Note: Again, yes, I do have kale's permission to post his stories here. That permission is documented in his author's profile. This is the final book, concluding the entire saga. And yes, it really does have an ending this time.

A reading of Books 1, 3, 5 and 6 at least, is recommended to follow the storyline.

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Once and For All -- The Takari Saga -- The Final Book

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Names of the a'ladon, pronunciations and definitions:

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Eloan -- (eh-LO-in) formal speech -- Hope, as one that aspires to reward for a virtuous life

Ailora -- (i-LOR-ah) formal speech -- Light, Sunlight

Shay -- (shA) Northern Dialect -- Squire (applied to the gentry, a noble's son)

T'Kai -- (t-KI) formal speech, affectionate -- (little) oath keeper

Delia -- (del-E-ah) common speech -- A genus of flower that blooms only in the fall

Kiara -- (kee-AR-ah) formal speech -- Choir

Cian -- (KI-an) formal speech -- A fencing saber

Jeron -- (je-RON) common speech -- Single, alone

Aine -- (awn-ye) Northern Dialect -- (dagger shaped like a) crescent moon

Moya -- (moi-ah) Northern Dialect, obsolete -- sunset

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The Time has come!

This single brief, yet thunderous announcement of apocalyptic significance rang out over the entire surface of the Earth. Throughout hundreds of countries and past thousands of miles, the call (to arms, as it were) spread in mere seconds. And though the sound was like a deafening explosion in the ears of those who took notice of it, not one single human on the entire planet heard so much as a whisper.

All over the world, things of darkness that were better left unnamed finally began to move. After decades upon decades and more of waiting, the summons that they had been awaiting had finally come. And at the call these creatures smiled to one another; dark, unpleasant smiles that would chill the blood of any who might chance to look upon them. Smiles, because they knew how truly fortunate that they were. For they had heard stories of their brethren in other worlds, in other times, who had been forced to wait millennia for that call.

Frail disguises and harmless facades melted away from the creatures, to be replaced by horrific images that most people would have said existed only in fairy tales or in bad dreams. Ghastly weapons of a dark power unknown to man were unsheathed at the call, and a thousand pairs of large, ungainly ears perked up to hear what was next.

For it was their Time that had come, and the fall of the Exemplar was at hand.

--

T.K. Takaishi walked slowly towards his locker at the end of a long and arduous school day. Very slowly, and with a purpose that was really all that kept him on his feet. He glanced once to his right, then to his left to make certain that no one else was in the general vicinity before stopping to rest against the wall and holding his hand against his chest. It hurt, and hurt badly, but he knew from experience that it would all pass... in time.Soon the flush of fever would drain from his face and the strength would return to his legs. It would pass if he would wait... if he could only wait.

And then pass it did, slowly but mercifully. The boy exhaled a long, easy breath of relief as he knelt to retrieve his discarded schoolbag, then resumed his steady pace down the hallway.

It had been two years now, almost to the day, since this had all started. Since he had ridden into battle astride Pegasusmon, fought, and been inflicted with that most grievous of injuries. Two years since he had been exalted as a celestial Paragon, and had thrown down Roan and one of the Powers from Hell. And two years since he had left all of that glory behind to return to Kari here on the mortal earth... a decision that had not been without its consequences.

After another few moments the boy reached his locker, leaning his forehead against the cool metal and working through the combination with his fingers. His body had been wounded terribly in that last battle, and when he had surrendered the holy vigor to remain on the earth those wounds had manifested themselves as the recurrent fever which he still suffered today. But thankfully the symptoms were rare, and never lasted very long.

A small envelope, white and vaguely pinkish in color fluttered down to the boy's feet as the door to his locker opened with a metallic click. The boy allowed himself a small smile, dropping his bag inside and easing the door shut before bending over to pick up the note. Opening the envelope, he was momentarily surprised to find nothing inside of it... but then the surprise vanished as the boy peered closely inside and was surrounded by the delightful scent of Kari's perfume. Of course she had been forced to hurry straight home after school, but still she had not forgotten about him.

T.K. turned and placed his back against the metal of the lockers, then slid down to a sitting position against them as he brought the envelope up to his nose and inhaled deeply. Closing his blue eyes against outside distractions, the boy sighed with ease. How incredibly lucky he was to have her...

Sickening, some of the other girls at school had fumed, noses upturned in jealousy when first they had noticed just how much the handsome young boy doted on Kari. Lucky, most of the other boys had likewise said. Outrageous, the teachers and other adults had stormed, frowning at the shameless (yet somehow charmingly innocent) affection that the two openly displayed for one another. Scandalous! They're just children!

There were others, of course, who knew better, but perhaps wisely chose not to say anything. Yolei and Davis, for two, who more wisely were able to restrain themselves and keep their hands off of one another at least until the school day was finished. Ken too, though he had seemed distant and quite uninterested in all things romantic for some time. And T.K.'s mother Nancy, who in addition to her freelance writing had become an occasional substitute teacher there.

These others were all well aware that, though children the pair may still have been, there were perhaps none living today who loved so deeply.

The boy placed the envelope to his nose one last time and inhaled deeply, then folded the object and placed it in his rear pocket. Being Friday, he had a better reason than ever to get home as quickly as possibly. Friday was the night when he went to the Kamiya's for dinner.

T.K. eased to his feet, then took a few long, purposeful strides down the hallway. He always felt better with her thoughtfulness to remind him what he'd come back for. But then, suddenly, his smile began to vanish as his steps shortened. In another moment, both smile and steps had stopped altogether as the boy pulled up short. He gave a brief, troubled glance over his left shoulder, back to the long corridor beyond his locker. For a moment, he had been certain...

He shook his head quickly to clear it. What was it about the last couple of days that had made him so exceedingly jumpy? For a few minutes, perhaps even just seconds, every day for the last week he had felt as if there were a thousand little pairs of eyes on his back and a thousand little fingers tickling at him where he could not scratch. But these periods of skittishness were always so brief and he so concentrated on other factors that they had (at first) been easy to ignore.

T.K. took another step forward, less quickly than before. Now that he thought honestly on it, the dream had been increasing in frequency as well. That one horrid nightmare that had lingered at his side for the few weeks following Iwaki, the one he could never put entirely out of his mind no matter how much he tried, had returned. It had seemed to be lurking at his bedside for each of the past few nights, waiting for him to close his eyes so that it could strike against him and be the other side's only lasting retribution for what he had done two years ago in that great battle.

He frowned. He had never told Kari what he had seen that final day, nor had he told any of the others. After all, what would be the point? Despite his certainty at the time that the demon that he'd faced on that last day posed a real threat to the girl, he had been convinced that the danger had passed with Roan and the Crystalline Dragon of Hatred. Oh, for the few weeks, perhaps months after that day he had stayed even closer to Kari than usual, watching for anyone or anything that might even suggest that the Beast inhabiting the last Fiend would try to make good on his threat. And when those months, and more, and even more had passed without any indication that something might happen, he finally was able to shuffle it off to the back of his mind.

Until this very week, of course. During the last week, something had changed. Was it just a nightmare? Or was it something more sinister? A threat, perhaps, or even a warning, depending on what it was that was forcing him to remember. With his prayers about it having gone unanswered, he had naturally assumed that there was no real threat to the girl. Surely if there had been something wrong there would have been some divine response... right?

T.K. was beginning to feel exceedingly uncomfortable at the thought. He would have preferred to pass it off as just some vague paranoia, but as he thought on it now he realized that it would be both dangerous and irresponsible for him to continue to do so. That was a luxury that other people could afford... he could not. For he knew, without question, that the End Times had not yet come and therefore that demonkind was still abroad in the mortal world. He also knew that the darkness had a particular grudge against him, even beyond that which they had against all other humans. And finally, he was aware that most of those powers would be hesitant to strike against him directly. He, perhaps alone, was proof against their most vile abilities.

But Kari also had a gift, if one more vague and less tapped than his own. And Powers of darkness had, in the past, often sought the girl to take her power and enhance their own. Was that not what the Master, the one who had made the threat in the first place, had hinted at? To take Kari and make her his 'bride'? And while the boy didn't know exactly what that foretold, the very notion of it threatened to make him almost physically ill.

T.K. suddenly closed his eyes, needing reassurance against the fear. He reached beneath his shirt for the dormant Crest of Hope and held it tightly against his heart. "Father..." he murmured, quietly and under his breath. "Please, don't let that happen. Tell me to fight for her, or to flee with her. I will live or die or fall to my knees to save her from anything like that."

"Will you now?"

The boy's nerves, already taut to the breaking point, very nearly snapped at the unexpected sound of another voice. At his side, his fists were clenched in readiness; untapped adrenalin sped freely through his veins. "Who said that?" he demanded, the tenor of his voice echoing throughout the clearly empty hallway.

For a long time there was no answer. A still, almost dead silence surrounded him, engulfing him in its smothering embrace. He was alarmed, of course, but not frightened. The powers of Darkness, if planning on a confrontation, would not have announced themselves when an ambush would have sufficed. In addition, the Crest of Hope was still resting quietly... it would have been up and to attention instantly if the boy had been in any imminent danger. T.K. scowled. "Show yourself!" he demanded, his eyes slowly scanning every inch that the hallway spanned.

There was a slow chuckle in response. "Will you swear to fall to your knees to save the girl Hikari from what had been fated to happen?"

Now that question was a trap if ever he had heard one. And as he had stood on his feet in the presence of both angels and demons, he knew well their mannerisms and thus had little question about which the grating, incorporeal voice in his ears belonged to. "I doubt that Kari's soul is yours to negotiate for," the boy called out in a challenge.

At the instant of his reply... it was almost as if all of the liveliness slowly but steadily began draining out of T.K.'s world. Like a recorder whose batteries have lost their life or the last few, flickering gasps of a dying lamp, the area surrounding the vigilant boy seemed to bleed to death in front of his eyes. The bright colors of the school gradually oozed away; the noises in his ears slowed and quieted until they were nothing more than a whisper. And then in the midst of the awful, gray lifelessness that was left after the hemorrhaging was finally completed, a single dark figure gated into the boy's world.

This demon came into existence as a tall, willowy, bipedal presence. Disturbingly, T.K. found as he looked at it from every angle that it had neither hair, nor eyes, nor even places where these features ought to have been. The creature's smooth, ebony skin was uniform... featureless... all the way around both its face and its body.

The two stood silently in the gray stillness for a few moments afterwards, perhaps sizing one another up. The Crest of Hope murmured a sleepy acknowledgement of its awareness in T.K.'s ear, but didn't seem in the least alarmed or worried about the demon's presence. Though it might have endangered any other mortal on the planet, it was not a Power. There was no threat to T.K. here.

T.K.'s scowl deepened, having long hoped that the creatures would never trouble him again. "What do you want now?"

From the other came a sound not unlike the hiss of steam when it is born of water poured upon a red-hot pan... it might have been a sigh. Then, a long moment afterwards, it spoke again. "Why must the Exemplar always be so... confrontational?" it hissed, its discordant voice grating on the boy's ears like fingernails upon a chalkboard. "My coming here was facilitated solely by your wish... that to save the girl Hikari from her fate."

T.K.'s brow furrowed into a frown, his nerves on edge and his fingers itching for the Crest of Hope to send it scurrying back to the shadows. "You dare eavesdrop on my prayers?"

The other gave another loud, incoherent hiss in response. "Ahh... eavesdrop? Eavesdrop... eavesdrop..." The boy got the distinct impression that the creature was preoccupied with the word. " ...If only it were so necessary. Do even you, who are an Exemplar, not know that the prayers of the righteous are like the agonizing thundering of drums in our ears, threatening to beat from our heads what little sanity our Master allows us? And that particular one, if in vain, has been fervently spoken enough times in the past years to cause us all great grief."

... in vain. It was the only part of what the other had said that the boy had really heard. His eyes were dark upon the creature. "If that's meant to be a threat--"

He was interrupted by yet another hiss. "A threat?" the beast echoed vehemently. Then, a bit less forcefully, "A threat... threat... threat..." After another momentary pause to consider this choice of words, the creature continued. "What, Exemplar? Will even you not believe what your own soul speaks to you if it is not to your liking? That the girl's flesh and afterwards even her immortal spirit will soon become the fodder upon which my Brother will gorge himself?"

The boy's eyes, dark at the creature's words, now flashed forth as if endowed with blue lightning. "Stop it," he warned, his voice low and somewhat unsteady.

"That he will ravish her countless times, to the delight of her body and the eternal despair of her soul before he feasts?"

"Stop it!" T.K. repeated, his quavering voice going up several octaves.

"That he will suck from her everything that makes you humans better than us? That he will make her one of us... for all eternity?"

"Stop!" the boy raged, tears beginning to pool in his eyes as he leapt forward and struck the ebony flesh of the demon's cheek. An low, deafening sound like the clap of thunder filled the room as the Crest of Hope finally awakened, startled, and filled the length of T.K.'s arm with its holy might. The resulting blow upon its face hurled the creature's corrupt body across the room to land in a crumpled heap at the foot of a nearby door.

And then the golden, holy fire of the Crest of Hope began its triumphant dance about the fingertips of the boy; unleashed once again after having been dormant for so long. His soul had been forced to suffer in silence as the nightmares had come upon him in the dark. Now, at last, he could act against them.

The dark creature gave a single, silent gasp, rolling to its knees in a quivering distress. Oh... Master...

He had been prepared for greatness, of course, as he knew this human child to be Exemplar... what the angels knew as a Paragon. But this... this was more than he had imagined even in his wildest hopes and greatest fears. This one, riled enough, could actually reach forth and touch the plane of shadows with his power. It both astonished and frightened the creature, while at the same time giving him hope that this could actually work. But he had to step cautiously, lest he fall victim to that power before--

"Why-- ?" the creature begged, making his way to a single knee before allowing a pitiful whimper to escape his lips. "Why unleash your anger upon me, Exemplar? It is not I who have such plans for the girl. I have said nothing to you that your own soul has not warned you of countless times since you have scourged my Brother, have I? Yet you attack me! Why? Why would you blame a herald who comes before you in peace?"

This was a risk, and a life-imperiling risk at that, but one that had to be taken. This boy was, if a uniquely powerful Exemplar, also a young one... as evidenced by the fact that he had already been ensnared by mortal love. And that was the key. The love. Despite having the great wisdom of the Exemplar (in spite of what the humans believed, age and wisdom did not necessarily go hand in hand) the demon had to trust that the boy could be tricked, if things were done the right way. Corrupting mortal souls was a specialty of his, but this time was different. Never before had the stakes been so high... and never the price for failure so deadly.

T.K. seemed to go over the creature's mournful accusation in his mind a few times as the demon watched. Then the creature gave a mental nod of satisfaction as the boy's hand dropped to his side, the golden fire slowly dissipating from his fingers. A weakness. A weakness that opened a crack in the boy's holy facade wide enough for the creature to peer into. Trust for his Master. The child, while he was perfectly content to trust the Creator with everything that he was, even in the face of certain death, still wavered when it came to trusting Him with the girl's fate.

The human boy looked almost abashed at his outburst of rage towards the demon. "Leave me," he said, turning his back on it. "This is not the time to fight, nor will you tempt me into giving you whatever it is that you want to leave Kari alone. When the day arrives that you, or another, comes for her, I will be with her then and that will be the time to fight."

The creature had (thankfully for it) no smile to give itself away. "But you cannot be with her always, can you child?" The demon gave a short pause to allow this truth to seep into the boy's thinking. Then, "For of course even now you are not with her. I have already said that I have no interest in the girl. What harm could there be then in simply listening to my words?"

Anxiousness for Kari began to slowly impede upon T.K.'s judgment. The visions of what the other creature had promised for her were already much too vivid in his head, and that, coupled with this creature's obvious point that even he could not always be with her, was beginning to make his palms start to sweat and his mouth begin to dry. Was there any real harm in listening...?

"You don't care about Kari. Or about me," the boy managed to struggle out in response.

"Of course not," the other replied, the repressed sneer in his voice emphasizing his distaste at the idea. "But the enemy of my enemy is my friend, or so your people say."

T.K.'s back was still to the beast. "Stop talking at me with human adages. Say whatever it is that you have to say and then leave, because while you've made me eager enough to get to Kari's side, I won't leave you around to haunt this place. Speak now and return to the shadows as quickly, before I cast you out."

Now the demon became a bit less sure of himself. He had hoped, and been almost certain that the boy had not recognized him as a Lesser demon, and thus subject to being turned away by the simple words of the righteous. Greater demons, Powers, were made of sterner stuff, while he--

"It is only this," the creature hissed. "That both you and I know that, while your Enemy, my Brother, lives, that he is a constant threat to that which we both hold most dear. For you it is the girl Hikari. For me, it is my very existence. Long has he seen me as a threat to his place at the right hand of our Master. And his fears are not misplaced, for if it were not for his strength I would long ago have seen him dead and myself installed in his position. Until now he had not seen fit to take action against me, because he knows that there are many even among his own followers who would choose my side if he should challenge me directly. But now he need wait no longer. For finally he has been unleashed to claim his bride and to take her power to make himself nigh on invincible."

The demon was focused now, and railed against T.K.. "He will wed her, Exemplar... against her will of course. But then he will have validation enough as he impregnates her with his essence. From her mortal womb will his new body be born, and it will suckle at her mortal spirit until there is nothing left. And that, boy... that is how he will be magnified as the Second Power of Darkness. Abilities beyond those common to my kind, and one that even the angels themselves might shy from. You believe this girl will suffer? Your race will suffer, human! Will the sacrifice of the last living Exemplar, the conditions that our Master has set down for him to wed have been fulfilled, and now he will act."

"But our Master could never have foreseen what happened to you. Perhaps even He never imagined that, after all this time, another of you would have willingly be born again. That one of you would freely delay his sojourn in the halls of paradise and place himself back in this filth of a world that you mortals were given to reside in. The last of your brethren fell one of your weeks ago, and Merodach is not one to delay."

A week... "The dreams," T.K. said simply.

The other gave a single nod of its ebony, featureless head at the other's tone. "Then you have felt his encroach upon your world. It is then perhaps worse than I had thought, his plans further along."

T.K. was now sweating profusely, and he consciously moved to fight down the fever that threatened him again. It was bad enough to have his fears about Kari confirmed. It was worse to realize that he should have been aware of the threat all along, and to know that the time for her to be taken was this close at hand. And in less than the time that it took for one bead of sweat to fall and another to begin, his decision was made. "What do you want me to do?"

Don't sigh in relief, the creature chastised himself. Not yet, and not where he can hear...

"I would think that must be obvious," the demon said. "I cannot fight my Brother, else I would have taken his place and saved my own life long ago. But you, holy Exemplar, can. I do not know if even you are strong enough to topple him, but I do know that you are the only creature alive today who can, and would care to, try."

T.K. looked grim, remembering what had happened the last time that he had tried his strength against the Beast of which they spoke. He had not lasted a minute in that fight...

But the boy had no time to be indecisive. He had to act, and act soon, he was certain. His prayers had gone unanswered, and there was no longer any doubt in his mind that Kari's safety was at stake. What this demon proposed in way of alliance seemed innocent enough (if such a term could truly be applied to one of that race), but first he had to be certain that this was not simply a ploy crafted by it to place the girl in a greater danger.

Upon T.K.'s chest was the silver chain which held the smooth talisman emblazoned with the sigil of Hope, and the boy was solemn as he unlocked the clasp behind his neck. The metal Crest gave a brief clink as it met with the silvery ring that dangled from the same chain, then slid willingly into the boy's hand. Stepping forward, he thrust it at the dark figure in front of him. "You know what this is?" he asked the other.

The demon recoiled and answered with a single, hesitant nod, his blood running even more cold than usual.

"Take it," the boy ordered.

Now the other's trembling became discernable, the faint odor of rotting eggs rising in response to his fear. For a moment it seemed as if he would comply, slowly reaching his clawed hand forward before seeming to change his mind and snatching it violently back. "I... I cannot."

"Take it! Or I leave you to your fate and will find a way to guard Kari on my own." And then T.K. displayed to the creature the object in his other hand; the burnished and flawless ring. "You know what this means to humans, don't you, demon? I have a choice. I can be with Kari always if I give this to her. It will destroy a hundred other relationships that we both have if I ask her to wed when we are but fifteen, and will certainly cause a thousand problems beyond even that. But if it comes down to trusting you or causing us both all those troubles to save her, I'll choose the troubles."

"She will say yes. Even on those days when I am most uncertain of myself and my worthiness of her, even then I know that. And as her husband, I can be with her always to keep the likes of you away." The boy's voice was rising steadily now, his fear for Kari and his anger at the entire situation raising his ire when little else could. "But if you take the Crest, and swear that you'll deal honestly with me, then I'll foreswear all of those troubles and wait for the proper time to propose to her." He paused, taking several deep breaths to calm himself. It was no bluff. He had, over the past two years, thought the situation over and concluded that now was not the time. But if that was what it took...

The boy took one final, deep breath, composing himself. He blinked his blue eyes open, eyes now filled to the brim with tears at the seeming unfairness of the situation. He sighed. "I promise that it will not hurt you unless you try to lie to me."

The demon, though it had occasionally felt fear in its lifetime, had never known such terror as it did now. For a moment, it seriously considered giving up this entire enterprise and searching for another way to fulfill his goals. The boy might well have handed a fellow human a live stick of dynamite and asked them to swear on that.

The creature looked at the glowing Crest of Hope in the boy's hand. And while it looked innocuous enough at the moment, there was no question in the demon's mind that the object would willingly reduce his physical body to ash if given the chance. If the boy would at least tolerate his existence enough to listen to what he had planned, Michael's great Sword of Ages almost certainly would not.

How much control does he have over it? the Beast wondered. Can he truly do as he claims? Does it obey him, or will it destroy me despite his promise? And moreover, would he himself be able to stretch the truth enough to answer whatever the boy should ask of him 'honestly' if he did, in fact, control it?

The odor of rotting eggs was almost overpowering now. It was the stink of his fear, though in humans it would have been passed off as flatulence. But then he surrendered an audible exhaling of his sigh once again. The boy was right. The scales were tipped in the Exemplar's favor, and any other chance to save his own life was... nebulous. He had known that he would have to take some chances to succeed in what he planned. He had just not been prepared for this big of a risk. At least, not this early.

The creature's fingers closed around the Golden relic resting in the boy's hand, briefly brushing against the other's warm flesh as he did so. For a moment... and just for a moment, his instincts got the better of him and his stomach started to growl in hunger, longing to try to take the boy's soul and feast upon it.

Bah! And see him grind me to dust the moment that I try...

The demon was trembling violently as the golden Crest of Heroes lay in his hand, feeling cold and looking almost inert. But the nervousness, from his point of view at least, was quite understandable. For within that tiny talisman, he knew that the angels had set a spark by which the righteous could call upon a bare fragment of the power of God. In the hands of a pagan it would be useless; in the hands of a believer it would have the power to cause miracles. In the hands of the Exemplar... it might well reshape the world at his will.

But to him, the power within the Crest was death. Should it choose it could easily blast him back into the nothingness from which he had come. A Power like Merodach might have the ability to survive one such explosive rush if given time to prepare, but he most certainly did not.

The silence surrounding the pair was deafening as the demon awaited his death in a wash of Golden fire and the boy Paragon thought of the fairest way to establish if the demon truly meant no harm to either him or Kari... well, mainly Kari. And then, after what seemed like an eternity to the creature, the child spoke. "Do you swear that it is the one that you call Brother who is threatening Kari's life?"

A good, easy start. "Yes. I swear."

"And that you will do neither Kari or I any harm?"

The creature would have bitten a lip if it had had one, his mind working feverishly. After a moment, he answered, "That I cannot swear to. For there certainly will come a time, should we both live to see it, where we will be on opposite sides of the Great Battle. In that instance, I would be obliged to try to kill you both."

The boy frowned. "Until we see that your Brother is no longer a threat to either of you, then."

This was going better than the demon had hoped for. The boy clearly had a single train of thought at the moment, one that made it easier for the creature to steer his questions away from a dangerous area. "To that I shall swear." And still the golden Crest remained inert, for evidently the boy had willed it to strike only if he should blatantly speak a lie.

In at least one area, the demon was utterly correct. Since the creature had appeared, not a thought had occurred to T.K. that did not, in one way or another, focus on the little brown-haired girl who was his most beloved. He would do anything... anything for her. And if that meant making a deal with this devil while his spirit screamed out against it... then so be it. While his immortal soul may have been Paragon, his heart and his mind were still very mortal and so were quite swayed by his overpowering, compulsive love for Kari.

"And swear that you will do whatever you can to help me to stop your Brother."

"I will. I swear. Though I fear that will be little enough. If I had strength enough to fight him, I would not be forced to deal with you. Any help that I can give will be... limited. But I will take you to where he is, and do whatever I can to ensure that you come to him safely. After all... my very existence depends upon you."

T.K. studied the creature carefully before nodding glumly and taking the Crest back from it, the thought of alliance galling to him. In one hand he held the life of a devil; in the other hand, the life of his own, mortal angel. He could only pray, and pray fervently, that what he was doing was correct.

--

It was a cold, wet, breezy day in the world of the a'ladon, far away from where T.K. struggled with the knowledge that he was willingly dealing with one of the fallen angels. A very long way away, but there was one in that world who suddenly felt, at the moment of the boy's anguished decision, that something very wrong had happened to someone that he cared deeply for.

The slender, squirrel-like creature, perhaps a bit less than four feet in height, quite suddenly stopped what he had been doing. Between plucking one chord of his harp and on the way to the next his tiny claws stopped their lively dance across the strings of the instrument as the blue eyes of the child gazed on something very distant, something far off on the horizon.

What had he been singing about? He paused... oh, yes. His father's friend, the Lord Takeru. The strange, otherworldly creature that many generations of a'ladon (as well as some who still lived today) believed was some sort of deity. The creature who had saved his people from a horrible evil at least once (twice, if the legends were to be believed), and the one who had brought his own father's body back from the near-apocalyptic battle in which the two of them had entombed the Greater demon, Da'saan.

He knew this part of the tales to be true, of course, for his mother had told him of that last, heroic struggle. His father, too, had at times appeared to him in visions to tell of the other's valor. More often, T'Kai would speak of matters of virtue which he would see his son adopt, but the boy's favorite times were in those dreams where his father would place those virtues in the context of his great friend.

"Uhm... hello?" the boy heard a sharp voice in his ear, and a moment later a paw (which very much resembled his own) appeared in front of his blue eyes and started to wave frantically.

He tried to ignore it, getting the feeling that there was something important to be learned here, but...

"Helloooooo! Eloan!" After a quick (though loud) snapping of fingers... "Eloan! Hoi, Eloan! Hello big brother!"

The boy shook his head to clear it, then blinked his eyes a few times to focus on the girl standing in front of him. "Ailora," he groused at his twin sister, his brow furrowing in a reproachful, disapproving manner. "Didn't mom tell you not to interrupt when the second sight comes to me? It might be something important!"

The girl flashed her charming smile at her brother. That very charming smile, and even though he was her brother and had probably seen it every day since she had learned to use it, it still never failed to throw even him off guard. The boy was flustered as she replied, "Listen Eloan, I don't care if you doze off or start to lose it or whatever you call it most of the time, but you were just getting to the good part! Just get through the part about Lord Takeru and then you can go back to seeing whatever you want. If you think it'll help, I can fetch you some spoiled mushrooms to get your hallucinations started again."

"About the Lord Takeru and Lady Hikari?" the elder of the two (by about fifteen minutes) prompted slyly, knowing what the girl's reaction would be.

Ailora rolled her bluish-green eyes in irritation at her brother. "Whatever. Until you can find a way to write a song that doesn't mention her then it'll have to do."

Eloan grinned, winking once at the girl. "You wouldn't even have a chance, you know. Everything that we know about them, even mom, says that he was completely in love with her. Anyway, you'd be just a kid to him... and a different species to boot."

This was a frequent argument for the pair, and something easy for Eloan to fall back on whenever he wanted to get a rise from his sister... probably because both of them knew that he was almost certainly right (though she would never admit it). But despite that fact, there was very little doubt that Ailora still remained quite in love with her idea of the Lord Takeru, as she had since a very young age.

"You don't know that, 'loan," the other said, rather primly. "The last time that they were here mom said that that they'd only gotten two years older since they'd come the first time, even though it'd been hundreds of years for us." Eloan bit his lip and rolled his eyes, though his sister was now almost certainly too wrapped up in her musings to see. Great. She was going to start talking about the 'first time' again. "So if he comes back again and is just another two years older... it'd be just perfect," she finished with a wistful sigh.

It was at that very moment that the boy's sharp ears perked up, the faint sound of a chime merrily ringing in the distance having been brought to him on the gentle breeze. Saved by the bell...

"Ailora, c'mon, it's time to go," he said quickly, interrupting the gushing adoration that was about to spill from his sister's mouth before she could get started. "Mom's ringing the chimes. It's time to get back."

The younger girl opened her mouth to retort, then seemed to think about what she was going to say and stopped. A sly, rather impish smile slowly appeared on her lips. She had to trust her brother about the bell being rung (his own ears being quite a bit sharper than hers... or really anyone's), but that didn't mean that she couldn't get back at him for interrupting her when talking about her favorite subject. After a moment in which she gave the boy time to think about what was going to happen, the mischievous girl dropped down to all fours. "Race ya," she said with a wink, and then with a bounding liveliness was off before her brother could utter a single word in response.

The boy's blue eyes widened. "Ailora! No, Ailora, stop! You know that mom says that we're supposed to... stay... together..." his shout trailed off. As quickly as she had darted away, there had been almost no chance of her hearing his call. Or heeding it if she had. The boy scowled, hurriedly place his harp over his shoulder and starting off at a quick trot. For of course, he could not realistically go on all fours as his sister had with the instrument with him, and had never really learned to do so anyway. It was just one of the (admittedly many) advantages that the naturally athletic girl held on him.

"Takeru save me from rainy days, sour notes, and little sisters who're far too fast for their own good," the boy murmured darkly, trying as he ran to recapture the vision that he had lost when Ailora had interrupted him. It'd had something to do with the Lord Takeru, of that he was certain. But this time, there was an odd sort of heaviness, of resignation, that he had started to feel at the emergence of the image.

Despite what his sister felt, and also that fact that he swore by him, Eloan did not consider Takeru a god. His parents had been quite clear on that fact, though they remained a bit nebulous about what exactly they did believe him to be. It had confused both he and his sister quite a bit when they were younger, but Kiara had told them that they both had to make up their own minds about just what he was as they grew older.

Ailora had been quite clear in her decision: Takeru was a god of some sort, if a minor one (and this last part solely to appease their parents). What she felt for him was more than admiration... was more than awe. She was completely and totally enthralled with everything about him, and as such had gathered a veritable library in her room dedicated to the creature. In her mind she had an encyclopedia of quotes attributed to him, and had one ready at seemingly any situation. She strived to live as the a'ladon assumed that he did, and those who did not attempt to do so as well she looked down upon.

The boy shifted the harp to his other shoulder, the thin string having started to cut into his flesh on this side. And what did he think...?

That was hard to say... or rather, hard to say for certain. It was true that Takeru had stood in battle against the demon Da'saan, but then, so had his own father. There were also the ancient stories about Takeru and Hikari coming to help King Mylam when the world had been younger, but as few written records remained from that time most of what had happened back then existed as fables or as songs. Not what the boy (even though he himself was slowly becoming a fine minstrel) considered terribly reliable information.

Supernatural being? Demigod? Angel? None of these words really seemed to fit what Eloan had decided, but they were the closest that he could come.

It was then that a branch of a nearby tree snagged the boy's cloak, the loud sound of the cloth ripping apart pulling him from his reverie as his momentum threw him to the ground. Eloan hit heavily, the breath exploding from his lungs as his harp tumbled from his shoulder and rolled a goodly distance away.

The boy kneeled over for a moment, unlocking the clasp around his neck and allowing the tree branch to keep its prize for the moment. With his arms holding his stomach, he sat quietly for a few moments to try to catch his breath.

It was then that he heard a set of voices brushing through the trees at his back, and the wind (now blowing from the opposite direction) brought to him a rather foul stench which alarmed the boy. Saurians? his mind instantly recognized, the feeling of instinctive danger which accompanied the thought making his eyes start to scan the nearby area for a place to hide.

Eloan scanned both the thick underbrush of the forest as well as the treetops. Up, or down? he wondered as the noises and smells rambled closer and closer to his position. The creatures were much less likely to find him at the top of the trees, of course, but he'd have a much better chance to escape if he were found while in the brush.

Running out of time and on impulse, he scrambled quickly up the tree. Unfortunately the tree that he chose was not in the best of health, and a shower of bark tumbled from the trunk as he pulled himself up and through the thick branches. Just in the nick of time, Eloan remembered his cloak still dangling from the branch nearest the ground and nipped back down to pull it back into the foliage of the branches.

And then not one, but two Saurians came trotting into the clearing. But these were not the tall, bipedal creatures that the boy had seen on occasion after the king had made his proclamation that the race was to be allowed at least nominal access to their nation. 'After all,' his highness had been heard to say in his speech, 'are we all not brothers? In spirit if not in flesh?' And though Eloan couldn't exactly fault such seemingly beatific line of thinking... there was still something about it that didn't sit right with him. Through all their mutual history, the lizard-people had proven themselves to be both evil and untrustworthy. It just seemed to the boy to be a bit... unwise to have confidence in them now.

But these that he saw now were hardly of that race at all. These were the large, lumbering creature who still walked on all fours instead of upright and were frequently used as mounts by many of their brethren. Except that, atop this pair sat not more Saurians, but a'ladon.

The two were donned in immaculate dress, identical velvety black cloaks whipping about their shoulders with the breeze and even boots of a sort covering their feet. The boy was a bit surprised at this last fact. Very few a'ladon, outside of the very rich, wore any type of footwear. It was both expensive to find and (in the opinion of most) quite unpractical to wear.

The pair had dark brown, almost black fur that matched very neatly with the color of their boots and gloves. This also caused the boy to frown, most of the inhabitants of this part of the nation being a natural reddish hue. From the far north, the boy said silently to himself. Part of the nobility?

One of the pair, the taller of the two, looked about the area beneath which the boy sat and started to sniff at the air. Fortunately he was a bit upwind, and so did not detect the boy's scent... assuming he would have been able to in the first place. Frowning a bit, he leaned in close to his counterpart. "I don't like this, Kedar. I heard something. I know it."

The other, Kedar, pulled hard on the reins of his Saurian mount as he sat to keep it from wandering. "Of course you did. You heard this blasted wind rustling through the damned trees. How do these Southerners live like this? I'm freezing and there's no civilization around for leagues."

The other stopped his sniffing and turned to his partner with a sneer on his lips. "Stop being a child, Kedar. Are you a soldier or a babe with all of the whimpering that I've had to put up with during the last week? I'm no happier about it than you are, but if the king says to march, we march. If he says to fight, we fight."

"If he suddenly decides we're all really lemmings, we toss ourselves into the ocean," the other murmured under his breath.

"What?"

"Nothing, nothing," the other returned, this time more loudly. "I'm just a little... nervous, you know? Have you seen him? He looks like a man possessed lately. And I don't care what he or Sarge or even you say, nothing good can come from him going into that mountain."

At this Eloan's ears perked up and he crept a bit closer to the pair, gliding silently among the branches of the tree. Mountain? Surely they didn't mean that King Jeron himself had come all the way to the deep south and had gone into Cypress. Even if it were not expressly forbidden by the laws that the king himself had created, the soldier named Kedar surely was right. Nothing good could come of him going in there.

The first soldier shrugged, giving a vague signal of some sort to his companion. "Sure there can. Some sort of holy pilgrimage, if you believe Sarge. After all, it was the victory in the battle there that made him king in the first place. T'Kai was his follower, and he rode the defeat of that demon all the way to the crown."

But then, with almost lightning-fast reflexes the soldier whipped out his long weapon and sliced upwards into the branches of the tree, missing Eloan's arm by scant inches but succeeding in severing the branch on which the boy sat. With the crackling and breaking of many smaller twigs and a sharp cry, the young a'ladon plummeted from the tree to land on the rocky soil at the feet of the soldier's mount.

"Well, well now, what have we here?" the soldier said, pulling himself up to his full height and looking down at Eloan as the boy tried to recapture the breath that the fall had knocked from his lungs. Noticing that his partner looked just as surprised as the child at his feet, the taller a'ladon shook his head disdainfully. "Your senses are growing dull, Kedar. You'd have to be as deaf as a post not to hear all that rustling he was making up there." And then he turned back to Eloan. "And the next time you want to eavesdrop, boy, best be certain that you don't leave your toys where they can be found." And he nodded at Eloan's fallen harp, resting at the base of the tree.

Eloan allowed himself a mental profanity for not thinking of the instrument as well as not being as nimble as his sister. But he gave no indication to the others of blaming himself and struggled to a knee as he caught his breath. "You... you're trespassing..."

The two atop the Saurians seemed to think this over for a bit, then burst out laughing. "We? We, trespassing, child? We are soldiers in the service of your king Jeron, as surely you know if you could hear anything from up there! There is nowhere in his realm where passage is forbidden to us!"

Eloan gave another cough, his ire starting to rise to the surface. Not for being caught (that was mostly his own fault) but being talked to as such by soldiers of a regime of which he quite honestly did not approve. This valley, given to his mother in honor of his father's sacrifice, had become a virtual orphanage for hundreds of a'ladon children whose parents had seemingly vanished into thin air. The boy had no proof, of course, but he had always felt that the government, if not directly involved, was certainly doing nothing to stop the disappearances.

"This land belongs to my mother, and unless he has overturned his own laws even the king must be granted permission to pass into the Valley of Ash and Tears!"

The look in the first soldier's eyes became almost unreadable as he looked closely at the boy, then to his harp, and then back again. "You are the son of T'Kai? Eloan?"

The boy's brow remained furrowed in anger, but he did manage to nod once. "It little befits one of your heritage and station to be spying, Eloan," the older creature chided. "But as it happens, the king is at this moment on his way to see your mother to ask her permission to cross the valley and into Cypress. Despite what the people may think these days, he has not forgotten his laws and will honor them."

This answer appeared to placate the boy, if just a bit. "Come," said the first soldier, extending a paw to the boy. "Ride with me, and we will take you back to your mother to prove what we say is true." With a quick glance at the rapidly setting sun against the horizon, he nodded. "It would be best to get you back to her before the sun sets anyway. I've heard tell that spirits haunt this land after dark."

"The spirits won't hurt me," the boy murmured defiantly, but nevertheless he did take the gloved hand that was offered him after returning to fetch the harp that had given him away moments ago. Sitting on the back of the smelly, scaly creature was not exactly what he'd call an enjoyable ride, but the solider was right. It really was unsafe for him to be away from home after dark.

Of course, as he'd said before, he wasn't concerned about the spirits. But if he was still afield after sunset, he would have to be concerned about his mother, a switch, and the banshee-like fury that she would pour out upon his backside...

--

Pegasusmon swooped low over the rooftop of the apartment complex where Kari and her family lived, T.K. holding tightly to the stallion's golden armor. The fierce wind that had been blowing earlier in the day had faded with the coming of nightfall, seemingly in deference to the anguish that the boy felt at his decision. Pegasusmon was also silent, already having tried (and failed) to dissuade the boy from his chosen course of action.

"Right here, Pegasusmon," the boy murmured into his partner's ear as they drifted silently by the balcony which led to the girl's room.

The other nodded, slowing as much as possible while remaining airborne to allow the boy to leap from his back onto the parapet. Nodding in satisfaction as the other landed safely, the stallion gave a quick, upwards glance with his eyes to remind T.K. where he would be when it came time for the two of them to leave. The boy, likewise, answered with a silent glance of his own. After so many years of working side by side, words had become relatively unnecessary between the pair.

T.K. crept towards the girl's sliding door, feeling almost like a criminal as he stayed in the shadows and eased open the door. The sentiment offended him greatly, almost as much as Patamon's suggestion that he was a coward for doing it like this, but his mind had been made up. He had sworn before that he would never again leave Kari without saying goodbye, but this was something that he could not say to her face. Not when she was awake, anyway.

And so he had been forced to play it cool throughout dinner. And to his credit, not once did he crack when Mrs. Kamiya, then Gatomon, then finally even Kari herself had asked him what was wrong. If anything, he was somewhat disappointed in himself. He'd thought that he had put on a good enough act to fool at least one of them.

Am I really a coward for doing it like this? the boy wondered, the words stinging a bit more each time he heard Patamon's piping voice echo them in his brain. But no. Just what was he supposed to say to her to explain his leaving? 'Kari, I'm going off with a demon to have a battle to the death with a bigger demon because in a few days he's planning to rape you and kill you?'

Boy, wouldn't that go over well.

"Sure," the boy murmured under his breath as he eased open the door. "'Tell her the truth', he says. 'She'll understand that you're doing what you think is best', he says. 'It might be easier than you think'."

Either Patamon had suddenly and inexplicably turned into the world's worst liar or he really didn't know Kari. It had only been when the boy had asked him how Gatomon would feel if he had been planning to do something similar that the little orange mammal had finally shut up about it. Exactly, he had told his partner. And I wouldn't like having my eyes clawed out any more than you would.

T.K. stepped silently inside the sliding glass door, removing the little white note from his pocket as he moved. Patamon hadn't seemed to understand just why T.K. had to sneak into the girl's bedroom just to deliver a letter that could just as easily be given to someone else to deliver once he had gone. But this... this was more than just about delivering a note to explain why he was doing what he was doing. In addition... he had to say goodbye. He didn't really know why any more than Patamon did, except to say that he had promised.

The light from the gibbous moon filtering through the glass provided the only illumination in the room, and T.K. stepped lightly to avoid waking either the sleeping girl or the rest of the household. Gatomon in particular would be quite a problem if she thought him an intruder and decided to act on that notion. Fortunately the feline digimon had taken to sleeping by the front door instead of in Kari's room during the past year. Otherwise, this might be nearly impossible.

And then, disaster nearly struck. As it sat resting upon Kari's dresser, the seemingly lifeless Crest of Light suddenly flared into radiant existence as it felt the approach of its other half, T.K.'s Crest of Hope. As joyful in greeting the pair as its owner would have been if she had been awake, the little talisman began to emit a pulsating, almost musical series of lights that would have captivated the boy with their brilliance if he was not careful.

But almost immediately and before the Light of All Colors could awaken the girl, T.K.'s Crest of Hope also sprang to life with its golden vigor. At the boundary where the two lights met the pinkish spark of Faith was once again revealed to the boy, if only for a moment as his own Crest did its best to calm its partner into a less enthusiastic greeting. T.K., so closely bound with the holy spirit of the crest, could almost hear the confusion behind the response of the Crest of Light, but still it did as its partner bade and so muted its welcome.

With a nod, T.K. slipped forward and placed the letter on the dresser beside the Crest where Kari would be certain to find it the following morning. He smiled an acknowledgement to the pink talisman before turning around and kneeling beside Kari's bed.

The boy smiled affectionately at the simple look of peace on Kari's face as she slept, her chest rising and falling beneath the covers in a strong affirmation of her life. If any doubts had remained for him about what he was doing, they were erased at that very moment. Kari had been through so much in her young life that now that she was finally at peace, he doubted that he could bear to burden her with the knowledge that had been forced upon him. His leaving would hurt her for a bit, yes, but better to have the battle as far away from her as possible than to have her at risk.

If he should win, so much the better. Then she need never know the danger that she had been in and could be spared even the sight of the demon that sought out her soul. If he should lose... the boy did not relish even thinking about that very real possibility, but then at least she would be spared the pain of watching him die. If it should come down to the latter... well, he had left instructions with Patamon about what to do and who to contact. This battle must happen. Better to have it now and have a contingency plan in place instead of allowing the Beast to choose the time and location.

The look on the boy's face was warm as he studied the sleeping girl with his troubled blue eyes. He honestly didn't know at that moment whether he felt like laughing or crying. For though he knew and was deeply troubled by the fact that this could very well be the last time that he would ever lay eyes on Kari, he could not regret his decision. If it was to be his fate to die in an attempt to save her soul, he could not think of a better way to die. But as he had told Patamon, he just couldn't leave without saying goodbye.

"Kari..." he murmured in his most quiet whisper so as to make certain not to wake the girl. But even though his mind was entirely set on doing so, there remained some rebellious part of his soul locked away deep inside that did want her to wake and to hear his words. "I guess I've got to say goodbye again. Last time I said it, it was so hard to say. You remember, don't you? When I left you to fight against Roan and the Fiends? That time I almost didn't go because I saw the hurt in your eyes that my leaving would cause?"

"I don't think it will be so hard this time... at least, not quite so. The last time I left, it was because I was told to go. God and his angels made it perfectly clear that if I didn't go to stop them, Roan and the others might have destroyed the whole world. Maybe both of them."

"But this time no one's told me to go. This doesn't have anything to do with worlds or with Hatred or Terror or the battles between good and evil or any of that... at least, I don't think so. This is just about us. About me being able to look you in the eyes across the dinner table and not have to pretend that everything is fine. About finally being able to live like other people in this world live, and love like they love."

A single tear rolled down the boy's cheek to splash on the girl's thin covers as his fingertips brushed against her hand, ever so lightly to avoid waking her. "Kari, why does it have to be like this? Do you know? If you do I wish you'd have said something, because no one else will tell me. If he knows, Gabriel won't tell me. God surely knows, but He hasn't given me any great revelations about it. I feel like I'm trapped in a dark room, surrounded by a thousand swords with only your Light as a candle in the distance to guide me."

"Well now comes a wind to extinguish that candle. And to place myself between the two I'm running forward almost blindly, heedless of the swords. If I lose that Light, I am lost and without Hope anyway. I cannot imagine being trapped in this world without it... without you."

And then the boy removed the silvery ring from the chain around his neck that also held his Crest. Holding it between two fingers, he murmured as quietly as possible, "This is for you when I get back, Kari. This, and all that goes with it. This little ring is a divine affirmation of what we have together, Kari. One of Michael's gave it to me, telling me to give it to you when I was ready. And after I take care of this last thing, I promise that I'll be ready. Just a little while longer, Kari, and then we will be together."

The boy paused, then placed both ring and Crest away as he stood. Quickly he placed two fingers of his hand against his lips, then gently brushed those same two against Kari's lips as well. "Above all things, this I promise to you Kari Kamiya. No matter what happens, I'll always love you."

And then, silent as a wraith, the boy was back out on the balcony and holding his hand high over his head in a silent signal to his mount. But even as he leapt upon the back of the golden stallion, the girl that he had just left smiled in her sleep and murmured words that later not even she would remember.

"I trust you, T.K. God and my heart go with you..."

To be continued...