* * * Chapter One: Responsibility * * *
* Where…am I? *
Hare opened wavering brown eyes and gazed around him at the pulsating colors that surrounded him. A fiery vermilion dominated his sight, though he could catch glimpses of other shades through the brilliant flames.
* What…is this? *
A warm feeling rose from deep within his chest, threatening to consume his very being. Hare fought against it, forcing it back, even through a nagging feeling at the back of his mind urged him to let it take over.
~ Go on. Don’t fight the fire. ~
* NO! Go AWAY! Who are you, and what do you want with me? *
A breathy sigh seemed to echo in his mind, and the vermilion flames that swirled around him flickered slightly. Hare whirled around, trying to catch a glimpse of the speaker through the blazing light. Nothing came to his searching eyes, but he could sense an overwhelming presence somewhere close by, watching him.
~ Why do you continue to fight me? ~
* LEAVE ME ALONE! What to you want from me? *
The strange voice seemed to sigh again, and the light began to dwindle away, just as the heat in the rabbit’s chest faded slowly. A terrible coldness replaced it, and Hare gasped and fell to his knees, shivering.
* Why are you doing this? *
~ To make you see…to make you understand… ~
* Understand what?*
There was no answer, only a terrible darkness that hung over the rabbit like an ebony blanket. Raising his head, Hare gasped as something appeared in front of him. He watched in horror as his friends appeared in front of him, frozen like statues, staring blankly into the darkness at some terror at he was unable to see at first. Then the cause of their fearful expressions rose in front of them, and Hare opened his mouth in a silent scream as he stared up at the featureless, looming shadow.
* Is that…Moo? *
Ebony flames shot from what appeared to be the gigantic creature’s mouth, and they swept over the bodies of the others. Hare watched, terrified, as the six forms of his friends were consumed by the darkness and shattered into pieces, and tears flowed unchecked down his cheeks.
~ See this and understand, little one. You and your friends will have to suffer much more than this in order to achieve your ultimate goal. ~
* Suffer more than death? What does that mean?*
The only answer came in the roar of the black flames as they surged around him, not touching his body even as they seared the darkness around them. Hare closed his eyes and screamed, and the warmth in his chest came rushing back and raged into his body, seeming to set his very soul itself ablaze. Red flames surrounded him and clashed with the black, lighting up the entire world with their glow.
* * *
Hare snapped awake with a soft cry, and he quickly glanced around at the other searchers, hoping that he hadn’t awakened them. Seeing that none of them appeared to be awake, he sighed in relief. Getting silently to his feet, he crept away from the silent campsite and walked over to the nearby stream that wound through the valley. Kneeling on the riverbank, he splashed cold water onto his face and shook the glimmering droplets out of his fur.
"Another weird dream," he muttered under his breath, irritably brushing wet bangs away from his troubled eyes. "I guess it was naïve of me to think that they would stop after we got rid of Joker. After all, they’ve been coming to me ever since I got the Phoenix’s Tear…"
Sighing, Hare reached under his bandana and absently fingered the glittering crystal teardrop. The mystical artifact gave him the ability to use tremendous powers, but that didn’t necessarily mean that he wanted them. While it was nice at times to be able to heal his wounds on his own when they got a little too rough, there were plenty of other aspects of being able to control the Tear that he would have gladly gone without. The visions that constantly haunted his dreams were a perfect example.
There were other problems as well, the primary one being Naga. Just the thought of the reptilian monster made Hare shudder. Naga was the last remaining member of the Big Bad Four, the most elite of Moo’s soldiers, and the primary cause of all the pain and suffering that the little rabbit had gone through. Because of the snake-like monster, Hare had lost his family, his friends, his hometown…his entire world, swept away by flames set by Naga and his troops. Afterwards, Naga had captured him and imprisoned him simply because he felt it would be amusing. Hare had only managed to escape after Naga found the Phoenix’s Tear, and had somehow used its powers to teleport himself far from the reptilian’s claws.
Now Naga was trying to recapture his ‘little rabbit’, and secure that power for himself. And it didn’t matter to the purple-scaled monster what the cost might be, how many monsters and people might have to suffer or die, just as long as Hare came back under his control again. So far, it looked as though Naga’s minions agreed with him on that, or at least didn’t have the guts to protest against what he was doing. The recent encounter with Vanity had proved that for certain…
Hare sighed as quietly as he could, and walked back toward where the others were gathered, still asleep. The little rabbit couldn’t keep himself from glancing nervously over at Suezo as he walked past the snoring eyeball monster. Even the peaceful, relaxed look on the sleeping monster’s face couldn’t keep Hare from thinking about all the horrible things that he had done a few days before. His shoulder seemed to ache for a moment from remembered pain, even though Hare had healed the wound that Suezo had given him when he bit him.
It wasn’t Suezo’s fault, of course. It was Vanity’s fault; it was her charm spell that had clouded the eyeball monster’s mind and made him attack his friends, to even strike Holly and send her plummeting down a staircase. Even Tiger understood that, although Golem had still been forced to hold the blue wolf back when Hare, Holly and Suezo had reunited with the others. It was obvious that the lupine monster wasn’t the only one who blamed Suezo for what had happened: Suezo clearly blamed himself as well. In the few days that had passed since then, the eyeball monster had been unusually quiet, trudging along silently behind the others instead of hopping alongside Holly like normal. He seemed to be afraid to even look at Holly, like he didn’t feel worthy enough to be anywhere near her anymore. Without Suezo’s constant jabbering and complaining, an awkward silence hung over the rebels. Even Genki was affected, and had been acting a little subdued.
Let’s face it, Hare thought gloomily to himself, this team is on the verge at coming apart at the seams. Nobody wants to admit it, but it’s true. He shuddered again; the mere thought of the team splitting up frightened him. After all, they were ‘the courageous seven,’ the ‘searchers,’ the ‘Anti-Moo rebels.’ They were the only ones with enough bravery –though some might call it stupidity– to openly resist Moo and go looking for the Phoenix…the one monster who could possibly overthrow the dark master. If they ended up separating, it would mean the end of any sort of hope that the world had of shaking off Moo’s control. It would also mean the end of the closest thing that he had to an actual family.
Hare paused, a little startled. For some reason, it seemed a little strange to think of the others as being like a family to him, and he looked around at them as if seeing them for the first time. A smile tugged at the edge of his mouth; as weird as that might sound to somebody, it still had a ring of truth to it. His actual parents had been killed by Naga what seemed like an eternity ago, along with the rest of the monsters and people in his village. They had been everything he had ever known up to that point, and losing them had meant losing an entire lifetime. Now he had a new life, and in the rest of the group, he had found what in a sense might been seen as a new family.
Even if the feeling isn’t mutual, Hare thought, glancing over at Tiger, it’s still there. It might actually mean something. That notion comforted him as he slowly drifted back to sleep.
* * *
Surprisingly, Golem was the first one up the next morning, and when Hare awoke he saw the stone giant calmly and silently waiting for the others to get up on their own. His quiet patience was a stark contrast with Genki, who immediately starting bouncing around the meadow and calling for the others to get up the moment he was awake.
"Come on, everybody, rise and shine! Wake up, Suezo, Tiger, Mocchi, Holly! It’s a beautiful new day!" he gushed. The others rose reluctantly; Tiger muttering a few choice words about the boy’s early-morning enthusiasm. Hare didn’t hear exactly what he mumbled, but decided to count that as a good thing.
The routine went as normal; everybody gathered their things, Holly doubled-checked the Magic Stone one last time, and then off they went, walking along another dirt path continuing their search for the Phoenix. However, the same awkwardness that had haunted the trip for the past few days still remained hanging over them. Suezo hopped along in complete silence, eye downcast, keeping his distance from both Holly and Tiger. The two kept glancing back in his general direction, the girl with sorrow shining clearly in her soft brown eyes, the blue wolf’s golden eyes distrusting and accusing. Hare gulped; the tension between those three was almost like an electricity in the air, ready to spark at any given moment.
"So…" Genki said at length, desperate to break the silence. "Do you think we’ll see any of Naga’s baddies today?"
"Probably," Tiger mumbled. "We’re due."
Hare almost made a sarcastic response to that comment, but he knew that the blue wolf did have a point; they hadn’t had much trouble with baddies lately. Except for a minor scuffle with a few very confused Suezo-types near Vanity’s tower, they hadn’t really encountered many of Moo or Naga’s warriors. Not that it was necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it was something for the group to focus on, and distracted them temporarily distracted them from the more personal problems they were having.
"Welllllll…even if they are out there, it doesn’t really matter," Genki said at length, a confident grin spreading over his face as he glanced back at the others. "After all, we’ve beaten everything they’ve thrown at us before. Besides, remember…"
"…You’re the Monster Champion, yada, yada, yada," Suezo suddenly finished for him. "We know, we know already."
Genki and the others glanced quickly back at him: it was the first time he had made a sarcastic comment –or, really, any type of comment– since the encounter with Vanity. The eyeball monster kept looking down at the dirt road beneath them, deliberately avoiding their gaze, and an awkward silence came for a few moments. Genki broke it after a few moments’ pause, shrugging and turning his attention back to the road ahead.
"Hey Mocchi, race you to the end of the path," he challenged, skating ahead even as he spoke.
"That’s not fair-chi!" Mocchi protested, rolling into a ball and bouncing after the boy. The two raced ahead and soon disappeared over a hill in the road, and the other searchers exchanged glances and sighed together, following after them.
"How much do you wanna bet that we’ll be hearing them screaming any minute now?" Hare asked, nudging Suezo gently. Before the eyeball monster could reply…
"………" Hare and Suezo both rolled their eyes (or, in Suezo’s case, eye) in perfect unison. The two quickly followed after Holly, Golem, and a muttering Tiger as they dashed down the path.
"What type of monster, how many, and which one do I kill first?" Tiger demanded as he caught up to the two first. Genki and Mocchi just stared at him strangely, and the lupine monster looked around, confused. "Where are the baddies?" he asked at last.
"Huh? There…aren’t…any…baddies…Tiger," Genki finally replied. Pointing ahead, he added, "It’s just that…we didn’t expect to see that up ahead."
The searchers all looked down the road to see an innocuous little village nestled between the rolling hills ahead of them. The blue wolf stared down at the town blankly; the vicious, battle-ready sneer on his muzzle drooping into what almost looked like a pout.
"Sorry to disappoint you," Hare commented, seeing the expression on Tiger’s face. "Looks like no fighting this time." He leaped back to avoid getting hit by the swipe the blue wolf aimed irritably at him, and dashed away toward the town, laughing the whole way. A snarling Tiger followed him, while the others just stood on the hilltop and sweatdropped.
* * *
By the time the other searchers had caught up to them, Tiger had managed to corner a now visibly worried Hare, who had taken refugee in a tree. Holly coaxed the blue wolf into allowing the rabbit to climb down safely, and the two glared at each other from opposite sides of the girl as they filed into the village. However, any harsh feelings they had toward each other at that moment were soon forgotten as the searchers began to examine their surroundings a little more closely.
"This can’t be right," Holly commented, gazing around at the silent buildings that towered around them. Except for themselves, the streets were echoingly empty, even though it was still early in the afternoon. The bare booths of merchants flanked the quiet roads, with nothing displayed on their shelves. The rebels looked around a little apprehensively, and Tiger growled low in his throat.
"Looks like the baddies were here," he snarled, and Golem nodded silently. Mocchi, Hare, and Suezo glanced nervously at one another, and then at Holly.
"Maybe…maybe there are some survivors?" Genki suggested weakly. Holly shook her head slightly in doubt, but the searchers still agreed to split up and search for some sort of sign as to what had happened. The courageous seven branched off in different directions, each praying that they would find something positive even in this place.
"After all, it’s not like the place is trashed," Genki murmured to himself, clear eyes scanning the buildings as he skated past. "If the baddies had been here, wouldn’t they have trashed the place? We’d find some sort of sign…"
Still, even Genki couldn’t escape the feeling of dread that slowly spread over the rebels as they wandered through the barren streets. Suezo hopped silently from house to house, peering briefly in each window, then shaking his head despairingly as he looked away, avoiding the eyes of the others. Golem spotted something lying half-buried in the dirt road, and bent to pick up what turned out to be a handcrafted wooden doll. The small toy, lovingly carved by some unknown parent for their child, had suffered a broken leg, and its yarn hair fell in tangles over its soiled fabric dress. The stone giant cradled it absently in one massive hand as he gazed around at the soundless village, almost as if he was half-expecting its owner to come dashing out of hiding and reclaim it.
Mocchi began to sob, clinging to the hem of Holly’s tunic for comfort, and Genki glanced back at them in concern. Tiger just shook his head again, golden eyes flashing.
"Moo," was all the blue wolf could say. "This is because of Moo. Him and Naga…"
Golem nodded silently, still gazing at the broken dolly cradled in his hand. After a moment, the stone giant rumbled, "Let’s go. There is nothing here for us now."
"Yeah," Holly sighed, gazing up at the sun, which was beginning to complete its circuit in the sky. They had searched for a few hours now and still found…
A shriek from nearby took them off guard. Tiger cursed, quickly glancing over at the others and noticing that one was absent from the group.
"It figures," he snarled, turning and dashing toward where the scream had come from. As he ran, the others following behind him, he muttered, "Just what have you gotten yourself into now, Hare?"
Within a few moments, the lupine monster found Hare standing in the Center Square of the village, staring blankly in front of him. Tiger opened his mouth to start cussing the little rabbit out for screaming for no apparent reason, but the words died on his tongue the moment he saw what the other monster had already noticed. The other five searchers dashed up behind them, and Genki inhaled sharply as his clear eyes drank in the scene.
The Center Square was filled with lost discs. Several of the discs had actually been uprooted and placed in different positions, leading one to guess that they had probably been moved there for dramatic purposes. Tiger figured that Naga was no doubt trying to unnerve them with a display of his power. If that was the case, it had worked well: even the blue wolf was visibly shaken by the sight of all the lost discs gathered in one place. A snarl rumbled from deep in his chest, and golden eyes glinted like cold steel in narrowed slits.
"Hey, there’s something written there," Suezo suddenly spoke up, squinting at the base of the Center Square statue. As the others stared at the eyeball, he hopped up to the marble base and leaned forward. Suddenly his pupil dilated, and he yelped, "Blood!" as he jumped backward. Running forward, Genki and the others cringed a little as they saw what he meant: a message had been scrawled on the gray marble slab with crimson swipes of blood. Tiger, the only one not affected by the sight, leaned forward to make out what it said.
> I know that you will see this, my little rabbit. Consider this your warning. If you do not surrender yourself to me soon, others will continue to suffer for your disobedience. I suggest you give yourself up now, or do you enjoy having others pay for your actions? Until we meet again, Naga. <
"…That cold-blooded monster," Tiger snarled, breaking the silence that hung like a dead weight over the group. Genki growled, his clear eyes unusually dark.
Hare stepped backward, wavering eyes locked on the bloody scrawl, slowly shaking his head in disbelief. Holly and the others glanced back at him, clearly worried, and Genki took one step toward him, reaching out in a consoling manner.
"Hey, don’t let it get to you…" he started to say. But before he could get the rest of his sentence out, Hare had already turned and run off, plunging blindly down the streets. Genki cried out in protest and jerked to go after the rabbit, but Tiger stepped in front of him, shaking his head.
"Better not," he warned, glaring in the direction that Hare had run off in. "Nothing you can say or do will make him feel any differently about this. Let him work this out on his own."
"Why, Tiger," Suezo commented mildly, eyeing the blue wolf. "If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that it almost sounds like you do care a little about Hare after all…" He quickly shut up as Tiger glared at him, a huge sweatdrop appearing on the back of the eyeball monster’s head.
* * *
Hare plunged blindly forward, his mind reeling with a thousand thoughts at once.
Naga killed the people of this village because of me, his mind repeated again and again. It’s all my fault…I’m to blame. The thought lodged in his mind, refusing to be dispelled, and Hare choked as tears streamed from his eyes.
Shoot…no matter how far I run…it’s not like it’s going to change anything. When I stop, those people will still be dead…and it’s all my fault. If I hadn’t escaped from Naga in the first place…
Then he would have the Phoenix’s Tear, and would probably have murdered those people anyway, the logical part of his mind kicked in. Hare slowed to a stop as that thought registered, realizing that it made sense. More sense than beating himself up over something that he couldn’t change did, anyway. Yet even that concept couldn’t stop the guilty tears from coming, and Hare buried his face in his paws and wept.
"How…many more are going to have to die because of me?" he wondered aloud. "It seems that no matter where I go, I have to cause some sort of pain…and now this…" He raised wavering eyes to stare up at the sky; the rays of the setting sun seemed to stain the horizon with blood.
"Darn it…even the others have gone through a lot because of me," he mused. "If Vanity hadn’t been trying to get control of me, she never would have turned Suezo against the rest of us…I wonder…" He paused, trembling slightly as he continued, "How long is it gonna be…before one of them gets killed ‘cause of me?"
The thought terrified the little rabbit, yet he couldn’t get away from it. If things keep going like this…it’ll only be a matter of time before one of them…might die trying to help me…
"Should…should I leave them for their sake?" he asked aloud, gazing at the orange-streaked sky as if for answers. When no answer came, the little rabbit sniffled one last time and, wiping away a few final tears, turned to retrace his steps back to the others.
Tiger’ll come down on me for running away, he thought, a little bitterly. As he walked along, distracted by his thoughts, he failed to notice as a slimy blue tentacle slowly emerged from a dark alleyway and began to slither after him. Its end morphed into a hand, and it reached grasping fingers for the back of his neck.
The Phoenix’s Tear suddenly flared into bright light, and Hare glanced down at it, then over his shoulder. Seeing the hand reaching toward him, he instinctively dodged aside, opening his mouth to cry out, "Wha-" Before he could finish his startled shout, another appendage shot from the shadows and wound itself around his neck, yanking him roughly off his feet and into the dark alleyway from which it had emerged.
As Hare gasped for breath, clawing at the slimy limb with both paws, he felt something else began to wrap itself around his neck. A Sheet attack? He thought, recognizing the technique despite the darkness. That meant that his attackers had to be some type of Jells…He lashed out blindly with his paws and feet, trying to drive them away. Something seized his left arm and twisted it painfully behind his back, and the rabbit’s eyes teared with fear and frustration.
"HE–" The desperate cry was cut off as unseen hands thrust a damp cloth against his face, covering his nose and mouth. A musty, overpowering odor swept into his system, and Hare’s vision was already beginning to blur by the time he realized what was happening. The sleeping drug took effect quickly, and as the rabbit’s struggles slowed, one of his attackers separated from the others.
"Phase One completed," Captain Icy Jell snickered, smirking as he looked at his unconscious captive. As the other Icy Jells began to form a gel cocoon around Hare’s unresisting body, the commander motioned for a figure standing hidden in the shadows behind him to step forward. Turning to face his companion, he said, "You know the plan. Your assignment is simple enough: Get the rebels off guard and kill them."
The Jelly Hare nodded mutely. It reached over to the unconscious Hare’s paw and touched him briefly. Its clear blue form rippled, then morphed into an exact copy of the little rabbit. As it drew its now tan-furred paw back to its side, the Jelly Hare smirked, a shadow falling over its face as it said in Hare’s voice, "Mission accepted. Beginning Phase Two now."
* * * Chapter Two: Jelly Hare’s Deception * * *
"Hey guys, sorry I’m late," the little rabbit apologized as he ran back toward his friends, waving for them to wait up. Tiger of the Wind narrowed his golden eyes in a disapproving glare, yet the blue wolf didn’t make any sort of comment as the other monster came up toward him and the others. Holly smiled, a little grateful that he had chosen not to make a big deal out of what had happened.
"Are you feeling better?" she asked as the brown-furred rabbit walked up next to her. He nodded, smiling reassuringly, and she returned his grin with a smile of her own.
"We should get moving, then, before the sun sets," Tiger decided, already turning out of the town as he spoke.
"Yeah," Suezo agreed nervously, glancing around at the silent walls of wood and stone on either side of them. "I’m not too thrilled of the concept of staying in this creepy place overnight."
"Agreed," Golem rumbled, and the stone giant lumbered after the others as they made their way out of the city. Every few moments or so, he couldn’t keep himself from glancing down at something hidden in his palm, even though he was careful to keep the others from seeing what it was. Normally, Golem didn’t like to keep secrets from his friends, but he wasn’t certain how they might react if they found out that he was still holding onto a small child’s doll he had located in the empty town. He wasn’t even certain himself why he was keeping it: it was painfully obvious to him that there was no chance of his being able to return it to its rightful owner…
As he lumbered after the others, the little brown rabbit trailed along behind him silently. If the stone giant had glanced backward instead of into his hand, he might have noticed the knowing smirk that flashed over the hare’s face.
Look at these fools, the Jelly Hare gloated inwardly. They really have no idea. They honestly believe that I’m their friend. This will be too easy…
* * *
* Now where am I supposed to be? *
Hare glanced around in confusion, his eyes tracing up the side of the four towers that loomed in front of him. The pillars seemed to stretch up into the very heavens themselves, four black spires that stood out plainly against the reddish-orange, sun-streaked sky. Something glowed at their peaks, and the rabbit felt a distinct sense of foreboding as the pulsating lights brightened. A figure stepped into view, and Hare suddenly realized what had to be causing at least some of his ill feeling.
* Moo! *
The masked baddie swept grandly toward the four pillars, completely ignoring Hare as he brushed by. The rabbit kept a wary eye on the larger monster, not wanting to be caught off guard. A strange thought suddenly flashed into his mind.
* If Moo’s supposed to be the ultimate evil, why in the world does he have fluffy pink hair? *
For some reason, the strangeness of that notion made Hare laugh, though the sound quickly trailed off as he continued to keep a close eye on Moo. Without so much as a glance in the rabbit’s direction, the masked monster made a grandiose, sweeping gesture with his muscular arms, his golden armor glinting crimson in the fading rays of the sun. His jet-black cape fluttered in the sudden breeze that sprang up, and the wind soon seemed to gain the force of a gale, howling as it tore though the shadowy plains. Hare shielded his eyes with one of his arms, and he squinted to keep from losing sight of Moo.
Suddenly his eyes nearly doubled in size. Something was looming directly behind the four pillars; something huge that he’d somehow failed to notice before. Its immense bulk seemed to rise up from the ground itself, and Hare strained to make out its indistinct features. Even though he couldn’t tell for certain what it looked like, he knew what it had to be; the burning sensation at his chest, the slow twisting in his gut told him.
* This has got to be… Moo’s ancient body… *
Moo was laughing now, and the masked monster threw his arms even wider as if to embrace his old body as it towered above him. The four towers began to glow with a bizarre light, and Hare had to shield his face with both arms now to keep from being blinded. He stumbled forward awkwardly, driven forward by the terrible burning feeling that rose and curled from somewhere deep within.
* I’ve got to stop this! I can’t let him… *
* But…what can I do? *
The question lodged in Hare’s mind, torturing him almost as much as the sound of Moo’s triumphant laughter. As the leader of the baddies stepped forward, eager to reclaim his old body, the rabbit did the only thing he could think of; bracing himself, he leveled his paws at the monster’s back and sent a volley of bright crimson flames toward it. Hare poured all of his energy into the attack, despite the pain that started to surge through his slight frame, and as the blaze swept toward Moo, he dropped to the ground completely drained, unable to see if his aim had been true.
* * *
"Hey, will you be quiet over there?"
The angry shout pierced through the fogginess in the rabbit’s mind, and Hare groaned softly as he forced his eyes open. The first thing he became aware of was the fact that he was cold, almost numbingly cold. He shivered and tried to curl into a ball to warm himself, only to discover that his movements were being severely hampered by some sort of blue gel that covered most of his body. The frigid gel was obviously what was chilling him to the bone, and Hare attempted to pull free of the sticky substance without much success. After a few moments of struggling, he gave up on that and instead tried to get a better look at his surroundings.
As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he realized that he wasn’t alone in the room. Several puddles of ice blue slime, the same shade as the gel that arrested his movements, were spread out on the grimy stone floor of the building. Hare recognized the sub-breed type at once.
"Icy Jells," he half-thought, half-whispered. Glancing around as best he could, he decided that the hybrids must have taken him to some sort of house, not a fortress of some sort as he had originally suspected. The slate-gray floor was stone, but the walls that he could see were made entirely of wood, and looked to be quite old at that. He could see several areas where the planks had either rotted away or had broken off; the entire shack looked as though one well-timed kick might bring it down on top of them.
Not the most pleasant thought to have occur to you when you can’t exactly move, Hare thought glumly. He started to twist around again, and managed after some effort to pull himself into a sitting position. At least now his cheek wasn’t rubbing painfully against the rough floor with each small movement of his body, and that small gain encouraged him to try a little longer.
"I thought I told you to stop making all that racket," a sleepy voice slurred, and Hare froze. Twisting to look in the direction where the voice had come from, the little rabbit nearly cried out in shock as an Icy Jell, obviously the leader if one could judge from the fancy, battered helmet on his head, oozed over to where he was trapped. Narrowing sleepy eyes, the Jell leaned forward and stared right into Hare’s face, and his stale breath nearly made the rabbit choke for a moment.
"Humph," Captain Icy Jell sniffed after a moment, "If you were uncomfortable, you might have said something." He snapped slimy fingers, and Hare cried out involuntarily as the blue gel surrounding his body suddenly twisted and moved, forcing him into a kneeling position in front of the Jell commander. The frigid gel yanked his chin up, and the rabbit found himself staring up at the Icy Jell’s sneering face.
"Is that better?" the Icy Jell mocked, grinning. Hare looked up at him and, despite the situation, smirked back.
"Hai," he replied, and as a quizzical expression spread over the commander’s face, Hare yanked his left arm backward. The realignment of the gel surrounding his body had left it a little looser than what had probably been intended, and the little rabbit felt a certain sense of satisfaction about the stunned look on the captain’s face as he brought his fist back and slammed it directly into the Icy Jell’s face. It didn’t last long, as the slime monsters quickly realized their mistake and rewrapped themselves around him, but Hare couldn’t keep from smiling even as his arms were pinned behind his back again.
"You…you…you…" Captain Icy Jell spat, glaring at the little rabbit. Bringing his arm back, he morphed the slimy blue limb into a whip and brought it back down toward Hare’s face.
"No, commander!" one of the other Icy Jells protested, deflecting the attack with his own limb. "Master Naga specifically stated that the little rabbit was not to harmed!"
"Yeah, but that really hurt!" Captain Icy Jell replied, rubbing his sore cheek and giving his men a rather petulant look. The other slime monsters all sweatdropped.
"Yes, yes, it certainly looked painful," the Icy Jell soldier who had stopped the attack said soothingly, in a tone similar to one used to calm a child. "But you shouldn’t let your anger cloud your better judgement. If you get revenge on the little rabbit now, then you might feel good about it for a time, but what happens when Master Naga finds out about it?"
"Yes…you’re right, of course," Captain Icy Jell deferred at length, still rubbing his mouth as he threw one last glare in Hare’s direction. Deliberately turning his back on the rabbit, he asked, "How is Phase Two of the plan going? Has Jelly Hare’s deception been proceeding as planned?"
Jelly Hare? Hare wondered.
"Yes, commander," the Icy Jell grunt replied, eager to take his leader’s mind off of what had happened. "Our spies have reported that he has successfully intercepted the rebels and integrated himself into their ranks. They seem to be completely convinced that he is the little rabbit, and have shown no signs of suspicion whatsoever."
"Good," Captain Icy Jell replied, casting a knowing sneer over his shoulder at Hare. "Jelly Hare has always been a great performer: they should have no reason to suspect him at all. He should be able to keep them off their guard and, when the time comes–" He paused for dramatic effect, and smirked at the shocked little rabbit behind him as he finished grandly, "Eliminate them."
The commander of the Icy Jells then oozed out of the room, laughing wildly, and Hare started struggling to break free again. The slime monsters kept a firm grip on him, however, and one of them retrieved a cloth soaked with the same sleeping potion and brought it back into the room. As the drug took effect again and Hare’s eyes drifted closed, he felt familiar warmth slowly begin to blaze at his chest. He smiled groggily: the stupid Jells hadn’t thought to take away the Phoenix’s Tear from him. They probably figured that since they kept numbing his mind with the sleeping potion, that they would be safe from any sort of attack.
Well, just you wait, Jells, he thought, even as he faded into unconsciousness. It won’t be too long before you regret that sort of thinking. Just you wait…wait and see…
* * *
"Let’s stop here for tonight," Tiger announced, stopping and turning to look at the other rebels.
"Huh?" Suezo asked, glancing around the small hilltop. "But…we haven’t gone all that far," he argued, his gaze drawn back to the silent village below them. "I thought…"
"Look, Suezo," Holly interrupted, "It’s pretty late. This should be a safe enough place to set up camp."
"But Holly, I’m not too thrilled about staying so close to that weirdo town," Suezo protested, shivering despite the fact that it wasn’t all that cold.
"It’s not like there’s anything down there that can hurt us," Tiger growled, glancing down at the empty town. His simple words made everyone pause for a moment; each lost in their own thoughts.
"Well, okay then," Suezo relented, breaking the silence. He hopped after Genki as the boy went to gather some firewood, and Holly bent to start clearing away a small site for their campfire. Hare bent beside her and started to help out, occasionally glancing up at her and smiling as they worked.
"Hey…Hare…" Holly said carefully after a few moments. The little rabbit glanced up at her, and she slowly asked, "Are you feeling alright? You seemed pretty upset back in the village…"
"Oh…no, I’m okay now," Hare replied, smiling reassuringly with a shake of his head. "I…just got taken a little off guard back there. I’m fine now…"
"Are you sure?" Holly pressed gently. The girl’s soft brown eyes were filled with concern as she added, "That was just a terrible thing to find back there, and I can understand if you don’t want to discuss it, but…I’m just a little worried about you. If you need to talk with me about anything…"
"I’m okay, I’m okay," Hare persisted, getting to his feet. He reached down and helped Holly get up, then flashed her a smile as he added, "But thanks for caring…"
"Sure," Holly replied with a smile of her own. Genki came skating back into view at that point, arms overloaded with twigs of various shapes and sizes. As the two humans started working on building a fire, the little rabbit stepped away from the group and swept his cold gaze over them.
To think I was worried that she might have caught on, Jelly Hare thought with a sneer. These fools have no idea who I am or what they’re dealing with. This phase will be finished in no time…
* * *
Nightfall came, and the seven rebels curled up to sleep. Genki and Mocchi were practically lying on top of one another; they were pressed so close to each other’s backs. Holly rested her head against the side of the slumbering Golem’s leg, and Suezo curled up beside her, not as close as he normally was, but closer than he had been allowing himself to get to her for the past few days. Tiger was curled up at the edge of the group, and the only way one could tell that he was sleeping was from the gentle rise and fall of his back.
Jelly Hare waited until he was absolutely certain that all of the rebels had fallen asleep before he opened his eyes. The soft brown shade they had adopted faded away, replaced by deep, flashing red as he got to his feet and surveyed the group.
"Now let’s see…" he mused under his breath, "Who’s first…"
Walking forward, he brushed past Holly, Golem and Suezo without even a glance in their direction. Instead his eyes were locked firmly on Genki and Mocchi, and a cruel smirk twisted his lips.
According to reports, these two are supposed to be highly dangerous, he thought. I can’t see why, but at any rate, it’s a good place to start…
Raising his paw, Jelly Hare concentrated hard and let the disguise he had adopted fall away partially. The soft brown fur on his arm disappeared, replaced by a smooth, slimy blue gel that twisted and writhed as he formed it into a new shape. Keeping a close eye on his two victims, Jelly Hare brought his morphed arm back, shaping it into a whip form. A demented sneer twisted his face as he brought it forward, letting it flash down toward the sleeping pair.
* * * Chapter Three: One Last Trick * * *
The slimy blue limb lanced down toward Genki’s relaxed face, and the Jelly Hare sneered as he brought it down with all of his might. Too easy, his mind repeated, and his leering smirk grew wider as his whip-like arm smashed down.
Suddenly Jelly Hare snapped to attention. His arm had suddenly halted in midair, seemingly of its own accord. Glancing down at his two victims, the rabbit hybrid gasped. Genki’s clear eyes were wide open, and the boy’s fingers were locked around the half-Jell’s wrist. A knowing smirk was on the kid’s face, and he tightened his grip around the squirming limb.
"Too easy," he teased, clear eyes twinkling. Jelly Hare just gaped at him and Mocchi, who was also wide awake and was staring at the rabbit hybrid with a curious look on his pink face. A low growl rumbled behind them, and Jelly Hare quickly glanced over his shoulder. His already pale blue face blanched even more as he saw energy dancing around an obviously wide awake Tiger of the Wind’s horns. Behind the lupine monster, Holly, Suezo and Golem glared at the hybrid, their eyes accusing and strangely knowing.
"This trick’s gone long enough," Tiger snarled, curled lips revealing shiny white teeth. "Where have you hidden Hare at?"
Jelly Hare gaped at the wolf, and replied the only way he could think of; by saying aloud what was repeating over and over again in his mind: "Oh crap…"
"Wrong answer," Tiger growled, and the electrical energy building around his horns became even brighter. The hybrid’s eyes doubled in size, and the flailing squirms of his trapped arm became even more desperate. Genki’s fingers remained tightly clamped around his blue limb, and Golem stomped up to help by pinning the rabbit hybrid down.
"How…how did you know?" Jelly Hare rasped, glaring up at the group. Tiger snorted in reply.
"Baka," the blue lupine snarled. "Your scent gave you away the moment you came running up. I’d recognize the furball’s scent anywhere, and yours isn’t the least bit similar to his. I tipped off the others, and warned them not to act like anything was wrong. I wanted you off guard…"
"In other words, Tiger actually used his brain for once instead of just killing," Suezo quipped. Tiger silenced the eyeball monster with his death glare.
"I’m sick of stalling," Genki interrupted, glaring at Jelly Hare. "Tell us where Hare is, NOW."
"And if I refuse?" Jelly Hare hissed. Genki didn’t reply, but his clear eyes suddenly became alarmingly piercing as he glared at the rabbit hybrid. His fingernails dug into clear blue gel, and Jelly Hare gritted his teeth in agony. Risking a glance over at the others, the hybrid gulped as he noticed that Tiger had stepped closer, baring his fangs in a very pissed-off looking snarl. The electricity around his horns made them shine like twin torches, casting frightening shadows over his angry face, and golden eyes gleamed as if lit by an inner fire.
"…Back in the village," Jelly Hare relented, eyes never leaving Tiger’s face.
"In an old shack at the edge of the town. You’ll know it by the blackened old sign near the entrance. Captain Icy Jell chose it because he figured you’d pass the place over as being unimportant. It doesn’t look anything like a baddie hideout, so he knew you’d pay it no mind."
"Let’s go," Genki said, getting to his feet and yanking on his skates. Holly, Mocchi and Suezo were already turning and heading back toward the village, and Golem loosened his grip on the Jelly Hare as he began to get to his feet. Suddenly the stone giant cried out as something blazed into his hand, and he let go of the monster’s lifeless form. As it fell to the ground and transformed into a lost disc, Golem turned horrified gray eyes to stare at Tiger. The energy that had been building around the blue wolf’s horns steadily was gone.
"Tiger…why?" he asked, clearly stunned. Golden eyes glanced up at the stone giant’s horrified face disinterestedly, and the lupine monster sniffed as he went after the others.
"We couldn’t risk him warning his friends, and he needed to pay for trying to trick us in the first place," Tiger replied over his shoulder. He paused, and a grin twisted his lips for a moment as he added, "Damn, I’d been wanting to do that. It felt good."
He dashed after the others, leaving a visibly shaken Golem standing alone on the hilltop. The stone giant stared disbelivingly after the lupine, and it took a few moments before he could muster enough sense to follow after the others.
* * *
A sneering face of unspeakable ugliness hovered a few inches away from the little rabbit’s face, its draconian features twisted into a demonic sneer.
* MOO! *
Hare all but shrieked the name, and he leveled his paws with the baddie’s eyes and poured all of his strength into lashing out at him. As the crimson fireball surged toward Moo, the terrible dragon just leered down at him and reached out with one massive hand. The blaze slammed at full force into his hand and dissipated harmlessly, and as Hare opened his mouth in a silent scream, the monster’s voice echoed in his mind:
> I’ll deal with you later. Right now, I want to get rid of some other pests first. <
* No…you CAN’T! *
Hare’s protest fell on deaf ears, for the massive leader of evil monsters rose into the air on powerful wings and swept past the drained rabbit. The little rabbit had put all of his energy into attacking, and watched helplessly as the reborn Moo swooped down upon his friends. Screams filled the air, and Hare winced as he recognized each voice: first Tiger, then Genki. Golem. Mocchi. Suezo. And finally Holly’s.
* STOP IT! *
Hare shrieked the command, and suddenly a new fire raged in his chest. Driven by a force he couldn’t recognize, the rabbit leapt to his feet and pointed his paws toward Moo again. The fire erupted from his chest and through his hands, and Moo screamed as the energy tore through him…
* * *
Hare opened his eyes and stared blankly up into Holly’s face.
"Holly?" he asked, disbelieving. The girl smiled, even as she tore away the gel that encased most of the rabbit’s body and held him down. The second his body was free, Hare attempted to get to his feet, glancing quickly around.
"Looks like I missed a lot," he commented, seeing the Icy Jells sprawled out over the floor. The other rebels were standing nearby, surrounding the two protectively. Tiger blasted one backwards and gave Hare an annoyed look.
"’Bout damn time that you decided to join us," he snarled. Hare just rolled his eyes.
"Good to see you too," he returned mildly. Tiger grumbled something that the rabbit couldn’t quite make out and turned his attention back to the battle. Genki glanced over his shoulder and smiled reassuringly.
"Don’t let him get to you," the boy told him. Hare smirked back and got to his feet, assuming a battle position as all of the rebel’s eyes turned to Captain Icy Jell, who was looking considerably peeved.
"You’ve forced us to use our deadliest attack," the Ice Jell captain snarled, glaring at the rebels. Throwing back his arms, he yelled, "All attack formation!"
"Hey, that’s my line!" Genki fumed. The other rebels glanced at the furious boy and sweatdropped. They were a little bit more interesting in what the Jells were doing than they were in what their commander had just said.
"What are they doing?" Hare asked, confused. Genki glanced over at the Jells, who were all diving at the captain…and going straight into the captain’s body. As the rebels watched, confused, the Jells merged into a single, trembling blob of clearish-blue slime. Genki stared at it, something nagging at the back of his mind.
"OH NO!" Genki screamed aloud as recognition suddenly hit. Whirling to face the others, he warned, "Take cover! They’re gonna use the Cannon attack!"
"What?" the others asked. As one, they looked back at the blob of Jells, and sweatdropped as it morphed into a gigantic cannon. The blue gun swiveled and pointed itself directly at the rebels, and Genki screamed again as a huge blast of glowing yellow light surged toward them. It was too late to dodge. The boy flung up his hands in a futile attempt to ward off the attack, squeezed his eyes shut, and waited for impact.
Instead of feeling energy sear through his flesh, however, the boy felt a sudden rush of heat rise before him, then fade away as quickly as it had come. Opening one eye a crack, he gasped as he saw a familiar reddish glow shining inches away from his face. Glancing around, he quickly spotted Hare standing in front of the group. A red aura spread from his paws and formed a glistening shield around the rebels.
"Good timing," Genki cheered, and Hare glanced back at the boy, nodding slightly in reply.
"Don’t think it’s that easy," snarled Captain Icy Jell’s voice from somewhere inside the massive blue cannon. The rebels whirled to face it, and another blast of yellow energy shot from its slimy barrel and crashed into the barrier. Suezo screamed, then gasped thankfully as the crimson light deflected the shot again. The voice of Captain Icy Jell cursed, and the cannon began to fire mercilessly at the searchers, who cowered behind the flame shield.
"We can’t just sit here!" Tiger growled, every muscle in his lean body tensing. "We have to attack!"
"You go ahead and go first, Tiger," Suezo urged. "Call me crazy, but I have a thing about dying needlessly."
"It doesn’t matter, anyway," Hare mumbled, wincing as he poured more of his energy into the barrier. When the others looked at him, he continued, "The Ice Jells won’t be able to keep firing like this forever, though it looks like it doesn’t matter to them what will happen if they try. Eventually…their bodies will start to fuse together from the heat of the cannon, and when that happens…boom. Bye-bye Ice Jells, and anything that happens to be close enough to be caught in the explosion."
"What?" Genki gasped, and the other rebels exchanged nervous glances.
"B-but we’ll be okay, right?" Suezo stammered, pupil dilating slightly as he laughed nervously. "You can keep this shield thing up and protect all of us, right?"
"I can keep it up…" Hare replied, pausing as another ball of yellow energy slammed into the barrier and faded away harmlessly, "But…"
"But. But is never good," Suezo groaned.
"Even if I can keep it at this strength, it won’t be able to stand up to the full effects of the blast. If we were further away…" Hare let his voice trail off hopelessly, and turned his watery eyes back toward the Jell Cannon, which even now was beginning to show signs of an imminent explosion. The blue slime glowed with yellow energy, and it crackled warningly as it pulsed around the unheeding Jells, even as they launched another attack.
The crimson shield flickered as the wave of energy slammed into it, and for a breathless moment seemed to vanish completely before regaining its steady glow. The rebels all tensed, then sighed in relief as it held. Holly glanced over at Hare, wondering just how long he could keep the shields in place.
Not long, she decided glumly. Sweat was rolling down the rabbit’s face and back in rivulets, and she could clearly see the strain of keeping the barrier up in the pained expression on his face. Tears brimmed in his narrowed eyes, and Holly assumed that they were caused by the obvious pain and exhaustion he was suffering. She had no idea that there was another cause.
"I guess…I’d better get this over with," she heard him whisper. As she and the others stared at him, Hare closed his eyes and stepped out of the barrier, a fiery aura surrounding his fur the moment he was outside. He turned and looked back at them, a slight smile on his face.
Genki stared at Hare, trying to figure out what the rabbit was up to. Why has he left the safety of the shield? Is he planning on attacking by himself?
"Hare, what are you doing?" he heard himself ask. For some strange reason, his voice cracked as he spoke. Hare met Genki’s gaze, his eyes wavering slightly. A sad smile flickered on the rabbit’s face as he noticed the honest confusion in the boy’s expression.
"You guys…thank you for letting me stay with you for so long," Hare told them, his eyes sweeping over their confused faces. Almost as if he wants to remember this moment, Holly thought, a tight knot forming in the pit of her stomach.
"Hare?" she asked, her throat constricting.
"I know that you’ve suffered through a lot trying to protect me from Naga, and now it’s my turn," Hare continued slowly. "I’m going to make certain that you don’t have to worry about my problems anymore."
"Hare, what are you talking about?" Genki asked, wondering as he did why his voice was starting to tremble. The rabbit just looked straight into the boy’s eyes and smiled. Something about the sad, almost pleading expression on his face made the boy’s heart pound, and his clear eyes wavered as they searched for the reason why.
"Good-bye, you guys."
The whisper was so faint that Genki wasn’t quite sure that he had heard correctly. Suddenly he felt something tug at his body, and nearly fell to his knees as the ground seemed to drop away from beneath his feet. Glancing down, the boy realized that the shield had spread completely around him and the others, and it encased them like a bubble. Only Hare was left outside of the glimmering crimson sphere, and as Genki stared at him, the rabbit seemed to move farther and farther away.
No…it wasn’t Hare who was moving. The shield was, and Genki gasped as he finally caught on to what was happening. As he and the others shot away from the battlefield –from ground zero– Genki desperately looked back at Hare, keeping his eyes locked on the rabbit’s figure as it became smaller and smaller. Reaching out one hand toward his friend in a helpless attempt to stop what was about to happen, he heard his own voice call out the rabbit’s name.
Hare gazed after the sphere-shaped shield containing his friends as he cast it away from him. Even as it was lost to his sight, he could sense the eyes of the others upon him, staring at him in horror as they realized his intentions. His sharp ears could still just barely hear their voices screaming his name, pleading with him not to go through with it.
The Phoenix’s Tear flared and gleamed at his neck, and Hare absently grasped at it with one paw. The feel of its familiar warmth under his palm was a comfort. He knew that it would protect him from the full effects of the coming blast. He’d be knocked out for a while, and would have one heck of a headache when he came to, to say the least, but he would survive.
The others didn’t know that, though. And Hare planned to keep it that way.
"You all have enough problems of your own without having to deal with mine," he whispered, knowing that they couldn’t hear him. "You should concentrate on finding the Phoenix…not trying to protect me. I’ll deal with Naga in my own way."
A voice at the back of his mind attempted to convince him that this wasn’t really the end. After the Phoenix has risen and Moo and Naga are defeated, it said, then maybe I can find the others again and start over. But the chances of that ever becoming a reality, he knew, were too slim for him to realistically hope for.
Plus there was the matter of the disturbing vision that had begun haunting his dreams lately. The rabbit’s eyes misted with tears at the memory: he hadn’t been able to figure out its full meaning quite yet, but one thing had become clear to him.
In order to revive the Phoenix, a sacrifice will have to be made. I just hope that this qualifies, for all your sakes, Hare thought.
His senses told him that it was time. The energy building behind him would not be contained for much longer. Closing his wavering eyes in concentration, Hare willed a small ball of energy to form in his paws. Whirling around, he hurled it straight into the center of the glowing energy mass.
The explosion washed over him, enveloping his body. Only the flickering crimson aura that surrounded him kept Hare’s body from being torn to shreds like the kerchief around his neck. Still, the pain that coursed through every nerve in his small frame was an oddly welcome release, even as his vision faded into blackness.
* * *
"HARE!" Genki shrieked as the blast shook the land. Clear eyes wavered as the light from the explosion reflected off of them. Holly gasped and covered her mouth, bright bronze eyes filling with tears even as she tore her horrified gaze from the sight. Suezo just gaped at the scene, his pupil becoming a single dot in his widened eye. Mocchi screamed something, the words lost in the sound of the explosion. Golem stared blankly, while Tiger closed his golden eyes and turned his head away.
Shockwaves crashed into the sphere-shaped shield, and the crimson shell flickered as it floated gently to the ground. It faded out of existence after depositing its passengers safely on the land, and Genki collapsed to his knees in front of a smooth rock that came up to his chest. Leaning against it, the boy began to pound his fist into the rocky soil, shoulders shaking convulsively with each strike.
"Why? Why did you have to go and do that, Hare?" he sobbed into the stone’s surface, voice quavering nearly as much as his trembling body. "We’re a team, remember? All for one…and one for…"
The rest of his words were lost as the boy buried his face in his arms and began to cry. Genki covered his face and let his angry tears fall on the rock’s rough surface, apparently hoping that doing so would keep the others from figuring out that he was crying. If that was the case, it didn’t work, for the remaining rebels gazed at the boy’s back sadly.
"Genki…" Holly whispered, chestnut brown eyes wavering. Beside her, Mocchi buried his face in her tunic and whimpered, and she bent to wrap her arms around the little monster comfortingly. Golem hovered nearby, a glum expression on his stony face. He wanted to help his friends, but he wasn’t quite certain what he could do, so he just stood, unsure, and tried to figure out what the best way to comfort everybody would be.
Through a mist of tears, Suezo abruptly noticed that Tiger had stepped away from the rest of the group, his back turned indifferently on the sobbing rebels. The blue lupine didn’t appear to be the least bit affected by what had occurred. A new emotion began to boil deep inside the eyeball monster’s body, and he trembled as he turned to glare at the warrior’s back.
"Yeah, I bet you’re not really upset by this at all, are you?" he whispered, his voice dripping with venom. Tiger made no move to answer; yet Suezo knew somehow that he was being heard, so he continued, "You always wanted Hare to just go away and leave you alone, and now you’ve got what you wanted."
Tiger didn’t respond. A cold breeze ruffled his blue fur, and it blew into Suezo’s face, unnoticed as he glared at the indifferent wolf.
"Tiger of the Wind," he called, his voice shaking with poorly contained outrage, "Are you happy now?" When no reply came, the eyeball monster shrieked, "ANSWER ME!"
The lupine monster glanced back at the eyeball monster, and Suezo fell silent as the glistening golden slits bore into his body. After a moment, the blue wolf growled softly in his throat and stalked away, leaving the others behind. Suezo watched him leave, knowing somehow that he would return soon, after he had regained control of himself. Turning back to the others, the eyeball monster hopped over to Holly and leaned against her, letting his tears fall onto the soft scarlet fabric of her tunic. The maiden glanced back at him and draped one arm comfortingly over his back, gently stroking him as she cradled the weeping Mocchi in her lap.
Far away from where the remaining searchers were gathered, a chill breeze swept through a barren, scorched field where moments before a makeshift fortress adapted from an old building had stood. A cluster of lost discs marked the area where the Jells had stood when they unleashed their final attack. A few paces away from there, the ruins of a stone wall propped up another figure. A gentle rain began to fall, as if mirroring the emotions that raged in the hearts of a small band of travelers at that moment.
Hare lay motionless against the remains of the wall, a slightly mischievous smile on his relaxed face. A gentle breeze played with his bangs, sweeping them away from his closed eyes, and drops of rain fell like tears onto his soft fur, washing away traces of dust and blood. His bandana hung in loose tatters around his neck, and beneath the red fabric the Phoenix’s Tear continued to glow steadily.