Episode 31: Vagabonds

The group walked well into the night. Understandably enough, they wanted to put as much distance between themself and the village as they could before they stopped, and the next day, they had begun trekking again before the sun was even fully up. This was as much a request of Brockmon's as anything.
(Lily groaned something about aren't bears supposed to like sleeping? into the dirt as her partner nudged her awake at the first sign of the sky brightening.)

Tensions were running a bit high. They hadn't wanted to pontificate about Oremon's situation over his head, and he didn't seem particularly given to chat about it just yet, so that subject got sidelined for the time being. Rather than dwell on it in silence, though, they made a valiant effort to keep idle conversation going, just to keep their minds off of every bad thing that could, and would likely, happen in the future.
Natalie found the inspiration for a surprisingly passionate rundown of which giant monster B-movies were essential viewing, after Meghan noted a lack of familiarity with the genre, and Sam occasionally interjected with his own recommendations. In front of them, Lily, Peter, and Xander held court on Atlas Park's local music scene, and Xander even managed to keep the uncalled-for jabs about Peter's taste in music to a minimum (although they were, of course, not entirely absent).

Their partners held their own in these conversations; though Oremon was rather more taciturn than usual, Banmon had her usual low level of chattiness, and Brockmon was a little out of his depth, Raumon, Gelermon, and Desmon provided more than enough to fill any gaps. If they had been overheard and not seen, it would have been easy to mistake them for a wholly contemporary human group, discussing movies and music.
It was a perhaps necessary distraction from the truth of the matter-- the truth of a hostile, foreign world, full of monsters, that had once been home to half of the party, but could hardly be called so anymore even if it hadn't been slowly dying.

The further they went, the more they felt like the only living things around. Even the handful of digimon that peered out uncertainly from behind trees and out of burrows had silently thinned out to the point of nonexistence. Admittedly, they had to re-route and swing wide any time they saw any evidence of civilization -- nobody wanted a repeat of yesterday -- but it felt like signs of digimon having lived here in years were getting farther and farther apart.
Now and then, when they crested certain hills, they could see into the distance and see how much more land stood between them and the band of blackened trees. Every time they did, a sort of awkward hush fell over them until the horizon slipped out of sight again. They were moving at a decent clip, for whatever good that meant; they'd probably reach the edge of the Halo by sundown, if they had estimated the distance correctly. Indeed, it wasn't long before the trees through which they walked started to become more brittle and stiff, growing darker bit by incremental bit the further they went.

It was hard to feel sure of anything at all as the scenery grew stiller around them, and that thought plagued Natalie's mind with every step. Not sure of what they would find, what they'd do if they found Nithmon, what they'd do afterwards. What they could do.
Maybe it just hadn't felt real until they'd seen it firsthand. Until they'd seen digimon being touched by the Whisperer's influence, here, not simply coming through to their world... It's one thing to hear of a dying and desperate world, and one entirely different to be walking through it.

She glanced to Raumon, who even now was currently embroiled in an argument with Sam about a series of kaiju films.

"I'm not saying they're good," Raumon was saying, "but I am saying that you're being harsh on th--"

Sam was not listening; instead, he was singing under his breath. "Gamera is really neat, Gamera is filled with meat, we've been eating Ga-me-raaaaa..."

A faint smile found its way onto Natalie's lips as Raumon puffed up and put his hands on his hips. Even with everything that had happened -- not just the past few days, but since the beginning of summer -- she found it almost impossible to really accept that he hadn't always been the person (or bird-person, anyway) that she knew.
But it lingered, didn't it? That risk. That possibility that something would go wrong-- that something from the times before would unearth something primal and scared and destructive. Even the fact that they had apparently found a way to conduction evolve was no comfort if it didn't mean they were free from their catalyst forms.

And she was in no way equipped to figure out what, exactly, made the difference. When it had just been a given that the others' partners digivolved into normal ultimate levels, and theirs digivolved into feral monsters, it was at least predictable, but every grip she'd thought she'd gotten had been unceremoniously pried off in the past couple days.

But even so, when she looked at Raumon, she couldn't see anything but her best friend.


-1.5 years ago-

In the spring of her freshman year at college, Natalie had been struggling. It wasn't that her grades were awful, or even bad, but she just couldn't maintain the same level of effortless top-of-the-class success that she had mantained in high school. It seemed a stupid thing to worry about now, looking back in hindsight; but at the time, the simple act of losing what had until that point been an intrinsic part of her self-perception had... let's put it diplomatically and say that it had taken a toll on her.

Her parents were still ultimately supportive, of course, but she could tell that there was a sort of subtle disappointment in the air.
The fact that they were supportive honestly just kind of made it worse, in its own way. The feeling of betrayed expectations, of the awkward kind of not wanting to mention it-- what had seemed to be a sure thing, an easy shot for scholarships and accolaides, was torpedoed in the space of a single semester. It wasn't even failure; it was just the failure to be exceptional.

The awkwardness was only exacerbated when, in no small part but not wholly thanks to this new and fascinating pressure weighing on her head, she had ended up spending her spring break in the hospital.

Not even for any fun reasons that college students usually go to the hospital over spring break, either.

When she'd gotten home a couple days later -- and this was probably the longest she'd ever gone without seeing him, ever since meeting him -- she couldn't shake that Raumon was the only person from whom she felt no judgment.
He'd only evolved into this new form this past January, and a childish part of her resented him for it. If he'd been Pestimon, he would have been easier to sneak in, and she almost expected him to pick up on her pettiness somehow; but when she opened her bedroom and he was sitting in his nest at the foot of her bed, trying desperately to pretend he was reading casually but accidentally holding the book upside down, and she felt nothing but relief.

She didn't want to talk about it, and so he didn't press. He always seemed to understand her without words, anyway. He'd simply clambered up onto her bed proper and sat with her, putting on an entire list of movies that he'd prepared, all featuring rubber puppets and cheap CG monsters destroying metropolitan areas.

"I bet you," Raumon said, unprompted, thirty minutes deep into the second movie, the first thing he had said, "I bet you if I'd grown up like this just a little bit earlier, I could have auditioned to play the titular Sixty-Two-foot Bird Monster That Wrecked Philadelphia. It'd look way better than this CG and I've always kind of wanted to destroy a miniature city set."

"People would wonder how they suddenly got the budget for decent practical effects," Natalie said, hugging her knees to her chest but smiling. "It'd be a big to-do."

"But it's the role I was born to play," Raumon said dryly, tapping at his beak-like mask with one finger.

They settled into a comfortable silence, punctuated by dramatic mouthing along with the words being spoken by the actors on-screen.

"You feeling alright?" Raumon said, during a particularly long lull in the action.

Natalie didn't answer the question, instead keeping her eyes focused ahead on the television screen, while two human characters who nobody cared about discussed plot that would be soundly overshadowed by the rubber monster costumes in five minutes. She wasn't sure how to, but Raumon merely tilted his head at her and nodded, and scootched a little closer to her. You know. Just in case.

She didn't know what she'd do without him around, really.


-Present Day-

"Natalie, back me up on this!" Raumon prompted, his cry for support regarding kaiju films shaking Natalie out of her thoughts.

"Huh?" she said, blinking confusedly for a moment, before she caught up. "Oh, yeah, Raumon's right, the Showa films are fun, you're just being mean, Sam."

"God, I'm surrounded by philistines," Sam said dramatically, putting his hands behind his head.

"Hey, don't rope me into this, I'm in agreement with you," Gelermon said, walking beside him on all fours.

"And we'll all try not to be too surprised about that," Oremon said, one of the few things he'd said recently; Meghan looked a little surprised by her partner's sudden commentary, but she quickly smiled softly.

Gelermon rolled her eyes. "Someone's gotta be," she said wryly, and Oremon snorted right back.

"Come on, Gelermon, it's monster movies, it's not that deep," Sam said, shaking his head. Beat. "No, wait, yes it is." He looked at Natalie, and deadpanned, "fight me."

"I'd say we shall duel with pistols at dawn," Natalie said dryly, "but that'd be a pain in the ass, and probably really loud, and draw a lot of attention."

"And who knows where you'd find a pistol around here?" Meghan said, which drew serious and sagely nods from Natalie and Sam alike.

"Slapfight at 4:15 pm?" Gelermon suggested.

"Perfect," Raumon said, nodding once.

"This conversation is stupid," Oremon muttered sourly, glancing away, but the fact that he was saying something rather than simply being grumpy was a clear tell that he wanted to be involved, even if only peripherally. Meghan smiled a little bit sidelong at him, attempting to reassure him. He glanced at her, then away again; that'd have to do.

"I feel like I've got a lot to catch up on when we get back," she said, looking back at Natalie and Sam.
She realized, not a moment after she said it, that it was a bit of an assumption that not only would they get home intact (though, of course, they could hope), but that they'd then have the leisure time and brain-space to drop on movies about giant monsters wrecking cities... rather than living that as part of their present, and far less amusing, reality.
She didn't let her smile waver, though it was a bit more bittersweet.

"I'll lend you some of my collection," Natalie said, picking up on the change in her expression and deciding to act as though the good outcome was a given, but Meghan's comment had obviously sparked a train of thought, which she pursued after a moment of quiet.
"What do you think is going on back home?" she said, speaking a little louder, so that those trailing behind them, not involved in their deep cinematic discussion, could hear her. Since she caught them in a lull in their conversation, they pricked their ears up and considered her question.

"You mean aside from the clown patrol having to hold down the fort?" Xander said, hands in his pockets.

"Well, that," Natalie said, choosing not to comment on Xander's terms of reference, "but also, we've been here a few days, and..."

"And we don't know how much time has passed in the our world, right?" Lily said; Natalie nodded. "Less time there than here, probably, but people've probably noticed we're gone..." She counted off on her fingers; when had they left? "It's probably... Sunday? Maybe Monday?"

"I'll try to find it in my heart to be disappointed that I might be missing work," Peter said dully, which immediately got noises of agreement from Lily and Xander, "or god forbid, class," which prompted further agreement from Natalie and Meghan.

"I think this counts as a decent reason to not show up for either," Brockmon said.

"Yeah, okay, do you want to be the one to explain it to my boss for me?" Lily said, sticking her tongue out, and Brockmon harumphed.

Meghan paused, and looked briefly horrified. "My mom's probably organized a search and rescue party by now."
Oremon, walking alongside her, momentarily stopped to stare, really thousand-yard stare, for a split second, before he shook it off.

"Let's be real, she probably did that around 5 PM on Saturday," Xander said, and Meghan smiled thinly, unable to disagree with that assessment.

"Search and rescue by 6 pm, probably called in the military by midnight," Desmon chirped.

"I almost wouldn't put it past her," Meghan said, shaking her head.

"Sounds to me like it sucks to be all of you," Sam said, putting his hands behind his head and interlacing his fingers. "As long as we're not gone for like, two solid weeks human world time, I've got nobody to answer to."

"Isn't that kind of sad, though?" Meghan said, tilting her head.

Sam's response came after a beat of almost confused silence on his part. "Not really."

-2 years ago-

"Hey," Shuckmon said, shoving her face into the small of Sam's back as he lay facing the wall, half curled into the fetal position. "Get up. I want to eat something and it's gonna be pizza rolls or it's gonna be your shoes. Your choice."

Sam grunted. "You don't need to eat," he said dully after a moment, staring at the wall, but Shuckmon was unmoved.

"I said want to eat," she said insistently, flicking her tail. "So don't get me wrong, this is absolutely going to be a targeted act of destruction, and you will be complicit."

Sam didn't move for a few long minutes, and Shuckmon was about to add on a threat to chew on some computer cables to really put the pressure on, when all of a sudden Sam groaned and pushed himself into a sitting position. "Fine. I think there's still some pizza rolls in the freezer."
Shuckmon looked quite pleased with herself and hopped off the bed, leading the way towards the bedroom door on her stubby little legs. Sam heaved himself up to his feet, stretching out with his arms over his head.

"I'll accept a Hot Pocket if we're out of pizza rolls," she said glibly, watching him expectantly from just outside the room, just in case he got any funny ideas. He did not, and with a gentle shuffle of his socks on the hardwood floors, Shuckmon had successfully goaded him into venturing forth to find food.

Truth be told, Sam knew full well that he was being manipulated; she was just trying to force him to eat something, anything. In the past year, he'd barely left the house except when he had absolutely no other choice, and his will to even leave his room waxed and waned. The past couple days he'd had trouble even getting himself out of bed to his computer, but Shuckmon had made it her god-given mission to annoy him into giving her food at least once a day, and heating up something for her usually ignited his base need to eat enough to flip the as long as I'm already up I may as well switch.

Honestly, considering how often his father was gone, without Shuckmon's badgering in those downtimes, it'd be hard to say how much he'd actually eat. And it wasn't like microwave pizza and noodles were exactly the key to a long and healthy life, but it was better than nothing.
Shuckmon would deny any ulterior motive if he asked (after all, who needs an ulterior motive for pizza rolls?), but Sam was unconvinced.

As Sam came to the first landing on the long trek down to the kitchen, he paused to stare meaningfully at one of the closed doors, at a room he never went into anymore. He could have gone in, of course -- there would be no material consequences, it wasn't like he was forbidden to enter it -- but material consequences were hardly the only thing that mattered. Honestly, it was a non-zero part of why he didn't bother leaving his room at all on bad days. He couldn't shake the feeling that waiting behind that closed door he'd find it all over again--

Shuckmon headbutted him in the ankles.

"Pizza rolls, bub," she said, trying to sound imposing, which was hard because she was a tiny little puppy-orb. "Chop-chop." It was ridiculous, certainly, but it was enough to get Sam's attention back to the present, and they continued down the stairs.

He knew he was being manipulated -- and unsubtly at that -- but he was secretly kind of grateful for it.


-Present Day-

On and on they went, through miles of still, ever-blackening trees. The transition happened subtly enough, such that it seemed that at one moment, they were walking through normal (though dark and stiff) dark trees, and the next, the trees had become hard and not-quite-crystalline, like spires of obsidian, but for the fact that they didn't have the sheen of glass. They still had leaves -- or what had once been leaves -- almost impossibly thin shavings of the black material, clinging to the outstretched, unmoving branches by the thinnest threads of stems.

The stillness was disquieting-- almost uncanny.

"I'd almost be okay with it if we ran into something with a chip on its shoulder," Desmon said, waddling alongside Xander instead of flying (too much energy) or riding on his back (too much complaining on Xander's part). "This is spooky."

"I'd rather not," Banmon said, shaking her head, glancing up to the sky through the black branches. It seemed to be growing... not darker, but duller, like something was sapping away the vibrancy of the blue. "But either way, I'm not a fan of..."
She trailed off. She wasn't sure if she wanted to finish her sentence.

"Not a fan of what?" Peter prompted regardless. Banmon hesitated.

Truth be told, it had been on her mind particularly intensely since yesterday, what with what had happened to Oremon. The closer they got to the barrens, it was only getting more frequent, and she could only assume that trend would continue.

"... well," she said slowly, curling around her partner's shoulders, "it's just that... sometimes, I can hear something."

The humans reacted with varying degree of surprise, enough that they stopped walking, but the other digimon's expressions were mingled with a total lack of shock, resignation, and a lingering recognition of Banmon's words.
None of them had yet mentioned it to their partners; there simply hadn't been a chance (or so they told themselves), but they'd all heard it in the backs of their heads. It was infrequent, and even at that, it was only discernable as words a very small amount of the time, but it was a quiet presence there, burrowing like a worm into their thoughts with a low whispering hiss.

A brief silence followed, and it was -- of all people -- Oremon to break it.
"Don't listen to it," he said simply, and began to walk again after this brief pause.

Meghan's shoulders fell a little bit as, for a moment, she wasn't sure what to do or say; but she quickly lifted them back up and made to follow her partner, and in moments the entire group had regained their momentum.

"You know, I asked if you'd been hearing it too the other night," Gelermon said, flipping one long ear over her shoulder, "and you acted all brush-off-ish about it. Rude." Oremon did not answer her, which was just as well, since she wasn't really looking for an answer.

"Was that what happened yesterday, then?" Meghan said as she caught up to Oremon, speaking quietly enough that she wasn't broadcasting the question to the entire group. Oremon snorted. That was a yes, she supposed.


-3 years ago-

Meghan sat on her bed and sighed, looking around at the stacks of boxes that needed to be unpacked.

This was, allegedly, the last move they'd be doing, and they'd come full circle-- for ten years, they'd moved around the country, and now they were back where they started in Atlas Park. It was a nice place, certainly nicer than the one they'd started in.
This was supposed to be the last move, but they'd said that before, so she felt she was justified in being a little skeptical about that. It probably didn't help that it'd been almost a month since they'd come here, but she was still mostly living out of boxes. She'd get to it by the end of summer, probably.

Atlas Park was different than it had been ten years ago, and it was disquieting to have a vague sense of where you were and yet feel wholly off-kilter.

She scrolled through her phone, her social media feeds, for what felt like the hundredth time. A lot of people she'd befriended in the dozen places they'd lived. Some of them even kept in touch like they promised they'd do, but she couldn't help but feel like an outsider. She didn't blame any of them, by any means. Of course they'd prioritize people they'd known for years, who were local, rather than someone who was around for a year -- if that -- before packing up and moving again. It'd been even harder with her mother keeping such a close tab on everywhere she went and everyone she talked to... Even so, even if she understood it, it still felt kind of...

Well. Bad.

Luckily, there was one constant, and that constant sat alongside her on her bed, peering up at her phone screen.

"I don't know how you read all of that so fast," Billymon said, and she smiled, patting him between his small horns. He snorted indignantly, but did not move away.

"I told you, I just skim, mostly."

Billymon peered up at her and frowned. He stayed quiet for a couple moments, then said, "you could probably make a lot more friends that aren't on your phone, if you didn't have to worry about them finding out about me."

Meghan sat straight up, surprised.
"What?" she said, blinking a couple times.

Billymon looked up at her again and stood his ground as best he could. "That's what your mom says, anyway."

"Yeah, well, ignore her," Meghan said immediately, again placing a hand between Billymon's horns. "I'd rather have you."

Billymon looked away, and she got the distinct impression that if he could have blushed, he would have.


-Present Day-

For a few minutes, it seemed that that was where Oremon was prepared to leave the discussion, but he spoke again.
"It wasn't a catalyst evolution. Or if it was, it was different from the usual ones." God, it sucked that they had to have usual ones.

"How do you figure?" Raumon said, tilting his head.

"It didn't feel the same." First of all because he had leapt straight from rookie to ultimate, but there was something... different about it. "It felt less like it was being pulled out of me, like it does when we evolve normally. It was more like something..." he looked at his hooves, "was being siphoned in."

"Maybe because you were evolving without your partner's D-Rive," Brockmon said quietly; all eyes were on him, and he continued. "When you catalyst evolve, it's-- something going wrong with the evolution that the D-Rive induces. But yesterday, you evolved without Meghan nearby at all, because you..."
Gave in to it.
He didn't say as much, but Oremon understood, and he nodded.

"Like Gosmon must have," Raumon said, quietly, thoughtfully.

"I mean, that's what the cat said, right?" Xander said, putting his hands behind his head. "Back on the beach. That-- what was it. Mikemon? She said digimon only evolve here when they make a deal with the devil. Goatboy was probably just panicking without Meg around to back him up, and the proverbial devil saw a chance to swoop in."

"So... we just have to not get separated, then?" Raumon said, tapping his beak in thought.

"I didn't do it on purpose," Oremon said defensively. "If I hadn't, I would have died."

Raumon quickly grew flustered, horrified at the idea of having said the wrong thing. "Well, no, I just-- I know, I just meant that-- it should be a concern going forward?" he said, gesturing inarticulately. "But of course if the alternative is-- well, what I mean is --"

Lily cut Raumon off before he could put his foot in his mouth any further. "I think every one of us realizes how much of a death wish it'd be to run off without our partners on purpose, so, just something to be aware of. Just want to minimize the chances of destructive hellbeasts, right?"

Hard to argue with that.

"It'd be better if we understood why you guys started being able to conduction evolve in the first place," Sam said, shaking his head, "but as long as I'm asking for things I'm sure as hell not getting anytime soon, I'd like a pony and a lifetime supply of energy drinks."

"I've had enough of ponies for a while," Oremon muttered flatly.

"So what I'm hearing is just gotta stick to our partners like glue," Desmon said, "and stay out of trouble? Got it. Can-do. Well. The first part at least," she said, sticking her tongue out, unable to avoid the joke, even now. Xander rolled his eyes as Desmon hopped into the air, and before he could stop her, she dropped right back down into a piggyback position on his back.
"You can't complain, it's so I don't go abloodyhoo deathbat."

Xander hissed. "Anyone wanna trade partners?"


-3.5 years ago-

Xander stormed into his bedroom, slamming the door behind him so hard it rattled the walls.
Echomon poked her head (which was her entire body) out from behind an overturned laundry basket, ears pricked to attention as Xander began grabbing clothes off of the bed and shoving them inelegantly into a duffel bag, practically shaking, lips pressed tight. He couldn't even feel his hands; they'd gone numb as his entire body went into fight or flight mode.
Fight hadn't gone so hot, so he was taking the chance to go for plan B.

Xander knew that Echomon had heard the entire thing. Of course she had, not only because of her excellent hearing but because volume control was not Xander's forte when he got mad, and that was apparently a hereditary trait.
It had already started off bad, with a snide comment about when he was planning to start applying to real schools, but within ten minutes it was another round of loud declarations of who was going to hell and why (and spoiler alert, the who was Xander, and the why was his refusal to live a respectable godly life. Around the time it had ended up being about how much Jesus loved his older brother more, Xander lost any semblance of a temper he had left to lose, and it had gone from an argument to a yelling match with neither party willing to back down.

In truth, he knew that he'd played a part in escalating the argument, but it was a two-way street, and it had gotten worse than ever before. It had been just a tiny spark of an argument, not even over anything important -- they'd certainly had arguments start from more substantial points, but something about it felt ephemerally different.

He was at an impasse. Either they were going to kick Xander out or he was going to walk out on his own, and he was clearly of the opinion that he wasn't going to give them the satisfaction. 'You can't fire me, I quit,' and all that.
Or -- alternatively -- they were going to pretend this never happened, force it down and put on a polite face, but fuck it, he'd had enough of swallowing that shit down. That would be too much to deal with.

"You good with crashing on Eric's couch for a little while?" he said, trying valiantly to keep his voice even-- but not because he was trying to hold back rage. Rather, he simply didn't want to let it show that he felt anything other than anger. Defeat. Frustration. Maybe even sadness, or some kind of hurt.

And she saw a chance to diffuse some of that tension by commiserating.

"I'm good with anywhere where I don't get called demonspawn, honestly," Echomon said cheerfully.
It wasn't really a joke, though; she had definitely gotten used to the kind of judgy looks that Xander's parents always gave her, like she was a mud-covered dog walking on a freshly-cleaned kitchen floor, but for days after whenever they got into spats they'd barely even look at her. Needless to say, they didn't have the highest opinion of her, and the feeling was mutual.

Xander laughed dryly through his nose -- Echomon's attempt to lighten the tension was at least partially successful -- and then his shoulders fell.
"You know, telling them to go fuck themselves seemed like a good idea for all of five seconds," he said after a moment, "and then my brain caught up to my mouth." That happened to him a lot.
As he spoke, he picked his guitar off its stand in the corner, unplugged his amp, and began searching for his notebooks full of scribbled lyrics and chords. There were some things he could come back for after the argument died down, but he knew for a fact that if he took his eyes off any of his music stuff, it would be kindling at best by the time he came back for it.

"Hey, I'd say it myself, but they'd throw me out the window, so you're speaking for two, buddy bear."


There was something to having someone on your side that can make almost any situation a little less bleak-- even if you had a hand in getting yourself into that situation in the first place.


-Present Day-

While the trees had grown gradually darker until they were wholly black and glasslike, the same could not be said for the ones that were ashen-white. Standing out stark as can be, they saw the first white tree well ahead of them, a blazing beacon of contrast in the sea of black, standing alone. As they drew closer-- because curiosity got the better of them, and it was only a hundred or so yards out of the way, which, because there was no path to follow anyway, was hardly an imposition -- they noticed that it was quite different from the darkened trees.

While the blackened, glasslike trees were solid and immovable, it looked as though the white tree could be crumbled by a stray breeze-- if there had been any breeze left to stray--, somewhere between compacted sand and undisturbed ash still in the shape of the wood after the fire has gone out.

This wasn't, it turned out, all appearances. When Natalie reached out tentatively to touch the tree, it stood up only to the most gentle of pressure. Any more than that and it began to crumble, disintigrating into a fine sand.

"Creepy," Meghan said while Natalie rubbed her dust-covered fingers together curiously.

"It looks like there's a couple more up ahead," Peter said, shielding his eyes from the sun -- which was beginning to sink down from its zenith, passing into the sky in front of them -- to gaze ahead. Indeed, scattered among the dark trees were more of the white ones, peppered sparingly, but all the more visible for it.

"Call me crazy, but I'm really starting to understand why there are no digimon out here," Lily said at one point, "if this is what's happening to the things that can't move away." As she spoke, she was struck by the mental image of a digimon in the same state as the trees. She blanched, shaking her head to dismiss the thought.

Peter glanced around, and exhaled through his nose. "Don't you think it's weird that we haven't seen any digimon coming out this way at all?"

"Not really," Xander said dully, eyelids half-closed in a sardonic expression. "Considering, you know, it's a dead inhospitable wasteland out of which the life is being sucked."

Peter shot Xander an equally unimpressed look. "You know what I mean. There had to be digimon venturing out this way if we had to deal with them in our world."

There were any number of reasons it could be so. Maybe they were just lucky; there was, after all, an entire halo for Digimon to come out of, not just the one path they had taken.
But there were other, less pleasant options-- fewer digimon willing to venture out. Fewer digimon to venture out. Maybe those who would venture out to find them had somehow heard the news that they were here-- like Unimon's village had.

Whatever the answer, none of them disrupted the still silence.

They pressed on, and the white trees began to grow more common. They were careful not to touch them, as Brockmon pointed out that it would leave an easy-to-follow trail if anything were to pursue them. As such, they began zigging and zagging to avoid thick patches of the trees, having to be conscious of where they stepped.

Though Brockmon's advice initially seemed like paranoia, before too long, they saw just how right he was-- though, luckily, not because anything was on their tails.

"Look, down there," Raumon said, indicating with one claw. They had just come up a small rolling hill, and on the far side of it, the foliage was thin. Thus they could see, a thousand feet away, a swath of the white trees had taken no small bit of damage. Some of them were barely more than stumps, laying in piles of ashen powder; others had great gouges torn in them, balanced precariously. They couldn't see how far it extended, as the path of whatever had done it headed away from them, cutting further north rather than straight west.

They'd call that much a stroke of good fortune, even if they had no way to know how recently it had been disturbed.

(It was quite recently indeed, but... well, don't worry about that yet.)

It was like the places closer to the river, where they had seen the remnants of scuffles immortalized in frozen time, but somehow even more sobering.

"I wonder how long it's going to be until this," Natalie said, thinking out loud as they continued on their way, "is going to be what the entire Halo looks like."

"Almost all of this has happened while the Whisperer slept," Brockmon said. "It's only going to get worse, and much faster."

A few seconds of silence.

"You know, that was supposed to be a rhetorical question," Natalie said after that pause, a frown tugging at her lips.

Lily nudged Brockmon in the side with her leg. "Be nice."
Brockmon paused, then glanced away and mumbled an apology like a scolded child.

Lily glanced to Natalie and stuck her tongue out. "He acts all smart but between all of you and me, he's a dweeb."

"That's not necessary," Brockmon muttered.

"It absolutely is," Desmon said immediately, grinning from ear to ear.

Lily shrugged, stretching her arms above her head. "Yeah, well. It's just that I think he's just not used to dealing with anyone but me."

-6 years ago-

Lily dropped gracelessly onto her bed with a heavy sigh.
Her mother was AWOL for the evening -- probably, Lily assumed, at her newest boyfriend's house, as she'd been multiple times over the past week. She'd come to expect it. Her elder brother, the only other person living in the house at the moment was similarly nowhere to be found; she didn't worry herself with speculation on his whereabouts, as it's generally prudent not to concern oneself too intently with the affairs of seventeen-year-old boys.

Frostmon poked his head out from under the bed as the middle of the worn-out matress sank down even under Lily's waifish weight. By the time he had clambered out to a position that he could look at her, she already had her earbuds in, the off-brand mp3 player in her hand doing its damndest to play those pirated music files at the loudest volume it could muster.

The little digimon made his way up onto her bed, hauling himself up using the dangling corner of a blanket. Lily, who had laid down to stare at the ceiling, barely even responded to him, didn't even glance his way, which was just as well, because he was quite lacking in grace as he climbed.

He gazed at her for a couple seconds, then scrunched up his face -- he couldn't really tilt his head, so it was the next best thing -- and clambered his way over to her. She still didn't look up, so he didn't bother asking as he climbed up onto her stomach.
The tension in her body didn't completely melt away, but like she was letting go of a breath she wasn't aware she had been holding, she relaxed noticably. Almost as if by instinct, she lifted the hand not holding her mp3 player and placed it on Frostmon, her hand falling into the space between his icicle spikes.

He harumphed and settled down atop her, saying nothing, and she said nothing in turn, as the echo of blasting rock music from tinny earbuds was the only sound in the dishheveled room as the sky outside began to grow dark.


-Present Day-

As they drew closer and closer to the barrens and the sun sunk down in the sky, the last black tree they could see passed without notice, and then the woods all around them were ashen. Too soon after that, the trees began to thin. In their places stood crumbling stumps and piles of fine white powder. Whether they were knocked down by something passing them by carelessly or if the advance of the barrens simply sapped away their integrity, who could say? The ground grew flatter, the hills giving way to land that seemed unnaturally even.

The light conversation had to keep going, lest they lose their nerve; and so it did, as the land began to even out, and the sky above grew dusty, thinning out the light of the sinking sun and choking out their view of the rising moons.
At last, a final thicket of the stark ashen trees was all that stood between them and the barrens, providing one last chance to turn back without seeing what lay ahead of them-- as if they had an option. Whether they wanted to see it or or not, the barrens lay just on the other side, and they had to come up to that threshhold.

The land stretched out into the horizon, nothing but grey sand and dull skies. At a point on the horizon, just north of the setting sun, something unseen tinted the sky a deep red-violet, albeit diffused through the haze. The howl of distant wind -- so normal a sound, but after the stillness they had grown accustomed to the past few days, it was almost jarring -- whispered in the distance, obscuring the horizon with dust.

"I'm gonna take a wild guess," Xander said, indicating with a finger the point from which the red colour emanated, "and guess that's where we're going."

"You'd be correct," Brockmon said with a terse nod. "That is the light of the old temple."

"Cool. At least we won't get lost," Desmon said, for whatever comfort that accounted for. "Just look for the giant red beacon in the sky and head towards it."

It was so simple in theory, and yet there they stood, hanging back in the last stragglers of the white trees, with nothing but the howling wind for accompaniment.

"Does anyone want to... maybe call it a day?" Meghan said, sounding... well, hopeful was the wrong word. "Since there's not gonna be anywhere safe to stop for a while, probably..." she continued, her voice trailing off.
Both Xander and Oremon nodded their assent; then glanced at each other; then proceeded to pretend that didn't happen.

"I think that's probably a good idea," Natalie said, before any awkwardness could set in. "Some cover is better than nothing, right?"

She was right, or maybe everyone else felt the same kind of vague apprehension as she did, but either way, there were no objections to the call, and they backtracked just far enough to find a place in the thicket where they could stay at least a little more out of sight.

They tried to keep the conversation going again, but it just wasn't the same.
Somehow, seeing it made it more real.


Peter volunteered for the first shift of sitting up and keeping watch on their surroundings. He always thought significantly more than he spoke, and since he had participated in plenty of idle conversation over the day, then clearly -- as a function of that -- he was thinking more than usual as well.

He flicked through his phone, deleting old memos and sorting through photos; its battery hadn't drained at all in the days they'd been here, but its clock was still going haywire and he had no signal at all. Every so often, it locked up and the screen glitched out for a second, but it would quickly resolve itself. Banmon rested around his shoulders, practically weightless, watching him in silence.

The others slept uneasily-- tense, alert, would probably wake up if he made any noise, but he was getting restless. He signaled with his hand to Banmon to be silent, and she didn't need the advice. He stood up, and as gingerly as he could, he began to walk. It was only a short walk away from this final thicket of ashen trees to where he could see the barrens stretching out before him, the view uninterrupted.
By night, without the sun in their eyes, the red glow that the old temple gave off in the distance seemed both too close and impossibly far away on the horizon.
If he squinted very hard, he thought he could see a tiny dark shape moving, far away-- some digimon venturing out into the barrens. It didn't seem interested in them, so he didn't see the need to worry too hard about it. It may just have been a smudge on his glasses, anyway, as far as he knew.

"I'd ask if something is on your mind," Banmon said meekly as Peter came to a stop, "but... I guess that's a stupid question."

Peter shook his head, a silent you're fine, and put his hands in his pockets.
Banmon looked at him. She could feel a tension in him, like he wanted to speak, but she didn't want to push it. Not wanting to disturb him, she slipped off of his shoulders, and drifted up towards the fragile branches of one of the ashen trees. She reached out with one cloth hand, not putting any pressure on the outstretched branch but barely brushing it. A thin layer of the dust rubbed off, and she quickly drew her hand back sheepishly, trying to leave no trace that she'd been here.

Peter's eyes followed her up and he watched her silently.
"Come on," he said after a moment, holding up an arm like a falconer; Banmon sunk back down to him, curling around the outstretched arm like a snake.

"Sorry," Banmon said quietly, but Peter shook his head.

"No, you're fine. It just turns out that coming out here and staring into the horizon isn't actually making things any clearer."

-10 years ago-

"... and I was thinking that I ever needed to hide you," Peter said, carrying Wispmon in his arms as he walked out through the back yard, past the ramshackle chicken coop, to the trees beyond it, his breath visible in the January morning air, "you could probably fit in the hole in the big tree back here."

"W-why would you need to hide me?" Wispmon said, blinking her white-fire eyes up at him.

"I donno. Just if I had to. Maybe if my mom starts digging through my stuff."
Wispmon nodded her understanding.

Five years deep into having Wispmon in his life, Peter wasn't entirely sure why he still insisted on keeping Wispmon a secret from his mother. He wasn't worried about her being afraid of the little ghost-- certainly not, with as many reality TV shows as she watched about ghosts and spirits.
Maybe that was part of it, though-- maybe he didn't want to turn the shy little ball of smoke and cloth into a spectacle for his mother to grill and poke at. Maybe he didn't want to explain and re-explain it to his often forgetful, scatterbrained parent.

Maybe it was something else. Who could say?

"Peter?" his mother's voice came calling from the house; she was leaning out the open screen door, not wanting to set bare feet on the icy doorstep. "What on earth are you doing out there at this hour?"

"Nothing, mom," Peter called over his shoulder, keeping his back to the door. Wispmon stayed still and silent in his arms. "Just thought I saw the neighbor's cat poking around the chickens. The really big, mean one. Was gonna shoo it." His mother's chickens -- two old, intensely cranky hens -- peered suspiciously at the two of them out of the run of their coop, as though they saw through his lies.

His mother seemed satisfied with the answer, though, and swiftly retreated into the warmth of the house.
A beat of silence, as though waiting to make sure that his mother wasn't going to re-emerge, before Peter spoke again.
"Anyway. There was a dead crow out here yesterday. I don't think it's legal to keep it, and I think my mom would flip anyway if I did, but do you want to see it?"

Wispmon nodded. "Y-yeah," she said unnecessarily. Peter patted her on the hooded head.
She was unbothered by dead animals, which he couldn't help but view as a godsend. Everyone else -- even Ian -- thought his fascination with them was creepy, but she was on his wavelength. (He'd already decided that as soon as he had his own place, he was going to deck the entire place out with skulls.)

He led the way out to the dead crow, which was still there-- lifeless, but almost perfectly preserved in the cold.

Peter liked to think that he'd moved past what he'd originally thought she was when he first met her. She was nothing like his sister had been. She was no replacement. Honestly, Wispmon had been in his life longer than she had at this point.
But kneeling outside in the frigid January morning, peering at the dead crow stark-black against the snow, he couldn't help but feel something he didn't quite have the words to articulate.
It was just them, and for all they knew, it would only ever be them. That was all it needed to be.


-Present Day-

Peter eventually traded off the watch with Natalie and Raumon, who traded off to Xander and Desmon. Even those who slept uninterrupted didn't get much in the way of rest.
The digimon heard whispers in their sleep, the dark hints of nightmares prying at the corners of their minds; and more than one of the humans, too, could swear they heard an unfamiliar voice in their heads as vivid memories played out in their dreams... or maybe they were just thinking too hard about what their partners had said earlier in the day. Who could say?
Not them, anyway, because any time they stirred, all memory of the dream was gone, like trying to grab a hold of smoke.

It was probably nothing, anyway-- but it meant that despite their exhaustion, the next morning came not soon enough. They didn't even need to be woken up by Brockmon. In the early morning, before the sun had truly begun to rise, their little makeshift camp stirred to a slow and tenative life.

Raumon was the first to sit up, and he did so with a little less decorum and grace than he might like to. Perhaps a bad dream?

"Give me a heart attack, birdy boy," Desmon said barely above a whisper, twitching her ears. Xander, sitting cross-legged on the ground with arms folded, did a remarkable job of not reacting much, only nodding his head in acknowledgement of Raumon.

"Sorry," he whispered back, then glanced to his partner's back, where she lay on the ground beside him. He winced, hoping he hadn't disturbed her, but--

"You're awake too?" Natalie's voice came a moment later, as she rolled to look at him.

Brockmon "awoke" from a very unconvincing fake-sleep, cracking open one practically-glowing golden eye, and Lily (using her partner's side as a pillow, a technique that Meghan was mirroring with Oremon, and Sam with Gelermon) was quick to follow. One by one, the others stirred in turn, and the sound of the howling wind in the far distance began to be drowned out by the tentative quiet discussion. Even as it became clear that everyone was waking up, they kept their voices down. Just in case.

It was still jarring and uncomfortable to not need food, to not need water-- it felt like they should have, but they felt no thirst or hunger as they stirred, except for maybe the vauge discomfort of stray dust and sand that had gotten into their throats while they slept.
It was a blessing, but a very, very strange one.
Weird to think they'd been in this world for all of a single week.

The sky was only barely starting to lighten, the sun not yet visible over the horizon behind them, when they began preparing to continue their journey out into the unknown, because, hey, no time like the present, right? The sooner they dealt with Nithmon, the sooner they could...
Figure out the rest of their plan of action.

It was Natalie that suggested that they ride those digimon that could be ridden-- though, again, Desmon was immediately shot down as an option, because as Brockmon was quick to point out -- even when she boasted that no wind could blow her off course -- flying overhead made it far likelier that she could be picked off, make them more visible, or simply get separated from the group.

Gelermon, Brockmon, and Oremon looked at each other.
None of them were exactly short on pride, and it was hardly ideal, but nobody wanted to spend more time in the wasteland than they had to, and there was no use trying to go unseen here. If they were going to be seen, they were going to be seen from a mile away, be they small or massive.

Green, orange, and pitch-black light flooded their eyes, and three champion-level digimon knelt down to allow passengers on. Lily, Natalie, and Raumon were on Melemon's back; Sam, Peter, and Banmon on Frekimon's; and Meghan, Xander, and Desmon on Ibexmon's. (Ibexmon took a little bit of umbrage at Xander, but he got over it at the slightest chiding from Meghan-- though whether it was the admonishment or the fear of teasing from Desmon that was more powerful, who could say?)

And so they took off into the barrens, with miles of nothing but cracked, dead land stretching before them, and a dim crimson beacon guiding their way forward into the breaking dawn.


-???? Years Ago-

A solitary digimon was sealed deep, deep, deep down below by the temple-- trapped here by the god-king, fool-king, idiot-king. Down below the earth, cut off from the sky, cut off from the sun and the moons and the stars.
There was light in this place, light that its eyes picked up -- lantern light, fake light, its own aura when it attacked the walls that caged it in -- but even so, it felt so, so, so dark. Everything was dark. Without anything else against which to compare itself, it didn't know where it end or began.
And with nowhere else to go, that digimon began to burrow. Into the ground, into the world, into itself.

And that's the funny thing about digging down, digging ever-deeper, isn't it?

Eventually, you just might reach the core.


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