Shay and Gatomon stood, shoulder to shoulder, between the horrific form of Moya the a'ladon witch and the tunnel through which their friends had just departed. The enormous creature gave a growl deep within her throat as she towered above the two, her barbed tail lashing about her massive black body as though she was debating the merits of attacking both at once.

The eyes of Gatomon as she stared down the creature were just as implacable, and she nodded coldly. "I would enjoy that, I think," she hissedin a dark, throaty manner. "You stole Kari from me through treachery, and I will repay that treachery to you with anguish. As soon as you are ready to begin..."

But then Shay stepped forward between the two, and held up a paw while lowering his sword away from on guard. "Enough, Moya! Stop! I asked for Takeru to spare your life because I did not believe that this was the fate you would have chosen for yourself. Not to be an animal and a slave to that creature. And though you have stolen my father from me and the Lady Hikari from my Lord Takeru, I believe that he will save you from this curse. I have felt his power and know in my heart that he can take it from your body and make you whole again. But you must not interfere in what is to happen."

The beast that was Moya lowered her massive head to Shay's level and peered closely at him, a drop of foul-smelling saliva dribbling off of one of the fangs which hung from her upper jaw. And to his credit the boy did not move or appear alarmed as the creature inhaled deeply at his shirt to catch his scent, but only stood stoically with the point of his sword's blade resting upon the ground as she studied him through her primitive senses.

Gatomon snarled, striking the metal claws of her gloves together in a challenge to the other. Moya stopped her examination of the boy prince instantly and turned upon the little feline digimon. "That's right, magistrate. I haven't forgotten the last time we met, and I doubt you have either."

Shay looked on in alarm, and moved between the two. "Gatomon, stop! I don't believe that Lord Takeru meant for us to fight with her, else he would have done it himself. Don't let a need for vengeance make you act contrary to his will."

The fur was bristling on Gatomon's back as she glared dangerously at the massive creature, and her claws almost literally itched with the need to bring Moya to battle for the evil that she had brought to Kari. But the prince's words made her stop, if reluctantly. She loved T.K. greatly, but wasn't certain that the human boy, in his desire to have the fighting ended, was seeing clearly in this matter. She dared a quick glance to Shay. "Ailora had said that you've never believed in your people's vision of T.K. How is it that you can trust him in this now, when he is all that stands between your world and an evil that you can't possibly imagine?"

The prince's face softened into a smile, the danger seeming to pass out of his mind. "How can I not, now that I have known him and felt his power? Ailora is blessed because she believed without ever having seen him... I am only somewhat less so because I waited to see. But she was right in the end. There is nothing like my Lord Takeru on this earth, and to fulfill his desire that none should perish without cause I will beg Moya to submit before I commit to destroy her." He looked askew at the other. "Certainly you believe in him as well."

After a long moment Gatomon's claws went limp and fell to her side... in all honesty and despite how much she might wish it to happen, Moya did not look as though she were going to attack. In fact, though angry, she looked as if she had been sufficiently chastised by T.K. earlier and by Shay's words just now. "I've known T.K. for a long time, Shay. Since he was a very young child... very young. And I will say to you that he is not without shortcomings." Shay looked at her with surprise upon his face until Gatomon continued. "But those shortcomings come out of a desire to see good triumph in all things. Very well. He meant to spare Moya, and I will abide by his will in this until she forces me to disobey."

The boy prince nodded and returned to facing the monstrous a'ladon witch. "Peace then, Moya?" he asked hopefully. "You have been shown mercy, and will know a greater mercy yet, but first you must yield and pledge to do no harm."

The creature standing above the two grimaced in pain, and her head lolled to the side. But then her lips pursed before her enormous teeth and she murmured in a deep but gentle voice, "P... Peeeace, Shay. Peeeace."

The boy sighed in relief and eased his sword back into the sheath at his side, now daring to turn his back on the creature to watch the path down which the others had left. And at his side he felt Gatomon turn as well, and could sense the other's anxiousness. "You have known him so long?" the boy asked. After a moment the little digimon nodded once in response. Shay bit his lip. "Will he win?"

Gatomon's face was dark, and it took a long moment for her to answer. "He... will. He will win because he must. But my greatest fear is that the cost of his victory may be more than any of us are willing to pay..."

> > >

The laughter of BaalMerodach was mocking as it rolled throughout the cavern while Ailora, Eloan and Pegasusmon loomed over T.K.'s fallen form, menacing him to surrender. But the human boy paid none of this any heed as he lay upon the ground, his near-vacant eyes staring straight ahead to Kari's motionless form. The searing fever was upon his head, now worse than ever, but it was to pass. His heart was aching... aching with regret and with sorrow and with darkness poured out upon him for too long. And though his spirit wished it, he could not force himself to stand. All of his mortal strength was gone now, and little remained of him but a mass of spent flesh upon the floor.

But then, inexplicably in her condition, Kari blinked. Once, twice and then her eyes focused upon what was left of the boy. And great pity was in her eyes when she saw what had become of him... great pity, but also the resolute love that she would always bear for him. He was lost to her world now, but her loss would be Heaven's gain and a great gift to all humankind. Her lips formed a weary smile in the boy's direction, and she silently mouthed her final words to him. Words that he would understand, even if others might not.

I will never have another...

T.K.'s eyelids slowly closed, and his hands tightened into fists around the Crests of Hope and of Light. She knew... knew what had to happen and still loved him enough to let him go. And so the breath that he had taken and had been unconsciously holding was exhaled in a weak sigh.

"Then it is done."

There was a brief pause of complete and utter silence, as if the entire universe had stopped to listen to his words.And then, witha profusion of silver fireand great brilliance, holy powerappeared at his sideand swept unimpeded throughout the whole of the cavern. Eloan, Ailora and Pegasusmon gasped in a collective voice as they felt the damnable tightness within their lungs disappear to be replaced with a sweet-smelling air of freedom. BaalMerodach stumbled away as two figures shimmered into existence at T.K.'s side, one resplendent in a gown of the most pure white and with a halo of gold atop locks of somehow more golden hair. And the other was arrayed in silver armor with great and ancient symbols etched upon his breast, and the feathered wings of both formed an impressive and wide barrier behind the fallen boy. Now the first of the two smiled down upon the human child, and reached for a massive trump at his side.

As the figure moved, BaalMerodach looked on in terror. "No!" he quite literally screamed, forming a ball of black fire within a clawed hand and hurling it at his fair counterparts. But the second figure only raised his hand in response and extinguished the black fire in midair, snuffing it out of existence forever.

Gabriel brought his trump to his lips and blew upon it a great and exultant fanfare, the most soul-stirring sound that any mortal could ever hear... the call of the Paragons to arms. It was loud and joyful and filled with intense glory. Then, in an another instant of much power and triumph, the figure of Takeru Takaishi was on his feet between the two... though what had been the mortal body of the boy still lay motionless upon the dirty cavern floor.

Takeru was arrayed all in magnificent white as Gabriel was resplendent in his gown, and gold fire swirled around him in a tempest as the hallowed air of the Paragon continued to fill the cavern. Above his head Takeru raised the Crest of Hope within his hand, and now Michael's Sword of Ages was forged from it once again. But the true form of the weapon, like Takeru himself, was much more than what had appeared in its mortal existence. The Greatest blade was as long as an adult man is tall, and it was inscribed with the same runes which adorned Michael's armor and was alight with golden fire from Heaven.

Then the Crest of Light began to throb with power within the boy's other hand, and soon it engulfed his forearm with the diamond-hard transparency of Gabriel's Ward. And the shield was magnified as was the Sword, surrounding Takeru's entire body with a white curtain of Light that was both impassible and unbreakable.

BaalMerodach was seething with fury as he pulled himself to his feet and leveled an accusing, trembling finger in Michael's direction. "You... you cannot do this! If you fight me now then the Armageddon will be called down upon us all!"

The archangel only smiled in response, and waived a hand, palm first, towards Takeru. Now, in a burst of light, silver armor which greatly resembled the angel's own was about the Paragon's chest and the sigils etched within it glimmered with the same golden radiance as the sword. The boy's face, now cleansed of the soot and cares and pain that had dirtied it was raised towards the sky and had a soft light falling down upon it. He was utterly serene, and seemingly lost in joy and completely oblivious to everything else around him.

Michael and Gabriel both smiled and nodded to one another at Takeru's obvious relief. His mind, now uncluttered by the burden of mortality, was hearing the voice of the Father clearly. The two turned as if to depart, but then Michael hesitated for a moment. "Fight, Merodach?" he stared back over his shoulder. "With you? I have only come to gird the proper regalia onto one of the Father's own. Were I to wish you harm, we both know full well that you could not stand for long enough to call it a battle."

Now, as the angels both departed from Takeru, Pegasusmon, Eloan and Ailora all rushed to his side and shouted joyfully. And, seemingly in response, the boy Paragon turned his face away from the sky and lowered his great blade to his side. But as he looked at the others there was no camaraderie, and barely any recognition of them upon his face. And so he only nodded once to the three, then turned to face the demon who stood, now nervously, atop Kari.

"BaalMerodach," the boy spoke, and his voice, though not changed appreciably in tone or pitch, now had a much more stern authority behind it. "You have lain hands upon one who is not yours to take. Free Kari Kamiya, beloved of the Father, and return to Hell with the traitor who has followed you here."

Pegasusmon laid his head upon Takeru's left shoulder in a gesture of familiarity and friendship, but again the boy only spared him a brief glance and no acknowledgement before focusing once more upon his enemy. Eloan and Ailora looked puzzled, but still had their swords drawn in anticipation of joining their lord Takeru in battle.

BaalBerith, the stripes upon his back still oozing blood, continued to shield his eyes from the exalted Paragon and slunk away from the conflict about to occur. BaalMerodoch watched the other depart, and then inhaled to expand his chest to its largest size and held one of his weapons in each hand... weapons which were literally aglow with dark power. And his lips trembled an uncertain smile at the boy. "Very well... exalted you have been, Takeru, but Michael and Gabriel have not stayed with you to guide your hand. You have little enough experience wielding the Sword of Ages, and are still not a match for me."

"Leave now, Takeru. I know your mind. Your love for this girl's mortal shellno longer exists as it did before... you cannot possibly identify with her. To what end would you keep her alive? To reclaim that little ember of yours that she still holds?"

The once-human boy, now free of mortal concern and of any emotional attachment whatsoever, was stoic before the creature. "And meanwhile loose you to conceive yet more mischief, demon? I would then be guilty of the greatest dereliction of duty possible." And with that he brought the massive sword down to a position on guard. "Yield, BaalMerodach. Else I will make an end of you now."

The demon was breathing heavily, seething at the boy with a fury and pride in his eyes that no mortal could ever know. He would not, would not bow before this mortal thing born from the flesh of another mortal thing. "You may... you may indeed Takeru. But will you also make an end of her?" He stepped back over Kari's limp form to place the human girl strategically between the two of them, and pulled her to her feet by her hair. Then he leaned to whisper into her ear, and from beneath his wing pulled the third dark relic that he had been girt with.

Takeru remained impassive, but his allies pulled back in horror as Merodach set the twisted crown of thorns upon the human girl's head and drove it down into her flesh. And Kari, though her soul screamed despair and pain inside of her, could make no sound that was not at her master's behest. "Now, human whore... my chattel and bride," the creature murmured into her ear. "Descend yet again and defend your most beloved."

Kari's face paled at the command as blood streamed down her face from the ring of thorns upon her head, and looked as though she were going to vomit. She gagged once, then twice, and then a pair of thick horns burst from her forehead just below the object of her torment. The girl was trembling visibly as she fell to her knees, and she looked down in horror as her palsied hands slowly curved and twisted into long, feral claws... claws much too long for the arms to which they were attached.

Pegasusmon was horrified, and, seeing that T.K. was not moving to stop the horror which was taking hold of Kari, bounded to the girl's side in a single leap. But then she, unwittingly it seemed, swatted the armored stallion away with a single, backhanded slap of her massive hand and sent the creature tumbling away to the side. Pegasusmon groaned loudly from his position upon the ground and made as if to stand, but then the shock of the blow came upon him and he lost his already tenuous hold on consciousness.

Kari, more beast now than human, swelled into a monstrous enormity before Takeru, Eloan and Ailora. And then the a'ladon twins glanced at one another and nodded a single time, splitting apart and moving to flank the creature. Upon the blade of the boy's sword the light of gold fire remained, and he was trembling with fear to think that he must use it to cleave the life from such a holy name as the Lady Hikari.

There was a single look of human desperation in Kari's eyes as she looked down upon the twins, as if begging them to end this before it was completed... but even that was not to be. For at that moment, another figure stepped from the shadows behind BaalMerodach and loomed over him, menacing the pair with a pair of curved fangs jutting down from her upper jaw. At first the siblings were concerned that Shay and Gatomon had failed in their charge, until...

"Aine," Merodach murmured in a dark voice, not even turning to look at his slave. "Takeru and Hikari desire privacy. Take these mewling little children away so that they will not be disturbed in their reunion."

Unlike her similarly afflicted sister, there was no hesitation from Aine. At the words of the demon the enormous creature bounded over the head of her master towards the pair, swatting Eloan to the side as her great prehensile tail encircled Ailora. With an agility astounding for a monster of her size, the transfigured witch gathered herself and leapt halfway across the cavern and towards Eloan, leaving BaalMerodach and Kari alone before Takeru.

Kari's girth was massive now as the misshapen human girl loomed over Takeru, green foam dribbling from her lips as she stalked him. And the boy, for his part, regarded the other with a aristocratic look of pity upon his face, but again there was no true human emotion to accompany it. He appeared quite indifferent and detached as he gripped the Sword of Ages tightly within two hands, Gabriel's Ward tight upon his left forearm and between the beast and his body.

Kari pounced forward without warning, and BaalMerodach roared with fiendish delight as the two human children entered into battle with one another.

Takeru and Kari each circled around the other slowly, the boy Paragon oft with his great sword raised above his head as if to strike. Once he made as if to thrust the blade home into the girl's heart, ending the battle with a single blow, only to turn it aside at the last moment as if in a feint and return to a position on guard. Kari pawed at the boy twice as if to test his defenses, and twice Takeru punched her long claw away with Gabriel's Ward.

Takeru could hear the rightness of it all in his head as the Sword of Ages and the host of Paragons called for the blood of the demonic creature to be spilt, but still he hesitated. He did not know why he could not cleave the life of the beast from its chest, and thereafter move on to its master, save to say such a thing seemed innately wrong to him...even as he knew it to be right.

From the far side of the cavern where his own battle had taken him, Eloan dared a glance back to where the Lord Takeru entered into battle with his Lady. The tragedy of it all was so very great that the highly sensitive boy might well have shed a tear for his human counterpart if his own situation were not so perilous. As it was the glance was all that he could spare, as the long claws of the a'ladon witch Aine now thrust forth to splinter the stone wall at his side.

"Ailora!" the young warrior shouted to his sister, who stood on the far side of their mutual adversary. The girl, however, could only respond with a wordless shout of acknowledgement as she fended off repeated blows from the hooked metal barb upon Aine's tail.

The eyes of the beast were feral now, savage, as if she had been reduced to a lesser degree of intellect when she had been gifted with the traits of a beast. And so, as he caught its claws upon his father's sword and turned them aside, he called again to his sister.

"Ailora, Ailora! Hoem ailora kine s'ores!"

With that the boy ducked beneath the claws of the beast and darted between its rear legs towards his sister, slashing at one of them for good measure. He was forced to scamper quickly as the tail which had been menacing the girl now stabbed at him as he ran, and he hoped fervently that his sister has heard his call... and that Aine had not understood it as well.

The a'ladon witch snarled at the child's escape, and while she had heard his call, her now primitive mind gave no thought to what he had said. But as she turned upon both of the twin children, she heard the girl's answer to the boy's shout as if in countersign, and just as her eyes fell upon the two the shouted call of "A'hoem Ailora!" reached her ears.

A dazzling burst of white light exploded in front of Aine's eyes, blinding and stunning her for a moment as both Eloan and Ailora covered their eyes with their paws. With a howl the creature staggered backwards, and now Eloan leapt at her in his own attempt at offense. "Grand Cross!" he shouted, cutting two traversing lines in the air between the two.

A great, golden light was spun from the air into form of the cross, and as that light slammed into Aine's body she stumbled backwards and to the ground, an enormous paw holding her chest where she had been struck. The massive creature moaned, and then made as if to stand once, then twice... only to find that she could not. Her blinded eyes stared sightlessly towards the twin a'ladon children, and she snarled in their direction as the sickening smell of singed hair permeated the cavern. And then finally, angrily and fuming at her defeat, the massive head of the beast came to rest upon the floor of the stone cavern and there ceased to move.

"You cannot bring yourself to do it, Takeru!" BaalMerodach cried out in glee from the far side of the cavern. "Though she is fallen into my hands you cannot bring yourself to release her to death. You cannot... you cannot, and I have won!"

The shouted call and the hateful words stirred Pegasusmon back to consciousness, and from his position upon the ground he saw the last act unfold... unfolding as he knew that it would. And he watched T.K., even blessed as he now was, lower his eyes in a very human fashion. The immense Sword of Ages was alight with gold fire in his right hand and Gabriel's Ward was a barrier of silver upon his left. As Pegasusmon watched helplessly, he heard the words that he had not understood before pass the lips of his partner.

"Forgive me. For all that I do and all that I have done... forgive."

And then the stallion knew, having heard the tone of finality in the boy's voice. A tone of surrender, one that said that desire had finally collapsed beneath the overbearing weight of necessity. And he knew what the boy's choice had been...

The look upon the face of Takeru Takaishi was almost peaceful in its acquiescence as he drew the unwieldy Sword of Ages away from his body, and with a shout he hurled it like a spear of fire towards his Lady Hikari. And at that very moment, the demonic form of the girl thrust the cruel barb upon her tail towards his unprotected chest... a chest that had been left unguarded as the boy followed through with his throw.

The monstrous weapon carved easily through the armor guarding the boy's chest, shearing through metal, flesh and bone only to reappear at his back as a bloody token of her victory. But even as T.K.'s blue eyes went vacant and his hands fell limp at his side, Michael's holy Sword of Ages struck the fierce crown of black thorns upon the girl's head with a white-hot fury and shattered it into dust. But then the great blade, stripped of its power by T.K.'s death, reverted to the form of the Crest of Hope and clattered uselessly to the ground at Kari's back.

There was utter silence in the room as the demonic infection was leeched from Kari's flesh by the destruction of the artifact of evil. The girl slowly reverted to her human form, the wicked claws tapering in size until they were again human hands... the rounded horns dwindling back into her skull... the jagged fangs vanishing into her mouth. And as her demonic tail vanished so did the heavenly form of the Paragon Takeru Takaishi that had been impaled upon it, until the Crest of Light tumbling to the ground was the only indication that he had ever been there.

"No!" Eloan screamed from across the cavern, and now bounded heedlessly to where T.K.'s earthly body lay upon the ground. The a'ladon boy dropped his weapon as he arrived and fell against the human's flesh, pulling it tightly against his chest and holding the other's pale face in the crook of his neck.

Ailora felt her legs go weak and give way beneath her, though she felt no pain as her knees struck the stony floor of the cavern. Her mouth sagged open and her eyes were unblinking as she watched the Lady Hikari lie motionless upon the floor while mere steps away her own brother cradled the dead form of the Lord Takeru in his arms. He was gone... he, the one she had idolized, had worshipped since birth, dead at the hands of the very Lady that he had come to redeem from Darkness.

And with him, likely their only chance of leaving this place alive.

The ghastly smile upon the lips of BaalMerodach was so wide that an entire row of jagged teeth could be seen behind it, and the creature was immensely pleased with himself as he strolled towards Kari. Oh, how he would be magnified for this. Soon he would sow his essence within the human innocence of the Lady Hikari, and thereafter would reap a greater vessel for his immortal soul from her mortal womb. And in that body he would stand before his own Master, and there would know such rewards as had not been gifted to his kind in millennia. The Children of the Father would be like stalks of wheat before his scythe, and he would yield to none but Michael Himself.

Now there came a shout of pain and of mortal rage at his back, but the creature was unmoved and simply raised two digits of his clawed hand to capture the a'ladon girl in midair and keep her suspended there. And the boy creature, the girl's twin brother, made no move to even look in his direction. Instead he continued to embrace the mortal shell of the human Paragon, rocking back and forth as if in comfort to the fallen.

But now there came another to stand atop the human Hikari, and BaalMerodach frowned. The four-legged beast who had presented himself as mount and friend to the Lord Takeru. There was a deep rumbling within the chest of the demon as he spoke. "Away with you, Servant of the Most High. Your Master has already had his life extinguished at my will. Shall I do away with you as well to claim my prize?" And with that the demon again pulled from beneath his leathery wing a long spear that quite literally absorbed the light surrounding him.

Pegasusmon's heart was ash within his chest at seeing Kari deliver the death blow to T.K., but he remained intent upon giving his own life to buy the girl a single, precious moment of freedom. Oh that she could use it wisely...

The stallion frowned at the weapon in the other's clawed hand, and through his misery spoke to it. "Do you think, demon, that I do not know the secret of the foul weapons that you bear? Long have I sat in study with my fallen friend, and as he did not fear them neither shall I. Or is it you that do not know their secret? Have you been betrayed so cruelly that your Master did not share their mystery and heritage with you?"

Pegasusmon felt Kari stir beneath his body, and again prayed to T.K.'s God that she would use the scant minutes of life that he was buying for her with his own wisely. The demon appeared legitimately confused, but its curiosity with this puzzle would not last... regardless of how it was resolved. T.K. had been certain, after much study and prayer, that the fact upon which his partner now staked his life was the truth. It seemed that his conclusion would soon be put to the test.

BaalMerodach's face suddenly contorted in anger, and he drew back the spear within his clawed hand. "I do not know what insanity has taken you, beast, nor do I care. Suffice to say that you stand between me and my property, and for that you will suffer!" And with those words the demon thrust forth with the dark weapon, the spear of infamy and legend, and watched as it punched between the ribs of the golden digimon.

At the demon's back Ailora, still suspended in midair by the other's dark power, cried out in hopelessness as Pegasusmon's body was pierced by the dark weapon. She had prayed that somehow... somehow...

But the stallion was not moved by the angry force of the weapon, and instead remained standing protectively over Kari. BaalMerodach's eyes widened and his face twisted into confusion as he pulled the spear forth from the creature's body, and then stabbed forward with it once again. And again, he watched as the cruel metal disappeared into the creature's side and reappeared on the other, but with no trace of blood upon the iron head. "This... this cannot be!" he roared, and Ailora winced at the volume of the shout.

Pegasusmon bowed his head. T.K., blessed as he had been, has also been right in the end. And so the creature looked up at the demon, as now only a miracle could save him from its fury once he had spoken the words that his fallen partner had given him so long ago. "Why," he spoke slowly, staring down the other, "for the cause of evil or for any other cause, would a weapon be crafted that is insubstantial and harmless except to those who freely accept its hurts?"

After a moment the eyes of the demon slowly widened into comprehension and he staggered backwards, releasing his grip on the spear and allowing it to clatter to the floor. And as he moved away on cloven hooves and reached for the scourge still dangling at his side, the eyes of Pegasusmon narrowed upon him. "That one as well, demon. The Christ of the humans had a reason to accept their torments. I do not. It shall not rend my flesh as it did His."

Now Ailora fell to the ground, released from the demon's power as Merodach's attention was drawn to the truth of the other's words. And now she rushed again at the creature, but another was faster.

BaalBerith was upon his comrade in an instant, leaping upon his back and reaching around to dig his claws into the eyes of his superior. Both demons roared as one entity, Merodach in pain and Berith in fury as the younger of the two opened an enormous maw of jagged teeth and sunk them into the other's neck. The two staggered around the dark cavern, and the long shadows that they cast upon the walls were no less hideous as their physical bodies. Striking at one another with blows of immense power and attacking repeatedly with tooth and nail, each of their screams was tormenting to the ears of the mortals in the cavern, and Ailora seemed frozen in horrid fascination.

But then Pegasusmon was at her side. "Come now, Ailora. Come... it is time to go."

The girl turned, then looked past the stallion to where the Lady Hikari stood over Eloan and the body of the Lord Takeru. The a'ladon girl wondered for a moment if the human Lady knew what had transpired, knew if she had been the one that had struck the life from her Lord... this she wondered until she saw the human's face.

Kari's skin was pale... more, perhaps, than any human's had ever been on this side of death, and her lips were quivering and tears rolling unchecked down her cheeks. Ailora then saw that her brother, even as he held the boy human in his arms, was speaking to the girl... and she knew what he was telling her. It seemed mightily unfair to the young a'ladon that the other was being burdened with such cruel knowledge now, at this most heinous of times, but the decision had not been hers to make... for which she was exceedingly grateful.

Pegasusmon gave her a nudge to get the young girl moving. "Now, Ailora," he insisted, his deep voice snapping her from her reverie. "One of those will triumph before long, and we must be gone before then."

The a'ladon blinked once, and then nipped quickly over to join the others at the cavern entrance. Her twin brother was already on his feet when she and Pegasusmon arrived, and he looked at the two together. "She won't leave without him," the boy said, nodding once to Kari and to the body of T.K. upon the floor.

Pegasusmon bowed his head, moving to Kari's side and placing his head upon her shoulder in a comforting gesture... just as he had always done with T.K. The feeling of the girl beneath his cheek where the boy had always stood tore at his heart just now, but for the moment he had to remain strong. He could collapse upon the ground and let tears of sorrow fall as they would later, in the darkness, but T.K. had given his life for Kari's sake. He would damn himself before he would let that sacrifice be in vain.

The Crest of Light was around Kari's neck, and the Crest of Hope in her hand as she turned silently to Pegasusmon. Her face was wet with tears and her skin ashen as she stared blankly at the stallion. "I... I killed him, Pata?"

The other's horse's lips quivered, and he only kept from stammering as he answered through sheer force of will. "No one killed him, Kari. He gave up his life on his own, willingly, knowingly and without hesitation that you would not remain subject to Hell's mercies." He paused for just an instant and looked to the human girl. "If you must know then I will speak of it later, but for now we will go. I will carry you from this place just as he had wished."

The words of the creature did nothing to placate or move Kari, and she remained standing over the boy's body in silence and in shock. The Crest of Light was tapping out a weak rhythm against her chest, but she took no notice of it. Her ears with ringing with a haunting sound, the cry of her own conscious that this was all her fault. The demon had wanted her, not T.K. If she had stayed where she had been supposed to stay, he would have entered this battle with the upper hand. And at the last it was she... she herself who had laid the death blow upon him. Him, the one she had loved best in this world or any other... dead at her own hands. Her head was bowed beneath the weight of what she had done, and her lips began to move with nearly silent words.

Pegasusmon's ear twitched at the faint sound. "Kari?"

"Take him, Pata... Leave me, and take him home."

The girl collapsed to her knees at T.K.'s side, and gently began trying to rub the dark smudges away from his beautiful, ashen features. The hair that he had never seemed to be able to keep out of his eyes was there again, and with her other hand Kari smoothed it back. Then she fell across his body, holding him tightly against her chest and kissing him tenderly upon his lips while her tears continued to fall upon his face.

Pegasusmon nudged Eloan with his head. "I cannot carry both of them. I barely have strength enough for one. You must get her on my back quickly... use force or even your father's magic if you must, but do it with all haste!"

But then there came a shouted roar from across the cavern, and BaalMerodach tore his brother's head from his shoulders and held it dangling in a single, clawed hand. "Enough of this!" he screamed in anger and insanity, tossing the severed head to the side and stalking towards the little group on cloven ebony hooves.

With two clawed fingers of his hand the dark-skinned fiend pointed out Ailora, Eloan and Pegasusmon in order, and each of them were stricken into immobility as their muscles stiffened where they stood. Then the creature held up the palm of the same hand, and the three were thrown back against the black wall of the cavern and there held by some invisible force.

BaalMerodach reached Kari's side and slowly circled the girl, tracing a claw across the back of shoulders that had been left bare when her clothing had torn. Now she was left wearing little more than tatters, though in her state of evident malaise she seemed not to notice. Her eyes were downcast upon the floor and upon T.K.'s body as the creature continued to stalk her, murmuring at her with words that struck like weapons directly into her wounded soul.

"So now he is gone, my wife. You have done my will, which is your duty, and have presented this body to me as a matrimonial gift... a gift which I gladly accept. You have spilt innocent blood for my sake, blood of a Paragon, no less, and that will further deepen our bond. Now for your last task. You will remove that dangling bit of human attire, and you will turn and present yourself to me, and then you will bear my offspring. And then you will release your mortal soul that we may feed upon it. Now that you have accomplished this much in the service of evil, it is only one more step that you must take for your journey to be complete."

Pegasusmon strained mightily against the force that held his head to the wall, pushing so hard against it that the veins stood out in his equine neck. At his side, Eloan was trying to wiggle his fingers to the sword belted at his waist, and beside him Ailora was kicking against the unseen hand of iron which held her there. But all of their efforts were in vain. The power that they were pushing against was of a supernatural nature, and could not be overcome by simple, mortal strength.

Kari swallowed deeply, in despair and resolution and with the barest of palsies upon her lips. Fine... fine, well and good. Just let it be quick. She had already committed the worst, the most horrific crime she could have ever imagined. Now this would be such a fitting punishment for what she had done. And so, as the demon had bidden, the girl bowed her head and started to turn her back upon the creature. And as she did, her eyes fell upon the motionless form of T.K. as he lay upon the floor. And hope fled.

Kari's heart began to bleed once again.

And as BaalMerodach positioned himself for his final victory at Kari's back, the Crest of Hope within the girl's hand began to throb with life. Slowly and more muted for a moment, but with a steadily increasing and evident power. Kari's head was still bowed but her eyes turned towards her now quivering hand with a question in them that could not be answered. And then the girl's eyes widened in astonishment, and were engulfed in a blue halo of fire and power as she heard in her head a voice that she could not be hearing...

Kari... dearest Kari... from the moment I poured my life into your body to keep you from Piedmon's despair, I have been for you. I am still for you. We are forever bound as one...

With that, the fire of the Crest of Hope in Kari's hand flared into an intensity that had been unmatched in all of the relic's history. Since its forging in ages past until the time it was presented to Michael the Archangel and beyond, never had the force of the holiest weapon been unleashed as it was now. The Sword of Ages was now spun from the Crest in the raging, divine inferno, and with little control over her own arm, Kari found the massive blade of the weapon being raised above her head, and she wheeled to face the demon at her back.

BaalMerodach eyes were wide with incomprehensive horror, and he raised a trembling, black-fleshed claw in front of his face and cowered back before the girl. "N... No!" he stammered, trying desperately to recall an incantation or charm or some sort of magical device that would turn away the suddenly self-assured girl and the look of anger and defiance in her brown, very human eyes. Finding none, he only ducked and cringed beneath his own leathery wing. "I know him to be dead! You are mine! You are mine!"

The great blade was held above Kari's head with strength that was not her own. "No. I am T.K.'s. And I am His."

And without any conscious effort at all from the girl the golden blade fell upon the demon's body, shattering its physical form in an explosion of great and holy power and blasting its soul back to the nothingness from which it had come. A tremor borne of the detonation rocked the cavern, and small black pebbles from the ceiling of that cavern started to rain down upon the survivors. Then a cloud of black ash swirled away from the spot in which the beast had cringed, and a fierce wind quite suddenly appeared to push the demon's foul remains away from the young human.

Pegasusmon, Eloan and Ailora were released from their immaterial bonds, and as one fell to the floor as Kari dropped the Sword of Ages. It was suddenly much too heavy for her, and when the great blade struck the ground it reversed its exaltation and transfiguration once again. The Crest of Hope lay now upon the floor, and gave an almost self-satisfied twinkle at the human girl and her companions.

There was a noise at the entrance to the cavern, and Ailora and Eloan turned to look as Pegasusmon made his way to Kari's side. There, in the towering mouth of the cave, stood the enormous form of Moya the a'ladon magistrate with Shay and Gatomon flanking her. The monstrous creature took a single sniff of the air, and then made her way to the side of her sister's body. Ailora rushed into Shay's arms, while Gatomon stared silently for a moment at Eloan.

The look of grief on the young creature's face was too much for the little feline to suffer in silence, however. "Kari?" she asked.

Eloan responded with a single nod.

Gatomon swallowed deeply. "T.K.?"

The boy bowed his head, unable to meet the other's eyes without tears filling his own.

"Is it over, then?"

Eloan felt as though he were going to be sick. He placed one paw upon the hilt of the sword at his side and wiped at his eyes with the other. And his response to the smaller creature was whispered in anguish. "It has to be, I think. Mother has always said that the defeat of true evil requires a sacrifice on behalf of the noble. I can't begin to imagine, then, how great a defeat they have suffered today."

> > >

It was late that night and the survivors of the battle had brought T.K.'s body with them down the side of the mountain and into the forested grove that Pegasusmon and Ailora had spoken in previously. Moya was with them and apparently had been tamed by Shay's forceful persuasion, but the bodies of Aine, Kueren and the King Jeron had been left behind. The boy prince had, though, taken his father's crown and signet ring with him after whispering a brief prayer over the man's body. "I don't think I'll ever really know if he was alive when the demon took him over," the boy was saying to Ailora, "but I guess I'd like to think he wasn't. Better to have him dead by Lord Takeru than as a pawn between demons."

The girl looked over to him with a curious expression upon her face. "Didn't you have something you were supposed to be saying to me?"

Shay opened his mouth in surprise and then as if to speak, but paused. "Later. My feelings for you haven't changed, but they can wait for me to speak of them until we get back to your mother." Ailora looked ready to protest, but the boy placed a clawed finger against her lips and nodded to where Kari sat... alone. "Not now," he finished with a shake of his head.

Gatomon and Patamon moved quietly and in step to Kari's side. And as the fire flickered at their respective backs, casting long shadows into the night, the little feline spoke to the girl. "They won't ever bother you again, you know. In the end, we won."

There was a very long moment of silence, broken only by the breeze wafting through the trees surrounding them before Kari answered. "I know," she said under her breath.

Patamon landed on the ground and there started scuffing his little feet in the dirt. He glanced once to Gatomon, who nodded back in reassurance. "K... Kari?" he piped up in his little voice. "This might not be the right time to say this... I'm not sure that there's any right time to say this... but... well, Gatomon and I aren't going back with you. We're staying here."

Kari didn't turn, but all present were sure that they saw the girl's shoulders slump just a little bit more. Patamon felt singularly uncomfortable, and cleared his little throat. "We know that you won't have any more battles to fight or any more monsters to be protected from. But Eloan is leaving across the ocean soon to find out what happened to all the missing adults. Shay thinks that the kidnappings probably had something to do with the slave trade, and we're going to help him try to stop it. It's the best way that we can think of to honor... "

Kari turned towards the fire with an almost painful slowness as the little creature stopped short of speaking his name, and tried to smile at him through her red and tear-stained eyes. She had not been able to stem a tide of bitter tears since they had placed T.K.'s body upon Moya's back. "That... that's very noble of both of you," the girl answered, trying desperately to keep the despondency from her voice. "They'll need you more than I do now, I guess. But it will leave me alone to tell his family..." She paused, and sniffled slowly. "I can't even imagine how much they will despise me for this."

Gatomon sent Pata away with her eyes and then dropped to all fours to move to Kari's side. "They won't blame you, Kari. I don't. Patamon doesn't. Nobody who knew him can possibly think that he would have wanted it any other way. It was your life, or it was his. And maybe no one will ever be able to say if it was right or wrong for him tomake the choice that he did, but we all know that was how he wanted it."

Now there came a rustling in the undergrowth some distance away from the little encampment, and Eloan turned his head in that direction. He alone had been keeping vigil over Lord Takeru's body, wrapped as it was in cloth and affixed rather awkwardly to a broad board, and he alone caught the sound of something moving out in the wilderness. The fingers of one paw went to the sword at his side, but after a moment the boy's grip fell from the weapon. No. No, nothing evil would bother them. Takeru's sacrifice had been so great and so total that, as long as his body remained with them, they would be safe. He believed that, and believed it so fervently that he did not even rise to meet whatever might come.

It was not one, but seven who came, and Eloan's eyes were drawn only to the one in the lead. He was an a'ladon who seemed of middle age, and was frocked with a priest's cowl and the regalia of a Reverend Father. At any other time Eloan would have risen in greeting and then have fallen to a knee in respect, but at this moment even the other's station was owed less honor than Takeru's body was. He would not break his vigil.

The Reverend Father caught the eyes of the young a'ladon, and there was a look in their blue depths that said that his choice was both understandable and honorable. Then the creature looked at the body of the boy Takeru, and his stature seemed to shrink just a little bit. Not a great deal, but the look in the eyes was suddenly just a little bit less alive, the posture just a little less perfect, the fur just a little more gray and a little less brown.

"Great and terrible... perhaps not crippling, but very great indeed," the creature said to Eloan, who looked back with a measure of dwindling of his own and a question in his eyes. "You had wondered how great a loss the other side had suffered today."

The boy nodded absently, and turned back to T.K. "Have we met then, Reverend?"

"Not met, I think. You may have caught a glimpse of me... in fact, I am certain of it, but you would not recognize me now. I knew your father, Eloan. You favor him greatly, and inthe fewdays since Takeru had come, have matured to become his proper heir."

The man walked around T.K.'s body, and placed a gentle paw upon the boy's head as he made his way to Kari's side. The others that had come with him did not go to join him, and instead hung behind in the trees. And Eloan,mature though he may have been,still did not care.

Kari was the only one who did not watch the Reverend creature as he passed through their camp, but no one made a move to stop him. There was nothing threatening in either his form or his actions, and all were much too weak with exhaustion and sorrow in any event.

There was silence for a moment then, with Kari sitting on a fallen log and looking out into the trees and the newcomer at her back. And then, sensing perhaps that he would not go away until she spoke, she swallowed the lump that had been lingering in her throat. "I know you now."

"At whom are you so bitter, dearest?"

Kari swayed unsteadily in her seat. She didn't want to speak the answer to the question that he'd asked. She only wanted to stew in it. To let anger and fury and hatred build up in her chest until it became some kind of fuel that her soul could use to ignite something other than the horribly dead feeling that was overwhelming her. But she also knew that he would not leave without an answer. "Everyone. Everything. You. Me. Them," she nodded at her back. "Everyone... everyone but my sweet T.K., Gabriel."

"Cheyne, daughter," the creature corrected gently. "Lest you confuse the others."

Now the girl turned, her tangled brown hair looking wild atop her head. And then she pulled the Crest of Light from around her neck, snapping the chain to pieces in the process, and threw it at the creature's feet bitterly. "There. That's yours. In the end it couldn't save T.K."

The Reverend a'ladon glanced down at the relic at his feet, and it winked back at him with recognition and merriment. It, by its very nature, saw the best in all things and could not share in the sorrowful emotions of the moment... Cheyne at that moment longed for the same blessing. He had seen many of the Father's chosen pass in this same manner, but it was never any easier... and this blow had been particularly harsh for him.

Nevertheless, he slid a paw onto Kari's shoulder and held it there for a moment. "Have you learned, Daughter, the aspects of my Ward?"

The girl sighed. Why wouldn't he just go away, that she could decide what to do from here? The past was the past, and could not be improved upon. "Pata said that T.K. used it as a shield, to try to protect himself from m..."

Cheyne's brow furrowed as the girl trailed off, not wanting to make her relive that particular moment in her life. "And what else?"

"He used it to save my life, Reverend Father," came a soft male voice calling at his back, and together Shay and Ailora moved quietly to his side. "I could feel my soul slipping away from my body until, at the very last, I felt him there inside of me and pulling me from death and back into life. I've never... never felt as strong as I did in that instant when he was there with me."

Cheyne turned to the two as if just now recognizing that he and Kari were not alone, and smiled at them. And then he took the paws of both Shay and Ailora and placed them within one another. "And you were there to help Takeru with that, were you not, child? He would have mentioned love?" he asked of the girl.

She frowned in response, and concentrated for a moment before answering in a voice that very nearly faltered. "Yes... he did. He spoke... spokeof a bridge, and said that I could be one for Shay because of how much I..." And then she stopped, blushing quite deeply.

Cheyne's smile had not diminished, and he turned back to Kari. "Between two who love deeply, the Ward creates a bond between souls that one can share the strength of the other in times of desperation. You have felt that same bond, Daughter. He presented his mortal soul to you as a crutch to lean upon that you, as a child, would not fail all those years ago. To this day you retain what he has given you."

Kari's shoulders were shaking now with silent tears, and she still refused to turn and look at him. "So what you're saying is that... is that I took everything from him before I killed him?" she demanded. "Go away... please. None of this matters anymore. He's dead, and I know for certain that none of us can bring him back."

But the Reverend creature was so clearly trying to get Kari to understand something that Gatomon came to stand beside her now. And she called out to Patamon at the girl's back. "Pata, tell us everything that happened. Don't leave anything out."

The little mammal looked upset at the other's demand to relive those most horrific moments, but then did as she asked. Slowly and clearly and with a monotone voice did he recount the battle against BaalMerodach, certain events cleared up by Ailora when he had been unconscious or otherwise unable to provide a clear description. And when finally they came to the moment when Kari's demonic form had thrust her barbed tail through the boy's chest, he stopped. He would not speak of that... not now, and not ever.

Kari felt certain that the only way to get Gabriel to leave was to put some sort of effort behind deciphering whatever kind of lesson he was trying to impose upon her. And then something... something deep inside of her chest tweaked her brain into realizing what had been so unusual about this time. She turned to look at Eloan still standing watch over T.K.'s body. "His body and soul were separated? I never even touched his body..."

Cheyne turned his head to the side, and clarified the girl's epiphany. "His body gave up his spirit, knowing full well that mortal flesh could never hope to take you back from one such as BaalMerodach. But the spirit of a Paragon is an undeniably greater power, capable of tasks that an ordinary mortal could never think to accomplish."

Now Eloan, who evidently had been listening this entire time, joined the remainder of their group. "I understand, Father. The 'little ember' of which the demon spoke. Was that why he chose the Lady Hikari to begin with? To feast upon a mortal soul garnished with the essence of one who was a Paragon?"

Cheyne nodded slowly, and placed a paw upon Kari's head. "And so here is your history, child. Some of which you know and some of which you do not. You and Takeru had been meant for one another since the inception of the world, and your souls cried out to one another from where they were first brought into being. And from the beginning we understood that he would be one of the holy Father's chosen upon the earth, a living Paragon... the first of his generation. And so, alongside his mortal soul, the spirit of the Paragon began to grow as well."

"When the Enemy first determined to take you, they struck at you with all that they could spare. And with their success your young soul began to bleed from your mortal body, slowly killing you. But then something happened that they had not expected, and in all honesty was something that we had not foreseen either. Takeru, perhaps unknowingly and perhaps not, passed the greater part of his mortal soul to you through the Ward and thereafter lived on earth almost entirely as a Paragon. Much of it was hard on him, because that part of his spirit had not yet matured to the troubles that it must endure."

"And that, Kari, is what you struck down tonight. The great Paragon spirit of Takeru Takaishi, one that was so determined that you not be given over to the darkness that he forsook both his sacred duty and his mortal body, leaving both behind to be your holy champion one last time."

Kari stared off into the distance as what she'd learned started to sink into her consciousness. It seemed so odd... so absurdly mystical...

"The other... the human part of his soul is still alive? Inside of me?"

Cheyne's eyes fell upon the girl, and his lips twisted just a little bit. "I've noticed that your race is overly fond of sayings like that, Daughter. But this time, perhaps for the first time in your history, it is the literal truth. For several years, since he dragged you from the despair imposed upon you by that one malevolent spirit, a part of him has existed alongside your soul."

Now Kari was on her feet and looking alive once again, as some of the color returned to her cheeks. She turned on the older creature, and her eyes were full of hope and the strength that came with such hope. "Cheyne... Reverend Father... are you saying that I can give it back? I have to give back what he gave to me... I can't believe that all this time..."

"You'd been using his soul to support your own?" the other continued for her. "Freed you from the weight of any emotional pain except save for the moments of most deep and utter despair?"

But Kari wasn't listening and had already fallen at the creature's feet, frantically scrambling around in the dirt for the Crest that she'd thrown at him only moments before. And when her trembling fingers came back up with the little relic the girl grabbed at his paw desperately, holding it close against her face. "Please... please, help me do it, then," she pleaded with him. "If what he left with me will help him to live again..."

Patamon looked at Gatomon, who stared back with eyes that were unreadable. But the little creature knew what she was thinking. Even if it were possible, what Kari was asking had weakened T.K. so much that he had barely been able to stand afterwards. Surely, with all that she'd already been through...

And it seemed that the thoughts of the older creature were of the same. "Dearest child, do you even know what it is that you are asking? Do you have any idea the kind of strength and resolve that it takes to do what he did for you? If you aren't strong enough, you could become so focused on restoring life to him that you forget to sustain it for yourself. It could kill you as well. Takeru would not have wanted that."

Kari looked up from her knees, and steel was in her brown eyes. "I won't live without him, Cheyne... I can't possibly. Even as I'm here and hearing you talk it's eating away at me from the inside. Please... please don't come here with an answer to my misery and then hold it from me at an arm's length. If you are right and we were meant to be together, don't leave me without him. At least let me try..."

The Reverend that the humans knew as an angel held a paw gently against the girl's cheek, slowly caressing it as he examined her eyes for the strength of her conviction. "Yes," he said after a moment. "Yes, I will grant that this is the reason that I have come to you tonight. Michael opposed me, proudly accepting Takeru's sacrifice as he has accepted that of every Paragon and satisfied that he has found peace. But some things are simply right, and for the two of you to be together in life is right..."

Now the creature took Kari's hand and gently raised her to her feet, and the rest of their little company parted as the two made their way to T.K.'s body. As they passed, Shay looked to Ailora and Ailora to Shay, and both Gatomon and Patamon stared at one another as well. No matter what happened here, each of them quite certainly understood that this was what love truly was. T.K. had given up everything for Kari, and died for her as he had lived for her. Now it would be Kari's time to live for them both, if only for a moment.

Everything had slipped into a quietly solemnity as Kari knelt at T.K.'s side. No one spoke, and despite their being in the dead center of a forest there were no sounds of birds in the distance or insects in the night. Even the wind had calmed itself, that it would not intrude by causing the trees surrounding this little scene to be rustled. And now the girl was certain, as certain as she had ever been of anything, that she could hear the beating of T.K.'s heart in her own ears.

Cheyne gestured at the boy's form as Kari looked up at him. "This is in your hands, dearest. Only you can give him back what he has lost. There is nothing for him but you..."

Kari nodded and pulled the tattered shirt away from T.K.'s chest, leaving it bare to her hands. The fingers of one hands were gently caressing his cheek while she placed the Crest of Light over his heart, frowning at the much too cold feel of his skin. And for a moment she doubted herself. She had no idea what she was doing here, and there was just too much for her to risk to...

But then, even in the midst of her doubts and misgivings, the frown slowly disappeared from her lips and was replaced by a small smile as she was pulled into the past and her memories with him. Her eyes slowly slipped into a closed state of reverie, and memories of all the difficult times that they'd come through together came unbidden upon her. But above all the difficulty and the pain was the love.

A great love... a sacrificial love. A love that delighted in putting the needs of another before its own needs, that was what they shared. She needn't have come to this world to look for him; if she'd just have been patient and silent in that morning in her bedroom, she would have realized that he was still right there and speaking to her with a voice that somehow knew everything would be all right in the end.

Now there was a quiet glimmer of light from the Crest as it lay beneath Kari's hand and over T.K.'s heart, and Shay squeezed Ailora's paw to make certain that she could see it as well. Gatomon and Patamon were both focused upon their two human companions, with a single-mindedness in their eyes that would have willed T.K. back to life on their own if it had been possible. Eloan's eyes were closed and his lips moving in silent prayer, and Cheyne's ears twitched forward as he listened for a hint of song that the others simply could not hear.

The silence was long and painful and the light, though it continued to shimmer beneath the girl's hand, did not seem to be growing any more intense. There was sweat upon Kari's forehead, a sweat of great effort, but the girl did not seem to be exerting any energy to cause such a reaction. Instead her eyes remained closed and she swayed slightly in place as her fingers continued to lay upon T.K.'s bare chest.

But then Kari gave a single brief, sharp cry as one in great pain, and collapsed forward to lay across T.K.'s body. The Crest of Light was suddenly dormant, and slipped from her limp fingers to come to rest in the dirt at the boy's side. "Kari!" Gatomon shouted in alarm and made to move forward, only to be stopped by Patamon, who had quite suddenly appeared in her way and was shaking his head.

"Don't," the little mammal warned. "Don't stop her. Leave them together. I know you must be worried, but I can't imagine anything more cruel than to leave her here without him. And with the knowledge that she killed him. This is her one chance to make right everything that's gone wrong. Let her succeed or let her fail, but don't stop her from trying. It would destroy her."

Gatomon seemed to be locked into an internal struggle as she saw Kari lying prone across T.K.'s body, her paws trembling as she held them down at her side. Her teeth were held down hard upon her lips to keep them from trembling but then, after a long moment, she bowed her head and seemed to be at momentary peace. "I know, Pata. I know... this is her salvation, even more than his..."

> > >

"Kari...?"

"Kari...?"

Kari quite suddenly felt herself without pain, and surprisingly without the weight of any of the human burden upon her chest. She found herself bathed in a soothing white light, and all around her there was the peace of utter silence but for the voice that had awoken her.

"T.K.?"

She could not see him, but knew that voice as she knew the beating of her own heart. "Oh Kari, why have you come? I have surrendered all that I had to you, that you would know peace. But even from this place I have heard the cry from your heart that tells me that you are not whole. What else can I give that you can be whole again?"

The girl licked her lips, and spoke blindly into the light. "T.K., you have given me everything. Everything and more. But that isn't what love is about. It can't be. It can't ever be just about you giving up what you are for me. All this time, you've been the strength for us. Now it has to be my turn. If you really do love me, then trust me to carry on without having to always lean on your shoulders. I will settle for having you to lean on half the time, and for the other half you can lean on me. Take back what you've given to me... knowing that between you and me there is enough strength for us..."

> > >

T.K. came slowly into consciousness, and though his body ached terribly there was no longer any horrid weight upon his soul. The last thing that he remembered was watching as the great Sword, flung from his own hand, burned brightly towards the head of the monster that Kari had become. But now he was comfortable... the air smelled clean and he was free of the fever that had burned upon his head for so long. And in his hand was...

The boy blinked open his eyes, and brushed the hair out of his face with his other hand. Sitting up, he discovered that he was back in his bed at Kiara's home. Judging by the light and the sweet smell from the woods outside his open window, it was probably sometime in the early morning. And sitting at his side, in a chair and with her hand tight within his own, dozed Kari.

T.K. didn't move for a moment, only taking a moment to breathe, and breathe easily, for the first time in what had to have been years. It was though some enormous weight had been lifted from his bare chest, letting the air flow easily into his lungs once again. Slowly he eased his hand out from Kari's, sliding from beneath the covers of the bed and moving to the window.

The Crest of Light was no longer about his wrist, and the chain upon his neck no longer held the Crest of Hope. Instead the angel's ring had taken its place and was positioned just over his heart, patient as it had even been for him to present it to Kari.

He turned back to the girl. He wanted to wake her, to ask her what had happened, but now seemed to be an inappropriate time. She had been through enough, certainly, and his questions could wait until she recovered some of her strength.

"What happened is that, in the end, you survived where few others ever have," came a voice, deep and rich, at his back.

T.K. looked over his shoulder to find Cheyne the a'ladon reverend sitting in another chair, off to the side and in the shadows. Around his neck was the Crest of Light, and in his right paw was the Crest of Hope. The boy turned his head to the side, and looked closely at the creature. "Without any help?"

The reverend smiled. "You were not brought back, if that is what you mean. Not physically, in any event. It is appointed a man to die only once, you know. Your body simply gave out because of exhaustion, having borne the demon's fever for all that time. Now you are here, standing before me, because she gave back to you something that you have passed to her some years ago. The Paragon spirit is gone."

T.K.'s brow furrowed deeply at that, and he paused for a moment as if searching inside of himself for something that he could not find. Then he nodded once. "I do feel... uncluttered, I guess. So does this mean that it is really all over? Not just as a long pause, but finished at last? If I don't have the strength left to fight the demons anymore then..."

Cheyne held up a paw to call for silence. "It is over, Takeru. They will not act against the two of you any longer. Not directly, in any event. You may have trials common to your kind, but the days of direct confrontation are over for you. This is what you have longed for, and for resisting the temptation to accept it from Merodach, this is what you have been given."

Now the creature rose from his seat and made his way to T.K.'s side, though his eyes were outside the window instead of on the boy. "I will be leaving you soon. The Enemy has been forced to look elsewhere, but my presence here may draw his eyes in this direction once again. You have won peace, but the other side still bears a grudge against you. Better not to have their attention anywhere in your vicinity."

"So I won't ever see you again?"

The other smiled at the question. "I may drop by, from time to time, to keep up on the two of you. Whether you see me there or not is a different matter."

T.K. seemed in deep concentration for a moment. Then he glanced back up at the angel, clothed as he was in the guise of the reverend. "In that case, I have a final request to make of you," he said, and his hand closed over the ring that dangled just above his heart. "Two, actually."

Cheyne nodded. "First, then?"

"I'm staying here, Cheyne, if it is allowed. This place seems more like home now, and if peace is truly what I've been given I think I could more easily find it here than back on earth. It seems less complicated and a better place to rest."

The creature looked to the sleeping girl, placing a gentle paw upon her head. "And this is what she will want as well?"

T.K. glanced at Kari as well, and after a moment answered. "Yes... yes, she will. I'm sure of it. But only if her family knows that she is well, I suppose." And then he looked back to Cheyne.

"That is no difficult request, Takeru. Stay, if you will, and know that all of those that you love will know that you both are well and together. If you would ever want to return, I believe that you know where to find me. Second?"

The boy's cheeks warmed just slightly. "You know, I think."

If he had not known better, T.K. might have sworn that he heard Cheyne chuckle under his breath. "I do, else I might wonder why Michael had given you that," he answered, nodding to the ring that the boy was guarding so closely. "But are you certain that this is something you want me to do?"

"Who else, in this world or in any other, has as much authority to see us wed? I'm sure that Kari will feel the same way," T.K. responded. "Back on earth we wouldn't be old enough, but here..."

"Mature enough, certainly," the other said, dismissing chronological age with an angelic insight. "Very well, of course it will be my great honor to see the two of you together before I must leave. You have discussed this with her?"

The boy looked troubled. "No, not exactly. Not discussed. But I think... I've always known...

"I know. A matter of etiquette only between the two of you. When did you want this to happen?"

T.K.'s blush grew just a little less pink and a little more red. "Well, if you're leaving us now and can't say when you might be back..."

Cheyne's smile returned. "I see." And he waved a paw towards the sleeping girl as if into encouragement to the boy. "I believe that a spoken proposal, formality though it be in this case, is customary among your people."

T.K. felt nervous as he left Cheyne's side and moved to Kari's, but perhaps not quite as nervous as he ought to have. This was the first time in a very long time that he'd been able to make such a major decision without worrying about if what he was doing was right. He knew this time, for certain. They had gone though so much together, and shared a love so great that for her to be his wife was most definitely right.

"Kari?"

"Kari...?"

And as the back of his fingers gently traced their way across her cheek, the girl's eyes sprang open as if in alarm. And then she brought her own hands up and seized those fingers that were upon her face, squeezing them tightly and bringing them to her lips and kissing at them. "Oh, T.K... T.K., you asked what you have left to give to make me whole. But I am whole, T.K. Now ask what I can give back to you to make you whole and well..."

T.K. looked confused, almost concerned, and held the girl's hands tightly as he stared into her eyes. "Kari?"

She looked wild for a moment, as if one waking from a nightmare, before what she was seeing before her own eyes pulled her back into reality. She drew one breath, then a second, and then threw her arms around his shoulders and started to cry feverishly while burying her face in the crook of his neck.

He held her as close as ever for a few moments, stroking her back with a gentle hand until the tears started to slow. And then, after a few moments of rocking back and forth, pulled away and looked at her with concern in his eyes. Her face was red and her eyes now bloodshot, but to his eyes she seemed as lovely as ever. "Kari, it's okay. It's over. Really over this time."

The girl responded with only a long, quivering breath before taking his face in both hands and pulling him close. "I thought... thought I'd forever destroyed what we have together, T.K. It's still like a nightmare, and I can see..."

A polite cough from over the boy's shoulder interrupted her words. T.K. smiled, and his eyes went away from Kari's for a moment to try to catch a glimpse of Cheyne at his back before he spoke. "Kari, don't worry about the past. Don't try to see any more. Think now on the future, and on us. And say that you'll agree to be my wife."

She seemed struck speechless for a moment, confusion in her eyes and her lips parting just a bit. She had so much to say. How sorry she was for following him here. For having him carry her troubles for all this time. For destroying a special part of him that he could never regain. But instead, as she looked, she found that she couldn't speak those words. They weren't necessary, and both of them knew it. All that he'd done he'd done willingly, and he was right: it was all over. "Oh, T.K..." she exhaled, pulling him close.

He smiled against her cheek, and kissed it gently as he whispered into her ear. "Is that a yes?"

Then what he'd said began to sink into her consciousness. "M... married?" she managed to stammer.

But for once, T.K. seemed to be completely at ease where she was not. "I can't imagine being apart from you any longer, Kari. I'm through fighting, and Cheyne has said that I'm to be granted peace. But I can't be at peace without you with me. I want to stay here, with you, and live the life that we've been denied for too long."

Kari looked over T.K.'s shoulder. "Is it possible, Cheyne? I don't dare believe that..."

"If you wish it, dearest, and I must believe that you do. I have been witness to the joining of more couples over the ages than you can possibly imagine, even at the first, and confess that rarely have I seen two so suitable for one another. The love that let him pass what he did to you is so rare that it happens only once in a generation. Possible? More than possible, child... it is right."

The smile that dawned upon Kari's face at that moment was the most beautiful that T.K. had ever had the pleasure to see. And now once again tears were rolling down her cheeks, but these were tears of the most powerful and overwhelming joy that she had ever known. "Yes, T.K.," she said, pulling the boy close and spinning him around. "I can't imagine anything better. It would make me feel whole again..."

And so the Reverend a'ladon took each of them by the hand and turned them to face him. And he smiled with great sincerity. "There are no words that I can express that will compare with what I know to be between the two of you, so this is all that I will say. Takeru, you have honored your vows. You have set Kari's life above your own, and have in all things defended her. When night fell upon her, your soul did sustain hers at great personal cost. Your own life you have guarded for her sake, and through a great show of respect on your part her maiden's virtue has been kept whole. These deeds remain as living examples of your love for her."

"Kari, you have seen Takeru through many great trials in his life, and have seen him through them with a tenderness that belies both your age and your race. Your people would say that such careful nurturing of a loved one is a sign of great affection... we know it as something greater than that. Through the two of you the weak have become strong, and ancient wrongs have become right once again. The Father has blessed the both of you, now receive that blessing..."

And then the a'ladon nodded to T.K., and behind his strikingly blue eyes the boy could see the face of Gabriel the Archangel. Then finally, released from years of restraint, he took the ring from about his neck and snapped the chain that held it where it could not have been broken before. He was smiling and at peace as he slid the cool metal onto Kari's finger, and from somewhere in his mind he was certain that he heard a shout of jubilation from all those who had watched over and loved him for so long and for what he had been.

"I suppose that's that, then," murmured a voice from the doorway to the room, and as she draped her arms around T.K.'s neck, Kari turned her head to see Gatomon standing there and watching the two of them with an expression of great approval upon her feline features.

> > >

It was early dawn the following morning when Nefertimon and Kari, T.K. and Pegasusmon stood in relative silence to say farewell. Hastily arranged celebrations had stolen the previous day and most of the night, but even in their exhausted state the two digimon had decided that it was time to leave. Their young human friends had a great deal to learn about living together as husband and wife, and much of that learning would not brook the interaction of even the best of friends.

But despite the fact that they were separating, there was no sadness on either side. Each would miss the others, certainly, but each would also know happiness, realizing that their partner would not be alone. And so it was with a smile, finally, that T.K. was able to bid his best friend goodbye. "No tears this time, Pata," he said, and pulled the golden stallion close to his side.

The other laid his head upon the boy's... or rather, the man's shoulder. "I'm happy for you, T.K. I don't know if I had the chance to say it with everything that happened yesterday, but I think that I'll always be happy, no matter what, knowing that you two are safe and together."

T.K. pulled the other's neck into an embrace. "You be safe, Pata. With everything that we've been through, I can hardly believe that you're ready to go out adventuring again. But I suppose that I can't really be worried for you either... I have it on very good authority that you've been blessed and that you have someone watching out for you. But to ease my mortal concerns, watch out for one another. And watch over Eloan and Delia too."

Nefertimon stuck her head in between the pair and smiled. "They can't possibly cause us any more worry than the two of you have," she teased rather good-naturedly. "So we're more than a little used to keeping very small children out of life-threatening danger. I might have even come to miss it."

Kari was toying idly with the silver ring upon the third finger of her left hand, seemingly lost in thought. The sun was starting to rise and was warm upon her shoulders and she was at as a great a peace as she had ever known. But as she looked up, there was a question remaining in her eyes. T.K. saw it, and moved to the side of his young wife. "What is it?" he asked, eyebrows raised and head askew.

"I was only wondering if this is all there is? Just periods of peace broken up by intense times of war? Even if it is over for us, what about the others? In our world and the digital world and here? How can I live here, in peace, knowing that somewhere else innocents may be fighting for their lives and dying for a reason that they can't understand?"

T.K. smiled and held her close as Pegasusmon and Nefertimon walked slowly towards the waiting pair of a'ladon children. Eloan wore a small sword belted upon his waist and a simple set of reeds around his neck, and Delia wore a loose-fitting shawl with no weapons visible upon her person. "You can't fight everyone's battles for them, Kari, no matter how strong you are," the boy answered her. "We've done what we were given to do. Trust that God won't ever allow evil free reign, and that He will always give those innocents someone to rely on. And believe that that someone, if he relies on who sent him, will always triumph in the end."

The brown-haired young woman smiled back at him and took his hand in her own, leading him away from their friend's march to further war and back into a rustic and well earned peace. "I love you, T.K. Takaishi."

"I know. And I know that I'll always love you as much, Kari Takaishi..."

THE END