"Fifteen men on a dead man's chest…" Takato sings to himself leisurely as he coils a length of rope in his hand. "Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum…"

"Seaman Matsuki!"

Takato snaps to attention and jerks his right arm—with twenty-plus feet of rope still in that hand—into a hasty salute. "Yes, sir! Um, ma'am? I mean… ah…"

Rika Nonaka narrows her eyes and folds her arms across her chest. "What exactly are you doing, you scabrous dog?" she asks, in a less than casual sort of way.

"Cleaning up the deck, Captain Nonaka," Takato replies a little defensively. "I nearly tripped over this a few minutes ago, so I figured—"

"What task did I assign you before that?" Captain Rika cuts in, her amethyst eyes glinting.

"Ah… I think I've forgotten."

"Evidently." Sighing, Rika points upwards to the mizzen-mast, where Kazu is having a… trying time securing the mast all by his lonesome. "Remember now?"

Takato winces and salutes again. "Yes, ma'am. I'm on it, ma'am."

As the deckhand scurries away, leaving a pile of jumbled rope in his wake, Captain Rika closes her striking eyes and massages her temples. "If I'd known that being captain was so much work, I'd have become quartermaster instead…"

"You were the best person for the job, Nonaka; firm hand and all that. Besides, given our profession, being quartermaster would have been almost as tiring, but minus the perks you get as captain. Like that nice big cabin."

Rika opens her eyes. "Nolaquen?"

Fluffing the giant feather sticking out of his tri-cornered hat, the author replies mildly, "That's Commodore Nolaquen to you, remember?"

Rolling her eyes, almost in time to the ship's steady movements at open sea, the Tamer says, "We're pirates. How can you have a military rank—greater than a captain's, for that matter—when the navy would hang us if it got the chance? There's no system to support that title…"

"It makes for a dramatic introduction," the Commodore answers, deadpan. "Plus, I get three shares of the booty. That tops your salary by one."

Captain Rika groans and puts a hand to her forehead, where a nondescript bandanna is tied over her reddish-gold hair. Noting this, Nolaquen comments questioningly, "Where's the hat I gave you to match your position?"

Rika's gaze turns sharp and deadly. "It. Was. Pink."

Shrugging, the author walks to the ship's railing. "I could have made Mimi captain, you know. Can you imagine what that would have been like?"

A sudden image of Rika scrubbing the deck for hours on end while Mimi lounges behind the ship's wheel in a stolen throne of gold and jewels manifests in the Tamers' mind's eye. Meanwhile, the ship is falling to pieces around them, as Tachikawa's management skills are sadly… lacking.

"I… see your point."

"Of course. Anyway, if you threw the hat overboard, I'll get you a better one the next time we make port, if you're interested."

"…fine. As long as it's not girly," Rika concedes as she turns and heads up to the stern, where Izzy is faithfully piloting the great vessel. Commodore Nolaquen bounds up the stairs behind her, apparently not possessing any of the dignity or poise that a rank such as his should impart.

The setting for this scene is, obviously, a pirate ship. To be precise, it is a triple-masted sailing vessel—a galleon, if you want to get even more specific—replete with lots of heavy cannons, a month's worth of provisions stowed in the hold, and a crew of humans who have extensive experience in Digimon-related matters. How that helps them man the ship, however, even the author doesn't have much of a clue.

"And I'm the one writing this, too. Oh, by the way: I don't own Digimon."

Did I mention the fact that the entire ship is black so that it's camouflaged at night?

"You have now. I mean, I have now…"

Rika stares at the author. "What is that even called, when you start talking to yourself on both the narrator and characters' levels?"

"I'm pretty sure that's 'insanity'," Nolaquen replies, shrugging carelessly. The feather in his hat falls in front of his eyes, and the author sends it back up with a puff of breath.

Captain Rika, for her part, does not look encouraged.

Anyway… the year is something like 1803. That's A.D., of course. And our heroes—or anti-heroes, if you're against piracy in general—are now looking for something to plunder on the open seas of the Atlantic…

"I think that's enough exposition," Izzy interrupts. "I'd prefer some rising action, myself." Rika nods firmly and Nolaquen concedes with a shrug.

"Okay. So, Quartermaster Izzy, what's our heading?" the Commodore queries as he leans against the railing casually.

"We are currently traveling at a more or less constant speed of twelve knots per hour in a south-south westerly direction. According to the nautical charts and my own calculations, our bearing is on the order of two hundred and twenty-five degrees—with due north being the reference point, of course. As such, we should be arriving at the Isla de Tesoro in two and a half days."

"So much for leaving exposition in the dust…" Rika grumbles.

Izzy simply shrugs. "He asked. And my answer was dry enough for dust, so…"

"That was a bad pun," Nolaquen says, amused and a little impressed. Then, his face scrunches up in confusion. "Wait. Nautical charts? What about the GPS I brought with us?"

Izzy sweatdrops. "As it's the early nineteenth century, there aren't any satellites in orbit."

"Darn. I knew I forgot something."

Heroically resisting the urge to palm her face, Rika asks, "Okay, what's this about an 'Isla de Tesoro'? I thought we were looking for another ship to plunder."

"Sudden change of plans," Nolaquen replies confidently. "This makes for a better story. Island of treasure, and all that. We'll probably find cannibals inhabiting the area, and we'll need to fight for our lives just to return to the ship in one piece… and uncooked. Then, an implausible plot device will allow us to reach the treasure, but we might have to abandon it in order to avoid a sappy 'happily-ever-after' ending. Plus, that'd be the end of our need for pillaging; I ask you, where's the fun in that?"

Frowning, the captain asks cautiously, "Are you sure about this? It all sounds a little… cliché."

Clearing his throat to attract the Tamer's attention, Izzy mutters, "Remember who we're talking to."

Rika finally does palm her face now. "Right. Stupidest comment of the day…"

"I hold this truth to be self-evident," Nolaquen proclaims, beaming at the pair.

Suddenly, a shrieking cry can be heard, quickly followed by a loud splash. After an exchange of confused looks, the trio dash to the side of the ship and peer into the water. Splashing about furiously and yelling expletives that would make a sailor blush, Kazu can be seen floating in the bluish-green water below.

It doesn't take a genius to figure this one out…

"Sorry, Kazu!" Takato yells anxiously as he peers downwards from the mizzen-mast. "The rope slipped, and I… uh… don't worry, we'll save you!"

Shaking his head in exaggerated disbelief, Nolaquen shouts down to the main deck, "Man overboard!"

As Davis and Tai begin hurriedly hauling up a length of knotted and disorderly rope to throw to the Tamer in the water, the Commodore turns to both Rika and Izzy… and grins widely.

"I've always wanted to say that."

A/N: Hm. I might run with this for a little while. 'The Further Adventures of The Dreamer's Ark and Its Fearsome Pirate Crew.' Heh heh heh…

Anyway, sorry about the long period between updates, but I've been busy. A little something called life gets in the way on occasion. Well, more often than that.

You know, it's amusing that, as I write, I keep forgetting that the Tamers and the older DigiDestined are around the same age. This whole fic takes place three years after Tamers ends, and only a few short months after the second season does. It was a curious little idea of mine to begin with—the timeline's something screwy here—but I've yet to fully absorb the fact. Strange, huh? I doubt many of you were keeping track, either.


Chapter Fourteen: Deadlock


/DigiWorld Beta. The Seventh Heaven. 9:01 p.m./

"And with that, I now commence this tournament!" the Piddomon, clad flamboyantly in garish clothing that made Gamblermon shake his head, finally concluded. Kenta and MarineAngemon sighed in relief; for the past five minutes, the Champion Angel had spoken at length about the various sponsors who had so graciously provided the funding and rewards—here, Gamblermon had snorted quietly—for the event, the code of conduct expected of both the participants and the observers, and wishing many players the best of luck after calling out each of their names from a list. It was all very fascinating, but the Tamer and his partner had quickly grown weary of the oration, despite the melodious lilt of Piddomon's voice.

Amid a scattering of applause, the angelic Champion raised his hands and declared, "Find a table, and may the games begin!"

Kenta jumped as Gamblermon set a hand on the teen's shoulder. "With us, Kenta," the Ultimate commented as he began steering the Tamer and his partner through the bustling crowd.

The Seventh Heaven was, certainly, a very impressive establishment. Carpeted in thick material of rich red and golden colors, illuminated by soft lights set in crystalline chandeliers, and divided into semi-private lounges by quarter room-height walls covered in expensive wood paneling… everything about the casino implied both great wealth and taste. Kenta had to admit, despite the apparent disreputability regarding at least one of the prizes, things looked very high class here.

The same might also be said of most of the tournament's attendants. Never had Kenta ever seen Digimon walking around so regally and aloofly. Not to mention the fact that most were wearing extra clothing that didn't typically come with their usual appearance. Shawls, skirts, suit coats, and even floppy hats were all visibly worn by species as diverse as Loewemon, Prairiemon, Frigimon, and PrinceMamemon. That each article of clothing was typically worn by itself, with nothing else similar to accompany it, struck the Tamer as somewhat bizarre. To his mind, it seemed as though everyone was walking around wearing pieces of outfits—which might have looked somewhat normal back in the Real World, had they been complete—over their everyday attire… or lack thereof.

'I wonder if this has something to do with 'high society' here? Maybe wearing extra stuff that they don't need is a kind of status symbol…'

Kenta was shaken from his musing as he, MarineAngemon, and Gamblermon abruptly found themselves in front of a table with three empty seats; the other two were occupied by a FlaWizardmon and an Astamon.

"As good a place as any," Gamblermon murmured to his companions as he set himself down on one of the remaining stools.

The three Demon Men exchanged nonverbal greetings—Gamblermon's polite smile and inclined head were met by a raised hand on FlaWizardmon's part and a minute nod from the other Ultimate—before Gamblermon said to Kenta, "I'm afraid you'll have to stand against the wall while we play, my friend. No room for any but the players this close to the table, and there aren't exactly extra chairs for that purpose."

Kenta sighed heavily, not quite looking forward to standing on his feet the whole night, but he nodded nonetheless. Turning to MarineAngemon, he instructed his partner earnestly, "Alright, do a good job in there, buddy. Gamblermon says you've got talent, and I guess we're going to find out for real right here."

MarineAngemon chirruped cheerfully, "Okay!"

Grinning, Kenta added, "And don't forget to have fun! And win, if you can!"

Giggling at his Tamer's words, the little Mega floated over to one of the last two stools, situated between FlaWizardmon and Gamblermon. Kenta, finding himself with nothing else to do but wait and watch, took up a place against the short wall where he had a clear view of both his partner's and Gamblermon's profiles and the felt-covered table in front of them.

An eventless minute passed, during which FlaWizardmon and Gamblermon engaged in light conversation and Astamon maintained a guarded silence. By the time Kenta first shifted position to keep the blood to his feet going, he found himself glad that there was room enough for him to stay inside the playing area; the walls surrounding the table and accompanying area were just at the Tamer's eye level. Had he needed to stay outside, he would have needed a stool or something to stand on the entire time.

When a hand suddenly clapped down on his shoulder, Kenta jumped and whirled about in surprise, only to be greeted by Matt's grinning face. "Sorry, didn't mean to startle you," the DigiDestined said, looking over the short, paneled partition. There was only a few inches difference in height between Kenta and Matt, but the DigiDestined was still able to peer over the wall separating the two with little difficulty.

"Ah, no problem, Matt." It still made Kenta feel that the world was quite surreal when he addressed any of the DigiDestined, but that perception was finally beginning to fade away. "Just waiting for… well, I don't actually know what we're waiting on."

"The dealer, of course," Gamblermon supplied, momentarily turning aside from FlaWizardmon. "It's somewhat difficult to play cards without one, as you might imagine."

"Oh." Kenta chuckled for a moment.

Rolling his eyes, Matt crossed his arms over the top of the wall and said, "Well, the rest of us are sort of wandering around at the moment. Haven't seen Impmon since we left, but other than that, there's no real news."

Kenta frowned thoughtfully. "You know, I wonder if someone ought to go out and help look for the Portal? It's a big city."

"Hmm…" Matt rubbed his chin thoughtfully before resting his head upon his crossed hands. "You know, that might be a good idea. I'll take Gabumon in a while after I watch a few rounds."

"Sticking around for moral support, eh?" FlaWizardmon unexpectedly commented. "It's good to have friends in this city. Lord knows there are too many of the fair-weather sort in the area…"

Smiling, Gamblermon replied, "Well, as it happens, I've found these gentlemen and their associates to be of the highest caliber, with regards to their character."

"A rare find, indeed," the Armor-level Digimon said appreciatively.

"To be sure," Gamblermon responded, winking conspiratorially at MarineAngemon. The petite Mega snickered while catching Kenta's eye. Shrugging with a lopsided grin that would normally be found on Takato's face—or perhaps Han Solo's—the Tamer mused, "You know, it's great to be on the receiving end of flattery."

"It's far better than a fan girl's obsession, let me tell ya," Matt said, smirking. "Sincerity is so much better when it's veiled, or maybe just directed, by discretion and good manners."

"Ah. We're both thinking of Jun Motomiya here, aren't we?"

"Yep. I'd say that I feel sorry for Jim Kido, but last I heard they were actually getting on pretty well." Suddenly pausing, Matt said wonderingly, "You know, I think I'm finally starting to adjust to this whole crazy deal. That comment didn't unnerve me nearly as much as it would have a few days ago."

Chuckling, Kenta replied, "I know the feeling."

The exchange was soon interrupted by the arrival of another Digimon: Kuzuhamon. In a tone that seemed far milder than Sakuyamon's typical behavior, but no less mystical or authoritative, the Mega level Shaman Digimon stated without ado, "I am your dealer tonight. This may only be a game, but cheaters here are not tolerated." Then, she added with a decidedly firmer voice, "Is that clear to each of you?"

Even Kenta found himself nodding quickly, though he was not a participant in the competition. Realizing this, the Tamer sheepishly cast his eyes around the small lounge in an effort to look casual.

Noting this, Kuzuhamon let the tiniest of amused smirks cross her lips. Kenta winced instinctively. 'Yep. Just like Rika and Renamon…'

Drawing her attention away from the Tamer, Kuzuhamon gestured with a hand and, out of thin air, a deck of cards materialized above her open palm. As she began shuffling the cards casually—though still doing so with a speed and dexterity that made Kenta incredibly envious—she asked, "Are there no others who will join us at this table?"

Casting a glance around, Gamblermon shrugged. "We've only one empty chair left. Whenever you gentlemen are ready, I'm inclined to begin."

MarineAngemon and FlaWizardmon nodded in agreement. Astamon's red eyes passed over his fellows before he also inclined his head, still silent.

"Very well," Kuzuhamon said, placing her hand on the topmost card. "Standard tournament rules, minimum bid is one hundred credits. Now—"

"I hope you weren't planning on starting without me," interjected a silky, smooth-as-milk voice that made Kenta's face burn with sudden heat. At a glance, he could see that the other males looked equally gob smacked, excepting Astamon, who instead turned a darkly speculative gaze over Kuzuhamon's shoulder.

The speaker seemed to glide into the lounge like mist over a wintry lake, and Kenta was immediately entranced by the seductive grace that the Digimon carried herself with. Having never imagined that a Digital creature could be so… appealing to the senses, the Tamer absently registered that Kazu would be making some rather inappropriate comments at the moment. She was that human-like. Not to mention… enticing.

A sudden thunk finally seized Kenta's attention. Looking over his shoulder, he just had time to see Matt's face slowly slide off the top of the wall; it seemed as though the DigiDestined's knees had given out, and he had face-planted on the way down.

"…ow…" Matt said dazedly as he lay sprawled on the other side of the wall, eyes glazed over.

Smiling as she slid down onto the cushioned stool next to Astamon, the mysteriously alluring Digimon said, in way of an introduction, "Lilithmon. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance." A saucy wink that seemed directed at every being in the lounge quickly followed on the heels of this statement.

Kenta felt as though he was about to pass out.


Beelzemon Blast Mode snarled as he twisted into a sudden aerial evasion; a sliver of a second later, a stream of bullets ripped through the air where the Mega had just been, parting the falling rain like knives through a curtain of gossamer silk.

On the ground below, the Demon Lord Beelzebumon grinned savagely as he let loose another volley, which his winged counterpart dodged with equal alacrity, however sloppy the maneuver was forced to be.

"It's like shooting pigeons in a field," the demonic Mega chuckled under his breath; his crimson eyes, however, glittered in a way that was not reminiscent of good, wholesome fun.

At last finding an opening, Beelzemon rolled in midair and threw himself into a broad downward arc; as a result, he was momentarily gliding towards the ground at a slight angle. This allowed the Mega to turn his head and—looking nearly over his shoulder—align Death Slinger with his target. "Pigeons don't shoot back, though."

A triple burst of purple energy erupted from between the blaster's prongs, blazing through the nighttime air at high velocities and turning water to steam. Beelzebumon's grin momentarily faded into something considerably nastier as he launched sideways into a roll; the pavement behind him blew apart before it was vaporized, leaving behind an unpleasant sulfurous odor.

Climbing to his feet quickly, the Demon Lord trained both his shotguns on Beelzemon, who flapped his ebony wings furiously to gain some height.

"Double Impact!"

Beelzemon jerked and bit back a cry as two bullets ripped through the tip of his left wing. 'Not good.'

Eyes narrowing in a sudden epiphany, Beelzemon dismissed Death Slinger as he reached the top of his ascending arc. As he stopped climbing, he flipped over and gave a single fierce flap before he wrapped his wings tightly around himself. The result? The airborne Mega was angled directly at his doppelganger below, and plummeting far more quickly than terminal velocity allowed on its own.

Beelzebumon gritted his teeth. "What—?"

"Darkness Claw!"

With a speed that resembled Superman barreling through Metropolis, Beelzemon uncrossed his arms from in front of his chest the instant before he plowed into his foe. Thin lines of gleaming purple energy were left in the wake of the Mega's razor-like claws as they sliced through Beelzebumon's leather vest and into his skin. The speed of his assault was great enough that the Digimon flew by a bare moment later, leaving Beelzebumon standing unsteadily with his face set in a rictus of rage.

Beelzemon, however, wasn't done. In a quick draw that would have left the West's greatest gunslingers supremely embarrassed, the Mega—flying parallel to the ground on his back, with his wings now outstretched—sighted down his own body before calling out, "Quick Shot!"

A flurry of lead traveling at supersonic speeds peppered the Demon Lord's side; one stray bullet cut a gouge into Beelzebumon's face mask, just above his right eye.

Beelzemon smirked as he alighted on the street some two dozen feet away. "How'd ya like dat? Not so easy pickin' on me, is it?" Resummoning Death Slinger to his right hand, the Mega surveyed his opponent warily.

A wild dog was always most dangerous when cornered, but Beelzemon hadn't been able to resist the jibes.

He just hoped he didn't end up regretting it.

The Demon Lord, however, merely stood facing Beelzemon. Though his clothing was torn and his breath was uneven, the demonic Digimon's gaze was now quite cool and collected.

Repressing a frown, Beelzemon thought to himself, 'Now, what's he got up his sleeve? I know I wouldn't be standin' dere with dat look on my face unless he had something planned.'

Indeed, a moment later, Beelzebumon smirked and said puckishly, "Catch me if you can."

Then, the Demon Lord was flying down a side alley, with Beelzemon staring after him hesitantly.

The malicious undertone of the comment wasn't even necessary for the Mega to decide that he didn't like this one bit.

'Ambush, obviously. But he's gotta get somewhere first, and lay a trap—I get da feeling he's not usually da subtle type. Takes after me dat way. So he probably hasn't got anythin' set up already.'

Flexing his wings enough to send him into the air, Beelzemon paused for another moment before swiftly following the fleeing Demon Lord.

'I must be crazy. I know I oughta get some of da others—just as insurance—but I'll lose him if I leave now.'

'…I've got him on da run. I know I'm heading into somethin', so I'll be ready for anythin'.'

Yeah, right.

'…well, I'll be mostly ready. Dis is too good a chance to pass up: another of da Demon Lords out for da count.'

And with this uneasy logic, Beelzemon began to track his doppelganger through the dark, twisting alleys of DigiVegas in the pouring rain.


/DigiWorld Alpha. 9:07 p.m./

'Why am I so angry?' some distant corner of Takato's mind pondered, nearly lost amid the furious tide of raging emotions and icy battle instincts.

Parry, dodge, lateral swipe.

'I mean, yeah, this guy's evil. And insane. He's done horrible things right in front of our eyes; the evidence is there, burning at my back. I can feel it from here.'

Jump, Lightning Joust, spin.

'But still… what's wrong with me?'

Feint, thrust, sidestep, riposte.

'When did this become so personal? When did I abandon a center of calm in favor of a berserker's ferocity and single mindedness?'

Guard, deflect, stab, Lightning Joust, lunge.

'…when I saw him, and when I realized what he was capable of doing. What he'd DONE.'

Parry, jump, ignore the pain, diagonal slash, back step, flinch.

'…I feel dirty. Soiled. Like he's dragging me down to his level…'

"Less talking, Takato, and more fighting!" Guilmon growled, his tone uncharacteristically snappy.

A fresh flood of battle fever and reddish anger poured into Takato's mind, wiping away any complacent musings in the back of his head. "Right," the Tamer snarled in a manner approaching that of his saurian partner, "no games. No hesitation."

Gallantmon backpedaled a few steps, leaving ChaosGallantmon to take a leisurely breather.

"No mercy."

With an animalistic scream that sent chills down his friends' spines—and incited a curious, considering gaze from the Dark Warrior—Gallantmon raised Gram high into the air, his hidden face contorted by a dark glower.


The tip of the Warrior's lance burst into illumination in an explosion of crackling, snarling energy. Crooked streams of bluish electricity leapt from that single point… to everywhere else in the clearing.

ChaosGallantmon's sulfurous eyes widened marginally before narrowing again in concentration. In a split second decision, the Dark Warrior launched himself into the air, attempting to avoid some damage by not being grounded.

Taomon, ExVeemon, and Lillymon—already in the air—barely paused to gape before assembling a desperate defense against the unexpected attack. While Taomon raced towards the humans and Guardromon still on the sidelines, the DigiDestined's partners began an aerial ballet; with movements as swift and precise as they could make them, ExVeemon and Lillymon danced around the wicked arcs of electricity flying haphazardly through the air. Though none had hit them as of yet, the two could feel the intensity of the attack even as the power passed them by: sometimes by a matter of inches.

Taomon, on the other hand, quickly threw up a spherical shield around herself and the rest of the group, who were helpless against the onslaught. Wincing as several thick strands of electricity slammed into her magical barrier with the force of a rampaging elephant, the Ultimate gritted her teeth even as her mind felt rather slack in the face of her bewilderment.

'What has gotten into the two of you?' she had time to wonder before a stronger blast of energy nearly destroyed her defenses entirely. Redoubling her focus and power, the Wizard-type Digimon abandoned any attempt to decipher her companion's current behavior.

Kazu, on the other hand, had no such inhibitors.


Thunderclaps from a fresh volley of buzzing, snapping energy rocked the clearing, drowning out the Tamer's voice. The burning forest seemed to quiver in the sonic wake, before growing even hotter. Were it not for the protective effects of Taomon's shield, Kazu felt sure that he and others would have been roasted soon after.

And so, Rika, Davis, Kazu, and Mimi stared at the world outside their translucent bubble with varying degrees of shock and dismay. Guardromon remained stoic, though his eyes had hardened to the point of being like chips of polished steel—harder even than his own armor.

In the sky above, ExVeemon and Lillymon were getting by on little more than luck alone at this point. And as any disenchanted gambler will tell you, luck always runs out.

Lillymon, already feeling battered and off-balance from ChaosGallantmon's earlier bludgeoning, felt her attention slip for one crucial moment as a bolt of pain shot up her back…

…before agony trapped her and beat her into utter submission.

"AAAAAAHHHHHH!" the Ultimate shrieked as lightning struck her in the chest. Wings frozen in involuntary spasms, the Pixie began to fall; ExVeemon saw this, helpless, from some distance away. The Champion could spare barely an anxious glance before throwing himself into a barrel roll to avoid another massive spark of energy.

Within Taomon's sphere of protection, Mimi's eyes widened in reflexive fear. Mouthing her partner's name silently, she took one mindless step forward—

—before Kazu and Davis seized both of her arms.

"Don't even think about it!" Davis exclaimed, gesturing with his free hand. "You go out there, you're fried instantly!"

"But… Lillymon…" the DigiDestined murmured, eyes fixed on her partner as she hit the ground with a distant thud.

Kazu frowned and replied firmly, "You can't do her any good going out into that storm." Not willing to release her, and risk a potential mad dash towards her fallen partner, the Tamer fixed Guardromon with a steely look.

The mechanized Champion nodded resolutely. "I will do my best, Kazu." Without another word, Guardromon fired up the rockets on his back and quickly passed through Taomon's shield. The Ultimate frowned as she attempted to further strengthen the barrier; she had the feeling that she wouldn't be able to hold out against the onslaught for much longer.

In the air, ChaosGallantmon winced as an arc of cobalt lightning glanced off his armor. "Playing rough, are we?" the Dark Warrior mused as he oriented Gorgon. "Sounds like fun." Drawing a breath, the Mega cried out, "JUDECCA PRISON!"

The attack flashed through the air with an obscene amount of force. Electricity in and near its path seemed to fall into and twist around it, as though it were simultaneously attracted to and repelled by the power of the indigo beam. In a moment, the Dark Warrior's attack was surrounded by a thick coil of writhing, lethal lightning.

Gallantmon didn't notice until he was hit with a sledgehammer wrapped in his own power.


With nerves on fire, Gallantmon drew a ragged gasp of disbelief as the Mega's concentration was ruthlessly shattered. In the space of a second, the Warrior's Lightning Charge finally dissipated, leaving ExVeemon above heaving in astonished relief.

But Gallantmon felt something crack.

Looking down—trying to ignore the pain that such a simple movement caused—the Biomerged Digimon stared down at his chest in distant confusion.

A spiderweb of deep cracks had spread across his chest plate, which was also charred and smoking.

In addition, the large crimson and gold pauldron on Gallantmon's left shoulder had sheared off entirely, leaving a ruin of white metal in its place.

Then the pain hit him in full. Falling to his knees with an involuntary cry, the Mega Warrior squeezed his eyes shut in a rictus of pain. Inside his data sphere, Takato convulsed as pain swept up and down his limbs, and through his chest.

'…stupid… stupid… wasn't thinking… wasn't paying attention…'

Guilmon's only reaction was a deep throated growl, rooted as much in ire as in pain.

Nearby, Guardromon sighed in relief as he carefully picked up a dazed Palmon. Keeping a close eye on the two combatants in the middle of the small field, the Champion quickly made his way back to Taomon and the others. Mimi soon received the weakened Rookie in her waiting arms before nodding to the robotic Digimon gratefully. Noting this, ChaosGallantmon smirked devilishly.

"You're doing my job for me, Tamer."

The words snapped Takato back into reality; with an heroic effort, he left the pain behind and glared into his doppelganger's eyes.

"…that was… definitely my fault… but I'll be more careful from now on," the Warrior gasped, with both Takato and Guilmon again speaking in unison.

Snorting, ChaosGallantmon replied evenly, "What gives you the right to continue fighting? You could have killed all of your little friends. Who says they even want you on their side anymore?"

Gallantmon's eyes darkened as he raised Gram again, intent on deleting the insidious obscenity before him.

Still, a corner of both Takato and Guilmon recoiled.

'This isn't right… we're fighting like him, without meaning to. Thoughtless, looking to hurt and wound in retaliation. We have to stop…' the pair thought together.

Rika seemed to agree.


Gallantmon jerked and reflexively turned his head to look at the fiery Tamer.

Clenching her fists, Rika shouted, "Get a hold of yourself! You're not helping anyone like this!"

Drawing a deep, calming breath, Gallantmon closed his eyes and pushed at the anger boiling within him. After a moment, he started to feel lighter as the fury diminished and began to recede…

"How sweet."

Snapping his eyes back open, Gallantmon saw his mirror image shaking his head in a parody of sympathetic humor.

The Dark Warrior continued, "I can guess that she knows you pretty well… she must have been surprised when you started freaking out like that, putting her in harm's way. Hurt, too, probably. You know, it's a kind of personal betrayal when you do something so destructive and out of character. Especially for so little reason."

The remains of the Mikemon village still smoldered in the background, and the Mega's gaze drifted over the unrecognizable wreckage with a sardonic motion.

Eyes then narrowing to a point where they could barely be seen, except for the dark gleam they held in their depths, ChaosGallantmon ventured, "Perhaps I could help her? Perhaps I could… relieve her of the possibility of feeling such pain? Emotional… or otherwise."

Struggling to hold his flaring emotions in check once more, Takato alone replied in a dangerous tone, "If you're suggesting what I think you're suggesting… then you take away her ability to feel anything… even the good things."

"Is that a problem?" ChaosGallantmon queried, his tone becoming colder while a deadly smile began to spread across his hidden face.

"Yes!" Gallantmon spat in his dual voice. Raising his shield to cover his weakened armor, the Mega then said slowly, "No more words. No more games. Let's just… finish this."

"So you wish me to kill you all now, with no further delay? No more insightful comments or cutting witticism from yours truly?" ChaosGallantmon seemed to ponder this before shrugging carelessly. "Fine. Let's have it your way."

With a sudden sweep of his lance, ChaosGallantmon sighted on the group within Taomon's shield.

"You might be surprised, but I do enjoy efficient kills."

Gallantmon froze as the tip of his opponent's lance began to glow. There was nothing he could do at this range, in the time he'd need. Half a second, and it would all be over.


ChaosGallantmon grunted as ExVeemon, glowing with a flickering blue aura, slammed into his side. The Mega's attack, having been an instant from release, now streaked just over the top of Taomon's protective dome, which still rippled with the amount of sheer power behind the blast.

Davis pumped his fist as ExVeemon continued his sudden assault, following up with punches and kicks delivered faster than he had seen his partner do before. "That's the way! Keep him off balance!"

Unexpectedly, ChaosGallantmon had yet to assemble a defense; instead, the Mega began to backpedal with a surprised look.

The azure aura surrounding the Mythical Dragon surged, and the Digimon's form seemed to shift, even as the blows continued to fall upon the Dark Warrior.

"Is he…?" Rika murmured as a particularly powerful punch forced ChaosGallantmon back several yards.

Davis nodded, with an equally thrilled and astounded look plastered on his face. "Digivolving." A glance at his D-3 seemed to support this; the screen was glowing a solid white.

With a draconic cry that set hairs on end, Veemon's Ultimate form suddenly burst into view as the aura surrounding him pulsed once before dissipating.

Grinning contentedly, Davis set his smug gaze on ChaosGallantmon, who had the decency to look mildly impressed. "That's my partner."

"AeroVeedramon," Rika supplied, nodding. "Not bad, for a Gogglehead."

Indeed, the Phantom Dragon called AeroVeedramon hovered a few feet above the ground, where ExVeemon had been moments before. Flexing his new crimson wings experimentally, the Ultimate gained several yards in altitude before fixing ChaosGallantmon with a red-eyed glare.

"You're going to pay, now," AeroVeedramon growled in a deeper voice than he had formerly possessed.

"Sorry, I left my wallet at home. I don't suppose you'd take a check?" the Dark Warrior quipped as he settled into a defensive stance.

"Nope. This is coming out of your hide."

With a burst of speed, that left ChaosGallantmon time to blink once, the Ultimate was suddenly deep within his opponent's personal space.

"Magnum Crusher!"

A fist, wrapped in fiery cobalt energy, impacted with ChaosGallantmon's face. With a muffled grunt, the Mega allowed the momentum of the punch to carry him halfway across the clearing before he slid to a controlled stop.

"…note to self. Do not underestimate the overgrown lizard."

The Dark Warrior's blue visor was crumpled on one side, nearly rent from its place on his helmet.

Grinning the kind of grin that only a dragon can pull off, AeroVeedramon flapped his wings almost lazily before his expression hardened into something sterner. "Your mind games don't mean a thing to me. Maybe you can bother Gallantmon—I know that you're managing it somehow—but I'm not giving you any slack to work with."

ChaosGallantmon smirked mirthlessly. "It seems I've found a worthy opponent. Utterly without potential, and with too much purity in that self-righteousness, but still…" Raising Balmunc so he could look down his arm at his new opponent, the Dark Warrior challenged, "En garde."

The two clashed as fists collided with lance and shield. Displaying an astounding agility, despite his bulky build, AeroVeedramon deftly evaded ChaosGallantmon's lance, while wailing on the Dark Digimon with fists that could crumple steel like tin.

"This is… a surprise," Kazu commented dazedly. And he couldn't be blamed; it wasn't all that often that an unexpected Digivolution turned the tides of battle in the humans' favor. It typically only happened about three times each for a pair of active partners over the course of… well, any given period of time.

Taomon nodded, lending her voice to the tentative conversation. "He's quite powerful in that form, even though he's a full level below ChaosGallantmon."

"Level's not everything, of course," Rika commented distractedly. "We knew that long before you even Digivolved to Champion."

"It's usually more of a factor at this stage, though," Kazu added thoughtfully. Inside, contrary to his calm outward appearance, he was delighted at seeing the new Ultimate form of one of his favorite Digimon: and in action, no less.

Still… the fact that he had failed to help Guardromon to achieve that same level was still very much present in his mind.

Mimi, however, was preoccupied with something completely different. "…what… is Gallantmon doing?"

The group reflexively sent a glance towards the elder DigiDestined before turning to see what she meant.

Gallantmon was seething. More so…

…he was steeped in darkness.

But he wasn't surrounded by shadows. Instead… black flames were dancing around his armored body, pulsing in time to his labored exhalations.

Davis' eye twitched. "…that doesn't look good."

Rika, Kazu, and their partners shared worried looks. Each was experiencing a series of flashbacks that were not at all encouraging.

Seizing on an impulse which she knew to be important, Rika again called out, "Gallantmon! Takato!"

"…he would have killed you."

Taken aback at the conflicted tone that Gallantmon now spoke in, Rika took half a step back, feeling somewhat intimidated by the sudden change in his demeanor.

"…he would have killed all of you."

"V-Nova Blast!" AeroVeedramon cried out, oblivious to the drama unfolding not too far away. The V-shaped blast of azure fire flew from the Ultimate's mouth and collided with ChaosGallantmon's shield, which deflected the majority of the attack's power.

"…and I couldn't stop him."

Gallantmon's voice was simultaneously searing in its intensity and glacially frigid in its emotional tenor… or lack thereof.

"Takato… don't do this, man," Kazu murmured, shaken at the seemingly black mood wrapping itself around his friend. Not to mention the obsidian flames rising about him. Raising his voice, the Tamer exclaimed, "It's happened before! And look, we're still perfectly fine!"

Mimi, though confused by the turn of events, was quick to add, "Yes, and now we're winning! Right, Palmon?"

The Rookie took a moment to consciously uncross her eyes before she said weakly, "We're doing great… really…"

"Demon's Disaster!"

"V-Wing Blade!"

The two attacks collided in midair and cancelled each other out, though a fresh burst of ash-laden wind flashed through the clearing into the raging forest fire around it.

"…you're not safe. Not here. Not with him still here."

The Biomerged Mega began to tremble and shake, as though he were standing in the middle of an Arctic wasteland.

"…he has to be stopped."

The jet black blaze surged once, twice, before shooting up into the sky as a pillar of dark fire, concealing Gallantmon in its center. From behind Taomon's shield, the group cried out in alarm. Rika and Kazu, in particular, felt a wave of panic rise up in their chests. Something similar to this had happened before, and the memories of that event were hitting home in a way that was anything but comforting.

Yelping at a sudden change in temperature, AeroVeedramon ignored ChaosGallantmon—who had frozen in place with an indescribable expression on his face—and turned a crimson eye on the towering conflagration that now dominated the clearing. "Aw, nuts…"

It had turned cold. Deathly cold. Even the uncontrolled forest fire seemed to quail and momentarily wither at the icy breath that suddenly enveloped the forest. Unbearable heat turned to wintry chills, and some embers flying through the air froze and quickly fell apart in small showers of ice crystals and soot.

ChaosGallantmon's eyes narrowed in intense concentration. "Perhaps I counted you out too soon…" A grim smile made its way to his face. "Still… the fact that I helped bring this about… it's quite an accomplishment."

AeroVeedramon growled at the Mega, dividing his attention between him and the hidden Gallantmon. "Stop talking like you're proud of whatever's happening to him. You probably are," he added quickly before the Dark Warrior could respond, "but I don't want to hear it."

Smiling maliciously, ChaosGallantmon took several casual steps back. "Well, then let's just see how this plays out, shall we?"

Suddenly, from within the opaque wall of flames, a horrifying shriek of banshee-like proportions split the air. The humans involuntarily balked and clapped their hands over their ears in a vain attempt to block out the soul-piercing sound. Taomon flinched as her barrier shuddered, and the Ultimate quickly forced a little more of her strength into upholding it.

'We're going to need to move soon,' the Wizard thought worriedly to herself. And the current circumstances certainly contributed to this realization.

The sheet of onyx flames abruptly shifted, expanding outwards. The group instinctively took a step back before they looked down and gasped in surprise; Taomon had decided that right then was a good time to leave. Concentrating, the Ultimate pulled the shielded dome into the air, allowing those it protected to continue standing on its solid floor. Like half of a gigantic snow globe, with humans and Digimon standing inside instead of faux snow, the curved force field floated into the sky, slowly moving over the burning trees below.

The unnatural column of fire began to lose some of its opaqueness, and within the cold inferno, a vast shape materialized before the watchers' eyes.

"That can't be… it couldn't…" Rika murmured, staring below with an expression of abject dismay.

"It's not," Taomon said firmly, her tone sterner than stone.

With the heaving of three pairs of thick, leathery, cerise wings, the flames were parted and abandoned to the howling winds. Feral crimson eyes with slitted pupils, shielded behind a

twisted looking helmet of spikes and wicked hooks, gazed out at the world with naught but an abyssal, sinister intention. As a draconic, yet strangely human, body flexed—displaying sheets and rippling waves of unyielding muscle—even ChaosGallantmon looked on in utter shock.

The colossus of a being was dearly two dozen feet high; longer, from the points of the head's dual arching horns to the end of a lashing tail, which was tipped with a trebly barbed blade.

Davis, Mimi, and Palmon stood speechless and agape, while Taomon and Guardromon looked down on the scene with downcast familiarity.

"Shades of Megidramon…" Kazu whispered forlornly, staring at his unrecognizable friends in fearful sorrow.

Rika just sank to her knees and shook her head slowly, her eyes distant, yet beyond troubled.

And the monster reared back its head and roared.


/DigiWorld Beta. The Seventh Heaven. 9:23 p.m./

"…and Astamon takes the hand with a Trio of threes, under Second Cat," Kuzuhamon said evenly before taking back the cards proffered by the players. Astamon took this opportunity to scoop up his winnings for the round and begin stacking them neatly; the Ultimate already had a sizable pile accumulated in front of him, and this new win had increased its size respectably.

Kenta rubbed his eyes and refocused on the game. As time had progressed, the mysterious Lilithmon's irresistible aura had faded enough for one's mind to be kept solely on the game… with a certain amount of concentration.

Still, the disconcerting feeling of being watched—along with the Digimon's allure—occasionally drew Kenta's eyes back to the… unnervingly attractive figure seated next to Astamon and Kuzuhamon.

Noticing the Tamer's scrutiny, Lilithmon winked subtly and blew a small kiss from the tip of her fingers.

Kenta's face began to glow, and he tried to slump out of sight against the circular lounge's wall.

An absent area of the teenager's mind somehow managed to note, quite detachedly, that Lilithmon did not reveal her right arm from beneath the billowy purple sleeves of her black dress. Every action the Digimon took that required a hand was accomplished with only her left, while her right arm hung loosely at her side the entire time.

Such a thought was a welcome distraction to the Tamer. At the moment, only his loyalty to his partner—and, to some extent, Gamblermon—was keeping Kenta from sliding along the wall so he could leave. There was something… vaguely discomforting about the situation.

'Like they say, let your conscience be your guide…' Kenta said to himself in a slightly uneasy sing-song tone.

Definitely a welcome distraction.

"How's the game going?"

The sudden voice, along with the warm hand unexpectedly settling on his shoulder, caused Kenta to jump weakly. Turning, the Tamer was met with the smiling, radiant face of one Sora Takenouchi.

'It's like being stuck between two works of arts…' Kenta pondered, as the thought came out of nowhere, '…and the images they're conjuring REALLY do not belong here.'

'For one thing, Matt would kill me if he were still here and if he knew what I was thinking. That's never a good sign.'

"You know," Kenta began shakily, "that's the second time someone's startled me like that." Really, what was going on? His perception of things had started sliding out of focus within the past, oh… fifteen minutes. Which was exactly the time that Lilithmon had arrived.

Wonderful. That wasn't a glaring danger sign, oh no…

"Sorry," Sora said apologetically, still smiling. Kenta squirmed under her regard, but the DigiDestined didn't seem to notice. "I didn't think about that before I saw you."

"Uh, yeah. No problem…"

Things were starting to feel really uncomfortable, and the hairs on Kenta's neck were beginning to stand up. A subtle—at least, he thought so—glance confirmed that Lilithmon's mischievously playful gaze had settled on him and Sora.

Sora continued on, oblivious, "I thought you might want to see something. You're going to be surprised."

"See something?" Kenta repeated, confused, dragging his gaze back to Sora.

"Yeah. Come on, I'll show you." Inclining her head, the slender DigiDestined began walking away, gesturing for the Tamer to follow.

Feeling relieved at an excuse to leave, Kenta send a few explanatory hand gestures to MarineAngemon—who, deeply involved in the ongoing card game, spared his partner a glance and a quick grin—and hurried after Sora.

When the Tamer fell into step alongside the auburn-haired girl, he experienced a moment of confusion as Kenta noticed that there was barely half an inch difference in their height; belatedly, the teen realized that the two were nearly the same age at this point.

'Weird time stuff. I don't know how it all works out, but it's strange being a… peer of all the older DigiDestined…'

Sora cast a concerned frown at the boy walking beside her. "Kenta? You feeling okay?"

"Um… great. Why?"

"Because your hands are shaking."

Kenta looked down in bewilderment before noticing that his hand were, indeed, trembling minutely. Blinking, the Tamer stuffed them into his pockets and tried to pull an easygoing look onto his face. "Oh, you know… worried about MarineAngemon. And Gamblermon. I mean, about them winning. Or losing," he rambled with a sickly grin.

Inside, his thoughts were something along the lines of, 'What the heck?'

"Riiight," Sora drawled, looking unconvinced. When Kenta offered a sheepish shrug, the girl then grinned. "Don't worry, you're not alone. It's not often your partner gets into a big tournament like this, is it?" The DigiDestined nudged the Tamer in the side with her shoulder, smiling innocently.

A flush manifested itself on Kenta's cheeks, and the world very nearly seemed to tilt one way before resettling itself in the usual direction. "Uh huh. Yeah, yeah…" the Tamer stuttered as he purposefully glanced into another lounge, full of card players. And still, Sora overlooked his awkward reactions.

For the most part.

It seemed to get better as the pair continued walking, navigating the sparse crowd ambling between playing areas. Kenta's mind felt more under control, and Sora's glances during

conversation didn't evoke such a strong reaction. Still, a silent warning was running up and down his spine like a bead of icy water.

Something was seriously off.

After a while, Kenta had the presence of mind to ask, "So… where're the others? I mean, I know Matt and Gabumon left to go check up on Beelzemon, but what's everyone else doing?"

"They're waiting for us," Sora replied vaguely, gaining an impish glint in her reddish honey-toned eyes.

They were very warm eyes.

'Get a grip, get a grip, get a freaking grip, Kenta…'

"…right…" the Tamer said faintly.

"So, you never did tell me how it's going back there," Sora pointed out, raising her eyebrows enquiringly.

Kenta took a calming breath before replying (his gaze intentionally dancing around the rest of the room), "Let's see… Astamon's got the most money at the moment; Gamblermon says he's probably an expert at the game, and he's the only one who's, uh… playing with his full wits at the moment. I mean, aside from her…"

Spine shivering slightly at the thought of Lilithmon, it took Kenta a moment to notice the questioning gaze being sent his way. "Ah, sorry. Um… the Digimon in black? Lilithmon. She's sort of… distracting."

Sora quickly displayed a wickedly amused grin upon seeing the flustered look on her companion's face. "I think I noticed. But you were saying?"

"…Lilithmon's not too far behind Astamon. She's sort of quiet and reserved in the way she plays the game, so I think she just started recently. But she… seems to have other advantages."

'Like keeping everyone else from thinking with a clear head.'

'…funny, that seems to answer a few questions.'

"Mm hmm," Sora hummed in the meanwhile, eyes shining in mirth.

Eager to change the subject, Kenta hastily added, "MarineAngemon and Gamblermon are doing pretty well; they're about tied money-wise. They're playing against each other, sure, but I think they try to make sure that one of them stands the best shot at winning a round. I don't know how honest that is, but it seems to be working well enough. FlaWizardmon's staying in the game, but he mostly wins with good cards and heavy bets." Pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose, the Tamer said self-consciously, "At least, that's what it looks like."

Sora's mischievous expression faded somewhat as she nodded her head thoughtfully. "Well, that's good. Because the results of this tournament might turn out to be more important than we thought."


As the two reached the center of the large playing hall, Sora gestured to a series of elevated pedestals and stands—covered in glass cases—that stood in a ring, closely surrounded by a one of those velvety red ropes and gold colored posts that you might see in a formal business setting, like at a high-end bank or hotel. Congregated next to one stand in particular was the rest of the group; Tai, Agumon, and Ai were looking into the glass case intently, while Biyomon and Suzie waved their hands in greeting.

His curiosity finally gaining a dominant position over the strange thoughts and feelings that had begun plaguing him, Kenta raised an eyebrow at Sora. The teen just grinned until they all stood together.

"So… what's up?"

Tai jerked a thumb at the display. "Care to guess what this is?"

Mentally shrugging at the indirectness surrounding his friends, Kenta looked into the glass—warily noting the reflection of a Gorillamon, who was standing nearby as though he were a guard—and promptly blinked at the bedazzling colors that flooded his optic nerves.

It was an exquisite bracelet, worked in a silvery, glittery metal that formed elegant, parallel curves all along its length. It first made Kenta think of the kind of lattice—albeit somewhat elongated—that one might see in a gazebo or rose trellis, wrapped around itself. In the next moment, it seemed more like a tightly spun spider web, with a kind of flexible yet firm strength that made the Tamer assume that it was nigh unbreakable.

The gems were the real treat, though. Topaz, lapis lazuli, amethyst, sapphire, and opal could all be found along the bracelet's length; each glittering jewel was set in a slot in-between the flowing curves of the metal base. The precious gems sparkled under the steady light of the electric chandeliers above as though they were rippling liquids instead of solid minerals.

And at the center of the unclasped bracelet was a single breathtaking jewel, substantially larger than the rest. At first glance, Kenta thought it was a frosty, multi-faceted diamond, but when his eyes roved back to it a moment later, it had gained a yellowish-orange tint.

"That's gotta be Gamblermon's," the Tamer declared distantly, his eyes drinking in the superb piece of jewelry.

"We figured as much," Sora said matter-of-factly. "But take out your Digivice."

Kenta blinked as his eyes rose to meet the DigiDestined's. "You're… not telling me it's alive, are you? That it's a Digimon?"

"No, silly!" Biyomon snorted. "See for yourself!"

With a shrug, Kenta pulled out his gray-ringed D-Arc… and stared in disbelief at the results that the compass function was displaying.

"…the bracelet is the True Portal?"

"That's what it looks like," Agumon said dryly. Suzie, meanwhile, grinned widely.

"Gamblermon did say that it was kind of magical," the girl stated cheerily.

Chuckling, Tai said, "I'm not exactly sure that's what he meant…"

"Yeah, I think he was talking about the romantic aspect of the thing," Kenta recalled, rubbing the side of his face with a hand. A moment later, he then mentioned, "Well, at least we don't have to go looking for the Portal, now. We know exactly where it is."

"Unfortunately," Sora interjected, "we don't know how to activate it. And I don't think Gamblermon does, either; if he'd known anything about its ability to create gateways to other worlds in the first place, he would have mentioned it to us."

"Which sort of suggests that we're going to have trouble making it work, right?" Ai questioned, her eyes slipping back to the exquisite trinket. "It's going to be like a puzzle, and we don't have a clue where to start solving it."

Tai sighed. "Yeah, pretty much. It can't be something simple, or else Gamblermon or his old girlfriend would have found out by themselves already."

"Fiancée," Suzie corrected with a dreamy giggle.

"And to add to that little dilemma," Biyomon added, attempting to continue the conversation, "we can't do anything with it unless we win it. Mister Muscles over there," the Rookie said, jerking her head to indicate the nearby Gorillamon, "won't let us do anything more than handle it."

Feeling overcome with a sudden impulse, Kenta leaned over the velvet rope to gain a closer view of the bracelet on display. Absently following Biyomon's comment, the Tamer murmured vaguely, "I wonder what it feels like. I guess it'd be hard—I mean, it's metal—but is it like glass, or something else?"

"You'll get different answers from each of us," Agumon replied, shaking her head. Tai elaborated by saying, "I thought it was pretty smooth—and everyone else agrees—but it felt pretty warm to me. Ai and Suzie both said that it was sort of chilly to the touch."

"Weird," Kenta murmured. Tapping a finger against the rope suspended between him and the cased bracelet, the Tamer chewed at the inside of his cheek.

Somehow, the bracelet felt important to him. And not just because it was their ticket home. No, there was something else about it that called to him… as though it had something to say that he needed to hear.

A great dark hand suddenly descended on the top of the glass case. Taking a quick step back in surprise, Kenta looked up to see that the nearby Gorillamon had silently padded over to them, and was now looking at the Tamer with a half irritated, half resigned expression. Noting the human's confusion, the Gorillamon rolled his eyes and lifted the transparent container off the stand, leaving Gamblermon's bracelet open to the world.

Blinking, Kenta pointed at the jewelry tentatively. "You don't mind if I…?"

The Beast Digimon let out a huff and stepped back, fixing the Tamer with a vigilant, intimidating gaze.

Kenta got the point: touch, but don't take. Or else.

At that point, Sora leaned in and said encouragingly, "Go ahead. We're allowed to handle it a little, at least. To 'ensure the quality of the merchandise,' or something. He's not much of a talker, but he got the message across to us earlier."

The lessened distance between Kenta and the auburn-haired DigiDestined—along with the faintest smell of cinnamon wafting from her shoulder length locks—suddenly brought back both the earlier flood of disorientation and the primal heat in his face. Abruptly, a series of instinctive thoughts and scenarios began to run through Kenta's mind at an accelerated pace.

Most of them were decidedly inappropriate for the current circumstances, as they featured a certain, attractive DigiDestined rather prominently in the foreground. A number more were inappropriate period.

The haze of mind-clouding red didn't diminish as Sora stepped back, smiling expectantly. And so, it was with a visibly concealed effort—without such, people would have started asking some concerned questions very quickly—that Kenta shook his head clear of cobwebs and tentatively reached out his trembling hand. Under the Gorillamon's watchful eye, he hastily brushed his fingertips over the enigmatic gem embedded in the middle of the bracelet.

Instantly, a wave of pure, liquid heat shot up his arm and into his chest. Gasping quietly, the Tamer blinked in astonishment and awe as his pulse suddenly began to pound through his body.

It was a though a thousand trumpets had sounded in his head. Outwardly paralyzed, Kenta inwardly quailed as he felt two potent forces collide within himself. On one side was an intoxicating mist of crimson, violet, and guilty pleasure. On the other, a soft, yet unyielding light of silver and gold shone steadily, piercing the deceptive illumination.

The warring sensations set the Tamer's mind ablaze with conflicting impulses and conscious thought. Time became compressed in an instant as Kenta saw a whirl of colors and images flash by, blinding his mind's eye.

…flesh smoother and softer than silk…

Soulful eyes full of warm mirth and gentle regard.

… the dervish of a passionate dance spiraling around and around…

Light laughter and the playful rustling of wings and feathers.

…a hot wind of consuming hunger and irresistible need…

A refreshing breeze of sincere affection and selfless caring.

…pain, rage, oblivion…

Shared tears, shared anger, shared joy.

…empty eyes, empty heart, empty soul…

Brimming with contentedness, with tranquility, with serenity.

…'I'm lost in the gloom, I'm lost in my mind, I'm lost to all I was'…

"Home is where your heart is. That means my home is with you."

…'I want satisfaction, I crave fulfillment, I need freedom'…

"Love is really something grand, isn't it? It's like wings that set you free."

…'is this really what you want?'…

"How could you want anything else?"

In a tempest of emotion and thought, the internal conflict reached its climax. Blended together in an unrecognizable mix of pain and pleasure, the mess that was the field of Kenta's mind roiled in its agonizing battle.

Then the mist parted and fled, dissolving in the wake of the unassailable light which had conquered it.

And just like that, a translucent veil seemed to lift from the teen's mind, leaving Kenta with a sense of elated peace… and a submerged kernel of intuitive understanding.

Finally regaining conscious control of his body, the Tamer breathed in raggedly… and saw the reflection of his inner war, and its merciful ending, reflected in the brilliantly gold jewel in the middle of the bracelet before him.

Quivering in relief and incomprehension, Kenta took a step back and looked at his companions cautiously.

Strange. Tai and Sora's eyebrows were raised slightly, and Biyomon's head was tilted in curiosity, but nothing else seemed amiss on any of their faces. Had he been out of it for a shorter time than he had felt?

Clearing his throat, and shaking his head in a purposefully sheepish expression, the Tamer stuck his hands in his pockets and attempted to appear casual. Inside, however, he breathed a heady sigh of relief: his mind felt like his own again. Gone were the reckless whims and heated dizziness. In its place was a soft, gentle lake of easy thought and pure sensation.

Taking a moment to relish the still harmony, Kenta soon began to consider—from a remote distance—the instinctive knowledge that had clicked into place.

He barely suppressed a shudder at the implications.

'…if that hadn't happened… when would it have stopped?'

Kenta didn't like to think about it.

Meanwhile, Tai observed the conflicting emotions on the Tamer's face with an inquisitive expression. "That's funny. None of us got quite that same level of reaction," he mused aloud.

"…really?" Kenta asked, trying to shift attention away from himself. Scratching the back of his head nervously, the Tamer asked, "What did you feel?"

'And how did you NOT feel what I did!'

'…oh. Maybe because I was closer to her, and for so long. Which is not good for the others, if I'm right.'

Tai, oblivious to Kenta's agitated internal dialogue, began slowly, "Well, my fingers tingled a little bit. And it sort of moved up to my shoulder before it faded."

"Mm hm," Sora hummed in agreement. "I felt like I was being tickled, but it stopped at my elbow."

Kenta was pleased to note that looking at Sora no longer evoked a physical or mental reaction, beyond his usual consideration for the girl. Another piece to the puzzle, which the Tamer had suspected before, was carefully snapped into place.

Ai scuffed her feet on the carpet a little, glancing over at Gorillamon as he carefully replaced the glass covering over Gamblermon's prized bracelet. "I didn't feel much. It was just like touching cool metal, is all." Beside her, Suzie nodded in agreement.

'…yeah, that might make sense. They're young enough that they probably don't feel, uh… this sort of thing yet,' Kenta mused, somewhat relieved. 'Of course, this is all on the assumption that the bracelet… if it recognizes and… pushes it back? Hmm… Gamblermon might know. He has to. And if he doesn't, well… that's still a test back there that'll prove it for sure.'

Seeing that the others were similarly lost in contemplation—though on vastly different subjects, from Kenta's point of view—the Tamer continued to himself, 'But before I go back, I'd love a way to check on that other point. If she… maybe my Digivice can do it. But not nearby. I can't give anything away yet. Strange that she'd take a chance at coming out in the open if it's true, but… who am I to know how they all think?'

Kenta was abruptly shaken from his musings as Suzie exclaimed, grinning widely, "I'll bet the bracelet has some kind of special powers! That has to explain why everyone feels so weird when they touch it!"

"It's a True Portal," Agumon said simply, "what did you expect?"

Ai sighed and rolled her eyes. "She means other powers, silly."

"What else matters besides the 'ability to send us home' part?" Tai asked rhetorically.

Kenta's eye twitched. 'It could matter more than you'd believe, Tai.'

'…if I'm right.'


Matt breathed in the damp air of DigiVegas with a smile… which promptly turned into a grimace as the stale, dirty air of the city forced him to cough repeatedly.

Well, it was still enough to help clear his head. It was strange, really, how it had been so difficult to pull himself away from the match back at the casino. There was a sort of reddish haze in his memory of that point—a dark silk dress and porcelain skin seemed to figure into everything, somehow—but being outside had made things much simpler.

Too bad the air he was breathing wasn't so clear. And, unfortunately, being several stories above the street didn't help much.

Sighing, the DigiDestined patted MetalGarurumon's shoulder to get his attention. "Hey, any sign of Beelzemon?"

The Cyborg grunted a negative. "Not yet. There aren't a whole lot of Digimon below us to mess with my sensors—guess they couldn't stand the rain—but I've really only got good

readings down a single street at a time. The buildings are too tall and too thick for me to get more than a rough idea of what's happening on the other side."

"So, no Beelzemon," Matt clarified, shaking his head in disappointment. "We've been out here for almost twenty minutes. You'd think we'd have found something by now."

"It's a big city, Matt," MetalGarurumon said, in an attempt to mollify his partner. "The chances of us running into him all of a sudden are pretty low."

"Yeah, I guess," the teen replied, somewhat frustrated. A few moments later, the DigiDestined said aloud, "You know, maybe it's time to change our approach."

"What do you mean?" the Mega asked as deftly turned down a narrower street. Though he didn't mention it, the Cyborg rather enjoyed flying leisurely. He hadn't been able to do so for, well… ever.

Matt, in answer, pulled out his new D-3. Sparing a glance at the blue handgrips and the grayish body, the DigiDestined quickly pulled up the Detect function. "If we can't find Beelzemon directly, then we'll find the thing we're both looking for and see if he shows up. That also saves us a whole lot of trouble later, after the tournament."

It only took a moment for the screen to display a flashing arrow pointing at the bottom of the device. Matt blinked upon realizing this.

"…looks like we passed it a while back."

"Typical," MetalGarurumon snorted. "Guess we need to backtrack—"

The Mega's eyes suddenly narrowed. "…scratch that. I think we found Beelzemon."

"We did?" Matt asked, confused. "Where?"

"Down that alley we're coming up on," the Mega said as he slowed down in flight. "And he's heading towards us. Thing is… I'm sort of sensing two of him."

"…sure you don't need an overhaul, buddy?"

MetalGarurumon didn't have a chance to reply before a figure burst from the alley on foot. The demonic Mega below didn't spare the duo in the air more than an evil grin before he dashed down another narrow street.

Matt's gaze hardened as he watched the being disappear. "I don't think that was our Beelzemon."

"Glad ya could tell!"

The DigiDestined and his digital partner looked back to see Beelzemon Blast Mode emerge from between the buildings where the first Mega had appeared from.

Gesturing forwards, and not stopping to do so, Beelzemon called out, "Don't just sit dere! Help me catch dat Demon Lord!"

It only took an instant for Matt and MetalGarurumon to put on speed and follow both of the other Megas down the second alley.

"Never a dull day," Matt grumbled as he and his partner fell in behind Beelzemon.

"It's like that Chinese curse," MetalGarurumon commented in a lighter tone. "'May you live in interesting times.'"

"I guess being Japanese doesn't exclude us from the effects, then."


/DigiWorld Alpha. 9:33 p.m./

In ten minutes, the forest fire had become a hellish inferno. From the top of the scorched and bare hill, Mimi looked on in dumb disbelief. Even half a mile away, it was far too easy to see what was happening near the remains of the Mikemon village.

Or rather, where the treetop village used to be. There wasn't a shred of evidence that supported the idea that the settlement had ever existed, now. There wasn't even much of a forest left in that area. Just a sea of fire and a curtain of roiling smoke, obscuring the view of the long-abandoned clearing.

Not to mention the two who had so utterly decimated the area.

Mimi winced as a fresh river of crimson and gold flames poured from a single point deep within the smoke. Even from this distance, and even with the breather of such death veiled from sight…

The girl trembled.

Looking unusually down, Davis grunted quietly. "…SkullGreymon was nothing next to this." The gogglehead's gaze drifted to AeroVeedramon, who hovered uncertainly some ways from the major conflict, just barely visible amidst the smoke.

A slightly hysterical giggle threatened to erupt from Mimi's mouth, but the DigiDestined held it back with an iron force of will. Drawing a breath, she murmured, "And you didn't even see him the first time."

In another time, Kazu might have taken this opportunity to mention Megidramon, and how the corrupted SkullGreymon didn't hold so much as a candle to the Evil Dragon. Then he might have compared Megidramon with the current fiend wreaking havoc, and dismiss the former as an unruly lizard.

But Kazu had come a long way from the boy he had been some years ago. Now, he could only stare out towards his friends—who were somehow trapped in the rampaging body of a mad, feral Digimon—and wish with all the fiber of his being that something good would happen. That the solution to this life-threatening dilemma would be revealed in a flash of inspiration…

…or something. Anything, really, was fine with him.

Beside him, Rika was also silent. She was no longer stunned senseless, but was now intent on the hidden battle being waged between ChaosGallantmon and…

…just what was Takato and Guilmon now?

As another explosion rocked the air around them, Taomon turned to her Tamer and asked calmly, "Should I involve myself now, Rika?"

The girl grimaced and hesitantly shook her head. "No. If I was strong enough to Biomerge with you, then nothing could stop us from going out there… but I'm not, and there's no way I'm going to let you risk yourself in this kind of fight alone."

Next to her, Davis scowled. "Hey, that's the way we've been doing business for years! Just because you can't reach Mega this very second doesn't mean you should stop fighting!"

In a flash, Rika shot back angrily, "Look, gogglehead, what makes you think that going in there is going to help any of us? Let's break down the scenario and see if we can get it to make sense to you," she added bitingly.

"First, we've got two powerful Megas—if Takato and Guilmon are still even at that level—duking it out down there. They're not going to let anything get between them. ChaosGallantmon, at least, is going to take apart any interference; you can tell he's serious now—he was before we left—and I doubt he can afford a distraction. And I definitely don't want to test Takato's reaction," the Tamer added, a trace of both uneasiness and concern

momentarily underlying her sharp tone. However, she soon continued strongly, "Second, this little hill we're standing on? It's practically the only safe place for us humans to be right now. Everything else is either up in flames or too far away from the battle to do anyone any good. Add to that the fact that the heat here is bad enough, even with Taomon around to keep things in check if they get any worse. We can't get any closer, and we'll be out of sight if we get off this hill."

"Third? What kind of backup do you think we have? AeroVeedramon's still in the game, sure, but do you honestly want him in the middle of those two down there? Palmon's out for the count, Guardromon's a Champion, and we're defenseless against everything without Taomon. I don't know about you, but I don't feel like having barbeque!"

"'Specially when it's us," Palmon said woozily. The Rookie was standing on her own now, but she still swayed from time to time, and it was painfully obvious that she wasn't going to be able to do anything useful for a while.

Davis clenched both his fists and his jaw… before they slackened in resignation. "Okay, okay, I get it. So what are we gonna do?"

Before Rika could answer, Kazu interjected, "There's not much we can do now. Just stand back and let the two of them go at it."

A defeated silence met this pronouncement. Mimi absently wiped at the dried flood flecks on her right cheek, while Davis looked out at the burning woodland grimly. Kazu, turning to look at Rika, saw that the redhead had gained a slightly lost, regretful expression. So often, Rika Nonaka had the passion and determination to do anything she set her mind to… but this entire affair had dampened her spirits. First, her body had betrayed her to a weakening infection, and now two of her friends were trapped in an ominous web that no one understood.

And she could do nothing about it.

Suppressing a grimace, Kazu tried to turn his mind back to the far off battle. Casting his eyes on the distant fires and occasional flashes of silver light, the Tamer murmured, "You know, things would probably feel a bit more comfortable if we could at least give a name to whatever it is that Takato and Guilmon turned into."

Rika half glanced at her fellow Tamer before her gaze slowly drifted back to the flames licking at the murky sky.

'It's brighter than it should be,' she thought to herself idly. 'Every tree in front of us for a mile is its own bonfire, and the smoke's reflecting all the light back to the ground.'

She shivered uneasily. Though the unnatural coldness prompted by Gallantmon's… transformation had quickly become searing heat once again, a chill ran up Rika's spine.

The air was suddenly rent by another draconic scream. Rika flinched and unconsciously raised a hand to ward off the piercing sound. Behind her, Mimi gasped and fell to her knees, clasping her arms around herself as she shuddered.

This distressing cry, however, seemed to put steel into Davis' back. Turning to Kazu, the DigiDestined said, with a resolute glint in his eyes, "I think you've got a good idea. You willing to let AeroVeedramon take you out and see what you can see with that fancy Digivice of yours?"

Kazu, also feeling perversely empowered by the horrifying call, nodded without hesitation. Looking as though she was about to object, Rika opened her mouth and took in a deep breath, ready to unleash a tirade upon her companion. But then, as Kazu's determined gaze shifted to meet hers, the redheaded Tamer silently relented at the last moment. With a narrow, searching look, Rika finally nodded and turned her back on the others.

"If we want to start changing things, let's get to it," she said evenly, apparently addressing the blazing trees before her.

Kazu knew her well enough to realize that, even if he didn't need her consent, he had it.

And, he was surprised to notice, it was actually worth something to him.

Nodding firmly, Kazu shot a glance at Davis. The gogglehead grinned crookedly before whistling loudly to get his partner's attention. As the DigiDestined waved the Ultimate Digimon over, Kazu turned to his own partner and said apologetically, "Sorry you're not exactly suited to this little expedition, Guardromon."

"You need not explain, Kazu," the Champion replied earnestly. "I realize that my limited maneuverability would endanger us both. I shall await here until such a time when I can be useful to you."

Kazu half smiled, satisfied and not a little proud of his best friend. "I can always count on you, pal. I just… sort of wish you could rely on me that way."

Guardromon blinked. "But, Kazu, I do."

Kazu opened his mouth to respond, but the reflexively surprised response faded into a rueful smile. "…thanks, Guardromon. That means a lot to me."

Inclining his head graciously, the Champion took a step back to allow AeroVeedramon more room to land on the small hill surrounded by fire. A few quick words with Davis were all it took for the Ultimate to allow Kazu to climb onto his back before taking off shortly afterwards. As the two ascended into the stiflingly hot, smoky air, Kazu glanced back over his shoulder.

…he had some good friends down there.

'And I'm not going to let them down. Never. Not today, not tomorrow…never.'

As the smoke thickened and blackened around them, AeroVeedramon growled in his deep voice, "You think we'll be able to get close enough to get a look at both of them?"

Kazu nodded as a thunderclap—too close for comfort, really—popped his ears. "I don't think they'll notice us. They're probably too busy pounding on each other."

"…what do you think we'll see?"

The flapping of the Ultimate's wings caused the smoke to write and dance weightlessly in the air around them, and Kazu found himself watching the eye-watering movement as though he were looking into a cloudy crystal ball.

"…judging from what we saw just before everything got shot to hell? Nothing good."

AeroVeedramon grunted, a frown nearly audible in the utterance. Kazu opted for silence, and instead trained his eyes—which were becoming bloodshot from all the fire-spawned air pollution—straight ahead, trying to pierce the dark pall.

And then, like eye of a hurricane, everything was clear.

A howling wind had purged the clearing of smoke and fumes, and now carried burning embers and glowing plant life through a dozen small cyclones spiraling high into the air. The source of this wind was the constant, frenzied beating of three vast pairs of awe-inspiring wings, each the color of a wilting rose, sprouting from a broad, heavily muscled back. These wings, as wide and thick as they were, attracted Kazu's attention first.

Next, the Tamer noticed the body of the monster. Thicker than Megidramon, and only slightly more humanoid in form than Growlmon, it was quickly made obvious that this being was more of a juggernaut than anything Kazu had seen before. Thick, trunk-like legs supported the Digimon as though they were miniature mountains, but they still possessed enough speed to send the incredible mass they carried through dexterous dances; the constantly beating wings probably helped in this respect.

And all the major areas of his body were sheathed in wicked, angular armor the color of fresh blood. Chest, heavily muscled limbs, feet and hands… the gauntlets, in particular, looked especially cruel with slender, jutting triangles of jagged metal placed all along their tops. Each of the spikes—which probably measured twice the length of Kazu's hands—faced forwards sharply, so that even a glancing blow would tear flesh from bone with little to no resistance.

Everything not covered in metallic armor displayed a sheet of long, slim scales that Kazu thought would make excellent tips for ballistae the size of small tanks. Each individual scale overlapped the one below it almost seamlessly, leaving no visible weak point, yet still shifting fluidly with the body's motions like a cloak of bloody water.

But then, Kazu's sight was inexorably pulled to the head of the beast.

A helmet that looked equally appropriate atop an eldritch wraith crowned and shielded the rampaging creature's cranium. Spikes jutted and hooks curled from the onyx headpiece, giving the impression of a torturer's chamber compacted into a single piece of visually offensive armor. An image—that of a dead, corrupted forest with trees of black glass in deepest night—sprang unbidden to Kazu's imagination, causing the Tamer to shudder at the brutal message it forcefully sent.

Then the beast turned, and Kazu caught a glimpse of its gaze.

From pools of glowing crimson streaked with sharp gray, slitted pupils stared out with a disturbingly empty expression. Kazu recoiled and hastily averted his own eyes; even AeroVeedramon flinched at the menacing sight. Then the bottomless eyes turned, leaving one last detail for the nearby Tamer to discern.

Or rather, for the teen to notice its conspicuous absence.

There was no visible sign of a hazard symbol. None whatsoever: not even the faintest etching in the center of the sturdy breastplate.

Kazu finally exhaled.


AeroVeedramon could find nothing to say.

Hand shaking slightly, Kazu grasped his Digivice and silently urged the behemoth to pay them no attention.

Indeed, there was plenty else for the huge Digimon to concentrate on.

In the clearing below—which had substantially increased in size with the arrival of the new being and the continuing work of the forest fire—ChaosGallantmon was moving like a blur, trying to stay one step ahead in a battle that, now that Kazu had taken a full five seconds to look over the twisted form of his friends, left the Tamer unsettled.

The Dark Warrior's tattered cape had long since been abandoned, and the dull gleam of the Mega's dark armor had disappeared in favor of a sooty, scorched look. Dents and deep furrows in the armor were clearly visible, and Kazu thought he could see a trace of desperation in ChaosGallantmon's sulfurous eyes.

But what was he preparing to evade?

"Obsidian Shards," came an unearthly void of a hissed voice.


In an instant, all the visible scales on the behemoth's body suddenly spread outwards like a rapidly unfolding pinecone, standing on end. Where once there was an impenetrable defense of smooth, metallic plates, there was now a bristling array of razor-pointed scale slivers.

Then, there was a blurred cloud of black shadows in the shape of those needle-like plates whizzing through the air.

Fortunately for Kazu and Guardromon, the attack was only being focused in one general direction. Unfortunately for ChaosGallantmon, the attack was being focused in his general direction.

In the space of a second, half a dozen new, yawning grooves became visible on the Dark Warrior's armor. Grunting in suppressed, pain, ChaosGallantmon reared back Balmunc and returned, "DEMON'S DISASTER!"

The monster's scales folded back down into their defensive position, and the energy beam exploded against them harmlessly.

A moment later, there sounded a ghastly scream that set the hairs on the back of Kazu's neck standing upright. It was similar to the one that the Tamer had heard earlier, but this one might have held the tiniest grain of smug pleasure.

When Kazu finally unclenched his eyes and pulled his hands from his ears, he registered that his Digivice was blinking.

Trying to ignore a fresh volley of powerful attacks from ChaosGallantmon on the ground, the Tamer looked at the single word displayed on his D-Arc's screen.


"…this is new."

Beneath Kazu, AeroVeedramon suddenly gulped loudly. "Uh… Kazu?"

Looking up from the Digivice, the Tamer asked warily, "Yeah? What's…?"

The beast had raised its gauntleted hands to the sky, and they were glowing with a writhing scarlet aura that left very little doubt in Kazu's mind that something bad was about to happen.



"…can we please move away? Now?"

The Ultimate needed no more encouragement. With a burst of speed, the Phantom Dragon gave a mighty beat of his wings, sending him and his human passenger backwards, still facing the scene beginning to unfold.

And with a ghostly voice, it began.

"Fey Inferno."

Kazu slapped AeroVeedramon's shoulder repeatedly to urge greater speed; the Tamer's eyes, however, were immovably fixed on the sky. Upon glancing upwards, the Ultimate's face went ashen. Then, with a titanic effort, the Digimon sped—faster than he had even flown before in any of his own forms—back into the wall of smoke that surrounded the smoldering battlefield.

Then the sky began to fall in a meteoric tempest that ignited the very air.

Kazu howled in agony as a wave of searing heat slammed into his back, nearly causing the convulsing Tamer to fall from his aerial mount; likewise, AeroVeedramon roared in distress, but pushed onwards, pumping his wings for all they were worth.

The pair flew through a conflagration the likes of which neither had seen before. Flames didn't just seem to rise in the air; they were the atmosphere, and everything in it. Even the smoke itself was forced out of existence by the unquenchable blaze, and all that was left to see was a solid wall of yellow-white fire.

Only the faintest blue aura surrounding AeroVeedramon prevented the pair—Kazu especially—from roasting alive. An instinctive, rudimentary defense, it did not prevent their skin from burning or Kazu's clothes from catching alight at the ends.

As Kazu frantically patted out the smoldering fabric—adrenaline preventing him from feeling too much pain at that very second—AeroVeedramon finally burst from the inferno with an anguished cry. Then, they crashed into the ground senselessly.

When Kazu regained consciousness some moments later, he immediately began wheezing dryly, and he reflexively rolled into a fetal position as his lungs rebelled against the insidious irritants that had been flying through the air.

Then, as his coughing fit subsided, Kazu gradually became aware of hands on his right shoulder and arm; he was lying on his left side in the ashy dirt, and he could taste both the sterility of the ground and the shortness of oxygen in the searing air.

When the pain finally hit in full, the Tamer's back arched in an intense spasm. It was then that Kazu learned that pain—real pain—had a color. Blinding white; the color of utter, mindless agony which burned the body from the inside out, setting nerves ablaze in a sensation that stole the teen's breath and any notion of ever breathing again.

For an instant, Kazu Shioda truly thought that he was dying. And perhaps he might have, had Taomon not been nearby.

While gifted with mystical powers, the healing arts were not Taomon's specialty; if anything, Sakuyamon was far better suited to such a job. MarineAngemon, in comparison would have been by far the best candidate for the situation. However, Taomon's limited ability was enough to first take the edge off the paralyzing pain, and then begin a kind of crude, rapid healing.

As flesh slowly regained its former color and texture—losing the abnormal smoothness of serious burns and heat blisters—Kazu began to breathe steadily again, though it came in great, excruciating gasps.

When he at last felt up to it, he squeezed the hand that he suddenly found gripping his own, and he was gently raised to a sitting level. Blinking slowly, as though with new eyes, the Tamer looked up into the white faces of his friends. Even Rika looked more shaken than he had ever seen her.

But Guardromon, from his position between Taomon and Palmon, quietly—calmly, even—looked into his Tamer's eyes for a long moment. Suddenly feeling a kind of strength that Kazu had always associated with the selfless bond of a human and a Digimon, the teen sent a pacifying, nonverbal message to his partner with his steady gaze. Guardromon nodded a moment later, looking pleased.

Breathing labouredly, in her own uninjured way, Mimi then asked quietly, "Are you…?" Stopping and shaking her head, she began again, "How do you feel…?" She cut herself off again, looking mortified.

Kazu tried to wave a hand in dismissal, and found the action somewhat less painful than breathing. "I think…" Coughing at the rawness of his throat, the Tamer quickly sent a look of thanks to Taomon, whose hands were glowing slightly as they hovered in front of his chest.

"…I should be… good." Twisting his head around, he asked brokenly, "What about… AeroVeedramon?"

A momentous groan was his first answer, which was quickly followed up by Davis' strained comment, "He looks better than you do! No worries, he'll be fine after a quick breather!"

"Speak for yourself," the Ultimate moaned. "I feel like I was stuffed into a turkey and thrown into the oven…"

"See?" Davis said, flashing a forced grin at the rest of the group. "He's fine."

Guardromon immediately stepped towards the Ultimate and said gratefully, "I must thank you, AeroVeedramon; you protected my partner and brought him back safely. It is my honor to fight at your side."

The Phantom Dragon wearily raised a clawed hand in acknowledgement. "Eh, anytime. No, wait, I'd prefer not to go through that again if I can avoid it…"

Kazu coughed again before saying pointedly, "Okay, now that we've settled that, what's going on down there?"

The flames in the valley had all but disappeared; there simply wasn't anything left to burn. Only a few trees that looked more like charcoal than plant matter continued to smolder and glow. Everything else was black ash and glassy dirt; even the low-lying smoke had finally dissipated, probably due to the incredible attack that had been unleashed upon the land and sky. It was likely for this reason that the smell of pungent ozone became particularly noticeable in the diminished scent of everything else.

And at the center of the dead valley stood a very battered ChaosGallantmon, loomed over by the savage colossus of flesh and bone which had wrought such unbelievable ruin.

The Dark Warrior was breathing even more unevenly than Kazu had, and the Mega soon spat out a mouthful of dark blood through his helmet's grille.

"…have to say… I'm impressed, Tamer," the Dark Digimon said slowly, sagging on his feet. "I never… thought that… beings such as you … and your partner could… play so rough."

With an effort, the Mega looked up into an unfeeling pair of crimson eyes… and smirked weakly.

"I might die… in a few moments… but the funny thing is… I've still won. I've destroyed you."

There was a prolonged pause, where neither combatant moved. And yet, a flash of buried emotion played against a void of thoughtless intent deep within the behemoth's eyes. ChaosGallantmon noticed this, and smirked even as his body sent a sharp spike of searing pain to his brain.

Perhaps it was the mystifying nature of the Digital World that allowed these words to carry so clearly. Perhaps the hellish firestorm had altered the very fabric of space in that area, or maybe there was simply a powerful, base connection between those in the valley… but regardless of the reasons, the Dark Warrior's words were received and understood on the hilltop so far away.

Rika gritted her teeth. "This isn't just about who comes out of this fight alive. It's about who's right in the end. ChaosGallantmon provoked Takato and Guilmon into doing something they'd never do otherwise, and he's able to attack their character because of it."

"And that's the victory here?" Palmon asked tiredly. Despite being a bit wilted, the Rookie's head was clearer than it had been for a while. "I don't get it."

It was Davis who nodded in response. "It's like he's trying to make a hero take himself apart to get to the bad guy. A hero shouldn't be able to do that; he'd be normal, otherwise. And if everyone's normal… then you might as well do whatever you want, no matter how it affects everyone else, because there's nothing to aspire to. At least… at least, I guess so."

"In other words, if there are no heroes," Taomon stated sorrowfully, "then what basis is there for virtue or selflessness? Only different degrees of villains and sheep would be left in the world."

Rika snorted disdainfully. "Jerk. That's completely pointless. We know 'champions of justice' aren't infallible, but that doesn't lessen them in any way. It just makes them stronger for what they can do. And just what makes us eligible for proving his twisted argument?"

"I bet saving the world has something to do with it," Kazu said sardonically.

And still, the massive form that Gallantmon had assumed did not so much as twitch outwardly.

"I sincerely doubt that it was ChaosGallantmon's intention for things to get so far out of his control," Guardromon eventually said, "but now that he accepts that his life may end, he dedicates the remainder of his existence to dismantling what virtue we might perceive in our corrupted friends."

"And if they kill him," Mimi stated slowly, as she came to the conclusion, "then it's over, and there's another battle to be fought afterwards."

Kazu breathed jadedly in understanding. "…Takato and Guilmon. They'll need to find themselves again. They'll be… broken."

AeroVeedramon groaned and put his hands over his eyes, shutting out his view of the apocalyptic world. "This isn't making much sense to me…"

Ignoring her fellow Ultimate, Taomon narrowed her eyes and declared, "Then we need to help the both of them."

"How?" Mimi asked, fixing her watery eyes on the Wizard. "What can we do?"

"We have two options," Taomon replied tersely. "First, we can encourage them to back off and not strike ChaosGallantmon down."

"Yeah, I see that working like a charm," Rika said sarcastically, fixing her eyes on the motionless forms in the shattered valley. "Remember Megidramon? There wasn't any reasoning with him, and I kind of doubt ChaosGallantmon will let us try with this guy without another fight—that is, if he's crazy enough to throw his life away like that, and that's probably the case. Although, I don't know if he'd be up to much of a scuffle…"

"Which brings me to my second point," the Tamer's partner said firmly, her eyes hard in determination. "We take the decision out of Takato and Guilmon's hands." A flicker of remorse danced in her eyes before she hid it away. For the moment.

Kazu and Mimi shared confused glances, but Davis' mouth thinned a moment later. "That's not showing a lot of faith in the two of them," the DigiDestined stated firmly. However, his tone seemed resigned rather than defensive.

Rika, also comprehending her partner's message, pointed out at the wasteland and said tonelessly, "If they could have stopped themselves by now, I think they would have."

Taomon nodded before anyone else could respond. "I'll take care of it."

"Be careful. We don't know how they'll react," Davis said helpfully, frowning all the while.

The Ultimate nodded. "Of course."

As the Ultimate quickly flew away into the thin, stale air, Palmon said, somewhat annoyed, "Would anyone mind explaining to me what you're talking about?"

A stolid silence was her only response.

Meanwhile, ChaosGallantmon found himself wondering if it would still be possible to walk away from this battle as a living victor.

…the chances seemed rather low.

So he began to chuckle mirthlessly.

"…one last round."

Stiffening his back, and holding his battered head up high, the Dark Warrior turned his scornful, triumphant gaze on the titan of power before him.

"…to make an end…"

Jaded yellow eyes met a pair of deeply crimson orbs.

"…to everything."

Then, raising his shield, striking a deceptively desperate stance better suited to a hero's last stand, ChaosGallantmon screamed, "JUDECCA PRISON!"

A gushing river of indigo power erupted from the curved surface of Gorgon; and with a piercing tone, the attack tunneled through the air itself as it rushed towards its target.

Suddenly, the colossus that had once been a Tamer and his partner moved. With the movement came the bestial cry, "Ruinous Purging!"

Bloody scarlet flames swirled around the wicked gauntlets adorning both of the creature's hands. Then, they funneled together into an overwhelming twister of deeply red and bronze fire, and leapt to intercept the incoming attack.

With a sound like the tolling of a massive iron bell, the opposing energies collided and diffused into each other, forming a rapidly expanding white sphere at their center. The sphere of raw power rippled once, and then exploded violently.

The resulting backlash and whirlwind threw ChaosGallantmon into the ground like a rag doll, and the Dark Warrior slid backwards a dozen yards before coming to a motionless halt.

The towering beast of scales and crimson metal, in contrast, threw back its helmeted head and gave another ear-splitting cry. There was no mistaking the tone of vindictive pleasure in it.

And as the living colossus gloated savagely, the heavens began to pour themselves out in a foul, sullied expression of rainfall.

Then, crimson eyes locked onto the pitiful form of the shattered knight. And a slow, meaningful step was taken. The earth shook beneath the massive form treading its surface, but it could do nothing to stop the monstrosity that that been born upon it.

It was at this point in time that an electronic device beeped—almost in a subdued manner—indicating that its analysis was completed.


GrimExamon. Mega Level, Stage II. Attribute Unknown. Ruined Knight.

Born from misdirected passions and a well of incredible power, its strength is untold. Its relentless and merciless personality overwhelms all impulses not directly related to the achievement of this Digimon's goal: the utter destruction of that which triggered its corrupted transformation.


Kazu swore long and silently before repeating the data aloud in a forced monotone—a part of him wondered what Stage II meant before realizing that he didn't care. Squeezing her eyes shut, Mimi shuddered at the revelation, and Palmon could do little to reassure her. Davis and AeroVeedramon both exchanged grim looks, while Kazu and Guardromon echoed their silent dialogue.

Rika's expression only hardened, though her eyes shone through the façade, softer and more vulnerable than the Tamer would have been comfortable admitting.

Another step of the newly named GrimExamon, and ChaosGallantmon slowly raised his head from its resting place in the sterile dirt. Coughing brokenly, the Dark Warrior seemed about to speak before thinking better of it. Instead, the Mega gave one last chuckle before spitting on the ground beside him; his contemptuous regard for his vanquisher—the fallen hero—shone clear.

One last step, and then the Ruined Knight raised his armored hands, once more roiling in flame.


Taomon's voice shattered the relative silence, and the massive Digimon turned its empty gaze on the Ultimate, who had appeared suddenly on the ground between him and the fallen warrior.

The Wizard looked up into those crimson eyes and said slowly, with a speck of forlorn hope in her voice, "I know that you can hear me in there, Takato, Guilmon. No matter what you can become, there is always a piece of both of you left behind, buried beneath the monster I see before me." Setting her face in a mask of stone, Taomon continued, "And I know that you are recoiling from this scene, or would if you could see it for yourselves. You are my friends, and I understand you well enough to know this."

GrimExamon's wings flexed slowly, while clawed fingers curled and uncurled absently. His gaze remained fixed on the tiny Ultimate below him, though something behind his eyes subtly shifted in response to her words.

Raising a hand for emphasis, Taomon added, "You wish to do something that helps no one in your present condition. To destroy—to kill—as you are now would transform you into a true monster… and I know that you do not want this, no matter what this form may try to convince you of."

On the hilltop, Davis murmured anxiously, "What's she doing?"

Staring at her partner and her corrupted friends so far off, Rika's eyes began to glisten as a weight was lifted from her troubled heart.

"…she's giving them a chance," she whispered in response.

Kazu nodded and added quietly, "She's going with the first option."

It was dangerous, getting between the armored fiend and its prey… but, in the end, it was something that the Tamers could never not do.

No matter what they said, they could never give up faith in their friends so easily.

Raising her voice, Taomon concluded, "This task must be done, but not by you! As your friend, let me take your place and dispense justice as you have always wished to see it done!"

GrimExamon tensed, and scarlet flames began to weave around his hands once again. However, Taomon stood her ground, immovable by anything but lethal force.

A collective breath was drawn and held on the hill.

The moment passed over the span of an age. Motionless except for the dancing flames and the dreary rain, all the players of the scene looked on in mingled hope and fear.

Then, something fell into place behind the Ruined Knight's eyes. A flash of understanding and world-bending willpower asserted itself, and the colossus' crimson gaze slowly faded into a muted, tired gold.

"…don't… fool yourself."

Stiffening, GrimExamon's vision sharpened and fixed itself on a beaten Dark Warrior, who was struggling to rise.

"You can't… undo what you've… wrought in your passion," ChaosGallantmon gasped. Though he looked to be in agony, his malice was unabated… and it was fully focused on his former opponent. "You can find… no redemption. I stand as… your testimony."

With a last smile of pure malevolence, the Dark Digimon finished, "I am a monument… to all your sins."

But before the newly enraged GrimExamon could so much as twitch in the fallen Digimon's direction, another being's bellow split the air.


Sweeping her calligraphy brush through the air with furious precision and speed, the Ultimate cried out, with all her might, "TALISMAN OF LIGHT!"

The light from the ethereal kanji blazed brighter than the midday sun, and the dirty rain in its path burst into steam instantly. ChaosGallantmon had one last moment of lucid thought—in which bitter disappointment and undying hatred flashed through his mind—before all thought ceased for the Dark Warrior.

When the attack faded, there was no trace of the wicked Digimon left behind.

On the hilltop, Davis and Kazu both let out a whoop before quickly silencing themselves. This wasn't quite over yet.

Taomon slowly turned around to face GrimExamon… and found an indecipherable play of emotions displayed in his now golden eyes.

A low growl began to rumble deep in the Ruined Knight's throat, and his fingers twitched as though he wanted to place them around Taomon's throat and squeeze. But then, the snarl slowly became a long, keening cry that, while still unearthly, did not disturb its listeners quite so much as it had before.

True remorse could be felt in this forlorn call.

Then it was silent. GrimExamon's shoulders drooped and his gaze dropped to the ground languidly.

Mimi sagged before falling to her knees. Pressing her hands over her eyes, and hugging Palmon to her tightly she asked, between dry, wracking breaths, "Is it… finally over?"

An assured smile could soon be found on Davis' face. "You know? I think it is," the DigiDestined said joyfully. As though he had been holding it back for an indeterminable time, the teen forcefully threw his fist into the air and hollered loudly, "YEAH! YOU CAN'T KEEP US DOWN! WOOO!"

Kazu began to laugh, then sank to the ground as his frame shook. He was helpless as the tension he had felt finally began to drain away. No disrespect to Takato and Guilmon, but he couldn't hold it in any longer. Guardromon, in contrast, chose to express his relief in a simple nod and a long breath.

A small, sad smile slowly bloomed on Rika's face. Her amethyst eyes glittered with moisture, but she did not wipe it away. Instead, her gaze rested on her distant friends and partner.

"…you came through again." Sniffing quietly, the Tamer murmured, "I wish I hadn't doubted you."

And in the valley, Taomon's stern face softened into a considerate smile. Slowly, the Ultimate drifted up to the Ruined Knight's shoulder… and patted it gently.

"We knew you had it in you, Gallantmon," she said quietly.

The Mega gave a long, shuddering breath. His form began to waver and glow, and Taomon backed away as the Digimon began to revert…

And then a wave of black fire washed over the pair, causing Taomon to cry out in pain and GrimExamon to snap back to razor-like attention.

On the edge of the valley, Rika stiffened and yelled out, "What's going on!"

Celebrations cut short, the group looked on in disbelief as a new figure resolved into view, breaking the curtain of dark rain that fell upon the scorched earth.

"I'm glad to see there's room left for me here," the draconic Digimon growled loudly, his tone perversely pleased. "Now that the battle of ideals is done and over with… how about a simple battle for survival? That suits me very well…"

It didn't take much to guess the name of this newcomer. The color scheme and the achingly familiar body left little to the imagination.

And as BlackMegidramon made himself known on the stage, GrimExamon's eyes narrowed: still golden, but now beyond feral as the Ruined Knight immediately picked up on the waves of dark intention rolling off of the Evil Dragon.

Taomon, burned and dazed, only needed one look at the scene to realize that things were far from over.

She could see only more pain in the near future.


/DigiWorld Beta. The Seventh Heaven. 9:51 p.m./

Kenta slid down the wall until he was sitting straight up against it; for the past ten minutes or so, he had endeavored to find a quiet place to hide himself away and figure things out. He had been forced to settle for the quiet hall leading to a couple of rarely used bathrooms, but he wasn't complaining too much.

Ai, Suzie, and Lopmon had opted to retire to The Cat's Meow; the frequent yawns of the two girls had made it easy for Lopmon to convince the elder DigiDestined that a little shut-eye as in order for the pair. Despite their protests, both Suzie and Ai had finally allowed themselves to be escorted back to the hotel by the Rookie, as well as Tai and Agumon. Sora and Biyomon were currently drifting between watching games and peering at Gamblermon's mysterious bracelet.

This left Kenta the perfect opportunity to get things straight once and for all.

Of course, this required him to figure out how to utilize his Digivice in the manner he wanted…

Tapping the two buttons on the D-Arc's face repeatedly, Kenta scowled as he consistently failed in bringing up any sort of identification program. Usually, directing his attention to any specific Digimon in the general vicinity was enough to activate the device, but he was trying to keep a low profile. And calling up the data in the presence of the one he was suspicious of would be a dead giveaway.

"Come on, come on," the Tamer muttered under his breath, "Who designed this thing with such a limited interface, anyway? How am I supposed to make this work if I can't get past this whole 'set time' or 'set alarm' stuff!"

At last giving up, Kenta's head slumped against the wall. "Ugh. I really need to find this out for sure if I'm going to do anything about this, but I can't make this piece of junk work. So I can't do anything. Which means I'm stuck."

Kneading his forehead with a fist, the Tamer murmured, "I just need to know if Lilithmon's what I think she is…"

And just like that, the holographic display was activated, and the image it showed caused Kenta to blink in exasperation.

"…I just said her name out loud and…" Eventually chalking up the desired, yet unexpected result to weird Digivices and their fussy nature, the Tamer examined the data carefully.

"Lilithmon," he muttered to himself, absently pleased that the name no longer evoked anything but clear distrust and caution, "Mega level Virus Digimon. Type…"

"…Demon Lord… of Lust. Like I thought. Can't believe I didn't realize it before; Kazu knows more about the Digimon card game, but that doesn't excuse me from missing something so obvious…"

Sighing, both in relief and in new worry, the Tamer glanced over the rest of the biographical info before looking up from his Digivice. The teen then slipped into a thoughtful silence.

'All those weird feelings I started getting… those were thanks to Lilithmon. She's a Demon Lord, and she—like the others—represents one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Lilithmon's is Lust, of course. She must somehow be able to make other beings feel it whenever she's around them.'

Shuddering at the implications, Kenta continued to himself, 'No wonder I felt so out of sorts. I don't, uh, usually feel that, much. The wonders of naivety, no doubt.'

'But that raises other issues. Obviously, she's messing around with all the other people she's playing the card game with, but that's really not all that important, compared to the fact that there's a DEMON LORD in our midst. The REAL question is, though, what the heck did Gamblermon's bracelet do to me to clear my head of her manipulations?'

Scratching his head, Kenta cast his memory back to Gamblermon's earlier stories of him and his 'girlfriend.'

'Let's see: it was special, somehow. He got it years ago from a mysterious stranger, and he doesn't know everything that it can do, just the fact that it had some subtle powers. Add to that the fact that it's a True Portal, and things get even more confusing.'

'He gave it to Zephyrmon when they got together, and she kept it until she disappeared one day and Gamblermon found it where she had last been. Sad, but not very important right now.'

Thoughts churning, Kenta continued slowly, 'Now, if the bracelet—I can't believe I'm thinking this—but if the bracelet stored…'echoes' of their love… then something so pure must have driven out, uh… Lilithmon's influence.'

Could it be that simple? True love driving out lust?

…something was telling Kenta 'yes, most definitely, just ignore the fact that it was all thanks to an inanimate object.'

"Well, that helps," the Tamer said to himself, groaning, "but we've still got a Demon Lord to deal with, and I've got to tell the others about this whole deal. Couple that with this tournament, and this is turning out to be a heck of a mess."

After a moment, the teen stood and gripped his D-Arc tightly. "Well. No time like the present. I've just got to be very careful when I'm around her…"

As the Tamer began to make his way back to the crowd of Triple Cubed enthusiasts, he thought to himself, 'I really hope that the bracelet's effect is more or less permanent. I don't exactly want to lose my head in the middle of something.'

'I get the feeling that would be bad.'


A/N: I really don't know if BlackMegidramon has been used by anyone else before as an original creation, but I figure that with the whole 'BlackGuilmon, BlackGrowlmon, etc.' line, I'm pretty safe using this evolution. Even if the normal Megidramon is the typical end to that evolution line…

However, I'm quite sure that GrimExamon is my own. Hope you all like him. Heh. And, if you're curious, his armor is Red Chrome Digizoid.

Yes, there was a blatant Halo quote in the text. It was oddly appropriate (as regarding ChaosGallantmon's ruthlessly beaten and battered state, which was accordingly due to GrimExamon), so I used it.

As for Gamblermon and his fiancée Zephyrmon, you're free to speculate, but it probably doesn't matter much. And no, there's no relation between her and the Kazemon that Beelzebumon killed a few chapters ago. Speaking of which, the Demon Lord of Gluttony's name is now permanently 'Beelzebumon'; I'm not going back to edit previous chapters with this change, however, so bear with me, please.

Thanks, as always, goes to Plasmasphere!

In other news, my first poll is now up. You can reach it on my user profile, so go vote! But review first, or I'll send GrimExamon a-calling!