* * * Chapter One: Naga’s Secret Weapon * * *
"The Magic Stone points in this direction, right, Holly?"
Holly looked up at Genki and nodded, replacing her pendant back under her tunic.
"Yes," she confirmed.
"Hmm," Pixie mused, "it looks like the Magic Stone is leading you straight to Naga’s fortress." As the seven rebels stared up at the ex-baddie, she nodded sharply, saying, "Yes, it’s definitely taking you there. I remember this area: it’s close to his castle. If we keep up this pace, we’ll be there in three days, at the most."
"Three days…" Holly glanced in the direction that the Magic Stone had pointed, almost as if she expected to see a forbidding silhouette rising in the distance. She heard a soft sigh behind her, and turned to see Hare staring off in the same direction, worry and fear shining clearly in his soft brown eyes. He leaned a little closer to Golem, who also appeared to notice the rabbit’s mood, for the gentle stone giant brought one hand slightly closer to Hare in a protective gesture.
"Hey, Pixie," Suezo attempted to whisper, leaning closer to the ex-member of the Big Bad Four, "so just how strong is this Naga, anyway? You should know…"
Pixie favored him with an icy glare. "Why don’t you go ask your little friend?" she hissed back. "He knows better than anyone else…"
"But…" Suezo glanced worriedly over at Hare, and Pixie relented when she saw the expression of genuine concern on the eyeball monster’s face.
"Okay, look," she muttered, "I can’t tell you a whole lot because I tended to keep to myself when I was one of Moo’s generals. We all did, for the most part. I suppose it was pride that made us like that, pride or arrogance, take your pick. The only time we paid any real attention to the others was when they showed the slightest signs of having trouble, something we could possibly exploit to our own benefit."
"You weren’t like that," Big Blue objected. Pixie laughed shortly in reply.
"Yeah, well, I didn’t really care about power as much I did revenge on the humans. Gali and Naga were the ones who cared about power, although Grey Wolf did start to get involved in that mess a little later. Actually, Kaze must have taken Grey Wolf’s place at around that time, right?" she mused, glancing briefly at Tiger’s back as she spoke. The blue wolf grunted in reply, deliberately ignoring her.
"What I do know about Naga is that he loves to fight," she continued. "For some reason, he seems to have a thing about death and destruction. Whenever Moo wanted to send someone to lead the conquering of another village or territory, Naga was always ready to volunteer. The bloodier a mission would be, the better."
"He…I know he destroyed our home village," Suezo murmured, eye fogging over slightly with remembrance. Pixie nodded: she had not been aware of this fact, but she knew Naga well enough to accept it as being true.
"At any rate, Naga has seen his fair share of battles," she continued. "A lot of would-be heroes used to go to his castle claiming that they would defeat him…hordes of them. Not a single one returned, and none of them were ever sent to Moo for ‘reforming’, either."
"…He-he’s that strong?" Suezo stammered, staring at the female monster in shock. Pixie simply nodded, her flaming red hair bouncing slightly with the movement.
"He’s damned strong!" she confirmed.
"I think…I’m going to be sick…" Suezo groaned, a spiral replacing his pupil as he whirled around to the others.
"Bring it on," Tiger snarled, baring his teeth in a grimace. "I still need to pay him back for what he did to my brother…"
The others nodded agreement and Holly glanced back at Hare again. The little rabbit’s ears drooped over his face, effectively masking his expression, and he was holding the Phoenix’s Tear again. Concerned, Holly stepped over to him and draped an arm around his shoulders. Before she could ask the obvious question, however, Hare looked up at her and gave her a wistful smile.
"Don’t worry, I’m okay," he said. It was a lie, and they both knew it, but neither one bothered to point that out. There was no sense in that; better to focus one’s attention on what could be changed. They followed after the others, and Holly allowed her arm to slip off of Hare’s shoulders, only to take his paw and give it a slight squeeze. She was not overly surprised when he tightened his grip on her hand in reply.
* * *
"So…they are coming here, then…"
"Yes, Lord Naga." Night Flyer bowed down before her master, lowering her head until the tips of her antennae brushed against the jet-black marble of the floor. Her brightly colored wings were folded primly against her slender back, and she did not rise until the reptilian monster signaled for her to do so. Even then, she kept her soft green eyes staring at the floor, both out of respect for her commander and for fear that he would see her feelings for him shining clearly in their verdant surfaces.
"I should have known that it would come to this, sooner or later," Naga mused. "I didn’t really think that the rebels would be foolish enough to come for me…the idiots are practically handing the little rabbit and the Phoenix’s Tear to me! Perhaps they are not as clever as they would have us believe." Naga rubbed his chin, yellow eyes narrowing into glittering slits as he mused over his next move.
"Well, Night Flyer, what do you think?" he finally said, a leering grin slowly spreading over his face. "Do you think we should honor the rebels for getting this far by allowing them to meet my greatest warrior?"
Night Flyer snapped her head up, eyes widening involuntarily. "A-are you certain, Lord Naga?" she gasped before she could stop herself. Realizing at once that she was talking back to her master, the pixie hybrid quickly lowered her gaze to the floor again and murmured, "Forgive me, my lordship…I-I trust your judgement…"
"I know you do," Naga replied, favoring the pixie with a toothy grin. "And I understand your concern. Do not get overly upset; I doubt that there will be much reason for my warrior to stay for long. I merely think that he will make this…more interesting."
"Of course, my liege," Night Flyer replied, kneeling again. Her bangs fell over her face, masking her angry grimace, as she thought about her master’s greatest warrior, whom she personally believed did not deserve so high a title. But…he certainly DID possess great strength, and often his foes made the mistake of underestimating him…
Naga stood, spreading his arms wide in a grandiose gesture as he spoke the incantation that would summon his soldier to him. Dark purple energy coiled and formed in the massive chamber, and a black wind whipped Night Flyer’s short hair around wildly. Brushing it back, she stepped backwards and silently watched as an object materialized before her master’s hands. A sneer spread across Naga’s face, and Night Flyer continued to watch him intently as the wind howled around them.
* * *
"What I would give for a few big trees right about now."
Pixie glared at the eyeball monster in exasperation.
"But when we were in the forest, all you did was complain about how much you needed a change of scenery! What, is this not big enough a change for you?"
"It’s hot, chi!" Mocchi sighed, slumping down in the sand. Pixie glared at the little pink monster, then growled as she shaded her face with one arm and peered into the distance.
"Just keep your mind off the heat. We’re almost out of this place. There should be a town up ahead."
"If Naga hasn’t already destroyed it," Suezo mumbled, a little louder than he intended. He sweatdropped as the others turned to stare at him, and quickly found something very interesting to look at beneath him. At least, he certainly remained staring down at the sand for a long time. Hare sighed and turned away first, lowering his gaze to the ground as well. Genki glanced worriedly at the little rabbit, then glared back at Suezo one last time before moving to the head of the group.
"Come on people, let’s get moving!" he yelled, waving his arms wildly to get everyone’s attention. Hopping to the top of a large rock that jutted out of the sand, he called, "Don’t worry, everyone, let’s just get moving! The sooner we start walking, the sooner we get to the village! Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s g– "
"Genki, incoming!" Hare interrupted, pointing into the sky. The boy turned around just in time to see a small round object flying toward him. With a cry of shock, Genki hastily leaped down from his perch, skidding to a rough stop in the sand. He turned around and joined the others at staring at the strange object that had arrived.
"What…in…the…heck?" Suezo asked, putting into words the question on everyone’s minds. As it came nearer, they could begin to make out its features, and Genki realized with a start that this wasn’t a missile, as he had feared: it was some sort of pot.
"O…kkkaaaaayyyyyy," Suezo said at length, staring at the small container as it floated a few feet away from the travelers. A soft gasp behind him arrested his attention, and the eyeball monster turned to see Hare staring directly at the object. The rabbit’s face had gone completely white, and his breath was beginning to come in short gasps. Suezo paled slightly without knowing why.
"Hare okay, chi?" Mocchi asked, noticing the expression on the rabbit’s face. Hare made no reply; his gaze remained locked on the object as it floated closer to the nine searchers. Everyone cried out in shock as an explosion of red smoke suddenly covered the pot from view, and as it cleared, a figure came into view, floating directly in front of the pot. The small figure grinned, narrow eyes tracing over the group.
"A Bajarl!" Genki exclaimed in wide-eyed astonishment. The genie-like monster appeared to be equally surprised, oddly enough, and his eyes darted from face to face as he scanned the group. The searchers watched him warily, noticing the crest mounted on his chest, and tensed for an attack.
But no attack came. Instead, the baddie continued to stare at them, a curious expression on his face. He appeared to be almost confused, and Genki lowered his guard a little, eyeing the Bajarl curiously. After a moment, the baddie raised his hand and pointed a single finger at the boy. Every muscle in the youth’s body tensed as he prepared to dodge whatever attack the genie monster was planning to use on him.
"One," he heard the baddie state, then his finger traced over to Mocchi. "Two…three, four, five…" The rebels stared at Bajarl in increasing disbelief as he pointed at each of them in turn, numbering them off.
"…What the heck?" Suezo mumbled.
"…Eight, nine." Bajarl’s face screwed up into a look of complete confusion.
"…Nine?" he repeated, as if that number surprised him. "Nine? That can’t be right…Lord Naga told me that there were only seven rebels…"
"Naga? He’s the one who sent you?" Holly gasped.
"Well, duh, you baka human," Pixie snapped irritably, "who did you think sent him? Naga is the only member of the Big Bad Four left…"
"HOLLY IS NOT A BAKA, YOU UNDERDRESSED EXCUSE FOR A FORMER MEMBER OF THE…Big…Bad…Four…" Suezo’s voice trailed off as he abruptly realized just who he was yelling at. A huge sweatdrop appeared on the back of his head as he noticed that her pencil-line eyebrows were raised and one was twitching slightly.
"Master Pixie is NOT underdressed," Big Blue rumbled, a faint red color springing to his cheeks; whether this was from embarrassment or anger could not be judged. Bajarl was watching the quarrel with a mixture of shock and amusement on his face.
"Ah, I see," he finally spoke up, pointing at Pixie and Big Blue briefly, "so you two are the traitors Lord Naga told me about. Ex-Master Pixie and her servant, Giant Sapphire or something like that, right?"
"That’s BIG BLUE!" Pixie screamed as the ice giant sweatdropped. "And I’m Master Pixie to a worthless underling like you, punk!"
Her gray eyes flashed, as if daring the baddie to dispute this and energy crackled around her hands. Bajarl arched one eyebrow slightly as he looked at her, not appearing to be particularly unnerved.
"Be careful! He’s one of Naga’s strongest warriors!" Hare warned. The other eight travelers looked at him, then back at the small baddie. The little rabbit sweatdropped as they burst out laughing.
"Oh Goddess," Pixie moaned, stifling a giggle, "I knew that Naga was an idiot…but to call a little pipsqueak like THAT one of his strongest fighters?"
"What? Don’t I look the part?" Bajarl asked, obviously a little upset by the idea that he looked like than intimidating.
"Heheh…let me handle this," Suezo snickered, hopping forward. "I’ll knock this pipsqueak for a loop!"
"Well, this should be interesting," Tiger commented dryly as he backed up slightly with the other rebels.
"Very interesting," Bajarl agreed, arching one eyebrow slightly as he eyed the approaching Suezo. The eyeball monster grinned confidently, not worried in the slightest. In fact, the only one of the rebels that appeared to be worried was Hare.
"Tail Atta-aaa-aaa-aaa-ack!" Suezo called, leaping into the air and rolling toward the baddie. The grin hadn’t faded from his face.
Bajarl glanced up at the attacking eyeball, an amused smirk on his face. The pot that had been floating innocuously beside him suddenly moved, and the lid flipped off. A torrent of wind gushed out, and as the others watched in shock, the magical hurricane rushed toward Suezo.
"Look out!" Hare screamed, the sound of his voice drowned out by the roar of the winds. The haughty smirk on Suezo’s face quickly twisted around, and Genki caught a glimpse of his terrified expression before his form was completely enveloped by the tornado. The hurricane swiftly vanished, retreating back into its pot, and Bajarl smirked as he replaced the lid.
"Wha-what happened?" Holly gasped. Bajarl grinned down her and the other rebels, holding his pot in both hands.
"What does it look like?" he mocked, grinning hugely. "I just caught myself a Suezo! Lord Naga will be so proud of me!"
"Lightning!" Tiger and Pixie called in unison, and streaks of blue and pink electricity lanced from glowing horns and gesturing hands toward Bajarl. The baddie just grinned, his narrow eyes glinting with thinly veiled amusement. His jar moved in front of him, the lid opened once more, and the two bolts of energy were sucked inside. An agonized scream echoed out of the pot’s shadowy depths before the lid closed again, cutting the sound off.
"Suezo!" Holly cried, eyes widening with horror. Tiger and Pixie froze, shocked by the knowledge of what they had inadvertently done. Bajarl chuckled, smiling knowingly at the eight rebels as they stared at him.
"Ouch, that sounded like it hurt," he said, still wearing that mocking grin. Turning to the small group, he added, "But I bet he’s getting really lonely in there. Anyone care to join him?"
He floated forward, and the rebels involuntarily backed up, glaring at him. Pixie’s hands sparkled with energy that she didn’t dare fire, and the female monster cursed. The sentiment was echoed by Tiger, who bared his teeth in a snarl as the baddie continued to advance.
"RUN FOR IT!"
At the sound of Tiger’s shout, the eight rebels scattered, sprinting in different directions. Bajarl watched as they bolted over the rolling sand, heading in the general direction that they had been earlier. An amused smirk creased his lips.
"So, they want to play Hide and Seek, do they?" he said to no one in particular. Red smoke billowed up from the pot again, and when it receded, the genie-like monster had grown to a size equal to Golem or Big Blue’s own. Fastening the container to his belt, Bajarl then floated serenely toward the village. He saw no need to hurry. He would find them soon enough.
* * *
"Damnit! I hate having to run from a worthless moron like this jerk!" Tiger cursed.
"As worthless as you think he is, he does have a considerable advantage," Pixie pointed out, swooping down to fly next to the running lupine. "Even I’ve never seen a monster who could block my attack like that before…Plus, as long as he has Suezo as a hostage, he has a trump card he can use to keep us in check…"
"Yeah, you would know a lot about the advantages of hostages, huh?" Tiger couldn’t keep himself from growling bitterly. Pixie’s gray eyes flashed as she glared at the blue wolf, and she gritted her teeth together to keep herself from hissing out the retort that burned on the tip of her tongue. Getting into a fight would not help matters any…
Pixie and Tiger glanced backwards in unison, and both cursed as they caught sight of Bajarl directly behind them and rapidly catching up. Big Blue pounded up beside his commander, and his steely gaze locked onto Pixie’s face worriedly.
"He’s right behind us, isn’t he?" Tiger asked. When the ice giant nodded, the blue wolf growled, "Fine then." He skidded to a stop and whirled around, baring his teeth as he snarled, "Let’s settle this right now!"
"You are an idiot," Pixie muttered, stopping short and sweeping up to Tiger’s side. "We can’t fight Bajarl like this…we have to find a way to disarm him first."
"And just how do we do that?" Tiger asked, glaring back at the red-haired monster. Pixie opened her mouth to snap out a reply, but was interrupted by a howl of wind. The two whipped around in time to see a tornado raging toward them.
Pixie had the barest glimpse of the ice giant’s face, then his shoulder collided roughly with her side and she was flung into Tiger. The two sent up a cloud of dust as they skidded backwards, and the howling of the wind echoed in their ears, then slowly faded away.
"Big Blue?" Pixie exclaimed, sitting upright and whipping around. "Big Blue!"
Bajarl slammed the lid on his pot down loudly, letting the sound echo for a few moments. Pixie glared up at him, gray eyes shimmering, and the genie monster recoiled slightly, although the same cocky smirk remained on his face.
"You spineless coward," Tiger hissed, energy crackling around his horns.
"Tiger. Leave him to me." Pixie stood up, and her eyes flashed bloodfire as she raised her blazing gaze to Bajarl’s smirking face. "You keep running."
"What, you’re going to face him by yourself?" Tiger asked, narrowing his eyes at her. The female monster glanced back at him, and the blue wolf backed up a few steps as he caught a glimpse of the steely shine of her gray eyes. Bowing his head slightly to show submission, he then whirled on his feet and took off in the direction they had been running before. Behind him, he could hear the wind begin to howl once more, yet he resisted the urge to turn around and lunge back into the battle. He forced himself to keep running on, squeezing his flashing golden eyes shut with suppressed rage and frustration.
* * *
"Do you see anything, Golem?" Holly asked, peering up at the stone giant from the safety of his hands. The stone giant shook his head reluctantly, not slowing his pace as he pounded forward through the sand. The girl craned her neck in an attempt to see over the top of his protectively curled fingers, without much success. However, she was able to spot the top of what appeared to be at first a group of rocks jutting out of the sand.
"There!" she called, pointing. "Head over there, Golem!"
The stone giant nodded, and gritting his teeth as he pushed himself forward, his heavy feet sinking into the sand with each step. As they neared the formation, Holly realized with a start that what she had thought were jagged rocks from a distance turned out to be the ruins of a building upon closer inspection. Golem huddled behind the dubious shelter that the fallen stones offered, and let the girl climb out of his hands. Running one hand alongside a ruined wall, Holly glanced up at her large companion sadly.
"Looks like Suezo’s theory was correct," she murmured, continuing to brush the collapsed stones with her fingers, tracing patterns in the dust that clung to the fallen walls. Golem nodded silently in confirmation, his dark gray eyes solemn. The mention of the eyeball monster’s name sent a cold shiver down both of their backs, despite the heat of the sun that still pounded down upon them. Holly’s eyes wavered, and she sighed as she glanced out into the desert.
"I hope that the others get here soon," she commented, bronze eyes shimmering with contained tears. "I hope we’ll find a way to rescue Suezo…"
"We will," Golem replied simply. Holly glanced up at him and nodded, a shaky smile gracing her face.
"I suggest you find a way to rescue yourselves first," a voice piped up behind them. Gasping, Holly whirled to stare at Bajarl, eyes widening with shock. Golem automatically stepped between the two, crossing his arms over his chest.
"If you’re so worried about your friend, I can arrange for you to see each other again," Bajarl said, a smirk creasing his lips. "I’m certain that he’ll be happy to see you again…"
Golem growled, and as he grabbed a piece of the wall beside him, he shouted, "Run, Holly!"
Before the girl could stammer a reply, the stone giant threw the boulder directly at the baddie. Bajarl swept out of its path with an exaggerated movement, and the lid rose from its resting place once more.
"Golem!" Holly screamed, reaching a helpless hand out toward the giant stone doll as a hurricane formed around his body. Turning his head slightly to glance at her, Golem waved at her to get back.
"Holly, RUN!" he shouted again.
"No, Golem! I won’t leave you!"
And Holly reached out and latched onto one of the stone giant’s fingers with both hands. Golem’s eyes widened with shock, and he opened his mouth to protest, only to have his warning drowned out by the howling torrents that enveloped them. Holly continued to cling doggedly to his hand, even as the two were lifted off of their feet, and she raised her gaze to catch a glimpse of his wavering gray eyes before the winds blocked even their sight of one another.
* * *
"What was that?" Genki exclaimed, whirling to stare at a tornado that howled into the air a few feet away. At his side, Mocchi tightened his grip on the boy’s shirt, and his eyes wavered with fear as he looked up at the boy.
"Friends be okay, right, chi?" he pleaded. Genki didn’t reply, and his clear eyes remained locked on the hurricane as it quickly died away. His hands balled into fists, and his teeth ground together in frustration as he spotted a single figure moving toward them.
"Not very good at Hide and Seek, are you now?" Bajarl taunted, narrow eyes glinting as he approached. "At least the girl and stone giant tried to conceal themselves…unlike the pixie girl and her giant friend."
Genki gasped, and his clear eyes wavered as images of his friends flashed through his racing mind. Holly…Golem…Pixie…Big Blue…
"Chiii…" Mocchi stared up at the approaching baddie in increasing terror. He clung to Genki’s shirt, and gasped as the boy roughly shoved him away.
"Chi? …No way, chi!" Mocchi protested, balling his tiny hands into fists. "Mocchi want to fight, too!"
"Just go, NOW!"
With that, Genki flung himself forward, tears falling from his clear eyes as he brought his fist back. Bajarl chuckled, and the pot opened once more. Ignoring the wind that howled around him, the boy skated forward, and barely managed to bring his fist surging forward into the surprised baddie’s face before he was yanked off his feet.
"Genki, chi!" Mocchi screamed, tears springing to his eyes. He didn’t even bother to run as the hurricane spread to embrace him…
* * *
Hidden from view in what remained of an alley nearby, a monster cursed in exasperation.
"Damnit! I was too late…"
Golden slits narrowed, glittering with barely contained rage, and then the lupine monster turned away from the sight and plunged deeper into the ruined city, his thoughts raging.
* * *
"Oh no…not now," Hare muttered, raising one paw to his throbbing forehead as he stumbled forward, trying to keep moving. The pain in his head sharpened intensely, and the little rabbit cried out involuntarily as he fell to his knees.
"Not now…not now…"
The images that flooded his mind flashed in front of his widened eyes like wildfire. The alley faded from view, shifting into a new scene. Sand was replaced by snow, and a cold breeze seemed to whip around the rabbit’s fur, even as he struggled to keep a part of his mind focused on what was reality and what was not.
* This isn’t real…not real, not real, not real…*
Yet he was hard pressed to keep himself from truly believing that. He glanced around in a daze, scanning the icy mountains that seemed to rise up before him. The death screams of his friends and allies echoed in his mind, and he kept repeating that this wasn’t real even as he covered his ears to block out the terrible shrieks of pain. Images flashed faster and faster before him, each barely registering in his mind before it shifted to the next scene. Yet he was glad that he couldn’t study these images, for they showed him the dying bodies of his friends…
And just as suddenly the vision was gone, and Hare found himself crouching at the end of an alleyway, arms wrapped tightly around his body as he shivered uncontrollably. His cheeks were tearstained, although he wasn’t entirely certain that he remembered crying, not as vividly as he remembered the sensation of being unbearably cold. The strange chill seemed to linger in his body even though the illusion of snow had vanished.
"Ah, so there you are," Bajarl teased, grinning down at the cornered Hare as he jerked as gasped, whirling to stare wide-eyed at the baddie. "You’re a bad little bunny, you know that? Keeping Lord Naga waiting for so long…he’s been worried sick about you, you know…"
"Yeah, I bet," Hare growled, not even bothering to disguise the hatred in his voice. The Phoenix’s Tear flared under his ripped bandanna as he summoned energy to his gesturing paws, and he pointed at Bajarl, only to hesitate slightly, gaze nervously flicking over to the pot strapped to his enemy’s belt. Instantly realizing the reason for his hesitation, the genie monster let out a low, throaty guffaw.
"Worried about your friends?" he chuckled. "You shouldn’t be; after all, you’re the only one that Lord Naga wants alive."
Hare gasped, and the fiery energy pulsing around his paws flickered. "What are you saying?" he demanded, brown eyes wavering with fear.
Bajarl just grinned maliciously. Hare stared at the genie monster in shock, all of his will to fight draining away at the implications of his enemy’s words. The fireball forming in his paws faded away, forgotten. A thousand protests flashed through his mind, dying away before he could give them voice.
Bajarl’s smirk grew wider, and one muscular arm reached toward the frozen rabbit. Hare stared dully up at him, not bothering to resist. There was no reason to fight back anymore, not if everyone else was…
A flash of light tore past, and Bajarl’s grin twisted into a grimace as he yanked his smoking hand back, cursing. Something streaked out of the shadows, and Hare barely had time to exclaim in surprise before he found himself being yanked rudely off his feet and practically flung onto the figure’s back. Closing his eyes reflexively as he hit, Hare instinctively dug his fingers into the soft fur, clinging to it for dear life as his rescuer took off again.
* Wait a second…fur? *
Hare forced his eyes open, and for an instant gaped in shock at the blue-and-white fur he was clinging to. At the sound of his gasp, his rescuer glanced over his shoulder at the little rabbit, and Hare caught a glimpse of stern golden eyes before the lupine monster turned his gaze back to the path.
"Hey! Come back here!" Bajarl shouted, blowing on his fried hand hastily as he glared at the escaping searchers. "You…you can’t run from me forever! Hey! HEEEEEYYY!"
By this point, the two had already disappeared from his sight. A sweatdrop appeared on the back of Bajarl’s head, to be quickly replaced by a vein as he muttered, "Well, damnit…."
"Not doing so well, are you?" Night Flyer commented dryly as she swept up behind him and perched on a barrel.
"I-I could catch up to them if I wanted to!" Bajarl lied, looking back at the pixie hybrid with a mixture of anger and embarrassment on his face.
"Don’t bother," another voice interrupted before Night Flyer could snap a sarcastic reply. "I feel that I can handle things from here…"
The two baddies stared at the speaker in shock, both wearing the exact same expression of complete surprise.
* * *
When he decided that they were far away enough from Bajarl to keep the baddie from being a major threat for a while, Tiger of the Wind slowed his furious pace enough to let his passenger off. Hare hopped off of the lupine monster’s back, and he grinned happily as he turned to face Tiger.
"Ha ha! Did you see the look on Bajarl’s face when you came blazing in?" he exclaimed, beaming. Tiger just shrugged dismissively, and Hare continued to smile as he added, "I can’t wait to tell the others when we find them!"
Tiger stopped short, and he glanced back at Hare with a strange expression on his face. The little rabbit looked back at him, confused, and his eyes began to waver with fear as comprehension came crashing down upon him all at once.
"No…" he breathed, staring at Tiger in shock. All the feeling went out of his legs, and Hare fell to his knees as he felt tears brim in his widened eyes. "Please don’t tell me that…they…all of them…"
He bowed his head and started to sob, and the blue wolf glared at him in disgust.
"Stop whining! We’ll just have to rescue them," Tiger growled. Hare shook his head violently, tears filling his eyes.
"Stop trying to console me! I know that nobody’s left alive!"
"What?" Tiger whirled on the little rabbit, unable to disguise the shock in his widened golden eyes for a moment. Then they narrowed again, and he growled, "Hare, don’t say things like that. Genki and the others are alive…"
"No, they’re dead, they’re dead, Naga killed them," Hare insisted, burying his face in his paws. "Naga killed them because of me; it’s all my fault! Everyone’s gone because Naga was trying to punish me! It’s all my fault they’re gone!"
"Hare…" Tiger unconsciously slipped into a more soothing tone, one he had once used to calm his little brother down after a terrible battle had claimed the lives of a few of their pack mates. "Hare, we don’t know for certain that they’re dead…"
But Hare wasn’t paying any attention to Tiger. He clutched blindly for the crystal dangling around his neck, tightening his paws around it almost as if he was trying to shatter it with his bare hands. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he sobbed miserably, trembling.
"I wish I was dead!" he screamed suddenly. "I wish I had died in that stupid explosion!"
Tiger heard himself gasp in pure shock, and he angrily lashed out, striking Hare hard across one tear-stained cheek. Hare let out a sharp cry, falling to one side as his paw reflexively moved to where Tiger had smacked him. He raised wavering brown eyes to stare up at Tiger as the blue wolf glared down at him.
"Don’t you DARE say anything like that," Tiger snarled, golden eyes burning into the little rabbit. Hare stared blankly up at the growling lupine, unable to speak.
"Oh, what a touching little drama," a slow, drawling voice interrupted loudly.
Hare and Tiger both jerked upright, and a low growl rumbled in the blue wolf’s chest as he leapt to his feet. Behind him, Hare began to tremble again, for the voice belonged to someone that he recognized only too well–
* Naga?! *
The reptilian monster leaned indolently against a wall, muscular arms folded over his thick chest. The symbol of Moo at his neck glimmered in the sunlight, and a sly smile played at his thin lips.
"So, we meet again, little rabbit," Naga rasped, his calm voice sending chills down the searchers’ spines. "Time for us to go home…"
He slithered forward confidently, reaching toward the frozen, trembling rabbit with one clawed hand. Tiger bared his teeth warningly, and a deep growl rumbled in his chest as he stepped between the two. Naga’s only reaction was to arch one of his eye ridges slightly, and the edge of the snake man’s mouth twitched in what might have been the start of a grin.
"I suggest you get out of my way," he told the growling wolf, an arrogant smirk on his face. "You and I both know that you have no chance of defeating me, and I really have no business with you. I only wish to reclaim what is rightfully mine…"
Tiger’s only reply was a snarl, and as Hare stared at him in horror, the blue wolf leaped forward, lips curling back to reveal gleaming fangs as he lunged for the serpent monster’s neck. Naga watched the approaching warrior with an arrogant smile on his face, and as Tiger surged forward, the snake abruptly moved slightly to one side, letting the lupine fly past him. His claws shot out, and Hare screamed in terror as blood spurted out onto the sand.
"How pathetic," Naga sneered down at the crumpled lupine, yellow eyes gleaming as they drank in the sight of the blood oozing from the deep gashes in his opponent’s side. Glancing over his shoulder, he twisted his mouth into a toothy grin, and Hare shuddered, unable to tear his gaze away from the reptilian’s face.
"Please…no…" he pleaded, wavering eyes locked on Naga’s face. He flinched backwards as the serpent monster turned, reaching toward him with one clawed hand.
Gasping for breath, Tiger forced himself to his feet. Naga flicked an unconcerned glance back at him, arching one eye ridge ever so slightly as he watched the blue wolf attempt to steady himself. Tiger’s eyes flashed deep gold as he glared back, and he gritted his teeth to keep from crying out as his side throbbed agonizingly.
I can’t lose this fight, he told himself. Naga killed my brother…he’s destroyed so many lives…I won’t let him repeat what he’s done to Hare again! I won’t let him…I can’t let him get away with everything he’s done!
A snarl erupted from the blue wolf’s throat as he lunged forward again, electricity pulsing around his horns. Ignoring the blood that splattered onto the sand as he ran, Tiger concentrated all of his energy into forming his attack.
The blue thunderbolt surged forward, but Naga didn’t even flinch. Instead, the smirking reptilian allowed the light to strike him full in the chest, and continued to leer at Tiger even as his scales sizzled and blackened. Tiger and Hare stared at him in shock as he shrugged off the attack, and before either could react, the serpent swept around, swinging his long tail out like a whip. The point caught Tiger full in the shoulder, and a fresh spray of blood showered the sand as the tail ripped directly through fur and skin, tearing open the wolf’s shoulder.
"TIGER!" Hare shrieked as the blue lupine crumpled to the red sand, golden eyes closing as he fell. The little rabbit stumbled forward, paws desperately gesturing as he summoned a healing spell. Naga looked back at him, and pointed a talon lazily in his direction.
"Life Steal," he hissed. A dark light pulsed around Hare’s body, and his voice was cut off in mid-sentence. The word to trigger his healing spell died on his tongue, and the little rabbit’s wavering eyes slowly closed as he toppled forward, all of his energy abandoning him. Naga reached forward and caught the falling rabbit with ease, and the dark mist swept back towards the reptilian, surrounding the burn on his chest. The mark faded away, leaving behind unmarred violet scales in its place.
"Nicely done, my lord," Night Flyer complimented, stepping forward. Naga favored her with a toothy grin, then turned his attention back to his captive. He tore Hare’s kerchief from his neck, and his grin grew wider as he fingered the precious crystal hanging around the limp rabbit’s neck. He tossed the red fabric in the pixie hybrid’s direction, and she automatically caught it.
"What do we do with this trash?" she inquired, giving Tiger’s motionless body a swift kick. Naga glanced down at the blue wolf, then knelt and picked him roughly up by the mane. For a moment, his claws dug into bloodstained fur as he studied the lupine monster, and he briefly caressed the wounded warrior’s neck, contemplating whether or not to slit his throat. After a while, however, he threw Tiger back down to the red sands, shaking his head.
"Leave him," he said. "He will not live much longer. Let him suffer his last few moments, thinking about how he has failed…if he is still able to think."
"And what of the other rebels?" Bajarl asked, floating up behind his master. Naga glanced at the pot in his hands, yellow eyes narrowing.
"Let Night Flyer handle them," he ordered at length. His two warriors nodded, and Bajarl handed his pot to the pixie hybrid with an admonishment not to break it. Night Flyer nodded curtly, then watched as Naga turned away and set off triumphantly for his fortress, his captive hanging limply under one thick arm. She glanced down at the motionless lupine monster at her feet, and her ruby lips curled in derision.
* * *
"Well, damnit anyway! How long are they gonna keep us in here? Why don’t they just hurry and finish us off already?"
"Master Pixie, please…calm down…"
"Don’t worry gang, after all, Tiger and Hare aren’t here!"
"What, so we should be thankful that we don’t have to listen to their bickering?"
"No, Suezo, I mean that they’re probably going to rescue us! Any minute now, we’ll hear them come charging to defeat Bajarl and get us outta here!"
"Genki right, chi!"
"Oh yeah? Personally, I think that he’s full of…"
"Master Pixie, please…"
"Genki’s right, everyone. At any rate, there’s no point in arguing now. It’s not like we can change this."
"Holly…is right. Fighting…solves nothing."
"Shut up, you overgrown pile of rubble!"
"No offense, Big Blue…"
"You know, I’m still ticked off at you for shocking me earlier…"
"DO YOU HAVE SOMETHING TO SAY ABOUT THAT?!?"
"Suezo, it was an accident…"
"But that wasn’t…"
"That wasn’t very nice, chi!"
"Master Pixie, please try to control yourself…"
"We’re all a little edgy right now, Pixie. Please try to calm down."
"Humph. Well, all right…"
"Hey, are we moving?"
"Whoa-! Yeah, I think we ARE moving!"
"What in the he-EEEEEYYYYY…"
* * *
The next thing that the seven travelers knew, the darkness that surrounded them had shifted, and the floor seemed to drop out from beneath them. Light flooded the darkness, and Genki’s eyes squeezed shut as it blinded him temporarily. He felt the ground rise up to greet him with a dull THUD, and he winced as Mocchi promptly landed on his stomach, knocking the air out of him. Gasping for breath, Genki finally reopened his eyes to find himself laying on a soft mound of sand that shifted beneath him. Blinking in confusion, he looked around stupidly for a few moments before his thoughts collected themselves enough to tell him what had happened.
"Hey– we’re outside again!" he announced, clear eyes widening in surprise as he leapt to his feet, causing Mocchi to fall out of his lap with a squeal. Helping the little monster to stand, Genki then ran to Holly’s side and helped her regain her balance as well. Dusting herself off, the girl looked around at the others in confusion.
"What just happened here?" she asked. Genki shrugged, unable to offer a reply. Behind them, Suezo choked and spat out sand as he emerged from the sand dune that Genki had landed on. Blinking furiously to get the gritty sand out of his eye, Suezo immediately began to complain bitterly about how everything horrible seemed to happen to him. Pixie shot him a death glare as she shook sand from her flaming red hair, brushing out the tangles as best she could with her fingers. The two giants of stone and ice came bursting out of the sand next, Golem gasping for air as Big Blue instantly moved to his fuming master’s side.
"I am sorry if your re-emergence into the world was not quite up to your expectations," a quiet, calm voice said behind them. As one, the seven rebels whirled to face the speaker, and all of them stared in surprise.
"You?" Pixie spat, unable to believe her widened eyes.
Night Flyer nodded simply in reply, soft green eyes flicking briefly to her fellow pixie before she turned her gaze back to the group in general. Tucked under one arm was Bajarl’s pot, and she had already replaced the lid, but that was not what caught the group’s attention; that was reserved mainly for the motionless figure that hung limply from where the fingers of her other hand dug into its blue-and-white fur…
"Tiger!" Genki, Holly, Mocchi, Golem, Pixie, and Big Blue exclaimed in unison.
"What?" Suezo asked, still blinking from the sand in his eye. Finally clearing it enough to see, the eyeball monster raised his gaze to the hybrid and promptly gasped as he saw what everyone else was staring at.
"Oh Goddess…" he breathed, then his horror sharpened into rage, and he glared up at Night Flyer as he demanded, "What did you do to him?"
"I did nothing," Night Flyer responded acidly, verdant eyes becoming cold as she glared at Suezo. "This was caused by my lord and master, and more directly because of this one’s foolish pride." Her voice was dripping with disdain, though whether it was directed at the eyeball monster or at her burden was difficult to judge. "This one attempted to block Lord Naga from reclaiming his precious property, and paid the price for doing so. He has only himself to blame for this!"
She tossed Tiger’s motionless form toward the rebels, dropping him like a filthy old rag that she loathed touching, and Golem reflexively moved to catch the blue wolf. He gingerly lowered his precious burden to the ground, and the other searchers gathered around him. Biting her lip as she spied the numerous cuts and gashes that marred her friend’s body, Holly gently supported his head in her lap, stroking the bloodstained fur as she stubbornly fought back tears. Clenching his shaking fists at his side, Genki turned and glared up at Night Flyer, who didn’t appear to be the least bit disturbed by the scene unfolding before her.
"Why are you doing this?" Genki asked, not bothering to ask where the other member of their team was. He had known the moment he saw Tiger.
"Lord Naga has no real use for you or your rebel friends," Night Flyer replied, cradling the empty pot in her slender arms. "He only needs the little rabbit, and he has already retrieved him. That was the only reason we captured you: whatever happens to you now is of no concern to him. If you find the Phoenix and defeat Moo, then you will actually be helping his plans…so he will let you continue unharrassed by his warriors."
"………" Genki stared up at her, clear eyes shining with determination. Night Flyer could tell what he was thinking by the expression on his face, and she shook her head.
"I warn you, do not try to oppose Lord Naga," she said, spreading her wings even as she spoke. "He is being extremely generous by allowing you to live: Bajarl would have much preferred to kill you while you were trapped. However, Lord Naga chose to spare your lives instead, since you share a common goal: to overthrow Moo. You live merely at my lord’s whim: don’t waste your life by defying him. I brought your dying friend here on my own, just so you would have a final chance to say goodbye. Use it well, and remember when you take your last look at his lost disc why he has perished…do not make the same mistake."
With that, she spread her wings and, with a quick spring into the air, was gone. Genki watched as she swept away, his eyes wavering.
"Come on, Tiger," Holly pleaded, gently supporting the blue wolf’s head with her lap.
"Tiger be okay, chi," Mocchi promised, stroking the blood-soaked fur reassuringly, ignoring the red smears that quickly appeared on his hands. Holly, seeing the deep gashes that marked the lupine monster’s chest, was not as certain, yet kept her doubts to herself as she wrapped bandages around his wounds. Suezo and Golem knelt beside her, offering what clumsy help they could.
Genki picked up Hare’s bandanna from where Night Flyer had dropped it for him, and the boy held it absently in one hand as he continued to stare in the direction that Night Flyer had flown. Pixie and Big Blue exchanged a knowing look.
* * * Chapter Two: Rematch * * *
"How is he doing?"
Holly looked up at Genki slowly, her soft bronze eyes wavering.
"I really can’t tell you for certain. I’ve managed to stop the bleeding, as least, but…he’s really torn up. I hope that he’ll be okay…"
Her gaze was drawn back to the blue wolf’s figure, and she sighed dejectedly. Golem was standing watch over the unconscious Tiger of the Wind, his solemn gray eyes misted with tears. Nearby, Mocchi stared at the lupine monster, his wide eyes tracing over the layers and layers of makeshift bandages that the rebels had wrapped around their friend’s wounds. Suezo was studying them as well, watching for places that the blood had managed to seep through the cloth completely, signaling that it was time to change them. Fortunately, the bleeding seemed to have finally slowed to a stop, though for how long he couldn’t be certain.
"Damnit! I feel so powerless right now!" Pixie swore, slamming her clenched fist into the palm of her other hand. Fiery red bangs draped over her flashing gray eyes, and she bit her lip angrily. Big Blue glanced over at her, the stoic expression on his face flickering for a moment.
"You did all you could, Master Pixie," he reassured her. The female monster tossed a glare in his direction, one that softened after a bit, although her eyes still glittered with anger– not directed at the ice giant, but at herself.
"If I knew more about healing…but I never became very good with that skill. I’m a hell of a lot better healing myself than I am at healing others. If I’d learned more…"
"There is no time for regrets, now. You did all you could. That is enough."
"Golem’s right, Pixie," Holly said, nodding at the stone giant in thanks. "You’ve done all you could, and we appreciate it. Thank you for your help."
"Yeah," Genki agreed with a nod, "without you here, Tiger would be in even worse shape. So don’t worry about not doing enough…"
Pixie nodded, but her gaze drifted back to Tiger’s body once more. The other rebels followed her gaze silently, each quietly hoping that what had been done would be enough. Hope was all they had left, so they clung to it.
"…We need to get moving," Pixie said at length, and all eyes turned to her. She clenched her slender hands into shaking fists, the long nails digging unnoticed into her palms as she continued, "We can’t let Naga do as he pleases. He has all he needs, now, to start planning his own assault on Moo…"
"Hey, but isn’t that a good thing?" Suezo interrupted, looking around at the others. "I mean, if he and Moo are busy fighting each other, then won’t that mean that we’ll be safe for a while? After all, that pixie said that Naga wasn’t gonna come after us, and if Moo’s forces are busy fighting with his…then…"
His voice trailed off under the cold stares of his friends. Pixie’s eyes were frosted steel as she glared at the eyeball monster, and a vein was beginning to stand out on the side of her forehead.
"I can’t believe that you would suggest anything like that," she hissed, voice dripping with venom. Gesturing at the unconscious Tiger, she spat, "Look at what Naga has done to your friend; an experienced warrior! Are you really foolish enough to see something like that and still believe that he will continue to leave you alone for long? Do you honestly think that you can trust his word? Trust me, he will only leave you alone as long as it suits his purpose to do so."
"And he still has Hare," Genki piped up, his face shadowed by his unruly bangs. "That monster has one of our friends right now, and doing who knows what to him…"
"He isn’t going to kill him, that much we can say for certain," Pixie added, although whether or not she said this to reassure the boy was unclear. "Your little rabbit friend appears to be the only one who can utilize that crystal Tear of his, so if Naga wants that power, he needs both of them. He probably won’t have the guts to take him to Moo to be ‘changed’, either. That would be too much of a risk for him, since Moo automatically senses and amplifies a monster’s natural abilities when he turns them into baddies. So until he can figure out some way of controlling Hare, or how to take those powers from him, he should be safe…as safe as any prisoner could be, at any rate."
Big Blue nodded in solemn reply, and the seven rebels sat in silence for a little while. At length, Genki got to his feet, and all eyes turned to him as he pulled on his skates again.
"I’m going," he said simply, his clear eyes sweeping over the small band. "Pixie’s right: we have to get him now, before he’s able to hurt anyone else. I said…I promised Hare that I wouldn’t let Naga hurt him ever again. I’m going to keep that promise."
"Mocchi come too, chi!" Mocchi said, standing up at once, his normally innocent wide eyes unusually grim as his hands balled into fists. Genki looked over at the young monster and nodded, then turned back to the others.
"Anyone who doesn’t want to face Naga, can stay here and look after Tiger. We won’t be gone long: wait for us a few days, then move on if we don’t come back. We’ll catch up with you later…"
"Genki, wait. There’s no need for us to split up," Pixie interrupted, reaching out for the boy’s shoulder. When everyone turned to stare at her, she looked toward Big Blue and said, "Big Blue, you can carry the wolf easily in your arms, am I right?"
"Yes, Master Pixie," Big Blue replied, automatically leaning to pick up the lupine monster as he spoke. Sensing where this conversation was headed, Golem intercepted the ice giant, and took Tiger carefully in his own arms as he shook his head at the other giant monster.
"Golem will watch over Tiger," he rumbled. "Tiger is Golem’s friend."
Pixie nodded in curt agreement, then turned to face the others as she said, "If he carries your wounded friend in his arms, then we won’t have to leave anyone behind. If Tiger has revived by the time that we reach Naga’s castle, then he may be able to help. If not…then Golem should still be able to protect him during the fight. From what I’ve seen of your tactics, that appears to be his specialty…"
Golem felt his face flush slightly, but his eyes were solemn as he nodded acknowledgement. He weighed Tiger’s motionless body in his palms, holding him carefully. Holly climbed into the giant’s hands, and she took Tiger’s head and rested it gently in her lap: she was there to make certain that he wouldn’t slip out of Golem’s grasp accidentally as they ran, even though the chances of that were slim. Suezo hopped onto the stone giant’s shoulder, and as he steadied himself, Pixie and Big Blue exchanged a glance. The ice giant bent and scooped Genki and Mocchi into his own arms: it would help them to conserve more energy. Pixie alighted on his shoulder, and all eyes turned to her as she pointed the way. Then they were off; the heavy soles of the two giant monsters’ feet digging into the shifting sand as they moved toward Naga’s fortress.
* * *
"…Come now, open your eyes, my little rabbit. You have to face me sooner or later."
Hare refused to answer the reptilian: he hugged his knees to his chest and kept his face down, letting his ears droop over his face and hide his expression. He was not going to cooperate with this monster; no way. Never mind what might happen to him because of his refusal to listen: that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered now, not even his own life.
* Especially not my own life… *
"Well, it doesn’t really matter if you listen right now or not. Sooner or later, you will have to obey me…"
* You wanna make a bet of that, you slimy creep? *
Despite a nearly overwhelming urge to spit this out just to see the look on the reptilian’s face, Hare bit his lip and kept silent. As much as he hated Naga, he still was terrified of him. His heart was pounding wildly against his ribcage, and part of the reason that he didn’t raise his gaze to stare his captor right in the face was because he was certain that the sight would make him start screaming. Start screaming, or thrashing wildly and struggling to get away, accomplishing nothing except making a fool out of himself and giving Naga something to laugh about. Naga had always found the pain and fear of others amusing, and had always been especially amused by Hare’s fear in particular.
Naga stared down at the little rabbit huddled in the shadows near the base of his throne for a little while longer, then got up. Something glittered at the reptilian’s wrist, and he glanced down at it with a possessive smirk. The small crystal of faintest blue was not glowing with its normal fiery light; instead, it remained as lifeless as any other jewel, pretty and sparkling and utterly useless. Try as he might, he simply could not get the Tear to react for him. Not that it mattered, since he had someone who could use its hidden powers to further his own ambitions. Never mind that that someone was currently turning a deaf ear to him; sooner or later, the little rabbit would come around.
With thoughts of future victories surging through his mind, Naga departed his throne room. The massive doors of black marble swung shut behind him with a click, signaling that their latch had caught. Not that he worried about his ‘guest’ going anywhere in his absence. There was no way that he could escape without his magic, and nowhere for him to go if he did.
Hare kept his face buried in his lap until the echo caused by the huge doors closing had died completely away. Only then did he raise his head, brown eyes shining with a dull, resigned hopelessness. His fingers strayed reflexively to his neck for a moment, then paused as they brushed up against cold metal instead of the soft fabric he was used to wearing around his neck. Gone, too, was the familiar sensation of a slight warmth resting against his chest. He had never thought that he would miss having the Phoenix’s Tear hanging around his neck, but he did now. As much as wielding its powers had brought him sorrow and pain for most of his young life, it had also been something that occasionally brought comfort to him as well. Its presence had come to represent his freedom from Naga, just as the heavy collar that hung around his neck in its absence was a symbol of oppression.
Still, there was no time for sad reflection now. That part of his life had come to an end, and since he had every reason to believe that the friends he had come to know and love during those all too short months of freedom were dead, there was no sense in thinking about it. All he could do now was wait for the end. Perhaps, if he was lucky, he might be able to bait the reptilian into losing his temper, and provoke him into murdering his ‘little rabbit’ in a rage. True, that would hurt for a while, but it would also be a release from everything. There was nothing left for him to live for, so why should he fear dying?
* * *
Suezo’s eye widened in surprise, and he whispered loudly, "Holly! Holly! Look!"
Holly glanced down, and her bronze eyes wavered with a mixture of joy and sympathy as she noticed a brief stirring beneath the eyelids of the head she still cradled in her lap. She quickly moved to support the lupine monster’s head a little more as he stirred again, her fingers stroking his pelt –the parts of it that weren’t covered by bandages– with an infinitely gentle touch. Sensing the movement of his precious burden, Golem glanced down at her with anxious eyes.
"Tiger is waking up?" he half-asked, half-pleaded. At the sound of his voice, Big Blue glanced over his shoulder at them, and Pixie arched an eyebrow as she glanced back from her perch on the ice giant’s other shoulder. In his arms, Genki and Mocchi scrambled to climb up to get a look of their own. Finally, Pixie sighed in exasperation, reached down, and plucked the boy off of his feet, hauling him onto Big Blue’s shoulder. As she reached down to help Mocchi clamber up, Genki nearly fell off of his perch as he leaned forward for a better look at his friends.
"Is he better yet? Is he okay?"
"Tiger okay-chi?" Mocchi echoed.
As if in response, the blue wolf let out a pained cough, his entire body jarred slightly by the grating sound. He winced, and slits of gold appeared as his eyes opened a little bit, shimmering in the light from the blazing sun. He groaned once more, shutting out that blinding light again as he flinched backwards, and his body tensed as he attempted to stand up. His legs refused to support his weight, and every bruised muscle in his body shrieked in agony, forcing him back down. Holly carefully slipped her fingers under his head, and Tiger’s eyes opened a sliver again, glittering as his gaze fixed on the girl’s anxious face.
"Tiger, are you okay?" she asked, her voice shaking with concern.
Tiger appeared to ignore the question entirely; instead his steely gaze swept from side to side, scanning the faces of those around him. It didn’t take the rebels long to realize exactly what he was looking for, and Holly’s bronze eyes shone with pity as she bowed her head, letting her short bangs fall over her face. Suezo again began to study the sand far below his perch on Golem’s shoulder, and the stone giant gave the others a helpless look. Genki balled his hands into shaking fists at his side and gritted his teeth, while Mocchi wrapped his tiny hands around the boy’s arm, seeking comfort. Pixie and Big Blue showed no obvious reaction; they simply glanced at one another silently, regarding the blue wolf as he continued to scan the small group, looking more frustrated with every moment.
"…Tiger…" Holly breathed at length, raising misty eyes to catch the lupine’s own. Tiger took one look at her face and automatically understood. His lips curled as a snarl rumbled in his chest, and his golden eyes flashed violently.
"…How far to Naga’s fortress?" he asked at length. There was no need to ask as to whether or not that was where they were headed; it was as obvious as the awkward silence that hung over the eight rebels.
"We’re not too far away," Pixie informed him, brushing sweaty, flame-red hair away from her face as she glanced in the direction they were headed in. "We’ve been moving toward it for nearly a day and a half; with any luck we’ll arrive there before sunset. Once we get close enough, we can rest until nightfall, and break in tonight. Hopefully, our attacking while it’s dark will afford us a bit of an edge…"
"Then why are we still standing here?" Tiger asked, his golden eyes harsh as they bore into the female monster. Pixie grimaced slightly, but she made a signal with her hand, and the two giants nodded in unison before resuming their pounding over the sand. Suezo nervously scanned the horizon: from what he could tell, they would soon be out of the desert and heading into the mountains. According to Pixie’s description, that was where Naga kept his castle, and the eyeball monster swallowed to relieve the unbearable dryness in his mouth. This was not something he was looking forward to, no sir…
* * *
"How is Lord Naga doing? Is everything going according to plan?"
Night Flyer narrowed her eyes in distaste as she turned to face the genie monster, her wings rustling as she folded them behind her back.
"Lord Naga is currently busy planning our next move," she hissed, curling her ruby lips just enough to let the gleaming tip of one of her tiny fangs catch Bajarl’s eye. "He’s in his private chambers right now, pouring over our maps. I suggest that you do not interrupt him; it would not be in your best interests."
Bajarl got the hint: he recoiled slightly, narrow eyes widening for a moment, though a teasing grin remained on his face. Raising both hands in a gesture of surrender, he said, "Whoa, whoa, okay, okay, back off, Night. I’m not going to bother him any. You’re the one I wanted to talk to, anyway."
"What about?" Night Flyer snapped, arching her eyebrows at him. "I warn you, Bajarl, I have no time for any of your silly games right now. Lord Naga is not the only one that needs to prepare…"
With that, she attempted to march past him, but the genie monster quickly moved to block her way. Reaching out with one hand –he had not reverted to his smaller form after the battle– he caught her slender wrist. Night Flyer whirled to give him a look that should have withered him where he floated, but he merely grinned at her again, although this time his smile seemed a little more gentle somehow.
"What is wrong with you, idiot?" she hissed, baring her tiny fangs again in a scowl as she yanked her arm roughly away. Bajarl recoiled again, this time with genuine alarm in his eyes, and he regarded her carefully as he backed up. She waited for an explanation of his behavior, and when she realized that none was forthcoming, she snarled again and stomped off, the talons on her feet clacking against the marble floor.
Bajarl watched her go with a strange expression on his broad face. After a moment, he shrugged and made a sound that might have been a sigh, then turned in the opposite direction and started his rounds.
* * *
"There it is," Pixie said.
The comment was not really necessary, nor did anyone need to ask exactly what it was. The building rose above its surroundings, its dark towers reaching into the night sky in what might have been deliberate mimicry of the jagged peaks that flanked it on either side. A frigid breeze howled through the mountains, and Pixie smoothed back her flame red hair even as the wind tore at it, and the chill cut into her body with a thousand tiny knives. Big Blue was not affected by the cold, but their other companions were, although the sight of Naga’s fortress before them silenced any complaining that they might have heard otherwise.
"Let’s go," Genki said at length, and the boy sprung out of Big Blue’s arms, Mocchi directly behind him. Pixie nodded, and she turned to the others as Golem bent down to allow his passengers to disembark. Holly crawled out of the stone giant’s protective grasp, Suezo hopped down from his shoulder, and all three of them looked at their other companion in worry. Tiger of the Wind ignored their stares; deliberately stalking past them in such a way that the bandages wrapped around his chest and shoulder did not hinder his movement. He could feel the stares of the others, feel their worry and doubts about him, and his golden eyes narrowed in poorly concealed anger. How dare they doubt his ability to take care of himself in a fight!
Yet, in a dark corner of his mind, something nagged at him, reminding him that they were probably justified in that doubt.
He had failed. That thought somehow hurt Tiger even worse than the dull throbbing that sharpened each time he moved his leg slightly. Hare had needed his protection, and he had let him down. Naga had defeated him –defeated him all TOO easily, in the blue wolf’s opinion– and then recaptured his ‘little rabbit’ right in front of him. Tiger had been completely powerless to stop Naga…just as he had been unable to prevent Moo from capturing his little brother what seemed like an eternity ago.
Shaking his head to rid himself of that disturbing parallel train of thinking, Tiger glared at the others impatiently, golden eyes gleaming with frustration. He was eager to get started with this, although he kept arguing with himself just why this mission was so important to him. Revenge, that was all it meant to him, really, he was certain of it. Vengeance for his little brother, a chance to finally settle the score with the one who had murdered Grey Wolf, then used deception and trickery to use his victim’s position to further himself. So what if he’d already fought Naga once and lost: his revenge was all that mattered, and the only reason that he was here.
He stalked forward, and the other rebels could only follow as he approached the massive doors. As they walked, Pixie and Suezo continued to scan the area, hoping to spot any baddies before they could be unpleasantly surprised. None came into view, but that was hardly enough to assuage their fear of ambush.
"Doesn’t look like there are any guards," Suezo whispered at length.
"Not yet," Pixie conceded, turning to face the ornately carved doors, energy flickering around her hands, "but there will be; count on it." Pointing toward the entrance, she shouted, "LIGHTNING!"
"LIGHTNING!" Tiger called as well, summoning his own attack.
The two blasts of pink and blue electricity lanced toward the entrance and struck in the same area, blowing the doors right off of their hinges. As the smoking doors fell to the floor with a resounding crash, the other rebels sweatdropped in unison.
"Maybe we shoulda knocked," Suezo joked weakly, his pupil a single dot in his wide eye.
"Master Pixie, I could have taken that door down for you," Big Blue added. Even the ice giant was sweating slightly, staring at his master in mild surprise. Pixie just smirked, and followed Tiger as the blue wolf stepped through the opening they had created.
"I don’t get it, I thought we were going to sneak in," Suezo complained. "Doesn’t blasting the door down kinda defeat the whole purpose of sneaking in at night?"
"Let’s just get moving," Genki replied, stepping through the hole. The others quickly followed. Golem and Big Blue were forced to duck in order to fit through the still smoking entrance, and even then the others heard a dull thud behind them, followed by a muffled curse from the ice giant. Pixie shook her head slightly, a smile flickering over her face for a moment.
"I warned you not to come. Pity you were too dense to listen."
Night Flyer surveyed the group from her perch over the doorway, even as they all jerked and whirled around, searching for her. Suezo was the first one to spot her, but she did not appear to be the least bit concerned as they all glared up at her sitting figure. Her cold green eyes swept over them, and widened slightly as they rested upon Tiger’s snarling face, although her startled expression did not last more than a breath.
"Oh, so you managed to survive, did you?" she commented, arching one eyebrow at the blue wolf. "And yet you still chose to come here, knowing that you could not possibly win. You poor fool: Naga will not be so gentle with you this time…"
"Heh. They won’t even get to Lord Naga," Bajarl guaranteed, appearing behind the searchers with a puff of reddish smoke. They whirled to face him, then Pixie cursed as she glanced back up at where Night Flyer remained perched over the doorway, recognizing at once how serious the situation was. The hybrid regarded her coolly, making no move to attack, even as Bajarl moved a little closer to the rebels.
"Do you think that you can finish them off quickly?" she asked the genie monster, her tone both mocking and half-bored. "I would hate for Lord Naga to come down here to see what all the ruckus is about."
"Don’t worry, I won’t disturb him," Bajarl replied, winking up at her. "Besides, his private chambers are too far from here. He shouldn’t hear a whole lot, and even if he does, this’ll only take a few moments."
So saying, he reached down and unfastened the pot still hanging at his side. It floated up in front of him, and the eight searchers tensed as the genie monster smirked confidently at them. The lid lifted, and Bajarl began to laugh as a whirlwind streaked toward his opponents, who scattered in all directions to avoid the attack.
"Not this again! Can’t you think of anything a little more original?" Suezo shouted, even as he dodged out of the way. He winced as the winds roared past him, crashing into the entrance and obliterating what remained of the already ruined doors.
"Why? This works just fine for me," Bajarl retorted, still grinning as he motioned for the torrents to spread further across the room. Suezo screamed in fear, and quickly latched his tail around a pillar, pulling himself behind it as the winds tore at his body. Night Flyer cried out and leapt from her perch, flapping her wings furiously to keep from being sucked in.
"Do you mind? You almost took me instead of those rebels!" she screeched, glaring down at Bajarl. The genie monster grinned stupidly up at her, not caring in the least about how angry she was.
"Everyone hang on!" Pixie shouted over the roar of the hurricane, hair whipping violently around her face as she clung to a thick pillar, pulling herself around so that the thick column was positioned between her and the center of the raging winds. Around the chamber, the others were following her example, and all of them hung on for dear life as the tornado continued to howl from the pot’s center.
"I don’t want to do this anymore; I want to go home!" Suezo whined, panicking as he felt his grip slip a little.
"We’ve gotta do something!" Genki insisted, glaring at the genie monster from his temporary cover. Mocchi cried out in agreement, squeezing the boy’s leg.
"But what can we do?" Holly asked, looking over at them from the cover of Golem’s arms. The stone giant tightened his grip on one of the columns and nodded solemnly, gray eyes stern.
"If we can destroy that stupid pot of his, then I could wipe him out easily!" Pixie hissed. "But…"
"Let me try, then," Tiger interrupted, his voice carrying over the sound of the roaring winds. The others swiveled to face him as best they could, and Genki cried out in horror as the blue wolf stepped out from behind his pillar. He shouted in protest, his cry joining with the others’ shouts of warning, words that went unheeded as Tiger stepped forward, golden eyes fixed on the smirking Bajarl.
"Well, this is interesting," Night Flyer commented airily, watching the lupine monster with interest. Bajarl just laughed mockingly, and the genie monster tilted his pot slightly until the center of the whirlwind was lined up with Tiger. The magical gale howled, gaining force.
"Damnit!" Tiger snarled, digging his claws into the black marble beneath him. His fur tossed wildly around his body, and his golden eyes narrowed in hatred as he glared up at the genie monster. Several of his bandages were coming unraveled, and they disappeared as they were swept into the shadowy depths of Bajarl’s pot. His claws dug small furrows in the marble floor as he began to slip forward, drawn closer and closer to the laughing genie monster.
"Whatever did you think you could do?" Bajarl taunted, smirking as the blue wolf was pulled toward him.
Suddenly Tiger’s head jerked up and Bajarl’s eyes widened as he spotted the grin on the lupine monster’s muzzle. Electricity was dancing around Tiger’s horns, and too late Bajarl understood what his plan was. The genie monster screamed in agony as lightning surged into his body at point-blank range, and the magical tornado died away as his smoldering lost disc clattered to the floor.
"You did it!" Genki cheered, scrambling forward to congratulate the lupine monster. The other searchers scrambled out from behind their cover and surrounded them, and even Pixie and Big Blue were smiling. The only one who wasn’t happy with this turn of events was Night Flyer, who floated above the group with a look of shock on her face.
"They defeated Bajarl?" she gasped to herself, her voice soft with wonder. Then her green eyes narrowed, and she muttered, "Well, that fool wasn’t worthy of being one of Lord Naga’s finest, anyway. Good riddance."
She made a few quick gestures with her hands, and a dim light the same dark green as her flashing eyes pulsed into being, forming around her slender fingers. Glaring down at those gathered beneath her, she launched her attack with a scream of "GIGARAY!"
The eight rebels jerked their heads up in unison, and Suezo immediately screamed in fear as the emerald beam surged down toward them. Pixie grimaced in anger, and swept up her hands, holding them out as if she planned to catch the energy beam.
"WALL OF FIRE!" she commanded, and yellow-pink flames arced from her glowing palms, stretching into a barrier. The green streak of light crashed into it, sending sparks flying everywhere, and Suezo cried out again as one of the sparks seared into his tail. Golem and Big Blue hastily grabbed their more vulnerable friends and shielded them with their arms until the clashing energies died away.
Then, with a battle cry, Night Flyer swept down to meet them, green energy surrounding her gesturing hands. Emerald-tinted electricity lanced down upon them, and the eight rebels scattered again, Golem pulling Holly out of harm’s way. Tiger and Pixie launched their attacks, and the pixie hybrid dodged both, answering their assault with a fireball.
"I’m in the zone!" Genki called, skating forward with both hands balled into fists. Night Flyer sidestepped him, calling another bolt of lightning in reply, but the words died on her tongue as Mocchi suddenly crashed into her back. A few feathers fell out of her wings, and the hybrid whirled to glare at the little pink monster, baring her fangs in a snarl as she sent a blast after him. Mocchi rolled into a ball and bounced directly into the air, letting the fireball strike the ground where he had stood, and when Night Flyer glanced up in surprise, raising one hand to shoot him down, Tiger took his chance.
Night Flyer dimly realized that she was the one screaming, not one of the rebels as she had thought at first. Her own voice was unrecognizable, filled with pain and shock, and she lurched forward, clutching at her stomach. Blood dripped from twin gashes in her chest, and she looked up to see Tiger standing nearby, his horns covered with the same sticky substance. The other rebels appeared to be just as stunned as she was; the two humans were gaping at the blue wolf, and the little pink monster was nearly frantic with fear. Suezo’s pupil had become a single dot again, and his mouth was hanging open. Even the two ex-baddies appeared to be a little stunned.
"You’ll…pay!" Night Flyer gasped, and then leaped into the air. Her bleeding wings beat desperately as she forced herself to move upward, her destination already in mind. Tiger glared up at her, and suddenly launched another attack. This time the hybrid was unable to even scream as the bolt tore into her back, and it took all her strength to keep from plummeting back down to the floor so far beneath her.
"She’s getting away!" Suezo cried.
"Forget her, let’s just keep going!" Pixie ordered. Turning to Genki, she asked, "Do you have any way to locate your little friend quickly?"
"Y…Yeah," Genki stammered, hastily yanking a tattered piece of red cloth from his backpack. Holding it out to Tiger, he started, "Can you…"
Tiger interrupted him by growling curtly, "I remember what that dumb bunny smells like, thank you very much!" Whirling away, he sniffed the air a few times, then glanced back over his shoulder and jerked his head slightly, signaling the others to follow him. Then he was off, his nails clicking against the cold marble floor, and the others could only scramble to keep up with him. As they ran, Suezo noticed something strange about the blue wolf’s shoulder: some of the bandages had come undone, and he thought he could see a fresh red stain slowly forming on the white bandages. But Tiger’s mane kept sweeping over the area, blocking his view so much that the eyeball monster wasn’t really certain if he had seen it or not.
* * *
The reptilian monster paused in his work as the pained gasp reached his ears. The charts spread out before him crinkled slightly as he rose, slowly turning around to study the speaker with cold yellow eyes.
The pitiful figure that dragged herself toward him bore little resemblance to her former proud self. The pixie hybrid’s beautiful wings were shredded and useless, little more than a dead weight hanging limply from her broken back. Several feathers were missing, and others fell in showers as she lurched forward. One of her antennae had been snapped clean off, and the other hung crazily to one side, barely attached to her forehead anymore. Slender, bloody fingers clawed at the black marble floor, and Night Flyer’s anguish-filled green eyes wavered as she looked up at her master.
"Forgive…me…my lord," she choked, tears running down her bruised face. "I have underestimated…those rebels…I will not allow them to take me off guard again…please forgive me for this defeat…please, Lordship…"
Naga regarded her silently, his face expressionless. Even as his yellow eyes burned into the pixie’s broken figure, she managed to drag herself closer to him. Entire body shaking with the effort, she reached up and wrapped her arms around his waist in a desperate embrace.
"Naga…my beloved…Lord Naga…" she whispered, wavering verdant eyes veiled by her long eyelashes. The musky scent of his body filled her nostrils, and she quivered both with pain and excitement as she allowed her arms to tighten around the reptilian’s thick, sturdy waist. She wept, letting her tears fall upon the silently standing Naga’s chest, reveling in the contact. Finally…finally, after all this time, she was holding her beloved master in her arms. This was something more than the moments where he would gaze into her eyes and ask her to be careful: more than the sudden, brief embraces he occasionally surprised her with from time to time. Here, and only here, in the safety awarded by the snake’s presence so close to her, this was a glimpse of the happiness she was searching for. This was her everything…
Naga was making no move to comfort her; his arms hung relaxed at his sides instead of wrapping around her body, pulling her closer as he had in all-too-brief encounters before. His cold yellow eyes remained staring forward, and he did not gaze down into her stained face, so filled with love and devotion to him. When he finally spoke, it was a single word that he hissed, one dripping with venom and hatred.
Night Flyer’s half-closed eyes shot open, tears still trickling from them as she stared up at her master’s emotionless face in dull shock. He continued to glare sternly forward, dark eyes unreadable, even as a dull radiance began to glow under the pixie hybrid’s tanned skin. Her form began to shrink and twist, and Night Flyer let out a long, agonized wail of pain and grief as she frantically clung to the snake monster’s body.
"Lord Naga, please! Save me!" she begged, clawing at his arms and chest with fading hands. The reptilian did not respond, and his face remained indifferent as he stood there, letting the dying pixie clutch at his body. Cold yellow eyes glittered in the dim light from her shifting form, until finally her grasping hands were no longer able to grip his body anymore. Soon, the dull radiance had faded completely away, and Naga abruptly moved at last, slithering over the cold floor, ignoring the new lost disc that still cooled in his chambers completely as he left the room, his face scarlet with ill-concealed rage that was not caused by the pixie’s defeat. Instead, his outrage was caused by the fear that he would lose one of his precious tools to the rebel intruders, and he hissed under his breath as he moved, heading for where he knew the invaders would go…
* * *
The huge stone doors swung on their hinges again, and Hare quickly lowered his gaze back down to the jet-black marble beneath him. He bit his lip in suppressed fear and anger, emotions that he didn’t want to reveal to Naga. His eyes flinched shut involuntarily, and he tensed himself for the confrontation that was certain to come…
The rabbit’s ears pricked up in shock: that was NOT Naga’s voice that had just called his name. Opening his eyes, he raised his head, and a soft gasp escaped from him. Without realizing it, he began to tremble, although not from fear, and his wavering brown eyes filled with tears.
"Gen…Genki?" he called, his voice weak and trembling as badly as his body. Then, as the boy ran into view, waving at him and frantically calling his name, he shrieked, "Genki!" and tried to run toward his friend, temporarily forgetting the heavy metal collar fastened around his neck. He quickly remembered, however, as the short chain pulled taut and yanked him back to the ground with a bone-jarring crash.
"Hare!" Genki screamed, taking the steps up to the platform where Naga’s throne stood two and three at a time. He skidded to a stop and fell to his knees next to his friend, clear eyes wavering with fear as Hare stared back up at him. The others pounded up the stairs a moment later, and Holly sucked in a gasp as she saw the thick metal collar around Hare’s neck.
"Oh Hare…what did they do to you?" she breathed, crouching down beside Genki and stroking the rabbit’s tangled fur. Seeing the expression on her face, Hare quickly tried to assuage her fears.
"Not a whole lot," he said, attempting to smile reassuringly. "Naga didn’t seem to be all that interested in hurting me: he just chained me up here and kept trying to convince me to join him. I ignored him, naturally, and for some reason, he didn’t try to beat an oath of loyalty out of me…I’m all right, really."
"He probably doesn’t want to risk hurting you so badly that you can’t use the Phoenix’s Tear for him," Pixie snarled. Her glittering gray eyes were fixed on the metal collar and chain, and narrowed slightly as the sight brought back unpleasant memories. Noticing the expression on his master’s face, Big Blue grimaced in anger, and suddenly reached down and seized the chain, snapping the metal with a quick twist of his fingers.
"…Uh…thanks…" Hare stammered; it had startled him a little how quickly the ice giant had moved, and the ease with which he had twisted the chain to pieces was a little unnerving. Still, it felt great to be rid of the collar, and Hare rubbed his neck slightly as he added, "Thanks a lot, Big Blue."
A smile flickered over the ice giant’s features for the barest second, then his gaze turned to his master as she whirled around, scanning the throne room for any signs of a baddie trap. Suezo and Tiger were also scanning the area, and the eyeball monster sighed in relief as nothing threatening came into view.
"We should get out of here now," Tiger snarled, turning to face the others. Pixie nodded in agreement, her face grim.
"But what about the Phoenix’s Tear?" Genki asked, indicating Hare’s bare neck. The rabbit glanced over at him, unconsciously rubbing his aching neck. Holly winced, noticing where the collar had dug into his skin a little, and averted her gaze at once, turning her attention to the others.
"We can’t just leave the Phoenix’s Tear here," Tiger snarled. "I don’t like the idea of something like that in Naga’s claws…"
"You baka," Pixie snapped. "Don’t you remember why Hare was kidnapped in the first place? He’s the only one who seems to be able to use the Tear: if Naga were able to, we’d all be dead right now. So without Hare to use it, the Phoenix’s Tear might as well be a shiny stone for all the good it’s gonna do Naga."
"Okay…so we get Hare out, then deal with Naga later," Tiger conceded, growling a little. His golden eyes glittered with frustration; he hated the idea of retreating now, while they were currently holding the advantage over the baddies. But still, he privately admitted that this was the best choice: his shoulder was beginning to throb again, and he wasn’t certain how much longer he could hide the fact that blood was seeping through his bandages from Holly and the others.
"Here," Genki said, handing Hare his kerchief, "put this on, and then we’ll get you out of here. We can worry about getting the Phoenix’s Tear back from Naga later…"
"I suggest that you worry about me now, fools!" a raspy voice bellowed from the doorway. Massive doors crashed shut, a dull metallic clunk signaling that the lock had caught, sealing the searchers inside the echoingly large throne room.
If Naga’s face had been scarlet with rage before, it was purple now, and he came at the rebels, not with his claws, but with his Evil Shot technique. They tried to evade it, but Naga’s throw was low and accurate, and his outrage further sharpened his aim. The blast went off directly as the edge of the group, and while the reptilian had deliberately thrown it in such a way that it would not affect Hare, the other eight rebels were knocked in all directions and into the black marble walls and pillars.
Holly’s body hit the wall first, knocking all the breath out of her, and her head followed a moment later, sending black waves of stars across her eyes, and leaving her stunned and unable to draw in air. She lay there in pain, trying to gasp, as with a tiny part of her mind she heard the meaty thwack of Suezo’s slamming into a pillar a few feet away from her.
Holly shook her head to clear her vision, and the movement must have cleared something else as well, for suddenly she could breathe again. She pulled in a long, cool gasp of air, coughed, and pulled in a second, then looked up, trying to make her mind work again.
Naga stood with his back turned to her, stiff with anger. Hare huddled against the side of the black marble throne, his face white with terror and shock. There was a gleam of crystal at the reptilian’s wrist.
"I may need you to control the Phoenix’s Tear, little rabbit," Naga hissed, "but I have no use for your worthless friends! I am going to kill those fools, and as for you–"
His hands shot out and he seized the quivering rabbit by the shoulders before Holly knew what he was doing. In the next instant, he threw Hare against the hard marble throne, where he lay limp and boneless. As the reptilian turned, Holly saw his face.
It was no longer purple, or even scarlet. It was its normal shade, and as controlled as if he was talking about inconsequential rumors with his allies. And when he spoke again, his voice was controlled, too, and so cold that it might have frosted the marble. Holly shuddered, and Hare hid his head in his shaking arms.
"I am going to kill them," Naga repeated. "But I am going to do more than that. I am going to annihilate them. I am going to destroy them so completely that nothing of them will remain to show that they ever existed. And I am going to take my time about it."
* * * Chapter Three: Explosion of Rage * * *
Genki forced his eyes open, trying to ignore as best he could the throbbing in his head. His entire body ached: he could feel something warm trickling out of the back of his head, matting his hair, although thankfully it didn’t feel like it was a particularly serious wound, just a small one. Reaching up to the back of his head, he massaged the area, and was pleased to note that he didn’t see any bloodstains on his hand when he brought it back in front of his blurring eyes.
Sucking in painful gasps of air, he glanced around, scanning the throne room for his friends. He knew before he raised his head that he probably would not like what he saw, and unfortunately was correct. Holly was crumpled against the wall opposite him, and Suezo lay moaning at the foot of a pillar a few feet away from her. Golem was struggling to get up, a rather difficult task considering that Big Blue had landed directly on top of him. The ice giant was in a near frenzy as he attempted to rise, his eyes wild as he stared over at where Pixie’s legs jutted from a pile of rubble. As for Tiger and Mocchi, they had not been thrown as far as the others, and were crumpled at the foot of the pedestal that Naga’s throne stood upon.
And Hare was lying against the side of the jet-black throne of marble, and Naga was standing in front of him. Even from this distance, Genki could see clearly the cruel gleam in the serpent monster’s yellow eyes, and he gritted his teeth in a weak attempt to stifle his outrage. Naga’s back was facing the boy at the moment, apparently speaking to the terrified rabbit cowering beneath him, and the youth strained to make out what the reptilian was saying.
"…to kill them. But I am going to do more than that. I am going to annihilate them. I am going to destroy them so completely that nothing of them will remain to show that they ever existed. And I am going to take my time about it."
Genki suppressed a shudder at how nonchalantly the reptile monster said this, even as he attempted to rise. The wheels of his skates squeaked in protest, and his feet slid out wildly from underneath him for a few seconds, nearly dumping him back on his face again. Steeling himself as best he could, Genki waved his arms around until he got his balance back. The back of his head continued to throb in a dull rhythm, but he ignored it, focusing his attention on the drama unfolding before him.
Naga was still sneering down at Hare, his back pointed toward the youth. Genki saw his chance and took it, skating forward as fast as he could. His legs protested the movement, but he still managed to work up a decent head start before he abruptly sprang into the air. Thrusting his feet out in an imitation of a karate kick, he leaped toward the reptilian’s back, for once not announcing his attack with a battle cry.
But Naga abruptly sidestepped, and Genki streaked past him and slammed into the hard marble floor next to the throne. His cheek grated painfully against the cold, semi-smooth surface, and the pounding in his head increased sharply. He was dimly aware of Hare’s voice screaming his name, and scattered cries of protest from his friends. Then talons dug into his shirt, and he was lifted off of the floor by a strong grip. Clear eyes fluttered open to see a pair of cruel yellow eyes glinting back at him from a reptilian face. Naga’s deep, slightly mocking voice rasped in the boy’s ears.
"Foolish human child, did you really think I could be taken off guard?" he sneered, a demonic smile twisting his purple lips. Before Genki had a chance to answer, he found himself flying backward through the air, the figure of Naga getting further and further away. He had the barest glimpse of Hare beside the snake monster, wide eyes filled with fear, then the back of the boy’s head met the wall, and blackness flashed across his vision.
"Genki!" Holly screamed as the boy slumped to the ground a few feet away from her. She could see where the force of his hitting the wall had formed a slight indentation, and her breath quickened with fear. Then he groaned, and clear eyes opened again, much to her relief, even though she winced inwardly as the boy moaned in discomfort, trying to stand.
"Holly…" Suezo’s voice moaned from nearby, and she whirled to face her friend as he shakily attempted to stand. He crawled over to her, attempting to place him between her and Naga, while the reptile monster watched in mild amusement, an arrogant grin on his face.
"You rebel fools are so amusing," he hissed. "Your powers are all so weak, and yet you still seem to believe that you can win against me! I wonder how my associates could have ever allowed themselves to be defeated by you. Luck, I’m sure; fool’s luck, or else those idiots were much weaker than Master Moo believed them to be…"
"I heard that," Pixie growled, finally emerging from the rubble that covered her. Flashing gray eyes burned into Naga as she hissed, "They didn’t defeat me; they freed me from Moo’s influence. They might have converted Gali too, if he hadn’t tried to wipe them all out with one of his Tornado attacks and forced them to kill him. And as for Kaze," and she snarled the name deliberately, "you hand-picked him yourself, so you should know better than anyone else why he failed."
Naga arched an eye ridge at her, the only outward signal that he was truly surprised by her knowledge of his secret plot. However, his arrogant smirk remained, and his eyes glittered as he leered at his former colleague.
"So, you finally figured that out, then? Not bad for a weak monster like you, Pixie dear…and just think, you might have enjoyed the same fate as that fool Grey Wolf, if you had only waited a little while longer before running off with the rebels! Certainly that would be much more preferable to what is going to happen to you now…"
At the mention of his little brother’s name, Tiger snarled, his golden eyes locked on the reptilian monster as he struggled to get up. His shoulder shrieked with agony, throbbing with each slight movement, and he bit his tongue to keep from howling with the pain. Beside him, Mocchi was attempting to rise as well, pushing himself up from the floor with a soft moan.
"Chiiiii…Tiger…you okay, chi?" he murmured, spotting the lupine monster beside him. Tiger ignored the question, instead glaring at Naga. Something gleamed faintly in the dim light, and Tiger felt his eyes widen slightly with surprise as he noticed the small, teardrop-shaped crystal that hung around the reptile’s wrist.
"So that’s where he’s been keeping it," he growled, golden eyes narrowing with thought. Mocchi, noticing his expression, followed his gaze up to the snake monster, and gasped. Turning his attention back to Tiger, the little pink monster waited to see what the more experienced fighter thought their next course of action should be.
He didn’t have to wait very long. With a battle snarl, Tiger lunged for the reptilian’s back, claws flashing as he brought them down in a deadly swipe. Naga whirled to face him, smirked, and sidestepped the attack, lashing out with his tail as the blue wolf surged past him. Tiger yelped and Hare screamed as the reptile’s whip-like tail crashed into the lupine monster’s back, sending him crashing to the ground.
"You again," Naga said, grinning down at the blue wolf. "I thought I took care of you before…well, I’ll take care of that little oversight right now…"
He seized his opponent’s long blue fur and hoisted him into the air. Mocchi sprang toward him, rolling into a ball, but Naga raised one arm and batted him away, sending him skidding back down the steps of the platform. As Hare watched in silent horror, the reptilian began to tighten his grip around the blue wolf’s neck, slowly choking the life out of him. Tiger gasped and struggled wildly, lashing out with his legs in an attempt to kick his tormentor, but Naga just laughed it off, cruel yellow eyes glittering.
"STOP IT!" Hare shrieked, finding his voice at last. "Let him go! I said STOP IT!"
Naga laughed even harder, glancing back at the little rabbit with an arrogant smirk.
"Don’t worry, little one, this’ll be over soon enough," he promised, leering as he added, "And once I’m finished with this one, your other friends will follow quickly enough."
He squeezed harder, and Tiger yelped involuntarily, the choked-off sound echoing through the throne room. Genki hollered the blue wolf’s name even as he struggled to rise, a struggle he was currently losing. All around the room, the rebels were screaming in outrage, and Pixie cursed vividly as she attempted to stand, slumping against the half-fallen pillar behind her. Mocchi screamed at Naga to stop, then sunk back down to the floor, gasping for air, his tiny hands clenched into helpless fists.
Naga saw all of this, and he threw back his head and laughed, reveling in the pain and agony he was causing. His talons dug into Tiger’s fur all the harder and he continued to laugh wildly as the blue wolf’s struggles lessened.
Naga gasped in surprise as something blazed into his back at full force, knocking him forward. His tight grip on his victim went slack, and Tiger sunk to the floor, sucking in precious gasps of air as the reptilian turned to face his attacker. Naga’s yellow eyes were unnaturally wide, and he gaped at the little rabbit standing behind him in shock: obviously he had never actually considered the fact that his little prize might attack him. Hare glared back up at him, his eyes wide and frightened, yet his paws were balled into fists, and he dropped into a defensive position, ready to attack again.
"You…you…you…" Naga sputtered, unable to believe it. His back ached horribly: when had his little rabbit achieved such power? His back…by all the gods, his back was actually beginning to bleed! How…how could this little weakling be able to hurt him like this?!?
Naga’s eyes gleamed with outrage, and in that moment, all of his scheming and plotting was forgotten, driven out of his mind by the throbbing pain in his back. Bringing back his arm, he sent the little rabbit skidding backward with one blow, and summoned energy for his next attack even as Hare gasped with pain and slumped to the floor. Violet light flashed into existence around his curled talons, and he hissed one last time in anger as he sent his Evil Shot surging forward.
"Hare, LOOK OUT!" Genki screamed, the warning coming a little too late. Hare looked up just in time to see the violet-tinted energy blast bearing down upon him. He froze, temporarily too stunned to react, not even able to dodge or counterattack.
Something bounced directly between the rabbit and the blast, and Hare shielded his eyes with one arm as an explosion sounded. A shrill shriek ripped through the room, rising above the roar of the blast, and Hare felt a shock of recognition rip through his body.
A smoking pink ball was thrown out of the explosion and skidded to a stop next to Hare, who stared at it in dull horror as it slowly unrolled. Mocchi smiled weakly up at the bunny, his wide eyes shining with happiness at having saved his friend. He reached up with one trembling hand, and Hare quickly took it in his own paws, near tears as he saw the burns on the younger monster’s face. Mocchi pressed something into the rabbit’s palm, and it began to pulse with faint light. Startled, Hare pulled back one of his paws and slowly opened it, still clutching Mocchi’s hand with his other paw. He gasped faintly, and stared down at the pink monster in growing comprehension.
"Chiii…I got it back for you, chi," Mocchi explained, a faint smile on his face. "See, it belongs to you-chi, not Naga…"
Overhearing this, Naga stole a quick glimpse down at his wrist, and let out a hiss of outrage as he noticed that it was bare. His yellow eyes flashed as he glared over at the two monsters, spotting a faint crimson glow in Hare’s palm. Genki and Holly gasped, realizing what Mocchi had done, and their eyes wavered as they stared at their friends.
"You can beat him, chi…" and with this last comment, Mocchi’s eyes slowly closed, and his tight grip on Hare’s paw relaxed slightly. The rabbit gasped, and his brown eyes wavered as he clutched at his friend’s hand.
"Mocchi? Mocchi!" he called, his voice trembling as much as his body was. The little pink monster did not reply, and as Hare stared down at the younger monster’s faintly smiling face, he felt something within him change. His senses seemed to sharpen acutely, and every detail of the moment burned itself into his mind. He was fully aware of Genki’s screaming Mocchi’s name, of Suezo’s terrified gasp, Tiger’s snarl of outrage. He heard the dull thud of feet against marble as the other rebels surrounded them, felt their presence as Holly knelt by their side, choking back tears as she gathered Mocchi into her arms. Most of all, he could feel a sort of charge pulsing through the air, filling the entire room with a sort of charge.
* How…how many times do I have to watch those I care for suffer? Why do innocent people and monsters have to die because of me? I lost my family…my friends…my entire life once before! Does it have to happen again? Is this…is everything all my fault? *
* Mo…Mocchi! *
Hare screamed at the top of his lungs, and suddenly a fire ignited deep inside of his body, raging and coiling as it shot through his system. A fiery crimson light seemed to explode around him, the sheer force of its sudden and violent appearance throwing the rebels in separate directions. Holly twisted sharply to avoid landing on Mocchi, and Golem caught her and Suezo as well in his arms. Pixie cried out in shock as she was flung backwards, Big Blue and Genki next to her. Tiger skidded to a stop first and whirled around, golden eyes wild with shock as he gaped at the twisting pillar of flame that rose from where Hare was standing.
"HARE!" he heard his own voice scream, barely able to recognize it with all the fear and shock that was carried in it.
Hare sobbed. Crimson fire was licking up his rigid body. Genki rushed toward the rabbit, some part of his mind noting as he yelled at his friend to stop that the flames were not affecting his short brown fur.
"Hare!" he cried, reaching out desperate arms for his friend. As the young boy rushed past, Pixie extended a long, slender arm and clutched his shoulder.
"No!" she hissed. "Keep back, or you’ll get burned to death!"
Genki scarcely heard the words, but the hand gripped him like a vise, and he could not break free of its grasp. Hare’s sobs rose into a raw, high shriek. The rebels gaped, terror-stricken, at the little rabbit. Even Suezo’s incredible eyesight could barely make out Hare’s figure beneath the blinding blaze. Crimson flames leaped in all directions, burning everything in their path indiscriminately. The dull pink shine of Pixie’s shields flickered, nearly consumed by the scarlet blazes that surged against their smooth surfaces.
Naga watched the blazing pillar with a hint of fear shining in his yellow eyes. However, the fear was almost completely overshadowed by his excitement, and a grin pursed his lips as he murmured, "So this is the true power of the Phoenix’s Tear? Heh…with THIS under my control, Moo won’t even be a problem anymore…GUARDS!"
He bellowed this last word, and even before he had finished speaking the doors were thrown roughly open, nearly crashing off of their hinges as a wave of Zuums burst into the room. All of the dinosaur-like monsters bore crests on their chests, and all of them raced in with fangs and talons flashing, ready to rend their master’s enemies to shreds.
And all of them died as a blast of fire arced out of the coiling pillar and met them head on. Their figures writhed and shrank under the blaze, their shrieks of agony echoed through the chamber, shrieks that were answered by an angry shriek that rose from the pillar itself. This voice was barely recognizable; it was so tinged with fear and outrage, yet all of the searchers jerked with shock as they heard it.
"Hare!" Genki called again, struggling to free himself from Pixie’s stubborn grip, heedless of her cursing as she attempted to keep hold of him and keep the barriers that were the only thing standing between them and death up. Seeing her problem, Big Blue stepped forward and took hold of the boy himself, wrapping his thick fingers around the youth with a grip that was both gentle and firm, holding him back without harming him. Genki beat against his fingers anyway, clear eyes locked on the blazing figure before them.
Holly watched from the cover of Golem’s hands with a sort of dull shock, one that threatened to sharpen into hysteria at any moment. Suezo pressed his side into her back, quivering with fear, and in her own arms, Mocchi stirred slightly and opened wavering eyes, peering around in confusion, then up at Holly.
"Where’s Hare, chi?"
Holly had no idea how to answer him, so she clung to the little monster instead, keeping him pressed close against her. Golem shielded them as best he could with his own body, and the stone giant winced as a tongue of flame licked closer toward them.
Hare knew he was screaming. Crimson flames coiled and swirled around his fur, lanced from his body. Wherever he looked monsters –baddies– burned and died where they stood. He heard screams, and drowned them out with a long, enraged shriek of his own, rising high as monsters writhed and crumpled, swept away by scarlet flames.
The fire inside of his body curled and raged, and he felt a panic rise with it. This power– he couldn’t control this! He would bring death to all of his friends –to everybody around him! They would burn away to ashes, just like his home village had before, completely consumed by flames –NO! The flames parted from before his eyes just enough to allow him to see the others scattered around the room. Somehow, he managed to find Tiger through that blaze; the blue wolf was collapsed a few feet away from him, staring up at where he stood. Golden eyes locked with his own and darkened instantly, then widened with alarm, and Hare turned in time to see Naga moving toward him, reaching out to grab him.
Naga’s eyes bore into his own, glaring at him with all the cold arrogance and pride of one of Moo’s generals, the terrible strength that had kept him captive before. The reptilian did not fear him, secure in the knowledge that he was just a child, still the weak and helpless youth that he had been when his village was destroyed.
Hare’s eyes flashed bloodfire, and his rage exploded like the aura that flared around him. Oh yes, he was still the same little rabbit that Naga had tormented all this time, but now he had the means to fight back! Burn, then, oh invincible Lord Naga, burn and know how it feels, you who burned countless villages, countless lives to ashes…BURN!
Hare pointed his burning paws at the reptilian, willing the crimson flames to arc from his fingers. Naga burned. Violet scales melted, bubbled and popped under relentlessly coiling crimson flames that surged around his writhing body. He toppled to the ground and was lost in the blaze that surged through the room.
Hare screamed again, and that might have been the signal for more of Naga’s forces to come barreling into the room. The baddies must have taken his scream for one of fear, and were probably coming in to finish off whatever remained, easy prey undoubtedly already half-dead after facing their invincible Lord Naga.
Easy prey was exactly the right term. The baddies quickly realized their mistake once the first wave of fire leapt to greet them, and many turned to flee, only to discover that it was too late. There was no more time for them to attack or run; in the face of the power of the Phoenix’s Tear, they only had time to die. This, at least, they did well enough, collapsing under the relentless fires that surged to greet them.
The flames parted from his eyes again, and Hare stared at what he had done in mute terror.
* What…what have I done? Ten, twenty…fifty, sixty…how many are there? Is there no end to this? *
Another shriek ripped through him, and Hare pointed his paws toward the only safe target left, the only thing that would not scream so horribly as it died. Crimson flames lanced up and outward readily enough, searing through the thick stone ceiling and walls as if they were dry wood. The roof fell in, burning away to ashes, and showered those few still alive in the throne room: a handful of rebels cowering in what little shelter and protection they could find or create, all staring in growing terror at the shrieking, blazing thing that had been one of them.
The fires had finally lessened, and Hare could feel himself shaking as raw energy continued to pour from his body. He sank to his knees amid the scattered rubble, all that remained of Naga’s once-glorious fortress. The fiery aura wavered and flickered, crackling faintly as it slowly faded from his fur.
Suddenly he was very tired, and he swayed on his knees. His gaze fell to his chest. His bandanna, already tattered and worn from before, had long since burned away to nothingness, and the Phoenix’s Tear still gleamed and sparkled on his bare chest. Somehow he managed to bring his arms up before him as he fell, shivering, to the scorched stone floor.
The fires were gone, and he was cold, so numbingly cold.
"Hare!" Genki screamed, seeing the little rabbit collapse. Finally twisting free of Big Blue’s protective grip, the boy lunged forward, crashing face-first into Pixie’s barrier. Half-blinded by tears, he clawed at the nearly invisible shield and yelled, "Let me go! He needs help!"
Pixie was only too glad to drop her shields, and she slumped to the ground as Genki rushed past her, darting toward where Hare lay. Big Blue automatically reached out to steady his master, and she would have waved him off in irritation if it weren’t for the fact that she barely had any energy left. Shaking fingertips brushed her sore cheek, tracing over the burns she had received, and she winced despite herself. They hurt like hell, but at least they could easily be healed, both with her magic and natural means, if need be. That was hardly the case for most of Naga’s forces, she knew…
The other rebels were beginning to emerge from the rubble as well. Golem gasped for air as he stood up, accidentally showering those who he had shielded during the battle with small pieces of the once-grand marble walls and ebony dust. Suezo hacked and coughed, and Holly hastily covered her own mouth to keep from doing the same, while Mocchi mimicked the movement. Some distance away, Tiger was also rising out of the ruins, gasping and choking. What remained of his bandages hung half-off of his body and were completely coated with black marble dust, dust that clashed considerably with the bloodstains both old and fresh that spotted the once-white cloth.
"Goddess…" Suezo breathed, looking around at what little remained of Naga’s fortress. The entire building had caved in, leaving only a few scorched stones still upright. All around them, lost discs lay half-buried in the rubble, some of them completely uprooted, and others hopelessly smashed to pieces. Other than themselves, there didn’t appear to be any survivors left in the ruins, although Suezo wasn’t entirely certain that this was a bad thing. As selfish as it sounded, he privately hoped that all of the baddies had ended up dying, just so they wouldn’t have to worry about an ambush while they were recovering.
"Hare! Hare!" Genki called wretchedly, dropping to his knees beside the little rabbit and reaching out to seize his shoulders. He quickly yanked his hands back as soon as they brushed up against the rabbit’s fur, however: it was blisteringly hot, even though the fiery aura had faded away. Genki remained crouching beside Hare, tears of frustration coming to his eyes. He couldn’t even help his friend, who for all he knew might even be dying, and–
A strange noise behind him cut the boy’s thoughts off in mid-sentence. His aching body tensed, and he whirled toward the source of the noise, his mouth dry.
A burnt, blackened figure was emerging from the debris. Genki’s breath caught in his throat as he recognized it despite its injuries, and the gasps and growls he heard from scattered places indicated that the other searchers knew it as well.
The slithering figure righted itself, hissing in both pain and outrage. Its entire right side of its body had been charred to blackness; once-violet scales were fused together in a black mass. One webbed hand hung limply, uselessly, at its burnt side, the claws twisted and half-melted away. One of the gleaming yellow eyes had completely disappeared, hidden under the charred disfiguration of its snake face, and the remaining eye glowed with a wild dementia.
"Naga is here," the figure rasped. "Flame and fire and burning and power and NOTHING can kill Lord Naga…"
"Goddess," Pixie cursed, glaring at the reptilian’s wretched form as he lurched forward, "Will this never end?" Pursing her ruby lips in exasperation, she attempted to stand, only to slump back down into Big Blue’s ready hands. She cursed again: she had used far too much of her energy trying to hold up her shields earlier. She had nothing left to use to defend either herself or anyone else against Naga…
The reptilian was lurching roughly forward, his one remaining eye glaring at what was his obvious target. Genki cast a quick glance back at the unconscious Hare, then around at the others, who were all either too far away or too hurt to help. Gritting his teeth, the boy stumbled back to his feet, steeling his legs in an attempt to keep the wheels of his skates from sliding. Clear eyes shining with determination, he glared up at Naga as the reptile monster drew closer, deliberately blocking his path.
"Genki…Hare…" Tiger snarled weakly, seeing their danger. The blue wolf struggled to right himself, but his side gave a sudden, painful throb that sent a shockwave through his entire aching body, and his stubborn legs folded beneath him. Tiger cursed openly as he slumped back among the debris, his golden eyes glittering with frustration.
A sneer tugged at what remained of Naga’s half-fused lips, and his single eye glittered with cold yellow light as he raised his good arm. Blackened, twisted claws stretched out, eager to taste blood, and the reptilian let out a terrible roar as he brought his fist back down, ready to rend Genki to shreds.
A streak of silver light lanced through the air, and Naga’s hand froze in midair, the deadly claws hovering inches away from the boy’s face. A choking noise came from the reptilian, and blood dripped from his gaping mouth. The crimson fluid spattered Genki’s face unnoticed as the boy stared at the jeweled hilt protruding from the reptile monster’s neck.
Naga’s glassy, pain-filled eyes flicked to the side, and Genki somehow managed to turn his head enough to see what the reptilian was trying to look at. A few feet away, Holly stood with one arm still hanging in front of her body, panting hard. Her soft chestnut-brown eyes were locked on Naga, and her talisman no longer rested in its sheath.
The strange choking sound came from Naga’s throat again, and then the reptilian began to topple slowly to the ground. As he collapsed, his skin began to glow with a dull inner radiance, and his already mangled figure twisted sharply, becoming smaller. By the time his form hit the ground, it had finished its transformation. A bloodstained dagger clattered to the floor at the foot of the new lost disc.
For a few moments, the only sound that could be heard in the mountains was the dull rasp of Holly’s gasping. The girl sank to her knees, bronze eyes wavering as they misted with tears, and she stared dully down at her trembling hands, as if expecting to see evidence of what she had just done smeared in telltale crimson streaks over her palms. She let out a ragged screech of terror, then buried her face in her palms and wept with the shock of knowing what she had done. Suezo quickly moved to her side, and the eyeball monster leaned up against her comfortingly, letting her face in his side as he stroked her back, crooning a low comforting tune under his breath.
The other searchers recovered slowly, and Golem carried Mocchi over to where Genki still knelt by the unconscious Hare’s side. Setting the little pink monster down on his feet, the stone giant gently took the little rabbit into his arms, ignoring the heat that radiated from the rabbit’s body. Genki stared blankly up at him, then looked down at Mocchi as the younger monster latched onto his arm, and bent to comfort him.
"Genki," Pixie called, and the youth looked up as the female monster swept over to him, Tiger and Big Blue following behind her. Her gray eyes were solemn as she said, "I think it’s best that you leave here as soon as possible. Whatever’s left of Naga’s army may come running over here once they hear about what’s happened. You’ll want to be long gone by then."
"Uh-hm," Genki murmured, dully nodding his head, a look of pure disbelief that this was happening on his face.
"Big Blue and I will stay in this area," Pixie continued, holding up a hand to silence the boy when he jerked his head up, eyes wide with protest. "Look kid, there’s no reason to argue over this. Naga really tore this entire area up while he was ruling it. Big Blue and I will clean up the mess he’s left behind, first by getting rid of any of his followers that might still be around, and second by rounding up any survivors left and helping them start over. Once we’ve got all of that taken care of, we’ll set out to meet up with you again. You concentrate on finding the Phoenix in that time, okay?"
Genki could not reply; he simply nodded again, and turned to the others. Golem nodded back at him and lifted a still sobbing Holly and Suezo from the ground, shifting them in his arms so that they were close to the unconscious Hare, then the stone giant turned questioning eyes to Tiger. The blue wolf snorted and turned away, stalking forward to lead the other searchers from the ruins, walking with an affected step in an attempt to keep himself from limping and giving away the weakness of his body. Genki scooped up Mocchi and let the little pink monster latch onto his back, then looked back at Pixie and Big Blue one last time before taking off after his friends, his skates squealing slightly as he worked his way through the rubble, all that remained of Naga’s once grand fortress.