"Everyone keep running!" Genki shouted.
"Like…we…need…a…reminder?!?" Suezo panted, hopping after the other rebels as they raced deeper into the forest. Genki glared back at him, but before he could shout out an angry retort, a bolt of energy streaked past them, mere inches away from striking both eyeball monster and boy. Both of them stared at it with widened eyes and sweatdropped, and quickly turned their full attention back to the issue at hand, that of escaping with their lives.
"Yeeek! Get away get away get away!" Coltia screeched, waving her arms and legs wildly as she ran alongside the other rebels. Serinity and Holly sweatdropped as they glanced over at her, but both knew better than to comment on how strange she looked running away like that…after all, they were panicking just as much as she was, even if she was a bit more vocal about it.
"What kind of monsters are those, anyway? Baddies?" Serinity asked, glancing back over her shoulder at the creatures that pursued them.
"Shell Saurians!" Scaler called back at her, giving Hare a rough push from behind to hasten the younger rabbit along. "They’re some of the more common of Moo’s warriors, since Dino and Zuum types aren’t as rare as some other monsters. Their hard shells act like a sort of built-in armor, and they’re typically very fast on their feet!"
"Really?" Serinity asked, turning bright green eyes toward him.
"This isn’t exactly the time for a lesson about monster types!" Suezo shouted, panting hard as he came up behind the other rebels. "It doesn’t matter what they are, we need to get them off our tails, now!"
"That’s a great idea, only how do you suggest we go about doing that?" Scaler asked, looking back at him. Steel flickered briefly in his paws as he added, "I can probably take out the ones in front right away, but I’ll need someone to cover me when I close quarters with the others!"
"Serinity, do you know any ray attacks?" Genki asked, and the pixie hybrid flashed him a surprised look.
"…Y-Yes, I do know one," she stammered, blinking her wide green eyes in surprise, "but I’m afraid that I’m not that great of a shot…"
"Try it," Scaler suggested, several of his smaller knives glinting in his hands again as he added, "I’ll cover you while you test it out, just in case."
"O-okay!" she replied, nodding back at him. With a sudden flap of her wings, the pixie hybrid sprang into the air, and she pivoted in midair, pointing both palms of her hands back toward the pursuing dinosaurs.
"Here we go! Scattershot!" she shouted, and her hands glowed as small bolts of bright green light shot from her fingertips, streaking down toward the saurians like glowing droplets of rain. The majority of the tiny beams struck the ground harmlessly, but one or two managed to hit one of the baddies on the side of their legs or their tails. One bolt burned through a particularly unlucky dinosaur’s toe, and he yelped in pain, skidding to a halt to blow on his smoking foot.
Serinity sweatdropped, and she swooped down to fly beside the other searchers, her face burning. Scaler gave her a mildly surprised look, arching an eyebrow at her.
"…You weren’t kidding when you said you were a lousy shot," Suezo commented, and Serinity’s normally pale face reddened even more.
"Well, what did you expect? I’m not really a big fighter…I’ve only been in one real battle…and I, um, kinda lost…"
"Great," Suezo groaned, rolling his eye. Scaler shot him an annoyed look out of the corner of his eye.
"Do you know any long-range attacks like that?" he asked, dark violet-brown eyes flashing. "If you do, please use them now and show her how it is done."
Suezo did not answer, and quickly looked away, avoiding the scaled rabbit’s eyes. After a moment, Scaler nodded curtly.
"I thought so," he muttered, glancing back at the baddies still following them. "Don’t tease her about her aim when she at least has attacks to aim!"
"Shouldn’t we be concentrating on fighting these guys instead of fighting each other?!?" Coltia wailed, and a fireball whizzed past the girl’s ear as if to emphasize her lament.
"Colt’s right, we have to fight them!" Genki shouted, gritting his teeth as he cast another quick glance over his shoulder. The Shell Saurians were drawing closer with each passing moment, and some of their attacks, while none had actually hit their marks yet, were getting more and more accurate. It would only be a matter of time before one of the fireballs hit its target, and then…
A fireball passed over the boy’s head, singing the very tip of his cap, and Genki gritted his teeth again. Suddenly he skidded to a stop, and as Holly and the others cast a shocked look at him, whirled around and raced toward the Shell Saurians.
"Genki!" Holly screamed, horrified.
Fortunately, the Shell Saurians were as startled by the boy’s sudden attack as the other rebels were, and the boy’s foot smashed into the snout of the leader without any resistance at all from the baddies. Blood spurted out and covered the heel of his boot, and Genki quickly jumped backwards as the dinosaur stumbled back into its comrades.
"Ah…ah…ah," Serinity gasped, eyes wide with horror as she watched the saurian’s crimson blood drip down the side of its face and stain the grass beneath it. The dinosaur snarled, beady black eyes filling with outrage as he glared at Genki.
"You’ll…pay for that…human!" he growled, and lunged forward with his claws, barely missing the boy’s chest. Genki jumped backward, then balled his hands into fists and brought them down on the already bloody snout. The saurian let out a choked cry and lunged for the boy, only to catch a dagger in his neck for his efforts.
The Shell Saurian screamed, and Genki found himself crying out in shock as well, for the knife had nicked his arm as it flew past him. As he grasped his wounded arm, which fortunately had not been cut too deeply, the other baddies saw their chance and rushed toward him.
Suddenly, however, Scaler was darting past the boy, a blur of green and tan as he leapt forward to meet the attackers with his own assault. Steel flashed from his paws to bury itself in the necks and bodies of several of the dinosaurs, and as the rest fell backward to regroup, the scaled rabbit glanced back over his shoulder at Genki.
"Get up," he hissed, violet-brown eyes flashing like the sword he held before him. "Don’t show your enemy any weakness. Get up and fight!"
Genki gave the green rabbit an annoyed look, but quickly clambered to his feet. His arm throbbed a little where he had been cut, but he flexed it slightly and decided that it would be okay. After all, he was the Monster Champion, and a little thing like a wound on his arm wasn’t going to keep him from protecting his friends!
"Here we go, gang!" he shouted, and joined Scaler in attacking the Shell Saurians. As Mocchi, Hare and Suezo ran forward with their own attacks, Coltia snatched a rock up from the ground and slung it at the face of the nearest baddie. Holly and Serinity backed away, watching the battle unfold before them, and the pixie hybrid gasped quietly, green eyes wavering with fear and horror.
"…How…how horrible," she whispered, shaking her head slowly, unable to tear her gaze away. "How…how can you possibly fight like that…?"
She shuddered, and Holly shot her a concerned look before a shout pulled her attention back towards the battle. Her eyes widened with terror as she saw what was happening: the Shell Saurians were using their vast numbers to simply overwhelm the fighting rebels. As she and the paralyzed Serinity watched, several of the baddies yanked Genki and Mocchi to the ground and kicked them repeatedly, keeping them pinned to the ground though they fought to rise. Suezo and Coltia saw this happen, and both tried to make their way over to their fallen friends, only to get pushed back by the baddies.
"Genki!" Coltia shouted, and she fumbled for her slingshot. One of the Shell Saurians lashed out with his tail and the young girl yelped as the tip flailed into her hand. Her slingshot flew out of her grasp and got knocked away by another tail strike, and Coltia cradled her uninjured hand around her wounded one as she took a hesitant step backward.
"Tongue Slap!" Suezo called out, whacking several of the zuums away from her. However, one of the baddies launched a fireball at him, and he gagged and coughed as the glowing sphere struck his tongue.
"Suezo! Colt! Mocchi! Genki!" Hare called, and the tawny-furred rabbit whirled around to go help them. Scaler grabbed at his shoulder as he tried to run past, and pulled the younger rabbit closer to his body, half-shielding him under his cloak.
"Are you insane? You’ll only get yourself killed!" he yelled, pulling him backwards as he spoke. His free paw blurred again, and five more Shell Saurians cried out as they suddenly found blades lodged in their throats.
"Let me go!" Hare shouted, struggling vainly against the elder rabbit’s grasp. Scaler only tightened his grip in reply, and tears sprung to Hare’s wavering eyes as he pleaded, "I have to help them! They’re in danger!"
"You’re in danger!" Scaler retorted, yanking him backward. Sensing victory, the baddies started to move in on the two hares, but a few swipes from the green rabbit’s ready sword quickly discouraged them. Deciding to focus their attention on the easier targets first, the baddies turned to the still pinned Genki and Mocchi. Several of them opened their mouths, and a deep yellowish-orange glow surrounded their gaping maws as they prepared to fire their attacks.
"No! Mocchi! Genki!" Holly cried out in helpless terror. Behind her, Serinity gasped, and suddenly reached out instinctively with one hand, slender fingers weaving a spell.
"Scattershot!" she shouted again, desperately. Again small bolts of bright green light streaked from her gesturing fingers, and again few of them actually hit any of the Shell Saurians. However, it did manage to distract them for a second, as they paused to look at the small verdant beams that shot past them.
"This…isn’t working," she murmured, sweatdropping again. The Shell Saurians eyed her for a second, then shrugged in unison and started to power up their attacks again.
"Let me go! I have to help them!" Hare pleaded, fighting against Scaler’s stubborn grasp. Scaler’s eyes remained impassive, and he kept his firm grip on the younger rabbit’s shoulder despite his continued protests, the dull flickering of the Shell Saurians’ growing fireballs reflecting off of his dark, narrowed eyes.
"Genki…Mocchi…" Coltia moaned, still cradling her injured hand. Beside her, Suezo continued to gag and choke as his tongue smoked.
Genki moaned, and the boy raised his head groggily just in time to see the Shell Saurians charge their attacks even higher. The orange-yellow flames glowed dangerously, and Genki felt his eyes widen in dull terror as he watched the fireballs build, and he pulled a barely conscious Mocchi closer to his side as the baddies prepared to launch their attacks…
"Genki, no!" Holly screamed, and the girl involuntarily squeezed her eyes shut as the fireballs threatened to reach out and engulf her friends. She heard Genki and Mocchi scream, and then the sound was abruptly cut off with a short cry.
"Genki! Mocchi!" Hare shouted, and Holly forced herself to open her eyes to confront what had happened. Looking over, she sucked in a gasp despite herself, and stared disbelieving at what stood before her.
"…What?" Genki murmured, opening his eyes and staring up to see that several of the Shell Saurians had suddenly backed up, their beady black eyes watching a stranger that was standing in front of them, between them and their would-be victims. As Genki and Mocchi stared up at the strange person, startled, he threw a quick glance back at them and smirked, ever so slightly.
"You dare to defy Master Moo as well?" the leader demanded, glaring at him. The stranger nodded, and drew out a very sharp-looking sword from its sheath, holding it before him in direct challenge. The Shell Saurians regarded him, then just as they were about to advance, a small dagger shot out from behind them and buried itself in the ground, causing them to glance backwards.
Scaler stood in front of Hare, swords in both of his paws, and his cloak was deliberately swept back over his shoulders enough to reveal more blades glinting at his sides. Behind him, Hare had his paws balled into fists, and his kerchief had slipped enough to partially reveal the glowing crystal at his neck.
The Shell Saurians paused, and sweatdropped in unison. Obviously this was one situation that they didn’t like being in.
"Err…later!" the leader said, and suddenly they were off, running away at full speed, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake. The searchers watched them go, and Serinity sighed in relief.
"Thank goodness we didn’t have to fight them to the death," she murmured, eyes wavering with a mixture of fear and relief.
Their savior turned to face them, and Genki felt his mouth drop open in shock. This swordsman was a boy, one who didn’t appear to be much older than he was, although obviously more skilled in the ways of battle. The simple leather tunic he wore hinted at a chain mail vest underneath, and a thick belt at his slender waist bore the weight of his sword as he slid it securely back into place. Loose-fitting black pants were tucked into the cuffs of the stranger’s leather boots, and a pair of golden earrings twinkled in the sunlight as he smiled over at the group.
"Ah, Genki, Holly, long time no see! Looks like I happened across you just in time, eh?"
"Huh?" Genki stared at the stranger in growing astonishment. Something about the confident smirk on the boy’s face was familiar, and the way that his narrow sapphire eyes sparkled the same way the twin loops of gold in his ears did…the way that his ruffled, blue-gray hair drifted over his face in jagged bangs…
Recognition hit Genki with full force, and Holly gasped in surprise as she remembered as well. Suezo and Mocchi blinked in unison, stunned, and as the strange boy’s grin widened, the little pink monster abruptly understood.
"Alan-chi?" he asked, pointing at the bladesman in confusion. The boy laughed in reply, and made a quick signal with one hand. As Genki, Holly, Mocchi and Suezo gaped at him, a pair of screeching Worms surfaced behind him, one much larger than the other.
"Alan!" Genki called, now absolutely certain.
"I wondered if that was the problem," the boy with blue-gray hair snickered, deep blue eyes twinkling with laughter. "It’s good to see all of you again."
Hare was staring blankly at his friends, not certain what was going on. Genki glanced over at him and immediately understood the problem.
"Oh yeah, that’s right, you’ve never met Alan before, have you?" he commented. Hare just gave him a blank, confused look, and Genki smiled. Gesturing back at the other boy, he explained, "This is Alan, a friend of ours. We met him when we were passing through here before, back when it was just me, Holly, Mocchi, Suezo and Golem…"
"Hey, where is the big guy, anyway?" Alan interrupted, looking around. "It’s not exactly hard to miss someone as tall as he is…so where…?"
He trailed off as he suddenly noticed the strange, wistful expressions that Holly, Mocchi, Suezo and Hare suddenly wore. Even Genki looked slightly saddened for a moment, but that passed quickly as he shook his head and locked eyes with Alan.
"I think we need to talk about that," he said, clear eyes shining. Alan paused, then nodded back at him.
"You may be right," he said, then glanced around and added, "But it isn’t safe for us to have a meeting out in the open like this. I’ll lead you back to my hideout. Worms!"
He turned and made a swift signal with his hand; the two worms screeched in unison and dove back into the ground, burrowing swiftly and soon vanishing from sight. Alan then sprang into the branches of a nearby tree, and he glanced over his shoulder at the searchers, a cocky grin on his face.
"Try and keep up, if you can," and then he was gone with a rustle of leaves and branches.
"Wait up!" Genki shouted, barreling into the woods after him. The other searchers followed after him, and Suezo sweatdropped as he struggled to keep up with them.
"This is definitely Alan we’re dealing with," he muttered, in between gasps for breath.
* * *
"…So let me get this straight: you had them outnumbered, and you fled?"
The Shell Saurians winced in unison, and all of them kept their heads bowed, their faces nearly in the dirt underneath them. All of them trembled, none daring to glance upward in fear that doing so would further incite the wrath of the one who stood before them. The speaker’s figure was wreathed in shadows, making it impossible to make out any of its features, save for its glowing crimson eyes.
"And why, may I ask," the voice hissed, "did you choose to flee?"
The dinosaurs froze, paralyzed with fear. None of them dared to answer yet at the same time knew that failure to reply would result in destruction for all of them. After a few moments, several pairs of beady eyes flicked toward the front and the leader gulped silently, knowing that his comrades expected him to be the one to respond.
"W-well…" he started, slowly, stammering without meaning to, "t-they had a lot of really sharp swords, a-and…"
The figure in the shadows sighed and whispered, "Enough." Just one word, but it was more than enough to make the Shell Saurian’s already wildly pounding heart to leap into his throat. A glowing black light erupted from the darkness, and the leader screeched in agony as his form was rapidly engulfed by the dark radiance. The other Shell Saurians panicked and scattered, bolting away from their dying commander’s writhing body.
"What pathetic fools," the hidden monster commented, watching with glowing crimson eyes as the zuum hybrids fled in terror. A sudden flash of ebony light behind them caused it to turn, and another, larger figure appeared, also wreathed in shadow.
"They are getting away," the newcomer commented in a deep, booming voice.
"Let them run. They were useless fools anyway," the first one replied, sounding unconcerned. "Where do they expect to run to? Their crests will mark them as baddies to any possibly friendly hosts they may find, and they are too frightened and stupid to dare approach any other baddies for aid. The only way they can help themselves now would be to prove their worth by destroying Moo’s enemies, and the chances of that…"
Both of them laughed, then suddenly went rigid, their eyes flashing an even brighter red for an instant.
"Moo calls," the second one whispered, and the first one nodded.
"Let us go," it replied, and with two flashes of ebony light, they had vanished.
* * *
"…So that’s it," Alan said, nodding grimly as the searchers finished their tale. His arms were crossed over his chest, and his dark blue eyes shone with thought as he gazed back into the blazing fire before him. Genki and Holly nodded in solemn reply, falling silent as well, and Coltia let out the breath she had been holding with a soft whoosh.
"Wow…" she murmured, turning shining tan eyes on Genki, Holly, Suezo, Mocchi and Hare as if seeing them in a new light. "I didn’t realize that you guys were actually the ones who defeated Moo in the first place! It sounds like you really went through a lot…"
You have no idea, Holly thought glumly, reaching down and grasping the hilt of the dagger she wore on her belt. She noticed that Hare was holding the Phoenix’s Tear gently in both paws, keeping it clasped against his chest, and wondered briefly if he was thinking along the same lines that she was.
"Having second thoughts about coming along?" Suezo teased, eyeing Coltia. Coltia’s face flushed bright red, and she glared over at Suezo angrily.
"No, I’m not!" she cried, sticking her tongue out at the eyeball monster. "I still want to help you fight this thing, no matter what happens!"
"As do I," Scaler added, reaching over and gripping Hare’s shoulder slightly.
"I wish to help as well," Serinity added, nervously clasping her hands in her lap to keep from trembling. "I want to help you find your friends again, and if we have to fight Moo to find them…well…so be it."
Alan looked at all of them and nodded slightly, his sapphire eyes gleaming as he noted, "Well, it looks like you have quite a few new recruits with you already. And all of you are determined to help them?"
Coltia, Scaler and Serinity all nodded back at him, solemnly. Alan smiled, nodding back, then suddenly turned away. Genki and the others stared at his back, confused.
"Alan-chi?" Mocchi ventured after a moment. Alan seemed to jump in surprise, and he quickly turned back around, smiling at the little pink monster.
"…Hey, you all should stay here for the night," he said, gesturing around the cave he used as his base. "The enemy rarely ventures this deep into the woods, and the entrance is hidden anyway, so you shouldn’t have any problems tonight. You’ll need your rest if you’re planning on continuing this quest of yours."
"…Alan?" Holly whispered, giving the silver-haired boy a strange look. Alan glanced over at her and smiled, briefly, then turned away again.
"Don’t worry about it," he said, waving a hand over his shoulder at her in dismissal of any comments she or the others might have made. "I’m going to run some patrols before heading to bed myself; the rest of you should go ahead and get settled in. Trust me."
With that, he walked further away from the light of the campfire and soon vanished into the shadows. The searchers stared after him for a moment, then Genki let out a yawn and stretched out.
"He’s got a point," he said, leaning backward as he stretched out his arms over his head. "Maybe we should try and get some sleep now."
"Yeah, who knows when we’ll be able to get a good night’s rest again," Suezo commented darkly, already curling up as he spoke.
"You should get some sleep," Scaler turned and informed Hare, his tone leaving no room for argument. The younger rabbit glared at him for a moment, but found himself being stared down, and grudgingly settled down.
"Mocchi tired," Mocchi commented, curling up into a ball beside Genki. Within a matter of seconds, he was already fast asleep, and Genki smiled protectively at him, draping an arm over the young monster’s back.
Serinity wrapped both of her wings around her and lay down, letting her short orange bangs shade her eyes from the flickering firelight. Holly retrieved some blankets from Suezo’s pack, passing them around. As she settled down, Coltia walked over and sat down beside her.
"So you know that cute guy from before?" she leaned over and whispered in Holly’s ear, tan eyes glimmering with interest. Holly felt her face flush bright red without even knowing why.
"Yes," she confirmed, nodding, "we met Alan back when we were first passing through this forest."
"Lucky you," Coltia sighed, dreamily. "It must be nice to have known two guys that are so cute for that long…"
"W-What?" Holly stammered, turning widened bronze eyes on the other girl in shock. But Coltia had already turned her face away and was wrapped up in her blanket, fast asleep. Aware that her face was still burning, Holly gazed back into the slowly fading fire, trying to figure out why she felt so embarrassed.
Colt’s just being silly, she decided silently after a moment. She was just teasing me about having met Genki and Alan before her…but why did she make that comment about me being lucky? …She must be joking around. I’m hardly…lucky…
* * *
Alan smiled as a pair of screeches greeted him the moment he emerged from the cave. He glanced up towards the rapidly darkening sky: a few stars had already made their appearance, and sparkled brilliantly above the treetops. A cool breeze ruffled his short, blue-gray hair, and he absently flipped his bangs away from his face.
"When it’s nice out like this, it’s so difficult to believe that Moo may be back," he commented, his sapphire eyes glinting solemnly as they reflected the light of the stars. The larger of his Worms crooned slightly, distressed by his bothered tone, and he flashed his original monster a quick smile.
"But we’ll stop him, won’t we, Worm?" he asked, grinning over at the huge monster. "We won’t let him get away with whatever he’s got planned. Between us working here and the others going after the Phoenix, we’ll be alright."
His two monsters squealed in eager agreement, and Alan sprang on the back of the elder one. Tossing back his head, letting his short black cape billow in the wind, he made a quick signal with his hand, raising it high into the air.
"Let’s go, you two! We have a lot of ground to cover tonight!"
Again the two Worms screeched in unison, then they began to lurch forward, moving surprisingly fast considering their size. As they plunged deeper into the forest, Alan reached down and patted his sword’s hilt, checking to make certain it was secure in its sheath. With any luck, he would not need it tonight, but…
* * *
Holly sighed silently as she stared into the dying fire, stirring the fading embers with a small stick she had found so the flames would not fade completely. She had pulled her knees up to her chest, and her bronze eyes shimmered both from reflections of the campfire and with thought.
As hard as she tried, she simply could not stop thinking about what Coltia had said to her. For some reason, the younger girl’s airy comment about her being lucky for knowing two cute guys had really bothered her. She wasn’t quite certain what it was exactly that was nagging her…it was just that, when Coltia had made that comment, it had struck something within her, something she couldn’t quite put a name to.
Was she saying that she was jealous of me, she wondered. Just because I met Genki and Alan before she did…? …No, no, that couldn’t be right. Colt isn’t really the jealous type…and why would she be jealous of me, anyway? It’s not like they…
Suddenly a soft groan from nearby interrupted her thoughts, and Holly looked up in surprise. It took only a second for the shock to fade from her eyes and turn to sympathy when she saw what was happening.
"Oh, Hare," she whispered softly, watching the young monster toss back and forth, groaning faintly. He was obviously either having another nightmare or vision, and as she watched, eyes misting with sympathetic tears, she heard another faint gasp behind her. Turning around, she saw that Serinity was also awake, and was staring at the small rabbit with wide, horrified eyes.
"H-Holly? W-What’s wrong with him?" she asked, trembling a little bit as she turned her frightened gaze to the human girl. When Holly did not answer right away, the hybrid looked back at the still moaning bunny, then started to stand up, causing Holly to quickly reach up and grab her hand.
"Wait!" she whispered loudly, pulling Serinity back down. Startled, Serinity lost her balance and fell backward with a soft thud, nearly crushing her tail. Biting back a yelp of surprise, she stared at the human girl in surprise as Holly hastily explained, "I’m sorry, but it’s normally best if you don’t try to wake him up when he’s like this. He might be having a vision, and if he is, then it might have a warning or something else in it that he has to see."
"…But he…he looks like he’s in pain," Serinity murmured, bright green eyes wavering as she glanced back toward him. Holly bit her lip and looked down at the ground, letting her bangs fall over her face and shade her eyes.
"I know," she whispered, shaking her head slightly, "but…sometimes, his visions have information that we really need to hear. I know it’s hard to just sit back and do nothing, but…"
"…Miss Holly," Serinity whispered softly, reaching over to the human girl and placing a slender hand on her shoulder. Holly looked up at her, bronze eyes wavering, and the pixie asked, "Do you need to step outside for a little while…? …According to what Alan said, it should be fairly safe, and I think you may need the time…I’ll look after things here for you."
"…T-thank you," Holly said, standing up slowly and turning away. As she started to walk toward the entrance, she glanced back and saw that Serinity had also moved, and was now kneeling next to Hare, silently watching him as he continued to moan and toss in his sleep. After a moment, the pixie hybrid reached down and gently took one of his hands in hers, giving it a gentle squeeze.
Holly smiled sadly, then turned around and slowly made her way out of the cave. Pushing away the leaves that covered the entrance, she stepped out into the cool night air. As she sighed and gazed up toward the twinkling stars so far above her, the wind eagerly began to play with her hair, tossing it around behind her and ruffling her bangs.
She sighed; the cool caress of the breeze felt so nice against her reddened cheeks, and she stood there for some time, gazing up at the darkened sky, losing herself in the stars. After a while, she realized with a start that her cheeks were wet; she had started crying without even noticing. Startled, she reached up and brushed the side of her hand against her tear-stained cheek, then pulled it away and gave it a confused look.
Why…am I crying? She asked herself, looking back up at the stars with wavering bronze eyes. However, even as she wondered that, she realized in the same instant that she had many things to cry about. The problems and responsibilities she faced during the day in stoic silence crashed down upon her all at once, and her resolve crumpled to dust as they fell upon her.
She was crying because she didn’t think she could handle this. She knew this, and also knew that the realization of this was causing her to start crying again. As hot tears began to brim in her eyes again, she quickly fled from the cave entrance, not wanting to disturb her friends that still slumbered within. At the very least, she feared, Serinity might overhear her sobs and come looking for her, to see what was the matter, and she didn’t want to burden the pixie hybrid with any more problems.
She didn’t go far: she knew better than to stray away and risk getting lost. Then the others would most certainly come looking for her, and figure out that something was bothering her. Instead, she walked only a short ways from the cave, to a lake that Alan had pointed out close by. It was close enough to the hideout that she knew she would have no trouble finding her way back to it later.
She kneeled down on the bank, gazing at her reflection in the water for some time, noting how the moonlight seemed to make the water glow like translucent liquid silver. It looked beautiful, serene, and a stark contrast to how she felt at the moment.
A single tear dropped from her wavering bronze eyes and caused ripples in the smooth surface of the lake, and the moonlight shifted to crest each tiny wave with silver. Watching this, Holly felt more tears spring to her eyes: she felt as if she had ruined the perfect scenery with her selfish tears, shattered the serenity of the moment because of her own petty wants and fears. It was a completely irrational, self-berating thought, but she still allowed it to take root, and more tears dropped into the lake as she began to sob quietly.
* * *
"…Well, that was easy enough," Alan commented lightly, glancing back over his shoulder at his two partners as they burrowed after him. "Those Shell Saurians were so scattered around, I don’t know how they expected to accomplish. They didn’t put up much of a fight, either: one or two strikes with the old blade and they all scrambled away. How weak is that?"
He laughed, and the two Worms screeched as if agreeing with him. Grinning, Alan looked back at them and nodded again.
"You two go ahead and turn in for the night; you’ve earned it," he instructed.
The smaller monster screeched again, and eagerly burrowed underground, ready to return home and get some rest. However, the larger one hesitated, and its multiple eyes gleamed inquisitively as it cocked its body to one side.
"Don’t worry, I’m going to bed soon," Alan laughed, waving his older monster off. This seemed to satisfy it, and as it also retreated into the earth, Alan laughed and shook his head slightly. Turning away, he glanced up into the dark sky, his sapphire eyes catching and reflecting the starlight. Shouldering his blade, he traced his way through the woods, using his knowledge of the forest’s layout to weave a path that would not leave a trail that any would-be pursuers could follow.
A soft noise caught his attention, and Alan looked around in confusion. Fingering the hilt of his sword, he carefully moved toward the sound, his eyes narrowed into slits as he concentrated on making as little noise as possible. Creeping forward, he slowly began to draw his blade, then suddenly froze as he saw who was making the noise.
"Holly?" he whispered, causing the girl to gasp and leap to her feet, whirling around to face him. Her bronze eyes looked huge and luminous in the moonlight, and her pale skin seemed to glow as well.
"Alan?" she asked, struggling to keep her voice from trembling. He stepped forward so she could see him, and she relaxed, her tense shoulders slumping with relief. "Oh…you startled me…"
"Holly, why were you crying?" Alan inquired, walking over to her side. Holly averted her gaze, and tried to turn away from him, while she stammered for some hasty excuse. However, he refused to let her escape this way, and stepped quickly up beside her, gently taking her chin and pointing back towards him.
"Tell me," he said, his narrow sapphire eyes locked with her own, wavering bronze ones. Holly paused, then sighed, recognizing that she could not get herself out of this one.
"…I’m just…a little upset about everything that’s been happening lately," she confessed, slowly. Alan said nothing, just continued to gaze into her eyes, and she found herself blurting, "It’s just so hard to believe that Moo might be coming back again. After all the hard work we went through before…was that all for nothing? And…and I’m worried about Golem and Tiger. We were hoping that Golem would be back in the forest with his friends, that was where he said he was going, but he wasn’t there. Genki says that isn’t a problem, but I just don’t know…Golem’s not one to go back on his word, and he was so eager to see everyone again…"
"Hmm…" Alan murmured, simply nodding.
"…And then there’s Tiger. Genki seems so confident that Tiger is going to be with his pack when we find them, but…I’m not so sure…I really have a bad feeling about it, but I haven’t said anything. I can’t, because I know that the others really hope to see him there, safe…I want him to be safe to, but…what if they’re…what if…what if Moo and the baddies found them already?"
She shuddered, and a reluctant tear squeezed out of the corner of one wavering bronze eye as she broke free of Alan and turned away.
"…Serinity, Coltia, and even Scaler…they’re putting themselves in serious danger just to help us…I’m worried…I want everyone to be okay. I don’t want Moo’s evil to hurt anyone anymore! But I feel so helpless…"
"You’re not helpless."
"What?" Holly turned around to stare at Alan; he had stepped up behind her and taken one of her hands in his own. As she stared into his solemn, determined face, she noticed that his blue-gray hair looked silver in the moonlight.
"You are not helpless," he repeated, his sapphire eyes catching and holding her own, "because you have great power resting inside of you. You have love, and others love you, giving you the strength you need to keep fighting. I can tell this, and I know that nothing can change that. Holly, you are such a kind and caring person, there is no way you can fail at anything you set your mind to!"
"…Alan…I can’t," Holly faltered, unable to find anything she could say.
"Here," and Alan pressed something small and round into her palm, gently closing her fingers over it. Reopening her hand, Holly stared down at the tiny gold loop uncomprehendingly for a moment, then raised her gaze to the silver-haired boy’s face. He grinned back at her, and flipped back a lock of hair so she could glimpse the bare lobe of his right ear.
"I actually prefer this style better," he said, indicating the twin earring still glittering in his other ear. It seemed to wink knowingly at the girl, and Holly felt her face flush red with uncertainty.
"But why give this to me?" she asked.
"Think of it as a sort of reminder," Alan replied, blue eyes twinkling roguishly. "As long as you hang onto that, it’ll remind you that I’m out there, fighting against Moo the same way that you and the others are. That way, you’ll be able to keep hope with you. Also, it’s my way of making a promise that we will meet again…"
Holly blushed again, and weakly protested, "But I have nothing to give you in return…"
Her voice trailed off as Alan crouched before her, lifted her empty hand with his own, and swiftly planted a kiss upon it. The slight contact of his warm lips against the smooth back of her hand was enough to completely silence the girl, and she stared down at him in dull shock.
After a while, he released her hand, and grinned roguishly up at her, sapphire eyes gleaming.
"That’ll do," he said simply, then turned on his heel and strode off into the forest. Glancing back at her over his shoulder, he called, "Now try and get some sleep. You’ll need it if you plan on heading out tomorrow morning."
He disappeared into the trees, and Holly stared off after him for several moments, unable to move or react. Slowly, she brought her trembling hand up in front of her chest, grasping at the Magic Stone. She stood there alone in the moonlight for several minutes, her bronze eyes wavering with thought, and then slowly began to make her way back to the hideout where the others were.
* * *
"Is everyone awake?" Alan asked, striding purposefully into the cave, the light of the morning streaming from the exposed opening behind him. Holly nodded in reply, helping a yawning Coltia to her feet. Genki stretched out his arms and yawned loudly, and accidentally whacked Suezo in the face with the back of his fist.
"What was that for?" Suezo demanded, leaping back up with a vein standing out on the back of his head. Genki glanced back at him, eyes widening with surprise.
"Sorry, I didn’t know you were back there, Suezo," he apologized.
Suezo grumbled an unintelligible reply, and Scaler mumbled something under his breath. Although the others could not hear exactly what he said, Suezo appeared to overhear and understand it, and judging from the death glare he aimed back at the green rabbit, it was not exactly very complementary.
"Are you okay, Hare?" Serinity asked in a whisper, helping the tawny-furred rabbit to his feet. Hare looked up at her in surprise, and she quickly explained, "You looked like you had a nightmare last night. Are you alright?"
"Y-Yeah, I’m fine now," he replied, nodding up at her.
"If you don’t mind my asking…what was it about?"
"I…don’t remember everything," Hare answered, his soft brown eyes becoming distant. "I remember…I remember feeling very cold…it was dark, and I couldn’t see anyone. I…I felt so alone…like everyone had abandoned me…"
He trailed off, and shivered with the memory. Not knowing what she should do, Serinity draped an arm across his shoulders comfortingly, and was rewarded by a slight smile from the young bunny. Scaler noticed this out of the corner of his eye, and arched an eyebrow slightly at the sight, but said nothing.
"You should get going," Alan said as he led them out of the forest. "The sooner you head out, the less risk you run of meeting any of Moo’s patrols. I scouted the area last night; there’s no sign of any baddies around, so you should be fine until you reach the canyon, but…"
Shrugging his shoulders, the blue-gray haired boy then pushed a few last branches out of the way, and Genki raced out eagerly into the open field before them. Coltia and Mocchi were directly behind him, laughing.
"Yahoo! We’re out of the forest!" they cheered in unison, while Mocchi cried "Chi! Chi!" excitedly. The other searchers sweatdropped as they watched the trio do some impromptu gymnastics and cavort around the field, and Alan smirked to himself.
"Well, I suppose you can take care of yourselves from here," he commented, turning away and stepping back into the woods. Genki stopped short and turned to stare at the other boy, and Coltia ran right into his back.
"Aren’t you coming with us, Alan?" Genki asked, oblivious to Coltia’s startled grunt. She stumbled backwards, eyes spiraling and moaning, and tripped right over Mocchi, causing both of them to fall to the ground. Holly shook her head, sweatdropping, and bent to help both of them to their feet.
"Nah, I’ve got some work to do here first, just to make certain that the baddies won’t claim this area," Alan explained, grinning, and a twinkle appeared in his narrowed sapphire eyes as he added, "But you will be seeing me again. Count on it."
Holly gasped faintly, a red hue covering her cheeks for an instant, but it faded away before any of the other searchers could notice it. Alan winked in her direction, then spun back toward the forest and was suddenly lost in its branches.
"Alan…" Holly whispered, her voice faint. None of the other searchers overheard her, for all attention was focused on where the young bladesman had been.
"I wonder what he meant by that?" Serinity asked, blinking her bright green eyes in confusion.
"Oh wow! Maybe he liked me so much that he wants to see me again!" Coltia shouted, making a wistful, lovey-dovey face. Huge sparkles glimmered in her widened tan eyes as she clasped her hands in front of her and blurted, "He’s in love with me, I can tell! He can’t wait to see me again…oh wow, oh wow, this is so perfect! How romantic…ooohhh…"
None of the other rebels made any comment; they just stared at her and slowly edged away, huge sweatdrops on the backs of their heads.
"Uh…yeah…anyway, let’s get moving, team!" Genki shouted, whirling on his heel and racing off toward the canyons. The others dashed after him, Serinity launching into the air and gliding on the wind currents. Coltia was left standing alone, and it took a few seconds before she snapped out of her love-struck mood and noticed that they were leaving.
"…Hey! Don’t leave me!" she shouted, dashing after them. It only took her a few seconds to catch up, and soon the entire group was heading off together, all eyes trained on the road that spread out before them.
Only Holly was not running at full speed, and as the others led the way, she brought one clenched hand up to her chest, bronze eyes wavering as she glanced down at her palm. A glint of gold flickered briefly in the sunlight, and she sighed, lost in her own thoughts.
Maybe Alan is in love… she thought, a small sigh escaping from her as she silently added, But, I’m sorry Colt, I don’t think it’s with you… What do I do now?
The small loop of gold she held in her hand glimmered again, offering her no answers, only more questions that she found she could not answer.
"Are you certain this is the right place?"
"Sure I’m sure," Genki replied, glancing over at Serinity with a slightly annoyed expression on his face. "This is where we found Tiger before, back when we were first starting out. I know his lair has to be around here somewhere…"
"I don’t get it," Suezo complained, scanning the cliffs around them, seeing nothing. "This is where we saw all those lost discs before, right?"
"Yes," Holly confirmed, noticing out of the corner of her eye how Serinity and Hare both winced at the words ‘lost discs’. Not that she could blame them, as she shuddered at the memory of how the canyon had looked before, with lost discs scattered everywhere.
"Perhaps they simply moved their pack," Scaler pointed out, his violet-brown eyes solemn as he added, "After all, if the enemy located them here before and killed all of them, then they must have realized that this was not the safest of places to live."
"That’s true…" Hare agreed haltingly, his wide brown eyes darkening with thought. "But then…where do you think that they might have gone?"
The searchers bowed their heads in thought, and then Scaler shrugged under his cloak.
"Who knows? They may all be dead," he commented nonchalantly.
"Don’t say that!" Serinity gasped, bright green eyes going wide and wavering with sudden tears. Hare and Mocchi stared at the scaled rabbit in dull shock, while Coltia began to fight back sobs of her own.
"Shut up, Scaler!" Suezo hissed, glaring coldly at him. Scaler said nothing, but merely shot the eyeball monster a piercing glare in return.
"You cannot deny that it is a possibility," he pointed out, his voice still neutral. "After all, if they were stupid enough to stick around, and the enemy came back…"
"No, I know that they’re alright!" Genki insisted, shaking his head in violent denial. "I know that they’re okay! We just have to find them, is all!"
"Easier said than done, kid," Suezo muttered. Shaking his head, he added in his normal voice, "It’s too bad Golem isn’t here; we could have done an aerial search then. Oh well…"
"I thought you hated those things," Hare noted, sweatdropping slightly. Serinity looked over at him, then back toward Suezo, blinking her wide green eyes in confusion.
"What are you talking about?" she asked innocently.
"Oh, Golem and I used to have this system worked out," Suezo explained. "If we needed to get a good look around an area, he’d throw me up into the air so I could get a good view of everything. Then he was supposed to catch me when I came back down…it didn’t normally work out that way, though…" he added under his breath.
"………Oh, is that all?" Serinity asked, smiling. "Well, we can do that if you want to."
"…Eh? And just how in the heck do you plan for us to do it?" Suezo asked, arching his eyebrow in mild amusement. "You planning to try and throw me up there? Someone, I don’t think…"
His voice trailed off as the pixie hybrid walked over and kneeled down beside him. She seized his tail, and he stared down at her in surprise.
"…Uh, what?" he started to ask, then let out a started yelp as Serinity suddenly spread her wings and leapt into the air. Her fingers clenched tightly around his tail, and her wings strained as she pulled herself higher and higher into the sky, hauling the startled and stammering eyeball monster up with her. Upside down, Suezo stared down at the others, who looked back up at them in surprise as they rose far above them.
"Do you see anything yet, Suezo?" Serinity asked, snapping him out of his shock. He quickly began to scan the area, a task made a little more difficult by his current position.
"…I might," he said after a bit, "but I’m not really certain…"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, it’s kind of hard to concentrate with all the blood rushing to my head…"
"…Oh! I’m so sorry!"
Serinity quickly fumbled around a bit, nearly dropping Suezo in the process, but eventually managed to get him turned around right-side up.
"Is that better?" she inquired, concerned.
"Yeah, lots better," Suezo replied, surveying the area again. A flash of movement somewhere below them caught his attention, and he struggled to turn his head in that direction.
"Hey, check it out. What’s happening down there?" he asked. Serinity glanced in the direction he was looking in, and squinted. Unconsciously, she raised one hand to shade her eyes from the sun, keeping a tight grip on Suezo with her other hand. She could just barely make out something moving against the brown-yellow of the rocky bluffs, but she wasn’t entirely certain if she was seeing the same thing that he was.
"Is that what you were talking about, over there?" she asked, absently pointing toward it with her other hand, still keeping one arm shading her eyes. When Suezo did not reply right away, she repeated, "Suezo? Can you see…Suezo?"
She happened to glance down at that moment, and immediately realized her mistake. Her already wide green eyes nearly doubled in size as she noticed the empty sky below her, and a huge sweatdrop appeared on the back of her forehead.
She swooped back down to the other searchers, who were all gathered around a rather large crater in the dirt that hadn’t been there before. Serinity felt her face burn bright red, and she hesitantly hovered a few feet above them, peering into the hole.
"A-are you okay, Suezo?" she stammered.
"Ohhhh yeah, sure I’m fine…after all, I am used to this with Golem," Suezo answered groggily, his eye spiraling around and around.
"…This has happened before?" Coltia asked Holly, sweatdropping along with most of the other searchers.
"Uh huh," Holly confirmed, nodding.
"Different method, same results," Hare added, watching as Serinity attempted to pull Suezo out of the crater, stammering apologies the entire time. Beside him, Scaler seemed to be laughing silently to himself, a sly smirk on his face.
"Here, let me help you with him," Genki offered, and he and Holly helped the pixie hybrid pull Suezo out of the crater. As the eyeball monster lay on the ground trying to regain his senses, the clear-eyed boy looked over at Serinity and added, "Hey, so did you see anything up there?"
"Oh! …Well, maybe," Serinity told him, causing him and several of the other rebels to give her an odd look.
"Maybe?" Scaler echoed, arching an eyebrow at her. "Either you did or you didn’t, it’s as simple as that."
"Well, I thought I saw something moving around, but I wasn’t entirely certain," Serinity explained, unconsciously looking back down at the dirt below her feet as she spoke.
"Where?" Genki asked eagerly. Serinity blinked at him, then sprang back up into the air again. She glanced around briefly to get her bearings, then pointed towards the area she had seen from above earlier.
"Over in this direction, somewhere," she said, turning to look back down at everyone. Genki immediately ran off in that direction, then stopped short, glancing back at the others.
"What are you all waiting for? Let’s get moving!" he shouted, motioning impatiently for the others to follow him. Mocchi bounced up to his friend’s side at once, and Coltia quickly joined him, and soon only Serinity had not joined the boy.
"What’s wrong?" Genki asked, staring at her. "Aren’t you coming?"
"You-you’re just going to charge off all of a sudden, just because I might have seen something?" the pixie hybrid stammered. Genki smiled at her and nodded, and she blurted, "B-but what if I was wrong? What if it was just a trick of the light or something?"
"Then at least we know that they aren’t there, and we have one less place to look," Hare answered, shrugging nonchalantly, a slight grin on his face. Serinity stared at him, surprised by how unconcerned he seemed.
"Hey, don’t worry about it," Holly reassured her, smiling. "Look, the sooner we get going, the sooner we find out whether or not it was something, right?"
"R-right!" Serinity agreed, and she hastily spread her wings again and sprang into the air, gliding forward. The searchers took off again, heading toward the area they had seen earlier, Coltia dragging Suezo along by the tail. Holly noticed this and sweatdropped.
"I think that Suezo had better wake up soon," she noted, and Hare glanced back and nodded agreement, sweatdropping as he noticed the undignified position that the eyeball monster was in.
"I could try to carry him myself…but considering what happened before, he may not be too thrilled with that idea," Serinity commented, her face flushing red again. "I’m really, really sorry…"
Suezo just moaned in reply, and all of the other searchers save Scaler sweatdropped in unison.
* * *
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to any of the searchers, a pair of narrowed eyes studied them from the cover of the shadows. As the rebels disappeared into the distance, the owner of the deep red eyes blinked them a few times as he struggled to understand what he had just overheard. After a few moments, he turned away, mind still racing with a thousand confused thoughts, knowing only one thing for certain: he had to tell his leader what he had just overheard.
* * *
"Here," Serinity said, sweeping ahead of the others and pointing to the area before them. "I thought I saw something around this area…"
"Are you sure?" Coltia asked, looking around the empty canyon doubtfully. "I don’t see anything…"
"No, there was something here, I know it!" Suezo insisted, glaring at the younger human girl. Whirling away, he began to study the area intently, hopping from place to place. Serinity joined him at once, gliding higher into the air to get a better look around. The other rebels looked at one another, then shrugged.
"Well, whatever you say," Scaler said, looking away. Hare grinned and joined the others in searching the area, shaking his head slightly at the older rabbit’s indifference to their efforts. Still, he had to acknowledge that perhaps Scaler had a reason for not helping: he didn’t expect them to find anything, and as the search wore on, fruitless, he began to think that maybe he was right.
"I know that I saw something earlier," Suezo grumbled, as the searchers stopped to rest for a few moments. "I just know I did…"
"Maybe the sun just got in our eyes and played a trick on us," Serinity sighed, but she didn’t sound quite convinced by her own theory.
"No, we saw something, I know it!" Suezo snarled, apparently missing the doubt in her voice, or else mistaking it for doubt in what they had seen before. He glared at her, and the pixie hybrid quickly averted her gaze to the dirt beneath her, her orange bangs falling over her face and masking her embarrassed blush.
"Well, if you did see something, then what was it? Where is it now?" Scaler asked, giving the eyeball monster an inquiring look. His neutral tone made it fairly obvious that he simply did not believe that they had seen anything earlier. As Suezo fixed the green rabbit with a death glare, Hare sighed and glanced away, not wanting to have to watch another quarrel between the two.
Were Tiger and I this bad? He wondered silently, shaking his head.
Suddenly he froze, his eyes narrowing slightly as he caught the barest glimpse of something stirring nearby. The movement lasted only a few moments, then died away, but Hare had already gotten to his feet. Slowly, fully aware of the fact that the Phoenix’s Tear was becoming warmer as he crept closer to the shadowy grove, he moved forward. The other rebels watched him in interest.
"Hare?" Genki started to ask, standing up. Hare quickly motioned the boy silent, and turned back toward the shadowy grove at once. Realizing what was happening, the others tensed, and Scaler eased one of his blades out from its sheath, keeping it hidden under the folds of his cloak as he braced himself.
Hare glanced back at the others and signaled for them to get ready, then whirled back toward the grove. Crimson flames burst into life around his paws, and without hesitation he launched a small blast toward the shadows.
The fireball had barely entered the shadowy grove before something lunged out of it, directly toward the young rabbit. Hare dropped to the ground in a crouch, and the ebony-furred creature surged right over his head, skidding to a stop a few feet away. It whirled around at once and pounced again, but he had already scampered out of harm’s way, and red energy blazed around his paws again as he threw another small fireball at the monster.
"It’s a baddie!" Coltia shouted, spotting the medallion hung on the lupine monster’s neck first.
"What is it?" Serinity wailed, springing back into the air.
"A Terror Dog!" Scaler informed her, already leaping forward to meet the baddie as he answered the terrified hybrid’s question. The dagger he had drawn lanced through the air and buried itself to the hilt in the black wolf’s front left paw, nearly taking it off and causing the baddie to let out a horrible shriek. It turned tail and sprinted away, heading deeper into the canyons, and Hare darted after him.
"Hare! Stop!" Scaler shouted, reaching out toward him, but he was too far away to do anything other than watch as the younger rabbit chased after the baddie. Gritting his teeth in anger, the green hare drew another one of his blades and went after them, with the other searchers close behind him.
* * *
"I know I saw that baddie head this direction," Hare muttered as he continued to walk forward, his eyes trained on the road before him. There were splotches of blood on the dirt, betraying which direction that the wounded lupine had gone, and the young rabbit followed them, unaware of the fact that blazing crimson eyes were watching him from the shadows.
Suddenly the Phoenix’s Tear flared into bright light at his chest again, blazing again. Recognizing the warning, Hare whirled on his heel in time to see two more black-furred wolves lunging at him from behind. Thinking quickly, he lashed out with his foot and caught the closer one right in the muzzle, kicking it back into the other lupine and sending both flying backward. As they struggled back to their feet, he dropped into a defensive position, his pendant still glowing under his bandanna.
"I kinda figured that baddie wouldn’t be alone," he muttered, tense, watching the two black wolves intently as they managed to stand again. They looked toward him and snarled, both curling back their lips to reveal their long white teeth. Hare frowned.
"Well, that’s real charming," he commented mildly, rolling his eyes. A fiery crimson aura sprang up around his body, and the two baddies hesitated, flinching backward as the flames reflected in their suddenly widened red eyes.
"What? What’s the matter, I thought that you guys wanted to play," Hare teased, grinning slightly. The two black wolves glared at him, growling, but neither made any move to attack him. Hare remained in his defensive position just the same, not wanting to drop his guard, and he continued to watch them closely.
"Well?" he prompted, still smiling a little. He suddenly frowned as he noticed that the eyes of one of the Terror Dogs were no longer trained on him; instead, the baddie appeared to be watching the area directly behind him…
Hare gasped and whirled around, lashing out with one foot and striking the black wolf that had been sneaking up behind him. As it fell backward, the other two lunged at his back, and as the tawny-furred rabbit spun to face them, he caught a quick glimpse of other shadowy forms exploding from their hiding places and moving toward him.
"Uh oh…not good, not good," he muttered under his breath, bracing himself. The ebony-furred wolves came toward him from all sides, and it was all he could do to keep them from swarming over him. The Phoenix’s Tear afforded him a little extra protection, flaring up whenever one of the baddies managed to strike him and counterattacking, sending his would-be assailant fleeing with his fur smoking, but there were too many, far too many…
"Don’t kill him! Remember, the master wants him alive!" one of the Terror Dogs reminded the others. Hare overheard this through a haze of pain and wondered just who the master was. Moo, with his luck.
Using more of his dwindling energy, Hare caused his fire aura to flare up, forcing all of the baddies to retreat a few precious feet away from him. But they did not flee, instead waiting in a tight circle around his blazing form for the barrier to fade. They knew that he would not be able to keep it this powerful for long, and so did he.
As he forced the last few vestiges of his energy to strengthen the blaze for a few more precious seconds, Hare prayed with all his heart that the other searchers would arrive soon, before the baddies had a chance to take him so far away that they would never be able to find them.
Then he collapsed, the crimson flames fading out of existence as the energy sustaining them was spent. Through dimming vision, Hare saw the Terror Dogs begin to press forward, saw the triumphant leers on their muzzles, and fearful tears began to brim in his blurring brown eyes.
Suddenly, blinding white light tore through the canyon, and Hare heard the wailing howls of the Terror Dogs as it ripped into their bodies. As the blinding flash slowly faded away, he saw several lost discs lying in their place, and those who had survived were running like heck to get away from whatever it was that had claimed the lives of their fellow warriors.
For several moments, the canyon was completely silent. Hare struggled to move but could not; he was still too weakened by his earlier battle. He was barely able to keep his wavering eyes open, and could only lay on the dusty ground, helpless.
A soft padding sound caught his attention, and he shivered as he realized that whoever had attacked the Terror Dogs before was walking toward him. Unable to flee, he could only wait for them to come closer, hoping that they would be friendly.
After a little while, the stranger stepped into view, but Hare’s vision was blurring so badly that he could barely see anything. All he could make out was a blur of color against the yellow-brown of the canyon, and as the stranger drew closer, Hare’s eyes drifted closed…
* * *
Standing over the young rabbit’s crumpled form, the stranger stared down at him and struggled to reason out what he had just witnessed. The confused babbling of the one who had informed him of what was going on echoed in his mind, giving him more questions than it did answers.
A sudden shout behind him caught his attention, and he whirled around to see a small group of humans and monsters running toward him. The one in the front, a young boy wearing strange clothes and with the oddest looking shoes that he had ever seen in his life, spotted him first and skidded to a stop, his clear brown eyes widening with shock. As his companions halted behind him, the boy continued to stare at them, and he tensed for a possible confrontation.
* * *
"I…I don’t believe it," Genki stammered, eyes wide as he continued to stare at the one who stood over Hare’s unconscious form. Behind him, Holly gasped softly, and Mocchi let out a confused cry, while Suezo just stood there, too shocked to react.
"I-is that…" the eyeball monster began to ask, his voice trailing off before he could finish, his pupil a single dot in his widened eye. None of the other rebels were able to reply for several moments, staring in shock and disbelief at the figure before them.
The figure regarded them coldly, with deep, ice blue eyes that glittered faintly in the sunlight. Silver fur gleamed as a sudden breeze stirred it, unnoticed by its owner. Standing motionless in front of the rebels, the lupine monster looked like a ghost come out of the past, and Genki felt his eyes begin to waver as he stared at the proud figure.
"Grey Wolf!" he exclaimed, and the silver-furred lupine looked directly at him, appearing startled by the use of his name. His light blue eyes widened slightly with shock, and he seemed to be on the verge of replying when Coltia suddenly let out a shriek.
"Grey Wolf?!" she wailed, eyes wide and filling with frightened tears. "He’s one of the Big Bad Four! Oh noooo!"
"Wait, no-!" Genki started to protest, but his shout was cut off as he suddenly noticed a glimmer of steel in the green rabbit’s hand. As Scaler’s hand flashed back, Genki quickly grabbed at his wrist and held it firmly, earning him a cold glare.
"What are you doing?" Scaler hissed, wrenching his arm away from the boy’s grasp. "That’s one of Moo’s generals, and he’s got Hare! I’m not going to…"
"No, Grey Wolf isn’t a baddie anymore!" Genki insisted, locking his gaze with the scaled rabbit’s own.
"How can you be so certain?" Scaler snarled, narrowing his flashing violet-brown eyes at the boy. "Don’t be so stupid as to assume…"
"I don’t see a crest on him, do you, Suezo?" Holly asked, giving her friend an inquiring glance. Suezo fixed the silver-furred lupine with his intense gaze, studying him for several seconds before hesitantly shaking his head.
"No…but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t a baddie anymore," he murmured, and Holly shot him a disbelieving glare. Meanwhile, Coltia gave him an odd look.
"You mean he might not be a baddie anymore?" she asked, curious.
"Don’t assume that! This could all be a trick!" Scaler shouted.
"No, he’s good now, I’m sure of it!" Genki yelled back at him.
"I don’t understand…how could somebody be a…baddie…and then not be a baddie anymore?" Serinity inquired, the sound of her soft question lost in the shouting match that was happening between most of the other rebels.
"He’s evil! Deal with it!"
"No, he’s good, I know it!"
"But he was dead when the Phoenix rose! That should have healed him!"
"Will you trust your life to that? Some monsters are simply born evil!"
"But Grey Wolf is good!"
"He’s good, chi!"
"How can you say that for certain, Genki?"
"Don’t you start up now, Suezo!"
"…This is confusing," Serinity commented, watching the other searchers argue with a huge sweatdrop on the back of her head. Turning away, she gasped suddenly as she spotted Hare still lying unconscious behind Grey Wolf. She swooped down at once, landing directly in front of the silver-furred lupine, who stared at her and blinked his light blue eyes in surprise that one of the rebels had finally approached him instead of yelling at each other.
"Um, Grey Wolf-sama," she stammered uncertainly, giving him a frightened look for a few moments. Hare moaned faintly, and she shot him a wide-eyed look. Then, as if finding her inner strength all of a sudden, the pixie hybrid stopped trembling and took a deep breath.
"Grey Wolf-sama, please allow me to help my friend!" she said, pleading with him with her wavering green eyes. Taken slightly aback, the silver-furred lupine stared at her, and she continued, "Please…he may be hurt badly, and I want to try and heal him…let me help him, please…"
Grey Wolf just stared at her for a few seconds, a startled expression on his face. The other rebels had overheard Serinity’s plea and had stopped fighting for the moment, and all of them were watching the exchange in shock and horror. Scaler ground his teeth silently, fingering the edge of one of his knives, just in case. Genki noticed this and kept a wary eye on him, not wanting anything to go wrong.
Suddenly Grey Wolf smirked, and as the searchers gaped at him, he stepped away.
"Then help him," he said, smiling slightly. Serinity gave him a thankful look, her bright green eyes shining, and she quickly knelt beside Hare’s motionless body. A green nimbus formed around her hands, and she closed her eyes in concentration. As the magical aura spread over the young rabbit’s body, sealing his wounds, he groaned faintly again.
"Se…Serinity?" he murmured, slowly opening his wavering brown eyes. Seeing that he was awake, the pixie hybrid let out a sigh of relief, and glanced back over her shoulder at the other searchers. Genki and Scaler ran up beside her, and the scaled hare pulled the younger rabbit into his protective grasp, keeping one wary eye trained on Grey Wolf.
"Thanks a lot, Grey Wolf," Genki said with a grin, turning toward the silver-furred lupine and nodding at him. The wolf gave him a strange look in return, his blue eyes blank with confusion.
"How do you know my name?" he inquired, staring at the human boy. "I’ve never seen you before in my life."
"Huh?" Genki replied, sweatdropping.
"You mean that Tiger never told you about us?" Holly asked as she and the others approached. Grey Wolf gasped and whirled on them, eyes wide.
"Tiger? You know my brother?" he exclaimed, shocked, staring at all of them. Genki, Mocchi, Holly and Suezo stared back at him, not knowing what to think. Serinity and Coltia glanced at one another, confused.
"You mean he never told you about them?" Coltia asked, giving the silver wolf a disbelieving glance. Grey Wolf looked over at her and shook his head.
"How could he? I haven’t seen my elder brother since we fought Moo, almost two years ago!"
"What?" Genki exclaimed, stunned. Beside him, Holly’s face had slowly gone completely pale, and the girl shook her head slightly.
"No…oh no," she whispered, shuddering with fear. Her fingers strayed up to the Magic Stone hanging around her neck, and she gripped it gently as her eyes wavered with fear.
"Look, as much as I’d love to sit around and listen to you guys work out your little problems, it’s not exactly safe for us to stand around and chat," Scaler pointed out, standing up. Hare was cradled gently in his arms, and he looked directly at Grey Wolf as he added, "We need a safe place to stay while he recovers. Do you know of anyplace?"
"Follow me," Grey Wolf replied, turning away. "I’ll lead you to our new den; it’s not too far from here, and you’ll be safe from any enemies there. Plus, we should talk…"
"Yes…" Holly agreed, nodding, and she and Genki exchanged a knowing glance. The clear-eyed boy stood first and walked after the silver-furred lupine, and Mocchi bounced up beside him, gripping his hand for comfort. The searchers followed Grey Wolf as he led them through the cliffs, following a path only he knew, each lost in their own thoughts.
* * *
"Genki? Holly? Anyone?"
There was no answer, only the wind that howled around the young rabbit as he stood alone in the void, ruffling his short tawny fur. Shuddering, Hare wrapped his arms over his chest, noticing as he did that the Phoenix’s Tear was glowing faintly. However, even its warmth against his chest did not seem to keep back the cold chills that ran through his body, and he shivered again, frightened.
* Why am I so cold…? It hurts…I feel like I can barely breathe… *
* This wind’s so cold…it bites straight to the heart… *
Suddenly the wind picked up speed, becoming a gale, and Hare cried out in shock as it tore through his small frame, chilling him to the bone. It grew in force, tugging at him, and suddenly he was swept off his feet, screaming as he was spun around and around by the freezing tornado.
Then he stopped short, as if flung into an invisible wall, and he gasped softly as a sharp pain blossomed in his chest. It felt almost as if somebody had run him through with a blade, a long, jagged blade that pierced his heart and froze his body like ice.
For several moments, all he could see was the void. Something crimson and sticky soaked his fur, dripping into his eyes, and Hare recognized it as blood. Strangely, though, he could not feel any wounds on his body, just an overwhelming cold sensation that numbed him almost beyond the point of feeling pain.
A blue shadow appeared before him, and Hare gazed up at the vaguely lupine form with blurring brown eyes.
"Tiger…" he breathed, recognizing the blue wolf despite his blurring vision. "He-help me…"
Tiger did not reply, his cold golden eyes glaring down at the small rabbit’s crumpled body. His lips were pulled back in a snarl, revealing his long, jagged white fangs, which suddenly began to lengthen as his eyes burned blood-red. Black energy surged through the lupine’s form, transforming him into a faceless demon, and lightning crackled around the warped remains of the blue wolf’s horns as he continued to glare down at Hare’s helpless body.
"Tiger…" Hare breathed, frightened tears streaking the side of his face, washing away some of the blood. The demon-wolf just snarled in reply, and melted into the darkness, until all he could see was its furiously burning crimson eyes and the dark-tinted lightning that crackled above them…
* * *
Hare screamed, his eyes shooting open, and the tiny rabbit sat bolt upright, nearly knocking a startled Serinity over. The young pixie hybrid stared at him in surprise, bright green eyes going wide, then filling with concern as she glimpsed the raw terror on his face.
"What’s wrong? What happened?" Scaler demanded, racing in from directly outside the small cave. Hare looked at them blankly for a moment, frightened tears running down his cheeks, then slowly realized where he was. He closed his wavering brown eyes and took a few deep breaths in a near futile attempt to calm himself down.
"It was…a dream," he murmured, relieved.
"What was?" Serinity asked, looking at him in concern. Hare just shuddered, unable to answer her right away, and the pixie hybrid’s eyes softened as she watched him. Kneeling next to him, she slowly began to stroke his back, smoothing down his ruffled fur as she crooned reassurance. Scaler stood in the doorway and watched her, eyes narrowed, fully aware of the fact that the other searchers had arrived and were gathered behind him, trying to peer into the room.
"What’s going on?" Genki asked, and Scaler glanced back at him.
"He apparently had a nightmare," Scaler replied, shaking his head as he looked back at the younger rabbit, his dark violet-brown eyes shining with concern. Genki nodded knowingly and looked back at the others, concerned.
"Maybe we should leave them for a while," Holly said, gently pulling him away from the door. "He might need time to recover…"
"Recover from what?" Grey Wolf asked, walking up behind them. Genki, Holly and Suezo sweatdropped, while Coltia and Mocchi just looked at the silver wolf in surprise.
"I’ll explain if you want," Holly said, guiding the lupine monster away from the door. The other rebels followed, leaving Scaler guarding the door. They walked past several lupine hybrids that had been attracted by the commotion, and Coltia sweatdropped as she noticed how many had come to see what was going on.
"All right, break it up, nothing to see here," Suezo said, shooing them away. Several of the wolves walked away, but a few remained and growled at him. Grey Wolf shook his head and signaled that they should leave, and the stragglers grudgingly departed. One of them, however, paused and looked back at the silver wolf.
"Is everything okay, Grey Wolf?" she asked, her soft blue eyes filling with concern. Grey Wolf nodded shortly, then sighed as she walked around a corner of the cave and disappeared from view.
"I say that, but…to be honest, I’m not really sure about that," he commented, then he looked back over at the rebels with shimmering light blue eyes. "I can’t believe that you know my brother…! I had thought that Moo killed him during the fight. I thought he had killed everyone…"
"No, he didn’t," Genki repeated, a slight grin coming to his face. "Tiger survived the battle, Grey Wolf; a lot of them did. Moo didn’t manage to kill all of them…"
"That part came later," Suezo muttered under his breath, then grunted as he received a sharp elbow in his side from Holly. Mocchi and Genki sweatdropped while Coltia just glared at the eyeball monster. Thankfully, Grey Wolf apparently did not overhear his little comment.
"My big brother…is alive," Grey Wolf whispered, shaking his head slowly.
"Well, that’s what we hope, but…"
Another well-timed jab in the side, this time from Genki, silenced the eyeball monster again, but this time Grey Wolf had overheard him. The silver-furred lupine looked back at them, alarm in his wide blue eyes, and the other searchers sweatdropped as they stared back at him.
"Hey, don’t let what Suezo said get to you," Genki said, smiling nervously. "He just worries too much…"
"Yeah, he’s a real whiner," Coltia chimed in. Suezo opened his mouth to protest, and the sweatdropping girl grabbed his lips and held them shut. Startled, he struggled to free his mouth from her stubborn grasp, while the others struggled to ignore both of them.
"Tiger is a survivor," Holly said, looking directly at Grey Wolf and smiling. "I’m certain that he’s okay."
"Are you sure?" Grey Wolf asked, gazing intently at her. She felt her face flush slightly, and wondered if he could sense that she didn’t believe in what she had just claimed as much as she would have liked to.
"Holly’s right; he’ll be fine!" Genki said, beaming. "Besides, that’s what we’re looking for him for: to make certain that Moo can’t get his dirty mitts on him! We’ll find him safe and sound, I’m sure of it!"
"Yeah!" Coltia said, grinning.
"Chi!" Mocchi added, bouncing up and down in place. "Tiger is strong, chi! Moo never hurt Tiger!"
"Hmmm…" Grey Wolf looked at all of them, his light blue eyes becoming thoughtful. Genki saw the expression on his face, and the boy’s grin grew wider.
"Hey, why not come along with us, Grey Wolf?" he asked, beaming, and the silver-furred lupine blinked in surprise.
"Genki?" Holly inquired, giving the boy a startled look. Coltia gasped as well, and released her iron grip on Suezo’s mouth. The eyeball monster gasped for air and fixed the younger girl with a dark glare, which she ignored.
"You want to find your brother again, right?" Genki prompted, grinning over at Grey Wolf. "Then join up with us! That’s what Tiger did when he wanted to find you…and Serinity’s coming along so she can find Golem. So why don’t you come along too?"
"But my pack…" Grey Wolf whispered, then shook his head. "No, I can’t leave them alone here, not if Moo’s come back to life."
"But…" Genki started to say, stepping forward, but Grey Wolf silenced him with a look.
"Sorry, but I can’t just leave them alone. You have to understand that," Grey Wolf said, turning away. Scaler walked up behind the other rebels, Serinity and Hare behind him, and he gave the silver wolf an odd look.
"What’s going on?" Hare asked, and the others looked back at the three new arrivals.
"Genki wants Grey Wolf to come along, but he said no," Coltia explained. She glanced back toward the lupine monster and whispered, "But I think he does want to come…he just can’t because of his pack…"
"Oh…" Hare nodded solemnly, and looked after the departing silver wolf as well. Serinity gripped his shoulders slightly, her bright green eyes wavering as she glimpsed the sorrowful expression on Grey Wolf’s face.
"If you want to go with them, then you should go."
Grey Wolf turned around, and the searchers followed his gaze. A female Daton was standing nearby, in one of the other corridors of the cave, and several other lupine hybrids were standing behind her. Seeing them, the silver wolf’s eyes widened slightly with surprise.
"Everyone…when did you…" he started to ask.
"Look, if you want to go with them to find Tiger of the Wind, then I think you should go," the female Daton replied, and the wolves behind her voiced their agreement. "Tiger is as much a part of the pack as everyone else here, and you’ve always told us that we never abandon each other…"
"But…what if you need me here? If Moo attacks…"
"Then we’ll fight him off," a Datonare replied, a slight grin on his muzzle. "Really, Grey, you should know better than anyone else just how strong we can be."
"Go find your brother, Grey Wolf," another Daton added, nodding toward the silver wolf.
"We’ll take care of everything here! You concentrate on bringing old Tiger back to us!"
"Yeah, go find him!"
"You go on ahead, Grey Wolf. And if you happen to meet Moo, give him a shock in his…"
"Look, just get going, okay? You know you want to go, and we want you to go, too. You’ll find Tiger, I’m sure of it!"
"Everyone…" Grey Wolf breathed, his light blue eyes wavering as he regarded his pack. The searchers watched the unfolding scene and smiled, and Serinity sighed softly as the sight brought back memories of her own farewell to her friends and home. After a moment, Grey Wolf smiled and nodded.
"Fine then," he said, looking at his gathered pack mates. "I will find Tiger and bring him back, I promise. The rest of you be sure to watch yourselves until I return."
The other wolves nodded agreement, and then one of them threw back her head and began to howl. The others quickly picked up the sound, and Grey Wolf added his own voice to it after a moment. The howl echoed through the canyons for several minutes, not fading away until some time after they had ceased.
Grey Wolf turned away, and the other searchers followed after the silver-furred lupine as he slowly walked out of the cave complex. The other wolves watched him leave, their eyes solemn as the group disappeared from their sight.
As they continued on, Serinity flitted up to Grey Wolf’s side. Looking down at him, she noticed the expression on his face, and a look of understanding came over her. Landing, she walked alongside the lupine monster.
"That was kind of hard, wasn’t it?" she whispered softly, and the silver wolf glanced up at her in surprise. After a few seconds, he looked away and nodded, and Serinity smiled slightly.
"I know what it feels like, too," she said, shaking her head. "But you don’t have to worry. I know that they’re be all right, and that everything will turn out okay. We’ll find our friends, and when we return, everything will be just as we left it."
"You believe that?" Grey Wolf asked, glancing back up at her. Serinity just nodded, smiling.
"I have to," she whispered, her bright green eyes shining as she looked away. Grey Wolf watched her for a moment more, then nodded. A slight grin spread over his muzzle.
"Well, then, it must be true," he said, smiling back up at her. "Let’s work to make certain that it becomes a reality, hmm?"
"Yeah…" and Serinity nodded back at him, smiling brightly. The two continued to walk alongside one another, as the other searchers followed along behind them, heading out of the canyon and toward the uncertain future.
"Now here’s a familiar sight," Suezo commented, gazing at the town before them with a knowing grin on his face. Leaning over, he nudged Hare gently with his tail and asked, in a not-so-secretive whisper, "Hey, Hare, remember when…?"
"Oh, lay off it, Suezo," Hare interrupted him before he could finish his question, and irritably shoved the eyeball monster away. The tawny-furred rabbit’s face was bright red, and the other searchers gave him an odd look. After a moment, Genki, Holly and Mocchi caught on and looked away, but Serinity, Coltia, Scaler and Grey Wolf still appeared to be confused.
"What was that all about?" Coltia asked, blinking her wide tan eyes and staring at the others. Serinity just shrugged her shoulders, as did Scaler, and the green rabbit gave Suezo a warning look.
"It’s just because the last time we visited this town, Tiger entered a tournament and we met Hare when he…" Genki’s voice suddenly trailed off when he noticed that everyone was giving him a very odd look. Grey Wolf looked especially interested in what the boy was saying.
"Wait, wait, wait, you mean to tell me that my big brother actually entered a tournament? How did he do?" he asked innocently.
"Um…well…" Genki coughed and quickly looked away, causing the silver-furred wolf to give him a curious look.
"Well?" he asked, cocking his head to one side.
"Uhhh…you know, I think Suezo had a much better view of everything! Why don’t you ask him if he remembers?" Genki asked suddenly, turning toward the eyeball monster and laughing nervously. Suezo’s eye nearly doubled in size while his pupil dilated, and a huge sweatdrop appeared on the back of his head.
"Uhhh…Genki, I’m going to kill you," he muttered under his breath, and Genki’s nervous grin grew wider as he turned away. Coltia and Serinity blinked in unison, watching what was happening with blank expressions on their faces.
"So?" Grey Wolf prompted, looking over at Suezo.
"Soooo…uhhh…welllll…" Suezo replied, eye darting from side to side as he searched vainly for some escape. After a moment, Hare sighed and shook his head.
"It’s okay, Suezo. I’ll tell him."
As Suezo collapsed to the ground, his breath coming out with a huge whoosh of air, Hare turned to face Grey Wolf and rubbed the back of his head slightly, sweatdropping.
"You see, the thing is, Tiger did great in the tournament, but…"
"But what?" Grey Wolf asked innocently, blinking his blue eyes a few times as he looked at the sweatdropping rabbit.
"Well, I…" Hare’s voice dropped to a whisper, and he spoke very rapidly as he blurted, "I kinda tricked him in the final round and knocked him out."
Grey Wolf just stared at him, blue eyes wide, and an awkward silence fell over the gathered searchers. Hare kept his eyes trained on the ground, not wanting to see the outrage he was certain the silver-furred wolf would explode into at any moment. Then, suddenly, he heard a strange sound that he definitely hadn’t been expecting, and looked up in shock.
Grey Wolf was laughing. Quite hard, truth be told. As the other searchers gaped at him, the lupine monster struggled to get control of himself, his shoulders shaking violently as he continued to laugh.
"I-I’m sorry, I’m sorry," he managed to get out after a moment, grinning hugely up at the others, "but that…Tiger always told me, ‘Never underestimate your opponent, no matter what,’ and he…he…"
He broke into laughter again, and all of the other searchers sweatdropped in unison. After a few moments, Genki started to snicker to himself as well, and Holly gave him an odd look.
"Of all the reactions I had expected, that wasn’t one of them," Hare whispered, shaking his head in disbelief and relief.
"No kidding," Suezo agreed, smiling nervously. Grey Wolf regained control of himself after a minute, and the silver wolf looked at them expectantly.
"Well, what do we do next?" he inquired, and all eyes turned to the five original searchers. Genki, Holly, Suezo, Mocchi and Hare glanced at one another, then bowed their heads in thought.
"…Well, I guess we just head straight through the town," Genki said after thinking for a moment. "Let’s get going."
"Genki, wait," Hare said suddenly, holding one paw up to stop the boy. Genki looked back at the young rabbit curiously, and Hare continued, "I think that we should consider looking into something else first."
"Oh? What’s that?" Holly asked, as all of the rebels turned their gazes toward Hare.
"Well, we need to figure out how we’re going to finance this trip," Hare replied, and he nodded to himself as he added, "After all, even without Golem and Tiger with us, we still have a pretty large group right now. Between the five of us, plus Colt, Scaler, Serinity and Grey Wolf…we’ve got a lot of people and monsters to support. We have to think about how we’re going to pay to support all of us."
"You’re right," Holly said, nodding in agreement. Beside her, Suezo groaned and rolled his eye.
"How did I know that he was going to say something about money?" he muttered under his breath. Scaler overheard the comment and gave the eyeball monster a cold look.
"Okay, so how do we go about getting money?" Coltia inquired, looking around at everyone.
"We could just take whatever we needed…" Grey Wolf’s voice trailed off as he noticed the strange look the others were giving him, and he coughed and amended, "Or maybe not…"
"Maybe we could see if there are any job openings in town," Coltia suggested. The others considered this for a moment, then Holly sighed and shook her head.
"I don’t think that would work," she told the younger girl. "We have to keep moving from town to town, and we couldn’t stay in any one place long enough to get a good-paying job. It’d have to be a one-time deal each time…"
"Hmm…" Coltia bowed her head in thought again, frowning.
"Actually, I think the answer is in what Hare and Grey Wolf were talking about earlier," Scaler suddenly spoke up. The other rebels turned to look at him in surprise, and the scaled hare smirked as he said, "I passed through this town on my way here, and they’ve been holding a lot of tournaments lately. Perhaps I could simply register in one and earn one of the cash prizes."
"That’s a great idea, Scaler!" Hare exclaimed, smiling at the older rabbit. The other searchers mostly appeared to agree, but Serinity looked confused.
"What is a tournament?" she leaned over and whispered to Holly. The human girl gave her a surprised look, then nodded in sudden understanding.
"A tournament is when monsters fight one another to see who is the strongest," she explained. Serinity gasped, staring at her in disbelief.
"But why would anyone want to fight?" she asked, startled by the concept. Holly just shook her head, unable to explain it to the startled pixie hybrid. Serinity stared at her for a moment, then turned away, her eyes wavering.
"So it’s settled then," Scaler said, turning away from the others and heading toward the town. "I’ll go ahead and get registered then; I’ll meet you in town later."
"Hey, don’t just walk off like that," Grey Wolf said, heading after him. The green rabbit glanced back at him, and the silver-furred lupine grinned as he added, "After all, I’m planning on entering too."
"What?" Genki, Holly, Coltia, Hare, Mocchi, Serinity and Suezo exclaimed in unison. Scaler simply regarded the wolf monster and arched one eyebrow slightly, a small smirk tugging at the corner of his mouth.
"Why is that?" he asked, his tone neutral.
"Simple logic," Grey Wolf replied, turning back toward the others as he explained, "If two of us enter instead of just one, then we’re likely to earn more gold, and won’t have to worry about it for a longer period of time. Besides, I wouldn’t mind testing my skills…"
"…Suit yourself," Scaler commented, turning away again and continuing down the path towards the town. Grey Wolf loped after him, and the other searchers looked at one another in surprise.
"…Wasn’t expecting that, either," Hare commented after a moment, sweatdropping along with the others.
"Well, at least they’re willing to help out," Holly commented, smiling nervously. Coltia and Suezo laughed at that, but Serinity did not look as amused by the idea.
"I just don’t understand why anyone would want to fight," she said, frowning slightly.
"You don’t have to understand it," Coltia replied, turning to smile over at her. "There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t make sense to me, but you don’t hear me complaining about it…"
"…At the moment," Suezo amended under his breath. If Coltia overheard this remark, she ignored it, and she ran a little ways ahead of the others before turning around to glance back at them.
"Are you guys coming or what?" she asked, beaming. "We’d better get moving if we want to get some decent food at the restaurant!"
"You’re on!" Genki shouted, darting after her. As they raced toward town, the other searchers followed more sedately, Serinity trailing behind with a confused look on her face.
"What is a restaurant?" she inquired, looking over at Holly. Suezo just sighed and sweatdropped.
* * *
"I do not understand what exactly your problem is," Scaler said patiently, his violet-brown eyes narrowing slightly as he regarded the nervous human before him. "I am registering for your free-for-all tournament. Do not the rules clearly state that any monster who so wishes may enter?"
"W-well…y-yes, b-but," the sweatdropping man replied, trembling badly as he eyed the wide blade that the scaled hare had placed on the counter between them. Scaler studied him with a faint glint of amusement in his eyes, although his face remained neutral and composed.
"There is nothing in the rules that states that participants may not use weapons," he pointed out mildly, and a slight grin tugged at one corner of his mouth as he added, "Besides, I only wish to use only one of my blades. To use any more would be unfair to my opponents…one will be more than sufficient for this, I think."
"O-only…o-one?" the official inquired weakly. In response, Scaler flicked one fold of his heavy leather cloak back over his shoulder, and the man goggled as he caught a quick glimpse of several sharp knives and daggers glittering in their sheaths.
"…So? Are you going to approve my entry or not?" Scaler prompted after a moment, giving the human a sideways glance.
"………" The man did not reply, but suddenly scribbled furiously on a pad of paper sitting on the desk before him. After a moment, he passed Scaler a small card on which was written his approval for entry. The green rabbit studied it, and a smile flickered on his lips for a second.
"Thank you," he said simply, rising and motioning for the next applicant to take his place. Behind the counter, the registrar closed his eyes and let out a deep sigh of relief, praying that not all of the monsters entering would be like this.
Then he opened his eyes and sweatdropped as he discovered a pair of ice blue ones gazing up at him.
"G-G-G-Gr-Gr-Grey Wolf?!?" he stammered after standing in shocked silence for a while.
"Yes?" the silver-furred lupine answered, looking back up at the man with his pale blue gaze.
Grey Wolf blinked in surprise as the official suddenly disappeared from his view. Placing his front paws on the desk, he pulled himself up for a better view. For a second, he simply regarded the unconscious form sprawled on the floor behind the desk with some interest and more than a little surprise.
"Huh. I wonder what’s wrong with the poor man," he commented, glancing back over at Scaler, who was leaning against the doorframe. The green rabbit just shrugged under his cloak, the folds shifted with the movement.
"Perhaps he does not get enough fresh air," he replied, smirking ever so slightly as he gazed back at the silver wolf. Grey Wolf nodded agreement and glanced back down at the man’s twitching body, a curious expression on his muzzle.
* * *
"We’re in," Scaler informed the others simply when he and Grey Wolf located them some time later. The other rebels had already discovered a promising-looking restaurant deep in the heart of the village, and once the two fighters had arrived, they entered and found a large table for everyone to sit at. As they took their places around it, Suezo immediately seated himself between Genki and Holly, a move that she could not help but think was done deliberately. She was even surer of this when the eyeball monster grinned over at Genki and pulled on his eyelid for a moment with his tail, sticking out his tongue at the boy.
"Suezo…" Genki growled, one eyebrow twitching with annoyance. Coltia quickly latched onto his arm and calmed him down. She seated herself between the eyeball monster and him; a move that she hoped would prevent the two from fighting with one another. Plus, it didn’t exactly bother her that she ended up sitting next to Genki…
"So you’re really going to go through with this?" Serinity asked, giving Grey Wolf and Scaler a curious look from her seat on Holly’s other side. Both monsters nodded in reply, and the green rabbit turned a quick glance toward Hare as a smile flickered on his face for a moment.
"Yes," he replied, his violet-brown eyes glittering slightly as he added, "Not only will this earn some money for our journey, but it will be a good test of our skills."
"Yeah, it should be great!" Grey Wolf agreed, smiling over at the pixie hybrid. "By fighting in a setting like this, I can get a good feel for where I’m at right now, skill-wise."
"I wouldn’t think that you needed to test your skills," Hare commented, looking at the silver wolf curiously. "I mean, you were a…"
He suddenly broke off what he was saying in mid-sentence and looked away. The other searchers paused and stared over at him in surprise, wondering what he had been about to say and had so suddenly decided against. After a moment, Grey Wolf appeared to catch on, and a warm smile spread over his muzzle.
"Yes, I know I was a bandit when I was younger, but that part of my life has long come and gone," he replied with a knowing glint in his pale blue eyes. Hare smiled nervously to himself; that had not been what he was about to blurt out before, and he had a feeling that the silver wolf knew that as well. He was simply giving him a quick way out of the situation, and he took it in silence, thanking the wolf with a single, grateful glance.
"A bandit? What is a bandit?" Serinity asked, blinking her bright green eyes in confusion.
"I’ll explain to you later, Serinity," Holly replied, sweatdropping slightly.
The waiter arrived with their food at that moment, and all further conversation on any topic was temporarily halted as the searchers quickly began to eat. Like her other four old friends, Holly attempted to enjoy her meal as much as possible, keeping the knowledge that this very well could end up being the last meal she shared with everyone pushed into the back of her mind. That was hardly a pleasant idea at any time, so she preferred to keep it out of her thoughts as much as possible.
She noticed that Grey Wolf seemed to be taking particular delight in his food, and was lapping up quite a bit of wine from a special saucer set out for him as well. She sweatdropped, but then reminded herself that he was, after all, used to hunting for his meal. She wondered idly for a moment just how many times he had gone without food for the lack of decent prey, or given up his portion in favor of another pack member. Then she quickly pushed this out of her mind as well, feeling guilty for some reason she could not quite name.
Serinity, she noticed, was not eating as much as the others. She remembered vaguely one of her old lessons about monsters, back from when she was a child in her old village. If she recalled them correctly, Pixie/Plant hybrids like Serinity did not need to eat in order to survive, thanks to their photosynthesis ability. However, they were also supposed to love to eat, apparently enjoying the sensation. However, Serinity was barely touching her meal, and was more interested in talking with Mocchi and Hare. Either the old lessons did not apply to her, or else she was not eating for some other reason; perhaps her private confusion and dislike about what Grey Wolf and Scaler were doing?
Coltia, Genki, Suezo and Mocchi did not have with the same problem that the half-pixie was having, at any rate: they were digging into their food almost frightening speed, taking as much as they could into their mouths at once before swallowing. Holly sweatdropped, remembering a comment that Hare had once made about Genki’s intense energy having to come from somewhere…that didn’t necessarily explain why Suezo was eating so much so fast, however…
Actually, now that she came to think of it, Hare seemed to be eating even less than Serinity was. Instead, the tawny-furred rabbit was watching Scaler and Grey Wolf intently, as if struck by how different the two entrants were acting. The calm way in which the green rabbit sipped his own drink and ate his meal was a stark contrast with the eager way that the silver wolf gobbled down his own food. As Hare watched them, a strange, distant look came into his wavering brown eyes, and Holly could only guess at what he was thinking about.
Then, suddenly, Hare appeared to jerk out of his trance and notice that she was staring at him. A slight blush tinged his cheeks for a moment, and then he quickly began to eat his meal with exaggerated motion, as if trying to convince her that nothing was the matter with him. Not knowing what else she could do, Holly turned her attention back to finishing her own meal, at the same time making a mental note to try and talk to the young bunny some time soon to see what was bothering him.
* * *
Flash. Dodge. Parry. Slash.
Everything was a whirl of color and shadow, making it impossible for one to see exactly what was happening at any precise moment. Images blurred together, move blended with countermove, until they became conjoined, convoluted, twisted. Silver and blue crashed against green and tan, with flashes of glimmering steel and sparking lightning bursting into existence and fading away just as quickly.
Spurts of red against the black shadows, tainting the other colors, soaking them, overpowering them. Crimson eyes suddenly flaring into existence, narrowing with cruel glee as horrible laughter echoed over the sounds of battle.
A sudden flash of bright, blinding light.
A pair of motionless bodies glimpsed through the all-concealing shadows, too battered and covered in blood to be living. Silver and green, both overwhelmed by a single shade of deep, terrifying red.
* * *
Hare snapped his wavering brown eyes open quickly, forcing himself awake before he could get a closer look at exactly who the two bodies in his nightmare were. At least, he thought as he quickly buried his face in his paws, he hoped that he had yanked himself out of the vision. He hated to think that maybe he had not been meant to see their identities, that he did not truly have any control over his visions at all.
Out of all of the things that he feared in life, one of the worst was not having any control over himself or anything having to do with him. He remembered all too well when Naga had captured him and treated him like a slave, acting as though he was a worthless little whelp with no real value in the world other than doing exactly what the reptilian pleased. It frightened him to think that even without Naga around, lording over him, that he still had little command over how he lived his life.
Plus, what he had glimpsed in his nightmare was so horrifying to him that he wanted to believe that it was just that: a nightmare. Not a vision, and certainly not a possible warning of the future…
He fought back his tears, stubbornly, not wanting to awaken any of his friends. Rolling over in his bed, he buried his face in his pillow in a futile attempt to keep the frightened tears from coming. They still forced their way out of his unwilling eyes, but at least the pliant fabric muffled the sound of his sobbing as he cried himself back to sleep.
* * *
A flourish of trumpets pierced the morning air, rising above the excited shouts and cheers of the jubilant crowd. As humans and monsters alike filed into their places, taking their seats, Scaler and Grey Wolf nodded their farewells to the other rebels.
"Good luck, both of you," Holly said, smiling warmly at the two participants. Beside her, Serinity nodded reluctant agreement, her soft green eyes wavering slightly. The pixie hybrid obviously still had mixed feelings about what was going on, but she was sincere in her desire to see them at least do well in what they had chosen to do.
"Be careful," she quietly told them, and received a pair of knowing smiles in return. She glanced away nervously, and her gaze happened to rest on Hare. The concern in her eyes grew as she noticed the strange, haunted expression on the tawny-furred rabbit’s face. She opened her mouth to ask him what was troubling him, but was drowned out by Genki and Coltia’s cheering.
"You guys will do great! I just know it!" Coltia trilled, beaming.
"Yeah, you’ll win this, no problem!" Genki added, a confident grin on his face.
"Chi!" Mocchi laughed his agreement, not noticing the cynical look Suezo had on his face.
"Well, I’m certain that one of them will win," the eyeball monster muttered under his breath. "The question that I’d like to know the answer to is, which one?"
He thought his query went unheard, which was what he had intended. He failed to notice that Hare’s face blanched white for a fleeting instant following his words.
"Well, good luck to both of you," Genki said, reaching out to shake hands with Scaler. The green rabbit ignored the offered palm and instead turned away, striding toward the registration office, muttering something about needing to get going. Noticing the slightly embarrassed expression on the boy’s face, Grey Wolf grinned reassuringly and brushed his tail up against his hand for a moment.
"We won’t need it, but thanks anyway," the silver wolf told him, then turned and disappeared into the crowd after the scaled hare. Genki shook his head slightly after a moment and turned a grin on the others.
"Let’s get to our seats," he said, darting over to the part of the stands reserved for close friends of the participants.
"Yeah, I don’t want to miss this!" Coltia exclaimed, bolting after him.
* * *
"Are you Scaler?" the clerk at the check-in booth inquired. When the green rabbit nodded, she made a few quick marks on her sheet and told him, "According to what is stated here, you are allowed to take one weapon with you into the arena. All others must stay here at the checkout station."
"As I wished it," Scaler commented. "All right then…"
He shrugged off his cloak, and quickly stripped off all of his daggers and knives, laying blade after blade in a rapidly growing stack on the astonished woman’s desk. As the other people and monsters in the room stared at the pile of weapons, he continued to nonchalantly add more of his blades to it. Finally, all he had left with him was a single, long-bladed sword, which he kept buckled securely in its sheath. Taking up his cloak again, he reversed it once to prove that he only had the single sword on him now, and then tossed its heavy leather folds back over his shoulder.
"There," he said, a sly smirk tugging at the edge of his mouth again as he turned his dark violet-brown eyes back toward the silent, wide-eyed clerk, "Is that quite satisfactory?"
"Q-quite," she agreed hesitantly, absently motioning for him to proceed into the waiting area where all the participants stayed between battles. She felt more than a little faint, and continued to gape at the now quite impressive pile of weapons that dominated one-third of her desk.
"Why is it that these tournaments always seem to attract the really scary monsters?" she wondered under her breath once Scaler had left the room. "As if it wasn’t bad enough that Tiger of the Wind entered that one time…"
"Hey, what was that about my big brother?" the next participant in line growled, glaring up at her with flashing ice blue eyes. She stared back down at the silver-furred lupine for several seconds, unable to answer, and he barked, "Well?!?"
"Dang, not another one…"
* * *
"The tournament’s starting, the tournament’s starting!" Coltia cheering, fairly bouncing up and down in her seat as the other searchers stared at her and sweatdropped.
"Jeez, Colt, you act like you’ve never seen a tournament before," Suezo commented mildly. She froze in mid-bounce and turned a cold glare toward him, caramel eyes flashing.
"What’s wrong with that?!" she demanded, and Suezo’s sweatdrop got even bigger.
"Oh, nothing, nothing at all," he amended lamely, and Coltia looked away with a short "Humph!"
"I still feel rather uncomfortable about this," Serinity admitted to Holly, shaking her head. Holly gave the half-pixie a sympathetic smile and nodded.
"I understand that," she told her, adding, "If you want to leave at any time, nobody will try to stop…"
"No, I’m staying," Serinity interrupted; then, not wanted to seem rude, she explained, "If anyone gets hurt, then they may need me here to help heal them. I can’t just turn my back on something like that."
"R-Right," Hare piped up, nodding agreement. "And I can help too, if anything happens…"
Let’s hope nothing happens, he added silently to himself. He was jolted out of his dark thoughts by a sudden tug on his wrist, and Mocchi pointed excitedly as he directed the bunny’s attention to who was entering the arena at that moment.
"Look, it’s Grey Wolf, chi!" he announced, delighted.
Hare smiled and nodded, and silently noted with an amused smile that the official announcer did not appear to be as pleased as his young friend was by this. The human took a long, disbelieving look at his cue card, then gaped at the silver-furred lupine as he strode into view. Ignoring the suddenly subdued buzz of the crowd, Grey Wolf simply assumed a ready stance, his pale blue eyes twinkling as they raked his opponent.
The other monster in the ring was a very startled-looking Red Eye, who gaped at the wolf as if he were a ghost or something. Hare frowned in thought for a second: he thought that he could just vaguely remember that monster from somewhere…then he grinned slyly as he remembered. This monster had been Tiger’s first opponent in the tournament as well.
Apparently, this poor Red Eye really has some rotten luck, he mused as the bell rung to signal the start of the battle. As he had expected, the fight had barely begun before it was over again: one well-timed swipe from Grey Wolf’s claws sent the unfortunate eyeball monster flying back into his trainer.
"I win," Grey Wolf noted with a slight grin on his muzzle as he turned away, clearing the ring for the next fight. Genki cocked his head to one side, suddenly looking a little confused.
"I could have sworn I’ve seen something like this before," he murmured, crinkling his nose in frustration as he thought for a second. Then he shrugged it off and turned his attention back to the ring: Scaler had just walked in, and the boy fought back a gulp as he spotted the green rabbit’s opponent.
"Uh-oh," he whispered under his breath as he gaped at the monster that was slithering into the ring. He stole a quick glance over at Hare; as he had expected, the young rabbit’s face had gone completely pale.
"Wh-wh-wh…what’s he doing here?" the bunny stammered, giving Genki a horrified look. Genki shook his head in confusion and warning, and leaned over to the now badly trembling young monster.
"I don’t know, but he doesn’t have a crest that I can see," he whispered in the rabbit’s ear. "Maybe that’s a different Aqua Cutter?"
Hare did not reply; he simply continued to stare at the Naga/Jell hybrid as it crawled into the ring, its pale, translucent scales glittering in the sunlight. The snake monster stood flexing his muscles in preparation, and then suddenly he turned and seemed to stare directly toward where the rebels were sitting. His dark crimson eyes locked with Hare’s and narrowed slightly, and a slight grin spread over the reptilian’s face. Then he turned away, bracing himself to fight.
It’s him, was all Hare could think as he sat there, paralyzed in his seat from fear and shock. Noticing the haunted expression on his face, Mocchi waved his hand in front of the young rabbit’s widened, wavering brown eyes, and then sweatdropped when he got no immediate response.
* * *
Aqua Cutter licked his lips in eager anticipation as he turned his attention back toward the fight at hand. The baddie was very pleased with himself; he had known that the rebels would probably try to earn some gold for their trip by entering a tournament like this one, and he was glad to see that he had apparently chosen the correct one. Now, all he needed to do was defeat all of his opponents and make certain that they all ended up with serious wounds, if not dead. Since the rebels had doubtless entered their best fighters in this competition, then getting rid of them would put the others at a serious disadvantage. It was a pity that he wasn’t entirely certain who had entered from their team, but no matter. He didn’t mind the possibility of harming innocent monsters in order to ensure that the rebels suffered as well; in fact he quite enjoyed the concept.
His first opponent stood ready and waiting for him: a scaled hare dressed in a long, flowing leather cloak that fell over his shoulders and gave him an illusion of strength that Aqua Cutter knew was faked. The hare breed, in his opinion, existed for the sole purpose of looking ‘cute’ and ‘cuddly’: more a race meant for being friends to humans than a race meant for fighting. He knew this monster would pose no challenge…
The match started, and Aqua Cutter surged forward, his long claws flashing as he brought them in front of him with a triumphant roar. He intended to impale his victim on his claws with this first lunge, then throw him into the ground and smash his bones with an Evil Shot full in the chest.
But suddenly his target vanished in a blur of green and tan, and as he attempted to skid to a halt and try to spot him, something slammed into his back at full force. Aqua Cutter felt the air rush out of his lungs with a whoosh, and before he could draw breath again, the scaled hare had seized his tail and, with a sudden effort, flung him across the ring.
The stunned naga hybrid crashed into the first row of the stands, and as the unfortunate spectators scrambled out of the way, he gasped for air and struggled to stand back up. Something cool and thin rested against the side of his neck, and as he forced his crimson eyes open, he spotted the long blade of a sword hovering next to him, held firmly in place by the green rabbit. The merest flick of his opponent’s wrist would behead him.
"Smile…" Scaler whispered, a knowing smirk on his face. Turning back to the stunned officials, he called, "My opponent is no longer in any position to continue the battle. Shall we continue, or is this my match?"
"Uh…uhh…well, do you wish to continue?" the startled announcer asked, his eyes on Aqua Cutter. Knowing better than to press this fight onward, the reptilian closed his eyes in frustration and inclined his head slightly in an affirmative nod. Carefully, for the blade still hung close to his neck.
"All right then, it looks like…Scaler wins the match!" the human shouted, his voice becoming more confident as he named the scaled hare as the winner. The green rabbit smiled, and the sword’s edge finally moved away from Aqua Cutter’s neck as he got up and strode away. The reptilian got up and stormed away quickly, burning with rage.
HOW COULD HE?!? HOW COULD HE DEFEAT ME?!? He raged inwardly, tail lashing behind him. I’ll get him for this!
* * *
The rest of the battles went smoothly enough, and soon Grey Wolf was returning to the waiting room for the final time, getting ready for the last match of the day. Overall, he was definitely pleased with how well he had done so far: Tiger would surely have been proud of him had he been there to witness his younger brother’s battles. Now, there was only one battle left to decide the winner, the one that the silver wolf had been privately looking forward to ever since the moment he had decided to enter the tournament.
"So, you made it to the final round," Scaler commented, not even bothering to look directly at the silver-furred lupine as he strode into the room. Grey Wolf paused, but did not glance back at the green rabbit, and a slight smirk spread over his muzzle.
"So did you," he replied mildly, closing his eyes as he nodded once to himself.
"I was pleased to see how well you fought," the rabbit continued, his tone neutral. "Hare had mentioned that you were a great fighter, and I was glad to see that your performance appeared equal to his claim."
"Really…well, you haven’t done so badly yourself," Grey Wolf answered, and he glanced briefly over his shoulder to see if the other would react. If he did, his leather cloak and turned back hid it well from him.
"Just be certain to keep fighting at that level when we face off, if not above it," the scaled hare continued after a moment’s pause, beginning to stride off again. "Ally or not, I do not plan on holding back once we are in the ring."
"Neither am I," Grey Wolf replied, and he thought he heard a slight chuckle in reply to this, but could not be certain, as Scaler had already left the room by the time he turned around.
* * *
"Yay! Yay! Oh, I’m so excited!" Coltia gushed, starting to bounce up and down in her seat again as the other rebels stared at her and sweatdropped. "Oh, this is so cool; I don’t know who I want to root for!"
"How can you be excited?" Serinity cried, her bright green eyes wide with shock. "Two of our friends are fighting one another! How can you find that to be exciting?"
"I know, but it’s just so invigorating!" Coltia replied, beaming as she grinned over at the stunned pixie hybrid. "Don’t you think this is great? We’re about to see two great warriors take on each other in a battle to prove who is the stronger! Doesn’t it thrill you?"
"………No," Serinity answered, her tone indicating that she found it shocking that anyone would consider this to be a good thing. Beside her, Holly shook her head and sweatdropped, and Hare dropped his wavering brown eyes in thought.
I don’t like this…something’s going to go wrong, I can sense it, he thought glumly, trembling. The question is…what?
He shuddered, then hastily snapped himself back to reality as the announcer’s voice called out the names of the two finalists. He knew them by heart, and didn’t really need to hear them again to know perfectly well what was going on, but still forced himself to pay attention, not wanting to miss anything that might tip him off to a disaster beforehand.
Grey Wolf’s name was called first, and the silver-furred lupine stepped forward, his fur looking almost metallic as it gleamed in the sun’s rays. Its brightness seemed to match the glittering edge of Scaler’s sword as the green rabbit stepped up to face the wolf, holding his weapon at a ready position before him.
"Ready?" the man called, then scrambled to get out of the ring. His haste was almost comedic, especially when he tripped over the edge in his scramble, but few people laughed aloud at him. Straightening up, he took a deep breath to steady himself, trying to keep himself from looking worried and failing miserably.
"BEGIN!" he shouted, then edged even further away, eyeing the combatants warily.
Neither Scaler or Grey Wolf seemed to be in any hurry to attack; the two instead stared at each other for several seconds, every nerve in their bodies seeming to become taut as they began to circle each other. The green rabbit made a few test feints to see if the other would respond; the silver wolf evaded them easily and made a few quick swipes of his own. They weren’t seriously attacking, but were instead attempting to gauge the other’s abilities, testing them, watching how the other moved, how they reacted.
After a moment, Grey Wolf decided to take things a step further, and his horns suddenly glowed with pale blue light.
"Torpedo!" he called, not announcing his attack at the top of his lungs like his brother had in battle. The glowing blue missile surged forward; without flinching, Scaler made a sudden move with one paw, bringing his sword up before him. The blast struck the spinning blade and reflected it back toward the wolf, who sprung into the air.
Scaler leapt to meet him, and suddenly the battle seemed to start in earnest, for both combatants suddenly became a flurry of motion. Steel rang against sharp claws as the two crashed together, again and again. Neither appeared to be quite able to strike their target directly, but neither seemed to be tiring, either, as both attempted blow after counter-blow.
"Ohhhh…I can’t watch this anymore!" Serinity wailed, leaping to her feet and turning her back on the sight, her cat-like ears folded up against her head to block out the noise. Holly glanced back at her and sweatdropped.
"This is so cool!" Coltia shouted for what seemed to be the thousandth time, her caramel eyes wide and sparkling with delight as she stared transfixed at the battle. The crowd seemed to share her opinion, roaring with excitement, although more than a few began to wonder how exactly this fight would ever end.
Hare stared at the two fighters as if in a daze, unable to tear his wavering brown eyes away for a second even though every nerve in his body seemed to scream at him. His mind was playing tricks on him, as the battle in real life blended with the battle he had witnessed in his dream, until he was not entirely certain where reality ended and the nightmare begun.
A deep-throated laugh rumbled from somewhere, sounding unnaturally clear and deep, and Hare instinctively jerked toward it as the Phoenix’s Tear flared up beneath his kerchief. His eyes widened as he spotted first what nobody else was able to see yet, and he whirled back toward the others, about to scream a warning.
Before everyone’s shocked eyes, a ball of pulsing, pale blue light suddenly engulfed the two fighters in the ring, and its sudden explosion sent everyone reeling backward, thrown back by its sheer force. Hare quickly summoned a shield to protect himself and the other searchers, but could not hope to protect the pair that had been standing in the center of the stadium: at ground zero.
"SCALER! GREY WOLF!" he shouted at the top of his lungs as the blast slowly receded, leaving behind a ring bathed in blue flames. Nobody answered his frightened plea, and as Hare felt horrified tears spring to his widened eyes, the same deep laughter he had heard moments before rumbled again.
Whirling toward its source, the young rabbit felt his heart take a sudden leap into his throat: Aqua Cutter was standing on the top of one of the blasted rows, which was now vacant except for him, most of the patrons having fled. Moo’s crest now gleamed unmistakably on his muscular chest, and he leered triumphantly as he caught sight of Hare’s shields flickering around the young rabbit and his friends.
"Ah, well, that takes care of my little revenge on that wretched rabbit with the cloak," he rasped, his crimson eyes glittering as he sneered at Hare, "And now I shall take care of my business with you, little rabbit…"
He began to slither forward, moving slowly and confidently, knowing that there was nothing capable of coming between them at this point. Hare stole a quick glance back at the others: while they looked mostly unharmed, the force of the blast had knocked them unconscious. Coltia and Suezo had especially large bumps on the backs of their heads, and the young rabbit sweatdropped slightly as he mentally discounted the chances of receiving any help from his friends. He faced this baddie on his own.
Sensing victory, Aqua Cutter continued to take his time approaching the searchers. He watched with thinly veiled amusement as Hare tensed and dropped into a battle stance, still holding the glowing crimson shield up around himself and his knocked senseless friends.
"Just come along with me quietly, little one," he leered, a cruel smirk twisting his lips as he added, "After all, I would so hate to have to waste my time and energy taking you by force when both of us know that your surrender is inevitable."
"You want to make a bet of that?"
"What?" Aqua Cutter shouted in surprise, whirling around as Hare looked up towards the sound of the voice and gasped.
A pair of figures slowly emerged from the slowly dying flames of the smoldering ring, and both violet-brown eyes and eyes as cold as ice glared back at the startled reptilian. The green rabbit’s scales looked a little singed, as did the edge of his cape, and the lupine’s silvery fur had lost some of its natural sheen, but the two still looked mostly okay.
In fact, Scaler and Grey Wolf looked more enraged than they did injured.
"I don’t know…who the hell you think you are," Scaler hissed, his dark eyes flashing brighter than the flames behind him.
"But you didn’t have to interrupt us just as our fight was really getting good!" Grey Wolf snarled, baring his dagger-like teeth as his lips curled back.
"…Just as it was getting good?" Hare echoed under his breath, sweatdropping a little bit as he stared at the two. Had they been…enjoying their battle together?
Aqua Cutter was just gaping at the two, unable to answer. His normally narrow crimson eyes were unnaturally wide as he stared at them, one eyebrow twitching with disbelief. The reptilian was beginning to realize just how strong his opponent truly was.
He walked out of that blast…and doesn’t even look hurt! He thought, stunned. Then a second realization struck him, causing his eyes to widen even further as it hit home.
> They BOTH walked out of that blast and don’t look hurt! They just looked mad…at me… <
"Grey Wolf, shall we…?" Scaler prompted, drawing his sword.
"We shall," the silver wolf replied, nodding curtly as blue energy burst into crackling, arcing light around his horns.
The two turned toward Aqua Cutter, and the baddie felt a huge sweatdrop form on the back of his head.
"Oh kuso…" he whispered, and took a faltering step backward.
Scaler and Grey Wolf lunged for him at the same time, both giving voice to their own battle snarl, and the naga hybrid let out a frightened scream. Hare watched the carnage that followed for a little bit, then quickly averted his eyes, wincing and keeping his shields up as explosions lit up the surrounding area. As steel and claws ripped and flayed, Hare glanced back at his unconscious friends and sweatdropped.
"Hope you guys don’t take this the wrong way, but personally, I’m kind of glad that you can’t see this," he confined, wincing again as a screaming Aqua Cutter suddenly tore past him, fleeing for his life. He was not surprised in the least when he turned back around to see Scaler and Grey Wolf trying to resume their battle, despite the now ruined condition of the stadium. Sighing, he bowed his head.
* * *
"It was really nice of them to give us the prize money for first and second place after that baddie was driven off," Coltia commented, folding her hands behind her still slightly throbbing head as she gazed up at the sky.
"Yeah, pity they told us to ‘Get out, get out, get OUT!’ at the same time," Suezo added, only half-jokingly.
"I’m certain that they only did that because the fight had been going on for so long," Holly told him, sweatdropping. "After all, they didn’t banish us from that town for good…although I don’t think we’ll be able to enter another tournament there anytime soon…"
"Really, I’m just glad that terrible fight is over," Serinity agreed, hovering a few feet above the ground as she flew alongside Genki.
"At least they didn’t make us pay for all the damage those two caused," Hare added in a whisper, and Genki and Suezo nodded in nervous agreement. Then Suezo suddenly paused, struck by a sudden thought.
"Hey, so who did win, anyway?" he suddenly blurted, looking around at everyone.
The other searchers paused, and all eyes turned toward Scaler and Grey Wolf. The two glanced at Suezo in mild surprise, then looked at one another. Violet-brown eyes locked with ice blue ones for a moment, and each regarded the other silently. Then, slowly, a pair of knowing smirks appeared on their faces, and they turned away again.
"We know," they quietly answered in unison, then turned and walked forward, side by side. The other searchers stared after them for a few stunned seconds, then scrambled to catch up.
"Hey, look where we are, gang!" Genki shouted, racing ahead of the others. Since the clear-eyed boy was at his typical place at the very front of the group, none of them were able to see what he was looking at right away, something that kind of annoyed Holly even though she was too polite to say anything right now. Instead, she simply sighed, and walked at her own normal pace alongside the others until they reached the top of the hill they were on. Then she saw what he was talking about, and she understood.
Genki had come to a stop before a place where the road split into four different paths, each heading in a different direction. He stood directly in the middle of the intersection, gazing back toward the others with his hands on his hips and a huge smile on his face as he waited for them to catch up.
"Mocchi remember this place, chi," Mocchi commented as he slowed to a stop beside the boy. As the other searchers arrived, Genki grinned down at the young monster and nodded, a huge grin plastered on his face.
"Uh-huh," he said, beaming. "You remember too, huh Mocchi? We came here during our last trip, too. That village that we saved from flooding is just a short ways from here."
"Hmm, I remember how we ended up finding that village in the first place," Hare added mildly, a sly smile on his face. "You two went charging ahead and ended up stumbling over it – quite literally, if my memory serves me."
Genki’s face flushed red with embarrassment for a moment, and Holly hid her giggling behind a discreetly raised hand. Suezo rolled his eye, a knowing smile on his face, while the newer members just looked at the five original searchers. Coltia cocked her head to one side in confusion for a moment, then shrugged.
"So is that where we’re heading next, then?" she asked, looking directly at Holly and Genki. Genki stopped blushed, and his grin reappeared as he nodded, failing to notice that the girl beside him did not look as certain as he was.
"Yeah; I can’t wait!" he cheered, as he started to charge down the path.
"Genki, wait," Holly suddenly called out, and the boy froze in his tracks. Turning around, he gave her a look of complete confusion.
"What? What’s wrong, Holly?" he asked, walking back up to her and the others. In response, Holly reached under her shirt and fished out the Magic Stone, holding it up for him and everyone else to see.
"I think we should check the Magic Stone first," she explained. "I think I might be able to use it to get a lock on where Tiger and Golem are. I mean, it reacted to them when we first met…maybe we can use it to find them now?"
"It’s worth a shot," Hare agreed, nodding thoughtfully. Serinity, Coltia and Grey Wolf glanced at one another, completely lost by the course of the conversation, while Scaler remained indifferent.
As they watched, Holly closed her eyes in concentration, and cupped her hands around the pendant stone. Genki came back up to watch, and the searchers gathered in silent anticipation around her, the newer members (save for Scaler) gave each other wondering and curious looks.
Then the stone began to pulse with shimmering light, and Coltia felt her mouth drop open in shock. Serinity gasped and covered her mouth with one hand, her bright green eyes nearly doubling in size, while Grey Wolf just gaped at the sight unfolding before him. Scaler arched one eyebrow slightly, the only outward reaction he showed to what was happening.
Holly kept her eyes tightly shut in concentration, and her brow furrowed slightly as she attempted to channel all of her power into the Stone.
Show me, she pleaded silently, Show me where our friends are…where Golem’s heart roams…where Tiger’s spirit lies!
Suddenly the Magic Stone glowed brightly, and a strong sapphire blue light sparked within its emerald depths. As the other searchers watched, transfixed, the shimmering azure light appeared to shape itself into a vaguely lupine form, and the five original members of the searchers gasped in surprise, as did Grey Wolf. The image seemed to gaze toward the mountains, and it reared back with a silent howl. Then it faded away as quickly as it had come, and Holly snapped her eyes open with a faint gasp.
"………Whoa," Coltia breathed after a few moments of awed silence. "That…was…so cool…"
"…No kidding," Serinity agreed, nodding slightly, her green eyes still wide with shock as she slowly recovered.
"That was…different," Hare observed, trying to keep his tone mild as he nervously gripped his own pendant. It was glowing faintly, as if in reaction to the Magic Stone, and he wondered if that was the case.
"So we head…this way, then," Genki said, turning and pointing toward the mountains. A slight frown crossed his face for a moment: he had been looking forward to visiting that village again, but the Stone had pointed in a different direction.
However, his annoyed expression quickly faded from view, to be replaced with an excited grin. After all, if what the Magic Stone had appeared to indicate was true, then Tiger might be very close by…
He could tell that Grey Wolf was thinking along the same lines, for when he looked at the silver wolf, he could clearly see hope shining in his pale blue eyes. He whirled on his heel again, this time facing the others with his normal confident grin on his face, and his clear brown eyes twinkled.
"Well, what are we waiting for, gang?" he inquired, and with a quick twirl started down the path that the Magic Stone had pointed out. Mocchi hopped onto his back, latching onto his backpack with a strong grip, and both of them laughed as they took off.
"Wait up!" Coltia shouted, scrambling after him, with Grey Wolf close on her heels. Holly ran close behind them, and as the others followed along, Serinity launched herself into the air and began to glide along, only a few feet above the ground.
* * *
Grey Wolf ran at a hard, fast lope, and found himself alongside Hare and Scaler. The older rabbit glanced briefly at him out of the corner of one violet-brown eye, then focused his attention back on the road ahead of them. However, Hare looked over at the silver wolf for a longer period of time, his wide brown eyes narrowed slightly, as if he was trying to read the lupine’s expression to get an idea of his thoughts. After a moment, however, Scaler suddenly reached over and gave Hare’s arm a gentle yank, jolting him out of his near-trance and pulling him along after him.
Grey Wolf shook his head, a slight grin on his muzzle as he continued to run after the other searchers. His heart was pounding in his ears, getting louder and more insistent with each step he took forward.
Can it really be possible? He wondered, hardly daring to believe. Could my big brother honestly be back, alive and well? Have I been wrong all this time?
He wasn’t certain, but he wanted to believe. Oh, how he wanted to convince himself that what was happening was true. He wanted to think that any moment now, they would round the bend in the road and find the blue wolf standing there waiting for them, the wind ruffling his long, sapphire fur, his golden eyes glinting knowingly as they sought out and locked with pale blue ones…
- Oh yes, and then Moo’s floating fortress will suddenly crash into the ocean and burn away to nothingness! -
Grey Wolf shook his head suddenly, his blue eyes becoming cold and distant for a few fleeting minutes.
In a perfect world, maybe that had some chance of happening. But no, seriously, he had to keep himself in the here and now. In all actuality, he figured that all they would really find is an empty path and, if they were lucky, some clue as to where his brother was now.
Still, he had to admit as he kept running forward, it would be nice if just this once, he turned out to be wrong…
* * *
Amazing…Holly actually has a stone that can point out which direction she has to go, Serinity thought as she glided along above the others. I know she mentioned it before, when she was talking about how they defeated Moo and everything, but…I’ve never seen such a thing in my life! She must hold great power…
The breeze suddenly shifted, changing direction on her, and the pixie hybrid automatically adjusted her flight path, dropping first a little lower, then heading a little higher until she located a new air current heading in the direction she desired.
So that…Magic Stone…was how Golem and his new friends found the Phoenix, she mused. Her bright green eyes became slightly distant as she attempted to picture her childhood friend watching intently as Holly concentrated on the Stone, but discovered that, for some reason, she simply could not bring an image to mind. Confused, she bit her lip in mild fright: she knew she had not forgotten her old friend’s face, since she saw it clearly whenever she thought about their youth together, so…
…Or was that the problem, right there? She had no idea what Golem looked like now, in the present; all her memories and mental images of him came from the past. She had not seen him since…since…
…Since the moment I died in his arms, Serinity realized with a start, a small shiver running down her spine. As if responded to her sudden mood change, the breeze that carried her along dropped in temperature, and she absently hugged her arms to her chest.
She wondered if it was normal for a monster that had been killed and brought back to life to have a clear memory of what exactly it had been like, the moment they… She had no idea; and wasn’t entirely certain how to ask anyone about it.
He had called to her, shouted out her name, and had lifted her body away from the battle, protecting her to the very end. She could still recall the very last glimpse she had seen of the living world: that of Golem’s young, horrified face hovering over her, his soft gray eyes wide and wavering with horror and grief. She had smiled, wanting to reassure him…and then…
…That was where her memory faded away, becoming formless, fragmented, confused. After that, the next clear memory she had was of awakening, surrounded by everyone she had grown up with, save one… and others, many, many others who she had not recognized at all.
She remembered watching in complete confusion as a bunch of Jell monsters, ones that she failed to remember being part of the ones who had attacked in the first place or being from her home village, fleeing like mad into the woods, screaming something about a demon giant out to kill them. She had no idea what they were talking about, but now that she had learned about Moo, she thought that she understood. Moo must have killed them in that grove, though what the evil tyrant had been doing there, she could only guess at.
…Oh well. She could not begin to fathom how the minds of the baddies worked.
Instead, she turned her thoughts to other matters, like what her old friend might look like now. She doubted that he had changed much; the only possible thing she could think of that might have changed was that he might have gotten bigger. But how much time had passed, exactly, from that fatal battle to the time when the Phoenix rose?
She had no way of knowing. All she knew was that she wanted to see her old childhood friend again, to find out how he had been, and to let him know that everyone back home wanted to see him again.
* * *
Hare bit back a yelp as Scaler tugged on his arm again, urging him on, and the younger rabbit gave the scaled hare a look of annoyance. However, he couldn’t help feeling a little amused as well, since he figured that he was probably more eager to find his friends again than Scaler was in meeting them.
In all probability, the sensible part of his mind informed him, the chances of Tiger of the Wind and Golem being this close to them was unlikely at this point. Hare recognized this, but didn’t really care at this point. After all, sooner or later, they would find the others, and then Moo wouldn’t stand a chance against them. They could summon the Phoenix again, and everything would work out.
The Phoenix’s Tear was glowing again under his kerchief, and he noticed with mild surprise as he glanced down at it that the light was now a faint blue instead of red. But then again, he reasoned, maybe it was just reacting to whatever it was that had set the Magic Stone off. And who knew? Maybe Tiger really was nearby…
* Well, there’s only one way to find out! *
Hare managed to get his arm loose from Scaler’s grasp, and he laughed as he darted ahead of the older rabbit, after the other searchers. Under his bandanna, his pendant continued to glow with sapphire light, growing stronger as they neared the cliffs ahead of them.
* * *
As they entered the canyons, however, Hare felt a sudden cool chill run up his back, and he slowed to a walk behind the others as they headed forward. The others had slowed down as well, and he wondered if they had noticed how suddenly that his mood had changed.
"Uh…boy, this doesn’t look promising," Suezo noted, surveying the echoingly silent canyons ahead of them with clear disappointment in his narrowed green-gold eye. Genki shivered, then shook his head violently and stepped ahead of the others, taking the lead.
"Come on, let’s go," he prompted, glancing back over his shoulder and motioning for everyone to follow him. They did, although without most of the energy and eagerness that they had soon while heading toward this place.
Grey Wolf studied the area around them with interest, his pale blue eyes looking strange for a moment as he surveyed the surrounding cliffs. Noticing his unusual expression, Serinity swept down to glide beside him.
"What’s wrong?" she asked, her soft green eyes filled with concern. The silver wolf jerked with surprise and turned startled blue eyes up toward her.
"Oh…for some reason, I keep thinking that I know this place from somewhere," he explained. Serinity cocked her head to one side in thought.
"Well, it is close to where you and your pack live," she offered. "Maybe you’ve explored this area before?"
"I don’t know, I don’t remember being here with the new pack," Grey Wolf replied, shaking his head. His eyes narrowed slightly as he added, "I think…I might have been here at some point with Tiger, before…but I just can’t remember for certain."
"Oh," Serinity murmured, looking away. She thought about how horrible it must feel to lose memories like that, and wondered again if there was something wrong with her. Why did she remember her past life, but Grey Wolf…? But then, perhaps Moo had something to do with his memory loss.
Hare, meanwhile, was beginning to have a little trouble keeping focused on walking forward, keeping an eye out for any sign of Tiger or Golem. His head was beginning to ache, the dull throbbing becoming gradually sharper with each step he took forward. There was a cool, twisting pressure at his chest now as well, and it seemed to spread through his veins as he followed the others deeper into the canyon.
His feet slipped out from under him suddenly, and he stumbled, barely able to catch himself before he could fall to the ground. Almost immediately a pair of strong hands seized his shoulders, and Hare looked up through the fog forming in his mind to see Scaler’s concerned face above him. The green rabbit’s narrowed violet-brown eyes shone with a mixture of annoyance and veiled worry, and he set Hare back on his feet, keeping one paw clamped firmly over his shoulder.
"Hare, are you alright?" Holly asked, looking back at them. Hare quickly nodded, and pulled away from Scaler’s grasp.
"I-I’m fine," he said, and he forced himself to walk again, concentrating to keep from faltering or stumbling. Holly and Scaler both watched him for a few moments, and then both looked away, turning their attention back to the road ahead of them.
Gritting his teeth, Hare attempted to focus on the task at hand as well, but his head continued to throb, until it took all of his concentration to simply keep moving forward. Unconsciously, he pressed the back of one paw against his forehead, and was slightly startled by how warm it felt to him. It seemed an odd contrast with the icy presence against his chest…
A vaguely familiar voice was echoing in his mind, in a tone as soft and whispering as the wind, the cold, cold wind that was beginning to bite through his fur with tiny, sharp teeth…
It suddenly sharpened into a shrill scream of pain and outrage, piercing through his trembling body like the blade of a knife and driving him to his knees. A soft moan escaped the young rabbit’s lips as he crumpled to the ground, his vision blurring badly. The road before him suddenly vanished into a blur of swirling white, and Hare cried out again unknowing as his friends disappeared into the blank, nearly featureless landscape, the cry drowned out by the roar of the winds.
* W…why…why is this happening to me? What… *
Snow surged into his face, blinding him, and Hare wrapped his arms tightly around his badly shaking body in a futile attempt to warm himself. The voices he heard became louder, more insistent, screaming – not at him, but at something else. Something… someone…
The Phoenix’s Tear continued to glow with eerie sapphire light, and Hare’s breathing became more labored, forced, as something both alien and strangely familiar sought to break into his resisting mind, desiring control… It shrieked at him, its harsh command becoming the howl of the raging wind, and with all the strength of a tornado it slammed into him, surrounding him, trapping him…
Then, it tore through the last of his defenses and surged through his small frame, tearing through him, a raw shriek of remembered pain and inner torment that made itself real, corporeal, using his unwilling body as its focus…
* * *
A soft sound like a gasp was mostly drowned out by the loud conversations going on all around her, yet Mocchi still appeared to overhear it. The little pink monster stopped short in his tracks, causing Genki to nearly trip over him. Crying out, the clear-eyed bot took a few steps to steady himself, then whirled on his friend.
"Mocchi? What are you…" he started to demand, trailing off as he noticed that Mocchi was not paying any attention to him. Following the young monster’s gaze, Genki completely forgot his anger as he spotted Hare sprawled out face down on the road some ways behind him.
"Hare!" he shouted, scrambling past the startled other rebels as he darted to the young bunny’s side. He started to kneel down beside him, only to be abruptly showed out of the way as Scaler crouched down by Hare. The scaled hare seized the younger rabbit roughly by the shoulders and rolled him over, and Genki sucked in a startled breath as he glimpsed his friend’s face.
He had been expecting Hare’s eyes to be closed, thinking that he may have fainted, but it took only a moment for him to realize that this was not the case. Instead, the young rabbit’s eyes were wide open, but were fogged over, without any sign of his normal intelligence and spirit in their glassy depths. Genki felt a cold shiver run down his back and, ignoring how Scaler glared at him, reached down and grabbed Hare’s shoulders, trying to shake him awake.
"Genki? What’s wrong with him, Genki?" Coltia’s quavering voice asked at his ear. He just shook his head in reply, trying to concentrate on bringing his friend back to consciousness. After a few moments, a pair of slender hands slowly reached down and clasped over his, and Genki looked up to see Holly’s wavering bronze eyes gazing back at him sympathetically.
"Genki…don’t," she said sadly, shaking her head in dismay. "You might only be hurting him right now…"
"But what’s wrong with him?" Coltia wailed, tears springing to her tan eyes as she looked from Holly’s averted gaze to Genki, then to Mocchi and Suezo when the boy did not answer either.
"Yes…I think we have every right to know…exactly what the hell is wrong with him right now," Scaler agreed, his voice coming very slow and measured, as if he was struggling to keep under control as he kept one eye trained on the younger rabbit.
However, before Genki, Holly or Suezo could think of a reply, Hare suddenly saved them the trouble of having to explain. The Phoenix’s Tear flared again with cold blue light, and a raw shriek erupted from his mouth as his body convulsed, taking everyone off guard. Coltia screamed and latched onto Genki’s arm, her horrified expression a near mirror of Genki’s own face as he stared in horror at the bunny’s writhing form.
Scaler moved to pin Hare back down, attempting to make him stop struggling, but the younger rabbit let out another horrible shriek and wrenched away. Holly shuddered, wondering what was happening to cause such terrible screams. It was unlike anything she had ever heard before: it was almost as if the voice that was shrieking was not quite Hare’s own.
Despite all of Scaler’s efforts, Hare had managed to pull away from him, and suddenly was standing, wavering on his feet, the same haunted look in his glassy eyes. His pendant pulsed with cold sapphire light, casting eerie shadows over his face, and his breath came in hard, rasping gasps as he seemed to stare fixedly forward.
"What are you doing here?!?" he demanded in a husky voice nowhere near his normal tone, and he dropped into a tense, battle-ready stance as he added, grimly, "Leave this place, now! You have no reason to be here…"
"…Uh, who are you talking to?" Suezo inquired, sweatdropping hugely as he waved his tail in front of Hare’s unblinking, foggy eyes. When he got no response, the eyeball monster leaned closer, staring directly into the young rabbit’s face.
"Hare, chi?" Mocchi asked, and the young monster reached out to tug on his friend’s arm.
As if in response, the Phoenix’s Tear suddenly flashed a blinding sapphire hue, and both Suezo and Mocchi reared back as if they had been shoved away. Holly and Genki quickly ran to the sides of their respective partners, steadying them as they staggered backward.
"Mocchi? Mocchi, what’s wrong?!" Genki cried, his heart taking a sudden leap into his throat as he noticed the haunted look that had come into the pink monster’s eyes. However, he could tell that unlike Hare, Mocchi had at least some awareness of what was happening around him, for his eyes retained their same clarity, the same spirit, although now they also looked intensely fearful.
"…M…Moo…" he whispered, trembling as he stared up at Genki’s concerned face.
"It’s okay, Mocchi, I’m right here," Genki replied, pulling Mocchi into a shaking embrace. However, the young monster suddenly wrenched away, shaking his head violently.
"No, no, Moo!" he insisted, wide eyes wavering as they locked on Genki’s face, begging for him to comprehend what he was trying to tell him.
Meanwhile, Holly was having similar troubles with Suezo; the eyeball monster had gone completely pale and was stammering incoherently, staring off in the same direction that Hare was looking. Holly was struggling to calm him down, with no effect.
"Suezo, please calm down!" she begged, her trembling hands resting against his rigid side as she tried to get him to say exactly what was bothering him. He glanced briefly at her, a flicker of recognition sparking in his green-gold pupil for a moment, and then he turned his attention back past her, into the empty space beyond her.
"Th-this can’t be real! I know that we…but this is, this is…" she heard him mutter, and was about to ask what he meant when she noticed something that made her suck in a gasp. She could see a figure reflected clearly in his widened eye, a familiar figure that caused her to turn around quickly, only to see nobody behind them at all.
"Holly, what’s up?" Genki asked, seeing how quickly she had jerked around. Holly turned wavering bronze eyes toward him, shaking her head slightly.
"I thought…I thought that I saw…Moo," she explained hesitantly, and Genki jerked his head up to stare at her in shock.
"Moo?!?" he exclaimed, disbelieving.
"That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, chi!" Mocchi piped up, and all eyes turned toward the little pink monster. Pointing forward, he shouted, "Moo is right there, but not right there, chi!"
"…What? There and not there…?" Coltia asked, a slightly disturbed look on her face as she sweatdropped at Mocchi’s unusual choice of words. She cast a rapid glance in the direction that the young pink monster was pointing, and saw nothing ahead of them. Confused, she turned back around and asked, "What do you mean…?"
Before she could finish her question, Hare let out another horrible scream, and his pendant flared again with blinding sapphire light. As the others cried out and shielded their eyes, Holly suddenly noticed another glow at the edge of her vision. Looking down, she realized with a start that the Magic Stone was also gleaming with a blue aura, and as she reached down and gently clasped it in her trembling hands, a second flash temporarily robbed all of the searchers of their sight.
Genki regained his vision first, his clear eyes wavering slightly as they adjusted. Moving his blocking arms away from his face, he felt his eyes widen in shock as they beheld the area surrounding him.
It had…changed, somehow. Although he slowly recognized the canyon as being the same one they had been walking through, the rocky cliffs were now masked by thick blankets of snow, the same snow that swirled around them and surged into his face.
But even stranger than this was the fact that the snow did not sting his face even as the sparkling white flakes brushed against his cheeks.
"Wh-where are we? What’s going on here?!?" Coltia wailed, latching onto the arm of the rebel closest to her, which just happened to be Genki. He glanced over at her, unable to give her any answer, then his gaze traveled over to the others. Holly was gripping Suezo’s side, looking around in amazement and fear, and Serinity was holding a trembling Mocchi’s hand. Scaler actually looked a little startled, although he did not show his astonishment as much as the others were. His attention was focused completely on Hare.
The young rabbit was still standing by himself; his eyes still looking fogged over and haunted. The Phoenix’s Tear was now glowing with a steady sapphire hue, and as the other searchers turned and stared in horror, a faint blue aura surrounded him.
"I’m telling you to GO AWAY!" he snarled in that strange voice again. He was still poised as if ready to attack, and his breathing sounded unnatural and unsteady. Grey Wolf stared directly at him, then shot a quick look around him; his pale blue eyes widened as a new comprehension dawned in them.
"I remember this place!" he blurted, and the other rebels whirled to stare at him.
"What do you mean?" Serinity asked, tears of fright brimming in her verdant eyes. Gray Wolf’s ice blue eyes grew haunted as he took another look around the snow-filled canyon, and a cold shudder ran through his body.
"This place…it looks exactly like the canyon where Tiger, our pack and I fought with Moo…"
"What?" Genki blurted, his clear brown eyes nearly doubling in size, while Coltia gasped and tightened her grip around the boy’s arm. Suddenly she let out a scream, and pointed forward through the swirling curtains of snow.
"Genki! Is-is that…?" she stammered, her caramel eyes wavering with terror as shadowy forms slowly began to emerge from the howling blizzard. Genki could not reply, and his silence spoke for him as he cast wavering eyes upon a familiar face that he had hoped never to see again…
A single figure towered above other, smaller creatures, its narrowed crimson eyes flashing bloodfire in their ebony mask. The long, flowing cape that billowed in the raging wind was also a deep black shade, a sharp contrast with the figure’s gleaming golden bronze armor. As it slowly drew closer to them, Genki heard Coltia let out a soft whimper, and her grasp tightened on his wrist. Suezo shuddered and stepped closer to Holly, his green-gold pupil small with fear. Serinity stood petrified, one hand tightly clasped around Mocchi’s, her huge leaf-green eyes wavering as she stared at the towering monster.
"Is that…Moo?" she asked, her trembling voice a bare whisper.
Scaler glanced back at her and inclined his head in a slight nod, even as he dropped into a defensive stance in front of the younger rabbit. Violet-brown eyes glittered as they narrowed into bare slits, and his paws blurred as he drew a couple of throwing knives in a movement too quick to follow. His leather cloak flapped about wildly in the raging wind, unnoticed by the green rabbit as he waited for an appropriate moment to strike.
Serinity continued to stare fixedly up at Moo as he approached them, unable to tear her wavering eyes away. Golem fought against this? She thought she was beginning to understand why; she could feel an evil presence radiating from the dark giant’s body, sending chills up and down her spine as she gaped up at him.
Suddenly she noticed something that completely startled her, and a soft gasp escaped her pale lips. Moo made a sharp motion with his hand, and suddenly the monsters that had been milling about his feet surged forward, making to attack. Genki shook Coltia off, and she glanced rapidly over at him, confusion flickering in her tan eyes for a moment. Then she suddenly understood, and nodded curtly back at him, before tensing for the counterattack.
"Wait! Look at their eyes!" Serinity’s voice rang out, catching everyone’s attention. It only took a moment for them to see what she meant: none of the attacking baddies were looking at them. Instead, they appeared to be focused on something behind them…
"Attack!" Hare suddenly howled, the tenseness in his body suddenly exploding with a force akin to a coiled spring as he made a quick jump forward. Before Genki could ask what in the heck the little rabbit was doing, several more blurry figures surged out of the swirling snow behind them, and everyone gasped as they caught sight of them.
The first wave of baddies found themselves being met with like force, and recoiled backward as lupine monsters pressed their counterattack. Grey Wolf gaped at the Datons and Datonares in shock, his mouth working soundlessly for a moment, then swung his stunned gaze back toward the others as two more lupine figures appeared, racing into view side by side.
One blur of silver fur…and one of blue.
"Tiger?" Genki, Mocchi, Holly and Suezo cried out in surprise as the blue wolf came to a standstill. Grey Wolf said nothing, just continued to stare blankly at the silver-furred lupine standing beside the golden-eyed wolf: an exact double of himself, or his younger self.
"This is getting too strange for me!" Suezo wailed, staring at the two brothers in shock. Swinging his gaze back toward the other Grey Wolf, the one they had been traveling with, he demanded, "What the heck is going on?!?"
Grey Wolf simply glanced over at him, unable to provide an answer. The strange blue wolf had dropped into a battle crouch, and sapphire-tinted electricity was pulsing over his horns, casting shadows over his unscarred face. As he unleashed his attack, sending it surging toward Moo, he opened his mouth to shout, but no sound came out.
"LIGHTNING!" Hare screamed in his strange, twisted voice, at the exact same moment that the blue wolf’s mouth moved to speak. Genki whirled around to look at him in shock, then jerked as he heard Serinity let out a shriek of fear. Spinning to face her, he immediately saw what was wrong; she was standing directly in the path of Tiger’s attack. There was no time for her to possibly dodge away; all the pixie hybrid could do was shove Mocchi away from her and wait for the blast to strike her.
The electric bolt lanced forward, and Serinity let out a sharp gasp as it reached her. However, it was not a gasp of pain, but a gasp of shock, as the blue energy passed directly through her chest, striking a baddie behind her. As she spun to face it, the monster let out a soundless scream of agony and doubled backward.
"Wh-what the…" she breathed, gently touching her uninjured chest in a daze. She had expected to die again, but instead felt completely normal. The only thing she had felt as the attack had passed through her was a slight tingling sensation, like a soft breeze against bare skin, but that was it. No wrenching pain, no unbearable agony.
"This…this is," Grey Wolf murmured, his pale blue eyes going wide, and he whirled to face the others. "This is when Moo attacked us! It has to be!"
"But I still don’t understand what’s happening," Serinity said, as Mocchi stumbled over to her and clung to her arm for comfort again. "If this happened in the past, why are we seeing it now?"
"I don’t know, but I think that Hare’s pendant thingy has something to do with it," Coltia piped up. The other rebels sweatdropped at her choice of words.
"Um…’pendant thingy’, Colt?" Holly whispered, shaking her head slightly. Still, she had to admit that the younger human girl did have a valid point; she couldn’t help but agree with the idea that this was somehow connected to the eerie blue light that the Phoenix’s Tear was currently sparkling with.
Scaler had apparently come to the same conclusions as the human girls, for his violet-brown eyes narrowed as they locked on the crystalline teardrop. Suddenly the blades in his hands seemed to vanish as he sheathed them, and he made a sudden lunge toward Hare’s standing figure, making a grab for the glowing pendant.
Genki quickly ran forward and intervened, seizing Scaler’s arm and yanking it backward before the green rabbit could touch Hare. Scaler whirled and gave the boy a scathing glare, dark eyes flashing.
"What do you think you are doing, boy?" he demanded, turning the last word into a sort of curse. Genki winced, feeling a surge of anger rise within him, and attempted to keep himself under control.
"Look, Scaler," he managed to get out between gritted teeth, "It’s not a good idea for you to try and touch him right now. You might end up hurting yourself, or him…"
Scaler’s face had remained impassive, but Genki thought he could see a brief flicker of…something…in those dark violet-brown eyes at the last part of his comment. His tense arm slowly relaxed, and when Genki let go of it, the green rabbit let it fall to his side instead of attempting another snatch.
"…So how do we stop this, then?" he inquired, his dark eyes locked with Genki’s own clear ones. The boy shook his head, not knowing what to say, and both of them glanced back at Hare.
The younger rabbit was completely unaware of what had just occurred mere inches in front of his face: his glassy eyes saw only the phantom battle that was raging before them. His body twisted in an odd mimicry of the shadow version of Tiger’s own moves, and the searchers could only watch in horror as the old battle played out before them.
A Datonare screamed silently as its twisted, mauled form was tossed toward the rebels, landing a few inches away from Serinity. Instinct temporarily taking over, the pixie hybrid instantly fell to her knees beside him, a light green aura appearing around her slender, gesturing fingers. She reached out to touch his bloodied mane, but paused as her glowing fingertips met only air, passing directly through his ethereal body.
Oh…that’s right, she realized slowly, as she absently made another grasp at the wispy form before her. This is only a memory…I cannot affect the past…
That thought was little comfort to her, however, as she watched the scaled wolf’s form twist and shrink, glowing with a faint white light that faded away as it finished its transformation into a lost disc. Tears streaked down her cheeks, and her soft green eyes wavered as she regarded the small stone disc sadly.
"I’m sorry," she whispered, her faint apology lost to the howling wind. Unable to take the carnage she was witnessing any longer, she buried her face in her shaking hands and wept. Mocchi was beside her, and his wide eyes wavered as he noticed the muffled sound of her sobbing.
"Serinity-chi," he whispered, and one small pink hand rested awkwardly against the pixie’s back, a child’s simple offer of comfort. She showed no outer reaction to him at first, but her sobs seemed to become a little less violent after a moment.
And then Hare screamed again. Holly thought she could almost recognize his voice now: it almost sounded like Tiger’s voice, but there was an unknown quality behind it. An fathomless rage…an undercurrent of outrage and deep sorrow…
"It’s nearly over," Grey Wolf announced abruptly, his blue eyes darkening with remembered pain as they narrowed slightly. Holly glanced sharply in his direction, then her gaze swung back against her will toward the battle, as did the gazes of the other searchers. They did not want to watch, didn’t want to see what they knew would come next, but could not stop themselves. They had to witness this, for reasons they could not possibly know or understand.
As they watched, transfixed, helpless, the image of Moo reached idly over toward the younger Grey Wolf, who snarled silently and lunged at him. White teeth flashed as the silver lupine bared them, and he sprang toward the golden armored titan even as Hare shrieked a warning in Tiger’s voice.
Too late. Thick fingers of ebony and gold closed around the hapless lupine, and Grey Wolf winced inwardly with recalled agony as violet-black lightning coursed through every vein in his younger self’s body.
"Little brother!" Hare screamed in a twisted version of Tiger’s voice as the manifestation of the blue wolf whirled around just in time to see the silver wolf’s body go limp in Moo’s gleaming gauntlet. An unearthly howl of outrage ripped from the writhing rabbit’s tortured lungs as he made to lunge forward, giving voice to the younger Tiger’s otherwise mute roar as he surged toward the titan, golden eyes and white teeth flashing.
Moo did not even flinch as the enraged blue wolf surged toward him, and with a casual flick of his wrist batted him away like a pesky fly. Tiger’s body went flying through the air and smashed into the canyon wall, and as he slumped to the ground, Hare screamed again, both paws flying up to clutch the side of his face.
"MY EYE! MY EYE! MY EYE! WHAT DID YOU DO TO ME?!?" he shrieked, his body twisting and writhing horribly in shared agony. His blocking hands fell partially away, and Holly noticed that while his face was thankfully unscarred, one of his eyes was tightly wrenched shut, and it looked almost as if he was unable to open it.
"What’s happened! Grey Wolf! Little brother!" he called, taking a few shaky steps forward before slumping into a crouch. The image of Tiger struggled to his feet, raising his head slightly, just enough for Genki and the other searchers to see the blood that soaked the side of his face.
Moo turned away, his long ebony cape fluttering around him, the younger Grey Wolf still hanging limply from one huge hand. The surviving baddies filed after him; they more than outnumbered the remaining wolves, but followed their leader’s orders and withdrew instead of finishing them off. As they faded into the masking veils of swirling snow and ice, the slumped figure of the blue wolf watched them go with one wavering golden eye, the other covered with blood and tinting his vision red.
Hare screeched one final time, a jagged howl of indescribable loss, outrage and pain, and his body straightened into a tight, rigid pose, every muscle in his small frame tensing. At his neck, the Phoenix’s Tear flared one final time with brilliant sapphire blue light.
Then, suddenly, the azure radiance flashed out of existence, and Hare gasped as he whirled toward the others. His eyes were widened, and behind their suddenly clear gaze flickered a hint of Hare’s spirit, frightened, trembling.
Then his eyes closed, and his body sagged forward in a sudden, alarming collapse, and Scaler barely managed to step forward in time to catch him before he could hit the ground. The snow surrounding the rebels abruptly vanished, replaced with the canyon they had been walking through only minutes before.
Pulling Hare’s limp body into his arms, Scaler glanced back at the other rebels. A grim look came over his face as he noted their shock, and his violet-brown eyes flashed as he whirled on them.
"Don’t just stand around here, you idiots!" he snarled, snapping them back to the present. "You’ll only make yourselves a bunch of nice targets for the enemy if they come this way! At least find some shelter to hide in!"
He then whirled on his heel and stomped off, carrying Hare gently in his arms, not waiting to see if his words had any effect on the others. Genki shook his head to help himself regain his senses, then turned towards the other searchers, signaling for them to follow him.
* * *
"So tell me…what exactly caused that?" Scaler asked quietly, his dark gaze fixed on Holly’s face. Holly sighed, glancing for a moment into the flickering flames of the campfire they had set up. The scaled hare continued to stare silently at her, knowing that if he would get the truth out of any of them, it would most likely be from her.
"…It’s because…of the Phoenix’s Tear," she relented after a few minutes of silence. Scaler narrowed his eyes slightly at her.
"That crystal?" he inquired, wanting to confirm his suspicions. When Holly nodded, he simply nodded back, curtly, and his solemn gaze drifted back towards where Hare lay resting. His pendant was now glowing with its familiar crimson light, and his condition seemed to have improved greatly since it had regained its former state. His breathing had become normal, and he looked almost as if he was resting peacefully now instead of suffering.
"…If it causes him to be hurt like that, then I don’t think that he should be forced to use it," Scaler commented quietly after a few moments of silence. "That entire spectacle was a little too painful for my tastes. Why…"
"Please, don’t try to force him to give it up," Holly interrupted, raising her head so that she could lock eyes with the green rabbit. Her bronze eyes shimmered in the firelight as she pleaded, "I know it must hurt you to see things like that happen to him, and believe me, it hurts me too. It bothers all of us to see him in pain like that. I don’t know how this happened, and I hated to see it, but there was nothing we could do to prevent it. All we can do is try to keep going, and help everyone get through this."
"…Is that all you have to say? You must be pretty hard-hearted to be able to even think something like that," Scaler commented, then he stood and walked out of the cavern, leaving Holly with her own bleak thoughts. Suezo, who had been feigning sleep behind her, hopped to his foot and glared daggers at the cavern entrance.
"You’re a fine one to talk, Scaler," he growled under his breath, about to go after him.
"Suezo…please, don’t," Holly pleaded, catching at the eyeball monster’s leg. He glanced back at her and grudgingly settled down beside her, his green-gold pupil wavering with sympathy.
"Holly, don’t listen to that jerk," he said, smiling reassuring up at her. "He doesn’t have any idea what he’s talking about. He just doesn’t know you at all."
Holly smiled faintly and stroked Suezo’s side, shaking her head slightly.
"I know, Suezo, I know," she replied. "And thank you."
Suezo grinned wider and snuggled up against her side, his eyelid beginning to droop as real sleep began to take over his senses. Holly sighed and let her gaze drift across the sleeping forms of the others, checking to make certain they were all there. Other than Scaler, there were only two rebels currently absent from the cavern, and she already knew where they had gone…
* * *
Outside, Grey Wolf gazed up into the night sky, his blue eyes wavering as they caught and reflected the light from the moon and stars. A cool breeze sent ripples through his silver fur, going unnoticed by the lupine monster. Serinity was perched on a rock a few feet away from him, simply watching him in respectful silence.
"…So…that really happened?" she inquired meekly after a few moments. Grey Wolf did not glance back at her, but inclined his head slightly in a nod.
"Moo captured me that day, and I have not seen my brother since then…I thought he was dead," he confided, and Serinity did not have to see his face to know that tears brimmed in his eyes. Her own verdant eyes grew moist with tears, and she suddenly left her perch, flitting over to his side. One slender hand rested against silver fur, and now Grey Wolf did glance back at her, though only for a moment.
"I lost someone close to me because of violence as well," she informed him quietly, a faint, sad smile on her face. "But we must not lose faith. We will see them again, someday, I’m certain of it. All we can do until then is continue forward, and never lose hope. We must do what we can…"
Grey Wolf nodded again, and both monsters gazed back up toward the stars again. For a moment, a pair of forms seemed to manifest themselves in the glittering flecks of light: one thought he could see the gleam of golden eyes, the other glimpsed a pair of soft, kind eyes of gray gazing back down into her own face. But this may have been merely an illusion brought on by a pair of longing hearts. It did not matter to either of them, at any rate. They thought that they saw it, and they felt a new belief in their own dreams. That was all that really mattered…