was somebody who had never quite explained why they were coming along. Genki turned to look at him, grinning, excited. Now was as good a time as any to ask.

"So, Hare, what’s your story?"

Hare seemed to tense, and he stared at Genki with wide eyes. Clearly the question had taken him off guard. "W-what?"

"I said, what’s your story? Why are you coming along with us?" Genki pulled himself into a sitting position, facing the rabbit. His curiosity had been triggered by Hare’s unexpected reaction. The others, overhearing his question, turned their attention to the conversation. Tiger, in particular, seemed interested in what was being said.

"My… story." Hare said slowly, almost reluctantly. "I… don’t really have one…"

"Aw, come on," Genki urged, wondering what had gotten into the rabbit.

"Yeah, come on, Hare," Tiger added slowly, eyes watching the other monster’s reaction. Hare seemed to squirm under everyone’s gaze, and Tiger noticed that one paw reached up almost reflexively to grip his kerchief. Golden eyes narrowed as he thought he spotted something glittering under the red fabric.

"Really, you guys…" Hare tried to smile reassuringly, but failed. He fidgeted with his kerchief without meaning to, trying to figure out how to divert the others’ attention. "I don’t have any sort of story that you’d be interested in…"

"We won’t know unless you tell us, will we?" Genki retorted, still grinning.

"What is it, Hare?" Holly asked, more gently.

"Well… I…"

"Forget it, you guys," Tiger snarled. "He probably just came along because he thought he could make a few golds from this whole trip."

"Don’t start," Genki warned, thinking that Hare would take the bait. But to everyone’s astonishment, Hare just smiled at Tiger’s words.

"Yeah, that’s right," he agreed. "Just came along for a few golds, you know me." As everyone stared at him, the rabbit stretched and added with a yawn, "Well, I’m beat. Think I’ll try to get some rest while we’re stuck here. Night guys."

He turned his back on them and went a little further into the cave, leaving Tiger of the Wind with his mouth hanging open, still waiting for the angry retort that had never come.

* * *

"I don’t trust him," Tiger told the others.

Holly sighed. She had been expecting this. "Tiger, please…"

"Why did he get so upset when Genki asked about his story?" Tiger persisted. "And why did he agree to what I said so easily?"

"Maybe what you said was true," Suezo quipped.

"Look, we shouldn’t get hung up on this," Holly said. "If he doesn’t want to talk about it, then we shouldn’t get on his case. Maybe something bad happened to him, and he doesn’t want to remember," she added quietly, gripping the Magic Stone as she spoke.

"Holly is right," Golem finally spoke up.

"But what if Hare’s hiding something from the rest of us?" Tiger insisted. "What if he’s really working for…"

"You’d better not say it, Tiger," Genki warned, a sudden anger coming into his voice. In his lap, Mocchi stirred in his sleep.

"Moo!" Tiger finished defiantly. The name seemed to echo in the cavern, and Holly glanced carefully over to where Hare was curled up with his back to the group, sleeping. Thankful that he hadn’t overheard, she glared at Tiger.

"Tiger, we won’t get anywhere by accusing each other of such things," she scolded. Beside her, Golem nodded in silent approval of her words. Genki glared at Tiger. "I can’t believe that you’d even think such a thing!" he said.

"Just because you don’t like him, it doesn’t mean…" Suezo started to add.

"LISTEN TO ME!" Tiger growled, and the eyeball monster winced and cowered behind Golem. In Genki’s lap, Mocchi woke with a start and looked over at Tiger.

"Tiger-chi?" he asked, half-asleep.

"Listen," Tiger repeated, more softly. "I know you think I’m biased in this, but just listen to me. That rabbit is hiding something from us, and I think that it might be where his true loyalties are."

"Tiger…" Genki warned.

"Haven’t you ever noticed that his plans always backfire? Every time he makes some sort of plan for us, there’s always one thing he didn’t consider, and we end up in even worse trouble than before!"

"Tiger…"

"Of course, if he’s as smart as he claims he is, he’d be able to think of plans that work! How can we be certain that his ideas haven’t been working out the way he wants them too? He could be trying to kill us!"

"TIGER!"

"That’s crazy," Suezo said, but something in his tone belied his uncertainty. Tiger jumped on this, and whirled on the monster.

"You think so, Suezo? What about that time on the raft? We would have died if you hadn’t used your Teleport! And Hare had no way of knowing at that time that you could use it. It was the one thing he hadn’t planned on…"

"Tiger, you’re being silly. He would have died, too," Genki pointed out.

"We don’t know that, do we?" Tiger’s eyes were narrowed, and he was pacing around the cave now as he spoke. "Someone like Hare, he could have had a back-up plan to escape. He would have thought that part out already. Or maybe he’s one of those suicidal Moo worshippers who would gladly give up their own life to further Moo’s ambition." Suezo actually laughed, in spite of the tension. "I doubt it," he scoffed. "Hare’s hardly the type to lay down his life like that."

"How do we know that?" Tiger growled. "What do we really know about him, anyway? All we know about him is that he’s a lying, conniving thief that tried to trick us out of our money, then just decided he was going to come along after we caught him!"

His words hung over the group as they sat in the dark cave. Outside, the rain poured down, and lightning lanced down to the accompaniment of booming thunder.

"I trust Hare," Genki said quietly, his face half-hidden by his bangs. "I don’t think he’s with Moo. I’d never believe such a crazy thing."

"Chi." Mocchi huddled up in Genki’s lap, gazing forlornly up at his trainer and friend.

"Genki…" Holly watched the boy for a moment, feeling something inside her twist at the boy’s sudden change. The youth sitting there bore little resemblance to the one who had been bouncing around trying to cheer up his friends not long before. "Let’s get some sleep," she finally told the others, not looking directly at Tiger or Hare. "We need our energy for when the rain stops."

Growling gently to himself, Tiger of the Wind flopped onto the ground and tried to relax. Mocchi yawned and curled up again in Genki’s lap. Suezo leaned up against Holly’s back, his one eyelid slowly drooping shut. Golem bent his head, cradling the girl and eyeball monster in his massive arms. Soon the group had drifted off to sleep. They had no way of knowing that Hare had been awake, and had heard everything they had said. As the thunder rolled outside, the rabbit stared into the darkness, back still toward the others, thinking.

* * *

"Gone! He’s gone!"

Genki and the others bolted awake at Tiger’s howl. The boy stared uncomprehendingly at the blue-furred monster for a moment, and asked, "Nani? What is it, Tiger?"

"Hare’s gone!" Tiger bounded around the cave, growling. "The little furball left while we were asleep! I knew he couldn’t be trusted!"

"WHAT?" Genki whirled to look where Hare had been sleeping. Sure enough, the rabbit was gone.

"Oh no," Holly moaned. "What if he heard us last night?"

"What does it matter? This just proves I’m right!" Tiger howled.

"WOULD YOU PUT A SOCK IN IT, TIGER?" Suezo screamed, startling everyone in the cave. Even Tiger looked a little surprised that the eyeball monster had enough guts to yell at him like that.

"Tiger, I think everyone’s had it with your conspiracy theories," Holly added quietly. Somehow her words stung Tiger more than Suezo’s outburst had.

Genki had scrambled to his feet and yanked on his skates. "I’m going to go find him," he announced, racing to the cave’s entrance.

"Why bother?" Tiger growled. Genki whirled around, and for one moment Holly got the sudden and distinct feeling that the boy was about to smack the dog-like monster. Before she could say anything, however, a scream shattered the morning air.

Genki and the others froze, recognizing the voice. Hare! Forgetting his quarrel with Tiger, Genki turned and sped into the forest, legs pumping furiously as he plunged into the forest. Branches whipped past him. Behind him, he could hear the pounding of Golem’s heavy feet, a reassurance that the others were behind him. Moments later he burst into a small glade. What he saw made his heart take a sudden leap into his throat.

Hare was trying to fend off the attack of a huge baddie. Genki wasn’t certain what kind of monster this was. It looked like a Golem type, but was at least a head taller than his gentle friend was. Its stone skin was a deep purple, like a Naga’s scales, and its eyes gleamed a terrible yellow as it leered at the cornered rabbit. "I have been searching far too long for you, little rabbit," it rasped. "Your master, Naga, wishes to see you." The thing lashed out with one giant arm, and the terrified Hare shrank back against a tree, narrowly dodging the blow.

Genki shouted Hare’s name as he charged into the clearing. The rabbit stiffened, and he swung to stare at the boy, his expression unreadable save for his obvious terror. Genki heard Golem crash through the trees behind him, heard Holly’s scream and Tiger’s battle howl, but his attention was completely focused on the baddie who threatened his friend. Springing into the air, he aimed a kick at the Golem-type’s forehead.

The baddie laughed, mocking the boy’s attempt, and swung one massive hand at the boy. One huge finger clipped against Genki’s side, sending him sprawling.

"Genki!" Hare screamed, taking one step toward the boy. But the baddie turned its full attention back to him, and took another swipe. Seizing the rabbit with one massive hand, he yanked him from the ground and held him like a child’s plaything.

"Naga was most displeased when you escaped, little rabbit," it hissed.

"Hare!" Holly screamed helplessly, bent down next to Genki, frantically trying to help the boy to his feet.

"Cherry Blossom Blizzard-chi!" Mocchi called, summoning his attack. The petal blossoms slammed into the Golem-type’s side with no noticeable effect.

"Tiger, help us!" Genki called, seeing the dog-type monster standing some distance away, watching the melee. Tiger of the Wind made no answer, instead continuing to stare at Hare as he squirmed in the baddie’s grasp. Genki grimaced, struggling to stand.

Even as the others watched, the baddie struck Hare again. With two massive fingers, it ripped the rabbit’s kerchief from his throat. The rabbit screamed as the fabric ripped. At his neck, something flashed blood red.

Tiger’s golden eyes widened at the sight. Was it possible that…?

"I’ve found it, Naga!" the baddie screamed in triumph. In his hand, Hare continued to shriek as red energy poured from something around his neck. Genki and the others watched, paralyzed by the sight.

Suddenly Hare’s expression changed from one of pain to one of determination. The light focused into one beam, and it struck the Golem-type right in the face. Shrieking, the baddie released its grip on the rabbit, and Hare tumbled to the ground.

"Hare!" Genki cried again, pulling himself to his feet. Despite Holly’s frantic protests, the boy launched himself at the baddie again. The Golem-type swirled and brought his hand up, ready to smash the boy into the ground.

"Genki!" Holly shrieked.

"Genki-chi!" Mocchi cried, tears springing to his eyes as the massive fist swung down.

"Genki…" Hare whispered, and the fiery red light flared up again, engulfing his entire body. A streak of crimson light lanced out and struck the huge baddie, freezing him in his tracks. The Golem-type bellowed in pain as its entire form seemed to be consumed by the light, and it turned dull yellow eyes to the rabbit.

"You… you can… use…" it murmured, its voice softer than any other time that Genki had heard a Golem speak. It screeched one last time, and then its form collapsed and smoldered under the fire. Within moments, there was nothing that even remotely resembled a monster in the blaze. The magical fire died away, leaving a scorched lost disc in its wake.

Hare gasped, falling to his knees as the glow dimmed. His fur still seemed to crackle from the energy. Genki rushed to the rabbit’s side.

"Hare, are you all right?" He reached down to help the rabbit to his feet, but yanked his hand away as it brushed against the white-hot fur.

"Don’t touch me!" Hare screamed, flinching away from his hand. He scrambled to get away, snatching his kerchief from where it had landed on the ground.

Genki stared at him in shock. His entire body seemed to be smoldering from the energy blast he had released. In dull amazement, he noticed that he could almost see right through the rabbit’s body. Golem, Suezo, Mocchi, Holly and Tiger approached silently, standing behind Genki.

Hare hastily retied his kerchief around his throat; carefully arranging its folds to hide what hung around his neck although he knew it was too late. The others had already seen what it was. Underneath the fabric, the light flared, then dimmed to the slight glow it had always had before. The rabbit’s form grew substantial once more, no longer transparent.

Slowly he looked up at the others, who were still staring at him in open-mouthed amazement. The rabbit’s face was pale, his eyes filled with an anguish that Genki had never seen before.

"I’m sorry, Genki," he whispered. Suddenly he sprang to his feet and dashed away into the forest, his sobs echoing behind him.

* * * Chapter Two: Bad Memories * * *

No matter how far I run… nothing’s going to change…

Hare kept running anyway, kept forcing himself to move forward. Tears stung his eyes, blurring his vision, and he stumbled more than once as he plunged deeper into the forest. He had no idea where he was now, he only knew that he had to put as much distance between himself and the others as possible.

The others… Genki… Holly… Mocchi… Suezo… Golem… and…

Stop it! I can’t turn back! It’s just too late…

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. He had never dreamed that his past would catch up with him… well, no, that wasn’t really true. He had suffered through countless nightmares in which the demons from his past had found him, nightmares which had often caused him to wake up crying, praying that his screams hadn’t disturbed the others. But this was different; this was real.

There’s no turning back.

He finally slowed down; his legs didn’t have the strength to support him much longer. The rabbit glanced around, trying to find a decent place to hide and rest for a few moments. Finally choosing to take cover in the trees, Hare climbed into the branches and clung to the strongest branch he could find. Hopefully, he’d be able to spot anybody who might be following him before they saw him.

I can’t believe it’s come to this. I never thought I’d have to hide from my friends, too…

Hare began to cry softly, still cowering behind the thick branches. If it had started to rain again, he never would have noticed it.

* * *

"…Whoa…" Suezo finally breathed, breaking the awkward silence that had hung over the rebels for some time after Hare had run off. Like the others, the eyeball monster wasn’t quite certain just what had happened a few moments before. The whole thing seemed almost like some surreal dream. In fact, they might have dismissed it as just that: some crazy dream that couldn’t possibly have happened. But there was one problem with that: the whole thing was real. The injuries that they had sustained during the short fight with the hulking monster were real. And the lost disc, still warm where it lay before them, that was real too. None of them were quite sure of what had happened or how, but the entire encounter had happened. Genki stared at the burn mark on his hand. It wasn’t very bad: in fact, it barely stung at all. He might have never paid any real attention to it, except that he’d gained it simply by trying to help Hare up. He couldn’t understand it…

"Hare!" Genki suddenly started, looking up toward where the monster had vanished into the forest. He already knew that the rabbit had left; he’d stared blankly as Hare had fled from them, unable to stop him or even call out. As some of the shock from what had just happened wore off, however, the full meaning of that sunk in, and the boy clamored to his feet. "We’ve got to go find him!"

"I’m not certain I want to find him," Suezo murmured, shivering as he remembered the glowing red light from before. He had no idea what it was, but it had completely destroyed the baddie earlier, and Suezo wasn’t all that thrilled by the idea of seeing that happen again.

"But we can’t just leave him alone out here!" Genki insisted, glaring at the eyeball monster. In the back of his mind, Genki could see the sorrowful look Hare had given them, and he heard the rabbit’s last words to him repeat over and over again. "I’m sorry, Genki."

"I’m not going to abandon him out here!" Genki said. "He needs our help!" With that, the boy turned and got ready to race into the woods where he had last seen his friend.

"Why?"

The question was simple, but the tone it was asked in was scathing. Genki turned to glare at Tiger of the Wind, both shocked and somehow not surprised that the blue-furred monster had asked that.

"Because he’s my friend," Genki replied in a deliberately challenging tone, eyes locked with Tiger’s own. The others looked on, obviously uncomfortable with the battle of wills they were witnessing.

"Forget him," Tiger growled. "You don’t need friends like that."

"Tiger…"

"Don’t even start, Genki. That rabbit is completely useless to us."

"But what if the baddies…" Holly piped up. Tiger glared over at her.

"I hope the baddies DO find him! That liar’s too worthless to let live!"

Something inside Genki snapped, and he felt his hands ball into fists. Suddenly he noticed something flash out from his side, and he saw golden eyes widen in surprise. A rough, sudden crack echoed in the suddenly silent clearing.

Holly gasped. Suezo’s eye nearly bugged out of its socket. Mocchi and Golem just stared, stunned.

Genki Sakura had just smacked Tiger of the Wind in the face. Genki stared blankly at his hand, completely startled by what he had just done. It was like his hand wasn’t even a part of his body anymore: he looked at it like it was some sort of creature. Tiger’s eyes were wide, and he stared at Genki with a look of absolute shock and pain on his face. His jaw ached terribly, and he could feel a small trickle of blood seep out of his mouth. The kid had drawn blood! And it felt like a few of his teeth might have been knocked loose, too.

Suezo saw the blood too, and he could tell by the expressions that the others had that they noticed it as well. Every nerve in the eyeball monster’s body went tense as he nervously glanced at first Genki, then Tiger. He could tell that this wouldn’t end well. Genki continued to stare at his hand, horrified to see a small bloodstain on it. He looked over at Tiger, who hadn’t moved after being struck, and felt a pang of remorse. Slowly, uncertain of what he could do, he took a hesitant step toward the lupine monster, one hand reaching out in a desperate gesture of kindness.

But Tiger’s eyes no longer saw Genki, or any of the others. The blow brought long-suppressed memories roaring back to overwhelm him, and his widened golden eyes reflected nothing but fear as he remembered far too much of the pain:

"You lazy animal! How could you mess up that job again? With all the times I’ve had you haul things before, you should have it down by now! But nooooo, instead you just screw the whole job up again! You worthless whelp!"

The blue puppy yelped as the whip cracked again and white-hot pain erupted across his back. Pleading golden eyes gazed up at his enraged master, the sorrowful look only infuriating the boy even more. Not far away, another puppy with soft gray fur cowered in the dubious safety of their kennel, watching the beating with frightened blue eyes the color of ice.

It wasn’t the young monster’s fault that the job had been botched. The rope had just snapped of its own accord, too weak to hold up to the strain of pulling the huge log along. Not that it mattered to the master. All that mattered was that the whelp had failed to complete another job, and that meant he’d lost out on getting paid this time. The whip flailed over the puppy’s back again and again, until the tiny thing finally stopped whimpering with each crack. Satisfied, the boy reached down and grabbed the puppy roughly by the back of the neck and half-dragged him back to the kennel. He unceremoniously dropped the little monster into the pen, then stomped off to plan the next day’s work schedule.

Sad golden eyes watched him leave. The puppy had no idea why things had turned out this way. His trainer had seemed like a nice kid, a handsome twelve-year old human with wavy brown hair and a friendly smile. He didn’t understand why the boy pushed him and his brother so hard. He had expected carefree mornings of playing and frolicking paired with some training, naturally. He hadn’t expected to be worked so hard and treated so unfairly by this sweet-looking kid. The gray-furred puppy had come up beside his brother, and was licking his wounds. The blue-furred puppy let him do so, and slumped to the cold ground. His golden eyes slowly hardened, becoming dark with his suppressed hatred of his trainer, and Tiger of the Wind vowed to someday break free of his master’s control…

Tiger of the Wind’s eyes narrowed, becoming cold with remembered outrage. His vision clouded, he looked up at Genki without seeing the boy. Instead he saw a forbidding silhouette holding a long whip… "Nooooo…" Tiger howled, and he flung himself at his long-hated trainer with every intention of killing him.

"Tiger!" Genki cried out in surprise as the wolf-monster leaped toward him. Then sharp white teeth tore into his arm, and he screamed with the shock and the pain.

"Genki!" Holly and Mocchi shrieked in unison.

"Tiger!" Suezo screamed. "WHAT THE HECK ARE YOU DOING?!"

Golem stared in complete shock, unable to fathom just what was happening.

He was wounded. Good. Tiger glared at Genki as the boy stumbled backwards, seeing his trainer in the boy’s stead. Electricity pulsed around his body, and he roared out his next attack as he sent the energy streaking toward his target.

"LIGHTNING!"

"TELE-PORT!"

The bolt of lightning tore into the ground, scorching the area where Genki had been sprawled out until a moment before the energy hit. Suezo reappeared next to Golem and the others, Genki materializing beside him. The eyeball monster had no time to dwell on how he had managed to make his teleportation work, however, for Tiger quickly turned to glare at the group.

"Stop it, Tiger!" Holly pleaded, frantically checking Genki’s arm as she did so. The bite had gone deep, yet she could see that only the skin had been damaged. She was thankful, at least, for that. Tiger slowly advanced toward them, golden eyes glazed with bloodlust. Golem moved to shield Holly and Genki with his arms, bending over the two to keep them safe. Suezo and Mocchi glanced at one another, then moved to protect their respective humans as the wolf monster came closer.

I don’t know what’s gotten into you, Tiger, Suezo thought grimly, but if you try to hurt Holly, I… I’ll kill you!Yeah, right. I’m dead I’m dead I’m dead…

"Why are you protecting him?" Tiger suddenly growled. Suezo stared at him in surprise, realizing that the monster was addressing him. Say something brave, say something brave…

"Huh?"

Brilliant. Excellent comeback, Suezo you idiot.

"I said, why are you protecting him? That human doesn’t deserve to live after what he did to me!"

"Hey, now, don’t you think you’re being a little harsh on the kid?" Suezo asked, amazed that he had even found his voice. "I mean, he may have hit you pretty hard, but that’s no reason to kill him…"

"It’s not just for hitting me!" Tiger howled. "I’ll make him pay for all he did to me!"

"…??? What the heck are you talking about, Tiger?"

"I’ll make him pay! He’ll pay for everything he did to me and my brother! All those times of torment!" Tiger’s eyes were completely glazed with bloodlust as he howled out the vow of vengeance. Suezo was now completely lost by the course of the conversation. Leaning over to Mocchi, he asked the tiny monster, "Just what the heck is he going on about?"

"Chi?" Mocchi shrugged his shoulders, then reassumed a battle position. Suezo turned his full attention back to Tiger: the blue-furred monster was preparing to attack. A cold chill seemed to fill the air as the three monsters watched one another, waiting for the right moment to strike.

Suddenly Suezo felt the rain-soaked dirt beneath him give way slightly, and he slipped. Mocchi glanced over at him, distracted by his concern for the other monster.

Tiger saw his chance. Summoned energy crackled again, and another bolt of lightning streaked toward his challengers. Suezo and Mocchi looked up in time to see the bolt race toward them. Unable to dodge away, the two monsters could only scream as electric death came straight at them.

Tiger grinned with a grim satisfaction as the energy bolt struck, and a dust cloud temporarily covered his targets from view. As it receded, he waited to see two lost discs appear.

Suddenly his grin faded. His bolt had not struck home. Golem’s massive arm was stretched before the two other monsters, the rock shielding them from harm. As the dog-like monster howled in frustration, Suezo and Mocchi looked up at the heavily breathing Golem with a sort of awe.

"Fighting… solves nothing," he rumbled in that deep voice of his. "Especially between friends."

"Tiger… please stop it," Holly pleaded again. "Why do you want to hurt Genki so badly?"

"…Genki? Genki?" Tiger asked, his voice suddenly strange. The others stared at him, startled by the seeming confusion in his voice. His eyes had lost some of their bloodthirstiness.

"Why do you want to hurt Genki?" Holly repeated.

Tiger shook his head slightly, looking genuinely bewildered. "Genki? I don’t want to hurt Genki. I’m not…"

"But you are," Holly said gently.

"Not Genki. It’s him I want to kill." Tiger’s eyes narrowed suddenly in disgust, and the others tensed for another attack. But it didn’t come; instead, Tiger just shook his head again. "I’m going to make him pay."

"Who?" Holly risked asking.

"Him!" Tiger insisted, growling softly as his eyes shone with a strange blend of anger… and fear. "That boy… that whip-happy sorry excuse for a trainer!"

"Trainer?" Suezo murmured to himself, eye widening as he realized the full meaning of Tiger’s words. "Your trainer?"

Tiger growled again, glaring around. "Where is he? I know I saw him here! Don’t try and hide him from me! Let me finish what I started!"

"Tiger…" Holly said gently as the entire picture slowly became clear to her. "You mean you want to kill him?"

"Kill! I’ll kill him!" Tiger continued to search for his trainer, golden eyes cold and dark with hatred. "I’ll take his arm off! Let me finish…" His voice trailed off suddenly as Golem gently laid Genki down onto the ground, and he stared at the wound in the boy’s arm uncomprehendingly.

"Genki? Genki! What happened to you! How did you…" Tiger stopped, and he looked closer at the deep gouges on the boy’s arm. His golden eyes widened with pure shock, and he breathed, "But this is what I did to… I attacked my trai… how did you…"

Genki gazed up at Tiger, finally understanding, and his eyes not condemning or hateful in any way. The blue-furred monster stared at him, breathing hard.

"No… it can’t be!" he howled as full realization crashed down upon him.

"It’s all right, Tiger," Genki said, gently reaching up with his uninjured arm to stroke the monster’s fur. "I understand. Let’s… just call it even."

Tiger looked down at Genki, saw that the boy was gazing mainly at the wolf-monster’s sore jaw, and nodded curtly. Regaining some of his normal attitude, he stalked away to sit by himself as Holly gently wrapped a bandage around the boy’s arm. He waited quietly, thinking to himself as the others slowly gathered their wits and recovered from the entire encounter. When Mocchi came over and laid one hand on the wolf’s back, he refused to acknowledge the tiny monster, even through he was silently grateful for the child’s compassion. Genki got to his feet after a few moments, flexing his arm experimentally. It hurt to move it a lot, but at least it wasn’t broken. Hopefully it would heal soon; he had other things to worry about right now. Turning to face the others, he grinned in what he hoped was a reassuring manner.

"Well, let’s get going!" he prompted the others. "We can’t just sit around all day, people, not if we’re going to find Hare before the baddies do!"

"Genki…" Holly said, smiling gently. It was almost as if nothing had happened at all.

"Sure you’re up to it, kid?" Suezo asked skeptically, even though he knew what the answer would be. Genki grinned at him.

"Of course I’m up to it," he insisted. "I’m the Monster Champ, remember?"

"We know, we know," Suezo muttered, rolling his eye, smiling despite the resigned tone of his words.

"So let’s go!" Genki said, turning and heading off into the forest.

"Let’s go-chi!" Mocchi echoed, following right behind the boy. Holly and Golem smiled at one another and went off after the two. Suezo started to follow behind Holly, but paused as he noticed Tiger still standing still.

"You coming?" he asked, glancing back at the wolf-monster. When Tiger made no move to reply, Suezo shrugged it off and turned to follow Holly and the others deeper into the woods.

Tiger of the Wind watched the eyeball monster and the others depart out of the corner of one golden eye. As they headed deeper into the forest, he stood alone in the glade, thinking.

* * * Chapter Three: Desperately Seeking Hare * * *

"AAAAAIIIIIEEEEEeeeeeiiiiiaaaaa…"

THUD.

"Nice catch, Golem."

"Did you see Hare, Suezo?" Genki asked, peering into the hole that the eyeball monster had made upon hitting the ground.

"Nope. No sign of him anywhere," Suezo replied as a very apologetic Golem helped him up. He groaned, both from the pain of his fall and from the knowledge of what the likely response of the others would be.

"This doesn’t seem to be working," Holly observed. "Maybe because the forest’s too thick?"

"Yeah, yeah!" Suezo hastily agreed. "All I keep seeing are trees and more trees. I can’t see him anywhere!"

"Maybe we should try one more time?" Genki asked, either not seeing or ignoring how pale Suezo suddenly became at hearing his words.

"Maybe not," Holly told him, seeing Suezo’s expression. "We’ll just have to search on foot."

"All right then," Genki said, pulling on his skates again. The movement caused the gash in his arm to ache for a moment, and he carefully hid his wince from Holly and the others. They didn’t need to be worrying about that right now. Thankfully, Suezo was too happy with the fact that he wouldn’t have to do an aerial search again to notice Genki’s expression, and the others were getting ready to get moving again.

Mocchi had just noticed something else, too. The little monster tugged on Genki’s sleeve and looked up at him with worried eyes. "Where’s Tiger-chi?" he asked.

Genki stared down at the little monster, then quickly looked around. Sure enough, there was no sign of the wolf monster anywhere. "Tiger?" he called. No answer.

"Oh, just great," Suezo groaned. "Now we have two monsters to look for."

"Never mind about Tiger," Genki told him. "He didn’t want to help anyway. Give him some time to cool down." Holly stared at Genki, surprised by his words. "Why, Genki…" she started.

"Come on," the boy said, waving for the others to hurry as he turned and skated deeper into the woods. Holly and the others could only follow, keeping their eyes open.

* * *

Tiger of the Wind watched the others leave from his cover in the shadows. As they walked away, he turned his back on them and went in another direction.

If we split up like this, we’ll have a better chance of finding that stupid rabbit, he thought, moving quietly to avoid alerting anyone to his presence. A grim look fell over his face like a shadow. And if I find that rabbit first, the others will have to drag me off of his lost disc!

* * *

"Hare!"

Hare turned at the sound of his name being called, frozen with shock. How had Genki and the others managed to find him? It didn’t seem possible.

And yet, there they were, running toward him. Genki was out in front, as usual, and had obviously spotted him, waving and shouting his name. The rabbit hesitated, desperately trying to figure a way out of this. He wanted to run, but his feet refused to move, keeping him rooted to the spot.

Genki called out his name again, and Hare swallowed hard. He didn’t want to get the others involved in this; it was his problem to deal with. As the others drew closer, he raised one paw in a futile gesture to keep them away and yelled, "Stop!"

Something flared white-hot under his kerchief, and Hare watched in silent horror as red energy shot out from his outstretched paw and struck Genki full in the chest. The explosion ripped through the boy’s body and erupted out of his back, enveloping the others. Genki screamed, his cry mingling with the other’s shrieks as their felt their lives slip away.

"No…NOOOOO!!!" Hare heard himself screaming in helpless sympathy for his friends, and he collapsed to his knees, clawing at his ears to try and drown out their cries. And Genki screamed…and screamed…

* * *

Hare awoke with a start, still clinging to his perch in the tree. Tears were rolling down his cheeks, and he shivered with the memory of his dream. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep, and that had been one of the reasons why. Nightmares like that had haunted the rabbit’s nights with a terrible regularity lately.

Wiping away his tears, Hare struggled to focus on the here and now. Careful not to reveal his position in case anyone was watching, the rabbit peered out through the branches, trying to see if anything was happening beneath him. His ears strained to pick up any noises that might give away a potential enemy. Nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary, so he finally took a deep breath and leaped to the forest floor.

For a moment, he froze, thinking that he’d heard his name being called. Moving as silently as possible, he surveyed the forest around him, seeing nothing but trees. Forcing himself calm down, the rabbit sighed and started moving again, walking deeper into the woods.

* * *

"What did you just say?"

Night Flyer knelt before her master, folding her wings behind her slender back. The Pixie/Worm hybrid gazed up into her commander’s deep yellow eyes and repeated, "The rabbit was discovered by one of my warriors, Marble. He reported the sighting back to me, and I immediately gave him orders to capture him." She lowered her gaze to the stone floor as she reluctantly added, "Unfortunately, he was destroyed."

"That doesn’t matter," Naga hissed, waving away her words. "Where was the rabbit seen?"

Night Flyer grinned up at the reptilian monster, her eyes flashing. "Master Naga, you have heard of the seven rebels who turned Pixie into a traitor and killed Gali…?"

Naga’s face twisted into a malicious smirk, instantly understanding what the pixie was telling him. "So…he’s joined up with them, then?" "Yes, Lord Naga," Night Flyer replied. Naga’s grin grew wider, and the hybrid smiled secretly to herself. She knew that the snake-like warrior preferred the title ‘Lord’ to simply ‘Master’, and it always put him into a better mood when she addressed him as such. She gazed reverently up at her leader, admiring his muscular body.

"Night Flyer," Naga said, snapping the hybrid out of her reverie. She instantly brought her gaze back up to his grinning face, hoping that he couldn’t see how intensely she was blushing in the dim light.

"Yes, my lord?"

"Where exactly are the rebels located now?"

"Marble’s last report placed them somewhere in one of Grey Wolf’s forests," Night Flyer informed him. "However, Grey Wolf has not made any attempts to attack them since the defeat of his Beaclon unit. He appears to be waiting for them to come to him…"

"Which means that the rebels are fair game," Naga commented, his yellow eyes quickly narrowing into slits. Night Flyer watched his face, waiting for his orders.

"Go to the lair of the Terror Dogs and tell them I sent you," Naga said after a few moments. "Give them a description of the rabbit and set them loose on the forests. Make absolutely certain that they understand that he is to be captured and brought to me alive." "Yes, my lord." Night Flyer got to her feet and turned to go, her wings already tensing for flight. Naga suddenly reached out and caught her arm, and the hybrid found herself staring up into his glittering yellow eyes.

"S-sir?" she faltered.

"I don’t want you getting directly involved in the fighting, Night Flyer," Naga told her, forcing her to look directly at him. "Once you’ve directed the Terror Dogs to the forests, leave them to their job and return here. I’ll be waiting for your return."

"Y… yes, my lord." Turning away, the hybrid rushed out of the chamber, certain that her face was completely red. Not paying any attention to where she was going, she failed to notice as another monster stepped out of a room and into her path. The two monsters collided, and Night Flyer struggled to maintain her balance. "Hey, watch where’s you’re going!"

That voice…oh no, not her. Night Flyer didn’t bother to conceal the disgust on her face as she recognized the monster she had run into. As the other got to her feet, she hissed, "Well, Vanity, maybe if you stopped gazing into that damned mirror and paid more attention to everything else, things like this wouldn’t happen!"

The Pixie/Suezo hybrid ignored her words completely, choosing instead to gaze into her ever-present mirror and carefully smooth her golden hair. "So, Night, did you finish explaining about Marble’s failure to capture the rabbit to our lord?"

Night Flyer didn’t bother to ask how the other hybrid had found out about that. The golden-skinned pixie may have never actually fought in her lifetime –she claimed that she found it far too barbaric an activity for one of her beauty– but that didn’t keep the canny monster from employing an entire squadron of Suezo-type spies. The eyeball monsters acted as her loyal servants, and gathered tons of information for her, information which she used to her benefit whenever possible. There was a rumor that the golden beauty was trying to blackmail her way into becoming a member of the Big Bad Four, assuming one of the recently vacant spots.

Knowing that the other pixie hybrid was hoping for some sort of reaction, Night Flyer simply ignored the comment, brushing past her without a word. Vanity glared after her, pretty face twisted into an expression of pure loathing that would have stopped the heart of one of her many admirers, had they been present to see it. Stepping out onto a balcony, Night Flyer stretched out her wings and tensed for a moment, gazing toward the horizon. Then she sprung out into the sky, letting the wind fill her wings and bear her toward her destination.

* * *

The Terror Dogs were one of the few Tiger-type units who had chosen not to align themselves with Grey Wolf. The dark-furred monsters preferred to hire their services out to any of the Big Bad Four, since they felt that would give them more opportunities to fight. Unfortunately for them, Grey Wolf responded to their refusal to work exclusively for him by refusing to even speak to them of any missions. Pixie had also avoided their kind, preferring to work with her own units, and with Gali’s defeat, the Terror Dogs were seeing even less action than before.

Velvet, the leader of their pack, could sense how upset his warriors were becoming. He had become annoyed with the whole situation too, and desperately thirsted for battle. Another member of his pack might have swallowed his pride and requested an assignment, but Velvet absolutely refused to even think of such a thing. It was bad enough that the name his long-dead trainer had given him still stuck with him, despite all of his efforts, but the thought of trying to beg for a job…! That was an indignity he would never bear. Suddenly the wolf monster’s keen ears picked up on the soft rustle of leathery wings brushed by the wind, and he got to his feet, sniffing the air. A faint smell brought him to full alert, and he bounded out of his cave to either greet or tear to shreds his visitor.

"Sir Velvet, I bring you a message from Master Naga!" a pixie hybrid called out as she swept down to land beside him. The dog-like monster calmed down, recognizing her scent.

"Night Flyer," he said simply, keeping a close eye on her, "What news do you bring?"

"I have a mission for your squadron, from Master Naga himself!" Night Flyer grimaced slightly as she said the title; ‘Lord’ was much more fitting to the reptilian. But she knew that using the other title might bring Moo to believe that Naga was overstepping his bounds… "What type of mission?" Velvet was asking, keeping his excitement under control.

"A simple retrieval assignment," Night Flyer told him. "A purebred Hare which Master Naga is…interested in was recently spotted in a forest in Grey Wolf’s territory. Master Naga wants the rabbit caught and brought to him without serious injuries. You are NOT to kill the rabbit; just take him into custody and bring him to Naga’s base unharmed."

"Unharmed?" Velvet spit out the word like a curse. "Why does that matter?"

"Master Naga demands that it be so," Night Flyer replied, glaring at the wolf monster. "You must bring the rabbit to him without killing it. That is all you need to know. You will be able to recognize the one you are searching for by the red kerchief around his neck. Do you accept the assignment?"

"I don’t know. The pack wants to go into battle; they may not want to let the rabbit live."

"Your honesty is refreshing," Night Flyer complimented him, truly impressed. "Do not worry. The rabbit travels with the rebels who murdered Gali in his own castle. Master Naga has no need for them: you may kill them instead. Will that satisfy your warriors?" Velvet didn’t reply, but a terrible grin slowly spread across his muzzle. Nodding curtly as an answer, he turned and bounded down the cliffside, leaving Night Flyer alone on the ledge. The hybrid didn’t mind his sudden departure; she knew he was eager to begin the mission. If his unit could kill the same rebels who had destroyed Gali and evaded Grey Wolf’s minions, then they would prove once and for all how powerful they truly were. Grey Wolf would be humiliated… From far below, the battle howls of the Terror Dogs drifted up to her on the wind. The hybrid looked up toward the stars, smiling at the sound. She was certain that the Terror Dogs would succeed. Her wings unfurled and bore her up into the sky. She had to return to the base now; Lord Naga was waiting for her.

* * * Chapter Four: Flames of Battle * * *

Hare took to his heels the instant he heard the growl behind him. Something black as midnight lunged at him, but he twisted away from their snapping jaws and darted back into the slight cover of the trees. The howls of the Terror Dogs filled his ears, betraying how close they were. Hare didn’t dare look back; he didn’t need to: he could hear them panting as their sleek bodies crashed into the underbrush after him.

Branches whipped into his face, and he threw his arms in front of him, running blindly through the forest. His heart pounded wildly, and he could barely breathe, but he couldn’t stop –or they would have him!

Aaahhhooooo! One of the Terror Dogs erupted from the underbrush with an explosion of leaves and twigs, leaping at his back. Hare felt the wolf monster’s hot breath on his neck, felt sharp teeth graze his fur, and screamed as he ducked away and thrashed into a thorn bush. The dog fell away, crying as thorns dug into its flesh. Stifling his own cry of pain as the sharp bristles tore into his own fur, Hare broke free of the bush and kept running, not bothering to see what had happened to the other monster.

I can’t run much longer, he thought grimly. If they catch up again, I’ll have to stand and fight. I’d rather die than be taken ba- "AAH!" Hare suddenly found himself screaming as the ground under his foot gave way, and he tumbled down. He landed hard, and a sharp crack sounded as white-hot pain lanced up his side. Groaning, the rabbit shook his head and stared up at the small opening a few feet above his head.

Of all the rotten times to run into a pit! This just hasn’t been my day. Hare tried to move around, and his worst fears were realized as he felt pain erupt up his side. His left leg was bent at an awkward angle, and he couldn’t move it without feeling intense agony. Biting back a scream, Hare glanced up at the opening above him. He couldn’t see any of his pursuers waiting at the top of the pit for him, and that gave him something positive to focus on even as he looked back at his useless leg.

Well, I’d better take care of this before they do find me. Hare placed both paws against his broken leg, ignoring the pain that contact caused. He closed his eyes and began to concentrate. Under his kerchief, something began to glow with a faint red light.

* * *

"Sir Velvet, please…help me…"

Velvet ignored the pathetic whimpering of the Terror Dog he had found caught up in a thorn bush, glaring at the injured monster with flashing crimson eyes. "Silence!" he howled. "How dare you let our quarry escape you?"

"Sir Velvet, I beg of you…"

"LIGHTNING!"

The death howl hung over the forest for a moment before slowly fading away.

"My warriors never beg," Velvet growled at the lost disc still caught in the thorn bush. Without another word, he whirled away, glaring at the other Terror Dogs. Some of them glanced over at the lost disc, but they quickly turned away and followed after their leader. Velvet sniffed at the air, trying to catch the scent of his prey once more. After a few moments, he turned and nodded for his pack to follow him. The pack slunk deeper into the forest, soon coming upon a gaping pit. Velvet paused, signaling his warriors to halt. Nose twitching, he crept up to the edge of the pit and peered in.

Sure enough, his quarry was there, sprawled out at the bottom of the hole. Velvet could smell blood, and figured that the rabbit had probably injured himself when he had fallen. A stroke of luck for him and his warriors, Velvet told himself.

Still, the wolf monster was in a bad mood. Night Flyer had claimed that their target was traveling with the rebels who had killed Moo, and his troops had been looking forward to killing those fools. But when they had found the rabbit, he had been alone, with no sign of the rebels anywhere. Since their orders specifically stated that the rabbit was to be brought to Master Naga alive, there was no way for his men to satisfy their lust for blood.

Peering into the hole once more, Velvet was about to spring in and drag the rabbit out when something made him stop. A strange aura had suddenly formed around the small monster’s body, and he seemed to be concentrating hard. His paws gently brushed up against his obviously broken leg, and Velvet felt his eyes widen in surprise as he watched a glow form around the rabbit’s paws.

It…can’t be. It’s impossible!

The glow faded, and the rabbit got shakily to his feet. Velvet stepped back from the edge of the pit, unable to believe what he had just witnessed.

The rabbit…had somehow healed his own wounds. He was standing on the same leg that should have been hanging limply beside him, useless. Somehow, he’d been able to mend the broken bones and his other wounds. No wonder Master Naga wants him alive. Velvet backed away from the edge of the hole, crimson eyes narrowing as he decided how best to deal with this new information. He signaled to his pack again, quietly ordering them to hide themselves nearby. Secreting himself in the shadows, Velvet watched the pit and waited for the rabbit to emerge from the hole. That was when the rabbit would be most off his guard: when he and his pack would strike.

* * *

"Hare! Hare, where are you?" Genki called, looking around him.

"Come on, please answer!" Holly pleaded.

Suezo scanned the trees, hoping that he would catch a glimpse of the rabbit. Or one of Tiger of the Wind, for that matter. The eyeball monster didn’t want to let the others know, but Tiger’s absence from the group bothered him almost as much as Hare’s sudden disappearance. It was no secret that the blue-furred monster wasn’t particularly fond of the rabbit, and Suezo feared what might happen if he found Hare before the others could. He could tell that Golem could sense his fear, and that the towering rock monster was just as worried by that possibility as he was.

"Do you see anything-chi?" Mocchi asked. Suezo whirled to look at the younger monster, startled to realize that he had been watching the eyeball monster the whole time.

"Uh…no," Suezo admitted, wincing to himself as he watched the pink monster’s eager face fall with disappointment.

"Oh." Mocchi turned away and gazed off into the surrounding trees, obviously upset.

"Hare! Hare, come on and say something!" Genki cried out again. The boy led the others deeper into the woods, still calling the rabbit’s name.

* * *

Tiger of the Wind glanced over in the direction where Genki’s voice was coming from. The boy and the others had to be nearby; they sounded like they were only a few miles away. Tiger snorted; even when he wasn’t traveling with them, he couldn’t get rid of that boy. Turning away from the sound, he brought his full attention back to the task at hand. He had managed to find Hare’s scent a few minutes after leaving the group, and had been following it for some time. The rabbit must have spent most of the day walking; the sun was already low in the sky, yet he hadn’t caught up to Hare. Still, the rabbit was probably tiring by now, and would have to stop for the night. That would be when Tiger would catch up to him. And what then? That was the part Tiger hadn’t quite figured out yet. While part of him wanted to tear the annoying rabbit limb from limb, another part held him back, telling him to wait. He couldn’t understand it: Hare was a complete annoyance, a worthless con artist who’d tricked him and the others before, a possible traitor who might work for Moo…If the rabbit died, it would be no big loss for them.

So why was it that he couldn’t shake the final image he had of the rabbit, right before he’d fled from the others? Hare’s face had been completely pale, and the sorrow Tiger had seen in those wide eyes had taken him off guard.

"I’m sorry, Genki."

Sorry for what? Tiger wondered. What could you possibly be sorry for? For betraying the group? Or is it something else? And…why do I care?

* * *

Nobody seems to be around, Hare thought as he carefully peeked out from the pit. His sharp eyes darted from tree to tree, trying to see anything out of the ordinary, and his ears twitched as he listened for any sort of noises. After a few moments, he carefully pulled himself out of the hole. Brushing the dirt from his fur, he glanced around one final time before turning to leave. A low growl rumbled from behind him, and Hare froze. As he whirled around, he caught a glimpse of midnight fur as a shadow surged toward him. Screaming, Hare lashed out with his foot, catching the monster right in shiny white teeth he didn’t want to think about. As it sprawled out, he turned to flee, heart beginning to race again. Something heavy and ebony-furred slammed into his back and pinned him to the dirt, and Hare screamed again, the cry cut short by the force of his hitting the ground. Hot breath washed over his face and he stared up into sharp fangs and glowing crimson eyes. He managed to scream one final time before darkness took him.

* * *

Tiger of the Wind froze as the terrified shriek came to his ears. At the same moment, he caught a whiff of other scents on the air: more monsters, and the stench of blood. The wolf monster surged into the forest, howling a battle cry.

* * *

Not far away, Genki also darted toward the cry, legs pumping as he skated deeper into the forest. Somewhere behind him, Holly screamed for him to slow down and Mocchi called his name, but he didn’t pay any attention to them. He could hear Golem come crashing into the trees after him, and hoped that the others would be able to keep up, because there was no way he was going to slow down now.

* * *

Velvet leered down at the rabbit pinned beneath him, amused by his fear. He couldn’t blame the thing for being frightened; that was why his kind was called Terror Dogs, was it not? The sound of the rabbit’s screams sent thrills through him: it had been far too long since he had heard a victim cry out in fear. Hopefully Master Naga would be pleased enough with his pack’s success to assign them more missions.

Hare stared up at Velvet, his breath coming in short gasps. One of his paws tightened around his kerchief, and the Terror Dog’s eyes narrowed. Suddenly the wolf monster lashed out, catching the side of Hare’s head with his paw. The rabbit slumped down, knocked out by the blow. Velvet looked once more at the rabbit sprawled out beneath him. He still wasn’t quite certain what he had witnessed earlier when he had looked into the pit, and he wasn’t entirely sure that he wanted to know. All that mattered to him was the fact that his mission was successful, and that he could report back to Naga confidant that the reptilian would be satisfied. Smirking, he stepped off of the unconscious rabbit’s chest and signaled his pack to get ready to depart. Suddenly Velvet heard one of his warriors cry out. He whirled just in time to see one of the guards near the forest collapse, electric energy pulsing around his charred form. The other Terror Dogs looked around wildly, scattering away from their fallen comrade so as not to fall victim to the hidden assailant. A growl rumbled from Velvet’s throat as he scanned the underbrush.

"Come out!" he ordered, energy already forming around his horns as he tensed for battle.

A howl pealed out of the forest in reply, and a blue blur erupted from the trees into the clearing. Lightning coursed out from the streak, and another warrior yelped as they stumbled to the ground. The blue streak dashed straight toward Velvet, and the Terror Dog unleashed his own lightning bolt upon it.

It connected. Velvet felt a rush of excitement as he heard a sharp cry, and the streak fell off course, slowing down enough for him to recognize it. The black-furred wolf grinned as he realized just who the attacker was.

Tiger of the Wind; rebel, thief, and elder brother to Master Grey Wolf himself. Velvet’s leering grin grew wider. How convenient: not only would his troops get the fight they longed for, but they would be also getting revenge on Grey Wolf in a sense.

"Kill him," he ordered his pack, moving toward the blue-furred monster even as he spoke. His warriors eagerly followed, spreading out in a circle around Tiger.

Tiger grimaced. He could feel something warm trickling down his back; that attack had done more damage than he had thought. It was painfully obvious to him just how bad things were: the Terror Dogs were out for blood, and far outnumbered him. Even if he managed to take out some of them, the others would swarm over his body. He risked a quick glance to his side. He could just make out Hare’s crumpled form lying a few feet away. A few of the Terror Dogs had positioned themselves nearby the rabbit, showing an unusual common sense. After all, it wouldn’t do to kill Tiger, only to have their real target escape. Not that it looked like Hare would be doing any escaping. The rabbit was unconscious, and Tiger quickly gave up on the notion that he might receive any help from him.

Tiger dropped into a battle crouch, a low growl rumbling in his throat. If this was the end for him, then he was going to go out fighting. With an odd feeling of detachment, he found himself wondering how many of the Terror Dogs he could take down before he would be overwhelmed…

Velvet moved first, springing toward Tiger with jaw gaping wide. Tiger leaped away, but he could feel the other’s claws rake across his side as he flashed past. Whirling around, the warrior of the wind called out for his lightning. Ebony fur sizzled, and three of the Terror Dogs yelped as they dodged backwards.

Fangs dug into Tiger’s tail; without hesitation he whirled and struck the attacker hard across the face, drawing blood. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see the others pressing in. He lashed out again and again, driving them back, but for each monster he forced away, three more moved in. He could smell the heavy stench of their sweat soaked fur; could sense their longing for his blood. The wound on his back throbbed with each move he made, a reminder of the limits of his body. As the Terror Dogs pressed in again, Tiger summoned his blizzard and knocked another wave backward for a few precious seconds.

"LIGHTNING!"

Tiger had not called that attack, and he cried out involuntarily as it ripped into his body. His front left leg took the full force of the blow, and it folded painfully beneath him, driving him to the ground. As the Terror Dogs surged forward, howling triumphantly, Tiger steeled himself for the killing blow.

"CHERRY BLOSSOM BLIZZARD-CHI!"

A curtain of soft pink petals swirled around the wolf monsters, blinding them. Tiger instantly recognized the voice and, despite the pain in his leg, grinned to himself. The Terror Dogs gazed around at the fluttering blossoms, all wearing the same expression of utter confusion.

"What the heck?" one of them asked. Velvet didn’t bother to answer his warrior; he was too busy scanning the forest for the attacker. Something small and pink suddenly came at him and smashed into his face. Velvet yelped and shook it off, forcing his eyes open again, and he sent his lightning after a tiny pink monster as it rolled into a ball and bounced away.

"I’m in the zone!" a loud voice called out, and hard wheels collided with Velvet’s face, sending him sprawling backwards. A young boy skated away from him and into the middle of his pack, calling, "Tiger!"

"I’m fine!" Tiger growled, crawling to his feet, ignoring the pain coursing through his leg. "You worry about yourself!"

Velvet whirled around and spotted a huge rock monster hovering over a young girl and an eyeball monster. The girl was on her knees next to the rabbit –near his captive! Howling in outrage, Velvet surged toward them, a few of his scattered warriors following after him. Most of his pack, however, was trying to deal with that kid and the pink monster, as well as trying to get away from the enraged Tiger. "Holly, look out!" Suezo warned as he spotted the monsters racing toward them. The eyeball monster summoned his courage and leapt to intercept them, calling out, "Tail Attack!"

Velvet ignored Suezo’s assault, meeting the eyeball’s attack with his own Torpedo. Holly shrieked as she saw her friend knocked backwards, and Velvet began to laugh at her. Sneering, the leader of the Terror Dogs motioned for the warriors behind him to break off and go deal with the injured eyeball.

"Suezo!" Genki cried, seeing the eyeball monster’s danger. The boy pivoted on his heel and skated toward him, Mocchi bouncing along beside him.

"Watch yourself!" Tiger warned, his lightning vaporizing a Terror Dog as it leaped to intercept the boy. His injured leg folded beneath him again, and he collapsed.

"Tiger!" Genki yelled, turning in time to see the blue-furred wolf stumble. "Suezo…" and he whirled to glance at the eyeball monster again as the Terror Dogs slowly closed in. The boy hesitated, not certain which of his friends needed his help more. Not far away, he could see the leader of the black-furred wolves slowly closing in on Holly, as Golem moved to intercept him.

Mocchi pressed close to Genki’s side, gazing up at his friend for guidance. There was no doubt in the little monster’s mind that his trainer knew how to save all of their friends from the baddies.

"Genki!" Holly cried out from behind Golem. "Help Suezo, please!"

Genki looked at her and nodded. With one last glance over at Tiger to assure himself that the blue wolf would be okay, he darted toward where Suezo lay unconscious. The boy slammed his fist into the gaping jaws of the Terror Dog closest to Suezo, and the others whirled to face him. Genki counted at least eight or nine of the monsters around the eyeball monster, a small part of the entire pack.

"Mocchi, use your blizzard!" he ordered. The young monster complied, and as the Terror Dogs tried to see through the swirling petals, he stumbled over to Suezo’s side. The eyeball monster was bleeding from a few wounds on his eyelid and knocked unconscious, but his breathing was steady and he was alive.

A yelp distracted Genki, and he spun around just in time to see Tiger of the Wind stumble to the ground again as the Terror Dogs swarmed over him. Genki screamed the blue wolf’s name, tears springing to his eyes, and he started striking back at the black-furred monsters blindly. Mocchi was beside him again, and the two struggled to hold back the baddies as they swarmed around them, trying to keep them away from the helpless Suezo.

Holly and Golem had seen Tiger fall too, and the girl stared over at the spot in blank horror. Golem pulled her and the unconscious Hare into his strong arms, lifting them away from the battle and immediate danger, but some of the Terror Dogs already snapped at his ankles, leaping up at his friends.

"Mocchi! Genki!" Holly screamed as the boy kicked away another attacker. She could tell that Genki and Mocchi were beginning to weaken under the ruthless assault, and Golem was already struggling to make his way over to them. Holly stared back at the spot where she had seen Tiger fall: she couldn’t make out his form under the Terror Dogs, but at least she didn’t see a mystery disc.

Genki cried out, and Holly whirled to look at him. One of the baddies had struck his arm, and she could see that the wound had reopened. The boy winced as blood began to seep from the gash once more, but refused to acknowledge just how much pain it put him in. Instead, Genki gritted his teeth and brought his fist down hard on another monster’s muzzle. Suezo needed his help now: he wouldn’t let his friend down!

"Genki!" Holly screamed again, almost falling out of Golem’s arms. The rock monster grunted and stumbled backwards, nearly collapsing under the continued assault from the Terror Dogs.

Too many… there’s just too many, Holly thought dully, clutching to the unconscious Hare to keep him from falling out of the temporary safety of Golem’s arms. As the monsters pressed in again, the girl bowed her head and waited for the end.

"…ly…Holly?"

The weak voice snapped Holly out of her despair, and she stared down at Hare as he stirred beside her. His eyes fluttered open, and he repeated her name softly, disbelieving.

"…Holly?"

"It’s me," Holly answered, reaching over to brush his cheek gently with her hand, relieved to see that he was at least conscious again. Genki cried out again, and Hare’s eyes snapped wide. The rabbit struggled to sit up, trying to see over Golem’s thick arms. Holly reached out to steady him, glancing worriedly over to where Genki and Mocchi were still fighting.

"No…" Hare breathed, seeing Suezo’s crumpled form behind the two. He looked over at Holly with wide eyes and said, "Tiger…Where’s Tiger?"

"Hare…" Holly started slowly, her gaze drifting against her will to where she had seen Tiger collapse. Hare stared at her uncomprehendingly for a moment, then tried to right himself again, slumping against Golem’s supporting hands. Holly reached out for him again, saying, "Don’t…you’re hurt…"

"Holly, forget about me," Hare said, a sudden steeliness coming into his voice that Holly had never heard before. "Let me do this, or they’ll die."

Taken aback, Holly stepped backward, and both she and Golem stared blankly at the rabbit as he got to his feet. Hare looked at them for a moment, and Holly got the strange feeling that he was asking them to forgive him. Then he turned his back on them, and made a strange movement with his paws.

Something flashed an intense red under his kerchief, and a blazing crimson aura flared up around him. Holly and Golem stared at the sight, completely spellbound.

"What?" Velvet howled, whirling to stare at the rabbit. All around him, his warriors stopped fighting and gazed over at Hare. Genki felt Mocchi grab onto his hand, and glanced down at the little monster. He looked absolutely horrified: this blazing monster bore little resemblance to their friend. The boy returned the tight grip and stared over with a mixed sense of wonder and terror. From within the blazing red aura, Hare smirked sadly to himself. Looks like they ended up learning about my little secret after all. He raised his arms and gave a silent command, then the crimson blaze swept over the entire area in a flash of red flame.

Genki shielded his eyes from the intense light with his injured arm, still clinging to Mocchi’s hand. The light flashed as brightly as the sun for a few moments, then faded to a warm glow. Genki slowly moved his arm away from his face and stared around the clearing, stunned to silence.

All of the Terror Dogs were gone, transformed into lost discs. Mocchi clung to his hand, staring around in astonishment. Behind him, Suezo groaned softly and opened his eye. A few paces away, he could see Tiger of the Wind slowly getting to his feet, golden eyes betraying his surprise at surviving the assault. Holly and Golem were looking at Hare in quiet awe.

The aura around Hare dimmed, fading to a soft glow from beneath his kerchief. The rabbit seemed to look directly at Genki for a moment, then gasped and collapsed, his energy spent. Golem jerked forward and carefully supported Hare’s limp body, lifting him from the ground and taking him gently in his arms. The rock monster looked at the others, and they exchanged wondering glances. Genki stared at Hare’s unconscious body, suddenly frightened.

* * * Chapter Five: Illusions Revealed * * *

Genki stared up into the night sky, his eyes drawn to the stars. At least this night it was clear outside, and he could see the stars glittering far above them. Nearby, Holly was coaxing the fire into full blaze, and the sparks leaped into the air, as if trying to become stars themselves.

Mocchi sighed, snuggling up against Genki’s side, and the boy draped one arm around the pink monster. He looked down at his little monster and smiled, remembering how brave he had been earlier. His smile faded, and he gazed around at the others, reminded of just how close they had come to defeat.

Suezo was curled up next to Holly, trying to help her with the fire. His back had been bandaged up, a reminder of how badly he had been injured during the fight. He hadn’t strayed far from Holly’s side after that.

Tiger of the Wind was on the edge of the group, as always. His back was turned to everybody else in the clearing, and he stared out at the dark forest with glittering golden eyes. He had only allowed Holly to bandage his leg, which had been fried during the battle, and only after arguing with the others about how serious it was. Golem was sitting some distance from the fire, carefully cradling something in his massive arms. Genki knew that the rock monster was looking after Hare, who had fainted right after the fight had ended… Shaking his head, Genki turned back to the fire, its flames reminding him of what had happened earlier. He kept wondering just what was going on lately. First Tiger had gone paranoid on them, and Hare had run away from them, apparently because of what the blue wolf had said. From that point on the entire day had been like a dream, and Genki had gone through in a sort of daze, half convinced that everything that was happening was some sort of nightmare.

A soft noise caught his attention, and Genki turned to see that Golem had moved. Everyone else turned to watch as he walked over to the group and sat down. Hare slowly crawled out of the rock monster’s hands and stepped into the light of the campfire, looking around slowly at the others.

"I guess I owe you guys some sort of explanation," he said, his voice almost a whisper as he sat down across from Genki. His face looked tight and drawn, and he seemed to be close to tears. He smiled wistfully, adding, "I wish that I could tell you this was just another one of my tricks, but…" He faltered.

Genki couldn’t take it any longer. "Hare, what’s going on? Why were those baddies after you? And why did you run away from us? And what…what happened during the fight?" His questions trailed off, leaving an awkward silence.

"Never heard the saying, ‘One thing at a time,’ huh, Genki?" Hare quipped, smiling slightly. "But it’s alright. I’ll try to explain everything."

Hare took a shuddering breath, then began his story.

"I’m certain you guys overheard what the golem said to me when he attacked this morning. Yes, I do know about the last of the Big Bad Four…about Naga." Hare shuddered, his eyes darkening. "You have to believe me when I say that there has never been a more cruel monster unlocked. I don’t think that even Moo himself could be as evil as Naga is. At least Moo fights because that’s all he’s ever really known how to do. But Naga fights for pure enjoyment. He enjoys death…" Hare shivered again, clutching his kerchief tightly for a moment, and Golem gently reached down and brushed the rabbit’s fur with his massive hand. Hare turned and smiled up at the other monster for a moment, then turned back to the others and continued.

"When I was very little…no older than Mocchi is, really…Naga attacked my village." Hare stared into the fire, holding back tears as he said in a bare whisper, "He just appeared one night and started destroying everything. He had his troops set all the buildings set ablaze, and murdered the people and monsters as they fled. He didn’t spare anything."

Holly reached over to Suezo and gently wrapped her arms around him, her eyes distant, and even Genki could tell that they were thinking about the destruction of their own home. Mocchi pressed against his own side and looked up at him for reassurance.

"The only reason that I survived was because my parents forced me to hide in a shelter they had been working on," Hare went on, slowly. "They had been hearing rumors of Moo’s revival, and had been building a hiding place under the house. But they’d barely started on it…it was just a small hole in the ground, covered by some rocks. They…told me to stay in there until one of them came back for me…"

His voice trailed off again, and he took a shuddering breath before he managed, "But neither of them came back. I waited in that stupid hole for them, believing that one of them would come for me soon. I could hear…all sort of horrible things above where I was hiding. All the screaming…after a while, it finally died out. I was terrified, and I couldn’t take hiding any longer. I had to find out what had happened."

The fire sent shadows dancing across Hare’s face. Genki realized that he was leaning forward to catch the soft words.

"When I climbed out of that hole, I saw Hell," Hare said bluntly. "The entire village had been burned down…I was standing in the ruins of my own house. Everything was gone: all the flowers and grass, and all the buildings were just gone. The trees looked like black skeletons, reaching toward a blood-red sky…And everyone was dead. I…I saw their bodies scattered in the streets…the people and monsters I lived with…I saw their charred bodies and lost discs everywhere. He killed everyone…"

"That’s when I saw him," Hare continued, his voice suddenly icy. "Naga was there, standing in the center of the village, in what had been the town square. And he was laughing…he was laughing! When he destroyed the town…and murdering all those monsters and people…he was enjoying himself! He…" Hare burst into tears, unable to continue. Golem stroked the rabbit’s fur again with an infinitely gentle touch. Hare sobbed for a moment, then managed to regain control.

"When I saw that…when I saw that he was having a good time while destroying everything I’d ever known…I snapped. There’s no other way to put it. I knew that he was to blame for what had happened to my home, and I wanted him dead. I’d never wanted to see anything hurt before, but I wanted this monster to die. I needed to make him pay for what he’d done."

"So I attacked him," Hare went on, looking back up at the others as he spoke. "I just leaped at him and punched him in that ugly face of his. I knew I was going to die, but I went ahead and attacked him anyway. I just didn’t care anymore. All that mattered was making him pay…"

"Whoa…" Suezo let out the breath he hadn’t even realized he had been holding. He stared at Hare. "But…wouldn’t you be…"

Hare laughed, but it was a rueful, mocking laugh, one that seemed strange coming from the normally cheerful rabbit. Not that he bore much resemblance to the Hare they all knew, staring into the flames with such a resigned look on his face.

"No, as you can see, he didn’t kill me," he muttered, "though I wish he had. He just picked me up by the back of my neck and looked at me strange for a moment. I guess he hadn’t expected any survivors, and especially not some runty little monster child angry enough to attack him. He stared at me, and then started laughing again, that same horrible laugh. He said, ‘Well now, what’s this we have here? Some little rabbit who escaped the flames and attacks the warrior?’ He laughed again, and asked, ‘What’s your name, little rabbit?’ I tried to kick him again, and he just held me away from his body and laughed again. I wanted to kill him for laughing."

" ‘Well, you have spunk, don’t you?’ he asked. ‘That’s good for you, little one, and a very good quality in a weak child.’ He held me away from his body, laughing as I tried to hit him, then added, ‘I think I’ll keep you around for a while. You amuse me.’ And then he pinned me down and had some of his henchmen make a cage, and they took me away."

"Did he…" Holly began.

"No, he didn’t have Moo turn me into a baddie," Hare answered her question. "Naga didn’t view me as any sort of threat or as a fighter: I was just some little child that amused him. He treated me like some sort of toy. He had a chain and collar fashioned for me, and whenever he wanted to have some fun with me, he just yanked on the chain and pulled me along. Mostly he enjoyed just laughing at me; he thought it was funny how I tried to resist him and kept trying to hurt him. Sometimes he had me fetch things for him, little things like maps or drinks, always keeping hold of that chain."

"Oh, he didn’t let me get away with everything," Hare continued. "If I stepped too far out of line, he was always ready to beat me up. One time I slipped a sleeping potion I’d managed to scrape together from a few herbs into his wine. He figured out what I’d done, somehow, and fooled me into believing that he’d taken it. He grabbed me that night just as I was sneaking by him. Beat me within an inch of my life that time. I suppose I was lucky, in a way," he added, bitterly. "He could have killed me whenever he wanted, but he always kept me alive, although sometimes just barely. Guess my attempts to get free just amused him too much."

"But you escaped somehow, is that it?" Holly asked.

"Uh huh." Hare shivered and drew closer to the fire. "You see, Naga’s not as loyal to Moo as he acts. He pretends fealty, but is actually planning to murder Moo and take over leading the baddies." He paused as Holly gasped softly, then went on with his story. "So Naga is always looking for a way to overthrow his power. He even considered looking for the phoenix once, but decided he didn’t want to risk being caught. So instead, he tried looking into other promising methods. And he found one, too."

"What?" Genki wondered aloud.

"He found the Phoenix’s Tear," Hare replied, and reached up to his kerchief. He undid the knot and let the red fabric fall to the ground, and Genki and the others stared in amazement. Hung on a simple cord around the rabbit’s neck was a crystal that shone a faint red. In the light of the campfire, it shimmered with an almost prismatic effect, showing shades of faintest blue through the soft red glow.

Holly absently gripped her Magic Stone. The crystal looked a little like her own, but was smaller and had more of a teardrop shape to it. Plus there was the fact that this pendant continued to glow faintly, as if it had a life of its own, while the Magic Stone only glowed while she was using it.

"That’s…the Phoenix’s Tear, I take it?" Suezo said more than asked, mesmerized by the crystal.

"Yes," Hare confirmed, playing idly with the cord, "this is the Phoenix’s Tear. According to the legends my parents told me, this is a crystallized tear shed by the Phoenix in her grief over the bloodshed Moo caused all those years ago. When its powers are used properly, the bearer can use any sort of monster attack, even ones they couldn’t normally learn. It also helps monsters that are near it learn their own attacks faster, and increases the strength of the ones they already know. The one who controls its power can even use magic unlike any that any type of monster can use…but there’s a problem."

"What?" Genki blurted.

"Most monsters have no control over the Phoenix’s Tear or its powers. Only a few rare individuals can use it, and thankfully Naga isn’t one of them. I remember how hard he tried to command it the night he found it, without any luck whatsoever. He finally gave up and threw it down, then went to sleep in a rage."

"But you can use it, can’t you?" Genki said, staring at Hare as if seeing him for the first time.

Hare nodded. "I don’t know how…I’m not sure what makes me able to use it, when Naga can’t…I just can. At any rate, after he fell asleep, I decided to see the crystal for myself. I’m not certain why…I guess I just wanted to see the thing that Naga was getting so enraged over. I picked it up from the floor, and suddenly it flared into bright red light. It nearly blinded me, but I saw Naga wake up and stare at me, with the strangest look on his face. He wasn’t upset or scared…triumph."

"Huh?" Genki stared at him.

"Triumph. That’s what I saw. He saw that I could use the Phoenix’s Tear, and he was ecstatic." Hare trembled with the thought. "He knew he could control me, so he probably figured that he would control the Tear’s powers through me. He reached out for me, and I remember wishing that I were somewhere far away from his reach. Then the Tear flashed even brighter, and he just vanished. I suppose I triggered a Teleport, just like a Suezo does," he added with a faint grin over at Suezo.

Despite the tension in the clearing, Genki laughed at that, and Holly giggled quietly. Suezo just rolled his eye.

"So you took the Tear and escaped from Naga," Golem said solemnly. Hare nodded again, looking up at the rock monster. "I had no idea what had happened or where I was," he continued, "just that I had apparently gotten my wish. I was ecstatic for a while, but then I realized that I was lost, alone, and was probably going to be hunted down by Naga and his soldiers. I didn’t want to go back, so I started traveling. I didn’t know where I was or where I was headed, I just knew that I couldn’t let myself be captured again."

He played with his pendant while he added, "After a while, I started to understand more of the Tear's abilities. Since my having it causes it to glow, I decided to hide it by wearing it around my neck like this and hiding it under my kerchief. That way, I thought I wouldn’t be so easy to spot. And I figured out another way to disguise who I was…"

His voice trailed off, and he glanced at the others carefully, hesitating. They looked stunned enough as it was with his story; could he really tell them the whole truth?

Go on, it’s not like it matters now anyway. Might as well tell them everything. Taking a deep breath, Hare looked around at his friends one last time and went on.

"There’s one other thing that the Phoenix’s Tear can do," he said. "The bearer can use it to…alter his or her own appearance. I decided that the best way to throw Naga’s troops off my trail was to make myself look like an adult, instead of only being a child…a ‘little rabbit’. I used…am using…the Tear to make myself appear to be much older than I really am."

He looked back into the flames of the campfire to avoid the stares of the others. He could especially feel Tiger’s golden eyes burning into him. He felt tears come to his eyes and stubbornly held them back, not wanting to break down.

"You mean…you’re a…" Suezo stammered.

Hare looked up at him, meeting his gaze almost defiantly. "I’m a kid, yes," he replied, struggling not to cry. "I thought that if I looked older, that others would respect me more. You have no idea what it was like for me at first, after I escaped from Naga. Nobody ever paid any attention to me or let me do anything, just blew me off completely because I was a child, just a silly kid with no real worth to anybody. But once I became an adult, so to speak, they gave me a little more respect. They even let me enter a tournament for the first time in my life. You have no idea how that made me feel, to know that they saw me as strong enough to fight for once!"

"A tournament?" Holly asked, suddenly realizing what Hare was referring to.

"That’s where I met up with you guys, as I’m sure you’ll remember," Hare confirmed, glancing over at Tiger as if expecting some sort of comment. When none came, he sighed and continued, "I really am sorry about how I treated you guys back then. I wanted to win no matter what, and then afterwards I started feeling really cocky, like my becoming an adult had made me invincible or something. Then, after I tricked you guys and Tiger caught up with me, I thought I was going to die. But…he saved my life. He could have killed me, but he saved me instead. Then, when you said you were going after the Phoenix…I don’t know. I just felt like I had to go with you."

"Why?" Holly asked gently.

"I just had to. When I saw how determined you guys were…I just felt that I needed to go with you. I thought that I might be able to help out…both with my plans and the Phoenix’s Tear."

"Then why didn’t you tell us all this before?" Holly asked. Hare looked over at her, and she could see how close he was to tears. "Because I knew you’d never believe me," he answered. "I wanted to, at first…but then I thought that if you knew about who I really was…that I was just a little kid, and a fugitive from one of Moo’s generals…then you’d tell me to leave. I didn’t want to get turned away…so I just kept it hidden. I kind of figured that it wouldn’t matter anyway…I thought that Naga would never be able to find me. After all, how could he possibly think that the weak little rabbit that got away from him might be traveling with a bunch of rebels?" Even Genki fell silent at that, and Hare started fidgeting with his pendant again, avoiding the eyes of the others.

"So now you know," he said quietly. "I thought…I hoped that I was done with Naga forever, but I know now that I was wrong. Naga will never rest until I’ve been recaptured and brought back to him."

"What will happen if you’re caught?" Genki asked, almost against his will.

Hare stared back into the flames. "I’ll become his slave…his ‘little rabbit’ once more."

A silence fell over the clearing, and Genki struggled to sort out everything Hare had told them. The rabbit had always been a little unpredictable, but this –this was impossible. Emotions clashed in his heart. Sorrow that Hare had felt such pain. Anger at Naga for continuing to haunt him and dog his footsteps. Fear that the rabbit might be attacked again at any moment. But most of all, he was extremely confused. Was everything that he knew about Hare before a complete lie? Had everything been an act, an illusion kept up by the rabbit to hide from Naga?

Hare got to his feet, his jaw set, a deep sorrow in his eyes. "I’m sorry about lying to you for so long. I…I understand if you want me to leave…" He turned to gather his things.

"Hare, don’t–" Holly started to protest, half-rising, but Hare avoided her pleading gaze.

"Hare, we don’t want you to leave," Genki said firmly, standing. Hare did look at him, although not straight in the eyes. "Listen to me, Hare: I don’t want you to go, and neither do any of the others." "I know one monster who won’t be upset to see me go," Hare muttered, glancing at Tiger. The blue-furred wolf didn’t bother to answer that, staring into the forest as if expecting an enemy to appear. "Hare, stop," Genki repeated, stepping past the fire and seizing the rabbit’s shoulders, forcing Hare to look him straight in the eyes. "I don’t care about what happened to you before; you’re my friend now, and nothing will ever change that. Nothing." Hare hesitated, then looked back up at Genki with a glimmer of hope in his eyes.

"There’s no need for illusions anymore," Genki told him, releasing his shoulders and stepping back. He glanced at the others. "Right, guys?"

"Right," Holly affirmed with a nod and a grin. Suezo mirrored her smile with a grin of his own. Golem nodded silent approval, while Mocchi echoed Genki: "No need-chi!"

Hare looked at the others and smiled, a little sadly. He gripped the crystal firmly with one paw, and for a moment his form shimmered and changed. When the light dimmed, the group was staring at a much younger-looking rabbit, which didn’t appear to be much older than Mocchi. He looked around at his friends, a little timidly and uncertain.

Mocchi walked up to Hare, his face a mask of curiosity. The rabbit was about the same size as him now, and the pink monster looked straight into his eyes. "Is that you-chi?" he asked. Hare nodded mutely, still clutching at the crystal. Mocchi stared at him a moment longer, then his face broke into a grin.

"You’re about my age, aren’t you?" he trilled excitedly. "This’ll be fun!"

Hare smiled at that, and glanced around at the others, who all seemed to be taking this better than he had hoped for. His smile slowly grew wider, and he actually started laughing, caught up by Mocchi’s enthusiasm. Golem handed him his kerchief, and he tied it back around his neck, letting its folds cover the Phoenix’s Tear once more. Then Mocchi grabbed his paws and started dancing around with him, and the rabbit gave in to the pink monster’s excitement, and kept laughing.

* * *

The crescent moon had risen well above the treetops, but Genki remained awake. The boy gazed around the clearing at his friends again, seeing their sleeping forms easily by the light of the flickering campfire.

Mocchi was curled up against his side again, a familiar presence. The little pink monster’s face showed his contentment, and Genki smiled down at his friend, leaning into him.

Holly and Suezo had fallen asleep leaning against one another. Holly’s head rested on Suezo’s leg, and the eyeball monster leaned protectively over her. There was no sign of the injuries he had suffered earlier from the fight, thanks to Holly’s medical skills. Genki’s gaze drifted to Golem and Hare. The rock monster had lifted the little rabbit off the ground after he had fallen asleep. The rabbit had to have been exhausted from all that had happened that day. Genki shook his head in disbelief: it would definitely take a while for them to adjust to everything that had been revealed. Still, Genki believed that everything would work out eventually.

"Still awake, kid?"

Genki turned to look at Tiger, who was watching him with those dark golden eyes. The blue-furred wolf’s gaze shifted over to the sleeping Hare, then back to Genki.

"Wondering what you’re going to do about him now, huh?" he asked.

"What are you talking about, Tiger?" Genki laughed, winking at the blue wolf. "You already know what we’re going to do tomorrow: we’re going to keep looking for the Phoenix, just like we always do."

"Oh?" Tiger’s voice sounded faintly mocking to Genki. "You know we’ll have to go after Naga sooner or later. What happens then?"

Genki hesitated, and gazed back at Hare. After a while, he turned back to Tiger and opened his mouth to answer, only to see that the blue wolf seemed to have fallen asleep. "Tiger…?"

No answer came. Genki stared back into the flickering campfire for a long while, as the night gathered around him. An image seemed to appear in the flames, of a slithering reptilian with glowing yellow eyes hovering over the ruins of a village. He shuddered.

"I’ll never let Naga hurt you again, Hare," he whispered to the sleeping rabbit. "Never."

Tiger of the Wind watched the boy through narrowed eyes, tiny golden slits that caught and reflected the firelight.