CHAPTER 55

RENEWAL

TK, Kari, Gatomon and Patamon touched down on a wide, empty expanse, where the only difference between sky and earth was a shade of dark blue. The whistling winds of Death Valley weren't freezing, but they were still cold enough to make everyone shiver.

Imperialdramon's engines hummed and made their insides rumble. They turned back and watched him shoot off into the night. Within seconds more Air Force jets screamed after him like high-speed vultures. "Great, here they come again!" Gatomon huffed.

"I hope they'll be OK…" Patamon said.

Kari did not respond. TK looked over her darkened form for a moment, then sighed and shook his head. If she was going to be quiet the whole time, it wasn't going to be a pleasant trip.

"So, where do you think the gate is?" Gatomon broke into his thoughts, looking around the desert. "I don't see anything."

"What're we even looking for?" Patamon asked. "A tunnel? Or a door? Hey, maybe a magic wardrobe!"

"Come on, get serious," Gatomon muttered. "Nobody would leave a wardrobe out here."

TK took out his D3 and looked at the screen, hoping it would tell him something… but all he saw were a green dot and a pink one, looking as lonely as their real counterparts. "…I guess we'd better find a road," he said, putting it back in his pocket and grabbing his bag. "C'mon, guys."

The small party began to hike across the wasteland of rocks and sand, looking for some kind of clue as to where to go. Kari felt cold both inside and out; wandering in the strange empty place, almost alone, reminded her of the Dark World. Misery and hopelessness draped over her like thin wet blankets. Why was she even doing this? Dagomon was too powerful to be defeated.

A sudden strange feeling beckoned her to look up. Expecting to see Dagomon's titanic shadow against the midnight blue sky, she nervously lifted her head away from the sand. Off to the east, an aurora shimmered in the darkness. Something inside her tugged at her heart, like the gentle rainbow was calling to her. "…Gatomon," she said, pointing at the colors.

Gatomon turned and her tail shot up. "Wow! Was that there a second ago?" she asked.

TK recognized the lights, too: he had seen them five years ago, just before he had been pulled into the Digital World for the first time. "That's gotta be it," he said, turning his heels and starting for it.

"How far away is it?" Patamon asked.

TK didn't seem to hear him; he just kept moving. The winged pig just shrugged and flew after him. Her curiosity winning over her nerves, Kari followed behind with Gatomon.

… … …

Long, flat expanses love to play tricks on the eyes; one can never really tell how far away he is from landmarks, and they come much slower than he would hope. Three hours later, the party finally stood beneath the aurora. It hovered above a wide, sunken volcano sloping deep into the desert. The wind on the lip of the crater was cold and fierce, forcing the Digimon to cling to their partners. "Aww, come on!" Patamon panted, landing on TK's shoulder and digging his trotters into his shirt. "Was it running away from us?"

Gatomon peered down into the giant crater. "At least we can stop now," she said. "I wouldn't want to walk around this."

Kari looked up at the glowing colored curtains. She felt their pull even more now that she was closer. "It… I think it's a gate," she said.

TK thought so, too, and got out his D3. He wasn't sure what to do, but the method they usually used to enter the Digital World seemed like the best idea. "One way to find out," he said, looking at his friends. "Everyone ready?"

Kari took out her Digivice too, and they raised them to the aurora. Instead of glowing, however, this time the devices' screens emitted painful shrieks and spat white sparks, then blinked off completely, trails of smoke curling up from them. "Wh-wha?!" Patamon yelped. "What was that?"

Kari shook the broken device—nervously at first, then frantically—but it didn't respond. Her panting turned loud and ended in small whimpers.

"What happened?!" Gatomon demanded. "That didn't look right!"

TK kept pressing his Digivice's buttons, but no sounds came from it; it was completely dead. He looked despairingly up at the aurora, suddenly wondering if it had been a trap.

Suddenly, Patamon felt himself floating off TK's shoulder, and he wasn't even flapping his wings. "TK?!" he asked.

Much to her shock, Gatomon had left the ground, too, rising up towards the glowing colors. At first she panicked, but then she had an idea. "Kari!" she urged, trying to swim back to her partner. "Grab onto me!"

TK understood immediately; even with their Digivices broken, maybe they could still get in. He jumped as high as he could and got his arms around Patamon, and he floated upwards with him. "Hurry, Kari!" he shouted.

Still upset by everything happening around her, but not wanting to be left behind, Kari leaped up and tried to grab her partner… but Gatomon was just out of reach. After she missed twice, Gatomon turned around and thrust out her tail. "OK, just be gen—" she started to say, but lost the rest in a screech as Kari's hands closed around it.

They rose higher and higher, the desert vanishing into the dazzling colors. "Where're we going?" Patamon asked, trying to look around.

"I don't know, but I hope it's quick!" Gatomon said, straining against the extra weight. "Geez, Kari, you got rocks in your pockets?!"

TK wondered how far he would fall if he let go of Patamon, and thinking that automatically made his arms ache and his palms sweat. Just as he felt his fingers starting to slide off, however, his feet touched down on a hard surface. The aurora faded from his eyes and he found himself standing on a marble-white platform, staring out across a cloud-covered void. On high cliffs on the other side stood what remained of a decimated forest. TK peered at it for a moment, then realized what he was looking at. "Hey, that's where we met Azulongmon!" he said, pointing.

"Yeah, so that means we're on that island!" Patamon said, flapping his wings and turning around. "TK, look!"

TK turned around. Patamon was right. They stood at the base of a long golden staircase, flanked by elegant fountains and trees full of colorful fruit, leading up to a shining, Greek-looking temple. All of it gave off a peaceful ethereal glow.

Gatomon stared up at the entrance, still nursing her tail but visibly impressed. "Wow…" she said. "It looks even more amazing close-up."

"It sure looks like a place a god would live," TK agreed, "almost like the gates to Heaven…"

Kari silently looked up the stairway, TK's description leaving a cold sadness in her chest. After what they had gone through, why did he have to mention Heaven?

Gatomon was the first to start climbing. "Well, he's not gonna turn them into an escalator; come on!" she urged the others.

They left their bags and coats at the foot of the steps and made their way up. When they got to the top, they were surprised to find that there was nothing in the temple; Azulongmon wasn't waiting for them, nor were there any shrines or statues; not even a bench to sit on. The place was as empty as a bandshell. "What…?" TK asked out loud.

"Is this some kind of joke?" Gatomon asked.

"Azulongmon!" Patamon called out. "Are you there?"

There was a moment of silence, and then a familiar voice echoed through the building. "Welcome. You finally made it here… just as I thought you would," Azulongmon's voice came.

"Where are you?" TK asked.

"At my altar; this is the entrance to my temple," the voice replied. "When you pass your trials and prove that you are still worthy, you will find me."

"Entrance?" Kari asked, looking again around the empty building.

"How can they NOT still be worthy?" Gatomon protested. "Didn't you see what we went through?!"

"The children of Hope and Light must be tested more intensely than any of the rest," Azulongmon said. "We must be certain."

"Certain? About what?" Patamon asked.

"Now, come…" Azulongmon's voice said. As it silenced there was a loud click, and then a square section of the floor slid away to reveal a flight of steps.

Nervously, the kids and Digimon looked down the new path, but they could only see darkness. "Well… this is different," TK admitted.

"Yeah, with the way this place looks, why're we going to the basement?" Gatomon grumbled, then looked back. "Kari, are you ready?"

Her hands mashed together, Kari just swallowed a few times; with both being lost and her Digivice being broken, the black opening compounded the nervousness she was already feeling.

TK looked at her and sighed. "It'll be OK, Kari," he said. "Azulongmon's just going to test us. It won't be dangerous."

"I dunno, TK, maybe—" Patamon began, but the look TK gave him shut him up.

Gatomon shook her head. "Even without Nefertimon, I can take care of things," she said, swishing her tail. "Let's go!"

Kari looked at her broken D3 again, then shook her head; she couldn't put this off, not with Azulongmon and the others waiting. "All right," she said quietly.

Everybody gathered his or her resolve, then they walked down the staircase. No sooner had they cleared the temple floor than they reached an amazing sight. They hadn't walked into a dark basement at all, but a wide garden full of emerald-green grass, mysterious flowers of cotton-candy pink and blue, and a white-stone plaza with a sparkling fountain, a sundial, and statues of angelic and winged Digimon. At the far end stood what looked like a roofless stone gazebo with two small pillars at its steps. If that were not amazing enough, the entire area was an island drifting among wispy clouds in an endless blue sky. It took them a moment to pick their jaws up off the floor. "WOW!" Patamon half-shrieked, clinging to TK's shoulder.

TK looked back up the stairs. He could still see the entrance from the temple. "I know this is the Digital World, but man…" he trailed off.

"I'm as shocked as you are," Gatomon said, "and I live here."

They got off the stairs and walked into the garden. The pink flowers were so pretty that Kari managed to forget her worries for a moment; she knelt down and gently ran her fingers across the delicate, smooth petals. "You think Sora's mom could grow something like this?" she asked.

"I dunno," Gatomon said, happy that her partner was lively again. "Maybe we can ask Azulongmon if we can take some; it would cheer her up."

"Yeah, we could…" Kari started to say, but then she remembered why Toshiko would need cheering up: because Jachomon burned down her store… and Jachomon had come from the Dark World… where Dagomon was. Her brief smile faded and she grew sullen again. Gatomon's ears drooped; so much for that.

"So what's the trial?" TK asked, looking around but not seeing anything obvious. As nice as the garden was, he didn't think it looked as divine as the entrance; it almost reminded him of a miniature golf course. He humorously wondered if the trial would be to get a hole in one. Suddenly, Patamon's trotters dug sharply into his shoulder. "Ow! Patamon, c'mon!" he huffed. "What's with the clinging all of a sudden?"

"Sorry…" Patamon said, hiding his face in TK's hair, "but we're so high up!…"

"You fly all the time!" TK protested.

"But I can still see the ground, then!" Patamon said. "Here, it's like there's nothing down there at all!"

"No kidding," Gatomon agreed, walking to the edge of the garden and peering down into the sea of white. "Is there even land down—"

Before she could finish, the stones she stood on jerked violently like pinball flippers, launching her over the side with a yelp.

Kari cried out and raced to the edge, and the stones bounced her off, too. "KARI!" TK yelled, rushing over as her legs disappeared.

"No, TK, wait!" Patamon shouted. "We'll get—"

TK felt the blocks under him jerk upward, and then he was falling, too… but instead of tumbling into an endless blue abyss, his body slowed, then touched down on the bottom of the garden before he could even scream. Kari and Gatomon stood there waiting for him, looking as surprised as he felt. "H-hey…" he managed.

"Nice of you to drop in," Gatomon said wryly, then motioned behind her. "Looks like there's more here than we thought."

The bottom of the island was vastly different from its top: even though the layout was the same, there were no plants or vegetation, the fountain was dry, and all of the statues depicted evil-looking Digimon, almost like the ones they had seen at Dagomon's seaside palace. The floating garden's shadow made the clouds beneath dark and uninviting, like they were preparing to storm. Kari shivered, even though it wasn't cold; this place looked too familiar.

"I don't get it," Patamon said, flapping over to a statue of a Devidramon (he could fly just fine upside-down, he was pleased to realize) and poking at it. "Why's this here? It looks too evil!"

"Wherever there is light, there will be darkness; One cannot exist without the other… That is the balance of man-made things," Azulongmon's voice came again, making them jump. "You witnessed this truth when you ventured into the Dark World, and it is the same for this temple."

Gatomon didn't think darkness deserved any sort of worship, but she wasn't about to start a theological argument with a god. "So what's the trial?" she asked. "Can't we get a hint?"

"Find the seven shadows," Azulongmon's voice echoed. "Find the seven shadows, and all will become clear."

The voice faded and left them in silence again. Gatomon scowled and folded her arms. "Every time someone says that, it's never clear," she groused.

"Yeah, but aren't you s'posed to put your faith in gods?" Patamon asked. "We'd better do it."

Kari didn't like the idea of finding "shadows" in a place like this, but Patamon had a point; Azulongmon had saved them from Blackwargreymon, and she knew he wanted to help them. "Let's get this over with," she said.

TK was surprised to hear her suggest that they start, but he nodded and started walking with the others. Suddenly, though, he violently whirled around and looked back, his chest burning with a feeling between panic and rage. "What's wrong, TK?" Patamon asked, looking at him.

Kari and Gatomon turned back, too. "Are you… sensing something?" Kari asked quietly.

TK felt like they were being watched; in fact, he could swear they were... and by a presence he knew only too well. He opened his mouth to say something, but when he saw Kari's scared face, he closed it again. He didn't want to upset her any further; she might have a breakdown like Yolei had. "…No, don't worry about it," he lied. "C'mon, let's hurry."

Gatomon gave him a look that burned right through him; she didn't swallow it at all. Kari didn't look convinced either, but she just sighed and turned away. Patamon glanced at his partner, but he knew when TK wasn't going to talk. "So, um, how do we get back up?" he changed the subject. "This upside-down flying is weirding me out."

"Well… maybe it's the same as before," Gatomon said, slowly turning from TK and walking over to the edge. "Maybe all we have to—"

Once again, the blocks on the ground jerked up and sent her flying over the side. "I hate being right!" she yelled as she vanished.

"…So much for gravity," Kari remarked.

"Well, at least we know we can't fall off," TK pointed out.

Kari nodded, then stepped on the blocks and let herself be launched. TK and Patamon followed after. As they disappeared back over the edge, TK's eyes caught something that made his heart shriek; a familiar pair of horns was rising up from where they had stood.

… … …

They landed back on the bright garden pathway, sending Gatomon scampering out of the way. "Hey, not so fast!" she huffed. "Give us time to move!"

"Sorry," Patamon said, looking around at the flowers and statues. "But what did Azulongmon mean, finding shadows? They're everywhere!"

Kari looked down at her own shadow, but it didn't seem to be what the god had meant. "Maybe he meant there are special ones," she thought out loud. "Let's look around."

Patamon noticed TK was looking back towards the garden's edge, his clenched teeth slightly visible. "TK?" he asked.

TK hesitated a moment more, then recollected himself. "All right, where do we start?" he asked.

The group split up and closely looked at any shadows they saw. Gatomon poked at the tiny shadows under the flowers. TK leaned over and looked at the shadows under the stone benches. Kari stood in the fountain's shadow. However, nothing looked out of the ordinary to them.

Patamon decided to check around the statues. He flew around one that looked like Birdramon, and then one that resembled Kabuterimon, but they just looked like ordinary statues. When he reached the one shaped like Angemon, he noticed how beat up it was; it was covered in cracks and small bits of it had already fallen away, and as he drew closer one of its arms snapped off and shattered on the ground. "Woah! Who looks after this place?" he asked, flying around to the other side. "This is super unsafe! They oughta—"

Suddenly he noticed something on the ground, hiding in the statue's shadow, and he landed for a closer look: a black outline in the shape of a medal with a ribbon—the Crest of Hope—sat on the stones, small dark vapors trailing off of it. "H-hey!" he exclaimed, looking around for the others. "TK! Kari! Gatomon! Come see!"

The other three ran over and looked at the weird shape. Gatomon's tail twitched as she leered at it; it didn't look like something that belonged in a sacred place. TK reached out and put his hand on it, but it didn't feel any different from the rest of the ground. When Kari tried touching it, though, it vanished with a sudden whoosh, like a candle being snuffed by the wind. "Hey! What happened?" Patamon asked. "Where'd it go?"

TK wondered if it had gone into Kari, like Jachomon had gone into Cody. "Kari, are you OK?" he asked.

"I don't know…" Kari said, looking down at her fingers. She was a little frightened, but she didn't feel any different. "I… well, I think so…"

"Maybe that's what Azulongmon meant when he said seven shadows," Gatomon said, scratching at her whiskers. "I think we should look for more that look like Crests."

"Sounds good to me," Patamon agreed, taking to the air again. "OK! One down, six to go!"

This is pointless. You can't defeat Dagomon. Nobody can.

Kari jerked back to her feet. Someone had spoken right into her ear, but she didn't see anyone besides her three friends. Her stomach went cold as she also realized it hadn't just been any voice, but her own.

Gatomon looked up at her partner warily. "What's wrong, Kari?" she asked in a tone that told Kari she already knew there was trouble. TK and Patamon looked at her, too.

Kari visibly trembled, but she swallowed and shook her head. She didn't want to upset TK and the others when they were already on edge. Maybe her fears were just catching up and making her hear things; she couldn't slow them down for that. "N… nothing," she said. "Let's keep looking, OK?"

Gatomon folded her arms and gave both Kari and TK angry looks. "What is it with you two?!" she asked. "You're both scared, but you won't say why!"

"Yeah, something's bugging you, but I don't think they're the same things!" Patamon said, also looking concerned. "C'mon, what is it?"

"I-it's nothing! Honest!" Kari tried again, then gave TK another of her helpless looks.

TK couldn't look back; he didn't want her to catch the fear in his eyes and add it to her own. "Just trust us, guys," he said, "we'll handle it."

There was an uncomfortable silence as Gatomon glared between the two of them. Finally, she dropped her arms and sighed. " Fine, don't tell us!" she declared with exasperation. "But if this could get us killed—"

"We'll tell you before then, Gatomon, I swear," TK said. "But for now…"

Gatomon shook her head. "Humans," she grumbled. "Come on, Patamon!"

The cat and the pig started off to another part of the garden, looking for more shadows. As they left, Kari heard Gatomon grumble: "they should've just done this to Myotismon; he would have gone insane." She gave another sad sigh. Everything was going wrong on this trip; now she was getting her partner angry, too.

TK nervously adjusted his hat, unsure of what to say. He didn't like to keep things from the others either, but Kari looked so fragile…

"Hey!" Patamon's voice came to them. "Kari, we found another one!"

"Yeah, get over here, you two!" Gatomon shouted.

After another moment, TK decided that the best thing was to keep moving. "Let's help them out, OK?" he asked Kari.

She stiffly nodded, and they followed after their partners. Gatomon and Patamon stood around a patch of bright blue flowers. Looking at the thin little shadows under them, they could see the dark phantasm of the Crest of Purity. "So, do we just touch it again?" Patamon asked.

Gatomon looked at Kari, who quietly bent over and ran her fingers through the grass. Just like before, the Crest disappeared. Kari waited for a moment, wondering if that nasty voice would say something else… but nothing came. She sighed with relief; maybe it really had just been her imagination. "Let's keep looking," she said, standing up again.

They wandered around the garden and found two more shadows: Knowledge lay beneath the sundial, and Reliability was under the water in the basin of the fountain. After another half hour of searching, though, they could find no more. "That's only four," TK muttered, taking off his hat and scratching his head. "Where're the others? We looked all over."

Patamon was about to say they should try again when his eyes fell on the path off the island. They hadn't looked all over. "What about on the other side?" he asked.

"Down there?..." Kari asked.

Gatomon hesitated, then nodded. "Time to get flipped off again," she said.

"Err, you might want to rephrase that…" TK pointed out.

They went to the edge and again let themselves be catapulted to the dark side. With no sun shining on the flat surface, the entire place was dark enough to hide the shadows. "Keep your eyes on the ground; they could be anywhere," TK said.

The group split up and hunted on the ground and around the devilish statues. It didn't take long to find them. "Hey, I found one!" Patamon called from behind a statue of Ladydevimon.

"Here's one, too!" TK announced from a tile near the southern edge.

"Kari, here," Gatomon called. Kari went to her partner first, who stood in front of a fuming outline of Matt's Crest of Friendship. As it disappeared at her touch, the voice she had heard before again crept into her ear and made her spine lock in place:

You love how everyone wants to be your meat shields. They're so willing to throw themselves away for you…

She stood up and looked around frantically, but again there was no speaker.

And you're happy to let them. After all, you're the only Digidestined who really matters!

"Wha… who?!…" Kari spluttered, looking this way and that as her chest surged with panic.

Gatomon's eyes narrowed. "OK, you have to tell me this time," she urged. "What is it?!"

Kari looked in TK's direction, then knelt down to Gatomon's level. "V-voice…" she whispered. "I hear a voice!"

Gatomon's tail stiffened; she didn't like the sound of that one bit. "Dagomon?" she asked.

"No… it's MY voice," Kari said. "B-but… it says such awful things!..."

Those idiots should be licking the soles of your feet. They aren't worth the grime between your toes. Never mind Dagomon; it should be YOU who rules the Digital World!

Kari whimpered and clamped her hands over her ears, but she could still hear the voice giggling and repeating itself: They're all worthless. Take control. You're the Queen. Her vision blurred and swam, the color blinking away from her sight. "I think… I'm going crazy!" she cried.

Gatomon shook her head; she couldn't bring herself to believe that. "No way, Kari," she said, grabbing her partner's hand with her paws, "it must be this temple; this trial's messing with your head. Let's get those shadows and finish it."

Kari didn't look about to move herself, so Gatomon tugged her along towards Patamon, who floated above the darkened Crest of Courage. "What's going on?" the little winged Digimon asked. "Is she OK?"

"She will be after this," Gatomon said. "C'mon, Kari, touch it."

After the voice returned during the last one, Kari really didn't want to… but she didn't want to let the others down either. She put her hand on the cold stones and her brother's symbol vanished. Almost immediately the voice came again:

Tai wouldn't come here with you. He doesn't care about you anymore.

Kari gnashed her teeth and shook her head. That wasn't true! How could she think that about her brother? But… it wasn't like she hadn't thought things like that before… and that really was her voice…

He wanted to be with that flip-flopping BITCH he calls a best friend.

Patamon winced as Kari stumbled and fell backwards, her hands still over her ears. "Kari! Take it easy!" he urged.

She heard footsteps coming, and she looked up to see TK standing over her, his mouth open in shock. "Are you all right?!" he asked. "What's the matter?!"

Kari had to look away from him, her heart ready to burst. The voice in her head was breaking down what spirit she had left. How could her friends and he still be supporting her, when she thought things like this?

TK watched her writhe on the ground, his fear giving way to rage. "Devimon!" he yelled into the clouds. "Are you doing this?!"

"Devimon?!" Patamon yelped, looking around. "Where?!"

"Is that what you were nervous about?" Gatomon asked.

TK nodded darkly. "Yeah… he's here, somewhere…" he said, then shouted up at the clouds again: "I'M the one you want! Leave her alone!"

"N-no…" Kari managed, pushing herself back up. "TK… it's not… him..." With Gatomon's help, she got back on her feet. She had to get that last shadow before she went completely insane. "Where… where is it? The last shadow…"

Kari looked awful; she swayed back and forth with unfocused, empty eyes. TK again wondered if the shadows were doing something to her body as she touched them. "Are you sure?" he asked. "We don't have to do this."

She shook her head. "Yes… we do," she replied. "Let me… let me see it."

TK felt terrible—it looked like she was going through mental agony—but he knew she was right. "Gatomon, Patamon, help me," he said as he gently took her arm.

"OK!" Patamon said, flying over and grabbing Kari's other arm. "It's OK, Kari, just one more!"

"We're right here," Gatomon said, putting a paw on Kari's thigh. "Just take it slowly…"

They led her to the last shadow, the blackened heart shape of the Crest of Love. Kari shivered as she knelt down before it, breathing hard. It was the last one. Once she touched it, it would be over, and maybe the voice would disappear. Maybe… She reached a trembling hand out and pressed her fingers against the heart. It was gone as quickly as the others. Almost as soon as it vanished the voice roared back, even louder than before:

You use Davis's obsession with you to make him do what you want. He'd dig through a mountain with his bare hands for you, and you'd still have more chores for him. You just keep dangling that carrot…

Kari almost shrieked and grabbed at her head.

"Kari!" Gatomon yelped. "Is it the voice again?"

And Tai's your slave, too. He'll always feel guilty about what he did to you, so you'll always get him to do what you want. Even now, you can break him every time.

Kari looked at her friends' concerned expressions in terror, wondering if they could hear the voice too. "S-stop!" she pleaded. "Stop talking!"

Did he think he could get away if he had Sora? Look how THAT turned out… and you know why. You have your hooks so deep in him, he'll never be able to escape.

"That's not… Tai isn't… No!" she yelled, crumpling to the floor and trying to jam her whole fists into her ears. "Shut up! Shut up!"

"Woah, take it easy!" Patamon urged, trying to pull one of her arms away. "You'll hurt yourself!"

But that's OK. No matter how many women break his heart, you'll always be there to sweeten his pain… and tighten your grip.

Kari wanted to deny what the voice said, but it was her voice. Maybe she really did feel those things, somewhere deep inside. Maybe she really was a selfish manipulator. She wailed and rolled around on the ground, pounding on her ears.

"Kari! It's OK!" TK said, kneeling and trying to help her up.

Kari's eyes snapped open wide and wet, and she pushed his hands away. Now she was sure he could hear the voice, too. "Don't!" she shrieked. "Don't look at me!"

Gatomon sadly watched her partner writhe around, unable to know what was wrong and unable to help her. Suddenly, the shadowy Crest of Knowledge reappeared in the air beside her. Then the Crest of Reliability appeared next to it. One by one, the seven shadows came back in a circle around the group, hovering like ghosts. Her ears pulled back. "Something's happening!" she hissed.

TK and Patamon looked up. The seven dark Crests wavered, then took on new shapes: smoky phantasms of a younger Kari. Each one had jet-black hair and a gray face, and each face wore a different unhappy expression: sad, tearful, furious, haunted, icy, lonely and upset. Kari opened her eyes and scrambled beside her friends, trembling so hard that she made everyone else shake just by touching them. "Who… who ARE you?!" she shrieked.

Isn't it obvious?

TK, Patamon and Gatomon looked up. "Hey, who's…?" Patamon asked.

Kari bit her lip. Now her friends really could hear the voice!

The shadows floated together into one spot. Like a giant wad of melted clay they mashed together and became a single gray-faced Kari, looking the same age as the real one, an unpleasant smile creasing her thin lips. "I'm Kari," she said.

Kari whimpered and clamped her fingers into TK's shoulders. It was bad enough having to hear the voice by herself, but now it had appeared in front of the others!

Gatomon scowled at the newcomer. "No, you're not," she said.

"Yeah!" Patamon agreed, puffing himself up. "Tell us who you really are!"

"Did Devimon send you?" TK asked.

"Oh, give me a break," the girl said, putting a hand on her hip. "I told you who I was. You all know it… especially you, Kari." She cast a nasty look Kari's way. "You know it's all true; just admit it. You're not some innocent, clean-fingered little princess like they think…"

Kari stayed quiet, just staring at the floor. "It doesn't matter, though," the shadow went on, impishly biting at her pinky finger, "not when you're also the most powerful human in the world. You don't need these losers," she waved at Gatomon and the others. "They can't do anything for you that really matters."

"That's not true either!" Patamon argued. "We're her friends! Everybody needs friends!"

Kari didn't seem to hear anyone but the shadow. "N-not even Gatomon?" she asked. "Or Tai?..."

"ESPECIALLY not them," the dark girl snapped angrily, then resumed her smooth demeanor. "Now, Dagomon's offering you ultimate power if you become a part of him… but you can do even better than that." She made a fist and grinned maliciously. "If you destroyed HIM instead, took HIS power, you could rule the whole world. Both worlds. ALL THREE worlds!" She took her own words in with gleaming eyes and an ecstatic laugh. "Human and Digimon alike, bowing down, worshipping you! That's what you want!"

"Like hell it is!" TK shot back. "Kari would never want to do that!" He looked back at her. "Right?!" he asked.

Unlike a strong rebuke like he had hoped for, Kari stared through him, her mouth slightly open. She looked just like when she had hesitated back in Dagomon's palace. "…Kari? Right?" he asked again.

Gatomon huffed with disbelief. "How can you even THINK of believing ANY of this?!" she demanded hotly.

Kari swallowed. She didn't want to believe it, but that shadow was using her shape and her voice… and it wasn't like she had never thought some of the things it said: she was upset that Tai wouldn't come with her, and she realized she had been mad at Sora for seeming to pull his attention away—she hadn't thought of that when she decided to try and get them together—and if that much was true, who's to say the rest of it wasn't? "But what if it's true?..." she asked quietly.

"Kari, don't listen!" Patamon urged. "That's how Cherrymon tricked Matt; he made him question his own feelings!"

"I know you, Kari," Gatomon said, "and that's nothing you'd want. So don't even think about what this thing's saying."

The shadow's eyes narrowed, and her smile became venomous. "And how can anyone know you better than yourself?" she asked, then sneered at Kari again. "Maybe that's what they say, but they couldn't know your deepest secrets… your darkest desires… not unless you wanted to share them… or should I say, unless I wanted to."

Kari's arms turned into icicles and her legs went numb. Imagining what the shadow might say next, what other nasty thoughts lay locked deep inside her, made her vision go black and her ears ring. She fell against TK's back with a whimper, dreading what would come.

"Hang in there, Kari!" Patamon yelped, flying over and trying to push her up.

"What're you trying to do, anyway?" TK demanded, balling his fists. "Are you trying to make us leave, or do you just want to scare her?"

"Hey, maybe this is her trial, like Azulongmon said," Patamon piped up. "Maybe this is why we had to find those shadows!"

"That has to be it," Gatomon agreed. "Do you hear that, Kari? We just have to get through this!"

Whatever Gatomon said, Kari only heard muffled muttering. She sagged against TK like a burlap sack, broken and paralyzed from fear. The shadowy incarnation flashed her teeth in triumph. "That's right…" she said, "let your darkness consume you… and your friends, too!"

The air around them began to darken, just like when Blackwargreymon cast his Terra Destroyer. "Oh, geez!" Gatomon yelped. "We've gotta do something!"

Patamon puffed up and belched a Boom Bubble at the shadow, but the blast went right through her as if she were nothing more than smoke. "TK, make me Digivolve!" he urged.

TK raised his D3, but it didn't respond at all. It didn't even beep. Suddenly he shared Kari's fear; why wasn't it working?! "Forget fighting!" he yelled as the sky got even darker, "we gotta run!"

Gatomon thought fast. Maybe they would be safe on the sunny side of the garden. "The other side!" she barked. "Quick!"

TK turned to run, but Kari fell to the floor behind him, frozen like a statue. "Gatomon!" he shouted, running back. "Help me!"

Gatomon and Patamon scrambled back and helped TK pull Kari onto his back, and then they ran for the island's edge. TK's muscles ached loudly—he wasn't very good at lifting—but the thought of whatever that shadow was about to do kept his legs running and his fingers clenched around Kari. As he neared the edge he looked back, and the pair of eyes gleaming in the oncoming darkness filled him with cold dread. Then his legs carried him stumblingly over the side.

… … …

They landed back on the top of the floating island near the gazebo. TK, Gatomon and Patamon looked around nervously, but it didn't look like the shadow had followed them. "OK… I think we're safe, Kari," Gatomon said.

TK set Kari down on a nearby bench, then flopped down next to her and tried to catch his breath as Patamon and Gatomon lay in the grass. After a few minutes, he took out his D3 and looked it over. Patamon angrily looked down at his trotters. "I don't get it!" he huffed. "Why couldn't I Digivolve?!"

TK pressed the buttons, but they still didn't respond; the device felt cold in his hand. "It really is broken…" he murmured sadly. "But… why?" His whole body felt hot and panicky; what if Devimon showed up now?

He heard Kari suck in her breath behind him, and his concern changed from his Digivice to her. Her whole body trembled as she sat clinging to the bench's bottom. "Kari, what's wrong?" he asked.

"You mean 'what's right,' don't you?" Gatomon asked. "Look what we just went through!"

Kari took several more shuddering breaths before she worked up the nerve to speak. "I… never thought I felt like that…" she whispered, "but… it's true, isn't it? All of it… somewhere inside me…"

Forgetting about his Digivolution problem, Patamon shook his head. "No way!" he said. "You're the nicest person ever!"

"I can't imagine that stuff coming out of your mind any more than coming out of your mouth," TK said. "That's just not you."

Kari shook her head. She remembered the surge of despair in her chest when Tai told her he couldn't protect her all the time, pushing her away in one of her darkest times. "I really did want Tai to come… even if he had his own job to do…" she whimpered, "and… if that was true… do I really treat him like that?..."

"Come on, Kari, just because you want Tai around doesn't mean you enslaved him," TK tried. "Matt's always looking out for me, but it's because he wants to."

"It's not the same!" she protested, remembering the incident from their childhood that the shadow mentioned: she had been ill, and Tai had foolishly taken her out to play… and it had almost killed her. Since then, he had never strayed too far from her. She never outwardly blamed him for it, but… she thought he would always be there to keep her safe. In fact, even after the adventures she had with Davis and her other new friends, she never really felt safe unless he was there, especially after going through the Dark World. She was incredibly selfish about him, just like the shadow had said. And if that much was true, who was to say the rest wasn't true, too? Maybe she was making Davis do whatever she wanted. Maybe she did think she was more important than the rest. Maybe she did want to conquer the Digital World! How could she deny words from her own voice? From her own reflection? "I'm… awful," she whispered, a few tears starting to dribble down her cheeks. "Is that why Dagomon wants me?..."

Gatomon put her paws on her partner's legs. TK tried to think of something he could say to cheer her up. He thought about his own brother, and all the problems he had on their first adventure. "Um… Kari, just because you've thought stuff like that," he began haltingly, "well, it doesn't mean… you're a bad person."

Kari's eyes showed she didn't believe him, so he felt the urge to keep going. "Look, everyone has a lot of different parts to their personality; just because you have one bad part doesn't cancel out the rest of them. Um…" He thought hard, grabbing at examples. "Well, look at Yolei or Cody. They had problems with their inner darkness, but they're still good people, right?"

Kari looked back at her knees. Gatomon sighed, and Patamon quietly landed next to her with his ears drooped. Comparing Kari's problems to Yolei's and Cody's didn't seem very fair; after all, they didn't have a demon king chasing them. TK gnashed his teeth as he tried to think, but nothing else came. It didn't look like anything would cheer her up, and that made his innards burn with anger and hopelessness. "Damn it!" he shouted, making them all jump. "What can I say to make you see?!"

Kari looked at his distraught face and felt even worse; now she was getting TK upset. When she opened her mouth to speak, though, her own voice interrupted her: "nothing."

"Kari, what—" Patamon started, but then he saw the specter rising up out of Kari's shadow. It had followed them into the sunlight! "Oh, no!" he yelped, hiding behind TK.

Kari scrambled off the bench and Gatomon leaped in front of her as the figure took full form. "Nothing you say can change the truth," the shadow said, smiling poisonously at TK.

TK swallowed hard. Without his D3, he couldn't fight her… but he wasn't going to let her get his friends. "Maybe…" he said, standing beside Gatomon, "but even if I can't say anything, I'll stay here. I'll always stick by Kari!"

Kari shivered as she looked up at him, that sense of admiration she had felt in the Dark World bubbling back into her chest, but mixed with dread. Even after all the things her shadow said, TK still wanted to be her friend… but the shadow's voice made her question her very sense of friendship. What if she was manipulating TK too, just like Tai and Davis?

The shadowy Kari's eyes narrowed and her crafty smile inverted. "Is that so? I don't remember it like that," she sneered. "Think back to when we fought Piedmon!"

TK and the rest thought back to one of the most terrifying battles of their first adventure. Piedmon, the strongest of the Dark Masters, had chased the Digidestined down, turning both kid and partner alike into lifeless keychains. "Yeah, I remember," Patamon spoke up. "TK kept Kari safe as long as he could!"

"That's a lie; he only wanted to save himself!" the shadow growled. "I could tell! He was going to throw me to Piedmon to buy himself time!"

"No way! TK would never do that!" Patamon puffed.

"I let her go first," TK argued. "I made her go first!"

Kari stared at her shadow double, her mind spinning and grinding as she made herself remember that awful chase. After Piedmon got Sora, it had only been TK, Angemon and herself left. Without Gatomon, Kari was totally helpless… but TK kept her moving, made her go ahead of him every time. Just like Tai or the older kids, he kept encouraging her. He didn't abandon her; he did his best to keep her safe. Confusion made her head swirl. The shadow wasn't remembering correctly… or…

"You're a terrible liar, whatever you are," Gatomon said, again swishing her tail and preparing to fight. "Now drop that disguise and show us what you really look like!"

"Gatomon, even you don't believe me?" the shadow asked, feigning disappointment. "Don't you know your own partner?"

"I know two things in this world: evil and Kari," Gatomon declared, "and you're NOT Kari!"

The shadow's face became a mask of ice-cold hatred, and the air began to darken again. All the shadows on the ground oozed outward and turned the area black. "It doesn't really matter if you believe," she said. "Kari knows the truth."

TK clenched his broken D3. "Leave her alone!" he shouted.

"Let's see you make me!" the shadowy Kari growled. Six black tentacles with jagged crimson tips burst out of her back, and the glow in her eyes turned from yellow to blood red. Her fanged mouth fell open in an unearthly shriek, and she flew at TK and the Digimon.

Patamon and Gatomon charged her; they weren't sure what they could do, but they weren't about to go down without a fight. Patamon fired another Boom Bubble, but again it just passed through her. Gatomon's tail ring flashed as she leaped at the dark Kari's face, but to her shock she went through her enemy's body just like Patamon's attack; she was supposed to have an edge on evil creatures like this! "What the—" she began as she landed, but one of the tentacles slammed into her with the force of a rhinoceros, planting her face down on the floor. Two more tentacles clobbered TK and Patamon before they could react.

"I'll consume all of you," Kari's shadow cackled, taking a few steps toward TK, "and then I'll find your other friends and do the same to them."

As soon as she said this, the ground began to suck TK and the Digimon down into it, like black quicksand. "Oh, no! No, no, no!" Patamon yelped, struggling to get free.

"Dammit!" Gatomon swore, clawing at the surrounding grass. "Kari!"

TK was already half-swallowed as he desperately tried to pull himself towards Kari, who again stood wide-eyed and paralyzed as she watched her doppelganger. She had to be able to stop that thing. He had to reach her. "Kari!" he cried, throwing his arm out. "She's not you! She's not!"

An angry snarl came from behind him, and then two claw-like hands grabbed his shoulders and pulled him out of the blackness… and then they both closed around his neck. "Shut up!" Kari's shadow hissed, squeezing hard. "You're never going to lie again!"

Something in Kari's eyes finally clicked. She looked at the shadow strangling her friend, and her brow furrowed. "You're wrong," she spoke quietly.

The shadow slowly turned and glared at her. "What did you say?!" she growled.

"He let me go first," Kari remembered out loud, taking slow steps towards the monster. "He wouldn't let Piedmon get me… and he wouldn't let the Deadmon get me, either… He came all the way to the Dark World to find me…"

"And what does that mean?!" the shadow snarled. "You're just manipulating him like Tai and Davis!"

Kari swallowed, but shook her head. "No; I'm not," she said, her voice getting louder and more confident. "I'm not manipulating anyone. What he told me… he said I have friends who care just as much as Tai… and he meant it... and… and I think he cares the most of all of them." Justifiable anger rose in her chest, her truth gleaming in her mind's eye. "I don't control anyone! It's because they care about me like I care about them! TK, Gatomon, Patamon, they were right! You're NOT me!" she declared.

TK opened one eye to her. "K-Kari…" he gurgled.

"You little vermin!" the shadow hissed, and her tentacles dove at Kari. Kari's whole body began to glow just like when Dagomon grabbed for her, and the tentacles flew backwards as if they had been electrified.

The shadow of Kari snarled and started to draw away with TK, but Kari ran after her. "Let him go!" she yelled, grabbing onto her arms. The holy white energy shot through the shadow's body, and with a pained shriek she lost her grip on TK and collapsed to the ground, her tentacles flailing and writhing like caught fish.

Immediately the darkness vanished, and the garden turned sunny and beautiful again. Patamon and Gatomon found themselves trying to scramble out of nothing more dangerous than tall grass. "I… wow!" Patamon said, looking around. "How'd you do that?"

Gatomon smiled at her partner. "I knew you'd do it, Kari," she said.

TK sat on the ground near the fallen shadow, coughing and breathing hard, trying to massage feeling back into his neck. He looked up to see Kari smile and offer her hand, and he let her pull him back onto his feet. "Are you OK?" she asked him.

He coughed a few more times, then nodded. "Yeah…" he said. "That thing had one hell of a grip, but I'll be fine. I…" He trailed off as Kari's eyes spilled over again and she stifled a sob. "What's wrong?"

She shook her head, smiling through the tears. "Thank you, TK," she said, her voice thick with emotion. "You never gave up on me. You could see who I really was… even when I couldn't."

TK smiled back, blushing a little. "Well, I, uh…" he tried.

"Hey, not just him!" Patamon objected as he flew between them. "We all could!"

Kari and TK drew back a step. Gatomon rolled her eyes and pulled her little friend down. "Things have just been so crazy, it's easy to lose yourself," she said to Kari. "We've all felt a little off since Ken died…"

TK nodded. "Yeah, she's right," he said. "Don't feel too bad."

Kari sighed and thought about that. Nobody was acting like they usually did: Davis, Matt, Sora… not even Tai. Everyone had been affected by Ken's death, not to mention the other recent events. She had been so clouded in her own worries and fears, she hadn't been able to think clearly, or notice the others' troubles. Suddenly she felt like a major drag on the rest of the Digidestined. "I'm OK, TK," she said, wiping her tears away. "I'm going to pull my weight from now on."

TK blinked in surprise. "But what about Dagomon?"

Kari shivered a little, but nodded. "I'll fight him, too," she said. "I have to; I might be the only one who can beat him."

"Don't push yourself, now," Gatomon said. "You've got plenty of friends to protect you."

"I know…" Kari said, "but I can't just hide behind them anymore, Gatomon; I want to protect them, too."

Gatomon nodded. "Right," she said, "then I'll be right there with you, Kari."

"Yeah… and so will I," TK said.

Kari beamed at both of them. Finally, things felt like they were going back to normal.

Suddenly, the blue sky gleamed with white light, and the gazebo shone a brilliant gold. The kids and their partners reeled back in awe as Azulongmon flew out of the clouds beneath the island and hovered in the air before them, his body twisting and looping around itself like before. "Well done, Child of Light," his voice boomed joyfully across the garden.

"Hi, Azulongmon!" Patamon chirped, then his eyes lit up. "Hey, does this mean Kari passed the trial?"

"Indeed she has," Azulongmon replied, then looked at Kari. "You have finally begun to regain yourself. You are to be commended; it is no small feat to pull oneself out of darkness."

"Well… I didn't do it alone," Kari admitted, putting a hand on TK's shoulder. "If it wasn't for TK and the others, I—"

A groan made her whirl around in alarm. Her shadowy double was slowly getting to her feet. "Oh, not again!" Gatomon growled, readying her claws.

"Don't you ever give up?!" Patamon asked.

The doppelganger didn't move or attack; it just stood quietly, watching them with a blank expression. "You were right to see through the deception, Child of Light," Azulongmon spoke. "This is a vassal of my own creation, born from the seven shadows, not any facet of yourself. Now that you understand this, she is harmless."

Gatomon scratched at her ear. "Say, why only seven?" she asked. "I mean, there are eight Crests, so why were there only seven shadows?"

"Actually, wasn't Kari's Crest missing?" Patamon thought out loud. "What was with that?"

"You mean you haven't figured it out by now?" Azulongmon asked, genuinely sounding surprised. "The Order never told you?"

"Um… no," Gatomon said. "Gennai's been really secretive lately; we can hardly get anything out of him."

"Then… I suppose I'll share it with you instead," Azulongmon said. "When the Digital World came into being, it came with many prophecies. No doubt Gennai shared relevant ones with you on your previous adventure…"

"Yeah, he did…" TK agreed, remembering the old man's stories that predicted Myotismon resurrection, and also the creation of Tai's and Matt's strongest Digivolutions. "Are there more?"

"Yes, but most make little sense until what's written in them actually starts to occur," Azulongmon said. "However, since Kari has passed her trial, I believe I must share this one with you… It is a verse so ancient, I don't think even The Order is aware of it. It goes like this: 'Light stirred Courage in the heart of Man, and through that Courage came Friendship, Knowledge, Love, Reliability, Purity, and Hope.'"

Gatomon scratched her head. "Err… OK, that's all 8 Crests in there," she said, "but what does that have to do with us?"

"Let me get to that," Azulongmon said. "Kari… do you remember the day you first encountered Digimon?"

Kari shivered and thought back. It was a long time ago—she had to have been only a toddler—but she remembered a few pieces of the encounter… a Botamon hiding under the bed, riding on the back of a giant Agumon, and Tai holding fast to her in the dead of night, blowing her whistle as loud as he could.

TK remembered only a little of it, too; he stood with Matt and watched two giant monsters trashing each other outside their apartment building in the dead of night. "Wait, The Order told us about this," he suddenly recalled. "She said that all of our Crests became apparent right then."

"That's correct," Azulongmon said. "Kari… when your brother shielded you and blew your whistle, and the other six children became witnesses, that prophecy came to pass."

"Say what now?" Patamon asked. "Light made Courage and all the others?"

"All humans have these seven traits inside them," Azulongmon said, "but because your young hearts were unclouded and pure, each of your most prominent traits shone forth. Your fates were decided, and the Crests were brought into being."

"So that's what did it…" TK said. "And The Order couldn't figure that out?"

"How come you know this when The Order didn't, Azulongmon?" Kari asked.

"I'm one of the four gods of this world," Azulongmon replied. "I existed before The Order did. Even though they maintain the balance between our worlds, they are not privy to all of our knowledge… Do they know everything about your world?"

"Err, well, no…" TK said, scratching his head. "At least, we never asked them…"

"We'd better talk to Gennai later," Patamon muttered. "This is getting weird."

"OK, but you said seven, Azulongmon," Gatomon said, turning attention back to the dragon god. "What was missing?"

"Oh, but nothing was missing," Azulongmon said. "In fact, everything was there. You see, Kari had no one trait stronger than others; her soul was in perfect balance... and so her Crest was Light: that which encompasses all positive, constructive forces in the human soul. That is why you have the power you possess… and also why you are fated to oppose Darkness."

Kari, TK and the Digimon looked at each other in amazement. "So there really isn't an eighth Crest; it's the other seven put together!" Patamon remarked.

"Balance?" Kari murmured, looking down at herself. So Courage, Friendship, Knowledge, Love, Reliability, Purity and Hope were all inside of her… It sounded a little fantastic, and yet somehow she could believe it.

Gatomon put a hand on her hip and smiled. "Yeah, I can see that," she said. "You've got a little of everything in there."

TK nodded. "I believe it, too," he agreed.

"Now, let's begin, shall we?" Azulongmon asked. "Step up to the two pillars and place your Crests there, and I will regenerate their lost power."

TK and Kari walked to the pillars. Kari put her Crest on the right-hand one. TK was about to put his down when he realized something important. "Wait, what about my trial, Azulongmon?" he asked. "You said Kari passed hers, but I don't think I did anything."

Kari looked like she disagreed. Azulongmon nodded. "Your trial will become apparent soon enough, Child of Hope," he said, "and I am confident that when it comes, you'll know how to pass it. But now, time is of the essence."

"How do you like that, TK," Gatomon chuckled, "you get a free ride."

TK wasn't sure he liked that—having his trial put off made him nervous—but he knew Azulongmon was right about time. He placed the piece of his Crest on the left pillar. Immediately both pillars began to glow along with Azulongmon, and yellow and pink snowflake-like bits of energy filled the air, floating down into the Crests. "It's so pretty…" Kari murmured.

"With this, my power shall also be restored," Azulongmon said as he closed his four eyes, "and the eastern side of the Digital World will slowly begin to recover… once the enemy is defeated, that is."

Kari bit her lip at the thought of facing Dagomon again, but she took a deep breath and set her brow. She would do it. She had to protect everybody.

"H-hey! TK!" Patamon suddenly cried. "Look! Your Digivice!"

Surprised, TK looked down at his D3, and his eyes almost fell out. Long, jagged cracks were forming all over it and fragments of it were falling off, like it was wasting away. "What the…?!" he gulped.

Kari pulled hers out and was shocked to see the same cracks. Gatomon grimaced. "That's not good," she growled.

"Azulongmon!" Kari said. "What's going on?!"

"Ah, yes," Azulongmon began. "Well—"

Suddenly, the shadow double of Kari hissed angrily. Everybody turned to see what was wrong, and TK's spine became an icicle as he saw the horned shadow darkening the garden. Standing at the ends of its long legs, his arms folded and his lips smirking, was Devimon. "So sorry to interrupt," he said, bowing mockingly, "but I have business with this place."

Patamon angrily puffed himself up and flew in front of TK. "Ugh, not YOU again!" he yelled.

"How'd you get here?!" Kari asked. "Even we had a hard time!"

Devimon sneered unpleasantly. "Did you really think you saw the last of me in that castle?" he asked. "You've come far for humans… and now I have to thank you; you've given me just what I need."

"Like hell we have!" Gatomon huffed, her ears pulled back and her tail swishing wildly.

"You will not take the Crests, Devimon," Azulongmon growled, "nor will you defile my temple any longer. Go, my servant!"

Shadow Kari's tentacles stiffened into spider-leg-like spears. With a roar she lunged at the devilish Digimon, and the two clashed in fierce combat, crashing through flowers and statues alike. Claw met tentacle with awful slashing sounds. With their Digivices crumbling, the Digidestined could only look on helplessly. "Come on, Not Kari! You can do it!" Patamon shouted.

"Yeah, get him!" Gatomon urged.

Devimon hurled Shadow Kari into the Birdramon statue, shattering it like cheap pottery. Shadow Kari screeched and plunged her tentacles into Devimon's chest. Devimon stopped and looked down at the line of wounds. "I… I think she got him!" Kari admitted.

TK squeezed his D3 and it cracked loudly. It couldn't be that easy to get rid of Devimon, could it?

Devimon was quiet for a moment, then he looked up with an even nastier smile. "Who said I was here for Crests?" he asked. Before Shadow Kari could react, he charged at her and plunged his claws into her chest. Shadow Kari's mouth fell open in disbelief, and with a pained gasp, she disintegrated into data.

"What?! Curse you!" Azulongmon roared.

"No..." Kari gasped. Even if that creature had messed with her mind and tried to kill her friends a few minutes before, she couldn't help but feel sorry for it.

Devimon watched the pixels float through the air, his hand clutching his bleeding side. "Such agonizing pain… I MUST have you!" he laughed.

He reached out his arms and what remained of Shadow Kari flew into him, and the kids pulled back in horror as his body shone with black light and he changed shape. He grew even taller than before and his long devilish wings turned the color of fresh blood. His fingernails were jagged and golden, and his nasty spikes coated the tops of his boots. His face was hidden behind a horned mask, one side colored black, the other colored gold, with six vicious eyes. Along his chest, the red wounds from Shadow Kari's tentacles glistened like rubies. He raised an arm and looked himself over, then laughed triumphantly. "So this is the power of a god!" he declared. "Now I no longer need to serve under Dagomon!"

"Devimon, you fiend…" Azulongmon growled, though he stayed still and continued pouring power into the Crests. "Perhaps you were the biggest threat all along."

"It's Neodevimon now, your godliness," Neodevimon corrected him, clenching his claws and starting to walk towards the kids. "Allow me to re-introduce myself to you!"

TK and Kari panicked; without being able to Digivolve, they didn't stand a chance against the newcomer. Patamon and Gatomon, however, defiantly took up combat stances. "You want to fight?" Gatomon hissed. "Bring it on!"

"Gatomon, no!" Kari cried. "He was strong for a Champion before, but now…!"

"We can't lose to this clown," Gatomon said, her tail ring flashing. "We've got Dagomon to deal with. Right, Kari?"

Kari hesitated, then balled her fists. If Gatomon thought they had a chance, then so did she. "…All right," she agreed quietly.

TK wasn't convinced at all; his body shook and trembled, his mind flashing back to that first fateful battle on File Island. Devimon had been overly powerful then, even with seven Digimon, but now it looked even more hopeless. "Patamon, don't!" he said. "You can't fight him like this!"

"I've gotta try!" Patamon rebuked. "At least until the Crests are ready! Trust me!"

"But…" TK tried, "aren't you scared?"

Patamon looked back at him with determination in his little eyes. "Yeah, I am," he said, "but I'm even more scared of losing you. I can come back if he beats me; you can't!"

Patamon turned back and readied himself. TK's teeth almost broke on themselves. What if Angemon coming back to life was only a one-time thing? Wormmon never came back to Ken, after all… but Patamon wasn't going to retreat. TK could only watch and fret.

Gatomon and Patamon threw themselves at Neodevimon with the best that they could muster. Patamon spewed Boom Bubbles as big as he could make, but they popped on Neodevimon's chest without incident. Gatomon landed on his arm and raked her claws across it. Black smoke poured out of his flesh, but like Blackwargreymon, he didn't seem to care. He threw her off with a huff, then swatted both Patamon and her to the ground like deflated basketballs. "As expected," Neodevimon cackled as he stepped past their struggling forms. "Now for you humans…"

"Azulongmon, can't you do anything?!" Kari asked. "You're a god!"

"My power would destroy this whole island, and you with it," Azulongmon lamented. "Forgive me… I can't."

TK couldn't move anything. He shook even harder than when he had run into Blackwargreymon in the jungle. With their D3s broken, they couldn't even Digivolve. Even Azulongmon could only watch silently behind him. No help was coming this time.

Kari watched TK shake, her heart swelling. He had been so brave trying to protect her before, but now he looked as terrified as she had been. She turned and glared at the approaching demon. It was time for her to do what she said she would; it was time for her to protect him.

As Neodevimon raised his claw to strike, she ran in front of TK and, hoping her strange power would save the day, yelled and shoved the monster as hard as she could. Her body flashed with divine light and Neodevimon stumbled back a few feet with a shout, smoke drifting up from where she had touched him. "Leave him alone!" she warned.

Neodevimon doubled over for a moment, but then his pained hissing turned to laughter. Kari's mouth fell open as he stood up, seemingly undamaged. "So, the Child of Light is no longer conflicted," he said, sounding dangerously amused. "But how long will your power last?... It can't be easy to maintain…"

Kari's arms felt like cement blocks, and her legs like old sandbags. Neodevimon was right; using that power sucked the energy out of her faster than Armor Digivolving did. No sooner had she realized this than she fell to one knee and her power disappeared.

"Kari!" TK yelped, still paralyzed with terror.

"Ugh… I'm sorry, TK…" she wheezed. "I thought I'd do better…"

Neodevimon walked up and slapped Kari away with the back of his hand. She crashed down with a yelp and rolled almost to the edge of the island. "Why Dagomon wants you, I'll never know," he said, then turned to TK. "Now… are you ready for perdition, boy?"

TK's eyes snapped to the beat-up Digimon who were just getting back on their feet, then to Kari, who panted on the ground. As he looked back up at Neodevimon, his fear boiled itself into rage. It was bad enough that the monster from his nightmares wanted to hurt Patamon and him, but to go after his friends!... On instinct he raised the broken D3, and it gave one slowed-down squeal before the screen shattered. Unimpressed, Neodevimon pulled back both claws to smash TK's skull.

Suddenly, two gleaming hands grabbed Neodevimon around the neck and pulled him back. "Not yet he isn't!" Angemon's voice boomed.

Claws sank into Neodevimon's right leg. "You'll pay for hurting Kari!" Gatomon snarled.

"Ready for another round?" Neodevimon asked, kicking Gatomon off and readying his own claws. "There won't even be DigiEggs left this time!"

Angemon and Gatomon threw their best attacks at the evolved devil: Angemon hurled Hands of Fate from both hands and Gatomon climbed all over Neodevimon, slashing everywhere she could. Smoke and black blood sprayed from his wounds, but Neodevimon remained unfazed. "Fighting you is almost depressing," he snickered. "Now get out of my face!"

Neodevimon's mask flashed and emitted a black ray of energy that blew his opponents back to the ground and reduced them to Salamon and Patamon. Salamon struggled to get back up with angry grunts, but collapsed after two tries. Patamon lay motionless on the ground, one wing barely twitching. TK balled his fists so hard he heard his knuckles pop. He couldn't lose friends to this monster again! He wouldn't! Not Kari, not Patamon, not anyone! But what could he do?!

Almost like an answer, Azulongmon's light intensified, and Neodevimon pulled back angrily. TK spun around to the brilliant golden sight. "It is done!" Azulongmon's voice boomed. "Retake your power, Digidestined!"

The sky gleamed white, and Patamon and Salamon felt their energy not only returning, but overflowing. They rose up and regained their Champion forms. Gatomon smiled and turned to Angemon. "You ready?" she asked.

Angemon nodded. "Now it's our turn," he growled, facing Neodevimon. "You'll never defeat us, no matter what shape you take!"

The Crests of Hope and Light, restored to their original trapezoidal shapes, floated off the altars and to their owners. TK watched the little yellow tile float before him for a moment, then reached up and took it. His D3 gave one final extra-loud snap and exploded into pixels. What remained in his hand amazed him more than the Crest did: he was holding his old Digivice, as good as new! "I… what the?!" he stammered.

"TK! Look!" Kari called, limping over with her old-model Digivice in hand.

TK stared at the small gleaming object, his anger giving way to confusion. What did it mean?

Neodevimon snarled, but didn't come after them like before. TK's eyes narrowed. That question could wait; now he had something else to take care of. "Angemon!" he shouted, raising the Crest.

"Gatomon!" Kari called, raising hers.

The Crests shone as brilliantly as they had before, and Angemon and Gatomon gleamed with fresh energy. "Yeah, now THAT'S what I'm talking about!" Gatomon laughed.

"Let's end this," Angemon agreed.

The light of Digivolution enveloped them and took them to their Ultimate forms: Angemon's muscles bulged, he sprouted extra wings and became the regally purple, eight-winged Magnaangemon; and Gatomon's feline form grew tall and slender, into the golden-haired, ribbon-swathed Angewomon. TK's and Kari's bodies sweat from pure elation. They looked even more amazing than before. It was so good to see them again!

Neodevimon laughed at the newcomers, but said nothing. "I don't know what you're laughing about," Angewomon said, stringing a glowing arrow on her arm-bow. "Now, back to the darkness from whence you came!"

She fired three Celestial Arrows. Neodevimon weaved between them, though his body started smoking just from being close to them. Then Magnaangemon came at him with his purple beam sword. "You cannot stand against both of us," the angel growled as he swung.

Neodevimon deflected the blade with his claws each time. "You're right, for once; I'm not so foolish as to fight two angels," he cackled. Magnaangemon tried to stab him in the chest, but he leaped safely into the shadow of the Angemon statue, which had miraculously survived the battle. "I got what I came for; our fated battle will come another day…" With that, he melted into the statue's shadow and disappeared.

"Get back here, you!" Angewomon shouted, but as she approached the statue it crumbled and collapsed. Her energy spent, she shrank all the way back down to Salamon and landed on the ground. "Nuts," she grumbled.

Magnaangemon shrank back to the tiny, big-toothed Tokomon and landed with a cute little plop noise. "It's OK," he said, "it's not like we won't see him again."

"Are you all right?" Kari asked TK.

TK looked at her, surprised. "Well, yeah, but what about you?" he asked. "That was a bad hit."

"I'll be fine," she said, wincing at the pain in her side but managing a smile. "I'm just glad I bought us some time."

"Yes, thank you… both of you," Azulongmon said. "If he had disrupted the ritual, the results would have been disastrous."

"Yeah…" TK said, then looked at his Digivice. "But how come our D3s turned back into their old shapes?... And actually, why did they break when we tried to get in here, anyway?"

"Yeah, that's kind of weird," Kari agreed. "What does that mean?"

Azulongmon hesitated. "You'll know when the time comes," he finally said.

"ANOTHER cryptic answer?" Salamon asked, looking as pouty as a puppy could. "Come on! Man, you're worse than Gennai!"

"The Digivices were made by The Order, not the gods," Azulongmon replied. "They're the ones to ask. That's all I can tell you."

Salamon didn't look satisfied, but Tokomon didn't seem to mind. "Awesome! We can Digivolve again!" he cheered. "Dagomon's history!"

"That may invite further tragedy, Tokomon," Azulongmon spoke again.

Tokomon's smile fell off. "What?" he asked.

"But we've got our power back!" TK said. "Isn't that enough?"

"It certainly is, but remember what I told you before: every time the ruler of the Dark World is destroyed, a more powerful one appears to take its place," Azulongmon said. "In the wake of all that Dagomon has done, would destroying him be the best course of action for the Digital World? Or your own, for that matter?"

The kids stopped and thought hard. Dagomon's armies had menaced the real world, destroying whole cities and killing countless innocents. His minion, Blackwargreymon, had also ravaged huge sections of the Digital World. If they destroyed Dagomon, the next threat could be even more devastating. "Then… is there some way to stop him without killing him?" TK asked.

"But how?" Tokomon asked. "You saw him! It's not like we can talk him down…"

Kari scratched at her head, but nothing came to her. "Let's talk to everyone else when we get back, and Gennai, too," she proposed. "I don't want to bring even worse problems…"

"No kidding," Salamon said. "Thanks, Azulongmon. You gave us something to think about."

"Whichever path you choose, you have the power you need," Azulongmon said. "Ah… and I have another gift for you as well."

A small golden box appeared on the altar. Kari walked up, opened it and saw a stack of hard yellow plastic tags with neck straps inside. She recognized them immediately; they were the same as the Tags that the kids had put their Crests in before. "Hey, new Tags!" she exclaimed.

"The Tags helped you focus the power of the Crests, so I figured you may need them again," Azulongmon said. "Also… I know the path here from your world was a bit inhospitable… so, if you choose, you may remain in the outer area of the temple until your friends return."

"Really? Wow, thanks, Azulongmon!" Tokomon exclaimed, flashing a gigantic grin.

Kari thought back to something Salamon had said. "Azulongmon, may we take some flowers, too?" she asked. "I think they'd really cheer one of my friends up."

"You've always been a thoughtful girl, Kari; of course you may," Azulongmon replied. Suddenly, his great head jerked up in alarm. "Oh… I'm sorry, but I must excuse myself," he said, beginning to unravel and take to the sky. "Zhuqiaomon is about to barbecue your friends, and we can't have that; he always lets his temper get the best of him…"

The kids' mouth fell open. "What?!" TK asked.

"Don't worry, I'll stop him," Azulongmon assured them as he began to vanish. "Remember all that I have said, Chosen Children of Hope and Light. I know you will not fail!"

Azulongmon's massive form faded away like mist in sunlight, and the Digidestined were alone in the floating garden. The kids traded worried glances. One of the other gods was trying to kill their friends? Azulongmon was so friendly, it was hard to believe… but now they all felt concerned for the others. "We should e-mail them, ASAP," TK said.

"OK, but why don't we get out of here first?" Salamon asked. "It feels weird, being in someone's home when he's not here."

"Yeah…" Kari agreed. "Oh! Don't forget the flowers!"

Kari emptied the box and put the Tags in her pants pockets. With the others' help (Salamon and Tokomon were great diggers), she filled the box with dirt and several pink and blue flowers. "That's great. Sora's mom's gonna love it!" TK agreed.

"I hope they survive the trip back," Kari admitted. "I don't know much about flowers…"

"I wouldn't ask Tai either," Salamon chuckled; "remember what he did to the bonsai?"

They turned and started back, all thinking about what they had experienced that day and the numerous new questions: why their D3s had turned back into ordinary Digivices; how they could defeat Dagomon without killing him; and whether their friends were all right. "Let's talk to Gennai when we see him again," Salamon said as they started up the mysterious stairs. "I bet he knows the answers."

"Think we can get Davis to shake him down again?" Tokomon chuckled.

Kari remembered what her shadow had said and shrugged. "Maybe I'll do it myself this time," she remarked.

TK kept looking at his Digivice and remembered his brother's tirade on being replaced. "Kari, I just thought of something," he said, "what if Davis and the new kids were brought in just because we couldn't do anything ourselves? And now that we've got our Crests again, what if they're the ones who aren't useful anymore?"

"Oh… I don't know… I hope not," she replied, looking disappointed. "I don't think Davis, Yolei or Cody would take it very well."

"It'd be a surprise, that's for sure," Salamon said. "All this time, we thought WE were the obsolete ones, and…"

"Well, Matt would be happy, at least," Tokomon remarked. "Wouldn't he, TK?"

TK just shrugged. He wasn't sure if any part of this situation would make Matt happy anymore.

They walked up the stairs and back into the strange little temple, and the opening closed behind them with a stony clunk. They walked out to the pavilion and saw the aurora shining in the sky, coaxing them back towards the real world. "Well, what do you think?" TK asked. "Do we go back, or do we take Azulongmon up on his offer?"

Tokomon sniffed the air and his eyes lit up. "Hey! Food!" he exclaimed.

Salamon sniffed around too, and she zeroed in on the fruit trees at the bottom of the steps. "Jackpot!" she said, scampering down. "I could use some of that!"

TK and Kari watched their partners start to climb the nearest tree and attack the fruit in its branches. "I think we're staying," Kari chuckled.

TK nodded and got out his D-Terminal and wrote a message to Davis:

Davis,

Please write back when Imperialdramon is returning. We'll be waiting for you.

"Hey… is that working all right?" Kari asked, leaning over his shoulder. "Now that our D3s changed back, I mean."

TK hit the "send" button and the message disappeared like it always did; nothing seemed weird about it. "I guess so…" he admitted, pressing the other buttons. When he reached the screen that displayed his DigiEgg armor, though, the image of the egg was fuzzy and disjointed. "Huh, that's weird," he said. "What about yours?"

Kari put down the flowers and looked at her own D-Terminal. Her DigiEgg armor looked distorted and broken, too. "Do you think we can even use them anymore?" she asked. "We should try it later."

"Yeah… but for now, I think we'd better take a rest," TK said, putting his D-Terminal away. "You look beat."

"So do you," she chuckled back, then grew serious. "Are you sure you're OK? You froze up when Devimon came," she said, "kind of like I did before…"

TK sighed and shook his head, his relief and joy fizzling away. "You'd think I could handle it by now," he said, "but every time I see Devimon or some other evil Digimon, I… I just lose it and worry I'll lose Patamon again." He put his hands in his pockets. "What am I supposed to do, Kari? All through this adventure I… I just don't think I've changed very much."

Kari hesitated, then reached out and put a hand on his back. "You have… but just wait and see," she said. "For now, just remember Azulongmon trusts you… and I do, too."

TK looked at her. "Kari…" he said.

She smiled again. "Don't feel like you have to do it alone, OK?" she said gently.

They stared at each other for a long while. "Kari, I, uh…" TK began.

"Hey, you guys!" Tokomon yelled from down below, making them both jerk away. "C'mon down here! The fruit tastes like cookies!"

"Not the one I got, ugh," Salamon wheezed. "I think it's a chili pepper!"

TK and Kari each glanced the other's pink cheeks, then laughed and continued down the steps.