Jake had been watching Pixie and was startled when his feet suddenly left the ground. It was no different a sensation than when he levitated himself, yet it was still a bit of a shock. He looked quickly around and noticed similar expressions on the faces of the Searchers, as he no doubt wore. Golem and Big Blue looked particularly troubled by their sudden departure from the ground. Only Silhouette and Pixie looked unimpressed. The latter drifted over to Jake and took his hand. As they rose higher, Jake risked a look farther out, and had to fight back the disorientation from seeing the entire army at the same altitude as he was, with Phoenix “standing” in the middle of them. He dared not look down. Not yet.
As they gained altitude, he could see a glow beginning to form at the periphery of the army. Jake looked up and saw it over them, and then found it on all sides. One quick glance downward confirmed that it was underneath them as well.
“Holy shit. Pixie, I couldn’t do this,” he whispered. She responded by squeezing his hand. He looked at her briefly, then beyond as the only indicator of their position that was level with his line of sight, a cloud, began to move backwards. He watched, noticing that as it picked up speed the glow around them brightened. Soon the cloud was gone from sight as they streaked northward.
Pixie released Jake’s hand after noticing the dragons had begun flying, entertaining themselves with effortless flight, engaging in maneuvers that never would have been possible had not Phoenix been carrying them. It was strange to watch them swooping above *and* below them, all the while she was doing nothing herself to keep her where she was, essentially standing next to Jake. She spread her wings and experimented with a little push. It was all it took, and she drifted up and away from Jake. She turned herself, spotted Blue, and gave herself another push, drifting slowly down and landing lightly on his shoulder. There she stayed, sitting down and looking at Jake.
Jake watched her, amazed even though he was witnessing nothing new. After she settled on Blue’s shoulder, he tried it himself, and found that he could levitate easily. He floated toward Pixie and stopped directly in front of her. She smiled slightly and patted a space farther out on Big Blue’s ample shoulder. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the golem’s left hand move up and behind him. And then there was a gentle nudge that brought him drifting toward the spot Pixie had indicated. He took the gesture for what it was and sat down. He realized that both Pixie and Big Blue were sharing something special with him, and at once cherished it. No one said a word.
The great dragon slept fitfully, waking for brief periods of time as once again his senses reminded him of something jabbing painfully at him. He was incredulous that a mere outcropping of rock could cause him such an irritation. He turned to locate its source. It was not a rock, for the part of his body he had awakened to find the pain in had been resting up against a wall of ice. He looked more closely then sniffed. Then he felt with his mind and flinched. There it was. Something buried in the ice. He opened his mouth and belched a storm of what only looked like fire. A few seconds later he cut off the inferno and settled back down, basking in the clouds of steam while they lasted. The painful thing was gone.
It happened so fast that Phoenix almost dropped his army as an incredible torrent of loss pierced him. He grabbed onto it and willed away at the back of his mind. It was something he had thought might happen. Moo had found his own disk and destroyed it. But he realized the battle against the sensation would endanger them all. It was time to land. Moo’s army was down there, waiting on three sides, but there was little choice.
Phoenix had come up with something of a plan before he himself had slept the night before. He had intended to bypass Moo’s forces and directly confront Moo, enlisting the aid of his entire army, drawing upon all of their energy to make more of an effective assault. He had not believed the result would be fatal for Moo, but it would leave behind less for the Searchers to do with as they intended. Fortunately he was spared the disappointment in knowing that had he’d been able to keep his army in flight, they might have had the chance of descending on Moo as the beast rose from his slumber.
Although the plan had not involved retrieving his body, it had to be scrapped.
“It’s time!” he bellowed to his army. They would have noticed by now that the glow around them was fading. Beyond and below was mountainous terrain with patches of forest scattered about. A short distance ahead Phoenix could see an ideal place and he angled them downward, slipping to the side to avoid a small mountain.
Jake took a sharp intake of breath as they neared the mountain, its slopes looming so close he could see detail in the rock where the snow had slipped away. Then it slipped to their right, all detail now lost as it went by at an appreciable speed. He snapped his head to face forward again when he heard Pixie curse. It was another word she had picked up from him, one beginning with the letter f.
They were angling downward toward a valley between the mountains, a vast clearing bordered by a forest than rose only a short way up the slopes. But what had caught her attention was the dark star floating not too far north of their landing point. Jake was not especially concerned about any one thing such as Moo’s castle, but was keenly aware of the associations it held for her. He vowed to himself that he’d see it fall.
Unfortunately he could not delude himself into thinking that Moo would go down with it. Somehow he knew Moo was not in it.
“Is… is that Master Moo?” the weed captain asked in an awed voice. Even as he spoke, it became clear that it was not. A black dino, one far beneath him in the chain of command answered anyway, abandoning all traces of respect, for he had been one of many that had seen him lose it. The weed was beyond caring.
“No, you idiot. It’s the Phoenix and his army!”
The closest weed to the captain, one with a bandaged hand, spoke next in a shaky voice.
“The Master is n… not here. It must mean he needs more time. We must attack them.”
There was a moment of silence as the weed captain trembled with indecision. Then he urinated again, and that was when the black dino charged forward and kicked the quivering thing aside with one clawed foot. The weed rolled to a stop dozens of feet away, up against the wall and lay there shivering. But in the back of his mind he was happy about the mutiny. He was just the latest in a long line of weed captains that had displeased Moo and had died for it. Let the dino bear the brunt of the Master’s easily provoked ire. The weed intended to be long gone when that time came.
“Send out the order. Attack them at once,” the black dino bellowed.
Phoenix set his army gently down in the snow, melting the majority of it away, vaporizing it, so that they would not be mired in its depth. Jake had known better, but was still shocked when the glow winked out and the cold air rushed in after the relative warmth of the morning air from their camp escaped overhead. The chill came in and stung, drawing tears to his eyes and biting the sensitive inside of his nose.
He glanced at Pixie and saw that she too was braced against the cold. He slipped both arms around her and pressed himself close. Although he was hardly bristling with physical warmth, she was, as always, practically naked, and he wanted to do anything he could for her before things went to hell. But also, he wanted to feel her holding him too, and she did so, with both wings and arms.
They sat like that, both unnerved by the nearly absolute quiet. There were few sounds, murmuring from the army and the far off drone of Moo’s castle.
The quiet went on for five minutes while all sat and waited. All but the Phoenix. He was concentrating, preparing for the battle to come. It would have been a simple matter to cause an explosion of fire and heat that would have annihilated every attacking monster, and even the castle, but there would be no way to spare his army from that with a shield. He would have to take things as they came, and part of his fierce concentration involved readying himself to deal with so many things at once.
The act that had started out with the intent to keep Pixie warm dissolved into a mutual embrace that neither wanted to end. But all things must, and it came when both heard Suezo nervously whisper, as though afraid to shatter the silence.
“Here they come you guys.”
“Let’s rock,” Jake whispered in Pixie’s ear, dismayed out how little bravado he had actually put into the phrase. Pixie understood his meaning not through the seemingly meaningless phrase, but through his tone, and she disengaged herself from him. Together they hopped down from Blue’s shoulder, still joined at the hand.
“You guys ready?” Genki asked quietly.
There was a slow nod from each of the searchers, even Silhouette whom Jake was distantly pleased to see standing close to him. He had seen her looking at him differently after their first encounter with Phoenix, and he knew how what she had seen him do had changed her perception of him. He flashed her a quick smile, and she returned it.
Jake turned back around, now seeing the hundreds of dark shapes pouring out of the distant tree line. He began to concentrate.
The iron birds, swarms of them, reached them first and released volley after of volley of missiles and laser blasts at them. The Phoenix had a shield ready and stopped that part of the attack with ease, moving the shield in an arc to cover their flank as the swarm sped past, some of their number still taking shots as they did. There were both dragons and salamanders on the ground, and all took flight, all firing answering blasts in the swarm’s wake. The fireballs from the salamanders were too slow and arced away and down, some landing amongst the still indistinct shapes advancing from the trees. The dragons, however, each fired a sort of fire-beam that sliced into the midst of the iron-birds, punching holes through every one struck. Predictably they broke formation which only added to the chaos in they’re bleeding ranks.
Pixie had not been watching the Phoenix, only the swarm, and had turned a questioning eye toward Jake after the shield intercepted their attacks.
“Nope wasn’t me.” He was saving most of his effort for the castle, but the energy was coming so quickly to him he used some of it. He reached out and focused it in a broad swath parallel to the tree line, feeding it, shaping it, and aiming it. When it was as large as the wave he had sent as a warning to the mob at the town, he let it go, pulling off the same trick as he had when he first used it. It sliced into the snow, and then the ground, exploding a short distance after. Jake held onto the violent release of energy, pushing it away toward the advancing monsters.
“Go Jake!” He dimly heard Genki shout.
Gray Wolf was in the initial charge with his closest warriors spread out along the line. And when he saw the rapidly advancing wall of pulverized snow-pack, and then bedrock, he spoke angrily under his breath. “Why me?” Then he was shouting to his warriors. “Break to the sides!!! Get out of its way!!!”
They complied immediately, though many of what he considered to be his pack stayed on their course, as did he. He reached within and poured energy into his speed.
Though it was unplanned, Jake’s wave had served as a signal to Phoenix’s army to move, and they fanned out to meet the advancing hoard. Jake cursed at this for no longer could he indiscriminately attack. Now, he’d be limited to moves on a smaller scale. But then, it’d leave more energy for the castle. That damned castle.
He held onto his wave as it started cutting into the monsters slow to get out of its way.
Gray Wolf ran to the approaching destruction, seeing pockets in the carnage here and there that he could have easily leaped through to safety, had there been any in his path, instead he leaped, twisting his body around. Now that he had lost contact from the ground, his speed was useless and he funneled his energies elsewhere. He opened his mouth and fired a blizzard back the way he had come. It worked, propelling him up like a rocket, keeping him airborne while the wave passed underneath him. Immediately he twisted back around as attacks raced toward him from Phoenix’s monsters. He answered with a storm of lightning.
Jake let go of the wave as it reached the trees, watching as one pale speck seemingly leapt over it, casting lightning down at the monsters waiting for it on the other side. Soon, from darker specks that had managed to pass through the wave unscathed, came other lightning. Jake had a pretty good idea who the pale one was. Tiger, on the other hand, was certain.
“My brother,” he whispered harshly.
Gray Wolf finished off a trio of jells that had dared take a shot at him, and fired a blizzard at three others. Those three were scaled jells, and he knew any other attack would be a waste of time. He thought it ironic that they should find themselves frozen of all things in a battle in the snow. He paused when a familiar scent came to him through the air.
“Tiger… brother. Ah I can feel the hatred in you. It becomes you,” he snarled to himself, and turned to a Kato. It thought it was fast. He was faster.
“Tiger, no!” Holly screamed as the wolf leapt forward to engage his still distant brother.
“We must stick together!” Genki yelled, but even then Jake was taking aim.
Tiger had gotten only few strides in before he found himself lifted off the ground; he managed to whirl in the air to rage at Jake, for he knew it had been him. Then Big Blue’s hand swung down and closed around him. He was trapped.
“Thank you, Blue,” Pixie called from over her shoulder. The monsters had finally reached their position, and she was facing the south, already firing lightning bolts with Silhouette at charging dinos.
Jake went to Big Blue’s side, knowing he, or someone else, was going to have to talk fast to avoid a disaster. Tiger glared at him as he got near.
“Damn you!” the wolf screamed at him. “HE’S MINE! LET ME GO!!!”
“No,” Jake said calmly.
Phoenix was fully occupied, but that did not mean he could not know what was going on elsewhere on the battlefield. What occupied him most was the monitoring of the state of every monster in his army. He searched for the resurfacing of hatred among them, but was pleased to have yet found none. Except for Tiger. But he had made a promise not to change Pixie, and he would not exploit the technicality of not having extended the promise to all of the Searchers. He might not have been built with the concept of honor, but he had learned it. He focused on their southern flank, putting up a shield to stop a mass assault from worms. Their poisonous darts bounced harmlessly away.
“GO TO HELL JAKE!!! I’ve been wanting this for the longest time! You can’t understand!” Though the volume of Tiger’s voice had dropped, the rage in it had not. It showed in him too, as he struggled desperately to burst free from Big Blue’s grasp. Several times Jake saw the golem’s fingers forced open slightly.
Still, Jake kept calm. “Listen to me.”
“Tiger listen to Jake,” Golem said sadly. All around him what he abhorred was occurring, and he knew that he too would have to join in before long. What was hardest was when one of his friends wanted to give into the darkness that was the cause of it all. “No!!! Put me down, now!!!” Jake blinked in surprised when Tiger began charging his horns. What surprised him more was what happened to cause Tiger to stop and take some notice. Though it was Holly who got the rest of the way through to him when she cried out, it was Hare that first broke the ice. The giant rabbit simply walked up to Tiger as he still struggled within Blue’s fist and punched him right in the snout.
The dinos had friends behind them, and those too had friends. Pixie marveled at the relative organization. Back in her day, such a large and cohesive attack had been impossible to get out of her, or any of the other Four’s, baddies. They had been complacent in what they saw as Moo’s guaranteed domination of the world, and had not done their best.
Now they had terrific motivation, though the stupidity of it made her smirk. These monsters were apparently operating under the assumption that they’d suffer greatly if they lost. What else could Moo use to create perfect obedience? Yet, as far as they could possibly know, if they lost, it would mean the Phoenix would defeat Moo, and their suffering would never occur. It was idiocy. Still they came, some even tripping over the unconscious bodies and lost disks that were growing in number in their path.
As she felt the first twinges of a drain, they thinned out. Then, incredibly, the few left stopped and retreated. Retreated was not the right word. They pulled back, and stopped. Waiting.
Pixie pulled back and down barely in time to avoid being disemboweled. Still she felt the razor-sharp claws lightly scratch her just under her collarbone. Silhouette had had a sliver of a second longer to react and was unhurt. Their attacker, an allure, completed her downward swoop and stopped facing them, hovering in the air ten feet away. Two quick glances told her first that Blue had not seen the attack, and would not charge to her rescue and likely be seriously hurt by the allure, if what she had heard was true. Second was that her wound was a bit more than a scratch. It wouldn’t kill her, however.
She gritted her teeth, ready for another attack. When none came, she decided she had no time for a game with the allure. The problem was, the witch was too fast to deal with conventionally.
Silhouette took care of it, however. She stood where she was, hands a short distance apart, palms facing each other. The allure seemed to regard this with interest, for this favorite pet of Naga’s was renowned for her delusions of immortality.
Silhouette spoke one word. “Darkness.”
Pixie saw a small, featureless black ball form between Silhouettes hands at the sound of the word. It streaked toward the allure who responded to it by waiting for the last second to dodge. But as the ball neared the point where the allure had been, Silhouette threw her arms wide and the ball exploded. But instead of a blast of energy, the allure was enveloped in darkness. A black… space was in place where the monster had been, and Pixie could hear her shouting obscenities from within it after the obvious proclamation that she couldn’t see.
“Drop her, Pixie! I can’t keep it like that for long!” Silhouette said.
Had the allure been any smarter, she would have just tried to move away from the darkness around her. It was not entirely escapable, however, for Silhouette could move it. None of it mattered, though, for Pixie fired her lightning into the dark, and kept doing it until the expletives stopped.
Silhouette stopped the darkness and the allure plummeted to the ground merely unconscious. Silhouette boldly walked over to the unmoving form and finished her off using only her claws. Pixie winced, but understood.
Tiger’s head snapped to the side from the blow, and he came back form it with a wide-eyed expression of surprise on his face.
“Hare!” He began.
“Tiger! Please!” Holly cried. The tone of her voice was able to drill into him as Hare’s entirely unanticipated punch had tried to do.
“All right,” Tiger growled. “I’ll listen. But make it quick.”
Jake began speaking quickly, hoping he was saying the right thing. “The Phoenix said we’d all have to make a sacrifice. Maybe yours is letting go of your vendetta against your brother. Maybe this is the sort of thing Moo wants to happen. How many more hateful things are there than to destroy the bonds of family?”
“Are you finished?” Tiger said. Some of the menace was gone from his voice.
“No. Maybe… maybe it even hurts to let go of your hate for what he’s become…” Jake stumbled, but Holly was there to take over.
“We need you, Tiger. You’ve been with us a long time now. Please don’t leave us because of something Moo has done to you.”
Tiger squeezed his eyes shut, and appeared to consider their words. “You don’t understand what this is to me.”
“No? Look what happened to my father. At least you can see Gray Wolf again,” Holly said sharply.
Tiger growled for a moment, then said. “Ok, Big Blue, you can put me down. I’ll play it your way.”
Big Blue turned to look at Jake and let Tiger go when he got the nod. Then the golem gave a start as he remembered that he was not with Pixie. He turned and raced to her side.
Phoenix felt the hate recede in Tiger, but the encouragement he felt faltered when he felt Moo stir. The monster was waking up, and any advantage they had was slipping away. He turned to the clay below him.
“I must go onward, without you.”
“I understand, Mast… Phoenix. We will fight on.”
“You will be without my support,” Phoenix said quietly.
“Then,” the clay said thoughtfully, “we will eagerly await our revival at your hands.”
“Good luck, my friend.”
Mocchi was carving a swath to their northwest, slicing through ranks of the massive worms that had rolled to a stop there. They had raised their tails over their heads and fired darts as Jake had seen the smaller kinds do. He had been ready with a shield. Genki had suggested Mocchi use his cannon, and the little monster did. Jake was surprised, and a little alarmed, that the beam came from Mocchi’s mouth. With Genki urging them on as he pulled on his skates, the little monster was able to fire off a few more blasts.
Then the boy was off, with Mocchi on his shoulders, racing toward a small cluster of less menacing baddies that had avoided the beam. Jake couldn’t help to admire the boy for showing the restraint he had up until that point.
Then Phoenix was drifting down to them, landing between the receding Genki and the rest of the Searchers. Genki skidded to a halt when he saw this. “It’s time to go,” the monster said.
At that single pronouncement Jake felt his heart began to race. All throughout the battle, he had felt some kind of calm that had either masked a pounding heart, or had been a sign of a normal rhythm. But now it was there, and other signs of fear began to leap up at Jake. He felt he was falling apart, and knew he’d be no good to them if he degenerated into a sobbing wreck.
Then he felt Pixie standing next to him. He thought he saw a tear in her eye as she spoke to him. “Let’s rock, Jake.” He admired her relative composure, though she hadn’t heard Phoenix’s prophetic words about sacrifice.
Then the Phoenix was lifting them, and Jake remembered something that shouted down his fear within him…
“Jake, there is no more time,” the monster said calmly.
“I…” but he cut himself off and simply gathered his energy. He didn’t need to be on the ground to do what he wanted to do… needed to do.
“Captain!” a weed screamed from one of the arrays of consoles behind the black dino. He had been serenely watching the battle from below. It appeared to be a draw, but he was aware that Naga was withholding some of his forces for reasons not yet known. The goodies had made the mistake of scattering to attack the approaching baddies and had lost the advantage given them by their two big guns; the Phoenix, and the strange human. Now it was essentially a free-for-all down on the ground, which Naga would ideally come down and end at any moment.
“What is it?”
The Phoenix is on the move… he’ll be passing us any moment… he’s in range now!!!”
The dino wheeled and glared at the weed, aware that he was the only one that had shown any incentive that day. “Sit there and draw me a picture and you will die for it. Just fire!!”
They were close enough to see that the castle’s still-damaged side was facing away from the battle when it fired its lasers. The whole one side of the inverted cone lit up as hundreds of beams opened up at once, converging on them as the sped by. It was a futile effort, one Phoenix easily turned aside, but Pixie screamed nonetheless, the memories of the last time she had seen those lasers fresh in her mind. It was a sound Jake had never expected to hear again. And it cut into him so hard that he almost indiscriminately released the energy he was building which would have likely killed them all. But he held on, and released it in three quick bursts, three painfully bright spheres of energy.
The weed stared at the screen before him. He had heard the stories of the day the castle was scarred despite the Master’s admonitions that it not be spread. He had heard it from the weed that had been at this very same screen. He had heard the description. Now, though he saw an incredibly bright *dot* of something racing toward the castle. Three of them. The weed that had told him the story had believed that they had survived because the last attack had been sloppy, spread out. But this…
The three blasts spread out slightly as they streaked through the air. The first struck the inverted cone at its center; the second two hit the main body, just above the star. Each impact was nearly deafening, and the Searchers felt a concussion before the Phoenix could get up a more protective shield.
The initial blasts weren’t that bright, or even fiery, but they tore the castle apart. The cone section did go in something more visually spectacular as apparently the thing’s means for flying were housed there. Then the star fragmented, each spike staying more or less intact as they drifted outward and down. The part of the castle above the shattering star, where the control center was located broke apart into dozens of massive pieces. Then it was mostly quiet save for a few smaller secondary explosions occurred among the falling pieces.
Jake was able to bite back a rising scream when he realized he hadn’t just killed Phoenix’s army. The castle had been far enough away, so the battlefield would be spared all but a rain of black gravel.
Naga had held a portion of his forces back to cut back on the risk to himself, unlike the fool Gray Wolf, and now all were staring in complete amazement as they saw Moo’s castle explode. He had heard the story too, but had doubted its veracity. That a human could have done something so destructive was laughable, at best. He rather enjoyed believing that it had been a careless navigational error by one of the idiot weeds the Master seemed to enjoy placing at the controls of his flagship.
But the truth of it now mattered as little as what had caused the presumed indestructible castle to just explode like that. Not even the just-arrived report of the death of his allure mattered.
All that now mattered in Naga’s distorted worldview was the half-mile long slab of rock falling toward him. The others tried scattering… some possibly getting far enough away in time. But not Naga. His last thought was that he would never have the power Moo had promised him.
The eleven of them, including Silhouette, were carried north by Phoenix. In the wake of Jake’s quick destruction of Moo’s castle no one said a word. The first, and only time, the silence was broken was by the Phoenix.
“Warn me before you do something like that again.”
Jake only nodded dumbly. He looked at Pixie and Big Blue. Both were looking back at where the castle had been. Pixie turned briefly and mouthed something at him. It was, “Thank you.”
Then they landed, Mt. Kairus towering over them, and Jake felt the fear crawl back to him. But it stayed… low, not enjoying the same hold over him as it had earlier.
They settled down onto the snow and right away Suezo saw what they had hoped not to see. Phoenix, on the other hand, *knew* they were going to see it.
“Over there,” the eyeball said. Despite being unable to point, all were able to follow his gaze. The object was a dark speck on the snow ahead of them.
None thought to consult Phoenix before they moved toward it. Minutes later, there were no doubts as to what the object was.
“F… father.” Holly said in a hoarse whisper. She was fiercely clutching the Magic Stone in her hands, her knuckles white from the strain. The body was lying face down in the snow, still dressed in its yellow-orange colored armor. Jake saw it’s full white hair spread out to either side of it, as well as its cape. It looked pathetic to even Pixie, who had experienced days when what she saw before her was a fearsome sight.
They came no closer than ten feet from the body, all watching it solemnly. Holly was crying softly.
“That’s not him, Holly,” Suezo said gently. “You know it isn’t.”
“I know, Suezo. Let’s keep moving.”
“Where’s Moo?” Tiger asked, a dismaying amount of fear in even his voice. “I can smell him…”
Phoenix knew where Moo was, and moved just fast enough to save the Searchers that had been standing too close to the pit the body had been left by.
He picked them up and raced backward with them, depositing them roughly in the snow hundreds of yards behind him. The instant he was in motion, something dark came racing up from below, and it slammed into the ground where they’d been standing.
When Jake pulled himself from the snow he was greeted with a horrible sight. A massive face was rising from the pit, and he took in its gaping, fanged mouth and horrible red eyes. Then its neck followed, its broad upper body. An even larger limb rose into view, the monster’s leg, as it attempted to completely climb out of the pit. The rim, however, crumbled under the weight and the monster fell back a bit. With a brief roar it pushed itself back and unfurled the vast wings that Jake had yet to notice. Then it was airborne, its entire body now revealed. Jake craned his neck to follow the beast’s movement up into the air, and then back down. It settled farther to the south of them, on a more stable-looking area.
Then Jake took it all in. The monster was roughly two hundred feet tall, and mostly black. There was white… hair on its shoulders and arms, and it had a strangely bushy dog-like tail that was mostly white, with a red tip. It stood on heavily muscled legs. Its arms were thinner, and its hands had three wickedly taloned fingers. Its armored neck tapered to its head, with a face possessing a chilling intelligence. Jake could not even begin to imagine what kind of madness would create such a creature. He knew Moo’s purpose was to destroy, but he desperately pleaded with a question as though there was still time to stop the fools from creating what he was seeing. Couldn’t they have just created a bomb?
“Oh my God,” Jake whispered. All confidence fled him and he took a step back. Pixie was a short distance away, and he looked pleadingly at her, trying to tell her to run again and again.
Then Moo made a sound and Jake’s blood froze. It was a laugh, a “gentle” one, but horrifying just the same. Then he spoke, and that was no better. Oddly the dragon’s mouth did not move as it talked.
“Ah, Phoenix. Finally we meet, though not as you or those fools that brought you here would have hoped.”
The voice was deep and jagged. Pixie had heard Moo before, and the voice was essentially the same. But now it made her feel as if were bones were going to be pulverized from its terrible weight. She found herself drifting toward Jake, as though to move quickly would draw Moo’s unwanted attention.
He heard the other Searchers speaking quietly to themselves. The most energetic and hopeful of them all still sat in the snow, repeating over and over in a small voice “I didn’t know…”
“You must know you cannot defeat me,” Moo said.
“And you… must know that I am forced to try. It’s what I am. A machine, like you. A *weapon!*” Then Phoenix was speeding toward Moo, curving to the left, racing along the cliff-face, only feet from the rock. Jake saw a fierce light in each of his hands.
The single, brave act put some courage back into Genki, and the boy stood. “Go Phoenix!” he said softly, hopefully.
Moo only watched his nemesis’ approach with interest. Phoenix would be no more troublesome than a fly. Programmed to do what he was doing, even though the odds were all against him.
Phoenix came dangerously close to Moo, within the monster’s great reach. He pulled a sharp turn and the light from his left hand flared out behind him in stiff streamers that were curved at the ends. -Like claws-, Jake thought, as he too felt a spark of hope. At that moment Jake thought that both Holly’s father and Phoenix had been merely pessimistic about this time.
The light claws raked across Moo’s chest and vanished. The second they touched him, Moo roared in what had to be pain, for even before the light died, all could see the wound. Three long furrows marked Moo’s chest, and though they were obviously deep, they bled little. What did come from the beast was black.
That was the first part of Phoenix’s strike. He immediately dropped in a steep downward loop, bottoming out, and racing back, so impossibly close to Moo’s massive belly. The light in his right hand did the same as it had with his left, and he turned the claws inward while Moo was still reacting to the first strike. Contact was made at Moo’s neck, and Phoenix struggled to hold it until he had dragged the claws over Moo’s face.
More bellowing, and Moo actually staggered backward. Jake was dismayed that the monster’s horrid eyes had been spared.
Phoenix sped backward from Moo, throwing up a shield as he did. The move was premature, for Moo paused before counterattacking.
Jake flinched at the ferocity of the hellfire that lanced from Moo’s cavernous mouth. It struck Phoenix’s shield and sped over it and around it until Phoenix was hidden from view.
“What… what’s happening to Phoenix… I can’t see…” Suezo stuttered as though where his eyesight failed, others could take over.
“We’ve got to help him!” Genki cried.
“How?” Tiger shouted. “What could we *possibly* do?”
Genki wheeled on him and in a calmer voice than Jake would have expected said, “Stick together.” The blue wolf paused then nodded agreement.
“Holly, can you help us? With the stone?”
The girl started, snapping out of the trance-like state she had appeared to be in and nodded decisively. At once she released the death-grip she had on the Magic Stone and held it in the palm of her hands. “Magic Stone,” she said without the usual seconds of concentration “Help us to help Phoenix.”
The stone came to life at once floating up and to the end of its chain. Everyone began to glow with it, as it had been the night before when they had sought her father. Jake felt the glow, and felt it touch the energy locked away within. He let it, feeling it being pulled through him.
The glow began to grow in thickness around the others until all were united in one field. It reached out into the capsule of fire the Phoenix was locked in.
Phoenix felt the Searchers efforts and smiled. What he was presently doing was not as difficult as they believed, but he did feel the drain on him. When he felt their energy drift to them, he denied it, pushing it back with his will. They would need it later. And it was time for him to do what he could. He paused a moment longer… long enough to remember that he couldn’t give all of himself just yet.
The glow had reached into the fire for only a second before it winked out.
“No!” Holly cried as the stone winked out too and fell back into her hands. “Magic Stone! Help us help Phoenix!” But the stone did nothing, and in a higher, more desperate voice she tried again. And again.
Somehow Moo had heard, and now laughed somehow around its lance of fire. “You try to realize the Magic Stone’s power far too late ‘daughter’,” the monster roared. “Now watch your precious Phoenix perish!” The monster raised both of its hands.
Then something extraordinary happened. The tomb of fire surrounding phoenix exploded, as did the stream leading back to Moo’s mouth. The dragon grunted and snapped his mouth shut.
Jake looked and saw that Phoenix was on fire. As they all watched, he turned slightly toward them and his body jerked. A bolt of… something… a bright, miniature sun burst from his chest and rocketed toward Moo. But it was obviously going to miss, and there was laughter again from the dragon.
But it didn’t miss. Just before the sun struck the cliffside, it blossomed out, liquefying, them vaporizing the rock, causing the whole cliff-side right next to Moo to violently explode outward. The monster was engulfed in a wave of rock in all three phases of matter and was hurled over the side and into the pit, bellowing the entire way through the din.
Jake had been so riveted by the sight of the massive blast that he barely felt the shockwave of heat and noise that pummeled the searchers. But then Pixie was at his side, speaking in a firm voice. That brought him out of his daze.
“Jake. If you’re going to strike, start getting ready,” she said, pointing at Phoenix as she finished.
The flame that had surrounded Phoenix now was dimmer. Worse yet was that Moo was floating out of the pit, the hide on his entire right side smoking and shedding its coating of rock. His right wing appeared damaged, but Moo could still fly. The dragon uttered a quiet laugh. It was almost identical to the one all the Searchers had heard, save for Jake and Silhouette. It was the laugh of the old Moo; most often heard when he had just told someone something that that individual was having a hard time accepting. The failure to accept was of no concern because that laugh typically meant Moo was going to kill that individual sooner or later. It was a smug sound that would never be uttered if Moo had the slightest of doubt of the absolute superiority of his position.
“You will have to do better than that,” the monster said.
Phoenix knew it, but wasn’t going to try. He could repeatedly strike at Moo until he was exhausted, and still the monster would defeat him. He would have to save what he had left in him to do what needed doing. But Moo would not stand there and let him do it. There was only one way.
He pulled the energy within himself and reached out to the Magic Stone, instructing it to convey the brief message to the Searchers. Then he clenched his fists and streaked toward Moo.
No one saw the Magic Stone flash, for they were overwhelmed by the vision from it. It was a message much like the sensations they had experienced when they had contacted Holly’s father, though it was far less brief. It was of the Phoenix, standing in the same place where they had first met them. He spoke to them.
“My time of freedom has been brief and I am grateful to you all that you have given so much of yourselves that I might have that freedom and fulfill my destiny. Now that freedom is at an end. In my dying moments I will save them all, friends and enemies, living and dead. They will have a new chance, as they were meant to be.
Now it is your turn. You must stand true and fight with what you have. Your friendships, the connections amongst yourselves you have made over time. When this is over, you will stand. Moo will not. Farewell.”
The image was gone as quickly as it had come, and the Searchers were greeted with the sight of Phoenix streaking toward Moo. The dragon merely slipped to the side and struck with one massive hand. The powerful blow crushed Phoenix’s body and the limp form was flung to the side. It landed half a mile from the rim of the pit. From the way it rolled to a stop, no one could possible believe Phoenix would ever get up. All looked back at Moo, wordless denials on their lips, as the monster spoke.
“That was too easy. I expected so much more from you.” Strangely, the tone almost sounded sad. But then Moo laughed, and turned to face the Searchers, drifting toward them at a slow pace that was horrifying to witness. Jake took a step back. So did Pixie. Golem was backed up against the cliff-side.
“Traitor?” Moo called in a subdued, drawn out voice. It was an awful perversion of how one might sound while searching for his or her friends playing hide and seek. “Traitor?”
Jake felt as though his blood were violently jumping from hot to cold, steam to ice. Then it was just overwhelmed by the lump of nothingness in his gut from hearing what Moo said next.
“I haven’t forgotten my plans for you, traitor. Never will have anyone have suffered so much.”
Pixie was torn in her emotions. Either way there was the same mind-numbing fear that everyone felt. It was like a great weight holding down her limbs, and slowing down her heart even though it still raced. It made her want to simply die in the final way that humans could, for although she could quickly end it for herself, such as with a bolt of lightening willed into existence inside her brain, Moo could still revive her as many times as she could kill herself. But she was being equally torn at by her fear for Jake and Blue, and to a lesser extent the Searchers. Moo would cause them suffering as the first step in dealing with her.
“Traitor? Ah, yes. There you are. Not so confident and righteous in your defiance now, are you? Yes, I can smell the fear on you, in you. In all of you. You have come so far. Perhaps had you gone in the opposite direction, you would’ve been able to avoid this fate for a little longer.”
Jake risked a glance at Pixie’s face and wished he hadn’t. She was seemingly as pale as Silhouette was normally. He imagined he looked the same. He also saw a barely visible tremble within her.
Then he mentally cursed himself as he realized he’d not been preparing. Moo was still some distance away, but Jake didn’t think reach was a problem for the dragon. Jake reached down hard with himself, trying to use as many images of Pixie as he could: Pixie in the night when he had first woken up after she saved him; Pixie and Blue by a fire, always by the fire; Pixie when the man had almost mutilated her; when she had lost Blue; when she had gotten Blue back; in the river as she had moved her wing aside; when he had first kissed her; when she had first kissed him; as she was when Phoenix had tried to change her; and as she was now. He used those images and the emotions they evoked to dive within, to grab at the power within in him in a process that would have normally taken two or three minutes.
Pixie tore her eyes briefly away from Moo when Jake started to glow. It wasn’t a bright glow, but it was a strangely different one. It was powerful, but muted. It had a color that was unrecognizable. And it made a sound, like a rushing stream… no, like wind across dry grasslands… though it sounded far away. Then the glow faded completely and Jake looked up.
“Traitor, come to me,” Moo said, holding out his hand. He had stopped five hundred feet from them, which felt five hundred light-years too close for anyone there.
At the sound of Moo’s words, Pixie felt herself lifted in the air. It wasn’t without sensation like when Phoenix had carried them, or when Jake had shown her his ability to levitate himself and others after the encounter with the mob when he had used it to move both himself and Holly over the town wall. There was a feeling this time, an ugly one, like the way the touch of her owner’s had felt those times when they had been deceptively gentle with her when guiding her to a task. Only this was worse, by hundreds of times. It was thick, stifling, abrasive, and more personal than she could stand. The feeling alone was why she screamed.
“Put her down,” Jake said loudly. Even he was amazed at the authority he had placed in his words. But he didn’t expect Moo to listen. So he extended one hand. So much flowed through him that there was pain.
The blast struck Moo at the right side of his body, the same as the offending arm, and Jake knew the muffled explosions he heard were the dragon’s bones splintering. The vile red eyes of the beast shot open in surprised as he was heaved backward by Jake’s strike, half-pushed, and half-pulled by his mangled shoulder. Then Moo realized there was pain and he shrieked.
The dragon’s wail and flight were cut short when his back met the far wall of the pit. It crumbled behind him, and the resulting mess slid down towards the bottom. From their perspective, the Searchers could see that Moo had fallen forward, and that his wings were a hopeless mess. Then the monster stood, as Jake knew he would, and they saw one wing so thoroughly mangled, that it hung from Moo’s back by its thick leathery skin alone. Still, Moo could fly. The dragon raced toward them, bellowing his fury, his hellish eyes blazing.
“Oh, fuck.” Jake said softly, taking a step back. Though Jake had known Moo would not have been killed by the blast, he was dismayed that the dragon had gotten up so quickly. By his estimate from how it felt inside him, Jake figured that he had used half of his energy.
“All right! Jake!” Genki shouted, feeling the excitement and energy that was so integral to him returning.
“What are you waiting for? Hit him again?” Suezo said. There was a tinge of hope and admiration in the eyeballs voice.
Jake regretted that. He knew that even if he could keep striking at Moo like he had, the monster would still keep coming. He had to save the rest of himself to protect the others as long as possible. He focused back on Moo as the monster began speaking… screaming.
Instead of just barreling into them, Moo pulled up some distance away and began belching his fire. It met Jake’s shield two hundred feet away from where the Searches stood. Jake felt it hit, but was able to hold it.
Moo knew he could outlast the human for the fool had used up a sizeable portion of his energy in hitting him. Of course he would not allow the man to live. And of course he was not satisfied with merely waiting the human’s energy out with just the fire from his mouth.
The dragon lifted his good arm, palm out and a sickly green flow of energy erupted from it. Jake staggered, but stayed standing. Pixie saw this and called to him, but was unwilling to go to him and touch him even though she knew doing so would not disrupt his concentration.
Jake heard Pixie but ignored her. He raised his left hand and held it beside his right, both nearly at arms length. He willed the use of his energy, allowing just enough, keeping the rest in reserve instead of wasting it upon a needlessly powerful shield.
The human was still resisting, and Moo bellowed as he wrenched his shattered shoulder in bringing his free arm up. From it too leapt the green flood of energy.
Jake met it calmly, adjusting his shield in more ways than one, not just keeping the fire and green away, but also holding back the incredible heat. Dimly he was aware of the floor of the pit melting from the deflected energy flooding over it. And when Moo increased the intensity of his assault, Jake found that he could darken the shield to block out some of the harsh light. Sadly he was unable to dispel himself of the visualization of his depleting energy. In some ways he preferred not to know when it simply ran out.
Still the human resisted! That the human had been able to simply strike at him with more energy than Moo was now producing enraged him further. The rage unleashed more power within him, and he added to the attack.
“Jake!” Pixie cried when he stumbled again. Then she did rush to him and kept him from falling. But he didn’t even look at her. She looked desperately between Jake and the Searchers… thinking as fast as she could.
“The stone!!! Help him. Please!!!
Genki joined in. “Everybody concentrate on Jake. We can do this!”
Holly had her stone ready faster than she ever imagined possible, ordering it to help them in a rapid-fire burst of words. “Magic stone, help us to help Jake.”
Jake wanted to tell them to stop, to save their energy for what Holly’s father had suggested they do. He wanted to turn and gently push Pixie away but he couldn’t, even if he’d been able to spare the will necessary to act.
The others linked hands, connecting themselves to Big Blue, who in turn touched Pixie with his fingertip against her cheek. Both of her hands were on Jake, one on the back of his head, the other against the side of his neck. They all glowed at once and poured as much of their energy as they could into Jake.
He felt it, though it seemed insignificant. There was no way for him to use it, to add it to his nearly drained stores within him, so it just poured off onto the shield. They were unable to keep up the effort, though he still admired their endurance. Pixie held on the longest, but soon she let go of him. No one saw the stone briefly flash.
She stumbled back and put a shaky hand to her forehead. She knew they had done nothing. It would have been more effective to have struck at Moo with what they had wasted, though not by much. When she looked back at Jake her heart wrenched in her chest. His face was so ashen, and his cheeks had begun to sink. As she stared on, a thin trickle of blood dribbled from his nostril.
Jake felt it all and allowed himself the luxury of slight fear. Ever since he had opened the gates inside himself and forced the power through, all other considerations were silenced, even thoughts of Pixie. He let the words of the Phoenix come to his mind: “We must all make sacrifices. Mine will be my life.” -So will mine-, Jake thought back. Then a thought of Pixie came to his mind against his will, and he had to struggle against the tide of grief for her it caused. He knew his commitment to his task was unnatural, but it was there, bolstered by the strange knowledge that Moo was also being drained, and that when Jake died, when he used up the absolute last of himself in the shield, it would do something… would create an energy vacuum that would grab onto Moo’s power and pull it from him. The result, Jake imagined, would be a powerless two hundred foot dragon, assuming he too did not let his body be converted to energy, as Jake had to do. After that, the dragon would either perish in the lake of molten rock under him, or simply be cut down little by little by the Searchers, and the surviving ranks of Phoenix’s army. Part of Jake tucked away inside him raced desperately to find a way to prove the never-learned knowledge a lie, to save him. But it couldn’t find what it wanted. Instead, the harder it looked, the more evidence it found of the truth. Phoenix was still alive.
Pixie panicked when blood begin to dribble from Jake’s ear. “Jake!!! No!!!” she shrieked though she knew he wouldn’t hear her. She felt her mind pummel itself trying to find a way out from what was happening. She found it: the yellow one…. He could…. Teleport.
“Suezo! GET US THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!!”
The eyeball leapt away from the wall against which he’d been cowering, feeling a surge of pride at the duty that was now his. He reached within himself and eagerly seized the power their.
Still nothing. He tried once more; determine to succeed even if it killed him.
Everyone, including Jake blazed a bright yellow, but Suezo’s concentration snapped when both Moo’s attack, and Jake’s shield winked out. The teleport died away as though he had never tried. “No!” he choked.
Jake fell at once, but Pixie was there to catch him. She immediately wished she hadn’t for she could feel his bones through his clothing. She tried not to imagine how emaciated he looked underneath the layers of clothing he wore. Then she didn’t need to as she noticed he was not breathing.