Everyone else spent a few hours grilling Silhouette for details about her encounter with the monster that they had sought for so long. Most of the questions came from Holly and Hare. They learned that there had been other monsters with the Phoenix, and they had stood by while the two battled. No, none of the monsters was Gray wolf. Tiger slinked away after asking that question. Yes, they flew through the sky. When the Phoenix left, he stood among his as yet small number of troops and moved them through the air, all surrounded by a yellow glow that brightened the faster they moved. No, she didn’t know the exact number of monsters, but it was greater than a dozen. Thankfully, no one seemed to realize she had been the one to rob them in the night. That issue had been forgotten despite Jake’s failure to obtain supplies. And finally, yes she would join them on their silly quest. She wanted to be there if they did actually defeat Moo. And, if they failed, it was a sure way to end her miserable, lonely life. Though the last she revealed only to Jake and Pixie.
Later, Jake and Pixie sat down to talk, while the others sat around the campfire. Big Blue had not asked, yet Pixie promised him that they would have their time, just later than usual. Silhouette sat nearby listening in, an occasional sound of amusement constituting the bulk of her involvement.
“What do we do now?” It was Jake that asked the question first and it startled Pixie. But his tone indicated more a desire for her opinion than hopelessness.
“I wanted to ask you the same. I don’t know, Jake.”
“We can’t give up. We can’t just keep following the Phoenix around and wait for him to do his thing.”
“And we can’t confront Moo on our own.”
“Are you sure of that?” Jake asked. He wasn’t, but he also knew there were limits to his power, and what would happen if they were less than Moo’s.
“He must be so close to his body by now.”
“Yeah. We’ll have to assume that he’ll be in it when we… meet him.”
Pixie moved closer to him as she always did when their conversations got too troubling. Neither felt her desire to be close was a weakness, however.
A moment later Holly appeared and sat with them. She briefly explained that she had talked with Genki and Hare.
“Genki votes that we keep following the Magic Stone. Hare thinks our odds are better if we confront Moo now,” she said.
“How’s he taking it? Genki I mean,” Jake asked.
“You know him. He’ll never give up.”
Pixie smiled faintly, but said nothing.
“What do you think we should do, Jake?” Holly asked at last.
“I think… That we’ll end up needing the Phoenix and whatever army he has, if only to weaken Moo with them. Maybe he can defeat Moo. But it’d foolish just to assume he can’t, and take on Moo alone.”
Holly nodded faintly, and Jake added, “We stand to take less damage if we go into it with more numbers on our side.”
“Then we continue after the Phoenix?” Holly asked.
“That’s my vote,” Jake said quietly.
“Mine too,” Pixie said. No one asked Silhouette, and Jake didn’t think she minded.
“We’d be lost without you, Jake,” Holly said quietly before standing up. But before he could say anything, she turned and returned to the others.
Pixie stayed a while longer, but Jake knew she must eventually leave him for a time, and she did so with no words exchanged between them. There was only a brief touch and a kiss. Jake stayed where he was, thinking of nothing in particular. He was surprised when Silhouette sat down in front of him. She turned her head to face the distant fire where Pixie now sat with Blue.
“What is that all about?” she asked when she faced Jake again.
Jake was mildly surprised, and mildly resentful, of her curiosity, and the bold way she expressed it. Nevertheless, he kept his tone from showing it.
“She’s known him far longer than I have. It’s simply the way it is with them.”
“But she left you for him.”
“Yup. And it pleases me to no end that my being in her life hasn’t changed what they have together. Understand.”
“Yes. They’re lucky no human took offense.”
“Why would they? They’re friends, albeit likely closer than most humans are to their friends. Besides, they met after Pixie became one of Moo’s. No human would ever dare to object.”
Jake was a little unsettled when Silhouette’s voice softened, a loneliness creeping in with each word. “I wonder if it would have been that way if Moo had come a little sooner. Would he have allowed me what I had?”
Jake knew she expected no answer, but gave her something anyway. “No. Not enough hatred is possible when there’s love. It’s not corrupt enough.”
“Probably,” she whispered.
“I’m curious. Tell me what happened to him. Or not. Just remember there’s no need to remind me that it’s none of my business,” Jake said gently. To his surprise, she told him.
Silhouette had been unlocked into the care of a more humane family than those that had enslaved Pixie after buying her from her original family. While Silhouette had been given chores to do, they were no more than the children of her owners were asked to do. The children were treated as one would expect, and she was treated no differently. She was even allowed the freedom to go where she wished as she grew older. Though she was never truly free, but the thought never occurred to her. Her life was one of contentment. Then she met the three independent monsters. They were a pair of jells and a male pixie, a mint. They were travelers, only passing through the town, the jells content to follow their friend wherever his whim led them. And when the mint, Silhouette would not speak his name, met her, his traveling days were over. Silhouette’s family had been wary, as had the town, but had allowed the three to stay, and had not spoken against the growing relationship between Silhouette and the mint. But then it happened. Had the female jell known any better, she would have pleaded with the mint to have them move on, with or without silhouette, but she was too trusting. Neither she nor her mate ever thought twice of the visibility of her children forming inside her. The people of the town noticed, and were threatened. That the creatures that were little more than slaves could create more of their kind frightened them. And so it came to be that one night, a mob formed, centered around a group of drunken men. The mob developed a mind of its own and went to the room the mint and jells were renting and called them out. They were wary but realized the limit to there options.
They went out and were attacked, the female jell was killed first, then her mate. The mint was destroyed as Silhouette and her owners came rushing to the scene of the commotion that had roused them from their sleep. She watched her love perish without a sign of remorse from his killers. What was worse was that her owners neither showed disgust nor sympathy. They treated her no differently after that night, but she knew the truth. She was property to them, well-treated property, but still a mere possession nonetheless. She left them in the night a few days later.
She survived by joining a renegade pack of tigers and dinos. They taught her to use her inborn abilities over the course of several months then chased her away. Their reason was that her primary method of travel made them conspicuous. But she suspected something different, a prejudice based on her resemblance to humans. But she left without question.
She didn’t have to wait long before she was given an opportunity to use her abilities in battle. Unfortunately, they were still weak, and the humans that had forced her to use them were slave-traders. Their fists, feet, and whips were far more effective than her lightning had been.
She was soon sold to a couple. They were hardly as brutal as the people her owners loaned her to. They had beaten their pixie into an incapacitated state and had required Silhouette’s labor. Fortunately, out of respect for their friend’s property, they kept the abuse strictly verbal. She was grateful to leave that place when Pixie was once again able to perform her many chores.
When Moo came, Silhouette’s hatred had not been as deep as Pixie’s despite seeing them murder her love, and she had not stayed around long enough for the monster to take notice of her. She had barely escaped capture on her way out of town and into the forest. Since then, she had been on her own, using her invisibility trick to help her steal what she needed.
Jake sighed when she finished, bowing his head, unable to truly understand, and not wanting to, the attitudes of the humans of this world. His only thought was that he wished he had the words to make it a little better for her, to take some of the pain he had heard in her telling of her story. But then he remembered what she had said the Phoenix had tried to do. Her pain was her own.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said at last.
“I didn’t expect that you would.” The pain in her voice was being covered up now by her icy demeanor which Jake now recognized as a front.
“There’s one question I’d like to ask.”
“You said the mint had a name other than Mint. You said that only you and the jells used that name, and only they used yours.”
“Why do you want to know my name?”
“Does it not bother you that Pixie’s name is what it is? It is no different than if your name was Human.”
“No, it doesn’t. I knew her by that name before I knew the word also described what she was.”
Silhouette sighed, and was quiet for a moment. “You might as well not know because I insist that you tell no one, even of anything else I’ve told you this night.”
“Not even Pixie? She would understand.”
Another pause, then: “No one but her. My name is Shadow.”
“It’s apt,” Jake said.
“Yes. Frost gave it to me,” Silhouette said as she stood and walked away. Jake didn’t need to ask who Frost was, had been.
Both Jake and Pixie laid awake for many hours into to the night, talking of many things, but avoided discussing the Phoenix and what was to come. Both knew that their chances were getting worse every day, and that by choosing to continue toward the Phoenix was giving Moo an advantage.
Jake told her, as he had known he would, about his conversation with Silhouette. Pixie was silent throughout the whole story, nodding once or twice to show that she was listening. When he finished, he half-expected the conversation to turn to the lamentable nature of human beings. Pixie had no interest in revisiting that issue. She turned to face him in the dark.
“You sure have a way with us females,” she said lightly.
“That’s two of us that you’ve gotten to open up to you. Three if you want to count what Holly let me tell you on the way to that town.”
Jake wasn’t counting. “But… I didn’t do anything.” He was taking the conversation a lot more seriously than Pixie was. He didn’t stop to ponder why. Pixie kept her tone light, despite his seriousness.
“How many secrets have you gotten from women on your world?” she asked teasingly.
Jake was finally starting to loosen up, but still kept his tone sober. “None. I was as much of a nobody as the next guy… very average.”
Pixie let her small smile fade away. She knew Jake was conflicted and stressed, but was unsure what to do about it. Without even thinking about it she changed the subject to something she had sensed in him earlier in the night after he had returned from the town.
“Why were you upset about the sentry?”
Jake, elsewhere in thought, did not at first understand what she was asking about. “What?”
“The sentry outside the town wall. You told me it was easy to defeat it, but I felt there was something you didn’t want to talk about.”
-Damn-, Jake thought. He hadn’t wanted to revisit what he had felt earlier that night. He sighed.
“Will you talk about it with me now?” she asked as she reached out and touched his cheek.
He felt her caress and said yes. When Pixie said nothing, he knew she wanted him to just speak his mind.
“What bothers me is that it was so easy,” Jake said.
“But it was only one monster, right?”
“No. I mean, yes. It was just one. I mean I did it without thinking. It was automatic.”
Pixie regarded him for a moment. “I don’t understand why that troubles you.”
“It’s because my power wasn’t under my conscious control then. Another part of me was using it. Something I’m not aware of.” He paused to gather his thoughts, but nothing going through his mind was clear enough to express.
“Go on,” Pixie urged.
“We all have this side to us that is more action and feeling than thought, right?”
“Well, the part of us that thinks generally keeps us out of the trouble the other side… would get us into.”
“Like when we do not think and say something hurtful?”
“Yes, exactly,” Jake said, thinking that while both of them had been guilty of that very same thing, he had done it a lot more often. “Would you want that feeling side of you to be able to use your power like your thinking side?”
Pixie was quiet for a moment. “No,” she whispered.
“Neither would I. That’s why what happened scares me.”
Pixie scooted to him, resting her upper body against him and slipping her arms under his. She held him in that position for a moment before speaking.
“When someone like you is afraid,” she said softly. “It’s hard not to feel the same way.”
Jake tried lamely to reassure her. “It’s nothing, really. I mean…”
“I’ve been afraid for most of my life. But because of Blue, and now you, I’ve been able to live with it. I’ve been able to stop it from taking over my life. Blue does not scare easily. Neither do you.”
Jake thought to object to the last. “When I first got to this world, I was afraid of everything.”
Pixie would have none of it. “And look at you now.”
Jake said nothing at first. With Pixie’s warmth over him, sleep had begun to intrude on his consciousness.
“Yes,” he said. He tilted his head up and kissed Pixie on the forehead. She responded with something much less casual on Jake’s lips. When the kiss was over they held each other until sleep claimed both.
“Magic Stone, show us the way to the Phoenix,” Holly said firmly. After a moment the stone began to glow and lift from her hands. Jake watched it do as it had before, the bird shape flashing on the stone’s surface changing into and arrow. But this time the arrow pointed west. For the past few days it had been leading them southwest.
“Hey,” Hare began, “It’s changed direction again.”
“Great,” Tiger growled.
“Hey! What’s it doing now?” Suezo asked. Jake looked, and had to wait a moment before he saw what the eyeball had. Jake would have been surprised if the monster didn’t have the keenest vision of them all.
The arrow on the stone pulsed briefly and died out as the stone’s brightness increased, and it lifted further in the air, drifting slightly in the direction it had been pointing a moment ago. Then it went dark and dropped back into Holly’s hands.
“I think… we’re close now,” she said.
Jake nodded, and there was a contemptuous smirk on Silhouette’s face, but no one said anything. Hare mentally counted down the seconds until Genki’s excitement bubbled over and caused the kid to burst. He made it to two when the boy spoke. But it wasn’t what anyone expected.
“Well guys, let’s get going!” Genki said. There was still excitement in his voice, but it was tempered now, filtered. He evidently believed what Silhouette had to say about the Phoenix, and his exuberance had taken a blow because of it. But the boy still had hope.
Genki turned from them and began walking off in the indicated direction. He looked back and saw everyone watching him. Just for them, he put the bounce back into his step.
“What is it, Phoenix?” The clay asked. They had made camp on a plain devoid of features save for two massive formations of dark rock lying at an angle to each other and a river to the south of them. There camp was nestled between these formations. The Phoenix knew what they were somehow. They had Moo’s corrupted spiritual stink to them. He had been resting in the center of the camp when he had a strange feeling. He had felt the same, though fainter, the day before while they were in flights.
“They are closer now, seeking me out. Those that you call the Searchers.”
“When will we meet them?” The clay was anxious to see the miracles that would be performed on Pixie’s heart.
“Soon, and I will greet them alone.”
They had been in territory Jake was finding familiar, near to the place where Moo had confronted them for about two hours when Falcon came down to them with news.
“We’ve spotted an army of monsters, camped near the pieces of Moo’s castle.”
“Baddies?” Genki asked. Jake knew that they weren’t.
“We didn’t get close enough to see, kid, but we’ll keep an eye on ‘em.”
“It’s probably the Phoenix and his army,” Jake said. At once he wished he hadn’t.
“Then let’s go!” Genki half-shouted. His exuberance seemed to have returned. “This is what we’ve been waiting for so long!”
“No, Genki, I think we should wait. Make him come to us,” Jake said.
“What for? Moo’s getting stronger every day,” Genki protested.
Jake had to admit to himself that he had no compelling reason to make the Phoenix come to him save for something related to being made to wait for someone to show whose time was more important. Also, they had sought the Phoenix out for so long to revive him. But now that he was up and about, it was time for the bird to do the seeking. Silhouette, surprisingly stepped in and got Jake out of his bind.
“Because, he can move faster than any of us. It’ll just take longer if we go to him,” she said. Jake held his breath, hoping no one would hit on the idea that even less time would be taken off before their meeting with the Phoenix if they met him on the way. But no one did. And Genki conceded.
“I guess you’re right. Let’s make camp.”
When they had finished unloading their sleeping mats and cookware, Jake approached Silhouette.
“Thank you. You helped a lot.”
“I did it for me,” she said sharply. “I’m in no hurry to meet up with that thing again. I’m hoping he doesn’t even know we’re here.”
Jake only stared at her, wondering if it had been a mistake to believe there could be any change in her contemptuous behavior as there had been with Pixie. After a moment, Silhouette softened some.
“I’m… sorry. It’s the light. I don’t like it.”
Jake blinked, then nodded. Her skin was much fairer than Pixie’s and he could understand how the sunlight would be irritating. It irritated him too at times. He also knew she was used to sleeping during the day. That she didn’t offer that too as an excuse was why he accepted her apology as genuine.
Later the entire group, minus the dragons, save for Falcon, sat around an early fire eating a small meal. It was all they had. Tomorrow they would be forced to subsist on the bland oatmeal made from the seeds of the grassland they were in. Falcon and Tiger, of course, were more fortunate. They could survive longer eating just the fish from the river or small mammals that they caught. Jake didn’t want to think what might happen to the rest without any vegetables.
After everyone had eaten, the conversation gradually made it’s way to the Phoenix. Jake wanted to get up and leave for he had done enough talking about the Phoenix. But as he shifted his position to rise, Pixie gave him a look. It said, “stay”.
The conversation drifted from wishful thinking, to strategy, then back to wishful thinking. But, Jake noticed, confidence in the Phoenix had definitely faltered. Gone were the mythical dimensions of the famous monster. Nearly spoiled was the illusion. Yet they still dared to have hope.
“What are you thinking Holly?”
“Huh? What?” The girl had been staring into the fire during the whole conversation. Spacing out, as it was called where Jake was from.
“Don’t worry, Holly,” Golem said in his slow, thoughtful way. “If we carry our hope with us always, we will not fall.”
Holly smiled at her large friend before looking back at the fire. “I was thinking about my father.”
Jake was suddenly glad he’d not gotten up to leave, rather, that Pixie had stopped him with just one glance.
“What about him?” Genki asked.
“He… he…” She began. She stumbled forward when she looked up at Jake and Pixie and saw their faces. Both smiled gently, silently urging her to continue.
“I never… told you guys what happened in Moo’s castle.”
“What does that mean?” Suezo asked. His eye was riveted on his friend.
“Moo… showed me who he was.”
Holly paused for moment, trying to give one of the others the chance to fill in the blank for her. But no one spoke. Jake saw Silhouette looking at the others, and then she rolled her eyes. He knew she had figured it out. He shot her a brief glare when she opened her mouth. The answer died on her lips. Finally, Golem got the picture.
“Holly, is Moo your father?” he said. There was a child-like innocence in his tone.
“Yes… No… My father found Moo’s mind after he was banished from our village.”
“Oh Holly,” Suezo rasped. The eyeball hopped a bit to be closer to his friend.
“This dagger,” Holly said, holding the object up for the others to see. “It belonged to him. Moo used it for proof.”
“Maybe Moo just stole it from your father,” Genki said. Jake was immensely relieved that the boy did not say “killed your father and took it from him”.
“No. It’s him. He showed me.”
Hare spoke next. “It makes sense because Moo can use the Magic Stone.”
“I keep wondering what will happen to him when the Phoenix and Moo meet… or if Moo gets his ancient body back,” Holly said softly. Thankfully no one attempted an answer.
“I never did get to say goodbye to him.”
Golem, more talkative that night than Jake had ever seen him, said, “Golem wishes there was a way for Holly to say goodbye.” He was sitting behind Holly in a pale imitation of how Pixie and Big Blue sat together every night, as well as at that moment.
“So do I,” Suezo said.
“Holly. The stone lit up,” Jake said suddenly.
“After Golem said he wished that you could say goodbye, it flashed briefly.” He had seen it even though the girl wore the stone under her outermost clothing.
“Maybe the Phoenix is coming!” Mocchi said a little too brightly.
“No. My dragons would have warned us by now,” Falcon said.
“Maybe the stone is trying to tell you something,” Golem said, awe now in his voice.
“I was thinking about what you said about wishing, and I made the same wish in my mind.”
“Holly, can the stone be used to talk to people?” Pixie asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve never used it any other way.”
“There’s no harm in trying, right Holly?” Genki said.
“I… I don’t know you guys…” she began. “It may be my only chance,” she finished in almost a whisper.
“We’re with you. Whatever you do,” Suezo said. Jake suddenly felt miserable for the monster’s condition with never an arm to reach out to place reassuringly on her shoulder.
“Let’s do it,” Holly said firmly but quietly. And the, almost too faint to hear: “Before I lose my nerve.”
She pulled the front of her red shirt out a bit as she withdrew the stone, taking it in her right hand. She shifted in position, adopting one more appropriate for concentration. She focused on it as she always did, but instead of asking about the Phoenix, she asked about her father. Nothing happened. She tried twice more, pouring her will into it each time. Still nothing.
“Focus on Holly everybody,” Genki said. “Maybe we can help.”
“Right, Chi!” the little monster squeaked. Jake watched as Mocchi squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his jaws. Jake preferred to keep his eyes open while he concentrated so he could watch. He took a sidelong glance at Pixie and saw her sitting upright with her head bowed, and her hands clasped in front of her breasts. She looked like she was praying. Instead of looking back at Holly, he watched Pixie. He recalled the image he had used when he had started reviving Big Blue and felt the energy within him instantly leap to his command. Instead of focusing it on some point outside him, he visualized it moving to his mind. He turned to look back at Holly when Pixie began to glow softly. He saw that they all were, even Falcon. He was also dimly aware of Silhouette backing away from the group; he didn’t blame her. Then Jake turned his concentration on Holly.
Holly nearly whispered her request. “Magic Stone, let me speak with my father.”
The glow around them all abruptly winked out and nothing else happened, or so it seemed. Suezo saw the glow first, then it became visible to everyone, building slowly, as though deliberating how it was going to perform the feat asked of it. It lifted slowly from Holly’s hands as its glow became a bright swirl of colors. Blue, green, white, all intermingling as did the colors of the rainbows in the patterns of light on the film of a soap bubble.
Then something snaked out from it, an extension of the glow, its edges soft and indistinct. It reached to the sky, gathering speed as it angled, heading north. Despite the strangeness of it, and the absolute silence that seemingly screamed to be broken, no one spoke. A minute passed, two, then the glow from the stone expanded in a sphere. Its touch was painless, and the transition from the world to what lay inside the glow was drastic but easy. It was as though all had anticipated it.
Farther north in the snowy wastes, Moo slept in his castle. His bed was a slab of rock set at an angle, and whenever Moo would feel the weakness of physical tiredness, he’d lay on the slab and sleep. In that sleep there were dreams, mad, twisted images. Most were abstract, but in this case they were clear. He had Big Blue suspended from his hands like a marionette, using him as a puppet to hurt the traitor. But she stubbornly resisted for she saw the strings and understood. Moo carved the defiance from her when he made a show of cutting the strings. And still the golem hurt her. There was no resistance now, only a broken form that he gleefully watched the golem break further. He relished every twist and turn in her suffering, hearing it in her screams.
But something was coming. He turned from the show and saw it, a vast worm, not like those created by the ancient people, but something else, something that would have horrified any other monster, human or otherwise. The thing rushed at him, it’s gaping mouth revealing an abyss lined with hooked fangs. Its outside was not much different. Moo smiled then leapt to meet it… and woke up.
The man in the dark was hiding, always hiding, having envisioned himself a cave within the night. By keeping silent the night would not find him. He had once made the mistake of speaking, and had almost been found, caught and mangled as though by a beast. He understood that his body was already taken from him, that the image of himself as a man in a cave existed for its comfort in the familiar.
Occasionally he would stand at the mouth of the cave and look out. The darkness was hard to look at, but sometimes there would be a brief lapse in its impenetrable nature and he would see beyond. A girl. Her friends. A stone. He knew who she was, and what she was doing, for the darkness knew, which was why those brief glimpses of the outside were always energetically smothered, hidden from the man’s sight.
Now he sat while the darkness grew thicker. It had almost found what it was looking for despite the distant threat of the light. When the darkness went to where it belonged, he too would be taken with it, along with his cave. Salvation would be impossible then, and he would walk to the mouth of the cave and call out a challenge. After that he would be no more.
But before any of that could come to pass, something unexpected happened. The darkness was asleep, stirring, but asleep. During one such slumber, a voice, Holly’s voice, called out to him. Her voice was out there, in the dark. How long it had been since he’d seen her? It had been so long that he gave what he did then no thought. He boldly emerged from his cave knowing he would never hide in it again. The voice was coming from a light and the man approached it. He knew he had to step into the light to speak. But speaking would give him away, and there would be no escape out here in the middle of the darkness.
But ultimately there was no question. It was Holly! And there were things the darkness knew that she needed to know. He was afraid, but did not hesitate.
“Father, come to me, please.”
The scene was of peace and nature. All stood on the grassy peak of one gentle hill in a seemingly endless vista of them. The green was broken in places only by vast fields of flowers of all colors. The air was cool and sweet, and the breeze was a shade warmer. Shapeless clouds drifted by. In the distance floated a massive thunderstorm, reaching ten miles into the sky, it’s top fanning out as with any normal storm of its magnitude. The edge of its anvil crossed the zenith, but did nothing to inhibit the warmth coming from the blue elsewhere in the sky. Despite the destructive power everyone knew existed in such storms, there was no sense of menace in it. It was a part of the beauty.
Holly was sitting as she had been, cross-legged with both hands held out together in front of her, touching, palms up. Those closest to her stood around her, in a semi-circle, now looking at her after taking in the surroundings. Jake, Pixie, and Big Blue stood farther off; Falcon was even farther away. Holly looked up, not at her friends, but elsewhere on their hill. She stood when her eyes found her father. The man, Jake saw, was tall, with a solid frame and a kind, bearded face.
Holly took a few steps toward him, but halted when she saw the scowl on his face.
Moo woke up to find himself in alien surroundings. It was a natural place, on as yet untouched by his destruction. Rolling hills, gentle breezes, and the clouds… none of it spoke to whatever dark version of aesthetic appreciation he possessed. Not even the great thunderstorm spoke to him. He would take the canvas before him and add his touch. He raised his hands. They were wrong, normal, un-clawed and unarmored. He knew at once that he was not himself. And, he knew he was not alone. He dropped his hands back to his side and looked up. She was there, the girl Holly. Her friends were with her, so was the leader of those pirate dragons. Incredibly, the traitor herself was also there, with her servant and the stranger. -He must be the one-, Moo thought. He looked back at Pixie. -The way they stand! Holding each other’s hand!- Moo tried to jump back and away from the horrible sight, but he couldn’t move. Then Holly stood and moved toward him, and again he tried to pull back, run away from the hateful place with its hateful sights. He focused his strength and pulled. And finally he was free, streaking back away, the image of a man standing where he had been. The man was familiar. Moo knew he was Holly’s father. But he was away now. The problem was that he had not pulled himself away. He had been *pushed*.
Yet he was still forced to watch Holly run to the man, forced to watch the tender moment between them and hear their words. For the first, and only, time in his life, Moo knew he was having a nightmare. -The man’s words! That voice. It IS HIM!!!- For as long as Moo had had his present body, its prior owner’s mind had evaded him, hiding away, only once nearly giving up its position. Now it so boldly spoke, that human. There would be no more hiding. -This is going to end-, he thought and began to gather his will.
The scowl was out of place and Holly stood rooted to the spot, unsure of what to do. The setting was so peaceful, so… pure that the expression on her fathers face was no more than a mere flaw. As with the great thunderstorm many miles away, the frown carried with it no menace, no indication of darkness beneath. Then the man moved, shivered, shrugging as though discarding a loosely worn coat. Then he smiled, and Holly was seeing her father.
“Daddy!” She rushed toward him, into his arms. They held each other for what felt to be all too brief a period of time. There were tears, but there was no sadness in them. Here, there was no room for pain; just the sense of having finally been reunited with someone after what felt like an infinite gulf had been placed between them. “Daddy,” Holly repeated when she found her voice.
Her father spoke when at last his voice would not choked with emotion. Yet some of it still remained.
“My daughter. I have much to tell you, but my time here is brief. You must listen to me. Your friends must listen to me.”
Holly pulled back some as he spoke and kept him at arm’s length. While she felt as though she was truly with her father again, she understood, and accepted, the limit that had been imposed upon him. She looked into his eyes, silently asking him to speak.
“You’ve grown so much… become so beautiful… so strong. And what you are trying to do here, your persistence, your bravery… I cannot express what it makes me feel using little words like pride and love. Through the dark I have caught glimpses of your journey, and have felt nothing but hope. It has kept me sane in here. All of these years.”
Holly’s father paused, looking up as though he sensed something on the breeze. He turned back to his daughter, speaking with a nearly imperceptible urgency.
“Holly. Moo lied to you. I left our village according to our law. In the past, before the law, other powerful men who had lost their bids for leadership stayed. Their resentfulness was destructive. Later they were made to leave. It could not matter that some of those that left would not have caused any problems had they stayed. Holly, I left so they would not banish you too.
“My plan was to return. My plan was not to find the Phoenix, or Moo. My plan was to find the means to support you when I ultimately came back to the village to take you with me. That was all I ever wanted. Fate had different plans. Moo lies. ” Tears were again streaming down Holly’s face. “I know, Daddy.”
Again he raised his head, and Jake, even from his distance, thought he saw the man shudder slightly. When he spoke again, his voice was even more urgent.
“What you are trying to do, my daughter, is motivated by your pure heart. But the Phoenix of legend, Holly, is not what you are going to find.”
“No, we *have* to find him!” Holly’s protest was barely a whisper, but all heard.
“Listen to me,” her father said sternly, but gently. “Moo knows. Has always known. He is the only monster to have met the Phoenix in battle. The ancient people made the Phoenix to destroy him, yet it did not happen. The two monsters did fight but… Holly, it was an even match. And that is all it can ever be.”
“No… why the legends…”
“Are partially true. The Phoenix can revive lost disks, as can Moo, as can your newest friend over there with Pixie. He can revive them all, as could Moo if he wished. And he can warp monsters’ minds, as has Moo, and… he can restore their minds, as Moo is capable of, but will never do.”
“We must… find him.” Holly was beyond speaking, and it was solely her commitment that uttered those few words.
“You will. It’s going to all happen very soon. Your task is different now. Stop looking for his body. Stop looking for him. I wish desperately that I could ask you to turn and run far away from where you are headed…”
The man paused and they could all see him struggling inside.
“You must go north. You must go to Moo.”
Holly spoke, her voice clearer now. “How do we stop him if the Phoenix can’t?”
“You can’t stop him with attacks, no matter your combined might. Moo thrives on hate, on pain. There is so much of both in this world, *in all worlds*, that while those like your new friend there can hurt him, badly, they can never defeat him.”
Holly was shaking her head. Finding the Phoenix had been her purpose for so long, and now she was being told by her own father that it was hopeless. If only she had cause to believe that this was just one of Moo’s lies. But there was absolutely no doubt.
“Why bother then? Why go north?”
“I cannot know the specifics, my daughter. But I do know that a long time ago, after I recovered from the shock at having my body torn from me, I dared to express emotion at what Moo was doing to others. There was anger and hate, which fed him, but there was also grief. That was when he almost found me, for that brief instant of grief was agony to him.”
“Grief,” Holly muttered numbly.
“You have enough of it in you, in all of you, that you can make a difference. You have done so much, even called me from within Moo’s dark mind. You can do this too. You can make him feel your grief. There is so much power in that stone, but it is only as a tool. It is *you* that has the real power. If it is what must be done, you can do it by focusing your will through that stone.”
Holly was beginning to believe again. “But will our grief be enough? Against his evil?”
“It has to be.” Holly’s father stopped and looked up, and around. And for the first time Jake took his eyes away from the two. He looked around and saw them, the spots, black pinpoints everywhere. As he watched, they began to slowly diffuse like ink on wet paper. He looked at Pixie. She had seen them too and squeezed his hand. They turned back to father and daughter when the latter spoke.
“He’s coming now. We must part soon.”
“No,” Holly moaned.
“Grief and the stone. Stand together, all of you. You know he feeds on hate and I won’t ask you not to hate him, but understand that it will distract you from the proper course.”
“And there is something else.”
Jake could see Holly’s grip on her father’s arms tighten.
“The Phoenix and Moo will meet in battle. There is but one outcome if the Phoenix cannot win. He will die. What matters is how he dies. He *must not* waste all his energy trying to stop Moo.”
For there the first time there was a sound other than the breeze, and the two voices. It was a distance scream, a shriek and a bellow in one. Jake shivered when he heard it. Pixie felt it and squeezed his hand again. All looked briefly at the sky. The darkness had drawn together in some places, eating at the purity of the environment, ever expanding. The breeze no longer smelled sweet.
“You must confront the Phoenix too. Convince him of his duty.”
“All the other monsters and lost disks,” Holly said. That there was a new mission in the wake of the one that had failed even before its completion, helped to steady her.
“And you?” and then she was babbling when her father shook his head. “H... He can help you to, daddy… take your m…mind back to your body… bring you back.”
“I’m dead, Holly.”
“NO!” There were tears again, though none of happiness this time.
“Holly! Listen. You will soon find what is left of my body. Leave it. There’s nothing about me left there. Save your grief for Moo.”
Holly jerked back from her father and was trying to yell, but her voice was losing a war against sobs. “I... If… M... Moo and the Ph... if they can take bodies from others, they can g... give them back!”
“No, they can’t. Moo knows what his possession of my body did to it. It can never again be a vessel for a man. There’s nothing in either monster’s power that could repair the damage,” her father said calmly. He had known this was going to happen. He had understood that Moo would awaken, and their final meeting would come to an end, expedited by the pain his daughter now felt. But she was so young, and was losing her father for the second time in her life. If their situations had been reversed, and he was about to lose his daughter, he would be feeling the same way. Yet, she would not truly lose him.
The stinking breeze had grown into a wind, and that wind was finding its voice. Jake noticed the grass starting to turn brown.
Holly’s father stepped toward her and took her in his arms. After a moment, her arms moved around him.
“Remember what you have to do.”
Through her sobs, Holly said “Ok”
“And the stone…” he said. What he said next sent shivers through both Jake and Pixie.
“I will never leave you.”
Then the darkness was there, on them, around them.
All ten became aware of where they were, sitting in exactly the same position as when they had started. The fire was only slightly smaller than it had been before they began. No one spoke.
The first to move was Holly… she backed violently away from where she had been sitting, backing into Golem, and then collapsed against his knee. Her face was hidden by her arms, but there were no sobs.
Jake discovered that he was shivering, and so was Pixie. Everyone was. He felt powerless to move toward the girl, and ultimately only Genki did.
The boy shuffled toward her and knelt by her side. When he lightly touched her, she looked up. Her face was dry. The look there spoke of a person forcibly aged in mind and spirit. A moment later it passed, most of it. The quiet was broken by Silhouette as she came running into the clearing.
“Falcon says he’s coming. The Phoenix. He’s here.”
Moo exploded from his dream. He had been locked onto that last bit of human. And it had eluded him at the last moment, gone to an unknown place, back along the worm that Moo had mistakenly felt kinship with for its frightful nature. As he had tried to crush the man, he had seen the worm for what it was, but had needed to focus on intruding on the little world that had been created for Holly, her friends, and her father. And he had almost gotten him. In the dream he had heard every word, but even now, as he raged about his private room, slashing at the bare walls, and pulverizing his stone slab, they were fading from his mind.
When he had calmed some he stormed through the doorway, and down the corridor. He was done with them, the Searchers. They had been meddlesome and irritating before, but *never* had then been so bold, or so powerful, as to do such a thing as intruding into his sleep and taking away those last vestiges of the human mind that once controlled the body he now wore. What they had done had signed their death warrants. All of them. Even the traitor. He would find other evil to do.
He almost stepped on the weed, which had been cowering at the sound of the master’s approach. And when Moo saw the quivering underling, he almost did strike. But then the monster held up what he had been bringing to Moo. It was the only thing that would allow any monster to intrude on Moo in his private room, let alone even be in the corridor: the locked disk containing his body.
Moo swept both of them up and continued on his way, shortly reaching the control center of his castle. Once there he wrenched the squealing weed from its death-grip on the disk and hurled the monster across the room. Minus a few of his fingers, the underling sent in place by his cowardly weed captain, would live another day.
“I have something to attend to on the surface,” Moo boomed. Once I depart, I want the Searchers destroyed! Everyone and everything will converge on them at once. Both Naga and Gray Wolf’s armies.”
The weed captain was silent, cowering beneath a control panel, having done his kind’s equivalent of wetting himself. It was a jell that spoke, one that was not particularly bright.
“But Master Moo, we do not know they’re exact pos…” Then Moo was on him, sweeping him up and hurling him across the room to the vast world map against one wall. Moo’s aim was precise, and the resulting lost disk was rooted to the wall at a point far to the south of they’re location.
“Does anyone require greater precision?” Moo asked in a disturbingly gentle voice. When no monster dared even a breath, Moo went on. “No… they will be coming this way now, quickly, with my old enemy.” He stalked over to the wall and slapped the lost disk aside. “I want Naga’s forces to come in from the west, Gray Wolf’s from the south and east. They are to keep they’re distance until the time is right. My castle will be in the main attack, from the north. I want it supported on all sides. Depart the moment I’m on the ground.” And with that he was gone.
The weed captain had passed out underneath the control panel when Moo had used the jell as a marker. His second shakily took over.
“Make the preparations,” he stammered.
Pixie’s first thought upon seeing the Phoenix descend out of the darkening sky was that Moo had come. But when he landed, she could see the differences. Although the Phoenix had similar armor and a masked face, he was slightly shorter, his armor red and black, and a vaguely bird-like cast to his mask. Nor were there horns sprouting from his helmet, and when she later saw him from the back, she saw that where Moo had flowing white hair, the Phoenix’s was read and feathery.
Jake had felt her initially tense before the Phoenix landed and glanced at her questioningly. He had never seen Moo, so he did not understand.
“I am pleased to meet you all at last,” Phoenix said after his feet touched the ground. His voice was not a veiled snarl like Moo’s was. It had a gentle quality, though it had a dimension to it that implied something unpleasant, something almost menacing. Genki spoke first.
“You look just like Moo!”
Phoenix tilted his head down briefly as though appraising his appearance. “Yes. I’m afraid the change was automatic. You see, my mind took over this body, but I was not allowed control over what took place.”
“Wh.. Who’s body is it?” Holly asked. She was standing very close to Golem, her hands clutched over the Magic Stone.
“A man. An unfortunate soldier from Genki’s world.”
“What!? You’re saying *another* person got pulled through?” Genki said. It was the same question Jake had been about to ask.
“That is not important right now, Genki. You have been in search of me for a long time. Now we must join together and take our quest to Moo. Are you ready?”
Jake was surprised at how calm Genki was, how *subdued*. It made his other friends nervous.
“Sure. I’m ready,” the boy said.
“Unfortunately there is a problem here. Many problems,” Phoenix said, stepping forward and looking at the group. “Much pain and hate.”
“They’ve all been through a lot, Phoenix,” Holly said.
“And they’re journeys through the fire are now at an end, if they’ll only take my hand.” Phoenix was still looking around, and Jake tensed when his gaze settled on Pixie.
“You, Pixie, have been hurt the worst. I can feel the pain in your heart despite those that are with you to mend it.”
Jake took a step towards Pixie, reaching for her and gently touching her arm. Her eyes were riveted on Phoenix. His head snapped back toward the monster when he extended a hand.
“Leave her alone,” Jake said softly.
“Leave my mind,” Pixie whispered.
Silhouette was standing behind the others, so none saw her go rigid.
Despite himself, despite all the good things he had heard about the Phoenix, Tiger felt his hackles rise. So did Hare.
“Phoenix?” Genki asked.
“He tries to take what is not his place to take,” Golem said softly.
The Phoenix took a step toward Pixie, and then another, his hand still held out to her. She remained motionless.
“You only need to let go. Take the first step. What they did to you, your owners. What Moo did to you. It doesn’t have to feel that way,” he said.
“Get… out of my mind,” Pixie said quietly. But Jake heard the desperation and anger in her voice, and somehow knew she was using all of her mental energy to keep the Phoenix from doing whatever it was doing inside her mind.
“Please,” Pixie whispered. The Phoenix appeared not to hear.
Jake raised his left hand, his right still touching Pixie’s arm, and held it, palm out, toward Phoenix.
“No,” Jake murmered. He looked at Pixie again in time to see a tear roll down her cheek.
“I… don’t… want you to,” she said in such a tiny voice that no one could have possibly heard. But Jake did. Phoenix was violating her, despite his honest intentions. He was able to take away all of what haunted Pixie when she dreamed at night, able to remove her pain and hate, and leave her to a life she was meant to live. But to do it he had see and touch Pixie in a way that Jake never could. And she didn’t want that.
“*Jake*…” Pixie whimpered.
“Leave…” Jake began, speaking forcefully while still looking at Pixie.
“…*help* …” Tears in her voice.
“… her…” Energy surging through him.
“…*me*.” As miserable as he had ever heard her.
Half of the small amount of energy he had been able to draw was spent in forming the other half in a cohesive form, closely resembling the pale ball of energy Pixie had used on Moo’s castle. The resulting shape shot from Jake’s hand and streaked toward Phoenix. It struck, there was a small explosion, and Phoenix was catapulted backward. He landed and tumbled into a heap.
Pixie dropped to her knees, and Jake went down to her. Jake pulled her close and held her trembling body. A voice boomed in the night.
“NO ONE DOES THIS TO PIXIE!!!” It was Big Blue, and he was charging toward Phoenix as the monster rose to his feet.
“BLUE NO!!!” Jake screamed.
Phoenix stepped quickly aside in time to avoid being struck by Big Blue’s fist and the momentum of the punch hurled the golem to the ground. He began to rise, but stopped with eyes wide. Jake knew what was happening.
“Phoenix!!! Don’t make do it again!!!” he screamed.
Big Blue immediately regained a more normal countenance, which then turned ugly as he prepared to attack Phoenix again.
“Blue. Stop.” Big Blue almost did not hear Pixie’s request, but he did and complied.
“I’m ok, Blue.”
“Master Pixie…” Blue’s voice was full of misery and Jake suddenly felt like crying. Big Blue came straight to Pixie’s right side and knelt beside her.
“I do not understand,” the Phoenix said. “Why would anyone, monster or human, wish to live with such anger.”
“Phoenix never had time to learn,” Golem said.
“Learn what?” Phoenix asked. His voice was not defensive. So innocent was the monster that the question spoke of nothing but curiosity and bafflement.
“It is wrong to take the hurt away faster than it was given.” Later, Jake would remember Golem’s words and think: -I couldn’t have said it better-.
“Pixie’s hurt is her own. It is a part of her. Take it away, and you only cause more hurt,” Golem added.
Phoenix paused, seeming to deeply consider Golem’s words. But he was slow in learning the lesson.
“All of you have pain. Will you all say that you would rather live with it than have it taken from you?”
Despite the wording that made no mention of how integral some pain is to an identity, everyone the question was asked of said “yes”, one after the other. Even Silhouette answered, though hers was almost inaudible. She had been stunned by what she had seen. She had never been with Frost long enough to see how far others would go for those they loved, but she had seen both Jake and Big Blue strike at the only being that stood a chance at stopping Moo. She had talked enough with Jake to know that even he, who had been on this quest for no more than four months, had believed in the Phoenix’s… purity. And he had attacked the monster. For Pixie.
The Phoenix paused even longer before, in the wake of an affirmative answer from all eleven present before him. But it reminded Jake of a computer dealing with something it was not programmed to deal with.
“I do not understand,” the Phoenix said again. “Your pain will only feed Moo when you stand against him.”
“Then we’ll just have to take that chance,” Genki said. The energy was back, but it contributed only to the authority with which Genki spoke.
“You seven alone, those that sought me at first… Free of hatred and pain you could defeat Moo as he now is. Yet your potential is unrealized because those emotions that encumber you.”
“They could do as you say they can” Pixie said almost evenly. But her voice still sounded shaky to Jake. “But they would do so incomplete.”
“You don’t want to cut them,” Holly said.
“To… mutilate them,” Jake added. He felt, rather than saw, Pixie turn to look at him. When he did look, he saw a look that made his heart both leap and melt at the same time.
Now Phoenix took the longest pause, a full minute passed before he spoke again.
“Then if you face Moo, you will face him whole. Yet I still ask that you join me in facing him. You can get there sooner if you do.”
Jake didn’t expect any answer, let alone the one Genki voiced.
“Yes. But on one condition.”
“Yes?” Phoenix asked.
“That you give us your word. Promise that you won’t try to change any of us like you tried with Pixie. Promise.”
Genki turned and looked at Pixie. Jake looked at her too when she whispered in Genki’s direction. “It’s a promise, made forever, can’t be broken, no not never.” Then she held up her right hand, all fingers closed into a fist except her little finger. Jake glanced at Genki and saw that the boy was still looking their way, and had done the same.
“I agree, Genki,” Pixie again whispered. The boy smiled, no, he beamed.
Jake had felt that something important had just transpired despite what little information his senses had just given him.
“I promise,” Phoenix said.
“What? Just like that?” Silhouette said to herself.
The Searchers knew that the Phoenix had not been “awake” for long and so they were surprised at the number of monsters in his army. Still, they were undoubtedly smaller in number than those that served Moo. But, as far as numbers went, Jake thought they might actually have a chance. The variety alone was astonishing enough. There were many dinos, all having the same general shape of the carnivorous dinosaurs he had seen in movies like Jurassic Park. There were several different kinds of jells, some of which temporarily caused Pixie to tense. They had been green, and had scales. There were even Salamanders, and some dragons that were not of Falcon’s group.
Most of the Searchers were ambivalent about the monsters traveling with Phoenix. The exceptions were Tiger and Golem. The Phoenix told Tiger that there were former pack-mates nearby, but Tiger had made it clear he wanted no reunion. He knew well enough they’d not be the same tigers he had run with in times past. And Golem… he was joyous that Phoenix had revived all the monsters in his old garden. But he had seen Tiger’s reaction, and was now well aware that the Phoenix’s influence on them would be no less distorted than if Moo had found them. He too refused the opportunity to be reunited with old friends.
The Phoenix was baffled, but decided it would cause the least pain to respect their wishes.
Another jell, an opaque, black one had rushed up to Pixie and energetically welcomed her to their ranks. Most baffling to Jake was the declaration of forgiveness the clay, as he called himself, made. Later, when Jake had a chance to talk to Pixie in relative privacy, he asked her about it.
“He’s just one of the monsters that served under me before I betrayed Moo,” she told him.
“Oh. Um… Why did he forgive you?”
Pixie sighed and Jake started to regret asking her the question. He knew that he should have long since realized which questions were hard for her to answer. And that was all questions that pertained to her past. He knew she sometimes would rather have that past permanently buried. But that, in effect, had been what Phoenix had offered, and that had just been some form of mental rape. But, Jake realized, there were also times when exposing the past was what she needed.
“I killed him,” she said slowly. “For… exercising his judgment.”
“It was before I first met Genki. He and his friends attacked the monsters under my command because they saw how we had enslaved the humans.” Pixie paused, trying to read Jake’s expression. She continued when she saw nothing critical there. “The clay captain… made the mistake of not pursuing the Searches with his men. He chose to report to me. I killed him for that.”
Jake nodded and said, “I see.” He didn’t know what else to say. Pixie’s posture and expression asked for nothing. But her voice did.
“How much does my past matter to you?”
Jake was caught off guard by the question and it took him a long moment to reply. “Not at all.” It felt like a lie even as it passed his lips.
Pixie tilted her head and gave him a skeptical look. Still, it was a mesmerizing expression and Jake stared. “But you stopped Phoenix from taking the effects of my past form me.”
Jake began talking, haltingly. “That was because… because y… you didn’t want that. Like Golem said. It would have made you incomplete. Right?”
Pixie nodded. “Yes. But wouldn’t you prefer I not have all this pain inside me?”
Jake, at that moment, didn’t see the question for what it was: a test. Pixie didn’t realize it either.
“No. It’s part of who you are now, like it or not. And I love you,” he said slowly, carefully. He passed the test.
“I know,” she whispered as she snuggled against him. He held her for as long as he could. It was nearing bedtime, and there was a fire going somewhere; a fire Big Blue was sitting alone by. Though she had sat with him earlier in the night, Pixie needed to return to her friend.
“See you later,” she whispered to Jake, leaving him with a kiss on his cheek.
Pixie sat with Big Blue in silence for almost an hour, sitting between his outstretched legs, resting against his lower body. She knew she needed to talk to him, but it pained her knowing what Big Blue was feeling about the night’s prior events. She was about to bring it up when Big Blue spoke.
“Master Pixie, I’m so sorry.”
“Blue, no. There’s no reason to be.”
As it always was, her large friend essentially protested her forgiveness. “But I failed you. Again. When the Phoenix tried to change you.”
Pixie had learned long ago how to defuse his guilt. “Blue, did you know what he was trying to do?”
“N… no,” he stammered. “I could not see that he was hurting you.”
“Then why do you feel guilty? You have no reason to apologize,” she said softly.
“But he did try,” Big Blue insisted. “I took my eyes off of you! If I hadn’t, I would have seen.” Blue had a point… that is if Pixie had cared that her friend had been distracted. Truthfully, she was impressed that he was able to believe in something, Phoenix, enough that he would look at it, and not her for a change.
“Blue… I know what I mean to you. I know what you mean to me. I beg you not to hurt about this. Even Jake did not see it.”
“But he did. And he stopped it,” Blue said somberly. “If I was more like him…”
Pixie quickly cut that thought off. “But you are not. And he’s not like you. But I love you both. I love *you*, Blue.” It was not the first time she had told him that, but it was the first time in those words. It made him pause.
“I know Jake is different, Pixie. I know you feel for him differently than me.”
Pixie knew he’d never be jealous. They had never even been the suggestion that they’d be more than friends in all their years together. Pixie thought of that and took a chance.
“But I would not accept such a delay in action from him as I do you, Blue. I’ve known you so much longer.” She stood, turning to face her friend, craning her neck to look into his face, and reaching with both hands to touch his face. She stopped gambling and spoke the words her heart was offering. “There’s a piece of my heart he can never have, Blue. And as long as we both breathe, that part of me will always be with you.”
Big Blue answered in a halting voice. She felt that he was close to tears. So was she. “Like… like how you still sit with me at night, by a fire.”
“Yes,” she said, pleasure in her voice. “Those few nights when you were… gone… I spent *our* time with him. It never felt the same. Do you understand?”
“I do, Pixie.” He had stopped calling her “master” like he always did during an intimate conversation. She knew the use of her former title would resume the next day. But at the moment, she didn’t care.
The golem sighed. “I will never leave you,” he told her. Despite the cold shiver that went through her for the second time that night, she was touched by his words. He always made that promise. And always kept it. She had never counted his being cut down by Moo as a betrayal.
“I know you won’t, my friend,” she said.
While Pixie talked with Big Blue, Jake wandered over to a different fire where the other Searchers sat speaking with Phoenix. He sat down and quietly listened as they told Phoenix of their journey, and how they had to meet each other. Some of it Jake had heard before, but not in as much detail. Genki’s voice turned proud as he spoke of their first meeting with Pixie, and how that ultimately resulted in her and Big Blue leaving Moo’s “family”. Jake listened carefully though he already knew the story, if only Pixie’s side of it. Other than Jake, the only one not to speak in the retelling of their journey was Holly. It was Suezo that spoke of the events mentioned before he and Holly had met Genki. Jake felt the girl was silent because she was thinking of the best way to tell Phoenix what she needed to tell him. She did look thoughtful.
Finally it came to be Jake’s turn to tell his side of things. He kept it brief, and modest, enduring several interjections by Genki as the boy strived to cast Jake’s contribution to their group in greater light. Nevertheless Jake finished the story, only briefly mentioning Silhouette.
“Yes, that one. I should have learned from her example. Yet I thought her unique in her desire to hold on to her suffering,” Phoenix said slowly.
“Wait a minute!” Genki said.
All looked at him.
“You skipped the part about Big Blue!” The boy was beaming, obviously unaware that Jake had intentionally left that out.
Jake tried lamely to bypass the subject. “It’s ok, Genki, we have other things to discuss.”
“That’s right,” Holly said, “We have to talk about what…”
Genki appeared to hear none of it. “Tell Phoenix what Moo did, and how you took it back.” Obviously the kid thought Jake’s omission of that particular detail had been in embarrassed modesty, and felt that it wasn’t his place to reveal the “secret”. Jake simply didn’t want Phoenix knowing he had that kind of power. He still wanted to have some surprises on his side in the unthinkable event the Phoenix went out of line again. But then Jake remembered how he had knocked him down. Though he had caused no damage, he knew it was something no monster could ever have done.
“I would hear of these events,” Phoenix said. “Please.”
Jake kept it short. “When Moo came to attack us, I guess he was only there to hurt Pixie. He fired at us for a moment, then turned the lasers of his castle on Big Blue. He died. Moo left. Many days later I went back and revived him.”
“How great your love for her that you did what a human cannot do,” Phoenix said after a moment of consideration.
“Well, obviously I did do it.”
“Reviving lost disks takes great power, Jake. You could not have done it without cost.”
“It nearly killed me,” Jake said flatly.
Phoenix paused again, and then began making the subject more difficult than it already was. “A sacrifice you were willing to make?”
“You would have traded your life for his. Why fill a hole in one’s heart with what has been carved from another hole?”
Jake could only shake his head.
“The man whose body I have taken…” Phoenix began softly. “I have heard his thoughts, and have known his world through them. One of the noblest acts in the world you and Genki come from is to give your life for another. I do not understand.”
“Neither do I really.”
“Would your death have hurt Pixie less than being without Big Blue?”
Jake now knew the real reason why he had not wanted to speak of Big Blue’s resurrection. This was it; the reopening of doors that led to painful thoughts. “I don’t want to talk about this.”
“This is important to me. I must understand.”
Jake snapped back. “Understand what? Why?”
“Feelings such as love and courage. Actions such as sacrifice. I was made for the sole purpose of stopping Moo. My makers did not have the time to gift me with the inborn capacity of such noble emotions.”
“Phoenix,” Holly began.
“Even as Moo is now I do not likely rival his strength. He nearly has his ancient body. I feel it,” Phoenix said.
Genki burst in, always at arms against the loss of hope. “Then we’ll just have to concentrate and reach your ancient body too!”
Phoenix shook his head slowly. “There is no more time. My body fell with his. Now that I am close to my disk again, I feel the weight of the ice on it. Moo would find us before we could get close enough.”
“But we still have to try!”
Phoenix ignored the boy’s protest. “You all began a quest with the ultimate goal of defeating Moo. And you will finish it. But I will not be the one to lead you into victory.”
“But you can’t give up!” Genki shouted. “We need you to do this!”
Golem spoke. “Phoenix will not abandon us. He will fight Moo until the end.”
“Yes, Golem. I will fight Moo. And I…”
“Will die,” Holly murmured. She felt no relief for not having needed to raise the subject on her own.
“Yes. But I will hurt him. I know this. Then you must do the rest.”
“But how?” Genki said. The sound of defeat in his voice was disturbing. He was not thinking of what they had done earlier in the night. Not thinking of the words of Holly’s father.
“I saw the link tonight,” Phoenix said. “I do not know what was said, but I suspect you talked with your father, Holly. He has been within Moo and must know of his weaknesses.”
“He does. He did,” Holly said sadly. Strangely, none present felt the need to discuss what each side had to do any further.
“What happens now?” Genki said. He was deflated in a way Jake had not seen him before, not even after Big Blue was killed.
“We rest. We will rise and have a last feast together. Then we will move onward and engage Moo’s army for they are gathering as we speak. They will be of no consequence. Moo will be but a moment after that.”
“But he can’t sacrifice himself,” Genki said as though Phoenix was not even there. The boy was looking down at his feet, lost. “He has to revive all the monsters and change all the baddies into… into goodies.”
“That’s right,” Holly said quietly, then, more loudly “Phoenix, if you die, there will be no one to bring all the monsters back to where they belong!”
“But if I spend all my energy on this, there will be nothing left in me to weaken Moo. He will win.”
“But…” Holly scoured her mind for any alternative. There was none. -Oh father-, she thought.
“We must all make sacrifices. Mine will be my life. Yours will be the monsters that now sleep, or have Moo’s mark on them. There are so many others locked away that Moo will never be able to warp. Still hidden away. The stone will seek them all out.”
Jake spoke then, echoing what Pixie had once said to him. “Lost disks are not forever.”
Phoenix did not object.
Jake wandered away from the fire lost in his own thoughts. There was nothing in his mind but the echo of Phoenix’s words “We must all make sacrifices” and the dread certainty that the pronouncement applied to him to. He tried to shake it off knowing his mood would distress Pixie if she saw him in it. To an extent he was successful. But still she noticed after Big Blue had set her down next to him. And when she asked, Jake gave her a synopsis of the conversation they had had with Phoenix. She was silent for almost five minutes, thinking it over, seeking something from her insight that would not come.
She inched her body closer to his, speaking in a whisper. “There is nothing else we can do then.” It was almost a question.
“That’s about it,” and then, because the words were there in his mind, “I just wish Moo would drop in out of the sky. It’s so… so scary knowing that we’re going to walk willingly to him,”
“I know, Jake.”
There was a brief moment of nausea. When it was past, Jake said shakily “I don’t think I’ll sleep at all. It’s going to be such a long night.” He almost added that it would not be long enough, but then Pixie was moving against him, pulling him into her arms.
“You will sleep,” she said softly. She was right.
Moo stood in the snow watching his castle move off to the south. There was no concern for it, for he’d soon be too large to fit in it. But perhaps he would use it to practice his great powers, that is, assuming it survived its second encounter with the traitor’s… new friend.
He turned down and looked at the disk he cradled in both hands and began. He mentally pulled at it as he did with any ordinary disk he was unlocking. As it began to glow he hurled it into the sky and finished unlocking it, watching as the glow exploded outward into a vast shape. Before that shape took its form, Moo ejected his mind from the body he had been riding for so long. The black amorphous thing rushed toward the coalescing glow and disappeared into it.
Fortunately, Moo’s prior body fell face first into the snow. The back of what was left of the body’s head was mercifully concealed by the still intact helmet.
The darkness found itself in a place that was alien and familiar at the same time. After a brief moment of disorientation, it begin to flow, fitting itself into the niches from which it had once been violently pulled. As it did, it became aware of the old body, as one by one its vital organs began to stir, and the senses came to it. The darkness became Moo, and he opened his great eyes, blinking back the brightness of the wintry light.
But he was weak, as he knew he would be, and would need rest… somewhere less exposed than where he now was at the foot of Mt. Kairus. He rolled his massive body closer to the mountain. Suddenly he felt himself dropping, as his bulk spilled into the excavation pit. There, at the bottom, the dragon Moo took a nap.
Phoenix tensed as he felt the expected happen. The others were distracted with their morning meal, so none, not even his ever-attentive clay, saw the brief change in his posture. He would not tell them what had happened, that Moo had merged with his body. It would do them no good.
Jake pushed himself through the meal, having left his appetite somewhere behind in the stressful night. But despite his fear, he felt well rested, and was able to choke down every bite of food on his plate. He dismissed merely picking at it for it would give him access to his energy. And there was the inane image he had in his head of the entire army waiting for him while he slowly picked at his meal, stalling as much as possible. He pushed it aside as he took another bite of his eggs.
-Yes-, he thought wryly, -I’m going to need some huevos-.
The rest of the food was better than any he had had since finding himself in this now familiar world. There were bird eggs Jake suspected were from a chicken, potatoes, though not as bland as he had made them so long ago, oatmeal, very much the same as what they had made from the grass seeds, though sweetened, and fruit. Jake took note that there was nothing like bacon. -At least that’s one thing we’ve got at home that this place doesn’t-, he thought, trying to amuse himself. It didn’t work.
As he did, Pixie ate quietly. Every Searcher did. And when they were finished, they simply stood without talking.
“It’s time,” Phoenix said.
Both Pixie and Silhouette automatically spread their wings, but the Phoenix held up one hand.
“No. I will carry you.”
Both looked doubtful.
“Will you trust me?” Phoenix asked.
After a long moment, both folded their wings back.