The life of a Gazimon living on the Bitmap Desert was far from a life of ease and nobility. After all, they were the favored servants of Etemon, and his definition of "favored" was, "people who are allowed to do most of my work." Before he had come along, they had lived in small villages or colonies among the desert rocks, eking out their livelihood by hunting, or on occasion, waylaying any travelers foolish enough to get too close.
Now they lived in style - sort of. Etemon had them stationed at every one of his strongholds, keeping watch over his territory and monitoring his network. Besides those, there was one small band who kept company with him. These most honored workers were allowed to travel with him as his entourage. Their duties consisted not only of monitoring the network, but also of keeping his trailers clean and in good working order, tending and feeding his Tyranomon and Monochromon, making sure Etemon himself was well-fed and comfortable, and otherwise obeying their master's whims. Most of the time, they were expected to keep out of his sight unless he needed them for something, keeping to themselves in a trailer dedicated for their own use the rest of the time. Only one was different.
His name was Patch, and it was obvious at first glance that he was not your everyday Gazimon. Though he had the usual attributes of the breed - short gray fur, long floppy ears, sharp black claws, and a long tail - there were small but clear differences in his form. He stood a head shorter than his brethren, with oversized paws that never seemed to go where he told them, ears that fell over his eyes instead of standing up straight, and a tail that flopped and flipped of its own accord. Unlike most Gazimon, whose eyes burned a coppery orange-brown, his were blue. When he spoke, it was in a childlike, lisping voice. Most obviously, there was a ring of white fur around one eye, earning him his name.
The differences weren't all physical. Most Gazimon were clever, crafty beasts, quick with lies and traps and insults - it was the reason why Etemon liked them so much. Patch was innocent to the point of naivety. Behind his back, many of the other Gazimon whispered that there was something wrong with him, saying that his data had been corrupted, calling him "sport" and "mutant." Surely that was the only explanation for how a Gazimon could act in such un-Gazimon- like fashion and still look so much like one.
There might have been more than a tinge of jealousy behind such statements. Bewildering as it was for them, many of them had come to the conclusion that Patch was Etemon's special favorite. For some reason, a few months ago, Etemon had issued a decree that this peculiar specimen was, from that point on, to become his personal servant. He was expected to be at his side at all times, from helping him into his robe in the mornings to turning out the lights for him at night. Whenever Etemon walked anywhere, Patch was behind him, a small gray shadow. He was even allowed to take the leftovers from Etemon's meals after the master had his pick. Of course, not everyone saw all this as a privilege.
It might just be that Etemon didn't trust the little creature to do anything without his own watchful eye on him. It was, after all, well-known that Patch was a clumsy thing and a bit slow on the uptake. He needed someone to supervise him most of the time. Besides, who would want to spend twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, waiting hand and foot on Etemon?
Apparently, Patch did. He did what was asked of him and never complained, seemingly quite happy with his job. The reason for his attitude might just have been, as his comrades said, because he was a bit simple-minded and didn't know if he was being treated badly or not. However, if anyone had bothered to ask him, he would have said only that he had a secret, something Etemon had told him never to tell anyone. Far be it from Patch to disobey Etemon's orders!
Right now, it was the quiet hour of the day. Lunch had been served and cleared away; it would be a while yet before it was time for Etemon's daily practice sessions. There were no problems that needed to be dealt with, and that meant Etemon had free time. When Etemon had free time, it meant that Patch was free as well. With both of them sequestered in Etemon's private trailer, there were no other Gazimon to see the strange activity Patch was engaged in. He was sitting in the middle of Etemon's stage with a guitar, much too large for him, resting in his lap. His claws ran over the strings, and amazingly, brought forth noise that bore a resemblance to music.
"Whaddaya think you're doin'?" Etemon bellowed, glaring down at him.
Patch cringed. "Shorry, shorry!"
"Don't tell me 'sorry'!" Etemon snapped. "How many times do I hafta tell ya - that song is in the key of B-flat! B-flat! Do ya have sand in your ears or something?"
"Shorry, Etemon-shama. Won't do it again."
"Yeah, well, you'd better not. Now, play it again and get it right this time!"
Patch obeyed, starting the song over. The music sounded more like music this time, and Etemon nodded in approval. For the last few weeks, he had, in deepest secret, been giving this strange little Digimon guitar lessons. Well, why shouldn't he? The Gazimon had wanted them so badly, it was more trouble to not give them than otherwise. Besides, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, and there was nothing Etemon liked better than being flattered.
He never would have said as much, but in some ways, he actually enjoyed teaching. He might not have been the greatest singer in the world (though anyone who said so to his face was either stupid or suicidal), but he could play the guitar. Music was the only thing other than himself that he had any interest in, and anything he couldn't do with a guitar probably wasn't worth learning. If someone wanted to spend hours a day letting him show off his awesome skills and knowledge, why argue? Especially when the would-be student was talented. Patch had a startlingly good memory when it came to music - he'd learned the chords in a matter of hours - and those long claws were built-in guitar picks. Not only that, but he practiced every spare moment he got. He'd never have the natural genius Etemon had, of course, but he still wasn't half bad. After all, with Etemon to teach him, how could he not be good?
Patch finished his song and looked up expectantly.
"Not bad," Etemon told him.
"Really?" asked Patch.
"Hey, don't get all excited. You aren't that good yet."
"Quit going 'sorry' at me. It annoys me, ya know that?" Etemon glared at him, and Patch cringed, expecting more insults. Instead, Etemon said, "That guitar is still too big for you."
Patch shrugged. "Can't help it."
"Yeah, well, it's a good thing I'm here, ain't it? I can. C'mere - I wanna show ya something."
Carefully, Patch set aside the guitar he'd been using, and then leaped to follow his master, shuffling on his oversized paws. Etemon led him to a storeroom full of odds and ends - old parts of computers, broken sound equipment, spare cables, and other identifiable things, all packed into tumbled heaps of crates. The monkey hauled out a box and blew on it, puffing away what looked like years worth of dust. Even with the dust, it was still easy to see it was a uniquely shaped box, and Patch guessed instantly what it must be.
From within the case, Etemon produced a small electric guitar. It too was dusty, but through the dust, Patch could see it had been painted in bright colors and designs. It's strings were limp and untuned, and one was missing entirely.
"Gift from one of my adoring fans," Etemon explained. "Never liked the tone on it. Too wimpy for a big star like me, know what I mean? It'll do for a runt like you, though. I'm tired of you puttin' your dirty paws all over my instruments, and I won't hafta listen to you hitting wrong notes all the time."
Patch's eyes lit up. "A present? For Patch? Patch can keep it?"
"You can borrow it, yeah. Here." He dropped the dusty artifact into Patch's hands. "Get it cleaned up, get it tuned, and prove to me you can take care of it, and maybe someday I'll let you keep it. But you gotta take good care of it! Don't you dare let it get broken or lose it, or I'll have your tail for my new guitar strap, get it?"
The little Gazimon nodded so hard it was a wonder his head didn't fall off. "Patch understands! He'll take good care of it! He'll polish it every day - twice a day! Promise!"
"Yeah, well, you'd better! Now, go get yourself some strings for that thing and clean it up - but clean mine, first! All of them!"
"Yes, Etemon-shama! Right away, Etemon-shama!"
Patch scampered off, clutching the precious guitar to his chest, nearly tripping over his own feet in his eagerness to obey. Etemon stalked out of the room in a mildly uneasy mood. Generosity didn't come easily to him, even when it came to getting rid of something he didn't really want. The only reason he'd picked up that particular "gift" was because he'd liked the designs on it, and who was going to tell the ruler of this side of Server that he couldn't have an instrument he didn't need and wasn't even going to play? It had turned out he didn't like the sound of it, and its size cramped his style, so he'd stowed it in the room to gather dust. After some thinking, he decided it was suitable enough that Patch got his rejected instrument - it was better than letting him borrow Etemon's own guitars, as he had in the past. Patch would take care of this one. As dedicated as the creature was, Etemon had no doubt that by tomorrow morning, that instrument would be the cleanest guitar this side of the Bandwidth Ocean.
Heading for his own quarters, Etemon peered into the room where his own guitars were kept, making sure that Patch hadn't decided to attend to his own new toy first. No, there he was, sitting in the middle of the floor with a collection of polishes and cleaning rags. Etemon's own favorite instrument was lying in his lap, and Patch was carefully turning its keys, plucking a string, listening a moment, and then repeating the process. Not only was he cleaning the other guitars, he was tuning them! Etemon nodded approval. All servants ought to obey so well!
Of course, now there were no lessons to teach, and his normal way of dealing with boredom was cut off - he couldn't very well play his guitar if Patch was cleaning it for him! Instead, he decided the best thing to do was pursue one of his other hobbies: making the other Gazimon miserable. He decided to go have a look at what they were doing, and see if he couldn't think of a good reason to punish them for something. He hadn't hung anyone from the back of the trailer by their ears for a while; that was always good for a laugh...
However, he had barely made it out the front door before his plans were replaced by something much less fun. A Gazimon the others called Broketail (souvenir of foolishly letting his tail get run over by a passing Monochromon) came dashing up to him, panting.
"Etemon-sama!" he barked, making a subservient bow. "There's a transmission for you."
"Can't you tell them to go away?" Etemon complained. "This is the time for my practice session! Nobody oughta interrupt me when I'm supposed to be practicing!"
"You're not practicing," Broketail pointed out.
"Don't you take that tone of voice with me! I oughta stuff your tail in one ear and out the other!" Etemon ranted. "You go tell whoever's bugging me to go sit on a Togemon."
Broketail cringed. "They said I was to bring you to them, Etemon-sama. They said if you didn't come, they'd take you to Piemon for insubordination."
Etemon swallowed the rest of his rant with an audible gulp. He could count on one hand the number of people he knew who would and could make a threat like that and still have fingers left over, and he didn't want to talk to any of them. On the other hand, they were all the kind of Digimon even he didn't dare cross without a good reason.
"Izzat so?" he said, trying to sound casual. "Well, lucky for them, I'm not doing anything important right now."
With that, he turned and began marching toward the control room, putting on a good show for the watching Gazimon. Inside, however, he was thinking rapidly. It was very seldom that any of Piemon's people ever bothered with Etemon. For the most part, they had a workable arrangement - Etemon never challenged their authority, and they let him rule undisturbed over his corner of Server. However, it had been made abundantly clear that this situation would last only as long as Piemon thought it worth his while to keep the peace with Etemon. As far as he was concerned, Etemon could happily have left Piemon alone the rest of his life. He knew what the dark clown was all about, at least as much as anyone did. He had appeared eons ago - nobody knew how long - with designs to conquer and rule the Digital World, and it looked like he was just smart enough and strong enough to do it. He had been carefully cultivating a following, drawing to him the other rulers of the world, bringing them in line with small bribes and big threats. Etemon had been convinced a long time ago of the benefits of leaving well enough alone, and so he'd struck a deal with Piemon, saying he would keep to his own patch of ground and obey if he was called, in return for being able to keep his own kingdom and a cut of the profits when Piemon was done with his conquering.
*So what do his people want with me?* he wondered. *I haven't done anything to them lately. Huh, I even invited them to my last concert; it's not my fault they couldn't come.*
He arrived at the control room. One of the computer screens was glowing softly in the otherwise unlit room, showing... a shadow. Etemon crept nearer, trying to get a better look. Up close, he could see that the shadow had a face. It was humanoid, with aristocratic lines and a cool expression - rather handsome, if you liked humanoids. Dark shapes - bats - flitted in the background. Etemon scowled. He didn't like Vamdemon.
Vamdemon was the undisputed ruler of the other side of Server. Most of the time, he left Etemon alone, but the two of them were rivals when they were anything to each other. Vamdemon thought Etemon was hopelessly crude and uncultured; Etemon thought Vamdemon was snobbish stick-in-the-mud, not to mention behind the times. He still liked classical music, for crying out loud! He also read books - read them for fun! There was just no dealing with people like that.
Fortunately, he didn't have to deal with him that often - the last time he'd been allowed to meet with Vamdemon socially, it had been at a party for some of the various dark beasties that inhabited the continent. Etemon had distinguished himself primarily by getting shamefully drunk and standing on a table trying to sing until someone had thrown him out. Etemon himself had no memory of the incident, only the knowledge that he'd never been allowed to meet the vampire lord face-to-face after that. Etemon shrugged it off and decided there was just no accounting for taste.
From time to time, Etemon thought wistfully of getting rid of Vamdemon, but he doubted he ever would. Technically, the two of them were equals. They were of equal level, certainly, and both of them swore allegiance to Piemon, which should have put them at about equal rank. Etemon thought that if it came down to a contest of sheer physical strength - say, arm-wrestling - he would easily be the winner. The trouble was, Vamdemon didn't fight at the physical level. He had learned magic and strategy from those books he read, and since Etemon had never studied anything other than music and ways to make his life more enjoyable, he didn't stand a chance in all-out combat.
Trying to get rid of him was probably a bad idea, anyway. Vamdemon had always been open in his support of Piemon, and was consequently favored by him in ways that Etemon was not. Challenging him on any field might lead to complications Etemon was unprepared to deal with. He decided that for now, it was best to go along with what the vampire lord wanted - provided it wasn't too much of an inconvenience.
"What do you want?" Etemon demanded, scowling at the face in the screen.
"I bear a message from our master," the dark figure replied in his cold voice.
"Well, don't just stand there! Spit it out already," Etemon snapped. "You're wastin' my time."
"I am certain your time is a valuable thing," answered the shadow mockingly. "Certainly I am aware of what long, difficult hours you put in. Since you are so clearly working yourself to exhaustion over there, Piemon has decided to give you a little diversion."
"Diversion?" That didn't sound good; it was likely to turn out to be work, something he wasn't at all fond of.
"Yes. It seems that a handful of human children have blundered onto Server, and are now wandering through the eastern edge of your territory. Piemon wants them disposed of."
"Why don't you do it?" asked Etemon.
"Because," answered Vamdemon, in tones of dangerous patience, "you're closer to them... and unlike you, I have important work to attend to. You can go back to your lazing about when the job is over."
"Humph," said Etemon.
"You sound reluctant," Vamdemon said smoothly. His pointed teeth glittered in the darkness. "Would you prefer I told Piemon you do not wish to serve him, after all?"
"Aw, shut up. I'll do it," Etemon snapped. "But only because I have nothing better to do right now."
"I was well aware of that," answered Vamdemon. "Well? What are you waiting for - get going."
Before Etemon could say anything, the picture dissolved into static, then went dark. Etemon scowled at the blank screen.
"One of these days I'm gonna shove those pointy teeth right out the other side of your head," he said. He turned on his heel and stalked off, muttering, "...thinks he's so special... just 'cause he kisses up to Piemon... like to take 'em both down a peg or three..."
Leaving the control room, he nearly tripped over a Gazimon called Longears. The creature began to babble apologies, which Etemon halted with a wave of his hand.
"Round up the others," he ordered. "We're movin' out."
"We are?" asked Longears, blinking in confusion. "But we just got here!"
"Did I say we were movin' or not?" Etemon demanded. "When I say we're movin', you don't tell me we're not. You move!"
Longears moved. With a squeak, he hurtled out of the trailer as fast as his paws could carry him. Feelings somewhat relieved by making the Gazimon jump, Etemon loped off to the head of the trailer train to supervise the activity.
Meanwhile, Patch continued with his work. He was very good at the cleaning job; he was the only one besides himself that Etemon allowed to care for them, and he took the honor seriously. Each instrument that came through his paws was polished until it was mirror bright, and then carefully tuned. Now he was just finishing, but only the tip of his tail betrayed how anxious he was to be done. He went over the final instrument - a deep violet guitar with a metallic sheen - to be sure there wasn't a speck of dust on it. Satisfied that it was perfect, he hung it back on its rack. Now, at last, he could turn his attention to his new gift.
For a moment, all he could do was sit and admire it. Dusty and scuffed as it was, it was still his, and that made it more precious than anything. He promised himself he'd clean it up and make it the cleanest instrument on the continent. He reached for the polish...
... and it lurched away from him. The floor trembled, and Patch gave a squeak of fright as he felt the room around him rock. For some unaccountable reason, the trailer had started to move. Why? They weren't scheduled to go anywhere today! There was no time to think about that now. Patch gave another yelp as he felt the trailer go careening over a dune - wherever they were going, they were going in a hurry. With everything shaking around, it was all Patch could do to keep hold of his precious guitar. He held on to it with all four paws and screwed his eyes shut tightly, feeling himself slide around the floor as it rocked beneath him, as if he were riding a sled.
Bang! The back door, imperfectly closed, popped open as the trailer bounced over a rut. The force of the bump sent Patch bouncing up into the air. He lost his grip on the guitar, and could only watch helplessly as it skidded wildly across the floor. As the trailer began rolling up a hill, the guitar slid inexorably downwards, toward the open door.
"No! Come back!" Patch wailed.
The guitar slid out the door. Its neck rapped against the doorframe as it went by, striking a plaintive twang, for all the world as if it were begging to be rescued. Then it fell out the door to land in a heap of sand. Patch half-ran, half-tumbled toward the door to stare after it.
"Come back! Come back! Come back!" he shouted.
He stared helplessly as it got further and further away. Now what was he supposed to do? He had promised Etemon he would keep it clean and safe. Now it was both dirty and lost. Somehow, he had to get it back.
"Awooo!" he howled, as he leaped out the door. He hit the side of a dune and tumbled top over tail until finally coming to a halt at the bottom, next to his guitar. The trailer continued to rumble away, disappearing over the top of a dune. The open door swung backwards and slammed shut.
"Wait!" Patch shouted at it. "You left without Patch!"
Nobody heard him. He watched sadly as it rolled over another dune and seemed to vanish into a cloud of dust. He hung his head.
"All gone," he said mournfully.
He looked back at his guitar. It was covered in sand, but otherwise no worse than it had been before. With some difficulty, he managed to sling it on his back. One thing was absolutely certain in Patch's mind: he had to bring the guitar back to Etemon at all costs. Dropping to all fours, he began to trot clumsily across the sand.
Etemon ordered the caravan to halt after a half-hour of traveling. He said he wanted to give the draft animals a break. Truthfully, he didn't want to go any closer to the eastern territory. That area was full of trees. Trees did have their uses (like growing bananas), but he didn't like traveling through them. He preferred the wide-open desert spaces, if only because he liked the image of racing like the wind in his trailer. It was harder to race like the wind when there were a bunch of trees and things in the way. Anyway, he'd said he would deal with the trouble at hand, but he didn't say he would do it quickly.
It was only after they had parked and gotten resettled that Etemon finally got around to wondering where his servant had gotten off to. It had been almost an hour, all told, since he had left Patch to his polishing. Patch was a fast worker; he should have been done by now and trotting at his master's heels while he waited for another job to do. Even factoring in time to play with the new toy, he still should have been done by now.
"Where is that long eared rodent, anyway?" he asked the general air.
"Which one, Etemon-sama?" a nearby Gazimon inquired.
Etemon glared; he knew all his servants by name, but it was demeaning to have to actually call them by such, as if they were important. "Patch, you overgrown weasel! The clumsy little dust mop that's always following me around! Where is he?"
"I don't know," the Gazimon answered. "I thought he was with you."
"If he was with me, wouldn't he be here? Moron!" Etemon bellowed. "When I say I wanna know where someone is, it means I wanna know where someone is! Go find him! Now!"
"Yes, Etemon-sama! Right away!"
He scampered away just in time to avoid being kicked. While he scurried off to search, Etemon began to head back to his trailer. Maybe Patch was still in there.
*If he's in there goofing off when he ought to be out here paying attention to me, I'll make him sorry he ever dreamed of playing the guitar!*
However, Patch wasn't in the room with the guitars, though there was evidence that he had finished his cleaning there. Where else would he be? He couldn't have been stupid enough to go back to the Gazimon dorms with the guitar, not when he was sworn to keep it a secret...
Etemon jumped. The Gazimon had come up behind him so quietly that he hadn't heard him arrive.
"What?" he snapped. "Did you find him?"
"No, Etemon-sama," said the Gazimon apologetically. "We're still looking. I was just sent to tell you that your dinner is ready."
"Oh. Well, why didn't you say so in the first place?" Etemon replied.
For a moment, he considered continuing his search, but he quickly dismissed the idea. Patch would turn up sooner or later, and when he did, Etemon would deal with him better when he'd replenished his strength. He was hungry. Anything else would wait until he'd remedied that.
"Fine," he said. "When that rabbit-eared runt turns up, tell him off for me, and then send him to me so I can tell him off. Got it?"
Etemon waved a hand in dismissal, his mind already on food. Dinner was always the best meal of the day. It was his habit to sleep late in the mornings, and he didn't like having to wake up early because he was hungry, so it was important to have a solid evening meal. When he arrived at the dining car, he found a comfortable chair drawn up to a long table, which was piled from end to end with more food than he could have possibly eaten, with a massive banana split as its crowning glory. He vaulted into his chair and eyed the repast, rubbing his hands together in anticipation.
"Oh, yeah, come to papa..." he crooned.
He began to eat greedily, shoveling down his meal without any regard for table manners, silverware, or cleanliness, getting crumbs down his front and on most everything else in the general vicinity. It was only when he couldn't have eaten another crumb without bursting that he collapsed back in his chair with a satisfied sigh. He looked around. Normally Patch would have been lurking in a corner, patiently waiting his turn, but he was still nowhere in sight. Oh, well, his loss. Etemon didn't feel like getting up to look for him. Actually - he stretched and yawned hugely - he didn't feel like moving at all. Who said he didn't work hard at his job? Why, he was exhausted right now! Nothing would suit him better, he decided, than to take a quick nap. Wherever his wayward servant had gotten off to, he could look after himself until Etemon was good and ready to find him.
Patch had no idea where he was. His sense of direction wasn't reliable at the best of times, and when it came to wandering the desert without a single landmark, he almost couldn't help but get lost. He thought he'd been walking in the same direction as the trailers, but the windswept sand left no trace of their passing, and Patch had slowly but surely gone off-course. He had actually managed to overshoot the parked caravan, and was now moving in the direction of the forests that grew on the eastern border. He was very tired.
Just when he was ready to collapse, something caught his eye. He paused and looked up. Ahead of him was a smudge of dark forest, and moving in the forests were lights. His ears pricked up. It had to be the others! Who else would be burning lights out here? He picked up his pace, trotting as fast as he could toward the light.
Meanwhile, nestled as comfortably as they could be, the Chosen Children slept. Thus far, their stay on Server had been uneventful, but they still had warnings from friends and enemies alike ringing in their ears, warning them of the dangerous beasts who were said to live there. Everyone was still a little edgy, even tired as they were. Takeru, clutching Poyomon tightly to his chest, whimpered in his sleep, as if troubled with dreams. Others simply sprawled on the ground in attitudes of complete exhaustion. One or two Digimon snored softly. Only two people were completely awake.
With a yawn born as much of boredom as anything else, Taichi stirred the fire, making the light flare higher. Funny, the things you developed a knack for when you were out in the wilderness. He'd never known the first thing about how to keep a fire going when he was back in Japan, his only experiences being limited to watching one from a distance at summer camp and one instance of joining some friends for a sweet-potato roast. Now, out here, they all had learned how to look after a campfire, and most of them had gotten fairly adept at cleaning fish and whittling tools as well. Now Taichi smiled faintly as he felt the renewed rush of warmth and breathed the smell of smoke.
"At least I'm doing some good," he commented to Agumon. "For a place that's supposed to be crawling with powerful Digimon, this place is pretty dead. How much longer 'till the next watch?"
Agumon raised his blunt nose to the skies, taking in the positions of the moon and stars.
"It's just a little after midnight," the dinosaur replied. "We still have about a half an hour left before we have to wake up Sora."
"Rats," Taichi muttered. "I'm bored. I feel like I've been sitting here watching this fire for hours."
"Watch something else," Agumon suggested innocently. "I'll watch the fire for you, Taichi. I'm good at fires."
"What am I going to watch? Sand?" asked Taichi irritably, waving at the scenery beyond the forest's edge.
Nevertheless, Taichi scrambled to the top of a nearby rock and sat down on top of it, pulling his handy telescope from his pocket. The telescope was a simple affair, made of inexpensive materials, but in this place, he wouldn't have traded it for all the gold in Fort Knox.
"For something I got from a cereal box offer, this thing sure does come in handy," he said to himself as he raised it to his eye.
Looking out over the desert, he saw exactly what he'd expected to see: sand, sand, and more sand, studded with the occasional rock or cactus. The moonlight made it shine white as snow, but the children and their partners had gotten a look at it before the sun went down, and they knew it would be a miserable obstacle to try to cross. They didn't intend to try it. Some scouting around had convinced the Digimon that there was a village not far from here, and they hoped to reach it the next day and ask for directions, or at least supplies to get them across that ocean of sand.
With a sigh, Taichi prepared to turn around for a look in the other direction. Even if nothing was moving tonight, it would be more interesting to look back at the trees than at that featureless wasteland. Just as he was moving, he caught a glimpse of something that looked out of place. He peered through his telescope, twitching the focus. Something he had first taken to be an oddly-shaped rock was moving slowly but steadily across the sand. It was nothing Taichi had seen before.
"Hey, Agumon," he called. "Come here and take a look at this!"
Agumon scampered up the side of the rock. "What is it?"
"Look through here and tell me if you've ever seen a Digimon like this before." Taichi passed the scope to Agumon, who peered through it curiously.
"That looks like a Gazimon," he said. He twiddled the knob a bit. "Yeah, it is a Gazimon!"
"Is that good or bad?" Taichi asked.
"Not good. Gazimon have a bad reputation. They're tricksters and thieves. You've got to have eyes in the back of your head when Gazimon are around."
"Let me look again."
Agumon passed the telescope back to Taichi. The Gazimon was closer now, and he could get a better look at it.
"Looks like that one had a good haul tonight," Taichi commented. "What's that he's got on his back?"
Agumon looked through the telescope again. "It looks like a guitar."
"Huh? Let me see!" Taichi snatched his scope back and looked. "Well, I'll be! It's a guitar, all right. Why would anyone want to carry a guitar across a desert in the middle of the night?"
"Maybe he did steal it," Agumon suggested. "Maybe he wants to get it hidden before the sun comes up."
"Well, why steal a guitar? Why not something more valuable?"
"I don't know," answered Agumon with a shrug. "Maybe he wants to be a musician?"
"Maybe he's just weird," said Taichi. "You know, if that guy keeps going the way he's going, he's going to walk right into our campsite."
Agumon glanced over his shoulder, looking back at the campsite, where the fire was still crackling merrily. "He could be heading for the light. I bet that fire shows for a long way over the desert."
Taichi looked at the fire, then at Agumon.
"Why didn't you mention that before we lit the fire?" he demanded.
Agumon shrugged. "I thought you knew."
"Some expert outdoorsman I am," Taichi muttered.
"Maybe we'd better put it out?"
The two of them doused the fire with handfuls of sand, burying the embers and plunging the campground into shadow. The change in light woke a few of the uneasy sleepers, who began looking for the source of the change.
"It isn't morning yet..." Mimi murmured.
Jyou sat up and put on his glasses. "What's going on? You didn't let the fire burn out, did you, Taichi?"
"Shh!" Taichi hissed. "Something's coming!"
The others were awake instantly.
"What is it?" they wanted to know.
"Just a little Digimon, but we don't want to attract its attention," said Taichi. "Hopefully it'll go by us in the dark, but if it doesn't, we ought to be ready for it."
The others nodded their agreement. Crouching together over the remains of the fire, they began to formulate a plan.
Out on the sands, Patch was dismayed to see the lights go out. They had been such nice, cheerful things to follow, and Patch didn't like being alone in the dark. Doggedly, as his nature dictated, he continued to trot in the direction the lights used to be. If everyone else was there, he was bound to hear or smell them if he just got close enough...
However, there were no familiar sounds or scents as he reached the edge of the forest. He was just starting to wonder what he should do next, when something he had taken for a perfectly innocent vine shot out and lashed around his ankle. The next thing he knew, he had been lifted up off the ground. He gave a yowl of unhappiness as his guitar slipped out of his grasp and fell to the ground with a bong. Hanging upside down from one paw, he saw a Palmon step out of the woods, followed by several other Digimon, as well as some other creatures he couldn't identify - strange beasts wearing pieces of cloth over their pink skins, and with their only fur growing on the tops of their heads. One of them, one with tufts of reddish fur sticking out from under a blue cap, gave him an examination.
"This is what you got us all woken up for?" she asked. "It doesn't look so dangerous to me."
"Well, how was I supposed to know?" answered another strange creature, this one wearing a pair of goggles over his bushy brown fur. "Agumon said these things are tricky. I didn't want us all robbed blind while we sleep."
"Robbed of what?" asked another of the strange creatures. This one wore glasses, and his fur was darker than the others. "It's not like we have much to begin with."
"Put me down, put me down!" Patch wailed.
"Not until you tell us who you are and what you're doing out here," said the boy with the goggles.
"Shorry, shorry, shorry!" Patch wailed. "Patch didn't wanna come here! Patch wants to go home!"
Much to the children's surprise, their captive burst into tears, wailing like a kicked puppy. Mimi clapped her hands over her ears. Yamato gave Taichi a superior smile.
"So much for your dangerous Digimon, Taichi," he said.
"Oh, shut up," Taichi muttered. "Okay, Palmon, I think you can put him down, now. I kind of doubt he's going to hurt us."
Palmon set the little Gazimon gently on the ground. Instantly, he picked up the guitar he'd been carrying and began inspecting it for damage. Yamato, who had always been interested in music, knelt for a better look.
"Where did you get that thing?" he asked.
Taichi gave the Gazimon a suspicious look. "You didn't steal it, did you?"
The Gazimon gave him an affronted look. "Patch didn't shteal nothing! Jusht borrowing it. Etemon-shama gave it to Patch to borrow. Patch washn't doing nothing wrong! Why doesh everyone blame everything on Patch?"
"Don't be too hard on him, Taichi," said Yamato, examining the guitar. "This thing's been through the mill. Whoever this Etemon is, he was probably glad to get rid of it."
"Etemon-shama gave it to Patch," said the Gazimon, still looking annoyed. "It'sh a preshent."
"All right, all right," said Yamato. "I didn't mean to insult you. Sensitive little thing, aren't you?"
The little Gazimon just pouted - not an easy thing for a dog to do.
"Well, tell you what," said Taichi. "Do you think this Etemon character is likely to come looking for you?"
Patch nodded vigorously.
"Well, then, why don't you sit tight with us until he gets here?" Taichi suggested. "You'll be easier to find if you're sitting still than if you're moving around, right?"
"Guesh sho," said Patch, looking puzzled as he tried to work through the logic of this. "Patch should wait for Etemon to get here, hm?"
"That's right," said Sora. "You just sit and wait, and we'll keep an eye on you until he gets here."
"Are you sure that's such a good idea?" asked Jyou. "I mean, we have know idea who or what an Etemon is. What if he turns out to be dangerous?"
"Oh, come on," said Yamato. "Just look at this little guy? He obviously looks up to this Etemon. How bad could he be?"
Somewhere in the desert, Etemon woke up. He had been dreaming uneasily of bats and shadows, and didn't feel greatly comforted to wake up in the dark. He looked around, trying to get his bearings (a task that was somewhat hindered by his sunglasses). He could tell by the darkness and the position of the moon that it was quite late. By now, someone should have woken him from his nap - actually, they should have done so a long time ago. Further inspection revealed that the dinner dishes had never been cleared away. It was Patch's job to clear the dishes. Therefore, it followed that Patch was not doing his job, and that was wrong, because if there was one thing that could be said for Patch, it was that he was always doing his job.
Etemon scratched his head, trying to work through the ramifications of the situation. It was clear that Patch was still missing. To his mind, that meant that Patch was probably in some kind of trouble. Not that this was a difficult thing to imagine, even for someone with Etemon's limited imagination. Patch was always getting into trouble, one way or another... but Patch's brand of trouble was usually just things being dropped or spilled or lost or broken. They didn't usually involve any damage coming to Patch himself, beyond an occasional bump or scrape. For him to have vanished entirely...
*The little hairball's gotten himself lost,* Etemon realized. Somehow or another, Patch hadn't managed to be on board the trailers when they'd started moving, and he'd gotten left behind. Even now, he was probably wandering in circles in the endless desert, looking hopelessly for his Etemon-sama and getting more and more lost.
Well, what to do about it? Patch was only a servant, and not even especially gifted in that respect. He was clumsy, he needed everything spelled out for him, he didn't perform any services that any of the other Gazimon couldn't have done just as well - maybe better. Someone of Etemon's power and reputation shouldn't have had to worry about mislaying a single subordinate, not when he could get another one, or ten, or twenty, who could do the same things.
On the other hand...
On the other hand, there were reasons for keeping him around, very good and logical reasons that by necessity had to be there, because Etemon didn't do things without good and logical reasons that had nothing to do with an emotional attachment to a floppy-eared runt of a Digimon, meaning he didn't need to spend all night sitting around thinking about why he should or shouldn't go looking for him.
It was all very clear in Etemon's mind. Everyone knew he didn't really need a misborn Gazimon to do his bidding, not when there were plenty of cleverer servants close at hand. Even if he could prove there was some reason for keep Patch around, there was just no way Etemon could wake up the entire camp right now to turn the caravan around to start combing the desert for a lost servant. When that was taken into consideration, there was really only one thing Etemon could do.
He looked around. The room had a window - a large one, sufficient for admiring the scenery as he enjoyed his meals. He rattled it, attempting to open it, and when it proved obdurate, he smashed it to smithereens, relieving some of his frustrations with himself and the world in general. Then he leaped through the newly made opening, landing soundlessly on the sand, and went loping off into the night.
It took a couple of hours and several miles before Etemon's more logical mind caught up with the rest of him. Despite what some of his compatriots might say (never to his face, though), Etemon was not stupid. He had a certain amount of native cunning that allowed him to recognize and use the opportunities that came his way - he couldn't have gotten as far as he had in the world if he hadn't had a little bit of intelligence. It was simply that when it came to planning things out, he was a very slow thinker. He liked getting what he wanted, the way he wanted, when he wanted it, and having to sit down and think about it all irked him - it was much more gratifying to simply do whatever he wanted to do and be done with it. When he did sit down and think about things, it usually took him days or weeks to puzzle through whatever he was working on, and while whatever solution he eventually hit upon usually worked, it was much too tedious to do all the time. Now, though, it occurred to him that maybe thinking this situation through a little more was not such a bad idea.
Where was he going? He wasn't entirely sure. Out in the desert, unless you were aided by a map and compass or something equally reliable, it was easy to get lost. Even he, who of course possessed a flawless sense of direction, was forced to admit that it was marginally possible he'd gotten twisted around a bit while he was racing indiscriminately through the desert. Without any visible landmarks, he would have been hard pressed to say where in this ocean of sand he actually was. Had he left in the direction his caravan had been traveling, or back the way they had come? He couldn't remember.
For that matter, where was Patch? Etemon hadn't thought to check, though his computers probably could have told him, if he'd bothered to look. Probably he was back behind the trailers, heading back in their direction... on the other hand, the trailers had been parked for a while, and it was possible that Patch could have walked past them and missed them entirely...
Etemon shook his head. He could spend hours trying to figure it out and never come to any sound conclusions. He dismissed all considerations except the simplest and most relevant: he had, by his estimation, approximately three hours before the sun rose. Once the sun rose, the other Gazimon would wake up, and if Etemon wasn't back in the camp by then they would know something was up. He had three hours, then, to find Patch and get him back to camp before they were found out. Three hours to search this whole empty desert when he didn't even really know where he was...
Then an even uglier thought occurred to him. What if Patch had left on purpose? What if he had taken his guitar and walked off? It was true that Etemon didn't exactly treat him like much. If Patch had just been using him as a way to get access to the music he wanted, this would be just the time to run away. Surely he couldn't enjoy being pushed around and insulted day in and day out.
Well, if that was the case, he could just sit out in the desert and rot for all Etemon cared. He had no use for thieving traitors... except... except... except he had thought Patch liked him. Etemon had hundreds of servants who would jump to answer his slightest whim, but not one of them honestly liked or admired him. They obeyed out of fear or greed, not any particular loyalty they had for their master. But he had thought Patch was different, and if it turned out it had all been a lie...
With a snarl of frustration, Etemon hammered his fist down on an outcropping of rock, smashing it to gravel. Why did things like this have to happen to him? Why? All because he'd slipped up one little time and let himself form an attachment to someone who wasn't him...
He halted in mid-rant. He had heard something. Somewhere in the distance, there was a piercing sound that carried on the still, dry desert air. It sounded like - it was - music. Etemon would know that sound anywhere, under any circumstances, and now he was aware that someone was playing a rollicking melody on a harmonica, less than a mile away! He focused his anger at the world in general to the harmonica-player in particular. How dare anyone presume to make music in Etemon's domain? And when he was having a bad day, too! Well, Etemon would find whoever was making that noise they thought was music and ram that harmonica down their throat. Then they'd see what kind of music he would make!
The sound might have been coming from a mile away, across rolling dunes of slippery sand, but that was hardly enough to cause worry. Etemon might have been lazy by temperament, but that didn't mean he couldn't travel along at a terrific pace if he had to. It was only minutes later that he looked up to see the ridge of a forest rising up before him. The music was coming from there. So, too, was a twinkling light and the smell of smoke, as well as a soft chatter of voices, too muffled by distance to be distinct. He got the gist of it, though: someone was out there having a good time when he wasn't. Well, he'd take care of that situation in short order. Then he got close enough to see just exactly who it was who was having the good time, and he stopped as if he'd walked into a tree.
Sitting around a campfire were a group of strange creatures who could only be the Chosen Children he was supposed to be getting rid of. That was surprise enough, but he was doubly surprised to see that they were sharing their campfire with Patch. He was sitting between the boy with goggles and the boy with the harmonica, listening raptly to the music. Etemon felt a flash of fury: he had been betrayed! He gave a squawk of outrage that was audible even to the musician, and he dropped his song in mid-bar to see what had made it. Patch looked around, and his eyes lit up.
"Etemon-shama!" he squealed blissfully. "You came! Patch knew you would!"
In the next moment, Patch had bounded across the sand to throw his arms around Etemon's leg, clinging there like a large gray burr.
"Get offa me, ya little runt," said Etemon, absurdly pleased.
The children were all staring at him, all wearing matching expressions of disbelief.
"That's an Etemon?" asked the boy with the goggles. "That thing is the wonderful Etemon you couldn't wait to get back with?"
Patch nodded agreeably, sitting back and gazing at his master with rapt adoration. Etemon decided it was time for some proper introductions to be made.
"That's right," he said. He prodded Patch with his foot. "Don't just sit there! Give 'em the speech!"
"Right!" Patch barked. He stood up straighter and began to recited in a clear tone that spoke of many rehearsals. "Ladies and gentlemon, introducing the masterful monkey, the supreme simian, the premiere primate, the champion chimp and omnipotent orangutan..."
"Hurry it up already!" Taichi shouted.
Patch pouted. "I'm givin' my speech," he said, as if speaking to an idiot. He cleared his throat and continued. "...The ruler of the Server deserts and lord of the Dark Network. I give you... Etemon!"
There was no applause. Etemon acted as if there was anyway, while the children continued to stare.
"Let me get this straight," said Koushiro. "You mean... this cute little Digimon we've been looking after... he works for the bad guys?"
"Hey, I'm the baddest of the bad - and don't you forget it!" Etemon boasted. "I'm gonna teach you to mess with my servants, too. You're trespassing on my property, and I think it's time you learned who was boss around here!"
He intended to say more, and he would have, but he was interrupted by an oncoming yawn. After all, it was the middle of the night, and he'd been running around for a long time.
"Lucky for you," he continued, "it's past my bedtime. So what I'm gonna do, I'm gonna let you off with a warning."
"We're impressed," said Yamato dryly.
"Yeah, well, you'd better be," Etemon replied, "'cause the warning I'm giving you is about the Dark Network!"
"Uh-oh," said Patch. "You're in trouble now!"
The children looked at each other blankly.
"What's a Dark Network?" asked Mimi.
The next sound she made was a shriek, as a black cable appeared out of nowhere and lashed itself around her, pinning her arms to her sides. Another one appeared, this one wrapping around her ankles. Palmon began trying to pry them away, but was just barely able to avoid being captured by another cable herself. Meanwhile, more and more cables were appearing out of the ground, latching to arms, legs, paws, tails, or anything else they could reach. Little Takeru was almost completely enveloped by a cocoon of them, while his brother tried to beat them off with a stick from the campfire and Gabumon slashed at them with his claws. Every time they cut one, it burst into sparks and vanished, but more and more kept appearing. Piyomon pecked frantically at the cords that had bound Sora's wrists and seemed to be trying to drag her underground, while Agumon set several of those nearest to Taichi on fire.
There was a snap and a flash; Tentomon had become fed up with simply trying to tug the cords away and had resorted to more forceful methods. He shot an electric arc at the nearest cable, and the spark struck and crackled down the length of the cable, making it fizz and drop lifelessly to the ground. Incredibly, a few of the cords on the other side of the glen abruptly did the same thing.
"Well, what do you know?" said Koushiro, sounding impressed. He had the leisure to be curious, now that the cables were no longer bothering him. "It really is a network! They're all connected!"
"Techno-talk later!" said Sora, trying to keep a cord from wrapping around her neck. "Right now, we've got other things to worry about!"
"Don't worry; I've got it all figured out," said Koushiro. "Tentomon, give me a hand, here."
"By taking it up a level!"
"You've got it! Tentomon, digivolve to... Kabuterimon!"
Several of the trees were pressed back as a huge flying insect appeared in the clearing. With his claws, he was able to reach into the sandy ground and pull up a double handful of writhing black cables. With a shout of command, he sent a burst of electricity up the wires, and each of them flashed briefly before falling limply and disappearing. Children and Digimon collapsed with relief.
"Well," said Koushiro, as his partner shifted back to normal. "That was easy."
"Easy for you to say," said Yamato, picking his harmonica up out of the sand. "If that was his warning, I'm not looking forward to seeing him really get mad."
"I knew that little Digimon was trouble," said Taichi to no one in particular. "I knew he was trouble, and nobody listened to me."
"I guess next time, we'll just have to remember that little Digimon can have big friends," said Jyou. "Big ugly friends who might think it would be fun to strangle us."
"He was a nice little Digimon," said Takeru. "Do you think we'll see him again?"
"I don't want to," said Taichi. "Where is he, anyway?"
They looked around. During the commotion, both Patch and Etemon had disappeared.
"He's gone," said Yamato. "Looks like he took his guitar with them. Oh, well. I can't say I'm going to miss him much."
"Right now," said Taichi, "all I'm missing is sleep. Somebody else can watch from now on."
"It's my turn," said Sora. "You get some rest; you've had a long night."
"Thanks, Sora. Night, all."
Quietly, the group settled back down to their usual nighttime routine. While Sora and Piyomon minded the fire, the rest curled up on the ground, closing their eyes to rest and sleep, and to forget about their new enemy.
Until next time.
Out on the desert, Etemon paused in his running to let Patch catch up. The little creature was still shuffling and stumbling along on his oversized paws, dragging his guitar behind him, and he was having a hard time keeping pace with his master. Etemon scowled as the little creature stopped a few feet away and slumped onto the sand.
"Whatsamatter with you?" he demanded.
"Tired," Patch panted. "Hungry."
"Oh, for... You're more trouble than you're worth, y'know that? Makin' me come all the way out here in the middle of the night..."
"What were doin' out here, anyway?"
Patch sat up and offered the guitar for inspection. "It ran away, and Patch had to catch it. It fell out of the trailer. Etemon told Patch not to lose it, so Patch chased it. Then he couldn't get back. Patch is sorry he did wrong. What should he have done?"
Etemon opened his mouth to answer the question, realized there was no good answer, and shut it. He couldn't say Patch should have left the thing in the desert, not after he'd been ordered to take good care of it. He sighed.
"Ya did right," he finally said. "Ya shouldn't have lost it in the first place, but seein' as how it's you, I shoulda known you couldn't keep up with it..."
Patch hung his head. "Patch is shorry. Here."
He proffered the guitar, and Etemon stared at it as if it were a dead fish.
"What am I supposed to do with this?" he asked.
"Patch didn't take care of it like Etemon-shama told him to. Take it back. Patch can't take care of it right. Don't deserve it..."
Etemon continued to stare. Patch wanted that guitar more than anything else in the world. Why was he trying to give it back?
"I don't want that dirty old thing," he said. "You've got it all scuffed up. I can't take it back now. Keep it."
Patch yipped for joy, hugging the instrument to his chest. "Thank you thank you thank you thank you!"
"Yeah, yeah, keep your fur on. Stupid thing belongs in a junk pile anyway. C'mon. We've gotta get back before someone misses me."
He began walking again. Patch tried to get up, stumbled, and fell. He whimpered, and Etemon looked skyward in annoyance.
"Nothing but trouble," he said. "We're never gonna get anywhere at this rate... Guess there's just one thing to do."
Much to Patch's surprise, Etemon scooped him up and slung him over his shoulder. He blinked a moment in surprise, then sighed and relaxed. Etemon began loping along again, hardly noticing the extra weight. Patch didn't weigh anything; he was sure he had guitars back home that weighed more than the little dog-creature did. It was unbelievable that he was going through so much for the sake of something so small and helpless.
"Nothing but trouble," he said again. "Why do I go through so much trouble for you, huh? Answer me that?"
But there was no answer. Smiling contentedly in his master's arms, Patch had gone to sleep.