"What do you mean, ‘what happened’?" Suezo exclaimed in disbelief, staring at Hare. Hare cocked his head to one side and gave the other searchers a curious, blank look, his wide brown eyes shining with confusion.
"Look, I don’t understand what your problem is," he said, shaking his head slightly. "I just asked a simple question, and you guys start acting all weird."
"But Hare…you honestly don’t remember what happened?" Holly inquired, her bronze eyes growing soft with concern.
"No, I don’t," Hare repeated, shaking his head as he gave her a frustrated look. "Like I told you guys before, the last thing I remember is getting a really bad headache and collapsing. Then I blacked out, I guess, and the next thing I know, I’m waking up in this cave with you and Colt hovering over me and looking really concerned. Obviously something happened while I was knocked out, and I just want to know what…"
He frowned as he noticed the knowing glances that the other searchers were giving each other when they thought he wasn’t paying attention. So something had happened while he had been unconscious, and the others didn’t want him to know exactly what for some reason. He hated the idea: what was wrong with them? Did they not think he was mature enough to hand whatever had occurred? Why were they refusing to tell him?
"…Don’t worry about it," Grey Wolf was saying, his blue eyes locked with Hare’s own stubborn gaze. "I was just reminded of something in my past…that’s all."
Hare glared at the silver wolf, not quite convinced. He noticed that Grey Wolf was trying to avoid looking him straight in the eyes, and knew that he was hiding something. What exactly that was, he wasn’t quite certain of yet, and by the way the others were stonewalling him, it was probably something pretty bad.
"Look, you should try and get some rest right now," Holly told him, gesturing to the opening of the cave. It was already late in the evening, and the sun’s last rays were shrouded with dark clouds, while a light rain showered the canyons.
"We can’t do any more traveling until the rain lets up, and it’s late, anyway. We should go ahead and get some sleep."
Hare recognized the fact that she was attempting to get him to drop the subject, but also saw that he wasn’t going to get anywhere by pushing things right now. With a short sigh of aggravation, he rolled over and yanked the heavy blanket that he had found cast over him when he had awakened earlier over his shoulders. At first, he only planned to feign sleep and listen in to what the others said as soon as they thought he was, but he quickly realized that there was one problem with that: he was actually pretty tired.
After the little rabbit had nodded off, Holly breathed a sigh of relief.
"We can’t tell him what really happened earlier, everyone," she said as she turned toward the other searchers. She really did not need to state this; they had already silently agreed to this long ago, and all of them nodded solemnly back at her in reply.
"What I don’t get is that he can’t remember it on his own," Coltia commented, shivering a little as she added, "I mean, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget that…"
"Yeah…" Genki nodded his agreement, and shuddered for a moment, glancing over at where Mocchi was curled up. The little pink monster was asleep now as well, something that he was privately thankful for.
"At least he doesn’t have to live with the memory of that little incident," Scaler commented, not even bothering to look up at the others, instead keeping his dark eyes trained on the blade he was currently sharpening.
"…Yeah, you’re right," Coltia said, looking back down at the ground beneath her. "I mean, it looked bad enough from where we were standing…I can’t imagine what it must have been like to live through that…"
"No kidding," Grey Wolf observed mildly, and Coltia whirled to stare at him in horror as she realized what she had just implied. A red flush came over her cheeks, and as she stammered an apology, the silver wolf just shook his head and tried to calm her.
Suezo averted his gaze from the two, and looked for something else to distract him from the sad scene. As he scanned the faces of the other rebels, he suddenly noticed something that made him start with surprise.
"Hey, Serinity’s missing!" he blurted, seeing no sign of the pixie hybrid anywhere. The other searchers looked at him, then glanced around.
"She didn’t come in with me when the rain started," Grey Wolf volunteered after a moment. "She told me she wanted to stay out for a little while longer."
"Huh, I wonder why she’d want to be out in the rain," Coltia said, blinking in surprise as she glanced toward the cave’s entrance. Genki glanced over at her, then stood up and walked over to the opening.
"Serinity?" he called, sticking his head outside and looking around. "Are you okay…"
His voice trailed off as his gaze suddenly fell upon the pixie hybrid. She was a few feet away from him, but did not appear to notice him at all. Instead, she seemed to be concentrating completely on what she was doing, which, as near as Genki could figure, was dancing.
Her slender body swayed quietly as she spun slowly in place, her arms sweeping in gentle, graceful arcs. Her short, reddish-orange hair swung in dampened curls around her face; her soft green eyes were nearly closed, veiled by her lowered eyelashes. Genki found himself gaping at her without meaning to: the sight reminded him of a delicate flower caught in the wind, swaying with the breeze.
"Genki, did you find…whoa," Suezo gasped as he hopped up behind the clear-eyed boy and caught sight of Serinity. At the sound of the eyeball monster’s gasp, Serinity jerked slightly and turned to face them, her bright green eyes huge and luminous in the rain.
"Oh, I’m sorry, have I been taking too long?" she asked, walking over to them. Genki shook his head no, and stepped out of her way as she entered the cave.
"What were you doing out there?" he asked as he and Suezo led her back to where the others were gathered around the campfire. Serinity took a seat next to the blazing flames; her pale skin still glistened from the rain, and she began to absently wring out the damp curls of reddish hair that hung around her face.
"I was dancing," she replied simply, smoothing out the hem of her dress so it would dry out a little faster.
"We could tell that much," Suezo commented dryly, rolling his eye for a moment. "But why were you dancing…?"
"Because I wanted to celebrate the rain," Serinity explained, and her soft green eyes shimmered as her gaze was drawn back to the cave’s entrance, where one could still see the gentle curtains of rain falling. "When the rain falls, it helps to bring new life into being, and helps to sustain it, providing a vital essence for survival. I just wanted to honor that…and besides, I like the way the rain feels when it’s gentle like this."
"…Does that bother you for some reason?" Serinity inquired after a moment, noticing the thoughtful expression on Suezo’s face. The eyeball monster shook his head, smiling a little as he glanced over at her.
"…Heh. I guess it just strikes me as a little strange that somebody so close to Golem would love the water so much, when the big guy himself…"
"Yes, I know that Golem is not entirely fond of water," Serinity agreed with a faint giggle, a soft smile coming to her face. However, it soon faded as she added, "But after all, he does have every right to be fearful. It may be true that water helps to sustain life, but it can also take it away all too easily. Believe me, I understand that all too well…"
"What do you mean, Serinity?" Genki asked, his clear brown eyes filling with curiosity as he studied the pixie’s face. She glanced over at him, studied his face for a moment, then nodded slightly.
"Well, it all began back when we were younger, long before the final battle," Serinity began, her green eyes becoming distant. "We were only children back then…"
* * *
Serinity giggled as she plunged into the cool waters of the lake, her laughter becoming a short gasp as she felt just how cold it was. It was far from freezing, of course, but it still was a sharp contrast to the warmth from the early summer sun.
She gasped as she quickly reemerged, sending droplets of water every which way as she thrust back her head and shook out her hair. The short reddish-orange locks were pulled back into a pair of ponytails just behind her cat-like ears, and they hung in damp curls behind her as she turned her bright green gaze towards a certain figure on the bank.
"Golem!" she called, and the young stone giant’s head snapped up, his soft gray eyes wide with surprise. Then, spotting her bobbing along in the lake, her damp wings floating relaxed behind her, he smiled nervously and waved at her.
"Aren’t you going to join us, Golem?" she inquired, her huge verdant eyes shining with invitation. However, when Golem cringed backward and shook his head violently, her smile faded slightly and curiosity filled her eyes.
"Why not?" she asked, cocking her head to one side as she studied her friend’s expression.
"Yeah," Aqua Mew chimed in as he paddled lazily past Serinity, "What’s wrong, Golem, are you scared of the water?"
A burning red tint spread over the stone giant’s face, and he quickly looked down at the green grass beneath him. The feline monster grinned, a devilish glint coming into his wide aquamarine eyes.
"Aww-ww, is the big stone guy afwaid of a wittle wa-wa?" he taunted, then laughed again as Golem’s face grew even redder.
Suddenly Aqua Mew’s chuckling was choked off as Pink Hopper pounced onto his back and irritably shoved his head under the lake’s surface. He only took a second to bring his head back up, sputtering and choking, and he turned a dark glare on the smaller monster.
"Don’t tease poor Golem!" she scolded in her high-pitched voice, shaking one paw at him. "If he doesn’t want to swim, then he doesn’t have to swim! And you don’t have any right to make fun of him ‘cause of it!"
"Yeah, and besides, what would you do if he decided to do a cannonball into the lake?" Fly Eye quipped from his perch on a rock nearby.
The laughter that followed that remark lightened the mood considerably, and Aqua Mew obediently backed away from teasing Golem. However, the cat doll monster was hardly one to give up a subject so easily, and instead chose to focus his attention on someone else.
"Well, what about you?" he turned and asked Rocky Fur, catching the young stone rabbit off guard. Rocky was standing hesitantly at the water’s edge, and he gave his friends an uncertain look.
"I don’t know…I think I’ll just stay here where it’s dry and watch you guys swim," he replied after a moment’s pause, grinning nervously.
"Oh, come on," Aqua Mew said petulantly, "Why don’t you join us? We’re gonna play Water Tag, but it’s boring with only three…"
"Well, why can’t we play normal Tag?" Rocky asked.
"What, in this heat?!? Thanks, but no thanks," Aqua Mew replied, swimming around in lazy circles even as he spoke.
"Come on, Rocky," Mustardy chimed in, popping up behind the gray rabbit. He placed both of his tiny clawed hands on the bunny’s shoulders, and a sly grin appeared on his face as he added, "Why don’t you go ahead and join them?"
"No, that’s okay…" Rocky repeated, smiling nervously as he glanced over his shoulder at the yellow zuum hybrid.
Suddenly his eyes went wide with shock, and the stone rabbit windmilled his arms wildly as he fell forward, hitting the water with a huge splash. Serinity gasped and shielded her face as the waves sent everyone in the lake reeling for a moment. Golem and Fly Eye scrambled away from the bankside as the water splashed a little too close to them for comfort.
Mustardy was howling with laughter, a sly grin on his face as the others turned to stare at him in surprise.
"Now you’re in!" he exclaimed triumphantly, winking at them.
Aqua Mew and Pink Hopper instantly burst out laughing, and Fly Eye started chortling to himself after a few seconds. Serinity joined in soon after the eyeball monster started up, giggling behind her hand, and even Golem smiled crookedly, laughing nervously along with them as they waited for Rocky to resurface and start yelling at Mustardy.
Only he didn’t reappear right away.
As they waited, the seconds stretching into a minute, then two minutes, Serinity felt a cold lump of dread start to form deep inside her stomach. Aqua Mew hadn’t taken this long to come back up again…
A sudden shout behind them caused her to turn around, and she blinked in confusion as she saw Balon racing up to them. There was a worried expression on the wolf’s face, and he seemed to be glaring at Mustardy.
"What in the heck did you do that for, you jerk?!?" he snarled at the zuum hybrid. Mustardy gave him a lopsided grin, clearly not upset by his harsh tone of voice or the insult.
"What’s the matter, did you want to cool off like that too?" he asked, chuckling to himself.
"You idiot!" Balon howled. "Don’t you know that Rocky doesn’t know how to swim?!?"
Mustardy’s grin instantly faded, and the laughter that had been filling the air vanished like a flower under winter’s first frost. The young monsters stared at each other in mute shock for a fleeting instant, and then full comprehension hit all of them at once.
"Go for help!" Balon ordered, even as the wolf dove into the lake near the spot where Rocky had fallen.
"R-right!" Fly Eye stammered, already turning and taking off towards the main village as fast as his single leg could carry him, screaming "Help! Help!" at the top of his lungs.
Serinity helped haul the stone rabbit’s body onto the bank, pushing him from behind: when had he become so heavy? Recalling vaguely something she had once overheard the elders talking about, she instructed the others to prop Rocky up against a stone near the lakeside, his belly against its hard surface. Placing her hands on his back, she pressed against him with all her might, trying to force the water out of his lungs.
She could barely get a response, even when Aqua Mew and Pink Hopper followed her example. Rocky’s back remained as firm and unyielding to their efforts as the stone he leaned against. His face looked pale, an ashen gray, and his eyes remained closed in a way she found very alarming.
"Golem! Help!" she pleaded, casting a frightened glance over at her giant friend.
Golem nodded nervously, his gray eyes huge with alarm, and he hurried over to kneel beside her. Clumsily, fumbling a little bit as he tried to be gentle, he slapped Rocky Fur over the back once.
Immediately the gray rabbit’s eyes shot open, and he let out a pained gasp as water gushed out of his gaping mouth. Coughing, sputtering, his long ears drooping over his ashen gray face, Rocky continued to spit out mouthfuls of water as the other young monsters sighed in relief. Dixie and some of the other elders were running toward them, Fly Eye leading them toward his friends, and Serinity turned to watch them approach, hoping they would arrive soon…
* * *
"…As it turned out, Rocky was okay," Serinity told the other rebels, looking toward them as she finished her story. "However, it was scary…it could have turned out the other way all too easily…"
"…Geez," Colt sighed, letting out the breath she had been holding with a faint whoosh, "No wonder…"
"Well, at least everyone turned out okay," Genki commented, grinning reassuringly at the pixie hybrid. Serinity glanced over at the clear-eyed youth and smiled, faintly.
"I guess so, yes," she replied.
"Hey Serinity…there’s been something I’ve been meaning to ask you," Suezo suddenly spoke up. The pixie blinked her wide green eyes and looked over at him.
"Yes, what is it?" she inquired politely.
Suezo did not answer right away; instead, he glanced quickly over at where Hare was curled up asleep, then over at where Mocchi lay with his head against Genki’s side. After a moment, he nodded to himself and turned back toward the others.
"I’ve been wanting to know…just how close were you and Golem, anyway?" he asked, leaning forward slightly as he studied Serinity’s expression closely.
"Huh? …Well, he and I were very good friends," Serinity replied after a second, giving Suezo a curious look as she added, "Why?"
"Oh, just wondering, just wondering," Suezo quickly replied, glancing away. After a few seconds, however, he glanced back out her out of the corner of his eye and added, "So you two were really close, then?"
"Oh, yes. Golem and I were very close to one another."
"Close as in… ‘Just friends close’ or close as in… you know… ‘Close’."
Serinity blinked in confusion, not understanding the course of the conversation. However, most of the others had apparently caught on. Holly’s face burned bright red, and she coughed pointedly and glanced away in embarrassment, thankful that Hare and Mocchi were still fast asleep. Coltia and Grey Wolf seemed to be struggling with their own shock and discomfort at what Suezo was driving at, and their own veiled interest in the conversation. Scaler closed his eyes and continued to work on sharpening his blades, ignoring what the others were doing.
Genki, like Serinity, looked completely lost when it came to the whole thing.
"What do you mean, ‘close’?" Serinity inquired, cocking her head to one side, then the other, birdlike.
"You know… ‘Close’. Like, ‘intimate’," Suezo qualified for her, and both Coltia and Grey Wolf quickly glanced away and cleared their throats, rather loudly. Serinity still didn’t appear to understand.
"I’m afraid I still don’t understand," she said, shaking her head. "I do know that Golem and I were very close… In fact…he and I…"
"Yeah?" Suezo urged as the pixie hybrid’s voice trailed off, leaning a little closer to her, noting as he did that she was now blushing lightly. Coltia and Grey Wolf also noticed this, and drew forward a little as well, and Genki simply followed their example without really knowing why.
"Golem…sometimes we would go out together to see all the new flowers, right after they had bloomed," Serinity informed them, still blushing lightly as she nervously kneaded her slender fingers together. Her verdant eyes sparkled and her voice unconsciously dropped a little as she continued, "He used to tell me all sorts of things…about how pretty the new blossoms were, and how beautiful the blue sky was…and then he would lean in really close to me…and…"
"…A-and?" Suezo prompted, now leaning almost as far forward as he could to catch every whispering word. Holly was blushing intently and struggling to ignore the whole conversation, the same way that Scaler was working on his daggers without comment. Coltia was blushing too, but she was leaning forward with Grey Wolf and Genki, intent on hearing everything.
"…And then I’d put one of my flower chains around his neck," Serinity finished in a rush. She blushed as she added, "He always told me he liked those a lot…"
Suezo, Coltia, Grey Wolf and Genki promptly face-faulted.
"Is something wrong?" Serinity asked innocently, startled by their sudden trip.
"…N-nothing," Suezo replied, righting himself and turning away with a reddened face.
"Y-yeah, nothing," Coltia agreed, looking away with the others, hoping that none of them could see how intensely she was blushing.
"………" Holly just shook her head and sweatdropped.
"…???" Serinity looked around at them in complete confusion, not understanding just what was wrong with everyone. Why had they reacted in that manner…? All she had done was tell them the truth, what they wanted to hear…
"…Don’t worry about it," Holly told her, giving the pixie hybrid a winsome smile as she explained, "That’s just the way Suezo is sometimes. I mean, he always tends to act in ways that some people find…well… Like this one time when we were younger, back in our home village…"
"…Oh no, Holly, please don’t start with that story…" Suezo whined, sweatdropping hugely as he whirled toward her.
"What story?" Genki asked eagerly, already leaning forward to listen. Suezo continued to protest behind him, even though he quickly realized that it would do little good…
* * *
"…Nine, ten! Ready or not, here I come!" Holly called, lifting her blocking hands away from her eyes and rapidly scanning the area around her for any sign of her friends. None of them were in sight, but that didn’t discourage her in the slightest; in fact, she would have been a little disappointed if she had been able to spot any of them right away. As she ran forward, eager to begin the game, her friends ducked into their chosen hiding places and hoped that she would not find them until after the others had all been discovered.
A Blue Fur made certain that his long ears were folded back against his head instead of peeking out over the edge of the barrel. A violet eye peered out from behind a nearly closed doorway, hoping that her pale pink skin would not stand out in the darkness of the shadows. A lupine monster with tan, tawny fur crouched under a deck, his wide brown eyes twinkling with excitement.
Meanwhile, another participant in the game was quickly clambering into place, trying not to make any noise as he braced himself. Suezo could not help snickering to himself as he wrapped his tail around part of the chimney and hid behind it: the young eyeball monster was certain that he had found the perfect hiding spot this time.
"I’m sick of always being the first one that Holly finds," he muttered as he scanned the area below the rooftop. "I wanna prove I’m just as good at this as Rosa and the others!"
He tensed as he spotted Holly coming closer to the house, and quickly pulled himself back into place behind the chimney. His narrowed green-gold pupil glittered in the sunlight as he carefully peeked down at her, and slowly smiled as he noticed that she was not looking up in his direction.
Below him, the young girl was scanning the area around her intently, a frown of concentration on her pretty face. Her bronze eyes flickered from one potential hiding place to another: Just where was that Suezo, anyway? Normally it didn’t take her this long to find him; he didn’t stray too far from wherever she happened to be…
Suddenly she noticed something that made her smile, and walked confidently forward, closer to the house. On the roof, Suezo began to freak out.
- Oh no! She saw me! What’ll-I-do-what’ll-I-do-what’ll-I-DOOOO! -
"Got you!" Holly’s voice called triumphantly far below him. Freezing in place, Suezo sweatdropped, then slowly peeked over the edge of the roof. The girl was bent down on her hands and knees and was reaching under the desk, and as she watched, a lupine head slowly emerged from beneath the porch.
"Err…hi," the Hare Hound said sheepishly, wagging his tail slightly as he grinned up at Holly.
The brown-furred wolf slunk out from his hiding spot, and as the two walked off together to find the others, Suezo found himself grinning in triumph. He hadn’t been the first one found this time…and hopefully, he wouldn’t be the second one found, or the third…he was going to win this time, he just knew it.
Chuckling to himself, the young eyeball monster clung to his perch on the roof, keeping an eye out for Holly and the others.
At first, he enjoyed watching them wander around in confusion, having found everyone else but him. He toyed with the idea of hopping down to join them, deliberately landing on Holly or Rosa’s head before touching down safely on the ground. The others would all yell at him, and demand to know where he had been hiding, but ohhh no…he wouldn’t tell them his little secret…
However, they wandered off before he could join them. That wasn’t a problem, he supposed: they would come back this way eventually, double-checking the area one more time when he hadn’t turned up anywhere else. After all, they wouldn’t just give up on him…
- …Would they? -
Suezo quickly shook his head in an attempt to discard that notion. Surely Holly and the others would get worried about him if they didn’t find him, and wouldn’t give up until he finally turned up. He was Holly’s monster, after all, and if all else failed, she would keep looking for him…
But as the day wore on, and the sky began to darken as the sun dropped behind the clouds, he found himself becoming more and more uncertain about this fact. A cold breeze swept over him as the afternoon faded into dusk, with no sign of Holly or his other friends. Fighting back a sniffle, he leaned forward in an attempt to see farther, hoping to catch a glimpse of them.
Suddenly his foot slipped, and Suezo cried out as he toppled forward over the edge of the roof. At the last moment, he managed to latch his tail over the side of the chimney, and found himself hanging upside down, his widened eye fixed on the ground that looked so far below him.
For a moment, all the young eyeball monster could do was stare down at the ground beneath him in shock, and then he did the only thing he could think to do…
At first, he couldn’t see any reaction to his wailing scream, and Suezo worried that nobody had overheard him. Then, a pair of wide bronze eyes appeared in his line of vision, peering up at him, and a soft, bemused smile formed on the youthful female face.
"Suezo? What are you doing up there?" Holly inquired, trying to hide her amusement at her friend’s unusual position. Suezo just sniffled in reply, and she gently reached up towards him, saying, "Here, jump down. I’ll catch you, I promise."
"A-are you sure?" Suezo sobbed, obviously not fully convinced. However, Holly simply continued to stand with her arms spread and ready in front of her, and after a few moments, the young eyeball monster gulped and let go of the side of the roof, falling safely into her grasp.
"Are you alright, Suezo?" she asked gently, cradling him in her arms. He simply stared up at her in silence for a minute, his green-gold eye wavering with tears.
"H-Holly…I-I thought you…"
"…Had given up on looking for you?" Holly supplied for him. "Oh Suezo…you’re my best friend. I’d never abandon you, I promise…"
* * *
"…Aww, that was sweet. I wish I had a monster of my own," Coltia sighed, a dreamy look in her shining tan eyes. Suezo’s face was bright red, and the eyeball monster glared over at Genki, who seemed to be struggling not to laugh.
"It wasn’t funny," he grumbled under his breath. Scaler still appeared to be ignoring them, his cloaked back turned in their direction, but he abruptly muttered something quietly.
"What was that?!?" Suezo demanded, turning around to fix the scaled hare with a death glare. Scaler set down the blade he was sharpening in and turned his dark gaze toward the eyeball monster.
"I just said," he told them with a slightly superior smirk on his face, "that it sounds as though you have always been a bit of a weakling and a coward…"
He turned back to his work as Suezo fumed behind him. The eyeball monster seemed to be on the verge of getting up and storming over to challenge the green rabbit, and Holly sweatdropped hugely as she quickly restrained him.
"Calm down, Suezo," she pleaded, holding him back while the others watched and sweatdropped in unison.
"Humph," Suezo grumbled as he grudgingly sat back down beside Holly. "That Scaler is worse than Tiger was…"
"What is that supposed to mean?!?" Grey Wolf asked, narrowing his flashing blue eyes at Suezo. The eyeball monster stared over at the silver wolf in embarrassment, then quickly averted his gaze to the ground beneath him.
"Er…sorry about that, Grey Wolf…" he apologized meekly, sweatdropping.
Grey Wolf glared at him for a moment, then sighed and shook his head, settling back down.
"No, I’m sorry, Suezo," he said, giving him an understanding look. Gazing back into the dying flames of the campfire, the lupine monster continued, "Believe me, I know what Tiger normally acts like. He’s pretty much always been like that…ever since we were little…"
"Like what?" Coltia inquired, resting her head on the back of her folded hands as she leaned forward a little, curious. Beside her, Genki was in a similar position, and Serinity and Holly also looked interested, although they didn’t show it as clearly as the others. Grey Wolf noticed this, and sweatdropped slightly, wondering just what he could tell them now. How could he possibly explain to them how his big brother acted…?
* * *
A splash resounded through the crisp autumn air as two small lupine bodies lunged at the same area and ended up plunging headfirst into the river. They emerged at the same instant, thrusting their muzzles into the sky as a noisy gasp escaped from both of them.
"Damnit, it got away!" the slightly larger one cursed, his golden eyes flashing as he irritably shook out his blue mane, sending droplets of water flying everywhere. The smaller wolf chose not to comment on his brother’s crude choice of words: he was also more than a little upset by the fish’s escape.
"Don’t worry, Tiger, we’ll get them eventually!" Grey Wolf promised, shaking out his own soaked silver fur. He knew it was a pretty pointless thing to do, since both of them would undoubtedly get soaked again with their next attempt, but that didn’t matter to him at the moment. Kind of like the way it didn’t matter to him that his brother wouldn’t pay any attention to his words of comfort…
"There’s some more!" Tiger shouted abruptly, jolting Grey Wolf back to reality, and once again they both took the plunge into the icy waters of the river.
No matter how many times they tried this, Grey Wolf found he simply could not get used to fishing. He always felt as if he was going in blind; the water always seemed to sting his eyes when he dove in, and he would have to squeeze them shut in order to concentrate properly. Temporarily blinded, he forced his mouth to open, trying to ignore how the icy liquid rushed to try and fill his lungs, and make a few frantic snaps in a desperate attempt to catch one of the slippery fish as they swum past him.
This time, he was lucky: his jaws closed around something that jerked and tugged wildly, struggling to get away. Feeling a rush of triumph, he quickly righted himself and pulled his head out of the water, still clutching his prey between his jaws.
"Tiger! Tiger! I got something!" he shouted as best he could through clenched teeth, his blue eyes wide and shining with excitement as he looked around for his big brother. After a few moments, he found himself staring directly into Tiger’s face: the blue wolf did not look at all pleased with his accomplishment, for some reason…
"Greyyyyy…tell me something…do you honestly think that fish have fur on their bodies?"
"…Huh?" Grey wondered aloud, sweatdropping a little as his catch twitched in his mouth. Now that Tiger mentioned it, he didn’t remember ever seeing a fish that had fur…but then…why was it that…?
Then Grey Wolf abruptly understood. His face burned bright red, and he hastily opened his mouth and released Tiger’s tail. Tiger yanked it away at once, and it lashed angrily behind him as he glared at his little brother. Grey Wolf bowed his head in submission and shame, his face still burning crimson beneath his fur.
"Sorry, big brother…" he whined, near tears.
Tiger glared at him for a moment more, then the blue wolf’s harsh expression softened, and he looked away from his younger brother’s face.
"…It looks like some more fish are headed this way," he commented after a few moments. "Get ready."
Grey Wolf brightened up, recognizing that he had been forgiven. Obediently, the younger lupine tensed up, and at Tiger’s barked command, the two brothers dove into the icy waters again, taking another shot at it.
* * *
"…Gah, Tiger was a jerk even when he was a puppy," Suezo noted under his breath.
Grey Wolf sighed; he hadn’t expected the eyeball monster to understand. Glancing around, he noted that Coltia also looked a little confused, as if she had no idea what to make of that little story. However, he could tell by the slightly wistful expressions on Serinity and Holly’s faces that they, at least, seemed to have some grasp of what he had been trying to tell them.
As for Genki…well, he couldn’t quite read the clear-eyed boy’s bemused expression, but he had a feeling that he might understand.
"…At any rate, perhaps we should be getting some sleep," Holly commented, glancing outside. The rain appeared to have cleared up, and was now merely a light drizzle, but the sky was completely dark. She could almost glimpse the moon shining outside in the cool night.
"…Yes, I think you’re right," Serinity agreed, and the pixie turned to lie down, her wings wrapping themselves tightly around her body as she curled up in a comfortable position.
Genki yawned and stretched out his arms, being careful not to upset the already sleeping Mocchi who was leaning against him. Coltia cuddled up in her own blanket, her caramel eyes fluttering shut, and Grey Wolf curled up beside her.
Holly put out the campfire, then leaned against an already half-asleep Suezo as she stifled a yawn. Glancing over in Scaler’s direction, she noticed that the green rabbit had already lain down on the ground, his leather cloak pulled tightly around his body, and supposed that he had fallen asleep on his own.
As her own tired bronze eyes drifted shut, Holly felt her gaze shift over to where Hare was curled up, sleeping quietly. The Phoenix’s Tear had slipped out from under the folds of his kerchief, and was glowing faintly: crimson light, not that icy sapphire blue.
Again, she wondered what exactly had caused that…that terrible memory to manifest itself like that. Why had it appeared to them? And why had Hare been affected so deeply? Why couldn’t he seem to remember anything about it, now…?
Her questions went unanswered, and her eyes finally drifted shut as she surrendered herself to peaceful slumber. At least while she was asleep, she wouldn’t have to worry about things like that…
* * *
A gentle hand caressed his cheek, and a pair of deep brown eyes gazed lovingly from a hauntingly familiar face. Most of its features were wreathed in shadow, yet he could still see those wide, liquid, luminous auburn eyes shining as they locked with his own.
A gentle smile, glimpsed briefly, and a lilting melody hummed softly as loving arms rocked him back and forth, back and forth…
* * *
Hare jolted awake as something brushed against his back, and he sat up with a start. Whirling around, he sighed as he saw that Genki had rolled over in his sleep; the boy’s arm had fallen over and accidentally hit him.
With a sigh of annoyance, Hare stood up and moved away from the others, moving as quietly as possible so he wouldn’t accidentally wake any of them up. As he stepped past them, he looked over at where Scaler was curled up, at the opposite end of the cave. Maybe the green rabbit had the right idea, sleeping so far away from the others…
…But, on the other hand…
* I don’t wanna ever be alone again… *
He sighed again, his brown eyes wavering as his thoughts drifted back to his dream. Gently, without even realizing it, he brushed the tips of his fingers against his cheek, thinking for a moment that it was still warm from the lingering touch of that ethereal paw…
* …Mommy…? *
A tear brimmed in the corner of one eye, but Hare didn’t notice it. He decided to step outside for a few moments to get some fresh air: the rain had ceased, and he didn’t feel much like sleeping right now.
The cool night air seemed to wrap around him the moment he stepped outside, and a soft breeze ruffled his fur, setting his auburn bangs to dancing. A whispering, lilting melody seemed to murmur in his ear, the same nearly formless song that someone had been singing in his dream…
Hare absently retrieved his flute from where he had stored it in his traveling pack, and raising it carefully to his lips, began to play the same song.
At first, the tune was weak, trembling, starting out very slowly, cautiously, uncertain. However, it soon gained in strength as the young rabbit closed his wavering eyes and let the music carry itself, allowing it to rise and fill the air around him, shutting out the painful world of reality for at least a few moments.
* Let me forget…for just a little while… *
* Forget…and remember…her…everything… *
* …Please… *
"Come on, people, rise and shine! It’s a beautiful new day; let’s get going so we can find the others!"
A chorus of groans met Genki’s shout, but this did not disturb the clear-eyed boy in the slightest. He fairly bounced off the cave walls as he shouted, "Come on, everyone, work with me here! We need to get moving so we can find Golem and Tiger as fast as we can! Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!"
"…Is he always this energetic in the mornings?" Serinity asked Hare in a whispering voice; never quite taking her eyes off the boy as he continued to bound around and call for the other searchers to awaken.
Hare just nodded in reply, sweatdropping hugely and silently thankful that he had already been up before Genki had awakened. Serinity had gotten up shortly before the boy had, and she watched him in wide-eyed interest as he attempted to arouse the others, not quite certain what to make of this spectacle.
"Grey Wolf! Holly! Colt! Mocchi! Scaler! Suezo!" Genki yelled at the top of his lungs, and both Hare and Serinity sweatdropped at how loud the boy was being. If there were any baddies nearby, it was very likely that they would have overheard that…
Scaler was muttering something, and Hare caught a glimpse of steel flashing briefly in one of the green rabbit’s paws as he slowly stood up, leather cloak billowing around him. Hare rapidly stepped over and distracted the scaled hare, not wanting to know just why he had chosen to draw one of his daggers for a moment.
Meanwhile, Holly and Coltia were yawning as they slowly awakened, and Grey Wolf stretched his body out in an almost cat-like manner, arching his back for a moment. Mocchi rubbed sleepily at his barely open eyes with one hand, and Holly helped the pink monster to his feet. Suezo was curled up with his back to Genki, obviously attempting to ignore the boy.
"Suezo! Suezo! SUEZO!" Genki shouted again and again, giving the eyeball monster a violent shake.
When that failed, he clambered over Suezo’s body and began to pull at his eyelid, trying to pry it open. A huge vein appeared on the back of the eyeball monster’s head.
"That’s it!" Suezo suddenly exclaimed, and he suddenly sprang up and attempted to swat Genki’s arm. However, Genki sprung backward, and stuck his tongue out at the fuming eyeball monster.
"Nyah, nyah! You missed!" he teased.
"Gennn-kiii!" Suezo growled, nearly lunging at the boy. Holly and Colt quickly caught at him, and sweatdropped hugely as they attempted to hold the upset monster back from attacking Genki.
"Let’s just get going, Suezo," Holly told him, calming her friend down. Looking over at Genki, she added, "You know, Genki, you really should learn how to control yourself in the morning."
"What? What’d I do?" Genki inquired, apparently not understanding what had made the others so upset. Seeing this, Holly and Suezo just sighed in frustration.
"Never mind…" Suezo groaned, standing up and hopping past the confused youth. "Let’s just get going…"
Genki gave him a strange look, then shrugged the occurrence off. Running past the others, he stopped at the entrance of the cave and turned to glance back at them. With a cocky smile on his face, he winked and pumped one fist in the air.
"All right! Let’s go find the others!" he cheered.
"All right!" Coltia echoed, caught up by Genki’s spirit. Mocchi cheered his agreement, and latched onto Genki’s backpack once more. The clear-eyed youth grinned, then spun around and was outside in a flash, the other searchers racing along after him.
* * *
A smirk creased thin, pale blue lips and reptilian eyes gleamed as Aqua Cutter studied the road that spread before him from the cover of the bushes. The baddie was confident that his new plan would work; all he had to do was wait. He knew that this road led to the nearest village, and that the rebels would come this way soon. They would come of their own accord, walking straight into his trap…
His smirk became a sneer, and his talons clenched tighter around a handful of small, gleaming objects that were at his side. He closed his claws around them tightly, not wanting to prick his hand on any of the sharp objects. That would not be a good thing, since they were not intended for him…
Come on, rebels, Aqua Cutter urged silently, his dark eyes glinting crimson briefly in the shadows of the underbrush. Come, and face me here, now!
* * *
Genki hummed a merry tune under his breath as he marched along in front of the other searchers, a huge grin on his face. He was obviously in a very good mood, one that was beginning to affect the other travelers as well. Coltia was attempting to pick up the melody and whistle it along with the boy, the way that Mocchi already had.
Hare laughed quietly, trying to act as energetic and upbeat as those three, but was finding it a rather difficult task. Although the melody bore no resemblance whatsoever to the song he had heard in his dream and later echoed on his flute, it reminded him of it nonetheless. In fact, that same haunting tune was playing silently in his own mind, an odd contrast to the trio’s ditty.
"I believe that there is a town just a short ways down the road from here," Scaler commented after a second, interrupting Genki, Coltia and Mocchi just as they were really getting into their little improvised tune. "Are were planning on stopping there tonight?"
"I hope so," Coltia commented before Holly or Genki could answer. "I’d really like to sleep in a real bed tonight, instead of a cave again…"
"Hey, you get what you can," Grey Wolf informed her, his blue eyes shining with faint amusement as he regarded the hopeful girl.
"Yes," Serinity agreed, nodding. Then, with a shrug, she added, "Of course, while I personally don’t mind sleeping outside, I’m also quite used to it…"
"And I’m not," Coltia finished for her, shooting the other rebels a pleading look.
"You’ll have to get used to it sooner or later," Suezo told her, adopting an expression that seemed to say, ‘Listen to me, kiddo, I’ve done this sort of thing for a lot longer than you have’.
"Oh, and are you saying that you’d rather sleep outside tonight, then, Suezo?" Genki teased, grinning impishly at the eyeball monster over his shoulder. "Oh well, suit yourself! I guess that means you won’t be joining us at the inn, then!"
"What?!?" Suezo blurted, looking startled. "Hey, now, Genki, don’t you even think for a second…"
But Genki had already bounded ahead, laughing back at Suezo, and the other searchers were already darting after the boy. The eyeball monster could only chase after them, shouting angrily at the clear-eyed youth.
"Catch us if you can, Suezo!" Genki challenged, and Mocchi laughed agreement from where he clung to the boy’s backpack. Coltia was also giggling wildly, caught up by their enthusiasm, and even Holly looked like she was enjoying herself as she chased after the others.
"This is almost like the games of Tag we used to play in the valley," Serinity commented, gliding alongside Grey Wolf. The silver lupine glanced over at her and nodded to show that he had heard her clearly, then smiled as he turned his attention back to the winding road ahead of them.
As they rounded a bend in the road, Genki and Coltia sprinted ahead of the others, and the boy glanced back over his shoulder and grinned. Mocchi was laughing excitedly as he continued to hang onto his friend’s back, and Hare smiled as he noticed this.
Suddenly he froze in place as he felt a sudden warmth flare underneath his kerchief, and he immediately knew that the Phoenix’s Tear was reacting to something. Startled, he stopped short and began to look around, wondering what it could be.
"Genki, Mocchi, Colt, wait a second," he warned, but they had already run ahead and were ignoring him.
However, Holly, Serinity, Scaler and Grey Wolf had all noticed that he had stopped running, and paused to look back at him in surprise.
"Hare?" Holly asked, seeing the strange expression on the bunny’s face. "What’s wrong?"
Serinity’s curious look asked the same question, but Scaler and Grey Wolf did not bother to add their voices to the query as well. They could tell by the look in Hare’s wavering brown eyes just what was bothering him.
Slowly, Scaler drew one of his swords, the steel blade glinting briefly in the sunlight as it emerged from the dark folds of his leather cloak. Holding it at the ready, he edged a little closer to Hare, until the younger rabbit’s body was partially hidden by his own tense form.
Growling deep in his throat, the silver wolf turned around and scanned the area, his cold blue eyes flicking from side to side. After a few moments, his gaze suddenly shifted in time to catch a flash of light through a veil of twisted branches, and his eyes widened.
"Look out!" he warned, and he knocked Genki and Coltia roughly to the ground as something small and silvery streaked over their heads. He heard Mocchi cry out in shock as he toppled off of Genki’s back, and Coltia choked back a gasp of pain as she landed in a very uncomfortable position.
"Oh! Are you okay?" Serinity exclaimed, starting to glide toward them.
"No! Wait!" Holly shouted, catching the pixie hybrid’s foot and yanking her roughly to the ground as another streak of strange steely light nearly took Serinity full in the chest.
Cruel laughter rang out through the air, and the searchers whirled to see Aqua Cutter now standing in the brush he had used for his cover. His narrow eyes gleamed with crimson light, and a triumphant sneer creased his thin blue lips.
"Well, that was easy," he commented, leering at the rebels. Locking eyes with Hare, he let his smirk widen into a grin, baring his fangs. Hare winced backward involuntarily, and Scaler immediately stepped forward, blocking the naga hybrid’s path.
"Don’t even think it," Grey Wolf snarled, his white teeth flashing as he bared them in a snarl, and the lupine monster stepped in front of the other searchers.
Aqua Cutter just ignored this, the same knowing smirk remaining on his face as he studied them. After a few moments, he made a sudden motion with one hand, and a small steel dart appeared in his talons.
"Do you see this? It’s a poisoned dart; one of many that I created for the sole purpose of ambushing you rebels. It’s a very potent venom, as well: once it enters your system, you’ll be dead in a day or so," he gloated, enjoying the shocked expressions on the faces of his opponents.
"How…how could you…?" Serinity gasped, widened verdant eyes wavering with fear.
"Don’t worry your pretty little head," Aqua Cutter taunted her, his dark eyes glowing crimson as he appeared to stare directly through the folds of Scaler’s cloak into Hare’s pale face. "I have the antidote, and I’m willing to trade it…in exchange for the Phoenix’s Tear and the little rabbit, of course."
In response, Scaler’s paws blurred and his cloak swung about him as a long-bladed dagger streaked toward the naga hybrid. Aqua Cutter’s eyes widened slightly with surprise, and he quickly dodged out of the way, only to nearly be hit by a blast of ice blue electrical energy.
"Jeez, I make a offer to you to save your friends, and you attack me?" he taunted, one eyeridge arched with exaggerated indignation. Scaler threw another knife at him in reply, but the naga hybrid simply sidestepped it and smirked at him. A cold black light began to pulse around him, and as his body faded away, he locked his glittering gaze with Hare’s wavering brown eyes one last time.
"I’ll leave you for now, but you should think about my offer," he advised them, leering at the rebels even as he was teleported away by his master’s power. "I’ll be waiting…"
"Damned coward," Scaler cursed through gritted teeth.
"Genki, are you okay?" Grey Wolf asked, turning a worried look on the boy. Genki picked himself off the ground and nodded, helping a trembling Coltia to her feet.
"I think so…I think he missed me, ‘cause I didn’t feel anything hit me," he replied, checking himself over as he did.
"Yeah…yeah, same here. I didn’t feel anything except Grey Wolf hitting us when he knocked us out of the way," Coltia added, even as she looked herself over just to make certain. Thankfully, nothing came to her searching eyes, and she sighed in relief, then turned to face the others.
"Hey, we were lucky!" Genki laughed nervously, trying to lighten the mood.
Suddenly, Serinity let out a shriek, and all the rebels jerked and whirled to face her. However, she failed to notice this, for her wavering verdant eyes were fixed on something that took her undivided attention. Ignoring how Holly made a startled grab at her shoulder, she ran forward a few steps and crumpled to her knees beside something that was lying on the dusty road…
Hare screamed, his eyes going huge with horror, and he dashed over to help her. Bending down beside her, he reached down and helped her turn over the figure lying beside her. Holly’s hands flew like frightened birds to cover her mouth, and she mouthed a silent protest as the other rebels gasped.
Genki’s clear eyes widened in sudden comprehension, and for a terrible moment, he simply stood in mute shock, staring at Mocchi’s pale, stricken face, much paler than he had ever seen it before. Then he saw the silvery dart that Hare was yanking out of the smaller monster’s side, and the small pool of crimson liquid that stained the dirt beneath his shuddering figure…
* * *
Genki could not remember clearly just how they had gotten to the town: events blurred together in his mind. The next moment that he had full awareness of what was happening around him came crashing down upon him as he watched the other searchers mill around the waiting room.
Colt was pacing around, hands clasped behind her back, her brow furrowed and caramel eyes shining with near-tears. Holly was struggling not to watch her, her wavering bronze gaze instead focused on the floorboards beneath the bench where she was sitting with Suezo. Grey Wolf was curled up at her feet, his ice blue eyes fixed on the door a few feet away from them.
It creaked open, and Genki jerked to face it, struggling to hide the tears that wavered in his clear brown eyes. Serinity stepped into view, her bangs falling over and shading her downcast eyes. Slowly, she raised her gaze to meet the questioning looks of the others, biting the edge of her lip.
"Genki…" she started, faltering, not knowing what she could say. Her hands were clasped in front of her, her fingers kneading against one another, and she seemed at a loss for words. The others did not need to ask to know what she wanted to tell them, but could not bring herself to say.
After an awkward moment, she turned around and motioned for them to follow. Genki got to his feet first, and the other searchers filed silently after him as they walked down the darkened hall to another room.
Hare looked up from where he was kneeling next to the bed as the door opened, and his wavering brown eyes instantly locked with Genki’s own and darkened with sympathy. He quickly averted his gaze again, bowing his head so that his dark brown bangs shaded his face and hid his expression.
The youth did not reply, his gaze locked on the small figure that lay shivering under the thin bedsheets, struggling not to cry. Hare’s voice trailed off helplessly, and he silently moved aside to allow Genki to crouch beside him. As if in a daze, Genki walked over and kneeled down. With a trembling hand he reached out and stroked the pale, clammy cheek of the bed’s occupant: Mocchi moaned softly and shuddered as his trainer touched him as gently as he could.
"…So you aren’t able to heal him?" Holly inquired quietly, keeping her voice low so only Serinity could hear her. The pixie hybrid sighed, then, hesitantly, nodded ever so slightly.
"…I…I’m afraid not," she replied in a voice even softer than her normal tone, her expression mostly veiled by her bangs. "Hare and I tried to combine our healing powers, but…even when we used our spells together…it just isn’t enough… The poison’s way too strong. We just can’t…I’m sorry. I’m so sorry…"
"You tried your hardest," Holly told her consolingly, although she could tell her words had little effect.
"We looked everywhere in town to see if we could find a doctor who could help us or some sort of cure," Grey Wolf added in a subdued tone. The glum expression on his face indicated just how successful those efforts had been.
"This is just awful…isn’t there anything we can do for him?" Coltia pleaded, looking around at the other rebels in desperation.
"The only real effect our healing spells seemed to have was that they appeared to take some of his pain away," Serinity offered quietly after a few moments of silence. "That’s all we can really do, right now…"
"………" Genki glanced over at them, his wavering clear brown eyes still shadowed by his unruly brown bangs. He squeezed Mocchi’s hand a little tighter.
"…Genki…" Hare whispered, noticing this action. The boy did not reply, and Hare sighed silently as he returned his attention back to pouring healing energy into the pink monster. He understood that it was doing little good, but refused to simply stop because of that. He had to keep trying, to do something…
"…I hate this!" Suezo suddenly shouted, shattering the silence that had fallen over the searchers once more. "I hate feeling so helpless about this! There’s nothing we can do?!?"
"…We can still be here for him," Hare spoke up, glancing over at the eyeball monster. Suezo glared back at the rabbit.
"Like that’s really helping the poor kid out," Suezo snarled, his green-gold pupil darkening with anger. "Is that all the advice you can offer?!?"
Hare could not answer, and shifted uncomfortably as he lowered his gaze back to the floor. After a moment, Suezo snorted contemptuously.
"Some great help you’re being," the eyeball monster hissed, shaking his head in disbelief. "Even with the Phoenix’s Tear, you’re still unable to do anything to save him?! You’re even more useless now than that time when Holly got poisoned!"
Hare jerked as if he had been slapped, and whirled to stare at Suezo. The other searchers were all shocked into silence, unable to believe what the eyeball monster had just shouted. Suezo, too, looked startled, like he had not meant to go that far.
"…Uh…" the eyeball monster stammered, glancing around quickly as if in search of a quick escape route, a way to lessen the impact of his angry shout. "…I-I…"
It was too late; it was obvious from the hurt look in Hare’s widened brown eyes that the accusation had already done its damage. He stood up awkwardly, never looking away from Suezo’s face, and stood there trembling before the others, eyes slowly filling with tears. Then, suddenly, a loud sob escaped from him as he broke past the other rebels and ran out of the room.
"He-Hey, Hare!" Coltia shouted, and she took off after him.
Serinity and Holly were about to follow, but a sudden clamor behind them caused them to pause and look backward. Scaler, who had been watching the entire scene unfold before him in stoic silence, had abruptly leapt to his feet with an outraged shout, and was attacking Suezo savagely, punching the eyeball monster in and around his face.
"You idiot! How dare you say such a thing about him! Can’t you see he’s only a child? Haven’t you seen that he’s been doing all he can?!?"
Suezo was barely resisting, and almost seemed to be allowing Scaler to strike him over and over again in the face. Thankfully, the green rabbit had not drawn any of his blades yet, although that didn’t lessen the fury of his attacks any.
"Suezo! Stop it, Scaler!" Holly shouted, trying to pull her partner out of harm’s way without getting struck herself. Grey Wolf and Genki struggled to help her by holding the scaled hare back, and he pulled against them.
"Stop it! Please, just stop! Attacking each other will solve nothing!" Serinity pleaded, verdant eyes wavering as she watched the fighting helplessly from where she kneeled beside Mocchi.
"He started it by insulting Hare!" Scaler insisted, still attempting to beat the eyeball monster. As Genki and Holly clung to his arms, holding him back as best he could, he leveled a dark glare at Suezo, violet-brown eyes burning with accusation.
* * *
"Hare? Hare, are you alright?" Coltia inquired meekly, knocking on the closed door before her.
"Go away! Leave me alone!" a muffled voice shouted in reply, and Hare buried his face deeper into his folded arms as he huddled in a corner of the darkened room.
"I know what Suezo said was really mean, but hiding isn’t going to solve anything!" Coltia insisted, shaking her head in both frustration and sympathy. She understood why the little rabbit was so upset; he had every right to be mad, but still…to just hole himself up in one of the other rooms they had rented for the night…
"Look, Hare, I’ll be waiting right outside if you need me," she offered finally. "If you want to talk to someone, I’ll be right here…"
No reply came to that, and Coltia sighed as she sat down in front of the closed doorway and settled down, trying to make herself comfortable. She didn’t know how long she might end up here…
Inside the room, Hare continued to sob into his folded arms, ignoring the girl’s offer completely. After a few moments, however, he quieted down, and slowly looked up, his wavering brown eyes drawn to the window. Outside, he could clearly see the stars against the darkened night sky: more time had passed than he had originally thought while Serinity and he and been struggling to heal Mocchi…
* I wonder how much longer poor Mocchi’s going to suffer before… *
Shaking his head violently, Hare struggled to dispel that sort of dark thinking, and failed utterly. As he continued to stare silently out the window, a few more stray tears squeezed out of his eyes and trickled down his cheeks, and a deep sigh escaped from him.
* * *
The other rebels had finally managed to separate Scaler and Suezo, and convinced the green rabbit not to go forward with his murder attempt. However, that promise failed to prevent him from glaring daggers at the eyeball monster, his narrowed violet-brown eyes smoldering.
Not that Suezo felt like he could blame him for that, however. The eyeball monster already was feeling horrible about what had happened.
I can’t believe I said that to him! He berated himself silently, staring down at the floor to avoid looking any of the others directly in the eyes. I’m such an idiot…how could I say something like that to him, especially after I…
His green-gold pupil darkened as his felt his mind slip back to something that he never wanted Holly or any of the others to find out about. Something he had done back before this journey had started, during those early months of peace, that he knew would only make them even more upset with him…
* * *
Suezo sighed in frustration as he peeked out of the window and saw Hare and Mocchi playing out, roughhousing as usual. The fact that the two younger monsters were playing together didn’t bother him in the least; but did they have to be so darn noisy about it? SOME monsters were trying to get some extra sleep…mainly, him…
But the commotion outside was too loud for him to get any rest right now, so Suezo reluctantly gave up on that idea. Yawning hugely, he swung around and, eyelid still drooping shut over his foggy green-gold pupil, lazily hopped toward the door. Maybe if he found Holly, he’d be able to help her out with something quiet. Maybe she needed help with cooking or something…
Abruptly his foot landed on something that rolled the moment he stepped on it, and his eye snapped open as he let out a yelp of surprise, finding himself flying through the air and landing with a thud on his back.
For a minute, the eyeball monster simply lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling as his head throbbed painfully. Then, a huge vein appeared on the back of his head, and he leapt back up, grumbling to himself about his rotten luck. As he started to hop forward again, his foot brushed briefly against something small and rectangular.
"…Eh?" Suezo glanced down to see a small book lying on the floor before him. Looking around, he realized with a start that it had fallen out of Hare’s traveling bundle: he had tripped over the pole and knocked it over, and the book had tumbled out. Leaning over, he peered down at the handwriting scribbled on its red-tinted cover, and his green-gold pupil went small with surprise. He recognized what this was…
"Hare keeps a diary?" he murmured to himself, his eyebrow raising higher.
As he stared down at the small journal, his curiosity screamed at him to take this opportunity, while another part warned him off. After all, it wouldn’t be right for him to just invade Hare’s privacy like this…
- But if, say, it just happened to come open when it fell over, and I just happened to get a glimpse of what was written on that page… -
Quickly glancing around to make certain no one else was coming, Suezo picked up the small book and set it down on the nearby desk. Then he ‘accidentally’ bumped his side against the table, knocking the journal off.
"Whoops," he said sarcastically, quickly leaning down to find the book. His eager expression dropped into a frown, however, when he saw that the latch had remained shut.
"Oh clumsy me, I…oops!" he muttered, picking it up and immediately dropping it again. Looking down and seeing that it was still closed, he grimaced, then growled, "Oh, the heck with this," and opened it.
Bending down, Suezo quickly began to scan the writing on the pages before him. It only took him a moment to figure out when this had been written: at the very top of the page Hare had written, in huge, triumphant letters, Gali was defeated!!!
The eyeball monster smirked, remembering how elated everyone had been after they had beaten the second general of Moo’s army. However, his smile soon faded as his gaze traveled to the words below it:
~ I’m thrilled that Gali’s finally gone, but to tell the truth, I’m also a little scared. Okay, maybe I mean ‘really scared’. Now that he’s out of the way, that leaves just two members of the Big Bad Four, and I honestly don’t know if I can face either of them. Naga will be bad enough, but when you add in him… ~
~ Poor Tiger. I just can’t bring myself to tell him. Believe me, I was shocked enough when I found out he was related to him… How could I possibly let him know that…his little brother… ~
~ Then, of course, there’s the fact that he’d demand to know where I got this information. I’ve been lucky so far…neither Pixie or Gali recognized me when they saw me, though I’m certain they would have if I hadn’t been using the Phoenix’s Tear to make myself look like an adult… ~
~ I don’t like deceiving the others, but what else can I do? If they knew the truth…if they knew who I really am… ~
"………" Suezo was suddenly beginning to feel really dirty. He was painfully aware of the fact that he was intruding upon Hare’s most private thoughts and feelings, yet he couldn’t tear his attention away from the pages before him.
His gaze traveled against his will further down the page; here, the handwriting became more jagged, uneven, and there were odd stained spots that looked like what falling tears might do to paper. A cold feeling twisting deep in his stomach, Suezo nonetheless read on:
~ I HATE MYSELF! I HATE EVERYTHING ABOUT ME! I HATE WHAT I HAVE TO BE LIKE WITH MY FRIENDS! ~
~ Holly’s poisoned and it’s all my fault. My fault my fault my fault MY fault my FAULT MY FAULT!!! The Black Worms shot her poisoned her and its my fault I couldn’t save her I cant save her I cant I cant I cant heal her because the stupid Phoenixs Tear doesn’t work on POISON!!! ~
~ If only I’d been hit instead of her then we wouldn’t have any problems anymore…if only… ~
Then Suezo gasped, for scribbled beneath these words was a crude sketch that nearly caused his heart to stop. The picture looked hastily drawn, as if created on an impulse, but the eyeball monster immediately recognized what it represented nonetheless. It clearly showed a Black Worm, its body shaded roughly, launching a poison dart from its tail.
And the dart was burying its point directly in the shoulder of a small figure with long ears and a simply drawn bandanna…
A door banged on its hinges somewhere beneath him, and Suezo froze as he heard its sharp retort.
"Hang on, Mocchi, I’ll be right back!" Hare’s voice called from downstairs. "I just want to get something from upstairs, okay?"
Suezo panicked, and for the moment the journal was forgotten as he frantically looked around for some means of mistake. He could hear footsteps pounding up the steps entirely too fast for his comfort, and he finally scrambled into the closet, closing the door behind him. His heart pounded in his chest as he carefully peeked out through the bare sliver he had left open.
A few seconds later, the door to the room swung open, and Hare came into the room.
"Okay, now where did I put that…huh?"
Hare stopped short and stared in surprise at the small journal still sitting on the floor, his brown eyes going wide.
"What in the…what’s this doing out?" he stammered, and quickly picked it up, closing it at once. Looking around in confusion, he sighed as he noticed how his traveling pack had fallen over.
"So that’s it…it must have fallen out when that tipped over," he said, and he walked over and set it pack against the wall, securing it this time. Glancing down at the journal in his paws, the little rabbit let out a soft sigh, and murmured, "It’s a good thing none of the others found this…I’d hate to think of what they’d do if they ever got a chance to read it…"
He replaced it in the bundle, making certain it was tightly secured this time, then turned around and crossed the room again. Glancing around one final time, he scanned the small bedroom and sighed.
"I thought that it was in here…wonder where that went…?" he mused aloud.
Then, shaking his head in confusion, Hare walked out, leaving the room silent for several moments.
Suezo held his breath as he listened to the sound of the rabbit’s footsteps growing fainter and fainter, until he was certain that Hare was not coming back in. Then, he let out his breath with a whoosh, slumping against the back of the closet wall. His green-gold eye grew distant, solemn, as his thoughts drifted back to what he had read. A cold shiver ran down his back, as his mind called up unbidden an image of the picture he had seen…
* * *
The door into the room banged on his hinges, snapping Suezo out of his reverie, and he looked up along with the others as a panting Coltia burst into the room.
"Colt, what…?" Holly started to ask, half rising.
"You guys," Coltia cried, her caramel eyes wide with terror, "Hare is missing!"
"What?!" Scaler snarled, whirling on the girl with his dark eyes flashing. Coltia flinched backward, wincing, then turned toward the other shocked rebels.
"I got bored waiting for him to come out and talk to me, so I opened the door, and he wasn’t in the room anymore!" she explained, nearly frantic as she added, "I looked all over for him, but he wasn’t there!"
"…Genki!" Holly exclaimed, giving the boy a horrified look as comprehension dawned on her.
Genki had frozen where he stood, his clear eyes filled with shock as he stared at Coltia. Mocchi coughed slightly and stirred on the bed, and as Serinity gripped his hands, the boy looked over at them. Recognition sparked in his eyes, and as conflicting emotions of horror and outrage fought to control his expression, his hands slowly balled into trembling fists at his sides.
"I’m going to go find him, everyone!" he called over his shoulder as he sprinted out the doorway.
"Not without me, you’re not!" Scaler called, directly behind him. Grey Wolf was halfway through the door when he paused and glanced back at the others in the room.
"The rest of you should stay here in case he comes back," the silver wolf instructed, his tone leaving little room for argument. "We’ll be back as soon as we can!"
Then, he whirled around and was gone, leaving Holly, Serinity, Coltia and Suezo alone with the barely conscious Mocchi to wait nervously for their return.
* * *
Hare panted softly as he sprinted forward, his brown eyes filled with determination as they remained locked on the road before him. The crescent moon had already risen, casting shadows over the winding path, reflecting its light off of some of the tiny pebbles that lined the road, making them sparkle for fleeting instants. It also lent its glow to the waters of the river, cresting its ripples with silver.
It was a beautiful night, but Hare did not notice or care.
* Don’t worry, gang, I’m not going to let you or Mocchi down! I’m going to find a way to save him…no matter what it takes… *
A small field seemed to open up before him, and Hare skidded to a halt. Taking a few deep breaths to recover from his sprinting and also in an attempt to calm his wildly beating heart, he gave the area a quick once-over. The valley seemed to be completely empty, save for himself, yet Hare could sense a dark presence nearby, watching him from the shadows of the night.
"Aqua Cutter! I’m right here, so come and get me!" he challenged, fists clenched tightly at his sides.
For a few moments, no reply came. Then, a husky, hissing laughter began to sound, filling the air. Hare tensed, then spun around to face its source as it stepped out of the concealing shadows into the moonlight.
"I knew that you would come, little rabbit," Aqua Cutter informed him, arms folded triumphantly across his chest, a sly smirk on his reptilian face. His medallion glittered with the same cruel sparkle in his narrow eyes as he asked, "Are you ready to surrender yourself to me now?"
"On one condition," Hare replied, and the naga hybrid arched one eye ridge at the bunny in surprise and amusement.
"A condition? I think you fail to see who is in charge here," the baddie taunted, his cocky sneer growing wider. "Still, go ahead. I’ll hear you out, I suppose. This might be good for a laugh."
"You said that you would exchange the antidote for the Phoenix’s Tear and myself. However, I have no way of knowing at this point whether or not this is true. For all I know, you may capture me, then give the others a fake cure or something."
Aqua Cutter just nodded, still smirking as he nonchalantly commented, "Ah. So you don’t trust me."
"Hey, I may be a kid, but I’m not naïve," Hare retorted, and the baddie simply nodded again, leering at the young bunny.
"So? Your point?" the snake monster prodded, eyeing him.
"So I want you to prove that you really have this cure of yours. I want you to show me that it works by giving me a little demonstration."
"Let me guess…on one of your little friends?" Aqua Cutter leered.
However, Hare shook his head, and the young rabbit smirked slightly as he locked eyes with his enemy and placed his paw against his own chest.
"No," he informed the baddie, "I meant on me."
That got Aqua Cutter’s attention; the reptilian nearly toppled over from shock.
"Use your poison on me," Hare continued nonchalantly, ignoring the naga hybrid’s surprise, "and then use your ‘antidote’ to heal me. I know you have more of your poison: you had a great deal of it prepared for your attack, much more than what you used. And don’t try telling me you only have enough medicine for one dose, either: it was obvious you planned to hit more than one of us during your attack."
"…And what will you do if my antidote does turn out to be a sham?" Aqua Cutter inquired, arching one eye ridge as he studied Hare’s calm expression. "You will die…"
"That’ll be your problem," Hare shot back, a faint smile on his face as he added, "After all, it’s obvious that your master wants me to be brought back to him alive. If you poison me with your little venom, and fail to give me a cure in time…I doubt that your leader will be too pleased with your failure. He would see the situation as being entirely your fault…"
"…You’re right," Aqua Cutter concluded after a moment, bowing his head to show submission without taking his narrowed eyes off of where Hare stood before him. "I do have orders to bring you to my master alive."
He drew out a small, glittering object, and from a distance Hare recognized it as being similar to the dart that had struck Mocchi earlier. He stepped closer, slowly approaching the serpent monster, watching him intently.
"So? Let’s get this little test over with," Hare prompted when he was standing just out of arm’s reach.
Aqua Cutter smirked, and abruptly the poisoned dart dropped out of his hand and fell to the ground harmlessly. Before Hare could react, the baddie brought his fist surging up in a motion almost too swift to glimpse, and it slammed directly into the startled rabbit’s chest.
Hare gasped painfully as the air was forcefully driven out of his lungs, and for an instant his world became a blur. He was only dimly aware of his enemy’s voice, whispering softly into one ear.
"I have orders to bring you in alive…but not necessarily uninjured…"
Too stunned to make a coherent reply, Hare felt his mouth work soundlessly for a moment, then finally managed a soft gasp as he slumped to the ground. The world blurred before his eyes; he knew that Aqua Cutter was still somewhere nearby, standing above him, but he couldn’t judge exactly where.
Aqua Cutter smirked as he watched the little rabbit crumple to the ground, his narrowed eyes glinting with red light for an instant. After Hare had folded over, arms wrapped tightly around his aching chest, the baddie reached down to seize him, knowing that the bunny could no longer see where he was at.
A stiletto suddenly flashed out of the shadows of the night and buried itself up to its hilt in the back of his outstretched hand. Snarling, Aqua Cutter yanked it back toward his chest and pulled the thin blade out. As it clattered to the dirt road, the baddie whirled around to face his assailants.
"Hare! Are you alright!" shouted Genki as he raced toward them, and the naga hybrid curled his lips back in a sarcastic grimace. He recognized the boy at once; he had thought that the bratty human had been one of the ones he had poisoned. Of course, the fact that he was up and about proved to him without a doubt that this was not the case.
Behind the human brat, he could clearly see the running forms of the cloaked rabbit and the silver-furred wolf. He knew which one of these was responsible for his current pain: as if the slim dagger sitting at his feet was not evidence enough, the scaled hare’s leather cloak rippled around him as another streak of steel flashed from his blurring paws. Aqua Cutter barely managed to dodge this blade, and it grazed the edge of his cheek as he sidestepped it.
"I don’t think that you three should interfere," he hissed as they drew ever closer to him, even though it was obvious that his words would have little effect. "You’ll only be hurting yourselves in the long run…"
He saw Genki’s clear eyes darken with outrage, and the youth increased his speed slightly, pumping his legs from side to side as he skated closer. Suddenly, the human boy sprang into the air, and brought both feet in front of him as he streaked toward the naga hybrid.
"Feet first!" Genki shouted, aiming his kick directly at the baddie’s forehead.
Looking up at the rapidly approaching boy, Aqua Cutter just smirked, and quickly moved out of the way. As Genki slammed feet first into the ground and stumbled forward, having a little difficulty regaining his balance, the naga hybrid picked up the poison dart he had dropped earlier, whirled around and launched it at the boy’s back.
"Look out!" Grey Wolf shouted, knocking Genki out of the way with his own body. The dart streaked through the space the two had occupied an instant before unerringly, and Aqua Cutter hissed in frustration. He drew another dart out of a concealed pouch and turned to face them, bringing his hand back to strike.
He didn’t realize what a serious mistake he had made until he felt pain blossom in his wrist: in his determination to poison the brat and the wolf, he had forgotten about the other two rebels that were present. Now another of Scaler’s knives was lodged in his hand, and his own weapon clattered to the ground forgotten as the baddie struggled to dislodge it from his wrist, which was a very painful process. By the time he had finally managed to pull it free, the naga hybrid knew it was too late to salvage his plan: already the little rabbit had recovered from his blow, and was currently standing a few feet away from the baddie, fire blazing around his paws. To make matters worse, the other three rebels had fanned out and surrounded him, and from the stances they had assumed, all of them looked more than ready to finish this fight.
"You’ve lost, Aqua Cutter," Grey Wolf snarled, lightning flickering around his horns.
"Give us the antidote!" Genki demanded, glaring at the baddie as he brought his fists up before him.
Aqua Cutter looked over at the furious boy, and a slow smile spread over his thin blue lips. His shoulders shook slightly as he began to chuckle to himself, and then suddenly he began to laugh louder and louder, the hissing sound echoing eerily through the night.
"What’s so funny?!?" Genki demanded, glaring at the snake monster.
"You just don’t get it, do you?" Aqua Cutter asked, crimson eyes glinting as he regarded the four searchers. Suddenly a dark radiance burst into life around him, and the searchers stumbled backward, thrown back by the force of its emergence. Shielding his eyes to keep from being blinded, Genki gritted his teeth in frustration as the snake man’s hissing laughter rang in his ears.
"My master is calling me back to him, rebels," Aqua Cutter sneered, leering at the four searchers even as he felt his body begin to distort from the insistence of the spell’s pull. He knew that his master would not be pleased with his inability to capture the little rabbit, but he knew that his mission was not a complete failure.
"I hope you weren’t too attached to those friends of yours that got hit before," he taunted, baring his fangs in an evil smirk. "After all, you’ll never be able to cure them…"
"We’ll find a way! You’ll see!" Genki shouted, glaring at his disappearing enemy.
"You still don’t get it, do you?" Aqua Cutter leered, narrow red eyes flashing as he hissed, "There is no antidote!"
Then, with a blinding flash of black light, the snake monster vanished into thin air. The only remaining evidence of his presence there was the poison dart he had dropped a few moments before, lying abandoned on the dusty road.
"He got away again," Grey Wolf commented, sounding more resigned than upset. Turning worried ice blue eyes toward the others, he asked, "What do we do now?"
Nobody answered him. Scaler closed his dark eyes and shook his head, arms crossed over his chest, offering no possible answers. Genki stared down at the ground beneath his feet, his expression veiled by his bangs as they fell over his eyes, balled fists trembling at his sides. Hare had his head bowed as well, and turned away from the others. Noticing the abandoned dart still lying on the ground, he walked over, crouched down and picked it up.
"Hare?" Genki asked, turning to see what the bunny was doing.
Hare’s expression was unreadable as he weighed the small missile in his paw, studying it carefully. After a few moments, he reversed it, gripping it by its handle.
Then, abruptly, before any of the others could react, Hare plunged the dart into his arm, driving the poisoned edge deep into his own skin.
"Hare!" Genki screamed, horrified, and the boy darted to Hare’s side as the young bunny wavered on his feet.
Grey Wolf and Scaler were too stunned to react for a moment, and then both raced over to help Genki support his friend.
"Hare! Hare, why…?" Genki’s query trailed off as his voice cracked; he couldn’t keep himself from shaking a little as he attempted to wrench the dart out of the tawny-furred rabbit’s arm.
Hare just smiled crookedly up at the boy, his blurring brown eyes twinkling faintly even as they drifted shut. Genki got the strange feeling that the rabbit was pleased with himself, like this was part of some sort of plan he was concocting and hadn’t warned the others about.
Scaler gritted his teeth in anger as he yanked the dart out of Hare’s limp arm, and crushed the now useless missile in his paw. He no longer needed to worry about being cut by it: all of the poison had already flowed into the younger rabbit’s system and was starting its deadly course. Pulling Hare’s unconscious form into his arms, the scaled hare wrapped part of his cloak around his limp body and got to his feet.
"Let’s get back to the village!" he commanded more than said, already having whirled on his heel and sprinted off in that direction. Genki and Grey Wolf could only rush after him, trying to keep up.
In the commotion, none of them noticed that Hare’s kerchief had slipped slightly, exposing the Phoenix’s Tear. The crystalline teardrop glowed faintly, and the self-inflicted wound on the young rabbit’s arm began to seal over, as a crimson light pulsed seemingly just beneath his skin.
* * *
Mocchi gasped, taking a few shuddering breaths as he fought for life. Serinity’s verdant eyes wavered with tears as she continued to cast her healing spell on him, knowing that it did little good other than easing the pain he was in somewhat. For her, that alone was enough reason to keep casting her recovery spell. Holly kept her head bowed in prayer, bronze eyes closed tightly as she silently asked for some way to save the young monster. Coltia was pacing the floor, too nervous to sit still and wait, and Suezo occupied himself with watching her walk back and forth.
Privately, the eyeball monster was thinking about everything that had happened that day, all the terrible, terrible things that had occurred. He silently wished that he could take back what he had said to Hare before
The door banged on its hinges, and Serinity, Holly, Coltia and Suezo jerked their heads up in unison, startled from their glum reverie. At the sight of Genki, Grey Wolf and Scaler standing in the doorway, breathing harshly, Holly jumped to her feet.
"Genki, what…" she started to ask, then she saw who Scaler was holding in his arms and gasped. Behind her, Serinity gasped and reflexively squeezed Mocchi’s hand a little tighter, and Coltia froze with shock.
"Wh-what happened?!?" Suezo heard his own voice demand, beginning to tremble with fear and dread of what answer he might receive.
"Hare stabbed himself with one of Aqua Cutter’s poison darts," Genki blurted, confirming the eyeball monster’s darkest suspicions.
"He what?!?" Coltia, Serinity and Holly cried in unison, while Scaler nodded grimly and gazed down at the younger rabbit’s pale face.
"He is going to die now," the scaled hare said in a dead, emotionless voice, his violet-brown eyes burning with rage. "The enemy told us that there is no cure for the poison; he was lying when he offered one in exchange for Hare. The entire thing was a sham…"
"…May…maybe he was lying," Coltia offered lamely, obviously trying to keep the others from losing hope. Scaler just shook his head, dark eyes flashing with anger.
"No…no way," Suezo breathed, slowly shaking his head in denial as he backed away from the others. His horrified gaze was locked on Hare’s body, not wanting to believe what he saw.
Suddenly he gasped, noticing before any of the other rebels did the faint glow pulsing under Hare’s tawny fur.
"Hey, what…?" he started to ask, then sucked in a second gasp of shock as the young rabbit let out a soft groan and shifted.
Noticing this, Scaler stared down at his precious burden, and the other searchers turned to stare at them as well. Hare moaned again, softly, then wavering brown eyes suddenly fluttered open. Shaking his head slightly, the small bunny smiled as he noticed the stunned faces of his friends.
"…Hey, guys," he greeted them weakly, a lopsided grin on his face. The other searchers simply stared at him, startled by his apparent recovery.
"…H-How…" Genki stammered.
Hare shook his head suddenly and pulled away from Scaler’s arms; for once, the green rabbit did not attempt to hold him back.
"There’s no time…where’s Mocchi?" the younger rabbit asked, stumbling in the general direction of the bed.
Serinity got up and clutched at his arm, steadying him. The moment her slender fingers brushed against his fur, the pixie hybrid’s verdant eyes went wide, and she stifled a quiet gasp. Hare looked up into her face, and for a moment, their gazes locked, as some secret knowledge seemed to pass between them. After a few seconds, Serinity smiled gently, and helped Hare over to Mocchi’s side.
The other rebels watched in startled silence, not knowing what to make of what was happening. Genki started to ask a question, but his voice trailed off awkwardly before he could begin.
Hare took Mocchi’s limp hand gently, cupping his paws around it, and closed his eyes in concentration. A fiery crimson aura pulsed under his fur again, and as the other rebels watched, the light spread to the younger monster. Mocchi’s pale pink skin glowed as it was lit from within by the radiance, and as it enveloped both of them, his normal coloring returned. The sickly pale shade regained its normal rosy hue, and as the light faded away, a pair of wavering eyes forced themselves open.
Genki gasped, clear eyes wavering as he watched his close friend slowly sit up, no longer suffering in the least. Mocchi stared up at his friends, wondering why everyone looked as if they were about to start crying.
"Mocchi!" Genki exclaimed, and suddenly the boy was at Mocchi’s side, arms wrapped around the young pink monster.
"I did it…I really, really did it…"
Hare smiled faintly, then abruptly toppled backwards as what remained of his strength abandoned him. Serinity, directly behind him, caught him easily, and all eyes turned to the young bunny in surprise.
"How…how did you…?" Holly asked, and Hare smiled lopsidedly over at her.
"…I’m sorry…I should have told you before…but you would have tried to stop me if you had known…"
"…Known what?" Coltia asked, blinking her caramel eyes in confusion.
"The Phoenix’s Tear…can’t normally heal poisons," Hare explained slowly, the same faintly mischievous smile on his face. "At least, not in somebody else. It can purify the bearer’s own body of any toxins, but when it comes to healing someone else, there’s a trick…the user has to have cleared the same type of poison out of his own body…at least once before…"
"What?" Coltia gasped, as she and the other rebels stared at the young rabbit in shock.
"Are…are you saying that…?" Suezo began to ask, voice trembling.
"To heal Mocchi, I had to get infected with the same type of poison he had been infected with. That’s why I went off to face Aqua Cutter on my own…"
- And that must be what he meant when he wrote that we would have been better off if he had been poisoned by the Black Worms instead of Holly! -
Suezo smiled shakily in new understanding, tears brimming in his green-gold eye as he studied Hare’s triumphant smile. Dimly, he heard Scaler scolding the younger rabbit about the sheer recklessness of his actions, but didn’t care enough about what he was saying to listen. Judging from the lopsided grin on Hare’s face, the scaled rabbit’s words did not matter much to him either.
"Guys…? I’m really tired right now…could we just get some sleep?"
"I think that’s a great idea," Holly said, while Scaler frowned deeply as he realized little attention was being paid to his scolding.
Genki laughed and nodded, still hugging Mocchi tightly. The youngest searcher was staring up at him in confusion, obviously not understanding what was happening.
"Genki-chi? What’s wrong?"
Genki just smiled happily, clear brown eyes wavering as he hugged his friend a little tighter.
"Nothing, Mocchi," he replied, grinning reassuringly. "Just a bad nightmare, is all…and it’s finally, finally over… Now come on, you especially need your rest. Remember, we have to continue our quest tomorrow! You want to find Tiger and Golem as soon as possible, right?"
"Right, chi!" Mocchi agreed. Yawning, the youngest rebel then curled up in his friend and partner’s arms, soon drifting off to sleep as Genki continued to hold onto him.
"Okay! Let’s go, everybody!" Genki shouted, pumping his feet into the air as he charged ahead of his teammates, deeper into the canyons.
"Chi! Chi!" Mocchi cheered, running after his partner and human friend as fast as his tiny legs could carry him.
Hare laughed at the younger monster’s antics, even as he exchanged a knowing glance with Serinity. The pixie hybrid caught his sideways look and nodded, a faint smile touching her lips as she looked over at Mocchi. Holly noticed this and immediately understood: since the two had been casting their own recovery spells on Mocchi constantly during his struggle with Aqua Cutter’s venom, they knew better than anyone else, perhaps even more clearly than Mocchi himself, just how close the youngest rebel had come to dying.
Her smile faded, and a cold shiver ran its icy fingers up and down the young woman’s spine as she remembered the long, painful vigil they had taken at Mocchi’s bedside, with the others looking on helplessly while Hare and Serinity cast their spells on the seemingly unresponsive child. She remembered waiting while Genki took Scaler and Grey Wolf to search for a runaway Hare, watching the pixie hybrid pour more of her strength into Mocchi’s body; Serinity’s silent, composed expression, verdant eyes squeezed tightly shut in concentration. Her magic appeared to have little effect, and yet she had continued to cast it, even though she may have merely been wasting her energy.
Then, of course, there was what Hare had done…Holly shuddered. The young rabbit had risked his own life to save Mocchi’s, poisoning himself with the same venom so he could use the Phoenix’s Tear to create a cure for it. What if he had not been able to cure himself in time…? Holly struggled to dispel that train of thinking, and failed, her gaze drawn back toward the young bunny once more.
So close…they had come so close to losing some of their team. It frightened her terribly to think of that. They were missing two of their closest and dearest friends already; Golem and Tiger of the Wind were still absent, with no new clues to their current positions. If they had lost anyone else…
But they hadn’t lost anyone, not yet, and if Holly had anything to say about it, they never would.
As the searchers continued their journey, Mocchi suddenly ran up beside Hare and gave the young rabbit a playful shove.
"Tag, you’re it, chi!" the pink monster laughed, then darted ahead of the other rebels before the taken off-guard Hare could react.
Recovering quickly from his surprise, Hare smirked and chased after the younger rebel, and Holly giggled to herself as she watched them fool around. Serinity was giggling as well, and Grey Wolf laughed silently to himself, blue eyes twinkling with amusement. Scaler did not look as pleased as the other rebels were to see the two youngest members playing while they were on a serious quest, but Holly couldn’t help but notice the thin smirk that tugged on one corner of the scaled hare’s mouth. Dark violet-brown eyes watched the two younger monsters intently, making certain that they did not wander too far away from the other searchers.
Suddenly, a scream ripped through the air, and as the others stopped in their tracks and stared at one another, Scaler whirled around. Neither of the younger rebels had screamed, and a quick glance at the confused faces around him confirmed his suspicions that the cry had not originated from one of the others.
"W-w-what was that?" Coltia wailed, latching onto Genki’s arm with both hands as she looked around wildly.
"It sounded like it came from…over there," Serinity said, and she flitted over in the direction that she pointed.
"Do you see anything, Serinity?" Genki called, watching the pixie hybrid as she ascended into the air, scanning the area around her.
"Not yet…oh!" Serinity suddenly gasped, both hands covering her mouth for a moment as she stared at something below her.
"What is it?" Grey Wolf called, as he and Scaler instantly whirled to face in the direction she was looking.
"T-there’s some baddies! Th…they’re attacking someone!" came the frightened, stammered reply.
"Damn!" Grey Wolf cursed, taking off in that direction at once. Scaler was beside the lupine monster almost instantly, leather cloak flying behind him as he drew a couple of blades from their sheaths.
"Come on!" Genki shouted, running after the two as they disappeared over a rocky outcropping.
"Genki, wait up!" Coltia wailed, following after him as fast as she could, the other rebels behind her.
Rounding a corner, Grey Wolf and Scaler immediately saw what Serinity had been screaming about. The silver-furred lupine’s blue eyes widened with shock, while Scaler cursed and drew another knife out of the folds of his leather cloak.
A pack of Black Saurians were chasing a small, yellow-furred monster. It took Grey Wolf a few moments to recognize the smaller monster’s breed: although Tiger had once described the different monster types to his younger brother, he had never seen one of the Mew breed before. The cat doll monster looked so tiny and weak, especially compared to the baddies pursuing it, that it seemed to him that the fact it had survived this long was a miracle.
However, whatever luck had kept the small feline monster alive appeared to be rapidly running out. One of the Black Saurians swiped at her with his long claws, and the kitty let out a screech as the sharp talons grazed one of her flailing arms.
"Ice Bullet!" Grey Wolf shouted, and the cold sphere knocked away the baddie before he could continue his gruesome work.
"Hang on!" Genki called, arriving in time to see Grey Wolf charging right into the battle.
Scaler had already thrown the knifes he had drawn at the baddies, and pulled a longer sword from its sheath as he sprinted forward. The steel edge glinted in the sunlight, and several of the baddies hesitated, already beginning to back away. Obviously they had been expecting an easy kill, and the arrival of several able fighters was causing them to have second thoughts.
Their doubts increased significantly when a blast of crimson flames erupted in front of them, driving them even further away from their intended victim. The Black Saurians backed away, crimson eyes wide, and several of them glanced over at the one in the lead. This dinosaur was a little larger than the others, and had a battered helmet that barely fit his head on, and apparently was the leader of the pack.
"…So much for this mission," he muttered; then, whirling around to face his warriors, he raised one stubby forearm into the air and ordered, "RETREAT!"
As the Black Saurians bolted from the area, the searchers gathered around what had been the baddie’s intended target.
"Are you okay?" Coltia asked, supporting the cat doll’s body with both arms.
In response, the tiny feline opened huge emerald eyes and looked up at the rebels that surrounded her. She mewed pitifully, moving her injured arm so that everyone could see the gash in it.
"Here," Serinity and Hare both said in unison, automatically reaching out to heal the wound at the same time. They looked up at each other in surprise for a moment, and then Hare smirked and pulled back his paw again.
"After you," he quipped, and Serinity giggled at the joke for a second before turning her attention back to the feline’s injury.
A pale green aura surrounded Serinity’s slender fingers, then spread to the feline monster’s wound. Almost instantly, the shallow cut sealed over, and as the pixie hybrid cut off her spell, Coltia took out a small piece of cloth and wiped away the blood that had already managed to drip out before the gash had been healed.
"There you go," Coltia said brightly, smiling at the little cat doll monster. "Is that better?"
The feline monster blinked her huge emerald eyes, studying the faces around her with rapt interest. After a moment, her gaze settled on Genki’s face, and the youth grinned.
"What’s your name?" he asked.
"Mew…call me Mew," came the quiet reply, as the feline monster continued to study the rebels intently. "Thanks for saving me from those monsters…"
"No problem, I’m just glad that you’re okay now," Coltia said, smiling.
"Why were those baddies chasing you, anyway?" Serinity inquired.
"They probably thought she would be an easy target or something," Holly commented, frowning.
"Yeah, you know how baddies are: always have to beat up on the helpless," Suezo added, shaking his head.
"You would know a lot about that, wouldn’t you?" Scaler commented, glancing at the eyeball monster.
"…Hey!" Suezo growled, glaring at the cloaked rabbit.
Holly sweatdropped as the scaled hare simply turned his back on the furious eyeball monster, and Hare sighed. Mew stared at the scene unfolding before her, and after a moment, giggled faintly.
"What’s so funny?" Coltia asked, looking over at the small cat monster in surprise.
"Oh…nothing…it’s just that they’re acting so silly," Mew replied, grinning up at the girl.
"…Yeah, I guess Suezo does act pretty silly sometimes," Holly admitted, shaking her head.
Suezo stared at his partner with a hurt expression on his face, and looked like he was about to protest that comment. Genki, Mocchi and Coltia started laughing, while Hare shook his head and smiled. Scaler looked over at the fuming eyeball monster with a slight smirk tugging on the corner of his mouth for a moment.
"…So, Mew," Genki finally managed to get out after he had calmed down a little, "where’s your home at? Where are your friends? We’ll take you back there so the baddies won’t threaten you again on your way back if you want…"
His voice trailed off as he noticed a shadow come over the small feline’s face. Emerald eyes that moments before had been sparkling with laughter suddenly darkened, and Mew gazed down at the ground beneath her sadly.
"…I don’t…really have any friends around here," the cat doll said quietly after a short pause.
"…Oh…" Genki murmured, some of his enthusiasm fading as he watched the small feline monster stare at the ground.
"………Oh! Hey, I know!" Coltia suddenly piped up, beaming. "Why don’t you come along with us, Mew?"
"Colt?" Holly asked in surprise, as all eyes turned toward the younger human girl.
"Yeah…yeah!" Genki agreed, his face lighting up as he turned to face the startled feline monster. "You can come with us if you want! We’re going on a journey to find some of our friends, and stop Moo from taking over!"
"…Really? …You’d really have me along?" Mew asked, looking around at the searchers with wide green eyes.
"Of course! We can always use another ally, right, guys?" Coltia replied, grinning widely.
"Yeah-chi!" Mocchi cheered.
"Sounds fine to me," Grey Wolf said, shrugging. "The more allies we have, the better, I suppose…"
"I don’t know…do you really think that you can fight the baddies?" Suezo asked, eyeing the cat doll doubtfully. "You don’t look that strong…"
"She will probably be a better fighter than you, at least," Scaler commented mildly, earning another death glare from the eyeball monster.
"Don’t worry, you won’t have to fight if you don’t want to," Serinity told Mew, trying to ignore Suezo as best she could. "To be honest, I’m not really a warrior myself, but that doesn’t mean that I’m unable to help out…"
"Oh, don’t worry about it," Mew said lightly, smiling back at the pixie hybrid. "I think I’ll be able to hold my own…"
"All right then, what do you say we get moving, gang?" Genki cheered, pumping his fist in the air. "Let’s go-"
"Mocchi hungry," the little pink monster interrupted.
"Maybe we should rest for a while, Genki," Serinity said, looking over at the boy. "We have been traveling for some time, and Mocchi may need his rest…"
"…Not to mention getting something to eat," Suezo muttered. "I’m starving!"
"Yeah, and Mew might need some time to recover from that attack, right, Mew?" Coltia added, grinning at the feline monster.
"Well, we can set up camp here for a while," Holly offered.
"…Okay, fine," Genki said, walking back over to the rest of the group. "We’ll take a break if you want…"
Holly nodded at him, smiling, and Suezo began to shrug off his traveling bundle so they could retrieve some of their supplies. Serinity helped him get the heavy packet off, and quickly located a frying pan.
"Could somebody go gather some firewood?" Holly asked.
"I’ll do it," Mew said at once, standing up. "I know this area really well, so I should be able to find some pretty quickly."
"All by yourself?" Coltia asked, concerned. "What if the baddies attack you again?"
"I’ll be okay. You guys drove all of them away, so I doubt I’ll get into any trouble," Mew told her calmly, smiling.
"Still, to just go alone…I can come with you if you want," Coltia offered.
"I’ll be fine…"
Before the argument could be continued any further, the cat doll monster had turned around and scampered off, leaving a confused Coltia behind. The girl blinked, then looked back at the other rebels.
"Do you think she’ll be okay?" she asked, worried.
"I wouldn’t worry about it," Grey Wolf replied, a slight smile on his muzzle. "She may just want to prove she’s not completely helpless. After all, she was being chased…she may think we think she’s weak."
"Humph. She certainly looks weak," Suezo commented under his breath, although Mocchi and Hare happened to overhear him. "She’s so small…"
"Yeah, and I suppose Mocchi and I look weak to you because we’re ‘just kids,’ right?" the tawny-furred bunny commented acidly, glaring at the eyeball monster.
"Uh…come on, you guys, you know what I meant," Suezo stammered, sweatdropping.
* * *
Mew walked deeper into the canyon, emerald eyes glittering as they swept across the area, searching. After a few moments, her gaze alighted on a shadowy alcove; something shifted within the blackness, and there was a brief glimmer as light reflected off of a small, circular object.
"There you are," the feline monster muttered, walking toward the cave.
Several pairs of crimson eyes glared back at her, as deep growls and snarls echoed out of the darkness. Mew returned their gaze firmly, as a frightening change overtook her: the emerald eyes that moments before had been twinkling with laughter hardened into emotionless panels of jade.
"Everything is going according to plan?" asked the leader of the Black Saurians, as he stepped forward into the light.
"Of course," the small feline replied in a low, quiet voice. "The rebels have taken me into their group, just as the master said they would. He was correct in thinking that they would take pity on a small, defenseless monster such as myself…"
As she said this last part, her jaden eyes seemed to darken even more, and a snarl curled the edge of her lip. The Black Saurians recoiled slightly as they saw the tiny white fangs glitter in the afternoon sun.
"Well, you will prove them wrong, won’t you?" the leader of the dinosaurs asked after a few moments. "Master Mew…"
"…Yes…yes, that’s right," Mew murmured, closing her eyes and nodding slightly, more to herself than to the baddies kneeling before her. "…Oh, and one more thing, Captain."
"Yes?" answered the Black Saurian leader, blinking in surprise.
"During the ‘chase’…will you kindly explain to me what you thought you were doing when you made that little swipe at me?"
The leader’s red eyes widened involuntarily, and he started to sweat, secretly thankful that the cat doll still had her eyes closed and could not see his expression.
"…I-I…I was merely attempting to make the attack look more realistic," he lied.
"…Ah…yes," Mew said slowly, nodding again, eyes still closed. "I understand now…"
The Black Saurians sighed in unison, relieved. However, they failed to notice how Mew’s paws were slowly clenching into fists at her sides.
"I understand that you thought I would be easy to kill!" she hissed, and her eyes flashed open.
Her jaden eyes were glowing with a blinding white-green light, startling the dinosaurs. Before they could react, the blazing light lashed out at them with twin beams, burning and searing through dark flesh and bones. The baddies could not even scream as they writhed under the full brunt of the feline monster’s unleashed attack.
After a few moments, the glow faded away from Mew’s eyes, and she glared at the still smoldering lost discs before her with a slight sneer tugging on the edge of her mouth.
Then, turning away, she began to make her way back to the campsite where the rebels were staying. The last thing she wanted was for them to get worried about her and send out a search party…
…Although they would be the first ones to care enough to do something like that for me, she thought bitterly.
* * *
"…Why hasn’t Mew come back yet?" Coltia asked, glancing around at the others worriedly.
"She’ll be back soon, probably, so don’t worry about it," Grey Wolf replied, smiling reassuringly at the girl.
"I just wish that she’d been able to bring some firewood sooner," Suezo griped, his tongue hanging out of his mouth. "Then I wouldn’t have had to go after some, and…"
"Suezo, please stop talking so much, you’re making this rather difficult," Serinity piped up. The pixie hybrid was kneeling beside the eyeball monster, glowing hands poised above his tongue, and she added, "But I thank you for going after some wood on your own. You didn’t have to…"
"Well, I wish you’d told me that before I got these stupid splinters in my tongue!" snapped the eyeball monster irritably.
"I know, I know, I’m sorry," Serinity apologized, verdant eyes shimmering with tears as she bowed her head guiltily.
"Oh, for crying out loud, Serinity, it’s not your fault," Hare piped up, glaring at the eyeball monster beside her with disgust. "If Suezo had just been more careful, this wouldn’t have happened to him."
"Yeah, you need to learn to stop blaming yourself for things that aren’t your fault," Grey Wolf added, raising his head to look over at her.
"But I…" Serinity looked away, obviously not convinced that she wasn’t to blame, and the others sighed.
Mew came walking up at that moment, arms full of firewood. The feline monster had known better than to show up without any, and she did actually know the area well enough to quickly locate some easily after she had finished her little ‘meeting’ with her…former warriors.
"Sorry I’m late," she called, smiling brightly as she strode over to the campfire and dropped her armload of sticks next to it.
"Mew, where were you?" Coltia shouted, jumping to her feet at once and scooping Mew into her arms before the startled cat doll could react. "We were so worried about you! What happened? You weren’t attacked again, were you? You’re not hurt?!?"
"…Uh, Colt…if you really want her to answer, maybe you should consider loosening your grip just a bit," Hare observed mildly, sweatdropping.
"…Oh! …Right," Coltia replied, quickly releasing her near-death grip on the feline monster. "A-anyway, are you okay?"
"I-I’m fine," Mew managed to gasp after a moment, sucking precious air back into her lungs. She forced herself to grin up at the worrying young girl despite the pain in her chest, and added, "I just lost track of time, that’s all…"
"Well, we’re just glad that you’re alright," Serinity told her, smiling over at the small feline monster.
"Yeah, I just wish that you’d gotten back sooner…" Suezo griped.
Serinity and Holly sweatdropped in unison, while Mew stared at the eyeball monster and blinked in surprise. She noticed that the other rebels appeared to be embarrassed by Suezo’s grumbling as well; the one exception seemed to be the cloaked scaled hare, who had his back turned on the scene indifferently. His attention was completely focused on sharpening several blades that he had drawn from the folds of his leather cloak, or at least, that was what it looked like. However, the feline monster overheard him mutter something under his breath that indicated to her that he was paying more attention than he appeared to be.
"What did you just say?" Suezo growled; apparently the eyeball monster had overhead the scaled hare’s mumbling as well.
"I just noted that you hurt yourself very easily doing what should have been a rather easy chore," Scaler repeated, a little louder, and glanced back over his shoulder at the eyeball monster. "I suppose, however, that since you do so little actual work around here, your injury is not all that great a surprise…"
"Hey!" Suezo growled, fuming.
"Calm down, calm down," Serinity pleaded, attempting to concentrate on healing the eyeball monster’s aching tongue even as he grumbled and complained. "We got all the splinters out, but if you don’t relax long enough for me to finish this, your tongue will be awfully sore for a while…"
"Why not leave it that way? Maybe he’ll actually be quiet for a while if it hurts him to speak," the scaled hare observed mildly.
"Scaler…" Hare sighed, shaking his head in frustration.
Mew stared at the fuming eyeball monster and the indifferent scaled hare in amazement: she had always heard before that the rebels were extremely close to one another, each willing to lay down their lives for the others, but these two hardly appeared to be fond of one another… She giggled, bemused. Perhaps those rumors were merely that…
"Mocchi hungry, chi," the little pink monster piped up forlornly, and Mew found herself staring at him. This one’s presence was another thing she had not expected…not with what she had heard…
"Come on, you guys, settle down," Holly said, as she checked the stew she was making. After taking a quick taste, the girl smiled and announced, "It’s ready."
"Food, yeah!" Coltia said eagerly. Taking a pair of bowls, she handed one to Mew and said, "Here you go!"
Taken off guard, Mew blinked at the girl in surprise.
"What’s the matter? …Don’t worry, Holly’s a really good cook," Coltia said, wondering if that was the problem.
"…No, no that’s not it," Mew hastily blurted, quickly taking the offered bowl before the girl could ask any more questions.
Mentally, she kicked herself for allowing her mind to wander like that. She had to pay more attention to what was happening: if the rebels began to suspect that anything was wrong… Although she doubted that they would be able to figure out that the cute little kitty cat they had rescued from the baddies was actually an enemy herself. They had no clue that she was going to…that she was supposed to…
Mew glanced back around at the rebels, her solemn gaze drifting from face to face. Genki, Mocchi, Suezo and Coltia were currently fighting over who would get more of the stew, and the feline monster arched an eyebrow at the sight of the four teammates roughhousing. The other members, she noted, were not as competitive about the food, and mostly looked embarrassed about the scene their friends were making.
"Know why those guys are fighting over food so much? It takes a lot of fuel to run those mouths of theirs," Hare commented.
"No kidding!" Holly laughed nervously, sweatdropping as she watched the four continue to battle it out.
Serinity giggled behind a discretely raised hand, and Grey Wolf burst out laughing. Mew felt a smile tug at the edge of her mouth at the quip, then glanced over at the scaled hare, who was sitting separate from the others. He didn’t appear to be paying a lot of attention to the others at first, yet the feline monster noted that his dark violet-brown eyes continued to flick back towards where Hare was sitting, watching him intently.
He must have taken it upon himself to protect the little rabbit at all times, Mew decided, taking a sip of her own stew as she studied the green rabbit. I certainly can understand that…after all, not only is that one the bearer of the Phoenix’s Tear, but he is also a child…
– A child… –
– Many of them are mere children…Hare, Mocchi, Genki…why did the master never inform of this? Why… –
Mew’s emerald eyes narrowed slightly, and she shook her head.
Does it really matter? She asked herself silently. Children or not, they are still the enemy… I will make certain that they cannot interfere with the master’s plans…one way or another…
However, as she watched the rebels continue to talk and laugh with one another, the feline monster felt a small, odd sensation, like something deep within her was twisting painfully. Somehow, it hurt to watch them enjoy themselves so much, to see them feel so at peace with one another…
* * *
Night fell, and the searchers slept, blissfully unaware of the fact that an enemy general was among them. Mew silently stood, and emerald eyes shimmered in the moonlight as they swept over the sleeping rebels, taking in every detail.
Genki and Mocchi were sprawled in a heap, only half covered by the blanket they shared. The young monster’s head rested on his friend and partner’s chest, and their soft, deep breathing sounded almost synchronized, although not quite.
Holly and Suezo were also leaning against one another: the girl’s head rested against the eyeball monster’s leg, and he leaned forward slightly, so that it appeared that he was protecting his partner even while asleep. The thought caused Mew to smile for a fleeting moment, although she privately wondered how the girl could possibly sleep with Suezo’s loud snoring so close to her ear. Of course, if one was used to it…
Scaler lay some distance away from the group, wrapped tightly in his long leather cloak. Mew recalled seeing him sharpening some blades earlier, but could not see any of the weapons lying beside his motionless figure. Did that mean he slept with all his weapons still tucked away in their sheaths? …But then again, the feline monster could see the point of that. When an attack could come at any time, it was best to always be prepared…
Coltia was sprawled out on a blanket, only half-covered by another sheet. Grey Wolf was curled at the girl’s feet, nose tucked between his paws, blue eyes closed. Serinity had wrapped her wings around her body instead of a blanket, and appeared to be completely comfortable where she lay on the ground, cushioned by the soft grass.
The little rabbit, the bearer of the crystalline tear that her master wanted captured so badly, was curled up under a blanket nearby, fast asleep. Mew’s eyes darkened slightly as she focused her gaze on him, becoming a cold jaden hue.
It would be so easy, she told herself, to just capture the little rabbit right now, while he and his rebel fri…allies are still asleep. I could just slit the throats of the lot of them while they’re sleeping, then grab the little rabbit and teleport back to my fortress. So simple…
As she thought this, her tiny claws slowly appeared, glinting in the moonlight as she bared them without even realizing what she was doing.
Her harsh, cold jaden eyes traveled back towards where Genki and Mocchi were; the pair were still fast asleep, and only a few feet away from her. It would take only a few seconds to cross that distance to them and use her claws to tear a few fatal wounds into their unresisting bodies…and with the apparent leader of the rebels and his partner out of the way, the rest would be easy…
Mocchi sighed softly and rolled over, and Mew tensed for a moment as she saw his face now pointed toward her. It took a few seconds for her to realize that the pink monster had not awakened, that his eyes were still closed, that he was still sound asleep. Moonlight lit the youngster’s face; he was smiling slightly, as if having a wonderful dream, and he looked perfectly contented and comfortably as he snuggled closer to Genki’s side.
Mew stared at him, her harsh jaden eyes beginning to soften as they studied his serene expression, and her bared claws gradually retracted back into her paws. She slumped back down into a sitting position; gaze still locked on the young monster’s face. Slowly, she began to shake her head, and a faint tremor ran through her small frame.
– W…what am I doing…? …He’s only…a child… –
– …So many of them are so young…why… –
– Master…why are the enemies that you hate so…mere children? –
The silence of the night seemed almost oppressive to the feline monster, and she continued to stare at the sleeping rebels dully, emerald eyes shimmering with emotion… although what emotion that was, even she did not know anymore.
* * *
Several miles away, another was suffering from insomnia that, in a sense, was also being caused by the searchers. However, the reason was somewhat different than the feline monster’s own…
"…Damnit! I knew we should have stayed with them," Alan cursed, stubbornly forcing himself to keep moving forward even though his body was shrieking at him for rest.
Irritably, he glanced back up at the dark sky above him; the starlight reflected briefly in his narrowed, sapphire-bright eyes for a moment, then he shook his head and glared at the winding road ahead of him.
He couldn’t believe his luck. Several days before, he had managed to capture one of the baddies and interrogate him. The enemy had revealed some startling information about his general and commander, and had even hinted at some sort of plan to infiltrate the rebels.
Alan grimaced as he recalled how the captured baddie had taunted him, claiming that the rebels would never know what had happened to them…that their throats would be slit in the night by their supposed new friend.
So, after disposing of the enemy and making a final sweep of his woods, making certain that no baddie would be able to harm anything. With his hideout completely camouflaged and hidden to the outside world, he and his two Worms had set off together, hoping to find the other rebels before they met up with this false friend. Alan took comfort in the fact that, judging by what other people he had met in villages along the way said, he was heading in the right direction. However, what one man had told him in the last town he had visited had been both great and a little disappointing…
"…Genki, you idiot! Why did you have to keep moving instead of staying in that stupid inn for just one more day?!?" he shouted at the top of his lungs, shattering the otherwise quiet night.
Behind the boy, a pair of Worm monsters sweatdropped in perfect unison. They continued to follow after their master and partner as he stormed ahead, knowing that they were getting closer to finding the others. It was only a matter of time…
* * *
Mew blinked in surprise, sitting up at once. She had no idea when she had fallen asleep: the sun was beginning to rise, sending shafts of light over the campsite, although that was not what had awakened her. A soft melody wafted through the cool, early morning air, and the feline monster looked around for its source, confused.
Following the sound, she soon came upon Hare. The little rabbit was sitting on a rock, a small, handcrafted flute in his paws. This was obviously the source of the music, and Mew simply stood and listened to the soft melody for a few moments. When Hare finally spotted her, he stopped playing abruptly, and the feline monster felt a sharp pang of disappointment.
"Don’t stop just because of me," she told him, then blinked in shock. In her own ears, it had sounded almost as if she was pleading with him to continue. The thought almost made her sick, so she pushed the notion quickly out of her mind.
"How long have you been standing there?" Hare asked, then the bunny suddenly shook his head. "On second thought, never mind, I’m not certain I want to know. …Sorry if I woke you up…"
"No, you didn’t wake me up…" the cat doll sighed, glancing back in the direction of the campsite. After a short pause, she looked back at the young rabbit, curiosity lighting her verdant eyes as she asked, "What was that song you were playing? I’ve never heard it before."
"Oh, that? It’s just something I came up with based on these songs my mother used to sing to me when I was little," Hare replied, smiling at the feline monster. However, the smile quickly faded, and he looked away as he added softly, "But that was a long time ago…"
"Ah…" Mew murmured, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. She noticed that the Phoenix’s Tear had slipped out from under the rabbit’s kerchief, and was glowing a faint reddish color. She winced despite herself; the sight of the crystalline teardrop reminded her once more that she still had a mission to complete.
– What are you waiting for? Just grab the little rabbit and get out of here! –
That was her reason for infiltrating the rebels, for being here, but…
– I still don’t understand why the master considers these…these children to be any threat to him… –
Her gaze traveled back to the gleaming crystalline pendant, and emerald eyes narrowed slightly.
– That’s why…if I could figure out how to disable that pendant so that it wouldn’t be a problem anymore, then I wouldn’t have to… –
"Something wrong, Mew?" Hare suddenly asked, snapping her out of her dark contemplation. "You look upset…"
"No-nothing’s wrong!" Mew replied, quickly. Hare didn’t look quite convinced, so she quickly changed the subject.
"So why did you come over here to play your music?" she inquired, pointing back in the direction of the campsite. "Why didn’t you stay over there with your friends? Wouldn’t it be safer?"
"I didn’t want to wake anyone else up…but apparently that didn’t do much good, did it?" Hare commented, tilting his head to one side and giving her a sly look.
"But aren’t you worried that you might run into…the ‘baddies’…while you’re all by yourself?" Mew heard herself ask, a little startled by the difficulty she had in using the term the rebels used to refer to their enemies.
"Nah…I mean, it’s not like I wandered all that far away from the others, and besides, I can take care of myself!" Hare laughed.
"Yeah…and that’s the problem," Mew muttered under her breath, so softly that the young rabbit did not overhear her, her emerald eyes still locked on the Phoenix’s Tear.
* * *
"…FINALLY I found you guys! GET UP!"
"Waaah!" Genki cried, clear eyes shooting open as he instinctively leapt to his feet and lashed out in the direction of the screaming. "Who are you? Who’s there?!"
"Hey!" a familiar voice shouted, as the speaker quickly evaded the frantic blow. "Watch it, Genki!"
"Alan? What are you doing here?"
The blue-gray-haired boy glared at him for a moment, sapphire eyes flashing with annoyance, then shook his head to calm himself. Before he could answer, however, another voice rang out behind him.
"Alan!" Coltia chirped, tackling him from behind and nearly crushing his ribs in a tight hug. "You came to visit us again! I’m so happy to see you!"
"I…didn’t…come to…visit," Alan gasped painfully, as Genki and the other searchers sweatdropped in unison with his pair of Worm monsters.
"Then why…oh! I get it! You’ve finally decided to join up with us! Right?"
"Well," Alan replied, finally freeing himself from Coltia’s grasp, "I suppose…but that’s not the entire reason that I came."
"Oh? Why did you come after us, Alan?" Holly inquired.
"I found out something about the enemy plans," came the terse reply.
"Oh, really? What?" Grey Wolf asked, giving the young man an interested look.
Alan glanced down at the silver-furred lupine, and his cobalt eyes went wide with shock.
"Yo-yo-you…?" he stammered, stumbling backward slightly, eyes locked on the puzzled Grey Wolf.
"Alan…? What’s wrong?" Holly asked, confused.
Suddenly, she gasped in horror as the young man yanked his sword from its sheath and pointed the blade directly at the startled silver wolf.
"You’re the one they sent?!" Alan demanded, voice shaking with horror and disbelief. "That’s so blatant!"
"What are you talking about?" Grey Wolf asked, blinking in surprise at the blade hovering inches away from his face, temporarily too startled to react in any other way.
Fortunately, the other searchers did not suffer from the same paralysis. Genki grabbed onto Alan’s hand, reacting instinctively to the unexpected threat to his friend.
"What are you doing?" he shouted at Alan, at the exact same moment that the blue-gray-haired boy demanded the exact same thing.
"Grey Wolf is one of the Big Bad Four, Genki! He’s been sent to kill you and capture Hare!" Alan exclaimed, glaring daggers at the stunned lupine.
"Grey Wolf is not a baddie anymore, Alan!" Genki shot back, enraged. "Moo was controlling him back then, and that was a long time ago! He’s helping us now!"
"Why would you think that Grey Wolf-san was going to kill us?" Serinity inquired, looking at Alan with confused verdant eyes.
"Look, I recently learned from an enemy I captured that their master has come up with a new plan to get rid of you guys," Alan explained, grimly. "Apparently, one of his generals is supposed to run into your team and end up joining you. Once they’ve gained your trust, they’re supposed to kill all of you, except for Hare…then they’re supposed to take him back to their master…"
Alan’s voice trailed off, and he stared at the shocked faces around him. It took a few seconds for him to register the fact that one of the familiar faces was notably absent, and a cold chill ran icy fingers down his spine.
"…Where’s Hare at?" he asked, his voice cracking a little.
For a moment, the young bladesman could have sworn that the cloaked scaled hare’s face turned a shade paler at his question. However, if this was actually the case, it was over in an instant, and Scaler’s flashing violet-brown eyes were burning with rage as he whirled around, drawing a pair of short throwing knives in a blur.
* * *
"What?" Hare called back, genuinely surprised by the sudden insistence in the elder rabbit’s tone. "What’s wrong, Scaler?"
He started back toward the campsite, failing to notice that Mew was not with him anymore. The feline monster stood frozen where she was, a bolt of cold panic raging through her small frame.
They knew. She was certain of that. Somehow, the scaled hare had figured out what her true intentions were…were supposed to be…what she was supposed to be doing here. She cursed silently; the scaled hare was one of the few members of the rebels that wasn’t a little kid, and he had probably picked up on her occasionally strange reactions. She hadn’t been careful enough…
Now what? The silent question tore through her, almost taunting. You hesitated to complete your mission, and now look at what’s happening…you’ve lost your chance…you’re a failure…
– A failure…just like what they always told you… –
– NO! –
No matter what happened, she would not become a failure. She refused to. She snapped out of her temporary paralysis and quickly glared in the direction of the campsite.
The little rabbit with the Phoenix’s Tear was still walking back to his friends; her confusion had lasted only for an instant. There was still time for her to salvage the mission. As she glared at her target’s back, already running after him, her cold jaden eyes began to glow with white-green light.
The low-powered blast took the unsuspecting Hare in the back of the neck, stunning him. Mew watched him crumple to the ground silently, stubbornly telling herself that the sight of his motionless body sprawled before her didn’t bother her in the slightest. It wasn’t even as if she had murdered him, after all: the master wanted him alive, so the beam was only strong enough to knock the young rabbit out for a while.
She heard a scream of outrage, and suddenly a silver streak flashed through the air toward her. As she dodged away, she glared in the direction of the campsite and saw the other rebels running toward her.
* * *
"Hare!" Scaler shouted as he darted around the corner just in time to see the younger bunny collapse.
Violet-brown eyes burning with outrage, he immediately launched one of his throwing knives at his assailant. Mew leapt away at once, and the green rabbit cursed under his breath: the traitor’s small size made her a difficult target to hit. All the same, he snapped back his arm and took careful aim at the feline, while drawing a short sword out of its sheath beneath his cloak.
"No!" Coltia shouted, grabbing his arm before he could launch the dagger. "Don’t!"
Scaler frowned, and without even bothering to glance back at the girl wrenched his arm away. Coltia flinched backward, sensing that the annoyed scaled hare was on the verge of striking her, yet she refused to back away.
"Scaler, don’t hurt her, please!" she begged, on the verge of tears.
"Why not?" he hissed through gritted teeth. "She’s an enemy spy and a traitor! Why should we care what happens to her?"
"B-but…" Coltia stared over at the feline monster, shivering despite herself as she glimpsed cold jaden eyes glaring back at her.
"Scaler’s right, Colt," Alan snapped, stepping in front of the girl and drawing his sword. "She’s one of the enemy generals, and the only reason she met up with you guys was to try and kill you. She’s not anyone you need to protect…"
"Yeah," Genki agreed hesitantly, bangs falling over his face and casting a shadow over his solemn, clear brown eyes. "We have to fight her…"
Holly sucked in a breath, bronze eyes shining with emotion as she saw the pained expression on the young boy’s face. He knew that they had been tricked now, how the feline monster had betrayed them, using their kindness against them, and his outrage showed clearly, blazing in his eyes like a fire. At the same time, however, that blaze was tempered by uncertainty, sorrow…Genki understood that Mew had betrayed them, but he had no idea why.
Still, there was no time for questions now.
"Mocchi, use your Cherry Blossom Blizzard!" Genki ordered, forcing himself to point at the feline monster.
"Chi!" Mocchi said, nodding briefly. Leaping up into the air, the small pink monster began to spin around, and a cloud of pink blossoms materialized around him.
"Cherry Blossom Blizzard, CHI!"
The pink petals swirled around Mew, sweeping into her face, and the feline monster cursed as she skidded backward. Shielding her narrowed jaden eyes with one arm, she glared up at the twirling Mocchi. At that moment, instinct took over, and she reacted to him as she would to any attacker…
"Mocchi!" Genki screamed, seeing the feline monster lunge for his partner.
Mocchi caught the barest glimpse of yellow fur and hard green eyes before a sharp pain blossomed across his chest. He opened his mouth to scream, but could not even find the breath as the feline monster’s claws ripped through him, staining his rosy skin with crimson streaks.
"MOCCHI!" Genki screamed as the young monster fell back to earth, landing with a dull thud on the rough, unforgiving ground.
Serinity shrieked, verdant eyes overflowing with tears, while the other rebels simply froze, too stunned to react at first. The pixie hybrid’s incoherent screaming had a strange effect on the cat doll monster; Mew blinked as if coming out of a trance, her emerald eyes regaining their normal hue as she snapped out of her bloodlust.
"Wh…what?" she murmured, staring in shock at the red fluid that covered the tips of her normally ivory-white claws.
Then she looked up to see Mocchi lying in front of her, a series of thin, jagged slashes marring his heaving chest and back. Comprehension dawned on her face, and she stared at the gravely injured young monster in horror.
– N-no! I…I didn’t want to hurt him! He’s only…a child… –
– A child, yes, but also one of the rebels… –
– Rebel or not, he’s still a mere youth…I…I have the blood of a child on my… –
A ragged shriek tore from Mew’s lungs, and she squeezed her eyes shut in a futile attempt to deny the image before her. Dimly, she heard running footsteps drawing closer to her; the rebels were coming toward her at full speed, wanting to help their friends…to punish her for what she had done…
– NO! –
Abruptly she remembered the enchantment on the medallion she wore. The master had placed a special spell on the symbols worn by his generals and most powerful soldiers: when invoked, it could teleport the rightful owner and anyone or anything they were touching back to a certain destination. She knew the main reason for this, and also knew that it was her only path out of this situation now.
Opening her eyes, Mew quickly grabbed hold of both the unconscious Hare and the wounded Mocchi. Genki shouted at her, as the other searchers cried out in varying tones of outrage, shock, and horror. Ignoring this, the feline monster looked directly at the youth, who was already racing toward her. Clear brown eyes locked with shimmering emerald panes, and she silently mouthed the words, "I’m sorry."
Then, she gave a mental command, and a sullen black radiance pulsed briefly around her and her two helpless companions. Genki shouted again, but it was too late; in a flash, all three were gone, and Genki skidded to a stop in the area where they had been moments before.
"Hare! Mocchi!" Serinity screamed, breaking down completely.
"Damnit!" Grey Wolf snarled, blue eyes flashing angrily as the lightning blast he had been charging faded out of existence.
Scaler grimaced, and threw a dark, smoldering glare in Coltia’s direction. The girl winced, knowing exactly what he was thinking; this wouldn’t have happened if YOU hadn’t gotten in the way!
"What do we do now?" Suezo asked glumly, looking at Holly in despair.
"Simple," Scaler hissed. "We find where Mew took them, and rescue them from the traitor."
He strode past the other rebels, leather cloak swirling in folds around him. From the solemn, dark expression on the scaled hare’s face, it was all too clear to the other rebels what he intended to do once they located the feline monster.
"Let’s go," Alan prompted, walking after the green rabbit, pausing long enough to look Holly straight in her wavering bronze eyes. "We may not have much time…"
"Yes…" Holly agreed, dully, returning the blue-gray haired boy’s gaze.
The rebels filed after the scaled hare, Genki for once not skating into the lead right away. Instead, the boy fell into place alongside Coltia, attempting to comfort the distraught girl. Holly and Grey Wolf were caught up in a similar task, as the young woman whispered soft reassurances to the sobbing, broken Serinity and the lupine monster rubbed his side against her legs, trying to calm the pixie hybrid. Suezo hopped alongside Holly, gaze locked on the ground, lost in his own dark thoughts, and Alan brought up the rear, walking between his pair of Worm monsters.
All of them were so caught up with their own doubts and worries that they failed to notice a pair of crimson eyes watching them from the shadows of the underbrush nearby. A cruel, knowing smile curled thin, pale blue reptilian lips.
"Well, well, well, this is interesting," Aqua Cutter mused, smirking. "It seems that our dear General Mew is having some difficulties with her duty…I’ll have to keep an eye on her…just in case…"
He grinned, fangs glinting briefly in the shadows, then with a pulse of sullen ice-blue light he was gone, leaving the area completely deserted.
Mew paced back and forth in her throne room, her tiny claws making sharp, short tacking noises on the smooth tiles of the floor. The sound went unnoticed by the small yellow feline, whose mind was currently focused on other, far more pressing matters.
Mew glanced down at the small object she clutched in both paws for what was not the first time since she had acquired it. The Phoenix’s Tear glittered faintly, reflecting her solemn emerald eyes in its crystalline depths, but that was all. No blazing, fiery aura, no constant crimson glow, just a prismatic reflection of the light that touched its smooth surface. Without a bearer able to use and wield its power, the pendant was simply another pretty crystal.
– As long as the little rab…Hare doesn’t get his paws on this again, then neither one poses a threat to my master. He’ll be just another powerless little monster child, and this will just be a useless trinket…nothing more… And no wielder of the Phoenix’s Tear means no rebel threat… –
"…And no possible chance of a rebel threat means that Genki and his friends will not be of any concern to the master anymore," Mew finished aloud, emerald eyes shimmering with emotion. "Surely he won’t bother with having them killed now…now when they don’t pose a threat…right?"
Or was it possible that she was being a traitor? The notion sincerely bothered the small feline monster; she had always been loyal to the master, long before he had ever chosen her as one of his new generals. Even when he had vanished, allegedly destroyed by some mystical guardian firebird or something, she had remained hopeful, knowing that he would return.
Praying that he would return and end the miserable existence she had known…
From the moment that she had been born, Mew had been treated unfairly. The man who was supposed to be her owner, the one who had unlocked her, refused to raise her. He had wanted a strong, powerful monster, not some weak little kitten that looked like a child’s plaything; she knew this because he had shouted this time and again as he stormed around, complaining and griping about his horrible luck.
She had tried to fulfill his request: training herself, always pushing her small body to its limits, putting herself through hell to become stronger, faster, smarter. She learned new attacks quickly; she had to, if she wanted to have a chance of impressing her so-called master. Looking back, she now accepted the truth that she had refused to acknowledge back then: nothing she did would ever cause him, or anyone like him, to change their opinion. He refused to even acknowledge her existence, save for when he thought she had done something wrong, or was simply upset over something. To him, she was and always would be a pathetic excuse for a monster.
That was why she followed the master: he saw her strength, and praised her for it. In his eyes, she was not weak, nor had ever been. It was the humans who were weak, the humans who had no real power at all. They were the useless ones, the pathetic creatures with no real use in this world. What was their reason for existence…?
She had heard of Moo back then, had heard of his rising to take over, and even then was secretly supporting him. If he could overthrow the cruel, prejudiced humans that ignored her and passed over her kind as weak and useless, then she loved him for it. The method did not matter to her: most of the humans she had met were so prejudiced and horrible that their destruction would be no great loss.
When the baddies had overrun her hometown, she had aided in the revolt, along with other monsters that were dissatisfied with their sorry lives of slavery and torment. Mew still remembered with complete clarity how she had executed her miserable excuse for an owner herself, using the Eyebeam attack she had learned long ago in her futile quest for his acceptance. The stark look of utter horror and dawning comprehension of the power she wielded – power that he had foolishly ignored – on the sorry human’s face as the bright jaden light tore into his body had given her an incredible rush of power.
She had been in Moo’s employ ever since, wearing her medallion proudly. It was a symbol of strength to her, an item of power that proved to the world that she was not just some weak little kitten that looked like a child’s plaything. She had worth, unlike the pitiful humans that wanted to pass her off as nothing.
Then, one horrible day, her medallion had suddenly vanished, dissolving without a trace. It all happened so quickly; one moment, she was training with some of the other soldiers, then a strange mist of sparkling light drifted over them. Startled, she tried to see its source, but that mystery was forgotten for the moment as the familiar weight of the symbol on her chest suddenly lightened. Looking down, she could only stare in horror as the medallion that marked her as one of Moo’s warriors melted away before her eyes, almost as if it had been tossed into a white-hot fire.
The others had all lost their medallions as well, and it didn’t take long for panic to set in. Some of the monsters immediately assumed that the disappearances could only mean one thing: Master Moo was dead. Somehow, somebody had managed to murder their seemingly all-powerful leader…
But she refused to believe that! It just couldn’t be true…Master Moo was the strongest monster in the world. He was going to lead all of them into a bright new future, one where bigoted humans no longer existed, and all monsters would be recognized for their own strengths, not dismissed as weak or useless simply because of their breeds…
Besides, Moo had come back to them. She wasn’t entirely certain what had occurred to cause all the medallions to vanish before, but she did not care. He had returned, and assigned her the honor of becoming one of his first new commanders. He had bestowed her with this fortress, this looming testament to her own power, the strength that those stupid humans denied she could possess…
…And there was something else that the fortress symbolized for her, a special meaning that she kept hidden from even her master and leader.
– Why? Why do I feel like I have to hide it? –
– Because surely it is a sign of your weakness. No matter how you try to deny it, you do have weaknesses, major ones… –
Hissing under her breath, the feline monster quickly shook her head. She was not weak, no matter what her allies might think if they knew her little secret. Surely what she was doing was just another side to her master’s plan…
But if that’s the case, she wondered silently, then why do I feel as if I shouldn’t tell him about it?
She couldn’t answer that question. Just as she couldn’t make herself understand why her master would want a bunch of kids and young monsters killed. With Grey Wolf and the scaled hare, at least she had been able to justify the possibility of murdering them because she knew both of them were strong. Plus, the silver-furred lupine was a traitor. But with the other ones…
Sighing, Mew glanced over in the direction of a huge window. She could see clearly a huge tower in the center of the fortress, one that rose above the other walls grandly. Emerald eyes shimmering with emotion, the feline monster silently shook her head, forcing herself to look away.
"Hare…Mocchi…forgive me," she whispered, a shadow veiling her solemn expression as she stared down at the sparkling crystal in her paws.
* * *
His chest hurt. That was the first thing that the young pink monster became aware of as he returned to consciousness. His stomach and chest felt horribly sore: it almost hurt to breathe, but it was a dull pain.
Groaning, Mocchi rolled over slightly, and his arm brushed over his chest. Big mistake: the brief contact caused the pain to sharpen abruptly, and he sucked in a gasp as his eyes shot open.
The scene before him was unfamiliar, and Mocchi sat up straight, alarmed. His sudden movement caused a thick blanket that had been draped over his shoulders to fall to the floor, and he looked down at it in astonishment. With a start, he realized that he had been lying in bed, but how had he gotten there?
Mocchi couldn’t remember. He also couldn’t recall where the thick bandages wrapped around his aching chest had come from, but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t grateful for them.
A troubled expression appeared on the young monster’s face: while he couldn’t remember where the bandages had come from, he knew all too well what had caused the wounds that they covered. His new friend…Mew…
No, she wasn’t a friend at all. She was an enemy, just like Alan had said. She was a baddie, and had tried to hurt him and his friends…
A soft moan informed him that he was not the only one in the room, and Mocchi looked up in alarm. Another small bed like the one he was sitting on was set up a few feet away from him, and lying on it…
"Hare-chi!" Mocchi shouted, and he ran over to the young rabbit’s side.
Hare moaned again, and his brown eyes fluttered open slowly. He glanced over in Mocchi’s direction, tiredly.
"Mocchi? Wha…what happened?" he inquired, struggling to sit up and failing. An alarmed look passed over his face suddenly, and he quickly grabbed at his bandanna.
"What’s wrong, chi?" Mocchi asked, seeing the bunny’s face go completely pale.
Hare looked up at him slowly, wavering brown eyes huge with alarm.
"I…I don’t have the Phoenix’s Tear on anymore," he replied slowly.
"I can’t believe I lost it!" Hare exclaimed, trembling as he gripped uselessly at his kerchief. "How could I…when could I have lost it?!?"
Mocchi stared at his friend, startled. Hare looked completely terrified, as though the loss of his pendant completely shattered his spirit. An idea occurred to the pink monster, one that didn’t help the situation any.
"Um…I think I know what happened, chi," he volunteered.
"Huh?" Hare looked up at him, near tears.
"Mocchi think that Mew took it, chi…"
"…Mew? …But why would…?"
"She’s a baddie!" Mocchi abruptly exclaimed, no longer able to keep in how he felt about what the feline monster had done. Tears sprang to the pink monster’s widened eyes as he cried, "Mew lied to us, chi! She only pretended to be nice so she could hurt us, chi!"
"What?!" Hare stared at Mocchi, shocked.
At the same moment, however, the logical part of his mind accepted what Mocchi had just told him as the truth. It made sense, now: he had wondered why the Phoenix’s Tear had glowed faintly whenever he was close to her, and when he had been knocked out…the attack had come from behind…
"…I should have known," he said dully, looking back down at the floor in despair. "I knew I sensed something from her, but…she didn’t feel…‘evil’ to me…just…like she was sad."
"Sad-chi?" Mocchi inquired, cocking his head to one side in confusion.
"Yeah…I kept getting the feeling…that she was always depressed about something…she always seemed…sad, even when she was laughing…" Hare trailed off, then shook his head and laughed hollowly, adding, "I should have guessed what was wrong with her: she was trying to trick us! And I let her get away with it…"
"It’s not your fault, chi!" Mocchi exclaimed, seeing the rabbit start to slip back into a deep depression. "Mocchi was fooled too! Mew fooled everyone, even Genki-chi!"
"But I should have figured out…" Hare replied, still not convinced.
Abruptly he froze, long ears twitching slightly, and his head snapped up with alarm as he tensed.
"What’s wrong, chi?" Mocchi asked.
"Shh! There’s somebody talking outside!" Hare whispered hastily under his breath, never taking his eyes away from the doorway.
"…Genki-chi?" Mocchi guessed nervously, although he could tell from the bunny’s expression that it wasn’t the clear-eyed youth he was listening to.
Hare shook his head, motioning for the younger monster to quiet down, then got to his feet and crossed the small room to the doorway, Mocchi trailing behind him. Carefully, he pushed the door open slightly, enough that both could know clearly hear the noise that the young rabbit had picked up on a few moments before. Neither of them recognized either of the voices.
Putting a finger to his lips to caution Mocchi to silence, Hare then slowly pushed the door open. Both young monsters peeked outside in unison, and the scene that greeted them startled both.
A pair of young monsters were standing in the corridor, engaged in a heated argument. Neither one appeared to be much older than the two startled rebels, and both were currently oblivious to their presence, completely absorbed in their conversation.
"I don’t understand why you have to keep whining about this," one commented, shaking her head in disgust. "Why can’t you just accept that this is the way things are?"
The one she was addressing just frowned, glaring at the monster before her with flashing scarlet eyes. Hare and Mocchi both recognized this one’s breeding instantly: they had been forced to fight the same type of monster many times during their original quest. The slightly slanted eyes, dark midnight fur fringed with white and gray highlights, and long, pointed ears were a dead giveaway. However, neither one had ever seen an Evil Hare that was this young before; all of the baddies they had battled were full adults, while this child looked to be around their own age.
"I just don’t understand it!" she complained loudly, still glaring at her opponent. "It isn’t fair at all!"
"Life isn’t fair," retorted the other, who turned away and stalked off before she could continue. "Deal with it."
Frowning petulantly, obviously not convinced, the black-furred bunny crossed her arms over her chest and let out an aggravated sigh. Adjusting the edge of her purple vest slightly, she paused as she caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of one garnet-stone eye.
"Hmmm?" she murmured, turning to find herself staring directly at a startled Hare and Mocchi.
"Oh, hi!" she said brightly, apparently dropping her anger entirely as she smiled at the pair. "When did you two get here? I haven’t seen you around before! My name’s Eboni; what’s yours?"
"…Uh…I’m Hare," replied the tawny-furred rabbit slowly, uncertain.
"Mocchi!" Mocchi said, pointing at himself.
"Hi, Hare, Mocchi," Eboni said, smiling as she reached out and shook each of their hands in turn. "Good to see a couple of new faces around here."
"Where is ‘here’, anyway?" Hare inquired.
"Huh? You mean you don’t know?" Eboni asked.
Hare studied the black-furred rabbit’s face for a moment; she appeared to be truly shocked that he didn’t already know. Slowly, he shook his head.
"That’s strange…" Eboni mused, blinking her scarlet eyes in confusion. Then she shrugged, saying, "Oh well, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. This is Mew’s shelter for young monsters that don’t have homes of their own."
"Mew?" Hare cried in surprise, at the same moment that Mocchi gasped, "Mew-chi?!?"
"Uh-huh," Eboni nodded, not noticing the shock on their faces. "Come on, I’ll show you around!"
"But…" was all Mocchi was able to get out before the black-furred rabbit grabbed his hand and started leading him down the corridor. Hare followed after them, brown eyes darkening with thought.
Within a matter of minutes they had walked down a flight of stairs and arrived in front of another doorway. Eboni glanced back at her two new companions and smiled, then pushed open the door for them.
The room behind it was a vast, looming chamber with a high ceiling and brightly colored tapestries covering the walls. However, that was not what caught the attention of the two youngest searchers; it was the fact that a huge crowd of monsters filled the room. All of them appeared to be fairly young: there was not a single adult monster in the area.
"Wow," Mocchi breathed, already wide eyes nearly doubling in size as he stared at the scene before him.
"Nice place, huh?" Eboni teased him playfully, winking at the pink monster as she smiled mischievously.
Hare studied the area quietly, brown eyes shimmering as they took in every detail they could gather. As far as he could see, none of the monsters wore a Moo symbol, although he noted that several of the children were wearing articles of clothing, like a vest, shirt or some such item. He could even see a few monsters who wore ribbons on their tails or in their fur.
He could see the need for such things, however: there were so many monsters of the same breed types in the room that it would be difficult to distinguish one from another quickly without some visual hint. Scanning the chamber, he could already pick out several other Evil Hares close to Eboni’s own age.
In fact, one of the other black-furred rabbits had already spotted them in the doorway, and waved at them, a bright smile on her face. This one quickly detached herself from a Weed that she was talking with and made her way over to them.
"Hey, Eboni," she greeted their companion with a grin. Indicating the two young rebels, she asked, "Are these two new here?"
"Yeah," Eboni replied, nodding back at her friend. "This is Hare," and she gestured in his direction, then pointed at the pink monster and continued, "and this is Mocchi."
"Hello, Hare, Mocchi," the other Evil Hare replied, and she curtsied briefly, the dark blue ribbon tied in the white fur at the top of her head bobbing with the movement. Her long ears twitched suddenly, flicking back in the direction from which she had come, and she glanced back over her shoulder in annoyance.
"I’ll be right back, will you hang on a minute?!?" she called back, scarlet eyes flashing for a moment. Turning back toward the trio, she smiled apologetically and explained, "Sorry, but Bud gets nervous if I run off on him like that. Nice to meet both of you; I hope you enjoy yourselves here! Bye!"
With that, she turned and ran back toward the Weed again, and Hare heard her begin to scold the purple plant at once about ‘not being very polite’.
"Eboni, who was that-chi?" Mocchi asked the black-furred rabbit beside him.
"Oh, that was Nightfall," replied Eboni, smiling as she watched the other Evil Hare upbraid the young Weed. "She acts tough, but she’s actually pretty nice once you get to know her. She has a soft spot for the younger monsters; that’s why she’s sticking by Bud right now. He’s a new arrival: Mew just brought him in…"
"Mew brought him in?" Hare exclaimed, quickly whirling to face the black rabbit.
"…Yeah, she did," Eboni said, looking at him in confusion. "Of course Mew was the one who brought him here; she’s always bringing in new monsters that she found. Wasn’t she the one who brought you two here?"
"…I…think so…" Hare replied cautiously, brown eyes darkening with thought as he glanced over at Mocchi.
The pink monster returned his gaze firmly, wide eyes shimmering with confusion. Absently, Mocchi rubbed his bandaged chest with one hand, and Eboni stared at him, noticing the white fabric for the first time.
"Oh man, I didn’t even see that you were hurt!" she exclaimed, garnet eyes wide with shock. "When did that happen?"
"When M–" was all Mocchi got out before Hare clamped his paw over the younger searcher’s mouth. Mocchi glanced up at him in surprise, eyes wide, and the tawny-furred bunny shook his head slightly. After a few seconds, full comprehension dawned on the pink monster’s face, and Hare, seeing that he understood, removed his hand again.
"What was that all about?" Eboni inquired, completely confused.
"Uh…" Hare rubbed the back of his head, smiling nervously.
"Eboni! Wasting time boring some newcomers with your foolish stories?" an imperious female voice called out suddenly.
"Oh no," Eboni moaned, rolling her eyes before turning to face the speaker.
Hare and Mocchi turned as well, and found themselves facing a pixie hybrid with dark lavender skin. The two youngest searchers immediately recognized her as the one they had overheard and seen the black-furred rabbit arguing with earlier. Despite himself, Hare sucked in a gasp: the pixie hybrid was half naga, as evidenced by her skin coloring, and that knowledge put the tan bunny on edge for a moment.
"Ali, just stay out of it!" Eboni was telling the half-pixie, half-naga irritably, her scarlet eyes flashing with anger and annoyance.
"Just who are these two unfortunates that you’ve chosen to have to listen to your complaining, hmm?" the pixie hybrid demanded, ignoring Eboni completely as she stared intently at the two young rebels. Both recoiled a little, unnerved by her deep blue eyes, so dark that they almost looked black.
"A couple of new friends," Eboni said defensively, stepping in front of them and glaring back at the pixie hybrid. "They’re new around here, and I was just showing them around. Does that bother you for some reason?"
"Humph," sniffed the half-pixie, as she turned away and stalked past them into the room. However, she paused for a moment and glanced back over her shoulder at the stunned Hare and Mocchi.
"Do yourselves a favor and keep away from that dimwitted bunny," she hissed, dark blue eyes flashing. "She’s nothing but trouble for everyone in this tower, what with her stupid stories and fantasies. That one always has her head in the clouds, so she can’t see how pointless all her hoping and dreaming is…"
With that, she turned and stomped away, leaving the two young searchers behind with a fuming Eboni. The black rabbit pulled on her eyelid and stuck her tongue out at the violet-skinned pixie’s back, then whirled away with a huff.
"What was that all about?" Hare asked.
"I’ll tell you in a little bit. Let’s just get out of here, in case she decides to come back and bug me even more," Eboni replied, stomping up the stairs.
Hare and Mocchi exchanged a puzzled look, then followed after her. As they walked up the winding steps, Hare took advantage of the long walk to study his surroundings, and to think about what Eboni had told them earlier.
From what he had seen, this did appear to be some sort of shelter for young monsters, just as Eboni had said. However, the fact that it was apparently being overseen and run by Mew bothered him a little. According to what Mocchi had told him, Mew was actually a baddie, an enemy who was working for the same master as Aqua Cutter…probably Moo himself, with their luck. Why would a baddie be taking care of so many young monsters…?
His first thought was that this was some sort of training camp, that the young monsters here were being taught how to fight so they could join Moo’s army. But he dismissed this idea at almost the exact same time that he thought of it: none of the children looked like they were being forced to fight, in fact, most of them had appeared to be perfectly happy and content. Plus, he simply didn’t get the same feeling from any of them that he got from an enemy.
However, he couldn’t stop thinking about the argument that he and Mocchi had overheard earlier. Eboni had been complaining about something she found unfair…and that half-pixie, half-naga had told her to deal with it, that nothing was ever going to change…
…That pixie hybrid… there was something strange about her. It wasn’t the fact that she possessed a Naga’s blood, although he had to admit silently to himself that particular detail had helped to set him on edge while she was nearby. There was something… wrong… about her… he couldn’t quite place it…
He shuddered as he recalled how she had glared at him with those dark, haunting blue eyes, then turned her back coldly on all of them as she advised him not to hang around with Eboni. She had looked so stern, unfeeling…yet at the same moment, he thought he had seen a brief glimmer of…what? Sorrow…? Despair…? He had the feeling that she had been deeply scarred by something, yet what that was he couldn’t…
…Wait. When she had turned her back on them… hadn’t there been something missing…?
Hare sucked in a gasp as realization suddenly dawned on him, and both Mocchi and Eboni glanced back at him.
"What’s wrong, chi?" Mocchi inquired.
Hare did not answer him directly; instead, he looked directly at Eboni. She locked gazes with him, saw his wide brown eyes shimmering with fear and comprehension, and her scarlet eyes darkened slightly with concern.
"…Th…that pixie you were fighting with," he breathed, horrified. "…Her…wings…"
Eboni frowned, understanding coming over her features, and she turned away slightly.
"So you noticed," she said sadly, garnet eyes shimmering with remembered sorrow.
"What happened to them, chi?" Mocchi asked, looking up at both of the young rabbits in confusion.
Eboni sighed, then turned away and rested one paw on the wall before her: they were at the top of the stairs, and a doorway stood a few feet away from them. An awkward silence fell over the three, as the black-furred bunny stood there with her head bowed.
"…What happened to her?" Hare asked, more gently.
"…I’m sure that you also noticed that Ali is a half-breed, right?" she asked after a few moments.
"Yeah, a half-pixie, half-naga," Hare replied instantly, blinking. "…Why?"
"…Well, that breed is known as an Allure," Eboni said, red eyes partially veiled by her bangs. "…Do you know what some humans say about Allures?"
Hare and Mocchi both shook their heads no, and the black rabbit winced as she told them, "Some humans say that Allures suck the life force out of men."
The two young searchers gasped, startled, and Eboni nodded grimly. She had lost her earlier spunkiness, and her garnet eyes shone with a deep sorrow as she looked back toward the wall again, still resting her paw against its smooth surface.
"I know, it’s a pretty nasty myth, isn’t it? Because of that silly rumor, a lot of humans fear the Allure breed, especially where Ali came from… When…when she was unlocked, they… panicked. They saw her as a demon, a witch, and they…they…" Eboni’s paws clenched into fists, and she closed her eyes as she forced herself to spit out, "They tore her wings off! They just ripped them right off of her body! She…she’d only been unlocked for a little while…and they…"
Hot tears rolled down the young Evil Hare’s cheeks, and she quickly turned her face away from her two mew friends so they couldn’t see her crying. Hare and Mocchi both stared at her in shock, wide eyes shimmering with horror.
"…Fortunately, Ali managed to escape from them," she continued after taking a few moments to calm herself down. The edge of her mouth quirked briefly as she added, "Obviously. She got away from the village, and survived all by herself for a long time, until Mew found her and brought her here. That’s why she’s…so testy sometimes… She doesn’t agree with me at all…"
"…About what, chi?" Mocchi asked.
Eboni did not reply; instead, she turned away and walked over to the doorway. Opening it, she walked through. The two young rebels glanced at one another and followed her, and found themselves standing on a high balcony. Eboni was standing at the edge, arms resting against the stone railing, head slightly raised so that the wind ruffled her bangs, brushing them away from her scarlet eyes.
"It’s a nice view, isn’t it?" she commented, turning back toward the pair of searchers.
"Yeah, chi!" Mocchi agreed, eyes shining as he stared out at the surrounding landscape in awe.
Eboni smiled, but her eyes shone with a hint of sadness.
"Good. I’m glad," she said, "because this is all we ever get to see of the world."
"What?!" Hare exclaimed, whirling to stare at her with wide brown eyes.
"…Mew…doesn’t let any of us travel outside," Eboni replied, shaking her head sadly, eyes becoming distant as her gaze traveled over the surrounding landscape. "She’s always telling us that it’s far too dangerous… that we’ll be singled out and hurt, even killed, just because we belong to breeds most humans are afraid of. I mean, you must have noticed that most of the kids here are…from breeds like that…"
Mocchi had a blank expression on his face, but Hare nodded slowly, remembering how he had scanned the room earlier. There had been a lot of young monsters from the same breeds as the baddies they had fought in the past: Black Saurians and Dinos, Weeds, Terror Dogs, Cabalos, and…Evil Hares…
"…Mew says that the biases against certain monster types have only gotten worse over time," Eboni was saying, still gazing out toward the horizon. "Apparently, there was this really evil monster named Moo at one time, and he recruited a lot of monsters to help him take over the world or something… wipe out all humans… something like that. Anyway, because of that, there are some groups of humans now who are terrified of monsters that belong to the same breeding as the more common of his soldiers. Some people are just scared and try to avoid them, but others…"
"………" Hare winced inwardly, sensing what was coming next.
"I don’t understand why some people have to be so afraid of us!" Eboni spat, paws suddenly balling into shaking fists at her side, and she struck the railing before her angrily. "Why is it that the actions of some individuals have to have such a terrible effect on others? Just because I happen to look like this, that means I have to be feared, be a bad guy? …I mean, who came up with the stupid idea of calling monsters like me ‘Evil Hares’, anyway?!? It isn’t fair at all!"
Hare just nodded agreement, sighing silently. She was right; it really wasn’t fair that the breed was stuck with a name like that. Who had come up with those names, anyway…?
"…Well, I refuse to hide," Eboni continued, her voice now carrying a dangerous edge as she whirled to face her two companions. "I don’t care if some people choose to fear or hate me just because I look a certain way. This is me, this is who I am, and if they don’t like it, fine! It’s their problem, not mine! Why should I have to live my life in seclusion just because I belong to a certain breeding?"
She looked at her two friends: while Hare appeared to understand what she was saying, Mocchi appeared to be completely lost.
"But…why can’t you just leave, chi?"
"…Like I said, Mew won’t let us," Eboni sighed, grimacing with frustration. "I’ve tried talking to her, but she just refuses to listen to me. She insists that we’d be in danger if we go out into the world, ‘cause some people would just assume we were baddies…that stupid Moo’s been ruining it for everyone… You wanna know a secret?"
"What-chi?" Mocchi asked, blinking.
"If I ever find a way to get out of here…the first thing I wanna do is find Moo and beat him up," Eboni confided, a lopsided grin on her face.
"WHA-AAA-AATTT?!?" Hare and Mocchi exclaimed together, staring at the young Evil Hare in shock.
"Yeah! After all, isn’t that guy supposed to be the one responsible for people being afraid of monsters like my friends and me anyway? So he should be punished, right?"
"Y-yeah…but," Hare protested weakly, a huge sweatdrop on the back of his head.
"We fought Moo already, chi!" Mocchi blurted.
"What?!?" Eboni shouted, whirling around to stare at the pair with widened garnet eyes. Hare and Mocchi sweatdropped in unison.
"Eboni…listen, Mocchi and I are part of a rebel group, called the ‘Searchers’," Hare said slowly, watching the black rabbit carefully for her reaction. "We’ve fought against Moo before; in fact, we even managed to defeat him once. But now he’s come back somehow, and we’ve been trying to find our friends so we can beat him again…"
"…You’re telling the truth, aren’t you?" Eboni said, more of a statement than a question. When Hare and Mocchi both nodded, she stared at them with wide garnet eyes, her expression a mixture between shock and excitement. After a moment, she asked, "But then, why are you here…?"
"We…were recently attacked by one of the baddies," Hare replied, hesitantly, unconsciously gripping his kerchief. "They…they tricked us and stole something very important from me, and hurt Mocchi…"
Suddenly Hare stiffened, his brown eyes narrowing slightly as he spotted something moving far below them. Walking to the edge of the balcony, he leaned forward for a closer look, wondering what… then his eyes widened with shock, and he gasped.
"Mocchi! Quick, come over here!" he whispered, motioning for the younger monster to come stand beside him. Mocchi walked up, confused, and Hare pointed in the direction that he was staring, saying, "Look!"
Mocchi followed his gaze, and the pink monster’s eyes widened in surprise and delight.
"It’s Genki-chi!" he exclaimed, ecstatic. "Genki-chi and the others!"
"Genki-chi?" Eboni inquired, walking up behind the pair. "Who’s that?"
"He’s a friend of ours," Hare replied, pointing at the small group far below them. "See that group down there? Those are our friends, the ‘Searchers’…"
"Oh!’ Eboni exclaimed, rushing to the edge of the balcony and staring down at the group in surprise. "Are they here to get you two? But how did they know you were here…?"
"…Oh no," Hare suddenly whispered, his face going completely pale.
Whirling away from the railing, the tawny-furred rabbit dashed back through the doorway and started down the stairs. Taken completely off guard, Eboni and Mocchi blinked in surprise, then the young Evil Hare grabbed the pink monster’s arm and took off after the other bunny.
"Hare! What’s wrong?" she shouted as she caught up with him.
"No time to explain right now!" Hare shot back, still running down the steps at top speed. "Eboni, where’s the way out of here?"
"Eh? …The door Mew uses to get in is at the bottom of the tower, but there’s no way to open it from this side…"
"I think I know a way," Hare replied, ignoring Eboni’s startled reaction to that comment. "Look, Eboni, we have to get out of here and talk to our friends before they make a huge mistake…"
* * *
Genki gritted his teeth together in anger as he pushed on the heavy stone doors before him, sweat beginning to trickle down his face from the effort. The other rebels were attempting to force open the huge doors as well, and between all of them were managing to make some progress, however slow.
"I…really…wish…Golem…was…here," Suezo grunted, pressing against the hard stone doors with all of his might.
Serinity’s verdant eyes shimmered faintly, and she glanced away as she whispered softly, "So do I…"
Holly winced at the sound of the pixie hybrid’s faint whisper: the situation was bad enough as it was without Suezo reminding everyone of the fact that other friends of theirs were missing.
The doors creaked open as Genki flung his shoulder against it once more, causing the young boy to stumble forward with a yelp. The other rebels sweatdropped at the sight of their leader sprawled out on the floor before them, and Alan rolled his eyes as he strode past him.
"Hurry up, Genki," he called over his shoulder, as Scaler and the two Worms followed him into the fortress. "We can’t spend all of our time lying around…"
"Oh yeah?" Genki fumed, leaping to his feet.
"Genki, please, let’s just find Mocchi and Hare and get out of here," Serinity pleaded, gently placing one hand on the boy’s shoulder. Glancing back at her, Genki saw the troubled expression on her face, and nodded agreement.
* * *
Why did they have to come here? Mew thought sadly, watching the small group of rebels from the relative safety of the shadows. They had invaded her fortress, yet she hadn’t bothered to call any guards. In fact, except for herself, there were no baddies anywhere in her castle: after her encounter with the rebels earlier, she had dismissed all of her warriors until further notice, a move which surprised her forces almost as much as it had her.
She didn’t understand anything she was doing anymore. Her temporary invasion of the rebel team had… caused her to change, somehow. She no longer felt the same way about her master’s goals as she once did.
– Master…why do you believe that these rebels must be destroyed, when they are merely…children… –
As if in response to her silent query, the medallion at her neck began to pulse with an eerie sullen black radiance. The feline monster winced; there was a dull pain at her chest, and she absently reached up to adjust her Moo symbol.
The moment her paw touched its smooth surface, raw energy surged into her small frame, and the cat doll monster let out an agonized shriek. Dark-tinted, blackish-blue electricity coursed around her body, piercing through her skin, and she could only screech in pain as she toppled to the ground.
Dimly, she heard Serinity and Coltia shouting her name, and opened dimming emerald eyes to glimpse the rebels racing toward her fallen body. Some of them appeared to be on the verge of killing her; she saw steel glimmering in the scaled hare’s paws, and a blue-gray-haired boy she had seen only briefly before her escape had a short sword in his hands, and was giving orders to a pair of hulking Worm monsters. Others, like the pixie hybrid, looked as if they didn’t quite know how to react to her presence…
A ragged screech was wrenched from her tortured lungs again as another surge of black energy tore through her veins, and Mew felt herself move to stand without controlling it. She felt an odd sense of detachment from her own body, as if she was merely a bystander watching a puppet being manipulated by somebody else…
"Mew?" Genki was calling; the young rebel leader was watching her uncertainly, arms raised slightly in a sort of half-ready fighting stance.
He wasn’t certain whether or not he should fight her. Foolish human boy: they were enemies, no matter what… no matter how she felt, she knew with a sudden calm certainty that she was supposed to fight these rebel warriors now, and win. Her master commanded it, and she always obeyed the master…
With a snarl that sounded nothing like the feline monster’s normal battle hiss, she leapt forward to meet her opponents, foggy jaden eyes flashing with malice…
* * *
"Whoa! What was that?!" Eboni exclaimed, her long ears quivering as a horrible snarl echoed around them.
Mocchi and Hare heard the scream as well, and the tawny-furred bunny paled visibly while the pink monster froze out of shock. Then a howl sounded to answer the cry and both searchers gasped.
"That’s Grey Wolf!" Hare shouted, and Eboni looked at him in confusion. Before she could ask whom he was talking about, he had whirled around and was bolting down the stairs again, saying, "We have to hurry, you guys! Come on!"
Mocchi and Eboni ran after him, only to find themselves stopping again after a few more minutes: they had come to the bottom of the tower, and a huge stone door blocked the entryway.
"Mew’s way of making certain we don’t stray away without her permission," Eboni commented, a somewhat crooked smile on her face as she looked at her two companions. "Okay, what now?"
"Okay…Mocchi, do you think that you could…" Hare’s voice got softer as he quickly whispered something to the younger searcher, and Eboni watched them in interest, wondering what they were planning.
"Right, chi!" Mocchi said after a moment, nodding at his friend.
Hare nodded back, then took Eboni’s arm and guided her away from the doorway.
"Sorry, but you’d better stand back," he instructed her.
Confused, Eboni stared at Mocchi: the younger monster’s eyes were screwed tightly shut in concentration, and she gasped as a pale, rosy aura flickered into existence around his body. Glancing quickly over at Hare, she could see that the tawny-furred bunny was completely calm: obviously he had been expecting this to happen, unlike her… she looked back to see that the pink light had grown brighter, and she involuntarily took a few steps backward.
Pure, pinkish-white tinted energy surged out of Mocchi’s gaping mouth and crashed directly into the thick stone doorway, and both Hare and Eboni shielded their eyes from the intense glow. After a few moments, the two young rabbits uncovered their faces and looked up to see a smoldering hole where the doorway had been.
"I…think you overdid it, Mocchi," Hare commented, sweatdropping slightly. He had meant for the younger monster to simply knock the door down with the blast, not blow it up, but whatever worked… besides, he didn’t have the Phoenix’s Tear with him, so he couldn’t have simply done the job himself.
"…Whoa…" Eboni breathed, staring at what remained of the doorway in shock, garnet eyes wide.
"…Um…sorry about the door…"
"Heh, don’t worry about it," Eboni replied, already starting to climb through the new opening. "Let’s just hurry up and find your friends! I can’t wait to meet them!"
"But Eboni," Hare cried, running after her, "it sounds like they’re fighting, and…"
"Even better! I wanna help fight bad guys too, you know!"
Too late: the young Evil Hare was already dashing across the courtyard, directly toward the sounds of battle. Hare sighed and went after her, Mocchi directly behind him.
* * *
Mew grimaced with pain as the ice-blue bullet crashed into her crossed arms, and narrowed her emotionless jaden eyes at her attacker. The silver-furred lupine – the traitor – was charging up another attack, electricity crackling around his horns. Snarling, she lunged at him, and managed to nick his leg with her claws before he could leap away. However, before she could press her advantage, a blade flashed past her face, forcing her to back off for the moment.
"Grey Wolf, are you okay?" Holly shouted, darting over to the lupine monster’s side while Scaler continued to distract Mew with his throwing knives.
"I’m fine," Grey Wolf lied through gritted teeth, forcing himself to stand. His leg throbbed slightly, yet he knew he had been lucky: the gashes were long, stretching up to his flank, but mercifully shallow enough to not cripple him for the moment. He could still fight on, although common sense dictated that he would need to retreat soon so that Serinity could heal him.
"Mew, please stop this! We’re your friends, remember?" Coltia pleaded, caramel eyes shimmering as she watched the battle raging before her, struggling to deny what was happening.
"Look out!" Genki warned, and flung his shoulder into the girl’s side, knocking them both down in time to avoid the blast of white-hot energy that seared through the space where Coltia had been standing mere seconds before.
"Colt, you have to get it through your head that she’s our enemy!" he berated her, even as he helped the girl get to her feet. "Mew tricked us, Colt! She lied to us, made us think that she was our friend just so she could kidnap Hare and Mocchi…"
"You don’t really believe that, do you, Genki?" Coltia asked, staring directly into the boy’s face, locking eyes with him. The boy recoiled slightly, then quickly glanced away, but not before she noticed a glimmer of doubt in clear brown eyes. "Genki…"
"Hey, have you noticed what that cat’s carrying with her, anyway?" Alan asked, falling back to stand in front of the pair with his sword at the ready. Both stared at him, and his sapphire eyes narrowed slightly as he continued, "She’s got the Phoenix’s Tear with her… who knows what that means for Hare and Mocchi…"
"…If she hurt them," Genki replied, forcing himself to stand and glare at the feline monster, "then she’ll pay."
With that, Genki flung himself directly at Mew, bringing his fist back to strike her, Alan directly beside him.
* * *
"Wha-what’s happening?" Eboni cried, stopping dead in her tracks as she gaped at the horrific scene before her. She had expected to come across a battle, but this… why were these humans and monsters attacking Mew? Weren’t they the ‘Searchers’ that Mocchi and Hare had talked about earlier…their friends? They were supposed to be fighting the baddies… but then why were…?
"Oh no," Hare moaned as he and Mocchi stopped short behind her. "We’re too late…"
"What do you mean? Why are they…"
Eboni abruptly gasped, her scarlet eyes widening as she glimpsed the expression on Mew’s face. Even from a distance, she could clearly see the pure hatred and malice etched on the feline monster’s face, the cruel, soulless glitter of her jaden eyes… it was a face completely different from the one she associated with her caretaker and protector, and yet, in the same instant, she knew with a terrible certainty that this was the same monster…
"Mew, stop!" she shouted, and suddenly she was running again, directly toward the battlefield, despite her two new friends shouting at her to stop…
* * *
Scaler heard an unfamiliar voice screaming, and turned to see a black-furred figure racing toward them. Violet-brown eyes gleamed with anger as he recognized the breeding at once, and immediately he whirled around to face the Evil Hare, paws blurring as he launched a stiletto directly at the newcomer.
The Evil Hare jerked to a stop as it glimpsed the small blade flashing toward it, and froze out of shock and fear, not even moving to dodge away… Suddenly Scaler’s eyes widened as a tan blur crashed directly into his supposed enemy’s back, knocking it out of the way. The blade missed both by a fair distance, but the green rabbit failed to notice this, his attention now completely focused on the scene before him…
* * *
"Are you alright, Eboni?" Hare inquired, helping the black rabbit to her feet.
"Whew, yeah, I’m okay, thanks," she replied, some of her shock at being attacked fading after a few moments. Glancing back in the direction of the battle, she wondered, "But why did they attack me…?"
"Scaler, it’s okay, she’s a friend!" Hare was shouting at the cloaked rabbit who had attacked her, temporarily ignoring her question.
Mocchi ran up behind them, and the youngest searcher screamed at the top of his lungs, "STOP FIGHTING-CHI!"
That got everyone’s attention, as even Mew temporarily halted her attacking long enough to glance in the direction of the shouting. The feline monster’s eyes widened slightly, regaining some of their normal light as they fixed upon the young Evil Hare in shock.
"Eboni…what…" Mew whispered faintly.
"Mocchi, Hare, are you both alright?!?" Genki shouted, running up to his friends.
Scaler, however, reached them first, and nearly yanked Hare’s arm out of its socket as he pulled the tawny-furred bunny away from Eboni.
"Scaler, it’s okay, she’s a friend!" Hare insisted, pulling away. At the others’ confused expressions, he sighed, wondering where he should start explaining.
"Eboni’s our new friend, chi," Mocchi told them, smiling as he squeezed the young Evil Hare’s paw.
The group turned to see Mew standing a few feet away from them, verdant eyes locked on the young Evil Hare. Scaler, Grey Wolf, Alan and Genki tensed instantly, although none of them moved to attack, instead watching the cat doll like a hawk. All could clearly see the emotions warring for control of the feline’s expression: torn between murderous, soulless rage and a terrible, deep sorrow. At her chest, the symbol of Moo seemed to pulse with black energy.
"…Mew…what’s happened to you?" Eboni asked softly, scarlet eyes wavering as she stared at her protector and friend. "Why…why are you attacking these people?"
"They are my master’s enemies. All those who oppose Moo must die," the feline monster replied in a flat, emotionless tone.
"Moo?!? …Isn’t Moo the one responsible for humans being afraid of monsters like my friends and me?!?"
"…Friends?" Genki wondered under his breath, only to have Holly shush him.
"Mew, why would you support Moo? He’s evil, nothing like you at all!"
"Moo will lead the monsters into a new era, one without biased humans and monsters," replied the feline monster dully. "There will no longer be any unfair judgements made by anyone based on a monster’s breeding…"
"Mew, it’s because of Moo that those stupid feelings exist!" Eboni insisted, tears springing to her eyes.
Mew’s eyes widened slightly with shock, shimmering faintly for a moment as the dark aura around her body weakened. Then, she violently shook her head in denial, baring her claws as she hissed, "No, you’re wrong! It was the humans who saw me as weak, long before Moo appeared!"
"Why does that matter so much?" Serinity piped up softly, verdant eyes filling with sympathy as she stared at the feline monster.
"Mew, you taught everyone…you’ve always told us that it didn’t matter what anyone else thinks of us, as long as we believe in ourselves," Eboni said, scarlet eyes shimmering as she continued to gaze deeply into her guardian’s own emerald irises. "You’ve always said that our own opinion of ourselves is all that matters. …What makes it any different for you?"
"I…" Mew’s eyes softened as she stared back at the black rabbit, no longer carrying the same deep hatred that they had been filled with during the battle. At her chest, the symbol of Moo pulsed with black light one more time before darkening.
"…Mew, I don’t understand why you feel that you have to support Moo," Eboni told her. "But… no matter what you do… I want you to know that I think you’re strong, everyone in the tower does. You don’t need Moo around to prove that… we’ve known it… all along…"
"…Eboni…what…have I done?" Mew whispered, emerald eyes shimmering with tears as she took a few steps away from the group before her.
Before anyone could answer her, an all too familiar voice boomed out of the shadows, echoing around them.
"You’ve betrayed the master, you traitorous cat!"
A blast of pale blue light exploded directly in the center of the group, and everyone screamed as they were flung in different directions. As Genki flew backward across the courtyard, he was dimly aware of Hare crying out from somewhere nearby, the sound of his voice suddenly cut off as if silenced in mid-shout. Mocchi shouted as well, but the youth couldn’t see where anybody was: the ice-blue radiance was too bright.
By the time the light had died away, the young boy had slammed directly into a wall, and lay sprawled beneath it in a daze, vision blurring badly. Shaking his head to clear it, he groggily raised his head in time to catch sight of a nightmare: Aqua Cutter stood in the center of the courtyard, laughing at the scattered rebels. A tan-furred figure hung limply over the reptilian’s shoulder, and a pink-and-green body lay at his feet.
"Mew, you poor fool," Aqua Cutter taunted, crimson eyes glinting as he mocked the feline monster. "You had the little rabbit right in your grasp, and you failed to take full advantage of it. The master will be very displeased to hear of your disobedience… however, he will be pleased when I present him with our target…minus his main defense, of course…"
"Aqua Cutter! Let go of them!" Mew shouted, struggling to her feet.
"I think not, kitty cat. The master wants to meet this one, and as for his friend… well, one less rebel to worry about…"
"St…stop," Genki gasped, leaning heavily against the wall as he got to his feet.
The naga hybrid’s only response was to laugh, and with a flash Aqua Cutter vanished with his two captives, just as Eboni leapt at his back. The black-furred rabbit passed through the spot where moments before the reptilian had been standing and barely managed to land on her feet.
"Hare! Mocchi!" she screamed, terrified. "Where did they go?!?"
"That’s a very good question," Alan hissed, picking up his sword. Pointing it directly at the feline monster, the boy’s sapphire eyes flashed as he demanded, "Where did he take them, Mew?"
"Alan, don’t threaten her," Coltia pleaded, caramel eyes wavering as she stumbled up behind the blur-gray-haired boy.
"Why not? This whole thing could have been set up!" Alan insisted.
"That’s stupid!" Coltia insisted, near tears again. "There’s no way they could have set this up!"
"Alan is correct, Coltia," Scaler informed her, also pointing his sword’s blade at the feline monster’s neck. "For all we know, she may have been pretending to listen to this one’s words in order to distract us."
"Scaler!" Genki shouted, upset by the green rabbit’s stubbornness.
"He’s correct you know. You have no way of knowing whether or not I was attempting to deceive you," Mew abruptly spoke up, calm despite the blades aimed toward her chest.
"Miss Mew!" Serinity exclaimed, shocked.
"However, you also have to understand that right now, I’m the only one who can help you save them," the feline monster continued, gazing at the searchers with her deep emerald eyes. "As a general of the master’s forces, I know where Aqua Cutter has taken them. I can take you there as well, but only if you allow me to…"
Mew stared directly at Genki as she said this, knowing that he was in a sense the leader of the rebels. He gazed back at her, clear brown eyes shimmering with emotion, his expression unreadable save for his determination. After a moment, he sighed, closed his eyes and nodded.
"All right. We’ll trust you to lead us to them," he decided.
"Genki!" Alan exclaimed, shocked.
"I knew that you would choose that," Mew said, nodding slightly. Turning away, she motioned for them to follow, saying, "Follow me. We’ll need to use a couple of my Iron Birds to get there. I trust that at least one of you knows how to operate one…?"
"Mew, I’m coming too," Eboni piped up, running up beside the feline monster.
Mew paused and turned around, staring directly at the young Evil Hare. Deep emerald eyes met and locked with shimmering garnet orbs, and the feline monster froze as she saw the determination that filled the bunny’s eyes. She had always known Eboni to be strong-willed, but this… she abruptly realized that she had underestimated the youngster, perhaps had been for a long time. Slowly, she nodded consent, and continued to watch as Eboni walked past her without another word.
– Eboni…please forgive me for my deception… I am still… weak…–