A dark form glided silently through the night sky, blocking out the light of the stars as it flew over the still land. The modified Iron Bird was smaller than most of the other crafts in Moo’s army, yet this did not detract any from its imposing nature. The vessel had been especially designed for the sole use of one of Moo’s generals, crafted to suit the desire of the monster known as the "golden general".
The title symbolized many things about its bearer. Any who laid eyes upon her would instantly recognize the first: her clear skin was a deep shade of saffron, and often seemed to shine brighter than the finest gold. Golden, too, was her short blonde hair, and her eyes had the appearance of twin pieces of glittering jade.
However, her stunning beauty only served as a poor mask of her true nature.
For all of the general’s radiance, her heart could also have been spun of the same glittering metal: cold, unfeeling, and unyielding to anyone. She was seen as untouchable, unattainable, and yet her followers, entranced by her loveliness, sought after her favor constantly.
At the moment, the golden general was lounging in her chambers on board the Iron Bird, relaxing. She felt no anxiety, knowing that her servants were taking care of guiding her craft to its destination while she relaxed.
Besides, even if the fools did end up crashing for some unforeseen reason, she could escape easily, leaving behind the rest to die in a heartbeat. Their lives meant nothing to her; they could easily be replaced.
Reflexively, slender, fine-boned fingers reached up and stroked gently over her right cheek, and the woman’s jaden eyes narrowed slightly, darkening with both hatred and remembrance. Slowly, her fingertips traced along a smooth, thin line, one that appeared in the darkness to be little more than a slight shadow on her lovely face.
The scar was almost unnoticeable, really. Just a slightly darker yellow than the rest of her pale golden skin, the small mark didn’t particularly stand out unless attention was directed toward it, or you happened to know already of its presence. Even then, it did little to detract from the overall impression one got from her: a pristine beauty, a vision of golden radiance that many of her followers lusted after, despite knowledge of her past as a seductress. The dark deeds of her past meant nothing to those who had fallen under her spell…
…But just because the scar she bore on her right cheek did not deter her followers did not mean that it meant nothing to the golden general.
She despised the ugly thing. To her, it symbolized nothing less than an ungodly flaw in her perfection. Never mind that those under her command still praised her unmatched charm constantly: after all, she would have instantly killed any of the puny lackeys who dared to say otherwise.
It was a flaw. A horrible, glaring crack in her once perfect porcelain face, the single sign that she was… breakable.
Proof that even the golden general could be touched.
She grimaced, dark verdant eyes flashing at the memory. Everything had been going so well… she had the rebels at her mercy, the little rabbit locked away and helpless to do anything other than watch as she tortured two of his friends for her own entertainment. How could things have changed so suddenly…?
She knew, of course, exactly who was to blame. She knew exactly who would face her divine retribution, all in good time…
Vanity looked up, a cruel smirk twisting her full ruby lips.
She knew exactly who would be her first target when she arrived…
* * *
Genki dashed down the twisting corridors at full speed, once again wishing heartily that he could use the skates strapped onto his backpack to make better time. However, he knew all too well that the rocky ground in the caverns wasn’t well suited to his preferred method of transportation – especially since he had wiped out several times before while attempting it.
Even without the aid of wheels on his feet, however, the boy was still managing to move at a good clip. Soon, his intended destination was within sight, and Genki grinned as he skidded to a stop behind two of his friends.
"Hey Coltia, Suezo!" he greeted the pair loudly.
They didn’t look the least bit surprised to see him, having heard his rapid approach echoing down the natural hallways, but both still returned his smile.
"What’s all the rush about, kid?" Suezo queried, the expression on his face a mixture of annoyance and amusement. "Something wrong?"
Despite his mocking demeanor, there was something in the tone in which he asked his question that seemed to suggest that the eyeball monster would not be the least bit surprised if something bad was happening. Genki quickly shook his head.
"Nah, nothing’s the matter," he assured his friends with a grin and a wink. "C’mon, Suezo, you’ve gotta stop thinking so negative all the time…"
"Yeah, you’re right, Genki," chimed in Coltia, mirroring the boy’s grin. After a moment she added, in a much softer voice, "Nothing’s wrong. In fact, I think things are actually starting to go right for a change…"
Genki and Suezo nodded agreement, neither wanting to challenge the thought that their situation was beginning to steadily improve.
The arrival of some desperately needed backup in the form of Chishi, Yuri and the Cabalos still loyal to Grey Wolf had helped raise morale. Suddenly, it didn’t feel like they were fighting alone against an unconquerable opponent: they had allies, others willing to lay their lives on the line for the sake of the pack and their home.
It was far from a cure-all, however. Not all of Grey Wolf’s pack enjoyed the idea of fighting alongside former baddies. To some, it seemed all too convenient that the purple lupines had shown up when they did. They regarded the newcomers with suspicion, wondering how the Cabalos had been able to locate where they lived… and show up just in time to play saviors to them…
Still, allies were allies, and the defenders weren’t exactly in a position to pick and choose who got to fight alongside them. Moo had a seemingly endless supply of warriors to fall back upon, and even with Chishi’s own followers standing alongside them, no one dared believe they could outnumber the baddies.
But… that didn’t mean that Genki thought they couldn’t drive the baddies back and force them to keep retreating. If they kept it up long enough, the clear-eyed youth was certain that they’d find some way to solve their biggest problem…
Maybe it was idealistic, but Genki kept hoping that one day the sieges would stop at the source. Moo was attacking Tiger of the Wind’s home, his family… and Genki chose to see that as an indication that the tyrant’s control over the blue wolf was not foolproof.
- …Back in the fortress… Moo wanted to shoot Hare with his lightning, but he didn’t. Tiger was able to stop him. If… if we can just drag this out long enough, maybe Tiger will find the strength to fight Moo off again! There’s no way that Tiger will let Moo destroy his own pack, they’re his family! -
Genki kept telling himself that time and again, stubbornly, like it was a mantra, a charm that might one day prove key to winning this war. No matter what Scaler said – what any of the others thought – Genki refused to give up on Tiger.
- He’s still there, I know it! We just have to find a way to free him… -
"…Ah, there you are."
Genki, Coltia and Suezo all turned to see Grey Wolf striding up to them, long silvery tail swishing behind him.
"I’ve been looking for you," he told them. "Lucky for me you all turned out to be in the same place."
"What’s up, Grey Wolf?" Genki asked, giving the silver-furred lupine a curious look. "You want to hang out with us, too?"
Grey Wolf smiled at this, but, much to the clear-eyed boy’s concern, the pleased expression did not last long. Instead, the wolf turned away and motioned with his head for the others to follow him.
"We need to talk… away from my pack for now…"
Genki blinked, while Coltia and Suezo exchanged a nervous glance behind him. They followed the silver monster through the caverns in relative silence, knowing that it had to be a pretty serious matter if Grey Wolf had decided to not let his pack know right away.
They didn’t have long to dwell on this before they arrived at their destination: a sizeable cavern, the one they had rested in for a bit after they returned. It had become a sort of unofficial war room for the Searchers, convenient in that very few of the pack wolves traveled past the somewhat secluded chamber. They had taken to developing their – admittedly few – battle plans in here, as well as discussing matters they had chosen to keep private.
Scaler was there waiting for them, already in his typical position for their meetings: leaning against an outcropping of rock with his arms crossed over his chest, looking utterly disinterested. But his violet-brown eyes glittered as they raked over the others, letting everyone know that he was paying full attention.
"What’s this all about?" inquired Suezo, looking back and forth between the scaled hare and the silver lupine.
"What do you think it’s about?" Scaler retorted sarcastically, giving the eyeball monster a mildly amused look. "The enemy’s latest activities, naturally."
Before Suezo could start fuming at the insult, Coltia piped up, "What activity? I haven’t noticed anything…"
"Yeah… Moo hasn’t done anything lately," Genki agreed, also looking confused.
"That’s exactly what I mean."
Genki, Coltia and Suezo all gave the green rabbit a blank look. Scaler shook his head, looking mildly exasperated.
"What Scaler means is, this is the longest Moo’s left us alone since he first started this assault," Grey Wolf explained, not wanting Scaler to become too annoyed with the other rebels. Concern lit his blue eyes as he went on, "I’ve been getting a bad feeling about it."
"Now that you mention it, it has been a while, hasn’t it?" queried Coltia, tapping a finger against her chin as she adopted a thoughtful expression.
"Yeah, the last attack was almost four days ago," Suezo added, "and that was when…"
"…When the Cabalos showed up," Scaler finished for him, violet-brown eyes gleaming under his bangs. "After they appeared, Moo’s soldiers retreated, and they haven’t made an attempt since then."
"…Does this mean…" Coltia started, caramel eyes widening.
"No, they aren’t gone for good, Colt," Grey Wolf interrupted, then he winced at the sight of the hope in her eyes fading. "Sorry. I almost dared to believe that was the case too, but the scouts we sent out reported that they’re still camped out a few miles away, and that Moo’s fortress is still there."
"Darn," Coltia pouted, crossing her arms and sulking. "I wanted to get back to the others…"
"We all do, Colt, we all do," Suezo replied, looking both resigned and upset.
"So they haven’t withdrawn completely, but they haven’t attacked again, either," Scaler went on, regarding the others with dark, thoughtful eyes. "Moo must be waiting for something before making his next move… we should be cautious."
Genki frowned, crossing his arms stubbornly over his chest.
"But…I don’t get it," he complained. "If Moo’s planning something, why isn’t he still attacking us? I mean, it doesn’t make any sense…"
"Yeah, ‘cause if he was plotting something, wouldn’t he try to hide it from us by acting normally?" added Suezo, mirroring Genki’s frown with a thoughtful grimace of his own.
Grey Wolf nodded agreement, adding, "We’re not the only ones who have noticed the delay, either. Some of my friends are beginning to complain that something is definitely wrong. Unfortunately, a few are blaming the Cabalos."
"What?" Genki chorused with Coltia and Suezo.
"Why?" the girl added, looking distraught.
"As I noted before, the last attack was the same one where the Cabalos showed up to help," Scaler reminded them. The same neutral expression remained on his face as he continued, "It is very likely that there is some connection. The exact nature of this link…? Hard to say. It could be that the purple wolves are still in Moo’s employ…"
Genki’s frown deepened, messy bangs shading his clear brown eyes as he leveled an angry, warning glare at the cloaked rabbit.
"…Or they may be sincere in their desire to help us, but Moo is playing upon their status as former warriors under his command to broaden the gulf between our own defenders and their pack," Scaler finished evenly.
Genki blinked, the hard look vanishing at once, replaced by one of surprise and mild amazement. Suezo, Coltia and even Grey Wolf appeared mildly startled as well. Scaler ignored their shock completely, shrugging it off.
"I suspect the latter," he continued, gazing at each of his stunned companions in turn and bringing them back to reality. "If they were still under Moo’s control, he would have sent them to crush us outright, or would have continued the attacks normally while they tore us apart from within. As it is, I believe that they have turned against him. However, Moo would like us to think otherwise, since that would diminish our ability to present a united front before his soldiers…"
"United we stand, divided we fall," Grey Wolf muttered, blue eyes going colder than ice as he shook his head slowly.
Scaler nodded once, letting the slight motion speak for itself.
"…Great," Suezo said sarcastically, rolling his eye in disgust.
"Hey, don’t worry, gang, I’m sure it’ll be fine," Genki spoke up, flashing his teammates a confident grin. "There’s no way we’ll let the baddies break us up, right?"
"Right!" echoed Coltia, forcing a smile of her own.
"Sure, kid," Grey Wolf said, more slowly than the girl. Determination glinted in his eyes as he added, "Moo will not take anything else away from us… not ever again."
Scaler remained silent, his only response a slow, slight nod of his head as he studied the rest of the group with half-lidded violet-brown eyes. His face remained neutral, arms still crossed over his chest, leather cloak concealing most of his body.
Suezo took a long look around at each of his companions, just as quiet as Scaler was being for once. For a moment, if anyone happened to look into his green-gold eye, they would have seen clearly his doubt and growing dread flickering in its depths. However, he blinked suddenly, and a slow, forced grin appeared on his face.
"Right, Genki," he said, nodding in agreement.
* * *
Weed stood nervously on one of the decks on board Moo’s floating fortress, wringing his vines together as he waited and watched the craft that had just landed. Even if he had not known already just whom his master had summoned, the Iron Bird’s design would have given it away.
His gaze traveled up and down the ship’s figurehead, which depicted a lithe pixie poised to spring into flight, wings spread wide across the front of the Iron Bird. It was of flawless design, incredibly detailed – right down to the Moo symbol emblazoned on the front of her tunic, directly on her chest.
He heard the dull whoosh of the Iron Bird’s doorway opening, and gulped as the living model for the ship’s decoration stepped into view.
Golden General Vanity glared down at the quivering plant monster with narrowed jaden eyes, not even bothering to disguise her disgust. Adjusting the edge of her fancy tunic briefly, she swept her blonde hair backward with a single brush of her hands and strode down the ramp towards the lackey, flanked by several of her own minions.
Weed fought to hide his fear, but couldn’t conceal a shudder as she stood before him, the eyeball monsters that served as her guards waiting silently nearby. The purple plant threw a glance toward the one closest to him: a Suezo/Naga hybrid. The violet-skinned eyeball stared back at him dully, and Weed shivered again at the glassy sheen of the guard’s golden iris. He knew exactly what it meant, and it scared the wits out of him…
"…Are you going to take me to where Master Moo is waiting, or do I have to find him myself?" the golden general asked disinterestedly.
Weed yelped, breaking out into a sweat at her cold tone.
"Y-yes, follow me, right this way," he instructed quickly, scurrying ahead of her.
Vanity waited until the lackey’s back was turned on her before allowing herself a slight, satisfied smirk: she didn’t want to let the Weed know that his fear amused her a bit. Not that it would have mattered if he had known, but she didn’t like the thought that he might somehow mistake her amusement as pleasure in his company. Vanity had few doubts that the plant would be dimwitted enough to make such a stupid mistake: she viewed his entire breed as idiotic, almost as dense as the eyeball monsters that served her.
And the only redeemable trait of their kind is their intelligence-linked abilities, ironically enough, she mused, grimacing.
Then, she smirked again, jaden eyes glittering with cruel delight.
- It’s a good thing for all of their kind that I exist. I give their pitiful existence purpose, transform them into something more than a sad joke for a monster breed. They have one worth in this world, and that is to serve me. -
They had reached Moo’s chambers, and Weed pushed the massive doors open to admit her and her small group of soldiers.
"The golden general has arrived, master," he called out, then quickly shut the doors behind her and scampered away as fast as his roots could carry him.
"Humph. What a rude monster," Vanity huffed, glaring toward the now closed entrance almost as if she could see the Weed’s retreating form through the thick doors. "He did not even wait for you to dismiss him, master."
"I’ll let it go this time," said Moo, sounding vaguely amused. Mismatched eyes of gold and crimson gleamed slightly as he added, "Besides, my special instructions for you are not to be heard by any lowly servant just yet…"
The tyrant trailed off, eyeing the small band of eyeball monsters that surrounded the pixie hybrid protectively. His golden general smiled, catching his hint.
"I doubt that will be a problem," she whispered, ruby lips twisting into a knowing smirk.
Then, Vanity abruptly thrust her hands out, and golden-tinted lightning surged from her fingertips out into the unresisting bodies of her guards. The eyeball monsters jerked and twitched convulsively as the electricity shot through their bodies, yet not a single one attempted to escape, not even a single scream of agony. Soon, the arcing energy died down, leaving the smirking Vanity standing in a circle of lost discs.
"There. Problem solved," she said lightly, clasping her hands and assuming a mock innocent pose, smiling brightly.
Moo’s rumbling laughter echoed through the chamber, and the tyrant favored his chosen commander with a pleased look.
"Ah, your ingenuity never ceases to amaze me, my golden general," he complimented her, a cruel smile twisting the visible side of his face.
"You are too kind, my lord," replied Vanity, executing a respectful bow. Looking back up towards the tyrant, she asked, "Now, what service does the powerful Moo wish of this lovely follower?"
Moo just grinned, exposing gleaming white fangs, as his mismatched eyes glittered with anticipation.
"As you already know, a small team of the rebels have been assisting the wolves in the defense of this canyon. They have been struggling for some time to try and save their precious… friends."
The titan sneered this last word, lips curling slightly in derision.
"While I must admit that their tenacity is impressive, it is also quite annoying. They appear to be either unable or unwilling to face the fact that the situation is hopeless for them. There can only be one outcome to this battle, yet they press on, driving back my soldiers. This has helped weed out those unsuited to serve as warriors, naturally, but I feel that they are becoming too cocky. Especially their leader… that boy…"
Vanity nodded in silent agreement, jaden eyes narrowing thoughtfully as she regarded her commander. Her lips twisted into a knowing smile: she had a feeling that she already knew what the tyrant was driving at, yet remained quiet, patiently waiting.
"I plan to shatter that clear-eyed child’s spirit before breaking his body. You, my dear golden General Vanity, are to speed this process along. I am growing weary of the game, and want you to deliver one of the crushing blows before I end it. I trust you understand exactly what I mean."
The pixie just smiled, bowing extravagantly towards Moo, one arm folded before her chest. Looking up at her master through a veil of dark blonde bangs, Vanity nodded once, dark verdant eyes practically glowing with anticipation.
"Of course, Master Moo," she replied, voice dropping into a sultry whisper as she added, "It will be a pleasure…"
Moo returned her cruel smile, the blood-red eye of his half-mask glittering brightly.
"I trust you will get the job done quickly…?"
"As you wish."
Vanity stood, pivoted on her heel, and strode into the shadows, vanishing through the doorway in a flutter of silken garments and golden sparks. Moo gazed at the spot where she had disappeared for a few seconds, a dry chuckle rumbling in his throat.
* * *
The golden general walked forward calmly, ignoring the lowly monsters she passed by on her way back to her craft. Many stared after her, yet she failed to spare any even the slightest glance; she had more important things to focus upon than some impolite lackeys and soldiers who gaped so rudely at her.
Although I can certainly understand why they would feel so inclined to stare, she told herself silently, smirking.
Arriving at her Iron Bird, she slipped lithely into its main chamber, causing all of the eyeball monsters waiting there to automatically turn toward her. Again, the amount of steady gazes fixed upon her body failed to faze the pixie hybrid, as she was perfectly used to the dull glassy sheen of her servants’ eyes.
"You, come," she said bluntly, pointing at one.
The indicated monster, a Melon Suezo, instantly stood and, in a flash, teleported to her side. The green-skinned monster gazed up at her silently, as did the others, awaiting her next command. Vanity glanced around and pointed at several more, indicating that they should come to her side at once.
After she had picked out several guards, the golden pixie nodded, seemingly satisfied with her selections. Dark green eyes narrowed into slits, she concentrated, and her silky voice rang out clearly in the minds of her chosen servants, piercing through the fog she had enshrouded their thoughts with herself.
- Out. Take me out to where the wolves are making their stand. Now! -
With a collective flash of light, the golden general and her entourage of guards vanished, leaving behind the rest to wait in complete silence for the return of their mistress.
* * *
Materializing on a ledge above one of the entrances to the caverns, Vanity scanned her new surroundings disdainfully, a faintly disgusted expression on her pretty face. She and her small band of followers were standing at a distinct vantage point: there was a niche deep enough here that most of her guards could crouch in the shadows while she got a good look around.
"How… quaint," she observed mildly, sarcasm oozing from her icy tone. "But then, I suppose they are mere dogs, and could get used to living anywhere…"
She paused as the sound of footsteps approaching caught her attention, and sprang nimbly back into the cover of darkness, while sending a silent command to one of her guards. A dark-skinned eyeball monster with a dark crimson pupil leapt forward, interposing his body between the potential threat and where his mistress crouched in the shadows.
Moments later, a Daton rounded the corner. Reddish electricity already sparkled faintly around his horns: he had heard something coming from this area, and had come to check it out fully expecting a soldier of Moo.
He was not disappointed.
The canine’s blue eyes widened a fraction as they rested upon the eyeball monster, which lunged at him with its mouth gaping open. Dodging nimbly to one side, the pink-and-yellow-furred wolf blasted his foe, and the Red Eye’s lost disc clattered to the ground.
The Daton began to smile, but the expression was only half-formed when it froze on his face. His blue eyes bulged, filling with pain and surprise that quickly faded to a blank, empty stare as he crumpled. The newly formed hole in his chest sizzled as the remnants of the golden-tinted bolt of energy that ended his life faded away.
Vanity waited until the Daton’s body had finished its transformation into a lost disc before stepping forward, fingertips still glowing faintly as she dropped her hand back to her side. Staring down at the smooth pair of stones, she smirked, then jabbed her heel into the top of one.
"You should have served me better," she hissed, kicking the lost disc aside.
It struck the wall and shattered, the pieces falling to the ground. Vanity smirked, then turned away, motioning for the rest of her guards to come to her side. They did so quickly, none sparing even the barest glance towards the remains of their former comrade as they circled around their mistress.
"That should get their attention," observed the pixie mildly, one hand resting against her hip as she glanced around at the surrounding network of tunnels.
Sure enough, she could hear footsteps pounding ever closer, many more than she had heard before, accompanied by shouting.
"What was that?!?"
"It came from over here--!"
Vanity bowed her head and smiled, waiting until she was certain the wolves were coming closer to her location. Abruptly she snapped her head back, and her haughty laughter echoed through the caverns. The pounding became even more intense, and as the first of the investigators rounded the corner, she sprang nimbly away, appearing to vanish into midair while the rest of her companions scattered.
The lupine gasped, able to glimpse only several blurs of movement darting in all different directions, and she howled, "Intruders! Moo’s soldiers have gotten inside the den!"
One of the eyeball monsters leapt toward her, and she yelped, jumping aside. Whirling to face it, she managed to fire a torpedo attack at the suezo before it recovered from its failed attack, frying it where it stood.
"What happened?!?" another lupine monster demanded as he arrived on the scene, followed by several others.
"Some of the baddies have gotten inside," the first repeated, giving the newcomers a haunted look. "I-I couldn’t tell how many…"
"What?!?" cried a Datonare.
"Alert everybody! We can’t let them escape!"
The wolves scrambled in separate directions, each howling wildly and shouting out warnings as they began the desperate hunt. Somewhere nearby, Vanity heard the alert and smirked coldly, enjoying the growing panic.
- Let them search all they want; all they’ll find are those worthless eyeballs. Let those fools draw the fire for me: I know exactly what I came for, and I plan to retrieve it and leave quickly. -
* * *
"So much for Moo not attacking in a while," Scaler commented, violet-brown eyes dark with frustration as he got to his feet.
Genki and Grey Wolf nodded agreement, both matching the scaled hare’s anger. Coltia and Suezo had both gone pale, and the girl leapt to her feet as well.
"N-no!" she gasped, and sprinted off towards the chamber’s entrance.
The other Searchers did not need to ask where she was headed. They could tell from the stricken expression on her face that her thoughts were focused primarily on the younger members of the pack, those who would be less able to defend themselves if any of the enemy discovered them…
"You had better go after her, Suezo," suggested Scaler. "After all, she’s worried about all the helpless members of our group…"
Blades glittered in both of the cloaked rabbit’s paws, and he darted past without another word of acknowledgement toward the other Searchers. Suezo was too upset to feel insulted just then, and gazed nervously at Genki as the boy attempted to catch his balance from nearly getting knocked down.
"You’d better go help Coltia round up the rest of the pups," called Grey Wolf, rushing past as well. "Be careful!"
"R-right! You too!" Suezo replied, managing a nervous nod toward the silver-furred lupine’s departing figure.
He wasn’t entirely certain if Grey Wolf was able to hear him or not. Genki managed to recover, and moved to rush after the others.
The boy paused, glancing back at Suezo with an expression that combined curiosity, concern and annoyance.
"What is it, Suezo?"
"Hey, uh… watch yourself, kid," Suezo warned. "I don’t like this one bit… and remember," –here he abruptly smirked– "If you get yourself killed before we get back, Holly will get mad at me over your own mistake!"
Genki blinked, taken aback by the unexpected comment. For a moment, his expression wavered between indignation and shock, and then the boy burst out laughing, clear brown eyes twinkling with amusement.
"Same goes to you, Suezo," he retorted, then spun on his heel and was gone, chasing after Scaler and Grey Wolf and shouting, "Hey, wait for me!"
The eyeball monster stared at the empty space where the boy had been standing for a long moment. Finally, a sigh escaped his lips, and he turned away, shaking his head.
"…I was being serious, kid," he murmured, green-gold pupil wavering with concern.
Taking a deep breath, he then hopped in the opposite direction, as fast as his single leg could carry him. Suezo figured that he already knew where Coltia would lead any of the pups she found: the eyeball monster planned on meeting her there, hopefully after finding any stragglers the girl may have missed… before the enemy did.
Caught up in his own dark musings, he failed to notice a faint shimmer in one shadowy corner of the cavern, or that a glittering crimson slit appeared there a moment later as another monster opened his single eye just enough to watch his every move. The scarlet pupil followed Suezo’s movements as the rebel left the chamber, then disappeared again, leaving the small cave completely empty.
* * *
A choked-off yelp was quickly followed by the dull thud of a lifeless body slamming into a stone wall, and a small flash lit up Vanity’s face briefly. The golden general’s lips were twisted in a pleased sneer, and her jaden eyes gleamed, giving her face the appearance of a demon in that brief moment of time.
Turning away from the new lost disc, her sneer became a snarl, and she hissed, "Where the hell are they? Why haven’t I seen one of those damned Searchers yet? All I’ve run into are these worthless wolves…!"
She trailed off, feeling a small tug at one corner of her mind, and her deep verdant eyes narrowed slightly as she turned her attention towards the telepathic voice.
What? Vanity’s voice snarled in the mind of her subordinate, and she got a clear image of the Red Eye cowering backward despite the fact that he was nowhere near her current position.
However, the stark feeling of fear was only temporarily, replaced by the emotionless, matter-of-fact drone of her flunky’s own telepathic voice. Vanity was used to such reactions, rather enjoying the effect she had on her servants, and listened silently to the eyeball’s report. The anger that distorted her face slowly faded.
"Perfect," she cooed both aloud and mentally.
Straightening her posture, she sent a terse set of simple instructions to the Red Eye, then cut the conversation short. Then, she reached out and touched the fogged mind of another of her slaves, exerting just enough effort to locate the one closest to her. At her command, the eyeball monster teleported instantly to her side, and she smiled as she reached down and stroked his green skin.
"Take me back," she purred, dark emerald eyes glittering as she stared down at the Melon Suezo’s expressionless face. "I’m going to have a guest shortly, and I don’t plan on keeping him waiting long…"
Something sparked briefly in the eyeball monster’s clouded golden pupil, a glint of recognition. Then, in the next instant, both were gone. Vanity did not bother sending a summons to any more of her guards, leaving them to face the wolves and the rebels on their own.
* * *
Suezo stopped dead in his tracks as a cold chill ran icy fingers down his spine, and the yellow eyeball monster glanced around in confusion. Seeing nothing, he heaved out a heavy sigh, closing his wavering green-gold eye.
"…Too nervous. Just been here too long, is all…"
Something flashed into existence directly behind him, and Suezo froze, snapping his eye open. Whirling around to face the presence, he got the barest glimpse of a dull crimson pupil staring at him just before its owner’s tail slammed into his. Suezo tumbled to the ground, knocked off balance by the blow.
That was all Suezo was able to get out before the Red Eye’s tail crashed into the fallen rebels’ forehead, and the yellow eyeball monster slumped down, unconscious. The baddie stood over Suezo’s body and closed his blood-red eye, and both vanished from sight in a flash.
* * *
"Down with the baddies!"
So saying, Genki kicked the enemy soldier he was facing right in the pupil. The Melon Suezo fell backward without even a single cry of pain, and then a knife blade found its mark in the monster’s back and transformed it to a lost disc. Genki looked over at Scaler and grinned confidently, but the smile faded as he noted the grim, serious look on the cloaked rabbit’s face.
"What’s wrong?" the boy queried, tilting his head to one side as he studied his ally.
"All of the monsters we have fought here are suezo types," replied Scaler, violet-brown eyes narrowed thoughtfully.
"So I fail to see the point of this attack. If Moo wished to effectively ambush us in this manner, he should have sent several warriors instead of just this type of monster. The most efficient way to conduct this raid would have been to have them teleport the fighters in, then escape while they finished us off."
"Jeez, you don’t have to be so morbid," Genki muttered darkly.
"He’s right, you know," observed Grey Wolf, striding up to join them. "If they had teleported directly into the caverns with some of Moo’s stronger followers, it would have been a lot harder to drive them back."
"So why didn’t they?" Genki asked, huffing.
"Maybe that’s what they were preparing to do," Grey Wolf offered, then explained, "I remember Moo used to use suezo types sometimes to raid fortresses or towns surrounded by enough defenses to give his forces problems. He would send a few in discreetly, in small numbers so they wouldn’t be detected. They would then scout around for a place open enough to attempt a teleportation in later."
"Open enough?" echoed Genki.
"Teleportation into an enclosed area is extremely dangerous," Scaler informed the boy, keeping a neutral expression as he added, "Anyone attempting it would have to have a very good memory of the area. A single mistake could cause them to end up reappearing somewhere else in the room… or in the walls or some other solid object."
Genki and Coltia paled, while Grey Wolf nodded solemnly, blue eyes darkening.
"I know," the silver-furred lupine said quietly. "Moo lost more than a few scouts that way… fighters, too. That’s why I always preferred facing my opponents head on instead of sneaking around…"
He shook his head in an effort to dispel the bad memories, then added, "So I think that’s probably what happened here: Moo had some scouts try to sneak in and get a good lock around. Of course, it’s much more effective when there are more eyeball monsters around to begin with, so the scouts wouldn’t be noticed…"
"Yeah, but the only eyeball monster around here is Suezo," Genki commented, his cocky, self-satisfied grin returning.
Coltia and Grey Wolf joined him in laughing, but the girl soon trailed off, amusement replaced by growing concern as she glanced around.
"…Hey, where is Suezo, anyway?" she asked.
"…Huh?" Genki blinked at her, matching her confusion. "…You mean he didn’t join you with the pups?"
"…No," Coltia shook her head slowly. "I haven’t seen him since the alert was sounded…"
She froze, caramel eyes going wide, and she stared at the other rebels as she asked, "You don’t think that… somebody mistook him for…"
Genki stared back at her, looking shocked, then shook his head quickly in denial.
"Nah, he’s around here somewhere," he insisted. "We just have to find him, is all…"
* * *
Suezo groaned as he regained consciousness, and struggled to right himself, a task made difficult by his lack of limbs. Finally managing to push himself up using his tongue, he stared around at his unfamiliar surroundings, trying to make sense of them with his gradually clearing vision.
Dark, imposing walls came into focus first, towering over him, and Suezo gulped as he craned his neck back in a futile attempt to see where they met the ceiling. The shadows above him were too thick for even his vision to pierce through, and there was a heaviness in the air that seemed to press down around him, an almost tangible aura of despair that constricted his heart.
Breathing harshly, he struggled to compose himself, sternly telling himself not to panic, no matter how much he wanted to. Panicking would get him nowhere fast…
"Suezo…" purred a voice that seemed both terribly familiar and darkly alluring at the same time, sounding as if its owner was directly behind him.
Gasping, Suezo whirled around, pupil dilating with fear, only to see nothing but darkness behind him. Still, suddenly feeling horribly nervous, he continued to glance around wildly, uncertain of whether he wanted to catch a glimpse of what he thought was there or if he should pray he was mistaken…
"Suezo… I’m right here, my dear little yellow eyeball…"
He froze, paralyzed by a mixture of panic and disbelief, as a pair of slender fingertips brushed against the back of his tail, and the darkly compelling voice dropped into a chilling whisper:
"…My little slave…"
Slowly, almost automatically and without his own consent, Suezo swung his head around to face in the direction of the soft words. His single, green-golden eye widened as it met and instantly locked gazes with a pair of gleaming jaden eyes. He could not look away, though his mind shrieked with terror, warning him to run, to turn away, to attack, to do something other than stare into the golden pixie’s… deep… shimmering…
Perfect ruby lips spread into a triumphant smirk just under the furiously blazing emerald eyes, as Vanity relished in her victim’s mental struggle, his overwhelming terror. She could almost taste his fear, it seemed to hang in the air around him, filling their world even as she continued to pull him deeper and deeper into her carefully laid snare, clouding his mind once more with her charm. As much as the poor eyeball monster tried to escape, there was no hope for him now. He had fallen under her power once… now he would again… all she had to do, was reassert her control…
"You are mine, eyeball," she half-cooed, half-hissed, jaden eyes gleaming with both deadly allure and thinly veiled malice.
"No…please…" whispered her poor victim weakly, his green-gold pupil wavering with fear and unshed tears even as her power pushed deeper and deeper into his being.
In response, the golden-skinned pixie simply smiled, causing the eyeball monster to wince inwardly. He knew she was his enemy… knew what she was doing, what was happening to him… but still…
She was so beautiful.
- No… -
She was so beautiful.
- Please… somebody help me… I… I can’t… don’t want… oh Goddess, help me… -
She was so beautiful.
- …Holly… I… I’m so sorry… She… she’s too strong… -
- Strong… and so beautiful… -
- …Holly… -
And at that moment, with a last burst of wild struggling still being forced back somewhere deep within him, the light in Suezo’s green-gold pupil dimmed, replaced by an emotionless, glassy surface.
Vanity smiled, then began to laugh, the amused chuckling steadily growing as she gazed into her newly reclaimed slave’s face, watching the last spark of free will fade. After a while, she couldn’t resist tossing back her head and letting her laughter getting louder and louder, echoing around them.
The eyeball monster watched his mistress silently, face composed, neutral, even as a single tear squeezed out of the corner of his blankly staring eye…
* * *
Genki was beginning to get seriously worried. There was still no sign of Suezo anywhere in the caves, and none of the wolves he had asked had seen his friend either. He had finally decided to try looking around outside the caverns, thinking that maybe the eyeball monster had returned to his sentry spot.
But Suezo had not been on his ledge, either, and now the boy scanned the area around him with worried clear brown eyes, hoping to catch a glimpse of him.
"Suezo! Hey come on, where are you?" Genki called, cupping his hands around his mouth in an attempt to make his voice carry farther.
"Looking for someone?" a low, amused female voice cooed from seemingly out of nowhere, startling the rebels.
Genki spun around, and clear brown eyes widened with shock as they met the cool gaze of a pair of darkly glittering emeralds. The face they belonged to, while he had not seen it in a while, was all too familiar to the boy, and he struggled to conceal the cold wave of dread that went coursing through his body at the sight of her.
"You…!" he shouted angrily, jumping back and assuming a fighting position.
Vanity regarded him with amusement, a smirk twisting her blood-red lips, one hand on the side of her hip.
"Why, whatever is the matter, dear boy?" she asked, feigning surprise and sadness at his reaction. "Aren’t you pleased to see me again? It’s been a while…"
Genki frowned, glaring at the golden-skinned pixie. He remembered her all too well, and was far from happy at meeting her again. It was clear from the superior, smug expression on Vanity’s face that she understood this perfectly.
"Oh my, you don’t seem pleased at all! I feel so insulted!" she mocked, pretending to wipe away a tear from one of her cheeks.
The movement attracted Genki’s attention, causing him to notice the scar on her right cheek. Vanity caught how his eyes widened a fraction, and grimaced, full ruby lips twisting into a pout.
"Ah, so you noticed," she commented, jaden eyes narrowing as she hissed, "You certainly must know how I got this little ‘beauty mark’, don’t you, boy? The little rabbit or your precious Holly must have told you, didn’t they? I’m sure they must have told your little band all about how they were able to do… this to my beautiful face…"
Naked fury contorted her face into a hideous smile, then abruptly vanished, replaced by a slow, smooth smile.
"Oh, but don’t worry," she went on, a false lightness in her tone. "I’ve found that it doesn’t deter my followers any. They still view me as their lovely golden goddess… each and every last one of them."
The air directly beside her seemed to shimmer, and a new form materialized. Genki felt his eyes widen, and knew from the triumphant smirk on Vanity’s face that his horror showed plainly on his now pale face.
The pixie smiled down at the boy and draped her arm around the newcomer’s back, glittering jaden eyes drinking in the sight of his terror-stricken face.
"Genki, did you find…?" Coltia called, running up out of the caves to join her friend, Scaler and Grey Wolf directly behind her.
All three rebels stopped short, freezing in place as their gazes fell upon the sight of Genki standing in front of a smiling pixie hybrid. They could see clearly the Moo medallion pinned on her fancy-looking outfit, as well as the fact that she was standing directly beside a motionless Suezo, arm hooked around him.
They could also see the same medallion pinned securely on the eyeball monster’s new collar.
Coltia gasped, covering her mouth with both hands and taking a step backward, shaking her head slowly. Grey Wolf looked torn between rage, sympathy, and outright shock at what he was seeing. Scaler, meanwhile, glared at the eyeball monster, fingering a pair of sharp blades under the folds of his cloak.
Suezo gazed back at them emotionlessly, green-gold pupil foggy, not even showing the barest hint of recognition or remorse. Beside him, Vanity laughed mockingly.
"I just thought I should let you know, your former friend is back where he belongs," she informed the rebels, smirking. Dark emerald eyes glinting, she purred, "Don’t worry, I’ll take very good care of him. Besides, at least you know that this way, he won’t share the same fate as you poor fools!"
Scaler’s arm blurred as he whipped it back abruptly, sending the pair of knives he had drawn lancing toward the pair. Before anyone else could react, Suezo leapt in front of the golden pixie and narrowed his eye into a slit.
The blades appeared to halt in midair, then clatter to the ground directly at Vanity’s feet, causing her to laugh again at the stunned rebels.
"It’s not going to be that easy this time," she intoned darkly, fixing them with a piercing glare. "In case you haven’t heard, I’m Master Vanity, the Golden General now. You rebels are all going to pay for what happened before, especially that girl Holly, once I get my hands on her… pity she’s not here. Ah well. I suppose my vengeance will simply have to find other outlets until then…"
She appeared to look directly at Coltia as she said this, and the girl repressed a frightened shudder, shrinking back. Vanity sneered, then tossed her head back, brushing back her blonde hair haughtily.
"Expect to see me again soon. Until then, ta-ta!"
Vanity raised her hand in a short wave, then blew a kiss at Genki as she and Suezo teleported away, leaving the Searchers alone on the ledge.
A heavy silence hung over the four remaining rebels, as they slowly recovered from the shock of what they had just witnessed. Coltia slowly looked around at her companions, trying to make sense of everything. Genki was staring at the space where the general had been standing, clear brown eyes wavering. Grey Wolf bowed his head, a shadow falling over his troubled blue eyes. Scaler had his arms crossed over his chest, violet-brown eyes narrowed, a solemn expression on his face.
"…So now we have a traitor to deal with as well," he intoned darkly.
Genki snapped his head up and whirled to face the cloaked rabbit, eyes bright with tears.
"NO! You’re WRONG! Suezo’s not a traitor; Vanity’s just controlling him! She’s forcing him to do all of this!"
"Doesn’t matter. It amounts to the same thing," Scaler replied, fixing the boy with an icy stare. "Now that he is on Moo’s side, we have to deal with someone who knows our strategies, habits, and base well. Now, it doesn’t matter if we eliminated all of the scouts before: he still has someone who knows the caverns."
"But…but Suezo’s not even that good at teleportation!" blurted Genki, desperate to deny what he knew Scaler was implying.
"He got us here, didn’t he?"
Genki stared at Scaler for a long moment in silence, fully aware of the fact that a pale-faced Coltia and a stunned Grey Wolf were watching. After a while, the youth bowed his head, messy brown bangs falling over and shading his eyes. Grey Wolf shifted, turning away from the sight.
"…I’m going to go let the pack know," the silver-furred lupine said slowly. "We have to be prepared, in case Moo does attempt that sort of attack. I doubt that he could pull it off, since most of the caves are too small, but…"
He strode away, back into the caverns. Scaler glanced over at Genki, then turned his back on the youth as well and followed after the wolf, leaving Coltia alone with the boy. Coltia shifted nervously, wondering what she should do.
Genki seemed unaware of her presence, however. He suddenly dropped to his knees, let out an aggravated shout, and slammed his fist into the hard ground. Startled, Coltia yelped and jumped back, then watched silently as Genki continued to pound the dirt uselessly, fighting back tears.
"Suezo… Tiger…" the boy choked, shaking his head, his bangs still casting his downcast eyes into shadow.
Not knowing what else to do, Coltia dropped to her knees at his side and wrapped her arms around his shaking shoulders. She felt him stiffen at her touch, but did not pull away, instead gently stroking his back with one hand.
"Genki…" she murmured, trying to figure out what she could say to ease his pain.
Words escaped her, save for some half-hearted reassurances that she knew he would likely see through. So, for once, Coltia remained silent, just clinging to Genki and listening to the boy’s anguished cries. It was obvious that he was struggling to contain himself in her presence, not wanting her to think him weak, but she didn’t mind.
"We gotta save them," Genki murmured, shaking his head repeatedly, returning Coltia’s hug with a strong grip of his own. "We’ve gotta find a way…"
Pulsing, pale blue walls surrounded the hulking monster on all sides, giving off a weak cerulean light that cast rippling shadows over his looming body. Waves of light and darkness traced over a thick, firm chest, muscular arms, and hands large enough to crush somebody in their huge palms alone.
His solemn, stoic face, so emotionless it might have been carved upon stone, was tilted upward, and cold eyes the same shade as the moving walls gazed up at seemingly nothing at all. The figure was utterly silent, unmoving, so that it was almost a match for the massive pillar beside it.
This pillar appeared to be constructed of the same strange material as the surrounding chamber’s walls: a gelatinous substance that somehow remained firm enough to stand on its own, solid yet constantly moving and shifting as if correcting minor flaws in its own structure, always strengthening itself.
The strange monster finally stopped staring toward the unseen ceiling, instead shifting its cold gaze to the column directly in front of it. Its shadow-wreathed face was reflected in the pale blue surface: at first, only those horrible blue eyes could be glimpsed, then slowly more of the cold, composed face began to appear…
* * *
Hare sat upright with a start, panting, clutching the blanket that had been covering him tightly with both trembling hands. A few droplets of sweat rolled down his face and off his messy, sleep-tangled bangs, and the young rabbit let out a sigh of frustration.
"…Great. Just great," he moaned, tossing his blanket to one side and swinging his feet off the edge of his bed.
Covering his face with one of his paws, Hare groaned again, softly this time. The last thing he needed was one of the others running in to see what he was making so much noise about… that would cause too many questions, ones he did not feel ready to answer just yet.
Once again, the face of the strange monster that kept appearing in most of his dream-visions lately had eluded him. All he was left with were impressions of certain details – that the stranger was tall, strong, muscular, and had cold, harsh ice blue eyes that managed time and again to pierce through the shadows that always seemed to mask the monster from him.
Hare knew, somehow, that this mysterious monster had to be connected to their quest in some manner. Probably as an enemy – even the thickest of shadows could not conceal the sense of menace he felt washing over him every time he glimpsed him in his nightmares. He was certain he was watching one of Moo’s generals, and yet…
* There’s something else… something about that guy I just can’t place… Why… what is it that I keep sensing…? What… what is it about that stranger, that area… *
* Walls… living, breathing walls that look – feel like jells… and that pillar… That… *
Another moan escaped Hare’s lips, and he brought up his other hand to his face as he felt a dull pain wash over him. A faint pulsing at the back of his mind…
Just a headache, he told himself, fighting back the urge to slump back into bed, pull the cover back over his body, and shut out the world again.
Instead, the tawny-furred rabbit gritted his teeth, waiting until the pounding faded away again, willing it back. He could not afford to keep letting his own problems hold him back… not while the others were working so hard to continue the quest…
Holly’s attempts to locate Golem using the Magic Stone were not going as well as they had first hoped. That first time she had tried it, shortly after her frustrated explosion on the ship’s deck, she had managed to get it to shine silver for a few heartbeats… then it had faded again. Still, that brief flicker had done wonders to rekindle the hope in the girl’s beautiful bronze eyes, and she had assured the others that they were on the right track.
Yet so far, all her pendant had done was point them forward, giving no other indication of how close they were to their goal – to finding their friend. Each time she checked, the silver image would glimmer in the Magic Stone’s surface all too briefly before dying out again… never as strong or bright as Hare remembered the image of the Phoenix being during their first quest, though he kept this observation to himself.
* Is it because our group has changed so much? After all, we all used to gather so closely around Holly when she asked the Magic Stone to point us toward the Phoenix… and since we were – we ARE all connected to the firebird… Mocchi, myself, Suezo, Golem and Tiger… *
Hare winced, screwing his wavering brown eyes shut so that the tears he felt threatening to brim would not come.
* Now… only Mocchi and I are still here… Would it be stronger if Suezo had stayed with us instead of leaving with the others…? *
* …No… no, forget that. Thinking like that… won’t help things any… Besides, Suezo had to go; he’s the only one who could teleport them back… *
* …Never mind that he’s not exactly the best at doing that in the first place… *
Shaking his head, Hare got to his feet. The pounding in his head had lessened, and he wanted to find the others. Maybe if he could talk to Holly… even if he couldn’t tell her all of his suspicions, there was a chance just talking to her might help him work out some sort of plan…
* * *
"…Can’t believe this…of all the stupid, no-good… None of the others have to put up with half the crud I get from him… Righteous Pirate my…"
The Worms sweatdropped and pretended to ignore their human partner’s mutterings, focusing instead of helping clean the floor. The silver-haired boy was obviously in a dark mood, and having been sent to tidy up the lower decks of the ship was not helping…
"…Damned slave driver, that’s what he is… Can’t wait to get off this stupid boat. Let him be the one cleaning this rig up for a change…!"
"What?" the boy snapped, whirling around.
Hare cringed backward in the face of the swordsman’s anger, a rage that faded as Alan realized who it was. The boy blinked, visibly calming, and an almost apologetic look appeared on his face.
"Oh… Sorry ‘bout that, Hare. What’s wrong?"
"Nothing… I was just wondering if you happen to know where Holly and the others are," explained Hare.
"Eh, they’re probably up on deck," Alan replied, turning away again and gripping the handle of his mop tightly. A dark shadow fell over the boy’s glittering sapphire eyes as he muttered, "Lucky them… They don’t have to worry about some stupid eyeball monster yelling at them to get back to work…"
Sweatdropping slightly, Hare decided that the best course of action would be to leave Alan and his Worms in peace and see if the others were outside. As he started to head back up the stairs, the dull throbbing of his headache returned, but he stubbornly forced it out of mind. He had more important things to think about…
Under his kerchief, the Phoenix’s Tear began to glow a little brighter.
* * *
Holly leaned against the smooth wooden railing, bronze eyes shimmering faintly as they gazed out at the seemingly endless expanse of ocean. One hand was cupped gently over the Magic Stone: it felt cool under her palm, a reassuring presence.
"Has there been any change in what the Magic Stone says, Holly?" asked Serinity, looking over at the human maiden.
Holly shook her head slowly, giving the pixie hybrid a gentle smile.
"Not yet," she replied. "I guess that means we’re on the right track, doesn’t it?"
Serinity nodded, and Holly turned her gaze back toward the sea, wishing she were as confident as she tried to sound. After all, the Magic Stone kept telling them to head further and further across the ocean, so they had to be on the right track… right?
As if sensing the girl’s hesitation, Serinity turned away and focused on watching Mocchi and Eboni as the pair chased each other around the deck. Her verdant eyes glimmered with happiness: with everything else that was happening, at least two of the younger Searchers were able to find enough time to relax…
- …Even with so many of their friends being so far away… -
Her smile faltered slightly, but Serinity quickly pushed thoughts of their missing members out of mind and instead looked around for any sign of their other companions. No matter what, she would believe that Genki, Grey Wolf, Scaler, Suezo and Coltia were alright, and that they would someday find one another again.
- That’s right… Just like we’ll find Golem, I’m certain of it… -
Then her leaf green eyes lit up as she noticed a familiar figure standing at the doorway to one of the cabins.
"Oh, good, Hare, you’re awake," she called, getting up and starting over to where the tawny-furred bunny was standing. "Are you feeling better…?"
Holly turned around, mildly surprised to see Hare up and about. A flash of guilt ran through her as she recalled how she had seen him shortly after losing her control for a moment. That brief breakdown had seriously effected him: while he hadn’t exactly retreated back to his small room and hidden there, she had noticed that the young rabbit had avoided her for a short period of time – just until he appeared to assure himself that she was feeling better.
Still, it hurt Holly to think that she had pushed her friends away, even if it was only for a short time. Silently, she promised herself that she would try to avoid such an incident again. She had kept her own doubts and fears hidden away for a long time before; she could do it again now for her friends’ sakes…
She followed Serinity, her face adopting the familiar comforting smile she normally wore when trying to soothe her friends.
"Hare, how are you…?" she inquired.
The tawny-furred bunny glanced over, a bright smile lighting his face as he spotted them walking closer. Turning to face them, he took a step forward, opening his mouth to reply-
-And abruptly froze, brown eyes widening into orbs, one paw clutching at his bandana tightly.
Holly and Serinity stopped short, startled by the expression of stark terror and shock that had suddenly appeared on their friend’s face.
"H-Hare…?" Serinity whispered, verdant eyes filling with confusion and concern.
That was when the tan bunny collapsed, folding over like a dropped rag doll, clutching at his head and sobbing wildly.
Holly was only dimly aware of the fact that she cried out his name as she stumbled over to his side, or of how Serinity, Eboni and Mocchi shouted in shock as well. Crouching next to Hare, she watched in shock as the youngster moaned and shuddered, clutching his bandana in a death grip with one paw while the other clawed at the wall he was slumped against futilely for support.
"Hare! What’s wrong?" she cried, barely able to keep her grasp on the rabbit’s quaking shoulders.
Hare could not reply, moaning and wailing as tears trickled down his pale cheeks. But even if he could have found the words to describe what he was seeing and feeling, it was doubtful that he would have let the human maiden know anyway.
The worried eyes of the other Searchers were locked on his ghostly pale face, so they failed to notice that the pendant he was clutching in a death grip was glowing with a pale saffron light instead of its normal crimson.
They did not share Hare’s ‘gift’ for visions, so they had no clue what was playing out before his widened, horrified brown eyes. They did not realize that Hare’s gasps were all the terrified bunny could choke out of the protests and screams that echoed endlessly in his mind.
They had no way of knowing that miles and miles away, at that very moment, a cruel temptress was renewing her hold over one of her previous victims.
Finally, the furiously burning spark of saffron light in the heart of the Phoenix’s Tear flickered out, fading away completely as the far away struggle ended.
Hare’s shuddering lessened, though tears continued to trickle silently from his eyes as he closed them, breathing raggedly.
"…S…Suezo…" he whispered mournfully.
Gradually, he reopened his eyes to find the other Searchers staring down at him. Holly was supporting his head in her lap, and Hare felt another wave of agony course through him as he met her worried chestnut eyes.
"Hare, what happened?" blurted Eboni, garnet eyes still holding some of the same terror she had felt when she first heard her friend screaming and saw him stumble.
* No…I can’t let them know… I can’t let Holly know…! *
"…No-nothing," he said shortly, pushing away from the others and forcing himself to stand on shaking legs. "…I’m… I’m just not feeling well… ‘s all…"
Hare knew it was a pathetic lie, could see from the surprise and concern on the faces of all of his friends that they knew something much more serious was going on. However, at the moment, as he pushed past them, that did not matter. All that mattered was getting out of sight before the terrible pain clutching at his heart made him burst into tears.
"…Hare… Hare, wait!" Holly called, getting to her feet and following him into the cabin.
Eboni and Mocchi started forward as well, as did Serinity.
However, they did not get the chance to take more than a few steps forward when another problem abruptly presented itself.
A column of water exploded into midair several feet away from the ship, and waves buffeted its sides, sending its passengers sprawling.
Eboni and Mocchi clung desperately to both one another and the railing before them, somehow managing to keep a tight grip on each other’s hand. The dark-furred rabbit strained to pull herself forward, forcing wavering garnet eyes open and scanning the deck.
"Everybody okay?!?" she shouted, cry all but lost in the roar of the tossing waves.
Serinity moaned, pushing herself up against the mast. The pixie hybrid had been thrown backward and slammed into the looming pole when the first of the aftershock hit, and her bruised legs refused to support her trembling body. Soaked orange-red bangs fell in dripping locks over her face, masking the way her verdant eyes fluttered as she fought for consciousness.
A shadow began to spread slowly over the deck, unnoticed for the moment by the disoriented rebels and pirates.
* * *
Holly was in little better condition. The human girl had pitched forward, nearly tumbling down the cabin steps. Thankfully, she had only suffered having her side collide sharply with the doorframe, and was crumpled on her knees, clinging to the frame with both hands, staring down at Hare, who had suffered a similar fate when the waves struck.
"H…Holly… are you a-alright?" he gasped, pushing himself off the floor and throwing her a worried look.
His bandana had slipped, exposing the now violently glowing Phoenix’s Tear, which had afforded him a bit of protection, but the ship had pitched so suddenly that the young bunny had no time to cast even the simplest shield around any of the others.
Holly nodded gingerly, struggling to her feet by leaning against the wall. Reaching down with one hand, she helped Hare stand as well. Outside, she could hear a loud commotion, as others scrambled around on deck to see what was happening. Throwing a glance toward the open door, she gripped Hare’s shoulders tightly.
"Stay here," she instructed, then turned and half ran, half stumbled out to the deck, leaving a very confused and upset Hare crouching in the shadows, slamming the door behind her.
* Does she really expect me to wait here with all that screaming going on outside?!? *
He started forward, then hissed in pain and slumped to his knees, clutching at his forehead as another sharp stab of agony shot through his being. His head was throbbing again, a terrible suffering he knew somehow stemmed from a much darker source than the shouting and panic outside…
* * *
Holly raced out onto the deck and froze in her tracks, chestnut eyes widening with shock as they took in a scene she never would have imagined. At first, she thought that the very waves themselves were rising up and crashing over the wooden floor, only to realize that water could not shape itself and attack the way the slimy blue creatures that flooded the deck were doing. Then she gasped as recognition struck.
"Jells?" she gasped, scarcely able to believe it.
Sure enough, the monsters currently invading the ship were Jell troops, each bearing the symbol of Moo on its translucent chest. However, these warriors were a far cry from the ones she recalled from her early adventures. The blue gel monsters oozed over the deck and attacked their opponents with deadly precision, sliding past the counterattacks with an eerie ease. Those attacks that did strike true seemed to barely effect their adaptable bodies.
As she stood there, temporarily too stunned to react, one of the Jells spun around and spotted her. A terrible sneer twisted his face as he swung his arm back, morphing it into a long whip, and brought it streaking down upon the startled human.
"Holly, look out!"
Eboni slammed into the Jell’s side, knocking it away. Panting, the dark-furred bunny spun to face Holly.
"You okay?" she asked, scarlet eyes wild under her messy bangs. Without waiting for the girl to stammer out an answer, she went on hurriedly, "Mocchi’s using his Blossoms to blow them back into the water, but–"
"The water?" Holly echoed, staring around in shock.
"Yes, the water," Eboni repeated, quirking an eyebrow slightly at the surprise in the girl’s voice as she shot a quick look around. "Where else would they be coming from out here?"
"But…how could they…"
As if in answer to her query, the boat jerked slightly, and Holly turned her head toward the source of the pulling just in time to see four more purebred Jells yank themselves onto the deck. Eboni also saw this, and gritted her teeth in frustration, scarlet eyes burning.
"Oh, great… Mocchi, cover me!" she shouted, and the dark-furred bunny charged toward the new arrivals.
A cloud of pink flower petals surged down to surround the four Jells, and the baddies whipped around in confusion, squinting in an attempt to see through the blizzard. Eboni punched out the first one she came to, knocking it overboard with a splash. Then Mocchi landed beside her, and the two young rebels continued to push their opponents back, struggling to repulse the attack.
They were just two little monsters, however, and there was no way that they could continue to hold the enemy back forever. Thankfully, as Holly scanned the deck, she could tell that most of the pirates had clambered onto the deck to help out in the fight as well, and were also driving the baddies back into the ocean. She even managed to catch a glimpse of Captain Horn standing by the wheel, smashing any Jell who drew too close with his tongue.
However, she could not see where Serinity was.
"Serinity?" she called the pixie’s hybrid’s name, the sound of her voice all but drowned by the battle raging all around her. "Where are you?"
A flash of green light caught her attention, and Holly gasped, then ran toward the source.
* * *
"What are you doing here? Please, keep away!" begged Serinity, tears blurring her leaf-green eyes as she took a few shaky steps backward.
The purebred Jells just sneered at her, twisted grins distorting their faces as they began to close in on what they thought would be easy prey.
They were quickly disabused of that notion when the pixie hybrid pointed glowing fingers toward them and a storm of tiny verdant light streaks arced toward them.
"Get away, get away, get away!" Serinity repeated over and over again, firing her Scattershot technique in time with her frantic chanting.
If the Jells had remained standing and allowed the tiny bolts to strike them, they would have quickly figured out that the attack was not as powerful as it first appeared. She was not putting enough strength behind the blasts to injure, and it would have taken a great deal of the volley hitting the same monster all at once for them to even be stunned by the maneuver.
None of the baddies stuck around long enough to realize that. If nothing else, Serinity’s magic was having its intended effect of merely driving her foes away without seriously harming them.
However, this thought was of little comfort to the pixie.
She had believed – falsely now, she understood – that being out on the ocean provided them some shelter from Moo and his minions. That she and her friends would have time to rest, relax and continue their quest without fear of being besieged by baddies. That they would have a short period, no matter how brief, of relative peace before returning to the journey proper.
The appearance of the Jells had shattered that simple wish into pieces.
- It doesn’t matter where we go… there will always be fighting… suffering… -
The pixie hybrid looked up to see Holly waving at her. Somehow, she found the strength to stumble over to the human maiden. For an instant, they locked gazes, each finding understanding and sadness in the other’s solemn expression.
"…It won’t ever end, will it…?" she murmured, averting her wavering verdant eyes to the planks beneath her feet, unable to glance around at the carnage surrounding them.
Holly gazed around: the jell monsters appeared to be pulling back in full now, some diving into over the edge rather than risking getting knocked overboard later by the pirates and rebels – or being killed. But she knew that the pixie hybrid was referring to much more than this single, short skirmish on the ship.
Eboni and Mocchi shoved back the last of their opponents and fell back to where the two girls were standing. The dark-furred bunny swiped one arm over her sweaty forehead, scarlet eyes flicking around in search of some new threat.
"Okay, so where the heck did they all come from?" she wondered aloud. "I mean, one minute, we’re sailing along, happy as can be, and then BAM!"
It was at that moment that another pillar of water shot up from the churning waves. This time, however, the shockwaves did not buffet the boat as badly, though several of the rebels stumbled as they attempted to keep their balance.
"W-what?" gasped Holly, as she whirled to see the cause.
Bronze eyes widened in shock as they swept up a towering, muscular body, one that appeared almost translucent as the sun’s rays beat down upon it. Sunlight also glinted off of the medallion pinned upon the rippling chest, but no light touched the aquamarine giant’s strangely cold blue eyes…
Eyes that seemed to freeze Holly and her companions in place as they fixed the small group with their piercing glare.
"So… you are… the rebels," he murmured, the faint whisper rumbling like thunder in the cool sea air. His horribly frigid eyes raked over them, and his stoic face darkened as he said, "But I do not see the other one with you. Where is he?"
"Ah…ah…ah," gasped Eboni, the only one able to find her voice at the moment.
The aquamarine giant’s visage darkened further, the cruel eyes narrowing slightly as he straightened, his massive shadow falling over the small band.
"Tell me where the other one is. I am certain you would prefer that to forcing me to take this pathetic little toy apart piece by piece."
"How dare ya call me ship a toy?" fumed Captain Horn, and the pirate leapt toward the towering giant, swinging his tail around to strike the massive chest.
The baddie made no move to avoid the attack, simply gazed down expressionlessly at the blue eyeball monster as he impacted with his chest. Horn bit back a gasp as his tail struck the rippling muscles: while it looked soft like jell, in reality it felt as if he had just kicked a stone wall with full force.
Then, in a surprisingly fast movement, the aquamarine giant swept his hand back and swatted the pirate commander away, sending him crashing back down upon the docks.
"Oh! Captain!" Serinity cried, finding her voice.
"Captain Horn!" Holly shouted at the same time.
The searchers started to run toward their fallen friend, but barely had a chance to take a single step forward before the boat lurched again. As they struggled to keep their balance, Holly whipped around to see that the giant had slammed his fist into the water, causing several waves to batter the ship.
"Where is the bearer of the Phoenix’s Tear?" he repeated in an eerily calm tone, icy eyes glittering faintly as he glared down at her. "I warn you, maiden who wields the Magic Stone, I despise being kept waiting. I know that the little rabbit is still alive somewhere on this ship. That is something I plan to remedy. Tell me where he is."
Holly just stared up at the monster in horror, while Serinity gasped and Eboni and Mocchi assumed fighting poses. Hurriedly, the human girl flicked a quick glance over to where she had told Hare to hide, praying that he wouldn’t come out…
* * *
Hare gasped for breath, still lying against the wall and clasping the furiously glowing Phoenix’s Tear in both paws. His head continued to pound agonizingly, and his eyes were screwed shut because everything was blurring so badly. The little rabbit’s body was still shaking slightly, and his shoulders heaved as he fought back the mournful sobs that threatened to pour out of his silently working mouth.
* Suezo… Suezo’s gone. *
For one instant, he had felt everything as the eyeball monster struggled to hang onto his very soul, as Suezo had fought to keep everything that made him who he was from being ripped away.
He had lost.
Hare had felt the last spark of his friend’s spirit fade away, heard the eyeball monster’s final wail of protest… knew who Suezo’s thoughts had turned to as his spirit flickered and faded, leaving only empty darkness where it had once burned brightly.
Now Hare was left with the knowledge that his friend was lost forever, and he had been unable to do anything other than listen helplessly to his last cries for assistance.
As he clutched his pendant tighter to his aching chest, wishing feverishly that there was some way he could bring back the saffron light that had sparkled briefly in the crystalline teardrop, Hare became vaguely aware of the fact that a new aura was beginning to flicker around it. He could dimly see the soft glow through his closed eyes, and slowly opened them, lifting the Tear and staring at it dully.
A pale, silvery aura sparkled around the Phoenix’s Tear. It was very faint, nearly drowned out by the constant crimson light that surrounded it, but it was still there.
Blinking back tears, Hare forced himself to stand. His legs shook slightly with the effort, and he leaned against the wall for support, still fighting back the urge to just collapse and keep crying.
* Suezo was gone… I can’t help him now. But… but there’s still a chance I can help Golem, if we can only find him in time…! *
His headache increased its pounding; Hare gritted his teeth and lurched forward, up towards the deck. He needed to find a way to help his friends, all of them…!
Pushing the door open, he froze, brown eyes widening as they instantly fell upon a creature out of his nightmares.
* He-he’s…! *
The aquamarine giant appeared just as surprised at seeing the young bunny step out onto the deck as his friends were. The icy blue eyes widened just a fraction, and Hare stared up into the cold surfaces in shock, unable to tear his gaze away as a swirl of images flashed through his mind.
"You… you are…" he heard his own voice whisper.
The towering monster gazed down at him silently, frosty eyes reflecting both mild surprise and amusement. Hare inhaled sharply, as a startlingly clear image of Moo addressing this warrior flooded into his reeling mind, and heard the possessed tyrant say a single phrase.
"…You are Poseidon, the Ocean General," Hare echoed the words softly, glaring up at the aquamarine giant.
Holly gasped, startled by the young rabbit’s abrupt use of the baddie’s name. The other Searchers appeared equally surprised, but the enemy monster’s only reaction was to nod shortly down at Hare.
"Correct," he rumbled, a phantom of what might have been a smile touching his solemn face for a heartbeat. However, the stoic expression was firmly in place as he went on, "You must be the little rabbit that holds the Phoenix’s Tear."
Hare cupped his paws over the Phoenix’s Tear, as a faint crimson aura instantly flared up around his body. At the same moment, he stepped closer to his friends, and the fiery shield spread to surround them.
The aquamarine giant simply continued to gaze down at them, studying the small group of rebels intently.
"If you’re looking for some sort of weakness, baddie, you’re not gonna find one!" Eboni piped up abruptly. Garnet-stone eyes blazing as they reflected the crimson barrier surrounding her and her friends, she glared up at the general and shouted, "So why don’t you just back off! We beat your Jells, and we can beat you too!"
"That’s right, chi!" Mocchi assented.
"Eboni! Mocchi!" whispered Holly, considerably more nervous about the dire situation then the two younger members were making themselves out to be.
Poseidon merely crossed his massive arms over his chest and regarded them with a faintly amused expression. Holly shivered as the giant’s frigid gaze drifted over her and her friends again.
"…Children," he muttered, shaking his head slightly. "Mere children. A couple of bunnies, some pink whelp, a human maiden, and a fragile flower of a pixie… no wonder you were left behind when the rest went to fight against the master."
Eboni stiffened, looking outraged by his comment, while Mocchi frowned. Holly stared up at the monster in silent horror, as did Serinity.
"…Still, I can see you have spirit," Poseidon went on slowly. "If you were as weak as you look, you would have attempted to flee the moment I first attacked. The fact that you chose to remain and fight back… speaks volumes about you."
He paused, then abruptly turned away, much to the amazement of everyone on the ship. He began to stride off slowly, the sea rippling gently around his moving body.
"Hey, where are you going?!?" Eboni called, taken aback.
The aquamarine giant glanced back at them, and Hare inhaled sharply: the position the baddie was in was familiar in a way he didn’t want to consider.
"You fought my troops off and forced them into retreat. I lost this time," came the simple reply.
The Searchers stared at the baddie, stunned. Poseidon merely shook his head, cold eyes glittering as they met and locked with Hare’s once again.
"This is far from over. I expect that you will make plans for my return… I look forward to what defenses you will come up with. You are the first in a long time to actually resist me in my own domain… I trust you will make our next meeting worth the wait."
With that, a column of water shot up around the aquamarine giant, hiding his towering figure completely from view. When it receded, the ocean general had vanished, leaving those on the ship to stare at where he had been in silent awe.
"…What was the deal with him?" Eboni inquired after a long pause, turning curious scarlet eyes toward the others.
"Weird, chi," Mocchi said slowly.
Eboni nodded her agreement, biting the inside of her lip slightly.
"I don’t understand…" murmured Serinity, wrapping her leaf-like wings tightly around her shoulders and shivering. "What he said… ‘the first to actually resist him’? How… how many others has he…"
Holly shuddered as well, struggling to shake off the chill that Poseidon’s icy stare had sent through her.
"Hare, how did you know what his name was," Holly asked gently, turning concerned bronze eyes on the tawny-furred rabbit.
"…Hare…?" Holly repeated slowly.
Hare did not reply, merely slumping to his knees where he stood. The other Searchers cried out in alarm: he did not hear their frantic shouts. The young bunny’s wavering brown eyes were focused upon the crystalline teardrop still grasped tightly in his trembling paws.
The instant that Poseidon had vanished under the waves, the small glimmer of silver light in the Phoenix’s Tear had ebbed away.
With it had gone Hare’s one remaining hope that he would be able to do anything to help his friends. As he slumped to the deck, no longer even trying to remain conscious, a single, final sigh cut through his thoughts.
* …Hopeless… *
"I see that your plan went perfectly."
"Of course, Master Moo," replied Vanity, bowing toward where the tyrant sat upon his throne. Raising her head just enough to see him through a veil of her own dark blonde bangs, she smiled cunningly and added, "After all, I merely followed along with your brilliant game."
"Yes, and now you have brought me another pawn to move exactly as I wish," he said, casting a glance toward the golden general’s single escort.
Vanity’s ruby lips twisted again into a knowing smirk, and she straightened, laying one slender arm possessively over her guard’s side. The eyeball monster failed to react to the soft brush of her fingers running up and down the back of his tail, staring straight ahead into the shadows with his glassy, green-gold pupil.
The possessed monster once known as Tiger of the Wind gazed at his former ally’s emotionless face, unaffected by Suezo’s lack of response. Golden and crimson eyes gleamed together, as the visible corner of the titan’s mouth curled into a slow, savage smile, briefly exposing jagged fangs.
"I’ve toyed with them long enough," he announced abruptly. "Every game must eventually come to an end, and those wolves no longer afford me as much amusement with their pitiful struggles. It’s time that I reveal a bit more of my hand… and force them to realize that all along, there was only one possible outcome."
"Of course," cooed Vanity, nodding her agreement, watching her master with thoughtful jaden slits, a cold smile on her pretty face. "Simply tell me what role you wish me to play, and I shall fulfill it."
A dry chuckle rumbled from the tyrant, and he continued to gaze admiringly at his golden general, a shadow veiling his beastly grin.
* * *
Clear brown eyes shone with withheld tears as they gazed down upon the small object cradled carefully in their owner’s hands. A single, beautiful feather of scarlet and gold seemed to glitter with its own inner light, yet one that appeared dimmer than normal to the young boy who held it so gently.
Genki’s unruly dark brown hair fell in messy bangs over his forehead, casting shadows over his face. His expression was unusually solemn as he turned the glimmering feather over and over in his hands. A torrent of emotions tore at the boy: thoughts and feelings, memories of happier times that suddenly turned against him, warped by more recent events.
In his mind’s eye, he saw himself leading his friends along on their quest for the Phoenix, laughing and cheering as he raced along the path… then abruptly, he turned to find no one else was following anymore, and he was staring into an endless expanse of darkness.
He saw, for a moment, Golem looking down upon him and smiling… then he was gone, replaced by an obviously distraught Serinity shaking her head and telling him that she had no idea where the stone giant was.
"No… He wasn’t here when we were… reawakened… and I haven’t seen him at all since… I hope he is okay…"
There were Tiger and Hare, quarreling, the young rabbit teasing the blue wolf about something or other… and then suddenly he was back at the fortress, and Hare was sprawled at the possessed Tiger’s feet while the lupine laughed wickedly, blood dripping from his horns.
"I’ve done it! The wielder of the Phoenix’s Tear is dying! Nothing can stand in my way now!"
Suezo was hopping alongside Holly, glancing around protectively, green-gold eye filled with his devotion and love for his partner… and that spark faded out of existence as the girl vanished, replaced with a golden-skinned Vanity who draped her arms possessively around the entranced eyeball monster and smiled cunningly at Genki.
"…Your former friend is back where he belongs… Don’t worry, I’ll take very good care of him…"
Genki gritted his teeth, fingers beginning to tighten around the scarlet-gold feather still cradled in his palms. For a moment, he saw Mocchi staring up at him, face beaming with pride… then that happiness was replaced with shock, sadness, an expression of hurt and betrayal as the boy’s own words rang in his ears…
"No, Mocchi… you can’t come along this time…"
"…All of my old friends are gone, or far away from here…" he muttered, bangs concealing the upper half of his face as he bowed his head. "…Hare’s hurt, Holly’s looking after him in that empty town, Mocchi’s protecting them, Golem’s missing, and Tiger and Suezo…"
His grip on the fiery feather tightened a little more; the scarlet-gold feather felt warm to the touch. However, it was a very faint warmth, almost unnoticeable. Suddenly, with a frustrated cry, he leapt to his feet and threw it to the ground.
"No way! There is no way I’m going to let it end like this! There’s gotta be a way to save Tiger and Suezo, and I’m going to find it!"
He stared down at the faintly glittering feather at his feet, then bent down, picked it up, and placed it back in his backpack. Whirling on his heel, the boy then fell backwards and stared up at the ceiling without really seeing it.
"There’s got to be a way…" he repeated, eyes slowly beginning to close from exhaustion. "There has to be…"
His eyes closed, but it would be a long, restless night for Genki Sakura.
* * *
Scaler studied the edge of the blade he was working on with an expert eye, judging whether or not his sharpening of the knife had proved sufficient yet.
One of the difficulties of fighting with edged weapons was that the cloaked rabbit had to be extremely diligent about keeping every last one honed and at the ready. After all, on the battlefield, every last detail counted. Fighting with duller or weakened blades was an open invitation to disaster.
Also, despite his efforts to always immediately collect his thrown blades during or after a conflict, Scaler still ended up losing a few now and then for various reasons. Sometimes they were lodged in a lost disc’s roots so tightly that he could not dislodge it, or part snapped off in the attempt, rendering it useless. Sometimes it simply got out of sight, and he failed to track it down later.
Then, of course, there were the ones he had given Genki and Coltia…
It was not a gesture of kindness or compassion rather than one of practicality. Being human, neither could call upon special techniques the way that Grey Wolf could use Lightning or the absent Serinity her healing magic. They possessed no built-in protection, like the armor plating that Alan’s two Worm monsters had. This made them more vulnerable, easy targets for any of Moo’s warriors.
In Scaler’s eyes, any casualty that the tyrant’s followers managed to inflict on the defenders, however small, was another little victory in Moo’s favor. While he did not have much emotional attachment to his traveling companions, he was content in knowing that arming them gave the pair of humans a slightly better chance for survival. The rest was up to them…
Then, too, there was the fact that they happened to be friends of Hare…
Scaler’s violet-brown eyes narrowed, a shadow falling over his face.
- Suezo happened to be one of Hare’s friends as well… but that will not save him now… -
Another simple conclusion to make. Suezo had been a member of the rebels, but now he was working for the enemy, and that made him a traitor. No matter what Genki or the other rebels insisted, the eyeball monster was now nothing more than another enemy soldier, an opponent, a ‘baddie’, as they tended to call those who followed Moo.
Scaler finished honing the edge of the knife and held it up in front of his face, the shining blade reflecting his cold violet-brown eyes.
To him, Suezo was just another target if he came within range.
* * *
Saffron paced back and forth, long tail swishing behind her restlessly. A gentle rain was falling, and it was beginning to soak through her thick pink-and-yellow fur, only adding to her discomfort and frustration. The female Daton snarled softly under her breath, sapphire eyes gleaming with pent-up agitation.
"See anything yet, Toge?" she growled, resisting the urge to shout and risk giving away their position.
"No, Saff," came the not altogether unexpected reply.
"Urrrgh! I can’t believe this! We know they’re going to attack, so why the hell is it taking so long?!? I really need to fry some baddies before I go insane!"
"Maybe that’s the whole point," Toge replied with a weak chuckle.
Saffron shot the Datonare a dirty look, then whirled around, turning her back sharply on her companion. Toge sweatdropped, and sighed as he went back to making his own rounds, focusing on the sky once more.
…The worst part about it is, he’s probably right, the female wolf silently admitted to herself. Ever since that one rebel was captured, the whole pack’s been on edge…
- …Was he captured or did he deliberately turn against us…? -
That deceptively simple question had been plaguing Saffron, along with most of her friends and family, for the past several days. There were fierce debates on each side – and sides had been formed, much to Grey Wolf’s growing concern – and certain lines had been drawn. It had gotten to the point where Saffron herself didn’t know what to believe: there were so many conflicting rumors and speculations.
It certainly didn’t help that Grey Wolf and the other Searchers were mostly keeping their thoughts on the situation to themselves. The only one who had really said anything was Genki. The clear-eyed human boy was extremely vocal in his stubborn insistence of Suezo’s innocence.
But was that because the eyeball monster really was being manipulated, or simply because Genki refused to accept any suggestions otherwise…?
Saffron could not be certain. Neither could any of the other pack members, a fact that was slowly taking them apart by the seams. Everybody was walking the razor edge of a knife, waiting for Moo to make his next move… for they all knew the tyrant would attack soon. It was only a matter of time…
"Saff… Saff! Over here, quickly!"
The female Daton turned and rushed to her friend’s side immediately. She barely took time to glance at his concerned expression, instead following his rigid line of gaze into the distance.
For a few heartbeats, all she could see through the gradually intensifying curtain of rain were rolling storm clouds and the darkening sky. Saffron half-turned her head to level a cool glare at her companion, a sarcastic remark about the worsening weather on the tip of her tongue, when she became aware of it: a tiny speck of movement, a slightly darker spot than the rest of the canyon.
As she watched, narrowing her eyes and straining to make out more details, the Daton felt a shiver run down her back that was not caused by the cold rain pelting her fur.
"…Saff…" Toge whined beside her, though his pale yellow eyes remained fixed on the horizon.
"Quiet," she growled sharply, and the Datonare fell silent.
She never tore her gaze away from the horizon, even while she snapped at her friend. As the specks of movement broadened into a dark cloud moving along the ground, drawing closer enough for her to see the first of the warriors charging toward her home, Saffron took a few shaky steps backward. Toge noticed this, and hastily backed up alongside her, sparing the female lupine a frightened glance.
"…Looks like you just got your wish," he observed, in a curious, dead tone that she might have found funny in any other circumstance.
Suddenly, both whirled and took off in a dead run toward the heart of the canyon, howling an alarm as they bolted back to inform the others. Behind them, the ominous rumble of thousands of feet pounding over rock and stone was punctuated for an instant by a crash of thunder.
* * *
As alarmed cries and battle howls began to echo through the caverns, a slender figure materialized just above one of the main entrances to the cave and landed there in a single, fluid movement. For a moment, the feminine monster stood poised perfectly, arms spread wide almost in welcome of the hordes she knew would soon pour onto the rocky field of battle. Her head was thrown up, eyes closed, an ecstatic expression on her porcelain face.
Then Vanity turned slightly and gazed toward the darkening horizon, eyes narrowed jaden slits that sparkled and gleamed brighter than the jagged lightning that was already beginning to lance down from the heavens.
"Look, my master, can you not see it?" she exulted, arms still spread wide. "Even the very elements bow to your will! This must be your doing, all of it! Soon, the whelps will know the price of defiance!"
She laughed, but trailed off quickly as the battle howls became louder. Arms dropping back to her sides, she crouched in the shadows above the opening and watched as the first of the defenders tore out to meet the newest wave of Moo’s warriors. A sly smirk spread over full ruby lips, and the golden general continued to watch in silence, waiting for the perfect movement to give her signal…
* * *
"Let’s rip it up!" shouted Genki as he charged forward.
Scaler and Grey Wolf had already long since vanished into the heart of the fray by the time the human boy got to the mouth of the cave. He paused there long enough to yank his skates on, although he was forced to move out of the way of the wolves behind him. Tightening the straps a little more, Genki stood up and was about to shout another battle cry before plunging headfirst into the fray…
…When a flicker of movement half-glimpsed just out of the corner of one eye caused him to whirl around in shock.
Nothing was there. The boy hesitated, uncertain: for an instant, he could have sworn that he had glimpsed a familiar figure, a smirking face…
A flash of yellow skin caught his attention, and this time Genki whirled around just in time to see a ghostly afterimage of the eyeball monster a few feet away, standing on a slightly higher section of the ridge.
"Suezo--!" Genki called out, running over as the wispy image faded away completely.
An amused giggle came from directly above the boy, and he whipped his head up sharply, squinting through the curtains of rain in a futile attempt to see its source. But even without the confirmation of his sight he knew exactly who it was.
"Vanity," he growled through gritted teeth, clear brown eyes blazing.
Again the mocking giggle echoed around him, and Genki spun around, fists raised and ready.
"Here… come here…" a female voice cooed from above him. "You want to see your friend again, don’t you?"
"Coward!" Genki screamed into the rain, climbing up after the voice as it trailed into laughter. "I’ll get you…"
"Will you now? Well, then, come on, little boy. See… I’m over here… Come on… Up here…"
Genki scrabbled up the cliff side, clawing for ridges and footholds where the path narrowed slightly. He couldn’t see clearly enough to climb easily, blinded by both the rain that struck his reddened face and the white-hot anger surging through his mind. Yet that stubborn fury also drove him on, and soon the haze cleared enough to enable the boy to see where he was.
Vanity stood several feet before him, arms relaxed at her sides. A haughty smirk tugged at the edge of her crimson lips, and dark emerald eyes gleamed as they swept over the panting boy’s figure.
"I knew you would come," she told him. "I suppose I should pretend to be impressed with your dedication to your comrades… At least, it serves me well enough."
Genki glared at the golden-skinned pixie, clear eyes startlingly cold. The general merely smiled at this.
"You want to see your dear friend Suezo?" she inquired, anticipating the boy’s demand before he could open his mouth to make it. "Fine then. Suezo? Come out and play."
A flash of lightning illuminated the pixie’s face as she sneered this command, and at the same instant, Genki darted forward, barely avoiding the eyeball monster as he appeared directly above where the boy had been standing. Suezo’s glassy pupil glowed white-gold for an instant, and a blast of light seared the ground.
Vanity’s cold laughter filled the air even as she sprung nimbly out of Genki’s way, avoiding his swinging fists with a single graceful twist. She pirouetted once in midair, just out of the fuming boy’s reach, and landed lightly on her feet some distance away.
"Have fun, you two," she taunted, jaden eyes glittering with amusement and malice. "Enjoy your little reunion while it lasts…"
"You--!" Genki shouted, spinning to face her.
Then Suezo’s tail impacted the back of his skull, pitching his body forward and causing Genki to get a mouthful of rocks and mud. Spitting and coughing, he pushed himself up, vaguely aware of the taste of blood in his mouth as well.
Instinctively, he rolled to one side, and this saved him from getting slammed in the head a second time by the eyeball monster’s attack. Genki kept rolling until he could get his feet underneath him, then pushed himself back up. He remained in a half-crouching position, one hand still on the ground, and stared at his opponent.
Suezo stood silently between the boy and the golden general, gazing at him with his glassy, green-gold eye. There was no sign of the sarcastic, annoying but loyal friend Genki had known – no sign of life at all. Like staring into the dead eyes of a corpse…
Behind Suezo, Vanity continued to laugh mockingly at him, dark emerald eyes gleaming with malicious glee.
"Oh, Genki, Suezo’s been so anxious to see you!" she chuckled, a pleased smile on her face. "Suezo, why don’t you show him more of the new tricks I’ve taught you?"
The eyeball monster inclined his head slightly in what might have been a nod, but Genki could not be certain. All he knew was that Suezo’s pupil suddenly began to glow with gold-white light again, and suddenly a beam of energy shot forward, directly at the boy’s chest.
"Whoa!" he cried out involuntarily, leaping to one side.
However, he wasn’t quite fast enough, and winced as the blast of energy seared over his shoulder. While it didn’t touch him itself, the sheer heat it radiated caused a nasty burn to almost immediately form on his exposed skin. Genki hissed in pain, grabbing his wounded shoulder with his other hand, and turned wide, horrified eyes toward Suezo.
- He…he figured out how to do that? He was struggling just to get Teleport to work…! -
Vanity smiled at the boy’s shocked expression, and swept her hand up once in a signal to her slave. The eyeball monster’s face remained impassive as he charged another blast…
* * *
Chishi grimaced as he scanned the chaos before him, dark golden eyes shining with rage and a deep sorrow. Anguished yelps and howls tore through the air, as blood continued to stain the ground, mixing with the mud that was quickly being created by the pounding sheets of rain. The cold water was already beginning to soak through his violet fur even as he stood at the edge of the caves, still staring outside…
"Chishi," murmured a soft voice behind him, somehow penetrating even the horrible uproar coming from the battlefield.
"Yuri," he answered simply, solemnly, not even glancing back at the female Cabalos.
She stepped up beside him, rubbed her face against his side, as mists from the torrential rain moistened their fur.
"…This battle is lost."
"There is no possible way that we can stay here any longer."
She continued to nuzzle him, bringing her face up beside his. Chishi turned to face her, their gazes locking.
"You know what you have to do now," he said sternly, searching her face.
"I know," she replied, returning his gaze steadily, voice keeping its calm, collected tone.
Only he could hear the undercurrent of resignation in her voice, the ever-so-slight catch in her words. Only he could see the silent pleading in her deep golden yellow eyes, the sadness she struggled to keep masked… the farewell.
He leaned forward and rubbed his head against her neck, and she buried her nose in his thick mane. He felt a single drop of moisture hit his fur, one that did not come from the pounding rain outside.
Yuri pulled away first: Chishi knew better than to move before she did. To do so would have only undermined their resolve to follow through on this decision: it had to be her choice to move on. If he had moved first, it would only caused Yuri more pain. Neither could risk her deciding not to continue with what they had planned long ago.
"Go," he instructed her softly, both an order given as her leader and a request.
Yuri nodded, then turned away and swiftly ran down the corridor, deeper into the caverns, off to fulfil her role. Chishi gazed after her retreating figure, then turned back toward the entrance of the cave, ready to act his own part. In a blur of violet, he was bounding out into the fray.
* * *
"Is everything alright, Colt?"
Coltia knelt beside the shivering Daton cub and swept him into her arms, wishing she could just hold all of the pups huddled around her and make the whole world right again.
"I don’t know," she murmured truthfully, squeezing her shimmering tan eyes as she tightened her grip. "I just don’t know…"
The other young wolves milled around the cavern anxiously, all impatient to hear news from the battlefield. Those who had stayed behind to watch over them – and protect them, should the main fighters fail to do so – struggled with the same problem, though some were far more vocal about their impatience than others.
"We should be out there fighting too," Saffron muttered under her breath to Toge, struggling to keep her voice low enough that the pups scattered around her would not overhear. "I can’t stand this waiting…"
"This is what Grey Wolf assigned us to do, though," replied the Datonare, though his expression spoke volumes about his agreement with her.
"Waiting, waiting, waiting. I am freaking SICK of waiting!"
Toge shot her an alarmed look, and nudged the Daton sharply in the side while glancing around nervously at the others gathered there.
"Saff! Not in front of the children!"
He cringed at the dark glare she gave him, and waited for the violent rebuff he knew was coming next.
However, before the Daton could take her first swing, a flurry of movement at the cavern’s primary entrance arrested the attention of both, as well as everyone else gathered there. All sets of eyes turned to fix upon a single female Cabalos standing there, fixing them all with a piercing stare in return.
"What…what’s going on?" Coltia asked, standing up with the young Daton pup still cradled in her arms.
Yuri regarded the human girl with dark gold-yellow eyes, taking a second to swiftly reaffirm her self-control. Straightening her pose, she assumed all the dignity and poise that she used all the time as Chishi’s second-in-command.
"Our defenses are failing," she reported curtly, ignoring as best she could the collective gasp and murmuring that instantly arose from those gathered before her. "At this time, I have been ordered to oversee your retreat and continued safety. We will be heading off at once. Everyone move!"
"…N…no…" breathed Coltia, hugging the now sobbing Daton cub to her chest.
In a daze, she heard the younger wolves howling and crying around her, seeming to rise into a collective wail of despair. A few voices cut sharply through the clamor: the fighters assigned to protect the cubs, ones who did not add their own curses and snarls to the uproar, but instead struggled to carry the hefty burden that had just been thrown onto their shoulders.
Through it all, Yuri continued to bark out orders, directing the small pack toward the back of the cavern. There were several passageways there that would lead to outside the canyons… Hopefully, Moo was not aware of their presence. Yuri was all too aware of the fact that only luck and skill would keep them alive… and that they would be extremely fortunate if any of those still battling to buy them time to escape managed to join them later.
The female Cabalos kept her face rigid, composed, refusing to let it betray any emotion she felt at the moment. Later, if they survived this, she could find time to weep over the loss. But not now… Not now…
* * *
The boy’s body skidded backward, skin grating against gritty sand and rock, coming to a halt barely a few feet away from the cliff’s edge. His assailant’s green-gold pupil glittered faintly as he steadily approached his prey.
Vanity snickered, thoroughly enjoying the show her slave was giving her.
"You see, my dear boy?" she sneered at the human sprawled out before her. "This is one of the benefits your former friend enjoys while working for me. No eyeball monster possesses enough intelligence to use their potentially most deadly attacks on a high enough level to be truly effective. However, once they have accepted their subservience to me, I can sharpen those powers and enable them to use them properly. …Of course, it only works as long as they remain under my control, but it’s not as if anyone has ever wished to stop serving me…"
She went into another bout of mocking laughter, one slender hand half-covering the side of her smirking mouth.
Clear brown eyes glared at the golden pixie in utter loathing. Genki ground his teeth together as he fought to rise, propping himself up slightly on one arm. The back of his hand rubbed over his mouth, wiping away a trace of blood.
His other hand, which appeared to be lying limply beside him, moved ever so slowly, fingers brushing lightly against the dagger Scaler had given him. He touched its carved handle gently, then tightened his grasp slightly, began to draw it out of its sheath…
The air before him blurred and then suddenly Suezo was directly over the boy, staring down at him with that same emotionless expression. Genki let out a pained choke: it felt as if a giant invisible fist was tightening around his already bruised ribcage.
But he would not scream. He did not want to indulge Vanity’s sadistic desires any more than his suffering already had.
The golden general was still laughing, sounding somehow even more taunting, more hateful. Through a haze of pain, he heard her hiss something that sounded like a threat, but couldn’t understand the soft snarl.
Then the pressure around his body seemed to explode, propelling him backward, sending him spinning end over end. Everything was rushing past him: the wind, the cliff side, the endlessly cloudy sky, the rain…
Another explosion of pain as his back struck something hard, and then darkness robbed him of all his senses, which was a blessing.
* * *
Grey Wolf cursed as he edged backwards, horns blazing with ice blue electricity. The dark-scaled saurians sneered as they closed their circle around the silver-furred lupine, certain they finally had him cornered. The bloodthirsty grins froze, then contorted as he unleashed his lightning upon them.
Panting for breath, Grey Wolf felt his legs start to slip out from underneath him, and hastily forced them to straighten out again. He needed to keep fighting… his friends, his pack, his home depended on his ability to keep himself alive… But he was tired… so tired…
Something plummeted to the ground mere inches away from the silver wolf, nearly landing directly on top of him. Grey Wolf barely managed to dodge out of the way, and whirled to face it, snarling as he attempted to summon another torpedo attack.
Then ice blue eyes widened in comprehension and shock as the wolf realized just what he was staring at.
The boy’s body lay motionless where it had landed, and for one horrifying moment, Grey Wolf thought that the impact had killed Genki – if whatever had caused the human’s numerous wounds hadn’t.
Then he saw Genki’s chest rise and fall unsteadily, and a faint moan passed the child’s lips, accompanied by a thin trickle of blood. The boy stirred, gritting his teeth, attempting to push himself up, and for a moment it seemed as if his willpower alone would be enough to let him stand.
In the end, however, it was painfully obvious that his sheer willpower was taxed enough simply keeping him alive.
With a pained, choked gasp, Genki slumped back to the ground, and suddenly whatever paralysis that had held Grey Wolf in its clutches shattered. The lupine monster stumbled forward, pushing at the boy with his muzzle, urging him to rise.
"Genki, what happened?" he exclaimed, though he had a sinking suspicion that he already knew.
The boy took another shuddering breath, gazing dully at the sky and the cliffs ranging above them.
"…F-found…Suezo…" he managed to rasp out.
It was a shabby explanation, but all he could force out of his burning lungs. He wanted to say more, to blurt out everything he had seen and heard, to tell his friend exactly what had happened, but his lips refused to form the words.
Still, Grey Wolf appeared to understand. A whirlwind of emotions flashed through his pale eyes, then finally settled upon a chilling mixture of determination, frustration and outrage.
"Come on," he snarled, forcing his head under one of Genki’s arms. "We have to retreat."
"N-no…I…" hissed Genki through gritted teeth even as he clung to the wolf’s matted silver pelt for support.
His legs betrayed him, buckling beneath the boy and forcing him to grip his friend’s fur all the harder. Some corner of his mind dully observed that the silvery fur did not bear its normal sheen. It was too matted with blood, sweat and rain to shine.
"Let’s go," Grey Wolf growled, and lurched forward clumsily toward the caverns.
A blur of tan and green landed on Genki’s other side, and Scaler was suddenly helping to support the boy, one arm latching tightly around his waist.
"There’s no time," he spat when both shot him a quizzical glance. "We can’t accomplish anything more here. We have to retreat."
Grey Wolf gave the scaled hare a pained look, emotions warring in his pale blue eyes. For a moment, violet-brown eyes rested on the silver lupine’s grim expression, and Scaler shook his head once, firmly. The wolf’s hesitation faded, replaced by an angry, frustrated snarl, and the three limped off, melting into the shadows, away from the raging battle.
The only recourse left was survival. For now, hanging onto their lives and escaping was the only way they could defy Moo.
* * *
A weak, sapphire-tinted thunderbolt lanced through the air, and Chishi grunted as pain racked his body. He sensed that had been his last Lightning attack: he simply did not have enough energy to change another blast.
The once-proud leader of a deadly pack of Cabalos was now barely able to stand on trembling, bruised legs. Blood, sweat and rain soaked his violet fur, and gashes marked the body hidden beneath the tangled mass. He limped forward a few steps, then fell among the rocks, no longer able to even pull himself forward.
Dull yellow-gold eyes swept over his surroundings: jagged rocks, lost discs scattered everywhere. No sign of anyone: no ally that might run uselessly to his aid, no enemy that might come and end his suffering for him.
The canyon had fallen. The aid he and his kin had offered their master Grey Wolf had not mattered in the end.
Chishi had never shed a tear in his life. From birth, he had been trained as a fighter, a warrior: first by his tournament-loving breeder, later by Moo and Master Grey Wolf. Emotions had been a weakness, and though he had later learned to at least express things like love and loyalty to his pack, crying was simply something he never did.
So the drop of liquid that rolled down his cheek now must have simply been caused by the pouring rain, or perhaps the gash just above his left horn.
As the light in his golden eyes began to dim, Chishi silently asked whatever gods that had not turned their backs on the plight of his kind to watch over those who had somehow managed to escape from the final assault… and to ensure that Yuri was with them.
As his battered body begin to glow with the sullen radiance that preceded death, it was no longer possible to tell what color his bloodstained fur had once been. In the last moment of his life, the factor that separated him from most of his kind no longer mattered.
* * *
A pair of clashing eyes swept over the remnants of the caverns. Moo’s arms were crossed firmly over his armored chest, and he gazed serenely at the destruction before him.
All of the wolves had been killed, captured, or somehow managed to escape the nightmare at the moment. It did not matter much to the tyrant that some had slipped through his grasp. He knew it was only temporary.
Now, the only monsters that roamed the canyon were his soldiers and warriors. They were currently casing the area for any sign of survivors, for any clue of where those who had fled had gone. Those who they had discovered were already being herded back as prisoners, to await either death or enslavement at Moo’s hands.
The wolves had waited so long for their struggle to end, and now, finally, it had come for so many of them.
All was as he had known it would be.
"Master Moo, the area is secure," the Weed reported, coming up slowly behind him.
"I can see that clearly," replied the tyrant smoothly, eyes glowing faintly as he turned to glance at his lackey. "There is no need for you to tell me of the victory."
The purple plant cringed, paling as he swiftly backed away.
"W-well then, I-I suppose I h-had better… check on the incoming prisoners…"
"Yes. You had better."
The Weed gulped and scampered away, but the titan was not alone for long. A pair of familiar figures materialized behind the possessed monster, and while he did not turn to face them, Moo knew exactly who they were.
"You performed wonderfully out there, Vanity," he commented, still gazing out at the destruction.
"Thank you, Master Moo," cooed the golden general, bowing. A cunning smirk twisted her ruby lips, and jaden eyes gleamed with thinly veiled malice as she added, "Of course, the foolish human boy was easy to defeat. It was rather pathetic, really: he couldn’t even face a worthless suezo one-on-one…"
"Not when the worthless suezo was a former friend of his. But then, the brat always did allow his emotions to control him. It was only natural that weakness would lead to his eventual downfall."
Moo paused, then raised his head slightly, focusing upon the reflection of Vanity and Suezo in the window before him.
"So, then… what do you plan to do with him now?" he inquired in an offhanded, detached tone. "Will you kill him, or…"
"Oh, I think I’ll let him stick around a bit longer," came the reply. Vanity leaned over and ran her slender fingers across the silent, unresponsive eyeball monster’s forehead as she continued, "I still have some uses left for this one… Some big plans, indeed…"
She laughed, coldly, mockingly, while Suezo continued to stare mindlessly ahead. A cruel smirk twisted the visible side of Moo’s face, distorting his scar, yet the titan still did not turn to directly face his golden general or her servant.
"You always have been a resourceful one," he remarked. "We shall remain here for the time being, however, and see if there is any more… cleaning up… we have to do in this area. After all, with my former general of the nearby controlled region gone… you will have to expand your own territory a bit."
"As you wish, my master…"
* * *
Far away, on a small pirate ship somewhere on the ocean, a tawny-furred rabbit huddled in a corner grasping a brightly glowing pendant tightly in both trembling paws and mourned the fall, silent tears streaking his pale face.
* Lost. They lost… *
A cold shudder ran through the young rabbit’s body, and he pressed his knees tighter to his chest, trying to curl up into a tiny little ball and shut out everything. An impossible task, he knew, but one he still wished he could accomplish.
* …But I can’t ignore the world no matter how hard I try… This… this stupid thing won’t let me… *
He opened his tear-blurred brown eyes slightly and glared down at the shining crystalline teardrop around his neck. His paws were cupped over the Phoenix’s Tear, and for a moment he considered tearing the damned thing off and throwing it across the room. It wouldn’t solve anything… but at least it would stop glittering so brightly for a while, remaining dim and lifeless until he finally broke down and retrieved it…
Sighing, Hare tucked the pendant back under his kerchief, then let his arms drop limply to his sides.
* What’s the use of doing anything…? Won’t change what happened… Nothing will… *
He tipped his head back, staring up at the ceiling without really seeing it. Instead, his thoughts replayed the horrific scenes of massacre that had flashed through his mind earlier, the same ones that had driven the rabbit from his bed and sent him stumbling blindly through the chamber, crying and sobbing helplessly as he attempted to shut them out, do something, anything…
But there had been nothing he could do. There was no way to help his friends or the wolves fighting so valiantly to protect their home. No way to stop the enemy forces from pressing forward. He had been reduced to a spectator, watching the struggle from afar, unable to help… all of the powers granted to him by the Phoenix’s Tear completely useless.
For a second, a bitter smirk twisted his lips.
* The same power Naga coveted and wanted to control so badly… worthless. Completely and utterly worthless. So much for endless power… *
Losing the ironic smirk, Hare sighed and absently brushed his bangs away from his eyes, letting his head drop back down to his chest. His gaze drifted over to the closed door. Luckily for him, none of the others appeared to have overheard his reaction to the visions flooding his mind: if anyone had, he was certain they would have rushed in by now to see what was going on.
* But they’ll be sure to miss me if they don’t see me around… I can’t stay hiding in here forever… *
* …No matter how much I feel like it… *
Hare slowly stood up, grimacing as he felt his legs tremble slightly. They didn’t want to support his weight, much in the same way that he didn’t really feel like going anywhere or doing much of anything. Still, he couldn’t let the others suspect anything was wrong – couldn’t let them learn what he had found out.
Taking a deep breath, Hare practiced a small smile, attempting to call back the mask of happiness he typically used to keep the others from knowing his true feelings. The fake expression felt forced and uncomfortable to him, even more so than normal. He dropped it, frowning: he had enough difficulty lying to his friends after they’d found out his big secret about the Phoenix’s Tear and that he was a child rather than an adult. Now, with what he was trying to hide behind it, it felt even more alien and strained.
* If Tiger was here, he’d see right through it in no time and have a blast ragging on me about it… *
Blinking rapidly as he felt his eyes begin to water, Hare forced those thoughts out of his mind. He walked over to the door and, after brushing the side of his hand quickly across his face to wipe away any evidence that he had been crying, took another deep breath in an attempt to steady himself.
* Can’t do anything about that right now. Can’t do… anything… except act like nothing’s wrong for everyone else’s sake… *
He pushed the door open.
* * *
"C’mon, Mocchi, you’re moving too slow! You’ll never catch me at this rate!"
"Wanna bet, chi?"
With that, the pink-skinned monster leapt toward Eboni, intending to slam directly into the black rabbit and grab her. However, Eboni darted out of the way, and smirked as Mocchi went skidding past, half-turning to watch him scrabble wildly in an attempt to slow down.
"Way too slow," she repeated, shaking her head mockingly. "And you completely gave that move away, too. I can tell exactly what you’re gonna do before you even think of it!"
"Oh, yeah, chi? What about this?"
Abruptly Mocchi skidded to a halt and sprang into midair, spinning like a top. Eboni stared up at him and sweatdropped, garnet eyes wide.
"Cherry Blossom Blizzard, chi!"
"He would!" she yelped, backing up a few steps, then turning to bolt.
However, before she could get too far, a cloud of pale pink petals surrounded her, and suddenly Eboni found herself lifted off her feet by the small tornado. As she struggled to free herself, Mocchi grinned widely and tacked the Evil Hare from behind, sending both of the young Searchers tumbling end over end through the room. They wound up slamming into a wall, and the pink rebel sat up first, laughing.
"Caught you, caught you, chi!" he giggled.
Eboni sat up, looking considerably less pleased than her companion. Her pale gray bangs were disheveled, a few pink petals caught in the tangles.
"That totally wasn’t fair, Mocchi!" she screamed, taking a swipe at him.
Mocchi danced out of her reach and grinned at her, wide eyes twinkling.
"Your turn to chase me, chi!" he declared, before taking off at top speed, Eboni right on his heels.
"You better BELIEVE I’m gonna catch you, and when I do…"
"Hey, hey, hey! Why don’t you two take your roughhousing somewhere else!" shouted Alan irritably.
They appeared to ignore him, and the cobalt-eyed boy grimaced, wondering if Holly and Serinity would be upset if he swatted the youngsters with his mop. He wouldn’t have minded their games so much if it weren’t for the fact that they were messing up an area he had just cleaned…
Sighing, he absently smoothed out the back of his blue-gray hair, wincing as his fingers brushed over a sore spot. It was a painful reminder of the attack that had occurred a few days ago, when the new general showed himself to the group.
Alan wished he could say he knew that because he had seen Poseidon introduce himself, but that, unfortunately, wasn’t the case. He only knew about the so-called "Ocean General" from what Serinity and Holly had reported to him after the battle.
Why hadn’t he seen the commander himself…? Well, when the enemy had first attacked by hitting the ship with a wave, Alan had been working under deck, the same way he was now. That wouldn’t have prevented him from racing up to the battle, save for one problem – he’d been thrown into a wall by the force of the boat’s pitching, nearly busting his head open. He’d woken up some time after the fight to find himself in bed, Serinity fussing over his wound.
Alan’s frown deepened, and his grip on the handle of his mop tightened. Captain Horn had also been nearby, and had taunted the boy for being taken out of the fight so easily. Never mind the fact that the pirate commander was also being treated for a head wound sustained getting swatted by Poseidon…
Growling in frustration, Alan went back to cleaning with a vengeance, mop swishing violently while he muttered under his breath about "cocky, know-it-all pirates" and what he would do to the blue eyeball monster if he ever got half a chance at him.
Standing nearby, Hare sweatdropped and decided now was not a good time to approach the young fighter. Taking a few steps away from the boy, he watched silently as Eboni and Mocchi continued their game, then turned away as Eboni tackled the pink monster.
* Don’t see the point of interrupting them… *
Shaking his head, he stepped out of the room and closed the door, leaning against the wooden frame for a long moment.
* Now what? They’re busy, and Serinity and Holly were in their rooms resting… There’s not much point in hanging around here… *
He briefly thought of returning to his room, only to find his feet carrying him slowly and steadily through the ship. He wandered aimlessly from hallway to hallway, chamber to chamber, no real destination in mind. Instead, his thoughts wandered elsewhere: tracing over paths found in half-recalled dreams, vivid nightmares and visions…
It was no real surprise to Hare that they came to rest time and again on the terrible massacre that he had been forced to witness.
After a while, he gradually came to realize that he had climbed up to the deck, and felt a vague stirring of panic build in his chest.
* I shouldn’t be out here by myself. If any of Poseidon’s Jells attacked… *
* …Then I’d likely end up just like Genki and the others. *
The tawny-furred rabbit hesitated as that concept flashed through his mind, then slowly eased the door shut, remaining standing on the deck.
At the moment, that thought didn’t sound all that bad to him, oddly enough.
Vaguely alarmed by the fact that he was thinking this way, Hare still allowed himself to turn slowly around. Wavering brown eyes swept from side to side, taking in the surrounding ocean, as he approached the nearby railing. Wrapping both hands gently over the smooth wood, the bunny leaned forward, aware only of the sea breeze playing with his bangs, ruffling his fur, eyes still locked on the sweeping waves.
* …Wouldn’t be so hard… to just… And maybe it would even be easier… Might solve some things… *
Experimentally, he loosened his grip a fraction, leaning out over the edge. He closed his eyes, then half-opened them again into tiny slits and wondering idly just what he would feel if the blue haze blurring before them were not a view of the ocean from above…
Then, he pushed away, stepping back onto the safety of the deck. Shaking his head slightly, still caught up in the spell he had half-woven over himself, Hare took another long, almost longing look at the waves.
That was when he noticed an odd rippling forming in the currents close to the ship’s side. Instantly, his logical mind began to murmur an alarm, and he took a few steps backward, eyes locked on the frothing area as it paled, slimy blue spreading like a stain.
* …Maybe I shouldn’t have hesitated for so long… I could have stopped this by now…*
Tentacles of pale blue jell shot out from the water and surged onto the deck, several streaking toward the tawny-furred bunny. Reflexively, Hare dodged backwards, bringing one paw up before him just as one of the gelatine ropes attempted to wrap around his neck. This caused that hand to get trapped as well, causing a trade-off to occur: while Hare could not pull his paw away, its presence also gave him a bit of breathing room as the tentacle slowly tightened. It had not looped solely around his neck, which would have enabled his Jell assailant to strangle him unhindered.
Unable to scream a warning, Hare could only gasp for air as he clawed at the choking vine. Tightening his grip on the translucent appendage from the inside, he closed his eyes in concentration. Heat began to radiate from his trapped paw directly into the Jell’s arm, and he fought to stay conscious long enough to force it to let go…
* …Why bother? *
A few tears began to form in Hare’s eyes, caused by a pain other than his current position.
* …Even if I manage to escape… it won’t change anything… Tiger… Suezo… All my other friends will still be… *
His outer struggling with the choking vine lessened as his inner struggle with the pain he had been hiding filled his aching heart.
* All this power… all this so-called ‘power’ is good for is causing heartache! I couldn’t save Tiger or Suezo or Genki or any of them… All I could do was suffer along with them… *
* …If I couldn’t save them… why should I bother saving myself…? *
Hare’s lungs were beginning to burn from lack of air, but he barely felt it at all compared to the agony raking his soul. He sank to his knees, emotionally dead, no longer caring about himself at the moment. The young rabbit’s mind was filled only with thoughts of his failure to save his other friends.
Only the fact that his paw remained lodged firmly between the tentacle and his neck was preventing him from choking to death.
He did not care. Nothing seemed to matter anymore…
* * *
Eboni laughed as she took the steps up to the deck two and three at a time, pausing just long enough to glance back over her shoulder and make certain that Mocchi was following her. The pink monster was fuming: she’d made good on her promise to catch him just minutes before, and wasn’t about to let him return the favor.
Seeing him round the corner, she smirked, then stuck her tongue out and pulled on her eyelid, waving at him. Giggling, she spun around and darted up the remaining steps, bursting onto the deck. She glanced about, trying to decide which way she would go to lose him…
Then her scarlet eyes widened as she saw Hare being attacked by a small group of Jells at the edge of the deck, and the chase was suddenly the last thing on her mind.
"Hey!" she shouted, running towards the struggle, paws already balled into fists.
Mocchi scrambled on deck a few seconds later, looked about wildly, saw what was happening and let out a gasp of surprise. His shocked expression swiftly changed into one of fury, and as he raced after Eboni, the pink monster was already preparing his first attack.
"Cherry Blossom Blizzard, chi!" he called out, springing into the air and spinning around to propel the cloud of petals toward the baddies.
At the sound of his friend’s voice, Hare opened one of his eyes slightly. Through a haze, he glimpsed the pair lunging into the fray side by side, kicking and punching at the Jells. The enemies’ rubbery, elastic bodies repelled most of the furious attacks, but this failed to discourage the young rebels.
What mattered to them was that Hare was in danger.
What mattered to Hare was that they were putting themselves in danger for his sake.
* Don’t fight for me… Can’t you see I’m not worth it? I… I can’t… *
* I couldn’t save Tiger! I couldn’t help Suezo! I couldn’t save Genki, or Grey Wolf, or any of his pack – anybody when they needed me the most! *
* I’m not worth your lives! *
A blue whip shot out toward Mocchi’s side: there was no time for the pink monster to dodge it. Weakly, Hare raised his free paw, and a small streak of crimson fire lanced out to strike the jell before it could touch the youngest Searcher.
Mocchi turned to the tan bunny, a half-smile of relief on his face, only to cry out in alarm when he saw that Hare was still trapped, the breath slowly being forced from his lungs as the tentacle around his neck slowly tightened its grip.
* Mocchi… Eboni… Hurry up and run… I can buy you time to get help… Please… That’s all I’m good for, now… *
But Mocchi and Eboni had no way of knowing what Hare was silently begging them to do. Even if they had known, it was extremely doubtful that either would have listened.
After all, they had promised never to abandon one another.
* * *
Alan cursed vividly under his breath as he pounded up the stairs, clenching his sword in a white-knuckle grip. Once again, the enemy’s attack had taken him off guard.
This time, however, he had not been thrown off his feet by the ship’s pitching and straight into a wall. He was not unconscious now, as he had been then, and was not going to wake up after the fight had ended to find a huge bruise forming on the back of his head and one hell of a migraine throbbing away.
This time, he was going to show this new general just why Moo wanted them eliminated so badly!
Bursting onto the deck, the blue-gray-haired swordsman took a quick look around, getting his bearings.
Sapphire eyes widened a fraction as they fell upon a horrific scene: the three youngest Searchers were struggling against a group of Jells who were attempting to trap the children with their whip-like appendages. An enraged snarl erupted from the boy’s lungs as he charged, blade gleaming in the pale crescent moon’s light as he drew it from its sheath.
As he raced forward, a part of Alan’s mind that was not currently blinded by anger noted something odd about the struggle. Eboni and Mocchi were obviously faring better than Hare was: while they only had to deal with their arms and legs getting occasionally ensnared by the blue vines, the tawny-furred bunny had one wrapped around his neck, and was currently lying on the smooth wooden deck choking to death.
Yet he was making no effort to free himself.
Instead, Hare’s free paw gestured weakly toward his friends, sending tiny blasts of crimson fire searing toward any of the whip arms that threatened the other Searchers. Even as these attacks steadily weakened, he showed no sign of turning that same power toward getting loose from the jell rope that was slowly strangling him.
The same could not be said of Eboni or Mocchi. They were attempting to help the tan rabbit, yanking and clawing at the choking vine every chance they could get, even as the baddies’ assault threatened to snare them as well in the same manner.
Alan was not about to let that happen. Reaching the battle, he raised his sword over his head and brought it sweeping down in a deadly arc to sever the arm of the Jell closest to him. The baddie let out a shrill shriek, which Alan ignored. He knew the soldier could easily regenerate the lost limb, given time: they were not flesh, blood and fur like most other breeds of monster.
Of course, that particular detail was moot, considering that his blade next buried itself in the Jell’s chest, piercing the red orb that served as the monster’s heart.
"Alan!" Eboni shouted, spotting him when she punched away another of the baddies.
The silver-blue-haired boy nodded curtly in her direction, and the black rabbit grinned triumphantly, happy to see another ally. However, another of the Jells attempted to take advantage of her distraction by swinging at her. Eboni barely avoided being caught by the flailing arm, instead taking a glancing blow on her shoulder.
Alan and Mocchi both winced in sympathy at her pained gasp, then redoubled their efforts in the conflict. A quick glance in Hare’s direction confirmed Alan’s nagging fear: the tawny-furred bunny was still making no attempt to save himself. Even more alarming was the fact that he wasn’t even struggling to help his friends anymore. He was barely moving at all, just lying on the deck unconscious – or perhaps worse…
He wasn’t the only one who noticed this, either. Eboni’s face had gone pale under her dark fur, and her attacks were becoming riskier, more frantic, as were Mocchi’s. The Jells, meanwhile, were already snickering among themselves about their assumed victory, and continued to attempt to push forward.
Cursing under his breath, Alan hacked away at the baddies closest to him. Their bodies could regenerate somewhat, of course, but that process took time and concentration, two luxuries the furious boy would not afford his opponents. Slowly, gradually, he forced his way closer to the struggling children.
Finally, he got close enough to help. By the time he had reached the younger rebels’ sides, Eboni and Mocchi had stopped striking back at the Jells. Instead, both were currently attempting to yank the jell tentacle off of Hare’s neck, clawing and pulling futilely at the stubborn appendage.
"Get back!" ordered Alan, bringing his sword up above his head.
Eboni looked up at him, garnet eyes widening as she swiftly figured out his intention. The dark-furred bunny gasped, releasing her hold on the Jell’s arm and grabbing Mocchi’s instead, yanking the pink monster out of the way.
With an enraged scream, Alan sliced through the offending Jell’s arm. The force of his swing sent some of the blue slime flying, and the wounded baddie staggered backward, clutching at its stump. The pressure around Hare’s neck abruptly slackened, and the tawny-furred bunny fell backwards.
Eboni and Mocchi cried out almost in perfect unison, and both were instantly at their friend’s side. Mocchi bent beside Hare and shook him, unable to tell whether or not he was breathing now. The purebred hare’s face seemed to hold a shade of blue under his tan fur, but Mocchi soon noticed that color was gradually beginning to return.
He was still unconscious, however. Eboni stood directly in front of her friends, a determined expression on her face. Her pale gray bangs hung over her face, yet did not completely mask the angry gleam in her garnet eyes.
Alan shot a quick glance back at the youngsters as he briefly paused his assault on the Jells. Noticing the expression on Eboni’s face, he blinked, an image of Genki in a similar position flashing through his mind. Shaking his head and smirking slightly at that unexpected parallel, he renewed his attack.
It was painfully obvious to the Jells that whatever advantage they had been enjoying had vanished when the blue-gray-haired fighter appeared. The baddies continued to allow the boy to force them backward, already planning to retreat over the ship’s railing once they got near enough. Perhaps once they had dove into the water, they could regroup and…
Suddenly a torrent of ice-cold water crashed against the ship, sending the rebels reeling as the wave raked over the edge of the deck. Alan stumbled backward, wincing as some of the frigid spray hit his skin: fortunately, the younger members were further away and not affected as badly.
However, Mocchi and Eboni still stared wide-eyed at the way the water seemed to form liquid claws, seizing the screaming Jells and dragging them into the ocean.
It was over in a matter of seconds: the strange wave ebbed away as quickly as it had come, leaving the deck bare save for the startled rebels. There was no longer any sign of the baddies they had been fighting. Carefully, Alan walked to the railing and peered down into the sea: still no trace of the Jells. The water was swiftly settling back into its normal, smoother rise and fall, as if it had not risen to batter the ship moments before.
Staggering away from the railing in a daze, Alan felt himself sink to his knees, his sword’s hilt nearly slipping from his fingers. His cobalt eyes wavered with exhaustion, and slowly began to drift shut.
"Alan! What happened?"
He heard the patter of light footsteps against the wooden deck, then felt slender arms wrap around his neck and looked up to see Holly standing over him, looking concerned. A faint smile curled the boy’s lips as he allowed her to help him to his feet.
"Don’t worry… I’m okay, Holly," he assured her, running a hand through his blue-gray bangs and pushing them away from his face.
"What happened out here? Why is Hare…?" he heard Serinity whisper, and turned to see the pixie hybrid kneeling beside the younger Searchers.
"It was the Jells! There were a whole bunch of them, and one of them was trying to choke Hare!" blurted Eboni, waving her arms wildly for effect. "They were beating up on him, and then Mocchi and I came out and saw what was happening, and we tried to fight them, but there were too many! Then Alan came and started slicing them apart and there was a big wave and…"
"Chi! Chi!" Mocchi agreed, nodding his head, a frantic look in his wide eyes.
"We can go into all that later," interrupted Alan, walking over with Holly. "Let’s get inside for now and…"
"Going so soon?" rumbled a deep voice from some distance away.
Eboni, Mocchi and Serinity jerked their heads up and gasped, staring at the ocean, and Alan and Holly started to turn around to see what was behind them.
"Look out!" Serinity cried out suddenly.
Glimpsing the horror in the eyes of the monsters, Alan acted quickly, pulling Holly closer to his body and dodging to one side. Holly cried out, both from surprise and shock, as a blast of water struck the spot where both had been standing, mere feet away from where Serinity crouched with the other monsters.
The water dissipated harmlessly after hitting the deck, leaving behind a fading puddle. What frightened Holly the most was the fact that it had obviously been a concentrated blast, more like a liquid spear than a wave of natural water.
Holding Holly a little tighter in his arms, Alan whirled around to face whatever had caused the blast, sapphire eyes hardening. Holly looked as well, although she felt she already had a pretty good idea of the source.
Just as she had figured, Poseidon was watching them, thick arms crossed over his muscular chest. The aquamarine giant’s ice blue eyes were narrowed into glittering slits: Holly could see their cold surfaces clearly despite the fact that he was some distance away from the boat.
As she watched, horrified, the ocean general uncrossed his arms, dipping his huge hands into the rippling waters that came up to his waist. Abruptly, he roared, and whipped one hand up again, balling it into a massive fist.
What caught the Searchers’ full attention, however, was the fact that his blunt fingers were not clenched around air. Instead, water rose from the ocean to form a liquid spear in his hand, which he then tossed directly at the small group of rebels.
Eboni cried out, garnet eyes widening with shock, and Mocchi screamed and latched onto the dark-furred bunny’s vest. Alan gritted his teeth and held Holly closer, tensing. Holly was too shocked to blush from the contact, her wavering bronze eyes fixed on the rapidly approaching attack. This time, there was no chance for them to dodge…
Serinity reflexively threw up one hand as if to catch the attack, wincing in anticipation of the coming blow. One wavering verdant eye closed completely, but the other remained open a crack, reflecting an image of the water spear lancing toward her… As it drew ever closer, the pixie hybrid’s other hand clenched in her lap, a single thought ringing through her fear-filled mind.
- I can’t let him hurt any of my friends! -
Suddenly the air before her took on a greenish hue, and the water lance seemed to dissipate harmlessly in midair mere inches away from her. Confused, Serinity opened her eyes a little more, then felt them widen as things came into focus.
Her hand was still thrown out in front of her, but now a pale, shimmering aura of verdant light spread from slender fingertips to form a barrier of light between her and where Poseidon lurked at the edge of the ship. It was a rather simplistic shield, a circle of light just barely large enough for her to crouch behind, but it was effective all the same, and had obviously managed to serve its purpose.
Serinity just gaped at it, mouth working soundlessly. She was fully aware of the fact that the other rebels were staring at her, equally astonished by this turn of events.
A low, rumbling chuckle filled the air, and the Searchers looked over to see Poseidon shaking his head slightly. The aquamarine giant appeared amused rather than upset by the failure of his attack.
"So the fragile little flower can defend herself and her friends when the need arises," he observed, sounding pleased. "That is very interesting to know… Then again, I suppose it makes perfect sense…"
Something about his tone struck Holly as odd: the general of the ocean was obviously being patronizing toward them, but at the same time, appeared to be satisfied somehow by seeing Serinity’s defense of the group – almost admiring the effort. His ice blue eyes remained frigid, unfeeling, and yet his voice held a definite undertone of… approval?
That was when a glimmer of light just at the corner of her field of vision caught her attention. Holly glanced over at where Hare was lying beside Serinity: the tawny-furred rabbit was still unconscious, though he seemed mostly unhurt by the ordeal they had been through. However, she noticed that his bandanna had been loosened and twisted around in the struggle, leaving the Phoenix’s Tear exposed on his steadily rising and falling chest.
The crystalline teardrop was glowing with a dull silver aura instead of its normal crimson.
Holly felt her eyes widen slightly, and she glanced back toward where Poseidon was, absently gripping her own pendant. The Magic Stone felt strangely warm under her hand, and the girl choked back a gasp, bronze eyes filling with dawning horror.
The aquamarine giant slowly turned away from the ship, though his frigid eyes continued to bore into the rebels.
"Farewell," he said simply, as the water surrounding him rippled and rose to hide his towering figure from view.
As the sea settled back down, calming with the evil general’s departure, Holly turned her wavering bronze eyes back toward Hare. She watched in dull silence as the silver glinting in the Phoenix’s Tear ebbed and faded along with the calming waves.
"No…" she murmured, shaking her head slowly.
"Something wrong, Holly?" inquired Alan, gazing down at the girl he still held onto so gently.
Holly kept her eyes averted from the blue-gray-haired boy’s face, and felt her cheeks flush pink for a moment. Alan coughed and quickly loosened his grip, stepping away from her, deciding that her behavior was caused entirely by embarrassment at their closeness. Though she was a bit self-conscious because of that, it was far from the most pressing thing on her mind at the moment.
Kneeling beside Hare, she began to shake the tan bunny gently, calling his name. The other Searchers gathered around, fighting their own worries and concern over their friend.
* * *
Floating. That was the first sensation Hare became aware of as he drifted between consciousness and darkness. Suspended in midair, knowing nothing more than the dull, throbbing pain in his chest… a dulled pain, lingering, barely noticeable to his impaired senses…
No… it felt more like he was drowning, though his chest rose and fell steadily enough and enough air filled his lungs to keep him alive…
…Just enough to keep him alive…
He couldn’t move, though. His arms and legs – his entire body – was held firmly in place by the cool, semi-liquid substance surrounding him.
…Jell. He was trapped in Jell.
There was nothing he could do about it, however: the frigid substance arrested every movement he tried to make, rendering him completely and utterly helpless. At the same time, however, it cushioned his body, and did not hinder his breathing in the slightest bit.
Trapped, but not dying.
Drowning, but living all the same.
A prisoner, but not suffering…
…Other than from the knowledge that he was helpless to do anything to save himself or anyone else.
* * *
Hare began to toss back and forth restlessly, attempting to break free from his perceived prison. A pair of hands caught his wrists: still in the grasp of his vision, he mistook the gentle grip for an enemy’s, and yanked backward in a desperate attempt to get away.
"…Hare…Hare… It’s all right… You’re safe now…"
A gentle, caring voice whispering these reassuring words, one that could never belong to a baddie. Enough of Hare’s sight cleared for him to see Holly’s worried and relieved face, as well as those of the others nearby.
* …Survived again. So I get to live while so many others… *
He turned his face away from the others to hide the disappointment and sorrow that shone in his eyes at that thought. However, his attempt to hide his feelings succeeded only partially: Holly barely managed to suppress her startled gasp as she caught a glimpse of his haunted expression.
Hare was unaware of this: his half-lidded eyes raked over his all-too-familiar surroundings instead. He figured he must have been out for at least a little while… long enough for somebody to carry him back to the room they’d established as his own.
* Always the same. Always back here. I just want all this to end… Really, is that so bad? To want all of the pain – especially what I’ve caused – to an end…? *
Eboni and Mocchi were going on all at once, talking excitedly about what had happened almost – but not quite – in unison. Serinity gently hushed the pair, and Hare resisted the urge to roll his eyes, knowing exactly what the pixie hybrid would say next.
"Mocchi, Eboni, please… After what happened, I think poor Hare needs to concentrate on getting some rest. You can tell him everything when he feels better…"
* …If I ever get to feeling better, you mean. *
Hare turned away, burrowing into the covers and keeping his face averted from the other Searchers. He didn’t need to watch as they filed out of the tiny, darkened room, didn’t need to see the sympathy and concern on their faces.
He couldn’t take it.
He couldn’t stand to see the sorrow in their eyes anymore. He couldn’t stand the pity.
* I’m not the one who needs your pity and sorrow right now. I’m alive, can’t you see? I’m alive… I’m all right… I’m fine… *
* Mourn the ones who are dead, not those who are still alive and well… *
He started to shiver, then froze as he heard a soft voice speak up. He didn’t turn to look at Holly where she stood in the doorway, hand on the handle, yet he knew that her bronze eyes were fixed solidly on him, and her gentle whisper cut through the thick silence hanging between them like her dagger’s blade.
"Hare… You know that if anything’s ever troubling you… You don’t have to keep it bottled up. We’re all here for you… If there’s ever anything you need to get off your chest… Anything at all… We’re ready to listen. I’ll always be here to listen…"
Again, a heavy silence reigned. After a long moment, Hare heard himself reply, his tone bitterly cold despite its weak, wavering edge.
"There’s nothing I want to talk to you about. Nothing…"
Holly gazed at the tan-furred bunny’s back a few heartbeats more, then silently closed the door, leaving Hare curled up in the darkness. Dull brown eyes glared out at the shadows from underneath a veil of auburn bangs, as the young lapine wondered why, now that nobody was around to witness their fall, the tears that had been building with the tightness in his chest refused to come.