Author's Note: The following is an alternate universe, based heavily (though not completely) on the first season of "The Slayers." Certain changes have been made to accommodate the differences between the two worlds.
A lone figure slipped silently through the darkness, doing her best not to be seen or heard. That was nothing unusual in this world, not at this time of night when the creatures of shadow were out in full force. During the day, the human race crept out of their hiding places to wander the ruined city, but at night, most sensible people hid and the monsters wandered freely. Most humans, and especially most young girls, would have been terrified to be in the position this girl was now: alone at midnight in the middle of the ruins, looking out at one of the ugliest bands of monsters she had ever come across. She crept a little closer, trying to get a better look.
*Definitely Digimon,* she noted, sizing up the beasts. *One, two, three, four... twelve altogether. At least Champion level, and probably more. Well, I was looking for a challenge. These guys will probably deliver.*
There had been rumors drifting around for quite some time now, all of them whispering the names of a particularly nasty gang of Digimon who called themselves the Devas. Digimon were always trouble for humans; the two races had been feuding with each other for eons. However, most Digimon tended to either travel alone or stick close to their own villages and seldom venture out. For a group of several types of Digimon to band together and actively seek out trouble was a rarity, and when it happened, it was a cause for real worry. Looking at this set, the girl could see why they had gathered such fame. Visible in the dim circle of firelight were several technomagical items, at least one deck of Cards, and any number of other things that were lit to dimly to be made out for sure. All of it looked valuable, a guess that was confirmed when she drew close enough to hear.
"Excellent work, my fellows!" said one of the Digimon, clapping his hands together gleefully. He was the smallest of the lot, a monkey-like creature with a broad mouth and round, staring eyes. He also had the kind of voice that made a person want to smack him just on general principle, and the girl felt her hands itch with the urge to try. "We've made an excellent haul tonight. Our master will be very pleased with me - with us! He will be very pleased with us, so enjoy yourselves, everyone!"
The other Digimon agreed that this was a good idea. Most of them were already carrying on rambunctiously, making so much racket that they probably wouldn't have heard if a small army had marched by. There were heaps of food piled at regular intervals around the circle, and the majority of the crowd seemed to be enjoying making pigs of themselves. The big-mouthed monkey was one of the few who wasn't, opting instead to strut around staring at their treasures as if he was personally responsible for all of it. The only other one that wasn't joining in the festivities was a tall rabbit Digimon that stood silently at the edge of the clearing. He was so still that at first the girl hadn't realized he was alive until she saw his red eyes flashing in the firelight. She frowned. Why was he being so quiet? Squinting into the darkness, she could see that there was something else behind him, roundish and metallic, and something was moving inside.
*Of all the valuable things they have here, why is that they have a guard posted only for whatever that is?* she wondered. *All right, that does it. I'm crashing this little party.*
The rabbit was the first to notice the movement. Instantly, he gave a shout of alarm, and the other Devas fell silent and stared. Standing on a ridge, silhouetted faintly by the moon and stars, was a girl, certainly not out of her teens. Lit by the firelight, her hair flashed like the flames themselves, but even that red light couldn't take the icy glow from her amethyst eyes. Held casually between two fingers was a Card.
"Hiya, boys," she said. "Mind if I join the celebration?"
There was a nervous mutter among the Digimon. The monkey glared at all of them.
"What is the matter with you all?" he snapped. "It's just a human - not even a full grown one!"
"But she's got a Card," one of them said nervously.
"I don't care if she has a whole deck of them! She's still one little girl against a dozen Ultimate Digimon," the monkey retorted. "I'll bet she doesn't even know how to use the thing! She's probably waving it around just because she knows it will scare you. It's a good thing I'm smart enough to know better than to-"
The rest of what he was saying was lost as the girl gave a shout of command and flourished the card. It emitted a burst of flame that engulfed the monkey and burned him to a pile of dust before he could take his next breath. The other Devas stared.
"Now that I have your attention," the girl said, "I'll tell you who you're dealing with. The name's Ruki Makino, the greatest Cardmage alive. Not that you're going to be needing to know that after I'm done with you.
The campground went into instant chaos. A few of the Devas turned tail and ran. Those few who stayed to fight fired off bolts and spheres of energy, and Ruki dodged them all easily with a few swift gymnastic maneuvers. When they refused to relent, she produced a new card and flourished it, causing a nimbus of violet light to flare around her and lift her off the ground. She hated wasting the power on cretins like these, but it was so much more economical than wasting the whole night trying to fight them by conventional means.
"All right, you want to play rough? Try this on for size!"
Ruki flipped out a fresh card, marked with a bright red arrow, and twirled it through her fingers. Instantly, it began to gleam with red-orange flames which formed themselves into spears of light, raining down on her enemies. Those who were on the forefront were instantly reduced to dust. The rest decided that they didn't care to tangle with her anymore and began to run off into the forest, but even that wasn't enough to stop her. She had no mercy towards these unnatural creatures, and they were followed by balls of fire for as far as Ruki's power could reach. The last monster to leave was the rabbit, who lingered at the edge of the forest, his eyes flickering from the light of her magic. They met each other's gazes for a moment, and she was surprised at how much determination and intelligence she saw there. Then he dashed into a shadow and vanished.
*That one's going to try something,* she thought. *I've seen that look before; he's going to try an ambush.*
She shrugged. It was no great thing to her, if he wanted to waste his time laying traps for her. She'd handled ambushes from trickier things than him and lived to tell about it, so she simply resolved to keep an eye open for him and went to inspect the loot.
As she'd suspected, most of the things the Devas had collected were technomagical in nature - not the kind of thing she was interested in, but it would fetch a pretty penny in the right markets, and she could think of quite a few people who would be interested in these items.
More of it was weaponry, some mundane, some more advanced, and she browsed the selection carefully. She'd been wanting a new sword - hers was hardly fit to cut bread anymore, and worn mainly for show. Digging through the pile of odds and ends, she sorted out the best of the lot and inspected them more closely, testing the weight and sharpness. In the end, she selected one, a slender silver blade with an amethyst-studded hilt. The scabbard was equally beautiful, marked with more silver and amethysts as well as gold, showing a fanciful depiction of some sleek animal running with the wind, ears pinned back and long tail streaming. She'd never seen such a beast before, but it was beautiful, and she liked it, so she clipped it to her belt and tossed the old one into the heap of rejects.
Next came the Cards. As she had expected, there were quite a few of them, some of them rare and powerful, kept wrapped neatly in special paper and bound up tightly. Ruki looked them over briefly to make sure there was nothing immediately dangerous in the decks before slipping them into an enchanted pocket where they'd be safe from thieves. She might be a thief herself in some ways, but at least she knew what she was doing and trusted herself not to accidentally blow something up by playing the wrong Card. She looked over the more ordinary ones, pulled out a few of the spells she was running low on, and put the rest in a box to be sold.
Now, what else was there? A few things she couldn't immediately identify, though they looked to be largely mechanical and therefore of no interest to her. Computers had their uses, but they weren't much good to someone like her that needed to travel light and fast and have her results instantly. She'd just as soon leave them here for someone else to find, rather than trying to salvage and sell them, though she might move them inside one of the more structurally sound ruins so they'd still be in halfway workable condition when that someone found them.
Then her eye fell on a small wooden box, one whose elaborate metal trappings made it glimmer in the light of the bonfire, and she was intrigued enough to have a look inside. More than likely it just had gold or jewels or perhaps even more Cards, but it wouldn't hurt to check.
However, what she found inside was not at all what she'd expected. The box contained a number of small devices, plastic and metal boxes small enough to fit comfortably in a person's hand. Each had a window ringed with a different color: red, blue, green, orange, brown, purple, bright pink and paler pink. The devices were settled into little niches, each of which was marked with different pictures or symbols in an old, arcane language Ruki only half-understood. She stared at them, trying to puzzle them out. She could spy a few familiar words like "guardian," "healer," and "warrior," and the rest made no sense at all. She looked at the blue device. The symbol over it said "acceptance."
"Well, I'll accept this as a windfall, thank you very much," she said, pocketing the device. On a whim, she took the box and hid it under her cloak as well. She could look into having the symbols translated and see if any sense could be made of them, if only to satisfy her own curiosity.
"Hey," said a little voice. "Are you done looking yet? Because I'm really tired of being in this cage, culu. Can I please come out now, culu culu?"
Ruki jumped. "Who said that?"
"I did, culu!"
"And who are you?"
"Well, that makes a lot of sense," Ruki muttered. "A Digimon. Well, this is just my lucky night, isn't it?"
She followed the voice and soon found the cage that the rabbit had been guarding. Inside was a tiny white Digimon who stared at her with wide green eyes. As he caught sight of her, his ears unfolded widely, making him appear almost three times his original size.
"Hi!" he said. "Are you going to let me out now, culu?"
"I don't see why I should," said Ruki disgustedly. "Digimon and humans are natural enemies. Don't you know that?"
"Uh-uh," said Culumon, shaking his head and making his ears flap. "Everybody's my friend, culu!"
"Not mine," Ruki replied. "I'm alone. Always. Got it?"
"Nope," said Culumon.
Ruki shook her head. "Oh, you're just hopeless! Why do I bother talking to a Digimon, anyway? They don't understand anything... What are you doing in this cage, anyway?"
"Because they put me here," Culumon replied, "and nobody's let me out yet, culu."
"Well, gee, that explains a lot," said Ruki, rolling her eyes. "So, there's nothing special about you at all? You sure don't look like much. Do you have some kind of superpowerful attack or something?"
"No," said Culumon. "I never fight, culu. I don't have any attacks, culu."
"None at all? You are a pointless Digimon, aren't you?" Ruki answered scornfully. "Then again, I guess if you can't fight, there's not much point in keeping you in a cage. You sure aren't going to do any damage, anyway. And it'll be one in the eye for those other stupid Digimon, and they deserve it. Here."
She picked the lock on the cage door and pulled it open, and the little Digimon hopped out, laughing with the joy of being free again, prancing around in a silly little dance.
"All right, all right," said Ruki. "Enough of that. Go on, get out of here! Go do whatever it is Digimon do in their spare time."
Culumon looked up at her, his green eyes wide and innocent. "But I want to stay with you, culu!"
"No, you don't. Didn't you hear me the first time? I'm a lone warrior. I travel by myself. No one else. And I hate Digimon, so you should be thankful I'm being nice to you instead of blowing you to bits."
"Awwww...." said Culumon. His ears folded themselves up again, and he hung his head sadly.
"Don't try that. I'm not going to pity you. Go on, scat!"
Culumon scatted, unfolding his ears and simply floating away like a cloud. Ruki watched him go, shaking her head.
"The weird things I do," she muttered. "Oh, well. At least he won't be hanging around and bugging me all night. Now I can get on with the important stuff."
With a final shrug, she turned her attention back to the rest of the treasure. She'd need to sort and gather it as quickly as possible. Those Devas would be back looking for her and her loot, and she would need to be far away when morning came. Resigning herself to a sleepless night, she tugged her gloves on more tightly and went to work.
Years ago, the ruins might have been a beautiful city, but these days, there was hardly anything left worth looking at. Buildings that had once gleamed with glass and lights had now been reduced to empty shells, most of them rusted and collapsed. Some had sizeable holes in them left by Digimon who were expressing their displeasure with having to share a world with human beings, or who simply wanted these structures out of their way. No human had lived there in ages, and the only ones who traveled through it were adventurers or thieves, and even those preferred not to move by night if they could help it... and yet, someone was there.
Though he was standing at the center of a small grove of trees, perhaps the remnant of an old park left over from the time when this was a safe place for children, he didn't appear to be making a great effort not to be seen. He was clothed in head to foot in pure white, making him stand out sharply against the pre-morning gloom. The light of a thin moon reflected off his pale garments, giving them a ghostly glow, and the trappings of a sword glittered at his side. His face was hidden by a deep cowl, but his eyes flashed from beneath the hood, glinting like cold steel. He leaned casually against a tree for a while, looking alert and watchful but still as a statue, then began pacing silently back and forth. He was waiting for something.
Suddenly, there was... something, nothing that an ordinary person would have noticed, perhaps nothing more than a change in the wind or the tiniest sound of rustling leaves, but it made the man snap to attention. He stared into the shadows, his hand moving swiftly toward his sword. As he watched, a Digimon stepped into his sight, staring down at the human with its unblinking red eyes. The human relaxed.
"Antieramon," he said. The voice was that of a young man, but with the calm authority of someone with power. "You're late. I expected you here hours ago."
The rabbit-Digimon bowed his head. "My apologies, lord. We encountered unforseen difficulties."
"Our master is not interested in apologies, Antieramon," the white-robed man said. "He wants results. Where are the others? Where is Makuramon? I would think he would want to come and brag about his victories in person. Or did he send you here to take the blame for his mistakes for him?"
"Makuramon is dead, my lord."
There was a brief silence from the man. "Dead? I'm not surprised; there have been times I've wanted to throttle him myself. How did he manage to get himself killed?"
"There was a Cardmage. She came upon us suddenly in the night and attacked our camp while we were celebrating. We were caught by surprise and unready for battle. She destroyed Makuramon in a ball of fire when he questioned her abilities at magic. The others fled or attempted to fight. Those who fought, perished. The rest escaped with only moderate injuries, at worst."
The hooded man nodded slowly. He was not particularly surprised at this development; in his opinion, Makuramon had been a terrible leader, and with the way he bragged, it was only a matter of time before some brash young adventurer came along to call his bluff. Antieramon was a far better officer - intelligent, loyal, and down-to-earth, with none of his former commander's boastfulness or cowardice. He'd delivered his report simply and honestly, neither trying to cover up mistakes or lay any blame. Makuramon would have said it was all the fault of his followers and that it was only through his clever leadership that any were still alive, whether it was true or not... but he was gone now, and good riddance. Funny coincidence that it had been a Cardmage, though.
"I see," said the young man. "And what of... our objective? I assume you were successful if you were celebrating?"
"Successful to a point, my lord. We were able to find our master's desired acquisition, but when we were attacked, we had no time to gather anything. If we had stayed, we surely would have been killed. I lingered long enough to see what the mage would do, and I believe she will take at least some of the treasures with her."
"She?" repeated the man, sounding mildly interested. Whether it was because of something inherent in their makeup (as many believed) or simply because nobody bothered to teach them, female Cardmages were a rarity bordering on mythological. The man himself was only personally acquainted with one who had any ability to speak of, and that was only because the lady in question was so closely associated with his master. She would never interfere with the master's plans, so it would have to be someone new and different. Cardmages of any sort were few and far between as it was, and the idea of meeting one who was female, unfamiliar, and powerful enough to take out a number of Ultimate Digimon with such facility that the rest of them had fled in fear was intriguing.
"Yes, my lord," said Antieramon. "It was definitely a female human. I'm not good at judging human years, but I would say she was close to your own age. Her hair was the color of fire, and she carried a sword as well as her Cards. Her movements were those of a seasoned warrior."
"Did she give a name?" asked the man, thinking that anyone who was so obviously formidable wouldn't be able to resist showing off a bit.
"She called herself Ruki Makino."
The eyes under the hood glittered. "Ruki Makino is a legend. Mothers tell their daughters stories about her to wile away winter nights. Are you telling me your gang was attacked by a fairy tale?"
"My ears are seldom wrong," answered Antieramon, a hint of danger creeping into his voice. "I know what I heard. She called herself Ruki Makino. Whether or not she was telling the truth is impossible to say."
The hooded man considered. "How many of you are left?"
"Myself, and five others."
"Half of you gone, then," he replied. "I think I do believe you, and her. There aren't many Cardmages of any sort who could finish off six Ultimates at one go. Add in the fact that she's female and redheaded and young and a swordsman... there's no one else she could be. Ruki Makino... This complicates matters."
"Do you have orders for us, my lord?"
"Yes. See to it that the injuries of the others are cared for. Then track down this Makino girl and give her a taste of her own medicine. If she's carrying the Master's property, it must be recovered. If she's not, she'll still be out of our way, and we can return to the campsite and search for the treasure at our convenience."
"And if she is able to destroy us before we destroy her?"
"Hold yourself in reserve. By the power of our master, I appoint you the new leader of the Devas. Conduct the battle as you see fit, keep yourself and the others as safe as you can, and report the results back to me. If you can get the treasure back, I promise I'll see to it that a little extra is added to your cut. Fair?"
The rabbit-Deva bowed. "I am honored, my lord. I shall do as you command."
He straightened again and went bounding off into the night, and the hooded man nodded his approval. The creature didn't waste any time, a trait that his superior found admirable, if only in a grudging way. Like any human being raised in that age of the world, he had a deep-seated distrust of those unnatural creatures, the Digimon. Yet, for some strange reason, he felt a weird sense of kinship with this one particular creature - nothing strong enough to make him feel any real affection for it, but something along the lines of what he'd feel for a distant cousin, someone he had very little to do with but would still feel moved to defend if the need arose. He didn't understand it. There was no reason why he should feel anything but disgust and fear for these creatures. He only tolerated them because they were his master's creatures, and even that was only because he knew that rendered them harmless to him, not because of any loyalty he felt to his master. If anything, he found the mage as reprehensible as the creatures he served him.
*If all goes well, maybe I'll be done with this soon,* he thought, gazing in the direction Antieramon had gone. *I just wish this Ruki person hadn't decided to get in my way. I came so close! Why did she have to come and delay things now, when I was so close to finishing?*
He turned his gaze toward the stars, as if he could read the patterns of his fate among their constellations. Then, with a deep sigh, he resolutely looked away from their silvery lights, walking back into the shadows and letting them enfold him once more.
The first fingers of morning reached through the tree branches to touch the face of a young lady who walked swiftly up a much-abused road. She had made good time since last night, and was only just now starting to relax with the coming of the sun. Digimon seemed to distrust its bright light, and its appearance was her cue to stop the near-run she had been keeping up for the last few hours and walk at a more leisurely pace. She paused at the side of the road to adjust the weight of her luggage; even items stored in magical pockets could become heavy after a while.
"Maybe I should have left more of this stuff behind," she muttered.
There was no answer but the rustling of leaves. The quiet reassured her, so she decided to take out a bottle of water and have a well-deserved drink. Ever since leaving the campsite, she'd been listening and watching intently for any signs that the remaining Digimon were following her, planning an ambush, but so far, she'd seen nothing but a few birds and forest animals. She uncorked the bottle and drank deeply - after all, it had been a rough night, and she was starting to tire. As she tilted her head back to get the last few drops, she spotted something moving in the tree above her. She jumped, tossing aside the canteen and drawing her sword in the time it took to blink.
"All right!" she challenged. "I see you up there spying on me! Back for more, huh?"
"More of what, culu?" said a voice innocently.
Ruki sighed and sheathed her sword. "Nothing. What are you doing here? I thought I told you to go away."
"I did, culu," he answered, "but I got lonely, so I came back."
"Oh, great," muttered Ruki, rolling her eyes. "What do I look like? Some kind of babysitter for stray Digimon? Go find someone else to look after you - you know, your own kind."
"What kind is that, culu?" answered Culumon, blinking his huge green eyes in puzzlement.
"You know! Other Digimon!"
Ruki's temper was rising. "What do you mean, why?"
"Why would I want to go to them? They're mean, and they pick on me, culu. I want to follow you."
"Well, you can't follow me! I'm a human. You're a Digimon."
"What's the difference?"
"Um... well, humans all look the same pretty much, and they do magic and make machines and Cards and stuff, and they live in Cities together, and Digimon are all different and have just a few attacks instead of magic, and... well, there are lots of differences and I don't feel like explaining them all. Especially to you," Ruki finished in disgust. "Why do I need to give you a lecture, anyway? Get away from me, or I'll explain with one of my Cards. Understand?"
Culumon stared at her, ears twitching in puzzlement. "What's wrong with you, culu? Don't you like me anymore?"
"No," Ruki ground out. "I never liked you."
"Then why did you let me out of the cage, culu?"
"Because I felt like it," answered Ruki. "That doesn't mean I like you. I hate Digimon, so there."
"Culu? Do you hate him, too?"
Ruki spun around and saw Antieramon standing a few yards away, regarding her with his solemn expression.
"You again!" she exclaimed. "What, are all of you in a conspiracy or something?"
"I heard you shouting," answered Antieramon quietly. "I have very good hearing."
"Yeah, I'll bet," Ruki muttered. "I figured you'd show up sooner or later, but I thought you'd be a little smarter about it than this. Are you going to challenge me to a dual or something?"
"No," Antieramon replied. "I want to talk to you first. Perhaps we can settle this peacefully... but we must talk quickly. I told the others I was only scouting ahead - they'll be here soon."
Ruki narrowed her eyes. "Why would you want to settle this peacefully? Afraid of getting blown up like your boss?"
"Makuramon was an idiot," answered the rabbit bluntly. "I prefer not to fight if it can be prevented... and I do not believe you truly understand what you've wandered into. I admire your courage and skill, so I'm going to give you a chance to get out now, before you wander into something you can't handle."
"Was that a threat? Listen, buddy, I took out your friends and I can do the same to you."
"Yes," said Antieramon, "but can you take out my master as well?"
"Depends. Who is he?"
The rabbit's ears drooped. "I am forbidden to say. It is a closely guarded secret. I can only say that he is very powerful, and dealing with powers more powerful still that I barely comprehend."
"Hm," said Ruki thoughtfully. She liked a good fight, but she wasn't stupid enough to go tangling with things she didn't understand. Then again, this could be a bluff. "All right, rabbit. Let's hear your spiel. Convince me I shouldn't blow you sky high right now."
"Very well. We are not any ordinary gang, and our treasures are not ordinary loot. Admittedly, some of it was simply taken for monetary value - Makuramon was greedy as well as foolish, and knew he would get the greater share of whatever was left when the master had taken his pick. However, there was also... something else, something of peculiar value. The master will take it back at any cost. Even if you destroy us, he will find something more powerful to send against you. Unless you give it up willingly, you will be running for your life from this point onward. I have authority from my lord to get it back by any means necessary. Give it up without a fight, and I promise you can have whatever else you like from our treasure trove. If that is not enough to satisfy you, we can get more in due time. Just hand over the item, and we will agree to any terms you like."
"What is it?" asked Ruki. "It must be worth a lot if you're willing to go through all that trouble for it. Besides, what would a Digimon want with any of that stuff except to make trouble?"
"My master," said Antieramon, grimacing as if the very thought was painful, "is not a Digimon."
"What?" Ruki exclaimed. "Then who-?"
"You found her!" shouted a distant voice. "Hey, everyone, up here! Antieramon has found her!"
There was a sound of pounding feet, and Ruki glared at the rabbit-creature with ice in her gaze.
"So that's your game," she said. "Distract me long enough to let your buddies catch up to me, is that it? I should have known better than to think a Digimon would make deals!"
"No, it's not like that," Antieramon protested, but it was too late.
The other Devas had arrived, bursting onto the scene with a group of multicolored fireballs as their forerunners. Ruki was only just barely able to dodge, and the close proximity of the trees and the potholed state of the road made maneuvering difficult. She leaped out of the way of the blasts and landed awkwardly, stumbling on the rough pavement. Warily, she assessed the newcomers: a rat, a dog, a chicken, a bull, and a sheep, besides this strange rabbit creature. They were already circling her, and she realized that she wasn't going to have a lot of time or space for spellcasting.
"Well, let's see what this sword is good for," she muttered. "Okay, fellas, who's first?"
In reply, the bull gave a roar and charged at her, preparing to trample her with his heavy hooves. She jumped out of his path and slashed at him, striking sparks off of his armor as he passed. The blow seemed to annoy him more than hurt him, and she scowled; it wasn't fair of Digimon to put on armor like a human! She turned her attention to the nearest creature, the sheep, dodging horns and hooves as well as the attacks the other Digimon were throwing at her, slashing and stabbing wherever she could find an opening. She managed to land a strike on the sheep's flank and watched in satisfaction as it began bleeding bits of data. The rat pounce at her, trying to wrap her in its spiderlike legs, and she hacked at them. One of them came off and flew through the air, evaporating in mid-flight, and the mouse gave an earsplitting scream and released his hold. She wiggled away just as she felt the tip of the bull's sword skim past her, leaving a small rip in her shirt, but thankfully not in her skin, and she grimaced. At the rate she was going, finishing off this battle was going to take all day! If only she could get their attention away from her long enough to cast a spell...
"Hey, look at that!" she said.
Naturally, nobody turned around - after all, that trick had been around since the days when computers were still made out of vacuum tubes, or maybe even longer than that. However, the solemn rabbit had been keeping a lookout, and his sharp eyes seldom missed anything.
"Look out!" he shouted.
Everyone looked - too late. Even as they turned to see what was going on, a young man with a flashing sword came running down the hill and leaping into the fray. With considerable skill, he carved his way across the battlefield to Ruki's side.
"Need some help?" he asked.
"I've got it covered now," she replied, casually sheathing her sword.
"Huh? But I-"
Before he could finish protesting, Ruki pulled out a card depicting a blaze of red fire, twirling it expertly through her fingers before shouting a word of command and throwing it into the monsters' midst. It exploded far more effectively than any bomb, throwing out plumes of fire that reached only for the Digimon warriors but didn't even ruffle the leaves of the trees. All those closest to the blaze were consumed instantly. Those further away were struck by flying sparks that stuck to their fur and grew steadily until the conflagration finally overwhelmed them even as they tried to run away. Only the watchful rabbit managed to survive by springing up into the treetops, out of reach of the flames. He looked down at them with his usual serious expression.
"You will regret that," he said softly.
Ruki met him with her cool stare. "Was that a threat?"
"That was a warning," he replied. "We will meet again, Ruki Makino."
With that, he leaped up into the canopy, hardly disturbing a leaf with his passing.
"Wow," said the unfamiliar swordsman. "That was kinda weird, wasn't it?"
"Trust me, you don't know the half of it," Ruki replied. "Anyway, I didn't really need your help, but I guess you were useful."
"Um, yeah," said the young man, looking somewhat bewildered. Up close, Ruki could see that he was probably close to her own age, and had untidy blonde hair that appeared to be kept in check mainly by a pair of goggles, perhaps used to protect his eyes in a battle. "Hey, you aren't quite what I was expecting."
"What were you expecting? A damsel in distress?" Ruki answered with a grimace. "Gimme a break. Those died out centuries ago. These days a girl has to know how to protect herself - and I can do that better than anyone."
"Oh," he said. "But you were being attacked..."
"Yes, but the battle is over now," she replied, "so you can go away now, okay?"
"I just got here!" he protested. "Hey, you sure you're okay? Those Digimon looked pretty ugly, and they were giving you a hard time. You aren't hurt or anything, are you?"
"No, I'm not hurt. Of course I'm not hurt - I'm Ruki Makino," she said, in an "Of course you've heard of me," tone of voice. She was met by a blank stare, and she sighed. "I'm a Cardmage. Quite possibly the world's best, so I don't have to worry too much about Digimon."
"Oh," said the swordsman. "I'm Takato Matsuda. I'm a mercenary, these days. I used to live in Electrode City, but these days I'm mostly a wandering mercenary, because... well, never mind. Anyway, nice to meet you, Ruki."
She sighed, giving up the fight. "Charmed, I'm sure."
"Whee!" said a voice from above, and Culumon came dropping to the ground, parachuting with his huge ears. He landed in front of Ruki and gazed up at her worshipfully. "That's the second time today you've saved me, culu! You must really like me! Can I stay with you now, culu? Please?"
"Another Digimon?" Takato exclaimed, striking a defensive posture.
"That's Culumon," said Ruki resignedly. "I freed him from those other Digimon last night, and now he won't stop following me around. He says he doesn't have any attacks, so I guess he's harmless."
"Cool," Takato said. "You know, I don't normally say this about Digimon, but he's actually sort of cute. Hey, there, little guy. I'm Takato."
"Hi!" Culumon greeted cheerfully. "Are you going to follow Ruki, too?"
"It kinda looks that way, doesn't it?" Takato replied.
"No," said Ruki. "Look, I'm... on my way to New City."
New City was the largest metropolis on the continent, the only known city that had been successfully built over the ruins of one of the old cities. It was the place to be for anyone interested in Cards, technomagic, or other forms of magery, making it a logical place for Ruki to want to go. It was also several days' journey away, with some hazardous terrain between here and there. Only the very brave or the very foolish would want to follow that road...
"Great!" Takato enthused. "I always wanted to go there. I bet they've got more job openings for me than Electrode did. I'm never going back there again, that's for sure. Can I come along? It might be useful to have someone to watch your back."
"I can't pay you," Ruki lied. "I don't have the money for a merc right now."
"That's okay. I'll come along for free. Even if you are a great Cardmage - and I'm sure you are," he said quickly, as he saw her eyes narrow dangerously, "it never hurts to have someone to watch your back. You heard what that Digimon said. He's going to come back, probably with friends. Probably when you stop to sleep and won't see him coming."
"Hm," said Ruki. Much as she hated to admit it, the swordsman had a point. She wouldn't put any trick below a Digimon, and that rabbit appeared to be clever and quiet enough to sneak up on her while she wasn't looking. It would be useful to have an extra pair of hands around - he could handle the work of grunt fighting so she'd be free to practice her magic. Of course, it would be nice if he weren't obviously so thickheaded, but why look a gift horse in the mouth? "Oh, all right, you might as well come."
"All right!" cheered Takato.
"Yay!" Culumon squealed, running around in joyful circles. He began singing a ridiculous little song, stopping only when Ruki whipped off her cloak and wrapped him up in it.
"I will throw a spell at you if you keep that up," she informed him. "Only reason I haven't done it yet is that I don't want to waste my Cards."
Takato had already started up the road. He paused to look back at Ruki and her small charge. "Hey, are you two coming or not?"
"I'm coming, I'm coming," Ruki called back. Under her breath, she muttered, "I didn't even really want to go to New City. Now I'm stuck going to New City with a baby Digimon and a brainless swordsman. How do I get myself into these messes?"
Resignedly, she pushed her tired feet into a run so she could catch up to Takato.
Travel that day was uneventful. Ruki couldn't decide if that was a good thing or a bad one - she didn't like the feeling that something malicious was possibly out there, waiting to make its move. Also, for the first few miles, she thought she was going to go crazy from listening to Culumon and Takato's good-natured efforts to try to make friends with her. Neither one of them seemed to be able to take a hint, even when she told them both bluntly that she was antisocial by nature and didn't care for company or conversation. Eventually, she just gave up and went along with it, finding that if she kept them talking about themselves, they didn't ask so many questions about her.
"I've lived in Electrode City all my life," Takato was saying. "I worked with a bunch of other mercs out there, but I had to quit."
"What for?" Ruki asked. "Did you get in trouble or something?"
"Not exactly. It just... got too competitive. See, it's one thing to fight if you're doing something good, but I don't like to fight just for the sake of fighting. While I was working there, I had this friend. We'd hang out together and spar a little and joke around - all that fun stuff. We were the best fighters out of all the guards, so we had a little rivalry going on. I thought it was all just a big game, but after a while, getting jealous of me every time I got a good job or a bonus or something, always trying to prove how he was better than me. After a while it got too much for me, so I had to leave."
"Good idea," said Ruki. "He sounds like a jerk, to me."
"Sometimes he was," Takato replied, "but he was still my friend. I kinda miss him."
"What's the point? If he was dragging you down, you might as well dump him," Ruki opined.
"You don't have too many friends, do you?"
"No. Why? What difference does it make?"
Takato shrugged. "If you did, you'd know."
The trip proceeded in silence for a while after that. Ruki got the distinct impression that the swordsman felt sorry for her, and felt a bit annoyed. What did anyone need to feel sorry for her for? She wondered if Takato was lonely, and if that might account for why he was so eager to be following her. Perhaps he was. She supposed a person could get used to having people around them all the time, even annoying people, like city folk who moved to the country only to find they couldn't sleep for lack of noise.
By lunchtime, they had reached a town, and Ruki declared it was time to stop, rest a bit, and get something to eat.
"I thought you said you didn't have any money," Takato said innocently.
"I don't," she said. She did, but she wasn't about to let him catch her in a lie like that. "But I do have a few things I can sell, and a few good connections in this town. I'll unload some of this stuff, and then we'll grab a meal somewhere."
"Stuff? Is that why those Digimon were chasing you?" asked Takato.
"Probably," Ruki replied. "That's how I make my living, see? I track down thieving Digimon, break up their gangs, and take back the stuff they stole. It's a rough job, but the pay is good."
"Have you got anything good? Can I see?" asked Takato eagerly.
Ruki considered a moment before nodding. Ushering him off the side of the road and into the shadow of some trees, she took off her cloak and began removing her prizes from her assorted hidden pouches. Takato and Culumon watched with interest as she pulled out objects that appeared to be too large for the confines of the pockets she was pulling them from. Soon she had a sizeable heap of goods lying on the ground before them.
"Wow," said Takato. "If I were a Digimon, I think I'd steal this stuff, too - no offense, Culumon. What is all this?"
Ruki pointed out the prizes of her collection - rare weapons and machines, the Cards, and various other small treasures. Takato looked interested, but his gaze kept wandering over to the jeweled box.
"What's in there?" he asked.
"Things," Ruki replied. "I don't even know what they are. I just picked them up out of curiosity."
Takato lifted the lid of the box and peered inside. "You're missing some."
"I'm carrying one of them," she replied, holding up the blue device. "The other slot was empty when I found it, so I don't know what happened to that one. You can look at them, if you want. They don't seem to be dangerous."
Since he had an invitation, Takato opened the box the rest of the way and began giving the objects inside a closer inspection, picking them up one at a time to look at them.
"I like the red one best," he opined.
"Really?" she asked, her eyes showing a flicker of interest. "Well, that's a coincidence... Can you read the writing on the box?"
"Because the label for the red device says 'warrior' on it," Ruki replied. "Hm. That's interesting."
"What are the others?" asked Takato, peering at the labels. "They look like a bunch of chicken-scratch to me."
"They're not really writing like you know it. They're runes," Ruki explained. "I can't read all of them, myself. That's one thing I want to do while we're in town is get them all translated. Hopefully that will help me figure out what they are."
"They must do something important, to be kept in a fancy box like this," Takato said. He looked down at the red device, which he was still holding in his hand. "Guess I'd better put this away before I break it or something."
"No, wait," said Ruki. "I just got an idea. Let me try something."
She reached into her sleeve and took out a number of clean white handkerchiefs. Then she collected all the devices and placed them in a row on the ground, turning each one face-down and then placing the cloths over them as an extra security measure.
"Close your eyes," she ordered Takato. "We're going to play a little game."
"Oh. Okay," he replied, looking somewhat bewildered.
He placed his hands over his eyes, turning his back on her so she'd be very sure he wasn't peeking. He wasn't quite sure what sort of punishment Ruki would mete out if she caught him cheating at her "game". Behind him, he heard sounds of shuffling, as Ruki mixed up the row of devices. Once they had been suitably scrambled, she ordered him to turn around again.
"Touch each one of them," she instructed, gesturing at the row of bundles. "Tell me which one feels best to you."
"They're all going to feel the same, aren't they?"
"That's what I want to find out."
Takato did as he was told, cautiously putting a finger to each of the covered devices in turn, acting as if he expected them to bite. When they didn't, he went down the row again, finally settling on one third from the right.
"This one," he said with confidence.
"How do you know?"
"I'm not sure," he said. "There's something different about it. It's warm... like it's alive..."
She pulled away the cloth and turned it over. "Red."
"That's the one I wanted!"
"That's what I thought would happen," Ruki said.
Just out of curiosity, she tried the experiment herself. She was only mildly surprised when she picked up the same blue device she had chosen earlier. She put back both devices and covered them once more.
"Let's try it again," she suggested.
They repeated the experiment a few times more, while Culumon watched with utter fascination. Every time, Takato always chose the red device, while Ruki always chose blue. Once, she substituted a large stone for the red device, just to see what Takato would do, and was surprised to see him get very distressed when he couldn't find it. She was even more surprised when she asked him to find the missing object, and he pointed to her cloak, where the red box was nestled under its folds.
"What does it mean?" he asked, once he was safely reunited with his device.
"I'm not completely sure," Ruki answered, "but I think it likes you."
"There's a branch of technomagic called artificial intelligence. It's the study of endowing mechanical objects with consciousness. Nobody's ever gotten very good at it, but there are a few machines and things drifting around that have attitudes. There was a guy back in his village that had a flying machine that would only carry people it liked. If you made it mad, it would buck you off, or leave you stranded in midair for an hour until you apologized."
"And you think this thing... likes me? Is that good?"
"Probably. That might be what that weird writing means. Maybe the devices only work for whoever matches the label - like that one was labeled warrior, so it likes you because you're a swordsman."
"That makes sense. What does yours say?"
Ruki frowned a little. "I thought it said 'acceptance', but now I'm not so sure. That doesn't sound very much like me, does it? Don't answer that," she added, glaring at Culumon.
"So, what do you think we should do with these?" asked Takato.
"Hard to say, since we don't even know what they do yet," Ruki replied. "I definitely think you ought to hang on to that. You never know - it might come in handy. And I'm going to go to the library as soon as we get into town and do some research. We've walked right into a mystery, and I'm not resting until I get to the bottom of it."
True to her word, as soon as they passed through the walls of the town, Ruki made a beeline for a large and obviously familiar building, striding confidently inside and heading for a secluded nook where she could work in peace. Takato watched her work for a while, but once she got into her work, she either completely ignored him or, if he dared interrupt her, snapped at him. Not only that, but Culumon was attracting a few stares, so he hurriedly left the building and went to buy them all some food. When he returned to the library after an hour's lunch break, Ruki was still reading.
"Made any progress?" he asked.
"Enough to have some idea what we're dealing with," Ruki replied, shutting her book. "Have a look."
She shoved a sheet of paper his way, and he sat down in a nearby chair so he could read in comfort. Culumon hopped onto the table for a closer look. On the paper, Ruki had drawn a rough chart with the colors of the devices, their associated symbols, and the symbols' meanings. Judging by her research, her translations for the red and blue devices had been correct. The others were labeled slave, princess, friend, healer, guardian, priest, and deception.
"That last one is a little blurry," Ruki explained. "There's no good translation, so I had to take my best guess. It could mean some kind of trap, or a lie, or just some kind of prank or joke. It's a general term for any situation where things aren't what they seem to be."
"That was the one that was missing," Takato commented. "You think that has something to do with it?"
"Maybe," answered Ruki, looking rather impressed, as if she hadn't thought he could make that connection himself. "It could just be that the missing one is some kind of red herring. Anyway, I think I've possibly got a better handle on what these things are now. I've been doing a lot of research, and I've decided..."
"We've found something big."
"How big?" asked Takato, leaning closer. Culumon opened his ears wider, the better to catch Ruki's every word.
"Have you ever heard of a mage called Shibumi?"
"No, not really..."
Ruki sighed and shook her head. "I didn't think so. Not many people have, unless they've seriously studied magic. He was one of the very first mages - absolutely brilliant, they say, but a little crazy. He was probably the one who invented the Cards, but his real interest was in technomagic. He was famous for his experiments with artificial intelligence. Some of them were so good that they still work even now, but the thing he's known most for was inventing a machine that could open... well, a hole in the world."
"He could do that?" asked Takato.
"He could and he did. It was supposed to be his greatest achievement, but instead, it nearly destroyed the world. The door he opened led to the Digital World, the birthplace of the Digimon, and they escaped from their own world into this one..."
"And nothing has ever been the same since," Takato finished grimly.
"Right," answered Ruki, nodding. "There was a huge war between the humans and the Digimon, and when it was all over, most of the old cities had been leveled and a lot of the old technology was lost. We had to rebuild everything. With the old sciences gone, a lot of people started using magic to make their machines run now that electricity was gone, and to make Cards to protect themselves. That's why things are the way they are today - all because of one man who wanted to open a gate."
"Good story," said Takato, "but... what's it got to do with these boxes? You don't think this Shibumi guy had something to do with them, do you?"
"That's exactly what I think," Ruki replied.
"But he must have lived hundreds of years ago!"
"Some of his magic has lasted that long," she replied. "These boxes are incredibly well- modified examples of artificial intelligence technomagic. I don't know anyone alive today who could make them. Besides, nobody writes in this kind of script anymore. Even other mages don't use it."
"Hm," said Takato. "I'll take your word for it, then."
"Good. Listen, I think we should definitely keep this quiet," said Ruki. "At least until I figure out what these things do. Knowing that Shibumi invented the Cards, I think these probably work with them in some way - see, there's a slot going down the side for them. Other than that... I'll work on it."
"Do they have a name?" asked Takato.
"Well, if they're so important, they ought to have a name. We can't just go around calling them boxes all the time." Culumon nodded his agreement.
"All right, then," said Ruki. "We'll call them... Arks, maybe. That sounds better than 'box', doesn't it? Digital Arks."
"I like that," said Takato. "It sounds right, you know what I mean?"
"Yeah, whatever. Anyway, I'm ready to get out of here. I have some stuff to sell, and I haven't even had lunch yet!"
"Culumon and I saved you some," said Takato, offering her a bundle wrapped in a napkin. She gave him a look that might have almost been appreciative.
"Maybe I underestimated you, kid," she said. "Come on, let's get out of this dusty old library. I have some real work to do."
Ruki's business in the town was profitable, and put her in a good frame of mind. By the time she was done, the sky was already beginning to turn golden in preparation for the sunset, and she declared that she and her followers would stay within the safety of the city walls instead of trying to travel any further by night. They booked two rooms in a comfortable hotel and settled in for a well-deserved sleep. At least, that was what they tried to do, but as so often happened to adventurers, things didn't prove to be as simple as they planned.
At first, Ruki slept well. She was used to wandering the wilderness and sleeping wherever she could hole up, within caves or propped in trees, trusting to her magic and quick wits to keep her safe from roving Digimon, and it was nice to have four solid walls around her and a soft mattress to sleep on. She was also very tired after her sleepless night and all the walking and fighting. Very soon, she had slipped into a dream.
It was a very strange dream. She dreamed she was an animal, the same gleaming golden creature that ran across the scabbard of her sword. In the dream, she was running as fast as she could go, and that was very fast indeed, feeling her long tail whipping behind her and the wind pinning her ears back against her head. Every detail of the dream was perfect: the sound of her paws against the dry leaves, the rustling of the trees around her, the way beams of moonlight spattered the ground, the way the cool night air rasped in her throat as she ran. She should have been exhilarated by her own speed and power and grace, but in the dream, she was worried. There was something she had to do, something so urgent that no matter how tired she grew, she had no choice but to run and run and run...
Ruki woke, gasping for air, just as if she really had been running for miles at top speed. For a moment, she just lay in her bed, trying to get her breathing to steady and mulling over the dream. She did have some minor personal magic besides her skill with the Cards, enough that she did occasionally have a Vision, but she'd never had one so clear and sharp. Most of them were so completely muddled that she didn't usually realize they were true Visions and not dreams until the event they foretold was over and done with. This one had been true and urgent, but what did it mean? Did it have something to do with the sword? The Digital Arks? The Digimon? She couldn't think of any answers. All she had to go on was a vision of a running animal, moving swiftly towards... what? A moment's hard thinking gave her a memory: she'd been running toward a walled town that looked, even in the moonlight, remarkably like this one.
It was all too much for Ruki to cope with. She didn't like getting mixed up in big things. All she really wanted was to go on being a Cardmage and a minor thief and leave the rest of the world alone. She dragged herself out of bed, heading for the pitcher on her dresser, thinking to have a cool drink before she tried to go back to sleep. However, just as she was reaching for the jug, the level of light in her room dropped abruptly as something leaped onto her windowsill. Ruki knew without looking what it must be.
Seated casually on the ledge was a Digimon. She was nearly the same height as Ruki, standing upright on her hind paws, but her body was similar to some canine creature, like a fox. There was no debate that this was a she, not a he - everything about her suggested femininity, though like Ruki herself, her femininity didn't make her look weak. Her eyes were intelligent; her stance was proud; her movements were graceful. With the starlight shimmering behind her, she gleamed gold.
"You came," Ruki said.
The fox-creature bowed her head. "I did."
"To warn you."
"Warn me? Of what?"
"Of danger," the golden fox replied. "There is something moving tonight that even I do not recognize, but it feels powerful, and it is looking for you. I thought you should know."
"Why would you want to warn me? You don't even know who I am," said Ruki.
"I know what you are. I know your nature. We are kindred spirits, you and I," answered the Digimon. "I am known as Renamon. And you are Ruki Makino, the famous Digimon slayer, are you not?"
"How did you know that?" asked Ruki, surprised.
The fox turned her head, as if uncomfortable with the questions. "I am among Digimon what you are among humans - a sorceress. I have some small magical powers. I walk through walls and travel through shadows. I can sense danger, and can tell if a person or Digimon can be trusted. I can change my shape, if the need is great enough. Sometimes I can read thoughts. Tonight I had a dream so powerful that it woke me from my sleep. It told me that there was a red- haired human in this town who needed my help, so I came."
"Well, you've got the wrong girl," said Ruki irritably. "I don't need your help - or anyone else's. I travel alone."
"So do I."
"Then why are you here?"
"Because I must be," said Renamon. "We are, as I said, kindred spirits. Soul mates, perhaps you call it. We must be together for... whatever is going to happen, to happen. It is fated."
"I don't believe in fate."
"I do," Renamon answered calmly. "Sooner or later, you will accept me, and your fate. Until then, I will be watching from the shadows."
Before Ruki could say anything more, the fox faded out of sight, simply disappearing into the darkness like a puff of smoke.
"Where did she go?" asked Ruki, scowling in consternation.
In her experience, Digimon simply did not do that - it took a fairly high-order mage to simply vanish into thin air, and she'd never heard of a Digimon having magical powers besides their own innate abilities. Thinking she must have simply been confused by the darkness, she stepped closer to the window, peering out into the gloom in search of the runaway Digimon. For what purpose, she was unsure - of course she didn't want to talk to her any longer... or did she? She must be more tired than she thought, even letting ideas like that cross her mind. She rubbed at her eyes and stared into the alley outside. Yes, it was as she thought: the fox was still lurking around out there...
No, wait. Something didn't look right, and Ruki looked more closely. There was something light-colored out there of the same general shape and size of the fox-mon, but its movements were all wrong. It was - there was no other word for it - creeping, a ludicrous thing to do considering how visible it was. When it stumbled over a stray bit of garbage, Ruki was convinced that this was definitely not Renamon she was looking at. She knew with certainty that all of Renamon's movements were as graceful as flowing water; she would never do anything as undignified as trip. As the stranger righted himself, Ruki caught a glimpse of flashing metal, marking the location of a sword.
"A human, then," she muttered. "And not a good one, either, I'll bet. Maybe I should look into this..."
She frowned, thinking hard. Renamon had warned her that there was something powerful moving around tonight... but she had also admitted that she was capable of shape-shifting. Was it possible that she would take the form of an enemy to convince Ruki she was under attack from unknown enemies, so that the fox-mon could offer her services as a protector and try to win her trust so that she could... what? Who knew how these Digimon thought? This was the second Digimon today that had offered help and vague warnings. What were they plotting?
"Just this once," she mused, "I'm glad I've got some help."
Moments later, Takato was being dragged from his bed before he was even fully awake.
"Wha's goin' on?" he mumbled, rubbing at his eyes.
"Some guard you are, if you can't even get out of bed in an emergency," Ruki muttered. "Look, even Culumon's more awake than you!"
Sure enough, Culumon was already up and alert, looking around eagerly for the source of the commotion. Ruki walked over to him.
"Do you want to be of some help?" she asked him.
"Yeah!" he answered eagerly.
"Good. Go do that little flying around thing you do and see if you can find someone for me. Somewhere nearby is a guy in a long white cloak and a hood. Search him out, watch him a while, and then come back and tell me what he's doing. Don't let anyone see you. Got it?"
"Uh-huh! Sure!" said Culumon. He unfolded his ears and floated out the window.
"I thought you didn't like Digimon," Takato commented.
Ruki gave him an annoyed look. "When I get a tool, I use it. He can move around more easily than we will, and no one will notice him unless he does something stupid. In the meantime, keep an eye on the windows and doors."
"You think we're in danger?"
"Almost positive. Better be ready to make a quick getaway."
"I'm always ready for a quick getaway. You?"
They waited a moment, hardly breathing as they listened to the night sounds. Ruki absently noted a cat prowling in the alley outside, someone snoring down the hall, and a distant conversation that was too quiet to be understood. There was no sign of the white swordsman or the golden fox... not like Ruki really cared to see either of them again, but...
Silently as a cloud, Culumon floated back into the room, looking pleased with himself.
"Did you find him?" asked Ruki.
Culumon nodded. "It was easy, culu. He's downstairs talking to someone, culu culu. The innkeeper won't let him come in to look for them."
"Sounds like trouble to me," Ruki replied. "I want a closer look."
"Wouldn't it be safer to just leave?" asked Takato dubiously.
"No," she said. "I'm not walking away now when I don't even know who this guy is or what he wants or what he can do. If he is an enemy, I want to know as much about him as I can before he finds out we're on to him. If he's not, we can all go back to sleep. Follow me and stay quiet!"
With silent steps, they tiptoed down the hall, heading for the stairwell. All the lamps had been turned out for the night, allowing them to move in almost complete darkness. Thus they glided closer to the stairs, pausing at the very top where they could look down into the entry hall. As Culumon had reported, the white-garbed stranger was there, having an argument with the innkeeper. At this distance, Ruki could see a few details she had missed before - a fringe of bluish hair escaping the hood, a glimmer of steely eyes.
"I just don't like the looks of this," he was saying. "It's just not right to be letting strange men into ladies' rooms in the middle of the night. Not to insult your honor, of course, sir, but-"
"No, no, you've got it all wrong," answered the man in white. "The young lady is my sister - I'm only looking out for her best interests. She's a very headstrong girl, and lately she's been getting herself into trouble, trying to run away from home and get into trouble. I believe she's talked one of the family guards into helping her make an escape, and I've come to get them both back. The family honor is at stake, you understand."
"Ah - yes," said the innkeeper, still looking somewhat skeptical. "Pardon my saying so, but I don't see any family resemblance at all. Your, ahem, sister, as I recall, had fair skin and red hair and pale eyes. You look nothing like her at all."
The hooded man hung his head sadly. "I regret to say that my mother perished when I was still very small, and my father remarried soon after to a young widow. Ruki and I grew up like true twins, though we were only step-siblings."
"Is this guy a liar or what?" Takato whispered to Ruki. "I've heard more believable stories from fairy-tale books."
"He ought to become a strolling minstrel," Ruki answered dryly. "Do you want to see me put on a performance of my own?"
"Can you act?"
"Better than he can."
"Well, you're the leader, then," answered Takato with a shrug.
"Darn right, I am. How about you? Think you can do some ad-libbing?"
"I think so."
"Good. All I want to do right now is confuse the daylights out of him. These sneaky-types never do anything if they aren't sure what they're up against, so the longer we can keep him off- balance, the better. Stay up here and wait for your cue."
Takato nodded his agreement. Ruki almost smiled as she turned toward the stairs, gearing herself for her performance.
In the next moment, there was a pounding of footsteps, and the innkeeper and the hooded man both looked up in time to see a rather pale and disheveled-looking girl rushing down the stairs.
"Brother!" she wailed, throwing herself at the stranger and flinging her arms around him. She buried her face against his shoulder, freeing her from having to guard her expression, and pretended to bawl hysterically.
"What? What the heck are you doing, you-!" the stranger squawked. Quickly, he tried to pull himself together again. "I mean, Sister, are you all right? What happened to you?"
"He kidnaped me!" Ruki sobbed, pointing vaguely up the stairs. "He told me he was going to help me get away and see the world, and as soon as we were here, he came into my room and - and tried to..." She went back to her fake crying again.
"Oh," said the stranger, sounding very uncomfortable indeed and apparently very conscious of the innkeeper's gaze resting on him. "Well, it's all right now, um, Sister. I'll just take you home now, and-"
"It's not true!" Takato bellowed, charging down the stairs. "Whatever she says, it's not true!"
Ruki sneaked a peek at him and had to throttle down the urge to grin in spite of herself. She'd been fairly certain that anyone who'd worked as a guard would know how to act suitably threatening, and with him shouting a the top of his lungs and recklessly waving a sword around, the poor masked stranger was looking quite overwhelmed.
"I did not touch this girl! You can't prove it!" Takato ranted. "She's the one who lured me away! She told me she'd pay me a king's ransom if I helped her get off your godforsaken little farm and took her to the city, and this is how she repays me! Making false accusations, trying to get me thrown in jail! And you helped her, didn't you?" he shouted, waving his blade at the stranger, who nearly dropped Ruki as he jumped away.
"Now, hold it just one minute!" said the stranger, turning angrily on Takato. "I don't know what you're trying to pull, but this has gone far enough!"
"Don't you act innocent with me! I know what you're doing! Telling her to run away from home like that, so you could follow after her - to rescue her, you said! Ha! That's a load of baloney. You just wanted an excuse to run away with her! Sister - that's a good one! You're just a junior guard from the warehouses, and don't try to claim otherwise! Trying to run away with your master's daughter!"
"What?" the stranger yelped. "What are you talking about? Are you two both insane?"
"You're the crazy one!" said Ruki, whirling on him and glaring as if she wouldn't dare come within a yard of him and certainly as if she hadn't been clinging to him as if he were life itself just moments ago. "You're a sorcerer, that's what you are! Laying confusion enchantments on both of us! Consorting with Digimon! Don't think I haven't seen you at it! Look, there's one now!"
She pointed up at the balcony, where Culumon had come out for a better look at the proceedings. The innkeeper gasped with alarm, but that was hardly interesting compared to the hooded stranger's reaction. Even from within his deep cowl, Ruki saw his steely eyes go wide, and she was sure she saw a look of triumph cross his shadowed features. However, the looks everyone else in the room was giving him made him think twice about hanging around any longer.
"All of you are crazy!" he said in disgust. "You may think you've outsmarted me, but I'll be back! The Master will be served!"
With that, he swept out of the room and disappeared into the night. Takato sheathed his sword. The innkeeper simply stood and stared, looking from the open front door to the sorceress and the swordsman, who ignored him.
"That was some good acting," said Ruki. "You caught on better than I thought you would."
"Well, you said we ought to confuse him," Takato replied. "My old friend was always good at making a scene - I guess I learned it from him. I even confused myself!"
"He won't be back for a while, I don't think," Ruki mused. "At least not until we've hit the road again. He'll be more careful next time, though..."
"Who was that man?" asked the innkeeper querulously.
Ruki shrugged. "Nobody I know. Takato?"
"Never met him before in my life," he replied. "Man, I'm tired. That acting takes it out of a guy. Think we've got time for a few more Z's?"
"Good idea. Let's get some sleep," Ruki replied.
Acting as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, the two of them walked back upstairs to their rooms.
In the shadows of a back alley, the man in white was mentally berating himself. How had he let himself be thwarted so easily? He'd been just moments away from convincing that fool of an innkeeper to let him find the girl so he could finish his job, and she had beaten him with nothing more than a few word games! Did fate just not want him to complete his mission? ... No, he wouldn't let himself think that way. He would just have to take more precautions next time.
Steeling his resolve, he took a small bottle from an inner pocket of his cloak and uncorked it, letting a single drop fall from its mouth into a murky puddle on the ground. The drop seemed to fall in slow motion, shimmering with a light that had nothing to do with the thin moon and starlight. It struck the water with a tiny, musical ping, sending ripples of light across its surface. Within seconds, the puddle was lit completely with a soft blue glow.
"Master, your servant calls," he said softly.
The water rippled faintly. Now he could see something in the water, a dark silhouette of a man. "I hear you. What have you to report?"
"I have located the girl, Ruki Makino," answered the hooded man. "She is, at the moment, staying in a small inn. I have attempted to detain her, but she somehow knew I was coming and was able to elude me, but..."
"I did find Culumon."
"Well. That's something," said the voice from the water grudgingly. "For that, I won't punish you... yet. My patience is wearing thin. I want that creature captured and brought to me as soon as possible - no excuses!"
"It will be done," answered the hooded man. "And when I do...?"
"You will have your freedom, as promised."
"And my family?"
"Exactly as we agreed. Now, go away. You're interrupting something important, and I don't have time to sit around listening to you ask the same question over and over. Go away and get your job done... or at least leave me alone."
"Yes, master," said the man in white. His voice was faintly grudging, but the vision in the water ignored him. It slowly faded out until it was only a muddy puddle again. The man sighed deeply and put the potion away.
"I'll get you for this, Ruki Makino," he said. "For keeping my freedom and my family from me... If I can't get revenge on him, I'll take it from you."
With that thought in mind, he wandered off in search of a place to sleep. He didn't notice that, high above his head, a sleek golden shape was gliding silently after him.