After the battle, the searchers found themselves divided, as their common paths diverged once more.
Genki Sakura was returned to his world by the power of the Phoenix. Although he was loathe to leave his friends behind, the mystical firebird assured him that he would be able to return someday, for after her work was finished, she would establish a permanent bond between worlds. With the time frames of both now synchronized, he would be able to return at any time, with the aid of a special talisman that the Phoenix gave to him: one of her beautiful feathers.
Tiger of the Wind, desiring only to be reunited with his brother, left the others in search of him. Not entirely certain of where Grey Wolf was, his only absolute knowledge of his brother’s fate being that the reptilian Naga murdered him, he simply followed his instinct, leaving no clue with the others as to when or if he would return.
Soon after the blue wolf’s departure, the gentle stone giant Golem departed as well, eager to return to his home in the forest. The Phoenix’s rising resurrected all of the lost monsters, including those in the Grave of the Disc, and he longed to see all of his friends again after all of this time. Promising to one day introduce his new friends to them, he left, heading home at last.
Hare, who had revealed a great deal of power during the journey, thanks to his mastery of the Phoenix’s Tear, for once had no clue as to what his next move would be. Likewise, the young Mocchi, who had just been forcibly separated from his closest and dearest friend, was at a loss for ideas.
Eventually, the two youngest rebels chose to stay with Holly and Suezo, who had decided to settle down and try living on their own. The young maiden located a small ranch house, not far from where their quest had begun, and were able to establish a reasonably peaceful lifestyle there.
Time passed: the Phoenix completed her work and kept her promise, creating the link between Genki’s world and his own. Genki eagerly returned, and happily reunited with Holly, Mocchi, Hare and Suezo. Although a little sad to discover that his other friends, Tiger and Golem, were unavailable to greet him upon his return, he still was ecstatic to see the others again.
Since then, he has attempted to visit as regularly as possible, and the five have settled into an almost normal routine.
However, things are not as idyllic as they may seem…and the former heroes will soon find themselves drawn into a situation where they will be forced to take up a new journey, a new quest…without even knowing for certain whether or not they will be able to make a difference this time…
A lilting, haunting melody drifted through the air, carried by the soft, cool breeze that was sweeping through the valley. The song came from a small, handcrafted flute, and its player closed his eyes in concentration as he let the melody rise, becoming clearer, stronger.
Hare felt himself relax as he continued to play, letting the music carry him to a place where he felt at peace. The tune was his own, based on his memories of the original songs his mother had used to write and sing for him, what felt like a lifetime ago. Playing these melodies helped him feel more connected to her, even if the songs had changed a little. That part of it couldn’t be helped, since his mother played the harp instead of a flute (and while he did happen to know how to play that instrument as well, Suezo liked to tease him a lot about it, so he preferred not to).
Some distance away, a young woman stood listening to the sweet melody and smiled to herself. The wind played with her long, dark brown hair, setting it to dancing about her smiling face, and Holly smoothed it back with one hand, even though it did little good, for the wind continued to play with it the moment she moved her hand away.
Although only about five months had passed since her long quest for the Phoenix had come to an end at last, she looked radically different than she had back then. She now was letting her hair grow longer, and no longer caught it up in a ponytail. Her tunic’s skirt hem was longer now as well, making it look more like a dress, although in other ways it looked the same as her traveling outfit had.
There was one thing that hadn’t changed, though: the Magic Stone still hung around her neck, an ever-familiar presence. Holly reached up and clasped it gently for a moment, thinking about her travels with the others, and everything that they had gone through.
Her bronze eyes misted with gentle tears as her thoughts strayed to her father, and the monster he had become. She had never told the others that her beloved father had been the one who was possessed by Moo; she simply could never have revealed that to them. After all, she had known that in order to defeat Moo, they would have to destroy him, and she knew that if the others had known that the evil monster warlord was merged with her father, they might have hesitated to do what simply had to be done.
Moo had caused so much pain and suffering…but he was gone now, that was what mattered. Now, finally, the world was free of the dark monster, and would no longer have to deal with his evil intentions.
And surely that freedom was worth any personal sacrifices that she or any of the others had been forced to make securing it…wasn’t it?
She shook her head suddenly to clear out this melancholy thought, and was startled to feel a sharp tug on her hand. Looking down, she smiled at once as she recognized the small pink monster that looked expectantly up at her.
"Oh, hello, Mocchi," she said, gripping his tiny hand firmly with her own. Mocchi grinned back up at her, then looked over at where Hare was sitting, still playing on his flute.
"Pretty song, chi!" he said, exuberant. Unfortunately, his sudden shout of this caused Hare to start with surprise, and he looked over at the two in confusion for a moment, still half caught up in the spell the music had woven.
"Oh…how long have you two been standing there?" he asked, blushing slightly with embarrassment as he got up and walked over to them. Holly just smiled, not offering an answer, and the three walked back toward her house, where she knew Suezo would be waiting for them.
Mocchi soon ran ahead of them, eager to get back, and he glanced back over his shoulder at them with a laugh. Taking this as a challenge, Hare smirked and darted after him, and Holly watched the two race in front of her as she walked, giggling at their antics.
Since the Phoenix’s rising she had spent more time watching the younger monsters as they played together, something that they had precious little time to do during the quest, and had come to realize just how strikingly different they were personality wise, even though they were close to each other’s age. Each had their own outlook on things, their own strengths and abilities, and both cherished their individuality.
Hare would probably always have a better grasp on life, people, and how the world worked than Mocchi would. Curious, inquisitive, always interested in learning new things, he would enjoy life from an intellectual standpoint. However, although Mocchi might face life with less understanding than Hare, he was not going to miss out in the least. Instead, he would meet each new day with youthful excitement, his overwhelming optimum infecting those close to him. While the full grasp of complex matters might be lost on him, in compensation he would always be in tune with the simple joys of life in which Hare, while understanding them, would never be able to enjoy without some self-consciousness. Holly knew that, in days yet to come, both of them would give her a special kind of happiness and joy…
…Unless something happened to take them away from her.
Holly gasped softly, truly startled by her own thoughts. Where in the world had that come from? She slowed down, trailing behind the two monsters, as she found her thoughts drifting back to the final battle.
She remembered very little of it, truth be told: the last clear memory she had was being snatched up by Genki, and being carried by him as he skated away from Moo’s attacks, attempting to get to a shrine in order to unlock the Phoenix’s mystery disc. She vaguely remembered hearing somebody scream a warning – was it Hare who had shouted at them to look out? – and then a flash of black light and pain…searing, terrible pain…
…Then, the memory broke off, becoming fragmented, distorted, confused. The next thing she clearly remembered was standing beside Genki, slipping her hand into his, with Mocchi, Suezo, Tiger, and Golem standing in a circle around them, strange expressions on their faces.
"We’re…alive?" Suezo had asked, clearly stunned by this fact, and then Hare had gasped with joy, and she learned that they had won…
Holly knew why she had no memories of the rest of the fight: she had been dead. Moo had apparently murdered both her and Genki with one shot, skewering both of them with his dark beams of light. It was a distinctly odd feeling, to know that you had died and yet, through some miracle, had come back to life again.
She learned later that the others had died as well; Tiger of the Wind, Golem, Mocchi and Suezo had been killed by the shock when their bodies released the Phoenix’s spirit, reviving the firebird at the cost of their own lives. That had been another shock: to discover that her dear friends were all directly linked to the very thing they had been searching for. They had nearly been forced to give up their lives in exchange for the Phoenix’s restoration.
However, Hare, who was also linked to the Phoenix, had survived the force of the firebird’s awakening because of his lesser wounds and his link with the Phoenix’s Tear. The mystical pendant had protected him, and later he had been able to use its power, boosted by the firebird’s aid, to revive his lost friends and restore their broken bodies to full health.
It still scared her to know that all of them had died during the battle; it was an all too vivid reminder of their mortality. Something could have too easily gone wrong, and what then? All of them would have been dead, gone forever, having made the ultimate sacrifice in order to stop Moo forever…
…But then, wouldn’t it have been worth it, if at least we had managed to stop him for good?
Holly did not have an answer to that question, and so she forced it out of her mind, concentrating instead on catching up with the others. She was able to easily enough: they had noticed that she was trailing behind and paused long enough for her to come up beside them. All three then headed back towards home, Mocchi unable to resist running ahead of them again in his eagerness.
Suezo was waiting for them, leaning against the side of the doorframe outside, and he smiled when he saw them coming up.
"Hey, Holly," he greeted, green-gold eye lighting up at the sight of her. "You just missed her; she was over here looking for you."
"Oh?" There was no need for anyone to ask just who "she" was; Holly understood immediately that he was referring to Coltia, one of their new neighbors. She was about Holly’s age, and ever since their arrival had been trying to become good friends with them. However, she sometimes acted…a little TOO eager for friendship…
"Did she say what she wanted?" Holly asked, but before Suezo could answer, a sudden shout behind him caused everyone to turn around.
"Oh boy…" Hare sighed, sweatdropping along with Mocchi. Holly laughed nervously, understanding why neither one was exactly thrilled by this…
True to form, the moment Coltia saw the two younger monsters standing next to Holly, she let out a squeal of delight and scooped them up in a tight hug.
"Oh, you two always look so cute, cute, CUTE!" she sighed when she finally released them, while both Hare and Mocchi gasped for precious air. Holly and Suezo watched with big sweatdrops on the backs of their heads.
"How come she never does that to me?" Suezo whispered to Holly, although he couldn’t exactly say that he was jealous of the attention she was giving the two younger monsters. Holly just hushed him and smiled nervously. Both of them knew that Coltia acted that way because she didn’t have any monsters of her own. Still, Holly wondered if maybe Coltia was just that way all the time, monster or no monster…
"You wanted to see me for something, Colt?" she asked, using the younger girl’s preferred nickname. Coltia blinked in surprise, staring at Holly for a moment as if she’d forgotten why she had come. Of course, it was possible that she had.
"Oh…that’s right," she said, blinking her wide tan eyes again. "I wanted to tell you, somebody arrived at my Aunt Verde’s shop yesterday, and said that they were looking for a friend of theirs…from the description, it sounded like he was looking for Hare."
"For Hare?" Holly asked, and she glanced back at the little rabbit in surprise. Hare looked just as startled as she was.
"Who would be looking for you, Hare?" Suezo wondered aloud.
"I don’t know…what did they look like, Colt?" Hare asked, turning his gaze to the younger girl’s face.
"Oh! …Well, he was about as tall as me, or that boy you have visit you from time to time…"
"Genki," Mocchi supplied the name for Coltia, who smiled at him gratefully.
"Yeah, that’s right, he’s about as tall as Genki! Anyway, I know he’s some sort of mixed breed, ‘cause he looks sorta like you, but instead of fur, he had all these green scales all over his body…"
"…A Scaled Hare," Hare mused, narrowing his eyes slightly in thought. "A Scaled Hare, looking for me…"
"…Yeah, I think that’s what he was. Anyway, I’d better get going; Aunt Verde expects me back at the shop before dark. Later!"
With that, Coltia ran off, waving back at the others as she left. Holly sweatdropped slightly as she joined the others in waving goodbye, and she glanced up at the rapidly darkening sky.
"I don’t think she’s going to make it, do you?" Suezo whispered in Holly’s ear. Holly nodded slightly, smiling.
"Bye-bye-chi!" Mocchi called, waving happily with Hare. After Coltia’s running form had disappeared from view, both younger monsters looked back up at Holly. Hare tilted his head to one side inquisitively, and Mocchi gave her an entreating look.
Holly smiled back at them.
"Want to help me get dinner ready?" she asked, winking.
"Chi!" Mocchi cheered with delight, and he darted inside, while Hare and Suezo just shook their heads and laughed.
* * *
Later, Holly hummed softly to herself as she put away the rest of the dishes. The three monsters had helped her clean up after the meal, and she had sent them up to get ready for bed as she did a few last things. Suezo had made her promise to come up quickly; he didn’t like it when she was out of his sight for long.
As she finished putting up and turned to leave, she found her gaze drifting over to the window, out into the starlit sky. Without realizing it, the tune she was humming changed in tone, switching from a bright, happy melody to one more wistful, more longing. She stepped forward and put both hands on the windowsill, leaning against it. A cool breeze from outside swept her hair back, away from her face, her suddenly tear-misted eyes.
This life she and the others were living right now…it seemed so peaceful, so perfect. Certainly, they had their share of troubles, but none of those problems really compared with the ones they had faced during their long journey to find the Phoenix. Lately, the most catastrophe thing that had happened to them was that Genki had once promised to come, only to find himself unable to because of trouble back in his world, and even that had been remedied fairly easily.
If only things could stay like this forever, she wished, clasping her hands in front of her as her wavering eyes remained locked on the sky. But…somehow…I get the feeling that…this life may soon come to an end…
"Holly!" Suezo called from upstairs; she had hesitated too long, and he was beginning to get worried. Pushing her dark thoughts out of her mind, Holly tore her gaze away from the window and turned away, heading upstairs to calm him down. Honestly, sometimes she thought that he worried too much about her…and maybe she was just worrying for no good reason as well…
* * *
"Is everything going according to the plan?"
"Yes, master. None of those responsible for the Phoenix’s rising are currently aware of what is happening. Those fools have no idea…"
"Good, good. They should be kept in the dark for as long as possible."
"I do not understand what makes it so important for them not to know. It is not as if any of them could stop you."
"I am aware of that; however…"
"It is better to be cautious. They will know soon enough, after all…although it will be too late for them at that point."
"I am concerned about those two, however. The girl who bears the Magic Stone and the wielder of the Phoenix’s Tear. Is it not possible that they might be able to sense what is happening?"
"Perhaps. Perhaps not. Does it really matter?"
"It may, and it may not. We have no way of knowing for certain yet…"
"Stop your worrying. Even if they do somehow figure out what is going on, they are too scattered to do anything about it. Remember, the Phoenix is linked to five monsters, and if they are not gathered together…"
"Yes, but still…"
"Listen, you’re all worrying for no reason at all. After tonight, once he has finished his mission, those rebels will be too shattered to gather themselves again."
"Perhaps you are right. We shall see…"
"Everything starts now, doesn’t it?"
* * *
Drip, drip, drip…
A steady sound, keeping a certain rhythm. Quiet, hushed, it seemed to pound in the listener’s ears all the same, each drop sounding like a crash of thunder.
Drip, drip, drip…
An image glimpsed briefly in black shadows, of clear brown eyes, widening with fear. A crimson swipe swept over them, and their owner fell back, clutching at his neck. Another flash of red swept across the watcher’s view, and then the scene changed again, to a young boy laying half-wrapped in sheets, sprawled out on his bed.
Genki Sakura’s blank eyes stared without seeing into endless darkness, his tortured body covered with splotches of his own blood. One of his arms, hanging lifelessly over the side of his bed, had a particularly deep gash in it, one that still dripped onto the stained floor…
Drip, drip, drip…
* * *
Wavering brown eyes shot open violently, and Hare gasped in horror, sitting upright with a start. Breathing raggedly, he slowly became aware of the fact that tears were rolling down his pale cheeks unbidden. The memory of his nightmare crashed down upon him, and he buried his face in his paws and wept, struggling to quiet his sobs so that they would not awaken his friends.
Th-that dream! He thought, shuddering violently. D-Don’t tell me…was that a vision? No, not again…
* Genki…is Genki in danger? I-I have to warn him somehow! *
* Genki! *
* * *
Clear brown eyes slowly opened, and Genki blinked tiredly. There was an annoying light flickering in his face, and the boy groaned as he shielded his eyes with one arm. When this didn’t work, he sleepily rolled away, attempting to turn his back to the source of the light so he could…
Unfortunately, he suddenly realized that his bed was a little too small for that. Head throbbing, Genki soon became aware of the fact that he was upside down, his messy brown hair pressed against the floor while his legs jutted into midair, still tangled in his covers. It took a few minutes of fumbling and thrashing before he could right himself, and by that time he was pretty much awake.
"Aww, man," he muttered, irritably pushing his bangs away from his face. Standing up, he stretched out his arms and yawned loudly, and suddenly a faint glimmer caught his attention again. Glancing over, he saw the feather that the Phoenix had given him sitting out on his desk, glowing faintly.
"…Eh?" Genki blinked his tired eyes in confusion: he was certain that he had stored that so that his mother would not come across it accidentally. He didn’t want to have to explain it to her. Careful not to step on any of the junk cluttering his floor – Monster Rancher toys, various games and sports equipment – he made his way over to his desk. The feather continued to glow and shimmer slightly, looking almost as if it was aflame, and Genki stared down at it, trying to make sense of what was happening. Finally, he shrugged and reached down to pick it up.
* Genki! *
"Hare?" Genki asked aloud, startled by the suddenness of the voice’s appearance in his mind. He looked around, almost expecting to see Hare standing in his bedroom with him; he had heard his voice so clearly.
He could sense something else, too; an almost overwhelming fear, confusion, worry about him…Hare’s mind was in chaos. At least, he thought it was Hare’s thoughts he sensed washing over him, for an image came clearly to him of the young rabbit sobbing, crying softly to himself.
"Hare?" he asked again, and suddenly the Phoenix’s feather in his hand began to glow again. Looking down at it, Genki suddenly decided on something.
"I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to go check on them," he said to himself, smiling slightly. "After all, Mom’s asleep right now…this shouldn’t take too long…"
Holding the gleaming feather in both hands, Genki focused on what the Phoenix had taught him to do. A clear image came to his mind again, of Holly’s house, and the other world.
A fire-like aura flashed around him for a second, so bright that he could see it even behind his closed eyelids, and when he opened them, he was in the Monster Rancher world again. Specifically, he was standing a few feet away from Hare’s bed, and he watched the young rabbit cry for a few moments more, unaware of his presence.
"Why are you crying, Hare?" he asked, and Hare jerked with surprise.
"Genki…what are you doing here?" he asked, staring up at the boy in shock. Genki just grinned and winked mischievously.
"I thought I heard you crying, so I came to see what was up," he explained. Hare blinked in surprise, looking even more startled.
"You…heard me crying?" he asked. "But how could that be possible…"
Genki interrupted him, shrugging it off. His clear eyes were solemn as he repeated, "So what’s up? Why were you crying, anyway?"
"…I’m…not sure…but I think…I think I may have had a vision," Hare explained. It was Genki’s turn to start in surprise with that.
"What?" he said, staring at the rabbit. "B-but you haven’t had anything like that happen since…since…"
"Since the Phoenix defeated Moo," Hare supplied for him, brown eyes darkening with thought. He glanced back down at his chest, fingering the Phoenix’s Tear, which still hung around his neck. Genki watched him for a few moments, lost in his own thoughts.
"…So what do you think you saw?" he asked.
"…I’m not sure…nothing…everything," Hare murmured, still looking down at his pendant. It shimmered a little bit, and he said, "I remember hearing all these voices…I didn’t recognize any of them. I couldn’t make out most of the words…just a few snatches here and there. Something about plans…and not wanting those who caused the Phoenix to rise to find out."
He paused, then raised his wavering brown eyes to lock with Genki.
"I saw you die," he said bluntly, suddenly. "You were laying on a bunch of tangled white sheets, and they were stained with your blood. There was blood everywhere…"
Genki stared at him as the rabbit’s voice trailed off, and Hare began to tremble again, the memory of the boy’s dead body suddenly coming back all too clearly.
"Hey, don’t let it get to you," he said, reaching over and holding the rabbit’s shaking shoulders reassuringly. "I’m not dead, see? I’m perfectly okay, everything’s fine…"
"But what if it was a warning?" Hare asked, looking up at Genki with wavering brown eyes.
"It wasn’t, Hare," Genki told him, smiling. "It was just a nightmare, nothing more. We’ve defeated the enemy, remember? Nothing bad’s going to happen…"
He could tell Hare was unconvinced, however, and sighed silently to himself, wondering just how he could convince his friend that everything was just fine. After a few moments, an idea occurred to him.
"Look, how about I show you my room?" he asked suddenly, startling the rabbit. "If I take you back to my world, you can see that everything’s fine there, that nothing’s out of the ordinary. Then you’ll know that it was just a nightmare you had, not a warning…"
"…Can you really do that?" Hare wondered. The boy shrugged.
"Only one way to find out," Genki said, and he grabbed hold of Hare’s paw with one hand. Before Hare could protest, the boy had used the feather to transfer back to his world, and he heard the rabbit gasp in shock as they appeared back in his room. Opening his eyes, Genki was about to laugh at his friend’s surprise, when something he saw made the words freeze on his tongue.
A hulking, muscular figure stood over the boy’s bed. Its back turned to where Genki and Hare stood in stunned silence, the creature’s attention was completely focused on what it was currently doing. Long, curved talons tore again and again into soft white sheets, ripping through fabric with deadly efficiency. Pieces of stuffing and downy feathers sprayed everywhere, and still the shadowy creature continued its work, shredding apart the bed in which Genki had been peacefully sleeping until a short while before.
There was no mistaking the fact that the creature obviously still assumed this to be true. Genki watched in dull shock, unable to fully grasp what was happening right away, then he quickly glanced at his companion. Hare was staring at the boy’s would-be assassin, brown eyes wide, breath coming in short gasps. The beast’s reptilian tail lashed from side to side as it worked, and its clearish-blue scales glittered in the moonlight that streaked through the window.
The monster – for it was a monster – finished its work, and stood regarding the shredded sheets and pillows for a few seconds.
"Funny…I had thought that there would be more blood than this," it mused aloud, then it turned and froze as its piercing gaze suddenly fell upon where the two were standing paralyzed. Startled, it gaped back at them, and its hesitation gave Genki and Hare enough time to see clearly the medallion that gleamed on its thick chest.
"…Ah, so that is it," it hissed, a smirk twisting its thin blue lips for a second. "Naughty child, don’t you know that all good little boys should be in bed when it’s this late?"
"Who are you?" Genki demanded, as he and Hare hastily dropped into more battle-ready stances.
"Me? I am Aqua Cutter, and that is all you need to know, rebels," the monster snarled, and it abruptly leapt forward, talons flashing out toward them.
Genki and Hare leapt in separate directions, and the naga hybrid’s claws sliced through empty air. Hissing, it turned to face the boy, and Hare quickly wound up his Guru Guru punch, slamming it full-force into the serpent’s cheek. Aqua Cutter grunted and whirled to face him, swinging back his arm in retaliation. By chance, one of his talons nicked the side of Hare’s foot, and the rabbit winced as he landed, springing away before the monster could get his claws on him.
"Evil…" Aqua Cutter intoned, pointing directly at Hare. A sullen, ice blue tinted light pulsed around his hand, and he brought it back behind him as a ball of crackling energy formed in it. "Sho-WHUMPH!"
Genki grinned as he watched the pillow he had thrown hit the reptile monster full in the face, sending downy white feathers flying everywhere. Sputtering, Aqua Cutter tossed the pillow away, and swiped again at the boy, this time hitting his mark. Genki could not even scream as he was knocked back against one of his bedposts, and the wood cracked under the force of his impact. Dazed, he groggily looked up at Aqua Cutter as the leering snake went in for the kill, claws flashing in the moonlight…
Then the reptilian’s face twisted in sudden agony as a flash of crimson fire surged into his outstretched hand, the intense heat instantly beginning to melt his claws. Genki looked over to see Hare kneeling on the top of his desk, one paw still pointed in front of him, breathing hard.
"Master!" Aqua Cutter screamed, holding his scorched hand in agony. "Master, please save me!"
The last word had barely passed the reptilian’s lips when he vanished, a sudden flash of ice blue light marking his hasty departure. For several moments, the only sound in the bedroom was the ragged breathing of the two searchers, and then Genki took a deep breath.
"Hare…I think you may have just saved my life," he said quietly.
Hare was silent at this, his wavering brown eyes distant, and Genki trailed off, lost in his own thoughts. The two stood quietly, regarding the ruins of the boy’s bed: the tattered sheets, the mess of stuffing and feathers. Finally, Genki turned away and started picking his way through the mess on his floor, heading towards his closet.
"I’m getting my things, then we’ll head back to Holly and the others," he explained. Hare nodded mutely, still staring at what remained of Genki’s bedsheets, and the boy turned his attention back to finding his skates.
Hare shivered, all too easily able to picture bloodstains on the tattered sheets, then he bent to heal the small cut on the bottom of his foot. He was lucky, he knew, to be able to get away with so minor an injury: things could have turned out a lot worse. And at least, with the Phoenix’s Tear’s healing abilities, he wouldn’t even have to worry about getting a limp.
After a while, Genki emerged from his closet again, and Hare looked up at him. The boy was now dressed in much the same way he had during their quest: cap holding back his unruly bangs of dark brown hair, blue shirt and brown shorts, skates hanging off of his backpack. The boy sweatdropped slightly as he looked back at the ruins of his bed again.
"My mom is going to kill me," he joked weakly, and they both laughed quietly for a moment, knowing that would probably be the last of their worries soon enough…
* * *
"You have failed us, Aqua Cutter."
The reptilian bowed low, his face inches away from the ebony stones beneath him, his wounded hand pressed against his chest.
"I am sorry, master," he said, wincing with each word, "but I did not expect the boy to have a guardian with him. That damned rabbit cost me my prey!"
"The rabbit who wields the Phoenix’s Tear?" Disbelief and outrage filled this voice as it bellowed, "How could you let him find out, you idiot? Do you have any idea what you’ve done?!?"
"Calm down," another voice said, its owner also hidden from the reptile’s sight. "You knew before we sent him that it was possible that he might sense what was happening. It was a risk you were willing to run."
"Yes, but still…!"
"There is still little that they can do. Remember that all five of the chosen ones must be together for them to pose a real threat. They are still scattered, separated. There is no cause for alarm…"
"Yes…yes, you are correct, of course. There is nothing those fools can possibly do…"
"All the same, we must now be more cautious in our work…it would not do to throw everything away by being too overconfident."
Aqua Cutter continued to keep his submissive stance, and silently ground his teeth together, dark eyes glittering with hatred. He would not soon forget this humiliation, having to wait while his superiors discussed their next actions. He wasn’t even bothering to listen, his thoughts completely focused on how he would get his revenge.
I may not have been able to complete my mission tonight, rebels, he thought bitterly, but I will kill your bratty child of a leader! I will make you pay for this!
* * *
"Wha-aaat?" Suezo cried out, staring at Genki and Hare in shock. It was morning, and the sun streamed through the open window. The last thing that Suezo had expected to see when he got up was Genki, and certainly he had not been expecting the news that the boy had…
"What do you mean a baddie attacked you?" he demanded. "How in the heck would a baddie even GET to your world? And what in the heck is a baddie even DOING being AROUND?!? Moo’s kinda DEAD, you know…"
"I don’t understand it either," Genki said, frowning as he crossed his arms, "but I know what we saw. That was definitely a baddie crest he was wearing, and he was definitely trying to kill me."
"Chiii…" Mocchi clung to the boy’s hand, huge eyes wavering with fear as he peered up at his friend and partner’s face. It was incredibly difficult for him to grasp the fact that someone might have killed him just a little while ago; the concept was completely out of the question. Noticing this, Holly reached over and patted the young monster’s back, while at the same time wondering just how she would be acting if the baddie had managed to complete his mission…
…But he didn’t, and he won’t, she told herself sternly.
"So, if a baddie attacked you, then that must mean…" she started to say.
"…No way," Suezo interrupted, eye wide with fear. "There is no way that he could come back. NO WAY! …Right?"
"…I don’t know…but…that seems to be the only explanation," Hare mused. The other rebels stared at him; each lost in their own thoughts.
…Father…have you come back? Holly wondered, her fingers straying to the dagger she still carried with her and giving its hilt a slight squeeze. Or has somebody else become linked to Moo’s mind?
Moo might be back? …This is not real, this isn’t happening… Suezo told himself, breathing hard and sweatdropping.
…If Moo’s come back…would that mean that…? Hare broke off that line of thought suddenly, shivering.
"…No matter what’s happening, I think that we should find the others first," Genki said, standing up and shouldering his backpack. The others looked up at him and nodded.
"I agree," Hare said, standing. "If Moo has returned, then we’ll need to summon the Phoenix again to fight him. And to do that, we need to have everyone with us…"
* …Plus, they’re probably in a lot of danger off by themselves, even if Moo isn’t the threat we’re facing… *
That thought went unspoken, and the rebels all nodded in agreement. Hare and Suezo went to gather their things, and Holly retreated back into her room to change, closing the door behind her. It didn’t take long to find her old traveling bag, and as she drew out her old hair ribbon, she took a long look at her reflection in the mirror. The Magic Stone glimmered, catching the light reflected from the mirror’s surface, and she looked at its image before her, bronze eyes wavering a little.
Well, father, I guess I was wrong in thinking that I would never have to use this again, she mused. Reaching out, she brushed the tips of her fingers slightly against the smooth glass; it felt cool under her touch.
Father…have you returned as well? Or are you gone forever? Are you, father?
The silent mirror gave her no reply; she expected none, of course. She stood regarded the young woman before her a few moments more, then reached up and caught up her hair. Holding it behind her, she tied her ribbon around it, tying the ends into a bow. As she let it slip back behind her, caught up in a ponytail once more, she now faced a girl she never thought she would see again. The thought of that made her smile slightly, although it was a sad, fleeting smile.
* * *
"Hey, Holly," Genki said, grinning at the girl as she stepped outside of the house. He was already waiting outside with the three monsters, and she stared at all of them. Hare was carrying his old bundle, bobbing on the end of a stick. Suezo had found his old travel pack, too, and had secured it firmly in place. Mocchi wasn’t carrying anything, but that didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest, and the youngest monster was running circles around the others, eager to get going.
It was almost exactly like the old times, those several months past, with the sole exception that two of their members were notably absent. Holly caught herself staring and flushed bright red for a moment, quickly looking away.
"What’s wrong, Holly?" Genki asked, watching her in confusion.
"No-nothing," she said, turning a wistful smile back on him. The wind seemed to tug slightly at her caught-up hair, as if trying to urge it out of its confines, and she smoothed it back again.
"Well then, let’s get going!" he cheered, whirling around and starting down the path.
"Genki, wait!" Holly called.
"Don’t you think that maybe we should get some supplies in town first?" Suezo added. Genki looked back at them, startled.
"Um…yeah! Exactly!" he said, then he whirled back around and started off again, saying, "Come on, let’s go!"
"But Genki…" Hare said, and the boy looked back at the others again. Seeing that none of them had moved, Genki let out a groan of annoyance.
"What’s with the holdup, people?" he demanded, fuming. In response, Hare simply turned and pointed in the opposite direction.
"Oh, nothing…just that the town is that way…"
"Oh…I knew that," Genki lied, quickly reversing direction and running back past them. Holly and the monsters just sighed and shook their heads.
"Same old Genki," Suezo commented, closing his eye and shaking his head scoldingly. "Tsk, tsk, tsk…" Then he happened to open it again and saw that the others had already left, and he looked up in time to see them racing after Genki.
"Hey, wait up, wait for me, hold it!" he shouted, hopping after them. "Wait, wait, waaiiittt!"
"Same old Suezo, too," Hare commented mildly, then he joined the others in laughing as they raced each other toward town. At least this journey was off to a good start…and with any luck, things would stay this way, he told himself as he ran after his friends.
* * *
Far away, somewhere thousands of miles from the five searchers, a cloaked figure slowly raised his head, eyes glowing crimson behind an ebony mask. An icy wind tore at his long, flowing black cape, and equally long hair flew behind him as he stared off toward the blood-red horizon.
"And so it begins…" he murmured, wind howling around him.
"Welcome to Verde’s Shop, may I…Holly! Hello!" Coltia exclaimed, looking up at the sound of the door’s swinging open and seeing the older girl standing there.
"Hi, Colt," Holly greeted her, smiling. "Is your aunt in right now?"
"Yeah, hold on, she’s in the back. I’ll go get her," Coltia said, getting up as she spoke. As she stood, her elbow happened to graze the side of a bowl beside her, knocking off of the desk. Genki barely managed to catch it, and the others sweatdropped slightly.
"Um…that’s okay, I’ll go talk to her myself," Holly offered, excusing herself from the room. After she left, Genki helped Coltia replace the bowl on a shelf, out of harm’s way.
"Wow, thank you so much for catching it," she gushed, beaming over at him. "I just don’t know what I would have done if it’d broken…I’m so clumsy sometimes…"
She stuck her tongue out teasingly and grinned, and Genki sweatdropped for a moment. While Coltia was only a little younger than Holly, she was much shorter than the other girl, and was on eye level with him. In some ways, she looked like a younger copy of Holly, in fact: her short tan hair was several shades lighter, but the style she wore it in was similar, and her caramel eyes held the same brightness.
However, personality wise…well, Genki had overheard Suezo saying more than once that he thought Coltia acted like a female version of the over-energetic boy, and he wasn’t entirely certain on whether that was supposed to be a compliment or a complaint… He had to admit, though, he could see what the eyeball monster meant.
"So what exactly are you guys looking for?" she was asking, snapping the boy back into reality. "Anything in particular?"
"Just some traveling supplies," he replied, turning and beginning to sort through some of the items on the shelves. Coltia looked over at him, tan eyes wide with curiosity.
"Oh, so you’re going on a journey? Where to?"
"We’re going to visit some of our friends, that’s all," Suezo interrupted, giving the two humans an odd look.
"Find Golem and Tiger, chi!" Mocchi cheered, hopping up and down.
"Golem? Tiger? …Oh, right, those two that Holly sometimes talks about…it must be great, knowing that you’re going to see your friends again…"
Coltia looked down at her feet for a moment then shook her head suddenly, and the smile she aimed back at Genki was apologetic.
"Whoops, sorry about that," she said, beaming again. Turning back to the shelves behind her, she continued, "So anyway, just give me some idea of what you might need. I’ll see what I can find."
"…Colt?" Genki asked, staring at the girl in surprise. He wasn’t entirely certain, but for a moment he had gotten the distinct impression that she was about to cry. But the smile she turned back on him seemed genuine, and he relaxed again.
"…Colt…Hey, um…do you remember what you came to tell us yesterday?" Hare suddenly spoke up. Coltia glanced back at him, blinked once, then suddenly gasped as she remembered.
"Oh, that’s right! That monster who came around here looking for someone like you!"
"…Hare?" Genki asked, staring back at the young rabbit in surprise; this was the first he’d heard about anything like that. Hare looked down at the floor for a few moments, apparently lost in his own thoughts.
"…Yes, well…is that guy…do you know if he’s still in town?" he questioned, looking back up at her. Coltia paused, thinking hard for a moment, then suddenly nodded.
"Yeah, I think he’s still around," she replied. "In fact, I think he stayed at the inn last night…do you want me to help you find him?"
"…Yeah," Hare confirmed, nodding. "I want to see who it is…"
"Okay, then…" Coltia squeezed past Genki and walked over to the door, motioning for him to follow her. Over her shoulder, she shouted, "I’m going out for a while, Aunt Verde! Be back soon!"
"Okay!" a female voice called back from another room, and Coltia led Hare outside. Genki, Mocchi and Suezo glanced at one another, then hurried after them.
"We’re gonna see what’s up; later, Holly!" the boy cried over his shoulder as he ran outside.
* * *
"Genki?!? …Oh, boy," Holly sighed, sinking back into her chair. "Sometimes I think he’s a little too curious for his own good…"
"I’m sure that they’ll be fine," Verde assured her, a motherly smile on her face. Picking up her cup of tea, she blew on it to cool the warm liquid before taking a sip. As she set it back down before her, she added, "After all, he has taken care of himself before, isn’t that right?"
Holly nodded silently, eyes closed. Privately, she wondered if it had been a good idea to tell Verde about their original quest, and about how they had fought Moo and summoned the Phoenix, but she sensed that the older woman was trustworthy. At least, she hadn’t fainted or burst out laughing when Holly had told her about them being the ones that saved the world; that was a good sign…
* * *
"Colt, I don’t think it’s a very good idea to come in here…" Suezo warned, surveying the inside of the tavern nervously. The girl brushed past him, Genki following behind her, and she waved off his words as being overcautious.
"Don’t worry," she assured him with a giggle, "Nothing’s going to happen. You’re such a worrywart sometimes, Suezo! Besides, we’re just coming in to see if we can find that…oh! There he is!"
She pointed, and Hare stared over at a lone figure, sitting silently at a table in the corner, apparently oblivious to everything else in the room. He took a deep breath, trying to get a closer look at the face, wondering just who this was that wished to see him…
He was a half-breed monster, like the majority of monsters in this world, meaning that he combined some of the characteristics of two very different types of creatures. In his case, he possessed the blood of both the Hare breed and the Zuum breed, or perhaps the latter was actually that of a Dino: the two latter types shared so many similar traits that some critics argued that they should be considered the same species.
His body was obviously that of a hare: his long, pointed ears were pricked slightly even now, listening to something. However, instead of a rabbit’s soft, cuddly fur, his body was instead covered in strong, leathery green scales, albeit scales that were unusually soft and responsive to the touch. What little fur he did have, on his face and chest, was also tinted a faint, light green, and his eyes were a startling shade of violet-brown, with hints of red that sparkled in the light of the tavern.
A thick, leather cloak of natural tan was draped over his shoulders, a few folds encircling his neck as well, and the leather looked well worn and traveled. Indeed, he must have been a traveler, for there was something about the way his deep violet-brown eyes gleamed that suggested he knew the ways of survival, and of traveling alone…
Suddenly Coltia let out a squeal, and Hare snapped to attention. Whirling around, he saw at once what was the matter: a burly-looking man had slapped the girl on the back, startling her. As she glared over at the one who had struck her, he seemed unconcerned, and leered suggestively.
"I think we should get going," Hare said, the man’s expression setting off alarms in the back of his mind. He took a last, fleeting glance back at the cloaked half-breed still sitting in the corner; he was certain that he knew him somehow, but at the moment, the way eluded him… He wanted to try talking to him, to see if that would remind him, but he knew better than to stay in a place like this. He hated places like this, anyway: the reek of alcohol and other unpleasant scents always made him start to feel sick after a very short while.
"Yeah…" Genki said, and he hastily took hold of a fuming Coltia’s shoulder and guided her away before she could belt the creep. Hare quickly followed after them, staying close to his two human friends. Suezo and Mocchi had not left the doorway, and stood there uncertainly, eager to get going.
Suddenly a deep voice growled, "Hey, where are you going?" and Hare felt himself freeze as thick fingers abruptly tightened around his arm. Glancing behind him, his breath quickened slightly with fear as he caught a glimpse of a man’s face glowering down at him.
"W-What do you mean, sir?" he asked, trying to keep his voice from shaking. Genki and Coltia looked back, and Hare noticed that both humans tensed as they saw what was going on.
The man’s scowl deepened, and his grip on Hare’s arm tightened slightly, the dirty, broken fingernails digging slightly into his skin. The little rabbit sucked in a gasp at the dull pain in his arm, and he struggled to keep calm as he looked up into the man’s face.
"Why is a little monster like you," and the man’s tone seemed to turn the word ‘monster’ into a curse word, indicating a sort of disdain for him, "wearing something as fancy as that?"
"What?" Hare glanced down; the Phoenix’s Tear had slipped slightly on his chest, glimmering faintly under the fabric of his kerchief. Looking up at the scowling man’s face, he attempted and failed a smile as he explained, "Oh, that’s just my pendant. I…"
Whatever he was going to say next turned into a gasp of pain as the man tightened his grip even more, and Hare involuntarily attempted to jerk his arm away.
"Yours, huh?" the guy asked, his voice dripping with mockery and disdain. "No stupid little monster brat like you should have something so pretty; you’re too dumb to understand those sort of things. That little trinket would suit my own daughter better…"
And with that, he reached down and seized the Phoenix’s Tear with his other hand, trying to yank it off. Genki, fuming at the older man’s bigotry, immediately stepped forward to help his friend, grabbing the thick arm and tugging it away.
"That’s my friend you’re harassing," he snarled, his normally cheerful voice dripping with sudden venom. The older man glared at him, and suddenly brought his hand back, smashing his fist across Genki’s cheek and sending him reeling.
"Genki!" Hare cried out, and then winced again as his harasser twisted his arm behind him, grubby fingers clutching at the Phoenix’s Tear again.
"Leave him alone, you creep!" Coltia snarled, hands balling into fists. Behind her, Genki coughed and righted himself; hand flashing across the bottom of his lip in an attempt to wipe away the blood that had appeared on it. Suezo and Mocchi had moved from the doorway, as well, and now they were standing beside their two human friends, glaring at the jerk.
"Stupid monsters, forgetting your place in the world…to serve us humans, your superiors! Am I right, everybody?" he yelled, turning his attention to the others gathered in the tavern.
To his surprise, however, the other patrons of the restaurant did NOT cheerfully support his views with a shout of agreement. Instead, harsh glares tore into his body, and angry murmurs swept through the room. He sweatdropped slightly: apparently his views were not as popular as he had thought.
"Damn, you guys are a bunch of sissies," he slurred, the drink showing through a little more, and he fumbled to yank at the struggling Hare’s pendant again. Hare was squirming too much for him to get a good grip, however, and he brought up his hand in preparation to smack the little rabbit.
Suddenly, however, something seized his wrist and tightened like a vice, cutting off the blood supply immediately. The man’s face went white with shock, and his grip on Hare’s arm loosened slightly. Hare glanced up, and caught a glimpse of his savior: it was the Scaled Hare he had seen sitting in the corner, standing directly behind the man and gripping his arm firmly.
"Stop this," he demanded, violet-brown eyes smoldering with anger. The man gasped blankly, widened eyes flicking back to his attacker’s face, and the hybrid tightened his grip, he ordered, "Release him. NOW."
Unable to protest, knowing that he would lose his hand if he tried to fight back, the man reluctantly released his grip on Hare’s arm. Hare stumbled forward the moment the pressure on his arm ceased, gasping with relief, and his friends quickly surrounded him, Genki and Coltia still coldly glaring at the creep who had hurt him so.
The man glared back at them, unapologetic. Then, he suddenly found himself being forced out the door, and a foot collided roughly with his rear end as the scaled hare promptly ejected him from the tavern. Choking on a mouthful of dust, he clambered to his feet, aimed a death-glare back at the monster that stood in the doorway behind him, then staggered off, muttering grimly to himself.
A pair of dark, violet-brown eyes watched his stumbling figure until he was certain that he would not pose a threat any longer, then he turned and stepped aside, motioning for the five standing behind him to walk past. They filed past him, the girl giving him a starry-eyed look, the boy looking more stunned and upset than anything.
"I told you guys that something bad would happen," Suezo whined, hopping through the doorway, "but did you listen to me? Nooo…nobody ever listens to me, ‘cause I’m just Suezo…well…"
"SHUT UP, SUEZO!" Genki yelled, whirling around to glare at the eyeball monster.
"Hare okay, chi?" Mocchi asked, looking at where the creep’s fingernails had dug into the rabbit’s fur. Hare tried to smile reassuringly as he rubbed his arm, but winced again as it throbbed slightly. Placing his hand against it, he quietly cast a healing spell, trying not to draw any attention to himself as he did so.
Suddenly, he noticed that the Scaled Hare was staring directly at him, and he froze, trying to think of a good explanation. However, something in the elder rabbit’s expression made him pause, unable to think of anything to say. He stared up into hauntingly familiar eyes, a faint memory tugging at the back of his mind, completely unaware of the fact that Genki, Coltia, Suezo and Mocchi were staring blankly at him, wondering what was wrong.
"…Hey Hare, are you all right?" Genki asked, taking a step forward. The stranger seemed to jerk at the sound of his voice, and dark eyes turned their piercing gaze to the boy.
"…You are?" the green rabbit asked, staring at him.
"My name is Genki," he replied, pointing at his chest, and he pointed to each of the others in turn as he said, "and this is Suezo, Coltia, and Mocchi. We’re friends of Hare."
"Then I…have you to thank for his being safe until now?"
…Huh? Genki thought, sweatdropping slightly as the scaled rabbit stared at him, studying his face. After a moment, he closed those strange eyes of his, reached over, and gave the boy’s shoulder a gentle squeeze.
"…Thank you," he said, opening his eyes again and locking them with Genki’s own. "You have preserved the only real family I have left…"
…HUH?!? Genki stared up into the Scaled Hare’s face in dull shock, temporarily too stunned to speak. He was barely able to register the soft sound of Suezo’s surprised gasp behind him, echoed by Mocchi and Coltia, and heartily wished that things would start to make sense again soon…
* * *
"…Stupid, stupid monsters forgetting their place in life, and those sissies back at the bar not even caring! …Man, our old systems have really been shot to hell…grumble, mumble…"
The man continued this litany as he half-stomped, half-staggered down the road, fuming the whole way. Caught up in feeling sorry for himself, he utterly failed to notice that several pairs of blood-red eyes glittered in the foliage lining the dirt path.
"…What the hell was a damned little rabbit doing with a pretty chunk of jewelry like that, anyway? Things like that are made for humans, not lowly mon-"
The rest of his rant was cut off suddenly as sharp pain tore across his back, and the drunken man cried out as a black shadow crashed into his side, knocking him to the ground and pinning him there. As he gasped for air, half-stunned, a heavy, clawed foot slammed onto his neck, and his gasp became a choked-off scream.
"Where did you come from, human?" a raspy voice sneered somewhere above him, and a wave of terror washed over him, as crushing a presence as the foot on his throat.
"…Back…back in the village!" he managed to choke out, each word fought for. Trembling, he raised one shaking arm slightly and made a frantic motion, indicating the town. The creature that pinned him down snarled thoughtfully, and through blurring eyes the man noticed a stubby, clawed hand waving at unseen followers to move toward the village.
Then soulless, beady black eyes flicked back to him, and the man sucked a torturing breath in as he dully realized that he was going to die. As the sneering creature brought his talons down in a deadly swipe at his victim’s face, he had time for only one final, ironic thought…
…Damn, now even the Black Saurians wear medallions these days…
* * *
"What? You used to live in the same village as Hare?"
The green rabbit simply flicked an unconcerned glance at the stunned boy, nodding ever so slightly.
"Yes," he confirmed, his dark eyes solemn, "I used to live back in the same village as Hare did; at least, I did before I decided to leave." He glanced over at where Hare was sitting, widened eyes locked on his face, and smiled for a moment before turning his attention back to the others.
"You mean…you were one of Hare’s friends, chi?" Mocchi asked, clearly confused.
"Yes, I was, although Hare was still very young when I left," and his eyes darkened slightly as he added, with another glance over at the younger rabbit, "He may not even remember me very well; he was so little back then…"
"Wait a minute…you left the village? Does that mean…" Genki trailed off as the scaled rabbit nodded in answer to his unfinished question.
"I was not home…when it was destroyed," he said, his voice dropping into a near snarl for the last word. "I returned home after traveling for a while, only to discover that I had no home anymore. Everything was gone, crumbled and burned to the ground. There was nothing left for me to return to…"
"I know that feeling," Suezo muttered darkly to himself, and Hare nodded mute agreement. Coltia looked at them, tears brimming in her shimmering tan eyes.
"Since then, I’ve been traveling on my own. I fought against Moo’s forces from time to time, taking out my outrage on them. Then, several months ago, they suddenly stopped appearing. I eventually heard from various people that some rebels had summoned the Phoenix somehow and destroyed Moo. I also started hearing other rumors, too…that one of the rebels had come from a town that Naga destroyed, and had escaped from him…from the descriptions that I heard…"
"…You figured that it might be somebody you knew?" Coltia asked. The green rabbit nodded again, silently, and his violet-brown eyes focused their intense gaze back on Hare.
"Psst! Hare, do you really know this guy?" Suezo leaned over and whispered, clear distrust on his face. Hare glanced over at him, noticing at once the doubt in the other monster’s narrowed eye, and locked gazes with the stranger again, thoughtful.
"I…I remember…a little bit about him, I think," he whispered after a few moments, his voice soft as his wavering brown eyes searched the elder rabbit’s face. "I’m not sure, but…those eyes…I can clearly remember those eyes… ……… …Scaler?"
The scaled rabbit seemed to relax the moment that last word passed the younger hare’s lips, and he smiled slightly as he nodded, once.
"Yes, that’s right. I’m glad that you at least remember my name," he said. Meanwhile, the other three former rebels were just staring at them, startled by the idea that something like this was happening. Coltia, however, had a very different reaction to this.
"Oh, this is so great!" she trilled, her wide caramel eyes shining as if lit by stars. "It’s so sweet when old friends are reunited, isn’t it?"
Genki and Suezo currently couldn’t answer her, since both of their jaws had hit the floor. Mocchi, however, seemed to agree with her statement, and was beaming as he looked at the two.
"Great, chi!" he cheered. Bouncing up in front of the Scaled Hare, he grinned and said, "Nice to meet you, Hare’s friend-chi! My name is Mocchi!"
"I am aware of that, little one," Scaler said, and his shoulders shook a little bit under his cloak, as if he was laughing a little bit. Suezo glowered, narrowing his eye a little more as he studied the cloaked stranger. For some reason that he couldn’t quite name, he wasn’t entirely certain that he could trust this guy…
"…Oh kuso!" Genki suddenly cried, standing upright so suddenly that he knocked over his chair. "I forgot all about Holly! She’s still back at the shop waiting for us…"
"…Holly?" Scaler inquired, looking at the boy with interest. Hare and the others gasped, realizing that the boy was right, and Suezo aimed a death glare at him.
"Genki, I can’t believe you’d forget about poor Holly!" he scolded. "I bet she’s worried sick about us!"
"Well, it’s not like you ever said anything to remind me, Suezo!" Genki shot back, a vein standing out on the side of his forehead.
"You guys! We should get back to Holly, don’t you think?" Hare yelled, separating the two.
"Chi!" Mocchi said in agreement. Genki and Suezo glared at each other, then turned away, both huffing in anger. Hare and Mocchi sweatdropped, then went after Coltia, who was already waiting for the others at the door. Scaler looked at them for a moment, then slowly stood and walked after them, his leather cloak whispering slightly as he moved past the still glowering pair.
"You two had better hurry up, if you’re going to catch up with them," he noted, a smirk tugging at the edge of his mouth for a moment as he watched boy and eyeball monster hastily scramble past him. His shoulders shook briefly with contained laughter, then he strode out after them.
* * *
"Man, oh man, oh man, Holly is gonna kill me," Genki muttered, sweatdropping hugely as he ran up to Verde’s shop. Just as he had feared, Holly was standing in front of the doorway, obviously waiting for him. Her foot was tapping out a steady staccato rhythm on the smooth wood of the front porch. As she spotted him coming, she crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him, directing the look mainly at him instead of the trio of monsters, who gratefully slipped up beside her.
"Where have you been?" she asked, her voice sounding…not enraged, but definitely more than a little upset. Genki sweatdropped even more, and nearly had a heart attack when he heard Coltia’s piping reply.
"Oh, nothing major. We just went into a tavern and…"
"YOU WENT WHERE?!?" Verde’s voice shrieked from inside the store, and everyone else joined Genki in sweating as the enraged woman suddenly appeared in the doorway behind Holly, looking very upset.
"…Oops…" Coltia whispered, caramel eyes wide. Weakly, she attempted to amend the situation, stammering, "Really, Aunt Verde, it’s nothing like that…I was just trying to find someone for one of my friends, see, and…"
"…And she was successful," Scaler interrupted, walking up behind them. Turning to Verde, he executed a little bow as he said, "Please do not misunderstand your daughter’s intentions, lady: she knew that I was trying to find a friend of mine, and went into the tavern in order to help me out. I am sorry for any trouble that might have caused…but without her help, I might not have ever found him."
"…Oh…" Verde murmured, becoming subdued the moment she heard his calm explanation. Scaler smiled, and he stepped up behind Hare, giving his shoulder a tiny squeeze. Hare looked up at him, a little startled.
"…Aunt Verde isn’t my mother," Coltia whispered in correction, but she kept her voice soft so as not to ruin the moment. Silently, she thanked him for calming her aunt down so quickly.
"…Ah…well, it’s nice to meet you," Holly stammered, bowing quickly toward the green rabbit. "My name is Holly, and I’m very glad to meet you, mister…"
"Scaler," he supplied the name for her, still smiling ever so slightly. Suezo glanced over at him, still trying to figure out why he didn’t feel quite right about this guy.
There was a sudden crash behind them, and as the five searchers and their companions whirled around, Scaler’s smile twisted into a sudden grimace, and he suddenly pulled Hare closer to him, half-hiding the younger rabbit in the folds of his cloak. All of them stared over at a Black Saurian that had just knocked over a merchant’s cart. The zuum hybrid glared down at the quivering man, a sneer twisting its face.
"Where are the rebel scum?" it snarled, curling its lips just enough for sunlight to gleam off of its sharp teeth. Its glossy ebony skin shimmered as well, and its narrowed black eyes glittered evilly as it glared down at the cornered, babbling man.
"Look!" Holly warned, pointing to the saurian’s chest: everyone could see the medallion pinned on a chain around the monster’s neck. Suezo gasped in horror, the sound echoed by Mocchi and Coltia, and Scaler ground his teeth silently as he pulled Hare closer to him. Genki balled his hands into ready fists at his sides, and his clear eyes shone with anger as he stepped between the baddie and the others.
"Hey!" he called, causing the dinosaur to look over at him. Dropping further into a battle crouch, the boy shouted, "Just what the heck are you doing here?"
The zuum hybrid just sneered in reply, white teeth catching the rays of the sun once more, and his eyes seemed to glow with crimson light as he studied the group before him. Several growls from nearby alerted the small team to other monsters arriving, and Suezo stole a quick glance around.
"This doesn’t look good," he murmured, counting at least twenty of the Black Saurians fanning out to approach them from all sides. He took little comfort in the fact that Verde’s store was at that back, meaning that the baddies could not get behind them.
"Are you the rebels that defeated Master Moo before?" the first Black Saurian, the obvious leader, asked. Genki opened his mouth to reply, but found himself cut off, as Scaler suddenly released Hare’s shoulders and stepped in front of the boy, cloak sweeping behind him.
"I am a rebel," he replied, simply, as Genki and the others stared at his back. "Even though I did not lend a direct hand against Moo, I was not sad to see him fall, either. Have you got a problem with that?"
"Get out of the way," the leader of the baddies hissed, and Scaler glanced up at him, a smirk tugging at the edge of his mouth. His violet-brown eyes narrowed slightly, calculatingly, and he stood calmly in place, letting his silence speak for him.
"Fine, then. You can die first, foolish rabbit," and the Black Saurian made a sweeping motion with one arm, snarling "ATTACK!"
The zuum hybrids sprang forward, white teeth and claws flashing as they tore toward their prey. Scaler bowed his head, remaining motionless, even as they rushed at him. Suddenly, just as they were almost upon him, his head snapped up, and his eyes flashed open, as if he had just become aware of the situation. The leather cloak swirled behind him as he lashed out, spinning once, and the other rebels caught the barest glimpse of silver grasped in his blurring paws.
He spun once, stopping as quickly as he had started, and his cloak quickly settled around his suddenly motionless body. Around him, the Black Saurians stood frozen in place, eyes widened unnaturally. Then, slowly, as one, they toppled over, and their ebony skin glowed with white light for an instant before bodies transformed into lost discs.
"WHAT?" the leader of the Black Saurians snarled; he had not attacked with the rest of his men, and stood gaping at their fallen forms, black eyes wide with shock. Scaler looked directly at him, and a smirk twisted the scaled rabbit’s lips again. Behind him, the others stood in stunned silence, several of them wondering just what had happened.
Staring at the scaled rabbit’s smirking face, the Black Saurian leader balked, and hastily turned tail to retreat. However, he had barely taken five steps when Scaler’s paws blurred again, and he froze in place, choking. Genki jerked and gasped with the others; he now could clearly see a small dagger buried up to its hilt in the saurian’s neck.
The leader joined his followers in death, and Scaler calmly strode up to his fallen body. Reaching down, he retrieved his blade from the lost disc’s roots, and then turned to face the others. He swept his cloak back with one hand, allowing them to get a clear view of the many blades that hung on a belt round his chest, as well as the ones that hung inside the leather. He replaced the dagger to its sheath, then let the cloak fall back into place, hiding the weapons once more.
"There. That takes care of those fools," he said simply, while the others gaped at him. Turning his piercing gaze back on Genki, he said more than asked, "You are going to investigate this encounter, of course?"
"Uh…yeah," Genki managed to reply, nodding. Scaler narrowed his violet-brown eyes at the boy, then nodded in curt reply.
"Then I shall accompany you," he stated, striding over and griping Hare’s shoulder again. Hare stared up at him in shock, and Scaler turned his attention to the others as he continued, "I will not allow you to drag the only friend I have left in this world into danger, and besides, if Moo is returning, you will need all the help you can get."
"I dunno…" Suezo muttered, glaring suspiciously at the green rabbit. "I’m not so sure that we need help from someone like you…"
"Any group that includes someone like you in it obviously needs serious aid," Scaler retorted, narrowing his piercing gaze at the eyeball monster. Giving Hare’s shoulder another squeeze, he added, "If Hare plans on going along with you, then I will follow as well. If you will not have me along, then I will not allow him to go. He is all I have left in this world, and I will not allow anyone or anything to take that away from me."
"…All right then," Holly said, nodding in defeat. Suezo started to protest, and she waved him off, saying, "You really handled those monsters well, and you’re right: if Moo’s back, anyone who’s willing to fight him will be a great help."
"Wait a minute…you mean you’re actually going to fight?" Coltia cried, staring at them.
"Well, yes," Holly replied, nodding.
"That’s what we do," Genki agreed, then a mischievous grin spread over his face as he pointed at his chest and added, "After all, I am the Monster Champion! Leave it all to me!"
"Really?" Coltia asked, her caramel eyes wide. When Genki nodded, she stared at him with pure hero worship in her eyes. The other rebels sweatdropped, and Scaler rolled his eyes.
"Alright! Then I’m coming too!" she suddenly declared. The searchers said nothing, simply gaping at her in surprise, and she quickly added, "I can come, can’t I? Come on, please, please, please???"
"Coltia, darling…" Verde started to say, only to be interrupted.
"Why the heck would we want to bring you along?!?" Suezo demanded, getting directly in the younger girl’s face. Coltia returned his angry glare and frowned.
"Well, why not?" she pouted. "I want to help fight too! I can help just as well as you can, and I’m as ready as the rest of you!"
She turned away suddenly, and her voice quivered a little as she added, "Besides, if Moo really is returning, I want to pay him back for Mom and Dad!"
"Coltia…" Verde whispered, staring at her niece’s trembling back.
"If she wants to come along, then it’s best you let her," Scaler interrupted, his tone neutral. "Otherwise, she may just strike out on her own and get herself killed. Better to have her where we can keep an eye on her."
"…You’re right," Verde said, closing her eyes. "Fine then, Coltia, you may go with them, but only if they allow you to."
"Yay!" Coltia cheered, throwing her arms up into the air while the searchers all sweatdropped. "Thank you, Aunt Verde! Oh, I can come, can’t I, Genki?"
"…Do we have a real choice?" Suezo asked Holly under his breath. His owner shook her head slightly, smiling nervously.
"Alright, then, Colt, welcome to the team!" Genki said, reaching out for her hand. Coltia stared at his outstretched hand for a moment, then suddenly sprang forward and hugged him, much to his shock.
"Oh thank you thank you thank you!" she cheered, breaking off her hug to grin at him. Then she gasped, exclaiming, "I have to get ready! I’ll be back in a little bit!"
She rushed back into the shop, leaving the others staring at where she had been. After a while, Verde shrugged her shoulders.
"I guess I’ll go help her pack," she said, walking inside. Glancing back over her shoulder, she smiled and said, "I trust that all of you will take good care of Coltia for me. I know that you’ll look after her."
"We will, I promise," Holly said, smiling nervously. Verde smiled back and walked inside, leaving the rebels to talk among themselves as they waited.
"This is going to be a very interesting trip," Suezo moaned, rolling his eye. "Like having two Genkis along…oh, Goddess, help me…"
"What is that supposed to mean?" Genki demanded, while Holly and Mocchi laughed. While the others were distracted, Hare looked up at Scaler, who was still standing behind him.
"Why are you coming along, really?" he asked, his wide brown eyes shining with curiosity. Scaler glanced down at him and smiled, briefly.
"It is as I said before; you are the only real kind of family I have left in this world," he replied, gripping the younger rabbit’s shoulders again. "I will not allow anything to happen to you, no matter what the cost is…"
Hare stared up at the elder rabbit’s face, unable to say anything more. After a few moments, the door to Verde’s shop opened again, and all the searchers turned to see Coltia standing there. She had changed her clothes, and was now wearing a simple rose-colored tunic over a long-sleeved white shirt, and her pants were a dark scarlet. Her short tan hair bobbed around her smiling face, and her caramel eyes sparkled as she smiled. Shouldering her traveling bag, she walked up to Genki and grinned.
"Ready!" she announced, beaming.
"Did you already say goodbye to your aunt?" Holly asked, and Coltia nodded yes.
"Yeah…sorry I took so long. Anyway, let’s go!" and she turned to walk forward. Suddenly she paused, and looked back at the others in confusion.
"Um…where exactly are we going, anyway?" she asked, a nervous smile on her face.
"To the Valley of the Discs," Genki announcing, turning and pointing in the general direction of the forest. "That’s where we met Golem during our first journey. I’m sure that he returned there after we won against Moo! So let’s go!"
"Let’s go!" Coltia echoed, running after him as he took off, laughing.
"Chi!" Mocchi cried, running after the two humans. The other searchers followed quickly, and Suezo rolled his eye again as he hopped after everyone else.
"Yup, just like Genki…oh Goddess, PLEASE allow me to keep my sanity," he muttered. Scaler, who was directly behind Hare, glanced back at him with a look of mild amusement on his face.
"Don’t worry about that," he commented. "You can’t lose what you never had…"
Then he quickened his pace to keep up with the others, leaving Suezo to think about what he had just said.
"You know, he’s right, I…HEY! You’re going to pay for that, Scaler! Darn you! …Geez, he sure does act like Hare, at any rate…WAIT UP, you! Grrr…"
Sunlight filtered through spreading branches, turning each leaf an almost blazing shade of green as morning touched the forest valley. Scattered birdsong greeted the warming rays, and as the inhabitants of the small, secluded valley began to awaken, one of its youngest members stirred in her treetop perch.
Eyes the same brilliant green shade of fresh young leaves opened, half veiled behind slightly tousled orange-red bangs. Cat-like ears covered with cinnamon fur twitched lazily, and the girl yawned as she stretched out her arms and legs, tail lashing behind her. The sunlight dappling her skin caused its unusual coloring to stand out; while the areas around her elbows and knees were a pale leaf green, they faded into a softer whitish-pink for other areas. Her chest and stomach were a very pale white-green, but this fact was hidden by the simple, one-piece white tunic she wore.
"Morning already?" she asked no one in particular; she was the sole occupant of the tree. She stood, and a pair of slender green wings spread out behind her as she stretched again, their structure making them look like giant leaves for a moment. They beat once, then filled with air as she hopped off of her perch, bearing her safely to the ground. Again she looked into the sky, shading her bright green eyes with one arm.
"Good morning, Serinity," a rabbit with tough, stone-like fur greeted her as he walked by. The young pixie hybrid turned and smiled at him, nodding acknowledgement.
"Good morning, Rocky," she replied, brushing back her short orange bangs as she spoke. Looking back up at the clear blue skies, she sighed and added, "The sky is beautiful today, isn’t it? And the breeze feels so nice, too…"
"Heh. You going out to look at flowers again already, Serinity?" Rocky prodded, grinning at her. Serinity just smiled knowingly back at him and giggled, then the pixie hybrid sprang lightly into the air, flapping her wings a few times to get a feel for the lower breeze before heading into the woods.
"You be careful, Serinity!" Rocky called after her. "You know what happened the last time you tried something like this!"
She really did not need to be reminded, of course; she knew that the way that the wind blew through the trees was irregular, and not really the best of conditions for gliding. She was only planning to glide for a short distance, anyway: just enough for Dixie to see her flying and be satisfied that she was using her wings properly. The elder pixie got on her case a great deal about how she should use all of her gifts to her full advantage, and that included gliding instead of walking.
But she loved the feel of grass under her bare feet, loved the way the fragrant flowers seemed to glow in the morning sunshine. She was much happier simply walking and letting the breeze brush back her hair than she was using it to carry her along. She did enjoy flying from time to time, but there were so many things one missed from high above, precious things that she would rather stop and enjoy than pass over.
Like the flowers… She had reached her destination, and eagerly alighted in the small field, the slight breeze caused by her flapping wings stirring the fragile blossoms and sending several multi-colored petals flying through the air. Serinity watched them flutter around her and let out a contented sigh, dropping to her knees. Closing her eyes, she let herself relax completely, surrendering all sensation save for the gentle, loving caress of the wind. The same calm breeze played with her short hair, and the sunlight set off the strawberry blonde highlights beneath the orange shade, turning her hair the color of dawn’s first rays.
"This…this is…perfect," she whispered, shivering slightly as the cool wind caressed her face.
No…not perfect, she suddenly corrected herself silently, her luminous green eyes wavering behind her lowered eyelashes as she opened them slightly.
Absently, she reached out and gently grasped one of the small flowers, cradling it carefully in her hand for several moments before she picked another blossom up. With a practiced movement, she attached them together, then picked another flower and added it. Soon, she had a small chain of flowers resting in her lap; slowly developing into one of the woven creations she had been so fond of making as a child.
She closed her shimmering green eyes again; the sight of the blossom chain reminded her of one of those childhood creations in particular, one that had seemed both so out of place and so perfect resting against the thick gray chest of her friend…
A tear brimmed at the edge of one eye for a moment, not quite willing to trickle down the side of her cheek, and the wind brushed it away. Serinity continued to work on her flower chain, as if keeping her hands busy would keep away the sadness that occasionally came over her, whenever she thought of him…
* * *
"So this forest is where your friend lives?" Coltia asked, biting the edge of her lip for a moment as she studied the woods before them.
"What’s wrong, Colt?" Genki asked, noticing the strange expression on her face. Coltia shook her head quickly and grinned nervously at him, sweatdropping.
"O-Oh, nothing, nothing at all, Genki!" she stammered, then she blushed a little as she admitted, "It’s just that…I remember Aunt Verde told me something about these woods once before…"
"Oh? What did she say?" Holly wondered aloud.
"I-It was silly…but she always used to say that an enigma lived in this forest…"
Coltia was very confused when Genki, Mocchi and Suezo suddenly burst out laughing. She stared at them in surprise, then looked over at the others and was even more shocked to see that Holly was stifling a giggle of her own. The two rabbits simply glanced at one another, neither quite understanding just what was so funny about the whole situation.
"What’s so funny?" Coltia finally demanded, her face a bright red shade.
"Oh, nothing," Genki told her, grinning widely as he got himself back under control.
"Nothing?" Coltia asked mildly, arching an eyebrow at the boy.
"…Humph." Coltia turned her back on everyone, fuming to herself. "I hate it when people make fun of me…"
She continued to grumble as Genki, Holly, Suezo, Mocchi and Hare sweatdropped. Scaler looked as if he could care less about what was going on with the other members of the group.
"Are we going to go in, or not?" he asked, arching one eyebrow as he studied the others.
"Yeah," Genki said, face flushing slightly with embarrassment, and he quickly brushed past Coltia and darted off ahead of the others, running into the woods. Mocchi quickly followed after him, and the others followed a little more sedately, Coltia still fuming about being left out of the apparent joke. However, her grumbling soon trailed off as they entered the forest, and she began to cast furtive glances around her, keeping an eye out for the ‘enigma’. Seeing this, Suezo couldn’t help but start snickering again, which earned him a cold glare from her.
"I don’t get it," Hare whispered to Holly as he walked beside the girl. "What’s so funny about what Coltia said?"
"We were told that there was an enigma in the forest too, when we visited here on our first journey. It turned out that the enigma was just…"
"…Oh, it was Golem, right?" Hare guessed. Holly just smiled, and he laughed to himself for a moment.
"…What is so funny?" Coltia wailed, seeing that he had gotten in on the apparent joke as well. Suezo continued to snicker to himself, while Scaler just rolled his eyes and ignored what the others were doing.
Suddenly the scaled rabbit froze in mid-stride, and his long ears twitched slightly. A grim look fell over his face, and his dark violet-brown eyes glittered as they darted from shadow to shadow. Noticing this, Hare stopped beside him and looked around, trying to discern what had caused him to stop.
"What is it?" he asked, glancing around nervously.
In response, Scaler pulled him closer to his body, and with a sudden flicker of movement sent one of his daggers lancing into the trees beside them. Before Suezo could make a comment about the green rabbit’s being over-nervous and jumping at shadows, a short, strangled cry ripped out of the darkness, and a glowing figure suddenly fell into view, the blade lodged in its throat. The startled rebels had just enough time to glimpse the telltale medallion on its chest before its body transformed into a lost disc.
"T-t-the baddies?" Coltia stammered, her tan eyes wide with shock as she stared at the still warm lost disc. Scaler nodded solemnly and quickly retrieved his blade from where it had fallen. Instead of putting it away, he kept it ready in his hand, and continued to scan the forest, pulling Hare closer to him for safety.
"Genki…did you see what kind of monster that was?" Holly whispered. Genki nodded slightly, his clear eyes looking haunted.
"I’m not sure, since I only got a short look at it…but…"
"It looked like…a Golem," Suezo supplied for him, looking equally disturbed by the idea.
"It was a Black Golem," Scaler provided for them, dark eyes still scanning the forest. "A Golem with Monol blood. Its dark stone skin makes it a perfect choice for an assassin: it can’t move very quickly, but with that much natural defense and strength, it doesn’t really need speed."
"You sure do know a lot about them, Scaler," Suezo commented, narrowing his eye slightly at the green rabbit’s back. Scaler shrugged slightly, his cloak shifting on his shoulders.
"When you have fought against the baddies for a certain period of time, you have to pick up on things like that in order to survive," he replied, and his voice hardened slightly as he added, "It’s really a miracle that you were able to go for so long against the enemy if you never picked up on things like that. I take it that you did not exactly concern yourself with being much of a help in other areas as well…"
He turned his attention back to scanning the trees while Suezo glared daggers at his back. Holly sweatdropped slightly and hastily motioned for the eyeball monster to calm down, while Genki, Mocchi and Coltia joined the two rabbits in keeping an eye out for any sort of movement.
After several seconds of tense silence had gone by, Hare suddenly gasped as a faint rustling of leaves sounded behind him.
"There!" he cried, whirling around, and the others turned just in time to catch a glimpse of something huge and hulking moving around behind them, its form almost completely hidden by the thick branches of the trees. Something gleamed on its enshrouded chest, and then the bulky creature turned and stomped off deeper into the woods, its massive footfalls booming like thunder.
"Wait!" Genki shouted, and he plunged into the trees after it, ignoring Holly’s shout of protest.
"Genki, wait up! It’s too dangerous to go after it alone!" Coltia shouted, darting after him. Mocchi followed on her heels, and Holly went after him, leaving Scaler, Hare and Suezo alone.
"I’ve got to go after them," Hare cried, and he pulled free of Scaler’s grasp and followed after Holly and the others. Scaler made a quick grab at his arm, but missed, and he moved to follow the younger rabbit into the woods. However, he paused and glanced over his shoulder at the eyeball monster.
"Coming?" he asked, arching an eyebrow at him. "Or do you prefer simply standing there like an idiot while your friends fight for you?"
"Watch it, rabbit," Suezo growled, hopping past the scaled rabbit. Scaler ignored the dark look the eyeball monster gave him and darted into the woods, dagger still gleaming in his hand. Switching it to his other paw, he reached into his cloak and drew out a longer blade as he ran, just in case he needed it.
* * *
"…Hmm?" Serinity opened her eyes slightly as a shadow fell over her kneeling form. She looked in front of her, seeing how the massive shadow fell over the flowers in a familiar shape. Her eyes widened slightly, startled, and a shaky, hesitant smile came over her face.
"…Golem?" she asked, glancing over her shoulder, holding her flower chain against her chest.
However, it only took her an instant to realize that this was not the case. For one thing, the golem coming up behind her was much darker in color than her friend, with stone skin as black as ebony. His soulless black eyes looked nothing like the deep, gentle gray she remembered, and the symbol glittering on his thick chest was new as well.
Then, too, there was the fact that he was currently swinging one of his massive fists at her...
"Ohhh!" she exclaimed, hastily diving away as the strange golem brought his hand crashing down upon her. She winced as she felt one stone finger clip her side, and gasped sharply as she rolled into the flowers, sending a spray of petals up around them. The black golem smashed her forgotten blossom chain into the ground, and his dark eyes glowed as he glared over at her.
"W-who are you?" she stammered, trembling. The stranger made no response, but simply lifted his fist to strike again…
* * *
"Whoa!" Genki exclaimed as he burst out of the forest and found himself in a valley of flowers. Startled, he glanced around in confusion for a second, until a sudden shriek caught his attention.
"Genki!" Coltia cried as she and the others stumbled out behind him. "What’s wrong?"
"Look, chi!" Mocchi shouted, pointing forward. Following his gaze, Coltia sucked in a sharp gasp as she watched a Black Golem take a fierce swing at a fragile-looking pixie hybrid. The small creature shrieked as she dodged away, but the baddie’s finger clipped one of her wings and sent her spinning to the ground.
"Hey, hang on!" Genki shouted, and he darted forward, yelling, "Mocchi, cover me!"
"Chi!" Mocchi nodded quickly, then the little pink monster leapt into the air and begun to spin around. A whirlwind of small rose-colored petals formed around him, and the young monster sent it flying forward as he shouted, "Cherry Blossom Blizzard, chi!"
The Black Golem let out a roar of surprise as the petals surged into his eyes, and his fist missed hitting its mark by a mile as he reared backward. The pixie hybrid looked up in surprise, and she blinked in confusion as she watched the baddie fall backward, clawing at his eyes.
"Feet first!" Genki shouted, jumping forward and slamming both of his feet into the baddie’s face. Since he had his skates on, the shock of impact was not as bad as it could have been, yet he still gritted his teeth as he hit. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that the strange pixie had frozen in place, still kneeling among the flowers, bright green eyes fixed directly on him. She looked too stunned to move.
"Genki, heads up!" Coltia shouted, and he turned in time to see a small rock fly up and hit the Black Golem’s forehead. Glancing over at the girl, he noticed that she now had a slingshot in her hand, and was trying to reload it as quickly as possible.
The Black Golem roared again, and he tried to swat the girl, only to be blinded once more as another blast of cherry blossoms took him full in the face. As the baddie reeled again, Genki leapt away from its flailing hands, and the youth grinned as he spotted Holly, Hare, Suezo and Scaler running toward them.
"Hey guys!" he said, waving at them. In response, Scaler simply nodded toward him, then launched his dagger at the Black Golem. It buried itself up to its hilt in the baddie’s chest, and the creature let out an angry shriek as its form glowed, shriveled and died.
"Never turn your back on an enemy," he chided the boy, frowning. Genki felt his face redden slightly at being scolded, but just as he was about to shout back something in defense of himself, he suddenly heard a soft gasp behind him. Turning around, he realized that the pixie hybrid was still kneeling in the flowers behind them, staring at them.
"Oh…hey, are you okay?" he asked, taking a step toward her.
* * *
Serinity gasped and flinched backwards as the strange creature stepped closer to her. She had no idea what kind of monster this was: he looked somewhat like a pixie type, but had no wings or tail that she could see. There was something else strange about him, as well, something she couldn’t quite name…
He stepped toward her, and she panicked. Leaping to her feet, she whirled around to flee. Behind her, she heard the strange boy and his companions cry out; she ignored them and darted away, heart pounding wildly in her chest.
* * *
"Hey-!" Genki exclaimed, starting in surprise as he watched the pixie hybrid run away. The other rebels watched her flee as well, and Coltia blinked in confusion.
"…Huh? Why did she run away?" she asked, turning confused tan eyes to the others. "All we did was help her…"
"She was scared," Scaler replied, sounding utterly unconcerned about the stranger. "She didn’t recognize any of us, and the fact that we just killed a monster in front of her didn’t exactly help…"
"But all we did was defeat a baddie," Suezo commented, staring in the direction that she had fled. Scaler glanced over at him and arched an eyebrow.
"‘We’ defeated a baddie?" he echoed, his tone somewhere between mocking and amused. "You did nothing. It was Genki, Mocchi, and I who destroyed the enemy while you cowered and watched."
Suezo gave the green rabbit a look that could have withered him where he stood, but Scaler completely ignored him, sheathing his weapons instead. Sensing her friend’s anger, Holly quickly stepped over to his side and tried to calm him.
"Let’s go after her," Genki said, already starting forward. However, Scaler caught the boy’s arm, and he shook his head no.
"All you can do now is frighten her even more," he told him, his dark eyes locked with Genki’s own. "Shouldn’t we concentrate on going to find your friend Golem?"
"Yeah…I guess you’re right," Genki conceded, taking one last look in the direction that the pixie hybrid had headed before turning back to the others. "Let’s go!"
"Let’s go, chi!" Mocchi echoed, hopping up and down, eager to get moving again. The rebels turned away, but Coltia couldn’t help glancing over her shoulder as they started off, heading deeper into the woods.
"Are you sure this is the right way, Genki?" Holly asked, looking around.
"Of course I’m sure! Leave it all to me!"
"Oh boy," Suezo sighed, rolling his eye.
* * *
Why did I run away? Serinity asked herself, finally slowing down from her frantic pace. Now that the terror of the moment had worn off, and her heart had stopped pounding in her chest, she was not entirely certain why she had taken off like that.
All that they did was help me…and I ran away from them. How could I be so stupid?
But…they killed that monster…they just murdered it right in front of me, then acted like it was nothing at all…
…But it was trying to kill me.
…That doesn’t make it right…
…No, it doesn’t. Nothing should have to die like that…
…Why did it try to hurt me, anyway? What’s going on?
She shivered, and her wings wrapped around her shoulders to warm her, even though she wasn’t really cold. She walked forward, thoughts still focused entirely on what had happened a few moments before, not even paying any attention to where she was going. Automatically, her feet traced the way home, carrying her back to the valley. She didn’t even realize that she was heading that direction until she arrived and heard Rocky call out a welcome to her.
"Serinity! Welcome back!" the stone rabbit called, running up to her. Then, seeing the haunted expression in her soft green eyes, he frowned in concern and asked, "Serinity? Are you okay, girl?"
Serinity blinked, startled back to reality, and gave the stone rabbit a blank look. He stared up into her face, looking worried, and she quickly shook her head, as if the movement would clear out her troubled thoughts.
"……Oh, Rocky," she said, her voice a near whisper. Then she shook her head again, and managed to smile sadly as she answered, "I’m fine. I’m just…a little tired, that’s all…"
"…Really, Serinity?" Rocky asked, not sounding convinced. The pixie hybrid glanced away, brushing some stray bangs of orange hair away from her eyes as she wondered just how she could convince him that she was okay.
"Hey, you guys! We’ve got trouble!"
"Huh?" Rocky turned his attention away from Serinity, and the two looked over to see a zuum hybrid with dark yellow scales running up to them. A couple of small monsters were perched on his back; one was a cat with clearish blue fur, and the other was a hopper hybrid with short pink fur and strange marking on her huge ears and back.
"What’s wrong, guys?" Rocky asked, blinking his dark gray eyes in confusion.
"Dixie said that she spotted a bunch of weird people coming this way, and we all have to hide quick!" the dinosaur answered, between gasps for air.
"What?" Rocky exclaimed, but even as he protested what he was hearing, his friends were already taking shelter in the ruins, and he could only scramble to keep up with them.
A bunch of weird people…could it be those ones I saw before? Serinity wondered as she hid herself behind the branches of her favorite tree. However, she had no real time to consider this at the moment, and concentrated instead on keeping herself hidden as much as possible. A pair of bright green eyes peered out from behind the concealing leaves, watching the now completely empty valley beneath her, as she waited to see if anyone would show up…
* * *
"Here we are!" Genki announced, running ahead of the group as he spotted the familiar walls of the old castle rising before them. Mocchi and Coltia were directly on his heels, and the other rebels followed more sedately as they made their way through the crumbling gates.
"Hello, Golem?" Genki shouted as he entered, clear eyes darting around. His frantic pace slowed to a walk as soon as he passed the threshold, and he called out again, "We’re here, pal! Hey, hello?"
The answer that he expected did not come right away, and Genki looked around in confusion, wondering why his friend was not replying. Behind him, the other rebels entered the ruins as well, and looked just as confused as he was.
"…Golem, chi?" Mocchi asked, wide eyes beginning to waver with fear as he bounced ahead of the others. Walking beside the young monster, Coltia shivered slightly at the unnatural silence that followed his shout.
"…Are you sure this is the right place, Genki?" she asked, studying the bare, crumpled walls with obvious distrust. Genki glanced over at her, frowning.
"No, this is the right place, I’m sure of it. Hey Golem!" he shouted again, cupping his hands around his mouth in an attempt to make his voice louder. "Yo! Hey Golem!"
"Golem! Where are you?" Hare joined the others in calling, and Holly added her voice in a second later: "Golem?"
"It doesn’t look like your friend is here," Scaler noted, not sounding too terribly concerned or upset by the idea. Suezo gave the green rabbit another dark look, then joined the others in calling out the stone giant’s name.
"…This isn’t good," Holly noted after a while, turning worried chestnut eyes on her friends. "Golem would have answered us by now…"
"…Maybe he’s just sleeping," Genki suggested stubbornly, not wanting to acknowledge the other possibility. He ran forward, moving towards the center of the ruins and the Grave of the Discs, and the others could only follow him.
"Hey Golem…ah!" he cried as he burst out into the valley. He froze, clear eyes wide with shock, and Holly gasped as she came up behind him. Coltia and the monsters arrived a few moments later, and Suezo and Mocchi gasped with shock.
"What…where did all the lost discs go?" the eyeball monster asked, eye wide with disbelief. "There used to be tons of them here!"
But the valley before them no longer even remotely resembled a graveyard. While Genki, Holly, Suezo and Mocchi clearly remembered how lost discs had once filled the large meadow, patches of gray stone amid the scattered flowers, not even one remained. Without those solemn monuments in place, the valley seemed peaceful, almost pleasant…and completely empty.
"But where…where have all the lost discs gone?" Suezo asked. Behind him, Scaler let out a short, mocking laugh.
"Don’t you get it?" he asked, glaring at the eyeball monster in disbelief. "When the Phoenix rose, she restored all of those who had died to life, and that obviously includes those that lived here. Really…you of all monsters should know that…"
"But then, where are all the monsters?" Holly asked, quickly moving to calm the furious Suezo. Scaler shook his head, indicating that he had no way of knowing that, and the searchers continued to look around for signs of life.
"Golem!" Genki shouted again, eyes scanning the ruins.
"Hey Golem, where are you?"
* * *
They know about Golem? Serinity asked silently, green eyes wide with disbelief. Beside her, Rocky and Pink Hopper were watching the strangers with just as much shock.
"I wonder how they know about Golem?" the hopper hybrid asked, blinking her huge blue eyes a few times as she continued to watch them. Serinity glanced over at her, then suddenly started to stand up.
"Wha-what are you doing?" Rocky gasped, reaching out for her, but it was too late. With a graceful spring, Serinity emerged from the safety of the concealing branches and leaves, and she slowly moved toward the strangers.
* * *
"Huh?" Genki turned around at the sound of the soft voice behind him, and found himself staring at a slender, fragile-looking pixie hybrid. It took him only a moment to recognize her as the one he had seen before, and as the other rebels turned to stare at her, he studied her slowly approaching form with interest.
The morning sunlight still streamed into the open valley, streaking her short, orange-red hair with gold. It floated in drifting bangs around her face, making her bright green eyes seem huge and luminous, like they held a life of their own. A light, simply made dress of white fabric covered her slight figure, and she kept her hands clasped in front of her as she stood shyly in front of them, appearing both unsure of herself and determined to speak to them.
"Excuse me," she repeated, her voice trembling slightly, "but I was wondering…just how do you know about Golem? Who…are you?"
"…Me? I’m Genki," he replied, unable to tear his gaze away from her, even as the other searchers stepped up behind him. "Who are you?"
"I am…Serinity," she said after a moment’s hesitation, those huge green eyes still locked with his own. Then she suddenly gasped and turned, and Genki jerked with surprise as he suddenly noticed several other monsters stepping out from concealment, surrounding the searchers. One of them, another pixie hybrid with scales like a dinosaur’s covering her slender body, stepped up beside the first one, a slight smile on her face.
"Well met," she greeted him simply, emerald eyes alight with thought. "I think that we should definitely have a little talk…"
* * *
"…Another one lost," the Black Golem growled, his dark eyes glowing red for a moment as he glared down at the lost disc beneath him. It looked terribly out of place among the flowers, a symbol of death standing out against fragile, colorful blossoms. The hulking monster’s frown deepened, and he slowly reached down, his thick stone fingers tightening around the small disc. One twist of the wrist and it was gone, crumbling to dust.
"…Humph. The fate of the weak," he muttered, watching without emotion as the shattered remains of the lost disc trickled through his fingers. He looked up, and the sun reflected off of his chest medallion as he slowly began to move forward, his heavy feet crushing the tiny flowers beneath him with each step.
* * *
"…Oh, so you’re Golem’s friends?"
Holly nodded in reply.
"Yes, he joined us on our quest to find the Phoenix: Genki, Mocchi, Suezo, Hare, and myself," and she gestured to each in turn. Her bronze eyes became slightly wistful as she added, "We also had another member, Tiger of the Wind, but he left us after the Phoenix rose…just like Golem did…"
"We were hoping that he had returned here," Hare added. "Are you sure he hasn’t…"
"No. I would have known if he had returned," Serinity answered, shaking her head. Her bright green eyes shone with worry as she continued, "He wasn’t here when we…reawakened…and I haven’t seen him at all since the final battle… I hope he is okay…"
"…I’m sure he is," Holly replied, seeing the concern on the pixie hybrid’s face. Serinity glanced over at her, then smiled slightly and nodded.
"So you guys were the ones to find the Phoenix, then?" Crab Saurian asked, not sounding convinced. Fairy Hopper playfully bopped the red-plated saurian on the back of the head and grinned at him.
"If that’s the case, then we owe these people our lives! Can’t you at least be civil to them?" he asked, grinning from ear to ear. Crab Saurian glared back at him and seemed on the verge of spitting out some retort, but a dark look from Dixie silenced both of them.
"Can’t you two ever stop fooling around in front of others?" she whispered harshly to them, before turning a sweet smile back on the searchers.
"Please forgive my friends for being so rude," she apologized, adding, "They’re always like that. We truly are grateful for your resurrecting the Phoenix and saving all of us…we owe you our lives."
"Ah…don’t worry about it," Genki said, blushing a little bit as he noticed how most of the monsters were staring at them. In particular, the majority of the attention was focused on him, Holly, and Coltia, and he sweatdropped at the sight of so many eyes fixed on them.
"…Um," Coltia started to say, blinking in surprise. Realizing what was wrong, Dixie suddenly laughed, her emerald eyes twinkling with merriment as she smiled at them.
"Please try not to be too upset with them," she said, explaining, "Most of the monsters here have never seen a human before in their life. This is a completely new sight for them."
"…Oh," Holly said, still blushing slightly as she shifted under the intense gazes of the monsters. Suezo glanced around the room in disgust, stepping a little closer to his friend and trainer, and he gave one of the gawkers a very hard look, as if to warn them off.
"…Um, Dixie, chi? I have a question, chi," Mocchi suddenly piped up, and the elder pixie hybrid looked over at him in surprise.
"Yes, little one?" she asked.
"…When we were here before, I saw a lot of lost discs here, chi. But now there doesn’t seem to be as many monsters as there were discs. Why is that, chi?" he asked innocently.
"That…" Dixie looked down at the floor for a moment, and an awkward silence fell over the gathered monsters of the valley. Mocchi looked from face to face in confusion, wondering if he had said something wrong.
"…What’s wrong, chi?" he asked, blinking his wide eyes as he stared at the silent monsters. Hare, having a vague idea of what exactly was the matter, motioned for the younger monster to quiet down.
"…Several of those who were gathered in this valley…left after we were revived," Dixie suddenly spoke up, raising her shimmering jaden eyes to look at the searchers again. "They…decided that it was for the best that they leave us alone…we had…disagreements in the past…"
"…Chi?" Mocchi cocked his head to one side in confusion, studying the green pixie’s face for several moments. Just when it seemed that the silence could not get any more repressive, a loud thud sounded outside, causing the ground to shake.
"What was that?" Genki asked, leaping to his feet. As if in response, the ground shook again as another thud sounded, and the boy stumbled forward. He peeked out of a window, and his clear eyes widened with shock.
"What is it, Genki?" Coltia asked, scrambling up beside him. Glancing outside, she gasped, and her voice cracked as she whispered, "Another one?!?"
Genki nodded back at her, then turned his attention back to the others. Before he could say anything, Scaler nodded back at him and stood, drawing out one of his blades.
"Another Black Golem, I presume?" he asked quietly, ignoring how the other gasped at the sight of the sharp blade appearing in his hand.
"It’s the baddies," Genki confirmed, and his clear eyes were solemn as he turned his gaze to the monsters of the valley.
"Baddies?" Serinity asked, staring at them.
"Moo’s warriors," Holly hastily explained. "They’ve been showing up again lately, and we’ve been trying to find out just why…"
"Moo?" Rocky gasped, staring at the brown-haired girl in horror. Pink Hopper was clinging to his arm, wailing quietly.
"Don’t worry, we’re going to get to the bottom of this," Genki said, winking at them. Whirling on his heel, he glanced back and added, "I’m going to go distract it and draw it away from here. We can’t risk any of you getting hurt."
"I-I’m going too!" Coltia exclaimed, running over to his side. The other searchers stood up and followed her, surrounding Genki.
"We’ll all help you," Scaler said, nodding solemnly at the boy. "If your friend is not here, then there is no reason for us to waste any more time in this place. Let’s take out the enemy and get moving again. The sooner we start out again, the better."
"Right," and Genki turned back to the monsters of the valley again. Grinning at them, he winked again and said, "Don’t you guys worry, we’ll take care of that baddie! You don’t have anything to worry about, I promise!"
"And once we find Golem, we’ll be sure to bring him back here as well," Coltia chimed in, beaming.
"Let’s get going, team!" Genki prompted, and he darted down the hallway and out of sight, with Coltia, Holly, Mocchi, Hare, Suezo and Scaler running after him. The monsters of the valley watched them leave as one, completely silent as they listened to the sound of their footsteps slowly fade away.
"Be careful," Serinity whispered, her bright green eyes shimmering as she stared off in the direction they had gone. Dixie exchanged a quick look with Crab Saurian and Fairy Hopper, then the elder pixie hybrid stood and walked over to her. She gave her shoulder a quick squeeze, startling her.
"Go after them," she prompted gently, and Serinity gasped, turning to stare up into the elder’s face.
"Come on, girl, don’t act so stunned!" Fairy Hopper teased, his tiny red wings beating the air as he fairly bounced on Crab Saurian’s back. "It’s pretty obvious that you’re worried about them! If it bothers you that much, just go!"
"B-but I…" Serinity stammered, taken off guard. Confused, she stared at the faces of her friends, who all gazed back at her expectantly. Some of them looked worried, others were smiling at her, and she felt her face flush uncertainly.
"I think you should go after them," Dixie said, giving the young pixie’s shoulder another slight squeeze, and she smiled down into the other’s face as Serinity turned wondering eyes up to her. "It’s better than having you moping around her and fretting about them, isn’t it? Didn’t you want to see Golem again?"
Serinity opened her mouth to reply, but no sound came out. Instead, she simply gazed up at Dixie’s smiling face, then glanced back over at her friends again. They all grinned at her, waiting, and after a moment Rocky stepped forward.
"What are you waiting for?" he asked, his gray eyes dancing with laughter. "Get going, or you’ll end up being left behind! …And tell Golem that we all said ‘Hi’, okay?"
"…Y-Yes! I will!" Serinity promised, and suddenly found herself able to move again. Whirling around, she darted down the hallway after the searchers, and she felt a few tears fall from her eyes as she took one last fleeting glance back at her friends over her shoulder. "I’ll be back! Good-bye!"
* * *
"Heads up, Genki!"
Genki heard Coltia’s warning and ducked, dropping to the ground and rolling safely away as the huge fist swung through empty air. The Black Golem roared in anger, and Coltia took advantage of the pause in his attack to fire off another small rock from her slingshot. The tiny stone smacked the baddie directly in the center of one black eye, and its roar became a screech of outrage. It stumbled backward, and Scaler, Suezo and Mocchi leapt forward to meet it, pressing their advantage.
"Tongue Slap!" Suezo called, flailing the black giant’s head with his tongue. Mocchi didn’t bother to call his attack out, and the tiny pink monster head-butted the baddie’s chest, only to fall away with eyes waterfalling.
"That hurt, chi!" he wailed, holding his aching head. The Black Golem attempted to stomp on the distracted child, but a flash of crimson fire suddenly exploded against the soul of his foot, knocking him further backwards.
Then the sharp blade of a dagger tore across the golem’s vision, and it shrieked again as Scaler fell away from its face. The green rabbit landed all fours and quickly sprang away as the baddie fell, transforming into a lost disc.
"We did it!" Genki cheered, grinning as he thrust a fist into the air.
"Are you okay, Mocchi?" Holly asked, helping the little pink monster to his feet. Mocchi looked up at her and smiled, then wavered on his feet as his eyes spiraled.
"Head hurts lots, chi," he complained, and Holly giggled slightly at the dazed expression on his face. Hare stepped forward to help steady the younger monster, and then all eyes turned their gaze to Genki.
"So what now?" Suezo asked, staring at the boy. "Golem wasn’t in the Valley of the Discs like we thought…does that mean that Tiger isn’t back yet, either?"
"Maybe…it depends on whether or not he’s found Grey Wolf yet," Hare commented. "At any rate, it’s best if we check with his pack, first."
"Okay then, let’s go!" Genki said, turning to leave.
At the sound of the call behind them, the searchers stopped walking and turned around, all but Scaler looking surprised.
"Serinity?" Genki asked as the pixie hybrid came running up to them. She stopped in front of the group and looked up, her face looking a little flushed with color. She clasped her hands nervously in front of her, and her luminous green eyes wavered as she locked gazes with everyone.
"I-I want to come with you," she blurted; then, when they just stared at her, took their silence as being shock at her forwardness. "For-forgive me for being so blunt…it’s just that…if what you said earlier is true, not that I’m accusing you of lying or anything, but if you were correct in guessing that Moo is…returning…then I wish to help you. I want to help you find Golem. If Moo is coming back…then he may be in serious danger. If that’s true…he was my closest friend before the attack…if he’s in trouble, then I wish to help you locate him. I…I want to make certain that he is safe."
"…Are you sure?" Holly asked, staring at the pixie hybrid with concern. Serinity nodded back at her, bright green eyes pleading with them.
"Please…" she asked, her voice trailing off as she stared nervously at the searchers, waiting to hear their answer. After a moment, Genki smiled and nodded at her, clear eyes shining.
"Okay, then, sure thing, Serinity!" he said, and he reached out to grab her hand, giving it a violent shake. Serinity looked at him in surprise, staring at his hand holding hers, as if she did not understand what the gesture meant.
"If you want to come along, then we’re glad to have you!" he declared, continuing to smile at her. "Nice to have you along, Serinity!"
"Great, chi!" Mocchi cheered, bouncing up and hugging the startled pixie hybrid’s leg. She stared down at the small pink monster for a moment, then looked around at the other smiling faces around her. A shaky smile came to her face after a while, becoming a little more confident as she saw the approval on their faces.
"Thank you," she said, bowing slightly, the movement a little bit hampered by Mocchi’s clinging to her leg. Genki released her hand and ran ahead of the others, then looked back over his shoulder with a grin.
"All right then, let’s get moving, everyone!" he said, waving for his friends to follow. "The sooner we get started, the sooner we can find the others! Yeah!"
He turned and took off, heading deeper into the woods, and the other searchers followed behind him. Mocchi jumped up and clung to his back, laughing as he did so, and Coltia ran beside the boy, matching his enthusiasm perfectly. Hare ran beside Holly and Suezo, with Scaler directly behind him, the green rabbit watching the younger one run with a slight smile on his face.
Serinity watched them for a moment, then spread her wings and flapped them once, letting the breeze fill them. Springing lightly into the air, she took off after them, flying only a few feet over the ground. She caught up in no time, and glided along beside the running group, first smiling, then laughing as she followed along. She barely glanced backward at the ruins, leaving them behind for now, knowing in her heart that one day, hopefully not too far away, she would return to them again.
And when she did return, it would be with her old, dear friend beside her once more.
"Everyone keep running!" Genki shouted.
"Like…we…need…a…reminder?!?" Suezo panted, hopping after the other rebels as they raced deeper into the forest. Genki glared back at him, but before he could shout out an angry retort, a bolt of energy streaked past them, mere inches away from striking both eyeball monster and boy. Both of them stared at it with widened eyes and sweatdropped, and quickly turned their full attention back to the issue at hand, that of escaping with their lives.
"Yeeek! Get away get away get away!" Coltia screeched, waving her arms and legs wildly as she ran alongside the other rebels. Serinity and Holly sweatdropped as they glanced over at her, but both knew better than to comment on how strange she looked running away like that…after all, they were panicking just as much as she was, even if she was a bit more vocal about it.
"What kind of monsters are those, anyway? Baddies?" Serinity asked, glancing back over her shoulder at the creatures that pursued them.
"Shell Saurians!" Scaler called back at her, giving Hare a rough push from behind to hasten the younger rabbit along. "They’re some of the more common of Moo’s warriors, since Dino and Zuum types aren’t as rare as some other monsters. Their hard shells act like a sort of built-in armor, and they’re typically very fast on their feet!"
"Really?" Serinity asked, turning bright green eyes toward him.
"This isn’t exactly the time for a lesson about monster types!" Suezo shouted, panting hard as he came up behind the other rebels. "It doesn’t matter what they are, we need to get them off our tails, now!"
"That’s a great idea, only how do you suggest we go about doing that?" Scaler asked, looking back at him. Steel flickered briefly in his paws as he added, "I can probably take out the ones in front right away, but I’ll need someone to cover me when I close quarters with the others!"
"Serinity, do you know any ray attacks?" Genki asked, and the pixie hybrid flashed him a surprised look.
"…Y-Yes, I do know one," she stammered, blinking her wide green eyes in surprise, "but I’m afraid that I’m not that great of a shot…"
"Try it," Scaler suggested, several of his smaller knives glinting in his hands again as he added, "I’ll cover you while you test it out, just in case."
"O-okay!" she replied, nodding back at him. With a sudden flap of her wings, the pixie hybrid sprang into the air, and she pivoted in midair, pointing both palms of her hands back toward the pursuing dinosaurs.
"Here we go! Scattershot!" she shouted, and her hands glowed as small bolts of bright green light shot from her fingertips, streaking down toward the saurians like glowing droplets of rain. The majority of the tiny beams struck the ground harmlessly, but one or two managed to hit one of the baddies on the side of their legs or their tails. One bolt burned through a particularly unlucky dinosaur’s toe, and he yelped in pain, skidding to a halt to blow on his smoking foot.
Serinity sweatdropped, and she swooped down to fly beside the other searchers, her face burning. Scaler gave her a mildly surprised look, arching an eyebrow at her.
"…You weren’t kidding when you said you were a lousy shot," Suezo commented, and Serinity’s normally pale face reddened even more.
"Well, what did you expect? I’m not really a big fighter…I’ve only been in one real battle…and I, um, kinda lost…"
"Great," Suezo groaned, rolling his eye. Scaler shot him an annoyed look out of the corner of his eye.
"Do you know any long-range attacks like that?" he asked, dark violet-brown eyes flashing. "If you do, please use them now and show her how it is done."
Suezo did not answer, and quickly looked away, avoiding the scaled rabbit’s eyes. After a moment, Scaler nodded curtly.
"I thought so," he muttered, glancing back at the baddies still following them. "Don’t tease her about her aim when she at least has attacks to aim!"
"Shouldn’t we be concentrating on fighting these guys instead of fighting each other?!?" Coltia wailed, and a fireball whizzed past the girl’s ear as if to emphasize her lament.
"Colt’s right, we have to fight them!" Genki shouted, gritting his teeth as he cast another quick glance over his shoulder. The Shell Saurians were drawing closer with each passing moment, and some of their attacks, while none had actually hit their marks yet, were getting more and more accurate. It would only be a matter of time before one of the fireballs hit its target, and then…
A fireball passed over the boy’s head, singing the very tip of his cap, and Genki gritted his teeth again. Suddenly he skidded to a stop, and as Holly and the others cast a shocked look at him, whirled around and raced toward the Shell Saurians.
"Genki!" Holly screamed, horrified.
Fortunately, the Shell Saurians were as startled by the boy’s sudden attack as the other rebels were, and the boy’s foot smashed into the snout of the leader without any resistance at all from the baddies. Blood spurted out and covered the heel of his boot, and Genki quickly jumped backwards as the dinosaur stumbled back into its comrades.
"Ah…ah…ah," Serinity gasped, eyes wide with horror as she watched the saurian’s crimson blood drip down the side of its face and stain the grass beneath it. The dinosaur snarled, beady black eyes filling with outrage as he glared at Genki.
"You’ll…pay for that…human!" he growled, and lunged forward with his claws, barely missing the boy’s chest. Genki jumped backward, then balled his hands into fists and brought them down on the already bloody snout. The saurian let out a choked cry and lunged for the boy, only to catch a dagger in his neck for his efforts.
The Shell Saurian screamed, and Genki found himself crying out in shock as well, for the knife had nicked his arm as it flew past him. As he grasped his wounded arm, which fortunately had not been cut too deeply, the other baddies saw their chance and rushed toward him.
Suddenly, however, Scaler was darting past the boy, a blur of green and tan as he leapt forward to meet the attackers with his own assault. Steel flashed from his paws to bury itself in the necks and bodies of several of the dinosaurs, and as the rest fell backward to regroup, the scaled rabbit glanced back over his shoulder at Genki.
"Get up," he hissed, violet-brown eyes flashing like the sword he held before him. "Don’t show your enemy any weakness. Get up and fight!"
Genki gave the green rabbit an annoyed look, but quickly clambered to his feet. His arm throbbed a little where he had been cut, but he flexed it slightly and decided that it would be okay. After all, he was the Monster Champion, and a little thing like a wound on his arm wasn’t going to keep him from protecting his friends!
"Here we go, gang!" he shouted, and joined Scaler in attacking the Shell Saurians. As Mocchi, Hare and Suezo ran forward with their own attacks, Coltia snatched a rock up from the ground and slung it at the face of the nearest baddie. Holly and Serinity backed away, watching the battle unfold before them, and the pixie hybrid gasped quietly, green eyes wavering with fear and horror.
"…How…how horrible," she whispered, shaking her head slowly, unable to tear her gaze away. "How…how can you possibly fight like that…?"
She shuddered, and Holly shot her a concerned look before a shout pulled her attention back towards the battle. Her eyes widened with terror as she saw what was happening: the Shell Saurians were using their vast numbers to simply overwhelm the fighting rebels. As she and the paralyzed Serinity watched, several of the baddies yanked Genki and Mocchi to the ground and kicked them repeatedly, keeping them pinned to the ground though they fought to rise. Suezo and Coltia saw this happen, and both tried to make their way over to their fallen friends, only to get pushed back by the baddies.
"Genki!" Coltia shouted, and she fumbled for her slingshot. One of the Shell Saurians lashed out with his tail and the young girl yelped as the tip flailed into her hand. Her slingshot flew out of her grasp and got knocked away by another tail strike, and Coltia cradled her uninjured hand around her wounded one as she took a hesitant step backward.
"Tongue Slap!" Suezo called out, whacking several of the zuums away from her. However, one of the baddies launched a fireball at him, and he gagged and coughed as the glowing sphere struck his tongue.
"Suezo! Colt! Mocchi! Genki!" Hare called, and the tawny-furred rabbit whirled around to go help them. Scaler grabbed at his shoulder as he tried to run past, and pulled the younger rabbit closer to his body, half-shielding him under his cloak.
"Are you insane? You’ll only get yourself killed!" he yelled, pulling him backwards as he spoke. His free paw blurred again, and five more Shell Saurians cried out as they suddenly found blades lodged in their throats.
"Let me go!" Hare shouted, struggling vainly against the elder rabbit’s grasp. Scaler only tightened his grip in reply, and tears sprung to Hare’s wavering eyes as he pleaded, "I have to help them! They’re in danger!"
"You’re in danger!" Scaler retorted, yanking him backward. Sensing victory, the baddies started to move in on the two hares, but a few swipes from the green rabbit’s ready sword quickly discouraged them. Deciding to focus their attention on the easier targets first, the baddies turned to the still pinned Genki and Mocchi. Several of them opened their mouths, and a deep yellowish-orange glow surrounded their gaping maws as they prepared to fire their attacks.
"No! Mocchi! Genki!" Holly cried out in helpless terror. Behind her, Serinity gasped, and suddenly reached out instinctively with one hand, slender fingers weaving a spell.
"Scattershot!" she shouted again, desperately. Again small bolts of bright green light streaked from her gesturing fingers, and again few of them actually hit any of the Shell Saurians. However, it did manage to distract them for a second, as they paused to look at the small verdant beams that shot past them.
"This…isn’t working," she murmured, sweatdropping again. The Shell Saurians eyed her for a second, then shrugged in unison and started to power up their attacks again.
"Let me go! I have to help them!" Hare pleaded, fighting against Scaler’s stubborn grasp. Scaler’s eyes remained impassive, and he kept his firm grip on the younger rabbit’s shoulder despite his continued protests, the dull flickering of the Shell Saurians’ growing fireballs reflecting off of his dark, narrowed eyes.
"Genki…Mocchi…" Coltia moaned, still cradling her injured hand. Beside her, Suezo continued to gag and choke as his tongue smoked.
Genki moaned, and the boy raised his head groggily just in time to see the Shell Saurians charge their attacks even higher. The orange-yellow flames glowed dangerously, and Genki felt his eyes widen in dull terror as he watched the fireballs build, and he pulled a barely conscious Mocchi closer to his side as the baddies prepared to launch their attacks…
"Genki, no!" Holly screamed, and the girl involuntarily squeezed her eyes shut as the fireballs threatened to reach out and engulf her friends. She heard Genki and Mocchi scream, and then the sound was abruptly cut off with a short cry.
"Genki! Mocchi!" Hare shouted, and Holly forced herself to open her eyes to confront what had happened. Looking over, she sucked in a gasp despite herself, and stared disbelieving at what stood before her.
"…What?" Genki murmured, opening his eyes and staring up to see that several of the Shell Saurians had suddenly backed up, their beady black eyes watching a stranger that was standing in front of them, between them and their would-be victims. As Genki and Mocchi stared up at the strange person, startled, he threw a quick glance back at them and smirked, ever so slightly.
"You dare to defy Master Moo as well?" the leader demanded, glaring at him. The stranger nodded, and drew out a very sharp-looking sword from its sheath, holding it before him in direct challenge. The Shell Saurians regarded him, then just as they were about to advance, a small dagger shot out from behind them and buried itself in the ground, causing them to glance backwards.
Scaler stood in front of Hare, swords in both of his paws, and his cloak was deliberately swept back over his shoulders enough to reveal more blades glinting at his sides. Behind him, Hare had his paws balled into fists, and his kerchief had slipped enough to partially reveal the glowing crystal at his neck.
The Shell Saurians paused, and sweatdropped in unison. Obviously this was one situation that they didn’t like being in.
"Err…later!" the leader said, and suddenly they were off, running away at full speed, leaving a cloud of dust in their wake. The searchers watched them go, and Serinity sighed in relief.
"Thank goodness we didn’t have to fight them to the death," she murmured, eyes wavering with a mixture of fear and relief.
Their savior turned to face them, and Genki felt his mouth drop open in shock. This swordsman was a boy, one who didn’t appear to be much older than he was, although obviously more skilled in the ways of battle. The simple leather tunic he wore hinted at a chain mail vest underneath, and a thick belt at his slender waist bore the weight of his sword as he slid it securely back into place. Loose-fitting black pants were tucked into the cuffs of the stranger’s leather boots, and a pair of golden earrings twinkled in the sunlight as he smiled over at the group.
"Ah, Genki, Holly, long time no see! Looks like I happened across you just in time, eh?"
"Huh?" Genki stared at the stranger in growing astonishment. Something about the confident smirk on the boy’s face was familiar, and the way that his narrow sapphire eyes sparkled the same way the twin loops of gold in his ears did…the way that his ruffled, blue-gray hair drifted over his face in jagged bangs…
Recognition hit Genki with full force, and Holly gasped in surprise as she remembered as well. Suezo and Mocchi blinked in unison, stunned, and as the strange boy’s grin widened, the little pink monster abruptly understood.
"Alan-chi?" he asked, pointing at the bladesman in confusion. The boy laughed in reply, and made a quick signal with one hand. As Genki, Holly, Mocchi and Suezo gaped at him, a pair of screeching Worms surfaced behind him, one much larger than the other.
"Alan!" Genki called, now absolutely certain.
"I wondered if that was the problem," the boy with blue-gray hair snickered, deep blue eyes twinkling with laughter. "It’s good to see all of you again."
Hare was staring blankly at his friends, not certain what was going on. Genki glanced over at him and immediately understood the problem.
"Oh yeah, that’s right, you’ve never met Alan before, have you?" he commented. Hare just gave him a blank, confused look, and Genki smiled. Gesturing back at the other boy, he explained, "This is Alan, a friend of ours. We met him when we were passing through here before, back when it was just me, Holly, Mocchi, Suezo and Golem…"
"Hey, where is the big guy, anyway?" Alan interrupted, looking around. "It’s not exactly hard to miss someone as tall as he is…so where…?"
He trailed off as he suddenly noticed the strange, wistful expressions that Holly, Mocchi, Suezo and Hare suddenly wore. Even Genki looked slightly saddened for a moment, but that passed quickly as he shook his head and locked eyes with Alan.
"I think we need to talk about that," he said, clear eyes shining. Alan paused, then nodded back at him.
"You may be right," he said, then glanced around and added, "But it isn’t safe for us to have a meeting out in the open like this. I’ll lead you back to my hideout. Worms!"
He turned and made a swift signal with his hand; the two worms screeched in unison and dove back into the ground, burrowing swiftly and soon vanishing from sight. Alan then sprang into the branches of a nearby tree, and he glanced over his shoulder at the searchers, a cocky grin on his face.
"Try and keep up, if you can," and then he was gone with a rustle of leaves and branches.
"Wait up!" Genki shouted, barreling into the woods after him. The other searchers followed after him, and Suezo sweatdropped as he struggled to keep up with them.
"This is definitely Alan we’re dealing with," he muttered, in between gasps for breath.
* * *
"…So let me get this straight: you had them outnumbered, and you fled?"
The Shell Saurians winced in unison, and all of them kept their heads bowed, their faces nearly in the dirt underneath them. All of them trembled, none daring to glance upward in fear that doing so would further incite the wrath of the one who stood before them. The speaker’s figure was wreathed in shadows, making it impossible to make out any of its features, save for its glowing crimson eyes.
"And why, may I ask," the voice hissed, "did you choose to flee?"
The dinosaurs froze, paralyzed with fear. None of them dared to answer yet at the same time knew that failure to reply would result in destruction for all of them. After a few moments, several pairs of beady eyes flicked toward the front and the leader gulped silently, knowing that his comrades expected him to be the one to respond.
"W-well…" he started, slowly, stammering without meaning to, "t-they had a lot of really sharp swords, a-and…"
The figure in the shadows sighed and whispered, "Enough." Just one word, but it was more than enough to make the Shell Saurian’s already wildly pounding heart to leap into his throat. A glowing black light erupted from the darkness, and the leader screeched in agony as his form was rapidly engulfed by the dark radiance. The other Shell Saurians panicked and scattered, bolting away from their dying commander’s writhing body.
"What pathetic fools," the hidden monster commented, watching with glowing crimson eyes as the zuum hybrids fled in terror. A sudden flash of ebony light behind them caused it to turn, and another, larger figure appeared, also wreathed in shadow.
"They are getting away," the newcomer commented in a deep, booming voice.
"Let them run. They were useless fools anyway," the first one replied, sounding unconcerned. "Where do they expect to run to? Their crests will mark them as baddies to any possibly friendly hosts they may find, and they are too frightened and stupid to dare approach any other baddies for aid. The only way they can help themselves now would be to prove their worth by destroying Moo’s enemies, and the chances of that…"
Both of them laughed, then suddenly went rigid, their eyes flashing an even brighter red for an instant.
"Moo calls," the second one whispered, and the first one nodded.
"Let us go," it replied, and with two flashes of ebony light, they had vanished.
* * *
"…So that’s it," Alan said, nodding grimly as the searchers finished their tale. His arms were crossed over his chest, and his dark blue eyes shone with thought as he gazed back into the blazing fire before him. Genki and Holly nodded in solemn reply, falling silent as well, and Coltia let out the breath she had been holding with a soft whoosh.
"Wow…" she murmured, turning shining tan eyes on Genki, Holly, Suezo, Mocchi and Hare as if seeing them in a new light. "I didn’t realize that you guys were actually the ones who defeated Moo in the first place! It sounds like you really went through a lot…"
You have no idea, Holly thought glumly, reaching down and grasping the hilt of the dagger she wore on her belt. She noticed that Hare was holding the Phoenix’s Tear gently in both paws, keeping it clasped against his chest, and wondered briefly if he was thinking along the same lines that she was.
"Having second thoughts about coming along?" Suezo teased, eyeing Coltia. Coltia’s face flushed bright red, and she glared over at Suezo angrily.
"No, I’m not!" she cried, sticking her tongue out at the eyeball monster. "I still want to help you fight this thing, no matter what happens!"
"As do I," Scaler added, reaching over and gripping Hare’s shoulder slightly.
"I wish to help as well," Serinity added, nervously clasping her hands in her lap to keep from trembling. "I want to help you find your friends again, and if we have to fight Moo to find them…well…so be it."
Alan looked at all of them and nodded slightly, his sapphire eyes gleaming as he noted, "Well, it looks like you have quite a few new recruits with you already. And all of you are determined to help them?"
Coltia, Scaler and Serinity all nodded back at him, solemnly. Alan smiled, nodding back, then suddenly turned away. Genki and the others stared at his back, confused.
"Alan-chi?" Mocchi ventured after a moment. Alan seemed to jump in surprise, and he quickly turned back around, smiling at the little pink monster.
"…Hey, you all should stay here for the night," he said, gesturing around the cave he used as his base. "The enemy rarely ventures this deep into the woods, and the entrance is hidden anyway, so you shouldn’t have any problems tonight. You’ll need your rest if you’re planning on continuing this quest of yours."
"…Alan?" Holly whispered, giving the silver-haired boy a strange look. Alan glanced over at her and smiled, briefly, then turned away again.
"Don’t worry about it," he said, waving a hand over his shoulder at her in dismissal of any comments she or the others might have made. "I’m going to run some patrols before heading to bed myself; the rest of you should go ahead and get settled in. Trust me."
With that, he walked further away from the light of the campfire and soon vanished into the shadows. The searchers stared after him for a moment, then Genki let out a yawn and stretched out.
"He’s got a point," he said, leaning backward as he stretched out his arms over his head. "Maybe we should try and get some sleep now."
"Yeah, who knows when we’ll be able to get a good night’s rest again," Suezo commented darkly, already curling up as he spoke.
"You should get some sleep," Scaler turned and informed Hare, his tone leaving no room for argument. The younger rabbit glared at him for a moment, but found himself being stared down, and grudgingly settled down.
"Mocchi tired," Mocchi commented, curling up into a ball beside Genki. Within a matter of seconds, he was already fast asleep, and Genki smiled protectively at him, draping an arm over the young monster’s back.
Serinity wrapped both of her wings around her and lay down, letting her short orange bangs shade her eyes from the flickering firelight. Holly retrieved some blankets from Suezo’s pack, passing them around. As she settled down, Coltia walked over and sat down beside her.
"So you know that cute guy from before?" she leaned over and whispered in Holly’s ear, tan eyes glimmering with interest. Holly felt her face flush bright red without even knowing why.
"Yes," she confirmed, nodding, "we met Alan back when we were first passing through this forest."
"Lucky you," Coltia sighed, dreamily. "It must be nice to have known two guys that are so cute for that long…"
"W-What?" Holly stammered, turning widened bronze eyes on the other girl in shock. But Coltia had already turned her face away and was wrapped up in her blanket, fast asleep. Aware that her face was still burning, Holly gazed back into the slowly fading fire, trying to figure out why she felt so embarrassed.
Colt’s just being silly, she decided silently after a moment. She was just teasing me about having met Genki and Alan before her…but why did she make that comment about me being lucky? …She must be joking around. I’m hardly…lucky…
* * *
Alan smiled as a pair of screeches greeted him the moment he emerged from the cave. He glanced up towards the rapidly darkening sky: a few stars had already made their appearance, and sparkled brilliantly above the treetops. A cool breeze ruffled his short, blue-gray hair, and he absently flipped his bangs away from his face.
"When it’s nice out like this, it’s so difficult to believe that Moo may be back," he commented, his sapphire eyes glinting solemnly as they reflected the light of the stars. The larger of his Worms crooned slightly, distressed by his bothered tone, and he flashed his original monster a quick smile.
"But we’ll stop him, won’t we, Worm?" he asked, grinning over at the huge monster. "We won’t let him get away with whatever he’s got planned. Between us working here and the others going after the Phoenix, we’ll be alright."
His two monsters squealed in eager agreement, and Alan sprang on the back of the elder one. Tossing back his head, letting his short black cape billow in the wind, he made a quick signal with his hand, raising it high into the air.
"Let’s go, you two! We have a lot of ground to cover tonight!"
Again the two Worms screeched in unison, then they began to lurch forward, moving surprisingly fast considering their size. As they plunged deeper into the forest, Alan reached down and patted his sword’s hilt, checking to make certain it was secure in its sheath. With any luck, he would not need it tonight, but…
* * *
Holly sighed silently as she stared into the dying fire, stirring the fading embers with a small stick she had found so the flames would not fade completely. She had pulled her knees up to her chest, and her bronze eyes shimmered both from reflections of the campfire and with thought.
As hard as she tried, she simply could not stop thinking about what Coltia had said to her. For some reason, the younger girl’s airy comment about her being lucky for knowing two cute guys had really bothered her. She wasn’t quite certain what it was exactly that was nagging her…it was just that, when Coltia had made that comment, it had struck something within her, something she couldn’t quite put a name to.
Was she saying that she was jealous of me, she wondered. Just because I met Genki and Alan before she did…? …No, no, that couldn’t be right. Colt isn’t really the jealous type…and why would she be jealous of me, anyway? It’s not like they…
Suddenly a soft groan from nearby interrupted her thoughts, and Holly looked up in surprise. It took only a second for the shock to fade from her eyes and turn to sympathy when she saw what was happening.
"Oh, Hare," she whispered softly, watching the young monster toss back and forth, groaning faintly. He was obviously either having another nightmare or vision, and as she watched, eyes misting with sympathetic tears, she heard another faint gasp behind her. Turning around, she saw that Serinity was also awake, and was staring at the small rabbit with wide, horrified eyes.
"H-Holly? W-What’s wrong with him?" she asked, trembling a little bit as she turned her frightened gaze to the human girl. When Holly did not answer right away, the hybrid looked back at the still moaning bunny, then started to stand up, causing Holly to quickly reach up and grab her hand.
"Wait!" she whispered loudly, pulling Serinity back down. Startled, Serinity lost her balance and fell backward with a soft thud, nearly crushing her tail. Biting back a yelp of surprise, she stared at the human girl in surprise as Holly hastily explained, "I’m sorry, but it’s normally best if you don’t try to wake him up when he’s like this. He might be having a vision, and if he is, then it might have a warning or something else in it that he has to see."
"…But he…he looks like he’s in pain," Serinity murmured, bright green eyes wavering as she glanced back toward him. Holly bit her lip and looked down at the ground, letting her bangs fall over her face and shade her eyes.
"I know," she whispered, shaking her head slightly, "but…sometimes, his visions have information that we really need to hear. I know it’s hard to just sit back and do nothing, but…"
"…Miss Holly," Serinity whispered softly, reaching over to the human girl and placing a slender hand on her shoulder. Holly looked up at her, bronze eyes wavering, and the pixie asked, "Do you need to step outside for a little while…? …According to what Alan said, it should be fairly safe, and I think you may need the time…I’ll look after things here for you."
"…T-thank you," Holly said, standing up slowly and turning away. As she started to walk toward the entrance, she glanced back and saw that Serinity had also moved, and was now kneeling next to Hare, silently watching him as he continued to moan and toss in his sleep. After a moment, the pixie hybrid reached down and gently took one of his hands in hers, giving it a gentle squeeze.
Holly smiled sadly, then turned around and slowly made her way out of the cave. Pushing away the leaves that covered the entrance, she stepped out into the cool night air. As she sighed and gazed up toward the twinkling stars so far above her, the wind eagerly began to play with her hair, tossing it around behind her and ruffling her bangs.
She sighed; the cool caress of the breeze felt so nice against her reddened cheeks, and she stood there for some time, gazing up at the darkened sky, losing herself in the stars. After a while, she realized with a start that her cheeks were wet; she had started crying without even noticing. Startled, she reached up and brushed the side of her hand against her tear-stained cheek, then pulled it away and gave it a confused look.
Why…am I crying? She asked herself, looking back up at the stars with wavering bronze eyes. However, even as she wondered that, she realized in the same instant that she had many things to cry about. The problems and responsibilities she faced during the day in stoic silence crashed down upon her all at once, and her resolve crumpled to dust as they fell upon her.
She was crying because she didn’t think she could handle this. She knew this, and also knew that the realization of this was causing her to start crying again. As hot tears began to brim in her eyes again, she quickly fled from the cave entrance, not wanting to disturb her friends that still slumbered within. At the very least, she feared, Serinity might overhear her sobs and come looking for her, to see what was the matter, and she didn’t want to burden the pixie hybrid with any more problems.
She didn’t go far: she knew better than to stray away and risk getting lost. Then the others would most certainly come looking for her, and figure out that something was bothering her. Instead, she walked only a short ways from the cave, to a lake that Alan had pointed out close by. It was close enough to the hideout that she knew she would have no trouble finding her way back to it later.
She kneeled down on the bank, gazing at her reflection in the water for some time, noting how the moonlight seemed to make the water glow like translucent liquid silver. It looked beautiful, serene, and a stark contrast to how she felt at the moment.
A single tear dropped from her wavering bronze eyes and caused ripples in the smooth surface of the lake, and the moonlight shifted to crest each tiny wave with silver. Watching this, Holly felt more tears spring to her eyes: she felt as if she had ruined the perfect scenery with her selfish tears, shattered the serenity of the moment because of her own petty wants and fears. It was a completely irrational, self-berating thought, but she still allowed it to take root, and more tears dropped into the lake as she began to sob quietly.
* * *
"…Well, that was easy enough," Alan commented lightly, glancing back over his shoulder at his two partners as they burrowed after him. "Those Shell Saurians were so scattered around, I don’t know how they expected to accomplish. They didn’t put up much of a fight, either: one or two strikes with the old blade and they all scrambled away. How weak is that?"
He laughed, and the two Worms screeched as if agreeing with him. Grinning, Alan looked back at them and nodded again.
"You two go ahead and turn in for the night; you’ve earned it," he instructed.
The smaller monster screeched again, and eagerly burrowed underground, ready to return home and get some rest. However, the larger one hesitated, and its multiple eyes gleamed inquisitively as it cocked its body to one side.
"Don’t worry, I’m going to bed soon," Alan laughed, waving his older monster off. This seemed to satisfy it, and as it also retreated into the earth, Alan laughed and shook his head slightly. Turning away, he glanced up into the dark sky, his sapphire eyes catching and reflecting the starlight. Shouldering his blade, he traced his way through the woods, using his knowledge of the forest’s layout to weave a path that would not leave a trail that any would-be pursuers could follow.
A soft noise caught his attention, and Alan looked around in confusion. Fingering the hilt of his sword, he carefully moved toward the sound, his eyes narrowed into slits as he concentrated on making as little noise as possible. Creeping forward, he slowly began to draw his blade, then suddenly froze as he saw who was making the noise.
"Holly?" he whispered, causing the girl to gasp and leap to her feet, whirling around to face him. Her bronze eyes looked huge and luminous in the moonlight, and her pale skin seemed to glow as well.
"Alan?" she asked, struggling to keep her voice from trembling. He stepped forward so she could see him, and she relaxed, her tense shoulders slumping with relief. "Oh…you startled me…"
"Holly, why were you crying?" Alan inquired, walking over to her side. Holly averted her gaze, and tried to turn away from him, while she stammered for some hasty excuse. However, he refused to let her escape this way, and stepped quickly up beside her, gently taking her chin and pointing back towards him.
"Tell me," he said, his narrow sapphire eyes locked with her own, wavering bronze ones. Holly paused, then sighed, recognizing that she could not get herself out of this one.
"…I’m just…a little upset about everything that’s been happening lately," she confessed, slowly. Alan said nothing, just continued to gaze into her eyes, and she found herself blurting, "It’s just so hard to believe that Moo might be coming back again. After all the hard work we went through before…was that all for nothing? And…and I’m worried about Golem and Tiger. We were hoping that Golem would be back in the forest with his friends, that was where he said he was going, but he wasn’t there. Genki says that isn’t a problem, but I just don’t know…Golem’s not one to go back on his word, and he was so eager to see everyone again…"
"Hmm…" Alan murmured, simply nodding.
"…And then there’s Tiger. Genki seems so confident that Tiger is going to be with his pack when we find them, but…I’m not so sure…I really have a bad feeling about it, but I haven’t said anything. I can’t, because I know that the others really hope to see him there, safe…I want him to be safe to, but…what if they’re…what if…what if Moo and the baddies found them already?"
She shuddered, and a reluctant tear squeezed out of the corner of one wavering bronze eye as she broke free of Alan and turned away.
"…Serinity, Coltia, and even Scaler…they’re putting themselves in serious danger just to help us…I’m worried…I want everyone to be okay. I don’t want Moo’s evil to hurt anyone anymore! But I feel so helpless…"
"You’re not helpless."
"What?" Holly turned around to stare at Alan; he had stepped up behind her and taken one of her hands in his own. As she stared into his solemn, determined face, she noticed that his blue-gray hair looked silver in the moonlight.
"You are not helpless," he repeated, his sapphire eyes catching and holding her own, "because you have great power resting inside of you. You have love, and others love you, giving you the strength you need to keep fighting. I can tell this, and I know that nothing can change that. Holly, you are such a kind and caring person, there is no way you can fail at anything you set your mind to!"
"…Alan…I can’t," Holly faltered, unable to find anything she could say.
"Here," and Alan pressed something small and round into her palm, gently closing her fingers over it. Reopening her hand, Holly stared down at the tiny gold loop uncomprehendingly for a moment, then raised her gaze to the silver-haired boy’s face. He grinned back at her, and flipped back a lock of hair so she could glimpse the bare lobe of his right ear.
"I actually prefer this style better," he said, indicating the twin earring still glittering in his other ear. It seemed to wink knowingly at the girl, and Holly felt her face flush red with uncertainty.
"But why give this to me?" she asked.
"Think of it as a sort of reminder," Alan replied, blue eyes twinkling roguishly. "As long as you hang onto that, it’ll remind you that I’m out there, fighting against Moo the same way that you and the others are. That way, you’ll be able to keep hope with you. Also, it’s my way of making a promise that we will meet again…"
Holly blushed again, and weakly protested, "But I have nothing to give you in return…"
Her voice trailed off as Alan crouched before her, lifted her empty hand with his own, and swiftly planted a kiss upon it. The slight contact of his warm lips against the smooth back of her hand was enough to completely silence the girl, and she stared down at him in dull shock.
After a while, he released her hand, and grinned roguishly up at her, sapphire eyes gleaming.
"That’ll do," he said simply, then turned on his heel and strode off into the forest. Glancing back at her over his shoulder, he called, "Now try and get some sleep. You’ll need it if you plan on heading out tomorrow morning."
He disappeared into the trees, and Holly stared off after him for several moments, unable to move or react. Slowly, she brought her trembling hand up in front of her chest, grasping at the Magic Stone. She stood there alone in the moonlight for several minutes, her bronze eyes wavering with thought, and then slowly began to make her way back to the hideout where the others were.
* * *
"Is everyone awake?" Alan asked, striding purposefully into the cave, the light of the morning streaming from the exposed opening behind him. Holly nodded in reply, helping a yawning Coltia to her feet. Genki stretched out his arms and yawned loudly, and accidentally whacked Suezo in the face with the back of his fist.
"What was that for?" Suezo demanded, leaping back up with a vein standing out on the back of his head. Genki glanced back at him, eyes widening with surprise.
"Sorry, I didn’t know you were back there, Suezo," he apologized.
Suezo grumbled an unintelligible reply, and Scaler mumbled something under his breath. Although the others could not hear exactly what he said, Suezo appeared to overhear and understand it, and judging from the death glare he aimed back at the green rabbit, it was not exactly very complementary.
"Are you okay, Hare?" Serinity asked in a whisper, helping the tawny-furred rabbit to his feet. Hare looked up at her in surprise, and she quickly explained, "You looked like you had a nightmare last night. Are you alright?"
"Y-Yeah, I’m fine now," he replied, nodding up at her.
"If you don’t mind my asking…what was it about?"
"I…don’t remember everything," Hare answered, his soft brown eyes becoming distant. "I remember…I remember feeling very cold…it was dark, and I couldn’t see anyone. I…I felt so alone…like everyone had abandoned me…"
He trailed off, and shivered with the memory. Not knowing what she should do, Serinity draped an arm across his shoulders comfortingly, and was rewarded by a slight smile from the young bunny. Scaler noticed this out of the corner of his eye, and arched an eyebrow slightly at the sight, but said nothing.
"You should get going," Alan said as he led them out of the forest. "The sooner you head out, the less risk you run of meeting any of Moo’s patrols. I scouted the area last night; there’s no sign of any baddies around, so you should be fine until you reach the canyon, but…"
Shrugging his shoulders, the blue-gray haired boy then pushed a few last branches out of the way, and Genki raced out eagerly into the open field before them. Coltia and Mocchi were directly behind him, laughing.
"Yahoo! We’re out of the forest!" they cheered in unison, while Mocchi cried "Chi! Chi!" excitedly. The other searchers sweatdropped as they watched the trio do some impromptu gymnastics and cavort around the field, and Alan smirked to himself.
"Well, I suppose you can take care of yourselves from here," he commented, turning away and stepping back into the woods. Genki stopped short and turned to stare at the other boy, and Coltia ran right into his back.
"Aren’t you coming with us, Alan?" Genki asked, oblivious to Coltia’s startled grunt. She stumbled backwards, eyes spiraling and moaning, and tripped right over Mocchi, causing both of them to fall to the ground. Holly shook her head, sweatdropping, and bent to help both of them to their feet.
"Nah, I’ve got some work to do here first, just to make certain that the baddies won’t claim this area," Alan explained, grinning, and a twinkle appeared in his narrowed sapphire eyes as he added, "But you will be seeing me again. Count on it."
Holly gasped faintly, a red hue covering her cheeks for an instant, but it faded away before any of the other searchers could notice it. Alan winked in her direction, then spun back toward the forest and was suddenly lost in its branches.
"Alan…" Holly whispered, her voice faint. None of the other searchers overheard her, for all attention was focused on where the young bladesman had been.
"I wonder what he meant by that?" Serinity asked, blinking her bright green eyes in confusion.
"Oh wow! Maybe he liked me so much that he wants to see me again!" Coltia shouted, making a wistful, lovey-dovey face. Huge sparkles glimmered in her widened tan eyes as she clasped her hands in front of her and blurted, "He’s in love with me, I can tell! He can’t wait to see me again…oh wow, oh wow, this is so perfect! How romantic…ooohhh…"
None of the other rebels made any comment; they just stared at her and slowly edged away, huge sweatdrops on the backs of their heads.
"Uh…yeah…anyway, let’s get moving, team!" Genki shouted, whirling on his heel and racing off toward the canyons. The others dashed after him, Serinity launching into the air and gliding on the wind currents. Coltia was left standing alone, and it took a few seconds before she snapped out of her love-struck mood and noticed that they were leaving.
"…Hey! Don’t leave me!" she shouted, dashing after them. It only took her a few seconds to catch up, and soon the entire group was heading off together, all eyes trained on the road that spread out before them.
Only Holly was not running at full speed, and as the others led the way, she brought one clenched hand up to her chest, bronze eyes wavering as she glanced down at her palm. A glint of gold flickered briefly in the sunlight, and she sighed, lost in her own thoughts.
Maybe Alan is in love… she thought, a small sigh escaping from her as she silently added, But, I’m sorry Colt, I don’t think it’s with you… What do I do now?
The small loop of gold she held in her hand glimmered again, offering her no answers, only more questions that she found she could not answer.