Life-or-death situations are magical things. When one is faced with an irate pirate on one side, and a giant smarmy cross-eyed earthworm on the other, really any action or suggestion, no matter how insane, is likely to progress matters in some manner of a useful direction.
In this case, it was Yvonne who jumped to her feet, putting her hands to her mouth. "Plan B!"
The group instantly started to panic, tripping over their own feet as they tried to get standing. Arimon stopped, and looked up at Yvonne. "Wait, what the hell is plan B?"
There was an explosion, and a cannonball shot past his muzzle, entering the thicket beyond. Yvonne jumped, and pulled the sheep to his feet.
The group scattered in five different directions, as the cannonballs kept coming. In the thicket, Oligomon watched the creatures run around with some amusement. "Well...it would appear the chase is on."
He slipped down back into the dirt, and moved through with a ripple, his gears clinking mechanically as he thought about who to track first. He settled on the furthest pair, who turned out to be Alasdair and Wyvermon, rushing through the ferns with their hands over their heads.
"...must be how Hookmon always knew what was going on. He had a spy!"
"I get that, but why an Oligomon?" Wyvermon gulped for breath, and hid behind one of the nearest trees. "They're usually benign. They don't get involved in wicked acts like this."
The great body of the worm burst from the ground, catching the dragon off guard. Oligomon opened his mouth and fired; tiny yet razor sharp shards of liquid rock which sliced into the surrounding area. One would have taken out the dragon's eye had Alasdair not roughly shoved him to the side, taking the blade to his shoulder instead. He gritted his teeth, and just narrowly missed having his foot clamped by Oligomon's metal jaws. They ran back, away from the worm's reach, as it chuckled and lugged itself around. "Benign? Honestly...what kind of fairy stories do you listen to?"
Wyvermon glared back. "I met one of you once. Your kind shouldn't be doing this. It's not natural."
"Natural?" The metal snake laughed. "Don't you find it a little patronising to be behaving merely due to the types of data we are? The life we were given at birth? Come on; I'm an opportunist. Dallurmon's hold has made you weak, whereas the rogues are taking control. Your world of order is over. I'm merely picking the right side."
Alasdair stood up, clutching his wounded shoulder. "It's not a question of birth. It's a question of basic human decency."
Oligomon shrugged. "It's handy I'm not human then. Whatever that is." The jaw pulled back into a grimace, and he sunk down once again into the earth.
Wyvermon glanced up at his partner. "Are you okay?"
Alasdair narrowed his eyes, seemingly staring into nothing. "Running isn't going to solve anything." He looked down. "We need to find Rachel. And the D-Port."
The boy and the dragon weren't the only ones who had decided to turn back. Taking advantage of the chaos, Yvonne, Arimon and Marsuamon had wormed their way back into the clearing, running towards the cage. Hookmon was still blasting at all the movement he could see, and his back was currently turned. The bird inside the cage was going into a frenzy, letting out yips and jeers of nervous excitement.
"Oh gosh oh gosh oh gosh! It's happening! I'm part of a battle! An all-out battle royale!"
Marsuamon raised an eyebrow. "You sure have some weird priorities."
"Well, I have to pass the time somehow," twittered the bird excitedly.
"Not for much longer. Step back, m'lady." Arimon lifted his dagger, the blade glowing, and pressed it against the cage door. "Brave Dagger!"
He stabbed forwards, and the lock fell apart, along with most of the cage. The bird spread her wings, revealing the full extent of her exquisite plumage. "Oh, that feels good! I'm ready! I can fly again!"
Arimon gave a little bow. "It was my pleasure-"
The bird was no longer listening; instead she had flown straight up, and had fired a twister of flower-petals right into the back of Hookmon, embedding most of them in his jacket. They didn't have much effect, other than causing him to turn around, and witness upon the breakout attempt in progress. Yvonne bit her lip, and Marsuamon gawped up at the bird above.
"Why would you do that you moron?"
The bird giggled. "I'm Mynahmon, by the way."
Hookmon was already marching forwards, his razor-sharp hook raised and ready to gut anything in its path. He brought it down, but Arimon stood fast, his own dagger raised to block the attack. He grinned. "You didn't think it was going to be easy, did you?"
Hookmon blinked, and twisted his hook. The dagger flew out of Arimon's hand, and straight into the pile of junk.
The sheep ducked as Hookmon swiped, ripping out a clump of his wool. He scarpered out the way, but Marsuamon charged in with a headbutt, catching the pirate in the midriff. It didn't have much effect; Hookmon was nowhere near as erratic a fighter as Fangmon, and was far more calculating and precise in his moves. In a couple of seconds both Arimon and Marsuamon were lying on their backs, severely winded. Hookmon stood up, and turned silently towards Yvonne.
There was a terrible scraping sound, and Hookmon took a step. He swayed slightly, before looking behind him at where Jiminymon was standing, her hind legs vibrating and making an ugly sound. Neonamon jumped up and down beside her, "You did it! Nice shot!"
"Hey Hookmon, I caught something."
Everyone turned towards Oligomon, who thrust his head back and something out of the bushes. Yvonne and the others gasped; it was Rachel, still clutching onto the D-Port even as she was rolled onto her back.
The worm frowned, and glanced aside to where Neonamon had shuffled forwards. "I know you! You work as an intern for Dallurmon, don't you?"
Oligomon shrugged. "Darn. You got me."
Jiminymon started. "You work for Dallurmon?" She looked at Hookmon, then back at the worm, then between the two, looking like she was going to have a fit. "What the heck are you doing with this lunatic then?"
"I changed my mind."
There was a bang, and Jiminymon leapt forwards, the cannonball only just missing her. Oligomon shrugged, and turned away from her, refocusing his attention on the pirate. "Ignore her. She's a little obsessive."
"You are a traitor to our leader and I will-"
"Aaaaaanyway..." Oligomon glanced down to where Rachel was still pinned beneath him, looking up in an irritated fashion. The worm raised his tail and dropped it on her stomach, holding her in place. "This one seems to have something interesting with her. Could make for nice junk."
"Don't you dare!" Rachel smacked at Oligomon, but it was like hitting an iron bar, and within seconds the worm had wrested the device away from her. It was whirring slightly, but Oligomon didn't care to be careful, slamming it to the ground and peering all around. "What the hell is this thing anyway? What the hell are all of you?"
"Give it back!"
"Rachel!" Alasdair and Wyvermon burst into the clearing, running straight towards them. Oligomon looked up, and smiled.
"Aha, you're back."
With a whirr, Oligomon slipped down into the dirt, causing Wyvermon to charge into nothing. The worm emerged behind him, and merely batted him away with his tail.
"I'd be careful if I were you. There are two of us you need to think about."
He waved nonchalantly over at Hookmon, who was currently standing once again in the centre of the clearing. Slung over his shoulder was Yvonne, who was struggling and kicking the air to no avail. She laughed nervously. "Whoops."
"Let her go!"
"You say that a lot, don't you?" Oligomon looked up into the sky, at where Mynahmon was still flapping around. "You should probably come down here if you don't want the female to get diced."
Reluctantly, everyone stepped forward. Hookmon's lone eye darted between each of them, keeping an eye on all their positions. Then he looked down at the device. Oligomon grinned, and moved it upright, showing it off from all angles. "Shiny, right?"
As expected, the pirate didn't answer. He merely flung his hook-hand back, sending Yvonne rolling to the ground, and raised his cannon at the device.
Hookmon looked down disapprovingly the girl crouching before him, the device in her arms. She's pushed it out of the way of the cannonball. But she hadn't been quite so lucky, as the projectile had struck her foot, wrenching it sideways.
Through tears, Rachel glared up at the pirate, who was now striding towards her, spinning his hook. "My dad worked his whole life on that machine...I won't let you...or anyone...break it..."
Yvonne looked up from across the clearing, with Arimon beside her, trying to help her up. "Rachel...please...don't do this..."
The younger girl shook her head, and held tightly to the device, still shaking from the pain. Alasdair and Wyvermon were beside her, placing themselves between the pirate and the girl. Hookmon blinked again, and raised his hook, the metal glinting in the sunlight.
"I've had enough of this! Crackin' Kick!"
With a yell Marsuamon rushed forwards, and slammed her entire body into Hookmon from the side. He stumbled, but remained standing. But it was enough time for Marsuamon to turn towards Rachel.
"That thing's our best hope, isn't it? You got something amazing there; you've gotta use it!"
She stretched out a hand, looking Rachel in the eye.
"Will you show me its power?"
Rachel's bright blue eyes stared out, straight into the kangaroo's purple ones. She swallowed, closed her eyes, and held her hand over one of the buttons. Alasdair saw, and tried to reach for it, but he was too late.
The D-Port hummed into life, and the familiar tornado was starting up, this time a bright, fiery orange. Oligomon backed away nervously, but Hookmon saw the building energy and reacted instantly. He rushed forwards, raised his hook and slashed down, piercing the metal. There was a metallic screech, and a burst of orange light blew him backwards. He got to his feet quickly, but already Marsuamon was standing between him and the device, the light burning behind her as she cracked her knuckles.
The orange tornado reached out, swirling and pulsating. Alasdair and Wyvermon tried to reach out, but it wouldn't let them. It rejected them. They weren't its concern. Slowly, they were forced further away, and they could only watch as the vortex twisted, and focused its burning maw on Rachel.
"...don't do it..."
The girl looked over at them from her crippled position, and her expression was unreadable. She looked all around. Then back at Marsuamon. Then she raised her palm, and planted it inside the vortex, and in moments she was gone.
Marsuamon could feel the heat rising behind her, and she closed her eyes, waiting for the inevitable burst of energy.
She still wasn't prepared, letting out a visceral scream of pain as the vortex stabbed her in the back. For a brief moment, her cries merged with Rachel's. Then they dissolved, and collapsed, replaced only by a faint whistle, and the ever-present ripping of static.
The girl sat, in the middle of nowhere and nothing, staring at the world in front of her. Her face was blank. All around her, blank-faced men and woman walked around. Living their own lives. Talking amongst themselves.
She was nothing. A non-entity. A mere passer-by herself.
Suddenly, Marsuamon was sat beside her. She looked around, and whistled. "Big world, ain't it."
"Is this a dangerous world?"
Rachel shook her head. "It's cruel. Nasty. But really, most of the time people just...forget you." She looked to the side. "I don't want to be forgotten for the rest of my life. I want...someone."
"Do you know who?"
A shake of the head.
Marsuamon kicked the air with her toes. "Sometimes you can make all the noise in the world, and you can't make a difference." She smiled. "I wanna change that."
Rachel nodded, but said nothing. Marsuamon held out a palm. "I'll do it if you want to."
The girl sat there for a second. Her eyes seemed distant. Yearning. As if trying to remember something long forgotten.
She smiled a porcelain smile, and reached out, and took the wallaby's hand.
"Let's stay together."
Marsuamon grinned. "You and me. Partners."
Marsuamon's body jerked, writhing back and forth as her skin, and the glowing grid beneath, rippled and tore.
"Marsuamon, Soul Interlock!"
Her body shifted rapidly, starting with her legs, which more than quadrupled in length. Her arms followed suit, and all her limbs bulged, new and powerful muscles rippling beneath. Her shoulders broadened, as did her chest, and she staggered, her back heaving as she began to shrug off the orange energy around her, revealing her new, empowered form.
Her fur was paler than Marsuamon's had been, and all over her body, she wore bound bandages, so tightly wrapped that you could see the musculature rippling beneath. Her hands and long feet were tipped in conical black claws, and around her shoulders, elbows, knees and knuckles she wore leathery pads, adorned with more broad spikes like knuckledusters. More of the bandages were wrapped around her muzzle, which was squatter than before, making her look slightly more human. Purple markings adorned her chest, back and the top of her head, and her eyes were piercing and sharp, intersected on both sides by two red scars. She rolled her neck, and her stance widened as she loosened all her limbs in turn. Her body was lithe, but dripping with physical power and flawless form. She was a brawler, and one long overdue her fight.
There was a mechanical crunching as Oligomon scuttled backwards, suddenly looking a whole lot less smug. "Oh geez, you're, um...you're a whole lot bigger than you were."
Hookmon was far less put off by the sudden transformation of his opponent. He rushed forwards in a flash, his hook shining as he brought it up, slicing into Procoptomon's shoulder even as she jumped back. She huffed, and flicked her muzzle with her thumb, angling herself. "Bring it. I know you've got more," she taunted.
The pirate stepped back, raising his musket and firing three cannonballs in turn. But the kangaroo was hitting her stride now, and she effortlessly dodged each one of them, circling the pirate. But Hookmon was only half paying attention. He suddenly changed direction, rushing towards the now-exposed D-Port with murder in his eye.
"Oh no you don't!"
Procoptomon was behind him in an instant, grabbing his arm and effortlessly flinging him away. He rolled in the dirt, but quickly got to his feet, only for the kangaroo's fist to hit him smack in the face(?). He rolled with it, and prepared to fire a point-blank shot at her head, but she closed her free-hand over the barrel and squeezed, buckling the metal. The pirate looked up, and she brought her head down, straight onto his tricorn. He staggered, and brought his cannon-arm up, looking down at the bent barrel. Procoptomon hopped back and forth before him.
"Guess that ain't doing anything anymore."
Hookmon shrugged his shoulder, and the cannon split in two, revealing a stubby spike and the remains of a flintlock trigger. He stabbed forwards, gouging Procoptomon's forearm just as she made to block.
"Oh, come on..."
The pirate was not to be put off; with the cumbersome cannon removed he was twice as fast, slashing and stabbing and making many cheap shots. But the kangaroo was matching him move for move. As he brought the hook down, she leapt backwards onto her hands, thrusting both feet out in a brutal kick that sent him skidding backwards. The pirate's once-pristine coat was now matted with blood and dirt, but he was still standing. His eye had narrowed dangerously. He was still out for blood.
It was Procoptomon who moved first, dodging the blow from his spike and whirling around to punch him in the back of the head. As he stumbled forwards, she gave a sweeping kick which was intercepted by his hook mid-swing. She ducked back, very nearly having her eye taken out by the spike, but Hookmon was still fast, bringing up his elbow into her chin.
She stepped aside, and landed a punch, right in the gut. He stepped back, but she followed it up again, and again, each blow increasing in power and rapidity. Despite the pirate's great resilience, he was being driven back. And still she kept coming.
The punches increased in velocity, striking him in the chest, the arm, the other arm (breaking it), and several times in the face, so much so that his lone eye was obscured by blood and bone shards. Then, at the apex of her volley, Procoptomon thrust both arms upwards, sending Hookmon several dozen metres into the air. She huffed, widened her stance, and jumped, hovering at her peak only slightly higher than he was. He turned, and his eye opened barely, seeing her lithe form up above him. She winked.
Her legs uncoiled with the force of a cannon, striking Hookmon directly in the back with a brutal two-footed kick. There was a harsh crack, and the pirate's body rocketed earthwards, striking the ground with a sickening crunch and a miniature explosion of dust.
Everyone around gaped as Procoptomon landed beside him, light as a feather. She stood tall, and looked down at his dissolving form. He was already dead.
The kangaroo bowed her head, ever so slightly. "The game is mine."
She turned, and her eyes fell upon Oligomon, who was still stood, mouth hanging open on the ground. She raised an eyebrow. "What are you still doing here?"
The worm Digimon made a sound halfway between a quack and a scared bleat, and sunk into the dirt in a matter of seconds. There was a slight rumble as he powered away, with the vague and highly muffled promise that they hadn't seen the last of him.
Nobody was really paying any attention at this point.
It was early afternoon, and the sky was clouding over slightly. Rebuilding the village was going quickly and efficiently, and the children had been shifted over to a slightly larger and more comfortable area, at least for the time being. Not that it helped relieve the tension. Every so often they could hear raised voices in the next building across, where Jiminymon and the overseers were busy making worrying decisions.
Not that it was that dour. Arimon, Wyvermon and Marsuamon were hanging around, chatting and generally providing support. Mynahmon had been rescued as well, and she was busy catching the four children left behind up on everything that had happened, in her own hyper-excitable way.
"...and then the kangaroo hit him, and then she hit him again, and it was so cool what she did, but he brought up the gun and I know that's a powerful gun cause I saw it blow up a whole tree once, and maybe even two trees at one time but I don't know cause one of them he'd hit before, but he was able to hit it from miles away and he was so scary, and...
And so on, and so on, and so on. Lizzie's head was bobbing up and down slightly as she tried to stay awake, although Lucy was transfixed.
On the other side of the room, Rachel glanced over, and allowed herself a small smirk. Miraculously, her injury from earlier had just been a glancing blow. Either that or she was just healing quickly. This world did seem to have strange properties here and there.
At the very least, she was able to move her foot again, and for that she was thankful. She sat next to the D-Port, her palm on its roof. Her fingers ran over the hole in the metal where Hookmon had pierced it, and she tensed, rubbing at the damage. The metal still felt warm, and let off a very low hum. For once, it didn't seem to be too threatening.
Marsuamon shuffled up to her, and held out a fist. "We did good out there today." She hovered, waiting for a response, but Rachel just blinked. Marsuamon cleared her throat, and folded her arms. "It felt sweet to let off some steam. Maybe we could do it again?"
Rachel's hand went to her shoulder, and she spoke very quietly. "It did feel good. Really good."
"You too, huh?"
Alasdair and Yvonne shuffled over, with the sheep and the dragon not far behind. Alasdair looked worried, and he glanced over at the D-Port. "I have no idea what this thing is. But I think it's going to change this world forever. I feel it in my gut."
Arimon sat down, and placed his paws on his knees. "Whatever the case, I'm sure it won't be the last time you'll need to use it." He looked around, and over at the other children. "We'll all need to be prepared to fight."
Alasdair gritted his teeth. "That's not what I want. But I have a feeling you're right. I just hope..." He looked over at the device, which seemed so benign, a far cry from the roaring beast that had brought them here.
"...I hope it's not going to backfire on us."
Rachel swallowed. "There's another thing."
"What is it?"
The girl pressed down on the top panel with her fingers, and shook a little. There was a distinct rattling sound. Yvonne and Alasdair looked at one another.
"We need this to get home. If it breaks...we'll be stuck here. Forever."
Yvonne wiped her mouth, exhaling loudly. "We've been here long enough. We need to get out of this village."
There was a rapping at the entrance, and everybody turned, with the exception of Mynahmon, who kept yapping away until George tapped her on the head. Jiminymon stood at the door, with Neonamon on her back. She buzzed nervously, and her head was low.
"Okay, so the good news; you're no longer going to be executed."
The response was silence, with the exception of an audible sigh of relief by Alasdair and Lizzie. But the cricket still looked grave.
"This is out of all of our hands. You want to get home, don't you?"
Yvonne nodded, glancing at Rachel as she did so. "More than anything. We don't want to cause you any more trouble."
"Then we have no choice. I can't help you, but maybe I can bring you to somebody who can."
Neonamon grinned. "How would you guys like to meet our Lord Dallurmon?"
The children's send-off from the village wasn't given much fanfare, which was probably for the best. Only a few curious villagers had shown up, including a recently healed Gargoylemon and ExVeemon (Kabuterimon, still grumbling about everything being their fault, had boycotted the farewell).
Seasarmon and Dinohyumon stood at the gateway, looking over the assembled throng. There were the seven children, with George now carrying the D-Port on his back - the idea being that they would take it in turns to share the burden through the journey. Marsuamon had volunteered to go with them, as well as Mynahmon, who really had nowhere else to go. Jiminymon and Neonamon would act as their guides through the wilds (much to Jiminymon's chagrin), and although Dinohyumon had pleaded with them to stay and help the village, Wyvermon and Arimon had been determined to go as well.
"It's what we need to do," Arimon had said. "They're lost, and they need help. The more of us there are to protect them, the better."
So there they were. All were a little fidgety, and very nervous about the journey. Well, most of them. Yvonne and Mynahmon were practically giddy with excitement, and Lucy was just looking around, looking fairly disappointed.
Dinohyumon stepped forward, and handed Alasdair a sheet of paper, with detailed diagrams drawn on one side. "There's your map to the keep. Follow the road round the ridge, then across the savannah. It's a long way, but it should be relatively safe."
Alasdair took the map. "Thank you. For everything."
"Please don't." The lizard man waved a hand, his face stern. "Seriously, don't. You don't realise how much trouble we're in."
Seasarmon grinned. "Thanks for all the help, but please...don't come back."
Alasdair gave them a weary look, before sighing and turning, Wyvermon trotting at his side. The boy nodded to Jiminymon.
"Lead the way."
So they trudged off, leaving the village and its troubles behind for good.
Still, Rachel glanced back as it disappeared over the hill. In some ways she was happy to see the back of it, but at the same time, it felt like a step out of the frying pan and into the fire. Despite all the friction, for the most part the village had at least felt like a safe haven.
Now, they were stepping into the unknown.
For the first few miles, the road was straightforward and the group was quiet, with only the occasional nudge from Jiminymon to point them in the right direction. The best of the afternoon sun was behind them, and they all knew it wouldn't be long before further travel became impractical.
The sun seemed to set remarkably quickly, and with only the dim light of the D-Port to show them the way, the group knew it was time to find shelter. Marsuamon managed to find a suitable cave; roomy, and not too cold.
The Digimon volunteered to take shifts outside, just in case, although Jiminymon was adamant that there wouldn't be any Nightmare Soldiers this far out in the open. Perhaps there weren't, but her affirmation still sounded hollow, as if she didn't quite believe it herself. The light finally gave way to dark, and the children – exhausted and emotionally drained from the events of the past two days - tried to sleep, with visions of grinning hounds and silent killers dancing in their minds.
The three moons were high in the sky, shining down on Arimon as he stared up. The hills were quiet and restful, and rather beautiful at night it seemed. The little lamb had never been that far out of the village, and he was beginning to wonder why. He didn't even mind that he'd been pretty much abandoned as a lookout; Wyvermon had finished his shift, and Marsuamon was nowhere to be seen (although he was pretty sure he could hear her snoring inside). His hands were rested behind his head as he looked up at the sweeping galaxies above, wondering how large the Digital World really was. Although as far away as his thoughts were, he kept a constant ear out for his immediate surroundings. You never did know, after all.
Arimon heard a rustling behind him, and turned to see Yvonne stick her head out from the cave wall, her hair now loose and flowing. He smiled, gripping his dagger tightly.
"No way." The girl quickly poked her head back inside, and for a brief moment the sounds of snoring emanated from the cave. She grimaced. "The others are doing fine though. I think they've had it."
"Not surprised, with the day you've had."
Yvonne emerged fully, staring up at the night sky as she joined her partner on the hillside. "No matter how many times I look at it, it's still amazing. You're all amazing."
"Yeah, well…" Arimon scratched behind his head. "Sorry. You shouldn't have been mixed up in all of this; none of you should. But I promise it's going to be fine; we're going to find Dallurmon and we're going to send you home."
"It's okay, I believe you." Yvonne laughed, gently clasping the sheep's hand. "I know a noble knight when I see one."
Arimon's normally lilac face fur turned slightly pinker than usual, and he pulled away rapidly. For a moment he stood, silent. Then he yawned, and immediately clamped his hands over his mouth, looking worriedly at Yvonne. She laughed.
"It's alright. Relax. You're doing great."
Arimon turned, looking into her with his wide eyes. "You really think so?"
"Well I don't know about the others, but I feel safe." Yvonne grinned. "I trust you. I know you'll protect us."
She yawned herself, and her eyelids began to droop. The sheep pointed. "Go on. Get some rest. It's a long walk tomorrow."
"I guess I should, shouldn't I…"
Arimon exhaled, shaking his head, as the girl crawled back inside the cave, leaving him alone on the hillside. He leant back again, his dagger rested beside him. Gingerly he reached out, running a claw down its blade.
Even out here he could feel the slight tingle; one which coursed throughout his body whenever near the children. Near that device. His thoughts turned to knights in armour, and holy warriors wielding purifying flame. Such power. Such potential.
As he lay back, he could never have known that he wasn't the only one thinking such thoughts, as both Digimon and human alike dreamed of power beyond their imaginations, and bonds that would last a lifetime.
Neonamon grinned as he lay coiled atop the D-Port, dreaming of new worlds, and new discoveries. Below him, the D-Port continued glowing ever so slightly. It never slept. Never stopped. It knew its purpose. Silently, it kept watch over the children from the corner of the room, its screen glowing with the tiniest pinprick of red light, like an all-seeing eye.
More of the party were shocked than not at the fact that, somehow, they hadn't been woken up in the middle of the night and had to run from some hellish creature. Quite well rested, and really quite upbeat, Alasdair got everyone moving as quickly as he could (although nowhere near as fast as Jiminymon would have liked).
"It's a nice morning. We can make some good ground today; I can feel it."
Yvonne looked aside at him. "You know you're gonna jinx it."
As the sun rose higher through the morning, the group's travels remained relatively event-free. There wasn't much map-reading to do while the road was still clear, and most of the group were transfixed with the landscape around them. George had been delegated temporary device-wielder, a task which he was finding gradually more difficult as the morning wore on. Rachel noticed him struggling, and edged backwards, eyeing the dev ice as it wobbled precariously.
George let out a breath, and pulled the D-Port further up again. "If your dad makes another one of these it had better be lighter."
"I'll ask him."
George hummed to himself. "I wonder..."
George looked down for a couple of seconds, then glanced to the left. "Does your dad know we're here? As in...in the Digital World?"
Rachel remained silent. Her head was down, and her hair obscured her face. George bit his tongue, and kept walking.
"He'll say it was his fault."
"He always says it's his fault. That's why nobody listens to him."
George blinked. "You listen to him. You love him."
Rachel gave a small nod. The boy reached back, and ran his hand down the smooth metal of the D-Port. "Is that why you're hanging onto this so badly?"
Another nod. "I want him to be happy. If he's happy, maybe I'll be happy." She sniffed. "There's not much at home at the moment to make me happy."
The group was making good headway, but soon, the novelty of the new world began to wear off, as the journey began to wear them out. Joel was beginning to get restless, as he would frequently drop behind, kicking at stones. Rachel was getting tired quickly as well, despite Marsuamon hopping beside her, offering words (and occasional shoves) of encouragement. It was all beginning to get very taxing, and thankfully, after the sixty-fifth monotonous game of I-Spy, they reached the first significant crossroads. Jiminymon was anxious to keep moving, but it was too much in one go. So they stopped, resting their feet just for a while.
George sat down, carefully unloading the hefty device from his back and stretching. "I never could hike very well."
He stared up, and all around, before sitting down, and pulling out a small, pocket notepad, and a stub of pencil. Neonamon tilted his head, and slithered over, peering over his shoulder. "What are you doing?"
The boy adjusted his glasses, and pointed forwards. "I want to get some of this down." He showed the snake a few sketches he'd made to pass the time; rough yet detailed drawings of the village, and a few of its residents. He flipped a page. "See, there are you and Jiminymon."
The snake squinted. "Her legs aren't that big, are they? Only she gets sensitive."
The boy chuckled, and added a few more lines. "It's only for fun. I'm not very good. But I like having things to remember places by." He stared up at the faintly purple sky. "I want to remember this place. It's pretty fantastic."
He wasn't the only one who thought so. Arimon and Mynahmon were sitting not far away, listening to Yvonne as she gestured grandly, recounting tales of the human world and the wonders that remained back there. Arimon was absolutely transfixed, and Mynahmon remained immensely excited, interjecting so often it was a wonder Yvonne was able to tell any story at all.
Joel was still wobbling around, pretend-balancing on the edge of the pathway, but even that was losing its novelty. He thrust his hands in his pockets, and flounced over to Alasdair, who was sitting with Lizzie and Jiminymon, studying the map. The boy coughed, but when that didn't get his attention, he dug his foot into Alasdair's lower back. The older boy glared up at him. "What?"
"I'm bored. When will we get there?"
Jiminymon buzzed. "A few days. Why?"
"Yes, well, this way we avoid any more trouble." Alasdair flapped the map edges nonchalantly. "We need to keep the D-Port safe."
"Why are we worrying about that? We can beat anyone." Joel huffed, and folded his arms. "If you won't do it I will. I'll change into something."
Lizzie leaned back, mumbling over her shoulder. "Fat lot of good you'll be."
Joel made to march forwards, but Alasdair grabbed his wrist tightly, shaking his head. "We're busy. Don't even think about it."
Joel blew a raspberry at the group, and stomped off, as they all watched him. Wyvermon tapped his claws. "Do all your young act like that?"
Alasdair slumped, looking dejected already. "Thankfully not. He's a special case though; he gets...touchy."
Some way away, Joel was making entertainment as best he could by stomping around in circles, muttering under his breath in Urdu. "‹I'll change into something awesome and then I'll jump on you all and you'll all be sorry... ›"
He became aware of Lucy wandering by, swinging her bag and biting her thumbnail. She stopped, looking at him, and following his circular pathway around. Joel stopped. "What!?"
The girl blinked. "You'll get dizzy."
"No I won't."
"Cause you're a girl." Joel grinned. "Bet I can spin faster than you."
Lucy gave a small smile, and dropped the bag from her shoulder. She waited, as Joel stepped back, holding his arms out. "Ready...one, two, three!"
Moments later, there was a thud and a distinct yowl. The rest of the group looked up to see Lucy and Joel both lying in the dirt, after, mid-spin, Lucy had trodden on the hem of her dress and promptly smacked into Joel. Joel was busy laughing his head off, despite a nosebleed. Lucy just quietly got up onto her knees, staring off into the distance. Lizzie turned round, and called over. "You okay? No damage?"
Lucy pointed. "Someone's here."
The others turned to look, and indeed there was; a small figure, crouching in the vegetation by the side of the path. Wyvermon got on his haunches, immediately aggressive. "We've been found? Out here?"
Lucy suddenly gasped, and smiled widely. "I know you! Chupamon!"
Some way away, Rachel jolted awake, and Yvonne spluttered on her story, turning around. "What? Chupamon? What?"
The little devil sighed, and marched out into the sun, squinting in the bright light. He nodded over at Lucy. "You've got good eyes. Too good."
He looked to the side, and saw Wyvermon marching forwards, growling as he did so.
"Oh, not this again..."
"What the hell are you doing here, devil? You're supposed to be locked up at the village."
"Duh. I broke out."
"Really easily, actually." Chupamon shrugged. "I could have done it at any time, really. It was just nice to hang around there away from Fangmon. But he's not around anymore, thanks to you people." He nodded at Alasdair. "You seem far more interesting than that old dump. Figured I might join you."
Wyvermon growled, and he crouched, but Marsuamon placed a hand on the dragon's shoulder. "It's cool, scales, it's cool."
The dragon flinched. "Don't call me scales, you heathen."
"Well then don't call him devil." Marsuamon's gentle paw turned into a sharp punch, leaving Wyvermon's shoulder smarting. The wallaby was unapologetic in her defence. "You saw what he did around Fangmon; he's a good guy."
"No I'm not."
"Don't you start! You know I can beat you up as well as him."
"That's no lie." Chupamon sat down, tail whipping back and forth, and he nodded at Alasdair. "Is that a map? Which way are you headed, exactly?"
Wyvermon shot the boy a warning look, but Alasdair shrugged, and turned the papyrus around so the little chupacabra could see. He looked forwards, his impossibly pale eyes scanning the route. Alasdair helped with a finger. "We're going around the road towards the pillars, then over to the keep."
"You're going the wrong way."
Alasdair blinked, and glared over at Jiminymon. "We'd bloody well better not be!"
The cricket squeaked with indignation, "I'll have you know I am an official administrator and public aide to Dallurmon!"
"A public aide who seems to be taking them in the wrong direction."
"Shut up!" Jiminymon planted her foot repeatedly on the unrolled manuscript. "We all looked over this! It's safe, it's easy to follow; what the heck are you even talking about?"
"How long will it take?"
"A few days."
"How long is a few days?"
Jiminymon quietened down, studying the map intently. "I...uh...it's only..."
"If you're going all the way around the ridge you're looking at twenty. Minimum. And out in the open where Digimon like me will come and pick you off."
Lizzie glared aside at Jiminymon, who sat down, looking the other way. "Fair point, but it's the official way."
Alasdair was still unconvinced though. "And you have a better way?"
"If you don't mind getting a little wet," shrugged Chupamon. He reached forward, and drew a faint indent from the point where they were right through the ridge. "It's quick, and it's covered. You'll get to the other side in maybe two days."
"Through the canyon..." Alasdair looked behind him, at the sharp, rough-edged rocks that were poking over the edge of the horizon. He rubbed his chin, his face getting grimmer. "I don't think so."
Joel looked up at him. "Why not? It's shorter. We wanna get home, don't we?"
"And risk damaging the D-Port? Or any of us?" Alasdair looked down at the little demon, who simply sat, whipping his tail back and forth. "Not that I don't trust you or anything, but over the past two days we've met three Nightmare Soldiers and two of them have tried to kill us."
Chupamon rolled his eyes. "Suit yourself. But I'm not joining you if you're going to waste your own time."
Lizzie gave a sarcastic smile. "I think that suits everyone."
The group disbanded, leaving Chupamon sitting alone in the road. Alasdair clapped his hands, and called out. "We're heading off. Yvonne, can you take a turn with the D-Port?"
The girl gave a thumbs-up, and soon enough they were all headed on their way, with Joel and Lucy trudging at the rear. Yvonne was handling the device slightly better than George had, and she walked up front, smiling at Alasdair all the way. "So, no Chupamon then?"
"Seems not. Maybe it's for the best."
Yvonne shrugged her shoulders, pulling the device up. "I don't know. His heart seemed to be in the right place. I guess...I feel bad about just leaving him."
Arimon looked up beside her. "Whether he's a good guy or not, he knows his way around. I'm sure he'll be fine."
"I couldn't care less, honestly." Wyvermon stuck his nose in the air, and sniffed. "He's a ruffian. A traitor to my lineage."
Arimon gave his friend an incredulous look. "That's not exactly his fault, you know. And you're not even related to him."
"Well he must have done something wrong at somepoint."
"You're an idiot."
"Good grief..." Alasdair rubbed the side of his face, running his fingers through his hair. "How the heck are we going to get everyone home in one piece if everyone's constantly at everyone else's throats?"
Yvonne sidled up to him, and nudged him. "We just need a strong leader to get us through all this."
"Don't look at me. I am not a leader." Alasdair sighed, and glanced back. "Maybe we should find him. Maybe it's-"
He stopped, and his eyes widened. Everyone stopped behind him, looking amongst each other. Alasdair raised a finger, counting in the air.
"Why are we missing two people?"
Chupamon had expected to be on his way, winding slowly down the way towards the ridge. He sat, staring up at the sky, as he listened to footsteps coming up behind him. The demon shuffled round, and glanced up at his two pursuers.
"Didn't you decide to go the other way?"
Lucy shrugged, whereas Joel thrust his hands into his pockets. "I'm not going that way. That way's stupid."
"I can't argue there."
"Why are you going? You said you liked us."
"I said I'm interested in you. Doesn't mean I like you." Chupamon turned on his heels, sashaying off. "Your team's probably waiting."
Lucy looked back, but Joel started off after the little demon, trudging along in the dust. "I wanna see where you're going."
"I won't stop you. But I won't take responsibility for you running off with a monster."
Joel humphed, and looked up at Lucy, who was walking daintily along. She pulled her finger from her mouth, and mouthed a couple of words, before speaking. "You're not a monster."
"We're all monsters here." Chupamon raised a claw. "Digimon. Digital monsters. We're all different but we all know that much."
Joel raised an eyebrow. "So why don't they like you? Fangmon's scarier than you."
The chupacabra stopped, and looked up at the two humans. "Some of my...kind...did some very bad things. Some of them still do. Everyone else finds it easier if they can blame all of us rather than just the ones who do wrong."
"That's not fair."
"I guess it's just how the world goes these days." The demon shrugged, and trotted onwards, his back flexing as he did so. "It's not awful. I don't talk to many people but at the same time they don't talk to me. In fact it's wonderful."
Lucy walked forwards a little, striding along next to Chupamon. "Isn't there something someone can do?"
"If they wanted." Chupamon looked up, puzzled by the question. "You mean Dallurmon? He won't bother."
Joel tilted his head. "Isn't he supposed to be the king or something?"
"Lord Dallurmon is only a ruler to those who'll accept him." He sniffed. "Everyone else loves him. I don't. Ergo, I don't count."
The little beast shut up and wouldn't answer any more of Joel's probing questions, so the three of them just carried on down the path in silence. Presently, Chupamon stopped, and pointed ahead. "That's the way you should be taking."
The two children looked ahead. The ridge was very close now; tall, jagged spikes of sandstone, with twisted metal poking in and out of the top, like a spider's web or a half-finished roof. The rocks themselves were embedded with undulating pathways leading up, down; every which way imaginable. It seemed accessible, and even welcoming. If not for one small, but rather crucial, detail.
Lucy looked back and forth. "There's a river in the way."
"I did say you'd get wet." Chupamon pointed to his left. "There's a bridge there. Or you can swim. But it gets you into the canyon, and you can get through the canyon in a few hours. You'll come out on the pillars, and then it's just a short hop to Dallurmon's keep." The devil shrugged. "People I knew would use this way all the time."
Curious, Joel wandered over to the bridge. It was an arch of rock, reaching over the entire body of water, and there were similar ones further up and down stream. It didn't look particularly fragile, but it was narrow at points, and the speeding currents would occasionally splash against it, leaving a liquid sheen on the top.
The little boy sat down, and placed his chin in his hands. "Maybe we could all get across. It would be great if we could."
Chupamon shrugged. "It's your call."
Joel looked up at Lucy, who was as unreadable as ever. She was looking down at the rushing currents; deceptively calm on the surface, but fast and lethal beneath.
Joel stood up. "I don't know. I...I wanna ask Alasdair...or someone."
"There you are!"
All three of them turned around, to see the boy in question rushing along the path towards them, with Arimon and Yvonne rushing along behind them. Joel stood up, and walked forwards, holding up his hand.
"We found the other way. We thought-"
He didn't get to finish, as Alasdair caught up with him and grabbed him by the wrist, wrenching him back.
"What the HELL are you doing here?"
Joel batted at Alasdair's wrist, but the boy wouldn't let go. The older boy turned to Lucy instead, glaring at her with vicious eyes. "You've got to stop doing this! BOTH of you! You think this is a game?"
Yvonne pulled at the boy's shoulder, looking him in the eye. "Ali, let go! Now!"
Alasdair looked down at Joel, and pulled his hand away, still glaring. "I don't believe this. I don't believe you."
Joel ground his teeth. "I was gonna come to you. I was gonna show you-"
"Show me what?" Alasdair looked up at the river, and the rushing currents beneath. "This? This is your other path?"
Wyvermon sniffed beside him, looking down his nose at Chupamon, who sat silent. "I knew you were trouble."
"Shut up, you stupid lizard!" Joel stepped forwards, clenching his fists. "He didn't do anything. We followed him. Why do you hate him so much?"
Wyvermon flinched at the lizard comment, but Arimon pulled him back before he could make a move. The sheep was looking between everyone, the nerves clearly showing. "You wouldn't understand-"
"EVERYONE says that!" Joel folded his arms. "Everyone thinks I don't count. Everyone thinks I'm a kid."
Alasdair took a step forwards, his hand opening and closing. "You are a kid."
"I'm not! So are you!"
"I'm older than you."
"You're not better than me! I hate you!"
The others flinched, and Yvonne grabbed Alasdair's hand, pulling it away. Joel's own hand went to his cheek, which was already going red.
"Listen to me, for god's-"
"AAAARGH!" Joel rushed forwards and tackled the older boy to the ground, his tiny arms thrashing forward as he threw punch after punch. Arimon, George and Yvonne rushed in, and they pulled the screaming kid away, holding him up as he thrashed around and tried to kick back. Alasdair sat up, holding his smarting shoulder and glaring upwards. Joel's tantrum was waning now, giving way to tears, although he kept screaming.
"I hate you! I hate you I hate you-"
"Do you want to die?"
The boy was stunned into silence, and he watched as Alasdair picked himself up, and stared down at the other boy. "I've had enough from you, you little brat. You don't listen. You never listen; not for as long as I've known you. That's why nobody wants to listen to you. If we did, we'd all die here." He narrowed his eyes, his voice taking on a menacing edge. "I didn't even want to bring you with us back then. You weren't supposed to be here. But while you are, you listen to me."
He turned. "I'm getting us all home. Don't get in my way."
He strode away. George and Arimon felt Joel go limp in their arms, as he fell to his knees, staring down at the ground.
Yvonne let go and rushed forwards, standing in front of Alasdair. "What the hell was that?"
"You saw. He started it."
"No, I mean after. What the hell was that?"
"Yvonne, don't start-"
He tried to walk past her, but she stood in front of him, her hands on her hips. "Ali, he's six."
"And? If he doesn't stop acting like this, we'll all be in trouble."
"So what? You're just going to yell him into submission?"
Alasdair looked up at Yvonne, and his eyes were darkened. "I'm not risking anything anymore. If it gets us all home safely, I'll happily be the bad guy."
He turned round, and looked at the assembled throng. "What are you all waiting for? We've wasted enough time."
"...go on without me..."
Alasdair looked back down at Joel, who was getting to his feet, his arms shaking as he did so. "You're coming up front where I can-"
"SHUT UP! You don't care about me!" Joel turned, and ran, sprinting towards the rock bridge. ""I'll find my own way home!"
"JOEL, COME BACK HERE RIGHT NOW!"
Everyone was caught off guard; only Arimon was running, but the boy had a headstart, and in seconds he was already making his way over the bridge, keeping his balance admirably as he skipped over the rock. Arimon went after him, with the others congregating at the base. Yvonne reached out with a foot, but the bridge let out a groan, causing her to turn back. "It won't cope."
Alasdair cupped his hands, "GET BACK HERE!"
Ahead on the bridge, Arimon gritted his teeth. "Please, kid...don't do this."
"Leave me alone!"
"Seriously, they don't...no-one meant-"
The sheep's ears twitched, and he looked upstream to his right. He sniffed the air, and went pale. "What the hell is that...?"
Joel had reached the halfway point now, but he'd stopped, crouching down and clinging to a narrow part of the rock. He could see the other side, but it was hazier now. The rock was slippery even up here, and the winds rushed down the flooded ravine, making him feel very exposed. Yet rage and stubbornness pressed him on, making him oblivious to the voices calling out behind him.
And blind to the approaching danger.
Arimon stood up and tried to run forwards, but the rock shook beneath his feet, and he fell forwards, holding on for dear life.
"FOR GOD'S SAKE, RUN!"
Something in Joel's mind snapped back into focus. He looked back, and saw the people on the shoreline. Some were still calling him back. Others were just yelling. Run. Get out of the way.
He became aware of the waters below. The river was looking far less calm; in fact, it seemed to have risen. There were large, worrying swells, and the sides of the river were foaming. And upstream...it was getting worse.
The boy stood up, turned on his heels, and ran back towards the shore, his shoes slipping against the rock but giving him just enough grip to move.
A swell approached, like a mountain of water.
The people on the shore saw a great black shape, bearing down on the bridge. The top of the shape broke the water, revealing a sharp, streamlined nose, which opened up into a mighty jaw filled with triangular teeth.
The wave crashed, engulfing the rocky arch. There was the sound of cracking, and the children looked away.
Then they turned back.
Arimon was still there, clinging to a spike of rock and shaking.
The bridge was gone.
And so was Joel.
TO BE CONTINUED...