* * * Chapter One: Sleeping * * *
The rabbit’s breath came in short gasps as he ran forward, plunging deeper into the darkness. He had no idea how he had gotten there or why, he only knew that something horrible was behind him and would catch him if he stopped.
In front of him, shadows stretched into darkness, darkness faded into blackness, blackness became oblivion. The rabbit squinted into the darkness, hoping to see some sort of end to this –a ‘light at the end of the tunnel’, so to speak. He couldn’t see anything at all, but that didn’t keep him from running on.
Strange noises echoed all around him, though he couldn’t see their sources. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing, the rabbit told himself. Whatever was causing those screams and wails was not something he wanted to meet. Ethereal fingers reached out for him from the darkness, brushing against his fur, and he bit back a scream: it felt like someone was pressing ice against him. The darkness was so cold, so unbearably cold…
It was closing in on him. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t cry.
The shadows reached out, enveloped him, held him. His body froze: he couldn’t move, couldn’t run anymore. Whatever it was that was chasing him came closer and closer, until he could feel it behind him, a cold chill that froze his body even past the numbness.
He found himself able to move, but only his head, and he looked over his shoulder at the blackness. Something long and sharp gleamed in the darkness, and was raised into the air by ethereal hands.
Hare found his voice. "Genki, where are you?" he whispered, his voice soft, weak.
The silver light lanced down toward his unprotected, unresisting back. Hare’s eyes widened, and he screamed mentally…
* * *
"Hare, wake up!"
"Huh?" Hare forced open his eyes and stared up into the faces of the others. Genki, Holly, Suezo, Mocchi and Golem were looking down at him, and they all looked awfully worried. Shaking his head to clear it, he looked up at them and asked, "What is it, you guys?"
"You cried out while you were sleeping," Holly explained. Her soft brown eyes were filled with worry, and she asked, "Are you alright?"
"Yes," Hare answered quickly, a little too quickly to be reassuring. Holly glanced at the others, obviously recognizing that his reply was a little too fast and automatic to be real. Genki frowned, not too thrilled by that possibility.
Golem’s eyes were solemn as he looked down at the little rabbit. He knew that it was probably not a good idea for them to push for a more believable answer right then. Picking Hare up from the ground, he rumbled, "It is late now. We can talk in the morning."
"Yeah, you’re probably right, Golem," Genki yawned, stretching his arms. Beside him, Mocchi mimicked the gesture and leaned against his side.
Hare looked up at Golem, grateful for the reprieve. He curled up in the stone giant’s hands and tried to will himself back to sleep.
Holly leaned up against Suezo, her eyelids drooping closed as she snuggled closer to her friend. However, Suezo wasn't as tired as she was. The eyeball monster stared over at where Hare was sleeping, thinking hard.
I know I felt something earlier, he said to himself. Something brushed up against my mind…like…like the fluttering of a moth’s wing.
…Where the heck did that come from? Suezo smirked, startled by the strange image that brought to him. But his eye was much more solemn than the expression on his face, and he kept thinking darkly to himself as the stars glittered over the treetops above them.
* * *
Everything is going according to plan.
The other rebels have no idea that I’m doing this to the little rabbit. And even if they did figure it out, how could they stop me?
The little rabbit certainly has a strong will. But then, he proved that back when we fought before…He’s much stronger than those pathetic Evil Hares were. I’m amazed that any of those fools made it out alive.
But…no matter. My spell will soon take complete effect over him. And then I’ll have all the time in the world to take control.
Mwa ha…ha ha HA ha…mwa ha HA ha Ha hA HA HAH ha hA Ha HA…ha hA HA Ha ha ha HA HA HA HA HA!
* * *
The darkness from before had changed into a village, and Hare stood in the center square in a sort of stunned stupor, gazing around at the destruction raging about him. Fires leaped into the air, flaming tongues reaching into a crimson sky. Smoke billowed from crumpled ruins, blocking out the sun. Monsters and people swarmed around him, panicking, racing into muddy streets to die at the fangs and claws of Moo’s forces. Blood pooled at his feet, but he remained untouched, a passive spectator to the horrors unfolding on every side.
And the others were there, too, but unlike him, they were caught up in this scene from a nightmare, playing out their own roles. He saw Golem, using his Tornado in a futile attempt to protect the others, only to be torn apart while his stone body separated, his pieces blown to the far winds. Genki, huddled behind the temporary cover of what remained of the stone giant’s back, sobbing as he cradled what had once been Mocchi in his arms, the lost disc nearly breaking under the force of his grip. Suezo, screaming as a spear lanced into his pupil, writhing in agony as he was pinned to the ground. Holly, calling out Moo’s name, begging him to leave her friends alone and just take her, that she would gladly join him if he would just spare her friends.
And Tiger of the Wind, sprawled out in the mud, golden eyes staring blankly, his chest torn wide open by the enemy. Hare stared at the blue wolf, choking on his own tears, and told himself that this couldn’t be real. For he had seen who had dealt the final blow to the warrior of wind, and it simply wasn’t possible.
Grey Wolf had been the one to tear Tiger’s body apart.
But that can’t be! Hare’s mind shrieked. Grey Wolf is dead, Naga killed him. Grey Wolf is dead, he’s dead, he’s dead…
His fingers tightened in a vise-like grip around the Phoenix’s Tear, and the thoughts surged into his mind.
This isn’t real! It’s a nightmare, a dream…
I AM DREAMING!
* * *
Hare jolted awake, drenched in his own sweat. His paw still gripped his pendant, which was glowing faintly. Trembling, he leaned against Golem’s palms, taking comfort in the safety they afforded him. From Golem’s hands he could see where the others were, and he gave the group the once-over.
Genki and Mocchi were curled up together, like always.
Holly was leaning against Suezo’s back, her soft brown eyes closed, breathing gently. Suezo looked like he was okay, too.
As always, Tiger was sleeping some distance away from the others, his back turned in Hare’s direction. Even in his sleep, the blue wolf didn’t seem to be truly relaxed.
Hare sighed, slumping down in a near collapse. At least the others were okay. It had only been a nightmare…
* * *
Suezo awoke with a slight cry, although the sound thankfully didn’t wake up Holly. The eyeball monster felt tears run down his face, and he attempted to shake off the images he had just felt flooding into his own mind.
It was hard, so hard. He had a clear mental image of himself, dying. Suezo quivered: Where had that come from? Trembling, he tried to force himself back to sleep, tried to forget the sight burned so vividly into his mind.
But he knew that sleep was not going to come easily tonight.
* * *
How could he? How could he break the spell, the little idiot?
Well, no matter. He’ll fall back asleep again soon enough. I’ll just have to strengthen my spell a little bit…
* * *
"All right, everybody, let’s go get that Moo!" Genki cheered.
Suezo groaned, slowly getting up. "What a night," he mumbled, shooting a dark look over at Genki for waking him. Next to him, Holly yawned and got to her feet.
Tiger of the Wind yawned and stretched his entire body out, almost like a cat would. He glared over at Hare and growled, "Thanks a lot, Hare. Your screaming kept me up last night."
"What?" Genki looked over at Tiger. "What are you talking about?"
"After you guys went back to sleep, that stupid rabbit started screaming your names in his sleep," Tiger informed them. "I would have woken him up, but Golem was holding him a little higher than I was willing to climb. Golem, you sleep like a rock."
Genki and the others looked back at Hare, who seemed genuinely startled by Tiger’s words. Golem looked a little contrite, too, and Suezo seemed a little disturbed by what the blue wolf had said.
"Hare…did you have another nightmare?" Holly guessed. The rabbit didn’t reply, but he bowed his head guiltily and let his ears droop over his face, hiding his expression. "Hare…"
"What was it about-chi?" Mocchi piped up. Again Hare didn’t reply, but he glanced at Mocchi with such a sorrowful look on his face that it sent chills down Genki’s spine. The boy unconsciously moved a little closer to the pink monster.
"Maybe we should forget it, guys," Suezo interrupted. The others stared at him, and he hurriedly plunged on, saying, "We have to keep looking for the Phoenix, right, you guys?"
"Right," Genki chimed in, and he turned to face Holly. "What does the Magic Stone say?"
As Holly checked the Magic Stone, Suezo glanced over at Hare, trying to read the younger monster’s expression. The little rabbit was clutching the Phoenix’s Tear again, his wide eyes clearly troubled. Suezo wondered: could the image he had seen last night have something to do with whatever Hare had dreamed?
The glow from the Magic Stone faded, and Genki started off in the direction it had pointed. Mocchi was right on his heels, and Holly and Suezo followed after the little pink monster. Tiger loped along on the edge of the group, and Golem and Hare walked at the end of the group. Suezo glanced around them: it looked like they were heading deeper into yet another forest. Just how many forests were there on this planet, anyway?
* * *
Tiger of the Wind kept glancing back at Hare as they walked, his thoughts as dark as the expression on his face. The little rabbit noticed the looks, and he shivered, drawing a little closer to Golem. Growling to himself, Tiger looked back to the path ahead of them.
He still couldn’t believe that his little brother was dead. He had known, of course, that he would probably have ended up killing Grey Wolf anyway, but what he had learned at Grey Wolf’s fortress was somehow even worse than he had imagined. Grey Wolf was dead, but it wasn’t by his own paws. Instead, he had discovered that Naga had murdered his brother and had been controlling his warriors through the means of an illusion.
Tiger felt empty inside. Oh, he’d killed the monster that had deceived him for so long, using his love for his little brother against him, but that hadn’t stopped this pain from growing inside of him. Tiger wondered briefly what hurt more: the fact that his little brother was dead, or the fact that he had been played for a fool for so long.
He couldn’t explain to the others what he was feeling. After all, he was supposed to be the strong one, the one without emotions, without weaknesses. And yet the very emotions he kept hidden for so long had nearly gotten him killed. If Hare hadn’t shown up and dispelled the illusion when he had…
But he had, and there was no sense in dwelling on it now. All Tiger could do was move on with his life…and murder that damned Naga for deceiving him like this. Revenge was often the only way for the blue wolf to deal with his problems, and it worked just fine for him now.
* * *
Hare snapped his head back up, forcing his eyes open. He felt so tired, so tired…he hadn’t been able to get much sleep that night. After having that horrible dream about the village being attacked, he’d been too upset to sleep.
Why in the world is this happening to me? Am I having another vision like before? Is it a warning?
His feet nearly slipped out from under him, and Hare quickly shook his head to clear out the fog. It wouldn’t do for him to fall asleep now, not while they were continuing their search for the Phoenix. The others needed him awake, so he could make plans for them and be ready to fight if necessary. Plus, if he fainted now, it would just be another chance for Tiger to get on his case again.
Gritting his teeth, Hare forced his head up again and stared at the path ahead. His vision blurred, and he shook his head to clear it. He could feel himself start to stumble again, and he struggled to keep his feet beneath him and moving.
* * *
Now…now it truly begins. Soon I will have complete control over the Phoenix’s Tear.
Don’t bother to resist me, little rabbit. Submit to your destiny…to surrender your body and powers to me!
Now, little rabbit…now!
* * *
I’m so dizzy…I’m weak…
Hare’s breath was coming harder mow, and he was finding it more difficult to keep walking forward. The ground seemed to slip under his feet, and he nearly stumbled again. The others were a little ways ahead of him; when had they started walking so fast?
I’m so much weaker than everyone else is…Genki has so much energy…they all do.
Hare coughed, nearly collapsing, and his vision blurred. It was getting harder to see the road ahead.
Everyone’s so strong, expect for me…they’re all so powerful…
I’m dizzy…I’m weak…
What use am I to them? I’m just in the way…
I’m so tired…I need to rest…I can’t go on…
Hare’s legs buckled beneath him, and he collapsed to the ground. Through blurring vision, he could see the others continuing on, unaware that he had just fallen.
They don’t need me anymore…I’m useless…
I just need to sleep…it feels so good…
Let me sleep…I just need to rest a little bit…
Whatever you do, don’t wake me up…
Don’t wake me up!
* * *
Tiger of the Wind glanced over his shoulder again, glaring at Hare.
Only the rabbit wasn’t there anymore. The blue wolf could just barely make out Hare’s crumpled body, laying some distance behind them. His startled exclamation caused the others to turn, and they all saw it as well.
"Hare?" Genki cried out, running back to the rabbit’s side. As the others ran up behind him, Suezo felt a sudden wave of fear sweep over him. Somehow he knew that this wouldn’t end well.
"Hare? HARE!" Genki called, kneeling down by Hare’s side. The little rabbit made no move to respond, his eyes closed, breathing gently, fast asleep with no sign of getting up…
* * * Chapter Two: Dreaming * * *
"Hare! Hare, come on, this isn’t funny!" Genki shouted. Grabbing the rabbit’s shoulders, he tried to shake him awake, without any apparent success.
"I don’t like this," Suezo moaned, giving his friends worried looks. Why wasn’t Hare waking up?
Suddenly Suezo felt his eye widen in shock. Something seemed to be flickering faintly around Hare’s body…an aura? A shadow? As Suezo watched, the strange darkness spread to Genki, gently misting his arms and face. The boy stopped shaking Hare, and yawned. Then he toppled backward, already snoring by the time he hit the ground.
"Genki? Genki!" Holly cried out, shocked. "What happened?"
"You mean you didn’t see it?" Suezo asked. When the others just stared at him, the eyeball monster hopped to Genki’s side and said, "Never mind. We have to wake him up now!"
* * *
"Where am I?" Genki wondered aloud as he looked around him. Shadows stretched out in all directions around him. The only source of light that he could see was his own shadow, which stretched out before him in a white streak of light. That made a strange sort of sense, he supposed: if shadows were caused by light normally, then why couldn’t light be caused by shadows?
Well, that was a question better left to minds untroubled by other problems, and Genki had a major problem at that moment: figuring out just where the heck he was. The last thing he could remember clearly was trying to wake Hare up…could that have something to do with where he was now?
A point of light materialized in front of him, and Genki started to move toward it. He could faintly hear some sort of noises coming from it, and decided that the best way to find out just what had happened was to find their source. As he got closer, the noises became clearer, slowly becoming identifiable. Genki strained to hear everything, and suddenly felt his blood freeze as he recognized one of the voices.
It was Hare. And he was screaming.
Genki started running, pushing himself to move faster and faster. The point of light came closer, and Genki’s heart pounded as he saw Hare in its center. And the little rabbit wasn’t alone, either. The shadows were alive, and were pulling on him, grabbing his arms and legs, holding him in place. Genki could feel his friend’s terror, and he forced himself to move even faster, calling out the rabbit’s name.
Hare couldn’t seem to hear him, though. The rabbit was struggling to get away from the ethereal hands that held him, and was sobbing from fear. Every time he managed to break the grip of one of the hands, two more took its place.
"Hang on, I’m coming!" Genki called, pumping his legs to get even more speed. He was almost there…
Fire erupted across his chest, and Genki screamed as he stumbled backwards. Blood dripped from a nasty gash across his chest, which was thankfully shallow despite its length. It stretched over his stomach and chest in a thin line, and Genki cried out as he caught sight of it. He was lucky it was so shallow; if it had gone much deeper, he might have been chopped right in half.
"Well, well, well, what have we here? A nasty pest peeking into dreams that don’t belong to him?"
I know that voice from somewhere, Genki realized. Scrambling to his feet, he stared up into glowing red eyes.
Glowing red eyes that leered back down at him from a colorful white mask, one that looked like a grotesque distortion of a clown’s face.
"You shouldn’t intrude on the dreams of others, boy," Joker rasped, raising his scythe as he spoke. "They can all too quickly become your own nightmares…"
The blade slashed down, streaking toward Genki’s neck in a blaze of silver light.
* * *
Desperate, Suezo bit the boy’s arm, jolting him awake. Genki’s eyes shot open, and he leapt to his feet with a cry, throwing both arms up to ward off the attack. After a moment, however, he slowly lowered his defense and stared around at the others.
"Huh? What…ouch, my arm," Genki moaned, seeing the shallow teeth marks embedded in his left arm. Suezo sighed in relief.
"Hey, it worked," he said, seeing the dark looks Mocchi and Golem were giving him. Tiger just snorted and shrugged the whole thing off. Holly, meanwhile, had noticed something that horrified her.
"Genki…" she breathed, staring at the boy’s chest. Seeing her gaze fixed there, Genki glanced down at it, and nearly passed out with shock.
A long, shallow cut stretched across his stomach and chest, exactly like the wound he had received in the dream. Genki stared down at it with a sort of detached fascination, like it wasn’t his chest that was bleeding.
"What happened?" Holly stammered, hastily scrambling to bandage his wounds. Genki looked at her, confused.
"I…was attacked," he said simply. "I think I was in Hare’s dr…HARE!" Genki whirled to look over at the rabbit. "Isn’t he awake yet?"
Golem gave the boy a helpless look, silently answering the frantic question. Heart pounding, Genki scrambled over to Hare’s side and started screaming out, "Hare! Wake up! Come on!"
Hare didn’t answer him, he couldn’t: he was still asleep. The rabbit moaned softly, stirring, but it didn’t look like he was getting up. Genki tried to shake his shoulders again, desperate, but Holly pulled him back.
"Don’t!" she warned. "That’s how you passed out last time!"
"You don’t understand, Holly! Hare has to wake up, right NOW!"
Holly stared at him, confused. "Huh?"
"I think I was in Hare’s dream before," Genki hastily attempted to explain. "Something pulled me into it. And he was being attacked there! If I got hurt while I was in his nightmare…"
He trailed off, seeing the horrified look on Holly’s face. Suezo, Mocchi and Golem stared at him, wide-eyed, and even Tiger looked a little disturbed by the unspoken possibility. Mocchi bolted over to Hare’s side and started screaming his name, over and over again, near tears.
"I don’t understand," Holly stammered, stunned. "How could you be hurt in a dream?"
"I don’t know, maybe Joker has something to do with it," Genki replied. When the others stared at him again, he explained, "Joker appeared and attacked me. That’s how I got this scratch before: he hit me with his weapon when I tried to help Hare."
"A spell," Suezo suddenly said, bleakly. "That explains it." Everyone’s attention turned to the eyeball, and he stared back at them, his eye solemn.
"What do you mean?" Holly asked.
"Remember when Tiger ran off, and Hare claimed that he would get killed if he fought alone?" he asked, even though he was certain that everyone remembered that terrible incident. "Well, when I tried to make him settle down, I got all these images from his mind…of Tiger being dead or dying. That’s why I suddenly started supporting what he had said."
Tiger stared at the eyeball: this was the first time he had heard about anything like this. He glanced over at the others, and could tell by the expressions on their faces that it was true. His golden eyes narrowed, and he turned his full attention to what was being said.
"And lately," Suezo continued, "it’s been happening to me again. After he started complaining about his nightmares, I’ve been picking up…images from his mind somehow. I don’t know how else to explain it…"
His expression became even grimmer, and Holly shivered. She had a feeling that most of the things he had seen were truly the stuff of nightmares. Gently she asked, "Why didn’t you tell us before?"
"Are you kidding?" Suezo laughed, bluntly. "I had no idea what was happening. I only knew that what I was seeing was horrible, and I thought that maybe it had something to do with Hare’s nightmares. I had no idea how to stop it, and I still don’t."
"Well I do," Genki said, getting to his feet. "We have to go back in there and defeat Joker."
"What?" Holly gasped, staring at him. Genki started over to Hare’s side, and Holly caught his outstretched arm before he could touch the rabbit again. "What are you doing?" she demanded. "That’s how you nearly got killed last time!"
Genki stared up into her face, his clear brown eyes dark with determination. "I know," he replied, "but it’s the only way we can help Hare. There’s no way we can stop Joker from out here."
"The kid has a point, Holly," Suezo said. "We haven’t exactly had much luck getting him to wake up from out here. The spell’s just too strong…"
"But…Genki," Holly faltered. Her fingers gently traced along where she had bandaged up the boy’s side, and her expression twisted into a mask of concern. "If Joker could do this to you when you were in the dream for just a little bit…"
"Then he can do a whole lot worse to Hare," Genki interrupted. Staring into her eyes, he said, "I have to do this, Holly. We’re a team, and I’m not going to abandon any of our team for any reason. I’m going to help him…"
"Genki…" Holly fell silent, then slowly relented, "All right. But please be careful."
"Don’t worry, Holly," Genki assured her with a wink. "If you and the others stay awake, then you can wake me up if it looks like I’m in trouble."
"If you’re going to fight that Joker creep, then I’m in too," Tiger growled. "I still have a score to settle with that magic-casting coward…"
Genki nodded. "All right."
"Mocchi go too!"
"Sorry Mocchi," Genki told him, "but I don’t think that’s a good idea." As Mocchi started to protest, he quickly added, "I need you out here to protect Holly and the others. Can you do that for me, Mocchi?"
Mocchi quieted down and slowly nodded. "All right-chi," he answered, near tears.
"Genki…you must be careful," Golem told the boy.
"I will," Genki said, grinning up at the stone giant. "Tiger will be with me, so there’s no problem."
"Genki…I’m coming along too."
"Huh?" Everyone else turned to stare at Suezo, and he flushed a bright red. The eyeball monster stared down at the ground, and he stammered, "Well, I think I should…I mean, I’m obviously sensitive to the spell Joker used…so…it doesn’t make much sense for me to try and keep awake while you guys go in…I’d rather enter of my own accord than try and stay awake and enter against my will…"
"Suezo…" Holly whispered.
"Well, okay then," Genki said after a moment. "Let’s go for it, then!"
Tiger and Suezo glanced at each other and nodded. The three approached Hare, and Genki gently brushed his hand up against the rabbit’s cheek. Suezo gulped as he saw the shadow aura rise around Hare’s body again, and threw a furtive glance back at Holly.
Golem…Mocchi…please keep Holly safe.
Suezo could only hope that his attempt to mentally tell the two monsters his biggest concern had worked. The shadows reached out with ethereal hands to envelop him, Tiger and Genki, and his sight dimmed and faded into blackness…
* * *
Holly shivered as she watched Genki, Tiger and Suezo drop to the ground, eyes slowly closing. She draped her arms around Mocchi, and the little pink monster cast pleading eyes up at her.
"They’ll be okay, right-chi?" he asked.
I hope so, Holly thought to herself. She couldn’t trust herself to make a positive reply to Mocchi’s question, so she remained silent. Sensing her fear, Golem gently reached down and picked the two up off of the ground. Sighing, they settled down to wait. It was about all they could do, now…
* * *
"So…the boy decided to intrude again?"
Joker’s eyes glowed blood red as he felt the three life forces enter his spell. The very idea that these upstarts could enter against his will! …But it mattered little. It only made things a bit more interesting…
"Yes…" Joker hissed as he considered the possibilities this infraction presented to him. The ‘little rabbit’ was already nearly his; the fact that he had slipped into a coma from the spell signaled to the cloaked monster that his spirit was no longer strong enough to resist his power. All that was left for him was to seal the little rabbit’s own will and mind away, and then Joker would be free to take control.
And what better way to make somebody lose their will to live then to force them to watch as their friends slowly perish? Joker thought. The fact that he could make the deaths of these three real made it even more convenient for the baddie. In a way, Genki and his two monster friends were doing him a major favor!
If Joker’s face had not been a mask, his grin would have become even wider. His demented laugher echoed around him as he disappeared into the darkness.
* * *
Suezo froze, hearing the terrible laughter rolling around them. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, he told himself. But there was no turning back now. Taking a deep breath, he glared into the darkness, trying to make out the source of the laughter.
"Can you see Joker, Suezo?" Genki asked. Suezo shook his head, and the boy looked around himself.
"I can’t see anything other than you guys," Suezo admitted, glancing down at the beams of light that served as their shadows in this world of darkness. As strange as it was, he couldn’t help but feel grateful for its presence. After all, it was the sole source of light that he could see, and was the only thing that enabled him to see the others.
Tiger sniffed the air, attempting to pick up on some sort of scent. The blue-furred wolf growled in frustration. "I can’t pick out Joker’s stench," he informed the others. "I can’t make out anything at all, other than you two."
"That’s just great," Suezo moaned. "How do we find Joker or Hare?"
"We just keep looking," Genki told them, skating forward in the darkness. Suezo stared at him, a little stunned by the fact that there didn’t seem to be anything holding the boy up.
"Hurry up, Suezo," Tiger growled, moving after Genki. Taking a deep breath, the eyeball hopped forward, somehow surprised when he didn’t plummet down into the abyss.
* * *
Joker hovered over the three, laughing to himself. This will be too easy, he thought as he raised his scythe. Dark purple energy pulsed around its blade as he chanted a spell, then he brought it down over the group.
* * *
"What was that?" Suezo gasped, whirling around. He stared into the air, petrified. "Uh, guys…?"
"What?" Genki asked. Seeing the eyeball monster’s expression, he glanced up into the darkness above them. "Huh-"
A violet bolt of lightning coursed down from the darkness and exploded right in the center of the trio. Genki hollered as he was thrown backward, and he reached out for Tiger and Suezo, calling their names.
"Genki!" Tiger howled as the energy swirled around them, blocking their view of one another. The sound of Suezo’s screaming and Genki’s shout was drowned out by the roar of the lightning as it enveloped them, pulling them away.
The last thing they heard was the sound of Joker’s mocking laughter, rising above them, then fading away as the purple light vanished, leaving only empty darkness behind.
* * * Chapter Three: Awakening * * *
"Tiger? Suezo?" Genki called, his voice sounding small and weak in his own ears. There was no sign of his friends anywhere. The last time he had seen his two friends had been right as they were torn away from one another by that purple light…now he was alone.
Well, what of it? Genki bit his lip, forcing himself to remain optimistic. At least this way we can cover more ground. The boy skated forward, deeper into the darkness, calling out Hare’s name. At the same time, he kept his eyes wide open, hoping for a glimpse of either the rabbit or his two other friends.
The light below him was the only source of illumination in the void, and Genki was becoming increasingly aware of how much he needed its light to keep him focused. It was dark enough with its presence at his feet, and the last thing he needed was to be wandering around in the darkness, completely alone, without even it to guide him…
Something flickered in front of him, and Genki immediately quickened his pace, moving toward it. The last time he had been here, he had managed to find Hare for a moment by heading toward the light. Even if the rabbit wasn’t there, he might find one of his other friends waiting for him. Keeping an eye out for Joker, Genki ran closer to the light.
But as he got closer, Genki suddenly realized that it wasn’t Hare. Nor was it Suezo or Tiger. The boy slowed to a stop, staring, confused.
"Mocchi? What are you doing here?"
The little pink monster made no move to answer; he just gazed back at Genki, unusually quiet. Genki frowned at him.
"Didn’t I ask you to protect Holly and Golem for me?" he scolded. "Mocchi, they need you more than I do right now…"
"What?" Genki stared at Mocchi, shocked. The pink monster glared at him, his normally cheerful eyes hard and cold.
"CHERRY BLOSSOM BLIZZARD-CHI!"
Genki cried out in complete shock as he felt his body be hurled backward by the roaring hurricane of petals. His side scraped painfully against an invisible floor, and he raised his head to stare at Mocchi.
"Mocchi…why…" he choked.
The little monster glared at him. "Why does Mocchi always have to be treated like a little kid-chi?" he demanded. "Why does Mocchi have to listen to everything Genki-chi say?"
"Mocchi…" Genki whispered, staring helplessly at the little monster.
* * *
"Genki! Tiger! Hare! If you can hear me, answer me!"
Suezo paused, straining to hear any reply. Nothing. The eyeball monster frowned, shivering as he complained, "Oh great, just great. Now they’ve gone and gotten lost too. Why can’t anything ever turn out okay for us?"
Suezo trembled, gazing around the abyss again. This was the last place he wanted to be left alone. Why oh why did I volunteer to come here? I must have been out of my mind!
Something ripped across his back, and Suezo screamed, instinctively rolling forward to get away from his assailant. Heart pounding, he whirled to face Joker as best he could, praying that the others would find him.
But it wasn’t Joker who stood behind him. Suezo stared in silent horror at his attacker, his mind reeling with a thousand protests.
Holly glared at him, chestnut eyes dark with loathing. Blood dripped from her talisman, the dagger she had picked up while in Moo’s floating castle, and Suezo stared numbly at its gleaming, bloodstained edge.
"Holly…please…no…" he breathed.
* * *
Tiger of the Wind stalked forward, growling softly. So Joker thinks he’s being funny by separating us? Well, he won’t be laughing long. Once I get my claws in him…
His sharp hearing picked up on a noise behind him, and he whirled around, his growl deepening as he glared into the darkness. There was no way he was about to let that cloaked fool sneak up on him again! His blood boiled as he recalled what the illusion-throwing monster had made him believe the last time they had met: that he was fighting with Moo. Well, he wouldn’t let that happen this time!
"Come out!" he howled, launching his Torpedo into the darkness. It flashed by something, temporarily throwing light over its shadowy figure, and Tiger felt his eyes widen with shock.
No, it can’t be. It’s got to be an illusion!
"Big brother?" a familiar voice called. Tiger stared at the silver-furred wolf, gazing into his clear, unclouded blue eyes. Despite himself, he breathed the name his mind screamed over and over again.
* * *
Joker laughed to himself, pleased. This was going so well for him, right now. The three intruders were being dealt with, and as for his real target, the little rabbit was nearly under his complete control.
He reached out and stroked Hare’s fur, almost lovingly. The little rabbit was held fast by the darkness, and he hung limply in the grip of his shadows, unconscious. Only the gentle rise and fall of his chest betrayed that he was still alive. Joker’s gaze fell on the rabbit’s kerchief, and he mused for a moment on the strange way that fate worked.
Once before, Joker had been a servant to Gali, although he hardly would have described himself as loyal. The cloaked monster had always felt that the golden-masked monster possessed a rank that he himself should have held: that of being one of Moo’s dreaded Big Bad Four. But, for whatever reason, Gali had that honor, and Joker had been forced to pretend fealty to him. When assigned to take out the rebels, he had jumped at the chance to outshine his ‘master’ and prove his strength to Moo.
Everything had worked out the way he had planned it, or at least that was what he had thought at first. The rebels got lost in a massive underground maze, and that was where Joker had confronted them and trapped each of them in his illusions. Their proud Tiger of the Wind had fallen under his power first, then the towering Golem, then the girl, then the others, one by one.
But he had missed one, an accursed little rabbit who had wandered away from the others and had reappeared in time to strike Joker before he could kill his friends. Joker had called out his Evil Hares, and captured the rabbit while they were fighting. He would have killed him then, but Tiger had taken him off guard, and when Joker had attempted to kill the blue wolf, Hare had used his new Dragon Kick to knock the cloaked monster right into a wall.
Joker understood now that Hare had used the Phoenix’s Tear to help him use that attack so quickly. After the cave had collapsed, Joker had pulled himself free of the rubble and began stalking the rabbit and his friends. He had watched them defeat Gali –the one time where he had actually cheered for the rebels– and had followed them invisibly as they had defeated each of Grey Wolf’s troops. The revelation that Hare was the ‘little rabbit’ that Naga had lost came as quite a shock to Joker, as had been the truth about Grey Wolf himself. But those surprises had shown him the road to taking his revenge.
It had been easy to invade the little rabbit’s dreams and start giving him nightmares of his own making: Hare had already been suffering from nightmares and visions of his own for some time. After that, it had simply been a matter of twisting the rabbit’s thoughts and fears into his own creations, and now his little victim was all but drained. His own will and mind were slowly fading away under Joker’s influence, and once that was locked away, Joker would be able to completely control the rabbit’s body and powers.
And the first thing he would do with his new abilities would be to wipe out what was left of those pesky rebels!
* * *
Mocchi sighed, snuggling up closer to Holly’s side. The girl draped her arm around the little pink monster's shoulders, shivering as she looked over at Golem. The stone giant was standing watch over the sleeping bodies of their four friends, his expression solemn.
Hare gasped, and she snapped her head up to look over at him, her chestnut brown eyes darkening with worry. The little rabbit’s face was stricken, like he was in pain, and his breath seemed to be coming harder and harder.
Holly bit her lip, and exchanged a worried look with Golem. They already knew that it was hopeless to try and wake up the little rabbit. The only chance they had left was…
Holly’s gaze drifted back to Genki, Suezo, and Tiger, and she took a shuddering breath. Mentally, she urged them to hurry up.
I don’t know how much longer Hare can hold out, you guys. Or you, either…
* * *
"Mocchi…please stop," Genki pleaded, pulling himself to his feet. "Don’t do this to me…Mocchi…"
"SHUT UP!" Mocchi ordered, glaring at the boy. His hands were balled into tiny fists, and the little monster shook with barely contained rage as he spat out, "Don’t act all innocent-chi! I’m sick of being bossed around by you, Genki! Stop treating me like a little baby! Haven’t I shown you how strong I am-chi?"
"Mocchi…I know how strong you are…" Genki attempted to say.
"YEAH RIGHT-CHI! You only know what you’ve learned the hard way!" The angry accusation rang in Genki’s ears, and he gazed blankly at Mocchi as the little monster’s face screwed up into one of total concentration. Something nagged him about the expression on his former friend’s face.
Oh no! Genki threw himself to the ground as the massive energy blast surged toward him. He felt it graze over his back, and he heard himself start screaming as pain tore through his entire body. It almost felt like his back had been ripped open, but when Genki glanced quickly over his shoulder, he was relived to see that the only thing in tatters was the back of his shirt. Still, his back throbbed with pain, and Genki gritted his teeth as he rolled away from Mocchi’s fists.
The tiny monster bounced toward him, slamming into his chest, knocking him backward. Genki cried out again as a small fist collided with his cheek, and suddenly his instincts took over. The boy brought his hand back and lashed out blindly as Mocchi bounced at him again.
A sickening crack echoed in the darkness, and Genki felt his fist sink into something soft for a moment. Then it fell away, and Genki stared in silent horror as Mocchi rolled backwards, blood oozing from his face and mouth. The little monster lay unconscious, sprawled out where he had fallen a few feet away from the boy.
Screaming Mocchi’s name, Genki ran toward the little monster. Tears trickled down his face as he knelt by his friend’s side, gently supporting the tiny body.
Suddenly Mocchi’s eyes snapped wide open, and his mouth opened. Genki had no time to react before the Mocchi Cannon raged into his face. Releasing the little monster’s body, Genki stumbled backward, stunned.
"Mocchi…" he breathed, tears flowing down his bleeding face. "Do you really hate me…that much?"
He crumpled into a heap next to Mocchi, his dimming eyes focused on the monster’s form as it shifted and changed into a lost disc…
* * *
"No, Holly…" Suezo gasped. "You can’t do this to me…"
"I’m sorry, Suezo," Holly told him, the anger in her eyes slowly fading away. The eyeball stared at her, finding it difficult to believe that he had ever seen such hatred in her eyes. Had he somehow misread her expression?
"I’m sorry," she repeated, her beautiful chestnut brown eyes pleading with him.
"I forgive you," Suezo whispered, meaning it. He struggled to stand, but his foot refused to support him. "Help…help me up…" he managed to choke.
"I can’t do that, Suezo."
Suezo stared at her, stunned. "What…?"
Holly raised the dagger again, and Suezo’s eye widened. "Holly…"
"I’m really sorry to have to do this to you, Suezo. But I couldn’t risk your stopping me."
"Stopping…you?" Suezo asked. Holly met his gaze with glistening, tear-filled eyes.
"Suezo…listen to me. Moo…is my father."
"What?" Suezo stared at his friend, stunned. "But how…?"
"Moo took control of him," Holly said, sobbing out the words. "That’s why he can use the Magic Stone, the same way I can. We’re the same…"
"I can’t stay with you any longer. My just being with you puts you and the others in danger. Moo wants to capture me, and he’ll kill all of you to get me."
Recognition struck Suezo, and he stared at Holly in horror. "No…" he breathed.
"I’m sorry, Suezo," Holly repeated, gazing at him with sad chestnut eyes. "Tell the others…to keep looking for the Phoenix."
With that, Holly turned the bloodstained blade of her father’s talisman toward her and plunged it deep into her own heart. Suezo watched in silent horror as she slowly collapsed, blood spreading across her red tunic, turning it a darker crimson.
* * *
"Grey Wolf…" Tiger repeated, again. The silver-furred wolf smiled back at him.
"Big brother," he said with a grin. Tiger stared at him: this was not the possessed minion of Moo his little sibling had become. This was the old Grey Wolf, the one he had known and loved before Moo had attacked them. The dancing, clear blue eyes, the friendly smile…it was all the same.
Tiger of the Wind knew that it was impossible. He knew that his brother was dead, that he was gone forever, a lost disc hidden somewhere far beyond his reach. And yet…he wanted so desperately to believe it was real.
"Big brother," Grey Wolf repeated, drawing closer to him. "I’m glad to see that you’re safe…"
Tiger flinched, and he stepped backward, growling, "Get away from me! You’re not real! You’re an illusion!"
Grey Wolf regarded him with hurt blue eyes. "Do you really want me to leave?" he asked. "Do you hate even me so much that you don’t want me here? Do you want me to be dead, brother?"
"No…" Tiger shook his head, trying to clear it. Emotions raged in his heart, and he could feel a sharp, stabbing pain somewhere deep inside of him. "You’re an illusion…you’re not real…"
"You must hate me," Grey Wolf said, lowering his gaze. "You don’t want me to be here with you. You want me to be dead…"
"That’s not true!" Tiger cried out. How can I make him understand? This isn’t real, it can’t be! It’s all an illusion.
But his heart shrieked at him to believe what was happening. In the back of his mind, a voice asked, would it be all that terrible to let this be true? I can have my little brother back again, before everything happened. My pack, the Wild Bunch, my old home, I could have all of that back again.
But it wouldn’t be real. It would all be an illusion. Nothing I do could ever change that.
But would that be so terrible? My entire life, I’ve had to lose everything I ever cared for: my pack, my friends, my family, and my brother! I have nothing left in this world other than fighting and revenge! After I’ve gotten my revenge, what then? I’ll still have nothing to return to.
But this way…I can have everything I ever dreamed of. I’ll never have to be lonely or lost again. I can have everything back again…isn’t that what I’ve always wanted?
Tiger closed his eyes, and a single tear squeezed out, rolling down over his scarred cheek. He knew what his decision had to be. Opening his eyes, he gazed into his brother’s loving face.
"Grey Wolf," he whispered. "You’re just like I remember you as, even if you are an illusion."
Grey Wolf smiled at him, and Tiger returned the smile, although his was much sadder. Then the expression on Grey Wolf’s face faded as lightning coursed into his body.
"I’m sorry, little brother," Tiger of the Wind whispered as the image of the silver-furred wolf faded into the darkness. Turning his back on the sight, he plunged deeper into the void.
* * *
"Holly…" Suezo whispered, gazing helplessly over at the girl’s body. He struggled to stand up and half-hopped, half-limped over to her side. The soft chestnut brown eyes were wide open, but no longer saw anything. Tears blinding him, Suezo managed to gently close them, though it hurt just to touch her. He could see where her blood had smeared onto him, but he no longer cared. Holly was dead.
"It…can’t be true," he sobbed to himself. "Holly, you can’t be dead!" His tears rolled freely down his face, clouding the sight of her body. Through the mist of tears, however, Suezo abruptly noticed something.
Holly’s talisman, her father’s dagger, lying next to him. Suezo gazed at it, ran his tail over it, contemplating something. After a moment, he carefully lifted it up, staring almost spellbound at its bloodstained blade. As he turned it toward his own heart, he made a decision.
Holly…where you go…I go.
The old promise echoed in his mind as he guided the dagger to what he knew would be its final resting spot.
Something flashed out, and Suezo cried out in pain as electrical energy coursed into the dagger's handle. It clattered to the ground, and the eyeball whirled to see Tiger of the Wind standing a few feet away.
"Don’t be foolish, Suezo!" he called. "It’s only an illusion! One of Joker’s tricks!"
Joker’s…tricks? As that sunk in, Suezo looked back at Holly’s body. It faded out of existence, becoming part of the darkness again, and Suezo broke free from his depression. A new wave of fear nearly overwhelmed him as he realized what he had been about to do, followed by an intense anger. Just who did Joker think he was to play with the feelings of others like that?
"Let’s find the others!" he told Tiger. The blue wolf nodded, and the two monsters headed off together, following Tiger’s instincts.
* * *
They found Genki draped over a lost disc, sobbing uncontrollably. He kept screaming something they couldn’t understand; the only words they could make out were "Mocchi" and "I killed him." When Suezo finally managed to pull Genki away from the lost disc, he couldn’t keep himself from staring at the boy’s face. He was bleeding pretty badly, and the eyeball monster felt his heart skip a few beats at the sight of how badly he was injured.
Even Tiger couldn’t contain his shock at the sight, but he quickly channeled it into something else. "This is Joker’s fault," he growled, his eyes becoming glittering golden slits. "He’s the one who caused Genki to get this hurt…"
"What do we do now?" Suezo asked. "The kid can’t fight in this condition…Should I try to wake…"
"Don’t wake him up," Tiger said with such vehemence that Suezo nearly let go of Genki.
"Why?" Suezo started to ask, but he understood even before he finished the question. The last time Genki had been under the spell, he had nearly gotten chopped in half. But the wound hadn’t been real…until he had woken up.
As long as Joker’s still alive…then any injuries we get in the dream world will be real when we wake up.
That left only one option left: they had to defeat Joker and save Hare before Genki woke up. If the boy’s injuries turned into reality…
"Let’s move," Tiger ordered, motioning for Suezo to follow him. The eyeball monster hastily propped Genki up against his side as best he could and helped the boy along.
* * *
Joker swore, more than a little upset by the fact that his three ‘guests’ had broken free of his illusions. The cloaked monster struggled to regain control, quickly reminding himself of what his true goals were.
It wasn’t like it was a total loss. The little rabbit, his true target, was still under his power, still losing strength. It wouldn’t be long before his will was too weak to fight back against Joker’s powers. Once Joker had control of the rabbit’s body, he would be able to deal with the rebels at his leisure.
Joker calmed down, and glanced over at where the rabbit hung suspended in midair by ethereal hands. Yes…it won’t be long now…
His laughter echoed into the darkness, a challenge to the rebels.
* * *
Tiger of the Wind raced toward the sound of the noise, intent upon securing his revenge on the cloaked monster. Behind him, Suezo was panting and swearing at the blue wolf as he struggled to support Genki’s body. The eyeball monster was having an extremely hard time keeping the boy from falling down, mainly because his body type wasn’t exactly designed for holding things.
"Tiger…wait…up! I…can’t…run…that…fast…you…" Suezo’s voice died out as he spotted a point of light in front of them, and he called out, "Hey! Over there!"
Tiger noticed the light, too, and pushed forward, now absolutely positive that he was headed in the right direction. "Joker!" he howled, finally spotting the cloaked monster, and he surged at the baddie, summoning his lightning.
Joker easily dodged the electricity, and he hissed, "Such a simple trick. I do hope that wasn’t your most powerful move, my dear Tiger, or else you are in trouble, indeed."
Tiger snarled, then his golden eyes widened as he noticed Hare held in the shadows behind Joker. He quickly regained his composure, but Joker had already seen the expression on his face. The baddie laughed, mockingly.
"Ah, yes, you finally noticed, did you?" he teased. "What do you think? He may be a little small, but the powers of the Phoenix’s Tear will more than make up for that once I’m in control, wouldn’t you agree?"
"What?" Suezo gasped, hopping up with Genki leaning against him. His eye widened as he noticed Hare, then he glared at the cloaked monster.
"You’re not getting his body," Tiger growled, catching on to Joker’s plan. He roared at the baddie, but Joker slid cleanly away from the gale, and he brought the end of his scythe down hard over Tiger’s head. The blue wolf grunted, then leaped at Joker.
"Haven’t we played this game before?" Joker asked, still laughing as he swung his scythe around again, catching Tiger in the muzzle and sending him sprawling backward. Suezo leaped at his back, only to be knocked away as the baddie whirled around.
"Be careful," Joker taunted the two monsters. "You never know when I’ll decide to use the sharp side of my stick!"
Leave my friends out of this.
Suezo’s eye widened, and he whirled around, trying to distinguish where the soft but determined voice had come from. The others seemed to have heard it as well, and Tiger flicked a quick glance around while Joker paused in his attack.
Genki groaned, and the boy propped himself up on one bleeding arm. "Hare?" he managed to ask, his voice weak and wavering.
Joker shrugged off the occurrence, and swept toward the boy, his scythe flashing down. Suezo opened his dry mouth to call out, "Tele-port!" but the words wouldn’t come as a doubt flickered in his mind: What if I can’t use it?
You can. Call it out!
What? Suezo had definitely heard a voice that time, but he quickly complied with the instruction. He felt a rush of power, and then he vanished and rematerialized –with Genki at his side– some distance away from Joker.
"How did you…?" Joker cursed. Tiger took advantage of his distraction to leap toward the baddie, and the cloaked monster quickly dodged away. But Tiger’s claws clipped the side of his cloak, and he swore in frustration. Tiger fell back close to where Suezo and Genki were.
"I heard it…that time…" Suezo breathed. Tiger nodded curtly, and he glanced over at where Hare still hung suspended in the darkness, still unconscious.
"Looks like Joker’s spell has a few problems," he muttered under his breath. His golden eyes glittered with a strange emotion…Suezo could almost swear that the blue wolf was amused by the unexpected weakness.
Joker surged toward them, scythe glowing with violet energy. Tiger knocked Genki and Suezo away, and leapt to meet the monster’s attack head on. There was a sickening thud as the end of Joker’s weapon slammed down, and Suezo nearly screamed as he saw Tiger fly backward.
There was no mistaking the mental voice that time. The mental scream lanced into Suezo and Genki’s minds, and the boy’s eyes fluttered open again as he groaned, "Hare…"
Tiger got back on his feet, blood seeping from a wound on his forehead. A lopsided grin twisted his face: he finally had a plan he could use against Joker. Although Hare would never go for it…he’d say it was too risky. Tiger smirked at that thought, even as he lunged toward Joker again.
Another terrible crack echoed through the air, and the blue wolf tumbled back to the ground. The mental voice screamed his name again, and Hare stirred in the grip of the shadows. Suezo stared at him, then gazed back at Tiger, heart pounding faster as he recognized what the blue wolf was doing.
"You damned fool!" Joker shouted, his eyes flaring blood red as Tiger leaped toward him again. He lashed out, and this time he struck with the sharp edge of his weapon. The blade tore into blue-and-white fur, and Suezo cried out as he saw blood splatter out.
Tiger of the Wind fell backward, eyes closing, a satisfied smirk on his face.
And a mental voice shrieked out the blue wolf’s name, piercing the minds of everyone in the dark abyss.
And Joker screamed, falling backward, his cloak billowing around him.
And Hare’s eyes snapped open.
* * *
Holly, Mocchi and Golem cried out in unison, the cry lancing into their minds with such force that they nearly fell backward. Holly felt her eyes mist with tears from the pain she felt in her mind, the plaintive cry burning into her mind.
A shadow flickered over the group for a moment, then surged away from where her four friends were sleeping. Holly stared in shock as the shadow slowly changed into a lost disc.
"Holly?" Suezo called out. Holly raced over to the eyeball’s side, calling his name. Next to him, Genki groaned and got to his feet, only to get knocked back down by Mocchi.
"It’s okay, Mocchi, I’m okay," Genki assured him, smiling. Suezo glanced over at him, relieved to see that none of the boy’s injuries from the nightmare had become real. Even the mark on his chest from before was rapidly fading away.
Tiger of the Wind opened his eyes and immediately noticed that Suezo and Genki were both staring at him. Growling low in his throat, he ignored their look and turned away.
And found himself staring into Hare’s wide eyes. The little rabbit was sitting up on the ground and staring directly at the blue wolf. Pretending that he couldn’t see the hurt and fear that shone so clearly in them, Tiger turned his back on the rabbit.
"Hare-chi!" Mocchi cried out, noticing that the rabbit was awake. Hare barely had time to brace himself before the little pink monster bounced into him, sobbing with relief. As the others gathered around him, asking how he felt and if he was truly okay now, he glanced over at Tiger, who had stalked away from the group and was glaring off into the darkness, as if waiting for an attack.
Hare bit his lip, deciding not to mention that he had seen everything the others had gone through. After all, it had been his nightmare they had gone into, so naturally he remembered what had happened to them. But that was something better left unsaid, at least for now.
He glanced over at Suezo, who was standing close to Holly just like normal. Except…was it a trick of the light, or was the eyeball monster flicking nervous glances over at the girl every few seconds? Hare couldn’t help but think about what the illusionary Holly had said before: as a servant of Moo, Joker had access to more information than the rebels did. Was it possible that…?
Hare quickly discarded the thought: even if it was true, Holly had her reasons to keep it a secret. And he knew more about having to keep things hidden than most did…