The wave surged through Jake, pulling through him, nearly lifting him off the ground and pulling him forward. Had it not been a complete drain, Jake might have kept it together, cohesive, and brought down Moo’s castle. But it escaped him and dispersed even as it rocketed towards essentially the same point Pixie had attacked only minutes before.
The wave collided with Moo’s castle in two parts. Its leading edge hit, instantly destroying the lasers on the side of the inverted mountain facing Jake, and crushing or exploding every one of Moo’s iron birds in the two closest hangers, and collapsing those as well. Layers of rock, yards thick, were shattered over nearly every surface on the side of the castle facing Jake, from the lowest point to two thirds of the way to the top. It immediately fell away like discarded skin, raining down onto the prairie almost a mile from where the Searchers stood.
Then the more diffuse bulk of the wave hit, striking the castle like a bell, resonating within it in long waves, which focused terrible strains in different areas of the castle as they oscillated. Finally the strain was released at the bases of two of the points of the star, and with a colossal crack, they broke free and seemed to drift slowly to the ground. The vibrations from their impact nearly knocked Jake and the others off their feet.
The weed shrieked to the others to take cover as some… disturbance sped toward the castle, only visible as some visual distortion on his displays and as a massive blob of light on some of the more obscure instruments designed by the ancient people and only partly understood by the monsters that now operated them at Moo’s command.
The first part of the wave hit with a resounding thump that the weed felt mostly in his roots. The following vibrations, akin to a severe earthquake, subsided quickly enough. The captain rose from his cover, brushing away the fallen dust away, feeling relief prematurely. A shout from one of the others brought its attention to the screen the alarmed individual was monitoring. By then Moo was shouting something, but the weed was too entranced by what he saw. Another blob, this one not as bright, but much larger, raced toward them.
This one impacted more silently but the entire castle seemed to groan as if in pain. Then there came a low rumble that would grow louder, shaking the room violently with a sickening frequency before dying down again. Then it would come back, and again, seemingly from a different direction each time. The recurring vibration finally failed to return and there were two nearly simultaneous explosions. The weed knew in his heart that they had crashed, but then all was quiet.
Looking around it saw most of the screens had gone black, but others were still alight. He knew enough that those were related to the castle’s movement and ability to stay aloft. They had not crashed after all. The weed glanced up at his master when he spoke again, a voice strained with rage that wanted to lash out, but needed control for the time being.
“Get us away from here. Now. I have what I came for.”
The Searchers watched, still in awe as the battered castle picked up speed and limped away horizontally for a distance before rising back into the clouds. A mile in front of them laid two gigantic spikes in the shallow depressions they had pounded into the prairie when they had landed. All around them, under the settling dust, were thousands of pieces of black rock. Golem spoke first.
“Jake… has fallen.”
Jake slowly rose from the darkness thinking that he would not feel any weaker even if he were dead. But he knew he wasn’t, for when he opened his eyes he saw the others looking down at him. No afterlife he had ever heard of contained such an odd assortment of beings.
“Jake, are you all right?” That was Holly, her voice colored with concern. Jake did not answer. Another thought came into his mind, with all the subtlety and grace of an avalanche.
“Pixie?” Jake could barely recognize his own voice. The weakness made even speaking at a normal volume difficult. The others moved a bit to make an opening on his right, and Jake was able to let his head loll to the side.
Pixie was where he had remembered her, huddled at the base of Big Blue’s lost disk, clinging to it. She was silent, and the part of her face Jake could see from his angle made him shiver inside. The redness and wetness from tears were the only indication that she’d been crying. The rest was a blank, as though there was no longer a thinking person behind her eyes.
Jake tried to sit up and stand, but he could only gather the strength to move one body part at a time, and that was not enough. Holly placed a hand on his chest as though it was necessary to keep him from moving away.
“You need to rest.”
“No!” He whispered loudly. “I need… to be… with *her*.” He then closed his eyes, summoning his strength to fill his chest with as much air as possible, and called out her name. It came in a hoarse, but otherwise normal sounding, rush. He opened his eyes and saw that Pixie was still lost.
“Take me… over there. Now… Please!”
It was Golem who helped after a slow nod. He gently scooped Jake up and carried him a few steps over to the disk and Pixie. Golem laid him down with his head by Pixie’s feet where he was able to look up at her and better see her face. It was empty, gone as though escaping from grief and anguish, but Jake doubted that was the case. He had no conscious idea of what to do for her, so instead he left it to his intuition, such as it was, to act. Implementing the desires of that part of his mind was another story.
It took Jake a full minute to roll onto his left side to better face her. The next movement took much longer, and Jake had to focus as he had when he had created the wave to find the energy. It had to be there. The things he had seen upon coming to this world made it undeniable that there existed some capabilities of the mind that were beyond description, and if a single man could effectively assault an entire mountain-sized castle with the power of his mind alone, then surely he could pull himself out of the dirt to offer what comfort there could be to a loved one. Jake managed, at the same time feeling unfit to lift even a feather and as though every cubic inch of his body was made of lead. But he was there, now sitting next to Pixie, resting against her as she rested against the gnarled trunk supporting the disk. Jake himself was afraid to touch it; it seemed wrong somehow.
He forced his arms to reach out to her, and once he was able to drape them over her shoulders he let his head fall forward, resting against both his forearm and against Pixie’s head.
Even if Jake had known of what to say to Pixie, he would not have been able to. The sheer effort of sitting himself up had drained him even further, and as he rested, his consciousness began to falter. He could not fight it any more than he could speak. Later he would ponder how he’d been able to even breathe, or how his heart could still continue to pump. Darkness came in long waves and the passage of time ceased to have meaning. Once Jake actually slept, and during a brief waking spell, he opened his eyes enough to see firelight, to see that it was dark. Unwilling to find out how little his condition had improved, Jake waited for unconsciousness to return.
Pixie came around early the next day a changed person. Her torment was still there, but she had forced it back, keeping its effect on her to a minimum, afraid to suppress it completely if such was even possible. Despite the sudden and horrific incompleteness she felt, she knew she could not allow herself to feel alone. She came out of her stupor with Jake asleep against her, with blankets covering both to protect them from the cold and light drizzle. She knew at once that something had happened. Two black masses of rock lay about a mile away surrounding by a field of dispersed boulders of an identical color. She recognized them, for what they were, pieces of Moo’s castle.
Jake did not look well. She remembered him having done something after Moo had taken Blue from her, but did not know what. Whatever it had been it had nearly killed him, draining him in more ways than one. She herself had not even been half as weak after she had used up her energy in defeating a group of scaled jells in a time that now seemed to be decades in the past. Right now, the only thing that would make Jake well again was rest.
As she moved him, she resisted looking to her left where her longtime friend had last lived. She stood, laying Jake down on his side and began making a more proper bed for them, spreading out one of the blankets and quickly easing Jake onto it before the damp ground began to soak through his clothing. She covered him with another blanket, there were three in all, and slowly walked over to the others.
They had been sitting around a low fire, and while they had noticed her moving, they kept quiet. She broke the silence.
“I want to leave here as soon as possible.” Her voice was flat, devoid even of the habitual contempt that had been slow to follow her changes of attitude in respect to humans.
“Where will we go? I can’t make the magic stone work,” Holly said morosely.
“In the same way we’ve been going. We must stay with the river,” Tiger said, his head resting on his paws.
“I agree,” Hare said. The confidence in his voice had gone, and he had no better plan. There were just some situations where it didn’t matter how smart you were. Even Genki’s energy had quieted.
“Yeah. We’ve got to keep moving,” he said.
“Before the baddies come back,” Holly added.
“When do we go?” It was Suezo, his giant eye focused directly into the fire.
Pixie took a long look back at Jake before answering. “Tomorrow, I think.”
There was pain, jolting pain peaking once a second in time with his heartbeat or the booming sounds somewhere below him. Jake opened his eyes and found himself looking up at Golem’s face. He tried to move and found that he was measurably stronger, though nowhere near full health. He restricted his movements to his head, looking around. He was in a sling made from blankets, and tied around Golem’s chest with thick rope that looked the same as that which made up Pixie’s net. A moving object in the cloudy sky caught Jake’s attention. He saw that it was Pixie.
Jake weakly pounded one fist against Golem’s chest and pointed to the sky, at Pixie. The monster stopped when the he finally noticed Jake.
“Pixie.” The monster’s shout felt like a railroad spike driving into Jake’s skull, and he winced in pain. Pixie was over him a moment later, standing on Golem’s hand as he held it level with the sling. Her face was still emotionless.
“How are you?” she asked.
“Terrible,” Jake said while pointing to his head. “It hurts like hell.” His voice was markedly louder than it had been when he last used it.
“I’ll be right back,” Pixie said quietly and was gone.
A minute later Jake was on the ground, still in the sling, which was now partly wrapped around him like a sleeping bag. Pixie returned and offered him a few bitter smelling leaves.
“Eat these, they’ll ease the pain and make you sleep.”
“Great, a narcotic,” Jake said, smiling slightly. Pixie did not return the smile.
“I don’t know that word,” she said, frowning.
“I’ll tell you later.” And then: “Are you going to stay with me?”
Only then was there a flicker of expression on her face. “Of course.” It was in her voice too, but just as briefly.
Jake ate the leaves, which tasted far worse than they smelled, but he didn’t mind. They took effect within thirty minutes and as Pixie had said, made him sleep. He did not wake up until long after night had fallen.
Pixie was afraid to sleep. She had kept herself awake the night before, knowing what she would see if she dreamt. The past always came to her and she was used to it. But now there were new pains, too deep and fresh to be denied as they were when she was awake. They demanded expression, and found it in her dreams. The thin scream on her lips reached only Jake. If the others, six asleep and the one on watch, heard it, they chose not to intrude. Jake had his arms over her, speaking to her, sleep still on his voice, trying to calm her. It took five minutes before she could talk to him, but her barriers had fallen for the time being, and her words were contorted by quiet sobs.
“Talk about it,” he was saying to her.
Jake sighed. The truth was that he had no real reason. It just sounded right. Keeping things bottled up was supposed to be a bad thing. That much made sense.
“Because keeping it inside you will make it worse.” He thought she would understand that.
“I c… can’t.”
He could feel her trembling in the dark. And between shakes, her muscles tensed as she fought some terrible battle inside.
“Let’s go away from here if you don’t want the others to hear.”
“I can walk.” But Jake wasn’t sure he could. Jake wasn’t sure which surprised him more, that Pixie stood up, following his suggestion, or that he was able to stand up with her. His steps were shaky, but he was able to move.
They slowly made their way away from the group. Tiger was on watch, so there were no questions. If it had been Genki…
Pixie’s eyes were more sensitive than Jake’s, and she was able to lead him through what was near perfect darkness to a cluster of trees. There had finally been a break in the monotony of the prairie the prior afternoon; the occasional groves of trees were making a gradual fade from grassland to woodland. They had passed this particular grove and had scavenged dead wood from it. There had been some left behind which Pixie gathered into a loose pile and set it ablaze. She then joined Jake against the tree she had helped him sit against. In the firelight he saw that she had gained some control over her emotions.
“Talk to me. Please,” he said.
She responded by drawing her legs up to her chest and leaning against him. Jake placed his right arm around her and let her choose when to talk. After ten minutes she did. Jake had felt, and now heard, that she had been quietly crying during that time. The ocean of grief was still there in her mind, and the nightmare’s effects had made her powerless to keep it from splashing over her.
“I can’t open my eyes.”
“What do you mean?”
“All those bad dreams where… Before Moo… my owner is hurting me…” As she spoke she moved herself closer and Jake slid his left arm around the small of her back to pull her more against him. “After a while, they stopped scaring me because I knew…” Her voice wavered further. “… that B…blue would be there if I just opened my eyes.”
Jake squeezed his eyes shut for a long moment and fought off his own tears. He now knew what she had meant when she said she couldn’t open her eyes.
“But this isn’t a bad dream,” he whispered. He could no longer trust his voice.
Pixie went on as though he had said nothing. “If I opened them now, he’ll be there… has to be.”
Jakes tears flowed anyway, and he had to sniffle. His voice was still however.
“Yes, he would.”
“But y…you wouldn’t be.”
“Better that I be gone than him,” Jake said, immediately regretting it. It was a very bad time to risk underestimating her feelings for him.
“D… don’t say that. I…” Her arms had moved around Jake as well, and she now squeezed him tighter as if to keep him from moving away and vanishing.
“It’s not a dream.” It was all Jake could say.
After a long moment Pixie said: “I know”.
Jake tilted his head down and kissed the top of her head.
“What do I do now that’s he gone?”
“I don’t know, Pixie.”
“He left…” Her voice was losing ground again to sobs. “M…Moo will take you too.” To her, then, nothing was more certain.
“No he won’t.” Jake could only wish he felt as certain as he had tried to sound. But there was a small measure of confidence in knowing that Moo had no idea what he meant to Pixie.
“He… he’ll try.”
“Then I’ll kill him.” There was certainty then though Jake could not imagine why. -Perhaps-, he thought, -I can do that thing again without killing myself.-
Pixie did not argue. “Don’t leave me.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
She brought her head up to look at him, and saw in his eyes, as he she had heard in his voice, that he meant it. But she knew from those eyes that he’d die while trying to keep that promise, effectively breaking it. The same thought went through Jake’s head as well. He leaned in close and kissed her gently and he felt tension drain from her. He held her as she cried again and as she slept, slipping in and out of sleep as well, throughout the night until it came for him for good several hours after midnight. They stayed there until morning.
There was an attack the next day, and despite Jake’s gloomy expectations, Pixie fought as well as ever. However she was outwardly vicious, sparing none of the attackers, striking repeatedly before each could recover from a hit. Only the ones that fled did she spare. As violent as she was, the look on her face spoke of impartiality. She was machine-like in her methods, seemingly impassive while she dealt blow after blow. Afterward, she made no apology to Jake, who had once again been sheltered the whole time by Golem. They both knew her heart was with grief, not revenge. Pixie would not let Moo warp her again.
Jake slept deeply each night as though his mind knew that nightmares would be too detrimental to his recovery to bring him nearly screaming out of sleep every night. And he got better. After a week he was able to walk almost an entire day’s travel without riding in the sling. He had opted not to sit on Golem’s shoulder for he felt it was too reminiscent of how Pixie had been with Big Blue. During the second week after Moo’s attack, Jake finally went through a day without feeling unusually tired. After that he began to practice again.
Not once did he try anything as grand as he had when he nearly knocked Moo’s castle out of the sky. Nevertheless there had been a very noticeable increase in what he was able to do, as though there had still been some limiting barriers of doubt standing in his mind that only let a small trickle of capability through. Since the wave, these barriers had been pulverized.
The increase in ability did nothing for Jake’s mood. Pixie regarded his power with the usual neutral expression she had been carrying lately, though Jake knew some part of her was impressed. She even helped him practice.
“Lightning.” The two bolts, brighter and more powerful than those she wielded in battles raced toward Jake and smashed harmlessly on his shield. At the same time, a tightly compacted ball of dirt came in from his right, thrown by Golem. But this one he did not deflect as he had Pixie’s lightning. He struck it as he had unconsciously done in a diffused way back in the clearing when the black dinosaur-like monster had been too close for Pixie to defend herself. The intention made the difference, and the energy he used had a faint glow as it impacted the oversized clod and tore it apart. On cue, Tiger fired a blizzard at him from the left and it flowed over a large space around Jake, over a bubble that was large enough for their entire party.
It was an exercise for Pixie as well. As Tiger’s blizzard subsided, she marched forward, both hands raised toward Jake, doing what Jake referred to as her “flamethrower hands”. She was more powerful too, Jake thought, when compared to how he had first seen her. The fire at its point of origin was a pale blue, only developing a more familiar orange color as it fanned out and cooled. She came within a few feet of Jake’s shield and held the flame on it until the air around her either got too hot, or Jake began to feel the drain.
“Ok, that’s enough,” Jake said. At once the fire cut off.
“Wow! That was awesome!” Genki shouted as he bounded up at Jake. “Baddies, watch out!”
“Baddies. Why baddies?” Jake had heard the term too many times, and he was tired of it. Genki had no answer.
“It sounds ridiculous. Do you call monsters not under Moo’s control goodies?”
Genki laughed a little then said “Uh… well…”
Jake rolled his eyes. Surely something like Moo would have come up with a better name for his army of corrupted monsters, and would have seen to it that the world knew that name. Genki bounded off toward Hare, excitedly babbling. “Hey Hare! We need a new name for…” But Jake tuned him out. He liked to look upon that ability as just another thing to learn and master like his other powers.
“You’re better,” Pixie said from beside him. She had been gradually returning to who she had been just before losing Big Blue, but Jake could still sense the hole. Yet there was no one difference that he could specifically identify. It was through his interaction with her, talking to her, eating with her, and exercising with her that he was able to see the difference in her. It was most noticeable at night before bed, at the time when Big Blue would have been the one Pixie fell asleep against by the fire, and not Jake. That was an hour that came every day that left Jake feeling like crying. It wasn’t right; he didn’t fit the empty space now within her. He had no place even trying.
“Yes, I know.” He said absently. He was still lost in thought.
“No. I mean you’re better than you were two days ago.”
That had been the last time Jake practiced. Pixie had seen the improvement as clear as day. Jake finally cleared his head and looked at her.
“You think so?”
“Yes. If this continues…”
“I’ll be able to kill Moo,” Jake finished.
“Probably. But he’ll be stronger when he is united with his ancient body.”
Jake was certainly not as confident in bringing down Moo, despite his form, as was Genki. “Then,” he said while fully turning toward her and taking her in a loose embrace. “I’ll hide.”
Pixie leaned close and kissed him. The feel of her lips never failed to make his stomach flutter, and that was interesting considering Pixie had never kissed *anything* before Jake came into her life. It was also the first time she had done so since losing Big Blue. Before Jake knew what he was saying, his mouth moved.
“I love you.”
She small smile formed on her lips but it did not reach her eyes.
“I know that means something wonderful… but I am not sure what.”
Jake laughed softly. “It’s like those numbers I told you about. A person spends his or her life hearing about love and getting a feeling about what it is, but it can’t really be explained.”
Pixie nodded. Jake went on, carefully.
“You loved Big Blue.”
Her face slipped noticeably and she said, “My feelings for you are different.”
Instead of asking how, for Jake knew she’d not be able to answer any more than he would have, he said: “There is more than one kind of love.”
Pixie seemed satisfied with that. She stepped away from him a few moments later. There was still walking to be done before it was time to stop. And now that Holly was able to make her stone work again, they had a direction. It was still with the river.
The salamanders attacked the next day, flying lower, seemingly prepared to make a more direct assault. Pixie had come down to the ground as soon as she had seen them approaching in the distance and stood by Jake watching the enemy’s forms draw nearer in the sky.
“What are you going to do?” she asked him. Up until now, Jake had taken shelter with Holly by Golem. Now he could fight, and Pixie was giving him a choice. He was done cowering while she fought.
“I’m going to take them out of our sky,” he replied. Though his voice was confident, Pixie did not like the grim look on his face. There was weariness in it. She knew he had been away from his world for too long. He was much older than Genki was, and less adaptable to new, and obviously more difficult circumstances. She had seen it before, in the slaves under her command; the children nearly always fared better mentally than adults. And she saw something vengeful behind his eyes as well, which was equally dismaying. That was not the kind of person Jake was.
“Please be careful.”
“I will.” He was still looking at the approaching monsters. She knew he was already focusing, and it relieved her somewhat.
“This is not like practice.”
“They,” she said, pointing at the salamanders, “will be unpredictable. They won’t give you the time you have when we practice.”
Jake glanced at her and smiled. The look that had disturbed her was now gone from his face. “It’s ok Pixie.”
Pixie returned his smile, though with less confidence than Jake, and returned her attention to the sky. The monsters were still to far to strike out at… at least for her. As she watched them draw nearer, one increased its pace, and swooped low, coming in too low to attack without injuring itself. She saw at once that it wasn’t their captain.
It came in low, in a course that would not bring it directly over the Searchers. When it was close enough, it bellowed down at them.
“Master Naga sends his regards.”
-That’s a salamander-, thought Pixie; -Naga does not like his warriors to talk-. Only kill. It was moving too fast to strike at and Pixie didn’t try. Tiger too, held back.
“Incoming!” Suezo screamed and Pixie jerked her head back to see the other salamanders had used the distraction of the first to close the gap and fire. Pixie chided herself and charged.
Jake never turned his head to watch, and better listen to, the monster carrying the message, yet he heard every word. He was waiting for the others to make their move. For as long as possible he wanted to hold up some ideal, exhibit some sort of ethics in battle which those under, and including, Moo obviously disregarded. As soon as the attackers began spitting their fireballs in a tight volley, meant to scatter their target, he put up his shield. He had grown quite proficient with the defensive technique and no longer wasted his breath on the word “deflect” unless there was much less time to prepare.
The fireballs exploded against the invisible barrier a safe distance away and above their intended target. Jake then turned and scanned the sky for the messenger, keeping the shield up as he did. With luck the monsters would thoughtlessly collide with it at full speed, thereby ending the battle.
He saw the messenger swinging far to the right, rejoining its pack, and Jake focused on it. He held up his hand, not wasting any time with what seemed like an accurate aim. The pale bolt of energy leapt away and streaked toward the salamander. The monster must have seen it coming at the last minute for it jerked to the side. But it was not enough. The bolt hit it in the side, spinning it in midair, and damaging its wing. It plummeted to the ground, but Jake didn’t take the time to follow what happened to it after. It didn’t have a chance. The others were closer and Jake reached into himself and pulled out just enough energy. He released it a small wave, letting it disperse a bit so that all the salamanders were in its wake. A few unleashed additional fireballs, which exploded in the air halfway between them and the intended target. This was the only indication for any of them that something was wrong, and right in their path. Two veered, one right into a salamander immediately to its left. Both fell a short distance in time to watch as their comrades were caught in the wave.
Had Jake wished, all of the monsters would be lost disks. Three had escaped the wave and the rest had recovered and scattered. The entire group, minus their extinguished messenger, regrouped a half-mile away and landed. Jake looked closely and concluded that they were discussing their next move. He sent another wave with more energy, but more spread. Only one salamander happened to notice its approach in the grass, but his cry of warning did not come in time. Two survived.
“That was intense!” Genki excitedly said in a volume halfway between a yell and casual remark. “You showed those baddies whose boss!”
“None of us even had to lift a finger,” Pixie said from beside him. She had not moved the entire time, instead keeping her eyes on Jake. To Jake, she sounded both admiring and disappointed.
“You let them get away.” Suezo half-whined. “Now Moo will know about you.”
Hare’s ears perked up. “Of course. Maybe now the baddies will stop bothering us.”
“Then he’ll just send something worse, Hare.” It was Tiger. Jake was grateful that at least one monster did not have an adulatory tone in his voice. Jake maybe wanted an observant “Good job.” and a pat on the back. Not worship from a ten-year old boy and his pet marshmallow. Only Pixie and Tiger would stay at that level. Golem and Holly remained unreadable.
“Moo probably already knows about Jake,” Pixie said.
“How? This is the first time the baddies have seen his attacks,” Genki said. It appeared that this was not one of those days when Genki’s energy lent a hand to his mental processes. Jake already knew what she meant.
“Remember the mock in the forest?” Jake asked the boy.
“What makes you think there haven’t been any of them following us this whole time? Or maybe some other monster that can blend in.”
“Well when you put it *that* way…”
“Moo’s just toying with us, Genki. I think he knows we can stop any ordinary monster that he sends after us,” Pixie told him gently. Then Hare spoke. Jake wished he hadn’t.
“I see. So if he wanted to, he could hurt us again like when…”
“Hare!” Tiger yelled.
Hare stopped, realizing his mistake in almost mentioning Big Blue’s demise, but the damage was done. Pixie did her best not to show it, but Jake saw it. He knew her; she was very adept out being outwardly stoical. Inside he knew that she was hurting anew. Jake was aware that he had been fooling himself if he thought her wounds healed, but had admittedly taken comfort in the apparent improvement. Jake leapt in to terminate the conversation.
“Look, I’d love to stand here and chat about Moo, but I’m a little tired from that… show. I’d like to stop here for the day.”
There were a few unconscious glances toward Genki. He may have been a boy, but he was still very much their leader. Jake still could not fathom why. When the boy showed agreement, Jake wandered away from the group.
Pixie knew what Jake had done for her and knelt next to him where he lay on the gentle slope of a short hill. “Thank you,” she said.
That night Pixie lay awake crying. Jake feigned sleep. He knew from the way she quietly cried that she did not want him to know. He only needed to open his eyes to a slit, notice the occasional shiver, and the tear-tracks, which would not ordinarily visible if not for the moonlight reflecting off of them. Then he would close his eyes again and wish for sleep. It was a struggle not to “awaken” and take her in his arms. He had to let her have her privacy.
-This will not do-, he thought.
Pixie stared at the piece of wood with a note carved in it wishing her human owners had never found it useful to teach her how to read. But then, she thought, Genki or one of the others would have given her the bad news. The note was from Jake.
“Pixie, I have to break my promise to you. I cannot tell you where I am going, or how long I will be gone. But I swear that I will return to you as soon as I can. Please, do not try to find me. I love you.”
She had read the note and whispered, “And I love you.”
The first few nights away, Jake was strongly reminded of the first night he had spent in this world. He was lonely, and his surroundings quite dangerous, but this time he was not helpless. Jake would have given anything to have brought Pixie along with him, and he had almost lost the inner battle with himself and asked her to come. His reasons, though, had been good, even if their results were not. There was not an hour that passed when his promise her did not haunt him. She had asked him not to leave her, and he had said, “I won’t. I promise.”
“We have to stick together, Pixie, and that includes Jake!” Genki said. For now, his cheerful exuberance had been replaced by an adult-like seriousness.
“He’s right. If Moo comes back for us expecting him to be here…” Hare seemed more nervous about his own safety than Jake’s. But, thought Tiger, at least he’s been concerned about the group instead of just himself.
“I told you, he does not want us going after him.”
“But why?” Genki asked. Pixie had already shown them the note. Yet they still asked their stupid questions. Her patience was wearing thin.
“Dammit, you know as much as I do!” She said forcefully. “The discussion is over.”
“What do we do now?” Mocchi whined.
“We wait for him to come back.” Pixie knew that, for her, there was no other alternative. What the others did was much less a concern than when Jake was coming back, if he came back.
Hare sometimes forgot matters of heart and soul, and was beginning to protest when Tiger cut him off; “I’m with Pixie. The rest of you can go on ahead if you want. I’m staying,” he said.
In the end, they all stayed.
Jake made better use of his time on foot than the others did. He traveled mostly at night, when it was much less likely for him to run into any of Moo’s monsters. Sleep was not easy in the heat of the day, but the rickety structure he had used to air his clothing on served as an adequate shade when he spread out the blanket he had brought with him on it. On the fifth day, he was finally able to see evidence of his destination on the horizon, two dark lumps.
Night was a difficult time for the Searchers. Those on watch stayed near Pixie, but the individual was not always able to stop Pixie’s nightmares before she woke screaming. Tiger and Hare began to fight much more than usual, and Mocchi seemed to complain non-stop about everything. Even Genki grew tired of his monster’s whining.
Fortunately there came some relief. A human caravan traveling between towns stopped and was able to part with some of their cargo, namely dried fruits and vegetables, for a slightly greater price than would have been found in a town. They were wary when they saw Pixie, but kind enough to point the way to their town of origin which was a mere half-day’s walk to the north. Holly, Golem, and Suezo made the trip to better replenish their supplies. The rest waited. Pixie began to lose hope.
On the seventh day after leaving the Searchers, Jake reached his destination, exhausted. He had taken to running through as much of the night as possible, fearing that it would take longer than anticipated to get where he was going. But he had made it, and sleep took him away the moment he laid himself near the base of Big Blue’s lost disk.
Hours before dawn he was awake again and sore, and nearly completely out of physical energy. This did not bother him much because what he was going to try did not require that kind of energy.
He sat before the disk and focused, taking his time, searching through his mind for the strongest images of Pixie, for the most vivid memories with her to get himself started. He had given the process a great deal of thought over the past week, and had come to the conclusion that the best way was find the most memorable part of what he had seen of Big Blue and Pixie’s relationship. As he gathered his energy, he focused hard on the image of the two by the campfire at night, on the look each had on their face. He felt something click into place when he looked harder at not the empty spaces each could not fill in each other, but at the part of their expressions that revealed what *had* been filled. First Jake began to glow softly in the predawn night, then the disk.
It was not like it had been when Jake had blasted Moo’s castle. That had been mostly an unconscious effort and had occurred quickly. Although Jake was powerful, there were things that would always be difficult for him, especially when tried for the first time. An hour into his attempt at the resurrection, the disk had a bright glow, almost as bright as Big Blue had been before he changed. But Jake was losing the fight to hold onto what he had. The image was still there, in such vividness that Jake occasionally found himself believing he had transported himself back in time, but the energy he was drawing on seemed to be going dry. Jake would have been reminded of trying to squeeze those last few minutes of normal sound from a portable cd player whose batteries were dying had he not been so intent on Pixie and Big Blue sitting with each other by a fire.
-Try harder!- Jake mentally ordered himself, -Even if it kills you.-
Jake reached deeply into himself for more, and found nothing else there. He had tried his best.
Holly sat next to Pixie as night was falling and spoke as gently as she could. “I don’t think he’s coming back.”
Pixie was not looking well. She had begun eating less and less with each meal, and had ceased to exercise her powers. No one believed that she had been getting any kind of useful sleep for the nightly screaming had ceased. Pixie had somehow learned to force herself to wake up before the dreams came, and each monster, or human, on watch always saw her get up at least once each shift. They had all come together, except for Pixie, and compared notes, trying their hardest to find a way to help her. None had come up with any better idea than to try to get her to accept what they now thought was fact. She surprised Holly when she responded.
“I think… you’re right.”
Bright light was everywhere. Jake knew he had gone and killed himself, and for what? Before he passed out, the disk was glowing, but it was still a disk. Now he was in the afterlife, exactly how some people who had near-death experiences claimed it to be. Except, there had been no tunnel. Presently an angel came to Jake, strangely blocking out the light. Then he realized the pain he was feeling, and suddenly it occurred to him that he was in hell. The angel, the demon, leaned closer. It was big. And it was blue. It was asking him about Pixie.
Jake came out of the strange dream angry enough to scream. The past three weeks since Moo’s attack had been nothing but the fevered fantasy of his drained mind. There were the familiar footsteps that were in time with the bolts of pain in his head. Jake opened his eyes to Golem’s face and beyond that, Pixie in the sky. But things were wrong.
There was another strange dream. Salamanders were on the ground, but they weren’t attacking. From what Jake could see and hear, they seemed different. Golem was telling them something about Pixie. It was all about Pixie, wasn’t it? He had failed her, and now…
How had he failed her? That’s right. I didn’t protect Big Blue when Moo came, Jake thought.
Jake was drowning. Then he realized it was the water being dribbled onto his parched lips. Then someone was talking about him, it appeared to be one of the salamander-like things.
Jake was falling. Then he realized it was just the wind. But why were two salamanders hovering in the air, wings spread, above him, and Big Blue? The question on Jake’s mind as he lapsed back into unconsciousness was: Big Blue?
Jake was more lucid the next time he came to, when someone was dripping some tart liquid into his mouth. He tried to ask questions but his voice would not even come in an intelligible whisper. But he had an idea of what had happened. He had been successful after all. He had brought Big Blue back.
“What is… this stuff?” It had been the first thing he had said to anyone in a long time, or so his throat told him. Jake had the headache still, and he still felt as capable as a corpse, but at least the feeling that everything was a hallucination was gone.
“It will keep you alive, and help you get well,” Big Blue said. He was gently squeezing a bag between his massive thumb and forefinger, and the liquid dripped from a spot at its bottom.
“It tastes terrible.” It was like the orange juice that Jake had once tasted after it had been left, unknown to him, in a hot car all day, only if it had been lemon juice. Big Blue did not respond.
“How… close are we?”
“We should be with Master Pixie by tomorrow.”
Jake thought he saw something in Big Blue’s ordinarily impassive face. Anticipation perhaps.
“Make sure I’m… awake. I want to see the look on her face.”
Big Blue nodded once and Jake was back in the blackness. This time it was ordinary sleep, punctuated by the occasional bizarre dream. Jake was getting better.
More wind. Jake was clearheaded enough to get a better look at his surroundings. Big Blue had him cupped in one of his hands, held against the chest. The golem himself appeared to be sitting on a giant sling suspended by two of the creatures Jake had first thought were salamanders. From the light of the sky it was either dawn or dusk. Jake could not discern which. Big Blue noticed that Jake was awake. “Almost there,” he said.
“Pixie?” Her name came to her out of a sickly sleep. She had been fighting against having the terrible dreams for the two weeks since Jake left, but was losing. She wasn’t yet close to being as weak as Jake had made himself, and she still had enough energy to fight if needed, but the others feared the worst. She had been shown in a handful of water Golem had held for her at the river. She had been eating just enough to keep from shedding healthy weight, but something vital and important was gone from her expression. It was look that would have chilled Jake to the marrow had he seen it for any longer than he did. Pixie had not really known how bad things had become. She was far more concerned with finding the right balance between keeping her eyes closed, and keeping them open.
“Pixie, wake up.” The voice said again. There was commotion around her, but that didn’t matter. It vaguely sounded like Genki venting some of his energy. She thought that the voice reaching her sounded like Jake’s and was part of the dream where he was there telling her that things were going to be all right. That dream was more of a nightmare than the nightly horrors she had been experiencing, for at least from them she could awaken to something less terrible and painful. But this… There would be no Jake when she opened her eyes.
“Pixie, you can open your eyes now.”
When she did, or thought she did, what she saw made her think she was still dreaming. She shut her eyes tightly for a few seconds, but he was still there when she looked again. It was Jake.
Pixie slowly got to her feet from where she had been sitting and napping against a tree, her muscles pained her but she ignored them as she stumbled forward into Jake’s arms. He looked as terrible as she felt inside, but she would get to that later. Right now she had to touch him, kiss him, hold him; assuring and reassuring herself that he was really there. She had been in the process of giving up entirely, resigning to having lost the two that she loved. She was almost whole again.
“Where did you go?” Her voice was soft, nearly lost against his shoulder, and already quavering with tears, her whole body trembling. Jake didn’t answer, but instead moved her to her right a step and turned with her, as though doing a dance she had seen humans do a long time ago.
“You can open your eyes again,” he said. His voice, hoarse to begin with, was now as unsteady as hers. Pixie lifted her head to look at him, then immediately beyond him, and at once her question was answered. She would have left Jake right then and gone to her old friend had her legs been working.
“Blue!” she sobbed once. Jake helped her over to Big Blue, and into the giant’s waiting hand and his own tears spilled as the two reunited. He watched as Big Blue held Pixie up to where she could wrap her arms around his head, the only part of him she could hug. Neither spoke, and Jake knew he was watching the two as they had always been when at their closest. No words needed to pass between them to communicate what each meant and felt. They just knew. Jake later swore that there was a tear in Big Blue’s eye, but at the time, nothing such as that had seemed extraordinary enough to notice.
Jake was resting against the same tree Pixie had been asleep against when he had returned. He had been barely capable of standing when he came back to Pixie, but doing so for only five minutes had worn him out. It seemed that it would take longer to recover this time. As he had expected, Genki came racing up to him, presumably with yet more praise and admiration for Jake’s actions. But Jake was not disappointed when none came.
“Are you the Phoenix?” the boy asked. His expression was that of wonder as though Jake had already said and shown that the answer was yes.
“No, Genki. I’m not this Phoenix.”
“Genki, leave him alone. He needs to rest,” Holly said, coming up behind the boy and placing a hand on his shoulder.
Genki ignored her. “But you have to be! You’re strong enough to defeat Moo, and Falcon says he saw you revive Big Blue.”
Jake was tired of the subject already. Simple respect would have been acceptable from the boy, but as it was, Genki seemed to treat him as though he were a superhero. That was more than enough to deal with without also being this famed Phoenix, which Jake was certain he was not. Fortunately Genki had given him a way to change the subject.
“Falcon? Who is that?” But Jake thought that it was the name of one of the dragon-like creatures that had brought Big Blue and himself back.
“He’s the leader of the pirate dragons!” Genki said, pointing over to one some distance away that seemed to be conversing with Tiger.
“A friend of yours?”
“He helped us the last time we were up against Moo, in his castle!” Genki said as though the favor made him lifelong friends with the dragon.
It was getting even better for Jake. Now the kid had given him two openings to escape from the phoenix question. If the trend continued, he’d probably not have to deal with it again for weeks.
“You were actually *in* his castle?”
“Yeah, but he didn’t know who he was dealing with!”
“That’s a story someone’s going to have to fill me in on some time.”
“That’s when Pixie first saved us!”
Although Jake’s curiosity had been further piqued, he was too tired to go on talking. Holly must have seen it in his eyes because she began pulling Genki away.
“Come on, Genki, we have to let him rest.” Jake had seen something unhappy in her face at the mention of the story of their trip into castle. He had a feeling it had something to do with her.
Genki pulled free from Holly’s grip and bounded off to the rest of the group that were still standing around Falcon. Holly was going at a more leisurely pace, and Jake called out to her the best he could.
She turned and winked before going on.
Pixie joined Jake some time later. Jake had been in and out of deep sleep since his brief conversation with Holly and Genki and had no idea about how much time had passed save for the change in the angle of the sun. He guessed that it had been two or three hours.
Pixie came over and sat with her body right next to him. He felt that there would be no words between them either for the time being. It was wonderful to be with her again but he felt the guilt from having broken his promise, and before long Pixie would know about it.
Both slept through the next two days, only waking when Pixie’s fully restored appetite dragged her from much needed sleep. She would awaken Jake and keep him up long enough for him to get something in his stomach. Big Blue stayed with them the entire time, offering much needed shade as they slept through the day.
Jake was the first to wake up for any length of time, feeling well enough to stand and walk around. Big Blue was there, ever watchful and nodded at Jake. Then as if sensing it wasn’t enough, spoke.
“Thank you. Master Pixie was very pleased.” Jake knew that saying that much had been hard, and it increased his appreciation of the acknowledgment.
“You’re welcome, Blue.”
Jake turned toward the river intent on a bath but stopped. The last time he had left Pixie while she slept, he had hurt her, left her more alone than he could have imagined. In hindsight he regretted having not taken her with him, but there had been no way of knowing that his attempts to revive Big Blue would be successful. He had lain awake the night he left her wrestling with the decision, trying to convince himself that it was best to leave her behind. He never did succeed at that. Instead of walking away, Jake returned and sat down next to her. He looked down at her and saw peace on her face. This time he *would* be there when she awoke.
“Master Moo, there is a problem.” The weed cowered. He wasn’t the first to serve in his position. In fact, he was quite new to his role. His predecessor had not returned from the excursion to deal with the traitor. The weed quivered, fearing an instant wrath.
“Yes. There is always a problem, isn’t there?” Moo said. His tone seemed jovial enough, but the weed had heard enough whispered rumors to know that violence could easily be lurking beneath the insincere tone. “Tell me.”
“The Searchers… We believe they’ve unlocked the… Phoenix.”
Moo turned and the weed flinched. But the expected rage did not come.
“Have they?” Moo did not sound convinced.
“Y… yes. The party sent to recover the traitor’s servant’s disk did not find it.”
“Are you sure they did not take it with them?” There was irritation in Moo’s voice then, but there was still calm. The weed swallowed and continued.
“There is nothing there, but fresh footprints. Also… Master Naga’s forces bring reports of someone much more powerful than Pix… the traitor herself.”
A low growl issued from Moo’s throat. After the strange wave that had damaged his castle, he decided that he was not through with making the traitor suffer. He had planned to revive the disk himself and corrupt the resurrected monster almost to the edge of sanity. Moo would then install the warped golem into his former master’s position, and educate him. Moo had laughed for hours when the thought came to him to educate this new version of Big Blue, plant seeds of hatred in his mind, hatred for his master who had failed to save him, and then left him behind to fall into the hands of Moo. But now…
“Get out. I must reflect on this development.” The evidence at hand did not fool Moo; the Phoenix had not been revived. He could feel it as he could feel his ancient body awaiting him. As for the failures of Naga’s troops, that was expected. Better warriors they were than those of any of the other four had been, yet they were still prone to exaggeration. They had likely faced the traitor’s wrath. He had seen the effect of a vengeful attitude in her before.
The weed, however, was not through with the report he feared was his last.
“There is something else, Master…”
“Pray you make it quick!” Moo was almost shouting. At any moment the flash of light would come…
“There are… disturbances… at the edge of Master Naga’s territory. Some of his forces were sent to investigate. Those that returned told stories…”
“Enough! I will speak to Naga himself about this. Leave.”
And the weed did, happy to be alive for another day.
Moo turned back to the observation window and thought. Of all the recent developments, none had been promising. The mysterious attack that had nearly crippled his castle was only part of the problem. That the traitor had been responsible for that was a lie. He didn’t need those under him panicking over rumors of a some new monster until it was known just what it was. Another, more vexing, problem had been the gross underestimate of the setback of the excavation. Those responsible for that cowardly lie had managed to escape while he had been gone to deal with the traitor. They would be found, eventually.
The dreams seemed fleeting, racing away from her memory’s grasp before an imprint could be made for her waking mind to see, so her sleep was unbroken. The first thing she saw when she opened her eyes was Jake. He was presently looking off somewhere, at some far away place.
He looked down at her and smiled. “Good morning.”
Pixie didn’t get the joke, nor did he expect her to. She gave him an odd look and sat up. “It’s not morning.” It was late afternoon.
“I know. That’s something we humans sometimes say to those waking up from a long sleep.” He paused, still looking at her. “How do you feel?”
“Weak. But in here,” she said, pointing at her heart, “I feel wonderful.” She reached toward him, embracing him.
“I had hoped you would.” His voice was soft and she thought she detected a slight wavering in it. He let her hug him for a moment and then gently pushed her back.
“I must stink. It’s been two weeks since I had a bath.”
Pixie smiled, seemingly humoring him. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“Hey, you’re not so pristine yourself,” Jake said lightly as he gently touched a smudge on her cheek where tears had partially washed away a layer of dirt.
Pixie smiled at him and took his hand in hers. “Then we should bathe before we can’t stand being near each other.”
“And I ought to wash my clothes,” Jake said, looking down at himself. They were stiff from more than two weeks of dirt, and were uncomfortable enough without thinking about the filth they carried. They were also torn in several places.
“There’s a town nearby. Some of the others went there while you were gone. You can buy more clothing there.”
“I would, but I’m kind of short on cash.”
Pixie cocked her head slightly at what Jake guessed was another unfamiliar word.
“Genki and the others will give you the… cash.”
Jake thought of the growing near hero worship coming from the boy and agreed.
“Until then…” Jake paused, noting the warm breeze. “I’d rather run around naked than wear these things any longer.”
Pixie took a moment to think. “We can dry them by a fire. Do you still have that thing you…?” She was referring to the frame he had used to air out his clothing every night.
“No, I left it behind. Rather, Big Blue did. I was nothing more than dead weight at the time.”
She smiled gently and touched his cheek. “Then we’ll build another.”
Jake briefly looked around. There were more clusters of trees around, taking up about ten percent of the open space. Jake thought that with a few more days of travel, there would be no more grassland. That would make it harder to see attacks coming.
Jake washed his clothes first, saving his shorts for last. He handed them to Pixie as she stood on the riverbank and she in turn draped them over the frame they had hastily assembled. The fire was already blazing in a shallow pit Big Blue had dug into the ground; the grass hadn’t been green for months in the part of the land they were in and Jake didn’t fancy starting a prairie fire. Pixie had watched her friend dig the pit without even being asked to and she felt a twinge of guilt. Now that he’d been essentially dead, it seemed even less right that he should so willingly do things for her as though she was still his master, and not a close friend. Jake had sensed her feelings and asked her about it while she sat near, watching the fire.
“I’ve tried so many times to tell him that he didn’t have to work for me. He’ll always serve me,” she answered with a touch of sadness. Then she turned to face Jake. He was sitting on a submerged rock, with water up to his shoulders. The water was clear in this part of the river but was dark enough so that Jake made no movement to cover himself.
“Some time ago I helped Genki and his friends escape from Moo’s castle. There was no way to take Big Blue with me, so I left him standing on a hill for several hours. I was injured and unconscious when Genki and those dragons found Big Blue and gave me to him.” Pixie stopped, trying to find the best way to say what she wanted to say. The words were simple, and had it been anyone other than Jake, they might have not understood their depth.
“I didn’t find out until later, from Genki, that Big Blue was where I left him.”
Jake nodded. It sounded like Big Blue. But then his intuition spoke up and he shivered.
“He was standing in the very same spot, wasn’t he?”
Pixie just nodded, once.
“Wow.” Jake whispered. He knew that any average friend would have waited, yes, but would have maybe taken a walk, or a nap. But Big Blue had stayed put. The image was chillingly clear in his head, the golem standing there, facing the direction his friend had gone in, the same lonesome expression frozen on his face.
“He would have waited there for much longer than that,” Jake said softly.
“Yes. Now do you see why I can’t convince him? Do you remember what you said back in my tree when you first asked about him?”
Jake remembered at once. “You’re his purpose.”
Pixie said nothing else. Nothing more was needed. There was no sacrifice Big Blue wouldn’t make for her. Jake wondered what it was exactly that Big Blue had thanked him for. Had it been for bringing him back to Pixie, or effectively bringing Pixie back to him? It gnawed at the edges of Jake’s mind, something even his intuition couldn’t grasp at. Jake pushed it aside; for some reason it was making him uncomfortable to think about it. He was done scrubbing anyway, and now it was Pixie’s turn.
“You’re turn,” Jake said, still slightly distracted by his receding thoughts. He had not been paying attention to her but then he did look at her. He had expected she’d want him to notice her so she could make sure he’d turn around and give her privacy and later he realized that was only what *he* would do. He had assumed she had the same level of modesty as he had. Fortunately it was not an assumption he would have to suffer for.
Jake caught a very brief glimpse of her as she stepped into the water, naked, and he whirled around away from her, his body in motion before his eyes had told him much of anything. He even shut them for good measure.
“May I have the soap?” she asked from behind him, her tone almost sounding as though she had not noticed him acting like an embarrassed boy. A little amusement had seeped through and Jake was glad she couldn’t see him blush.
“I uh… dropped it.” Fortunately the current was not strong. Jake could feel the sponge, as he called it, next to his foot. He reached down and picked it up and held it behind him, eyes still closed. Pixie did not take it from him.
“I’m over here,” she said. Her voice seemed a little farther away than it had.
Jake turned and moved in that direction a little bit, his eyes still closed, the sponge held out in front of him.
“No. Over here.” Her voice was now coming from his right. And when Jake changed direction: “You have a poor sense of direction.” Her voice was teasing, and now behind him.
It took Jake a full ten seconds to realize what she was doing.
“Very funny,” he said, trying to sound annoyed. It didn’t work. Inside he was laughing.
“Open your eyes now.” This time she was right in front of him.
Jake slowly complied and saw her before him, in the waist-deep water she had led him into. She had her left wing wrapped around her, covering what Jake had been acting too embarrassed to look at. Some part of his mind recalled days when he would have eagerly laid his eyes upon an unadorned female and snickered at him. But this was Pixie.
He finally gave her the sponge.
“You didn’t have to turn away Jake,” she said. She kept her wing up while she began scrubbing.
“I know.” His voice faltered, and the part of his mind that had laughed before now openly chided him. He was acting like a prude.
“Why did you?”
Jake had no answer ready, and instead of fumbling out some response he kept quiet. After some thought he said, “I didn’t think… I thought you expected me to turn around.” It sounded weak, so he added: “At first.”
“And?” Her voice was even, no longer amused by his boyish antics, but not upset either.
“And I… guess I wasn’t ready.” Jake hoped he didn’t have to elaborate on that.
“You’ve told me that I’m beautiful. Doesn’t that mean you like to look at me?”
“Of course… just not when… I mean… I know I’ll like… what I haven’t seen before. But…”
“But?” Her dark eyes were unreadable in the failing light.
“The idea of seeing you… naked… just takes some getting used. I can’t explain it.”
Pixie moved closer to him and he was able to see her bemused expression.
“You confuse me. I have noticed the way you look at me sometimes.” Jake didn’t need to ask what way she meant. He had been fully aware of how he’d been looking at her those times that he’d been caught. “But when I allow you to see more you… panic.”
Jake laughed softly. *Panic* was as apt a word as any for how he’d been behaving. No other words came to him than: “Sometimes I confuse myself. Don’t think I didn’t see the irony.”
She half-turned and tossed the sponge up onto the bank, then moved closer and kissed him softly.
“I’ll keep my head on next time,” Jake said after she pulled back.
“Next time” happened sooner than Jake thought it would. Pixie stood, the water level now just below her navel, and moved her concealing wing back behind her before turning and walking into deeper water. This time Jake did not avert his eyes.