Ruki stared at Ryo, her expression twisting from surprise to disgust. She hated being lied to, especially about something so monumentally silly.
"Hate to break it to you," she said, "but Shibumi is dead. He's been dead. For a few centuries or so."
"Oh, yes, that's right," said Ryo. "How foolish of me to forget. Listen, Ruki, you're not telling me anything I don't know. Lucky for us, he was too great a mage to let a little thing like dying get in the way of what he wanted. He had too much left to accomplish to just shrug and give up on it just because he was dead."
"So now you want us to believe in ghosts?" asked Hirokazu. "I liked your last story better. At least it was believable."
"He's not a ghost, either. I never said he was alive in any way, shape, or form. Think," said Ryo. "Shibumi was a Technomage, probably the greatest one to ever live. Before he died, he programmed a kind of recording, containing his memories, knowledge, and some vestiges of his personality. It functions as a holographic reproduction of himself - as close as you can get to actually having him still here in person. I know where he is, and I can take you to him, if you like. He'll answer questions for you, even if I won't. That's what it was programmed for, after all."
"Great," Ruki muttered. "A computer. I don't trust computers."
"Why not?" asked Ryo. "They never lie, or so it's said."
"They do when they're programmed to," Ruki retorted. "I don't trust anything the Sage Shibumi programmed. He's a worse trickster than you are. It's his fault about the Digimon and everything. If it hadn't been for him, we probably wouldn't even be in this mess."
"True, true," said Ryo, "but if he can get us into this mess, who's to say he can't get us out again?"
"I suppose it's possible," Jenrya commented. The light of curiosity was glinting in his eyes. "Shibumi is probably the only one left in the world who knows exactly what all this is about."
"He is," said Ryo, grinning.
"You mean you don't know, either, then," Hirokazu said.
"That's true," Ryo answered, letting his jaunty smile fade a little. "It's possible he doesn't trust me any more than you do. He's told me enough to interest me, or I wouldn't be as helpful as I've been..."
"Couldn't have told you much, then," Ruki muttered. "You sure haven't been helping us much."
"He told me enough." Ryo sounded sulky now. "The choice is yours. Hear us out, or go on running from your enemies until they've run you ragged, without ever understanding what's really happening."
He turned and began walking away. Everyone else stood and watched him for a moment. Ruki crossed her arms.
"Nice try," she said.
He stopped and turned around. "What?"
"Trying to fake us out. You weren't really going to leave," she said. "If you were, your Digimon would be following you."
Ryo shook his head. "Cyberdramon just never learned any subtlety."
"Whatever," said Ruki. "I don't appreciate being manipulated. Maybe if you'd give us a minute to think it over, we might agree with you. Or not."
"Well, think it over, already. We're wasting time."
The group went into a huddle, with the smallest Digimon peering up from among the others' feet and Guardromon looming over them.
"So, what do we think?" asked Takato. "Do we trust this crazy guy or not?"
"We don't," said Ruki. "He's playing games with us, trying to get us to do what he wants."
"But that doesn't mean we won't do it, hm?" answered Jenrya shrewdly.
"What do you mean by that?" Hirokazu asked.
"I believe he proposes a partnership," said Renamon. "He leads for his own reasons, and we follow for ours."
"What if this is a trap?" asked Kenta nervously.
"I do not believe it is," Lopmon said thoughtfully. "If only because I do not think he will let anything happen to us before we have helped him achieve his aims."
A few people looked at the tiny Digimon in surprise.
"Now that he's shrunk, it's easy to forget he's still a soldier," said Jenrya to no one in particular.
"I don't think we have any choice," said Takato. "It's like he says - we can either take what he's offering, or we can go around running aimlessly until Yamaki catches us."
"You might just be right," Ruki said slowly. "If there's one thing I'm sure of about this guy, it's that he won't go down easy. I get the feeling he might give eve Yamaki a run for his money, and if he wants us on his side..."
"Better to ally with the strongest guy you can find," said Hirokazu. "I say we do it. We can't get into a worse jam than we're already in."
"I knew you'd see it my way," said Ryo.
"We see it our way," said Ruki, "and don't eavesdrop. It's rude."
Ryo ignored her. "Since you've decided to see reason, we'll start at once. It's this way."
He turned on his heel, his cloak flapping around him, and began walking briskly towards the east. Ruki made it a point to wait several moments, until he had gone some distance away, before she started walking. The others followed her in a ragged line.
"You're just like a cat," Ryo said. "Always trying to make it look like everything you do is your idea."
"I just want to get this over with," she answered sullenly. "The sooner we get wherever we're going, the sooner I can hear what you have to say, and then I can be rid of you."
"You just keep telling yourself that," he answered.
Ruki gave him a suspicious look. "What do you mean by that?"
"You'll see when we get there," he answered.
Ruki sighed and trudged along in silence, quietly debating with herself whether she was really in such a hurry to get there, after all.
Reika heard the door open, and she looked up expectantly. Despite the fact that she had been waiting for him, she was rather surprised to see Yamaki walking tiredly into the room.
"You're back early," she commented. "Didn't you find them?"
"No," he answered. "No, I found something altogether different, and I don't like it."
She gave him a look of sympathy mixed with concern. "What happened, then?"
"I am not entirely sure," Yamaki answered, "but I believe I've been given a warning."
Reika's grip on the arm of her chair tightened. "Warning? Against what?"
"Nothing specific, unfortunately," said Yamaki. He slumped into a chair. "It is obvious that someone knows what I am doing, someone I hadn't heard of before. A mage, by the look of things."
"You should be able to deal with that," said Reika. "You're the best. Everyone says so. It would be impossible for someone at your level to hide themselves."
"I'm not so sure," he answered thoughtfully. "This is magic unlike anything I've ever seen before. He called himself a priest - 'a most unusual priest' is what he said. A priest of what, I wonder?"
"Nothing to worry about, I'm sure," said Reika, trying to inject some confidence into her voice.
"I don't like it," Yamaki insisted. "There is strange magic at work here, the likes of which I've never seen before. It's on those devices, and it's in that priest. I suspect... I suspect it has something to do with the Digimon. He knows what I'm doing, and what that Cardmage Ruki is doing, and he is confident enough in himself that he doesn't mind my knowing about him. In fact, he wanted me to know he was ready to oppose me. I don't like it." He shook his head. "Every move I make is countered. Every plan I make fails. Maybe there is something out there more powerful than I am. Maybe I should just give up..."
Reika bit her tongue to stop herself from saying she had wanted to give up on this wild scheme a long time ago. Then she let out a cry. Even as he'd spoken, Yamaki had pitched forward, struggling to breathe, clutching at his throat as if he were being strangled by some unseen hand. She rushed to his side, trying ineffectually to do something to help him. There didn't seem to be anything she could do - it was impossible for her to even tell what was wrong. For a few moments, he shuddered and gasped, and then gradually relaxed. Reika helped him to a sitting position, and he allowed her a few seconds to fuss over him before he waved her away.
"I'm all right now," he said.
"What happened?" she asked.
"I don't know," he answered. "Whatever it was, it's passed."
"I've been telling you, you've been pushing yourself too hard," she said. "Perhaps you should see a Healer?"
"I may," he said. "Let me rest a bit first. If I don't feel better soon, you can call a Healer or whatever you like. In the meantime, I am going to lie down."
He climbed carefully to his feet and walked away. Reika stayed where she was, staring off into space.
This is getting worse than I ever imagined it would, the thought. A sick feeling of worry was creeping over her. This was worse than just his old obsession. He was obviously making himself sick - and if he felt bad enough to admit the possibility of needing a Healer, he was bound to be feeling worse than he let on. Not only that, but he'd collected enemies, of the sort that could give even him problems. First it had been him interfering in the Mainboard royal family, then the legendary Cardmage Ruki, and now there was this mysterious priest in his way. Any one of them, he might have handled, but now they were pulling together what was starting to look, in her paranoid thoughts, like a small army of mages, warriors, and monsters. They already had grounds for a battle, after what he had done with the king, and if they really intended to come after him...
The room around her seemed to go dark, and she wondered for an instant if she were about to succumb to the same thing that had stricken her teacher a moment ago. Then the darkness cleared, and she was treated to a vision.
There was a swathe of grass beside the forest, looking nearly blue-black in the thin moonlight. A breeze ran over it, making it toss like the waves of an ocean, and the trees in the background rustled and swayed. It sounded like an ocean... but there was something unrhythmic underlying it, something that didn't belong. There were footsteps coming closer. A girl stepped into the clearing, her violet eyes reflecting the moonlight as she scanned the area. One hand played over the hilt of a slim sword emblazoned with designs of gold and silver and set with amethysts. Hanging opposite of the sword's scabbard was a packet marked with designs Reika knew well: they were seals to keep the magic of Cards contained. The girl paused at the top of a small rise and stared off into the distance, as if searching for some distant goal. Outlined against the sky was the shape of a crumbling tower. The stars were very bright...
Reika shook herself, and the vision faded. This vision was more an irritant than something to worry her - certainly not as worrying as the last vision she'd had. She had too many important things to do than worry about the doings of a lone swordswoman.
Swordswoman?, she thought suddenly. How often did you see one of those? Particularly one who carried cards, and with that distinctive coloring. She had never seen the face of Ruki Makino, but she had heard enough about her to know what she would look like if she met her. Who else could the subject of her vision be but her?
If I could only find her...
Reika frowned in concentration, trying to bring up every detail of the scene. The ruined tower loomed in her mind; she could see its broken pinnacle above the tops of the trees. She knew that tower; it stood but a few miles from the village where she had grown up. The local boys used to spend the night there as an adventure, and hunters knew it was safe shelter if they should be caught out in a rainstorm. Factoring in what she knew of the lay of the land, she was certain she could pinpoint the location of the clearing she'd seen to within half a mile.
But finding her wasn't enough. That was the trouble with these visions - they could tell you something that had already happened, or something that wouldn't happen for a few more years. Unfortunately, there was nothing in the vision to tell her when it occurred.
Or was there? Early in her magical career, when Yamaki had only begun to teach her, he had attempted to put her off by giving her difficult, tedious work. Among these was the memorizing of various constellations, the alignments of planets, and the phases of the moon. He had drilled her long and hard on these things, and instead of allowing herself to be discouraged by them, she had duly memorized them. Aside from earning her instructor's respect, she had picked up a skill for being able to tell the date and time by the positions of the stars and moon.
Very soon, then, she decided at last. If I'm not mistaken, it's going to happen within the next day or two - maybe this very night.
She considered a moment. She could go and tell Yamaki that this very night, his nemesis would be alone and unguarded in empty terrain - terrain which Reika was familiar with, and which Ruki was possibly not. She could just as easily bypass Yamaki and order someone (or something) to stake out the area and deal with the young Cardmage when she arrived. Reika considered these possibilities carefully... and then decided to do something completely different.
Meanwhile, Yamaki had retreated to his rooms. His intention had truly been to go to bed and lie down a while - a sure sign of his internal state - but he didn't make it that far. He settled for dropping into a convenient chair. It was a desk chair, and not particularly comfortable, but it would do for the moment. He leaned back and let his arms dangle at his sides.
Whatever you have done to me, I will not forgive you for it.
The subject of his mental threat was far away, and could not hear him, but the idea of finding the culprit and administering justice to him made Yamaki feel a bit more in control of himself. It was a feeling he needed to have right now; it had been a long time since anyone had dared to do anything to him, and he did not like the feeling of it now. He was certain, though - someone had done something to him. He could still feel a faint miasma of magic clinging to him. It was so faint, in fact, that he doubted it would have shown up to anyone who did not have his unnaturally developed sensitivity, particularly in his own magic-clouded stronghold. He was content to let Reika go on thinking this was a natural malady, but he knew otherwise. There was a spell on him, and he blamed it on that mysterious priest.
What has he got in mind? thought Yamaki peevishly, prodding at the perimeter of the spell. Despite the fact that it did not seem very strong, it seemed remarkably attached to him, and all his efforts were utterly failing to peel it away. The more he examined it, the more he became convinced it was the priest's doing - it was the same odd magic he had sensed on him when they had first met. Now it was surrounding him like a purple fog, and he could no more move it than he could grip a cloud in his hands. He had never seen anything like it before, and its nature eluded him.
Then I will find that priest again, and I will wring an answer out of him... and whatever roving rogues he chooses to ally himself with, he decided.
He smiled grimly, feeling his strength ebbing back. There was no more thought in his mind of giving up, now. He was the greatest mage in the world, and he would not stand for any ragtag magician trying to show him up. This was no longer an academic pursuit. Now it was personal.
"Are we there yet?"
"Are we almost there yet?"
"Are you really, really sure?"
Jenrya sighed. His sister might have been admirable as an archer and talented with magic, but it had not fully dawned on him until now that she was not accustomed to walking long distances. Her boots weren't very well made for journeying, either, being a style that was fashionable in Mainboard among the upper class who wanted to look like they were bold adventuring types. They were certainly quite impressive, with their gleaming buckles and silver trim, but the thin soles and high heels weren't compatible with rough terrain. She could be forgiven for complaining a little.
Besides, it was annoying Ryo, and by now, there wasn't anyone left who didn't feel he deserved it.
"Look," said the priest, exasperated. "This is kind of time-sensitive, okay? We don't have time to stop and rest."
Shuichon pouted. "Well, my feet hurt."
"This is getting a bit tiring," said Juri softly.
"We've been walking all day," said Hirokazu, "and we haven't had anything to eat since breakfast, and not much of that. Give it a rest, would ya?"
The swordsman was not exaggerating. Since Ryo had joined their group that morning, he had been leading them at as brisk a pace as they could stand. Now dusk was beginning to fall, and while Ryo seemed as fresh as ever, the rest of the gang was beginning to show signs of wear. Culumon had given up entirely, and was fast asleep on Guilmon's head.
"Can't we at least stop to eat?" asked Kenta, without much hope.
"...Eat?" said Ryo, as if he were having trouble remembering the meaning of the word. "Eat. Hm."
"What's the matter?" asked Hirokazu sarcastically. "Don't you ever get hungry?"
"How often is not often?" Takato asked.
"Oh, every two weeks or so," said Ryo with a grin.
"Come off it," siad Ruki. "We saw you eating ice cream back in Mainboard City."
"I know." He grinned more widely. "That's why I'm not hungry now."
"You know," said Terriermon, "I'm starting to get the feeling there's something a little weird about you."
Ryo bowed. "Nice of you to notice."
"He's not the only one who's getting suspicious," said Jenrya. "What kind of priest are you, anyway?"
"That's right," said Juri. "You've never said. Nobody has said. You're not like anything I've ever seen before. You have magic, but it's not white magic, or black magic, or nature magic. What is it?"
Ryo looked around. The others looked back. Humans and Digimon alike were registering tiredness, suspicion, and general grumpiness. It was obvious they weren't going to follow him any further until they got a few answers.
"All right, all right," he sighed. "Be that way. We'll stop a while, and you can rest and eat and I'll tell you what I know."
"It's about time," said Jenrya. He looked around, sizing up the area. They had been traveling through a forest for most of the day, and as far as he could tell, the scenery wasn't likely to change any time soon. "And I suppose this is as good a place as any."
"We'll be safe enough here," said Juri. "I can keep the natural elements at bay."
"Are you sure you're not too tired?" Leomon inquired. "I am capable of protecting us all, if I need to."
"No, I'm quite all right," she said, smiling up at him.
For some reason, this exchange seemed to amuse Ryo. He chuckled slightly.
"You make yourselves comfortable," he said. "I'm going to have a look at the road ahead."
"Don't you know where you're going?" asked Ruki, giving him a withering glare.
"Now that you mention it, no," he answered. "It's been a few years since I've been this way, and I was younger at the time. I want to make sure we're still going the right direction. You'd never forgive me if I got you all lost, would you?"
"Fine, but be quick about it," said Ruki. "We'll have camp set up by the time you get back."
"All right. Be good! Come on, Cyberdramon."
With a nimble leap, Ryo bounded onto his partner's shoulders, and they were gone with a rushing of wings.
"You know," said Takto to nobody in particular, "maybe I shouldn't, but I feel a lot safer now that he's gone."
"Will you feel any safer when I'm gone?" asked Ruki.
Takato did a double-take. "You aren't serious, right?"
"Of course I'm serious," she said. "You don't think I'm letting him wander off without keeping an eye on him, do you? No way - not after what happened last time he got involved with us. Don't worry," she added, catching the looks the others were giving her. "I'll take Renamon with me to watch my back."
"Who's going to watch our backs?" Kenta wanted to know.
"You'll be all right," she said. "You've got a mage or three and a couple of swordsmen and some Digimon. What else do you want?"
"What if this is a trap?" asked Hirokazu, looking around uneasily.
"It's not a trap," said Ruki. "He didn't want to stop here, and if there was a trap, he'd want us to fall into it. If there is a trap, it's up ahead, and that's why I'm going."
Without another word, she turned and marched into the forest. Renamon watched her a while, shrugged, and faded into the forest to follow her partner.
"Do you think we should follow them?" asked Takato. "I don't want her to get in trouble."
"Let her go," Jenrya replied. "Can't you tell she needs some time to herself?"
"Well, I guess she has been a little crabbier than usual today, now that you mention it," Takato replied.
Jenrya nodded. "Ruki's independent. Unless I miss my guess, she's had about enough of following someone else's lead. Let her get out and work off some steam. She can look after herself for a while."
"Yeah, I guess so," answered Takato. "It's just... well, I've been watching her back for a while now. It's hard to let her just walk off."
"Don't worry," said Hirokazu. "She's a legend in her own time, remember? She's not going to turn up dead in a ditch just because you weren't babysitting her. Or are you starting to get the hots for her, huh? She is kind of cute..."
"Shut up," Takato snapped, blushing brilliantly. He stomped off to look for firewood, leaving Hirokazu to snicker quietly.
Meanwhile, Ruki was enjoying being away from the crowd for a while. She could sense Renamon's presence nearby, but it did not bother her the way the presence of humans did, no more than the presence of the air around her could bother her. Actually, it was rather refreshing, being out from under everyone's feet for a little while, with nothing in sight but trees and plants. It made her feel a little more like herself.
How many days has it been since I joined this traveling circus, anyway? she asked herself. She wasn't even sure anymore. If you considered that the whole thing had started when she met Culumon, that made one day, and the next day she had met Takato, and after that, it had been Jenrya and Renamon, and then Guilmon the day after that...
More than a week, then. For over a week I've had this merry band tagging along with me. No wonder I feel like I don't have room to move.
Well, she'd have room to move soon enough. She could tell the trees were thinning out, though the light was fading. It had been difficult to tell, deep in the forest, just how much time had been passing, but now it was obvious that night was falling. It would be pitch black by the time she got back to camp, assuming her companions got around to making one. She would just have to rely on Renamon to help her find her way back, because it wasn't likely that even she would be able to find her way through unfamiliar territory to an uncertain destination in the dark.
Maybe I don't want to go back.
She shook her head. By this point, that idea was wishful thinking. She had gotten too used to having helpers around - people to watch her back, to help her see what she wouldn't have seen and do what she couldn't do. A stray thought, too small and undeveloped to have taken on words, suggested gently that she might miss having someone to talk to. She brushed it aside irritably.
They aren't going to stay forever, so you might as well get used to being alone again. There was no chance of them staying with her once this whole ordeal was over. For one thing, Jenrya and Shuichon had a kingdom to run. Takato and Hirokazu would likely go back to Electrode City, now that they had settled their disputes, and Kenta would go where Hirokazu went. Juri had her temple. They all had places to be... all but Ruki.
Ruki unsheathed her sword and hacked at a few bushes which were standing in her way, though it would have taken less effort to go around them, and finally emerged into a clearing. She was surprised to see that the stars had come out while she walked - she had been so wrapped up in her thoughts, she had lost all track of time. Ahead of her were waves of grass, shimmering like watered silk in the thin moonlight. She took a few cautious steps forward, taking in her surroundings. There was a ruined tower standing alone on a hill.
I wonder if that's where we're going?
She didn't get time to think about it. Even as she was forming that thought, she heard a rustling, and something else grated on her magical senses, like a high-pitched sound just on the edge of hearing. At the same time, Renamon materialized out of nowhere.
"Ruki, someone is coming," she said.
Ruki nodded and slipped out her sword, moving instinctively closer to Renamon and bracing herself for an attack. There was no attack, though. Instead, there came a soft voice.
"Do not be alarmed. I do not intend to attack... yet."
Ruki looked in the direction of the voice. For a moment, she saw nothing. Then the air blurred, and a woman stepped out of the shreds of an invisibility spell. Ruki was shocked. Not by the invisibility - she had seen plenty of those while she was at the University - but by the fact that this woman radiated magic in about the same way that a vat of white-hot molten metal radiated heat. She was also outstandingly beautiful, with huge dark eyes that were probably blue and long straight hair that was most definitely red - not the fiery red of Ruki's hair, but true red, looking like dark wine in the moonlight. Despite the fact that she was apparently all alone in hostile territory, she wore nothing more protective than a thin dress of black silk, with matching slippers.
She's prettier than my mom, thought Ruki, a bit dazedly. Secretly, she'd always been rather proud that the most beautiful woman she'd ever known had been her mother, and she wasn't quite sure how she felt about having to revise her opinion.
"You're a mage," Ruki said flatly.
"Yes," answered the woman. "And you are Ruki Makino, the famous Cardmage."
"That's right," said Ruki. "Sorry to say, I don't have a clue who you are. Mind cluing me in?"
"You will not have heard of me. Reika is my name. Reika Ootori."
"Pretty name. Listen, I'm supposed to be meeting some people pretty soon, so if you could cut to the chase..."
"Very well. I've come to ask you a favor. Something very important... something I believe only you can give me."
Ruki glared. "I don't know what you've heard about me, lady, but I think you ought to know I don't just hand out favors. Find someone else to bail you out."
"There is no one else." The woman's voice, calm until now, began to tremble. "You're the only one I can turn to."
Ruki hesitated. She didn't like to see people cry, but it was generally a toss-up whether she dealt with the problem by caving in or walking away.
"Must be a big favor," she said.
Reika lowered her eyes. "It is."
"So, like I said, I'm not that big on doing favors - especially not big favors. Supposing I say no?"
"Then I will attempt to coerce you."
Ruki sighed. "Look, maybe you missed the significance of 'legendary Cardmage'. It means I'm the best. Fighting me would be a waste of our time, and probably painful. You seem like a nice lady, so why don't you just go on home before you get hurt."
"You seem to have missed something as well," answered Reika. "You see, I, too, am a Cardmage."
Ruki almost fell over in shock. Meeting other Cardmages was something that seldom happened to her. Meeting another Cardmage who was also female and redheaded... it was a little hard to believe. She attempted to marshal her wits.
"What, are you trying to start a club or something?" she asked.
"No," she answered. "All I want from you is a promise."
"I don't make promises."
"Then I have no choice." The woman made a gesture, producing a deck of Cards. They gleamed to Ruki's magic-sight; they were no run-of-the-mill cards. "Are you sure you won't at least hear my terms?"
Ruki's eyes narrowed. "They don't, by any chance, have anything to do with the sorcerer Yamaki, do they?"
"I admit that they do."
"In that case, I'm not interested." Ruki took out her deck and began shuffling it. Renamon stepped into place beside her, but Ruki waved her away.
"No," she said. "This is a duel, and duels have to be done properly. This is between her and me."
"As you wish," said Renamon.
"Right, then," said Ruki. "Since you're the challenger, I get to draw first."
"I know the rules. I had excellent training."
"Fine. Let's go."
Ruki flicked out a Fireball card and ignited it, making the card glow briefly with a nimbus of orange light. It was a fairly minor attack spell, as far as these things went, but Ruki didn't feel like going too far tonight. Anyone could see that this was a noblewoman, used to taking it easy. She had probably never had a real fight on a real battlefield. It would be easiest just to scare her away.
The fireball flashed, pulsing once before shooting from the Card and flying straight toward the woman. Fast as it moved, Reika was faster, and the fireball stopped abruptly as she flourished a Card of her own that threw up a wall of winds that blew it to harmless sparks. Her hair wasn't even ruffled.
"You aren't taking me seriously," she said.
She produced another Card of her own, and Ruki had just enough time to register a silvery flash. That was enough to make her jump out of the way, and the next instant, the area where Ruki had been standing was obscured under a mass of ice crystals. Ruki did a fast handspring and managed to make a safe landing a few yards away.
That was close, she thought. If the ice had scored a hit, Ruki would have been frozen solid by now, or possibly impaled on an icicle - she didn't have time to analyze the specifics of the spell right now. As a matter of fact, she didn't have time to do anything - the other sorceress was amazingly fast, and had already prepared a lightning spell. Ruki was saved by instinct more than anything else; she called up a magical shield that diffused the worst of the blast. A painful tingle shot through her limbs, but it would have been much worse if it had scored a direct hit. The Card she had pulled the shield from burst into flames, and Ruki dropped its smouldering remains on the ground.
"All right, that does it," she muttered. She pulled a fresh Card, dodged again as a volley of fireballs flew by, and let fly with a half-dozen arrows of light. Reika scrambled to erect another shield, and Ruki smirked a bit as she realized her guess was right. The spells she used to guard herself were her own invention, and briefly took on the form of stuff like plastic for the few seconds they lasted. Reika's guards were air-based - effective against fire and even physical projectiles, but light-arrows were something else. A few were deflected, but two or three found their marks, and Reika cried out in pain.
"That's why I'm a legend and you're not," said Ruki smugly, dusting herself off.
Her reply was another flash. Her opponent wasn't finished yet, and Ruki was stunned by what felt like a larger-than-average snowball traveling toward her at terminal velocity.
Don't know that one, she thought vaguely, as she was thrown off her feet. She crushed a good deal of grass as she fell, slamming into the earth without form or grace. A certain amount of dirt got into her mouth. She tried to spit it out, but her muscles seemed to be not working well all of a sudden. She felt frozen and tingly, as if her veins were full of snow.
"That is why I am training under the tutelage of the greatest mage alive, and you are not," said Reika. "Concede defeat."
"No," said Ruki. That much, at least, she could get out.
The next thing that came out of her mouth was a scream, as fireballs rained down on her. Renamon took a step forward, but Ruki waved her away.
"Stay out," she said. "I told you, this is between sorceresses."
Ruki levered herself up and managed to get to her feet. Her clothes were charred, and her skin screamed with pain every time she moved. The burns were likely to be fatal if she didn't get them treated, but she intended to treat them, so that was all right. She pushed the pain out of her mind and concentrated all her thoughts on her Cards.
"Give it up," said Reika. "Look at you - you can barely stand."
"I don't need to," said Ruki through clenched teeth. "And you need to learn... just because your enemy is down... doesn't mean she's out."
Ruki gathered up the last of her remaining strength and shoved it through one last Card. There was heat against her hand as all of its energies spilled forth, creating a cloud of darkness that rushed through the entire glade. For a moment, all present were blinded, and the only sound was a rush of wind and a dry crackling noise as the grass around them withered. There was a soft gasp as Reika struggled to breathe, but it was no good. By the time the cloud had passed, Ruki was standing over her holding a sword.
"Yeild," said Ruki.
Reika stiffened a moment. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, raising her chin. If she had been standing, she would have looked defiant. Now she was only baring her throat for the blade.
"I've failed," she said. "Kill me if you have to, but I won't surrender. I won't betray him."
Ruki blinked. Here was a quandary. Maybe it was just because something about this woman reminded her of her mother, or maybe it was just a reluctance to kill someone who was being so honorable about losing. Either way, she had a hard time making herself go through with it, even if she did have permission.
"Oh, come on," she said. "If I killed everyone who couldn't beat me in a fight, the human race would be extinct by next Tuesday."
Reika's eyes flashed. "I'm not going to help you, you know. Even if you spare me, I won't leave him."
"Yeah, yeah, you said so already," said Ruki. "I don't want you following me around, anyway. I've got all the friends I need, thanks just the same. So, why are you so stuck on Yamaki, anyway?"
"He is... my teacher," Reika replied, lowing her gaze. "He taught me everything I know about magic. And... he is kind to me."
"Humph," said Ruki.
"He is," Reika insisted. "You've only seen his bad side. He really is a good man. It's just... he hasn't been himself lately."
"Hm," said Ruki. She was beginning to get the picture. After all, even she had been impressed by Reika's good looks. The combination of extraordinary beauty and extraordinary talent was probably enough to get even his attention.
So, he's got blood in his veins instead of ice, after all. That makes her... what, his lover? I guess I'd have heard if he had a wife, and she's definitely not just a student, no matter what she says.
"So he sent you out here to kill me, is that it?" she asked.
"No!" said Reika quickly. "Don't think that of me. I didn't want any of this to happen. I've been telling him all along that this is a bad idea, but he's been stubborn about it. He always was stubborn. No, I came here on my own."
Ruki was suspicious. "Why?"
"To ask for mercy."
"Oh, really?" asked Ruki.
"Yes. I'm afraid... for his sake, I mean. He's getting himself into trouble, and I'm not sure even he can get out of it again. He's gotten so desperate, he'll do anything, even if he doesn't understand what he's doing. I'm afraid he's going to get hurt before all this is over, and I don't know how to stop it." Reika was close to tears now. It had been a long time since she'd had anyone to confide in. "If I won, I was going to make you promise not to hurt him. Now all I can do is beg. Please... I'm not asking much. Just give me a little more time. I know I can talk him out of this."
"Hm," said Ruki. She was beginning to feel a bit foolish, now, for pressing a fight. They could have had this conversation without battling over it. Still, she'd already been on edge, and when someone who was so obviously connected to the enemy appeared, it had seemed wiser to shoot first and ask questions later.
"I don't know why I'm saying this," said Reika - she was nearly babbling now. "I just don't want anything to happen to him. Please, whatever you do, don't kill him. I don't care what happens to me, but..."
"Oh, give it a rest with the melodrama, would you?" Ruki snapped. "I already told you, I don't go around killing people out of hand. That goes for him, too. I'm not going to kill him unless he leaves me no other choice. If you can talk him out of hunting me and my friends, he can live as long as he wants, for all I care."
"You promise?" asked Reika.
Ruki thought it over for a while.
"All right, all right, I promise," she said. "I can't speak for any of the others, but if it comes down to my choice, I won't let anyone kill him. Hey, don't start crying," she said, suddenly alarmed. "I'm not doing this 'cause I'm a nice person. Just call it professional respect."
"Thank you," said Reika, sniffling. "You don't know what this means to me."
Ruki shrugged. "Yeah, whatever... Look, you're kind of messed up right now, and it's kind of my fault. Do you want to follow me back to camp and get Kenta to patch you up? He could use the practice."
"No, but thank you anyway," said Reika. "What about you? Are you going to be all right?"
Ruki shrugged again, despite the fact that it made her burns flare up again when she moved. "I'll be okay. I have enough magic left to hold together until I get back to camp. Hey, that was some pretty good spell-slinging you did back there. What was that one with the ice?"
"A variation on a standard freezing spell," said Reika. "It's very simple, once you get the hang of it. It's just a matter of refining the parameters... I didn't recognize that last spell you did. Or the shield spell, either."
"A couple of my own inventions," Ruki replied. "I'll tell you what. If we both get through this mess alive, maybe we should meet up someday and swap spells. Us redheaded lady Cardmages have to stick together."
Reika managed a wobbly smile. "I'd like that." She glanced at the sky. "I had best be getting home, or he'll wonder where I am."
"Same here," said Ruki. "I need to get back before Ryo knows I'm gone. Well... see you around."
She turned and walked off, trying not to let anyone see her limping. Reika climbed carefully to her feet, closed her eyes a moment... and suddenly was not there.
As Ruki stumbled her way back into the forest, she saw a glint of gold out of the corner of her eye, and she turned her head slightly so she could meet Renamon's gaze.
"Do you require assistance?" asked Renamon.
Ruki shook her head. "Not the kind you can give. If you touch me, it'll just hurt more. Just... find me the quickest way back to the others, okay?"
Renamon nodded. She threaded her way expertly through the dark forest, pausing now and then to hold branches out of Ruki's path. Ruki was grateful - if there was one thing worse than being burnt, it was being burnt and being scraped by twigs. The adrenaline rush of the fight was wearing off, and she hurt all over where the fireballs had struck her.
My cloak is ruined, she thought irritably, trying to take her mind off her injury. She's lucky I don't send her the bill for a new one.
They arrived at the place where there had not been a camp before to find that there was one now. Takato had taken out his worries and frustrations on a heap of firewood, which had been neatly lit by a blast of fire, courtesy of Guilmon. Culumon, irrepressible as ever, had overcome his weariness almost instantly, and was now playing a game of tag with Terriermon and MarineAngemon, while Lopmon looked in on mild puzzlement Leomon and Guardromon were taking it in turns to patrol the area, and it was they who first realized Ruki had returned.
"Look who's back," said Leomon.
"Who goes there?" Guardromon called back. He tromped over to have a look. "Ahh, the lady hath returned!"
"Yeah, yeah, big surprise," said Ruki. "Would you boys get out of the way? I want to sit down."
Takato, who had been staring moodily at the campfire, raised his head. "Hey, Ruki, you're back! I was getting... hey, you're hurt!"
Ruki was both annoyed and mildly flattered to find herself surrounded by concerned would-be helpers. She put up with their attentions for a few seconds before shooing them away, with a little help from Renamon. She eventually managed to get herself situated comfortably, not too close to the campfire. She wasn't feeling particularly kindly to flames right now.
"Er... do you need some help?" asked Kenta timidly.
"Wouldn't hurt," she answered in her most casual voice. She ruined the effect by wincing; sitting down wasn't any more comfortable than standing up.
Kenta gently set a hand to her skin, and healing magic trickled through her system. She sighed. She could worry about her pride later; right now, it was a blessed relief to stop hurting.
It took her a moment to realize that Jenrya was watching her closely. She opened one eye to look back.
"Do you mind telling us what happened to you?" he asked. "Did Ryo have something to do with this?"
"Nah. Haven't seen him since he left," said Ruki vaguely. She was thinking, I am going to marry a Healer someday. I don't care if they're squeamish about sex; I'll take this as a substitute.
"So who did it?" asked Hirokazu. "Or are you going to tell us you weren't looking where you were going and walked into a bonfire?"
"Your sarcasm is not appreciated," said Ruki. "For your information, I ran into another roaming Cardmage, and we had a duel to pass the time."
"Rough duel," said Takato.
"Oh, like you've never gotten cut up in a duel," said Hirokazu. "Remember when you ran into that squire from System City, and he was laughing at your technique, and you said you could whip ten of him, and-"
"Did you have to bring that up?" Takato muttered.
"But you're not supposed to get beat up," said Shuichon, eyes wide. "You're a legend. Everybody knows that. You're supposed to win."
"I did win," said Ruki. "She was pretty good, but you could tell she didn't have any field experience. She's never had to fight anyone to the death before. Every time she scored a hit, she stopped to make sure I was okay before she fired again."
"She?" Jenrya repeated, giving her a keen look. "This Cardmage of yours - would she have been in her late twenties and have long red hair?"
Ruki could have slapped herself. In all the commotion, she had nearly forgotten that Jenrya had formerly worked for Yamaki. They hadn't discussed his sordid past at all since Shuichon had joined the group, but of course he would have been familiar with his former employer's helpers.
"She might have been," Ruki conceded.
"Reika," said Jenrya, more to himself than anyone else. "What's she doing mixed up in this?"
"Who is Reika?" asked Takato.
"Yamaki's student," said Jenrya. "Also his lover, apparently, if the rumors are to be believed. She helps him in his studies. I knew she studied Cards, but I've never seen her in battle."
"Sounds like trouble to me," Hirokazu opined. "Women are always trouble. No offense," he added, glancing at Ruki, Juri, and Shuichon.
"Reika's all right," said Jenrya. "I've worked with her a few times. She's not... imperious, like he is. Always very polite. Absolutely loyal to Yamaki, of course. She was the only person I ever saw him show any kindness to," he added thoughtfully. "He must be getting desperate, to do anything that put her in danger..."
"He didn't send her," said Ruki. "She came of her own accord."
"Well, that's news," Jenrya replied. "I always thought she didn't like fighting."
"She told me she was worried about him," Ruki answered. "She wanted me to promise that when we finally meet up with him again, we won't kill him."
"That's nuts," said Hirokazu. "He's the enemy. I mean, he's not just someone we've been hired to fight with, he's the bad guy. You don't go around being merciful to the bad guys!"
"He could change," said Juri softly.
"He's already changed once - for the worst," said Jenrya bitterly.
Shuichon nodded. "He took my dad."
"Well... I promised," said Ruki, staring at her feet. There was silence for a moment. She looked up, eyes flashing.
"What was I supposed to do?" she demanded. "You weren't there, so you didn't see anything. I've got my reasons for promising, okay?"
"You don't have to apologize," said Takato. "It was your decision."
Ruki didn't look completely pleased. "Anyway, I didn't promise for you guys, just me, so it's my problem."
"It's not a crime to feel sorry for someone," said Kenta. "I would have done the same thing, if it were me."
"I guess," said Ruki. "I did kind of feel sorry for her. A little. She doesn't like this mess any better than we do."
"Moumantai!" Terriermon piped up. "It'll all work out somehow. Killing people's messy, anyway. Puts everybody in a bad mood."
Jenrya almost smiled. "You could be right about that. As for me, I'll decide what I'll do when I get there. If he's done anything to my father, I might be glad I never made any promises."
There was a moment of grim silence. Ruki didn't like it, and decided to get rid of it.
"I hope you saved me something to eat," she said. "All that spellfighting took it out of me."
Food was brought forth, though not much of it, since the Digimon had gotten first pick. Ruki ate what she was given without complaining or even thinking about it very much. Aside from having more important things on her mind, fighting really did leave her hungry. Her teachers had always told her that magic came from strength of the spirit and discipline of the mind, but it was her experience that it was hard to have either of those on an empty stomach.
It was a half-hour or more by the time Ryo and Cyberdramon finally returned. Ryo's cloak and boots showed signs of having been dragged through mud and brambles, but his expression was pleased. The others regarded him warily.
"Where have you been all night?" asked Ruki.
"Checking the landmarks. I told you that," he answered. "I found it. We're closer than I thought we were. I would have found it sooner, but I misread the signs and took a wrong turn. We can be there in an hour, if we move quickly."
He began walking back the way he had come, then stopped, obviously wondering why no one was following him.
"Come on," he said. "You'll be a lot safer there than you are here."
"How do we know that?" asked Jenrya.
"Because the Sage has hidden his remains there for centuries, and nobody has found them yet, have they?"
"You found them," Hirokazu was quick to point out.
"I did not," Ryo answered. "I was... allowed access, because of my unique qualifications."
"Did the great sage need someone to annoy him?" Ruki drawled.
"No," said Ryo. "Listen - do you remember that before I left, I told you I would explain to you a bit about who I am and why I'm mixed up in all this?"
The others nodded.
"Well, the truth is," he answered, "I'm not human. Not completely. The fact of the matter is that I'm one-half Digimon."
The others gave him stunned looks. He grinned.
"Under proper circumstances, humans and Digimon can interbreed," he said. He flashed a look in Juri's direction. "I'd keep that in mind, if I were you."
Juri flushed, and Leomon looked distinctly uncomfortable.
"That is what caught the sage's attention," Ryo continued. "My very existence is a sign to him that his goals are close to being fulfilled. That is why he took me into his confidence. We have goals that coincide, you see."
"And these are?" asked Jenrya, raising one eyebrow.
Ryo shrugged. "Come and see for yourself."
In the end, curiosity, coupled with a desire to be somewhere safe, for once, won them over. The group followed Ryo into the deepening night, trudging wearily through the forest. There was hardly any light. As far as the humans could tell, they were walking through a tunnel of shadows with walls of rough bark and a floor of fallen leaves. There was no way of gauging how long they had been walking, and it began to feel as if they were walking through some kind of dream. Gradually, it became obvious that they were working their way up an incline, and various tired muscles and sore feet protested the strain. The trees thinned, and at last, they stepped out into the starlight and found themselves looking at a knob of rock that thrust from the bald crown of a hill. Ryo waved his staff grandly at it, as if he were showing them through the door of a grand manor.
"Here we are!" he said. "I told you I'd get you here, and I have."
"It's a rock," said Culumon, summing up everyone's feelings. "Why did we come to look at a rock, culu? There were plenty of rocks back where we came from, culu culu."
"This one is special," said Ryo. "Sit back and watch me do a trick."
He rested the tip of his staff against the stone, and it began to glow softly. The onlookers heard him begin to speak soft words, which sounded to those who knew no magic like some kind of arcane chant. To those who did know magic, it sounded like utter nonsense. However, they must have held some sort of meaning, because the lump of rock he was touching abruptly ceased to be. In its place was a crude tunnel, looking as if it had been there since the beginning of time.
"What was that all about?" asked Hirokazu.
"Password-magic," Ryo explained. "Those were the names of the five Digimon gods - Zhuqiaomon, Xuanwumon, Baihumon, Qinglongmon, and Huanlongmon. It's not something just anyone would say in a casual conversation."
"I see," said Ruki, and she did. Password-magic was one of the more advanced branches of technomagic. The simplest form involved teaching an enchanted object not to react unless it was presented with the correct word, action, or token. The most advanced form allowed something to be hidden absolutely, even from magical searches, unless the password was used. This must have been a spell of considerable power, to protect this place for so long.
"After you," said Ryo, bowing.
With no better choice, they went in. The tunnel was easy enough to follow, being wide, relatively smooth, and moving straight as a shaft of light. It angled downwards, though at a gradual enough decline that it was easy to follow. This was good, because there were no lights, and they soon found themselves wishing they were back in the forest, where they could, at least, almost see where they were going. Ruki found herself falling back on her magical senses, but it was no use. There was strong magic here, stronger than anything she'd felt since she'd left the University. There, hundreds of students and teachers of magic had come together, along with uncountable texts and artifacts. She was getting much the same feeling here, only, amazingly enough, it was stronger. At the University, a certain number of dampers had been put down to keep everyone from going crazy from the constant barrage of magical energy. There were no such dampers here, and the air fizzed with power. It was as potent, in its way, as one of Kenta's overenthusiastic rechargings. She hated to think what one of her spells would do down here if it went off; she had the feeling that even a small destructive spell would be enough to reduce the whole hill and a fair chunk of the forest to dust.
This really is it, she thought, feeling a cold chill down her spine. It's not a joke or a trap or anything. This really is the grave of the greatest sage who ever lived...
The floor leveled out so abruptly that she stumbled, and proceeded to bang her thigh against what felt like a table. She swore.
"Oops," said Ryo innocently. "Forgot that was there."
"This is ridiculous," said Jenrya. "Does anybody have a light?"
"Allow me," said Juri. She said something else in a lilting language, and an orb of sun-colored light appeared and drifted up to the ceiling. Everyone blinked and shier eyes, dazzled by the sudden brilliance.
"Sorry!" Juri said. "It's not usually that bright."
"I should have warned you," said Ryo. "There's a lot of concentrated magic down here. Any spell you do is going to be stronger than normal... so keep a lid on the pyrotechnics."
"I knew that," said Ruki, giving him a glare. It annoyed her when people tried to tell her things that were perfectly obvious. The field down here was strong enough to make her giddy, carrying with it the siren-song temptation to try something, just to see what she could do.
She distracted herself by taking a closer look at her surroundings. She was standing in a fair- sized room that appeared to have been hewn out of the living rock. It would have been called large, if it weren't for the fact that a number of people and Digimon were crowding it, making it seem smaller. Thankfully, there wasn't much in the way of furnishing. A few blocky machines stood against a far wall, humming and blinking or occasionally emitting a soft beep. The solid object Ruki had run into was not a table at all, or at least, not the sort anyone would have wanted to eat breakfast off of. It was a solid block of pale grey stone, something similar to marble, and perched on top of it was a carven likeness of a man, wrought in such perfect detail that he might have been frozen that way by a spell rather than carved by human hands. It was entirely possible he had.
"Yes, that's me. Impressive, don't you think?"
Everyone but Ryo jumped, looking around for the source of the voice. It seemed to come from everywhere at once. Then there was a faint bluish shimmer in the air, looking like light reflecting from a stream of water. Gradually, it formed itself into the shape of a man, one who looked eerily like the carving on the stone. He was blonde and pale skinned, with long hair and a slightly untidy beard. The clothing he wore seemed to be made of simple cloth, perhaps cotton or linen, and dyed in various shades of blue, and would have been quite handsome if it hadn't been some three centuries out of style. The most remarkable thing about him were his eyes, which were very dark, and had a dreamy, unfocused look to them - not so much as if he were pondering the cosmic mysteries, but more as if he hadn't woken up properly and didn't quite know where he was.
"Though to be perfectly honest, that isn't really me at all," the soft, deep voice continued. "But it is a very good replica. Then again, I'm not really me, either, so in a sense, that is a more accurate reproduction of me than the aspect of myself they meant to capture."
Those who prided themselves on being intelligent nodded and tried to look as if this made perfect sense. Those who had no such illusions simply gave the man blank looks. The only ones who did not do either of these things were Ryo, who was looking as if his famed sage was not making the impression he'd hoped for, and Culumon, who had not paid any attention. He toddled over to the specter and smiled up at him.
"Hi!" he chirped. "I haven't seen you in a long, long time, culululu! Where have you been? I missed you, culu."
"I missed you too, my little friend," answered the sage. "I am pleased to see you again, and even more pleased that you've brought friends with you."
"Hold up!" said Ruki. "Time out. You... and Culumon... know each other?"
"Sure!" Culumon said. "Gorou is my friend, culu culu!"
"Gorou?" Ruki repeated. "Hold it just a minute. I thought we were here to see the Great Sage Shibumi."
"You are," said the specter. "I am he. Gorou was my given name. Shibumi is... more of a title. A nickname, if you will. It means-"
"Perfection," said Jenrya. "Effortless perfection. Wisdom without requiring thought. Skill without needing effort. Authority without having dominion."
"You read that out of a book, didn't you?" said Hirokazu. "Say what you really mean and dump the poetry."
"He means everybody thinks Shibumi was so cool, they gave him a special name for it," Shuichon explained.
"But nobody told Culumon this," said Ruki. "How long have you two known about each other?"
"All of Culumon's life," said Shibumi, "Though only a few days of my own. I created him."
There was a general outcry. Culumon blinked at them all, obviously confused as to what the fuss was all about.
"Created him?" Jenrya repeated. "How do you create a Digimon?"
"Very carefully," answered Shibumi, smiling faintly. "Indeed, it took so much out of me that I have thought at times that it was the effort that finally killed me. He's still imperfect - he has no power to evolve or attack. Still, I am proud of him."
He looked with admiration at his creation, who was scurrying around on the floor, playing a game of tag with his shadow and giggling.
"And... why exactly is that?" asked Terriermon.
"I had a sense there was something odd about him," said Renamon. "There is a kind of power about him, but a power he does not use. I would guess that he is unable to. Is that correct?"
"Yes," said Shibumi. "Culumon is my single greatest creation, the culmination of a lifetime of effort. One of my most brilliant ideas, if I do say so myself. I suppose you've all heard the legends about the coming of the Digimon?"
"Some of them, yes," said Ruki.
"There is truth in them. I did open a portal to the world of Digimon, and they did pass through. So, too, came the D-Reaper and its destruction. Its power was immense, and many people and Digimon were lost. In the end, the Digital Gods appeared and did battle with it, but their powers were weakened by leaving their home world, and they exhausted their strength and vanished. The D-Reaper was defeated, but not destroyed; it was forced back to a dormant stage, sealed away and rendered harmless for a few years, at best. Knowing this, I turned all my energies to undoing the damage my experiments had done, and inventing safeguards against the time when the D-Reaper might rise again. In the end, there were two great creations, my shield and sword..."
He trailed off and gazed into space a minute.
"Shield and sword?" asked Hirokazu. "I thought we were talking about Culumon."
"But we are," said Shibumi. "Culumon is my shield, my preventative measure. All the magic I used to open the door to the Digital World, reversed it, and sealed it into the most unlikely hiding place I could devise: a living Digimon."
"What do you mean, reversed it?" asked Ruki curiously.
"I mean what I say," he answered. "To simplify: instead of magic for opening a door, it is now magic for sealing things shut. What was once the most powerful opening spell ever devised is now an equally powerful restraint. I have bound the D-Reaper to it, so that as long as Culumon is undiscovered, the D-Reaper can never be released. What could be safer? Who would think that something so powerful could be hidden in something so inoffensive? And even if they did, who in this age would voluntarily seek contact with a Digimon?" He shook his head, his expression one of deep sorrow. "Thus from great injustice, some good may come."
"How do you mean?" asked Jenrya.
"It was never my intention that Digimon be brought into this world to be treated as monsters," said Shibumi. "I was friends with many of them, before I died. I had nothing but the greatest respect for them. It was my wish that the two races live as friends. I never wanted to leave them to make war with each other. That was the flaw in my plans, you see."
"Er... not really," said Takato.
"I could wager a guess," Ruki said. "When you took apart the opening spells, the door between the worlds closed up, and now the Digimon can't get home."
"Not only can they not get home," said Shibumi, "but there are humans trapped on the other side... or there were when I was alive. I have no way of knowing whether there are any left."
Ruki felt a cold shock. That was a possibility she'd never thought of before. It was so easy to think of Digimon as invaders in her world, but it had never crossed her mind that humans would have entered the other world, or that they might still be living there. She wondered whether or not they were being treated any better than the Digimon were here.
"We've got to get them out!" said Shuichon.
"We can't," said Jenrya.
"Technically, you could," said Ryo helpfully. "After all, you have the key right here. It's just that if you did, you'd unleash a force of awe-inspiring destruction, and that might make things a tad awkward for your rescue mission."
"And therein lies the rub," said Shibumi. "Either leave the door closed but remain safe from the D-Reaper, or open the door and unleash the monster. A bit of a paradox, one would think."
"One would think?" Jenrya repeated, raising an eyebrow.
"Yes," said Ryo. "Because, like so many problems, the answer is impossible to get until you have a missing piece of the puzzle. Here's a riddle: if Culumon is the shield, what do you think is the sword?"
There was a moment of silence.
"The Arks," said Ruki. "The Arks are bound up into this somehow."
"Correct," Shibumi answered, smiling. "They are the weapons I devised to fight the D-Reaper, should it ever arise. They were specially devised to draw together a varied group of warriors, spellcasters, Healers, and most importantly, Digimon. The Arks allow the power of human magic to be blended with the innate abilities of Digimon. Only the two together will be able to fight it when it appears."
"So here's what I don't get," said Takato. "If Culumon is the key for opening up the door to the Digital World and stuff, why is Yamaki so dead-set on getting him? He can't want to bring back the D-Reaper, can he?"
"Not likely," said Jenrya. "Think about it. Culumon's magic isn't just for opening that door. That's how he started out, but a skilled mage like Yamaki could use him to open anything... even his eyes."
"Good grief," Ruki muttered. "Talk about having your priorities wrong."
"Personally, I think he's got the right idea," said Ryo.
He suddenly found an uncomfortable number of eyes fastened on him. He blinked and looked innocent.
"What?" he said.
"Tell me why I shouldn't kill you now, as a service to mankind," said Ruki.
"You act like I said something wrong. I'm crushed," he said. "I want the door opened. That's my whole reason for being here. Right now, I belong nowhere - neither to this world or to the Digital World, because I'm a blend of them both. I want the door to open so the two worlds can join. That is my purpose in life... but I can't do it alone. It has to be all of the Digimon Tamers together. No single being, even a hybrid like myself, could hope to take on the D-Reaper and live."
"Well, that's an encouraging thought," said Ruki. "So, what you're saying is that you brought us out here to tell us that you want us to open the door to the Digital World and release the greatest danger the world has ever known on purpose, just so you can have some company for your misery?"
"No," said Shibumi firmly. "For my part, what I want is to see the D-Reaper not just delayed, but destroyed for all time. I have supplied you with tools. I believe they will work. When the D-Reaper is gone and the worlds reunited, my work will be complete, and my spirit can finally rest in peace."
"The other stuff is just a fringe benefit," said Ryo, grinning wickedly.
"Well, I don't like it," said Ruki. "The world was just fine before you started tinkering with it, and I don't see why I ought to be obliged to undo your mistakes."
"You are not required to," answered Shibumi, his voice surprisingly gently. "You can only choose to accept, or not to accept."
"I do not," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, the best thing to do would be to keep anyone from ever unlocking the spell. I'm certainly not going to do it. This whole thing has been a waste of my time."
She turned on her heel and marched out of the room, followed closely by Renamon.
"Hey, wait, come back!" Takato shouted, and he scrambled to catch up. In ones and twos, the rest of the group trailed after them in various stages of bewilderment. Soon, only Shibumi and Culumon remained in the room.
"Why did they all leave?" asked Culumon, gazing up at his friend with wide eyes.
Shibumi shook his head. "They aren't convinced, I think. Even I can't force someone to take the path I choose for them. It may yet be that all my plans will come to nothing. Well... what will be, will be. Look after them for me, little friend."
"Okay!" said Culumon.
He leaped into the air and unfurled his ears, sailing away like a kite. A moment later, the light in the room flickered and died, and Shibumi's tomb fell into darkness once more.
When Reika returned to her home, she did not get the kind of welcome she was hoping for. Her preference, in fact, would have been not to receive any welcome at all, at least until she'd had time to clean herself up a bit. Her lovely dress was torn and scorched, her hair was in disarray, and on the whole, it was obvious to anyone with eyes that she had been in a fight, even if those eyes happened to be sealed shut.
Yamaki was waiting for her, pacing the floor in agitation.
"Where have you been?" he demanded.
"I - I just stepped out for a minute."
"You don't sound very sure of yourself," he said icily. "I smell the smoke on your clothing. I feel strange magic on you. No, not strange at all - all too familiar. Where have you been?"
Reika hesitated, her mind reeling as she attempted to think of an answer he would accept. None would come to her. She opened her mouth to try to say something, anything, but before she could speak, Yamaki lunged forward and seized her. One hand closed around her throat.
"You've never lied to me before," he whispered. "Why are you lying to me now? I don't like it when people lie to me, Reika." The velvet in his voice contrasted with the strength of his grip, which was slowly tightening. "Tell me the truth! You were with that sorceress, weren't you? That meddlesome Cardmage, Ruki Makino. You never wanted me to do this at all, did you? You were plotting against me with her! You traitor!"
His hand clenched tightly, and Reika made a strangled sound as her air supply was abruptly cut off. Her ears buzzed and her vision slowly clouded over as his grip continued to tighten...
Yamaki was brought to his senses by the feel of something wet on his hand. What was this? Blood? No, it couldn't be. What was it? He released his grip and let his fingers trace their way up her face to brush the dampness away from her eyes. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, it occurred to him that he had never made her cry before. Reika dropped to her knees and coughed as she struggled to breathe again.
"... I ... I wasn't," she managed to gasp.
"What?" he asked.
"I... wasn't... plotting against you." She coughed again. "Trying to help. I... I fought with her. I thought... I made her promise. I made her promise not to hurt you. I was only trying to help..."
She trailed off as she looked up at him. His face had gone stark white. He turned this way and that, as if he had suddenly realized he was caught in a trap and was seeing himself being hemmed in on all sides.
"No," he whispered. "No!"
With a sudden cry, he turned and fled the room.
Yamaki seldom ran anywhere, but now he sprinted as if his life depended on it - or as if someone else's life depended on it. He stumbled on the carpets, fell against a wall, pulled himself to his feet and kept going. At last, he reached his own rooms, and he hid himself inside and locked the door behind him. Gasping for air, he slumped against the closed door and tried to catch his breath. He held up his hands before him as if they were likely to attack him.
"What am I doing?" he asked himself. "What is the matter with me? I almost killed her. How could I do that? What's come over me? Is it the spell, or...?"
No. It is no spell.
Yamaki flinched, cringing away as if he'd been struck. There had been a voice, but it had come from nowhere. It was as soundless as the thoughts in his own mind, without tone or volume. He had the sudden unsettling thought that if a computer could talk, it would sound that way. There was no emotion in that voice at all, only a blunt statement of fact.
"What are you?" Yamaki demanded.
Statement: I keep order. I preserve the balance. My purpose is to destroy all things that have outgrown their boundaries.
"What have you got to do with me?"
Statement: I suffer from a malfunction. Statement: You are able to assist me. Statement: I am able to supply what you desire. Conclusion: Our forces must be combined."
"And why should I help you, whatever you are?" Yamaki demanded.
Statement: It is my purpose to destroy all things that have outgrown their boundaries. Observation: You are the most powerful human being living on this world. Deduction: You should be destroyed. Counter-observation: It would not be necessary to destroy you if you were assimilated into my program. Query: Do you desire destruction?
Yamaki shook his head. "No."
Query: Do you choose to assist me?
The mage hesitated.
"You are the one who's been manipulating me," he said. "You're what attacked me when I was thinking of abandoning my plans. You made me attack Reika when you thought she was a threat."
"Can I get rid of you?"
"What will happen if I try?"
Statement: The more power you use against me, the more grounds I will have for destroying you. Conclusion: It is futile for you to resist me. Reiteration: You cannot fight me.
"And if I choose to join you?" he asked warily.
Observation: You will gain what you seek.
He took a deep breath. "In that case... I have no choice. Is that so?"
"What will it do to me, if I agree?"
Fact: I will assimilate your powers with mine. Then I will release you.
"Do you promise?"
Fact: I am unable to make promises. Addendum: I am unable to lie.
Yamaki nodded. It was as he suspected: this was some kind of strange technomagic, a bizarre form of computer program. It could not make promises because it had no true will of its own; however, lacking a will, it could not intentionally deceive him, either. Whatever it said had to be the truth as it understood it. With that understood, it also had to be true that it wasn't lying when it said it had the power he desired...
"Very well," he said. "Do it and be quick about it."
Affirmed, said the voice, and that was the last thing he knew before the fog closed in.