Episode 35: Ghost Towns

"This is it?" Gosmon said, voice dripping with disdain, looking around in the red-tinted darkness. Their party of four, at long last, emerged into the sunken temple from one of its many underground inroads, and they had spilled out into a dusty room, far below the surface, quite like many of the others. It wasn't terribly impressive, to say the least.

"This is it, yes," Coniumon replied simply, nudging a fragment of fallen stone away with her nose. "My apologies that it does not," her voice was full of a cold irony, "live up to your standards."

Gosmon glowered and turned away.

Narakamon, however, was far more enthusiastic, and could hardly contain his glee; it was only the fact that the ceilings were low that kept him from jumping for joy, and he seemed prepared to do that anyway.
"This is the place!" he cackled, his laugh a dry rattle. "Can't you feel it? It's so loud!"

"A bit of a fixer-upper, hm?" Pendramon said with a thin smile, unperturbed by Narakamon's manic excitement.

Coniumon did not dignify any of these remarks with a direct response.
Though she knew that he had confronted the refugees, she didn't know what had become of Nithmon; the Whispers had not deigned to tell her that. Frankly, she did not care. Nithmon and his ambitions, his plans for the master's power, and his plans for dealing with the refugees, were none of her concern.
She was quick to adopt this viewpoint with these new potential allies.
"Follow me," she said. "I will not wait if you get lost."

Gosmon muttered something unkind; Coniumon did not deign that with a response either, merely flicked her ears.


In total, it took three days for the refugees to cross the barrens for the second time-- another two full days following where we last left our heroes.
The sort of nice thing about travelling through a dead wasteland is that not a lot happens in it, and we do not need to spend much time on explicating every step of the way; the downside is that without that level of detail, it is very difficult to express exactly how large, how empty, and how lifeless the barrens really were.

There were only a few standout incidents; early on the second day, a minotaur with a bad attitude had come rampaging out of a nearly-invisible cave swinging its machine-gun arm at anything that dared to get within a hundred yards of its hideout. They had dispatched it relatively quickly between the six digimon in champion form; more interesting, though even less pleasant, was the brief argument following its retreat whether they should or should not hold back when fighting.

(Some of the digimon, and their humans as well, were having significant second thoughts about the just fight it until one of them is Defeated approach, when "defeat" was a tad on the lethal side.)

To their credit, they managed to mostly keep their bickering to a relative low -- occasional back and forths between Xander and Peter notwithstanding -- but even they managed to keep a lid on it. Nobody wanted to be here (even though they had all just unanimously decided to be here). Until they at least had something to break up the scenery, they chose to ruminate rather than snip at each other for the most part.

That said, around Desmon's fifteenth are we there yet on the second night of making camp, Gelermon made a valiant attempt to -- using the bandana that Xander had leant to Sam -- tie her mouth shut. No luck, but it was a nice bit of levity to watch Gelermon attempt to body-check Desmon, who waited until just the right moment to kick into the air and out of the dog's reach every time.

And at times, the conversation was downright lighthearted:

"Do you think this is what Nevada is like," Lily mused out loud, apropos of absolutely nothing, in the middle of a particularly boring stretch on the third day. "Just fuckin' miles of rocks and sand and sand and rocks."

"Honestly? It's more like Arizona, just without the cacti," Meghan responded to the facetious question. "And the old people."

Lily had not been expecting a response. "That's... specific."

"We moved around a lot until I was," (Meghan counted off on her fingers quickly) "sixteen?"

"With billy goat gruff?"

"I really resent that this name is catching on," Ibexmon said, a remark that went completely ignored.

"Uh huh. So we lived in Arizona for a while, so I remember it really well."

"Okay, so remember that bit about how you guys need to fill me in on all the backstory I missed before I joined the party?"

"I was born fully formed from the head of Zeus about six months ago," Peter said in utter deadpan without a moment of hesitation.

"Suddenly it all makes sense," Natalie (who had been, if not in a better mood, then at least acting like she was) said, staring into the middle distance.

Okay, so it wasn't much, but it was at least a bit lighter. It felt a little less doom and gloom than the journey to the temple had been. It wasn't that they felt optimistic so much as leaning into the uncertainty of what lay ahead. This was only exacerbated by the fact that they literally could not see what was in front of them, as the haze of distance was only made worse by the arid, dusty landscape. There could well have been vast mountains directly in front of them and they wouldn't have been able to see them.
(And this was verifiable fact, because they were in fact slowly but steadily approaching the northern Halo, and the mountains managed to hide behind the sky.)

As the sun began to set to the west on the third day, the slowly-dying light revealed something of great importance-- a few straggling ashen-white trees dotting the horizon.

They'd had enough emptiness in the past six days to last them for six months, and the fact that they were excited to see the uncanny gnarled trees that disintigrated at the touch was testament to that. They'd almost begun to wonder whether there was an end to the barrens at all.
It wasn't their destination-- it was barely even a starting-point. Even so, a simple change of scenery was damn near cause for celebration, and the fact that it provided even the most basic cover while they travelled was more than enough to push it over the line.

After mere days of the barrens, even disintigrating trees felt like a refreshing change of pace.

(Try not to think about the digimon who have had to deal with this for years.)


Once they were in the Halo again on the fourth day -- at very, very long last -- they had the thankfully easy task of following the low land through a gap in the mountains.
There were so many things to appreciate; the cover of trees, the more solid ground, the ability to see more than a mile away from a vantage point (and the towering mountains on either side of them, miles away in either direction)... sprinkle in the occasional sign of life, and the steady return to actual vegetation, and it was amazing how much more optimistic one could feel when walking away from the lifeless spread of corruption rather than into it.
Go figure.
All in all, all of these improvements made the next day and a half feel almost like a leisurely stroll.

Almost, anyway.

Much as the wind had been curiously loud after the silence of the Halo, the still quiet of the Halo was jarring after the constant howling wind of the barrens; and more urgently, they had to renew their efforts to steer clear of anywhere that might be inhabited. More digimon around meant more digimon who may have a bone pick with them, and they had to be careful. They travelled mostly by foot rather than on the backs of the digimon, not wanting to draw unnecessary attention to themselves, but it did mean that they were moving a bit slower. Why, even Sam and Meghan managed to talk their partners down from insisting otherwise.
And it was hard to tell if it was better or worse when what seemed to be a village was populated, necessitating they be as stealthy as they could-- or when it was entirely empty.

Such was the case with the first village they came upon.

"Hold on," Natalie -- at the front of the group -- said, holding out an arm to signal to the others to stop as they crested a gentle hill. It was easy to see why; on the other side of the hill, hidden from view until they crested, was a clearing, in which was nestled a smattering of rough stone buildings.

"Ight," Xander said, shielding his eyes. "Looks like we can cut that way," he said, indicating a direction that would lead them safely around the perimeter of the little village with minimal risk of being spotted without going too far out of the way (or worse, having to backtrack).

"So long, see you never, village number twenty-two," Desmon chirped.

Meghan interrupted, however, as the group began to lurch to a start. "Um, correct me if I'm wrong, but it doesn't look like there's anyone down there."

"They may just be hiding," Raumon said, though he realized as soon as he'd said it that that was kind of a stupid prospect that they would know and, in total silence, hide themselves at the first signal of their party coming over the hill.

But Meghan was right; nothing moved down in the village, and if they looked very hard, they may even see how many of the buildings were in disrepair. It looked almost like the forest itself, trapped and unchanging in time. They couldn't be sure, but something about it didn't feel like it had been abandoned recently, nor in a hurry.
Maybe that was just their imaginations, though.

"... so, does anybody want to go traipsing down through the empty village?" Gelermon said, her voice adrip in irony.

"Hard pass," Sam said.

"Yeah, that's a fuckin' no," Xander said.

"It is kind of creepy," Meghan admitted, shaking her head.

Nobody had any objections, even if it was less direct. They took the route around, maybe even giving a little wider of a berth than they would have if it had been inhabited.
Gelermon tried not to let her relief show.

When the next village they encountered was much more inhabited, and even more important to stay away from -- and even more of a detour to do so -- it was a strange kind of relief, even when the familiar form of a Strigimon keeping lookout circled the sky not-far-enough away.


So it went for the next two days; for those keeping track, this made five days total since they had set out from the temple, or at least its vicinity. Six days since they had fought Ratamon-Nithmon-whatever-he-was-mon. Thirteen days since they had arrived in this world.
Lily pointed out, once, that if they were in the human world, in two weeks they'd have had a lot more digimon fights. They had been averaging almost one a day when they left, and they'd only had a couple skirmishes in the past week. Clearly, they were getting off easy. Sure, one of them had been the fight with Nithmon, but from a purely mathematical level...
(On another purely mathematical level, they tried not to think about how long was passing in their own world. They weren't sure exactly.)

(A day here was about six hours there-- for now. Every day here was a little less time there as the forced connection re-established itself bit by bit. They'd been gone for more than three days-- not that they had any way to know this.)

But their avoiding trouble was deliberate. They avoided villages, both inhabited and otherwise; mostly it was the former, but every so often they would stumble upon a long-abandoned, or not-so-long abandoned, evidence of civilization.
Sometimes it was clear why they had been left behind; there were scorch marks or signs of a fight. Whether the altercations that drove the inhabitents out happened last week or ten years ago was impossible to discern, but it didn't leave a lot of questions. Others, though, they had simply been left behind.

They pondered this, but nobody had any answers that weren't melancholy at best.

The tensions in the group came and went. At times, they split up a little bit into smaller groups -- not much, just maybe fifty feet apart, just to prevent people (take a guess who) from starting fights for the sake of starting a fight, before rejoining as they had to maneuver around villages or to avoid losing sight of each other over hills.
They were in no goddamn mood to split the party. Not now.

But they'd all changed a little bit since they got here, some more subtly than others. Who knew that a nice near-death experience and passing up the chance to go home would weigh on their minds?

Not helping was the fact that if the digimon had hoped that the whispers in their minds were a thing of the past, though, they were going to be sorely disappointed.
None of them saw fit to bring it up to anyone else, though. For whatever reason -- pride, a desire not to worry the others, the belief that it wasn't worth bringing up -- they all kept their mouths shut, even as their dreams got stranger and stranger with every passing night. They dreamt uneasily of empty villages and an ever-expanding wasteland, storms that encompassed the sky and land and sea and everything concievable in between, red crystal, furtive whispers.


"We should, in all likelihood, make it to the Shrine by tomorrow," Brockmon reassured them as they made their camp for the night on the fifth day. "I think. I can't be certain. I'm not entirely sure about a lot of the details. This isn't exactly my old territory."
Over today, the hills had become shallower, though they never quite flattened out. The mountains lay behind them, bypassed entirely; Brockmon remarked at one point that this passage was somewhat derisively called the gutter, or less crudely, the northern passage. The thick foliage of the Halo's forest was thinning out, though they were still definitely in a place that was forest-adjacent. It was just less overgrown, though that didn't help it to look any more alive. The eerie stillness was a constant.

"You've been a great help," Banmon reassured him quietly. "You know more than we do, at any rate..."

"Yeah, without you, we'd be like," Desmon wiggled her claws for emphasis, "oh, where's the shrine, better pick a direction and go, yeah? We'd have gotten eaten by sand-worms a few days back, probably."

Brockmon almost began to puff up at Banmon's comment, and then Desmon's joking brought him right back down, and he hmphed quietly.

"Watch, though," Natalie said with a sardonic smile. "With our luck whatever's there will tell us to just turn around and go back the way we came all over again. Whoopsies. Got you out of the temple? Go back, try again."

"I hope not," Meghan said on a sigh. "I've seen enough of the middle of nowhere for a while."

"You don't call this the middle of nowhere?" Lily said with a smirk as she gestured around. It was dark and still, and quiet in a way that Atlas Park never was, or never could be. All around them was nothig but forested hills; above them was nothing but stars (were they even real stars?) and the double moons.

"No, see, there's scenery here, so it's scenic nowhere," Raumon piped up. "Mark the difference."

Admittedly, even though there wasn't much around, he had a point; rather than feeling like there was the human world and this world, it almost felt like the barrens couldn't have been contiguous with this place, which was at least sort of pretty.
(It spoke, certainly, to how unnatural the barrens were.)

Before it could get too deep, though, Peter began humming quietly, something about dah dah dah dah 500 miles dup-dup-dup-dup 500 more.
Xander, after a moment of dawning realization, looked like he was about to have an aneurysm as he gestured ineffectually at Meghan in an I TOLD YOU SO kind of way. Desmon promptly lost her mind laughing; Oremon attempted to shush her, but all this served to do was add a slapstick element to proceedings, making the laughter problem worse as others joined in.

A short distance away from the rest of the group -- still within line of sight -- Sam was poking at his D-Rive, seated on a fallen tree trunk. He'd excused himself because he needed a little time away from everyone; aside from a few jabs about don't split the party again, the rest let him have whatever space he needed alone.

On the march out to the Barrens, Sam had mentioned not overmuch caring about getting home, having nobody to answer to. He hadn't been saying it to seem unaffected. He just hadn't really considered the possibility of something bad actually happening. He thought the worst that might happen is that they may take too long to do whatever they were here to do.
That had changed in a damn quick hurry.
Now, with a little more near-death experience and new holes in his body that were healing not-fast-enough, he had reconsidered his stance somewhat. But he'd made his choice to stay; he'd had the chance to bail out. He hadn't. Part of that was that he felt something almost like an obligation to figure the D-Rives out.
Being here had only made them more confusing. That was a puzzle to uncover, right? He just had to think of it like that.

"Are you just poking at that thing out of habit, or is it actually being useful?"

For a given value of alone, of course, because of course Gelermon was at his heel wherever he went.
Gelermon's comments stirred him only half-way from his thoughts, and he hummed from his chest.

"More the former than the latter," he admitted after a moment.

"Look on the bright side," Gelermon said, glancing up at him; she was laid down on her belly at his feet. "Soon you'll be able to ask whoever made it all the questions your weird little heart could ever want, providing Sienimon didn't feed us a load of bull."

Sam hummed. "Hopefully," he said.

"If we get blueballed on this, I'm gonna be pissed. Your wanting to get answers to that are like, what, half of why we're still here?" When Gelermon said we, she was referring exclusively to herself and Sam.

She wasn't entirely wrong.

In truth, Sienimon had said only that he had known who had given them the D-Rives; he didn't say that they'd be at the shrine themselves, whoever they were. In fact, he hadn't even really told them what they'd find there except hopefully a new sense of direction, but hey, Sam could hope. The D-Rives had plagued his brain for so much of the past few months that the possibility of getting to give an intellectual shakedown to whoever sent them was tantalizing.

But Gelermon just sounded... not even sarcastic so much as bitterly ironic. He wasn't getting his hopes up.


Come mid-morning, they as a collective were in the midst of circling around the ridge of a crater-like valley, about a mile across, with a massive -- though still quite archaic-looking -- settlement at the bottom, much larger than anything they had seen in the Halo.
They could see digimon of all sizes, mostly small rookie-levels but a few larger ones scattered here and there, moving around, conducting their business as best they could. It almost felt weird to see something that could actually qualify as a town, with market stalls and buildings with more than one room. They were still fairly crude, almost distressingly low-tech for a place literally called the digital world, but, well.

You don't realize you haven't seen a window that has curtains in two weeks until you see a curtain for the first time in two weeks.

It's the little things, you know?
On other parts of the hill surrounding the valley, groundbound digimon made their way in and out, following worn paths. They stuck to the paths, mostly, and were infrequent enough that -- as far as they knew -- the refugees were able to pass unnoticed as they cut around the way, following the top of the hill along its ridge.

And they indeed had to stay well away. It felt worse than they had anticipated it would.
It seems there was no end to the fascinating ways any sign of life in this world, past or present, made them feel.

"The shrine should be just over this pass," Brockmon said, indicating the other side of the valley. "It's just a couple miles away from the town."

"You and I have different definitions of 'just over this pass'," Desmon said. "See, if it were that far away I'd say, 'it's over this pass and then a few miles more'."

"I'm not sure why you're complaining," Xander said, for indeed, Desmon was riding piggy-back on his back.

Desmon grinned.

"So there a direction we should approach the shrine from?" Raumon said. "Are we just going to loop around and come in from an angle, or...?"

"We'll figure out a plan when we're closer and know what our options are," Natalie said. "No point making plans before we know what we're dealing with."

"Hear that?" Desmon, who was being more of a motor-mouth than usual (which was horrifying and impressive), said to nobody in particular. "That sounds more like the Natalie we know, love, and are bossed around by." Natalie looked like she wasn't sure whether to be mildly flattered or mildly offended.

"But she's right, regardless," Brockmon said, seemingly grateful for the chance to seem rational and smart. "We may encounter a lot of resistance. We'd probably encounter a lot of resistance even if we were Shitomon and company. We'll have to see what our options are, what we're dealing with, before we make any concrete plans."

"Do you think we might have to fight our way in...?" Banmon said tentatively.

"Most likely," Brockmon said with a nod.

Banmon lowered her eyes to the ground, and then cast them to the side to look down the hill at the town.

Gelermon gave Banmon a curious look, then snapped right back to her brash self. "We'll be fine," she said, glib, affecting confidence. "Heck, you can probably sit back and not worry about it, ghost-girl. I've been hungry for a good fight. If anything happens just let me deal with your part of it."

Oremon looked like he wanted to say something, but he conspicuously held his tongue.

They moved as quickly as they could, not wanting to risk being spotted if there was any way to avoid it. It was hard not to look down -- through the tall grass, the sparse trees -- at the town below them. Bird-type digimon came and went by air, giving the travelers pause, but the birds came and went in a way that felt casual, like messengers or couriers or travelers, rather than scouts. They got the impression that there may have been a few more buildings than residents -- like the population had been higher in the past -- but big and small, digimon went about their business in a way they hadn't been privy to before now.
To be honest, it was almost jarring to see what looked like it might have passed for normalcy. The Halo had been sparsely populated and mostly abandoned; they were in the hinterlands beyond the Halo, now.

It was hard not to wonder how long this town would stand-- if the outward creep of the Barrens would reach this far.


The last few miles went by mercifully quickly. Maybe they just wanted to get past the town as fast as possible.

"It should be around here," Brockmon reassured them more than once, but he sounded a little bit unsure of himself each time.

They couldn't see anything remarkable, even as they got the promised few miles past the town and beyond. More hills rolled like waves, gentle enough that the hike up them was assuaged by the assurance that the other side would be an easy downhill stroll. Not that it didn't get a little griping here and there, but so little had gone wrong that it was hardly the worst thing that could happen. They could get ready for whatever they'd have to do to get into the shrine.

They hadn't noticed it-- because there had been no way to notice it. They had simply begun the hike up a particularly tall hill, hoping for a vantage point once they reached the top. Maybe they'd be able to scout around, see where the shrine might be, with a little bit of extra height.

So they crested that hill, and only then did they see that the north face of that big hill was missing entirely.

And they had most definitely found the shrine.

It was not nestled up against the hill, nor was it carved into it. It was instead like a huge rectangular divot had been scooped out of the land, and in the empty space, the open-air courtyard had simply been left behind. The shrine looked as though it had once been impressive, but now it stood in the kind of disrepair that can only come from the passage of hundreds of years. Stone arches that once opened into tunnels under the hill now framed only caved-in walls of rubble; a pair of half-collapsed staircases curved up along the edges of the shrine, leading to a landing that they could not see, as they were currently standing on the overhang that shaded it-- or at least, on the hill that sat on top of the overhang.

It looked like the earth had been trying to reclaim it, but hadn't quite managed yet. Since nothing had grown here for the past fifteen years, it had to have been like this for quite some time.

The center of the shrine, the space in between the crescent-moon shape of the symmetrical staircases was a pool of water, at the heart of which stood a statue made of a smooth blueish crystal. It was the first thing they saw, thirty feet's worth of sheer drop from the edge of the overhang.
Three hooded humanoid shapes stood in a half-circle. Behind each one's head was a disc that gave the impression of a halo; these discs were metallic, but so tarnished that it was hard to tell this at first glance. This level of disrepair and neglect was carried throughout the statue, though they couldn't make the details out from up above. It stood slightly askew, its base having sunk slightly on one side.

The area around the statue was flooded under a foot or two of water that showed off the un-evenness of the ground. The water stood still, stagnant, and yet was crystal-clear and clean. Thick, ropey vines clung to every possible surface. It felt like the exact opposite of the sunken temple in the barrens, in every way; it was serene and looked alive, in disrepair but in a way that was comfortable and not disconcerting. At least, not quite as disconcerting as other locales they'd been.

What was at least a little disconcerting was that it was completely silent, just as the ghost-town villages had been before.

No opposition. Nothing stopping them. No digimon that they could see at all. And yet they knew, instantly, upon first sight, that this was what they had been looking for.

"This is it?" Raumon said. He flicked his ear-feathers and glanced around, like he was waiting for something to jump out. Nothing did.

"And here we thought we'd meet a bunch of opposition," Xander said, looking to Brockmon.

Brockmon opened his mouth, and closed it again. "... I thought we would," he said after a moment, and there was a strange tension in his voice.

They'd been preparing to have to struggle their way in. They'd been preparing for a fight. They'd been preparing to have needed to see it in the distance and plan ahead.
Instead, they stumbled across it by accident and there wasn't even a welcoming party.

Why didn't this feel like a victory?

"Forgive me if I don't trust this," Oremon said, folding his arms.

They stood for a moment.
Natalie took a deep breath, sighed, and began to descend the hill. She was going to investigate.

"Yeah, let's just waltz right in," Sam said, his voice flat.

But did anyone else have any ideas? Nope. As Natalie -- with Raumon quick on her heels -- began to descend the slope, the others (Sam and Gelermon included) gradually followed.
The slanted statue -- depicting the Norns, most definitely -- stayed in their peripheral vision as they half-jogged down the hill. The figures were too long in the arm and leg to look quite right, and the effect was not helped by the fact that huge chunks of the statue were missing from their arms, heads, bodies. What had once surely been an impressive feat of artistic carving, making hewn crystal look like flowing fabric and ribbon, was now crumbling in a way that destroyed the illusion.

Even so, it almost felt like it was watching them.

Taking care of where they stepped, the group reached the bottom and turned to look at the Shrine of the Norns properly, head-on.

"So what are we dealing with here," Peter said, hands in his pockets; he barely seemed to be asking, merely stating it out into the air.

"One of the most holy sites on the continent," Brockmon said. He seemed to still be reeling that they hadn't met any opposition. "The shrine of the first digimon. Empty."

"Maybe it's just always like this?" Meghan said hopefully, but she didn't sound sure of herself. She was just throwing out ideas.

Lily bit the inside of her mouth in thought. "Well, I'm not going to complain," she said. "Come on. Let's take a look around."

"Let's not go in anywhere where we'd lose sight of each other," Natalie said quickly, pointing to the few tunnels that weren't completely caved in. "Stay within 'everyone can hear you if you start screaming bloody murder' range."

"Sounds like my kind of distance metric," Desmon said, grinning. Oremon and Xander pulled almost identical faces in unison, and Meghan poorly stifled a giggle.

"What are we looking for, exactly?" Sam said once they regained composure, which was an excellent question.

"Anything," Natalie said, glancing around with her hands on her hips. "If it helps us have any idea what's here or where to go from here, it's what we're looking for."

"And if it's a digimon hell-bent on murdering us, it's not what we're looking for, but speak up anyway," Raumon added, ever-helpful.

Before they'd even finished these instructions though, Peter and Banmon had-- well. Not split apart from the group. But they'd already seen something; Peter, with Banmon on his shoulders, walked right up to the nearest wall where the flat-faced stone melded with the earth of the hill. The stone was almost entirely covered in intricate carved images.

"Doesn't this look familiar?" Peter said, adjusting his glasses as the others gathered - with varying levels of intensity - to see what he was looking at.

Banmon answered his question for him. "We definitely saw these before," she said quietly, reaching out with one fabric hand, but hesitating before actually touching the stone pictures.
Indeed, they were very similar indeed to the carvings they had seen on the sunken temple's walls, but now they could see them in the daylight rather than by the glowing red crystal, and they could see some important things with that in mind. In particular, the one figure that was composed of three individual humanoid figures; they had seen it before in the temple, and now they realized that it bore a distinct resemblance to the statue behind them.

In an instant, the walls were of great interest, and they spread out just a bit to see what they could find-- and there was a lot to find.

"The Norns," Brockmon explained, pointing to the trio of figures, "were the first digimon ever to exist. They created the Digital World as we know it," and he pointed to a familiar image of them holding a flower blooming into a tree, "but doing so cost them much of their power, and so they appointed Dinmon to rule." He paused and turned away.
"The rest of the story varies depending on who you ask."

He didn't seem particularly keen to share past that.

"Look at this one," Raumon said, indicating with one claw an image of two angelic figures clashing in battle. One angel, with the head of a dragon, bore a sword that clashed against the shield of the other, who wore a horned helmet. Depicted in careful shallow relief in the stone, a fissure-like canyon spread out both up and down from the point where the weapon met shield.

"Two guesses who that is," Lily said, pointing to the angel with the horned helmet. Brockmon glanced away disdainfully, almost automatically, and that confirmed it. Dinmon.
So that meant that the dragon-headed angel was... whatever Ratamon had been, long ago.

If they followed the carving along horizontally -- and up the nearest staircase -- they saw more images. Crowds of digimon, armies, splitting into two massive factions; Ratamon-Angel impaled on Dinmon's spear; the disintigration of an ornate temple until nothing remained where once had stood a massive castle.

"Artistic liberty?" Xander drawled. "Totally missing the freaky-ass spires sticking out of the ground. Like whoever made this had never even been out to the middle of nowhere hellscape."

At least it proved that these were more recent than the ones in the temple, for whatever good that did them.

Following this were dozens of images that they could make sense of only in the academic sense; they had no context for them. Wars being waged, the horned angel performing great deeds, countless fires and armies and monsters.

"Man, now I'm wondering if I shouldn't have paid more attention in my medieval literature class," Natalie muttered, unable to stop herself from making a bit of a joke. But she had a point, of sorts.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but we didn't fuckin' come here for an ancient history lesson," Xander said.

"Check this one out!"
Right on cue, Meghan -- who had wandered to the other side of the landing -- was pointing to another carving on the wall.

It was done in a much cruder hand, obviously by a different carver than had crafted the other depictions. That alone was enough to make it at least interesting, but its content was something familiar. It depicted the earth breaking apart to release a cloud-like figure that closely resembled the Ratamon angel, just more bestial. The next images in the series showed the dragon head of the cloud swirling around other figures, speaking into their ears.

No prizes for guessing what that was supposed to represent.

"Well, it's gotta be newer than the others," Lily hazarded a guess, pointing. "Since the Whisperer shit only started up, like, a hundo years ago? By the local clock, I mean."

"And doesn't it show that whoever carved this was under the impression that the Whisperer and Ratamon are the same thing?" Meghan proposed, thinking out loud. "Which isn't surprising. I mean, like, I'm pretty sure we're probably some of the only ones that know?"

"So what we're learning is that we're going up against something nobody knows shit about," Sam said flatly.

A moment of silence ensued.

"What was that Sienimon said?" Brockmon said then, like he already knew the answer. "About not wanting to share information in case it fell into the wrong hands?"
It was a statement laden with quite a few different implications, and nobody missed them.

But there was one last thing on the wall that stopped all other thought, and as Banmon pointed it out with only a silent gesture, nobody had anything particular more to say.

And this last thing was indeed the last carved image was five humanoid figures. One had a bird's head; one had dragon-like (or was it bat-like?) wings. One had a bare human skull on an otherwise featureless human body. One had a wolf's head and legs; the last had long curved horns and hooflike feet. The dragon-headed cloud swirled in and out between them as they ran towards a massive fissure in the sky.
A creature with many tails, one with angel wings, and one with a very long tail gave chase, with Dinmon giving the order to charge.

A massive crack ran down the wall through the image-- not a carved one, a genuine place where the stone had given.


Peering out from behind a crack in one of the caved-in tunnels, a small digimon peered out.
It meant the travelers no harm. In fact, the fact that they were here was cause for celebration. It meant that Sienimon had passed on the information he had been told to pass on.

Now that they were here, she could guide them along-- without being seen, of course.

The Norns, and those who serve them, do not trade in spectacle. Especially not in times like these, where the wrong person with the right info could be disastrous.

Even with almost no light to see by, she still turned around and shuffled down into the dark.


About fifteen minutes had passed; they'd spread out around the shrine. The carving on the walls held no more wisdom for them, and so they set themselves to seeing what else they could find. It wasn't much, to be honest, but they'd come this far. They'd gone out on a limb on Sienimon's advice.
They were damn well gonna do their best to follow through, you know?

"Hey, something moved!"

Everyone snapped to attention right-quick when Meghan cried out. Nobody else saw it, but Oremon was quick to fall into a fighting pose. For maybe fifteen seconds, all eyes and ears were on the alert.
A twig snapped up on the hill, and it seemed loud as a thunderclap.

And then-- nothing else moved or made a sound.

They held their breath.

If they strained, they swore they could almost hear the town a few miles back.

So distracted they were by this that for a few moments, nobody noticed what had changed.

The tunnel closest to the statue of the Norns -- at ground level, and so close that if the water rose a few more inches, the tunnel would begin to flood as well -- was only about five feet deep before it caved in on itself, so they hadn't worried too much about what was inside it. But now, sitting at the mouth of the tunnel was a piece of rough parchment, maybe a foot and a half wide in either direction, with ragged edges. It had definitely not been there a few minutes ago.

It was all very convenient.

"Great! Messages from nobody, in a shrine full of nothing. I feel very welcome," Desmon said cheerfully. "Who wants to volunteer to pick it up? Not it."

By the time she had disclaimed herself from responsibility, Brockmon was already volunteering himself. As those on the landing came down to see what was going on, he picked it up gingerly and (realizing that big blunt claws were not the ideal mode of handling potentially-fragile paper) handed it to Lily.

"Gather round, everyone," Lily said facetiously, but facetious or not, they already were, and she did her best to hold it in a way that the most people and digimon could see.

It wasn unremarkable piece of thick parchment, but its surface was covered in drawings. They looked for all the world like notebook doodles done in blunt and crumbly charcoal, with mistakes scribbled out in large dark clouds.

In the topmost left corner, the Norns held something between their hands that sent out beams of (presumably) light in every direction.
Next to it -- spaced just far enough to show it was a different image -- was a very crude humanoid shape with a smaller, inelegant beast-like shape next to it. It walked on all fours, but had a beak, leathery wings, horns, and a long snake's tail, all mashed together into one creature, as though the artist couldn't quite make up their mind as to what they wanted to draw. Regardless of the roughness, these two figures also had beams of light emanating from them, complete with sparkles.
The third image in the sequence showed the humanoid figure, still holding their hand up with a light shining from it, and the chimeric creature was much bigger, uglier, and even messier.

Below all of this, in a drawing that took up most of the page, the humanoid and the little chimera stood before an approximation of Dinmon, in between a pair of very inelegant (and extremely not to scale) mountains, with the three hooded figures of the Norns floating above them, their arms spread.

Below it, like a caption, was a word written in large but well-formed letters that they did not recognize. Or, rather, it was in the strange letters that they only recognized from the D-Rive's unreadable functions. They recognized them well enough; what they couldn't do was read them.

Except, possibly--

Brockmon stood up on his hind legs, and practically on tiptoe at that, to look at the parchment. He peered at the word and furrowed his brow. He hadn't read any text in this script for well over fifteen years; it was only used for religious texts, and those were never exactly his go-to reading materials.
"It looks like... 'movement'?" He said, then paused, rolled the thoughts in his head. He corrected himself. "'Go quickly'."

"This had better not be implying what I think it's implying," Xander said flatly.

"You got any other ideas?" Lily said. Xander, amazingly, had nothing to say back.

"... so, the Norns were the first digimon, you said?" Raumon said, a little wryly, looking at Brockmon.


The conversation went in many directions all at once. Xander pointed out that, first of all, they were taking advice from a piece of paper; second of all, they had no way to verify it; and third of all, anything telling them that it was a good idea to go march up to Dinmon probably did not have their best interests in mind. Natalie pointed out that nobody except Sienimon, and now whoever had penned the parchment, had displayed any concept of the D-Rives. That wasn't hard evidence of anything, of course, but it was a very narrow pattern.
The fact that it had shown up suddenly, clearly having been left by something they hadn't seen, was not inspiring a lot of confidence, either. They had just started to get comfortable in the absence of digimon here, but now that assurance was gone.

They'd recieved no explanation about anything about the D-Rives, except that they -- apparently -- were at least tangentially related to the Norns, who were at least tangentially related to Dinmon, but... Sienimon had not spoken kindly of Dinmon. He had said he didn't serve him.

It would have been great to know more than one step ahead at any moment, but-- well. The wrong information falling into the wrong hands, right? Had Sienimon known anything, or had 'tell them to go to the shrine' the extent of his knowledge?
Though to be fair, probably would not have come this far if they'd known that was where they were going to be pointed to, though. Maybe that was part of the point. Now it was their one clue as to the next move to make; it was, they realized, one of the first times they had definite outside instruction for what to do, instead of having to make do with their own often-faulty intuition.

("I'm not running into the mouth of a god who, by all appearances, still wants us dead, just because some random-ass piece of paper in the middle of nowhere said so," Xander said, folding his arms.

"Do you have any better ideas?" Peter said.

"Yeah. Literally anything else.")

Nobody was thrilled about this turn of events, but do you have any better ideas? was the phrase of the day, it seemed. They'd already comitted. They didn't want to go back into the Barrens if they could possibly help it, but was this actually that much worse?

They had to weigh their options carefully.

And so they did, sitting in a loose collection near the wall, along one of the staircases, Brockmon was explaining a rough route. They'd have to keep going north until they couldn't anymore. Hopefully, they'd find something in between here and there that gave them a better clue-- if they decided to go through with this.
Nobody was excited, but one party member in particular was less than thrilled.

"I'm going to go keep watch, make sure we don't get ambushed by any more surprise message-leavers," Gelermon said, standing up and not waiting for a response before she took off to circle up onto the hill.

Sam wordlessly excused himself to follow her, but her mind was elsewhere. She scaled the hill quickly, and sat down in the spare and gnarled trees up there, staring without much focus back towards the hills that concealed the town around which they had skirted.

Memories slipped in and out of place. The Norns.
She couldn't remember the details, not altogether, but she was certain from the weight in her chest and the pre-memories pulling at the threads of her brain they had been no help to her at all fifteen years ago.

Not like anyone had been a big help.
Not like there was ever anyone worth putting her faith in.
But this was a bitterness she hadn't been altogether expecting.

What had she been expecting, anyway? That they'd get here, they'd have a nice sit-down and have everything explained to them? Of course not. Especially not here. That's not how the Norns worked. (She didn't know why she knew that. She didn't know why she had been so uncomfortable since they reached the hinterlands-- or maybe she just didn't want to think about it.)

Sam caught up to her and took a silent seat next to her.

"Sorry you didn't get any answers," she said after a few long minutes.

"Eh, I wasn't really counting on it," he said right back. She could tell he wasn't being entirely truthful, and she snorted. He leaned back on his hands and looked at her. He looked like he was going to say something, ask a question -- almost assuredly are you alright -- but he didn't.
Instead, he said, in his best horrible drawl:
"You from 'round these parts?"

Gelermon snorted and shook her head no, an immediate reflex, then paused, and much slower: "Yeah, probably. Who knows. Don't worry, though, I'm not gonna freak out and catalyst evolve again just 'cause we're here."
Sam smiled thinly, but didn't laugh.

"I take exception to that," Oremon said, giving both Sam and Gelermon an incredible start. Gelermon snapped to attention, her fur standing up as she whipped around before she realized it was Oremon and not an actively hostile force. She only relaxed about halfway, because, you know, it was still Oremon.

He was trudging up the hill and closing the distance between them as they turned around. Meghan was a short distance behind him, but closing the distance at a decent pace.

"I don't take it back," Gelermon muttered. If Oremon was offended, he didn't say anything. She lost all drive to talk about any of her thoughts or feelings now that they had an external audience.

"Something happen down there?" Sam said with an inclination of his head and a gesture of his wrist. "Any conclusions being reached? Since I'm figuring that's why you're here."

Meghan shook her head. "Just wanted to make sure everything was alright."

Sam furrowed his brow. "Why."

Meghan opened her mouth and closed it again, then looked slightly abashed. "You and Gelermon have been just-- you know--" she gestured vaguely in a way meant to evoke going off on your own, but she didn't manage to articulate it verbally.

"Everyone's just loud," Gelermon said dismissively. "Can't blame us for wanting to get away."

"In fairness," Sam said, "you're loud."

"Yeah, there's only room for one of us," Gelermon said right back.

Meghan tilted her head at their banter, and then, bafflingly, smiled faintly. "I just think everyone's kind of stressed out, that's all. Just making sure, you know?"
Oremon folded his arms and looked away grumpily.

Sam looked at Meghan for a moment more. It wasn't unpleasant, but it was just sorta weird that she was going out of her way to--
Then an idea struck him-- one he hadn't had the chance to ask about until just now.
"Did you tell Xander to give me the thing to wrap my stomach." His questions were coming out more as flat statements. "Back in the Barrens."

Meghan blinked and tilted her head. "No?" she said. "Why would I have?"

"You're probably rubbing off on him, then," Sam said, standing up while Meghan turned a faint shade of pink. "We're fine. Don't worry about it."

"She worries," Oremon said, with the implication of she worries, it's what she DOES. He paused, then looked at Gelermon. "You are from around here, then?"

"Hey, don't listen in on private conversations, goatboy," Gelermon muttered, then shrugged and nodded once.

"Well." Oremon paused. "Hopefully your luck will be better than mine when it comes to running into old... friends."

"Wow, was that a joke?" Gelermon said with a smirk. "Sound the alarms. But I don't need the luck."

"Shut up and accept the--" Whatever he was going to say was cut off by a distant sound like--
Well, it was hard to explain what kind of sound it was.

It was kind of screechy and scrape-y, almost like a roar and almost like a howl. It was distant, coming from the direction of the town, but the sound carried this far. Sam, Meghan, Oremon, and Gelermon all immediately jerked their attention to it.

Really, Gelermon had said she was going to do lookout just as an excuse to get away, but it turned out it may have been for the best. A thin line of dark smoke rose up over the hills and the trees. In mere minutes -- as they hoped it was just something mundane, though they feared it wasn't -- it was expanding, flowing out in spidery patterns that blotted parts of the sky out like ink. Even without wind to carry it, it seemed to move of its own accord.

"What on--" Meghan began, but before she could finish the sentence she gagged as the smell of the smoke hit her.

It smelled not only like fire smoke but like something putrid-- like rotten meat and burning rubber and something unpleasantly ripe, all combined into a suffocating smog.

"Hey, guys!" Sam yelled at the top of his lungs, cupping his hand around his mouth, just in case they somehow hadn't heard or smelled it yet down in the shrine. "Cut the chitchat for a second and get up here!"

Gelermon hadn't smelled a thing before they saw the smoke, but now it was the only thing filling her nostrils. She clapped one paw over her snout to cover her nose, lest it overwhelm her, and as she did, she saw something moving down below them.

A digimon -- a small green monkey, almost blending in with the grass -- was staring at the smoke rising in the distance. She had no idea where it had come from. In the blink of an eye, it looked right at Gelermon. It hesitated for a moment, then lifted one gloved hand and pointed one finger very emphatically to the north, like it was telling her to ignore the smoke and go north.

One more blink and it was gone, dashing off quick as lightning.

Any thought she would have spared for it was gone as the others came rushing up the hill, already covering their mouths with scarves, shirts, paws, claws, anything they could pull over their lower faces, or at least their noses.

"Ah, shit," Lily said, really capturing the mood.


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