The next several days went on without event. At first Pixie had avoided Jake, only making herself available for conversation when Big Blue was with her. It was clear she was afraid that he’d again ask her to explain her hatred of humans. But when he made no further effort to try, she began to stay near Jake instead of going off on her own, and Jake was able to get to know her through ever-day, non-revelatory conversation. She was bright and cynical. And from time to time she was able to elicit a laugh from him when she used sarcasm. She had shown Jake more of her abilities, or “attacks” as she tended to call them. Jake was even allowed to watch her practice with the warning that he was to leave if he proved to be a distraction. Jake avoided this by keeping his mouth shut the entire time and keeping himself partially hidden amongst the trees surrounding the clearing Pixie exercised herself in. He watched, often holding his breath, as Big Blue would throw medium-sized rocks at his friend. As the rocks would hurtle toward her, Pixie would hold out one or two hands, depending on the attack she used, and would, though not always, say the name of the attack she was about to use.
There was a “wall of fire” that was just that. It was a roughly disc-shaped shield of flames as tall as Pixie herself, and it would deflect the rocks as though the wall was far more substantial than just flame. There was also “lightning”; a bolt of painfully bright light that would leap out from her hand and explode against the rock, sometimes only stopping it, and at others shattering it. There was a variation of this attack. Instead of a single bolt, it was something that resembled actual lightning. The results were the same, and her aim was flawless. Pixie had shown him that power before hand so that he would not make a distracting spectacle of himself by shouting some invective at the top of his lungs in surprise. Big Blue had been the one to warn him about distracting Pixie.
“Master Pixie will be using more of her power. She does not use as much when fighting. If you distract her, she could be hurt,” he has said.
Jake ultimately suspected that being permitted to watch Pixie exercise was partly an attempt to assuage his curiosity about her powers, and an attempt to distract him from the other question he had asked her one night. It worked.
Jake watched her for the second time with a sense of awe deeper than the first. The display of power before him, however, was only partly responsible for the depth of wonder he felt. About halfway through he had begun watching her face as she dodged, blocked, or shot down projectile after projectile. Her concentration, her focus, took all of her effort. Against that her emotional guard fell and Jake was given fleeting glimpses of her true self. He saw nothing he could define, but it made his heart pound within his chest when he got an especially lengthy glimpse. He was only dimly aware of his reaction because the precious view of Pixie came when Big Blue threw a particularly large rock in an arc. It wasn’t apparent if it had been an accident or not. Perhaps her friend had assumed she was ready for the challenge. Pixie was in no danger. He had seen how quickly she could move. And no falling rock that she saw coming would ever catch her. Jake had seen her move in a *blur*.
It worked beautifully. The rock came in and met a particularly fierce wall of fire, which flared blue when the rock struck. This time, however, the rock did not bounce away. It had come in at a steep angle, so Pixie met it with the flames inclined, covering much more area than Jake had previously seen. The rock had at first seemed to stick to the fire and then it began to slide slowly down toward the ground, the fire blazing a bright white where it touched the rock. That was when Jake had torn his eyes away from the rock and fire and had looked at Pixie’s face. Fortunately he had been at an angle to see most of it without it behind obstructed by the fury in front of her.
What he saw was peace and strength and it spoke ever so briefly of a heart and soul that are too often under-expressed. To see it filled Jake with an inexplicable mixture of joy and pain. Then it was gone. The rock had exploded before reaching the ground, sending its pieces showering out in short arcs all away from Pixie. Most of the pieces had been red-hot. And some… some had been molten.
Pixie favored Jake with a brief glance after the rock had blown apart, and he somehow knew that she had understood what he had seen, and had realized just how much gratitude he had felt at being privileged to witness it.
After that, the rest of the exercise seemed mundane, not that Jake saw much of it. His mind kept replaying the earlier event, trying to recapture the exact feelings and sights. They faded though, and Jake concluded that it was for the best. By the time the exercise was over, Jake had returned to a mostly normal state.
“That was… incredible,” he said slowly when he finally had a chance to talk to her. She only nodded in response.
“Have you done that before?”
“Yes, and better.”
“But no one has ever seen it. Except for Big Blue. Right?”
“Well, yes. There were others, but they were on the receiving end. I doubt they appreciated it,” she said, finishing with a small grin. She looked tired, and Jake knew she would soon be taking her bath, then a long nap. But before she left him, he wanted to pick her brain a little. This had been only the second time he had watched her practice. After the first time, he had been too awestruck to properly phrase in his mind all the questions he had wanted to ask.
“Why do you hold your hands out when you use the fire and lightning?” She only shrugged, but Jake believed she knew the answer.
“You obviously have to concentrate very hard. Does it really have anything to do with your hands?” He glanced down at her hands briefly. “It’s not all in your mind?”
Pixie spoke after a moment.
“It probably is. I think… my hands help me to focus it. They give me a…” She struggled, trying to find the words. Jake thought he had them.
“… a physical means of focus?” he prompted.
“Yes. A real part of me I can see and feel. The energy comes from my mind, but my hands just… anchor it to a useful place.”
“I think I understand.” And indeed he did, though not in easy words. “Have you ever tried any of that without holding out your hands?”
Pixie made a short amused sound before answering.
“Yeah. The lightning appeared right in front of my face. That was the day I discovered how quickly I could move.” Jake’s smile faded when she added: “That was a day I almost… died.” She trailed off. Jake knew this was one of those instances when he would not be able to get her to talk any further about what she had just said.
He smiled gently at her and said, “You must be exhausted. I won’t keep you any longer.”
“Thank you,” she said before getting up and walking toward the pool. He knew already that Big Blue had already gotten her a change of clothing and a blanket to dry off with and had placed them on a rock by the pool. Jake was well on his way to a healthy admiration of the golem.
It wasn’t until the following day that Jake discovered the reason for Pixie’s attitude towards humans, but not before he made a terrible mistake. ====== That day had started out more or less normally. The morning had been lighthearted. Jake, having grown tired of eating fruit exclusively for breakfast, had attempted to fry potatoes. There had been no fat to use in the skillet Pixie had. Water had done the trick. To Jakes amazement, he had managed to turn out fries that were essentially cooked through. The problem was that they were unspeakably bland. Jake had eaten his entire share anyway, to avoid the waste. Pixie on the other hand, had eaten all of hers, but not because she didn’t want to waste them (Jake had seen her discard unwanted food before), but because she feared hurting Jake’s feelings. She had insisted that the fries tasted just fine and had pretended to eat them with a noticeable measure of enthusiasm. Jake saw through her act, but said nothing. He had been too touched to care.
Big Blue, as usual, had eaten separately. Jake knew by then that the golem ate rock and drank sand. Pixie had told him one night, after Blue had laid her down, once again waking her and remaining ignorant of his innocent mistake, of her friend’s eating habits. She had said that Big Blue ate alone because the sheer volume of food he needed to consume in relation to what she ate, made him feel self-conscious. She minded his feelings and never forced him to share meals with her. There had only been a few exceptions, instances in the past where Blue had had no other choice but to eat with his master and friend. But Pixie did not describe those situations. There had been enough moonlight that night for Jake to notice her self-consciously fingering the small disc attached to her top below the heart-shaped cut. She had touched it in the same way as she had when Jake had asked her where she had acquired the various items she had stored in the bags slung between the branches. She had only mentioned human towns that had met disaster in some form or another. Jake had looked at the disc, he assumed was a fastener of some kind, close enough to realize that something had once been carved on it, but had been scratched out. He was beginning to assemble the clues, but had come up with nothing that fit. ====== Later that day he and Pixie had taken a walk alone while Big Blue went on one of his many daily patrols. She was showing Jake the various plants that were edible, and pointing out some of the uses of the ones that weren’t. He hadn’t really been paying attention to her words. Instead he kept getting drawn back to the absentminded way she tried to brush away her too-long bangs from where they were beginning get in her eyes. They were about to stop to snack on some of the fruit they had picked along the way when Jake had spotted the deer.
What was so special about the animal was that it was exactly like any deer he had ever seen on his world. Jake reached out to touch Pixie on the shoulder to draw her attention. It was an innocent enough gesture.
Jake, by no means, could ever move as quickly as he had seen Pixie move during her exercises. Nevertheless he jerked back fast enough when she turned to avoid having his upper chest laid to the bone.
“DON’T TOUCH ME!” she shrieked, spinning, her right hand moving through and arc in a blur. There was a brief searing pain across his chest, and then Jake fell back, his hands clapping over the wound as though to staunch an expected torrent of blood.
Pixie took a quick step back, shocked at what she had just done to her new friend. She made a sound like a strangled sob before running past him, back the way they had come. Jake called after her, but she did not stop. He gave chase after briefly checking himself out, finding that he had only been scratched; deeply enough in a few places for blood to seep from the wound. It was hardly serious. His t-shirt had not fared as well however; sliced open in three long furrows.
Jake ran through the forest after her, unaware of the thundering footsteps approaching from the right.
“WHAT DID YOU DO TO MASTER PIXIE?” Big Blue bellowed at him as Jake ran full tilt into his waiting hand. Jake recovered from to collision to find himself face-to-face with Blue, his face contorted by rage. From the pressure being applied to the upper half of his body, he knew he had to answer fast, and correctly, or he was going to be very dead.
“I… I didn’t know. I just… touched her shoulder. I had no… idea,” Jake said, his voice faltering. As his mind began to guess at the depth of the crime he had committed, he began to think that maybe he did deserve to die. Big Blue merely growled at him and squeezed him tighter. At any moment Jake thought his ribs would begin to snap one by one, but he continued to speak, his voice a now a hoarse whisper.
“I swear to you… I would never hurt… her. She’s… my friend… now.” The pressure eased just a little. When he was better able to breathe, Jake had the sudden thought that Big Blue was in the wrong place. Given everything he knew about Big Blue’s relationship to Pixie, it was angering Jake that the golem was not with her, not there for her. Jake brazenly began to scold Big Blue, knowing with certainty that he would leave him to go after his friend. But he was no longer motivated by the hopes of survival. There was a thought of someone he had grown to care about alone in the woods, feeling God-knew what kind of pain.
“What the fuck are you still doing here!” He said, gradually raising his voice as Big Blue’s grip decreased further. “GO AFTER HER DAMMIT!” he yelled, only feet from Blue’s face.
A look of sudden surprise crossed Big Blue’s face and he responded at once, dropping Jake and thundering off in the direction Jake assumed he had seen Pixie run. Jake stayed on the ground, catching his breath, and prodding his ribs for injuries. After a moment he stood and leaned against a tree.
He knew he had done something horrible. His ignorance about exactly what it was meant nothing to him. He felt horrible, and dirty about it. Part of him knew he was overreacting, but he was not calmed by it. He rested against the tree and let out a low, anguished moan, feeling that there was no way he could possibly fix what he had done. A picture of her face kept going through his mind; it was the look as she had slashed at him, and the look when she had seen what she had done. It made him choke deeply on a bit of self-hatred.
Jake left the tree and decided on a place to wait. He knew Big Blue would return before much longer. And he remembered his thought about the holes that neither Pixie nor Big Blue could fill within each other. He knew Blue would come back alone. And Jake intended not to be in the monster’s sight when he did. After that Jake planned to find Pixie on his own. What he would say when he did find her was still unknown.
It took longer than Jake thought, but Blue finally returned, walking right past Jake’s hiding place. He heaved a colossal sigh as he continued on past the point where he’d nearly crushed Jake to death.
Jake quietly rose from hiding and followed Blue’s trail. Unfortunately the monster was adept at leaving less sign than one would expect from something his size and Jake kept losing the trail. Finally he was unable to relocate it. He stood where he was thinking, mentally listing the places where he would look for Pixie. Only one seemed to make enough sense.
She was there, in the clearing she had exercised in. Jake cleared his throat once to announce his presence and then walked over to her. He deliberately sat down within her arms’ reach. He let minutes pass before speaking.
“I don’t know how to tell you how sorry I am.” Pixie had been sitting with her knees drawn up to her chest and her face buried against her folded arms. She had also wrapped her wings around herself. She looked up when Jake spoke, and he saw that she had been crying. Jake swallowed hard when he saw the redness and the tear tracks. It did nothing to help him improve his low opinion of himself.
“I had no right to touch you. Not even your shoulder.” There was no response so Jake went on. “I *knew* that humans must have done something to you once. I had no right.” Pixie only lowered her head.
“Big Blue should have killed me,” Jake said in a small, miserable voice.
Pixie lifted her head again and spoke. “He almost did. He told me as much. You’re lucky to be alive,” she said quietly. Now it was Jake’s turn to look away.
“I don’t *feel* lucky,” he said, letting his self-loathing creep into his voice. There was a long moment of silence after that.
“Jake?” He turned to look at her when she spoke his name.
“This is my fault. I overreacted,” she said.
Jake shook his head again and again. He didn’t believe it. “No. No. I did this… I…” he began, but she quieted him with a sudden movement, pressing her fingertips briefly against his lips. She pulled her hand away as though afraid to hurt him again. He wasn’t aware, until later, that it was the first time she had ever really touched him, with the exception of saving his life, and then nearly taking it.
“I was thinking about what you have asked me about… about humans, and my past. It was too much.” Jake still felt like the blame was his, but decided to let her talk.
“I was remembering that past… too well. It was making me angry. I think I was remembering it to tell you. When I felt your hand on my shoulder, I wasn’t even there. Part of me knew it was you, but another didn’t know. To me, it was just some human, no one special.”
Jake was getting a sick feeling in his stomach from what he thought he was about to hear.
“I should have told you. None of this would’ve happened.” Jake thought he heard her voice begin to tremble.
“Do you forgive me?” she asked. Jake had the impression that it had been very hard for her to ask that question. Nothing she said was going to relieve him of his guilt. But for the time being he was going to at least pretend they were both at fault, and not just him.
“Yes, of course,” he said at once. And to use something she had said earlier in what he felt was a pathetic attempt to lighten the situation, he said: “Let’s just say we’re even.”
Her smile was thin, but genuine. After another moment of silence she pointed at his shredded shirt. “What did I do to you?”
Jake sighed inwardly in relief now that the worst of the crisis was past. He reached down and lifted his shirt, showing her his minor wounds.
“Nothing serious,” he said.
“It could have been worse. Any deeper, or lower, and I…”
“But it wasn’t… ok?” Jake said quickly. Pixie only looked at him.
“Let’s just put this away. We both feel horrible, and that’s suffering enough,” Jake added.
“Agreed,” Pixie said softly.
With that Jake stood, and after an obvious hesitation, held his hand out to her. To his surprise, she took it. ====== Over an hour later Pixie had finally eased Big Blue down from his anger and own bout of self-hate. She sat with him, calmly repeating that he had done nothing wrong, and that she had appreciated his feelings, and understood them. Jake watched this quietly, his presence unknown to Blue. He knew the monster was not stupid. But the feelings locked up within the rock were powerful, and not easily assuaged by his mind. But Pixie persisted as Jake had the feeling she had done time and time again. When it was over, Blue got up to patrol the forest yet again, leaving Pixie time alone with Jake.
She approached him and sat down next to him, against the tree they had been sharing for the past week.
“I think I should tell you about my past now.”
“If you’re ready.”
“I am as ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Go on,” Jake said.
She started speaking of the day she had been unlocked. The term meant nothing to Jake and she immediately gave enough elaboration to keep him from getting too confused over it, and then went on. She told him of her first family, how they had been forced to sell her to people in another town. She had been too young to remember how her first family had treated her, but it obviously had been with a far greater kindness than what was to come.
Here it comes, Jake thought to himself as she paused, searching for the words.
Given her youth, they had not been too rough on her at first. But as she became more capable, they required more and more from her. The work was one thing. The jobs were never overly complex, or difficult. The problem was her punishment if she failed to do the job to her owner’s satisfaction. She had been beaten, sometimes locked away in a closet for an entire night, and isolated from other monsters. She associated humans with suffering very early on in life. There were exceptions, those that dared to speak out against her owners, but they were always ineffectual. Humans were cruel, and they were weak. There had been another monster owned by someone across town, someone that was, coincidentally, a friend of her owner’s. It had been a dino. His owner frequently sold out the monster’s services to others around town, to those that had no monsters of their own to do heavy labor. Pixie had been watching while washing a window as the dino was plowing her owner’s fields. She remembered the look of misery in his eyes as it dragged the plow as hard as it could under the repeated verbal abuse of both his owner and hers. Finally it collapsed from being forced to drag the blade through a patch too-tightly packed soil. The other, more experienced farmers had warned her owner that it was too late in the season to turn the earth, that it would be too difficult. Humans didn’t listen. Both her owner, and the dino’s began to beat the monster, ordering him to rise. The monster had let out a horrible cry of misery that had haunted Pixie for years. He had even begged, using the few words he had been permitted to learn. But the two men went on, enraged; spit flying from their mouths as they cursed the beast. Finally the dino gave up and went. It had been the first time Pixie had seen any monster turn into a lost disk. She had still been quite young then, and had immediately gone back to work, knowing very well what would happen to her if she gave any indication that she saw what had happened.
Jake had to ask her to pause for a moment while he collected himself. There was no target for his growing rage and hate. He could only turn it inward at some abstract representation of humans, as a young Pixie must have seen them. Unfortunately, he could not entirely separate himself from that stereotype.
She had learned of her powers while watching a monster battle in the stadium of a nearby city her owners traveled to once a year. When they had returned home, she had begun to practice at every moment of privacy she got. In the battle, she had seen a tiger do a lightning attack, and this was the first one she sought to master. When she finally exceeded in discharging energy, she had nearly burned her face. She escaped by moving backward so quickly that she crashed through the wall of the shack that had been her quarters.
Jake remembered her telling him of that time. He knew what was next. More beating.
Pixie told him that she had been unable to work for two weeks. Her owners had taken on another pixie, one different from her, and the only one she would ever see, as a loan from a friend, until she was able to return to her duties. After that she became much more careful in the exercise of her new abilities. She learned to focus them through her hands, but never dared to rise up against her owners.
Release did not come until she was just barely an adult. It came in the form of someone named Moo. He had been her savior, and had given her the opportunity she had been dreaming about for years. A shadow of self-disgust and horror went unnoticed by Pixie as her owner’s blood sprayed from the wounds she had carved in his neck with her claws. This Moo had taken her in, tutored her, showed her how to focus, to harvest her hatred, and make her grow in power. And he had given her a servant, a golem that had also been mistreated.
The years of revisiting cruelty upon humans she oversaw in the mining of mystery disks softened the hate and began to replace it with a merciless kind of pity. Her power no longer grew from the desiccated thing her hatred became. It had drained it like a parasite. She was not like Moo. Her hatred did not feed the power without also depleting it.
By the time she met Genki, she was tired enough to ultimately listen to the ten-year old boy. Yet she still harbored mistrust and anger toward human beings in general. It was with those feelings that she had that had led her to first greet Jake with contempt. ====== Jake stood up when she had finished.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” he said. A moment later he was on his knees retching. His stomach had been empty so he was only racked with dry heaves, and when he was through, his head throbbed. He looked back at Pixie and saw a pained look and it took him almost too long to realize that she might be thinking that he was utterly disgusted by who she had been. Pixie stood up to leave, but Jake stopped her.
“Pixie, wait,” he said while rising to his feet. “That wasn’t about who you were and what you did.” He was relieved when she stopped and turned.
“It was about what they did to you before… what the humans did. It’s… shame from being the same species as they are. Understand?”
“Yes,” she answered quietly.
“Ok,” Jake said, suddenly at a loss for words. He looked around. Night had fallen while Pixie had been telling him her story and Jake felt too tired to bother with eating.
“I’m going to sleep,” he said. Jake walked to within a few feet of Pixie, but did not reach out to her. “Are you going to be ok?”
She nodded once and said: “I’m going to go find Blue.” With that she headed off into the forest.
Jake only woke once in the night; when Big Blue set his friend down on her branch and covered her with a blanket. He looked to the side and saw the dying firelight flickering on the trees. He waited until Big Blue had left before calling out softly to Pixie. This time she had remained asleep.
The next day had been cloudy, so the sunlight had failed to awaken Jake. That was left to his full bladder. When he had finished his “morning” business, he went in search of Pixie. She had just finished an exercise in the clearing with Blue.
“I wasn’t sure if you were going to wake up today,” she said when she saw him. Jake glanced briefly up at Big Blue and saw that the golem was paying no attention to him.
“Yeah. I tend to hibernate on cloudy days for some reason,” Jake said with a smile. “I guess my body is easily fooled into thinking that it’s still night when the sun isn’t brightly shining.”
Pixie uttered one of her short, amused sounds that reminded Jake of something that almost becomes a single syllable of laughter, but never can quite make it past a closed mouth. He was pleased with himself enough for getting that much out of her. It wasn’t easy to make her laugh. That would not ordinarily keep him from trying. But given the emotionally draining events of the previous day, he kept the conversation light, and attempts at humor to a minimum.
Jake accompanied Pixie to the pool, where again her giant friend had left her a blanket and a change of clothing. She surprised Jake when he turned to leave.
“You don’t have to leave if you don’t want to,” she said.
Jake wasn’t exactly prepared for that. At first he faced with an awkward rush of confusion and adolescent giddiness, but then calmed himself down with rational thought. He knew her well enough to understand what she *wasn’t* offering. Despite her violent past, Pixie was still innocent when it came to matters of privacy, though he knew she’d naturally expect him not to gawk. Suddenly, Jake wasn’t sure if he’d be able to keep his eyes away from her while she bathed. That visited him with another rush of conflicting emotions, and he had to will himself to calm down. He decided to stay for no other reason than having nothing better to do. He had been hungry earlier, but his appetite had left him.
“Ok,” he said nodding. Jake quickly looked around for a rock to sit against, offering him a suitable blind spot to thwart temptation and found one. After he sat down he searched his mind for something to talk about. He suspected that she had invited him to stay because she wanted the company. However, he wasn’t sure he would be comfortable remaining silent, even if he thought that was what Pixie wanted. After a few minutes he heard her step into the water, and by then he had something to talk about.
“You’ve mentioned a boy named Genki. Tell me about him.” Jake was startled when Pixie answered him. Her voice came from right below him and to his right and he *almost* turned his head and looked at her.
“I’ve told you much about my past, but you’ve told me nothing about yours,” she said. Jake wasn’t surprised about that. He had told her virtually nothing about who he had been, and where he was from.
“I’m sorry. What would you like to know?”
“Anything. Just start talking.”
“Well…” Jake began, at a loss on where to begin.
“Tell me about your world,” she offered.
“Ok.” Jake stopped to think, then started.
“Where I’m from, there are humans everywhere. Within 50 miles in any direction from where I live, there has to be more than a few million. The last I understood, there were roughly six *billion* on Earth. That’s what we call our world… in my language.”
“I was never taught much about numbers by my owners… or Moo,” Pixie said quietly. Jake had to fight not to look down at her. He wanted to see her eyes but knew that was not all he would end up seeing, and so he kept his focus straight ahead.
“What is the largest number you know about?”
“Ok, good,” Jake said with a nod. “A million is one thousand thousands. Ok?”
“Yes,” she said.
“A billion is a million thousands, or a thousand millions.”
“I can’t see that in my mind.”
“Neither can I. I’m just more familiar with numbers.”
“How can so many humans live so close to each other?”
“We,” Jake said, letting contempt filter into his voice, “build houses and buildings *everywhere*. We destroy natural places to make our homes.”
“That’s… wrong. How do you eat if there is no place left to farm?”
“Oh, there is. Our cities are mostly located on the shores of oceans and lakes and rivers. The interior of the land is used for farming, if it’s not too dry. There’s plenty of food for us in the land I come from, America.”
“Are there any natural places left? Any forests?”
“Yes. But they are getting smaller. Some have been protected by the people in charge, but others are cut down for wood.”
“I can’t imagine this world,” Pixie said quietly.
“It’s not as bad as it sounds, yet. I guess my… species still has a little time to turn things around.”
Jake thought it over for a moment. “In my opinion… No.”
“If they destroy your world, how will they live?”
“They won’t. They’ll die.” He heard Pixie emerging from the water behind him.
“Then why would they continue to destroy it?”
“I think the simplest answer is… to make money. Present ways are too profitable. And change too difficult and costly. We’re a greedy bunch.” There was a moment’s quiet from Pixie and Jake let it go on. He looked up at the sky. The clouds were still thick, and the daylight was fading. Pixie had told him earlier that there was rain coming.
“The humans of your world sound a lot like Moo,” she said at last from his left. He chanced a quick sidelong glance and noticed that she had dressed. When Jake didn’t get up right away, she came and sat down next to him.
“I want to learn about this Moo also.”
“No you don’t.”
Jake looked at her and saw that she was serious.
“Pixie, is this going to one of those things where not knowing causes me to make another terrible mistake?” That seemed to get her attention. She stopped and appeared to think it over. At last she said, “Humans here have a saying. ‘Empty mind, easy life’”
“In my world, we say: ‘Ignorance is bliss’. But only the ignorant truly believe it.”
She sighed and gave in. “I only know parts of the story.” Then, after a pause, “Monsters were created thousands of years ago by an ancient people. They were humans as well, but they had more… I don’t know the word. More science. More things they could do that looked like magic.”
“Technology,” Jake said for her.
“Yes. They created us to be workers, and… pets.”
“Of course,” Jake said darkly.
“Then there was a war, and one side created a very powerful monster, named Moo. They created him as a weapon. He…” She stopped when Jake began nodding.
“In my world we have these great weapons too. They can destroy entire cities. But people always lose control. My country, my land, created them first. Then our main rivals did. Then we made more of them, and made them larger. Then more lands made them. We now have the ability to destroy our world many, many times. They talk about peace, and about less bombs… but the threat is always there.” Jake didn’t go into any more detail. He wanted to let Pixie finish.
“In this case one Moo was enough. They lost control, of course, and he was able to turn many monsters against humans. He would have destroyed their world.”
“Obviously he didn’t.”
“Yes. The other side made a monster of equal power. It was called the Phoenix. It fought with Moo while the humans made a third weapon to defeat him.”
“It didn’t work?”
“It did work. But it stopped the Phoenix too, and all the other monsters. Moo’s mind was separated from his body. Not long ago, a man accidentally found Moo’s mind. It took control of the man, and he became Moo.”
“And then he freed you, and those like you, from slavery?” Jake asked. She answered with a frown, but he could hear the bitter humor in her voice.
“Yes. That’s *exactly* what he called it. He was our savior, and he used that misconception to gain our loyalty. He offered me another kind of servitude, calling it family.”
“Did he beat you too?”
“No. He didn’t need to. I had seen his power. I believed in the lie of family, but the truth was I followed him out of fear.”
She didn’t speak for several moments, and Jake concluded that she was done with that particular story.
“Those towns you’ve scavenged from… Moo destroyed them?” he asked. Pixie looked down and answered.
“Yes,” and then very quietly: “Most often with me at his side.” Jake’s first impulse was to put his arm around her shoulders, but held back.
“You didn’t want to tell me about Moo because of that? Because I’d realize that you had a hand in the destruction he caused?”
“Yes.” Pixie’s voice was down to a whisper.
“Pixie, look at me.” After a moment she did and Jake locked eyes with her.
“If it means anything right here and now, I do not blame you for anything you’ve done. Life is partly about learning through mistakes. Right? Some of us just make bigger ones. But they learn more.” Jake stopped, unsure if he was getting any useful point across. Pixie, however, did not look away, and Jake pressed himself to keep talking before he lost his nerve from the way she was looking at him.
“I think… no, I *know*, your guilt and shame is punishment enough.”
At last she looked away.
“I know,” she said softly. And then, “Your thoughts matter to me.”
Jake heart skipped a few beats. Pixie had given him no better indication of what he was to her, or what he meant to her. He could find no better a response than, “I appreciate that.”
They sat in a companionable silence for ten minutes before Pixie spoke again.
“There is something else about Moo.”
“When I listened to Genki, I stopped working for Moo and his ideals. I betrayed him.”
“He’ll come after you?”
“Yes. He’s tried sending some of his troops but they’re gone now. Blue and I move often to keep from being found. But sooner or later Moo will find us, and come in person.” She looked up at Jake again, back into his eyes. “I don’t want you to be anywhere near me when that happens.”
“Why?” But Jake already knew the answer.
“You wouldn’t live long enough to see the worst of his wrath.”
“Then,” Jake said levelly, “I’ll die fighting him.” But Jake wasn’t sure he believed it.
“Are you going to send me away then?” There was no answer. “Because unless I find a way to get back home, I want to stay with you.”
Pixie had looked away, but brought her head up sharply.
“And if you do find a way?”
“Then... Well I don’t know. I… really don’t know what I’d do.”
“He’d make you suffer, if only to hurt me,” Pixie said. Jake began to wonder if she had any idea how straightforward she was being.
“I’m staying, if you’ll let me.”
Her only answer was to stand up and begin walking back to her tree. Jake hesitated for only a moment and got up to follow. Neither of them was prepared for what was about to happen.
When they were a little over halfway between the tree and the pool, there was a muffled crash from somewhere ahead of them. Jake at first thought it had been more of the distant thunder they’d been hearing ever since Pixie had gotten out of the pool. But there was a vibration in the ground as though something large had fallen.
Jake caught up with Pixie as she reached a small clearing fifty feet from their tree. It was Big Blue who had fallen, lying on his back, and Pixie was standing next to his head shouting his name. Jake was too focused on her to see the men emerge from the bushes to his left. His head snapped around in time to see a shape rush him in the fading light and slam into him, using its momentum to lift him off his feet, and ram him into a tree. His breath was gone in an instant, and when he got only part of it back he called out hoarsely.
“Pixie! Behind…” His warning was cut out with a hard punch to his chest. She had turned his way, not noticing the other man that had snuck around the unmoving form of Big Blue, coming up behind her. He grabbed her around her shoulders and hurled her against the nearest tree which was thirty feet away from Jake. She immediately recovered to face her attacker, raising her hand toward him.
“Lightn…” but then the man was upon her, knocking her hand aside and down with one swipe. The small amount of energy she had focused into her hand shot off harmlessly into the ground. Nevertheless, she tried again.
“Shut up! The man screamed at her, delivering a blow to her face, silencing her. He then pulled his fist back and hit her again, in the stomach.
Jake struggled with his own attacker, trying to break free, but soon became aware of the knife at his throat.
“Keep still and you might live through this,” the man hissed in his ear. Jake momentarily complied, knowing he would be of no use to Pixie if he died right then. He was forced to watch as the other man hit her again and again. Something in Jake’s mind told him that the men intended to kill them both, no matter what he did or didn’t do.
The man who was beating Pixie stopped and pinned her against the tree with a hand pressed to her throat, pulling his own knife from a sheath on his hip. Jake saw that she was disabled, but not by the beating. Her expression told him everything, and it tore at him inside. She had been forced into being helpless again, something he knew she must have deeply hated the feeling of ever since she’d been “freed” from her human owners. She was back in the hell she had known for the majority of her life; paralyzed now as she had been then.
“Pixie, of the Big Bad Four,” the man growled in her face. “Cowering now before a mere human! Where’s all your power now? Tell me how it feels!” The man obviously expected no answer. He brought his knife at and touched the tip of its blade to the clasp on Pixie’s top, where Jake now assumed Moo’s sigil had been before she had scratched it off.
“Thought you could hide from it, eh? Humans don’t forget!” With that, he made a quick motion of his wrist and the clasp fell from her clothing. The man looked her up and down and a sickening chuckle issued from him, seemingly deciding on what to do with his victim. Jake saw that Pixie was beyond any defense now. If nothing else, he wished she could simply go into shock and not have to consciously experience whatever was about to happen to her.
“Oh God!” Jake groaned; his voice choked with misery. “Pixie!”
“You branded us!” the man said, his low voice seething with hatred. He jerked his knife arm up, showing the inside of his bare forearm to Pixie, the angle of it kept the brand from Jake’s sight. Then the man quickly stepped to his left and removed his hand from Pixie’s throat. In another quick move he swung the hand behind her and shoved her down, face first, onto the ground. Then he was on top of her, kneeling on her back, eyes flicking between two places, her wings and her tail. Then the man decided, and roughly grabbed her tail. “Now, I’m going to brand you,” he said as he held Pixie’s tail in his left hand, and brought his knife close.
Pixie had fallen with her head turned toward Jake. He knew he wouldn’t be able to bear watching what he would see in her face if he was unable able to stop what was happening. What he saw in her eyes already was enough to make him think she’d already been cut inside, a more disfiguring brand than anything the man could do with his knife.
The moment to move was chosen for Jake when the man over Pixie touched the edge of his knife to her tail. Jake felt no decision to act take place in his mind; it just happened, like pulling his hand away from a hot stove, even though the stakes were so much higher than a little burn. Fortunately the man behind him had shifted backward enough so that Jake had enough room to do what was needed.
Jakes arms shot up, his hands gripping the man’s knife arm and pulling the blade away from his neck. At the same time, he snapped his head back, feeling something soft give way as his skull connected with what must have been the man’s nose. When freed, Jake charged forward, taking only a fleeting glance backward. Both of the man’s hands had gone to his nose to try to slow the sudden fountain of blood, and he was apparently in no condition to give pursuit. Jake reached Pixie’s attacker with no thoughts in his head. There was only emotion, mostly rage. He had never felt anything like it in his life, and after later reflection he would appreciate it, for the luxury of a single thought, a single attempt at a plan, would have gotten him killed.
Pixie’s attacker almost got his knife up in time to inflict a disabling injury, but Jake was spared the blade as he plowed into the man moving as fast as he could. He drove the man backward several feet, briefly pinning him to the ground before letting up enough to use his fists on the man again and again. But he had no real experience with fighting; the man did.
Something hard slammed Jake on the left side of his head, knocking him to the side. An instant later the man had climbed over him and as his vision cleared, and he saw that the man raise his knife in a two handed grip. Then Jake did have a thought. He knew he was dead, and silently prayed that Pixie had taken the opportunity she had been given to escape. Jake got a brief look into the man’s eyes as he drew back a little further to plunge the knife down. Jake knew he was looking at a real monster given all the negative connotations of the word.
The bolt connected with the man’s hands, sending the knife flying from his grasp. As he stopped to stare at his slightly charred hands, Jake brought both arms up, and both his clenched fists connected with the sides of the man’s head. He struck again before the man could react. The third time, Jake’s right hand came up holding a rock, and he struck with just that one weapon, feeling as though his strength had been augmented by his fury. Only then did the man roll off of Jake, crawling backwards in an attempt to escape. Jake rose and advanced on him, rock raised high, thoroughly ready to take a life. The man struck out once with his leg, tripping him. Before he could rise again, the man was halfway across the clearing, moving unsteadily but quickly. The other man had already fled.
Jake gave immediate chase, but the blistering hatred and rage left him before he had gone ten feet.
Jake stood where he had stopped for several minutes, his lungs heaving and heart racing. The entire encounter had lasted only a minute, but it suddenly felt as though he’d been fighting and running for hours. Unused to such exertion in his daily life, his chest felt like a pincushion with every deep breath. Even worse were the feelings beginning to surface as his anger receded. He had to fight them back before they left him a sobbing heap in the dirt. He had to see Pixie first.
She was kneeling next to Big Blue’s head. Jake walked over to her and sat as close as he could without his legs touching hers. He looked her over and saw a bruise beginning to form on her left cheek where she had been struck and a thin trickle of blood running from her lower lip near the corner of her mouth. All of her attention was on her large friend, and Jake began to fear the worst. He recalled her telling him that monsters changed into “lost disks” when they were “killed”. But he dared no hope on that realization that Big Blue was still himself.
“Is he…?” Jake started. It felt to finish the question would be to make it true.
“No. He’s only sleeping. They used gas on him. He’ll be awake soon.” Her voice was flat and it chilled Jake.
“Pixie…” he tried. But there were no words.
Finally Jake gathered his courage and reached out with one hand. He had barely touched his fingertips to her right shoulder when she turned. But it had been a slow, deliberate movement.
She brought her arms up to her chest and leaned in against him. Jake’s arms automatically closed in her around her and pulled her closer. Pixie did not resist.
There was only a fleeting awkwardness. As Jake held her, he felt the feelings trying to well up again. There was guilt and anger. Strongest of all was the agony he felt at the thought of Pixie’s spirit being so suddenly and violently broken. She was the strongest person he had ever met, and he desperately hoped those wounds would heal. And there was helplessness from not knowing what to do for her. He had to fight against the feelings, suppressing them until there was an appropriate time to give in.
Jake began to slowly rock with Pixie when he felt her silently crying. He held her for what felt like an hour in the approaching night. For the last several minutes she had been still, and Jake assumed she had fallen asleep. But when Big Blue began to stir, she sat up immediately. The golem turned his head and saw Pixie. His eyes widened.
“Master Pixie. What happened?” he said while sitting up. Jake let Pixie go and she got up to stand by her friend.
“Jake, I need to be alone with him,” she said quietly. Jake came as close as he presently could to pleasure at hearing the flatness gone from her voice.
“Of course. I’ll be at the pool,” he said. He turned and headed back to the pool. Suddenly a bath seemed very desirable. As he walked, it occurred to him that he was not concerned that the two men would return. He doubted they would be able to sneak up on Big Blue again. And if they made a grab at Jake himself, he knew that losing him would not be the worst thing that could happen to Pixie.
He reached the pool and undressed except for his shorts. He walked into the water, suddenly aware of the pains where he had been struck. He was thankful for the water’s warmth.
Jake had not chosen to go to the tree for more soapberries and the rough fabric he had taken to calling a sponge. And it didn’t matter to him that he didn’t have a blanket. He only swam lazily around the comfortable parts of the pool. He knew if he didn’t feel any cleaner from merely being in the water, soap would make no difference.
Pixie arrived after half an hour as Jake imagined she would. He saw that she had brought two blankets with her and a sponge, already packed with berries. It was too dark to be sure, but he thought he saw part of a change of clothes nestled between the blankets.
“Hi,” Jake said as she stepped to the water’s edge. It was all he could think to say. She raised her hand and made a brief gesture that Jake understood at once. He complied by turning around.
A minute after he heard her step into the water he slowly turned, giving her plenty of time to stop him. But she said nothing, and when he saw her, she was completely submerged. The movements of her shoulders indicated that she was using the sponge.
Jake turned and began to swim again, staying close. He stopped and approached her when she held the sponge out to him. He decided he wanted to be that much cleaner after all. Pixie swam, as he had done, while he scrubbed. When he finished, he tossed the sponge up onto the rock the blankets rested on and turned to her. At last he spoke.
“What did you tell Big Blue?” Jake had a horrible image of the monster jumping from the cliff to escape a raging, undeserved guilt.
“Everything.” Pixie stopped swimming, apparently standing in neck-deep water as Jake was.
“I thought he would be eaten alive by guilt. He didn’t think it was his fault?” Jake asked.
“No, he did. But I convinced him of the gas. We have both seen its effects before. It was hard for him to believe.”
“But he understands?” Jake asked.
Pixie nodded, and then said, “I thought it would be harder to… console him. But I think he’s known for some time that you’d protect me if I got in trouble. In his own way, he seemed pleased when I told him you had.”
Jake didn’t answer. He was not yet prepared for the acceptance of her long time friend. He wasn’t sure he had earned it yet. He let the silence go on, keeping his gaze just past Pixie. He looked at her when she spoke again.
“Jake? What was that man going to do to me?”
For only an instant Jake thought that she already knew the answer to that question, but then realized that even had she felt the touch of the blade on her tail, she would have been too paralyzed by the sudden subjugation at the hands of a human again to even notice.
“I think…. he…” strangely what the man had intended to do seemed much more personal than had he intended to mark her by scratching some profanity on her skin. Pixie moved closer when he did not immediately answer.
“He was going to… cut off your tail,” Jake finally managed to say.
“To brand you, mark you.” Jake knew she likely had not heard the man’s words either.
“I don’t understand… He couldn’t have made me his slave.” Jake heard the attempt at defiance in her voice, but it was weak.
“He’d do it to humiliate you.”
“He wanted to hurt me.”
“Why didn’t he just beat me then?” -But he did-, Jake thought. Then the sickening thought came to him that the few blows the man had delivered to her had paled in comparison to her past experience.
“Because that ‘man’ was evil. He…” Jake paused, ordering his thoughts. “He wanted to hurt you in a way that would last forever.”
Pixie moved even closer to him again as she spoke.
“He didn’t cut off my tail, but it hurts anyway. I’ll never forget.”
“I know,” Jake said, his voice wavering. He swallowed and said more evenly: “It would have let others know what he did to you.”
After a moment Pixie spoke quietly. “I think I understand.”
Pixie moved closer to him still, stopping just within arms reach. One arm rose from the water and Jake was hardly aware that it was still covered by the handless-glove she wore. She gently touched the side of his head, the spot where her attacker had struck him after Jake had first tackled him. Despite the pain he was still feeling, both inside and out, over the night’s events, her touch felt wonderful. Jake hesitated, then reached forward with his right hand and touched the bruise on her cheek as she was touching him. She pulled her fingers away from him and brought her other hand out of the water. She placed both of them against his and moved up a little higher, closing her eyes and resting the side of her face against his palm. It was unexpected, but Jake allowed himself to enjoy the moment as much as he could.
After too short a time, Pixie eased his hand away from her cheek and let it go.
“I want to go back now. Blue will worry.”
Jake nodded and turned around so she could have her privacy again.
When they returned to the tree, Jake saw that Blue had erected a shelter in the tree. It consisted of a large square of fabric stretched over both of the large branches that were their beds. Its corners had grommets punched into them through which ropes were tied and then slung over various branches. Big Blue had secured them with stakes that he had obviously made by himself from fallen trees. Jake was pleasantly surprised that a being with such large hands had done such a detailed job. Pixie walked over to him when she saw the shelter and put one of her tiny hands on either side of Big Blue’s right one. She looked up at him, into his eyes, and said, “Thank you my friend.”
Jake noticed a slight smile on the monster’s face in response. He noticed no other shelter and took Pixie aside and asked, “The rain doesn’t bother him?”
“It does. It gets inside him and bothers him. I think it is like getting sand in your clothing.”
“Can we help him build another shelter?” Pixie smiled and briefly touched his cheek before answering.
“No need. He will sleep under us. The shelter and branches will keep him dry.”
Jake nodded. “Ok. Good.” ====== None of them had much of an appetite that night. Pixie and Jake only nibbled at some of the fruit they had found nearby. Neither ventured near the clearing where the attack had occurred.
Drizzle had begun to fall before they built a fire. They set it just under the edge of the shelter above, and all three sat on the same side, though Jake kept a little distance from Pixie and Big Blue. It felt right to allow them their familiar ritual.
Pixie fell asleep sooner than usual, yet Big Blue waited the fire out before setting her on her branch. Jake waited a bit longer, only getting up when Big Blue sat down again. There would be no patrol tonight. Jake paused next to Big Blue on his way to the tree.
“Thank you, Big Blue,” he said. He was acknowledged with a brief glance, which was all Jake had hoped for. ====== Whether or not Pixie had been awakened when Big Blue had put her to bed, Jake knew she really didn’t have a choice this time but to remain quiet. Jake felt desperate for more contact with her, but knew there would be none until the next day. Sleep came easily. ====== There were nightmares. Most were merely repeats of the attack. But there were variations. In some, Jake had not immediately followed Pixie from the pool and had happened on the scene too late. When he would reach the clearing he would see her, a pale and bloodied form lying on the dirt. Thankfully her face would be turned away. In one even Big Blue had been more seriously hurt. Parts of his body had been shattered, and one intact arm was stretched out to cradle Pixie. In other dreams, Jake had reacted, or not reacted at all, and had his throat sliced open in either case. The dream would end with him dying in Pixie’s arms, the men having vanished at that point.
The worst dream Jake’s mind saved for last. It played out exactly as it had in real life; only Jake’s rage had frozen him in place. He had not prevented Pixie from being mutilated. That was the only one to wake him. ====== Jake eyes shot open as the horrible scene faded. A moment later a scream bubbled up in his throat, but he bit it back, leaving only a hoarse moan in its place. Pixie had either already been awake, or he had been loud enough to wake her. She spoke up in the dark.
“Jake, are you ok?”
After a moment, Jake found most of his voice. “Yes. I was having nightmares.”
“I was too.”
They were silent for a moment, and Jake searched for way to ask her for what he had been wanting ever since he had laid down to sleep. He knew it would be the hardest question yet.
“Can we… sleep on the same branch?” Though he didn’t think she’d misinterpret ‘sleep together’, he didn’t feel right using that euphemism. Jake didn’t think she was going to answer him, but instead there was a soft thump right next to him. After a moment she laid down next to him, pulling her own blanket over herself.
“I was going to ask you the same thing,” she said quietly in his ear. This pleased Jake beyond his ability to understand. But it wasn’t perfect yet.
“I can’t really… feel you next to me. I want to.”
Pixie responded by wriggling under the edge of his blanket, which she had been laying on, and pulled hers more over the both of them now that the distance between them was gone. Jake felt a surge of contentment when he felt her body against his. He turned and draped his arm over her and she appeared to welcome it with a sigh that was not at all sad or angry.
There were no more nightmares that night. ====== Pixie practiced again the next day, after the rain stopped in the morning. But to Jake, her power seemed diminished somehow. In no way did she fail to deflect or destroy the rocks Big Blue threw at her. She just seemed subdued, less confident. Jake was sure it had everything to do with the attack on her the day before, about the vulnerability she’d been forced to experience. He knew it had weakened her, made her unable to fight. He knew that only a human could ever make her feel that way. What was beginning to bother him was that she had turned to him while under the spell of that vulnerability. She had sought his comfort and touch. But now that she was beginning to return to normal, Jake feared that her desire for his companionship would fade away and he was unable to imagine what he would do if that happened. Jake was not at all interested in denying his growing feelings for her. He knew he was falling in love.
There were no molten rocks this time, but Pixie managed to exercise for an extra half hour. When she finished she walked over to where Jake was and sat next to him. Big Blue began to busy himself with removing rock fragments from the clearing, setting aside those that had not been shattered. After sharing a silence with Pixie, Jake spoke.
“You were different today.”
“How?” Pixie asked.
“You didn’t… try as hard. It seemed like you did just enough to avoid being hit by a rock. You didn’t even… blur.”
“I know,” she said quietly. She looked at Jake for a moment. Although he wanted to reach out and touch her, he was certain she’d draw away.
“It’s because of yesterday. Because of how that man made you feel.”
“Like how your owner made you feel… when he beat you.” Pixie nodded once. Jake wanted to get directly to his point, but it was getting harder as time went on.
“It felt… good to have you next to me last night,” he said at last, slowly. Pixie looked away, struggling with a response. Jake spoke for her.
“You liked it too, right? But… maybe you don’t like going to a human when you feel vulnerable just like you hate one that makes you feel that way.”
“You made me feel better,” she said without looking up. Jake stood up and walked a short way into the clearing where Big Blue was still cleaning up, trying to look like he wasn’t listening in.
“I’m afraid that you won’t need me in that way before very long.”
“But I need him,” Pixie said. Jake knew she was referring to Big Blue.
“Because he’s been with you longer… and isn’t a human.” Jake was beginning to see the irony in making the arguments for the scenario he feared, but he was unable to stop himself. There were few things more distressing to him than being optimistic about something and then finding out he had been wrong to be hopeful. Pixie took a long time to respond. She had joined Jake when she spoke.
“You’re right… but… wrong.”
“What does that mean?” Jake asked without looking at her.
“When was assigned to me as my servant… no… when he and I started to become friends, I was unsure of my feelings. I’d never had a friend before then.”
“Yes… so?” But Jake thought he knew where she was going with it, though he dared not speculate.
“When I met Genki, I was unsure of my feelings toward individual humans. I… didn’t know if my acceptance of one boy was real… genuine.”
“So you’re saying that you are unsure now… about how you feel about… us.”
“I am saying that every time I am confused about what my heart is telling me…” She paused, struggling with the words. “Things turn out for the best. And I don’t regret it.”
Jake looked at her, trying not to feel any hope.
“You think we’ll end up as friends then?” Given Pixie’s experiences with humans, and her life of so very few meaningful relationships, her answer startled him.
“More than that,” she said in a voice just above a whisper. It took a great amount of will for Jake to fight back the torrent of hope and pleasure that threatened to rise up from within and engulf him.
Jake and Pixie were completely focused on one another. Neither noticed what Big Blue, who had dropped his pretense and had been openly listening and watching, saw. A single leaf drifting through the air, about to land on Jake’s shoulder. About the time Jake was fighting back the intensely positive feelings about Pixie’s quiet comment about their relationship, the leaf drew within inches of Jake. Then it stopped. Before the leaf, apparently hovering in midair, could draw Pixie’s, or Jake’s notice, a subtle breeze caught it, and blew it back and away, where it could resume a natural course to the ground.
“Master Pixie…” the golem began.
Pixie had been watching the war of emotions on Jake’s face and was startled when her large friend spoke. Jake however, was still occupied with his emotions.
Pixie was too distracted by the unusual look of surprise on Big Blue’s face to stop him from tossing the rock fragment he still held in his hand at Jake.
“Blue! N...” She halted her protest as the fragment suddenly stopped without hitting Jake in the side, and bounced away to the ground. That finally got Jake’s attention. His head snapped up and he turned to Big Blue, anger rising within.
“What the hell!” He looked between Big Blue and Pixie, trying to make sense of the situation, gradually becoming aware of their startled expressions. “What’s… going on?”
“Master Pixie, a leaf fell. When he was thinking.”
“What?” Jake asked, still very much confused.
“I think… he saw a leaf get… deflected… like the rock just was,” Pixie said slowly. Jake could only continue to look back and forth, dumbfounded, his emotional conflict now forgotten.
“H… how?” Jake stuttered.
“You have… an ability, like monsters do. It’s rare in humans.”
“No way!” Jake said, stepping back. “I can’t do stuff like that.”
“You just did.”
Jake shook his head. “I’ve tried before. A few times… for the hell of it. Nothing ever happened.” Surprisingly, it was Big Blue who saw a possible answer first.
“You didn’t know you could do it,” the golem said. Jake saw a look of understanding come over Pixie’s face.
“Do you remember when you first ask me about my abilities? After you saw me start the fire the first time?” she asked quickly.
“Yeah… I guess so.”
“I told you that humans with power were rare. You said the same about humans in your world, but…” She paused, remembering. “You said it like you didn’t believe it.”
Jake nodded. “Yeah… There are people in my world that claim to have powers, but they can never prove it for some reason or another.”
“So until you saw me light that fire, you had no reason to believe that such things were possible.”
“That’s right,” Jake said. He was beginning to see her point. “I never really believed in things like telekinesis.”
“I don’t know that word,” Pixie said, then shook her head. “But you believe now?”
Jake looked down at the rock fragment that he had unknowingly deflected. “Obviously,” he said slowly and quietly. He brought his head up sharply when he felt her hand on his cheek. He was still getting used to affectionate gestures from someone who, less than a year before, hated all humans with a passion. Jake saw a fond look in her eyes, and even though it made him feel wonderful inside, as though his emotional conflict was no more than a fleeting whimsy of an inner critic, he ruined it nonetheless.
“Do you like me more because I have this power?” Jake realized his mistake even before Pixie’s hand fell away. He immediately fumbled an apology.
“I’m sorry… I didn’t mean that… really.” He stopped and forced himself to speak clearly. “Sometimes I don’t think before I speak.”
Pixie looked up at him and spoke. “I know,” she said, without the trace of familiar contempt he had half-expected in reaction to his careless words.
Jake almost went on but realized that anything else would be nothing more than an excuse. Pixie apparently forgave him with a brief touch to his shoulder.
“I’m going to the pool. I’ll see you tonight.”
Jake watched her go and felt his heart plummet to his belly. It was only late morning, and he knew the distance Pixie would keep until nightfall was what he deserved for both his blunder, and the emotional conflict, the pessimism, he felt. With someone as straightforward an honest as Pixie had been with him, he felt he had been an idiot for doubting the feelings she had hinted at having. He recalled his reason for the doubt, and right then it seemed to be nothing more than garbage, yet another all too frequent attempt at self-sabotage. Jake pushed back his self-disgust as he looked again at the fragment. It was his turn to practice. ====== It went well, considering Jake had just learned of his talent for stopping things in midair. Naturally he started with pebbles, dropping them on his head. And naturally they bounced off of, not an invisible barrier surrounding him, but his skull. He repeated the experiment nearly fifty times, each time trying harder to stop the pebble, slightly varying his method of visualization or focus. Nothing worked. On the forty-eighth try, he began to grasp the solution.
His thoughts had wandered to Pixie, and how effortlessly she seemed to use her own powers. But his thoughts did not remain with her walls of fire and lightning attacks. They stayed only with her. He again reminded himself of the foolish thing he had said, how it had been the near-disastrous result of his pessimism, his struggle *against* feelings of hope that Pixie would feel the same way about him as he did about her. He realized that what he had actually been struggling against was the pain he knew he’d feel if his feelings were not mutual. He realized that what he really had to fight against was the pessimism. He had to give her a chance. He had to give himself a chance. It was while having those thoughts that he picked up a pebble for the forty-eighth time and dropped it on his head. It took an entire two seconds longer to hit than it had the prior forty-seven times. Jake knew that he had the beginnings of the key.
Things became easier after that. Jake gradually settled on focusing on the pebble as a sort of representation of negative emotions, specifically self-doubt and excessive cynicism. The first time he actually stopped a pebble above his head, he immediately jerked his face up to stare at it, breaking his concentration. He was rewarded with the pebble dropping directly onto the bridge of his nose. After that he decided to lie down, dropping the pebbles onto his chest, his hand ready to catch them should he fail. After enough successes, he moved on to small rocks, experiencing a slight increase in difficulty.
Jake did not notice the passage of time until he began to feel the drain on his energy. It was not so familiar a feeling as being tired after say, running for one’s life, but it was close. It was late afternoon when Jake got up to leave the clearing. He was startled to see Big Blue standing at its edge, watching. The monster merely let out what seemed to be a grunt of approval before turning and quietly walking off into the forest. Jake, intent on a nap, returned to the tree. As he went he remembered Pixie telling him about how she had practiced with her own powers, gradually increasing them in strength. Jake knew he’d have to work at it tirelessly, never noticing how the slight improvements until he looked at points of progress weeks before. The thought was discouraging, but comfortable in its truthfulness. It was how it was with all things worth learning. They took their time, but were almost always worth that time. What Jake didn’t know was that he would never actually get that chance to slowly work on his new ability.
Jake’s nap went on until Pixie woke him for dinner. After he was finished stuffing himself, he went right back to sleep with no more than a sleepy ‘thank you’ to her. ====== He was awakened once more that night when Big Blue put Pixie to bed. After the golem left to go on his patrol, Pixie called out to him quietly. When Jake answered, she leapt onto his branch and knelt by his side.
“My feelings have nothing to do with you having an ability,” she whispered. And that was all. She returned to her own branch, but Jake was asleep again before he could feel disappointed.
Pixie threw the rock to Jake and he stopped it approximately six inches away from his hand. She had just finished her own exercise session, attempting to make up for her less-than-full effort the day before, and was now helping Jake with his. Jake did not begin stopping rocks with any sort of regularity until Pixie suggested he extend his hand. The thought had never occurred to Jake even though he had himself questioned her about the very same technique. Once he had that “physical means of focus” he was able to stop the rocks again and again, only failing once or twice every ten tries, taking a hit on either his hand, or his aching ribcage. Pixie stopped the exercise before Jake began to feel the fatigue he had after the first time.
“Don’t use all of your energy. Don’t even use most of it,” she told after he questioned the seemingly premature end to practice. “It takes longer to recover, and you have less of that energy for improvements.”
Jake nodded, feeling slightly elated at what he felt was more progress than he expected. But a less convinced part of himself reminded him of the unintentional deflection of a rock fragment much larger than anything that he had dropped, or Pixie had thrown.
They were leaving the clearing when Pixie stopped just ahead of him and turned to face him.
“What is it?” Jake asked.
“I never thought to ask you if you wanted to make your ability grow… if you even *wanted* me to help you.”
“Of course I do!” Jake said, sounding somehow angry at the thought that he wouldn’t want Pixie to be a part of his learning. “I mean… Of course I want your help.” Again he wanted to reach out to her, but feared she would draw back.
They both continued on without another word. And without any discussion or recognition of what they were doing, they both went to the pool together. To both his amusement and slight embarrassment, Jake saw that Big Blue had left *two* blankets by the pool. It was a subtle, but forceful, statement that told Jake that the golem knew more than he thought. Either that, or Pixie had filled her friend in on the details. Either way, Jake felt that what he saw before him was the beginnings of another comfortable routine.
Once at the pool, Jake saw that Pixie had either suffered a sudden lapse in modesty, or that she expected him to continue to be as polite as he had been the time he had been with her at the pool. Jake suspected the truth was in the latter, and he briefly glimpsed her bare back when he was slow to turn around.
It happened as it had just after the two men had attacked them. Pixie bathed first while Jake swam around. And then they switched. Afterward, they both sat in the shallows and talked, Pixie with her wings crossed in front of her.
“A name for your ability might help,” she told him.
“I was thinking about that, but I couldn’t come up with anything.”
“You will,” she said. And right then, Jake did.
“I think ‘stop’ will work. It’s what I’m doing; stopping something in midair.”
“Yeah, I think I like that better. It *is* more accurate. Thanks.”
Pixie smiled slightly. “You’re welcome.”
At that the brief conversation ran out of steam and they simply looked out at the rest of the pool to wait out the silence. Jake grew bored of it and decided to try out the new name for his ability. He reached under the water and fished out a pebble. Pixie turned to face him as he held it over his head, screwing his face into the look of concentration she had already seen many times that day, and had begun to adore. She watched him drop the pebble.
“Deflect!” Jake said loudly. He was answered with the irritating sensation of the pebble bouncing off his hand. He turned and saw Pixie stifling a giggle. After a moment she was able to speak.
“Well… you… did deflect it,” she managed before having to hold back the giggles again. Jake suspected she was only fighting the laughter because it was an expression of the person she was becoming, the person that was having feelings that she was unsure of, confused by. Nevertheless, her amusement pleased Jake greatly, and he let it show
Finally Pixie seemed to gain some measure of control, the giggles subsiding into a varying smile. Then, without thinking, Jake took a risk. He dipped his hand in the water and drew it back, then snapped it forward, sending a spray of water all over her.
“Deflect this!” Jake kept the smile on his face, suddenly not at all confident that Pixie would see the move as playful. But he needed not have worried. Something had surfaced in her, if only for that brief moment, that had obviously been buried for a very long time. She slipped into deeper water and, to Jake’s astonishment, splashed back at him.
He moved after her, chasing and splashing all the way. He found that he himself was experiencing a resurfacing of some long buried playfulness. It was something experienced only as a child, and then buried at the onset of adolescence when puberty begins to wreak havoc on his life. But what Jake was feeling was something that had been enhanced, or possibly corrupted, by that stage of life that had interred it, by the beginnings of adulthood, and now by his attraction to Pixie. But he did not stop to recognize the sexual undertones. He was too busy having fun, and reveling in the joy at seeing Pixie smiling and laughing without trying to stop it. It was a joy that was going to his head, making him feel drunk.
There was just enough sobriety left in him, however, for Jake to feel surprised when Pixie actually let him catch her. It was nothing provocative; she just was much too slow to withdraw her arm after splashing at him. She wriggled free of him and the play continued. Jake would get her by the wrist each time she made a splash, but when she splashed at him with her other hand, he would pretend to be stunned enough to let her go. This went on a few times until Pixie backed herself up against a slab of rock. Jake knew at once that it was no accident and “caught” her again.
As the drunken feeling faded, Jake found himself standing with Pixie in the water, no more than six inches in front of her, his hands loosely gripping her wrists, and holding onto them under water. There was a look on her face that he could not fully interpret, surprise, and the ebb of her own sudden bout of playfulness. There was also something like discomfort. Jake was now calm enough to feel the awkwardness himself. Then the awkwardness changed to a subtle horror at having her in a vulnerable position, even if she was not truly vulnerable, even if she had *allowed* him to catch her. He let go of her and pushed himself quickly away.
Pixie said nothing until Jake uttered a quiet apology.
“It wasn’t right,” Jake said.
“That’s not true,” Pixie said slowly, as though it was a fact being revealed to her at the same time she was revealing it to Jake.
“I feel like I was… inappropriate.”
She shook her head at him. “I… enjoyed myself.”
They were silent then, Jake because he had no idea what to say. After a moment Pixie gave him the turn around gesture.
When they had both dressed, Jake returned to the subject.
“When I had you against the rock…” he began, waiting for her to face him before he went on. “You had this look on your face… like you weren’t entirely comfortable with the way I was… holding you.”
Pixie looked away for a moment, thinking.
“If I told you that I don’t remember ever playing with anyone, would you believe it?”
Jake briefly recalled what she had told him of her life and answered. “Yes. I guess I understand.” Then, as if his understanding was incomplete: “Not even with Big Blue?”
She answered with that slight twist of her mouth, which meant a bitter kind of humor. “Not in Moo’s family.”
Jake nodded, knowing somehow that there was some small thing she wasn’t telling him. Since he had no idea how to go about asking her about it, he let it go. After another moment of silence, they returned to the tree. Big Blue was waiting there for them with news. ====== “The searchers?” Jake asked when the golem had finished. Big Blue had said that he had seen a thin thread of smoke raising out of the broad valley the canyon their forest was above opened out into. They were close enough that Blue had seen who they were.
“Genki and his friends,” Pixie told him, then she turned back to her large friend. “How long?”
“They will face a slow climb. They should be here late tomorrow. Maybe the day after.”
Pixie let out a short laugh. “Genki’s probably already here.”
Even though he knew it was a joke, Jake looked in the direction he thought the mouth of the canyon was. He looked back when Pixie spoke again.
“Keep a close watch, Blue. Make sure no one is following them.”
“Yes, Master Pixie.”
Jake thought he heard Pixie sigh as Big Blue turned and thundered away into the trees. ====== The night came with no event, proceeding as it had been as long as Jake had been with Pixie and Big Blue. He had taken to going to his branch before Big Blue would put his sleeping friend on her bed for the night. Most of the time Jake would end up falling asleep, but this time he stayed awake, listening to the crackle of the fire below, and thinking about the coming day with an odd sense of foreboding. He distracted himself from that with a mental rerun of his time in the pool, how he and Pixie had played. He shuddered when he recalled the sexual undertone that he was certain only he had felt. He knew such things had yet no place in his relationship with Pixie. Aside from accidentally seeing her previous owners in the act, Jake doubted Pixie had any idea what it was, and what it meant.
Jake was still awake when Big Blue brought Pixie up. At first he thought she was asleep since she did not talk to him after Big Blue had left. But as Jake began to drift off to sleep, he felt Pixie join him on the branch. She sat next to him with her legs stretched out against his, her blanket laid over them.
“I’m glad you came over,” Jake said quietly.
Pixie wasted no time getting to what she wanted to talk about.
“It wasn’t just the playing that made me feel strange today.”
“Oh?” Jake already felt the nervousness rise. He was caught between worrying that she was going to tell him something he didn’t want to hear, and that she’d say something he *did* want to hear.
“I felt something else. I don’t know what it was.”
“Was it good or bad?” Jake asked.
“Good… I think.”
“Can you describe it?” “When I played with you, I lost control. I *let* that happen and don’t regret it. But this… it was also losing control, but I didn’t allow it.”
“It was excitement, like when I am winning a fight, or how I feel when I’m flying and see something beautiful in the land below me. There was a warmth inside me…” She didn’t need to go on because Jake knew what it was.
“Ohhh shit,” he said softly.
“What’s wrong? It wasn’t bad.” Pixie had half turned toward him, and had a hand on his shoulder. He eased it aside as he sat up.
“Yeah, it’s not bad. It’s just something I don’t know how to tell you about.”
She had struggled with telling him about what she had felt, so Jake felt it was fair for him to tell her what he believed her new feeling was.
“I think… you were aroused.” Jake mentally cursed when she answered, even though he hadn’t expected she’d say anything else.
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s about sex,” he said haltingly. There was enough light for Jake to see her frown.
“I accidentally saw my owners doing something in their bed once. They thought it was amusing that I saw them and spared me punishment. They told me it was sex.”
Jake nodded. “What is it?”
Jake suddenly wished he were drunk. He knew intoxication would allow him to blurt out whatever Pixie would want to know, and be utterly unconcerned with the feelings of awkwardness involved. Nothing had been that easy since he had gotten to this strange world.
“Well, when a man and a woman love each other, or at least like each other, they…” Jake floundered on, growing increasingly amused at the way his words sounded just like the “birds and the bees” talk every parent dreads. But only through this weird, and oftentimes cruel twist of fate that had brought Jake to this strange place, he was giving the lecture not to a child, but to the object of his growing affection. It made his stomach flop. When he finished, Pixie’s face as unreadable. Unfortunately, she still had questions.
“How was what I felt in the pool related to… sex?”
Jake sighed, and ventured a heavily educated guess. “Some part of your mind… thought the situation was right for it… with me.” He felt embarrassment rise quickly to his cheeks and added quickly: “It’s just a guess. I don’t know everything about how it works with humans. So I must know less about… monsters.” He finished, swallowing the imaginary lump in his throat.
“I know less than you do. I can’t say your wrong any more than I can say that you are right.”
“Fair enough,” Jake said, beginning to calm some. That was premature. Suddenly plunging her claws into his neck wouldn’t have surprised him any more than what she said next.
“Will you show me some day?”
Jake jumped up to his feet and took a careless step backward. He would have gone over the side of the branch had not Pixie grabbed a hold of his arm and pulled him down.
“I’m ok… just… give me a minute.”
But Pixie didn’t give him that time. “Did I say something wrong? I should not have asked you that, I’m sorry.”
“No…” Jake said after a deep breath. “You’re just so… forward… and innocent… it’s hard to adjust.” He knew that wasn’t the full story that he owed her. “In my world, there are a lot of customs and rules people follow for some stupid reason or another. We are taught these things in many ways from very early in our lives.”
“Teach me these things so I won’t make you fall out of this tree,” Pixie said, slowly smiling.
Jake managed a short, breathless laugh at that. “No… They all amount to these idiotic games that are always distracting people from telling each other what they really want.” After a brief pause, Jake added: “In my world, humans are afraid and uncomfortable with being as direct as you are.”
“I’m sorry I startled you.”
“Don’t be. Now that my heart’s started again, I think I appreciate your honesty.”
Pixie reached out and laid a hand against his cheek. “Is your answer to my question yes?”
Jake had momentarily forgotten the question that nearly pitched him over the side. But then it came back with a flush.
“Hell yeah.” He found that he was amused by his sudden enthusiasm.
Pixie smiled and lied back, looking up at him as she drew her blanket up to her chest. She held the one corner up, and Jake accepted the invitation, sliding under her blanket and up next her. His own blanket had miraculously avoided going over the side when he had jumped up, and now lay crumpled under his legs. He fished it out and worked it over Pixie’s blanket. He thought that before much longer, neither of them would have any idea which blanket “belonged” to whom.
After a moment, Pixie turned and slowly, shyly slid one arm across Jake’s chest. He turned to face her and reciprocated, wrapping his right arm around and behind her, resting it against part of her folded wing, with his hand on her shoulder. Her face was level with his, so she was able to lightly press her forehead against his without poking him with her horns. Jake was so close; yet he decided to save the first kiss for another night. ====== There was a nightmare. In it, Jake met Moo. The monster rampaged through his dream, first stomping Big Blue under his great feet, then turning on Pixie as anguish consumed her, goring her with its horns. To his dreaming mind, which had no physical description to go by, Moo appeared to be a gigantic demonic cow. Ordinarily the comparison would have amused Jake. But he wasn’t laughing when he woke up. Pixie was there, holding him, quieting him, and he was able to find sleep again, or rather, sleep was able to find him. ====== Elsewhere a boy dreamed of a more reptilian representation of Moo. However, in this dream a mighty flaming bird seized this Moo and tore him apart. This dream was darker than most for this boy named Genki, but the sight filled him with jubilation nonetheless. ====== Elsewhere a group of monsters lay sleeping under their stars. Each bore a small disc with a symbol carved on it. It was what some likened to a strange bird; it’s head and wingtips pointing downward. It was the sigil of Moo. The group’s leader was awake, watchful, his eyes on the trail they had been following, the footprints of the golem in the group easily standing out. Tomorrow would be the day. ====== And much farther away, in an icy wasteland a dark thing hovered at the base of a mountain, dozens of ruby beams emerging from an inverted cone at its base. The beams move slightly from time to time as they finished, or started anew, a cut somewhere far below.
Inside the great, dark thing three stood above an inverted observation dome, watching the beams dive away into the mist below. One was partly a man. The one that was closest to him was a violet colored thing resembling a vile mix between a snake and a dragon. The third was a four-legged creature, similar to a wolf with horns. The one that was partly a man, spoke, towering over his two companions in both size and voice.
“Report.” All present knew that a report was unnecessary. It was a mere formality.
“The avalanche will delay the excavation by a month,” the dragon-snake said. To the Gray Wolf’s ears, the hissing sound of Naga’s voice could not have been any less pleasing than the sound of his own skull being fractured.
Moo laughed quietly to himself, recalling something he had once said to a young girl: “The blacker my deeds…” The avalanche had been a setback, yes, and when his anger had calmed, he found that the deeds he had committed during his rage had been black indeed. Several lost disks and hundreds of torn human bodies lay frozen in the snow below gave testament to this. Only a few had been responsible for the erroneous information submitted on geological stability. As a result, Moo had experienced a surge of power that had far surpassed the slight drain he had felt when he’d allowed the Searchers to live. The setback had given him an opportunity.
Gray Wolf spoke next. “My troops have repeatedly failed to stop the Searchers, Master Moo. Those that have survived their assaults have failed to return, the cowards. I will visit the searchers, and deal with them myself.”
“No,” Moo said quietly. “There is much yet to be done in your region now that it has tripled in size. Perhaps your incompetent warriors can better deal with simple farmers. I want that land under *my* control.” Moo paused to laugh softly again. “That magic stone has led those fools on an erratic course. If they double back, they are *not* to be met with kindness from those they encounter. I want you to sweep through every town you find and let those humans there know that their suffering will not cease until the searchers heads are brought to me.” Moo’s voice had grown louder during his speech.
“As you wish, Master Moo.”
“Leave now.” And with that Gray Wolf quickly departed.
“He will betray you,” Naga said. Again, Moo laughed.
“Of course, but he will only do so as he dies. Of my four, I corrupted his mind the most. You, on the other hand, were corrupt from the day you rose from your disc.”
The dragon-snake hissed his raspy laughter, a sound that Moo rather enjoyed. After it asserted some self-control, it continued with its part of the report.
“My captains have informed me of a large band of Gray Wolf’s warriors that have entered my region. It appears they were dissatisfied with his leadership. I have redirected them to attack the searchers in groups, with no more than five days between attacks.”
Moo found this most amusing and laughed loudly for a long moment. Naga, though not respectful enough to refer to Moo as “Master Moo”, waited for him to finish before continuing.
“The attacks will likely all fail, of course, but it will slow the Searchers down, crush their morale. And… This you will like best: A small band of my most stealthy warriors travel ahead, in the searcher’s most likely paths. They will bring the towns they encounter to my attention, and there will be blood.”
More laughter, then: “Be sure the mounts are finished on schedule. I want to depart as soon as possible. This delay has given me a chance to settle my score with one who has strayed from our family. I will not be denied this opportunity. She will suffer.”
This time, they both laughed.
Later, after Naga had left, Moo thought of the coming times. He thought of when he would be in his original body, and how he would slay that sycophantic naga. Oh how dark the betrayal would be, after years of promising the monster such great riches and power, only to cut him down on the eve of victory.
And as for the traitorous little bitch…
“The blacker my deeds…” Moo said to himself quietly.