- How do you comfort someone who’s just lost everything they’ve ever known? -
- How can I tell them that things will be all right when I don’t even believe that myself? -
The young girl sighed and massaged her forehead gently with her fingers, trying in vain to relieve her throbbing headache enough for her to think clearly.
For once, Coltia was not surrounded by whining, whimpering wolf cubs: though the pups had been loath to leave her side, the other survivors had eventually been able to lure them away by offering their own companionship and understanding. After all, for all her compassion and sensitivity, when it came right down to it she was still a human, and unable to possibly understand what the lupine monsters were going through, correct…?
Coltia knew that she probably should have been upset by that biased assumption, but she supposed that the wolves really didn’t know any better. Many of them had rather nasty opinions of ‘her kind’. From what she had managed to learn of the pack’s history, the overwhelming majority of the older members had fled from abusive and cruel trainers, poor examples of the human race who saw no problem with the way they beat and tortured their so-called ‘slave monsters’. With those horrible creatures as their primary source of seeing and figuring out how humans acted as a species, it was little wonder so many of the wolves saw her as unable to empathize with their loss.
If they had known more about Coltia’s past, then perhaps they would not have dismissed the chance of her understanding so quickly.
They weren’t about to hear a peep from her about it, though. It was far more important for everyone to deal with the fresh new wounds that had just been formed than to pick at old scars…
She got shakily to her feet, soft caramel eyes shimmering faintly with tears as she gazed at her surroundings. Shafts of wispy, fading sunlight drifted through a maze of twisted branches to set anything it fell upon ablaze in green. The forest was very pretty, but sadly, Coltia could only think of what had brought her and the others here.
Most of the exodus blended together in a confused blur – pushing forward, half swept along by the lupine bodies surrounding her, somehow managing to keep the whimpering Daton cub wrapped tight in her trembling arms. Tears streaking the pup’s muzzle and dampening the front of her shirt, her own tears mixing with the blinding rain that plastered the girl’s tangled bangs to her face. Stumbling along, wanting to fall to her knees and sob, to surrender, and yet knowing that would be the worst possible thing she could do.
Secretly, Coltia was thankful that she recalled only portions of the escape. Better than to have the entire thing burned vividly into her memory, to be able to visualize with agonizing clarity something she knew would likely haunt her for the rest of her days.
- …However long that turns out to be. -
Still, they had managed to make it here safely. They had survived the fall of the canyon – the loss of the only home the overwhelming majority of them had known. They were the… fortunate ones…
But it was hard for Coltia to think of herself and the other survivors as the lucky ones when she heard pups crying for their lost parents, or the wolves howling for missing friends, family and lovers. Difficult to claim they had any sort of good fortune as the tense lookout they kept for any other stragglers who had fled the massacre became just another vigil for any baddies that might come looking for them to finish the job.
Impossible to look any of her companions in the eye and tell them that at least they were alive – as if that would somehow make up for those who had not made it. As if they were somehow better than those who were noticeably absent.
A small shudder ran through the girl’s spine. There were far too many who had not returned from the final struggle. Coltia had never been able to figure out just how many tiger breeds there had been in the pack before, especially after the Cabalos had showed up, but one thing was clear: only a handful of them remained.
Mentally, she ticked off the names of those she knew had escaped: a depressingly short list. Yuri, the Cabalos who had taken command of the exodus. Toge and Saffron, a pair of younger pack members who had reported the enemy’s approach, and then been assigned to watch over the more helpless cubs. The cubs themselves, whom they’d somehow managed to herd out of the caverns without losing track of any, thank the gods…
A frown creased Coltia’s lips: she didn’t know the names of many of the wolves, since there were so many and the overwhelming majority didn’t exactly warm up to humans. She wished she could have blamed the shortness of her list to that factor, but knew it wasn’t the primary cause.
Now, though… she likely wouldn’t have trouble putting more names to faces. It was easier to memorize such details when you weren’t working with such a large number…
Coltia winced, mentally slapping herself for that thought.
It was true, though, that she would have to learn to recognize more of the wolves, now that so few of them remained. They had all managed to make it through Moo’s latest assault together; now, they would have to rely on each other even more to keep the lives they had shielded from the tyrant’s grasp.
She closed her eyes, another memory from that terrifying flight rushing back to engulf her: this one was far clearer than most. Thankfully, it was also a good memory, one that filled her with hope, even if it was somewhat bittersweet.
The majority of the surviving rebels had been those she had escaped alongside, those who had been left behind in the dens in case of such a dire turn of events. Few of the warriors who entered the battle made it to the forests where they had agreed to meet, yet a few stragglers had shown up. Weakened, sore, covered in blood and grit, but alive all the same.
When she had first caught glimpse of three of these refugees, limping along leaning heavily on each other for mutual support, Coltia had felt her heart leap into her throat.
A thick leather cloak that normally hid the majority of its owner’s body was half-cast over the ragged trio, shielding them from the pounding elements. One trailing, ripped edge hung limply over the stained flank of a lupine monster, not quite concealing how his pelt had lost its normal silvery sheen. The wolf’s pale blue eyes, too, had lost their normal shine, instead holding a dull, haunted gleam that matched his sorrowful expression. His head was down, his tail drooped, and the once-proud lupine seemed the living embodiment of defeat and indescribable loss.
The other side remained wrapped firmly over the scaled hare’s shoulder, stubbornly in place, as its owner glared out at the world with narrowed violet-green eyes. He seemed utterly unconcerned by the fact that most of his body was now exposed: of course, this did little to change his intimidating presence, especially since it meant that anyone could clearly see the massive array of blades tucked into their sheaths. One of those weapons was drawn, the short sword ready in the rabbit’s hand, just in case they happened upon any unfriendly faces.
And suspended between them, the cloak pulled taut over his back, was…
At first Coltia had thought he was unconscious – just unconscious, her mind stubbornly refused to accept any other possibility in spite of the hell that she had just narrowly escaped from. The boy’s head was lowered, chin nearly resting upon his battered chest, and she had breathed a sigh of relief as she noted how his chest steadily rose and fell. Dark brown bangs covered the upper half of his face, hiding his normally bright and clear eyes, yet they had not masked the way his jaw clenched with both pain and frustration, or how there were streaks on his cheeks that she sincerely doubted were caused by the rain.
Coltia couldn’t help but think that it was probably a very good thing that she had been unable to glimpse Genki Sakura’s face at that moment.
All the same, there was no real way to adequately describe the elation she felt upon seeing them alive and…
…Actually, ‘well’ was not the best term to describe their condition when they had caught up with the other refugees.
But to see their faces again, bruised and filthy as they were… To know for certain that they weren’t simply more causalities of the conflict…
It meant that she wasn’t alone. The small group of friends and allies she had made this journey with had not dwindled down further than it already had.
The ‘Searchers’ had survived Moo’s latest assault.
…At least, the ones who were present, and had not already fallen to the tyrant in other ways…
Coltia shook her head sadly, and attempted to focus on something else. Like, for instance, checking on the cubs again and trying to help them adjust as best they could to the cruel hand they had just been dealt… She walked off in the direction of the shelter they had hidden the youngsters at.
The dagger that Scaler had given her was tucked firmly into its sheath on her belt, her fingers gently stroking its hilt. Better safe than sorry…
* * *
Yuri paced back and forth, hidden in the shadows cast by the looming trees and their tangled web of branches and leaves. Thin, weak beams of sunlight trickled through the green canopy to dapple dark purple fur with spots of violet and lavender. Golden yellow eyes raked her shadowed surroundings intently, lithe body ready to go taut at a moment’s notice.
She had to be ready. She could not allow anymore misfortune to fall upon those she protected. This was her duty, the final assignment she had received from him…
In Moo’s army, back when she served under Master Grey Wolf of the Big Bad Four, her dedication to fulfilling any duty assigned to her had earned the female Cabalos a great deal of praise from her superiors. Oh, certainly such loyalty was common in the ranks, but unlike the unflinching service given by so many of her fellow warriors, hers came of her own free will.
She’d once heard some human comment that he wouldn’t be surprised if practically all of Moo’s forces were little more than mindless puppets. His naiveté had been worth a good laugh when Yuri related the claim later to the rest of her unit, after they had finished the job that exposed them to the human’s home in the first place.
She and her comrades in the special units were fully aware of what they were doing. That was what made them ‘special’, after all – the fact that they served Master Moo while retaining their free will and ability to think clearly.
Many of those who fought alongside them could not claim the same thing.
The logic was simple and easy to understand – any monsters that resisted Master Moo and his rule were blind to what he offered them. Their inability to see the truth stemmed from a variety of factors: humans had taught them twisted values that caused them to not know any better, they had been abused and lost hope of the future holding anything great for them, simple ignorance of any chance of a wonderful life… In the end, it all amounted to the same thing.
By taking full control of the resisters’ minds and forcing them to follow his commands, Master Moo was actually doing them a favor in the long run. No longer would they throw away their lives defending the worthless humans… instead, they would be working toward a bright future filled with promise. Once the war was over, then all of them would be free to enjoy the great new world they had forged…
Yuri snorted, shaking her head slightly and wondering just how the hell she had allowed herself to be blinded by that garbage for so long.
One of the things she had learned early on in Moo’s army – having a mind of your own was a privilege. Not a right.
All of the baddies who retained their free will were fully aware of this simple fact. They also knew another vital rule about this privilege that they all enjoyed – you abuse it, you lose it.
By exercising her ability to think clearly, Yuri had always known that she walked a very thin line. Plenty of good decisions made her a valuable resource – a single mistake could turn her into another mindless drone.
Those who retained their free will always took full advantage of those less fortunate than themselves, of course. It was another privilege they gained from choosing to follow Master Moo without having to be convinced. Drones were akin to cannon fodder: since they followed orders without question or hesitation, those in charge loved to assign them the nastier tasks.
And if you wanted to keep your free will, you never questioned the fact that you were sending all these monsters to die when Moo claimed that the only reason they were being forced to serve was so they could survive to see the bright future.
Yuri had been lucky. She stood out just enough to earn her place in one of the ‘special’, free-minded units. She had been able to fight alongside others who shared the same blessing, the same gift from the master… had even come to be respected by her fellow pack members, up to the point where she, a female, was second-in-command of the elite Darkclaw pack.
It was a privilege she had been able to hold onto even after the fall: it was easier for former packs to stick together than to disband simply because their former leader had mysteriously vanished, especially in a world where many wanted to see them dead for their loyalty. Easier to continue to take commands from the same pack commander, simply to retain some form of control over their own lives now that the master had disappeared.
Chishi had worked alongside Yuri to keep the Darkclaw pack together, even bringing in new members as time passed, recruiting more Cabalos who had been fully loyal to Master Grey Wolf. Loyalty to Grey Wolf had been a must – it helped to bond the survivors together, a reason to remain side by side when the one that had controlled them all was gone.
When Moo had arisen again, it had also made the choice to not simply return to his service a cleaner break. By then, the growing pack had been able to see with clearer eyes what exactly they had become, and realized the truth behind the sugarcoated lies, the lovely dream world their former master had woven. Insisting that they followed Master Grey Wolf and not Moo gave them an excuse to not return willingly to service.
True, it also made them traitors in the tyrant’s eyes, but at the same time, the Cabalos considered him a traitor as well. He had betrayed the ideal world he had promised them, the wonderful illusion of peace for all monsters…
It had been Chishi’s idea to seek out Grey Wolf and offer their services to him once more. He had always followed the silver lupine out of a sense of loyalty rather than duty, and since there were many rumors that he had fought against Moo prior to his recruitment as one of the Big Bad Four…
Now Chishi was gone, and Yuri was the new leader of the Darkclaw pack.
Back in Moo’s army, having your own unit to command had been a sign of power and prestige. Even if it was only a group of dispensable drones that had enough of their intelligence removed so they wouldn’t know the difference between a brilliant plan and a suicide run – it symbolized control. Control over the lives of others, despite the fact that your own ultimately belonged to Master Moo.
Had she still been serving the dark ruler, that power should have been enough. It would have easily filled the emptiness she felt deep in her heart at that moment, out of a necessity to keep crucial appearances if nothing else.
A real warrior in Moo’s employ did not let anything distract them – at least, not if they wanted to keep their ability to be distracted in the first place.
Yuri smirked humorlessly: she would have to keep that part of her service under Moo first and foremost in her mind, much as she wanted to put her past behind her. She had the dubious advantage of knowing how to hide her feelings out of necessity, a skill she would need in order to keep functioning properly.
There was a soft rustling from the foliage nearby; Yuri instantly reacted, muscles going taut as she whipped about towards its source. Golden yellow eyes narrowed, glinting with a killer’s determination, then gradually softened as she recognized the young human girl that stepped into view.
The maiden stiffened upon seeing her, recoiling slightly, caramel eyes widening in surprise. One hand flew to half-cover her mouth. The other tightened reflexively around the hilt of a dagger.
For a few seconds, Yuri and Coltia simply gazed at one another, tensely. The very edge of the Cabalos’s mouth twitched ever so slightly in vague amusement, but she did not move a muscle. It was the human girl who finally broke the stalemate, stepping forward and walking past the violet wolf, fully aware of the pale golden eyes locked on her body, watching her every move.
Yuri waited until Coltia had stepped out of sight before allowing herself a slight smirk. Even if it hurt a little – just a little – to see an ally regarding her with such a frightened expression, it also acted as a bit of a reassurance.
She still possessed her intimidating edge. If it affected someone who knew for certain that Yuri was an ally, then hopefully those who would face her – do harm to those she protected – would also feel similarly. It would be a factor that, in the worst possible scenario, perhaps buy them a bit of extra time.
She would continue to carry out the wishes of her predecessor… To protect Master Grey Wolf and all those he held dear… no matter what the cost might be.
* * *
"This shouldn’t have happened."
Toge could only nod his agreement: how could he possibly oppose that statement? Even if it had not been made by her…
"This should not have happened!" the Daton repeated, her sapphire eyes flashing with helpless rage as she lashed out blindly with one of her forepaws.
It left a sloping set of claw marks in the ground at her feet, and Saffron glared at the gouges angrily, as if blaming it for all their problems.
- These claws should have been tearing flesh and fur instead of dirt! -
She lashed out again with her other front paw, lips curling back in an enraged snarl. Toge watched in silence as his friend continued to punish the earth before her, showing no outward reaction other than to back up slightly, just out of the Daton’s reach.
He didn’t see any point in trying to stop her. Wasn’t like she was really hurting anything, when it came right down to it. The ground would end up scarred for a while by the funnels she was currently raking into its face, but the dirt could easily settle back later. No matter how mad she got, she couldn’t do any serious damage to the earth.
- If she turned those claws on me, however… -
Toge shuddered at the mere notion, but then sighed and shook his head.
- But… maybe if it would help her… -
It wouldn’t, of course: at least, not really help their situation any. Just as Saffron’s mauling of the ground before her wasn’t doing anything to change things. It was an effort filled with anger and enraged passion, but also useless.
Seemed like everything had been useless lately. All of the efforts he and his friends had put into defending their home… All the endless patrols through the darkness, leaping at the shadows… Struggling to survive, to increase his combat skills so he could protect everyone, everything he loved…
Yet they had still lost in the end. Not even the warnings had mattered.
A familiar tightness twisted in the young Datonare’s chest, and he lowered his gaze to the dirt at his own feet. A few damp spots appeared as his vision began to blur, and Toge shut his watering eyes painfully.
He and Saffron had been the first to spot the hordes coming to finish off the rebellion. They’d raced back to the caverns, howling an alert the entire way. Once they had finally arrived, both had been exhausted from the dead run, panting for precious breath, although stubborn Saffron had managed to mask her suffering a little better. Saff had always been more energetic…
Grey Wolf had taken one look at the worn out, gasping young lupines and ordered them to join the warriors looking after the pups.
Saffron had naturally been infuriated at being denied the ability to fight the baddies. Toge had immediately recognized the wisdom behind the command: they wouldn’t be of much help in a fight in this condition.
Now, however, watching Saffron tear mercilessly into the earth, he couldn’t help but wish that she could have been able to use that same strength to tear into the enemy lines.
Maybe then he wouldn’t feel as if all their efforts to get back home in time to warn the others hadn’t been wasted.
Maybe then he wouldn’t wonder if they could have made a difference, no matter how small, in the battle if they had just gone to fight alongside their family and friends instead of limping off to guard the children.
Maybe then he wouldn’t feel as though he’d somehow failed his pack, that he hadn’t done everything he possibly could have done to save them.
Maybe, maybe, maybe…
- Oh, GODDESSES. -
As the Datonare’s body began to tremble, shaking with each anguished sob that he bit back, Saffron finally finished raking her claws over the face of the earth and glanced over at her friend. Her dark blue eyes shimmered faintly, holding the same misty sheen as Toge’s amber ones, the primary difference being that he allowed the tears to tumble down the sides of his muzzle and strike the cold ground at his paws.
It was pathetic, if you asked her. As if tears could bring back their lost friends, their family and allies, their home…
- Oh, like tearing up the ground is really helping matters? -
An annoyed growl rumbled deep in Saffron’s throat, and she glared down at the shallow trenches she had created. Instead of seeing a mound of dirt, however, she imagined the battered form of an enemy soldier beneath her, gasping its final, tortured breaths.
Like her companion, the Daton was dealing with the losses by pinning the blame on someone. However, unlike the sobbing Datonare, she was not turning on herself, asking what she might have done to change things.
Oh no. She had a very clear picture of just whom she had decided was responsible in mind.
It was painfully clear in her mind. Just when it had all started to go quickly downhill. For a few fleeting days, victory had seemed achievable, and then it had happened, and things turned around. Their leaders thrown into inner turmoil, their fighters – her friends and family – arguing among themselves, and Saffron herself not knowing what to suspect, what to believe.
She had made up her mind, now. Pity it was too late to save her home.
But, Saffron vowed silently as a low snarl curled her lips back, exposing her gleaming white fangs, she would find a way to pay him back for what she had lost.
- The traitor… -
Her snarling increased in pitch, becoming an outraged wail as she lashed out at the torn ground again, imagining that her claws were raking across a dimming green-gold iris instead of gritty dirt…
* * *
The leader of the wild pack – what remained of the wild pack – gazed toward the canyons from his vantage point, misty blue eyes holding a faraway look. He appeared to be completely unaware of the world around him, of the sun’s continuing to sink low on the horizon, lost in scattered memories of the past. Thankfully, the illusion of ignorance of time’s passing was shattered when a figure stepped out of the shadows several feet behind him.
"I know it’s a risk for me to be out here, I’ll return in just a moment," Grey Wolf stated simply and firmly, not bothering to tear his gaze away from the nearby canyons to spare a glance at his new companion.
"I didn’t come to scold you or drag you back."
Silence followed the equally short and calm reply. Scaler leaned against the tree he had just stepped out from behind, half-veiled in the shadows without stepping completely into the darkness again. His leather cloak concealed most of his body again, just as the neutral expression on the green rabbit’s face concealed his true emotions. Only his glittering violet-brown eyes held any potential clue to his thoughts.
Grey Wolf still did not turn to face him. This did not appear to bother the cloaked rabbit in the slightest, as he went on to answer the obvious question before the silver lupine could give it voice.
"I’m here because I want to make certain that your intentions regarding a certain… promise you had me make remain the same."
The silver lupine finally turned haunted ice blue eyes away from the canyon to stare at the scaled hare in confusion. Dark violet-brown eyes instantly locked with his own, piercing despite the distance between them, and Grey Wolf felt a faint shudder run down his spine for some reason he could not quite name.
"I…failed to follow through with it right away," Scaler admitted, though his tone failed to betray any feelings one way or another on that failure. "As I said before, there was no time to do anything more…"
He straightened, already darkly glittering eyes seeming to blaze.
"I can correct that error now, if you so wish it."
Grey Wolf regarded the cloaked rabbit with confusion, still not quite understanding what he was alluding to. He noticed that Scaler had moved one hand slightly, and was rubbing his thumb up and down the side of one of his blades…
Then he remembered. Standing in the caverns the first day they had arrived. Suezo resting peacefully in a cave left behind, sleeping off the effects of the long-distance teleportation. Genki and Coltia racing ahead of them, arguing about claiming ‘the best cave’ for their own, whatever that meant.
Grey Wolf swallowed, feeling a hard lump beginning to form in his throat to match the dead weight growing in his chest. His own words coming back to haunt him, echoing through his mind, his wavering tone faintly mocking him.
"…Scaler…if it comes to that…"
Violet-brown eyes continued to study the silver lupine’s face impassively, just as they had that day, before the green rabbit had given him a short, deliberate nod.
"…If there is time, and no other hope of escape… If you so wish, I will see to it that they take as few of us alive as possible. …Only if that is what you truly want, however…"
"Yes… I’d rather have that happen, then see my pack turned into simply more of Moo’s mindless soldiers…"
His own voice again, firmer, gaining strength as he pulled upon reserves to say what he thought was right for his pack… if the worst happened.
The worst had happened.
- Now what? -
Scaler’s dark eyes still burned into his own, as the cloaked rabbit continued to wait patiently for some reply. The dagger remained resting in his palm, looking for all the world like a natural extension of his hand. One finger caressed the blade gently, running back and forth over its side.
"I need to know exactly what you want me to do. Do you wish for me to go through on the promise or not?"
Grey Wolf stared back at him, mind racing. Pale blue eyes flicked once, twice, to the blade, and Scaler noticed the visible shudder that coursed down the lupine monster’s back. A dry, humorless smirk twisted the green rabbit’s lips briefly.
"I wouldn’t just stab everybody, you know," he commented blithely. "No matter what you think of me, I’m not so heartless as to butcher a whole group of allies just like that."
- No, you just need my permission first. -
As if sensing the silver wolf’s thoughts, Scaler replaced the knife in his cloak, never breaking his steady gaze at the wolf’s face.
"I will only do this if that is what you truly wish. That was the nature of the agreement, I believe," he added, arching one eyebrow slightly at Grey Wolf. "Do you want to end this now… or go on, knowing that Moo could attack us again and finish the job he started in the canyon?"
Grey Wolf winced at that, recognizing the point his companion was making. Horrible as the thought of letting Scaler move through their ranks and quietly dispose of everyone seemed, the alternative… running away from Moo and his minions, with nowhere to run or hide, knowing what fate likely awaited them at the enemy’s claws…
- There are some fates far worse than death. -
Like being imprisoned in one’s own mind, unable to control your own body, able only to watch through a dim haze as you tore innocents apart. Even now, after so long, Grey Wolf remained haunted by nightmarish images that flashed through his mind, half-buried memories of his service under his former master. His own voice, deep and full of malice, giving the order to kill… Tracking down those who fled from their burning, dying villages, sneering as he bore down upon them… The taste of fresh blood in his mouth, licking the torn flesh from reddened teeth, and searching for more, always driven forward by the impulses of his lord and master…
In a way, Grey Wolf was almost grateful that he had met his end at Naga’s claws during one of the reptile’s plays for power. At the very least, he did not have to live with the memory of trying to murder his own brother simply because it was what Moo wished of him…
- …For all the good that’s been… -
To think of any of the pups going through the same torture as he once had… but, then, to prevent that…
A flicker of light on steel caught his attention: Scaler was still cradling the thin knife in one paw, half-hidden under the folds of his cloak. Still the dark eyes were locked on Grey Wolf’s face, watching for some hint of his decision.
- Certain death at the hands of an ally or the constant risk of death or forced servitude at the hands of a monster… what a choice… -
It was obvious from the scaled hare’s stance that he was not about to let the issue drop or wait until another time. He desired a straight, final answer now – and was fully prepared to follow up on whatever the silver lupine decided. Life or death, the difference seemed to be unimportant to him. All that mattered was that this ended here – whatever the outcome of the choice might be.
"So what will it be, Grey Wolf?" he prompted gently, violet-brown eyes fixed solidly on the wolf’s own, seeming to pierce deep into the silver lupine’s soul.
Grey Wolf paused, closed his wavering blue eyes, and took a deep breath to steady himself. His throat felt constricted and terribly dry. After a long moment, he opened his eyes again and returned Scaler’s calm gaze, ignoring as best he could the violent pounding of his own heart.
"…I’m sorry, but I think… I think I’m going to have to reject your offer."
Scaler’s neutral expression was unreadable, with not even a single flicker of emotion in his dark eyes to hint at his true feelings about the situation as he asked calmly, "Why?"
The silver wolf faltered again, swallowing hard in an attempt to ease the pressure in his chest, then went on, "Because the others sacrificed themselves to make certain that we would survive. They’ve died so that we could keep going, keep fighting against Moo… If we gave up now, it would mean they died for nothing…"
He unconsciously straightened his posture, meeting the cloaked rabbit’s silently analyzing gaze solidly, a steely gleam in his pale blue eyes.
"I can’t let that happen," he told his companion firmly, without a hint of his former hesitation. "I won’t let that happen. We’re going to keep fighting this, no matter… no matter what may happen because of it."
Scaler nodded silently, and for the first time since he had stepped forward with his query a flicker of… something… lit his deep violet-brown eyes briefly. The silver wolf thought it might have been something vaguely like approval, but – as with so many other matters with the blade-wielding rabbit – could not be absolutely certain.
At any rate, the typical neutral expression was back in position as the scaled hare took a step backward into the shadows of the forest at his back. The knife he had been fingering disappeared silently into the folds of his billowing cloak, and those dark eyes were studying the lupine’s face carefully, searching for any hint of indecision.
"Yes," replied Grey Wolf, nodding shortly.
"Fine then," and with a blur of dark leather, Scaler whirled on his heel and vanished into the forest, once again leaving the silver monster with his thoughts.
Once he sensed that the cloaked rabbit was truly gone and was not hiding somewhere nearby to keep an eye on him, Grey Wolf let out the breath he had not even realized he had been holding until that moment. His legs trembled slightly, and he nearly collapsed to the ground, yet managed to remain standing, if only for the reason that he wanted to remain standing, to not surrender to the overwhelming wave of weakness that was currently crashing down upon him…
…Much as he had felt it weighing him down moments before, as he struggled with his decision.
Still, what was done was done. He’d made his choice, and had Scaler’s word that he would abide by that decision… a promise he would just have to trust in. But, after all, if the cloaked rabbit had been planning to go ahead with his plan to make certain Moo could not control any of them, he would have done so already…
Shaking his head, Grey Wolf turned and took one long final look at the canyons ranging before him, blue eyes narrowing slightly as they fell upon a dark star hovering in the sky. So far, it had made no move toward the forest… Moo was doubtless still gloating over his victory. But it was likely only a matter of time before he moved on… and perhaps continued to hunt for survivors of the raid…
A chill breeze ruffled silver fur, and Grey Wolf raised his head high, almost in defiance of the dark star in the distance.
This wasn’t over. Just because the tyrant was celebrating a victory now, it didn’t mean he’d won everything. There was no way Grey Wolf and his companions were about to let the evil monster get away with what he’d done. One way or another, they would keep fighting, keep resisting his armies… keep the hope alive as best they could.
They would never give in to Moo, no matter what the cost of continuing to fight him might be.
Tilting back his head, Grey Wolf let out a single, piercing howl that rang out loud and clear in the cool air, then turned and plunged into the forest, vanishing from sight.
* * *
Coltia jerked her head up sharply at the unexpected sound, almost leaping to her feet, fingers clenching a bit tighter around the hilt of the dagger at her belt. Then, slowly, a hesitant smile curled her lips as she recognized the source of the howl, and sensed that it was not a warning of danger, but more a voicing of defiance.
Chestnut eyes wavering, she returned to her kneeling position at her companion in the small cave’s side. Reaching down, she placed one faintly trembling hand over an unresponsive one, and gazed sadly down at his face, smiling through her tears.
"Did you hear that, Genki?" she whispered, voice cracking slightly. "Grey Wolf and the others haven’t given up hope just yet, so that means you have to keep hoping too…"
The young boy gave her no answer, chest rising and falling slowly as he continued to sleep. Even in the dim light of the small cave – more a shelter formed by some piled rocks than anything else – they were hiding in, she could see the makeshift bandages wrapped over the worst of the boy’s wounds. The battle’s effects still weighed heavily on the young man from another world, and he wasn’t recovering nearly as fast as the monsters who had escaped from the battle…
Coltia shook off the nagging feelings of growing worry and despair, and brought her other hand from where it rested near the blade Scaler had given her to grip Genki’s hand tightly in both of her own.
"You have to get better," she insisted under her breath, then shook her head rapidly and corrected, "You will get better. You will. And then we’ll find a way to stop Moo and save Tiger and Suezo, and everything will be alright…"
Her voice cracked again at this last, betraying her own uncertainty of this declaration ever coming true, yet Coltia gritted her teeth and gripped Genki’s hand ever tighter, fighting back the tears that shone so brightly in her pale tan eyes.
Genki moaned and shifted slightly in his sleep, fingers curling around Coltia’s own unconsciously as he continued to slowly recover from his injuries… or at least, she kept hoping that he was recovering just fine…
* * *
Meanwhile, somewhere in the forest’s depths, Scaler also looked up as the sound of Grey Wolf’s howl faded away. A smirk twisted the cloaked rabbit’s lips, and he nodded his head slightly to himself… as there was no one else around to witness it.
"Good," he whispered under his breath, sounding both vaguely amused and mildly pleased. "Don’t give up the battle just yet…"
He glanced down at his hands, at the thin knife gripped in one of his paws, the steel blade glinting slightly as it rested against the pale green of his furry arm. A bit more pressure would cause a thin line of crimson to appear on the gleaming edge… Not that he was considering any such action at the moment.
No, not yet, not yet, he told himself calmly, dark eyes blazing under the shadows cast by his bangs. Not while there’s still a fight to be won…
His smirk twisted slightly as he recalled the look on Grey Wolf’s face when he had asked for his decision, and the scaled hare slowly shook his head. The lupine monster’s fear of him following through with the morbid request – paired with his burning desire to keep anyone else from falling into Moo’s clutches – had caused the leader of the pack to adopt some rather interesting expressions while he pondered his choice.
Regardless, he would follow Grey Wolf’s instruction not to follow up on the promise he had once made. He knew his comrade was not so secretly worried that he might go through with it anyway… as if he believed he had no sense of honor.
Scaler shook his head again, lip curling in mild derision: if he had been plotting to follow the silver wolf’s initial request he would not have brought the matter up again beforehand. He simply would have acted, buried the pair of youngsters’ bodies, stored the lost discs in a safe place, and then…
Violet-brown eyes flicked back down to the small blade in his paw. Slowly he traced it up his wrist, never placing enough pressure on the knife to cause its edge to pierce the skin, just enough to keep it moving along slowly. Soon, the gleaming point was resting against the center of his open palm.
A bit more pressure, and a droplet of crimson fluid welled up at the blade’s tip. Scaler did not even flinch at the slight pain: it was nothing to him. His dark eyes flickered, locked upon the familiar image of red staining silver, and he raised the knife into midair so that the first rays of moonlight reflected off the tainted surface.
"One day, Moo," he murmured, his voice lowered to a harsh snarl as he clenched his bleeding paw into a fist, ignorant of the few trickles of crimson seeping through his fingers. "One day, it will be your blood covering my blades… this I promise you…"
- You knew you’d pay for your mistake. -
- You’d seen it happen countless times before: watched as a previously favored warrior had everything stripped away as punishment for a single error made in judgement, a simple mistake that had the misfortune of catching the master’s attention. -
- You loved watching these falls, truth be told. They meant one less rival to compete with when the rare opportunity for more favorable attentions from the higher-ups occurred. -
- Even now, suffering as you are under the baleful glare of your master’s mismatched eyes, you feel no sympathy for those who have passed before you this way. You have come too far, you tell yourself, gone through too much to join those who have perished for their errors. -
- Perhaps this stubborn spark is what has saved your life. -
- Perhaps your lord and master does admire what you have accomplished in the past enough to spare your life. After all, you have completed many other missions to his satisfaction, and the only one you have failed upon is the self-same one that has flummoxed countless others, including those far greater in rank. -
- She was one of those who botched this mission. She should be suffering for this failure as well. -
- Of course, you know this will never be the case. -
- After all, she is one of your lord’s chosen: your superior, your better. While it would be foolish – suicidal – for her to believe herself completely above the master’s laws because of this, it is undeniable that it has granted her a certain… amnesty in this particular instance. -
- Then again, you cannot help but wonder just how much of her immunity springs from the skillful way she wove HER version of events, a cunning web in which you found yourself enmeshed, unable to escape the dire fate she’d chosen to pass off upon you without a second thought. -
- Hell, she probably didn’t even give you a first thought before deciding to shift the weight of the blame solely onto your shoulders. -
- Ah, the way she twisted and corrupted so many tiny details – as well as omitted those she found unsuitable to her cause of self-preservation – was a true testament to her wit and cunning, even if you could not fully appreciate her skill since you would receive the fallout from it. -
- But how skillfully, how surely she changed the tale from that of her interfering in your reestablishing control over your captives – You would have surely had the brats if she had not shown up and attempted to take credit for their recapture! – to one where your refusal to obey the direct orders of your superior resulted in their slipping out of her grasp! -
- Then, to add further insult to her damning report – knowing that she had single-handedly consigned you to a horrible fate – she blithely went on to comment that, while you had caused the loss of some important captives, she thought you might be "a fine warrior… if a bit lacking in discipline. He just needs to remember who his betters are…" -
- You recall how she ‘just happened’ to glance in your direction as she said this… how her crimson lips turned up into a veiled smirk, how her deep jaden eyes glittered with malice and triumph, both of which you knew she wanted you to see. -
- This is why you are alive right now – because your lord and master decided to listen to her suggestions, and ordered another of his chosen to ‘reeducate’ you, to ensure that you will never make such a grievous error in judgement again. -
- You already have figured out what your biggest mistake is, and vow to yourself over and over again that once your ‘training’ ends, you will take steps to rectify that error. -
- First chance you get, you’re gonna snap the yellow-skinned witch’s little neck. -
- That part, however, will have to wait until after you’ve convinced your master that you’ve learned your lesson. Since you trained under him as one of his more elite soldiers, you were already aware of just how long it could be – and how much you’ll likely have to suffer – before he’s satisfied. -
- For now, all that matters is surviving through this. -
- That is why you cherish the pain, treasure the feel of blood trickling from your deeper wounds, the way crimson fluid wells up around the spikes lodged in your chest and shoulder and oozes down over pale blue scales. -
- Cherish the pain, because it tells you that you are still alive. -
- If it were to ebb and fade, you would know that death was coming to claim your shattered shell. -
- But you refuse to die. You refuse to let all of your hard work end this way. -
- And that resolve, ultimately, will be what will save you… or at least, what will keep you alive long enough to fulfill your most pressing mission… -
- That of vengeance against the ones who sent you to this fate. -
A thick finger of ice blue traced slowly across a thin, heaving chest of the same pale hue, which shuddered slightly underneath the cold touch. While its caress was gentle enough for the moment, the body sensed this was only a brief respite – it was far too used to having pain dealt to it by this same limb.
Surely enough, the gentleness soon faded completely as the finger abruptly ceased its silent wanderings over the bruised chest and instead jabbed into the victim’s left shoulder. This unforgiving pressure would have been unbearable in itself, but the fact that it served to drive the thick spike that had already been lodged in the joint there further into the pain-wracked body only served to further intensify the unfortunate’s suffering.
Crimson eyes shot open instantly, reflexively, and the serpentine monster’s body jerked convulsively. A scream welled in his chest and throat, one he fought down stubbornly, knowing it would only serve to worsen his situation. As if sensing his victim’s struggle for silence, the hulking monster leaned forward to whisper harshly to him, despite the fact that his deep voice was not suited to quiet tones.
"Go ahead. Give in to the weakness of your body if you must. Your screams tell me just how much more re-conditioning you need… my fallen warrior…"
The snake’s eyes blazed with fury, yet he still fought to remain silent as his torturer drove the spike in ever deeper. His senses shrieked in agony, yet he somehow managed to remain silent.
Finally, Poseidon decided to end this latest training exercise, gradually lessening the pressure he was placing on the spike, then withdrawing his hand completely. Crossing his muscular arms over his chest, the ocean general studied his pupil with a slight hint of disgust in his icy eyes.
"Ah, how the mighty have fallen," he mused under his breath. "Then again, I may be going too far to include you among the mighty… What do you think, Aqua Cutter?"
The naga hybrid remained silent, though his baleful glare spoke volumes for him in place of his voice. The glittering crimson orbs met the cool gaze of frozen ice. Poseidon’s expression remained neutral, maddeningly composed.
The serpent wanted nothing more than to lash out, rake his claws over those damnable cold blue eyes, plunge his talons into that thick chest. He longed to inflict the same pain upon his commander that the giant gave to him as part of his ‘training’ – to see whether the ocean general would bleed crimson or the same sticky blue gel that surrounded him.
But, that desire would go unfulfilled… for now, at least. If he wanted a chance to pay back those responsible for his current position, he had to survive through it first.
So, Aqua Cutter swallowed the bitter hatred, fighting back the blinding rage much as he had kept silent the screeches of agony that surged through his battered body.
After a long moment of simply studying his captive soldier in silence, Poseidon turned away and strode off. Aqua Cutter glared after him, crimson eyes locked solidly on the rippling muscles of the ocean general’s back as they faded into the shadows. A dusky aquamarine light pulsed briefly over the titan’s body, and abruptly he vanished completely from the chamber, leaving the snake monster completely alone.
The medallion on Poseidon’s chest continued to glow faintly with the after-effects of its teleportation spell after he reappeared in another room. He paid it little notice, being completely used to the reaction.
Of course, not all of Moo’s generals were so accustomed to using the special abilities granted to them by their lord and master. Mew, the ‘Clawed General’ – a title referring to her deadly slash attacks, which she unleashed on many a foe who was foolish enough to underestimate her on sight – had always voiced her preference to use her own talents to tear her opponents to shreds. This was understandable to those who knew her history well enough, and Moo had never taken it as a slight.
- And just look where relying on her own power got her… -
Poseidon, however, took full advantage of the skills Master Moo had granted him. For example, teleportation made it much, much easier to ensure that any captives he held would never be able to escape. The chambers that made up his prisons had no fixed entrances or exits: even in the unlikely event that someone escaped their bonds, there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide… only the certainty that the ocean general would eventually reappear and punish them for their pathetic attempt at fleeing.
Aqua Cutter had learned that lesson early on.
Poseidon’s already stony features hardened further, a dark frown crossing his face as his thoughts turned to the hybrid monster. He was rather displeased by the notion that he even had to go through re-training the serpentine warrior.
The ocean general only worked with monsters who were at least half-jell-blooded. There were several reasons for this restriction, not the least of which being the misguided reputation he knew most Jell-types had for being weak, spineless creatures. These beliefs did serve a bit of a purpose for Poseidon, however – they made it that much easier to take his victims off guard with the skill of his soldiers.
Aqua Cutter was one of his most talented warriors. Combining the natural defensive and reflexive capabilities of a Jell with the strength, speed and spirit of a Naga, the hybrid monster also surprised his commander with his cunning and cruelty. A fine warrior, he showed potential for developing into something more.
So Poseidon had shaped the serpent into an assassin. Aqua Cutter had taken to the role instantly, relishing what little power and prestige it afforded him among the ranks. The fact that he had been chosen to become something greater than a mere foot soldier afforded the reptilian beast some pride – even though he also knew all too well that the true strength held by the generals was still far above him.
At least he could take comfort in holding complete control over the pitiful lives of those he was sent to dispose of.
Moo had been pleased at having a specialized assassin at his disposal: there were some targets that the tyrant felt needed to be dealt with a method other than brute force. For example, occasionally they ran into villages where the townspeople were spurred on to resist by a few in positions of power – a mayor, say, or a nobleman and his family who lorded over the area… ones who clung stubbornly to what they held, knowing they would lose it all. Then, too, there were instances where some decent leaders emerged among the rabble and urged their fellow villagers to rise up and attempt a rebellion…
In such cases, Moo found it so convenient to be able to call upon someone that could slip in, dispatch the troublemakers, and leave. Removing the primary annoyances almost always seemed to quell any chance of the remaining populace from continuing in their useless resistance.
And Aqua Cutter enjoyed fulfilling his role so much…
For Poseidon, the arrangement was perfect. Since the ocean general greatly detested leaving his territory for long, and so few attempted to sail his seas anymore, he rarely got the chance to directly demonstrate his devotion to his lord and master in battle. Unless the conflict took place over some body of water… But Aqua Cutter’s services gave him another outlet with which he could express his loyalty. The serpentine assassin was one of his greatest gifts to Master Moo.
Now, however… Aqua Cutter had overstepped his bounds, and until Poseidon decided that he was suitably punished enough and had learned his lesson, Master Moo would simply have to go without his services.
At least, Poseidon mused silently with a grim smile, there was little danger of the reptile being replaced. Vanity, while she would have jumped at any other chance to make her rival generals lose face, simply did not respect her slaves enough to successfully groom any of them into an effective assassin. Besides, the golden general did not even allow her servants their own minds – something they would need in order to plot out and pull off any missions of such a nature.
As for the other generals… they would not attempt to groom any of their followers to take the snake monster’s place. There was too much of a risk of the same problem repeating again, possibly with an even worse outcome for them.
The snake’s fall from grace had not been entirely unforeseen, of course. Poseidon had noted the first signs of slipping after the debacle involving the rebel with clear eyes.
A scowl creased the ocean general’s stern face, but his displeasure was not aimed solely at the captive serpent. In his mind, the attack on the boy with clear eyes had been a foolish, needlessly risky move. If only it had not been supported by most of the other generals… Poseidon recalled all too clearly how Vanity had voiced her unwavering approval of such a venture, driven by her own desire for vengeance. However, Mew had been against targeting a mere boy at first… though her protests waned as she sensed that this course would be taken. As for himself, he had not protested his master’s decision, but merely waited in silence, knowing the likely price for their attempt should it prove a failure.
It had been Aqua Cutter’s first failed mission. The snake monster had not taken it well. Poseidon was fully aware of the fact that Aqua Cutter intended to finish the clear-eyed rebel off someday, no matter what it took. Doubtless the vendetta would be even stronger now, fueled by bitter remembrance of his reconditioning.
Ice blue eyes sparkled coldly with dark amusement. All for the better…
After all, who knew how the tides of battle would go? It was possible that Aqua Cutter might very well get the chance for revenge on the rebels…
- Possible, but not likely. -
The ocean general then pushed all thoughts of his servant-turned-victim out of his mind for the time being, focusing instead on just what he would do about the rebels in his territory right now...
* * *
Meanwhile, the pirate ship continued to maintain a steady course over the ocean, sailing through the rippling waves easily. The sky was clear save for a few fluffy wisps of white clouds, and there was no sign of a storm on the horizon. All in all, it was a wonderful day to be sailing, a fine day to be alive.
But Holly barely took notice of this. Though she leaned on the railing and faced the ocean, she wasn’t really watching the gentle rise and fall of the waves, nor the way that sunlight dappled the cerulean water with endless sparkles. Her thoughts were drifting elsewhere...
She had a lot to think about, after all. There were so many problems to deal with lately, Holly was once again feeling the strain of having to be the pillar of strength for her team. She could feel the stress weighing down upon her shoulders, and only hoped that she wouldn’t suffer another breakdown like she had before…
Poseidon was out there, possibly lurking just beneath the waves, plotting his next assault on their small craft. His Jell troops had revealed a knack early on for random attacks: the slimy monsters would abruptly emerge from the water and start scaling the ship’s sides, pulling their way up using their stretching limbs. Then it would be a race against time to knock the baddies off before they could swarm on deck and overpower the defenders.
Fortunately, so far they had been able to repel these attacks fairly well. A few of the pirates had, sadly, been overpowered and dragged to a watery grave, but these casualties thankfully could be counted on a single hand… so far, at least.
Also, Poseidon always broke off these attacks after a while, upon seeing that the rebels were getting the upper hand on his forces. When he gave the order to withdraw, the Jells evacuated instantly, breaking off all combat and fleeing. Those few defiant enough to remain found themselves the target of the ocean general’s power, dragged off forcibly if they refused to obey his commands.
Holly shuddered, and wondered how long it would be before she and her friends faced that same rage directly, unhindered by Poseidon’s apparent amusement with them.
There was no getting around the fact that they were currently in Poseidon’s element. When it came right down to it, they were trapped in a little wooden craft bobbing helplessly in the water – water that followed the commands of its general. Surely if he wanted, Poseidon could force the pirate ship into crashing, collapsing, sinking… and taking what he desired from its shattered frame.
Yet he preferred to besiege them in a very different manner. He wanted to have his troops board, overpower and capture them, instead of picking bodies from amid splintered timbers.
- I guess he doesn’t have a lot of chances to fight anyone willing and able to resist him… From the way he seems to enjoy battles, they must be very important to him… -
Holly shivered slightly at the thought, and wondered how many other ships Poseidon had attacked and smashed to pieces before they stopped coming. She hoped that sea travel had lessened after assaults started – the concept of just how many lives might have been ended by the ocean general as he disposed of any ‘invaders’ chilled her to the bone.
- If only there was a way to stop him… But right now, there’s nothing we can do… -
- I wish Genki and the others were here… -
The human maiden shook her head sharply, silently berating herself. There were far more important things for her to worry about right now than the situation Genki and the rest of his teammates were in, something she couldn’t change or affect right now.
Then again, she was having trouble dealing with the things she did have a chance to change…
A faint creak from behind her caused Holly to turn around sharply, and her shoulders sagged visibly as she caught sight of the source of the sound. Hare glanced over at the girl for a moment, then dropped his gaze back down to the deck as he shuffled quietly away, dragging his feet over the planks.
Holly watched as the tan-furred rabbit wandered over to the ship’s railing, silently debating whether or not she should follow and attempt once again to engage the young monster in some sort of conversation. With a sigh, she decided against it for the moment, thinking it might end up doing more harm than good. It was obvious from Hare’s slumped posture and the faraway look in his wavering brown eyes as he gazed out at the ocean that he wasn’t exactly in the mood to talk about whatever was troubling him.
She frowned unhappily at that thought: Hare hadn’t been willing to say much of anything to her or anyone else for some time now, ever since he had thrown that fit on the deck… Holly winced at the term, but couldn’t think of any better way to describe what had occurred – especially since she didn’t know the full story behind it yet.
One moment, Hare had been smiling brightly, looking better than he had in some time, walking over to join her and Serinity – and the next, he had frozen in place, face twisting in sudden pain and horror, then collapsed shrieking to the deck. Nothing his shocked friends had done seemed to ease the abrupt onslaught of pain, and when the attack gradually faded, he had refused to tell them what had brought it on… if he even knew himself.
Holly had a sinking suspicion that Hare knew exactly what had caused his little scene on the deck. The bunny just outright refused to tell anybody the truth of the matter… as if he honestly believed it would be better for them not to know what had struck such fear into his heart.
- Do I even want to know…? -
Holly’s concerned look deepened, and she continued to study Hare sadly from where she stood, still torn between wanting to approach and try yet again to get the young monster to open up and her desire not to upset him further.
What was she supposed to do? While she did have a few speculations on what might have caused Hare’s current reticence, Holly wasn’t certain how to breach the subject with him. And, if her fears were correct, she didn’t dare discuss them with Serinity or the others… especially Serinity…
The human maiden started guiltily and swung around to see Serinity walking over to her. Holly quickly composed herself and waved hello to the pixie hybrid, praying the female monster wouldn’t pick up on the dark thoughts she had been nursing prior to her arrival. The last thing she needed was to give Serinity something else to worry about…
However, she couldn’t help but note that Serinity’s verdant eyes were already filled with concern as she flitted over to Holly’s side.
"Are you alright, Miss Holly?" she asked softly, the look on her face informing the girl that she already knew full well the answer to that question.
"…No, I’m not," admitted Holly, her shoulders slumping a little.
Serinity nodded once, the concern in her leaf-green eyes tempering with understanding as she followed Holly’s gaze over to where Hare was standing. Turning back to her companion, she smiled a little sadly.
"…I wish he would let us know what’s wrong," Serinity said slowly, "but if he’s not willing to tell us, we can’t force the issue. We just have to wait and make certain he understands that we’re all here for him… So that when he’s ready to seek our help with whatever is bothering him…"
Holly nodded slowly in agreement, and Serinity’s smile brightened as she saw relief fill the human girl’s face. Thankful that she had at least managed to cheer up one of her friends, the pixie hybrid turned back to watch the way sunlight crested the ocean’s gentle waves, drinking in the beauty of the day for the moment in case it was shattered later by another attack.
She was blissfully unaware of the fact that the relief Holly was feeling was not for the same reason she had assumed. The human girl was thankful that Serinity had misread her anxiety as simply another aspect of her concern over Hare. While that did play a part in it, she was far more upset by certain theories that were beginning to grow in the back of her mind, feeding on her doubts and fears…
…As well as a glimpse she had gotten of silver light fading from view in the Phoenix’s Tear a few days ago.
Now that her friend’s attention was focused elsewhere, Holly felt her gaze drift back to where Hare was leaning against the ship’s railing, as her thoughts once more drifted to darker musings…
* * *
The only reason Hare was even outside at that time was because he thought it might allay the other rebels’ concerns for a while.
He had a sinking feeling it was a lost cause: the rest of the Searchers were already fully aware of the fact something was bothering him, something he wasn’t telling them about. This was primarily thanks to the incident involving the Jells’ assault a few days ago, but Hare couldn’t help but feel that they would have picked up on his feelings even without that dramatic occurrence.
…Not that it helped that he had nearly been choked to death by one of those slimy baddies, and hadn’t attempted to free himself…
Looking back, Hare couldn’t help but admit that hadn’t been the smartest move he could have made at that time. While allowing himself to die had seemed like the most sensible solution to all his troubles then – And still does, he mused grimly – once Mocchi and Eboni had arrived on the scene, the grisly opportunity had passed. Hare recognized now that if he had started fighting back the moment he realized his friends had arrived, there was far less of a chance that they would have figured out that something was seriously wrong…
But, in the heat of the moment, caught up in self-loathing and despair over everything, he had failed to realize this. While he had used his waning strength to try and keep the enemy from hurting his friends, he had failed to try and free himself… a part of him perhaps believing – perhaps hoping? – that their assistance had come too late to save his life.
He had survived, however, thanks to Alan’s quick actions. Not only that, but he later learned from Mocchi and Eboni that Poseidon had attacked immediately after ‘recalling’ his troops, and Serinity had discovered a new ability… Apparently the ocean general’s own assault triggered something that caused the pixie hybrid to summon a small barrier of sorts, blocking his attack.
* So now Serinity’s learning how to protect others physically as well… without resorting to attacking outright. *
Hare almost smiled at the thought: the kind-hearted pixie learning a new way to help her friends in battle without being forced to attack herself was almost a bright spot with all the horrible things occurring lately.
* But even that doesn’t help the others… *
Watering brown eyes screwed shut to keep tears from escaping down his cheeks, the tawny-furred rabbit sighed silently as memories of more of his latest visions washed over him. Bits and pieces of mostly formless nightmares, mindless terrors and fears mixed in with glimpses of terrible images he couldn’t yet quite understand or explain.
More than a few of his nightmares centered around what sort of horrors poor Suezo was likely going through… languishing under Vanity’s control…
Hare shuddered as a vivid memory of one such dream flashed through his mind. Being forced to watch as Suezo aided in the downfall of the canyon, ending the lives of some of the defenders – while the eyeball monster cried out in agony at being forced to murder his former allies. Only Hare had been able to hear his friend’s silent sobs – him and Vanity, whose mocking laughter echoed endlessly throughout the entire nightmare, growing louder and more taunting with each helpless protest…
Hare could only hope that Suezo wasn’t really aware of what he was doing while under the golden general’s control – though that admittedly frail hope faded with each such vision of the eyeball monster’s suffering.
Then there were the haunting dreams of his missing friend Golem, each depicting the gentle giant in some sort of danger that never seemed to be fully defined. The sense that they were running out of time to rescue him from this formless threat was always present, even if Hare was still no closer to figuring out exactly what it was – or where Golem was, for that matter.
The young rabbit absently felt at the Phoenix’s Tear resting just underneath his kerchief: the crystalline tear radiated its normal faint warmth, and he knew it was glowing with its typical crimson aura as well. He had glimpsed flashes of silver in its shimmering depths from time to time, but only for brief instances, and never long enough for him to do anything about it.
He couldn’t use his pendant to lock onto the others like Holly’s Magic Stone: instead, it merely allowed him to temporarily sense them, what they were thinking and feeling. And Hare couldn’t figure out why it responded this way, other than because of the link between them thanks to their bearing the Phoenix’s spirit. He didn’t have any way to take advantage of this, to find a way to help them… as much as he desperately wanted to find some such ability.
* And yet I keep hearing the pirates whispering about how much power I’m supposed to have. *
Hare clenched his teeth together in frustration, his grip on the Phoenix’s Tear tightening. At least the fact that Horn’s crew tended to be more than a bit leery of his magical abilities meant that they weren’t constantly hovering around like the other Searchers, asking after his health and such. That didn’t mean it hurt any less to be avoided like the plague by the Rockies, but…
The smooth crystal pressed against his palm and chest abruptly heated, and Hare knew without so much as glancing down that the teardrop’s fiery aura had brightened a little.
Whirling towards Holly and Serinity – he had been fully aware of the fact they had been watching him earlier, but it figured that they’d be attempting to ignore his presence at the moment – he called out, "Hey, we’ve got company coming, everyone!"
"What, again?" he heard Eboni groan from nearby: he turned in time to see her hop off the barrel she’d been balancing on with Mocchi and shake her head. She sighed, then glanced up at the pink monster and asked, "Ready for another round, Mocchi?"
The warning was relayed across the ship rapidly, as pirates and passengers alike prepared for the oncoming assault. Serinity and Holly retreated to the relative safety of the cabin and the stairway below decks: the pixie hybrid’s healing abilities would soon come in handy again dealing with the wounded. They nodded simply in Alan’s direction as the young swordsman stepped out onto the deck, blade already drawn and ready at his side. Mocchi and Eboni dropped into fighting positions, almost directly back to back, and Hare stood quietly behind them preparing a spell.
For several seconds, a tense silence fell over the gathered defenders, as all eyes scanned the surrounding waves.
Then, a single warning cry shattered the sky as some of the previously innocuous ocean erupted into slimy, pale blue limbs that shot from the water and slammed against the ship’s sides, searching for possible handholds.
Controlled chaos was the best way to describe the battle that instantly ensued.
The attack pattern was almost routine this time, following the same rough template that the ocean general had devised: Jells lassoing the ship’s railings or whatever else they could get a good grip on and hauling themselves on deck, lashing out at anything in their way. The defenders responded by forcing the stretchy soldiers right back off where they managed to climb up, back into the waves they emerged from – sometimes as lost discs.
Alan busied himself at one particular area of the ship’s edge, using his blade to sever the arms of the Jells the moment they attached to the deck. A feral grin twisted the boy’s lips as he flipped a few strands of silver-blue hair away from his furiously blazing cobalt eyes. If Holly had been able to glimpse his expression then, she may have squirmed at its remarkable similarity to the look he had once gotten on his face while beating his poor Worm monster.
At another section, Mocchi and Eboni were having equal success driving the would-be boarders off by double-teaming the Jells. The Evil Hare’s foot crashed into one baddie’s side and sent it flying into two others, then all three were sent flying back into the water by one blast of a sakura-strewn whirlwind. Eboni hopped slightly from side to side as she threw a quick smile in Mocchi’s direction and waited for another Jell to climb up so she could knock it back down.
She didn’t notice as another Jell attempted to charge her from the side, primarily because a well-timed burst of crimson flame sent that one flying into the water as well.
Hare smirked, allowing himself an instant of amusement at the stunned baddie’s expression when he was knocked away, then turned his full attention back to the task at hand. The tawny-furred bunny stood a little ways behind the other young rebels, laying cover fire for them as well as anyone else he noticed nearby who was having difficulty driving their foes backward.
* If we can keep this up, they should be giving up soon… *
He stole a quick glance down at the furiously blazing pendant at his neck: his bandana had shifted enough that he could clearly see the Phoenix’s Tear’s vibrant aura. It also more or less announced where he was positioned to any of the enemies who might see him, but Hare could care less about that right now. Far more pressing matters were on his mind.
As if cued by his drifting thoughts, the battle began to ebb slightly, as the defenders continued to push the enemy soldiers back into the water. Fewer and fewer of the Jells attempted to climb onto the deck, convinced to retreat by the unforgiving front they faced. The waves churned as more of the baddies returned to their relatively safe grasp, vanishing from sight as the clear liquid spread over their translucent bodies.
"Lucky!" chirped Eboni, flashing a grin and a wink in Mocchi’s direction as she saw the enemy’s retreat.
"It’s not over yet."
Eboni and Mocchi both glanced toward Hare, mildly surprised by the grim look on the tawny-furred bunny’s face.
"What do you…?"
Eboni trailed off as Hare abruptly snapped his head up and stared towards a certain point in the ocean. His brown eyes wavered with fear despite the steady posture he was maintaining, even as a fiery aura began to flicker around his body.
"He’s coming," was the only explanation he gave for this action.
Mocchi and Eboni stared at him for a moment, then whirled to follow Hare’s unwavering gaze toward the ocean. The point he was gazing towards slowly began to ripple, the waters churning as they parted, allowing a towering figure to rise from their shadowy depths. Soon, Poseidon had emerged up to his waist, and floated in stony silence with arms folded over his thick chest, just watching the boat in silence.
The young Searchers returned his gaze firmly. Eboni dropped into a defensible position, as if expecting to engage the ocean general in hand-to-hand combat – an impossible feat, yet her ready stance radiated pure defiance all the same. Beside her, Mocchi balled tiny hands into fists, glaring at the titan. The pink monster braced himself much in the same fashion he did whenever he launched a Mocchi Cannon – whether or not he was actually preparing to use that attack was left up for his opponent to try and guess.
Just behind them, Hare gripped his pendant nervously in both paws. A flickering barrier of crimson spread to cover both the tan bunny and his two companions, tinting their view of their enemy with scarlet.
Those pirates who remained on deck carefully edged away from the spectacle, many eyeing both the ocean general and the trio of rebels with equal amounts of fear. While the majority were glad they had this extra boost of firepower on their side, to see it in action was entirely another matter for those unused to such abilities.
Alan stood close at hand and gripped his sword’s hilt nervously, deciding against running over to join his comrades. Gathering all of their current fighters together in one place seemed too risky a move – even with the protection offered by Hare’s shields.
It certainly didn’t help his confidence any that Poseidon didn’t appear to be in the slightest bit fazed by the sight of three of the rebels standing behind a blazing barrier of crimson light.
Instead, the ocean general merely looked on calmly, his stoic expression unchanged, without the tiniest hint of fear in his eyes. Once again, Hare found himself staring intently at those unfeeling blue orbs, like twin sheets of frosted glass, and shuddered at their lack of emotion: even a stone showed more emotion than this…
A half-formed thought pushed its way to the front of his mind abruptly, and Hare gasped involuntarily. Instantly he attempted to dispel it, not even wanting to acknowledge such a concept, but once formed the idea could not be forgotten.
The only recourse left – the only way he could reject the now formed theory completely – was to find a way to disprove it.
Hesitantly, Hare took a faltering step forward, still staring towards Poseidon. It was almost as if the tawny-furred rabbit feared that looking away from the titan would shatter whatever resolve he had gained towards this course of action. He didn’t even spare a glance at his friends when Mocchi and Eboni caught at his arms, so he didn’t see how their faces were filling with confusion and fear.
The bearer of the Phoenix’s Tear still didn’t look at his friends’ worried faces even as he slowly shook his head in the negative. Gently pulling away from their grasp, he continued to walk forward slowly. The two youngest Searchers started to follow, only to discover they could no longer pass through the protective barrier Hare had summoned around them.
From their cover nearby, Holly and Serinity watched the entire scene unfold in stunned astonishment. As Eboni began to beat on the fiery shield in frustration, shouting something neither of the girls could hear, Serinity glanced at Holly, puzzlement evident in her wide verdant eyes.
"Why did Hare just do that?" she queried.
Holly just shook her head in slow denial as memories of certain incidents that seemed all too similar flooded over her – memories of standing trapped behind barriers put up by someone wanting only to protect her and the others… while facing some terrible threat alone…
"No…" she breathed, swallowing in a futile attempt to fight the growing lump in her throat. "Hare can’t mean to… he can’t fight Poseidon by himself…"
Serinity blinked, then gasped and turned away, about to sprint outside. However, Holly’s hand shot out and seized the pixie hybrid’s shoulder, forcing her back down.
"No! Stay here!" commanded the girl.
Serinity gave her a disbelieving look.
"B-but we can’t allow Hare to…"
"I know how you feel, but if we rush out there to help, Hare will just trap us behind a shield too!" Holly forced a rueful smile, emotions warring in her wavering bronze eyes. "‘For our own safety’, of course. We’ll have to wait this out for a while, watch and see what happens – and get out there if he needs our help."
It was obvious from the human maiden’s expression that she sincerely wished that Hare would not end up needing their assistance. Serinity stared at her for a long, breathless moment, then slowly, reluctantly nodded understanding before turning her attention back to the drama unfolding before them.
Alan was also hanging back, his sword gripped tightly in both sweaty palms. The almost overwhelming urge to rush in and stop Hare from getting any closer to the ocean general was tempered by remembrance of standing trapped and helpless while watching the battle with Moo back in the stronghold. As much as staying back and doing nothing in this grim situation grated on his nerves, the thought of being forced to comply like that was even more unappealing.
Even if it was primarily meant to protect them from harm… trapped was trapped.
Hare had reached the ship’s railing, and stood quietly watching Poseidon, no longer moving, not making a sound. The ocean general gazed back at him, thankfully not making a move yet as well.
- What is he doing? Is he surrendering himself to my master or what? Why isn’t he saying any… -
Suddenly Poseidon’s eyes widened a fraction as he felt something…off. For a fleeting instant, something lightly touched his mind… Like a butterfly briefly alighting on a flower, only to take off as its fragile wings brushed a thorn, something pressed against his thoughts for a moment…
Staring down at where Hare was standing, Poseidon saw that something flickered briefly in the little rabbit’s wavering brown eyes for a second. Confusion lit the tan lapine’s face, though he fought to keep it concealed, while at his chest the Phoenix’s Tear burned a bit brighter…
- …Ah… I see… -
One corner of Poseidon’s firmly set mouth quirked upward in what might have almost been the beginning of a smile.
- Apparently the little one is stumbling across a new ability… -
The ocean general recognized the sensation now: that of one mind trying to touch another’s, to gain information by reading images… memories. He doubted the young bunny was even fully aware of what he was doing, since the mental touch was very faint, barely flickering against the exterior of his mind. It had none of the raw power of one of Moo’s mind touches… While Poseidon’s master tore into the inner recesses and wiped everything clean, ravaging what did not suit his purposes, this was a light prodding, lacking the force needed to do anything other than quietly lift images and retreat.
Scorn flickered briefly in the aquamarine eyes: how fitting that the power of the Phoenix barely compared to that of Master Moo.
Then scorn turned to amusement: he could sense the little rabbit’s purpose for the fleeting touch now.
- How…cute. He wants to find his friend… Golem… -
The normally stoic, emotionless face twisted slightly with a cruel sneer.
- I shall give him what he seeks… -
Aquamarine eyes narrowed slightly, and auburn eyes widened as a flood of images passed in an instant’s thought between minds. The Phoenix’s Tear flashed brilliantly for an instant – not crimson, but silver.
Hare’s body stiffened, and a blood curdling shriek ripped from his gaping mouth as he reeled backward. Behind him, Eboni and Mocchi added their own cries to the piercing shriek, though they were mostly drowned out by the horrible sound.
The tawny-furred bunny’s body crashed to the deck, and the fiery shield flashed out of existence. Mocchi and Eboni barely noticed as they raced through the space where it had been standing and to their fallen friend’s side.
"Oh, Goddesses…" moaned Alan, temporarily frozen by shock where he stood.
Serinity came running out on deck, tears blurring her verdant eyes as she stumbled awkwardly forward. Holly was directly on the pixie’s heels, and she reached out to steady the hybrid as she sunk to her knees at Hare’s side.
"What happened to him?"
"I-I don’t know… I can’t tell…" sobbed the horrified Serinity as she touched the fallen rabbit’s body with a healing spell, already casting her power into him. "The-there’s no injury that I can tell… but…"
Serinity looked up at Holly, leaf green eyes filling with cold dread.
"…His mind is in turmoil… That’s all I can…"
"Hey! What did you do to our friend?"
Startled, Holly snapped her head up, and felt her breath catch in her throat. Eboni was leaning against the railing where Hare had been, shaking both fists at Poseidon and screaming in outrage. Mocchi was right beside her, glaring out at the ocean general with equal hatred in his eyes. Both were leaning out so far that, were it not for the railing, they would have plummeted straight into the water.
"Mocchi! Eboni!" she called desperately.
"Tell me! What did you do to him?!?" demanded Eboni, ignoring Holly completely. "I swear if you hurt my friend, Poseidon, I’ll find a way to turn you into nothin’ more than a puddle!"
"Are you two insane?" Alan cursed as he ran up and yanked the two away from the railing.
Poseidon merely looked on, amused by the entire spectacle. The aquamarine giant shook his head slightly, arms crossed over his chest.
"I did nothing more than gave him what he wanted," he replied cryptically.
"What does that mean…?" Holly started to ask, then cut herself off as Hare moaned.
Turning her attention back to her friend, Holly felt her eyes widen slightly as Hare’s flickered open for a moment. The brown orbs were empty, foggy, lacking any hint of the spirit and intelligence that normally shone so brightly in their depths.
- …Exactly like they were back in the canyon… -
This time, however, the Phoenix’s Tear was not glowing with an eerie sapphire light. Instead, it had adopted a silver sheen…
Holly shuddered, then jumped as she realized with a start that Hare’s lips were moving slightly, as if he were struggling to speak. Cradling the bunny’s shuddering frame in her arms, the human maiden leaned in to listen as best she could. The whispering voice that came out was weak, faint, and sounded nothing like Hare, and it sent more shudders up her back as she listened…
"…Tiger… how could you… do that to… Golem… how could…"
Holly’s bronze eyes widened even further, tears that she hadn’t even realized had been building slipping down her cheeks as the implications crashed down upon her.
"No…" she murmured, shaking her head slowly.
Raising her head, she gazed out past the concerned faces of the other rebels, out toward where Poseidon was standing. Watering bronze eyes met cold aquamarine ones, and she recoiled at the cruel, knowing smirk that contorted the ocean general’s stony face.
Then, he turned away and silently vanished under the waves once more, withdrawing from the battle until once again he deigned it time to assault the pirate ship.
Holly silently watched as Poseidon disappeared from sight, then dropped her gaze back down to the shimmering pendant resting on Hare’s heaving chest. The steady silver glow faded away, ebbing back into the typical crimson aura that normally pulsed inside the crystalline teardrop.
A single one of the girl’s own tears fell against the smooth surface of the pendant, then Holly allowed a despairing sob to escape her lungs as she hugged Hare’s unconscious body to her, ignoring the startled and concerned cries of her companions.
A dam had burst inside her. This was simply too much to take…
- Oh… Goddesses… Golem…
- Golem… is… -
Serinity and the other Searchers stared in shock at the sobbing girl, not knowing how to react. Then, hesitantly, the pixie hybrid reached out and carefully wrapped her arms around her friend’s shoulders in a calming embrace, just as she recalled her elders doing when she was but a child crying helplessly.
It was all she could offer Holly until she learned what was wrong…
A grim silence fell over the pirate ship, broken only by the sounds of Holly’s heaving sobs as the small band of rebels looked on, watching as their leader broke down. Holly buried her face in Serinity’s shoulder, and the pixie hybrid rubbed her back in a calming gesture, while Hare lay beside them, unconscious, the crimson aura of the Phoenix’s Tear bathing all three in a light scarlet hue…
A pair of slender legs waved idly back and forth in midair in a repetitive, lazy fashion, a lackadaisical movement born out of no real necessity other than the sake of mere movement. The feminine body they belonged to was currently sprawled out over a velvet-lined chair, the undignified position a stark contrast to the regally designed throne.
Vanity was bored out of her mind.
Suppressing a yawn, the golden general stretched out languidly, shifting her weight so that her fragile wings were not trapped beneath her body. They beat softly, lazily against her throne’s intricate frame as she studied one fine-boned hand, stretching the slender fingers in front of her narrowed emerald eyes, light gleaming off the pointed claw-like fingernails.
It has been said that ‘idle hands are the devil’s workshop’. When those same hands are capable of weaving spells that can cloud minds and end lives, then the old adage takes on an even darker and truer meaning.
Vanity flexed her fingers slightly, running several possibilities for some brief entertainment though her mind.
- I could practice some of my attacks… Nah, don’t feel like calling any of my slaves in to serve as targets this time. Even if I do give them back their minds as they die, it’s always the same: begging for mercy, screaming in agony, cursing me with their last breath… Highly amusing at times, but not quite what I want now… -
- Perhaps more… physical pleasures…? …No, best not risk approaching him just now. My lord is still quite upset at having received no reports from Poseidon concerning the rebels in his territory… -
A coy smirk curled the golden general’s lips for a heartbeat’s time: any disappointment her master felt with her peers was typically good news for her. Poseidon was one of the more withdrawn of the commanders, preferring not to speak with Master Moo until he had finished whatever he had set out to accomplish. But his continued reticence on the matter of the Searchers in his territory was an annoyance, particularly now…
Jaden eyes narrowed slightly, calculatingly.
- …Rebels… -
- A few of the mutts are still running around free, along with most of their Searcher friends… Pity some escaped our grasp for the time being… -
- …Pity… -
She smiled, though the expression held no warmth. Abruptly she righted herself, swinging her feet around to the front of the throne and standing. After smoothing her silken garb out a bit, the golden general tipped her head back slightly so that she would have been staring at the vaulted ceiling had she not closed her eyes. The medallion pinned at her robe’s neckline shone briefly with a deep saffron hue, then the light swiftly spread to coat her slender body and with a flash, she had vanished from her chambers.
* * *
A pair of mismatched eyes, one of frosted gold, the other of blazing crimson, gazed out through a reflection of themselves toward the world beyond the curved windowpane. Beyond the cool glass lay a crowded canyon, the once barren cliffs dotted with tents and makeshift barracks.
Once this had been the home of a pack of lupine monsters; now, it belonged to Moo and his followers. Soldiers ran through practice drills where pups had once frolicked, while other warriors rested where their former opponents had slept prior to their defeat. The teaming camp bore scant resemblance to its past, the familiar landscape blotted out by the shadow of his reign.
A pleased smirk pulled slightly at the visible side of the tyrant’s lips.
"The canyon looks absolutely gorgeous this morning, my liege."
Moo did not so much as blink at the interruption, simply shifting his gaze slightly toward the reflected figure of the newcomer. He did not even turn to face his golden general directly, as if deeming addressing her immediately as beneath him.
Vanity seemed unaffected by his non-reaction, as her jaden eyes also roved over the scene outside. The smile that graced her ruby lips might have been beautiful had it not in remembrance of the carnage that had ravaged the land before her, prior to their occupation of the territory.
"Absolutely breathtaking," she went on. "Hard to believe those slobbering beasts once laid claim to such a lovely area… It’s so much more beautiful now that you’ve rid it of that little… infestation."
The golden general let her smile widen slightly: although her master still did not turn towards her, she did not need to glimpse the visible side of his masked face to know that his lips twitched briefly in a cold smirk at her statement. Aware that he was receptive to her words even if his body language seemed to say otherwise, she pushed on, carefully choosing how to phrase her next comment.
"It is truly a pity that some of those insects managed to scurry away…Such a dreadful thought, that some of those mangy mongrels and their worthless allies are still out there licking their wounds, racking their tiny brains for some way to strike back at us… As if they have any real chance of seriously hurting us…"
"………" The mismatched eyes focused a little more intently on the golden pixie’s reflection.
"Still, they could be a minor nuisance," Vanity conceded slowly, making a show of frowning thoughtfully. "Picking off a few of our less experienced forces here and there… Since the few so-called ‘Searchers’ appear to have survived, they could pose a tiny threat to some of our warriors, since we’ve had difficulties with them in the past…"
"What are you suggesting?" interrupted Moo, arching his visible eyebrow at the golden general’s image.
Vanity looked up and smiled wickedly, unperturbed by being cut off. Her deep jaden eyes gleamed.
"Allow me to look into this dilemma, my lord," she proposed. "I could take a few of my soldiers into the woods and keep an eye out for any sign of refugees, so to speak… After we locate wherever the pests have hidden their new nest, steps can be taken to ensure their complete extermination…"
"…As you wish. I trust that you already have a few plans in mind when it comes to… dealing with the survivors…"
"Oh, of course, Master Moo," and the golden general curtsied, blonde bangs shadowing the upper half of her face as her cruel smirk widened. "Believe me, I already have everything I need. I even know exactly which of my servants that are going to accompany me…"
* * *
Silver glinted briefly in the setting sun’s light, drawing attention to a figure perched in the branches of a tree on the forest’s edge. Were it not for this tiny sparkle of steel the tree’s occupant would have been much more difficult to pick out from the tangled leaves and limbs. Scaler quickly remedied the problem with a simple tug on his leather cloak, adjusting the garment so that it once more concealed the weapon resting idly in his other hand.
"…Getting careless," he muttered under his breath, brow furrowing slightly in annoyance at his own error.
- Too much crap to worry about… Must be making me slip… -
Scaler shook his head, grimacing, dark violet-brown eyes hardening with self-disgust.
- Goddess, I sound like a child. No sense blaming my own mistakes on things out of my control… Don’t want to be half as pathetic as the rest of those… -
Again the green rabbit shook his head, berating himself one final time to focus on his purpose for sitting in that tree in the first place. It wasn’t anything nearly as idyllic or childish as watching the sun set, after all… While the way the sky changed to hues of orange and crimson, then gradually faded to softer pink, violet and cobalt was quite the sight, it was far better appreciated by minds less burdened than his.
- As well as more innocent minds… -
Violet-brown eyes abruptly narrowed, and Scaler leaned forward on the branch, gripping the dagger he had drawn under his cloak a bit tighter. Part of the rock-strewn grass a few feet away from the forest’s edge had looked blurred and distorted for a second… While it might have been a trick of the fading light, the rabbit’s instincts screamed otherwise. Crouching silently in the concealing branches, he waited patiently, sharp gaze fixed on the spot.
Once again, his hunch proved correct: again the spot blurred, then a small burst of golden light that would have gone otherwise unnoted thanks to the setting set followed. A group of monsters appeared where moments before there had been no sign of life. Scaler’s eyes narrowed further as he recognized the monsters’ breeds and type – and, more importantly, the identity of one of the new arrivals.
Golden General Vanity glanced around, dark emerald eyes scanning over the cluster of trees before her. The saffron-skinned pixie hybrid was surrounded by a hand’s count of her suezo-type slaves: a pair of Melon Suezos and three Fly Eyes, all obviously picked for their skin tones, which would blend in fairly easily with the forest’s surroundings. Scaler’s grip on the hilt of his blade tightened a bit more in anticipation as he waited for his suspicions to be confirmed.
He didn’t have to wait long. Vanity finished scanning the woods quickly, her steady gaze not even faltering as it swept over the cloaked rabbit’s concealed perch. Turning to her minions, she nodded once in satisfaction, then placed her hands on her hips.
"I assume you understand the importance of this mission," she said in a haughty tone that hinted she actually made no such presumption. Sweeping one slender arm out in a grand, imperious gesture towards the woods behind her, she continued, "Somewhere in the shadows cast by these trees lurks an infestation of pests that you should locate for our lord and master. The sooner we rid ourselves of these annoying insects, the better."
Her five servants said nothing in reply to this order: the glassy-eyed slaves were not meant to offer anything other than simple, fast obedience, after all. Vanity’s ruby lips curled in derision as she gave her followers another once-over, then the pixie nodded once more, short golden hair bobbing with the movement.
"Let’s get moving," she demanded, whirling on her heel and starting into the forest.
The eyeball monsters filed silently after her, spreading out slightly to flank her on all sides as they entered the woods. Scaler shifted on his perch carefully, making certain that the slight adjustment in his posture did not give him away as he continued to study the band of intruders.
- So, Moo’s finally decided to start hounding us again… -
It wasn’t exactly a huge surprise to the scaled hare that the enemy was once again seeking them out. The only thing he found remotely unexpected about it was that the tyrant had waited so long before starting to hunt the survivors down. Scaler had fully expected a horde of baddies to come crashing into the woods immediately after the canyon fell, but perhaps Moo had been satisfied with the relative easiness of taking over the wolves’ home and basked in the glory of that conquest for a while.
- Or perhaps he didn’t see the remnants of our band as worth his time… -
Dark eyes blazed in the shadows as Scaler stood. Whatever the cause of their brief reprieve, it had finally ended once the golden general had arrived with her handful of slaves. Although the small band of eyeball monsters may not have appeared to be a serious threat, Scaler knew it was only the beginning of their troubles.
- Best to take care of this little problem while I can… Even if it likely won’t change much of what’s coming… -
A blur of green and tan detached itself from the treetop with only a faint rustling to mark its passing as it faded into the shadows and struck off after the band of intruders.
* * *
Vanity’s jaden eyes shone with malicious pleasure as the golden general strode confidently forward, flanked by her silent slaves. Crimson lips were curled into a sly smile, and dark blonde hair shimmered faintly in the dimming light as the sun’s last few rays penetrated the forest.
Although once she had prided herself on her ability to run missions without ever getting involved in battling directly, the pixie hybrid’s loss to Holly and her Searchers had forced Vanity to decide upon modifying her ways. While she still disliked getting her hands dirty, by managing her servants wisely she found she was able to participate in missions without risk to herself. Her eyeball monsters would take any attacks meant for her while the pixie toyed with her unfortunate opponents – Vanity had discovered quickly that she had a knack for making the last moments of her enemies’ lives miserable.
The golden general had even dressed in an outfit she deemed ‘appropriate’ for her current mission, temporarily trading in the luxurious silken, sensual gowns she had taken to wearing since her promotion to one of Moo’s finest for less flimsy finery. The dark-colored outfit she had chosen was closer in cut to the typical pixie ensemble, though obviously of a finer fabric than most of her kind wore. Her medallion was pinned proudly upon her top for all that glimpsed her to see.
Even without her typical finery, however, it was clear that Vanity considered herself a monster of great status, far above the weaklings she helped oppress. The dirtiest rags could not conceal the feel of the noblewoman about her – as if the golden general would soil her flawless appearance with such things.
Absently, she reached up and stroked her cheek with fine-boned fingers, feeling the thin scar just beneath one of her deep emerald eyes. Her ruby lips tightened into a firm, set line as she traced the mark, an unpleasant reminder of what her former insistence on letting her minions do the vast majority of her fighting.
Shows what happens when you rely solely on pathetic eyeballs…
But as much as she loathed the suezo race, they had their uses. Their exceptionally sharp vision would come in handy for scouting out any sign of the wolves’ escape route, and once she had located their new den, the hunt could truly begin. Moo’s warriors would easily wipe out the pests once they knew where they were hiding…
Again jaden eyes scanned the emerald shadows surrounding her, checking for the low-slung figures of lupine monsters. If any of the wolves happened to stumble across her path, so much the better… Save her some time tramping through these woods.
Had she chosen to turn and stare directly up into the treetops behind her, the golden general might have caught a quick glimpse of steel glinting through the leaves as Scaler adjusted his position a bit, exposing his blade for a few precious seconds. However, Vanity was far too focused on sweeping the bushes for any sign of lupine stragglers.
Simply because it escaped her notice, however, did not mean her sharper-eyed servants were quite so inattentive to their surroundings.
The pixie’s five escorts were continuously moving their heads slowly from side to side, soulless gazes sweeping the area. As Scaler shifted his weight, one of the Fly Eyes paused in his steady surveillance, faceted pupil shifting to fixate on the foliage directly before the cloaked rabbit.
A flash of steel abruptly shot from the spot and speared through the Fly Eye’s pupil.
The unfortunate slave slumped to the ground, dusky skin already pulsing with the dull glow that preceded death. Instantly his remaining fellow servants spun to gaze with eerily neutral faces at his forming lost discs. His mistress’s face, however, twisted instantly with a mixture of surprise and rage as she whirled around.
Vanity’s startled exclamation was cut off as a volley of silver streaks exploded from the treetops. Instinctively the golden general sprang backward, wings unfurling and pumping the air to propel her lithe body further away from the deadly shower. Her slaves reacted as well, vanishing to reappear a few feet away, out of their attacker’s range for the moment.
Not all of the eyeball monsters reacted in time, however. One of the Melon Suezos was caught in mid-transfer, several of the thin blades tearing through her dark green skin. As she fell to the ground beside the lost disc of her comrade, a blur of tan detached itself from the tree and darted forward.
"Oh no you don’t!" Vanity snarled, golden lightning arcing from slender fingers toward the moving target.
Around her, the three surviving suezos charged their own counterattacks. Soulless irises glowed with searing light, and a series of white-hot beams lanced out, flanking bolts of bright gold electricity.
The brown-green blur slowed slightly to avoid the blasts, giving Vanity a clearer view of her opponent. She caught only a glimpse of long, green ears and a fluttering leather cloak, however, before the figure sprang back into the cover of the trees. Hissing in frustration, the golden general fired relentlessly into the foliage, her own blasts joined by those of her slaves and bodyguards.
Behind the sparse cover afforded him by the entwining leaves and branches, Scaler dodged back and forth as best he could, weaving through the tangled brush. The cloaked rabbit gritted his teeth as a bolt of golden electricity seared through leather to graze his shoulder, knowing that any sound he made would only serve to give him away.
Landing on a sturdy branch a bit harder than he would have liked, Scaler spared a quick glance at his wound. A nasty burn blackened the soft scales, and again he bit back a hiss as he flexed his arm experimentally. The shoulder throbbed painfully a bit as he moved, but not enough that the arm was useless: a small blessing considering his current position.
Scaler’s frustrated grimace deepened as he slid a few more of his throwing daggers out of their sheaths. The previous volley had not quite had its intended effect, taking out only one of the golden general’s bodyguards instead of dispatching all of them as he had hoped. Contrary to what his allies might think from what they had seen of his battle tactics, he did not have an infinite amount of blades stashed under his cloak. Now the majority of his throwing daggers were out of reach, stuck in the ground near his enemies where he could not easily retrieve them.
All right then… – He shifted his weight carefully, gripping the handle of one of his heavier swords – Best I make this one count, then…
Taking careful aim, the cloaked rabbit then snapped his arm back, and, with one fluid movement, sent the blade flashing through the trees.
It struck a thick branch several feet away from him with a loud thump. The leaves around it quivered at its passing. Vanity smirked coldly at the dull sound.
"You’re slipping, rebel," she taunted, as golden lightning and blazing eye-beams lashed out mercilessly.
Scaler smiled thinly as the blasts of deadly energy seared through the leaves to strike the short sword he had thrown, even as he took advantage of his enemy’s distraction. Again several smaller blades streaked through the glade, but while the volley was far smaller this time, his opponents did not have the advantage of knowing his position this time.
His success, however, was mixed, for while the three remaining eyeball monsters fell to this rear assault, their bulky bodies also blocked Vanity from being struck. As her servants collapsed about her, the golden general broke off her assault on where the sword had landed and whirled about in alarm.
Dark emerald eyes swept from side to side, seeking her opponent, but Scaler had already faded back into the concealing forest. Vanity glared about furiously, sparks dancing around her clenched fists as she searched futilely for any sign of the cloaked rabbit.
Even as she looked about, the golden general began to edge gradually backward. The situation was getting too out of control for her liking: while the loss of her slaves was not exactly a big deal and she could easily summon more to her side, the enclosed nature of the forest worked against her. One or two eyeball monsters might be able to teleport to her side without incident, but there was always a chance with more of them that several would attempt to appear where a tree or other object already took up space.
Not that she cared about what would happen to anything caught like that. It was just a very messy process that could further compromise her safety.
The golden general continued to edge backward, mind working furiously. Yes, it was much better to leave now, gather a more sizable force, and then return to deal with the wolves and their pesky rebel allies. Even if it meant having to expend more servants than she had previously believed necessary to fulfil her purposes, it didn’t matter. The eyeball monsters were worthless, anyway: expending more of their useless lives was nothing major…
She spun on her heel just in time to see a flash of steel streaking toward her face. Instinctively she sprang into the air, letting the thin blade fly past to bury itself in the ground at her feet, then found herself backpedaling rapidly as a shadow lunged at her and lashed out with a far larger blade.
Vanity stumbled backward, alarm flooding briefly over her features before she could contain herself. Seeing the jaden eyes light for an instant with pure fear, Scaler allowed a cold smirk to tug at one corner of his firmly set mouth. Blades glittered in both hands as he slowly withdrew them from the concealing folds of his leather cloak.
However, her shock swiftly faded, and the dark verdant eyes narrowed into slits as the golden general silently and sternly called for another’s assistance. The air separating temptress and warrior blurred as an interloper answered his mistress’s command. Suezo stared at the cloaked rabbit impassively, his dull yellow-green pupil holding not even the slightest hint of emotion as he faced off with his former companion.
Scaler paused, his bangs casting shadows over his face while his violet-brown eyes narrowed slightly. His face remained completely neutral as he considered this new development.
Behind the eyeball monster, Vanity let out a mocking laugh, one hand half-covering the corner of her mouth.
"Well, well, well…" she purred, smirking at her opponent from the relative safety of where she stood behind her servant. "It seems you forgot about this little angle of things, rebel. Are you truly willing to go through your friend…"
She was cut short as Scaler abruptly smirked and charged forward in a blur of tan and green. Suezo instantly lunged forward to meet the rabbit’s charge, and there was a brief flash of steel lashing out as the two met. Vanity squeaked and sprang into the air as Scaler skidded to a halt where she had been standing moments before. The scaled hare glanced briefly up at her flying figure, glimpsed the naked shock on the golden general’s face, and smirked.
"You honestly believe I’m not willing to go through a traitor like him to get to you?" he asked, his smirk twisting into a cruel smile, his smoldering eyes the only light in his shadowed face. "Please…"
Vanity just gaped down at him, struggling and failing to conceal her utter shock. This was certainly not a twist she had foreseen…
Scaler’s attention was drawn back to his other opponent as he caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of one eye. Suezo had recovered from the rabbit’s initial strike, and as the cloaked hare pivoted to face him, turned slowly toward his target. There was a shallow gash stretching along one side of his tail, and blood was beginning to well in the fresh cut.
Nevertheless, the eyeball monster was standing, driven by his mistress’s continuous commands to protect her from this threat – or die trying.
Lunging forward, his maw gaping wide, Suezo attempted to tear into the cloaked hare with his teeth. Scaler nimbly dodged out of harm’s way, though not fast enough to keep the very tip of his leather cape from being caught in the eyeball’s mouth. Teeth instantly clamped down on the garment, and Scaler lost his footing as his opponent’s momentum yanked him backward. Thankfully, the leather stretched, then tore with a sickening rending noise before the problem became any worse.
Still, Scaler grimaced as he regained his balance just in time to duck beneath another leaping lunge. Had he not been swift enough, it could just as easily been flesh and fur being torn to shreds instead of a piece of leather.
Again his blades flashed out as Suezo rushed forward, and again steel bit into yellow skin, drawing out a small gush of crimson fluid as the edge was pulled back out this time. The eyeball monster barely flinched, all emotions and reactions dampened by the golden general’s iron grip on his mind and body. The pain remained; he simply could not react to it thanks to her control, save to continue attacking the one whom had caused his wounds.
"Kill him!" screeched Vanity from where she hovered above the battlefield. Sweat plastered no longer shining golden bangs to her contorted face as she cursed, "Damn you!"
It was unclear whether her condemnation was directed at Scaler or Suezo. Perhaps both.
The unrestrained fury in the pixie hybrid’s shrill voice caused a cruel smirk to twist the scaled hare’s firmly pressed lips. Violet-brown eyes gleamed under a forest of jagged bangs, casting shadows over most of his face as he once again met his current opponent’s charge. This time, however, just as Suezo was bearing down upon him, he sprang straight into the air.
Suezo skidded to a halt where moments before his opponent had been standing. The dull, foggy green-gold pupil flashed glances from side to side, searching for any glimpse of his target. Above him, Vanity also looked around warily, fluttering higher into the air just in case the rabbit dared try to attack her directly.
A blur of tan and green separated from the surrounding forest, seeming to appear out of nowhere just above the eyeball monster. Under a veil of bangs, a cold smirk widened. Glittering blades shot from a sweeping paw to bury themselves in dirt and mud – and flesh.
Had Suezo access to his own voice, he surely would have let out a blood-curdling scream as a thick knife buried itself all the way to its hilt in his tail, slicing through to pin him to the ground. As it was, the enslaved monster stiffened as pain exploded up his tail, then collapsed limply to the hard ground as merciful darkness claimed his foggy mind.
Scaler landed beside the fallen monster and spared the barest glance at his handiwork: two other blades had struck true on either side of Suezo’s tail, helping further secure him to the ground. Still, perhaps it was overkill, considering that the largest of his throwing daggers now bit through flesh and ground alike.
Whirling towards where Vanity was still hovering above the battlefield, Scaler reached into his cloak for more blades. However, the golden general was obviously no longer willing to continue her hunt. Jaden eyes blazed with verdant flames as she glared down at her would-be prey, keeping safely out of range.
"Damn you," she snarled, clenching at the medallion pinned upon her torn tunic’s chest.
A burst of pale yellow light nearly blinded the scaled hare, and when it faded the golden general was no longer in sight.
Scaler glared at the space where Vanity had been for several heartbeats, as if silently willing her to reappear and attempt to regain what she had just lost this night. However, after a few moments he was forced to acknowledge that the golden general had escaped his wrath for now… A low groaning behind the green rabbit reminded him of other affairs he needed to finish.
Pivoting smoothly on his heel, Scaler faced the fallen body of his former comrade, his former enemy. A weak, low-pitched keening came from the eyeball monster as his pinned tail twitched reflexively. Scaler was not worried about Suezo freeing himself from the trap: he knew each movement sent bolts of agony rippling up the victim’s side, rendering all but the strongest of monsters unable to do little more than whimper helplessly.
Scaler approached him slowly. A slight flick of one wrist allowed a stiletto to slide into his waiting palm. Fingers twined expertly over the carved hilt, flipping it into a ready position, one finger rubbing lightly, gingerly along the thin blade.
Soon, Scaler was looking down upon his fallen opponent. Suezo’s pained moans fell upon deaf ears as impassive violet-brown eyes swept over the toppled body once.
Droplets of crimson blood continued to well around the blade piercing the monster’s tail: the dagger helped block the wound in addition to causing it. Still, the victim would slowly bleed to death without intervention one way or another…
Straightening his arm, Scaler raised the stiletto he had drawn into the air. Dark eyes rapidly scanned Suezo’s body for the proper place to strike in order to end his suffering as quickly as possible. Settling upon a spot, the cloaked rabbit prepared his strike.
Startled, Scaler whipped his head up sharply to see Coltia standing several feet away. It was obvious that the girl had just arrived: even from this distance, Scaler could see her chest heaving in tune with her ragged breathing, see the sweat trickling down her white face.
He could also see the stark horror and fear in her widened caramel eyes.
The green rabbit’s violet-brown eyes darkened with anger and annoyance, and he allowed his raised arm to fall limply to his side as the girl stumbled forward, a few wolves at her heels.
"Perfect," he hissed through gritted teeth, so softly that only he was aware that he had even spoken.
- This is just what we needed… Now they’ll insist on dragging this out instead of solving it immediately, risking everything we’ve managed to accomplish… as pitiful as that is. -
He shook his head in dismay, but stepped back without a word of complaint, knowing better than to contest the issue right now. There was no working around the raw emotion that shone clearly in the girl’s eyes as she crouched beside the fallen Suezo, choking out cries for help to her companions.
- I only pray that she and the others come to realize the truth of the matter before it is too late to salvage this situation… Before others die because they refuse to let go of the past… -
Coltia was aware of Scaler’s dark gaze burning into her back, but ignored it as best she could, struggling to focus instead on Suezo. The eyeball monster needed her attention and help right now.
Without a second thought she yanked on her tunic’s left sleeve, ripping a length of fabric from the arm. The garment was torn already from previous encounters, so it wasn’t worth really salvaging, save for other purposes. Seizing the dagger lodged in the fallen monster’s tail, Coltia gritted her teeth and pulled, casting the weapon to one side while fighting back a shudder at the sight of the crimson-stained blade.
As she wrapped the makeshift bandage around Suezo’s wound, hoping to stop at least some of the bleeding, the eyeball monster let out a faint moan. Casting a quick glance at his face, Coltia suppressed a gasp, for a tiny flicker of awareness had appeared in the pain-fogged green-gold pupil – the first sign of life she had glimpsed in her former friend for some time.
"…H-H…Hol…ly…?" he queried, gazing through a haze at the face of the girl bending over him and tending his wounds.
Coltia simply stared at the dazed monster silently, not knowing how to reply. After an awkward moment, she turned to examine his wounds further, tears blurring her vision. She was fully aware of the presence of others surrounding her: the wolves that had accompanied her into the woods fanned out and sniffing the air, keeping alert for any sign of further threat.
And Scaler, still watching in silence, dark eyes burning holes into her back, staring directly through her to the wounded monster she crouched beside…
* * *
A burst of pale golden light at the edge of his vision caused Moo to glance up from where he had been sitting upon his throne, mismatched eyes narrowed into contemplating slits. He disliked being disturbed, but this particular visitor earned his immediate attention.
The silken dress was torn at the hem, the edges frayed and ripped where branches and thorns had caught the fragile material. The waves of golden hair were not glimmering with as much trapped light as they normally did, and a few strands stuck here and there to the sweaty, flushed face.
The Golden General Vanity slumped to her knees on the cold ebony floor, bowing so low that her bangs brushed the smooth surface beneath her.
"My lord, I bring t-terrible news. The h-hunt went awry…"
"Really?" Moo’s tone was calm, seemingly unaffected by this pronouncement. "Explain."
A visible shudder coursed through the pixie hybrid’s slender frame. One fine-boned hand clenched and unclenched, held mere inches above the floor, as if she was considering slamming her fist into the hard tile.
"I was b-besieged, my lord. T-the rebels evaded my grasp… a-and one of them, the cloaked scaled hare proceeded to d-defeat Suezo when I sent the worthless eyeball after him!"
"Did he kill him?"
"N-no, my lord… The rebels… T-the rebels… r-reclaimed him…"
The pixie’s trembling worsened, her entire body beginning to quiver. Her face remained mostly shadowed by her hanging bangs, masking her expression. An odd tone entered her voice, however, as she went on.
"T-they… reclaimed S-Suezo as… o-one of… t-their o-own…"
She pushed herself up on one arm, and abruptly her face was visible – not contorted in anger or terror, but with a mixture of joy and malice. It was suddenly clear that the golden general was not shaking with rage, but rather with contained laughter… a dam that was rapidly weakening, as she lost full control of her voice. Tossing back her head, Vanity allowed her wicked chortling to echo off the chamber’s shadowed walls, throwing out her arms.
Moo looked on, a pleased and satisfied smirk twisting the visible side of his lips.
"Perfect," he murmured, crimson eye gleaming a little brighter as it reflected the image of his laughing commander. "Very well played, Golden General Vanity."
"T-thank you, my lord," the pixie hybrid replied, regaining control of herself. Wiping a tear away from the corner of one jaden eye, she straightened, adding, "Once again, your fine strategy is working just as planned. The rebels are playing right into your hands…"
"Indeed," and the tyrant clasped his gloved hands together in front of him, fingers entwining as he leaned forward slightly in his seat. Mismatched eyes glittering brightly, he added, "And now, my friends… The hunt truly begins…"
The forest was blazing, each leaf afire with verdant brilliance from the caress of the morning sun. A gentle breeze rustled through the trees, stirring the laden boughs and dislodging some of their load, carrying them off in playful twirls and graceful sweeps.
A few of the freed leaves wafted past a motionless figure standing in the center of the forest clearing. At first, the towering monster was as silent and steady as the boulder his tough skin caused him to resemble, as he failed to react even when one of the leaves brushed just past his nose. His soft gray eyes remained fixed firmly ahead, drinking in the beauty of the forest before him, as memories of another time and place echoed through his wandering thoughts.
Home… it was what the stone giant desperately longed for. This clearing was all too reminiscent of the place he had once belonged, the secluded valley so far away that had once given birth to so many dreams and hopes… before everything was swept away by a single, tragic encounter.
How long would it take, he wondered, before he could walk into that valley he had left behind and find it reborn, the sad scattering of lost discs replaced by the vibrant, cheerful faces of the monsters he had been raised by and alongside for the majority of his life? How long before he could honestly leave behind the pain and loneliness he had known after everything was taken away by a senseless conflict?
How long before he could face the other Searchers again, secure in the knowledge that his home was now completely restored?
He had achieved his primary reason for joining the others in their quest: reviving the Phoenix, allowing all the monsters that had been killed and reduced to lost discs to be reborn. He wanted nothing more than to return to the way of life he had left behind… to have that measure of peace and contentment back home once more.
Still… It hurt to leave the other rebels behind. In the relatively short time that he had traveled with them, Golem had come to see the Searchers as true friends. He’d found in them the solace that had been missing ever since war had robbed him of all he’d ever known.
Making his way back home alone… Not only was it slow going, but the journey seemed much longer with no one beside him, no companions to talk to or even simply to have alongside him.
But he couldn’t expect them to simply follow him blindly when they had no other reason to come this way. There were so many other things to be attended to, and each of the Searchers needed to follow their own paths for now.
Tiger of the Wind had already departed just a short time after Genki had been taken back home by the Phoenix. The sapphire-furred wolf wanted only to be reunited with his younger brother Grey Wolf – to find his own family that had been lost during the course of Moo’s horrible reign. How could Golem possibly even consider delaying something like that for his own petty reasons?
No, Tiger had left the others to find his own way, and it was for the best that Golem followed his lead and dealt with this by himself. Perhaps afterwards… After returning home and seeing all his friends again, he could find a way to contact the other Searchers and invite them to come visit… It would be nice to have everybody meet each other…
The stone giant gazed appreciatively around at his surroundings for a while longer, watching the falling leaves sweep in their graceful midair dance. He was reluctant to leave this beautiful scenery behind, knowing full well it would be a long time before he would be standing in another vibrant glade, the one he once called home…
But the longer he hesitated, the longer it would take to reach his destination.
Finally, with a faint sigh, Golem shifted his weight, slowly placing one foot in front of him, then another. As always, his pace remained slow, steady, unhurried, his attention more on his lush surroundings than the road ahead.
He had barely taken a few steps forward when he suddenly paused again. This time, however, his hesitation was not born out of his desire to stay and study this lovely glade a bit longer.
The muted crack of a dry, brittle twig underneath someone’s weight had rung out in the glade – and not from beneath the stone giant’s own heavy feet. He was no longer alone.
Slowly, careful not to make any sudden movements, Golem pivoted on his heel. Again his gray eyes swept over his surroundings, only this time, not out of appreciation of the forest’s beauty. Now, his sole purpose was discovering the identity of his new companion in the clearing.
Golem’s lips tightened into a hard line, and for an instant frustration glittered in his gentle eyes. Just because Moo had been defeated didn’t mean that all the monsters in the world had automatically become pure-hearted. Unfortunately, there were still those more than willing to take advantage of those weaker than them. Golem counted primarily on his intimidating size to scare any would-be attackers away, but if he was forced to defend himself or some other victim in need…
His hands convulsed once into fists, then relaxed slightly, the fingers remaining curled. Golem prayed it wouldn’t have to come to that.
The soft pad of steady footsteps came closer, and Golem turned to face their owner, bracing himself for the worst. While his body looked relaxed, save for the way his fingers remained curled, the stone giant was silently preparing for the possibility of conflict. He’d do his best to avoid such an outcome, but…
However, as his gaze fell upon a familiar figure, Golem relaxed, breathing a soft sigh of relief. Surprise colored the recognition in his eyes, for this newcomer had been the last face he expected to see in such a place, so soon after parting ways. This failed to keep a welcoming smile from spreading over the towering monster’s face, and he nodded down at his new companion in the glade.
His fellow member of the Courageous Seven cast an appraising look up at his towering ally, a typical neutral expression on his scarred face. Pale golden eyes flicked their gaze from the giant’s beaming face to the bright blossoms surrounding them, and a wry smirk twisted the lupine’s lips.
"…I see you’ve been… sidetracked on your little journey home," he commented lightly, not bothering to keep a sarcastic note from entering his deep voice.
Golem felt his cheeks flush red with embarrassment at the wolf’s teasing tone. It was true, he was stalling a bit longer than he should have… the longer he tarried, the longer his friends back home would be left wondering where he was. However, at the same time, a nagging question tugged at the back of the larger monster’s mind.
"…Your brother," he asked slowly after a moment’s pause, taking time to collect his thoughts and consider how to phrase his awkward query. "Have you…"
Before Golem could finish, however, the blue wolf abruptly answered with a swift, single shake of his head. The golden eyes seemed to darken slightly, as if the mere mention of his absent sibling drew a veil of shadows over his face.
Golem bowed his head slightly, uncertain of what his next action should be. In the back of his mind, alarms were continuing to go off; something about this entire encounter seemed askew, off, not exactly right. Uncomfortable feelings twisted deep in his gut, churning like a storm-tossed ocean.
- …Tiger left the group before I did… How did he know I was returning home…? -
- It’s the obvious conclusion, naturally. Why else would I leave the others, after all? We each have our own reasons… -
- …But… if he hasn’t located Grey Wolf yet… why is he here? …Does he need my help…? -
- …Wait… Would Tiger even WANT my help? He always seemed to prefer doing things on his own… -
"…What’s wrong, Golem? Not happy to see me?"
Despite the lightness with which the question was asked, Tiger of the Wind’s golden eyes appeared to burn with a fierce intensity as he gazed calmly up at his towering friend.
Uncertainty welling in his chest, Golem nevertheless quickly shook his head in denial, feeling ashamed at his own inner struggle with his conflicting feelings.
- Tiger is my friend. I trust my friends. -
- But why do I suddenly feel so strange about doing just that? -
"Just…surprised," he admitted freely, shrugging helplessly at his own confusion.
The lupine monster simply continued to pin Golem with his steady gaze, the faintest hint of amusement beginning to light his stern features.
"Ah. And why, pray tell, is that?"
- …Yes. Why AM I feeling this way? -
Self-consciously, Golem rubbed the back of his head, as if hoping the action would erase his doubts. Instead, they steadily increased, as did his discomfort. Something was definitely wrong, causing his senses to go on full alert despite the stone giant’s private confusion.
"Why what?" prompted Tiger, never averting his steady gaze from the taller monster’s face.
"…Why is Tiger not searching for Grey Wolf?" Golem finally wondered aloud, his face beginning to burn again at his sudden bluntness.
The lupine monster seemed unaffected by his companion’s awkward question. Instead, the blue wolf merely closed his eyes, finally ending his intense study of Golem’s embarrassed face. His shoulders shook briefly once, twice, a small tremor running down his lithe back. Golem just looked down at Tiger in ever-growing confusion, not knowing what to think of his friend’s odd behavior.
"Why is Tiger not searching for Grey Wolf?" he echoed, causing the stone giant to start in surprise at his scathing, mocking tone.
Golem’s shock at his fellow Searcher’s behavior only increased dramatically as he heard the sapphire-furred lupine’s next statement, however, the harsh whisper that followed in a voice that was both alien and all too familiar to the rebel.
"Because Tiger no longer has any reason to."
Abruptly the wolf’s head snapped up, eyes flying open, and Golem reared back in shock at the sight of the golden irises glowing an unholy crimson. A blood-curdling howl ripped from the lupine monster’s lungs as he fell in a boneless collapse to the ground, shadows twisting round his body as if stirred by the frigid winds that had suddenly began to swirl through the clearing.
Golem stared, stumbling back a few steps as the cold wind buffeted his granite skin. Unconsciously, he then took a faltering step forward, toward the center of the swirling hurricane of ice and shadow that had enveloped his companion, reaching out with one shaking hand in a gesture of helpless concern.
It was always in his nature to worry about the safety of others over himself, after all.
Unfortunately, compassion has its cost at times.
As he reached out to the place where his fellow rebel had vanished, the frigid torrents swept out to embrace the giant. A sheet of jagged ice formed on his outstretched fingers, then swiftly spread over his arm and down his body. Before Golem could react, the glittering substance had engulfed him entirely, leaving the stone cold to the touch.
The shadow winds dissipated as quickly as they had sprung up, revealing a new figure standing in the glade. Where once a lupine familiar to the trapped Golem had crouched was a monster that, as he straightened to his full height, was on perfect eye level with the stone man. This face was also familiar to the former rebel, but certainly not a beloved one, or anyone he had ever hoped to lay eyes upon again.
A gauntlet-clad hand reached out and gently caressed the stone giant’s frozen cheek, an expression of mock tenderness, as crimson eyes glinted tauntingly at the shock trapped in his prey’s widened gray eyes.
"No, Tiger no longer has any reason to seek out his dearly departed brother," purred the tyrant, his tone betraying the cruel smile hidden beneath his ebony mask. "Just as Golem no longer has any reason to return home…"
The ice covering Golem’s body reflected that of his captor, the cruel crimson eyes superimposed over the stone giant’s own blankly staring cool gray ones…
* * *
Hare’s eyes shot wide open, and for a long moment he just stared up at the ceiling, and at the single hand he had reached out with involuntarily while caught in his nightmare.
No… hardly a nightmare. Somehow, the tawny-furred rabbit knew the vision he had just witnessed was more a reflection of grim reality, a past event he had no hope of altering.
Several things were still unclear, but one thing was certain: Golem had been tricked and captured by Tiger – by Moo – some time ago.
The dream wasn’t clear on exactly when this tragedy had occurred, but Hare had the sinking feeling it had happened sometime before the failed assault on Genki… Meaning that his old friend had been in the enemy’s hands for quite some time, a prisoner while his fellow rebels went on with their lives unaware…
* How long… how long ago was it? Weeks…? Months…? …Oh, Goddesses… *
His wavering brown eyes squeezed shut, and his chest heaved in ragged gasps as he fought back the almost overwhelming urge to cry. Crying wouldn’t solve the problem. Tears wouldn’t free Golem from whatever fate and Moo had done to him…
* The worst part is, there are fates… worse than death… *
"…Much worse than death…" murmured the rabbit unconsciously, staring up at the ceiling in despair.
Hare jerked upright at the whispered agreement, his ears folding back and head whipping around sharply as he turned to stare at the visitor he didn’t even realize he had. Holly regarded him with sympathetic bronze eyes from where she sat on a chair in another corner of the room.
"…Hare, please talk to me," the girl pleaded, getting up and pulling her chair a bit closer to the bed. "I know… I know there’s so much you’re trying to hide from us, but…"
"Leave me alone," the tan bunny grumbled, falling back onto his side and turning away. Burying his face in his knees, he muttered, "Just go away, alright? I can deal with this myself…"
"No, you can’t," Holly retorted, an edge creeping into her normally soft voice suddenly. "Hare, hiding things isn’t going to solve anything! Believe me… it only makes things worse…"
Hare’s ears twitched, and he stole a furtive glance at her over his shoulder. Sensing she had his attention despite his body language, Holly took a deep breath and pushed on.
"Believe me, I know it only makes things much worse," she repeated with conviction. Her gentle eyes misted with tears of remembrance, she lowered her gaze to the floorboards and continued haltingly, "You’re not the only one who’s hidden things from the others because you were afraid of how they’d react."
Again, the bunny’s long ears swiveled in her direction, betraying the fact he was listening to her more than he’d like to admit. Holly’s hands twisted together in her lap, the slender fingers pressing into her pale skin. Even though she was trying to get Hare to reveal more information, this was increasingly feeling to her like she was the one under pressure.
In a sense, she was, for the girl was currently fighting a secret battle with herself over whether or not she should finally confess something that had eaten away at her secretly for a long time.
"…It hurts," she murmured, "when you’re hiding something painful like that. Even if it seems like it’s a much better idea to not let anybody else know, for fear of causing them to feel the same pain… When you take it upon yourself to suffer alone, it hurts even worse. It nags and tears and you want to tell somebody, just so maybe you won’t have to bear it alone… Only you can’t, for fear… for fear…"
"…Holly. Are you trying to figure out a way to tell me that Moo originally was in your father’s body…?"
It took a few seconds for the soft whisper to fully register in Holly’s mind: she half-nodded absently, then froze, bronze eyes widening in realization. Choking back a horrified gasp, she whipped about to stare at the tawny-furred bunny.
A pause, then Hare glanced over at her stunned face. She noticed in dull amazement that he was smirking slightly, a mere shadow of the cocky smile he usually seemed to have when he figured something out. This time, however, there was no humor in the expression. His brown eyes shimmered with pain and sorrow instead of mischievous delight.
"How long…? For a while now. Or do you mean, you want to know how I knew…?"
Holly slowly nodded, barely aware of the movement, or of the fact that she had sunk down into a chair.
"In Moo’s floating castle," Hare started slowly, keeping his voice calm and collected. "The first time, I mean. After you were kidnapped. There were a lot of things there that I didn’t understand at first. See, at first I figured he’d taken you away just ‘cause you had the Magic Stone. If he took you, he also took our chance of finding the Phoenix away."
Hare paused, then dropped his gaze to the floor.
"Honestly, I figured that you were as good as dead," he confessed softly. "I thought that he must have killed you the second he was out of our sight."
"Then, when we got there and found out you were alive, and he said that the Magic Stone could locate his original body, I thought, ‘Okay, so he kidnapped her to make her use the Stone for him.’ Of course, THAT theory was quickly proved wrong when he used it himself."
Something in his tone of voice tipped Holly off to the fact that he was frustrated with his inability to know the truth. She shifted her weight slightly, nervously, even though she sensed his anger was directed more at himself than at her.
"So I’m wondering, ‘What exactly is his game here? He doesn’t need Holly for his plans, and she’d be a big threat to him if she escapes, so why hasn’t he killed her? She’s worthless to him!’ …No offense," he rapidly added, hastily looking over at her.
"None taken," replied Holly weakly.
"It wasn’t until later that I managed to figure it all out," he continued. "And actually, it was something you said that made it all fall into place."
He paused, then locked eyes with her again.
"That dagger," he said simply, softly. "Moo gave it to you to convince you that he really was your father, didn’t he?"
"…Y…yes," confessed Holly, and her fingers impulsively strayed to where the talisman was sheathed. Hare nodded.
"That’s what I figured," he told her. "When Suezo asked where you had gotten it, and you replied it reminded you of your father… I couldn’t help but wonder how in the world you managed to get and hold onto a weapon while Moo was holding you hostage. And the fact that you’d not only gotten a weapon, but one that reminded you of your father… Well, that’s when it all made sense. Moo’s taking you away, his being able to use the Magic Stone, the fact that he tried to force you to join instead of just killing you outright…"
"…Why didn’t you say anything to the others?" Holly asked, bronze eyes wavering as she met the rabbit’s steady gaze.
"Hey. I know exactly what it’s like to want to keep something a secret," replied Hare, shrugging lightly. "Besides, what could I say? It’s not exactly polite to go, ‘Hey, Holly, I was just wondering, is Moo your father or something?’ Couldn’t very well go and say that in front of the others, and…"
Again he dropped his gaze back to the floor as he murmured, "I didn’t want to hurt you like that. ‘Cause it really, really would have crushed you to have the others treat you differently."
"………Then… you know… that I know what I’m talking about," Holly said hesitantly, shaking her head slowly as the shock of realizing her darkest secret wasn’t quite as secret as she thought.
"………" Hare shook his head slowly, then risked meeting her pleading bronze eyes for a minute as he insisted, "This is… different. It…"
"Is it? Is it, really?!?" demanded Holly, exasperation entering her tone again. "I can’t say I’m so certain."
"No… You don’t… know…"
"I know what I’ve seen! I know you’ve been trying to hide that the Phoenix’s Tear’s been reacting to Poseidon!"
Hare’s eyes widened a fraction at that, and Holly knew she’d hit a mark finally.
"I saw it glowing silver the last time he attacked. I saw it stop glowing when he left. I heard you whisper something… asking Tiger how he could do something to Golem."
Hare winced at each blunt statement, his long ears drooping at the accusation in the girl’s eyes, tempered as it was with sympathy and compassion.
"Please, Hare, just tell me what you know!" she implored again, leaning closer to him.
"…Ti…Moo captured Golem. A lo…some time ago, I’m not exactly certain when," Hare said slowly, eyes wrenching shut as he recited the knowledge in an almost monotone voice. "He was… on his way to his home village, when Moo intercepted him in Tiger’s body…"
Holly also closed her eyes in silent pain for a long moment. Just because her suspicions had finally been confirmed, it didn’t mean she enjoyed her so-called victory.
"…And then…?" she prompted after a few minutes of grim silence had passed.
"…I don’t know. The vision ended right after Moo captured him."
Hare shook his head slowly, then opened his shining brown eyes a crack and stared intently at his paws, clenching them tightly in his lap.
"…Poseidon’s the key to all of this," he whispered. "The Tear keeps reacting to him… He’s the cause of all my recent nightmares… Even my newest nightmare, the one where Moo captured Golem, was from his mind. He… knows more than he lets on, and he… can lead us to wherever Golem is now…"
"…Hare." Holly locked gazes with the bunny again, forcing her voice to remain as steady as possible as she revealed, "I think Poseidon is Golem."
Outside, a muted crash could be heard.
"Wh-what?!?" Hare stared at her, horrified.
"…It makes sense, don’t you think?" Holly sniffled, absently rubbing the back of one hand over her eyes as she pushed on, "If Moo could turn Tiger against us, and he’s captured Golem as you said, then…"
"Holly, we don’t know that for sure…"
"Don’t know what for sure? You just said yourself that Moo kidnapped Golem, and you’re not certain when!"
Hare recoiled, stammering, "Y-yeah, but… Poseidon’s too different from Golem for us to assume they’re the same monster."
"Are you saying that Tiger’s like Moo?"
"Holly, that’s not what I meant and you know it!" Hare cried, the stress getting to be too much for him. "And that’s… totally different… Moo’s possessed Tiger, but for Golem to be Poseidon…"
"…He’d have to be fused with a Jell?" Holly shook her head. "Jells aren’t exactly rare monsters, Hare. We know that from all of the raids alone…"
"…I’m just saying, we can’t assume they’re the same monster." Hare rested his head on his knees and frowned thoughtfully. "…Poseidon’s the key, I can tell you that much. He knows where Golem is. But for him to actually be…"
He shook his head again, a violent shudder racing down his back. Holly gazed at him sadly, not knowing what to say.
To be quite honest, she was surprised Hare was resisting this possibility so firmly. After he seemed so accepting of the fact Moo had once possessed her father, prior to being defeated and then taking Tiger… Then again, that in itself was tragedy enough. Maybe that was behind his denial…
- Having to fight one former friend is enough… The thought that we might be pitted against two of our best friends… -
"…But if it is true, we’ll have to deal with it sooner or later," she sighed, getting to her feet. Casting Hare one last pitiful look, she told him, "I hope you’re right about Golem not being Poseidon… but I just don’t know… I have a horrible feeling about it."
She turned away and walked towards the door, then stopped short. Much to her surprise, it was wide open, even though she was certain she’d closed it when she came in… On a hunch, she peeked outside, and her heart promptly froze for an instant.
A tray was lying on the floor, its contents upended and spilled across the wooden boards. It was obvious most of the spill had been wiped away, the dirty rag dropped on the discarded tray. Somebody had taken the time to clean the mess of spilled food up, but hadn’t bothered to put it away yet and just left it there, an odd mixture of consideration and sloppiness.
Holly stared at it in absolute horror, recalling hearing the dim sound of something crashing in the hallway outside, and a brief exchange that had taken place a bit earlier that day…
"…Oh, Goddess, no," she breathed, and took off down the hallway, leaving the discarded tray behind.
* * *
Elsewhere on the ship, another female figure was making her way through the maze of passages under the deck in a daze. Tears of disbelief blurred leaf green eyes, as Serinity fought back the almost overwhelming urge to collapse right there in the corridor and cry.
- It’s not true. It’s not true, it’s not true, it’s not true! Miss Holly can’t be right, she just can’t…! -
- Miss Holly… Why didn’t you tell me before…? -
They had both been waiting in Hare’s room, fighting back the impulse to try and wake the poor youngster up as he tossed and cried in the clutches of his latest nightmare.
Finally, Holly had chosen to break the tense silence that had fallen between the two observers. Turning to the pixie hybrid, she forced a tired smile, one that didn’t touch her sorrowful bronze eyes in the least.
"…Serinity, do you think you could get us something to eat…? I haven’t had anything in a while, and I don’t believe Hare’s eaten much lately either."
Serinity had jumped at the chance to get out of the room for a while, in all honesty. Even if it didn’t seem likely that Hare would actually eat much once he woke up from whatever nightmare he was currently suffering from, at the very least, she would feel like she was doing something. Considering how little she was able to help the others anymore… at least, how little she felt she was helping… even the most menial task she could accomplish could give her a small bit of satisfaction at doing something.
She was no fighter, and for all the times her healing abilities had been called upon during this voyage, they never seemed to be enough.
Retrieving a meal had proven simple enough, especially since the current cook seemed to enjoy her company whenever she visited, and after talking to him for a while Serinity had gotten a few bowls of stew. Walking back to the room, she opened the door and was mildly surprised to hear Hare already awake and engaged in conversation with Holly.
Dixie had always taught Serinity it was rude to walk in on the middle of another’s conversation. It simply wasn’t good manners. Besides, she got the impression they were in the middle of a rather private discussion.
So she’d opted to simply wait outside for a lull in the conversation, then enter and offer some nourishment to them. Hopefully, the stew wouldn’t grow too cold in the meantime…
But then, that hadn’t mattered any longer when she dropped the tray in her shock.
Serinity hadn’t meant to eavesdrop. It was just that her feline ears were quite adept at picking up sounds. And when she heard Golem’s name mentioned, she couldn’t help but listen in…
- It’s not true. It’s not, it can’t, it’s not…! -
- Golem is… not Poseidon. There’s simply no way… His eyes… -
- …Golem’s eyes are warm gray. They’re inviting and kind and compassionate… -
- Poseidon’s eyes… ice blue. Too cold to be his… -
- It’s impossible. Impossible… -
Serinity tripped, stumbled, and one hand shot out towards the wall instinctively, allowing her to brace herself. For a long moment, the flower pixie stood where she was, half-leaning against the wall, head bowed, wings limp, listening to the sound of her own ragged breathing.
- …No. No no no no no. -
- Golem is Golem. Poseidon is Poseidon. Simple as that. -
- Because if Golem was Poseidon… -
- …And he’s NOT!… -
- …I would have known. I would have recognized him. -
- His warm gray eyes… -
- Poseidon’s eyes are not his eyes. -
- Gray is gray. Blue is blue. -
- Warm and kind. Cold and cruel. -
- There’s no comparison. No way anybody could change so completely. -
- They’re total opposites… -
- …Opposites… -
Serinity slowly righted herself, one pale hand still resting against the coarse wooden wall.
- Warm gray can never become ice blue. -
- Kindness can never beget cruelty. -
- It simply isn’t possible. -
- Golem is still out there. He needs us to find him. -
- He needs… no, I need… to see him again. -
She took a shaky step forward down the corridor, then another.
- Those warm gray eyes… I’ll find them again. -
- And it will never, never be in those cold blue ones. -
- Because they simply don’t exist there… -
* * *
Holly finally found Serinity almost two hours later. The pixie hybrid was staring out a portal at the seemingly endless sea, through the translucent image of her own pale face, her own shimmering verdant eyes. She stepped into the chamber behind her and shut the door, then just stood there, not daring to approach, just waiting. Waiting for the pain to begin, the outraged sobbing and frantic denials, the apology and attempted explanation, the begging for forgiveness.
Nothing but silence. For several minutes, an eternity for both females, neither made a sound, neither moved.
A tense pause. The human girl waited in vain for injured leaf green pools to meet pleading bronze panes.
"…I pray you’re right, Serinity."
In the end, that was all either really needed to say.