Moo would have been content to destroy the human by waiting him out but when he was almost at the point of letting the foolish creature defend himself and his friends to death, he felt the presence of his nemesis surge briefly. He knew Phoenix was not dead, but had been so intent on hurting the traitor, he had not wanted to pause and crush his foe’s remains. Now what had it done in that brief instant he felt it act out? Moo sought the answer, but could find none. What did the human hope to accomplish by killing himself? He must have known it was hopeless, that once he was gone, it would have been though he’d never been there… unless… unless in dying the man knew a way to take him with him. He cut off his attack at once, and was amazed at the sensation of a vital link being severed. Yet he was also pleased with the knowledge that the man had drained himself, and had been using his own body to feed the furnace. He turned to deal with the Phoenix but saw a sight that gratified him. It was the traitor hunched over the human, wailing wretchedly as she realized the man was dead.
Pixie was not consciously aware of anything other than her and Jake. She could not even hear her own cries. There was only a devouring silence where Jake had once been, and she tried desperately to fill it with her own thoughts, to fight it off from causing her so much pain as it claimed her. And she also fought for control, because what was happening was not yet over, and there were still friends. As one part of wailed in agony, the other spoke out in a firm voice, trying to drag her, kicking and screaming, back to something of a rational, controlled state.
All the Searchers were paralyzed by what they were seeing and hearing, some, like Golem, and attempted to block out the sound by clapping their hands over their ears. But they still heard and felt it, horrified by the knowledge that they could do nothing for her. As they watched though, Pixie’s cries began to resemble words. It was worse now that they could understand. Genki turned away, screaming, hands over his ears. Mocchi curled into a ball, shivering violently. Hare felt like tearing his ears from his head. Tiger found himself violently ill. Golem was pressing his great hands against his ears so terribly, that he soon would crush his own head. Silhouette tried to use her darkness attack against herself, in a more fundamental way than just blocking light. Holly and Suezo were silent, pressed close together. She had the stone gripped so tightly in one hand that her fingernails were drawing blood. All began to turn to hate, not necessarily of Moo, but of pain and all those that cause it needlessly. Big Blue… merely stood, riveted by the sight in front of him, then slowly, unnoticed by the others, raised his great hands to grasp at his head as he began moaning in quiet pain.
Pixie was winning control, hearing herself. She had found a way to fight off the emptiness and pain. It was the wrong way, she knew, but she did it anyway. She threw up wall after wall with bricks of hatred and mortar of rage, and many fell before the weight of what she was trying not to feel, but she kept at it until she thought she would explode. And when she took a pause, she could feel, far back where the pain still roiled, the walls crumbling. She cried out. “Blue! Help me! Please!”
The golem laughed.
Moo thrived on her pain, which was more exquisite and pure than anything he could ever hope to inflict on her. And she responded wonderfully, resorting to hatred and rage to fight it off.
“Yessss…” He hissed as he felt the weight of hate warping her mind. Still it was not enough. Still he wanted her in even more pain. It was a perfect opportunity to use his original plan for her. He lashed out with his mind and found his target.
Pixie whirled at the sound of her friend’s laughter and saw such a twisted look in his face she scuttled backward, away from Jake’s body. It was a spot she had felt unwilling to leave. And when she realized that she had, she stood purposefully and walked back to it… to him and kneeled.
“What is the matter now, ‘Master’?” Big Blue, or what was left of him, said. “There is always something hurting you!” Then he took a step forward and reached down with one hand. “Here!” the golem said in a light but mocking tone. “Let me help you discard that useless trash.”
Pixie uttered a thin scream and folded in on herself, surrendering to the storm of thoughts and feelings within herself.
The others gaped, shocked by the sudden change in Big Blue, even though they knew who had caused it. Tiger mentally tore away at his horror, stamping it down so he would not be stopped by it. He bounded forward and charged an attack, mentally prepared to destroy Big Blue. But he didn’t have time to finish for Moo struck.
Still, it was not enough. The traitor was withdrawing, falling apart on the inside. Moo needed something fresh to keep her near enough to the surface to still feel pain. He attacked, killing Big Blue. It worked, but not exactly as he had planned.
Within, Pixie was thrown about by the violence of emotion. There was the pain form Blue’s forced betrayal, fresh pain at losing Jake that she could no longer wall away with hate. Hatred for what or whom? And there was madness gibbering at her, holding its welcoming arms wide. And there was calm, telling her something over and over.
The rush of voices went by too quickly for her to understand their words.
Holly gasped not when Pixie stood, but when the magic stone flared so brightly it burned her palm. She tore it from her neck and threw it to the ground. “Yes,” she remembered. Pixie’s anguish reminded her of all the years grieving for her father compressed all in the span of five minutes. -My father. He told us to use grief!!-
Pixie stood, looking from between Jake and Blue’s lost disk, then she calmly lifted her head up to face Moo, holding it at an odd tilt.
Tiger began to understand too when he saw the stone flare and the look on Holly’s face. Then the others began to remember and their own shields of hatred fell away.
“Moo…” Pixie said hollowly, but with a character of pity, as she stood. “If only you knew how it feels.”
Pixie reached within, thought of the Magic Stone and tore down her walls. The others did so at the same time, though it was more than was needed. The four that mattered most were Pixie, Holly, Golem and Tiger. Each had suffered terrible loss because of Moo, which had made their pain that much worse. Now they had the chance to give it back.
From all of the Searchers, a soft glow rose, slowly pulling together as it drifted toward Moo. The dragon looked at it skeptically but was unimpressed. Of everything every monster had ever thrown at him, this drifting mist was the least impressive looking. Yet, as it drew near, he began to feel the certainty that it was more dangerous than anything even the Phoenix had attacked him with.
Moo fired an energy blast at it, but it passed through the mist. Then when it drew nearer he threw himself to the side. But it followed, and when he turned to move again, he looked down onto the ground and saw the Phoenix. The broken monster had moved itself, and was looking at him. Then the mist was upon him, and Moo wheeled around to face it. When it touched, he knew pain.
The darkness was met with a new darkness, though this was not one of hatred. This was one of pain. Although it had come from the emotional agony of others, it fused with the darkness, making it feel. And as it fused, it ate away at it, dissolving it, forcing it to either will itself into nothingness, or turn on itself. And even as it happened, the darkness refused to believe that something was hurting it, killing it.
Pixie felt a wry smile pull at her mouth when the mist touched Moo, and the dragon began screaming. The sound was painfully loud, but she derived some sort of detached pleasure at the sight of a destroyer being destroyed. Then Moo fell into the pit, and they were shielded somewhat from the sound. She turned to look at Jake, feeling what remained of her pain for him. It was still enough to bring her back to her knees, but she was too drained to even cry. She reached down and took his hand in hers, holding it against her chest.
Phoenix knew pain too, but it was that of his body, and not inescapable like what Moo was being devoured by. He had let Moo break him, let Moo cast him aside while he still had power enough to deal Moo a few more blows. He had remembered the duty he still had, and was able to ignore his imperative in destroying the beast.
He felt out towards the others, feeling how defeated they felt despite Moo’s continuing consumption. He knew what had happened to Jake, and though he could not restore the man as he was without draining the power he needed to save all monsters, he could still take the last shreds of life within him and expand them into fragments, and expand those into pieces. The rest, he knew, would be up to Pixie.
He did what he could for Jake quietly, a blast of energy that undoubtedly went unnoticed by the Searchers. Then he mentally gathered himself, and pulled his mind from the body. He remembered his promise to the soldier Graff, and knew that was another sacrifice he needed to make.
“Look!” Genki called, pointing. The others looked up and saw a radiant, white mass rise from Phoenix’s body; his old body. They watched as it moved through the air, and down toward the pit. Moo saw it, but was beyond caring for he was being eaten away from the inside. His body, like Jake’s had, was being used up. Where great muscles used to stand out on his frame, there was now sagging, ulcerated skin. Some of his teeth had fallen, and on his hands, his talons began to loosen.
Phoenix’s mind reached him and moved into him. Moo never felt it.
Moo slowly rose to his feet, then into the air, molten rock clinging in places to his withering hide, and rose. Once roughly a thousand feet in the air his eyes blazed white as Phoenix drew the power left in him for his own use. A wave of light radiated outward in a flash nearly too fast to notice. None of the Searchers had time to be aware of its passing before it was racing tens of miles away in all directions.
They watched as Big Blue’s lost disk glowed, expanding. Then the golem was with them again, blinking back his momentary confusion.
Pixie looked up at him, trying to form a smile, but failing.
“He’s gone, Blue,” she said in a tiny, cracked voice.
The golem kneeled by is friend and cradled her with his hand. “I would revive him if I could,” he said sadly. “I owe him that much.”
None had watched Moo descend again, coming closer, but still at a distance. Phoenix was using him like a puppet as the evil creature writhed within, fighting a losing battle against a dark fire of pain.
“Pixie…” Phoenix rasped through Moo.
She glanced up, then quickly away. Moo had never been easy to look at, but what she saw reminded her too much of what had happened to Jake as he had drained himself.
“Tryyyy…” Moo seemed to say. Then he was gone, dropped down to the floor of the pit again. The sound of his now brittle bones cracking and snapping was audible.
Phoenix had exhausted himself now. The act of reviving all lost disks and turning the minds of all monsters that had been touched by both him and Moo to a natural state had drained him nearly completely. He watched the darkness dissolving around him, self-destructive chaos that was still aware enough to notice his presence. It raced at him, and Phoenix welcomed the end.
Pixie turned to look at Jake again, noticing for the first time something living about him that had not been there minutes before. She wasn’t sure, but she could almost see his chest moving, and the muscles in his arms twitching. She called out his name, not in a desperate sob, but in a guarded cry of hope. The others came and stood in a loose circle around them, knowing what they had to do. Holly had picked the stone off the ground and had it ready.
Pixie knew it was Phoenix that had made the Moo-thing speak, and she knew what it had meant by “try”. She held Jake’s limp hand tightly and focused, drawing upon what was left of herself. She tried words, trying to find the right one, the word that would bring it all together and heal him.
“Jake,” she said shakily. She was desperately clinging to hope.
“Come on you guys,” Genki said softly. “We can do this!” raising his voice with each word.
They all glowed again, faintly, linking hands to pull it together more easily. Big Blue reached down and gently touched Pixie as he had when they had last linked up.
Silhouette pulled hard within herself, dragging out what little she had left. Determined. This was one human she could never see die. He was too different, too special.
“Come on Jake,” Pixie whispered.
Moo gained a brief respite from the pain when it finally vanquished its foe, and during that rest, it saw what the others were trying to do. They were trying to take away what was his: the traitor’s pain.
Moo recalled the words he had once said to the Searchers in his castle when the fools had come for Holly. “The hatred will make you baddies. I don’t have to lift a finger.” But they had escaped, saved by being away from the object of their hatred. Yet, with the traitor, she had always carried the images in her heart, of her human owners beating her, hurting her, and consequently always had the hate. It had made her a baddie, and Moo had not needed to warp her. There had been times when her hatred had been perfect, a hatred he could not have instilled in her by forcefully changing her into a baddie. He, the great Moo, could not have made Pixie any more a member of his family than she was by the design of fate.
But she had turned her back on that. And a night did not go by that he did not dream of punishing her. He had tried, but the Searchers were even now trying to save her from his wrath.
That would not do. He looked into a different darkness his own substance had been descending into and saw the man Jake. He moved toward him.
It was obvious to Jake when Moo realized his plan to drag the monster down into death with him, for the dragon immediately ended his attack. Jake dropped his shield at once, but he knew it was too late for him. He had killed himself for nothing now, though he had little doubt about the their chances had he tried not to do as he had done. In effect Moo had given him no choice but to stand and waste himself away. It was the only course of action open to him when Moo had attacked with his fire, and then the torrents of energy from his hands. It was a course Jake could not have deviated from.
What he was next aware of after his consciousness left him was such a profound blackness that he knew it was not simply blindness. Stories of near-death experiences came to his mind, and Jake looked for a familiar tunnel of light. There was a light, but it was only a spot, like a distant, though very bright star. The light did not hurt his eyes because he knew he didn’t have any. Nor did he have arms and hands to confirm that his eyes were gone. He was a detached mind or spirit, and while he would never be able to explain or understand why it was so, he accepted it. He had known he was killing himself and in his life he had never completely discounted the possibility of an afterlife.
As with the stories of near-death experiences, he found himself comforted by the light, drawn to it. Then he remembered Pixie, and he held back. That was when the light spoke to him, in a soft voice, his voice, the words not yet understandable.
Another voice behind him sounded out as well, more clearly, in Pixie’s voice. It asked him to stay, to not go toward the light. Jake “turned” and looked behind him and saw only darkness. It made perfect sense, the desire to move onward after death versus the seductiveness of life, clinging to old things, and loved ones. He felt himself drifting back to where it was darkest.
“Do not go there. It is not where you belong,” his voice in the light said firmly. “That way lies pain.”
Jake found that he could speak as well, though his words did not seem to originate from where his mouth would be if he had one, but *from him*. “I know. I remember how it feels.” He thought that the light would have to do better than warning him away from the painful recovery of depleting his energy.
“No. It will not be your pain.”
The Pixie-voice answered. “Do not listen, Jake, the light speaks to bring you to it. The light is where you may belong when you die, but you are not yet dead. The light is death.”
Jake looked between the two. “Why would I want to die?” Strangely, the Pixie-voice, the advocate for life, answered him.
“To be relieved of all pain, yours or other’s, to escape evil in the world.”
At that moment, in that spiritual limbo, Jake felt that was a very good answer, and he drifted to the light. It did not matter that the answer had not come from the light.
“But you are not yet done with life. Pixie needs you.”
“Death will not separate you from her,” the light told him, “Though she will need to learn to be without you in body, there will always be your spirit.” Jake thought that was not very effective argument on the side of death and he halted. He was, in a word, conflicted. “I don’t know what to do,” he said.
“I do not know.” It was an odd answer coming from the supposed afterlife.
“Come back,” the Pixie voice said. “Please. You promised.”
“What?” Jake asked.
There was no immediate answer.
“That you would never leave her,” the light voice said.
Jake looked to the light, and the Pixie voice tried again. “But she needs you! Her life will be empty without you. She’s alone now. Don’t leave her there!”
But she wouldn’t be alone, Jake thought. She had Big Blue, Genki, and to a lesser against the other Searchers, assuming any had survived.
“They have,” the light spoke. “They will be there for her, no matter your choice.”
“No!” The Pixie-voice cried.
Jake made his decision without quite being aware that he had. The light hadn’t actually asked him to come to it, hadn’t asked him to choose it, but the darkness had. He had to believe that the weakness Holly’s father had told them about had been exploited, and that the Searchers lived on. Why else would he currently even have a choice if Moo had killed them all? What body would he have to come back to? He moved toward the light.
“Jake! Wait! Please! He’s taken Big Blue from me! I love you; please don’t leave me here! Please!” The Pixie-voice was crying and Jake felt it tug at his heart. He even slowed, but did not stop. He had an idea.
“Pixie, what is your name? Your real name?”
“What? Jake that’s… it’s… Holl… J….” The Pixie voice sputtered through a few more tries before it stopped. Then it said the same voice, though different, angry somehow, taking on a grating quality. “She never told me.”
Jake looked back toward the light and moved more quickly.
“No!!” This time the voice was different, and there was no doubt whose it was. “She must suffer for her treachery!!!”
Jake glance back to see… claws, talons, hands… seemingly thousands of them, molded from the darkness, reaching for him. He kept his course, but cringed as they closed in on and around him. But there was nothing to grip, and they passed right through. Moo’s voice howled in rage in the receding darkness. Jake returned his attention to the light just before he reached it. Before contact he heard Pixie’s voice in it, but from very far away. She was saying: “Jake, please, come back to me.”
The light was excruciating and weakening, making what he had felt after reviving Big Blue seem like a mere stubbed toe. But as he writhed in his own body, he felt the pain and weakness recede, slowly.
The others, glowing, though not as brightly as Pixie, looked on as Pixie tried again and again to come up with the right words, both they’re hope and glow fading. Pixie knew what was happening, and spoke quickly, racing against the tears that threatened to clog her voice. It was amazing how emotion could exist in greater depths than her energy.
“Jake, please, come back to me… this isn’t about your promise… I… I can’t… find the words to tell you what you mean to me… how… how you saved me… the *rest* of me…” She stumbled, and stopped fighting with her self for the right words. She was preoccupied with finding the right focus that she didn’t feel her energy levels falling. She closed her eyes and pressed on, trying to let her subconscious speak. “You took my hand in the dark and led me away from what was still hurting me, from what even Blue could not protect me from. He’s why I can open my eyes to escape my nightmares. You’re why I can keep them open. Jake… please hear me…”
“Every word,” came a whisper. Pixie flinched, having been unaware that she had been doing anything. Jake himself was surprised that he’d been able to even speak, more so that he did not feel all that bad for having just been dead.
“Jake!” Pixie’s eyes flew open and she saw that he was looking at her, trying to form a smile on his face. His face. It was no longer sunken, drawn tightly over his skull, and though there was still blood leading from his nostrils, it was drying.
“Hi,” he said. She responded by sweeping him up in her arms and pulling him against her. The movement made him very dizzy, but he did not care.
Pixie felt the well of grief plummet away from her, leaving only a thin scum to remind her that it had been there. And yet she cried, for nature abhors a vacuum, and it filled the one inside Pixie with happiness.
The Searchers cried too, all openly except for Tiger. And since he still had control over his voice. “Come on. I don’t know about all for you, but I’m ready to leave.”
Genki sniffled, and got himself under control. “But the Phoenix… we shouldn’t leave him like that.”
Holly spoke next. “That’s no more the Phoenix than the other was my father. I want to go to.”
Pixie looked up. “Blue… carry him… please.” Emotion was still choking her voice.
The golem nodded once and reached for Jake.
“Wait…” Jake whispered. He pointed weakly at the pit. “I need… to see.”
Pixie wasn’t sure she wanted to see what was left of Moo, but gestured at Big Blue. The Golem lifted them both on his opened hand and held it part way over the edge.
The dragon was at the bottom, half buried in the cooling lava, its limbs and neck in unnatural angles. Its skin barely covered its bony frame, tearing further in places where Moo had been wounded, and in places where ulcers and lesions had broken out in the monster’s death throes. Jake thought wryly that now was the time the monster leaped up for one last scare before *really* dying. But he knew that would not happen. Moo was dead.
Yet Moo still had a spark life in him when they first peered over the rim of the pit, for was they watched, the death glow came, shrinking Moo into a lost disk almost too far away to be see. The spark too, was now gone.
Jake had no saliva in his mouth, but he spit over the side anyway. “I’ve seen enough,” he rasped.
They left Mt. Kairus and headed back the way they had come, not quiet sure which way to go, even with Silhouette scouting away. Once they had left the vicinity of the pit, and the warmth its molten floor provided, the air became too cold for her to fly in and she had to return to them, shrouding herself in blankets as all but the two golems and Tiger were doing. Fortunately they had not needed to go far before finding trees. It took both Pixie and Silhouette some time to ignite the still wet wood with her fire. Neither was at her peak.
They were silent for a while by the fire, some wanting to talk, but not knowing how to begin. Jake wanted to simply sleep, his head propped in Pixie’s lap. But he was anxious about giving up consciousness again, even if only for a short while. Besides, if he did sleep, he would not have been able to see the way Pixie was looking at him. That alone was enough to get him to open his eyes every time he found that they had shut.
Hare finally broke the silence. “Right about now would be a good time to go home and sleep for about a week,” he said almost vacantly.
“None of us has a home, Hare,” Tiger said, resting with his head on his paws. He was as emotionally exhausted as the others, but had found he could still feel some anticipation at seeing his brother.
“I’m sure every town will offer any of you their largest house when word gets around,” Silhouette said with a slight shudder.
“Being famous sucks,” Jake said loudly enough. His voice was still hoarse, but it was improving quickly. Pixie touched his cheek and smiled gently at him.
“It would be great to be a hero if it hadn’t been so…hard,” Genki said. No one would have been surprised if the boy’s exuberance was gone forever.
“We suffered in our victory,” Golem said. “I do not want to celebrate.”
“Neither do I, Golem,” Holly said softly.
-I might-, Jake thought, -after I’ve found some place warm and clean, taken several showers, and slept for a week-. And even then his celebration would only involve Pixie. There had never been an opportunity for physical consummation of their relationship if only because of the absolute absence of assured privacy.
Jake mentally shook himself, almost incredulous that he was thinking about such things after what they had just been through.
Pixie had noticed something. She caressed his cheek again and asked in a whisper, “What is it?”
“I’ll tell you later,” then, when he saw what was in the sky, “Look. Our ride’s here.”
Falcon and his dragons soared above them.
The battle, Falcon told them, had gone slightly in favor of the baddies due to numbers. Even some of his dragons had fallen, something he spoke of quickly before moving on. They would have lost completely had Naga, and the contingent of troops he had withheld, had not been pulverized by the rain of debris from Moo’s castle.
“That was something, Jake, I hope you did the same thing to Moo!” the dragon said. Jake only nodded.
When asked if they were going to have a large welcoming committee, Falcon shook his head. The rather large group of monsters in and around the battlefield had been heading south to escape both the cold and area around what they knew was Moo’s grave. Only a few were remaining, waiting to meet the Searchers on their way back. One was a clay. The other, of course, was Gray Wolf.
“Go easy on him, Tiger. Ok?” Genki asked before they were airborne. The wolf grunted assent.
Pixie, naturally, rode with Jake, holding him in her arms as Genki had once done for her a long time before. The similarities were eerie. She saw him shiver and closed her wings around him. When almost to the battlefield, she saw the region northeast of it littered with hill-sized slabs of dark rock and smiled. Then she remembered what Falcon had told them and lightly tapped the dragon she was riding with her nails.
“What about Naga?” she asked when she had his intention. “Has anyone seen him?” She knew Naga’s story very well. Moo had collected three of his generals, but Naga had come to him.
“No. Gray Wolf had his pack go look for him, but they found nothing. They think his lost disk was destroyed.”
Pixie thought about it and hoped it was true. She felt Jake poking gently at her and opened her wings enough to poke her face in at him. “Yes?”
“What about Naga?”
Pixie briefly considered lying to him and telling him it was nothing. But after all he had done for them… for her… “He hasn’t been found. His lost disk might have crushed, or…” She trailed off when Jake nodded once. She could see that the thought of Naga on the loose was a troublesome thought to him too.
They landed a few minutes later, and all watched Tiger and Gray Wolf greet each other. The reunion was subdued, as Jake had expected.
“I do not know how to express the regret, my brother, at what I have done,” Gray Wolf said. “Or the sorrow I feel at ever having rejoiced in being your enemy.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Tiger said begrudgingly. His personal vendetta against his brother had evaporated, leaving a stain he could not ignore. But it was one that could not let influence him. “I have my own reasons to be ashamed.”
“And what will we do now?” They could not go back to their old ways, before Moo came, not after all this.
“I don’t know brother. But I have a feeling that it’s not over,” Tiger said.
Gray Wolf nodded. They were both thinking of Naga. Some monsters were born evil.
She was huddled against Big Blue, who himself was sitting on the ground. She was wrapped in blankets with Jake, waiting to begin moving again. She looked up to see the clay.
“Phoenix?” her former third in command asked.
“He fought well and fulfilled his purpose,” she said softly. The clay bowed his head and said no more. The sickly-sweet forgiveness she had expected he’d give her before Phoenix perished would now not be given. As had the stain of Moo been purged from him, so too had the Phoenix removed his own stain from the monster. The clay remembered her cruelty, but was going to leave the past behind.
Silhouette came up to them a minute later. “It’s time to go.”
Jake awoke to muted wind and cold, never unaware that Pixie was holding him, wrapped tightly in blankets and her wings, while riding one of Falcon’s dragons. But what he was not aware of was where they were going, and how long it had been since they left the battlefield.
“Where are going?” he asked Pixie upon waking for an uncounted time.
“The northern shore of the southern continent,” Pixie said, answered him above the rush of wind past her ears. She was pleased by the strength of his voice. He was improving far more rapidly than she would have expected for a man that had been dead. She wanted to fall apart over him, cry for the life together that had almost been taken from them, cry about what he meant to her. But it wasn’t the proper time. She knew there might never be a proper time, so she kept her emotions in check. Jake was with her, and would always be with her. So would Big Blue. They were enough.
“A town. Good weather. Escape from the frenzy of congratulations from the northern continent,” she said mildly with a touch of longing.
“We’re not there yet?” Jake asked. He had no concept of how long they had been in flight.
“The dragons are tired, and Phoenix’s flight with us was… fast. We won’t reach the southern shore for a few more days.”
Jake didn’t know if this was good news or bad. “Ok,” he said. Then a thought leapt to his mind. “How close are we to… where we met?”
Pixie favored him with a warm smile. “We passed that yesterday,” she said softly.
“Can we go back there some day?” He thought it was a delirious question, but wanted to know regardless.
“Yes,” she said simply. The same thing had been on her mind as they had passed over the general area. She had wanted, just as she now suspected Jake did, to visit the long drop she had saved him from, and the tree she had shared with him… using two branches then only one; also the clearing and the pool, even the one small place where the two men had attacked them. They had made her feel so vulnerable, had slashed her emotional armor so deep, yet she had let another human, Jake, help bandage the wound. It all felt to be so far in the past, yet so very important. -Someday-, she vowed.
“We’re going to land soon,” she added when she spotted a signal from Falcon to his dragons; he was asking them to look for a comfortable place for them. They landed half an hour later. Genki and Hare later realized that they were near where the Searchers had encountered one of Gali’s subordinates, Joker. Pixie wondered if Gali or Joker were one of the monsters that had taken their actions under Moo’s control the hardest. There were rumors already; rumors that some monsters were committing suicide. Guilt was a powerful motivator, even if the only thing to be motivated to accomplish was one’s own death. And lost disks were now essentially permanent. She only knew one being that could revive them, and she wasn’t about to let him nearly kill himself trying.
Jake had appreciated Pixie’s closeness and care at first, but as he became better he found her protection of him to be confining. But he allowed it because Pixie wanted to do it for him; she had wanted to hold him closely to her as they rode the dragon’s back, she had wanted to baby him. The only resentment that he had was because it wasn’t long before he felt like moving around again. Still, he did not hesitate to admit to himself that his unexpectedly rapid recovery was due to her efforts. He was partially aware that there was more going on with that than just being held by her.
“Jake?” she asked when he took the nearest opportunity to move around on his own.
“I can walk now, Pixie,” he said gently. “Besides, I have to piss something fierce.”
Apparently it was a phrase he’d never used with her for she looked at him oddly. “I have to go to the bathroom,” he said. She nodded and turned a bit as though he was going to save his strength and urinate right there, were other monsters could watch. He just gave her an odd look and went to find some privacy. When he finished, he saw that she had followed him partway.
“I can walk now, you know,” he said a bit more seriously than he intended.
“I know…” she began, closing the distance between. “But you were… dead.”
Jake smiled a little. “I wasn’t *that* dead.”
She reached him and slid her arms around his neck. Right then Jake would have let her convince him that he was still an invalid, incapable of walking, despite standing on his own two feet. And then she deepened the embrace by adding her wings to it, folding them lightly around him. And right then Jake would have let her convince him of absolutely anything, such as that Suezo was really a giant purple ear. He would have given her anything to have her stay the way she was, arms and wings around him, and the look on her face. She echoed it a moment later in a whisper.
“I love you.”
Jake only nodded dumbly.
But it ended, but not because Pixie wanted it to, or because his legs got tired. One of the dragons came sweeping down from out of the sky with news.
The dragon looked up from a conversation with Tiger and Gray Wolf. He had heard the urgent note in his friend’s voice. “What is it?”
“A pack of dinos…” the dragon said, catching his breath, “have reported seeing something strange to the west… They say it looks like the camp of an army.”
“Did you confirm this?”
“Not yet. Their description… I thought it best to exercise caution.”
Falcon asked about what the dinos had said, word for word.
“Oh shit,” Jake muttered when the dragon had finished.
Hare, Tiger, and Gray Wolf, all glanced his way. Pixie stepped back. “What’s wrong?” she asked. Despite the news, Jake was disappointed that she had pulled away. He turned and walked toward the messenger dragon.
“That’s what they said? Exactly?” he asked.
The dragon responded with a hint of reverence that Jake immediately disliked. “Yes. A small town of humans, green buildings, with strange iron birds on the ground, all larger than Moo’s were. Some carry crossed swords on their backs.”
“Crossed swords?” Genki asked as he walked up to them… “That almost sounds like a…”
“Helicopter,” Jake finished for him. “Humans wearing strangely patterned green clothing, carrying black sticks?”
“Jake?” Pixie asked from his side. “What’s going on?”
Jake shook his head, trying to make sense out of what the dinos had seen. It didn’t work, but he answered her anyway.
“Soldiers. From my world. Lots of them from what those dinos said.”
Pixie looked up at the dragon as though he had more to say. “How?”
The dragon shook his head. “They said there was a great mirage at one edge of the camp.”
Genki spoke. “Maybe they came to help us…” But he let the thought trail away when he recognized how unlikely it sounded.
Jake spoke, running his words together. “We’ve got to get them out of here. Got to get them to leave this place alone…”
“We? I don’t want you doing anything, Jake,” Pixie said sternly.
The first quip that came to mind was, “Yes mother”, but he turned it aside. “You don’t know what this means,” he insisted.
“It means… that there’s probably a lot more ways to and from your world now,” she said.
It was a reasonable guess. “And more might come through… invade… and the monsters that go over there… might not get back.”
Pixie shook her head, though with uncertainty. “But you and Genki are from that world… why would they…” She couldn’t finish the thought because, as it had been with Genki, it suddenly seemed to ridiculous to give voice to. Genki gave her the answer however.
“Pixie, they’re not all like us. Some of them are as bad as… the humans that hurt you.”
Pixie almost turned an accusing eye on Jake when she remembered the boy was referring to the humans that had owned her, and not the two men in the forest. They had agreed to keep the incident to themselves. “What do… we do then?” She was addressing Jake.
-I wish I had as many answers as you think I do-, he thought. He said, “We find out what they want.”
“How do we do that?” Holly asked. She had become quickly interested in the conversation once Genki had.
“Maybe… we… uhh” Jake couldn’t come up with anything. The development had come too quickly, especially in the wake of battling Moo, and being dead.
“We can ask some of the other monsters heading south what they’ve heard,” Hare said. “Surely some of them might have even encountered these humans.”
“I don’t think they’d come back from that, Hare,” Tiger said. He’d seen Jake’s reaction, had smelled it. The human was definitely worried; not something he had expected from Jake, especially about people from his own world.
“Still,” Jake said, his mind working again, “Even rumors at this point would be enough.”
“I’ll send my dragons out to ask around,” Falcon offered. When nobody moved to answer him, Jake took it as a cue that he was ultimately in charge of anything having to do with the development.
“Thank you.” And then, “I think… we’ll have to stay here for a few days then.”
Falcon nodded, and crouched to take off.
“Stay out of trouble Falcon,” Tiger said.
That night by the evening fire, Pixie again stayed with Big Blue. This time, however, Jake sat with them. He was pleased that his proximity did not distract her from her time with her long time friend. Shortly before Jake intended to go to bed, Silhouette came up to them.
“I have to go now,” she said. Although she was speaking directly to the three of them, she did not speak softly enough to keep the others from hearing.
“To find him,” Pixie said softly. It wasn’t a question.
“Yes…” she said distantly. Finding Frost, and their jell friends, would still take her a while.
Jake stood, and Pixie followed. It was the first time he had ever seen her interrupt her time with Big Blue. The golem, however, did not stand with them. He knew there were going to be more private goodbyes that he did not belong at. “Goodbye, Silhouette,” he said holding up one of his massive hands. She gripped one of his fingertips and shook it.
The goodbyes exchanged with the others were brief, and she walked with Jake and Pixie until they were out of earshot. To Jake’s surprise, she turned to them and hugged them both. In the dark, he saw the reflection of the firelight in the wetness on her cheeks. He only dimly understood why their parting was hard for her. He had no greater understanding of why it was hard for himself. When she pulled away from embracing him, he left her with a soft kiss on her forehead. “Good luck, Shadow.”
She turned to Pixie as she spread her black wings. “Keep him safe, Pixie.” And she was gone into the night. Both were glad to see her heading east.
“What’s on your mind?” Pixie asked him in the dark. After Silhouette’s departure, Pixie went back to Big Blue, and Jake went to their bed. He smiled in the dark when he had seen how it had been laid out; three blankets, laid neatly top of each other, the uppermost folded back at one corner. A fourth was folded into a pillow. It was Big Blue’s work. Neither Jake nor Pixie ever bothered with such neatness.
The golem set Pixie down roughly an hour later. Normally it made Jake smile that she still pretended to remain asleep, but he was caught up in his own thoughts. Pixie noticed this as she always did. She had to ask him again to break him out of it.
“Huh? Oh…” He sighed before telling her. “I never really gave any thought to what would happen after we got rid of Moo. I was under the assumption that our troubles would be past.”
“And they’re not?” she asked him. She knew they weren’t, but wanted to hear it from Jake.
“I don’t know. It sounds like there’s a whole military base out there. That can’t mean anything good… for this world.”
“They aren’t anything you can’t handle,” she said. She didn’t know what kinds of weapons they had, but Jake didn’t seem to have come from a world where the technology was more powerful than that of the creators of Moo.
“I know… but…” He stopped, looking for the right words.
“They don’t have their own Phoenix to revive them. I can’t just stop them by… killing.”
Pixie moved against him. “Then we’ll find another way.”
Jake shook his head, uncertain. “I don’t know…”
“Jake,” she said firmly.
“Ultimately… can they be worse than Moo?”
“No,” he said. But he had taken much longer to answer than she would have liked.
“Then we’ll survive. This world will survive,” she said against his neck.
“I hope so.”
The dragons eventually returned with news that was not particularly encouraging. There had been little contact with the human military except for battles with Moo’s forces before the monster’s end. Other human groups from the other world had been encountered, these peaceful and endlessly curious. And there were even suggestions that there were civilians, but none of Falcon’s dragons heard anything more accurate than third-hand information about that.
There were also other “mirages”. One of the dragons had even seen one, a small one compared to the one at the human military encampment. He had seen a small animal stumble through it, and then race right back when it got a good look at its surroundings. Jake recognized it as a raccoon from the description.
Finally, caravans of humans and monsters, those surviving their town’s destruction, were reported to have visited the other world. Those that returned told strange stories that Jake didn’t bother listening to. There was a hint that some of those that had not returned had chosen to stay there a while.
Jake, Pixie, and Genki sat on the long slope of a hill watching one of the larger military outposts from a great enough distance that it was only a bright smear near the horizon in the deepening night.
“Well kid, you have the chance to go home now,” Jake said. He was not surprised by the boy’s response.
“I don’t want to now. You’re all my friends now.”
“What about your family?” Pixie asked.
“I… I’ll have to find a way to let them know I’m ok,” the boy said as he stood. “I guess I should go back now,” he said with a meaningful glance. Jake watched over his shoulder as the boy disappeared over the crest of the hill. The town was only a short distance away.
“What about you?” Pixie asked softly, moving up against him now that Genki was gone.
“I’m not going anywhere, at least not right now,” Jake said. He gave the same answer every time, one that Pixie had been satisfied with, now more so that there was actually a way for him to get home. But Jake knew there was always more on her mind. This time, she voiced it.
“Aren’t there things you need to do there? Maybe… people to say goodbye to?” she asked. Pixie was the last person to want to question Jake’s decision to stay, though she doubted there was anything she could say that’d make him change his mind. She knew, simply, that Jake would not leave her.
“Maybe some day, when it settles down over there,” Jake said gesturing toward the distant base. “I’ll go through and do what I need to do. Maybe by then I’d be able to take you with me.”
Pixie smiled and softly kissed his neck and then stood. “Come on. We should get back.”
A thought came to Jake as he rose to join her. He asked himself if things in any place his people went ever really settled down. Human beings generally brought permanent disruption to every place they went in large enough numbers, especially in such an antagonistic way as that of a military force, never benign either way. If he ever truly needed to go back to his world, he wasn’t at all sure if it would be safe for Pixie.
He masked his likely troubled expression as he turned to face her, smiling slightly in the dark. As they walked back to town, he thought of the bright smear on the horizon, wondering if it had been his imagination that it looked larger this time.