Episode 32: The Pretender

As the black dragon descended down the hill towards what still stood of the village, her tarnished-gold claws tore deep gashes into the rock face. Any time she lost her footing, she simply spread leathery purple wings and drifted until her claws touched solid -- however steep -- ground. Before long, she came to the borders of the village, strolling leisurely past the broken remains of homes and structures. Nothing here moved; nothing here lived. They had either run or they had died, and probably, it was more the latter.

Mere days ago, here had stood the holdout stragglers of a village; mere days ago, here a fight between Cabramon and Unimon had been cut short by human intervention. The dragon, of course, had no idea of any of that recent history. She just knew the handiwork of the Whisperer's followers when she saw it, and she couldn't deny her curiosity when she saw it from up on the ridge.

The dragon walked as spryly as though she were skipping through a field of flowers-- but instead of flowers, it was of course wreckage and burn-marks, ash and scorched stone, deep grooves cut in stone and rubble.

It was so still that when she saw a sign of life in the trees, lurking just out of sight as she approached the outskirts of the village's remains, she was quick to notice it.
"Why, hello," she said, flicking her wings in the air.

A white deer stepped out after a moment, gazing upon her impassively. Though the deer was only a rookie-level by the looks of it, it had no fear; to call its reaction mild interest would have been drastically overstating it.

"This your handiwork?" the dragon said, gesturing with her tail instead of a claw.

The deer regarded her with no expression, then nodded once in silence.

"Well, then I suppose that answers my next question. You must be the deer from the south. I'm ever so pleased to meet your acquaintance," the dragon said, a liquid smile spreading across her scaly lips. She knelt down onto her forelegs, though her golden eyes never drifted away from the white deer. "I'm Pendramon."

Coniumon regarded her with a suspicious eye, but did not turn away. Hidden in the trees, something else -- a digimon that Pendramon could not see -- giggled.


It took two and a half days to cross the barrens.

To recount every detail of these days would be both interminably boring, and not particularly helpful to understanding what was going on. One can only relate it was vast and sandy and occasionally they had to climb down a canyon and up the other side so many times before you get the point.
Though they saw digimon -- running wild and mad through the wastes -- slightly more frequently than they had in the last leg of the halo, they were not the most pressing issue that the group had to contend with. More than hostile digimon, the biggest obstacle to overcome was the sand.

It was rough, and irritating, and it got everywhere.

But the truth of the matter was that the terrain was the most dangerous thing. It was hard to move quickly, even on the backs of the digimon that could carry them, and they occasionally had to walk individually, in order to let the three digimon save some energy, though they were holding up remarkably well with regards to actually carrying their passengers.
They were holding up relatively well, but the environment itself was rather worse-off.
Sheer drops into dry ravines were all but invisible on the far sides beyond even the gentlest dunes, and the rare patches bare of sand bore deep cracks, like the solid rock had buckled under the force of something unknown, leaving gashes as wide as ten feet across scarring the landscape. Moving too fast when it was difficult to maintain traction could quickly spell disaster.

They found what shelter they could in the overhanging walls of these thin canyons when they had to rest, but it didn't come easy; both nights, they had to travel hours past they would have liked to, through darkness that only amplified the danger, because they simply couldn't find cover. Sleeping in the open would leave them open not only to attacks, but vulnerable to the sandstorms that ripped across the land without warning.

This is not to discount the factor of feral digimon, as they did have several incidents-- a small pack of Lynxmon on the hunt, their eyes wild and their ears unhearing, attempted to ambush them on the first day; the first night, the canyon they were hiding in was invaded by what looked like a Drimogemon in all but hue (it was a slightly different species, but in the dark, it was hard to aprpeciate the differences); the second day, they were troubled by an Ogremon riding a Boarmon who very clearly did not appreciate its passenger, but did not have the presence of mind to politely request it get off, and they both displaced their frustration with each other onto the group.

The group's goal was merely to scare their assailants off. Most of the digimon fled upon the slightest amount of pushback, but the group of Lynxmon on the first day did not let in until one of their number exploded into data, whereupon the rest scurried off in fear.
Raumon, troubled by this, reinforced the idea that they weren't here to leave a body trail; Banmon and Brockmon were quick to concur, but Gelermon had snapped right back with and we're not here to become a body trail.

The red glow on the horizon grew ever-closer. It was nice, certainly, to be sure you were getting closer to where you needed to be, but it was... well. Ominous would have been a good word.

And was it that lingering ominous dread or the exhaustion making tensions run high? Who knew? Did it matter?

But as the sun hung somewhere overhead on the third day, the light diffused through dust and sand and clouds, they saw their destination peeking over the horizon.

But only barely.

"Is that where we're headed?" Natalie said from atop a dune, pointing into the distance, and Brockmon nodded solemnly.

It looked like the ruins and rubble of skyscrapers, jagged squared-off shapes only remarkable for their straight lines. Throughout the barrens, the outcroppings of rock that had been forced by sudden seismic action had been jagged and crooked, pointing off at diagonals in crumbling shapes; as such, seeing something that had clearly once stood up straight was a signal enough that something was different.
But really, were it not for the way that the sky around it became redder and redder with proximity to the crumbling structures, they might not have given it a second glance. It wasn't bright enough to be a glow-- it didn't seem to give off any light, simply dull and dusty red growing richer in the sky through the grey skies and muted sunlight.

It was far away, but not far enough -- its small size and the rolling dunes had concealed it for miles. It would only be a few more hours.

They'd come this far, but they still didn't have much of a plan beyond hope Nithmon is there, hope they can defeat Nithmon, and hope they can get back home afterwards.
(Really Natalie was desperately hoping to have figured that out by now, but with their destination in their sights, she had no such luck.)

They continued on their way, switching over to riding on the champion levels' backs -- if the were this close, they wanted to be at least marginally prepared -- but it was maybe fifteen minutes before:

"Hey," Frekimon said sharply, looking to the sky above their destination, slowing down to a stop, and the others followed suit to see what she was indicating. "Check it."

The group as a whole lifted their eyes to the clouds, and they immediately saw what had caught Frekimon's attention. The sky itself -- concentrated directly over the crumbling structure in the distance -- seemed to distort for a few seconds, jerking and shearing. Then, the sky was split apart by a bolt of lightning-- or was it lightning at all? Rather than fizzling out, it lingered for maybe thirty seconds, glowing bright and causing the space around it to buckle. Without warning, it disappeared, like it was slamming shut. The distortion lingered for a few seconds more, then calmed back down.

"Cracks?" Sam proposed offhand.

Melemon nodded, and not-so-secretly he seemed to relish the chance to explain and show off what he knew. "They happen all around the barrens, here and there," he said, gesturing with a toss of his head, "but the further out you go, the more random they are. Hard to predict. You're only going to stumble upon them by chance, or if you're very actively looking for them." He, of course, knew this very well. "But around the temple, they happen much more predictably."

"Aaaand if Nithmon is there," cut in Lily, "then it's probably, like, even more than usual."

"Right," her partner said with a nod.

"Tour guide," Desmon said; Melemon ignored her.

They still happened irregularly, but as time crept on, a few more cracks split the sky for a few moments before closing back up. They even saw them in the distance away from the temple, both in the sky and closer to the ground -- emerging out of distant canyons and reaching for the sky, or arcing across the sand. Every one of these disturbances lasted for maybe a minute at most, and was preceded and followed by a moment where space around it seemed to twist and then straighten out.


Nithmon hated being cooped up. He always had.

He could have left, he could have gone back to the humans' world to ruin more of their shit, or he could have gone north-- but he wasn't about to give up his chance. There wasn't anything he could do but wait here. If he wanted his revenge, he could take it, but it would do him no good to be rash.
Well. He'd waited longer for other things.

But Coniumon was off having her fun, and that just left Nithmon to wait here.
The word had found its way into the wind, and word on the wind always finds its way into the whispers. Coniumon's telling him that she had seen him had reminded him of that. He need'n't run around looking for them here like he had in their world. It seemed like they were going to come right to him. He could be happy for that, right?

... he hoped he'd never see this stupid throne-room again after he was done here.


Both too soon and not soon enough, the traveling group of digimon and humans could begin to make out what it was they were heading towards. The structures they could see at a distance were six great decorative spires reaching to the heavens-- or, they had been, once. Now they were crumbling ruins, broken and hollow, standing up through sheer stubbornness in the face of physics. The ground itself seemed to sag, dropping down into a shallow crater of sorts, starting a few miles back from the presumed center.

"It looks like it's buried?" Meghan said, tilting her head; Melemon nodded his affirmation. "Is there a way... in, or--?"

It was not Melemon who answered her, though; instead, it was Ibexmon. "There's a place where it opens to the sky in the middle of the spires."
He couldn't ignore that he knew this place-- it was a feeling with which all five of the digimon with foggy memories had been hit. Miles of sand all look familiar in the broad strokes, but as they descended into the sunken basin, they all knew in their hearts a lingering sense of having made this trip before.

"It used to be a temple, thousands upon thousands of feet tall," Melemon said. "The rest is underground now. It happened long before our time."

"Must've been a hell of an earthquake," Xander said flatly.

"Earthquake," Melemon said. "Cataclysm. Same thing."

"Hey, tour guide," Desmon said, twitching her ears, "you wanna tell us what you know about it?"

"I am not a tour guide," Melemon said brusquely, but Lily overrode him.

"He told me that this place used to be where what's-his-guts--"

"Dinmon," Melemon said quietly.

"Yeah, whatever," Lily said, shrugging, "used to live. Then he had that fight with some big evil digimon and sealed him away, then a few hundred years after that, something went wonky," she lifted her hands off of Melemon's back to make indicative wiggles with her fingers, "and it started rotting everything. King evacuated everyone and the temple began to sink and now it's where the crossover stuff happens. Woogie magic." Beat. "That's all I know."

"Brilliantly told," Sam drawled. Lily grinned, facetiously taking his ironic comment as genuine; Sam rolled his eyes.

A frown tugged at Natalie's mouth.
She thought about what Shitomon had told them about the history of this world; of Dinmon's fight with the evil digimon that, attested Shitomon, eventually became the Whisperer. Shitomon hadn't provided much detail, and Brockmon hadn't seemed to know any more when asked, but--
How would a digimon obtain that kind of power? If Dinmon, who -- if Shitomon was to believed, was on the level of a god -- had to abandon his temple, then...?

Maybe this was a bad train of thought to pursue just this moment.
(Or maybe it was one that really had to be thought about, but it wasn't helping her nerves.)

In the near distance off to the north, a crack split open out of the sky, touching down to the ground. Though it was the closest to them that a crack had appeared, the group paid it no mind-- until they saw dark shapes moving towards it, and again, the group slowed to observe, though they did not stop.
A small group of digimon, who had been waiting for a chance, were running towards it, climbing out of a fissure in the ground and from behind the outcropping of rock that fissure had forced up. They looked no bigger than the average rookie-level, or maybe particularly small champions; it was hard to tell.

They rushed for it, making a mad dash, slipping across each other, shoving and scrabbling across the sand.
All but one of them touched the white light, and in a flash of static, vanished from sight before it fizzled out. The last shape was not so lucky. It did not reach the crack, but was close-- perhaps it had been reaching out a claw. The distortion that twisted the air as the crack closed dragged the digimon's body with it-- like matter being pulled across an event horizon. The shape of the distant digimon's body twisted and distorted in the most awful of ways, and all of them -- even those with the strongest of constitutions -- found themselves compelled to look away.

When they looked again, it was as if nothing had happened; only silence and wind, an entire drama playing out in seconds, with only them to bear witness.

"Count us all as lucky for making it here in one piece, then, huh," Peter said dryly after a few moments.

"Classy," Xander said; Peter did not dignify it with a response. (Maybe he was one to talk.)


The closer they got, the more the broken temple still on the surface seemed to tower over them. They were such a small part of what had once been the temple; it was hard not to feel ever more dwarfed. By the time they reached the perimeter encircled by the spires, the sun was beginning to lower in the sky as the afternoon wore on, but it was hard to tell as much through the clouds and the hovering red aura.

Ahead of them, they could now see the entrance that Ibexmon had mentioned-- a hole in the flat ground, where sand sat gathered at the lip before dropping down into darkness. It was maybe enough to pass a bus through; nothing compared to the cracked canyons and fissures that racked the landscape around them. It was almost anticlimactic, and yet it was hard to ignore that this was-- by all accounts -- the dead center of the barrens. In every direction lay as far a walk as they had just undertaken.
And if Nithmon was anywhere, he was here.

They'd spent all of a week in this world, and it had only seemed more and more unfriendly with every passing day, every step they took closer to here.
Maybe, even if the humans didn't hear the voice, they felt it a little bit-- like a lingering unease, a vague discontent, an aching resentment and fear.

Or maybe it was just their own minds.

What would it mean if it was whatever lay here reaching into their hearts? And what if it wasn't?
And what would the implications be if Nithmon was here? What would they do if he wasn't?

And what would they do even if they managed to take care of Nithmon?
They'd come this far, but no matter where they went from here, this hardly felt like the end of anything at all.

A few hundred yards from the hole in the ground, they stopped. The humans piled off of the digimons' backs; those digimon who were in rookie form evolved up to champion level, as they'd already discussed. Champion wasn't much, they knew -- especially against Nithmon -- but even a few seconds of saved time could be helpful if Nithmon was here. Frekimon, Ibexmon, and Melemon stretched out, but felt none too bad for the wear. If they were tired at all, they wore it well; Doctorimon, Corymon, and Banshemon almost seemd a bit more out of place in their bodies as they had to go straight from riding to preparing themselves, though they sorted themselves out in short order as well.

"Anyone got any rousing speeches?" Lily said, glancing around at the others. Nobody said anything as she glanced at them in turn, and then settled her eyes on Natalie, who blinked as the others followed Lily's eyeline to her.

"Why are you looking at me?"

"Figured if anyone might, it'd be you. Seems like it'd be your forte," Lily said nonchalantly.

Natalie paused; she looked to Doctorimon, who inclined his head, but had no words to share.
"I got nothing," she said, shaking her head.

For a moment, the only sound was the howl of the wind.

Natalie pulled her D-Rive out of her pocket and looked down at it without activating the screen. She turned the device over in her hand, and looked to Doctorimon. He nodded.

Around them, the others were doing much the same-- confirming with their partners, checking on themselves to make sure everything was... well, as close to in order as they were ever going to get.

"Shall we?" Lily said, gesturing ahead of them to the chasm in the ground-- the hole in the roof that would lead them into the throneroom.

And they began to close that last bit of distance.


Nithmon's feathery ears pricked up as though he'd heard something. He hadn't heard with his ears-- the whisper in his head (that had long ago become less of a whisper and more of a scream, guttural and wild and loud enough to feel like pressure behind his eyes, but I'm sure that's fine) had spoken.
He turned his eyes up to the broken glass dome, staring unblinkingly into the shaft of reddish light coming down from above.

He rose from his seat upon the broken plinth, his clawed boots tapping gently on dusty stone floor.

Then, he curled his wings around himself, and he vanished from sight, with only the periodic gentle distortion of the air around him to prove he was there. But he was there-- watching, just slightly out of sync with the fabric of the world, able to see and hear with perfect clarity.
(It was harder to do here than in the humans' world. He wondered why that was, then realized he didn't care.)

Within a few minutes, dark shapes cut through the diffused sunlight, standing at the rim, some thirty-five feet above.

They hesitated, but not for long.

The first to drop was Doctorimon. He held Natalie in his arms, his long cloak flaring out like wings or a parachute to slow his descent; then came Banshemon, who drifted down ease, though she held both her own partner and Sam, one in each of her arms. It looked like it strained her somewhat, and she was relieved when they touched down and stood on their own feet.
Then came Frekimon, leaping with a surprising grace and sticking a three-point landing. Ibexmon came next, and though he had less grace than his predecessor, he was unperturbed by his landing, his hooves seeming like stone would give before they did as he touched down. Corymon carried Xander in her claws, as he'd ceded his place on her back to Meghan.
Last was Melemon, who fell like a cannonball, with Lily simply clinging onto his back, holding unafraid to his shaggy mane, unperturbed, as they dropped and hit the stone, kicking up a cloud of grit and sand.

"Can't say I missed this place," Melemon muttered, waiting for his partner to disembark from his back before he shook himself out, looking around with a bitter familiarity.

The other five digimon had less to say. They looked around, as did the humans, but while the humans' expressions were only suspicious, almost fearful, there was something else in the gazes of the digimon. It was a kind of uncertain familiarity, like deja vu. A trickle of sand fell from above, but everything else was almost achingly still as a single minute stretched out into forever.
The throneroom was massive-- the size of a football field or more, and they stood at one end of it -- but almost entirely empty. They could almost imagine how it had once looked, but now it was nothing but broken statues, shredded tapestries, sand, and a massive but shattered throne standing alone at the far end.

Unseen, hidden in his tiny little pocket in space -- the beginning of a crack that had not yet broken through to the other side -- Nithmon flexed his claws and took a deep breath.


The air flickered. In the dark, it would have been hard to see, but it was the only thing that moved, and all eyes were on that place in an instant.

"Nithogg's Teeth!" Nithmon's voice echoed against the walls and all twelve members of his audience jumped to attention in a heartbeat, but he himself did not appear just yet.

Nithmon's attack emerged not from within the throneroom, but from the ground surrounding the broken dome of glass. Massive spikes of that familiar distorted energy threaded between each other, cutting off the only immediate exit. What light made it in, be it from the spikes or light being filtered through them, was dark and red, almost like a photo darkroom.

"Guess we found him!" Xander muttered bitterly, glaring upwards and then around, squinting in the dark.

"You're really that stupid!"
Nithmon appeared above one of the broken pillars lining the walls as he spoke, a burst of pinkish-red light; he unfurled his four wings and the rest of him seemed to follow. His hands were glowing, and his face was contorted in a contemptuous sneer.
Frekimon's claws scraped the stone floor; Melemon shook a bit of snow out of his mane. They kept their eyes on him.
"What did you think was going to happen? You'd come here, beat me up, and everything goes back to normal?"

Doctorimon gripped his staff; Corymon primed her stinger-tipped tail to strike, but nobody acted, and Nithmon jumped to the floor, strafing around to stay facing them, never turning away.

"Get away," Doctorimon said to Natalie, his voice hushed. "There are stairwells off to the side. Stay there." Natalie glanced to the walls, and indeed, there were arched stairwells leading down into the dark lining the walls. Some of them were caved in, but a fair number of them were still open. Natalie looked to the other humans and motioned with her head, and they broke away from their digimon partners. Nobody took their eyes off of Nithmon.
The stairwells were more than wide enough to accomodate six people, and they stuck together as they did.

Nithmon glanced at them as they moved, scoffed, and returned his attention to the digimon.
"No, come on. I have a little more faith in you! You're stupid, but not that stupid. You don't actually think this will help. You just want a bit of petty revenge on me for making your lives a little harder," he said, and his eyes shone despite the low light. He came to stand in the widthwise center of the room, maybe thirty feet away from them. Banshemon raised her claws and Ibexmon lowered his head as if to charge.
"Luckily enough," he said, and his sneer became a smile, "I want revenge on you, too. Thanks for making it easier for me. Vedfolnir's Wings!"

The rain of red feathers came before the humans had made it to cover, but they never had a chance at hitting the humans. Melemon and Ibexmon moved with surprisng speed despite their bulk and how little time they had; between them, they provided cover, throwing their bodies between their partners and the attack.

There was no other option to dodge them; they went everywhere, an assaulting wave that flew out in every direction. In moments the room that had been left silent for so long was alive with sounds of intense pain, both those cried out without shame and those bitten out through gritted teeth. It tore through them, making their bodies shift and distort. They held their forms only through concentrated force of will, and the humans wasted no time getting the hell out of the way using the extra time that had been afforded them.

This was such a stupid fucking idea.

"Face of Judgement!"

"Black Stinger!"

"Banshee's Call!"

"New Moon Fire!"

"Terra Spear!"

But it was a stupid idea to which they were committed now. Gritted out even through their pain, the five attacks converged on Nithmon-- or, where Nithmon had been a moment before. He was gone in the blink of an eye, and a split second later--

"Knock knock!" Nithmon chittered, appearing right atop Melemon. His hand glowing, he slammed his claws into the bear's back. They sunk into his body, digging into his flesh, but after a moment his entire hand began to sink in, phasing through solid matter. Melemon roared in pain, rearing up to try and dislodge Nithmon, to no avail, and his body began to twitch and distort.
They all realized in a heartbeat what was going on. You only have to get force-evolved once to be really fucking aware of it when it's going to happen again.
And you also only have to deal with a 20-foot-tall skull-faced bear once before you don't want to deal with it again, and they'd already done that more than once, so a big no thank you.

Doctorimon leapt, swinging his staff like a mace; Nithmon acted on instinct and feinted away, leaping away from Melemon lightning-quick to avoid a beaked staff to the solar plexus. As he lost contact with Melemon, the glitchy effect died down, and Melemon did not change form-- whatever Nithmon had needed to reach, he hadn't.
Banshemon rushed in to try and catch Nithmon with her own glowing claws, but Nithmon wasn't about to be taken by surprise, and spun to kick her in the side, sending her tumbling in a fabric heap against the nearest wall, where her claws instead shredded fresh gashes into the already-tattered tapestry there.

This all happened in the space of a couple seconds, so fast that it was hard to keep track-- a far cry from their clumsy first fights.

"You're just prolonging the inevitable!" Nithmon said in a laugh, kicking into the air as Ibexmon attempted to charge him.

"Maybe that's all we have to do," Ibexmon said with a growl, wheeling around to glare at his missed target just in time to see him lean out of the way of Corymon's stinger-shaped blasts of energy.

Nithmon smirked. "You're too late," he said in a singsong voice, waving one glitchy-red claw in a taunting way. "And you know it. You did your job. Admirably, might I add!"

"Oh, shut up!" Frekimon snapped, gathering a green fireball in her mouth. Nithmon deftly avoided it, and it sailed past to scorch a pillar behind him.

"Nope!" Nithmon said, grinning. "Nithogg's Teeth!"
Much like those that caged them in above the broken glass, spires of energy shot out of the ground. The digimon all scrambled to dodge them, but it didn't seem that his intention was actually hitting them -- it was making it harder for them to dodge his next attack. "Vedfolnir's Wings!"

Not that they'd have had much of a chance to dodge the feathers in the first place, but having to dance between the spikes added a new layer of trouble. Corymon and Banshemon fell from the air, and only narrowly avoided falling onto the spikes; the others still on the ground had to brace themselves to avoid flinching into them. Again, they held onto their champion forms only through sheer force of will-- so much as one more hit would probably force them to devolve, or worse.
But Nithmon just couldn't resist a chance to hear himself talk.

"So what do you guys think?" Nithmon said, tapping his chin as he hovered perhaps fifteen feet in the air, his wings flapping slowly. "I don't think this room is big enough for all six of your ultimate levels, do you?"
He meant, of course, their catalyst evolutions.
"So I think that'd be fun!" he said, clapping his hands together and grinning. As he spread his hands apart, they were once more engulfed in that vivid scarlet and black.

Without digivolving, they didn't stand a chance-- but with the threat in their heads of catalyst digivolving, either under their own power or induced by Nithmon, in such a constrained space, it was hard to feel excited about the prospect.
After all. Whatever it was, they were close to it. They could hear it whispering in their heads-- louder than ever as they had drawn closer, and louder still in this throneroom.

They didn't have a plan. They had just hoped that storming the castle -- or the temple -- would be enough, but now Nithmon just needed to land one more attack, and he not only knew it, he was savoring it. He was taking their catalyst evolution as a given-- a foregone conclusion. Delaying the inevitable.

Because, after all, as the voices in their head whispered:
As they'd ever been, so they were now; as they were now, they'd be forever. Now as ever; ever, as now.


The humans gripped their D-Rives tightly, not daring to venture out of the stairwell, but unwiling to look away in case they could somehow be of use.
Doctorimon pulled himself up to his feet, and pointed his staff up at Nithmon, who glanced to him.

"Thank you for volunteering," Nithmon said in a sneer, but Doctorimon cut him off.

"Maybe not us," the plague doctor said, "and maybe not now, but if we were just spinning our wheels, you wouldn't care to stop us."

"Hey, yeah," Frekimon said, getting up in her own turn. "Putting a lot of effort into messing with us if our job's done and there's nothing we can do."

Nithmon raised an eyebrow, and grinned. "I already told you what I want. Revenge for inconveniencing me. Don't make it out to be something bigger than that, like you've backed me in a corner. It's awake. It's too late."

"Your master's been defeated before, right?" Banshemon said; Nithmon's eye twitched but he said nothing.

"Not that I'm a big fan of his," Melemon muttered, lowering his head, "but maybe all we need to do is buy Dinmon a little more time." Nithmon's fists clenched for just a moment.
(A chill ran through the humans, standing watch, at the fatalism of Melemon's words sunk in-- and how all six digimon seemed to be in accord on it. They hadn't talked about this. They hadn't wanted to talk about it.)

"And inconvenience you a little more for the trouble, right?" Ibexmon muttered with a humorless, pained smile as he too got up.

"It's been sealed away before, so, I mean, big whoop, maybe we're just buying him a little more time," Corymon said, flicking her tail as she stretched out her wings, very carefully.

But that was the wrong thing to say. Something in Nithmon snapped, and it snapped hard.

Nithmon's voice was shrill, his lip curled, his eye twitching-- his face was contorted with hatred, but of the sort that's offended as his wings erupted in distorted energy. Before they really could register his words, instead of releasing a shower of feathers, a great red eagle formed of the static energy rose up and away from him. It twisted the air around it, twitching and rending the darkness as it prepared to swoop-- not at any of the digimon, but at the staircase where the humans were gathered.

In an instant, red light got cut with purple.

"Doctorimon, conduction evolve to... Vindecamon!"

With chained wings fluttering uselessly behind him, Vindecamon jumped to meet the eagle as it dove. It hit him square, sending him not only tumbling but practically flying into the wall above the stairwell. He hit stone so hard that it began to crack and crumble, raining down debris on the humans gathered there, the sound reverberating and echoing down into the darkness.
Vindecamon gurgled in pain as he fell before the humans in a heap. There was not a force in the world that could stop Natalie from throwing herself forward.

"Are you okay?" she blurted, reaching out a hand but not wanting to touch him, as his body seized every couple seconds as though he was being shocked.

Vindecamon couldn't find words, his body racked with surges like electric shocks, and he wouldn't have had the chance to answer even if he wasn't, because Nithmon was not wasting time.
He surged forward lightning-fast, his pupils constricted, his claws glowing.

"You're not supposed to DO THAT!" Nithmon hissed, rearing back to attack Vindecamon -- not with an attack, but simply with his claws, but his singlemindedness, his seeking payback for a percieved slight -- not for the first time -- provided an in.

"Hurricane Blitz!" Corymon yelled. She didn't have much room to maneuver in this space, but she had enough to kick up over the spikes. Energy swirled around her, picking up sand and grit and whipping the silent air into a frenzy, and she dove for Nithmon-- and he did not dodge.

The sphere of air burst apart and Corymon wasted as little time as possible in flapping backwards and away, but Nithmon was knocked off his balance and he stumbled. It wasn't much, but it was enough time for Vindecamon to get to his feet-- and as Nithmon straightened up himself, he spoke again.

"... birdy's learned a new trick, I see," he said, his voice snapping back to cool and collected so fast it was hard not to be jarred. "God. Fuck you so much."

Vindecamon spread his useless wings; the chains laying around them rattled, and he breathed heavily, but his eyeless face was trained on Nithmon, and since Nithmon hadn't dawdled, neither did Vindecamon. "Raven's Shadow!" he cried, his own hands erupting with purple. A split moment later a pair of dark ravens soared at Nithmon-- and fizzled out as Nithmon swiped glowing claws through the air, intercepting the attack.

He wasted no time in one-upping Vindecamon.
"Nithogg's Teeth!"

The spikes scattered around the floor vanished (although the ones caging them into the throneroom held fast), and then the room began to shake. In the place of the spikes, a shape made of that energy began to emerge-- spikes, followed by the shape of a dragon, thirty feet long at least and growing only larger, barely held together as its body shifted and twisted the fabric of space around it. Its eyes were black pits and it opened its jaws, and a rush of static like a storming river filled the room.

Its red glow was countered, if only in part, by other colours-- green and black, blue and white, consuming the digimon and flooding out of the arch in which the humans stood watching.
And, after a couple seconds of hesitation, orange.

Baykomon took Melemon's place; Tanngrismon and Radiomon stood where Ibexmon and Corymon had a moment before, while Banshemon and Frekimon became Syrenamon and Xolomon.

"Hoarfrost!" Baykomon roared, his crystalline hands swirling with frost, and a moment later a claw-shaped blast of ice flew towards the red dragon as it began to charge. The ice fizzled away into nothingness as the dragon tossed its head and thrashed its tail.

With one sweep of its tail, it smashed a stone pillar to rubble. They didn't want to see what would happen if it touched them.

And yet that wasn't much of an option, and -- to put it politely -- all hell broke loose.

The dragon slashed out with its claws and swung its tail; it was hard to tell if it was just a trick of the light, the result of its blatant disregard for its surroundings, or if it was actually slowly growing in size. It chased after and snapped its massive jaws at any digimon who was in front of it, spreading and flapping razor-thin batlike wings to dissuade attacks from above, but it had no problem knocking Radiomon and Syrenamon out of the air if they dodged its wings.

Nithmon was not content to simply observe, either; he flitted around at a speed that was impossible to follow with the eye, seeming to appear and reappear at a moment's notice. He would appear to slash out with his claws, or -- worse -- to freeze a digimon in a Stasis Matrix crystal the moment before his dragon was about to swipe, leaving them defenseless and having to deal with the significant damage incurred by the shattering crystal on top of the pain the dragon was already causing.

They were making absolutely no headway -- nobody seemed able to damage the dragon nor land a single hit on Nithmon -- but Nithmon wasn't gaining much headway, either. He could make their lives harder, yes, but he could only attack one at a time-- perhaps maintaining his dragon used up more energy and concentration than he'd like it to. They used the entirety of the throneroom, moving up and down in a flurry of attacks going out so fast that the moment one went off someone else was already setting up another.
The dragon and Nithmon alike did seem to quite pointedly avoid the stairwell in which the humans were huddled, though.

It was hard to see this as any sort of charity or goodwill.

"Are we just supposed to sit here?" Xander muttered, furrowing his brow.

"Do you want to go try and punch them yourself?" Peter said flatly. "See how well that works out?"

"Oh, piss off--" Xander began, but he stopped as his teeth clicked together with the force of Xolomon being thrown into a wall by the dragon's tail.
(Sam, for his part, shook slightly, but his lips were pressed tight together, his eyes focused squarely on his D-Rive, which he held in his hand so tightly he might have been trying to break it.)

Something was weird about the way Nithmon had reacted, though-- why had he gotten so angry...?

No time to concern themselves with that.

"Oh, that's just rude! Signal Overload!" Radiomon cried, her voice growing in volume with every syllable until it was almost deafening, or maybe that was because of how it echoed off the walls. For a split second, Nithmon froze in place in midair, forced to stop by her attack, clapping his hands over his feathery ears.
It was only a split second. As Radiomon prepared to leap in to follow up with a kick, she was not the only one with that idea.

"Tectonic Tremor!" Tanngrismon roared, bringing his hammers together and joining them into one with a flash of orange light, and then jumping to swing at Nithmon.

"Quarantine Control!" Vindecamon cried, his claws engulfed in blackness as he lunged for Nithmon-- and whether his claws, Tanngrismon's hammers, or Radiomon's kick connected first would have to be a subject of contention, because they all definitely hit, and he dropped to the ground, landing squarely on his back.

Nithmon's scream was earsplitting, and the moment -- the very instant -- at which he was hit, the red dragon vanished as though it had never been there. Xolomon had been preparing to leap over it, and Syrenamon and Baykomon were given surprise reprieves from dodging the arc of its head and tail respectively.

"Stasis Matrix!" Nithmon yelled, holding his hands up, his voice growing more unhinged with every word. "Stasis Matrix! STASIS MATRIX!"
In seconds, goat, bird, and bat were all encased in red crystals, frozen in the poses they had been as they had tried to leap away from Nithmon and each other after impact.
As Nithmon got to his feet, he looked worse for wear, and significantly so. His robes were torn; deep gashes, unclear whether they were from Vindecamon's claws or Radiomon's, tore lengthwise down his tail. Blackish blood dripped down his arm, staining his pale-peach sleeve ends. His pupils were constricted, his eyes practically glowing; the orb that fastened the front of his hood had a bold crack running down the meridian.

Xolomon, Syrenamon, and Baykomon stood ready. They wanted to rush into attack, but how much would they be able to do before they were caught in crystal?

And what was Nithmon planning on doing?

"This wasn't supposed to go like this!" he spat, his voice once more almost discordantly shrill. "You were supposed to sit down and shut up and do your goddamn jobs and then stand back and let me get what I deserved!"

"That's what this is. Hoarfrost!"

In the middle of Nithmon's diatribe, Baykomon saw a chance and he took it-- and his claw-shape blast of ice smashed straight into Nithmon's back, knocking him out of the air and flat on his face into the dusty rock below.

For as big a game he talked, and as much as his attacks packed a punch, he really couldn't take a hit that well.
(This only raised more questions.)

As he hit the ground, as though the impact had disrupted his power, the room filled simultaneously with the sound of cracking glass. Then, with an almost sickening crunching noise, the crystals encasing Vindecamon, Radiomon, and Tanngrismon burst apart, dropping captives into heaps on the ground. They struggled to get to their feet, contending with an all-consuming pain that racked their bodies and caused them to shift and distort.

Nithmon wrenched himself up in record time, and quick as a shot -- though slower than he had been before -- he lunged, scrabbling along practically on all fours. He went not for any of the digimon, but, finally, for the human audience.

"Goddammit! This is all your fucking fault! This would have worked out so much easier for me if you bastards hadn't! Gotten! Involved!" Xolomon, Syrenamon, and Baykomon all moved to intercept him, but they had been trying to draw attacks away from their partners, and so Nithmon was not only faster, but closer to begin with.

He didn't have a proper attack in mind. His hands didn't begin to glow. (He'd learned quickly enough that his attacks and the D-Rives were a bad combination.)
He simply tackled, bumrushing the group of humans, smashing his claws into the stomach of the first human he could reach-- Sam. It was only by the grace of the fact that Xander was standing behind him and braced for impact that he did not immediately tumble backwards down the stairs. The little stairwell echoed with screams and yells of pain, of confusion, of shock, amplified and echoing in the small space.

Nithmon moved wildly, like a cornered Tasmanian devil, despite the fact that he'd been the one to close in. He clawed in every direction, kicking, thrashing his tail, beating his wings with surprising force. He tore gashes in flesh and cloth, taking advantage of the confusion and the few seconds he had before any of the digimon caught up to him.

It was a chaotic few seconds, but that was all it was. Lily dislodged Nithmon by slamming her knee into his stomach, and he stumbled backwards, vomitting black blood down his frontside.

Xolomon hit him like a train the very second he wasn't in the midst of the humans, claws first. She was far larger than him, and she pinned him by the wings, snarling.

Nithmon spat blood in her face and -- since his wings were what were constrained, not his arms -- he lifted his hands, which began to shift and glitch. He reached forward, and as his hands touched Xolomon's mask, she herself began to distort and glitch as well, her snarling starting to be filtered through a glitchy veneer of a filter--

(And for a moment, her anger began to consume her, tearing out of her like a ravenous wolf, threatening to force Xolomon back and pull Grimmon forward--)

Sam stumbled forward, despite being winded and in a tremendous amount of pain. One arm was wrapped around his stomach, and in the other hand he held his D-Rive.
"Hey! Dickhead!" he blurted, sounding more than a little like all the air had been knocked out of him, but on he trudged. "Do you-- fuck -- mind!?"

"Mind your own business!" Nithmon snapped-- but at the same time, at the sound of Sam's voice, Xolomon snapped back. She stopped glitching, and her eyes -- her pupils constricted -- focused hard on Nithmon.

"Eclipse Corona!" she cried, and a circle of green flames encircled them both. Sam, who had been approaching, stumbled backwards, nearly falling down as he did. The flames began to close in, and Xolomon leapt away only the moment before they converged; the instant the flames touched, they erupted into a pillar of green fire.

Xolomon didn't catch whether or not Nithmon was caught in it, because she was distracted by the fact that he came barrelling through it a second later, claws glowing.

"Siren's Serenade!"

The growing-ever-more wrecked throneroom filled with a haunting melody for only a couple seconds, and then Nithmon found himself being blindsided by a spectral shape made of white fog, rushing him and knocking him off-course before fading into nothingness-- and knocking him well away from the stairwell.

And they saw their chance.


"Magma Bloom!"


"Siren's Serenade!"

"Dead Air!"

"Raven's Shadow!"

Blasts of ice and a globular mass of magma, a shadowy wolf and a white ghost made of smoke, a swirling mass of air and a pair of black ravens carried on the wind, all converged on Nithmon, and the sound as they hit the little angel digimon was deafening.

And then, before the dust had even had the chance to settle--


With a snap, all six digimon were encased in crystal. Overhead, the spikes closing off the exit flickered-- just momentarily.

Sam stumbled his way to where Xolomon was frozen, and that was enough of a prompt for everyone else to follow suit-- they ran, full-tilt, to their partners sides, or in front of them, D-Rives in hand. Some of them were in worse shape than others, but they were all covered in dust and debris, some bloody, some injured by Nithmon's mad-dog bumrush, but they all were quick to go to their partners. Just in case they could do something. Anything.

But Nithmon didn't attack again. He rose into the air, his wings flapping raggedly.

He looked like he'd seen better days. Every so often, his body twitched and glitched out, for just a split second, no longer than it took to blink.

"That's enough," Nithmon said, his voice suddenly much, much more controlled and composed than it had been just seconds ago. "None of you get it. None of you fucking get it, and yet you come storming in here like you're going to storm the castle. Like you're going to be heroes instead of a bunch of pawns who started getting cold feet."

"Doesn't seem to me like you're in a position to be calling anyone a pawn."

Nithmon snapped his attention to the speaker-- Lily, standing before the frozen-in-place Baykomon.
"I don't want to hear it from you," he snapped, holding out an accusatory claw. "You should know as well as anyone what their role to play was, and you still came in here, guns blazing, as if stopping me is about anything more than getting petty revenge."

"I'd say it's a lot more than petty revenge," Xander muttered, and Nithmon looked to him just as quickly.

"Is it? What did you think was going to happen? You'd come here, you'd kill me, and suddenly everything would go back to normal? You'd go home? The digital world would just go back to it was before any of your," and he made air quotes here, "'partners' were even born?"

"We--" Natalie began, but cut herself off.

"That's what I thought," Nithmon said, smirking nastily. "You're here for a bit of petty revenge. On me. For making your lives harder. Which I get! I totally get. Since, you know, that's what I want on you. But at least I have the dignity to be honest about it."
Nobody spoke, and Nithmon laughed raggedly, humorlessly.
"It's too late. It's been too late for ages. My job is done same as yours is. But, difference is, I have bigger plans once it's free." He paused, and glanced around. "And I'm not letting a bunch of pawns who decided to feel a little bit of regret ruin what I've waited thousands of fucking years for."

"Thousands of years," Peter repeated slowly, furrowing his brow, and Nithmon held out his hands.

"And it's not enough for you of all goddamn people to give it credit for my work. You have to make it not fun for me."

"Credit for your work? What on earth are you--" Meghan began, but she stopped mid-sentence as she-- and everyone -- realized what he was talking about.

Natalie found her voice again. "The digimon that Dinmon fought thousands of years ago, that Shitomon told us about," she said, speaking slowly. "The one Dinmon sealed away. It didn't turn into the Whisperer."

Because it was him. Nithmon. Ratamon.
(And whatever it was that was doing the whispers-- well.
Whatever it was, it wasn't the digimon that Dinmon had sealed away.)

(Somehow, that wasn't much comfort.)

"Took you long enough," Nithmon said, smiling as his hands ignited with glitchy energy-- but the rest of him seemed to be distorting as well. "But we're done here." He bowed his head, then grinned.


Spikes emerged out of the floor.

Then, the floor burst apart entirely.

Everything began to fall.

Stone and glass, the tattered remains of flags and tapestries, sand from above, everything burst apart, and the air filled with cries of surprise, of fear, of pain. The crystals encasing the digimon burst apart, the sound lost in the chaos. It felt like the entire world was shaking as walls fell away and were replaced with an avalanche of rock and sand. Walls began to fall in upon themselves, cutting off access to their only way out even for those that could fly.

The humans felt their respectively digimon grab onto them as quickly as they could-- be it bird talons, icy claws, or a ghostly figure looping arms under theirs, their digimon partners -- even in pain -- acted with surprising speed and efficiency, as though driven only by the desire to keep their partners...

Well. Safe might be a bit of a stretch. Safer. Shielded them from the fall as best they could.

As the throneroom caved in above them, everything went dark.


They free-fell for only a few seconds, but when it went dark, it was impossible to tell for sure how long it was. The rumbling began to calm, but it shook through the floors and their bodies. They hit an incline and rolled-- a floor that had collapsed at an angle. The digimon took the brunt of the fall, and the humans were more or less unscathed as they came to a stop on a solid stone floor not too much unlike the one they had just left behind.




Swear words permeated the air from both human and digimon alike, as they were the only coherent thoughts anyone was managing at present; but it was quiet except for that. They were in pain. They were in incredible pain and darkness and deep confusion, and there was dust in their lungs, but they were in one piece as far as anyone could tell.

"Anyone hit their head?" Peter said, grateful that nobody could see him scramble for his glasses in the dark. (He found them a moment later, with one arm bent, but it was better than he feared.)

Nobody had hit their head, but they were scraped, bruised, battered, and thrown about, human and digimon alike.

It took only a few seconds before the digimon could no longer hold their forms-- their jobs done as best they could be done, the digimon were tired, their bodies in incredible pain. The room flooded with light for a split second-- so bright it was blinding.

Sam, inspired by this, was the first to use his D-Rive's screen to light up the darkness. Its light was faint, no better than a flip-phone screen, but in total darkness like this, any illumination was welcome. The others followed suit, and soon there were six faint sources of light scattered throughout the room like little torches.
That was enough to see that they were in a room quite like the one they had just left, though much smaller, and much less grand. Where the throne-room had been wrecked even before they got there, some of the tapestries and carvings lining the walls were almost pristine. Stairwells leading upwards had caved in and filled with sand and rubble; stairs that led down into the darkness remained open, at least from what they could see.
They were all accounted for-- each human near a digimon, and each human at least able to push themselves into a sitting position.

But there was something much more important than their surroundings. Across the room, in the far corner, another shape -- a thirteenth shape that had rolled further than them.

Natalie, who was closest, peered into the dark, then jerked back when she realized what it was.

Underneath a crumbled, toppled pillar lay Nithmon, struggling and failing to get himself free. His wings were broken and bent; his body was bloody, torn and scraped and tattered. When the faint light hit him and Natalie tried to skitter away, he snapped his attention up, and his lip curled, baring needle-like teeth (had they ever seen those before?) that glinted in the low light. His eyes did not shine like they did; there was something different, feral, very, very frustrated in them.

A couple of the digimon attempted to rise up, but couldn't; they collapsed as quickly as they tried to get up, barely conscious.

But Nithmon merely glared at the scattered people, with an expression they had never seen on him-- an expression that was impossible to define. They realized then that his body was still distorting and shearing just slightly, though the stone pillar that had fallen atop him was unperturbed, and the effect did not carry over.

"Fuck you," he hissed. "Fuck you all so much. This was supposed to be easy."

Nobody knew what to say to that, but they didn't have the time to. Nithmon spat blood on the ground, and then he began to shift like a digimon about to burst into data.

But his body began to pixelate, something happened that... well, something they couldn't say they had ever seen before.
Tiny little beings, comprised wholly of that growing-more-familiar distorted red light, slipped out from between the stone in the floor, fell down from the crumbling ceiling, even slipped out of the air itself like they were emerging from pockets of space. Each one illuminated the pitch darkness a little more, until it was bright as day, but red as blood.

The things were no larger than a human thumb, and whenever any of his audience tried to focus their eyes on one, it glitched away from their direct line of sight-- as if any individual one refused to be pinpointed as more than part of the whole, like trying to look directly at a floating shape in your vision. As such, it was impossible to fully describe what they looked like, only how they moved. They writhed like leeches, skittered like cockroaches, buzzed like flies, and however they slithered through space, they swarmed over Nithmon's body.

Instead of the chittering of insects, the air filled with a sound like flowing sand as the things moved-- or rather, as they realized after a moment, the sound of indistinct whispering. It was both quiet and yet somehow also loud enough to be painful, even as the sound did not echo at all on these confined halls. The sound was absorbed by the dusty stone.

And as quickly as they had come, the things were gone; with their vanishing, so vanished the sound they brought-- and Nithmon.

"What the hell," Natalie whispered. She stared at the spot where Nithmon had been a moment before, as though he -- or the things -- would reappear at any moment, and she wanted no part of it.

"What the actual fuck," Xander said, but he got no answer.

The room was silent once more. They barely breathed for a few torturous seconds.

"... is he--?" Meghan said, then cut herself off with a hiss of pain. This was just as well, because as if she hadn't stopped speaking, they might have missed a voice that they didn't know, speaking quietly, casually.

"That's a new one," it said.

They looked around in the dark to find the speaker, but they didn't need to, as a second later, the room behind them was flooded with a much paler, much less harsh red light. Emerging out of one of the open stairwells, a dark shape held up up a red crystal that was glowing faintly-- just a little brighter than their D-Rives.

"Shit," Sam murmured, holding his stomach as he tried to nudge Gelermon, who was struggling to get upright herself.

"Ah. Right. Relax," the unfamiliar speaker said, though they could not see its face. "If I wanted to hurt you, I wouldn't have announced myself."


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