Episode 38: Afraid of Heights

It had been four days since the fire and their encounter with Vicimon. That made eighteen days in total since they had arrived in this world.

Following Gelermon's little field trip (the details of which she was reticent to share), they were doing a great job of not splitting the party, even by night. Everyone stayed well within eyeshot of each other as they traveled northward, even if they sometimes staggered themselves out a little to be a little less conspicuous. It was a pain, and it was not making for an entirely pleasant time as fatigue and stress dug deeper into them-- but it was safer, and that took precedence.

The further north they went, the more villages and towns they stumbled across. Many of them were abandoned, but more than once, they had flirted with danger, skirting too close to a village they thought was uninhabited and that turned out to be nothing of the sort. But even with these incidents, the villages they found were empty more often than they weren't. On one hand, it was a relief; on the other hand, it was more than a little unnerving.

When they had talked to her, Martyamon had said the Digital World had felt like it was dying, and it was hard to argue that.
It had been one thing to see that in action out in the barrens. For the most part, there was nothing there; there were no reminders of the past out in the sand. It had been disquieting, for sure, but it was all just bare sand and stone. There was nothing to signify that it had ever been alive. It was different, wandering through the ruins of a world that had been inhabited once-- or that was still inhabited, but only by sheer stubbornness, clinging by tooth and nail with a fading grip. Plants that did not grow, and had not grown in decades; the crumbled remains of villages that had burned, or been buried.

By point of comparison: the surface of the moon and a post-apocalyptic city are unnerving for different reasons. It wasn't merely that nothing was alive, but that there were ample signs of former life now trapped in undeath.

Of course, this didn't do much to make it any more fun when they did encounter signs of life.

"Red Thorn!" The RedVeggiemon roared, its voice a glitchy gurgle, and as it spoke, its vines stretched like elastic. The thorny clubs that tipped its vines smacked directly into Banshemon and Doctorimon, even as they went in different directions, and both ghost and plague doctor were sent tumbling into the trees that surrounded them. They'd already seen those vines break tree trunks with ease, so the pain wasn't a surprise. They were ready and willing to take the hits and braced for them; they were just trying to give their allies a chance to get in, themselves.

"Arctic Impact!" Melemon roared, ice swirling around his paws. With heavy loping bounds, he raced into melee range with RedVeggiemon and tore into its botanical flesh. The icy energy surrounding his claws began to freeze the point of impact, helping to slightly dull the noxious smell that filled the air as the vegetable digimon bounced backwards away from the badger-bear's attack. Only slightly, though.

"I swear, nothing is going to smell bad in comparison to this after we get home," Lily said in deadpan, grimacing as she pulled her shirt over her nose.

"Thanks for the optimism," Peter drawled in a tone of voice that would be dripping with sarcasm, if not for how bone-dry it was.

"No problem!" Lily chirped back as though the comment were sincere.

When they had stumbled upon it by accident, they had initially thought that the RedVeggiemon had been in a bad mood, simply irate at having been disturbed. These woods were dark and quiet, after all, with the trees towering over them so high they couldn't see the sky through the uppermost branches, and only half the fast-fading sunlight reached the ground. Any small disturbance would feel much bigger than it was when you're accustomed to quiet. It had quickly become apparent, however, that RedVeggiemon was in a mood to show off some apparently quite newfound power.

"New Moon Fire!" Frekimon roared, a blast of emerald flames singeing RedVeggiemon's back.

RedVeggiemon gurgled and roared, whipping around to face Frekimon-- just in time for Ibexmon to smash into its now-turned back, horns-first. It gritted its teeth in its beaklike mouth and furrowed its brow in pain, quick to lash out. "Red Thorn!" RedVeggiemon's clublike extremeties stretched out to incredible length and it swung wildly, without even the presence of mind to aim for anyone in particular. It snapped thick boughs and crashed straight through brittle tree trunks, sending a flurry of pebbles, dirt, and splintered wood into the air.

"Hurricane Blitz!" Corymon descended out of the tall trees above them like a cannonball, wind whipping around her. She pulled out of her dive right before she would have impacted RedVeggiemon; the orb of wind that surrounded her cleared the debris out of the air with a mighty gust as it burst against the plant digimon's body. By the time RedVeggiemon caught sight of what had hit it, Corymon had risen with a set of powerful wingbeats back up into the darkness above them.

"Any time you guys wanna get this over with!" Xander yelled, cupping his hands around his mouth and wincing as he ducked an errant rock the size of a golf ball that had gone flying. With a loud thunk, the rock smashed into the tree trunk behind him, embedding itself in the wood like a bullet. He didn't care to think what would have happened had he not moved away in time.

"Yeah, we're working on it!" Frekimon yelled back, and she growled as she turned back to RedVeggiemon as it began to right itself. Its body was distorting more powerfully with every jerky movement, and the rotten smell was getting worse in turn. "Hey! Bird boy! Can we kill this overgrown salad or what!?" she snapped. "I think it's pretty clear it's taken up the whisper shit!" She indicated the side of her head with one claw, as if to indicate a literal being touched in the head.

Doctorimon grimaced, but raised his staff at RedVeggiemon.
"Face of Judgment!" Doctorimon called, and the others knew well that whatever color fire he created was their signal. If out spilled white flames, they would turn and run; if it was instead the burning black ones, they would go for broke and keep fighting. In order to curb circular arguments about if they could have handled something, or if a digimon were truly Whisper-corrupted beyond help, he had started to take this decision into his own hands-- if only because he was the only one willing to shoulder the blame for a potential error in judgment.

At the last moment, Doctorimon wrenched his staff backwards, and a stream of white flame signalling retreat spilled into the air above his head. The direction of the flames' arc indicated which direction to go, and that was all the instruction they needed.

"Goddammit!" Frekimon snarled, baring her teeth as she dodged under a swinging vine-club aimed right at her head, but even through her frustration, she immediately scanned around for where Sam was crouching behind a tree for shelter. The sudden movement was a boon; RedVeggiemon only had one pair of eyes, and it was focused mostly on Doctorimon.
The humans rushed for their partners; Corymon swooped out of the sky and Xander practically leapt for her, while Ibexmon and Frekimon barely had to stop to toss their partners over their heads and onto their backs. Melemon barrelled forward straight through a half-snapped tree and Lily helped to pull Natalie onto his back, while Banshemon grabbed Peter in her arms and rose into the air alongside Corymon.

"Red Thorn!" RedVeggiemon roared, thrashing a vine out in a wild swipe, and Doctorimon only barely avoided it with a backwards leap. He leapt backwards again, and again, turning around midair on one of the leaps with a mighty twist of his body, and only then took off at a full-tilt run. Ignoring their wounds, they ran at a tear, tearing a streak across the uneven ground and through the darkening sky.

Despite its best efforts, RedVeggiemon could not move as quickly as they could; it was less agile, and they could far more easily duck and weave through the trees than it could. RedVeggiemon (and, thankfully, its rotten stench) soon faded away behind them, a cacophany of snapping branches and horrible gurgling roars, but they couldn't risk stopping too soon.

Only once it faded from their hearing did they slow. They would have kept going for quite a ways further, under ideal circumstances, but they hadn't had the chance to recuperate from their fight. They had been running on borrowed time from the moment they had turned tail. This fatigue caught up to Ibexmon first, and he was not helped by his insistence on keeping to the front of the pack. Stepping wrong on an injured leg, he stumbled, and his speed carried him into a full-on tumble. Meghan -- already in an awkward position from how quickly she had been tossed onto her partner's back -- dug her hands into his mane and held on for dear life as they hit the ground, and she cried out (albeit more from surprise than from pain).

"Hold the fuck up!" Xander yelled from somewhere up above, but nobody really needed the instruction. Only Frekimon had been keeping pace with Ibexmon, and though for a moment it seemed like she was about to keep running, she too came to a stop to look over her shoulder as the rest of the group slowed, and those in the air descended to the ground.

"I'm fine," Ibexmon growled before anybody had actually asked, and tried to push himself up, but he struggled; Meghan quickly clambered off of his back to kneel beside him, her hand on his side. As Frekimon backtracked to join them at Sam's insistence, it seemed that the decision had been made for them to stop.

"Let me," Doctorimon said, kneeling on Ibexmon's other side, his staff gripped in hand. Ibexmon narrowed his eyes, but said nothing. As Doctorimon's white flames spilled over his wounds, he closed his eyes instead, exhaling on a sigh as the pain left his body.

"You got any more of that woogie magic?" Corymon said, spreading her wings out dramatically. "I could use a bit of freshening up."

"... give me a moment," Doctorimon said, shaking his head somberly.

"Yeah," Frekimon said, glancing derisively at Corymon, "first priority goes to those of us who actually have to stay in this form outside of fights." Corymon let the thinly veiled insult roll off her back and she stuck her tongue out in return; Banshemon, who had not been addressed but who was being implicated in this as well, shrunk in on herself and murmured a quiet apology to nobody in particular.

Natalie frowned. "If you guys are tired," she said, disembarking from Melemon's back, "we can take a break." Before she'd even finished speaking, though, she knew the offer was going to go over poorly.

"We're fine," Ibexmon said gruffly, getting to his feet with purpose and intention this time.

"... I think Natalie is right," Banshemon began. She set Peter down on the ground and then looked between Frekimon, Melemon, and Ibexmon in turn. "If you need to take a break, I'm sure..." she tried to continue, but Ibexmon turned to regard her, and she immediately fell silent, as though his eyes had rendered her mute.

"She's just trying to be considerate," Peter said, folding his arms. "Cut her a break. Frekimon was just complaining about having to stay evolved."

"Probably a bit late for that," Sam said, idly poking at his D-Rive rather than making eye contact, "considering she's been getting free rides courtesy of Frekimon this entire time."

"She weighs less than a pound," Peter shot right back, narrowing his eyes, "and you don't have a lot of room to talk about--"

"Hey, guys? Can we not do this right now? Or, maybe, like, ever?" Meghan said, her voice a little desperate. Sam and Peter glanced at each other and the fight quickly fell out of them. It was trading barbs for the sake of it, and the argument -- they knew -- was a stupid one.

"That said, I would err on the side of caution," Doctorimon said as he set himself to the task of administering healing to the other digimon. "I would rather be prepared for anything. We're going to be at our destination," he said, vaguely, refusing to say it by name, as though saying Dinmon would summon eyes on them that they'd rather not have, "sooner than later."

Melemon nodded his agreement. "It should only be a couple more days," he said. "But that means that idleness is even more dangerous, as close as we are. We don't want to make sitting ducks of ourselves."

"If we're actually where you say we are," Ibexmon muttered, and Melemon glanced at him with narrowed eyes.

"What was that?"

"Nothing," Meghan cut in on her partner's behalf, and she cast a worried, pleading look at Ibexmon. He snorted, but glanced away instead of pressing the issue.

"Want me to pop up and take a look around to check?" Corymon offered, once again stretching her wings out proudly. "See if I can't spot any-- what is it we're looking for? Ancient temples? Giant trees? Death-spires? Point us in the right direction, maybe?"

"And give away our position on a silver platter?" Peter said, raising an eyebrow.

"Hey, just offering, since I'm sooo useless as a beast of burden," Corymon said, shrugging and flicking her tail dismissively.

"We're going the right way," Lily said, patting Melemon on the side. "Just trust him on this one, yeah?"

"Bit of a big ask, isn't it," Xander muttered, and Melemon stared at him like he had stared at Ibexmon a moment prior.

"Is there something you'd like to say?"

Xander, unafraid, held his hands up palms out in a whoa-there motion. "Not at all," he said faux innocently. "I'm sure we're just miles away from showing up without a plan on the doorstep of a god who doesn't like us, and I for one am thrilled about it."

"Can you give it a rest?" Peter muttered.

Xander's reaction came immediately and was thoroughly unsurprising. "Nah."

Natalie frowned and folded her arms. "I think we're all a little bit tired," she said. "I think maybe we should call it." She did an admirable job of ignoring the way that Xander and Peter both rolled their eyes in exasperation, as though she were a nagging parent reminding them to pick up their rooms.

"There's not nearly enough distance between us and RedVeggiemon for my tastes," Sam said, shaking his head, "or for my sense of smell."

"How about," Lily said, putting her hands on her hips, "we just keep going a little further on foot? All feet, I mean. Everyone on foot. Just until it gets too dark to keep going safely, yeah?"

Nobody argued the point -- in fact, they all seemed to come to their senses as soon as Lily spoke -- and so a few flashes of light later, they had consigned themselves to the task of walking by themselves. This had the benefit of allowing them to put some distance between themselves. This not only kept any more petty arguments from breaking out-- it also saved them all from facing the embarrassment of those petty arguments.

The sun had already sunk below the jagged hills that surrounded them, but it hadn't completely fallen below the horizon beyond them. The last vestiges of light were fading fast. Of course, even having said that they would stop when it got too dark, they all knew that whether they were travelling fast or slow, they wouldn't stop traveling until well into the night. They had been making great time in their push to the north-- and all at the meagre cost of very little sleep!

... it wasn't as though they were going to be getting a lot of sleep either way.

With that, they oriented themselves by the fading sun, and resumed their trek to the north. With the sole exception of the humans and their digimon partners, none of them spoke to one another for the rest of the night, lost in their own thoughts, most of them negative.


The next morning broke after a too-late night.

As the sun's first tentative rays were poking over the craggy mountains and spindly trees that surrounded them, Xander and Desmon were on the watch shift. Xander sat against a tree trunk, while Desmon reclined in a similar position on a thick branch a short distance above him.

"Hey," Lily's voice came from behind, and though it gave Xander a start, Desmon had of course heard her and Brockmon well before now. He turned half-around to face her, eyebrow raised. It was too late in the morning to bother doing a shift-change, but he couldn't imagine what she would want otherwise, and he bristled.

Turned out, she had no ulterior motives.

"We're awake, so do you guys want to try to get a bit of sleep?" Lily said, putting her hands in her pocket. "Or should we just start banging pots and pans together? You know, a if I'm awake we all gotta be awake sort of deal?"

"I'm down with pots and pans," Desmon said with a wolfish grin, putting her hands behind her head.

"You would be," Xander muttered with a glance up at her, shaking his head. He addressed Lily then. "Nah. Let 'em sleep. Longer everyone's asleep, the less bitching and moaning I have to hear."

"Bitching and moaning's better than sitting alone, but hey, to each his own," Lily reasoned, and Xander shook his head derisively. "Mind if I take a seat?"

"You're certainly in a good mood," Xander said, which wasn't an answer.

Lily hummed, and shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "Am I?"

Xander snorted and shook his head derisively. While she wasn't being cheerful per se, there was still something unfettered about her manner that struck him as discordant.
Why couldn't she at least be as pissy as the rest of them? Was she hiding something from them too? After all, they only had Brockmon's word to go on that they were going the right way at all, and she was so buddy-buddy with--
He paused-- where had that train of thought come from? He shook his head to dismiss it, and though it nagged at the back of his mind, he overrode it with the time-honored tradition of telling that part of his brain to shut the fuck up.

When he looked again, Brockmon was giving him a curious, intense look.

"What," Xander said flatly. He hadn't thought he was pulling any kind of face, but his poker face had never been strong; he attempted to train his face into a neutral expression, only to find that he hadn't been making any kind of unconscious expression at all. Whatever Brockmon was looking at him for, it wasn't showing on his face.

"Nothing," Brockmon said, and then Lily nudged him with the side of her leg.

"Come on, Brockmon, don't be weird," Lily said, "let's leave them to think their deep thoughts."

"Deep as a kiddie pool," Desmon chimed in with a chirp, "and as salty as the sea!"

Xander grabbed a clod of dirt off of the ground and threw it upwards at Desmon. "Not so loud, dingbat," he hissed, and Desmon snickered as the dirt disintegrated in the air well before it reached her.

Lily shook her head in amusement and began to turn around to return to where the others were sleeping. Brockmon continued to stare at Xander for a moment longer, and then he cast a look up at Desmon. He said nothing, but waited for her to make eye contact with him and he pointedly flickered his gaze between her and Xander before he turned away to follow his partner.

"The hell was that about," Xander muttered to himself, narrowing his eyes. He was expecting a follow-up comment from Desmon, but she didn't have one. He glanced up at her, and for a split second he caught her giving him a curious look. She, too, was trying to puzzle out what Brockmon had meant-- but once his eyes were on her, she quickly pretended she hadn't been, and looked away.

"Bear-boy being bear-boy, I suppose," she said, tapping the side of her snout with one claw. "Who knows what's going on in his noggin."

Xander clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, and shook his head. Desmon looked back at him and furrowed her brow, tilting her head curiously.


RedVeggiemon was feeling quite proud of its newfound power, and once it was content that it had chased off the intruders in its territory, had decided to celebrate with a brief nap. It covered itself in vegetation and dug down into the ground, covering itself and settling in for a quick snooze to recuperate its strength after its scuffle.

What was intended to be a brief nap instead concluded just after the break of dawn, when the sound of felled branches and brush being crushed underfoot nearby caused it to stir. It cracked one eye open but did not move, feeling quite irked that it had been disturbed twice in so brief a period of time. Maybe the intruders that it had fought yesterday were coming back for more?

It didn't hate the idea.

As far as it was concerned, if it laid low, it would have the advantage of surprise. The whispers it had heard were right. Things were only going to get worse; it had been quite clever indeed to accept the help.

After a few moments, what appeared to be a pale humanoid with long arms riding on the back of a dragon strode on deceptively soft footsteps into the makeshift clearing. Something about the rider seated on the dragon's back seemed odd, swaying with every movement in a way that didn't seem quite natural. Though it was hard to tell immediately from this low vantage point, RedVeggiemon quickly realized what was awry: the humanoid was not a rider at all. It was simply a long-armed torso grafted between the dragon's shoulderblades.

It was hardly the oddest digimon RedVeggiemon had ever seen, so it didn't think much of it.

The dragon's head -- that is to say, the dragon's head, not the humanoid head -- looked around, swaying oddly like a charmed snake. It had only one gleaming yellow eye in the center of its forehead, but its gaze was piercing and it scanned the clearing in one pass. For a moment -- if only a moment -- the single yellow eye met RedVeggiemon's. For the sake of being cautious, RedVeggiemon squeezed its own eye shut for a moment. When it opened it again, the dragon was no longer looking at it. It was walking around the clearing, inspecting the broken trees and sniffing at the ground that had been left undisturbed.

RedVeggiemon held its breath, preparing for the moment to strike. It was a large digimon, but it was scrawny and thin, almost spindly; one good strike with its clublike arms would likely take out its leg, if not more.

But as quick as RedVeggiemon could blink, the dragon reared down and jumped into the air, its leathery wings beating effortlessly. The humanoid torso and its long trailing arms lolling with the movement was almost enough to distract from the mouth opening up on the dragon's chest. At the point where its long neck met its sternum, instead of a collarbone, there was a gnarled maw. The flesh parted, lips curling to reveal a too-wide mouth full of razor-sharp, wicked teeth and a long, dripping tongue spilled out.

A discordantly casual, feminine voice (that did not match the monstrous mouth from which it came) said, "Starvation Swarm," and then opened wide. A torrential river of massive chittering jet-black locusts began to spill out, more than enough to cover every inch of the ground in the clearing-- and that was the last thing RedVeggiemon saw.

Moments later, there was nothing but coarse rocky soil on the ground in the clearing. Not only the debris left behind by the fight of the previous night and every trace of the RedVeggiemon who'd thought its half-buried disguise was flawless, but every blade of grass and every half-decomposed leaf as well might as well have not been there at all. As one, the locusts surged back up towards the dragon and flew in a stream back into her mouth.

The dragon landed again, and she clawed at the ground.

Jahannamon had seen all she needed to, and she had been feeling a little peckish.


Desmon pricked her ears up. She could have sworn she heard something, but even to her, it had been so faint and so distant as to be cast into doubt. It had been maybe thirty minutes since their odd not-conversation with Lily and Brockmon, and that entire time, she had been a little uneasy. It wasn't out of the question that her mind was playing tricks on her.

"Hey, Xander," she said, with an uncharacteristic lack of joviality, "I think we should wake everyone up."

"You hear something?" Xander said, sitting up and looking up at her quizzically.

"I think," she said, twitching her ears; she heard nothing. "I think we should get a move on either way."

"I'd say you should take a look around to double check, but then who knows, someone might snap at you for giving us away," Xander muttered with surprising bitterness.

Desmon looked at Xander, then blinked and rubbed at her eyes. She thought she had seen something, but again, she saw nothing. She shook her head, deciding that it had probably been her imagination; she probably just needed a nap, which meant she needed a ticket for the Ibexmon express ride. She hopped down from the branch, and they headed back over to where the rest of the group were asleep.

Nobody was thrilled to be woken up.

"Can't we just have one night where we don't wake up at the asscrack of dawn," Sam murmured sourly, squeezing his eyes shut harder in defiance.

"Nope. Up and at 'em," Lily said, stretching her arms above her head. (She hadn't been asleep; she had merely laying down with Brockmon as a pillow.)

"What I wouldn't give for a bed," Meghan said miserably as she got to her feet.

"So are we getting a move on after five hours of sleep just for shits and giggles," Peter said with a dry acidity, "or did Desmon actually hear something?"

"I'm sure she heard something," Natalie said, but she didn't sound entirely convinced. Xander picked up on this more than Desmon did, and he bit back a comment.

Any doubt on Desmon was cast aside quickly. As if on cue, a noise cut through the morning. It was somewhere far in the distance and coming from the south, but it was hard to miss. Something thrummed with a low buzzing noise, almost like the hum of an old television. It rang out for a couple solid seconds and then faded away, but it was unmistakably something.

"See?" Desmon said, sticking her tongue out. "Told you."

One would think that would put any doubts to bed, but the atmosphere was still tense-- or, rather, none of the tension was dispelled, so it was now tense on top of tense.

"What is it, do you think?" Banmon said, looking apprehensively in the direction from which the sound had come.

"Something prepared to kill us, in all likelihood," Sam said dully.

"Very optimistic," Meghan said, frowning.

"I'm just saying," Sam said, shrugging one shoulder ruefully, "we're not popular, and wandering up to the door of someone who by all accounts hate us, and there are digimon the likes of the skull face cat freak who can powderize us. It's just a matter of what's likely at this point." Gelermon glanced at him but said nothing.

"Yeah, but you don't have to say it like that," Meghan retorted, sounding a little wounded. "We know. We already know."

"Never hurts to get reminded of what's at stake," Peter said, shaking his head.

"Yeah, especially so nobody decides they want to go galavanting off to see what it is and try to fight it," Xander said, casting a pointed look at Natalie, who was looking with a concerned expression in the direction from which the noise had come. She blinked and turned to meet his eyes.

"I wasn't," she said defensively, but it was profoundly unconvincing. "I know. ... I know," she said, sounding less sure of herself each time. What she said next, she said with an unrestrained bitterness. "We couldn't do anything even if we did, right?"

Lily frowned and glanced at Brockmon, who gave her a meaningful look right back. Raumon, too, was giving a curious look to Natalie, though she did not look back at him.

"Hey, I know everyone's having a real good time biting each other's heads off," Desmon said, and as she spoke, everyone felt the aggression fade away as quickly as it had come, "but I for one am not in the mood to figure out what's going on with that noise, so shall we get a move on sooner than later?"


They rode for a while in silence, and by the second time they heard the noise, it had been perhaps an hour since the first.
The bad news was that it was definitely closer this time. It lasted for a few long seconds, reverberating through the air and into their bodies with a droning hum, and then it faded away without an echo.

The third came sooner, and closer; and so too did the fourth.

They picked up the pace after each refrain. The ground began to grow uneven as they began to slowly ascend in elevation, and they ducked between the sparsely-placed trees across craggy hills in attempts to put distance between themselves and whatever was making that noise.

Before they heard it a fifth time, they heard something much smaller-- as though the buzzing of a large housefly had come from something the size of a small bird. It was nothing near the all-consuming drone that was driving them forward, but it was comparatively high-pitched and pulled the eyes of everyone who wasn't focusing on the path ahead of them up to the sky through the trees.

It wasn't immediately obvious what was making the noise, but it didn't take long to see them through the tree branches. Perhaps a half-dozen specks of black, each perhaps the size of a softball, flittered erratically some twenty feet above the canopy of the trees.

And then the buzzing began to increase in volume, and... well, let's see. If a handful of them buzzed like that, then what would it mean if the buzzing were getting louder? Or, for instance, if it were loud enough to hear from miles away?

The sky behind them was beginning to darken, despite it being quite early in the morning.

"We should probably run," Natalie said quietly, more to herself than anything, but luckily, she was not the only one who had this thought.

"RUN!" Melemon roared, breaking into a full-out bounding run. Neither Frekimon nor Ibexmon needed the instruction, and their passengers didn't need the warning to hold tight.

The trees around them began to fade into a blur. Those riding on the backs of the digimon held on for dear life; those doing the running put their all into running, not helped by the fact that their uphill slope was growing steeper, and fast. The buzzing began to grow louder and louder, and more of the black things buzzed overhead. There were two saving graces: first, the black insects (for that's what it seemed to be) didn't seem to be terribly interested in them. Second, they were able to outrun them for the time being.

But there's this funny, unfortunate thing that happens when you're running.

Sometimes, you don't look where you're going.

And sometimes that happens when you're running up a steep hill, and you reach what you think is the point where the slope will start going downhill again. And, in a way, that expectation would be correct! It just happened far more abruptly than expected. Ibexmon, Melemon, and Frekimon -- all running full tilt in close formation, concerned only with getting away from what was behind them -- experienced the sensation of taking one too many steps on a dark staircase.

Now imagine that feeling, multiplied times a million, and you have an idea of a fraction of what they felt in that moment.

One minute they were stepping on solid ground, and the next, they weren't. They tried to stop themselves, but by the time they realized what was going on, they were already too far into putting their weight forward into the next frantic bound, and they began to tumble down.

The entire group quite understandably began to cry out in surprise and in fear, human and digimon alike, and their voices were drowned out by the growing-ever-louder droning buzz. Desmon and Banmon clung to their partners; even if they remembered they could fly, they wouldn't be able to move fast enough to do anything. By the time anyone realized what was going on, they were already falling.

In front of them was a valley, miles wide. It was carpeted in a shade of emerald green so deep that it almost looked blue, and at first cursory glance -- say, if you were falling when you first saw it -- you might mistakable for the surface of a lake. That is, right up until you noticed that it was was the top of a thick forest canopy, the upper reaches of which soared high above the ground so far below them as to be invisible even through what few gaps there were.

Behind them, the buzzing was growing louder and louder.

And directly below them, a thousand feet straight down a sheer cliff wall, was solid ground.

A correction: a thousand feet down, and getting closer as they began to fall.

They didn't notice the netting -- they had no time to, and what remained of their minds was focused elsewhere -- but it is probably best to mention it now.
Stretching across the cliff wall, maybe fifty feet down from the ledge, was a tightly-knit cargo net woven of sturdy vines, held up on a series of angled stakes each too thick to reach your arms around. The net was practically camouflaged against the color of the forest canopy that was still far below, and angled in such a way to send anything it caught rolling towards the cliff wall and onto a narrow shelf of flat stone perhaps ten feet wide.

Anything it caught, in a few seconds, encompassed the six digimon and their six human partners. It took their weight, even at speed, without a problem, stretching and then springing back into shape as it sent them tumbling for the wall.

It does not take long to fall a hundred feet. It takes much longer to realize what's going on when you suddenly stop falling, even if you are terribly relieved for this change of state.


Whether that was one person's exclamation or just the sound that resulted from everybody swearing at once was kind of a moot point.

As soon as they hit the net, any attempt at composure was out the window. The evolved digimon lost their passengers as they careened towards the rock path, and everyone was tossed and tumbled like thrown dice.

With hearts pounding in their ears to a one, the group realized that they were not, in fact, dead, even if they felt quite bruised and battered as they came to a rolling stop on the cliff shelf. They could not yet relax even if they'd wanted to; the buzzing that had been behind them was still going strong. What -- if anything -- was happening up there was impossible to tell from here, as this shelf was carved out under a slight overhang, meaning they were hidden from the cliff above. This part was an unalloyed blessing; the buzzing insects, if they had ever had any concern for the fleeing group at all, did not seem interested in pursuing them now that they were out of sight.

After a long, long minute, the buzzing faded away.

"Is everyone alright?" Raumon began, casting a cursory glance around as they began to right themselves, pulling themselves into sitting positions and inspecting to see if they were hurt. Nobody seemed to be injured, thankfully, outside of being scared and shaking with adrenaline. Ibexmon was first to devolve, electing to save energy while they regrouped at the very least least; Melemon and Frekimon were quick to follow.

And now, they could take a look at what they had just stumbled upon.

The ledge had been deliberately created, and was not natural. If there was any doubt of that, the fact that the wall was decorated with carvings would put it to rest. They were almost identical to those they had seen at the Shrine of the Norns, depicting the same images.

They could be forgiven for not staring at the wall, though. Before them was miles and miles of green, greener than anything they had ever seen, not just in this world (something of a low bar to clear) but ever, even in scenic photos. After the miles and miles sparse, greying hills and aging forests they had been travelling through, it almost didn't feel real. The cliff wall (with its guard-rail of netting) continued infinitely to their left and their right, but it was less of a cliff wall and more of a massive overhang, encircling the entire valley like a dome with an open top.

Smack in the center of the valley, was... it was hard to decide at first shy what to call it. The immediate instinct was to say it was a tree, whose branches and leaves formed a dome-shaped island atop the sea of emerald green, but that wasn't quite it. Its trunk and branches were interwoven with stone and crystal, monumental towers and spires that completely defied all sense of scale. Nine smaller towers, in clusters of three, encircled the main tree-temple in a circle, just barely poking their crystalline heads over the top of the forest canopy-- or maybe it just felt like it was "only barely" because they were so dwarfed by the main event.

It was arresting to look at, and awesome in the traditional sense-- inspiring awe. It seemed too large to be real.

It also seemed too sudden to be real, because there was no question at all what it was or where they had arrived.

"I'm gonna guess," Raumon said, after a long moment that might as well have been three hours for as long as it felt as their perception of time slowed back down to normal, "we're not the first people to do that."

"You don't say," Gelermon said, sniffing at the net, and then she peered down. It was dizzyingly far down, and as the wall went backwards beneath them, it was almost like they were floating in the air; but if she strained her eyes, she could see what looked like fire-light from somewhere below the trees. At first, she assumed it was a campfire; then she reconsidered, remembering how far above it they were, and realized it was likely much larger in scale.
She looked back up at the group. "Presumably, whoever lives at the bottom isn't a fan of screaming digimon falling out of the sky."

"Wouldn't you?" Sam said, running a hand backwards through his hair.

"It's raining m--" Desmon began in a singsong voice.

Xander reached over and wrapped a hand around her muzzle before she could finish. "How are we getting down?" he said instead.

"We need a minute to regroup," Meghan said, still working on getting herself to her feet on shaky legs.

"Which we probably don't have," Peter pointed out. "If something lives down there, it's probably got a way up, a--"

"And we're on everyone's shitlist, yes, we know!" Meghan snapped, her voice tight. "I know! Just give me a second! I'm still trying to process the swarm of bugs the size of birds!"

"I'm just saying--" Peter began defensively.

"And I'm just saying I'll shove you off this ledge if you keep talking," Xander said before he even had the chance to finish, rounding on Peter and crossing over to get into his face.

"Oh, god, don't start punching each other again--" Meghan said, putting her head in her hands as she sunk with her back against the rock wall.

"I'm not," Xander muttered bitterly, though obviously a little soft, "he's just being a dick, yet a-fucking-g--"

"Can you two stop being children!?" Natalie yelled. "I swear, I feel like I'm trying to mother a bunch of kindergardeners!"

"Nobody asked you to, you know," Sam said, which was focused much more nobdy asked more than a reassurance.

"No, Raumon and I just have to or nobody else will!" Natalie snapped back and jabbed a finger accusingly into the air to make her point.

Lily was the only one who said nothing.

The digimon all stared at Natalie for a moment, furrowing their brows in consternation.

Though the digimon had something to say, and the humans would gladly have continued this argument, both of these plans were cut short when the wall behind them began to shake violently.

They had not noticed there was a seam in the wall, distracted as they had been with staring out into the valley-- and then with arguing with each other. That seam began to split apart with a great rumbling roar, like a sliding door made of stone, opening up into a pitch black tunnel, wide enough for a bus to pass through.

Whip-like vines, glowing with energy, shot out of the darkness before the door had even finished opening, ensnaring all twelve of the group in an instant. With thorns digging into their bodies and vines thick as ropes gripping them tight with no regard for their need to do things like breathe, they could not have run even if there was anywhere to run to. Even Banmon could not escape by phasing through, and she certainly tried.

For a split second, those who looked saw a half-dozen vaguely humanoid digimon whose bodies looked to be made of coiled vines, with the thick tentacle vines growing out of the backs of their wood-masked heads now wrapping themselves around their capturees. Three had grabbed humans; the other three grabbed the digimon. Standing behind them was a large digimon whose body looked to be made of stone. They were yanked into the darkness with a hard jerk, and the rock door rumbled shut behind them, and they could see nothing else.

They moved blazing fast through the dark, moving downhill fast. The plant digimon carrying them apparently did not need to see to navigate. The speed would have been nauseating even were they not being bound in the vines of digimon who did not seem particularly bothered with their comfort, and even if they could see. The rock-like digimon bounded ahead of them. It had apparently been much more concerned with stealth on the approach; it was too loud to hear anything even if they yelled aloud. Which, of course, they were doing.

Soon, the roaring gallop of the stone digimon took a turn and veered away, down another tunnel. Three of the plant digimon -- the three holding the digimon -- followed it. The ones holding the humans carried on the way they had been going. The humans only realized that they had been separated once they realized they could hear their own voices crying out-- but their partners were not responding.

"Oi! Let GO!"

"Hey! Wait! Wait!"


The digimon could not hear them, both for the rumble of the stone digimon and for the growing distance between them.

The plant-like digimon carrying the humans did not pay their complaints any mind.


The humans came to a stop first.

Even dull light can be blinding when your eyes had begun to adjust to pitch blackness, and it was a dull light that the humans were greeted with as they were thrown, unceremoniously, into what they could only assume was a large, empty holding cell. The room was illuminated by a faint blue glow, just enough to see by and no more. The source of the light was unclear, and also the very last of their concerns.

Before anyone could rise to their feet and get any bright ideas about rushing the door, the doorway filled with thorny vines even thicker than those that had carried them here. Aside from what seemed to be a thick column of twisted tree roots taking up space of the corners of the room, and long stone benches set onto opposite walls, there was nothing else to speak of in the room, and certainly no other apparent ways out.

This did not stop Xander from rushing at the door, rearing a fist back and punching with full force at the thick vines. They gave only a fraction of an inch, like soft plant matter, only to spring back as though they had never been disturbed.

"Give it a rest, will you?" Peter said, sitting upright and massaging his temples. "That's not going to do anything."

"Neither is sitting down and waiting to die!" Xander said right back, rounding on Peter. "Don't know if you noticed, but we just got fuckin' captured and our partners are god-knows-where! Hell, we're god-knows-where!"

"You think I don't know that!?" Peter said, glaring daggers.

"Will you both knock it off!?" Natalie yelled. "How many times are you two going to have this stupid argument!?"

"I don't know, maybe a few more times, just to irritate you," Xander muttered.

"Oh my god, what is your problem!?" Peter yelled. "Every time we start making the slightest bit of progress--"

"My problem is you, dipshit!"

"I don't know," Sam said, laying on his back on the stone floor, "may as well keep it up. More air we use up the sooner we might just be able to lie down and d--"

"Don't say that!" Meghan said, frowning.

"Why shouldn't I?" Sam said, sitting up. "We're fucked, and pretending it isn't isn't going to make it any better."

"We're not fucked!" Meghan insisted.

"There has to be a way out, but denial isn't going to help us," Peter said, looking over at her. "Stop being a child--"

"I'm NOT being a child!" Meghan yelled, balling her hands into fists.

At the same time, Xander crossed over to Peter in two long strides. "You wanna fuckin eat rocks, dude!?"

"Xander, she doesn't need you to fight her battles for her!" Natalie said.

"I don't need you to defend me either!" Meghan snapped back.

The room was quickly filling up with sound, arguments and snipes and accusations flying in every direction, until--

"All of you SHUT THE FUCK UP!" Lily yelled in a proper rock-singer scream, and the echo rang like a bell on the stone walls. With blood pounding in all of their ears, all eyes were on her, and she did not flinch under their gazes. "The fuck are you all snapping at each other over? You forgotten what we're here to do?"

"I'm sure we're all just stressed," Natalie said, still harshly but she was deflating somewhat, as though Lily's yell had brought her to her senses, "from being stuck to--"

"We've been stuck together for the past two weeks, dumbshit!" Lily said, pointing a finger at her. Unlike the rest of them, her insult held no malice, only mild exasperation, and the difference was stark to hear. "But you're only fighting like assholes now, when we've got other things to worry about!" She paused, and put her hands on her hips. "But shit, man. I'm thinking Brockmon was right. I thought he was being paranoid."

"What are you talking about?" Xander said, narrowing his eyes at her. Lily glanced at him and heaved a heavy sigh.

"Brockmon thinks y'all are getting Whisperer shit in your brains, and that's what's making you all act like little bitches."

The room fell deathly silent, but for the sound of grinding stone somewhere far in the distance, deep below them.

"What?" Meghan said after a moment.

Lily put her hands up palms-out. "That's what he said. That's all I know. He said he saw something when we were talking to you," she said, pointing to Xander, "earlier. And he said he thought Desmon saw it too."

"The fuck you talking about?" Xander said, but he felt a creeping sense of unease. Had Desmon been hiding something? Was even she starting to turn ag--
(Desmon, who he once said -- and had meant wholeheartedly -- that even if she was some kind of eldritch beast, he would still trust.)
And just like that, he felt it.

In the back of his head, something was hissing-- not words, but like air escaping from a tire, a gentle stream of something that became jagged and cold when it mixed with the rest of his thoughts.

"What the fuck," Xander muttered, lifting a hand to his own head. Around him, the others did similar, suddenly jarringly aware of an unfamiliar feeling dwelling in the corners, as though their minds were physical spaces that could board unwelcome visitors.

"No, hold on, back the hell up," Sam said, shaking his head. "That's bullshit. It shouldn't work on us. We're human. Hyoo-man. You heard of it?"

"... but," Natalie said slowly, "... Raumon's healing magic works on us. Maybe not as well as it works on a digimon, but it still works on us."

Being in the human world affected digimon (the memory of the last emergent digimon's rotting flesh was stuck in their minds). Being here affected them. They didn't have to eat; they seemed to feel less exhaustion than they would have if they had travelled half so far on foot in their world. It made sense that there would be a downside to it.

Or maybe it was just the inevitable result of walking around a dying world with only each other for company and no promise of when they'd get home. Anyone might be susceptible to a niggling voice in the backs of their heads in that circumstances-- and hell, they had only been here a couple weeks.

They weren't prepared to accept it out of hand, no-- but once they called attention to it, the feeling was hard to shake.

Was it really that out of the question to think that they might--

"Hold on," Peter said, looking at Lily skeptically. "Stop. Rewind. Why are you talking like you're immune?"

Lily paused, then. It wasn't as though she didn't expect to be asked -- and she knew the answer -- but the answer was one that was difficult to phrase. Even so, she knew that not answering would be vastly more suspicious-- and give them all kinds of wacky ideas.
"Brockmon said," she said after a moment, "that it looks for fear, right? Scared people -- digimon, people, whatever -- are more likely to take rigged deals, and the fear provides an in."

"And you've been really weirdly chill with just about everything," Xander said, arms folded. "So is it just the power of positive thinking, then?" he said, derisively.

"Hardly," Lily said, shaking her head.

Meghan frowned. "So you're not scared, then?"

There was a lot to be afraid of, and they realized it the more they considered the possibility. The fear they'd harbored for days of what they were heading towards. The fear that they were going in the right direction at all, and what might happen to them. The fear borne of the fact that they didn't know what had been going on with the insects before they had fallen. Right now, there was the fear that they had been separated from their partners-- that god knows what might happen while they were apart, or that they might not know how to find them before something terrible happened.

The fear that they might not make it back alive; the fear that their friends and family who were left waiting for them would be waiting forever.

Lily did not answer immediately. Then, she said: "it's easy to not be afraid if you're already at peace with what you're getting into." She looked at the others, smiling in a way that did not reach her eyes.
"So. Now that we're all in a good mood! Anyone got any ideas?"

The room fell silent.

In that silence, if they strained their ears, they could swear they heard something skitter-scratching out beyond the door, but then it was gone.


Those who were carrying the partner digimon, and the rock digimon leading them, reached a dead end in the pitch black darkness-- or so it seemed for a moment, when they came to a sudden stop. With a mighty heave, the rock digimon dragged open a door, not unlike the one it had opened high above on the cliff wall.

They spilled out onto a wide, bare path, lined by stones. All around them were tremendous trees and rich foliage, as unmoving as anything else in this world but at least having the dignity to appear alive; at this point, it almost felt like a mockery. The cliff overhang soared a thousand feet above them; the morning sun could not reach them even if it had been able to break through the high canopy. In fact, it was dark as night.

The trees around them were far apart, but huge on a scale that defied sense; their trunks towered like skyscrapers, their uppermost branches blacking out the sky. Through the precious few gaps, they could only see the cliff soaring high above them, as they were underneath its overhanging lip. It felt like how it might feel to be a mouse in a forest, with everything so big it was impossible to take in the whole of anything at once. Only the smattering of smaller, more reasonably-sized trees -- apparently unhibited by the low light -- helped to ground them and dispel the feeling that they had shrunk.

"Where--!?" Gelermon began, a snarl. Before she could finish her sentence, the vine around her constricted, digging its thorns into her sides and dissuading her from speaking her mind.

As soon as the stone digimon pulled the door shut behind it, it rounded on them. It was toweringly tall even hunched over, its entire body made of brown stone and white crystal but for a shaggy red and yellow mane.

"You know where you are," it rumbled, misunderstanding Gelermon's question. Its voice deep was and, appropriately, gravelly. "And I would not have thought you so foolish as to come here." It snorted, looking down the path.

"We don't mean any har--" Raumon began, but as with Gelermon, when he tried to speak, the plant digimon's vine constricted around him.

"We have been expecting your arrival, Refugees," the stone digimon said sternly. "And we know what you have been doing, and what you seek here. Do not waste your breath playing innocent."

What they had been doing. Banmon, Raumon, and Oremon exchanged looks, all thinking of Vicimon. Gelermon furrowed her brow, gritting her teeth to bite back a comment; Brockmon stared at the ground.

Desmon opened her mouth, and spoke quickly before she was squeezed by the vine. "Yeah, and, what is it we're seeking, exactly? You know, for posteri-- hck."

The stone digimon narrowed its eyes and looked then to its allies. "Come, Ajatarmon," it said. "Do not give them an inch of slack, and do not take an eye off them. We would be fools to let the refugees run free here. We will alert the priests; they will alert Dinmon. He will likely want to handle them himself. If he so wishes, we will deliver the others to him; otherwise, I will leave their fates to you."

"Understood," one of the Ajatarmon said with a curt nod, and the other two mirrored the gesture.

Though it might have just been a trick of the light, they could have sworn they saw a couple small shapes staring their way and then turning to bolt away. They hugged the base of the cliff wall and moved with great purpose. Before the refugees could get a good look, though, they were whisked away into the dark by the Ajatarmon.


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