The Ivani Chronicles : Book 1- Evacuation : Chapter 9- Affirmation

Everyone was in slumber. TK and Kari shared a loving embrace in their sleep. Patamon had perched himself above his digital companion while Gatomon slept near to the two humans. Houndramon was curled up near the fire; Filmaramon continued to provide cushion for the injured Maddie's head. Maddie, in turn, was not far from the others and next to her lay Ivan. Ivan alone was not sleeping peacefully. His experience was quite the opposite. His body writhed in his sleep, nearly awakening Maddie on several occasions. It was no physical factor that caused this, but a dream.

This dream was unlike any Ivan had ever experienced before. He had slept by Maddie's side for a long time now, and more than once her dreams found a way to him. These dreams held disturbing visions and painful memories, but none came close to the agony he experienced now. Moreover, those dreams had not related to Maddie's demise, but his. It was as if someone was targeting him, now, as a way to bring down his morale. Little did he know how right he was.

It was Jason who was targeting them, plaguing them with these dreams. Up until the present, he had targeted Maddie. Indeed, his past with her gave him a great wealth of images to send her. He then found Ivan worked to block his assault upon Maddie. Over the past year, he had done what he could to learn about Ivan's fears and weaknesses. His scouts did what they could to watch Ivan. Jason's robots that survived combat with Ivan, of which there were but a scant few, relayed what they knew. However, all the reports came the same conclusion: Ivan's fears were never shown, if he even had any. His spirit and energy were more of a barrier than any spell within his capabilities.

It was at the end of this year, yesterday to be precise, that Jason finally struck upon a weakness of Ivan's. When it finally came to him, he was amazed at how ignorant he must have been to miss it in the first place. It was Maddie. In all the battles Jason had recorded, in all the information he had gathered from his scouts, and even in what he learned from his dream attacks pointed to Maddie as Ivan's first priority. If she came to any danger, Ivan was the first to respond and protect her. With this knowledge, and the knowledge that all Ivan worked for was the safety of his friends, he knew the way of attack. He would turn the tables and show what would happen if Ivan couldn't protect his friends and, most importantly, Maddie. If his plan worked, he would be able to destroy the rest of the group and have Maddie back in his life, no longer as his girlfriend as she had been, but as his wife and slave.

Ivan's dream was indeed torture and hurtful to him. It began with a voice in his head while darkness shrouded his sight.

"You thought you could really defeat me, didn't you?" The voice said, sounding just as the one Ivan had heard in the forest a couple days ago. He wanted to reply, but he could not open his mouth. Sleeping prevented him from saying the words he felt.

However, just feeling them seemed to be enough. Whatever Ivan thought, this voice heard and responded to. With this in mind, Ivan focused on a thought to send back to the spirit in his mind.

"I have not yet faced you," Ivan responded in thought.

"It does not matter; the outcome of the battle has already been decided," replied the voice, cold and throbbing in Ivan's head.

"No battle can ever be decided by fate," Ivan thought. "It depends on the actions of the warriors, and what they decide to do. After all, each person has free will."

"How can you prove that?" The voice chided.

"I don't need to prove anything to you, or anyone," Ivan answered.

"What about your little friend there?"

"Maddie? Leave her out of this. If you challenge me, then keep the challenge with me."

"Oh, but it is already too late."

"Too late?" Ivan asked.

"This challenge is against all of you, and with you defeated, as you undoubtedly will be, each of you will fall to my power."

"You will never defeat all of us; we are stronger than anything," Ivan said in defiance.

"But only when together," the voice said in response.

"What are you talking about; we are together!"

"How can you prove that?" the voice said. "Your arm is not covering all of them. Indeed, your tossing in this argument has moved you from the one you desire most."

"Leave Maddie out of this," Ivan yelled in his mind.

"Too bad," the voice jibed. "She's a part of this whether you like it or not."

"Then I will keep her safe," Ivan responded, still defiant. "No harm will come to her so long as I'm alive."

"I bet you wish that was true," The voice said with a sneer. "But you are wrong once again. Fate has already decided your demise."

"How can you prove that? If I must prove the existence of free will, then you must produce your evidence of fate."

"Very well," said the voice, calmly, as if it had been expecting this. "Enjoy the show."

As these words echoed through Ivan's head, visions started to break through the blackness of his sight. Deep reds, grays and blues flashed through the darkness. With each flash, a metal clash or a cry rose. After a few moments, the blinking subsided, and a clearer picture came to Ivan. It was very similar to where their camp had been. The ashes were still where the fire had been, and the wall of trees still lay on their side. However, the people of the camp were no longer asleep and content.

The most obvious figure to Ivan was that of TK. He had apparently been in some kind of horrific combat. His body now lay on the ground, utterly ragged and lifeless. In his hands, still tightly gripped in a last attempt to defend himself, were the two cleaved halves of his faithful staff. Kari lay on top of him, also violently killed, with open wounds scored across her back. She had died in an attempt to protect TK's already destroyed body, it seemed. Houndramon lay against a tree in a heap, his body melded around the tree as if he had been shot into it. He, too, had numerous wounds. Filmaramon was not visible, perhaps escaped, but there was nothing that she could do to help them now. Gatomon had taken several severe wounds to her small body, as had Patamon, and both now lay on the ground. Their digital information slipped away from their wounds as both faded from vision. Ivan continued to look around the horrific scene, looking for some sign of himself or Maddie. Whatever had hit the group had been strong, but without Ivan and Maddie to protect them, they had little chance to withstand the larger robots anyways.

Then he saw Maddie. She was not lying on the ground, as the rest of the group was, but was held up by a robot. Her head hung limp, and she looked very ragged. It was impossible to tell whether she was alive or not, but Ivan had an instinctive feeling that she was still breathing. He then noticed her chest rise and fall faintly, confirming his thought. For this he gave a sigh of relief. However, what came next was perhaps worse for Maddie than death.

A few other figures stood shrouded just outside of Ivan's range of vision. One of these figures walked closer, covered in a floor-length black cloak. As he walked, the cloak swayed majestically about his feet. When he stood next to the robot holding Maddie, two arms rose out of the cloak. They pulled back the hood that had shrouded the figure's face. When the hood fell, Ivan saw no robot or drone.

Ivan saw a human within the hood. The hair, short and spiked out, gave an energetic, while somewhat dark look to the figure, accenting the evil emanating from the black cloak. His eyes were blue, but not like the same lively, cerulean eyes of Ivan. These blue eyes were cold, frozen, chipped blocks of ice. Their stare was piercing, and as they focused on Ivan, he knew that where he was looking from was where his physical body resided in the scene. As the voice had said before, he was still alive but unable to protect his beloved.

The human within the cloak, appearing to be about the same age as Ivan, let a demonic smile play across his lips. His glare swept up from Ivan to Maddie, lust coming to his eyes through the coldness. Ivan knew what would come next; his mind screamed in protest. However, the induced dream was stronger. Ivan was powerless to stop that which he had always worked to prevent. For Ivan, it felt as though all the effort he had put into stopping this made it all the more excruciating to experience.

The cloaked boy's hand stroked Maddie's face gently, trying to awaken her. Her head rose slowly after a moment, and she screamed when she saw him. He slapped her. Maddie's head fell limp once again. Ivan noticed a few tears fall onto the dirt, though the boy ignored them. Instead, he laughed. It was an evil laugh; a demonic laugh; a laugh that pierced through the soul and struck straight at the heart of the fears of all who heard it. More tears fell.

The boy then raised his hand under Maddie's chin, forcing her head up. Ivan couldn't see the boy's face since he was turned to look at Maddie, but Maddie was elevated and he could see the disgusted anguish in her eyes. The sight gave Ivan a pang unlike any other. He tried to move, to go against the will of the dream he experienced, but all that came was hallucinated pain in his limbs. He was unable to help her.

"Do not worry," the voice from before said, overlaying the events. "None of this is real just yet, so enjoy your last few moments before all that you see becomes a reality."

This brought little comfort as the action continued. The boy held Maddie's head in his hands and kissed her forcefully. She struggled against it, but he was far stronger. He let her head go, and his groping hands traveled down her body, taking pleasure in their lustful fantasies finally being fulfilled. Maddie whimpered as the boy became more aggressive. The boy stood again, having trailed all down Maddie's body, and his black cloak provided a shade to Ivan's vision. All that came now were more cries from Maddie and the resonant laughter of the boy as he continued to defile the girl. Ivan's head shouted at the boy again and again, but to no avail. No matter how hard he willed his limbs to move, they simply refused to do so.

The screams reached a climax, and then subsided. The boy turned around slowly, his cloak whirling about him. His glare again fixed on Ivan. The boy's mouth opened, and the voice in his head spoke again: "What do you think now of you so called 'Free Will?'" It challenged, mockingly. "You have seen what is to come. Accept it, and you may live to see Maddie's full use to me."

Ivan yelled out again at the boy; Ivan's defiant nature was strong. However, tears now came from his eyes. The boy started to laugh again in his sinister tone. It echoed through Ivan's head and his cries of protest quieted in the laughter's wake. Slowly, he let the words overtake him. The visions had been too much; with Maddie's life forever distorted by evil, there was no hope that she would ever be the same. So strong was the hallucination that Ivan even started to believe that it was the real thing, and that he was already defeated. He lowered his head in defeat, although he hated to accept it. He resigned to the laughter, inch by inch, as his defiance was slowly replaced by acceptance. He resigned, that is, until a great vitalizing call came to Ivan. He looked up, and saw Maddie still struggling, still fighting against the darkness about her. She yelled again, so loudly that it couldn't possibly have been from the dream. With the third, and final time she yelled, Ivan was thrown violently from his dream, back into reality. He knew one thing: nothing would keep him from fighting for what he believed in.

He believed in Maddie.

"Ivan!" Maddie, yelled, a bit of joy coming to her terrorized voice.

Ivan's eyes looked around wildly, trying to locate the source of the cry. Nearby, he saw Maddie, restrained by the same robot he had seen in his dream. His eyes flew around the camp, and he saw that all the others were likewise held. TK and Kari, held by two similar robots, were on either side of Maddie. The machines were nothing like those that they had fought on the battlefield, but rather much smaller. They did, however, hold the humans fast in their metallic grip. Another factor was the blade that was held near the necks of each human.

The digimon were also restrained, although a bit differently due to the unusual shapes of the digimon in comparison to people. Houndramon was held by his forepaws, as was Gatomon. Patamon was bound around the waist. Filmaramon was held in a single hand of a fourth robot, but was unable to transform due to a barrier spell about the metal fist. The three other digimon were each threatened by a blade at their necks, while the fist holding Filmaramon could easily crush her.

Ivan leapt to his feet, thinking as quickly as he could of a way to save his companions. None of the robots were moving currently, but could easily pull back on the swords and kill all of the captives. Ivan knew he could rescue one, maybe two of his comrades before the enemies reacted to his movements, but he couldn't sacrifice everyone for the sake of one. He had to find another way. The robots still stood silent, ominous, and ready to act at a single word. Ivan was about to move when a sound came to his ears – a laugh.

The laugh was identical to the one that had echoed through his ears in his dream. Ivan had pieced together that the voice and the boy had been one in the same, but whom it was he could not say. All Ivan knew was that the boy wanted to harm his friends and take Maddie for his own against her will. That was not something he would let happen. If this were to be like the dream, he'd show this boy what Free Will really was.

Across the ashes of the fire strode the cloaked figure. Much as it had entered in the dream, it walked with near-military fashion. As it reached the opposite point of Ivan, with the former fire as the focal point, it stopped. It raised its hands and threw back the hood of its cloak. Then, just as in the dream, the head of the boy was visible atop the black billowing pillar. The dark hair was spiked just as in the dream; the frozen blue, piercing eyes, and even the sadistic smile were perfectly replicated. Maddie gasped when she saw the boy's head.

"Jason!" She screamed. Her dreams may have included him for years, but for him to physically follow her all the way into the Digital World scared the life from her.

"Jason?" Ivan repeated. He hadn't ever been given a description before of what Maddie's ex-boyfriend looked like. He had never imagined that the boy would hold such a stature, or such a deceptive look. Indeed he was handsome externally. But, from what Maddie had said, his goodness ended abruptly at his skin.

"So, you remember me?" Jason said, turning momentarily to Maddie. "I'm surprised you do, after you left me so quickly years ago. But no matter; you won't be leaving me again for a long time."

Maddie's eyes widened in horror as Jason slowly walked towards her. She cried weakly in protest, but he ignored her. Her voice then left her as the fear of Jason's return overtook her. Jason nodded, his smile returning as he raised his hand to caress Maddie's cheek.

"Leave her alone!" a voice yelled. Jason and Maddie looked over at the source – Ivan. His sword flashed out and readied almost automatically in his grip. Jason dropped his hand.

"Well, I'm sure that sword of yours will really save her and the rest of your friends," Jason taunted. "I told you, it's all over for you now. Just sit back and watch the show."

"Never," Ivan shouted, the same defiance in his voice. "If you are a man of honor, then you will give me a fair battle. If I best you in combat, then you will give me what I wish."

"I can't make Maddie marry you, Ivan," Jason said mockingly. Maddie gasped. Ivan faltered for a moment; Jason had struck a nerve.

"Releasing my companions will be my wish," Ivan clarified. Then, with a reluctant voice, "Likewise, you may do whatever you wish if you win."

"But I already can do whatever I want," Jason said, walking slowly away from Maddie. "Don't you see, Ivan? I've already won. You and your friends were all asleep. All I needed to do was distract you, and the rest of you fell like raindrops. Now look; they're all in mortal danger, and you want to fight me for them? I think not."

"Then you fear losing?" Ivan said, letting a little amusement slip out purposefully.

"I fear no loss," Jason responded, his eyes narrowing.

"Then you have no honor?" Ivan asked calmly.

"I have honor, you lowly worm!" Jason said heatedly.

"Then prove it," Ivan called with a flourish of his blade. "Beat me, as you say you can. Strike me down where I stand. Then you will have no fear of retribution, correct?"

"How foolish you are, boy," Jason said with a sneer. "Fine, I will indulge you for a bit. That way, Maddie can watch your demise played out before her; the defeat of her white knight by the powers of darkness." Jason laughed again.

"That's what you think," Ivan said under his breath. He made eye contact with Maddie, winking and flashing a smile at her before turning back to the threat. Maddie felt a bit of comfort from this, yet she was still overwhelmed by her fear of Jason winning the battle. If that happened, her life would be in ruin.

Jason's horrific laugh subsided; his glare returned to Ivan. "Well then, prepare yourself," He said simply. His hands flew out of the folds of his cloak, wielding a great pole. At the end, the curved blade of a scythe was attached. Swinging the bladed end up and throwing his cloak over his shoulders, Jason took a ready stance with his battle scythe.

"Ready when you are," Ivan responded as he fixed the amulet around his neck carefully. Then, swiping his sword up crisply to the ready stance in fencing, and then down into a riposte position, he stood, poised to receive the onslaught of Jason.

A shriek of metal rose from the battlefield in a powerful collision. Jason, taking advantage of his weapon's superior size, swung down at Ivan. Ivan's blade was in blocking position in good time. The other end of the scythe was then swung out at Ivan's legs. He noticed it just in time, clearing the wood in a jump and kicking out at his adversary. The result threw Jason back, as well as Ivan. Ivan rolled out of the attack, ready for another bout. Jason recovered after a momentary lapse of pain in his stomach. His scythe spun around to the ready, and once again he charged at his opponent.

Another clash of steel on steel rang out. Another scythe trip attempt was made, but this time Ivan's jump wasn't quite as well timed. He landed on the scythe, throwing both Jason and Ivan off balance. Ivan took a worse throw, landing on his back. Maddie shrieked, but Ivan gave it little notice. His focus was wholly on the battle at hand. The scythe blade dove down above him. He narrowly avoided the scythe point with a decisive side roll. Instead, the scythe struck dirt. Ivan threw his weight up, leaping to his feet and brandishing his sword. Only an instant passed before steel slammed into steel again; Jason had attempted an upward swing.

Jason began a new approach; He swung with one end of his staff and then the other, not stopping at collisions. One swing came down on Ivan's right, another on his left. To avoid being hit, he moved backwards; the swings kept coming. Sidestepping to the left, right, and then the left again kept him safe momentarily. He also flicked out his sword to hinder the whirlwind of attacks where he could.

It didn't stop Jason. His scythe continued to lash out on Ivan from both sides. Only the bladed end posed a real threat, but the wooden portion would have given Jason a momentary advantage, too. As Jason gained momentum, he prepared for a piercing vertical strike. Using the force he had gathered as well as his strength, he swung the scythe up out of the whirlwind then down with unmatched speed. Unmatched, that is, except by Ivan's reflexes.

The remarkable block rang out in cold steel shrillness. Ivan took his opponent's reverberation as a point of opportunity. Driving forward with his shoulder, he checked Jason harshly. Jason was thrown back. Ivan paused to recuperate his own stamina. The journey had been so long, not to mention his restless sleep just before the battle, that he was weary. The horrible visions were weakening him as well. Maddie's torture refused to leave his mind, and while his mental capacity strived to eradicate the thought, his physical body was fighting the real opponent unaided.

Only a few seconds passed before the clash of steel echoed again. Strike after strike of metal on metal and metal on wood tore through the night air. Thrusts, parries, strokes, blocks, clashes, and clangs clouded the air with their shrill noise. The digimon, especially Houndramon, couldn't stand it. His hearing was far more acute than that of the humans. Nevertheless, despite being held captive and having their lives threatened, the three human captives could hardly focus due to the great reverberations of the two warriors' weapons. Only those in combat seemed unaffected by the incessant, crashing noises. Focus was too strong on overpowering the opponent for either to take the time to notice.

The reverberations in their hands did not seem to bother the two combatants, either. With each collision, the force was sent back through the arms of both boys. These waves of impact, however, did nothing to offset them. It seemed as though all senses were deadened, perhaps by the great prowess of the combatants, or the adrenaline that was pumping through them. Regardless, the focus on the battle seemed to be unaffected by the clashes; their features were etched in stone and their minds fixed on a single goal – victory.

Ivan back-flipped as Jason attempted a leg sweep with his scythe. He continued to pursue Ivan, but the thrust of feet kept Jason from making any attacks. Ivan returned with a thrust of his blade. Jason's scythe knocked the blade away as he countered with another stroke. Ivan spun out to the side in evasion, then swung down at Jason. Jason backpedaled from the attack, taking advantage of the scythe's range to give him breathing room. The scythe continued to fly out at Ivan; his sword met it at each coming. Thus Ivan's energy continued to wear down. Without much opportunity, Ivan could not strike back; he didn't have the energy to maintain the pace for long.

Jason noticed Ivan's lagging. With another strong horizontal stroke, he threw Ivan back. Ivan stumbled backwards, fatigue slowly taking over. His adrenaline rush was subsiding after it's greatly extended use. Jason's adrenaline may have burned out as well, but his natural energy had not been so worn from the past few days. Jason swept his blade up and brought it falling down as a final blow. Ivan's reflexes, although exhausted, were still sharp. His sword caught the vertical strike, again shocking his adversary. Maddie's life was still on the line. That thought kept Ivan's limbs from giving out completely.

"Face it, Ivan, I've won," Jason sneered, bringing more force to his scythe. It may have been blocked, but he was determined to use this attack as his last.

"You'll never defeat me so long as Hope and Light exist within me," Ivan retorted, rallying himself. Pressure was added to his arm through the scythe. It pushed down on him, making it harder to stand.

"And what light is there here?" Jason jibed. "What is there that you could possibly hope for, in the darkest hour of your life?"

"I can hope for what I've always hoped for," Ivan shouted back. More weight was applied to his sword from the scythe, pushing him back further.

Jason smiled. His cruel teeth shone out in the glinting light reflected off of his steel blade. "Maddie?" he asked. "You still hope that she cares about you? That she has feelings for you?" Jason's voice held a filthy mocking in them. Ivan's last nerve was being tested.

"No," Ivan said after a moment. He hesitated to continue from embarrassment; something in the back of his head wondered if Maddie could hear them. Nevertheless, he said what hew felt. "I already know that she cares about me. It's her love that I desire. I love Madelyn Altair, Jason. Though she may never return that, nothing will stop me from protecting her. Protecting her from people who will do her harm. People like you!"

Ivan's mind had developed a plan as he spoke, and the talk had masked it perfectly. Ivan pushed back against Jason's strength. Jason felt it, but misinterpreted it as Ivan trying to gain ground. Ivan applied the pressure for only a second, until he felt Jason equalize it. Ivan then pulled back and dropped to the ground. With the opposing force gone, Jason's force threw him forward. Ivan dove into Jason's legs, taking Jason down to the ground. Jason was sent sprawling to the ground.

The unexpected counter-attack and impact with the ground knocked Jason's scythe from his hands. He groaned as his face hit the dirt, and lay there for a moment. Then, he noticed his weapon a few feet in front of him and reached for it. However, Ivan's foot came crushing down on his hand. Jason screamed as his hand was ground into the rocky earth by Ivan's shoe.

"You won't use this weapon again, Jason," Ivan said solemnly. Then, taking careful aim with his sword, Ivan cleft the head of the scythe from the wooden stave. Although magically imbued and thought to be invulnerable, the power of Azulongmon's sword was not to be stayed by any material, magical or otherwise. Ivan lifted the metal end of the scythe, an eighteen-inch, cursed blade. Ivan thrust the tip into the ground, and then pushed it deep into the earth with his foot. Once secure with the idea that the blade could not be removed without significant effort, he turned back to Jason, finally lifting his foot from Jason's broken hand.

"Now," Ivan said, panting. "The battle is over; you have been defeated. Give me what you promised."

Jason started to laugh again. "But you have not come close to defeating me, Ivan," he responded sharply.

Jason leapt to his feet then, throwing his cape to the ground. This revealed a small amulet around Jason's neck, much a mirror image of Ivan or Maddie's. However, this amulet resonated no bright, pastel color; it seemed instead to absorb all color around it.

"You aren't the only dragoons, Ivan," Jason said slowly, taking the amulet in his grasp. He then recited a phrase, inaudible to Ivan, but very similar to the muttered verse of his own transformation.

Jason disappeared in a ball of darkness. The black sphere shrouded the transformation of Jason into his avatar. When the darkness receded and Ivan could see in front of him again, he beheld what was easily the fear of all four dragoons: a dragoon battle suit, fighting not for the side of Light, but for the powers of Darkness.

The armor resembled that of the Dragoons of Light. Shape, however, was where the resemblance stopped. The colors were far twisted from their bright, pastel colors on Ivani, or even the vivid and fiery colors of Madina. These colors were mute and dark, deep reds accenting the gray and black base colors. Also apparent were the spiked shoulders, unlike the smooth plating on Ivani. The arm slot was similar, although it had a far more vicious exterior; it was covered in small spines. Finally, the dragoon unsheathed its combat weapon: a long Kris. The bladed swerved back and forth, glinting at each curve with a dark energy. With a flourish, he called out to the shocked companions.

"As you can see, it is not only those digimon of Light who retain the power of dragoons. Their opposition also has access to these great avatars of battle. Now, Ivan, you have won the first round. Come, and find our defeat in the second." Jason pointed his blade directly at Ivan. "Transform now and hope to protect yourself momentarily, or feel the wrath of my superior dark energy upon your bare body. The choice is yours. Decide quickly, for 'Doom Splitter,'" -he gestured to the Kris- "has a tendency to be impatient."

Ivan gave no verbal response, but his hand snapped to his amulet in military crispness. He whispered his verse of calling to the jewel he held, and it responded instantly to his voice. Light poured from the amulet, making all look away, save Jason, who had a visor so dark it was herd to tell if he could see at all. As the light passed away a moment later, Ivani stood in Ivan's place, battle stance assumed.

"Let round two begin," Ivan said, ejecting his blade and catching it only just in time.

Jason charged at Ivani with his full force, thrusting out with is wicked blade. Such would have had terrible consequences, had Ivani not readied his sword and parried the charge, dashing out to the left as he did so. His arm cannon engaged at a thought, and Ivan spun back on Jason. "Ivani Cannon!" he yelled out, firing a barrage of shells at Jason's moving figure. The shards of energy never struck the vile dragoon, however; most landed in the ground behind him as Jason flew out into the darkness. Ivani then noticed Jason had turned around. Even in the darkness, Ivani could locate and track his opponent with ease. He also noticed a barrage of energy shells rushing towards him.

Ivani was still near the fire and therefore his friends. Dodging a ranged attack could end up with the rounds of energy hitting one of his friends rather than striking the ground. Ivani's reflexes were thanked for the save; the dragoon called up a shield just as the energy shells were slamming into him. Most were absorbed, and the few that got through caused no serious damage. Ivani knew that continuing the battle here would be very dangerous. Taking a moment to check his opponent's maneuvers, Ivani generated a great protective shield about his friends, first ensuring that no harmful attacks would pass through it, then boosting the duration of the shield to keep his companions, especially his beloved, safe for the length of combat.

"I hope you don't intend on hiding behind the shield of a coward, Ivan," Jason yelled out. "I always took you as a man of honor, not one of fear. Come; fulfill your challenge or forfeit this battle!"

Ivani responded instantly. He was not about to take any insults from his opponent when he Jason already bested him once. Ivani launched himself upward, taking careful aim and usage of his enemy's temporary halt as his arm charged with energy. "Ivani Vulcan!" he yelled, releasing the stored energy in a large ball of explosive power. Jason noticed the attack, although he had missed Ivani's movement, and did his best to thrust backwards from the attack. The explosion of the energy ball still affected Jason, however, surging his systems with heat.

Ivan came to a graceful landing where his attack had collided with the ground. "I am a man of honor, Jason," Ivan said slowly. "Perhaps you forget that the first and foremost priority of a 'man of honor' is to protect those in need, especially those that he loves." With a quick glance over his shoulder at the stunned group, namely Maddie, he turned back to his opponent. "Now then, perhaps you can improve your aim and keep the battle between us. Do not draw those unable to protect themselves into combat." Ivan then raised his left arm. "Ivani Cannon!"

"Hades Cannon!" came a return call from Jason. Ivan heard the words and felt instinctively that it was a bad omen. Keeping his arm steady on his target, Ivani dashed to the right. Jason followed suit, aiming his own, spiked arm cannon at Ivani. The white energy shards fell short or long of their target, the distortion of movement keeping Ivani from making a hit. Likewise, Jason's return fire, black energy balls that resembled a tainted "Ivani cannon," never quite struck the Dragoon of Hope and Light. "Hades Cannon!" Jason called out, releasing another great wave of dark energy at Ivani.

"Ivani Cannon!" Ivani returned, firing off another barrage of his own weaponry. The two Dragoons continued to duel at long range, but only a scant few shells ever struck their intended target. The few scored hits did little to affect the dragoons, as their armor was made to withstand a great amount of damage. Instead, mere scorch marks on the plated exoskeletons were all that recorded where attacks had been successful.

After another few moments of attempted attacks, Ivani and Jason both came to the conclusion that wearing down their opponent at long range was, on the whole, ineffective. Ivani knew Jason's rested body could continue longer, but if he gave in and charged Jason, he would most likely take serious damage from ranged fire before he got close enough to fight back.

Jason, on the other hand, knew he had the superior stamina. It was his impatience that wished for a quicker end. He, too, knew that a charge would be costly; his first was lucky as he caught Ivani when he wasn't quite ready. Now, with the spread, he would be open to take severe return fire if he made an attempt at engaging in close combat.

Ivani was first to change the pattern of combat. He aimed his arm ahead of Jason while still keeping his eyes on him. His arm cannon charged, and with a yell of, "Ivani Vulcan!" Jason found himself diving directly into a large burst of energy. He evaded that Vulcan partially again, but the ballistics were so accurate that Jason did take external damage. Jason slammed into the ground, and then bounced back into the air. Ivani charged his cannon to release another attack, but heard a call come from the other side of the field.

"Infernal Vulcan!" A black form rushed at Ivani, highlighted in deep reds. Ivani's reflexes allowed him to reverse thrust and release his somewhat-charged attack at the same time. The two energy balls collided, the one of darkness ultimately winning out. Luckily for Ivani, the shell was weakened to the point of infectivity.

With Ivani's reversed thrust, he circled over to where he had last seen Jason. It took him a moment, but Jason was located soon enough. His arm cannon was still set on Ivani, and another "Infernal Vulcan," attack was about to bear down on Ivani. This time, Ivani held fast against the oncoming attack. His sword was readied from its loose grip in Ivani's right hand, and with a deft stroke, the energy ball of darkness was cleft in two by the might of the enchanted saber.

Jason stopped short when he saw his attack cleft into nothingness. "Cursed sword," he whispered under his breath. "Not bad, Ivan," Jason called out after a second. "Now, try on my real power!" Jason re-engaged his thrusters, launching back on his path. Ivani gave chase, holding back to allow time for evasion but close enough to reciprocate fire. Jason charged his Kris rather than his cannon this time. The black energies swirled about the weapon, highlighted by deep purples. Then, with a quick pivotal movement, Jason released his attack upon Ivani.

"Hades Drive!" Jason yelled, brandishing his glowing, curved blade. Then with an adroit down-stroke, the energy was shot as if from a cannon. However, this energy was likened to that of a thrust attack, bolting out at Ivani.

Ivani had been preparing his own attack as he chased. With skillful timing, he countered Jason's attack. He called, "Ivani Slash!" and released a great vertical beam of white light. The two forces collided in a burst of color and sound, the reverberations shaking both combatants. There was only a flash of calm before Jason struck out once again, planning a new attack.

Ivani launched off in pursuit, doing his best to keep his sights on Jason while charging for another attack. He knew time was running short; fatigue was returning to him. The dragoon armor gave Ivan a great boost of energy, but it wasn't enough to keep up such a grueling battle for long. His adrenaline was also engaged, but it was only able to last for perhaps fifteen minutes before it was re-exhausted. With that now on a dramatic decrease, along with the dragoon's reserves depleting quickly, Ivani couldn't hope to continue combat for long.

Jason whirled around once again. "Demon's Spiral!" Jason called out, swinging his sword around in a cyclone attack. With each rotation, a wave of dark energy was thrown at Ivani. "Ivani Beam!" was the return call, and with the words Ivani let out a great horizontal stroke. From the tip of the sword white energy exploded, rushing forward at the intended target of Jason. The wave of energy cleft through the first part of the cyclone, and the second. With each wave the light weakened, and its length dwindled. In the end, all of the darkness energy was overrun, but the remaining force from Ivani was only enough to barely reach Jason, let alone cause damage.

Jason watched his opponent, noticing the fatigue. After Ivani had sent his attack, he held his ground rather than dodging away to avoid damage. Such conservation would cost him, as Jason was only just breaking a sweat from the battle. "A few more long range attacks," he said to himself, "and he'll be worn down enough to bowl over in close combat." With that he launched himself once again into the night.

"I can't keep up this long range battle," Ivan said to himself. "I need a new tactic. The question is, what? Charging would be costly since he'd get an attack of opportunity. Defense would only wear me down further. I could use my remaining energy for a power strike, but at this point, it'd be rather useless. I couldn't guarantee accuracy. Maybe if I can get him distracted, that would allow for a more successful charge. I'd only get a short amount of time in close combat before my energy's gone, but it's probably my best bet." The thoughts raced through Ivan's head as his sensors kept Jason's locale pinpointed. With a plan forming, he started up his thrusters again, slowly following Jason's dragoon.

"Getting tired?" Jason yelled out to Ivani. "I can slow down if you like. I don't want to embarrass you in front of your girlfriend so much right before you die." Jason laughed again, his piercing laugh striking Ivani as powerfully as any weapon. However, the recoil inspired was even greater.

Jason, amused at his own cruelty, slowed down. His haughty feelings gave him more confidence in him, and he waited for his opponent. Ivani noticed his change in movement, and threw his plan into action. As he was still out of visual range, Ivani took the opportunity to charge his sword once again. He slowed behind a small patch of trees and waited for his opponent to turn around. Jason, having lost sight of Ivani and noticing that the path he had flown was empty, spun around. Ivani could have swerved off the path for a surprise attack.

"Infernal Cannon!" he yelled out suddenly, blasting a patch of trees into ash. "Ivan, where are you?" Jason growled. "Come, and show me this honor that you spoke so highly of! Maddie would be very disappointed to know what a coward you were in battle."

With that, Ivani's thrusters shot Ivani sideways, strafing him out behind Jason. "Ivani Slash!" he yelled at Jason's unsuspecting back. With a strong down-stroke, Ivani released a great wave of energy at Jason, who was only just turning around.

Jason barely managed to deflect the oncoming attack with his Kris, and even so was thrown back and damaged. His problems had only just begun, however. With his momentary distraction and block, Ivani had driven in on the distance between him and the Dragoon of Darkness.

As the light of the attack faded, Jason looked to see Ivani's blade swing out at him. With lightning reflexes, Jason's Kris connected with Ivan's blade, and in another instant the two struck again. Again and again, the blades struck, releasing clashes of noise and flashes of light at intense velocity. After a moment, both broke away to recover. Close combat with dragoon-enhanced reflexes was both a brilliant spectacle and an exhausting ordeal.

After an instant of recovery, Ivani charged back at Jason. He struck out high, then low, then towards the torso. High, low, low, center, low, high. Vertical swipes were intertwined with the horizontal. Parries also chimed in as Jason fought back with his vicious blade. High, high, center, low, parry, left, right, center, parry. Ivani's adrenaline surged, knowing that this was the moment of decision. All that he had worked for now balanced on this battle.

"You really think that you can beat me like this?" Jason yelled over the clashes of metal ringing through the air. "Look at you; you're nearly exhausted. This is your last desperate attempt at victory, and I've still got enough energy to fight all night. You have fought with some little honor here; give it up!" Jason brought a powerful down-stroke on Ivani, which Ivani caught on his own blade. Again, the two were pitted in a struggle for dominance over the other. Jason's voice then dropped to a whisper, "I'll let Maddie know how you really felt about her. How you wanted to treat her just as I did in your dream. Well, I'll tell her after I've made her mine. What a pity you won't be there to see our glorious unification through that ritual of humanity. Imagine your dream. Imagine that over and over again. Don't worry about Maddie, Ivan. She'll lose her will to resist after a short while. Then it will just be the two us, together, with no hindrances; no one will stop me. No one, Ivan; not even you." Again Jason's demonic laugh echoed through the woods.

Whether it was the effect he desired or not, Jason did get a reaction. Ivan, remembering the dream, found renewed energy. "There's no way I'll allow you to do that to my angel, Jason," Ivan roared. Jason had dominated the struggle for power up until this point, but Ivan's energy rebound brought more strength to his aid. Another amazing phenomenon also occurred: Ivani started to glow. Currently, it wasn't too noticeable.

"What's this?" Jason chided, "She's your angel now? She seems to be doing a great job of keeping you out of danger here." Jason's laugh came again.

"She's doing more than you know," Ivan said, his voice dropping dramatically. His glow became a bit stronger. "You can do all you'd like to try and corrupt her, conform her, but you'll never succeed. No one shall ever break the spirit of my angel, of my beloved." The armor's glow continued to grow. Jason's laugh was muted as he lost a bit more ground to Ivani. "There's more than one way to be with somebody, Jason. You can choose your way of deceit and dominance. However, keep this in mind: What joy can there be if both members of a relationship are not happy with it? Relationships are built on mutual love, not lust and power. Lust and power are easily corrupted and distorted, and therefore cause hurt. You may find that you will enjoy what you plan to do to my angel, but it will never be the same for you." Ivani's glow increased even further. "Your life will always be incomplete, and though you'll strive to fill that void, you'll never find that missing piece. Hatred can only spawn hatred, and soon you will find yourself against a new enemy.

"The enemy's coming for you, Jason. He's your twin. He has your lust, your desires, your hatred, and he'll take everything from you as you crawl into the dark. The cycle of hatred will then turn and turn, until no joy is left; only a few fragments of happiness will lie scattered and twisted throughout the world. They'll die, too, Jason." The light of Ivani's armor increased, piercing Jason's visor and blinding him.

"I won't let that happen, Jason. I will oppose this hatred that threatens our world, and the next, for as long as I can. I have chosen a different path of life from you. I choose to let Maddie decide whom she wishes to spend her life with. If she does not choose for herself, then she will never be able to spread joy to those she meets." The brilliance of Ivani's armor was now plunging through Jason's eyes, straight to his brain.

"I fight for what I believe in," Ivan stated, his voice sonorous and forceful. "I believe in the Hope and Light of this world. Moreover, I believe in Maddie." With a ringing explosion, the light of Ivani's armor was absorbed into the holy saber of Azulongmon. Ivani kicked Jason, thrusting him to the ground. Then, raising the sacred blade high above his head, Ivan yelled out his most potent attack.

"Ivani Stryke!" With the yell, Ivani jumped into the air and brought the blade down with surreal speed. However, he didn't stop there; swinging up, then to the side, then across, and then down again, the sword swung over and over. With each stroke, a greater beam of energy was released. This web-like structure of unsurpassed brilliance drove down upon Jason with unmatched fury. The armor of Jason's dragoon was cleft, blasted to the sides, and laid smoldering on the ground. The armor was shredded from Jason's body, while Jason himself suffered little from the overall attack.

Ivani's attack concluded with a mighty horizontal strike, chopping the helmet from Jason's head, and a thrust higher into the air. Then, bringing his great sword above his head again, Ivani hurled it down at Jason as if it were a tomahawk. The blade, glowing with an intense white and blue light, bore down on Jason. It left a streak of white light in its wake. Finally, the saber struck its target – Jason's Kris.

With a crack of thunder, the Kris was shattered. The shards of the cursed dagger fragmented and fell to the earth. All that remained intact was the hilt, with the Blade of Azulongmon driven into the ground where the blade had been, to its own hilt.

Jason lay, paralyzed in terror, as Ivani descended and reverted to his human form. Ivan then walked over to his sacred sword and drew it from its earthy sheath. With a flourish, Ivan brought the tip of the holy saber to Jason's throat. A flick of the wrist severed the chain of Jason's amulet, sending it rolling to the side. Bringing the blade back to Jason's neck, Ivan spoke. "You have been defeated, Jason."

After a moment, Ivan turned to the grove where the camp resided, some 20 feet off. He yelled out to the robots, "Your leader has been defeated in the theatre of war. By terms of the duel, I request that you, his minions, release my companions at once. Otherwise, your master shall be put to the eternal tortures of his crimes."

The robots didn't move at first. Then, in unison, they turned to face Ivan. Ivan stood, staring at them, his blade held steady above Jason's neck. His breathing was heavy, and he felt his energy slipping like water through a drain. He summoned up what little he could keep to hold his stance, holding his stature over his opponent and his minions. Then, in another unison maneuver, the arms of the robots were both sent out to the sides, dropping all that they held. The swords fell and clattered on the ground and the captives fell as well, completely unprepared for the drop. They scrambled to their feet, quickly huddling together and backing away from the robots.

"Thank you," Ivan called to them. "Now, reclaim your fallen leader and let your knowledge of what has taken place here give you some insight." With that, Ivan brought his blade around in a graceful maneuver, sheathing it an instant later. He then took a few steps back from Jason, who was still paralyzed with fright of what had just taken place. The robots then walked forward, marching together in perfect time. The front robot, the one that had held Maddie, grasped its fallen master and led the troop away. After a few more steps, the senior robot engaged its jets and took off into the night, the others following suit.

As the light of the robots' thrusters faded into the night, Ivan's energy left him completely. All his adrenaline, his energy reserves, his stamina, and even the surplus that Ivani provided had left his body now. Ivan swooned, and then collapsed to his knees. His breathing redoubled as he strived to bring oxygen to his muscles. The aches of battle swept over him, and he winced. His vision felt uneasy, and he felt as if he were about to pass out.

Then he heard something. He tried to figure out what it was. Straining to lift his head, Ivan saw a blurry figure moving towards him. His judgment was gone, so he couldn't tell how fast it was moving.

Suddenly, a pair of arms wrapped themselves around Ivan. Though they hadn't brought much force, Ivan still managed to be knocked over from it. Words spilled out of the figure to Ivan, and his recognition slowly returned. They were friendly words; they were words of a friend. He blinked his eyes a few times, and his vision was slowly restored to its former abilities. He looked down at who had tackled him and saw a girl, with beautiful brown hair and lighter, blond highlights.

Her arms held Ivan tightly, and he noticed her body was shaking. Ivan listened more, and noticed that she wasn't saying just anything friendly. They were words he'd wanted to hear for years, especially from this person. He also noticed that her words were interrupted by sobs and sniffles. Instinctively, Ivan's arms returned the embrace to his angel, his beloved. Her crying slowed, and she looked up at Ivan's face.

"I'm alright, Maddie," Ivan whispered softly to her. "I love you, too, darling."

Maddie stared for a few seconds, her mouth grinning more and more. "Really?" she sniffed.

"More than anything," Ivan responded gently, squeezing his arms around her.

She held her smile for a moment, then her tears returned to rack her body. She buried her head in Ivan's chest, pulling him tighter to herself. However, they were no longer just tears of fear or pain. They tears were tears of joy and heartfelt love as well.

"Shhh," Ivan said softly to Maddie, caressing her back with his hands. "It's alright, Maddie; everything's gonna be fine. Everything's gonna be fine." Ivan then brought his lips down, kissing the top of Maddie's head softly. He continued to gently massage the girl as her crying slowly quieted and eventually subsided. Ivan was curious as to what the rest of the group was doing, but his own incredible exhaustion, as well as the fact that he was pinned down by Maddie, left him with little option.

As Maddie came back to herself, she looked again at Ivan's face. "I love you, too, Ivan," she said almost inaudibly. Hesitantly, she moved herself up on Ivan a bit. She stared down at him, and although there was little light, her dangling amulet gave her enough to see the beautiful cerulean blue of her beloved's eyes. Ivan looked back at Maddie, losing himself in her deep brown eyes. Slowly, without even noticing it, their eyelids slid shut as their lips met. Simple and short, yet no less profound, Maddie and Ivan shared their first kiss. Maddie broke away after a moment. However, that moment had been the most enjoyable moment in either of their lives. Maddie's smile returned, and was mirrored by Ivan.

Ivan's hand gently slipped from Maddie's back to her hand. Intertwining his fingers in hers, he gave her hand a gentle squeeze. Maddie returned it. Ivan's other hand moved up, brushing Maddie's hair back gently. Ivan didn't want the moment to ever leave.

However, his exhaustion was still all about him. Maddie noticed it and said, "I ought to let you sleep, darling; you look absolutely exhausted." Ivan nodded weakly, his hand brushing her hair back again. She pressed her cheek into his hand, and then added, "We can continue this in the morning, okay?" Again he nodded, although Ivan was reluctant to accept the terms.

Maddie brought her lips to his once again, mirroring the ecstatic emotions of their first kiss. Maddie, again, was the one to pull away. "Goodnight, Ivan," she whispered to him sweetly.

"Goodnight, Maddie," Ivan mumbled. Maddie moved herself back a bit, once again resting her head on Ivan's chest. Her right hand was still wrapped about Ivan, while her left was intertwined in Ivan's right. Ivan's left arm returned to its place about Maddie, holding her close. Then, his resistance finally collapsing, Ivan was overwhelmed by sleep. It took only an instant for his dreams to take him once again. However, he had no fear of his dreams, or of Maddie's; the evil conspirator had been vanquished from their lives, bringing the two together like never before.

Ivan felt his eyes open. Time and place, along with most of the rest of his memory, was evading him. He looked about, trying to get his eyes to focus. A few trees came into view; a brilliant blue sky hung overhead. The sun held high in the span of blue, complimented by the green field on which he lay. Ivan also noticed several parts of his body were rather sore. His arms, legs, and back had all been pushed beyond their limits in the course of the night, the memories of which were now slowly returning.

Ivan tried to stretch his tired and sore limbs, but found that he couldn't. He looked to his body in confusion. Maddie was asleep, her head resting on his chest. Ivan lay back, laughing lightly to himself as he remembered the events of the night that had followed the combat. He relaxed, not wanting to wake Maddie just yet. He did, however, bring his left arm back about Maddie; it had slipped to the side over the course of the night. Holding Maddie gently to himself, Ivan patiently awaited the awakening of his beloved.

A few moments later, his wait ended with a quiet sigh, followed by the ruffling of cloth as Maddie's body came to consciousness. Her body tensed and loosened, stretching out her muscles. Her head slowly lifted from Ivan's chest, and her sleepy eyes met Ivan's.

"Good morning, Maddie," Ivan said softly, sweetly to the girl. His hand moved from her back to her cheek, gently brushing her disheveled hair out of her eyes as he did so. However unkempt Maddie was, Ivan was completely oblivious; at that point he had never known a more lovely sight. Ivan leaned up, and brought his lips to Maddie's in a soft, morning kiss.

"Mmm. Good morning," Maddie said as Ivan returned to his horizontal position. "Did you sleep well?" She asked, lowering her head back down onto Ivan while still doing her best to keep eye contact.

"Never was there a night that I slept better," Ivan replied. His left hand began to idly run through Maddie's hair, admiring its great beauty. "And how about yourself, darling?"

Maddie giggled. "I'd say it was just about the nicest night of my life, too," she said, giving Ivan's hand a squeeze and moving a little closer to Ivan. Her hand felt Ivan's give a return squeeze, making her smile inwardly.

The two lay there for several minutes, doing little more than enjoying one another's company. No words were exchanged, but none were needed. All that needed to be said was passed through their actions. It was a position Maddie never wanted to leave. Ivan's hand in hers, his other caressing her, and his body underneath to hers was more than any dream or fantasy had ever brought to mind.

Similarly, Ivan was certain he would be comfortable in the position for all eternity. With one hand in Maddie's, the other dancing through her hair, and her body snuggled against his own, nothing in all his history compared to the emotions of the moment. However, the combination of a sudden pang of hunger, a sudden glare of sun peaking out from behind a tree, and the introduction of a wet muzzle to his face was enough to get Ivan moving.

"Houndramon?" Ivan asked, looking up at the owner of the muzzle. It was indeed Houndramon, with a most curious look on his face. Maddie looked up at Ivan's word, seeing the dog-digimon as well.

"Oh, so you two are awake," Houndramon said. "We were starting to wonder about you two. Would you mind explaining why Maddie is sleeping on top of you, Ivan?" Houndramon's eyes glittered; he was no fool when it came to the emotions of his companion. However, his words had the desired effect, as it dawned on the new couple that the remaining six of the coterie was nearby. Quickly, the two broke apart, thoroughly embarrassed, and sat up.

"It just kinda happened that way, buddy," Ivan said to Houndramon, who was suddenly facing a great fit of laughter that he strained to suppress. "I was so tired, as was Maddie. I guess we just weren't thinking is all, and that happened."

"Not bad for an impromptu response," Houndramon commented. "But I'm afraid you may have to do a bit more to convince us of such." Then, bringing his mouth next to Ivan's ear, he whispered, "kissing her good morning, and then playing with her hair is a bit of a give-a-way, I'm afraid." Houndramon pulled back, returning to the rest of the group with a smug smile on his face, leaving Ivan in a deadly state of embarrassment.

"Well, we ought to go get this over with," Maddie said after a moment, moving over next to Ivan. Ivan looked up, losing himself in his beloved's stunning brown eyes once again. He nodded in response then stood up, offering his hand to Maddie to help her up. She accepted, jumping up next to him.

Maddie took a deep breath as she looked off at the others, who were sitting together in what seemed to be some light conversation as Houndramon returned to join the five. "Are you ready?" she asked Ivan, adjusting her hand to grasp his better.

"As ready as I'll ever be," Ivan said after a moment. Quickly he added, "I would like to ask one thing first, though." Maddie gave him a quizzical look. "Well, I was just wondering if we'd be able to do that again sometime," Ivan instinctively braced himself for the worst.

"Of course, silly," she responded. She squeezed his hand as she continued, "I wouldn't want it any other way. What do you say to reconvening tonight?" She smiled up at Ivan, a smile mirrored instantly. He pressed his palm against hers.

"Sounds perfect," Ivan said. Then, turning to look at the others, he led Maddie over to them. The attention of the six turned to the dragoons as they came closer, eager to hear their explanation.

TK and Kari sat on the ground, arms around one another, with Kari's head resting on TK's shoulder. Gatomon and Patamon lay at their respective partner's sides. Filmaramon and Houndramon sat a bit apart, talking with the Digidestend and their digimon. Ivan and Maddie stepped to a point behind their digimon, facing the four that they were escorting. Taking a deep breath, and giving a glance to Maddie, Ivan began his address.

"Well guys, we're at the end of our road here," Ivan said. With his free hand, he gestured off in the opposite direction of the forest. "Only a few miles in that direction is Secondary Village. I know you're all tired and your legs are quite worn out, but this is the last real push of the journey. Moreover, I believe that after last night's confrontation, we'll have no opposition from our mechanical adversaries.

"Another thing I'd like to address for you is this," Ivan raised his hand that held Maddie's before the group, showing the bond of the two. Another deep breath, and Ivan continued. "After the battle last night, Maddie and I talked for a while, and based on how we feel about one another, we've decided to give a relationship beyond friends a shot."

Ivan braced for whatever was to come. However, all that came was a round of applause. Ivan glanced again at Maddie, and she nodded, smiling. Ivan then looked at their small group of friends, laughed, and took a bow; Maddie followed in suit. Kari whistled, causing TK to smirk. In a moment, the true humor of the moment carried through them all. Ivan and Maddie were by far the most relieved; their relationship had been taken better than they could have hoped for.

"Alright, I suppose we ought to get some food in us, and take off for yonder hill, then," Ivan concluded. A chorus of nods gave the assent of the group. Ivan went to prepare breakfast, swiping the duffel bag and unpacking it to make their morning meal. Maddie sat down with Houndramon and Filmaramon, joining in the conversation. A fire crackled up behind them after a short time, a sign that Ivan's meal was well under way. "Hey, Houndramon!" Ivan called suddenly. Houndramon rose and padded over to Ivan.

"What's up?" he asked, looking over Ivan's shoulder. "Do you need something?"

"Yeah, I'm running low on water," Ivan responded, taking a pail from the bag. "Would you mind getting that filled?"

"No problem," Houndramon replied before bounding off towards the river, the pail's handle clenched in his mouth.

Ivan looked after him for a while before returning to his cooking. This breakfast was probably to be their last, and he did what he could to make it special. He had set aside a spare few food items for the last day, and for breakfast he brought out the choice remnants of their bread and a few Worgallium eggs. From experience, he had found them to be the best tasting of the eggs and, moreover, Maddie's favorite. They were not easy to find, so what could be recovered was saved and prized. However, such an occasion Ivan felt needed their special touch.

Houndramon returned a minute later with the requested water. Ivan thanked him and told him the meal was nearly done. Houndramon went to tell the others and rejoined the talk. Ivan returned focus to his preparations, adding the water to the mixture he had invented as a side to Worgallium eggs. It took only another moment for the eggs to cook over his makeshift fire. Then, adding his finishing garnish to each of the dishes, Ivan hailed the group to breakfast.

"Let's eat, people!" Ivan called. "We've still got ground to cover, and we need to cover it in one day. Otherwise, we may end up losing our timely edge. Jason won't take long to recover and if he can, he's gonna come after us and hit with all he's got. Once wasn't easy, but twice may be a bit beyond me."

As he spoke, the group assembled around the fire, taking their respective dishes of food. Maddie took a seat next to Ivan, resting her leg against his. Ivan smiled at her, putting his arm around her as he laid his plate in his lap; he used his free hand to eat. TK took up his plate and led Kari to a spot across from the dragoons. He sat down with Kari, in much the same position as Ivan and Maddie. The digimon each shared with their human companions since they had more than enough.

Maddie took a bite of the eggs, and realized what it was. "Oh, Ivan; my favorite," she whispered with a giggle. Ivan smiled back at her.

"Anything to please you, darling," Ivan responded. Maddie laughed then put her plate in her lap and returned his half-embrace.

"You're so cute," she said, tugging closer to him.

They continued to eat, mostly in silence. After a moment, TK leaned down to Kari's ear and whispered, "A pretty cute couple, aren't they?" He gestured at the two across from them.

Kari nodded. "Yeah, even if the heights are a bit unusual. Not that it's a problem; I know they're far too far in love to care about physical appearances. They've worked around it pretty well so far."

"It's always important to have flexibility," TK agreed. Continuing, he said, "they are really in love; it's cool to see the two of them finally realize what they've got. I'm just glad we realized what we have, too," As he said this, TK pulled Kari a little closer to himself.

"Me too," Kari said in return. "I don't think there's ever been a more meaningful week in my life. Being here with you, meeting new people, going on a crazy adventure, and us like this. It seems like a dream."

"It's as real as it can be," TK said. "And there's nowhere else in the world that I'd rather be than here with you." TK was silent for a minute, as if thinking. He then started up again, in a much lighter tone, "Just so long as food's gonna be there, I'll follow you to the ends of the Earth and beyond."

Kari laughed, giving him a gentle shove. "You and your food," she sighed, giggling. She then rested her head on his shoulder, bringing her arm back around TK. "But just so you know," she added, "I'll be just as glad to be with you that whole time, and then a forever or two after that."

TK's grip tightened on Kari. He rested his head on hers, gently rocking her back and forth. He smiled inwardly. The setting was gorgeous in his eyes: the forest, lush and green, the sky, a warm, light blue sheet spanning above them, the trees, dotting the verdant fields with brown trunks and green foliage, and the sun, throwing down brilliant beams of light on all to see, as well as making a glowing yellow icon in the mass of blue. All of it came to TK and brought an amazing calm over his mind. Then he looked down at the girl next to him, the girl who loved him more than he could have ever imagined: Her short brown hair, framing her face in beauty and giving off an exquisite fragrance, her face, bright and alive with the life and love flowing through her, her body, beautiful and agile, surging with her inner strength, and her personality, making her very essence glow with a warming aura. Each of these aspects ran through TK's head, bringing a surge of emotion to his heart and destroying all desire of his life other than to stay with the girl next to him for all eternity; it was a desire stronger than that of even the Lotus Eaters' prized delicacy.

"Hey, you two, I think we're getting ready to go." TK looked up, seeing Patamon flying next to his head. The digimon pointed over at Ivan and Maddie, who were now washing their dishes with the remaining water Houndramon had gathered. TK nodded to Patamon, then turned his attention back to Kari.

"Are you ready?" he asked. "We're going home now; just a few more hours. And even though that means we have to go back to our respective houses, we'll still be there for each other every day." as he spoke, TK raised himself and Kari to their feet. When he finished, he made eye contact with Kari, holding it for a minute. Then, speaking softly as not to ruin the mood, he said, "I love you, Kari, and I can't wait to see what will come. It doesn't matter whether it's good or bad, but rather that we endure it, make the most of it, and never lose Hope."

Kari smiled back at him. "I know," she said gently. "I love you too, TK, and I'm more than ready to face whatever comes our way. I don't ever want to lose Hope; he's just too important to me," TK realized that Kari meant him as Hope, giving him yet another warming surge of affection.

"Hope isn't turning tail anytime soon, but I certainly don't want to lose Light, either," TK returned slyly. "She's beyond comparison, and I'd surely be lost without her." Kari looked at TK for a minute before nearly tackling him to the ground in a passionate embrace.

"You won't lose her," Kari said softly, pressing her head against his neck. "Light won't ever leave you so long as she has the power to stay with you." TK's arms wrapped around Kari, now having recovered from the suddenness of her action. He then placed a gentle kiss on the top of her head.

Another few seconds passed, and the two loosened their grip. Nodding with silent affirmation, they went to help Ivan and Maddie clean up their dishes and get on their way home.

It took them only a few minutes more to break camp. Ivan extinguished the fire with the last bit of water and threw the bucket in the duffel bag. With all the instruments collected, Ivan zipped up the bag and slung it over his shoulder, such that it hung down on his left side. Then, in affirmation of all that he had gone through over the past evening with Maddie, he held out his right hand to her. She gladly accepted it, intertwining her fingers in his. Ivan then pointed out the direction they were going with his left hand, and called out to the group. "Alright, it's the last leg of the journey! Let's get it over and done with. No breaks, considering how late our breakfast went. I hope you guys made the most of our rest time; now it's crunch time. By nightfall, you two will be back in the Real World."

TK and Kari, who were also holding hands, nodded in assent. The group then took off with a bounce in their steps and songs in their hearts; they knew the dangers and fear of the forest was being left in the past while the joys and love of each other was now enveloping them.

"Quite a change from the normal pace, isn't it?" Ivan whispered to Maddie, his hand gently swinging back and forth with hers. His eyes scanned over the others for a moment before returning to his prime place of interest – the girl walking alongside him. Houndramon was still holding true to his task as a guide and scout for the others, running about at the front of the group, but was now much more relaxed in his duties. Filmaramon had taken up the appearance of a dog-digimon as well and was padding along with Houndramon at the lead. The two spoke, but no one else could hear them due to the distance. TK and Kari, now with their arms around the other's neck, walked along slowly a few feet to the side of Maddie, whispering to one another. Gatomon walked a few feet ahead of them, while Patamon flew a short distance above the feline digimon. They were relatively quiet, and acted more to enjoy the rejuvenating freedom of the rolling hills and bright sunlight.

"It's a good change," Maddie said in return, looking up at her beloved. "None of that tension or danger or fear; I can finally sleep without nightmares." She gave Ivan's hand a squeeze as she continued, "I'll never have those horrid visions again, thanks to you, Ivan. Thank you."

Ivan could feel his heart ache after Maddie's little speech. It wasn't all too special, but anything from the angel beside him made Ivan's heart burst with emotion. He squeezed her hand in return. "You're welcome," he said softly, "I'll always be here for you to make sure that those dreams don't come back again."

Maddie's heart, too, underwent great pain, making her whole body feel tingly and alive. She rested her head on Ivan's shoulder, gripping his hand in both of hers and pulling it to her chest. "Thank you so much, Ivan," she whispered.

"You're very welcome, Maddie," he whispered back, refraining from laughing at the repetition. He then brought his other hand to hers, switched them, and then slipped his other hand around Maddie's shoulders, holding her close. "I love you, Maddie," Ivan continued, placing a soft kiss on her cheek.

Maddie looked up at Ivan then kissed his cheek in return. "I love you too, Ivan," she said. Relaxing some of her weight onto Ivan, she closed her eyes and let her legs and Ivan's loving arms guide her along. At that moment, Maddie's only wish was to let the moment last forever, as close to Ivan as she wanted.

Ivan smiled as Maddie did this, thoroughly enjoying the warmth emanating from his beloved. After watching the girl for a minute more, he returned his gaze to the path that lay ahead of them, lest his desire to continue the loving conversation and cause the group to slow to a stop would become too much. However, he kept in mind that in just a few hours, he would have TK and Kari safely home. This would leave Maddie and he alone, should they ask for their digimon to oblige. The anticipation gave Ivan another surge, nearly taking out his legs from under him.

The remainder of the walk took a good couple of hours. With the mood of the group, love and desire seemed to outweigh the joy and excitement of home. In fact, the thought of home was not entirely positive. As TK walked with Kari next to him, he began to think about how everyone at home would react to their situation; his family, Kari's family, their friends, Davis. Each one seemed to have different feelings and some were certainly not to have positive responses, although TK's new combat skills gave him the feeling that he would not experience much in the way of physical problems. It was his general disgust at violence that hated to get into a fight over his relationship, be it with Davis or anyone else. It was, however, a sacrifice he would make for the sake of Kari; any fight was worth it if it kept Kari safe by his side.

Kari's thoughts ran along similar lines. She too felt that certain people, especially Davis, were likely to have relatively negative feelings about the newfound love of TK and herself. It even seemed likely that Davis would start some sort of fight over it, and TK would not want to get involved, but would for her. The feeling gave her confidence that TK would stand by her throughout what was to come for them, be it good or bad, due to his insurmountable love and affection for her. She smiled to herself, adjusting her position as she walked. She also sped up their pace a bit; the thoughts seemed to lag them down.

The thoughts of the digimon did not condone an entirely positive feeling, either. Gatomon and Patamon trudged along, realizing the reality that they would again have to leave their human companions. After the week of constant closeness, they had grown accustomed and never realized what the defeat, however temporary, of their enemy might mean until now. As when Apocalyomon was defeated and evil put to rest, their human partners were disconnected from the Digital World for several years. To go through that experience again was not something they were looking forward to.

Houndramon and Filmaramon were facing their own unique problems as they walked, still keeping a vigil for any threat to the group. As they worked, the strange feeling of their friends being together kept coming to them, filling them with a mixture of feelings. As they walked, they talked about all that weighed upon them. They noticed that they were probably overreacting to it; Houndramon knew that his fidelity to his mate wouldn't falter. However, they had never been fully exposed to the ways of human nature before, beyond that of one alone, unlike Gatomon and Patamon who were somewhat more used to what humans referred to as romance. But just as Gatomon and Patamon could not quite decipher the meaning of the two pressing their lips together, Houndramon and Filmaramon were unable to understand why Ivan and Maddie did the ritual so often as they strode along together. Ultimately, they gave to letting it slide and focusing on getting their job done, thus earning them a much-desired respite.

At last, Houndramon came over the peak of a hill and barked. He continued to bark, running back and forth along the crest of the hill. Maddie's eyes fluttered open, looking up at the dog digimon. Everyone else looked at Houndramon with equal interest and confusion, save Filmaramon, who joined Houndramon in his actions. Then, the two dashed down the far side of the hill and out of sight. Ivan looked down at Maddie, as TK did to Kari and Patamon to Gatomon. With a nearly simultaneous understanding, the six of them ran at full speed up the side of the mountain. Ivan and Maddie reached the top first, followed shortly by TK, Kari and their digimon. Below them, in the orange light of the afternoon sun, lay the small houses and huts of Secondary Village.

"We've made it," Ivan said, gesturing to the small collection of huts. "This is Secondary Village. We evacuated it a couple months ago, as the oncoming mechanical minions came close, and they are still waiting for our assurance that they can return safely. However, the villagers are not what we came for. We've come for that." As he said his last words, Ivan pointed at a small black object sitting near the collection of housing. "That," he continued, "is the fully functional TV that we came for to get you two back to the Real World." Again he paused, before repeating, "We've made it!" only this time with much greater emphasis and joy. The others rejoiced along with Ivan, as the finale of the great adventure came to a close.

Dancing, rolling, and expressing the relief of completion in any other way possible, the company slowly made their way down the hill into Secondary Village. Houndramon and Filmaramon had already searched through the small town, ensuring that no danger awaited them. Ivan's bag was tossed near the center of the village where the outline of a fire pit still remained, while Ivan joined the others, free of burden. For quite some time, the digimon and their human counterparts danced around in the fields encircling the village, solace washing over them like a warm ocean wave.

Ivan left the others to enjoy the moment for a while longer as he went to prepare their evening meal. Using firewood that was stored in a few of the houses, he built a fire up efficiently and left a note to repay what he used on the most elaborate house, appearing to be that of the leader. Then, preparing his final meal with the remaining ingredients of his pack, Ivan made his ramous Requallo soup, along with pan-fried Numanri, another tofu-resembling food, and a selection of vegetables. Ivan even produced a desert for the night: Lucryte Pudding, which held a taste similar to chocolate and had the appearance of a rainbow.

As he worked, Maddie came and knelt with Ivan at the stove. She put her arms around him as she did so. Ivan looked over to her and gave her a warm hug in return. Maddie then sat back and watched Ivan work, a small smile on her lips. Ivan noticed it after a moment, but ignored it. He continued to prepare their meal until he realized that ignoring Maddie did not seem to alter her staring at him. He looked over at her and asked, "What's up, Maddie?"

"Oh, nothing," she said shyly, averting her gaze at last. "I was just admiring you is all. Not that many people can work so diligently after going through so much. It's just another thing that I love about you."

"Maddie," Ivan said, a hint of laughter in his voice. He put his hand gently on Maddie's shoulder, prompting her to look up at him. "Maddie," he continued, "I'm doing my best to keep working here, but it's really hard with you watching me like that. It's nothing bad, but it's really hard to concentrate on this when part of me wants to focus all of its attention on you." Maddie smirked then gave Ivan a quick kiss.

"Alright, I'm sorry," she replied. "I'll leave you to your work. But I really want to spend some time with that other part of you afterwards, Ivan," she laughed as she said this, noticing the double meaning. However, she knew all too well in her heart that, no matter how seductive she acted, she wasn't ready for any serious commitment; she knew equally well how Ivan felt about their relationship.

"Me too," Ivan said, mirroring Maddie's laughter. Maddie rose to left, but Ivan stopped her for one moment longer. "Would you let the others know we're just about ready to eat?" he asked her. "It'll only be a few minutes now, and it's best to eat this stuff when it's hot." Maddie nodded. "Thanks, Maddie," Ivan said, and then rose and gave Maddie a kiss of his own before letting her go and returning to his work over the cooking fire.

As expected, only another few moments passed before the meal was fully prepared. The full coterie arrived and sat down around the weakening fire, each taking up their plate for the last meal of the journey. Still light-hearted and happy, everyone talked and laughed about all the lighter moments along the trip. All the double meanings that they discovered about their Truth or Dare game came out. All the other little ploys each person had tried, such as Ivan's attempt to leave Kari and TK alone in the cave before departing, was brought up as well, much to the amusement and embarrassment of the couple. Even though they chatted constantly, the food still managed to be consumed quite quickly due to the absence of any lunchtime meal. Ivan then brought out his dessert, handing out the servings to each of his companions.

As the pudding dessert was finished, the last rays of the sun fell behind the hill they had mounted a not too long ago. Only the weak reds cascaded along the sky and the dying embers of the fire served as light for the process of cleaning the dishes. Houndramon again obliged to fetch water, while the others prepared to clean up and get on their way. Standing, Ivan brought the conversation around to a more serious tone.

"Well, this does seem to be the end of the line now, guys," he said to the group. "In a few minutes, you two-" he pointed at TK and Kari- "will be on your way back home. This seems to be the way where our paths diverge." TK and Kari stood to face Ivan, as Maddie stood up beside the brown-haired boy.

"Maybe," TK said, a bit hesitantly. "I-It may be, but I've been thinking a lot since we left this morning and I came up with an idea. I asked Kari about it, and she said she'd be glad to help if she could. I'm more than willing to help, too, after all you've done for us."

"Help us do what?" Ivan asked, confused.

"We-We were wondering if you'd consider coming back to the Real World with us," TK said, unsure of what to expect.

Ivan and Maddie exchanged a shocked glance and then fell into thought. "I realize it's really last minute, but I couldn't really bring myself to ask it earlier," TK continued.

"It's certainly not something I've considered in. a long time." Ivan replied after a moment. "I'm not sure what Azulongmon or Kilvaramon would think of our skipping out on them, but then we'd still be able to come back after spending a short time with you guys. It may also be nice to go back and see people again; it's been quite some time since we've had people to talk to." Again he looked at Maddie, seeking some kind of assurance. "What do you think?" he asked her.

"I have no idea," Maddie said honestly. She then placed her hand on Ivan's heart as she continued, "But I'm more than willing to go with you wherever you like. Here, the Real World, or somewhere else, I'll be right by your side. As long as I'm with you, I don't think anything can stop us. Just follow your heart, darling; I'm sure you'll make the right decision for us." She stood on her toes, kissed his cheek, then rested her head on his shoulder and intertwined her fingers in his. She gave his hand a gentle squeeze of assurance.

Ivan stood in thought for a moment, while Maddie stood by him comfortingly and TK and Kari stood, nervous of what answer they might receive. They certainly wanted to spend more time with the two kids after bonding with them so much over the course of the trip, but didn't want to pressure them into anything they didn't want to do. Then, after a long silence, Ivan spoke.

"I've considered all aspects of your offer as well as I can in our given state," Ivan said. "There are many variables, such as housing arrangements, supplies, transportation, and what to do with our digital friends, should they come along. This would normally make me very unsure of any quick decision without more information. However, I believe that this case is different. Since we will appear with you two in Japan we'll have some sort of guide. Your families, if possible, might be able to provide housing, or otherwise we will find a place. I know at least one fallback location we can go to. Transportation is no problem, seeing as we can walk or run any short distance, or fly any long distance. Our companions can blend in if they wish to come; Houndramon can feign being a dog, while Filmaramon can feign being a cat or another pet."

"What about food?" Maddie asked.

"Well, that's probably the easiest challenge," Ivan replied. "Thanks to the work of my grandparents, and the partial inheritance from my parents' passing, I have more than enough funding to get me through my entire college career, which has only increased in its three years of invested dormancy.

"Such is the handling of our challenges, at least until more permanent arrangements can be made. As for benefits, interaction with more people is something we've been lacking, and is very important for social creatures like you, Maddie," Ivan turned to her for a moment, softening his voice as he spoke. He then returned to his address, "In addition, returning to school would be a good move for both of us. Although we're not fluent in Japanese, translation is far easier these days, and we have had some experience with the language after working indirectly with you and the other ten Digidestined for so long. And, of course, we've got to meet everyone else now that we've met you two.

"Therefore, I have reached the decision to accept your invitation. I know it seems like I've overanalyzed it, but you never know. Leaving your home and traveling not only to another country, but also to another world is quite a jump. I don't expect our time to be easy, either. It's simply a challenge I think we need, and it offers many rewards that are lacking in this realm." Ivan shook his head gently, seeing the looks on the TK and Kari's faces. He gave Maddie's hand a gentle squeeze, making her look up. Ivan's eyes met hers, as if asking for help and confirmation of his idea. Maddie nodded, understanding.

"We're gonna go with you," Maddie said to simplify Ivan's speech. Understanding suddenly dawned on TK and Kari.

Maddie giggled as Ivan whispered a silent "thanks," in her ear.

"Alright then," TK said, greatly relieved to have his question asked and answered. "Let's get this place cleaned up and get moving, then. We want to be home soon, before it gets to be too late." Maddie and Ivan nodded in consent; Houndramon appeared as if on queue.

"The silly current nearly stole my bucket away twice!" he growled after he handed off the bucket to Ivan. Maddie went over and comforted the frustrated digimon as Ivan did his best not to laugh and get the dishes cleaned up. Maddie also broke the news of the decision to Houndramon. Houndramon was surprised that it was TK's idea and not theirs, but was happy for them. He also offered to let Azulongmon and Kilvaramon know about it so they would be able to take their vacation without worry of being chastised later. When the duffel bag was packed, the fire extinguished, and everyone ready to go, Ivan handed the bag to the dog digimon. Each of the humans walked over to the television, forming a line once they had done so. The respective digital companion of each then met with their human counterpart to say goodbye.

"Okay, buddy," Ivan said to Houndramon, squatting next to him, "we're gonna be gone for a while. I'm not sure about the condition of the time relationship between here and the Real World presently, but we'll be back again pretty soon. Jason wasn't put down fully, so he'll be back eventually and we'll need to be here to oppose him. We may even try warping in and out with the Digidestined for a while, depending on what happens in the Real World. We'll never forget the ties we have to this world, though; we'll be back here and ready to bust some more robotic heads before you know it." Houndramon barked, smiling. Ivan placed his hand lightly on Houndramon's head, scratching him behind the ears. "Be good, and do what you can to be helpful to Azulongmon." Houndramon nodded. "Thanks, Houndramon, I owe you one." Houndramon's eyes narrowed in mock anger. "OK, you're right, I owe you about five hundred for this." Houndramon relaxed again. "Now, I think we'd best get on our way." Giving Houndramon a hug, Ivan finished his goodbyes to his companion. He then stood and saluted the dog digimon, which Houndramon did his best to mimic. Ivan smiled and nodded, lowering his hand. Houndramon, too, lowered his paw and stood back from the other four humans.

Each of the other three pairs went through a similar closing. Maddie felt tears coming to her eyes, but found Ivan's comforting arm around her, ensuring that she was not going to be alone. TK and Kari had gone through this before, so the parting was therefore less severe for them. However, they knew that the constant visit was not likely to come for a while with Jason put out of commission. They did their best to restrain from sadness, instead keeping a fairly happy tone thanks to the prospect of seeing their families again.

With Ivan's arm gently pulling Maddie back to her feet from Filmaramon, who was still in the form of a dog digimon, her fortifications broke and a few tears rolled down her cheeks. "It's time to go," he whispered in her ear, to which she nodded. Ivan then motioned to TK, who drew out his relatively unused D3 and aimed it at the TV.

"Digi-Port, Open!" He called out, summoning the portal between the Real World and the Digital World. He then called Kari over and sent her through the gate. He watched Ivan and Maddie for a moment, and then said, "The portal will only last for a few seconds once I go through; are you ready?"

Ivan looked into Maddie's eyes, still the brilliant brown they always were in the dying red streaks across the evening sky. He gently wiped the tears from Maddie's cheeks as he said, "Let's go, Maddie. I don't know what lies on the other side of the gate, but I know that together, we can go through whatever life throws at us. I also know that after we get through it by the strength of our love, we'll be able find something we've never known before." He kissed Maddie softly, lovingly. As he pulled away after a minute, he said once again, "Let's go." Maddie nodded in response, sniffing away her tears, then took Ivan's hand firmly in hers.

"We're ready, TK," Ivan said. "Go on through, we'll be right behind you." TK took another second of hesitation before nodding.

"Alright, Ivan," TK replied. "I'll see you over there." Ivan nodded in response, and TK jumped right through the Gate. In the few seconds Ivan had, he looked at Maddie as he jumped through the gate and said "See you on the other side, Madelyn!" In a moment, the light of the television dissipated. The last strains of light from the sun faded away behind the starry, velvet cloak of night.