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Old June 20th, 2016 (7:04 PM). Edited October 8th, 2016 by icomeanon6.
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It's "I Come Anon"
     
    Join Date: Feb 2008
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    [Author's note: I posted the beginning of this story starting in the summer of 2010, and after taking a long break I decided it would be best to start a new thread. Those of you who know me might also know that my chapter fics have typically gone for months at a time without new chapters, and the only one that actually got finished was a short parody fic. So I feel it's only fair to inform the readers that this time it's going to be different: I have already finished writing a near-final draft of this one. I will be editing and posting a new chapter once a week until the whole fic is up.

    If you were a reader of this story back in its original thread, I apologize for leaving you hanging and I hope this makes up for it.

    As always, comments and criticism are welcome and appreciated! Enjoy!

    EDIT: And now the whole fic is posted. I'll be asking Bay to move the thread to the Archive soon.]

    [AGELIMIT]ages 15 and up. This story contains violence, coarse language, and suggestive themes[/AGELIMIT]

    Digimon Campaign

    Contents:

    1. Red Eyes
    2. The Camp
    3. Rumors of the Commander
    4. The Power of the Commander
    5. Flight to the Mountains
    6. The Homestead
    7. The Longest Night
    8. A Desperate Gamble
    9. The Black Sword
    10. The Valley of Ruin
    11. The Prisoner
    12. Dying Forest, Dying World
    13. The Man from the Sky
    14. Seeing in Tongues
    15. Digital World
    16. The Darkest Day
    17. Faith, Hope, and Love

    *********

    I

    Red Eyes

    The storm buffeted Ross’s face. The trees offered little protection from the rain as it came down in sheets and beat his skin raw. He gritted his teeth and ignored it. He was the only one who knew the way to the cave, so losing focus now was not an option. He glanced over his shoulder and saw that the kids were not following as closely as they had been earlier. It occurred to him that he might be going too fast, but he had no desire to slow down. “Pick up the pace!”

    He kept moving forward and suddenly tripped over a root that was almost invisible in what little daylight remained. He barked at the kids, “Watch the roots up here! Keep moving!”

    As he looked up the hill the group was climbing, Ross could barely discern the cave that they were to take shelter in. Although a part of him wanted to keep looking at the cave for encouragement, his survival instinct compelled him to stay alert. He clutched the handle of his knife and listened for any nonhuman footsteps. It wasn’t long until he heard something rustling in the underbrush. He stopped walking, faced where the noise had come from, and raised the knife in front of his face.

    Moments later something small and red burst from the darkness and came straight for his neck. On instinct he slashed, made contact, and knocked it back to the ground. The children screamed at the sight of the small, bleeding creature. Its head was indistinguishable from the rest of its body, and Ross had made contact at the base of one of its wing-like ears. At first its eyes were glowing bright red as it frothed at the mouth, but soon the glow subsided and its eyes were shown to be yellow. It growled in a disturbingly child-like manner before staggering to its stub-feet and darting back into the shadows.

    Though the exchange had not been physically strenuous, the simple shock of attacking a small animal with a blade left Ross short of breath. He still pressed on, though, and wiped the knife on his shirt as he went. He heard some faint whimpers coming from behind, which came as no surprise. As near as he could guess, the four children were all around nine years old, and they were understandably cold and frightened. Ross was sixteen, and he wished he were as young as they were so he could let someone else be the responsible one. Since this was not the case, he yelled over the howling gale, “Quit thinking about it! Just follow me!”

    There were no further incidents and eventually the group reached the cave. Once they passed through the entrance and left the rain behind, Ross found the place surprisingly warm. The fire that was waiting for them twenty yards in was emitting an unnatural amount of heat. Ross paid no mind to the abnormality, as he was only concerned with getting himself and the kids dry. After sliding his knife back into its sheath and tucking it behind his jacket he walked over to the fire, where another teenager and two smaller children were sitting. He sat down opposite the teenager and began to warm up his hands. Soon he was asked, “What took you so long?”

    Ross looked at the boy on the other side of the flames, and decided it would be best not to show how irked he was with the question. “These guys felt like playing hide-and-seek for some reason,” he said, gesturing to the four he had brought to the cave. The oldest-looking one of them mouthed ‘Did not,’ but was shivering too much to actually say it. They sat down near the fire as well, next to the other preteens.

    The other teenager then continued. “Well, now that we’ve got a moment, what’s your name?”

    “Ross. And you?”

    “Jacob Cartwright. Did you run into Joanie out there? We’ve got six of them here now, so that should just leave the two she’s supposed to find.”

    Ross shook his head, and turned around to look out the mouth of the cave. The rain was still coming down in droves, which made him wonder if the girl he had seen Jacob with earlier would be able to make it back. He had not gotten a chance to talk to her, as almost all of his time in the forest had been spent tracking down four of the kids.

    Over half an hour passed around the fire. Ross’s clothes dried out so quickly that he wondered for a moment if something was wrong with the laws of thermodynamics, but he was too busy worrying about the last group to dwell on it. They were still out there, and if it had taken this long they might be in trouble. He began to stand up, but then saw the outlines of three people coming through the entrance. Leading the way was Joanie, who appeared to be around the same age as him and Jacob. Unlike them she was not wearing a jacket, and when she sat down Ross noticed some fresh cuts on her arms from the forest.

    “Sorry we took so long. Some of us were getting a little tired.” It didn’t seem to Ross that Joanie was tired at all, even though she was a little short of breath. She spoke in a startlingly bright tone considering the circumstances. He stared at her arms and the scrapes on them while she continued to speak, and his eyes began to wander to other parts of her body when he realized she was addressing him. “I forgot to ask earlier. What’s your name?”

    Ross recovered without missing a beat. “Ross. And you’re Joanie, right?”

    “That’s right!”

    Ross didn’t understand how some people could be so sunny no matter what was going on. He returned his gaze to the fire in an attempt to keep his typical teenage-male
    visionary habits in check. Jacob then spoke up, addressing the eight children. “Seems like it’s a good time for introductions. Let’s have everyone’s names.”

    Something about Jacob’s voice got on Ross’s nerves. He was just as upbeat as Joanie, but unlike her there was something vaguely annoying about him. At the moment, though, Ross was more irritated with the content of Jacob’s statement. All of the kids were tired and scared, and two of them were still soaked and freezing on top of that. The marginally taller one that Ross had brought back was the only one who replied, and even he did so with some stuttering. “M…Michael.”

    When no one else said anything, Jacob was about to ask for another volunteer when Joanie preempted him. “We’re all tired. How about we warm up a bit more first?”

    Her voice was calm and not at all antagonizing. Ross took note that if he himself had said the same thing, it would have come out as criticism. Jacob nodded and said, “You’re right. It’s been a pretty rough day so far.”

    One of the smaller kids then spoke up. She wore what appeared to be a softball jersey along with her jeans and sneakers. “When can we go home?”

    That left all three of the teenagers silent. Joanie and Jacob glanced at each other for a moment, and then they both turned to Ross. In response Ross contorted his facial expression so as to convey, ‘What makes you think I would know how to answer that?’ After another awkwardly silent five seconds, Jacob took it upon himself to provide an appropriate but evasive assessment. “We’re safe here, so there’s no hurry right now. We’ll start thinking about that as soon as the rain lets up.”

    The girl followed up with another question immediately. “What if it doesn’t stop raining and it starts to flood and the water rises up to the cave and it fills it up and we can’t swim out and our eyes get all bugged out like a fish’s?”

    Joanie and Jacob started to chuckle, and Ross had to restrain himself to keep from smiling. He had noticed what the other two hadn’t: the girl was being completely
    serious. When this dawned on them, Jacob quickly tried to recover. “Don’t worry, that’s not going to happen. And if it does, you can borrow my goggles, okay?”

    Jacob took a pair of swimmer’s goggles out of his pants pocket, and showed them to her. To Ross’s surprise, she smiled and giggled a little. Joanie gave Ross a quick look as if to say ‘disaster averted.’

    *********

    It was sometime around midnight, and Ross was sitting at the entrance of the cave, listening for whatever might come in the dark. The rain had stopped an hour ago, but all of the younger kids had fallen asleep so there was no rush to make good on Jacob’s promise to the girl, whom they had learned since was named Tatiana. This made her one of two children who hadn’t been too cold or frightened to introduce themselves. Ross had more important things to worry about than how cold and frightened the children were, though, and he didn’t want those things to jump them in their sleep.

    Eventually Joanie and Jacob approached him from behind, and Jacob asked him, “Hey, can we talk?”

    Ross nodded after a moment’s hesitation. He knew what the subject would be, and he had wanted to avoid it for as long as he could. He stood up and turned to face the two. Joanie held a stick from the fire. With its light Ross could see that they were far more somber than they had been earlier. “Well,” said Jacob, “Why don’t we cut to the chase?”

    Ross still didn’t like Jacob’s tone, even if he was less cheerful than before. “Fine by me.”

    Jacob and Joanie both nodded. “Okay then,” Jacob continued, “Where in the world are we, and how did we get here?”

    Ross sighed and frowned. “A forest. Anyone’s guess.”

    Joanie rolled her eyes. “That’s not helpful. Please be serious.”

    “I am serious. That’s all we know.”

    Jacob raised his hands as if to quell any potential argument. ‘He hardly needed to,’ thought Ross. ‘She doesn’t seem very argumentative, and I don’t have anything else to say about the matter.’

    “You’re both right,” said Jacob. “That is about all we know right now, but if we can go over what happened to each of us individually, we might learn more. Why don’t you start, Ross?”

    Ross had to concede that Jacob had a point. Some common thread in their experiences might give them a clue. He stared at the torch in Joanie’s hand as he talked. “I was just walking around downtown at about six thirty, and I heard this ringing in my ears and—”

    Jacob interrupted. “Which town?”

    Ross suppressed his annoyance. “Washington, D.C.”

    “Is that where you’re from?”

    “No, I’m from…I live a few miles away in Virginia.”

    “Gotcha. So what were you doing downtown?”

    Before Ross could say ‘None of your damn business,’ Joanie tapped Jacob on the shoulder and said, “Just let him finish, okay?”

    Ross appreciated her help. “As I was saying, I heard this ringing in my ears, and it was really starting to get to me. I had to sit down on a street corner, and after a few seconds I felt the rain start falling. Then the curb was a stump—I don’t know when it switched. I heard a kid scream, so I got up and there you all were.”

    Jacob patiently waited a few seconds before asking him, “What about the ringing in your ear? How long did that last?”

    Ross opened his mouth to answer, but was surprised to realize he had no idea. He had to retrace his steps all the way back to the beginning of the ordeal, and then the answer became clear to him. “It stopped as soon as I felt the rain.” He found the thought somehow disconcerting. It wouldn’t do any good to dwell on it though, so he lifted his head and looked Joanie in the eyes. “What about you? What’s your story?”

    She shrugged. “My story’s pretty similar, actually. Other than the city—Jacob and I live in Baltimore, by the way—and the street corner, it’s almost verbatim. I heard the ringing while I was walking home from the library, and then I felt a raindrop. I looked up, and instead of buildings and power lines I saw trees.”

    Jacob’s expression changed to a slight smirk. “Guess what, it’s basically the same thing for me, too. Actually, get this, Joanie: I was walking over to your house when it happened. Imagine that.”

    “No kidding.”

    Ross could see that Joanie was doing her best to sound interested in the coincidence, but she was simply too drained. He decided to get things moving again. “So we’ve learned that we all came here in a weird, vague, instantaneous manner. What I’m more concerned with at the moment is that noise that made all the kids scatter.”

    Joanie shook her head. “Oh gosh, don’t remind me.”

    Ross persisted. “It’s important. What do you guys think it was?”

    Jacob answered him, though his answer did little to clarify the situation for anyone or provide any comfort. “My first guess was actually ‘dragon,’ but I suppose that’s kind of absurd. Sounded big and angry at any rate. I’m just glad we couldn’t see it. Why don’t you tell us about whatever it was you ran into while we were out searching?”

    Ross was taken aback. He hadn’t told either of them about the incidents with the wild animals. Then Joanie pointed at the blood on his t-shirt. “It’s kind of hard to miss. I don’t think any of the kids who weren’t with you got what it was, though.”

    Ross was embarrassed for a moment that he’d forgotten about the stain. Then explained how he had briefly encountered several strange, hostile, red creatures. “They were small, but just vicious. Most of them ran off when I tried staring them down and showing my knife, but one of them tried to jump me. I had to make a bit of a mess with it, but it ran off too.”

    Joanie looked concerned. “Are you sure they won’t try coming here?”

    “I think they would have by now if they were going to, but you can’t be too careful. That’s why I’ve been sitting over here for this long.”

    Jacob looked slightly less concerned, but still considerably so. “Have you heard anything?”

    “Just regular forest noises—nothing that came too near, and definitely nothing like that noise from earlier.”

    There was silence for the next half minute. It seemed they’d all lost their capacity to hide how tired and frightened they were. They hadn’t yet broached the topic of how they were going to get home, but there was a wordless understanding in the air that they wouldn’t be able to figure out anything else that night. Jacob was the first to retreat to the dwindling fire and lay down near it. Joanie followed suit soon afterward. She tossed her stick back in and then sat against the wall in silence, watching the small flames dance.

    Before Ross left the entrance, however, he looked outside again just for good measure. For a while, there was nothing, but then two glowing red eyes seemed to fade in from the blackness. He reached for the knife in its sheath, and let his hand linger on the handle. He stared back at the eyes, and his expression slowly changed from one of nervousness to a stern glare. For what felt like several minutes his gaze was locked with the figureless presence beyond the mouth of the cave. Then the foreign eyes faded away just as easily as they had faded in.

    *********

    Morning came earlier than anyone wanted it to, and accompanying it were renewed and unwelcome emotions. The three youngest children were crying for their mothers until Joanie could finally console them. She had to use a number of lies in order to do so, such as “We’ll get home soon,” and “Don’t worry, we’ve got everything under control.” Ross watched her work and felt sorry for her, but not sorry enough to help. ‘Besides,’ he thought, ‘I’d probably do more harm than good. I suck with kids.’

    Jacob was stamping out the few lit embers that remained in the fire circle, as he had no water to do the job properly. When he was done, he called Ross over to the side to converse in private. “As near as I can figure, our main problem right now has less to do with getting home and more to do with getting food and water for the eleven of us.”

    Ross looked around at the sizable group. The logistics of the situation hadn’t sunk in with him yet. Jacob continued. “A few of us ought to go on a walk and try to find some water or preferably some people.”

    “That’s not a bad idea. I’m guessing you have yourself in mind?”

    Jacob chuckled a bit. “Yup, and I’ve got you in mind too. I’m thinking we want two of us three out searching cause, you know, buddy system. And Joanie’s definitely the right one to look after all the others. She’s a hell of a babysitter.”

    Ross couldn’t imagine that any previous babysitting experience would be comparable, but he didn’t see the need to argue. “Okay, so that’s you and me. Should we bring one or two of the others with us to lighten Joanie’s load?”

    “Absolutely. I’m thinking Tatiana—she looks pretty tough to me. To be honest, I think she’s also a little too discerning. She’s probably caught on to the fact that we’re pretty much stuck, and I don’t want her to get all the other kids spooked.”

    Ross had to admit that Jacob had thought this out quite a bit, and that he was probably right. “Sounds like a plan. We ought to get going right away. There’re only so many hours in the day, and who knows how long the good weather will hold up.”

    Jacob smirked. “I’d say ‘that’s the spirit’ if you weren’t being such a damn pessimist.”

    Ross scowled, and Jacob laughed. “Lighten up, I was kidding. Let’s notify all the concerned parties.”

    Joanie agreed with the plan after they explained it, and told Jacob and Ross not to worry about a thing. Tatiana was definitely more reluctant, but she complied with a bit of coaxing. After deciding on a general direction to walk in, the three of them set out. Two dozen yards down the hill, Ross turned around and saw Joanie waving goodbye to them. He waved back, and felt some genuine comfort in doing so.

    Before long, the cave was out of sight due to the trees. The forest was dense, but without the rain and dusk it didn’t seem so daunting and claustrophobic. Ross kept his eyes and ears open for the creatures that had taken such a liking to him the day before. He was glad to find no trace of them. He remained silent for most of the trip, although Tatiana and Jacob seemed to find no end of things to talk about.

    “You’re keeping a really nice pace, Tatiana. You done much hiking before?”

    “My dad used to take me camping a lot, but he’s always real busy with work now. Sometimes the lady that does our softball team’s PT takes us out in the woods for hikes, though.”

    “They have physical training for kids’ sports, now? When I did all that we just had practice every two days.”

    Tatiana grew very cheerful over the first mile, which was a remarkable shift from the night before. Ross suspected that the sun was making a difference. “Why do you carry those goggles with you, Jacob?” she asked at one point.

    “Well, it’s a little silly, I guess. When I used to be on the swim team I would always forget them, so I got in the habit of bringing them around everywhere with me, and the habit just stuck.”

    Tatiana then asked him with the most hopeful expression on her face, “Can I please borrow them?”

    Jacob didn’t hide his bemusement. “Be my guest.” He took the goggles out of his pocket and tossed them over to Tatiana, who eagerly snatched them out of the air. For reasons Ross couldn’t fathom, she seemed fascinated by the things. After shortening the strap, she tried wearing them on her forehead. She asked Jacob with much anticipation, “How do I look?”

    “Very sharp. They go great with the jersey.”

    The first word that came to Ross’s mind was actually ‘dorky,’ but to his credit he felt terrible for it and didn’t say anything. By this point they had walked two miles, and the trees were starting to thin. Before long they were out of the forest, and in front of them stretched a wide landscape dotted with small hills and partially covered by distinct clouds of fog. Ross then raised the question of the hour. “Well, we’re out of the woods, so what now? We haven’t found any source of water yet, so do we keep going this way or search some more in the forest?”

    Jacob simply said “hmmm,” and then said something that struck Ross as terribly irresponsible. “What do you think we should do, Tatiana?”

    It looked like Tatiana was going to balk at the prospect of contributing to an actual decision. “You…want to know what I think?”

    ‘Way to go,’ thought Ross. ‘You had just gotten her nice and not-worried, and now you drop this on her.’

    To Ross’s surprise, however, Tatiana looked into Jacob’s eyes for a second or two, and then she must have found the resolve to give an answer. “I think we should keep going this way.”

    “Good thinking. I’m glad we brought you along.”

    And once again, Ross had to grudgingly give Jacob credit. Now in addition to not being worried, Tatiana was confident, which could come in handy depending on how long they were going to be stuck here. And so they kept walking into the misty foothills, until the forest was no longer visible behind them. Eventually Ross began to worry about their decision as the fog was awfully thick in spots. Once they reached the bottom of a hill, he spoke up. “Guys, I think we’ve gone far enough. This fog’s pretty nasty, and we don’t want to get lost.”

    Before Jacob or Tatiana could respond a voice came out from behind the hill in front of them. “Hey! Who’s over there?”

    The three were all stunned speechless and stopped in their tracks. If the voice had been a normal one they might have rejoiced at the chance encounter, but this voice was unnaturally deep and distinctly inhuman. The words sounded as much like an elaborate growl as an English sentence. “I know I heard you. Speak up!”

    Jacob swallowed hard and took the initiative. “W…We’re three kids! We’re lost, and we’re trying to find some food or water!”

    They then heard a second voice from behind the hill. “What’d he say?” This voice was much higher pitched, and somewhat raspy. There was a slight hiss on the s in ‘say.’

    “He said they’re all Child level, I think. It’s a strange dialect. They must not be from around here.” The voice then grew louder in order to address them. “Hey! Where are you from?”

    Jacob and Ross looked at each other in consternation. Ross had the gut feeling that naming an American city wouldn’t mean anything to the people on the other side, and he imagined Jacob was thinking the same thing. Eventually Jacob gave an accurate but imprecise answer. “We think we’re from far away, but we’re not sure. There are eight more of us in a cave in the forest back there, and most of them are small and very frightened, so would you please help us find some water for them? We’re in a desperate situation.”

    The raspy voice asked the deep one, “He said the others are small. Does that mean Child level, too?”

    “It’s possible, but we’d have to check to make sure.”

    “And what did he mean that he ‘thinks’ they’re from far away? Are they stupid?”

    “Again, it’s possible. Whatever the case, they don’t sound dangerous to me and we don’t have anything better to do. Let’s go check them out.”

    Ross dreaded to see what sort of characters were approaching them from over the hill. A thick stretch of fog rolled in on their side, so they heard the footsteps before they could see who was coming. Slowly, a pair of silhouettes began to appear, and they were not of any shape one could have expected to see. In a few moments, standing right before them was a wolf that was as tall on all fours as Ross was standing up accompanied by a smaller (but still frighteningly big), bipedal, dinosaur-like creature. The three humans were at a loss for words. After a few seconds of staring, the lizard was the first to speak. “They look weird.”

    “Don’t be rude, Agumon.”

    Agumon was amber-orange in color and had a disproportionately large head, presumably to match his disproportionately large claws. He held one of these claws out in front of him as he stepped forward to get a closer look at Tatiana. Ross didn’t know how she could look at him straight in the eyes and not even quiver a little. ‘Maybe she’s paralyzed with fear. That’d be bad.’ Agumon held his claw near Tatiana’s forehead, and gave the goggles a light tap on one of the lenses. He then gave her a light tap on the arm, which made her flinch. “They’re poorly armored. The things up here are solid enough, but they’re too small to protect her head well, and her skin is awful soft.”

    The wolf, who was white in color with a number of blue stripes, spoke next. “You must excuse my friend here. He isn’t good around strangers. My name is Garurumon. What is your name?”

    Ross was starting to break into a nervous sweat. “Which one of us are you asking?”

    Garurumon raised an eyebrow. “All of you. You are of the same species, are you not? What name do you three go by?”

    Ross could not imagine a more confusing response to his question. Still, he tried to answer as best as he could. “Well…we’re humans. The thing is, though, we each have different names. I’m Ross.”

    “I’m Jacob. And this is Tatiana.”

    This only added to the two strangers’ confusion. Agumon said to Garurumon, “I take it back. I don’t think they’re stupid. They’re just insane.”

    Garurumon let out a low growl. “I said don’t be rude. Obviously, they’re from far enough away that our rules don’t apply to them. Perhaps the captain would know something more about their background.”

    “I never thought of that! You’re so smart, Garurumon.”

    “Oh, not really. You’re just under-evolved.”

    Ross couldn’t see why Agumon didn’t take this statement as any sort of insult, but he decided that for now it would be best not to ask. Garurumon then addressed the three befuddled humans again. “At any rate, you’re welcome to follow us back to the camp. There’s plenty of extra room for your friends, and I’m sure we can work out some sort of arrangement with the captain so you can stay.”

    Jacob lit up at hearing this. “That’d be terrific. We’d be most appreciative. Could we go back to our friends, first? They’ll start to wonder why we’re taking so long.”

    “Don’t worry about that. We’ll send out a scout to fetch your friends later. There’s only one cave in that direction, so they should be easy to find.”

    Ross wasn’t sure whether to find this fact convenient or worrying. For now, though, it was enough to have arranged for the others in the cave to be relocated somewhere that was presumably safer. The three humans and the other two creatures started making their way further into the foothills, and as they went Ross tried not to think about what other talking things they might meet at their destination.
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      #2    
    Old June 25th, 2016 (9:47 PM). Edited June 25th, 2016 by icomeanon6.
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    icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is online now
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      II

      The Camp

      Before an hour had passed, the three humans and their unusual companions came across a large hill. The top was obscured by fog, but halfway up Ross could see two rows of wooden spikes jutting out in a manner that set his hair on end. There was a narrow gap where a few spikes had been removed and set aside, presumably to be replaced when the need arose. As Garurumon and Agumon headed for this gap, Tatiana stopped. She asked a question with voice wavering. “W…what are those things for?”

      Agumon turned around. “They keep the baddies out. Don’t you know there’s a war going on?”

      Tatiana took a step backwards. Jacob said to her, “Come on, there’s nothing to worry about.” Though she still looked worried, she caught up with the rest of the group. They passed through the gap and came to the top of the hill. All around were several small clusters of beige tents. There were a few faint sounds of activity from within some of the shelters, but otherwise the place seemed dead. Garurumon made a deep, slightly disapproving noise in the back of his throat. “Home sweet home.”

      Something about the whole setup went against Ross’s grain, and he shuddered. He took a glance at Tatiana, and saw that she was keeping awfully close to Jacob, who seemed strangely unfazed. The other teenager was looking about as if he wanted to memorize every detail of the camp. Agumon then motioned the three of them to follow, and they walked to the largest of the tents. On its side someone had painted in crude, black letters the word ‘CAPTAIN.’ It looked as if it had written by someone with no thumbs, which Ross supposed made sense.

      Before passing through the entry flap, Garurumon paused and said to the three humans, “I would advise you to be careful with your words. Things have been a little tense around here as of late.”

      The three followed Garurumon through the entrance, and saw something that they did not expect. Sitting on a stool in front of them was a tall, man-like figure with six white wings. His eyes were covered by the steel helmet he wore, which was adorned with a cross. Ross couldn’t help but stare, especially at the subtle light the man—or creature?—seemed to emit. Garurumon bowed his head slightly and said, “Captain Angemon, we have brought back three wanderers from the hills. They say there are more of them in the cave in the woods, and that they wish to seek refuge here.”

      Angemon was motionless, but somehow Ross got the feeling that he was examining the three of them closely. After a few seconds of pondering, he answered Garurumon. “You bring with you unexpected but most welcome guests, Garurumon.” His voice was strong and firm, but strangely soothing. He gave off the aura of a pure soldier: a powerful guardian whose mere presence brought safety to those who were lucky enough to be on his side. “I suppose you have noticed that their attributes are indiscernible, which in my mind makes them all the more welcome.”

      Ross didn’t know what to make of this statement. He looked over at Jacob, who was more collected but no less confused. Angemon’s head remained still; he faced no one in particular, but when he resumed speaking Ross could tell that he was addressing Jacob in particular. “Pardon me if I’m completely off base, but I have a feeling that although you three are clearly alike, you each answer to a different name. Am I correct?”

      Garurumon’s ears rose a few inches, and his voice did little to hide his surprise. “You could tell, sir?”

      Ross glanced over to Garurumon, but suddenly he became aware of a faint presence. It was as if someone was tapping him on the shoulder, though he felt nothing there. He looked again to Angemon, and in an instant the presence grew strong and seemed to force the words right out of his mouth. “Ross! Uh…Ross, sir. My name’s Ross.”

      The presence vanished, leaving Ross red in the face. Angemon didn’t seem to take any offense at his slightly embarrassing outburst, however. As for Jacob and Tatiana, they didn’t seem to notice it at all. “I’m Jacob, sir.”

      And then there came a meek voice that wanted to hide back inside its mouth. “Tatiana.”

      Angemon nodded. “Intriguing names, all. They sound almost as ordinary words. Most unorthodox.”

      At hearing the word ‘unorthodox,’ Ross began to suspect that everyone around here had a name that ended with ‘-mon.’

      “But I forget my manners. It is plain to see that you are tired and hungry. You may take as much as you like from the mess tent. Garurumon, show them the way, if you’d please. I shall have a messenger sent for their companions at once.”

      “That’d be perfect,” said Jacob, “Thank you very much, sir.”

      Ross followed suit, saying “Yes. Thank you, sir,” and Tatiana nodded her head slightly.

      Angemon nodded back to her and said, “Good day, you three.” As they all turned to leave, Angemon spoke once more. “Agumon, would you stay a minute, please?”

      *********

      Jacob, Ross, and Tatiana were sitting on a log outside of the mess tent. They each had a bowl of a bland yet hardy grain dish. Ross didn’t think it was rice. Perhaps it was barley? Millet? None of them could say, but they were more than happy to finally sit down with something hot to eat. Garurumon asked them, “Is the food to your liking?”

      Ross looked over at Garurumon, and wondered if he normally ate the same thing that they were eating. Considering Garurumon’s size, he would certainly prefer a larger bowl, and probably wouldn’t use the chopsticks—the only utensils they could find—either. Jacob answered, “It’s great. Thanks again.” Jacob then noticed that Tatiana was struggling with her chopstick technique. He whispered to her, “Hold them more like a pencil—there you go.”

      As Ross continued eating, he noticed that the fog on the western edge of the hill was beginning to thin out. The now visible landscape consisted of rolling hills that grew into distant mountains to the right, and became covered with a dense forest to the far left. This was nothing out of the ordinary, but something else about the scenery caught Ross’s eye. There were three small but prominent craters among some of the closer hills. They had no grass growing on them, and the dirt was dark, nearly black. Ross supposed this had something to do with the war that Agumon had mentioned. Ross wondered about this war. Who or what do wolves, dinosaurs, and angels fight against? And while he was on the subject, just what in the hell were these creatures, anyway? As he stewed over this, Agumon came walking over from their right.

      “Agumon’s back,” said Jacob to Garurumon, who was staring at the ground.

      Garurumon looked up, and promptly shook his head. “Different Agumon.”

      As this new Agumon walked past them and into the mess tent, he said, “Hi, Garurumon.”

      To Ross’s ears, this Agumon’s voice was indistinguishable from the one they had first met. Garurumon answered in kind. “Hello, Agumon.”

      Ross tried to wrap his head around this: These two creatures looked identical, sounded identical, both answered to ‘Agumon,’ didn’t seem to have any other kind of name, and Garurumon regarded them as differently as one regards two different people. Ross wondered how many Agumons there were, and whether or not any of them suffered from identity crisis. It was then that another Agumon came walking over. Before anyone could ask, Garurumon said, “Yes, this one’s ours.”

      Agumon sat down on the ground next to Tatiana, who still couldn’t help but stare at him. “Of course I am. Who else would I be?”

      “Any other Agumon, it would seem,” answered Garurumon. “Our new friends have trouble with recognition.”

      “Not even surprised. These new friends are weird, weird, weird.”

      Tatiana giggled a little, and Agumon smiled. Ross would have been more than happy to leave any discussion of their differences at that. They may have been confused, but they were on good terms with their potentially dangerous hosts. Ross suspected that further talk might reveal differences that would lead to animosity, which they couldn’t risk. Especially dangerous in Ross’s mind would be any mention of—

      “So, could you tell us more about this war?” asked Jacob.

      Ross wanted to punch him. Even if he was just as curious as Jacob was, he knew that talking about active wars tended to lead to heated disagreement, and heated disagreement could lead to them getting tossed back in the woods or worse. Fortunately, Garurumon didn’t seem at all affected by the question. “What do you want to know?”

      Ross hoped that Jacob would simply say ‘Never mind,’ but he had no such luck.

      “The basics, I guess. Who are ‘they,’ who are ‘we,’ and what are we fighting over?”

      Ross thought that saying ‘we’ the second time made the three of them sound much too involved. Garurumon let out a low sigh. “I was wondering when one of you would ask, and I must admit I’m not sure how to answer. You are all so ignorant of things we have always taken for granted as fundamental reality. I suppose I’ll start with as basic an explanation as I can think of.”

      “I would greatly appreciate it, and I must apologize for our ignorance.”

      Garurumon shook his head. “There’s no need. On the contrary, you could say ‘You’re welcome.’ This is the most interesting day I’ve had in quite a while.”

      Agumon interjected, “Oh, this day’ll get even better, but go on.”

      Ross couldn’t help but notice a hint of frustration in Agumon’s jest. He wondered what it meant, and just what Agumon had been talking about with Angemon.

      Garurumon continued speaking. “We are the Vaccine. We are one of the three basic branches of life—four if you count plants. Since even before the dawn of Knowing we have existed alongside the Data and the Virus.”

      Data. Virus. Though the temptation was great, Ross did not ask Garurumon if he knew anything about computers. He was relieved when Jacob didn’t do so either, and simply said, “Got it.”

      “Six years ago, the Virus grew angry with the status quo, which if you ask me is an inexcusably common development for them throughout history. They were once again organized into a formidable army, and we have been fending them off since then. If our army of the Vaccine fails they will overrun our lands, wipe our kind from existence, and obtain control of the entire world.”

      The first thought that came to Ross’s mind was, ‘Oh, man. We’ve stumbled into a genocidal conflict.’ If Jacob found this situation worrisome, he showed no sign of it, and questioned Garurumon further. “What about the ‘Data?’ Can they do anything to help defend against the Virus?”

      Garurumon sighed a second time. “Though the Data are greatest in number of all the branches, they lack the leadership and collective will to fight as one. On top of that, they are mentally and physically ill-suited to fight the Virus in particular.”

      Ross hoped with his entire being that the other two wouldn’t call Garurumon’s last statement—

      “Isn’t that racist?” asked Tatiana.

      Ross tensed up, and began to sweat. Even Jacob looked a little nervous in response to Tatiana’s potentially disastrous question. It was an immense relief when Garurumon answered, “I’m not familiar with the term, but trust me when I say that it is fact. All other qualities being equal, one of the Data will usually fall to one of the Virus, just as a Virus-type will typically fall to one of us and one of us will typically fall to a Data-type.”

      Tatiana was about to speak again, but Jacob put his hand on her shoulder and said, “Let’s take his word for it. This is his home, not ours.”

      Tatiana hesitated for a moment, and then nodded. Garurumon nodded back, and then said, “That about sums it up, I think. I hope I’ve done an adequate job; it’s not something anyone usually has to explain.”

      Ross seized this opportunity to change the subject. “You did fine, thanks. We’ve got the picture.” Looking off into the west, which was again growing covered with fog, he continued. “I wonder how long till the others get here.”

      *********

      It was getting dark when nine figures walked in cautious fashion up the hill. Leading the way was a three and a half foot tall, pink-feathered, avian creature. Of the strange beings Ross had seen so far that day, he considered this one to be the strangest. It looked almost like a child in a bird costume, as it stood perfectly upright and its wings seemed to be just as similar to arms as actual wings. He found it slightly unsettling when it jumped up and flapped its ‘wings’ a few times to bring itself to the very top, where it gave a small bow to Garurumon. “All have arrived safely, sir.”

      “Thank you, Biyomon. Show the little ones to the mess tent; they must be hungry.”

      “Yes, sir.”

      It was then that the first of the eight humans came into proper view. Garurumon looked at her and asked Jacob, “Is this the ‘Joanie’ you mentioned?”

      Jacob smiled and nodded. “Yup, that’s her.”

      Joanie let out a light sigh, and smiled in kind. “I am so glad to see you guys here.” Her eyes were then drawn to Garurumon, but she did not seem particularly surprised, which Ross had not expected. “Are you Garurumon, sir?”

      Garurumon nodded. “Yes, indeed. And you needn’t call me ‘sir.’ Biyomon is more formal than is warranted. If you don’t mind, our captain would like to see you along with your two friends, here.”

      The seven other children were now all assembled behind Joanie, and they for the most part looked far more optimistic than they had in the morning. The oldest of them, whom Ross remembered as Michael from the night before, looked particularly interested in Garurumon.

      Biyomon addressed the crowd, “Follow me, there’s good food this way!”

      Joanie walked up to Biyomon and extended her hand. Biyomon returned the gesture with the three large claws at the end of her right arm/wing, and the two of them shook appendage-ends. “Thanks for everything, Biyomon!”

      “It was no trouble at all. You were fun to talk to!”

      As Biyomon walked off, most of the children did as well. The three exceptions were Michael, a younger boy, and Tatiana. Joanie turned and said to the two boys, “Go on, Michael, Steven, I won’t be too long.”

      Steven, who seemed to be simply anxious about leaving Joanie, nodded and followed the other children. Michael, on the other hand, stayed where he was and said, “I want to see the captain, too.”

      There was now little fear and fatigue in Michael’s eyes. His tone of voice wasn’t what anyone would call steadfast, but it was markedly more resolute than it had been the night before. Garurumon looked straight into his eyes, and took a few steps forward. Michael took a sharp breath through his nose, and his eyes wavered a little, but he held still in the face of Garurumon’s intimidating gaze. Garurumon made a noise in his throat, as if in discernment.

      At this point, Tatiana spoke up as well. “I wanna come too. I’ve already eaten, anyway.”

      Garurumon made a quick glance back at Tatiana, and then said, “Very well. Follow me.”

      Michael’s face broke into a wide grin. Garurumon turned and began walking toward the main tent and the two children followed him closely, with the three teenagers trailing a fair distance behind. Jacob was the first to speak. “Well, it looks like we’re all safe and sound now.”

      Joanie let out a deep breath. “Yeah. It’s so lucky that you guys stumbled across this place. I was worried you might get lost; then we’d really be in a tight spot.”

      Ross concurred with a simple “Mm-hm,” and Jacob responded in a more verbose fashion. “You can thank Tatiana for that. She’s the one who picked the right direction.”

      “And you guys should thank Biyomon later. Once she showed up she was great with helping all the kids feel safe. Actually, I think she earned their trust even faster than she earned mine. And she just loves to talk about everything! I wouldn’t be surprised if we know more about this place than you do.”

      Ross asked, “Did she tell you about the captain, already?”

      “Yeah, Angemon,” Joanie replied. Then she laughed a little. “It’s funny, Biyomon described him like this: ‘he looks like you all, but bigger, stronger, and well-armored. Oh, and he has six wings on his back!’”

      Jacob snorted. Ross didn’t think it was particularly funny, and supposed he just wasn’t in the mood. The three of them looked ahead at Tatiana and Michael. They seemed to be engrossed in conversation with Garurumon. Michael in particular was hanging on Garurumon’s every word. Jacob said, “I think Michael there might have felt cheated when we left this morning. Maybe we should have brought him.”

      Ross nodded. “I think you’re right. Is he the oldest out of the kids?”

      Joanie nodded. “Yeah. We all said names and ages earlier and he’s eleven, which makes him the only one who’s over nine. Oh, wait. Do you know how old Tatiana is?”

      Ross shook his head. “Never asked. We could ask later.”

      Jacob was not interested in waiting, and called out to her. “Hey, Tatiana! How old are you?”

      Tatiana turned her head and called back. “Ten!”

      Jacob spoke in normal voice again. “That settles that.”

      Garurumon and the kids had now reached the main tent, and waited a few seconds for the teenagers to catch up. They all entered together, and Ross still couldn’t help but find Angemon’s presence slightly unsettling. Angemon was sitting and facing the ground, apparently lost in thought. Garurumon was the first to speak. “Captain Angemon, they have arrived.”

      Angemon was unresponsive for a second, but then turned his head upward and smiled. He stood and spoke. “Indeed they have. You must be Joanie.”

      Joanie wore a slight smile, but a subtle contortion of her eyebrows and a subtler haltingness in her voice betrayed that she hadn’t been fully prepared for the sight of Angemon. “Yes, sir. It was too kind of you to have us.”

      “Not at all, I assure you.” He then turned his invisible attention to Michael, whose mouth was already agape and now took a step backwards. “And what is your name, little one?”

      “M…Michael. It’s Michael, sir.”

      Angemon nodded. “That’s a good name. It strikes me as a name of inner fortitude, and of a strong sense of right.”

      Michael’s expression softened, and he took a step forward. “My parents said they named me after St. Michael. He was an…an angel, like you.”

      Michael’s face began to turn red, but then Angemon spoke again. “I can’t say I quite understand the story, but now I’m sure that the name is a perfect fit.”

      Upon hearing this, Michael practically beamed, and Ross could swear that some of Angemon’s glow was sharing space with the boy, if only for a moment. And it was a scant few moments later that Angemon moved on from introductions to more pressing matters. “Now that we’re all acquainted, let us get to the issue at hand.”

      The air hung still for a moment, and then Angemon spoke again. “In exchange for our continued hospitality, you three large ones must serve us as spies. You shall infiltrate the enemy encampment, and report back on their intended movements.”

      Ross’s jaw dropped, and the other four were speechless.

      “I must object, Captain Angemon,” said Garurumon. “This is far too much trust to place in strangers, and I personally doubt their qualifications for the mission.”

      ‘Yes. That’s it. We are not qualified. At all.’ is what passed through Ross’s mind, but he couldn’t bring himself to speak. Angemon, however, was unperturbed by Garurumon’s claim. “As always, I value your council, Garurumon. Nevertheless I believe we can trust them, and moreover I believe they are uniquely qualified for the mission.”

      ‘You’re wrong. You’re insane. This is bad. We have to leave.’ Ross still did not interrupt, and Angemon continued. “Garurumon, you first became aware of Jacob, Ross, and Tatiana when you heard them speaking, correct?”

      “Yes, but…”

      “With anyone else, you would have known they were nearby from at least four hills away, correct?”

      “Undoubtedly. All of my concentration was devoted to locating enemies.”

      “This is precisely why they are qualified. Their presence cannot be felt from afar, and even when they are in the same room their attributes are hidden. They will be invisible in a way that none of us ever could be.”

      Jacob finally interrupted. “Sorry, but you mentioned ‘attributes’ earlier and I never asked what…er…”

      Angemon smiled. “Hearing this, I am now certain that you have no attributes to speak of. You are not Data, Virus, nor Vaccine. Garurumon, these beings come from the Holy World, where they are above attributes. They are of the mighty race of Creators, and they have been sent to help heal Creation.”

      Ross could no longer remain silent, and stepped forward. “C…Captain Angemon, I’m afraid you’re mistaken. We’re not ‘Creators,’ we’re just ordinary people. Human beings, that’s it. And we’re not mighty—we’re weak, lost, and confused. We don’t know why we’re here, and no one sent us. We just showed up.”

      Joanie stepped forward as well. “He’s right, sir. We’re not Creators; we were created, just like you.”

      Angemon smiled. “Trivialities. Nowhere is it written that those who created us knew that they were creating. Nor is it written that they were the ultimate Creators themselves. Moreover, I said that you were sent with a purpose, not that you were fully informed and prepared beforehand.”

      Ross made some vague noises of objection, and turned to Garurumon. Garurumon looked back at him, and his eyes seemed both heavy and ponderous. Garurumon then turned back to Angemon and said, “If you are so sure of this, Captain, then I am as well. They are more than suited to carry out the task.”

      “If that’s all true,” they heard Agumon say as he walked into the tent, “Then we’ve been blessed. We can’t lose!”

      Ross was petrified at the thought that Angemon would agree with this sentiment, but fortunately the captain shook his head. “It is written that perfect justice will come at the end of time, but until then there are no guarantees. It would be equally foolish to grow overconfident as it would be to discount the significance of our guests.”

      Ross was beginning to sweat. Angemon was apparently less of a fool than Agumon, but that didn’t mean they were nearly off the hook. He didn’t know what else to say, but Jacob decided to give it a shot. “Let’s suppose that you’re right, sir, and we were sent here to help you. Even if we were to sneak up close to their base without them ‘feeling’ or smelling us or something, we’re not experts at espionage by any stretch. We can’t just sneak around in their camp without them noticing us, and since we don’t know a thing about them other than that they’re ‘Virus’ I doubt we can get them to trust us.”

      Much to all of their consternation, Angemon continued to smile. “Most astute, Jacob, and I would have to agree with you were it not for one other factor. You won’t be going alone; there is one other who is especially qualified for this sort of mission.”

      Hearing this, Agumon’s eyes narrowed, and a few wafts of smoke rose from his nostrils. In response, Angemon’s smile vanished and everyone in the room could feel their bodies grow slightly heavier. “You promised me decorum, Agumon, and I expect you to honor that.”

      Agumon stared at his feet. “Yes, sir.”

      Angemon turned to the rear entrance of the tent. “You may enter.”

      This new individual had apparently been waiting for a signal. He parted the tent flap with his three long claws and revealed himself. He was identical to Agumon except for one key detail: his skin was not orange, but rather black as pitch. Angemon introduced him as he approached the center of the tent. “This is BlackAgumon. He is a Virus-type who has more than earned my trust and is under my personal protection. BlackAgumon, these are Jacob, Joanie, Ross, Tatiana, and Michael of the Holy World. You will be working with the large ones, contingent on their agreement.”

      BlackAgumon had a grim expression, and there seemed to be some gravel in his throat. “My pleasure.”

      With a glare and a few shots of even darker smoke from his nostrils, Agumon stomped heavily from the tent. Tatiana followed him after taking one more look at Angemon and BlackAgumon. Ross would have liked to join her, but he couldn’t just leave without giving a final answer to Angemon. Then again, how could he possibly give an answer that Angemon would approve of? They couldn’t afford to get involved in this race war, especially not when that would entail working as spies. But there was also the matter that they couldn’t afford to leave food, water, and shelter behind. Would Angemon kick them out if they said no, small children and all?

      As bad scenarios fired through his mind, he suddenly felt that uncanny pressure from Angemon again, this time stronger than before. He then heard the captain’s voice, even though his lips did not move. ‘I cannot have my subordinates hear me say this, Human Beings, but I only ask for your help because we are desperate. We cannot combat this great evil without more information, and it is too dangerous to send BlackAgumon alone. Our lives may depend on your answer. So I beg you, please help us.’

      Ross’s heart rate was spiking. He glanced quickly at his companions, and he got the feeling that they too heard Angemon’s plea. On top of that, it seemed that Michael’s eyes were welling up with tears. Jacob and Joanie glanced at each other, and then at Ross. All it took was for Jacob to nod his head slightly and Ross felt that the group had reached a consensus. Ross didn’t like it, but he also couldn’t bring himself to go against the mood of the others. The three of them turned again to Angemon and Jacob gave the official reply. “All right. We’ll do it.”

      Angemon did not smile, but simply nodded and sat on his stool. His head dropped and it was clear to all that his invisible attention had returned to his own mind. As Angemon entered what appeared to be a deep trance, BlackAgumon began walking back the way he came. “Marvelous. It’s a long walk tomorrow, so don’t stay up late.”

      *********

      It was around midnight. Ross was standing at the edge of the hilltop seven yards above the spiked barricade. All around him was perfect silence. He had expected at least some insects to be making noise, but there were none that he could hear. He stared at the cloudless, moonless, star-filled sky for three solid minutes before he heard anything. What he heard were footsteps, and since they were far softer than the thuds that came from Agumon and Garurumon’s feet, he figured they were human. He kept looking up, and soon he heard a girl’s voice.

      “Is that you, Ross?”

      The voice was Joanie’s. He turned to face her, and he could half discern her silhouette, but nothing beyond that. “Yeah.”

      “Can’t sleep either?” Joanie sounded weary, but not physically exhausted.

      “Nope.”

      Half a minute of silence passed. Ross couldn’t tell if Joanie found the silence awkward or not. There were no visual cues to pick up. He wanted to know whether she was looking at the stars or at him; whether she had come out because she couldn’t sleep or because she noticed he was missing. If he had her figured out correctly, she was the sort who upon waking in the middle of the night would take a silent headcount just to make sure everyone was safe. But how could he tell? They had only met the evening before.

      His train of thought was interrupted when Joanie spoke again. “I think Biyomon will do a good job of looking out for the younger kids while we’re gone. Tatiana and Michael should be able to help, too.”

      “Yeah.”

      Just as Ross was thinking to himself that he wasn’t saying enough, and that he ought to extend his reply so it wouldn’t sound like he was brushing her off, Joanie said, “You’re not very talkative tonight.”

      ‘Damn. Too slow.’ Ross rubbed his eyes and said, “Sorry. It’s just…well…rough day, you know.”

      Joanie made a half-chuckle, just enough to indicate to Ross that she wasn’t bitter about the lousy conversation he made. Ross continued. “It’s a good thing you’re here. Jacob and I wouldn’t have been able to take care of all those kids by ourselves.”

      “Thanks. It’s nice of you to say that.”

      Another half minute of silence passed. By this point enough had been said that Ross was sure she had more that she wanted to talk about but wasn’t getting to. He was looking at the sky again, trying to find the North Star when Joanie sprung a new question on him. “Ross, why do you think we’re here?”

      Ross swallowed. Her voice had a palpable sense of foreboding about it. As for the question, he had absolutely no idea, and trying to think about it just made him frustrated. He spent enough time not answering that Joanie got the gist, and resumed speaking. “I’m mostly blank on ideas, too. But I can’t help but think about what Angemon was saying earlier. I mean, the idea that we’re any kind of ‘Creators’ is a bit ridiculous, but…”

      She trailed off. Ross wondered what she was getting at. “Yes?”

      “But what if he’s half right? What if God sent us here for some real purpose?”

      “Don’t tell me you buy into that crap.” The words came out of Ross’s mouth before he had a real chance to think about them.

      “What crap? Belief in God?”

      Ross felt like the biggest clod on the face of the Earth. How could he not have picked up the earnestness in her voice when she said that? He did his best to recover. “No! No, not belief in God itself. Just, you know, that kind of…active god. I just think it’s kind of a stretch of an explanation.”

      Joanie was not convinced. “You can tell me the truth. You don’t believe in God and you think it’s dumb for other people to believe in God, right?”

      She didn’t sound happy with him, and that made Ross cringe. “Uh…well…Right. But I didn’t mean it to come out that…I didn’t mean it that way. So…I take it you’re Christian?”

      “Yes. Catholic.”

      Ross sat down and pressed his hand to his forehead. “Really, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to call you stupid. And I don’t think you’re stupid!”

      Joanie sat down next to him, but she still sounded kind of annoyed with him. “I understand. We always view people themselves and their ideas separately.”

      There was something about Joanie. Ross had been in countless exchanges that started the same way as this one and simply ended in angry arguments over whether the idea of a god was bunk or not. “Go on with what you were saying earlier; about God sending us here and all. I shouldn’t have shot you down like that.”

      “Well, I don’t want to—”

      “Please.” Ross could tell that she was going to change the subject to avoid offending him, and he wouldn’t abide the condescension implicit in that. When Joanie spoke again, she slowly lost the defensiveness in her voice, and in its place came the foreboding that had been present before Ross’s boneheaded comment.

      “Think about all that we’ve seen here, I guess; all these big, strange, talking animals and the captain and everything. It’s all too improbable, but I’m sure it’s real because there’s no way I or any of us could have dreamed this up. And us being here, it’s not something that just happens naturally or by dumb luck. Why are we all from the United States of all countries? Heck, Jacob and I have known each other since we were six, why the two of us out of all people? I’ve never bought into ridiculous coincidences like that. I have to believe there’s a reason. I just wish I knew what it was.”

      Ross had been listening intently, and for once he was ready with something to say. “I guess part of my problem with that is that I don’t see why this isn’t all just a dream. Just because I can’t think of where all the elements came from doesn’t mean they weren’t in the back of my mind somewhere.”

      “Yet you’re still acting as if it’s all real.”

      “I don’t think I can help that.”

      “Hmm.”

      Ross supposed that she did actually have something to say to that along the lines of the existence of free will, but he didn’t want to open another can of worms. “And the other problem I have is the whole idea of ‘God,’ I guess. You talk about how you don’t buy into ridiculous improbabilities, but to me that’s what gods are. God’s supposedly some perfect, omniscient creator who spends most of his time worrying about one random species on one planet out of billions or trillions or whatever. If I had to bet money, I’d say it’s more likely that I’m just dreaming.”

      Joanie wasted no time in answering. “But again, you don’t believe you’re dreaming, do you? You believe that this place is real…that I’m real, right?”

      The word ‘believe’ always came across as somewhat grating to Ross’s sensibilities. He much preferred the word ‘think.’ He couldn’t stand spirituality—much less religion—in part because he understood the nuances of the word ‘believe’: Screw proof, screw reason, just go with what your touchy-feely heart-of-hearts shouts at you. He thought that was stupid and dangerous. But for whatever reason he didn’t let it get to him that night. “Yes. I do believe it’s real. It’s all too lucid. There’s no way I can possibly believe otherwise.”

      “So how does this place exist and why are we here?”

      Ross was growing more agitated, and his bitterness at their whole situation harshened his tone. “I don’t know. That’s why I’m scared.”

      That stopped the conversation cold. There would be no more discussion and no more communication of any kind except for ‘goodnight’ and ‘goodnight’ when they returned to the others, hopefully to go back to sleep. For the time being, Ross knew they would both have to set aside their thoughts on the situation from a cosmic sense and focus on what was immediate. They had a long walk ahead of them.
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        #3    
      Old July 2nd, 2016 (8:06 PM).
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      icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is online now
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        III


        Rumors of the Commander


        The sun was still down, but it was light enough to see. Jacob, Ross, Joanie, and BlackAgumon were gathered near the western edge of the hill to finish their preparations. The humans would have liked to have spent more time in the camp and out of danger, but as BlackAgumon reminded them as they packed, “Time’s of the essence.”

        Ross rubbed his eyes. He had managed only four hours of sleep the night before, and now he had to walk back the way they came. He looked at Jacob, who seemed wide awake and practically raring to go, and then at Joanie, who couldn’t have gotten much sleep either but still looked far more awake than he felt. She asked BlackAgumon, “Do you need a blanket? One of us can carry it for you.”

        BlackAgumon shook his head. “Don’t bother. Just hurry up.”

        Jacob, who was in the middle of tying a square knot, said, “No worries. We’ll be done in a second.”

        BlackAgumon was perhaps as irritated with Jacob’s morning-chipper-ness as Ross was. He snorted and began to pace back and forth. But Jacob was right in that the humans had little to pack. Several loaves of bread, four skins of water, and three blankets constituted the inventory. The only reason things were taking longer than a minute was that Jacob had insisted they should tie the blankets with string after bundling the food in them. Once the bundles were tied and slung over the humans’ backs with cord, Jacob said to BlackAgumon, “All right, then. Lead the way.”

        Joanie looked back toward the tents and then tapped Jacob on the shoulder. “Hold on.”

        Tatiana, Michael, and Garurumon were walking toward them. BlackAgumon looked to the cloudy sky and groaned. “You said your goodbyes last night. Let’s move.”

        “One minute tops, promise,” said Jacob before he headed over to meet the three with Ross and Joanie following him. “We’ve got to go real soon, guys. Don’t worry; you’ll be fine without us. Just—”

        Tatiana interrupted him. “What are you talking about? Of course we’ll be fine. We’re worried about you.”

        Ross, whose eyes were half closed, said, “She’s smart. Let’s switch her for Jacob.”

        The other humans laughed, Garurumon chuckled, and BlackAgumon was stone-faced. Jacob, fully aware of BlackAgumon’s impatience, got the discussion back on track. “Just do what Angemon and Garurumon tell you to, and watch out for the younger kids.”

        Joanie added, “And make sure none of you leave the camp. Got that?”

        Michael nodded. “We got it. We’re going to be fine.”

        Jacob nodded back. “We’ll be back in four days. See you soon.”

        Jacob shook hands with Michael, and then with Tatiana. He then turned to Garurumon, who made a polite bow. “I patrol the hills twice a day, but whenever I’m around I’ll keep an eye on your friends, and Agumon will too. You have my word.”

        The three teenagers bowed back. “Thanks, Garurumon,” said Ross. He then glanced over at BlackAgumon, who was fuming in a literal sense. “Guys, we really have to get going now.”

        With that the talking ceased, save for a few understated goodbyes. The three teenagers left their two seconds in command with Garurumon, and followed BlackAgumon down the hill, past the barricade, and into the fog. Less than a minute later, Ross looked over his shoulder and could spot no sign of the camp.

        They had been walking over the hills for about twenty minutes when Ross spotted to their right a crater similar to the ones he had seen the day before. It was approximately ten feet in diameter, and a few short blades of grass were coming up near its edge but the center was completely barren. Ross wondered by what means these craters were made when he saw that he was starting to lag behind. He then shifted the weight of his pack and picked up the pace.

        As Ross caught up, Jacob tried to start some conversation with BlackAgumon, which Ross thought was an ill-considered but not unexpected venture. “Hey, BlackAgumon. How long do you think it is till sunrise?”

        BlackAgumon, who was walking a good eight feet ahead of Jacob and Joanie, did not answer. Ross thought this was just as well, as BlackAgumon was their only lifeline in the wilderness, and he worried that a conversation that went in the wrong direction would jeopardize that. He couldn’t figure out Jacob’s apparent need to sacrifice the status quo for the sake of having something to talk about, and Jacob’s next question did not put his mind at ease. “Something on your mind?”

        BlackAgumon snorted. “Just wondering why the mighty race of Creators would send help to a bunch of scumbags like Angemon and his scumbag army.”

        Ross nearly had a heart attack. He immediately decided that he wouldn’t let Jacob make the situation any more caustic, and whispered, “Don’t bother him. He’s not in the mood.”

        Jacob whispered back, “No chance. We’ve got a long way to go with this guy. I want to make sure we’re all on good terms.”

        Joanie joined in the whispering. “Guys, I think he might be able to hear you.”

        Fortunately, she was only half right. “What are you whispering about back there? Don’t trust me now?”

        Before Ross could say anything, Jacob answered BlackAgumon. “We’re not sure whether we trust you yet, or Angemon for that matter. We just got here, and we’re only doing this to keep our friends safe.”

        ‘The more we talk about motivation, the closer we get to losing our guide,’ thought Ross, who followed Jacob’s answer with an attempt to stop the conversation cold. “We don’t want to bother you. We can keep quiet if you want.”

        BlackAgumon spat. “Pathetic.” All three humans grew anxious. “Do you think I’m stupid? I saw the way Angemon had you suckered in with his talk. You two snakes are just trying to keep me from ditching you in the woods, and you’re tripping over each other in the process.”

        Ross and Jacob looked at each other, disappointed that they had both been found out so quickly. Fortunately, Joanie was ready to take over for them. “You got us. We’re sorry we doubted you, but…”

        BlackAgumon’s tone was growing harsher. “But what?”

        “…But we really trust Agumon, and it seems like you two have some issues to work out.”

        BlackAgumon spat again, but this time instead of saliva there came a quick burst of flame that blackened the grass. The three humans stopped in their tracks at the sight. They’d gone and done it. BlackAgumon then turned around and began to approach them, and as he spoke little tongues of fire could be seen at the corners of his mouth. “Don’t you dare mention that orange slow-mute’s name to me again! I’ve had it up to here with your ignorant, two-faced prattle! You don’t know a damned thing about those Vaccine thugs, so don’t talk like they’re your best friends in front of me or I’ll roast your hides and cut them from your bodies! I shou—”

        For a few moments toward the end of BlackAgumon’s tirade, it appeared that his green eyes were growing red around the edges. All of a sudden he choked on his words and his pupils dilated. He was breathing heavily, but a few seconds later he was composed.

        Ross was reeling. He could almost feel the fire on his skin, and he wasn’t convinced the danger was passed. He glanced over at his companions and saw they were just as terrified as he was. When BlackAgumon spoke again, the violence in his voice had been replaced by a palpable meekness. “Let’s keep moving. We’ve got a long way to go.”

        BlackAgumon turned around started walking up a large hill. Somewhat reluctantly, Joanie began to follow, and she was soon followed by Jacob and Ross. There was silence for about a minute until BlackAgumon said, “I apologize. That was inexcusable of me.”

        It appeared that only Joanie had the courage to reply. “It’s fine. Everyone loses their cool now and then.”

        Her voice did not waver in the slightest, but Ross could see on her face that she was hardly at ease. He crossed his fingers that she would be able to dig them out of the hole that he and Jacob had dug. It seemed to be working, as BlackAgumon remained calm. “Maybe where you come from some rules apply to everyone, but that’s just not the case here.”

        When they reached the top of the hill, BlackAgumon stopped again. He looked over his right shoulder, and his eyes grew narrow, but not exactly angry. Ross looked where BlackAgumon seemed to be looking, but there was nothing but a few hills and fog. BlackAgumon made a low growl in his throat and spoke again. “I ought to explain where I stand, just so we all know.”

        BlackAgumon pointed off into the distance. “There. North-east. You can’t see it right now because of the fog, but in the middle of the mountain range that starts some tens of miles off is the Forbidden City.”

        Jacob looked intently into the fog, as if he expected to gaze upon the city itself. “We’ve never heard of it.”

        “I’m not surprised Angemon wouldn’t tell you about it. The Vaccine call it the ‘Holy City,’ which is an utter farce. It’s where their damned aristocrats have the greater part of the world’s wealth holed up, and no one can pass the mountains to enter it.”

        Jacob stroked his chin. “What about Biyomon, the one who picked up Joanie and our friends at the cave? She can fly. Are the mountains too high or something?”

        “No, they’re not that high, but they have something worse. An impenetrable force surrounds the City, like an eternal storm. No one alive today is evolved enough to stop it or break through it, Data, Virus, or Vaccine.”

        Despite himself, Ross’s interest was now piqued. “Why would they make a city that they can’t enter or exit? Seems like they’d starve in the middle of the mountains.”

        BlackAgumon growled again, but his tone made clear that he was not angry with the humans. “And that’s the crux of the matter. There are a scant few secret passages beneath the mountains that provide access to and from the City, and one of them has an entrance in this region. The Virus army knows the entrance is here, and if Angemon’s army can’t keep them out they will eventually find it and invade. And frankly, I wouldn’t mind if one day we did.”

        Joanie looked at BlackAgumon intently. “But there’s something about the Virus army that you can’t tolerate—something bad enough that you’d rather they lose.”

        BlackAgumon sighed, turned around, and began walking again. “That sums it up. And do not ask me what that something is. I’m not in the mood.”

        *********


        The rest of the day was something of a blur in Ross’s mind. The fog rarely let up, and everything they saw ran together. Other than a brief stop mid-day for lunch, which consisted of half a loaf of bread each, there was nothing but walking until it began to get dark. It was at the crest of some hill when Ross noticed the edge of the forest in what little daylight remained. Apparently they had veered southwest. Just when he was about to ask whether this was by design, BlackAgumon uttered the first words following several hours of silence. “We’re going to rest for the night in the woods, where we’re less exposed. There’s a hidden Vaccine cache of supplies around here, and you’re going to help me find it.”

        Jacob wiped some sweat from his brow and asked, “What’s it look like?”

        “Can’t say for sure. It’ll probably be covered by boards and hidden with leaves.”

        When they reached the woods, it was slow searching. It would have been difficult enough had the sun been out, but there was so little light that upon looking around his tenth tree Ross figured the effort was futile. On top of that, they had been walking all day and he was worn out. He finished kicking aside some leaves, which of course were covering roots rather than boards, and looked over his shoulder to see if BlackAgumon was nearby. As luck would have it, he caught BlackAgumon’s bright eyes between two trees. He called over to him. “Are you sure we need to find this thing tonight? I’m pretty sure we packed enough food.”

        “I’d feel better if we found it tonight,” said BlackAgumon. “There should be some weapons in it, and I don’t trust any of you to keep watch with nothing but your bare hands.”

        Ross was about to mention the sheath knife that he kept with him when Jacob called over from somewhere out of sight. “Hey, there’s a river over here! I bet it’s close by!”

        Ross heard BlackAgumon’s heavy footfalls moving in the direction of Jacob’s voice. “Good thinking. You two, get over here.”

        Ross kept his eyes on the ground as he made his way to the river, and even then he nearly tripped over a few roots. He could hear the soft sound of the ‘river’—more of a creek, he guessed—before he could see it. Figuring they weren’t going to find the cache anyway, he decided to indulge himself and drink a handful of cold water before he resumed his search. He headed to the nearest tree and checked around its roots. Nothing.

        Ross was thinking to himself that if the cache happened to be on the other side of the creek they might be out of luck when he heard a noise fairly close by. Something was rustling in the underbrush, and it wasn’t a person. Ross immediately thought of the red creature that had nearly torn into his neck the night before. He bit his lip and grabbed the hilt of his knife.

        Just then, Joanie spoke loudly, and as she spoke Ross could hear the little thing scamper off deeper into the woods. “I think I found something!”

        Ross sighed with relief, and made his way over to where the others had gathered around. As he reached them BlackAgumon was moving the last board aside, which would have made the contents of the hole in the ground completely visible had there been enough light to make it all out. Jacob moved his head in closer. “What’s down there?”

        BlackAgumon groaned. “If you worthless Humans can’t even see in the dark you should have said something earlier.” BlackAgumon then picked up a thick branch, set it alight with his breath, and handed it to Jacob. As BlackAgumon went looking for suitable branches for Joanie and Ross, the three humans inspected the cache. There were several baskets of grains, some hammers and nails, what looked like a saw, and a number of weapons.

        Jacob knelt down and grabbed a longsword which was housed in a dark red scabbard. He held his light close to it and stared intently at the inscription that ran down the blade. He read aloud, “Prudence. Justice. Temperance. Fortitude.”

        “The four classical virtues,” said Joanie. “Sounds like a good sword.”

        Ross wondered who the weapon was for. He couldn’t think of anyone they had met here so far who had the opposable thumbs to make good use of it. “Strange weapon for an army of talking wolves and small dinosaurs.”

        “Quit spouting nonsense and take this torch,” said BlackAgumon.

        Then the obvious hit Ross: Angemon had regular human hands, so it was reasonable to assume that other Vaccine did too. This mental blunder made him realize how tired he was from the hike. He yawned as BlackAgumon handed him the lit branch, and then he bent down and examined the remaining weapons: two spears and a bow with arrows. “What do you want, Joanie, spear or bow?”

        Joanie was looking at her torch when Ross asked her this. He wondered if there was something weird to her about the shape of the fire. “Is it a longbow or a recurve bow? I’m more used to recurve.”

        Ross had no idea what a recurve bow was, and didn’t see how Joanie could expect him to. “Showoff.”

        Joanie giggled. Ross thought it was way too late after way too long of a day to be joking, but he shrugged it off. He handed Joanie the bow—“Thanks. Ah, recurve, that’s good.”—and then its quiver. This left either of the spears for himself. He picked the one that looked slightly shorter, thinking that it would be wieldier. It turned out to be just a bit longer than he was tall, which felt right to him.

        Jacob was sitting with his back to a tree, and held his new sword in his lap. “So what now?”

        BlackAgumon sat down as well. “Now we eat half a loaf each, figure out the order for keeping watch, and then sleep till an hour before dawn.”

        As she was unraveling her pack, Joanie asked a question with voice suddenly void of mirth. “You don’t suppose that we’ll have to use these weapons, do you?”

        “I sure hope not. I wouldn’t trust you weaklings to withstand a stiff breeze, much less a Virus foot soldier. But, since you miraculously have good hands for tools, I’m hoping that the weapons scare off anyone who might want to attack us.”

        Jacob re-sheathed his sword and turned his attention to the bread in his pack. He was about to take a bite when he stopped and said, “That reminds me. Hey Ross, why were you carrying that knife around the day we showed up here?”

        “That’s none of your goddamn business.” There was acid in Ross’s voice, and he thought he had good reason for it. Jacob was not one to judge him for having a knife. Ross noticed how quickly Jacob went for that sword, and how he was the first to agree to Angemon’s plan to make spies out of them. The knife was none of his business. Not in the slightest.

        For the rest of that night, no one asked Ross any more questions. He ate dinner in silence, nodded in agreement when BlackAgumon announced the order of the watch, and sat in stillness with his spear on his lap while the others lay down to sleep. There was light from the torch to keep him awake, but he wouldn’t need it to see what he was looking for. In the underbrush was sure to appear a pair of glowing, red eyes. Ross could see it before it happened. He had to be ready to stick anything that came into view. He tried not to blink as he watched for any glow and listened for any movement.

        They never came. The next thing he knew the sun was almost up and he was walking over a hill with his companions again. Someone must have replaced him and he had gone to sleep, but he couldn’t remember it. He was still tired, but he was good enough for another hike.

        As of that morning the four spies were closer to harm than to safety, and throughout the day the hills grew small and the grass grew brown and sparse.

        *********


        The sun had disappeared beneath the horizon in front of them, and in the distance they could spot smoke from campfires. The absence of hills and fog put Ross somewhat ill at ease. If perchance they had to leave the Virus encampment in a hurry, they would be easy to spot on this brown plain. When BlackAgumon spoke to them for the first time since noon, Ross could hear his own worry in their guide’s voice.

        “Listen closely. What we’re going to do is sit at one of the outer campfires, join in on some conversation, and listen carefully for any meaningful information about their plan of attack and numbers. You will let me do the talking. You will speak only when spoken to, and when you do speak you will be vague and noncommittal. Is that understood?”

        “Yes,” said all three humans, and Jacob followed with a question. “What should we say if they ask our names? Name. Whichever.”

        “Be honest. We want to keep this simple, and that means no pretending that you’re one of us. They’re going to know that you’re strange from the moment they set eyes on you without sensing an attribute, so our hands are tied in that regard. Our story is that I was scouting the western half of the woods, and I found you in there two nights ago and recruited you in exchange for my help and protection.”

        “That works.”

        “One more thing. We want to leave tomorrow morning at least an hour before they wake up, so that means we leave in silence. Don’t unravel your packs when we get there. Use the bundle as a pillow so we can leave without packing. I trust you can sleep on the bare ground just fine?”

        Ross rubbed his eyes and felt a chill in his spine. “Not sure the blankets would help much anyway.”

        BlackAgumon could tell what he was thinking. “That reminds me. Do not show fear. That would
        be a dead giveaway.”

        Ross could see that Joanie was holding her bow very tight. “No promises there, but we’ll do our best.” Joanie then looked over her shoulder, back to the east. Ross supposed she was thinking about Michael, Tatiana, and the other kids. Was she just scared that the three of them wouldn’t be there for the children anymore? Ross couldn’t understand how that could be her top priority, yet that’s what it felt like. For his part, all he could worry about was the prospect of the Virus soldiers finding them out and tearing them apart or setting them on fire.

        He shivered and tried to drive the thought from his mind. As they drew closer and closer to the smoke in the distance, he attempted to distract himself with thoughts of rest and sleep. When the furthest fire from the main camp finally came into view, however, he put his concentration toward following BlackAgumon’s instructions to the letter.

        The sky was almost black when they felt the warmth of the campfire, and saw the three Virus soldiers sitting on the opposite side of it. They were gray, mammalian things whose main features seemed to be a cross between those of a rabbit and a cat. They were roughly the same size as BlackAgumon, and like BlackAgumon they sported long, sharp claws on all four legs. One of them, who had a claw with a missing tip, grinned when he saw the visitors and spoke first.

        “Lookie here, it’s a BlackAgumon. Don’t see too many of you around anymore.”

        BlackAgumon replied in perfect stoicism before sitting down. “Evening, Gazimon.”

        The other two Gazimon grinned along with the first. “Evening, BlackAgumon.”

        The three humans sat together near BlackAgumon, and tried not to stare at their hosts. They were somewhat surprised when they were asked by Missing Tip, “What about you? What’s your names?”

        His grammar was unimpressive, but his word choice was revealing. Unlike Agumon and Garurumon, Missing Tip didn’t get the impression that they all had the same name. As Ross wondered about the significance behind this, his companions started answering.

        “I’m Jacob.”

        “Joanie.”

        Their voices were neutral. Ross figured they were doing an okay job so far. “Ross.”

        The Gazimon to Missing Tip’s right snickered at the unusual names, and Missing Tip snarled at him in return. The one to the right snarled right back, but they were interrupted by a noise that none of the humans had expected to hear again. It was a low and droning, yet powerful and angry roar that shook the very ground they sat on. Ross swallowed and resisted the urge to wipe the sweat from his forehead. He glanced over at Jacob and Joanie and saw that they too were fighting back the instinct to squirm. This was the same noise that had made the young ones scatter on their first night in the woods.

        The Gazimon to Missing Tip’s left spat. “I can’t believe we got to bring them slow-mutes with us. They’re so damn annoying.”

        In the distance, Ross could vaguely see a dark, towering form that was nearly invisible against the sky. Missing Tip pointed one of his good claws at the complainer and said, “Watch it. They’re the only Adult-levels we have. How’d you like me to go and tell the DarkTyrannomon what you’ve got to say about them?”

        The left Gazimon cringed, but the right one was not intimidated. “Go ahead. I bet they don’t get no language, the no-words-ers.”

        “That ain’t a smart bet. If you’re wrong you get squashed flat.”

        “He too slow! I scurry up his back and claw his eyes out first!”

        The right and left Gazimon broke into fits of laughter, and this seemed to give BlackAgumon the opening he was looking for. He asked Missing Tip, “I take it these two haven’t been Child-level for very long?”

        This stopped their laughter cold, and Missing Tip grinned. “You got that right. Not me, though. I’ve been around long enough to cut down more than my fair share of scumbag Vacc’s.”

        Missing Tip showed off his missing tip, and BlackAgumon nodded in approval before addressing the others. “You rookies itching for your first kill?”

        The one on the left was indignant, but the one on the right was positively enthusiastic. “Heh heh, yeah. Just two more weeks, and I gonna kill my way to that Garurumon and claw his eyes out!”

        Missing Tip rolled his eyes. “Switch up your words, you dolt.”

        “Don’t see why we got to wait two whole weeks,” said the Gazimon to the left. “We ought to move out now and kill them quick.”

        Missing Tip grinned again. Ross was beginning to dislike that grin. “Relax. There ain’t no rush, and besides—” Missing Tip paused, and looked right at the humans, especially at Ross. “—If your friend says we wait two weeks, we wait two weeks.”

        It took a mighty effort for Ross to keep his confusion from taking over his expression. As his brain stumbled over possible ways to respond to this, the right Gazimon bought him some time. “I dunno. These ones don’t seem much like the Commander to me.”

        “You ain’t never even seen him before, rookie.”

        “Maybe I ain’t, but they say he real strong, and I bet when we see him in two weeks he gonna look real strong. These ones don’t look real strong to me.”

        Missing Tip then addressed the humans directly. “I’m right, ain’t I? You’re all Humans from the Creators, just like the Commander!”

        Jacob’s voice was mostly calm, but wavered just enough to put Ross on edge. “That’s right.”

        The left Gazimon asked them, “You all as strong as the Commander? You got his powers?”

        For once, Ross felt that his curt dismissiveness was a welcome asset to Jacob and Joanie. “Can’t say. We haven’t met.”

        BlackAgumon then took over. “I’m afraid not all Humans are quite as powerful as the Commander. Nevertheless, none of them are without use. These three make for fine scouts, and they’re good with tools and weapons as well.”

        Ross was honestly surprised to hear these words from BlackAgumon. After a short pause, their guide continued. “The Humans may be the greatest gift the Creators have ever bestowed on the Virus.”

        Ross wasn’t surprised any more. ‘Obviously lying,’ he thought. ‘He must be trying to make sure they don’t mess with us.’

        Once again, Missing Tip showed off his grin, and Ross swore those fangs looked more sinister every time he saw them. “All sounds good to me. And from what I hear about the Commander, we’re only going to need one of him anyway!”

        The three Gazimon howled with laughter, and the three humans put on the best smiles they could muster. It was going to be a long night.

        *********


        Ross didn’t know how it happened, but he had at least eight hours of sleep behind him when BlackAgumon prodded him in the ribs. It was completely dark except for a few stray embers in the campfire. Missing Tip and the two rookies were snoring, and Joanie and Jacob were sitting up. In a matter of seconds they had their packs on their backs, weapons in hand, and were walking across the plain to the east.

        It was another hour until the sun started to creep up, and there was still no fog. For a while Ross wished that the weather would change before it got much brighter, but then he decided that by now they were far enough from the camp to be reasonably safe. Still, the Gazimon’s talk of this ‘Commander’ had him worried. That another human was present in this world was a surprise, but that the other human was some sort of powerful leader working for the enemy of their hosts was disturbing. For once, he found that he couldn’t keep his mouth closed while they were walking.

        “BlackAgumon. Did you know anything about this ‘Commander’ they went on about?”

        “No. I had never even heard of Humans before you all showed up.”

        Jacob joined in. “I wonder if he’s some kind of military genius, or maybe a super soldier. Hell, the way they talked about him he might be a wizard or giant or something.”

        “You’re not helping,” said Ross and BlackAgumon together.

        Joanie spoke next. “Whoever he is, I just hope he stays far away. I don’t like the sound of him at all.”

        BlackAgumon said, “You can forget about him staying far away, that’s for certain. The Gazimon said they would see him in two weeks, which means he’s playing no small part in their campaign to invade the City. You can bet that we’ll be familiar with him before too long.”

        Ross wondered if perhaps they should abandon the Vaccine camp before they had the chance to learn anything else about the Commander.

        “At any rate, I should say that I’m pleasantly surprised with how you three handled yourselves back there. There were plenty of opportunities for you to land us in hot water, but you avoided them all. And this news concerning the time of their attack and of their human leader will be invaluable to Angemon. I’m content.”

        Even as he said all this praise and good news, Ross found him somber. He supposed that it must still pain BlackAgumon to aid his former enemies. This made him wonder again what prompted the betrayal in the first place. If Joanie and Jacob were also thinking of this, they gave no sign of it.

        “Thanks, BlackAgumon,” said Joanie. “If you hadn’t led us on this trip, we’d have been in a real spot.”

        “She’s right,” said Jacob. “We owe you one.”

        BlackAgumon simply sighed. And so they walked on in silence, until a few hours later the plains gradually turned into hills, and they could see fog not too far off. It was around here that Ross noticed that BlackAgumon was acting strange. His ears kept twitching in a way he hadn’t noticed before, and he would frequently squint.

        They were walking down a slope when BlackAgumon spoke again in a heated whisper. “Listen. No talking. Keep walking.”

        The humans, confused as they were, did as he said. “Pay close attention. The Gazimon from last night are fifty yards behind us.” Ross’s blood froze. They had done something wrong. “They must have seen through us somehow. If I know Gazimon, and they’re not hard to figure out, they’re going to call out to us and pretend they just want to talk. Then, when they come into view and we’re supposed to be expecting friends, they jump us. We’re going to play along, and you three are going to have your weapons ready. Is that clear?”

        All three humans whispered “Yes,” and they followed BlackAgumon’s lead. After a minute that felt like an hour they were moving along the bottom of an unusually steep hill that was lined with boulders. It was there that they finally heard the Gazimon call at them from behind.

        “BlackAgumon! That you over there?”

        BlackAgumon stopped in his tracks and made a quick gesture across his neck; he would handle the talking. “Yes it is! What’s the matter?”

        “We got orders from the top this morning and you missed them! Can you hold up a minute?”

        “Of course! We were just about to stop for a meal anyway!”

        BlackAgumon motioned to the humans, and they all dropped their packs. Then they crept until they were only ten yards away from where the trail bent around the boulders. Joanie pulled an arrow from her quiver and put it in place. Jacob removed his sword from its scabbard with care and in silence. Ross held his iron spear in both hands and pointed it forward. BlackAgumon took a firm stance and raised his head as smoke wafted from his nostrils. They all heard slow footsteps approaching the bend.

        It happened in mere moments. The footsteps sped up and the Gazimon ran into view with a cry for blood. They were met with a burst of white-hot flame that hit one of them square in the chest. He writhed on the ground, but the other two didn’t stop. One of them ran at BlackAgumon and dove claws first, but BlackAgumon’s claws were quicker, and they punctured the Gazimon’s throat before pinning his body to the ground.

        The other one charged the humans. Ross’s muscles were tensing up. Just when it appeared that the last Gazimon was going to jump for him, an arrow whistled past him and struck the ground in front of their foe. The Gazimon stumbled, and Ross felt some courage welling up within him as he ran to one side, hoping to have the enemy trapped.

        Jacob took a few steps closer with sword leading. “Don’t move!”

        BlackAgumon was now finished with his own business, and as he stepped over his mouth still seethed from his shot. “Against the rocks. Now.”

        It was then that Ross noticed that one of this Gazimon’s claws was missing a tip. That nasty grin was far away now, and in its place was a look halfway between fear for life and horrible rage. Missing Tip slowly backed up to the face of the boulder and glared at BlackAgumon.

        “You followed us,” growled BlackAgumon. “Why? What gave us away? Speak!”

        Missing Tip snarled, spat, and stamped the ground with his hind foot. “Don’t insult me. You think I’m so dumb I can’t smell fear?”

        “No lies, rat! If you smelled fear you would have raised the alarm right then and there, or killed us in our sleep!”

        “It’s Human fear. Smells different. Didn’t recognize it at first, thought it might be something else. Humans supposed to be from the Creators, didn’t know they had fear at all. Figured it out when you were gone at sunrise. Should have gotten it sooner, should have torn your throats out, should have drained your—”

        “Enough!”

        Missing Tip hissed and frothed at the mouth. The very sight of it made Ross a little sick. “Enough with you, you miserable traitor! When the Commander breaks Angemon’s neck and we have won, we’re going to find bottom-feeders like you and slit your wrists and leave you at the bottom of a pit!”

        “I said enough!

        Missing Tip said nothing, though his whole body was twitching.

        “You have two options, rat: you may die here with your comrades, or you may come with us to Angemon’s camp with hands tied. Angemon is soft on the likes of you—if you tell him everything you know, he may let you leave with the rest of your claws clipped and nothing more!”

        Missing Tip howled at the prospect and scratched at his own face. And then something happened that sent a shock through Ross’s entire body. Missing Tip’s eyes shifted to a bright, solid red. He leapt straight for BlackAgumon, and Ross’s arms moved on their own. Missing Tip was stopped in midair by a spear point that pierced his left side and a sword point that pierced his right. Joanie screamed, and Missing Tip was thrust against the boulder.

        “Look away,” said BlackAgumon to the humans in a fit of decency right before he torched Missing Tip’s face. As Jacob and Ross let him down and pulled the tips of their weapons from him, they saw that his eyes were now empty and charred black. He was dead.

        “Grab your packs. We’re moving on.”

        As Ross slung his bundle over his shoulder, he looked over at Joanie. She looked as if she were going to throw up, but she never did. Jacob didn’t look sick, but he wore a stiff frown. Ross imagined that he himself appeared something between the two extremes. They walked away from that place as quickly as they could. Ross only looked back once, and saw that the three bodies were faint in the fog. It looked to him as if they were fading into nothingness, but surely that was his imagination.
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        Old, Janky Fics
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        Family (kind of?): Strange person who calls me strange names
          #4    
        Old July 9th, 2016 (8:07 PM). Edited August 7th, 2016 by icomeanon6.
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        icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is online now
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          Join Date: Feb 2008
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          IV

          The Power of the Commander

          Ross and his companions had finally reached the camp's hill again. It was late in the afternoon on the fourth day since they first set out. All three of the humans were low in spirits, and BlackAgumon was as sullen as ever. As they passed the spiked barrier they could hear some kind of commotion at the top: a number of raised voices were competing with each other. Ross found it difficult to care. What he wanted to do more than anything was simply let BlackAgumon deliver their findings to Angemon so he could go off somewhere to lie down.

          Despite his weariness, however, he knew that before he got any rest he needed to have a private conversation with Jacob and Joanie. Ever since the violent incident that had occurred two mornings ago, he knew that things were about to get completely out of hand. If they rather wanted things to stay in hand, he and the other two teenagers would have to make the right decision soon—and without the influence of these mad Virus and Vaccine. He glanced over at them and saw that they too were exhausted. It was apparent that for once he would have to work to get them to talk. He didn't relish the prospect.

          Once they reached the top of the hill, Ross saw one thing that he had expected and another that he hadn't. The former was a crowd of several Agumon standing around Garurumon, and they appeared to be arguing about something. The latter was a large, winged horse that was lying near the edge of the slope. Its wings were black and somewhat tattered, its body was covered in scars, and the top of its head was covered by a red, steel mask that had a spike coming out of the forehead. BlackAgumon took one look at the creature and glared. "Unimon. There must be some news from the City."

          Jacob said, "Let's ask him about it later. I'm bushed."

          "Don't bother; you won't get an answer. He only delivers written messages."

          Jacob paused to look at Unimon. "Is he one of those…the Gazimon called them 'slow-mutes'?"

          At the sound of that word Unimon raised his head and looked back at Jacob. Its eyes were hidden behind a narrow slit in the mask, but Ross could tell that underneath was an expression of disapproval. BlackAgumon motioned to Unimon with his arms and then spoke to Jacob as one would correct a child. "I forgot to mention earlier: you never want to use that term. It's horribly impolite. The proper thing is not to recognize the distinction."

          Jacob was embarrassed and his face didn't hide it. This was enough for Unimon to lay his head back down and apparently forget about the matter. "And besides," said BlackAgumon, "I imagine we'll hear of the news soon enough, judging by that racket over there."

          "Hey!"

          The teenagers turned around and saw Tatiana running toward them. "You made it back!"

          Despite his fatigue Jacob managed to smile. "Just like we said we would. How's everyone doing?"

          "We're all fine," said Tatiana. "I mean, we've been here the whole time. Why are you so worried?"

          Had Joanie not been exhausted, she might have laughed. "Guess we should have known better. Sorry we ever doubted you."

          It was then that Tatiana noticed the bow in Joanie's hand and the spear that Ross was leaning on. "Hey, where did you get those!"

          "Never mind," said Ross. "What are they arguing about over there?"

          Tatiana bit her lip and fidgeted with the goggles on her forehead. "I think the Agumon want some answers."

          "Answers to what?" asked BlackAgumon.

          "Well…Angemon left this morning and I don't know why."

          "He what?"

          The force in BlackAgumon's reaction startled Tatiana. A moment later they heard Garurumon speak in an immensely loud voice that silenced the Agumon. "That's enough! Back to your business, all of you!"

          The argument was over, and the Agumon dispersed. Garurumon then began to walk in the direction of the crowd at the edge of the hill. As he moved he muttered some combination of curses beneath his breath. BlackAgumon waited until Garurumon was right in front of them before he asked, "What's all this about Angemon leaving?"

          Garurumon closed his eyes and groaned. "I don't need this from you, too."

          "I'm serious! When is he coming back?"

          "I've no idea."

          BlackAgumon hissed. "But there is! The Virus are attacking in less than two weeks! We need him back as soon as possible!"

          Garurumon's eyes opened wide and he looked straight at BlackAgumon. "What? So soon?"

          Tatiana was stunned. Jacob moved close to her and put his hand on her shoulder, which wasn't nearly enough to put her at ease.

          "They have at least two DarkTyrannomon, more likely three," said BlackAgumon. "Why isn't Angemon here?"

          The usual command and strength in Garurumon's voice was diminishing. "I'll tell you what I told the troops, which is all I know. This morning Unimon came with a message for Angemon. Angemon didn't show it to me, and he didn't tell me what it said. All he told me was that he had urgent business in the Holy City, and that Unimon would stay here to keep our strength up while he was gone. So we still have two Adult-levels, but three DarkTyrannomon? This won't be easy."

          "There's worse news, too. I'd rather divulge it in private."

          The Commander. That wasn't the least of the things that had been heavy on Ross's mind over the last two days.

          Garurumon nodded to BlackAgumon. "We'll discuss it in the captain's tent." He then spoke to the teenagers. "You three can go rest now. I'll speak with you later."

          "Got it," said Jacob. Once Garurumon and BlackAgumon had left, Jacob yawned and was walking off when Ross spoke up.

          "We need to talk."

          "Can it wait?" asked Joanie.

          "No."

          Jacob bit his lip. "Let's keep it short." He turned to face Ross and looked at him expectedly, but Ross was not yet satisfied.

          "Tatiana, go find all the others and tell them we're back."

          Tatiana got the message, but she was clearly indignant about it. "Why?"

          Jacob rolled his eyes. "Ross, it's fine."

          "No it isn't. We need to talk alone, just the three of us."

          "Why aren't I part of 'us'?"

          Tatiana's insistence was getting to Ross's nerves. "Because we're bigger, got it?"

          "You don't have to be nasty about it," said Joanie. Then she looked him straight in the eye. She made a subtle motion with her bow, tapping the bottom of her quiver. Ross understood her. The conversation was going to be in part about death, and none of the teenagers were sure they wanted to broach the subject with the kids yet.

          Jacob seemed to understand her meaning as well, and he found a way to resolve the matter without letting Tatiana in on anything. "Is this about those sores on your backside, Ross?"

          Ross wanted to punch Jacob in the face, but he knew a good gambit when he saw one. "Yeah. I think we need to take a look at them; they might be infected."

          The indignity on Tatiana's face was now replaced with disgust. "Actually, I think I'll go."

          Tatiana left, and Ross led Jacob and Joanie well out of the earshot of anyone in the camp. When they were standing next to the spiked barrier, Jacob said, "This had better be really important."

          Since none of them had any desire for the conversation to last long, Ross got straight to the point. "We have to leave as soon as possible."

          Much to Ross's crushing disappointment, both Jacob and Joanie responded with complete incredulity. "What?" they both said at once.

          "Ross, that's out of the question," said Joanie. "It's too dangerous out there, and we wouldn't know where to find food for all eleven of us."

          "And besides," said Jacob, "the Virus are coming. It's not going to be safe away from the army."

          'The army,' noticed Ross. Not 'the Vaccine army,' but simply 'the army,' as if it were 'our army.' If Jacob already counted them all as being allied with the Vaccine, this was going to be difficult.

          "That's exactly why we have to get away and lay low. You heard how worried Garurumon and BlackAgumon are. They're going to lose without Angemon and then we're in trouble. And besides: we're not Vaccine, this isn't our army, and this isn't our war."

          Jacob's brow grew stern. "I don't think you have the right idea, Ross." He pointed off into the west. "There is something very wrong about that Virus army out there. For now it is our war because it's not going to be safe for anyone around here if they take over."

          "You don't know tha—"

          Jacob cut him off. "Did you notice that Gazimon's eyes?"

          This gave Ross pause. Missing Tip's eyes were solid red when he and Jacob had stabbed him. "…Yes."

          "I thought so." Jacob's voice was quickly growing more forceful. "Three nights ago, when we were in the woods again? You kept muttering 'red eyes' in your sleep. Those little things you fought off on our first night here, were their eyes glowing red too?"

          Ross glared. Bringing up sleep-talk was crossing a line.

          "Hell," Jacob continued, "Even BlackAgumon's eyes were getting pretty red that one time he got real mad, and he's on our side! The Virus are dangerous. If you don't think we're going to be in deep sh*t if don't stick with the Vaccine, then you're nuts!"

          Joanie covered her eyes with her hand. "Jacob, please."

          This got Jacob's attention, and he took a few seconds to calm himself. When he spoke again his eyes were no longer angry. "I'm going to fight in this battle."

          Joanie was shocked. "What?"

          Ross was shocked as well. He was now less angry at Jacob and more bewildered.

          "I mean it. We have to keep the kids safe, and that's going to depend on Angemon's army driving the Virus back. I can help."

          "You going to bet your life on that?" asked Ross.

          "Yes. I like the odds, and you can't change my mind."

          With that, Jacob turned around and walked back up the hill as Joanie and Ross simply watched him. When he was out of sight, Ross turned to Joanie.

          "Do you agree with him?"

          Joanie stared at the grass. "There's no way I can take part in a battle. But…I can't say that he's wrong. It's our responsibility to protect the kids, and I believe we're on the right side of the fight."

          Ross shook his head. "I can't say I'm sure we're on the right side, or if there is a right side. This Forbidden City of theirs rubs me the wrong way, and I'm not sure we can trust Angemon. The way he…talks to you is freaky, and looks can be deceiving."

          Joanie sighed. "That's understandable. One question, though: do you trust Garurumon?"

          She was playing for feelings. Ross hated it when Christians did this while he was trying to be rational, but he had to be honest. "Yeah. I guess I do."

          "In that case, I think we can accept for now that we're under his care."

          Ross took a deep breath. "Seems like I've lost the argument anyway."

          Joanie lowered her head, and Ross kept speaking. "Can you agree to one thing, though? That during the next two weeks we work out an escape plan in case the fighting goes badly? It can be just us and the kids if Jacob wants to fight to the bitter end. I just want to be sure we know where we can take the kids to hide in case of disaster."

          Joanie nodded. "That's a good idea, we'll do it."

          Ross nodded back and they both began to walk up the hill, hoping to finally get some rest. "Just don't mention 'the bitter end' again," said Joanie. "I'm not sure I can take it."

          Her voice wavered, and Ross felt that she was near tears. He looked down, and he saw that the bottom of his shirt was still stained red.

          *********

          The first few days following their return were uneventful, but Ross felt this sickening tension and anticipation in the air. He and Jacob hadn't spoken since their last conversation with Joanie, which was fine with Ross. He was content to avoid Jacob and instead distract himself with such day-to-day duties around the camp.

          It was three hours past noon one day when Ross was leading several of the children back to the camp from the well, which was about a quarter of a mile away. Ross was carrying two buckets of water on the ends of his spear, which he held on his shoulders. For the remaining buckets there were two kids to a branch. He was half-listening to one of the girls—was it Rebecca?—as she described to him the game of highly improvised baseball that Tatiana had led them in last week.

          "Jamie had a hacky-sack, so we used that for the ball and sticks for bats."

          "The field was really narrow and second base was uphill!" That was one of the boys, and for the life of him Ross could not remember his name.

          "I got Michael out at first three times!" That was Steven, or at least Ross thought so. It could have been another one of them.

          "Did anyone hit a home run?" asked Ross, as he saw the bottom of the camp's hill come into view.

          "Nope," said Rebecca (maybe). "No one could hit the ball far enough."

          As they neared the barricade Biyomon appeared and perched herself on one of the spikes. "Thanks for covering for me, Ross."

          "No problem."

          "Okay kids, I need those buckets over by the mess tent! Oh, Ross, could you take yours over to Unimon? He drinks a ton!"

          Biyomon hopped down and led the kids on their way. Ross veered off and made his way to where Unimon was lying. The winged horse had barely moved since he had arrived, which made Ross wonder if he was going to be worth all the food he ate. As Ross lifted the spear from his shoulders and set down the buckets, Unimon moved his head slightly in acknowledgment and went back to staring at the horizon or whatever he was doing.

          Ross walked away from Unimon and further into the camp without a destination in mind. He happened to pass by a clearing where Jacob and Agumon—the Agumon they had first met, Ross guessed—were facing each other off in a mock battle. Partly out of curiosity and also because he knew he couldn't stay out of Jacob's way indefinitely, Ross decided to watch.

          Jacob was holding his sword in front of him, and Agumon had his arms raised and knees bent. In a swift motion Agumon dove for Jacob with a swing of his claws, and just as swiftly Jacob shifted to the side and avoided the attack while keeping his guard up. "You're starting to get the hang of it. The Gazimon just about always attack like this, so it's only any trouble if they gang up on you."

          "Got it." Jacob was nearly out of breath, but the spirit in his voice was high.

          "That's why you gotta work close with your platoon to split them up."

          "Right."

          "Think that's enough for today. I'm gonna grab lunch."

          Jacob returned his sword to its sheath. "I'll join you in a bit. Thanks a ton!"

          "Hey, thank you. We need all the help we can get." Agumon said that, but Ross knew that there was some help that Agumon would much rather do without. He also knew that the less anyone said about the matter in any Agumon-oid's presence—black or orange—the better.

          As Agumon trotted off toward the mess tent, Jacob turned around and approached Ross. "Hey Ross, got a sec?"

          Ross had all day, and he figured a second of it spent talking to Jacob would be tolerable. "Sure."

          "So, Joanie told me you and her are putting together an evacuation plan for the kids."

          "Yeah. Biyomon says there's a number of homesteads a few miles east, where it's flatter. She said she'll help us get away if things go south."

          Jacob nodded, and looked first to the east but then to the fog in the west. "That's all good. Nice you got it worked out."

          "Yup." Ross figured that Jacob was hiding some of his thoughts on the matter. Undoubtedly Jacob was thinking that Ross was looking for an excuse to get away from the armies, and he wouldn't be wrong about that.

          "And believe me," said Jacob, "I think you've got the right idea on this one. Mind you, I think we can win, and that even if we have to retreat it'll still probably be safest with the army, but the worst case scenario is that the Virus have something up their sleeve and we're toast. If that happens it's absolutely the right choice to find somewhere to lay low. I'm glad you're planning for the worst; you always need someone to do that."

          That was Jacob, Ross supposed: always trying to spin discord as cooperation. After all, if Ross had his way they'd already be long gone. "That's the idea."

          "And hey, I know things got a bit out of hand when we came back, but us humans from the Creators or America or whatever got to stick together. We still good?"

          "Of course." After all, if Ross didn't act 'good' enough with Jacob, then he'd be on worse terms with Joanie, and that would make things much more difficult when they found themselves alone with the kids following the defeat.

          Jacob smiled. "Great. Catch you later, I'm starved." Jacob slapped Ross on the back and went on his way.

          In that moment, Ross felt that BlackAgumon's earlier description of him and Jacob as 'snakes' was entirely appropriate. He went on his way as well, and didn't get far before he heard Tatiana calling, "Hey, Ross!"

          'I'm popular today,' thought Ross. "What's up?"

          Tatiana ran up next to him. She looked excited about something. "You gotta come see what Joanie found!"

          "What is it?"

          "Just come on! You've really got to see it! It's in the supply tent!"

          Ross supposed he could let her have her surprise. "All right, I'm coming."

          He made a point to walk at his own pace, and Tatiana slowed herself down to match him. When they were getting close to the long supply tent, Tatiana asked him a question in a much more subdued tone than she had used earlier. "So, uh…how's your…how's your butt?"

          Ross was confused for a moment, but then he remembered. "Oh, it's fine now. Nothing to worry about. Thanks for asking."

          Tatiana nodded, and Ross again felt the desire to punch Jacob in the face. He tried to put it in the back of his mind as he parted the supply tent's flap and they walked in. Joanie and Michael were squatting on the ground some fifteen yards in, engrossed in conversation.

          "I think," said Michael, "it's like you can't see it and then stop yourself, because then you wouldn't have seen it."

          "Yeah, that's exactly right. Pretty wild, huh?"

          Ross couldn't make heads or tails of the exchange. "What are you guys talking about?"

          Joanie and Michael looked up. "Hey," said Joanie, "take these for a second."

          Joanie stood up and showed Ross a small, shiny, black stone and a clump of iron. Ross was perplexed, and looked around at everyone's faces. They were eager about something, and Michael in particular looked like he was about to come out of his skin. Ross raised an eyebrow, trying to think of what was going on. Seeing as there was no better way to find out than to play along, he laid down his spear and took the rock and piece of metal from Joanie.

          "All right," said Ross. He took another look at the stone. Apart from its peculiar luster, he didn't see anything special about it. "Am I missing something here?"

          Tatiana giggled, and Joanie smiled. "Okay," said Joanie, "take the stone and hit it against the iron, real hard."

          'Oh please,' thought Ross. 'They don't think I've ever seen flint before.' Unimpressed, but willing to humor them, Ross raised the stone over the iron. And then nothing happened. Ross did not bring his arm down, and the stone did not move.

          Ross's lip began to tremble. He had brought his arm up with the intent of moving it again, and he still had that intent. And it wasn't as if his arm were paralyzed: he could move it back and forth just fine, and he even managed to bring the stone down slowly and softly to touch the iron, but that was it. He shook his head and brought his arm up again, but still he could not bring it down quickly so as to strike the iron. Or was it 'would' not? He didn't know, and that scared the living daylights out of him.

          He looked up, and he could see that Joanie and Tatiana were stifling laughter.

          "You have to really mean it," said Michael. "Don't think about anything except your arm. Tell yourself you're going to move it no matter what."

          Ross had no idea how that would help, or why he even needed help for that matter. He took a deep breath and returned his attention to his arm. For a few seconds he just breathed, until finally his mind was absolutely made up.

          And then it happened. As soon as Ross shut everything else out of his mind, a brilliant green flash and a hundred sparks erupted from the iron in his hand. Less than a second later, Ross brought his arm down and the stone made impact with a little noise and nothing more.

          Ross stood still for several seconds. "Someone tell me what just happened."

          Joanie was more than happy to oblige. "So, imagine that you had hit the iron, but the flash had happened just after you hit it."

          Ross was still reeling, but he followed her. "Okay."

          Michael jumped in. "That's basically what happened, except the flash showed up early."

          Ross looked at the rock, and then back at Joanie. "That's impossible."

          Joanie grinned and shrugged. "That's what happened, though."

          "Joanie said it's a PPTR," said Tatiana.

          This was not helping Ross. "A what?"

          "Paradox-Proof Time Rock," said Michael, who was also grinning.

          "Think of it this way," said Joanie. "When the rock hits the iron, it sends out sparks." She closed a fist and opened it again to demonstrate. "But, instead of just sending the sparks out into space, it also sends them back in time." She then moved her hand sideways.

          Ross was speechless.

          "It fits. That flash came out from just where you were going to hit the iron a split-second later. The reason why you were having trouble going through with it is because it's impossible for you to see the flash and then stop yourself in surprise and not hit the iron. If you did that there wouldn't be any sparks to surprise you in the first place!"

          It did fit. Ross looked at the rock one more time, and he understood the logic that held the thing together in a temporal sense. He raised the stone again, and this time it took very little hesitation on his part for the sparks to fly and for him to strike the iron. He also noticed this time that the flash seemed to extend through his hand and out the back, though he felt no heat. He smiled a little, and a small laugh even forced its way from his lungs. "This is incredible."

          "It gets better," said Tatiana. "Watch this!"

          Tatiana took the stone from his hand and walked further into the tent. Joanie and Michael backed up closer to the walls and Ross followed suit. Tatiana stopped when she was well past the closest of the iron poles that held up the ceiling. Ross wondered for a moment what she was up to when suddenly she wound up and delivered. As the rock left her hand, an astoundingly large flash burst from the pole and moved in the direction that the rock was moving. The rock hit the pole with a clang, and the flash kept flying for a good twenty yards before fading. The sparks from the impact hung and danced in the air for several seconds before they too disappeared.

          Ross's jaw hung open. As Tatiana retrieved the stone, Joanie spoke again. "It seems like the more force the rock has on impact, the more pronounced the effect is."

          "No kidding. How did you find this thing?"

          "Dumb luck. I was walking around and looking for some spare blankets when my foot slipped on it. I picked it up and was about to throw it, and then I just didn't."

          Ross was in awe. The awe, however, began to slip away when Joanie spoke again. And when Ross heard what she said, he began to suspect that she attributed her finding of the stone to providence rather than to 'dumb luck.'

          "I think we can make something to help Jacob with this."

          Here Ross had been so happy to see something so fantastic, and now she had to remind him that the battle was approaching. "How so?"

          Joanie took the stone back from Tatiana and examined it closely. "Garurumon said a while ago that one of their big problems is that it's hard to make an organized retreat when everyone's so spread out."

          Ross's first thought had been to make something with the stone that would surprise the enemy, but this was a much different matter. "Go on."

          "Judging by how far the flash went when Tatiana threw it, I'll bet that the distance the flash travels is closely tied to how far the rock would have traveled had there been no impact. I think if I could break down and reshape this rock—and it seems brittle enough for that—I could get it to fit on a crossbow bolt."

          "You want to make a signal flare."

          "That's right. All the crossbow would need is a piece of metal fixed to the front end for the rock to hit."

          Ross thought about it for a moment. "That makes some sense. There could be someone keeping watch in a high place where they can see the whole battle. And if things get really bad, they start firing signals for retreat."

          Joanie nodded, and then made some indentations in the short grass with her finger. "Ideally the watchers would be somewhere to the side of the fighting."

          Michael asked, "So the soldiers don't have to turn around to see the signal?"

          "Exactly."

          Ross thought about this a little more. "Depending on how close the battle is to the camp, and how bright the flash is, everyone here might be able to see it too."

          "That would be perfect," said Joanie. "Oh, but there is the fog to consider, though."

          Ross had forgotten about the fog. That could indeed through a wrench into the whole thing. "We'll test it out. This is too good an opportunity to ignore."

          "Of course. We ought to go talk to Garurumon about it now."

          "Agreed."

          Joanie and Ross stood up to leave, and Michael handed Ross his spear. "Thanks. We do have crossbows, right?"

          "There are some in the back," said Tatiana.

          The four left the tent, and went looking for Garurumon. As they looked for him, Ross contemplated his responsibility to keep the little ones out of harm's way. This was perhaps just the opportunity he needed to make sure they could escape from this impending disaster, despite all of Jacob's reckless efforts to the contrary.

          The days were passing quickly, and the outlook in the camp was not growing more optimistic.

          *********

          The sun was dropping in the western sky, and it lit the surrounding clouds on fire. For the third time that week the hills were mostly free of fog, but overhead it was dark and promised rain. It had been one week and six days since Ross had sat around the Gazimons' campfire, and Biyomon had just returned from her scouting mission with the news that the Virus army was coming their way, and would reach the camp in four hours at their current pace. It was time to march out to meet them.

          Ross was squatting next to BlackAgumon and double-checking that he had everything. He had his spear, a modified crossbow, a number of ordinary bolts, and one bolt made of the PPTR. He was ready. He slung the crossbow over his shoulder, took his spear in hand, and stood up. It was then that Joanie approached him from behind, and BlackAgumon frowned. "No goodbyes this time. We have to get to the Bluff before the fighting starts."

          Joanie understood. "Then I'll walk with you for a while."

          BlackAgumon nodded and then led the way out of the camp. On their way down the hill they passed Jacob and a group of six Agumon. The Agumon all looked away, BlackAgumon kept his eyes forward, and Jacob waved. "See you later, Ross, Joanie!"

          "Good luck out there." Ross was by no means over his anger at Jacob, but he did mean it when he said that.

          "And be careful," said Joanie.

          "Don't worry about me! Just watch out for the kids!"

          And that was the last Ross heard from Jacob before they passed the spiked barricade. He now let out some of his frustration. "What a nutcase."

          "Don't say that about him," said Joanie.

          "All right." It pained Ross how thoroughly Joanie defended that weasel. All three of them were silent for some time.

          "Not that I don't love the company," said BlackAgumon eventually, "but didn't you come along just to say goodbye?"

          Joanie sighed. "Sorry. By the way, I really appreciate you doing this, BlackAgumon."

          "Think nothing of it. It wouldn't make sense to have a Vaccine do the job; they'd stick out like a sore thumb."

          Ross spoke up. "I don't think she was taking it for granted that I'd have an escort at all."

          "Ah. But what, would you do it alone? That's a laugh. You wouldn't even be able to find the place."

          "Fair enough." Ross would have felt that he was being babysat, but his adept capabilities at carrying things and using thumbs made him invaluable for this mission.

          "By the way," said BlackAgumon, "It's a great use you all found for those little rocks. I had always wondered why Angemon insisted on keeping them."

          "How long have you known about them?" asked Joanie.

          "Everyone's always known about them. We didn't think they were anything more than oddities to provide light amusement for the simple."

          It baffled Ross that they could find something so fantastic so mundane, but he didn't say anything. They reached the crest of a hill and he could see the mountain range to the northwest where their destination was. Ross was starting to get worried that Joanie wasn't going to leave them, so he moved things along. "Keep a close eye out for the signal. You and the kids need to head for a homestead as soon as you see it."

          "We'll be okay. We've got Biyomon to help us. The kids love her, and they'd follow her anywhere."

          "The same goes for you."

          "Isn't this all touching," said BlackAgumon.

          Joanie ignored him. "Be careful. The enemy's bound to see that signal too."

          "We know," said BlackAgumon. "We won't be sticking around once it's over."

          Joanie began to slow a bit, and Ross understood her. They both stopped. "Bye, then."

          Joanie reached out and touched his shoulder. "God bless," she said before she turned around and headed back to the camp where the children were waiting.

          Ross shook his head. He knew that was just the most sincere way she had to say 'good luck,' but it still felt irritating to his ears.

          Now that Joanie was gone, BlackAgumon hastened his pace to the point where it got tricky for Ross to keep up. For the next hour they walked up some hills and around some others, and as they went the hills grew steeper and taller. Eventually they reached a rocky path that changed their course from northwest to due west. Ross looked to his left and was amazed at how far he could see. The vast forest was visible in the distance, and he could even make out the tents on the large plateau behind them. He also discerned some movement in the hills: several groups of small orange figures. He was trying to spot Garurumon when BlackAgumon spoke to him. "Look there."

          He faced forward, and saw that BlackAgumon was pointing west and a little south. At the very edge of the hills at the horizon there were three black shadows spaced well apart. Ross swallowed, and he knew what he was looking at.

          "I had a feeling there were three," said BlackAgumon.

          Soon BlackAgumon turned south and away from the path. They climbed a gentle slope until they reached the top and found themselves at the edge of a steep cliff. "This is Seraphimon's Bluff," said BlackAgumon. "I think it's pretty self-explanatory."

          As Ross looked around he could see that BlackAgumon was right. The hills before him and the army walking through them were now impossibly easy to see, even though the sun was getting very low and they must have been miles off. When Ross focused, he found that he could even spot the color in an Agumon's eye. He scanned the entirety of Angemon's forces, finding Jacob's unit at the southern edge, Garurumon a few hills north of there, and lastly Unimon at the northern edge, closest to where he was standing.

          "You might as well sit," said BlackAgumon. "We're going to be here a while."

          Ross sat next to BlackAgumon and laid down his spear and the crossbow. And then with a heavy heart he looked to his right and saw the three towering monsters. They easily dwarfed Garurumon and Unimon in size, and the twin claws on their arms gave Ross a chill. In front of them were many bands of Gazimon darting from hill to hill. Ross counted perhaps twice as many of them as he counted Agumon. As one of the DarkTyrannomon let loose a roar that just barely reached his ears, Ross asked, "How long do you think till the fighting starts?"

          "Less than a quarter of an hour. The DarkTyrannomon are terribly sensitive when it comes to detecting attributes, so they should begin a ranged attack shortly. They aren't exactly accurate, but it will force the Vaccine to engage the Gazimon more directly than they'd like."

          "What's the Vaccine's strategy?"

          "The Adult-levels—Garurumon and Unimon—will try to break through or get around the grunts and take down the DarkTyrannomon one-on-one. The others and your friend Jacob will try as best they can to trap the units of Gazimon and split them up. If there were only two DarkTyrannomon and only two-thirds as many Gazimon, this battle would be no problem for the Vaccine. Or, for that matter, if Angemon were here."

          Ross glanced at BlackAgumon, who was fuming. "I should have known it'd be like this," said BlackAgumon. "I stuck my neck out to get that deceitful coward everything he needs to know, and he left before I could get it to him."

          It was then that Ross felt a few raindrops. He looked again at the Virus army, and suddenly he realized they were forgetting something important. He scanned the area, and then he found a lone figure walking alone one hill in front of the center DarkTyrannomon. It was a young man who was clad in gray clothes and a black cape. At his side Ross could just make out what appeared to be a black sword that hung in his belt without a scabbard.

          "And what about the Commander?" asked Ross. "What are they planning to do about him?"

          BlackAgumon looked where Ross was looking, and shivered. "For the time being, they're going to ignore him. They're hoping that he has no real powers or strength—like you and your friends—and that the Virus are just using him as a tool of propaganda for the grunts."

          Ross focused as hard as he could on the Commander. His face seemed to be obscured by scars and bandages. "And what if he's no fake? What are they going to do then?"

          "They'll play it by ear."

          It didn't strike Ross as a great plan. He kept staring at the Commander, and the longer he stared the worse he felt about him. After a number of minutes, the Commander stopped in his tracks, and the DarkTyrannomon followed suit. Ross felt the rain falling harder as the Commander reached for the sword at his side. He drew it and swung it in the direction of Angemon's army as his cape billowed in the wind. Immediately the DarkTyrannomon reared their heads, and then launched massive balls of fire from their mouths. The shots soared over the Vaccine forces and made impact several hills back, leaving three smoldering craters.

          And so began the battle. Once the shots were fired, Angemon's army began to advance. "You'd better load that crossbow now," said BlackAgumon. "We don't know how long this will last."

          Ross reached into his pocket and brought out the special bolt. He only stopped to look at how it shone for a moment before he placed it in front of the bowstring. It took all of his strength to pull the string back to the catch; the flash was certainly going to fly high. He kept the crossbow in his lap, and continued to watch.

          The Vaccine's strongest wing seemed to be to the south. There Garurumon was jogging ahead of three units of Agumon, one of which contained Jacob. When they got close enough, Garurumon sped into a sprint and bounded clear from one hill to another right over the heads of a mass of Gazimon. The Gazimon turned around in the hopes of flanking him, but they were shortly flanked themselves by a barrage of small fireballs from the Agumon.

          Meanwhile, Garurumon ran on and confronted the south-most DarkTyrannomon. Ross could see that the dinosaur's teeth were smoking and shaking, which he interpreted to mean that at least for a while Garurumon wouldn't have to worry about more fire. This left the twin claws, and though the DarkTyrannomon swung them with tremendous force, they were not quick enough to strike Garurumon. Ross saw a brilliant torrent of blue flame shoot forth from the wolf's mouth, and it scarred the DarkTyrannomon's face.

          On the north wing, Unimon appeared to be doing just as well as Garurumon. He had flown over the Gazimon with ease, and was now harassing the north-most DarkTyrannomon with a series of white energy blasts, also shot from the mouth.

          "It looks like they're doing fine," said Ross.

          "It does look that way, doesn't it?"

          It was then that Ross remembered the Commander, and turned his attention to him. He was still in front of the second DarkTyrannomon, who was raising his head to prepare for another shot. The Commander was in a squat. He held his right hand to his chest and stared at the ground.

          "What is he doing?" muttered Ross to himself as he wiped the rain from his arms.

          The battle raged on, and Ross looked mostly at the Commander. At one point his eyes strayed to see Jacob far in the distance dodging and then stabbing a Gazimon. Later he saw Garurumon avoid a blast of fire and then jump at the DarkTyrannomon's throat, knocking it over. Around the same time several Gazimon were overpowering one of the Agumon. They were busy eviscerating the Vaccine-type when reinforcements came and burned them alive. While all this went on the Commander did nothing, until finally he stood again.

          In that moment the rain fell harder still, and a sound of rolling thunder came from miles away. The Commander raised his right arm to the clouds, and Ross could feel something in the atmosphere that set his hair on end. "What is that?" asked BlackAgumon, who apparently could feel it too.

          Then a mighty gale swept eastward over the hills and battered Ross's face. The wind grew stronger and stronger, and the rain fell harder and harder. As the storm peaked there came a gigantic flash and an ear-splitting crack that Ross could feel in his chest: a towering bolt of white lightning burst from the heavens and struck the Commander's welcoming hand. The Commander took this in passing, and held his ground as if it were nothing. He then kept his hand in the air as he turned around and aimed his palm at the center DarkTyrannomon.

          The DarkTyrannomon began to twitch, and bucked his head back and forth. Its body began to spark with little flashes of electricity, and the flashes grew quicker and brighter until the entire creature acted as a strobe light. And then before Ross's very eyes the monster appeared to grow.

          "No!" shouted BlackAgumon. "No! This can't be happening!"

          All of the fighting had ceased as both armies gaped at the sight. The DarkTyrannomon's body was approaching twice its previous size when he let loose the most terrifying screech Ross had ever heard. It was as if the DarkTyrannomon's ordinary cry had been amplified and accompanied by grinding gears and twisting steel. It shook the very ground on which they sat.

          "Fire the signal! Now!"

          Ross did not hesitate. He pointed his crossbow skyward, and in an instant there erupted a green light that nearly blinded him. As the flash shot to the clouds for all those in the surrounding miles to see, he pulled the trigger. While thousands of sparks hung in the air over his head, Ross's sight returned to him and he could see the result of the transformation. The thing was colossal, and though before it had been entirely flesh and blood it now had bright metal plates covering half of its body. Its joints glowed deep purple, and they grew brighter as the beast rose to its full height.

          Unimon wasted no more time and flew away from his earlier foe and straight at the new monster. As the winged horse fired some shots that merely glanced off the thing's armor, BlackAgumon pressed his claws to his head and despaired. "He evolved him to Perfect level…this is a disaster. The whole region is lost. That damned MetalTyrannomon! That damned Commander!"

          MetalTyrannomon raised his left arm and aimed his robotic hand at Unimon as if out of irritation. Seconds later the exhaust opening at the center of his palm looked ready to explode. Unimon folded his wings and dove just quickly enough to avoid the concentrated blast of energy that followed. The shot climbed into the sky and retained its shape even as it sailed over the mountains. When Ross saw how long the new monster's range was, a horrible thought occurred to him. "No."

          Unimon got too close, and a swing of MetalTyrannomon's arm was enough to swat him out of the way. MetalTyrannomon then turned to the east, and aimed his arm well past Angemon's retreating army.

          Ross jumped to his feet and spun to the east as well. "Joanie!"

          No one heard him besides BlackAgumon as a flash of purple sent a second shot clear over the hills. Its impact was like an earthquake. It blew away half of the plateau and turned the rest of it into a sea of fire. Not a single trace of the tents remained.
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            #5    
          Old July 18th, 2016 (5:36 PM).
          icomeanon6's Avatar
          icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is online now
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            V

            Flight to the Mountains

            The rain and the wind began to let up. The Commander’s forces would need no further assistance from the sky. Ross barely noticed; he was frozen in place as he stared at the decimated hill where the Vaccine camp had stood. His mind was occupied with perceived numbers: how many seconds it should have taken for Joanie and the kids to scramble from the hill, and how many seconds there had been between his signal and the blast. As near as he could guess, it was ninety seconds between when he fired and when MetalTyrannomon fired, and depending on where Joanie had been and how quickly she had seen the flare, she could have been gone in anywhere from sixty seconds to a hundred and twenty. So they had roughly a one in three chance of being alive. Or one in nine. Or one in a hundred. It made him sick.

            Ross was jarred from this train of thought by BlackAgumon, who was now roused from his despair and spoke with urgency. “Pick up your things! We have to leave!”

            Ross turned around. He saw the Virus army marching forward, but apart from them there were three figures running northeast, right in his direction. These were the Commander and two Gazimon, and they moved with impossible speed. Behind them the dark clouds opened and revealed the sun, which had not quite set. Now that the cover of nightfall was delayed, Ross became aware of how exposed he and BlackAgumon were.

            With head reeling, Ross slung the crossbow over his shoulder and grabbed his spear. BlackAgumon was already running north and down the slope. “Hurry!”

            Ross took one last look over his shoulder and saw the Commander bounding from the crest of a hill that was too close. With that he turned and ran as fast as his legs could carry him, trying to catch up with BlackAgumon.

            They ran east for a mile on the rocky path. Ross’s heart was pounding, begging him to give up and stop, but he didn’t want to be caught dead near the Commander after what had happened. BlackAgumon frequently had to slow down so Ross wouldn’t fall too far behind. Squat as he was, BlackAgumon’s legs were several times stronger than those of an ordinary teenager. Panting as he ran, Ross managed to ask, “Where are we going? The camp’s gone!”

            “We’re going to turn north, into the mountains. If we’re lucky we might lose them.”

            When they neared the top of a tall hill Ross stumbled and scraped his knees. As he pulled himself back up he glanced over his shoulder. They were not going to be lucky, Ross could tell: the Commander and the Gazimon were only four hills behind them. As he and BlackAgumon left the path and ran up a draw in the mountains, they could hear the Gazimon laughing.

            As they scrambled through a harsh ravine, Ross wondered if this mess was his fault. If he had only been thinking, they might have left as soon as he fired the signal, and then they may have gotten far enough away that the Gazimon wouldn’t have been able to hone in on BlackAgumon’s attribute. For that matter, if he weren’t so slow and exhausted they might have gotten away regardless. After they cleared a boulder that was blocking their path, BlackAgumon said, “This is futile. We’ll have to reach high ground soon and make a stand.”

            They ran on, and Ross asked between gasps, “Will we make it?”

            BlackAgumon snarled. “We’ll find out. Just move it, you slug!”

            Ross’s legs objected, but they obeyed as well as they could. BlackAgumon’s pace quickened, and now it took all that Ross had to keep him within eyeshot. In the last of the daylight, BlackAgumon was hard to spot, and this could serve only to hurt Ross, not to conceal them from their pursuers. He could hear them jeering now.

            “Keep running, scumbags! Make it easier for us! Ha!”

            Those were the Gazimon, and though they were certainly threatening, they did not move Ross to any real fear. The fear came from the Commander, as for the first time Ross heard his voice. It came on a wind from his back that picked up suddenly: the darkest laugh he had ever heard. It barely reached the ear, and yet it pushed other sounds and even other senses out of the mind. A palpable, nauseating malice was clotting Ross’s hears, and after a few moments he nearly despaired and collapsed.

            But then a roar came from in front of him, and the wind died down. “Keep moving!”

            It was BlackAgumon, and it was enough for Ross to regain control of his muscles and push on. They ran a mere twenty yards further when BlackAgumon stopped and studied the rock wall in front of him. He muttered, “This is it,” and began to climb. “Toss up your spear. This is the only place around for miles that can give us a chance to hold them off.”

            Ross nodded. His heart was beating so hard that it hurt, but he wasn’t about to give up and wait at the bottom for the Commander to catch up. He took a step back and threw his spear over the top of the wall, where it landed safely. He then clambered after BlackAgumon, and with some difficulty he reached the long, wide shelf some twenty feet above the bottom. After taking a moment to catch his breath he grabbed his spear again, and then he noticed the stone statues.

            They were each twice the size of a grown man, and they stood at opposite ends of the platform. On the left was an angel with two wings, in contrast to Angemon’s six. With its long right arm it pointed slightly above the other statue, which was of a cowering, sickly, man-like figure squatting over a beast’s carcass. Ross had no time to contemplate the figures, as BlackAgumon brought him back to the danger at hand. “Get the bow ready! This is our chance!”

            Ross felt in his jacket pocket for the bolts and stumbled back to the edge of the wall. He unslung the crossbow and with great effort pulled the string back to the catch. He set a bolt, and looked down into the ravine. The Commander and the Gazimon were just visible some fifty yards away: vague figures of gray among the shadows. Ross lined up the bow’s two sights with the Commander.

            But the Commander would not stay in line. He would run in an unpredictable pattern around the rocks, and Ross’s hands couldn’t stop shaking. On top of that, when Ross would get the rare two seconds when the shot was perfect, his finger on the trigger would go limp. He motioned with his lips, ‘Not human. He’s not human. It’s not human,’ but to no avail. His finger didn’t believe him.

            “What are you doing!” cried BlackAgumon. “Shoot him!”

            Ross gritted his teeth, and swore at himself. Without knowing why, he turned his aim away from the Commander and picked out one of the Gazimon. He centered his target, pulled the trigger, and the bolt flew straight from the bow and into the creature’s forehead.

            BlackAgumon was furious. “Damn it! What’s the matter with you?”

            The two pursuers were now twenty-five yards away from the wall, which was too close for Ross to have another shot, but just close enough for BlackAgumon. The Virus-type reared back his head, and Ross ducked out of the way. The sheer size and heat of the white blast took Ross by surprise as it lit up the ravine. It flew straight, and in just another moment it should have made impact with the Commander. Then out of nowhere the fire veered to the right and engulfed the remaining Gazimon instead of its intended target. The Commander’s stride remained constant as his subordinate screamed his last. The enemy was approaching the final stretch.

            BlackAgumon’s teeth were steaming and shaking when he said, “Grab your spear. Get ready.”

            Ross fumbled for his weapon and staggered to his feet, but he wasn’t ready. When he looked up, the Commander was hanging in midair with sword drawn. BlackAgumon managed to fire a small shot at him, but a wave of the enemy’s left arm sent this flame wide as well. The Commander landed from his thirty-foot leap with ease, and a swing of his iron blade sent BlackAgumon jumping back.

            From there things happened far too quickly. The Commander turned and dashed at Ross, who just barely raised his spear in time to block the sword. Amid the flurry of swings and thrusts, Ross caught a glimpse of the Commander’s face with its scars, bandages, and manic grin. Then Ross blinked once and the sword was too close for him to stop it. He cried out when it slashed his arm, and then a swift punch to the gut knocked all the breath out of him. He staggered to the side of the mountain, fell over, and nearly blacked out.

            Ross heard the sounds of a struggle, and when his eyes focused again he saw that the Commander had BlackAgumon pinned to a boulder. One hand held BlackAgumon’s neck, and the other was ready to stab with the sword. When Ross tried to move a jolt of pain came from his abdomen that was too much to overcome. He could only listen to what happened next.

            “It seems there’s been a misunderstanding, little one—is it BlackAgumon? The last time I checked, you were supposed to be working for me.

            It was the same despicable voice as that laugh. It made Ross wish that he had blacked out after all.

            “If I’d known they were going to make us report to someone like you I would have left years earlier.”

            The Commander laughed. “You left? Whatever made you think you could truly leave? You are Virus, you are Child level, and that means you are mine. If you don’t give me any more trouble, I might just stab you to death and leave it at that. Your comrades the Gazimon will hate me for punishing a deserter so lightly, but such is the price of being merciful!”

            The Commander grinned all the wider at his own parody of self-sacrifice. BlackAgumon was unmoved. “I won’t die in answer to a snake like you. You would make slaves of us all, you and that warped council that sent you here!”

            The Commander’s grin diminished, and his eyes grew harsher. “You have no say in the matter. I will command, and you will obey.” With those last words, his voice lost its dark mirth and gained a darker anger. “Show me your true self.”

            A breeze sprung up out of nowhere. BlackAgumon’s eyes began to flicker around the edges, and he jerked his head back and forth. “No! You can’t make me!”

            “What’s the matter? You dare reject the Gift of the Virus? Is that why you tried to flee to the service of the Forbidden City, traitor?

            BlackAgumon clawed at the stone behind him and let out a pained groan, trying to keep control. His eyes were growing cloudier when the breeze became a strong wind.

            Show yourself!

            BlackAgumon’s body broke into spasms, and his eyes finally turned completely red and gained a harsh glow. The Commander’s grin returned, and he tossed BlackAgumon aside with a loud laugh. BlackAgumon sprung to his feet, then roared in the voice of a stranger as he charged at the Commander.

            Ross shut his eyes, but not before he saw what happened. The Commander thrust his sword straight into BlackAgumon’s mouth and pierced his brain. Ross’s head spun. He wanted to forget everything that had happened since he came to this miserable place.

            The Commander pulled his sword out of BlackAgumon’s head and stepped over to where Ross was lying. Ross found himself pulled up by the neck, which brought further and more intense pain from his gut. He opened his eyes and looked at his enemy, who seemed to be having the time of his life.

            “What…are you?”

            “Isn’t it obvious? I’m a Human sent from the World of Creators to lead the Virus to victory over the Forbidden City.”

            Ross didn’t believe him for a second. No person from his own world could ever have done what this one had. No one could take the full force of a lightning bolt, much less use it to transform one monster into an even worse monster. “You’re not human. That’s impossible.”

            The Commander scoffed at him. “You don’t think so? I do hope I haven’t gone too native; I’ve only been here for a year, after all.”

            “I don’t believe you.”

            “Think about all the other ‘impossible’ things you’ve undoubtedly seen since you got here. Is one other Human who knows a few humble parlor tricks really so farfetched?”

            This was pointless, Ross thought. His side was crying out in pain, and more than anything else he wanted it all to be over.

            “You talk too much, you sick bastard.”

            “Ha! You’re absolutely right, of course. And for that matter, I suppose your time’s about up, anyway. Nothing personal—it’s just unfortunate that you happened to land on the wrong side of the war. Can’t call you a traitor, so no ironic execution for you. I’ll make this quick.”

            The Commander raised his sword, which was still caked in blood. He aimed the tip right between Ross’s eyes, and held it in place for several seconds. At first Ross just stared at the blade, but when nothing happened his gaze strayed back to the Commander’s face. There was something odd in this freak’s eyes—some momentary flash of apprehension. But then they were back to normal. “I’ll be damned. The sword says it isn’t your time yet, after all.”

            Ross got no chance to say anything to this. The Commander tossed him to the ground, and kicked him so that he rolled on his back. “Doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy this, though!”

            With that the Commander swung his sword and carved a gash across Ross’s chest. Ross cried out in agony, and the Commander simply laughed some more before he walked back to the rock wall. He grabbed the crossbow for a souvenir and jumped down.

            Though his entire body protested as he did so, Ross turned his head to catch one last look at BlackAgumon. At that moment the moon came out from behind a cloud, and Ross knew then that his eyes must be deceiving him. BlackAgumon was not only dead, but was fading from existence. Over the course of a hundred agonizing seconds, Ross saw the body disappear entirely. All that was left was the pool of blood.

            He looked back up to the sky. The pain did not subside. His eyes welled up with tears, and he could feel his own blood trickling down beneath his shirt. For a moment his thoughts went out to Joanie, and he was certain that she was dead, as were the kids, and Jacob, and Agumon, and probably even Garurumon. He was alone, and if he kept bleeding he was sure to die along with the others.

            As his senses began shutting off, he was filled with one thought only, and that was revenge. He wanted desperately to chase after the Commander, to break his arms and knees and then tear his throat out. Even as he finally slipped into unconsciousness, he was still cursing the Commander with every word he knew for it.
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              #6    
            Old July 25th, 2016 (5:45 PM).
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            icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is online now
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              VI

              The Homestead

              For many hours Ross half-woke in fitful pain before falling back asleep each time. And then for once it didn’t hurt quite so bad. He managed to crack his eyes open, and he caught a vague shape. It looked like a girl who was about his own age, which was a comforting thought. Then two smaller shapes came into view, probably children. One of them appeared to be wearing a pair of goggles on her forehead. At the sight of this, he remembered where he was, and his eyes opened wider and were fully resolved with his mind.

              “Ross? How are you feeling?”

              Ross looked at Joanie’s face, and for a few moments he thought he could cry. “You’re alive.”

              Joanie smiled. “Yup. Thanks to you.”

              Ross smiled back, and then decided to sit up. He regretted it instantly, as every muscle he moved ached terribly.

              “It still hurts?” asked Michael.

              Ross nodded, and then he noticed that something felt off. He clutched his hand to his chest and found that he had been bandaged up. His jacket hung from his shoulders, and his shirt was missing.

              “Two nasty cuts,” said Joanie, “but it wasn’t bleeding too bad by the time we got here.”

              Ross felt his left bicep and found that it was wrapped up as well. “When was that?”

              Tatiana answered him, “A few hours after the sun came up. Biyomon told us where you and BlackAgumon would probably try to run.”

              “That’s where we found signs of a struggle,” said Joanie. “All the kids are back at the Homestead.”

              At the mention of BlackAgumon Ross felt his throat tighten. He looked over to his right, where the rocks were stained red. The others noticed. “What happened?” asked Joanie.

              Ross bit his lip. So many terrible, impossible things had happened the night before that he couldn’t wrap his head around them. He kept his answer to the most pertinent information. “The Commander. He killed BlackAgumon.” Ross felt the gash on his chest again. “I thought he killed me, too.”

              Joanie was still fixed on the red stones. “Why did he take his body, and not yours?”

              Ross shook his head. The Commander had left them both here, but how could he explain that? “We’ll talk later. Let’s get a move on.” He tried to prop himself up with his arms, and found that his left one still hurt too bad to help. He shifted all his weight to the right, and groaned as he rose to his feet.

              When Michael saw that Ross’s knees were shaking just to stay upright, he asked, “Are you sure you can walk?”

              “Just give me a minute.”

              This was no exaggeration, as Ross couldn’t get his muscles to move comfortably and reliably right away. In the meantime, Tatiana and Michael began gathering up their things. They had enough food and water for three days, and for protection they had Joanie’s bow. When Ross was ready, he asked for his shirt, which was in a sorry state. The small, red stain from their first night in the storm was now joined by larger stains and a long tear across the front.

              Tatiana looked away as Ross re-clothed himself with some difficulty. Ross noticed that she turned her attention to the two statues, especially at the one in the shape of an angel. There was little in the way of fine detail, and the angel’s tunic was simple. The only feature that distinguished it from a simple man with wings was its blindfold. “Why do all the angels here have their eyes covered?” asked Tatiana.

              ‘Because “angels” arise from the willful ignorance of reality,’ Ross wanted to say, but didn’t.

              Joanie and Michael didn't have any answers they wanted to say aloud either. “Maybe we can ask Angemon if we see him again,” said Michael, who was focusing on the other statue. It appeared to be a large man hunched over the carcass of an elk-like creature. The animal statue was made to look covered in wounds; especially its throat, which was torn open and empty. The man’s teeth and nails had been filed to points. He held his arms in front of his face, as if in fear of the angel’s attention.

              “The angel’s clear enough, but I wonder who or what the man is,” said Joanie.

              Ross looked at the angel’s outstretched arm and pointing finger and shook his head: judgment from heaven. “He’s probably in violation of the Vaccines’ hunting ordinances.”

              Michael’s expression hardened, and he turned to Ross. “Do you think the animal’s just an animal, or is he like Garurumon and Agumon?”

              Ross hadn’t thought about that. It would certainly put the statues’ scene into a different light. He had been quick to judge, which in his mind made him too much like those who actually believed in angels. “Sorry. That was a bad joke.” He swung his right leg back and forth without any real problem. “I think I’m ready to hike, now.”

              Tatiana picked up his spear and handed it to him, and then they were ready. After a slow, careful climb down the rock wall they found themselves at the top of the trail.

              *********

              Even though there was a fairly easy path moving east through the foothills, it was slow going. An hour into the journey Ross expressed some doubts about walking in the open like this with enemies around, but Joanie said in a hushed tone, “There won’t be many around here. According to Biyomon, most of the Virus army went south after Angemon’s guys. On top of that, they can’t sense us from a distance, so our chances are good.”

              “Also,” said Tatiana, “We don’t want to spend another night out here, and the trail’s quicker.”

              “I wouldn’t guess that it’s more direct,” said Ross. Then with the next step he took he felt a sharp ache in his chest, and Joanie seemed to read his mind.

              “In this case easier might be faster.”

              Ross nodded, and concentrated on moving. He had to use his spear as a walking stick, but his legs were working and that was good enough. He still worried about their being exposed, though.

              Another two hours passed, and when Ross turned around at the top of a hill, he saw that the sun was nearing the horizon. And all of a sudden he jumped as shrill voices reached his ears from that direction. Joanie signaled to everyone, and they left the path and made their way down the hill as quietly as they could.

              “Are those the Gazimon?” asked Tatiana.

              The cackling voices belonged to two or three individuals. Ross couldn’t make out what they were saying, but the pitch was unmistakable. “That’s them.”

              “Do they know we’re here?” asked Michael.

              Ross wasn’t sure, and he suspected that Joanie wasn’t sure either when she said, “No. We were too far away, and we were only up high for a moment.”

              Ross was unconvinced: they could have been spotted some time earlier as well. Still, it made no sense to put the kids into a panic. All they could do was start moving away with caution, keeping low and being ready to fight if need be. Joanie was thinking the same thing, and she led them southward for a time. The grass was wild and thick, and Ross soon longed for the the path.

              The minutes that followed were agony, but they heard nothing more from the Gazimon. After a time Joanie steered them toward the left, and they went southeast until they reached a small yet strong river. This they followed south, and the hills turned into plains and the sun sank out of sight. Twilight came and almost passed, when finally at the edge of his vision Ross saw a small girl sitting on a rock at the end of a bridge. The girl jumped up, waved, and ran over the bridge shouting “They’re back! They’re back!”

              Joanie smiled, and said “We made it.”

              Before long they crossed over the bridge as well, and found a scene of irrigated fields nearby an old, earthen hovel. Between them and the hovel were the six other children, Biyomon, and a number of small, soft creatures with bright faces. They all cheered to see the return of the older ones, and Joanie hugged them each in turn. Ross even shook a few of their hands as they all walked back to the house.

              They had reached the Homestead, and as he passed the threshold and found himself surrounded by four walls and a ceiling, Ross felt that at least for while they were finally safe.

              *********

              Ross was sitting by himself on a ragged mat in the corner of the room. Three of the kids (Ross decided he would make a point to commit their names to memory later) were helping Biyomon prepare dinner, and the rest were playing with what he guessed were baby Vaccine-types. Joanie had instructed them all not to bother him for the time being, and he didn’t object. The blood loss seemed to be catching up to him, and his head felt dangerously light. It just now hit him that since they hadn’t risked stopping to eat on the trail, it had been more than twenty-four hours since he had last eaten. Food would help, he was sure.

              One of the young girls, whom Ross correctly remembered as Rebecca, finally came over holding a candle. “Biyomon says dinner’s ready.”

              Ross nodded, and he felt his eyes start to roll back but he snapped out of it quickly. “Thanks. I’m coming.”

              Ross stood up and surveyed the room. It was a wholly Spartan abode with one open window, one door, and all dirt surfaces except for some exposed wooden beams in the ceiling. It was also small enough that a few candles provided more than enough light for everyone. As far as Ross was concerned, though, it was perfect.

              Dinner was perfect in the same way. It consisted solely of the grain dish that they were introduced to back at the camp, and bowls were scarce so everyone paired up. Ross shared his with one of the boys, and during the course of the meal’s conversation he learned that this one’s name was Carlos. All of the children clearly wanted to know what the story was with him, Jacob, and the battle, but it seemed they all understood that they weren’t to ask any questions of him. This didn’t present much of a problem, as Tatiana was more than willing to tide them over with the story of their adventure in finding Ross and bringing him back.

              While she gave her spiel (with many embellishments and exaggerations which were mostly modest) Ross took the time to examine some of the baby Vaccine. They were very simple in form compared with Biyomon and Agumon, to say nothing of Angemon. For many of them their heads were effectively their entire bodies, and they all looked very soft. In truth they made Ross feel somewhat uncomfortable, as they reminded him of the vicious red creatures from their first night in the woods.

              Something else about them bothered Ross as well. They clearly couldn’t take care of themselves between their size and their scarcity of functioning appendages, but Biyomon had spent far too much time at the camp to be their primary guardian. The sacks of grain that lay in the corner showed that someone had been harvesting before Joanie and the children had come here, and that someone’s absence was conspicuous.

              Ross put all this from his mind when he heard Joanie interrupt the riveting tale.

              “…I think the story’s gotten a little out of hand, Tat. We were never actually near the Gazimon, so you don’t know if their teeth were that big!”

              The children laughed, and so did a few of the young Vaccine. Carlos asked Tatiana, “Do you know how big their bodies were, though?” He glanced a few times at Ross in vain hope.

              Ross had no chance to indulge him, as Tatiana provided her own answer without missing a beat. “Six feet tall, at least!”

              Michael and maybe one of the other children smirked, but the rest bought it completely. Ross shook his head, and decided he would indulge them after all. “Okay, she knows that’s not right either.” Tatiana grinned, and Ross continued. “The Gazimon are only about the size of Biyomon, maybe a hair larger.”

              He had half-hoped that this would make the children less interested, but sure enough he now had the undivided attention of everyone in the room. His first inclination was to say his head was still fuzzy and ask Joanie to tell them more. But then he glanced at her, and she looked expectant of him. It wasn’t a push, but more a reminder of his responsibilities to the younger ones: it wasn’t fair to merely protect them from a distance—they needed adults who were present. “So, no, they’re not very big, but they’re nasty, and their claws are sharp and they run fast. If you ever see or hear one, you need to either come get me, Joanie, or Biyomon, or hide somewhere. They won’t find you very easily.”

              The little ones nodded, and one of the Vaccine asked him in a nervous tone, “Can you fight one? Can you beat it?”

              Ross bit his lip. “Not easily, but yes. I can fight them.”

              Another Vaccine piped up, this one with much more energy. “Me too! I can beat a Gazimon!”

              The other tiny creatures dissented in a chorus of nuh-uh and cannot. “Can too! I’m gonna evolve real soon, you’ll see!”

              The little one waved his stub-like appendages in the air, doing his best to show his battle readiness. The other baby Vaccine protested further at this brash assertion of impending evolution, and the human children regarded him with curiosity. Ross, on the other hand, swallowed hard. He could still see the blinding lights, and feel the ground shake beneath him. More than anything, he remembered his helplessness in the face of such unimaginable force.

              “What do you mean ‘evolve?’” asked Rebecca.

              The baby Vaccine were at a loss for words. How could you answer a question that you didn’t even know could be asked? Biyomon, who had so far been happy just to listen, was about to try and explain when Ross started. “It…”

              He stumbled. He didn’t know why he was doing this. Perhaps it was just to straighten out his thoughts on the matter. “It’s how they grow here. It’s like how we grow—well, no, it isn’t. Think of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, except it happens quickly and they get much bigger when it does.” He still heard BlackAgumon’s voice, full of despair at two names: that of a human, and that of a monster—The Commander, and MetalTyrannomon. “They get a new name, too.”

              Ross looked up. Biyomon was nodding, and Joanie was staring at him with a strange look on her face. She wasn’t incredulous, though. On the contrary, he got the feeling she wondered mostly when he had learned this without her.

              “That sounds about right,” said Biyomon. “I gather Humans keep their names for life? That’s fascinating.”

              The children were quiet. Ross wondered whether they thought changing into something completely different sounded like a dream or a nightmare. Soon one of them, Steven probably, asked a question that hadn’t occurred to Ross.

              “Who gives you your new name? Is it your parents again?”

              With that, the conversation hit a turning point that all the humans felt in their guts. Most of the children stared at the floor, while the baby Vaccine asked a flurry of questions.

              “Someone gives you a name?”

              “Can I give someone a name?”

              “What’s parents?”

              There was a long silence. Ross and Joanie wanted to steer the subject elsewhere, but now they couldn’t without being unfair to Biyomon’s little ones. Soon, they heard some sniffles. Joanie rubbed the back of the kid sitting next to her, who was starting to sob. She turned to Biyomon, who shrugged in consternation.

              That said it all. The babies weren’t simply ignorant; there were in fact no parents in this world. With that, Joanie answered the Vaccine in a voice that almost made Ross think she must be an actual mother. “In our world, when two adult humans—a grown-up boy and a grown-up girl—make a promise to love each other and be together, they can make a new baby boy or girl. They give the baby a name, and they watch over all their children till they become adults themselves.”

              The baby Vaccine stared at her in wonder, but the human children were looking no better than before. Ross was at a loss. What could you do for kids who missed their parents and would probably never see them again?

              Tatiana had something in mind that Ross didn’t appreciate in the least. She asked Joanie, “Can we pray?”

              Joanie looked for a moment like she could cry, herself. “I think that’s a good idea.” She glanced over at Ross for any sign of disapproval. He suppressed it. Joanie then took the hand of the child to her left, and laid her other hand on the baby Vaccine to her right. The rest of the children followed her example, and Ross played along. When they had a circle of hands except for an arc where there were no proper hands, Joanie bowed her head.

              “Dear God, please bless our families back in our world.

              “Please bless Steven’s and Rebecca’s, Carlos’s and Jamie’s, Krissy’s and Nathan’s, Tatiana’s and Michael’s, and Jacob’s, Ross’s, and mine.”

              There was a soothing rhythm to her words. Ross got the feeling that although she had never said exact prayer before, the sound and the flow were things she had practiced for ages.

              “Please bless the little ones of the Homestead: the Viximon, the Motimon, and the Tokomon.

              “Thank you for keeping us safe with Biyomon, Garurumon, Agumon, BlackAgumon, and Angemon. Please bless them too, and keep them all from harm.

              “And so, we pray:

              “Our Father who is in Heaven, may Your name be called forever holy. May Your kingdom come and Your will be done in this world as it is in Yours. Let us not go hungry today, and forgive us our wrongdoings as we forgive those who do wrong against us…”

              She paused for a moment as though she wasn’t sure how to paraphrase what came next.

              “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

              “Amen.”

              The children all said ‘amen’ after her, and Biyomon and a few of the babies followed their example afterward. Everyone dropped hands, though the feeling of the circle still lingered. Many of the children’s eyes were still wet, but they all looked to Joanie and they were not afraid.

              The Vaccine too were entranced. “Who were you praying to, Joanie?” asked Biyomon. “Was it to the one from your world who sent you here?”

              Joanie never grew tired of explaining her position on the matter. “Not from our world. Our world was created, and so was everyone in it. We pray to the Creator.”

              The babies were confused. “Just one?”

              “That’s what most of us were taught.”

              “But you got sent from the Holy World to win the war, right?” They looked toward Ross now. “Why’d we lose if you were there?”

              Joanie began to say “Well—” but she was cut off by the babies.

              “Why, Ross?”

              They knew who had been at the battle yesterday, and they wouldn’t take an answer from anyone else. All eyes were on Ross. He took a moment, and found it in himself to piece some words together.

              “You have to understand that we’re not powerful like Angemon and Garurumon. We can use tools and we can pass by unnoticed, but we can’t change the tide of a battle, much less a war.”

              The babies lowered their heads, and the comfort seemed to fade from the children’s faces. Steven wiped his eyes, and he asked Ross with a wavering voice, “Why are we here?”

              Ross looked to Joanie. She stared right back as stern as anything. He decided that he wouldn’t let her down. “I don’t know the answer in general, but I do know one thing: Jacob, Joanie, and I are here to watch over you kids. We’re here to keep you safe, and get you home to your parents. Right now we have to lay low, but don’t worry. We won’t let bad anything happen.

              “I promise.”

              *********

              Ross was sitting by a small fire some twenty yards from the hovel. It was now three hours after sundown and except for the crackle of embers and the murmur of the river there was nothing to be heard. Of all the oddities in this world, the one that struck Ross the deepest was perhaps the complete absence of insects and other small creatures. Though they had seen little of it, it seemed that this was a world of plants and Sentients with no middle ground to speak of. This as much as anything made him wonder if it was all a long nightmare.

              He heard footsteps, and this reminded him of the case against this world being a nightmare: his nightmares were usually uncompromisingly terrifying, but in this world Joanie was here.

              “Ross?”

              She came over and sat beside him. “Hey, Joanie.”

              “I think you handled them well at dinner. They seemed much calmer going to bed.”

              Ross stared north. The stars indicated the contour of the mountains. “And here I thought Christians hated liars.”

              Joanie wasn’t indignant. She had made him pray, and fair was fair. “In a pinch, we’ll take white-liars if they really care.”

              White-liars. Ross supposed the term could be applied to Christians at large. “You made some pretty conspicuous changes to the Our Father, I noticed.”

              Joanie shrugged. “It just felt right, I guess. I wanted to make sure everyone understood what I was saying, even the babies. Anyway, the prayer’s been translated countless times and it’s not like it was originally in English. It should be about intent, not formula.”

              In Ross’s experience, Christians rarely gave a thought to the words they said or sung. He thought for a moment about what he would say next, but Joanie beat him to it.

              “Before I forget, I came out here because I’m insisting you take the night off.”

              “I’m all right. I think I just needed to eat something.”

              “Forget it. You lost too much blood, and you need to rest. Biyomon and I can handle tonight’s watch just fine.”

              Ross didn’t want to admit it, but he was in fact exhausted and a full night’s sleep sounded like a huge relief. “Whatever you say.” He stood up, and turned back to the hovel.

              “Good night, Ross.”

              “Good night, Joanie.”

              *********

              When Ross opened his eyes the inside of the house was still dark, and the floor was crowded with sleeping bodies. He sat up, and to his surprise it was easy. His chest felt fine, and all of his limbs could move without trouble. He got on his feet and made his way around Michael and Steven on his way to the door, where he stepped over Joanie and headed outside.

              The morning was dim and misty, and a swath of red clouds just over the horizon kept the sun from warming things up. Ross stretched and breathed in deep. His head was perfectly clear, though he suspected that he should still be low on blood. He walked over to the dying embers in the fire pit, where Biyomon was whistling a little tune to herself. When she was finished, she looked up at Ross and half-sang the words, “Good morning!”

              “For once, I agree. It is.”

              Biyomon got up with a flap of her wings. “I’m not surprised. I much prefer waking up here than in a camp or in the mountains.”

              “Is this where you live, then?”

              Biyomon had to think for a moment about this. “Not exactly. I suppose I might say ‘yes’ now, but I wouldn’t have not too long ago.” She shook her head, and she had a look of concern in her eyes for a moment. “Anyway, I try not to think too hard about things like that.”

              Ross could tell she wanted to change the subject so he obliged. “So, do you have anything for us to do around here?”

              Biyomon was chipper again in an instant. “Oh, there’s plenty! For starters, the south fields are ready for harvest, and that will…”

              And she was off, so Ross sat down to listen. Not only was there plenty to do, but there were several tangential topics that Biyomon brought up for each of them. By the time she was finished it was noticeably brighter, and the children were starting to emerge from the hovel. Some of them asked Biyomon to start over, and Ross took this chance to excuse himself and have a look around.

              There were three flooded fields of grain surrounding the house: one in front to the north, another behind to the south, and one across the river to the west. Beyond these there were plains that stretched to the horizons west, east, and south, while to the north one could see hills and mountains. While he was walking back from the south field, Ross nearly missed one last feature to the east: there was a plain, broad, grass-colored wooden door flush against the ground. He opened it and it creaked loudly. Beneath it was a set of dilapidated stairs that led to a tunnel. Ross wondered if tornadoes were a problem here. He should have been able to think of another purpose for such a well-hidden shelter, but no part of him wanted to. Today his mind was on the land and the sky.

              For most of the rest of the day, Ross was barefoot and up to a few inches above his ankles in water. The children sang as they worked, which put everything into a calm cycle. Pull up a reed, crack it open, scrape out the grains, drop a few in return, and move on to the next. Everyone kept a good pace, though at one point Ross had to object to the children’s choice of I Know a Song that Gets on Everybody’s Nerves.

              Around noon the sun came out from behind the clouds. It made for hot foreheads, but cool feet and hands from the flooded plain. Ross would wipe his brow, and it was a good feeling. His face felt dirty, but it was a good dirty, a fitting one. It reminded him of where he used to live before he moved close to D.C.

              The thought of home gave him a moment’s pause, but only a moment’s. He was just as quickly back to the rhythm of the field, gathering food for his new family.

              And indeed, they were some manner of family now. Days passed, and as Ross spent them harvesting he felt this more and more. Sometimes he would sit at the edge of the river watching the clouds move from the west to the east, and he would be joined by one of the little ones—human or Vaccine.

              “What grade are you in, Ross?” asked Michael one time.

              “Eleventh.”

              “What’s your favorite subject?”

              “History. What about yours?”

              “Math. Joanie says that’s hers, too.”

              “Math’s too hard for me.” This made Michael look a little proud, so Ross decided to gently deflate him a little. “It’s way boring, too.”

              “It is not! That’s what history is!”

              Ross smirked. “It isn’t, and I can prove it.” Michael had fallen into a rhetorical pitfall, which was to attack Ross’s favored subject instead of giving reasons why his own wasn’t boring. Now Ross could make math look boring just by giving evidence that history wasn’t. It was a fallacious argument to be sure, but Ross wouldn’t teach Michael that until after he exploited it. “Here’s a neat question: was the birth of Cleopatra closer to the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza or to the Moon landing?”

              Michael rolled his eyes. “The Great Pyramid. Cleopatra was a pharaoh; I’m not stupid.”

              “No you’re not, but you’re still wrong. Cleopatra was alive about 2,000 years ago, but when she was born the Great Pyramid had been around for more like 2,500. The pyramids were more ancient to her than she is to us.”

              Michael was astonished, and he listened closely to everything else Ross had to say about the pyramids.

              It made Ross wonder, but he really was one of the adults in these children’s lives now. This became most clear one evening when he and Joanie were breaking the chaff off of some grains with stones from the river.

              “Anything happen today?” asked Joanie.

              “Krissy scraped her knee; got cleaned up quick. Crisis averted.”

              “That’s good.”

              The chaff was tough, which made it hard to accidentally crush the grain inside. They had gotten good at this over the last two weeks.

              “I almost forgot,” added Ross. “I found some strange but nice-smelling herbs near the river earlier. I checked with Biyomon, and she said they’re not poisonous.”

              Ross took the herbs out of his pocket and handed them to Joanie. She had to stifle a laugh.

              “Ross, this is rosemary.”

              “…Oh.”

              He felt like a dad making an idiot out of himself in the kitchen. It didn’t help when Steven walked up and said to Joanie, “Mom?”

              Steven blushed and stuttered at his mistake, but Joanie acted as though nothing had happened. “What’s up?”

              “I…uh…wanted to know if there’s anything I should do for dinner.”

              “Yeah, go grab Carlos, Tatiana, and Jamie and get two buckets of water.”

              Steven got right on it. “Good kids,” said Ross.

              Joanie just smiled. But despite all this, there was an unspoken foreboding that lay around them. It had been easy to ignore since everything had become so peaceful and regular. Everyone got up with the dawn each morning, and each night they ended dinner with one of Joanie’s prayers. Ross wasn’t even bothered anymore because they put the children’s and the Vaccines’ minds at such ease. He even felt some good from them—nothing very personal, more like the feeling of watching a fire from a few feet away. It was a warm, comforting end to the day: a safeguard against the perils in the darkness.

              But still, the night was dark, and they had ignored those perils for too long.

              *********

              It was Ross’s turn to keep watch at three hours after sundown that evening, and once again he was visited by Joanie.

              “What’s the matter?” he asked.

              Joanie shook her head. “Nothing. Didn’t feel like sleeping.”

              She sat down next to him, and for a while they let the fire and the river do the talking. Five minutes had passed when Joanie spoke again.

              “It’s a beautiful place, isn’t it?”

              It was dark, but Ross had known his answer for some time. “It is. I’m not sure I ever want to leave.”

              Indeed, Ross couldn’t think of any reason to leave at the moment, but Joanie’s thoughts strayed wider. “What about home? Don’t you miss your family?”

              That was a question Ross had hoped she’d never ask. Ever since they had left their own world, Ross had thought of his own particular home and family only two or three times. He didn’t want to make this known, as something felt about it felt simply wrong. He gave her as honest an answer as he could while still hiding that one fact. “To be honest, not really. It’s like…”

              He lost his train of thought. “Like what?” she asked.

              “It’s…like I belong here—like I’m in the right place for once. When I used to think ‘When will I be back,’ it’s like I was thinking about being here—with the kids and Biyomon and the little ’mons.”

              “So, it’s like we’re your family?”

              Ross wondered if he should admit it for a few moments. “I suppose you could say so.”

              Ross glanced over to read Joanie’s face. It was warm. She must have felt they were a kind of family, too. Then he had to wonder if she felt the same way about her old home as he did about his.

              But then her face changed. The warmth was gone, and in its place was worry. Ross knew what the matter was, but he couldn’t bring himself to broach the subject first. After what felt like hours, Joanie asked, “Do we want to talk about it?”

              Ross swore in his head. “Want to? Definitely not.”

              “Are we going to talk about it anyway?”

              “…Yeah.”

              Joanie had no shortage of questions, and she started right away. “What happened the night of the battle?”

              Ross took a deep breath and recounted the sequence of events starting with Garurumon’s counterattack and ending with their lopsided fight against the Commander. He tried to explain it all as best he could, though much of it now seemed beyond belief, especially how BlackAgumon faded away when he passed. Yet Joanie bought the whole thing, even how the Commander caught a bolt of lightning in his hand and could leap thirty feet in the air.

              “Do you think he’s really human?” she asked.

              “I have no idea.”

              “Why do you think he let you live?”

              Ross shivered. “I don’t know. He said he was going to kill me, but he hesitated. It wasn’t conscience, though. He tortures for fun. He had something worse in mind, I’m sure.”

              Joanie swallowed. “Do you think he knows where we are?”

              “It depends on whether he cares. If he doesn’t, we can only hope he doesn’t start. If he did care, I’m sure he could find us and get rid of us whenever he felt like it.”

              “If he let you go earlier, though, maybe his hands are tied, somehow. I don’t know.”

              “Me neither.”

              They were silent for another minute before Joanie changed the subject, but the new subject was no more pleasant than before.

              “I learned something from Biyomon today.”

              “What’s that?”

              Joanie rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Something was bothering me, and Biyomon wasn’t volunteering the information, so I kind of had to drag it out of her.”

              “Yes?”

              “…It’s about the previous residents of this place.”

              Ross was still.

              “They were some ‘Child-levels,’ all Data-types. They worked the farm here and took care of the babies—the Viximon, at least. They’re Data-types. I guess Biyomon moved the other babies here from somewhere else.”

              “Get to the point.”

              Joanie groaned. “They ran away weeks ago because of the Virus army, and they left the babies behind cause they’d be a burden in the wild. They were convinced that once the Virus got out this far and started to run out of their own food, they’d…”

              Ross’s heart sank. He knew what was coming before Joanie said it. “…raid farms like this one and kill whoever’s there. Biyomon said she’s been coming here because she couldn’t stand to leave the babies to die. In another week or two when some of them evolve and the rest are stronger, she plans to lead us all away somewhere. Probably into the woods.”

              “Why didn’t she tell us?”

              “Because she doesn’t know how many of us will make it in the wild, even if we never get separated. She said the forests are full of predators—’mons that grew up away from society and language. I asked her if we could try to find Garurumon or Angemon, but she doesn't know where to look. They didn’t think they would be overrun so quickly.”

              Joanie put her head in her hands, and Ross was reeling from the knowledge of just how illusory their safety had been. “What are we going to tell the kids?”

              Joanie rubbed her eyes. “At this point, I don’t think there’s much to tell them. We can’t leave for weeks anyway, and if they’re already being cautious I don’t see the point in scaring them.”

              Ross nodded. They would just have to deal with it when the time came.

              “And besides,” she said, “We’ve gone this long without an attack, right? What’s important is that we stay strong for them. I think we’ll be fine.”

              “Agreed.”

              Their mouths said one thing, but their eyes said something completely different when they met again:

              ‘We can never be safe here.’
              __________________
              Old, Janky Fics
              One-Shot Fics
              Family (kind of?): Strange person who calls me strange names
                #7    
              Old August 2nd, 2016 (6:00 PM). Edited August 7th, 2016 by icomeanon6.
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              icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is online now
              It's "I Come Anon"
                 
                Join Date: Feb 2008
                Location: Northern Virginia
                Age: 24
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                [This is the last chapter that was in the original thread. I'd love to see some feedback before I start posting the all-new stuff this weekend, so please share your thoughts if you have any.

                Enjoy!]


                VII

                The Longest Night

                The clouds were heavy one day, and Ross never saw the sun. Most of the children were off playing with the baby ’mons somewhere, and he couldn’t help but feel anxious about that. He had been standoffish lately, no matter how hard he tried to act normal. Or perhaps the problem was that he was acting normal, and couldn’t act like he was still feeling content, safe, and happy.

                In any case, he was finding it very hard to smile, and that made it difficult to be fair to the children. So he started avoiding them, and spent more time walking around the perimeter of the Homestead. When that one afternoon drew close to evening, he made his way back to the hovel with heavy shoulders. When he reached the door, he paused. The wind had picked up, and it set his neck-hairs on end. He turned around, and took a brief survey. Six children including Tatiana and Michael were playing with the babies in the field to the east. He could hear Biyomon and Joanie talking in the room behind him. There were two children unaccounted for—Rebecca and Krissy, he was pretty sure. He looked all around, and though he knew they were probably fine he had to worry.

                Then came the scream. He heard a girl’s voice coming from the west. Immediately he grabbed his spear from where it leaned on the wall and ran for the bridge. The two girls were running at him from the other side with tears in their eyes. “Gazimon!”

                Ross looked out and saw a whole pack of them running from the north. He waved the girls on past him, and then ran behind them. He shouted at the hovel as loud as he could, “Joanie! They're here!”

                The children who were playing past the house almost fell into confusion, but Biyomon and Joanie came quickly—Joanie with her bow and arrows—and ordered them all toward the door in the ground in the east field. Ross turned around and saw that the Gazimon had already passed the bridge. The two girls who were with him ran on to where the others were, which left Ross alone in the clearing by the fire pit, where he had one chance to stall the enemy.

                He spaced his feet apart, held his spear at ready, and shouted at the mass of Gazimon. There must have been a dozen of them, but they slowed down at the sight of a larger being who appeared ready to fight. Not that they were scared in the least; just that none of them saw why they should be the one to take the hit while the others tore Ross to shreds. They laughed and kept closing in until Ross yelled, “Stay back!” and gestured with his weapon. Then they began to move out in a circle to surround him, but Joanie made herself heard from a fair distance behind Ross.

                “Hold it!”

                She was aiming for one of the ends of their extending arc, and just to keep them honest she moved her aim to the other end and back again quickly. This made the Gazimon hold their positions, but it didn’t stop them from laughing.

                The oldest and meanest-looking of them said to the two with a cackle, “We’re not looking for a hard time here. You two just walk away, leave the food, and we’ll call it even.”

                It was the most Ross could ask for, but it felt too good to be true, just like everything else lately. “And the little ones?”

                They laughed harder. “I said leave the food!

                Ross hadn’t trusted them to keep their word anyway. Still, he had to do something to keep them talking, as a fight here would spell death for him and Joanie, and if they ran for the underground shelter they would be stuck until they would inevitably have to fight again. He could tell now that the enemy wouldn’t leave a chance to slaughter the baby Data and Vaccine while they were stuck in a corner.

                With no real leverage to speak of, Ross knew he had to bluff. “Do you even know who you're talking to?”

                The Gazimon howled with laughter. Ross continued. “We’re Humans sent from the World of Creators! Just like your precious Commander!” The enemy hadn’t put two and two together yet, so this gave them pause. “Even worms like you must have heard about the Commander and his powers! I'll warn you just once: no one who sees a Human’s powers ever lives to see them twice!”

                Despite his fear and desperation, Ross’s voice and eyes held a fire that affected the Gazimon deeply. No one moved or said anything for what felt like a solid minute. The enemy’s resolve was not getting stronger, but they still weren’t about to leave.

                And then something happened that blew out whatever fire Ross had to hold them at bay. The wind from the west picked up sharply, and it brought words.

                ‘Leave none alive!’

                It was the Commander’s voice, and though it was miles away its hatred and anger were palpable and hit Ross right in the gut. The Gazimon quaked where they stood, and their eyes were filling with a red cast. Nothing would hold them back now, so Ross turned and sprinted. “Sh*t! Run!”

                He got two seconds’ head start before the Gazimon’s eyes glowed bright red and they began to run after him. Joanie shot the closest one in the head before turning to run as well.

                They passed the house and were getting close to the open doorway in the ground, where Biyomon still stood. They wouldn’t have made it before the next closest one got them, but Biyomon flapped her wings hard and conjured a green fire that danced forward haphazardly before honing in on its target. The Gazimon was engulfed and then stumbled, which gave Ross and Joanie just enough time to half-fall through the entrance. When Biyomon dropped in behind them, Ross pulled the door shut, which left them in complete darkness.

                Ross and Joanie fumbled for the latch, and while they did the Gazimon clawed at the door and hammered against it with their arms and feet. In this sense at least there was some luck: the Gazimon’s rage was too primal to allow them to pull the door open as it was designed. But even with the latch tightly secured the force applied to the door was great, and they could hear it cracking. It was then that Biyomon shouted, “Get away from the door! Down here!”

                Ross and Joanie obeyed, feeling their way down the stairs to the base of the tunnel. Biyomon pushed them behind her, and said, “Stay back.”

                Biyomon then brought forth more of her green flame, and it flew up in a rough spiral until it reached the door and seemed to spread into every crack of the thing. Suddenly the Gazimon on the other side cried out in fierce pain.

                The door burned with an intense, green glow, but it was not consumed. Ross just stared, but Joanie managed to ask, “How?”

                Biyomon slumped to the floor, gasping for air. “I call it the Magical Fire. It won’t hurt anything it doesn’t want to. It also has a way of messing with your head, kind of like your little spark-stones. The Gazimons’ rage won’t go away, but they won’t hit the door much till the Fire goes down.”

                “How long will that be?” asked Ross.

                Biyomon took a moment before answering. “Twelve hours, maybe. We can only hope that they’ll go back to normal before then, and then decide that it’s not worth the trouble of waiting.”

                “How likely is that?”

                Biyomon didn’t answer. She didn’t need to answer, and Ross hadn’t needed to ask. He was right in guessing that there was almost no chance at all.

                Biyomon needed a minute to catch her breath. Even when she finally stood up with Joanie’s help, she held her head and groaned. “What’s the matter?” asked Joanie.

                “It’s the Gazimon. I can feel them like they’re right next to me. No, even closer than that. Can’t you feel those red eyes?”

                Joanie shook her head.

                “Of course you can’t, sorry,” said Biyomon. “Don’t worry about me. I'll be fine.”

                Ross changed the subject. “Did everyone else make it down?”

                “Yes. I sent them further down the tunnel.”

                At the moment they could see decently well because of the Magical Fire, but after they passed a few turns of the pathway all was pitch black again. Joanie then took one of the PPTRs and a piece of iron from her pocket. After every twist in the tunnel she would rub them together to get a sustained glow, just enough to see what was ahead for a little ways. At these points they would call some names, but not too loudly just because of the dread the crowded walls and ceiling instilled.

                Eventually they got a reply from Tatiana. “We’re in here.”

                Her voice came from the right path in a fork in the passageway. The three followed the voice, and found themselves in a small room where the eight children and the babies were crowded together. Some of them squinted from the light of the stone, and they were all too frightened to greet them. Joanie dropped to her knees among them, and in the darkness she touched and reassured everyone she could. “It’s going to be okay. We just have to sleep down here tonight.”

                There were some tears and sobs. Ross sat with his back to the wall and pressed his head into his hands. He could barely admit it to himself, so how could he admit to these kids that this was going to be their last night alive? And so he said nothing. After all the work, weeks, and narrow escapes, he knew he had failed them. For the next hour he cursed his decisions, his weakness, and more than anything the Commander’s existence. If the bastard had been here right now Ross felt he could have broken his neck.

                *********

                The hour ended when Ross heard Joanie say something to the others besides her futile attempts at consolation. “Ross and I are going to look around for a while. Biyomon’s right here, okay?”

                There were some feeble, scattered replies of ‘okay.’ Joanie stood up and so did Ross. Before they left, Joanie made some light so the children could see her smile. The sadness in her eyes made Ross doubt that it would fool them. He didn’t say anything as they left their charges and took the other path in the fork deeper into the shelter.

                After they had gone a few dozen yards, Ross asked her, “What do you think we’ll find? Another way out?”

                “Maybe. Biyomon told me she was pretty sure there was only one entrance, though. We might also find something we can use to barricade the door.”

                And so they kept checking for signs of hope with the shining stone as they went along, until finally they reached a dead end. The tunnel ended abruptly at an uneven dirt wall that suggested whoever started building the shelter had never finished. Perhaps it was supposed to reach another entrance or at least a larger storeroom with emergency food and water, but they would never know.

                When the light went out, the two stood and stared into nothing. Ross could hear Joanie breathing, and it wasn’t encouraging. “Should we head back?” he asked.

                “Let’s take a break first.”

                So Ross sat against the end of the tunnel and closed his eyes. Even if everything looked the same with them open, he was tired. To his surprise, however, Joanie sat right next to him and found his hand. They closed their fingers together and sat still for a time. Ross wanted to be happy about it, but what did holding hands with a pretty girl mean in the face of certain and painful failure and death?

                “What do we tell them?” he finally asked.

                “I don’t know. We’ll think of something.”

                Ross couldn’t keep it in. “How about, ‘Sorry, that’s all we’ve got.’”

                “Don’t say that.”

                “I’m just sick of lying to these kids. Can’t we just tell them that we blew it and that it’ll all be over soon?”

                “Ross…”

                “You do know this is the end, right? There are too many of them for us to kill, they’ll never stop, and we can’t even slow them down for a whole day.”

                “I get it. I really do. But we can’t let them spend their last hours despairing. It’s not right.”

                Ross started breathing harder. “But what about us? We know better. What are we supposed to do?”

                Joanie didn’t answer. In the meantime, Ross’s head kept spinning. It was all a mix of anger, sadness, and longing for what should have been. Finally, out of nowhere, something made it from his head to his mouth that never would have under most circumstances. “I just don’t want to die without having…you know…”

                “What?”

                “…I don’t want to die a virgin.”

                There it was. It hung right there in the air between them. Joanie was still for a moment before she sighed in consternation. She didn’t let go of his hand, though. “I know what you’re getting at, Ross, and you already know what my answer to that is.”

                Ross’s instincts were to apologize immediately and then drop the whole thing, but something compelled him to try a different approach. “Joanie, will you marry me?”

                Joanie snorted, then laughed.

                “Hey, I’m serious! I swear to you right now that if we get married I’ll never love another woman for the rest of my life.”

                Joanie laughed on. “Stop it!”

                “We can get Biyomon to be the witness, and then we’ll tell the kids they’re officially adopted till we get them back home. We’ll be a real family with eight darling children! How much more Catholic can you get? And what better way is there to go out without despair?”

                Joanie slowly regained her composure. “Okay, there were actually two reasons why I’m not going to sleep with you. I know you think what you’re asking for is hopeful, but it’s just not. You wouldn’t have asked me this if the end weren’t in sight, and if we both say ‘yes’ we’re both admitting that we’re all goners and that what we do now doesn’t matter.

                “That’s not hope.

                “That’s despair.

                “Hope means doing the right thing even if you can’t see what difference it makes. I’m not going to let you act as if everything’s pointless. I know you don’t believe in Heaven, but can you at least understand that we owe it to these kids to believe that we can save them? If you can’t believe it in your thoughts, believe it in your actions.

                “That’s hope.”

                Ross was stumped. Even in the face of certain death—the one thing that was supposed to reduce all rational people to a more basic, instinctual kind of humanity—here was Joanie. Of all the people Ross could be stuck here with, it was Joanie, who it seemed would never stop being Joanie. “Tell you what,” she said. “As for your Proposal, the one with a capital ‘P,’ if we pull through and get the kids out alive, I’ll give it a few months and then I’ll think about it, okay?”

                Ross sighed. “Alright, you win.” He felt no consolation, though.

                They weren’t smiling now. Joanie said, “Come here,” and they held each other close.

                “I’d have been so lost without you,” said Ross. “We’d all have been.”

                “That’s why I’m here, and it’s why you’re here, too. I couldn’t have done it alone, either.”

                They sat together a while longer before they started to make their way back.

                *********

                When they got back to the small room they heard some snoring, so Joanie didn’t use the light. Instead she got close enough to the little ones that those who were still awake could tell she was there. Soon one of them said, “I’m thirsty.”

                Ross knew it broke Joanie’s heart to whisper, “We’ll get water in the morning. Try to sleep, now.”

                This got Ross thinking of all the other things they wouldn’t have a chance to do again: eating a meal, watching the sky, and sitting around a fire among them. None of those seemed more important than drinking water, though. It made his throat feel parched, so he took Joanie's advice. Knowing that he’d never manage to stay asleep for more than a few hours, he closed his eyes. Only a few minutes later his ears followed suit and he lost track of his senses.

                When he was awake, he could hear Joanie whispering a prayer to Mary, and when she said ‘amen,’ she started over again. Ross wanted to tell her that getting some sleep would be much more useful than praying the Rosary, but he decided against it. ‘Praying makes sense to her, I guess,’ he thought. ‘We’re about to join the Dead Virgins Club so she might as well appeal to the president.’ He probably would not have thought this if he could see the tears rolling down her cheeks. He soon nodded off again.

                When Ross awoke the second time, Joanie was asleep sitting up against the wall near him, which he could tell by the steady breathing. He didn’t know how much time had passed, so he didn’t feel like falling asleep again. He got up and walked near the entrance to the room. He whispered to no direction in particular, “Biyomon?”

                There was a rustle nearby and soon he was tapped on the arm by a dull claw. They stepped into the hallway and he asked, “How long do you think we’ve been down here?”

                Biyomon clicked her beak a few times. “I guess around ten hours, give or take one.”

                “Hmm.”

                “It’s probably about time to keep watch at the entrance.”

                “Yeah. Are you good to help?”

                “I’m afraid I used too much of the Fire earlier. I won’t be able to use it again for a few days, and that’s only if I take it easy. I don’t know how much help I can be, but I’ll—”

                “Forget it. Just stay with the little ones and do all you can when the enemy gets past us.”

                “…Very well.”

                With that they went back in the room, and Ross carefully made his way to where Joanie was sleeping and tapped her on the shoulder. “It’s time,” he whispered.

                Joanie stretched. “Got it,” she whispered back.

                Their weapons were just outside the room. Ross grabbed his spear and Joanie took up her bow and quiver. Ross didn’t ask how many arrows the quiver held. They then both knelt down and gave Biyomon a hug. “Thanks for everything,” said Joanie.

                “No, thank you two for everything. We had so little hope before you came.”

                It broke Ross's heart. In Biyomon’s eyes they were still saviors sent from a higher plane. After they stood up and Joanie began walking to the entrance, Ross lingered. “I'm so sorry,” he said.

                “You can be sorry when you break your promise to protect these children,” said Biyomon. “But before then I won’t hear it. Even if you die keeping that promise I won’t hear it.”

                Ross shook his head. “I won’t disappoint, then.”

                He followed Joanie down the path again. Every little while she would give them some light, and they found they would each look at the other’s face more than the twists and turns ahead of them. At last they came to the stairs, and the door above was still glowing enough that they could see each other reasonably well. They heard a pound followed by a muffled scream. They knew that soon the door would not be painful to touch, and then their work would be cut out for them.

                They didn’t need to consult on tactics. They pulled as far back as they could to give Joanie an advantage with the bow. And then they sat and waited.

                Already they could see that the door was losing its glow. It was a slow, seamless way that the Magical Fire died down, and every so often they would realize that it was not as bright as it had been some minutes prior. Ross looked over at one point and could just barely make out Joanie's face: beautiful and sad, but not beaten—not yet.

                When the door was barely visible, and the two sat in complete darkness again, Joanie spoke at last. “Remember what hope is.”

                When the Magical Fire was dead, and there was no light to be seen, Ross replied. “I’ll try.”

                The pounding began again. At first it was hesitant, but in no time it was relentless. Ross stood up, reached out, and touched Joanie’s shoulder so that he would remember the last time. He then took a good number of paces forward and readied himself. He stamped the ground a few times so Joanie would know where he was.

                The pounding grew louder, and so did the cracking noise. When it reached its loudest point it was punctuated by a terrible slam, and a pale light poured into the tunnel. The first Gazimon tumbled down the stairs, and he was met with an arrow to the head. The others ran down behind him with perfect balance, and before Joanie could get another shot ready one of them was upon Ross.

                He swept his spear and iron met skull. With one Gazimon dazed against the wall, Ross’s weapon was still ready to use. The next foe got close too quickly, though, and Ross could only stab it. Even impaled, the creature snapped its foaming jaws and swung wildly for Ross’s throat. This was what he had been afraid of: with two more enemies charging at him he had no room to act. Another arrow whizzed by, and Ross saw the beasts dive at him.

                Just as he braced for impact, he was blinded, deafened, and tossed back by a different force entirely. Everything spun for a moment, and then he found that the tunnel was glowing white and his ears were ringing. He staggered to his feet, pulling his spear out of the now limp Gazimon. In front of him were a crowd of the creatures lying dead and seared. The two that had dived at him had landed behind him, and though their backs were burned they were starting to get up. One of them ran toward him again but was interrupted by an arrow. The other ran past him at a new figure running down the stairs. This newcomer stabbed with a sword and made short order of the last Gazimon.

                The glow subsided quickly, but Ross’s head kept spinning. He stared at the young man before him, who stared back in turn before breaking out in gleeful laughter.

                “Jacob!” shouted Joanie, who ran up and gave their rescuer a big hug.

                Ross had nothing to say yet. The reality of the matter hadn't set in. “Ha ha! Here comes the cavalry, right?” he heard the newcomer say, and then, “Let’s get you out of here, man!” before the other two helped him up the stairs and into the early morning light.

                It was then that everything clicked, and Ross saw Jacob at his left side and Unimon before them, whose mouth was letting off what looked like steam. “What…How on…” He never finished the sentence. He just grabbed hold of Jacob and for the first time since far too long ago he laughed loud and long.

                “You didn’t know we were here, did you?” asked Joanie, still laughing herself.

                “No! We couldn’t miss a dozen Viruses standing around red-eyed, though! Unimon smelled them from four miles away during our morning patrol!”

                Ross kept laughing. Even if it wasn’t as big a coincidence as he had thought, he still considered the whole thing wonderfully, wonderfully stupid.

                “Hey, you've got some burns,” said Jacob. Indeed Ross had a few light burns on his forehead and hands, but he could barely even feel them.

                “Forget about it!”

                “Done!” Jacob then turned to Joanie. “Are the kids all here too?”

                “Yes! We’re all here safe, sound, and accounted for!”

                “Ha ha, oh man. I can sleep at night again!”

                “They’re all in the shelter—let’s bring them out! They’re going to be so thrilled to see you!”

                Ross motioned for them to go on ahead without him. The other two went down into the earth again, calling out for the little ones to meet them half-way. As they did, Ross approached Unimon and found himself at a loss for words. Unimon was not offended, and simply made a shallow bow. Ross responded in kind but bowed lower, and smiled.

                In short order the entire throng was out in the open, and Ross found himself mobbed. Tatiana sat on Jacob’s shoulders and Biyomon walked over to Unimon, but all the other children and ’mons seemed to want to tackle him. It was a better feeling than he could ever remember, and he only half-listened as Jacob described to Joanie the hideout deep in the mountains where Garurumon, Agumon, and Angemon had regrouped.

                It would be a tough effort to bring them all there safely—especially because Unimon would have to scout all around to make sure no enemies found the road they were taking. It made no difference to Ross, though: the sun was out, and his promise was still going strong.
                __________________
                Old, Janky Fics
                One-Shot Fics
                Family (kind of?): Strange person who calls me strange names
                  #8    
                Old August 7th, 2016 (6:22 PM). Edited August 7th, 2016 by icomeanon6.
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                icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is online now
                It's "I Come Anon"
                   
                  Join Date: Feb 2008
                  Location: Northern Virginia
                  Age: 24
                  Gender: Male
                  Posts: 1,170
                  [And here it is: the first chapter to debut in the new thread. It's also the beginning of what I consider to be the second act of the story. As always, any comments or criticisms are welcome.

                  Enjoy!]


                  VIII

                  A Desperate Gamble

                  Ross stood panting a number of yards behind Agumon. Agumon’s forearms were stained with blood, and it wasn’t his own. In front of Agumon was an aquatic, mammalian Virus-type whose feet were webbed and clawed. The skirmish heavily favored the Vaccine, and anyone could see that all the Virus-type had in mind was to get back to the water and save his own skin. The lake was behind Ross, who stood ready with his spear.

                  Ross felt his upper thigh where another one of these Virus-types—now dead—had just given him a nasty cut. It wasn’t bleeding badly, but it stung only slightly less than a bee sting. He seethed and glared at their adversary. He wanted this one.

                  The Virus made the first move. He spat a jet of water that instantly froze upon impact, but Agumon was too quick and all the attack hit was ground. The Vaccine followed the dodge with a large, intense ball of orange fire. The enemy scarcely avoided it by bounding forward with all he had, beginning his last desperate bid for safety. Though he was strong in leaping, he wasn't agile on land, and before he could reach the waterline Ross swung with his spear and knocked him onto his side.

                  The Virus groaned and held out one arm, “W…”

                  But Ross hadn’t planned to stop there. Before the Virus could get a word in, the spear was thrust into his neck and he had breathed his last. Ross pulled his weapon out again once he was sure the enemy was dead. With his heart-rate still spiked, Ross took a second to examine his cut again.

                  Agumon, whose mouth was still raw from the fire, said, “Don’t relax yet, they might need help over th—” He stopped short when they saw Garurumon riding over with Jacob on his back, sword at the ready. They slowed to a halt when they saw that the fight was finished here as well.

                  Jacob got off, surveyed the scene, and frowned. “They’re all dead?”

                  Ross looked at the corpse at his feet, and the creature’s last actions played over again in his mind. Its last word had been cut off, but Ross knew that it was supposed to be ‘wait.’ Clearly it would have been a surrender, but what Ross honestly didn’t know was whether he had known it was a surrender when he aimed for the neck. He didn’t know what to tell Jacob on that matter, so he said the first thing that came to mind. “You saw what they did to that village.”

                  Jacob gave Ross an odd look. “Uh, yeah. That goes without saying. Are you feeling okay?”

                  This gave Ross a start, and he realized that his eyes were still fixed in a glare. He blinked a few times and shook it off. Garurumon spoke next. “It would have been fortunate if we had left one alive to interrogate. They probably wouldn’t have known anything of real importance, but there’s always a chance.”

                  “He’s right. You never know,” said Agumon, who was nursing his teeth and only half paying attention. “My bad. Should have kept us on the same page.” Garurumon and Jacob were looking very carefully at Ross when Agumon continued. “I thought we both had the same thing in mind when you had this last one down but not out.”

                  This raised Jacob’s and Garurumon’s eyebrows, and Ross stuttered.

                  Agumon then looked up and noticed the tension he had just missed. He then said to Ross, “Whoa, whoa. Don’t get the wrong idea now. We teach you to disrupt then exploit; that’s how you stay alive with these guys. It happens quickly—rookie mistake, don’t sweat it.”

                  Ross hoped he was off the hook. Garurumon made a low noise, and nodded. “It does happen more often with new soldiers, and neither Jacob nor I could manage to take a prisoner this time either. Just be more alert for the opportunity in the future.”

                  Ross nodded and said, “Right. Will do.” His stomach untied itself.

                  Jacob, though, still eyed Ross with some suspicion for a moment before changing the subject. “What did you say their name was?” he asked Agumon, “These new ones?”

                  “Gizamon,” said Agumon with open contempt. “And we can expect more new arrivals the longer this war goes on.”

                  “So there’s Gazimon and Gizamon,” said Jacob, “and they're both nasty. Got it. Is there going to be a quiz on this? That’d make a good Gotcha question.”

                  Agumon and Garurumon didn’t get the joke, and Ross wasn’t in a joking mood, so no one laughed.

                  There was nothing more to be done now that all of their targets’ bodies were fading away, so they headed back to where they had dropped the humans’ packs. They rested there for a short while before starting the two-day trek back to home base.

                  Two months had now passed since Ross, Joanie, and the children had been reunited with Angemon’s regrouped army. During this time the Commander and his Virus troops had been carrying out their search with characteristic brutality, but they had not yet found the secret way to the Holy City. MetalTyrannomon had vanished, but the Virus forces were now so much greater in size that it made no difference. The mountain country was only so large, and Angemon’s guerrilla tactics could only slow them down. The number of places the Commander could still look without finding his prize was shrinking fast.

                  *********

                  When the four emerged from the last tunnel on the second day it was already dark. They had returned to base: a mountain village completely surrounded by sheer walls of rock. There were scattered tents and campfires in the center, and many abodes and rooms were delved out of the cliff faces. As they made their way down the broad, switchback trail to the bottom, Ross had to use his spear as a walking stick. It wasn’t because he was worn out from the fighting and the journey—though he certainly was—as much as it was due to his nerves. Speaking now felt like a terrible chore, and he had been silent for almost the entire time since the day of the skirmish.

                  They reached the floor of the village, and waiting by a torch was Tatiana. “Welcome back!”

                  “Hey, Tat!” said Jacob, giving her a high five as he walked past. Tatiana wanted five from Ross too, but he just barely held out his hand and it was limp when Tatiana slapped it.

                  Agumon gave five as well as he could, being careful to keep his claws out of the picture. Garurumon wasn’t the type to give five either in personality or anatomy, but he stooped slightly to let Tatiana get on his back. This was a favorite pastime of the children whenever they could get away with it, and as long as it wasn’t too often Garurumon didn’t mind. It helped that his fur was hard as steel, so the kids were liable to hurt themselves if they tried roughhousing.

                  They kept walking to the middle of the village, where Angemon’s tent was. On the way Jacob got the story of what everyone had been up to while they were gone from Tatiana, but in Ross’s case it fell on deaf ears. He meant to tell the others that he was going straight to bed, but he just barely croaked the words and they might not have even heard him. He didn’t care, and simply strayed off toward his own tent.

                  He was halfway there when he heard footsteps catch up with him, and a small voice asked, “Ross?”

                  It was Michael. Ross made a noise to acknowledge him. “Hey Ross, the other kids were wondering…you know, when you got back…er, now that you’ve got back, if maybe, uh—”

                  “Spit it out.”

                  Michael swallowed. Ross couldn’t tell what he was so nervous about, and found it annoying. “We were wondering if maybe you could give us another history lesson? We liked the last one and—”

                  “I can’t do anything tonight. I’m going to bed.”

                  While they were talking Ross didn’t break his stride. Michael slowed down a little, but caught right back up. “Maybe tomorrow, then? Or after we—”

                  Ross shouted, “Look, I don’t know! Later, okay!”

                  Michael stopped dead in his tracks. He mumbled something along the lines of “O…okay, right. Sure. Sorry,” before turning around and scampering off. Ross just shook his head. It seemed there was no end to his headache today.

                  Ross reached his tent, which was small but private. He and Jacob had received private quarters in part for their confirmed kills but mostly as a morale booster for the ranks. It was easier for the Child-level soldiers to be inspired by the presence of warriors from the Holy World if they were treated like honorary officers. This didn’t sit too well with Ross because he knew that he hadn’t remotely earned the distinction. Nearly all of the Agumon were more accomplished than he was, and none of them had private spaces. As always, he felt a bit of embarrassment as he dropped his spear just outside the opening and ducked down to enter.

                  Immediately he shrugged his pack off his shoulders and collapsed on the hides that served as his bedding. He didn’t bother to unroll his blanket or remove his shoes, and instead just closed his eyes and shut out everything but his own frustration. In reality he had progressed in his skills as a soldier as well as one could expect from two months of training and missions, but he couldn’t see this. The Commander dominated his thoughts, and being competent yet unable to defeat his enemy felt as good to Ross as having no arms.

                  He played the night of their confrontation over and over again in his mind, and what he always came back to was the crossbow, and how he utterly blew it. He never shot at the Commander. He couldn’t fully grasp what had happened, much less verbalize it. For now he figured he just couldn’t get the shot lined up correctly. Shaky hands—nerves or something.

                  And then as always he came back to the biggest ‘what if.’ What if he’d had any real proficiency with a ranged weapon? Would the Commander be dead already? And this thought led invariably to the one among them who used a bow, and who was also the only one of the teenagers who refused to go on missions. And speak of the devil, she entered the tent without asking that very moment.

                  “I want an explanation,” was what Joanie said. She spoke in a tone as close to anger as Ross ever heard her use, but he was unmoved.

                  “For what? Trying to sleep?” Ross couldn’t see her expression, and maybe if he could he wouldn’t have been sarcastic. She was red in the face, fighting to at least keep composure, and Ross made her slip when he said that. She grabbed his pack and tossed it at his chest, jostling him out of his own world and forcing his eyes open.

                  “I want to know why you snapped at Michael like that when all he did was ask for thirty minutes of your time!”

                  Beneath the surface Ross was shocked to see Joanie like this, but he wouldn’t show it. “Okay, fine. I am dead tired.” He stood up. It was tough on his leg and the scar from the Gizamon, and he made no effort to hide it. “I am fighting a damn war out there and I want some honest rest for a change!”

                  “Yeah, I know! You said the same thing when you made that promise before you left!”

                  This gave Ross pause. He honestly did not know what she was talking about, and couldn’t remember making any promise before the last mission. Before he could think of what to say, Joanie continued. “That you’d spend more time with the kids when you got back? Because they miss you? Remember?

                  And now it came back to Ross. He had indeed said that, and it worried him for a moment that it had slipped away so easily. “Of course I remember. What I didn’t promise though was that they’d get story time right after we walked into camp because I knew I would be too f*cking tired.

                  That was all Joanie could stand, whether it was the language or the sentiment. She slapped him hard on the cheek before he could blink. “You’re tired? Well the kids are tired, scared, and homesick! I know we—you don’t miss home at all, but they do, and none of them can go a week without waking up in the middle of the night crying, and we promised we’d be there for them and be a whole lot better than you’re being right now!”

                  Joanie’s eyes were on fire. For what felt like a whole minute they just stared at each other. The weeks at the Homestead felt so far away now. Had they ever fought before? Ross wasn’t sure, but he knew right then it felt like they had. It was as though they had been fighting for weeks, just without words or looks or really anything. It was a strong disapproval of the other’s decisions that kept bubbling under the surface. They both knew this was the case, and finally Joanie decided to cut to the heart of the matter.

                  “You need to stop doing this.”

                  “I can’t. You know I can’t.”

                  Their voices were low now, and neither could bear to remain so hot and intense. Ross sat at one end of his bed-hide and motioned for Joanie to sit at the other. She accommodated him, and waited a few beats to make sure she was calm when she spoke next.

                  “I understand how important the war is. We’ve all seen the enemy and what they want to do. It’s not that the fight is wrong—it’s that the fight is wrong for you. It’s more obvious every time you come back.”

                  “Look, I know I’ve been testy lately. And the fighting’s not an excuse, that’s on me. But—”

                  “You’re not just testy. You don’t care about anything else anymore. Everything else you do just screams…contempt for anyone who tries to reach you. Your head’s in the fighting all the time now, and the kids can see it. It can’t be good for you.”

                  “I don’t have any contempt for anyone here, you know that.” Saying this pricked Ross’s conscience a little. He could recall many times that he felt he hated Jacob for perceived slights, especially recently. But he wasn’t exactly lying: he wanted what was best for everyone.

                  It was as if Joanie could see what he was thinking. “Deep down, no, you don’t, but that’s not all that matters. You keep acting like you do, and if you keep acting one way eventually you’ll be that way. And you act like this the more you fight.”

                  Joanie scratched her head, not sure how to explain it, but she soon continued. “When we first left home—the first night, you were the only one who had to fend off a Virus, and you were…kind of like this for a while. Honestly I thought you were paranoid, weirdly defensive, and something about you just said ‘violent.’ I didn’t want to judge, so I gave you a chance and it turned out there was a lot more to you than that, but now it’s all coming back and it scares me.”

                  Ross stared at the ground. The thought of hurting Joanie or the kids made him ill, but he couldn’t really dispute what she said.

                  She kept going. “I never wanted to bring this up, but do you remember when Jacob asked about why you had your knife?”

                  It took Ross a moment to remember. He honestly hadn’t thought much about the knife since he got his spear. “Yes.”

                  “The way you told him off about it…well…it was terrifying. Maybe it was the bad light, but you seriously looked and sounded like you wanted to hurt him for asking about it.”

                  Ross sighed. He thought about how that scene must have looked, and it pained him to think that Joanie had felt that way about it all this time. “I guess I owe you some explanation for that.”

                  Ross then gave his story. He had to think hard to recall everything that was important, as it had all seemed to slip away so easily since they came to this place. “I didn’t grow up in the suburbs. We lived in the mountains in Virginia, pretty close to Tennessee. We didn’t live in town, and there really wasn’t much around except trees. When my parents fought—and they fought a lot—I couldn’t stand to listen to them so I usually just walked into the woods. And I mean deep in the woods, like miles deep, away from trails. Anyway you had bears out there, and mountain lions, and I just never felt safe without a sheath knife.

                  “It made me feel bigger than I was. Even if I knew in my head I couldn’t actually kill a bear without my dad’s rifle, I had to feel dangerous—dangerous enough that a bear wouldn’t try to mess with me. Eventually I started keeping it with me all the time. The other kids called me a poser, or a psycho if I ever got mad, and it got me suspended whenever I got caught at school with it.

                  “I’m surprised it didn’t get you expelled. It sure would have at my school.”

                  “I think according to the school rules it should have, but my test scores were good and Appalachian schools are always desperate for results for funding.”

                  They were getting off topic. Joanie said, “I guess they would be. Go on.”

                  “Well, I could never get rid of it. I felt naked without it, and if anyone ever told me to leave it at home it felt like they were attacking me. And if another kid ever tried to take it I’d feel like attacking him. I did get aggressive a few times when that happened, and one time it ended in a fistfight, but I never drew the knife on anyone. I swear.”

                  “I believe you. Don’t worry.”

                  “Thanks. And now I…I don’t think I should have acted like that about the knife. I should have known better even when I was younger. It was stupid to let a weapon shape everything about me. It—it became an end instead of a means to an end.”

                  Joanie nodded. “I agree with you. And I feel like that’s what’s happening with you and the war. Can you tell me right now that you’re still fighting for the same reason as when you started?”

                  “Yes.” Ross looked her in the eye. “I seriously believe that Angemon’s army needs more help if they want to drive back the enemy, that none of us are safe till that happens, and that Jacob and I can really make a difference.”

                  “And there’s no other reason?”

                  Joanie’s gaze was piercing, and Ross knew she was probing him, but he could also feel that it was not in her heart to be so skeptical. She wanted desperately to believe that his only desire was to protect. So when he lied she believed it, and in his empathy for her Ross believed it a little himself. “No. There’s no other reason.”

                  Joanie nodded. “Okay. I think it’s good that we cleared the air.”

                  “Yeah.”

                  “I’ll let you sleep, now. Just try to play with the kids tomorrow or tell them a story or something.” Joanie then stood to leave, but just as she did Jacob was standing in the doorway.

                  “Hey Joanie,” said Jacob as a formality before immediately turning his attention to Ross. “Ross, we need you in Angemon’s tent right now. Strategy meeting. It can’t wait.”

                  Joanie looked down at Ross, waiting for him to respond. Ross felt he was being tested, that if he got up now it would be the same as saying out loud that the kids were less important than sleep, but sleep was less important than the meeting. After a moment of consideration he decided that Jacob sounded urgent enough that he could get away with it. He nodded and then stood up slowly, and he meant to stand up slowly for appearances even if his knees were sore enough that he actually couldn’t do so quickly.

                  Joanie frowned. “Mind if I attend as well?”

                  Jacob hesitated for a moment. It seemed he had just noticed the mood in the tent he had entered. “By all means. Sorry, I should have asked you too.”

                  The three exited the tent. “It’s fine,” said Joanie. “Usually I don’t want to. This one’s an exception.”

                  They approached Angemon’s tent, which stood in the center of the base. It was large, but most of its floor space was occupied by a patch of relatively soft ground that was reserved for drawing up diagrams and tactics. Upon walking inside at night, the first thing one noticed was how bright it was. There was more light in the room than should have been emitted by the candles, and though no one spoke of this it was no secret to the humans that Angemon himself was the reason.

                  Sitting in the tent alone were Angemon and Garurumon. It was too few for a proper meeting. “Aren’t any of the Agumon coming?” asked Ross.

                  Angemon shook his head. “No. I will be clear: what we are about to discuss could cause a substantial disruption among the ranks. They are not to hear any of this until I decide they ought to. This meeting is restricted to Adult-levels and you three.”

                  Ross and Joanie were unsure what to make of this, but Jacob was unaffected.

                  “Jacob,” said Garurumon, “This is your plan, so I’d like you to explain from the beginning.”

                  “Yes, sir.”

                  Joanie and Ross sat down to listen, while Jacob knelt in the center of the room and began to sketch the surrounding region.

                  “The issue is that we’re running out of time. The Commander has exhausted his search in these three main areas, and if things keep going as they have been he should find the tunnel in a few weeks unless he’s ridiculously unlucky. And if we’re that unlucky he could find the tunnel in as early as four days.”

                  Jacob’s speech was well-rehearsed, and he gave a sense of true authority. Placing an ‘X’ on the location of the secret pass to the Holy City, he continued. “It’s been proven that we can’t corner the Commander in the open. He has an unnatural sense for escape, and his troops always keep him out of trouble. Even when he leads the charge we can never put real pressure on him. He always has a way out. We can’t stop their whole force, and we can’t stop their leader, so it is inevitable that they will find the tunnel, and when they do they will certainly be able to force their way through.”

                  “Are we finished, then?” asked Joanie, who couldn’t see any holes in Jacob’s reasoning.

                  “Not necessarily. Since we know where they will eventually end up, what we do now is go there first, draw them in, and fight on our terms.”

                  “This is where I have questions,” said Garurumon. “Even if we put all our strength into defending the tunnel, we cannot beat them at a war of attrition.”

                  Angemon nodded. “That was my concern as well, but Jacob has a novel approach to the situation.”

                  Jacob nodded. “It occurred to me when I learned of the size of the tunnel. It’s tall and wide enough to allow the passage of a Perfect-level like MetalTyrannomon, and that makes it unstable.”

                  He slowed down to draw a rough map of the tunnel. “There are several points where we could provoke a cave-in with enough firepower. Angemon tells me that the demolition of the tunnel would count as an egregious loss, but in the face of mortal danger to the City it would be acceptable.”

                  Ross was skeptical. “It’s still delaying the inevitable though, isn’t it? If we wreck this tunnel they’ll just solidify their foothold in this region, get even more troops, and eventually find the tunnels on the other side of the City.”

                  “Except,” said Jacob, just containing his excitement, “This is also how we finally get the Commander.”

                  Ross’s heart beat faster.

                  “Judging by his patterns so far,” continued Jacob, “It’s safe to bet that if some of our forces feint a retreat deep into the tunnel, the Commander will pursue. As long as no other troops are sensed in the surrounding area, he’ll chance entering at least the opening cavern just for the sport of it. We’ve seen this before.”

                  He was right. As long as he could get out before reinforcements arrived, the Commander had pursued their allies into tight spaces to finish them off personally.

                  “If he leads his squad from the front, then we crush him under the rock. I doubt he’ll try it, though. He’d be going so far into the tunnel that he’d have to sense the danger. What’s most likely is that he’ll stay in the rear, confident that there’s nothing at their flank, far back enough to be safe but close enough to hear the screams when his fighters catch ours. When he knows his back is safe but there’s danger ahead, he’s tended to send all his troops forward.”

                  “So what, then?” asked Joanie. “If he really has a sixth sense like you think, you’ll collapse the tunnel and then he’ll take off as usual.”

                  Though it eluded Joanie, Ross already knew exactly what Jacob had in mind. Jacob smiled as he revealed the key of the plan. “That’s what he’ll think, but his Virus-types won’t detect the fighters waiting just inside the cave to keep him from running away.”

                  Joanie’s mouth opened in consternation. “You can’t be serious.”

                  Jacob let a small laugh slip through. He knew it sounded crazy, but he was still utterly certain. “Ross and I are ready. We just have to slow him down for a few minutes until the cavalry arrives.”

                  Angemon nodded. “Indeed. If you had to disarm the Commander yourselves this plan would be a non-starter. Garurumon and I however should have no trouble if we can corner him. It will be difficult for us to find a spot far enough away to go undetected yet close enough to reach the Commander in time after the cave-in, but the odds are too good to ignore.”

                  “But…a few minutes?” objected Joanie. “He almost killed Ross in seconds!

                  “That was then,” said Ross. “Besides, BlackAgumon…” He hesitated for a second. His heart was fixated on the thought of finally killing the Commander, but the memory of his short-lived comrade still hurt his stomach. “BlackAgumon didn’t have a weapon. He was finished when his first shot didn’t hit. Jacob and I won’t have that problem.”

                  “And again,” said Jacob, “We just have to stall him, and we can take up at least thirty seconds with talk alone. Ross told us in unambiguous terms that the Commander’s too proud and loves the sound of his own voice to boot. There’s no chance he’ll try to run by without killing us, and there’s even less chance he’ll shut up and take care of it quickly.

                  “When Garurumon and Angemon arrive, he’ll be finished. He’s never risked facing off with an Adult-level before, and that’s not a coincidence. We may even manage to take him alive for questioning.”

                  “That would be ideal,” said Garurumon. “I give my blessing to the plan.”

                  Joanie, however, seemed to feel an urgent need to find a hole in the logic. “What if he throws a wrench in the plan? Could he still provoke one of the Virus to evolve?”

                  “Unlikely,” said Jacob. “It’s been months, and he hasn’t performed that weird trick again since then. Besides, the reason this plan is sound is because he won’t feel pressured until it’s too late.”

                  Joanie was silent now. Even if she wasn’t convinced, she didn’t know how to argue. Eventually she asked about a different matter altogether. “Is this a suicide mission for the decoys?”

                  Angemon sighed. It seemed he shared this concern as well. “There is no denying a high risk of death, even for war. We will do all we can to have them avoid the collapse and escape to the Holy City.”

                  Joanie lowered her head and said nothing else for the remainder of the meeting. The plan was decided, and all that remained to discuss were the logistics. Though Angemon welcomed the insights of anyone from the World of Creators, when it came to the movements of troops Jacob was the only human present who could speak with authority. As for Ross, despite his intense longing for the encounter, his fatigue was starting to catch up with him, and he only half-listened. In any case, he only had to worry about his own assignment.

                  Soon they were finished. “Get plenty of rest now,” said Garurumon. “Three days of preparations will pass quickly.”

                  The humans stood and bowed with respect to Angemon, who stood and bowed in return. “Our hopes lie with you, Jacob and Ross. Do what we cannot, and we will handle the rest.”

                  The humans exited the tent, then walked as far as they would normally go before splitting up and paused. Jacob started to speak, but was immediately interrupted. “Hey, Jo—”

                  “I’m coming, too.”

                  Ross and Jacob were astounded. Joanie didn’t meet either of them in the eye as she spoke. “I hate the idea, but unless I come I think you’re both dead. If I’m there too, that should buy at least a few more seconds.”

                  Ross was now filled with second thoughts where before there had been nothing but resolve. He wanted to picture the Commander defeated, but now the image in his head was of Joanie being run through with that black sword. His heart ached. He wondered why he should react this way when surely her help would boost their chances immensely.

                  “You’re positive about this?” asked Jacob. “You haven’t used the bow since we met up again, and if you shoot and miss you’re in serious trouble.”

                  “I know, and I won’t be able to shoot while you’re swinging at each other, but I won’t miss if I have a clean shot.”

                  Ross remembered his own inexplicable failure when he tried to shoot the Commander. “You’re sure you’ll be able to shoot, though?”

                  Though he was thinking about his own hesitation, which was a secret between him and BlackAgumon, he was asking about the matter that Joanie had never aimed a bow at a human before.

                  “I know I can. Don’t worry.”

                  Ross knew she was lying. She had no idea. Even so, he knew he couldn’t budge her.

                  “Still,” said Jacob, “the Commander has a knack for the impossible. If you shoot while he’s looking at you, I don’t think he’ll allow himself to get hit. Then he’ll be on you before you can shoot again, and we might not be able to stop him. If you’re going to come you have to stay hidden as long as possible, and if you take action he cannot know about it.”

                  Joanie nodded. Her eyes were certain enough to fool anyone who didn’t know her that well. Ross couldn’t say if Jacob was fooled or simply didn’t want to refuse any help on this mission.

                  “Guess it’s settled, then,” said Jacob. “I’m going to bed now—see you guys later.” Then he walked off.

                  Ross though was suddenly unsure if he ought to retire likewise, however much his body wanted him to. What he thought now was, ‘What if she doesn’t make it?’ He couldn’t stand the thought of having only three days left with her, and with the kids. Against his better judgment, he decided he could make it another hour. “Hey. If the kids are still awake, I think I have a history lesson for them.”

                  This caught Joanie by surprise. Her expression softened, and then she smiled. “That’d be great.”

                  *********

                  The fifth barracks tent had few fighters, and those were recently-evolved novices. Mostly it was inhabited by human children and Baby-level ’mons, who were in the charge of Joanie and Biyomon. At the moment all the tent’s occupants were sitting around Ross, who was taking on the role of amateur history teacher. None of the kids had been to school in months, and they didn’t object to some emergency education as long as there was no homework.

                  “Does anyone know what the first battle of the American Civil War was?”

                  Ross had dark rings under his eyes, but his face had lost its glare, and the venom in his voice from earlier was gone for now. As for his students, they were all very awake and sat at attention except for one. Michael was awake, but he sat on the periphery of the group and wouldn’t look at Ross directly. Ross happened to know that Michael knew the answer because he had told him once before. If Joanie knew the answer, she was letting the kids try to give it instead. When it was clear no one else was going to say anything, Michael spoke up.

                  “…Fort Sumter.”

                  “That’s correct, Michael. Fort Sumter was a new, giant, but incomplete fort in the middle of Charleston Harbor in South Carolina. If you had control of the fort, you could in theory attack any enemy ship in the harbor with ease, but not all the cannons were in place yet. Think of it like the nineteenth century Death Star.”

                  The kids all laughed except Michael. There were also a few Koromon present—small, pink, Baby-levels with a nasty bite who would evolve into Agumon soon—and they didn’t laugh either. The comparison was probably lost on them, but they were still captivated by the lesson. Unknown to the humans, their vision of the World of Creators was fantastic enough though to make up for their confusion:

                  The giant Humans of Sumter threw star-fire from the towering walls of the fort, which were buffeted by the fifty foot waves of Charleston Harbor. The forces of South Carolina (Or were they the forces of Amarik’n Sivull? They found the names hard to parse.) did all they could to return fire from atop their Ship. (Ship, of course, was the name of a family of large, nautical Humans, similar to Whamon.)

                  Ross continued. “Here was the situation: South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union—they weren’t called the Confederate States yet—and at the same time there was a single Union Army garrison stationed at another fort in the harbor. The South Carolinians wanted them out, but instead of heading back north they snuck into Fort Sumter in the middle of the night to dig in. After months of a tense standoff, the new, local militia in Charleston fired at the fort and the battle began.

                  “Now here’s an interesting question, one that not too many people know about: How many casualties were there in the battle, both sides combined?”

                  No one besides Ross had a clue. Krissy was the first one to venture a guess. “…a thousand?”

                  The Koromon gasped. They weren’t sure how big a thousand was, but they couldn’t imagine a battle with so many participants.

                  “No, not that many,” said Ross. “Remember, it was just one Union garrison in the fort. It was a small battle.”

                  Carlos guessed next. “A hundred?”

                  Ross shook his head. No one was going to guess correctly if they were serious, but he thought he’d field a few more.

                  “Seventy two?”

                  “Nope.”

                  “Two hundred?”

                  “Colder.”

                  “Sixty?”

                  “Uh-uh.”

                  Finally Tatiana decided to give a joke answer. “Zero!”

                  There were plenty of laughs, including from Ross, who said with a smile, “Yep, that’s exactly it.”

                  Now there were objections, and plenty of them. Even Joanie said, “Wait, that can’t be right.”

                  “How is that even a battle?” asked one of the Koromon, to which Biyomon said,

                  “Don’t be rude; Ross is the teacher right now, and he says it was a battle.”

                  “How could no one have died?” asked Jamie.

                  “That doesn’t make any sense!” said Steven. “You said they had cannons!”

                  Ross raised his hand to get some decorum before he continued. “It does make sense, and I can tell you why. Fort Sumter had really thick walls but that was it. None of the guns at the top of the walls were installed yet so their range was short, and for that matter there weren’t enough soldiers to operate all the guns they had. So most of the offense was coming from the rebels, and the Union forces were too well defended. The only way someone might have come into serious danger would be if the rebels tried to take over the fort with boats, but they didn’t need to do that when the Union troops were going to run out of food soon anyway.”

                  “So what happened?” asked Rebecca.

                  “It went on at a stalemate for a few days, and then the Union garrison surrendered and agreed to leave the harbor, so it was a Confederate victory. Not long after that the war shifted to the border between the North and the South, and then many soldiers and civilians died very fast. No one got so much as hurt in the first battle, but it started the bloodiest war in American history.”

                  Everyone took a moment to mull this over. Ross was done giving facts; he preferred lessons to be discussions rather than lectures. And then without a prompt, Nathan began the discussion. “If the Union guys beat the Confederate guys there, would that have ended the war?”

                  “It’s hard to say.” Ross had a full opinion on this, but didn’t want to impose it. “There were a lot of other states that seceded besides South Carolina, and not much of a dent would have been made in terms of their fighting strength, but they might have been discouraged if Charleston had lost control of the harbor. Some of them might not have seceded at all, and there might have been only a thousand dead instead of hundreds of thousands, all because a little skirmish went the other way.”

                  The children struggled with this. It was a small battle that wouldn’t have affected the numbers much in either direction at the beginning, but even a little thing could change a lot of people’s minds.

                  “I got a question,” said one of the Koromon.

                  “Go ahead.”

                  “Who were the good guys?”

                  All the children answered at once. “The Union,” “the north,” “the U.S.” There was no disagreement there from any of the humans. Unlike his father, Ross didn’t think much of the term ‘The War of Northern Aggression.’

                  “If they were the good guys,” asked the Koromon, “Why didn’t they help their friends at the fort? Why didn’t they all come to help fight the bad guys at once?”

                  “You’re wondering why the war started with a little battle instead of a big one?” asked Ross, “Why the north started on defense instead of sending in their whole army on offense?”

                  “Yeah,” said the Koromon, and all the other Koromon agreed.

                  Several of the children answered, and they seemed to be in agreement. “Because you’re not supposed to start a war.”

                  “Yeah, the north wouldn’t attack first.”

                  “So the Charleston weren’t the bad guys till they attacked first?” asked another Koromon.

                  “No, they had slaves!”

                  “No, they were racist!”

                  “What’s that?” asked several of the Koromon at once.

                  Ross could tell right away where this would go if left unattended. Given the attitudes of the Agumon toward the BlackAgumon and vice-versa, the Koromon might be hostile to the notion that it was wrong to treat people differently based on their skin color. He had tried to avoid confronting this issue, in part because he didn’t know or understand the history behind the animosity.

                  Genetically speaking, Ross knew that blacks and whites were far less different than most people thought, and that in fact there was much less genetic variety in the human race as a whole than within other mammalian species. The ’mons however were described as Data, Virus, and Vaccine. Despite appearances and names, for all Ross knew the Agumon and BlackAgumon were as different as fish and dolphins. Of course such intense hatred between fellow sentient beings was wrong, but Ross preferred not to criticize peoples he barely understood.

                  And all that aside, they owed their shelter and safety in large part to the Agumon—especially their Agumon—and it would be foolish to risk it. He decided to answer the question in as quick and innocuous a fashion as possible and move the discussion beyond it.

                  “Slavery is forcing someone to do work for you, and hurting or killing them if they refuse,” said Ross. “We call it racist in our world in cases where you make someone your slave because they look different from you. Anyway, the bottom line is that the war started because the south thought the north would try to free the southern slaves. Don’t worry if you don’t quite get it—it’s hard to understand unless you grew up where we did.”

                  “So the bad guys were hurting and killing the slaves before the war?”

                  “It’s sad, but yes.”

                  The Koromon began a chorus of objections. “Then the good guys weren’t acting good at all!”

                  “They should have gotten rid of the bad guys right away!”

                  “Did they just wait and do nothing while the slaves were dying?”

                  Tatiana was the first of the children to respond. “They were hoping to free the slaves by making laws, not by fighting. Isn’t it better to save people with peace than with war?”

                  The chorus continued. “You can’t stop bad guys with laws!”

                  “A bad guy is a bad guy.”

                  “Garurumon says ‘A war worth fighting is a war worth starting.’”

                  Carlos took particular offense at this. “You can too stop bad guys without wars!”

                  The Koromon would have none of it. “But the bad guys attacked anyway, right? So the good guys should have attacked first!”

                  “And what if the bad guys never attacked and neither did the good guys? They’d never stop hurting the slaves, right?”

                  Ross thought that perhaps the lesson was going too well. In his opinion it was much more important for students to understand the decision-making behind wars than to memorize the dates of battles, but typically the students having the discussion shared a baseline of common understanding. Ross felt he should have anticipated that the pronounced undercurrent of violence in the Vaccine culture would make the Koromon sound callous to the children. Humanity as a whole wasn’t one to talk, but the average suburbanite child of early twenty-first century America generally saw war as something to be avoided until it was almost too late.

                  In any case Ross didn’t want this to turn into a shouting match. He intervened before it got any more heated. “The truth is, we don’t know what would have happened if the war had never started. Some people think slavery would have continued to this day, and some people think it was already diminishing and would have been outlawed in a few decades. If you ask me a few decades is too long to begin with even if that theory’s correct, but it’s still a question historians have debated since the war ended.”

                  After considering carefully, Joanie asked, “Ross, do you mind if I give a hypothetical?”

                  Ross nodded. “Please do.”

                  The children and Koromon turned to listen to Joanie, who was sitting outside the circle. “Let’s suppose for a minute that there are two teams, the Biyomon team and the Agumon team. I’m on the Biyomon team and Ross is on the Agumon team. Even though the teams are different, we’ve always worked together. Now let’s say the Biyomon team and I are acting like bad guys, and we won’t stop. Our teams have always talked to agree on what to do, but neither side is listening to the other. Are Ross and the Agumon supposed to attack my team?”

                  A neutral observer might have supposed the Koromon would answer ‘yes,’ but the Koromon were not debaters, and never saw moral situations in the abstract. “That don’t make sense.”

                  “You’re wrong, no Biyomon is a bad guy!”

                  “No Joanie is neither!”

                  “We only fight bad guys. Why would we fight good guys?”

                  Ross tried to remember what it was like to be so simple, and smiled a little. “Can’t argue with that. You shouldn’t try to trip them up with contradictory hypotheticals, Joanie.”

                  Joanie chuckled. “Yeah, I should have known better. Oh, and I hope you’re not offended, Biyomon.”

                  “Oh, I don’t mind,” said Biyomon, still cheerful and detached. “The whole idea was silly, anyway!”

                  Ross then returned to seriousness. “Anyway, I think the Koromon have just shown a possible reason why it took so long for one side to attack the other at Fort Sumter.”

                  The children and the Koromon were quiet in thought for a little while. The first one to come up with an answer was Michael, but again he hesitated, and again he wouldn’t look at Ross as he gave his answer. “…It’s cause they were brothers.”

                  The Koromon couldn’t understand how the good guys and the bad guys could be brothers, whatever those were, because it sounded too friendly. The children however were all reminded of an important thing they had been taught about the war.

                  “I think you’re right, Michael,” said Ross. “There were battles where friends, cousins, and even actual brothers fought on different sides. And even for families that were entirely on one side, they had been a single country with the other side for almost a hundred years.”

                  “So they couldn’t believe it at first?” asked Tatiana. “That their families or the other states could be their enemies?”

                  “That’s what I think.”

                  The Koromon were still confused, but were more subdued in their objections. “I still don’t get it.”

                  “Me neither.”

                  “How were they bruthurs if one was good and the other was bad?”

                  Joanie addressed the Koromon again. “We were taught that’s how it should be: that all humans should be like family, even if some are good and some are bad. When we forget that, we end up with wars. And there wouldn’t have been any slavery to fight a war over in the first place if we hadn’t forgotten that. Doesn’t it sound better to love everyone—to be one family instead of many—even if some of the others are different, or even bad?”

                  The Koromon were clearly affected, but they didn’t budge. Joanie had implied that it might be so much as possible for a Vaccine to love a Virus, and the idea simply didn’t register with them. No matter how much they might adore and look up to Joanie—to their guardian from the Holy World—they couldn’t agree. “You just don’t make sense, sometimes.”
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                  Family (kind of?): Strange person who calls me strange names
                    #9    
                  Old August 13th, 2016 (8:49 PM). Edited October 2nd, 2016 by icomeanon6.
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                    IX

                    The Black Sword

                    It was dawn. The three humans and Garurumon got up and started the day with a quarter-loaf of dry bread each and no fuss. It was a cold, foggy morning, and all around them was silence for they were the only ones on the mountain trail. The humans didn't bother to pack up their gear as they normally would. The next stop was the hidden tunnel, and they would only bring weapons.

                    Some miles away a squad of Agumon led by Unimon was also getting up. In a few hours they were going to feign carelessness and come too close to a scouting party led by the Commander himself. The scouts numbered twice as many as the Agumon squad, and they had two DarkTyrannomon as well. The DarkTyrannomon were the key element: they were slow, so in order to maintain a good advantage the Gazimon couldn't run too far in front, meaning that they would not likely overtake the Agumon before they reached the tunnel.

                    There were a lot of moving parts, but all the participants of the plan were convinced it was the right call—save one. The one exception had a somber look on her face, and made the sign of the cross after taking up her bow and quiver. She had often had her eyes on Ross the last few days, and she couldn't have been encouraged by what she saw. He had seemed fine when he was playing the role of teacher for the children a few days ago, but the very next morning he had reverted.

                    Indeed the inside of Ross's head was like a black cloud. 'Today,' he thought. 'That bastard dies today.'

                    "Let's move," said Garurumon. "The sooner we're ready, the better."

                    The humans nodded, and the four began walking west. There was no conversation for two miles until the wolf monster spoke again. "I hope you three appreciate what's at stake should you fail."

                    "Of course," said Jacob. "We've seen enough burning settlements to know that."

                    "I suppose you have. Another thing I had in mind was that if Angemon and I catch the Commander but you're already dead, I may not be able to bear the dishonor."

                    Jacob shook his head. "That would be our failure, not yours."

                    Garurumon sighed. "You didn't hear the foolish promise I made last night. Young Michael begged me to let him aid the mission in some fashion, and he wouldn't take no for an answer till I swore that none of us—not you, nor I, nor Agumon—would fail to return."

                    "I hope Michael didn't know too many details about the plan," said Joanie. "I'm really worried about Agumon."

                    No one argued. Among the squad of Child-levels who all shared a name, one of them was theirs. They couldn't ask him to take care of himself at the expense of the others because he would never hear of it. 'Death before cowardice,' he might have said.

                    "For that matter," added Jacob, "I hope Tatiana doesn't know too much. She'd never forgive us if Agumon didn't make it."

                    That was all they could stand to speak of these grim matters. They said nothing else until they reached the hidden entrance.

                    At first the humans didn't realize they had arrived. The unpredictable dives and outcroppings in the terrain hid the reality. Only after climbing one such outcropping did they see they were standing in front of a massive cave. The cave floor was at least sixty feet lower than the trail, and they would not have seen it if they had just followed along as usual. Waiting for them just outside the entrance were Angemon and three large figures the humans didn't recognize.

                    The four of them made their way carefully down the ravine and got a good look at the strangers. They were like giant, furry moles with one particularly intimidating aspect: drills. They each had a long, solid steel drill for a nose, as well as smaller drills for their claws. On all fours they were slightly shorter than Angemon. They didn't seem to be in a particularly good mood, and they did not greet the humans or Garurumon.

                    "Allow me to introduce you," said Angemon. "These are Drimogemon. They are Data-types who have agreed to perform our demolition work on the Agumons' signal. Drimogemon, these are the Humans from the Holy World."

                    "Hmph. Not much to look at, are they?"

                    "Mind your tongue," growled Garurumon.

                    "I won't have any of this, Garurumon," said Angemon. "Today at least I insist you tolerate any disrespect. We are fighting a mutual enemy."

                    "Understood, sir." Garurumon took one last glance at the Drimogemon, as if to repeat his reprimand in silence despite the order. "Shall we go now, Captain?"

                    "Yes," said Angemon before turning to the humans. "Blessings and luck, Jacob, Ross, Joanie. Be patient, but not hesitant, and I believe you will bring us victory."

                    Jacob gave a smile, though his eyes revealed it was just for show. "Don't worry, sir. We won't disappoint you."

                    Angemon smiled back, but the helmet he never removed hid his true facial tells. Ross felt that invisible pressure—that imposing sense when Angemon was looking straight at you, if 'looking' was even the right word—and he knew that Angemon was not truly smiling. This time the pressure itched at the inside of Ross's skull in a way it never had before, so much so that he wanted to tear through the skin at his temple to stop it. Just when he was about to lose it, to scream at Angemon to pick on somebody else and to stay out of his head, the pressure passed. "I will not forget this good turn, Drimogemon," said Angemon. "Be ready."

                    This was the last thing Angemon said before his feet lifted ever so softly from the ground. He hovered for a moment before a gentle push from his six wings sent his body skyward in the smoothest motion. Garurumon followed suit and bounded back up the ravine in only a handful of leaps. The two vanished from view in the direction of their hiding place.

                    "…What a pompous ass," said one of the Drimogemon when he was sure the Vaccine were out of earshot. His companions laughed and nodded before they faced the humans. "That's a nice story you gave Angemon, by the way, that whole 'Holy World' bit. I can imagine he ate it right up."

                    "Actually," said Jacob, "he came to that conclusion on his own, first day we met him."

                    "Ha! I believe that," said another of them.

                    Joanie and Jacob were not in the mood for jokes, to say nothing of Ross. The Drimogemon read their faces but weren't concerned. "Don't get us wrong, we like the guy. I'll have you know we jumped at the opportunity when he told us."

                    "Yeah, who'd have thought he'd ask us to fill in the tunnel to their city? I'd pay him to let us do that!"

                    This raised concerns about their new collaborators. It didn't make much difference to Ross, but Jacob asked, "Why's that?"

                    "I'll tell you why: because everything under the ground is ours. Every tunnel, every rock. If you up and make a place we can't dig to without getting burned—"

                    "Burned? Try dead."

                    "—Fine, burned or dead, we're going to be mad about it."

                    Joanie asked him, "So the force-field isn't just above the mountains?"

                    "Wouldn't that be great, but nope. Up top it's a storm, down below it's a wall of lava."

                    "Anyway, they've got land we can't dig under, and a tunnel we didn't sanction. Would've demolished it a long time ago if it wouldn't bring their Perfect-levels after us."

                    "Yeah. Your pride ain't worth your skin, after all."

                    The Drimogemon all nodded and agreed with each other.

                    "Let's get to our positions," said Jacob, who didn't want to hear any more of what the Drimogemon had to say. He started walking toward the entrance, and Ross and Joanie followed him.

                    "Oh, look who's in a hurry. Your funeral, friend."

                    "Better hope we manage to crush the Commander along with his goons for you!"

                    The Drimogemon headed toward the entrance as well in an awkward crawl. When they reached the walls, though, they moved through it as if through water. Their drills spun as fast as any electrically powered ones, and with a loud noise and a cloud of dust they vanished deep into the mountain.

                    Now alone, the humans surveyed the scene. The inside of the tunnel felt even bigger than it looked from the outside. The ceiling towered far above their heads, and it was as wide as it was tall. There was little daylight coming from the outside, but the walls were covered with veins of a pale, green crystal that spread the light around, at least for the first several dozen yards. Off in the distance it was pitch black, as it would be for miles.

                    At the edge of the floor on either side there were some stray boulders. One of these would be their hiding place until the Virus-types were disposed of. When they had walked what Jacob judged to be a fair distance into the cave, they picked out a good rock, sat behind it facing the wall, and began to wait. A long hour followed.

                    *********

                    Jacob heard a rumbling noise outside the entrance, off in the distance. 'That must be fire from the DarkTyrannomon,' he thought. 'If the Agumon are spread out like they're supposed to be, and their instincts aren't dull today, we should have minimal losses. We're in good shape.'

                    Another minute past, and he heard footsteps. 'They'll be here in fifteen seconds.' He picked up his sword, nodding to his friends to follow suit.

                    Fifteen seconds later, a band of Agumon rushed into the cave, and Jacob took a peek from behind the boulder. They were panting like mad, and their faces looked like death. 'They should have just enough left in them to reach the designated point. Those Drimogemon better be ready.'

                    Jacob was momentarily nagged by the thought that the Drimogemon might crush the Agumon as well out of spite, but he found a convincing counterargument. 'They're scared of the Vaccine Perfect-levels. They won't try to kill the Agumon without a really good reason.'

                    Bringing up the rear was Unimon. Before he flew in to the tunnel he gave a full-throated neigh and fired a shot at the enemy, who were now audible to Jacob. 'That's good. This has to look like an escape, not a trap.'

                    Unimon flew past them in a blur and rejoined the Agumon. 'Ten more
                    seconds, I think.'


                    It was eight. The Commander ran into the cave with sword drawn, followed by a pack of Gazimon. Behind them came the two DarkTyrannomon with footsteps that Jacob could feel in his chest. The Commander ran twenty five yards or so past their hiding spot before stopping suddenly. 'Damn. Just as we thought. He knows the danger.'

                    The Gazimon came to a halt behind him. They were howling with laughter and champing at the bit to charge forward. The Commander turned to face them, and gave orders. "They're nearly exhausted, but don't get careless. DarkTyrannomon, claws only. We don't want to bring the whole place down on us. Gazimon, ignore the Unimon. Run right past him and tear the Agumon to shreds!"

                    The Gazimon screamed their approval. Facing forward again, the Commander swung out his sword and his troops charged past him. They smelled blood, and it didn't even cross their minds that the Commander might be staying back for a reason. It just meant more kills for them.

                    The Commander was alone. It was only seconds away now. Jacob braced himself.

                    It was the loudest thing he had ever heard. It was like an hours-long thunderstorm compressed to a few seconds and confined to a small room. The ground shook so badly he worried that everything up to the entrance would be buried as well. He had no time to sit and cower, however. He gave Ross the signal, and with caution they stood up and scampered to the middle of passage without the Commander noticing.

                    He and Ross stood armed and ready. He took a glance at Ross, who stood ten feet to his right side. Ross had the scariest, angriest look on his face that Jacob had ever seen. 'That'll either keep him alive or get him killed. I can't guess. If he's smart enough to leave most of it to me and just keep the Commander off balance, he'll make it.'

                    Still hidden near the wall to his left was Joanie. He hoped she wouldn't be necessary, as it was obvious she didn't want to shoot anyone.

                    In front of him was the Commander, who was frozen in place as the terrible rumbling continued. He was exactly twenty six yards and one foot ahead. Jacob took careful note of the distance and worked it out to paces. He needed precision or this wouldn't work.

                    The noise subsided, and in its place a wall of dust was approaching slowly. The Commander stamped his foot. He finally turned around and was about to run off when he saw them. He stopped, and then he smiled.

                    "We have you cornered," said Jacob with all the phony bravado he could muster. "Drop your sword."

                    The Commander tried to resist for a moment, but he couldn't hold it. He burst into hysterics. "Oh god…Oh god, this is too much! This is how you decide to trap me? You might as well have put up a 'Do Not Exit' sign by the cave mouth!"

                    Jacob needed to buy time. He decided not to challenge the Commander's pride. "Yeah, admittedly it wasn't our best plan. We were working under pressure, you know what I mean?"

                    "Ha! Understandable!" The Commander then looked over at Ross. "It's a little insulting to see you here, though. I give you a few more years on your life, and you're returning it this soon? Not very grateful!"

                    Ross ground his teeth for a moment. "That's your own grave you're digging."

                    'What's he thinking?' thought Jacob. 'We need to play to his ego, not set him off!'

                    In the end though, it might not have mattered. The Commander set his feet and readied the sword in his right hand. This was the first time Jacob had gotten a good look at the Commander's sword. It was black and rough as if forged out of crude iron, but it had an unnatural gleam and Jacob could tell it was terribly sharp at the edges. "That's all the time I have for you, I'm afraid," said the Commander. "Do whatever you like—this will still be quick."

                    The Commander charged forward, and so did Jacob and Ross.

                    After just the right number of paces, Jacob steeled the nerves in his legs in a manner he had practiced extensively. It was a trick he had learned from watching the Agumon and Gazimon, whom he had seen many times moving slightly faster than their muscles should have allowed for. It was a little inconsistency that betrayed something hidden either in the 'mons themselves or in the laws of this world, and if it was a problem with the world it was a problem that Jacob could exploit as well. It had probably escaped the notice of his friends, and it could be so subtle that he often wondered if it wasn't all in his imagination. He had never been quite confident enough to talk about it, but he was just confident enough to risk his life on it here, and he would need his best results ever.

                    When his right foot came down next, he pushed off from it at a speed that was impossible for his body. It was as if the air had been water before, and for a few moments he was on dry land while everyone else was still submerged.

                    The Commander wasn't ready. He had been winding up to strike, but now Jacob was upon him. He screeched to a halt and barely blocked Jacob's first swing.

                    Jacob kept up his attack. He could barely believe it, but he had the Commander on defense. Soon Ross caught up to them and thrust his spear. It was too much for the Commander to handle with just his weapon, but he was too quick to be caught. He spun out of harm's way and reset himself. If he had looked rattled for an instant, he now looked thrilled at the prospect of an actual challenge.

                    Just like that, the momentum shifted. The Commander went after Jacob with swift, precise strokes. Jacob managed to block them, but each time his hands stung from the impact, and his legs were cramping up from that stunt he'd pulled. If it weren't for Ross's sporadic interventions, Jacob wouldn't have been able to keep up. As it was, though, the Commander couldn't quite manage to cut through. They had settled into a rhythm that Jacob and Ross could maintain, and it was all they had to do to win.

                    It seemed the Commander knew this as well, and he wasn't going to let it continue. Once more he spun and out-angled his opponents, and before Jacob realized what had happened Ross stood between the two of them. The Commander stabbed repeatedly with more speed and precision than Ross could handle. He forced Ross to stumble and drop his spear rather than lose his fingers.

                    Jacob could see it. The Commander was about to thrust again and then Ross would be dead. A terrible thought entered Jacob's mind: the enemy's sword was going to be stuck in his friend just long enough to leave an opening. Jacob was being given a small window to deliver an easy, fatal blow to the Commander. That wasn't an option, though. He had to attack the enemy fast enough to stop him from killing Ross. There was only one way to do that, but the odds were good enough.

                    He forced his aching legs to obey, ran headlong, and pulled his arms back—not caring about how he would keep his footing. He readied his nerves just in time, pushing his concentration out through his shoulders, and swung his sword as if it were a light, thin reed. The Commander barely stopped himself and managed to see what should have been impossible to see. All he could do to avoid the blow was fall over backward. The sword missed his head by half an inch.

                    Jacob fell too, and got up as fast as he could. His legs still stung, his arms were on fire, and sweat was pouring down his face. But the Commander was still struggling to his feet. Jacob thought he could take advantage of this if he could muster just one last push, but in an instant he was proven very wrong.

                    With a crazed yell, the Commander sprung forward faster than Jacob had ever seen a human move. The Commander swung in fury, and Jacob just managed to hold up his sword to block it. He was now in a desperate retreat. The Commander was slashing back and forth without any of the technique he had shown before, but the blows were coming so strong and so quick that Jacob could scarcely hold on.

                    Between the Commander's mad attacks Jacob saw his face, and it was different. There was no trace of the perverse joy in violence that had been there before. It was all rage—a very personal rage. Jacob had forced him to fall over, shown him to be weak, and this was unforgiveable. The Commander seemed like—no, he was an entirely different person from before. The scars and bandages were the same, but the eyes were not. Jacob had seen those eyes somewhere else, but this was all in the back of his mind as he fought to the last inch of his life.

                    Before Jacob knew it he was almost pressed to the opposite wall. He had exactly one chance. He didn't know if his arms could take it, but it didn't matter: he was dead anyway. He went through his practiced motion one more time. His sword moved with a force that should have snapped his wrists clean off, and he met the Commander's own swing in a deafening clash. Their swords locked, and it sent a painful vibration throughout his entire body. This was the very limit of what Jacob could do, but it was not enough. The Commander was not rattled, and he had mustered just as much force—perhaps using the same trick—but with only one hand.

                    The Commander kept pushing his black sword, and when he had Jacob off balance he punched him in the gut. It felt like a gunshot, and Jacob's eyes welled up. The second punch came in the same place, and he doubled over in blinding pain. The last thing he felt was the same fist pounding his temple before he fell to the ground and passed out cold.

                    *********

                    Ross's heart was pounding and his breath was short. His spear was on the floor, he was on his knees, and the Commander was busy fighting Jacob. It didn't make any sense. He had known that the Commander could do things that were impossible for humans, but apparently Jacob could do so now as well. They were in a different league than he was, plain and simple. What was he missing? The Commander was a monster, but what was so different about Jacob? He ground his teeth in frustration.

                    He picked up his spear and came to his feet. The Commander had Jacob on the ropes. This would be his last chance. Even if he wasn't a freak of nature like them, he could still exploit an opening. He ran toward the Commander's back. Jacob was down for the count now, but the Commander was still distracted. 'This is it. That f*cker's dead.'

                    The Commander was about to stab his sword into Jacob's heart. Ross was just close enough. While the sword was stuck in Jacob, the Commander would be exposed and then Ross would kill him. Ross knew it wouldn't be a perfect outcome, but that wasn't his fault.

                    He could see it. He could see the Commander's blood flowing out, and he could see this blight on the universe being wiped away. His spear was aimed square at the Commander's back. There was no escape.

                    Ross had one word in his head: 'Die!'

                    But what happened wasn't right. The Commander didn't kill Jacob. He hesitated for the slightest fraction of a second and changed his grip. He swung behind himself without looking, and deflected Ross's spear. Ross was pushed away along with it, and he crashed into the wall.

                    Ross's whole body hurt, but he had to ignore it. He shoved off the wall and got up on one knee. He could still kill the Commander. He had to kill the Commander. But when Ross looked up, the fight in him was overtaken by fear.

                    The Commander was fixed on Ross and poised to strike. He had raised the black sword behind his head with both hands, not just one like before. His gaze was filled with wrath and contorted with raw hatred.

                    Ross knew he would die if he did nothing. In desperation he held his spear in front of his face and hoped it would be enough. He shut his eyes.

                    All at once, Ross's spear was shattered into pieces and he felt his face torn open. The tip of the sword barely made contact but it still slashed all the way from his forehead down through the corner of his mouth. If his right eye hadn't been closed, it would have been lost. Ross screamed and collapsed. He covered the wound with his hands, but he couldn't stop the bleeding. He kept screaming, and lost track of everything else.

                    *********

                    Joanie was crouched down and peeking from behind the rock. She had an arrow nocked in the string of her bow. The Commander was fighting Jacob alone, and Jacob was losing badly. They were too close together; Joanie thought she still might hit Jacob if she intervened. But now at least the Commander was facing the other direction. She stood up, pulled the arrow back, and took aim. They were moving too quickly and they were still too close to each other. She couldn't shoot.

                    The Commander punched Jacob so hard she thought it might kill him, and then he punched him again, and then again. Jacob was down, maybe dead, but she couldn't afford to think about that. Her stomach was tied in knots, but now she could shoot. The Commander was going to finish him off, so she had to shoot. She was about to, but out of the corner of her eye she barely spotted Ross charging in. She had to hold off. She couldn't hit Ross.

                    Ross ended up being useless. She knew he'd be useless, but he wouldn't have listened to her. But now while Ross was against the wall and Jacob was on the ground, she could save them. She had a clear shot and she was too good to miss.

                    Her stomach hurt even more. She had only shot true monsters before: they'd had the red eyes which wouldn't go away until they killed everything else in sight. It had been like putting down rabid dogs. The Commander was a shameless murderer, but why did he have to be human? Joanie knew that every action she took was part of a conversation with Christ: she could not in the same breath say 'I love you, Jesus,' and 'I am going to kill this man.' Surely that would be a grave sin knowingly committed. In her lifelong conversation with God that would be saying 'I hate you. I would prefer Hell.' She couldn't do it.

                    The Commander took up his black sword with both hands. Her thoughts began to move so fast that everything else seemed to slow down. Ross was going to die unless she did something. She couldn't say to God 'I am going to kill this man,' but she also couldn't say to God 'I am going to let my friend die.' Deliberate inaction is itself an action. She would be culpable for one death or another.

                    It wasn't fair. She had debated this moral question with other people before—with Catholics, Baptists, Muslims, Buddhists, and Atheists—but now at this moment of all moments she couldn't even remember what opinion she had put forward. She could give an answer in words about the hypothetical train that would only hit one person instead of five if you pulled a lever, but when she had to answer with an arrow she forgot it all. She was smarter than this; she had read and re-read the answer from smarter, better, holier Christians than her. Why couldn't she remember now?

                    Ross held his spear in front of his face in desperation. She had to decide. She could only think of one principle: that no one was ever damned just for being a soldier. There was a difference between just war and unjust war. She made up her mind. She would say to God 'Please let this arrow just incapacitate this man.'

                    She took the shot. But she didn't. She meant to, but she physically couldn't. Her aim was perfect, but her fingers held the arrow in place like rigor mortis. Something was trying to convince her that she wouldn't take the shot as opposed to couldn't, but she knew better. She knew this feeling, and found herself in a worse panic than the instant before.

                    It happened, and she could only watch with her mouth agape. The Commander's sword came down in a blur, broke right through Ross's spear, and sliced right down his face. Ross was in agony—still alive—but the Commander was about to stab him in the neck. She still couldn't move. She knew this feeling meant there would be a paradox if she shot now, but she was holding a normal bow and arrow, nothing like the Paradox-Proof Time Rocks. What could possibly be the problem? She could feel the tears rolling down her face. She had to stop him somehow and suddenly the answer was obvious. She screamed at the top of her lungs, "Stop!"

                    The Commander stopped. He looked up, surprised to see someone else in the cave. In the first instant his expression was pure anger, but it quickly changed to something else. She didn't know what to call it. It was like confusion, but not quite. If he was confused, he was confused that something made sense instead of no sense. But that was only for a moment. His sharp eyes became foggy, and that awful grin came back to his face. He had just been someone else, but the one looking at her was the sadist she had heard about.

                    The madman held his sword in front of him with both hands and took a stance. All of a sudden Joanie no longer felt the paradox's grip on her hand. She was free to save Ross. She let the arrow fly.

                    The arrow should have hit the Commander right in the chest but with the slightest, most perfect movement of his sword he deflected it. Then he charged forward.

                    Joanie fumbled for another arrow, but it didn't matter. The Commander was too fast and would reach her before she was ready. Even if that weren't the case, he would surely just avoid the next shot as well. The Commander was just ten yards away now. He was laughing as he ran. He brought his sword back with one hand.

                    But he stopped laughing. His face became overtaken with fear, and he skidded to a halt.

                    He faced the entrance, and in the next instant he jumped up and backwards. At the same time he wove his free hand in a downward motion. Then came the scorching blue inferno from somewhere to Joanie's right, which came close but did not consume the Commander. Whatever magic he had worked with his hand was just enough to force the flames into the ground. Nothing in his power though was enough for what followed.

                    The words "Hand of Fate!" echoed throughout the tunnel, which was filled with a golden radiance. The Commander, helpless in midair, held the black sword in front of his face and backed it up with his left hand. Right at their intersection he was struck by a flying, blinding pillar of light. The shockwaves from the impact shook the cave as if it had been a cannon blast, and the Commander's body went flying backwards and buckled against the wall like a ragdoll.

                    Joanie's head was spinning and her ears were ringing. The flames had vanished but she could still feel the heat. Their rescuers then rushed into their midst: Angemon flew over to the Commander to make sure he was out, and Garurumon bounded over to the other fighters to see if they were still alive. The sight freed Joanie from her confusion. She dropped everything and ran over to her friends, praying desperately that they weren't too far gone. "Ross! Jacob!"

                    Garurumon had his head near Jacob's heart. "He's just unconscious."

                    There was no mystery about Ross: at the moment he was gnashing his teeth and groaning terribly. Joanie turned him onto his back and pulled the knife from his belt. With it she cut some cloth from Ross's already mostly ruined shirt and pressed it against his face to slow the bleeding. Under her breath she muttered "Thank God…thank God…"

                    "Captain," called Garurumon, "Is he dead?"

                    "He is in bad shape, but alive. We won't have trouble bringing him back to base."

                    Ross kept both of his eyes closed. He grabbed Joanie's hand above where she held the cloth in place and got even more blood on her. It felt gross, but she was just glad he could move. "Joanie…?" he said.

                    "I'm here, Ross."

                    "Did we get him?…Did we win?" Apparently Ross was dazed. His voice was scratchy and his grip was weak.

                    "We got him. It's all over now. We did it."

                    Ross didn't smile and didn't say anything. He just let go of Joanie's hand and let his arm go limp. His breathing became a little steadier.

                    Joanie then remembered something. "Angemon, did Agumon make it?"

                    "Forgive me," said Angemon, "I forgot you couldn't tell. I sense one Adult-level Vaccine, as many Child-levels as we started with, and no Virus-types. The enemy is defeated, and they are safe."

                    Joanie took deep breaths. They would have no fatalities to report to the children. She looked down at Ross, who was still in obvious pain but wasn't as frantic. 'It's finally over,' she thought.

                    *********

                    Tatiana sat alone at the top of the switchback trail that led into the Vaccine base. It was thirty minutes after sundown and the big kids and Agumon and company weren't back yet. She felt a raindrop and hoped the torch she was sitting near wouldn't go out. Waiting was boring so she fiddled with Jacob's goggles. Going by her personal code, it would be three weeks until squatter's rights dictated that they were her goggles. This was exciting, but it didn't make waiting much less boring.

                    Michael walked up the trail to join her. Michael was nice for a boy, but he suffered from what her mom called 'a terminal case of Stick-In-Ass Syndrome.' Tatiana never named SIAS out loud and unabbreviated, of course. As her mom would say, 'Do as I say, not as I say.' She missed her mom.

                    "They're not back yet?" asked Michael. It sounded like he wasn't sure if he really wanted them to be back yet.

                    Tatiana shook her head no. Michael sat down on the other side of the trail. He had seemed off lately, and Tatiana had a guess as to the reason. "Why are you so mad at Ross?"

                    Michael looked surprised for a second, then looked down and gave a terse answer. "Cause he's a jerk."

                    "You just have to lay off him when he's mad. He's nice the rest of the time."

                    "But he's always mad now!"

                    Tatiana couldn't really argue. The lesson a few nights ago had been the exception. "He'll get over it. You'll see."

                    Michael fumed. There was a steady drizzle now, and they were getting a little damp. "It's not just that he's mad."

                    Tatiana didn't know what he meant, and she felt she didn't really want to know, but she asked anyway. "What do you mean?"

                    Michael scratched his head. "…I don't know how to say it."

                    He looked really uncomfortable, and that made Tatiana uncomfortable too. They had enough to worry about without having to worry about the older kids. Michael eventually found the words he was looking for. "I don't feel safe around him."

                    "You're crazy," said Tatiana. "He's been looking out for us since day one. You're just upset cause he hurt your feelings that one time. Don't be a baby."

                    Michael didn't react like she expected. He didn't call her names back like a normal kid. He just kept looking down, and when he spoke he sounded honestly scared. "I don't know."

                    Tatiana couldn't help but be a little scared along with him now. Michael was smart. He may have been downright terrible at arm wrestling compared to her, but he was still smart. Just because she couldn't see something didn't mean it wasn't there if Michael saw it.

                    The conversation was over, and the two waited quietly until finally they heard footsteps. Tatiana's heart raced as she stood up. She was ready to see everyone back safe and sound, but what she saw instead put her into a panic. Walking beside Garurumon were Joanie and Ross. Ross's left arm was draped over Joanie's shoulders for support, and his right hand was pressing a drenched, red rag to his face. He was walking as if he was also asleep, and Joanie constantly had to keep him from tripping.

                    "What…happened?" asked Tatiana.

                    Ross didn't react to her presence at all, and Joanie answered, "Ross got hurt. His head's cloudy, but he'll be all right."

                    Joanie was unharmed, but she sounded exhausted. Tatiana had never seen her so spent. It felt like discovering that your front door couldn't lock or close all the way anymore. And when she saw Jacob lying on Garurumon's back motionless, it felt like the door had been taken off its hinges altogether. She shouted, "What's wrong with Jacob?"

                    "He's fine too," said Joanie. "He's…ufff…just out right now. He'll wake up soon."

                    Michael wouldn't look at Ross. Instead he looked past them, and then his eyes widened. "Is that…him?"

                    Bringing up the rear was Angemon, and he carried under his arm a limp body whose head was covered with a sack. "It is," said Angemon. "I'd appreciate it if you kept this quiet until we told the troops ourselves."

                    None of them looked happy. They had won, but it didn't feel like it to Tatiana. She looked past Angemon, and saw no one else. No one. It felt like her stomach was in a vice. She nearly broke into tears on the spot. "Where's…Agumon?"

                    Garurumon answered this time. "The Agumon received new orders and reported to the Holy City. You'll see them again soon."

                    "Everything's okay, Tat," said Joanie, whose voice was so tired that what she said wasn't convincing at all. "Don't worry…It's going to be okay."

                    Everyone else kept walking down the trail, leaving Tatiana alone as she kept looking for a friend who wouldn't come today. Her lip quivered. Why did they have to win by the skin of their teeth like this? She wished she were bigger. If she were bigger, she knew she'd be strong enough to help, and then they would have ganged up and beaten the Commander easily.

                    She knew because she had always been strong for her age. And she was faster than everyone in her class, even the boys. Well, except one boy, but it was close. He was a good friend except on Tuesdays for gym class when he was a good enemy. She missed him. She missed her mom. She missed Agumon. She hated being little, and she missed everyone and everything.

                    Tatiana didn't make any noise, but the tears were flowing. She wiped her eyes because none of the little kids or Michael could see her like this. She had to be like Jacob, Joanie, and Ross, who never cried and never lost.

                    She stayed at the top of the trail for several minutes until she was finally calm enough, then she walked back down. The rest of the evening was a blur. Hours later she found herself lying awake in their tent and wondering why she couldn't stop being sad. This wasn't like her at all. She had never stayed down for long back home. If only she had never come to this awful place, she began to think but had to stop herself. If she started thinking like that the tears would come back and they would never stop. 'We'll get to go home when the war is over,' she thought. 'You just have to hold on till then, and then we can all go home…'

                    That was what she told herself every night, and it always put her to sleep before she could think about it too hard. This night of all nights though it didn't work. She stood up and carefully tiptoed over the other kids and Biyomon to leave the tent. Walking around a little would do the trick, probably. Anything was better than lying still and trying not to cry.

                    Tatiana couldn't tell, but it was over an hour after midnight. There was a steady rain, but the fuel in the torches kept them lit. There were no stars, and away from the lamps it was pitch black. Tatiana rubbed her arms to keep warm.

                    Out of nowhere someone stepped behind her and she jumped. She turned around and saw it was just Ross. Then she looked up and realized it was not 'just Ross.' The cloth was gone, and she could now see the swollen, gruesome scar on his face. Everything around his right eye was misshapen and still stained with blood. The corner of his mouth was cut up so badly that she couldn't imagine a smile ever being there again. More than the wound, though, what had her scared stiff was the look in his good eye. It was somewhere between unspeakably furious and totally empty. It was what she had always imagined death itself looked like.

                    "…Where is he?" asked Ross in a cold, raspy voice.

                    Tatiana didn't know, she didn't want to know, and suddenly she didn't want him to know either. She swallowed hard, and found herself unable to say anything.

                    Ross's face hardened even further, and he walked right past her with uneven steps. "…Forget it…I'll find him myself."

                    Tatiana stayed frozen to that spot and shivered uncontrollably. 'Michael was right,' she thought. 'Why did he have to be right? Why?'

                    *********

                    Around the same time, Jacob was fighting with his body to stay upright. His abdomen ached like it was about to burst whenever he moved. He wanted to fall back asleep, but they had work to do. Slumped in the corner and clapped in irons was the Commander. To Jacob's consternation and worry the prisoner was calm and had a sick smile on his face.

                    They were in a small room that was dug out of the mountain. Angemon wanted to know everything before giving the news to their small army, so they were keeping the Commander in a place none of the other Vaccine would look. This room belonged to the Gotsumon, who were Data-type. Jacob noticed that two of them were sneaking around the entrance to take a peek.

                    The Gotsumon were Child-levels who were humanoid in shape and whose bodies were composed entirely of stone. Though their natural precociousness was obvious whenever he saw them, Jacob had never seen them fraternize with any of the Vaccine. He whispered to Joanie, "Hey, can you get rid of them?"

                    Joanie nodded, and walked over to the snickering 'mons. "We're sorry, but can you give us a little privacy?"

                    "We said you could have the room, didn't we? You're in the room, we're not in the room, so what's the problem?"

                    Joanie rolled her eyes. "How about this: if you keep out of earshot for an hour, we'll build you a nice, private door for your room."

                    The Gotsumon laughed. "Who wants doors?" said one of them. "They just keep you out of places. We wouldn't mind having that weird sword over there, though. We could use the material for something special, I bet."

                    Jacob took a glance at the black sword laying in another corner far away from the Commander.

                    "That's not a fair trade in my book," said Joanie.

                    "Tell you what," said the other Gotsumon. "Come play with us sometime and we'll leave you alone for now. Have fun with your demon, Humans!"

                    The Gotsumon scampered off giggling. When they did, the Commander finally spoke up. "Cute, huh? You know, if it weren't for your Adult-levels, those little bastards would beat your Agumon to death just for setting foot in their lousy valley."

                    The Commander apparently found the idea hilarious, but Angemon did not. "I don't know what your game is, but trying to provoke any of us is useless. This will go far easier if you simply cooperate."

                    The Commander scoffed. "Please. You're not going to do anything to me. It's more your style to have your dirty work done with someone else's hands and away from your ears. That's why you hired the late BlackAgumon, right? Give him some vague orders, then let him carry them out like a Virus while you can't see what he's up to?"

                    "All you've shown is that you don't know me very well and that you knew BlackAgumon even less. In any case, we can wait all night and longer for you to be more forthcoming."

                    Jacob winced as he walked in front of the Commander again. "How about we start over with some basics. Who are you, and where did you come from?"

                    "I'm known as the Commander, and I came from the World of Creators a year and change ago. I thought that wasn't a secret."

                    "Nobody from our world calls it that. You're either lying or you're screwing with us."

                    "Why shouldn't I call it that? When in Rome, heh heh…"

                    Jacob noticed something and jumped on it. "Well, you know what Rome is, so I guess you're from Earth after all."

                    The Commander looked honestly disappointed. "Huh, good catch. Hadn't thought of that one."

                    Joanie joined the interrogation, but made a point not to look the Commander in the eye. "Can we narrow that down a little? You sound American—where was home for you?"

                    "Atlant…...tis."

                    "Very funny. Where's the harm in giving a straight answer to that one? I'll go first, I'm from Baltimore."

                    "Fine, fine. I'm from America, but not from the 30 states. Bismarck, Dakota Territory."

                    Joanie sighed. "You expect me to believe you're from the nineteenth century?"

                    "So it's unbelievable for someone from the nineteenth century to magically end up in the land of talking dinosaurs, but it makes perfect sense if that someone's from the twenty-second or whenever you're from?"

                    Jacob rubbed his eyes. This shtick of the Commander's was maddening. They weren't even useful lies, just annoying ones. He decided to try a different tactic. "You're more chipper than I thought you'd be. Last time we were both awake you seemed pretty ticked."

                    The Commander shrugged. "In my line of work, having a homicidally angry side is an unpleasant but indispensable asset. I don't quite feel myself when it happens, but it usually gets results. It does feel like a waste, though: you'll agree with me that it's far more satisfying to be fully lucid and in control when you bleed someone dry."

                    Jacob glared at the Commander, but didn't lose his cool. "Are you sure the angry you isn't the real you? I have a hard time believing anyone could be in their right mind when they're as sick as you are."

                    "Interesting theory. Funny thing, I can think of a friend of yours who fits that description: a mindless killer who just isn't himself when he appears to be in control."

                    Jacob swallowed. "What are you implying?"

                    The Commander looked past him. "Speak of the devil."

                    Everyone looked to the entrance. Standing there was Ross, who looked like hell itself. Joanie was at a loss for words for a second, and then told him, "Ross, you should be lying down."

                    "I'm fine." Ross's voice was like smoldering gravel.

                    "Seriously, man, you don't look good," said Jacob. "We can handle this."

                    "I said I'm fine."

                    Ross forced his way past both of them and stared the Commander in the face. The Commander looked positively thrilled to see him. "I like that asymmetric look you're going for. Bold, unorthodox."

                    Ross seethed. "You're pushing it."

                    The Commander could barely contain his mirth. "Ha! And just what are you going to do to me, weakling? They could cut off my feet and it still wouldn't be a fair fight. And even if by some miracle you killed me, you're all still f*cked. We won before I even started looking for your precious tunnel."

                    "Wait," said Jacob. "What do you mean by that?"

                    "It doesn't mean anything! He's full of muk!" shouted Ross, turning back to the others. "We ought to just toss him to the Agumon and let them do whatever the hell they like with him!"

                    Angemon sent a wave of harsh pressure throughout the room. "I don't appreciate that, Ross."

                    Ross ignored him. Joanie again tried to intervene as her eyes began to water. "You're not yourself, Ross. You need to go rest."

                    Ross said nothing, but he didn't calm down. Then the Commander laughed loudly and spoke again. "Oh! Oh, I see what you're so mad about, now!"

                    Ross was shaking with anger at the sound of that voice.

                    "For what it's worth, I apologize," said the Commander as he continued to laugh. "I didn't mean to give you the world's least-f*ckable face before you had a chance to bang what's-her-name over there."

                    Ross snapped. He spun around and roared, "Take that back, you bastard!" As he said this his right hand twitched with anger and made a motion for the knife at his belt. In that moment, a thick shadow filled and crushed the entire room. Jacob found himself frozen in place, and something rushed past his side. It was the black sword, and it had flown straight to Ross's hand. Ross grabbed it in midair instead of pulling his knife, and without missing a beat he charged at the Commander. While chained up, all the Commander could do was shift his body to make Ross miss his heart.

                    Joanie shouted in tearful desperation, "Ross, stop!" but to no avail. Ross jammed the sword into the Commander's side with a crazed yell. As soon as blood was drawn, a wave of darkness burst from the hilt. It engulfed them all, knocked Jacob over, and hid everything from sight. The room shook for what felt like an eternity, until finally a golden light shone from Angemon's direction. With great exertion the Vaccine-type summoned a gold staff out of thin air, grabbed it, and used it to knock the sword out from the Commander.

                    The darkness subsided, revealing the state of the room. The Commander was unconscious and bleeding badly. The black sword was on the ground, and in a moment it broke apart into dust. Also on the ground was a pile of bloodstained clothes and a pair of shoes. Ross, however, was nowhere to be seen.
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                    Family (kind of?): Strange person who calls me strange names
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                    Old August 22nd, 2016 (1:37 PM).
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                    icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is online now
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                      X

                      The Valley of Ruin

                      Ross was being pulled in all the directions he knew of and in several others that were unfamiliar. He couldn't see a thing, and it was very cold. Moments ago or hours ago he had been in the throes of rage, but now he felt only fear, cold, and pain. Then without warning he hit the hard ground with a thud. It was no longer completely dark, but everything was dim and swirled around before his eyes.

                      He couldn't think. He tried to stand up, but his bare foot slipped on a rock and he fell back down. There was nothing between his skin and the stones, and everything seemed to cut and freeze him. He was alone, and it felt like he was dying. The cut on his face had opened up again and his head ached terribly. He wanted to call for help, but all he could do was moan.

                      Eventually he heard noises around him, and then footsteps along with words that he couldn't make out. The words sounded unconcerned, and as everything went dark again Ross wondered if he would be left like this.

                      *********

                      Ross opened his eyes. He was lying on his back, and above him there was a log ceiling. Hanging from the logs were what appeared to be mobiles made of whittled sticks and string. They almost looked like dreamcatchers, but there were no nets: any holes were left open. Ross didn't know what to make of them, but it occurred to him that if he could see them clearly then the nightmare was over. He was covered with a coarse blanket, and he felt something warm to his right. He could also hear a fire, and gradually his surroundings started to make sense again. After a minute of staring into space, he slowly sat up. It didn't hurt anymore, but he still felt weak.

                      "Welcome back," came a scratchy voice from someone he didn't see. He looked over to the fire, and sitting on the other side of it was a small stranger; smaller than a child. He was vaguely humanoid, but his thin limbs and thorax were covered in exoskeleton, and he had four wings on his back like an insect's. Resting on his lap was a small, ornate, black spear with a red ribbon tied at the base of its head.

                      Ross had trouble forming the words for a second, but asked, "…Where am I?"

                      The stranger made a rapid clicking noise in his throat. "You're in my house. Much cozier than a pile of rocks, isn't it?"

                      Everything was still a little fuzzy, and Ross wasn't sure what the stranger meant. It was cozy, though, which was strange. He had been naked before, but now something was covering him. He removed the blanket, and found he was wearing a set of clothes made out of a simple, gray fabric. They fit him perfectly. "Whose are these?" he asked.

                      "I had some friends of mine make them for you—wasn't any trouble. They were happy to help someone from the World of Creators. And after all, they had plenty of time to get them just right."

                      Something about that felt off, but Ross couldn't think clearly enough to tell what. He asked, "What do you mean by that?"

                      The stranger clicked again in a way that sounded like a laugh. "What I mean is that you've been asleep for two months. I was starting to wonder if you'd ever wake up."

                      Ross was startled beyond words, and jumped up as if he had overslept for his day in court. He had to get back to the others as fast as he could. They could be hurt, dead, lost, or anything. What on earth was he doing here? He tried to run for the doorway, but his right leg wouldn't move properly and he fell flat.

                      "Are you sure you want to go looking for your friends now? We're four weeks by foot from where you saw them last. A little more rest would help first."

                      Ross almost swallowed his tongue. How far was that? Why was it that far?

                      What happened?

                      He sat back up and slapped himself on the cheek, but to no avail. Something was wrong, deeply wrong. If he could find out what it was, surely he'd wake up. Then it hit him. "Wait. How do you know that? And who told you about my friends?"

                      The stranger grinned. "I saw what was happening when you left them, of course. I was sitting in this very room when it did."

                      "What? How?"

                      "I see far. Very far, and in all directions at once."

                      The stranger's eyes were large for his head, and they were solid black. Ross couldn't tell where he was looking. With Angemon you could usually tell, somehow, but this was different.

                      Taking his spear in hand, the stranger rose to his feet. "An introduction is in order: I am WaruPiximon. It is a privilege to finally meet you, Ross."

                      Ross was speechless, and WaruPiximon continued. "I was impressed with how you helped take down the Commander. With your lack of training and the difference in strength, by rights you should have been dead."

                      "…Why were you watching us?"

                      WaruPiximon stoked the fire with his spear. "That's a simple question to answer. I put the Commander in charge of leading my army, so of course I'd keep an eye on how he was doing."

                      Ross's pupils dilated. He sprung to his feet and reached for his knife, but it wasn't there.

                      WaruPiximon laughed at him. "Relax, we're in a stable position. You are incapable of doing anything to me, and although I can kill you in more ways than you can count—" In a flash WaruPiximon was hovering in front of Ross and had the spear pointed at his heart. The iron tip had caught a bit of flame from the fire that danced around as if by magic. "—I have no desire to. Isn't it nice that we're both safe?"

                      WaruPiximon flitted back down to the dirt floor. The tiny flame jumped from his spear and returned to the fire. "Come take a walk with me. Your legs need rehabilitating."

                      Ross's heartrate was still spiked. He could think of a million reasons why he had to run away as far as he could, but it was obvious that he'd have no shot at doing that. This was one Virus that he couldn't hide from if it was true how far he could see, and he was not about to put that claim to the test.

                      WaruPiximon flicked his spear in the direction of the fire, and it extinguished itself on command. "Come along, now." He walked out the open doorway and into the early evening light.

                      Ross swallowed. If he had no realistic chance at escape at the moment, he would cooperate until he did. He bent over to fit through the entrance and followed after WaruPiximon. As he emerged from the small house, what he saw stole the breath right out of his lungs.

                      The crater was larger than Ross could have imagined. They were standing on a forty-five degree incline which dropped for hundreds of feet before levelling out and rising again. Ross could barely spot the other side, which looked like it was a mile away. All in between was rock, ash, and soot. From the build of the Virus's cabin, Ross could have sworn that they were in a forest. Indeed when he turned around he saw that there was no log cabin, but rather a boulder that had been carved hollow. He kept turning, and saw that he and WaruPiximon were the only things made of organic matter as far the eye could see.

                      "We call it the Valley of Ruin," said WaruPiximon. "You came to our world in its waning years: a world of weakness and impotence. This place is one of the few reminders of the incomparable strength of our ancestors. You are standing in the impact basin of a single attack.

                      Ross could only gawk. He knew that destruction of this scale could only come from a meteor or an object just as big moving just as fast. It was inconceivable that such raw power could come from a living thing. But it wouldn't make sense for this to be the result of a meteor, and after wracking his brain for a minute he figured out why. It was perfect destruction without erosion, so the event must have been relatively recent. If that were the case, though, there would have been mass extinction, an ice age, or at least some sign of the event back at Angemon's camp. The state of the crater proved it was recent, but the rest of the world proved it was ancient.

                      This left one explanation: magic, or what was effectively magic. It was some impossible force that left the rest of the world undamaged, or prevented this place from healing, or did both for all Ross knew. He understood that what WaruPiximon said was correct, and he was crushed with fear and awe at the thought of the monster that could have done such a thing.

                      In the face of such horror, he almost forgot to ask about the banal impossibility of WaruPiximon's house.

                      "Oh, that? A lark of an illusion—looks and feels like wood, is actually rock. This place was a forest before it was rubble, so it seemed appropriate, and obviously more comfortable. Don't worry, I swear that your clothes are real at least. Anyway, let's move. I came out for a walk."

                      With that, WaruPiximon started making his way down towards the heart of the valley. Ross could think of no other option but to follow him. He was starting to get his legs back, but the terrain was difficult to manage regardless. Small rocks would shift under his feet, and keeping balanced was a chore.

                      "You think I'm your enemy," said WaruPiximon, "And that's understandable. All you know of me is what you've seen of the Commander's army, and the members of that army are stupid and evil at best and cunning and evil at worst. If you hate me because I know this and still use them, then I can't argue."

                      Ross denied none of it. If he had the ability he would have attacked his host right on the spot just for his association with the Commander.

                      WaruPiximon continued. "My defense is that none of the means will ultimately matter. If a few thousand live today, it is cheap consolation for the hundreds of thousands in the future that will endure oppression for it. I believe that results come first and that killing is killing, regardless of method. I use the Commander because he does what I require, even if I'd prefer he didn't torture his prey."

                      This crossed the line as far as Ross was concerned. "Rationalize all you want. You'll never convince me the world's better off with the Commander still alive."

                      WaruPiximon didn't reply. They kept walking downhill in silence. Gradually the slope flattened out, and they came upon the very lowest point of the valley. To Ross's left and right the destruction stretched for miles. The basin was even longer than it was wide.

                      Finally, WaruPiximon spoke again, as if they had never stopped talking. "Given what I know now, I have to agree. I don't think the Commander should stay alive either, not anymore."

                      Ross's stomach hurt with anxiety. He had been asleep for two months, and something must have happened to his friends while he was out. From what WaruPiximon had said, the Commander was alive, and this could mean disaster.

                      WaruPiximon looked up at Ross. "You may want to hear this sitting down."

                      Ross's fingers shook as he complied. They were now at eye-level. WaruPiximon frowned and spoke in a regretful tone. "Angemon could not contain the Commander. He rejoined our army, and our advantage in numbers only grew from there. Just as you'd guess, he succeeded in invading and capturing the Forbidden City. That was according to plan, but he has refused to raze the city per my instructions, and has instead turned it into his own stronghold. What was once the impenetrable fortress of our oldest enemy is now the impenetrable fortress of a traitor. Our forces there are now loyal only to him, and—"

                      Ross was ready to burst. "But what did he do to my—"

                      "Your friends are dead. He killed them himself."

                      Ross nearly vomited and his vision blurred. He stood up and tried pacing, but to no avail. When he could contain it no longer, he screamed so hard that it felt his throat would be permanently torn. Without thinking, he grabbed a rock and wound up. "This is your fault, you little monster!"

                      He threw the rock at WaruPiximon's head, but it never reached its target. The Virus merely pointed his spear and the stone burst into a cloud of dust that hung in midair. "Be warned. This is the fate of any weak thing that dares challenge a Perfect-level."

                      WaruPiximon then waved his spear and the dust flew directly into Ross's face. He managed to close his eyes in time, but some of it still ended up in his throat. It stung, and it took a minute of coughing for him to clear it out and breathe normally. By the time he was done he was no longer enraged, and the reality of it all started to sink in. It wasn't supposed to go this way. He had promised not to be the last one standing.

                      Joanie had probably kept her part of the promise until she died. Ross had never wanted to say goodbye to her, but that was because they were supposed to stay alive until it was too late to say goodbye. He had failed, and she had not. He was crushed with longing and regret like he had never known, and he cried uncontrollably.

                      At length he uttered just one word: "Why?"

                      WaruPiximon was unsympathetic. "Why what?"

                      Ross nearly tore his hair out. "Why wasn't it me!"

                      "It was because you took the Black Sword."

                      It took Ross two minutes, but he eventually composed himself. He struggled to get away from these terrible feelings, and at least for the moment he managed to be simply empty. He tried to remember the night before, when he had totally lost control. He knew he had at least wounded the Commander, but after that everything went dark and he entered the waking nightmare. He didn't understand what exactly had happened. "Explain."

                      "The Black Sword is a gift from the High Council of Virus to our Human savior, whom we named the Commander—"

                      "What was his real name?" some of the anger began to creep back into Ross's voice.

                      "—He never told me, and I never asked. As I was about to say, the Black Sword is no mere piece of metal. It is nearly alive, and if it brought you here then it wanted you to see me. It is regretful that it decided to do so when it was inconvenient for you."

                      The regret swept back over Ross. If he had only gone back to sleep like Joanie said, he wouldn't have lost everything. Again, Joanie. He couldn't handle this pain, and his thoughts always went back to Joanie, Joanie.

                      WaruPiximon was saying something, but Ross wasn't listening until he heard this. "…have a common enemy, now. He can still be destroyed, and all we have to do is work together."

                      Ross had had enough. He wanted nothing to do with anyone who had ever sided with that scum. He turned away from WaruPiximon and began to walk. "Why should I bother with someone who makes me as sick as you do?"

                      "There's a good reason, and you're looking at it."

                      Ross stopped. There was nothing to see here. Nothing that is, unless WaruPiximon meant the Valley of Ruin itself. Something cold went up Ross's spine as he started to put it together.

                      "You must have guessed why we would put all our trust in one as frail as the Commander. He can inspire evolution in those who were decades, maybe a century away from achieving it on their own. He can already bestow the Perfect level, and with his talent he will surely grasp the Ultimate level as well."

                      Ultimate. Ultimate meaning 'the last.' Not merely 'Perfect,' which meant without flaw, but superfluous to the point where nothing could withstand it. Ross looked all around, and he knew that to be Ultimate-level meant having the power to flatten mountains on a whim. If the sight of MetalTyrannomon had been terrifying, there were no adequate words for what the Commander might unleash if he were not stopped.

                      Ross turned to face WaruPiximon again. The Perfect-level was almost in a good mood. "The divine power of the World beyond the Sky is with every Human. The Commander was my great student, but if you have the discipline you can surpass him. I do not ask for your loyalty, nor for anything other than victory. I will give you all the help I gave him, and in return you have only to use your power once and destroy the Commander and the City."

                      For Ross, the thought of the Commander still breathing, much less continuing to destroy every good thing, was intolerable. He could do it. He could become stronger than his enemy. He could erase this awful stain from the world, and then he would be at peace.

                      "I guess I've got nothing to lose," said Ross.

                      WaruPiximon just smiled.

                      *********

                      It was the next morning. Ross followed WaruPiximon up the steep non-path from the fake cabin to the top of the Valley of Ruin. The landscape above the Valley had growing things, but it was little less dreary. They walked another mile, and gradually the thorny bushes became trees. They were evergreen, mostly similar to pine, but Ross could swear they were crossed with something else though he had no idea what. Before long they were deep in a pale forest. Ross had never seen an ostensibly green place so devoid of color. It's not that everything was white, far from it. It was sickly. Things were alive here, but they were not thriving.

                      WaruPiximon stopped walking, and it was very quiet. Then the Virus said to nobody Ross could see, "Come out."

                      Ross had not noticed them, but when he did his blood began to boil a little. Out from behind many of the trees came Gazimon. They weren't quite the same as the ones he had grown used to, though. These had thicker fur, and their claws were a bit duller but looked stronger. Intuitively it made sense to him. The ones from before were built for running fast across the plains and tearing enemies to shreds, while these were built for climbing trees and handling the elements. He understood them a little better at that moment, but he didn't hate them any less and he wished strongly that he had his knife on him, or that his spear hadn't been destroyed for that matter.

                      "Why are these things here?" he asked, not hiding his disdain.

                      The Gazimon didn't seem to take offense. In fact, they had expressions that Ross had never expected to see from the likes of them. He just now noticed, but they didn't seem to want to kill him. They were simply amazed.

                      "This is a Human!" WaruPiximon told his underlings. "He has descended from beyond the clouds, from the World of Creators to bring us victory! From this day forward, your lives are his. If you serve without fear, without doubt, without the slightest hesitation he will reward you for it beyond your imaginations. Know that your reward is not pleasure, but greatness. If you have no stomach for greatness you may leave now without pain of death, but not later."

                      No Gazimon budged. Their eyes showed they were fully prepared.

                      WaruPiximon turned to Ross. "These are your first soldiers. They will obey you absolutely, but I would not advise giving them any orders yet. They have a more immediate use, and giving them orders could be counterproductive."

                      Ross was apprehensive. "What do you mean?"

                      "Tell me, what do you think is your first obstacle to the power to bestow evolution?"

                      Ross thought for a second, and realized that he had known the answer for some time. "Weakness."

                      "I concur. Though I do not know how to provoke evolution—otherwise I would do it myself—I would be astounded if one as weak as you could attain this power. Therefore, our first step will be to destroy your weakness."

                      Ross swallowed, and nodded in agreement.

                      "And that is why you should not use words to change the actions of your soldiers yet. Understand? Good."

                      Ross did not quite understand, but then WaruPiximon flew up to a high tree branch. Something changed in the air in a way Ross had felt before, and he nearly went into a helpless panic.

                      "You have ten seconds before I offer my help in eliminating your weakness," said WaruPiximon. "I would start running before then."

                      For the first two seconds, Ross was frozen. He understood very keenly that he was dead if he did nothing, so desperately he convinced his legs to move. He ran as fast as he could, but in the woods like this he knew it wasn't nearly fast enough. The tenth second passed, and Ross heard terrible, familiar noises. The Gazimon were chasing him, and they were fast. Ross in contrast was slow, and worse yet he was unarmed. He heard them getting closer and closer, and before he knew it he was distracted and almost ran into a tree.

                      He had to stop, and then he looked behind him. The Gazimon were darting between the trees and they all had the red eyes. The closest one was almost caught up. The monster jumped for Ross's neck, and it was all he could do to dive out of the way. The Gazimon landed, corrected itself, and in an instant it was ready to pounce again. The others would do the same in a moment. Ross was a dead man.

                      Then Ross heard the sound of fingers snapping, and the Gazimon's red eyes turned back to normal in an instant. Every trace of malice was gone from the creature in front of Ross, and it sat on all fours at attention. It seemed apologetic for having chased him, even though its intent to kill had been obviously real.

                      WaruPiximon floated down in front of Ross. "I'm not impressed."

                      Ross would have kicked him if he could. "What do you expect? All I've got is my two hands, see? No claws. If I had a spear I'd be able to put up a fight, but I'd still be dead because you sicced a whole pack of Gazimon on me, you nutcase!"

                      WaruPiximon shook his head. He took his own spear and tossed it in the air, then with another snap of his fingers it exploded into a fine dust, just as the rock had the other day. "Do you think the Commander was strong because he had a weapon? Weapons are not strength; they are the illusion of strength. For our purposes they are worth little more than their raw materials."

                      To prove his point, WaruPiximon held out his hand, and the iron dust coalesced from the air and the ground to form his spear again. It was brand new, as if it had never been scratched. "These things can be made on a whim and unmade again by a stiff breeze. They are cheap help, and your final destination must be reached without help. I'm being too kind just by telling you this. If you use weapons or even my instruction as a crutch, you will never inspire evolution."

                      Ross was still angry, and even if WaruPiximon had a point he was missing the main point. "You're right, but I won't reach the destination if I'm dead, either. I don't have the Commander's knack for survival, so if I'm going to take on a dozen red-eyed Virus-types at once I'd rather already be strong."

                      WaruPiximon frowned, but said "Very well. Since you're harder to replace than a sword or spear, we'll have it your way. I still suggest that your first step involve running, but I won't require you to face a Virus armed with the Gift—yet. Try first to see if you can run as far as they can.

                      "Did you hear that?" called WaruPiximon to the Gazimon. "Your new master is better suited to start with a light jog! He cannot make any of you greater as he is, so improve him, and earn his gratitude!"

                      The Gazimon howled with approval, and started to run off on a trail that was visible only to them.

                      "Catch up with them or I'll skin you alive," WaruPiximon added to Ross almost under his breath and with a hint of honest venom.

                      Ross wasn't afraid of the threat of punishment anymore. It was now plain to see that WaruPiximon was averse to the risk of having him killed, much less killing him himself. The only thing Ross feared now was failure: that he wouldn't be able to do the impossible things that the Commander could. He knew he would have to start small, and he agreed that being able to at least catch up with the Gazimon was critical. So he took off, and ran as fast as he could while still being careful to avoid trees. He was driven, but by purpose, not by terror.

                      It was easier said than done. For what felt like forever it was all Ross could do to keep the Gazimon in his sight. The underbrush tried to trip him, and the needles of the trees scratched up his face, but he could ignore it. 'Catch them,' he thought. 'Catch them or the Commander wins.' His lungs were on fire, but he wouldn't allow himself to slow down. Then at one point the Gazimon were going downhill, and Ross knew that he had to change how he ran to keep up. Instead of sticking a leg out to stop his momentum from getting out of control, he took bounds and let gravity help him all it could. For half of the way down it seemed to be working, but then a tree came up fast that he wasn't ready for. He barely avoided it, but sent himself spinning in the process. Then his forehead met a branch.

                      It was a sharp, splitting pain. When it dulled down it was only because everything was hazy. He was on the ground but the world wouldn't stay still. He didn't remember much of what followed, but he heard several Gazimon laughing, and one Gazimon who sounded worried.

                      *********

                      It was late in the evening following Ross's short-lived adventure through the woods. He was sitting by a campfire with the Gazimon, waiting for the throb in his forehead to go away. WaruPiximon had gone off somewhere, and by now Ross was so used to sleeping outdoors that he didn't care to go back to the illusionary cabin. Besides that, it was pleasantly novel to be around Gazimon who didn't want to kill him, although he couldn't help the contempt he still helf for their nasty, stupid way of speaking.

                      "…trick is to bite 'em in the neck and let 'em bleed'mselfs dead." The Gazimon talked with his mouth full as he chewed on a wild mushroom. "Take longer to fade out that way, and that's how you get in some eatin'."

                      Ross couldn't believe they were having this conversation, but as long as they didn't expect him to contribute much he could tolerate it. One of them offered Ross a mushroom, but he shook his head. He didn't feel like having anything while they talked about what was close enough to cannibalism.

                      "How does they hunt in the Creatin' World, Human sir? Is it good huntin'?"

                      The truth was that Ross had never done much hunting. Where he had grown up all the boys went with their dads at least once or twice even if they hated it, and Ross had hated it. Even though it was nice being outdoors, and killing an animal had only barely bothered him the first time, he had always found the company intolerable.

                      "We use tools. Sometimes a bow and arrow but usually a gun. Long stick that shoots metal. There's lots to kill, and they never talk back."

                      The Gazimon found this fascinating, and they discussed it at length among themselves. They were divided as to whether it sounded fun because of the tools or less fun because none of the prey could ever beg for mercy.

                      "Course," said one of the Gazimon, "There's also game here that don't talk up north. Saw a Gazimon that wouldn't talk one time. We had to gut it on the spot we was so embarrassed."

                      Ross remembered what Biyomon had said about the feral ones that lived in the woods. Then he remembered Biyomon, who was probably dead too. The only friends he had left were these psychopaths and another psychopath they all answered to.

                      "What'd you say you was called again?"

                      "…Ross."

                      "No, the other what you was called."

                      "A human. You know, from the 'mighty race of Creators.'"

                      "Yeah, yeah, Creator. What's a Creator?"

                      Ross found this curious. The way most of the other 'mons had talked, Ross had gotten the impression they had a ubiquitous, cross-cultural creation myth focused on a polytheistic origin world. He supposed that there were 'mons who were so isolated and uncultured that they had missed it. He also wondered if this had something to do with the nearby Valley of Ruin. There was a terrible vibe about the place, and if Ross were at all spiritually inclined he would have said it didn't feel like a place for anything with a heart. Since Ross was not spiritually inclined, to him this idea manifested itself merely as a bad feeling.

                      "No one where I'm from agrees on what a Creator is or any of that. If you ask me we shouldn't even call it the World of Creators."

                      "That's what WaruPiximon calls it. He says the Creators came down from the sky to make us strong, and gave us the Data for huntin'."

                      "Well, there's your answer. The Creators made the Virus; what more do you want to know?"

                      "Just what is them? We thought they was Virus, but you ain't Virus and you ain't nothin' else neither."

                      No attributes, Ross remembered, but he didn't care if they understood or not. Moreover he was tired of talking. "Life's a mystery. Just forget about it."

                      It was plain to see the Gazimon weren't satisfied, but at Ross's suggestion they dropped the matter. They continued talking of blood and guts, while he ignored them and pondered a little about their talk of the sky. Angemon had never described the human world in terms of the sky, but WaruPiximon had. He thought about the sky—what it meant to these monsters and what it meant to humans. The parallels were obvious: many religions described the world of the gods in terms of the heavens, 'Heaven' itself being the most prominent contemporary example. When he heard the Gazimon say it, though, it didn't sound like metaphor. He figured it was because they were naïve and ignorant, but in the back of his mind it stuck out as important.

                      By the time it was the next day, it felt like he had not broken his chain of thought. He was still thinking about the Gazimon, anyway, as he tried in vain to catch up to them in their second go at running. They knew the ground too well, they were too fast, and they never grew tired. It was maddening, and he knew the only way to rid himself of the madness would be to catch them. When it felt like his legs would give out, he willed himself to run faster. Things happened in this sequence every day for over a week, and each day before his body gave out he made a mistake and crashed into something.

                      Before he knew it, he was covered from head to toe in cuts and bruises. None of them compared in severity to the long scar on his face that would likely never heal, but all together they stung so badly that he could no longer stand to talk in the evenings. If the Gazimon ever asked him anything, he would just sit there and not so much as look at them. Eventually they stopped asking, and over time they talked less and less until they spent most of their free time regarding Ross in silence. Ross didn't know how he had managed to get them to shut up, but he knew that if they actually respected him they were fools. He was so weak and pathetic it was disgusting.

                      One day it all came to a head. He was falling behind as usual, and then it started to drizzle. Ross hated failure, and he hated failure while being wet even more. As if to spite him, the drizzle turned into a shower and then into a proper storm. It had been hard enough to see and dodge all the trees when there was no weather, but now it was nearly impossible. On top of that the wind was picking up and driving the downpour into his face. Each drop felt like a dart on his already sore skin. It was too much. He roared and lost track of everything.

                      But this time he didn't collapse. He didn't know what happened, but soon one of the Gazimon was right in front of him. The stupid creature was too slow, Ross realized. He had killed these things before. They were nothing. What had he been so afraid of when WaruPiximon set them off on him? When he was just close enough, Ross dove and tackled the monster. They both slid in the mud and got cut by the rocks and roots.

                      Ross came to his knees, and the Gazimon looked timid as it backed off several paces. This offended Ross. He shouted, "Coward!" The Gazimon's face was then filled with savage glee as he charged his master. Ross grabbed his opponent's wrists before the claws could cut him, and then he wrestled him to the ground. The Gazimon's back claws scratched at his side, but not deep enough to deter him. After a terrible struggle, Ross had the creature pinned to a tree. He pressed on the monster's neck with his forearm, and held it there with all the weight of his body. The Gazimon was gasping for air when Ross heard something that jarred the fight out of him for a moment.

                      They were cheering. The other Gazimon had encircled them and were chanting, "Hu-man! Hu-man!"

                      Ross pulled back. The Gazimon slumped to the ground, and the Virus smiled even as he coughed. It felt like Ross's head was swimming with chemicals, but he didn't know what to do with them now. His chest heaved as he caught his breath, and soon a figure he had almost forgotten floated down from the treetops. "It took you long enough, but well done for taking the first step."

                      Ross glared at WaruPiximon and spat on the ground. "I thought you were supposed to skin me alive a few weeks ago."

                      "I made a few allowances for accidents and recovery time therefrom. If you had ever stopped of your own will instead of your own incompetence, you can be sure I would have shown no mercy. After all, it cost a very precious sword to bring you here, so I can't afford to kill you unless you prove to be a hopeless failure."

                      Ross hated WaruPiximon's attitude. He hated anyone who was so comfortable in their own perceived superiority. Nonetheless, he had to take advantage of this bastard's help to have any chance of killing the enemy. "So what's next?"

                      "Next I think is dinner. Are you hungry yet?"

                      'What kind of question is that?' thought Ross. 'Of course…I'm…' A powerful nausea struck Ross and he put his hand to his gut. Something was wrong. Something didn't feel like it was supposed to, and the discrepancy was making him sick. Slowly he realized what it was. "I haven't eaten since I got here."

                      He thought back frantically: had he eaten at all since he left his old world? Yes, of course he had, he had helped prepare dinner with Joanie many times and they had all eaten together. Then when had he stopped eating? When he narrowed it down it terrified him: the last time he had eaten was early in the morning the day they ambushed the Commander. That was months ago, and he just spent weeks running, yet somehow he wasn't starving. The only way in which he felt hungry was how he felt he was supposed to feel hungry, and it didn't make sense even to him. "What's…wrong with me?"

                      "Nothing is wrong with you, at least not in that sense," said WaruPiximon. "I'd say there is less wrong with you now than ever before. Those who are filled with divine purpose need no other sustenance."

                      Ross couldn't believe it. "That's absurd…It's just impossible."

                      "Then why have you not starved to death?"

                      "It's true!" called out one of the Gazimon. "You just went and went without no food and still fought like a real Virus!"

                      "Make us great like you, Human!"

                      Ross stood in the rain with a blank expression for a minute. He was coming to grips with impossible facts. He would never say 'divine purpose' and mean it, but now he knew for certain what he had strongly suspected but didn't want to admit: the old rules did not apply to humans in this place. This was why the Commander could jump twenty feet in the air and catch lightning in his bare hands. This was why both the Commander and Jacob could swing a sword at speeds that should have torn their arms out of their sockets. That they could do these things had scared him before, but now he was convinced that he could do the same and more.

                      Ross felt the water on his skin, and for the first time he welcomed it. It made perfect sense to him now. The Commander controlled the Virus and made them evolve by controlling the rain, wind, and lightning. In his mystical ramblings WaruPiximon had touched on the truth: that victory for the Virus came from the sky. The sky was power, and so the path was clear. He just had to become strong enough to bend that power to his will. Then he would create a monster that could turn his enemy into dust.

                      "WaruPiximon, can you control the weather?"

                      "It's not exactly easy, but I can, yes."

                      "Then keep this storm alive."

                      WaruPiximon grinned and showed his small fangs. "It would be my pleasure."

                      *********

                      For the next month, Ross did pushups. He did nothing besides pushups. He did not eat, sleep, drink, or speak. He stayed in the middle of the Valley of Ruin and did pushups. All around him it rained constantly, but the land was not affected. In the stones beneath his hands Ross felt a malice that had not waned in over a thousand years. Just as the valley would not suffer erosion, he would not allow himself to suffer fatigue while the Commander still lived.

                      When he was satisfied in the new strength in his arms, he stood up. His breathing was regular, and the toll of thirty days was nothing to him. He would not think about it. He would think only of progress.

                      Next he ran. It was not like before, when he was trying to catch something. The only rule he set for himself was that he would not slow down. He ran up and down the valley without any thought of when he would be finished. When he felt that he was not running as fast as he could, he sped up. After two months he was in a seemingly perpetual sprint. There was no day and no night, just times when he could see and times when he couldn't. His feet never landed on a rock the wrong way despite the downpour—no, because of the downpour. The sky gave him mastery over the Virus and over himself. It would not let him trip. For now it helped him, and soon it would serve him.

                      When he had gone two weeks without getting any faster, he skidded to a halt. For the second time in over two months he was standing still. He checked his pulse, and it was normal. He felt his face, and some of the cuts and bruises had healed. The clothes he had received from WaruPiximon were drenched, but undamaged. In a fit of self-indulgence, he took a deep breath and let some of the tension out of his body.

                      Soon he had company. His band of Gazimon spent most of their time watching him from a distance, and only now did they dare approach again. They surrounded him in a circle, which normally would mean they were hunting an enemy, but the way they did so now made it seem like reverent ceremony. If the miserable fools wanted to treat Ross like a god, he wasn't going to stop them.

                      A minute later they were joined by WaruPiximon. The Perfect-level regarded Ross with approval. "Are you ready to continue from where we left off?"

                      In other words, WaruPiximon was ready to start condescending to Ross's frailty a little less. Ross knew he was ready for it, and answered without emotion. "Yes."

                      WaruPiximon waved his spear, and in short order the rain thinned out. "We'll leave the Gift of the Virus out of the picture for now. I know how you hate to dive into the deep end."

                      Ross scowled at the suggestion, but didn't entirely disagree. He addressed his troops. "Tear me to pieces."

                      The Gazimon rejoiced, but in a way that was specific to their species. Three of them decided to go first, and dashed toward Ross with true intent to kill. Anything less would be blasphemy. One sprung for Ross's neck while the others tried to sweep away his legs, but they were slow. Ross had never seen the Gazimon move so slow, and it made him furious. Without thinking about it too hard, he evaded two of them and clocked the other in midair over the head. That one hit the ground and did not get up. The other two tried attacking him again, but all he had to do was move out of the way. It was absurd that they couldn't touch him when he was no more skilled in fighting than any typical high schooler. They were just too slow.

                      It was insulting. Ross knew that these things were capable of far more. He had told them to tear him to pieces, but they were just messing around. As he dodged another set of pitiful attacks, he felt something around his arms. It was the breeze. As he grew angrier the wind found him. At that moment he felt the sky was ready to listen a little, and he muttered, "Red eyes, red eyes…"

                      A gust picked up and wove its way between him and the Gazimon. He could feel himself in the air. Some part of him was outside his body and all around. The sky belonged to him now. "Red eyes!"

                      The wind howled, and the Gazimon froze. They twitched for a moment, and then their eyes turned bright red. They all ran for Ross at once. Immediately Ross found himself in trouble. They weren't much faster, but there were so many. He couldn't keep his feet still for even a moment, and whenever he hit or kicked back it gave one of them enough time to cut him. The wounds were nothing, and only made him more determined. He managed to stay on his feet for several minutes, until finally he tripped. A Gazimon got on top of him, and he just barely grabbed the monster's front legs before they could rip his face off. Once again, he was a dead man.

                      And then all the Gazimon stopped. Their eyes returned to normal, and they backed away from Ross.

                      "Much, much better," said WaruPiximon. "I didn't expect you would last half that long."

                      Ross came to his feet and winced from his new cuts. The Gazimon were built to inflict pain, and no matter how much control Ross had over his body he was still vulnerable to external injury. Perhaps with the protection of the rain he might have sustained less damage, but Ross had too much respect for the power of the Virus to believe that he could become impervious to their attacks.

                      As for the Gazimon, all of them were sitting at attention and trying to catch their breath, except one. This one was still lying on the ground, and had been unconscious when Ross provoked the others to go all out. Ross walked over to him and put his fingers on the creature's throat. He wasn't dead. Ross would never admit that he was glad the thing was alive, but in truth he was. Out of all the pack, this one alone had gone directly for his vitals when ordered. He was without question obedient, ruthless, and fearless. He was the ideal Gazimon, and mixed in with Ross's loathing for him was some appreciation.

                      Ross grabbed a tuft of this Gazimon's back fur and yanked it clean out. In the months that followed, Ross kept his eye out for that bald patch. When he had his daily sparring sessions with his small army, he made sure to deal the harshest blows to the one he had marked. It was unpleasant to see him take such punishment, but Ross had to see if there was a limit to what he would endure. If there was such a limit, Ross never found it. This Gazimon more than any of the others was ferocious in attack and reverent in defeat.

                      And so, Ross picked this one.

                      One day, after much time had passed, Ross stood off against a new opponent that WaruPiximon had provided. It was DarkLizamon: Adult-level, Virus-type. It was a bipedal reptile that stood taller than a man and was covered in scorching black flames. The only place where it wasn't protected by fire was its face, where it was protected by a steel visor. Therefore Ross couldn't touch it by himself, but he wouldn't need to.

                      Watching from a safe distance were all of the Gazimon except the one that had been chosen. This one stood at the ready in front of Ross, and he was clearly eager to achieve the greatness that he had been promised.

                      Ross stuck out his hand, and summoned every ounce of rage he could muster. He thought of all the misery he had been subjected to by this place, the Virus, and above all the Commander. He let DarkLizamon stand in for all of them. In response, the dark clouds above began to break. The Valley of Ruin once again saw a rainstorm, and as the wind reached a crescendo the DarkLizamon took a step back in apprehension. Ross's hand twitched with the power he was taking from the sky, and he knew he was ready. "Gazimon, I order you: evolve now and kill the enemy!"

                      Before the eyes of the stunned witnesses, the chosen Gazimon was bathed in a pale glow. In a matter of seconds he was as tall as Ross even though he was on all fours, and his body was wreathed in red flames that were just as overpowering as DarkLizamon's. His mouth opened to reveal a set of fangs that put the Gazimons' sharp but small teeth to shame. As soon as he stopped glowing, he lunged at DarkLizamon with blinding speed.

                      DarkLizamon was caught totally off balance, and the battle proved to be an anticlimax. He barely managed to scratch the new Adult-level before those fangs sunk into his neck and tore it open. It was already over.

                      Ross's chosen one paid no more mind to the carcass. He approached Ross slowly and said, "Lynxmon at your disposal, sir."

                      All around the Gazimon erupted in celebration. Just as pleased but more composed was WaruPiximon, who flew over to say some words of approval to Ross which fell on deaf ears.

                      Ross found no satisfaction in this development. It was all a means to an end.

                      *********

                      Ross was asleep. He had lost track of time one month, and found that he couldn't move the muscles in his right leg. It served as a good reminder that he wasn't invincible, so he took a three-day nap to recover. After having spent so much time wide awake, he was unused to sleep, and couldn't be sure that he was doing it right. Then he felt the proportions of his own body change drastically, and he knew that he must be dreaming, so that was a good start.

                      Ross's arms and legs were twice as long as they should have been, and they were covered in thick hair. He felt around his face. The scrapes and cuts from his training were gone, but his long scar was still there. His teeth were now long and sharp, and when he pulled his hand back it was covered in someone else's blood. Ross didn't know how to feel about this. It didn't bother him, but it brought him no pleasure either. He supposed it was regrettable.

                      Then his long ears heard a faint sound. He looked in the direction of the noise and saw a small child. It wasn't one of the ones he had been watching and now knew to be dead. For that matter, he couldn't be sure if it was a boy or a girl. It gave no visible clues in its dress or hair as to its sex. He was about to ask for its name, but he stopped himself. Something was wrong.

                      The child looked into Ross's eyes. Its own eyes were soft and sad, and they were surrounded by a thin but pure glow. Those eyes made Ross uneasy, and slowly they began to hurt him. They did not hurt him not metaphorically: his own eyes were burning at the sight of them. He wanted to look away, but something held his gaze in place. He wanted to tear the child's face off with his claws, but his arms wouldn't move either.

                      He had to do something to make the child leave, so he roared at it, hoping it would be scared. The air burst from his lungs with the force of a typhoon, for he was filled with the wind itself. The child's hair was blown back, but its feet remained firmly planted. The light in its eyes grew brighter, and it felt like someone had stuck hot pins into Ross's pupils. So Ross roared louder and louder, and the wind grew stronger and stronger. Soon they were surrounded by a cyclone that would have ripped a house from its foundation.

                      But the child did not move. Its pitiful gaze never strayed, and it tormented Ross more than he could stand. Eventually everything went mercifully black, and he heard WaruPiximon's voice. "Wake up. You shouldn't be seeing this."

                      Ross bolted awake, and looked around for WaruPiximon, but he was nowhere to be seen. The Valley was deserted, just as it had been when he laid himself down. When Ross saw that he was alone he calmed down again, but when he did he realized that his eyes still stung. He groaned as he rubbed them, and soon the pain went away. He didn't forget the dream, though, and he didn't forget the sound of WaruPiximon's voice at the end of it. It was somewhere between angry and embarrassed. Ross had never heard WaruPiximon sound remotely embarrassed, so he didn't know where that element of his dream could have come from.

                      He had other things to concern himself with, though. He was almost ready.

                      *********

                      Ross stepped onto a stone platform which was one hundred yards in diameter and ringed with tall, worn obelisks. The sky was black with thunderclouds. He had been assembling them over the course of several hours. In the center of the platform a dark dragon was chained to the floor. The dragon's name was Devidramon, and it was an Adult Virus. It had arms like a human's—if a human's arms could be as thick as barrels—and its four eyes were solid red in their natural state. Like Unimon and the DarkTyrannomon, it never spoke. It didn't need words though to make it clear that it wanted to be anywhere but in the middle of the circle.

                      Ross didn't like the idea of forcing a 'mon to evolve against its will, but he had consulted with WaruPiximon, and this one had far better potential than the Gazimon he had picked out months ago. He was now Gazimon again instead of Lynxmon, as any evolution Ross gifted would have to be temporary. Ross had lost track of the creature since then, and he didn't expect to see him again. In any case, all Ross needed was a Virus that would stay in the same spot, whether by cooperation or coercion.

                      All around them beyond the platform were figures that were hidden in shadow. Ross didn't know their names, and he didn't care. All that mattered was that they didn't get in his way. He would let WaruPiximon deal with them.

                      One of them spoke. "None have stepped foot here except the Virus until you, Human. The Council will deal with you appropriately depending on your success or failure."

                      "Don't mind my colleagues, Ross," said WaruPiximon, who sat among them. "Focus only on what is already within you."

                      He didn't need to tell Ross that. Ross took another look at Devidramon before closing his eyes. He then raised his arms to the heavens, and thought of the Commander. He thought of the deep scars on his arm, chest, and face that would never heal, and how he would be able to tolerate their presence if only his enemy were wiped off the face of the planet. These thoughts spread from his brain to his heart to his fingertips and finally into the air.

                      Soon he felt drops hitting his clothing. They were joined by a breeze that swirled around him. This much was routine at this point—the sky obeyed him without question. As sure as clockwork, the cloudburst grew into a storm and then into a hurricane. There was a charge all around him, and then he knew he was ready for uncharted territory. Even with his lids shut the flash of lightning hurt his eyes, and it hurt his right hand even more as it made impact. It was just physical pain though. The fact that he took it and didn't collapse meant he was strong, not weak. He was ready for this pain, just as his loathsome enemy had been.

                      But Ross would surpass the enemy. Mere seconds later another bolt struck his left hand with a deafening crack. It attacked every nerve in his arm, and he nearly lost his poise. The next one came even faster, and the one after faster still. Despite all he did to keep the lighting's power confined to his hands, it felt like someone had wired a battery to the inside of his mouth. As for his fingers, they were writhing in agony beyond his control. The barrage grew relentless, and finally Ross felt he was in danger. His heart skipped beats and would have stopped permanently if another bolt hadn't started it again. He was on his knees, and soon he would lose consciousness.

                      With the last ounce of concentration he had, he lowered his arms and aimed them to where he knew Devidramon was. Then everything passed out from his hands to his target. All the force of the rain, the wind, the lightning, and his own wrath left his body. He slumped to the ground as the last lightning bolt struck his head. He lost consciousness without realizing it.

                      When he came to, WaruPiximon was standing beside him. The storm had died down, but the clouds remained. It took a great effort to get his eyes to open fully and then to focus. To his dismay though, there was no colossal monster in their midst. In the center of the circle was something that looked vaguely like Devidramon and was somewhat larger, but it was lying prostrate with its eyes closed and its jaw hanging slack. It was surrounded by what looked like a mass of pure energy, and intermittently some of that energy jumped to its body like static electricity.

                      "Why…" mouthed Ross. "Why…wasn't it…enough…"

                      WaruPiximon laughed at him. "You must be joking! This is more than we could have hoped for! You've done it!"

                      Ross looked again, but saw nothing that changed his mind. Devidramon's once leathery wings were growing stubby feathers and had partially fused with its arms. Any changes it had undergone indicated only that this was a half-baked, worthless evolution. Ross covered his face and groaned.

                      WaruPiximon continued. "It baffles me that you understand the Virus so much as to inspire evolution, but so little that you can't grasp what's happening here. Can't you sense it? This Devidramon is evolving straight to the Ultimate level! There is enough energy there and the source is stable! We have only to wait!"

                      One more time, Ross looked at the suffering beast. The mass of energy was indeed stable. It seemed plausible that the only problem was that Devidramon's frame couldn't handle the influx all at once. It bothered Ross that all of his control over this process was flimsy at best, and that so much of it was at the mercy of seemingly arbitrary forces. He couldn't stop looking for things to be mad about.

                      "By my estimate," said WaruPiximon, "It should be less than a half a year until its evolution is complete."

                      "That long?"

                      "That short! You forget we have awaited this day for over a thousand years! This will overwhelm the Forbidden City's defenses. At long last it will be gone forever. You have brought us victory where we had known only failure!"

                      Ross couldn't share WaruPiximon's enthusiasm, and simply tried to catch his breath. At length one of the hidden members of the Council spoke again. "We concur with your assessment, WaruPiximon. He is fit to lead."

                      WaruPiximon smiled and showed his teeth. "Ross, can you stand?"

                      Ross tried to support himself with his arms, but they were useless. He had to rise with his legs alone, and they didn't feel much better. Still, he was just able to stand at full height, though his body shook the whole while.

                      WaruPiximon hovered so that he was at eye level with Ross. "We of the High Council of Virus have found you worthy of our confidence. In exchange for your power, we will offer you the minds and bodies of our soldiers. Henceforth their lives will be outranked by your whims."

                      WaruPiximon stuck out his hands, and all around them coalesced a cloud of iron filings. They fell into a line, and formed into a long, thin clump in midair. As WaruPiximon twisted his fingers, the clump became a sword. It was solid black and identical to the Commander's. "This sword is the mark of your authority. Take it, and command is yours."

                      Ross had no skill with a sword, and moreover he hated the look of this particular one. Regardless, he wasn't going to let meaningless symbols influence his decisions. If he had to take this thing to have the Virus help him kill the Commander, then that was that. He reached out for the sword with a hand he could barely move. His fingers came to life though when they neared the hilt, and he grabbed it without difficulty or hesitation.

                      All at once he felt incredible. He stopped shaking, and he could feel all of his extremities again. His mind was sharp as a tack, and he remembered how to thrust, parry, and make the most of his footwork. How had he forgotten how to use a sword? But even though he could recall all the techniques now, he still needed practice. He looked up, and standing by one of the lockers was that asshole eighth grader with the blonde hair. The big idiot thought he was all that just because he had lots of friends and wasn't in the seventh grade like Ross was. He would do nicely.

                      Before the kid had a chance to blink Ross stuck him in the gut with the Black Sword. The lowlife screamed in agony and Ross twisted the knife before yanking it out again. The younger boy was in ecstasy, and he slit the bully's throat to shut him up forever. For the first time in who knows how long the boy smiled and laughed he was so, so, so happy.

                      Then Ross dropped the knife and threw up on the hallway's cracked tile. Something was wrong. He had never pulled the knife on another kid. He had never enjoyed fighting and he had never gone out of his way for it and he certainly didn't enjoy it now. He wasn't in the seventh grade anymore and he had moved to a new school and then to a new world. So why was this kid here? Why had he killed him? How could he face her? How could he face—

                      Her name. He had forgotten her name. There was someone important whom he couldn't remember. A girl he liked. He had her face in mind for a moment, but now it was gone. He tried to remember all the children they had been protecting together, but they were all blanks as soon as he almost recalled any of them. There was another guy around his age who had come to the other world with them, but he was gone too. They had been friends with a Garurumon, an Agumon, and a Biyomon, but they were gone as well. Why could he remember only the species and not the individuals?

                      The hallway was gone, and everything was black. He had to stop forgetting. He was Ross Pickett Jackson and he was from outside Bristol, Virginia but now he was stranded in another world. He was Ross Jackson from Virginia and he had come to another world. He was Ross from somewhere in the South and now he was here. He was someone from some other world and now he was among the Virus.

                      He was in a panic. He wanted to be far away from here. He wanted to feel safe again. He wanted to grab a squirrel by the neck and slice its abdomen open. 'No!' he thought, 'Why would I want that!' But no matter how much he denied it, that was what he wanted now.

                      He was no longer alone. Standing in front of him was WaruPiximon. The little monster laughed and laughed at the sight of him. 'Liar,' thought the human. 'That thing's a liar. Why did I ever listen to it?'

                      All the cuts on the human's face opened up again. He would have to change his bandages, which had been there as long as he could remember but he didn't know when that was. Desperately he tried to tell himself that he didn't want this. There was someone else who was stealing his mind who wanted this, not him. Soon he could no longer fight it, as all of his senses were gone.
                      __________________
                      Old, Janky Fics
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                      Family (kind of?): Strange person who calls me strange names
                        #11    
                      Old August 30th, 2016 (6:01 PM).
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                      icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is online now
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                        Join Date: Feb 2008
                        Location: Northern Virginia
                        Age: 24
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                        XI

                        The Prisoner

                        Joanie was alone. She stood in one of the hallways of the stone village that surrounded the Vaccine base, and struggled over what she would do next. Eventually she would have to tell the children that Ross had disappeared. What she didn’t know was whether she could tell them that he had gone insane immediately prior to that. He had tried to kill an unarmed captive over an insult, and she felt that some black magic had wanted him to. Now she suspected that she had been right about Ross from the beginning: he hadn’t been fighting a war, he had been trying to kill someone who made him angry. If that was the case, then she had to be ready to keep the children away from him in case he ever came back.

                        But she didn’t want any of that to be true. What if he had been honest before, but wasn’t in control of his own actions at the end? He could have been sleepwalking, or the Commander could have cast a spell on him, or any number of other preposterous excuses could have been the case. It was bad enough that he was gone, but why did he have to go like this? Why did he have to destroy the person she thought he was first?

                        She didn’t want to learn the answers to any of these questions, but she had to know, and so far no one had been able to help. Angemon had only provided the vaguest explanation for the shadow—something about how the sword ‘felt’ like a Virus for a moment, and how it had gone away in a direction Angemon didn’t recognize. That wasn’t enough for her. She needed something definitive, and there was only one person who might be able to give her something.

                        She knew there was a slim chance of any good coming from it, and that it was stupidly dangerous, but she had to talk to the Commander.

                        Joanie made her way back to the room where the Commander was held in chains. There were no guards—the Gotsumon wouldn’t allow any Vaccine-types that weren’t officers into their tunnels, and Angemon and Garurumon were busy elsewhere. In the thin light of the candles Joanie could see that the Commander was asleep just where they had left him. He was most likely still knocked out.

                        Joanie approached him. When he was still and his eyes were closed, he looked merely like a boy about her age, maybe a bit older, who had been beaten senseless. Immediately she drove that impression from her mind. She wouldn’t allow herself to feel pity for him when she needed to be strong. ‘When Christ said to visit those in prison, He didn’t mean in cases like this,’ she thought. ‘This prisoner can get mercy when we know he isn’t dangerous anymore.’

                        She knelt down, and was about to shake his arm when she stopped. Something was wrong. ‘Of course something’s wrong. Everything is messed up today. Just get it over with.’

                        “Wake up,” said Joanie, as she prodded him.

                        The Commander groaned, but he didn’t open his eyes. His voice was different than before. He sounded parched, as if he had had nothing to drink for weeks. Then he stirred, and slowly he opened his mouth.

                        “Joanie…?”

                        Every part of Joanie’s body seized up. His voice had been poison before, but it had done nothing to her this new voice did.

                        “Did we get him?…Did we win?”

                        She nearly screamed and had to cover her mouth. Her eyes welled up, and she clutched her side. This couldn’t be happening. It was a trick. It was a bad dream.

                        The prisoner started to move again, and in a fit of fear Joanie said, “Wait! Don’t…don’t move.”

                        The prisoner opened his mouth again, but she didn’t let him say anything. “Just hold still. There’s…there’s something in your back. That’s why it feels weird. We have to…to get it out, so just go back to sleep. If…If you move it’ll be really bad so just go back to sleep.”

                        Whether out of obedience or because he was truly still exhausted, the prisoner didn’t move and his eyes remained shut. Joanie forced herself to look closer at his bandaged face. The bandages were held in place with long-since dried blood, and in the dim light she tried to convince herself that the face didn’t look at all familiar. She reached out with her hand, but as soon as her fingers touched his face the wrappings turned into ash and then into nothing, as if they had been an illusion from the beginning.

                        The Commander’s face was Ross’s, just as the Commander’s voice was Ross’s. Even the long scar that the Commander himself had dealt earlier that day was present, but now it looked old instead of new. Joanie stood up, and had to bite on her fingers to remain silent. She had no doubt that this was a nightmare, or at least that she had to treat it like one. The Commander’s voice had been different before, everyone knew it.

                        She fled the room. The minutes that followed were a blur. She avoided everyone, and stayed under the cover of night as much as possible. None of them could know what she had seen. It was an illusion, so if anyone saw Ross now it would be very bad and they might think he really was the Commander. As she snuck into Angemon’s unoccupied tent and grabbed some things, it occurred to her that if the prisoner was actually the Commander they might think he was Ross, and Ross would be in danger when he came back. In either case her course of action was the same. And so it was that she came back to the room with a key and a set of mostly ruined clothes. She had left the knife behind.

                        She made sure not to wake Ross before unlocking the chains. She hoped that his head would still be cloudy enough that he didn’t realize what she was doing, and she prayed that what she was doing was the right thing. Ross began to stir as she tucked away the chains, and only then did she say to him, “Get up. We have to go.”

                        She helped Ross to his feet. Ross opened his eyes, but it seemed like he couldn’t focus them. “Wh…”

                        “Don’t talk. Just change into these.”

                        While Ross was still delirious, Joanie practically undressed him herself. She kept her eyes under control out of habit, but in truth the only thing on her mind was making him look like Ross again and getting out of there as fast as possible.

                        As for Ross, he seemed to be clearing up at just the right pace. He didn’t notice the chains, he didn’t ask about what clothes he had been wearing earlier, but he was still able to put on his old outfit by himself.

                        She led him out of the room and down the dark tunnels. He nearly stumbled several times but remained quiet. Joanie meanwhile had to decide what the next part of her plan was as they walked. No one could see him or they might ask questions, so she realized that left only one option: they had to go anywhere far away from here. They emerged from the village of tunnels, and she led him away from the tents and towards the switchback trail. When they reached the bottom of it Ross fell on his knees immediately. When Joanie tried to pull him up again he was unresponsive, and then she noticed he had fallen asleep again on the spot. She slapped his face just hard enough to rouse him again. Then for the second time that night she found herself acting as his crutch, the difference being that now it was uphill.

                        When they were half-way up, Ross was finally awake enough to speak. “Hey, Joanie…What’s going on?”

                        “Just keep walking.” She didn’t need this right now. She was at her wit’s end, and she needed to stay sharp or they wouldn’t make it far. She wracked her brain over whether she was missing anything, but she kept drawing blanks.

                        So they kept going, and then Ross asked, “Where are the kids? They okay?”

                        Joanie swallowed. “They’re safe. I’m going to take care of them later.” She could barely give a straight answer, and she had completely forgotten about the children. But of course, she thought, what she was doing only made sense for the children. They wouldn’t understand this spell someone had put on Ross, and if this was truly the Commander and he was dangerous she was getting him away from them.

                        Then it hit her. This person with his arms on her shoulders was a murderer. He was a cold-blooded killer, and he was responsible for the deaths of hundreds. And he was touching her and she was touching him and she wanted to scream it was so awful. They came to a torch, and she had to stop, shrug him off, and walk away a few paces.

                        “What’s wrong?” he asked.

                        “Nothing,” she answered, in a way that made it clear it was something. “I just need to think for a second.”

                        She closed her eyes and concentrated as hard as she could on calming herself down. Things she had missed before were starting to fit together. If they kept going this way they would walk past some Agumon keeping guard before they reached the open. They couldn’t go forward and couldn’t go back either without running into someone. The inevitability of someone finding them was too much for her, so she thought about something else.

                        Why was the Commander now Ross? She had guessed it was an illusion or a nightmare, but now she realized there was an explanation that she should have seen right away: the paradox. Earlier that day, when they fought the Commander, she couldn’t shoot him. She could assume that if she had shot him, then something would have prevented the situation from arising in the first place.

                        She could only think of one consistent possibility. The shadow from the Commander’s sword had not merely made Ross vanish, but had sent him back in time to become the Commander himself. The circumstances of how Ross was sent back in time had already been set in stone, and anything that might have prevented that occurrence was not permitted. She found words in her head to express the idea that she had already known from the PPTRs: ‘Nothing can change the past, even if the past took place in the future.’ She couldn’t shoot the Commander because then Ross’s final confrontation with him—the circumstance that sent Ross back to become the Commander—would never take place, and from a causal perspective that had already happened.

                        All this made Joanie feel terribly ill. On a surface level it seemed to take Ross’s free will out of the picture and potentially exonerated him, but she knew there was more to it than that. To get sparks from the stones, one had to be determined to strike the stone regardless of what happened afterward. The sparks both limited one’s free will and opened up the possibility for perhaps the purest, most forceful example of free will. She knew then that this loop in time was only possible because it was willed to happen, and willed so strongly that potential paradoxes like an arrow to the heart were prevented in spite of a third party’s free will. If Ross’s will was a part of that equation, it meant he had wanted whatever turned him into the Commander so badly that literally nothing could keep it from happening. Regardless of what magic was involved in the time travel itself, it wouldn’t have worked without Ross’s unshakeable cooperation.

                        It was all true. This was truly Ross, and Ross was truly a monster.

                        She had spent minutes working this over, and during that time Ross had been silent. When he finally spoke again, he sounded much more awake and this terrified Joanie. “Joanie, you have to clue me in here. What happened? Did we get the Commander?”

                        Joanie had no idea how to answer. She didn’t even know whether answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would be the lie. Before she had any idea how she was going to follow it up, she whispered, “No.”

                        Joanie was still looking away from Ross, so she couldn’t tell how he was taking to the news until he lost his temper and shouted, “Dammit!”

                        She jumped at the sound of his angry voice, and a tear started falling down her cheek. Ross couldn’t see this and kept going. “How? We had him cornered! Angemon and Garurumon were coming! We had him dead to rights! He was—”

                        Joanie couldn’t take any more of this. She faced him again and screamed, “Stop it! Stop it, stop it, stop it!”

                        Ross was completely jarred from his anger, and just stared at Joanie’s crying face with his mouth agape.

                        “Don’t you get it? This is why you turned out like this! I told you to stop fighting but you wouldn’t listen and now you’re…you’re…”

                        “Joanie, I—”

                        He couldn’t be allowed to speak, so she shouted even louder. “Shut up! If you’d just shut up about fighting and killing you wouldn’t have…you’d…”

                        “But I didn’t—”

                        She didn’t know what he was about to say, but she couldn’t let him say it. She had to say anything to make him understand, even if she couldn’t think about what she was saying first like she had always tried to. “Yes you did! You weren’t doing it for us! It was just revenge, just killing! It was obvious! You lied and you lied to me and you didn’t listen and if you’d just stopped like I said then you wouldn’t be…you wouldn’t be a murderer!”

                        She said it. That last word had left her mouth, and immediately she wanted it back. She stared into Ross’s eyes, and saw nothing there. There was no objection. He wasn’t reacting at all. Painful seconds passed, and then he began to twitch and tear up. He covered his mouth as if about to throw up, and then doubled over and fell to his knees, shaking.

                        He was remembering. Joanie could see it. She didn’t know what to say, or if maybe she should just run away from him on the spot. He was moaning, and she barely heard the words, “No…oh god…no…”

                        Joanie was torn apart. If she didn’t know what Ross was, this would like a friend in terrible pain. How much did he remember? Why hadn’t he remembered any of them when he was the Commander? Had they tortured him? Was it an act? She could barely stand herself for thinking this might just be a display, but she had to be careful around this stranger who was either one of the few friends she had left or a sociopathic killer.

                        She couldn’t say anything else, and she couldn’t move or look away either.

                        Then all at once, a white light came from above that nearly blinded her. She looked up, and saw that the light was coming from Angemon’s six wings. They had been found.

                        Next she heard quick, heavy feet, and then Garurumon bounded into view. On his back rode Jacob, who had his sword out. Jacob slid off, and approached them with a look of utter disbelief on his face. “…What the hell?”

                        Joanie was a wreck, and she knew it. She wanted to tell Jacob, ‘It’s not what you think,’ or ‘It’s exactly what you think,’ or ‘Help.’ As for Ross, he apparently couldn’t even look up at any of the others.

                        *********

                        Michael was afraid. He had spent most of the last few months being afraid, so this was nothing new. Walking next to him was Tatiana, who of course seemed perfectly fine and unafraid of anything. He wondered how she couldn’t be scared right now, but that was Tat. It never meant anything to Michael when Tatiana wasn’t afraid of something because she wasn’t afraid of anything. Just as you can’t use a thermometer to gauge wind-chill temperature, you couldn’t use Tatiana to determine how scary something was. Of course, he couldn’t count on himself either to tell if something was scary for the same and opposite reason: he was afraid of everything. This included the dark tunnel they were passing through.

                        This tunnel led to the Holy City, which according to Jacob and Joanie was where they were going to settle for a good while. Far ahead of them, leading the way, and out of sight were Angemon and Garurumon, and with them was the Commander, their prisoner. Angemon was taking him to stand trial, which made Michael think that the war must be essentially over. Still, he couldn’t shake his sense of foreboding. He didn’t know which idea was worse: that they might still be in mortal danger from the Virus, or that when the war was over they’d start trying to go home and find that they never could.

                        That last thought was the scariest of all, so he tried to think about something else. He looked at the walls, which were different than how they’d been at the entrance. From the entrance the tunnel looked like a deep, gigantic cave, but now everything was cramped and looked dug out instead of natural.

                        “Hey, little Humans.”

                        The voice made Michael jump. He looked over and saw a huge mole’s head with a drill for a nose coming out of the wall. He staggered backward and into Tatiana, and luckily not into the torch she held. She pushed him back forward again and said “Watch it, Michael,” before moving him again; this time to the side so she could get a better look at the mole-thing.

                        “Name’s Drimogemon,” said the mole-thing. “Mind giving a message to Angemon for me?”

                        Michael and Tatiana said nothing. Michael knew he was too intimidated to say anything, but he wondered why Tatiana didn’t say anything either. It couldn’t be fear, of course. Meanwhile, the Drimogemon continued. “Tell him we’re not going to re-dig the tunnel any bigger unless he tells us exactly how we’ll be compensated. We want something you can only find in the Vaccine city. If he gives us something unimpressive it might be bad for his health.”

                        The Drimogemon laughed and spun his drill-nose. Michael shook at the sight, but then Jacob caught up to them. “Just ignore him, guys. He can’t do anything to Angemon.”

                        “Are you sure about that, Human? I’ve never lost to a Vaccine before.”

                        “You ever beaten a Vaccine who can fly? Better hope he doesn’t decide to deliver payment above ground.”

                        Drimogemon grumbled something and disappeared again into the rock. Michael wished he could have a way with words like that, or at least be brave enough to say anything at all.

                        Joanie and the younger kids brought up the rear. “Drimogemon?” asked Joanie. She still sounded tired, Michael noticed. Just another thing to be worried about.

                        “Yeah,” said Jacob. “No biggie. Let’s keep moving, everyone.”

                        “Where’s Ross?” asked Carlos.

                        “Yeah, did we leave him behind?” added Krissy.

                        It looked to Michael like Joanie was about to say something, but Jacob beat her to it. “Ross had somewhere to go this morning with Unimon. They’ll catch up with us later. Now really, everyone walk. Take point, Tat.”

                        Tatiana started leading the kids further down the underground path. Michael noticed that the two older kids were hanging behind, and he found himself lagging as well to stay within earshot.

                        “…you’re not in trouble…” he heard Jacob say to Joanie, just barely. “…don’t know how I’d have reacted to………st forget abou…”

                        Michael stopped listening and hustled back to the others. He shouldn’t have done that. He could hear his mom telling him why it’s wrong to eavesdrop. He didn’t know what exact words she would have used because he was still a stupid kid, but he knew her precise tone for that situation. Not harsh but very firm, and she would make him rephrase it so she knew that he understood. He missed his mom.

                        When he reached them, the other kids were chatting. “Why isn’t Biyomon coming with us?” asked Jamie.

                        Tatiana answered him. “She’s got to look after the Viximon, but Angemon said that Data-types aren’t allowed in the Holy City.”

                        “That’s dumb,” said Nathan. “Why’s that have to be the rule?”

                        “Dunno,” said Tatiana. “We should ask them to change their minds.”

                        Before long Jacob and Joanie were back with the group as well. And after what felt like forever, the tunnel widened and looked like a natural cave again. Ahead of them some dozens of yards stood Angemon. He held a gold staff, and all around him the air looked like it was charged with electricity. The walls at that point of the tunnel were like molten lava that somehow stayed in place.

                        “Move quickly, Humans,” said Angemon. “This is the weak point in the field, but it’s not safe to dawdle even while I’m here.”

                        Tatiana ran on through, and the younger kids reluctantly followed her. Joanie and Jacob went next, perfectly composed of course. Michael passed through last. It tingled his skin, but like everyone else he was unscathed.

                        Suddenly Michael realized that Angemon shouldn’t be alone. “Angemon, where’s—”

                        “Garurumon has him, and he’s with some agents from the Holy City whom we met up with. Don’t concern yourself over it and stay with the others.”

                        Michael nodded and hustled back to the rest of the crowd again. It was sort of a relief that the Commander was that far ahead of them now. Michael had still never seen his face, and that was the way he wanted it.

                        They kept walking for what felt like another mile, and Michael was getting tired. What he saw next though made any feeling of fatigue disappear. The natural stone pathway led to an underground road of marble. It was lined with columns that were gilded with bright gold. He marveled at the sight, and could hardly wait to see what kind of city the road led to. He didn’t have to wait for long.

                        After a sharp bend in the road, the tunnel ended and they emerged onto a bridge that must have been four hundred above ground. It was fortunate that there were guard rails, otherwise Michael might have darted back into the tunnel on the spot. Instead he looked forward, and saw a more magnificent structure than he could have imagined. The Holy City appeared as a massive stone rotunda surrounded by gold towers that rose almost as tall as the un-scalable cliffs and mountains that surrounded the place. There were more windows on the main city and the towers than he could count. There was no blue in the sky above them, but rather rapidly swirling clouds that glowed with their own light.

                        But as much as the city itself took Michael’s breath away, it paled in comparison to what he saw behind it. Rising above the tallest peak was a stone angel so large that to call it a colossus would have made it sound too small. Its bare feet seemed to be pressing into the mountain, not as though they had been carved from there but as if they had been planted firmly upon landing. Michael recognized at once that it was nearly identical to the statue they had seen upon finding Ross after the first battle. It had two wings spread wide to keep it on balance, it wore a simple cloth blindfold, and with its right arm it pointed somewhere far to the north.

                        “I reacted the same way when I first saw it.”

                        Michael was jarred back to the moment by Angemon, who had a proud smile on his face. Michael wanted to express all the wonderful thoughts he had about the city and the gigantic statue, but he didn’t know where to begin.

                        “The true beauty of the City is inside, though,” continued Angemon. “Let’s catch up to your friends.”

                        It was only then that Michael noticed that the rest of the company was far ahead. He ran after them while Angemon floated easily beside him. Soon he was with Jacob and Joanie again, who were also having trouble articulating their opinions.

                        How did they build it all?” asked Joanie.

                        All Jacob could offer as an answer was, “Man, just…man.”

                        As they came close to the main doorway, Michael finally found some words of substance. “It’s like what you think a cathedral or a stadium looks like when you’re too little to know they’re not actually that big, only this is for real.”

                        Joanie laughed. “Yeah, I can see it. That’s good, Michael.”

                        They passed through the open doors which towered above their heads and were adorned with intricate carvings of angels’ wings. There was only one Vaccine in the grand foyer waiting to meet them, and he was more than enough.

                        “Agumon!” cried many of them, but Tatiana the loudest as they mobbed the little orange dinosaur. Jacob and Joanie hung back for a moment as if they were unsure if this was their Agumon. Michael didn’t know what their problem was. He could tell right away that this was their Agumon, as could apparently all the younger kids.

                        “Long time no see!” said Agumon with a laugh as every kid either gave him a hug or shook his claws. Of course, it had only been a few days, even if it had felt like a very long few days.

                        Michael was the last to get in his hand/claw-shake, and as soon as he did Tatiana cut straight to the chase. “You’ve got to tell us everything that happened! Right now!”

                        Michael noticed Agumon take a quick glance at Angemon before he scratched his head. “Gee, I dunno. It’s a pretty scary story.”

                        This of course led to a very loud interrogation from the younger kids that kind of gave Michael a headache. He found himself stepping back a bit and looking up at the towering ceiling. It was covered with complex geometric patterns, and as much as Michael was taken by their beauty he was also frustrated at how he couldn’t tell what logic underpinned the angles and curves. It was unpredictable, but never quite random. It had flow and direction, and each little section of it looked uncannily similar to the larger picture. He wished he had a word for what it was and wondered if they would cover this kind of thing in middle school.

                        Before he knew it, the pattern had taken him into some other hallway and he was alone. This was exactly the sort of thing that should have scared him, seeing as it fell under the umbrella of ‘everything,’ but he was calm. The place felt like a church, and it felt good to go to church again after so long. Joanie had explained to him that God was understanding when something beyond your control kept you away from church—as long as you still wanted to go, which he did. But that never stopped him from feeling guilty about how he didn’t even know what day was Sunday anymore.

                        On that note, there was one key difference between this place and church on a Sunday: where the church would be crowded, this place felt nearly abandoned. He hadn’t seen any locals yet, even though he’d been walking around for somewhere between five and thirty minutes. Admittedly he had spent most of that time looking at the ceiling and he had no idea how long he had actually been by himself, but it was still weird that there was nobody around.

                        Michael decided it was time to head back, not that he knew which way he had entered this hall from because he had turned around a few times while staring upward. He picked a direction and walked that way until he came to a wooden door. Something compelled him to knock, and when he did the door opened on its own. Seeing this as an invitation, he passed the threshold and was enveloped with warm air. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the room’s soft candlelight.

                        It was a library. There were shelves and shelves of very old-looking books and a few ornate, wooden desks. At the end of the room Michael could see a balcony, and past that one of the library’s lower floors. He walked up to the railing, and when he looked up he saw that there were dozens of floors above him. Then he made the mistake of looking down.

                        He must have been on the hundredth floor. The drop was so far that he couldn’t see the bottom. There was a crawling sensation in his stomach: something that told him the railing was too short and that he would fall over it and then down for miles and miles after which he would land on his head and die. He stumbled back from the edge, and couldn’t calm down until he hugged the floor well away from the balcony for a minute.

                        When his heart slowed down and he could breathe normally, he stood up. He would be all right so long as he stayed away from the balcony. Instead he went to the nearest desk, which had a large book sitting open on it. He sat down and began to read.

                        It was a difficult book. It described some mathematical principles in words that he had never heard of and had to skip over. But then he came across a word, no, a name that he recognized. ‘Babbage.’

                        He had read it before, either in one of his classes or maybe when he was just browsing Wikipedia. He knew that Babbage had something to do with very early computers. And sure enough, the next page in the book described Babbage’s design for an ‘Analytical Engine,’ which Michael interpreted to mean ‘computer,’ and he was correct. He read other words and phrases that he could make sense of on the page, such as ‘programmable’ and ‘punch card.’ He was so enraptured, so amazed to find a book like this in the new world that he didn’t notice he had company until she said, “That’s some impressive reading.”

                        Michael jumped a little, as he nearly always did when someone unexpected showed up. Sitting on all fours on the far edge of the desk was a cat, though Michael knew by now that it was obviously not just a cat. “I’m Gatomon. What’s your name, Human?”

                        Gatomon had white fur accented with purple. It wore gloves on its front paws that had holes for the long claws that were common among the ’mons. All that was strange, but what grabbed Michael’s attention the most was the bright gold ring that hung at the end of Gatomon’s tail. It didn’t grip her tail, but just hung in place as if there were no other place it could possibly be, gravity be danged.

                        “I’m Michael. I’m here with…uh…”

                        “You’re here with the other Humans, I know. Don’t worry, I’m not here to throw you out. It’s wonderful to have someone from the Holy World to read the books. So how well can you read?”

                        Michael wasn’t sure how to answer. It wouldn’t mean much to say that his English teacher thought he was reading at a seventh grade level. “Uh…above average?”

                        “What’s average for a Human? How well do you read that book there?”

                        Michael was still at a loss, so he decided to simply give her a demonstration. “It says, ‘What follows is a proof that Babbage’s Analytical Engine is in fact Turing-complete, putting it in the same general category as any modern mainframe computer.’”

                        Gatomon’s eyes lit up. “Outstanding! And you know what all of those words mean?”

                        “Well…no. I don’t know what ‘Turing-complete’ means, or what exactly it means by ‘mainframe’ either. I can say them out loud, anyway.”

                        “Then you read better than any Adult-level I know, including me. Do all Humans read so well?”

                        Michael thought for a moment. He hated being technically correct but misleading. “I read a bit better than most kids my age, but most humans are older and read way better than I do. I bet Joanie could make sense of this book.”

                        Gatomon stood on her hind legs to get a better look at the words on the page. “Simply marvelous. I suppose it only makes sense that one of the Creators could read and understand a Creator’s writing. I’ll have to have you and this Joanie come read with Angewomon—together I’m sure you’d be able to decipher anything in the library.”

                        “So this book is from our world?”

                        Gatomon smiled and nodded. “It is, as is every book. I have it on authority from MagnaAngemon himself.”

                        Michael looked around at the extensive shelves, and pictured the countless floors above and below them. He couldn’t imagine this many books had been written in human history. “You said ‘every book.’ Is every book here?”

                        “I’d be greatly surprised, though I suspect we have at least one book on most of the secrets of the Holy World: countless examples of frightening beauty and terrible power. I’m almost glad I can scarcely read any of it.”

                        Michael believed her, but he couldn’t help but think there was little in the way of ‘terrible power’ in a book about mechanical computers. “What kind of terrible power?”

                        Gatomon made a knowing little meow. “I couldn’t tell you exactly, like I said. But terrible enough—it is written—to humble the Ultimate-levels of antiquity. So to say, terrible enough that we can’t let just anyone into this city.”

                        Michael swallowed. This was the closest thing to an actual reason he had heard for the existence of the gigantic storm that surrounded them above and stirred the earth into fire below.

                        Gatomon spoke again, still cheerfully but with a new layer of earnestness. “Do not be afraid, Michael. We will never allow those who have no reverence for the Holy World to enter the Holy City.”

                        *********

                        When they finally removed the hood from Ross’s head, he was sitting in the middle of a small, indoor amphitheater. He was in the Holy City, though this room was all he had seen of it. This was the city that he had sustained deep wounds to protect, and the city he had later sold out, thinking it was in the hands of his enemy.

                        He was dressed in the clothes of the same enemy. Joanie had tried to disguise him as himself, but it didn’t work. Now he was someone else again, so that the children wouldn’t accidentally see him clapped in irons. They would only see the Commander, and then Jacob or Joanie would rush them away because it was dangerous.

                        Sitting on elevated chairs in front of Ross were two angels, one male and one female. Like Angemon they wore helmets that covered their eyes, though theirs were far more ornate. They each had eight wings, and their armor was trimmed in regal purple. Without having to ask, Ross could intuit that they were Perfect-levels. Just as with Angemon, he could feel their invisible gaze pressing down on him, but theirs was even more pronounced.

                        Words were said, and Ross only half-listened to them. He got the gist, which was that MagnaAngemon and Angewomon—the he and the she respectively—were to determine whether he was guilty of treason and the murder of non-combatants. Over the long, painful hours since he had awoken—since he recovered his memories both before and after the Black Sword had devoured his mind—he had tried to settle for himself the same question of his culpability. He knew that most of the time the Commander had been a truly different person. The pure sadism, the unapologetic delight in the pain and death of others, came from a monstrous spirit that took his body captive and left him with incongruous memories. He knew that wasn’t him.

                        But he also knew law and philosophy. No drunk driver was ever absolved with the excuse that he wasn’t in his right mind when he decided to get behind the wheel. If he knew he would lose all control upon drinking, he took responsibility for whatever crimes he would commit the moment he decided to drink. And Ross had killed those who posed no threat to him when he was in his right mind: first a Gizamon whose imminent surrender he conveniently ignored, and later the DarkLizamon when he felt that his Gazimon wouldn’t evolve unless he called for blood. And perhaps most telling of all, he absolutely would have killed the Commander when he was an unarmed prisoner if fate hadn’t intervened. He might have done so even if he knew that in just a year or so that would be him.

                        As for treason, that was cut and dry. He was a de facto soldier in Angemon’s army, and had agreed to wipe the Holy City off the face of the planet.

                        So when they asked for his plea, Ross answered without hesitation. “Guilty.”

                        Ross heard murmurs of surprise and skepticism all around, so he turned his head to look. In the crowd of only a dozen or so there were some Angemon, some cat-like Vaccines he didn’t recognize, and lastly Jacob and Joanie. He couldn’t stand to see them now, so he looked back to MagnaAngemon and Angewomon right away. Jacob had appeared angry, but Joanie just seemed very sad.

                        When the whispers died down, MagnaAngemon spoke. “Do you mean to forfeit the rest of your trial, then? We are ready to listen to any alibis you may have.”

                        Ross didn’t care. More than anything else he just wanted to crawl in a hole and die. Or perhaps he wanted to be in the crowd, listening to the Commander’s mockery of a testimony in righteous disgust. But the Commander was gone now. All that he left behind for Ross was guilt and a cavity in his chest which before he had tried to hide with rage.

                        When it was clear Ross that wouldn’t answer, an Angemon—their Angemon—spoke up instead. “May I be allowed to speak to the prisoner, masters?”

                        The Perfect-levels’ heads were still, but they seemed to be consulting each other. “You may,” said Angewomon.

                        “Ross,” said their Angemon, “I will not dispute your plea, but it may be beneficial to yourself to still give a full explanation. There is still the matter of the obvious difference in character between how you are now and how you were only twenty-four hours ago, to say nothing of how there were somehow two of you at once. If you are worried that your reputation will be hurt by your testimony, you shouldn’t be. Remember that in our eyes you are already a traitor, a murderer, and a sadist, but I for one would rather be proven wrong. In light of your past service, I would rather hear your story.”

                        Ross swallowed. He longed for ignorance. If he could but say that he remembered nothing of the past year—if he could be miserable in confusion instead of miserable in clarity—he would jump at the opportunity. But that wasn’t the case, and he couldn’t pretend it was the case without dying of shame. On top of that, there was an overwhelming danger that he had brought into the world and had avoided thinking about until now. He had to tell them or it would mean certain death for everyone in the room.

                        So he started from the beginning of his wrongdoing. He explained what he had thought and felt while fighting for Angemon, where he had gone after he tried to kill the Commander, everything WaruPiximon had told him in the Valley of Ruin, as many details of his training that he could recall, and all the events of his final night with the High Council of Virus.

                        The entire room was crushed with an ominous silence. In a small voice that no one would ever associate with one who had done what he had, Ross finished by summarizing the most pressing point. “The Devidramon I forced to evolve should reach the Ultimate level in about three weeks, if WaruPiximon’s math and mine is correct. It will destroy this city with ease soon afterward.”

                        The Adult-levels in attendance broke into disorderly discussion.

                        “How could one of the Race of Creators do such a thing?”

                        “I won’t believe it. This pitiful wretch’s strength is nothing compared to the Ultimate-levels.”

                        “Would you doubt the power of a Human here, of all places?”

                        Raising his voice above the others, the humans’ Angemon addressed the Perfect-levels again. “Masters, we must go on the offensive and destroy this abomination while we still can!”

                        “Impossible,” said MagnaAngemon. “You of all must know that our forces are too few. They would never reach the Council’s stronghold in time.”

                        “We might if you but led us there!”

                        “That, too, is impossible,” said Angewomon. “If we are not here to maintain the storm, then the Holy City may be taken instead of razed while we are away. It is better that this place be reduced to ash than the books of the Holy World fall into the wrong hands. We know at least that an evolution of Devidramon will be relentless in its attack.”

                        Ross bit his lip. As tempting as it was to remain silent, he couldn’t do so because of one thing from his story that the Vaccine had missed but he couldn’t let go unnoticed. “There—”

                        He stuttered, but everyone turned their attention to him. “There’s…In my view there’s only one way to repel the attack. That’s if w…that’s if you evolve an Ultimate-level of your own.”

                        The pressure from MagnaAngemon’s attention increased. “Can you do this for us?”

                        “No…I can’t. I learned how to work with the Virus, and I’m positive it wouldn’t work with any Vaccine. I…I don’t think someone like me ever could make a Vaccine evolve.”

                        Ross had to clear his throat before continuing. “It’s only a guess, but I think I know who might be able to help you. In the dream I described, I think I saw something of what WaruPiximon is afraid of. I don’t have evidence for it. I know that’s crazy, but—”

                        “We’re listening,” said MagnaAngemon.

                        “WaruPiximon didn’t want me to look a child in the eye. He isn’t even a little afraid of someone like me, but that kid terrified him. I think your only shot is with a human child.”

                        Ross looked around. Most of the Adult-levels did not seem convinced. Ross’s claim ran counter to their basic theory of what could provoke evolution. Evolution came from a surplus of power, so on its face it made no sense to entrust the job to someone whose physical potential was lower. Building his own strength was how Ross had come to a solution, but that was also at WaruPiximon’s prompting. After having been completely, inexcusably fooled, Ross would not risk playing into the monster’s hands again. If he had a lead as to what WaruPiximon thought could be disastrous, he would follow it.

                        One Vaccine at least thought the same way, and this was their Angemon. He nodded and addressed the Perfect-levels again. “I am in agreement with Ross. It would be wrong-headed to assume that Ross’s technique for the Virus would work on us. Also, this could explain why the Creators sent us more of their young than of their old.”

                        “It is true that there are many Human Child-levels among us,” said Angewomon, “But there is still the matter of knowledge and ability. I have read nothing in the library on the subject.”

                        Angemon turned his head to Ross. It seemed they were thinking the same thing. “I have a request,” said Ross.

                        Again all eyes were on him. To Ross’s surprise there was no immediate objection. “I don’t know how to evolve a Vaccine, but I know more about evolution in general than any of the other humans, maybe anyone period right now. I’d…Please—please let me coach a human child and a Vaccine-type to achieve evolution.”

                        The Perfect-levels regarded him sternly. “Do you have a Human and a Vaccine in mind?” asked MagnaAngemon.

                        “Two of our human children I think have the aptitude for it. Their names are Tatiana and Michael. If possible I’d like both of them in case one of them fails.”

                        “That is reasonable,” said Angewomon.

                        “Then for the Vaccines I want the two strongest that they’re familiar with. Those would be Angemon here and Garurumon.”

                        “Angemon is out of the question,” said MagnaAngemon. “We cannot play our best soldier on a million-to-one gamble. He will stay with the regular army.”

                        Angemon frowned. It was obvious to Ross that he wasn’t in agreement. Whether the disagreement was with the projected odds or with the decision regardless of the odds was another question. Ross didn’t agree with the odds himself, but only by a factor of ten or a hundred. It had been presumptuous to ask for that much to begin with. And as long as he was betting against strength being the solution anyway, he decided to ask for something he knew they would accept. “Then there’s an Agumon they know well. I want him and Garurumon.”

                        “Hmm,” was the only answer MagnaAngemon made. Angewomon didn’t say anything either. They weren’t ready to give final agreement, and Ross knew it wasn’t because he was asking for two Vaccine-types. It was a matter of trust, and he couldn’t fault their hesitance even a little. If he had been in their place, he never would have given the Commander the freedom to move his arms. But here he was asking them to trust two soldiers, one valiant and one invaluable, to the same Commander.

                        “I’m so sorry,” said Ross. It wasn’t time for reasoning. He could only hope to assuage their fears that he was still a killer. “I was selfish and cruel. I’ve doomed us all, and the only thing I want is to make it right. Please.”

                        There was silence for the following two minutes. At length, Angewomon spoke. “For the sake of this Angemon’s confidence, we will permit the Agumon of your choosing and Garurumon to follow your teaching, if they consent.”

                        “However,” said MagnaAngemon. “Know that in doing this we gamble with our own, and we will only bend our laws so far. Because of your crimes, you may never step foot in the Holy City again. You have twelve hours to leave, at which time you will face penalty of death for any continued presence here.”

                        Between his gratitude and his shame, Ross couldn’t bring himself to say anything more. Angemon then walked over and put his hand on his shoulder. “Come with me. Your preferred clothes will be returned to you.”

                        Ross slowly rose to his feet. The chains made it difficult to stand and walk. He supposed he might be strong enough to break them off outright, but he found the idea repulsive now. He had only ever been strong when he was either overwhelmingly angry or under the cloud of the Black Sword. Even though he could still feel that strength in his limbs, he was afraid to ever act at all like the Commander again. So he shuffled forward. He looked behind briefly to see if Joanie and Jacob were still there. Jacob was glaring at him, and Joanie was staring at her shoes.

                        When they had exited the room, Angemon moved his hands over Ross’s bonds and they removed themselves. “I am still angry and disappointed with you,” said Angemon, “But I also still believe in the victory that awaits us at the end of time, and that you and your friends were sent in service of that victory.”

                        Angemon led him down a hallway to a small, bare room. Ross supposed it was the same one he had waited in before the trial, though he couldn’t see it then. His clothes were lying in a heap in the corner. “You know I don’t believe in any of that, right?” said Ross. He figured there was no point in hiding anything anymore. “I don’t think we’re ‘Creators,’ or that we were sent by any, or that there are any. As for the end of time, the only one I’ve met in this world who demonstrated he could probably see the future was WaruPiximon. He knew my name even though I wouldn’t arrive from our world for nearly a year, and he didn’t seem convinced that the Vaccine are going to win in the end.”

                        In respect for Ross’s privacy, Angemon moved the pressure of his attention off of him and towards the wall. “I can’t say anything for or against this WaruPiximon’s foresight, and you have always made it clear that you don’t see any particular design behind your presence here. Regardless, I trust you. Though you reject the Creators—whom I might add we recognize as the ultimate source of good across all worlds—and though you have never named ‘evil’ as your enemy and ‘good’ as your ally, I know now that you understand the difference, and that you will not be tricked by the empty promises of evil again.”

                        Ross frowned as he changed. “How’s that?” he asked. He was doing this to save the lives he had endangered, not to pick a side in a metaphysical exercise.

                        “Your dream.”

                        The words pressed against Ross’s heart, and he froze in place. Angemon continued. “The figure of the child in your dream and the pure glow in its eyes was not a coincidence. To those of us who know that we of Creation are all petty, cruel, and vindictive creatures, to gaze upon and recognize the goodness of our Creators is a terrible pain. Our eyes are best suited to darkness, and their light is like the sun at noon in the desert. This is not rhetoric or analogy. It is the truth of this world, and it manifested exactly so in your dream.”

                        Ross finished changing and shook his head. Angemon was beginning to sound like a charismatic, evangelical sap who would see some nonsense in a dream, make some stuff up to fill the gaps, and call it revelation.

                        “You doubt me,” said Angemon, “But your dream speaks closer to my experience than you would ever guess. Look here and I will show you.”

                        Ross looked as Angemon rose his hands to his helmet. Angemon removed it with difficulty, and what Ross saw underneath it made him swallow his tongue. The angel’s eyes were twice as large as a human’s, and they were strained so red that Ross wondered if some blood vessels had burst. They had no irises, only pupils that seemed to be burned into place. Similarly, the skin all around Angemon’s eyes was covered in fresh burns, at least where there wasn’t scar tissue.

                        “Those of my order have been gifted with eyes of great sensitivity to light of all kinds: the light of the sun, the light of the truth, and the light of our Creators. To us these helmets are like thin veils that barely keep us from going blind. It is an embarrassment that our Creators thought shielding us from this pain was necessary, and a greater embarrassment still that we cannot bear to go without the protection for a minute.”

                        Even if Ross didn’t believe the spiritual claims, he couldn’t deny the obvious, constant pain that Angemon must have suffered. He could feel the intense burn that the dream had inflicted on his own eyes just by looking at Angemon’s unprotected face. Angemon gritted his teeth and returned his helmet to its proper place.

                        “WaruPiximon wanted you to turn your eyes away rather than bear even a little of the pain, which I am sure is what he has done himself. That which is good hurts him, so he calls that which is good ‘evil’ and that which is comfortable ‘good’ instead. But you, like us, did not turn your eyes away. In your heart of hearts you were not fooled, and so you felt the pain and still feel it now.”

                        Ross remained at a loss for words. All of his arguments against spiritual claims were intellectual, and that had always been enough. He had never been confronted with a spiritual perspective that aligned with his own experience and feelings. Angemon was still wrong, but he was compellingly wrong.

                        “You have three choices by my count if you wish to ease this pain. You can take on WaruPiximon’s delusions, you can live in madness like the Commander, or you can change yourself to match the child in your dream. I believe you will choose rightly now that you understand our enemy.”

                        Ross didn’t think that Angemon’s trust was at all well-founded, but he couldn’t help but feel a little relieved about it. “Then again,” said Ross, “It won’t matter what I choose if Michael and Tatiana don’t trust me anymore. I think I’ve already lost Michael, and when they learn the truth I don’t think they’ll be able to look me in the eye again.”

                        “We’ll see. You may be underestimating them.”

                        “If you mean you think they might forgive me, I’d use the word ‘overestimating’ instead.”

                        Angemon frowned. Ross however decided to change the subject before they could argue about the matter. “Anyway, I have a question before I have to leave.”

                        “Ask anything.”

                        “I don’t know which direction to go. I’d rather not go back southwest because the Virus army is still around, and I don’t know what’s past the other exits.”

                        “The answer would depend on what you want to find wherever you want to go.”

                        Ross had put a little thought into this question already. “I want to go somewhere that best suits the Vaccine, so the kids can understand them completely. For the Virus I used a wasteland where it was always raining—somewhere where the earth was dead and the sky was active. That hit a chord with them.”

                        Angemon sighed. “Then I’m afraid you’re out of luck. This place is the home of the Vaccine, and we never truly belong anywhere else we go. I wish I could persuade my superiors to let you teach the children here, but that is beyond my station.”

                        Ross had suspected this would be the answer. He supposed he would pick a direction at random or just leave it up to Garurumon.

                        “However…” Angemon apparently had something else to say, but he trailed off.

                        “What?”

                        “…If you want them to understand us—and few of us do ourselves—then you should go north.”

                        Ross waited for Angemon to continue, but he didn’t. “…What’s up north?”

                        “There is a very old trail that leads from the northern tunnel. I’ve heard it’s barely visible in spots anymore, but you should be able to follow it.”

                        “You didn’t answer my question. Where does the trail go?”

                        Angemon didn’t answer for a good while. “…As recompense for all the trouble you’ve caused me personally, I’d rather you never ask me to speak of what’s there. All I will say is this: you cannot fully understand either the Virus or the Vaccine unless you understand them both. Go north, and you will. It shouldn’t be dangerous—almost nobody lives there now.”

                        Ross wasn’t happy with the explanation. “Now you’re just being cryptic. I think we’re done here.”

                        Angemon didn’t object. It seemed Ross was doing him a kindness by not interrogating him further. In any case, he had a direction now. If Angemon was right, then that was where they had to go. He just hoped the kids could handle whatever it was if it made Angemon like this.

                        *********

                        Joanie was still in the amphitheater where Ross’s trial had taken place. Jacob was sitting next to her, but otherwise the place was deserted. She was staring into space and still trying to process everything that had happened and was about to happen. Despite the intense emotional whiplash she was still suffering, she knew she had to be calm and collected, or at least act like it again. There were lives at stake.

                        “Hey,” said Jacob with deep frustration in his voice, “You know that Tatiana and Michael are going to go with him, right?”

                        Joanie nodded. She remembered when she had gone to find Ross and BlackAgumon after the first battle against the Commander. She hadn’t asked them to come with her; in fact she had told them to stay with the others at the Homestead. But when she was a mile away from the Homestead, there they were following her and trying not to be noticed. Michael had looked mortified when she spotted them and told them off, but Tatiana was obstinate and just sat on the ground, and Michael wouldn’t go back by himself. Joanie would have had to drag Tatiana back, and after trying to do so for five yards she gave up and let them come along.

                        All Ross or Angemon would have to say was ‘save everyone,’ and she knew those two would follow him. Perhaps if Garurumon and Agumon refused they might remain safe, but she didn’t think that was likely. They were soldiers, and she expected they would interpret permission to go as an order to go.

                        “It might be for the best,” said Joanie. “You saw what Ross can do…at the first battle, I mean. Maybe he can teach them how to save us.”

                        “Yeah, I saw. I’ve seen plenty of other things Ross has done, too. We can’t leave him alone with them.”

                        There was a palpable feeling of judgment in the way Jacob enunciated ‘Ross.’ What Joanie heard in her head was ‘That was indeed Ross I saw, but don’t ever talk about him like he isn’t an enemy.’

                        Joanie turned her head to look at Jacob again. The scowl that had been on his face during the trial was still there. He may have looked angry, but he was nothing like Ross was when he was angry. Jacob had never been honestly out of control in all the years Joanie had known him. Ross had always struck her as a deeply emotional person who fooled himself into thinking he was completely rational, but she often suspected that Jacob might be the real thing: someone whose decisions were one hundred percent the product of reasoning.

                        “They’ll have Garurumon and Agumon. They won’t be alone with him,” said Joanie.

                        Jacob looked her in the eye. “That won’t be enough. He could kill Agumon and the kids without breaking a sweat, and Garurumon can’t be awake all the time.”

                        “He wouldn’t do that. He never touched any of us till he was possessed.”

                        “You’re putting your trust in a psychopath.” It felt like Jacob was shoving her into a corner with his words. “Who says that whatever possessed him isn’t just dormant? For that matter, who says he wasn’t lying about how he blacked out before becoming the Commander? What if he’s faking?”

                        The idea was almost too awful for Joanie to bear, but fortunately for her she knew it was wrong. She had been there when Ross woke up. Nobody was that good at acting. “He wasn’t lying. I know he wasn’t.”

                        Jacob didn’t try to persuade her further on that point. She wondered if he actually believed it or if he was just changing tactics. “All right,” said Jacob, “But what if he just gets mad and kills them because he’s always been nuts?”

                        Joanie hated arguing like this. She didn’t want to fight over whether Ross was still a basket case; she wanted to decide what they were going to do about the children. “So if you don’t want them to go with Ross, do you want to tell Michael and Tatiana to say no, or just keep them away from him till he gets banished?”

                        “That’s not it. I think he needs to teach them. I just need to go and help Garurumon protect them from him.”

                        Joanie could barely believe what she was hearing. “You…You want Michael and Tatiana to be with someone you think might kill them?”

                        “Of course not, but it doesn’t matter what we want. What matters is that if a Virus who can blow up mountains is coming here, we have to take any help we can get to beat it, even if it means using a bastard like Ross.”

                        “So not only are you going to put Michael and Tatiana in danger, but you’ll take help from someone you think is the devil?”

                        “So what? If we can keep the devil on a leash, why not?”

                        Joanie didn’t know what was worse: Jacob admitting he thought a fellow human being was basically Satan, or Jacob saying he could force Satan to do something good. It was clear now they were going to take the same basic course of action, but she wouldn’t let him think that she agreed with him because that couldn’t be further from the truth. “Well, I’m coming too, but not because I think Ross would hurt us. I’m coming because he’s in shambles and he can’t manage two kids without my help.”

                        They stared daggers at each other. Neither would be moved. Only when they had calmed down a little did they move on to something they weren’t at such harsh odds about.

                        “Think the other kids will be fine without us?” asked Jacob.

                        “Yeah. I’ll tell Angemon to take them with him back to the camp, and I’ll tell them to stick with Biyomon. Michael and Tatiana need us more than they do, now.”

                        “That’s true,” said Jacob, for what she knew was a very different reason. “Then let’s go.”

                        They left the room. While they were navigating the hallways on their way back to the children, Jacob spoke again. “You’re making a big mistake. People like Ross don’t change. They’re born awful and they die awful.”

                        Joanie stopped in her tracks. “Take that back.”

                        Jacob looked back at her in confusion. Apparently he didn’t realize what had offended her. He didn’t take it back, but he didn’t keep at it either.

                        “Don’t you ever say that again,” said Joanie. She wouldn’t let him slander her deepest belief. She could deal with it when people denied the reality of the Cross and Resurrection, but not when they denied what it stood for. The truth of redemption, of universal salvation, was non-negotiable.

                        That, at least, was what she was counting on.
                        __________________
                        Old, Janky Fics
                        One-Shot Fics
                        Family (kind of?): Strange person who calls me strange names
                          #12    
                        Old September 4th, 2016 (6:41 AM).
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                          XII

                          Dying Forest, Dying World

                          There was a pivotal moment in Tatiana’s life that had stuck with her for years, and it involved her dad’s brother. Uncle Wilbur had been one of her favorite relatives when she was small. He had always done whatever he felt like, which was totally unlike the other adults on that side of the family. He would play pranks and tell inappropriate jokes at the table that made the kids laugh and made her grandparents mad. He showed them the album covers for his old records, and most of them were weird and funny, even though some made her a little uneasy. Then one day in late November her dad told her and her brothers that Uncle Wilbur wouldn’t be at Grandma’s for Christmas. She worried he might have died like Aunt Lucy had a few months prior, but her dad told her no, he was in jail.

                          Uncle Wilbur had been doing something very bad at his job for a long time. Her dad said he was dangerous, and that they weren’t going to visit him in prison. He would get out when she was an adult, he said, and that she could decide for herself if she wanted to see him again then. At first it made her sad and a little sick that she might never see her uncle again, but before long that changed. As she came to understand more she grew relieved that he was far away, but in a sense this was worse because at the same time her memories had been ruined forever. Everything Uncle Wilbur had done that had once been funny and friendly was now twisted and disgusting. It was like someone had made a cake using salt instead of sugar. It still looked sweet, but on the inside it was the opposite.

                          This moment was what she thought of when Jacob and Joanie told her and Michael that Ross had been the Commander the whole time. Joanie could explain all she wanted about time travel and how an evil Virus monster had put a spell on him, but she couldn’t hide the fact that it was still Ross’s fault. She couldn’t stop Tatiana’s memories from changing. Ross had fought for them and been very brave was what she had thought, but now she knew he was just a crazy person who happened to be on their side. He killed their enemies because he had to kill someone, and he didn’t kill the other kids because he didn’t feel like it.

                          She wasn’t showing much emotion on her face as the teenagers told them this. It wasn’t as much of a shock as it should have been because Michael had seen most of it coming. She glanced over at his face, and he was clearly furious. She saw that Michael stayed this way until Jacob finally quit beating around the bush and came to the point: they were all doomed. They were all going to die unless she, Michael, Agumon, and Garurumon could pull off a miracle with the help of a psycho.

                          Joanie tried to tell them it wasn’t that bad. “Listen, it’s all right if you don’t want to do it. We can still escape, and there’s still MagnaAngemon and Angewomon. They might be able to stop it. We just think this is something you two can do, if you want to.”

                          Tatiana didn’t buy it for a second. She looked at Michael again, and clearly he didn’t believe her either. In fact, he looked like he thought they were going to die in three minutes instead of three weeks. He was hopeless, and it made Tatiana a little embarrassed for him. She was scared too, of course, but this was their chance. She knew she’d regret it forever if they didn’t try to save everyone, so she gave their answer before Michael had a chance to mess things up. “We want to do it.”

                          Jacob and Joanie looked at Michael to see if he agreed, but Tatiana kept looking straight forward. She’d spoken for him, so it couldn’t look like she didn’t know what he was thinking. And to be fair, she was almost positive that Michael agreed with her deep down but was too big of a scaredy-cat to say so. She was just making it easier for him. It was like teaching a six year old who was afraid of water how to swim in the big kids’ pool: you just had to shove ’em in sometimes, even if your parents and the lifeguards put you in time-out for it. The analogy broke down a little because Michael was actually a year older than her, but in any case he did the right thing.

                          “Yeah,” said Michael. “We want to do it.”

                          Then it was settled. Before she knew it, they were all assembled to say goodbye just outside the main rotunda at the start of the northern bridge to the city. Tatiana and Michael stood on one side with the other adventurers: Agumon and Garurumon to evolve and save the day, and Joanie and Jacob to provide safety in numbers. On the other side were the younger kids: Rebecca, Nathan, Steven, Carlos, Krissy, and Jamie, all of whom were still too small to take on this dangerous quest. This was what Tatiana had wanted for a long time, and she felt a little sorry for the other kids. If she was scared it was mostly in a good way.

                          But it wasn’t quite right. There was one thing that kept this from being the right kind of adventure: Ross. He was walking up to the group now, and Angemon was accompanying him.

                          “Aaah!”

                          “Ross, what happened to your face?”

                          The younger kids hadn’t seen Ross’s wound yet. Tatiana had, so it wasn’t a surprise, but it still hurt to look at. The others also didn’t know what Ross actually was, so to them the scar looked like it didn’t belong.

                          “It’s not as bad as it looks,” said Ross. “It doesn’t hurt.”

                          Ross didn’t sound any different from before. It made Tatiana angry that he could act as if nothing was wrong, and even angrier that she had to go along with it for the little kids’ sakes. Ross joined her and the rest of the party, and Angemon stayed next to the others.

                          “Why do you all have to go?” asked Rebecca.

                          Ross looked away from them, and Garurumon answered her. “This is the most important mission yet by far, and we need all the help we can get. You will be much safer here, even if we’re all away.”

                          The kids didn’t seem happy with the answer. Carlos objected, but was having trouble saying what he meant. “But…But we’ve never…”

                          Joanie then got on one knee so she was at about their eye level. “Hey, Carlos, do this for me.” She rolled up her sleeve and flexed her bicep. Carlos did likewise, but it looked a little sad with how timid he was about it.

                          “See?” said Joanie. “All muscle.” She was smiling. It was obvious to Tatiana that she was nearly beat, but she was still smiling. In Tatiana’s book that was how all adventurers should be.

                          “Really?”

                          “What about mine?” Krissy flexed hers as well, and Joanie nodded with approval.

                          “Yup. You’ve all gotten so much stronger, so I know you can handle it.”

                          “That’s right!” said Agumon. “Less fat and more muscle all around.”

                          Some of them were starting to tear up. Tatiana hoped this wouldn’t turn into a water-works.

                          “We’ll only be gone for three weeks,” said Joanie. “Till then, we need you to do everything Angemon tells you. Do it right away, and exactly like he says. Same goes with Biyomon whenever you see her next. Can you do that for us?”

                          The kids nodded. Now it was time for the really long goodbye hugs and handshakes between everyone on one side and everyone on the other. Everyone got a hug from Joanie, Ross only gave handshakes and quick ones, and most of the kids wanted a high-five from Jacob. A lot of them patted Garurumon on the head, and Tatiana couldn’t help but giggle at how the giant wolf humored them and made nothing of it. Agumon was all smiles and reassurances; Michael did his best to put on a brave face but couldn’t have fooled anyone; and Tatiana imagined herself to be somewhere between the extremes.

                          The last goodbye, or almost the last, came from Angemon. “Farewell, Humans. I wish I could give you more help than just two soldiers. I hope that providence may settle the difference.”

                          “Don’t worry!” said Tatiana, trying to sound as brave as possible. She hoped it worked. She and the other adventurers started for the bridge. They had everything they needed packed up, and all that was left was to wave as they walked off. That was the last goodbye, for real, and soon they had left the Holy City behind. When Tatiana looked up, she noticed that they were walking in the same direction that the giant, stone angel pointed.

                          *********

                          It was almost dark and Tatiana was getting a little tired when they emerged from the northern tunnel. Ross led them over the bluff that hid the cave and then they saw what kind of country they had entered. It made Tatiana think of the Blue Ridge Mountains in winter: low, rounded hills that only her friend from around there would call ‘mountains’ that were totally covered with leafless trees. The troubling thing though was that it was warm enough to be spring. All the trees to the south of the Holy City had been green, which meant these ones were just dead.

                          “We’re looking for a trail going north,” said Ross. “Keep your eyes open.”

                          They walked down a steep, rocky slope and soon they were at the edge of the woods. Now that they were closer, Tatiana saw that some of the trees did have a few leaves, but they made a very small minority. The group slowed down as Ross scanned the area for a path, which was no easy feat with such little daylight.

                          “There,” said Garurumon. “Fifty feet to your right.”

                          Ross strained his eyes and then nodded. They made their way to the trail and resumed their hike. It was rough going, and Tatiana had to stay alert for roots. Soon Joanie said, “It’s pretty dark. Maybe we should stop for the night.”

                          “No,” said Ross. “We’re too short on time.”

                          Which meant, Tatiana realized, that if it weren’t for her and Michael Ross would be running to wherever they were going, and very fast. It didn’t occur to her that from this point of view Joanie and Jacob were also slowing them down.

                          Finally, when it really was almost too dark to see, they stopped. Jacob gathered some dead branches from the ground for a fire, which Agumon started with his breath. The humans unraveled their packs to use as blankets, and they all settled down. Tatiana liked camping a lot, in fact it was a big silver lining on the fact that they were stranded here. But the camping wasn’t any fun that night, probably because no one was talking. All through their meager dinner not a single word was said. It wasn’t until half an hour later that anyone spoke at all.

                          “Where are we going, Ross?” asked Jacob in a cold voice.

                          “Wherever’s at the end of this trail. Angemon’s suggestion. He wasn’t very specific.”

                          “You’d better have a plan.”

                          “Yeah.”

                          And that was that. While the teenagers and the ’mons settled the watch order, Tatiana laid down to sleep. She had a terribly hard time at it. She tossed, turned, and when she decided that the tossing and turning wasn’t doing any good she stared straight up with her eyes open. The clouds were thick and there were no stars. Eventually she slipped off for a few hours but woke up in the middle of the night and got restless. She sat up, and saw that Agumon was on lookout. He sat with his back to the fire and looked this way and that. Tatiana got up and decided to join him.

                          “Can’t sleep?” asked Agumon.

                          “No.”

                          “I know I won’t be able to. I can’t wait to evolve! This is going to be great!”

                          Tatiana was taken aback at Agumon’s certainty, and even more so at how pure his enthusiasm was. There wasn’t a trace of the hesitation that everyone else clearly felt. “You’re not worried about…um…” She took a glance over at Ross, who was sound asleep.

                          “What’s there to worry about?”

                          Now Tatiana wondered how much they had told Agumon. “You know that he’s…you know who he is, right?”

                          “Of course!” said Agumon, who then realized he was probably too loud and started to whisper pretty loudly instead. “We never dreamed that the Commander would become a good guy, or a good guy again I guess.”

                          “You’re not…mad at him at all?”

                          “Well, yeah, of course I am. I can be mad at someone and still be glad they’re here. We might have a chance to win the war now.”

                          “But if it weren’t for him there wouldn’t be a giant monster coming our way!”

                          Agumon nodded. “Yeah, it’d be better if he hadn’t done that. But try to understand: up until recently we didn’t think the war was ever going to end. We just kept killing each other and building up our strength again at the same pace. It’s definitely going to be over soon now, and I’m sure we’re going to win.”

                          Tatiana didn’t feel that way, at least not completely. She or Michael would have to do something they’d never even seen done before, and they had so little time to do it. She was just as excited as Agumon on the thought of doing it, but whenever she thought about it too much it seemed impossible. She didn’t like being so wishy-washy, and would’ve rather felt like Agumon if she could. “Well, I’ll do my best. I think I can get stronger, but not as strong as Ross, so I don’t know how I’m going to evolve you all those levels. And I don’t know about Michael.”

                          “Don’t worry so much. They wouldn’t have brought you guys here if it wasn’t going to work out.”

                          Tatiana remembered a conversation that went something like this. It felt like years ago now. “Didn’t Angemon say once that we don’t know how it’s going to end, even if someone did send us for a good reason?”

                          Agumon laughed a little. “I think Angemon just has to think that way because he’s in charge of stuff. If he thought the whole future was set in stone, then he couldn’t do his job right. Our job’s easy though. We just have to do our best and be where the smart people like Angemon say we should be, so it’s okay for us to know how it’s going to end. Does that make sense?”

                          Tatiana certainly didn’t agree, but she thought he at least had a point. It was kind of like time travel, or at least like the little rocks that kind of did time travel. Once the sparks showed up, things were definitely going to work out so that the rock hit something, but it wouldn’t be like magic. It had to happen in a way that made sense. So if there was no way for them to win while Angemon thought they were destined to win, then the fact that he didn’t think they were destined to win (even though he seemed like maybe he should because of all his talk about the Holy World) might be sign that they actually were destined to win, unless that’s all stupid and doesn’t make sense, and now Tatiana was getting a headache from thinking too many things at once.

                          “Ugh, I dunno.” Tatiana rubbed her temples. It was too late for this and that last convoluted thought had made her dizzy.

                          “Well, don’t worry about it anyway. You’re the strongest Human Child-level and I’m the strongest Vaccine Child-level, so if we don’t pull it off that means it was impossible!”

                          Tatiana smiled. She had to agree on that point.

                          “Wanna arm-wrestle?” asked Agumon.

                          “Yeah!”

                          It wasn’t much of a contest unless Agumon went a little easy on her. He didn’t let her win, but instead pushed just hard enough to test her endurance until she wore out and lost. Really it was a game just to see how long she could stay in it, and she could stay in it longer each time they played. Normally Tatiana normally hated it when anyone went easy on her, but in this case she didn’t mind because she just was a kid and he was a talking dinosaur, which never stopped being cool to her.

                          *********

                          When Michael woke up, he couldn’t open his left eye more than half-way for a solid minute. It had been this way for weeks now, and he suspected it was because he wasn’t sleeping well anymore. Eventually he sat up, and managed to focus. Everyone else was up except Tatiana and Agumon, and Jacob was stamping out the last remains of the fire. Garurumon noticed that he was awake, and said, “Good morning.”

                          “…Morning,” said Michael back. Despite his best effort, he couldn’t sound fully awake.

                          “You can lie down for a few minutes if you’re still tired,” said Joanie, who was doing some light stretching exercise.

                          Michael shook his head, both to dispel the sleep and to serve as part of his answer. “I’m okay.” He got on his feet, and walked around until he stopped feeling so groggy. A few minutes later he asked Garurumon, “Do you know how much farther it is to where we’re going?”

                          “You’ll have to ask Ross.”

                          That was out of the question. There was no way that Michael was going to talk to Ross unless he absolutely had to. Instead he sat down next to Garurumon and said nothing. One might have expected Ross to volunteer a reply but he didn’t say anything either, whether because he didn’t have an answer or just didn’t feel like speaking.

                          The rest of the early morning passed without incident. After everyone was awake and they had eaten a little, it was time to walk again. Even after all the months he had spent outdoors, Michael didn’t think he was much of a hiker. His legs always felt heavy, and he couldn’t go too far without tripping a little even if the path wasn’t covered in rocks and roots like it was here.

                          After the first mile, Garurumon whispered something to him so that Ross couldn’t hear from his place up front. “You’ll have to talk to him eventually. Like it or not, we need him.”

                          Michael frowned and whispered back, “I know.”

                          “You’re disappointed. It’s understandable. You can’t always choose your allies in war, though, and the path to survival may leave a bad taste in the mouth.”

                          Michael didn’t think he deserved the lecture; it wasn’t like he was going to ignore what Ross taught them. He just didn’t see why he should pretend to be friends with a murderer. Even on the very first night in the woods something had felt off about Ross. Michael hated him for having ever made it seem otherwise.

                          He didn’t whisper anything else to Garurumon, and their brief conversation stopped there. It was back to undistracted walking. The day dragged on, and Michael’s mind wandered between bouts of fatigue. He looked at the dead trees that surrounded them and wondered how long it had been since anything had been alive here. Then something caught his eye that showed he was mistaken: mushrooms. Scattered here and there were some tiny, tan mushrooms that were almost perfectly camouflaged.

                          Michael thought mushrooms were strange, and that was mostly because of conversations he’d had with his dad. When he was younger, Michael had always insisted on calling mushrooms ‘plants,’ even as his dad frequently corrected him. Now that he’d learned a little more from books about the different kingdoms of life he called them fungi, but he still thought he had made a valid point that his dad had ignored. Michael had been under the impression that people didn’t call fungi plants because they were plants that they didn’t like. Even now he didn’t feel embarrassed by the mistake because people like his dad made this kind of unscientific distinction all the time between flowers and weeds. They didn’t like the way dandelions looked in their yards, so they treated them like a different, unwanted category.

                          Michael didn’t understand why people wouldn’t just let their yards grow. Who cares if there are weeds or even mushrooms? Aren’t there people who prefer dandelions to boring old grass? It’s all growing stuff, and it’s all better than just dirt. Michael had a feeling that if they had yards in the Holy City, they’d be perfectly cut and there’d be no weeds in sight. No weeds and no Data-types or Virus-types either. He knew all the younger kids had the same feeling, and that they didn’t like it just as much as he didn’t. He loved the Holy City, especially the library, so why did there have to be this one stupid, ugly problem with it?

                          It wasn’t fair. Even after he had gone somewhere maybe a million miles away from home, the good guys were still wrong about stuff. The older kids weren’t any help. All they had ever said was ‘Don’t jump to conclusions…This is their home, not ours…We shouldn’t judge them when we don’t know the whole story…They’re taking care of us, so we don’t want to offend them.’ The teens could fool themselves, but they couldn’t fool the younger kids. They didn’t want to give their hosts a free pass for taking a wonderful place like the Holy City and making it less wonderful.

                          Michael was jarred back to the present when Garurumon suddenly spoke to the whole group. “There’s a Vaccine-type up ahead. It’s coming this way.”

                          Everyone stopped walking. “I don’t feel…no wait, there it is,” said Agumon.

                          “It’s moving fast,” added Garurumon.

                          “What do you think?” asked Jacob.

                          “It’s strange. I didn’t think any of us lived up here. There definitely aren’t any soldiers stationed nearby.”

                          There was a pause. The unspoken consensus seemed to be that they would wait for the stranger to appear. They didn’t have to wait long. Soon there was a sound of wings, and Garurumon looked upward.

                          Michael spotted it in a tree. It was a bird-like Vaccine that was similar to Biyomon in shape but was covered in black and purple feathers. His bright, yellow eyes had something odd about them.

                          “Falcomon,” said Garurumon. “He’s far from home.”

                          Falcomon scanned the group below him, and his eyes began to twitch. He then screeched at the top of his lungs and jumped from his branch. What followed was almost too quick for Michael to see. Falcomon swung his arm-wings and a visible, tearing gust burst forth. The gust was aimed straight at Ross, who swung his left arm with a grunt and sent the attack aside and into the dirt.

                          Michael was frozen in place. He hadn’t been this close to a real fight before. He was filled with dread at the thought of what the wind might do to him if he were in the way.

                          “Falcomon!” shouted Garurumon, “Stand down!”

                          Falcomon paid no attention and instead landed on another branch. He swung his wings again, and this time Michael didn’t actually see what happened. When he looked over, though, Ross had dove out of the way, and several feet behind him there were five black throwing stars embedded in the ground.

                          Agumon reared his head back and fired at Falcomon. The creature ducked out of the way just in time to avoid the orange flame. At the same time, Jacob drew his sword and Joanie took the bow off of her shoulders. In the next instant Michael stumbled as Garurumon jumped from right next to him up to swat Falcomon out of midair. Falcomon avoided this attack as well by inches.

                          Falcomon was about to attack Ross again when out from the trees flew a ball of light that struck him in the head. He fell to the ground and stopped moving at once. Immediately Garurumon’s fur rustled, and he shot an intense stream of blue fire at the source of the attack. Michael could feel the heat from where he stood, and he fell over backwards in shock.

                          Garurumon’s fire didn’t meet its target, and in response there came a web of lightning that danced all around them and sent Garurumon reeling back. The sparks never touched Michael, but the hairs on the back of his neck stood up. The source of the lightning was a staff with a head that looked like the sun. It was held by a small man in a wizard’s hat. The little man floated into their midst and pointed his staff around in a threatening manner. Then his eyes settled on the humans. The little wizard’s face appeared to be covered in a blank, grey mask, unless that mask was his real face. Now that it occurred to Michael, not a single inch of the stranger’s skin was showing. Everything was hidden by cloak, jumpsuit, boots, gloves, or hat. Michael could see him as a living puppet.

                          Nobody moved, and at length the puppet spoke in a voice that was filled with honest surprise. “I don’t believe it. No attributes.”

                          Jacob gritted his teeth and held his sword in front of him. “Garurumon, what is it?” he asked in reference to the stranger.

                          Before Garurumon could say anything, the puppet nearly jumped out of his skin. “Intelligent! No attributes, but also intelligent!” He lowered his staff, and the lightning vanished.

                          Garurumon growled and finally answered, “Wizardmon. Data-type.”

                          Tatiana spoke next, and Michael couldn’t believe that she wasn’t petrified. “Then we’re not enemies, right?”

                          “Tell that to your large friend, here,” said Wizardmon. “Unless this Falcomon was your friend too, I’d say you attacked me first.” Wizardmon kicked at the Falcomon’s body a little.

                          “Don’t let him trick you,” said Garurumon to the humans. “He meant to kill all three of us. He sensed us and flew in without so much as seeing what was happening first.”

                          Agumon nodded. “Yeah!”

                          Michael noticed that Garurumon said ‘the three of us,’ as if this lunatic Falcomon who’d tried to kill them was one of them just because he was a Vaccine.

                          “I figured you were all feral, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred I would have been right. I’m the only civilized one who lives here.” Wizardmon then turned his back to Garurumon and gave his full attention to the humans. “For what it’s worth I apologize for the rough introduction. Would you care to come to my house? I’d like to talk with you.”

                          “Sorry, but we’ve got to get—” said Jacob, but Ross cut him off.

                          “Wait.” Ross took a few steps closer to Wizardmon. “If you live around here, can you tell us anything about what’s up north?”

                          “Probably nothing. You’ll have to be more specific.”

                          Ross pointed at the path they were standing on. Apparently it had escaped Wizardmon’s notice, and his eyes grew wide. “I see. Yes, I can tell you about that, but first I have other things I want to talk about. How does that sound?”

                          Ross considered this for a few moments. “That works.”

                          “Hey,” said Jacob to Ross, “You said we were in a hurry.”

                          “We are. We’re in a hurry to learn everything we can.” Ross then turned to the kids. “Michael, Tatiana, you’re going to listen to him and then you’re going to ask good questions. That also goes for you, Garurumon, Agumon. This isn’t optional.”

                          The Vaccine-types both grunted in annoyance, but it seemed they would cooperate. Michael felt the same way, but he was also glad the first assignment involved listening to someone besides Ross.

                          “Lead the way,” said Ross to Wizardmon.

                          *********

                          Wizardmon’s ‘house’ was in fact a lean-to made of dead logs, dead sticks, and one very ratty, old sheet of cloth. It was just large enough for Wizardmon to sit down with Michael, Tatiana, and Agumon. The four larger members of the group had to sit just outside and listen from beyond the circle. Michael wondered why they didn’t all just sit outside in a larger circle, and he supposed it was just that important to Wizardmon to have guests under his roof.

                          “Until today, I had never met life forms such as yourselves,” said Wizardmon.

                          “You mean humans?” asked Tatiana.

                          “More general than that. Most creatures have attributes and intelligence, some—”

                          Tatiana interrupted. “What do you mean attributes?” Michael noticed she was getting a jump start on Ross’s instruction to ask questions, though she was maybe ignoring his instruction to listen. In case Wizardmon wasn’t used to explaining it, Michael gave the answer that he remembered from Angemon.

                          “It means whether you’re Data, Virus, or Vaccine.”

                          “Yes,” said Wizardmon. “As I was saying, most creatures have attributes and intelligence. Some have attributes but no intelligence, like the Falcomon I took out for you, and once a time I saw some with neither attributes nor intelligence. Most describe the three groups of life as Data, Virus, and Vaccine, but I sorted them this way. More general, covered everything better. But now that you’re here, so I suppose there are four groups: four corners of a square perhaps, where the ones on top have attributes, and the ones on the right have intelligence.”

                          Now Michael had a question. “When you said ‘attributes but no intelligence,’ you didn’t mean ‘no intelligence’ just because Falcomon didn’t talk, right? We know a Unimon who doesn’t talk but he’s definitely smart.”

                          “Of course not, and make sure you understand the difference. That Falcomon had a brain but nothing was in it. He was wild; he doesn’t understand a word of language. The Mutes understand much. I suspect they understand more than we do, but we’d never know because they can’t tell us. They listen, you see. An extensive listener shows many more signs of intelligence than an extensive speaker,” said Wizardmon without a trace of irony.

                          “So when you said ‘no attributes, no intelligence,’ you meant like an animal?” asked Tatiana.

                          “A what?”

                          “Don’t hang him up on our terminology,” said Ross. “But yeah, ‘animal’ would be our colloquial word for what he’s talking about.”

                          “So you’ve seen animals here, then?” asked Tatiana, finally getting to what her real question had been.

                          “Not for a long time,” said Wizardmon, “But yes, I have. I understand there used to be all sorts of them. And that brings me to what I brought you here to speak about. You were in the Vaccine City just before here, correct?”

                          Garurumon wasn’t pleased with the question. “What of it?”

                          Wizardmon took on a more serious tone than he had used before. “Do you know, Humans, what’s hidden in the mountain of books there? The mountain of books that I am categorically excluded from reading?”

                          This brought Michael to full attention. He couldn’t believe Wizardmon had heard of the library, and he looked over to Garurumon because he didn’t know what he was allowed to say about it.

                          “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Garurumon.

                          “Don’t lie to me, Vaccine. Even if I weren’t already positive you knew about the books, the look on this Child-level’s face speaks for itself.”

                          Michael blushed. He couldn’t believe he had been so transparent. Everyone besides him and Garurumon however just looked confused.

                          “Mountain of books?” asked Joanie.

                          “I never heard of it!” said Agumon with a hint of incredulity.

                          “Of course you’ve never heard of it,” said Wizardmon. “If they didn’t keep it a secret they’d have uprisings on their hands.”

                          Michael recalled Gatomon’s claim that the library held a wealth of unspeakably dangerous knowledge. He did his best though to avoid making the same mistake of revealing things with his expression.

                          “We don’t have to listen to this rambling,” said Garurumon. “Ross, we should leave.”

                          “No,” said Ross. His voice was firm and almost urgent. “Let him talk. If he says something he shouldn’t, just say he’s wrong.”

                          It seemed Ross was determined to have them learn whatever Wizardmon knew, which Michael couldn’t understand. What made him think Wizardmon would be a reliable authority on a library in a city he wasn’t allowed to step foot in? Wouldn’t it make more sense just to drop the subject and ask Garurumon later?

                          In any case, Garurumon didn’t argue, and Wizardmon began a speech that he had clearly been waiting a long time to give. “The books of the Vaccine City contain all the knowledge there has ever been. Everything that we knew once and have long since forgotten is still there and just waiting to be unearthed. The ancients knew how to make houses with many floors stacked on top of each other, how to move clean water from one side of the world to another, even how to grow unintelligent creatures for food. All around the world the Data built cities filled with these wonders. If it weren’t for the ceaseless bloodshed and destruction you Vaccine and Virus thrust upon us, we would still have them. And if the books weren’t locked up in your city we could build them again!”

                          “Conjecture and slander,” said Garurumon. “How would you even know the contents of those books?”

                          “I know they contain our history, and I know bits of what our history was. I’ve talked to all sorts of Data-types who had long memories and are now long dead.”

                          “Then they misinformed you. Everything in the Holy City comes from the Holy World, and any books we had would be about the Holy World, not our own.”

                          “Heh, the ‘Holy World.’ What a joke. It’s a great recruiting tool, telling all your Baby-levels that they were to chosen to be Vaccine-types by the alleged Creators. That way they’ll grow up to be good soldiers, no?”

                          Garurumon growled. “I’ll have your head for that.”

                          Wizardmon just laughed, and Ross frowned. “Stop bickering. I want to hear facts and opinions, not empty talk.”

                          The Vaccine-types stewed in anger as Wizardmon kept explaining things he knew or had heard about how the world used to be. As for Michael, he was pretty sure that Garurumon’s opinion was far closer to the truth. After all, Michael had been in the library and had read one of the books. It wasn’t even in the realm of possibility that the book about early computers hadn’t come from the human world. Wizardmon just didn’t seem credible anymore, but Michael didn’t know how he could convince anyone of that without telling what he had read, which would be betraying a secret.

                          Then it occurred to Michael that there was something else in Wizardmon’s story that maybe didn’t add up. “Wizardmon, I thought you were the only one around here. Who exactly told you about the books?”

                          Wizardmon grinned. “You’re sharp. I should have mentioned maybe that I didn’t always live here. I used to have all sorts of other Data-types to talk to, but I decided to settle here when I found my treasure nearby.”

                          “Treasure?” asked Tatiana.

                          Wizardmon was positively giddy now. “Well, if you must see it, I suppose I can show you.”

                          Wizardmon turned around and dug into a pile of sticks at the base of his lean-to. Out from underneath he pulled an ancient sheet of paper that was full of holes. It appeared to have once been colorful, but it was mostly faded now. Wizardmon cradled it as if it were an infant. “This is a page that some brave hero stole from the Vaccine City! It is all the proof you need to see the genius of our ancestors!”

                          Garurumon’s fur was standing on end and his fangs were showing. As for Michael, his heart was racing. It was exciting enough to see something else from their own world, but if he could prove the origin of the page’s book he could also prove Garurumon right. He was about to ask to see it, but Wizardmon had already laid it flat as delicately as he could and started to read aloud. He traced the words with his finger as he went.

                          B…But our f…fi…fisss…

                          Tatiana looked over and decided to help. “Fish.”

                          “Yes, of course. But our…fish sa…said, ‘No! No!...M…Make that c…ca…ca…”

                          Tatiana smiled from ear to ear and helped again. “Cat.”

                          “You’re good at this. But our…fish…said ‘No! No! Make that…cat…g…go away!

                          Michael couldn’t believe it. He glanced over at the older kids. Ross had one eyebrow raised, and Joanie and Jacob were barely holding back laughter. Michael stayed focused, though. He had proof: he knew exactly what was left on the page even though he hadn’t looked at the words yet. “Wizardmon, that’s from a book in our world, the one Garurumon calls the Holy World. Everyone there’s read it.”

                          Wizardmon tore his eyes from the page and stared at Michael in amazement. “…Prove it.”

                          Michael suddenly felt an entirely unwarranted swell of pride. “Tell that Cat in the Hat you do NOT want to play.That’s what it says next, right?”

                          Wizardmon had to look down again to be sure, and after another minute he said, “Yes. That’s exactly it.”

                          All the humans except Michael and Ross finally broke out laughing, much to Garurumon’s confusion and Agumon’s. As for Wizardmon, he didn’t look confused or ashamed, just awestruck and a little sad. “Fantastic. I must have read this passage aloud a thousand times, and still I can’t say the words as well as you did. You read as if you were speaking, as if the words were just there in your head for you to understand at once. And you didn’t even need to use your finger.”

                          Now Michael felt guilty. He would never try to embarrass someone who had a reading disability, and he couldn’t believe he didn’t notice that Wizardmon had one right away. Gatomon had even said that she didn’t know any Adult-levels who could read well. He felt like a bully. The other kids had stopped laughing, so he supposed they felt the same way. He wanted to explain to Wizardmon that they had only laughed because the actual book was so familiar to them and so silly, but he didn’t know how to put it.

                          Wizardmon didn’t seem to expect an apology, though. “Here,” he said, as he held up the page and offered it to Michael. “You read this. You should be able to bring out the words much more fully than I can.”

                          Michael wasn’t sure what he meant, but he gently took the page. He looked closely at it, and it was indeed an actual page from The Cat in the Hat. He could just barely discern the faded illustration, and the words were right where they should be. To satisfy Wizardmon, he decided to read it the way he would read it to someone in earnest. He didn’t want to rub it in their host’s face just how easy it was. “But our fish said No! No! Make—

                          “No, no,” said Wizardmon.

                          Michael was confused. “…That’s what I just—”

                          “No, I mean, don’t just say the words, read it. Bring the words from the page!”

                          Wizardmon stared at him in anxious expectation, but Michael had no clue what he wanted. If he meant for Michael to ‘bring the story to life,’ so to speak, he was already doing as well as he could.

                          Garurumon rose to his feet. “That’s enough. If this paper is from the library, then it is to be returned there. Those words are not yours to bring forth, Data-type!”

                          “He’s already read it a bunch,” said Tatiana. “And what’s the big deal? It’s The Cat in the Hat.”

                          Michael could tell that Garurumon was talking about something beyond just reading the words, though, and apparently Ross had the same idea as he said, “Garurumon, I want Wizardmon to show us what he means.”

                          “No way!” said Agumon. “That’s from a holy book! He shouldn’t even be touching it!”

                          Tatiana put her hand to her forehead as if out of embarrassment for him. “Agumon, it’s a book for babies.”

                          “Perhaps in your world it is,” said Garurumon, “But to us anything from your world is invaluable.”

                          Ross rose his voice a little. “Garurumon, you’re betting all of those books from our world on my advice, and I’m telling you I think you’ll end up regretting it if Wizardmon doesn’t show Michael and Tatiana what he’s talking about. Michael, give him the page.”

                          Michael didn’t move. Ross had no right to order Garurumon around like that.

                          “Come on, Michael,” said Tatiana, “Just hand it over.”

                          And of course, Tatiana wasn’t afraid of anything, not even of what might happen if you took the advice of a cold-blooded killer. Still, Michael couldn’t suppress his curiosity at what was in store. He very carefully put the old page back into Wizardmon’s hands.

                          “I can’t believe I have something to teach a master reader about books…” muttered Wizardmon as he put his finger to the page again. He pointed not at the beginning, but at the word fish. “See now what we had once but have lost.”

                          Wizardmon stared at the single word and spoke. “F…fi…fish…fish…fish…” As he became comfortable with saying it, he closed his eyes and kept repeating it. It almost sounded like a prayer.

                          Then Tatiana gasped, and the group stared at Wizardmon’s finger in rapt attention. Underneath it the single word fish had begun to shimmer. As Wizardmon kept reading the one word, it glowed brighter and brighter until it looked like it had set the air around it on fire.

                          Slowly Wizardmon raised his other arm and opened his hand upward. Then there was a mass of shining fluid hovering over his palm. It had started from nothing but it grew by the second. Michael was already transfixed, but this was only the start. The fluid contorted itself and parts of it became solid. Where before it had been shapeless it now organized itself into distinct parts. They were bones. Wizardmon was making bones out of thin air.

                          The bones became a skeleton. Around the skeleton grew muscles and organs. Around these grew scales. It didn’t have a face, but it was clearly a fish, and for one brief, dazzling second Michael could see that it was alive. But then it was over. The light diminished, and the thing dissolved back into liquid and then into thin air. The word on the page was just plain, black letters again, and Wizardmon stopped reading when all traces of the magic had vanished.

                          Everyone was speechless, and Michael thought he might cry from how beautiful it had been for those fleeting moments. He had to wonder if this power had been in every book he had ever touched, and if he had just never noticed.

                          “Do you see now?” asked Wizardmon in a pained, somber tone. “Do you see what you Vaccine have robbed from us? The world is dying. With your library you could stop it but you won’t. Every place will be like this miserable forest because of you.”

                          Garurumon said nothing. Michael suspected he had known the page could be used for more than simple reading, but perhaps didn’t realize how much more.

                          Wizardmon continued. “If I were a Perfect-level, and if I had all those books, this land would be teeming with life again. There would be fish and there would be cat again, and there would be other creatures and plants we never dreamed of. There would be great cities; greater even than yours. We would have the world that was gone before I ever…before I was…”

                          The Data-type wept. His tears stained his mask, or perhaps it was more correct to say the tears stained his face.

                          Ross stood up. “We’ve been here long enough. Tell us where the trail leads, Wizardmon, and then we’re leaving.”

                          Wizardmon sniffed. “It leads to the source of all our misfortune. Up north is the birthplace of the Virus and the spot where their war with the Vaccine began. The Virus stole the world from us, and then the Vaccine came to make sure we would never get it back.”

                          Agumon stared at the ground. Michael had never seen him look ashamed before.

                          “That’s more misinformed history,” said Garurumon, but not in as sharp a tone as he had been using before. “The attributes have always existed together. The balance of the three is the great design of life.”

                          “I don’t want to hear any more Vaccine lies. Just go on your way.”

                          Garurumon sighed. When he spoke again his voice was full of pity. “You can keep the page for now. When we have defeated the Virus, I will speak to my superiors about your theories. If the Creators will it, we may consider using the books in some limited capacity.”

                          Wizardmon said nothing to this and looked nobody in the eye as they stood and left. Michael noticed that Garurumon didn’t mention the possibility of allowing Wizardmon into the library. Even though Michael could understand better now why they’d want to keep the place a secret—there were surely a whole mountain of books on history’s deadliest weapons—he didn’t see what the point in keeping someone like Wizardmon out was. If Gatomon wanted someone to help them go through the books and see what was there, Wizardmon would be a much better help than Michael would be.

                          Michael had learned two main things from the conversation: that the secrets of this world were beyond his understanding, and that the magic to reveal them was beyond his ability.
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                          Old September 11th, 2016 (8:02 AM).
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                            XIII

                            The Man from the Sky

                            Tatiana and Agumon were in the middle of the pack as they continued north on the trail. They had spent the last hour or so trading descriptions of Wizardmon’s trick. Tatiana had been getting used to magic, but Wizardmon’s talent was something special. And it seemed that Agumon had completely forgiven Wizardmon for his possession of a stolen relic.

                            “But what I couldn’t believe most,” said Agumon, “was how you and Michael could read like that!”

                            “That’s nothing special. Anyone can read Dr. Seuss unless they’re, like, four.”

                            “It is not that way for us,” said Garurumon. “Most Vaccine will never see a written word in their lifetime. Even those who work to maintain the library find that printed pages resist understanding. If Angemon has an hour, he can read in sentences. For me it takes three hours.”

                            Tatiana had a hard time believing any of this, especially since Garurumon seemed otherwise so smart. She wondered if it might help if someone taught them starting with their ABC’s.

                            “I wish you’d told us about your reading when you first got here!” said Agumon. “Heck, why don’t we turn around and bring you to the library right now? You could conjure up something that would win the war for us!”

                            Tatiana laughed only a little nervously. “Uhhh, no. We can just read the words. What Wizardmon did was…well…wizard stuff.”

                            “What’s ‘wizard?’” asked Agumon. It boggled Tatiana’s mind how he could not know what ‘wizard’ meant when Wizardmon’s name was so obviously wizard plus mon. She laughed a little more.

                            “No, really, don’t make fun. What’s ‘wizard?’ Is it a Human thing?”

                            Michael had been silent for several miles, but finally he spoke up. “It’s a magic person from books. They’re not real.”

                            “But you could make one if we took you to the library, right?”

                            Tatiana thought about the prospect of summoning Harry Potter straight out of Deathly Hallows when he was at his most powerful, or maybe Hermione because she was smarter. Then she remembered with disappointment that because she wasn’t magic like Harry and Hermione, she couldn’t exactly summon them. It was kind of a chicken-and-egg problem, or maybe dragon-and-egg to fit the theme. Regardless, she began to daydream about how they might team up with Dumbledore’s Army to repel the enemy, all the while ignoring Michael and Agumon having a loud argument about whether you could bring fictional things to life as opposed to non-fictional things using summoning magic they didn’t have.

                            At length Joanie decided to bring the unproductive and noisy discussion to a close. “Okay, the only thing that matters is that we can’t do what Wizardmon did right now, and we might never be able to. What we do know we might be able to do is evolve one of you to Ultimate level, because we have a human who’s done it before. If we had a lot of time we could look into the magic-reading angle, but we don’t so we have to prioritize. That’s that.”

                            Agumon looked disappointed as he stopped talking, and Tatiana could sympathize. Michael didn’t seem to be done, however. “Then talking to Wizardmon was a waste of time. All he did was get his facts wrong and show us something that doesn’t help us.”

                            Tatiana thought that Michael was just arguing for the sake of arguing now. The word for it was ‘contradictarian,’ or at least she was pretty sure it was. She was about to tell him off for acting like a brat, when out of nowhere Ross said something for the first time since they started hiking again.

                            “It doesn’t matter if he got his facts wrong, or if we can’t use what he showed us. If you’re constantly worried about wasting time on stuff you don’t need to know, you’ll miss most of the stuff you do need to know. You can only learn a lot by casting a wide net for teachers; it’s no different if you’re trying to learn math, history, or how to evolve a Vaccine.”

                            Michael seemed to be in no mood to back down. “But half the stuff he said was wrong!”

                            “You’re doing research,” said Ross. “That’s just an occupational hazard. You don’t have to trust all of your teachers. It’s on you to piece together what’s correct and incorrect about what they’re saying, and learn as much as you can.”

                            Tatiana took a look over at Michael, who didn’t answer this time and just stared at the ground as he walked. As for her, she was interested and a little disturbed by what Ross had said. It had never occurred to her to call someone who told you falsehoods a ‘teacher.’ Didn’t you get the job of teacher by knowing things?

                            “Ross,” said Tatiana, who felt a little uneasy about addressing him directly. “Did you have teachers in school who taught you stuff that was wrong?”

                            Ross didn’t answer right away, and this only made Tatiana feel less at ease. She couldn’t see his face, and honestly preferred it that way.

                            “Actually,” said Ross at length, “there’s a caveat to what I just said. Some of your teachers will be wrong without knowing it, and you should listen and talk to them. But you might also run into some who feel like teachers but aren’t even trying to tell you the right thing. They’re dangerous, and you should stay away from them.”

                            Tatiana was confused. If you had to figure out what was right and what was wrong anyway, what did it matter if the teacher was making a mistake or actually lying? It seemed like Ross was backpedaling, which she didn’t think she had ever heard him do before.

                            That was the end of the discussion, and little else was said for the rest of that day.

                            *********

                            The night that followed was very cold, and Tatiana woke up many times with the shivers. Her blanket was thin, and the fire was of little help. After she woke up for what felt like the fiftieth time everything was a deep blue, and she wanted to will it black again. Twilight had arrived, and she had missed any chance of getting an actual rest. Since it wouldn’t do any good to feel sorry for herself or close her eyes again, she decided to be fully awake and stood right up. This was one of her more useful talents, and she never told anyone how she did it in part because she didn’t know and in part because it felt nice to let people think it was a secret.

                            She saw that everyone else was asleep except for Jacob, who had the last watch. He looked up from the dying fire which he was stoking with a stick, and said with a smile, “Morning. It’s gonna be chilly one today.”

                            Tatiana rubbed her arms. “Do you think it’s because of how far north we are?”

                            “No, we couldn’t have gone that far on foot in just a few days. It’s just weather.”

                            In her head Tatiana knew he was probably right, but something still felt off. It didn’t make sense, but she couldn’t imagine this place in particular being anything other than cold. Since she didn’t know how to articulate what she meant, she nodded and left it at that.

                            Soon Agumon was also up, but he took it much more slowly than Tatiana did. He yawned very loud and very long, and looked a little shaky when he finally came to his feet.

                            “Too cold for you, too?” asked Tatiana.

                            “Nah, cold’s fine. It’s just my leg’s bothering me.” Agumon swung his right leg back and forth and winced. “Feels like someone was punching it all night.”

                            Garurumon opened his eyes when Agumon said this. “Is that right?”

                            “Yeah,” said Agumon. “You didn’t pull some dumb joke on me, did you?”

                            “Of course not.” Garurumon sighed and shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine.”

                            “You sure? It’s awful stiff.”

                            “I’m sure.”

                            Tatiana was curious. Garurumon had a knowing, resigned look on his face. If there was something they should be worried about, she wished he’d tell them. As for Agumon, it was clear he didn’t just have a simple cramp. A few hours later when they started the day’s hike, Agumon was obviously forcing himself.

                            “You’re positive you’re okay?” Tatiana asked him.

                            “Yup, totally,” he said with gritted teeth.

                            “You really needn’t worry about him, Tatiana,” said Garurumon. “It’s completely normal, and it was about time, anyway.”

                            “What was?”

                            Garurumon looked hesitant, and Agumon grunted. It sounded to Tatiana as if Agumon was on the same page as him now, which made her even more curious than before. Garurumon still wasn’t going to share anything with her, though. “Nothing. Forget I said anything.”

                            “Don’t pry, Tat,” said Joanie as if she were her mom.

                            Tatiana then looked ahead and saw Ross turn his head a little and glance back at her, as if to say, ‘No, do pry.’ She was going to listen to Joanie instead of him, though, because it seemed smarter to listen to someone she knew wasn’t crazy.

                            She continued to speculate as to what could be wrong with Agumon, when all of a sudden everyone else stopped walking. She had lost track of their surroundings, and now realized that they had reached the end of the trail and the end of the forest. Behind them was a wall of dead trees, and in front of them was flat wasteland. There were a few sharp, bleached white stumps where trees had apparently been torn away, and everything past twenty yards was covered in pale fog. It was even colder than before.

                            Garurumon growled. “Why would Angemon send us here? The very ground is cursed.”

                            “Elaborate,” said Ross.

                            “No,” said Garurumon. “You can’t tell me you don’t feel what’s wrong. Even speaking of such a place is inviting its curse into your throat.”

                            Ross squatted down and touched the dirt. “You’re wrong about one thing: it’s not the ground, it’s the air. I don’t think breathing it will turn you into a Virus, though, so you can relax. We need to keep moving forward. I think we’re almost there.”

                            Tatiana didn’t want to take another step, and it didn’t seem like anyone else besides Ross did for that matter. Something was very wrong. She wondered if it felt fine to Ross, or if he just didn’t care how bad this place seemed.

                            Ross turned around and looked at all their faces. “Come on. This is where we decided to go. There’s something we need to see here.”

                            “So you’ve told us,” said Jacob with venom in his voice. “Care to explain why you’d know better than Garurumon?”

                            “This is a place for Virus, just like Wizardmon said,” added Agumon. “I’m not going any deeper.”

                            “The Virus would hate this place, too,” said Ross. “This is almost their kind of air, but something’s wrong about it. It’s something traumatic.”

                            Something looked off about Ross to Tatiana. There was a kind of vacant look in his eyes, where normally they were very sharp. He continued, “It’s very strange. I get the feeling that this place is terrifying for each of the attributes.”

                            Ross shook his head, and his look was back to normal. “Michael, Tatiana, what do you think?”

                            Tatiana didn’t know what to think. She thought that turning around would be cowardly, but if this place scared Agumon and Garurumon, then that scared her too and maybe it was better to be safe than sorry. She couldn’t decide, and she also couldn’t stand to go this long without answering. The silence was killing her. She glanced over at Michael, who was staring at the ground. Between the two of them they might never answer, she thought.

                            Then to her surprise, Michael spoke up first. And not to her surprise, what he said wasn’t exactly decisive. “I don’t think Angemon would have told us to go here if he didn’t think it was important. But maybe it’s not safe, or…”

                            Tatiana almost groaned out loud. Michael was right but was too much of a baby to admit it. Angemon said it would be important, not that it would be pleasant. As much as she didn’t like to second-guess Agumon and Garurumon when they were the ones who could sense this kind of weird stuff, they couldn’t let a bad feeling stop them from doing what they had to do. If Michael wasn’t going to argue his own point, she would do it for him. “We should keep going. Michael’s right: we’re on a mission.”

                            “If you say so, we’ll follow,” said Garurumon. “But I would advise you to reconsider. Angemon is wise and he is probably right, but I don’t like it. This is an evil place, and it is not suited for beings from the Holy World.”

                            “You can’t defeat evil if you won’t look at it,” said Joanie. “I’m for going forward.”

                            “Me too then, I guess,” said Agumon.

                            Michael nodded slightly, and then Ross turned his attention to Jacob, who was now the lone hold-out. Tatiana was surprised that Jacob wanted to turn back because he was the bravest human she knew. She looked at his face, and sure enough there wasn’t a trace of fear. This didn’t make sense to her, because if he wasn’t afraid and he trusted Angemon, why wouldn’t he want to keep going?

                            “Well, sounds like it’s settled,” said Jacob. This put Tatiana off. If he disagreed, he should say so.

                            “All right,” said Ross. “Everyone stay close together.”

                            They walked further into the fog. It was so thick that Tatiana could barely see her feet when she looked down. Her heart was pounding, and she found herself gravitating to Agumon. He was shivering, even though his body was always warmer than anyone else’s. Just standing next to him made her feel warmer, but it was little comfort. What if she had made a mistake?

                            After a long minute of slow walking, she saw a large shadow looming up ahead through the mist. Was it a building? No, it looked more like a boulder. Then without warning the clouds dispersed, and their destination was revealed. Tatiana gasped. It was a stone giant lying dead on its belly. They stood closest to its head. Its eyes and mouth were open, and its teeth were filed to points. The details in its irises were so clear, so perfect that Tatiana couldn’t believe it was just a statue.

                            “It’s the other one,” said Michael, “The statue the angel was pointing at.”

                            “What do you mean?” asked Jacob, who was transfixed by the spectacle before them.

                            “The end of time,” said Garurumon. “It is an image most Vaccine know: the messenger from the Holy World will come to cast judgment on the wicked. It is depicted with statues—at least two but usually with a third to represent the victims.”

                            “But they told me the one at the Holy City was just there to help guard the barrier!” said Agumon. “Why didn’t they say it was part of an end-of-time pair?”

                            “I don’t know. They never told me, either.”

                            Tatiana looked away at the giant’s hands. Its fingers had long, sharp nails, and they were slightly discolored, as if they were meant to be covered in blood.

                            “Why would the Vaccine make a statue in a place like this?” asked Michael. “They never come here.”

                            “There’s something else wrong here,” said Ross, who looked ill. “You said the angel of these statues is supposed to be from the ‘Holy World,’ but if you mean our world, then that doesn’t make sense.”

                            Tatiana heard Agumon swallow, and Ross continued. “The angel statue is more similar to Angemon than anyone from our world. And this one, who’s supposed to be from this world, looks more like…us…”

                            All of a sudden Garurumon and Agumon both seized up, and a voice came from the top of the giant’s head. “Very perceptive, Commander.”

                            Tatiana looked up and saw a dark fairy. It stood on the giant’s hair and held a small, black spear.

                            “You!” shouted Ross.

                            Jacob quickly pulled his sword out of its sheath. “Garurumon! Why didn’t you sense him earlier?”

                            “He wasn’t anywhere a moment ago! What are you?”

                            The fairy laughed. “Why don’t you ask my former pupil?”

                            Tatiana shook where she stood. This was the WaruPiximon they had been told about. He was more evolved than Garurumon, and neither she nor Michael could evolve Garurumon yet to match him.

                            “Kids!” said Ross in desperation, “Don’t listen to a word he says! He’s a liar!”

                            Joanie had an arrow drawn, and didn’t sound at all confident when she asked, “What do you want with us?”

                            “Just two things. First, I want to bring you enlightenment because your ignorance offends my sensibilities. Second, in reward for the Commander’s faithful service, I want to spare you from the carnage and destruction that his Ultimate-level will bring.” He pointed his spear at them. “Be grateful. We rarely offer our enemies a quick and painless death.”

                            Immediately Joanie released her arrow. When it was half way to WaruPiximon, though, it burst into a million pieces. “Didn’t you warn them that no weapon can harm me, Commander? Are you sure you’re on their side?”

                            “Shut up!” yelled Ross. He then stretched out his arm and pointed his palm at WaruPiximon. “I’ll revert you back to Adult-level if you don’t leave!”

                            WaruPiximon laughed some more. “That’s a novel idea, but you can’t pull any bluffs on me. I saw you from a year in the past and knew your name. Don’t you think I can see your dead bodies vanishing a few minutes from now?”

                            Tatiana nearly collapsed in terror. If this was the Virus that sent Ross back in time, then of course he knew the outcome already. They were going to die.

                            “As I was saying, before you go I wanted to dispel a few misunderstandings. For starters, this isn’t a statue. Statues are carved, not petrified.”

                            Tatiana felt as if the stone giant came to life at that very moment—as if those eyes were truly looking at her and those nails were going to tear her to pieces.

                            “Don’t listen, kids,” said Ross, “Don’t listen.”

                            But Tatiana couldn’t help but listen, and she couldn’t run away either.

                            “This is your predecessor, Commander: the Man from the Sky! Thousands of years ago he descended from your world to create the Virus, his chosen ones! He gave us the power of the sky to evolve us and make us stronger than our prey, the Data!”

                            “That is blasphemy!” cried Garurumon.

                            “Blasphemy? What’s blasphemy is the notion that a Human could ever bestow evolution on a Vaccine.”

                            “Forget blasphemy,” said Jacob. “What you’re telling us is just obviously wrong. There aren’t any giants in our world, and there never have been!”

                            “Oh, he wasn’t like this when he first got here. Let me show you.”

                            WaruPiximon snapped his fingers, and the pale landscape that surrounded Tatiana vanished. An instant later it returned, but it was changed. The sky was a deep red and the clouds circled overhead at impossibly fast speeds. It was dark, hot, and very loud. She was surrounded by towering monsters, and in the middle of the clearing was a mound of corpses. She didn’t recognize most of them, but the few she did she recognized as Data-types. Right in front of her there was a Drimogemon that was still alive, but the red-eyed Virus-types that slashed its side and bit into its throat made sure that it didn’t last long.

                            The ones that were biting didn’t stop when the Drimogemon was dead. They were ripping the flesh from his bones and devouring it. They only stopped when their eyes turned back to normal, and then they dragged what was left of the body over to the pile. Tatiana threw up at the sight of it.

                            What happened next was just as horrifying. The mound of bodies dissolved into the air, but instead of dissipating, the particles gathered again around a figure at the opposite end of the clearing. It was a human. He had no clothes and his body was painted with twisted, nonsensical patterns. This was too much to look at, and Tatiana instinctively shut her eyes, but something in her head that shouldn’t have been there forced them open again. She saw the remains of the Data-types pass into the man’s body as the Virus yelled and chanted. The more he took in, the taller and broader he grew. When it was over he appeared to be nine feet tall, and he opened his mouth wide in a disgusting smile.

                            It was a sacrifice. The Virus were sacrificing the Data to this human. When Tatiana realized how much larger this man would grow, and how many lives it would take, she screamed.

                            Then it was gone. Everything was cold and pale again, and the man was once more a dead, stone giant. At that moment Garurumon was shooting blue fire from his mouth at WaruPiximon, but the Virus spun his staff and repelled it without breaking a sweat. When Garurumon’s fire was exhausted, WaruPiximon sprung down from the giant’s head and hovered in from of them.

                            “I’m going to be sick,” said Joanie, and she looked it.

                            “Don’t believe any of it,” said Ross in a wavering voice. “He makes illusions. It’s all lies.”

                            “That was no illusion,” said WaruPiximon. “It was a memory.”

                            “You said that was thousands of years ago!” cried Agumon. “Everyone from back then is dead!”

                            “Almost everyone. Only the cleverest, trickiest Virus remains from those days, and you’re looking at him. None of the other Virus can stand to come here, to the site of our first defeat, but I can because I remember. I remember the great power that our Creator the Human showed to us. The others know only of our fall, but I remember before that. I remember the path to victory, and at long last I’ve set us back on that path! We have received our second Human, and he has given us an Ultimate-level again!”

                            Nobody moved a muscle. Despite Ross’s objections, Tatiana couldn’t help but believe WaruPiximon’s awful story. The vision had been too real. It didn’t vanish like a nightmare, but stuck in her waking memory like a splinter dug deep under her skin.

                            The Virus-type continued uninterrupted. “Do you understand now how much you mean to me, Commander? When the Vaccine invaded our world and turned our Human to stone, I nearly lost all hope. But soon their city will be gone, and soon after all of their loathsome kind will be gone as well. Once more we shall reign uncontested over the Data, and the order that was set by the World of Creators will be restored! It is a shame that you couldn’t stay on our side. I’ll give you one chance to change your mind.”

                            Ross’s hands were formed into fists, and they shook. “Go to hell, monster.”

                            WaruPiximon clicked his tongue, but still smiled. “Oh well. In that case I will extend my mercy to you and your friends. You won’t suffer too badly unless you make it difficult.” WaruPiximon then twirled his spear above his head and swung it downward. For a moment Tatiana’s vision blurred, and when it resolved again she was back in the dead forest. Michael was to her right, and Agumon was in front of the two of them. The older kids and Garurumon were nowhere to be seen.

                            Tatiana didn’t have any time to worry about where the others were, because the next second WaruPiximon appeared out of nowhere some ten yards in front of them. She and Michael both screamed. “I’ve decided to go in reverse order of seniority,” said WaruPiximon with a smile that showed his fangs. “Hold still.”

                            Agumon shot a ball of fire at WaruPiximon that dissipated a few inches from his face. The Virus-type was unmoved. “I see we’re going to have to work on the holding-still part.” He then took a step closer to them.

                            “Stay back!” shouted Agumon. He fired another shot, though this one was weaker and forced. Like the last one it did nothing to WaruPiximon, though Tatiana could tell that it hurt Agumon’s mouth.

                            WaruPiximon kept walking. He pointed his spear at Agumon, and immediately the Child-level convulsed. Agumon held his ground, though, and when he stopped shaking it looked to Tatiana like he had grown a few inches. “You…” he said to WaruPiximon in a halting voice, “You…go away…”

                            For the first time Tatiana had seen, WaruPiximon frowned. He stopped moving as well. Agumon roared at him with a voice that started high and then broke low. “Goooaahh!”

                            Tatiana’s lip was quivering. The dark fairy had done something to Agumon, she could tell. She started to ask what was happening, “Agumon—” but before she could finish Agumon charged at the enemy. He was almost within claw’s reach when he was stopped by an invisible force and held in midair, seemingly by the neck.

                            “I said we’re going by seniority. You can wait your turn.” WaruPiximon swung his spear, and Agumon went flying off to Tatiana’s left. He collided into a thick bunch of trees but kept going.

                            “Agumon!”

                            Now WaruPiximon was smiling again. To Tatiana’s right Michael was on the ground, petrified. She was still on her feet, but she couldn’t move either. They couldn’t fight, they couldn’t run, and the Virus who could see the future had already told them they would die here. He continued to draw in closer to them, and now the only things in his way were some roots. He held out his hand and summoned a hazy, black orb that sucked all the surrounding light into itself.

                            “Quick question: which one of you is younger?”

                            Tatiana was too scared to say anything, just as Michael surely was. She had spent so much time earlier in her life dreaming about that one moment that might come when she would say to some bad guy ‘Your opponent is me,’ like in one of her older cousin’s animes. And now here she was, and all she could think was that she never, ever should have wished for something like that. She stopped breathing, and waited in agony for the shock to come.

                            The shock came, but it wasn’t from WaruPiximon. A deafening roar burst from behind the trees to their left. Tatiana could feel it pounding and vibrating in her chest. It drew WaruPiximon’s attention, and then it was accompanied by the sound of breaking, falling trees. A dinosaur the size of an elephant crashed into their midst. It looked like a t-rex, but its head was covered with a hard, brown shell. Out of the shell grew three long horns, two where a bull’s would be and one where a rhinoceros’s would be. The shell had holes for its eyes, which were red. They weren’t glowing red like a mad Virus’s, rather they were clear and sharp. The creature’s skin was the same amber-orange as Agumon’s, but also covered here and there with blue stripes.

                            For a moment Tatiana forgot completely about the danger, and just marveled at the sight. Agumon had evolved, and he was amazing. He ran straight at WaruPiximon, but kept his body tilted away from her and Michael for some reason. That reason became apparent when WaruPiximon jumped out of the way and tossed the dark orb at him. Agumon absorbed the hit, and he was sent sliding almost to where she and Michael were, but not quite. His feet cut deep skids in the earth in the process, but he stayed upright and the children stayed safe for now.

                            Agumon set himself facing away from Tatiana, and reared his head back. WaruPiximon hovered in midair in front of them, and he had a look of annoyance on his face. Then Agumon unleashed from his jaws a colossal ball of fire. Even though it never came close to touching Tatiana, she felt the heat and worried that her hair would burn off. The shot appeared to engulf WaruPiximon for a moment, but after it rushed past him the dark fairy was still unharmed. He was spinning his spear in a circle in front of him. Tatiana couldn’t believe that was all it took for him to protect himself from something so powerful.

                            “This is an exercise in futility, you lowlife,” said WaruPiximon.

                            In response, Agumon just roared. It might have ruptured Tatiana’s eardrums if she hadn’t covered her ears quickly, and she fell over backward. Agumon charged WaruPiximon again as if to snap him out of midair with his jaws, and this time the enemy darted out of the way. Before Agumon could react, WaruPiximon flew in to jam the spear into his side. Agumon fell over and wailed in pain, but managed to twist and swing his tail to wave WaruPiximon off.

                            “Looks like I’ll have to scrap the original ordering,” said WaruPiximon. “I hope you’re happy.” He raised his free hand and summoned another black orb, this one three times as large as before. Just when he was about to throw it down at Agumon, though, his ears twitched and again he dove out of the way. This time he was avoided a swift jet of blue fire. Garurumon bounded into view, and didn’t pause for even an instant to react to how Agumon had evolved.

                            “Leave now, demon!” barked Garurumon.

                            WaruPiximon’s second orb had vanished when he lost his concentration. “Does it give you so much pride to delay the inevitable for a few more seconds?” He quickly came up with another sphere and launched it at Garurumon. The Adult-level was ready and jumped out of the way. The attack missed by inches, and Garurumon tried another shot with his blue flame. Once again WaruPiximon avoided it with ease. He then flew in a darting pattern to a position between his two opponents.

                            Before Garurumon or Agumon could do anything, WaruPiximon shouted something unintelligible and thrust out both of his arms. A force like that of a jackhammer permeated the area and crushed the two Vaccine-types to the ground. It rattled Tatiana’s teeth, and she didn’t want to think what would have happened if she had been a little closer.

                            “You vermin have infested our world long enough! Now die!”

                            Then there was the noise of something slicing through the air, followed by a sound like bones cracking. WaruPiximon screamed in agony because there was an arrow sticking out of his chest. His wings kept beating, but barely, and so he could do nothing when Garurumon torched him. He fell down to the earth, and the arrow snapped when he landed. He kept screaming, and he was now covered in raw wounds that shot blue sparks. He reached out with his hand, and a shadow began to coalesce around it for his last-ditch attempt at regaining what had appeared to be an indomitable advantage.

                            But the danger was over. Agumon rose to his feet again and fired one more blast. It completely smote both WaruPiximon and the ground beneath him. Both of his arms and one of his legs were charred and broken off entirely, and his wings were incinerated. Garurumon and Agumon looked down on him in contempt as another figure came into view from where she had been hiding. Joanie stopped for only a second to take a closer look up at Agumon, and then dropped her bow and ran over to Tatiana and Michael.

                            Tatiana found herself scooped into Joanie’s arms along with Michael. “Thank God…thank God…” was all the teenager said. The children were still too shocked to say anything. As the seconds passed and it became clearer to Tatiana that they were going to be all right, she realized what had saved them. WaruPiximon had decided to split them up, even though he could have handled them all at once. He had forgotten that if he let the humans out of his sight, he wouldn’t know when the one human who could attack him from a distance was nearby. Somewhere between overconfidence and an overabundance of caution, WaruPiximon had found a way to lose.

                            Even as WaruPiximon’s body began to fade into nothing, his small, scratchy voice tried to leave them with some more venom. “You…haven’t…changed a thing. The Commander’s Ult…Ultimate-level is coming. He will destroy you all. I’ve seen it…I still…see it…”

                            And then he was gone. WaruPiximon was dead, and when his spear vanished as well there was no trace of him left but an afterimage of ash. Garurumon lied down to catch his breath, and Agumon did the same. Out from behind some trees appeared Jacob and Ross. Jacob was sliding his sword back into its sheath. Ross was panting hard. Tatiana would learn later that Jacob and Joanie had ridden on Garurumon as he ran at full speed after WaruPiximon, while Ross had followed just behind them on foot.

                            Jacob commented on WaruPiximon’s last words. “He said he could see the future, but he didn’t see that arrow.”

                            Ross added his own opinion as he caught his breath. “I think…whew…I think he might have been something like farsighted, but with time. He could definitely see things from the future, but I don’t think he could see as much as he wanted us to think. I think he could see a year in the future much better than a minute, and even then only pieces of it.”

                            “So what do you make of his prediction, then?” asked Jacob.

                            “I think he was lying. My guess is he either couldn’t see that part of the future, or he did and saw the Virus losing and couldn’t admit it to himself. Or maybe he wasn’t lying about that part, and we’re all doomed, who knows.”

                            “Well, that’s no different than before, then,” said Joanie. “It doesn’t matter if he could see the future or not if there’s an even chance he was lying. We know what we did at the start: we’ll either win or lose.”

                            “No, we learned a new thing,” said Michael. His voice was weak and wavering. “We learned our world isn’t a ‘Holy World.’ It’s just where the worst monster in the history of everything came from.” Michael was crying now, and wiped away his tears with his sleeve. He couldn’t hide his red face, though.

                            Garurumon closed his eyes. “I won’t believe that thing came from your world. It’s inconceivable.”

                            “It’s the truth and you’ll have to deal with it,” said Ross. He walked over to look down at WaruPiximon’s afterimage. “I told you from the very beginning that we’re not gods or angels or anything like that. Even if you want to picture the universe as a mythological hierarchy, you can’t picture us as being different from any of you. We’re not avatars of good like you thought, or avatars of good like WaruPiximon thought in his own twisted way for that matter. It just happens that at least two of us have been able to trigger evolution.”

                            “For Virus-types, you mean,” said Michael.

                            “Yeah, so far. I think we can change that.”

                            Michael didn’t say anything, and just sniffed.

                            “So I need you guys to think,” said Ross. “We learned something important today. We just need to figure out what it is. Wizardmon was right: the Data were first. Later that human made the Virus, and then the Vaccine came and beat him. There must be more clues about where exactly the Vaccine came from hidden in what we just saw. Michael, I want your input. Also, did one of you make Agumon evolve? How did—”

                            Joanie interrupted him. “Ross, stop it.”

                            Michael was staring at the ground, and still crying. Joanie’s arms were still around him and Tatiana. She was trying to protect them from everything that had just happened, and Ross was trying to force it on them again. Apparently Ross realized that this was the case, as the steeled, focused look on his face grew soft.

                            “You’re right. Sorry. We’ll pick this up later.”

                            Ross walked away from the afterimage and sat apart from the rest of the group. Tatiana noticed that Jacob kept his eyes on him the entire time. A minute passed, and her heartrate started falling back down to normal. When she finally felt safe enough, she shrugged off Joanie’s arm and stood up. She wanted to know about Agumon’s evolution. She knew she hadn’t done it, and she’d bet anything that Michael hadn’t done it either. It only made sense to ask.

                            She walked over to Agumon, though he was so big now it was probably more accurate to say she walked over to Agumon’s head. His right eye opened and looked right at her. Something felt very strange.

                            “A…Agumon…you have a new name now, right?”

                            Garurumon answered for him. “It’s Greymon.”

                            Greymon. Now that she knew Agumon’s new name, she could ask him about how he evolved properly. “Greymon, how did you evolve? Was it one of us?”

                            Greymon made a low noise in his throat and looked away.

                            “I don’t think it was one of you,” said Garurumon. “He was due to evolve. Most Child-levels evolve to Adult level a year faster than he did.”

                            That made sense to Tatiana. Clearly all the other Adult-levels had made it without human help. She still wasn’t satisfied, though. “Greymon, what was it like? Can you tell us exactly how—”

                            “Tatiana,” said Garurumon. “Greymon can’t speak.”

                            Tatiana was stunned.

                            “He can still understand you, just like Unimon, but you can’t expect him to answer your questions.”

                            Garurumon kept talking, but nothing he said registered with Tatiana. She couldn’t believe it. Agumon had a voice. Agumon always had things to say, and now he’d never talk to her again. Her throat was getting tight. They wouldn’t be able to arm wrestle anymore either. She’d lost her friend, but she couldn’t say that out loud because he was still here, it was just that everything about how he used to be was gone. Agumon was gone and everything was going wrong and it was too much so she exploded.

                            “Waaaah!” Tatiana started bawling. She leaned on Greymon’s head-shell and cried her eyes and lungs out. All the time they had been in this world she had never cried this much or this loud. “I want him to talk again! It’s not fair! I want Agumon back!”

                            Garurumon said something about how that wasn’t right and how it was a wonderful thing to evolve, but Tatiana was in no mood to listen. She kept crying, and Greymon did nothing to stop her. He just lowered his eyes and exhaled deeply in the way a sad dog sighs.
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                            Family (kind of?): Strange person who calls me strange names
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                            Old September 17th, 2016 (11:16 AM).
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                            icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is online now
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                              XIV

                              Seeing in Tongues

                              Ross was very sore the next morning. Yesterday was the first time he had used his physical talents so extensively since he was still under the enemy’s spell. In reality that was only days ago, but to Ross it felt somewhere between weeks and a year ago depending on how he thought about it. Technically he remembered everything that had happened while he was the Commander, but they felt like someone else’s memories. Putting aside the cognitive vertigo he was still experiencing, what mattered most was that he was beat. Yesterday he had run a mile as fast as an Olympic runner would, only he had to run through woods and over hills.

                              As the Commander, or while he was training, Ross knew he would have been fine the next day after such a run. He supposed it was largely psychological. He wasn’t always angry anymore, and he wasn’t under a spell either, so that subtle link he had felt to the power of the Virus was mostly gone. What he could still do he did from muscle memory, and unlike before he felt the toll. Still, it felt better to be exhausted and (relatively) at peace than strong and furious.

                              Ross stood up and stretched his aching legs. It was about half an hour until dawn. Everyone else was asleep except for Jacob, who had the last watch. Ross didn’t expect a ‘good morning’ from Jacob, and he didn’t get one.

                              “So what’s next?” asked Jacob. “We’ve already found your mystery spot, learned nothing useful, got the kids traumatized…”

                              “If I knew he was going to be there, we wouldn’t have gone.”

                              “Fair enough. But really, what’s next? Do you have any kind of plan?”

                              Ross’s plan from here on was vague, but he didn’t see how it could be otherwise. There was no instruction manual on how to induce evolution in Vaccine-types, and if there were it would be buried so deep in their library that they’d never find it in less than three weeks.

                              “Same as before,” said Ross, “Learn more about the Vaccine. We’re going to sit down and have a discussion about what we’ve seen and what it means.”

                              “You’ve got to be kidding.” Jacob was getting angry. “That’s just going to make them more upset—what the hell good is that going to do? It’s not even going to get us anywhere. Don’t you have something in mind besides ‘let Tat and Michael fumble around in the dark’?”

                              Ross thought that Jacob was being awfully assertive for someone who had no idea what he was talking about. “If you’ve got your own stupid, uninformed plan, let me know. Until then, we’re sticking with mine.”

                              Jacob didn’t argue any further. Ross could tell that even though Jacob hated his guts, he still thought they were on the same side. That was important: Ross could deal with Jacob not trusting his character or stability, but it would be a big problem if he thought they were still enemies. So a few hours later when Jacob didn’t join Ross and the others for the discussion, Ross suspected it was because Jacob was getting sick of him rather than that he trusted him to do a good job.

                              Ross sat in a circle with Michael, Garurumon, and Tatiana. Greymon was far too large to be in the circle, but since he was only there to listen it didn’t matter if he sat outside it. What worried Ross was how grim everyone looked. Tatiana seemed especially sad. This wasn’t going to be easy.

                              “Okay,” said Ross. “Let’s start with our original assumptions, then compare and contrast those with the new evidence we’ve seen. According to Garurumon, the common belief among the Vaccine is that all three attributes came into being at the same time and from the same source, correct?”

                              “Hm,” muttered Garurumon in the affirmative.

                              “Right. Now in contrast, what’s the other version of the story we learned yesterday?” Ross didn’t want to even mention where the story came from. It seemed everyone else was at least as uncomfortable with it as he was, as no one volunteered to speak. Michael was looking straight at the ground. Ross knew he had to get the boy’s head back in the game. “Michael, I want to hear this in your words.”

                              Michael didn’t even lift his head, as if sitting still like an angry statue would convince Ross to give up on trying to talk to him. Ross knew this kind of response, as it was how he would treat his parents at times back when they were still a part of his life. He was wondering how to get through, when Garurumon spoke up instead.

                              “Michael, he asked you directly.”

                              Michael remained unmoved.

                              “Would you rather I answer instead?” asked Garurumon.

                              “…No.” Apparently that was what it took. Ross guessed that Michael didn’t want to put a burden on someone else.

                              Michael gave his explanation in monotone. “Something made the Data, then a human made the Virus, and he made them try to kill all the Data.”

                              This was the impression WaruPiximon wanted them to have. Ross suspected that it was mostly correct, but a third of it was missing. There was an omission here that WaruPiximon wanted them to stay blind to—perhaps one that the monster wanted himself to stay blind to. “What about the Vaccine, Michael? Presumably they came last, but where did they come from?”

                              “It doesn’t matter.” Ross shuddered a little when Michael said this. If he couldn’t turn this around it would mean failure.

                              “A human made the Virus,” Michael continued, “So humans can make the Virus evolve. The Vaccine came from somewhere else, so it’s hopeless.”

                              “That’s what WaruPiximon wanted you to think,” Ross was beginning to sound less scholarly and more desperate. “He was trying to manipulate you. Think about it, you already knew that there are awful…evil humans out there. You already knew about Genghis Khan and slave traders and Hitler and whoever else, and that giant was just another one of them. They didn’t make you think every last person was a monster, so this sicko shouldn’t make you think you have anything to do with the Virus. It’s a trick, and you’re too smart to fall for it.”

                              Michael just hugged his knees. Things were just getting worse and worse. Ross didn’t know what he was thinking, trying to inject some phony optimism into this kid as if that would ever work when it came from the mouth of a bona-fide psycho. “Tatiana, what do you think?”

                              Ross needed backup, but to his dismay Tatiana jumped a bit, blinked, and said, “I, uh…I wasn’t listening.”

                              Ross groaned and rubbed his eyes. One way or another he needed to get these kids to focus and make connections. “What about the giant angel at the Holy City? It obviously has something to do with the giant human. What do you think it means?”

                              Then, to Ross’s surprise, Greymon stood up. Ross wondered for a moment if he would try to communicate something nonverbally, but instead the new Adult-level turned away from the group and started walking. The only sounds were of the loud thuds of his footsteps, and of the occasional tree that had to bend orfall down so he could pass.

                              At length Tatiana stood up and announced in a matter-of-fact voice, “I’m going with him.” She scampered off, and something told Ross not to stop her. It felt a little like giving up, but he was pretty sure that wasn’t what he was doing. In any case, it had jarred Michael out of his fit. Now he was looking at Ross, and his expression was somewhere between expectation and confusion.

                              Ross stood up. “Change of plans. Michael, spend the day with Garurumon. Talk about whatever you want, but no more silent treatment.”

                              “You don’t want to listen? You’re sure?” asked Garurumon.

                              Ross gave a convincing white lie to the second question: “Yeah.”

                              “…What about Tatiana?” asked Michael.

                              “If she sticks to Greymon, I’d say she’s safe. We’ll go looking if they’re not back near sundown.” It occurred to Ross that Michael might be asking if she was supposed to talk to Garurumon as well, seeing as Greymon couldn’t speak. But Ross decided there was no reason to try the exact same approach with both kids in case the approach was wrong. And since he was sure anything else he said to Michael would be counterproductive, he walked away without another word and left them alone.

                              *********

                              Tatiana was now caught up to Greymon, and she had to move at a brisk pace to keep up with him. After they had walked for half an hour, she started to wonder if he had a destination in mind or if he was just walking for the heck of it. Eventually her legs started to get tired, and it occurred to her that she had an opportunity that probably no one in human history ever had before.

                              “Hey, Greymon?” she said. “Can I ride on your head?”

                              Greymon glanced down at her, appeared to ponder for a moment, and then stopped walking. He lowered his head to the ground and tilted it in Tatiana’s direction so she would have an easier time getting up. She bubbled up a little in anticipation and pulled herself up onto the left horn which stuck out of his temple. Greymon lifted his head up again as she was climbing onto his crown, which meant she wasn’t quite ready but she managed to hold on. When she was on top and safely balanced, Greymon started walking again. Now Tatiana could look around, and it took her breath away. She was riding among the treetops on top of a dinosaur. This should have been the best moment of her entire life.

                              It wasn’t, though. She knew Greymon was Agumon, but it still felt like Agumon was gone and she was trying to replace him with something fun like a dinosaur ride. She wished Agumon were sitting next to her instead of walking under her, but when it occurred to her that Agumon never would have shied away from the chance to evolve she felt selfish. As much as she wanted Agumon back, she didn’t want to do anything to hurt Greymon’s feelings. It was embarrassing how she had acted when she learned he couldn’t talk, and she hoped he wasn’t mad about it.

                              There was only one thing to do, then: act like nothing had changed. The hard shell under her fingers was warm, just like Agumon always was. He was still her friend so she would treat him like her friend. “Greymon,” she said, “What was it like to evolve? Did you do it on purpose or did it just happen?”

                              Greymon grunted. Tatiana felt the vibration from his utterance in her chest, but she couldn’t parse it as an answer to anything she had asked. “Did it hurt, or did it feel good?”

                              Greymon didn’t acknowledge her, and just kept on walking. “I kinda wish growing up for humans was like evolving. I mean, I still want to talk, but it’d be so cool to breathe fire and be bigger than a house. I’d want to be able to control my size though so I could go inside sometimes.”

                              It felt like talking to a wall. Was she making him mad? Was he upset that he couldn’t talk anymore? There was an easy way to find out, she thought. “Hey, are you upset that you can’t talk anymore?”

                              Still nothing. She started to worry he was refusing to acknowledge her. It stung to think that she might have hurt him that badly. If that were the case she wished he would find some way of telling her. It didn’t help that she couldn’t see his eyes. “Do you want to take a break?”

                              Greymon came to a stop, and then lowered his head again. She started to climb down carefully, but then he tilted and shook a little and she went falling down. She landed on her feet, and her knees smarted a little. She went ‘oof’ and grimaced. Greymon stared at her, and after a moment of indecision she said, “I’m okay.”

                              This seemed to satisfy Greymon, as he lied down on his belly and closed his eyes. Tatiana didn’t know what she was going to do about him. She needed to think, and she liked to pace while thinking. As if it were a perfectly natural thing to do, she climbed onto Greymon’s back and did her pacing there. If Greymon minded, he gave no sign of it.

                              At length, Tatiana had an idea and walked up to Greymon’s head for an easier climb down. She moved to what she thought was an appropriate distance from his head for conversation, and to her surprise he opened his eye to acknowledge her before she said anything.

                              Then she asked him with some hesitation, “Greymon, do you think I can make you evolve again?”

                              Greymon didn’t make a sound or move a muscle. Tatiana expected this, and said, “Blink once for yes and twice for no…or three times for I don’t know.”

                              Greymon didn’t blink. He just sighed and looked away from her. Now Tatiana was getting miffed. She knew that he could understand her, and she knew that he could blink, so what was the problem? “Fine, be like that.” She stomped over to a tree and sat down facing the opposite direction from Greymon.

                              She didn’t understand it. Greymon and Unimon weren’t like dogs who could only understand certain words. She was positive Greymon understood the idea of a yes/no question, and she was pretty sure he wasn’t just acting out. If that were the case he probably wouldn’t have let her climb all over him. She tried to put herself in his shoes—or skin, whatever—but she couldn’t imagine it. She couldn’t remember a time before she could talk. The closest thing she could think of was when she didn’t know most of the words adults used when they talked to each other, but that wasn’t close enough. Greymon was definitely smarter than a three year old.

                              She wasn’t used to this. Usually when she was at odds with someone all the disagreement was expressed in words. Even when it turned into shoving it was still mostly words. How was she supposed to guess how he felt?

                              Time passed. Tatiana thought at as hard as she could about the problem at hand, but inevitably her mind would wander and she’d find herself dwelling on memories from home. It always started as an attempt to pull something relevant from her old experiences, but soon she’d find herself reminiscing for the sake of reminiscing. It was only when the shadow of the tree she was sitting by had moved from her right to her left did something finally click. It had been a long, convoluted thought process, but she finally had a line of thinking in her head that made some kind of sense.

                              It was in first grade, when in art class they were supposed to draw their families with pastel crayons. She made a big stink with her teacher because she wanted to draw horses with colored pencils. ‘I don’t want to draw that!’ she yelled, landing herself in timeout in the process. What she would come to understand later was that she didn’t yell the right thing. It wasn’t about what she wanted to draw, but how. The colored pencils were much more important than the horses. She always could have written ‘MOMMY’ next to a horse and her teacher would have just rolled her eyes and gone with the joke, but Tatiana absolutely would not budge on the colored pencils and that was why she yelled.

                              The pastels just didn’t look right. They were thick, bright, and obvious. She wanted to draw with thin lines that didn’t smudge. The big kids didn’t use crayons, and everything they drew looked real. The picture in her head wasn’t thick and smudgy, and even if she got it wrong with the pencils it wouldn’t be because she was using the wrong thing. It would never be the right drawing if someone made her do it the wrong way—it wouldn’t even be her own drawing, and that felt like she was being robbed.

                              She realized this was also how she felt about talking dogs in movies, and how they always seemed off. They never talked like a dog would talk if a dog could talk: they always sounded like people disguised as dogs. Every word they ever said made them less dog and more human. Even shaking their head ‘no’ would make them less dog. It was like the people making the movies were stealing their dog-ness.

                              And now she thought she understood Greymon. It may have been that he could have blinked once for yes and twice for no, but that wouldn’t be Greymon. That would be her trying to push speech onto him by other means. Tatiana had assumed that Greymon was mute the way a person was mute, but that wasn’t right at all. Someone who was mute still used words, just not out loud. It wasn’t that Greymon didn’t talk, it was that he didn’t use words in any form. He understood them, but they weren’t his, so he never used them.

                              Tatiana got up again, and walked over to Greymon. “I’m sorry, Greymon. I won’t try to make you talk anymore.” Maybe this wasn’t the smart thing to do, but she was sure it was the right thing to do. In response, Greymon very gently moved his head over and bumped into her just enough to make her fall on her rear. She’d tried to do everything her way, and now they were even and Tatiana felt much better.

                              What she did next was maybe a little silly. Whether it was because she wanted to convey to Greymon that she understood him better now, or because she just thought it would be fun, she got up, showed off her teeth and ‘claws,’ and gave her best T-rex roar. And just as she hoped he would, Greymon stood up as well, took a deep breath, and bellowed at the top of his lungs.

                              Tatiana felt the sound reverberate all through her body. It shook the trees, echoed back from a mountain miles away, and put a smile on Tatiana’s face that lasted for hours. In that moment she could have sworn that she could yell that loud herself. The vibrations were lingering in her chest even after they were no longer present in the ground. And for one second, the world around her changed. Everything was fuzzier but also sharper. Everything in her peripherals was a blur, but if she looked directly at a distant tree she could count call of the twigs on its branches, and all of the knots in the twig, and all of the cells in every millimeter of it. ‘Is this what everything looks like to Greymon?’ she thought.

                              The moment passed, but the pure exhilaration remained. She decided right then that she had to learn to see the world like Greymon did.

                              *********

                              Several days later Ross’s muscles were no longer sore. He first noticed that the aching was gone while he was squatting down to gather mushrooms for dinner. It was going to be a moderately offensive-tasting meal with an unpleasant texture like always, but at least he’d be able to stand up without pain afterward. In this respect, he probably had the most optimistic outlook on dinner out of the entire group. The first night they ate these things Joanie had to use serious reasoning and persuasion to keep Michael and Tatiana from spitting them out. Ross had thought about saying, “It’s gross, but at least there’s a ton of it,” but he never brought himself to actually make the joke.

                              When he had picked up all the mushrooms he could carry in his jacket, he returned to the banks of the stream they had found shortly before they ran out of their own water. This was where they now made camp, even though the stream was so thin that the water tasted almost intolerably like dirt. Once or twice Ross wondered if he could still function without eating, drinking, and sleeping, but the thought of being in that state of mind again was far worse than the thought of drinking this swill. It wasn’t fun, but at least it couldn’t last more than another week and a half.

                              Joanie was the only one at the camp when Ross arrived. The kids and the ’mons were off in pairs as usual, and Jacob was somewhere else. Ross dropped the bundle of mushrooms wrapped in his jacket on the ground, to which Joanie said, “Thank you,” in a tone that was somewhere between politeness and resignation to eating more of this garbage.

                              “You’re welcome,” said Ross in the same tone as he sat down and began to wait for the evening.

                              The minutes passed, and before long it became clear to Ross that there was more to Joanie’s creased brow than frustrations with their recent diet. There was anxiety in her silence, and Ross couldn’t stand to let it fester. He didn’t mind silence, but only the right kinds. When he thought of the perfect silence it was back at the Homestead, where the two of them could sit in one place for hours looking at the same mountains and know that the other never felt uncomfortable. But he knew that he could not return there. Whenever he and Joanie sat in silence since his return it was like it was now. So they had to talk or it would kill him.

                              “Spit it out.”

                              Joanie sighed. “I guess I was just wondering when you were going to step in again.”

                              “If you mean when I’m going to listen in on them and offer advice, I’m not.” Ross had come to this decision a while ago, but he had avoided talking about it for the simple reason that he hadn’t felt like talking about anything.

                              “But why? It doesn’t seem like they’ve gotten anywhere. We’re running out of time.”

                              “That’s why I shouldn’t step in anymore. The plan from the beginning was for me to set them thinking in the right direction—let them know they kinds of things they need to find out. The most important part is after all that, and it’s more emotional than intellectual or technical. They need to…click with the ’mons, I guess. In my case it meant being an angry maniac twenty-four/seven, but that was with the Gazimon. They need to be in tune with Greymon and Garurumon in their own way, and my being around won’t help with that.”

                              “I hate listening to you if you’re like this.”

                              Ross couldn’t suppress going, “Huh?” What did she mean? She couldn’t stand listening to him being calm and reasonable?

                              “You’re talking around the part you know I won’t agree with,” said Joanie. “You think you need to stay away from them because they hate you and won’t get it right if you’re there. But you’re wrong. They don’t hate you, they need you. They need you the way you were before…before…”

                              Ross’s nails dug into his skin. “You can stop right there.”

                              “No, I won’t! Why are you taking it for granted that they’ll be mad at you forever? If you give them a chance, they’ll see you’re still—”

                              “They know better.” Ross was ready to say almost anything to shut her up. It was like she was jamming pliers into his heart and trying to pull out a piece of shrapnel, but she didn’t realize that she had grabbed all the muscle along with it. “It doesn’t make sense to say they need me because whatever picture of me was in their heads is ruined. You can try to glue together a glass that’s broken into a million pieces, but it’s never going to hold water again. If I spend any more time with them they’re just going to stay scared and angry, and then they won’t be able to focus. Especially not Michael, he’s worse than ever. And even if Tatiana seems fine that’s only because I’m keeping my distance. And if I throw them off, we’re dead.”

                              Joanie’s upper lip was starting to quiver, but Ross wasn’t done. “I blew it, okay? I did stuff that should have landed me a life sentence or the chair, and I can’t take it back. So stop pretending things will ever be like they used to be, because they won’t. You shouldn’t give the time of day to someone who’s done what I’ve done, and the kids know it.”

                              Joanie looked like she was about to snap, but rather than argue she just stood up and walked away. Ross thought her eyes might have been welling up, too. He didn’t know what exactly had set her off, but he didn’t waste much time trying to guess. After all, in a week and a half none of this would matter.

                              *********

                              It was late in the afternoon, and Michael was starting to worry about another wasted day. He and Garurumon had settled into a worrisome routine. They would talk for an hour in the morning about how one might induce evolution, and when this inevitably yielded no results they would stray into idle conversation. After that they would go for a walk in the hopes of resetting their heads, but it never worked.

                              “Garurumon, do you have music in your world?” asked Michael when they were done with their walk. “I haven’t heard any Vaccine sing.” More meaningless chatter. Michael supposed it was better than doing literally nothing all day.

                              “I know we used to, but I haven’t heard any in decades, and certainly never from a Vaccine. I’m surprised you know about it. I suppose they have shrill and frivolous things in your world as well.” Garurumon’s voice was calm and measured, just as it almost always was. He hadn’t seemed remotely worried for a minute since their encounter with WaruPiximon. His voice was so consistent that Michael had to wonder if it was just an act, or if Garurumon in fact was so sure they were going to succeed. Michael couldn’t imagine that the latter was the case because it was obvious that their chances were slim to none, so he supposed it was the former.

                              And since their odds were so bad, Michael decided he might as well keep talking about nothing. “You don’t like music at all? Not even one kind?”

                              “If you’d met the Gekomon and listened to them for five seconds, you wouldn’t be surprised. To my knowledge that’s the only kind, and it’s not something you forget soon.”

                              “What do they sound like?”

                              “Hmm…if I had to say, they sound like immortality.”

                              Michael didn’t have the slightest idea what Garurumon meant, and he let it show on his face.

                              “To be more specific,” Garurumon continued, “They sound like something that can’t die attempting to do so regardless and sustaining that last squawk indefinitely. Mix that with the sound of escaping intestinal gas, and you have the idea.”

                              Michael laughed. In his head he pictured his old third grade class’s orchestra concert, and then imagined their music teacher/conductor making an inadvertent and hilarious contribution to the noise. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you tell a joke before.”

                              “Well, it seemed like you could use one.” Garurumon’s expression hadn’t changed even a little, giving the impression that it had been a tactical and deliberately calculated fart joke. As for Michael, his smile disappeared.

                              “I’ve been kind of a pain lately, haven’t I?”

                              “I wouldn’t say you’ve been a pain. You just haven’t tried at all to hide your frustrations, and that has an effect on those around you. It’s a skill you’d do well to learn.”

                              Michael sort of agreed, but still didn’t like the criticism. “Will it help?”

                              “Of course. The officers must set the emotional tenor for the army. If you are to be an officer, mastery over your spirits is essential.”

                              Michael frowned. “I meant will it help in the next week and a half.”

                              Garurumon sighed. “Why don’t you tell me about the jokes from your world?”

                              Michael knew he shouldn’t have said anything. It couldn’t have felt good for Garurumon to know that he didn’t think they would pull it off. For this reason, Michael had no problem with keeping the subject on jokes and things. “What do you want to know?”

                              “Just what sorts of jokes are told, and who are the sorts who tell them. When I joke, for example, it’s verbal, but when a Gazimon jokes it is physical, and typically they draw blood in the process.”

                              In honesty, Michael considered himself one of the worst possible authorities on the subject of jokes. He didn’t know many of them, and when he told them they rarely drew laughter. He was as likely as not to mess things up part-way through, whether by accidentally revealing some information that was supposed to be revealed in the punchline or by getting bogged down in details that had nothing to do with the punchline at all. So to answer Garurumon’s question, he decided to lean on a better authority.

                              “Well, my English teacher always started class with a joke. He told a lot of puns, and they were usually really dumb.”

                              “What do you mean by ‘puns’?”

                              This was a lucky break for Michael: something simple enough in the world of jokes that even he could explain it. “You know, jokes about words. Like when you say one thing and it sounds like a different thing so it’s funny, kind of.”

                              “Can you give an example?”

                              Michael was never ready to give examples of jokes. He frantically tried to remember something that he thought was funny but also clearly illustrated what he was talking about. To most people this would be as simple as saying ‘Cats think puns are purrrr-fect,’ or any number of other short sentences with syllables that related to animals in some tortured way. But Michael had a habit of deliberating over everything he thought was required of the best answer when it would be much faster to think of any old answer and seeing if it was good enough. Fortunately Garurumon showed no signs of impatience as Michael spent the next two minutes trying to think of a pun.

                              Finally, Michael had the best answer, or at least it was lucky he actually started saying it before he could think of a reason why it wasn’t the best. “So here’s one my teacher told us to teach us better grammar. First he writes on the board ‘A panda eats shoots and leaves,’ and then he puts in commas so it says ‘A panda eats, shoots, and leaves.’” Michael made sure to put in the necessary pauses where the commas would be in written form. Surely his delivery was flawless and hilarious for once.

                              Garurumon stared at Michael for an uncomfortable stretch of time. “I must be missing something,” he said.

                              It was then that Michael realized why this example maybe wasn’t perfect: Since most Adult-level ’mons could barely read if at all, they might not know what commas are. ‘I knew I should have gone with cats and “purrrr-fect.” Stupid, stupid, stupid,’ he thought. It was time for a salvage operation. “So…um….it means something different depending on how you write the sentence. Or say it I guess. But mostly write it…yeah. Anyway first it means that a panda…oh, a panda’s an animal. It’s like this big…whatever, what I mean is…uh…”

                              “Take your time.”

                              “Right. Yeah.” Michael took his time. “So first it means the panda eats shoots and leaves, but next it means the panda eats, shoots—wait no that’s not how I should… Next it means the panda eats then shoots then leaves. Get it?”

                              Garurumon made a low noise in his throat. “If you mean do I grasp the semantics of the two phrases, I suppose. What I don’t see is the joke element.”

                              Rock bottom. Michael had to explain the joke. Why did this always happen when he tried to tell a joke? “Well, it’s sort of funny because a panda can’t shoot a gun…oh, so a gun is—”

                              “I’m sure that whatever it is, it’s hysterical, but then you might as well just say ‘A pan-duh eats, shoots, and leaves’ and leave it at that. How does the first part contribute anything to the second?”

                              Michael didn’t know what to say. It was like being asked what water had to do with ice. “Well…it’s because they’re both…the same?”

                              “Clearly they’re not.”

                              “Well, no, they’re not the same sentence, but they’re the same words, just…”

                              “What are you talking about?”

                              This was getting to be too much for Michael. He didn’t think anyone should have to explain the fundamental theorem behind wordplay. “They sound the same. The words have two different meanings…or, no, the words are different but they sound the same. They’re syno—no, sorry, homophones.”

                              Once again there was a long pause. “You’ve completely lost me.”

                              Michael felt stupid. He knew he probably shouldn’t because Garurumon was apparently the one who didn’t understand puns, but he still felt stupid. “Look, it’s ‘leaves’ and ‘leaves.’ Like…more than one leaf…and the other one means leaving.”

                              “Michael, you have to explain what you mean or no one will understand you. You can’t just say that two different things are the same thing and expect everyone to follow along.”

                              Michael put his hands to his temples and groaned loudly. This was like a bad dream. He needed a new tactic or he would lose it. Then he remembered that they were in a forest, and saw an opportunity to have Garurumon make the connections himself. He pointed up and all around. “Okay, what grows on trees?”

                              “Leaves.”

                              “Yeah. Now, if someone was in one place, and now he’s going to another place, you don’t say ‘he stays,’ you say ‘he…’”

                              “Leaves.”

                              “There! See! They sound exactly the same but they don’t mean the same thing! Get it?”

                              Garurumon closed his eyes. “Let’s drop it. I said two completely different things, and apparently you heard the same thing twice. Maybe we can talk about this again when you’re less tired.”

                              Michael stamped his foot. “I don’t want to drop it! None of this makes any sense, and I want to know why!”

                              “We’re from different worlds. Some confusion is to be expected, so it’s not worth getting put out of shape over.”

                              “Not confusion like this though! Urrgh, this is just like how Agumon…I mean Greymon…or whatever, Agumon couldn’t hear the word ‘wizard’ in ‘Wizardmon.’ I can’t stand it! It’s like we’re not even speaking the same language!”

                              “What do you mean by ‘the same language’?”

                              The way things were going, Michael thought he would have gone into conniptions at this question, but he didn’t. Instead he was thinking carefully, because he had said it was like they weren’t speaking the same language before he realized what he really meant. The actual thought in his head was something more insightful, more consequential, and more literal.

                              “…We,” he started with a stutter, “We shouldn’t be speaking the same language.”

                              “Hmm?”

                              “The words. The words we say shouldn’t be the same. You shouldn’t be able to understand anything I say, and I shouldn’t be able to understand anything you say.”

                              Garurumon looked intrigued but skeptical. “Why would that be case?”

                              “That’s how it is in our world. People in different places use different words for the same things, and you can’t understand them unless you learn their language. I never noticed here because everything already seemed like magic. There’s no reason for anyone in another world to speak English.”

                              “We understand each other, so clearly in this world we do speak ‘Ing-glish’ as you say, and so there must be a reason. If I had to guess, the reason is that it wouldn’t do for us not to understand the words of the Creators.”

                              Michael shook his head. There was more to this, and he wouldn’t take an explanation that didn’t dig deeper. “That’s a reason why it’d nice to speak the same language, but that doesn’t explain how we understand each other. My dad told me that languages have to spread and grow and mix. They don’t just appear out of nowhere.”

                              “Then you mean our ‘language’ must have originated in your world and come here. So a plausible explanation could be…” Garurumon took on a grim expression. “The human who made the Virus. He would have brought his language with him.”

                              Michael spotted the flaw in Garurumon’s theory immediately. “That wouldn’t make sense either. If that was thousands of years ago, then your English wouldn’t sound like our English. You’d have a bunch of different words and a totally weird accent. My dad showed me a Shakespeare book once, and you can barely understand a thing even though it’s also English.” Michael was more focused than he had been in months. He felt that if he could stay in this mood long enough he could work out the exact answer to any problem you could name.

                              “My hypothesis,” he continued, “Is that we don’t actually speak the same language, and something else is making it seem like we do. That’s why ‘leaves’ and ‘leaves’ don’t sound the same to you. It’s because you’re hearing what I mean, but in your own language.”

                              “It’s an interesting hypothesis, but how do you propose to test it?”

                              Michael didn’t have an answer right away, but for once he didn’t worry or lose his train of thought. He quickly settled on the basic principle. He had to make something happen that couldn’t happen if they perceived the words the same way. This idea came from another thing he had learned from his dad, which was that you could prove to someone that an idea is wrong if you can show how it leads to something you both agree is wrong. He thought of potential experiments quickly, and he didn’t panic when they had flaws but instead used his realizations to come to new ideas. He wouldn’t rely on how the words sounded because it was too subjective. He needed concrete side effects of their differing perceptions: side effects that they couldn’t possibly interpret differently.

                              Garurumon let him think on his own like this for ten minutes. At length Michael found the experiment that had the fewest problems and was still possible to perform with the materials available. He said, “One more minute,” to Garurumon, and gathered as many pebbles as he could find. He divided them into two groups, and each group he arranged on the ground as vertical lines lying in a row.

                              “Okay, here’s my experiment. We’re each going to write the word ‘leaves’ in the ground with our fingers or claws at the same time. You have to write through the lines of pebbles. Act as if they’re not there, and just push the pebbles aside whenever they’re in your way. Also, you have to write the word as close to the same size that I do as you can. If you don’t break the same number of lines that I do, then your word’s not the right size and we start over.”

                              Garurumon stared at the rows of rocks. He seemed apprehensive, but Michael didn’t know why until Garurumon said so. “I’m afraid I’ve never written before.”

                              “That’s okay, just copy me. Actually, that’s better.”

                              “Very well.”

                              They each sat before their row of pebbles, and without warning Michael’s usual anxieties returned and his focus was gone. As he began to sweat, it dawned on him what might happen if they made something impossible happen. It could show that this was all a dream, and who knew what would happen if the dream broke? Would he simply wake up, or would the dream suddenly lose all of the rules that were still in place? What if it sent him to a new dream where Garurumon, Tatiana, Joanie, and everyone else weren’t there? The new dream might be far worse.

                              But he set all that aside. He was so close to making an actual, serious discovery on his own. He might never think as well as he just did again, so he couldn’t lose this chance. And if it really was all a dream, then he would have fun telling Tatiana all about it when he woke up. It didn’t occur to him that telling her might be impossible because there was no way of knowing if she wasn’t just part of the dream and nothing more.

                              Michael swallowed hard, put down his finger, and began to trace the letter ‘L’ in the dirt. Garurumon followed his lead, and his letter was the same as Michael’s only rougher. This was within the realm of possibilities that Michael had explored, and he continued writing. He broke through the first line of pebbles and Garurumon broke through his own in the same way. Michael shook his head so that he wouldn’t get ahead of himself, and concentrated on writing cleanly and slowly enough for Garurumon to copy. He made very sure to write through individual pebbles instead of between pairs of them so that they would move as much as possible.

                              When he finished the ‘s’ at the end he took a deep breath. Garurumon had written the same word and had taken up approximately the same amount of space. Michael could feel his shirt stick to his skin when he said to Garurumon, “All right. Now, how many lines did you break while writing the word?”

                              To the naked eye the answer was obvious, but Garurumon seemed to take it for granted that Michael’s question was serious and worthwhile. “Two.”

                              Michael’s throat contracted, and his eyes watered. He could barely believe his ears, and asked, “Say that again?”

                              “Two. Two lines of pebbles broken. First one, then another, then none after.”

                              Michael’s teeth began to chatter uncontrollably, but he managed to say, “I broke four.” He felt that he might wake up at any second and nearly collapsed from fear and excitement.

                              Even Garurumon appeared to have been moved slightly by Michael’s claim. “You are sure? I see two broken lines on each side, and the words are the same.”

                              They agreed on everything except the number. With shaking knees, Michael stood up and motioned to Garurumon that they should switch places. He had almost done it. When they both sat before the other’s writing, Michael gave the final instructions for the experiment. “I want you to touch the fourth pebble from the top on my fourth line. According to you it hasn’t moved, right?”

                              “Correct.”

                              “Good. Then I’m going to touch the same pebble on your fourth line. To me it looks like it’s moved a few inches. We’ll do it at the same time.”

                              Michael pointed to the stone he had in mind, and Garurumon likewise pointed his claw. They were still for several seconds until Garurumon asked, “When?”

                              Michael grew a little embarrassed, but he was still mostly eager and worried. “Oh…right, on three.”

                              Michael counted, and then they both touched the ground. Michael’s finger went right through the pebble, which was no longer there. It was back in line, and it stood directly on top of the lettering.

                              “What…is this?” said Garurumon. His claw was resting in the gap that Michael had known was there, but Garurumon was just as awestruck as Michael was.

                              Michael stared at Garurumon. He didn’t know if he was waiting for the Vaccine officer to say something else or simply disappear. One impossible thing had already happened, so anything could happen now. At length Garurumon did speak again. “I can’t read it anymore.”

                              “What?”

                              “Your word. It looks like random lines and curves now.”

                              He was afraid to, but Michael looked down again at Garurumon’s word. It had changed. It now consisted of two dense characters that barely spanned two lines of pebbles.

                              “Astounding,” said Garurumon. “You were right all along. Our ‘languages’ are not the same. Something makes them seem so, but it falls apart in the face of contradiction. I could have gone my entire life talking with humans and never known. You found it.”

                              Michael thought again of the magic Wizardmon had performed with the word ‘fish,’ how he had used the print to summon most of a real fish. Wizardmon hadn’t succeeded, but if Michael could expose the secrets hidden in written words in this world using experimentation and reason, maybe he could go further than Wizardmon had. He took more deep breaths. There was still more to do.

                              Michael ran his fingers gently over the rest of the pebbles in Garurumon’s row. He did his best not to anticipate where any of them would be, but rather tried to compare and contrast what his fingers touched and what his eyes saw. He was testing, not just reaching and feeling. As he stared and stared at the foreign word, he concentrated as hard as he could on seeing the word as it actually was, not as what he expected it to be.

                              And then something happened to his eyes. His peripheral vision blurred as if he had put on his dad’s glasses, but the word remained clear. It was clear, but at the same time unstable. It was at times Garurumon’s script, at others English. Then it was something entirely different, and Michael felt that this new writing was closer to the truth than either of the others. He saw the script turn into thousands of lines of many letters that he could mostly read. There was far too much of it for him to take in, but what he caught looked sort of like English.

                              Then he blinked, and his vision was normal again and Garurumon’s word was flat and unchanging. He didn’t know what to make of this yet, but he was still here and so was the rest of the world. He didn’t think it was a dream, and the reality was far more incredible than anything he could have dreamed up himself.
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                              Family (kind of?): Strange person who calls me strange names
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                              Old September 24th, 2016 (3:20 AM).
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                                XV

                                Digital World

                                It was morning, and Ross woke up alone. He hadn’t felt like seeing anyone the evening prior, so he’d decided to wander off for a while and skip dinner. In doing so, he confirmed his suspicion that he could in fact still feel hunger. He supposed the one time he went for roughly a year without food must have been a fluke.

                                He stood up and stretched. After thinking about their argument over the kids last night, he had decided that Joanie was partially right, but not for the reason she thought. He would indeed have to check on them soon, but only so he could verify whether they were making progress or not. It would take several days to walk back to the mountains, and he wanted to have at least a Perfect-level by the time they had to leave. If the kids were still stumped, he would have to intervene and push them on to new strategies even if they didn’t want to be anywhere near him.

                                It was a bad situation, and of course he had no one to blame but himself. He bit his lip and fumed. There was a relatively thin tree in front of him, and he thought about breaking it down. It wouldn’t be too hard, in fact he might be able to crack it with just a punch. Or if he didn’t want a throbbing hand, a kick would probably work even better. He felt his blood start to boil, and he could picture the tree shattering into splinters. Then the tree was someone’s leg, and the splinters were chips of bone, and he nearly threw up. He slapped himself in the face and tried to bring his breathing under control. Sometimes he still needed convincing that it was all behind him.

                                A few minutes later, by which point he had calmed down, he heard someone approaching. By the pace and weight of the footsteps, Ross was almost positive it was Jacob. This made sense to Ross, as he didn’t imagine Jacob would want a de facto prisoner to go missing overnight. And when Jacob came into view, Ross wasn’t at all surprised by his body language: he was gravitating toward his sword. It wasn’t anything as obvious as having it drawn or keeping his hand on the hilt, but Ross could still tell.

                                “Ross.”

                                “What?”

                                Unfriendly but not hostile, just efficient. Ross supposed that this was how he and Jacob would typically converse from now on.

                                “Michael wants you. He says he’s got something to show us.”

                                This was the last thing Ross had expected to hear. It took a good deal of effort to keep his hopes from getting up. Still, it could only be good news if Michael was making progress of his own volition. Ross nodded to Jacob without a word and followed him back to the others.

                                When they arrived at the campsite, Ross could see that Joanie, Tatiana, and Michael were all smiling, but Michael’s smile vanished as soon as he saw Ross. This made a small pang in Ross’s chest, but it was still good news that Michael’s mood had improved.

                                “It seems we’re all assembled,” said Garurumon.

                                Ross didn’t see immediately how this was the case, but only because he was still looking for Agumon. Greymon however was present and napping. When the large dinosaur snorted a gust of terribly hot air from his nostrils Ross decided it would be best to leave him alone unless they needed him.

                                “Okay,” said Ross. “What have you got, Michael?”

                                Everyone turned their attention to Michael, who had a stick and a number of small rocks with him. He took a deep breath, and began to deliver what Ross considered to be a remarkably unconfident ramble. “So, Garurumon and I discovered something yesterday. We were talking about words, and…well I guess I should start with how I got there. We were telling jokes, and Garurumon didn’t get mine, and it was a pun. The joke was…um…cats think—wait no that wasn’t it. Anyway the point is he didn’t get it because it was a pun, and that’s because it had words that mean two…I mean two words that sound the same.”

                                “Homophones?” asked Joanie, who clearly had no idea where Michael was going with this.

                                “Yeah, that. So, uh…”

                                Ross could tell that Michael was lost. He was sure that at one point it had all made perfect sense in the boy’s head, but the path of logic that originally brought him to whatever idea he was trying to convey was probably too convoluted for him to keep track of. “Why don’t you show us what you found first?” asked Ross. “If we still need an explanation, we can ask questions. It’s okay if it doesn’t make complete sense to us right away.” Ross recalled how much he used to struggle with oral presentations. He would always start from the beginning of his thought process and end up with a bored and confused audience before he got to the part that was interesting and important.

                                Michael seemed a little disappointed that Ross had to correct him, but also relieved that he had an excuse to switch gears. Without another word the boy arranged his pebbles in a pattern that seemed random, but the careful deliberation he took with each one showed that something more was going on. He then used his stick to write the word ‘FISH’ in the dirt in large, distinct letters. Many of the pebbles were knocked out of their original positions in the process.

                                “Ooh, are you going to make a fish?” asked Tatiana with unconstrained excitement. Ross didn’t show it, but he also hoped that Michael had somehow learned Wizardmon’s magic.

                                “No, but it’s almost as good,” said Michael, who was starting to smile again despite himself. “Look close.”

                                Michael pointed right at one of the pebbles that had been knocked aside. He paused, and then he pushed the tip of his finger clean through it. Ross had to blink, and then the pebble was resting on top of part of the letter ‘I,’ and Michael’s finger was pressed against the ground. For an instant at a time Ross would see the pebble back where it had been before, superimposed over Michael’s hand but always flickering back to the letter.

                                “What the hell?” said Jacob.

                                Joanie and Tatiana were talking loudly, but none of it reached Ross’s brain. He was busy trying to reconcile the inconsistency. This flew in the face of the rest of the impossible nonsense he had grown accustomed to in his time here. He had seen the world go to immense lengths to keep things like time paradoxes from happening, but now Michael could apparently make a rock be in two places at once.

                                Because he was unable to figure out what on earth was happening on his own, Ross listened to Michael’s unsteady explanation of the story, already in progress. Michael had actually written the word in the language of this world, but for some reason their human brains automatically interpreted it as English. Now that he knew what to look for, Ross could see the word as two alien characters. He could also see that none of the pebbles had moved an inch. It had only looked that way to accommodate the false English word. Then Ross had to wonder how many other written words he had seen in this world, and got the feeling it would keep him up at night.

                                “So Michael, can you hear this language too, or just see the words?” asked Joanie.

                                “I can’t hear it. I’ve tried, though.”

                                “Similarly,” said Garurumon, “I cannot hear ‘English’ as you call it.”

                                “What’s the name of your language?” asked Tatiana.

                                Garurumon shook his head. “We never knew it needed a name. I am as surprised as any of you.” Garurumon then took a glance at the slumbering behemoth outside the circle. “Perhaps we should wake him up. He may want to see this.”

                                “Nah,” said Tatiana, “He wouldn’t care.” She said it in a strange, upbeat way, as if to say that something was better about Greymon for not caring. Ross thought she was jumping to conclusions, but Garurumon was apparently convinced and that was good enough. Besides that, the thought of waking him up was a little intimidating.

                                “Anyway, there’s one more thing,” said Michael. He had everyone’s rapt attention now. “I don’t know to teach this one, but I think you should look right here.” Michael pointed with his stick at the intersection between a line and a curve. “Try to see the word and just the word, not the lines. I think it helps if you squint a little.”

                                Ross did exactly as he was told, but he wasn’t getting results. A solid minute passed and it was a real strain on his eyes. Finally he gave up and glanced back at Michael, who was waiting nervously for someone to see what he wanted them to see. Ross was about to say it was time for a new approach when Tatiana nearly jumped out of her skin.

                                “I see it! I see it! It’s a million words!”

                                “What are you talking about?” said Jacob. “There aren’t even fifty strokes there.”

                                “No, I see it! It’s what it really means!”

                                Joanie looked amazed, and she asked Garurumon, “Can you see it? I can’t.”

                                “No. I haven’t managed it yet.”

                                “What does it look like?” asked Ross.

                                Michael looked surprised. Perhaps he hadn’t expected that the teenagers would believe them. “It’s…it’s sort of like English, at least some of it. It’s almost all letters from the alphabet and numbers, but I can’t read it. It’s not gibberish, though. It’s kind of math-y, I guess?”

                                Ross nodded. “Does it look the same to you, Tat?”

                                “Yeah, pretty much.”

                                So far, so good. “Can you two write down some of what you see? So that we can see it?”

                                Michael nodded, then got to work. It was slow going, and he clearly had to concentrate terribly hard in order to do it. It didn’t help that he had to write in the dirt, either.

                                “Oh,” said Tatiana, “I see what part you’re copying. You want me to start on the next line?”

                                “Mm-hmm.”

                                Ross didn’t believe at first that she could pick out where Michael was looking if there really were a million words of the stuff, but Michael didn’t object to a single thing she wrote. There was clearly more to these kids’ eyes than he thought. As for what they were writing, it didn’t make any real sense to him, but it seemed too orderly and deliberate to be simple make-believe.

                                At length the two were finished, and this is what they had written:

                                for(int t = 0xAB09E224; t < 0xAB0F0000; t++) {
                                for(int z = 0x4C14BCA1; z < 0x4C14BF00; z++) {
                                for(int y = 0x8AC8193F; y < 0x8AC8F000; y++) {
                                for(int x = 0x7BE86E88; x < 0x7BF00000; x++) {
                                interpolate(macrovoxel(z,y,x));
                                interpolate(macrovoxel(z+0x01,y-0x04,x+0x1C));
                                loctimeset(t,z,y,x);
                                tick(t-0x05);
                                tick(t+0x05);
                                }
                                }
                                }
                                }

                                Ross had a hunch that if anyone would have an idea it would be Joanie. She had a look of quiet awe on her face, so it seemed his hunch was correct.

                                “Do either of you two know anything about computer programming?” asked Joanie.

                                The kids both shook their heads.

                                “Unbelievable…” said Joanie.

                                “Is that what it is?” asked Ross. “Computer code?”

                                “It sure looks like it. I’m not a programmer, but my mom is. I’ve picked up a few things.”

                                “Do you know what this says, then?” asked Michael, who was suddenly uncharacteristically hopeful.

                                “Well…no.”

                                And just like that Michael was crestfallen. Ross was disappointed as well, but he hadn’t expected much.

                                “When you say ‘code,’” said Garurumon. “Do you mean to say that this is a cypher? Can the cypher be broken?”

                                Joanie shook her head. “It’s not a cypher. You can’t just swap out letters or do simple decoding to find out what it means in English. See the word ‘interpolate’ in there? Depending on the rest of the program, that could mean anything. My mom said you can’t take a word in a program at face value. You have to know the full context to know what it actually does.”

                                “I still don’t understand,” said Garurumon. “If the simplest of ideas like ‘fish’ require all these millions of words in this language, and small portions of the idea like this one are meaningless on their own, how does anyone use it to communicate?”

                                “That’s the thing, people don’t use it to talk to each other. It’s language for computers. They’re…they’re tools we use for dealing with information. Think like the library in the Holy City, except you can store thousands of books in a small space.”

                                “You can play games on them, too,” said Tatiana.

                                “Then are they toys or books?” asked Garurumon.

                                “They’re complicated,” said Joanie, “and very flexible. For our purposes, let’s stick with the information aspect. Basically, a computer thinks of everything in the world as numbers, and this computer language is how we tell it what to do.”

                                “So when you send an email,” asked Tatiana, “Does it send it in this language instead of English?”

                                “No, at least I don’t think so. The words in documents are still English, mostly. Something like this code you’ve written here is what the actual program or app you use to read the email would be made of.”

                                “That’s all fascinating,” said Jacob, “but why is it here?”

                                Ross certainly didn’t have a good answer for this. One might as well have asked why there was time travel here, or why there were talking wolves and angels. On the theme of computers, one could ask why they were called Data, Virus, and Vaccine. Given what they knew now about language, it could have simply been the case that nothing here had anything to do with computers, but their brains interpreted it that way for some reason.

                                Tatiana, however, was very decisive in her answer. “Cause we’re inside a computer. Duh.”

                                Michael’s eyes lit up, but Joanie and Jacob didn’t seem to give the idea much credence. “I really don’t think we are,” said Joanie. “Even if we could somehow get inside a computer, you couldn’t fit all this in all the computers in the world.” She gestured all around them as she said ‘all this.’

                                “How do you know?” asked Michael.

                                “It’s math. Take a really close look at your fingertips, and all the detail that’s there, like your fingerprints. If you wanted to convert everything about even just your finger into computer data, you would need data for every last detail, down to the depth of every microscopic ridge on your skin. Your finger would be gigabytes of data, the rest of your body would be terabytes, I don’t even want to guess how much space your brain would take up, and that’s just you.

                                “There would have to be data on every blade of grass, and every raindrop in a sky that’s miles high and maybe thousands of miles wide north-south and east-west. We can’t even picture how big that is, and in every cubic inch of it there’s tons of data. That’s trillions of terabytes at least, and there just isn’t that much computer storage. It’d be like fitting the ocean into a pond. Trust me, it wouldn’t fit.”

                                Ross had known that math was Joanie’s favorite subject, but this was the first time he had heard her go into full-on math-mode. The immense enthusiasm she had for just the idea of converting an entire world into computer data was palpable, even if she was describing why it couldn’t be done. But for all the confidence and authority in her words, Michael wasn’t backing down.

                                “But think about it. If we’re in a computer, and the word ‘fish’ is computer code, then what Wizardmon did actually makes sense.” Michael paused, as if the gravity of what had occurred to him was just sinking in. “He could make a real fish because the word ‘fish’ is the code for making a fish. He wasn’t just reading, he was running a program.”

                                Ross thought Michael’s idea was too good to ignore, even if Joanie’s math was probably right. He decided the best thing to do would be to steer the conversation away from a debate over whether they were literally in a computer and toward exploring this code further. “That’s a good point, Michael. How do you think we can test it?”

                                Michael turned a little red. Apparently he had no idea. Fortunately for him, Ross had a suggestion. “Why don’t you write a few other words first? You can compare and contrast them.”

                                “Is that going to help?” asked Jacob. “It’s not like any of us know what the terms mean.”

                                Ross wanted to tell Jacob that he would make a lousy teacher, but he didn’t. He had to stay focused. “It doesn’t hurt to try.”

                                “What should I write?” asked Michael.

                                “Whatever you want. Write something you’d want to see the code for.”

                                Michael swallowed, and fiddled with the stick for a bit.

                                “You already wrote ‘fish,’ so why not try ‘cat’?” asked Tatiana.

                                “You can go ahead and write it yourself,” said Ross. “Actually, why don’t we all try some words?”

                                So with everyone’s help they soon had a sizeable corpus. Tatiana wrote ‘cat’ and ‘hat,’ Jacob wrote ‘sword,’ Ross wrote ‘rain’ and ‘sun,’ and Garurumon clumsily scratched ‘Howling Fire.’ Joanie’s and Michael’s grabbed Ross’s attention as the most potentially useful, though. Joanie wrote a fundamental set of mathematical concepts: ‘zero,’ ‘one,’ ‘plus,’ and ‘minus;’ and Michael cut straight to the chase with ‘evolve.’

                                Since only the kids could see the code behind the words, the rest of them had to sit and wait for their analyses. “Most of ‘cat’ looks exactly like ‘fish’,” said Michael. “There are only little bits here and there that are different.”

                                “‘Sword’ and ‘hat’ are a lot shorter than the animal words,” said Tatiana. “So is ‘rain,’ but it has a really different pattern, same with ‘sun.’ And same with ‘Howling Fire,’ whatever that means.”

                                “They’re my words,” said Garurumon. “That’s all we need to say about it.”

                                Then they came to the part that Ross and Joanie were most interested to hear. “Wow, look at ‘zero’!” said Michael.

                                Tatiana looked. “Ha, that one’s easy!”

                                Joanie smiled. “Is it just the number zero? One digit?”

                                “Yeah!” said Michael and Tatiana together.

                                “How did you guess that?” asked Jacob.

                                “Well, there wouldn’t be any code to ‘make’ a zero. Zero’s just zero. I think any other number would be the same.”

                                “I thought you didn’t think this stuff was actual computer code,” said Jacob.

                                “I never said that. I just said we can’t all be in a physical computer because it wouldn’t have enough memory or storage.” She rubbed her chin. “Can one of you write down what it says for ‘plus’ and ‘minus’?”

                                Michael and Tatiana split the work:

                                int op_plus(int arg1, int arg2) {
                                while(arg2 > 0) {
                                INC(arg1);
                                DEC(arg2);
                                }
                                return arg1;
                                } map(‘+’);

                                int op_minus(int arg1, int arg2) {
                                while(arg2 > 0) {
                                DEC(arg1);
                                DEC(arg2);
                                }
                                return arg1;
                                } map(‘-’);

                                “That’s the whole thing? For both of them?” asked Ross.

                                Michael and Tatiana both nodded. Joanie meanwhile studied the code intently. After everyone let her think for a minute she said, “No doubt about it: it’s computer code for adding two numbers and subtracting two numbers. See the terms ‘INC’ and ‘DEC’? That’s for ‘increment’ and ‘decrement,’ meaning adding or subtracting by one. The programs are instructions for how to add or subtract any two numbers assuming you know how to add one to a number and subtract one from a number.”

                                Ross thought he saw a logical problem. “Doesn’t that mean it’s using addition and subtraction to define addition and subtraction?”

                                “Not exactly. There’s a big difference between adding arbitrary numbers and incrementing. For example, if you want to add two and three, you don’t need to do anything special, you just know the answer. But if want to add two numbers that are a hundred digits long, you couldn’t fit them both in your head at once.

                                “But, if you have external storage, say a really long abacus or marks on a chalkboard, you can add two numbers of any size as long as you go one step at a time: add an abacus bead to the first number and take away a bead from the second number over and over until the second number runs out of beads. The first number will be the sum when you’re finished. By the way, that’s exactly how this program does addition. My mom said this is the whole idea behind computers: breaking down huge problems into a long series of itty-bitty ones. It’s all so that a computer chip with only thousands of components can work with numbers that are in the quintillions or even larger.”

                                Joanie’s eyes were full of life, but Ross couldn’t share her enthusiasm. He wasn’t a fan of either math or computers, or really any discipline that made one feel the need to give a dissertation on the definition of the word ‘plus.’ In any case, he could mostly see what she was talking about, but a blank look at Tatiana’s and Garurumon’s faces suggested they didn’t.

                                To Ross’s surprise, though, Michael not only followed but understood enough to ask an appropriate follow-up question. “So if it’s all about breaking down big things into little things…wouldn’t that mean we still might be in a computer? If it’s too much data, don’t you just need to break it down better?”

                                Joanie smiled. “That’s the right idea, but I still don’t think so. This is getting into information theory, but you still need somewhere to store all that data to begin with, no matter how good you are at breaking it down into manageable chunks. I suppose there’s always compression, but if that were the case I don’t think we’d still see all the little details like dust and all the pores on your skin…anyway, the question is where do you put all this data, not how do you process it. If you have more zeroes and ones to store than there are grains of sand on all the beaches, I don’t see how you’d fit it all in our world’s computers.”

                                “Isn’t there also a matter of speed?” asked Jacob, “Like, my dad’s computer can’t even run Madden without all the players moving choppy. Everything here’s way too smooth for this to be a computer simulation.”

                                “Actually,” said Joanie, “I don’t think speed would be a problem at all, at least not from our point of view. If our brains are in the simulation, then we’d perceive time on the terms of the simulation. It could be that every millisecond here is an hour of real time, and we wouldn’t know it.”

                                When she said this, something clicked in Ross’s head. The way Joanie was talking now, with that intellectual vigor and joy, was the same way she had talked while explaining the glowing time rocks all those months ago. On top of that, Ross realized that something was strange about how she approached all this, something inconsistent. Before he could think, he found himself expressing his idea out loud. “I’m surprised you’re this excited about the idea of us being in a computer simulation. I would have figured you’d be agonizing over whether you keep your soul when your brain gets turned into binary.”

                                For just a moment, Ross looked in Joanie’s eyes and saw a sickening dread. It was a moment that seemed to drag on forever in the worst way possible. Her mouth opened and nothing came out. He thought at first that she looked terrified at the idea of being a body stripped of its soul. Then he realized she was mortified because she had knowingly left the soul out of the equation and he had noticed her thinking like an atheist.

                                He felt sick. He felt nothing like he normally did when he said something that stumped a Christian. He had exposed her momentary lapse in piety in front of everyone, and he knew he didn’t have the right. After all she had done for him, after all the times she had tolerated his muk, he repaid her with humiliation. He wanted desperately to apologize, to grovel, to beg on his knees for forgiveness.

                                But she recovered. She shrugged and the moment passed. “Like I said, I don’t think we are inside a computer. There’s no point getting riled up over stuff like that; it’s all hypothetical.”

                                Ross was feeling something like whiplash. He honestly was sure he had said something seriously hurtful, but nothing was coming of it. Did she really just not care? That was impossible. It had hurt; he saw it.

                                “Anyway,” she continued, “The important thing is that now we’re sure that what they’re seeing is something like the code for each word. Why don’t we move on to ‘evolve’?”

                                With that, Michael and Tatiana spent a long time staring at the last word on the ground. Eventually Joanie apparently had her fill of the suspense and asked, “Well?”

                                “…It’s huge,” said Michael.

                                “Way, way, way bigger than ‘fish’,” said Tatiana.

                                “Can you copy any of it?” asked Joanie. “It doesn’t matter which part.”

                                “No,” said Michael. “All the letters and numbers are so small. They’re almost just dots.”

                                Ross couldn’t help but be disappointed, even though his mind was still mostly on what he had said to Joanie. “I guess that’s not surprising. We already knew that evolution in this world isn’t a simple matter.”

                                Michael now looked just as down as he had been the day before. Ross could tell that he really thought he was onto something, that maybe he had solved the whole puzzle. But Tatiana at least was unfazed. “Hey,” she said to Michael, “Why don’t you just try to do what Wizardmon did?”

                                Michael looked like he had just been held back a grade. “You know I can’t do anything like that.”

                                “Why not? You already figured out how to actually see the words, and I bet Wizardmon can’t even do that. And you understand all of Joanie’s math stuff, too.”

                                Michael hugged his knees. “Wizardmon does magic, remember? You’re better off asking Garurumon. Heck, you’d probably do better at it than I would.”

                                Tatiana appeared a little put off by Michael’s obstinance, but she persisted. “But you’re so close! Don’t you get it?”

                                “Tatiana, don’t push him,” said Joanie.

                                “But all he needs is a push! He’s got all the ideas in his stupid brain, he just needs to move them out like Greymon does!”

                                This raised eyebrows, especially from Ross and Garurumon. “See, this is your problem, Michael,” she continued. “You think you don’t know something just because you don’t know exactly how to say it. You don’t need every last word in the dumb code, you just need to let it breathe!”

                                “What are you even talking about?” said Michael, who was starting to look more irked than depressed.

                                “Breathe! Like Greymon! He showed me!”

                                “What does that even mean? That doesn’t have anything to do with this!”

                                “Does too!”

                                “Does not!”

                                This was clearly trying Joanie’s patience, “Listen, you two—”

                                Tatiana ignored her. “Just let me show you!”

                                “What, are you going to breathe on me? Or make a dumb dinosaur noise in my face like a little kid?”

                                “No!” Tatiana grew a little red when Michael mentioned making dinosaur noises, and for the life of him Ross couldn’t guess why.

                                Then Tatiana moved in closer to Michael. She was on her knees while Michael was sitting down, and the height disadvantage clearly made him a little uncomfortable. “Just shut up and hold still!”

                                Tatiana placed her hand square on Michael’s forehead. The very next moment, the air was filled with the sounds of an earthquake and Ross felt it in the ground beneath him. It passed through his chest and made tiny shots fire all through his nervous system. He couldn’t help but be frightened, and then when he saw Michael’s eyes he became terrified.

                                Michael was seizing up. His pupils had dilated, his mouth was twitching, and it wasn’t obvious whether he was still breathing or not. Then his eyes rolled into the back of his head.

                                “Michael!” Ross had to do something. He lunged at them and grabbed Michael’s shoulder and Tatiana’s arm, thinking that maybe it would stop if he separated them. As soon as he made contact, he became aware that Tatiana was seizing up as well. The very next instant, he was aware of very little. An overwhelmingly violent force shook through his limbs and vibrated into his skull. It felt like he was standing right next to a space shuttle during liftoff.

                                As his vision went black, Ross thought he heard Joanie scream “Oh my God!” but it was nearly lost in everything else; it was all so very, very loud.

                                *********

                                Michael could see. He couldn’t move his eyes, but he could see better than ever before. Whatever his eyes decided to focus on was so sharp, so clear that he wondered if he had actually been blind his entire life until now. Tatiana’s hand was still on his forehead, but the pounding had stopped. Ross was holding on to his shoulder, but he didn’t feel afraid. He could tell that they could see, too. Joanie, Garurumon, and Jacob appeared to be in a panic, but they were moving so slowly. Michael knew that they couldn’t see a thing.

                                Soon Tatiana and Ross let go of him. Their hands were still on his forehead and shoulder, but all the same they had let go. The three of them were sitting in the same spot, but they were also standing up and moving on their own. They couldn’t speak because their mouths were still where they were sitting down, but that didn’t matter. They were here to see, and to hear, and to breathe.

                                Michael took a deep breath and filled his lungs, but not with air. The air was for the Michael that sat on the ground. Michael could see that air: it was a perfect Cartesian grid of discrete particles that surrounded them all. Between the particles it was black, except for the bits of sunlight that moved from particle to particle along the grid. All of these things were too large, too solid for Michael to breathe now. He didn’t know what it was that he was taking in as a substitute, but when he inhaled he could see more clearly, and when he exhaled everything grew dimmer. He just had to breathe at a steady pace and he would still be able to see. That part was easy because Tatiana was breathing along with him and setting the example.

                                Now that he and Ross had gotten used to their new situation, Tatiana wanted Michael to get to work. She hadn’t shown him how to breathe like Greymon just so he could look at air particles. At Tatiana’s invisible suggestion, Michael looked at the word ‘evolve’ again. It took some effort to see how all the displaced contours of dirt read out the English word, but he didn’t care about that. He cared about the code, which he could see much better now, even if he didn’t know what it meant. Each term in the program now took up a space between one and four grid locations. They were all numbers, even the words, and depending on how he wanted to interpret them he could see them numerically or in programming language.

                                He didn’t exactly know where to begin, but in the back of his mind he wanted to go somewhere where he could learn what to do. That had been Ross’s idea from the beginning: go to a place that has the answers or at least some clues. And just like that, some of the numbers in the code stuck out to him more than others. They were always in groups of four, and the first number in each group increased by one every cycle. Michael knew what the cycles were because each bit of sunlight moved one spot on the grid every cycle. His mind was moving so much faster than he was used to, and he found everything easier to understand.

                                Michael reached out, and a copy of one of the groups of four numbers stuck to his hand. He moved the copy around, and the second, third, and fourth numbers changed while he did so. Soon he was able to piece together the pattern: the groups of four were coordinates in the grid. The latter three numbers were locations on the Z, Y, and X axes, and the first number was the location on the time axis. It was a four-dimensional grid. Everything around them moved along the time axis by one with each cycle.

                                Michael noticed that while each time coordinate incremented with every cycle, not every time coordinate was the same. He knew that everything in the grid he saw at the moment was in the same spot on the time axis, so he figured that the coordinates did not represent their absolute current position, but rather their position relative to some exact point in space at an exact moment in time. Or no, that was backwards. The numbers referred to the position of something else relative to them. They told him exactly how far in each direction including time he would need to go to find something. And in this case each location probably had something to do with evolution.

                                He wanted to go where the numbers in his hand pointed. Tatiana seemed to understand his meaning, so she grabbed hold of him and Ross, then breathed deep and went there. Michael didn’t know how she did it, but they were going to the place the numbers described.

                                The new place was very dark and very hot. If Michael’s math was right, they hadn’t moved very far in Z, Y, or X, but they had gone several thousand years in the direction of zero. Michael knew right away what that meant, and he started to breathe faster and shallower, and that made the vision in front of him flicker. But Tatiana did something to his lungs, and he calmed himself. It didn’t make the sight before them any less terrifying, though.

                                The stone giant was here. He hadn’t been turned to stone yet, but he towered over all of them. Just as WaruPiximon had shown them, he was naked and his skin was covered in sinister, painted patterns. It was as if he wanted to look as inhuman as he possibly could. Michael wanted to focus just on the individual particles on the grid, but something forced him to see the entire picture.

                                The giant stretched out his arms, and something invisible but cruel passed out of his hands and into the air. After what felt like an eternity, Michael saw the water in the air gather into dark clouds that were charged with massive amounts of energy. They were standing in the middle of a monsoon, but he didn’t feel the water hit his skin because his skin was far in the future. The energy in the clouds entered the giant’s body as bolts of lightning, and Michael saw them as super-bright particles moving one space on the grid every cycle. Nothing could move faster than that.

                                Then the giant redirected that immense quantity of energy into a nearby Virus-type that Michael didn’t recognize. The Virus-type underwent changes all throughout its body. It was easy to see that it grew in size by a tremendous amount, but what grabbed Michael’s attention was a tiny mass in its center that he could interpret as code. The code quadrupled in size during the evolution process. The original code was not overwritten, but the large addition seemed to override most of what was there before.

                                When the process was complete, a robotic dragon of the same size as the giant stood in their midst. It had no proper eyes behind the holes in its steel head, just a multitude of tiny, black sensors. On its shoulders were mounted twin cannons, making it seem more like a creatively-shaped weapon than an actual creature. Only the code at its core made it clear to Michael that this thing was actually alive. At the end of the new code there was a living descriptor, ‘Ultimate Level,’ along with a living name, ‘Machinedramon.’

                                Now Michael had seen evolution, and he had seen it more closely and understood its finest mechanisms more precisely than Ross had when he used it as the Commander. But it didn’t make a difference. This was evolution for Virus-types, and there was no hope of Michael making the same process happen. It was too physical, and the invisible something that the giant had used to start it was not something Michael had in him. Neither was it in Tatiana. This was revealing, but it wasn’t what he needed to see. He was wondering where to go next, but something interrupted his thoughts.

                                “Finally.” The word came from the giant’s mouth, but Michael didn’t hear the sound with his ears. The sound could be seen as subtle disturbances in the grid, but something else in Michael’s mind interpreted it as English for him.

                                The giant did something with his hands and mind that Michael couldn’t comprehend, and as a result Machinedramon was leaving. He wasn’t moving along the grid in any of the four directions, but outside of the grid entirely. Michael knew he had to see where the Virus was going, even though he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He tried to let Tatiana know that they had to follow, and somehow she understood him and made it happen.

                                Their awareness stuck with Machinedramon as he left the grid. Its destination hit Michael like a car’s headlights after he had spent hours in complete darkness. All of the sudden everything was hazy again, but it was also a million times brighter than he expected. There was overwhelmingly more light here than anywhere in the world of the ’mons. Gradually he adjusted, and he couldn’t believe what he saw. It was home.

                                It wasn’t Michael’s house or even his town, but it was close enough. It was Manhattan, not far away from where he lived with his parents in Newark. At the moment they had a vantage of Times Square from hundreds of feet in the air. Michael felt like he could cry, and he almost forgot what they had come here to see.

                                Machinedramon was here. At least, that was how it looked for a moment. He towered over all the cars and people, but you could see through him like smoke. Even though he was just as solid as he had ever been in his old world, in the human world he was little more than a mirage and absolutely no more than a thin vapor. The energy from the lightning that powered his evolution was dwarfed by the energy of the daylight, and the steel that comprised his new body was less solid than the exhaust from the taxis.

                                Soon he was gone, and there was nothing anyone could have done about it. All the new matter that had been formed in this world as a result of the transfer was no more than a little air pollution. Everything was moving slower for Michael, and he knew that Machinedramon hadn’t been visible long enough for a cell phone camera to catch him on even one frame of video.

                                They were done here, and they couldn’t stay. Or rather, they weren’t really there to begin with. They had only to turn their attention back to the world of the grid and the numbers, and they could see everything in perfect sharpness again, and the light no longer overpowered them. The giant was still here, but Machinedramon was gone. The giant was shaking, and then he struck the earth with his foot and yelled loud enough to rattle the trees.

                                “No! No! Why didn’t it work?!

                                For the first time Michael became aware of a crowd of smaller Virus-types in the vicinity. Most of them were Adult-levels, but many were at the Child and Baby levels. All of them were cowering as the giant ranted and raved.

                                “He was supposed to kill them all, not vanish into thin air! What was the point in coming here if everything’s so weak? Damn it! Damn this rotten, pathetic world!”

                                The giant’s voice was like thick poison. He clenched his fists, and his nails which he had filed into claws dug into his skin and drew streams of blood.

                                “More. I just need more. I’ll absorb every last Data-type, and then I can evolve a Virus that’s strong enough. Then they’ll pay.”

                                Someone was hyperventilating; Michael could feel it. It was Ross. Tatiana was trying to calm him down, but it wasn’t working well. Michael wondered why Ross hadn’t been hyperventilating before when they saw the evolution process, but then he realized that Ross was staring somewhere else. In the crowd of Virus-types, there was one Baby-level that held Ross’s mind captive for some reason.

                                Michael didn’t have much time to wonder what was so special about that one Virus, because far away to the south there was an explosion that grabbed everyone’s attention, including the giant’s. It was an immense white light accompanied by a deep, sustained noise. He wouldn’t have recognized it with his physical ears, but in the waves in the grid Michael could see that it was a musical note.

                                There was a presence in the note, one that was uncannily similar to the invisible gaze of Angemon. It was pushing them away. Michael wanted to see what was going to happen next, but evidently someone miles away wanted them to go somewhere else. Michael hadn’t thought that anyone could tell they were watching. Wouldn’t the giant have noticed if that were the case? Regardless, a new destination in four numbers was shown to them. It was hidden in the waves of music, and the angelic presence compelled them to leave.

                                As the giant bared his fangs and gathered new storm clouds, Tatiana obliged. Before Michael could beg her not to, the dazzling light vanished along with everything else. It all vanished so thoroughly that it took Michael a while to realize that they had already arrived at their destination.

                                Their destination was empty. This was a space in the grad that had no air, no light, and no particles of any sort at its coordinates. After a number of cycles passed that Michael couldn’t count because there were no numbers to observe the change, some matter finally entered the new space. It was the core programming of a Virus. At first it was that of a Baby-level, and Michael recognized it as the one that had nearly put Ross into a fit. But the program had not reached its full size. It grew to Child, then to Adult, and then to Perfect. Ross began to breathe in spasms again as they read the name inscribed at the end of the code: ‘WaruPiximon.’

                                WaruPiximon’s body followed its core, and now he hung in the middle of the vast emptiness before them. He opened his pitch black eyes, smiled, and breathed in even though there was no atmosphere. He could see as they did, and Michael begged and prayed that the monster wouldn’t be able to see them. Either Michael’s prayers were answered, or he simply never needed to worry in the first place, as WaruPiximon ignored them and got to work.

                                The dark fairy reached out and sent something beyond the grid. He touched something outside of this world, and what he touched came back with him. One number at a time, the space before WaruPiximon was filled with another being. He was reading from another world, and writing what he found in this one. At the center of this new creature was a core program, but not like the ones in the ’mons. This one was far larger, and far brighter. When it was complete, they saw the living name: ‘Human.’

                                The human was perfectly still. His heart did not beat, and no electrical pulses stirred in his brain. Nothing in his body grew, and nothing in his body broke down. He could not live in this place, so WaruPiximon kept him still. Ross’s breathing only grew worse at the sight, and Tatiana had to force her will into his lungs which weren’t really there to keep him under control. Michael nearly lost his grip as well. He had forgotten that there was once a time when Ross’s shirt had no blood on it. There were no holes in the fabric and no wounds underneath it. The right side of the young man’s face was still unmarred. Ross’s old body was here.

                                WaruPiximon was suddenly alert for a moment after the body was finished, as if he knew he was being watched. When Tatiana finally forced Ross to slow his breathing, the dark fairy’s suspicions subsided. He admired his handiwork for a long time, until they were joined by an unexpected visitor. The visitor was not confined to the grid, for he had neither particles nor code to keep in it. Michael could see him, but he was blurry. His form was that of a two-winged angel wearing a plain tunic and a cloth blindfold. Michael recognized him as the stone colossus that stood over the Holy City, but here he was no taller than Ross. He was surrounded by a warm glow that would have gone unnoticed by anyone who could not see beyond the grid. This glow was an immense comfort to Michael, but apparently an intolerable irritation to WaruPiximon.

                                “You,” spat the Virus-type at the visitor.

                                “It is impressive that you found your way here, WaruPiximon.” The visitor’s voice was very soft, but it held such an authority that WaruPiximon couldn’t have interrupted him if he tried. “But did you not anticipate that such a feat would draw attention?”

                                “Are you here to kill me as you did the Human, demon?”

                                The visitor frowned. “The thought has indeed crossed my mind to erase every bit in your body so as to save the world from great injury.”

                                WaruPiximon tensed up, as if preparing to fight.

                                “But the decision is not in my hands. Even if it were, my master has taught me not to harm any child of your world.”

                                “Bite your tongue, hypocrite. Your master did not stop you from turning our Creator to stone.”

                                “Indeed not, for he was no child of your world. He was from a higher world, he was guilty, and he posed a mortal threat to everyone in a lower world; therefore his life was forfeit. We sought every method of stopping him, and unfortunately this one was the best. I am on my way to carry out his sentence now. But first I must handle my task here, for I too will perish in the encounter.”

                                WaruPiximon moved between the angel and the silent form of the old Ross. “So you’ll kill the one I found to replace him? I won’t have it!”

                                “Your mind is small, WaruPiximon. You think you can heal all of your wounds by inflicting greater ones on others, and that is because you are not creative. You would avenge your alleged Creator through destruction, by subtracting from Creation. But my master will stop you by adding to it.” The angel pointed behind the body of Ross. “Look.”

                                There were ten new core programs where the angel indicated, and familiar bodies were growing around them. WaruPiximon flew over and tried to tear them apart, but when his claws came close they were burned and forced back by the light that emanated from the code. “What is this? Why are these other ones here?”

                                “You already know. Wherever and whenever you decide to place the one you brought here, they will be there as well, and he will not listen to you as long as they are with him.”

                                “You’re wrong! The one I found is perfect! He has the Gift of the Virus! He will bleed whatever opposes him dry! I have seen it!”

                                “Look closer.”

                                WaruPiximon was still for a moment, but soon a look of dread passed over his face. As if to cope with it, he grew furious.

                                The angel continued. “Learn this: whatever evil you throw at the world, my master will throw tenfold good at it in return. There is nothing you can do that cannot be made right. I have stood at the Final Victory and looked back at everything that has been done to prevent it. From there you can see every evil for what it is: futility.”

                                The angel floated away from WaruPiximon, and at the same time his form grew blurrier. “You do see very far and in all directions at once, WaruPiximon, but you do not see everything. Worse yet, you see very little that you do not wish to see. Face the truth, and give up.”

                                Before the angel was completely gone, Michael felt his invisible gaze on the three of them. It was gentle and warm, and felt vaguely like a goodbye.

                                There was nothing to soothe WaruPiximon, though. He scrambled, jittered, and growled at empty space. He seemed to be looking for something, and by the time he found it Michael’s lungs were tired. They had been breathing whatever it was that let them see for a long time, and they couldn’t keep it up much longer.

                                The image of WaruPiximon was growing unstable when the monster broke into nervous laughter. “I’ve found it. You don’t see everything either, heathen. You think you’ve closed off all the paths, but there’s one left that he can follow. It’s long and winding, but he’ll take it. I can see it. I can see him and the Ultimate-level!”

                                WaruPiximon stuck out his hands, and he began to write a new code that was his own. Michael understood very little of it, but he knew it had the vibrant quality that was present in the core programs of the humans and ’mons. When the program was finished, WaruPiximon began to surround it with metal, and it took the shape of a sword. By then Michael was gasping for air, and slowly the Perfect-level vanished from sight. The last things Michael saw were the eleven bodies: eleven numerical copies of their eleven original bodies.

                                *********

                                Michael’s arms and legs felt like lead, and his heart throttled his aching chest with every beat. He was lying on his back, and his mouth was so dry that it must have been hanging open for hours. His eyes were open, but everything was a solid shade of gray. It took minutes for him to see other colors, and even more minutes for those colors to take shape. The first thing he thought he recognized were the tree branches, and the next thing was Joanie’s face. He tried to focus his eyes on her, but they didn’t go where he wanted.

                                “Michael? Are you awake?”

                                He meant to say ‘yes,’ but it came out as a moan. He felt Joanie’s hand on his cheek, and heard her say, “Take it easy. Everything’s okay.” It sounded like she was addressing herself as much as him.

                                He wanted to get up, but all he could do was stir his arms a little. Then he heard and felt the deep thuds of Garurumon’s steps coming near, followed by his equally deep voice. “Be still, Michael. There is strength too in patience.”

                                Next he heard Tatiana groaning. “Ugggh…that was too long…I’m not going that long again…”

                                Somewhere nearby Greymon growled as if in approval. As for Michael, he couldn’t approve of Tatiana recovering that much faster than he did, even if she was better at everything. But as much as he tried, he couldn’t do anything more than squirm.

                                “Michael,” said Joanie, “It’s all right. Just rest.”

                                He didn’t want to rest. He wanted to get up. There was too much in his head to sort out, and he could never think clearly while lying down. But he needed help, so he pulled his jaw shut and focused on getting the inside of his mouth and his throat wet again. When it finally felt nearly normal, he spoke. “Help…help me up…”

                                “You don’t have to—” began Joanie, but Michael wouldn’t hear it.

                                “I…want up.”

                                “If he wants it that badly, we can oblige,” said Garurumon.

                                “You’re sure?” asked Joanie.

                                “Yes. He’ll be fine. I can tell.”

                                “Okay.”

                                Michael felt Joanie slip her hands underneath him, and as she slowly sat him up she kept one of those hands supporting his head at all times. He glanced over at Garurumon, who was lying next to him now.

                                “How much do you remember, Michael?”

                                Michael didn’t know how to answer him. There was too much. Where could he possibly begin? Instead he looked away, and saw Tatiana leaning back against Greymon and holding her temples. Jacob was sitting with her the same way Joanie was sitting with him. There was still one person Michael hadn’t seen or heard yet, and he saw him lying on the ground away from the others.

                                Ross didn’t appear sick or even tired, but at the same time he was doing worse than any of them. His hands were covering his eyes, but Michael could see underneath that his face was red. His mouth was open, and he was clearly choking to try and hold back any sound. Michael had never seen Ross cry before. It was pathetic, and Michael hated that he felt so sad to see it.

                                Michael wanted to be mad at him. He wanted to curse him for being the reason they had to leave home, but he couldn’t. He didn’t have much practice at hating someone who showed so much shame and remorse. For the first time, Michael felt deeply sorry for Ross. He didn’t see a murderer anymore. He saw someone the devil had singled out: someone who might have made different decisions if he’d been left alone, while Michael himself had always gotten off easy.

                                Michael looked away. Ross made him feel terrible, but not as terrible as one other thing which clawed at the back of his mind: Machinedramon. Since their new bodies were made of code and numbers just like Machinedramon’s, then they would evaporate if anything somehow sent them back to their own world. You had to be solid to survive on Earth, and they weren’t even as solid as gas anymore. They were feeble copies of their old selves, nothing more. He didn’t know how he would tell Joanie and Jacob, much less Carlos, Nathan, and the others.

                                Michael’s eyes were filling with tears. He was crying because of Ross, because of his own dying arms and legs, and because now he knew for certain that they could never go home.
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                                Old October 1st, 2016 (6:58 AM).
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                                  XVI

                                  The Darkest Day

                                  Tatiana looked up at the clouds. She hadn’t seen the sun in two days, not since the day she showed Michael how to see everything. The clouds were always moving west, and fast. There was roughly one week left to go, and she still didn’t know how to make Greymon evolve. Jacob and Joanie had drilled her with questions about what she and Michael had seen during the ordeal, but she couldn’t give them any meaningful answers. The fact of the matter was that she didn’t trust herself to tell the story correctly. She had just brought Michael and Ross there and moved them around—Michael was the one who could possibly describe it with appropriately big words.

                                  But there wasn’t much hope for that at the moment. She looked down at Michael, who was resting by Garurumon. He had been resting almost non-stop since the end of their trip. This was because he invariably passed out if he tried standing up for five minutes. Tatiana was still sore and occasionally got dizzy, but Michael was plain miserable. If she’d known how badly the experience would affect him, she would have brought them out of it early.

                                  “When do you think he’s gonna wake up again?” she asked Garurumon.

                                  “Hard to say. My guesses have never been right so far. He’s not in any kind of rhythm lately.”

                                  She couldn’t afford to wait for however long it took, though. She, Michael, and the ’mons needed to talk while the older kids were still off somewhere on their own. Whatever was going to happen next was in the hands of those directly involved in the evolution process, so it only felt right that they make the decision on their own.

                                  The fact of the matter was that although they had a week to figure out evolution, they had less than twenty four hours to decide whether they would abandon the mission. They were at least four days by foot from the western edge of the mountains that surrounded the Holy City, which was where they would have to intercept the Virus Ultimate-level. With Michael the way he was, they would probably have to take the whole week. If they delayed any longer, they would fail, but if failure was a given then they would only be safe by heading in the opposite direction.

                                  “I’m waking him up,” said Tatiana.

                                  “Must you?” asked Garurumon.

                                  “Yeah.”

                                  Garurumon shrugged. From what Tatiana had gathered, Garurumon didn’t believe in treating injury with sleep, so she wasn’t surprised at how quickly he gave in. Michael was giving in much less easily, though, and it took a pretty hard shake for Tatiana to jar him from slumber. She thought twice about it when she heard him groan in pain, but this was an emergency.

                                  “Come on, Michael. You gotta get up.”

                                  Michael stirred, winced, and finally said something. “…Why?”

                                  “Cause we gotta go soon and I need your input. Please.”

                                  “…Okay.”

                                  Michael pulled his arms in, presumably to prop himself up, but Tatiana could see that wasn’t going to happen. His arms were shaking like mad, and just seemed terribly weak all around. Instead she grabbed him by his armpits and hauled him up. Immediately she knew it was too much exertion for her, as she felt a sharp pain in her back and her eyes went spotty. She managed to grit her teeth and hide it, though.

                                  Now that Michael had been sat up, he used his mostly worthless arms to pivot himself just enough so that he could lie upright against Garurumon’s side. He was panting, and when he opened his eyes Tatiana could see that he couldn’t quite focus them. “…I overheard this morning,” he muttered. “…We have to decide whether to go…face the Virus…right?”

                                  “Right.” He was actually only half right, because that conversation he was awake for took place the evening prior.

                                  “What…do you think?”

                                  “If I knew what I thought I wouldn’t have woken you up. I wanna know what you think first.”

                                  “Rrrrngh…”

                                  That was the only noise Michael made for over half a minute. It took long enough that Tatiana had to wonder if he was nodding off, so she snapped her fingers at him.

                                  “…I’m thinking,” he said.

                                  Michael kept thinking, and in Tatiana’s opinion it was taking him far too long and time was short. She had to move him along somehow, even if that meant giving some of her own thoughts. “I think…I want to think we owe it to the others to try. What if we need the City to get them home?”

                                  A pained look spread across Michael’s face when she mentioned going home. The timing was strange, but she supposed it was just one of his muscles hurting again.

                                  “Maybe you’re right,” said Michael, but he sounded strangely unconvinced. She had to wonder if he had heard her correctly. He continued, “But it’s not just us. It’s all the Vaccine at stake…we have to do it for them, too.”

                                  After he said this, the ground shook a little as Greymon walked over to sit closer and listen in.

                                  “Michael,” said Garurumon, “I don’t want you to think that you’re obligated to do this. There is not a soldier in our army who would put his own life before the lives of you Humans.”

                                  Tatiana wasn’t quite comfortable with hearing Garurumon talk like that. From day one Angemon’s soldiers had treated them almost like gods, even when Angemon was clearly an angel and they were clearly normal.

                                  Michael coughed as he replied. “But that’s…why we’re here…”

                                  Tatiana knew where this was going. She hadn’t talked about it yet because of how it all started with WaruPiximon, but she trusted Michael to make sense of it.

                                  “The angel from the end of time brought us here himself. We saw it.” Michael was starting to speak quicker and more clearly. “He did it because he knew we could stop WaruPiximon. If anyone would know, he would.”

                                  Tatiana knew about the snag, though, and surely Michael must have known as well. She pointed it out so Garurumon and Greymon wouldn’t get the wrong idea. “But we also saw WaruPiximon screw it up anyway. He did the time stuff, like with the sword. The angel said Ross wouldn’t go on his side, but…he…”

                                  Michael stared at his feet. “He said it wouldn’t happen as long as we were with Ross. We got separated.”

                                  Tatiana couldn’t believe it. She hadn’t heard Michael say anything that could even be mistaken for a defense of Ross in what felt like forever. She certainly didn’t know how she felt about Ross at the moment, so she moved the subject away from him. “Anyway, I think we all want to do it, but I don’t know if we can. I was hoping you might be able to settle that.”

                                  Michael lifted his right arm and laid it over his belly. When was the last time she saw him eat? “…I believe it’s possible.”

                                  Garurumon raised his ears, and Tatiana stared at Michael in expectation. She wanted to hear a hard-science-y reason why they would be able to make Garurumon or Greymon evolve. Something with a bunch of math and computer words she didn’t understand but she could believe in if someone like him or Joanie said them. “How?”

                                  “…The Final Victory.”

                                  She didn’t see how that fit into it, and apparently neither did Garurumon. “The Final Victory has no bearing on individual battles, or even this war of ours. It has only to do with the end of time, and we don’t know if the Vaccine will still be around by then. The guarantee is that goodness and justice will prevail, not necessarily our kind.”

                                  “I don’t mean the Final Victory is proof that it’s possible, I mean it’s the actual answer. God has angels at the Final Victory. They’ll help. It’s just a matter of getting to the right place in time with Tatiana’s trick.”

                                  Tatiana didn’t know what to make of that. “You’re sure they can help? And they will help?”

                                  “They can. We’re pretty sure that one angel was the one who first made the Vaccine, right? And I think they will help. It says ‘Ask and you shall receive.’ I don’t think God sends people to do things they can’t do, but sometimes they have to ask Him for help to do it. I’ve already been praying, but maybe this is the way He wants us to ask.”

                                  Tatiana was pretty sure she believed in God, maybe, but she’d certainly never met him or her. She wasn’t even positive that the stone angel was an angel-angel or if he was something more like a Vaccine-type. And if God just helped anyone who asked, why did anything bad ever happen? It was too simple, too naïve.

                                  But it was still their best idea. If that was what it took for Michael not to give up, she’d do her best to believe it. As long as Michael showed her the destination in a way she could understand, she could bring them to whatever point in time they wanted. She didn’t know a thing about any of the numbers they had seen while they were out of their bodies, but when Michael found one that meant going somewhere she somehow understood how to make it happen.

                                  “So that’s my plan,” said Michael, whose eyes were slowly slipping shut again. “Tatiana can go to the end of time, and then hopefully she can make Greymon evolve.”

                                  That nearly gave Tatiana a heart attack. “What? But…” She didn’t even know where the heck the end of time was. And Michael was the one who actually thought it was possible, so why was he the one chickening out?

                                  Her little outburst jarred Michael fully awake again. “Oh. No, don’t worry, I’ll help find the right numbers. We can find out exactly when and where you need to go. You won’t be just wandering around like last time.”

                                  “If you can actually find the way there,” said Garurumon, “I would be inclined to agree with the plan.”

                                  Tatiana agreed that was better, but finding the way was only part of it. What about when she got there? What if it wasn’t as simple as saying, ‘Please help me evolve Greymon?’ In fact, she knew it wouldn’t be that simple because she wouldn’t have her mouth to speak. And what if she had to understand the numbers and computer things to get their help? She wanted Michael with her in case there was something he could figure out that she couldn’t. She wanted him there even if it was just to tell her it could be done. She needed him to come too.

                                  “But…” she was stumbling over what she meant to say, until she found a way of saying it that didn’t sound so needy. “But you still haven’t said why you can’t come too!”

                                  It looked like Michael’s tongue got caught in his throat. He stared at the ground, and didn’t answer. Then Tatiana noticed the tears.

                                  “Just look at me,” he said.

                                  Tatiana did look. She looked at his limp arms, at his pale face, and at the rings under his eyes. Immediately she felt like an insensitive clod.

                                  “I’m a wreck. You and Ross were fine, but I couldn’t take it. I feel like I get hit by a truck, but you’re no different than before. I’m too weak to go. And I’m too scared. I’m not brave and strong like you, okay?”

                                  Tatiana couldn’t stand to hear him talk like this. It wasn’t right at all. Where did he get the idea she was brave enough to do this by herself? She was terrified; that was why she was trying to get him to come wither her. And she wasn’t ‘fine.’ She felt like garbage. And worst of all he was trying to blame himself when everyone knew it was all her fault. She was the one who did this to him, and she hadn’t even asked permission first.

                                  “Michael,” said Garurumon, “That’s not true.”

                                  Tatiana almost did what she normally would have done, which would be to agree with Garurumon and tell Michael something vague and encouraging. But she knew that would have been hollow and would have left out the most important part, the one she felt so terribly guilty to have forgotten about.

                                  “I’m sorry,” said Tatiana. “I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t even think about whether you’d get hurt. And I’m not brave at all. I don’t want to go alone. And if you weren’t brave you wouldn’t be here.”

                                  Tatiana’s line of reasoning was all over the place. She couldn’t think straight like this.

                                  “That’s ridiculous,” said Michael. “I only agreed to any of this because you were brave enough.”

                                  “But I’m only doing it because you think it’ll work!”

                                  Garurumon groaned. “Both of you are unquestionably brave and undeniably tough. This argument is completely silly.”

                                  Tatiana turned a little red as Garurumon continued. “You’re both tired and hurt. It’s not fair to ask Tatiana to go alone, and it’s not fair to ask Michael to go while he’s injured this badly. Michael, you’ve convinced me that it’s possible, but if neither of you is in good enough shape to see it through, I won’t blame you in the slightest.”

                                  Then they had probably hit the end of the road, thought Tatiana. But she really didn’t want that. Giving up was always worse than just losing, and it wasn’t right. As long as she was the best shot they had, she wouldn’t just roll over. So she had to make the right decision now, because if it took any longer she might not be as brave. It was time to push herself into the deep end if she wouldn’t just jump in.

                                  “I’ll do it,” said Tatiana and Michael at the same time. They looked at each other. Michael smiled just a little, even though his eyes were still sad and in pain.

                                  “You’ll have to do the heavy lifting,” said Michael.

                                  She smiled back. “That’s fine. You just handle the smart stuff.”

                                  Garurumon snorted as if out of frustration, but Tatiana got the feeling he was happy about their decision. “Then that settles it. But let me promise you this first: If it doesn’t work out, Greymon and I will do everything in our power to keep you alive, even if we aren’t evolved.”

                                  Greymon roared in approval. Soon Michael fell asleep again, but he didn’t look nearly as troubled as before.

                                  *********

                                  “You can’t be serious!”

                                  Tatiana winced at Jacob’s outburst. It looked like he might pop a blood vessel. Technically he was yelling at Ross, but to Tatiana it felt like he was yelling at her and Michael. They had just told the older kids about their decision, and Ross had stated his approval.

                                  Ross was avoiding eye contact with everyone. “They’re right, though. They can do it.” He sounded strange. He didn’t sound anything close to assertive, but at the same time there wasn’t a trace of doubt in his voice. “We heard it firsthand. The angel called them from the human world to do this, and he’d know better than anyone if they end up succeeding or not. And everything’s worked out perfectly for Michael’s plan. They’re going straight to the real source of the Vaccines’ power. It fits.”

                                  Jacob was pulling at his hair. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing! How do you know this so-called ‘angel’ knows what’s going to happen? And didn’t WaruPiximon lie about the exact same muk?” Jacob was in Ross’s face now. Ross was unmoved, but that didn’t deter Jacob. “News flash, Ross: when someone says they know exactly what’s in the future, they’re usually talking out of their ass! You’re taking the words of a ghost at face value! Words you heard while hallucinating!”

                                  Ross was silent, but Joanie spoke up for him. She didn’t look convinced about their plan, but she did look very irritated with Jacob. “Do you really think they were hallucinating?”

                                  Jacob pressed his hand to his forehead. “Oh, Christ, not you too.”

                                  “You saw those words change into another language,” said Joanie, “And everything in that code they copied down fit perfectly. They weren’t just seeing nonsense.”

                                  Tatiana had never seen Jacob like this. It shook her. She looked over at Michael, who looked just as stunned as she felt, and at Garurumon, who looked indifferent. He probably intended to bring her and Michael to where they needed to be even without the teenagers.

                                  “Okay, let’s look at the whole picture,” said Jacob. He clearly wanted to sound like he was being the calm voice of reason, but he just sounded angry. “These two have to magically look into the future, magically find the right time, magically find the right place, and convince whoever’s there—assuming they can magically talk to them—to show them how to evolve a Vaccine, all when whoever they’re asking could have stopped WaruPiximon at any time they wanted—assuming they did in fact stop that giant. Oh, and Michael can barely walk, and even Tatiana’s not a hundredth as strong as you were when you evolved that thing that’s coming to kill us. This is stupid! They can’t do it, and you know it!”

                                  “They can,” said Ross, “And they will. You haven’t seen what we’ve seen.”

                                  “Can’t you admit there’s at least a chance?” asked Joanie.

                                  Jacob looked at Ross and Joanie like they were speaking a foreign language. He turned away and rambled half under his breath. “Unbelievable. An angel from the future wants you to win, so you’re going to win. Yeah. Makes perfect sense. Sure, they haven’t even tried Perfect level yet, but they’ll somehow get Ultimate. Why not.”

                                  Nobody said a word for a long time. The first one to speak again was Jacob. “I’m not going.”

                                  This raised heads. “Not even if the rest of us are?” asked Joanie.

                                  “No. It’s suicide, and I won’t have it.”

                                  It looked like Joanie was about to snap. “So now you won’t put your life on the line? When it matters most? When Michael and Tat will?”

                                  Jacob turned around and pointed right at her. “You’re twisting this. I’ve only put my life on the line when we had at least a one-in-eight shot of winning. And it’s worked. You’re all still alive because apparently I’m the only one here who knows how to think.”

                                  Joanie was about to say something, but Jacob spoke again before she could. “I thought you still had your common sense, but you’ll believe anything if someone says they heard it from an angel, no matter how crazy it is. You’re just another stupid Jesus-freak.”

                                  Jacob then turned to Ross again. “And you. You’re the worst. You could have just killed yourself after you got your memories back, but no, you had to drag these kids down with you. You’re still a monster.”

                                  Jacob’s sword was lying on the ground nearby. He walked over, picked it up, and turned to face north and away from everyone else. Tatiana couldn’t believe he’d really walk away from them this very minute.

                                  “I’m disappointed, Jacob.” Garurumon broke his silence. “I always thought you would be the last to run away at the sight of danger and uncertainty.”

                                  “Well, sorry I’m living to fight another day. You can thank me when I’m still around to the survivors, unlike you.”

                                  Jacob took a step. This couldn’t be happening. Tatiana couldn’t let it happen. “Jacob!”

                                  Jacob stopped and was still for a second. He turned around, and it looked like some of his anger was subsiding. Tatiana wondered if it might help if she summoned some tears, but then she noticed her body had already thought of that. Jacob bit his lip and walked back to them.

                                  “Michael, Tat, come with me.”

                                  This was the opposite of what she wanted. Why did he have to make everything so much harder? Why now of all times, when she wanted him to be pushing from behind, not dragging her backwards?

                                  “We can all still get away, but we have to go north now. Michael, if Garurumon won’t come I’ll carry you on my back. I know you’re both worried about the other kids, but they have Angemon. He’ll get them somewhere safe.”

                                  But nowhere was going to be safe, not for long anyway. That was what she had overheard Jacob say once, back when he was the one who decided to fight against the Commander’s army when Joanie and Ross wanted to run. She thought he was the bravest person she’d ever met, but now she knew that was wrong. Jacob was only as brave as his strategy and calculations allowed for. She knew now that Jacob wouldn’t jump in front of a bus to save a toddler if he thought there was only a one-in-nine chance they’d both live. Maybe if his instincts took over he might, but if he got a chance to think about it he was more like a robot than a real hero.

                                  She didn’t want him to be this way, so she gave him one last chance to prove her wrong. “Please come with us.”

                                  Jacob said nothing. Slowly, and with nothing but resignation in his eyes, he turned around and walked away. As he passed Joanie and Ross he said to them, “This is on your heads, not mine.”

                                  He kept walking, and soon he was gone. There would be only six of them going south and west come morning.

                                  *********

                                  Ross looked at the sky, and he hated it. The clouds were getting darker and moving faster as the days went on. This was his own storm. He had started it months ago, and it had continued without ceasing all of this time. Now it was gathering air and water from all over the planet for the final push. He could feel the ill intent in the atmosphere, the same one he had put there himself. It stuck to his skin and filled his lungs with poison. The presence wasn’t so great that he was in real danger of reverting, but it was still torture to feel. It was like a small voice telling him every few minutes that he had to kill the Commander. He could ignore it because he knew where it came from and that it didn’t make sense any more.

                                  What he was more worried about was whether it would have any effect on the others. He took his eyes off the clouds and looked at the rest of the group. Tatiana was riding on Greymon and Joanie was walking near Garurumon. As for Michael, it was decided that if he fell asleep on Garurumon he might fall off, so Ross was carrying him on his back. At the moment Michael was in fact asleep. The boy could manage to stay awake for two hours at a time now, but that was it, and he still couldn’t stand up without help. Ross had to wonder if he would recover faster if he didn’t keep trying so hard to stand up on his own. For that matter, he wondered if the kid would ever fully recover. And he did his best not to wonder if having another out-of-body experience would kill him.

                                  The evening came quickly, and they took up camp when it was too dark to see. They weren’t going as fast as they should. At this rate they wouldn’t even have a full day to prepare when they reached their destination. As they ate their meager supper, it crossed Ross’s mind that if it were he himself and Tatiana who tried to go to the end of time, there would be a much smaller chance that someone would be injured in the process. But he knew that it would also ruin their chance at success.

                                  Michael and Tatiana had been the active parties when they went on the journey. They had been able to see everything as ‘code’ and ‘numbers,’ but Ross had only seen things for things. He saw see them in incredible detail, but that was it. They had inexplicable insight into the nature of this world’s time and space, while he only had inexplicable insight into the nature of the Virus. He couldn’t help them with the last stretch.

                                  They were done eating, and Ross wanted to get to sleep soon. The sooner it was morning, the better. But not long after he closed his eyes he heard a cry and a thud. He jumped to his feet, but it didn’t turn out to be much of an emergency. Michael had tried to walk somewhere on his own, and had predictably failed. It was a pitiful sight.

                                  “Michael!” Joanie rushed over to him. “You can ask for help; it’s okay!”

                                  Joanie gathered him up and checked if he had fallen badly on anything. Michael shook his head in response, but Joanie wouldn’t tolerate any tough-guy acts. “Don’t be silly. You’re not well. I can take care of whatever it is.

                                  Then Michael shook his head harder and said, “I have to go.”

                                  “Not while it’s dark. We’ll make it there on time, just go to sleep.”

                                  “To the bathroom.

                                  “…Oh.”

                                  Ross took it as a good sign that Michael was resuming some bodily functions. “I’ll take him.”

                                  Joanie helped Michael back to his feet again, and Ross took over from there. He could have carried him away from the campfire, but he decided it would be better for Michael to walk with assistance instead, even if it was slower.

                                  Ross felt despicable that Michael had to put up with this. If he had only listened to Joanie from the beginning, if he had never even met WaruPiximon, Michael would still be fine. Ross wanted so badly to take it all out of these kids’ hands. At the very least, he wanted to stem the flow of all the additional pain he had inflicted on them.

                                  As the week quickly wound down, and as the clouds grew darker and darker, this last thought was the one that occupied Ross more than any other. It was when they were two miles away from their destination that Ross made a decision. Michael was asleep on his back, and he heard the faint roll of the thunder miles and miles to the west.

                                  It was noon when they were done walking. Garurumon had led them to a high place on the western edge of the mountains. On a good day they might have seen as far as the Valley of Ruin, but it was so dark that they couldn’t properly see the horizon, even though the clouds were all high up and there was no fog. It appeared as black sky above black land. Tatiana and Greymon were staring straight west, so maybe they could see more than Ross could.

                                  Ross didn’t know how much time was left. It could have been two days or two hours. He had to take care of his last business now. He asked Garurumon to sit with Michael, and then he asked Joanie for a word in private. He led her two hills away to be safe. Judging by the look on her face, she probably thought he wanted to talk about what their plan would be in the event of disaster, but she was wrong. He steeled his nerves so he would be ready to say what he had to.

                                  They were alone. It was time. “What is it?” she asked him.

                                  Ross took a deep breath. “I’m not going to be around when it’s time to try evolution. If the Virus gets too close, I’ll come back and help with the escape, but otherwise you won’t see me again.”

                                  Joanie was visibly stunned. She didn’t need to say a word; her face said everything.

                                  “Don’t look at me like that. This is what they need.”

                                  “…How? How on earth can you say that? Didn’t you see how devastated they were when Jacob left? What are you even thinking!”

                                  He was tired of how willfully blind she was being about this. “They don’t hate Jacob, Joanie. Jacob’s not a murderer. Jacob’s not responsible for every lousy thing that’s happened to them since we came here.”

                                  “I keep trying to tell you, they don’t think of you that way! You’re making it better, they know you’re there for them!”

                                  Ross rubbed his eyes. She still didn’t get it. He had to tell her outright. “You don’t know the whole story.”

                                  So he told her the whole story. He told her everything they had seen and heard from WaruPiximon and the angel. It wasn’t easy for him. They had always assumed that they had shown up in this world at the exact same time and for the exact same reason, but that was missing the most important detail. They were never a group of eleven sent from the World of Creators to defend the innocent from evil. Ross was a single twisted individual summoned here to slaughter thousands; the rest were a group of ten summoned here to stop him.

                                  Joanie didn’t say anything at first. She stared at him with such pity that he had to look away. “I’ve done too much to them already, and I’ve taught them everything I can. The best thing I can do for them now is leave.”

                                  Joanie finally spoke. “You really don’t see how that whole story was good news, do you?”

                                  Ross nearly snapped. Was she not listening, or was she just touched in the head? “Don’t you get it? WaruPiximon picked me because he thought I was a psychopath—a killer! And he was right! I shouldn’t even be allowed near kids!”

                                  “Do you really believe that?” Her voice was rising. “Do you really think you’re going to do any of that stuff again? The angel wasn’t trying to stop you, he was trying to save you!”

                                  “You’re fooling yourself.” Ross saw what this was now. “You’ve been fooling yourself your whole life. Get this straight: there’s no god out there who’s going to magically turn a sicko into a normal person just because he started reading a book and going to group therapy every Sunday. Can you honestly tell me you’ve ever ‘saved’ a complete bastard with any of this?”

                                  “…Yes,” she said. “Just one.” Her face was red. She actually looked embarrassed. Ross didn’t see how this added up. If she had an example, she should be acting more confident, not less.

                                  Joanie swallowed. “Sit down,” she said.

                                  Ross was suspicious, but he did as he was told. They were sitting cross-legged and facing each other while she tried to collect herself.

                                  “You don’t know the whole story, either.”

                                  *********

                                  Joanie Fitzpatrick set her bag by her desk with a big smile on her face. Seventh grade homeroom wasn’t usually much cause for cheer, but today was going to be special. She had on her person a collection of prose, musings, and poetry that was so incredible, so singular in its qualities that she knew it would be a crime to keep it to herself. She needed the right audience, though: several of her friends who would appreciate it, and naturally they needed the author on hand as well. She also didn’t want their teacher to be around because she knew he wouldn’t appreciate any of it.

                                  She had to hold back laughter as she watched the door for the guest of honor. When the guest—Deborah Ward: alias, penname, and nickname ‘Debbie’—finally arrived, Joanie’s composure was put to the test. Debbie stared at her side-eye as she made her way to her seat. Joanie couldn’t wait to surprise her.

                                  Now that all the concerned parties were assembled, it was time. Joanie quietly removed the invaluable tome from her bag, hid it behind her back, and then stood to address the room.

                                  “Ahem…” she said, being unaware that ‘ahem’ was supposed to be rough onomatopoeia, not a literal expression. In any case, this drew the eager attention of her friends, while the author deliberately kept her eyes on the front of the room.

                                  “I would like to share with you all a piece which has so deeply moved my soul.” She revealed the small composition notebook to her friends’ immense amusement. But Debbie was still unaware, not unlike Beethoven being deaf to the cheers of the crowd.

                                  Joanie began her recital:

                                  “Gray. Deep, dark gray. Deeper, darker, black.”

                                  Joanie’s friends giggled uncontrollably at the opening verse, and Debbie finally turned around while wearing an indescribable expression.

                                  “My heart. Staring, longing, feeling, touching. Does he stare back? Will he touch back?”

                                  Joanie’s friends were now moved to hysteria. Such was the sublime power of Debbie’s language. Poor Debbie didn’t know how to handle such a superb reception. Her mouth was agape and her face was turning bright red. It would take all of Joanie’s willpower to maintain her appropriately serious tone.

                                  “Will he ever know? Could I ever tell him? Will—”

                                  Give it back!

                                  What would have followed was the name of the cherished subject, but it seemed the author wished to keep the audience in suspense on this point. Perhaps she wanted them to buy a copy and learn it that way. Making copies had indeed crossed Joanie’s mind. So when Debbie rushed over and tried to swipe the book, Joanie decided it would be best if she kept it for a while and yanked her hands out of the way.

                                  Her friends loved the spectacle—the intersection between poetry and performance—and Debbie herself was now moved to tears.

                                  Then Debbie tried to punch Joanie in the face. She missed of course because Joanie had always been quicker and stronger. And smarter. And obviously prettier. Still, Joanie could appreciate the physical, brutish energy Debbie was adding to the experience. “Hey, careful Debbie! You know what happens if you punch somebody in school.”

                                  “Ooh,” said a member of the audience, “Suspension right off the bat for sure.”

                                  “I think they’ll expel you if it was unprovoked!”

                                  “Yeah Debbie, you don’t want to get expelled, do you? We can’t lie to the principal!”

                                  Debbie’s fists were shaking. This was truly the finest show Joanie had ever put on. Anything after this would be anticlimactic, and it wasn’t like she wanted Debbie to get kicked out of school. School wouldn’t be as fun without Debbie. So Joanie decided to end on a high note and tossed the book to the other side of the room. “Great stuff, Deb. You have to tell us when you write more!”

                                  Debbie retrieved her book, stuffed it in her bag, and then left the classroom without another word. That was one more point for Joanie, followed by another point when Debbie didn’t return for the rest of homeroom. Joanie was in a great mood for the rest of the day. This episode was going to be hilarious for weeks.

                                  Of course, school was still school, and after one day on cloud nine it was back to the endless tedium interspersed with bouts of stress and anxiety. It was a few days later that she got the results from the big history test back and saw the ‘C-.’ Now she would have to put in an extraordinary effort to finish with a ‘B’ on the quarter and keep her parents none the wiser. She didn’t think she deserved this kind of hardship.

                                  So it was that she left school that day in a bit of a funk. It felt like a million years since the poetry reading, even though it had only been earlier that week. Usually the rush and satisfaction from such a thorough victory carried over longer than it had for this one. It occurred to Joanie that this was because she hadn’t done any piling-on yet. Normally she would have by now, but she hadn’t actually seen Debbie since then. She made a note to get on that next time she ran into her. She could use the cheering up after getting such a lousy score on that stupid test.

                                  When she looked up, she realized she must have walked right by her school bus. She hoped no one noticed her being so absent-minded. By the time she finally found it and boarded, the bus was packed. Her friends had already occupied a few rows near the back. She saw one seat that was unoccupied close enough to them that she could join in. She made her way there past girls talking about how NSYNC totally wasn’t broken up and boys talking about how Nick Markakis was really going to turn things around for the Orioles. She could picture NSYNC coming back, but she couldn’t even imagine the O’s not sucking. She was thinking about how cool it would be if NSYNC played at Camden Yards when she noticed that the empty spot she had her eye on was next to someone who shouldn’t have been on the bus.

                                  “Hey, Jacob.” Jacob was leaning as close as he could to the window and looking preoccupied—perhaps deliberately—when Joanie brought him back to earth.

                                  “Hey, Joan.”

                                  “Mind if I sit here?’

                                  “Go for it.”

                                  Joanie sat down with her feet in the aisle, and looked back at her friends. She really wasn’t at a good angle to talk to them, and from the front of the bus it looked like she’d be closer. She decided it would be better to look like she’d meant to sit with Jacob than to look like a desperate outsider trying to join a conversation a few rows away. So she pulled her legs out of the aisle, faced forward, and got ready for a long ride. Jacob was hardly a lame person—in fact he was more popular than average and by several metrics pretty cool—but at the moment it didn’t seem like he was in much mood to talk. She decided to start with the obvious topic.

                                  “Don’t you have swim team today?”

                                  Jacob went back to looking out the window before answering. “Nah. I quit.”

                                  Joanie was honestly surprised. “Really? I thought you were going to be captain next year.”

                                  “Yeah, I thought so too. But it’s like…I don’t know. It just seemed like I should be doing something more important with my time.”

                                  “Like what? Being swim captain would help for college.”

                                  “I guess? But even college is just…I don’t know where I’m going with this. Forget about it.”

                                  Joanie didn’t know where he was going with this, either. If he wasn’t satisfied with the importance of getting ready for college, what the hell else would do it for him? This was Jacob’s problem, she thought: an inability to just enjoy where he was at. She didn’t think he’d ever really be happy with everyday life, and today he was really feeling it, it seemed. She sighed. It really going to be a long ride at this rate.

                                  “Oh hey, before I forget,” said Jacob, suddenly doing a bit better at hiding the angst-y little weirdo he was deep down. “Sarah’s having a party on Saturday while her parents are out. You down for that?”

                                  Joanie frowned. “Ugh, no, I can’t do it if it’s Saturday.”

                                  “That sucks.”

                                  “You don’t know the half of it. It’s the stupid youth group. If I skip another one of their things in a row my mom’s really going to crack down on me.”

                                  “You’re right, that really sucks. My parents don’t even give me grief if I oversleep for church.”

                                  What a lucky stiff Jacob was. “I’m pretty sure your parents are actually agnostic. I wish I had some that were just going through the motions to keep their parents happy.”

                                  “Helps that we’re Methodist, too. I’d hate to have to keep track of that many rules and muk.”

                                  “Omigod, Catholics are so anal, you have no idea.”

                                  “Well, at least youth group’s better than math homework. Gotta get that done quick or my folks won’t let me go either.”

                                  “Hmm.” Joanie only made a vague noise of agreement because of how vitally important it was for her standing that she not be understood to find math homework relaxing and rewarding. It was a difficult balance, trying to be smart in just the right way so that one could still be poplar. You had to make your good grades seem like the natural consequence of being clever and capable as opposed to the result of actual effort or interest. And even so you still couldn’t get straight A’s because that made you an actual genius and they were invariably freaks.

                                  The rest of the bus ride was pleasant enough, even if it grew tiresome to stay on guard. Jacob generally didn’t care if you were smart, or even a nerd, so she had to do her own policing. Fortunately they stuck to safe subjects, and Joanie escaped with her image intact. She supposed it was a little messed up to think of conversations with old friends as potential crises to escape from, but school was war.

                                  Another thing in Joanie’s life that was war was finding her way to her room without running into anyone when she got home from school. She always preferred to have that extra hour or two to organize her thoughts or simply fabricate a story before her mom or dad asked her how her day had gone. Unfortunately, today her mom was sitting at the kitchen table looking concerned. Joanie said, “Hi, Mom,” without making eye contact and tried in vain to get to the stairs.

                                  “Joan, sit down.”

                                  Joanie made a face while her back was turned, then resigned herself and pulled up a chair. Her mom didn’t sound angry, but that didn’t mean Joanie wasn’t in trouble. Joanie couldn’t stand it when adults pretended not to be pissed off about something and disguised it as being ‘so worried about you.’

                                  “I just got a call from Mrs. Ward. It’s about Deborah.”

                                  Joanie swallowed.

                                  The rat. The lousy, goddamn rat. Didn’t Debbie have any idea how many unwritten rules this broke? Joanie couldn’t believe that whiny, stupid, buck-toothed little rattata had actually told on her.

                                  “She tried to kill herself last night.”

                                  Silence. Joanie’s mind went completely blank. Then her heart crawled into her throat, and she felt like her stomach was filled with nails. First she wondered if everyone thought it was her fault and if she would go to prison. Then came a far worse realization: if they did think that, they were right.

                                  Joanie’s mom was saying something about prayers and being sensitive and mindful when they saw Debbie and her family at Mass. None of it really registered with her. She thought back to how she had felt seeing Debbie run out of a room in embarrassment all those times, and desperately tried to convince herself that that wasn’t her. That was someone else. That was a serious bully. That was someone who delighted in other people’s pain and misery. She had just been playing the same game everyone else did, right? But she couldn’t fool herself anymore. Whatever dividing wall there was between her soul and her pleasures disintegrated, if it had ever been there at all. She was on the verge of throwing up.

                                  Joanie’s mom put a hand on her shoulder, and was saying something comforting. So she didn’t know. She thought she was talking to a devastated friend of the victim, not the perpetrator. This made Joanie feel even sicker, so she shrugged her off, went straight to her room, and locked the door.

                                  The next week passed by and Joanie barely noticed it. She wasn’t talking to anyone at school, and if they asked she pretended she’d blown her voice out. She overheard the rumors going around about Debbie. Most of them took it as fact that Debbie was addicted to prescription drugs and that was the root cause, which anyone who actually knew her wouldn’t believe for a second. The rumors among Joanie’s friends—several of whom were also guilty—attributed the attempt to Debbie having bipolar disorder or maybe schizophrenia, neither of which were true. She only overheard one person suspect bullying, and that was Jacob. “I’m surprised it doesn’t happen every other day. Middle schoolers are a bunch of nasty, vicious mukheads. And just wait till high school—it’s going to get even worse.”

                                  She often wanted to tell them; to tell them that Debbie wasn’t an addict or mentally ill, and to tell Jacob that the bullies weren’t abstract middle schoolers but someone he hung out with all the time. But she couldn’t. She knew it made her a coward, but the thought of facing them was more than she could handle.

                                  When Debbie finally did return to school, the conversation had all but died down. Once it was no longer news, there weren’t many people left who cared because there hadn’t been that many who knew Debbie to begin with. When it was time for homeroom and she was absent, Joanie knew why. Joanie’s friends probably knew the reason as well, but either they were disturbingly better at hiding their guilt or they were honestly that cold and dense. So when Joanie slipped out of the room to look for Debbie, she didn’t care what they would think of her.

                                  Joanie eventually found Debbie sitting against a tree. She hadn’t decided what she should say to her, or even if this was a good idea. Debbie noticed her before she settled on either question. “What do you want?” Her stare went for a thousand miles, and her tone had equal parts disdain and fatigue.

                                  Joanie didn’t have an answer. She looked at Debbie and it was like seeing someone gasping for air and in danger of suffocation. Joanie’s own hands had been around her neck. She had always assumed that if you choked someone they would automatically be okay when you let go, but she saw now that the damage stuck. Or maybe it was that once you started, your hands might stay there forever whether you meant them too or not. But however articulate the idea was in her head, the way Joanie expressed it was simple. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

                                  Joanie was crying. She hadn’t meant to cry. Crying was something you did when you wanted sympathy, and the thought of making this about herself was disgusting. So when the tears started pouring on their own, she did everything she could to keep the focus on Debbie. She wouldn’t talk about how bad she felt for her (that focused on her own pain), she wouldn’t say she didn’t mean to hurt her (the game was all about hurting people), and she wouldn’t ask for forgiveness (she didn’t deserve any). “We were lying—I was lying. You’re not stupid. You’re not a bad writer. It wasn’t your fault, none of it.”

                                  Debbie frowned at her. “You’re still a mukty liar. Never stopped you from trying, but you’re just so bad it. I am stupid and my poetry sucks. But yeah, it was your fault I had to spend a night in that place, not mine. You weren’t lying on that one.”

                                  Joanie was starting to suppress her tears a little. “But you’re really not stupid. And even if you were you didn’t deserve it.”

                                  Debbie sighed. Her arms were lying limp at her side. “…You’re the only one who’s talked to me so far.”

                                  Why was that? What if they were the ones being more considerate? “I can go if you don’t want me here.”

                                  Debbie ignored her. “…You weren’t the only ones who pushed me. Your posse, I mean. There were others. They don’t even all go to this school.”

                                  Joanie picked up that Debbie might just want to vent, so she let her.

                                  “I actually stopped. They thought they caught me, but I changed my mind about a minute before that. Nobody believed me.”

                                  Joanie nodded. She really, really wanted to believe her.

                                  “I wasn’t thinking about damnation, though. I’m not convinced it’s a mortal sin. What I was thinking was that it’d kill my sister. She’d probably never get over it. I couldn’t make her feel as bad as I did. I was thinking, ‘I’m not going to let someone like Joanie kill both of us.’”

                                  It stung. It stung, throbbed, and festered, but Joanie wouldn’t let herself show it because she didn’t have the right.

                                  “That’s all I’ve got. Go to Hell.”

                                  Joanie almost left right then, but she suddenly felt she had to say one more thing. “If there’s anything I can do for you, just name it. I’ll do it. Anything.”

                                  Debbie was still for a while, just staring into space. At length though she looked right in Joanie’s eyes and spoke with sudden intensity. “I want you to leave me alone forever. You do nothing that calls attention to me. That means when our families are together, you act like nothing happened. If we’re assigned to a group project, you act like I’m a random student. You don’t pretend to be friendly and you don’t join your rattata friends in their muk. But when no one’s around, you don’t say a word to me ever again. That’s what I want. Got it?”

                                  “…Okay.” That was the last thing Joanie said to Debbie. Immediately after she said it she stood up and walked away. There was still time left in homeroom, so she’d go back there. When they asked her where she had gone, she would tell them she had diarrhea or something. Something that wouldn’t make it occur to them she had gone looking for Debbie, even if it was embarrassing.

                                  On her way there she wiped her eyes and enunciated something in her head in a way she hadn’t done since she was nine: ‘Please, God, please don’t let me hurt someone that badly again.’

                                  *********

                                  Ross was speechless. That had been four years before they met. He never would have guessed, not for a moment. He exhaled, stood up to stretch his legs, and tried to digest it all. At first it didn’t make any sense, but then he realized there was one way in which it seemed to fit. Weeks ago she had made what he thought was a slip of the tongue, but now he saw it in a different light. He turned back to her and said, “You didn’t want to go home either.”

                                  Joanie shook her head and stood up as well. “No, I didn’t. Nobody here knew what I’d done. Jacob probably should have known about all the bullying, but his head was usually in the clouds. Actually, getting brought here was probably a dream come true for him, too.”

                                  Ross was still having trouble reconciling the girl in the story with the girl he knew. Joanie read his face and then kept speaking. “After that I wanted to fix myself. I wanted to hammer my conscience into shape so I wouldn’t think it was funny to embarrass people anymore. It took a year, and I really think I changed. But I still felt sick, just guilty non-stop. I was almost never happy. Even right now, there’s this little voice in my head that goes ‘stop trying to be happy, you don’t deserve it.’”

                                  Ross attributed little ‘voices’ like that directly to religion, but he didn’t say anything.

                                  Joanie continued. “I understand what you’re going through. I know how it keeps you awake at night, how it makes your entire past feel like a horror movie, even the parts where you weren’t doing anything wrong but were still that other person.”

                                  Ross shook his head. “But these things aren’t comparable. Everyone knows girls are catty in middle school, but most of them grow out of it. You had an empathy problem, but so do a lot of kids in puberty. And you never meant to kill anyone. I did.”

                                  “You meant it in hot blood, though. You got hit hardest by all the fighting, everyone saw it. You let yourself get mad out of your wits, and that’s a sin, but I just enjoyed being cruel. I didn’t have a single excuse.”

                                  Ross realized this was turning into a guilt-off, so he let her keep talking instead of arguing the point further.

                                  “What kept eating at me was like what I think is eating at you. I didn’t want to just ignore Debbie and leave her alone. I wanted to make it up to her and more, but she didn’t want to be anywhere near me. I wanted to be her friend like when we were little, even though I knew I didn’t deserve it and couldn’t ask her for forgiveness.

                                  “So I started listening and actually praying in Mass again, because Jesus will forgive anyone. I remembered that He doesn’t just forgive—He loves thieves, liars, cheating spouses, murderers, and even sadists like me. I needed someone like that, and He was there.”

                                  And just like that Ross had to stop her again. “But that’s not you. You’re not a sadist. You were a messed up kid, you made bad choices, but then you did everything to make it right.”

                                  Joanie had been calm, but now her voice was starting to rise again. “Well if I wasn’t a sadist, then you’re not a murderer. You’re a messed up young man who was never supposed to be a soldier and is trying to get better. So shut up and let me forgive you!”

                                  Before Ross could move, Joanie wrapped her arms around him and held him tight and close. His arms hung at his sides and he didn’t move them. He couldn’t hug her back.

                                  “Just let me be selfish,” she said. “Let me tell myself that God put you in my life so I could be sure people like us can be forgiven.”

                                  Ross’s eyes were getting wet, and his arms stayed limp. “But we already know that’s wrong. Even if your god’s real he didn’t put me into your life, WaruPiximon did. If your god did anything he dragged you in to stop me from killing everyone.”

                                  She squeezed harder. He could feel her hair against his ear and her chest against his. “You don’t understand God at all. He doesn’t stop anyone when He can save them instead. If you’re a problem, He wants you to be part of the solution. A priest I knew always said ‘A bad person is just a saint waiting to happen.’ You not the devil’s or even WaruPiximon’s. You’re ours.”

                                  Ross raised his arms now, but only to get out of her grip and hold her back. This had to stop. “Do you know what you sound like? Do you know what this idea that you can fix people who say they’re sorry leads to? It leads to women who stay with drunk husbands who beat them. They try to forgive them over and over, but it never works. The only thing they should do is leave them and drive at least five hours away and not tell them where. Then if they have to they can find a different man who doesn’t drink in the morning and doesn’t have a Confederate flag on his bumper and doesn’t kick his wife and punch his…kid.”

                                  Ross was crying. He didn’t notice when he started, but there it was. He looked in Joanie’s eyes, and she obviously had pieced together that one part of his story that he preferred to go untold.

                                  “We’ll compromise, then,” she said. “If you ever try to hurt any of us, we’ll stay away from you forever. But until then we do things my way.”

                                  Ross’s lip quivered. He wouldn’t be able to stop crying at this rate. His eyes started to sting, but not just from the tears. They had burned like this once before in what he had thought was just a dream. Then he hugged her, and she hugged him back. She kissed him softly on the cheek, and he felt warmer than he could ever remember.

                                  The sky was still pitch black, but whatever happened next his long nightmare was over.
                                  __________________
                                  Old, Janky Fics
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                                  Family (kind of?): Strange person who calls me strange names
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                                  Old October 8th, 2016 (10:11 AM).
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                                    XVII

                                    Faith, Hope, and Love

                                    Tatiana looked west. At a glance the horizon was black, but when she breathed in deep and focused she could spot the bolts of lightning dozens of miles away. They were all concentrated on one spot. That was where the Virus would come from. She had her hand on Greymon’s leg, and was trying to read how he felt about their situation. Greymon was confident, mostly calm, but a little bit excited too. She got the feeling he would try to fight whatever was coming their way even if she couldn’t make him evolve.

                                    She had been watching for several hours. The anticipation was almost too much to deal with. She recalled the day her softball team won the city championship, and how the worst part was waiting that morning for the afternoon game to arrive. It didn’t really compare to how she felt now, though. This was more like the World Series, which reminded her of her plan to one day challenge Ichiro Suzuki to a footrace, and how she would use her victory to convince them to let her be the first woman to play in the Majors, maybe even for her Seattle Mariners with Ichiro. It was just one more thing to look forward to when they eventually went home. There was no way they were going to lose today. That was the attitude she’d taken with the softball championship, and it had worked then.

                                    “Good morning,” she heard Garurumon say even though it was past noon. She turned away from the cliff and saw that Michael was waking up. The storm could wait, so she decided to check up on him. To her surprise he opened his eyes and focused them right away. This was great timing if he was going to be more lucid than usual.

                                    “Can you give me a hand?” he asked Tatiana. She gladly obliged, and was pleased to see that he really only needed one hand’s worth of help. He was on his feet and seemed steady, but when he tried to take a step he almost stumbled. She helped him get balanced again.

                                    “Don’t wear yourself out,” she said. “I think it’s almost time.”

                                    Michael nodded. “I’ll be okay.”

                                    Then Garurumon made a noise. Tatiana looked over and saw that his fur was standing on end. “I feel it,” he said. “I never thought I’d feel one from so far away.”

                                    Tatiana and Michael both looked to the horizon. Moments later, they saw a flash. It was a pillar of lightning that they could see without doing anything special with their eyes. It was just that tall and that bright. After several seconds passed, they heard the thunder and Tatiana could feel it in her shoes. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to stand at the epicenter.

                                    “We don’t have much longer,” said Garurumon.

                                    Joanie and Ross rushed over to them. Tatiana really wanted to see Jacob now. She had never thought Ross was a good substitute for Jacob, not from the first minute they’d all met in the cave. But Ross was the one who was here now, and he was the one getting down on one knee, just a little below their eye level. “Are you guys ready?”

                                    Tatiana nodded, and so did Michael. Garurumon rose to his feet, and Greymon came over and held his head over them. Tatiana knew they were ready too.

                                    “If there’s anything Joanie and I can help with just say so,” said Ross. “Michael, are you feeling fine?”

                                    “Yes.”

                                    Tatiana knew he was lying. Ross probably also knew, but it wasn’t like they could postpone this any longer.

                                    Then Michael looked at his shoes. “…Ross,” he said in a quiet voice.

                                    “What is it?”

                                    “…I’m sorry I didn’t forgive you earlier. That was wrong of me.”

                                    Tatiana looked at Ross. The right side of his face was always inscrutable now because of the scar that kept one eye half closed and cut into the corner of his mouth. But if she ignored that side she could see a faint smile. “You don’t need to apologize,” he said. “And I’m sorry, too. It isn’t fair that you guys have to fix this.”

                                    She thought about it for a moment, and Tatiana decided she too could forgive Ross. It didn’t seem right not to forgive him when he was sticking his neck out so far for them. Earlier she had been positive that he was insane and dangerous, but it was only fair to rethink it if the angel thought he could be a good guy. “It’s okay,” she said. “You can make it up to us after we win.”

                                    Ross smiled a little wider. “That’s the spirit.”

                                    Joanie got down on one knee as well. “We’ll be right here with you the whole time.”

                                    “As will we,” said Garurumon, “Whatever happens.”

                                    Michael took a deep breath. “Can each of you write a phrase for me? I don’t want to bend over.”

                                    “Of course,” said Ross.

                                    “‘End of time,’ ‘Holy City,’ and ‘evolve,’” said Michael. “That’s when we’ll go and where we’ll go. And if it doesn’t work we’ll try something with ‘evolve’ as a backup.”

                                    Ross and Joanie started writing in the dirt with their fingers, and Tatiana followed their lead. “That sounds good to me,” said Ross. “The Holy City’s probably the best guess for where the angel comes from. After all, that’s where he is now.”

                                    The words were written. They were ready. Tatiana’s heart was pounding. She looked out west again and focused. She could barely spot the silhouette of a dark, deep-red thing with wings like an eagle’s flying in their direction. She didn’t stare at it for more than a moment, both because they were in a hurry and because it was terrifying. She tried not to think about being incinerated.

                                    She glanced over at Michael, and saw a bead of sweat rolling down his forehead. “Can you give us a little space?” he asked Ross and Joanie.

                                    Joanie looked unsure, but Ross nodded. “Whatever you want.” He got up, and motioned for Joanie to do the same. Then they walked behind them and out of their way. Tatiana couldn’t see them, but she knew they were watching closely. Garurumon meanwhile took a position several yards in front of them, and Greymon joined him on his left. They were ready to fight.

                                    Then everything was still. Tatiana and Michael stood by themselves, and it was all in their hands. Suddenly her bladder felt full, but she knew it always did that when it was time to take the biggest test of the year or when she was at-bat and could drive in the winning run. She could handle it.

                                    “Tat,” whispered Michael, “I’m scared.”

                                    He sounded like it. “Yeah, me too,” she whispered back. Then she readjusted her goggles so they felt just right on her forehead, and grabbed Michael’s hand. “Try not to fall over.”

                                    “Try not to let me fall over.”

                                    “I won’t.”

                                    Tatiana took a deep breath and held it. This was it. She turned the breath into Greymon’s roar, and set it out through her hand instead of her mouth. The shockwave passed into Michael, and she did her best to ease it into him so it wouldn’t wreck his muscles even further. Then she saw everything as it truly was again, and she knew that Michael did too. His body was still standing up, and his mind hadn’t gone into shock. His breathing was normal. Garurumon and Greymon were standing perfectly still, and she could see the bright lights in their centers.

                                    The phrases on the ground in front of them turned into computer code as before. ‘End of time’ and ‘Holy City’ were both almost as long as ‘evolve’ and were completely inscrutable to her. But she knew that Michael would find the right coordinates. If he said he could then he could, and that was all there was to it. And just as they planned, Michael soon grouped together four numbers from ‘end of time’ and ‘Holy City.’ Then he took the number that signified ‘height’ and increased it, which made sense to her. If they were higher up, then they had a better vantage point to find someone who could help.

                                    He’d picked their destination, and now it was her turn. She interlocked her fingers with his and held on tighter. She focused on the numbers, thought ‘I want to go here,’ and let her eyes move on their own. They left their bodies far behind in all four directions. The grid spun and readjusted itself, and before she knew it they were there.

                                    It was very bright. She looked down, and instead of the Holy City she saw a floor, which was glowing. They should have been hundreds of feet above the mountains and the angel, but they were on top of a white platform. There was a powerful wind, and it felt like it might blow them off the platform even though they weren’t physically there. She looked all about, and found that nothing was as sharp to her eyes as it should have been. It scared her, and her breathing grew erratic. Michael’s did too, and everything flickered.

                                    Then she heard the voice. “Haff none fraidh.” ‘Don’t be afraid.’

                                    It was a woman’s voice. Tatiana heard it with the ears she had with her and the ears attached to her body in the past. It was distant and immediate all at once. Tatiana had never heard the dialect or accent before, but she understood perfectly. Then she felt the hands.

                                    Tatiana and Michael jumped, and then they saw her. She was an adult, but still young. She had laid her hands where the two of them were holding theirs. They were very soft, and very warm. Then something passed from her hands to theirs, something bright. It was more of the computer code, but Tatiana couldn’t tell what word it formed. “Heeryarn. Will’t yann halpen.” ‘Take this. It will help you.’

                                    Somehow Tatiana knew that the woman wasn’t copying the code from somewhere else. She was thinking it up on the spot and writing it one word, one number at a time. There was a lot of it, and Tatiana could feel its warmth in her physical hand as well. “Dhank’n.” ‘Thank you both.’

                                    The woman stood up and pulled her hands away, but her gift remained and grew warmer and brighter. Tatiana took one last look at her before everything around them faded away. She couldn’t see her very clearly, but what she saw was beautiful. The woman had the most honest smile, and she looked so happy and relieved that Tatiana and Michael had found their way to her.

                                    *********

                                    Ross had his eyes fixed square on the two kids. He had felt the rumbling in the ground a moment ago, which meant they had started. Now he could only watch and wait to see if something went wrong. He only had to wait three seconds.

                                    It was like someone had turned on a searchlight right in his face from two inches away. There was a noise like a thousand bells and a wind that almost swept him off his feet. Everything was white and loud and he instinctively shut his eyes. Even through his eyelids it still hurt.

                                    “Aaaah!” He just barely heard Joanie. They had to see what was going on somehow. Michael and Tatiana could be in trouble. Then he remembered. He remembered that in this world light wasn’t just light. He remembered what Angemon had shown him.

                                    “Cover your eyes but keep them open!” he yelled as he clapped his hands to his face. It shouldn’t have made any difference. Hands were so much thicker than eyelids that it shouldn’t have mattered whether their eyes were open or not. But when Ross opened his eyes from behind his hands he could see light the way Angemon did. He saw the light that could pass through any physical matter except one’s eyelids. It was the light that would reach anyone whose eyes were open, no matter what stood in the way.

                                    He saw Tatiana and Michael. And where their hands met he saw a small sun. It was so bright that he couldn’t believe it didn’t burn them.

                                    Ross!” Tatiana was screaming at the top of her lungs. “What do we do?

                                    Ross had nothing to say that would make any sense to her. The kids had never gotten close to handling something like this or the lightning he had wielded, and he had never needed to articulate it before. Unsure of what else to do, he walked toward them. It was like walking into a bright hurricane, but he managed to push his feet forward.

                                    When he reached them, he took his left hand and joined it with Michael’s and Tatiana’s. He wasn’t surprised that the light source only made his hand feel warm but burned his exposed left eye. He could feel that Tatiana was doing fine, but Michael was about to collapse. Ross had to do something. He wanted to take whatever this thing was out of their hands, but it didn’t respond to his own. So for the first time in his life, he prayed. He didn’t pray to anyone in particular, but that’s what he did. ‘Please,’ he mouthed but didn’t say aloud. ‘They don’t know what to do. Tell them!’

                                    Then he felt another hand on top of his own. It didn’t belong to either of the kids. “Mahl batt. I’n forgit.” ‘Sorry. I forgot.’

                                    The voice came out of nowhere. Did the hand belong to her? Before Ross had a chance to think about it, Tatiana stuck out her other palm toward Greymon. Michael tried to do the same with Garurumon, but he just couldn’t raise his arm. Ross reached out with his right hand. It left him blind, but he could still find Michael’s arm and hold it up for him. Then he felt all of that immense power and light leave the kids’ interlocking fingers and pass out of their bodies through their other hands.

                                    The wind died down, and slowly the burning sensation left Ross’s eyes. When he opened them again, he saw it. They had succeeded.

                                    *********

                                    There was no room for Omegamon’s feet on the mountain, so he landed in front of it. He had to stand far enough in front of the mountain or his cape might knock over Michael and Tatiana. He wasn’t quite sure who they were or why they had such odd names, though.

                                    ‘They are mighty Humans from the World of Creators, and we owe them our power,’ came the words from the Garurumon-head that was his right hand.

                                    ‘They are our dear friends, and we will die before they are hurt,’ came the words from the Greymon-head that was his left hand.

                                    Omegamon understood and remembered. Next he lifted his eyes to the horizon and saw the enemy. Twenty miles away and closing in fast was a beast with wings that could cut through solid rock. His head appeared to be nothing but skull, and it had a third hunter’s eye right between its other two. Omegamon read him and knew his name: Velgrmon.

                                    Now that Omegamon was here, Velgrmon touched down and reared back his gigantic head. Omegamon could not allow the mountain behind him to be destroyed because Tatiana and Michael were there. He also couldn’t just absorb the blast that was about to come—it would be too strong. Even though Omegamon’s body was armored with white steel that was harder than anything else in the world, underestimating an Ultimate-level invariably proved fatal.

                                    ‘Use me,’ he heard from his Greymon-head. Omegamon agreed with his instinct. The head that was his left hand opened, and out from it came the blade of a sword. On it were inscribed the characters that dictated the prerogatives of all the Vaccine: ‘Prudence. Justice. Temperance. Fortitude.’ Fortitude dictated that Omegamon stand his ground. Prudence dictated that the attack be redirected out of harm’s way.

                                    So when the mass of purple fire that would have reduced the mountain to rubble burst from Velgrmon’s mouth, Omegamon was ready. He swung his sword, gathering flames of his own as he went, and deflected the blast with just enough strength and perfect precision. The flames went up and around the mountains behind Omegamon. With luck they would come down past the boundaries of the world.

                                    Velgrmon cried out in rage with a voice designed to chill hearts and weaken bones. He then took to the sky again.

                                    ‘Use me,’ heard Omegamon from his Garurumon-head. He opened the head, and now his right hand was a cannon. This is what he could use to destroy anything in the world as long as it was in his sight, and he could see very far.

                                    But it wasn’t time yet. Temperance dictated that for the moment he suppress his warrior’s instinct to shoot at Velgrmon right away. This Virus-type had sharp reflexes and was most comfortable in the sky. If Omegamon shot while Velgrmon was ready and looking at him, Velgrmon would dodge. Omegamon couldn’t waste the time and energy of shooting when it wasn’t a sure kill.

                                    Omegamon waited. When Velgrmon was high up the beast raised his wings above his head. Power was gathering in the tips: power that could cut through space. Velgrmon’s plan was to bait a ranged attack, which he would dodge with ease and then come diving down, deleting whatever he met at the ground. But if Omegamon was right, Velgrmon was making one incorrect assumption, which was that his Vaccine enemy wouldn’t stray from where he held the best advantage, the ground.

                                    Omegamon summoned all the energy he could spare into his legs, and launched himself into the air. Velgrmon was surprised, and had to move farther than he anticipated in order to dodge. The monster wheeled around, expecting to slice through Omegamon as the Vaccine flailed helplessly. But Omegamon had seen this coming as well, and his cape was no mere decoration. When Velgrmon was nearly upon him, Omegamon was already stable and balanced, even without the ground. He parried Velgrmon’s wing with his sword, and sent the Virus momentarily out of control.

                                    Omegamon only needed the one moment. He took aim with his Garurumon-head and fired. The orange sphere of energy erupted with a noise that could be heard by every creature in the world. It made impact square on Velgrmon’s upper back. The monster’s wings held firm as he glided back down, but his heart and spinal cord were already destroyed. He was not allowed a final roar to curse the premature end to his reign of terror.

                                    And meanwhile Omegamon hung in midair, dropping only a foot every few seconds. There was one more thing that he was supposed to do as soon as possible. He looked far to the west, and past the Valley of Ruin he saw the obelisks that marked the home of the Council of Virus. It was within his range. It would only take one barrage, and he could guarantee the demise of all the Virus Perfect-levels. At long last the war would be over, and the world would be made safe for hundreds of years to come. Justice dictated that he take up his cannon and level the Virus’ lands now.

                                    He took aim. But he did not fire. ‘There are not only Perfect-levels there,’ came the voice from his Garurumon-head. This was true enough. There were certainly scores of Virus-types of all levels beneath Perfect in what was to be the blast radius. That was unfortunate, but he had to end this now. He could only stay in this form for so many days, and if he tried to hunt the masterminds down individually and avoid collateral damage he would run out of time before he killed half of them.

                                    ‘For the sake of BlackAgumon,’ he heard from his right hand, ‘And those like him who may be there, we must not fire.’

                                    Omegamon didn’t have time for this. Justice came first.

                                    ‘For the sake of the small ones,’ he heard from his left hand, ‘Who do not understand that what they are taught is evil, we must not fire.’

                                    Omegamon couldn’t believe what he was hearing. His kind had been sent here to vanquish the Virus. This was a sacred mission, and he had to finish it.

                                    ‘For the sake of Ross,’ he heard from two voices in his heart that he didn’t recognize, ‘Who fought for us even after he fought against us, we must not fire.’

                                    This was torture. It was unjust to leave a plague to fester. He had to fulfil his prerogative. But as the influence from his two hands and his heart entered his head, he began to understand three new prerogatives.

                                    ‘Believe in the victory that is to come,’ said the Garurumon-head, ‘And trust that showing mercy will not prevent it.’

                                    ‘Do what is right by all,’ said the Greymon-head, ‘Even when what is wrong seems wiser.’

                                    ‘Bear no hatred for anyone,’ said the two voices in his heart, ‘Not even your enemies. Rather make a gift of yourself to your enemies that they may be saved.’

                                    The division in his soul was gone, and Omegamon lowered the cannon. Slowly he returned to the ground, and landed where there was nobody present. A few miles to the north he spotted the carcass of Velgrmon. He had vanquished the immediate, existential threat and had damaged the world as little as possible in doing so. This fulfilled the law of his sword, and now he would follow the new law.

                                    *********

                                    Two weeks had passed. Michael was sitting at the edge of the camp, just within the evening shadow cast by Omegamon. He was feeling much better than before. In fact he could stay awake for an entire day now if he took things pretty easy. He still couldn’t walk very well, and they had begun to suspect that the muscles in his legs were permanently damaged. He could think of worse things though, and his arms were back at a hundred percent so it wasn’t all bad. Especially when he considered the wooden crutches the younger kids had made for him (with substantial help from Ross), he felt pretty lucky.

                                    Two of the younger kids, Carlos and Nathan, were with him now along with three of the Koromon. They were playing a game where Michael acted as the narrator and the others dictated the actions of a character. It was a sort of interactive story, kind of like a video game without the pictures and music, only words—though Michael did his best to stand in for the sound effects. They were having a blast with it, and Michael had to wonder if this kind of thing could catch on back in their own world.

                                    “We take the hammer and punch a hole in the wall!” said Carlos.

                                    “Okay, I lied: the wall’s made of titanium, not wood,” said Michael. Part of the challenge for him was keeping them from going to places he hadn’t thought of anything for yet. Predictably, though, there was very loud disagreement on whether the sudden change in the composition of the wall was fair.

                                    “Fine, you’re actually in cyberspace and if you punch a hole in the wall you’ll turn into computer data. You still want to do it?”

                                    “Boo! Boo!” The crowd was unanimous in their disapproval, though they were all laughing at the same time.

                                    “Deal with it! It’s an important part of the story! Now are you going to open the door to the east or not?”

                                    “No!’ said Nathan, “We want to go through the wall!”

                                    Just when Michael was trying to think of an even better reason why they couldn’t do that, Biyomon showed up. “I need two boys to go get water. Any volunteers?”

                                    “Michael!”

                                    “Michael!”

                                    “Michael and also Michael!”

                                    Biyomon sighed. “You should try not to make so many enemies, Michael.”

                                    He just laughed and said, “I’ll be more careful.”

                                    “Now then. Carlos, Nathan: water. Chop-chop!”

                                    Carlos and Nathan both grumbled about being interrupted in the middle of the game, but obeyed and went off. Since it wouldn’t be fair to continue the game without all the players, the Koromon decided to leave as well. As they bounced away, Michael could hear snippets of a conversation that they were continuing from earlier.

                                    “I still can’t believe Omegamon didn’t finish off the Virus.”

                                    “Well, most of ’em have gone back home now. Ain’t that okay too?”

                                    “No way. He must be waiting until he’s back to full strength to go after them.”

                                    Michael felt sorry and a little concerned for them. The humans would have plenty of time to teach them differently, though.

                                    “So how are you feeling today?” asked Biyomon.

                                    “Wide awake,” said Michael, “Thanks.”

                                    “I think his legs just need more exercise,” said Tatiana, who was now joining them. “All that sitting around isn’t good for you.”

                                    “Tell that to Omegamon,” said Michael, looking back at the towering figure. “I’m just following his example.”

                                    After the battle with Velgrmon, Omegamon carried his tired humans to this place, where they now made camp. It wasn’t very far from the wreckage of the first camp where they had all met Angemon’s army. In the two weeks since arriving at the new camp, Omegamon had not moved. He sat by himself in silence. He looked something like a skyscraper even though he wasn’t standing up.

                                    ‘I have much to consider,’ Omegamon had said to them after the battle; straight into their minds because he had no mouth. ‘Let me think for a while, and I will tell you my plan for the rest of my time in this form.’

                                    They had let him think so far, and they were so relieved to have nothing to worry about for a change that they felt no need to rush him.

                                    “Well, what does he know about exercise?” joked Tatiana, “He came out that way after Greymon and Garurumon evolved. He doesn’t need to…to…”

                                    Tatiana was trailing off. Michael recognized it as a rare moment where she was lost for words before he was. “Need to what? Do chin-ups? What would he even use for the bar?”

                                    “…Look over there.”

                                    Tatiana pointed out and away from the camp. Michael saw where she was pointing, and suddenly he found words failing him as well. He grabbed his crutches and used them to pull himself up.

                                    “Oh! There he is!” Biyomon did not seem particularly moved by the sight. A few hills away there was a solitary figure walking toward them. He had a sword by his side and his face was familiar. As he drew closer, they saw the awe on that face as he stared at Omegamon’s colossal form. Jacob had at long last found his way here again.

                                    Michael didn’t know what to say when Jacob climbed the hill and stood before them. Even now that they were right in front of each other Jacob’s eyes kept straying toward the Ultimate-level. At length he faced them, but it seemed he was at a loss for words as well. His mouth was part-way open, and he looked equally amazed and humbled.

                                    “Michael, Tat…” He was struggling to get it out, but they let him finish. “I am so ashamed of myself.”

                                    “I should think so!” said Biyomon, as if the mood were light as a feather instead of heavy as lead. “We were all so disappointed when we heard you left!”

                                    “Biyomon, don’t—” Tatiana started, but Jacob interrupted.

                                    “No, Tatiana, she’s right. I didn’t trust you guys at all, even when I should have known you had the best idea of what our chances were. And if I were any kind of man, I would have dragged you with me instead of let you go into a battle that I thought would kill you for sure. Whatever way you look at it I was full of myself…and a coward.”

                                    Michael (who considered himself a recovering coward) felt more awkward than angry at Jacob. Now that some time had passed and the intense emotions had died down, when he thought about their plan for getting Garurumon and Greymon to evolve it seemed jaw-droppingly dangerous and stupid. He didn’t really blame Jacob for what he had done. It seemed more like an example of him acting merely less-than-heroically rather than seriously wrong. Maybe the teenager could have tried dragging them off, but then Tatiana probably would have bitten his arm and Greymon probably would have stopped him in his tracks by excessively risky means.

                                    And Jacob had hurt their feelings, yes, but friends did that all the time.

                                    “If it makes you feel better,” said Michael, “We told the younger kids you just got lost.”

                                    Jacob was speechless.

                                    “Yeah,” said Tatiana, “They were kind of worried at first, but we promised you’d be back.”

                                    After another few seconds Jacob finally laughed and rubbed his forehead. “I guess I’m on my own for explaining how I managed to do that, huh?”

                                    “If you need ideas, we’ve got some!” said Tatiana.

                                    “Heh, no thanks! I think I can handle it okay!”

                                    Michael laughed along with them, but he was interrupted when he heard a voice in his head. It was deep and strong, but also gentle.

                                    ‘I am done thinking. Please come and listen.’

                                    Michael turned to look at Omegamon. There was no change in his position, his posture, nor in his eyes.

                                    “You heard that?” asked Jacob, who was again struck with awe. “That wasn’t just me?”

                                    Tatiana nodded, and so did Biyomon. Michael wondered if the calm that followed the battle was over so soon after it had begun. Whether it was or not, he would finally get to speak with Omegamon again. Without another word he got onto his crutches and led the way to where the Ultimate-level was sitting.

                                    Soon many of them were assembled at Omegamon’s feet: Michael and Tatiana, Joanie and Ross, Angemon and Biyomon, and Jacob. The three teenagers were off by themselves and speaking in low voices. Michael could just hear Ross say “So do we call it even?” and Jacob reply, “That’s fine with me.” Then Jacob and Joanie were whispering to each other and he couldn’t hear them.

                                    “Omegamon,” said Angemon, just loud enough for the rest of them to hear. “Is everyone you called present?”

                                    ‘Yes. I would rather the smaller children not hear of this matter while we are still discussing it. In their stead I have invited Biyomon, who has taken charge of them.’

                                    “And what matter is this?” asked Angemon.

                                    ‘The matter of how we are to send them home.’

                                    Michael and the other humans gasped in unison, but Michael knew that his own gasp was in more disbelief than any of theirs. He had seen for himself that nothing could pass from this world to their own and survive. Did Omegamon simply not know? What if what he said sounded convincing and they tried something? Michael so dearly wanted to hear that it was possible and that he himself was wrong, but what if he was right and his silence got them killed?

                                    ‘I have spent the last two weeks looking very far. The inescapable conclusion from what I have seen is that the Humans were not moved from their world to ours, but rather copied.’

                                    “What?” Joanie seemed to be more surprised than anyone.

                                    “It’s true,” said Ross. “We saw it happen.”

                                    “Then why didn’t you say anything?” asked Joanie, clearly distressed.

                                    “I didn’t know how you’d react,” said Ross. “I’m sorry. We had enough to worry about.”

                                    ‘I wasn’t finished,’ said Omegamon. ‘Your bodies are not exact copies, for nothing can be copied exactly from there to here. Where in your world the arrangement of matter is dazzlingly chaotic, in ours it is simplistic and ordered. And what amounts to massive quantities of energy in our world is barely enough to light a fire in yours. As we long suspected, ours is a world of thin shadows and the World of Creators is one of unimaginable light.’

                                    “And that’s why we…” Michael began speaking, and struggled to hold back tears as he spoke, “…Can’t ever go home.”

                                    He felt everyone else staring at him. “We saw what happened to Machinedramon. He evaporated. You can’t send something from here to there and have it stick together.”

                                    “…What if he just did it wrong?” asked Tatiana, who was trying to sound hopeful but wasn’t quite managing it.

                                    “Michael,” said Joanie, “Did you know the whole time?”

                                    Michael couldn’t answer. He was trying too hard not to cry, and before he knew it he was holding his breath so tightly that it was obvious. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder: Joanie’s. He wiped his eyes and tried breathing.

                                    ‘Technically speaking, Michael is correct,’ said Omegamon, ‘But he is assuming that the only option is to transfer your entire shadow-bodies back. If you were rocks, this would indeed be an insurmountable obstacle. But the rock is only the rock and nothing besides, while you are not your bodies.

                                    ‘The arms, legs, stomach, and even the heart of a thinking being are not essential to that being. To exist in the World of Creators, these things must have more mass than we can put there. But the essence of a thinking being lies in the subtle positioning and patterns of matter in the brain. I have enough energy to move these back into your original bodies. It would be like waking up from a dream.’

                                    Michael tried to process it. It seemed too good to be true, and he didn’t believe it yet.

                                    “But wait,” said Jacob. “We’ve been here for months. If we’re copies, then our original bodies haven’t just been doing nothing, right?”

                                    And there it was. Michael realized the key problem with Omegamon’s proposal. Michael was now literally a different person from the original Michael, who was now living the ordinary life he always should have. When Michael ‘woke up’ as Omegamon put it, only one person would remain where before there had been two. And worse yet, how could Michael know that he would be the one who woke up? What if they both vanished, and a third person who wasn’t either of them replaced them? Michael looked up at Joanie, and he could tell that she was just as worried as he was.

                                    But then Omegamon spoke again. ‘That is not quite correct, Jacob. Let me show you.’

                                    Michael felt a rumbling in the ground and in his chest. They were about to slip out of their bodies. Michael clung to his crutches and was suddenly terrified at the thought of getting hurt again. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Omegamon. ‘I’ve learned how to be gentler with this than Tatiana.

                                    The vibrations slowly subsided and the world in front of him faded away. The transition was perfectly smooth—nothing at all like how Tatiana handled it. Then in the place of the grass and hills that vanished he saw the hazy outlines of a city street. The vision didn’t overpower him with its brightness like their vision of New York had. Omegamon kept a thick shade over everything they saw, and only lifted it gradually and deliberately. But even as the vision grew brighter, Michael didn’t recognize the scene.

                                    Then Michael felt Joanie’s breathing spike. This place must have meant something to her, but why? Michael looked around, and then he saw the reason: Joanie was standing in the middle of the sidewalk and staring at the sky. She stood like that for what felt like a solid minute, and no one else was taking any notice of her. Then Michael realized this was because no one was doing anything at all. Everyone else was stuck in mid-stride. Or no, he realized; they were moving, but about at the speed of the hour hand of a clock.

                                    But this was normal, he remembered. Everything moved slower when they saw things like this. So it shocked him even more when for a split-second, everything moved at normal speed. Each passerby took half a step, the original Joanie tilted her head slightly, and then time slowed back down to where it was nearly frozen again.

                                    Before Michael had a chance to react to any of this, the vision vanished, and the hills and grass returned. He took a look around to see how everyone else was doing. Tatiana and Ross were fine as he expected, but Joanie, Jacob, and Biyomon were reeling. Even Angemon appeared a little worse for wear.

                                    “Ugh…” said Jacob, “That was supposed to be gentle?”

                                    “There was just too much to look at,” said Biyomon, “And it was too bright! My eyes are killing me!”

                                    “Indeed.” Angemon was holding his stomach. “Even after I braced for it, it surpassed my expectations.”

                                    When Joanie spoke though, she didn’t sound physically unwell, only confused. “But…that was months ago. That was exactly where I was just before we came here. And there was a newspaper on the ground with the same date and everything.”

                                    Michael wasn’t surprised at Joanie’s revelation, and that was what surprised him. He tried to think. “Omegamon,” he asked, “I don’t get what we were supposed to learn there. We already knew we can see things from other points in time.”

                                    ‘And how do you do this?’

                                    Michael wondered if that was supposed to be a rhetorical question. “It’s…something like moving our eyes out of our bodies I guess, and then following the numbers to where we want to go…”

                                    ‘And where did your eyes go this time?’

                                    Michael was about to answer that they went a few months back in time and took a look at the human world, but he stopped. Something was different. While he was struggling over what it was, Tatiana had an epiphany.

                                    “We didn’t leave!” she yelled. “We stayed in our bodies this time!”

                                    ‘There you have it. Your eyes did not move from your heads. You saw your world as it is at this very moment.’

                                    “What?” Michael was dumbfounded.

                                    ‘We have long been mistaken in our conception of this world and its place among worlds. We assumed that ours was entirely separate from the World of Creators, but that is not the case. This world exists in the same space as your own. The difference is in the flow of time, not in the location. The rate of its passage fluctuates from age to age, and by my reckoning it has been moving much faster in this world for several years.’

                                    “Well that’s great then, right?” asked Jacob. “If we go back it’ll be like nothing ever happened.”

                                    Ross shook his head. “Hardly. We’ll all be having nightmares for years, and I think the younger kids will be disturbed when nobody believes them.”

                                    “But they’ll still be home. That’s all they’ve wanted, and we might actually be able to make it happen.”

                                    Jacob apparently was satisfied with what he’d heard and seen so far, but Michael was not. There was still the question of whether it’d really be them on the other side. And he still couldn’t shake the feeling that the fact that they were copies was important. Even if they were moving that slowly, their selves on the other side were still alive and awake. It was at this point that he realized he’d been thinking about this the wrong way. He was trying to reason in the way that Ross and Jacob would, but that wasn’t how he felt. His real concern was about the soul—whether he had one soul and his original had another. Or, worst of all, if only one of them had a soul, and which one it was. He didn’t expect either of the older boys to understand—they weren’t religious.

                                    He didn’t want them to come to a decision yet, but he didn’t know how to say so. He was terrified of telling them that maybe they shouldn’t do it. Certainly he wouldn’t be able to bring himself to tell the other kids that he had been the dissenting voter.

                                    Then he heard something from Omegamon, quieter than a whisper. He felt it was directed at him alone. ‘I understand.’

                                    A moment later, Omegamon addressed the group again. ‘We are not in a hurry. As long as I remain still, I can maintain this form and preserve the energy needed to send you home. The plan is not without risks, so I propose we reconvene in the morning after we have all given it more thought.’

                                    “I concur,” said Angemon. “It feels like so long since we’ve had a chance to make decisions under calm conditions.”

                                    There was agreement all around to sleep on it. Everyone waved goodnight to Omegamon, and they began to walk back to camp. Leading the way were Tatiana and Jacob. Tatiana was giving Jacob highly questionable suggestions for how he could excuse his ‘getting lost’ to the other kids.

                                    “Why would they believe I got drunk? Heck, what would I even be drinking? C’mon, I’m counting on you here.”

                                    At the very back of the group were Biyomon and Angemon. “Captain,” whispered Biyomon, though not quietly enough to escape Michael’s ears, “Is it all right if I feel a little torn? It’s a dream come true that they can go home, but I’ll miss them so much.”

                                    “It’s perfectly all right,” whispered back Angemon, “And completely natural. Yet all meetings must end with partings, and we ought to cherish the happier ones.”

                                    *********

                                    It was hours past sundown, and Michael supposed he was the only one still awake. For once he wanted to fall asleep, and now of all times he couldn’t. He was standing outside the tent where the others had gone to bed. He looked over to where Omegamon was still sitting, and saw how the Ultimate-level’s eyes shone in the night. Michael wondered if the giant Vaccine truly understood the weight of what he was asking them.

                                    Then Michael noticed that a light was approaching him from behind. He turned around and saw Joanie holding a candle.

                                    “Hey,” she said, “You want to talk?”

                                    Michael very much wanted to talk, especially alone with Joanie. He nodded.

                                    “Let’s go to the supply tent, okay?”

                                    She started to lead the way, taking it slowly so that he could follow. This made him sick of the crutches, so he decided to try to walk without them. It wasn’t long before he found his feet tripping and dragging. He couldn’t even catch up to her when she was deliberately setting an easy pace. And when she noticed this and came back to offer him a hand, he only felt more embarrassed. He decided it was better than the crutches, though, and took her hand.

                                    The supply tent was roomy and unoccupied, just what Michael wanted. He sat down opposite Joanie, whose candle provided the only light in the tent. She wore an expression that was very familiar to Michael by now: it was how she looked when she was trying to convince younger kids that things weren’t as bad as they seemed. Her success rate with Michael hovered around thirty percent, and he blamed himself for it.

                                    Joanie was about to say something when they heard footsteps near the entrance. It was Ross. Joanie asked him, “Can it wait a few minutes?”

                                    “You’re going to have your Catholic-to-Catholic talk, right?” asked Ross back at her. “I’d like to listen. I won’t contradict anything you say, honest.”

                                    “Well…”

                                    Michael knew what Joanie was thinking. She thought Ross would make him uncomfortable, and she didn’t want to put him on the spot either by asking if they could have a guest listener. “It’s okay,” said Michael. He meant it, too. Clearly Ross knew what the story was already, so there couldn’t be any harm.

                                    Ross sat apart from them, and Joanie returned her whole attention to Michael. “Not an easy thing to wrap your brain around, is it?”

                                    “No.” Michael scratched his head. He didn’t know where to begin.

                                    Joanie on the other hand seemed more prepared. “Michael, when do you think God gives a person a soul?”

                                    Michael was a little surprised that she said ‘think,’ as if this were a matter of opinion. There was a right answer and a wrong answer, or rather tons of wrong answers. “When their life starts, right? When they’re first a cell.”

                                    Michael knew a little about the biology of it and of the mixing of chromosomes from both parents. The process by which the mixing occurred was something of a mystery to him, but for reasons he couldn’t articulate he had never sought enlightenment on the subject. The important thing was that this was when a new person began.

                                    “So,” said Joanie, “Do you think that identical twins share a soul?”

                                    That was a ridiculous question, thought Michael. “Of course not. Your soul is you, and twins are different people.”

                                    Joanie nodded. “So when does God give them their souls?”

                                    Michael had already answered this question, hadn’t he? Was he missing something?

                                    Joanie continued. “Identical twins start as the same cell. The difference is that when that cell starts dividing, it grows into two fetuses instead of one.”

                                    Michael hadn’t known that. He wanted to say then that they each got a soul after they divided, and everyone else got theirs at the very start, but that didn’t seem right. If there wasn’t a difference between one person and a pair of twins at the very beginning, why would there be a difference in when they got their souls?

                                    “And what about clones?” asked Joanie. “If you clone a human being, do they get a soul and if so when? Remember, cloning isn’t like it is in cartoons: a clone starts as one cell like anyone else.”

                                    Michael knew that cloning was wrong, especially human cloning, but he’d never thought about it too much. He realized now that it had always been in the back of his mind that if cloning was wrong it was because a clone would be a human creation and therefore wouldn’t have a soul, but when Joanie framed it this way that sounded horribly callous and wrong. He didn’t want to believe that a living, breathing person who was made in a weird way was just empty in God’s eyes.

                                    And that was when he realized that Joanie wasn’t pushing him into a corner. She was gently pulling him away from a cliff.

                                    “You have to understand, Michael, that God doesn’t get tripped up by technicalities. He knows when a person really begins, whenever that is. And He doesn’t love anyone any less just because they were conceived in a test tube or even photocopied by an evil wizard.”

                                    “So, do you think we really are different people than before? That all our memories from home are really someone else’s?”

                                    Joanie shrugged. “I don’t think it’s for us to say whether we’re brand new people or the same ones in different bodies. What matters is that God knows. He can see your whole life, and He knows whether you’re the same person as the you in the human world or not.”

                                    Michael felt her pulling, but he was still afraid of the cliff, and the abyss beneath it. “But what if we’re different people, and when we go back we erase the other one? Is that murder?”

                                    Joanie sighed. “I can only make guesses, but if I had to answer that, I’d say that wouldn’t happen. If Omegamon sends us back and it’s only been a few seconds—tops—for our original bodies, I think we’re the same person and the same soul just with two bodies for a while. And if we never go home, then I’d say you have a soul-twin, if that’s a real thing. My point is that you can’t trick God. He knows from the very beginning how many souls that one cell is supposed to have.”

                                    It all sounded right, and it was very comforting, but Michael’s mind was still restless. “But even so, is it right to take over our original bodies and just count on God to make everything okay? What if He wants there to be two of us, with two souls? What if we’re trying to force Him to do things our way instead of His?”

                                    “‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,’ right? You’re very smart, Michael, and you don’t stop thinking even when it’s scary.” Joanie’s expression was very soft. There was a peace about her that Michael didn’t feel with himself. “Sometimes though when people think like that, they assume that just because they want something it means God doesn’t want it, and that’s not true at all. I believe God sent us here, and I believe He’s giving us a way to go home. And you really, really want to go home, don’t you? I think God wants you to go home, too.”

                                    He did. He wanted to go home so badly. It had been there in his head so long: that voice that said it was impossible, that he’d never see his mom and dad again. It was that voice that made him wake up at night short of breath and with tears rolling down his face. And it was always Joanie who was there to coax him back to sleep, just as it was Joanie who put a hand on his shoulder now that he was crying again.

                                    “I do…I wanna go home.”

                                    “Then we will. Don’t worry.”

                                    “Bu…But what if we’re not done yet? The war’s not over yet, and all the baby Vaccine still think they have to kill every last Virus, and they still won’t let Wizardmon in the library, and…”

                                    “They’ll take care of it. Garurumon and Greymon will take care of it. So will Angemon and Biyomon. They’re learning. You’ve done your part, and they want to send you home.”

                                    But Michael was still inconsolable. He knew that at this point he was just being stubborn, but he couldn’t stop.

                                    “Michael.” It was Ross. Michael had forgotten he was there. “I don’t expect you to put much stock in what I have to say about this. But it’s pretty clear to me that there’s someone very powerful—and very good—out there who’s looking out for you. Same with Tatiana. Whoever they are, they’ve always kept you safe and they’ve always put you wherever you could do the most good. If they’re showing you the way home, then they probably want you to take it, and it’s probably what you should do.”

                                    If Michael’s mind was building up an immunity to hearing this kind of encouragement from Joanie, hearing it from Ross finally broke his weakened defenses. There was one last negative thought that passed through Michael’s head that night, which was that Ross and Joanie so rarely talked about they themselves going home—it was always framed as getting the younger kids home, which was suspicious somehow. But with Joanie’s hand still on his shoulder he dismissed whatever it was he was thinking of and gave in.

                                    They were finally going home.

                                    *********

                                    At noon the following day all the members of Angemon’s army were gathered in front of Omegamon, who was now standing up. Along with them were a number of Vaccine non-combatants—mostly Koromon—a handful of Data-types—all Viximon, Baby-levels—and at Omegamon’s feet were the humans. Standing at front and center were Michael and Tatiana.

                                    Michael had his crutches at hand, but he wasn’t leaning on them. He felt nearly one hundred percent again, and even with the long night he wasn’t tired. Facing him and Tatiana were the army’s two current Adult-levels: Angemon and Unimon. In his hands Angemon held what looked like two gold coins. They were roughly carved and fairly dull, but Angemon cradled them as if they were crown jewels.

                                    “Ophanimon’s Medal is the highest honor we bestow. Tatiana, Michael, it is my privilege to present these to you in recognition of your valor in the face of mortal peril.”

                                    As they had been instructed earlier, Michael and Tatiana held out their hands, and Angemon gently placed one of the medals in each of them. Unimon bowed all the way to the ground, and there was a great round of cheers from the rest of the ’mons.

                                    “Of course,” said Angemon, “You won’t be able to take them to the Human World as gold. I may hold them for you so that they may stay intact, or you may keep them and they will disappear but remain within you forever. The choice is yours.”

                                    The younger kids probably thought that Angemon was speaking symbolically. They had only been told that they would all be waking up, but Michael knew what would actually happen to his copied body and this medal. Their matter would be turned into part of the energy that Omegamon would use to return him to his original body, and that suited Michael. He liked the idea of keeping something from this world, even if he wouldn’t be able to touch it. “I’d like to keep mine,” he said.

                                    “Me too,” said Tatiana, “Thanks!”

                                    Jamie and Rebecca moved in closer to take a look at the awards, and the other kids followed their example.

                                    “Wow! I think that’s real gold!” said Krissy.

                                    “Hey, can I touch it?” asked Steven. Tatiana and Michael allowed them to be passed around as Omegamon spoke into their heads.

                                    ‘It is almost time. Dear Humans, you must say farewell to each other before we leave. You will not be able to speak once the process begins.’

                                    Michael had never liked it when his parents just had to say goodbye to every last relative at a family party, or when they had to have a conversation with every other family they passed while they were going back to the car after church. It was a new feeling for him to want a round of goodbyes to last as long as possible.

                                    Biyomon was more than a little tearful. “Oh, I’m so proud of you! And I’m going to miss you so much.”

                                    Angemon was far more composed, but his words carried no less feeling. “We owe you a debt that cannot be repaid. I wish I had more to offer you than my thanks and one of our trinkets.” He offered his hand and Michael shook it. Michael tried to make it what his dad called a ‘real man’s handshake.’

                                    “Can you let the Wizardmon we met into the library?” Michael asked him. “That’s one thing I can think of.”

                                    Angemon rubbed his chin. He seemed a little confused. “That won’t be easy, but you have my word that I won’t stop trying until I get him permission.”

                                    Then it was time to say goodbye to the other kids. “If we ever see each other again, let’s finish that game!” said Carlos.

                                    “Yeah, we’re going to beat it so bad, you’ll see!” Nathan punched him in the arm, but not too hard. He did have crutches, after all.

                                    Michael was glad to see that the mood among the younger kids was perfectly light. Sure, they would miss Biyomon, Garurumon, and Agumon, but they weren’t worried at all about what awaited them after they left.

                                    When Michael strayed over to the teenagers, though, they seemed a little more somber, or at least a little more serious. Joanie and Ross were by themselves and whispering. Michael barely heard Joanie say, “(410) 555-1289. If you forget it, it’s in the Baltimore white pages. My last name’s Fitzpatrick and my mom and dad are Teresa and Peter.”

                                    “I’ll remember.”

                                    They hugged, and they held it for longer than Michael thought they would. He supposed one of them might be able to drive, so exchanging information made some sense. Michael’s opinion was that since the rest of them were so young and so spread out it made the most sense to just go back to normal, and eventually they’d think it was just a dream. Joanie had taken such good care of them, but their parents were the ones they really needed.

                                    While Michael was zoned out, Jacob slapped him on the back. “You really saved our asses. Good man.” Jacob said it quietly enough that the others would miss the bad word.

                                    Then Joanie and Ross came over to give their thanks and goodbyes as well. Ross gave him another man’s handshake. “You did great.”

                                    Joanie gave him a hug, as expected. “I’m going to pray for you every single day, okay?”

                                    Last of all was Tatiana. She stuck out her hand, which made him relieved. He didn’t understand what the deal with girls and hugs was. But she turned it on him, using the handshake to pull him into a half-hug. He supposed he could forgive her.

                                    “I’m gonna miss you,” she said.

                                    “I’ll miss you too.”

                                    They were ready now. Michael wished he could say goodbye to Garurumon and Greymon too, but he’d have to settle for sending them good thoughts while they were a part of Omegamon.

                                    ‘Everyone hold still. I will take care of it from here.’

                                    “Farewell,” said Angemon one last time to the whole group, as the band of Agumon and others behind him waved and cheered and yelled goodbye. Then Michael took a deep breath, and waited for the moment.

                                    He slipped the medal into his pocket, and when he looked at his hand again it was turning translucent. Everything else faded from his sight as smooth as silk, and he could no longer see the world of numbers.

                                    Everything was black, but Michael could feel that his body was moving. He could feel the breathing of the ten other kids around him, and also the steady, almost machine-like breathing of Omegamon. If there was any pain to be had here, Omegamon was shielding them from it.

                                    After what felt like a long time, Michael’s vision returned to him in blurry fragments. When he focused he could see Steven sitting on a playground swing by himself. Then he became aware of a warm glow in their presence. It was Steven, and he was passing away from them and into the other world. Now there were nine other kids breathing with him. Nobody was scared; they knew that Omegamon had sent him home safe and