Sleep did find Jake again, and though he had every reason for it to be entirely peaceful, it was not. There *were* some long stretches of quiet, but his mind could not let go of the pessimism he had been feeling, and the newfound sense of foreboding. They came to his dreaming mind in waves, in nightmares about Moo. Only a few were frightening enough to wake him in a panic. The rest he was able to recover from without rousing Pixie.
In the last one of the evening, the mood alternated between hope and despair. It was the feeling of the classic chase nightmare, only the stakes seemed far more sinister than had the pursuer been the average menacing figure of such dreams. But Jake was able to run, and every time he was certain the evil behind him was going to reach him and sink its claws into his shoulder, he’d turn a sharp corner and lose it for a brief time. Then he would reach a vast clearing in the labyrinthine walls, trees, or even skyscrapers and see the thing across it, bounding toward him, and Jake would find himself frozen. Only at the last minute would he be able to run again, and, at first, only as though he was knee deep in mud. It kept repeating, over and over until the fear finally hurled him from his sleep.
Jake sat up quickly, immediately noticing the tiredness in his legs as though he really had been running. His breath was coming short, fast, and loud, and he had to force himself to slow it down before he woke Pixie yet again. He looked down at her and watched her sleep. She slept on her stomach when on her branch or his, and he wondered how she could turn from her back or her side, however she fell asleep, without rolling off now that she had half as much room as she was accustomed to. Then something told Jake that she might have slept in trees with narrower branches than this one.
Watching her calmed Jake, enough so that leaving the tree long enough to answer a nature call no longer seemed like a frightening prospect. Nevertheless he made it quick. Jake knew that Pixie would be a light sleeper, yet he was still disappointed with himself when he woke her while climbing back into the tree.
“Where did you go?”
“I had to go to the bathroom.” The first time he had used that euphemism, Pixie had naturally been confused. Since then he had explained it to her, and in the process realized how little sense some expressions actually made.
The ghost of his nightmare must have still been visible on his face.
“Are you ok? Another dream?”
“Tell me about it,” Pixie said.
Jake did, and she was silent when he finished.
“I guess this Moo is a more disturbing idea than I consciously feel.” He did not tell her that part of the nightmares had little, if anything, to do with Moo.
Jake made a brief show of looking up into the night sky and said: “Perhaps this is not the best time to discuss evil things.”
Pixie smiled gently. “Perhaps not.”
Jake laid back down next to her before speaking again. Although he had no specific thing on his mind that he wanted to talk about, he felt unwilling to give in to silence and more sleep just yet. He opened his mouth to speak several times, but could not find a place at which to begin.
“What is it?” Pixie asked him.
“Nothing. I… I’m just not ready to go back to sleep. I want to talk.”
“I don’t know. Something. Anything.”
Pixie thought for a moment then came up with something. “Tell me more about your world.”
“What about it?”
“Tell me about your life before you came here.”
“Well… my past… My life while growing up was normal, more or less. But most of the time I didn’t know what normal was. I don’t think any child does.”
“Umm… Actually, I can’t. I don’t think I have a story.” Before Pixie could speak again, a thought occurred to Jake.
“Maybe, everything that has happened since I got here, and everything that will happen… maybe all of that is my story.”
“I wish I had more to tell you,” Jake said softly.
Pixie responded with a brief touch to the side of his neck and: “You will.”
Jake did not speak again. He was suddenly facing the temptation again to kiss her. All at once he knew that there was no real reason to resist. He tilted his head slightly and briefly touched his lips to hers. She did not pull back.
“What was that?” she asked him. Exasperation leapt at Jake. Here was *another* thing he would have to explain to Pixie, no less difficult to explain than sex, despite the simplicity of the act itself. He gaped at her when she suddenly grinned at him.
“I know what a kiss is, Jake.” She had teased him. Jake let out a sound that was half sigh of relief and half nervous laugh. Then seriousness reasserted itself.
“How do you know?”
“Back when I was still… owned… I would occasionally run errands for my owners. Where there were many people, such as in a marketplace, I would see an occasional kiss.”
“There were a few humans that treated me indifferently, and I was curious enough one day to ask one of them. I did not know the word, but I did notice that humans never kissed monsters, only each other. The woman I asked told me enough.”
Jake uttered a short, soft laugh. “I can imagine how hard it could be to understand affection between humans.”
“Yes. I never truly did. And I didn’t know what affection was until I became friends with Blue.”
Jake only nodded, and a silence followed.
“I think I’m tired again,” he said at last.
“Sleep then. Tomorrow will be a difficult day.”
“You will see.”
Jake considered pressing for an explanation, but decided he had enough to think, and worry, about already. He closed his eyes in the dark and drifted off to sleep with the feeling of Pixie’s body against his. For a change, his dreams stayed pleasant.
Pixie went back to sleep shortly after Jake while watching him. Her dreams had always been nightmares, but after spending years with Big Blue, she had always been able to accept the horrors of sleep; knowing that her large friend would be there once her eyes were truly open made that acceptance possible. That was all she ever needed to do whenever she found herself back before her master, kneeling in the dirt while the whip, or his fist, stuck her again and again. All she needed to do was really open her eyes. Now, since meeting Jake, conflict mingled with the terror, muting it somehow. And increasingly in her dream it wouldn’t be her owner doing the beating, it would be Jake, but he would not be doing it to hurt, or punish, her. He would do it to free her from some horrible, suffocating armor she wore. Yet the blows still hurt, causing her to despise him, but she still forgave him.
Pixie couldn’t know how right she had been about the difficulty ahead, for she had only been referring to meeting with Genki and his friends. But there would be something else. ====== The brief disturbance in the night had altered Jake’s sleeping patterns enough so that he awakened with Pixie. It was a rarity for them to spend mornings together. Since Jake was not a morning person, he kept the conversation attempts at a minimum. Pixie saw how reticent Jake was, and it was an easy matter to allow him his silence. She found mornings difficult to adjust to as well.
Just after breakfast, however, there was something to talk about.
They were both in the clearing, watching Big Blue gather rocks for Pixie’s exercise when Jake happened to glance over the treetops on the opposite side of the clearing at the right time.
A pale dot rose in the sky a few degrees and then fell back bellow the horizon created by the canopy.
“What the hell was that?” Jake asked quietly, more to himself. He had been deciding on whether he had actually seen anything other than a bird when the question left his mouth.
“What?” Pixie answered. Both she and Big Blue turned to look in the direction Jake was staring.
“This speck… I don’t think it was a bird. It rose and fell. Once.”
Pixie smiled slightly then asked: “Was it yellow?”
“I don’t know. It wasn’t dark, though.”
“That’s how Genki and his friends get a look at their surroundings. Their golem throws their suezo into the air.”
“You’ll see,” she answered with a smirk. Jake had been looking at Pixie and did not see the dot rise and fall again.
“Did they see us?” he asked when she pointed in the same direction.
“Probably. Genki will bring them here, even if we’re not in their path.”
“Master Pixie, I am ready,” Big Blue said. Jake noticed that the rocks the golem had gathered were smaller than usual. The reason became evident when the exercise began. Instead of throwing just one, Big Blue would pick up a handful for each throw. This challenged Pixie with only a second do decide which she would need to deflect or dodge, and which would hurtle harmlessly past. Jake felt a slight surge of pride in her when Pixie simply decided to block all the incoming rocks with an expanded firewall. He had felt the heat from that one.
He only saw the dot once more in the sky, this time it’s shape and color were visible. It looked like a yellow comma. The Searchers arrived about an hour after Pixie’s exercise ended. It took Jake that long to realize why she had practiced earlier than usual.
Pixie, Big Blue, and Jake were waiting for them in the clearing. Genki had led his group to the three just as Pixie had said. Jake had been passing the time by engaging in a little practice. The results amounted to no more than what many magic tricks appeared to do, making an object, in this case, a simple pebble, hover in the air. For Jake, it was no more than his ability to deflect an object. He had been pleased to discover that the power did not just work with preventing objects from striking him. With Pixie’s cooperation, he was able to deflect pebbles she would try to drop on herself, or even those that he threw himself. The hardest was to make the pebbles and stones hover, however. They would fall and hit whatever invisible field Jake had put up, then try to slide off of it. He would continuously have to adjust his focus on direction to keep the object aloft. He was doing just that when a young boy burst from the trees on the other side of the clearing, yelling at the top of his lungs.
“Pixie! Big Blue!” The boy’s sudden appearance broke Jake’s concentration and the pebble fell. The boy was still yelling when Pixie and Jake stood. Big Blue had remained standing.
“Guys! They’re over here.”
And, as if on cue, Jake heard heavy footsteps, identical to the sounds Big Blue made when he wasn’t “tiptoeing”. The rest of Genki’s group entered the clearing as the boy ran across it and stopped several feet in front of Pixie. He had stopped short, as though some memory about the personal space of this particular friend of his suddenly came to the front of his mind.
“What are you doing here?” the boy asked excitedly. Jake looked him over from his position behind Pixie and saw the boy wearing recognizable clothing that had apparently been through a lot; gray shorts and a shirt that had obviously once been white. He wore plain brown shoes that were apparently of native design, a small backpack, with a bedroll and a pair of inline skates, of all things, tied to it. On top of his head he wore an orange cap backwards, which barely contained his mop of unruly dark hair.
The others in his group stood behind him in the clearing. They were an assorted bunch. The most obvious was a being identical to Big Blue, save for his dark gray color. Then there was the eyeball with a tail. It was the yellow comma Jake had seen earlier. A gaping mouth moved as it said something. There was a thing that looked to Jake like a cross between a pink marshmallow and a penguin with a dark-green shell on it’s back. There was a giant, bipedal rabbit, with large mitts instead of paws at the end of its arms, a red kerchief around its neck and a bindle stick slung over one shoulder. The only four-legged member of the group stood to the outside. It was a blue-colored wolf-like creature, with horns on its head like those Pixie had. Its eyes were watchful. And then, standing in the middle, was a human girl, apparently in her early teens, wearing what must have been native clothing, in various shades of red. She stayed close to the golem.
“Have you come to help us on our journey now?” The boy asked before Pixie could deal with his first question. Jake saw from the boy’s eyes alone that he was wired.
“This is where Big Blue and I have been…living,” Pixie said to the boy Jake assumed was Genki. “You came to us.” Then the eyeball spoke up.
“The magic stone must have brought us to you.” Its voice was a strange mix of a rasp and a whine.
No one had apparently noticed Jake save for the blue wolf. It approached within ten feet, turning his head toward Pixie, but keeping his eyes on Jake.
“Who is he?” it asked.
Pixie turned and favored Jake with a faint smile before answering. “He is a new friend of mine. His name is Jake.”
The boy bounded forward, right hand extended. “My name’s Genki, and any friend of Pixie’s is a friend of mine! Nice to meet you!”
After a brief moment, Jake took Genki’s hand and shook. The boy pumped his hand like he was snapping a towel seemingly radiating energy. Jake was already beginning to understand what Pixie had meant when she had said the day would be difficult. Jake had just barely muttered “Nice to meet you.” When the boy turned and made rapid introductions.
“That one’s Tiger of the Wind. Suezo, Holly, Golem, Hare, and my Mocchi,” he said pointing at each in turn. The pink-thing squeaked out one enthusiastic syllable “Chi!” when its name was said. Before Jake could return any of their nods of greeting, Genki turned back to him.
“Did you win the Monster Battle tournament too?”
“You’re from my world, aren’t you? You’re clothes are like mine!”
Despite himself, Jake looked down.
“I got here when I tried my Monster Series 200x cd-rom for the first time!”
“I don’t know how I got here.”
The boy was not fazed. He continued his chatter. “Now we’re on a quest to defeat Moo!”
Jake only stared. Talking to the kid felt like trying to keep up with a moving car while on foot.
“You do know who Moo is right?”
“Yes. Pixie told me,” Jake said, looking at her as though to anchor himself.
“Did you unlock him from a mystery disk?” Genki said, head snapping toward Pixie.
“No. He just… found me.”
Jake found a knowing grin trying to surface. Then the boy was back to him, rattling.
“Maybe the three of you can join us now! We’ll be even…” But Jake was no longer listening. His eyes had wandered to the one named Tiger of the Wind. His head was up, and he was sniffing the air. He apparently did not like what he smelled for his eyes narrowed and the beginnings of a snarl formed on his snout. He spoke one word, quietly: “Trouble.”
Pixie had heard him, so had Blue. Jake felt himself break out in gooseflesh when Pixie turned to him, her voice low and urgent.
“Jake, hide. Now.”
Jake quickly turned to do as asked, but the attack began before he could reach the relative safety of the trees.
Jake turned, just feet from cover, as five dark objects rolled into the clearing from the far side. They stopped a few yards from the tree line an unrolled. They looked liked caterpillars, with sharp beaks and multiple eyes. The two lighter ones had brilliant green eyes. All five orientated themselves to face their targets and arched, bringing their tails over their heads, pointing forward. Jake saw a stinger on the end of each one.
Pixie and Golem were the first to move, the latter stepping in front of Holly using his massive body as a shield. Pixie leapt into the air but did not spread her wings. She knew she’d make a better target for the worms if she did. Instead she jumped up onto Big Blue’s shoulder while the blue golem took a few steps forward.
“Lightning!” she yelled, this time with both hands extended, bolts emerging from each.
At the same time Tiger bounded forward, stopping at the same distance Pixie was from the creatures. His attack was similar to Pixie’s; only the bolts came from his horns and he yelled: “torpedo”. All five worms were hit. The two that were lighter in color recovered first, one opening his mouth and emitting a thin stream of fluid in Tiger’s direction. He dodged it with a vertical leap, a move that cleared some of the shorter trees bordering the clearing. Again he attacked with his lightning.
Jakes attention was distracted when larger monsters emerged from the trees, from both the right and left. These resembled some form of carnivorous dinosaur, with some kind of pointed crest on their heads. These rushed the others.
Jake watched Genki in amazement. The kid reminded him of a human pinball, bouncing from one monster to the next, using his body, and occasionally his arms and legs to batter the reptiles with. It was if he had funneled his excessive energy and exuberance into some form of martial art. The marshmallow thing, Mocchi, was equally impressive, for the way its tiny arms shooting back and forth like two miniature jackhammers, and actually seemed to cause its target pain. The rabbit fought with his fists as well, seemingly causing even more damage. One of the dinosaur things foolishly made a run at Golem and was dealt with a powerful backhand. Jake heard its bones break
Jake was about to return his attention to Pixie when something even larger came at him from the right, keeping to the edge of the clearing. It was similar to the green reptiles in the clearing, only it had a proportionally larger head without a crest. This one was black, with gray spots and a gray underbelly. It lowered its head, mouth open, as it came. Jake stared, then remembered.
“Deflect.” Although it was too soon for physical proof, Jake knew there was no barrier. He tried again, speaking the name louder. Again there was nothing. In the remaining Jake had before the monster was upon him he managed to gather himself; using thoughts of Pixie to gather focus. She would be hurt if he was killed. Hurt deeply.
“Deflect!” The monster ran into the wall, its head snapping to the side, its upper body taking the majority of the force of the impact. It lost its balance and went down on its side. When it rose again, Jake saw blood seeping from its nostrils.
“You!” It said, in a drawn out rasp.
Something thin and dark lashed through the air from Jakes right, catching him hard against the shoulders and lifting him off his feet. As Jake flew through the air, he saw that it was another creature like the one that attacked him, its tail completing the blow. He hit the ground and rolled. He was up again, immediately, a strong hand clamped on his throat, threatening to crush his neck. He found himself looking into the eyes and bloody nostrils of the monster. He would later swear that it grinned at him before opening its mouth to reveal many sharp enough teeth.
“JAKE!” Something flashed by, between Jake and the monster, inches away from both. Immediately the thing shrieked and dropped Jake who hit the ground and instinctively rolled. When he saw the monster again, it was on the ground, its hands pressed to its ruined throat, trying to stop the loss of a large amount of arterial blood. Its hands dropped away and it began to glow. But then Pixie was at Jake’s side and he faced her without getting to his feet.
“Jake, are you ok?” But before there could be an answer a black arm swept into view, catching Pixie in the midsection, the monster’s momentum carrying her backward. The creature stopped, but Pixie didn’t. She was thrown several yards into the edge of a clearing where she was stopped to a tree. Jake could only stare in shock, now oblivious to anything else, until he saw Pixie open her eyes and get to her feet. But she was slow, and the black dinosaur-like monster that had blindsided her had gotten too close for her to react. Jake looked once between the blood seeping from small wounds on Pixie’s stomach and the monster.
“No!” The word was short, and much more of a command than a pleading denial. Suddenly, both Pixie and the monster were… pushed, a look of surprise on the faces of both. Pixie’s flight was short for she was already up against the tree, but the monster was lifted fully from the ground and carried two yards before it came down. It lost its balance and crashed to the dirt floor of the clearing, but was immediately on its feet again. But by then it was too late for it; Big Blue was there. Jake watched the golem’s arm come around in a downward arc, his fist connecting with the where the monster’s neck joined his back. The monster’s head snapped back like its neck had become liquid and its body was driven to the ground. Jake watched this one begin to glow too. Its shattered body began to shrink, changing shape as it went, becoming shorter and thinner. When the glow died, it appeared to be a stone disk, entwined by dead vine-like branches and supported by a short gnarled trunk. Jake knew at once that he was seeing a lost disk.
Jake rose, taking a quick look around and saw that the battle was over. He had not known the number of attacking monsters so a count of the lost disks in the clearing meant nothing to him. He immediately went to Pixie’s side, where Big Blue was already kneeling, seemingly quite upset about his friend’s injuries.
“Are you ok?” Jake asked her. She had been dealing with Blue and had not seen him approach.
“Yes…” she said while turning her head. When she saw Jake, an expression of concern bloomed on her face. He guessed it was because of the wetness he felt down one side of his head. He did not feel as though the injury was severe, and had heard head wounds bled more. It had been a sharp rock on the ground, Jake deduced. None of the monsters had struck his head.
“I’m sure it looks worse,” he said, touching a few fingertips to the wound and looking at the blood on them. “Than it really is.”
Then she was there, with her arms around him, and suddenly Jake was very aware of being scrutinized by the others behind him. The hug was brief, and she finished it with a quick whisper in his ear.
“Later. Blue needs this time.” Jake immediately accepted that. He realized that he would despise himself if his growing relationship with Pixie came between her and her long-time friend in any way.
Jake turned and saw Genki staring, jaw slack. The others seemed to have exhibited some kind of control over what was obviously their surprise at seeing Pixie displaying affection. Nevertheless, their stares, or marked attempts to not stare, were beginning to embarrass Jake. He broke the silence first.
“So… How often does something like that happen to you guys?”
The rabbit answered. “Certainly more often than what we just saw.” Jake saw that Hare had returned his bindle to his shoulder where it had been absent during the fight.
“Hare!” That was Tiger, now scowling at the rabbit.
Hare adopted a defensive expression and said: “Well it’s not every day that you see…” Holly cut him off with a hand clamped over his mouth.
“What I think Hare *meant* to say is that the baddies attack us about once every week,” she said.
“And we always send them running!” Genki exclaimed. Jake heard it in is voice; much of the kid’s earlier exuberance had left him. His words also reached Jake in a different way.
“H… how many got away?”
Big Blue spoke from behind Jake. “Master Pixie and I destroyed those we fought.”
“So did I,” Tiger said.
“Golem saw none escape,” Golem said with a touch of sadness in his deep, gravelly voice.
Jake felt a little relief. “Good. Maybe no one else will be able to find us for a while.”
“No.” It was Pixie. Jake turned to her with a questioning look, but she turned to Big Blue, seemingly ignoring him.
“Blue. Do you see something wrong?” She asked him, while making a quick horizontal circle in the air at eye-level with her fingertip. The golem slowly turned his head, stopping almost immediately.
“No,” he said. But Jake saw the signal, a single twitch of the golem’s massive index finger. Jake thought he saw something else, something that didn’t belong.
“I’ll go make sure there is no one else nearby.” Big Blue said, heading in the direction his head had just been facing. When Blue got to the edge of the clearing, Jake really did see something wrong. It was a short, leafless, and stubby tree. *None* of the trees around the clearing were without leaves. He watched as Big Blue reached the tree, and then pretended to pass it. But then he stopped and seized it, pulling it into the air. It didn’t have any roots.
It came alive at once, thrashing at Big Blue with its limbs. The thing changed in his hand, the short branches elongating, and a face appearing on the truck. Big Blue half-turned and hurled it into the center of the clearing. It immediately got to its “feet”, but made no move. It seemed to know it was finished.
“Haven’t you baddies learned anything yet?” It was Genki, displaying a little too much bravado for a boy his age. The tree-thing did not respond, or even look at him. Its eyes were directed at Pixie.
“Mock,” she said gently. Her tone chilled Jake. He knew he was hearing her the way she sounded before she met Genki, how she must have treated humans and monsters alike. “I don’t expect you to tell me how many of you are out there.” The tree responded with a slight flickering at the corner of its mouth, the traces of a smile.
“Gray Wolf or Naga?” Pixie said. The cajoling note was gone from her voice. What was left was hard. Jake knew she expected no answer. Indeed he thought she already knew what she wanted to know. She raised her hand, palm facing it. The tree monster did not even flinch.
“Pixie… wait.” Jake came up to her and stood by her side. Pixie did not even look at him when she responded.
“Jake, this won’t be the end for him. Lost disks are not forever.”
Jake looked at her, then the tree. It was relatively defenseless now though the cruel glint in its eye made pitying it impossible.
“Still… He’s at out mercy,” he said.
“So?” Jake hated the way she had said that. The look in her eyes was even less encouraging. “Would he show us mercy?”
Jake took a hard look in the monster’s eyes. It glared back at him, and Jake knew he’d been marked by it. “No. I don’t think it would. But there are no doubt others like him out there that know where we are.” Jake didn’t mean to merely exercise his conscience or sense of honor; he meant to stop her, to stop the relapse he was seeing in her. And he was as sure of what he was doing as he was sure of what the monster was now after. Seeing how it looked at Pixie, Jake knew it was daring her to strike it down, to execute it, as she would have been quick to do back in the days when she was still loyal to Moo.
“And if there isn’t?” Pixie said. Jake was pleased to hear the coldness that had come over her beginning to fall away.
“You already know there are. And I think you know who sent these guys, and I think you know that monster’s methods.”
“You’re right.” Her hand wavered slightly, and Jake slowly reached forward. The captive tree monster watched the whole thing with interest.
“Pixie, I don’t want you to do this. Not like this. Please.” Her eyes flicked toward him once.
Jake gently placed a hand on Pixie’s forearm and gently eased it down. She let out a tired sigh and her entire posture seemed to loosen.
“Ok. Now what?” she asked.
Jake addressed the tree thing. “I think you’ll try to make us regret letting you go, right?” Jake thought he saw another flickering smile on its twisted face. “I thought so,” Jake said quietly, then, turning back to Pixie: “Now we kill it.” The tree monster was still in his field of view and it finally flinched. Unfortunately Pixie flinched too. Jake knew he had to act before self-disgust disabled him, take the matter into his own hands. The problem was that he didn’t have the means to turn the tree into a lost disk. Fortunately Tiger took care of it.
“Torpedo.” Tiger’s voice was low and calm. He stood there, his horns apparently charging, the aura around them growing brighter and brighter. The tree turned slightly to glare at his executioner. But something then flashed across Tiger’s face and the glare died away. Finally the tree spoke after a brief chuckle, confirming what Jake had thought its motives were.
“You see, you kill me, I win. You let me go, I win. This is why my masters will defeat you. They are not crippled by indecision, not weakened by…”
Then Jake was rushing the tree. He no longer knew what he was doing, but was simply enraged that the monster had put them, specifically Pixie, in that situation. Yet some rational part of him hoped to goad the tree into trying to kill him, making the monster a threat once more. It worked. One of its branches lashed forward, straitening out; the tip quite sharp enough to run him through.
“Lightning!” A bolt streaked down, striking the speeding branch, severing it. The tree hissed in pain. Jake skidded to a halt and glanced up, already knowing it had been Pixie. She came down and landed right next to him, seemingly unconcerned about their proximity to the tree.
“Jake, I can do this the right way now.”
“There is no right way.”
Pixie lowered her head as if to agree and whispered, “But it’s easy.” Jake kept his eyes on her face and saw her mouth a word. He had not noticed her hand come up.
A particularly bright bolt exploded into existence an uncomfortable distance to his left, and an instant later it slammed into the monster, high on its face. The creature was torn apart in the middle. Its falling pieces beginning to glow and draw together, and before much longer there was another lost disk.
“Shit.” Jake said quietly. He looked into Pixie’s face and saw that there were tears beginning to form. She quickly blinked them away.
Even Genki was quiet as they returned to Pixie’s tree for a short time. Pixie and Jake took turns bathing, washing their wounds, both lost in thought. Jake felt that he had failed. Had he been able to, he would have taken on the burden of killing the monster. He had struggled to keep Pixie from reverting to an old way, if only briefly, only to force her to do the deed.
Pixie was considerably less rattled by the actual act. Her worries were of the consequences involving her relationship with Jake. The way he had tried to stop her, the way he had tried to keep her from having to do something that was wrong, no matter how it was looked at… It was so endearing it hurt. She knew things had turned out the only way it could have.
Jake elected to wash his clothing, and wore it wet while Pixie and Big Blue broke camp. They had to leave. Genki was as overjoyed as a hyperactive boy can get after such a sobering experience by the news that three would be accompanying his group for the time being. They left in mid-afternoon, traveling in a course parallel to the canyon, past its mouth, and down the side of plateau, where time had left it with a gentle slope. The hidden eyes of trees that didn’t belong where they stood watched the ten go. The failure of the attack had met expectation, but its results exceeded. Master Naga will be pleased, the mock thought.
Forest gave way to woodland. Woodland gave way to rolling hills that were sparsely populated with trees. The Searchers and their three new companions did not linger near those that were leafless and stunted, only venturing near to the ones that had the look of decent firewood. A pendant Holly wore determined their course. This dismayed both Jake and Pixie. It seemed so… blind. Jake had gathered enough from Genki’s excited ramblings that it was either supposed to lead them to another “mystery disk” or the Phoenix. He was never sure which was there actual goal, and the pendant never did more than point. Fortunately it did not lead them far from a river for any longer than a day at a time. It didn’t take long for Jake to look back at the time spent with Pixie’s tree and pool and see that as luxury. There wasn’t a day gone by that he didn’t feel as though he was filthy, and imagine that his clothing stank. Baths were frequent enough; though cold, to keep him forgetting what cleanliness was, and Pixie assured him often enough that he was pleasant enough to crawl under a blanket with each night. He would express concern at most every other night, as he first had on the third night after leaving her place in the woods.
Nightfall had been many hours past, and all had fallen asleep except for Pixie, Big Blue, and Jake. It warmed Jake inside to see their nightly ritual maintained in the face of their forced move. Jake chose a spot eight feet from Pixie and laid down after stripping to his shorts. He had had enough foresight to do this the first night when he realized it could be a very long time before he was able to wash his clothes again. He had assembled a shaky structure out of sticks to lay them on to air them out each night.
Jake crawled under his blanket and waited for sleep. He stared up at a night sky that had proved to be unfamiliar. There were other planets up there, but Jake knew too little about Earth’s night sky to make any comparison. And there was something else he saw that he did not want to think about yet. There was too much on his mind already.
Jake had suspected that Pixie would alter her part of the nightly ritual if Big Blue managed to awaken her when setting her down, and he was right. She waited for a while and then pretended to wake on her own. He was almost slipping into sleep when she joined him.
“Pixie… Umm… I’m starting to stink a bit… I don’t want you…” Halfway through his protest he began to feel ridiculous about it. Yet he continued. “You don’t have to put up with it.”
Pixie made a quiet sound that indicated she thought he was speaking nonsense and wriggled under the blanket with him anyway. “Even if my nose was offended, it would forget.”
“No. I *know*.” Jake did not respond.
“I told you about when I first tried my lightning attack, and my punishment for the damage that caused. Do you remember?”
“Yes.” Jake let the bitterness into his voice. It reminded Pixie of how she used to sound. Coming from Jake, it was chilling. However, that he would feel so strongly about wrongs committed against her in the *past*… it was another endearment.
“Since I was unable to work, my owners felt that I did not deserve to bathe.”
“Damn them,” Jake said quietly. “I see your point.”
“Good.” Pixie let Jake sleep then, but could not rest herself. Her thoughts kept returning to Jake’s attempt to stop her from destroying the mock. She had not approached him about it, she had been afraid to open the wound she felt the incident had caused in their relationship. She knew there was no proof, but who knew when it came to humans. She instantly scolded herself for that last. There was no reason, *no* excuse, for her to let herself fear a suspected injury, especially when she hadn’t even asked him about it. She turned her head to face him, and in the dim light she saw that his eyes were open. She turned to her side and laid her arm across his chest. Her severe reluctance to so casually touch a human being had echoed her revulsion at being touched by one. Both had almost entirely vanished that night when the two men had tried to do something horrible to her. She and Jake had saved each other, and before she knew it, she was in his arms. Being touching him felt right now, as did being touched by him.
“Jake. I want to talk about the mock.”
“Ok. What’s a mock?” Jake spoke without turning his head.
“The monster I destroyed.”
“Oh.” His voice had gotten quieter. She knew he didn’t want to revisit that memory.
“I know what you tried to do. I want you to know how much I appreciate it,” she told him, just as quietly as he had spoken. Finally he looked at her.
“I know you do. I’m sorry it didn’t work. That damn thing got what it wanted, even if it did get killed.” The bitterness was back in his voice.
“I’m sorry too. I know I disappointed you.”
Jakes eyes widened and he sat up. “Absolutely not!” He said a little more loudly than intended. Pixie returned his gaze, confused.
“But I… I know what you saw. You saw me as I was, a killer, and tried to stop that.”
“Well… yeah... sort of”
“I did it anyway.”
“Did… did you have a choice?”
“Yes. I could have let it go.” Still, she was not convinced.
“But I failed,” Jake said, ignoring her argument. “*I’m* the one that made the choice to kill it. *I* provoked it into attacking.” And then in a sad near-whisper “I made you kill it.”
“Jake, you didn’t make me kill. But you made it possible to do it in a better way than I would have on my own. Please believe that.”
“And I’m not disappointed in you for doing it. Please believe *that*.”
Pixie sighed. What Jake said next mirrored what she was thinking right then.
“It’s so easy to not trust a good thing, to be pessimistic. Here we are trying to prove to each other that we did the wrong thing.”
Pixie tried to smile at the humor in that, but couldn’t. “I know.”
“I believe you,” Jake said after a brief silence, trying his hardest to mean it.
“And I believe you.”
At that moment, Jake almost said: “I love you.” But the words died in his throat. He discovered that he was too tired to understand why he couldn’t say it. He wasn’t sure Pixie would understand anyway.
He laid down next to her keeping his eyes locked on hers. After the gaze had run its course he kissed her, letting it last a little longer than the first. When it ended, Pixie closed her eyes and gathered her courage. She surprised Jake by kissing him back, and with something that was more than a reasonable imitation of what he had done twice before. When they held each other, sleep came quickly.
The journey wore on and began taking its toll on everyone. As they traveled farther and farther away from the forest, the average daily temperature grew. If it had not been for the river, Jake suspected he would have opted to take his chances back in the forest. But they went on. Genki believed in what the magic stone told them, and Pixie, for the time being at least, believed in Genki. And of course, Jake believed in Pixie.
Without an abundance of rocks lying about, Pixie had to enlist in the aid of some of the other monsters to help her exercise. Jake could not help flinching the first time Tiger had fired his “torpedo” at her. Once again Jake came to the conclusion that her walls of fire were far more than flame for their ability to stop what appeared to be nothing more than electrical discharge. He never questioned her about it, however.
The occasional attacks wore away at their already suffering morale. Since it would have been impossible to sneak up on the Searchers in such an open area with so little cover, most attacks amounted to nothing more than hit-and-runs at unpredictable times. The monsters attacking them were dragon-like, and were, for some reason Jake would never understand, called salamanders. The intent of the assaults became apparent early on, for the salamanders would keep a reasonable altitude while bombarding them with some kind of fireball. Every one missed, but it kept the group on edge constantly.
There were only two battles that took place in the three weeks after leaving Pixie’s forest. They took place on days when the air was heavy and still, or when the wind was not in their favor. Each time, Tiger, easily with the keenest nose in the group, had been unable to detect the camouflaged monsters awaiting them in their path before it was too late for a detour.
Jake had been exercising his new powers as well, but had not noticed considerable improvement, certainly not enough to participate in the fighting. Of this he was both relieved and disappointed. Although Pixie was very powerful, he could not fight down the desire to protect her. Jake noticed the same of Big Blue, watching how the monster often covered his friend’s back when no such cover was needed. After the first salamander bombing-run, Pixie had taken Jake aside and had asked him to seek the safest place there was, Golem’s cover, if a real battle was to take place. He looked into her eyes and agreed without argument. During the first battle, Golem had looked down at Jake and said, “Pixie does not look lonesome now.”
Of all the nightmares Jake had involving Moo, and despite their seemingly prophetic nature, none had come close enough to reality to prepare him for what happened in the middle of the fourth week.
“Finally a cloudy day! I get so sick of the sun,” Suezo half-complained one morning after a breakfast of something like oatmeal. They had gathered seeds from stretches of grass Hare claimed was related to those frequently harvested for grains. The resulting mash after they boiled the seeds, husks included which later had to be spit out, was as bland as the fried potatoes Jake had once tried to make. Jake ate his anyway. The alternative was fish or tubers, and those were the only things to be had for other meals. Jake fancied he’d go mad if he had to endure such unvaried fare for much longer. Fortunately there were the occasional edible plants that helped to stave off malnutrition. Neither golem appeared to be happy being limited to eating dirt. Rocks were few and far between.
“Cloudy, chi!” squeaked Mocchi. Jake had heard the little monster say that single syllable at least one hundred times and had yet to find reason for its usage. Jake winced slightly when Genki, apparently as much a morning person as he was a night owl, opened the day of traveling with a customary blast of words.
“All right! Let’s go find that Phoenix.”
Pixie had noticed Jake’s reaction, as she had every morning, and gave his hand a slight squeeze. Jake turned to her, speaking quietly so only she would hear.
“Why yes, let’s! As though for every day until today we’ve been out here for the *scenery*.” Pixie only smiled. She was obviously more tolerant of the boy than Jake ever would be. Nevertheless she stayed with Jake whenever he strayed to far the side or fell back to seek respite from Genki’s chatter. She was grateful for the differences in ages between Jake and Genki. Had they been more equal in years, she knew their great difference in personality and enthusiasm would cause friction. As it was, Jake tolerated the boy, and put himself nearly out of earshot when he couldn’t. To Pixie’s amusement, Jake seemed satisfied to let the boy lead the group. Jake merely felt it appropriate, for Genki had been the leader for much longer than he had been a part of things. Plus it was really that glowing stone that led the way; Genki was just a pep squad.
To Jake’s relief, the boy never seemed to take notice of the distance he kept at some times. He didn’t want to deal with the kid’s questions.
“Something is on your mind,” Pixie said, walking by his side now that she had come down from Big Blue’s shoulder. Normally she flew when not actually on foot, but Jake had urged her out of the sky when Hare had said he heard something like thunder. The clouds had not looked like thunderheads to Jake, but he didn’t want to take the risk. It was a fair trade, in exchange for Jake waiting out battles while she risked herself by fighting.
“Oh? Why do you say that?” Jake knew that if he had tried to conceal his preoccupation, pixie would have seen through him anyway.
“You’re distant, you’re eyes…”
“Aren’t clear?” Another thing Golem had told Jake during one of the battles was that he had clear eyes. Jake really hadn’t known what it meant, and had been more puzzled by the monster’s equanimity while fireballs and lightning was flashing through the air around him.
Pixie shook her head. She wasn’t sure what the phrase meant either and had told Jake as much. She assumed it was something that came with greater wisdom. “No. You’re not looking at me like you always do, not watching me.”
Jake grinned inwardly, but kept his face set. “Looking at you how?”
“Like a someone who has been in a desert looks at water. Or…”
“Like you’re the most beautiful thing I have ever seen?” Jake suggested.
Pixie only stared at him, caught off guard by not only his sudden directness, but his words as well. Jake went on.
“Like I’d do anything for you? Like I’ve never admired anything more? Like…”
“Master Pixie.” They had been walking with their attention on each other, and did not notice that the others had stopped until Big Blue spoke up and dropped the net slung around one shoulder to the ground.
Hare was turning in a slow circle, his ears straight up and stiff. “It sounds familiar,” he was saying. The others were watching him carefully.
“I don’t hear anything,” Genki said.
“Quiet. I hear it too.” It was Tiger with his head cocked to once side.
Finally Hare stopped turning and pointed to what Jake thought was northeast. “It’s coming from that direction.”
“It sounds like…” Tiger began. And then Jake heard, rather felt, it too. If asked to make a guess, Jake would have said it was infrasonic, and loud. It was a pressure, and a vibration he felt in his bones and gut.
Jake approached Tiger. “Like Moo?”
Tiger straightened out his head and pulled his lips up into a snarl. “Yes. Like Moo’s castle.”
Pixie was then standing with Jake asking: “How close?” to no one into particular. But Jake saw it first, or at least was the first to speak up about it.
“Right on top of us.” He saw a dark point emerge from the cloud layer, which was approximately two thousand feet up. The point began to descend as it moved closer to their position, revealing it to be what looked like the tip of an inverted, black mountain.
“Oh shit,” Pixie said, softly. In the back of his mind, Jake was pleasantly surprised to hear her use an invective that, as far as he could tell, existed only in his world.
“Run, Jake.” But there was no conviction in her voice.
Jake glanced at the others in the group, and saw that they were all tense, standing rigidly. Genki spoke next.
“Do you think he’s found his ancient body?”
The inverted mountain descended further, pushing apart the clouds as it came. It soon widened out to a gigantic dark star, composed of the same type of rock as the mountain beneath it. The castle stopped before the rest was revealed, but Jake was able to see windowed structures carved from the rock above the star.
A weed stood by Moo’s side, captain to those at the controls of the weapons of the castle. He turned to the giant towering over him.
“Master Moo, now we can finally finish them. I knew this day would come.”
“Yes. We could easily crush them all, couldn’t we?” Moo said with a soft chuckle. “But we are only here for the traitor.”
“I only want Pixie!” Moo did not feel he owed the lowly thing an explanation. He did not think the weed would understand that he could only be so evil at any one time. Moo had felt the limits before. It been in the past after butchering the village the man he was one with had originated from. He had been anxious to move on, to continue the slaughter at the next town, to increase his power, but he had felt himself at the edge of a madness that would get a hold of him if he went too far. That particular madness would be deleterious to his power, effectively an overdose from which recovery was impossible.
The searchers he’d deal with on another day. He knew he had the time to wait. But down below was Pixie. She would suffer now.
“Fire as I have instructed. Then give me a line.”
“Yes. At once.”
Jake had seen enough and was more than ready to run, for whatever good it would do them. But he knew running would make doing what he could do impossible. Before he began to concentrate, he turned to Pixie.
“This was what was on my mind. I slept poorly last night.”
“Huh?” Then when he had more of her attention: “Yes, I know.”
“It made me wonder again when something like this was going to happen.”
“Don’t get killed. Please.”
Then the mountain beneath the star began shooting.
As far as Jake could tell, they were lasers. They were red in color and whatever they struck was heated until grass burned, and damp earth belched steam. Then they were running. Jake could only see the Searchers ahead of him and turned to find Pixie and saw to his horror that she had held her ground.
But she looked different. Her hands were at her sides, open, and something was glowing in them. As Jake watched, she opened her wings and the glow moved over her entire body. Big Blue, who had been standing with her, took a few steps back, then retreated fully to a point halfway between his friend and the rest of the group when Pixie shot him a brief, but commanding look. The lasers were still firing, and they appeared to be drawing close. Jake forced himself to concentrate.
“Come on! We have to stick together!” he barely heard Genki say. “All for one! Mocchi, your cannon!”
Jakes concentration faltered slightly when a pale beam sliced overhead. It struck the mountain, holding for about five seconds, and then winked out. As far as Jake could tell, a small patch of rock was scarred, and that was it.
When he looked back at Pixie, he saw the glow had expanded beyond her, into a sphere, turning from amber to an electric blue. Between her hands, a smaller, brighter sphere began formed quickly. Then Jake noticed that the lasers were almost upon her, and he redoubled his efforts. He closed his eyes and made himself see Pixie, but not as she presently was. The image he had was of her weeks earlier, when she had still been afraid of Jake’s reaction to her handling of the mock.
“Deflect!” He felt the shield in place above her. It covered much more area than just Pixie and the lasers struck it immediately.
Jake felt the three impacts of the lasers that were close enough to have been a danger, and naturally they interrupted his focus causing his shield to fall. But by then Pixie was ready, having been protected from the lasers all along, unbeknownst to Jake. The miniature blue sun between her hands streaked toward the castle above and before them. Its impact was considerably more damaging than the beam Jake thought came from the little one.
It struck where the inverted mountain joined the star and exploded, and at the same time the lasers cut off. Jake later swore he saw the castle visibly shudder once as a fireball blossomed out from the impact point. And then there came the rain of rock fragments and Jake found his shield back up over Pixie, and now himself, before he even realized he was trying.
The pieces struck, some as large as a pillow, and Jake felt every one, but this time he held. Some bounced away and others slid to the side, increasing the drain on him. But then the rain ended and Jake relaxed, falling to his knees. Yet it wasn’t over. Pixie was halfway to him when the castle spoke in what had to be the voice of Moo.
“Ah, Pixie. How you troubled me when you left my family.” The grating tones of sorrow and regret that the voice was faking were lost in the obvious pretense. Jake was glad that Pixie elected not to respond. It would have been as fruitless as running.
“I of course have not forgotten your treachery.” Despite the departure of the pretense, the voice was no less vile, and no less foreboding.
“I would like nothing more than to strike you down where you so defiantly stand, ending your pointless little existence.”
At once, Jake had a shield over her again.
“Except…. There’s a mistake I made a long time ago. I intend to rectify it. You, little traitor, will survive. Yes…”
A voice in Jake’s mind was screaming at him. Two words: “Wrong one” over and over. His shield… was over the wrong one.
“But you’ll wish you hadn’t.”
Moo signaled the weed to terminate the vocal link and turned to face a display screen that gave the best angle on Pixie’s face possible. Of his four, she had been the least intelligent, or so he thought, and it showed in the lack of comprehension on her face. If only she knew what was about to happen. Moo spoke one word.
The lasers stabbed downward again, in a group, the beams focusing on a point roughly eight feet off the ground, to Jake’s left. Pixie wheeled in that direction and understood at the same time Jake did. Her scream sliced through his focus and his shield fell at once. It didn’t matter, for it had not been protecting Moo’s target, Big Blue.
The golem saw the lasers flash down to his right and ran, but they came too quickly, moving over him, taking his right arm. The golem stopped, staring almost uncomprehendingly at the empty space where his arm had been. Never again would he be able to comfort Pixie with that arm, which now lay in the flaming grass, the point where it had been severed glowing red. Big Blue looked up at his long time friend, speaking only once.
“Pixie?” And in a heartbeat the lasers came back, hitting him dead center.
“BLUUEEE!!!” Pixie screamed her friend’s name in a long drawn out shriek that tore through Jake’s heart as surely as the lasers had torn through Big Blue. The golem had begun to shrink into a lost disk even before the lasers had completely sliced through him.
Pixie was there in a near instant, collapsing against the disk, making wretched sobs Jake couldn’t bear hearing. Yet he found himself moving toward her, though he thought himself unable to move. Then he was there, over her, willing his arm to reach out to her. But his limb refused his commands. Instead his head tilted up to look at the now receding castle. He heard Moo’s laughter in his mind, though there was none in the air as the voice had been.
Pixie’s cries below him were drilling into his head, and he strained, begged, for an all-encompassing rage to come and drown out the insufferable grief for her that was thoroughly permeating his mind and body. But none came. The grief made him feel too weak, and too tired.
Then there was something new, a perfect focus that Jake felt when he tilted his head down to look at the one he loved in all her anguish. And power built.
A mile from where Jake stood the grass began to ripple as though moved by a sudden near-directionless wind. The ripple passed, speeding toward Jake, forming a circle of decreasing size. Then there was another. And another. They came closer together until they became one, each blade of grass in a circle two miles across bobbing toward where Jake stood. The Searchers felt the waves as they passed through them, but were too struck by what had happened to notice.
Inside Moo’s castle, the weed watched the displays nervously. Something was happening.
“Master Moo?” There was no response. The monster was too captivated by the sight before him on the largest display to take any notice; Pixie wailing at the base of Big Blue’s lost disk. Plus the surge of new power was nearly overwhelming, taking priority over everything except for what his eyes were showing him.
The weed turned back to his display, a more broad view of the area below the castle, and edged toward panic. Almost unconsciously he lifted one arm and signaled one of his command to start moving the castle away more quickly.
Jake felt the waves come, adding to the feeling of heaviness around him, and while he did not know what it was, he knew what to do with it.
The Searchers watched, one by one noticing the air shimmer around Jake. Then it stopped, and the grass was still.
Jake turned his attention back up towards Moo’s castle as it continued on an unhurried course away. He brought both arms up, holding them wide with his palms facing the castle. And then he let go.