Episode 25: Albatross
Natalie's eyes snapped open as her entire body jerked as though in response to the sensation of falling. Her lungs burned for air; she took a sharp, deep gasp of a breath, sucking in air like a man who'd only barely been spared from drowning.
Her head was spinning. She felt like every joint in her body had been pulled apart and knocked back into place with a rubber mallet. Sitting up right now was not an option, and even the patches of bright-blue sky peeking through the canopy of the trees were entirely too bright, and she squeezed her eyes shut.
It only took her about ten seconds to remember that the sky above was supposed to be a dreary blanket of Pacific Northwest grey framed by buildings. Despite every inch of her body insisting that she do anything else, her eyes flew back open and she wrenched herself up into a sitting position.
She looked around frantically, trying to get a bearing on her surroundings-- and more importantly, trying to remember what had just happened.
She remembered reaching out for the weird... shining crack thing, suspended in the air.
She remembered the sensation of rushing and standing still, stretching out and springing back, hot and cold, too much trying to pass through too small a space.
And she remembered, the last thing before she blacked out, the feeling of Raumon's claw closing around her wrist, and so it was Raumon that she looked for first. She immediately noticed the slow-breathing, familiar-to-the-point-of-unmistakability mass of black feathers and purple claws immediately next to her. With that secure, she allowed herself to look around more properly.
Wherever this was, it was a far cry from the city square.
She found herself and Raumon positioned at the bottom of a gentle hill; the ground was covered in scrubby grass and hard dirt. She was in some kind of forest; ancient-looking trees stood tall and gnarled all around them, their trunks twisting together and diverging in strange configurations before they opened their arms to the sky. Long-since felled trunks lay crisscrossing the ground, covered in a strangely blueish moss.
Admittedly, she was no botanist, but the plants looked slightly off from anything she had ever seen.
Everything was spookily still and eerily quiet, without so much as a breeze to shake the branches overhead. If she strained her ears, she could almost hear running water in the distance, but that was it.
She hesitantly overturned a palm-sized rock that was embedded in the soft earth near where she was sitting. Where she might have expected any number of crawling things to have been taking shelter underneath it... nothing.
She supposed she'd count that as a net positive, because she had no idea how long she and Raumon had been laying here, but it wasn't exactly comforting either way.
She sat there for a few long minutes, not moving, just looking around at the strange, slightly alien forest around her. She felt kind of numb-- both physically, like her entire body had gone to sleep and was now experiencing the first vestiges of pins and needles, but also emotionally, like she had registered but not truly processed what had just happened.
When Raumon shifted and began to move a few minutes later -- though for how it felt, it may have been hours -- it gave Natalie a bit of a start.
"We made it through in one piece, then," Raumon said as he pushed himself to a sitting position in a much more dignified, careful way than Natalie had managed. His voice sounded a little croaky.
When Natalie opened her mouth to respond, she realized that she, was, too. She sounded like she had just finished walking through a desert when she said, "guess so."
The awkward lump in her throat didn't help.
She knew what they had just done, of course. It was what she had decided to do-- not just now, but something she had thought about and had decided on and known would be her choice, if it came to it, for weeks. The decision to act on it had been a snap one, but the knowledge that it was the right thing to do if the opportunity presented itself wasn't a new revelation.
But when Raumon said those words -- we made it through in one piece -- it seemed to sink in that she had acted on it, and that the others had followed her lead, and she went kind of numb all over again. She stared at a fallen tree trunk immediately in front of her.
The plague-doctor bird glanced over at her, his expression sympathetic. He looked up through the branches to the sky, and deliberated for a moment before he spoke. "Any idea where the others are?"
This simple question snapped Natalie back to the present, and she blinked.
"Haven't the damndest. I just came-to, myself," she said, shaking her head. "Didn't really want to start yelling to see if they were nearby, you know?"
Raumon tapped his beak in agreement, and Natalie smiled a little despite herself.
She emptied her pockets and laid their contents out on the ground before them; there wasn't much. She had her D-Rive, her phone, her wallet, her keys, and some pocket lint. She hadn't really been planning on a cross-dimensional trip today, so she felt she could be excused for being a little unprepared.
She picked up her phone first, getting the distinct feeling that it wasn't going to do her a lot of good. Unlocking it proved that she was, in fact, completely right. The clock was freaking the fuck out, she appeared to have sixteen bars of signal, and the battery percentage read 20AQ40% as it overflowed off the side of the screen.
At least she wouldn't have to worry about not having a charger on-hand.
Raumon tried to be subtle, but it was obvious that he was peering over at her, watching intently; she didn't particularly mind, and tilted the screen for his benefit.
She pocketed her phone, keys, and wallet, turning instead to the D-Rive. She turned the little black and purple device over in her hand, inspecting it for she-didn't-know-what, before she pressed the button to turn the screen on.
The D-Rive, unlike her phone, was in perfect working order.
More than that, actually. When she had used it before -- when she had used it in the human world, she reminded herself with a kind of sickly drop in her stomach -- all of the menu options that weren't the radar brought up almost entirely blank screens. Now, they all sprang to life with completely unreadable information that she was sure Sam would get a (very frustrated) kick out of.
Most notable was that that new option at the bottom.
CONNECT, it read, in plain Roman letters.
Natalie and Raumon both looked at it, and exchanged what could only be described as Looks, with a capital L.
"Should I see what it does?" Natalie said apprehensively.
"Well," Raumon said, thinking for a moment. "Aside from breaking our eardrums, have the D-Rives ever done anything spectacularly bad of their own accord?"
"Do we really want to risk it making that noise right now?"
"... you know what? Fair."
Whatever this mysterious new option was, she didn't get the chance to really inspect it to its fullest. A sound -- the first sound that something other than them had made -- hit their ears. It was only the rustling of leaves and the snapping of a couple twigs behind them, but it felt loud as a gunshot in that moment.
She looked over her shoulder and swore that for a second, she saw a pair of blue eyes staring out at them from the underbrush, only to vanish in the time it took to blink. The sound of rustling continued, getting further away; whatever it was, it was running away.
She scrambled to her feet, turning around, and she realized she had no goddamn idea what she was supposed to do in a situation like this. Was it running because it was scared? Was it trying to get backup?
Was she overthinking this?
"Whatever you are, we mean no harm," she said, a little bit louder than her normal speaking voice but not quite yelling. "We're just-- lost, I guess is the best way to describe it..." she tried, glancing to Raumon for backup, but she realized that he hadn't stood up.
The little plague doctor raven was still sitting, craning to look over his shoulder at where the flashes of blue had been.
"Raumon?" she said, blinking slowly, and he shook his head as though waking up from a trance.
"Sorry, sorry," he said hastily. "Should we look for the others?"
They did just that. The two of them looked around for the better part of an hour, trying not to wander too far from their starting point just in case. No matter how much they looked, there was no sign of anyone. They did see some digimon at least-- small bird-like digimon flying overhead, quick glances of digimon that resembled animate plants here and there.
Nothing really seemed to take note of them, though, and they did their best to steer clear and avoid disturbing anything. It was at least something, some indication that they hadn't accidentally ended up somewhere horrifically wrong.
It was bothering Natalie that, when she looked at her D-Rive-- despite everything else on the little gizmo flaring to life -- none of the digimon they saw were showing up on its radar. The only thing it picked up was the purple dot at its center, and even that was a little off. She seemed to remember its center-point being shaped like an approximation of Raumon's head, but it was a simple violet circle, and the rest of the radar was...
Well, she saw what looked like a rough topographic map of the area, and frankly, she was getting a good enough look at that already.
Needless to say, they were not having much luck. They hadn't seen hide nor hair of any of their companions.
Natalie kept her eyes on her D-Rive, using it as a map to find their way back to where they had started. They didn't want to wander too far, just in case they were headed in the totally wrong direction, but they didn't exactly know where else to go.
So imagine her surprise when--
"Hey, does this thing do what I think it does?"
Sam's voice came out of the little device, just as clear as if he were standing immediately next to her.
Raumon practically jumped into the air, while Natalie fumbled with the little device, almost dropping it.
"What the--?" she blurted, holding her D-Rive like it was a bomb.
"Natalie?" Sam's voice came right back, sounding intensely vindicated. "See, I told you."
"Yeah, yeah, so one time out of fifty, you doing something with it doesn't make it shatter my eardrums," Gelermon's voice came through the D-Rive.
"What the fuck is going on?" Xander's voice cut in next.
Natalie looked at the D-Rive; much like it did when a digimon had been nearby in their world, it had activated of its own accord. This time, the radar was not open; it was a different screen, one of the ones that Natalie had surmised that Sam would have gotten a kick out of.
She was, as it turned out, apparently correct.
One by one, the familiar voices of the others chimed in, and when they spoke, a pillar of their D-Rive's colour shot up from the bottom of the screen, rising and falling with their voice, not unlike an equalizer bar.
"You have no idea how good it is to hear your voices," Meghan said, speaking quickly. "Though I guess maybe you do?"
"We've been searching for any sign of others for the last hour," Oremon said. "Meghan was starting to get worried."
"Oh, so were you, you liar," Meghan chided. Oremon snorted
"We're not dead yet, no," Peter said, "though not for lack of valiant effort."
"Dial it back, Nietzche," Lily said.
Natalie couldn't deny that a whole lot of tension fell out of her shoulders just at hearing the voices of the others, even if it wasn't quite as relieving as, you know, actually knowing where they were.
"I didn't know these things had a communication function," she thought out loud, turning the little device over in her hand.
Raumon glanced over his shoulder; he thought he heard something, but he decided that it was likely to just be him mistaking a noise from the D-Rive.
"I'm taking a wild guess that the D-Rives work a bit better here," Sam said, "or at least they work a bit differently, at any rate. Not sure what's up with the radar, and I still haven't poked at everything that's changed," he said, and Natalie got the distinct feeling that he hadn't wanted to futz with that ominous new option either, "but, you know."
"Hey, I'm sure that this is all really fascinating," Xander said, cutting in, "but more importantly, where the hell are all of you?"
Despite his blunt phrasing, that was a bit more of an immediately relevant issue.
Everyone immediately tried to describe where they were. It sounded as though Lily had ended up in the same forest as Natalie had, though clearly, quite some ways away; but then Peter and Xander both mentioned being near an ocean, whereas Meghan and Sam both believed themselves to be in some sort of mountainous area.
Well, at least it made sense why nobody had been able to find each other.
"You don't suppose that Ratamon-- or whatever-- did something to split us up?" Meghan mused.
"I don't think he knows we followed him," Lily said. "If he did know we'd followed him, I think he would've done something, and if he had done something, I don't think we'd be in one piece to wonder about it."
... well. That was one half a relief, one half kind of horrifying. It was probably best to focus on the relief half. That was what they had come through to do, after all, and Natalie had -- whether she consciously realized it or not -- worried that her snap decision may have. You know. Screwed them over entirely.
"So then, we have the element of surprise." Oremon was characteristically blunt.
"For now," Raumon said, nodding even though nobody but Natalie could see the gesture.
"Well, it's not really much of a surprise," Desmon pointed out, "since we're all separated and have no idea where to go."
"So then we need to try to reconvene before anything else," Peter said. It was obvious, of course, but it still needed to be said.
"I feel," Xander said, "like that's going to be easier said than done, considering that it doesn't sound like we're all exactly on the same geographical page."
"Well," Meghan said, "maybe, like, those of us who are at least probably close-ish to each other should prioritize finding each other first? Then we can worry about all of us meeting up once we're not all total sitting ducks, you know?"
"So, that'd be, what," Natalie said, counting off on the fingers on her free hand, "me and Lily, Meghan and Sam, Peter and Xander?"
"Joy," Xander muttered.
"Right back at you," Peter said back.
"Should we get them a get-along shirt?" Gelermon said, and was immediately, quite obviously, hushed by Sam.
"Back on topic," Brockmon cut in. "I don't think transferring over should have thrown us too far apart, and if that's the case, then I think I know more or less where we are." Beat. "In theory. I'm not terribly familiar with where I am right now."
"That's fine," Raumon said, his ear-feathers perking up. "But then where are we?"
"I think we're in the halo around the old temple barrens," Brockmon said when prompted.
"If only that meant anything to me," Desmon lamented, and again, it ended in a muffled noise as Xander forcibly hushed her.
"Around the..." Brockmon paused. "The place where we originally crossed over to the real world," he said diplomatically, "is a wasteland called the Barrens. Bordering that, there's a region of forested mountains called the Halo around the east, and the Holy Sea to the south."
"So if you guys at the ocean follow the coast northeast, and the rest of us go southwest until we reach the coast and follow it, we should hopefully come into range of each other, right?" Raumon said, tapping his beak in thought.
"Right," Brockmon said. "I'm roughly estimating here, but I don't figure it shouldn't take more than a couple days."
"A couple days, he says," Sam said, sighing. Natalie couldn't deny that she blanched a little bit as well, but... well. What option did they have?
"We could just go straight into the Barrens and work it out from there," Gelermon said, her voice sardonic. "Sounds like it'd be faster."
"If you wanted to die, yes," Brockmon said, which. Well.
That was blunt.
"Well, it's not a great plan, but at least it's a plan," Natalie said, sighing and rubbing the back of her head. "Does anyone object?"
Nobody did, because nobody could think of anything better. They all coordinated the ways they were facing, orienting themselves as best they could. Brockmon assured them that the sun's movement was similar enough to that in the human world that they could go by it, and it was... well, it wasn't a fantastic plan, but it wasn't a fantastic plan that had brought them here, so they were going to go with it.
There was, of course, one big elephant (or dragon-squirrel) in the room that hadn't really gone addressed.
"What if we run into--?" Banmon said, piping up nervously.
A deafening silence followed.
"Fight back by any means necessary, I suppose," Raumon said after a moment. He was still glancing over his shoulder, a little bit distracted.
"Oughta just wave the D-Rives at him," Xander said. "Fucker seems to have issue with them."
"Right?" Meghan said, and Natalie could practically see her expression through the tone of her voice, nervous but trying to find a silver lining.
"I'm thinking," Lily said after a moment, "that we should maybe limit use of this communication function if we can help it."
"How do you figure?" Peter said, raising an eyebrow with his voice.
"Because if someone is trying to pass unnoticed or in danger," Natalie said, immediately catching on, "then the last thing they need is someone gabbing away at them. Right?"
"Got it," Lily confirmed.
"Fair enough, I guess," Sam said, humming with thought. "But it's the option under the radar, in case of emergencies. Just open it and press the center button. As far as I can tell there's no way not to drag everyone in, so no private calls."
"Emergencies only, got it," Desmon chirped. "So anytime I'm bored! Got it."
A round of goodbyes went around, of good-lucks and don't-get-killeds. Natalie returned to the menu of her D-Rive, and just like that, the voices of her compatriots went silent.
And the forest around them was eerily silent once more.
"Well," Natalie said, "at least we know everyone's alive. That's better than we were doing fifteen minutes ago."
Raumon, though, didn't immediately response. She was about to turn to look at him, to make sure he was doing okay, but the sound of a snapping branch just behind them practically echoed in the trees.
"It's the same one from earlier," Raumon said immediately, so quickly that Natalie almsost didn't register his words. She whipped her head around and saw a flash of blue and grey, of something about Raumon's size running away.
"I--" Natalie blinked a couple times. "Should we follow it?"
"Considering how many digimon we've met that had a problem with me personally..." Raumon said. He sounded like he was building up to a conclusion that they should run away on the double. Instead, he tugged on Natalie's pant leg, pointing after the little grey (presumably) digimon that was making a break for it. "Come on!"
Natalie couldn't help but smile a little bit at Raumon's attitude, even as she and her partner took off after whatever it was that had been peeking at them. She got the distinct impression that there was more to it than simply wanting to find out why they were being observed, but she held her tongue for the time being.
"Wait!" Raumon called, sidestepping around a tree to avoid smashing straight into it. Though the grey thing had a bit of a head start, it didn't take long for them to catch up; apparently flustered by being pursued, it hadn't been looking where it was going. They saw it cast a look over its shoulder and, with that distraction, tripped over a gnarled tree root as it crested a hill.
The panicked honk of some kind of waterfowl rang out in the air as the little grey digimon tumbled down the far side of a shallow hill.
"Oh, crap," Natalie said, feeling a pang of guilt. Raumon put on a burst of speed and ran up and over the slope, taking care to avoid the root that had tripped up the digimon who was running away. Natalie, of course, followed closely.
As they descended, they were able to more clearly see the digimon they were pursuing, as it attempted to pull itself out of the patch of wet mud that it had tumbled into. Underneath the muck, it was indeed just about Raumon's size-- and moreover, it, too, was a little bird. It looked like a young swan; its only accessories were the silver choker around its neck and the silver ring around its left leg, and the rest of its body was covered in nothing but silvery-grey feathers. Its beak and legs were a darker grey, and though its eyes were closed, they could extrapolate that they were shiny and blue.
"Are you okay?" Natalie said, reaching out a hand apprehensively but pulling back slightly out of politeness.
The little swan pulled itself up into a sitting position and seemed to realize in short order that it had been caught up with.
"Uh," the swan said, her voice soft and apprehensive, and she looked between Natalie and Raumon in turn. She paused and glanced to the side with furrowed brow, quite obviously feeling that she had been caught out. "I'm fine," she said after a moment.
"Why were you watching us? Sorry to be blunt," Raumon said, holding out a claw to help pull the swan up to standing. She did not take it, and Raumon half-recoiled his hand, but kept it outstretched. "We just-- that was you the first time, too, right?"
The swan hesitated before she spoke. "You were making a lot of noise," she said, choosing each word carefully. "Usually when something makes that much noise it's someone who's gone feral, and I'd need to call for backup."
Natalie frowned. "I didn't think we were being that loud," she said.
"The screeching noise?" the little swan said, raising an eyebrow, and Natalie and Raumon immediately caught on-- the D-Rives must have been doing their very loud thing before they had woken up. "I'd never heard anything like it, but I still wanted to investigate. You were the only things around, and it had been coming from around there."
"Right," Raumon said, tapping his beak. "That was... well. We didn't realized it carried."
The swan, luckily, didn't ask further about what had made the screeching noise.
"Well, that said, we're not feral and hostile, obviously," Raumon said. He didn't know where this digimon's allegiances lay, and either way, the whole we just got dropped here from another world is a bit of a hard sell (as he knew well), "so hopefully your worries are assuaged."
The little swan nodded, and cautiously, she finally took Raumon's outstretched claw to pull herself out of the mud-- yes, he had been extending his hand the entire time.
"Sorry if it's rude to ask," Natalie said, as she wasn't able to dismiss a thought. "That explains why you came to check on us the first time, but why were you following us this time?"
The little swan looked quite a bit as though she had hoped they wouldn't ask, and she rubbed the back of her head nervously. "It's nothing," she said, looking at Raumon again. "You just look like somebody that I used to know a very long time ago, but I think it's just my eyes playing tricks on me."
It took an enormous force of will for Raumon and Natalie not to exchange glances.
"Oh?" Raumon said, tilting his head. "Sorry, didn't mean to cause you any undue confusion."
Natalie glanced surreptitiously at him; she could tell, without an ounce of doubt, that he was playing dumb. It was in the subtle way his ear-feathers twitched and the way he tapped his beak and shifted his weight.
She knew for a fact he had the same thought as her, but she decided not to say anything, letting Raumon play diplomat.
"It's fine," the little swan said. "I didn't mean to alarm you. I just wanted to double-check myself, it's been hard to be sure of a lot of things lately."
"Trust me, I know," Raumon said, shaking his head. "I'm sorry we chased you, it's--" he paused, seeming to do a mental backspace so he didn't say anything he shouldn't have. "We just don't have a good track record. It's best to be cautious."
"I understand," the swan said, smiling somberly. "I assume you're just passing through here?"
"You'd be correct," Natalie said.
"I'm sorry that I overheard," the little swan said, "but you're heading for the Holy Sea, yes? I'm sorry if I'm wrong, and I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but--"
"No, no, it's fine," Natalie said quickly, holding up her hands. As far as she could remember they hadn't said anything too damning. "Do you know which direction we should be heading? We're, uh, not from around here."
"I could tell," the little swan said with a gentle smile, and then she pointed in a direction. "About a half-day's walk from here is the river-- if you start now you should get there by nightfall. A couple days' walk from there you'll reach the sea."
She paused, and noted that both Raumon and Natalie looked a little embarassed that their being out of place was so obvious. "Most digimon who aren't from around here tend to get lost fairly easily. Not that we've had much in the way of travelers lately, but, you know."
"Well," Natalie said, "thank you. Sorry for any trouble we may have been."
"It's alright," the swan said, bowing her head. She paused. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your names."
"I'm Raumon," Raumon said, pointing to himself. "And this is--" he hesitated, debating whether or not to try and append a -mon to the end of his partner's name. "Natalie," he said, deciding it would sound stupid if he tried.
"Well, I hope your travels treat you well, Raumon, Natalie," the swan said, taking it in stride, and she stretched out her wings. She flapped them a couple times to dislodge any dirt or water that clung to them, and she picked into the air with a little bit of effort.
"Wait!" Natalie said, blinking. "What's your name? If you're going to ask ours, we'd like to know yours, after all."
The young swan, as she alighted on a thick and gnarled tree branch, looked over her shoulder and smiled. "I'm Cygnetmon," she said, and she took off over the canopy of the trees.
"Cygnetmon," Raumon repeated slowly as she almost immediately passed out of sight.
"You know her?" Natalie said quietly, looking over at her partner. It was a question only in the formal sense; the way he had looked when she had said she had recognized him was a dead giveaway. He didn't have much of a poker face, for a creature with a literal magic mask for a face.
Raumon paused before he answered. "I mean, let's be realistic," he said, gesturing with one claw. "What are the odds that not only have we appeared in a forest I recognize, but also met the one of countless Cygnetmon that happens to know me, more than fifteen years after the fact?"
"... so that's a yes?" Natalie prompted, unable to stop herself.
"Knowing our luck," Raumon agreed after a moment, nodding. "Should we try to find that river?"
Cygnetmon came to her destination, making a not-so-delicate landing in the pond near her home, and she glanced around. There were a scattered few others of her kind and similar species of digimon. There were fewer than there used to be, but that just meant fewer witnesses to the fact that she hit the water with maybe less grace than she'd prefer. Her mind was elsewhere, after all.
"So it was him, wasn't it?"
And her mind was brought crashing back to the present by a voice too-obviously speaking to her.
Cygnetmon sighed internally, closing her eyes. She schooled her face into a neutral expression as she glanced to the side. "No. It was another. There's probably a hundred-thousand Raumon in the world, you know."
Paddling over to her was Gosmon; where Cygnetmon was a young swan, Gosmon resembled a young goose, his feathers varying shades of white, silver, and a dark purplish grey. His wings were tipped in big blunt grey claws, and his bright-green eyes were clever and narrow.
"I think it must have been," Gosmon said, ignoring almost all of what she had said. "You said he had a human with him. I bet it was him."
"I double checked, like you suggested I do, and I was mistaken," Cygnetmon said firmly.
Gosmon frowned, tilting his head at her. "I think," he didn't seem to notice that Cygnetmon had negative interest in what he thought, "that you're just being nostalgic, and you don't want to take an opportunity when it shows up right on your doorstep. It's been fifteen years."
Cygnetmon took a moment, quirking an eyebrow at Gosmon. "It's been fifteen years, so by your own logic, you should stop insisting that every black bird is him."
"But it's a Raumon this time, so I think I'm a little justified here," Gosmon insisted. "You can tell me to get over it all you like, but look around, Cygnetmon." He gestured with one claw at the few stragglers that still hung around this ever-shrinking pond. "The forest is dying. Our entire world is dying. It's getting worse. In a year, the Halo will be indistinguishable from the barrens." He gestured widely at their surroundings, and then pointed an accustator claw at Cygnetmon. "And you know as well as I do that he's to blame for it."
Cygnetmon averted her eyes, sighing. "If that was what you were concerned about," she said, "then why didn't you go when that group tried to make it into the temple? You talked a big game about being first in line if you ever had the chance."
"Bet you anything they're dead, and I'm no use to any cause dead," Gosmon said, quickly enough that Cygnetmon got the impression he had pre-prepared that answer.
Cygnetmon paused, and began to paddle away from Gosmon. "You can't fool me," she said over her shoulder. "You and I know perfectly well that it's not anything to do with any cause that you're still hung up."
Gosmon made a sort of annoyed noise and puffed up his feathers. "Believe what you want," he said flippantly, tossing his head and turning away, himself.
The little swan sighed, looking to the sky.
Without any little swans sneaking peeks at them, Natalie and Raumon had an afternoon almost entirely bereft of other sapient life. As they did when they had been wandering to find others, they occasinally saw glimpses of digimon in the distance -- some quite large and hard to miss as they trudged long, others almost impossible to find at all, but whether they were avoiding or being avoided, it didn't matter. Either way, they kept on their guards, but everyone and everything seemed to want as little to do with anything around them as possible.
Natalie was... well. From what little they had heard from the few sources they had, her mental image of the digital world hadn't been an ancient but almost deathly-still forest, overgrown with plant life and bereft of things that moved and breathed and talked.
She had maybe expected fighting monsters and a war-torn landscape, but instead she just got the feeling with every step that she was disturbing ground that had laid untouched for weeks, months-- even years.
She couldn't tell if it was true, but it certainly felt that way.
She had plenty of time to think and talk with Raumon. Raumon was more than willing to lead the way and stay alert, so she was able to go on a form of autopilot, following her feet and her partner while her mind wandered.
One thought prevailed all afternoon. She hoped, very badly, that she hadn't made a massive mistake.
The sun had just begun to dip below the horizon -- Natalie assumed. They couldn't actually see the horizon beyond the thick trees and rolling hills, but they could see the sky overhead begin to fade through dusty oranges, reds, and pinks of sunset.
Raumon was just saying that they might have to stop and resume their push for the river tomorrow, as he didn't particularly want to try to navigate in the dark -- it was dark enough on the ground just thanks to the canopy above them. However, no sooner than he said that, they reached the top of a hill and saw before them... well.
They could only assume it was the river; it was the only body of water they had encountered that was more than ten feet across. It stretched perhaps a hundred fifty feet -- it was tiny compared to, say, the Harper River back home, but still.
"... I'm still saying we should stop for the night," Raumon said, putting his hands on his hips.
"You're not going to get an argument from me."
"Do you think we should stop up here," Raumon said, "for the vantage point, or--?"
"Ah, yes," Natalie said, gesturing around with one hand at how much they could actually see around them. It... wasn't much. Any advantage they would gain from the altitute was undone by the trees.
"Point taken," Raumon said, without her even elaborating.
They found a clear-enough space at the bottom of the hill a short ways from the bank of the river, and while they could hardly be said to make camp, they situated themselves. Natalie cleared off a fallen log and rested her back against it, and Raumon took a seat next to her.
After all, if they could have laid unconscious on the ground for who-knew-how-long without anything bad happening to them...
Not like they really had any choice.
"You know what's weird," Natalie said, pulling her knees close to her chest as she looked out towards the water.
"A great number of things," Raumon said with a smile, but he paused. "What?"
"I don't feel hungry, even though I haven't eaten since--"
Well, since before they had left the real world, suffice to say. That long, and as much walking as they had done... she was tired, to be sure; exhausted, definitely. Hungry, though? Not at all. Not even the 'body has gone into starvation mode because I've ignored my hunger until now' kind of lack, either; she hadn't felt a single pang, not a single moment of wishing she had food-- or even water.
Raumon tilted his head. "I-- hm." He scratched at the dirt next to him, pondering. "Maybe-- you know how we, as in digimon, don't have to eat?"
"Maybe something got rearranged when we came through," Raumon said, gesturing with one hand.
"Maybe," Natalie said, turning her eyes up to the sky with a sigh. "I can't even imagine how weird this is for you."
"You're the one transported to a completely new world, realizing you may not need food or drink anymore, and you're concerned it's weird for me?" Raumon said wryly.
"I'm not the one who's going to be running into possibly-familiar faces," Natalie pointed out, and Raumon shrugged in a fair enough kind of way.
Gosmon hated flying, but when he had noticed that Cygnetmon had been nowhere to be found... Well, come on. He wasn't about to waste a chance when he got one, and if he had to take advantage of Cygnetmon's sentimentality to do it, so be it.
Admittedly, he didn't have much of a plan, but he'd figure it out as he went.
He flapped silently in the darkening sky. He had had to take a bit of a detour so that Cygnetmon wouldn't know she was being followed, but he guessed that she was heading for the river, which meant that Raumon was probably there as well.
That lying, conniving rat-bastard Raumon, who'd damned all of them and, more importantly, had made a damn fool of--
Gosmon was given quite a start when his internal monologue was interrupted.
If you want to stand a chance, you will need more pow̴e̴r̢, y̴o̶u͝ ́k͢n̵o͘w.̵
Gosmon glanced to either side of him, shocked. The voice had felt like a whisper, but it was clear as could be, as if spoken directly into his ear.
It should go without saying that there was nobody on either side of him, nor above him; if there was anyone in the trees or forest floor below, he had the sneaking suspicion that it hadn't been them who'd spoken.
If you want to fight him, you will not be enough as̛ ̵yoú a̸r͢e, the voice continued, a silken whisper that slid into his ears. No, not into his ear-- into his mind directly. It was an unfamiliar voice, hissing and quiet, almost staticky, sounding as though something about it wasn't quite right.
Some higher part of him realized something was wrong, but the part of him that was laser-focused on his self-given mission flared to life, as though a switch was thrown.
I ̨c͠a͢n ̀g̷iv͘e t̸h̕at͟ ̧to yo̷u.
Natalie found it hard to relax. She instinctively fiddled with her phone, but -- no surprises -- despite the maxed-out bars that her phone displayed, she didn't actually have any signal. The battery didn't seem to be draining, though, so at least she had the salvation of endless Solitaire to occupy her mind.
She didn't suppose her carrier worked cross-dimensionally.
She looked up at the sky, and as it darkened, it was... weird.
She'd lived in the city her entire life, and though she'd been out in the middle of nowhere to see the stars in all their glory, the sky of the digital world was something else. The fact that there was absolutely no light pollution was only the first part of it.
Two moons hung in the sky-- one looking not dissimilar to the one she was familiar with, albeit either much bigger or much closer; a much smaller red moon hung close to it, apparently orbiting the larger of the two. The stars around them were painted in clusters, and their colours were distinct; one patch to the south was red and purple, while a section overhead was purple, blue, and white, while the spaces between the clusters of stars was inky-black and empty.
Altogether, it added up to a very alien feeling sky.
"Natalie, look," Raumon said, breaking her out of her reverie. "Something's coming."
Natalie followed where Raumon was pointing with one lavender claw, and saw, silhouetted against the stars, a dark shape flying. Instinctively, she reached for her D-Rive, but it didn't take long for both of them to realize what was coming over the hill.
It was Cygnetmon, flapping hard, looking quite tired, and as she saw them on the ground... even from their low vantage point and the low light, it was easy to see the look of relief on her face as she began to descend.
"I'm-- glad," Cygnetmon huffed, her flight faltering somewhat as she approached, "that you-- made it-- to the river."
And then she fell out of the sky like a stone.
Natalie rushed forward, stumbling to her feet the moment she realized what was going on, and she only narrowly caught the little swan, but narrowly caught still means caught.
"Are you alright?" Raumon said as Natalie, not knowing what else to do, brought Cygnetmon the ten feet back to where she and Raumon had been sitting. He looked more than curious-- like he was almost relieved, in a strange way.
She could imagine why.
"I'm fine," Cygnetmon said, still catching her breath. "Just-- a bit tired. I'm-- glad I was able to catch up to you."
It took a few minutes for Cygnetmon to gather herself. Natalie almost said something about wishing that she had some kind of food to offer the poor, obviously tired little digimon, but she remembered that that wasn't really a relevant issue.
"Why'd you go to the all the effort of following us again?" Raumon said once she had recomposed herself. "Not to be rude, but it seems like you've put quite a lot of effort into it at this point."
The little swan smiled just for a split second, and then looked at the ground, lacing her fingers together in front of her. She was sitting opposite the two, her back facing the river. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to be a nuisance."
"Not at all," Natalie said, handwaving the very idea away.
Cygnetmon sighed, still looking at the ground. She twiddled her thumbs, thinking very hard about how to put what she wanted to say. "Can I tell you a story?" she said after a few seconds.
Raumon and Natalie looked to each other. "Go ahead," Raumon said, making a floor is yours motion.
Cygnetmon took a deep breath.
"I don't remember exactly how long ago it was-- it was a few years before all of this started. This forest used to be full of digimon. I lived in a... well, I don't know if you'd call it a village or a colony or whatever else. It was a big group of bird digimon of all kinds."
She spread her wings out to emphasize her point, as though she were gesturing at a large group that didn't exist now.
"One day, not long before I hatched from my egg, a strange digi-egg appeared. Nobody knowed what to do with it, so they took care of it. Most baby and in-training digimon are fairly similar, so I don't think anyone thought much of it." She scratched the side of her head. "But when he grew up to rookie level... well..." she looked to Raumon and paused. "I won't mince words-- he was a Raumon."
"I imagine that's why you felt you knew me," Raumon said, choosing his words carefully.
"Well..." Cygnetmon frowned. "A lot of the others were very antagonistic to him because he was so different from the rest of us. You know how it goes."
"Children are cruel," Natalie said, "regardless of species, I guess."
Cygnetmon smiled and nodded. "Right. I made friends with him, and I... caught a lot of flak for it." Her smile turned joyless as she cast her eyes to the ground. "I think it always bothered him a lot. Both the way they treated him and the fact that I got treated poorly because I associated with him. There was one digimon, a Gosmon, who was kind of the ringleader of all of us. I don't know if he hated Raumon, per say, but he certainly led a lot of the antagonism. I always got the impression that he was after me, but honestly, it was probably just because he didn't like Raumon."
The little swan paused. Raumon and Natalie were both listening intently, not wanting to interrupt.
"I suppose I'll cut out a lot of the unnecessary details. Raumon decided to leave one day. I don't know if he was sick of being mistreated, or if he wanted to find where he was 'supposed' to be, or what, but he said he had to leave." She frowned. "... He told me he'd come back, and then... I don't think I ever saw him again. Not really."
She cut herself off, and took a moment to recompose herself.
"Gosmon crowed a lot about how he, specifically, had driven Raumon out. That he was just going to be bad luck, that he was a Virus type, that we were lucky to have been rid of him. None of the older digimon seemed to want to do anything to discourage him, so they just kind of let him go on."
Cygnetmon looked up to the sky, still twiddling her thumbs. "But one day, Raumon came back." Her audience members were about to ask how she had never seen him again if that was the case, but they thought it rude to ask, and she elaborated of her own accord.
"But he was... in a much higher form. He said he had gotten power from... something. I don't know if he was an ultimate or a mega-- he was stronger than any of us." She paused, and trailed off.
She let the details go unstated.
They... filled the details in, by the way her voice went kind of tight, and the way she talked about her de facto flock in the past tense.
"... the last I heard, he was one of the digimon that had escaped to another world," she finished. "Carrying a part of some... thing. The reason that the digital world stopped..." she trailed off, then regathered herself. "That's... why I was wondering if you were someone I knew. That's all."
Raumon looked at the ground.
"Would it make it better or worse if I was the same Raumon," he wondered out loud, speaking to himself more than to anyone else. He closed his eyes and Natalie glanced nervously his way, her brow knitted with worry.
"I think it'd be better," Cygnetmon said, averting her eyes. "I miss the digimon he used to be a great deal."
Raumon felt something heavy in his chest.
And then something blotted out the moon.
"I knew," a masculine voice keened, "that you'd lead me right to him."
"Shit!" Natalie hissed, snapping her attention up.
Coming over the trees was a flying digimon-- this one far, far larger than Cygnetmon had been. He was a bird of great stature, with stark white feathers practically shining in the moonlight. Darker purple and dark-indigo accented his limbs, wing-feathers, and long, elegant neck. A metal mask covered the top half of hs face, while a razor-sharp black beak all but glinted dramatically.
He did not fly elegantly; he practically dive-bombed as he crested the hill, landing with great aplomb a short distance away, kicking up dirt and moss as he did. He rose up to its full stature, nearly fifteen feet, and spread his wings wide.
"I'm so glad you found fit to go find the traitor," he said, pointing one sharp claw at Cygnetmon. "I don't suppose you've had a sudden change of heart, but that's alright for now."
"Oh, no-- oh no, oh no," Cygnetmon said quietly, furrowing her brow, but Raumon was already getting to his feet and beginning to glow.
"Raumon, drive evolve to... Doctorimon!"
The large bird digimon reared his head back, squinting his bright-green eyes in disdain. "It was right," he hissed to himself, glaring. Doctorimon did nothing, merely stand between his partner and Cygnetmon, and the strange bird, holding his staff out like a barrier.
"Gosmon!" Cygnetmon cried, standing up. "I know that's you! What are you doing?"
"Mind yourself; it's Albamon now," the bird said, gesturing grandly at himself. "Can't you tell?"
"What did you do!?" Cygnetmon demanded, tears welling in her big blue eyes. "How did you digivolve?"
"Nevermind that," Albamon said, tossing his head. For a split second, his body distorted and glitched, and Doctorimon and Natalie alike got a distinct feeling they knew. "I needed power to fight him. I got it. That's what matters."
"Stand back," Doctorimon warned quietly, and Cygnetmon rushed to Natalie's side, not ripping her eyes away, as Doctorimon leapt forward. "
Again, Albamon, wasted no time. "
"Shit," Natalie hissed, pulling her D-Rive out.
"You little shit," Albamon muttered, as he closed the distance beween himself and Doctorimon in the blink of an eye. "How dare you show your face around here-- oh, wait, you don't show your face, you wear that freaky fucking mask," he said, grabbing Doctorimon by the face and hoisting him up while he was still dazed.
Cygnetmon rushed in propelled by a summoned jet of water, almost knocking Natalie backwards with the force of how quickly she ran forward. The water growing into a veil that surrounded her, she smashed her entire body into Albamon's leg.
Albamon dropped Doctorimon with a growl, turning to look at the little swan.
"And you," he muttered, glaring down at her. "Always defending him. See what that got us!? A rotting fucking world!"
"You--" Cygnetmon said, trying to puff herself up to look tougher. "You accepted power from it! That's why you digivolved! You're no better than him, and at least he was kind!"
Albamon's pupils constricted in fury.
Doctorimon braced himself.
He wasn't aiming it at Doctorimon.
"Cygnetmon!" Natalie cried, reaching out a hand ineffectually as Albamon fired the energy like a spear and it struck true-- straight through the little swan's chest.
Dark-crimson blood stained Cygnetmon's silver feathers, spreading out like the world's most horrible rose in bloom. The attack had only barely shy of run her through, and she stumbled backwards, her eyes wide as her body began to shift and distort just-so.
Albamon flapped as he stayed in the air, observing coldly.
Doctorimon did... the exact opposite. He seemed to all but forget that the giant bird was there at all.
And then it stopped, and the wound began to re-open.
Natalie felt just about ready to throw up.
Stream after stream of white flames washed over Cygnetmon's body, and each time, they began to heal her, only for it to undo itself a moment later. Albamon watched, disdain in his eyes, but he seemed to have something he wanted to say.
Doctorimon dropped his staff, and it tumbled as it rolled away. He picked the little swan into his arms as he knelt.
"No, hold on," he said, babbling. "We can-- I don't know how but we can fix this. I'll figure out a way. I just need to--"
"It's okay," she said, even though she knew, and he knew, and they all knew, that it wasn't anywhere close to okay. She reached up and placed a feathery wing-hand on the side of Doctorimon's face. "It was nice to see you again."
In a flash, Cygnetmon exploded into motes of light. The light didn't organize itself into a beam, this time; it scattered, falling to the ground like glowing embers. Cygnetmon's silver choker and the ring around her leg lingered for a split second, but they, too, dropped to the ground and exploded into light, leaving the dark blood on Doctorimon's sleeves as her only memento.
Doctorimon made no sound, only dropped his head. Natalie stood back, clutching her chest. They had only known the little swan for so short a time, but...
And then Albamon had to open his big goddamn beak.
"One out of a hundred million," Albamon sneered, and the bastard was honest to god slow clapping. "You pretend to weep for one, when you've killed a hundred by your own hand and a hundred-thousand more by your actions."
Doctorimon did not turn to face Albamon. He made no action whatsoever; he stayed on the ground, his arms fallen limp to his sides. Natalie looked between him and the ultimate-level. She worried that he wasn't going to move-- that he was going to stay facing away while Albamon got a free shot on him.
"You have nothing to say for yourself?" Albamon said, mockery in his voice, as he spread his wings, confirming Natalie's fears. "Fine. I'll still enjoy this."
Albamon landed and began to advance, and Doctorimon did not respond.
"Raumon!" Natalie yelled, tears gathering in her eyes. "Please! Do something!"
Doctorimon lifted his head, and made a sound-- the kind of sound that predates words, a noise both hollow and full to bursting of sorrow, of grief, of the reminiscence of something lost.
And from the tips of his blood-stained sleeves, a purple glow began to creep, and Natalie felt a stone drop into her stomach. No-- not now, not here--
Images of IlDoctorimon filled her mind, of her partner and friend rampaging, fueled by his grief, doing who could know how much damage, getting who knew how much attention--
And then the image of Cygnetmon covered in her own blood, dying with not enough time to say any kind of real goodbye. She thought of Raumon in the same position-- and she thought of how Raumon must feel in this moment, and she felt a pang of something horrible and empty.
Natalie clutched her D-Rive to her chest as it began to glow, feeling a kind of empty, dry sob wrack her.
That wasn't what she had meant when she said do something, but... they didn't have a choice.
The glitchy squeal started up from her D-Rive, vibrating through her very being, and Natalie steeled herself, squeezing her eyes shut.
But then, with a sound like an old TV turning off, the screeching died-- but the black and purple kept creeping over Doctorimon's body, the purple staying in clean circuit-lines.
"Doctorimon, conduction evolve to...!"
The swirling orb of purple and black stayed intact; it did not shear, it did not glitch, it did not distort. It grew in size considerably, though it didn't grow quite as large as she was used to.
And Natalie realized immediately, as the sphere of light burst apart to reveal what was inside, that she had seen glimpses of this form, the purplish shape that IlDoctorimon had transformed into for split seconds before he had de-digivolved.
He had the basic form of a harpy, a humanoid torso on animalistic bird legs. His body looked not unlike Raumon's in the broad strokes, simply more humanoid. The same ruff of black feathers around his neck (though perhaps a bit more ruffled), the same charcoal feathers stopping short of his elbows and knees to reveal purple scaly skin, the same bent jet-black tail. A series of red beads were... well, initially, Natalie thought they were a necklace, but it seemed they were embedded in his neck, as was the purple-beaked, sun-bleached bird skull fastened at the front.
Well, at least it matched the bird skull fastened at the front of his belt, which served to hold up tattered purple pants.
The most striking difference, however, demanded attention. Massive black and purple wings unfurled behind his back, and then faltered-- they were weighed down by massive, heavy chains strewn across and around them, and they twitched helplessly, attempting to spread but unable to do so. Similar chains hit the ground, connected to silver cuffs wrapped around his ankles; this chain, at least, seemed quite slack, looking like the only impediment to movement it would incur would be its weight.
His face was once again a stark-white mask; however, now the mask was completely bereft of eyes, with only flat white and no features to speak of. Honestly, it was at first hard to tell if this or IlDoctorimon's tear-streaked, black-gunk-leaking plague mask was more disconcerting. His beak, sprouting forth from where the mask split up the middle, was jet-black and jagged, with bandages wrapped around it.
But that sense only lasted a moment. Where IlDoctorimon had moved with a ferality and a distinct feeling of wrongness, this new form stood serene and calm. He exuded an aura of self-control. His claws touched the ground and he attempted -- and failed -- to spread his wings. The clinking of metal chains echoed as he announced himself in a slightly raspy, but not wholly unfamiliar, voice.
Albamon growled; if he had lips to curl in contempt, he would have. Vindecamon stood, flexing his claws, getting used to his new form, still not facing Albamon.
Vindecamon moved with shocking speed considering the chains around his legs and his slightly awkward form, whipping around. Even without eyes, the fact that he was death-glaring was more than apparent.
"Is that all you have," Albamon taunted, but his words were cut off by a hiss of pain as the energy suddenly ripped its way out of Albamon's body, flying back at Vindecamon. The black bird absorbed the energy harmlessly, and he fluttered his useless wings, rattling his own chains.
"Don't mock me!
He once again fired a spear of white energy, and though it hit Vindecamon, it had significantly less effect when it was being used against a fair opponent.
"It would seem to me that there are a great many things," Vindecamon said, "that are only okay when you do them. That doesn't seem fair to me.
Albamon's body glitched out slightly again, but he recomposed himself quickly. "
Vindecamon leapt, catching Albamon's neck on the loose chain that hung between his ankles. Albamon choked as the chain pulled him back and off-balance, and he flailed as he tried to free himself.
When the dark energy ripped its way out of the white bird this time, Albamon went up in a glitchy white glow.
He did not explode into light-- no, left in his place was a battered and bruised looking rookie digimon, a young goose.
Natalie, if her heart would stop pounding in her ears, would guess that was Gosmon.
Indeed, Gosmon raised his head with hatred in his eyes, gazing up at the form of Vindecamon standing over him.
"I would not stoop to your level," Vindecamon said quietly, his voice somber with all the myriad things that meant. "Leave."
Gosmon looked left and right, and he took off running up the hill. In mere seconds, he was gone. Vindecamon waited a few seconds more, and then the purple light of his de-digivolution reflected off the river a short distance away.
When he returned to being Raumon, he was on hands and knees on the ground, digging his claws into the dirt. There weren't even any blood stains left, and so a couple teardrops marked the soil instead.
Natalie ran to her partner's side, picking him up into her arms and hugging him tightly.
The night was long and sleep only came sparingly, but words came even sparer. It wasn't that they didn't have anything to say; it was that they both knew what the other meant, understanding each other as natural as breathing.
Natalie had known Cygnetmon for less than a day; Raumon had only now had his memory stirred, but they both felt as though something that had always been there was gone. Even if they hadn't known it, they noticed its absence.
Natalie and Raumon took shifts sleeping, just in case.
It worked fine for Raumon; he knew that sleep wouldn't come to him even if he had wanted it to. While Natalie slept, Raumon carefully put together a very rough and ramshackle little circle of stones that he fished out of the shallow water.
It was nothing impressive, by any means, but nothing was disturbing them, so he had nothing better to do.
No digimon had even come looking after the fight. He supposed nobody wanted to stick their noses in anyone else's business, these days.
Every word that Cygnetmon had said had been like putting a jigsaw puzzle piece in place; it was the same feeling that he had felt when Shitomon had given her side of the story, that same sureness. He could imagine every beat, every word. When Cygnetmon had talked, he had felt the desire to add details to the story well up inside him, only to come up blank.
And as wrong as being IlDoctorimon had felt, there was a similar sense of fitting into place that accompanied being Vindecamon-- but Vindecamon was unfamiliar. He had never been Vindecamon before, and he was realizing with growing surety that he had been IlDoctorimon.
He still felt something deep within him-- the feeling that IlDoctorimon was still there.
... god, here he was, acting like his evolutions were different people.
He considered how Cygnetmon must have felt, face to face with IlDoctorimon.
He thought of how Natalie looked, felt, dreaded every time he turned into IlDoctorimon.
He felt a little bit ill.
He set the final stone in its place and glanced over at Natalie, asleep against the log. He supposed he should try to get some sleep, but his mind was racing, and he'd rather she get more rest if she could.
He knew Natalie felt the weight of responsibility for this entire situation-- for them being here at all. He would hardly try to downplay that; he understood her worries.
Even if they were completely unsure that they had ever done the right thing, at least there was someone with whom to share the weight of the albatrosses around their necks.