Night in the Digital World had become a true time of fear. Every Digimon, even the fiercest, found places to hole up and hide once the sun went down, and those who knew their defenses were weak could scarcely sleep for terror. Given time, perhaps that fear would wear off, but now it still had the edge of newness to keep everyone in their place. It had been brought on by close encounters: a friend who vanished in the night, or a dark shadow with glowing red eyes who had the semblance of someone they knew. Ever since the Digimon Emperor had taken to staying in the Digital World day and night, the time just after sunrise, the time when everyone lay in their beds or dens trying to throttle down fear long enough to fall asleep, not sure where or if they would awake in the morning, was the worst time of all.
A Gazimon, caught above ground and away from home at sunset, was trying to manufacture some form of shelter, digging a hole in the soft earth and covering it with branches. The tree cover was thick enough here that perhaps, here in the deepest shadows, he might be overlooked. Everyone knew that the Emperor's preferred means of transportation was on the head of one of a small fleet of trained AirDramon, so perhaps he would be lucky. Maybe the Emperor wouldn't even come tonight; it wasn't as if he could personally patrol the entire DigiWorld in these few dark hours, and he'd never made his presence felt in this part of the forest before, except in the form of a few wandering Digimon scouts. Maybe, just maybe, he was safe.
Scarcely four feet away, Ken let a smile sneak over his face as he watched the Gazimon work. Industrious little thing - it would make a good slave, if Ken was in the market for such things. At the moment, he had all he really needed, and didn't feel like wasting a Ring just to catch a cowardly Gazimon. For now, it was more fun to stand in the shadows and watch, knowing that any minute, he could emerge from his hiding place and have the creature at his mercy before it ever knew what hit it. As a matter of fact, that didn't sound like a bad idea. It would even be fun to let the creature go away unscathed afterwards. It would be fun to start the rumor circulating that Ken could appear wherever he wanted to be. He would have liked to be seen as omniscient and omnipresent along with everything else... but no. Such amusements had their place, but now was not the time. Now was the time for stealth, for secrecy. He moved on, leaving the Gazimon to its work.
Silent as a shadow, graceful as a cat, nearly invisible in his dark blues and blacks, the Emperor made his way through the forest. He could move without so much as snapping a twig beneath his feet, and on this night, he felt particularly at one with the shadows, and he reveled in his invisibility. Now he was glad he'd made the decision to come out here for himself, instead of letting his lackeys do the work for him. There was truth in the old saying that things were more likely to be done right if you did them yourself. His Ringed slaves, though efficient enough at the menial chores he usually wanted them to do, were not particularly good spies. The process of Ringing them made them docile in his presence and forced them to obey his orders, but it seemed to effect their minds in some way. Once they were captured, they would do nothing more or less than what they were told, and seemed to lose all sense of judgement. If he sent them out spying, they might tell him all about the terrain, but ignore the fact that there was a tribe of nasty DeviDramon nesting right in the middle of it, or inform him of a patch of tasty berries and not the fact that there was a dangerous swamp out in the northwest quadrant. He could list out all the things he would prefer to know about and have them check for each item specifically, but if they came up against something he didn't think of, or if it happened to be out of their immediate line of sight... well, the whole operation was riddled with problems, no matter how he went at it. Better by far to do the scouting by himself; it would give him a more accurate idea of what he was up against than the reports of all the most skillful spies in the world.
There was a rustle of disturbed foliage behind him, and then a yelp. Ken winced at the noise, and then turned to glare at its cause. A few feet behind him, his partner seemed to have gotten himself tangled up in a bramble bush, his pods and antennae waving helplessly as he tried to escape.
"Hopeless," said Ken, the word hissing like acid. "Absolutely hopeless. Can't you even walk without getting yourself in trouble?"
"Sorry, Master," said Wormmon, eyes downcast. "It's just that I have a lot more feet than you do. I keep getting tripped up."
"Well, I need silence! If you can't manage something that simple, you ought to have stayed home."
Wormmon shook his head. The bush was still rustling quietly as he wiggled his way out of its grasp. "Someone has to look after you."
Ken snorted derisively. "You? Look after me? Listen, insect, I don't need looking after - not from anyone, and definitely not from you. Even if, by some wild twist of fate, I was in danger, what could you possibly do to protect me?"
"I'd find some way," said Wormmon.
He popped free of the bush with such force that he somersaulted a short distance, finally winding up sprawled over one of Ken's boots. He picked himself up and shook his head, making his antennae flap around. Then he looked up, turning his brilliant blue eyes up at Ken. The young emperor was surprised at how much certainty was in them.
"I'd find a way," he repeated. "After all, I'm your partner. I was born to protect you."
Ken turned away, shrugging his shoulders as if to shake off some uneasiness.
"That's a stupid thing to say," he muttered. "I don't need protecting... and if I had a partner, it wouldn't be you. I'm not some Digidestined, needing a furry little animal to guard me. I can take care of myself."
"Whatever you say, Ken."
Ken's head gave a jerk, as he began to turn around and caught himself just in time. For a moment, the caterpillar had sounded strangely like his parents had whenever he'd childishly proposed to do some impossible thing, the tone that said they knew he was being silly but didn't want to hurt his feelings by saying so. How dare the bug take that tone with him? He wasn't being silly! He'd never been silly, not since... well, he couldn't remember exactly when he'd come to his senses and started realizing that other people weren't worth his time, but that wasn't the point. The point was that Wormmon didn't seem to have worked his way to that conclusion yet, and it was getting unbelievably annoying.
*I ought to just get rid of him and save myself some problems,* thought Ken, trying to resume his earlier shadowlike glide. It was hard when his nerves were on edge like this. *I don't know why I didn't throw him out a long time ago. Habit, I suppose. Huh, that's the only reason I can think of for wanting to keep something so pathetically useless...*
Too annoyed to look where he was going, his foot came down awkwardly on a piece of a fallen branch, and Ken stumbled, slipping on moss and leafmold before finally thudding to the ground. He sat up, spitting out bits of leaves and trying to straighten his glasses, while Wormmon hopped to his side, making even more noise in his frantic rush to assist his ruler.
"Ken! Master, are you all right?" he asked.
"Shut up," Ken spat, "or someone will hear you!"
Wormmon was quiet. So was Ken, straining his ears for some sound, any sign that his fall had been overheard. Sure enough, he could pick out the sound of distant voices.
"What was that?"
"I don't know... it sounded like someone talking."
"Do you think it's him?"
"Should we have a look, do you think?"
Ken made a face. "Drat! Now look what you made me do!"
Wormmon didn't answer. Instead, he scampered off into the underbrush, vanishing in the shadows.
"Coward," hissed Ken, hauling himself to his feet. "I always knew he was-"
He interrupted himself in mid-complaint. Somewhere up ahead, someone was rattling the bushes loud enough for anyone with ears to hear. The voices gave a cry and began chasing after them, following the rustling until it became fainter and fainter, finally dying out altogether. In a few moments, Wormmon returned, covered in leaves and looking rather pleased with himself.
"That'll fix them," he said.
If he had been expecting praise for his actions, he would have been disappointed. Fortunately for him, he'd lived with the Emperor long enough to know what his master's reaction would be: no reaction at all. Ken turned away, acting as if his partner hadn't done a thing. What was going on in Ken's head was another story.
*That was clever,* he thought bitterly. *I should have thought of it first. Pestiferous bug! How - how dare he make a fool of me like that? How dare he show off in front of his Emperor?*
It was a very annoyed Emperor indeed who finally reached his destination: a jumble of rocks that sprang up from the earth with little regard for the common rules of geography. That was the nature of the Digital World: things sprang up haphazardly, often with complete defiance of common sense. Ken had sighted these rocks from a distance, looming up over the forest in a spiky heap, looking from far away like a huge hedgehog, and Ken had wanted to investigate them more closely. Provided there were no hidden weaknesses or particularly nasty inhabitants, then it would make an excellent stronghold for defending this area. A Control Spire would be practically invisible against all those prickly rocks, and it would be easy to hide all kinds of sentries in the dark shadows.
"Are we going up there?" asked Wormmon nervously, surveying the hill of black spikes.
"No, we just came out here to sightsee," Ken replied. "Of course we're going up... unless you're afraid of heights or something."
"Not of heights," Wormmon replied. Truth be told, he actually liked high places, the higher the better, as long as he was in no danger of falling. Even the idea of a climb didn't bother him much, not when he had ten sticky pods to hold him firmly in place. Still... "There's just something about this place that isn't right. Shouldn't we maybe wait until morning, when we can see what we're doing?" A warning glare from Ken made him add, "You know, you won't be able to see your footing in the dark. Even the Emperor gets hurt if he falls down."
"Oh, I get it," said Ken, smiling mockingly. "The poor little caterpillar is afraid of the dark. Well, don't you worry your little head. You can stay right here, and I'll climb up myself."
"Wait a minute, that's not what I meant!" Wormmon protested. He tried to scamper closer to his master and got a kick for his trouble.
"Stay back," snapped Ken. "If I let you come, you'll probably trip on something and start an avalanche."
Ignoring Wormmon's protests, Ken turned and set his hands on a few small outcropping rocks and began pulling himself upwards. His feet found footholds easily, and soon he was several feet off the ground. He nearly grinned; his gloves and boots were tough enough that he could scarcely feel the rocks' sharp edges, and there were enough rough spots that the climb, though nearly vertical, was as easy as climbing a ladder. He moved like a spider, creeping up a few inches at a time in a steady rhythm, zigzagging the face of the cliff but moving ever upwards. Once he found his stride, he began thinking that this was almost fun; he may not have looked it, but he was much stronger than the average eleven-year-old, and the climb was scarcely taxing him at all. Soon he was up above the treetops, his peripheral vision showing him an ocean of green-black pine needles extending off to the midnight blue sky.
It was windy up there, and the breeze tugged at his cloak, trying to pull him off course. He paused, considering the advantages of removing it. The wind rearranged his hair and whipped his lightweight glasses off of his face, and he made the mistake of looking down to watch them float to earth. He could still see the ground, way down there. Wormmon looked like nothing more than an ant. The wind pulled at him again, threatening to make him lose his precarious balance, and he quickly pressed himself as close to the cliff face as he could, waiting for the breeze to subside. With a burst of willpower, he forced himself to free one hand long enough to undo his cloak fastenings and let it fly away on its own. It drifted away like a huge butterfly to catch in a tree limb. That was better. Ken shook himself, trying to clear away the fright that had gripped him briefly.
*It's all right,* he told himself, closing his eyes to blot out the view. *You've got a solid hold, so you're not going to fall. You're safe, and you'll be even safer when you get to the top, so start climbing!*
He raised a hand and forced himself to keep moving upwards, keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the rocks above him, on the ledge he could just barely make out above his head. He was thirty feet away... twenty... ten... five... He was creeping on his stomach like a lizard, pushing himself onto a rough area of flat rock, wide enough for him to lie down full length on it with his arms fully extended. He pulled himself to a sitting position, leaning back to catch his breath. From here, he felt more comfortable leaning over the cliff to look down. Now that he had successfully scaled the rock, he could even feel the first flickering of pride in a job well done. Far, far below, he could still see Wormmon watching him, a lighter speck of green against the dark forest. As he'd thought, the worm had kept his feet firmly planted on the ground, and Ken didn't bother to suppress a smirk, even as he wondered why he needed to prove himself to a caterpillar, anyway.
He could also take the time to look around a little and decide how to proceed from here. The space he was sitting on was not, as he'd first assumed, a natural ledge. It looked more like it had been purposely cut into the rock, making a rough but passable path, probably leading from the ground to the peak, and Ken made a mental note to go looking for the end of the road as soon as he could - he could make the climb, or have one of his servants carry him to the top, but his Ringed slaves would need easier access. However, if there was a road, then there was likely a builder, or builders, and he'd want to know about them before he moved in. He didn't have any doubts about his ability to evict them, but he didn't like surprises. With that in mind, and most of his wind recovered, he got up and began his climb again, now striding casually up the path. Nobody could see if he was taking the easy way now, anyway.
Or so he thought. His only warning was a soft growl, just enough to make him turn his head and see one of the spiky dark rocks pick itself up and begin to walk on four treelike legs. A shaft of moonlight fell upon it, bringing it into sharp focus: a heavy-limbed, horned and frilled triceratops, glaring at Ken with anger in its eyes.
"Uh-oh," said Ken.
That was all he could say on the subject. The Triceramon gave a bellow and leaped, knocking apart nearby rocks and making them shatter like glass with sweeps of its huge tail. Ken backed away, his expression frantic. Here was something he couldn't control: an angry Ultimate Digimon. He did have his Spirals, but they were still new, too new to have all their bugs worked out. The Spiral would only work if applied from close range, and he couldn't possibly get close enough to this thrashing horror to trap it. Even if he did, he wasn't sure he could keep it under control - he might just drive it into an ungovernable rage, as had happened with the Geckomon ruler, in which case it would destroy him anyway. There was only one choice: turn tail and run. The Digimon Emperor forgot all about dignity and fled, with the Triceramon hot on his tail.
*This is not good, this is so not good,* he thought frantically, pushing himself towards even greater speed. He would not let himself think he was beaten, not under any circumstances... even if the Triceramon was gaining by leaps and bounds, literally, shaking the ground each time its feet hit the rock. Suddenly, Ken skidded around a bend and found himself looking out at nothing at all. He'd found the top of the rock, and now there was nowhere to go but down - either back down towards the Triceramon or straight down towards the ground. He stood there, panting, staring at the earth far, far below. He was inches from the edge, and all it would take was one little step to sent him plummeting to his death. His blood pounded in his ears, a counterpoint to the ever nearing footsteps. He turned, dreamlike, to watch the Triceramon as it charged toward him, its horns lowered, filled with a sudden proud urge to meet death on his feet. It was only a few yards away now, and the whole mountain seemed to shake with the thunder of its pounding feet... Ken never saw the edge of the cliff give way, only heard the crumbling of rock, the monster's bellow of frustration, and, as if from a great distance, his own scream of pure terror.
Wormmon heard the sound, too, and looked up, his master's scream seeming to run through him like a lightning bolt. There was no time to think, only instinct. Without knowing why, he jumped, hardly noticing when he never fell, only continued to rise. His vision was swirling with green light, and everything was spinning...
Ken hit something solid, the impact momentarily jarring the wind out of him, and he stopped screaming. A stray thought wandered through his mind: *Am I dead now? That didn't hurt.* Then he realized that he was still moving downwards, but the descent was gradual. Somehow, something had caught him. An instant later, he was being set gently onto the ground, but his knees were shaking so badly that he couldn't stand, and he fell in a heap.
"Are you all right?" asked a voice somewhere above him.
"Yeah," Ken panted. "I - I'm fine."
He stood up and brushed himself off, hiding the fact that his hands were shaking. Then he turned to face his rescuer, and found himself looking at a kneecap. He tilted his head back and was able to make out a chest and shoulders. It was only when he backed up a few paces that he could actually see a head. His eyes widened. The whatever-it-was tilted its head in puzzlement.
"Are you sure you're okay?" it asked.
That voice... It was familiar. Ken blinked, stunned all over again.
"W-Wormmon?" he stammered.
"Call me Stingmon now," it replied. It raised its head, hearing the bellows of the angry Triceramon. "Don't worry - I'll take care of that thing for you."
Ken tried to say something, but no words would come out. All he could do was stare. Stingmon set a hand on Ken's arm in a gesture that would have been more comforting if the hand hadn't been large enough to cover him from shoulder to wrist.
"Don't worry," he said again, "I told you I'd find a way to protect you."
With that, he shot into the air, and Ken followed the Digimon's flight. His mouth was still hanging open.
The Triceramon saw Stingmon coming and met him with true fighting spirit, brandishing his horns and lashing his tail, bellowing with all its considerable lung power. Stingmon met him cooly, producing a sword of searing pink light and wielding it with considerable skill. Ken could only stand and watch in awe as the green warrior shot through the air, turning with pinpoint precision to dive at his foe, then turning and swooping upwards again, ever in motion. Was this creature his Digimon? Whatever it was, it was incredible, as muscular as the greatest human warrior, but more than twice as tall and plated all over with gleaming green armor, winged and armed with that laser sword... For a moment, Ken forgot that he was the Digimon Emperor and should be above being overcome by awe just by watching a Digimon. This wasn't just any Digimon, this was the most amazing Digimon he'd ever seen, the perfect balance of speed and power, grace and force. He couldn't have designed anything better himself, and thinking of his half-finished plans for creating a Digimon of his own, he felt a stirring of shame. Next to Stingmon, his Kimeramon looked like a mismatched mess.
Many feet above, the warring Digimon were finishing off their battle in grand style. Triceramon, enraged out of its wits by the flitting insect that kept stinging its hide, roared and thrashed in frustration. When Stingmon paused, hovering a few feet away, it turned with a roar of rage and charged... forgetting that the ground didn't extend as far as he wanted to go. The Triceramon fell with an earsplitting bellow, crashing down the side like an avalanche to rest, dazed, at the bottom. Stingmon watched a moment to make sure it wasn't going anywhere any time soon, and then came back to land next to Ken.
"I'm glad that's over," were the first words he said.
Ken shook his head, never taking his eyes off of Stingmon. "That was incredible. Absolutely incredible. I never would have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes..."
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Stingmon asked.
"Like you've never seen me before."
"I haven't," Ken replied. "Just look at you!"
Stingmon paused to look, suddenly realizing the full extent of what had happened. He didn't have a great deal of facial expression, but somehow Ken knew that he was being goggled at. Up until now, it had always been him who stood in Ken's shadow, not the other way around. He turned his head, trying to get a better look at this new body of his.
"You're right," he said, his voice quaking with emotion. Suddenly, he started to laugh. He leaped into the air, shouting for joy. "You're right! Look at me, Ken! Look at me - I can flyyyyyyyyyy!"
He shot through the air, looping and spinning in an incredible display of aerodynamics. Ken raced along below him, feeling strangely giddy and grinning in spite of himself. He hadn't heard his partner so happy in all the years he'd known him, and it was infectious.
"Hey, take me with you!" he shouted.
Stingmon dropped out of the sky to scoop Ken up, skimming only inches above the ground while his partner settled into place, then shot into the air at a perfect vertical, spinning like a bullet, shredding clouds with his wings, bursting through them into the starry sky. They flew in a wild corkscrew flight, looping around so fast that the world seemed to be full of spinning lights as stars flashed past them, and Ken heard himself shouting in delight. For now, he would forget that he was the Emperor; his dignity could be ignored until tomorrow. Tonight he was content to be just Ken, and very happy to be with his partner.
It was very late - well past midnight - when Ken and Stingmon finally returned to the Emperor's base. All sense of time had been lost as they flew, and now Ken realized that it was only a few hours until dawn, but he didn't feel the least bit tired. He was still grinning from the afterglow of the excitement as he dropped into his chair to watch his partner shrink back to Wormmon.
"This has to be a dream," said Ken, shaking his head. "Who would have believed you would be picking fights with Ultimates - and winning! I'd say it is a dream, except I never would have imagined it myself."
"Was I all right, Master?" asked Wormmon.
"All right?" Ken repeated, in such an astounded tone that Wormmon instinctively took a few steps backwards. "All right? You were better than all right! You were the most incredible thing I've ever seen!"
"Awww..." Wormmon couldn't tell for sure, but he felt like he was blushing down to the tip of his tail.
"Could you do it again?" asked Ken. "Digivolve, I mean."
"I think I could," Wormmon answered. "If you really wanted me to." What he didn't say aloud was that, at the moment, he felt he could do almost anything Ken wanted. After years of being treated like dirt, this sudden infusion of attention and praise was as dizzying as a drug. At that moment, if Ken had ordered him to leap off the highest tower, he would have done it gladly.
Ken nodded, his eyes growing distant. "You know, this is going to change everything."
"I haven't decided yet. I have to take you into account, now. There's a difference between having a ringed slave that needs my guidance every minute of the day and having a powerful warrior who can make his own decisions, one who doesn't need a Ring or a Spiral to enforce his loyalty... One Stingmon could be worth a whole army of Ringed slaves. I am definitely going to have to think about this... Are you hungry?"
"What?" asked Wormmon, startled by the non sequitur.
"I asked if you were hungry," Ken replied. "Power has to come from somewhere. I was under the impression that Digimon get hungry when they first transform."
"Oh, I - I'm fine," the caterpillar answered. "I don't need anything, really."
"Ah," said Ken. For some reason, Wormmon thought he looked a little put out. "Well, if that's all, I suppose there's nothing left to do but get some sleep."
"I guess." Taking that as a dismissal, Wormmon turned and began to scamper off. His antennae drooped a bit. Tired as he was, it would have been nice to stay and talk to Ken a bit longer. Still, he reasoned, he'd already gotten more than he had any right to expect. "Good night, Master."
"Night, Wormmon," said Ken offhandedly. He turned to walk off to his own quarters, then stopped short. "Wait - where are you going, anyway?"
"Um... to sleep?" Wormmon hazarded.
"And where are going to do that?"
"Just... wherever," said Wormmon, cringing a bit. Ken sounded annoyed again, and there were times when that could get uncomfortable. "Usually in one of the storerooms. Nobody ever bothers me there, and sometimes I can find something soft to sleep on..." He trailed off, aware that he was babbling.
"Hm," said Ken. "That's no good. You've had a rough night. You're going to need to recover if you're going to be any good for anything tomorrow, and I've got plans for you. Why don't..." He paused, for the first time sounding embarrassed. "Why don't you stay in my room tonight?"
"What?" That was the last thing Wormmon had expected to hear. "Master, I - I don't know - I don't deserve-"
"I decide who deserves what around here," said Ken, his manner turning cold. "If you really want to sleep in a closet, it will be your fault if you're too tired to work tomorrow, and I'll know who to punish. Besides... maybe I think you deserve something for saving my life. But it's your choice."
A short while later found Wormmon curled up on the very edge of the imperial bed, trying to pretend he was a throw pillow. Ken seemed to be doing the same thing, padding around in his blue pajamas without looking at his partner, which suited Wormmon just fine. There had been enough changes tonight; he needed some time to reorder his mind and get used to them all. It was hard to believe that for a short time, he'd become something great enough to make even Ken take notice - he wasn't sure whether he was more dazed by the transformation or Ken's reaction to it. Lying there with one eye half open, watching Ken extinguish the lamps one by one, he decided being ignored would suit him fine for now.
The last light went out, and the young emperor settled in for a well-deserved rest. Wormmon had been expecting that, what with having so much on his mind and being in such unusual surroundings, he wouldn't be able to sleep a wink. However, now that all the excitement was over, he realized that he was achingly weary, and the very touch of the soft, warm blankets was enough to lull him into relaxation. This was so nice, just the way it had been when Ken was a little boy, back when they were friends. Wormmon had hardly dared to hope those days would come again. He yawned and stretched, settling himself in more comfortably, already drifting...
Just before the caterpillar had dozed off completely, Ken turned over in his sleep, drowsily draping an arm over the 'mon's shoulders. Wormmon woke up with a start, momentarily unsure of what was going on. In the faint wisps of moonlight that slipped into the room, he could see Ken's face, peaceful in sleep, a dreamy smile playing across his lips. The caterpillar stared a moment, then gave a small, happy sigh, settling himself into the embrace. He finally fell asleep thinking it was good that the day was ending, because he didn't think there was room inside him for another shred of happiness.
It was a very ordinary apartment. Nearly everyone in Tokyo had one like it, an economic arrangement of rooms meant to help as many people as possible live in Japan's limited spaces. This one was a bit smaller than most, meant to hold a single man who seldom entertained, and its furnishings were few and simple. The man himself was nearly as normal - at least, there was nothing in his appearance that one could immediately label as odd. His hair was a bit longer than what most men of his age wore, but not so long as to attract attention. His skin was a bit too pale, but only enough to give him the look of one who seldom ventured outdoors. His clothing of choice might be a bit oddly colored, but not enough to make anyone turn their heads as he walked down the streets. It could easily have been just the darkness of his eyes and his melancholy manner that made people uneasy. For the most part, the man and his apartment were very alike: it was what was inside them that made them terrifying.
As far as anyone knew, no one but the man himself entered Mr. Oikawa's apartment. His neighbors, ever a bit leery of this strange dark man, kept a close eye on the front door, but they never saw anyone but him. Yet, many swore, he did have visitors. Just now, for example, the woman next door was sure she heard voices in there, voices that did not sound like Mr. Oikawa's deep drone. She pressed her ear to the wall, listening. Yes, there were others in there, a cold female voice and another male's. She couldn't make out everything they were saying, but just the idea that they had come without her hearing them made her uneasy.
"You're holding out on me," Oikawa said.
"Hm?" The lady in red gave him an opaque look, easy for her with her permanent dark glasses. She sat across from him, perched on his sofa and sipping daintily at a cup of tea. On the other end of the sofa was a man in blue, nearly invisible in the dimly lit room. He had already finished his drink and was now fidgeting, as if he had places he'd rather be. Across from them sat Oikawa, nearly hidden in the recesses of an armchair.
"Not you, Arukenimon." Oikawa replied. "Him."
"What would he have to hide?" she asked. "He doesn't know anything to hide."
"He isn't acting like he doesn't know anything," answered Oikawa. "Look at me, Mummymon."
Reluctantly, the man in blue raised his head so that his single golden eye was fixed on Oikawa's black ones. He managed to hold contact for only a few seconds before looking away again.
"I thought so. You know something," Oikawa replied. "Spill."
"Oh, it was probably nothing," said Mummymon. "Certainly nothing that would interest you. I didn't even bother to tell her, and you know I'd tell her anything."
"What didn't you tell me?" asked Arukenimon, looking insulted.
"It was nothing."
"Something you wouldn't even dare tell Arukenimon? Oh, that is incriminating," said Oikawa with an oily smile. "I'm intrigued. Come now, don't leave us hanging. What are you hiding?"
"Well..." answered Mummymon reluctantly, "I just happened to be in the Digital World... keeping an eye on the boy, like you told us to... and I couldn't help but notice that his partner... well... it digivolved."
Nobody said anything, but the temperature in the room seemed to drop several degrees. Mummymon bowed his head and went back to staring at his hands. Arukenimon looked mildly alarmed.
"That's not possible," she said. "You and I both know the boy hates that creature. We did everything we could to make sure he did. He couldn't possibly have bonded deeply enough with it to permit it to digivolve." She looked at Oikawa. "It isn't possible, is it?"
"Anything is possible," he answered smoothly. "But I think our friend isn't telling us the whole story. He will tell it now, from the beginning. Won't you, Mummymon?"
Mummymon told them, everything from the moment he'd seen Ken sneaking out into the night on foot up until he'd seen him soaring home again in the arms of a giant wasp. When he was done, he looked at Oikawa with fear in his eye, expecting punishment, but the dark man only nodded slightly.
"It makes sense," he said slowly. "It seems we've assumed too much. We must correct that."
"What do you mean?" asked Arukenimon, annoyed.
"I mean that, for all our work, the boy and his Digimon are still partners. Whatever force made them so is beyond my considerable abilities to undo. While we have had some success in convincing the boy to hate his partner, despise him for his weakness, we have given no attention to making the worm return that hatred. Foolish as it may be, he still loves the boy." He paused for a moment, his expression strangely sad. Then he shook his head, dropping his cold mask down once again. "Love that powerful would let him transform in a moment of extreme need."
"So he digivolved one time," said Arukenimon. "So what?"
"Figure it out," Oikawa snapped. "You like to pretend you're so clever."
"Humph. I'm not pretending."
"No? Then you shouldn't be asking foolish questions," said Oikawa. "Think! A Digimon can't digivolve without a strong connection with its partner. In a moment when the boy was vulnerable, that connection was made. It binds both ways. If we aren't careful, all the scorn and hatred we've worked so hard to instill in that child will be wiped out."
"I hardly think one fluke transformation-" Arukenimon began.
"It won't be one transformation," said Oikawa. "What have we taught the boy? To value power above all things. He hated his partner because it was weak. Now he's seen it become strong once, and he'll want to see it again. Every time it happens again, the bond will deepen, and that crawling little worm will begin to have influence over our boy-emperor."
"I don't see what harm a worm can do," said Mummymon. "It never looked like much to me."
"It never looked like much," Oikawa replied, "but, as I said, he loves the boy. Make no mistake, his feelings for the child must be powerful to withstand all he's been put through and still have the strength to digivolve. Imagine all that power for Good, and how it might effect what we've planned for young Mr. Ichijouji."
Arukenimon gave a little shudder. "Are you saying he might go back to the meek little cream puff he used to be? That's disgusting."
"Yes," said Oikawa, "and more importantly, it will lose us a source of power. We will have to move swiftly to counteract this before it goes too far. You know what that means, don't you?"
"I believe so," said Arukenimon.
"Then I'll trust your judgement... for now."
The pair on the sofa nodded as one, looking eager to assure him that they would give him no reasons not to trust them.
"Can we go home now?" Mummymon complained. "All this love talk makes me depressed."
"It would," said Oikawa.
Arukenimon seemed to have lost interest in the conversation; she got up and walked away, but her sidekick lingered.
"Why do you say that?" he asked.
"Because, are you not, as my creation, a reflection of myself?" Oikawa answered. "As such, you are doomed to be forever wanting... and to be denied. Go now. Your presence vexes me."
The man in blue scuttled off, looking dejected. Oikawa sighed, rising from his seat and wandered over a shelf, which was filled with a number of elegantly bound books. He traced his finger down the spine of one. There was a time when they had been his only solace, giving him a way to live out the lives of others in his own lonely room. Now he had other plans, other powers. Now he could do so much more, and yet...
"'And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,'" he quoted, "'I am determined to prove a villain, and hate the idle pleasures of these days.'"
There was a knock on the door. Sighing, Oikawa left his books and went to answer it.
"Yes, may I help you?" he asked in his most sepulchral tone. He gave the visitor a ghastly smile.
"Oh," said the neighbor woman. She tilted her head, trying to get a look into his apartment. It was very dark, but plainly empty. Feeling foolish, she blurted, "I thought I heard voices in here - they sounded threatening - and - and I wondered..."
"Oh, dear, were you concerned about me?" asked Oikawa. "Don't worry; there hasn't been anyone here but me all night. Actually, I was just watching a bit of late night television. One of those crime movies. I assure you, it was nothing to worry about."
"Er... of course. I should have known," said the woman. Oikawa smiled at her again, and she instinctively backed up a few paces. "Well, if there's not a problem, I guess I'll be going..."
"Good night," said Oikawa. "Do drop by again sometime. I get so few visitors."
He shut the door, letting a real smile creep across his face. He could hear the woman's frantic footsteps as she hurried back to her room, most likely wondering what kind of lunatic she was living next to. After all, she had gotten a good look at his apartment, enough that she could be certain he didn't own a televison. All he had was a computer, glowing eerily in a corner. Chuckling to himself, Oikawa settled down at his desk and went back to work.
Falling asleep, Ken had half-expected to wake up and find that he'd been having very strange dreams. The other half of him had been certain that, even assuming this was all true, that he would wake up and at least think he'd been dreaming. Waking, however, made him realize he was mistaken on both counts. If he'd been dreaming, why in the world was he waking up with his arm around a caterpillar? As soon as he realized that was the case, he pulled away, careful not to wake Wormmon. The last thing he wanted now was for Wormmon to find him like that and think - and think - well, it didn't matter what he might think, Ken still didn't want it. Ken rolled over on his back, staring up at the ceiling, and began to do some thinking of his own.
One thing was for sure: he wasn't making a quick emotional recovery from this. He'd gone a while trying to keep any feelings he had bottled up; now he felt like someone had shaken the bottle and dropped it on the floor, spilling everything out in a hopeless mess. He tried to school himself into his usual icy calm and put himself to work figuring out uses for this colossal new weapon of his, a prospect that sent his imperial side practically shivering with anticipation. Unfortunately, he couldn't think straight at all. Finally he just gave up and decided to let his emotions play themselves out. He was the emperor, after all; there was nobody to tell him he couldn't lie in bed all day if he wanted to. With a sigh, he leaned back and closed his eyes, letting his memory bring last night back to him in all its glory.
Most of the memories were unclear, blurred by darkness, as well as the fact that he hadn't been paying attention to a whole lot more than trying to stay alive. The clearest images he could get were visceral, the feeling of falling... and flying. Yes. That was worth remembering. He'd flown before, riding on his AirDramon fleet, but that was nothing compared to riding with Stingmon. He had a notion he might as well let the AirDramon go now, because if his newfound warrior was going to be a permanent addition to the roster, what did he need them for? He would never see them again as anything more than placid gliders. Every minute with Stingmon had been sheer exhilaration, the purest euphoria he'd ever known - not just a high, but a feeling of rightness, completion, as if this was exactly what he'd always been meant to do.
*I felt so good last night,* he mused. *Why? What happened that was so special, anyway? All right, so Stingmon's a great Digimon, but I've captured powerful Digimon before and never got that excited. There's something more going on here, if only I could think what it was... Maybe it's just that, for the first time, I was proud to have him as my partner. I finally feel like we belong together.* He opened his eyes, turning to look at the still peacefully snoozing worm. *Of course, I'm not going to tell him that. Not yet. Maybe after he's really proven himself worthy.*
"You awake yet?" he asked, prodding the sleeping caterpillar.
"Hm?" asked Wormmon drowsily. "Ken, I had the weirdest dream... huh?" He opened his eyes and stared around in confusion.
"It wasn't a dream," said Ken, "and you've overslept. Go on downstairs and tell someone to get me some breakfast... or lunch, or whatever we're having right now."
"Yes, Ken," said Wormmon, obediently getting up and scurrying for the door.
Just as he was about to leave, Ken called, "Oh, and Wormmon?"
"Get something good for yourself, too. Tell them I said you could have whatever you want," Ken replied. "You're going to need your strength today."
"You can thank me by doing what I say, not by standing there staring at me. Move!" Ken retorted. Wormmon moved. Ken watched him for a moment, then slowly dragged himself out of bed and began grooming himself for another day. He wanted to at least look good today, because he had a feeling it was going to be one of the most awkward days he'd spent in a long time.
Meanwhile, Wormmon scuttled down the hallway, momentarily glad to have been given a job to do. He wanted a little time to himself to think, away from Ken's presence. Having Ken around was very distracting; the minute Ken turned those amethyst-crystal eyes on him, rational thinking tended to go out the window, particularly now that Ken had started treating him with this strange show of awe. That was what he needed to figure out - why Ken was treating him so differently all of a sudden. Not just because he could Digivolve, certainly. Ken had known all along that he could, hadn't he? They had even talked about it before, and Ken had made it clear that he'd never attempted the experiment because he didn't want to, not because he didn't believe it possible. He'd simply seen it as a waste of time and power, and power was precious enough to the young emperor that he wouldn't waste it on anything.
Power... that was the answer. Ken liked Stingmon because Stingmon was powerful, strong enough to impress even the Emperor. In other words, Wormmon had just gone, in Ken's sight, from being a worthless pest to a useful tool, which equaled a change in status. He was pleased with his new acquisition, that was all... and probably also a bit relieved. Face it, it was embarrassing for someone of Ken's caliber to be stuck with a weak little crawly thing as his lifelong partner. He was probably just glad his partner had turned out to be something he didn't have to be ashamed of.
*Well, I'll show him,* thought Wormmon, with an unusual surge of determination. *I'll earn his respect somehow. I'm not just a tool, I'm his partner, and I've got to make him see that.*
On the other hand, being a valued tool did have a few advantages, not the least of them being breakfast. Ken had been right - digivolving made a 'mon hungry. He'd been too full of good feelings last night to notice a little thing like hunger, but now that he had a long night's sleep between then and now, he was starving. With Ken's orders to back him up, he didn't feel any compunctions about ordering up all his favorite things and not stopping until the last crumb had been gobbled up. Feeling much refreshed, he set out in search of his master.
Ken was in this control room, as was usual. Once again, he was dressed in his imperial garb, and had even managed to replace his sweeping cape. Wormmon thought he preferred the Ken in blue pajamas and fuzzy slippers and sleep-tousled hair to this aloof imperial figure, but there had been one improvement since last he'd looked. Ken's customary glasses had been lost during the climb up the rock, and he hadn't found time to replace them yet. Without their angular shapes to balance out the delicate lines of Ken's face, he looked younger, more innocent, than the emperor usually did. He was perched in his chair, staring off into space with an odd expression of confusion. Wormmon crept closer, trying to get himself noticed without actually causing a disturbance, but Ken never looked down, not even when Wormmon was practically standing on his foot.
"Um... Master? Are you okay?" Wormmon inquired.
Ken jumped. "Don't sneak up on me like that!"
"Sorry. I can't help it," said the caterpillar. "I was just concerned. You looked so far away... I was afraid something was wrong."
"I don't know if something is wrong or not," Ken answered thoughtfully. "I just feel so weird today. I can't concentrate on anything - like I've got an eggbeater in my head stirring up everything I think. I'm just not feeling like myself... and why am I telling you, anyway?"
"I don't know," said Wormmon.
"Neither do I. Let's forget all this - I didn't get where I am today by fretting. Come on, we're going upstairs. I want to put you through your paces."
They went up. At the highest point of Ken's fortress, there was a small balcony, where he could watch the scenery or keep an eye on any troops who might be stationed on the platform below. Ken led the way there, pausing a moment to look out at a cloudless sky and a wide expanse of trees.
"Good weather for flying," he commented. He fixed Wormmon with an impatient look. "All right, we're here. Do your thing."
Wormmon froze. This, he felt, was entirely too abrupt. Last night had been different. Ken had needed him then - he hadn't had any choice but to transform. Now all he could think of was what would happen if he sat here in a nervous bundle while his master glared at him, waiting for him to do something he didn't even remember how he'd done in the first place.
*Don't think about that,* he scolded himself. *You said you'd do anything for him. Now's the time to prove it!*
Closing his eyes, he forced all fearful thoughts out of his mind, making himself think only of what it would feel like if gravity suddenly lost its hold on him, filling his mental vision with spinning stars... He suddenly realized things really were spinning, and the next thing he knew, he was hovering several feet above the ground. Laughing with relief, he propelled himself into the air, looping through the sky for the sheer joy of being able to move as he pleased. That hadn't been hard at all, it was wonderful, and any fears he might have had while he was trapped down there on the ground blew away on the breeze.
"You fly like a pigeon!" shouted Ken. "I wanted a fighter jet! Come on, impress me!"
Dismayed, Stingmon looked down and saw that Ken was trying to hide a grin.
"So, that's the game you want to play?" he asked. "Try this on for size!"
He put on a fresh burst of speed, appearing to any watcher below to become nothing more than a green streak, and shot into a series of hair-raising corkscrew turns, terminating in a backwards loop that brought him a hundred feet into the air before dropping straight down. With a wrenching effort, he pulled out of the dive just inches above the platform, skimming over it briefly before rising into the air in a tornado-like spin.
"That's more like it!" Ken enthused. "All right, enough showing off! You're a warrior, not circus performer! Let's see how you fight!"
The laser sword went out, and the wasp warrior slashed through the sky, zipping around almost too fast to follow as he battled a horde of imaginary enemies. Ken continued to shout up at him, alternating insults with encouragement, urging his partner to ever more incredible performances. Stingmon did what he could to live up to his master's expectations, pushing himself to the edge of his abilities. After several hours of this practice, he was aching in every muscle and his wings felt as if they were on fire, but he felt pleased with his performance. Exhausting as it was, it was the most fun he'd had in a long time. Ken held out his hands to catch him as he dropped tiredly out of the sky, shifting back to his Rookie form with relief.
"That's enough," said Ken, setting him gently on the floor. "You did well."
"You really think so?" asked Wormmon eagerly.
"I do. I should have known before that Fate would never send me an unsuitable Digimon," said Ken. He wasn't meeting Wormmon's eyes, but there was warmth in his voice that hadn't been there in a long time. "You're a worthy partner, and a credit to your emperor."
It was just as well that Ken wasn't looking at his partner; Wormmon was blushing again.
"Th-thank you!" he stammered. "That means more to me than anything else."
Ken didn't answer. He was looking off at the horizon, where the sun was beginning to turn orange in preparation for sunset.
"It's late," he said at last. "That took longer than I thought it would. I'd meant to get more done today. That's what I get for oversleeping. Maybe after dinner..." He turned and began walking thoughtfully toward the door, to all appearances lost in his own world. Wormmon tried to follow, but he'd only gone a few paces before his legs gave out and sent him falling on his face. His yelp of pain and surprise was enough to make the boy-emperor stop and turn around. He eyed the fallen worm with a look of annoyance.
"Oh, honestly," he muttered. "It figures. Look here, you may be tough, but you're obviously not tough enough for real work. Not yet. We're going to change that. Understood?" Wormmon nodded. "Good. Don't be thinking you're going to be living in luxury just because you've learned some new tricks. You are going to work harder than you ever have before, until you can perform to my satisfaction. Got it?"
"Yes, Ken. I won't let you down."
Ken let his eyes meet Wormmon's. There was a smile on his face - very small, but real.
"I know you won't," he said. "Here."
He knelt to scoop his partner up and settled him on his shoulder. Acting as if it were all very ordinary, Ken glided inside the fortress and began making his way down the tunnels - to where, Wormmon was too tired and puzzled to care.
*I don't understand,* he thought blurrily. *One minute he's so nice to me, and then the wall comes down again. I wish I knew what he was really thinking.*
Dinner, when it came a short while later, was a quiet affair. Ken seemed preoccupied with something, staring off into space, not even paying attention to what he was eating. Every once in a while, though, his evening-colored eyes would flick over to the caterpillar who sat at his right hand, and his expression would soften for a minute. Then that look would shift to one of irritation, even anger, and he'd look resolutely away again. Wormmon watched, puzzled. He wished - he wanted to ask - but he was so tired. Finally, he gave up. With a huge yawn, he curled up on the tabletop and fell asleep. He wouldn't have been surprised to know that Ken went on with his meal without the slightest reaction. However, he was surprised when, a few minutes later, he woke up to realize that someone had picked him up and was carrying him gently back to Ken's quarters, setting him down on a pillow.
"Good night, Wormmon," said a soft voice.
Trying to overcome his exhaustion for just a moment, the caterpillar was able to raise his head and open his eyes just long enough to see the Emperor gliding out of the room.
Evening found Ken wandering in his library, browsing idly through the shelves without the intent of actually reading anything. True, there were volumes here on every subject imaginable, ranging from dry old reference works to selections of light fiction. There should have been something to hold his interest, whatever his mood was, but he knew he couldn't keep his mind on a few printed words tonight. All he wanted now was a little peace and quiet.
*It happened again,* he thought. *It wasn't just the surprise of seeing Wormmon digivolve last night that made me feel the way I did. If it was, I shouldn't have felt it again... but I did. What's wrong with me?*
Something had to be wrong, of that much he was certain. For the last three years, he'd been living in an icy calm, every painful feeling frozen away. It was what had let him survive the loneliness of losing his brother, of living the isolated life of a celebrity, of coming to live in the Digital World on his own. It had given him the inner reserves he'd needed to stake his claim on this world, made him able to fight for it against his own kind when other children would have said it wasn't worth the effort. Today, though, he had reached for that calm, and it hadn't been there - or rather, it came and went, leaving him on an emotional seesaw. There was a deep fear in him he might lose it entirely, and then where would he be? He couldn't possibly govern an empire if he couldn't keep his emotions under control, could he? If he lost his protective shield, he'd have to deal with pain, something he'd sworn he'd never let himself feel ever again.
And yet, when he was that cold inside, it was hard to feel really happy. When he'd first had the change come over him, back in the foggy days he could only half remember, he'd thought it was a fair trade-off. Now, though, something was making him feel warm inside again, and he had to admit that deep down, he liked the feeling.
*I know what I feel like,* he thought, running his finger down a book of Greek myths. *Janus, the gate god - one face looking backwards, one looking ahead. No matter which way I turn, there's always some part of me looking the other direction.*
"Having problems, Emperor?"
Ken jumped; he hadn't heard anyone come into the library, and it was off-limits to most of his servants. More importantly, the voice wasn't one he recognized at all, and he knew everything that moved in his palace. He looked around frantically, but could see no one.
"Who's there?" he demanded.
There was a cold laugh, and from behind a bookshelf glided a woman in red. At least, he thought she was a woman, but there was something about her that he couldn't quite put his finger on that didn't seem natural. She gave him a thin-lipped smile.
"Good evening," she said. "So nice to meet you in person at last."
"Who are you?" asked Ken, narrowing his eyes.
"A friend," she replied. "I can help you, if you want."
"I don't need your help," Ken replied.
"Of course you don't. We've always made sure of that. Ironic, isn't it?"
"Myself, and one or two others. We've been watching you, Ken Ichijouji."
The boy frowned. "How do you know my name? How much spying have you been doing?"
"I'd hardly call it spying, Ichijouji. We have been looking out for your best interests, after all. Did you never wonder who it was that led you here?"
Ken said nothing. The question was an uncomfortable one; he, who had prided himself on covering all bases and double-checking everything, had never given a thought to try to trace whoever had sent him that e-mail, so long ago, the one that had told him of another world where he could make all his dreams come true.
"So it was you, wasn't it?" he asked.
"Not me. A friend of mine," answered the woman. "He knew you would be perfect for the task. You've done such a wonderful job so far... with our help."
"Your help?" Ken repeated. "I didn't notice you giving me any help."
"Of course. You wouldn't have accepted it if you'd known," she answered. "But we did give you a gift, something very rare and precious. You wouldn't be where you are today without it."
"I don't believe a word of it," said Ken flatly.
"No? I thought you were just thinking about it."
"What I was thinking is no business of yours," Ken replied.
"Oh, but it is," she answered. "Things have been difficult for you today, haven't they? You're starting to feel again. It's not going to get better, either."
"What do you mean?" he asked suspiciously.
"Three years ago, you came to this world looking for an escape from all the pain in your life. We gave it to you," she answered. "We taught you how to enter the Digital World. We provided you with the means of locking away your emotions so you would never be lonely or unhappy ever again. We were there watching you the whole time, guiding you, helping you learn the secrets of the Spires and the Rings. Everything you have now, you owe to us."
"Possibly," she answered, unfazed, "but if so, you'll have to admit, I'm an awfully well- informed liar."
"Then let's have a little of that information. Tell me what's going on. You didn't come here tonight without a reason."
"I just didn't want to see all your work undone," she replied. "If you don't want to lose everything, you'll avoid that Wormmon creature, and more importantly, do not let him digivolve."
"Haven't you noticed the effect it has on you?" she replied. "Every time he transforms, your defenses will grow weaker, and so will you. Do you really want to go back to what you were before - a worthless little child? Or do you want to remain as you are, the Emperor of the whole world, the genius, the superhuman?"
"I think you're exaggerating a bit," said Ken coolly.
"Oh?" she answered. "Well, if you don't trust me, I'd try asking the worm. He should remember. He was the one who cared for you afterwards. It was a painful procedure for you..."
A sudden vision flashed across Ken's mind, a memory of searing pain that filled his mind with fire, and echoes of voices wandered across his mind...
... "Wormmon, do something, it hurts..."
"It will be okay, Ken, just hold still, I'll look after you."
"But it hurts so much... Am I going to die?"
"Just lie still."
"Please don't leave me, Wormmon. I don't want to die alone. Promise me you won't ever
"I'll never leave you, you know that. We're partners. I'll never leave you, no matter what
happens. I'll always be right here, to protect you. I won't let anything happen to you, I
"It will be okay, Ken, just hold still, I'll look after you."
"But it hurts so much... Am I going to die?"
"Just lie still."
"Please don't leave me, Wormmon. I don't want to die alone. Promise me you won't ever leave me."
"I'll never leave you, you know that. We're partners. I'll never leave you, no matter what happens. I'll always be right here, to protect you. I won't let anything happen to you, I promise..."
Ken pulled back, literally taking a few steps away as he tried to escape the pain of the memory. Where had that come from? Could it be a dream? There was no frame for it, nothing to tell him that it was anything more than his overactive imagination, but the imagery had been so real. He could see it all as clearly as if it had been happening in front of him: the darkness of a cave, the feel and smell of a bed of leaves, Wormmon beside him pressing wet cloths to his forehead, their coldness barely even taking the edge off of the overwhelming pain. Just for a moment, he'd remembered the fear of death.
"Do you remember?" the woman asked. "We never intended that. After all, the whole point was for you to lose your pain."
"What did you do?" he asked.
"We planted a seed," she answered. "Several seeds, in fact. Seeds of darkness and power. They've been growing inside you. They are the sources of your power, what make you so much more brilliant and talented than others. They thrive off of emotional pain, something you had inside of you in abundance. In exchange for your emotions, they give you power. It seemed like a fair trade."
"So what's Wormmon got to do with all of this?" asked Ken.
"He is... how do you say it? The antithesis of these Dark Seeds. His very presence poisons them. Every time you let him transform, you open yourself to his influence, and the Seeds become a little weaker. If you keep this up, you'll degenerate completely back to what you were before. Is that really what you want? Do you want to go back to being a little nobody whose own parents ignored him?"
Ken shook his head. "This is just crazy talk. There's nothing you can just put inside a person that will turn them into a genius. Either they are or they aren't."
"Think that if you want," the woman replied, "but don't go blaming me when you start losing your grip."
"All right, then, I won't," said Ken lightly. "And I think you've overstayed your welcome. Goodbye."
"Fine. Be that way," she replied. "Don't think you've seen the last of me, though."
"Was that a threat?" Ken asked. "Funny thing for someone to do if they've got my best interests at heart."
The woman said nothing. She simply gave him an enigmatic smile and faded into the shadows. Ken stared, amazed. One moment, she had been standing in front of him, and now... nothing.
"This is entirely too strange to be believed," he said. "I must be going crazy. I think I'd better get some sleep."
He walked thoughtfully back to his room and found Wormmon still asleep on his pillow, curled up in a ball like a cat. Just the sight made Ken smile. Then he caught himself, wondering just when he'd started thinking his partner was cute.
*Well, she was right about one thing - something about me is definitely changing,* he thought. *I just can't help thinking it can't be as bad as she says it is.*
On a whim, he flopped down next to Wormmon and prodded him gently.
"You awake?" he asked.
Wormmon yawned. "Not really..."
"Would you wake up if I said I need to talk to you?"
Wormmon sat up and shook himself. "I'm up. What do you need to talk about?"
"I need you to help me remember something," Ken replied. "There's a place in my mind I can't get to. I can remember how it was when I was young, and I can remember the way things are now, but there's a space in the middle I can't remember at all. Do you remember how I first started coming here, to the Digital World?"
"Don't you remember how we first met?" asked Wormmon.
Ken shook his head. "Nothing at all." His eyes went distant, his expression turning speculative. "I suppose that's something else they thought I wouldn't mind giving up..."
"It's nothing." Ken leaned back and settled himself more comfortably against the pillows. "Come on, tell me. Pretend it's a bedtime story."
"Well... alright," said Wormmon. "I don't know how you first came here. I just remember one day looking up, and there you were - a little lost boy trying to find out where he was. I'd never seen anyone like you, but I knew I had to help you. You see, ever since the day I'd hatched, I knew I was waiting for something. I spent years and years just waiting, hoping the next day would be the one... I was so lonely, and when you told me you were lonely, too - that you had no one in your home who cared about you - I knew you were what I'd been waiting for." He sighed wistfully. "We made a promise, that day, that we'd never let each other be lonely again."
He paused, waiting to see if Ken was going to say anything in return. Ken said nothing. He had his eyes closed, trying to make his mind bring him back the memories he was being told he should have... and something was coming back, a memory of seeing the world through frightened, tear-blurred eyes, and a tiny little voice asking, "Why are you crying? Please don't cry, I'll take care of you..."
"Then what?" he asked.
"Well... after a while, we found a way to send you home through one of the ports, but you always came back. You used to come here to play all the time. You even found a human friend here..."
"Ryo," Ken supplied. "I'd almost forgotten about Ryo. We lost touch after I changed schools... I always said I was too busy for him. Too bad. We had fun together, didn't we, Wormmon?"
"They were the best times of my life," Wormmon replied, nodding. He laughed a little. "The trouble you boys used to get into. It was fun, though - walking around, fighting evil Digimon, having adventures..."
"What made it fall apart?" asked Ken quietly.
"I'm not sure," said Wormmon. "One day, something strange happened. We were walking through the desert, and suddenly you cried out and fell. We managed to get you to safety, but you were in such terrible pain, we didn't know if you were strong enough to make it back to your home. I spent days looking after you, never knowing what was wrong. You were so afraid you were going to die."
"I was afraid," said Ken softly.
Wormmon looked startled. "You remember?"
"A little," Ken answered. "The only other time I've been so afraid since then was... was when..."
*Was when I fell off the cliff,* he realized. *Wormmon kept his promise, after all... he promised he wouldn't leave me to die.*
"Don't think too hard about it," said Wormmon. "I know I don't like to."
"Why? I got well, didn't I?"
"Sort of," said Wormmon. "You got better, but... while you were sick, something changed about you. You went away from me for a long time, and when you came back, you were different. You had all these ideas..."
"And that was the beginning of the Digimon Emperor," Ken finished. "So she was telling the truth."
"Who was?" asked Wormmon, his antennae pricking up.
"Somebody," answered Ken. "I really don't even know who. Just some woman who showed up, dropping hints and giving me half-information. She told me that she and some friends of hers planted some kind of seed inside me... something that would make me smarter and stronger. She said it was painful, and that you would remember." His voice turned bitter. "She talked like she thought she was doing me a favor."
"She can keep her favors," said Wormmon angrily. "I liked the old you better. At least then you were nice to people, and... oops. Sorry, Ken, I didn't mean-"
"Yes, you did," Ken snapped. "Of course you would rather have a helpless little kid who needed you around to look after him. It wouldn't matter what I want, just as long as you're well taken care of, right?"
"That's not how I meant it!" Wormmon protested. "You know your happiness means more to me than anything."
Ken deflated. "I know. If you didn't care, you wouldn't have stayed by me all this time. It's just I'm so confused, now... Argh!" He punched the pillow, ramming his fist into it so hard that the fragile fabric tore. "I hate this! Just when I think I'm at the top of the game, someone goes and changes the rules! It's not fair!"
"What are you going to do about it?" Wormmon asked.
"I'm not sure," said Ken thoughtfully. "I'll tell you one thing, I don't like people messing around inside my head and putting things in there the way they want. I'm my own person! I'll do what I want with my life. I won't have them deciding for me... but I don't want to go back to what I was before, either, when no one cared about me at all..."
"I care about you."
"You're the only one," Ken replied. He stopped, considering. "You are the only one, even now... All right, then, I've decided. If they can change the rules, then so can I. I'll play this little game of theirs, but from now on, I'll do it my way."
After all the changes of the last day or so, Wormmon was pleased to see things settling back into a pattern again. In the end, things didn't even change as much as he'd thought they would. The servants had been given orders to obey him, now, but since he usually didn't want anything from them, it didn't make a lot of difference. He was now expected to be at Ken's side nearly all the time, but since he'd always followed Ken voluntarily, the only real change was that he was encouraged in the pastime instead of shoved away. Often he could be found perched on the arm of Ken's chair or even on his shoulder. Normally, Ken didn't seem to notice his presence, but when he did, he treated the worm with a level of respect, listening to the advice he offered, even if he didn't always follow it. He now spent his nights in Ken's room as a matter of course. Ostensibly, his place was on the pillow at the edge of the bed, but since morning usually found them cuddled together, Ken finally gave up the pretense and let his partner sleep at his side, tucked comfortably into the crook of his elbow.
The other great change was that, instead of being expected to do chores, Wormmon was now expected to spend his mornings in training, honing his newfound skills. It wasn't enough, Ken said, that he had these new capabilities - he had to learn how to use them properly, or he would still find himself coming to a bad end the first time he met up with something with more experience. So he practiced, while Ken stood below and critiqued him. Emperor he might have been, but he still had all the instincts of a soccer coach, and he kept his partner working at fighting drills and flight patterns for hours on end. The practice seemed to be doing him good, though; he at least didn't fall out of the sky in exhaustion as he'd done the first day.
Today marked the first real milestone, in his opinion. Today was the first time Ken had actually sent him out alone. Not to battle - loyal as he was to Ken, the thought of having to go out and pick a fight with anything made him queasy - but just to do some surveying of the region at the fringes of Ken's conquest zone, checking out the lay of the land. Normally, it would have been a difficult journey, but Ken had done something to a row of Control Spires, cutting off their power supply for the short time it would take Stingmon to fly over them. Now, though, he was in the clear, zooming over the landscape that spread out below him. It was actually relaxing up here, whizzing along in a straight line without having to think about anything in particular.
No sooner had that thought crossed his mind, when he became aware of something happening up ahead, something that looked like he really might have to think about it after all. Dark shapes were flitting across the sky ahead of him, shapes that kept turning around to dive at each other. As he came closer, he recognized the doglike DeviDramon, mountain dwelling Digimon who ran in packs. They seldom ventured to the flatlands unless their hunting was bad, but now it seemed they had taken a notion to harass a small village. One of the dark shapes, however, was not a Devidramon, but a gigantic bird with feathers as black as night.
*Saberdramon,* Stingmon realized. *This must be its village.*
His guess was confirmed as he drew closer, staying close to the treetops in hopes that the DeviDramon wouldn't see him. The village was full of Penmon, the pudgy blue penguin-like Digimon that were Saberdramon's Rookie form. They watched with wide eyes as the Saberdramon flew over them, attacking the DeviDramon every time they got too close. It was putting up a good fight, but it was outnumbered four to one, and it already looked tired. Stingmon hovered under his protective canopy of trees, thinking. The fight wasn't any of his business, and Ken would be annoyed if he got involved, but...
A green rocket shot out of the foliage and smashed into a nearby DeviDramon, pitching it out of the sky just before it could take a swipe at the struggling bird. Stingmon and the DeviDramon tussled in midair, while the Saberdramon stared.
"Don't just sit there! Take the others," Stingmon ordered.
Somehow, he managed to sound authoritative, and the Saberdramon listened. Screeching a battle cry, it dove at a second DeviDramon, while Stingmon sent the first into dreamland with a sharp rap on the back of the head, letting it fall harmlessly into the treetops below. DeviDramon might be nasty, but he didn't like the idea of actually killing one, even if they would be reconfigured later. The Saberdramon didn't seem to have any such inhibitions; it was firing off round after round of black fireballs that sent the remaining three DeviDramon backing away warily. Stingmon dove at another one, letting his saber just barely nick its skin, and the dragon-mon flinched away. He went in for another pass, but the DeviDramon appeared to have had enough. One Digimon they might be willing to take on, but they appeared not to like the new odds very much. Barking and snarling, they turned tail and began flying away. The exhausted Saberdramon dropped to the ground, and Stingmon followed behind. They landed in the center of the village and were immediately surrounded by chattering Penmon.
"Are you all right?" Stingmon asked.
"I will be, thanks to you," the Saberdramon replied. "Without your help, they would have destroyed my village. Why did you do this? You're a stranger. You could have been killed yourself."
Stingmon considered. Then, in a moment of inspiration, he said, "I came on the orders of the Digimon Emperor."
And before the startled bird could reply, he leaped into the air and flew away again. Truth be told, he wasn't sure he wanted to know their reactions to that last remark. Still, he was bound to find out sooner or later. Something like this wouldn't escape Ken's attention for long.
*He's not going to be pleased,* Stingmon thought. *Acting without orders... he's never going to trust me again after this. And things have been going so well, too. I wonder what he's going to have to say about this?*
By the next day, his worries had abated a bit. Ken hadn't even mentioned the incident, which made Wormmon think that he didn't know anything had happened. Though Wormmon was glad to escape any punishments the action might have brought on, he still felt a bid bad about what had happened in the first place. He didn't regret saving the village - he would have done it again in any event - but the fact that Ken had trusted him enough to not even bother to watch him, and that he had betrayed that trust by doing something he knew Ken would never had approved, unnerved him.
*I wonder if I should just tell him and get it over with?* he thought. *He might not even be that angry... these days, its hard to guess how he'll react to anything.* He glanced at Ken, who was currently ignoring him, even though the worm was sitting only inches away from him on the arm of his chair. At the moment, he seemed to have something on his mind, and was busy making calculations on his computer. Even so, there was something about him that was different from before. Gone was the frantic, near-manic light in his eyes; though he was obviously caught up in what he was doing, every action he took was calm and sure. Yet, Wormmon knew that if he were to leave for a while and come back, he might find the boy's attitude had changed completely. Ken himself had acknowledged the odd mood swings, wondering if they really were the effects of some outside source, like the Dark Seeds. All Wormmon knew was that when he was around, Ken seemed more in control of himself, so he stayed around as often as possible.
"Master?" squeaked a voice from the shadows. A Betamon stood in the doorway, balanced precariously on its back legs, holding a tray.
Ken glanced up, looking annoyed. "What is it? Can't you see I'm busy?"
"But... you ordered lunch to be sent up to you..." the servant quavered.
"Oh," said Ken. "All right, then. Bring it here and go away."
The servant did as it was told, moving slowly forward as it tried to carry a tray that was clearly to large for it. Just a few feet away from Ken's throne, the creature sneezed explosively, losing its grip on the tray and sending its entire contents smashing to the floor. Dishes shattered, and a bowl of soup splattered everywhere, staining Ken's royal clothing. The creature cringed as it saw the familiar wild light come into his ruler's eyes.
"Fool!" Ken barked. "Look what you've done, you clumsy oaf!"
"I'm sorry! Forgive me, master!" the creature sobbed, groveling on the soup-spattered floor.
"You aren't deserving of forgiveness," Ken spat.
He stood up, producing his whip, and Wormmon cringed. He'd almost forgotten about that whip, had hoped it was long gone. Now seeing it again, remembering how many times it had been used on him, made something in him snap.
"Stop it!" he shouted. "Ken, what do you think you're doing?"
Such was the surprise of having Wormmon defy him that Ken did stop, turning around to look at him quizzically.
"I'm punishing him," he said mechanically.
"What for?" Wormmon replied. "What did he do that he couldn't help doing? What good is beating him going to do?"
"I... I don't know," Ken answered. He was visibly trembling, fighting some inner battle. Wormmon pushed his advantage.
"He hasn't done anything," he said persuasively. "He can't. This one is ringed, Ken, remember? Anything you tell him to do, he has to do. He can't possibly disobey you. He just had an accident, and beating him won't change a thing."
"You... you're right," said Ken slowly. More positively, he repeated. "You're right. Funny I never thought of it before. It doesn't make any sense at all. Here, stop that," he said to the servant, who was still whimpering on the floor. "Look, I'm not going to hit you, okay? I just lost my temper for a minute, so stop bawling already."
He knelt down to try to pull the shivering 'mon to its feet, and as he did so, his hand brushed the Dark Ring around its neck. Even though his hand was gloved, he still pulled away as if he'd been burned, hissing in pain. He stared at his apparently unharmed hand, and then back at the Digimon, his eyes widening in a kind of fearful confusion.
"Did you hurt yourself?" asked Wormmon anxiously.
"Not exactly," said Ken. "When I touched that Ring, something just felt... wrong..." He trailed off thoughtfully. Then something struck him; he snapped his fingers. "That's it! It's the Rings! And the Spires, too, probably..."
"Before he came in, I felt fine. As soon as he arrived, I started getting angry and snapping at things for no reason. There's something about that Ring that acts like the Dark Seeds do, or works in tandem with them, somehow." Experimentally, he reached for the Ring again, then pulled away, shuddering. "I can't touch it. Can you get it off?"
"Huh?" asked Wormmon, startled.
"Until I can figure out what's being done to me, I don't want these things around me. Take it off," said Ken sternly.
Wormmon didn't argue. He scampered up to the poor servant-mon (who now looked like it had no idea what was going on) and pulled the Ring apart, snapping it easily into two pieces. Wormmon didn't feel any particular difference, but as soon as it was broken, Ken looked noticeably relieved.
"Yes, that's much better," he said. "I'm going to need to think of a way around this..."
"What's going on?" asked the newly-freed 'mon, blinking and looking around. "Where am I?"
"It's okay. You'll be all right now," Ken answered. He got down and began helping gather up the pieces of the ruined dishes. The Digimon, still looking puzzled, decided it ought to help him. For a few seconds they worked in silence, Ken carefully picking up broken porcelain while the former servant used a napkin to mop up the mess. Then it looked up, realized who was kneeling next to it, and jumped backwards with a startled squeak.
"You - you're the Digimon Emperor!" it cried.
"Something like that," said Ken mildly, keeping his attention on the dishes. "Don't worry, I won't hurt you now."
"You captured me!"
"Yes. And now I've freed you." He paused to give the creature the benefit of his full gaze, and with it, some reassurance, letting it see that he meant what he said. "You can go home now, if you want. I'm sure there's someone there who misses you - friends, family. Something more than what I've got." He dropped his eyes again.
"If you please, sir," said the Betamon timidly. "You captured my family, too. I can't leave without them."
"They can leave, too. You have my permission to set them free."
The Betamon looked at him suspiciously. "Why?"
"Because that's what I want. What other reason should there be?"
"Something. You don't do things like this. Nothing makes the Digimon Emperor happy but seeing people suffer."
"That's not true," answered Ken. "Nothing ever made the Digimon Emperor happy. I'm beginning to think he wasn't as clever as I thought. Go home, and take your family with you. You won't be the last to leave here."
"Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!" The Betamon, looking frightened, scurried out of the room. Ken shook his head.
"Keep an eye on him, Wormmon," he said. "He looks so frightened right now, I don't have any idea what he's going to do."
"You've got him confused," said Wormmon. "I don't blame him. I was confused, too."
"That makes two of us," Ken sighed. "But at least I know I decided to do that, and not someone else. Even if I only did it to spite someone, it was still my choice."
"You didn't just do it out of spite," Wormmon replied. "I know you're a good person, Ken. You're just... out of practice."
"You think? I'm not so sure. I can't remember what I am anymore."
Just then, there was a knock on the door.
"Who's there?" Ken called.
"There's someone here to see you, master," said a servant's voice.
"Who is it?"
"A Saberdramon. He wants to talk to you about an attack on his village."
"An attack? I didn't attack any villages this week."
"Uh-oh," said Wormmon.
"Uh-oh? What do you mean, uh-oh? Do you know something about this?" Ken asked.
"Well... I might have had something to do with it, yes."
"Should I let him in or not?" the servant called.
"Let him in," Ken declared. "I want to hear about this."
Wormmon gulped nervously, thinking, *Well, this is it.*
Within moments, the Saberdramon had been escorted into Ken's control room. As it neared his throne, it spread its wings and lowered its head in an unmistakable avian bow.
"Greetings, Emperor," it said. "I am the leader of the Penmon village in the west. I bring you my regards and the regards of my people."
"Accepted," Ken answered. "What brings you here, this far from your home? It must be no small matter."
"It concerns a matter of honor, and of a debt that must be repaid - no small thing, to us," the Saberdramon answered. "Yesterday, as I'm sure you know, our village was attacked by marauding DeviDramon. We all would have perished had it not been for the intervention of a warrior who came and saved us. He said he was acting under your orders."
"Did he, now?" Ken answered mildly. "One of my warriors, you say? I have so many of them, I can hardly keep track. You'll have to describe him for me, so I'll be able to reward him properly."
"Of course. It was an insect Digimon in green armor who carried a sword of red light."
"Ah, yes. I know of him. Go on."
"If he is truly your servant, as he said he was, then we owe you a debt for sending him. I had heard rumors that you were a cruel being who lived only to cause suffering, but as I can see now that this is not the case, I and all my village would be happy to serve you. Call on us for anything, and we will come."
Ken lowered his head in the suggestion of a bow. "Thank you. Your offer is appreciated. I'll certainly call if I need you."
After a short exchange of formalities, the Saberdramon left again, saying it was needed to look after his village. Ken watched him go, looking thoughtful. Wormmon looked up at him anxiously. He couldn't tell what was going on in the boy's head; his expression was distant and unreadable as the face of the moon.
"Ken?" he called. "Are you upset?"
"Upset?" Ken repeated, coming out of his daze. "Why should I be upset?"
"Because you just told me to scout the territory. You never said anything about fighting DeviDramon. I disobeyed your orders... and then I didn't tell you about it. I was afraid you'd be angry."
Ken looked hurt. "Are you really afraid of me?"
"I'm sorry, Ken," said Wormmon, hanging his head.
To the worm's surprise, Ken scooped him up and hugged him tightly.
"Don't be sorry," he said. "It's my fault. I know that. You don't have anything to be sorry for... But I want you to trust me. You're the one friend I've got. I'm not going to do anything to hurt you, understand? I care about you."
"You wouldn't have said that a few weeks ago."
"A few weeks ago, I was a different person," Ken answered. "Anyway, don't you know you've done me a favor? We just won over a whole village, one we won't lose just because someone takes out a Control Spire or breaks a few Rings. Hm." He trailed off again, looking thoughtful. "You know, this is interesting. It certainly solves the labor problem, doesn't it?"
"What do you mean?" Wormmon asked.
"Well, I can't keep the Ringed servants around anymore, can I? I'll need substitutes - someone I can depend on to do what I ask without the Rings to keep them in line."
"That doesn't sound so hard to me," Wormmon replied. "You don't have to have someone enslaved to you to make them do what you want. You can get them to do things out of loyalty... or you could bargain with them."
"Bargain?" Ken repeated. "You mean, like, pay them? Or... offer some kind of benefits... You know, this could work! Come on, Wormmon, I've got an idea."
He got up and began sprinting off, beckoning for his partner to follow, and Wormmon obediently bounded along behind.
"Where are we going?" he asked.
Ken grinned at him. "We're going to make some bargains."
The Digidestined arrived at Izzy's house to find the boy staring at his computer. This was nothing unusual, as they all knew he'd rather look at his computer than anything else. What was confusing was the expression on his face, which was one of utter bafflement. Everyone crowded around for a closer look.
"What's going on, Izzy?" asked TK, looking at the grid on the screen. "The e-mail we got said something weird was going on in the Digital World. Has Ken cooked up some new kind of monster to throw at us?"
"No, nothing like that. That's what's so weird about it," Izzy answered vaguely.
"What do you mean by that?" Iori asked. "You aren't trying to tell us Ken's not doing anything, are you?"
"No, that's not it either," answered Izzy. "Look. I've been keeping track of the number of Control Spires in the Digital World. At the beginning of this week, there were eight thousand, seven hundred and fifty-two. You guys took out five hundred and sixty. Early in the week, Ken put up a round dozen along the borders of his territory. Now, how many do you think that leaves?"
"Too many?" answered Daisuke.
Miyako pulled out a calculator. "Eight thousand, two hundred and four."
"That's what you would think, wouldn't you?" Izzy replied. "But at last count, there were seven thousand, eight hundred and fifty-eight. Someone else took out a few hundred on their own while we weren't looking."
"But that's good news, right?" asked Kari. "I mean, the less Control Spires the better! Maybe some of the other Digidestined managed to get in somehow - someone like Michael that we don't know about."
"That possibility occurred to me," answered Izzy, "but I wanted to know for sure, so I asked Tentomon to keep an eye on things. He keeps in touch with all the insect Digimon around, so he's always got the buzz from the bees. You know what people are saying? They're saying Ken's taking down the Spires."
"What?" There was a general outcry.
"That' can't be it," said TK. "There's got to be some mistake. Ken wouldn't take down his own Spires, would he?"
"He is," said Izzy. "Tentomon didn't believe it either, so he went to have a look for himself. It's either Ken, or someone who looks, talks, and acts just like him. He's been going from area to area, knocking down Spires, and not only is he not trying to hide what he's doing, but he's making a big deal of it. He always makes sure he has an audience. And then there's the whole Dark Ring thing. He used to make Ring-raids practically every day. Not only has he suddenly stopped, but he's been letting all his old slaves go free. And yet, as far as I can tell, he's still laying claim to more territory. It doesn't add up!"
"It's got to be some kind of trick," said Iori. "He's trying to make everyone let their guard down, so he can send out something really dangerous."
"If he was doing that, why would he take down all the Spires?" asked Kari. "I thought he needed them to control his slaves."
"Maybe he's found some way to control them without Spires," Miyako suggested. "Man, that's a scary thought. Without the Spires and Rings around to destroy, how are we supposed to stop whatever he sends after us without hurting it?"
"Maybe we should ask Ken about it."
Everyone stared at Daisuke.
"What?" he asked, blinking innocently. "I think it's a good idea. Ken's a show-off. If he's done something clever, he'll tell us all about it."
"Takes one to know one," Miyako muttered.
"Well, it wouldn't hurt to just check up on him," said TK. "We'll know better what's going on if we can see it for ourselves."
Izzy glanced back at his computer screen. "According to my intelligence network, Ken was last seen heading for the Tokomon village in sector C-29. You might want to try heading there."
"Will do," Miyako agreed. "I'm not going to believe any of this until I see it! Digi-port, open!"
In a swirl of light, the Digidestined vanished through Izzy's computer.
It had been raining in the DigiWorld, and the earth was wet and muddy under the Digidestined's feet as they squish-squashed through the forest in the direction of the Tokomon village. Though the rain had stopped now, leaving the sky a milky white, the trees and brush were still wet, and everyone's clothes were sodden within minutes.
"Wish we could have come down a little closer to the village," Miyako complained, trying to wipe the water off of her glasses.
"I guess we can stop and take a breather," TK offered. "It's not like we're in any hurry, and if it's true that there really aren't any Ringed monsters running around, I doubt we'll be attacked."
"Good idea," said Kari, leaning against a tree.
"I could use a break," Iori admitted, trying to find a halfway dry spot on a log to sit on.
"Y'all are weak," said Daisuke, propping himself against what appeared to be a large, flat- sided rock. "I could walk back and forth across this forest all day and it wouldn't - huh?"
He turned around, staring suspiciously at the rock he was leaning on. Something about its glassy surface didn't look or feel right, and he rapped his knuckles against its side experimentally.
"Hey, guys," he said. "Is this one of the areas we've cleaned out?"
"I don't think so," TK replied. "Why?"
"Because this looks an awful lot like a broken Control Spire to me."
"Huh?" Everyone gathered around for a look. Sure enough, following it to one end led them to a heap of broken fragments and a ragged base.
"It's a Control Spire, all right," said TK. "Do you suppose Ken really did take it down?"
"Well, it wasn't Woody the Woodpecker," Daisuke answered. Unable to resist the temptation, he scampered up the broken end, using the jagged break for footholds. "Hey, you can see a long ways from up here! I think I see the village... looks like they've got a party going on. Think they'd mind if we joined them?"
"Do you see Ken anywhere?" Miyako inquired.
"Hard to tell. We're too far away. All I see are a bunch of little pink things."
"Those would be the Tokomon," said TK. "They'll know what's going on. Come on, Patamon. Maybe you'll see a relative."
Feeling encouraged now that they knew where they were going, they walked quickly through the forest. It wasn't long before they could hear the sounds of exuberant shouts, which proved to be coming from a small clearing at the edge of the village. The meadow had been marked off into two roughly rectangular areas, making a playing field, complete with two constructions of sticks and rope for the goals. Dashing across the field were a large number of Tokomon, all of them wearing uniforms of different colored handkerchiefs. In the middle of all the commotion was the Digimon Emperor, making himself highly visible as he ran around, shouting pointers and encouragement to the teams. The only reason Daisuke couldn't have recognized him was that everything from his hair down was splattered with mud from the wet playing field. He looked to be having a wonderful time, breathless with laughter at the Tokomons' antics.
"Ken?" asked Kari, coming to a frozen stop at the edge of the field.
Ken stopped laughing, instantly covered by a shield of invisible ice. "Oh, it's you people. Have you come to harass me again? What are you going to accuse me of now?"
"What in the world are you doing?" asked TK, looking around at the muddy gathering.
"Ken's teaching us a new game!" the Tokomon.
"If you must know, I'm organizing a soccer league," said Ken frostily. Even covered in mud, he managed to look dignified.
"A... soccer league?" Miyako repeated, as if the words were in another language.
"Ken?" said Iori. "Since when are you and he on a first-name basis?"
"Don't friends usually call each other by first names?" Ken asked.
"But you don't have any friends!" Miyako blurted. "You're the Digimon Emperor!"
"I don't see why those two ideas have to be mutually exclusive," said Ken. "I think I'm just as entitled to friends as anyone else is. We've been having a very good time until you all showed up and interrupted things."
"And I suppose you're going to tell us next that you're the one who took down that Control Spire back there?" asked TK.
"Well, technically, it was Wormmon here," Ken answered, "but it was on my orders, yes."
"Wormmon?" Kari repeated, looking quizzically at the little worm.
"Of course," said Ken. "He's gotten very good at it by now. I don't know what I'd do without his help."
"All right," said Daisuke coming up and glaring at him. "Who are you and what have you done with the real Ken?"
The boy-emperor gave him an opaque smile. "How do you know I'm not the real one, and the one you knew was false?"
"Um..." It was too much for Daisuke; he backed down.
"Come off it," said TK. "We came here for explanations, and we're going to get some. Why are you doing all this? Don't try to convince me that you've had a sudden change of heart."
"Of course not," answered Ken. "I've just made a few little changes in my regime, that's all. I've just figured out that life is easier when the Digimon serve me because they want to, not because I'm forcing them to. It takes just as much effort to go out and put Rings on a bunch of creatures as it does to win them over, and if I can convince them to like me, I won't have to worry every minute that I'm going to lose them when you all come along and start breaking my toys. Not only that, but they'll actually do things for me without me even having to tell them. Life's simpler this way."
"So you mean you've somehow managed to convince a bunch of Digimon to do all your work for you just on the strength of affection?" asked Iori suspiciously.
"Of course not," Ken answered. "It's a bargain. Most of the Digimon who swear loyalty to me now do it because I've promised them things in exchange, like protecting their villages from marauders - and I'll have you know all the servants in my palace are now being paid ten digi- dollars a week, plus room, board, and paid vacation."
"What?" yelped several surprised voices.
"Well, all except the Penmon. They're volunteers. They wash the dishes and mop the floors. They think it's the greatest job in the world, getting to play in the soapsuds all day."
"This is crazy. I'm not hearing this," said TK, shaking his head. "All right, then. How do you explain taking down all your Control Spires? Do you have a logical explanation for that, too?"
"Well, there's really point in them now, is there?" asked Ken. "If I'm not Ringing the Digimon anymore, I don't need Control Spires to power the Rings. Besides, I've decided I don't really need umpteen Control Spires in an area. They waste power, and they frighten the Digimon. Frightened Digimon make trouble."
"That, and knocking them all down shows what a good guy you really are," said Daisuke.
"Of course," Ken answered mildly. "I'm not above using showmanship to get what I want. I of all people ought to know that publicity is everything."
"So in other words," TK summed up, "you haven't really changed, you've just gotten smarter about how you're doing things."
"Absolutely correct," Ken answered. "And you know what the best part is? You can't do a thing about it. Everything is voluntary now. I'm not taking a thing that isn't willingly given. Really, I'm not doing anything wrong anymore."
"Yes you are!" said Kari. "You're deceiving a bunch of innocent Digimon!"
"Deceiving them? How?"
"By telling them you're going to protect them," answered Kari.
"But I am. I already have," Ken replied. "Wormmon and I have already taken care of three Ogremon raids and a tribe of rampaging Rockmon - they were the worst. We had a time convincing them to go elsewhere."
"I bet you sent them yourself," said TK darkly.
"How? There aren't any more Rings, no more Control Spires. How could I make anyone do anything?"
There was silence as Ken waited for an answer. He shrugged and smiled.
"See?" he said. "It's all perfectly legal."
"If you say so," said TK. "Don't worry, though. We will figure out what you're up to, and we'll stop you."
"Stop me from what?" asked Ken. "I'm not up to anything. I'm just playing soccer. Would you like to join us?"
"Yeah, sure!" said Daisuke brightly. He began trotting onto the field, but Miyako grabbed his collar and held him back.
"Don't be stupid," she scolded. "That's Ken, remember? You know, Ken - the enemy!"
"He might be the enemy," he mumbled as his teammates dragged him away, "but he's also an awesome soccer player."
"I think he's been hit over the head one too many times with that soccer ball," Iori opined.
"Something has changed about Ken, though," said Daisuke. "I could see it. There's something about him that wasn't there last time we looked."
"Yeah, he changed his hair," said Miyako. "It used to look like he'd licked an electrical socket. Now he looks more like he did on TV. He lost his glasses, too."
"That's not what I mean!" Daisuke snapped. "I'm talking about how he was acting. Didn't you see him when we first showed up? That was no publicity stunt. That was a guy having fun with a bunch of friends. And he wasn't insulting us and telling us how great he is like he usually does. He might be trying to pretend he's still all big and bad, but something has changed about him. I don't care what he says. He's not doing this just for convenience's sake, not when he used to enjoy seeing people suffer."
"So why is he doing it?" asked TK. "Out of the goodness of his heart?"
Daisuke shrugged. "Anyone got any better guesses?"
He waited a while. No gave him any.
"So why has he had this change of heart all of a sudden?" asked Miyako at last.
"I dunno," said Daisuke. "I guess we'll just have to wait for him to explain that one, too."
Ken leaned back in his tub, closing his eyes and sinking into the warm water until he was submerged to his chin, nearly hidden by walls of soapsuds. Wormmon perched on the rim, trying to help his partner get all the mud out of his hair.
"That was embarrassing," Ken muttered.
"Don't worry about it," said Wormmon soothingly. "It's not your fault your team lost."
"It's not that," said Ken, brushing the comment away impatiently. "You know what I'm talking about, Wormmon, so don't try to dance around it."
"That's right," said Ken. "I hadn't even thought about how they'd be taking this. I hadn't thought about how they'd deal with it. I must have looked so stupid to them... playing games in the mud like a silly little kid..."
"They don't think you're stupid," Wormmon assured him.
"Yes they do. They think I've gone crazy or something," Ken replied. "I could see it on their faces... they didn't believe a word I was saying."
"They were just surprised. You can't blame them. They haven't been here with you like I have. One day you were out to get them, and the next time they see you, you're inviting them to play soccer with them! They can't help it if they don't understand."
"They still didn't believe me," said Ken. "They still think I'm their enemy."
"I... I don't know. I thought I was, but I'm not doing anything they don't want me to do - and they're not doing anything I don't want them to do. I told them I wasn't doing anything wrong... isn't that an admission that I was doing something wrong before?"
Wormmon shrugged. "Well... depending on how you define wrong..."
"You thought what I was doing was wrong," said Ken. "Go on, admit it."
"All right, I did. But that was then and this is now. You've gotten a lot better, Ken, really you have. I hardly recognize you anymore. It's like you're a whole new person... or more like the one you used to be, back in the old days."
"So I'm going in circles," Ken summed up. "I don't know about this, Wormmon. Something still doesn't feel right to me. Maybe all this has been a bad idea. I didn't worry this much before."
"I like that you worry," said Wormmon. "It means you know you don't know everything. It means you care about people besides yourself."
"Well, I don't like it. I liked knowing everything," said Ken. "I'm getting tired of worrying about things, and I don't like the Digidestined thinking I'm crazy. But I like what I'm doing... and I don't want to lose you again."
"You won't," said Wormmon. "I'm not letting you get lost again, no matter how confused you get."
"Thanks. I needed to hear that," Ken replied. "You know, you've changed. Times were you'd never be talking to me like that. I'm glad you've learned how to trust me again." He grinned suddenly. "You know what else?"
"You need a bath as bad as I do! You look like some kind of earthworm, covered in mud like that. Come here!"
Wormmon gave a yelp and tried to scramble away, but Ken was too quick for him. With a victorious cry, the boy latched on to the caterpillar and ducked him under the water. Wormmon came up gasping and shaking bubbles off his antennae. Ken laughed - until he was hit in the face with a splash of soapy water as his partner retaliated. Then there was nothing left to do but what any Emperor would do when attacked - attack back, and decide that for now, playing silly games was really not such a bad thing.
Over the next few weeks, Ken kept mostly to himself. He continued extending his holdings, as well as keeping an eye on the Digidestined, who continued knocking out Spires as if he wasn't still taking them down himself. He found this a bit annoying, but told himself it didn't make any difference, really, if they wanted to do his work for him. Cleaning up Spires was just that - clean up work. His real work these days had more to do with talking to the Digimon themselves, trying to undo some of the harm he had done. That was more than enough to occupy his full attention, as a great number of his earliest conquests weren't exactly eager to forgive and make friends, and it took every bit of his patience and persuasiveness (and most of Wormmon's) to even get near enough to them to convince them he wasn't planning on deleting them. It was very challenging, often frustrating, and more rewarding than anything he'd ever done before.
*For the first time in my life, I think I can say I'm almost completely happy,* he mused. It was early morning, with sunshine streaming through wide open windows, a fresh breeze carrying a scent of pine forests into the room. This was the best time of day, waking up after a restful night's sleep with a whole new day ahead, just lying there quietly watching the sun rising. He stretched lazily, not willing to break the early-morning peace just yet. This day would be as busy as any other, so he would enjoy the quiet time while it lasted.
However, the stillness couldn't last forever, and it wasn't long before there was a light tapping at the door.
"Come in," Ken called.
A Floramon stepped into the room, pushing a meal tray with two covered plates on it. Accompanying breakfast were two steaming mugs with liberal piles of marshmallows peeking over the rims.
"Morning, Ken!" the Floramon greeted.
"Good morning, Floramon. What's all this? I didn't send an order for breakfast."
The Floramon shrugged. "Well, it's getting colder, you know. The Veggimon in the kitchens thought you might like this. Hot chocolate and everything!"
"Well, thank you!" he answered, a bit surprised. "And thank them, too. It was very thoughtful."
"It was nothing," answered the 'mon. "Just being helpful, you know? Enjoy!"
The Floramon scampered away again, leaving Ken feeling thoughtful. Then he shrugged and shook his partner awake.
"Would you look at this?" he said. "They sent us breakfast, and I didn't even ask."
Wormmon yawned and shook his head, shaking away the last fragments of dreams.
"That's because they like you," he said.
"The ones around here do, anyway. The ones who have gotten to know you."
"I know that," said Ken. "I mean, I guess my mind knows that. It's just hard to get used to the idea that anyone would want to do something just because they like me."
"You'll get used to it," said Wormmon. He paused and sniffed the air. "Is that hot chocolate?"
Ken laughed. "Yes, it is, and help yourself. I think I want to get dressed before I eat."
The caterpillar bounded free of the blankets and went to investigate breakfast. Ken smiled and wandered off to change. He found his imperial regalia had been washed and neatly folded over a chair, and as he was putting it on, he wondered if he perhaps ought to look into designing something new. This outfit was impressive enough, but not very practical and troublesome for the servants to wash and iron. He was starting to lose his affection for the thing; as long as he looked like the villain from a science fiction series, people were going to treat him that way. What he really needed was a look that would be less intimidating. He tried to remember where he'd left his school uniform - you didn't get any more unassuming than that plain gray suit. He mulled the idea over a bit as he combed his hair. Then he took one last look in the mirror, sizing himself up.
*Something is going to happen today.*
He appraised that thought. He wasn't sure where it had come from, really - it was just a random notion dislodged from the bottom of his brain, but now that it had floated to the surface, he felt compelled to examine it. What made him think something was going to happen? Maybe it was just because the morning was so peaceful. He'd been so wary these last few weeks, ever since the incident with the Ring, always trying to be aware of his internal state in case he'd felt that dark sensation rising up again. He had noticed it a few times, and usually managed to fight it down, sometimes with Wormmon's help but increasingly on his own. Today, though, there was nothing, not even a hint of it. He felt nothing but refreshed and optimistic.
*Maybe that could be what's so special about today. Maybe it's finally gone for good.*
He hoped so. He might not have believed in the Dark Spores when he'd heard of them, but he believed now, completely. But if the seeds were gone, what would happen to the ones who planted them? No matter what they said, the couldn't have put them there just for his own personal benefit. They were wanted for something, something important, and there was bound to be someone out there who would be annoyed if their garden had stopped growing.
*Maybe they won't notice,* he thought, but without much conviction. The mysterious woman he'd talked to knew way too much to just be a casual observer. No, he was being watched, and he was going to have to face up to the fact. They were watching him, and they would want to do something to keep their plans from going awry.
*Then I'll just deal with it when it happens,* he decided. *There's nothing else I can do anyway.*
He put down his comb and began to turn around. At that moment, Wormmon, who'd finished eating, bounded across the floor to greet him, scampering up his side and finally ending up on the top of his head, undoing all his hard work with the comb on his way up. Ken looked up at him, trying to keep a straight face.
"Silly! What are you doing up there?"
"Just saying hello."
"You can say hello without sitting on me. Hop down! Now I'll have to comb my hair again."
Wormmon immediately hopped down and settled on one of his friend's shoulders, watching as Ken picked up the comb and went to work setting his hair back in place once more. When he was satisfied with the result, he went to attend to the meal that was still patiently waiting for him.
"So what are we going to do today?" asked Wormmon.
"The usual things," said Ken. "I found a patch of Control Spires out in the desert that haven't been cleared away yet. I can't imagine why I wanted so many of the things in a place where there are hardly any Digimon anyway, but I suppose I should be thorough and finish the job."
"I'm with you there," said Wormmon. "Those things give me the creeps."
"Well, you won't have to put up with them for a whole lot longer," Ken replied. "I don't need them anymore, not even for new territory. If the Digidestined keep working at the rate they have, we should have them all removed by the end of the month."
"Then let's hurry," Wormmon answered. "I want this to be over with."
Ken obliged, taking a last bite of toast and gulping down the last of his chocolate. Moments later, he and Stingmon were speeding over the scenery, heading for a patch of flat, barren ground and spiky rocks. It was the kind of place where it seemed like nothing more agile than a cactus would stay in if it had a choice, but even from a distance Ken could see that there was activity going on down there. A large cloud of red-orange dust floated over the ground, through which flickering lights could be seen.
"Well, that's interesting," said Ken thoughtfully. "Take us down slow, Stingmon. I want to know what's going on."
They dropped slowly, and were lost almost at once within the dust. Ken squinted, wishing he had his glasses back, and pulled a corner of his cloak over his nose and mouth. Stingmon didn't appear to be bothered; he continued flying toward the ground, right up until the point the Control Spire tried to fall on him.
Ken barely saw it coming. All he saw was that a shadow suddenly appeared above him, accompanied by a rushing noise. In the next instant, Stingmon wrenched around sharply in midair, nearly dropping his rider in the process. They landed hard, the insect lurching a bit on his feet as he touched the ground. He let Ken slide to earth, coughing and gasping from shock. The Control Spire fell a few yards away, crashing loudly and throwing up yet more dust.
"Watch it!" Ken yelped. "You could hurt someone with that thing!"
"Sorry!" said a voice. "There's just all this dust, you know?"
"No, I didn't notice," said Ken. He was rattled by nearly being squashed and not feeling his most polite.
"Hey, wait a second," said the voice. "Are you...?"
Two shadows came walking cautiously into view. One was a blue Digimon in flame armor, keeping a close watch on the second figure, a redheaded boy in goggles, which were now being put to good use for keeping the sand out of his eyes.
"You are!" he exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
"Most recently, trying not to be squashed by a Spire," Ken said, attempting to shake some of the dust off of himself - a pointless task, since more of it kept settling on him and muddying the color of his indigo cloak. "I mean, I know it's my fault because I put it there in the first place, but you don't have to hammer the point home quite so hard. I'm doing the best I can under the circumstances."
"Oh," said Daisuke, looking a bit abashed. "Sorry! I didn't know you were there... Why did you come out here? You aren't going to pick a fight with us, are you? Because if you are..."
"I'm not here to fight," said Ken. "I'm here to deal with the excess Spires, but if you all have it under control, I'll just go somewhere else to work."
Daisuke looked at him suspiciously. "You really came here to do that?"
"Of course. Why else would I come out in the middle of nowhere? Even if I was looking for trouble, I wouldn't be able to find it here."
"Oh. I guess that's a point," said Daisuke. "Well, I guess if you're doing the same thing we're doing, wouldn't it be okay if you stayed and helped a while?"
"I don't want to be a bother to you."
"No bother! I don't know about the others, but I know I'd be glad to take all the help I can get. Do you know how itchy this fur gets in the desert?" complained Daisuke, rubbing at the collar of his jacket. "I'm ready to get out of here and back to where there's more shade and less dust.... Hey, is that your Wormmon over there? Man, he's been taking his vitamins or something."
"That's Stingmon, Wormmon at Champion level," said Ken, making a nod in the direction of his partner. "I'm very proud of him."
"I'll bet," said Daisuke, looking admiring. "Man, I bet he can take out these things pretty fast, huh?"
"Pretty fast? That's an understatement. There's nothing to compare to him, and I should know. I trained him myself."
"Can he work as fast as Flamedramon?"
"I don't believe you."
"I'll prove it. Show him what you're made of, Stingmon!"
"Go for it, Flamedramon!"
The next few minutes were very busy. Daisuke and Ken stood side by side, shouting encouragement to their Digimon, hardly even minding the dust as Spire after Spire crashed to the ground. An hour later, the score was thirty-two to thirty-six in Stingmon's favor, and Ken felt irrationally pleased with himself. It was about that time that a shout echoed over the demolition site: Takeru was announcing a rest break. Without really even thinking about it, Ken went to collect a tired but proud Wormmon, and fell into step alongside Daisuke. Beyond the cloud of dust, various sweaty and dirty Digidestined collected in the shade of a large rock to rest and refresh themselves for a while. Takeru opened a cooler that was sitting in the shade and began passing out bottles of water.
"One for you," he said, handing one to Patamon, "one for me, one for Hikari, one for Gatomon, one for Iori, one for Armadillomon, one for Daisuke, one for Veemon, one for Ken..."
Ken had taken his bottle and was already beginning to walk away when Takeru realized what he'd just done.
"What in the...?" he exclaimed. "Ken?! What in the world are you doing here?"
Ken was busy drinking his water and didn't answer. After all, it was hot in the desert and he was thirsty. He took a few gulps and passed the rest to Wormmon, who downed it gratefully.
"I invited him," said Daisuke. "Anybody got a problem with that?"
Everyone stared. He stared back. It was obvious that he didn't care whether anyone had a problem or not.
"He didn't invite me," said Ken. "It was my own idea to come. He just invited me to stay. I'm sorry if I'm intruding, but it didn't seem like I'd be hurting anything if I just came and helped out a little."
"You came... to help?" said Miyako slowly.
"To take down the Control Spires," Ken replied. "I've decided I want them all destroyed."
A pause. Then Hikari asked, "Why?"
"Because... you know what happens to Digimon when they're Ringed?" answered Ken carefully. "I've found out... they do that to me, too. I didn't even know it was happen, but when my dark creations are near me, they do the same to me that they do to everyone else, and I'm not my own person anymore."
"This sounds like something we need explained in a little more detail, if you don't mind," said Takeru.
"I don't know if I want to."
"It'll be all right, Ken," said Wormmon. "I think they can be trusted."
"Well... okay then," he answered. "But if you people go blabbing this around, I swear I'll..."
"Your secrets are safe with me," said Daisuke. "Miyako, I don't know about."
"Shut up!" she said. "I can keep a secret and you know it, too!"
"Oh, yeah? Name one secret you've kept from me!"
"Well, I never told you about that picture of you I saw in Hikari's notebook!"
"What? Why not?"
"Because she told me not to tell you, that's why."
"Yeah," said Hikari, blushing furiously. "Way to go, Miyako."
Miyako flushed. "Oops."
"Ahem!" said Ken. "Are you listening to me or aren't you? Oh, just forget it, I don't want to talk about it anyway."
He turned and began walking away, with Wormmon scampering behind him. Takeru caught up to him.
"Wait a minute," he said. "Don't run off so fast. Those two are just fooling around; you shouldn't take them seriously. I trust both of them completely when it comes to important things."
"I don't know... but I suppose I ought to tell someone... All right. If it will make you happy, I'll tell you the whole story."
With a sigh, he settled himself down on a rock, and slowly, slowly began to talk, about his brother who always got all the attention, about his own jealousy and his wish that Osamu would just vanish, and the subsequent accident.
"It was such a stupid thing," he said. "We'd been kicking a soccer ball around in the park, and I was still playing around with it, tossing it up and catching it. It got away from me, and he ran to get it... and this car came out of nowhere and hit him. All I could do was stand there. He died right there in front of me - just like that - and I couldn't do a thing. It was my fault he died. If I'd been more careful, he'd still be alive."
There was an awkward moment of silence. He took a breath and began again.
"One of the reasons I was so jealous of Osamu was because of the Digivice. It came out of his computer one day, and I just naturally assumed it had to be his. After he was gone, though, I got this strange e-mail instructing me to take the Digivice and come here. That's when the strange things started to happen..."
Slowly, and with much help from Wormmon, he filled them in on the story of the Dark Spores and his rise to power as the Digimon Emperor. He kept that part short - he didn't want to talk about it, and they didn't look like they wanted to hear it. They knew most of the important part anyway. What he really wanted to talk about was the night that changed everything.
"Wormmon saved my life that night," he said. "I don't know why, after the way I always treated him, but he evolved to Stingmon to protect me. Once I knew what he could really do, I started taking him more seriously. He's the one who taught me there was a better way than the way I had taken."
"So... you gave up being evil... for Wormmon?" said Takeru, sounding as if he didn't quite believe what he was hearing.
"Not entirely," said Ken. "I wish it was that simple. No, there's something else going on. You aren't going to believe it, though."
"We've seen plenty of weird things before," said Daisuke. "Try us."
"All right... Someone's been controlling me. I don't know who, I don't know why, but someone made sure I would become the Digimon Emperor. Someone out there wanted me to put up those Spires and send out those Rings and try to overthrow the Digital World. They sent me that e-mail to make me come back to the Digital World. Even worse, they planted some kind of seeds inside me, seeds of darkness. They changed my personality and brought out everything that was bad in me. When I'm near the Control Spires and Dark Rings, I lose control of myself. That's why I'm destroying them. I barely know what's right or wrong anymore, but whatever I do, I want it to be me that decides and not some shady strangers."
He finished his story and waited to see how the Digidestined children would react. They stayed silent for a moment, looking at him critically.
"I think we need to think this one over," said Daisuke. "Can we go talk about this for a while?"
Ken shrugged. The Digidestined took this as permission and went to walk around to the other side of the rock, out of Ken's earshot. He watched them go, feeling oddly calm. He'd been so worried about their initial reaction to him. Just knowing they were going to deliberate a bit was comforting, because at least it meant they weren't so angry at him that they were going to attack him or drive him away any instant. It meant there was at least enough hope that they would accept him that they had to give it serious thought.
*Yes, but do I want to be accepted?* he wondered. *I really wasn't bargaining on that when I came out here. And I have a weird feeling that's a possibility now. They might decide I'm all right. They might even decide they want to be friends. I don't know if I want any more friends right now. I got one friend and the whole world turned upside down. I don't know what I'd do with five or ten of them.*
The desert was hot, and black gloves were hotter. He absently pulled at the fingers of one, tugging them free one centimeter at a time.
*I wish I knew what I really wanted. This whole time I've been feeling like I'm walking in the fog. Every step I take, I have to wonder if I'm not about to fall over a cliff. Even with Wormmon guiding me, it's not enough. I just don't know where I'm going.*
The glove came free, and he tossed it to the ground. He was hardly surprised at all when it dissolved into a series of sparkling data bits and blew away.
*All right, genius. Dark Spores or no Dark Spores, you still have a brain in your head, and it ought to still be in working order. Think of something productive for a change! Has anything you've done up until now worked? And if it has, what was it? And why?*
He frowned fiercely, fidgeting with his other glove. Forcing himself to think, he went over all the events he'd gone through since he'd come to the Digital World. It was hard work; some of the darker ones seemed to have started fading from his memory, shading into a long blur of shadows.
*Not a very fulfilling memory,* he decided. *Not something I want to see when I look back on my life. I can do better than that.*
The other glove came off. Wormmon, who had been going through the cooler for another bottle of water, looked up in time to see the glove disintegrate.
*So I don't really want to be the Emperor, after all,* thought Ken. *That was just something I was manipulated into, but it isn't me. What is, then? Was there anything I took any fulfillment from?*
He thought hard. He had conquered a fair portion of the Digital World, not just by the force of his Spires and Rings, but by bargaining and trading. The latter had been a better way of doing things, and had left everyone happier than they would have been if he'd done his conquering the old way, but had he gained anything by it? He could call it controlling the world if he wanted to, but when he actually stopped to think about it, he hadn't done much controlling since he'd started his new program. Funny he hadn't really thought about that before. The sun was beating down on his back, and the dark-blue cloak he wore was soaking it up uncomfortably. He undid the clasp and let it float away on the wind. He felt lighter and cooler without it.
*So what have I been doing, then? Protecting the Digimon. Making friends with them. Sometimes, when I'm smart enough to get down off my high horse, I actually have fun with them. That's when I'm happiest - when I'm helping and protecting them. It feels natural, just the way it did when Stingmon evolved for the first time. I never felt that natural or comfortable as the Emperor. That was never really me.*
For a moment, his eyes were dazzled by a whirl of blue and white data, as the last of his imperial garments disappeared, leaving him in his plain grey school clothes. He looked down, surprised that he wasn't more surprised.
"I guess this is me," he said.
Out on the desert, the dust was settling. If Ken had been paying attention to his surroundings, he might have noticed a cluster of rocky hills that hadn't been clearly visible before. If he had really been looking, he might have even seen movement up there. High on the hill, a man in blue was crouching among the stones, watching through a pair of field glasses. As he caught sight of Ken in his new-old clothes, the man in blue got up and walked over to a nearby Jeep. He picked up a portable phone and dialed a number. The phone rang a few times, and finally, a woman's voice answered.
"What is it?" Arukenimon snapped.
"We've got a problem," he said.
"A problem? What kind of problem?"
"The big kind."
"Well... I could be wrong, but it looks like we just lost our Emperor."
Arukenimon muttered something under her breath. "Just great. I'll be right over. Don't do anything until I get there!"
"I'll be waiting for you, Precious."
Arukenimon hung up the phone with a small noise of disgust.
"What's happening now?" asked Oikawa vaguely. He was on the other side of the room, tinkering with his computer and paying very little attention to anything else around him.
"The same thing that always happens when you stop paying attention," Arukenimon replied. "Everything is going wrong."
Oikawa looked up, computer forgotten. "Care to elaborate?"
"We just lost control of the boy," she said. "At least, according to our spy, and if it's bad enough that even he knows it's bad, it's bound to be a calamity. I'm going to go check it out. Any orders?"
"Just get him back under control," Oikawa replied. "You know what to do. And if that doesn't work, try to salvage the Spores. The boy is dispensable."
"Right," she answered. "I'll take care of it."
Oikawa tossed her a small handheld device, which she made to vanish into some invisible space. Then she vanished in a swirl of digital lights.
Meanwhile, the Digidestined had finished their deliberations, and were returning to deliver their verdict. Catching sight of Ken and his transformation, they stopped short.
"Hey!" said Daisuke. "You changed your clothes! How did you do that way out here?"
"I didn't change my clothes. I changed myself," said Ken. "Or maybe just found who I was to begin with when the mask of the Emperor is taken away."
"What do you mean?" Hikari asked.
"It's hard to say. I was just sitting here, waiting for you to come back and wondering what you were going to decide... and what I wanted you to decide. I was trying to figure out who I really am and where I wanted to be, and when I made up my mind, this happened. This is the real me - the genuine Ken Ichijouji." He gave a whimsical laugh. "Who that is, I've yet to figure out."
"You say you decided something, then?" asked Takeru. "What was that?"
"That I don't want to be the Digimon Emperor anymore," Ken answered firmly. "Not even the diluted one I've been lately. I want something different - I'm not really sure what yet. But I feel like my destiny is to help and protect the Digimon, not rule them. I want to work alongside them and my partner instead of controlling them. I want to make friends with them. I might even decide to have some fun every once in a while."
Miyako smiled a bit. "Sounds to me like this Ken Ichijouji guy is just the kind of guy we'd like to get to know."
"I hear that!" Daisuke chimed in. "You know, Ken, you're really pretty cool, when you give yourself half a chance."
The others nodded, and Ken looked amazed. "You'd really want to let me join you, even after everything I've done?"
"I don't see why not," Takeru replied. "Hikari? Iori? Any objections?"
"We can see with our own eyes he's changed," said Iori. "It's not his fault he was tricked. I think we should give him a chance."
Ken blushed. "Thank you. I know I haven't done much to prove myself, but if you just let me have the chance to prove myself... It would be the greatest honor of my life to be able to call you my friends."
"Hey, it's no big thing," said Daisuke, stepping forward and offering his hand to shake. "We can always use a few more friends."
Shyly, Ken reached out to take Daisuke's hand.
"Hold it right there!" a voice shouted.
Everyone jumped. Standing on top of the rocks where no one had been before, there were now two human - or at least humanoid - figures. One of them was a man in blue who would have seemed like nothing more than a dignified gentleman if it weren't for his gray skin, pointed teeth, and single slitted eye. His companion was a lady in red with silvery hair. Ken remembered her.
"You again!" he snarled. "What are you doing here? Can't you leave well enough alone?"
"This isn't well enough for me," she replied. "And you are forgetting your place, young Emperor."
"No, I'm not," he retorted. "I'm remembering my place, where I really belong before you started messing with my mind."
"I would think carefully before you make any decisions, if I were you," answered the lady in red. "We have ways of making you do what we want - some more painful than others. I'm giving you one last chance to come along quietly. We will renew the power of the Dark Spores, and you can forget any of this ever happened. Or... we can fight. It's your decision."
"I'll never go back," Ken said.
"I don't think he's going to come voluntarily," said the man in blue. "Perhaps if we encouraged him a bit?"
"At the moment, I think that would be most refreshing," answered the lady. "As irritating as this boy has been, it will be fun to watch him squirm."
"Hey, if you want him, you're going to have to go through us, first!" Daisuke shouted. "Um... they are, aren't they?"
"Don't bother," said the lady. "He's ours. Leave him to us before we make you sorry."
"I'd like to see you try it," Veemon muttered. "These two don't look so tough! Let's show them a thing or two!"
"I'm with you," said Ken. "I'm nobody's person but my own, and I'm not going back to you!"
"Oh, you don't have a choice," said the man in blue, flashing his sharklike teeth. "You're coming with us whether you like it or not."
"I'm warning you, Ichijouji," said the lady. "Come along now, or this will turn into a fight, and someone will probably get hurt. Your new friends won't do you much good if we reduce them to little pieces."
"How are you going to do that?" asked Daisuke.
The pair smirked, as if that was exactly what they were hoping he would ask. There was a blurry moment, and everyone blinked rapidly as the space around them seemed to warp. When their sight had cleared, they found that what had once been humanoid had become completely monstrous. The children and their partners stared.
"Allow us to introduce ourselves," said the woman. Her cool voice had become a harsh rasp, but that was only a minor change compared to what had happened to the rest of her. "Arukenimon and Mummymon, Ultimate Virus Digimon. Do you still think you can deal with us?"
"We can sure try!" Daisuke said.
"Uh, Daisuke, I think maybe we should think about this a bit," Takeru cautioned. "These are Ultimates. I don't know if our Digimon can handle them."
Daisuke glared at Takeru. "Would you rather leave Ken to fight on his own?"
"I can deal with it," said Ken. "Wormmon, show them what you've learned."
He flourished his Digivice, and Wormmon was suddenly surrounded by glittering green lights. Out of the lights shot Stingmon, and everyone who hadn't seen him before stared. For a moment, he really did look like he might be strong enough to take on anything, even two Ultimates. He dove at them both - and dodged, just barely avoiding being shot as Mummymon fired his laser at him. He twisted in midair, letting himself fall a few feet as Arukenimon threw a line of webbing at him, flourishing his laser and slicing through the red rope, then snapping his wings open again in time to save himself from another blast of energy. He buzzed around, puzzled. In a close-range fight, there wasn't much that could stop him, but how was he going to get close enough to these two to do anything?
His question was answered as the two Ultimates were distracted by a volley of fireballs, courtesy of Flamedramon. While they turned to deal with this, Digmon burrowed into the rock, splitting it under their feet and forcing them to scramble away. Shurimon hurled a few ninja stars at them, and the battle was on.
Ken stood rooted to the spot, watching the fight, trying to take in the idea that his newfound not-quite-friends were putting their lives and their partners' lives on the line for his sake. Why would they do that? He couldn't possibly be worth that much to them, could he? Maybe they just didn't want him to go back to being the Emperor. Or maybe it was just because these creatures were so obviously evil...
He coughed. The battle was stirring up the sands again, making it nearly impossible to see what was going on. All that could be seen were a few flitting shapes and the occasional flash of light. The Digidestined stood at the base of the rock, shouting encouragement to their partners, but Ken stood and was silent. He knew he should trust his partner, but deep inside, he was afraid. He stared into the roiling clouds, hoping desperately that everything was all right...
A silence fell, and everyone held their breath, wondering what was going on. The clouds slowly fell, showing the Armor Digimon hovering uncertainly in their places. At the center of the ring of Digimon were Arukenimon and Mummymon, apparently unscathed. Stingmon stood stock-still, wrapped tightly in Arukenimon's red webbing. Mummymon had the end of his gun resting against Stingmon's chest.
"Nobody move," said Arukenimon. "If anybody moves, we'll turn him into digital dust."
"Let him go!" Ken shouted.
"Do you really think we'd do a thing like that?" Mummymon asked. "We wouldn't, not for free... but maybe if you bargained..."
"What do you want?" asked Ken.
"Give us back the Dark Spores," Arukenimon replied. "You obviously don't want to use them anymore; just give them back to us."
"Don't do it, Ken," Stingmon shouted. "They're trying to trick you!"
"What's the catch?" Ken demanded.
"What does it matter?" she retorted. "You aren't in a position to bargain. Either do as we ask, or your partner gets deleted."
"Don't do it," said Stingmon. "I don't care what happens to me - just don't go back to them!"
"I'm not letting them hurt you," said Ken. "You're my partner; I have to protect you just like you protect me. If it will save your life..." He trailed off and lowered his head submissively.
Mummymon flicked his wrist, and a white streamer shot out to wrap around Ken, hauling him off his feet and into the air. Ken felt his stomach lurch as the ground fell away, and he closed his eyes tightly as he was dropped unceremoniously onto the rock at Arukenimon's feet. She smiled nastily down at him.
"The Emperor bows," she hissed with amusement. "Now to see how far you bend before you break. If you won't return to your post voluntarily, we'll just destroy the light in you some other way. Do you love this creature?"
Ken twisted his head around, so that he wasn't looking at the spider that held him captive, but into Stingmon's eyes. "Yes."
Arukenimon turned her sidekick. "All right. Kill him."
"What?" Ken yelped. "No!"
Mummymon pulled the trigger on his gun, and there was a flare of light and scream of pain, and Ken screamed, feeling as if it was his own heart that had just been blown to shreds. Arukenimon let Stingmon go, and he slumped to the ground. Ken squirmed and wrenched himself free to crawl to his partner's side. There was a smoking hole in the wasp's chest, leaking green bits of data. He turned his head weakly to look at Ken, and the boy fell forward to put his arms around him, hiding his face against Stingmon's side.
"Stingmon... don't leave me..." he said.
"It's all right, Ken. We'll never be apart. I'll always be part of you..."
"No," said Ken, sobbing. "I can't live without you... you're the best thing I have."
"That's right," Arukenimon sneered. "Despair, and let the darkness take you... You won't feel a thing, once the Dark Spores are back in control."
"Don't listen," said Stingmon. His voice was getting weaker, becoming nothing more than a whisper. "Your kindness is our bond. You can't lose me if you hold to that. Give into the darkness... and we'll both be lost forever..."
Ken closed his eyes, blotting out everything. He couldn't stand watching his partner slowly fade away bit by bit. They were soulmates, bound together at the heart... how could he ever have thought differently? Wormmon had given him back his humanity, and he wasn't about to lose it again now for the sake of a couple of slimy monsters. He would resist the darkness the way Wormmon wanted him to. The shadows wouldn't enter his heart, because that was where Wormmon was and always would be, and the darkness hadn't been invented that could corrupt him...
Even as that thought crossed his mind, he felt a peace and warmth come over him, a warmth that made him think of pink light, a soft glow that drove the shadows away. It was behind his eyelids, filling his vision, filling him. The light was power, so he gathered it together in the palms of his hands and began pushing it to where it was needed.
To the Digidestined, it seemed that Ken was suddenly surrounded by an aura of light the color of Stingmon's saber, making him shine line something not of the world. Then there was a flash, and suddenly Stingmon himself was on his feet and leaping into the air, surrounded by that same pinkish fire. He flew like a blazing comet, moving almost too fast to be seen. Arukenimon and Mummymon stood staring, stunned, as he dropped down on them, and there was an incredible flash of blinding light. When it had cleared, there was nothing left but a couple of battered -looking humanoids, trying to haul themselves to their feet. Stingmon landed lightly on his feet in front of Ken, and the lights paled and disappeared.
"Ouch," said Mummymon dazedly. "Did somebody get the number of that truck?"
"Shut up, dimwit," Arukenimon snapped. "Come on, we're getting out of here." She turned a malevolent glare on Ken. "Don't think you've seen the last of us, little boy. We will return, and we will have our revenge."
The leaped off the rock and hurried away. Ken scampered after them in time to see them leap into a yellow Jeep and drive off in a cloud of dust. He didn't have time to worry about that, though, before the other Digidestined scrambled up onto the rock to join him.
"What was that?" asked Daisuke. "That was awesome!"
"I don't know what it was," Ken admitted. "I just looked inside myself, and there was all this power. It felt so good... I knew I could use it to help Stingmon, so I did."
"Well, whatever you did, it worked," said Iori. "That was really impressive."
"Hey, Ken," Hikari interjected, "what't that in your hand?"
Ken looked down. He hadn't realized it before, but he somehow seemed to be clutching something tightly in one fist. Opening his hand, he saw a little rectangular chip of something, like a bit of glass etched with a symbol like an unfolding flower. It was pink, like the light.
"That's a Crest!" Takeru exclaimed. "I didn't think there were any of those left."
"It's the Crest of Kindness," said Stingmon. "It belongs to you, Ken. It came into being when you wanted more than anything to save me."
"If Ken has a Crest, he's officially one of us," said Hikari. "Ken, you're a Digidestined."
He looked thoughtfully down at the Crest in his hands. "Yes. It looks like that's what I am. I finally figured it out, didn't I?"
"Man, this rocks!" Daisuke enthused. "The Emperor turned into a Digidestined! What else can happen?"
"So, what are you going to do now?" Miyako asked Ken.
"Well," he said thoughtfully, "I suppose I ought to go back home. I have a lot of explaining to do to my parents... but somehow, I think they'll believe me. And I want to help you all, if you'll let me."
"We'd be glad to," Takeru replied. "Do you feel up to starting now? There are still a lot of Control Spires to deal with."
"I know," said Ken, "but if it's all right with you, there's something I want to do first."
"Hm? What's that?" asked Takeru.
Ken looked up at his partner and grinned. "Stingmon... give me a ride?"
The wasp laughed. "Anything you want, Ken!"
He scooped his partner up and held him in his arms, and then leaped straight up into the cloudless blue sky, carrying him on a wild flight, looping and spinning for the sheer joy of being alive and together. The Digidestined stood below, unconsciously smiling as they watched the pair soaring upwards to the sun and the light.