Author's Note: Remember back near the beginning, when I warned you that there were unhappy things coming, and that not everyone was going to come out of them alive? They start here. Don't say I didn't warn you.

A Small Loss

By: SilvorMoon

Chiaromon was restless. He was more than a little ashamed of himself for losing a fight with the two half-human hybrids, and rather more so for having to be rescued by those three young humans. It might all work out for the best, in the end, particularly since they seemed inclined to listen to him. Still, he'd wanted the hybrids on his side, if he could get them, and being rescued from a fight gone wrong was embarrassing at any time.

Still, there were other things to look forward to. He hadn't been lying to them when he'd told them that he was very close to eliminating their meddlesome master from this equation. One might have assumed that it was very hard to make a ghost do anything he didn't want to do, and that if he wanted to help the Children's children, Chiaromon would have no choice but to put up with it. It was true that a lot of Digimon felt that way, and expected their ghostly protector to help them out as much as he could. It was a stumbling block in Chiaromon's plans, but even a ghost had weaknesses, and Chiaromon was an expert at finding people's weak points...

"Such a pity," he said. "It is disagreeable to involve innocents, but there are some things that are unavoidable if one wishes to make progress."

"I have no difficulties in involving innocents," said a voice in the shadows.

"I know you don't, Devimon," answered Chiaromon. "You scarcely know the meaning of the word."

Devimon did not deign to reply. He still had not completely made up his mind about this strange half-and-half Digimon. He was compelled to obey him, of course, out of the loyalty that he had for the Lord of Demons... but that didn't mean he liked this young lordling. Of course, there weren't many people Devimon did like, so that was all right.

As if sensing his thoughts (something that Devimon wasn't completely convinced Chiaromon couldn't do) the other Digimon said, "I am under the impression that there is little love lost between you and Oikawa?"

"That is correct."

"You would be pleased, then, to rob him of his influence?"

Devimon narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "What would it entail?"

"A great deal of anguish on his part, most likely."

"Enticing, as far as it goes" said Devimon, "but what about my part?"

Chiaromon told him. Devimon smiled.

"Fine," he said. "Consider the job taken."

~*~

It was nearly sunset by the time Arukenimon and Mummymon rejoined the group, and the children had been traveling for most of the day with no clear direction in mind. That being the case, Kaiya was more than happy to use the arrival of their strange protectors as a reason to call a halt for the night. Since most of the group was feeling tired and footsore, they were more than happy to stop walking for the day and settle down on the cool, soft grass. Mai and Natte, neither of whom were quite as strong as the others, simply dropped where they stood and refused to go any further. Those with a bit more stamina scattered about the area to see if there was anything edible nearby, and to bring in wood for a fire. Mummymon struggled with lighting the rather damp wood for a while before Marcel finally crept forward and offered his services. Looking disgruntled, Mummymon stepped back and allowed the clown to touch one of his wands to the woodpile. It burst instantly into merry flames, crackling away as if it had been burning all day long. True, the flames were pink and blue and purple instead of a proper yellow-orange, but one couldn't have everything.

"Would anyone care for a cup of tea?" asked Marcel.

Rather to everyone's surprise, he pulled a teakettle out of his sleeve and set about suspending it over the blaze. The fact that it couldn't possibly have fit where it had apparently been didn't seem to bother him at all. He took a small box out of some other hidden space and began sprinkling powdered green tea into the pot.

"I'll skip it," said Arukenimon disdainfully.

"Wouldn't mind a cup, since you offered," said Mummymon.

Marcel looked pleased and went about tending to the teapot.

Kaiya shuffled over to the nearest convenient sitting spot and flopped down on the grass. She was glad that the two half-humans, odd though they were, had returned. They gave the party an adult presence that she couldn't quite manage, though she thought she was doing well under the circumstances. The children listened to her as they would to a babysitter; they listened to Arukenimon and Mummymon as if they were parents - perhaps not their own, but still someone who commanded respect. Then again, it could just be Arukenimon's aura of vague menace that kept them in line...

The girl's gaze strayed over to where Arukenimon had taken up residence. She was sitting on a tree stump, deep in conversation with... Kaiya blinked. What could Arukenimon possibly have to say to Natte? The little boy was chattering away to her, without any sign of fear, his hands waving as he described something that must have been fascinating, though Kaiya was too far away to hear exactly what it was. Arukenimon was listening with every sign of intense interest. The expression in her catlike eyes was hard to read clearly, but Kaiya thought she detected a kind of longing, almost a hunger. It was the kind of thing that disturbed a protective older sister. She got up, made a pretense of stretching, and ambled over to where her youngest sibling was wrapping up his monologue. As soon as he realized his sister was there, he stopped in mid-sentence and looked up at her with wide eyes.

"Hi," said Kaiya. "Are you two having a nice talk?"

Natte nodded silently and put his thumb in his mouth.

"Your brother has been answering questions for me," answered Arukenimon in her crisp voice. "He has been most informative."

"He has," said Kaiya flatly. "I have to wonder what kind of questions you have to ask a boy like him."

"Matters that concern me," Arukenimon said. She turned to Natte. "Run along and play with your friends, Natte. We can talk some more later."

Natte nodded. "Bye bye, Auntie-kenimon." He scooted off to join some of the other children, who were just now involved in listening to Marcel tell silly stories while they waited for dinner to cook.

"You two have gotten to be awfully close friends in a short amount of time," said Kaiya.

Arukenimon gave a half-shrug and looked away. "It's not my fault if the brat can't say my name right."

"Oh, come off it. You two were having a serious discussion about something. I want to know what it is that interests you so much. I saw that look in your eyes. This wasn't just any little fireside chat you were having."

Arukenimon gave her a long, hard stare.

"You would face me down, then, if you thought I intended your brother any harm?" she asked casually. "Even though you know you couldn't win if it came to a fight between us?"

"If I had to."

"You're a brave girl. Probably stupid, but I guess you can't have everything. But you don't need to worry. Not that I'm saying I'm completely trustworthy, but you can trust me in this. I mean your brother no harm. Far from it. I will not harm him, nor will I let any harm come to him while there is breath in my body. You have my word on that."

Her voice shook slightly. Kaiya gave her a narrow look.

"What were you talking about?"

"I can't tell you."

"Why not?"

"Because he made me promise not to, that's why."

"What? What can he tell you that he can't tell me?"

"That's his secret, isn't it?" Arukenimon retorted. "If you haven't figured it out by now, that's your problem.... I think your other brother has guessed, though. You might try asking him and see what kind of response you get. He's under no vow of secrecy."

"Argh!" said Kaiya, throwing up her hands in disgust. "You're the most impossible woman I've ever met!"

"Yes, I am," answered Arukenimon. "If you knew what it was like, you might understand a lot more than you do now."

Kaiya turned and stalked away. "I'm going to talk to Marcel. At least he treats me with some respect."

She slouched over to the fireside and did her best to listen to the story with the rest of the group, but her attention wandered. Perhaps it was because she had come in at the middle of the story, or because she had the fire between her and Marcel and couldn't meet his eyes properly, or maybe just because she was preoccupied, but his spell didn't seem to have as much of a hold on her as it usually did. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Arukenimon taking Mummymon aside and whispering something to him. His eye widened, and his jaw dropped in an expression of utter amazement. He gesticulated a bit as he whispered back to her, and she nodded. Kaiya frowned. He had been pointing at Natte.

~*~

Seiko was well aware that there was trouble brewing, and equally aware that there was nothing she could really do about it. She settled for doing her unreachable routine, putting on her headphones and turning on one of her video games. She knew her father would be home soon, and when he did, she was going to be in trouble, so she might as well try to have some fun while she could. Her Tentomon, Spike, hovered worriedly over her shoulder.

"Maybe we could explain it to him?" he asked, without much hope.

"I doubt it," Seiko muttered. "He just doesn't get it. Nobody gets it."

"You know, maybe it wouldn't be so bad for you to just try to make them happy?"

Seiko's only answer was a snort of disbelief.

"Well, you could."

"I'd go crazy."

The argument, one-sided as it was, was interrupted by the sound of the front door being opened. Seiko didn't hear it, since she was wearing her headphones and could only just barely hear Spike talking to her, but the Tentomon heard it. He left his partner and went buzzing towards the door.

"He's here," he announced.

"Don't care," Seiko muttered sullenly.

Spike sighed. He worried about his partner. He supposed it was probably just some kind of teenaged rebellious phase - not that he had more than a fuzzy understanding of what that meant - but he was starting to worry about Seiko lately. She had once been so close to her father, but these days... He shrugged, as best he could lacking shoulders, and flew out of the room to greet the man of the house.

"Oh, hello, Spike," said Koushiro. "How was your day?"

"A bit depressing," Spike admitted. "Seiko had a difficult day at school."

"Again?" asked Koushiro.

Spike nodded. Koushiro and Tentomon gave identical sighs.

"What happened now?" Koushiro asked.

"Well, the results for her math test came back... and, well..."

"You don't have to tell me," said Koushiro. He shook his head. "I wish she wouldn't keep doing this to herself. I know she can pass these things, if she tried. It's not like she doesn't know all the answers."

Spike flicked his antennae in a gesture of resignation. "That's just it. She knows all the answers. She knows too much. She knew all the answers before she ever got into the class in the first place."

"Then why can't she write them down?" Tentomon asked.

"Well, I'm not sure," said Spike, "but I think she's bored."

Koushiro shook his head. "Maybe it's time I had another talk with her. There's got to be a solution to this somewhere."

"Good luck," said Spike. "She's hiding in her room again."

"I'll root her out somehow," said Koushiro.

He set out down the hall until he reached his daughter's door. It was closed, which he expected, and locked, which surprised him a bit. He knocked, waited a minute, and then knocked more loudly.

"You know I'm out here," he called. "Are you going to open the door, or do I have to do it?"

There was a long pause. Seiko was thinking. It was an eternal annoyance to her that the locks on the doors were eminently simple mechanisms that could be opened by any small child with a lollipop stick. If she made her father angry enough, he would come in, whether the door was locked or not. With a sigh, she paused her game, got up, and unlocked the door.

"That's better," said Koushiro. "Can I come in, or would you rather come out?"

"Come in," Seiko replied. She went and sat down on her bed. Her father took a seat on her desk chair, while the two Tentomons took up places as resident flies on the wall.

"I heard you had a rough day at school," said Koushiro.

His daughter regarded him narrowly. "Have my teachers been talking to you?"

"I heard it from Spike. He's worried about you. So am I."

"Well, there's nothing to worry about. I know what I'm doing."

"You realize you're failing half your classes."

"I don't care."

"Seiko, I don't understand it. You're a smart girl - brilliant, maybe. You know all these things backwards and forwards. I don't understand why it's so hard for you to pass a simple test."

"It's not hard," Seiko muttered. "I'm just sick of it, that's all. Every day I'm stuck in class being taught things that you already taught me when I was a little kid. I know more about this stuff than the teachers do. I'm so tired of being treated like an idiot who can't even work out the cosine of a wave."

"Not everyone can do that," Koushiro said. "That doesn't make them idiots."

"Well, I can. I learned more from you than I'll ever learn in school, and I don't see why I ought to be sitting in class being tested on stuff I already know. Why can't I go out and do something real?"

"Most people like you to have a college degree before they'll let you do any real work," Koushiro pointed out. "You're not likely to get one if you can't even graduate from high school."

Seiko shrugged. "I don't need one. I'm going to come and work with you and Mr. Kido and Mr. Takenouchi at the lab."

"And what if I won't let you?"

"Dad, you can't not let me! I know how to do the work. I want to. I'd be a big help, really!"

He shook his head. "Seiko, the Digital World isn't like one of your video games. Some of us have learned that, to our cost. It's complicated, and treacherous, sometimes. We're still struggling to learn all the rules. You've only seen the bright side of it - and maybe that's my fault for wanting to protect you. But the truth is, you need to be able to do more than memorize facts and do math equations to handle it."

"But I can, Dad! Just give me a chance."

"No. Listen. There are things you learn in school that have nothing to do with the things you're graded on. Things like learning how to get along with other people... and things like discipline. That means doing dull, boring work sometimes, because it needs to be done, not because it's what you want to do. For every afternoon we spend doing field studies in the Digital World, there are hours and hours spent back here at a desk, doing plain old facts and figures. And you're asking me to let you do that when you can't even get through a simple math class. I can't let you help me if I know you aren't willing to put your full effort into the work. What if you made a mistake and threw all our calculations out of whack? Sorry, Seiko, but you'd have to prove we can trust you before you can work with us."

Seiko scowled. "Why can't you even trust your own daughter?"

"Because trust has to be earned," said Koushiro softly, "even in your own family."

There was a long, tense moment, as Seiko's eyes met her father's, and her fierce young will clashed with his calm, steady presence. The resistance she met surprised her. She was used to thinking of her father as a pleasant, slightly-absent minded person, someone who was formidable enough during a debate on the nature of some digital phenomenon, but otherwise harmless. The exploits of his childhood were no more real than the storybooks she'd read as a child, the ones that were special- ordered with her own name written in for the main character's. Just because the story was partially about him didn't make it seem any more possible. She'd believed it all when she was a little girl, but as she grew up, the idea that her father had once helped save the world had been outgrown with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. The sudden re-realization that she was sitting in her room facing down a man straight out of legend was a little more than she could stand to grasp, and she looked away. She could go on believing her father was just a man when she was looking at his scuffed shoes with one lace partially untied.

"I want to see an improvement," said Koushiro. "Not just your grades. Work on your attitude. Prove to me you're ready for some real work, and then we'll talk again."

"Okay," she said glumly.

Koushiro got up and ruffled her hair affectionately. "I know you can do it, Seiko. Just give it a try, that's all. And I'll see about talking to your teachers. Maybe we can work something out."

Seiko didn't answer. Her father left the room, with his partner trailing behind him, and still she sat quietly where she was, staring thoughtfully at the wall. Spike hovered over to sit next to her.

"What are you thinking?" he asked.

"Dad doesn't trust me," she muttered. "He still treats me like a little kid. What do you think it would take to make him respect me?"

"You might start by doing your homework," Spike suggested, without much real hope.

"Homework is stupid," Seiko muttered. "It's just for practice, anyway. I don't need any more practice - I could do it in my sleep. I want to do something real. Something like Dad did."

"You aren't planning to go back to the Digital World, are you?"

Seiko's eyes lit up. "Why shouldn't I?"

"I don't suppose telling you it's dangerous would do any good, would it?"

"That's just the point, Spike. It has to be dangerous. There's no glory in beating the practice level; you have to win the game."

"You have to beat the levels in between, too, you know."

"I'm ready. I know I am." She jumped to her feet and turned on the computer. "I'll make him realize I'm just as good as he was!"

"I don't think this is going to work," said Spike.

Right or not, he was too late. There was a flash, and Seiko and her partner had vanished.

~*~

The day dawned, and that was the most that could be said for it. In the east, there was a faint lifting of the gloom, but it was that of exhausted sunbeams who had fought their way desperately through the clouds, and were now pale and wan from their exertions. The western side of the sky was still nearly black, and it was anyone's guess whether the weak sunlight would be able to clear it. The children and their companions stared at this unencouraging sight with bleak expressions.

"Well, isn't this a lovely way to start the day," Arukenimon muttered. She was in a rather bad mood at having been forced to spend the night out in the open, and had spent the last few minutes directing Mummymon through the arduous process of getting all the twigs and leaves unsnarled from her hair.

"Could be worse," said Tasuke cheerfully. "It might rain."

"It won't," said Mummymon, giving the sky a thoughtful glance. "Not until later, anyway. Maybe tonight."

"Then I propose we go as far as we can while it's still dry," said Kaiya. "Is there anywhere near here where we might find shelter?"

"Possibly," said Arukenimon. "I vaguely recall there being a rest stop some ten miles that direction." She waved a hand vaguely. "Whether or not it's there now is anyone's guess."

"Looks like we're going to get rained on," said Kaze.

"I suggest," said Keiji, "that we alter our course to the west. There appears to be more tree- cover there. We're more likely to be able to make a shelter there, if we don't find one already made."

"That will bring you closer to Chiaromon's lair," Marcel said timidly.

"All the more reason to go there!" Mitsu announced. "He's the enemy, and we ought to be keeping an eye on him!"

"I don't want to go that way," said Mai quietly.

"Nor I," said Marcel. He looked around and added sheepishly, "if that's all right with you."

"We don't have to go that far," said Kaiya. "Just far enough to get out of the rain."

With some grumbling, the group eventually decided that Keiji's proposition was probably the best one, and they set out in the direction of the distant treeline. It didn't look that far away, and they set out with relatively high hopes. However, as the miles dragged on and the sky grew more leaden, their spirits dropped. The world seemed ominously silent. The only sound was that of the wind rushing over the prairie, and even that seemed less a sound than a kind of white noise that swallowed up all other sounds. The whole world had a desolate feel to it, a feeling that all other life had sensed the coming of something dreadful and fled, leaving only a handful of misguided wanderers to blunder unwittingly onward. The air was growing cold. The trees ahead seemed to become darker and more menacing with every step the travelers took. A few of the smaller children (and more than one Digimon) was making small noises of uneasiness. Marcel, a reluctant rearguard, was muttering his mantra under his breath: "I am Marcel the Magnificent, I am Marcel the Magnificent, I am..."

Then he stopped. Everyone stopped, because coming from somewhere just up ahead was a sound that seemed totally out of place. Someone was laughing - not an unfriendly laugh, but a high- pitched, childlike giggle, completely carefree and innocent. The group glanced at each other in surprise. Then, without bothering to consult, the entire group moved in the direction of the laughter.

At the border of the forest, they found a pleasant mossy area punctuated with miniature blue flowers. Fluttering around the clearing was a collection of brilliantly colored butterflies, flashing in every color of the rainbow, darting this way and that in a display of disorganized beauty. On the ground, a round green Digimon was hopping around wildly, laughing and panting as it attempted to catch the butterflies. Each time he captured one, it would do something different: burst like a firework, or make a musical chime, or pop like a bubble.

"Hello, Pipimon!" Kaiya greeted. "We weren't expecting to see you here. Where's your friend?"

"He's right here," said Pipimon, more intent on butterfly-catching than conversation.

"Where?" asked Kaze, looking around. "I don't see anybody."

"That," said a disembodied voice, "is because you don't know what you're looking for."

Pipimon pounced on the final butterfly, which took off like a small rocket, turned upside-down in mid-flight, and dropped back to the ground. It hit the earth with a spray of purple sparks and turned into Oikawa. Kaze stepped back in surprise.

"Wow," said Tasuke, impressed. "I didn't know you could do that."

"I would have thought such displays of tomfoolery were beneath you," said Arukenimon.

Oikawa shrugged. "It amuses Pipimon." To Tasuke, he said, "I wear this particular shape because it is what I'm used to, not because I have to. It's an advantage of not being quite alive."

"Oh," said Tasuke, who didn't seem to know what to make of this.

"That's cool!" his V-mon, Savvy, piped up. "Can you turn into a dinosaur next? How 'bout a robot?"

"I think I will choose to ignore that bit of absurdity," said Oikawa. "I am inclined to indulge my partner, but that's a special case."

"Aw, nuts," said Savvy.

Oikawa ignored him. "Have any of you had any luck in your quest? I wasn't around to hear what came of your meeting with Gennai."

"We found him. He gave us these." Kaiya produced the crystal Key that she had been given. It glowed softly in the gloom, its colors shifting gently. It reminded her suddenly of Oikawa's multicolored butterflies, and wondered vaguely if there was a connection somewhere.

Oikawa studied the Key gravely. "Yes, this is an artifact of power... and it is capable of growing more powerful still." He reached out a hand, and then drew it back. "I will not touch it. I am not sure what would happen if I did. There is something here that reacts strongly to spiritual energy. Letting it fall into the wrong hands - even well-meaning wrong hands - would likely do it a great deal of harm."

"Gennai says they're supposed to unlock the powers of the Crests," Mitsu offered.

"I see," said Oikawa. "Yes, I can see how that would work. Quite cunning work, really... but then, Gennai seems to be a cunning man, at times..."

His gaze wandered, and the children sensed he was talking more to himself than to them. A few people fidgeted, sensing that they were not going to get anything out of this meeting than they had already heard. Then his attention snapped back to them, and they felt his focus settle on them so palpably that they flinched.

"Well," he said, in a surprisingly mild tone, "this makes my initial advice more relevant than ever. These Keys are quite different from the Crests, and must be handled with particular care. They will react to powerful spiritual forces, whatever their nature. Brought in contact with great fear, or sadness, or anger, that is what they will absorb. If your hearts falter, your quest will be lost."

"On the other hand," said Taskue knowledgeably, "it means we don't have to be brave or smart or any of that to make 'em work. We just have to find someone who is."

"There is that," said Oikawa. "Still, I don't see that making the work that much more simple in the long run. People of great virtue are rare at any given time."

"We definitely can't let Chiaromon get his slimy paws on one," Arukenimon said, eyes narrowed. "He's everything all at once. He'd break it in half."

"Precisely," Oikawa replied.

"Fun," muttered Kaiya.

"So, where are you off to now?" the spirit inquired.

"We aren't quite sure," said Kaiya. "At the moment, we're looking for a place to get out of the rain, when it comes."

Oikawa looked distant a moment. "It will not rain until just after nightfall. That much I feel. However, there is very little shelter anywhere near here. However, I could try to find..."

His expression suddenly shifted to one of wary watchfulness. He looked around, eyes narrowed, peering into the shadows at something only he could see.

"Careful!" he hissed. "Something is coming."

The children and their Digimon instinctively drew closer together, while Mummymon and Arukenimon tensed, prepared to transform the minute anything should go wrong. Marcel, in classic form, gave a squeak of fright and tried to escape, but Kaze caught him by one of his ribbons and yanked him back.

"Oh, no you don't!" he snapped. "You're staying here this time!"

"That's right," agreed a voice. "None of you are going anywhere."

Out of the shadows stepped a familiar shape. Devimon strode from the forest, head held high, a gloating smile on his face. Oikawa's expression did not change, but the air around him glowed vivid purple.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded. "You belong in the darkness with the rest of the demons."

"Not when I have work to do," Devimon replied.

"Then leave us alone and go work," said Kaze boldly. "We weren't bothering you."

Devimon threw back his head and laughed. "You? You are none of my concern. You are far weaker than your parents ever were when they were in this world, and I have become far stronger now that the Lord of Demons is returning to his own. No, you and your little pets are of no consequence. I have my sights on other targets."

"You plan to pick on someone your own size, for a change, hm?" Arukenimon taunted.

"No," said Devimon. "I have no use for you, either. I know I'm no match for you, more's the pity. No, I've come to pick on someone much, much smaller."

Much to the children's confusion, a look of dawning dread passed over the faces of both half- humans, while Oikawa stared with an expression of utter disbelief and horror, as if he couldn't believe even Devimon would sink so low as to... what?

"Oh, no you don't!" shouted Mummymon in sudden outrage.

"Wouldn't what?" asked Mitsu.

Nobody answered. Oikawa took a step toward his Digimon, as if to protect him, and instinctively the others followed suit. Unfortunately, the sudden movements unnerved Pipimon, and he began darting around in crazy loops, squeaking in panic.

"Stop! We've got to get out of here!" Oikawa shouted.

"Get out of the way!" Devimon snarled, reaching out one attenuated arm to brush Mitsu out of his way. Yuki, infuriated, lunged at him and began trying to claw his face, and he was forced to attend to that for a while.

"That's right! Go get him!" Mitsu cheered.

"No, don't get him!" said Mummymon, exasperated. "I can't fight him if she's in the way!"

That was one problem, at least, that solved itself. Devimon finally managed to latch on to Yuki's long tail, and he twirled her over his head once before letting her fly. She sailed gracefully through the air to land with a whump on the moss. Under ordinary circumstances, Mitsu would have run to her side to see if she was all right. As it was, she wound up having to witness something much less pleasant.

"Move, you interfering brats!" Devimon snarled. He lashed out with one claw, and the children felt a wave of force spring from it that battered them to all sides, and even the more powerful Digimon had to brace themselves as if they stood before a hurricaine-force wind. The blast only lasted a few seconds, but in that span of time, Pipimon was completely unguarded. He looked up at the terror looming over him and tried to make a run for it. Devimon's claw lashed out, and black energy rolled from it, enveloping the tiny Digimon. Pipimon gave a squeal that bordered on ultrasonic, scraping across the upper limits of human hearing. Then there was a burst of green sparks, and the little Digimon was no more.

"NOOOOOOO!"

Oikawa dropped to his hands and knees, howling in incoherent agony. His cry went on and on, without need for breath. Gradually, it weakened and faded away, leaving only a shattered man bent under the weight of the blow. Devimon strode over to him and laughed.

"So the mighty falls," he sneered. "Where are your awesome powers now, Spirit of the Digital World? Can you fight me now that I've killed your precious pet?"

Oikawa did not respond. Devimon laughed again.

"I thought not," he said. "It's a pity you're only voice and vapor, Oikawa. I'd take pleasure in grinding your face into the dirt. As it is, I think I'll just stand here enjoying having you kneeling at my feet."

"Get away from him!" shouted Mummymon. He took a few steps forward, and Arukenimon pulled him back.

"No," she said. "Look."

Oikawa was getting up. He stood, very slowly, like a man who is not sure of his strength. His eyes were blazing - not black anymore, but a vivid violet. His hair and robes were stirring in some unseen wind. The pale light around him flashed and danced like tongues of fire. Devimon took an involuntary step back. The specter seemed somehow taller and darker than before, looming over the dark Digimon like something from a nightmare.

"You," said Oikawa softly. "You... have... gone... too... far."

Devimon regarded him with surprise for a moment. Then his sneer came back.

"What are you going to do about it if I have?" he asked. "You have no power against me now. You don't have the power to put out a candle, now, do you? You couldn't-"

Something snapped. The world seemed to quake for a moment, and a powerful wind rushed by, nearly throwing the onlookers off their feet, causing hair and clothing to whip crazily. The space where Devimon stood wavered wildly for a minute, like air rising from hot pavement. Devimon had time for a cry of surprise, and then he was...

Gone.

Oikawa dropped to his knees again, appearing as just an ordinary man once more. His outline was so faint he could barely be seen. He seemed to be sobbing softly, calling Pipimon's name. Arukenimon and Mummymon rushed to his side.

"Come on, boss, pull yourself together," Mummymon said encouragingly.

"He's right," Arukenimon said. "The world hasn't come to an end yet. Get a grip."

At first, Oikawa didn't seem to realize they were there. Then, with an effort, he rose to a kneeling position and shook himself.

"You're right," he said unsteadily. "It's not over yet... I shouldn't have done that."

"Yes, you should have," Arukenimon said. "The world is better off without him."

"What did you do?" asked Tasuke. "Where did Devimon go?"

"I - erased him."

"Deleted him, you mean?" asked Mitsu. "You sent him back to the Primary Village?"

"No. He is erased. His data was disassembled and reincorporated into the fabric of the Digital World. His physical essence has been destroyed... he cannot return. I've killed him."

"And a good thing, too," said Arukenimon. "I'd have done the same thing, if I could."

Oikawa shook his head. "I've never killed a Digimon... I'm sworn to protect them..."

"Not when they're trying to kill you, dolt," his creation answered tartly. "Now, don't you have somewhere you need to be?"

"You're right," he said. "I've got my priorities wrong. Children, forgive me, but I must leave... Meet me at the Primary Village as fast as you can get there."

With no more words than that, he vanished. The children simply stared at the place he'd been. There was a little scorched spot where Pipimon had vanished, and that was all. The only sound in the world was that of Marcel whimpering softly and occasionally sniveling. Mummymon shook his head mournfully, but Arukenimon just scowled.

"Disgraceful tactics," she muttered. "I wouldn't have stooped so low... but then, there's always been human in me..."

"Would someone answer me a question?" asked Kaiya. "What in the name of all wonder just happened here?"

"Which part?" asked Mummymon.

"The whole thing," Tasuke suggested.

"Oh. Well," said Mummymon. "That's complicated."

"Mummymon, dearest," said Arukenimon, "do me a favor, hm? I'm not in a good mood right now, so why don't you just not talk for a while and let me straighten this out myself, all right?"

"Whatever you say, Precious."

Mitsu was staring, aghast, at the place where Pipimon had vanished.

"That was a terrible thing to do," she said, voice shaking. "Just... terrible. How could anything want to kill an innocent baby Digimon? He just crushed him, just like that..."

"Someone might, if they had something to gain from it," said Arukenimon. "Come on. You heard what Oikawa said. We've got to go to the Primary Village, and we've got to do it fast. You can listen to explanations while we travel." She considered a moment. Then, with an easy shrug, she morphed into her spider form. "We'll be faster if the little ones ride."

Not seeing any reason to argue, the older children helped the youngest clamber onto the spider-woman's back. There was room for several of them there, and once she'd made the suggestion, nothing would do but for Mummymon and Marcel to pitch in and help. In the end, Mai rode easily on Mummymon's shoulder, while Marcel carried Keiji piggy-back. In the end, only Kaiya, Mitsu, and Tasuke, plus the Digimon, were traveling on their own feet. They had to trot quickly to keep up with the pace Arukenimon was setting; it wasn't long before they were wishing they had a Digimon to ride on, too.

"So, explain what just happened," said Kaiya as they hurried along.

"Simple," said Arukenimon. "Chiaromon just took his best stab at killing Oikawa."

"But he can't do that!" Kaze protested. "The old guy's already dead."

"In a sense," Mummymon said, "but then again, he's still a little alive, or he wouldn't still be here, would he?"

"Mummymon, what did I say about being quiet?"

"Sorry."

"Yes, well," said Arukenimon, "Oikawa's physical body is definitely destroyed. Just like he did for Devimon, in fact. He destroyed it himself thirty-odd years ago to provide energy for the healing of the Digital World. In doing so, he sealed himself to this world, but ironically enough, lost the ability to interact with it physically. Or he would have, if it weren't for Pipimon."

"What's he got to do with anything?" asked Tasuke. "He's just a little Digimon."

"He is Oikawa's partner," said Arukenimon. "See, he explained all this to me, after he first brought us back. Thought it would be useful for us to know. The two of them share a soul-link... which is probably lucky, since his soul is about all Oikawa has left these days. Oikawa is spiritually linked to Pipimon, and Pipimon is physically linked to the Digital World. Thus is Oikawa able to physically interact with the world, in partial measure. Take Pipimon out of the picture, and he will likely fade away. At the very least, he will lose most of his power to do anything practical, so he won't be a danger to Chiaromon anymore."

"But... you can't really kill a Digimon," said Keiji. "Not really. They just go back to the Primary Village and get hatched again. That's why we're going there now, right?"

"Why do you think the Primary Village needs a guardian?" asked Arukenimon.

"Umm..." said Keiji.

"If a Digimon can't be killed, what difference does it make whether the eggs are safe or not? Nothing bad could really happen to them, if that were the case," the spider woman replied. "But that's not the case. Despite what you may have been led to believe, Digimon don't live forever."

"How long do they live?" asked Taskuke. A few people glared at him, but he wasn't paying attention.

"It varies." That was Marcel speaking. "It seems to depend on a lot of things. How high the Digimon evolves before it dies... what kills it... how it took care of itself while it was alive... oh, lots of things. Some of them live a very, very long time, by human standards. Thousands of years, some of them."

"But they all eventually wear out in the end," said Arukenimon, shooting Marcel a glare. "After a while, data tends to corrupt. When it gets to the point where it can no longer be reconfigured into a viable Digimon, well... that's the end of them. And there's one other thing - one very important thing for us to remember right now."

"What's that?" asked Kaiya.

"Do you know what happens if a Digimon egg is crushed?"

"No."

"Nothing. That's what."

There was a hush over the group as they absorbed this.

"Do you mean," asked Mitsu slowly, "that if you break a Digimon egg, the Digimon inside dies?"

"Of course that's what I mean. What else would I mean? The egg is the holding place for the data of a reborn Digimon, where it gets reorganized. If you break the egg before the Digimon is ready to be hatched, the data gets damaged, and it can't be reconfigured."

"Ohhh!" said Tasuke. "I get it - we've gotta get that egg before Chiaromon's goons get to it."

"Right," Arukenimon agreed. "The game's not over while the egg is still safe. If you ask me, Oikawa was wise to destroy Devimon. It buys us some time. Mark my words, if he'd let that overgrown blackbird fly away, he would have gone straight to the Primary Village and started smashing eggs. It will be a little while before Chiaromon realizes his servant has been obliterated. We might still make it... and we have to make it. Precious lot of good Oikawa will be able to do while Pipimon's out of commission."

There was a moment of thoughtful silence. Then:

"How did he kill Devimon?"

Everyone looked at Keiji.

"How did he do it?" she repeated. "If he's powerless while Pipimon's gone, then he shouldn't have had the energy to obliterate a powerful high-level Digimon, should he?"

"Hmm," said Arukenimon. Obviously this thought hadn't occurred to her. "Good question. How did he do it?"

"Us," said Mummymon.

"Beg pardon?" his partner asked.

"Us," Mummymon repeated. "He drew his power through us. We're connected to him, too, you know. It could have worked. You never know."

"Humph," said Arukenimon. Something about the idea seemed to displease her.

"It was a thought," Mummymon said, shrugging.

"Well, try not to have any more thoughts. You're not good at it." She bounded forward, momentarily forgetting that she had passengers, and nearly dumped them in her haste to move ahead. Mummymon looked around at those left behind with a look of utter bafflement on his face.

"What did I say?"

"If I were to hazard a guess," said Kaiya slowly, "I think she doesn't like being reminded that she's tied to Oikawa."

"Why not? I always liked him," Mummymon answered.

"Well," said Keiji, "what happens if he does die? I mean, if you're both tied to him and you're only even alive now because of him, if he dies now, you might both go away and never come back."

Mummymon took a moment to absorb this. Then he suddenly moved into a sprint.

"Hey, wait up!" he shouted. "Come on, everyone - we have to hurry!"

Tasuke glared at Kaiya. "You had to put the idea in his head, didn't you?"

She shrugged. It made no difference to her, since Marcel was carrying her.

"I could carry one more," the clown offered. He seemed not to notice the weight of the girl on his shoulders, and moved as easily with her as he had without her.

"Nah, I'll run, thanks," said Tasuke. "I'm not the star of the track team for nothing!"

"Carry me!" said Speedbump. "I want a ride!"

Marcel obediently scooped up the armadillo Digimon without so much as breaking his stride, and then bounded forward to catch up to Mummymon. Soon Kaiya was stuck at the back of a straggling line. She sighed. She didn't want to run. The afternoon's events had left her feeling weighted down. Gathering what energy she could find, she forced herself into a jog and set her mind on reaching the Primary Village.

~*~

In the ordinary course of things, Chiaromon would probably have realized that Pipimon was not quite as dead as he would have liked. It was also true that he probably would have found out quickly enough that his servant was a good deal more dead than he would have preferred. Odds were good that he'd still find out, in due time, and when he did, things would happen that nobody else involved with the matter would enjoy. In the meantime, though, Chiaromon's spies were not as organized as he would have liked. Thus it came to pass that the first bit of news that reached him was in an entirely unrelated, but interesting, matter.

"Master," said the Goblimon who guarded the eastern desert, "I've spotted a human."

"What, another one?" said Chiaromon idly. "They do seem to be cropping up a lot lately. I shall have to deal with the matter eventually."

The Goblimon tried not to sigh in exasperation. The hazard of dealing with Chiaromon and his dual-natured personality was that the things he said were absolutely imperative turned into non-issues in the course of a few minutes. It was next to impossible to guess, from day to day, what he actually wanted anyone to do.

"She is alone," he persisted. "Should I send someone to delete her?"

Chiaromon thought about this for a while. In fact, he thought about it for so long that the Goblimon was about to give up and walk away when he finally spoke.

"Is this human adult, or a child?"

"A child, my lord."

"And she is alone?"

"Except for her Digimon partner, yes."

"What manner of Digimon is it?"

"It is a Tentomon, my lord. He wouldn't be difficult to fight off. Do you want us to eliminate her?"

"No," said Chiaromon. "No humans are to be eliminated without my say-so. That's a standing order." He paused a moment, thinking, and then added, "Particularly the female ones."

The Goblimon nodded. He had been re-hatched a few times since then, but he could dimly remember a life as a servant of Chiaromon's father. He knew there was something the vampire-lord had enjoyed doing with female captives from time to time, though the Goblimon had only a dim idea what that could be. Still, he assumed that Chiaromon had something of the same thing in mind.

"As you wish," said the Goblimon. "A capture, then, perhaps?"

Chiaromon considered that a bit longer.

"No," he said at last. "I would prefer to make a good impression. I will talk to her myself. It may be that she will be of some use to me, if I am careful. Where is she?"

"The Waterpipe Wasteland, my lord."

"Excellent. She will be easy to find there. I will go now."

Chiaromon exited the room, heading for a balcony at the top of one of his towers, regretting once again that flying had to be a difficult task. He knew his father had had the trick of levitating himself by pure magical power; why couldn't he do that? It was just one of the many bits of unfairness life had seen fit to drop on him. He reached the balcony, leaped, and struggled to get his wings spread properly. For a moment, he wobbled on the wind. Then he gave a mighty wrench and managed to steady himself enough to soar.

*One of these days,* he thought grimly, *I'm not going to make it in time, and then perhaps I won't have to worry about the problem anymore.*

But no, he was an Ultimate Digimon, and there were few heights in the world tall enough that dropping him from them would be enough to finish him off. If there were, he would have used them, on the off-chance that he might be able to accidentally kill himself. As it was, he put the whole matter out of his mind and concentrated on his new objective.

In the beginning, he had not been interested in the human children. They were no real threat to him, not while their partners were no more than weak Champions at best. It was their parents he was interested in, both for his research and his revenge. However, his recent encounters with the children had led him to think they might have their uses, after all. It was likely that his real targets were aware of his purpose. They would not come to the Digital World, now, while they knew he was looking for them - not unless they had a very compelling reason. Say, for example, that Chiaromon had something they wanted too much not to take the risk...

Meanwhile, Seiko was a bit lost. At least, that was probably the best word for it. It was true that she didn't know precisely where she was, but she also had no real idea where she was going, and it was a bit hard to be properly lost if one didn't have a destination in mind. A destination was rapidly forming there, though, and it looked a lot like "anywhere but here".

By pure chance, she had managed to materialize in one of those areas where the laws of nature had forgotten what they were supposed to be doing, with the practical upshot being that, in the places where trees and plants should have been growing, the earth had put forth an impressive collection of plumbing. Pipes grew up from the ground like odd vines, looping and twisting in a variety of odd shapes before finally plunging back into the ground again. Others sprouted high in the air like peculiar trees. Sinks of various sizes, shapes, and colors grew wild here. On a single thin pipe, a toilet was suspended in midair, of absolutely no use to anyone who didn't have twelve-foot-long legs. Other than that, there appeared to be nothing out here but rocks and dust. Certainly there were no living things as far as the eye could see, not so much as a gnat or a blade of grass.

*This is no good,* thought Seiko, mopping sweat from her brow. *I'm never going to get anywhere in a place like this!*

She was feeling miffed at the whole thing. Under favorable circumstances, she would have been fascinated by the whole thing, but those favorable circumstances would have included something to drink. The bare earth was hot, and all the metal around her seemed to be conducting the heat and keeping all the air around her at a temperature comparable to the average oven. She had only been there a half-hour or so, and already she was feeling dusty, overheated, slightly sunburned, and as thirsty as she had ever been in her life.

"It's too hot," Spike complained. His insectoid system was even more sensitive to heat than hers was, and he was too drained to even fly. He was perched on his partner's back like a peculiar knapsack, and while he was not particularly heavy, Seiko was starting to feel weighed down by him.

"You're telling me," she said. "I always thought the Digital World was mostly forests and stuff."

"Well, this part sure isn't. Can we go home?"

"No," said Seiko stubbornly. "I'm not giving up that easy. Hey, with all these sinks around, there's got to be some water somewhere, right?"

They began testing sinks. The first one Seiko tried gushed forth orange soda. Another one glubbed a long time before finally oozing a stream of toothpaste. A third produced what smelled like motor oil, and a fourth produced ketchup. Spike tried one that bubbled out some peculiar pink substance that they eventually realized was liquid soap.

"I wonder where it all comes from?" Seiko wondered, as she watched a stream of chicken soup spill merrily out of a faucet.

"I just wonder where we could get a drink," said Spike woefully. "Right now, I'd settle for some shade."

Something flashed over their heads, momentarily blotting out the sun and throwing a shadow over both of them. By the time they looked up, it was already gone. Out of their range of vision, something touched down on the dusty earth.

Chiaromon stumbled. Flying was difficult, and landing was rather moreso. There was nothing to trip over in midair, but now his boots stirred up clouds of sand as he staggered and tried not to fall. Dust settled over his black and white clothing, tinting them faintly brown. He brushed at them fastidiously. He wanted to make a good first impression.

Following the sound of his landing, Seiko walked around a jungle of twisting pipes that gurgled and dripped who-knew-what onto the muddy ground, and suddenly looked up and found herself facing the oddest Digimon she'd ever chanced to see. Just now he was busily preening grit out of one snowy wing. The other wing was equally dusty, but it was so black and ragged that a little dust was almost an improvement. He looked up at her, catching her gaze with a pair of intent blue eyes.

"Hello," he said mildly.

Seiko regarded him suspiciously. "I've heard about you. You're Chiaromon."

"I am," he answered. "You have that advantage - that you know my name, whereas I do not know yours."

"It's Seiko," she said. "Seiko Izumi."

"Ah. So you are the famous Koushiro Izumi's child." He gave her a rather wistful look. "I suppose you intend to fight me, now that we've met?"

Seiko hesitated a little. She had heard a bit about Chiaromon through her father - that he had taken Dr. Kido and had almost captured Mr. Ishida. The rumor that Mr. Motomiya had vanished had not yet gotten to her, but she still had a vague notion that Chiaromon was supposed to be an enemy. The idea of fighting and destroying him had been in the back of her mind when she'd chosen to come to the Digital World, but it was difficult to say so when he was standing there looking at her as if he rather hoped she would destroy him.

"No, not exactly," she said.

Chiaromon sighed. "Pity. It would make things so much easier if you did." He eyed her speculatively for a moment. "Are you lost?"

"Hm?" she said, taken aback.

"The Waterpipe Wasteland is not a comfortable place for humans. You seem unprepared for it. I wondered if you had come here by accident. If you like, I will show you where there is water and shade, and then we can talk in comfort."

"You're trying to trick me," she said.

He shrugged elegantly. "As you wish. I am going to find water. This heat is not comfortable."

He began to walk away. Seiko watched him for a while, but as he seemed to be utterly uninterested in whether or not she followed him, so she decided there couldn't be any real harm in doing so, especially if he would show her where the water was. She would just tag along a few yards behind, using the omnipresent pipes and things as cover. She had plenty of video games where people did things like that; she'd always been rather good at it.

As it turned out, the sneaking part was completely unncessary. Chiaromon never once looked behind him, and Seiko found herself getting annoyed. Being hot and thirsty made her irritable, and it was even worse when her quarry chose not to play her games.

She probably would have grown very angry indeed if she hadn't reached their destination soon. As it was, they had gone only a short distance - perhaps half a mile or so - before she became aware of the sound of splashing water. Soon afterwards, she was able to see what looked like a massive ornamental fountain, ten times bigger than any other fountain she'd ever seen, spilling streams of water into a large basin. Chiaromon was kneeling by the basin's edge, sipping water from his cupped hands. Seiko watched him a while, but he didn't show any signs of wanting to leave - not that she blamed him; she wouldn't have wanted to leave such a shady, cool-looking spot if she were there. Finally, the tempting splash of the water proved too much for her, and she walked over to the other side of the fountain, and, pretending to ignore Chiaromon, she bent down, put her lips to the water, and drank deeply. Next to her, she could hear Spike doing much the same thing. Between gulps, she glanced up at Chiaromon through the streams of falling water; he didn't seem to notice she was there.

"I wish you'd quit that," she said at last.

Chiaromon turned slightly so that she was looking at the side of his face instead of just the back of his head. "I was not aware I was doing anything."

"You're ignoring me."

"I was under the impression that you did not want to speak to me."

"I don't like being ignored, either," she said. "Either do something or go away."

"I don't see where you are in a position to tell me to do something. What are you doing here? I suppose your illustrious father sent you here, did he?"

Seiko glared down into the rippling pool. "No. I came on my own?"

"Really? How strange. I was sure you'd come here to research something, when I heard you were Koushiro Izumi's child."

"Well, you're wrong," said Seiko. "He doesn't let me help with any of his projects."

"Really?" Seiko was surprised to hear him speaking in a tone of concerned puzzlement. "How very odd, and such a waste. He of all people ought to know better..."

"Know better than what?" she asked. She was annoyed with her father at the moment, but that didn't mean she wanted any strange Digimon bad-mouthing him.

"Than to waste such a valuable resource," answered Chiaromon. "He ought to know that the Digital World has always been the domain of children. It makes no sense that he would deny his only child the opportunity to get to know it."

"Well, he is," said Seiko. "He says I don't - I don't have enough discipline, or something."

Chiaromon surprised her by laughing. He waved one of his hands to indicate the scenery around them.

"Do you think this place was designed by a disciplined mind? No. This is the realm of imagination, where the rules of logic and natural law do not apply. That is why it is always children who are drawn here. Only a child whose mind has not yet been fettered by the bonds of dry reason can hope to understand this place. That is why I assumed you were here. A child like you would have a better chance of understanding the Digital World than your father ever could."

"Really?" asked Seiko, intrigued in spite of herself.

"Of course. You can't learn anything about the world by locking yourself in a dusty laboratory sorting figures all day. You have to get out and explore - see and hear and experience things. It calls for an adventurous spirit, someone strong and brave, someone willing to take what others would call foolish risks... someone very much like you. It is a pity your talents are being wasted like this. Given the chance, I believe you could truly learn the secrets of this world better than your father ever could..."

His voice trailed off, but Seiko was hardly listening. Her mind had drifted off somewhere, to some distant golden mountain top, where she could overlook the entire world, with all its secrets just waiting to be discovered...

Chiaromon glanced at her and nodded slightly. It was true that it took rather more effort for him to mesmerize a human than it would have taken for his mutant. Still, he was gone now, and Chiaromon could put someone into a trance for a few moments if he needed to, if he was given an opening. He was very good at finding people's weak spots, and the hurt in her voice when she spoke of her father gave him all the information he needed. Now Seiko was simply staring off into space, a vacant smile on her face as she contemplated the dreams he'd given her. She'd stay that way for only a short while - an hour or two at the outside, but that would, hopefully, be enough.

"What did you do?" asked the Tentomon. "Why is she staring like that?"

"I don't think I want to talk to you," Chiaromon answered offhandedly. "I think you will sleep. Now."

The Tentomon obediently dropped out of the sky, landing harmlessly on the soft, sandy ground, and began to snore. Chiaromon nodded again. It was a lot easier with his own kind. He stretched languidly - the afternoon sun made him sleepy, as did the expenditure of magic - and decided he didn't want to travel any further just now. He would wait right here and see whether or not his quarry would come after the bait.

~*~

It was too quiet.

Koushiro, reading over the afternoon paper, was gradually getting the feeling that something wasn't as it should be. He'd had spats with his daughter before - it was inevitable with such an intelligent and strong-willed teenager - and he knew the pattern they usually took. She didn't always take well to criticism, and her usual recourse to being scolded was to bury herself in those games she loved to play. On the rare occasion when his lectures managed to make her feel guilty enough to behave, she would consent to do a few pages of homework - usually with her stereo blasting out some music so she wouldn't be too painfully bored. If she was angry enough with him, she might cry a while before settling down. Whichever road things took, there should have been some sound emanating from behind her closed door.

"Something's wrong here," Koushiro muttered. "What is she doing?"

Koushiro and Tentomon exchanged glances. The idea struck them at the same time, and both of them groaned.

"She didn't," said Koushiro. "She wouldn't."

"She would," Tentomon answered resignedly.

Koushiro jumped to his feet and sprinted down the hall, with Tentomon buzzing after him. He pounded on her door.

"Seiko? Are you in there? What are you doing?" he asked.

There was no answer. With a sound of frustration, Koushiro tried the doorknob and found the door to be locked. He fished a paperclip from his pocket and picked it open anyway. The door was flung open, revealing... an empty room. The only sign of life was a faintly glowing computer. Koushiro groaned.

"I'm going to kill her for this," he muttered.

He reached for the keyboard and entered in a few strokes, checking on the Digital World portal. The log showed it had been opened less than an hour ago. A further check narrowed her location down to a certain sector of the Digital World, so that he could pinpoint her location to within a half-mile. Koushiro frowned. The area was marked on his map as the Waterpipe Wasteland. He'd never gotten around to exploring it himself, though Ken had informed him that it was primarily desert, and no vegetation would grow there. Even Digimon who generally thrived in the desert didn't spend much time there, since there was nothing for them to eat. It didn't sound like the place where Seiko was likely to go very far... but if there were no hostile Digimon there, she wasn't likely to get into much trouble, either.

"Well, I suppose it could be worse," he sighed. "What do you say, Tentomon? Are you up for a trip to the Digital World?"

"I thought we agreed none of us were going to go to the Digital World until we'd worked out a plan for dealing with Chiaromon," said Tentomon doubtfully.

"We can't just leave Seiko there alone," said Koushiro. "We can't let her get away with this, either. Besides, what are the odds that Chiaromon is going to be hanging around in the middle of an uninhabitable desert just waiting for us?"

~*~

Sitting in the desert and waiting didn't particularly agree with Chiarimon. He really didn't like strong sunlight - while its mere presence didn't physically pain him as it had his father, his fair skin burned easily, and there was nothing sinister about a villain with a sunburn. It was true, too, that his pale eyes couldn't see well in such strong light. He fished in a pocket and took out the interesting glasses that the girl Aiko had given him. Thinking about her gave him a kind of internal lurch of the kind he didn't want to contemplate too deeply. Perhaps it was only because no one had ever freely given him anything before... not since his mother had died, anyway...

He jerked his mind away from that painful thought, and put on the sunglasses. That helped a great deal. Now he could gaze comfortably off at the horizon. He blinked. Was that a speck of movement there? Yes, now he could clearly see it - a faint cloud of dust, such as would be raised by someone walking through the dusty desert. He smiled slowly. Someone, it seems, had taken the bait.

"Keep walking. She's right over here," he said.

Koushiro halted. The voice had carried clearly through the still air. Hot as the desert was, Koushiro felt the temperature had just dropped a few degrees. There was something wrong with that voice - it was too calm, too detached. It was the voice of someone who was beyond feeling compassion for anyone.

"Keep walking, I said," Chiaromon urged. "We haven't got all day."

"It's you," said Koushiro. "Chiaromon."

"Oh, come now. I thought you were the Child of Knowledge, not the Child of Stating the Obvious. You are clearly losing your touch."

"I'm not coming any closer," said Koushiro, squinting off in the direction he thought the voice was coming from. There was a fountain there that filled the area with a fine spray, and even a few rainbows. It flashed and twinkled in the sunlight, making it difficult to see anything clearly from a distance. "I may not know everything, but I know what you're up to, and you're not putting one over on me."

"Ah. You know what I'm up to, and you're not coming any closer. I suppose I can infer from this that you are not interested in what happens to your child?"

Koushiro felt as if a bucket of ice water had been poured over him. He tried to remain calm. "You're bluffing."

"You think? Not as clever as all that, are you?"

With a growing sense of dread, Koushiro took a breath and began walking slowly forwards, keeping his eyes fixed on the shadows beneath the fountain. Gradually he became aware of a pale light that was in no way related to the glinting of the falling water. It was shaped like a wing with brilliant whit feathers, and next to it was a golden flash like pale blonde hair, and there were the shapes of boots and gloves... and there was a face there, its eyes hidden behind inscrutable dark glasses. One of those white gloved hands rested on the shoulder of a perfectly ordinary human girl with hair as red as Koushiro's own. She was staring vacantly into space, not seeming to realize her father was there.

"Seiko!" he called. "Don't worry! I'm here to help now."

Chiaromon laughed softly. "It's no good telling her not to worry. She can't see you. She doesn't know you're here, or I'm here, or anyone is here."

"What have you done to her?"

"Oh, don't worry. She's quite all right. She's only daydreaming. She will wake up eventually, and everything will be fine. She won't even remember anything ever happened."

"You're up to something," Koushiro insisted. "You must have done something to her. She wouldn't come within a mile of you if you hadn't."

Chiaromon smiled. "You are mistaken. She came to me willingly."

"She didn't," said Koushiro, but he felt a sinking feeling inside.

"She did. She was most upset when she found me. It was I who listened to her, who comforted her..."

"You tricked her," Koushiro spat.

"Yes. I readily admit that. I listened to what she had to say, I pried out her inner secrets, and I used them to put her in a trance, so that we could wait for you here," said Chiaromon. "Would you like to know what her secrets are? You are so interested in the acquisition of knowledge, I would think you would be quite interested..."

"It's none of my business," said Koushiro, "and you'd lie to me anyway."

"You're afraid to face the truth," Chiaromon said. "Perhaps, in your wisdom, you've already sensed it. How much resentment she harbors toward you. How jealous she is of you. How clearly she senses how little you love her..."

"You're lying!" Koushrio snarled. "I love Seiko more than anything."

"Except your work," answered Chiaromon smoothly. "You tell her you love her, but she doesn't believe it. How can she, when some nights you don't even come home because you're so wrapped up in some research trail? Do you really think she believes your words when you'd rather spend time locked up in a laboratory than spend time with her? All she ever wanted was to spend time with you, to help you, and you push her away..."

"Stop it. I won't listen to this."

"Don't you want to know? Sometimes knowledge is painful, Koushiro. It's time you looked at yourself in the light of the truth. You put up walls between yourself and your child, and when she does the same to you - hides in her room pursuing her own passions - you scold her for it, and use it as an excuse to push her even further away. Small wonder she was willing to accept comfort from anyone she met, if it would get her away from you."

"Be quiet! I don't want to hear it!"

Chiaromon smiled coldly. "Why does it bother you? You don't care. Let's have the truth now - you didn't even just come here to look for her. You came because you'd never seen this place, and you had to satisfy that insatiable curiosity of yours. You broke your word to your friends because you couldn't stand not knowing."

"Shut up!" Koushiro was furious now; tears were standing in his eyes. "I don't want to hear any more! I won't listen to you!"

"Now you're showing some sense," said Chiaromon. "Knowledge is pain. The truth hurts. If you don't want it anymore, just give it all to me. I'll make it go away."

"Koushiro, don't do it," Tentomon pleaded. "Don't listen to him. Remember what happened last time?"

Somewhere in the back of Koushiro's mind, he did dimly remember - a dark void, a persuasive voice telling him to just give everything up, to clear his mind and be at rest. At the time, he'd been young and naive, and anything had seemed possible. He hadn't been ready to give up, then. He had the strength to fight back, but now... what was the point? What good was all his intelligence doing him now, if he could fail his daughter so badly that she was willing to abandon him for an enemy? It seemed like he knew everything but the most important thing: how to take care of his own child. If he couldn't do that, well... what did his research matter, really?"

"Fine," he said tiredly. "I don't want to deal with it anymore."

Chiaromon spread his hands. "So be it."

Koushiro's last sight before the darkness closed in was of two smiling faces - Seiko still staring vacantly into nowhere, Chiaromon smiling smugly as he watched his enemy succumb to the shadows. The last thought he had time for was a kind of grim satisfaction that maybe he'd made a smart choice, for a change. Then Koushiro was completely lost in darkness and merciful oblivion.

A short while later, Seiko blinked her eyes slowly and looked around. How had she gotten here? She must have been daydreaming, or perhaps she'd dozed off in the afternoon heat. She had the sense that she'd had a strange dream - there had been a man with wings in it, and her father had been there, for some reason, and it seemed to her they'd been arguing, but she couldn't remember for certain. Obviously the heat did funny things to your brain. There was no one here but herself and Spike. She nudged him with her foot.

"Come on," she said. "We ought to get out of here and find some shelter before it gets too dark."

Spike jerked awake in mid-snore and fluttered his wings to get the sand out of them. If he'd been having any dreams at all, he couldn't remember them.

"Good idea," he said. "Where are we going to do that?"

Seiko looked around. Her eyes lit on a faint track in the dust, as if someone had been walking there not too long ago. The wind had rearranged the sand around it too much for her to see what kind of tracks they were, but if someone had passed that way recently, then it made sense to follow them.

"Let's go that way," she said.

Spike nodded, and he followed obediently behind Seiko as she innocently trotted off in her father's footsteps.

~*~

The time had come to call a halt.

Despite the fact that the Primary Village was still miles away, there was simply no going on today. The humans traveling on foot had been moving at a steady jog for hours now, and they were exhausted and footsore. Even those who had been carried were beginning to grow weary - it required a certain amount of effort just to keep from falling off. Even Arukenimon and Mummymon seemed to be feeling a strain, owing, perhaps, to their connection to their master. Only Marcel was as fresh as ever, and he shuffled along looking rather guilty that he wasn't as uncomfortable as the rest of them. To top it all off, the clouds above them were gathering steadily, and there was a distant rumble of thunder that promised that bad weather was on its way.

"It's no good," Arukenimon said. "We're going to have to call it quits."

"But what if Chiaromon finds the egg before we do?" asked Mitsu around a yawn. She seemed to be battling to stay awake.

"He hasn't found it yet," said Mummymon thoughtfully. "We'd know it, I think, if he had."

"You're probably right," Arukenimon agreed. "Anyway, there's no way we could make it there today, even if it wasn't going to storm. If we did, we'd be too exhausted to do anything about it. We're going to have to get some rest and keep going in the morning."

"Rest where?" Kaze demanded. "I don't know about you two, but I don't see any hotels nearby."

Arukenimon glared at him, and he remembered belatedly that she was in a very bad mood, and furthermore that she didn't like him much at the best of times. Marcel stepped in before it could get ugly.

"Perhaps I could be of some service?" he offered tremulously.

"What are you going to do?" Tasuke said. "Magic us up a motel?"

"Something like that," was Marcel's ambiguous reply.

As everyone watched in puzzlement, he began walking around the area, laying out a set of four silk handkerchiefs in varying colors: one pink, one blue, one purple, one yellow. He stopped in front of the blue one, took out one of his wands and tapped it lightly. The handkerchief wiggled slightly, as if a mouse was crawling around underneath it.

"Oh, please don't be like that," he begged. With a fearful glance at his audience, he rolled up his sleeves and flourished the wand again. This time, the square of cloth writhed, stretched, and expanded upwards until it had formed the shape of a pale blue tent about five feet high and ten feet square. The pink handkerchief became a slightly smaller tent, and the last two were smaller still. The yellow one was hardly more than a pup-tent. Marcel stood back to admire his handiwork, panting slightly at the exertion.

"I think that will do," he said. "It might be a bit cramped, but they'll keep the rain off."

He took out a white handkerchief and slipped off his mask to wipe his face. A few people stared with interest, attempting to catch a glimpse, but the cloth covered his face completely, and he slipped his mask back on immediately afterwards.

"Guess he's good for something, after all," said Kaze grudgingly, as the first drops of rain began to patter down. "Girls get the pink tent!"

He dove inside the blue tent, followed promptly by his partner and the rest of the boys. Kaiya shrugged and led Mitsu and Keiji into the pink tent. Marcel meekly claimed the smallest tent for his own, wishing everyone a good night as he disappeared inside and zipped up the flap. Arukenimon and Mummymon exchanged glances, shrugged, and shifted back into their human forms so that they would be able to fit inside the purple tent. It was a rather close fit all the same, but Arukenimon offered only a token grumble, and Mummymon did not complain at all.

Kaiya curled up in an unused corner of the tent with Wingblade snuggled up against her. This was the only time of day when he actually took his sunglasses off, and he looked oddly vulnerable without them. On the other side of the tent, Keiji was dozing off with her head propped on Speedbump's shell; the somnolent armadillo was already snoring. Mitsu shuffled around as she attempted to get comfortable on the uneven ground, while her partner, his ears folded daintily against his back, watched her with concern. Outside, the rain began pattering down, but the inside of the tents stayed warm and dry.

"Would you stop wiggling?" Bubbles asked.

"Sorry," said Mitsu to her partner. "I've just got a lot on my mind. Poor little Pipimon..."

"We'll save him," said the Patamon. "You just wait and see."

Mitsu shook his head. "That's not good enough. There's no excuse for killing an innocent baby Digimon. Chiaromon has to be punished. We have to make him hurt like he hurt Pipimon and Mr. Oikawa..."

Bubbles frowned. He wasn't sure he liked her tone of voice.

"It'll be okay," he said, trying to sound soothing. "Something will work out somehow."

"It had better," said Mitsu fiercely.

Bubbles just sighed. He hated it when his partner was angry. He closed his eyes and tried to get some sleep as he listened to the crashing of the coming storm.

~*~

It was deathly silent in the basement of Chiaromon's palace. The young ruler stood impassively in the center of the room as he stared at his newest acquisition. His feelings of victory had soured so much more quickly, this time. Somehow, he felt that this prize had been taken unfairly. He prided himself on his ability to pry the dark secrets from the minds of his victims; it didn't seem right that he had to use a child as leverage to make it work. He hadn't even been fully honest with Koushrio. True, it had worked, and there was no getting around the fact that it had to be done, but still, even Chiaromon believed there was a right and wrong way to do things. He stared at the tired, resigned face of his new captive.

"How does it feel?" he murmured. "How does it feel to be betrayed by your own child?"

Koushiro did not answer. All he did was stare out through his prison of dark crystal, gazing steadily and unreadably at Chiaromon with haunted eyes. Chiaromon turned slightly, so that he was facing the other two captives as well. They, too, had their faces locked in expressions of pain and despair. They seemed to be staring at him. The Digimon felt himself surrounded by accusers. He backed away, bristling.

"It's not my fault!" he told them. "I can't help being born this way! I don't want to do this, but I have to! Don't you understand? I hate every minute of this, but I can't stop myself from doing it! It's your fault this is happening! If you had just had the mercy to destroy me when you had the chance, this wouldn't be happening!"

Breathing raggedly, he dropped to his knees, pounding the floor in overwhelming frustration. A small breeze blew from nowhere, stirring his hair and feathers. A dark mist seemed to fill the room, trailing around and over Chiaromon like thin veils.

I hope you aren't giving in to despair, it said.

"No," said Chiaromon. "No more than usual, at least..."

Good. I would hate to think you were losing your nerve. You are nearly halfway done, Chiaromon. Then we can both rest easily.

"Yes," said Chiaromon, relaxing a bit. "We are nearly there, Lord. Nearly there."

Don't worry about a thing. I will guide you. I am already stronger than I was.

"I couldn't do this without your help."

I know. I will give you the strength you need to continue... and then you will complete your half of the bargain.

"Yes, Lord. I will not fail you."

Excellent. Stay focused, Chiaromon. Soon you will have your desire, and you will join these three in the rest of endless darkness...

"Yessss...." whispered Chiaromon wistfully.

The mist departed as silently as it had come, with only a rushing wind that put out all the candles in the room, plunging it into shadows. Chiaromon remained where he was - not weeping now, but still and calm. He felt his hopes returning. All around him, he could see nothing but shadows...

...but that was just a taste of what was to come.

TO BE CONTINUED