A rift, a tunnel, a door; the mind felt the disturbance near to it but was unable to explore. He was only an essence of something more, the thoughts, feelings, and memories of some long past creature. Created like all monsters, but unique in his function; he was a weapon. His counterpart had been freed from immobility years ago. He had felt it happen. Now he waited, his energy failing, and his mind was growing weak. Perhaps the disturbance would bring an opportunity. It did.
The man was a soldier, a marine, sent in with his squad to provide protection and escort to the civilians among them: the scientists, theoreticians and physicists. There was little they could gather from the “door”, and now it appeared that the next group would be comprised of biologists and botanists. There were plants and animals, but they were like nothing anyone had seen. A voice spoke from his earpiece. It was the sergeant’s.
“Heads up people, we’ve got fliers on the horizon on our three, approaching fast.” Graff immediately turned to his right, but the trees at his position blocked his view. The sarge was ahead, beyond the trees, obviously with a less obstructed viewpoint. Graff glanced over at the corporal, waiting for instructions, but he looked just as confused as Graff felt.
Ever since stepping through the door, there had been nothing but patrols stemming out from base camps. The scientists constantly assured the brass that there was no danger that the door would close and strand them. They said their instruments were constantly monitoring the situation and alarms would sound at the slightest change. What exactly was being monitored wasn’t exactly information that the average grunt like Graff needed to know and he was smart enough not to ask. Despite the unusual surroundings, the routine was beginning to take its toll on everyone. It wasn’t that anyone *hoped* to encounter hostilities, especially with so many unknowns about the place; but something to break the monotony was desirable.
“We’ve got incoming! Fall back to base! Repeat. Incoming! Fall back to base!”
Graff was in motion even before the shouted message was finished. Training exercises back home he could handle, missions in hostile countries… maybe, but not an attack in the middle of no place any human eyes had seen for all he knew. The radio was full of chatter, despite the strongly worded suggestion to keep silent in the event of a crisis. It was nearly drowned out by the rapidly approaching explosions.
“Private, hold your fire! They’re moving too fast!”
“What the hell are those things? Jets?”
“What the fuck’s in ‘em? That’s not…”
Despite his own mounting nervousness, Graff did his duty, keeping the panicking group of civvies in sight. To his amusement they were running at a considerably faster pace than their escort, dodging obstacles such as shrubs and rocks with seemingly no thought. Perhaps a soldier trained to keep his cool during trouble was at a disadvantage than a more instinctual civilian.
On their way out from base camp they had all seen the sinkhole. But with strange aircraft screaming overhead, explosions drawing ever closer, and a group of stampeding academics, Graff’s mind had completely forgotten about the pit. There would have been plenty of time to stop and circle around it, but a blast of heat and noise buffeted him and he was thrown forward.
Fortunately the shaft was choked with vegetation and Graff’s fall was slowly broken. He was moving at a less than dangerous speed when he hit the pile of earth and rock at the bottom of the shaft, partly encased in a mound of vegetation. It still hurt though.
He was up at once, with his gun-light on, turning in rapid circles. He slowed himself down when nothing immediately leapt at him, but he didn’t stop until he was sure he was alone in the cave. He had no choice but to break radio silence. The explosions from above were fading out, and he thought he could hear the anti-aircraft batteries at their base firing in the far distance.
“This is Graff. I’m in need of assistance. I... fell down the hole. Repeat, I’m in need of assistance. Over.” The hiss in his earpiece told him that there would be no response. He quietly cursed his luck and decided to do a little reconnaissance to make sure the *whole* cave was empty.
The mind sensed the chaos above, and also sensed who was causing it. There were monsters above, monsters corrupted by Moo. He could feel their stain come and go as they sped by. Now something else was near. It felt like a human, but different. The mind called out to it.
The “cave” seemed to have once been an artificial passageway. Time had cracked the walls and ceiling and allowed mineral-rich water to seep in to form a myriad of cave formations. Graff had been in a cavern as a child, and had remembered how the tour guide had pointed out all the different formations. None of those names would come to mind now. The passageway split up ahead and he inched to the side to take the right passage, but at the last moment he took a quick glance behind him and took the left. Ten yards beyond the fork he saw light.
The mind could see it now, slowly approaching; it was a human. He called out louder, broadcasting promises of safety, and no harm. The mind meant it, and would keep his word, but in the human’s very near future, there’d be regrettable pain.
The light was not coming from a hole in the ceiling, or wall, or from a bulb of any kind. It was this shimmering… thing, hovering in the middle of a room. It had no shape or consistent color, but it moved. At the same time it seemed to spin and pulse, but Graff’s eyes would not tell him the same thing about it twice in a row. The one thing he knew for sure was that it was calling him.
Graff had no reason to trust the light-thing, but suddenly felt powerless to stop. He looked down at his disobedient legs as though a stern glare would bring them around; it didn’t work. When he looked up again, the light was reaching for him. His mind sent the command to his arms to raise his rifle, but it remained pointed at an angle, toward the floor. Nevertheless his mind tried to tell his fingers to pull the trigger. Instead his hands just dropped the gun.
Then something spoke clearly in his mind.
“I regret that I must do this, but do not fear. There will be a time soon when I will leave you and restore you the way you are now. I promise you this.”
Then all was white and pain.
Ten minutes later the new thing rose from the floor. He was weak, but could feel his power slowly returning. He had to stay hidden for the time being, but would emerge from the cave when night came, and move far away from the warped creatures serving Moo. He even knew the direction. He could feel it as though there was a compass inside his mind pointing away from wherever Moo was lurking.
The Phoenix bent down and examined the remains of the soldier’s gear, taking particular interest in the weapon. It reminded him of the ancient days, when men made small machines such as it, and likely far deadlier than the one he held in his hand. It was a flimsy thing, and broke apart when he closed his fist on it. The only other item that got his attention was a small container. The rightful owner of the body he had taken told him what was in the container, and how to open it. After considerable effort, he managed to unscrew the tiny lid meant for hands much smaller, and definitely with smaller claws, and drank. It was a pitiful ration, but it was better than nothing.
The Phoenix walked back the way the soldier had come, having to crouch, or even crawl, in most places to pass through the tunnel. He soon came to a small chamber with an open ceiling. He would not have to expend energy to escape form his millennia-long prison after all.
Even beings like Moo must sleep. And when they sleep, they also dream. But never in Moo’s life in the body he now held, did he have a nightmare. By the standards of lesser monsters and humans alike, the images and sounds passing through his mind would have awakened them with screams tearing from their throats. But these comforted Moo in some way.
But this new dream image mildly disturbed him. It was of the Phoenix, rising. But then it fled and all was peace again in Moo’s warped dream world.
“I have come with a report, Master Moo,” Naga said while bowing his head. Moo looked upon the two signs of respect his general displayed and knew at once the news was not good.
“There are… holes in my territory. In the past few days there have been military incursions coming through them. They are human.”
“Humans are weak. None can stand against me.”
“These humans are different. They have constructed a large camp on this side of these holes, and are heavily armed.”
Naga paused. This was where Moo would either flare up and strike at him, or would listen to the news, and be quieted by his own mad thoughts.
“I ordered a group of iron birds to attack an expedition sent out from the camp. There was deadly resistance from the camp itself. Projectile weapons I believe.”
“I see.” Moo’s response was mild, but Naga flinched anyway. Moo almost missed the movement for it had been very subtle. The creature’s fear pleased him. There was another thing that would startle Naga.
“The Phoenix has risen,” Moo said with a bit of calculated anger. Naga’s startled movement was more noticeable this time.
“That cannot be! The Searchers…”
“Are nowhere near the end of their quest. I know. Its mind is separate from its body, as is mine.”
“We must redouble our efforts to reunite you with your ancient body before the Searchers…” Naga halted when Moo roared laughter.
Moo forced the laughter to subside. “Do you believe the legends too?”
Naga narrowed his eyes, wondering where his master was going with the question. “Is there a reason I should not?”
Moo only pointed downward at the floor, or at some point below them, and laughed.
The next day the group split up one more time to make another trip into town. At first it was hard for Jake. Pixie had to reassure him time and again that he would not be breaking his promise to her again by leaving her for a day and a half. She had her doubts that he had ever broken it to begin with. In retrospect he hadn’t, but didn’t remember what she thought about it before he came back with Blue. She didn’t *want* to remember.
Ultimately she gave in and allowed Jake to convince her and Blue to come at least part of the way. Undoubtedly the two would not be well received in the town and would have to wait for Jake and Holly at its outskirts.
They left after lunch, intending to spend the night just outside of the town, and be back by lunch the next day.
“Hello Holly,” Jake said as he fell in step beside her. The first hour of the trip had been quiet, and Holly had kept a slight distance form the others. Jake hadn’t felt right about it and had searched his mind for something to approach her with, something with which to break the ice. It occurred to him that he still knew very little about Moo, and this Phoenix the group was looking for.
“Hi,” she said with a bright smile. It was a good cover. He had seen the look on her face before he had spoken. It was a sort of troubled thoughtfulness.
“It would seem that I have more or less signed up on this… quest of yours,” he started. He noted that Pixie and Big Blue, the former on the latter’s shoulder, were near enough to overhear.
“You know you don’t have to.”
Jake glanced up at Pixie. “Yeah, but I want to.” Before Holly could respond to that, he went on. “I would like to know more about what we’re dealing with.”
“Ok,” Holly said at once. “What do you want to know?”
“Well… First I want to know about Moo.” He noticed the change in Holly’s expression. He guessed she was practiced at hiding her feelings from the others, but she was still so young, and had a long way to go.
“Didn’t Pixie tell you about Moo?” she said, her voice almost imperceptibly softer.
“Yes, some. But what I want to know is why everyone was in his castle. Nobody’s told me that story.”
“Well it was a long time ago, and I was afraid,” she said quickly.
“You don’t want to talk about it?”
Holly said nothing, but Jake knew the answer was yes. He already had some idea about what the story was about anyway.
“Moo wanted that stone you have, didn’t he?”
-That did it-, Jake thought, as Holly looked up quickly. “What?” she said. He had startled her.
“Pixie told me that Moo is looking for his body. I figured that stone would work the same way, pointing towards him like it does to the Phoenix.”
Holly looked down towards the ground again as they walked. Her voice was so soft that Jake did not hear her say “Yes.”
Pixie had been listening to the whole thing and decided to intervene. She knew that Jake knew he was broaching a painful issue for Holly, but could not understand why he was still pressing forward. She jumped down from Blue’s shoulder and took Jake’s left arm.
“Jake,” she said softly with her mouth near his ear. “Let it go.”
Jake turned to look at her. “I know she doesn’t want to talk about it, but I have to know everything. When Moo comes back…” He didn’t finish. Pixie knew what he was getting at.
“It’s all right, Pixie. I have to talk about these things. I trust all of you.” Holly had slowed down and was looking at them.
“I can tell him what I know,” Pixie told her. “Will that make it easier?”
Holly appeared to think it over. “Ok,” she said at last.
Pixie thought for a moment then turned back to Jake.
“Moo did steal the magic stone to find his body. He also took Holly.”
“What?” Jake’s imagination was already submitting some terrible scenarios about how Moo might have forced the girl to use the stone for him. His intuition then tried to speak but then Pixie was talking again.
“The others talked Falcon into taking them to the castle to get Holly back.”
“And then you came in and helped them out.”
“Why did Moo take her?” Jake asked, indicating Holly with a tilt of his head.
“To… tell her something.”
In spite of himself, Jake turned to face the girl when he said: “He didn’t make you show him where his body is?”
Pixie spoke for her. “He didn’t have to.”
“So Moo can use the stone too?”
“No. Only a few humans can make the stone work.”
“I don’t understand,” Jake said. But he was beginning to. The pieces were falling in place in his mind, making an almost audible mental click.
“I thought Moo was a monster.”
“He is… partly.”
Jake remembered what Pixie had told him. “That’s right. You said Moo’s mind took over a man.”
“Yes. That’s why what you might hear about Holly is wrong. She’s not… Moo’s daughter.”
“Oh shit,” Jake said quietly. The pieces had fallen in the right place. “That man was her father, which is why Moo can use the stone.”
“How did it get him?” Jake asked.
“I only know what Moo told me about it. He said the man was looking for him to help save his village from an evil king. I know it was a lie.”
Jake turned back to Holly. “Did he tell you the same thing?”
“No” Her voice was small, and far away.
“But he lied to you too?”
“I… don’t know.” Holly’s voice was beginning to waver.
Jake wanted to end the conversation. He stopped walking and waited for the others to stop as well.
“Holly, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to open old wounds.”
Pixie spoke next. “Moo lies, Holly. The man in your memories was your father. Whatever Moo said about him is not important.”
Holly looked up. Jake saw that she was fighting against tears. He suddenly wished he’d never insisted on knowing about Moo. Even speaking of the man-monster seemed to bring pain.
“I know, but it’s hard to believe.”
“Most of life’s lessons are that way,” Jake said. “The mind and heart don’t always communicate very well.” Jake thought it sounded a little clichéd, but it felt right.
Holly smiled thinly and began walking again. “Come on, we should get there before dark.”
They reached the town by early evening, coming upon it from over the crest of a gently sloping hill, and Jake and Holly decided to wait until the following day to go in. She said that the shops would be closed anyway.
There was no fire that night but Pixie and Big Blue sat together anyway. Their nightly ritual had resumed as though Blue had never been gone and this pleased Jake. Throughout the hours before bed, Pixie periodically looked over at Jake. The look in her eyes said everything; her heart was his.
Jake and Holly left shortly after a breakfast of dried fruit. The remaining distance to the town took half an hour to cross. Pixie and Big Blue followed them for most of the distance, settling on a small grove of trees where they would be less conspicuous. During the walk, Holly told Jake what little she knew about the people in this part of her world. It was information Jake didn’t think he’d use. Holly was going to do most of the talking anyway.
To the surprise of both, the streets were nearly empty. The locals that were out in the open watched the two as they passed. Jake thought he saw anger in their expressions but did not think too much of it. He dismissed their stares as curiosity. He assumed it was his appearance that got their attention; he was obviously a stranger.
Holly led him to the nearest clothes-shop. Inside, the owner, or clerk, was not in sight. When Jake asked, Holly suggested that the townspeople might be wary of strangers given the town’s proximity to land held by Moo.
Jake picked out a few sets of clothing, choosing articles that looked as much like his own as he could find. Holly was amused by his choices, and told him that he’d look, by her standards, silly. Jake only smiled.
There was a bell on the counter towards the back of the shop. The owner appeared when Holly rang it. He was a short old man carrying a bundle of folded shirts. When he saw Holly and Jake he dropped them and backed up against the wall.
“W… what are you doing here,” he asked, his voice hoarse with age.
“We just came in to buy some clothing for my friend,” Holly said.
“I don’t want your business. Leave!”
Jake took a step forward. “It’s ok, we…”
“No it’s not! Get out of here. Now! Before they find out that you were here.”
Jake noticed that the man had not turned his expression from Holly. He spoke again. “Sir, I really need these. We’ll gladly pay you what they’re worth and leave.”
Holly touched Jake on the arm lightly and said: “Let’s go, Jake. We’ll try somewhere else.”
The shopkeeper took a bold step forward and raised his voice. “No. You’ll leave our town now! We don’t want you here!”
“But we were here just a few days ago!” Holly said, raising her voice as well.
The man apparently grew tired of the talk. “Get out!” he shouted, slamming one gnarled fist down on the counter.
Holly took Jake’s arm and pulled gently. But Jake did not move.
“Other people will come, Jake!”
Jake ignored her and turned to the shopkeeper. “We’re buying these clothes. I won’t tell anyone that you helped us.” He turned toward Holly. “Count out what you think is enough money for these,” he told her, pointing at his choices.
She stared at him for a moment then started fumbling through the bag she had cared the money in. After a moment she came out with a small handful, holding out to Jake. He was about to take it when her eyes went wide.
Jake wheeled around in time to bring his arm of to ward of the blow. When he had turned to talk to Holly, the man had used the time to sneak out a club from underneath the counter. The blow was painful, though not hard enough to break any bones.
The shopkeeper drew his arms back for another strike but stopped when the front door burst open. A younger man bounded in, talking excitedly. The newcomer appeared not to notice that the old man was threatening two shoppers.
“Gregor, come quickly! They’ve been seen outside of town!”
The old man lowered the club halfway, having apparently forgotten about Jake and Holly. “Who?”
“Pixie and her servant!”
The old man slipped past, moving with greater speed than Jake would have thought possible. In a second both men were gone and Jake was in motion, sweeping up the clothing he had chosen off the counter and moving towards the door himself. Holly was right behind him.
“Leave the money here. We’re not thieves.” She moved to leave it on the counter but Jake seized her arm.
“No! Just drop it.”
Holly complied and the both of them were out the door and running back the way they had come. There were other townspeople running with them mostly men carrying some kind of weapon, apparently unconcerned now about the outsiders they had been shunning earlier. Jake guessed that whoever had warned them off allowing the outsiders service offered greater stakes for Pixie’s capture or… Jake buried the thought and began to concentrate.
Several months ago Pixie would have wanted no one but Big Blue by her side in a fight or other tense situation. As the townspeople began approaching her position en masse her thoughts went to Jake. A large part of her knew there was nothing the people could do to her, or Blue; she could fly out of their reach, and he could just wade through them like they were nothing more than knee-high grass. Still she felt something like incompleteness. Nothing would be right until he was by her side.
Now several of the men had moved ahead of the mob and were calling for her surrender.
Jake and Holly reached the back of the mob, which was blocking the main gate of the town. There was no other way out that could be reached before things got ugly, as they tended to do whenever people banded together with clubs, knives, and the occasional crossbow.
“What are we going to do?” Holly asked. She was afraid. Jake was too, but he knew he couldn’t let it interfere with his concentration, especially not if what he was planning actually worked.
It had been an experiment he conducted during an exercise, something he had not expected to work any more than he expected to be able to duplicate any of the attacks of the other monsters. He had watched Pixie often enough to see her stop in midair and hover. He had known at once that it had *nothing* to do with her wings, and wondered if she knew it. So during the exercise he had tried, and had succeeded somewhat. He had felt a sudden absence of the sensation of standing on anything, but the surprise at what he had done, and the need to stop an incoming attack from Tiger had ended the experiment and dropped him the half-inch he had risen.
He led Holly several yards back from the edge of the crowd and turned to her.
“Put your arms around me and step on my left foot.”
“Just do it!” He instantly regretted having raised his voice, but he didn’t know how much time there was. He knew Pixie and Blue could take care of themselves, but he wanted to be sure just the same. And, he just wanted to be *with* her.
Jake held the new changes of clothing to his chest as Holly did as he asked.
“Now, Please keep quiet.” Jake kept his eyes opened but focused on the image that had lifted him off the ground the only time he had tried. It worked immediately, and he put his energy into it, and adjusted the image. Within seconds he was above the level of the gate. Strangely, none of the crowd appeared to notice the feat. -That’s mob mentality for you-, Jake thought. Holly, of course, had noticed, and she tightened her grip on him.
The crowd was drawing closer, and Pixie knew she’d be within striking distance of some of the weapons they carried. It was nothing a flame wall would not stop, but she didn’t want to fight with these people. Soon she’d have to run with Big Blue, and hope that Jake was also able to get out without hurting anyone.
Since the mob was so focused on her, she was not surprised that they did not see the extraordinary thing that she did. Big Blue spoke up quietly beside her; he had seen it too. She watched the sight feeling pride and admiration bubble up within her.
It was Jake, floating above the level of the wall and over it, with Holly hanging on to him as though the height they were at was much greater than ten feet. As soon as he had drifted over the wall, he set himself down again. Then they were moving again, running along the flank of the crowd. Less than a minute later, Jake was with her, dropping the bundle of clothing he held to thier feet.
“Hi. What’s new?” he said, sounding out of breath. She couldn’t help smiling at him when he grinned. They both turned their attention back to the mob when Big Blue took a step forward, and in front of them, putting himself between them and the crowd, which was no more than thirty feet away now. They both stepped around Blue to face the mob. One of them was yelling something.
“We only want Pixie! The rest of you can go.”
“Just don’t come back!” another bellowed.
“We’ll all leave, the four of us. Right now,” Jake called back. In response, a few of the men carrying crossbows aimed their weapons at Jake. He raised his hands with his palms facing the mob, in both a placatory gesture, and to more easily focus a wall. A single teenaged boy had gotten around to Jake’s left. Though the boy was unaware of the wall, it did not cover attack from the area he was in. The rock the boy threw faced no obstruction, and his aim was good.
Holly saw it coming and screamed a warning. Jake was able to turn in time to avoid a full impact on his temple. Instead the rock grazed him, one of its sharp edges tearing at his skin. He reflexively went down to his knees and felt blood flow down the side of his face. He looked up and saw Pixie charging a bolt, her hand aimed at the now retreating boy.
“Pixie, no! I’m ok.”
She looked down at him. “Oh Jake…”
“It looks worse than it is, trust me.” Jake returned to his feet and faced the mob again, this time drawing the wall around them more. It had faltered only once when he had been struck by the rock. -Kid, that one was free-, he thought.
“We don’t want any trouble. We just came to buy some clothing.”
Another of the mob stepped forward to join the loose group of men that had led it. “You’ll wish you hadn’t,” he shouted. There was a loud murmur of agreement from behind him. Jake was loosing interest in sticking around, but decided to stick with reason as long as they were quiet.
“Look, is their somebody reasonable we can talk to? Your mayor? Uh… spokesperson?”
There was a brief commotion as someone pushed his way through the center of the mob. When at last the graying man emerged, Jake assumed from his dress that he was their head.
“You shouldn’t have come here.”
“My friends were here several days ago. There was no trouble then.”
“That was before Gray Wolf’s troops came here.”
“Ah. I see,” Jake said. The word “coercion” came to mind.
“How can you?” one of the men in front shouted. The mayor-type quickly waved him down.
“They warned us about helping you Searchers. They gave us detailed descriptions of them.”
“You,” the man said, pointing at Jake, “we had no quarrel with. But the girl and her friends must never come back.”
“Or you’ll be punished, is that right?” Pixie asked.
“Yes. They warned us of the severity of our treatment.”
“Then we’ll just be on our way,” Holly said. She too had come out from behind Big Blue, and was now standing behind Jake and Pixie.
“I’m afraid I cannot allow that. There is a bounty on Pixie’s head, so to speak.”
“So you go without your bounty,” Jake suggested.
The man shook his head. “We were also warned against passing on an opportunity to capture her.”
“Tell them you tried. We’ll be leaving now.”
“No!” The man had raised his voice. The confidence in Jake’s words had unnerved him. “I can’t let that happen! I must think of my people!”
Jake raised his voice, adding a hard edge to it. “You have no choice.” And when the man opened his mouth to protest, Jake added: “Some of them must still be near if they were to know you did not try to take her. I have no doubt they’ll see you all try.” With that Jake turned to the others. “Walk. We’re leaving.”
They all looked at him for a moment before moving. It was Big Blue, surprisingly, who bothered to pick up Jake’s new clothing. When Jake himself had taken a few steps away, the mob charged.
It was a short attack. The men in front of the mob collectively hit the barrier Jake had left in place and bounced back, some even falling back onto the ground. This stopped the rest of the mob as though they too had suddenly encountered an invisible wall. Nevertheless, several of the men fired their crossbows. Jake was watching over his shoulder as the bolts bounced harmlessly off the barrier. He hadn’t felt a thing. A few others approached and swung blindly with their clubs, again with no effect. Some began screaming as though something far more dangerous than a barrier was halting their mad progress. None thought to look for edges, not that Jake would have allowed that.
Twenty minutes away from town Jake stopped. It had become an effort to hold up the barrier and he knew it would start draining him if he held it up any longer at such a distance. He let it down with a sigh.
“Jake? We’re not stopping here, are we?” Pixie asked.
“No. I just want to make sure they don’t follow us.”
“How,” Pixie said, a smile forming on her face, “are you going to do that?”
Jake turned and faced the town, and formed a wave.
No one else in the mob had dared to approach the invisible wall. Some had even retreated to their homes, trying to pretend the day had not happened. The rest milled about, and had begun to discuss options, many of which involved pursuit.
All conversation halted when someone called out a warning. The four had left the town and had gone almost completely up the hill, the big one not much more than a pale blue dot. Now something was racing down the slope. It was bright and nearly shapeless, disturbing the grass underneath it as it came. Then it hit about three quarters the way down, moving at a shallow angle to the ground, and actually seemed to penetrate it. A scant moment later the thing exploded.
About half of the mob lost their footing as the shockwave rolled through the ground. Those that didn’t saw the wave of rock, dirt, and dust speeding down the remainder of the slope and ran. Gregor did not. He stood frozen in his place, his club now fallen from his hand. His only thought was: The man only wanted clothes.
It stopped, about fifty feet away. Just stopped. It reminded Gregor exactly of how the men had earlier run up against something invisible. The front of the wave of dirt flattened itself out, looking as though it had been smoothly cut in two, with one half magically disappearing. Then whatever had stopped it must have vanished, for the halted wave collapsed into a long mound running parallel to the entire town.
Gregor got the message, as did everyone there: “Don’t follow.”
When Jake did not turn around after his little trick, Pixie began to worry that he had drained himself again, as he had done twice before.
“Jake?” She couldn’t keep the strange mix of admiration and concern out of her voice. But he did turn around.
“I’m fine. Just a little tired now.”
Pixie frowned at him, but he smiled. It would have taken a halfwit not to read the run of her thoughts on her face at that moment.
“Really. I’ll take a nap when we get back to the others and will be as good as new by tonight.”
Pixie stepped up to Jake, wanting to reach out and touch him. But she had an audience, albeit a small one. She wanted to gently reprimand him, but he just seemed so damned *confident* about the situation; she had no words.
Jake stopped smiling and looked directly in her eyes. “I’m ok. I promise.”
“Master Phoenix, we are ready,” the clay said. They had spent only a few days at the castle where there was a garden full of lost disks. The Phoenix had intended to revive them all and help them to grow in their abilities, but time was short. He could sense Moo drawing near the end of the search for his body. Somehow, he could feel his counterpart preparing for what lay ahead. Ready or not, it was time to move. In their favor, however, was the rumor of someone new in the world, someone powerful. The Phoenix had seen the pieces of Moo’s castle for himself. And some of the very monsters he had changed had met this being in battle. They spoke of a human that had stopped them without even trying with invisible walls and barely seen waves of energy that were often lethal. The Phoenix believed everything they said, and took heart that this man was traveling with those that sought him. The Phoenix and his small army would make their introductions soon enough, and together they would be powerful enough to stop Moo.
The Phoenix turned from his thoughts and looked down upon the clay. He noticed a slight twitch in the monster’s stance, a muffled cringe. His life before had involved cruelty, given and received.
“I ask that you not favor me with that word. When this war is over, you will be your own master.”
The clay looked thoughtful, but was quiet.
“Do you understand me?”
“Yes M… Phoenix.”
“She who was your master will soon stand with us, and as it was with you, there will be no more evil in her heart.”
The clay flinched again at the thought of the last monster he had called ‘master’. The lightning from her hand had taken his life. Then his thoughts took hold and the rationality the Phoenix had given him smoothed over his old fears once again. The former member of the Four would be with them and all would be forgiven.
“When do we leave, Phoenix? The journey will be long.”
“But brief,” Came the rumbling, though soft, reply. “I will carry you all. We will leave before night falls.”
“Falcon says there’s a town ahead,” Pixie called as she swept down from the sky and landed on Big Blue’s shoulder. Jake smiled slightly at that, for she nearly always landed on Big Blue’s shoulder, then, as though thinking it unfair that she should get a ride while everyone else walked, she would hop down and walk with Jake. It had been that way since Jake had revived Big Blue.
Pixie jumped down as predicted and spoke softly. “It’s the same one where they found a doctor for you after…”
“How far?” Jake asked when it was clear that Pixie wasn’t going to finish her thought.
“An hour, maybe two. Those dragons don’t walk very often, so the estimate might be off.”
“There’s something else,” Pixie said quietly. Jake knew at once it was bad news.
“Are there…” He still had to struggle with the word. “Baddies there?”
“No. Falcon didn’t notice any people in the streets. He thinks it’s deserted.”
Jake thought about that and said: “Or they’re just hiding, like the town we went to.”
“Then the baddies got to them too,” Pixie said. “We should pass it by.”
“But we need to refresh our supplies.”
“They won’t just give them to us, Jake.”
“Not if the baddies did get to them. I’m hoping that they’ve only been threatening towns in our path. Maybe they don’t know we’ve turned around.”
Pixie was silent, walking with her eyes to the ground. At last she looked up. “We should consult the others. Do you want to get them involved, or should I speak for you?”
Jake looked ahead at the others. Genki was at point as usual, nearly marching, though not in the way Jake had seen him when they were first acquainted. The others were in a loose group, with Holly walking closely to Golem, and Suezo close to Holly. Tiger and Hare had been keeping a distance from Suezo all day, but Jake had been noticing the distance shrink from hour to hour. He looked back at Genki. It was still the kid’s show.
“Speak for me. I’m in favor of checking it out.”
Pixie nodded and took flight. Less than a minute later she was at front, speaking with Genki. The boy slowed to a halt as she talked, and soon the others caught up. The discussion was brief, ending shortly after Genki glanced his way. Jake assumed it was when Pixie cast his vote and that that was the deciding factor. He knew it would be, and wasn’t surprised.
Jake had purposefully kept his pace slow and caught up with the group just as Hare was working out a plan.
“If a few of us go at night, then it may be harder for them to recognize us. Besides, if the baddies are still there, they’ll only be expecting us during the day,” the giant rabbit was saying.
“We should stay together, Hare, in case the baddies *are* still there,” Genki said. Leave it to the kid to vote for solidarity every time, Jake thought.
“I disagree,” Hare began, “They’ll be looking for all of us. We’ll be seen a mile away if we’re together.”
Genki opened his mouth to speak, passion for his own ideas beginning to show in his face. Jake didn’t want an argument and decided he’d use his sway with the kid, with all of them.
“I’ll go. Alone,” he said evenly. Pixie looked up at him sharply, an objection forming and then dying on her lips. Jake continued.
“Look at me. I’m dressed like a local, and they aren’t looking for me.”
“If they were smart, they would be,” said Tiger. He was a few feet away from the group seemingly dozing on a large log.
“But they aren’t. And even if they were, what description do they have to go by?” Jake didn’t wait for an answer. “I’m the least conspicuous of us.” He was addressing them all, but keeping his eyes on Pixie. What he saw on her face would determine how hard he’d push for his plan.
“What if you get in trouble?” It was Holly. She had seen him caught off guard twice. The first time had been in the clothing shop when the shopkeeper had come at him with a club, and the second was a lucky throw by from a boy outside of the town. It wasn’t likely to happen again, but he wouldn’t tell any of them that.
“Then I’ll call for help. I can make noise.”
Not if you’re unconscious, Pixie thought, but said nothing. She wanted to object but knew Jake well enough to know that he believed that his plan was the safest way to do what was soon going to desperately need doing. They needed food, badly, and fish from the river wouldn’t be enough. Somebody had to go try to buy supplies from the town, and Jake was right. He was the least obvious. The only question she had was voiced by Hare.
“How will you carry it all back assuming you can buy enough?”
Jake paused, looking thoughtful, and at once Pixie understood what he was up to. Without any prelude, Hare suddenly levitated several feet off the ground. The rabbit noticed at once and lost his composure.
“Ok ok! You’ve sold me! Your plan… I... uh… couldn’t come up with any better. Now please put me down.” Jake did, seemingly slightly embarrassed that he had frightened the rabbit so.
“I think I can do that as long as it takes to get back from the town,” he said. “And if I can’t, I’ll be far enough away from there for it to be safe for you to help out.” He looked from face to face, looking for other objections, moving to Pixie’s last. Her opinion mattered the most.
After a moment of silence Genki spoke, exuberant as ever. “Well I guess it’s settled then! Let’s get a move on!” With that the kid turned and began marching again. Jake waited while the others followed, keeping the same distance he had before, before starting himself. Pixie fell in step beside him.
“That went well. I had no idea you were going to suggest going alone.”
“I’m sorry,” he answered absentmindedly. All he could think of was how much he wanted her to go with him, and what the head of the last town had said. There was a bounty on her.
“I know you will come back,” she said, pulling him out of his thoughts. “If that’s what you are worried about.”
“I was thinking about how much I’d like to have you with me,” Jake said. Pixie smiled gently and touched his arm. “No matter how powerful I am there are certain things that can’t be fought off by invisible barriers and energy blasts,” Jake added.
“Like loneliness,” she said softly. It was not a question, but he answered anyway.
“Yeah. Like that.”
They were silent for a while, then Pixie asked: “I’ll come with you if you ask.” Jake thought he heard a touch of a hopeful question in her voice. It was still a bad idea, but Jake could not resist it, at least not completely.
“Only part of the way. Not as close as last time. Ok?”
She moved closer, entwining her arm with his. “Ok.”
“And if you’re seen… don’t stay. Even if its just one human that finds you.”
Pixie said nothing and Jake asked “Please?” He looked at her face and she nodded once.
After a few minutes she pulled away, both extending the move through lingering touch. “I have to go tell Falcon,” she said. And she was gone.
The Searchers made camp about an hour walk from town, by Jake’s estimate, on the side of a small hill that faced away from the settlement. The two left shortly after an early dinner, when almost twilight, equally wary of being alone in broad daylight as in deep night.
Pixie wanted to move slowly, but knew Jake would if she did. They had to be quick, before there was even less of a chance of getting what they needed as there already was. Jake was having the very same thoughts. And there would always be enough time for them later.
Jake stopped when he thought they had gone halfway and Pixie knew it was where he wanted her to stay. She opened her mouth to argue, but one look at his face and she knew he would relent, *wanted* to relent, and she also knew that she would not be satisfied until she essentially walked into town with him. So she stayed.
Jake kissed her softly on the mouth before he left, opting not to engage in that which would seem to be a farewell as something more passionate would have been.
The town had a wall around it as the last one had. But where the last had an arched entryway, this one had a barred gate. Jake drew close enough to note that both the lock on the gate, and the deserted streets with boarded-up shop fronts. His curiosity chose to get the better of him at that moment and he turned left, walking along the wall. His intention was to float over the wall and do some reconnaissance in case Plan B was to come back in daylight.
Once out of sight of the gate, he settled on a spot that was as good as any other at that point. He was about to gather his energy to levitate when a voice spoke behind him. It was a raspy growl with an unpleasantness to it that Jake recognized.
“What are you doing outside of town?”
Ridiculously Jake felt like putting his hands up. Instead he turned around, keeping his arms at his sides. The thing that had spoken to him was a monster like Tiger, only in the dusk light he could see that it was of a uniform color, purple, with dark blue horns. Its eyes were yellow. There was a half-seen disk attached to the base of its neck. Jake spoke in what he hoped was a nervous, frightened voice.
“I’m just a traveler hoping to buy some supplies. I know it’s late but…”
“You’ll do no such thing at this hour.”
“Then I’ll be on my way,” he replied timidly. He even made good on it, starting off on a path almost parallel to the wall, angling away from both it and the monster. After he past it, the thing spoke again. “You will stay in this town until Master Gray Wolf permits you to leave.”
Why it waited for his back to be turned, Jake did not know, but it pounced after it spoke. Jake turned as it was happening, meaning to put up a barrier. It was already there, having gone up on instinct alone.
The purple wolf-thing rammed into it and fell. It was up immediately; an enraged look on its face, incensed that a mere human could offer so much resistance. It apparently didn’t consider that Jake was no *mere* human. It crouched slightly, as though preparing for another leap, and began charging its horns as he had seen Tiger do.
Jake did not let it finish. He hit it with a light energy blast, just once, sending the monster in motion. It landed some forty feet away, rolling to a stop with its head flopping about at unnatural angles. Moments later it was a lost disk. He shuddered. The energy blow had been almost as instinctual as the barrier. Jake wasn’t sure he liked the idea of such power being at the disposal of his least rational side. It was like giving a gun to a gorilla.
He walked to the disk and studied it. It looked like it was composed of ordinary stone with a series of indentations forming a strange, lizard-like pattern etched on its surface. A short gnarled trunk held it off the ground, its branches entwining it. It was evidence Jake did not want to be found, but as he reached toward it he realized that it was essentially a grave. Ideally it would not be found until morning. If not, by the time the sun rose, there would be many more like it littering the ground.
On his way back to Pixie he grew tired of walking, and shortly after that he was impatient with running. He was anxious to see her, and it seemed as good a time as any to practice levitation. He had known that he could move himself horizontally, as well as vertically, and there was no one around to see him if he screwed up.
It worked. He made it back in a third of the time it had taken him between leaving Pixie and arriving at the town wall. Unfortunately he thought little of how he was going to land and came down, attempting to run without slowing down to a running speed. He went down, rolling, suffering nothing more than a banged knee. Pixie was upon him before he could stand up.
“Jake!” she called in an urgent, hushed voice. “Are you ok?” She helped him up when he held his arms up to her.
“Tell me you didn’t see that,” he asked. His pride was hurting worse than his knee.
“I’m afraid I did,” she said gently. She let the amusement she felt seep into her voice, but did not overdue it. She was familiar with the feeling of injured pride.
“How the mighty have fallen,” Jake said as lightly as he could. “Superman I’m not.”
“Nothing. I’ll tell you some other time.”
“Can you walk,” she asked, then because she couldn’t resist, “Because I don’t think you should fly.”
Jake laughed softly and tested his knee. He could walk and he showed her. It hurt to do so but it was nothing worse than he had done to himself dozens of times as a child.
On their way back, Jake told her what had happened, though she knew he was understating his encounter with the sentry. She heard the tension in his voice, believing it was as simple to defeat the monster as he said it was, but unsure why it bothered him. She asked him, but he was evasive, telling her that it didn’t bother him.
Jake wasn’t sure why he wasn’t willing to tell her how second-nature the barrier and strike had been. He supposed it was because he was still sorting it out in his mind, replaying the event again and again, trying to remember if there was the slightest effort made. Another thing he loved her for was that she didn’t press needlessly when he didn’t want to talk about something. She just simply changed the subject.
“Tell me something more about your world,” she asked him.
“Isn’t that always your answer?” she asked teasingly. “I’ve heard enough from Genki to know it’s not a dull place.”
“That’s true, it’s not. Then again, neither is this place. At least here individuality means something.” At once he wasn’t sure why he said it, and was grateful that she didn’t ask.
“Is there not much of that where you are from?”
“No. Everybody’s an individual. It’s trendy. And when you are trendy, you blend in.”
“I’m not sure I understand.” They were walking with arms entwined again.
“I know. It makes no sense when non-conformity is conformist.”
Pixie looked at him in the near night, her dark eyes blinking as she thought of what he said. “How does a person remain an individual then?”
“I have no idea. Maybe it’s just impossible enough to be your own person without mixing in.”
“Is this why you haven’t told me what your life was like before you came here? Because you felt you fit in too much?” she asked. Jake mentally shuddered. She had hit the nail on the head, so to speak. He had been so tired with the mediocrity of his life that speaking of it was to open old wounds. It was nothing worth not talking about however, and he wanted to satisfy her curiosity. He just felt that not knowing and knowing would be of equal consequence to her. He opened his mouth to say as much when ahead of them a twig snapped.
Jake stopped, and Pixie went on a few feet without letting go of his hand. She saw the expression on his face.
“Not even my baddies were that clumsy during an ambush. It’s just an animal.”
Jake stared into the darkness and concluded that she was right. Though he never doubted his capability to handle anything but Moo, it was still unsettling concept to have something come attacking out of the dark. He shook the thought off and started up again. Twenty feet later, something strange happened.
He was walking with Pixie close to his side, his left, and her right, arms locked together. Their pace was brisk, and his right arm was moving in wide movements to compensate for the immobility of its opposite. While moving through empty space, his fingertips brushed something. And while the contact was fleeting, he had felt whatever it was twitch.
Jake jerked to the side, disengaging from Pixie and spinning to face whatever it was that he had touched. There was nothing there. Almost. As he looked there was a faint shimmer in the air. It was a slight distortion of the bushes several feet in front of him. He took a step forward to get a closer look and the thing exploded into motion.
There was a blur of movement as the shimmering suddenly increased, and, at the same time, the shape grew opaque. Jake only got a quick look at something black with pale extremities before it lashed out at him, catching him in the shoulder. His hand was coming up from his side, too late to ward off the blow, instead clamping down on the limb that had struck him. A female voice above him shrieked, “Let me go!” and Jake almost did so out of surprise. He did let go when another limb came down, slashing at his other shoulder. He fell back and got a good look at his attacker. He saw above him something that looked just like Pixie, but apparently dressed in black with much paler skin.
Pixie had been as surprised as Jake when a dark form visually exploded out of where there had once been empty space and had been slow to react when it lashed out at him. But her hand was up, charging with lightning when she saw the thing strike again, this time drawing blood. Even though it would not be powerful enough to kill whatever had attacked Jake, she let it go. The thing, apparently another pixie, was also charging, and she wouldn’t get a second chance.
Jake flinched when the bolt streaked over him and was surprised when it hit nothing. The dark pixie had moved, as fast as he had seen Pixie move, though difficult to see in the dark. But he was ready. His attack was tight, but relatively gentle, and it hit his target with a barely audible thump. The pixie cried out and fell, and Jake was up immediately. He hit her twice more, only halting when the pixie pulled herself into a fetal position. He glanced at Pixie and noticed that she too was holding back another strike.
“Get up,” Jake said before he even knew he was speaking.
“Now,” Pixie added.
The pixie did as she was ordered. She stood and although her eyes were not visible in the dark, Jake could feel her glare. He could hear her breathing coming fast.
“What the hell was that about?” Jake demanded. He looked her up and down and saw no symbol attached to her clothing, which covered her entire body save for her heads, hands, feet, and wings. “You’re not a baddie,” he said half-questioningly.
Though the pixie’s voice was younger, and slightly higher than Pixie’s, it had no less coldness to it than when Jake had first heard her speak.
“That Moo… I’d no sooner give him my allegiance than a human,” the pixie said. Jake saw that she had directed her comment at Pixie. It took him a moment to understand the implication, and his anger was building by the time Pixie spoke.
“You recognize me then,” she said. “Who are you?”
“Sh…,” the dark pixie began, then after a moment, “I’m called Silhouette.”
“Nice to meet you,” Pixie said dryly.
“The pleasure’s all mine,” Silhouette said with equal sarcasm in her voice. “Now, if you don’t mind, I can’t stomach the sight of you two any longer.”
The anger made Jake speak without thinking. “Were you made a bitch, or just unlocked that way?”
Silhouette’s face hardened, but she did not answer. Jake watched her muscles tense as though she was preparing to leave quickly. Jake didn’t know why there was any point in having her stay, but it still felt important. He opened his mouth to apologize, but Pixie spoke first.
“It was you that stole food from us.” Jake smiled inwardly. It would have taken much longer to think of what Pixie had.
“Yes. Do I need to beg your forgiveness?” Silhouette asked wryly.
Pixie only shook her head and said: “You only needed to ask.”
Silhouette favored them with a snide grin. “Next time I’ll walk right up and beg. May I go now?”
“No,” Jake said. But Silhouette was looking at Pixie, as though only addressing her with the question. Pixie said nothing.
“Hah. Pixie of the Big Bad Four. Once again a human’s pet! What I don’t understand is why…”
Jake barely missed the move. There was a rush of air filling the empty space next to him; a blur of movement, and Silhouette was on the ground, with Pixie’s knee on her back, and claws at her throat. Jake watched Pixie’s face, and knew she would not strike. But what he saw was unpleasant just the same.
“I am not a pet!” she said, favoring each word with harsh emphasis, trying to drill the message home. “And I doubt you could understand why I choose to have an intimate relationship with a human.”
“Is it ‘love’?” Silhouette gasped. Pixie had her by her horns, keeping her head held back in what was no doubt a painful position. Nevertheless, Jake heard the contempt in her voice. He couldn’t help to smile at the familiarity.
“Yes,” Pixie said simply and released her. Silhouette got slowly to her feet, rubbing at the base of her neck with one hand. She regarded them, mostly Pixie, for a moment.
“You’re serious,” she said. “How can it be? After what his kind has done to you!” Jake heard her words and knew that some sort of breakthrough had occurred. Then a question occurred to him. Why did this one monster matter enough to Pixie to fight with her? A possible answer came to mind.
“You took over for her when her owners…” he said to Silhouette.
“Oh, you’re a sharp one human,” she said. “Give him the gold.”
Pixie turned to him. “I didn’t realize it at first, but yes, she’s the other pixie I told you about.”
“Some happy reunion this is,” Jake said, gingerly touching his wounds. He’d been lucky, again. They were not deep, and now were only seeping blood at their deepest.
“How did he do it, Pixie? How did he get your heart?” The question was half rhetorical, and Silhouette did not wait for an answer. “I hope you do not have to learn how much of a weakness love is.”
“You don’t know,” Pixie said. But Jake did not hear conviction in her voice. He assumed it was because she was thinking the same thing as he was.
“Is that how they broke you? They got her young,” Jake said, indicating Pixie with a nod. “But maybe you were enslaved later. Did they take away someone you love?” He saw a flicker of pain flash across Silhouette’s face. -There it is-, he thought.
“Yes. They cut him down. He had no owner, but that wouldn’t have mattered. How many male pixie’s have you seen, Pixie?”
“Males?” Pixie stopped, shook her head, and said: “None.”
“Yeah, they didn’t want you br… having children, did they?” Jake asked. Silhouette jabbed a finger in his direction and said, “See? He thinks like they do!”
Jake only shook his head, and Pixie spoke for him.
“No. He knows what humans can do. Do not think for a moment it doesn’t… hurt him.” She was remembering when she had first told him of her enslavement. He had literally become sick at what had happened to her, and at being the same species as her tormentors.
Silhouette said nothing. She only crossed her arms and looked anywhere but at Jake and Pixie. Both knew what was going on, they had cracked her defenses, and she was trying to ignore that.
“You have nothing on me,” Pixie said forcefully. “They got you late in life, and your captivity was brief compared to mine. You did not grow up hating them. I did. Go on and tell me how despicable ‘they’ are until your voice leaves you. I’ve heard it all before.”
“Are you finished?” Silhouette asked. Her voice was flat.
“No. You’re coming with us,” Pixie said. Jake briefly wondered why Pixie wanted her around any longer.
“No. You’ll just have to do without me.” Silhouette turned as if to leave.
“You have no choice,” Pixie said. She turned and nodded to Jake, and he raised his hand. Silhouette froze and raised both of her hands, palms facing them.
“Ok, ok. I’ll come.”
Genki spotted them as they neared camp and barreled toward them, shouting a greeting. The boy noticed Silhouette and skidded to a halt. Then out shot his hand.
“Hi there! My name’s Genki and these are my friends! We’re on our way to stop Moo!”
-Oh God-, Jake thought, -he’s gotten sugar somewhere-. Silhouette just stood there, staring at the boy.
“This is the ‘warrior’ that goes against Moo? A child?” she said incredulously.
Genki dropped his hand. “Hey!” he protested, “I may only be a boy, but I’ve done pretty good for myself here!”
Silhouette narrowed her eyes and Jake thought she was about to offer a scathing reply. He saw Pixie tense.
“Better than most humans I’ll bet,” was what she said instead.
Genki seemed defused for the moment and Jake felt a little relief.
Introductions were made, and Jake noticed that everyone openly accepted Silhouette for the time being. He wondered at their lack of suspicion, wondered why it seemed no one considered that a baddie might go undercover, so to speak. He forgot about it, however, when Genki mentioned the Phoenix, and Silhouette responded with laughter.
“What’s so funny?” Suezo asked. Genki only stood where he was, his expression changing from confusion to anger.
Silhouette gained control of herself gave Genki a shock.
“The Phoenix is already revived! Some poor human found his mind and was taken over by it!”
Jake started and exchanged knowing, surprised looks with Pixie. He was right. Genki, however, was not convinced.
“That’s impossible! The war would be over now!”
Silhouette smirked, and asked, “Has anyone ever told you not to underestimate your enemies?”
“Yes, “ Genki said, his tone indicating an odd sort of pride. “I’ve learned that lesson.”
Jake heard a nearly inaudible growl of agreement from Tiger. He glanced over and saw the corner of the monster’s mouth twitch upward.
“Yes, fine. It’s time for school again. Don’t ever overestimate your allies.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Genki was getting defensive again. His fuse once again, was lit.
“It means I met the Phoenix on his way south. And *that* was south of here. Moo’s in the north. Get the picture.”
“The Phoenix wouldn’t run away. That wasn’t him you saw,” It was Holly. But she lacked conviction in her voice. Jake could see in her expression that she was putting it all together… why the stone had turned them around.
“Oh yes it was. He tried to take me over to his side, tried to take my… hate.” Silhouette’s voiced dropped as she spoke of it. “I almost let him, because it felt right. But it was artificial…. And I felt myself slipping away.” She paused and shook herself as if to return her mind to the present. When she spoke again, her voice was firm once more. “I’ve heard the legends too. I had the benefit of not believing them to begin with. That’s the only reason I’m not with him now.”
“He let you go?” Jake asked.
“Of course he did. I think he realized that to force me to his side would be too much like Moo’s way.”
“You fought him?” Pixie asked. Genki’s jaw dropped open even before there was an answer to that question.
Silhouette turned back to boy as she answered. “Yes, and I’m sorry to burst your bubble, Genki, but I’ll give you this. I hit him every time, and did nothing to him, and believe me I tried. As far as I was concerned, he wasn’t going to give up until he had made me one of his own, so I pulled no punches, as humans are fond of saying.”
For a long moment, Genki said nothing more. Then he said something in a surprisingly adult way before turning and wandering off to sit by himself. “This changes nothing.”