Episode 30: Only the Horses

For those in the digital world, regrouping wasn't even half the battle. It was maybe a quarter of the battle, at most, but everybody needed rest. By the time Xander and Peter had had the chance to regale their experience and they'd been brought up to speed, it was late, and the decision to figure out what to do in the morning was essentially unanimous.

As the sun rose up over the Halo the next morning, the party of twelve was trying to come up with a battle plan.
"We could cut back west into the barrens, straight to the old temple," Brockmon explained, "but to call it dangerous is an understatement." With one claw, he gestured at a very crude, but very clear, map that he had drawn in the dirt; he'd even stuck a little stick in the dirt to represent where they were, and a little pebble to represent the old temple. He'd clearly worked fairly hard on it, possibly while he was taking his shift at sitting guard.

"Define 'dangerous'?" Banmon prompted, peering over Peter's shoulder.

Brockmon had his answer prepared. "There's almost nowhere to hide or rest, and it's simply physically difficult land to move across. Chasms and canyons that will need crossing. Sandstorms. We'll stick out like sore thumbs. Anything we see will almost definitely see us first, and the only digimon left there are feral."

Brockmon was equipped not only with his recollections of years ago, but recent memories as well-- even through the haze in his mind, he had wandered the wastes as Draugmon in search of a way back. He knew the barrens as well as any digimon with the presence of mind to tell about it could.
He wasn't thrilled about going back, honestly.

"I feel like we're in a good enough state to not worry about that, now," Desmon said from her vantage point perched in a tree. "What with our fancy new forms that don't level a city block."

"And besides that," Xander said, picking up his partner's train of thought, "plenty of digimon seemed to make the trip out just fine, judging by how many digimon came through to give us grief."
And the digimon, at least, had made it before.

"Yes," Brockmon said evenly, "but they didn't have to keep humans safe while they did so."

Ah. Right.

"Dead weight squad represent," Sam chimed in, pumping a fist sarcastically in the air.

"I didn't say you were dead weight," Brockmon said a little crossly-- even a bit defensive. "We need you here as much as you need us."

Peter had shared what Mikemon had told them- that no digimon has been able to evolve without taking power from the Whisperer. They knew -- damn well -- that the humans had to be in close proximity for their D-Rives to help their partners digivolve.
It helped to feel a little less useless.

Lily placed a hand on Brockmon's head. "Chill," she said; Brockmon harumphed.

"I'll admit, it doesn't exactly sound like my idea of a fun Sunday stroll," Natalie said, tilting her head in thought, "but what other options do we really have?"

Peter folded his arms. "Sit around and wait for Nithmon to realize we're gone and come find us?" he said dryly.

Brockmon hesitated for a moment, drumming his claws in the dirt. "If we're here to defeat Nithmon," he said after a moment, "then no, we don't really have any other options than to go confront him directly."

"Nice qualifier there," Gelermon said, but it was quiet enough that only those on either side of her -- Sam and Banmon -- heard her, but the vague unease with the big if in Brockmon's statement was a feeling everyone got to some degree or another.

"More than that, though," Raumon said, deliberately defusing the tension, "if we're going to get home, then we're going to have to go that way anyway, since the cracks only happen in the barrens, right?"

"Hopefully," Brockmon said with a nod.

Meghan hummed, sitting back and leaning on her hands. "Then it sounds like we're in agreement?" A murmur of assent went around the messy circle in which they sat.

"It's not a lot of a plan," Natalie admitted, sighing, "but it's something. We'll figure the rest out on the fly, I guess."

"As if we had any other options," Desmon said, but she was characteristically chipper as she hopped down out of the tree and directly onto Xander's shoulders, which he was expecting and braced for but still did not terribly appreciate. "Shall we?"

"I'm still not carrying you," Xander muttered.


"I'm glad someone is having a good time," Oremon said dryly, standing up and dusting himself off.

"Someone's gotta," Desmon chirped right back, hopping off of Xander's back and landing on the ground beside him. "Otherwise we'd be dour and angry. Now you can all be dour, angry, and annoyed."

Oremon was not terribly amused.

Meghan stood up beside Oremon, shaking her head. She'd wondered if it had just been being around Gelermon and her constant teasing that had put him in a rather sour mood, but even with other targets for Gelermon's snark, he had seemed ill at ease. She'd tried to ask while they had been travelling; he'd simply gotten embarassed and huffy. She chose not to push the issue.

One by one, the pairs of partners stood up, stretched out, and oriented themselves. They had no way of knowing exactly how far they had to go; they may as well not waste any time getting on it.


Nithmon sat atop a broken plinth in the throneroom of the old temple. Far above him, the shattered glass dome opened up to the dusty sky that was growing lighter as the sun rose over the barrens.
All around him, broken pillars and crumbling rock sat strewn across the floor-- the results of his temper tantrum just not even ten minutes prior. The ringing, crashing, scraping-- it all seemed to echo around him, even though the only sound was the wind above. From his perspective, not even an hour had passed since he had left (fled) the human world.

He was calm now. This was fine.

Translation: he was furious.

He very well couldn't draw them out like he could in their world, and that... that posed a problem. In their world, he could force them into the open and figure out where they were pretty easily-- they'd respond to digimon attacks. Heck, failing that, he could even seek them out where they lived. Here, there was no telling where they'd ended up. Nearby, certainly; but it'd still take him time to search the Barrens, the Halo (what was left of it, anyway), the Holy Sea's shore.
And he'd do it, of course he would, but--

The gentle sound of footsteps on the approach shook him from his angry reverie. It was quiet, only audible because it echoed up the stairways; it was a delicate sound, like tapping glass on solid stone, but it was one Nithmon was familiar with. If he could hear her footsteps at all, that meant she was close enough to hear him.

"What do you want?" he snapped. He did not turn to look as, mere seconds later, a white shape emerged from one of the side-stairwells leading up from below. A pale deer, with slender legs and white flower-buds set in leaves where otherwise antlers would have grown, stood in the archway.

The pale deer flicked her ears, unperturbed by Nithmon's brusqueness. She stood prim and proper, not getting any closer, but in no mood to back down.
"Something is perturbing you," she stated cooly-- knowingly. Nithmon's lip curled for a moment before his face returned to normal.

"I don't know what gave you that impression," he said, affecting cheer; the deer seemed unconvinced. "... what do you want?" he repeated when it became clear his front wasn't working.

She disregarded his question a second time. "Is your job not done? It is awake again. The connection is growing stronger. You should be celebrating, not," and she cast a pointed look around, then said flatly, "this."

"The carriers are being insubordinate," Nithmon said right back, irritated. "They're making my life harder."

The deer was unmoved. "And you will deal with them. It's granted you the power to do that, hasn't it?"

Nithmon flexed his claws, and they erupted in red energy for a second, before he relaxed his claws and the energy faded. He didn't particularly see fit to tell her about the problems he'd been having, or even about the carriers following him back-- it was none of her business. It was between him and their master.
The human punching him was troubling him. It hadn't hurt, as if a human had any chance of hurting him-- it had just been surprising. But the fact that that stupid little device could cancel out the power-- that was sticking in his mind. He had held one just fine, used it just fine, when he had borrowed one from the bird's girl.
But now...

He couldn't deny that it was troubling him. Giving him pause, even.

The deer silently regarded him for a moment more. She waited for him to speak; he did not, so she closed her eyes, and turned away.
"They were headed east down the coast when I saw them. Two of them. Storm and silent. Humans, too. They killed Dagomon."
She didn't explain any further, merely turned and made to go back down the stairs from whence she had come.

Nithmon frowned.
"Hold on. Coniumon."

The deer stopped and looked impassively over her shoulder.


They had determined the night before that if they were going to travel anywhere as a group (and they had no intention of splitting the party after all they'd done to regroup), then they were going to have to do it with the digimon in rookie stage and only go as fast as the humans could walk. It was slower, but it would avoid avoid putting too much strain on the digimon that could carry passengers for long distances. More importantly, it was easier to remain inconspicuous. Nobody wanted to run into, say, Narakamon, nor draw attention from something else with a chip on its shoulder. Even if nothing immediately threatening ran into them, who would be to say that a smaller digimon wouldn't feed information to someone or something they didn't want knowing their whereabouts?

The only real solace was that they were all suffering equally as they began their trek back to the west, through the Halo and towards the barrens.

It was a long hike, and subtly uphill the entire way. Those who hadn't come up from the shore hadn't realized how much the altitude had dropped on their way south, until they had to do it in reverse. Their lack of apparent need for food or water was a blessing they truly began to appreciate before long, because everything was already awful, but if it had been sweaty, that would have just been too much.

Most of them had their own thoughts to attend to, but conversation when it happened was mostly amicable. They crossed rocks and streams; digimon sightings were sparse, and most of them dashed away and out of sight before anyone could get a good look.

"You'd think," Xander said idly at one point, "with as many digimon incidents as kept happening back home, there'd be more digimon on our asses."

"Don't jinx us," Natalie said with a resigned sigh. "I'm more than okay not being recognized, after the past couple days."

"The more we get ignored," Banmon said quietly, "the better, in my book..."
That was just true of her in general, but that was besides the point.

"Besides that," Brockmon said, "anything willing to fight us more directly is probably already heading out into the barrens."

"You guys suck at being encouraging," Desmon said, lowering her eyelids halfway.
(A brief note: despite Xander's protests, she was indeed riding piggyback on her partner's back.)

Luckily or not, they managed to go without incident as the morning gave way to afternoon. The further they went, the more pronounced the incline of the ground they were walking.
It was not immediately apparent that they were actually scaling an enormous hill until they were a decent ways up it; it was only when they looked back and saw the ground behind them sloping downwards, and that if they squinted they could see the river in the distance a ways below them, that they realized how high they had really come, and they did so, stopping to gaze out behind them.

They could see mountainous valleys rising up to the north, down from which Sam and Meghan had come; the sea to the south was a bold inky-dark band along the horizon, though the distant hills rose and fell, obscuring the actual coastline. From here, they could see swaths of burnt black among the trees, and places that looked unnaturally bare as if the trees had been torn down-- and they could also see pristine overgrown areas, the natural speckled pattern of unchecked natural land.

It would have been a beautiful sight were it not for the knowledge of why they were here-- and were it not for the unearthly still that hung over it like a heavy blanket, muffling all sense of life even in what looked like a thriving forest.

"It's like looking at a photo," Meghan remarked, and she meant it in more ways than one-- it was picturesque, yes, but it was also totally still, unmoving, static in time. (Some facetious part of her kind of wished she had her camera.)

"It almost feels nostalgic," Raumon said quietly, "but in a way I can't quite place."

"Well, I mean, this is your old stomping grounds, yeah?" Desmon said.

Oremon snorted, but nodded his head once wordlessly.

Raumon had more words to say. "Perhaps not what I'd call it, but," he said thoughtfully, then shrugged an agreement. He knew that much -- he couldn't forget. Still, it was an uncomfortable feeling-- to know he should have remembered something, to know that it was without a doubt a place familiar to him, and yet not be able to place it in any more than a broad sense.
"Is it not yours?"

"Can't say I'm familiar with it, no," Desmon said, shaking her head.

"Nor me," Banmon piped up.

"... I only know the lay of the land in an academic sense," Brockmon said after a moment, sounding a bit sheepish for a split second there at having to admit a lack of knowledge.

"Yeah, well, you're not missing much; forests all look the same," Gelermon said dismissively, tossing one long ear over her shoulder. "Now, are we gonna get a move on or are we just gonna stand around looking at the pretty trees?"

"Oi," Sam said, reaching down to tap his knuckles against the top of his partner's head. "We can be not moving for a few seconds." He'd complained enough over the course of the day about walking, let alone hiking; he didn't see the need to repeat himself now.

"I'd appreciate it," Meghan said, taking the chance to stop and rub her leg, which still twinged with an ache every now and again, especially on uneven ground as her ankle threatened to twist, and she'd lagged to the back of the group more than once before rejoining the pack.

They did stop for a few minutes, but their reprieve was short-lived.
Perhaps five minutes later, a loud, albeit distant, noise broke through the relative quiet of their idle conversation-- the keening of a bird. A good half of the group jumped in surprise, on-edge as they were, but then they froze rooted to wherever they were standing or sitting.

"Wonder what that was," Natalie murmured after a few seconds of heavy silence.

"Something large and foul-tempered, almost assuredly," Raumon offered.

"Hey, remember my prior comments about being bad at being encouraging?" Desmon said; Raumon smiled thinly and shrugged, both gestures apologetic.

Before they could dwell on it, the bird-call rang out again mere seconds later. Looking up, through the trees, they saw a dark, avian shape fly overhead. It looked familiar; it was definitely of a species they had fought before, but they didn't have the time to identify it before they lost sight of it behind the mass of unmoving leaves shading them from the sun. It wasn't moving terribly fast; was it looking for something?

Oremon in particular furrowed his brow, but said nothing.

"I guess that's as good a sign as any to keep moving?" Natalie said, hoping she sounded more in-control than she felt.
Her attempts at levity weren't successful, but they didn't need much more convincing to get a move on again; even a few moments of rest had already started to feel a little bit uneasy.


The group of twelve continued on, and they did not realize how close to the summit of the hill they had been.
Within ten minutes, the ground ahead of them stopped rising, but the thick trees inhibited their view of the distance-- right until they crested the hill properly.

Natalie, in the front of the group, exclaimed involuntarily.
"Oh, wow."

The sight that awaited them struck a contrast to the lush, if silent, forest that they had seen behind them.
Miles upon miles of forest and hills still stretched beyond them, but reaching out in the distance, the sea of dark trees gradually began to fade to burnt black, and beyond that, ashen grey. The faded trees were silhouetted against the distant sky, where a maelstrom of violet-red clouds hugged the razor-thin line of the horizon. Here, on top of this forested hill, it was a sunny day fading into the evening; in the distance, and yet not nearly far enough away for comfort, it was something entirely different.
Immediately in front of them, though, was not to be ignored for the distance. Instead of the gentle incline they had climbed up, this far side was a sharp incline, craggy and steep, dropping down at an intense angle, and this ridge extended into the distance both north and south. A single path a ways north from their current position wound back and forth along the hill; it looked as though it had been deliberately carved out, as nature (... or what passed for it) had not been kind enough to provide a safe way to ascend and descend. The ragged path turned back and forth in hairpin turns, and led straight to--

"It looks like there's some kind of settlement there," Lily said, shielding her eyes from the sun as she peered down, and indeed, it was-- set up against the incline, hundreds of feet below, wrapped around the base and climbing up the shallower incline at the bottom of the craggy hill face, a small village.
It was in better shape and much larger than the one Xander and Peter had encountered on the shore, but the fact that it looked almost entirely empty kept it from looking that much better off. It looked less wrecked, however, and more abandoned-- like it would have been overgrown if anything had still been able to grow. Digimon were definitely moving about -- birds in flight, and terrestrial animal types on the ground -- but it was hardly bustling.
Maybe that had something to do with the withering on the horizon.

Call it a hunch.

"Is there any other way down?" Oremon said, and his voice was a surprise-- it was one of the first things he'd actually said, instead of just snorted or grunted, in hours.

"It doesn't look like it," Natalie said, but she took another look around just to be sure-- everything but outcroppings of rock and distressingly steep inclines, trees with half of their roots hanging out into the open air, harsh drops with little warning-- a single slip-up would be dangerous, and yet almost inevitable. "Nothing doing. Not without going way out of the way, anyway." She looked to Oremon apologetically.

Oremon frowned. Some part of him already knew for certain that they could walk for miles and find no better way down, but he'd still felt the need to ask. Just in case.

"It's fine," Gelermon said, voice positively dripping with sarcasm. "We'll just stop in, socialize with the locals, get directions, see if there's a bus that runs out to the middle of god-forsaken nowhere coming in any time soon, save us having to walk."

"Maybe we'll be able to pass unnoticed," Banmon said, hopeful but not optimistic.

Oremon did not seem overly comforted, but there didn't really seem to be any alternatives, so they set out walking along the ridge to the way down. An avian digimon circled overhead behind them.


You would think that going downhill would be easy, or at least easier, but it wasn't.

Even on the path, the footing was uneven, and it was a hell of a long, precarious walk; sometimes they'd be moving almost completely flat, sometimes at a steep angle, and sometimes they'd even be ascending for a few hundred feet just to keep things interesting. The trees were sparser on this side of the hill, so it felt like there was less cover, which didn't help the mood. They would probably try to make a break down the hill off the path once it shallowed out a little bit, to try and skirt around the village, but they had to get there before they worried about that.

Peter and Sam were talking between themselves, pontificating about some aspect of the D-Rives while their partners weighed in; Natalie and Raumon were talking about some incident that had occurred between them a few years ago, while Lily and Brockmon were content to listen in on all of this. Meghan, meanwhile, had fallen to the back of the group again, lagging a little behind. Oremon fell into step beside her in short order.

"Is your--" he began quietly.

"If you ask if I'm doing okay," Meghan said, putting on a bit of a resigned smile, "I am going to push you down the hill." Oremon's mouth snapped shut and he coughed unconvincingly. "I twisted my ankle; I didn't break my leg. I could just have easily have done it by tripping over a tree root. Stop worrying about it."

Oremon paused for a moment, and looked like he might have been about to apologize. "Well," he said instead, "I've just got a lot on my mind."

"I could tell."

Oremon snorted defensively. "I just don't want--" he started, then cut himself off and shrugged. "... well. Hmph."
He still hadn't seen fit to explain what was bothering him (aside from the obvious), and she wasn't holding her breath that he would-- but it seemed distinctly weird to her that something so minor seemed to still be weighing on his mind.

"You're impossible," Meghan said, shaking her head, but it was a supremely toothless complaint.

"We're gonna leave you behiiiind," Desmon chirrupped from her spot on Xander's back, ten feet ahead of them.

"I'm going to leave you behind if you don't start walking on your own, fatass," Xander grumbled, but he had still not actually followed through on his threat to stop carrying her.

Despite Desmon's warning, the pair lingered to the back-- and indeed, instead it was Xander with Desmon in tow that hung back a little bit until he was closer to being in-step with Meghan. Oremon eyed him with some suspicion, but -- perhaps fearing teasing retribution from Desmon -- he went quiet again, while Meghan and Xander began to converse with each other, as they hadn't had much chance to. Desmon attempted to coax Oremon into talking with gentle teases, but she soon realized the fruitlessness of this endeavor and instead provided peanut-gallery commentary for the two humans instead.

The descent was going as smoothly as they could have reasonably hoped-- which, of course, is the cue for something to go wrong.

Right when they were starting to feel a little more at ease, for the third time, the screeching keen of a bird hit their ears. They froze again, and this time, its source made itself much more apparent.
An eagle with great curved horns -- an Aquilamon, as a few of the party were quick to remember -- silhouetted against the sky for a split second, coming up from over the top of the ridge. It circled out wide, and it turned its head. Even through the scattered trees, it was clear-- it had its sights set on them.

Suppose that answered the unstated question of if it was looking for something.
(But how would it know to be looking for them...? Was it simply on patrol?)

"Grand Horn!" Aquilamon yelled, unmistakably preparing an attack-- indeed, the bird swung around and swooped at them horns-first.

The group fell into two unequal parts-- Xander, Meghan, and their partners stumbled backwards, whereas the other four pairs lurched forward, some of them stumbling and tripping or falling squarely on their asses with the suddenness of the motion. Aquilamon sailed past both groups, pulling out of his headfirst dive only fractions of a second before he would have hit solid rock. He lurched up and held position, flapping his wings above them, with contempt on his face visible even from a distance.

It did not move and it did not speak for a few seconds, regarding them. Its inaction prompted some murmuring, but it was Meghan, in an awkward kneeling position, who spoke first.

"Are we in your territory?" she called up to the bird, cupping her hands around her mouth to make her voice carry. "We're sorry, we're just trying to pass through!"

"Do you expect me to believe that!?" Aquilamon snapped, and Meghan flinched. Well, it was worth a shot.

"Well, it sure would be nice if you did," Desmon said; Xander hushed her.

"It's just one champion level," Gelermon murmured. "We could--"

"Not the time," Raumon cut her off, shaking his head. Gelermon frowned but didn't push the issue. Luckily or not, she wouldn't have had the chance to even if she had wanted to, because Aquilamon continued speaking.

"Just in the past day, we heard the call to be on the lookout," Aquilamon said icily, "but never did I think you would be so bold as to traipse straight down our path, towards our village, and expect to pass unscathed."

Heard the call?
They didn't have the time to consider the implications just this moment, because Aquilamon wasn't going to afford them that.

"Blast Rings!" Aquilamon cried, opening his beak wide and firing a stream of ring-shaped energy. He wasn't aiming at any of them -- instead, he aimed directly in the middle, causing the group to scatter again as best they could to avoid the energy as it smashed into the ground, kicking up gravel and dirt.
Aquilamon wasn't finished, though; the attack was a distraction. He swooped again, this time with talons out instead of head-first. With a loud keen, he dove-- and his targets were those who were at the back of the party, a little bit separate from the others.

Megan yelled in surprise and fell backwards, and Xander swore. Desmon dug her claws into Xander's shoulders, but it wasn't any of them who Aquilamon grabbed-- it was Oremon. He pinned the goat down effortlessly, spreading his wings and tossing his horned head to dissuade anyone from drawing closer.

"My fellows will be back for the rest of you," Aquilamon said, adjusting to wrap his talons around Oremon's body, "but I know someone who has business with this one first."

"What do you mean business!?" Natalie yelled, but Aquilamon did not answer her.

"Let go of me!" Oremon demanded, struggling ineffectually in the champion-level's claws as they closed around him to lift him.

"Fuck this! Moon Howler!" Gelermon yelled, firing a stream of black and green energy at the eagle-- that dissipated all but harmlessly against its rusty-coloured feathers.

She was not the only one with the idea.

"Shadow Shot!"

"Icicle Arrows!"

Brockmon's trio of icicles and Banmon's spheres of dark energy had about as much effect as Gelermon's attack-- Aquilamon practically shrugged them off, and kicked into the air with Oremon in tow just in time to avoid Raumon rushing forward with a Symptom Claw. The digimon were having no effect-- so one supposes another approach was prudent.

Or alternatively, another approach was blatantly idiotic, but, really, the two were indistinguishable so often anyway.

"Let go of him!" Meghan yelled, and before she realized what she was doing, she threw herself at Aquilamon's legs. She wrapped her arms around the eagle's ankle and was lifted a few feet into the air, but Aquilamon shook her off with ease. She landed on the rocky path again with a cry, and Aquilamon took off like a bolt, descending down the slope towards the village before anyone had the chance to do anything about it. His screeching cry as he dove was long, and echoed off the hillside and rang in the air.

"I've got it!" Desmon cried, but as she was preparing to jump off of Xander's back and to give chase to the eagle, she was understandably given pause.
As Aquilamon's cry faded, a pair of familiar-enough birdlike shapes rose into the air from the ground below-- a Birdramon and a Strigimon, headed unmistakably for them on the path.

Not the best welcoming party any of them had ever encountered.


Aquilamon descended into the center of the village and dropped Oremon inelegantly, letting him tumble through the dirt. He grunted as he rolled and came to a stop. The few digimon that were milling around the village all stopped and stared. Most of them were Rookie-levels, interspersed with a few haggard-looking Champions. There was no more than one or two of any species at best; it looked more like a ragtag collection of leftovers.
Oremon felt a pang of something unpleasant that he couldn't quite place.

Oremon could practically feel their burning looks even with his face in the dirt. He pushed himself up; Aquilamon looked prepared to strike, but Oremon made no move to attack.
(Part of him desperately wanted to, but the rest of him reined that in. Didn't need to make this worse than it already was.)
He knew where he was. He'd known since they'd come over the ridge, just as he'd known where he was when he descended into the valley a few nights back; he knew where he was now. He had no cohesive internal map of the Halo, but he knew familiar ground when he was on it.

"You signalled the others; I take it that you have confirmed it is them?" a voice from behind Oremon said.
Oremon closed his eyes and swore quietly.

And he knew familiar voices when he heard them, too.

"Yes," Aquilamon said with a single nod. "All five. On top of that, six humans, and one digimon I do not recognize; but if they are travelling together, then they are likely sympathizers."

The tapping of hooves on the ground accompanied the speaker as she approached, a unicorn with a golden mane. On her back, one tattered wing fluttered ineffectually-- the other was a torn-off stump, the remnant of a violent incident long-past. She circled around Oremon to Aquilamon, giving him only a sidelong glance through the glowing visor on her red-metal-masked face.
Oremon kept his mouth shut.

"Go assist your fellows," the unicorn said.

"As you say, Unimon," he said, nodding sharply in a salute, and then he spread his wings and took off.

For a moment, the only sound was the flapping of the wings of the bird digimon above them, cut through with whispered murmurs from the digimon around them as the stragglers peered out of their homes.

"It's been a while," Unimon said coldly, and Oremon kept his mouth soundly shut, casting his eyes to the side. Unimon would have quirked an eyebrow if she had them. "Still have nothing to say for yourself?" She waited for an answer that never came. Oremon merely folded his arms and continued looking away, at the ground.
Unimon snorted.
"I didn't expect you to show your face here. Even less so would I have expected you to have changed."

"A lot happens in fifteen years," Oremon said quietly, before he could stop himself.

"Not here," Unimon said immediately. "We still feel the ache you inflicted upon us, as fresh a wound as it ever was. Both physically," she spread her one wing, the remaining withered joint of her other wing twitching pathetically, "and otherwise."

Oremon closed his eyes and exhaled through his nose.


Up on the hill, the Aquilamon had rejoined with his allies, and in a move that surprised absolutely nobody, the humans and digimon were not cooperating with their apparent intention to take them by force (human and digimon alike) down to the village.
And if they'd already been spotted, well, hell, no point in being subtle now. Corymon and Banshemon took to the air, firing off black stingers of energy and and white ghosts at the birds, able to distract two of the three enough to keep the heat off of those who couldn't fly, who fended off any bird who got too close with black rose petals and green fire from Doctorimon and Frekimon.
Melemon, lacking any ranged attacks -- and thus unable to lob attacks at the birds unless they got into close range -- was providing another service, shielding the humans with his bulky body, as they huddled between him and the rock face, swiping out if any of the birds dared try to grab any of them.

"New Moon Fire!" Frekimon roared, spitting a fireball that soared in an arc towards Birdramon, knocking it a few feet down in the air.

In response, it gathered up fire of its own. "Meteor Wing!" it cawed, releasing the blast of flame from its wings.

"Razor Feather!" the Strigimon cried, chasing up Birdramon's flames with a rain of knifelike feathers.

"Black Bloom!" Doctorimon shot right back, slashing a black rose through the air to retaliate with a shower of razor-sharp petals.

Back and forth they lobbed attacks, trading off, circling back around, caught up in a give-and-take that was going nowhere fast.
Meghan in particular wasn't taking it so well.

"We have to--" she was saying on repeat, but she couldn't figure out what to say that they had to do. They had to get down and get Oremon, but how were they supposed to do that?
She couldn't shake the feeling that she was responsible-- and she knew it was stupid, she knew it was just as stupid as her chiding Oremon for blaming himself, but if she hadn't been keeping to the back, hadn't worried him, then Oremon wouldn't have been as easy to single out. That thought kept running through her brain, thrumming so loud it practically drowned out everything else.

There was no telling what might happen to Oremon without them around (without her around), and even if this was only a few minutes being wasted, a lot could happen in those minutes.

Xander looked over at her and furrowed his brow, then chanced a glance out over Melemon's back.


Fifteen years ago, Oremon had been here.

It wasn't his home-- he wasn't sure if he had ever actually had something like that -- but he had been here. He had known a digimon who lived here-- a small horse digimon, who quite unlike the stern, businesslike Unimon, the leader of the village, under whom she studied was jovial and energetic and cheerful. Kelpiemon.
She had been completely enamored with Oremon, for which he had had very little use. He rejected her advances; he always had. At best, she had been a tagalong, frolicking behind him as he tried to mind his own business.

He'd told Kelpiemon to keep her distance; she'd treated his warnings with little regard. He had tried his most valiantly to tell her that he would only bring disaster upon her, but she had quite defiantly plowed through the self-pity, dismissing it as dramatics and insisting that he was hardly the most dangerous thing in the digital world.
He wouldn't admit it, but he had eventually come to appreciate it.

As the state of the digital world began to grow more and more uncertain, with the words of the Whisperer reaching more and more digimon, Oremon found -- more and more frequently -- a voice in his head that did not belong to him. It pulled at his insecurities like pulling at a loose thread. It reassured him of his failings; it confirmed his self-doubt. It told him that as he was, he was too weak to do much of anything. To help anyone. To protect anyone. That he was better off alone.
And that if he was alone, then there was only one way he could become stronger.

Even as the voice in his head grew stronger and stronger, Kelpiemon did not listen-- she took his warnings for the simple crying wolf that it had ever been, as self-pity and nonsense.

When he gave in, when the whispers grew too strong and too compelling, he could not control himself, just as he'd feared-- as he'd warned.
Kelpiemon, coming out to his small little camp in the woods, was the first digimon who he came across.

He couldn't remember the rest.
It was a flurry of panic and paranoia, of screaming and fire and sworn vengenace, teeth and claws and horns in a maelstrom of pain. Feathers torn, rushing blood, cracking bones.
Having nothing to say for himself.

And as Unimon stared him down, all of that came crawling, liquid and black, in the back of Oremon's mind. It was a suffocating feeling-- of judgment. Of failure. Of guilt.
Unimon's words stung like thorns. Things don't change. Not here.

And after all, wasn't all that what he was afraid would happen again? Wasn't that why even the slightest harm at his hands to come to Meghan filled him with dread, that any slight push would send him down a slippery slope even steeper than the one that his partner, that his team, were currently stuck on?

It tugged inside him, wheedling that darkness out, unravelling it a thread at a time. It practically begged him to give in. Paranoia and fear began to grow like wicked vines, threatening to pull him back. It would be easy enough; it would be so easy to fall back. Easier than fighting it, certainly.
You are now what you have always been, the voice in his head hissed. Just ac͠cep͜t ́i҉t̛.

And to be honest? A not-insignificant part of him did. It felt like coming back to the inevitable.

"If you will not speak on your behalf, then you know what is coming," Unimon said.

Oremon glanced up wordlessly at her, his eyes meeting her glowing visor.
She curled her lip.

"Javelin Thrust!" Unimon cried, energy gathering at the too-sharp point of her horn, and she bowed her head, aimed straight for Oremon's heart.

In the moment between Unimon calling her attack and her beginning to charge, a thought hit Oremon.
If he let this attack hit him squarely, if it didn't kill him, it wouldn't take a lot for Unimon to follow up to do so. And if he died here, then Meghan--


Before he knew what was coming over him, Oremon's eyes filled up with orange as black spread across his body like veins.

Unimon stopped mid-attack, backpedaling with such intensity that she had no choice but to rear up onto her hind legs.

"Oremon, evolve to..."

There was no screeching D-Rive, no swirling orange light, simply a blackness that overtook him, distorting into glitchy static, and in seconds, he stood as a skull-faced, snake-tailed caprine beast.
"Cabramon!" he hissed.

Unimon flapped her tattered wing and gritted her teeth, unsurprised and yet getting absolutely no satisfaction from being right.

"Javelin Thrust!" she cried again, rushing forward. The energy around her horn burst like a bomb as she slammed it into Cabramon's shoulder, viciously gouging the eye located thereupon, and it all but burst into a river of blood. Cabramon roared, raising up onto his hind legs, his cobra tail thrashing in pain.
"Everyone, get away! Now! Sound the alarm!" Unimon roared as Cabramon's eyes, including the gouged one, began to glow vivid red.

The villagers needed no further instruction.
In a few seconds, a war-horn like noise echoed through the air, shaking the leaves of the trees and reverberating for miles.


The sound more than reached the fight up on the hill-- and it was almost instantaneous the reaction. The three birds looked at each other and then keened loudly in their turns, almost immediately losing interest in the fight. They flapped backwards, putting distance between themselves and the digimon on the cliffside, and rose quickly to avoid Corymon and Banshemon's attacks coming from behind. The birds took off like shots, streaks of red and brown in the sky, and their keening cries mingled with the war-horn noise from the village below.
It was so sudden it was jarring.

"Get back here, you birdy bastards, I'm not finished--!" Frekimon growled, rearing down, but she quickly caught herself.

"Something's gone wrong," Natalie murmured. She wasn't going to win any prizes for that, she knew, but...

Meghan felt her heart sink into her stomach.

Xander furrowed his brow, and did not waste time.
"Oi! Corymon!" he yelled over Melemon's back, cupping his hands so his voice reached his partner over the cacophany. Her massive ears pricked up and she immediately swooped over to land on the path, kicking up a cloud of dirt and gravel. Xander rushed out from behind Melemon to her side and spoke to her quietly; she blinked a couple times, but nodded just as quickly.
He then turned his attention to Meghan.

"Meg. Ride Corymon down."

Meghan blinked a couple times-- but everyone else present seemed to catch on faster than she did, as she was understandably a little bit spaced out. "What--?"

"Get on Corymon's back. She'll give you a lift down. Go figure out what's going on with Oremon."

Meghan stood up shakily, unable to control her racing thoughts.

"We'll catch up," Natalie said. Doctorimon, behind her, nodded silently.


The war-horn died down as the digimon blowing it evacuated in their turns.

Ever since they had heard news of the refugees just yesterday, the entire village -- like so many other digimon in the Halo -- had been emotionally preparing for this, but they never dreamed that it would happen so fast. Digimon that could fly took to the air; those that couldn't made haste on foot, getting as far away from the center of town as they could.

And it was a good thing, too, because it only took a few minutes for things to start getting very, very bad.

Twisted spires of black glass and gnarled rock burst out of the ground and exploded, sending shrapnel everywhere; Cabramon's eye beams burned like fire, searing scorching marks into stone and earth. He charged at Unimon with reckless abandon, taking out stone huts with a toss of his head.
Unimon's only saving grace was that the eye that she'd gouged out of Cabramon's shoulder was clearly causing him enough pain that his mobility was hindered. She could buy her villagers time by keeping the fugitive busy.

That was just about all she could do.
The last time they'd had to confront him, there had been many more of them, but time was not kind. Those that could fight had either journeyed into the barrens, or abandoned the village as the barrens grew by the day, fearing that soon their village would be consumed by the corruption consuming the edges of the forest.

And if it was just her, then the least she could do was ensure that as many of them got away as she could.

"Supersonic Wave!" Unimon cried, firing a blast of soundwave energy from her mouth.

"Chimera Focus!" Cabramon snarled, his eyes glowing crimson as he prepared his attack.

But he was distracted before he could get the attack off as his eyes swivelled skywards.


Back up a few seconds.

Meghan gripped Corymon's mane tighter than she maybe needed to-- maybe it was just the fact that she wasn't used to flying, or maybe it was something else, but either way, she was in absolutely no danger of falling.
Not that Corymon would let her, anyway.

(It's generally bad conduct to make human pancakes out of the person your partner is sweet on, after all.)

They descended fast towards the village, but they could see altogether too soon what was going on.

"Oh, shit," Corymon blurted, and Meghan's grip -- impossibly -- tightened.

"Oh, no," Meghan murmured, tears welling in her eyes. "Oh no, oh no, oh no--"

"Hold on," Corymon advised Meghan, as though she needed the advice. Corymon dropped into a full dive, practically drawing her wings in against her body.

Cabramon's attention turned to them as Corymon spread her wings out at the last second-- and Unimon took the chance this afforded her.
"Javelin Thrust!" the winged unicorn bellowed, smashing a charged-up horn straight into Cabramon's other shoulder-eye, and Cabramon roared in agony as blood and pus-like ichor began to ooze from two blinded eyes. In a panick, he slammed his hooves into Unimon's face before she could pull away, knocking the unicorn flat.
His non-injured eyes swivelled eratically, unable to decide whether to focus on Unimon or the pair that had just descended.

(Meghan, with another digimon, something delirious in his mind screamed, but before that thought could take a hold of him--)

"Oremon!" Meghan yelled, almost jumping off of the bat's back before she had even touched ground. It was a good thing she didn't, as she nearly stumbled and collapsed when her legs did touch the ground, her entire body shaking.
This wasn't supposed to happen.
He had conduction evolved! He had evolved the right way! This form wasn't supposed to happen again, right? Wasn't that how it worked? Wasn't that how this was supposed to work?

(But she hadn't been there--)

(She couldn't have, it was nothing to do with her--)


But Cabramon paused as Meghan's voice hit his ears. For a moment, if only a moment, it seemed like he was hesitating.

Unimon gritted her teeth, getting unstably to her hooves in the time that hesitation afforded her. She had no words to say to these new arrivals-- she had been expecting, hoping, for her own allies, but disappointment was a luxury she did not have.
"Supersonic Wave!" Unimon cried, intending to fire off an attack at Corymon before her attention returned to Cabramon, but the unfortunate thing -- for Unimon -- was that Meghan was standing beside Corymon, and that meant she was in the line of fire.

With an unearthly bellow, Cabramon threw himself into the path of the attack with surprising speed. He rushed Unimon, hooking her onto his horns as his eyes began to glow red anew.
"Chimera Focus!" he roared, and Unimon screamed in pain as the ultimate-level's attack seared her at point blank.

"Hey! Play nice!" Corymon yelled, lunging forward and kicking into the air with wind whipping around her. "Hurricane Blitz!" she cried, swirling with wind as she crashed into Cabramon's side, then immediately retreated to avoid his thrashing cobra tail.

The attack only barely seemed to faze Cabramon, but it knocked Unimon off of his horns, sending her tumbling away from the goat. Cabramon whipped his head around to face the bat, perhaps preparing to attack, but Meghan rushed between him and Corymon.

"Oremon!" Meghan yelled again, and again, Cabramon stopped. For not the first time, Meghan stood with her arms outstretched in front of her catalyst evolved partner.
She was shaking much harder this time, tears streaming down her face.

But it worked once-- and thank god, it worked again.

Cabramon's eyes focused on his partner, and an orange glow consumed him.

"Javelin Thrust!"

Unimon's horn smashed into Cabramon's-- Oremon's -- side before the glow had fully faded, sending him tumbling like a ragdoll as he shrank back down to rookie form. Meghan yelled in surprise, not sure why she didn't expect that, but she rushed forward, putting herself between Unimon, whose horn was glowing again, and her partner. She really needed to stop doing this.
(Maybe this tendency of hers was why Oremon was so concerned she'd get hurt.)

"What'd I say about play nice!?" Corymon snapped, the tip of her tail swirling with dark static. "Black Stinger!" she cried, a trio of arrowheads of that dark energy flying at Unimon.
The attack knocked her off her balance, and she gritted her teeth.

"Human. My grievance is not with you."

"It sure as hell is!" Meghan said, tears streaming down her face, her voice tight. "Leave him alone!"

"Do not let sentimentality cloud your view, human. He will bring destruction to you, as he has to me and mine," Unimon said scornfully. "He must pay for what he's done."

Meghan found herself blurting out quite a hefty statement.
"I don't care!" she yelled, the words ripping out of her throat before she could stop them. "You tell me that! He tells me that! Everyone keeps telling me that! That it's dangerous, that he's going to hurt me! But I don't care! He's my friend and I DON'T CARE!"

"Meg," Corymon said quietly, feeling something strange but not unpleasant swell within her chest.

Unimon was less moved, though.

"Then you are my enemy as well," the unicorn said cooly, and her horn began to glow again.

Corymon took a cue from her partner, and did not waste any time.

She surged forward in the air, and in a quick one-two motion, she plucked Meghan and Oremon up in her claws as Unimon began to charge. Corymon flapped her wings hard, picking up into the sky, and Unimon charged straight into where she had been a moment before.
There was no time to ask; no time to come up with a better plan.

Unimon almost looked like she wanted to follow. Her one wing spread out, like her will could carry her into the air, but it could not.
Instead, she snarled, bared her teeth, stomped at the ground.

"Supersonic Wave!" Unimon cried, firing an attack from her mouth, but Corymon was flying -- indeed -- like a bat out of hell, and she outstripped the attack's pace.
Even from here, the hate on the unicorn's face was palpable, so Corymon chose not to focus on it. Oremon in her claws felt like he was barely conscious; Meghan seemed to be shaking slightly.

They hadn't really wanted to fight at all. Corymon's sole goal with flying Meghan down was to retrieve Oremon. She'd done that. She'd stuck to the plan! Kind of! Sort of! Now she just... had to find the others. They'd been able to move at a much faster pace without having to worry about being seen-- the champion level digimon could cover more ground faster, get somewhere easier to hide.

After a few moments of looking, circling out wide, she saw them. While all the excitement had been going on in the village, the group had found their way to where the path shallowed out, and cut across into the trees.
Corymon sighed a heavy sigh of relief, and closed in on them.


They rejoined the group in short order; the others had stayed in their champion forms, in case they needed to be called in as cavalry. Oremon was only half-stirring at best, so Banshemon took over carrying him while the other four digimon returned to rookie level; it was better to lay low, as was becoming rapidly apparent.
As Meghan re-composed herself, the others wanted to know what had happened-- why she was so shaken up, why Oremon was out. There wasn't much to say.

"When we got there," Meghan said, her voice still a little shaky, "he had-- catalyst digivolved again. I had to get him down again."

"Ah, shit," Xander muttered as Meghan finished explaining, frowning deeply. "You okay?" he asked, with uncharacterstic lack of acid in his voice.
Meghan shuddered but nodded, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.

"Guess we're not out of the woods yet," Peter said quietly, frowning and looking around at the trees. "In any number of senses."

"Boo," Desmon said, sticking her tongue out at Peter's pun.

But that was it, wasn't it? The fact that they could conduction evolve-- that didn't suddenly make the catalyst evolutions not a threat. Especially if they could do it without a partner nearby.
(Was it really a catalyst evolution, though...? Or had it been something else?)

It was a lot to think about, and a lot to discuss, and they did so as they began to walk-- being quiet, keeping an ear and an eye open for literally any sign of movement.

Oremon stirred after perhaps ten further minutes of walking and quiet theorizing. It was much faster than he'd woken up either of the other times that he'd catalyst evolved; there was something to be said for that, at the very least.
"Put me down," he murmured, writhing in Banshemon's arms. "V'got. S'mething to say."

Banshemon squeaked. "Sorry," she said, setting him on the ground; he grunted a vague dismissal of her apology. He wobbled, unsteady on his feet. The entire group stopped for a moment; he seemed to have something to say.

"They knew," Oremon said after a moment, sounding almost hungover. "that we were here. In the area. Something or someone told them. That's why they had lookouts. Scouts. The Aquilamon."

"... I wonder," Raumon said quietly.

Maybe a little bird had told them.


Miles away, a little bird was making his own journey out to the barrens.

Gosmon's going had been slow, but the past couple days had practically been a blur. He trudged one foot after another through the forest, barely stopping to rest until he practically fell over and continuing once he could stand. He flew when he could, but he was still in poor shape after his altercation with--

He no longer recognized any of the forested area around him; this was further than he'd ever gone, and the trees around him had gone from overgrown to blackened and hard, resembling obsidian glass more than anything organic. It was proof he was headed in the right direction.
The "right" direction, anyway.

Any time he met a digimon, he spread the news-- he told them that the refugees were here. In the Digital World. In the Halo. News spread fast on the wind, on the wing-- even with as few digimon as there were around, there were ways for information to spread.
Soon, the Halo and beyond would all be on the lookout.

Every step he took was fueled by an intense feeling that tugged at his heart-- a feeling that practically pulled his feet along and whispered in his ear. He wasn't going to let that humiliation slide; he wasn't going to take that failure, that mockery, lying down.

By any means necessary. That phrase rung in his mind, like the reverberation of a bell, crystal clear and focused. He'd get his, by any means necessary.


<< || [Back] || >>