Geryomon wandered through the caverns at a leisurely pace, his six legs moving two at a time in a mechanical yet oddly fluid fashion. His arms swung by his sides, unneeded, and he moved in surprising silence. The algae over the walls illuminated him bit by bit, accentuating the various contours and creases of his body.
Presently he stopped, and stayed still for a minute or so, seeming almost exactly like a statue. Then his top section swivelled, and he stared back into the blackness.
"It takes a master to trail me successfully. Whoever you are, step out."
His pursuer did so. Or rather, he slithered out, since the pursuer was Neonamon. He seemed somewhat out of breath; not surprising, given how fast he'd needed to crawl to keep up to the grid man. Geryomon's rightmost eye swivelled down at him, and grunted. "You kept up closer than I'd thought. Not bad for an In-Training level."
"I've been observing things for a long time." Neonamon smiled. "I must say though, you're a first for me. All of your people down here."
"Mind your slippery tongue, little one. Don't think I'm not aware of who you work for." Geryomon held out a mechanical palm. "If you wish to talk, let us do so."
The little snake slithered up onto the giant's palm, over his elbow, before resting on his right shoulder. Geryomon swivelled back into position, and carried on, keeping his movements incredibly smooth. Neonamon looked around, and whistled. "Nice place."
"It is adequate shelter. And discrete."
"I'm sure. None of us in Dallurmon's staff were even aware of it. I don't think even Groundramon mentioned it, the little I ever heard from him."
"And I would ask you to keep it that way."
The snake fluttered his eyelids. "What guarantee would you have that any of us will honour that?"
Geryomon paused, and swivelled his head sideways. "The fact that, despite being here, you still don't know exactly where we are. The fact that Dallurmon seems far more concerned with you and your friends than about us for the moment." The giant raised a free hand, and clenched it. "And the fact that I could kill you all in a heartbeat and no-one on the surface would ever know."
"Be wary of your jokes, serpent."
The giant lowered his hand, but kept his central gaze locked firmly on the little snake. Neonamon cleared his throat, and changed the subject. "So how many do you have down here?"
"It changes. It helps to not have too many here at any one time; Nightmare Soldiers aren't always known for their subtlety."
"And you're all Nightmare Soldiers?"
"Most of us. Some are sympathisers. Others are simple Virus and Data types who are oppressed. We can offer sanctuary, but little more." The giant turned a corner so sharply that Neonamon almost rolled off his shoulder, but was just able to hang on. "There are many here who despise your profession, serpent. They see you as dividing the world. Creating conflict merely out of difference."
"We only follow Lord Dallurmon's orders. Nobody questions them."
"Following him blindly is still following him."
"And on our own heads be it, it appears." Neonamon looked up into Geryomon's eye, and his face told all. "And what of you? What do you think?"
"It doesn't matter to me. Your data doesn't define you. You, me, the humans, Dallurmon; data, virus, vaccine; everyone has the right to the same life."
Neonamon's mouth moved sideways. "Even if they abuse that right?"
Geryomon clasped his hands together. "It would be unbecoming of me to judge your people on that, given the atrocities my kind has caused in the past." He turned his whole body around with the sound of scraping stone. "Be wary. We are still Nightmare Soldiers."
Neonamon chuckled. "I'm beginning to question whether I should even be scared of your kind anymore."
Geryomon stared, and he let out a low rumbling sound that may have been his own deep laugh.
"That's because you haven't seen what we can truly be like."
Lizzie bit her lip, and shuffled forwards at an agonisingly slow pace. Yvonne was sat in the cavern before her, talking to Arimon cheerfully.
Yvonne turned towards her, and the taller girl could see the smile flicker a little. "Hello?"
"I'm, um..." Lizzie fell to her knees, instinctively bowing her head. "I'm sorry! I said some rubbish things! Please can we..." She stuttered, trying to find the words, before looking up. "Can we make up? Can you forgive me?"
There was a little pause. Lizzie could just see the side of Yvonne's face; not enough to see her expression. Then Yvonne turned, sniffed, and rubbed beneath her nose. "Of course. I was never mad at you."
"R...really? It's okay?"
"You silly thing." Yvonne shuffled forwards, throwing her hands awkwardly around Lizzie's body in a friendly hug. "It's alright. I'd never hate you, especially not for something like that." She chuckled. "You did have a point."
Lizzie tentatively reached out herself, reciprocating her oldest friend's hug. There was a flurry, and something else joined the fray with an excited chirrup. "Ooh, can I join?"
Lizzie yelped as Mynahmon shoved her way inside, thrusting her wings around the two of them. After a little tangle and a few feathers being accidentally stuffed up people's noses, they drew apart again. Mynahmon had obviously been cooped up for far too long, since she was more hyper than ever. "I went out and I got really really lost and it took me ages to get back here but that's not what I meant because I passed something you know and I was sort of running away from something at the time which was trying to eat me but this thing it was like a rock only it wasn't a rock it was like one of your rocks and-"
Lizzie held out a hand and clamped the bird's beak shut, leaning forwards slightly. "Breathe. We can't understand you."
She let go, and Mynahmon obliged, blushing slightly. She carried on, albeit at a slower pace. Lizzie and Yvonne listened intently, sharing the occasional glance. Eventually the bird ran out of things to say, and sat down, exhausted all of a sudden. Lizzie chuckled, and tickled behind Mynahmon's head. "What are we going to do with you?"
Yvonne cocked her head. "Rocks?"
"Yagamon gave them to me," Lizzie said, reaching inside her pocket and pulled out one of the gemstones, rolling it in her palm. "It's pretty. I got a few; I think they were just spares from what she had."
"What do they do?"
"Not a clue. I think she was using them as medicine?"
Yvonne grinned. "That's cool. You can start early on your doctor training."
The other girl gave an uncertain laugh. "Yeah. I'm sure that would go down well. Magical glowy stones."
"Well you never know."
"In this place? No. I never do."
Arimon shuffled forwards, smiling. "You seem a bit more comfortable with our world now."
Lizzie pulled back, clenched her fists, before forcing herself to relax. "We have people like you looking out for us. And people like you to look after." She laughed nervously. "It's just a little dangerous at times. Very dangerous at times. Really, really-"
Yvonne leant back. "I'm sure we can handle it. We have so far. Even if we have had a couple of scares."
George was not usually one to get nervous when talking to people. Then again, he was not usually one to give heart-to-hearts, and when he was, he had usually been pretty bad at it.
But even an emotionally dense boy like him could see that the recent events had hit some of them harder than most.
"May I come in?"
There was no answer. Only a low, constant trill as Jiminymon stared at the wall in front of him. The boy swallowed. "I'm coming in."
He did so, shuffling ever so slowly towards the cricket, who didn't even register his presence. He could see papers lying around her. Maps, charts, to-do-lists; you name it, it was spread everywhere. There was Jiminymon's backpack as well, flung against the wall and hanging open.
"I can come back...or...not..." George sighed. "I don't know. I don't know what to say."
Still no answer. The boy turned, and considered leaving, but decided against it, shuffling a bit closer. The cricket did not look at her best. Her wings were drooped down over her back, and her eyes were practically blank, as if somebody had ripped her out of her shell and left just the empty carapace sitting there.
George bent down, and got to his knees, placing his hands in his lap. He could see the vague golden light of her pupils swing slowly towards him, then back. She still said nothing.
"We're all alive. We'll all be okay-"
The boy groaned, and ran his fingers through his hair. "Who am I kidding...I can't do this. I can't even think of a solution to the problem, let alone help anyone else."
Jiminymon's head nodded down slightly, in a gesture that may have been exasperation. George smiled. That was something.
"How does it feel?"
A slight movement, but no words. George clasped his fingers together. "My dad would always say the knife of a friend carries twice the hurt of the knife of an enemy. I guess it's why he doesn't have many friends."
"Dallurmon wasn't my friend."
George looked down, and Jiminymon slowly lay forwards, stretching her front legs out and staring at the wall. "Dallurmon was...everything. Is everything. He's my whole reason for being. I admire him and I love him. And yet he looked at me – looked right at me – and tried to kill me."
The boy looked away. "Slightly more intense, isn't it."
"What have I done wrong?" Jiminymon rolled over, looking up at George with wide eyes. "What did any of us do wrong? Were we just tricked?" Her three eyes focused on the boy's face, and she stared, as if trying to see inside his head. "Are you evil? Are you going to destroy this world?"
George blinked. "...we're not planning on it..."
Jiminymon stared at him for an uncomfortably long time. Then she rolled back over. "You don't look evil."
"Neither did Dallurmon."
"So it's the word of the Digimon I trusted with my life and being against the word of...you weird things."
"It's true though."
"I suppose." George smiled. "You're looking a bit better."
"Don't make any...mistake." Jiminymon stood up, her wings fluttering as she walked around in front of George, her footsteps shaky.
"My life is over now. All I have left is my composure. And when that goes..."
She looked down at the ground. "You'd better go."
George smiled, and reached out a hand, but the cricket flinched and pulled away. "Don't...just...go. Please."
"Alright. I'll be back though."
He stood up, and brushed his trousers off. As he walked away, he paused, running his hands over his chin. "You know...it probably doesn't compare to Dallurmon, but if you like, I can be your friend."
He turned around, but the cricket had resigned herself to silence again.
"You wanted to see me, my lord?"
Phorusrhamon stood, wings by her side and head lowered, in the entryway to Dallurmon's main office. She rarely came in here, and when she did it was always an experience. Papyrus lined the walls and strange, blinking crystals were mounted over every surface, showing lines of Digicode and alphanumerics which she could never understand. A large hexagonal surface was laid out in the centre of the room, with edges bevelled to the floor and the surface shimmering and glittering like quicksilver. She knew not to touch it; that was where Dallurmon received his visions. She didn't want to know what it could do to her.
There was the sound of footsteps on the other side. Dallurmon was walking around, his lone arm swinging freely. He was staring directly at her. She bowed her head even further, but her eyes glanced up to behind him. She could see the door to his private quarters; a place she had seen but once, in a memory she would rather have forgotten.
Dallurmon stopped a couple of metres away from her, caressing his neck with his hand. He never broke eye contact. At least, she imagined he didn't. It was impossible to know under the mask, although those crudely-drawn eyes remained boring into her. The tattoos themselves were worrying. A deep purple. Dallurmon was angry.
"Did you dispose of the humans? All of them?"
Phorusrhamon felt herself tremble. It was a simple question, but she felt her mind going blank.
"There were...a couple of complications-"
The rage was so sudden that Phorusrhamon slipped, falling to her knees. Dallurmon took a step forwards, the claws of his hand now digging into his shoulder.
"Did you kill the humans?"
"Yes. Groundramon buried them. They could never have survived. I mortally wounded several as well."
"Are they all dead? Every single one?" Dallurmon took another step forwards. Phorusrhamon could see the cylinder of his other hand, as the individual keys twisted randomly back and forth, seemingly of their own accord. The tattoos were glowing more vividly. She opened her mouth to speak, but Dallurmon spoke first.
"It's just one. I've seen it. A single one of them will end this world. I don't know how, or when, or who. But I can't take any chances." Dallurmon's claw closed suddenly, digging into his shoulder flesh. His face was stern.
"Give me the full answer. Is every single human that invaded our world forever dead?"
"I don't know."
"Then why are you here, senior administrator?"
The giant's tattoos were blood-red now, swirling angrily. The bird didn't want to look, and tried to avert her gaze, but ended up staring directly at Dallurmon's cylinder once again. The clicking stopped, and Dallurmon pulled his other arm over, clasping the metal shaft.
"You remember that day as well as I, don't you?"
"I told you then. I could no longer trust myself. My arm...the divine right arm would end the world. So I destroyed it. You destroyed it."
He stepped forwards, and his look was almost wistful.
"Sometimes I want that power back. But then I remember the pain. And the pain reminds me of what is right."
"The children must die. I must know this. And you must know this, for it is your world too."
His hand shot out without warning, grappling Phorusrhamon's head and pressing it down onto the polished floor. She didn't struggle. Didn't even make a sound. All she could do was watch as Dallurmon crouched down, grinding his teeth.
"If my orders are not enough to remind you of what is at stake, then maybe pain will be." Dallurmon bowed his head. "Please understand."
The tattoos shone, and swirled heavily. Phorusrhamon closed her eyes.
Groundramon opened his eyes, and winced. "Ouch. You don't look so good."
A flying blade embedded itself in the rock right next to his eye, and he closed his mouth. "Let me guess. Our lord wasn't convinced."
Phorusrhamon narrowed her eyes as best she could. "We're going back. We bring back the bodies of those children. All of them."
Groundramon snorted, and lazily pushed himself onto his front. "You realise there won't be much left to bring back. What, do we just gather as many bones and bits of flesh pulp as we can find, and let him sort through them?"
"Do you want to argue with him?"
"Because if you have a problem then you can argue with him."
"I said no."
"Fine. Then we're going."
Groundramon shrugged. "Hey, I'm not bothered. I'm still good for crushing things. Maybe we'll find some of those delightful nightmare rogues down there." His mouth widened into a cheeky grin that was unbecoming of his terrifying visage. "They do feel so nice under the claws."
He began to hum to himself as he waddled his huge girth out the chamber, with Phorusrhamon following behind him. Every step caused a new spasm of pain, and she held one wing up to the left side of her face, gingerly touching the torn skin and the raw muscle, and wincing at the stinging sensation. She was definitely going to be remembering this for a while.
Groundramon raised his head back. "Look on the bright side. He left your eye intact. You can still shoot things."
That was very true. Dallurmon was nothing if not precise.
Night in the catacombs was close to eternal, but even so many Digimon of the sanctuary chose to rest at certain times. Not everyone though. No matter the hour, Geryomon stayed ever vigilant, for there was no telling when or where the next threat would arrive. It never bothered him particularly; after all, being a golem of flesh and muscle, he never got tired.
He twisted his head, and clasped his top set of arms together. "Yagamon?"
The witch hovered out, clearly fatigued herself. She'd been working hard over the past few days, and now that all the injured were healed, she was the one feeling the stress. She lay back in her mortar, her arms cradling the sides in a rather satisfied pose, as she looked down with Geryomon at the labyrinthine tunnels below. Geryomon humphed to himself. "I know what you're going to ask. I can read you like a book."
The witch cocked her head, and Geryomon chuckled. "You pick up on these things." His expressionless face turned sideways, and he lowered his body, not quite able to get down to her level but close. His six arms lay in his lap(?), and his eye glowed brightly.
"You know we can't. For their own sake as much as ours."
Yagamon folded her arms. Geryomon sighed.
"And what of the others in the sanctuary? Dallurmon doesn't know our power, certainly, but we don't know his either. For all we know he's already on his way here. I can't risk going with them, much though I want to."
Yagamon's mortar began to bob away, but Geryomon reached out with an arm, firmly but gently, and caught it by the rim.
"And neither can you. Especially not you. This place needs you."
Yagamon stared at him for a while, behind her veil of silvery hair. Then her head fell, and she wrapped her bony arms around herself.
"Have faith in them, Yagamon. They're strong. All of them."
The witch rolled her shoulders, and pulled away, disappearing silently back into the darkness. Geryomon stood himself up again, and watched her go, before turning his attention back towards the children below him.
"Poor things. You don't belong here, and yet the blame for this all falls with you. Nobody's willing to take responsibility...for your return home..."
He trailed off, shaking his head, and returned to his vigil in silence.
The group decided to head off early the next morning, while things were still relatively calm. They thanked Geryomon, Yagamon and the sanctuary for their help, and were given directions towards the keep. It wasn't far to go; after all, the sanctuary remained beneath the buried canyon, so retained its fair share of shortcuts and straight roads.
Yvonne was the one to say the final farewell to Geryomon, who offered them his blessing. "Our lord Dallurmon is a dangerous beast, although you must know that by now. I hope you find what you're looking for." He turned his head slightly, glancing down at a very quiet Jiminymon. "The same for you, administrator."
George smiled sheepishly. "Me too. This will all be far more manageable once we're finally home."
It was a cryptic message, but a far warmer leaving party than they'd received from the first village. Several of the sanctuary members even came out to see them off, although a few were still notably scared about the Porcupamon incident. With the D-Port on his back, George turned to send a last farewell wave to Geryomon, but the statue was already gone by the time he did so.
It didn't take too long to navigate the catacombs the next morning. With a renewed spring in their step, and with Chupamon leading the way, they got through the tunnels in no time, and pretty soon the sweet relief of natural light began to fall upon their faces, one by one. Then the tunnels opened up in the side of an embankment, leading them onto somewhere new.
It was certainly a striking sight. All around, huge hexagonal pillars of rock stuck out from the ground like massive steps. Some reached high, forming a wall that seemed to stretch for miles around. Others were shorter, forming a plateau in front of them; uniform and alien, with not a single sign of life. Most of the pillars were bare, save for a couple, which housed weird, twisting sculptures of rock and metal; pointing up into the sky and looking far too angular to be a natural phenomenon. Still, this was the Digital World. By now, the children had come to terms with the idea that anything was possible.
Not that they were paying much attention to them anyway, as lying in plain sight was something far taller and much more ominous. It was a tower, reaching to just beneath the clouds, with a cubic base and spiralling pathways up its cylindrical spire; sitting at the top, a strange light seemed to glow; just off-white or off-blue, and pulsing ever so slightly. Joel couldn't help but shiver as he stared up at it. "It's like a castle."
Yvonne turned to Arimon. "I'm guessing that's our destination?"
"From what I've heard about Dallurmon's keep, it seems to be." The sheep fingered the hilt of his dagger, feeling uneasy. "I hope he can't see us."
Wyvermon scoffed. "Rumour has it Dallurmon can see anybody at any time. I don't buy it. Certainly not now." He sniffed. "Overzealous twit."
"Don't say that!"
Wyvermon narrowed his eyes at Jiminymon, who was looking even more on edge than normal. "You're still defending him?"
"I...I didn't..." The cricket coughed. "Dallurmon's powerful. More than any of you know. I wouldn't take those rumours too lightly. He may very well already know we're here."
Marsuamon folded her arms. "That's all the more reason to get moving then, right?"
"Right." Alasdair looked ahead, and scanned the horizon. "It's too far to make it to the keep today. The closer we can get the better though. Keep an eye out for giant ground dragons and bird snipers, alright?"
There was a hesitant laugh from the group behind him, and they all set off. The catacombs, for all their dankness and being filled with demonic creatures, had at least felt like cover. Now they were in the open, and with every step, the children became aware they were walking ever closer to the jaws of doom.
Oligomon's augers span at an incredible speed, but he was finding it hard going. Swimming through the dense rock pillars was a far cry from his usual quick movements through the earth. It didn't help that occasionally one of them would shift up or down like a piston, occasionally while he was halfway through it. That was always a dicey affair.
Still, he moved quickly and efficiently. Nasty as the terrain might have been, it just came naturally to him, although his sense of direction was...less profound. He cursed himself for managing to go in the wrong direction twice, and put on the speed just a little. Still, the keep wasn't far now. Dallurmon was going to reward him big time for this, he just knew it.
He slowed down, and tilted upwards slightly, trying to get a look above ground. His tubular eyes broke the surface, squeezing between two pillars, and he saw he'd finally made it. The great keep, towering above him. He chuckled to himself.
Due to the angle of his ascent, he was completely unaware of the massive claw before it stabbed the rock either side of him, closed around his body like a pincer, and yanked him right out of the ground, wriggling and screaming. Groundramon smirked as he turned the worm around in his claws, trying to get a better look at it.
The dragon raised the worm thoughtfully. "You're one of ours, aren't you?"
"I...uh, I...yes. Yes I am." Oligomon swallowed. "I, uh...I came back, to..."
"Hey now, wait a minute, I remember you now!" Groundramon looked purposely thoughtful. "Now that I come to think about it, I seem to recall hearing rumours about you hanging around with a Hookmon. So maybe you aren't one of ours at all."
Oh. So they knew.
Groundramon grinned, and pulled the worm closer to his jaws, the claw tightening a little. "If you're trying to run away, you did a rather bad job in avoiding me. Or are you a noble little maggot who's returned for his rightful punishment?"
Oligomon felt his body stiffen; this wasn't going quite as he might have hoped. As he felt the claws closing in either side of him, he blurted out everything he could.
"I have information! Important information! Children!"
Groundramon stopped, and stared at him. "Children? Those...things?"
"Groundramon, let him go."
The dragon humphed, and promptly obliged, dropping Oligomon roughly on the ground. The worm shook his head as Phorusrhamon stepped up, looking decidedly irritated. "You should realise you're not in Lord Dallurmon's best books at the moment, former intern. I hope you're not going to waste my time."
Oligomon glanced up at Phorusrhamon, considered commenting on her ruined face, and then rapidly considered against it. He coiled himself up, poking his head out of the centre as he looked up at her. "I saw the children, senior administrator. There's a tunnel system, the other side of the pillars, and they'd somehow got there."
"Tunnel system? Beneath the canyon?" Phorusrhamon's head whipped round, and even the mighty earth dragon stepped back, afraid of that expression. "Did you know about that?"
Groundramon shook his head, looking more than a little sheepish. "Never came across anything under there."
"I think they hide it. Or...someone hides it." Oligomon coughed. "There's a hideout down there; loads of Nightmare Soldiers, right next to Dallurmon's keep." He tried to smile cheekily, but it didn't come out as confidently as he hoped. "I thought you might be interested in that too."
Groundramon grinned. "Smarmy beasts, trying to hide underground from me." He looked at Phorusrhamon. "I know what I'll be up to, if you don't mind."
"I do. We have a mission." Phorusrhamon's hand went to the side of her face, and she winced, before turning her attention back to Oligomon. "The children. Where are they? In the sanctuary?"
"Where are they now?"
"Somewhere around the...uh...pillars. Somewhere."
"The pillars? Right outside here?" The bird narrowed her eyes. "And you didn't stop them...because...?"
Oligomon's mouth hung open. Darn. He'd forgotten to think of an answer to that one.
He became aware of Groundramon also eyeing him, licking his lips, and quickly thought up the best excuse he could. "I, uh, they...they're growing stronger. And they're on their guard. I...I'm only Champion level. And I'm not used to combat, I, uh, work better with multiple people, so, uh, you know...I thought I'd be a messenger instead of-"
"You work better with others?" Phorusrhamon humphed. "Fine, you can redeem yourself."
"Thank you, I...uh...what?"
The bird let out a whistle, and a large, brutish-looking Digimon stepped forward, interlocking its three-pronged claws and cracking its knuckles. Oligomon's eyes moved from the newcomer to Phorusrhamon. She didn't look like she was joking.
"The humans will take a while to get here. They'll probably need to rest. Take your companion, track them, and wait till they're resting." She leant forwards. "Kill the humans. All of them. With any luck you can remember that between you. Groundramon will be keeping an eye on you, so it would be wise not to fail."
The worm gulped. "Yes, administrator."
Oligomon squirmed, and quickly burrowed his way back underground. There was a thin trail of earth leading away as he swam through the rock, and with a grin, Strikedramon marched after it, flexing as he did so. Groundramon turned to Phorusrhamon, and raised an eyebrow. "That's unlike you."
"What? I'm a senior administrator; I delegate people."
"You've had half your face melted off to confirm the supposed urgency of killing those things. Why won't you send me?"
"Because you obviously didn't do a very good job the first time. You're strong, yes, but you can't aim for crap."
Groundramon pouted. "I resent that."
"Resent it all you want, I outrank you." She sighed. "Besides, I'm worried. OIigomon said they'd gotten stronger. If we get this wrong, we could lose heavy hitters like you. I'm being cautious. Let the interns beat them up a bit, and if all goes horribly wrong, you step in."
"Sure, whatever." Groundramon scraped beneath his chin, looking upwards. "Dallurmon's not gonna like this plan..."
"Lord Dallurmon hasn't fought with them. They're different. They survived my attacks before as well as your collapsing the ground." She glanced to the side. "Not to mention they stole away one of my best staff members."
"Ah. So this is personal." Groundramon shrugged. "I'm always here if you want me to crush them. Just saying. If they're really that strong, I kinda wanna have a crack at them myself."
He waddled away, pressing his claws to the ground and beginning to vibrate them, pushing himself beneath the solid rock with little effort. "You wouldn't have any objection to that, would you?"
"Stick to the plan, Groundramon."
Groundramon grinned with a mouth far too toothy for its own good.
"Whatever you say."
He vanished in a cloud of dust, leaving only a pile of rubble to indicate where he'd been. Phorusrhamon paced, glancing out over the plains with her good eye.
"Our own people, Dallurmon. Our own...citizens. Must we really...destroy them...?"
She ground her beak, and set off after Oligomon's trail.
"It's not too late..."
It was a slow journey, the pillars being a rough and treacherous path. On occasion Neonamon pulled the group away, fearful of potential drones that might be hiding overhead, but nobody spotted them. Or if they had, nobody made any move.
It was tough going, and they all knew that they'd never get through the keep in their current condition. Eventually they veered off the path, keeping the fortress within view, but hopefully far enough away that Dallurmon wouldn't be able to see them. As spots of rain began to fall from the darkening sky, they found shelter beneath two of the twisted sculptures, which were entangled together. As the rain hit the metal, it let off tones, which mingled with those of the sculptures from miles around, like a chorus across the pillars, singing in appreciation of the moisture.
It wasn't the only one appreciating it. Placomon rolled around outside, wet dust beginning to cake her skin which was renewed with a great sheen. Some of the Digimon came out as well just to enjoy the rainstorm. Eventually Placomon tired, and sat back against one of the legs of the great sculpture, within which a majority of the children were taking shelter, obviously not so much a fan of moisture. The fish grinned, and her tail flipped back and forth. There was a squelching next to her as Marsuamon sat down, looking refreshed herself. "You must be happy about this."
"Don't I know it..." Placomon opened up one of her hands, rubbing the palm with the other. "I was peeling earlier. Never done so much walking in my life."
"Looks like you've never done much of anything in your life."
Placomon pouted, but shrugged soon after. "True." She yawned, and stared out over the mosaic of the plateau. "This'll probably be a good thing. They won't see us under cover like this."
"I wouldn't get cocky. Though we can take 'em."
Placomon peered sideways at the wallaby, who had her feet stretched out in front of her, curling her toes. The fish cocked her head. "What are you in this for?"
"Just thinking...Arimon and Wyvermon wanted to get out, Chupamon wanted to see his home, Jiminymon and Neonamon worked for Dallurmon, and Mynahmon...well, I guess she's just loopy." Placomon blinked. "What made you want to hang around with these guys?"
"I could ask you the same thing. Heck, you joined us just like that."
"I...thought I wanted to be something...more than I was. Or at least...I don't know." Placomon peered into the shelter at Joel, who was being a bit more boisterous than usual. "It sounds strange, but I wanted to be with the boy. I wanted to guard him."
"Do you reckon it's a power they have?"
"The power of friendship or something?" Placomon sniggered. "Nah, that'd be ridiculous."
"Maybe not." Marsuamon sighed. "When I evolved into Procoptomon, I felt like I actually had the power to do something. Like I can actually change the world for the better, so long as I was with Rachel."
Her face fell, and Placomon blinked. "You don't want her to go, do you?"
"She's changed me, Placomon. In fact, I think the children have changed all of us. I don't want any of them to go. But somewhere out there is their home. It isn't right to keep them away from that."
Placomon flipped her tail, and leaned back, her arms behind her head. "Maybe they'd take us with them?"
Marsuamon smirked. "Maybe..."
She peered up at the rumbling clouds overhead.
"Maybe they could."
The bug looked down, and saw Neonamon sat beside her, a rare concerned expression on his face.
"That's not a good look for you."
"Jiminymon, please..." The snake bit his lower lip. "You haven't said a word today. I...I know what we're doing is..." He sighed. "They're going to fight. I know that. You must do as well. You're smarter than me."
The bug didn't answer. She turned her head, looking up at the keep, or at least where the keep should have been, obscured as it was by the darkened sky.
"I was thinking, and...well..." The snake shuffled. "Nobody's going to blame you for leaving."
"You still believe in Dallurmon, right?" The snake smiled. "You tried, but what Dallurmon wants and what the children want mean if you stayed you'd have to face up to him."
"And what about you?"
Now it was Neonamon who didn't answer. He didn't need to.
"I've been with these people a while. I want to see what they're capable of." He smirked. "I know. I'm selfish."
"Not as selfish as I'd be if I left. Did you talk to the others?"
He turned around, unable to face her any more. "I know you didn't sign up for any of this. You don't owe any of us anything." His frill flickered slightly, a sign of nervousness that Jiminymon knew all too well.
"You still have time. But you know we're heading in tomorrow."
He slithered away hurriedly, with Jiminymon watching after him. She stared out towards the keep, phasing out the conversations as she did so, leaving herself lost within her own thoughts.
"Damn that serpent."
Lizzie shivered, holding her arms close to her sides. She was decidedly not having fun in the rain – she rarely did – but her mind was stuck on issues other than the weather. She stared out into the greyness, her breath in her throat. Every movement seemed to be hiding something; another great monster ready to leap out and kill them without a second thought.
She perished the thought, and held her sides more tightly. "Not long now. Not...not long now."
Lizzie blinked, and looked aside at Mynahmon hovering above her. "What?"
The bird cocked her head, and settled down flamboyantly beside the girl, who scrunched her nose up. "Your feathers are dripping. You smell."
"It's only water. I used to live in a rainforest; we'd get this every day."
"Right. I'm sure." Lizzie rolled her fingers. "How did you get here then? I didn't see a rainforest on the way here."
Mynahmon gave her a look, and flapped her wings slightly. "I'm a bird."
"Oh. Of course."
Mynahmon chuckled. "I actually came from the other side of the world. I've been island-hopping. Well...I was, but after a few islands I got caught by pirates, then robbers, then a mad king for a while, then I was held up by the Fire Kingdom but that was just a misunderstanding, then..." She trailed off, muttering to herself and counting on her feathers like fingers. Eventually she shrugged. "By the time Hookmon got me I'd been hopping around for so long it was kind of fun at that point. And then there's you guys." She beamed, her headcrest bobbing up and down."
Lizzie gave a weak smile. "Doesn't it ever get lonely?"
"You find friends wherever you go. I meet them, spend some time with them, then I move on. There's always someone out there."
The girl nodded along, but her face was incredulous. She looked over at the group in the centre of the shelter; Alasdair, Lucy, George...Yvonne. Doing her usual. Having a blast. Keeping everybody's spirits up.
"I prefer my own friends. The ones who stay with me. Everyone else..."
She became aware of Mynahmon staring at her in an uncharacteristically silent fashion, and her mouth felt suddenly dry. "Yvonne's been my friend for a long time. But she's everyone's friend. She doesn't have any problems with anyone."
"What about you?" Mynahmon hopped forwards slightly. "Am I your friend?"
"Of course. You won't give me a choice."
"Yes! I mean...hey, what does that mean?"
Lizzie smiled quickly, before her eyes wandered again. There was a burst of laughter, over by the others. Mynahmon nudged the girl. "Should we join them? It might be important."
"They're fine. They don't need me."
"But Yvonne is-"
"Yvonne is doing just fine with them." Lizzie bunched herself up slightly more. "Besides, I don't even know them that well. People like them...strangers like them...I could never be friends with them."
Lizzie let out a breath. "You wouldn't understand."
The bird nudged her a few more times, but the girl refused to answer any more.
Unnoticed, Rachel ran her hand over the surface of the D-Port, feeling every bump and every gouge in its once pristine surface. She bit her lip, glancing quickly over at the others. Nobody was paying any attention to her, not even Marsuamon, and she liked it that way. Just for now. She wasn't sure how long she could hide the growing dread within her.
The D-Port hummed slightly, and she stopped, pressing her palm flat against the metal. It was warm. Almost alive. Maybe it could be alive; she wasn't sure. This world seemed to give new life and new meaning to so many things.
The metal shifted, and she drew back. Just a scare. A loose panel, buckling slightly. She looked around again, and became aware of Neonamon looking at her, wide-eyed and expressionless. He said nothing; merely smiled. Rachel smiled back, waiting for the snake to turn away.
Back in the catacombs, Rachel had omitted certain truths. The D-Port did indeed still work, but as she looked at the torn wires, sheared screws and scorched metal through the gaps in the casing, she knew very well that it wouldn't be long before it stopped working for good.
The rain had slowed to a drizzle throughout the night; quiet and calm enough to allow the group to get one final rest before the dreaded day tomorrow. The D-Port hummed quietly underneath the sculpture, and nearby the children huddled together for warmth, sleeping lightly and fitfully, but still sleeping. The Digimon were in a circle around them, taking turns watching out from beneath the sculpture. Marsuamon and Jiminymon were both up, but the wallaby's eyes were drooping and her legs were worn out from the heavy day of moving. Jiminymon glanced up at her. "Do you want to get some rest?"
"What about you? Will you be alright?"
"Please." Jiminymon flicked her antennae. "Even in this rain I can hear further than any of you can."
"Show-off." Marsuamon winked, and hopped inside, curling up besides Arimon.
Jiminymon waited a few minutes, before turning and looking back into the shelter. For once, everybody seemed peaceful, temporarily unaware of the danger they were in.
The cricket focused her attention back outside, towards the keep. Her hearing was indeed very sensitive. Sensitive enough to pick up the footsteps from half a kilometre away. And even in the dark and the mist, her sharp eyes could make out the glint of metal not far away. A deliberate gesture. Not aggressive.
Jiminymon sat back, and rubbed her muzzle with her front legs, her feelers twitching. There was nothing else. Only rain, and distant thunder.
In a few moments she was scampering away, leaping in great bounds in an effort to keep her wings from getting too damp. In a second she'd reached her destination, ducking beneath an overcrop of metallic rock, and flickering her wings.
Somebody was already there.
Phorusrhamon reached beneath her wings with her beak, running the serrated edge over her feathers with a keen rasp. Jiminymon flinched, and placed her feet together. "Why haven't you killed us yet, senior administrator?"
The bird halted her preening, and raised her neck, looking up at the clouded sky. "I had a feeling you'd be watching. You always were promising."
The bird didn't answer. Water dripped over the edge of the overcrop, running in trails inside the cave. Jiminymon shivered. "We're coming tomorrow. We're going to reach the wall between worlds. The children are going home."
"Why are you telling me?" Phorusrhamon blinked. "I've been tasked with killing them. And any of you who resist. I stand by that."
"So then why haven't you killed me?"
"Because I don't want to lose you. Your diligence. Your intelligence. Your loyalty."
"I have no loyalty. Not to Dallurmon."
"That's a lie, Jiminymon-"
The cricket turned, looking up desperately. "I respected him, but I was never loyal to him! I was loyal to you!" She looked down. "You were who I truly pledged myself to. That's why it broke my heart to see you turn your back on me."
Phorusrhamon looked down at the tiny Rookie level, and reached out with a tender claw, resting it on her head.
"I knew you looked up to me. I always knew. But just as you pledged yourself to me, so I pledged myself to Dallurmon. And Dallurmon to the future of the world."
"How can you be sure?"
"Because I know more about him than you. I alone know how much he's sacrificed."
Jiminymon didn't reply. Her head was low, submissive. Gently, Phorusrhamon reached out with an arm and pulled her close, her wings draped over the tiny body. The cricket didn't struggle. She just waited within that grasp. Waited for it all to be over, and for her life to be back to normal. But she knew it wasn't coming.
So distracted was she, she didn't hear the breathing a few dozen metres away. Behind a rock, knuckles practically white as she gripped the slippery surface, was Lizzie. She couldn't hear what was being said, but even with her rain-specked glasses she could see. She'd been the first to wake up, seeing Jiminymon's departure. Against her better judgement, she'd run after her. Now she was shaking her head, hissing under her breath.
"Damn you...why...why, when we're so close..."
She wanted to stand up, but her knees were heavy and sodden. She could feel the panic rising within her, and tried to force herself to swallow. She nearly choked instead, and shuffled backwards, hands clasped firmly over her mouth.
There was a distant rumble, and she turned, looking back at the shelter. Even at this distance she could see flickering lights, and shadows leaping over the metal.
She leapt up, her shoes slipping on the sodden ground as she stumbled forward, paying no heed to Phorusrhamon and Jiminymon. They noticed her though, and Jiminymon snapped out of her trance, pulling away from Phorusrhamon's grip. "The others! What did you do?"
The bird looked away. "Following orders. More will attack tonight."
Jiminymon turned, furious. "You know as well as I do that all of them are innocent; why are you doing this?"
Phorusrhamon stood up, a brief glint of anger in her eyes, but it flickered out when she saw Jiminymon's defiant gaze. The cricket turned, and began to run.
"I'm going to save them! I can't abandon them!"
"Jiminymon, the world is at stake!"
The cricket paused, still facing away. Phorusrhamon stepped forward, holding out her hand.
"It's a vision. If the children return, they will destroy the world. Dallurmon gave his arm to prevent that, but he's scared, Jiminymon. He's scared for the world, and for all of us."
Jiminymon shivered. "The...others...I can't-"
"I don't want to!" The bird stood tall, the rain running down her neck and feathers as she watched the flickering lights in the distance. "I don't want to kill them. I don't want to make this decision. But if I don't, our world will die."
She looked away.
"Please...at least let me atone for this by saving you."
Lizzie arrived back at the shelter to a scene of chaos and flames, as a Digimon hung from the structure above, gripping onto the metal with a hefty iron claw. He grinned, and leapt down amongst a group of Rookies, swinging wildly.
"Come on, come on! Give me a proper fight!"
Marsuamon and Arimon's attacks came simultaneously from either side, but Strikedramon raised both arms at once, blocking them effortlessly.
Arimon leapt away as Strikedramon's metal gauntlets glowed red-hot, but Marsuamon wasn't quite fast enough, the soles of her feet getting singed. She cursed as she landed, hopping from foot to foot. "Damn...losing my touch..."
"You certainly are, given that you let him right inside!"
"Jiminymon was watching! She said she could sense anything!" Marsuamon leapt out of the way as Strikedramon swiped forwards, only for Wyvermon to rush in with claws and teeth. "Speaking of, where the hell did she go?"
Arimon turned, and saw Lizzie standing, drenched. He twirled his dagger. "Where have you been? What's going on?"
"Lizzie! Get down!"
The girl snapped out of her panic, and looked down to see Yvonne and the others crouching behind one of the pillars, partially obscured by the flames all around. She rushed over, crouching down. "What's wrong? Why aren't you evolving?"
George grimaced. "We're trying."
"What do you mean, 'trying'?"
There was a bang as Rachel slammed her fist into the pillar, her teeth pressed together. "It's not working! Nothing's working!"
It was true. There was no light. No hum. Rachel and Alasdair had their hands inside, trying to move everything they could, but it was hopeless so far. And without the power of the D-Port, their efforts were all but useless.
"It can't be!" Lizzie shuffled forwards, brushing her hair from her eyes. "It...it was fine..."
"It's not fine!" Alasdair glared up at her. "For once can you stop freaking and do something helpful?"
"Like what? What am I supposed to do?"
"Not run off in the middle of a danger zone would be a good start!"
Lizzie laughed, piercing her chest with her thumb. "You want to know what I've found? Oh wonderful. Okay, fine, since you asked, you know Jiminymon? Yeah, she's just sold us out."
George blinked. "She what? She wouldn't-"
"She did! I saw her with the terrifying bird woman." Lizzie glanced around. "I notice she hasn't come back here."
Yvonne gritted her teeth. "It can't be. Not her..." She turned to Neonamon. "She wouldn't, would she? She wouldn't abandon us? Abandon you?"
Neonamon looked to the side. "I...can't say."
A flurry of wind, fire and water blew in their direction, and the children were knocked backwards. Yvonne knocked on her temples. "We don't have time for this right now."
"We're working!" Rachel knelt up. "I can feel it! It's working!"
Alasdair thrust the girl to the ground as sharpened pellets flew over their heads, a few embedding themselves in his shoulder. He yelled, and the group turned to see a slender, serpentine head pull itself from the ground. He grinned.
"Well now, it's been a while."
Oligomon twisted, leering at Lizzie, who shuffled back. The worm sniggered mechanically. "I'm back to doing my job. Sadly that means you're all gonna die."
The children were quick to act; George picked up the D-Port and held it behind him, while Lucy, Alasdair and Joel stood in front. The youngest boy glared at the snake, raising his fists. "This isn't gonna work, you coward."
"Really? Coward? I'm hurt." The worm twirled, swaying back and forth. "I just like making sure I have my bases covered. Unlike you." He hissed. "Now!"
The children ducked as Strikedramon flung an arm forwards, the metal glowing yellow. He stopped mid-leap, one leg being held fast by Placomon and the other ensnared by Chupamon, who looked up at them. "Go! Get out of here!"
Oligomon hissed. "You're not going anywhere!"
With a sudden movement he lunged forwards, shooting straight past the wall and directly at George, who suddenly found himself tussling with several coils of angry, spinning worm. Oligomon clamped his jaws around the boy's forearm, all the while writhing back and forth, his eyes darting up and down. "Give the device to me!"
Yvonne stood up, but she was held tight by Lizzie grabbing her hand, being pulled over herself. "No! He'll kill you!"
With an angry cry the youngest member of the group leapt forwards, throwing his arms around Oligomon's neck.
The worm squirmed. He wriggled. Then, in a fast movement, he thrust his head to one side, hoisting the boy off his feet and into the pillar. Hard.
Joel slumped, and Yvonne pulled her hand free from Lizzie's grip, shooting her a look, before running forwards with Alasdair, but Oligomon slipped out the way, avoiding their attacks. Alasdair held his shoulder, his eyes reflecting the fire. "You're not getting this! You're not going to win!"
The worm's eyes flicked to the side, to where Strikedramon was still toying with the Rookies. "Oi! We've got a job to do!"
"Why don't you take some of them then, ya wuss?" muttered the dragon man under his breath.
Oligomon sighed. "I prefer my own playing field." He flicked his eyes up towards the D-Port, still in George's grip. "Still, it might help."
The boy shook his head. "Don't do it-"
With a cackle, the worm disappeared underground, and the ground itself began to shake. Everyone was knocked off their feet, even Strikedramon, who landed on his behind and cursed the worm under his breath. From within the rock, there came a screeching cry.
The pillars creaked. Something snapped, deep underground. Then, as if pressed up from invisible pistons, whole segments of earth began to rise, forming new walls and pillars, scraping and clanking and crunching in jerks and spasms. George found himself suddenly alone, and he held his hands over his head as a great chasm began to open up between him and the others. "Help me!" he cried out, his voice lost in the chaos.
Yvonne noticed first, and she ran forwards, leaping for the pedestal before it travelled out of reach. Lizzie rushed to the edge, but she faltered, nowhere near as athletic as her friend. "Yvonne, come back!"
The other girl had her fingers over the edge, and George was helping her up. He looked up, and gasped. "Lizzie! Behind you!"
The girl turned, and saw Joel, still disorientated from his impact with the pillar. A pillar which was rapidly crumbling at the base and folding in on itself with the shifting earth.
The girl leapt to her feet, rushing forwards and stumbling on the way. Joel turned up, unaware of the great pillar cracking and falling sideways, ready to crush him where he lay. She yanked him away just in time, debris crashing against them both. She felt a jolt, and looked down to see Joel in her arms, his head bleeding from a fresh wound.
Arms shaking, Lizzie dropped him, screaming as the world around her ruptured and tore. There was the sound of voices around her, and Alasdair, Lucy and Rachel rushed forwards, pulling the younger boy away as the platform's edge disintegrated. Alasdair glanced backwards at the girl, still standing there.
"Get away from there!"
The ground shifted, ever so slightly, and Lizzie threw herself down before the pillar and several pieces of rock tumbled downwards into the new chasm. The rumbling began to stop, and the small group gathered around, trapped against a solid rock wall behind them and a lethal drop in front. The landscape had been transformed, the rough plateau now studded with swaying towers, separating them from one another.
Across the drop, they could see their partners, still engaging Strikedramon with burning desperation.
And high up, on one of the tallest towers, they could hear the desperate screeching of the D-Port. Out of sight, and out of reach.
TO BE CONTINUED...