* …How long… how long have I been like this? Why can’t I… *
* My chest still hurts… but I don’t think it’s because of my injuries anymore… *
* …Tiger… why…? *
* …And Genki, Scaler, Suezo, Coltia, Grey Wolf… I can barely feel them anymore… did they leave? Where did they go…? *
* …Please… don’t leave me alone… I don’t want to be alone ever again… *
* Don’t leave me alone! *
* * *
"…Unnhhnnn… Genki… Scaler…"
Serinity watched over her patient silently, verdant eyes shimmering with tears she barely managed to withhold. While Hare’s condition had improved – barely – after the others had left, the little rabbit still remained in a coma-like state. Sometimes, he murmured as if he was responding to something in a dream, or in a trance, even crying out on occasion, but… he had yet to open his eyes, even for the slightest instant. Despite all of her ongoing efforts, Hare still had not woken up… was still not fully healed…
Bowing her head, cat-ears drooping, the pixie hybrid let out a sorrowful sigh. Looking down at her hands, which for once were not poised over the small rabbit’s body and glowing with pale green energy, she wondered just what worth she was to the others. She kept expending all of her power in these futile attempts to revive Hare, and still he remained in this state… True, that terrible wound in his chest had finally been sealed, not even leaving a scar, but how much of that was because of the Phoenix’s Tear…? Certainly much more than it had been because of her…
Even when she wasn’t putting all of her strength into her healing efforts, Serinity could do little more for the others: more often than not, she was left almost completely drained by her attempts, barely able to move around the small building they were currently using as a hideaway. Although Holly had convinced the pixie hybrid to start saving more of her energy for herself – something she had been very reluctant to do, but consented to in case she was ever needed to heal one of the other searchers – often, she found herself on the verge of collapse.
According to the others, she actually had collapsed a few times – she would abruptly find her vision blurring, then black out, later awakening to invariably find herself in bed with at least one of the other searchers nearby, watching over her. The last time it had happened, a very irritated-looking Alan had been the first one she saw, and the silver-blue-haired boy had scolded her terribly.
"You’re going to kill yourself if you keep this up!" he snarled, glaring at her with cold, narrowed sapphire eyes that flashed angrily when she responded by quietly saying that she was alright. "At this rate, you won’t even have to worry about the baddies finding us… you’ll be a lost disc long before they ever stumble across this place!"
Harsh words, stinging enough to force her to slow down her efforts a little bit: after all, she couldn’t help her friends anymore if she was dead. But at the same time… if it could guarantee the continued safety of those she cared for, Serinity was completely willing to sacrifice herself…
Leaning backward in her chair, the pixie hybrid stretched out her arms with a hushed yawn, then turned at the sound of the door opening. As she had expected, Holly was standing there, and the young woman’s soft chestnut eyes met her own green ones for a few moments in silence before both smiled, softly, slowly, hesitantly.
"…Good. I was just going to tell you to take a break if you were still at it," Holly said quietly, walking over and sitting down next to the female monster.
"…Why? Do you think that I’m simply wasting my energy?"
Holly blinked, taken aback by the reply, and stared at the pixie hybrid. Her initial shock at the seeming bluntness of the query softened as she noticed the pain shimmering behind Serinity’s deep green eyes: she had not meant to sound angry or sarcastic, but rather was hurt by what she thought the human girl had been implying. Quickly, Holly shook her head in the negative.
"That’s not what I meant at all," she insisted, softly. "We’re all worried about Hare, Serinity. But if you keep using all of your strength like this…"
"…It still isn’t enough," interrupted the pixie hybrid, lowering her solemn gaze back to the figure on the bed. "He still hasn’t woken up… I can’t bear the thought of leaving him in this condition for any longer…"
"…I… I know it isn’t much… but it’s all I can do… Holly, please don’t tell me to quit now. At least… as long as I am here for him, if I can at least stay by his side like this… It lets me feel like I’m… doing something…"
Tears glimmered in verdant eyes as Serinity stared directly at Holly, pleading with her even though she knew in her heart that the young woman meant well. Holly was just as worried about Hare and the other searchers as she was… it was just that she also worried about the pixie hybrid more than she herself did.
"…Serinity. Please, just don’t overdo it," Holly finally told her, and the female monster nodded understanding.
"…So, where are the others?" Serinity inquired after a short pause, eager to change the subject to something else.
"Alan’s standing guard here while Mocchi and Eboni went looking for more supplies," Holly quickly replied.
"By themselves?" asked Serinity, alarmed.
"Well, they were getting restless just waiting around here, and Eboni kept begging for a chance to get out and explore… I figured it would be better to just let them go instead of them sneaking off the first chance they got."
* * *
Meanwhile, a few buildings away from where the others were hiding, both Mocchi and Eboni were currently having little luck on their search. So far, all they had managed to find were empty barrels and boxes, plus a lot of dust, dirt and cobwebs. The latter in particular appeared to unnerve the black-furred rabbit, and she was currently attempting to convince Mocchi not to venture through a doorway shrouded in the wispy threads.
"Look, Mocchi, if the baddies were storing anything in there, then the door wouldn’t have all those webs across it!"
"Mocchi just want to look, chi. Why Eboni so upset?"
"You want me to spell it out for you? Fine. Spiderwebs usually mean spiders, okay? It’s not that hard!"
"What’s so bad about spiders, chi?"
"I… I… don’t l-like…"
"Chi?" Mocchi blinked and cocked his head to one side, wondering why Eboni looked so pale and nervous.
Unfortunately, the side of Mocchi’s head brushed against one of the webs, and when he attempted to brush the sticky strands away, a spider landed on his hand. For a few seconds, both of the youngsters simply stared wide-eyed at the little black arachnid, startled, and then…
The tiny spider fell to the ground as Eboni seized Mocchi’s other hand and bolted from the room, shrieking at the top of her lungs the entire time. She didn’t calm down or slow down until they reached the docks, and only then did she notice that she still gripped the younger monster’s arm like a vise, and he was dazed from the run, eyes spiraling.
"Whoops… sorry, Mocchi," she apologized, letting go and waiting for him to recover.
"Chiiiii… What was that for, chi?!?"
"I… don’t… like… sp… spi…"
"What-chi?" Mocchi prompted, wondering why Eboni was sputtering and blushing furiously.
"Oh, just forget it!" the young Evil Hare blurted abruptly, garnet eyes flashing with embarrassment and annoyance, and she whirled around, turning her back on a completely confused Mocchi.
"Chi…? What’s wrong, chi?"
Wondering how the younger monster could be so dense, Eboni just ignored Mocchi’s query, still blushing furiously. As she glanced around their surroundings, trying to focus on anything besides her companion, she caught a glimpse of something she hadn’t expected, and blinked in surprise. Carefully, she crept closer, keeping herself hidden behind the barrels and crates that lined the wooden docks.
"Hey Mocchi, come take a look at this," she whispered, signaling the younger monster.
Coming up behind Eboni, Mocchi followed her example and hid behind a large crate, peeking out over the edge to see what had caught the black rabbit’s attention. He let out a gasp: anchored at the pier was a huge ship, sails lowered, and a gangplank extended from the deck down to the harbor. Mocchi blinked: the sight was vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t quite place where he had seen it before…
"Do you think it’s the baddies?" Eboni asked, glancing over at Mocchi.
The thought made the pink monster shudder, and he stared at the young Evil Hare with huge, frightened eyes. Eboni frowned thoughtfully, then suddenly started sneaking forward, and the startled Mocchi scrambled after her.
"What Eboni doing, chi?!?" he whispered urgently under his breath.
"If it’s the baddies, we gotta find out what they’re up to," replied Eboni, waving the younger monster silent. After a few seconds, she added, "Come on…"
Mocchi could only follow as the dark-furred bunny continued to creep closer and closer to the ship, at the same time attempting to figure out just where he remembered the craft. Unlike Eboni, he wasn’t certain that it belonged to the baddies…
Both children froze as they noticed some strange voices arguing nearby, and followed the sound to a nearby warehouse. As quietly as possible, the pair crept up to the doorway and peered inside: the building was shrouded in darkness thanks to the windows being blocked by the junk piled inside, so they could barely make out the outlines of the ones who were talking…
"Of all the @#$%^& luck!" a gruff voice bellowed. "Why the hell can’t I ever find a place to get a decent chocolate milkshake?!?"
"Forget the stupid chocolate milkshakes, we just want some booze!" another, equally annoyed voice shot back, followed by sounds of agreement from some of the other monsters in the darkened room.
"Arrr, shut up!"
As the strangers continued arguing, Mocchi and Eboni stared at one another and sweatdropped.
"…What was that one word he said? I’ve never heard one like that before," Eboni whispered, a confused look on her face.
"I dunno, chi, but I remember Tiger-chi saying it before…"
"What are you kids doing here?" a deep, unfamiliar voice boomed behind them.
Both youngsters froze, then slowly turned around to see a very angry-looking suezo-type standing behind them. Its gray, tough skin reminded Mocchi somewhat of Golem, but was of a paler hue, and a yellow sheet was tied over its forehead. Furrowing its brow and frowning crossly, the eyeball monster leaned in to get a closer look at the two intruders.
"What’s all the ruckus out thar?" the first voice they had heard called, sounding annoyed.
"Ya better come take a look at this, cap—"
The eyeball monster’s words were cut off with a gasp as Eboni lashed out with her foot, catching him right in the center of his tail. As he staggered backward, taken off guard by the abrupt assault, the black rabbit seized the startled Mocchi’s arm and gave it a tug.
"Let’s get out of here!" she hissed frantically. "Come on!"
Already the strangers inside the building were coming to investigate, if the banging and shouting the pair heard were any indication. Despite his current confusion about the situation – he could have sworn he had heard those voices somewhere before – Mocchi decided the best course of action was to follow Eboni’s lead, and scrambled after the bunny as she took off running. Behind them, the yelling grew louder as the others found their stunned comrade.
"Whatever you do, don’t head back to where the others are hiding," Eboni instructed the pink monster as they darted away from the harbor and took temporary refuge behind a pile of empty casks. "We can’t lead them there…"
"Chi," Mocchi gasped in agreement between catching his breath.
"Can’t stay here long either, or they’ll find us for sure…" Eboni hesitated, peeked around the edge, then added, urgently, "Okay, go now!"
The dark-furred rabbit then shot back out from her cover, only to suddenly freeze for a moment, much to Mocchi’s surprise. On a hunch, rather than follow her out into the open, the younger monster clambered up onto the stack of barrels. It took only a simple glance down to see what had caused the Evil Hare to stop in her tracks: several eyeball monsters exactly like the one she had knocked down had been waiting for them to come out of hiding, and had fanned out to surround her.
"Ebon-chi!" Mocchi cut off his cry of the girl bunny’s name with a gasp and quickly covered his mouth, realizing that he had nearly given himself away. Fortunately, none of the eyeball monsters appeared to hear his choked-off shout.
Eboni had slowly backed up until her back was pressed firmly against the wall behind her, garnet-stone eyes locked on her opponents. A determined frown on her face, she tensed every muscle in her body, readying herself as best she could for the coming fight.
"Don’t think you’ve got me just yet, you stupid baddies!" she shouted, trying her best to sound brave despite the fact that her heart felt like it was going to pound right out of her chest. Pulling on her eyelid, she stuck out her tongue at her now visibly surprised opponents.
"Wh-what? Now see here, lass," the stranger who had been complaining about chocolate milkshakes protested, hopping forward.
Mocchi still couldn’t get a good look at him yet, though, and at the moment, didn’t care: all that mattered was that he was threatening one of his friends. Leaping into the air, the pink monster spun around as fast as he could, summoning a whirlwind of pale pink cherry blossoms to blind the eyeball monsters.
As the storm of petals swirled around the astonished strangers, Mocchi landed in front of Eboni and whirled to face her, extending one hand to the rabbit.
"Eboni, come on, chi!"
Before either could react, however, one of the monsters abruptly broke out of the blossom cloud, and both children whirled to face him. Getting his first good look at his opponent, Mocchi froze, eyes widening with surprise.
"Here now, is that any way to be treatin’ an old friend, Mocchi?" the blue-and-white eyeball monster half-scolded, half-teased with a knowing grin, his fangs glinting in the sunlight.
"Captain Horn…chi?" the youngest Searcher whispered, stunned.
Eboni just stared back and forth between the two, crimson eyes wide with confusion. A huge sweatdrop appeared on the back of the black bunny’s head.
"What? What? What’s going on? Do you know each other? Am I missing something here? Come on, I wanna know what’s happening? Wha-aaat?"
* * *
"Dammit, they should be back by now," Alan muttered under his breath, scanning the barren streets with narrowed cobalt eyes. Gripping the hilt of his sword carefully, he added, "I knew it was a bad idea for them to go off by themselves, but Holly insisted…"
Sighing, the blue-gray haired boy leaned back and gazed up towards the sky, frowning, although he was no longer simply worrying about the two young rebels. Instead, his thoughts focused on Holly, who he knew was currently watching over Hare with Serinity… actually, watching over both Hare and Serinity, truth be told. Since the pixie hybrid had been draining herself so much lately, both of the humans had secretly decided to keep an eye on her… to try and keep Serinity from harming herself in her dedication to helping others…
Alan just wished he had been able to discuss more than that with Holly. He had so much he wanted… needed… to tell her, but in private… But so far, the longest time they had been alone together had been when they discussed what to do about Serinity. Even then, once they had agreed on their course of action, Holly had left almost immediately, to check in on Hare… She had left almost entirely too fast, like she was… eager to get away from him…
Wincing inwardly, Alan immediately told himself that wasn’t the case. It hurt too much to think otherwise…
Absently, he fingered his bare earlobe, where the gold-loop earring he had given the girl had once hung. Its mate remained in place, always glittering whenever the light hit it, reminding him of what he had done. Had Holly kept… No, wait, that was a stupid question. Of course she had kept the earring: she was too kind-hearted to simply discard something given to her as a gift from a friend…
– So why doesn’t she want to talk to me…? –
A rustling noise caught his attention, and Alan was on his feet at once, whipping out his blade. Dark blue eyes glittering dangerously, he glanced around, not wanting to take the chance that it wasn’t the two young searchers returning to the hideout.
A few seconds later, Eboni and Mocchi peeked around the corner, and he relaxed upon seeing the pair.
"…There you are," he muttered, doing his best to sound irritated with them despite being glad to see them safe. "Why in the hell did you take so long…"
"Well, uh…" stammered Eboni, blushing slightly. "You see…"
Alan arched an eyebrow at the dark-furred bunny’s reaction, then froze as a third figure appeared behind the pair. Instinctively, he tensed up again, gripping the hilt of his sword tightly in both hands. This fact did not go unnoticed by the two young searchers or their new companion, as all three sweatdropped in unison.
"Now hold on thar, matey, I don’t mean any harm," the stranger, a blue-and-white suezo with a pirate’s hat on, insisted immediately.
"Captain Horn is a friend, chi!"
"Captain… Horn, huh," Alan echoed the name, not sounding completely convinced by Mocchi’s words. Lowering his blade just a bit, he gave the eyeball monster the once-over, sapphire eyes narrowed with distrust.
"Alan? What’s going on out there?"
Startled, the young swordsman turned around in time to see Holly step out behind him, confusion filling her deep bronze eyes. She and the stranger spotted each other at the same moment; Holly gasped in surprise, while the eyeball monster simply grinned.
"Captain Horn…? What are you doing here?"
"You know this guy, Holly?" Alan inquired, staring at the girl in surprise.
"Yes… he helped us out back when we were looking for the Phoenix," replied Holly, nodding. Looking over at the pirate commander, she smiled softly and added, "It’s nice to see you again, Captain."
"Likewise, likewise, Miss Holly!" laughed Captain Horn, still grinning hugely. "How have things been with you and your friends? I take it Suezo is still as annoying as ever…?" Holly flinched visibly at the sound of her partner’s name, and Horn’s smile faded, replaced by a concerned expression as he asked, visibly subdued, "Why, nothin’ happened to the scalawag, did it…?"
For a few seconds, Holly did not reply, bangs shading her downcast eyes as she gazed sadly at the ground. Alan fingered the hilt of his sword nervously and cast an angry glare in the blue eyeball monster’s direction, while Mocchi and Eboni glanced at one another nervously. Then, suddenly, Holly turned around and started back into the building, pausing long enough to glance back over her shoulder at the others.
"Come in where it’s safe," she said quietly. "We’ll tell you what’s happened to us lately…"
Then she stepped inside, Alan, Eboni and Mocchi following after her. Captain Horn hesitated a moment, a curious expression on his face, before hopping after them.
* * *
A single figure stood overlooking the tiny, seemingly deserted village, sunlight reflecting off of the medallion pinned to its collar. The monster grimaced, narrowing his bloodshot eye in annoyance: the glare was interfering a bit with his surveillance. If the Red Eye had not feared the possible consequences, he would have simply removed the thing until he was finished with his reconnaissance mission.
However, none of the ordinary warriors in Moo’s army were allowed to take off their symbols at any time, on pain of death. Only the generals and very powerful, extremely loyal fighters were given this privilege, and then only under certain circumstances, such as when they were dispatched to roam the masses and spy on them without being noticed. These special monsters were also often granted many extra benefits, such as increased strength and agility or unique magic or abilities, but these could only be invoked using the medallion itself: another incentive for even those able to remove the things to keep them on at all times.
Sometimes the Red Eye wondered why the master was so insistent on having all of his minions wear his symbol at all times, but he kept such thoughts to himself. After all, he was simply a lowly eyeball monster, with no real influence in the higher workings of Moo’s army, and it was rumored, though nothing could be proven, that those who questioned the master never lasted for long afterwards… if they made such things public.
"Seen anything unusual?" a deep, throaty voice made harsh from shouting commands over the din of battle hissed behind him, jolting the Red Eye back to reality.
"There appears to be little activity in the village, sir," the eyeball monster replied quickly, even as he continued to survey the town spread out below them. "About the only thing out of place I see would be a ship at the docks…"
"What kind of ship?"
"It appears to be some sort of pirate craft, sir. However, if they came searching for booty, they chose the wrong place to loot: that village has been abandoned and under the master’s control for some time now. They won’t find anything of value…"
"Well, they certainly picked a bad time to show up here," the commander mused, one corner of his mouth twisting up in a cruel smirk. "We were going to search that town anyway, as per Master Moo’s orders… but since we know we have guests over there, shall we go ahead and give them a warm welcome?"
"Of course, sir," was the Red Eye’s only reply.
* * *
"…So Suezo decided to use his teleportation to take Genki, Grey Wolf, Coltia, Scaler and himself back to where the Pack was, while the rest of us stayed behind to look after Hare. They’ve been gone… a few days already…"
Holly trailed off, carefully studying the expression on Captain Horn’s face. The eyeball monster’s jade pupil had dilated to a single dot, and he stared at her openly, looking absolutely stunned by all that she had told him. Not that she could blame him: it was a little much to take in all at once…
The girl had edited out a few choice details, however. Even as she had spoken, Holly had carefully weighed the possible impact of everything she knew about their situation, and decided that the pirate commander was better off not knowing certain things… at least for now. For instance, she had not revealed the fact that Moo’s new vessel was… For all Horn knew, Tiger of the Wind was still simply missing.
It pained Holly to not be completely honest with one of her friends, but what was the alternative? The events of the last few days were wearing her down immensely, and the last thing she wanted was to hear Captain Horn’s opinion on what they should do about Moo’s new body… no matter which solution he chose, whether he sided with Genki or Scaler on the issue…
"…Well… Well now… it sounds like you’ve been under a lot of stress lately, Miss Holly," Captain Horn said slowly after a few minutes of silence, carefully choosing each word, every trace of his normal bravado gone for the moment.
Holly lowered her gaze to the ground and nodded, sadly. Alan, Serinity, Eboni and Mocchi glanced over at the maiden in concern, each lost in their own thoughts. Serinity appeared especially troubled, as her gaze drifted from where Holly sat to the doorway leading to the stairs: while part of her wanted to stay and attempt to comfort the girl, another part of her still worried about the welfare of her patient…
As if sensing Serinity’s uncertainty, Holly abruptly looked up and managed a soft, half-hearted smile in the pixie hybrid’s direction.
"Go ahead," she prompted gently. "You should probably check on him, anyway…"
Grateful for her friend’s understanding, Serinity nonetheless hesitated for a few seconds before getting up and walking through the doorway. The pixie hybrid quietly paused and glanced back at the others, silently asking their forgiveness for leaving, then shut the door behind her before heading up to check on her patient.
"You know… it ain’t safe for all of ya to be here by yourselves," Captain Horn spoke up suddenly, and the Searchers all looked back at him as he continued, "I mean, just sitting around in this here ghost town… The baddies did this, sure as the sea is vast, and if they came back…"
"Hey, don’t worry about it," interrupted Alan, a slightly cocky smirk on his face. Patting his sword’s hilt where it hung on his belt, he added, "My worms and I defended an entire forest by ourselves for the longest time, so we know how to deal with the baddies…"
"Yeah, and Mocchi and I are here too!" Eboni piped up. "We’re not gonna let the baddies hurt any of our friends, are we, Mocchi?"
"That’s right, chi!"
"I don’t think you get what I’m saying," the blue-and-white eyeball monster hissed, jaden pupil darkening with concern and annoyance. "I mean, think about it: this town was completely wiped out by Moo’s forces. Somehow, I doubt the monsters who did this were on the same level as the baddies you’re used to."
Alan frowned darkly, glowering at the pirate captain, and both of the younger searchers appeared somewhat sobered by Horn’s words. Holly said nothing, but bit the inside of her lip and closed her eyes, letting her bangs fall down and shade her solemn face.
"Mind me, I’m not saying that you aren’t capable of defending yourselves, but… With all you’ve said of what you’ve seen of these new warriors, plus what me and my crew have witnessed… we’re not dealing with the same Moo. This one… this one seems even worse to me…"
You have no idea, Holly thought silently, opening her wavering bronze eyes slightly.
"So what do you suggest, then?" Alan inquired, regarding the pirate captain carefully.
"Why, come with me on my ship, of course!"
"What?" the Searchers cried together, taken off guard, all staring at the eyeball monster in shock.
Captain Horn simply grinned, regaining some of his former bravado.
"Why don’t the lot of you join up with me and my crew for a while?" he repeated, still smiling broadly. "To be sure, there’s still some baddies to worry about, but the sea’s so vast they’ll have trouble even finding us! It’s better than hiding away in some little ruin where they might find ya at any time…"
"Captain Horn…" Holly paused, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath, then sighed sadly. "…No, we can’t. I’m sorry…"
"But why not, lass?" the eyeball monster inquired, turning a hurt look on the human girl.
"…Because… if we leave here… how will Genki, Suezo and the others find us when they return?"
The room fell silent once more as each of the occupants considered Holly’s quiet, simple words. She had just pointed out the single most glaring flaw in the pirate commander’s proposal, and each of them knew it. If they left the hideaway… there would be no guarantee that they would be able to locate their absent friends again…
But then again, we don’t even know for certain if we’re going to see each other again if we stay here, Alan mused darkly, narrowed sapphire eyes glittering with foreboding.
They had known that much when the others had left in the first place: that it was entirely too possible that not everyone would be able to make it back. Still, it had gone unspoken, nobody wanting to bring that detail to everyone’s full attention though they all privately acknowledged it in their own way…
"…I promised that we would be waiting. I… I want to keep that promise…"
"Holly…" Eboni murmured sadly, seeing tears glimmering in the girl’s chestnut eyes.
"So… that’s your decision, then?" Captain Horn asked solemnly after a few moments.
The pirate commander bowed his head, letting out a forlorn sigh, then stood, keeping a composed expression on his face as he studied the small group. It was obvious that the rejection of his offer cut the eyeball monster deeply, but he struggled to conceal it as best he could: after all, even righteous pirates were not supposed to cry.
"Fine, then… Gods protect you on your travels…"
Bowing toward the rebels, Captain Horn then turned away and began to hop toward the exit, a shadow falling over his face and veiling most of his expression. Holly averted her eyes sadly, biting the inside of her lip.
- I… can’t leave here without the others… This… is for the best… isn’t it? -
Suddenly, Captain Horn halted in his tracks, his head whipping up as if startled. The searchers stared at him in surprise, and Alan instinctively grabbed the hilt of his sword.
"What is it?" the blue-gray haired boy hissed under his breath.
"Thought I saw somethin’ moving outside," was the pirate commander’s equally hushed reply, as Horn edged closer to one of the windows. It was mostly covered by nailed-up boards, but one could still see through the gaps in the blockade to the streets outside. As the eyeball monster peered outside, the rebels crept up behind him and sneaked their own glances through the window as well.
Mocchi was the first to see what the pirate had first glimpsed, and the youngest searcher barely caught his gasp in time. Captain Horn shot a quick look over at the pink monster and inclined his head slightly in an understanding nod.
"Soldiers," the eyeball monster snarled, lips curling up to reveal the sharp fangs that were one of the traits of his half-tiger blood.
Monsters of various breeds and sizes were stalking through the streets, some trying to be silent and stealthy, others simply crashing through without giving a damn as to who heard or saw them. The only thing they shared in common was the fact that an all-too familiar medallion was pinned on each one somewhere, be it on their clothes, a collar, or simply their fur.
"Looks like Moo’s forces arrived sooner than we thought," Alan noted grimly, cobalt eyes glittering in the dim light from the setting sun that trickled through the gaps in the window. Glancing over in Holly’s direction, he added, "No offense, Holly, but maybe we should reconsider the captain’s offer."
"………" Holly said nothing, but her bronze eyes shimmered with emotion as she slowly nodded in agreement.
"Wow, there’s a whole bunch of them," noted Eboni, staring at the milling troops in shock. "How are we gonna get past all of them at once?"
Stepping away from the window, Holly motioned for the other searchers to gather around her. As all eyes turned to the maiden, she took a deep breath to calm herself: this time, she would have to be the one making the plan of action. She couldn’t let herself be distracted by thinking about what would happen if she screwed up…
"…Okay, listen. We’re going to have to split up," she started in a rush, keeping her voice calm, clear and composed. Pointing at Eboni and Mocchi, she instructed, "You two stick together and make your way to Horn’s ship. You know where it’s at, right?"
"Sure, at the docks," Eboni affirmed, absently waving in the general direction of the harbor with one paw.
"Good. Alan, you go get the Worms from where they’re hiding and take them to the ship as fast as you can. Captain, you go with him…"
"But, Holly!" Alan and Horn said in unison, both startled.
"Don’t start," she warned, chestnut eyes suddenly looking harsh and angry for an instant. However, the mad expression vanished in a heartbeat, and her voice remained calm and gentle as she explained, "Alan, the Worms are going to have a hard time getting past without getting seen… You’ll probably end up fighting most of the way, and I’d prefer that Captain Horn be with you. That way, you’ll have a better idea of where you’re headed, and if you need to fight…"
"…But, Miss Holly, what about you?" Horn inquired, looking extremely concerned.
"I’m going to get Serinity and Hare, and we’ll meet you at the ship. Don’t worry, we’ll be careful."
With that, Holly stood up and ran toward the door where Serinity had gone without allowing any time for the others to dispute her plan. There was no time to waste on ironing out any more details: they could only act now if they hoped to escape.
Mocchi was the first to act: he turned to Eboni and nodded sharply, signaling the black rabbit to act. She nodded back, and the two darted toward another window that only had a single pair of boards nailed over it. As the pair worked on loosening the nails, Alan glanced at his assigned partner and frowned slightly. The expression on the eyeball monster’s face indicated that he felt similarly, but they could hardly debate the matter…
"Let’s go," Alan said curtly, and darted toward the exit without another word.
Rolling his eye, Captain Horn then closed it tightly and concentrated. He vanished, reappearing briefly in front of a startled Alan, then looked up at the boy with a slightly superior smirk tugging at the edge of his mouth.
"It may be a bit easier if I take us out this way ‘stead of just charging out the door," Horn deadpanned, his smirk widening as Alan glanced to one side and muttered angrily.
* * *
"What’s wrong, Holly?" the pixie hybrid asked, turning around as Holly came into the small room. When Holly didn’t immediately reply, but instead made certain the door was closed tightly behind her, she felt a sudden rush of alarm, and stood up at once, repeating, "Holly? What is it? What’s wrong?"
"Serinity, we don’t have a lot of time," replied Holly urgently, quickly walking over to join the pixie hybrid. "We just found out that some of the baddies are in town… we have to leave now!"
"What?" Serinity gasped, face turning pale. "Ho-how… Wh-what about…"
"Alan and Captain Horn are going to find the Worms and get them to Horn’s ship, and Mocchi and Eboni are already heading over there," explained Holly as quickly as she could, attempting to calm her friend. "We have to get Hare out of here right now…"
Serinity stared at her in shock for a few seconds more, then abruptly stiffened and nodded solemnly in understanding. She briefly gripped Holly’s hand tightly, then let go and turned around to face the bed where Hare was lying. The pixie hybrid paused, biting the inside of her lip thoughtfully, verdant eyes wavering as she considered the young rabbit’s still unconscious form, then carefully wrapped one of the bedsheets tightly around his body before scooping him into her arms.
Holly watched this silently, understanding why Serinity did this: she couldn’t risk Hare shifting around while she carried him, especially if she started flying. While the tawny-furred bunny had yet to awaken after their battle with Moo, it wouldn’t hurt to take precautions… and it wasn’t like anyone would miss the sheet, anyway…
"So how are we going to get to the captain’s ship, Miss Holly?" Serinity asked quietly, cradling her precious burden in both arms.
"We’ll… find a way," was the girl’s simple reply, as Holly crept over to the window and peeked carefully outside, scanning the streets. When she was certain that no baddies were nearby, she propped open the window and continued, "You go on ahead with Hare, Serinity: just keep out of sight and out of reach, and you should be fine. I’ll meet you at the harbor…"
"…Holly," Serinity whispered, verdant eyes shining with emotion.
The two female searchers simply gazed at one another, their silence somehow saying more than any more words could. Neither knew exactly how to express what both could sense at that moment: while it seemed a folly to split up the small team even further, there was no way that Serinity could carry both Hare and Holly at the same time without difficulty. The slender pixie hybrid was simply not strong enough, even if her desire to get both to safety as quickly as possible was. It would be a greater risk for all three… as much as both hated to admit it, this was the best option open to them.
Finally, Serinity closed her eyes and nodded once, sharply, in acknowledgement of what had to be done. Turning to the window, she walked over and tensed every muscle in her body for a split second before launching through the small opening. The moment she was outside, leaf-like wings unfurled and beat silently against the cool air, suspending her above the streets. Keeping just below the rooftops so that it would be difficult for even flying enemies to spot her easily, she turned round and locked gazes briefly with Holly for a few seconds more before turning round and heading toward the docks.
The human maiden hesitated just long enough to watch the pixie hybrid depart, until Serinity swerved out of her view, and silently offered up a prayer for all of her friends to make it safely. She did not think that she could bear it if any of them were hurt… Then, steeling herself, Holly whirled on her heel and darted back out the door, making a dash for the stairs downstairs…
* * *
Somewhere on the streets of the dead city, Mocchi and Eboni were also darting around, playing a twisted version of hide-and-go-seek with their pursuers. So far, the youngsters had not had much luck: while climbing out of the window, the pink monster’s foot had slipped on the barrel he had stepped down onto, and grabbed for Eboni’s paws. Since she had not been ready, the sudden pull of his extra weight yanked her out and down on top of him, and both had then slammed into the stack of kegs, causing a loud succession of bangs and crashes that had lured the nearby baddies directly to them. While they had managed to untangle themselves from one another and run off before they were actually seen, the alert had nonetheless reached several of the enemy soldiers, causing them to be much more focused in their efforts to find the rebels.
At the moment, both were currently pressing their backs tightly against the wall as they waited for a troop of Jells to slither past them. While Eboni had a slight advantage, her dark fur blending in with the shadows around them, Mocchi’s pale pink skin caused him to stand out all too easily, something both young monsters were painfully aware of. As the Jells drew closer, Mocchi tensed, a surge of panic running through him, and decided not to wait to be noticed.
"Cherry… Blossom Blizzard, chi!" he shouted, springing into the air and spinning around as he summoned a cloud of pink petals to hide their escape.
Luck was not with him at that moment. While most of the Jells predictably covered their eyes and staggered backward, several responded to the unseen threat by lashing out blindly in the general direction that the hurricane blasted from. One of the flailing limbs struck Mocchi’s hand, and the small monster cried out as it wrapped tightly around his arm and yanked him down to the floor with a dull crash.
"Hey!" Eboni exclaimed, seeing her friend slam into the ground, and she ran to Mocchi’s side as the fluttering petals drifted away, leaving both exposed to the enemy soldiers.
"Hey, you there!" one of the Jells shouted, and Eboni whirled to face him, balling her paws into fists. However, instead of attacking, the slime monster continued, "Well, what are you waiting for? Restrain him!"
"…Eh?" Eboni blinked, taken off guard.
"Stupid Evil Hare, didn’t you hear what I just said? That little runt is one of the rebels; go ahead and attack him!"
"Must be one of the new trainees," another of the Jells commented, sounding a little less disgusted with her failure to comply.
"Well, what is she waiting for? Are all Evil Hares this dense?" asked a third, eyeing the little black rabbit.
"…Hey, what’s wrong with her?"
A shadow had fallen over Eboni’s eyes as she listened incredulously to the Jells’ argument, and she was beginning to tremble, fists tightening at her sides.
"…Maybe she’s nervous; after all, we are her superiors," a haughty voice observed, sounding intensely amused by that possibility.
Scattered laughter followed that comment, and one of the Jells then slithered forward, extending a limb toward the Evil Hare patronizingly as he prompted, "Well, come on, girlie, give us a hand here!"
Eboni’s head snapped up violently, and the lead Jell recoiled slightly as he glimpsed for the first time the angry tears brimming in her blazing garnet eyes. Before he could react, she seized his arm with both paws and yanked him forward, throwing him off balance.
"I am NOT on your side!" the young Evil Hare snarled, flipping the stunned baddie back into his fellow soldiers.
The force of her throw sent the entire group flying back into the wall behind them, and the Jells slammed against the brick with a sickening splat, flattening into puddles. As they dribbled down the rough surface, too stunned to pull themselves together right away, Eboni helped Mocchi to his feet.
"Come on," she prompted, tugging on Mocchi’s arm and leading him in the direction of the docks. "Let’s get outta here ‘fore those idiots get back up…"
* * *
Serinity scanned the docks rapidly as she darted through the air, heart pounding violently in her chest. Tightening her grip on the still unconscious Hare a little more, she kept one eye out for possible baddies even as she made her way toward the only ship she could see at the harbor. Her anxious expression became a relieved smile as she spotted Alan waving up at her from the deck, the Worms behind him, and the pixie hybrid quickly swooped in to land directly in front of the boy.
"Thank goodness you are alright," she greeted him, and Alan returned her grin with a short laugh.
"What, you thought I wouldn’t make it?" he teased, arching one eyebrow mockingly. However, his cocky mood soon faded, and his face became concerned as he asked, "So Holly’s not with you?"
"No… she told me that she would meet us here," the pixie hybrid replied, matching his concern perfectly.
Both Alan and Serinity turned around in time to see Mocchi and Eboni clamber up the gangplank onto the deck, waving at them. The dark-furred bunny had been the one who called out to them, and she reached Serinity’s side just a few seconds before Mocchi did.
"Great, you made it!" beamed Eboni, looking extremely relieved. Glancing around, she added, "Where’s Holly?"
"We don’t know… you haven’t seen her either, Mocchi?"
"No, chi," came the reply, as the pink monster frowned.
"…Alan, could you hold Hare for a while?" Serinity asked after a short pause, handing the little rabbit to the young man before he could reply. Turning away, she added, "I’ll go see if I can find her…"
"Serinity, wait—" was all Alan got out before the pixie hybrid spread her wings and launched off of the deck again.
* * *
Meanwhile, not far away from the decks, Holly ducked into a building in order to avoid another patrol of soldiers.
Ohhhhh… I didn’t expect there to be THIS many baddies here already, she thought nervously, watching the group of Black Saurians tromp past.
Edging away from the doorway, wavering bronze eyes locked on the opening, she failed to notice that not all of the storage containers behind her were closed. Several of the boxes and barrels had been knocked over, spilling their contents onto the dusty floor, and her heel happened to rest upon a length of pipe behind her. Before she knew what was happening, the girl slipped and tumbled backwards, landing on a pile of boxes with a resounding crash.
"What was that?!?" a gruff voice shouted from somewhere outside.
"It came from over here…"
Holly didn’t stick around to see who was coming to investigate: scrambling back to her feet, she took off in the opposite direction of the door she had used to enter, praying that she would find another exit. But none came to her desperately searching eyes, and as the door banged open behind her, she whirled around and dashed up the stairs instead, hoping she hadn’t been seen.
But the roaring and banging that echoed behind her told her otherwise. Holly sucked in a frightened gasp and struggled to focus on simply finding a way out instead of the voices shouting behind her, on the pounding of the monsters’ feet on the stairs. Ducking into one of the doors that lined the hallway, she closed it behind her and leaned against it, trying to catch her breath as quietly as possible.
Okay, don’t panic, Holly, just try not to panic, she told herself silently. There’s another way out of here; you just have to find it…
However, any calming effect this might have had on the maiden was completely lost when a thick clawed hand burst through the wooden door and groped around. With a startled scream, Holly twisted away, wincing as she felt some of her caught clothing tear away. Stumbling backward, the human girl stared in growing terror as the rest of the shattered door was broken and shoved aside, and a sneered Black Saurian forced his way into the room, quickly followed by several of his comrades.
"Thought you could hide from us, didn’t you, rebel?" the one in the front snarled, bared fangs glinting in the few rays of sunlight that seeped through the boarded-up windows and cracked walls around them.
Breathing hard, Holly slowly backed away from the baddie until she felt her back brush against a cold, smooth surface. Glancing behind her, she felt her heart sink slightly as she realized that she was standing in front of a window, which was almost completely blocked by thick wooden boards. Seeing her expression, the Black Saurian allowed his smirk to grow wider.
"You want out? Don’t worry, puny human, we’ll get you out…"
The other warriors snickered in agreement, and Holly quickly swung around to face them. Wavering bronze eyes widened in fear as they reflected the dusky orangish-red glow of charging fireballs, and as the attacks raged toward her, she threw up her arms in a desperate, futile attempt to protect herself as best she could…
Then her world seemed to explode with a rush of intense heat, splintering wood, flying rubble, and the wind that buffeted her falling form mercilessly…
With a harsh jolt, Holly’s free-fall came to an abrupt end, and the maiden let out a sharp gasp as a wave of pain coursed through her body. Somehow, she found enough strength to open her blurring chestnut eyes just enough to glimpse the ground so far beneath her, and moaned as she faded into unconsciousness…
* * *
Serinity nearly lost her grip as Holly jerked to a stop, and gasped as she was yanked down roughly by the sudden extra weight. Leaf-like wings straining against the air, the pixie hybrid somehow managed to lift the human girl’s motionless body, hooking her arms under Holly’s shoulders. Struggling to ignore the pain shooting through her slender frame, she attempted to head towards Horn’s ship.
Suddenly, something blazed past her, and Serinity nearly screamed as she instinctively veered away, verdant eyes wincing shut. Before she could react, a second burning sphere nearly clipped her leg, and as she dodged away from that, another blast surged past mere inches away from her face, nearly catching a curl of her hair on fire.
An agonized shriek ripped from Serinity’s lungs as her left wing suddenly blasted a wave of pain through her body, caught by another shot. No longer supported by its feeble beating, both rebels tumbled end over end through the air, the pixie hybrid no longer able to even hold onto her friend…
The terrifying rush of wind all around her abruptly gave way to a searing coldness, and Serinity’s eyes flashed open to see nothing but a seemingly endless expanse of water all around her. Thankful that her mouth had been closed when she hit, the pixie hybrid glanced around, fighting the lingering pain in her back and shoulder.
Holly was not faring as well, as she quickly saw: the human girl was still knocked out, and a stream of bubbles drifted from her open mouth as she slowly sunk into the shadowy depths. Serinity grabbed the girl’s arm and pulled with all of her rapidly fading strength, aiming towards the surface. After a few seconds that seemed far too long for the pixie hybrid, she finally broke through, and flung back her head with a gasp, pulling precious air into her aching lungs.
Hearing her name shouted, the half-pixie looked up in time to see Captain Horn’s ship looming above her, her friends staring down at her from the deck. Holding on to a coughing, choking Holly with one arm, she waved at them with her free hand, and smiled as she saw the pirate captain dash off to return almost immediately with a net. As the tightly woven mesh fell down and closed around them, the pixie hybrid made no cry of protest, instead focusing on trying to help the suffering human she clung to.
Within minutes, they had been hauled onto the deck, and the others gathered around nervously as Serinity helped the choking Holly to breathe. Spitting out a mouthful of water, Holly sucked in a deep gulp of fresh air, then glanced weakly around at her relieved companions.
"Thanks… is everyone okay?" she asked, her voice a bare whisper.
"Yeah, we’re alright," Eboni answered, nodding. "Everyone made it, thanks to you… and Serinity… Serinity?!? Oh man, your wing…?!?"
Immediately, Holly turned to face Serinity, and gasped as she saw what the young bunny was suddenly so alarmed about: the pixie hybrid’s left wing was badly scorched, charred, as was her shoulder and back. At the others’ horrified stares, Serinity shifted slightly and self-consciously rubbed at her injured shoulder.
"…Don’t worry, I’ll be able to heal this soon enough," she insisted, a wan smile on her face. "I’m just glad I was able to help you, Holly…"
"Serinity…" murmured Holly, chestnut eyes wavering as she stared at the female monster. After a few moments, she couldn’t bear to see her friend’s injury anymore, and averted her gaze as she whispered, awkwardly, "Thank you…"
The ship gave a convulsive lurch, and Holly did not need to look up to know that they were leaving the harbor. As they pulled away, Mocchi and Eboni ran over to the railing and waved goodbye to the village… or rather, to the enraged baddies that milled around helplessly on the docks, able only to watch as their quarry escaped them.
"Bye-bye! Too bad you creeps dunno how to swim!" Eboni taunted, then the young Evil Hare pulled on her eyelid and stuck out her tongue at the enraged warriors.
"Bye-bye-chi!" echoed Mocchi, waving both arms in the air and giggling.
Holly allowed herself a soft smile at the pair’s enthusiasm, even as she felt her heart sink into the pit of her stomach. Getting to her feet, she glanced around at the others on deck: Serinity was talking to Captain Horn, cradling Hare in her arms again; from what she could pick up, the pixie hybrid was asking the eyeball monster for a room her patient could stay in. Alan was over by his Worms, attempting to calm the huge pair of monsters, which didn’t look too thrilled by the prospect of a sea voyage.
Finally, her gaze drifted back in the direction of the port city, already some distance away, and sighed sadly. The sea breeze danced around her, playing with her tangled hair, brushing it away from her solemn face. Bronze eyes shimmered with tears of despair, tears that she didn’t dare let fall, not with so many of her friends and allies nearby that might see her break down. No, she would save her tears for later, for the loneliness that would wash over her when she was by herself, to think even more of her missing friends… the other Searchers that were so far away…
- Oh Genki… Suezo… everyone… I’m so sorry that we couldn’t keep our promise… I… I wanted to wait for you… -
- …How are we possibly going to get back together now…? -
A chill breeze wound through the canyons that sheltered the Wild Pack, whistling past the caves and over the rocky cliffs. While most of the wolves were currently inside, a few remained on patrol, and they shivered as the cold wind ruffled their fur.
However, there were more than wolves outside the safety and warmth of the caves at that moment. Next to one of the higher openings in the canyon walls, a young girl sat on a semi-flat boulder, half-leaning against the rocks behind her. The frigid breeze ruffled her hair and tugged at her clothes, and Coltia shuddered slightly, hugging her folded arms tighter to her chest.
"Jeez… why has it been so cold lately?" she murmured, thinking aloud. Rubbing her hands up and down her arms in an attempt to warm herself, she absently continued, "It’s never been this cold at this time of year before…"
- …Or maybe it just seems colder… -
Another shiver ran down the young girl’s spine, and Coltia sighed, caramel eyes wavering as she gazed at the surrounding landscape. The sun was just beginning to sink out of view, its gradually dimming rays painting the rocky cliffs in warm shades of vibrant orange and dusky yellow, with undertones of other, darker hues. The view was breathtaking, and if confronted with it at any other time, Coltia would have likely started gushing happily about how beautiful it was, how enchanting… and, if any of her crushes happened to be in earshot, how utterly romantic.
For a few moments, a slightly awed smile did flicker on her lips, but the brief cheerful expression failed to touch her shimmering tan eyes, even as they reflected some of the scene’s radiance.
It was such a beautiful place… it seemed almost impossible that a few hours earlier, several monsters both good and evil had lost their lives fighting there. The open area miles below her perch, the small clearing in front of the main caves… that was where today’s battle had taken place, just like the ones they had been fighting over the past several days.
Coltia closed her eyes in silent pain as memories of the last conflict rushed through her mind: this time, the assault squad sent by Moo had consisted of mainly Zuum purebreds and hybrids, with some scattered groups of other monsters. She couldn’t recall every type, but remembered clearly that several Jells, a few Beaclons, and even some Terror Dogs and Calabos had been among the baddies.
She also knew for certain that the enemy group had been larger this time: ever since the attacks had begun over a week ago, the number of opponents in each successive wave had steadily increased. Also, each day that passed, it seemed that it took more and more deaths before the baddies would abruptly withdraw, only to return again some time later with reinforcements.
But the pauses between assaults seemed erratic… they couldn’t quite estimate yet how long they would have to gather their wits before the next wave. It ranged wildly, from the matter of a few all too short hours to nearly an entire day at one point. That was why Grey Wolf and the pack kept a constant patrol… all it would take for them to lose everything would be one drop in security, one mistake…
Shuddering again, Coltia quickly pushed the thought of what exactly the consequences would be to the back of her mind. There was so much else to think about… like what had happened earlier that day, and the plans for tomorrow.
The baddies had been driven back again for now, but at a price. Even though she and the other members of the Searchers – Genki, Suezo, Scaler and Grey Wolf – had made it through the battle safely, not all of the wolves had… She didn’t know all the names of those who had fallen, or how each had met their fate, didn’t even know who exactly all of them were, but that didn’t dull the pain of losing her companions and allies any less.
The young girl winced as she recalled briefly how they had gone out and gathered the lost discs after the last of the enemy had fled. Since it was all too likely that they would be using that same area as a battlefield again tomorrow, nobody wanted to risk having the vulnerable saucers that had once been living monsters to remain out in the open, possibly to be crushed during the coming conflict.
Even this precaution, however, had not been able to prevent some of the discs from being broken in the heat of the fight: they could only clear the field afterwards, not during the battle itself. Coltia allowed a few mournful tears to roll down her cheeks as she thought of how some of the wolves had quietly gathered up the small piles of stone shards and sticks that had been formed by such catastrophes and taken them away. She didn’t know where they had disposed of them, and didn’t want to know, anyway.
The sun continued its slow descent almost unnoticed by the young girl, at least until one of its rays touched something buckled at her side and caused it to flash brightly, causing her to instinctively glance toward the shining object. The sharp blade glittered brightly, silvery edge gleaming as it reflected the light.
Coltia bit the edge of her lip without even realizing it, staring down at the small weapon. So far, she had managed to avoid using the thing, mainly because she had lingered behind instead of lunging into the battle like so many of her companions. They all seemed to understand her hesitance at getting involved directly with the fighting: being human, she lacked the advantage of specialized methods of attack that the monsters possessed.
Not that this same handicap prevented Genki from helping his friends…
A faint blush colored the young girl’s cheeks briefly; certainly, it was very impressive how Genki fought alongside his friends and allies, too stubborn and determined to help to back down even when he was at a definite disadvantage. Sometimes, she wished she could be as brave as he was…
Come to think of it, she hadn’t seen him using the blade Scaler had given him either… did that mean he was just as uncomfortable with the concept as she was?
Coltia frowned slightly, making a mental note to ask the clear-eyed boy about that later if she got the chance. Not in front of Scaler or the other Searchers, of course: the last thing she wanted was for the green rabbit to get the impression that they were dissatisfied with his gift…
Coltia honestly appreciated the reasons why Scaler had given them each a weapon to defend themselves with. She just was not certain that she could deal with everything that carrying such a thing implied…
Well, Holly carries one of these things, and I haven’t seen her use it yet, she told herself silently, fingering the dagger’s handle gingerly.
- I just hope I’ll be that lucky… -
The wind whirled around the girl again, and Coltia winced, hugging her arms tighter around her slightly trembling body as she finally opted to retreat into the shelter of the caves. It simply was getting too cold and dark to linger outside any longer, especially when Moo and his followers were still somewhere nearby, plotting their next move…
* * *
Beneath the ever-spreading shadow of a floating crystalline star milled a literal tide of monsters. Thousands upon thousands of troops pushed and shoved their way around the makeshift camp, fighting for space in whatever manner of shelter they could find. Black Dinos and Saurians, Evil Hares and Terror Dogs, Jells and suezos from a myriad of breedings… and this did not even begin to cover all of the types represented in this mere fraction of Moo’s army.
From high above, golden and crimson eyes gleamed as they swept over the masses, yet the enemy commander was strangely silent as he studied his followers, not even making soft observations under his breath. This greatly unnerved the only other occupant of the sprawling chamber, and the Weed trembled as he gazed up at his master carefully. Not even the visible side of the titan’s face betrayed his thoughts, appearing completely impassive, save for a slightly thoughtful glitter in his golden eye.
The Weed fought back the urge to gulp, not daring to make a sound that might possibly disturb his master’s musings.
Silently, he agreed with the tyrant on one point: his new appearance was certainly more intimidating than his previous had been, despite the fact that the purple plant had once thought such a thing impossible. The now half-mask exposed a visage that was both terrifying to behold and yet darkly handsome. The visible side of his face was stern, yet not hideous or uninviting, his narrow golden eye complimenting its crimson twin well. His skin was perfectly smooth and clear, even though it was also so pale in shade that at times it seemed almost white. The only other source of color on the pale skin came from the jagged scar that traced its path between the master’s eyes and stretched down over his cheek, but even this did not detract from his dark beauty.
Also, the shattering of the mask exposed other things as well, primarily the true shade of his hair. Previously, it had been completely covered by the pale reddish – no matter what the others whispered, Weed refused to think of his master’s mane as being ‘pink’ – locks that sprouted from under the mask, cascading down his back. Now, the purple plant could clearly see dark blue tresses underneath the pale red mane, ones that extended almost as far as the fur that half-covered them.
All in all, his commander’s appearance was extremely impressive: how could anyone, monster or human, feel that they possibly resist Moo’s might once they laid eyes upon the towering titan?
- Heh, now that’s an idea… I’m certain that if Master Moo wanted, he could use his power to send an image of himself to everyone in the world… After all, the master can do ANYTHING… -
The Weed wondered briefly if he should even dare suggesting anything to his great leader, only to be shocked out of his thoughts when he heard the deep, throaty rumble of the titan’s voice.
"…So, tell me, Weed… has any more news come from the ones I deployed to find the other rebels?"
"…None, master," the purple plant replied slowly, voice tinged with more than a little regret and fear at having to report this.
A few days before, they had received news from those sent to uncover where the other rebels were hiding, but it hadn’t all been good. While they had come across them, hiding in a long-deserted harbor town, the small group had somehow managed to escape over the water, with the aid of another rebel known as ‘Horn the Righteous Pirate’. Moo had not been pleased to hear of their failure to destroy the fools, especially since he knew the majority of their fighters were currently with the wolves, trying to protect them…
The Weed flinched as he saw the visible side of Moo’s mouth twist downward into a displeased scowl, and cautiously edged a few steps backwards just in case the titan decided to take out his annoyance on something. He didn’t move too quickly or too far away, however, for fear of bringing unwanted attention to himself.
"…What incompetents," he heard his commander mutter at length, and flinched at the raw disgust practically oozing from each word.
However, unexpectedly, Moo’s frown twisted into a slight smirk, and his tone was almost mocking as he continued, "Ah well. For now, I suppose I will simply have to concentrate on wiping out the rebels in front of me… Don’t you agree, Weed?"
"…Y-yes… yes master," the plant monster stammered, not knowing whether Moo truly wished for him to reply or not.
"…Now then…" the titan murmured, more to himself than to his quivering companion, "Who shall be the ones I send after those wolves and their rebel friends next…?"
An eye of dark crimson and an eye of pale gold swept across the milling hordes of monsters so far below them, and the cruel, knowing smirk on Moo’s face widened with twisted anticipation of the coming battle…
* * *
"Tiger, stop it! Hare, RUN! Stop, Tiger, NO! STOP IT!!!"
But despite Genki’s enraged pleas, the blue wolf turned demon continued to ruthlessly attack the young rabbit. Hare was not even trying to fight back, simply attempting to block the constant assaults with a dimly flickering, ever weakening crimson barrier that did not appear to be helping in the slightest. Tiger – Moo – completely ignored the fiery aura, lashing out again and again, claws tearing bleeding gashes in the bunny’s arms and chest, all the while laughing in pure, cruel enjoyment.
"How does it feel to lose, Hare?" the wolf leered, a twisted smirk splitting his scarred, half-hidden face. "You don’t know how long I’ve waited for a chance like this…"
"THAT’S NOT TRUE! Tiger, you’d never do anything like this, I know!" screamed Genki, clear brown eyes shimmering with angry tears.
He desperately wanted to run forward, to place himself between them, to do something to end the possessed lupine’s gruesome assault on Hare, but found he could not even move his legs. The boy was rooted to the spot, able to do little more than scream in denial of what he was witnessing.
Finally, Hare could no longer even find the strength to stand anymore. Wavering on his feet, the bunny slowly crumpled backwards, tawny fur and bandana stained with a darker red. As he collapsed, the young rabbit glanced over to where Genki was, and whispered a weak, trembling query that still seemed to boom in the young boy’s ears like thunder:
"…Why couldn’t you help me, Genki…?"
It was too much. As Tiger surged forward with a triumphant howl, thick white fangs racing toward his now completely defenseless victim’s neck, Genki screwed his tear-filled eyes shut and screamed in pure denial…
* * *
The boy’s fist flew out and punched uselessly at the empty air, and suddenly Genki’s clear brown eyes were open, staring up at the cave’s ceiling. A few tears trickled unnoticed down his cheeks, and it took several moments for his ragged breathing to slow down enough, for his mind to fully break away from the nightmare.
Slowly, the raw terror and anger written on his tense face faded as he began to relax, although it did not completely leave his deeply wavering eyes. Running one hand absently through his tangled dark brown bangs, Genki let out a deep sigh, still staring up at the ceiling without really seeing it.
"Hare was right… I could have helped him before," he murmured sadly, recalling how he had stood by and watched in horror when Tiger had stabbed the bunny in the fortress. Gritting his teeth in frustration, hands balling into trembling fists, he rolled over and punched the ground as he shouted, "I should have DONE something!"
But at the time, Genki had been in such shock and disbelief at what was happening… he still wanted to deny what he had witnessed, but already recognized the fact that it was all harsh reality. No matter how unbelievable it seemed, Tiger of the Wind really had become the new host of Moo’s soul… and Genki had no way of knowing just what that meant for the blue lupine’s own spirit…
"Oh man, Tiger…" he breathed, fighting down the lump rising in his throat as he thought of the scarred wolf. "What did Moo do to you, buddy…?"
- …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… –
Recalling Scaler’s explanation, as well as his suggestion that they would have to destroy Tiger’s body in order to defeat Moo again, Genki abruptly sat up straight, clear brown eyes shining with denial, determination. No… no matter what anyone else claimed, he refused to stop believing in Tiger. The youth was certain that there was a way to save his friend: they just needed to find it first…
Clenching his hands into tight fists again, Genki closed his eyes again solemnly, picturing the blue wolf before his possession.
"Tiger… I won’t give up on you. We’ll find a way to get you back… I promise…"
* * *
Meanwhile, in another small cavern similar to the one the youth was in, another member of the rebels was also making an equally solemn, yet markedly different vow. Scaler’s dark violet-brown eyes smoldered with hatred as he worked on polishing one of his long swords, shining brighter than the blade he cradled carefully in his paws.
"Moo… I swear by all the gods, I will see your death… even if the price is my own life, I will watch you die…"
* * *
Saffron shuddered again as another cool blast of air ruffled her thick pink and yellow fur, and her sky blue eyes shimmered with emotion as she overlooked the part of the canyon that had transformed into their primary battlefield. Her heart ached to see it that way, as the memories of playing in its seemingly endless expanses and crevices gave way to the newer scenes of bloodshed and death she had only recently witnessed there. Happiness from her childhood crushed under the ruthless heel of war… such was the lives of far too many younger monsters, anymore… still, she felt the ones born after Moo’s rising had it far worse than she…
Even though she immediately recognized the voice behind her, the female Daton still felt every muscle in her body tense, and she snarled as she whirled to face Toge. Had she not glimpsed the sad expression in the Datonare’s wavering yellow eyes right away, Saffron probably would have started berating her childhood friend for disturbing her while on watch. As it was, she forced herself to calm somewhat before trusting herself to make a sufficient reply that did not include biting his head off.
"…What is it, Toge?"
"…Lionson, Brenna, and Carmine…"
Saffron blinked, sky blue eyes softening with understanding at the trio of names that her companion sighed. They belonged to three of the pups that belonged to the same generation that Toge and she came from; Lionson and Brenna were both Datonares, male and female, respectively, while Carmine was a Daton with more red highlights than yellow in his long, flowing mane.
And now all three were dead, killed at the claws and fangs of the baddies they had faced.
She had witnessed Brenna’s death: the female Datonare had been ambushed by a damned Black Saurian, which had sprung upon the green lupine from above and bitten down hard upon her neck before she could react. Brenna had not even had time to cry out before she died, no chance of fighting back…
…Just as Saffron herself had been killed by the Dinos, so long ago…
But there was still a chance that Brenna could come back, since her lost disc had been retrieved and hidden away safely in time. From what she had heard from others, Lionson and Carmine had not been so lucky…
Pulling out of her gloomy thoughts, Saffron blinked in mild surprise as she suddenly noticed tears trickling slowly down Toge’s muzzle. The Datonare’s yellow eyes shone with pure sorrow, and he did not even bother to hide his despair at losing his childhood friends and playmates in such a horrible manner. He missed them terribly, and stoicism be damned, he was not going to keep himself from weeping at their deaths…
"…Toge…" Shaking her head slowly, Saffron quietly stated, "I’ll go ahead and take the next watch for you. You’re in no condition to replace me…"
"…No… No, I can do it," came the stubborn, yet broken reply, and Toge quickly blinked his eyes several times to try and clear them.
"………Fine then. But I am not going to leave you alone out here, either."
No complaint answered this declaration, and Saffron would not have listened had there been one, at any rate. Silently, she walked alongside the male Datonare as he started his patrol, blue eyes scanning for whatever yellow eyes fogged with tears might not catch…
* * *
Morning broke over the canyons. And with its first rays came the next wave of Moo’s army.
At the first of the scouts sent up the alarm howl, Genki’s clear brown eyes snapped open at once, and the youth scrambled to pull his skates on as he half-hopped, half-sprinted for the cave’s opening. Now he was glad that he had fallen asleep still wearing his clothing: he didn’t want to have to slow down any more than he already was.
Coltia and Suezo were waiting for him at the main entrance, the eyeball monster biting the inside of his lip as he kept glancing outside at the fight already underway. Genki didn’t even bother to ask where Scaler and Grey Wolf were as he clambered up to the pair: it was all too obvious. Those two were usually the first of the Searchers to get to the battlefield anyway…
Coltia’s caramel eyes lit up with relief, delight and barely-veiled concern as she spotted him making his way up to them, and waved as he approached. Their gazes locked for a few fleeting moments as Genki paused briefly in the entrance, about to charge head-first into the conflict as always.
"Be careful," she said, almost automatically.
Genki just grinned widely and winked at the girl, his typical response. Then, glancing over at Suezo, he nodded at the eyeball monster, who returned the gesture, green-gold pupil shimmering with both fear and determination.
"Down with Moo, goodies rule!" shouted the boy at the top of his lungs, as if announcing his arrival on the battlefield – which, in a sense, he was.
Somewhere in the chaos, a green rabbit wearing a long, flowing leather cloak and wielding steel in both paws allowed a slight smirk to crease his lips for a heartbeat as the shout reached his perked, ever-alert ears. Similarly, a silver-furred lupine monster echoed the boy’s cry with a deep-throated howl even as he unleashed an electric blast on his closest adversary, as did several other pack members.
Coltia added her voice to the cheer as well, despite the fact that her throat was slightly constricted from a deepening sense of fear at that moment. Behind her, a few of the younger wolves, the cubs that were too inexperienced and untrained to battle, milled around anxiously, and some let out howls and yaps of agreement as well.
Suezo hesitated beside the girl, not quite willing to throw himself into the conflict as Genki had. If it looked as though the defenders were beginning to weaken, then he might decide to help out… or he might decide to stay back and help them fall back. It just depended on what he felt was best… Even his reluctance to get involved directly, however, did not keep him from echoing the boy’s shout.
* * *
Not far away, from the safety of one of the observation decks of his floating fortress, Moo listened to the commotion and simply smiled, cruel eyes glittering with anticipation.
* * *
Dodge and slash. Parry and thrust. Weave, then feint, create the opening. Stab, then dodge away from the next ones. Slash, slash, stab…
Something was wrong.
Scaler couldn’t quite put a finger on why he felt that way yet. It certainly was not like he was doing badly in the fight, rather, the exact opposite. The enemy soldiers were falling under his blades as was usual… Falling, either by dropping back or dropping dead. The battle was going easily…
Much too easily.
He didn’t understand it. They were doing so well, driving the enemy further and further back, pressing them further away from the caves…
The enemy lines were falling too quickly for his comfort.
He caught a glimpse of Genki’s face as the boy fought his way up beside the scaled hare: flushed from effort, but practically beaming as well, radiant, triumphant grin… Assured of victory.
"Never assume," muttered Scaler under his breath, violet-brown eyes smoldering.
Genki appeared to overhear the quiet remark: he glanced over at the cloaked rabbit with clear brown eyes shining, confusion dampening some of his enthusiasm.
If Genki had any inclination to inquire further into Scaler’s remark, however, he lost his chance as a Black Saurian leapt toward him, jaws gaping wide. Both youth and lapine darted to separate sides as the dark-scaled dinosaur landed between them, and one of the rabbit’s daggers found its resting place in the saurian’s neck.
Again, the victory seemed too quick… too easy. Just as it had been too easy for them to force the troops backward, constantly advancing…
- …Chasing after them. –
Violet-brown eyes widened just a fraction, and dispatching the group of Jells currently surrounding him with a single sweep of one of his swords, Scaler whirled around to face back toward the main entrances to the caverns…
…That were too far behind their main fighting force for his comfort.
"Kuso," swore the rabbit, realizing too late the tyrant’s plan.
- He draws the main defenders away from the primary way into the caves, and then… -
Even as new comprehension and understanding slammed into him, he could see a few black forms streaking down the walls of the canyon near the caves. They were too large and bulky to belong to wolves…
Hissing another profanity under his breath, the scaled hare started forcing his way back toward the caves through the battle, using his blades to slice through any of the enemy soldiers who got in his way. Dimly, he was aware of some of the other defenders crying out as they, too, recognized the danger, but sensed that they were far, far too late…
* * *
Suezo was also currently engaged in a bout of vicious mental profanity at that instant, although a great deal of it was aimed toward himself in a very unflattering manner. Wrapped up in watching the conflict as it was forced away from where he stood, he failed to notice the shadowy forms materializing on the ridges right over his head. His eyesight was much more developed than any other breed of monsters, but not even he could hope to notice something not in his current line of vision.
Only a bare sliver of luck had saved him: descending the canyon walls, one of the baddies had slipped slightly, causing a few dislodged pebbles to clatter to the ground nearby. Glancing over at the noise, Suezo’s eye had widened as he traced another falling set of tiny rocks up to its source.
Screaming at the top of his lungs, he whirled and barreled back into the caverns, and as Coltia and the younger wolves had swung to stare at him, startled, the first of the baddies dropped onto the ledge, and now…
An eye that could have been a mirror of his own save for the fact that it was blood-red and narrowed with hatred and bloodlust materialized inches before his face, and Suezo stopped dead in his tracks, gasping with shock.
It was another eyeball monster, a Red Eye. Suezo recognized the breed at almost the exact same moment that he noticed the symbol fastened on its collar.
- …Great… that explains how they got up there without anyone noticing in the first place… wish I could control my teleporting a little better… -
Even as he thought this, however, the yellow eyeball monster was already reacting to the baddie before him, managing to dodge away as it lunged at him with its mouth gaping wide. As it recovered from its failed bite attempt and whirled to face him again, Suezo felt something trickle down the back of his tail: sweat, he assumed…
"Suezo!" shouted Coltia, and he risked a quick glance over at the girl.
She was standing some distance away with several of the wolf cubs beside her: most of the pups had wisely scattered, and hopefully were hiding where the baddies could not find them right now…
His green-gold pupil dilated slightly as he spotted a hulking shadow behind her, and shouted, "Colt, watch–"
The rest of his warning was cut off as a thick tongue slammed into his tail, knocking him off balance, and as he fell, Suezo heard Coltia let out a shriek…
* * *
"KYAAA!" Coltia screamed as she felt something sharp tear across the back of her tunic, even as she instinctively threw herself to the ground.
Dimly, she heard the pups snarl and cry out as she stumbled, and grunted as she ended up falling nearly directly on top of one of them, a little Datonare that didn’t quite manage to scramble completely out of her way in time. Feeling his semi-soft fur pressed against her cheek, Coltia quickly forced herself to ignore the pain surging through her back and push herself back up.
"You okay?" the pup whimpered, staring up at her with huge yellow eyes.
"…Just… fine," Coltia lied, attempting a weak grin even as she gritted her teeth at the agony in her back.
Then the yelps of the other pups and Suezo’s pained scream rang out all too clearly in her ears, and the girl snapped her head back up to take in the nightmarish scene playing out all around her.
It was as if time slowed to a crawl at that instant, enabling her widened, wavering tan eyes to take in every detail: the enemy eyeball monster had taken full advantage of Suezo’s distraction, and was currently beating him with its dark tail, striking him again and again. Suezo was struggling to block as many of the relentless blows as he could, but was failing miserably, gaining several bruises on his body with each failure. She could also glimpse a thin trickle of blood coming from his mouth: was his lip broken? Or had one of his teeth been knocked loose…?
The other three wolf cubs that had stayed with her were all suffering too, whining and whimpering where they had been knocked or tossed to the hard ground. One, a boy Daton whose name she wasn’t quite certain of was pinned under the clawed foot of her assailant: a towering Black Dino who leered down at the horrified girl. The baddie’s cocky sneer exposed huge, jagged white teeth, and she flinched backward, mind reeling.
- I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die I’m gonna die… -
Beneath her crouched, trembling form, the little Datonare let out an almost inaudible growl, one she probably would not have heard had she not been so close to him.
"Leave my friends alone!" he snarled, and abruptly lunged at the Black Dino.
The dark-scaled saurian’s smirk grew wider: there was absolutely nothing the puppy could possibly do to defend his siblings and friends. All the cub was doing was sealing his own fate…
Answering the young wolf’s snarl with a roar of his own, the Black Dino lunged forward to meet him, jaws gaping wide, ready to crush his next victim…
And at that exact instant, something deep inside Coltia’s heart snapped.
Somehow, her previously frozen fingers found themselves wrapping around the hilt of the dagger Scaler had given her, the cloaked hare’s gift that she had felt such conflicting feelings about.
A blur of motion, one the girl felt oddly detached from, as she did for the pup’s sake what she may not have been able to do for herself.
The Black Dino’s crimson eyes went wide for an instant, losing their mocking gleam, then fogged over as his glowing, shifting body tumbled to the ground. Its transformation was finished in only a few seconds.
And Coltia suddenly found herself staring down at a single lost disc, at the newly bloodstained dagger gripped tightly in both her hands.
The Red Eye paused in his ruthless assault on Suezo long enough to stare over at the girl in utter disbelief, unable to grasp right away the fact that he had just witnessed the seemingly helpless human’s murder of his comrade.
It was the last thought that flashed through his mind.
Just as the baddie had taken advantage of his previous distraction, so now did Suezo take advantage of the Red Eye’s shock to leap up and counterattack. Driven by pain and fear, he used the first attack he could think of, and teeth ripped into black flesh. The Red Eye couldn’t even scream as it felt the last of its life slip away, and as its body shrank and twisted into a lost disc, Suezo blinked in shock.
- I just killed another suezo… like me… -
A sharp wave of pain that wasn’t caused by any of his physical injuries ripped through the eyeball monster. Even though he was smart enough to realize that the baddie would probably have killed him if given the chance… nearly had managed to beat him to death… he had never… had to fight another eyeball monster before…
Coltia was completely oblivious to the fact that Suezo had defeated his opponent as well: staring at the lost disc as if hypnotized, as well as the dagger she still gripped tightly in both trembling hands. A few droplets of crimson blood trickled down the otherwise silver blade and dripped onto her arm, and suddenly she released it, fingers going limp as if losing all feeling all of a sudden. The blade clattered to a rest at the roots of the lost disc, and as Coltia continued to stare blankly at it, tears slowly sprang to her widened, wavering tan eyes.
"…You okay?" the young Datonare who had attacked the Black Dino, the one who had driven her to murder the dark-scaled baddie, whimpered, gazing up at the girl with fear-filled yellow eyes.
The other three cubs whimpered as well, nuzzling her hands, which had fallen limp at her sides. After a few moments, Coltia sunk to her knees and began to sob brokenly, pulling the young wolves closer to her shaking body to try and take some sort of comfort from their presence.
They were safe. These young ones were alive, because she had fought to protect them.
But why didn’t that knowledge give her more comfort than it did…?
* * *
"Colt…! Suezo…! Anybody! Answer me!" Genki shouted as he ran through the twisting and turning passageways blindly.
Once the true purpose behind the easily repelled assault had dawned on the boy, he and most of the other defenders had fought their way back to the caves. Their path had been hard-won, yet they had made it, and currently were desperately searching their home for any signs of life.
Most of the pups had gotten to safety, it appeared… most of them. There were a few painfully small lost discs scattered here and there in the tunnels, but thankfully there only appeared to be a handful. Tigers were known for their speed, and their children were often no exception…
…But there had been no sign of either Suezo or Coltia yet. They had managed to round up and destroy most, if not all of the raiders so far, but the fact that nobody had located either the human girl or the yellow eyeball monster was starting to seriously worry Genki…
Rounding a corner, Genki skidded to a halt, breathing hard. Clear brown eyes widened first in surprise, then a mixture of relief and frustration as he spotted Scaler standing in front of him, silently regarding a crouching Coltia surrounding by four tiger cubs and Suezo. Stomping up to the cloaked rabbit’s side, Genki didn’t know whether he should be grateful that his friends were alright or throttle Scaler for not calling out that he had located them.
His furious demand was silenced as Scaler abruptly covered the boy’s mouth with his paw, gently yet firmly. Genki’s eyes flashed with anger, and he pulled away at once, on the verge of screaming at the scaled hare.
That was when he heard the hushed weeping coming from the direction of his other friends. Startled, Genki stared back over at them, and his eyes widened as they took in details that he hadn’t noted before: the pair of lost discs in the room, one in front of Coltia, the other near Suezo. The bruises that marred the eyeball monster’s yellow skin, the trace of blood on his slightly swollen lip. The bloodstained blade lying between the girl and her saucer stone…
A gasp caught in the boy’s throat, and he swiftly glanced over at Scaler, who merely inclined his head gently in a slight nod. The cloaked rabbit’s violet-brown eyes were unreadable as he gazed silently at the two other Searchers, his face expressionless, impassive.
Finally, after a few moments, he closed his eyes and turned away from the scene, giving Genki a slight shove as he started toward the exit. Genki hesitated briefly, then sadly followed along. It was possible that a few baddies might still be somewhere in the caverns, and they needed to make certain they got rid of them all before anything else horrible could happen. There was nothing they could do here…
* * *
A pair of mismatched eyes flashed open and turned their piercing gaze toward the purple plant, and the Weed quivered at his master’s sudden attention.
"…Yes…?" came the quiet, eerily composed reply.
The Weed gulped, his trembling becoming more and more apparent as he stumbled over the words of his message.
"…We… we’ve lost all contact with the strike force we sent into the wolves’ den, master… Um… w-we believe that they may have all b-been…"
"…Y-yes, M-Master M-Moo…"
The titan was silent for a time, causing the plant monster’s trembling to worsen with each second that dragged past. Suddenly, the visible side of Moo’s face quirked, and a cold smirk twisted the corner of his thin mouth upward while the Weed stared at him in shock.
"…Well, it doesn’t matter. I’m certain they managed to complete their mission."
"Now the wolves have no reason to believe themselves invincible. Their precious ‘den’, the one place where they thought themselves to be safe, has been violated… and by now, they must surely be realizing how I’m simply toying with them…"
A wave of nausea swept over the purple plant as he digested the meaning of those calm words. His master was only… playing with the wolves… It made sense, since there was no possible way that anyone or anything could stand up against Master Moo, but… in toying with these wolves… he had caused the deaths of so many fine, loyal monsters, sacrificed so many warriors…
…And it was all… part of some sort of sick ‘game’ he was playing with his victims…?
…It didn’t matter. Whatever the master wished to do, there was nothing to stop him from doing it. There was no power in this world that could match, that could even touch, the magnificent Master Moo…
…But suddenly, for just a fleeting instant, watching his leader break into laughter at the thought of what the tortured wolves were probably feeling at this moment, the Weed found himself wishing that there was…
The midmorning sun’s golden rays beat down upon the seemingly endless ocean, causing the gently billowing waves to shimmer and shine as they carried the ship of Horn the Righteous Pirate forward. White sails filled with cool sea breeze, taking the craft further down its chosen course, cooperating with the captain’s desire for the time being, though he knew he had to be ready for things to change at a moment’s notice. The sea was a fickle mistress, and just when one thought everything was perfect, something could occur to completely turn everything upside down.
Of course, the eyeball monster knew life was like that in general. To be certain, there were many times that things happened that he had never expected…
"Wow, Mocchi, look at that…!"
Glancing over in the direction of the awed exclamation, the blue eyeball monster smirked to himself as he spotted a young Evil Hare and a pink monster leaning against the railing, gazing out at the open sea with wide, appreciative eyes. Both children were obviously enjoying themselves, despite the situation that had led to their arrival on his craft in the first place…
It truly was strange how things went sometimes. Originally, when he and his crew had decided to stop at that port several days before, the only thing they had been planning to pick up was several drinks for themselves, and possibly add to their food stocks. While that concept had fallen through – damn Moo and his soldiers anyway, wiping out towns like that – they had ended up with cargo of a very different and much more precious type… mainly, several members of the rebel team known as the Courageous Seven.
- …Well, they HAD been the Courageous Seven, but now, maybe they should start considering a new name, considering… -
Horn’s jaden eye narrowed slightly as he mentally reviewed all that Holly had told him about what was happening, what had gone on since the time he had last seen the small rebel group. There was so much to take in… Moo’s defeat and apparent revival, Golem and Tiger of the Wind’s absence from the team, the newer members… not to mention the changes some of the original members had gone through…
He shook his head, unable to take it all in at once, visibly frustrated with this fact. It wasn’t as if Horn believed the world revolved around him or anything, and that things shouldn’t change when he wasn’t there to witness it, but… it was very annoying to feel so far behind everyone else. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he and his crew members were being left out of something major…
Horn couldn’t shake the feeling that Holly wasn’t being entirely honest with him, either, and that sincerely bothered him. The girl had never struck him as somebody who would be capable of lying, of being dishonest with her friends about anything… so why did he get the feeling that she and the other Searchers were keeping something important from him, something vital…?
He quickly shook his head, dismissing the notion.
- Hell, I’m just upset ‘cause I never woulda pegged that rabbit to be a kid, let alone… -
Surveying the deck irritably, the captain paused as his gaze fell upon a pair of slender figures standing together near another section of railing. One side of his mouth quirked in an ironic smile: normally, the sight of two very lovely females on his ship would have delighted the somewhat lecherous eyeball monster, but… not under the sort of circumstances that had brought this pair aboard.
Still, he hopped over to greet the pair, happy to see them at least out and about on the ship’s deck.
"Arr, ladies, good to see ya!" he called, grinning broadly. "I take it your wing is mending well, Miss Serinity…?"
"Oh yes, it’s fine, thank you," replied the pixie hybrid politely.
Absently, however, Serinity rubbed her left shoulder as she spoke, and her injured wing flexed slightly. Both Holly and Captain Horn glanced at her in concern: while she had made a makeshift cast and set her wounded wing herself, and it appeared to be healing normally, neither knew enough about pixies to be absolutely certain. If it ended up healing incorrectly or anything, it was all too possible that the fragile hybrid would never be about to fly again… something neither wanted to have to deal with.
"Well, that’s all well and good then," Captain Horn commented after a few moments, forcing a smile. Then, carefully eyeing both females for their reaction, he added, "Is the other one…?"
He trailed off, not knowing exactly how to phrase his query, but the basic line of his thoughts was not lost on either girl. Serinity quickly glanced away, soft green eyes wavering with emotion, and Horn sighed silently.
"…He’s…doing better," Holly offered quietly after a pause, then averted her gaze out towards the ocean quickly.
Horn sighed and followed her gaze, not really knowing what else he could say to them. After a few moments of awkward silence, Serinity abruptly stopped leaning against the railing, turned and began to walk away, and both human and eyeball monster glanced over at her.
"Please excuse me," she whispered, carefully avoiding their eyes.
But even her averted gaze was not enough to mask the tears that glimmered briefly in her shining eyes as she briskly walked away, towards the inner deck. Horn watched her retreating figure and shook his head, not even bothering to disguise the sympathy glittering in his dark green pupil.
"Such a delicate girl… it’s a shame, really," he muttered.
"Yes, you’re right," Holly chimed in, bronze eyes filled with understanding as she looked down at her companion. "I’m really starting to worry about her… if she keeps pushing herself like this, she’ll never survive this trip…"
She paused, then quietly excused herself and walked off in the same direction that Serinity had retreated. Horn let out a slightly embarrassed sigh, glad that Holly had misinterpreted his comment. Actually, he had been referring to the fact that the pixie hybrid was already attached to Golem emotionally: she had adapted to life at sea well, and several of his men were taking quite a shine to the slender maiden. If he hadn’t found out from the other Searchers how she had joined them mainly to find her childhood friend, he might have considered asking her to stay on board once they found a safe harbor…
…But, such was life. She seemed attached enough to the stone giant as it was, and the last thing he wanted to do was try and make her stay. He’d already tried asking Holly to stay long ago, and that hadn’t worked out at all…
A giggle caught his attention, and Captain Horn glanced over to see Mocchi and Eboni chasing one another around the deck. The pair nearly managed to knock him over as they ran past, the black rabbit just a few inches ahead of the shouting pink monster, yet instead of getting upset with the youngsters he simply smiled.
I’m getting soft, he scolded himself mentally, even as his pleased grin remained. Shoulda made these kids work for their passage, just like I did the first time I helped these rebels out…
- …But damn, it feels great to just see a couple of kids actin’ like there’s nothin’ wrong with the world… like Moo hasn’t come back, and everythin’ perfectly fine… No war or nothin’… -
He paused, his pleased grin briefly twisting into a somewhat smug smirk.
- …Besides, it’s not like I let ALL the rebels get off free… -
As if on cue, a very upset-looking Alan trudged into view, lugging an overflowing bucket of water behind him and a soggy mop over his shoulder. Behind him, the two Worms slithered after their trainer in sulky silence, several cleaning rags strapped to their bulky bodies. Captain Horn turned to face them and grinned, an almost cruel glint in his narrowed jaden eye.
"Aye, work faster thar, me hearties!"
If looks could kill, the smoldering glare the blue-gray haired fighter aimed in the blue eyeball monster’s direction would have instantly transformed him into a lost disc. As it was, Horn simply grinned all the wider at the anger flaring in the boy’s cobalt eyes, and laughed loudly.
"…If I knew exactly how, I’d ram this damn broom so far up your tail…" muttered Alan under his breath.
The pair of Worms just glanced at one another and sweatdropped in perfect unison.
* * *
Serinity stood staring silently at the closed door before her for a few moments, soft green eyes shimmering with near tears. Taking a deep breath to compose herself, she eased the door open and quietly entered the small room, closing it behind her.
A soft moan came from one corner of the chamber, and Serinity whirled to face it, shock and hope flickering for an instant in her widened eyes. However, it faded just as quickly, and she sighed sadly as she crossed the floor and sat down in a chair next to a makeshift bed. Reaching down, she gently gripped Hare’s unresponsive paw in both hands briefly.
The tawny-furred bunny’s eyes remained shut, and while his fingers seemed to tighten slightly around her own for a heartbeat, that return grip loosened all too quickly.
Serinity silently withdrew her hands back into her lap, half-closing her wavering verdant eyes as she bowed her head. The pixie hybrid understood that she had done all she could for the younger monster: the gashes in his chest had long since sealed away, thanks to both the Phoenix’s Tear and her own healing ability, without even a mark to show where they had once been.
But he still had not awakened since the attack… and she had no idea how to pull anyone out of a coma… if it was even that…
Occasionally, the young rabbit would abruptly start speaking aloud, or cry out, reacting to something no one else could see or hear. Each time this happened, Serinity would listen intently, hoping to catch some hint of what exactly was going on… some clue of what she might be able to do to help him.
So far, however, she hadn’t been able to find out anything of the sort. Usually, when Hare started crying out, she could pick out names – often he cried out for Tiger, although what he was yelling at the blue wolf for was anyone’s guess – and sometimes warnings, though she wasn’t certain who they were always for.
But despite this, Serinity still had no way of waking up the young bunny. And she was seriously beginning to worry that he might never be able to break free of whatever nightmare held him in its sway…
Orange-red bangs falling over and shadowing her wavering green eyes, Serinity averted her gaze and began to tremble slightly, biting her lip in an attempt to mute her weeping. A few stray tears trickled down her pale cheeks as the pixie hybrid cried herself into a fitful, restless slumber, one she knew she might have to awaken from at a moment’s notice should anything go wrong…
* * *
Wavering bright brown eyes raked the seemingly endless shadows surrounding him, darkness broken only by the flickering crimson light at his neck. Normally, he would have attempted to keep the Phoenix’s Tear covered by his bandana so its constant glow would not give him away, but right now, he desperately needed its light.
Hare hugged his knees tighter to his chest and shuddered. All he wanted was a way out of this nightmare he had been thrown into, but didn’t know how. He’d tried again and again to wake up, break free, but so far, all his efforts had been futile…
…Was his body still healing from what had happened…? From when Tiger had…
Wincing, Hare fought back the waves of horrible memories and impressions that washed over him: the sudden, searing pain that had erupted in his chest, a bitter coldness invading his body, the cruel, soulless glitter of golden eyes leering down at him…
…A tortured whisper from a lost soul…
- He… help me… Get… get him away… make his voice go away… -
…How could it all have changed so quickly? Tiger had been there… he had spoken to him, actually asked for Hare’s help… and then, seemingly in the next instant, the possessed wolf had been smirking down at him after he…
* …It’s my fault. *
* …Tiger… I felt you start to come back, but then you slipped away again… *
* …I couldn’t save you… *
* …Tiger… I’m so sorry… *
Shivering, Hare hugged his legs tighter as he attempted to roll into a little ball for warmth. The constant heat at his chest, the flaming aura given off by his pendant, was the only source of light or warmth in this dark, cold void. It was the only thing constant in this nightmare world…
…How many different visions had he suffered from? How much time had passed?
Hare had lost count of how many times the void had shifted, giving way to some new nightmare, another vision that he had to try and understand. Some he was more certain of then others… and he knew they had to be warnings, but how was he supposed to figure out what they meant? What was he supposed to do…?
…And how could he possibly even act to prevent some of these horrible visions if he couldn’t even awaken from them…?
Already, the shadows surrounding his balled-up figure seemed to shift ever so slightly, to give way to some new setting. Hare shut his wavering brown eyes tightly, fighting down the urge to sob aloud, the tears that threatened to spill down his cheeks.
* …I just want… I want out… *
* * *
The door creaked as a small pink hand carefully eased it open, its owner not wanting to disturb anyone. A pair of wide, wavering eyes peered into the chamber, sweeping over its occupants, and Mocchi let out a soft sigh of relief as he saw that both of the monsters inside were still asleep. Well, at least, he was happy that Serinity was finally getting some rest, considering how hard the pixie hybrid had been pushing herself, but…
Mocchi pushed the doorway open just enough to allow him to slip inside, then paused and glanced back at his companion. Eboni hesitated a few seconds, shimmering scarlet eyes nervously scanning the hallway, then joined him in the room, easing the door shut behind her. Leaning against the hard wooden frame, the black bunny watched silently as Mocchi quietly walked over to the bed and kneeled beside it.
Mocchi reached out and gripped one of Hare’s paws tightly with both hands, wavering eyes locked on the tawny-furred rabbit’s face, hoping that his friend would react. If Hare would just open his eyes, even for a few seconds…
"…Hare, chi? …Get up, chi…"
Eboni bit the inside of her lip at the sound of Mocchi’s soft plea, her messy gray bangs falling over and shading part of her face. Garnet eyes flashed with a mixture of sympathy and fear for her friends and anger at the one who had caused all of this. Moo… she hated him even worse now…
On the bed, the tawny-furred bunny let out a soft whimper, and his paw tightened slightly around Mocchi’s hand. The pink monster returned the comforting grip, watching sadly as his friend continued to writhe in the grip of some new vision…
* * *
Hare finally decided to face whatever new nightmare he had been thrown into: simply curling into a ball and shutting out the world would never help, as much as he felt like doing so.
Forcing his wavering brown eyes open, the tawny-furred rabbit slowly got to his feet, staring around in confusion. As far as he could see, the entire world had been plunged into sullen blue shades, save for his own body. The Phoenix’s Tear bathed Hare with a faint crimson aura, tinting his fur red and causing him to stand out even more than he already had been.
As he continued to look around, more details began to emerge from the sapphire-hued shadows: pale ice blue sands shifting beneath his feet. Deep cobalt skies so dark as to be almost black stretching out in all directions. Shimmering waves of azure water crashing against the beach before him.
While the exact location was unfamiliar to the young bunny, Hare could easily recognize the fact that he stood upon the shoreline of some strange beach. However, he could not glimpse a sun anywhere in the dark blue skies, nor could he see any sign of stars or the moon. The horizon was completely clear and blank, without a single source of light other than the furiously blazing pendant round his neck.
A shiver coursed through his small body as a cold wind swept past him, ruffling his fur and seemingly biting straight into his heart with countless tiny daggers of ice. Almost reflexively, Hare closed his eyes as he shuddered, folding his arms against his body for warmth.
When he opened his eyes again, he was no longer alone on the beach.
Hare gasped in surprise, startled by the new arrival. Even as the logical part of his mind reminded him that this was simply a dream, a vision where anything could happen, the young bunny reached out one trembling hand imploringly toward the figure, wishing fervently that this was somehow more than a mere hallucination.
* * *
The soft whisper passed through the comatose Hare’s lips as little more than a weak murmur, yet both Mocchi and Eboni heard it clearly. Both the pink monster and black rabbit glanced at one another in wide-eyed shock, then Mocchi felt Hare’s paw tighten its grip ever so slightly on his hand. Clutching his friend’s hand tightly in return, he stared at the tawny-furred bunny hopefully.
Serinity had obviously overheard the weak whisper as well, for the pixie hybrid was now fully awake once more. Verdant eyes wavering with emotion, she found herself gripping Mocchi’s shoulders instead of trying to take Hare’s paw as well, and fought back the tears that threatened to come at the sound of her lost childhood friend’s name.
* * *
"…Golem…" Hare repeated the stone giant’s name uncertainly, taking a hesitant step forward.
A gentle smile touched the towering monster’s lips, and gray eyes shimmered as they briefly reflected the light from the Phoenix’s Tear. Hare relaxed visibly as he recognized the kindness in Golem’s eyes. Tiger of the Wind’s eyes, he remembered, had been filled with terrible cruelty, an alien hatred, but the young bunny could see no trace of that in the stone monster’s compassionate face.
* …Still, this is only a dream. I can’t get my hopes up too much… *
* …But… …all the same… …I’m happy to see Golem safe… *
Gradually, Hare managed a shaky half-smile in return, brown eyes shining with genuine happiness at seeing his old friend again despite their dubious surroundings.
"…Golem… I…" he started falteringly; there was so much to tell his lost friend that Hare wasn’t certain where to begin.
It did not matter, at any rate.
The blue tint dominating the strange beach seemed to darken just slightly for an instant, and Hare felt a cold chill race down his spine. Golem appeared to sense the abrupt change as well, for while the stone giant continued to smile, a hint of sudden sadness flickered briefly in his eyes.
Then, much to Hare’s shock, Golem turned and began to walk slowly away from where the other Searcher stood. This fact in itself might not have stunned the young bunny as badly had it not been for the exact direction in which he headed…
"Golem! Wait! Where are you going?" he cried desperately, wanting to run after his friend but suddenly finding himself rooted to the spot.
Golem’s only response was to glance back at the tawny-furred rabbit, the same sorrowful smile on his face, and continue to walk toward the waiting ocean.
The pale blue waves lapped against the azure sands greedily, as if reaching out toward the approaching giant, eager to take him into their cold liquid embrace.
Heart pounding wildly in his aching chest, Hare attempted to race after his friend, only to discover that he could not even take a single step forward. Glancing down, he gasped as he spotted the reason: the sand directly beneath him had transformed into a slimy puddle, engulfing his feet entirely.
Even as he struggled to free himself, pale blue tendrils erupted from the now semi-liquid ground beneath him and wrapped themselves round his resisting body. A terrified scream ripped from Hare’s lungs as he thrashed wildly, and crimson fire blazed around his paws as he lashed out at the tentacles uselessly.
Through a haze of fear, part of Hare recognized something inherently familiar about the situation, and as one of the vines snared his arm and twisted it painfully behind his back, the bunny let out a startled gasp of realization.
* This… this is just like when the Ice Jells captured me! *
* …So… this is… a Jell monster I’m fighting?!? *
Twisting around in a desperate attempt to loosen the stubborn grasp of the gel ropes, Hare’s wavering brown eyes widened as he caught a glimpse of Golem again. The stone giant was now standing up to his waist in the ocean, and slowly walking further into its waiting depths.
The stone giant looked back at the screaming bunny again, the same sad, almost resigned smile on his face. A deep sorrow glimmered in his soft gray eyes, yet he made no move to escape the water, instead continuing slowly, inexorably into its grasp. The cobalt pool seemed to embrace him, pulling him further along, deeper and deeper, waves folding around his unresisting stone body, hiding him from the horrified bunny’s view.
"Golem! Don’t go! Please don’t go!" begged Hare futilely, his own struggles lessening as he watched his friend continue toward what was surely his doom. But the other Searcher paid him no mind, and as Golem’s figure finally vanished completely beneath the sapphire waves, Hare squeezed his tear-filled eyes shut and screamed at the top of his lungs, "GOLEM!!!"
* * *
"Hare!" Eboni screamed, stumbling over to the bed.
The tawny-furred rabbit was tossing and thrashing around, crying and moaning, tears trickling out of his closed eyes. The moment he had started, Serinity and Mocchi had immediately responded, struggling to try and keep him from hurting himself while in the throes of his nightmare. The pixie hybrid’s hands glowed with a pale green aura as she somehow managed to keep hold of Hare’s wrists, holding him at least somewhat in place.
Mocchi, meanwhile, had not released his hold on Hare’s paw. Instead, the pink child monster was tightening his grip, wavering eyes locked on the bunny’s pained face as he cried reassurances to his friend. Serinity wasn’t entirely certain that it was even possible for Hare to even hear their voices right now, but she did not make any attempt to dissuade Mocchi from his efforts.
"Hare, chi, it’s okay-chi! It’s okay!"
Not knowing what else she could do to help, Eboni decided to kneel beside Mocchi and try holding on to Hare’s paw as well. Garnet eyes shimmering with worry, she added her voice to the others, trying to sound as calm as possible.
"What’s all the ruckus?!?" Captain Horn demanded, door banging on its hinges behind him as he barged in.
However, the anger and annoyance behind his shout faded from his expression the instant his gaze fell upon the bed, to be replaced with shock. The pirate captain froze, jaden eye widening with confusion, and simply gaped at the sight of Hare’s small body thrashing and writhing in the throes of some distorted dream. Even though Holly had explained to him how the young bunny was sometimes subject to horrible visions, it was one thing to hear about something and quite another to see it played out before you…
"Captain, what’s going on?" cried a voice directly behind him, causing Horn to jerk with surprise.
Whirling around, the pirate commander saw that several of his crew members lined the hall behind him, each pushing to try and get a glimpse into the room. Obviously, these Rockies were just as curious about what the hell was going on as he was, and had come to investigate the source of the horrible screaming. Several stared directly at him, waiting for whatever explanation he offered: after all, as their captain and commander, he was supposed to maintain order…
Out of the corner of his eye, Horn noticed Serinity glancing worriedly in his direction: while the pixie hybrid was focusing most of her attention on attempting to calm Hare down somehow, she also recognized how bad the situation was getting outside the room. The last thing they needed to deal with was a bunch of relative strangers watching them struggle to aid one of their own…
"Arr, what do ya think you’re doin’, you blasted fools?!?" he snarled, whirling to glare at the Rockies gathered around him. "Ye be havin’ better things to do than bother our guests…! Get back to your posts, all of ye!"
The gathered crew members gulped collectively, and quickly scattered, knowing better than to argue with their captain when he had that nasty gleam in his eye. Even the most curious of Rockies understood that their questions as to what was going on in that room would simply have to go unanswered for now...
Casting another glare around the now nearly deserted hallway for good measure, Captain Horn nodded to himself in satisfaction before turning around and carefully easing the door closed. As he did so, he glimpsed the thankful half-smile that flickered on the pixie hybrid’s pale face, and repressed a slight grin of his own.
With the distraction caused by unwanted witnesses removed, Serinity returned to focusing her full attention on trying to soothe Hare as best she could. Clasping the still squirming bunny’s wrists tightly, she whispered soft words of comfort, attempting to coax him out of whatever nightmare he struggled so violently against.
"It’s okay, it’s alright… we’re right here for you, please don’t cry… it’s just fine, everything is just fine… please wake up…"
"Get up, chi," Mocchi echoed, wide eyes wavering as he continued to grasp his friend’s paw tightly with both hands, waiting for Hare to show some sign that he heard them…
* * *
The jell tentacles had disappeared shortly after Golem’s figure had been completely engulfed by the waves, leaving Hare lying sprawled out on the beach alone. Their absence failed to comfort the little bunny, as he simply lay on the sand where they had dropped him and sobbed bitterly into his folded arms, curling back into a half-ball again.
Another friend lost… light fading from an already dark and colorless world…
Images flashed through the crying rabbit’s mind, snatches of memory of other visions he had dreamed recently…
…Genki, Grey Wolf, Coltia and Scaler gathered in a circle round Suezo, eyes closed in concentration as a saffron aura formed around them, then vanishing in a flash, while Holly and the others watched in silence…
…Tiger of the Wind standing on an icy ridge, the full moon throwing his entire body into shadow as it rose behind him. Golden eyes glimpsed through the darkness, both horribly cold and burning with malice at the same instant, and fangs glinting in the moonlight as they were bared in a demented, wicked grin…
…Holly’s motionless body being hurled backward in midair, fragments of wood and stone surrounding her, a soundless scream frozen on her pale face as she plummeted toward the empty streets…
…Coltia, screaming, caramel eyes wide with both terror and outrage, flinging herself at a startled Black Dino, steel glimmering in both hands as she plunged it full into the dinosaur’s chest directly beneath his Moo symbol…
…Tears streaking down Serinity’s pale cheeks as she lay crumpled on the ground, blood seeping from a terrible wound on her leg, shimmering leaf-green eyes locked on the unseen owner of the huge, somewhat familiar shadow that fell over her…
…A pair of blazing verdant eyes half-veiled by the shadows surrounding a slender figure, and feminine lips twisting into a cruel smirk…
…A close-up of Genki’s screaming face, clear-brown eyes wrenched shut with pain, hair drenched with sweat, rain and blood…
…Alan’s blade clattering to the ground from white, limp fingers as the boy fell silently backward, sapphire eyes wide with shock as they slowly glazed over, becoming dim, utterly lifeless…
…Scaler and Suezo glaring at one another, eyes cold and harsh with pure hatred and malice, slowly circling each other, waiting for a chance to strike…
…Eboni and Mocchi screaming together as a blast of black-blue lightning surged around them, cutting off any chance of escape…
…Everything and everyone he knew and loved, gone forever, leaving him completely alone in the darkness…
"…No… Please, no…"
Trembling, tears still trickling down his face, Hare gazed out into the seemingly endless void, clutching his pendant tightly in both paws.
"…Don’t leave me alone…please…"
An image of his friend’s lifeless bodies flashed through his mind again, and Hare shut his eyes in a futile attempt to shut out the horrible sight and sobbed, "You can’t leave me all alone! You can’t…"
* * *
Mocchi felt Hare’s fingers wrap around his hands slowly, and returned the strong grip, eyes locked on the tan rabbit’s face.
"Hare…chi?" he whispered.
Serinity and Eboni watched silently, eyes wide, as Hare moaned and stirred, eyelids flickering slightly. A shudder ran through the tawny-furred bunny’s body, and slowly, his wavering brown eyes opened, although just barely.
"…Mmm… Mo…Moc…chi?" he murmured, gazing up with blurring vision at the pink monster’s stunned face.
Serinity let out a soft gasp, hands flying to and covering her mouth, verdant eyes wavering with emotion. Eboni just stared, a shaky grin appearing on her face.
"…You… you see, guys? I knew he’d be okay…" the black rabbit said brightly, turning to smile at her friends.
The only reply Serinity found herself able to give Eboni was a short nod of agreement, tears brimming in her leaf-green eyes as she gazed down at Hare. She wanted to cry out, to bring the others running to see that their friend had finally awakened, but for some reason her throat was too constricted to function. Oddly enough, however, she found this only a minor inconvenience.
"…Eboni…? Serinity…?" Hare whispered, shifting around to try and get a better view of his friends.
However, he suddenly cried out and winced, pulling away slightly and grasping at his chest with his free paw. The other three Searchers started at this, and Serinity instantly reached out with glowing fingertips toward the tawny-furred bunny, recognizing at once why he had shouted with such pain so suddenly.
"Careful! You’re still recovering…" she warned him, feeling slightly stupid even as she cried out. After all, he certainly knew a lot better than she did how much pain he was in…
"Th…thanks, Ser…inity," Hare managed to reply after a few seconds, forcing a weak smile in the pixie hybrid’s direction.
Serinity blinked, then smiled gently in return, even as she finished casting a brief healing spell on him. Silently berating herself for not saving more of her energy, she quietly got to her feet, one hand resting gently on the side of the bed for support.
"I… I’ll tell Holly and the others that you’re awake," she murmured, excusing herself from the room.
Hare silently followed her with his gaze as the pixie hybrid slowly walked out and closed the door behind her. He had to hand it to her: she was fairly good at masking her own weakness, moving slowly in an attempt to conceal a slight limp brought on by pure exhaustion. Serinity was nearly completely drained, her injuries weighing heavier on her because of the way she had been pushing herself, yet she was trying so hard not to let it show to the others…
He might have been fooled himself, had it not been for the fact that he already knew all too well how much energy she had expended trying to help him alone. Plus, he was used to trying to conceal his own weakness from the others when he had been worn out himself in the past…
A soft sigh escaped from him at the thought of the past, catching the attention of his two companions. Mocchi and Eboni both blinked and looked over at him, each with almost the exact same expression of confusion and concern on their faces.
"…What’s the matter?" Eboni asked, garnet eyes locked on the tan bunny’s face.
"…Genki, Scaler, Suezo, Coltia and Grey Wolf are still back with Grey and Tiger’s pack, aren’t they…?"
Mocchi and Eboni blinked again in perfect unison, now looking utterly shocked. Hare couldn’t keep himself from smirking for a second at the comical expressions on their faces: obviously neither had expected him to already know that the others had left, since it had happened while he was…
"…Y-yeah, as far as we know…" stammered Eboni after a short pause, staring at him in disbelief. Then, the shock starting to fade from her scarlet eyes, she cocked her head slightly to one side and added gently, "Why do you…?"
Hare just closed his eyes and leaned back into the bed, suddenly feeling very worn out and tired. His chest still ached a little, and he hoped he could finally rest without being haunted by any more visions at least for a little while…
Seeing their friend’s eyes start to drift shut, Eboni and Mocchi glanced at one another and smiled. Mocchi slowly started to get up, loosening his grip on Hare’s paw, only to pause in surprise as the tawny-furred bunny suddenly grabbed at his hand.
Looking down, he saw Hare staring up at him, intense fear burning in his wide, wavering brown eyes.
"…Mocchi… you guys won’t leave too, right…?"
Hare averted his gaze away from his companions, yet both Mocchi and Eboni could see clearly the tears glimmering in his bright brown eyes.
"…Mocchi… this is all wrong," he whispered after a while, so softly that his friends could barely hear him. "…Tiger, Golem, Suezo, you and I… for the Phoenix to rise, we have to be together… but now we’re further away than ever… Everything’s going horribly, horribly wrong…"
Looking back toward the pink monster, Hare added in a shaking voice, "Mocchi… you aren’t planning on leaving too, are you…?"
Mocchi stared down at Hare’s pale, frightened face, stunned by the fear he glimpsed shining so clearly in the bunny’s eyes. After a few seconds, he appeared to snap out of his surprise, and smiled brightly.
"No way, chi!" he declared, grinning. "Mocchi staying right here, chi!"
"Me too!" Eboni chimed in brightly, reaching over and gripping Hare’s paw with her own as well. Hare looked over at her, and she winked as she added, "Don’t worry about a thing! We’ll find a way to bring Tiger back, you’ll see! By the time we’re done with Moo, that baddie will be sorry he ever messed with any of us!"
"…R…right!" Hare replied, nodding back at the female rabbit, managing a slight smile at her confident words.
His eyes started to drift closed again, and Hare blinked rapidly in an attempt to fight off the wave of sleepiness that washed over him. However, this action did not go unnoticed by either of his friends, who glanced at each other knowingly.
"…You know, if you’re tired, you can just fall asleep," commented Eboni, a slightly mischievous glint in her garnet eyes. "…I mean, we won’t mind…"
"No, I… I’m fine," Hare quickly stammered, fighting back an urge to yawn.
"Look, if Serinity and the others found out you were staying awake just for us, we’d get in trouble, okay?" Eboni pointed out, her tone faintly mocking without being insulting. "We won’t mind at all, right, Mocchi…?"
"…But… But I…"
"Don’t worry, we’re not gonna leave you. We’ll be right here, okay…?"
As she spoke, Eboni leaned up against the side of the bed and smiled reassuringly, squeezing Hare’s paw in her own. Mocchi mimicked the gesture, seeing how Hare was obviously losing the struggle to stay awake.
"No matter what happens, we’ll always be there for each other," Eboni promised quietly, grinning at her two friends as she reached over and took Mocchi’s free hand in her own so that they were holding on to each other tightly. "That’s a promise, okay?"
"We’ll be together forever," murmured Eboni, her own vision starting to blur slightly as she watched Hare and Mocchi’s eyes slowly start to drift closed. "It’s a promise…"
* * *
Sometime later, Holly slid the door open and peeked inside the small room. Her bronze eyes widened slightly with surprise for a heartbeat, then softened, and a slight smile spread over her lips as she looked at the three young monsters.
Eboni and Mocchi had both fallen asleep still kneeling at the side of the bed, each holding on to one of Hare’s paws, their free hands cradled in each other’s. All three were obviously completely out of it, the sound of their soft breathing the only noise in the small chamber.
Smiling gently to herself, Holly eased the door shut, then turned to face Serinity and Alan and placed a single finger to her lips. Both appeared to understand, their soft smiles mirroring her own, and all three quickly crept away, leaving the youngest members of the Searchers alone to rest.
Genki Sakura let out a moan as he flopped down upon the gravel-strewn floor of the cavern that served as his temporary room, not particularly caring about the chances of his landing right on a sharp rock. Fortunately, luck was with the young boy, and he simply lay upon the ground for a long moment, then sighed and rolled onto his back. Clear brown eyes gazed up at the cave ceiling without really seeing any of it: his thoughts were pretty much elsewhere…
…Mainly, on how much his body still ached from the latest battle…
He grimaced as his stomach throbbed slightly as if reminding him of the last fight. One little mistake had caused that: he’d dodged left when he should have gone right, and a Zuum had nailed him right in the chest with his tail.
Lucky shot, Genki thought, wincing at the memory of how all the breath had rushed out of his lungs and left him sprawled out gasping for air.
Thankfully, one of Scaler’s blades had whizzed out of seemingly nowhere and taken the Zuum right in the side of the neck before the baddie could press its advantage. It was just another one of the lost discs they had gathered and taken away to a safe hiding place after the battle was over…
…At least, if it hadn’t been trampled to bits before…
Genki sighed, clear brown eyes wavering with frustration.
- It wasn’t supposed to take this long. –
- We were supposed to have gotten rid of Moo already, made him back off, and then gotten back to Mocchi, Holly and the others… -
Memories of the others floated through his mind: Holly, Hare, Serinity, Eboni, Alan and the Worms, and Mocchi. The stunned expression on the young pink monster’s face still stood out clearly in Genki’s thoughts, of how upset and… betrayed he looked.
A flash of guilt ran through the boy: he and Mocchi had been separated time after time during their first journey, and rarely by choice. One of the hardest things about leaving after the Phoenix rose was knowing that he’d be away from his partner and friend yet again, and he would never had left if the firebird hadn’t promised that they would be reunited.
Absently, Genki glanced over at his backpack, where he had stored the feather given to him by the Phoenix. He frowned slightly, concerned. He would have used the feather to instantly transfer back, first to his own world, then to Mocchi’s side again, if it wasn’t for one small problem…
The thing no longer worked.
Genki hadn’t told a soul, but the night after they had arrived and settled in, the same night that they had discovered Tiger’s… possession… he had attempted to use the feather to go back home. He’d just wanted to try and pick up some more supplies, to help out in the upcoming fight, but…
It hadn’t worked. Genki had stood there for seemingly hours, calling upon the Phoenix’s power to transport him home, back to his own world, and felt nothing. Not even the slightest response from the glistening, fiery feather: it had just sat there cradled in his hands, glowing gently as it always did.
Genki didn’t dare tell any of the others about this, of course. The last thing they needed was another problem hanging over their heads in addition to the fighting and the waiting and the watching and the wondering…
That was one of the worst parts of this whole mess: the not knowing. The battles themselves didn’t seem as bad as the tense periods of waiting between each wave. It felt like everyone was always on their toes, always studying the surroundings, jumping at shadows. They were on edge, teetering, testing their footing, praying nothing happening to send them spiraling into oblivion.
After the brief invasion of the very caverns themselves, things had gotten even worse.
Coltia had become a total wreck, not even telling Genki himself what exactly was the matter with her. That hadn’t kept anyone from piecing the incident together from what few clues they had, but the girl appeared to simply ignore any sympathy she got. She simply threw herself into caring for the younger cubs, watching over them constantly.
The dagger Scaler had given to her, Genki had noticed, remained latched to her belt at all times, firmly tucked into its leather sheath.
Absently, he patted where the scaled hare’s gift to the boy was lying: at his side, but never drawn. Not yet, anyway, and hopefully, not ever.
Suezo was not faring much better than the poor girl, either. The eyeball monster now spent a great deal of his time out on one of the highest ledges, scanning the horizon constantly. Being able to naturally see farther than the wolves, he had assumed the role of another sentry, joining the ranks of those watching for any sign of enemy movement.
But, just like Coltia, the formerly smart-mouthed Suezo was acting sad and withdrawn, and he wouldn’t tell Genki why. Quite frankly, the clear-eyed boy was sick and tired of not knowing what was the matter with his friends. Their seemingly constant silence over the whole thing was driving him insane!
"…Bet they woulda told Holly all about it," he muttered under his breath, glaring at the ceiling.
Of course, naturally, that little observation only got him thinking about Holly and the others again. To put it mildly, it completely and utterly ticked Genki off not knowing how the rest of his friends were doing. Were they still safe…?
Genki smirked, reprimanding his subconscious for the silly questions. Of course the others were still fine, still waiting for them back at the old, abandoned town. There was simply no way that Holly and the rest of the gang would get into any trouble… after all, Moo was still here, right? Since the baddie commander was focusing his attention on trying to conquer the wolves, the other Searchers would be safe from him…
…And once this was over, Genki and his team would return to them, and Hare would have made a full recovery, and they would find a way to save Tiger, and everything would be alright…
"Yeah… everything’s gonna be just fine…" Genki muttered sleepily, as his eyelids suddenly felt heavier than usual. As he drifted off, thoughts still focused on Holly and the others, he repeated in a hushed whisper, "Everything’s… gonna be alright…"
* * *
Suezo stared steadily into the night, struggling against the growing urge to allow himself to nod off. His body, unfortunately, was not about to cooperate with his wishes, as the eyeball monster kept having to snap his head back up from a bowed position.
"I am not falling asleep," he growled, green-gold eye harsh and cold as he forced himself to glare into the darkness. "I am going to sit here, and look for any sign of the baddies, like I should have done all the time before!"
- Before what…? Before those creeps managed to sneak in and kill those cubs…? –
"Shut UP," he snarled, narrowing his eye in disgust, glad that nobody else was up here with him to witness the eyeball monster arguing with himself.
- It wasn’t your fault, you know. Those bastards teleported in above you… there was no way you could have possibly known. You were lucky to see that shadow when you did… otherwise… -
Suezo shook his head rapidly, tears beginning to glimmer in his green-gold eye.
"Why… why did it happen anyway? How could Ti…"
- Not Tiger, stupid, Moo. If anybody’s to blame, it’s Moo. He’s the only one who would go after a bunch of helpless pups like that… –
Suezo silently conceded that point, though it did nothing to ease his feelings of guilt. A terrible memory flashed through his mind, of wandering down the barren corridors sometime after the raid and still seeing little lost discs scattered around. Coltia had been rounding up the puppies, and their sorrowful, frightened whimpering and tear-streaked faces were burned firmly into his thoughts.
- I… failed them. I should have been able to protect them… Let’s face it, Suezo, all you’ve really been good for is spotting the threat before the others could, and warning them… How can I… face them after messing up like that? –
- …How can I possibly face Holly, when it could have been her… -
A shudder coursed down the eyeball monster’s tail as he asked himself the all-too-familiar question, the same one he had been pondering ever since the horrible assault in the caverns. The idea of how Holly would react when she found out… he couldn’t stand the thought of the sadness that would fill her soft bronze eyes. Disappointment… a loss of trust…
- I’ve always protected Holly. I would do anything for her, just to see her safe. We’ve always been together… but now… now she’s far away, and I… can’t… -
Suezo sighed, green-gold pupil wavering with emotion as he continued to stare into the darkness surrounding the caves.
- I don’t even know if I would be able to protect her anymore, even if I was by her side… …Holly… -
* * *
Not far away from the canyons, a single monster stood upon a ridge overlooking the surrounding area, golden eyes sweeping around restlessly. Dark violet fur rippled in the cold night breeze, yet he remained standing firmly in place.
"He’s here, isn’t he?" a soft female voice whispered at his shoulder as another of his kind stepped up beside him.
Silence prevailed between the two for several moments, seconds stretching out seemingly endlessly in the darkness.
"…You know what will likely happen to us for this choice," the female finally said, shattering the stillness with her quiet words. Turning deep golden eyes toward her companion, she added, "He will see us as traitors…"
"…Heh. The concepts of loyalty and betrayal change greatly depending on one’s perspective," the other replied with a short chuckle, though his shadowed face remained solemn. "Someone banned as a traitor by one side may be considered a hero by the others. Better to be true to one’s own self than to worry about the thoughts of others."
The female monster slowly nodded in agreement, and both gazed off once more towards the canyons, eyes glittering brightly in the moonlight.
* * *
One of the first rays of sunlight fell across Suezo’s eyelid, causing him to snap his eye open with a gasp. For a few seconds, he blinked in surprise; then a soft, disappointed moan came from the eyeball monster, and he groggily righted himself, barely able to stand on his shaking tail.
- …Can’t believe I fell asleep like that… after I promised myself… hey, what…? -
Suezo paused in his latest round of self-blame and squinted in an attempt to clear his blurring vision. Just for a second, he could have sworn he’d seen something moving in the distance… Unconsciously, he leaned forward as if that would somehow help adjust his tired eye all the quicker to the slowly brightening sunlight…
Abruptly he stiffened, foggy green-gold pupil clearing and dilating into a single dot in his suddenly widened eye.
He backed up swiftly, nearly stumbling over his own tail as he hopped backward as fast as he could, horrified gaze still locked on the horizon. Naturally, this did not last, as his foot soon landed squarely on a rock and slipped, flipping Suezo right onto his back. However, this barely appeared to faze him, as the eyeball monster quickly righted himself and scrambled into the cave behind, screaming all the way.
"Hey guys! Guys-sssss… w-we got a little problem he-he-here…!"
Genki was one of the first to emerge from his sleeping quarters, rubbing his eyes with one hand and trying to completely wake up.
"Su…Suezo…? Wha…what’s the matter?" he yawned, giving the eyeball monster a confused, sleepy look.
This query was echoed by many of the rebels and wolves that had been awakened by Suezo’s shout, some considerably less pleasant than others. However, for most it took only a glance at the frantic eyeball monster’s terrified expression to tell that he had not disturbed them without reason.
"…Moo’s sent more of his soldiers, right?" Scaler said more than asked, violet-brown eyes already shimmering with resolve.
Suezo could only nod, finding his mouth had gone dry and he could do little more than stammer otherwise.
Howls of anger and frustration rippled through the gathered wolves, mixing with harsh muttering and worried whispering. Coltia gulped and nervously gripped the handle of her dagger again, caramel eyes wavering with emotion. Grey Wolf closed his shining blue eyes and sighed, fighting down the urge to join his pack in voicing his feelings. Genki gritted his teeth, hands balling reflexively into fists.
- Will this never end…? -
A thought that echoed in the minds of all those gathered in those caverns, though none gave voice to it.
Genki glanced around at the others, clear brown eyes shining with determination. It was obvious from the solemn expression on the boy’s face that he was already resigned to yet another battle.
"I say, down with the baddies!" he shouted, pumping his clenched fist into the air to the howls and cheers of his companions.
A massive wave of rebels and wolves dashed out of the caverns, off to face another day of conflict. Practically all knew there was a chance they would never return to the safety of the caves, and yet that was the very reason that they fought: to keep their homes safe for those who would survive.
For their family and friends, they charged headlong into chaos.
The new dawn broke over a raging battlefield.
* * *
A cruel smirk twisted the visible side of Moo’s face, distorting the scar that stretched from his forehead down to his cheek. Mismatched eyes of cold gold and burning crimson gleamed as they reflected scenes from the battle. Moments of horror, caught by dark magic and displayed before the titan solely for his pleasure, some repeating over and over again at his silent command.
This time, the tyrant had sent more skilled warriors than he had before. His smirk widened into a grin at the delicious irony: the wolves and rebels had no idea that they were being simply toyed with. And even if they did comprehend this, he doubted they realized another part of what he was using them for.
Quite simply, they were a test. A method he was using to gauge the strength of many of his… ‘new recruits’… Soldiers that had been willing to join Moo in his conquest and ones that he had needed to… convince…
By battling the wolves day after day, these new members of his army were, in a sense, taking a final exam of sorts. If they survived the assault, they passed. If not… well, one less mouth to feed, and one less faulty warrior that would only serve to weaken whatever unit they were in.
Moo chuckled, eyes glittering with fiendish delight. Really, it was simply too perfect an arrangement. He really had to remember to let the survivors of the wolves’ resistance in on his little game once it was all over…
…That was, if any of them survived all the way to the inevitable end…
…Ah well. Even if none of the rebels made it, all that meant was that they were too weak to be of any real use to him…
* * *
"…Is it time, sir?"
"…Yes. Let’s go."
"Good luck, everyone. Try to stay alive."
"Oh yeah, that’s really reassuring to hear…"
"…Shut up, you…"
* * *
Cold steel sliced through flesh and muscle to a symphony of ragged screams and cut short cries. Violet-brown eyes gleamed with the same harsh edge as the blades held firmly in the scaled hare’s paws. Leather cloak billowing in cascading folds around his lithely twisting body, the monster pressed his attack, seemingly oblivious to the chaos raging around him.
Under the mask of cool detachment, however, Scaler was all too aware of the dire situation he and his battle companions faced.
The rabbit’s long ears twitched slightly at each scream of anguish, every moan of pain that reached him over the clamor of battle. With each shriek, he silently removed one more fighting-strength monster from the count he was keeping in his head. Since the majority of his comrades were wolves, it was not too difficult for him to tell the difference between their death howls and the dying cries of the enemy.
It was an old habit of Scaler’s to try and keep a mental toll of the wounded and deceased even as he fought on. By subtracting the running tally from the amount of baddies he glimpsed on the battlefield, he was able to make pretty good estimates of how well they were faring in the fight itself. It worked well when he was fighting solo, enabling him to make certain not a single opponent left alive, and so far, the technique appeared to be adapting well to an all-out struggle like this one…
This time, however, Scaler definitely did not like what he was hearing.
Even over the final screams of the enemy fighters closest to him, an almost uninterrupted song of death orchestrated by his blades, he could tell one thing that would have chilled the blood of a softer-hearted monster…
More of the wolves had cried their last than the baddies.
Still, despite that terrible knowledge, the scaled hare only gritted his teeth and continued his assault, rather than retreat in an attempt to save his own hide. This was war, and casualties were to be expected on both sides.
Besides, he would rather die fighting against Moo than let his very mind and soul be stripped away and his shell of a body forced to fight to further the tyrant’s dark desires…
So his swords continued their blood song, adding to the chorus of dying screams.
* * *
Grey Wolf was not as unaffected as Scaler appeared to be. The silver-furred lupine winced visibly at each wailing howl, able to recognize the identity of most of those wolves who cried their last. Tears were beginning to sting his ice blue eyes despite all of his efforts to fight them back: he simply was not experienced enough with masking his feelings to battle both his enemy and his emotions.
Several of those same enemies saw his sorrow clearly, and sought to exploit it, sneering at him even as he lashed out. A few even teased and leered at the silver wolf as they felt their life slip away, as if amused by the knowledge that even their deaths would not ease his pain, would not bring back those their comrades had killed.
"Poor little wolfie," cackled a Black Worm, aiming a bloodstained stinger toward the silver monster’s heart. "Don’t worry, I’ll send you to see your friends…"
"Go to hell," Grey Wolf snarled, lightning coursing from his horns and frying the worm’s body before it got a chance to fire again.
A distressed yelp caught his attention, and Grey Wolf whirled in time to see another Datonare stumble. Before he could react, his pack member was dead, a Zuum’s claws ripping through the poor wolf’s throat.
"No!" he cried uselessly, sending an Ice Bullet speeding toward the saurian.
He took little comfort in the fact that the Zuum was instantly killed by the impact, a half-frozen lost disc clattering to the ground where it had stood over his comrade’s lifeless body moments before.
Grief filled the silver-furred lupine’s heart, the stubborn tears trickling down his cheeks even as he turned and electrocuted another baddie.
- What’s the damned point, anyway? Even if we somehow win this fight, M… Moo will just send more troops. He always does. -
Claws lashed out against approaching enemies, and Grey Wolf backed away a few steps, snarling, white fangs flashing in the sunlight.
- Moo considers these monsters expendable, useless for anything other than furthering his ambition. No matter how many we kill, there are always more on the way. -
Ice-blue lightning flashed out and enveloped a small group of Clays; they were all lost discs before they hit the ground.
- My pack has no such luxury. Every fighter lost is a friend, a family member, a loved and cherished one. -
Some distance away, at one of the cave’s entrances, Coltia struggled to help a pair of injured Datons into the relative safety of the caverns. One of the wolves was breathing raggedly, leaning heavily into the other for support, and the other bore this weight in silence despite his own grave wounds.
- We are family. All sisters and… brothers… and Moo wants to take that away… either by killing us… or making us just more mindless slaves in his army… -
Another wolf let out a choked off yelp as claws dug into his neck, and his murderer grinned nastily, eyes glinting crimson.
- I cannot… I will not let any more of my friends get used by that bastard the way he did me! …The way he is using my brother…! -
With an angry howl, Grey Wolf surged forward, a silver blur of movement shooting straight into the fray raging around him, striking with fangs, claws and electricity. As long as the silver-furred wolf had energy, he would fight with everything he had to protect those he loved from sharing the same horrible fate he had once lived through.
* * *
Saffron gritted her teeth, firing bolt after bolt of yellow-tinted electricity at any baddie who dared to come close to her. Sweat trickled down her face, creating tiny furrows in her fur, and the female Daton found herself edging backwards.
- Damn, there’s too many of them! Where does Moo get all these followers of his?!? Are there really THAT many insane monsters in the world…? -
"Saffron, look out!"
"What–" was all she was able to get out before something slammed into her side, sending her sprawling and scrambling to keep on her feet. Snarling a curse, Saffron whirled around to berate whoever had shoved her--
--And froze, eyes widening with shock as time seemed to freeze, searing every detail of the scene before her into her mind.
Toge was standing where she had been just seconds before, shoulder still thrust slightly toward her as he had when pushing her away. The cause of his warning shout and shove was currently sinking its jagged fangs into his stomach, black scales and Moo symbol glittering in the sunlight.
"NO!" she shouted without even realizing it, shattering the frozen moment as yellow lightning surged from her horns into the Black Dino’s side.
The baddie grunted and released its hold, and as it whirled toward its intended target, Toge slumped limply to the cold earth. Saffron dodged away, trying to keep one eye on her enemy without looking away from her friend’s crumpled form, not wanting to let him out of her sight…
But she couldn’t see everything, and stumbled as another dinosaur’s tail clipped the back of her left hind leg. Roaring in triumph, the Black Dino leapt upon her…
"No you don’t!"
Wheels slammed into the dinosaur’s face and sent him reeling, and as Saffron recovered and righted herself, Genki landed in front of the female Daton. Glancing back at her, the clear-eyed boy nodded and smirked.
"Get back to the caves, okay? Hurry!" he ordered.
Saffron paused, then nodded, realizing he meant the command to address both of them. Quickly, she nudged Toge, urging the Datonare to rise shakily to his feet.
"Hurry up, will you?" she snarled, making him lean against her as they rushed back to the caverns.
Genki, meanwhile, literally threw himself into the task of distracting the Black Dino, lunging at the baddie and swinging his fist at its chest. It grunted and swept at him with its claws, yet the boy easily slipped away, and laughed as he skated backwards, a cocky grin on his face.
"Ha hah, can’t catch me!" jeered Genki, dodging another slash. "C’mon, why don’t ya-"
The rest of his taunt was lost as all the air was abruptly knocked out of his lungs, and Genki reeled backward, landing roughly on his back.
Another tail attack, something in the back of his mind noted blandly. What is it with me and that stupid attack, anyway?
Desperately trying to suck air into his lungs, the boy was only vaguely aware of the fact that the monster that nailed him was probably close by, already sneaking up to kill him while he was helpless. That thought didn’t help him recover any faster, unfortunately.
Don’t tell me this is how the great ‘Monster Champion’ is going to die, an oddly cynical voice sneered from somewhere deep within his mind. Flat on his back like a turtle and just as helpless to do anything about it…
NO! another part of his mind screamed defiantly, though Genki still could not pull enough breath into his lungs to give voice to this cry. Clear brown eyes screwed shut from the pain, he attempted to push himself off the ground, to move, only to slump back down, exhausted.
A shadow fell over his fallen body, and Genki managed to force one of his eyes open a bare sliver. His vision was blurring badly, yet he could still pick out a distinctly lupine form, and his heart leaped briefly into his chest.
- One… one of the wolves… I still have a chance… -
Then his vision cleared just a little more, and Genki felt his hopes sink as quickly as they had risen. A Cabalos was standing over him, yellow-gold eyes fixed on the boy’s face, a solemn expression on its violet-furred muzzle.
Genki would have laughed at the bitter irony if he had been able to catch his breath. As it was, the boy simply let himself slip back into near-unconsciousness, still trying to pull air into his lungs even though part of him had already accepted the idea that they had finally lost the ongoing conflict.
He watched through squinting, blurring brown eyes as the Cabalos drew closer, its golden eyes occasionally darting from side to side. Soon it was standing directly over the boy, its horns beginning to crackle with dark blue electricity. Part of Genki’s mind screamed in defiance, urging him to move, but he simply found himself unable to. He was too weak, and it was too late for him to avoid a blow from such a close range anyway.
- So this is really it, then… Holly, Mocchi, everyone, I’m sorry… -
The dull crackling of the charging lightning seemed to roar in his ears, its steadily building blue glow nearly blinding the boy. Wincing, Genki waited for the energy to surge through his helpless body.
An image of his absent friends filled his mind: Holly, Alan, the Worms, Serinity, Hare, Eboni and Mocchi. A faint smile appeared on the boy’s face, the pain melting away somewhat as he thought of them.
- …Least they’re safe… Like Scaler said… they can… continue the quest… -
He heard the bolt fire, and tensed, bracing as best he could for the rush of pure agony, wondering how it would feel to die. To his amazement, however, he felt… nothing. After what seemed like forever, he slowly forced his eyes to open again, certain he would see the Cabalos still standing above him, just waiting for the pitiful human to catch a glimpse of his killer before finishing him off…
The Cabalos was standing directly over the boy, just as he had expected. But instead of unleashing an attack on Genki the moment he opened his eyes, the purple lupine completely ignored him, unleashing his attacks on the monsters surrounding them.
"…Wh…wha…" Genki stammered weakly, attempting to get up again.
Suddenly, his still-blurring vision fixed on the Cabalos’s chest, and the boy felt a shaky grin spread over his face. The violet-furred wolf was not wearing a Moo symbol, while the monsters his attacks struck were.
Turning his head slightly, Genki noticed scattered traces of purple in the midst of the furious battle, and smiled even as his vision faded away completely and his head dropped back down limply against the ground…
* * *
Grey Wolf howled as something slammed into his front left paw, causing him to stumble. His opponent let out a triumphant snarl and lunged toward him, only to freeze, crimson eyes going wide with shock. The silver-furred lupine stared at the baddie in shock, not knowing what was wrong. Then the black dinosaur collapsed, and Grey Wolf recoiled involuntarily, blue eyes widening at the sight of a Cabalos standing on the baddie’s broad back.
The violet-furred lupine tore into the hapless monster’s neck, then turned and looked up at the stunned Grey Wolf. A smile appeared on its blood-smeared muzzle, and it nodded briefly in his direction. Then, before he could react, it sprang nimbly away, searching for another opponent.
Grey Wolf had no time to wonder about this occurrence, however: the fight was still raging all around him, and he was quickly drawn back into the struggle. The silver-furred lupine could sense, however, that the course of the battle was changing, as the pained cries of his friends and allies became less frequent.
Still, it felt as if an eternity had passed before the last of Moo’s surviving soldiers scrambled away from the battlefield, leaving behind a ragged and worn-out group of defenders behind them.
Panting hard, Grey Wolf glanced around in attempt to see who still stood with him, and was grateful to see several of his pack still up and walking about. Many of them were injured, however, and he could only hope that many of the other wounded had retreated back into the caverns. Scaler was also there, leather cloak drenched in blood and sweat, and the green rabbit strode up beside him, violet-brown eyes narrowed and fixed on something past the silver lupine.
"…It appears we have company," he commented after a short pause, fingering the edge of one of his bloodstained swords.
Turning around, Grey Wolf’s ice blue eyes widened slightly as they met the steady gaze of a pair of Cabalos, a male and female. More of the purple-furred lupine were ranged out over the field, helping the more gravely wounded members of his pack along. However, it was obvious that the two standing in front of Grey Wolf and Scaler were the leaders of the newcomers.
"…You are…?" Grey Wolf prompted, eyeing the pair suspiciously.
Much to his shock, the duo responded by crouching down before him, bowing their heads submissively in a posture that bared their necks to him. If he had moved to attack them, he could have easily crushed their exposed necks in his jaws. However, he made no such attempt, instead simply gaping at them.
"Master Grey Wolf, I am Chishi of the Darkclaw unit," the male stated, gazing up at the stunned silver wolf with dark golden eyes. "This is Yuri, my second in command. We served under you during your reign as one of Moo’s generals…"
Grey Wolf continued to stare at them, a flicker of recognition dawning in his widened blue eyes at the Cabalos’s words. He had attempted to suppress all of his memories of his time as one of the Big Bad Four, but he still somewhat recalled what the purple lupine was talking about…
"My liege, we have heard of your current difficulty with your former commander," the female Cabalos, Yuri, continued. "If you would accept us, we and our comrades would gladly fight for you once more."
Grey Wolf was unable to reply at first, struck speechless from pure shock. However, Scaler was not so affected, and the cloaked rabbit eyed the pair with a neutral expression on his face.
"…You would rather serve Grey Wolf than Moo?" he queried, his tone somewhere between suspicion and mocking amusement.
"We pledged our loyalty to Grey Wolf, not to Moo," Chishi replied, returning the scaled hare’s gaze firmly, unwavering. "Grey Wolf is our one true master."
"Master Grey Wolf, if you will allow us, we will gladly give our lives for you and your pack," added Yuri, soft yellow-gold eyes fixed on the silver-furred lupine’s face.
Still unable to speak, Grey Wolf finally managed to nod once in reply. Scaler arched one eyebrow at this, but remained silent. A genuine smile appeared on the two Cabalos’ faces, and then Chishi snapped his head up sharply and let out a howl. At its sound, all of the Cabalos in the field looked up, eyes instantly flying to where he stood.
"Everyone, continue to aid the members of Master Grey Wolf’s pack," he ordered, gaze sweeping around to each of his followers. "We will be staying here from now on."
A cheer rose from the gathered Cabalos, who then quickly returned to helping clean up the battlefield. Chishi turned back toward Grey Wolf and bowed low again, a gesture mimicked by Yuri.
"Thank you, master," the pair chorused, before turning and joining their fellow pack members in aiding their new allies.
Grey Wolf gazed after them for a long moment, ice blue eyes strangely distant. Scaler stood behind him, folded arms hidden under his billowing cloak, violet-brown eyes unreadable.
* * *
Weed cautiously peeked into his master’s chamber, shivering with terror. The titan was still gazing at the magical replays of the battle, repeating different scenes from the struggle over and over again before his clashing eyes. Echoes of death screams filled the air, and the purple plant shuddered again at the terrible clamor.
"…Ah, Weed, I didn’t see you there," Moo suddenly said, whirling to face his horrified lackey.
"…Y-yes, well I, uh…" the plant monster stammered, shaking as he caught a glimpse of another Weed monster in one of the viewing portals.
This particular baddie had done well in the battle… up to the point where he came face to face with Scaler. As the servant of Moo watched in mute horror, his kinsman’s death played out over and over again, the now dead plant screeching as blades sliced him apart.
"Is something the matter, Weed?" Moo inquired coolly, arching his visible eyebrow and gazing nonchalantly at the trembling plant.
"…N…n-no, sir," it somehow managed to squeak out through its suddenly contracted, dry throat.
Moo gazed down at his lackey for a few more moments, then turned away and waved a hand dismissively.
"If you came to report our temporary defeat, I already know. Now then, you may leave, unless, of course…" --here he eyed the purple plant briefly-- "…there is anything else you wish to say to me…?"
"…No sir. T-thank you, sir," the Weed forced out, voice little more than a bare whisper.
It turned and left the room slowly, almost mechanically. Moo smirked as the door slid shut behind his lackey’s retreating form, but the amused expression faded as he swung his gaze back towards the replaying images. Several were focused on different Cabalos, each of the purple-furred wolves aiding one of Grey Wolf’s pack or the other rebels. The tyrant’s golden and crimson eyes flashed as they came to rest on an image of a Cabalos standing over the fallen Genki, defending the boy until the battle was over.
Because of the Cabalos’ interference, Genki had survived the assault, along with many other members of the rebellion that should have been killed. Moo frowned, mismatched eyes glowing, then suddenly vanished from the chamber, leaving the magical screens to continue playing out their chosen scenes until his return…
* * *
The titan’s ebony cape and long hair billowed behind him as he materialized and strode forward, into the center of the shadow-filled room. Deep echoes of his pounding footsteps resounded throughout the huge chamber, hinting of its immense size despite the fact that its walls were hidden completely by the darkness, making it difficult for anyone to guess at, let alone see, its exact dimensions.
Yet despite the near pitch-blackness of the chamber, Moo walked on confidently, without the slightest fear of losing his way.
Certain members of the Searchers may have pointed out that he was already lost to the darkness… but no one was there to make that observation. The only living creature in that shadowy room was Moo himself, and he would have hardly called himself ‘lost to the darkness’… since it was a part of the tyrant.
He stepped easily onto a dais without the slightest hesitation or pause, not needing light’s glare to be aware of its presence and exact location. Mismatched eyes of frosty gold and burning scarlet glittered in narrowed slits as he stood, not even bothering to glance around. There was no need for him to, for every square inch of this chamber was burned into his memory. After all, he had created it solely to fit his purposes…
Surrounding the raised platform in a half-circle, each completely within easy sight of the demonic monster, were several crystalline spikes. Each stretched to a height equal to that of the titan, and appeared stunningly pure. While the sides facing toward Moo were incredibly smooth, almost like mirrors, the edges pointing away from him were covered in jagged, rough spikes, glittering like thousands of tiny blades.
The crystalline pillars, while all constructed of the same dark stone, appeared to possess their own unique auras as well. Each glittered faintly as if lit by something within, though even the combined light from all of the structures did not even come close to driving back the shadows that filled the immense chamber.
One of the crystals did not even provide this faint light anymore.
This single spire appeared to have been damaged horribly at some point: the once-smooth portion that faced where Moo stood was completely smashed in, shattered. It almost looked as though somebody had punched their fist directly into its center, but for anyone to do that, they would have to be incredibly strong…
Moo glanced briefly in the shattered pillar’s direction, and for an instant his lips curled up into a hideous snarl, revealing sharp white fangs. Pure hatred gleamed in his cold golden eye and blazing crimson one. However, the expression soon faded, replaced by a cool, neutral look as the tyrant turned his back on the broken crystal and faced the other, whole, pillars.
His mismatched gaze soon rested upon two of the crystalline structures in particular, ignoring all the rest. Unlike the shattered spire, these two still glowed sullenly as if lit from within, casting their dull shine out into the blackness of the shadowy chamber. One had a glittering yellow, nearly golden sheen to its faceted surface, while the other pulsed with a pale, dismal ice blue aura. Something about the way the pale cerulean light shimmered through the crystal gave the impression of a surface of water reflected in the dark facets, but this was simply an illusion, a trick of the dully flickering light.
Moo watched these two particular crystal spires for a few moments in silence, clashing eyes reflecting the glittering auras briefly as he gazed at them, unblinking. His long, ebony cape and thick locks of hair ruffled and billowed as if stirred by some unseen wind, one that howled in silence around his standing figure. As the cold breeze increased steadily in strength, the titan continued to stare silently at the two pillars, unflinching even as their respective auras flared brighter and brighter, gold pulsing alongside blue.
Abruptly, the smooth surfaces of both structures all but exploded with light, a near blinding glare in the darkness. Yet Moo did not react to even this, muscular arms remaining crossed over his chest instead of raising to shield his mismatched eyes from the starbursts of light. Thankfully, the initial glare soon dimmed, leaving a steady glow in its stead.
The smooth sections of the crystalline spires that faced the tyrant were lit up completely, though once more the light seemed to emanate from somewhere within the pillars themselves than from any outside source. Now, however, the steady glow served another purpose rather than futilely attempting to pierce the shadows filling the chamber: they allowed Moo to see images moving inside them, reflections of the two generals he was contacting.
The communication crystals were far from perfect, of course: the images of his chosen elite monsters were wreathed in shadow, their faces half-hidden, though their eyes could clearly be seen, piercing the darkness. This detail did not bother Moo in the slightest, however: he already knew the exact appearances of his finest, his generals, and could easily identify each without even having to glimpse them clearly. In addition to their differently shaped bodies and distinctive voices, each had several certain gestures and habits that tended to give them away.
The pillar with the glittering gold aura reflected a slender, definitely feminine figure that radiated a dark charm and allure despite the fact that most of its owner’s features were masked somewhat by shadows. Even the darkness, however, could not dim the gleam of two deep, dark jaden eyes, eyes that both drew in anyone who gazed into their depths and repelled anyone who glimpsed the cruelty and fierce anger that caused them to glitter so brightly. Anyone who noticed the latter too late to avoid being entranced by the former could only hope against hope that something might manage to free them… before they were beyond any fledgling chance of help…
Meanwhile, the hulking figure seen in the other spire, the one surrounding by a pulsing pale blue aura, was practically a direct opposite of this dark beauty. Shadows stretched over thick, rippling muscles that appeared harder than rock, doing little to hide the obvious strength of their bearer. A pair of cold eyes glared out from a solemn, stoic face, eyes the same pale shade as the cerulean light gleaming behind the massive figure.
"You summoned us, Master Moo?" a deep, harsh voice boomed, emanating from the bluish-tinted pillar.
"You wished to see us, Master Moo?" cooed a silky voice at almost the same instant, this one coming from the figure reflected in the golden spire.
"You are both aware of the situation concerning the rebels?" the tyrant inquired bluntly, not bothering to even acknowledge such obvious questions. While he would have been upset had one of them not observed the formality of greeting him in such a matter, he did not necessarily have to acknowledge them when they did…
The images in the spires nodded together, silent. The slender figure moved almost reflexively, fingers tracing briefly across her shadow-wreathed cheek. Moo noticed this but did not comment, his only visible reaction the slight quirking of one edge of his otherwise expressionless mouth upward for an instant. While anyone else might have thought the female general was wiping away a tear hidden by the darkness, the tyrant knew his chosen one far better than that. It was hardly a teardrop her slender fingers traced over… more a reminder of just what the rebels were capable of.
"They are proving to be quite annoying," the hulking figure in the blue-tinted crystal rumbled. "Even scattered as they are, the rebels refuse to acknowledge their own helplessness… they fail to accept that they are completely powerless…"
"Oh, they are far from powerless," hissed the slender silhouette. Again fingers brushed briefly against the same shadowy cheek, and a bitter laugh echoed from the golden pillar as the female voice, now dripping with hatred, added, "After all, they were able to overthrow even the master before… It’s more a case of, they fail to see that their power is nowhere near enough now…"
"All too true, I’m afraid," Moo cut in smoothly, golden and crimson eyes glinting as he smirked and added, "That is what makes this game worthwhile. I have toyed with the boy and his precious little pack of resistance for some time, letting him discover just how weak he and his friends truly are. Soon, when the time is right…"
He paused, a terrible grin twisting the visible side of his face as he raised one armored hand and clenched it into a fist, snarling, "I will break him. Those wolves and their allies will learn the cost of defiance…"
Moo did not need to see clearly his two generals in order to sense their cruel smiles at his words, smiles of anticipation and twisted delight. He allowed the declaration to hang in the air for a few moments, stretching out the pause deliberately.
"…I have new orders for both of you," he finally continued, seeing he had the full attention of his two generals. Turning toward the blue-tinted crystal spire, Moo went on, "As you know, a handful of the rebels, including the maiden with the Magic Stone and the bearer of the Phoenix’s Tear, have separated from those with the wolves. With their strongest fighters far away and the little rabbit injured, they have little chance of surviving a direct assault. Since they are currently crossing over your territory, I expect you will handle them properly…"
"Yes, Master Moo," the deep voice rumbled again, as the hulking figure reflected in the bluish crystal bowed.
Moo smirked, but his face was solemn again as he instructed, "The rebels will be on board a pirate ship commanded by an eyeball monster who calls himself ‘Horn the Righteous Pirate’. His crew consists entirely of Rockies, which should give you little trouble. Out of the rebels themselves, the only ones who might put up any sort of fight would be some strange new human boy with blue-gray hair who carries a sword and his pair of worm monsters. They are worthless to me, so do with them as you please."
The bulky general bowed again, cold eyes glittering in the shadows surrounding him, then the aquamarine aura pulsing around his communication crystal faded away as Moo broke off contact.
"And how may I serve you, my dear Master Moo?" the figure in the golden spire cooed, almost playfully, jade eyes gleaming through the darkness covering her body.
"You, my lovely general, should prepare to expand your territory," was the tyrant’s simple reply, a wicked gleam in his mismatched eyes. "I believe that some of your special talents will prove quite useful to me here…"
"As you wish, my liege," replied the female voice, as a cold smile curled full lips that were hidden in shadow.
The golden aura dimmed as the female silhouette bowed toward Moo, her figure fading away. Soon, the tyrant was once again surrounded by black, alone in the huge, shadowy chamber. He smiled coldly, golden and crimson eyes appearing to glow in the dark as a deep chuckle rumbled from his throat.
"You are not the only ones who can call upon allies, Searchers. Do not think those traitors will be able to save you again…"
Demented laughter echoed off of unseen walls as Moo whirled and strode back into the darkness, allowing the shadows to envelop his body completely into their waiting, dark embrace. Behind his fading form, the communication crystals he had used still glittered faintly with traces of aquamarine and gold…