"Um…what should I do with this?"
Genki and Holly both turned to look at Suezo, and the eyeball monster blanched a little bit as he saw the two humans pale slightly at the sight of what he was holding. Eye downcast, he tried to avoid looking directly at the small pink bundle he had found, still dangling on the end of its pole. Mocchi took one look at it and nearly burst into tears, and the small pink monster quickly buried its face in Golem’s leg. The stone giant gazed sadly down at his friends, soft gray eyes misting with barely contained tears. Tiger said nothing; he just turned away from the others and waited to hear their decision.
Holly slowly walked up to Suezo and gently freed the small bundle from its pole. Cradling it in her arms like a child, she turned pleading chestnut eyes to Genki. The youth looked away for a few moments, uncannily silent. Nobody could find the words to speak. Finally, the boy cleared his throat.
"Let’s keep it safe," he told her, raising shimmering clear eyes to hold her own. "Once the Phoenix rises…we can give it back…okay?" He smiled, a little shakily, then turned away. Holly nodded quietly, and Suezo helped her carefully store the bundle in the green parcel he kept on his own back.
The six remaining searchers then continued their quest in silence, following Tiger of the Wind as he traced a path through the hills. They deliberately chose not to pass through the same valley where they had been earlier.
* * *
"Big Blue, are you certain that the rebels headed this direction?"
The ice giant glanced at the shapely monster that was perched on his shoulder with an almost hurt expression on his face. "Yes, Master Pixie," he replied. "You yourself said that they would probably head toward Naga’s castle after defeating Grey Wolf, and this is one of the most direct paths. Plus, the information we received from those Suezo-types seemed to indicate that they were using this road."
"Humph." Pixie looked away and irritably pushed wet red bangs away from her flashing gray eyes. Glaring up at the overcast sky, she mumbled, "Stupid rain."
Big Blue didn’t reply; he understood his master well enough to know that her anger was not caused by the frigid drops that pelted the two travelers. It was obvious enough to him why she was so upset: their search for the small band of rebels was not going well. The red-haired female monster was hoping to intercept the searchers and warn them about the terrible events they had witnessed, preferably before they ended up finding out the hard way.
Pixie stood up, and her leathery wings stretched out behind her. Shaking them a few times to dry them off as best she could, she leaped from Big Blue’s shoulder and into the air. The ice giant silently sighed in relief as her wet wings beat against the wind, lifting her above the ground, and he shook his head in exasperation. Despite his warning her not to risk flying when the weather was like this, she still insisted on trying it time and again. Not that he could do anything to keep her from doing it, of course. After all, she was still his master; even if they had long since turned their backs on the army that had assigned him to work under her command. Pixie could still do as she damned well pleased, even if it meant that she risked having her wings suddenly fail on her during a flight through the rain and plummeting back down to the ground.
But Big Blue would always be there to catch her if she did fall. The ice giant kept a wary eye on her as she swept through the air, fighting the wind to get a better view of their surroundings. Pixie squinted down below her, a frown creasing her ruby lips as she noticed the remains of what once might have been a town a little ways down the path.
"Looks like you were right, Big Blue," she called as she swooped back to the safety of her perch on his shoulder. Pointing ahead, she continued, "There, ahead of us. Do you see it?"
"Hai," Big Blue replied, shielding his eyes from the rain with one massive hand as he looked through the pouring rain. "Naga was never one to leave a village alone for long."
Pixie nodded solemnly, her gray eyes darkening as the comment brought back painful memories. Shaking her head as if to clear out the terrible thoughts, she said, "Move in closer, Big Blue. We might be able to find shelter there."
Big Blue didn’t bother to add anything else to that comment. He knew that his master wasn’t hoping to find shelter for themselves as much as she was hoping to find the other rebels holed up somewhere in the ruins. That part went without saying, and the ice giant plodded down toward the remains of the village, Pixie sitting on his shoulder.
Unfortunately, the two quickly realized that they wouldn’t be finding much at this abandoned ruin. The buildings lay in shambles, and the entire place looked like it had been blasted to pieces. The rain-soaked dirt was charred to blackness, like massive flames had swept over the ground and burned away even the slightest trace of anything living. Pixie shook her head in exasperation, her gray eyes colder than steel. Leather wings churned the air again as she swept from Big Blue’s shoulder and into the sky, and the ice giant watched her slender form swoop and twist as she scanned the area for any signs of life.
Something flickered at the edge of his vision, and Big Blue turned to glance curiously toward where it seemed to be coming from. Had it been his imagination, or had he really seen something glowing like flames nearby? The ice giant scanned the area, squinting hard to see through the rain that kept pouring down like a wet curtain, hampering his view.
There! – That same light again! Big Blue’s eyes narrowed as he glared in the direction where the light had come from. It was impossible, of course, for the searchers to have gotten a campfire going in this torrent, but something was causing that flickering shine, and he had to see what it was. The ice giant stomped forward, keeping his eyes trained on the ground, searching for anything out of the ordinary…Suddenly his eyes widened in shock.
"Master Pixie!" Pixie instantly recognized a note of shock in his voice, and every muscle in her lean body tensed as she swooped over to his side. Energy sparkled around her gesturing fingers, and she readied her attack, just in case. However, she noticed as she swept up beside the blue giant that he wasn’t in a fighting stance. Instead, his arms hung loosely at his sides, and a strange expression tugged at his normally stoic features. Pixie followed his gaze over to the ruins of a stone wall, and her energy ball abruptly vanished from her hands, forgotten as what her loyal servant had noticed first arrested her attention.
"Oh Goddess," she heard herself breathe. It was almost a prayer.
Leaning against the scorched, fallen stone wall was a small, brown-furred figure. A ripped bandanna hung in tatters around the little rabbit-like monster’s neck, half-covering a crystalline Tear that seemed to shine with an inner light.
The rain intensified, and cold drops soaked Pixie’s flame red hair and rolled down into her face, completely unnoticed by her as she stared blankly down at the unconscious rabbit. After a few moments, she glanced briefly up at her companion, who exchanged a confused and fearful look with her.
* * *
"What the hell is he doing here by himself?"
Big Blue shook his head, watching his master as she paced the length of the cave they had finally located and taken refuge in. Outside, the storm rumbled as it gained force, and raindrops pelted the ground at the entrance with growing intensity. Pixie’s eyes flashed like the crashing lightning outside, and she kept glancing over at the small figure huddled close to where the ice giant sat. Each time she glanced in the rabbit’s direction, her mood seemed to worsen.
"That kid and his idiot team would never leave one of their friends behind," she muttered, biting her lip briefly. "So what the hell was he doing off by himself?"
Big Blue didn’t answer her; he couldn’t tell her anything, and she knew it. He understood that his master was actually arguing with herself, in a sense; he knew she had her own theory on why the rabbit was alone, and they both knew it. Both of them had seen the cluster of lost discs near where they had discovered the unconscious Hare…
But humans do not turn into lost discs when they die, the ice giant’s mind repeated. That little face was enabling him to keep some hope; if the searchers had all been wiped out, then they would have found the bodies of the boy and the girl somewhere nearby. Of course, there was always the notion that the two humans might have escaped somehow, but that seemed unlikely. If something was able to wipe out monsters that easily, then a couple of pitiful humans would prove to be no challenge. Morbid, yes, and maybe a little biased in nature, but probably truthful all the same.
Pixie hissed slightly in annoyance, and she glared over at the unconscious Hare again. "He’d better be able to tell us something after he wakes up," she muttered, sitting down between the rabbit and Big Blue.
And let’s hope the news isn’t what I think it is, she added silently.
* * *
An all-consuming fire, welling from some unknown source deep within, raging out to strike against the darkness that descended like an inky veil upon the world.
A power so strong that it could lie waste to anything and everything that stood in its wielder’s way. Something that could both preserve life and burn it to nothingness, all at the whim of its controller.
Images, flashing through his mind with the speed of raging fire. Scenes of peace and chaos alike, blending together until indistinguishable from one another. A cheery blaze, giving warmth to the small group huddled around it. A town set ablaze, the buildings crumbling and collapsing as those trapped within writhed and burned. Soft candlelight, flickering over the relaxed face of a sleeping child. A torrent of flames rushing over the battlefield, leaving behind scores of charred lost discs in its wake.
It was both frightening and exhilarating at the same time. Perhaps the fact that it excited the watcher was also the scariest part of it all.
* * *
"…ake up, damnit!"
"…ster Pixie, he ma… …le to hear you…"
A soft groan, the brief flicker of eyelids stirring.
"…o, he can hear me. See, Big Bl… …king up."
"…ight, Master Pix…"
Feeling slowly coming back, as one begins to become aware of one’s being seized by the shoulders and shaken violently. Again there was the brief glimpse of light as eyes slowly attempted to open, and Hare groaned again as his vision blurred. Two forms hovered above him; one a scarlet streak that was dwarfed by the larger, ice bluish mass that stirred behind it. Wavering brown eyes slowly began to regain focus, and details sharpened into the features of a pair of frowning faces.
"…Pixie? Big Blue?" Confusion followed that realization: what were the two former baddies doing here? Just where were the others?… Then Hare suddenly remembered, and his eyes shot open as he gasped in shock, sitting upright. He stared at the two, and Pixie frowned in confusion at the expression on his face.
What the…? Well, he certainly doesn’t look all that thrilled to see us, she thought. Brushing stubborn red locks out of her face, she narrowed her gray eyes slightly as she demanded curtly, "What’s going on? What happened?"
Hare seemed unable to answer: instead the rabbit shrank back slightly and stared at the female monster, obviously unnerved by her appearance. His wide brown eyes shone with a strange emotion Pixie thought looked a little like guilt. Guilt, and an almost overpowering fear. Despite herself, Pixie began to feel a genuine alarm rise from somewhere within her.
"What happened?" she repeated, her flashing gray eyes intense. Hare flinched back again, his gaze fixed on her and Big Blue. Realizing that she wasn’t getting anywhere, she decided to ask in a different way. Forcing herself to put her worst fears into words, she asked, "Were the other searchers killed?"
That got a reaction. Hare snapped his head up and stared at the two, his brown eyes wide with a barely contained horror. He shook his head violently, and nearly shouted, "NO! They didn’t die! I know, ‘cause I sent them away before the blast hit. I was the one…" He paused abruptly, and suddenly seemed to find something very interesting about the dirt beneath him, as his wavering eyes tore away from the two ex-baddies’ faces and locked onto the ground. Dark brown fur fell in bangs over his face, masking his expression as he mumbled something. Pixie unconsciously strained to hear the soft whisper.
"…I was the one who was supposed to die."
Pixie jerked as if she had been slapped. "What did you just say?" she demanded. When Hare refused to respond, she glanced over at Big Blue, her gray eyes questioning the ice giant if he had overheard the same thing she had. Big Blue stared down at her and nodded his head slightly, and the two looked back toward the little rabbit. He avoiding looking directly at them, studying the ground instead as he hugged his knees to his chest. The Phoenix’s Tear shimmered slightly under his torn bandanna, and he absently grasped it with one paw.
"What the hell is going on here?" Pixie muttered, gray eyes narrowing thoughtfully as she studied the little rabbit, trying to figure out what was happening. Deciding to try a different tactic to gather information, she stretched out almost nonchalantly as she said, "Well, even if your friends did get away, they’re not exactly safe right now." Hare raised his gaze to her again, and she continued, "I’ve been spying on Moo while Big Blue was researching the Phoenix, and I’ve got some bad news."
"Moo’s about to unite with his ancient body," Hare interrupted. Pixie nearly toppled over when she heard that, and her gray eyes had nearly doubled in size as she swung to stare at the rabbit.
"How the hell did you know that?" she demanded. Hare looked back down at the ground, and for a moment made no reply. Pixie had to keep herself from stomping over and strangling the little rabbit, until she suddenly realized that he was talking to her, although his voice was very soft.
"…It’s ‘cause of the Phoenix’s Tear. Lately…" Hare paused, grasping for the right words to describe what had been happening to him. "Lately…I’ve started to see Moo’s ancient body in my dreams. It’s one of the powers of the Phoenix’s Tear…it gives me dreams…visions of what might happen in the future. It makes me see…not the future exactly…but more like probabilities…what is likely to happen in the near future. Like the incident with Grey Wolf…"
He trailed off, and Pixie found herself leaning forward slightly. "What incident?" she heard her own voice ask, tinged with curiosity. She had heard the news that Grey Wolf had been defeated, of course, but never exactly how it had happened. Hare sighed, but didn’t look away from her face.
"Well…" he started, hesitantly, "Basically, after Tiger ran off to face Grey Wolf alone, I had a dream about them fighting." He paused, shuddering violently before he was able to get out, "In that vision, Tiger…he died. Grey Wolf killed him. Then later…when we got to Grey Wolf’s fortress, I suddenly remembered it from my dream. I knew the path to the main room, ‘cause I’d had to get there by walking through the castle in the dream. Because I knew the way…we were able to save Tiger’s life. But that wasn’t the worst of it…"
Suddenly Hare found himself blurting out the entire story of what had happened at Grey Wolf’s fortress, of the Cabalos capturing three of his friends and holding them hostage…the gritty realism of his vision of Tiger’s death…and who ‘Grey Wolf’ had turned out to be, and what he had revealed. Pixie and Big Blue seemed most shocked by this news, and Pixie’s eyes hardened to steel as the rabbit spoke of Naga’s plotting.
"So…that’s what he meant," she hissed. Hare and Big Blue looked at her, startled, and the female monster said, "About five days or so before you and your rebel friends showed up in my territory, Naga visited my fortress for a short time. He was escorted by some hybrid pixie he called Night Flyer; she was so subservient that she made me sick just watching her. I won’t give you all the details, but he essentially made it very clear to me that he was planning something big, and didn’t want me interfering. I didn’t give him a straight reply, since he didn’t give me a full idea of what he was planning, and he didn’t seem too happy about that. Right as he was leaving, he made a comment to me…’If you won’t support me, then I’ll find someone who will. Someone who will make a much better member of the Big Bad Four than you ever have.’"
Hare’s face had slowly paled at her words, and Big Blue stared down at his master with a rare horror shining in his usually solemn eyes. The ice giant’s mouth worked silently for a moment, and Pixie couldn’t help but gape at her companion, a little taken aback by his reaction. Did it bother him that much…?
"Master Pixie…" Big Blue finally managed to get out. He seemed to be on the verge of blurting something out, but suddenly averted his gaze from her face and glanced outside, where the storm still raged.
"Anyway…have you told the other searchers about these…visions?" Pixie asked. Hare looked back down at the floor and shook his head slightly, and Pixie angrily demanded, "Why the hell not?"
Hare looked back up at her, brown eyes wavering with barely contained tears. "Because…because in all the visions…" he stammered. Shaking his head violently, he forced himself to spit out, "Every time I have a vision about Moo reuniting with his body, he kills all of them. Every single time, they’ve died. He murders all of them! How can I possibly…" He choked, and quickly looked back down at the ground again, letting his ears droop over his face in an attempt to hide the tears that brimmed in his eyes.
"If these visions are truly of what is about to happen in the near future," he whispered, his trembling voice so faint that the two ex-baddies could barely hear it, "then what was I supposed to tell them? ‘Moo’s about to regain his ancient body, and when he does, you’re all going to die.’ Is that what I’m supposed to say?"
"…But you said that you also dreamt of Tiger of the Wind’s death, and you were able to change that. Can’t you just do the same with this vision?"
"Big Blue?" Pixie asked, glancing up at the ice giant in astonishment, startled that he had suddenly chosen to join the conversation.
Hare sighed, and shook his head. "In all my visions, I’m unable to save them," the little rabbit replied bleakly. "I try, of course…but even with the Phoenix’s Tear…I’m just no match for Moo…"
"………" Pixie and Big Blue exchanged glances, and an awkward silence fell over the cave. Outside, the thunder rolled and black clouds churned as the howling wind ripped through the darkened sky. Drops of frigid rain pelted the muddy ground.
"…Lately, I’ve wondered if I have any real place in this world at all," Hare admitted quietly. He lifted the Phoenix’s Tear in his paw, letting the firelight reflect off of its faintly glowing surface. "This crystal…ever since I found out that I could control its powers, it’s completely changed my life, and not for the better. Sure, I can do things that most monsters can’t with it, but what’s the price of that? So many have died because of this Tear…both the innocents who Naga’s killed trying to gain control of me and the baddies I’ve had to kill to protect myself. Before, I never wanted to kill anything…I still don’t, not really, but now that doesn’t really matter, does it?"
He paused for a moment, then suddenly laughed, but it was a bitter, self-effacing laugh. "It’s funny, isn’t it? According to the old legend, the Phoenix shed this Tear over her sorrow at the destruction Moo had caused. I wonder if she knew then that something that was supposed to symbolize grief over senseless carnage would end up being the cause of so much death?" He wiped a few tears away from his cheeks, then carefully replaced the cord around his neck.
"…So what are you going to do now?" Pixie asked.
"What are YOU going to do?" Hare retorted, eyes locked on her face.
"Well, somebody still needs to tell the searchers what’s happening with Moo," Pixie said at length, keeping a close eye on the rabbit’s expression. "Once the rain lets up, Big Blue and I are going to continue looking for them. As for you…"
"………I don’t know." Hare stared down at the floor. "Originally…I wasn’t planning on joining back up with the others. They’ve suffered through so much trying to help me deal with Naga…and the closer we get to Naga’s fortress, the more danger my being with them will put them in. I was going to just let them think that I was…a lost disc…and head off on my own again. That way, I figured that Naga might be distracted enough by my being elsewhere to leave them alone…but I didn’t count on you guys coming along…"
"We won’t tell."
"Huh?" Hare stared up at Pixie, startled. The female monster shook her head, scarlet bangs floating around her solemn face, and she locked her gray eyes with the rabbit’s own as she said, "If you don’t want to go back to the others, then we won’t blow your cover. It’s your decision to make, not ours. We can’t make you go back if you don’t want to, and we can’t keep your problems from following you."
"………" Hare looked back down at the ground, hugging his knees to his chest. Pixie got up and kneeled so she was directly in his face, looking him straight in the eyes.
"But I will say this," she continued, her gray eyes solemn. "You have a lot of problems in your life right now, and you may not want to see anyone else suffer because of them. Believe me, I know the feeling all too well. But from what I’ve seen of your friends, they seem to be the type of people that you might want supporting you in a crisis. You might feel guilty about putting them in danger, and they might also feel the same way about putting you in danger with their own problems. Still, that hasn’t kept you seven from supporting each other when danger called, no matter what the cost. As strange as it sounds, that’s actually a good thing, not terrible or something to be ashamed of. You care about one another enough that, when one of you is in trouble, the rest are willing to sacrifice everything to help that one out. Even your very lives…"
"But they shouldn’t have to risk dying to help me."
"That might be true, but haven’t you ever put yourself at risk trying to help any of them? Why do you have a double standard here: it’s all right for you to put your life on the line, even though your friends want you to be safe, but you don’t want to see them do the same for you?"
"…It isn’t right…"
"That might be true, but has it ever stopped any of you searchers before? Do you honestly think that you can change the way they are just because it makes you uncomfortable? Kid, it doesn’t work that way, even if you want it to."
Hare stared up at Pixie; was it his imagination, or did her gaze continue to flick over to where Big Blue was sitting again and again while she spoke? After a moment, the female monster released his shoulders and stood up.
"Once the rain lets up, Big Blue and I are leaving," she informed him, walking back to the ice giant’s side. "Whether or not you come along is up to you."
Hare gazed after her for a moment, then swung his gaze back to the dying fire. As he let it burn itself out, the dimming firelight reflected off of his shimmering brown eyes, and cast shadows over his thoughtful face.
* * *
"I guess he didn’t plan on coming with us," Pixie sighed after waking up the next morning. The two ex-baddies had awakened to find that the little rabbit was no longer anywhere in the cave, and a short search by Big Blue had turned up nothing. "Well, I guess it can’t be helped."
"Shall we go, Master Pixie?" Big Blue asked. In response, the female monster alighted upon the ice giant’s shoulder, and the pair made their way down the path in silence.
* * *
"Not another forest!" Suezo exclaimed, staring at the trees with an obvious disgust on his face. "Will somebody please explain to me why the Magic Stone likes to have us walk through all this stupid forests?"
"Maybe it wants us to take the scenic route?" Genki asked, sweatdropping slightly.
"Calm down, Suezo," Holly said, checking the Magic Stone. "It points this way, not into the forest. We just have to walk alongside it, not in it."
"My Goddess, it’s a miracle," Suezo replied, voice dripping with sarcasm. The six searchers began to move along the trail, the eyeball monster griping under his breath as they walked. Just when Tiger was on the verge of turning around and giving him something to gripe about, however, something came stumbling out of the woods and into their path.
"Ahh, the rebels!" the dinosaur-like monster sneered. The rebels tensed, experience allowing them to immediately spot the medallion on the Zuum hybrid’s collar. "I, Captain Shell Saurian, will defeat you in the names of Master Naga and Master Moo! You should flee while you…gakk!"
While the Shell Saurian had been making his speech, Tiger had charged up his Torpedo attack and let it fly. The Zuum hybrid dropped to the ground, morphing into a lost disc. A fierce grin broke over Tiger’s muzzle.
"The captain’s been defeated! Vengeance for the captain!" a voice bellowed from the forest. Suddenly what seemed like a thousand Shell Saurians, but was actually closer to twenty or so, burst out of hiding and bum rushed the rebels. The dinosaurs were unable to take more than five steps toward the startled rebels before a blast of fire erupted in front of them. The saurians skidded to a halt and sweatdropped, their eyes the size of saucers, and the same voice stammered, "O-on second thought, he was a jerk anyway. Retreat!"
"But…huh?" Genki asked, sweatdropping with the other searchers as they watched the hybrids high tail it down the path. Something swept down and landed beside him, and the boy turned, his eyes lighting up as he instantly recognized the new arrival. "Pixie! Big Blue!" he added, seeing the ice giant come stomping up. "Thanks for the save!"
"But…I didn’t…" Pixie said, staring blankly at the flames as they died away. Genki stared at her in confusion, then whirled around when he heard Holly gasp suddenly. The boy felt his eyes widen in shock, and he inhaled sharply as he joined the other rebels in staring at what the girl had seen first.
A small figure stood uncertainly at the edge of the woods, half-hidden behind the thick trunk of one of the towering trees. A shaky, insecure smile played over Hare’s face, and he waved at the stunned searchers. At his neck, the Phoenix’s Tear glimmered and shone under his kerchief.
"H…Hare?" Holly choked, stepping slightly closer, her bronze eyes wavering with tears. The little rabbit nodded, and suddenly found himself being pulled into the girl’s embrace. The others gathered around the two, all talking at once, stammering questions and crying tearful greetings.
"What happened?" Tiger demanded, the only one of the searchers who wasn’t showing a lot of emotion over this. Before Hare could reply, Pixie answered for him.
"Big Blue and I found him unconscious," she explained. "We brought him back around, and he came with us to look for you." Hare smiled gratefully at the female monster, and a secretive smile played over Pixie’s lips as she looked over at Big Blue. The ice giant simply nodded in approval.
"Here, Hare," Genki said, pulling the small bundle out of Suezo’s pack. "We were gonna keep this safe until the Phoenix rose so we could give it back to ya, but you probably want it now, huh?" Hare silently took the bundle and nodded thanks, and the boy stared at the rabbit’s tattered kerchief. "Wow," the boy said, "looks like we’ll have to get you a replacement for that one, huh? I think it’s just about had it!"
Genki grinned, and Hare smiled back at him. However, the rabbit’s smile soon faded, and he said, "Guys, as glad as I am to see all of you again, I’m afraid we’ve got some more trouble. Pixie says that she’s been spying on Moo, and something bad is about to happen…"
"Oh," Genki frowned for a moment, then grinned again. Slapping Hare on the back playfully, the boy said, "Well, no matter what Moo’s up to, we’ll be able to handle it, don’t worry! We’re gonna beat that guy together!"
Hare just nodded, smiling slightly.
"Yes," he echoed, "We can defeat Moo. Together."