"So where are we headed?" Genki asked, gazing out of the glass pane before him at the surrounding landscape, so far below the craft they rode on.
"It’s a base that the master set up some time ago, a fortress that is cut off from the surrounding area by the mountains," Mew replied, never taking her gaze away from the controls as she piloted the Iron Bird forward. "A perfect location, and why we have to use the Iron Birds to access it."
"But why did we have to use two? Why not just one?" Genki inquired, glancing over at the yellow-furred feline.
"…Mew?" the youth inquired, turning to face his companion.
Silence was his only answer, as the cat doll continued to focus on the job before her, that of guiding the airship to its destination. Sighing, Genki glanced back over his shoulder, toward another huge window in the side of the Iron Bird. Unlike the one he and his friends had used once, long ago during their first quest together, this Iron Bird was built more like an airliner from his world. The huge, bulky craft glided through the air on huge wings that extended from either side, engines roaring as they pushed it forward.
Through the window, he could clearly see another Iron Bird of the same make and shape soaring through the clear skies behind them. Holly was in that ship, he knew, along with Alan and his Worms, plus Coltia, Scaler and Suezo. A faint smile appeared on Genki’s lips as he recalled how the eyeball monster had complained bitterly about being stuck in the same craft as the green rabbit, but at the same time, he knew that Suezo refused to leave Holly’s side. As he had put it before, "It’s my duty to protect Holly! I’ll even put up with that stupid jerk Scaler to stay with her!"
Genki hadn’t overheard exactly what the scaled hare’s muttered reply to that declaration was, but judging from the way Suezo’s face had burned bright red for a moment, it had been pretty unflattering. The youth was secretly glad that he didn’t have to be stuck in the same area as them this time, although at the same time he felt sorry for everyone else.
Not all of the other rebels were on the other Iron Bird, however. Grey Wolf and Serinity had both opted to stay with him, and both were currently gazing out of the window at the landscape below them. Serinity looked completely awestruck by the fact that they were flying through the air without her using her wings, the silver-furred lupine was considerably calmer about the situation. Had he known about Iron Birds, back when he was one of Moo’s generals…? Genki quickly shook his head, stubbornly reminding himself that it didn’t really matter why he was so calm…
His gaze traveled to another figure standing in front of the windows, and Genki’s clear brown eyes shone with concern as they rested upon the newest addition to their group. The black-furred bunny was staring out of the window, garnet-stone eyes shimmering, pulling her purple vest tightly around her as if cold. She’d more or less forced her way into the team after Aqua Cutter had kidnapped Mocchi and Hare, stubbornly refusing to stay behind. The young Evil Hare insisted on coming along, saying that she was not about to be left out of the attempt to save her new friends.
Eboni’s appearance had been a bit of a shock, although not as big as a shock that finding out exactly where she had come from had been. Genki shook his head in disbelief: an entire orphanage hidden in the center of a baddie fortress… he wasn’t quite certain that he believed it, even though he had seen the tower with his own eyes, along with some of the other fosterlings. Before they had left, Mew had taken them to the shelter and spoken to the child-monsters there, instructing them to take care of themselves.
"Where are you going, Miss Mew?" one of the monsters, a young Weed which Genki noticed standing behind another young Evil Hare, had asked.
"Away," the feline’s terse reply had been. "You guys will have to look after the castle yourselves for a while."
"Castle…interesting that she doesn’t call it a fortress around the children," Scaler noted under his breath, violet-brown eyes burning into the feline’s back.
"Are you going to be back soon?"
"Well, if you’re taking that bratty Eboni along with you, there isn’t really any need for you to hurry back," an Allure commented, a small smirk on her face as she eyed the black-furred rabbit standing with the searchers.
"Shut up, Ali," Eboni muttered under her breath.
"You’ll have to look after yourselves for a while. Will you be alright by yourselves?" Mew asked, emerald eyes filled with concern.
"Yeah, we’ll be fine," Nightfall, another Evil Hare who wore a blue ribbon in her fur, replied, smiling as she comforted the little Weed. "Just be sure to come back after you’re finished with whatever you’re doing, okay? Hurry back!"
"You don’t have to…" Ali interjected, giving a meaningful look to Eboni, which the black rabbit ignored.
Mew had never told the children exactly where they were going, of course. None of the young monsters had any idea that their beloved guardian was actually a general in Moo’s army…except for Eboni…
She wasn’t taking it well. When they had boarded the Iron Birds, the young Evil Hare had climbed into the same vessel as her guardian, but refused to speak to the feline at all when Mew had started to talk to her. The young rabbit had simply retreated to the window and kept staring outside, unnaturally silent.
"Hey…are you okay, Eboni?" Genki asked, walking up to stand beside the bunny.
Ohhh boy… From what Genki had heard earlier from the other child-monsters at the shelter, Eboni was not someone who was normally quiet for extended periods of time. If she was anything like him in this regard, then her silence could only mean one thing: she was ticked off about something and sulking.
"Hey, come on, don’t worry!" he prompted, grinning at her. "Mocchi and Hare will be alright, just you wait and see!"
Eboni looked up at him, blinking her huge scarlet eyes quickly in an attempt to clear her tears away before he could see them. Managing a lopsided grin, she nodded.
"Yeah, I know…"
Back at the front of the ship, Mew studied the pair out of the corner of one eye without appearing to take her attention away from the controls. She sighed quietly: if Genki thought that Eboni was only upset about the kidnapping of her new friends, then the boy was more naïve than she thought. Just as he couldn’t see the real reason for her insisting on taking two Iron Birds: he had easily accepted the excuse that Alan’s two Worms would take up too much room if they were all in one craft. Somehow, he had failed to notice that the pair of large monsters had easily fit in the storage area of the other Iron Bird…and since all of her ships were the same size…
Everything was almost ready. The older girl, Holly, now had the Phoenix’s Tear with her: Mew felt a twinge of guilt as she recalled the sorrow she had glimpsed in the girl’s bronze eyes as she took it from the feline. She had also noticed the looks that the boy with blue-gray hair, the eyeball monster, and the scaled hare had given her…they didn’t trust her. Not that it mattered. Soon, nothing would matter…
"Miss Mew, are you alright?" Serinity asked softly, walking up behind the feline monster.
"I’m fine," Mew snapped, and cringed inwardly as she noticed the pixie hybrid’s wince at her harsh words. The feline rubbed her forehead slightly with one paw and said, "Sorry. I’m a little stressed out at the moment…didn’t mean to snap at you…"
"It’s alright," replied Serinity, smiling faintly, although the cat doll could see a hint of sadness in the half-pixie’s verdant eyes. "I’m really worried about them too… I hope that they’ll be okay…"
"From what I’ve seen of that pair, I’m certain that they’ll be fine," Grey Wolf reassured them, padding up behind the two female monsters. The silver-furred lupine smiled, his ice blue eyes lighting up as he saw Serinity manage a soft smile at him in return. Even Mew relaxed visibly at his words, and silently Grey Wolf thanked Tiger of the Wind, wherever he was now, for teaching him how to lie convincingly about how he really felt…
* * *
"Hehehe, I can’t believe my good luck!" Aqua Cutter chortled as he slithered down the darkened hallway. "Not only will I be able to present to the master one of the biggest threats to his power, stripped of his magical pendant and completely helpless, but I also have another little hostage for him! And with Mew turned traitor, there’s an opening for general just waiting for me…!"
He snickered, hissing faintly, and cast a quick glance at his precious ‘gift’ for the master. The little rabbit and the other young monster hung limply where he had cast them over his broad shoulders, and appeared to still be unconscious. A toothy grin spread over the naga hybrid’s face, and he continued forward, thinking only of the rewards he would soon receive.
The notion even drove him to song, although his voice left much to be desired. His husky, rasping baritone soon filled the otherwise silent hallways, echoing off of the looming walls around him.
"Strike hard, strike fast, strike true~eeeee, Honor the name of Moo~oooo," he sung tunelessly, not caring in the slightest bit about harmony.
"…uuhhhn," Hare moaned, unnoticed by the serpent monster as he stirred: Aqua Cutter was singing so loudly that the bunny’s faint groan was drowned out.
"Se-per-rate bodies from heads, ‘cause the only good rebel is one that’s de~aaa~ad!"
"Chiii…" Mocchi’s eyes fluttered open for a moment, his vision blurring.
"Fight, fight, Extinguish the light, Give your all to serve Moo’s might!"
Hare groaned again, and his ears twitched slightly. For a moment, his wavering brown eyes were filled with confusion, then suddenly widened with fear as he realized what was going on. Beside him, Mocchi gasped softly as he came to full consciousness and the two youngsters glanced at one another, terrified.
Aqua Cutter failed to notice any of this: the reptilian monster was completely caught up in attempting to sing the badly butchered verse that passed as a tribute to his master’s power.
"No, nothing can defeat me, Not even-"
"CHERRY BLOSSOM BLIZZARD, CHI!"
The rest of Aqua Cutter’s song was thankfully cut off as the tornado of flower petals lifted him up and flung him headlong into the nearest wall. The loud thud created by his impact echoed through the hallway. For a moment, the naga hybrid remained half-embedded in the dark marble, then he slowly slumped backwards onto the floor, eyes spiraling.
"…Ouch…" he whispered, dazed.
Then his vision cleared enough for him to catch a glimpse of two small figures darting away and down a corridor.
"…H-hey! Get back here!" he demanded, eyes glowing crimson as he struggled to right him and go after them. Of course neither actually listened to him, and both had vanished from his line of sight by the time that he had managed to get up. A huge sweatdrop appeared on the back of the reptilian’s head: the master was NOT going to be happy about this…
* * *
"Find them! Don’t let them escape!"
The assembled warriors all shouted agreement, then stormed off in various directions, spreading through the fortress in order to locate the two young intruders that were somewhere in the massive complex. Fortunately, in their haste, none of the baddies thought to check behind the closed door to one of the smallest rooms, little dreaming that said two little rebels were cowering behind it.
"Mocchi scared, chi," the younger monster confessed, trembling with fear as he gazed over at his companion with wavering eyes.
"Don’t worry, none of them seem to be headed this way yet," Hare replied, keeping one ear pressed against the door. "We’ll wait here till they’ve all left, then keep looking for an exit."
Stepping back from the doorway for a moment, Hare looked over at Mocchi and saw that the other child was still clearly frightened, curled up in a trembling ball in one shadowy corner of the tiny storage room. In an attempt to calm him, the bunny smiled lopsidedly.
"Hey, now, don’t be like that!" he scolded, bright brown eyes shining with determination as he walked over and gripped Mocchi’s hands in his. "We’ve been in worse scrapes than this before! We’ll get out of here soon, I promise."
"…You mean it, chi?" Mocchi inquired, staring up into his friend’s smiling face. "You think we’ll be okay, chi?"
Hare grinned and nodded, and Mocchi brightened considerably. Seeing this, the rabbit quickly turned away so that the little pink monster would not see the doubt and fear that suddenly appeared in his wavering brown eyes.
I say that, of course, but I’m not really so sure, he thought, unconsciously gripping his bandanna. It’s just the two of us versus all of them…sure, we can try to keep hidden, but if we’re spotted…
* …And I don’t even have the Phoenix’s Tear with me, and without that… *
Hare sighed silently, and he looked up at the black, shadowy ceiling above them.
* …Everyone…if you’re coming to help us, please…get here soon… *
* * *
"Do you see anything ahead of us yet, Suezo?" Coltia asked, looking over at the eyeball monster as he scanned the horizon before them.
"Nothing yet…just Mew’s Iron Bird and a few mountains," Suezo replied, shaking his head.
"I don’t like this at all," Alan complained, keeping a tight grip on the controls in front of his seat. "This is probably some sort of trap, you know…"
"Alan…" Holly sighed, hoping that the blue-gray-haired boy was not about to start that argument again.
"Even if it is a trap, we have to play along with it for now," Scaler observed mildly from where he sat behind the others, sharpening his blades. Weighing one of his throwing knives in his hand, testing its balance, he added, "I believe that she does know where Aqua Cutter took Hare and the other one, and is taking us there, but her reasons…?"
He twirled the stiletto in his hand around for a moment, then replaced it in its sheath and begun sharpening another blade. Suezo glanced over at him and shuddered: something about the calm way that the scaled hare handled his weapons unnerved him, although he couldn’t explain quite why… Turning his attention back to the horizon, he squinted, hoping to finally spot something ahead of them other than the back of Mew’s Iron Bird.
Soon, he noticed a shadow on the horizon, and narrowed his eye even further in concentration as he strained to make out what it was. After a few moments, he could make out the dark walls of a fortress standing out against the cliffs, and sighed silently. At least it looked like they were in the right area… Suddenly he noticed something else that made his blood run cold.
"…Ho…Holly…" he breathed, a tremor running down his back. Holly looked up at him in surprise, paling slightly as she noticed how his face had suddenly turned white.
"Suezo, what is it?" she asked, as Coltia, Alan and even Scaler glanced over at the eyeball monster.
"…Just…look ahead of us…" Suezo whispered in a trembling voice, unable to describe what he saw before them coherently with fears and doubts that were currently raging through his mind.
Confused, yet knowing better than to ignore her companion, Holly gazed out towards the horizon, bronze eyes shimmering with shared fear. Alan and Coltia stared forward as well, and the younger girl let out a gasp as she spotted what the eyeball monster had been attempting to warn them about. Alan frowned, sapphire eyes narrowing as he also found himself staring at the same thing that the others were, and unconsciously gripped the controls before him a little tighter.
"…Is…is that what I think it is?" Coltia asked weakly.
Suezo and Holly nodded in unison without taking their intense gazes away from the window. The small team of rebels could now clearly see that they were approaching a mountain fortress, one that appeared to be built directly into the surrounding landscape, but that was not what caught their full attention. Beside the massive structure of granite floated what appeared at first to be some sort of crystallized star, looming just above the impressive fortress in such a way that it cast its dark shadow over the building. The strange ebony structure floated impossibly in midair, the rays of the sun reflecting off of its many jutting edges and spikes and tinting the black marble crimson.
Out of the small group in the Iron Bird, only Holly and Suezo had ever seen anything like this strange dark star before, yet the two original searchers did not have to explain exactly what it was to their companions. They already sensed it: Coltia paled visibly and grabbed onto the seat before her for support, while Alan and Scaler stared at the structure with set, carefully controlled expressions on their faces. Both of the Worm monsters whined pitifully, shuddering.
"…Well, even if Mew is planning to betray us, at least we know that we’re in the right spot," Suezo joked darkly, although his tone was anything but playful as he stared at one of the sights he had prayed he would never glimpse again…
In the Iron Bird ahead of them, the other members of the Searchers had already spotted the pair of fortresses. Mew looked at the sight before her impassively, emerald eyes dark with thought: she was the only one who failed to react visibly to the sight.
Genki’s clear brown eyes had darkened the moment they rested on the dark star before him, and the youth glared solemnly ahead. The three other monsters with him all stared forward, all reacting to the scene before them in considerably different ways.
Grey Wolf snarled, hackles raised, ice blue eyes suddenly turning cold with remembered hatred. The silver-furred lupine tensed, every muscle in his body going taut, white fangs glinting briefly as he bared them. Serinity was trembling, face even whiter than normal, verdant eyes huge and shimmering with terror as she sensed the almost overwhelming presence of evil spreading out to engulf them as the Iron Bird flew ever closer. Eboni simply stared at the strange dark star, garnet eyes wide as they absorbed the horrifying sight. The young Evil Hare tensed visibly as she also became aware of the dark power radiating from the buildings before them, but was temporarily too stunned to react in any other way than simply staring, awestruck.
"…Genki…Hare and Mocchi…are they really somewhere in there?" she asked after a few moments, squeezing the youth’s hand slightly. Genki returned the strong grip, not even bothering to look down at the bunny.
"They’re in there," he replied simply, his clear brown eyes shining with resolve as he added, "and so is Moo."
Eboni glanced up at him, her wide scarlet eyes filling with shock for a moment, then gazed back toward the floating fortress. A determined frown crossed her face, and the young black rabbit felt her paws ball into fists as she glared forward.
"I figured that the master might have come here, especially if Aqua Cutter contacted him and let him know what was going on, but…" Mew let her voice trail off meaningfully, allowing the others to draw their own conclusions. Whether they believed that she did not want her master here or not did not really matter to her: in the long run, all that mattered were results…
"Do you think that they’ve spotted us yet?" Serinity asked nervously, leaf green eyes huge with dread.
As if in answer to her frightened query, the skies suddenly erupted with blazing light as the concealed cannons on the floating ebony fortress abruptly started firing. Mew hastily yanked the controls toward her chest, forcing the Iron Bird into a dive, but one of the lasers still grazed against the craft’s side, causing it to shudder violently and sending its other occupants sprawling in all directions.
"Whoa-!" Eboni exclaimed as she skidded backward, landing on her tail. Latching onto the seat before her, she shouted, "What was that?!?"
"Hey, everyone okay?" Genki asked, steadying himself against the wall he had been flung against, holding his shoulder.
"I’m alright," Serinity replied, helping Grey Wolf stand up, but the pixie hybrid looked a little distracted. "What about the others?!?"
Suddenly the group heard a loud crackling noise, coming from the control panel. Mew was pressing a few buttons on the console, while struggling to keep the Iron Bird weaving through the seemingly endless barrage of lasers.
"Can you hear me? Come in!" the feline monster hissed, picking up an odd-looking hand-held device.
"…Mew?!? What’s going on?!?" a familiar voice abruptly replied, causing the rebels to gasp in shock.
"Holly?!?" Genki asked, astonished.
"Here, you talk to her," Mew told the boy, flipping the strange device in his direction. Genki caught it easily, scrambling back up beside the feline monster and bracing himself against a seat.
"Holly, are you guys alright back there?!" he shouted.
For a few breathless moments, all that he could hear was Coltia wailing incoherently somewhere in the background, accompanied by Suezo’s screaming and Alan cursing.
"Genki, is that you?"
The boy’s shoulders slumped briefly in relief when he heard the familiar voice again, and replied, "Yeah, it’s me. We’re okay up here, what about you guys?"
"We’re fine," and Holly’s voice held an unmistakable note of alarm as she added, "But we saw you get hit, so we thought…LOOK OUT!"
Genki only had an instant to brace himself before the Iron Bird shuddered again, another laser finding its mark, and he gritted his teeth to avoid screaming into the speaking device. Behind him, he heard Eboni, Serinity and Grey Wolf cry out as they went flying again, and could almost picture Holly wincing in sympathy for them.
"Holly, you guys have to land before you get caught up in this too," he informed the girl, using a tone he hoped would keep the girl from arguing the point. "We’ll be okay, but you can’t get caught in this too!"
"He’s right, Holly," Genki suddenly heard Alan interrupt the girl, and wondered how long the other boy had been listening to their conversation. "We have to pull back, or we’ll be in serious trouble…Genki, you and the others have to bail out now, got that?!? I don’t want you dying on me!"
Despite their grim situation, Genki actually smiled at that, and replied, "Same to you, Alan. Over and out."
"What the heck does that mean?" he overheard Alan mutter as he replaced the speaking device, and Genki couldn’t suppress a short laugh at the other boy’s confusion.
However, his amusement lasted only a few seconds, vanishing as the cockpit shook violently again. Bracing himself against the pilot’s chair, Genki looked up to see that the sky seemingly aflame, crisscrossed with laser fire.
"All of you need to bail out," Mew said quietly in an even tone, glancing over at the boy with dark emerald eyes. "I’m trying to keep the Iron Bird underneath their attacks, so you should be able to jump out, but…"
"What?!?" Genki exclaimed, whirling to stare at her with clear brown eyes as wide as saucers. "Jump?!?"
"Don’t tell me that you’re scared," the feline monster commented mildly, arching an eyebrow meaningfully as she regarded the boy from one corner of her eye. As she had expected, Genki began to fume at that suggestion, and she quickly added, "There’s no time for this. If you and your friends don’t get off now, you will all die."
"She’s right; let’s get moving!" Grey Wolf snarled, and suddenly the silver-furred lupine was beside Genki.
Before the boy could react, Grey Wolf yanked him roughly onto his back, and raced back toward the entrance they had used when boarding the craft. Mew had already pressed a button to reopen it, and for a moment the lupine monster stood uncertainly at the opening, blue eyes focused on the ground that seemed so far beneath them. Hesitating, he glanced back toward the other three, checking to see that they were alright. Serinity had already scooped up Eboni, and the terror he glimpsed in the eyes of both prompted him to action.
"Hang on tight, kid," he prompted Genki, and hesitated just long enough to make certain that the boy obeyed. Feeling strong, youthful arms wrap around his chest and cling there, the silver-furred lupine took a deep breath and whispered, "Tiger, I hope I can pull this off…"
Then he leapt through the open doorway, wind buffeting his falling form, aiming his feet toward what he hoped was the ground that was rising all too quickly to meet him…
The instant that he left the opening, Serinity ran toward it, cradling Eboni in her arms as she sent a silent prayer up to any spirits whom might be watching to look after her friends. As she hovered in the open hatchway, her wings spread and taut for flight, her short orange-red hair whipping wildly around her pale face, she glanced back over her shoulder at the single remaining occupant of the bridge.
"Mew-san, please hurry!" she shouted, bright green eyes huge with terror. "We’re running out of time before—"
"I ran out of time long before this moment," the feline monster whispered softly under her breath, too quietly for the two monsters standing on the threshold to relative safety behind her to overhear. Louder, she shouted, "I have my own way out of this situation; don’t worry about me! Just take care of Eboni!"
Serinity hesitated a few precious seconds more, still staring back at the cat doll monster, frozen with indecision. In her arms, Eboni shuddered, garnet eyes also fixed on her guardian and protector. The young Evil Hare felt a surge of emotion as she watched Mew remain calmly in her seat, dark emerald eyes fixed on the task before her. For some reason, the firestorm searing the skies around them did not appear to bother the feline monster: in fact, she looked almost serene, an aura of tranquility that had never seemed to come to her guardian before surrounding her.
"…Mew…I’m sorry…" Eboni whispered, uncertain that her soft words were heard.
Finally, knowing that she could not wait any longer, Serinity leapt out through the opened doorway, clinging tightly to the black rabbit. If only her life had depended on her leaving quickly, then the pixie hybrid might have stayed longer, but she could feel the trembling of the young bunny’s body, hear the thudding of the child’s heartbeat so close to her own, and knew that she needed to protect this life as well as her own.
Silently, Mew pressed a button on the control panel before her, and the doors slid shut once more. Her deep verdant eyes shimmered as they reflected light from the firestorm before them, unflinching, unafraid. The symbol at her chest also glittered as it caught the light, and the cat doll briefly pressed one paw against its cold, smooth surface, sighing.
"I have my own way out," she repeated quietly, speaking only to herself: no other living things were in the Iron Bird. "Perhaps it’s a coward’s way out, but it is the only path left to me now. Forgive me, Searchers, but despite what most of you seem to believe, I cannot change… I have been too set in my ways, have gone on like this for too long…"
The edge of the feline monster’s otherwise expressionless mouth quirked with what might have been the start of a grin, and she whispered, "But Eboni, now… yes, that is another matter entirely, is it not? …Please care for her, Searchers: I know that she will adapt to your ways easily, for she is not unlike yourselves… Give her a better life…than I ever could have offered her…"
Her paws rested on the controls before her, and with a look of serenity on her face that had never graced the feline’s features before in her miserable life, Mew guided the Iron Bird forward, deeper into the heart of the blazing skies…
* * *
Genki winced as he overheard Grey Wolf whisper an oath under his breath as they fell through the air, straight down. The lupine monster’s tone was not promising, not at all… instinctively he tightened his grip a bit more, clear brown eyes narrowing as he braced himself as best he could.
Grey Wolf, meanwhile, was silently cursing, every single crude oath and swear he had learned from his older brother running through his mind at top speed. Belatedly he knew that he had misjudged the sheer speed at which they would plummet: he had jumped from high cliffs before, and knew how to slow a rapid descent to avoid serious injury, but he had never attempted it with a passenger, and especially not from so cursed high…
Well, cursing his poor judgement wasn’t going to solve anything… Every muscle in the silver-furred lupine’s body tensed as he braced himself for impact, hoping to at least minimize the damage he and the boy would take. As the wind howled around the pair, Grey Wolf forced his narrowed blue eyes to remain open, so he could keep an eye on the ground that was rising up to meet them entirely too quickly for his comfort…
At the last possible second, he twisted slightly, shifting his weight so that his paws struck the earth first. A pure shock surged up through his legs, yet Grey Wolf bit back the yelp of pain that threatened to tear from his lungs, and threw himself sharply to one side, causing both him and the boy to skid through the tough gritty ground for a few seconds.
Lying sprawled where he came to a halt, Grey Wolf at first could only force himself to breathe, sucking air into his tortured lungs and forcing it back out, panting deeply. He dimly overheard Genki gasping as well, and hoped that the kid had gotten out better than he had…
A wave of sweet, pure energy abruptly engulfed him, and Grey Wolf sighed in relief as he felt his bruised body mend quickly under the soothing touch. Opening his eyes, he looked up to see Serinity kneeling beside him, verdant eyes closed in concentration as she willed her healing magic to aid her injured friends. After a few moments, the pleasant sensation passed, as she finished her work and came out of her half-trance.
"Are you alright?" she asked quietly, helping both of her newly healed friends stand.
"Yeah," Genki answered for both of them, flexing his mended shoulder experimentally. "What about the others, are they…?"
At the sound of Holly’s shout, the small group turned to see the other rebels running toward them, waving and yelling. Genki, Serinity and Eboni waved back, happy to see the others again, but then the pixie hybrid got an alarmed expression on her face as she noticed a pair of very obvious members missing.
"Where are…?" she started to ask, looking directly at Alan.
"Don’t worry, they’re okay," he reassured her, raising one hand to still her worried query. "I told both of the Worms to stay behind and guard the Iron Bird, in cause any of the baddies come across it. The last thing that we need is to come back and find our enemies waiting there for us…"
The others nodded agreement, seeing the wisdom of this move even as they remembered their current problem: they were on enemy grounds, invading a base they had never been to before, with swarms of enemy soldiers and possibly even Moo himself somewhere in its twisting depths…
"…We have to find Mocchi and Hare quickly," Holly told them, tightening her grip on the crystalline tear she currently carried with her as she spoke.
The other searchers nodded, but Eboni suddenly piped up, "Hey, where’s Mew?"
All of the rebels fell silent at that soft question, exchanging quick glances at one another. Alan’s face grew grim, and he glanced over at Holly, recalling silently how both had seen the final moments of the other Iron Bird. As he had fought to land their craft, they had seen a silver streak leap from an open hatchway: Grey Wolf, with Genki clinging to his back. Holly had cried out in horror, seeing the two plummet straight downward, then spotted Serinity as the pixie hybrid leapt out next, something cradled in both arms. Both had assumed…hoped…that she was carrying both Eboni and Mew, but now saw clearly that she had not. A few minutes later, the Iron Bird, gutted by gunfire, had suddenly burst aflame…
Understanding what their silence meant, the others dropped their eyes, none wanting to meet Eboni’s inquiring gaze. Even the normally stoic Scaler looked away, dark violet-brown eyes veiled by his spiky bangs.
"…Mew must be alive," Genki whispered after a few minutes of awkward silence had passed, looking up at the others. "She’s not one to simply…she’s fine, I just know it!"
"Genki…" Holly couldn’t bring herself to say anything more: the youth simply looked too convinced by his own words. Eboni was also staring at the clear-eyed boy, hope filling her garnet eyes.
"…It must be true," he decided, locking gazes briefly with the young Evil Hare.
"…Y-yes," Eboni agreed, nodding. Swiping an arm quickly over her face to wipe away the tears that shimmered in her scarlet eyes, the bunny then prompted, a hint of her normal spunk coming back into her voice, "Let’s hurry up and find Hare and Mocchi!"
The rebels nodded agreement, as all of them turned their gaze toward the foreboding fortress that loomed above them, casting its dark shadow over their small band. Even the least experienced among them sensed that they were in serious danger. All of them would try to remain undetected for as long as possible, but if matters came to a fight…
* * *
Meanwhile, deep inside the fortress’s walls, the two youngest members of the searchers were trying to find a way out before they were caught. So far, Hare knew that they had been lucky: by keeping mostly in the shadows and ducking into different hallways whenever they heard anything approaching, they had somehow managed to stay out of sight. The complexity of the building’s layout was both a blessing and a curse: while the many twists and turns enabled them to safely escape whenever a baddie drew too close for comfort, at the same time, the path to the exit seemed to constantly elude them.
Secretly, Hare was worried about Mocchi: during their nightmare game of hide and seek with the baddies, the younger monster’s wounds had started bothering him again. Of course, Mocchi, being as stubborn as his human partner could be sometimes, had refused to say anything about it, not wanting to upset his friend. Still, Hare knew what was going on: the pink monster’s stomach and chest were aching again, his half-healed injuries reopening under their bandages, and the pain, stress and sheer exhaustion that Mocchi felt was beginning to creep up on him.
Hare sighed silently, absently gripping his bandanna for a moment. Even if the Phoenix’s Tear had been with him, he couldn’t have completely helped his friend out. With its powers, he could heal wounds, but not fatigue. Still, just being able to close completely those injuries that hurt the younger monster so would have helped his mood greatly…
For the moment they needed to concentrate on one thing alone: getting out of here as quickly as possible. Edging forward in the shadows, Hare carefully peeked around the corner, bright brown eyes raking the area before them. A winding staircase begun its spiral downward a few feet away, and Hare bit the inside of his lip, considering. It was possible that the stairs would take them down to an exit, but…at the same time, he knew that they would be very vulnerable while on them. The hallways were filled with nooks and crannies where a couple of small monsters could hide from unwanted attention, but on a stairway, they would be out in the open, exposed…
However, at the same moment Hare knew that they needed to take the chance. Glancing over at Mocchi, he nodded slightly, letting the younger monster know that they were going to make a break for it. Scanning the area one final time, the tawny-furred bunny did not see any enemy warriors, and made a swift signal to Mocchi.
The two youngest searchers then sprinted forward, side by side, toward the stairway. Hare reached it first, and after a quick glance over his shoulder to make certain that Mocchi was keeping up, started down the steps at full speed. His logical mind warned him that running down stairs was a very dangerous activity, but that did not matter at the moment. All that mattered was getting out of here before…
"Ah, so there you are!" a raspy voice proclaimed loudly.
Hare and Mocchi both skidded to a stop as they heard the all-too-familiar voice calling out to them, and the pink monster nearly crashed into the bunny’s back. Both turned their horrified gaze to the bottom of the staircase, shuddering. A pair of gleaming reptilian eyes glared back up at them, and as the two young rebels recoiled, Aqua Cutter crossed his arms over his chest and grinned.
"Naughty, naughty children, trying to run away from me," he teased, sneering as he slowly began to ascend the stairs.
"Come on, chi!" Mocchi cried, seizing the paralyzed Hare’s wrist and yanking him back to full awareness.
The two started back up the stairs, fleeing the snake monster behind them, but as they came to a small platform where the stairs made a sharp turn, Hare gasped and froze, pulling Mocchi to a sudden halt beside him. It only took a moment for the younger monster to notice the shadow that fell over the stairs above them, and as his widened eyes traced it back to its source, Mocchi’s mouth fell open in a silent scream.
"My, my, surprised to see me?" Vanity queried, a cocky smirk twisting her ruby lips as she regarded the two startled children. Her sneer grew wider as she noticed Aqua Cutter ascending the stairs behind them, and her jaden eyes glowed as she mocked, "Well, nice to see you again, oh mighty hunter. As you can see, I have already found your so-called captives, and will take them to the master myself."
"Stay out of this, Vanity!" the naga hybrid snarled, as Mocchi and Hare glanced back at him in growing terror. "These are my captives, not yours!"
"Oh, really? They don’t really appear to be under your control, now do they?"
Aqua Cutter grimaced, and continued to slowly advance up the stairs toward the young rebels, while Vanity simply smirked and started down, cold jaden eyes shimmering with malice. Hare and Mocchi found themselves back to back, watching the two baddies approach in growing alarm. Hare dropped into a defensive pose, knowing that without the added powers of the Phoenix’s Tear aiding them, their chances of escaping the assault from both sides would be slim…
"Leave us alone, chi!" Mocchi shouted, and suddenly the pink monster lunged at Vanity.
Startled, the golden-skinned pixie hybrid nimbly sprang out of his way, and as she floated a few feet above the stairs, Aqua Cutter took advantage of Mocchi’s distraction.
"Cherry Blos—" Mocchi’s cry was cut off in mid-sentence as the naga hybrid’s fist flashed out and connected with his cheek.
"No, Mocchi!" Hare cried out, seeing the younger monster collapse.
He started to run toward his friend, but Aqua Cutter was suddenly in his way, and before Hare could react the snake monster had seized him by the shoulders and pinned him to the floor. Gasping, the bunny stared up into the baddie’s leering face, his widened brown eyes wavering with fear.
"The game ends here," Aqua Cutter hissed, crimson eyes glowing faintly.
Staring up at the reptilian monster’s triumphant grin, heart pounding wildly in his ears, Hare felt his wavering eyes widen as another sneering face interposed itself over Aqua Cutter’s features in his mind’s eye. Trembling, terrified, paralyzed by fear both new and remembered, the young bunny did the only thing he could think of at the moment: shutting his eyes tightly, he began to scream at the top of his lungs.
"Hey, what—" Aqua Cutter exclaimed in surprise, his narrow eyes going huge with shock. Grimacing, he recoiled, struggling against the instinct to cover his ears to shut out the horrible racket. Not seeing the baddie’s hesitation, Hare continued to scream wildly, driven by his overwhelming fear.
However, Mocchi saw the opening created by Aqua Cutter’s distraction, and took it. Ignoring how his injured chest throbbed at the movement, the pink monster rolled into a ball and launched himself directly at the naga hybrid, slamming into his back. Taken off guard, Aqua Cutter was sent flying by the blow, tumbling down a few stairs before coming to a groaning halt.
"Ah hahahahaha! Poor Aqua Cutter, it looks like your prey is not as helpless as you thought!" Vanity taunted, floating down to hover just above the sprawled-out serpent. "Honestly, your so-called victims just walk all over y—eyaugh!" The rest of her taunt became a surprised scream as Mocchi suddenly slammed into and bounced off her back, knocking her down.
"Come on, chi!" Mocchi called, and Hare stopped wailing abruptly as he opened his eyes to find the younger monster standing over him instead of Aqua Cutter. Too stunned to fully understand what had just occurred, the bunny accepted his friend’s aid in getting up, and together the two youngest searchers sprinted down the stairs, leaving the two stunned baddies lying in a heap behind them.
Shaken by their close encounter, the two youngest searchers ran blindly through the twisting hallways, until finally both were too tired and stressed to keep moving, and had to take refuge in another large room so they could rest. Hare shut the door behind them, frowning as he noticed that there was no way to lock it. True, barricading the door might work for a while, but he also knew doing such a thing would work against them as well: if one of the baddies attempted to come in and found the way blocked…
So, leaving it simply closed, the tawny-furred rabbit walked over to where Mocchi was already crouching in the shadows, his pale-skinned figure almost completely concealed by the darkness. Finding some old body armor propped up in a corner, Hare moved it so that it stood before them, blocking them both from view, then sat down beside the younger monster.
"Mocchi…are you okay?" he asked, concerned: the pink monster’s bandages had come partially unraveled during the short struggle, and the bunny could see clearly that the old wounds were beginning to bother him again, although Mocchi fought to hide this.
"I’m…fine, chi," Mocchi replied, managing a weak grin up at his friend.
Hare only frowned, seeing the veiled pain behind the younger monster’s forced smile. Without his pendant, however, he couldn’t do much of anything to help him: just keep an eye on the door and hope for the best…
Lost in his thoughts, he failed to notice the sheer size of the chamber, or how a single speck of flickering black light shimmered on the raised dais at the far end of the room…
* * *
With that, Alan jumped forward, bringing the hilt of his sword down hard on the head of the baddie closest to him. Before the startled monsters could react to the ambush, the blue-gray-haired boy had already reversed his sword, and brought it crashing down again on his stunned victim.
In the shadows, Serinity winced and looked away, folding her cat-like ears back to muffle the noise of the struggle. She felt Scaler and Grey Wolf spring past her to join in the battle…more like a rout now…and felt tears fill her tightly shut eyes despite herself. She understood that her friends were simply protecting them, that the enemy needed to be defeated, but…
A hand squeezed her shoulder, and Serinity opened her eyes and looked over to see Holly standing beside her. Sympathy and understanding shone clearly in the human girl’s bronze eyes.
"Are you okay?" Holly asked, even though both of them knew the answer already. With a short sigh, Serinity shook her head no.
"We should concentrate on finding our friends, not…"
"…And how do you propose that we do that?" Scaler suddenly inquired, turning around to face the other rebels. Serinity jerked and stared at him in surprise: the scaled hare’s tone was not accusing or harsh this time, but merely inquisitive, almost like her comment intrigued him.
"…Well…I…" she faltered, unsure.
"If you have some method of dealing with the enemy without killing them, then kindly share it with us," Scaler prompted, dark eyes burning into the pixie hybrid. Glancing over his shoulder, he added, "You may have to tell us quickly; I can hear more of them coming closer…"
Serinity looked up at him, verdant eyes still bright with tears, then stared in the same direction that he was looking. She could just barely hear the sound of footsteps drawing closer. A quick glance around at the faces surrounding her offered no answers, no clues as to what the next move should be. A cold chill ran down her spine: she needed to come up with something, anything, before they ran out of time and the warriors in their team were forced to spill blood again. But she was no fighter, and…
She gasped, the thought and the idea coming to her in the same instant. Standing up quickly, she forced herself to point her hands, fingertips glowing, in the direction of the approaching soldiers. The other rebels stared at her, looking startled, as she launched her Scattershot technique directly at the baddie squadron.
It missed, of course: she was no fighter, lacking the training and discipline to make such an attack accurate in any other way than making it go in the general direction she wished. But that had been her intention. As she had hoped, the sudden eruption of flashes of bright, blinding verdant light in the hallway suitably spooked the baddies, and she caught a fleeting glimpse of the horrified expressions on their faces before they turned and fled.
"…Nice," Scaler commented mildly, arching an eyebrow in mild surprise as he watched the warriors retreat. "Drive them off without harming them, and hope that they’re too stunned to report such a strange occurrence to their master. …Well, whatever you believe will work…"
"…Let’s get going," Genki prompted, skating forward.
The other rebels trailed behind him, and Holly tightened her fingers around the crystal she held clenched in both hands. The Phoenix’s Tear felt vaguely warmer: was that simply her imagination, or were they closer to finding its true bearer…?
"Hey, why don’t we check in here…?"
Turning around, Holly saw Eboni pushing open a pair of wide marble doors. Before she could tell the young Evil Hare to stop, the bunny had managed to force open the doorway enough to slip through. Holly quickly followed after her, praying that Eboni’s choice to investigate this chamber wouldn’t get them killed. It appeared large enough to house an army…
"Whoa, check this out!" Eboni piped, and Holly entered to find the dark-furred bunny spinning around, garnet eyes wide as they took in the massive chamber.
"Eboni, we should go, I don’t think that they’re in here…" Holly’s voice trailed off as she suddenly realized that her Magic Stone was glowing brightly, and she quickly covered it with one hand, not wanting the light to give them away.
"Holly, Eboni, what are you doing in here?" Serinity asked, walking in behind them.
"Eboni…" Holly started to explain, only to stop in mid-sentence as another soft query drifted toward her from the shadows.
"…Holly? …Is that you?"
Disbelieving, Holly turned around, bronze eyes wide with shock as they scanned the area around her. The Magic Stone grew brighter, giving light to the darkened chamber, and Serinity and Eboni joined the girl in staring toward a shadowy corner guarded by some old suits of armor. After a moment, a pale face hesitantly peeked out at them from behind the ancient suits, brown eyes looking huge and luminous in the bright glow.
"Holly! Serinity! Eboni!" Hare shouted, clearly relieved to see them. "Over here!"
"Hare! You’re alright!" Eboni cried, reaching her friend a few seconds before the others. "Where’s…oh." She winced visibly as her gaze fell upon Mocchi: the youngest rebel’s face was paler than normal, and she could see that his wounds had partially reopened.
"Oh, Mocchi!" Serinity whispered in sympathy as she fell to her knees beside him, leaf green eyes bright with withheld tears as she quickly cast a healing spell on his wounds.
"Here," and Holly handed Hare the Phoenix’s Tear before standing up. "Put that on, I’ll go find the others. Genki…!"
"Huh, Holly, what is it?" the boy called back, turning around to see Holly standing in front of an opened doorway.
"We found the others; come quickly!"
As Holly had expected, that brought the other rebels running back at full force. Scaler quickly pulled Hare to his side, violet-brown eyes raking the shadows as if he expected an attack to come at any moment and tear them apart again.
"Let’s go," he ordered, glaring at the other searchers as they talked excitedly among themselves, enjoying their reunion. "I have a bad feeling about this place…"
"Yeah, we should go," Hare seconded hastily, seeing Suezo and Genki glare angrily at the scaled hare. "If Mocchi’s healed now, we should concentrate on going before…"
"I’m okay, chi," Mocchi assured the others, standing up with Serinity’s aid. Looking up at Genki, he said, "Let’s go, chi!"
"…No," Hare abruptly whispered, causing the others to stare at him in surprise.
"…Hare? What’s wrong?" Eboni asked, shivering slightly at the sudden change in her friend’s attitude.
Hare jerked and looked up, and the other rebels recoiled at the stark fear they saw shimmering in his wide brown eyes. The Phoenix’s Tear was glowing, casting shadows over his pale face, and he seemed to gaze past them, toward the far end of the room.
"…He’s coming," Hare whispered, voice trembling with emotion.
Before the others could ask who he meant, the doors slammed shut, and the room erupted with bright light. Looking up and shading his eyes with one hand, Genki saw the source of the sudden light: orbs embedded in the walls now were glowing brightly with a strange, black-blue aura. On the raised platform at the end of the room, something else pulsed with the same dark aura, and the searchers stared toward it in shock as a cloaked form materialized there, black cloak billowing as it was caught by the sudden gust of cold wind that filled the chamber.
Jumping to his feet, Genki immediately assumed a protective stance before the others, his clear brown eyes filling with recognition and hatred. Scaler was suddenly beside him, violet-brown eyes flashing with anger, long leather cloak billowing around him as it was also caught in the cruel, cutting breeze. The green rabbit stood in front of Hare and Eboni, a long-bladed sword in both paws as he dropped into a defensive stance, blocking the path to the two younger rabbits. Alan also drew his blade and stood on Genki’s other side, sapphire eyes locked on the figure before them.
On the platform, Moo studied the group of rebels standing in front of him with glittering crimson eyes, muscular arms crossed over his chest.
"So we finally meet again, rebels…"
Moo’s blazing crimson eyes glittered with faint amusement as they swept over the small band of rebels before him. Although the mask over his face concealed any expression, Hare had the distinct feeling that the baddie leader was smirking. He obviously knew that they were at a serious disadvantage…with Tiger and Golem still missing, they had no way to summon the Phoenix…
Still, Hare knew that there was no way to avoid a confrontation right now. At least Moo wasn’t in his ancient body…even if he had managed to come back somehow, it seemed as if their prior defeat of him had some lasting effect…
How did Moo manage to come back, anyway? Hare couldn’t help wondering, even as he summoned a fiery shield to surround his friends, protecting them from attack as long as they stayed close to him. I thought the Phoenix had destroyed him…or did she just destroy his ancient body? …If that’s what happened, how did his mind find a new host to attach itself to?
Unbeknownst to him, at the same moment, Holly was staring at the monster before them and asking herself the exact same question. Wavering bronze eyes swept over the armored titan, picking up on little differences that made her already violently pounding heart beat faster and faster.
Moo looked…different than he had before, she forced herself to silently admit. Although at first glance, he looked exactly the same, with his ebony mask, flowing black cape, and shimmering bronze and golden armor, she could tell by looking closer that he had changed… His towering figure seemed a bit less muscular than she remembered, looking a bit trimmer, sleeker, but no less imposing. It was like the impressive bulk that the evil leader had boasted before had been replaced by a more athletic figure, one that hinted at more speed, more cunning than before…
- …Father…is that you in there, father? …Or someone else…? -
"Moo!" Grey Wolf snarled, glaring at the evil commander with flashing blue eyes. "Do you remember me, Moo? …What you did to me before?"
"…Hmm? Ah, yes…Grey Wolf…you were one of my finest warriors before…why are you helping these fools now?" Moo sneered, red eyes blazing as they raked the silver-furred lupine.
"Do you really need to ask that, Moo?" Grey Wolf snarled, lips curling back to reveal glistening fangs as he dropped into a battle crouch. Ice-blue electricity crackled around the wolf monster’s horns, and with a howl he launched his Lightning attack directly at the enemy commander.
Moo simply sidestepped the attack, and as Grey Wolf charged directly at him, the golden-armored titan’s hands began to pulse with dark-tinted energy.
"Grey Wolf, watch it!" Genki shouted, pushing the silver-furred lupine to the ground.
At the same moment that the two hit the floor, a blast of black electricity surged through the space where the wolf had been a moment before and crashed directly into the fiery barrier Hare had summoned. As the tan-furred bunny hastily used his magic to dispel the attack, the other rebels acted. Alan and Scaler charged Moo, blades flashing, while Eboni ran over to where Genki and Grey Wolf had landed.
"You guys okay?" she asked, helping them up.
"Yeah, we’re fine," Genki said, getting up and glaring at Moo. "But he’s not gonna be…hey Mocchi, you ready?"
"Chi!" Mocchi called back, nodding.
"Alright! Let’s get him!" Genki shouted, and both leapt directly at Moo, feet aimed directly at the baddie’s chest and face.
Moo simply stepped aside and watched the two shoot past him, crashing directly into each other. The other rebels winced in sympathy and sweatdropped.
"…Oh, yeah, that worked really well," Suezo commented mildly, eyeing the two as they rolled to a stop beside him.
"…Shut up," Genki howled, standing back up and glaring at the eyeball monster. "At least we’re TRYING to help, instead of cowering behind a shield like you…!"
"…Genki," Hare piped up, sounding a little hurt by the way the youth had sneered ‘shield’ as well as a bit annoyed at the fact that the two were arguing now, "couldn’t this discussion…wait until…a little later?"
"…Oh. Whoops," Genki said, smiling a little sheepishly as he looked up to see that most of the other rebels were attempting to battle Moo.
Unfortunately, Hare could tell that they weren’t having much luck. Nothing appeared to be having any effect: Scaler’s throwing knives flew uselessly past their target, and even his sweeping blows with his sword seemed to always just miss the baddie, much to the scaled hare’s obvious annoyance. Alan was having no better luck with his blade, and the blue-gray-haired boy gritted his teeth in anger even as he lashed out again.
"Torpedo!" Grey Wolf shouted, and cursed as he watched the icy projectile fly past his target.
"I…didn’t realize…Moo was so fast!" Eboni panted, brushing her ruffled bangs away from her wide scarlet eyes as she came to a stop beside the silver-furred lupine.
"He wasn’t…at least, not before," Grey Wolf muttered, ice blue eyes darkening slightly with thought. Eboni cocked her head to one side, confused, then shrugged it off, seeing that the silver wolf was not about to say anything else.
"…Well, whatever. Let’s just beat this creep up, okay?" she asked, paws balling into fists as she whirled to face their opponent again.
"………" Grey Wolf blinked, taken aback by the younger monster’s bluntness. After a moment, the edge of his mouth quirked in a small smile, and he tensed for another attack, saying simply, "Okay…let’s do it!"
The two charged together, but Grey Wolf noticed that Eboni suddenly fell back slightly as they drew closer to Moo. Wondering why she had abruptly chosen to back off, he nonetheless went forward, launching another lightning bolt at Moo. The enemy leader evaded easily, and raised one glowing hand high to strike the silver lupine. Just as he was about to attack, however, a black streak came crashing into him from behind, and as Moo stumbled, thrown off balance, Eboni sprung away again and landed beside the surprised Grey Wolf.
"THERE! I finally hit him!" she beamed, grinning from ear to ear as she glanced over at the startled-looking lupine. Frowning as she noticed the confusion on his face, she asked, "Hey, aren’t you guys going to attack him?"
In response, Grey Wolf simply whirled around and pounced on top of Moo, taking full advantage of the baddie’s distraction. Knocking his former leader to the ground, the lupine monster bared his fangs in a snarl, growling. Blue electricity pulsed around his horns again as he charged his Lightning attack.
"…At this range…I won’t miss," Grey Wolf muttered, pale blue eyes seeming to flash brighter than the electricity pulsing around his horns.
"…You think so?" inquired the enemy leader, red eyes glittering faintly with amusement. "…Honestly, Grey Wolf, you have always been so…weak…and foolish…"
"…What?" Grey Wolf asked, eyes widening slightly with surprise.
Then the lupine monster screamed in agony as white-hot energy tore through his body, pulsing into him from both sides. With the part of his mind that was still able to think, Grey Wolf suddenly realized his mistake, and cursed silently: in his distraction, he had failed to notice that Moo had quietly moved his hands so that they were cupped around the silver-furred monster’s body. Now black electricity pulsed between Moo’s fingertips, catching his victim in their deadly arc.
"No, Grey Wolf!" Eboni screamed, and suddenly something latched onto the lupine’s tail and yanked, hard.
Still, that pain was minimal compared to the agony he had felt while caught in the spell, and Grey Wolf gasped in relief as he felt himself fall away from Moo’s body, allowing himself to be dragged back to where Hare still stood casting his shield. Almost immediately, he felt gentle hands prop him up, and gasped again in relief as he felt pure, cool, soothing energy course into his body.
"Grey Wolf, are you alright?" Serinity asked, frantic.
"…Y-yeah…yeah, I’m okay," he replied, stumbling to his feet.
However, he almost immediately slumped back down to the floor again, and as Holly and Coltia bent to help the silver lupine back to his feet, Hare glared up at Moo with blazing brown eyes, thoughts raging.
* This is insane! Moo’s way too strong…no matter what we try, it doesn’t look like anything has any effect! …If only Tiger and Golem were here so we could summon the Phoenix… *
At his chest, the crystalline tear burned fiercely with bright crimson light. Hare glanced down at it, cupping his paws around it, and then looked back up at the battle raging before him. A new understanding dawned in his eyes, and he slowly stepped out of the shield, ignoring how Holly gasped and grabbed at his shoulder.
"…Hare? What are you…?" Eboni asked, getting up to follow her friend. However, Coltia caught the Evil Hare’s shoulder and pulled her back into the safety of the shield.
"Moo! If you want to fight, fight me!" Hare challenged, the Phoenix’s Tear flaring into brilliant, blazing light at his chest. A fiery battle aura burst into life around him, and as his friends and allies stared at him in shock, Moo turned to gaze in his direction.
"Ah…yes. So you sense it too, then," he commented, his deep voice holding hints of amusement and disdain. One could almost picture a haughty smirk on his face, although his mask prevented him from showing any expression. "As the bearer of the Phoenix’s Tear, you surely must realize that you are fated to oppose me…even though you must also understand that you will lose."
Hare did not answer, but his brown eyes seemed to blaze with an inner fire, glowing with determination, and he solemnly gazed up at the leader of the evil monsters. He took a step forward, and Scaler made a desperate grab for his shoulder.
"Are you insane? He’ll kill you!" he shouted. Hare glanced back at him, and a slight smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as he locked eyes with the elder rabbit. Scaler’s normally cool violet-brown eyes shone with horror, and he reached out toward him again, saying, "He’ll destroy you if you try to fight him alone! Just let me handle this, okay?"
"He’s right, it’s too dangerous!" Genki added.
"Don’t do it, chi!"
"It’s okay," Hare answered, smiling faintly in their direction, the crimson aura still flickering around him. "Remember, I’ve got the Phoenix’s Tear with me, and that’s the closest thing we have to the actual Phoenix right now. I’m the only one who can face him safely."
"But Hare…" Holly started to protest, stepping forward. Suddenly, a glowing red shield flared up around the other rebels, and they cried out in surprise.
"Please, just believe in me," Hare pleaded.
Turning away, the tawny-furred rabbit stared back at Moo. The evil titan had his arms crossed over his chest, and he seemed to regard the little monster before him with a mocking glint in his eyes.
"To make this fair, I won’t bother to attack your puny friends," he offered, his voice completely confident. Hare smirked slightly and nodded, but the barrier around the other rebels remained up.
"Since when is Moo interested in fighting fair?" Suezo commented, giving the others an odd look. Grey Wolf glanced back at him and shrugged, then turned his attention back to what was happening before them.
Moo made a grand sweep with one armored hand, and his black cloak billowed out behind him as a deep violet-black aura surrounded his body. His crimson eyes flared, and the fiery aura around Hare’s body seemed to brighten in response to the evil monster. The other searchers watched in near silence, unconsciously drawing closer to one another. Mocchi’s hand pressed into Genki’s, and the boy gave it a slight squeeze in response. Suezo leaned up against Holly’s side, and Coltia hugged Eboni, holding the black-furred bunny tightly in her trembling arms. Serinity stood frozen, her bright green eyes huge and wavering with fear. Scaler and Alan watched solemnly, their swords ready at their sides, the sharp blades reflecting some of the light from the two auras.
Hare and Moo stared at one another, eyes locked. Both stood silently for a few seconds, seconds that seemed to stretch into eternities for those that watched the standoff and waited.
Then Hare let out a soft gasp, and Moo roared as he launched a black wave of energy at him. Pointing both paws at the baddie, the rabbit retaliated with a blast of crimson fire, and the small fireball crashed into the sweeping beam at full force. The two energies clashed and vanished, each destroying the other, and suddenly Moo was surging forward, his long hair and ebony cloak billowing behind him as he reached with both hands toward the smaller monster.
With an almost eerie ease, Hare fell backward and evaded Moo’s grasp, and as he leapt away, Genki got a quick glimpse of the rabbit’s face. Despite himself, the boy sucked in a sudden gasp: instead of the fear he had expected, Hare looked completely calm and collected, as if he was in total control of the situation. His eyes seemed to shine as if lit by flames, as bright as Moo’s own eyes were glowing, but without the evil so apparent in the dark monster.
"Why don’t you go ahead and die, rabbit!" Moo hissed, aiming another swipe as Hare. The smaller monster dodged away, and scarlet light blazed out of his paws again as another blast of fire scorched the evil commander’s armor. Moo let out a short roar and stumbled backward slightly, thrown off balance.
"He’s winning!" Suezo announced, ecstatic. The other rebels weren’t so certain of that quite yet, but it certainly looked as though Hare had gained the advantage, and was using it to its full extent, firing blast after blast at the reeling titan.
"If we win here, then does that mean that the baddies will stop attacking?" Coltia asked, eyes shining. "Will we be able to find the others safely?"
"I hope so," Serinity answered, barely daring to breathe as she watched the fight unfold before her. Her hands clasped in front of her, she prayed silently, Please, please allow it to end here…
A shot of crimson fire took Moo full in the face, and as he reeled backward, both hands flying to his wounded face, something black dropped down and hit the floor with a dull clank. The stumbling master accidentally kicked it as he struggled to regain his balance, roaring with outrage, and it slid across the smooth ebony tiles, skidding to a halt a few feet away from where the rebels stood. Holly glanced down at it, distracted.
She inhaled sharply, taken off guard by what she saw, and her gasp alerted the others to its presence as well. Genki tensed, clear eyes widening, and he stared without believing at the item at his feet.
An entire side of Moo’s mask lay where it had clattered to the ground, its cracked crimson eye seeming to gleam knowingly up at the rebels.
Unable to stop himself, Genki swung his wide-eyed gaze back to where Moo stood. The evil master was still clutching at his wounded face, covering it with both hands. The other rebels followed the boy’s stare, drawn by their own curiosity, a strange, sudden desire to see the face of the poor soul who had lost control of his body to Moo, the face of his vessel.
Holly felt tears spring to her eyes; what would she do if it she glimpsed the face of her father behind the mask? True, the body seemed of a slightly different build this time, less bulky and muscular, more sleek and agile, but it could still be him…
Hare had noticed the fallen piece of the mask as well, and he watched his opponent intently as the evil warrior slowly straightened, wondering what lay hidden behind his mask, his concealing hands. At his chest, the Phoenix’s Tear blazed and shimmered, reminding him of the battle that had suddenly paused, that was certain to begin again shortly.
The blocking hands fell away, and Moo’s gaze locked with Hare’s own. The rabbit felt his wavering brown eyes widen with shock, and he recoiled involuntarily.
"No…" A breathless whisper, a hopeless protest, one that Hare uttered without even realizing it.
Behind his shattered mask, the one possessed by Moo smirked evilly, and a cruel, soulless eye of dark gold glittered directly beside a long, thin red scar that stretched down the side of his face.
"No…" Hare’s protest was louder this time, but it was still little more than a whisper in the suddenly echoingly silent chamber. The other searchers looked on in paralyzed shock, each protesting silently what their eyes told them. The being possessed by Moo chuckled dryly, amused.
"Yes, little rabbit, yes," he replied, the cruel smirk becoming wider, distorting the hauntingly familiar face even more. "Come now, why are you acting so surprised? Does my new body bother you? Here, then…let me assume one more to your liking…"
With that, he let out a sudden moan, a near-roar of both pain and strange, twisted pleasure, and he doubled over, form shifting and twisting under his ebony cape. As the searchers watched in mute horror, the monster known as Moo dropped to his hands and knees, unearthly growls and wails coming from his shifting mouth. His face lengthened; his armor contracted to better fit his shrinking form; the long mane of pink fur at his back darkened into a deeper, different hue. What remained of his mask shifted to fit his new face, but it no longer concealed his identity.
When he looked up, it was not Moo, but Tiger of the Wind that returned Hare’s shocked gaze with a cold sneer.
"There, do you prefer this form, then?" he inquired, and his voice now sounded exactly like Tiger’s, with the exception that it carried an undercurrent of pure hatred and evil in it. "Personally, I much prefer my own reshaping of this body; after all, hands are such useful things…but I suppose that its original form has its own…advantages."
Hare could not reply; his mouth worked silently, and tears slowly began to glimmer in his widened, wavering eyes. The other rebels suffered from the same paralysis, and only Grey Wolf found himself able to speak.
"Brother!" he cried, taking an unconscious step forward. "Is it really you?!?"
The cloaked monster glanced coldly in his direction, and Grey Wolf recoiled at the sight of his cold, impassive face. Blue eyes wavered as they gazed up into darkly shining golden ones, and the silver wolf felt his heart sink as his instincts reluctantly confirmed the evil monster’s claim.
"Tiger…" he breathed, voice heavy with despair, "it is you…oh, big brother…"
"Do not call me that, traitor!" the blue wolf snapped, his visible eyes filled with loathing and hatred. "I am the all mighty and powerful Moo, and your precious brother is gone forever!"
"No!" Grey Wolf, Genki, Hare, Holly, Mocchi and Suezo shouted in unison; Serinity, Eboni and Coltia were too stunned to speak, while Scaler and Alan watched silently, each fingering their blades.
"This can’t be true!" Genki shouted, shaking his head in violent refusal. "You’d never be able to turn Tiger against us!"
"Tiger is strong, chi!"
"There’s no way that you could take over Tiger’s body like that!" Suezo chimed in, although he did not look quite as certain of that as he made himself sound.
"That’s right, this is a trick!" Hare said, glaring at the cloaked monster. The lupine returned his gaze mildly.
"Oh really?" he asked, deep voice still mocking them; he appeared to be reveling in their denial. "You mean like the little trick you pulled during the tournament? ‘Please don’t hurt me, mister Tiger of the Wind, I’m sorry I ever thought I could do anything against your strength.’ A trick like that?"
Hare gasped, and he stared in growing horror at the monster standing before him, unable to think of anything else to say that would deny what appeared before him.
"Now then…let’s finish our fight," the lupine monster snarled, a demented grin distorting the visible half of his face.
"………!" Hare fell backward slightly, his wide brown eyes wavering with horror as he stared blankly at the monster before him.
As the searchers watched, tendrils of dark mist began to pulse around the blue wolf’s body. The crimson eye in his mask glowed bloodfire, while his golden eye widened with demonic glee. Dark blue electricity formed around his horns, and then the monster let out a triumphant howl as he launched a series of massive thunderbolts at them.
"Uwaaaaahhhhh!" Hare screamed in agony as he made a desperate attempt to strengthen his shields. Suddenly, a dark lightning bolt pierced the glowing sphere around him, and the rabbit’s shriek was abruptly cut off.
"Aaagghhh!" the rebels screamed as they were all blown backward by the force of the explosion. Genki slammed into the wall first, and bounced forward a few feet before hitting the ground. He slumped down with a pained groan as the others fell beside him.
"Ku-kuso," Scaler hissed as he slowly propped himself up on one bleeding arm. Raising his head, his violet-brown eyes suddenly widened in horror, and he shouted, "Hare!"
The tawny-furred rabbit lay crumpled on the floor, gasping and choking. The Phoenix’s Tear glowed at his neck, and the scarlet light blinded him for a moment as he forced blurring eyes open.
Tiger of the Wind – no, Moo – was standing directly over him, a triumphant sneer distorting the visible side of his face. Dark blue lightning so dark as to be almost black pulsed round his glowing horns, ready and waiting to be unleashed upon the helpless bunny.
"I win," the blue wolf whispered, golden and crimson eyes gleaming, as his smirk grew wider.
"Ti…Tiger…" Hare breathed, tears brimming in his dull brown eyes and trickling down the side of his bruised face. He reached up toward the lupine with a trembling paw, a faint reddish aura flickering around his fur. Suddenly the blue wolf flinched backwards.
"Ha-Hare…everyone…r-run…" he whispered, his voice suddenly familiar, no longer carrying that horrible undercurrent of venom in it. Startled, Hare stared up at the wolf’s face and saw that the monster’s golden eye had lost its evil gleam, and the red eye of the mask had dimmed away.
Suddenly, the cloaked monster let out an angry roar and lurched backward, the mask’s crimson eye flashing violently.
"Wha-what is this?" he snarled, voice dripping with hatred again. "Go away! I warn you, do not try to defy me! I own this body now, it belongs to me and me alone!"
He grunted, then suddenly his head snapped up violently, eyes widening unnaturally.
"NO! I won’t let you…kill my friends!" he shouted, his voice back to its normal, untainted tone again.
Then his face contorted into a grimace, and the lupine monster let out an unearthly howl, stumbling backward. Breathing raggedly, he shook his head violently and screamed again, obviously in terrible pain.
"Tiger!" Hare shouted, stumbling to his feet. The Phoenix’s Tear was flaring and blazing at his chest, and he cupped both of his paws around it as he shouted, "You can beat him!"
"Don’t let him do this to you, Tiger!" Holly pleaded, bronze eyes wavering as she clutched the Magic Stone to her chest.
"Tiger!" Suezo shouted, leaning against her for support, his green-gold eye narrowing as he stared intently at the writhing monster.
"Come back, Tiger! Please don’t let Moo take you away from us!" Serinity added her voice to the others, wanting to do something – anything – to help them.
"Come on, brother," Grey Wolf whispered, blue eyes wavering with near tears. "You can beat him…"
"Mister Tiger! Don’t give in!" Coltia shouted, clutching Eboni in her arms.
"TIGER!" Genki yelled, clear eyes shutting as a single, shining tear squeezed out of one of them.
I know you can do it, Hare thought, clutching the glowing Phoenix’s Tear in his paws.
The blue lupine let out a horrible shriek, then he collapsed to the ground, ebony cape settling around his suddenly limp form. Hare cried out and ran toward him, but slowed down abruptly as he approached, recognizing that he might be putting himself in danger if the wrong one had won the fight.
"Tiger?" he asked, hesitant, voice trembling.
The lupine groaned and opened his visible eye slightly, a single slit of pure gold against the white fur covering his face.
"He…help me," Tiger gasped, gazing up at the rabbit with blurring eyes. "Get…get him away…make his voice go away…"
Hare winced slightly, seeing the desperation of that plea clearly etched on the blue wolf’s agonized face.
"I will," he promised, kneeling in front of the sprawled monster.
Smiling shakily at Tiger in an attempt to reassure both of them, Hare closed his wavering eyes in concentration. He gently placed his paws on the blue wolf’s sweaty forehead, and the lupine seemed to relax slightly at his hesitant touch. The Phoenix’s Tear flared into familiar warmth and a flickering scarlet light began to form around the two monsters.
* Phoenix…please give me the power to heal Tiger… *
"Brother…" Grey Wolf breathed, making the word into a sort of prayer.
Like the other searchers, the silver-furred lupine stared at the scene before them with a mixture of awe and hope rising in his heart. Soft blue eyes wavered with near-tears as he watched the tense agony on Tiger’s face slowly melt away under the soothing scarlet light, relaxing into an expression of complete peace.
The other rebels noticed this as well, and Holly gasped as she tightened her arms around Suezo, a smile slowly spreading over her face. The grin that tugged at the edge of Genki’s mouth widened, and he opened it to cheer, "You did it!"
But before he could get the words out, everything changed.
The relaxed expression on Tiger’s face abruptly twisted into a leering grin, and the blue wolf suddenly thrust his head up, driving his horns into Hare’s chest. The rabbit winced, and the flame aura flashed out of existence as his concentration shattered. The two monsters seemed to be locked together, Hare impaled on Tiger’s horns, and the moment seared itself into everyone’s disbelieving eyes.
Then Tiger stepped backward, allowing the young monster’s body to slide off of his horns, and for a moment Hare seemed to glance directly at the lupine, his brown eyes wide. Then Hare slumped forward, slowly, eyes closing as he fell in a boneless collapse to the hard, cold surface of the ebony floor. A terrible silence hung in the chamber, broken only by the sound of blood dripping from Tiger’s horns.
Genki and the other searchers stared blankly at the two, unable to react. Holly was trembling, and she raised shaking hands to her face as tears filled her wavering eyes. Suezo’s eye had dilated to a single dot, and Mocchi’s eyes had nearly doubled in size as they overflowed with tears. Grey Wolf stared at his brother in pure disbelief, while the other rebels simply froze.
Tiger of the Wind smirked, and abruptly the silence was shattered by his maniac laughter. The blue wolf threw back his head, his body shaking as he howled triumphantly, "I’ve done it! The wielder of the Phoenix’s Tear is dying! Nothing can stand in my way now!"
His body gave a sudden, convulsive twitch, and shifted back into its humanoid form, allowing the dark monster to stand up again. His ebony cloak billowed behind him as he threw back his head and laughed, both fists raised into the air, his golden eye gleaming brighter than his armor. Then he glanced over at the other rebels, and his gaze happened to rest briefly on the broken part of his mask. A cruel smirk twisted his thin, pale lips.
"I think I shall keep my mask the way it is now," he commented, voice still thick with laughter and contempt. "I do enjoy this new look."
He whirled away, and Genki suddenly ran toward him, Grey Wolf at his heels.
"Stop! Tiger!" the boy shouted, reaching out to clutch at the warlord’s flowing cape.
"Brother!" Grey Wolf yelled, running after him as well.
The baddie commander glanced back at them, and sneered. With a single flick of his wrist, he smacked the two and sent them flying backward, crashing into the others.
"Pathetic," he commented, turning away. "You weaklings may live…for now…"
"Nnngghh…stop!" Genki shouted, struggling to his feet, but it was too late, for with a sudden flash of dark light, Moo had vanished from the chamber.
* * *
"Master! You’ve returned!" a Weed cried as he saw the cloaked monster striding through the doorway to the main chamber of the floating fortress. Then he saw the exposed part of his face, and gasped in horror, "M-master…your mask…"
"Leave it," Moo snarled, turning an icy glare on the trembling Weed. The baddie shrank back with fear, and Moo smirked to himself, his pale lips twisting into a grin.
"Do not let this new look bother you, servant," he said, the half-smirk still tugging at the edge of his lips. "It was merely a side effect of my battle with the searchers, and I find that I rather enjoy the look."
"Y-You fought the searchers?" Weed stammered, trembling even more. "H-How did it go?
In response, Moo threw back his head and laughed, until the Weed’s frightened face slowly twisted into a shaky grin.
"T-then the Phoenix’s Tear?" he asked.
"No longer is a threat to us," Moo replied, still smirking to himself. "Even as we speak, the lifeblood of that wretched little rabbit is draining away, becoming little more than a stain on the tower’s floor. He will no longer pose any danger to us, and as for the others…"
He let out a cold, dry chuckle, and the Weed caught himself shivering with fear.
"The others?" he prodded, gently.
"I told them that they could live for now," his commander replied, and the visible part of his face distorted even more as he grinned and added, "The only problem is, ‘now’ is come and gone at this point. Such a pity…well, I’m certain that they’ll find that my special unit will take good care of them…"
He laughed again, shortly, then suddenly straightened up, and his crimson and golden eyes glowed in unison as he turned to face his servant.
"Weed! Send out the order! We depart at once!"
"Yes! …T-to where, my lord?" the plant hybrid inquired meekly.
"You will see…" was Moo’s only reply, and his eyes gleamed knowingly as he turned his gaze back out of the window, looking back at the tower that loomed before him.
* * *
Genki was the first one to reach Hare.
The boy kneeled next to his friend and gently pulled him into his trembling arms, clear eyes misting as they rested on the pair of deep wounds in the rabbit’s heaving chest. Just above the twin gashes, the Phoenix’s Tear flickered crimson light, casting shadows over Hare’s pale, stricken face. Normally wide, mischievous brown eyes were tightly closed, and he gasped raggedly, shuddering as he fought for each breath.
"Oh no," Eboni breathed as she stumbled over to his side with the others. "No. No. No. This isn’t real. This isn’t happening…"
"If only that were true," Scaler growled, glaring at the babbling young bunny with steely eyes. His fingers clenched around the hilt of his sword, and he solemnly added, "He needs medical attention, now. We should leave, quickly."
Genki nodded, numbly, clear brown eyes filling with determination as he glanced back down at Hare’s pale face. Turning to Serinity, he passed the comatose Hare to her carefully, snapping the pixie hybrid out of her stunned paralysis. She stared at him with huge, frightened verdant eyes, clutching the young rabbit numbly with both arms.
"Serinity, can you heal him?" he said in a voice that seemed to plead more than ask the question.
"I…I think so," Serinity said numbly, nodding slightly as she gazed down at the unconscious bunny in her arms, biting the inside of her lip. A pale, leaf green aura began to form around her fingers, and she closed her shimmering verdant eyes in concentration, willing strength into the aching form she cradled in her arms…
"We need to get going!" she dimly overheard Alan shouting.
"You’re not going anywhere, rebels!" a deep voice rumbled from somewhere above them.
"Watch it!" Grey Wolf warned, and Genki and Serinity cried out in unison as the silver-furred lupine threw himself roughly against them.
As they stumbled away, something that looked like a huge section of the stone ceiling plummeted down and slammed into the ground where they had been standing. Genki skidded for a moment before regaining his balance, and gritted his teeth in anger as he spun to see what had happened. Serinity twisted sharply to avoid landing on the unconscious bunny in her arms, ending up on her back instead. Grey Wolf landed in front of the pixie hybrid, and he bared his teeth in a snarl as he whirled around.
The gray slab slowly righted itself, and Coltia gasped, "An Obelisk!"
"I’m not going to let you leave," the living stone wall rasped, and as it spoke more of its kind began to move from their hiding places. "This will mark the site of your deaths, rebels!"
"I don’t think so, blockhead!" Genki retorted, regaining his balance. Whirling toward the others, he waved for them to hurry toward the exit, even as he took a fighting stance himself.
"Genki!" Serinity cried, seeing his danger.
"Get out of here," Genki ordered her, his normally clear brown eyes darkening with a stubborn determination to get his friends out of this situation. "You have to get Hare out of here and heal him, Serinity. All of you have to leave, now!"
"But Genki…" Holly trailed off, unable to put together a coherent sentence with all of the thoughts that were raging through her shocked mind.
"We don’t have time! Go!"
"Hey, I could try to teleport us out," Suezo suggested.
"As if we have time to wait for you to actually make it work," Scaler muttered. Drawing one of his swords and stepping toward the advancing Obelisks, he added, "Somebody get Hare out of here, now. I’ll make certain these monsters won’t bother you…"
The scaled hare gripped his blade in both hands and dropped into a fighting crouch. The baddies hesitated in their slow approach at the sight of the weapon’s glimmering edge.
"I’ll take them," Grey Wolf said firmly, nudging Serinity toward his back. "I’m the fastest one here, and we need all the time we can get."
Genki paused, then nodded quickly as he moved to stand with Scaler between the enemy and his friends. Alan glanced over at the other rebels and smiled for a fleeting instant.
"Be careful, you guys," he told them, even as he joined Genki and Scaler in facing off with the baddies. "Good luck."
Holly found she could not answer; her throat had unexpectedly gone completely dry, and she could only nod back at him.
Grey Wolf took off, Serinity, Holly and Eboni clinging to his back, the pixie hybrid holding the unconscious Hare carefully in her arms.
"Be careful!" Holly shouted, finally finding her voice. Then they were gone, vanishing into the darkness, leaving Genki and his team to face the baddies by themselves.
The Obelisks quickly fanned out to surround the rebels who remained, cutting them off from the doorway, and Genki and the others found themselves forced to stand in a circle, back to back with one another. Scaler’s dark eyes glittered as brightly as the edges of his swords as he held one blade in front of him and drew another from the folds of his cloak. Alan had drawn his sword as well, and he held it level before him as he regarded the baddies carefully, sapphire eyes hard with concentration. Suezo gulped and stood behind the silver-haired boy, attempting to take as much protection as he could from the other’s ready blade. Coltia aimed her slingshot carefully at one of the baddies, while Mocchi tensed, preparing to use his Cherry Blossom Blizzard, fighting back the tears in his eyes.
The rebels that had remained behind then backed into a circle, surrounding Genki on all sides. As the baddies pressed closer, the young boy found himself gazing down at his hands. There were bloodstains on his hands, glaring crimson marks against the pale flesh of his palms, and a few smears stood out on his arms and shirt. Not his blood, but a cold shiver ran down his spine as he saw in his mind’s eye the one to whom it belonged…
His trembling fingers slowly balled themselves into a fist, folding over and hiding the blood from view. He could still feel it, though, even as his shaking hands clenched tighter, his fingernails beginning to dig into his palms. A shadow fell over his face, masking his tears in darkness for a moment; then he suddenly snapped his head up and, clear brown eyes flashing, lashed out at the nearest Obelisk, crashing his fist into its hard stone body.
He failed to notice the pain that followed that action, though tears sprang to his eyes, and as the others sprang into battle as well, he blindly lashed out, again and again and again…
* * *
Tears ran freely down Serinity’s face, streaking her pale cheeks as she attempted to concentrate solely on healing the unconscious bunny she cradled in her arms. The others glanced over at her, all of their expressions holding sympathy, but she knew that, as much as they cared for their friends, they had no way of knowing what she felt at this moment.
One of the things she had learned from Dixie early on, back when she was first beginning to develop her abilities, was that it was possible to actually take the pain of whoever she was healing into her own body, to share it. It was part of why she her abilities were so strong: two hearts, two bodies, two minds together could bear the burden of pain much more than one alone could. By taking the pain of her patient into herself, and giving her own energy, her strength to them in return, she was able to mend wounds much graver than those treatable by a normal pixie’s recovery spells.
The trade-off, of course, was that she also suffered along with the one she treated. This had never been a problem for her back in her village, where the worst injuries she had needed to deal with were scraped knees and, on one occasion, a twisted ankle. Until that fateful when the elder Melon stumbled into the valley torn and bleeding, she had never touched an injury that had been deliberately dealt to someone. That experience…shook her, as nothing had before in her sheltered life. Perhaps it had been for the best that she had been killed early on in the battle, without witnessing the rout of her friends that had followed, for that sight may have completely shattered the pixie hybrid.
Now, however, Serinity found herself struggling with a wound that seemed even worse than the one that had claimed the elder’s life, so long ago. Pure, raw healing energy poured from her trembling hands into the small body cradled in her arms, as she struggled to keep the fragile life she held alive. Sweat trickled down her paling face, soaking tangled curls of orange-red hair, and her shimmering verdant eyes remained tightly closed as she took as much of the pain coursing through Hare’s body into her own.
As she fought desperately, she became aware of the fact that something else was… supporting her power… giving her more strength than she thought possible. It seemed as if… another source of energy was helping keep the young bunny alive, giving him strength…
"…Ah!" Serinity gasped as her eyes flew open to meet the worried gaze of a pair of scarlet orbs.
"Serinity! Are you okay? I’ve been yelling at you ever since we got into the Iron Bird…" Eboni cried, although she sounded more relieved than annoyed.
"…The Iron Bird…" Serinity echoed faintly, verdant eyes shimmering as she gazed blankly at her surroundings.
They were in the Iron Bird, the one that Holly and the others had taken and landed safely during their attack. The trance she had gone into had been so deep that she had failed to notice that the nightmarish ride through the enemy fortress had finally ended. Dazed, she gazed blankly around at the concerned faces surrounding her, and noted a pair of clear brown eyes staring at her.
"…Genki…" she whispered, thankful to see that he and the others had made it safely back to the Iron Bird.
However, she couldn’t help cringing inwardly as she noted the dried blood on the boy’s hands, and quickly averted her eyes from that particular sight. All of the rebels who had stayed behind to fight the Obelisks looked worn out, and Serinity found herself studying their injuries with a healer’s eye, the way she had been trained to during her youth, while silently berating herself for expending so much of her energy. She couldn’t help them right now…
"…Serinity…what do we do now?" Genki suddenly asked, startling her.
They were looking to her for guidance now, she abruptly realized as she dully looked down at the suffering bunny she still held tightly in her arms. She was the only member of their group who know so much about helping those in pain, about healing… the only member who was still able to discuss such matters, at any rate.
They needed her to act as their source of strength, even if only until this crisis had ended. Taking a deep breath, Serinity let her bangs fall over her eyes as she blinked rapidly, fighting to clear them. She knew that her green eyes were still bright with tears when she looked up to meet the gazes of the other searchers, but she didn’t care. She had to be strong… or at least act as if she was strong enough to get through this.
"…We…have to find a village to land in, firstly," she heard her own voice saying, and was surprised to find that her tone was somehow remaining steady, faltering only once. "He’ll…need rest in order to keep his strength up, and I…"
"I’ll find a village," Alan interrupted, whirling on his heel and striding purposefully toward the cockpit. Fighting to keep his own voice steady, he said, "Suezo, would you come up here with me, please?"
"…Huh? Why me?" Suezo asked, blinking.
"Well, your only real talent is being able to see farther and more clearly than others," said Scaler, and the eyeball monster whirled to glare at him automatically.
However, as the two locked gazes, Suezo found himself recoiling slightly as the scaled hare simply stared at him. Dark violet-brown eyes returned his glare steadily, for once not carrying the normal cold disdain that he normally glimpsed in their mysterious depths. Belatedly, Suezo realized that Scaler had not been simply insulting him this time: he was stating a fact, adding the jibe at his talents merely to disguise his real feelings about the situation. From the furtive glance that the scaled rabbit shot in Serinity’s direction, it wasn’t too hard for him to guess what he was thinking about…
"…Uh…coming, Alan," Suezo finally muttered, feeling awkward and taking the fastest way out available to him.
"…Hare will be okay, right?" Eboni asked hopefully, staring up at the pixie hybrid with wide, hopeful garnet eyes. "…He’ll be just fine, right?"
"He’ll get better, right-chi?" Mocchi echoed.
"………" Serinity simply looked at the younger monsters, not knowing what to say.
"…Yeah, he’ll be fine," Genki spoke up after a moment, smiling reassuringly at the pair. "…He’s gotta be…"
"…Genki…" Holly whispered, seeing how the boy’s normally clear brown eyes were unusually bright. Eboni and Mocchi appeared to take his promise to heart, seeing the shimmering in his eyes as conviction, but she knew better. She could tell that withheld tears caused it…
In Serinity’s lap, Hare moaned softly, shifting slightly, and the pixie hybrid quickly bent back to her task, pooling all of her remaining strength into her recovery spell. Her fingers glowed with a faint verdant aura, casting shadows over her pale, strained face. The only other light came from the flickering crimson aura from the Phoenix’s Tear, a light that seemed to sputter and flash like a flame on the verge of burning out of existence…
The port town had obviously seen better days: while once the village had been a bustling merchant’s community supported by the ships that always seemed to swarm around the harbor, it was now literally a shell of its former self. The war with Moo had hit hard and fast, swooping down upon them on draconian wings in the night. Flushed out into the streets by both fire and the monster warriors who stormed their houses, the citizens found themselves faced with more of the hideous hordes. Within the course of a single night, the entire town had changed: the sun had set on a bustling, healthy community and then risen on ruins and deserted, empty streets.
Strangely, however, the baddies had not stayed in the now wrecked village for long: although the harbor gave them a possible outlet to the sea, once all of the ships had been either commandeered and ransacked and sunk, there was little else of use for the evil monsters. So they had withdrawn, moving to the nearby mountain fortress, leaving behind an empty town. On the insistence of their master, they had fixed the damage they had inflicted on the buildings. There was always the odd chance that a sailing ship, seeing the harbor and not knowing that the inhabitants of the town were all dead, might dock there… giving the baddies another opportunity to gain supplies.
At first, the searchers had fallen for the ruse in much the same matter: Suezo had spotted the village from above, and Alan had landed the Iron Bird there, only to discover their mistake when they found the streets and buildings completely deserted. Still, a refuge was a refuge, and so the small band of rebels had decided to make do with what they had found.
"Strange…it doesn’t look that much like a ghost town," Coltia observed as she walked along the barren paths, glancing back at the other rebels who had accompanied her on this short quest to check out the area.
"You’re right," Genki agreed, confused.
"It looks like the baddies rebuilt it after tearing most of it down," commented Alan: the blue-gray-haired boy had one hand gripped firmly on the hilt of his blade, and sapphire eyes scanned the deserted streets nervously.
"I wonder why they would do such a thing?" Coltia murmured, absently tracing patterns against the surface of the wall beside her with her fingers. "…Were they going to use this as a base?"
"If that was their plan, they seem to have abandoned it, at any rate," Alan told her. "I haven’t seen a single living thing here, other than us…"
"…Let’s get back to the others," Genki said after an uncomfortable pause. "I don’t like the idea of being away from everyone else for too long here…"
"Yeah," agreed Coltia, and she shuddered, tugging on the edges of her sleeves as if for warmth, although the action did little against the cold feeling that twisted deep in the pit of her stomach.
Alan nodded, and said, "I’ll meet you guys back there: I’m going to go make certain that the Worms are still guarding the spot where we hid the Iron Bird, and staying out of sight…"
With that, he ran off, a blur of motion that seemed oddly out of place against the long-empty streets. Genki and Coltia watched him leave, then slowly walked back together toward the building they had chosen as their primary shelter: a former inn that overlooked the harbor.
The inn had been an obvious choice: much to their surprise, a lot of the furniture and such had remained in the building looking mostly untouched. Scaler had observed that this probably meant that the enemy had used this building for a while after destroying the village as a sort of makeshift base, taking advantage of what was already there for their own purposes.
Of course, now the rebels were using the abandoned lodgings for themselves. The irony of the fact that the items that had survived the attack had probably been used by their enemies before they arrived was not lost on the majority of the searchers, but they had little time to dwell on such matters.
In one of the former guestrooms, Holly sighed, struggling to keep her gaze focused out the open window beside her. What remained of gauzy curtains fluttered in the cool breeze that swept through the open pane: whoever had restored this room had replaced the cloth drapery, but not the window glass. Outside, the first few stars of early evening were beginning to appear in the darkening sky, and the young woman hoped that the other searchers would return soon from their explorations of the village.
She was not alone in the room, although that thought brought little comfort. Despite herself, Holly glanced over at her companion: the half-pixie, half-plant hybrid Serinity sat on a chair beside one of the beds in the chamber, glowing hands hovering just over the chest of the cot’s occupant. Serinity’s eyes were tightly shut in concentration, and she shivered slightly as she poured more of her recovery magic into the unconscious form before her. After a few moments, she gasped, snapping out of her trance as the last of her energy reverses tapped out, and Holly watched in concern as the pixie hybrid wrapped her arms around her trembling body, fighting off the overwhelming exhaustion she felt.
"…Ah, Holly! …He’s doing a little better," Serinity replied, anticipating what the girl’s next question would be. "I think…the wound has sealed up completely on the outside, and I could feel the Phoenix’s Tear’s magic working on his…internal injuries…"
The pixie hybrid trailed off and lowered her gaze sadly to the small rabbit lying on the bed before her, and Holly pulled her chair up beside her. She noticed that Hare did appear to be healing: the twin gashes in his chest had vanished, and it looked for all the world as if the young bunny was simply resting. However, the way that his crystalline pendant shimmered a bright crimson and a faint, barely tangible reddish aura clung to his tawny and white fur belied the illusion.
"…And how are you doing, Serinity?" asked Holly quietly.
The female monster continued to gaze at her patient, keeping her eyes carefully averted from where Holly sat at her side. This could not keep Holly from observing the paleness of the pixie’s hybrid cheeks, or how she clenched her delicate hands in her lap, wringing the edge of her white dress.
A faint creaking behind them alerted both to the fact that they were no longer alone in the room, and Holly turned to see Scaler standing silently in the doorway. Dark violet-brown eyes bore directly into the pair, then shifted their gaze slightly to the small figure lying on the bed for a fleeting instant before quickly glancing away again.
"…Genki and the others wish to see both of you," he informed them, turning away even as he spoke. "…If you are finished here for the moment, they’re meeting downstairs…"
"Thank you, Scaler," Holly said, standing up.
But the green rabbit did not appear to hear her soft reply, having already turned and stalked away. Holly glimpsed the end of his cloak as it disappeared back through the doorway, then turned to see that Serinity had not moved. Instead, the pixie hybrid was still gazing sadly at Hare, shimmering verdant eyes cast partly into shadow by her bangs.
"…Serinity…are you coming?" she prompted gently.
Silence, then the female monster slowly looked over at Holly and nodded, inclining her head ever so gently.
"…Yes…" she whispered, voice so faint that the young women barely heard her.
Quietly, so as not to disturb Hare, Serinity got to her feet and joined Holly in front of the doorway. As she walked past, Holly reached out and gripped the half-pixie’s shoulder briefly, hoping to comfort her, and was rewarded with a faint, sad smile that lasted only a few precious seconds.
Then she walked past the girl and out of the room, and Holly moved to follow, only to pause in the doorway and glance back over her shoulder. The flickering crimson light from the Phoenix’s Tear sent shadows dancing over the barren walls and caused her bright bronze eyes to shimmer with her withheld tears. Shaking her head, she quickly turned away and closed the door behind her, silently promising to come back later and check on the little bunny again…
* * *
"…Sorry I took so long," Alan said as he walked into the inn to find most of the other rebels waiting for him. "It took a while to make certain that the Iron Bird was still hidden and that the Worms were okay. They don’t like being here…"
"They’re not the only ones," muttered Coltia, shuddering again.
"Where are Mocchi and Eboni?" asked Serinity, looking around at the other searchers and not seeing the two youngsters anywhere. "Are they still outside somewhere…?"
"No, no, nothing like that," Coltia quickly replied, shaking her head violently in the negative. "They were both really worn out from everything that’s happened, so we had them go upstairs to rest for a while…"
"…Besides, this is not really a matter for children," Scaler interrupted, looking directly at Genki.
Genki glared back at the scaled hare, knowing what he was implying, but said nothing. Fighting with him would solve nothing at this point…
"…So…what do we do now?" Suezo inquired meekly, gazing around at the other rebels as he waited for some sort of reply.
None came. The small band of searchers looked around at one another, each privately hoping that somebody would break the awful silence that had descended over the room by saying something…anything…that would help them out.
"…We continue the quest," Scaler abruptly said, scanning the group with his dark violet-brown eyes as all faces turned at once toward where he stood leaning against the wall.
"…Our…quest…" Serinity echoed dully, leaf green eyes wavering as she appeared to become lost in her own thoughts.
"…The one to defeat Moo," qualified Scaler, sensing that the pixie hybrid was thinking along lines starkly different than his own.
As he had expected, the other rebels jerked visibly at his quiet declaration, all staring at him with varying degrees of shock, horror and outrage twisting their faces. Not that how they reacted mattered much to the green rabbit…
"What?!?" Genki shouted, jumping to his feet, glaring at the scaled hare with flashing, clear brown eyes. "Y-you…"
"You can’t be serious!" Suezo took over the boy’s statement, green-gold pupil dilating slightly with shock. "I-if we do that…then Tiger…"
"…That blue wolf whose body has become the vessel for Moo’s spirit?" Scaler said more than inquired, locking gazes with the eyeball monster. "…Tell me something, Suezo…. Do you honestly believe that it was your old friend that you were fighting?"
"…Uh…" Suezo faltered, dropping his gaze to the floor after a few moments.
"…What about you, Genki?" the scaled hare continued, shifting his dark, thoughtful eyes to the youth’s face, to those wide, clear eyes that always seemed to shine with an inner light. "You think that it was really Tiger of the Wind that you were fighting…? …That Tiger would have stabbed one of his old companions as savagely as he did Hare…?"
Holly glanced over at Genki and Suezo, knowing exactly what her old friends were thinking about. During their original journey together, back when they were known by the baddies as the rebel team the Courageous Seven, the Searchers, the blue wolf and the brown rabbit had a very…strained relationship. Although, at first, Tiger had somewhat of an excuse to be so hostile toward Hare, thanks to the bunny’s tricking him into losing a tournament they had both entered, for some reason, he refused to abandon those hateful feelings as time went on. Occasionally, there had been indications that he was growing to at least accept Hare: their first battle with Joker in the underground cavern maze, where each had defended the other when they were knocked down by the baddie, quickly came to mind as an example…
But such moments had been all too fleeting, and quickly dissolved into the two fighting and arguing with each other once again. Still, Holly had come to notice after a while that usually, their disputes occurred when Hare was simply teasing or kidding Tiger and the blue wolf took it far too seriously. That surprised her: did it mean that Tiger was being too literal, or did he simply hate the rabbit for some other reason that she could not yet perceive?
Then came that fateful night when Tiger accused Hare of being one of Moo’s henchmen, and the bunny overheard him and ran off during the night. In the chaos that followed, she and the others had learned about many of the secrets that Hare had kept from them: the Phoenix’s Tear, the magical abilities it gave the rabbit, about Naga… He had even been hiding his true age from them, that he was truly only a child hiding behind an illusion of adulthood in order to keep from being recaptured by his tormentor.
To say that Tiger of the Wind had not taken these revelations easily would be a serious understatement. After that day, the rift between the two seemed to become even wider, and nothing any of the rebels tried could seem to close it. The blue wolf had drifted even further to the edge of the group, becoming even colder, especially after dealing with Kaze and the truth surrounding the death of his little brother Grey Wolf. When he had left the others shortly after Genki’s departure, Holly had secretly not been surprised. She had hoped that he would be able to find his lost brother and perhaps finally let go of all of the anger and pain he kept locked inside, but…that had not been the case…
But could Tiger’s seeming hatred of Hare have possibly grown so much that he would be able to attack the young bunny like that…? Would the blue-furred lupine possibly have become so cruel and callous toward Hare as to…?
"………No," she whispered, bowing her head sadly as she shook it from side to side, once. "…No, that wasn’t Tiger… Tiger would never have…"
"…I thought as much," murmured Scaler, his tone neutral as he nodded slightly, satisfied. "I think that it’s rather obvious just what has happened…"
"What is that supposed to mean?" Genki demanded, stiffening with anger.
"What I mean is that your friend no longer is really alive," was the blunt reply.
"What?!?" Suezo, Genki and Grey Wolf cried in unison.
"Think about it: if Tiger of the Wind were still alive, would he really have allowed Moo to take over his body? Would he have let him attack his old battle companions again…? I doubt it. So, surely, he must be dead…"
"…But…that was his voice, his scent…I know," Grey Wolf murmured, blue eyes misting slightly as he remembered staring at the midnight-cloaked, twisted monster and realizing that he was seeing his elder brother.
"…Don’t you understand?" Scaler sighed, shaking his head. "…Moo is a creature of death, just as the Phoenix is of life. If Moo has taken over Tiger’s body, then he probably destroyed his soul in the process. The Tiger of the Wind you knew is dead…"
The impassioned protest had not come from Genki or Grey Wolf, as Scaler had expected, and he looked up in mild surprise, even as he silently realized that a protest from this one made sense… Other eyes turned to stare at the speaker as well, some widened with shock, all darkening with sympathy.
A faint blush sprung to Serinity’s otherwise pale white face, tingeing her cheeks. She half-covered her mouth with one slender hand as if stilling any further outburst, and her wide leaf green eyes shimmered with both fear and surprise at her own reaction. After a few moments, she dropped her gaze, nearly completely closing her eyes as she fought back tears.
"…I…just don’t think…that could possibly be right," she murmured, her voice trembling as she struggled to put her feelings into words. "…I…I’m sorry…please excuse me…"
Abruptly she stood on shaking legs and forced herself to dart out of the room, shutting out the sound of Grey Wolf’s startled cry, of Holly’s sympathetic whisper of her name, the other rebels murmuring and whispering among themselves.
"…Fragile, isn’t she?" Scaler commented shortly after she had left, looking back toward the other rebels. "…I suppose the stress has gotten to her…"
"Damnit, Scaler, can’t you at least show a little concern for others?" Suezo muttered, glaring at the green rabbit.
Ignoring the jibe, Scaler scanned the faces of the remaining rebels and asked, "Are we in agreement? No matter whose body he currently controls, Moo is still Moo, and needs to be stopped. If none of you are willing to go on, then I will simply fight him alone…"
"…No. …No, we’re still going to fight. We… I vowed long ago that we would stop him… no matter what the cost…"
Suezo stared at the speaker in shock, green-gold pupil widening with shock and fear.
* * *
Serinity sighed as she slowed her frantic pace to a slow walk down the darkened hallway, finally calming down enough to take a look at her surroundings. Brushing through a pair of gauzy curtains, the pixie hybrid found herself standing on a balcony, gazing out over the horizon and surrounding village. The sun had sunk almost completely out of sight, the last of its rays streaking the purpling sky with orange, red and gold. At any other time, the breathtaking sight might have lifted her spirits, but at that moment, the last thing she was thinking about was the world’s beauty.
"…Why…did I shout like that?" she murmured, gently rubbing the tips of her slender fingers against her forehead. "…It’s not like I really know Tiger-san all that well… All I know is what the others have told me…"
- …Plus what I have seen with my own eyes… -
That in itself wasn’t much, for she had only seen Tiger of the Wind twice: once in the throes of a living nightmare, in an old memory of a bitter battle awakened and replayed before her horrified eyes by some power she could not yet understand, and again when the demon known as Moo shifted his shape to show the rebels who he had possessed… Only those two times had she seen the blue-furred wolf with the flashing golden eyes and angry red scar. All that she knew of him came from those two brief encounters, plus the recollections and tales of those who had known him before…
…So why had she been the one to protest when Scaler had said that Tiger’s spirit must have been destroyed by Moo? …Why hadn’t Genki, Holly, Grey Wolf, or even Suezo been the one who shouted: they knew Tiger much better than she did…
Sighing, Serinity allowed her wavering verdant eyes to shift their gaze towards the sky, where the first stars of the night were beginning to appear. Staring up into the heaven’s depths, the pixie hybrid unconsciously stepped forward, resting her arms on the smooth marble railing. This part had obviously been replaced after the enemy’s attack: several sections were a slightly lighter shade than the rest of the balcony, patching areas that had been charred and broken away during the raid.
Such violence had occurred here…was violence really supposed to be the answer for everything? Would more deaths really solve the problem before them…?
- …No…no, that CAN’T be right! Fighting only leads to more fighting… vengeance only to more despair… -
A cool breeze played at the edge of Serinity’s white skirt, ruffling its edge, and swept reddish-gold bangs away from her pale face. Shivering, she wrapped her wings over her shoulders, the fragile, leaf-green skin draping like a shawl over her trembling body. It shut out most of the wind’s cruel bite, but failed to warm the cold foreboding twisting deep within her.
This is all wrong! She wailed inwardly, instinctively forcing herself to keep from crying aloud for fear of disturbing the others. I… I only wanted to find Golem… not have to fight… watch others kill others… or… or have to find… one of his friends…!
- …We shouldn’t fight. No matter what Scaler says, I can’t believe that we have to kill Mister Tiger of the Wind to save everything. There has to be another way… -
Tears misting her leaf green eyes, Serinity gazed up at the sky, watching the stars appear in turn. Her thoughts drifted back to a time long before, when she was only an innocent child, sneaking out to see the night for the first time… with one of her closest, dearest friends beside her, as it had always been during those peaceful days…
"Oh Golem," she sighed, her trembling voice a bare whisper in the night, "if Moo was able to take control of somebody as strong-willed as Tiger… then what does that mean for you? Where are you…?"
The stars twinkling so far above her held no answer, yet she continued to watch them appear, knowing that once she left, she would have to face cruel reality once more. It seemed as if a future much darker than the evening sky above her was looming on the horizon, and she wished that she could delay its coming forever…
* * *
A pair of narrowed scarlet eyes blazed as they stared up at the ceiling, tracing over the patterns of hairline cracks more out of boredom than anything else. After a few minutes, their owner let out an annoyed groan and rolled over, irritably kicking at the covers half-draped over her small, dark-furred body.
"…Sure, the other rebels get to stay up and talk about what we’re gonna do next, but the ‘little kids’ have to stay here and ‘get their rest’," Eboni griped, her tone shifting into a mocking mimicry of Coltia’s voice as she echoed what she had told her and Mocchi some time earlier. "After all…" –and here she dropped her voice to sound more like Scaler as she repeated his words– " ‘This is not a matter for children. This is solely a matter for the fighters to decide.’ Hah!"
"It’s not fair, chi," Mocchi piped up, a sour expression on his normally cheerful face as he shifted in his bed as well and turned to face the young black rabbit.
"I know! Just because we’re younger, they act like we’re not as important!" agreed Eboni, frowning petulantly and crossing her arms over her chest. "We may be kids, but we’re rebels too! We should have a say in what we do next! We can help make plans too, you know…"
Mocchi nodded agreement, but the frustration on his face gave way to sorrow as the dark-furred bunny’s words reminded him of other problems.
"…Hare always came up with lots of good plans, chi," he whispered, wide eyes wavering as he looked down sadly.
Eboni fell silent at that, remembering what had happened. Despite herself, the bunny glanced over toward the doorway: while it was closed, she knew that just across the hallway was another room like the one they were in, and resting on one of the beds in there was… Shaking off that depressing line of thinking, she looked over at Mocchi and smiled reassuringly.
"…Aw, come on, Mocchi, don’t be like that!" she coaxed. "Hare’s gonna pull through this, you’ll see! Everything’s gonna be okay!"
"…Chi?" Mocchi looked up at her, hope filling his eyes for a moment. However, this mood quickly faded, and he sighed, "But Tiger-chi…"
"…Hey, it’ll be alright," Eboni insisted. "You told me that Tiger was strong, right? …Then it’ll be okay. There’s no way that Moo can control somebody as powerful as him forever, right?"
Mocchi shook his head, not looking convinced. Eboni hopped off of her bed and walked over to the younger monster, lightly gripping his shoulders as she locked gazes with him.
"Tiger’s gonna be alright," she repeated. "We’re gonna save him, remember? I’m sure that’s what the others are talking about! We’ll find some way to beat Moo and free your friend Tiger, but we’ve gotta be strong, okay? If we’re going to help the others… and Hare, once he gets better… then we’ve got to stay strong, alright?"
Mocchi stared at the young Evil Hare, seeing the conviction and determination shining so clearly in her wide garnet eyes. She believed completely in what she was saying… not like Suezo, Serinity, or any of the others, who had avoided meeting his eyes when he asked if Hare would be okay, or what they would do about Tiger… They were uncertain, but Eboni knew that everything would be okay if they just kept going. She honestly believed that, and it was giving her the strength to deal with everything that had happened…
Smiling back at her, caught up in her enthusiasm, Mocchi nodded.
"Yeah, chi!" he beamed.
"Everything will be okay," Eboni repeated, garnet eyes shining with determination. "If we keep fighting, I’m sure that things will work out…"
* * *
"We have to defeat Moo. There is no arguing that point."
"I’m not, but Scaler…"
"There has to be another way," Coltia interrupted, shaking her head violently as if to force out the words of the others. "We can’t just…"
"Can’t just what? Defeat the one who has been trying to take over everything? The one who has tried to have you and your friends killed again and again?" Scaler’s tone was harsh, his dark violet-brown eyes smoldering like ashes.
"But…Tiger…we can’t just murder Tiger because…"
"…Because a murderer has taken over his body?" Scaler retorted, arching an eyebrow. "Look, as I said before, I seriously doubt that that wolf is still actually alive. It’s very likely that Moo destroyed his soul when he possessed his body. After all, such a thing would probably interfere with his control…"
"…Destroy his…spirit…?" Holly echoed dully, bronze eyes holding a faraway look as she considered the scaled hare’s words.
"That can’t be possible!" Genki exploded, slamming his fist on the table before him.
"…Genki…" murmured Suezo, staring at the boy in concern.
"It’s possible," Scaler said darkly, returning Genki’s glare with a calm glance. "We’re talking about a monster with powers far beyond what most of us can comprehend. Moo has apparently come back from the dead, and has taken the body of one of those who helped defeat him. What makes you so certain that he wouldn’t ensure that there is no way of that wolf fighting him again?"
"…It…can’t be…" Suezo whispered, shaking his head slowly in denial.
"Oh? Why not? Moo is a murderer by nature, someone that has wiped out countless lives in the past. What makes you think that he wouldn’t do the same with the one who provided him with a new vessel?"
"…If Moo…kills the soul of the one he possesses…" Holly whispered, bronze eyes shimmering with tears as she closed them.
A wave of remembered pain and fresh grief swept over the young woman, and she bowed her head, allowing her bangs to fall over her face and mask her expression. The thought that Moo murdered the ones whose bodies he took over… it was both frightening and oddly reassuring in a strange, twisted sense. If it was true, then it meant…
- …It would mean that I didn’t really end up helping to kill… …Father… …Not if he was already dead once he was… taken… -
"…Tiger…no, it isn’t true! Don’t you remember, guys? When he stopped attacking… Tiger’s still in there! He was fighting with Moo, trying to drive him out!" Genki insisted.
"…Yeah, that’s right!" Coltia quickly agreed, grasping at the shred of hope in the boy’s words. "He’s still alive, and…"
"It was a trick," Scaler interrupted. "Haven’t you figured that out by now? It was a damned trick, a ruse, a sham."
"Listen to me, Genki," the green rabbit said, locking eyes with the youth once more. "If Tiger was as strong-willed as you say…"
"He IS!" shouted the boy, stubborn.
"…If he was as strong-willed as you keep telling me," Scaler repeated, "and Moo hadn’t disposed of his soul when he took over the body…do you really think that Moo would have had such an easy time attacking all of you? In case you’ve forgotten, he batted you and the others around like flies: especially you and Grey Wolf…"
"………" Grey Wolf closed his blue eyes in remembered pain.
"…No, it’s clear now that he was simply baiting a trap for us," the scaled hare continued, violet-brown eyes darkening with anger. "He knew how all of you would react to seeing that Tiger was his new host, and played upon that, staging that ‘inner struggle’ scene just to lure Hare closer… …and we all fell for it."
The green rabbit dropped his gaze to the floor abruptly, and the others noticed that his paws clenched into tighter fists for a heartbeat: as emotionless as he normally appeared, he did appear to be silently berating himself for falling for such a deception. The pause lasted only a few seconds, however, and when Scaler looked back up at the others, his neutral expression had already returned.
"No matter what all of you may think or believe, the truth of the matter is, we have a powerful monster out there who is willing to destroy everything that stands in his way. The body he controls does not matter…what matters is making certain that he is stopped. …I will fight him, even if nobody else here will…"
"…We’re gonna fight," Genki interrupted, standing up. "You’re right about one thing: Moo has to be stopped. But I’m not going to kill Tiger just for that! There’s gotta be a way to save him, and I’m going to find it!"
"…Genki…" whispered Holly, watching the youth sadly.
Clear brown eyes shining, Genki looked around at the others, his gaze lingering on Grey Wolf the longest. The silver-furred lupine had said the least during their discussions, simply listening to the others and watching them with haunted ice blue eyes. His silence seriously bothered Genki, but he didn’t really know what he could do or say that could possibly help his friend.
"…There’s got to be a way," he repeated. "There’s just gotta be…"
"…Genki…" Grey Wolf suddenly murmured, looking up at the others.
"…What’s wrong, Grey Wolf?" asked Suezo, seeing the haunted look in the silver-furred lupine’s eyes. He already knew, of course, but felt he should ask anyway.
"…I hate to be the one who points this out," Grey Wolf said slowly, "but…does anyone even have any idea where he went?"
Where HE went, Holly noted sadly. Not ‘where Tiger went’ or ‘where Moo went’… just… where he went…
"…I don’t know," Coltia admitted, frowning slightly. "…I didn’t even think about that… I was just happy not to run into him when we were running…"
"I hate to say it, but I don’t know either," Alan said. "After he left, I got so caught up in the fighting and trying to survive…"
"…Suezo, you are not a fighter. Did you see where Moo…?"
"No, I didn’t, Scaler," hissed the eyeball monster, green-gold pupil darkening with anger as he glared at the cloaked rabbit. "…But I did notice that the floating fortress was gone while we were leaving in the Iron Bird…"
"…Huh. Wonder where he could have gone to…" Coltia mused, looking up at the ceiling as she leaned back in her chair. "I mean, it’s not like a floating fortress is all that easy to hide…"
"Why would he want to hide?" Suezo muttered, trembling. "He’s an evil tyrant, I think he can do pretty much whatever he wants…"
"At least, until we find him," Scaler qualified, fingering the edge of one of his knives under the folds of his cloak.
"…But where could Moo have gone?" asked Coltia.
The rebels bowed their heads, lost in thought. Absently, Holly’s hand strayed to where her talisman hung on her belt, and she wrapped shaking fingers around the dagger’s hilt. Closing wavering bronze eyes, images of her father swirled in the young woman’s mind: the loving parent she had known as a child, the traveler leaving their home behind forever, and the creature he had become when Moo’s soul merged with his body…
- When he left, I felt like my heart would break… but that didn’t happen until much later, when my home was… and I discovered that you… -
Holly abruptly leapt to her feet, breathing hard. The other rebels stared at her in alarm.
"Holly?!? What’s wrong?" Genki, Suezo and Alan cried in unison.
"………No… …Oh, no…" the young woman whispered, bronze eyes wavering as she stared blankly ahead of her.
"…Holly?" Coltia asked, shuddering slightly at the haunted expression on the older girl’s face. "What’s going on…? Why…?"
Holly looked around at the other searchers, her shimmering gaze finally resting on Grey Wolf. The silver-furred lupine stared back at her, his ice blue eyes filled with confusion, not knowing why she was acting so strangely.
"…Grey Wolf…" Holly murmured, her voice softer than normal. "…I…I think I know where Moo is headed…"
She did not need to go further: comprehension slowly dawned on the silver lupine, his blue eyes darkening as he realized what she was attempting to tell him. A heavy silence fell over the room as the others slowly caught on.
"…You think that…" Coltia trailed off without finishing her question, seeing the answer she feared in the dark expressions of the other rebels.
Grey Wolf just nodded solemnly, ice blue eyes holding a faraway, haunted look as he gazed past his friends as if they didn’t exist, focused only on one thing…
"The pack," he said simply.
Then, with a sudden blur of movement, the silver-furred lupine was racing past the other rebels, ignoring their startled shouts and cries, avoiding their outstretched hands that fumbled for him, trying to hold him back from what he felt must be done…
* * *
Out on the balcony, Serinity still gazed up at the stars, lost in her own musings. Head slightly tilted upward to face the horizons, her shimmering verdant eyes reflecting the starlight, half-veiled behind her lowered eyelashes. A cold breeze whirled around her, brushing her short, reddish-gold hair away from her face, and she sighed, wanting to hesitate there just a bit longer, to delay her returning to face the problems that swarmed around her constantly…
"…Grey Wolf, come back!"
Serinity gasped as the sudden shout jolted her back to reality, and looked in the direction that the commotion was coming from. As she watched, confused, Grey Wolf dashed out of the inn, moving faster than she had ever seen the silver-furred lupine run before. The others were chasing after him, shouting for him to stop. Wondering just what was going on, the pixie hybrid spread her wings and glided down to the others, landing right in front of Grey Wolf, who barely avoided knocking her over.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"Get out of my way," snarled Grey Wolf, much to her shock.
Taken aback, Serinity just stared at him, not knowing what was wrong.
"Grey Wolf!" Genki shouted, skidding to a stop beside the two monsters.
"Leave me alone, Genki," muttered the silver wolf, avoiding the eyes of the others as they caught up.
"Where exactly do you think you are going?" Scaler asked.
"…My pack is in danger, and I’m not going to stay here and not do anything about it," Grey Wolf replied, a dangerous glint in his ice blue eyes as he added, "I’m going back. I never should have left in the first place…"
"But Grey Wolf…!" Coltia gasped.
"There’s no way you’ll be able to make it back in time," Alan told him, sapphire eyes solemn. "Even the Iron Bird wouldn’t be able to fly fast enough to catch up with Moo’s flying fortress… You’d never make it in time…"
"…NO! Damnit!" howled Grey Wolf, angrily swiping at the ground before him. His claws raked a set of sloping, jagged furrows into the soft mud, and the silver-furred lupine bowed his head, whispering, "No…big brother, no…"
"…Grey Wolf…" Holly whispered, bronze eyes wavering with sympathy.
"Why are we getting so worked up? I mean, it’s not like we’re even certain that’s where Moo’s heading…"
"…He’ll go there, Suezo," Grey Wolf replied, his head still bowed, his face still partially shadowed by his ruffled mane. "…I realized it the moment Holly suggested it. …Moo’s bonded with my bro… with Tiger, so he’d know where…"
"…But didn’t you move where your pack lived?" Suezo asked, attempting to reassure the others. "…I mean, we checked where we met Tiger before, at the old caves, and didn’t see…"
"We moved from there, yes, but we didn’t move far. …We…we were hoping that Tiger would come back and find us, and so… we didn’t want to stray too far from…"
The irony was not lost on any of the searchers, and they glanced helplessly at one another as an awkward silence fell over them. Grey Wolf stared down at the ground beneath his paws, shadows falling over his face and masking his expression. However, the others could tell from his slumped shoulders and drooping tail that the silver lupine was already mourning for his pack-mates.
"How…how terrible," Serinity murmured, leaf green eyes shimmering with tears as she slowly shook her head in futile denial. "To…lose everything…"
Her thoughts shifted against her will to her friends back in the forest village: would she be mourning the loss of them soon as well? It was entirely too possible, something that seemed all the more likely to occur the more she dwelt on it. Unlike Grey Wolf’s friends, who she assumed were at least somewhat familiar with battle, her friends were mostly untrained and inexperienced, most having only one real encounter with combat in their past… the battle that had claimed their lives, including her own…
Serinity shuddered, remembering how her first real encounter with death had come shortly before the battle had exploded upon them, and she had fallen as well. One of the elders, who everyone called simply Melon, had been the first to expire, shortly after delivering a warning of what was to come. She could still recall all too clearly the shock she had felt when he materialized beside her while she picked flowers, how she had turned to see the beloved adult battered, beaten and bleeding…
"…Ah!" the half-pixie gasped, realizing with a start what they might be able to do.
"Serinity?" Grey Wolf asked, looking up at her with concern.
Ignoring that, the pixie hybrid quickly glanced around, looking for the one who might be able to help them. It took only a few seconds for her frantic gaze to rest upon the one she wanted, and she pointed a trembling finger toward him.
"…Suezo! You can help!" she heard her own voice, shaking and nervous, cry.
"What?" the eyeball monster asked, a blank look on his face.
"…When Melon warned us about the attack…he…he…" Unable to continue, she forced herself to spit out, "Suezo, you can teleport us back to where Grey Wolf’s pack is!"
"Wh-aaaaaa-aaaaat?" Suezo cried, green-gold pupil going wide with shock. Seeing how the other rebels all whirled to stare at him, he quickly blurted, "Now wait just a… I can’t… I just can’t…"
"Why not?" Serinity pleaded, wavering verdant eyes locked on his face. "It may be the only way we could make it in time…"
"Bu-but I’m not skilled enough to… I couldn’t possibly… it’s too far… I… I…"
Suezo heard his weak protesting slowly die off as he stared around at the faces of the others. Serinity was looking at him with hope filling her bright, leaf green eyes, while Grey Wolf had a similar expression on his face. Coltia and Alan were staring openly at him: neither human appeared to know quite what to make of this situation. Genki and Holly, who knew what his teleporting was like, were looking at him with veiled concern in their eyes.
- Serinity doesn’t even know for certain that I can Teleport… from what she was saying earlier, it sounds more like she assumed I knew how since one of her friends could… -
He had offered to try a Teleport before, back in the fortress, but he wasn’t certain that Serinity had overheard that comment. The only one who had shown any sign of hearing him had been Scaler, and the green rabbit had dismissed the idea, saying that they didn’t have time for him to attempt that.
"…Do…do you think that you could really teleport that far?" Coltia wondered, staring at the eyeball monster.
"…He has to," Grey Wolf answered for her, ice blue eyes locked on Suezo’s face as he added, "It’s the only option we have left to help my pack…"
"…I’ll do it," Suezo said suddenly, startled by the sound of his own voice.
"Suezo?!?" Holly and Genki cried, staring at him in surprise.
"Grey’s right, we don’t really have much of a choice," the eyeball monster heard himself reply, forcing himself to sound calm. "…If-if there’s any chance that this will work, then we have to take it."
"…Suezo…" murmured Holly, staring at her childhood friend with shimmering bronze eyes. "…All right then. You’re right…"
"Let’s give it a shot," Genki said, turning to look around at the others.
"We can’t all go," Alan reminded him. "Not all of us are up to full strength…"
"Go where?" a familiar voice piped up unexpectedly behind them.
"Eboni!" Coltia cried, whirling to see the young Evil Hare walking up toward them, with Mocchi right behind her.
"I thought that we told you children to get some sleep," Scaler commented, glaring at the pair of youngsters with dark violet-brown eyes.
"Who could sleep with all that shouting going on down here?" Eboni quipped, garnet eyes glinting mischievously for a moment. "…So what’s going on? Where are you planning on going?"
"Can we come, chi?" added Mocchi.
The two stared directly at Genki, looking at him for guidance. The clear-eyed boy also sensed that they were hoping that he, being both the youngest human on the rebel team and Mocchi’s partner, would go easy on them and allow them to tag along. Both wanted to help, not be left out…
"…No, Mocchi, Eboni. You can’t come along this time."
"Chi?!?" Mocchi cried, staring at his partner and friend in shock.
Genki winced, seeing that the pink monster felt betrayed, the pain shining clearly in his wide eyes. Nevertheless, he forced himself to return his partner’s gaze firmly, clear brown eyes shining with determination.
"…Listen," he said, keeping Eboni’s attention as well as Mocchi’s. "Some of us are going to backtrack a little, to check on some friends that we left behind. We think that Moo might be going after them, and we have to help them fight…"
"…Then let us fight too!" Eboni interrupted, paws balling into fists. "We’re ready!"
"No, you and Mocchi need to stay here. Not everybody’s going to come along, 'cause Hare’s still… still hurt, and somebody’s going to have to stay with him. I want you two to stay and help protect everyone who stays behind, okay?"
"…Okay," replied Eboni reluctantly, long ears drooping slightly with disappointment.
"…Serinity, Holly, I think you two should stay here too," Genki continued. "It’s better that way… You’re our only healer right now, Serinity, and…"
"…But…" Holly weakly protested, knowing that Genki was right.
- Serinity is our only healer, right now… but if she stays here, then that means… -
It was obvious from the look on the pixie hybrid’s face that she also understood the situation, and had already accepted the role she would have to play.
"Please, be careful," she pleaded, looking around at her friends and allies.
"So is everybody else coming?" Suezo asked, while silently wondering if he would be able to teleport so many people and monsters at once, let alone for as great a distance as they were hoping…
"…Genki, I’m staying as well," Alan spoke up. "The Worms and I can help protect Holly and the others…"
The two boys locked eyes for a moment, sapphire and clear brown staring full into each other’s shining surfaces. Something passed unspoken between the two, then Genki slowly nodded agreement.
"…Okay, Alan. Watch yourself."
"What about you guys?" Suezo queried, looking at the others. "I know that you’re coming, Grey Wolf, but what about…"
"I’m coming," Scaler interrupted, returning the eyeball monster’s stare coolly. "You’ll be fighting with Moo sooner or later, and I plan to be there when you do…"
"Me too," added Coltia, nervously gripping her slingshot. "I… I think I can do more for the team if I come along and help than if I stay here…"
"So it’s Genki, Grey Wolf, Scaler, Colt, and me," Suezo said under his breath, thinking hard. "…Well, I teleported seven of us before, when we went over the waterfall, so I should be able to handle five…"
"…So how do we do this?" Coltia asked, looking around at everyone.
"…Back in our village, when I was little… Melon used to teleport us around the forest," Serinity volunteered shyly after a few moments. "I…I can tell you what he used to tell us, back then…"
"Go ahead, Serinity," Grey Wolf prompted gently, looking at the pixie hybrid. "We’ll follow your lead."
"Al…alright," she replied, nodding. Taking a deep breath to steel herself, she began, "First, you need to form a circle around Suezo and…join hands…"
"Uh…hmm," Grey Wolf muttered, sweatdropping slightly.
Smiling as she realized what was wrong, Coltia reached down and picked up the lupine’s front left paw in her hand. Genki followed her lead, taking Grey Wolf’s front right paw, and as the silver-furred monster nodded gratefully at him, the three positioned themselves around Suezo. Silently, Scaler completed the small circle by taking Genki and Coltia’s free hands in his own, and glanced back toward Serinity.
"All of you have to focus your thoughts on Suezo," the pixie hybrid instructed, her voice becoming calmer as she recalled the instructions that Melon had given her as a child, when he was planning to take her and her friends somewhere in the forest quickly. "You have to try and… give your strength to him. Try to picture where you want to go; Suezo needs as clear an image of the area as possible."
She didn’t mention that this last direction was actually a guess: Melon had always had their intended destination in mind without any help from the children. However, since he had always told them to focus their thoughts on him, to help him concentrate on shifting all of them, she assumed that they also contributed to the process in some manner.
"If this doesn’t work, somebody is going to pay dearly," Scaler muttered as he closed his eyes.
"It’ll work," Genki whispered. "It’s gotta work!"
"Try to picture yourselves arriving where you want to be," Serinity continued in a strong, clear voice. "That’s…that’s all I can really tell you… The rest is up to you."
"Genki-chi…be careful, chi!" Mocchi called out, watching with wavering eyes from where he stood with the remaining searchers.
Without opening his eyes and turning toward the sound of his friend’s voice, Genki grinned and nodded slightly.
"You guys be careful, okay?" Eboni added, gripping Holly’s hand slightly for comfort. "Watch yourselves!"
"We’ll be waiting…" Holly added softly. "…Genki…Suezo…everyone…"
Alan nodded agreement, glancing over at the bronze-eyed girl out of the corner of one narrowed sapphire eye. Awkwardly, he waved farewell, even though none of the small group before him had their eyes open.
As they watched, transfixed, a saffron light began to pulse around Suezo’s body. It spread to envelop the four rebels encircling him: their clothes, hair and fur rippled as if caught in a sudden breeze. Scaler’s leather cloak billowed around him, as Grey Wolf’s silvery fur ruffled and swayed.
"Tele…PORT!" Suezo shouted at the top of his lungs, and the yellow aura flared brightly for a fleeting instant before vanishing.
The light faded, leaving Holly, Alan, Serinity, Eboni and Mocchi alone. The pink-skinned monster whimpered, and Holly draped a comforting arm around his shoulder, hugging the black-furred rabbit closer to her with her other arm. A strong hand grasped her shoulder; looking up, she found herself staring into Alan’s solemn face.
"They’ll be alright," he said, sapphire eyes glinting briefly as he smiled crookedly at her. "That Genki’s too stubborn to get himself killed like this…"
"…Yes," Holly agreed, more for the benefit of the two young monsters beside her than out of any real conviction she felt.
Gently, she began to guide the pair away, Alan walking directly behind her as they headed back toward the inn. They needed to check on their other companion: worrying about the safety of their other friends would have to wait for a little while…
Left alone, Serinity lost whatever strength had been sustaining her, and she slumped to the ground, weeping. Tears streaked her pale cheeks, trickling down to fall unchecked on the smooth, pebble-strewn road beneath her. She raised wavering leaf green eyes toward the sky: the stars continued to shimmer and wink down at her kneeling form, unaffected by the problems of the world. Trembling, she whispered a short, halting prayer, one that seemed to sum up the one thought overpowering all others in her tortured heart.
"Please, save us all…"
He hadn’t realized that it would be like this.
Genki hadn’t been certain exactly what to expect, of course. Try as he might, he had not been able to remember what it had felt like when Suezo had first used his teleportation ability, the first time the eyeball monster had shown such a power. It was back during their first quest, when the Courageous Seven had attempted to raft up a river just to get a break from all of the endless walking. For once, they wanted to try something different…
It was different, all right: the baddies used the current to their advantage and directed the raft directly over a waterfall. He remembered the feel of the wind brushing past him in a raw torrent, the damp touch of misty spray from the cascading wall of water mixing with his sweat, falling, falling, endlessly falling… Then landing with a thud on soft grass, much to his astonishment.
But he couldn’t remember just how he had gotten there, even after he knew the cause: Suezo had teleported all of them to safety, but…
…Nothing… He could recall nothing about how it had felt. It had all happened so quickly that the actual sensation that came from the sudden transference apparently hadn’t registered at all with his senses…
At least, that was what he had thought back then. Now, however, he realized the truth.
The reason he wasn’t able to remember how it felt to be teleported… was because it didn’t feel like anything at all. He could feel… he felt… nothing… nothing at all. He was deaf, he was blind, he couldn’t smell anything, and he…
…He didn’t understand. He KNEW that the others were there with him, that he was holding Scaler and Grey Wolf’s paws, but… he couldn’t feel them… couldn’t even feel his HANDS anymore, or his arms… ANYTHING!
Panic set in, despite himself: had something gone wrong? What if the teleportation spell had failed, somehow? Had… had the others made the jump without him? Had he lost his grip, been separated from them somehow, or had his mind been pulled out of his body or… Thousands of doubts, fears, ideas of what could have gone wrong flashed through his consciousness…if he could honestly call it that: did he even possess a mind of his own anymore?
He wanted to scream, perhaps he did somehow manage to scream, but if that was even possible for him anymore, the sound was lost in the endless void, the darkness around him, a blackness that wasn’t even the absence of light as much as it was the absence of anything… everything…
* * *
* …Genki… *
* …Genki, get up… *
* Come on, Genki, where’s that endless energy of yours? Don’t tell me you’re giving up now, after everything we’ve been through! *
~ …I’m not giving up… ~
* There, that’s the Genki I know! Now hurry up and get going! You’re running out of time! *
* …(Be careful…)… *
* * *
Clear brown eyes flashed open, then immediately winced tightly shut again, not used to the bright glare of light that flooded into them. However, they only remained closed for the space of a few heartbeats, then slowly reopened, carefully this time, as their owner let out a pained moan.
"…Wh…whuh…" Genki stuttered: his tongue felt like a lump of lead clamped into his dry mouth, and he subconsciously decided that trying to speak was not the best activity to attempt at this time.
Dimly, he became aware of the fact that one of his hands was aching: as his blurring vision focused, he glanced down to see white fingers clenched tightly, desperately, around a silver-furred paw. Grey Wolf’s claws were digging into his palm, drawing a few droplets of scarlet blood that stood out vividly against his pale skin.
Gradually, he realized that he was still squeezing Scaler’s paw as well. As his vision cleared, he could see the rest of the small group that had chosen to attempt the teleport: Grey Wolf, Coltia and even Scaler looked just as pale and exhausted as he felt, and Suezo…
Genki’s eyes widened in horror, for the eyeball monster was unconscious, his normally yellow skin drained of nearly all color. His pupil looked foggy and unfocused, the green-gold iris now more of a milky whitish shade.
"Sue…Suezo!" Genki shouted, nearly choking on his tongue, which still felt heavy and awkward.
At the sound of the boy’s cry, the eyeball monster groaned, seemingly in recognition, and the other three members of the small party moaned as well. Grey Wolf slumped forward, his paws sliding out of Genki and Coltia’s hands without meeting any resistance, and Scaler moved similarly, half-staggering backward.
"Ge…Genki-iiiii…did we ma…make it?" Coltia whispered: she appeared to be having the same difficulty speaking as the boy was.
Too drained to answer, Genki simply nodded his head, once, and a shaky grin appeared on the girl’s face. However, her smile quickly faded, and she let out a weak moan as she slumped back to the ground again.
"…Didn’t…expect…it to be…like this," Scaler muttered, more to himself than for the benefit of any of the others.
Grey Wolf nodded silent agreement, even as the silver-furred lupine struggled to stand up on trembling legs.
"…We…have to…get moving," he gasped. "…My…pack…"
"Don’t wanna move," whined Coltia peevishly, laying flat on her back and gazing up at nothing in particular. "Too tired…"
"…Come…come on, let’s get moving," Genki prompted, managing to stand up and keep relatively balanced on his own two feet. "We…we gotta get…"
"…Genki…you are insane," muttered Scaler. "We…aren’t…" he paused to catch his breath, grimacing at his weakness, then forced his voice to remain steady as he hissed, "We are not in any condition to travel. The teleportation took more energy than we had expected…"
"Hey, no problem… I am Mister Energy, after all," Genki replied, a hint of his normal personality returning as he finally managed to stand.
To emphasize his point, Genki then thumped himself on the chest once with his fist. Unfortunately, this backfired on the boy, for he immediately began to cough and hack painfully, the impact having jarred his body more than he had expected. Coltia stared at him and sweatdropped, while Scaler mercifully chose not to comment.
"Genki…I can’t move," whined Suezo, and Genki winced, noticing how faint and weak the eyeball monster’s normally loud voice sounded.
"Are you sure?" Coltia asked, testing her legs as she spoke. "…I mean, have you tried to get up or…?"
"Yes," the eyeball monster moaned, sounding more than a little frustrated. Whether this was caused by his current inability to move or by the doubt in the girl’s voice was impossible to discern.
"Oh…well, here," and reaching out with both hands, Coltia strained to help the yellow monster stand on his own foot.
Genki quickly went to help his friends, and Scaler watched quietly as the two humans pushed Suezo upright, only for the eyeball monster to collapse the moment Coltia loosened her grip. Realizing her mistake, she scrambled to regain lost ground, but it was obvious that they were fighting a losing battle.
"…Just leave him," the green rabbit hissed abruptly, shaking his head at the two young humans’ fumbling.
"What?!" Genki exclaimed, glaring over at the cloaked rabbit while Coltia gasped.
"You heard me. We’re wasting valuable time: the longer we stay here, the less time we will have to prepare Grey Wolf’s pack for the battle with Moo’s forces. …You did say that you wanted to get moving, didn’t you?"
"………" Genki gritted his teeth and fumed, knowing that Scaler was turning his own words against him.
"Genki…" Coltia murmured, staring at the clear-eyed boy.
He was almost painfully of her eyes upon him, and of the fact that Suezo was also staring at him. The eyeball monster’s green-gold pupil was still foggy with pain, yet now part of that distress came from worry that his friends might possibly abandon him here.
"…If you can’t move him, then leave him here," Scaler continued matter-of-factly, as if he didn’t understand why this would be a point of contention. "It would be a waste of time to lug him along…"
"…If Hare was the injured one, would you be so quick to suggest that?" Grey Wolf suddenly spoke up, regarding the cloaked rabbit intently with ice blue eyes.
Scaler stiffened slightly, violet-brown eyes smoldering as he glared at the silver-furred lupine, although the expression passed quickly. His normal indifference returning, the scaled hare said nothing more, simply watching the others silently as Genki and Coltia struggled to support Suezo between them.
Finally, by twining their arms behind the eyeball monster’s head and bracing him with their free hands, they were able to move forward, albeit slowly. After taking a few shaky steps forward to test whether or not the support would work, Genki glanced over his shoulder at Grey Wolf and Scaler.
"So where we going?" he queried, his normal attitude resurfacing for a moment.
Grey Wolf raised his head and sniffed the air, ice blue eyes running over the surrounding area as he got his bearings. After a few moments, he started forward, deeper into the canyons, pausing only long enough to glance back at his companions.
"This way," he called, indicating the path with a slight movement of his head. "Try to keep up."
This last comment was both instruction and a bit of a joke, for the silver-furred lupine knew all too well that he would not be moving very quickly for a while: at least, not until his body fully recovered from the effects of the teleportation. Turning around, he started towards home, leading the small group of rebels down the paths he knew by heart…
* * *
A single Datonare paced along the ridge, his short, dark green fur stirred both by the movement and the cool breeze that was currently sweeping through the canyon. While the young wolf was grateful for the gentle wind’s presence – guard duty was unbearable enough without having to worry about getting overheated – at the same time, he was bored out of his mind.
Ever since Grey Wolf’s departure, the pack had decided to begin assigning more patrols… just in case anything happened.
Yeah, right. As if anything ever happens around here, the young Datonare thought bitterly. The baddies we run across around here are pathetic, weak creatures… what’s there to be worried about? If this is the best Moo can come up with…
The wolf was stirred out of his self-pity and mutterings when a slight movement at the edge of his vision caught his attention. Whirling around, the young Datonare dropped into a battle crouch, lips curling back to reveal sharp fangs that glittered in the remaining light from the setting sun.
However, his defensive position lasted only a few seconds before his tense muscles abruptly relaxed again, and the Datonare stared in shock, his pale yellow eyes widening as they took in the sight of a familiar, silver-furred monster.
"Hey, Grey Wolf!" he howled in recognition, temporarily forgetting that the elders had specifically told him to remain silent while on patrol.
The silver-furred lupine looked up, the confusion and shock in his eyes soon giving way to relief and understanding.
"Ah, Toge, what are you doing out here?" he called to his pack-mate; then, before the green wolf could answer, continued, "Never mind. I’m afraid there isn’t much time to talk; could you run ahead and gather the others? There’s something that the whole pack needs to know…"
"Right!" Toge nodded swiftly, then turned on his heels and was off, eager to show his worth to his leader.
"Not much further now," Grey Wolf commented, sighing slightly as old memories tugged at the corners of his mind. Glancing back over his shoulder at his companions, he asked, "Do you think you can hang on for a little while longer? You’ll be able to rest soon…"
"We’re fine, let’s go!" Genki said impatiently.
A ghost of a smile flickered over Grey Wolf’s muzzle: despite the boy’s bravado, the silver-furred lupine knew that Genki was just as worn out as the rest of the small team of rebels. Both he and Coltia were gaining about as much support from Suezo as they were giving the eyeball monster, and all three seemed on the verge of collapse. As for Scaler, the cloaked rabbit had been silent for the entire trek, but Grey Wolf could tell that even he was exhausted.
Unfortunately, as the small ‘rescue team’ stumbled into the system of interlocking caves that the pack called home, they discovered a new problem: hordes of lupine monsters eager for stories of their travels, to hear tales of their adventures, their discoveries…
"Grey Wolf! You’ve returned!"
"Is the war over already? Have you defeated Moo?"
"Where are the other members of your group? Weren’t there more girls before?"
"Have you seen…"
"…Is Moo finally dead? Is it over?"
"Grey! Did you ever find Tiger?"
Closing his eyes to fight back the waves of fresh grief, sorrow, exhaustion and pain that threatened to overwhelm him, Grey Wolf carefully considered his answer before trusting himself to open his mouth.
"…No, the war is not over," he heard himself say in a tone he thought was remarkably calm. "The reason that the other members of the rebels are not here is because they remained behind while we brought you this news. …Moo is coming here. He plans to attack and kill our pack."
Gasps and shocked mutterings rippled through the assembled lupine monsters like the rumblings of a distant thunderstorm, and the small band of searchers waited for the pack’s reaction. Some of the elders bowed their heads sadly, as if not surprised by this revelation. Pups snuggled close to the legs of their parents and caretakers, bright eyes flicking around from face to face in confusion, not fully comprehending what was happening. Some of the wolves cursed under their breath, others were not quite so discreet with their displeasure, as growls and snarls punctuated the hushed whispering.
"What are we going to do?" several lupine wondered aloud, some looking at their friends and family for guidance as other eyes turned toward Grey Wolf.
"We have several options open to us," the silver-furred lupine replied. "We may have enough time to abandon this lair and move to a different area…or we can fight. If we stay, however, I cannot…" –here his voice crackled slightly as his resolve weakened for a heartbeat– "…cannot guarantee your survival."
Trailing off, Grey Wolf closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable response.
"…I don’t know about the rest of you," one of the Datons piped up after a few moments of silence, "but I’m staying."
"This is our home; there’s no way that we’re gonna let those jerks drive us off!"
"Yeah! Let’s show them!"
As the caverns filled with howls of assent and snarls of agreement, Scaler nodded silently to himself. The cloaked hare had supposed that the wolves would not allow themselves to be driven away from their home so easily…
Then, too, it had been obvious from the expression on Grey Wolf’s face: the silver-furred lupine had already known what the answer would be even before the question had been asked. While his pack brothers and sisters added their voices to the growing outcry to defend their home, Grey Wolf remained completely silent, his ice blue eyes half-closed as he became lost in thoughts of his own: probably of his time as a baddie, or of what he had learned about Tiger of the Wind… about Moo…
Scaler glanced over at the other three rebels just in time to catch Genki and Suezo exchanging a knowing look, and Coltia on the verge of tears. Out of the small group of searchers that had come along on the journey, only the cloaked rabbit himself did not appear to be affected by the unfolding events.
Violet-brown eyes narrowed slightly, burning like twin embers under a veil of shadows as his thoughts drifted back against his will to another place far from reach. Stubbornly he forced these dreary thoughts away: better to focus one’s energy on what one could accomplish, instead of wasting time anguishing over past mistakes…
He had let Moo live long enough to seriously wound Hare. That, he vowed silently as he tightened his grip on the hilt of one of his long swords, would be a mistake that he would come to correct…
* * *
"You did not tell them."
Grey Wolf winced inwardly at the scaled hare’s matter-of-fact tone, wondering why that sounded more accusing than if Scaler had shouted at him in outrage.
"I couldn’t," he admitted, bowing his head sadly. "There’s just no way I can tell them that… my own brother…"
"Grey…" Coltia sighed, not knowing what to say.
She glanced around the small cavern they were currently resting in: after Grey Wolf had informed the pack of the impending battle, they had finally managed to secure some private places to rest. Both she and Genki were sitting on some fairly flat boulders they had found, while Suezo leaned up against the outcropping, the picture of exhaustion. At the entrance, Scaler was also perched on a large stone, keeping one eye out for possible eavesdroppers while the searchers conversed.
"…What are we going to do?" she sighed, more to herself than anything else. "Does anyone have any ideas?"
Only silence followed her query, and she looked around at the others nervously, starting to sweat. Annoyed, Genki frowned thoughtfully, not willing to give up.
"Come on, people, there must be something…"
"…Genki. Coltia. Here."
At the sound of their names, both young humans glanced over at the speaker in surprise. Silently, Scaler reached into his cloak and slid a pair of long daggers out of his cloak. He tossed them toward the pair, so that one of the blades landed neatly at Genki’s feet, the other in front of Coltia.
"…Scaler?" Coltia inquired meekly, staring at the short sword at her feet, then looking up at the green rabbit curiously.
"…Keep those weapons handy," he replied simply, regarding them with his dark violet-brown eyes. "…The battle is likely to be very harsh, and neither of you has any special attacks of your own. You both will be extremely vulnerable… In the heat of combat, don’t expect me or any of the other monsters to come to your aid. You will both be on your own. …If it comes down to you being forced to fight, with those, at least, you’ll have more of a chance…"
"………Oh," Coltia said weakly, her tan eyes widening as comprehension struck.
Staring down at the blade at her feet, she made no move to pick it up, a strange mixture of fear and foreboding twisting her facial features. Genki was similarly frozen, clear brown eyes locked on the gleaming edge of the short sword before him.
"…You do know how to use a blade, don’t you?" the green rabbit asked coolly after a few moments, arching one eyebrow at their hesitation. "…I noticed that Holly carried a dagger on her belt, but I never saw her using it… I don’t recall seeing either of you with a weapon…"
"We can use them," Genki replied hotly, and, with a sudden, decisive movement, the boy crouched and picked up the long dagger from the floor.
Standing up, he weighed the weapon in his hand, as he had seen Alan and Scaler do before. Gripping the hilt, he tested the blade’s balance without really knowing exactly what he was doing, simply mimicking what the pair of experienced fighters did with their own swords. It felt fine to him: after all, it had been one of Scaler’s, and he assumed that the green rabbit had given him one of his decent daggers.
Beside him, Coltia had also picked up the blade given to her, and held it uncertainly, gripping the hilt tightly. She was unused to holding any sort of weapon other than her slingshot, which she had thought would be enough when she had first joined the other rebels. She was no soldier, and the only other blade she had wielded had been a knife, and that only while she was helping to prepare meals.
But now… everything seemed to be changing all at once. Coltia understood now that her little slingshot, a childish toy compared to what she now held in clammy hands, would offer her little protection in the conflict to come. But with this…
"…Thank you," she said awkwardly, feeling a need to show appreciation for what the scaled hare had given her, even if she didn’t honestly know how she truly felt about it.
Scaler merely nodded curtly in her direction, acknowledging her gratitude without saying anything in return. He appeared perfectly content to let the gesture pass unnoted.
"You know, Scaler… I didn’t think you’d be capable of showing concern for others like this," commented Suezo, glancing over at the cloaked rabbit with mild surprise.
"Don’t try to read too deeply into it," Scaler replied with a slight smirk tugging at the edge of his mouth for a moment. However, the faint smile faded as he added, "I know that Hare… cares for you and the others, and considers you to be his dear friends. If… when he recovers, I’d rather not have to tell him that any of you were killed while he was… unable to help you. It would… shatter him."
The small band of rebels fell silent, each glancing around at their companions as they considered the scaled hare’s words. They remembered their absent members, miles and seemingly worlds away from where they currently stood, and what they currently faced.
"…They’ll be alright," Genki said after a few moments, his voice sounding strange in the heavy air that seemed to hang over the group. "…No matter what happens here, Holly, Mocchi, Eboni, Alan, the Worms, Serinity, and Hare will be fine…"
"…I know why you wanted them to stay behind," Scaler quietly added, looking directly at the clear-eyed youth. "…I mean, your partner Mocchi and the other child, Eboni… You did not want them to be dragged into this battle, and if…"
"Don’t say it," begged Suezo suddenly, green-gold eye filling with fear as he interrupted the cloaked rabbit.
"I have to. We have to face the facts…"
"………" Suezo dropped his gaze to the floor, trembling a little as the scaled hare gazed around at the others with his deep, dark eyes.
"If we die here, they can continue the quest."
The eyeball monster winced visibly, as did Coltia, for the green rabbit’s calm words forced them to confront a possibility they had been struggling not to consider. If they died here…
"We’re not gonna die," Genki said firmly, clear brown eyes shimmering as he caught the attention of his teammates once more. Smiling, he winked and explained, "I promised Mocchi, Holly and the others that we’d be careful… that we’re all coming back. So it’ll be okay. Right?"
"R-right!" Coltia replied, returning his smile shakily with not as much confidence as the boy showed.
"Yeah, that’s right," Suezo said softly, grinning and shaking his head slightly. "You guys are right… I’m not gonna die here… I’m gonna go back… for Holly’s sake…"
His voice trailed off, and the eyeball monster slumped down against the wall as sleep finally overtook his senses. The other four rebels stared over at him with varying degrees of surprise and amusement: Coltia giggled behind her hand, while Genki just grinned even wider.
"…Hey, at least he’s getting some sleep," Grey Wolf observed mildly, standing. "I think we should go, you guys: I don’t want to deal with him if we accidentally woke him up…"
"Yeah…" Coltia giggled, as she and Genki quietly tiptoed out of the small cavern, leaving the slumbering Suezo snoring behind them.
"Besides, you need your rest too," added Grey Wolf in a half-chiding, half-mocking manner, a slight grin tugging at the corner of his mouth.
Genki grimaced, annoyed, and Coltia couldn’t resist giggling at his peeved expression.
"Come on, you know he’s right," she teased, skipping ahead of him. Turning on her heel to face the others, she smiled mischievously and taunted, "I’m gonna get the best cave for my room! See you!"
"Hey, that’s not fair!" Genki shouted, running after her as she darted down the corridor.
Left behind, Grey Wolf and Scaler glanced at each other in mild amusement.
"What does she mean, the ‘best cave’ for her room? All the caves look more or less the same to me, and I LIVE here," the silver-furred lupine wondered, sweatdropping.
Rolling his eyes, Scaler muttered, "Humans," as if that explained everything.
The pair of monsters walked in silence for a few moments, echoes of Coltia and Genki’s shouting at one another drifting back toward them. However, Grey Wolf’s amused smile quickly faded as he noticed the solemn look on the scaled hare’s face. While he was used to the cloaked rabbit’s indifferent air, he could tell that something was wrong.
"…There was another reason that I gave them the daggers," Scaler confided under his breath finally, not even bothering to glance at his companion as he spoke. "If worse comes to worse, and we are about to be overpowered…"
The silver-furred lupine nodded quickly, sensing what the cloaked hare was driving at.
"Do you think that they’ll know to…" Grey Wolf trailed off meaningfully, not quite able to force himself to say the concept aloud.
"I don’t know. But at the very least, that route is open to them…"
As he said this, Scaler quietly patted the hilt of one of his daggers: a thin, straight stiletto he kept positioned close at his side at all times. He considered it his own final path, when all other choices were lost to him: no matter what, he would not allow himself to be captured alive and have his mind, his free will, taken from him by Moo. He would not allow the enemy leader to have that satisfaction…
"…Scaler…if it comes to that…"
Grey Wolf faltered, his voice breaking faintly. The green rabbit locked eyes with him, regarding him quietly, then slowly nodded, once, deliberately.
"…If there is time, and no other hope of escape… If you so wish, I will see to it that they take as few of us alive as possible. …Only if that is what you truly want, however…"
"Yes… I’d rather have that happen, then see my pack turned into simply more of Moo’s mindless soldiers…"
Scaler and Grey Wolf looked deeply into each other’s eyes, deep pools of violet-brown returning the thoughtful, haunted gaze of pale, ice blue panes. Each knew what the other was thinking: if they were caught alive, it would be a horrible end for all of them. But for Genki and Coltia, the humans… It would be much worse.
* * *
Silvery moonbeams streaked the darkened canyon walls with stripes of alternating light and shadow, causing the familiar surrounding to have an almost sinister look to the wolves that patrolled the area around their dens. Although most understood that it was only an illusion, they still glanced around warily from time to time, tensing each time they thought they glimpsed a flicker of movement in the darkness. Thankfully, every instance had turned out to be a false alarm… so far.
Toge swallowed in a futile attempt to calm himself, yellow eyes scanning over the cliffs towering above him carefully. His violently pounding heart took a sudden leap into his tightening throat as a dry, brittle snap sounded behind him, and the young Datonare whirled around, pale greenish-yellow electricity sparking into life around his horns… only to sigh in relief as the flickering light caused by his charging attack illuminated a familiar lupine face.
"Damnit, Saffron, you trying to get yourself killed or something?" he snarled, struggling to keep his voice low enough so that none of the other patrollers would overhear him.
The female Daton just sniffed, tossing back her head disdainfully, her long, pink-and-yellow mane waving and rippling with the movement. Despite himself, Toge stared openly at her rustling fur, noticing how it glistened faintly in the moonlight. Mentally, he kicked himself: he could never stay mad at Saffron for long, and both knew this all too well. Sighing, he shook his head in defeat.
"What are you doing out here?" he asked, trying a different angle.
"What do you think? I’m your relief for the watch, stupid!"
A light red tinge spread across the Datonare’s muzzle for a heartbeat, then faded as Toge shook his head again, frowning at his own stupidity. Turning away, he started back down towards the caves.
At Saffron’s soft whisper, Toge paused: somehow, she didn’t sound like the cocky young pup he had grown up with.
"…What is it, Saff?" he replied, using an old nickname for the Daton he recalled from their younger days.
"…Do you think that… Moo is really planning to come here?"
"I don’t know, Saff… but that’s what Grey Wolf said, and I know he’s no liar."
As the female Daton let out a sorrowful sigh, Toge turned back toward her, concerned. If Saffron, normally so bold and cocky about her fighting ability, was acting this upset about the possibility of a battle…
"…Hey, don’t be like that, Saff. It’ll be alright," he whispered, walking back up beside his childhood friend. Grinning lopsidedly, he managed to wink as he added, "We’ve never had any problems with the baddies around here before, so why will this be any different?"
Saffron made no reply, simply gazing silently into the night sky, wondering how her friend could be such an idiot. Unlike Toge, she remembered clearly how a single squadron of Moo’s Dinos had massacred the pack before, leaving a trapped, bruised and beaten Tiger of the Wind as the only survivor. Not all of the members had retained this memory for some reason; maybe some had blocked the experience from their minds, or had been claimed by death too quickly for it to make any sort of lasting impression. But she was one of the ones who remembered her defeat. A shiver ran down the base of her spine as she recalled, all too clearly, the feel of her murderer’s strong jaws closing around her neck, the agony of having the breath slowly choked out of her by the force of those sharp teeth digging into her skin, her final gasping breaths…
"Hey Saffron, do you see that?"
"Huh?" was the Daton’s eloquent reply, blinking in confusion as she snapped out of her temporary gloom.
Glancing over at Toge, she saw that her friend was staring intently into the sky, his pale yellow eyes narrowed slightly as he strained to get a clearer view of whatever it was he was gazing at. Turning her head, Saffron followed his example, a low growl rumbling from deep in her throat as she scanned the horizon carefully.
Then she spotted what exactly the Datonare was looking at: a dark shadow floating across the half moon’s pale face, blotting out the waning source of light. It seemed to be drawing ever closer, and the two wolves glanced briefly at one another out of the corner of their eyes, each thinking the exact same thing.
"…We better get back to the others," Toge stated more than suggested, taking a few steps backward as he spoke, eyes still locked on the star-like silhouette high above their heads.
Saffron nodded in reply, also backing up slowly as she did so, unwilling to take her gaze away from the foreboding sight. The pair continued to edge backwards for several more seconds, before both suddenly whirled round and took off towards home at a dead run, neither wanting to leave their backs turned on whatever that shadow was for long…
* * *
In one of the sprawling, black crystalline rooms on board the floating fortress, Moo stood with both arms crossed over his chest, narrow red and golden eyes glittering faintly as they reflected the projected image of the two running wolves before him. At his side, a Weed glanced up at his master timidly, expectantly.
"…Master?" he ventured hesitantly after a short pause. "…Shall we take care of these two scouts, or…?"
"Leave them be," Moo interrupted, and the purple plant cringed away reflexively. "Let them tell their friends and family that we have come to claim their lives. If they are smart, they may surrender themselves to us. If not…"
He trailed off meaningfully, a smirk contorting the visible side of his face. The Weed struggled not to shudder: somehow, his master’s chosen new appearance unnerved him even more than the whole mask had. That pale, unnaturally white skin, with only the angry red scar that stretched down over his forehead to his cheek adding color to its otherwise chiseled, dark beauty… paired with the smooth ebony and blood red eye that covered the other side of his face, frightened him…
"Shall… shall I begin assembling the army for our assault?" the Weed choked weakly, fighting down the urge to tremble as Moo glanced down at him with his cold, cruel eyes.
"…Humph. If we use our entire force, the weaklings will be wiped out without much of a struggle," the cloaked titan muttered, frowning as if this idea displeased him.
"…B-but master… isn’t that what you want?"
"No," Moo snarled, glaring down at the cowering plant monster disdainfully as the Weed let out a frightened cry and flinched away from him. "I want them to suffer… If all of them are wiped out in one fell swoop, then their suffering would only last for a few short moments. But, if we assault their home with waves of my warriors, with smaller, concentrated attacks… it would prolong their agony. Think of it, Weed: the poor, stupid dogs will be slowly worn down by each attack, their numbers dwindling with every battle. The survivors will see the lost discs of their friends and family around them, and know that at any moment, they may be joining them in death… and the attacks will come so suddenly, sweeping in and withdrawing before they even grasp what is happening… Each living instant will be nothing more than a horrible reminder of their helplessness, of what will ultimately happen to them…"
Aghast, the Weed regarded his commander with new horror as the armored titan let out a dry, rumbling chuckle. Moo was apparently already reveling in the mere thought of how he would torture these wolves…
"I… see, master…" he whispered, shuddering as a cold breeze seemed to swirl around them, rippling his commander’s cape and setting the titan’s long hair to dancing…
* * *
Suezo huddled in a tight ball, his leg wrapping around his body as he struggled to remain asleep. This was a difficult task, considering the fact that somebody was howling wildly outside…
"Tiger, lemme get some sleep," he muttered absently, before realizing his mistake. He had been dreaming about the past again, of the first quest, and in his tired stupor confused that memory with current reality.
An image of how Tiger now looked flooded into his sleep-hazed mind, towering over Hare’s crumpled body, glaring at him with glowing crimson and golden eyes, and the eyeball monster shrieked, waking himself up. Panicking, he whipped around wildly, widened gold-green eye searching for the twisted monster before he remembered exactly where he was.
"Oh… damnit," he moaned, now fully awake.
Slumping against the boulder behind him, Suezo half-closed his eye again, even though he knew he wouldn’t be falling asleep again anytime soon. The howling outside was getting louder, but he decided not to investigate just yet. If it turned out something serious was happening, then he had no doubt that Genki and the others would tell him. The kid had a habit of dragging others into bad situations… Still, at least Holly would be safe…
- Holly… -
The light in his green-gold pupil dimmed slightly as a wave of regret and sorrow swept over the eyeball monster at the thought of his dear friend and partner. Although normally he was quite proud of his budding psychic abilities, right now, he privately wished that he had never discovered the possibility of such a talent. Thanks to his possessing this innate power of teleportation, even though it was weak and mostly uncontrollable at this point, he had been forcibly separated from Holly… from his best friend, whose side he had sworn never to leave…
But at the same time, he knew that this was for the best. If he hadn’t teleported Genki, Grey Wolf and the others here, then who would have warned Grey Wolf and Tiger’s pack of the approaching Moo?
And would their warning matter…?
And that would be Genki calling, natch, Suezo thought more than a little bitterly. He dragged me into this mess, and now something’s happening…
Grumbling under his breath, the yellow monster hopped out of the small cavern and into the main network of tunnels that connected all of the caves. Genki was standing out there waiting for him, along with Coltia, Scaler, Grey Wolf, and most of the older wolves in the pack. This latter fact caused Suezo’s stomach to do a few quick flip-flops, and he glanced around at the crowd in growing fear and understanding.
"Moo’s here already?" he inquired dully, his downcast tone turning his words into more of a statement of a fact than a question.
Genki and the other searchers nodded, and Coltia shuddered, her widened light brown eyes shimmering with fright. Not that Suezo could blame her; after all, he was scared out of his wits as well. Dimly, he overheard Grey Wolf barking out commands, assuming control of his pack in this impending crisis, telling his fighters – no, his friends – which areas they should defend. He had to hand it to the silver wolf, he certainly sounded as if he knew what he was doing… then again, who knew what role his experience serving as one of Moo’s generals played in that?
"…Genki, I know you won’t stay out of the fight, so please just promise me that you’ll be careful," Grey Wolf was saying, looking directly at the boy with pleading ice blue eyes.
Genki nodded at the silver-furred wolf, clear brown eyes unusually solemn. Then, turning to face as much of the crowd as possible, the human boy abruptly grinned and winked mischievously, his normal energy and attitude reappearing. Balling one of his hands into a fist, he thrust it triumphantly into the air.
"Down with the baddies--!" Genki shouted at the top of his lungs, confidently.
"Yeah!" Suezo and Coltia shouted in unison, both partially faking their enthusiasm in an attempt to mask their nervousness.
Grey Wolf tilted back his head in a howl that was echoed by the other wolves gathered there, and even Scaler got involved in the cheer somewhat, silently raising his sword above his head with one hand, the blade pointed toward the rocky ceiling. Then, in a flurry of movement, the cheer ended and the defenders raced for the entrances, ready to begin the fight to defend their homes and friends…
* * *
No sooner had this quiet command passed Moo’s thin lips than a horde of snarling and growling monsters launched themselves forward, charging from where they had been set down mere minutes before and towards the canyons and caves where their lupine victims lived. This was the primary squadron that the evil commander had chosen, the warriors that had been assigned to "rough up" the wolves without completely wiping them out just yet. While most of the baddies grumbled and complained about this order, none dared challenge it, seeing as how it came directly from Moo himself…
Seeing the first of their targets race out of their dens to meet them, the baddies rushed to meet them, those who could use energy attacks already building up their power while others moved in for close combat. Met by a few stray lightning blasts, they nonetheless pushed through and were soon driving the wolves backward.
One of the baddies, a Terror Dog, smirked as he unleashed a surge of violet-tinted electricity on his opponent, a Datonare. The green-furred wolf howled painfully as it staggered backward, the yelp becoming a final cry as the ebony monster drove his horns mercilessly into his victim’s chest. Drawing backward, the Terror Dog allowed his smirk to widen into a toothy grin, reveling in the suffering he had just inflicted. It didn’t matter to him that the dying monster before him was one of his kind: to him, this was simply another worthless cretin standing between him and his master’s ideal world…
Suddenly, something hard slammed into the ebony wolf’s muzzle, sending him sprawling backward with a bleeding mouth. Cursing, the Terror Dog would have immediately lunged for whoever had dealt him this blow, had it not been for the fact that he suddenly found a dagger lodged up to its hilt in his neck.
"Hey, are you okay?!" Genki shouted, spinning around to face the Datonare he had just saved.
The green wolf inclined his head slightly in what he hoped was a reassuring nod, but it was obvious to even Genki that he was suffering. As the Datonare limped back towards the relative safety of the dens, Genki skated alongside him to cover him. Meanwhile, Scaler retrieved his dagger from the tangled roots of the Terror Dog’s lost disc with a firm yank, then pivoted on his heel and threw it to bury itself unerringly in the side of another attacker. Leather cloak whirling and twisting around him, the scaled hare then sprung into the midst of the conflict, long sword drawn, and proceeded to hack away at any of the enemies within range of his blades.
"Whoa… Grey Wolf didn’t tell us he brought a swordsman," Toge commented, catching a glimpse of Scaler’s handiwork out of the corner of his eye as he charged his lightning.
"Swordsman?" Saffron echoed, a hint of mocking coming into her tone as she arched an eyebrow at her companion.
"Well, swords-rabbit, swords-fighter, swords-something, whatever!" Toge blurted, his muzzle flushing red for a moment from confusion. Saffron just smirked at him, and the young Datonare lowered his head slightly and muttered, "Oh, shut up and fight."
* * *
"Strange… the battle should not be going this well for the pitiful wolves," Moo muttered under his breath, eyes glowing faintly as he observed the raging battle from the safety of one of the floating fortress’s decks.
Beside him, the Weed sweatdropped hugely, fully expecting his master to launch into a full-fledged tirade at any second as his troops were forced backward. The wolves were fighting amazingly well, in his opinion: while it was true that those of the tiger type could be powerful, surely even so many could not muster enough strength to repulse their powerful warriors in such a manner…
"…Wait. Right there… that…"
Confused, the purple plant watched as Moo used his magic to create an illusionary mirror of the battle beneath them. Making a few arcane gestures, the titan caused the image to enlarge itself, focusing in on a certain area of the battlefield. The Weed gasped sharply as he saw what his master was so interested in: a young human boy was aiding one of the wounded defenders, knocking away the baddie about to finish off the ailing Datonare. As they watched further, a scaled hare clad in a long leather cloak and wielding a sword finished off the Terror Dog with a knife in the neck, and the Weed began to panic.
"H-h-how did they get here?!?" he blurted, astonished. "I-I thought they were dead--!"
"Obviously not," Moo commented mildly, causing his minion to gulp and glance at him fearfully.
Much to the Weed’s amazement, the armored titan did not look extremely surprised or outraged by this complication. On the visible side of his face, one of his pencil-thin eyebrows was arched, and the half-mask’s crimson eye glowed slightly, but other than this, Moo’s face was completely emotionless.
The image before them shifted, scrolling over the battlefield, resting briefly on where a silver-furred wolf was blasting backward his opponents with his lightning attacks, then coming to rest on one of the cave entrances. Standing there side by side were a young female human and a yellow eyeball monster, and Moo abruptly smirked upon seeing the pair standing there.
"So that’s it… that’s how they got here so dammed fast…"
"…But it seems that they didn’t bring everyone, did they?" Moo continued in an oddly amused tone, completely ignoring the shocked plant monster beside him. "No, I don’t see that weak half-pixie that was with them at the fortress, nor the girl Holly… I doubt they’re hiding inside, either, since that blue-haired boy with the sword and those weak young baby monsters aren’t fighting… and nothing would keep that bratty pink thing from helping his friends if he could help it…"
"W-what are you getting at, master?"
"Why, isn’t it obvious?" Moo replied, now actually beginning to laugh as he spun to face his lackey. "The fools must have seen where I was heading, and used that stupid Suezo – that worthless yellow eyeball somehow managed to teleport them back here – so that they could help their pathetic friends!"
Moo suddenly burst into a torrent of laughter, as if he thought this to be the funniest concept in the world, and the Weed cringed. How his master could find this amusing, he had no clue: the rebels had always seemed extremely dangerous to the purple plant, and the fact that they were now here to oppose his master yet again was not a pleasant thought in his opinion… Of course, his personal thoughts meant nothing to his all-powerful commander, so he chose to keep silent.
"…But they didn’t bring their entire group here," the titan abruptly noted, cutting off his crazed laughter and taking on a thoughtful tone. "Is it possible… … …could that damned little rabbit with the Phoenix’s Tear still be alive? It makes sense… …The fools typically stick together, but if one of them was injured enough that they were worried… They may have decided to split up and have some remain behind in a safe place to look after their wounded friend, while the others came back to help others fight…"
The tyrant lapsed into silence again, long enough for the purple plant to look at his leader in growing fright and concern. If it was at all possible that the little rabbit was still alive… then it meant that his master had actually failed in his task to murder the whelp, which was unthinkable.
"…Weed. Send all of our forces stationed in or nearby the mountain fortress we engaged the rebels at a message: they are to search the surrounding area very carefully. Every town, every cave, any place where one could possibly hide is to be examined. If any trace of the rebels is discovered, destroy them. Anyone who fails to follow these commands is to be made an example of. Do you understand?"
"Good. Then get out of my sight."
The purple plant was only too glad to comply, scrambling away with such haste that he slammed right into the closed door. Temporarily stunned by the impact, he glanced back to see Moo glaring at him, let out a frightened gasp, and hastily pried the door open, sliding through and letting it slam shut behind him, pinching one of his roots in the process.
Moo shook his head, an evil smirk twisting the visible half of his mouth, and shifted his gaze back to the image of the fight before him. His troops were withdrawing, leaving behind several of their number on the battle, although this detail did not matter to him. Instead, his attention was completely focused on the young human boy and his allies as they gathered together to celebrate their victory.
"Genki, we did it!" the girl, Coltia, was shouting as she ran to join her friends, Suezo hopping along behind her.
"This is far from over," the scaled hare cut in as the survivors began to cheer. "Moo was merely toying with us: don’t think that just because we repulsed this assault, that he’ll simply give up and leave."
There were murmurs of agreement from Grey Wolf and some of the older wolves, while the younger ones glanced at one another nervously. Coltia gulped and fought back a shudder, while Suezo gave into this temptation entirely. Genki gazed around as his companions and frowned.
"Don’t worry, you guys, there’s no way that Moo can beat us!" he proclaimed loudly, clear brown eyes shining with determination and complete confidence.
Moo allowed his cocky smirk to widen, distorting the scar that ran down the visible side of his face. The bratty human boy would soon learn otherwise… once he and his weak allies were being overwhelmed by waves of assault teams, seeing the lost discs of his precious friends lying in twisted and broken heaps around his beaten and mangled body… Plus, if he was fortunate enough, the boy might just discover the fate of the ones left behind …
Throwing back his head, golden and crimson eyes flaring, Moo began to laugh wildly, maniacally. Oh yes… he was going to enjoy the coming conflict… and the deaths of all of those damned rebels! Soon this one-sided war would end once and for all… in the only manner it could possibly end in…