A shadow crept slowly over the ground, a shadow that was cast by nothing and moved of its own will. It was vague and formless, spilling across the ground like water, darker and blacker than any normal shadow. It was too black, a black that could catch the eye and pull it forever into its infinite depths, into an abyss more complete than the emptiness of space because it was never broken by a single light. It slithered across the grey ground, moving steadily closer to a boy and a Digimon that leaned against a fallen tree, lapsed into thoughtful silence. The shadow tasted the air around the Digimon, relishing the fragments of darkness that already clung to him. It wrapped around them both in a cool cloud, gently lulling them into a sleep from which there would be no waking...
"Hey, Jim!" shouted a voice.
The fog evaporated as Jim looked up. Tai and Agumon were scampering over the grey earth, bright patches of moving colors against the still dark countryside.
"There you are!" said Tai. "We were starting to wonder when you'd come back. Joe's starting to worry. Well, more than he usually worries, anyway."
"Sorry about that," said Jim. "I guess we kind of dozed off or something."
"Yeah, you two have had a rough day," Tai replied. "Hey, listen - Mimi and Palmon prowled around a bit and found some stuff that the 'mons say is edible. You two feel up for lunch, or whatever it is we're having this time of day? What time is it, anyway?"
"Hard to say. I think it's..." Jim looked up at the sky, trying to get a feel for if it was even day or night. The sky was uniformly gray, with no trace of a sun at all. "...time to eat."
Tai laughed. "Great! Come on!"
He led Jim back to where the other Digidestined were resting. Matt and Gabumon had hauled together some fallen wood and lit a fire, which was now crackling fitfully in the middle of a circle of people, giving off as much smoke as warmth, though the wood itself was bone dry. Everyone huddled around it, drawing as much comfort from it as they could. Kari in particular seemed uncomfortable, staring into the flames with blank eyes, curled up with her chin in her hands. When Gatomon tried to hand her some of the food Mimi had brought, it took some prodding before she woke up enough to accept it.
"Are you all right?" asked Mimi, kneeling next to the little girl. She'd become a bit protective of her since their adventure in the City of Shadows, and now she felt a pang of concern. There was something about that look in her eyes that seemed wrong...
"I don't like it here," said Kari. "It's so dark..."
"It's not that dark," said Koushiro. "Not really. Just sort of... gray."
Kari shook her head. "It's not that. There's something here. Something bad. It's creeping around watching us..." She turned frightened eyes on Mimi. "It's trying to get me... I can feel it trying to get me..."
"Nothing is trying to get you!" said Mimi. She sat down next to Kari and hugged her. "You're just frightened because it's so ugly and creepy here, but it'll be okay. We're all here for you. Don't you worry about a thing."
Kari allowed herself to be comforted, cuddling into Mimi's arms while Gatomon settled on her lap and purred comfortingly. Gradually, the light came back into her eyes, and she smiled weakly.
"Thanks," she said. "I needed that."
"Any time," Mimi answered.
Jim watched them out of the corner of his eye as he ate his own meal. Personally, he thought Kari was right - there was something wrong with this place, something more than the unnatural grayness, more even than the fact that it was ruled by the insane clown Digimon he'd met before. Piedmon had been frightening, but he hadn't given Jim this same sense of wrongness that he felt now. Piedmon had been natural; he was bad, but there was no reason why he shouldn't exist in this crazy world. A few minutes ago, though, he'd had the feeling of slipping into something that was utterly anomalous, something that made his stomach twist in knots. He looked at the last of the unappetizing food he'd been given and set it aside.
"Here, Gomamon," he said. "Want some extras? I'm not really hungry."
"Sure!" the seal answered gleefully.
"How come he gets favors?" asked Gabumon.
"Because Jim's my brother," said Joe. "Hey, Jim, how are you holding up? You look thoughtful."
"I am. I'm thinking about what we're going to have to do next, and I'm a little worried," Jim replied. "Well, okay, a lot worried... and that's supposed to be your job, little bro."
"How scary can this Piedmon dude be?" asked Taichi. "Anything that sounds so much like a dessert can't be that bad, can he?"
"Yeah, you've seen Piedmon," Matt said. "What's he like?"
"I told you what he's like already," Puppetmon complained. "What more do you want?"
"A second opinion?" Koushiro suggested. "The more we know, the less we'll be afraid, right?"
"Not necessarily," said Sora.
"I don't know what I can say about him," said Jim. "He... wasn't what I expected, that's for sure. I was expecting something more dangerous-looking, you know? But he didn't look scary, not in the sense where you think he's going to bite your arm off or something. The only thing about him was that he was carrying swords, and he had these red eyes. You could just look at them and tell he's crazy. He was enjoying watching us suffer."
There was a moment of quiet. Then Tai said, "So, do you think we can take him?"
"I don't know," said Jim. "It's not like I was fighting him; I was too busy with... other things," he finished, as Kokuwamon caught his eye.
"Well, we'll be going in with a number advantage, anyway," said Koushiro. Two Megas, six Ultimates, and an extremely powerful Champion."
"Three Megas," said Puppetmon, looking affronted. "Or don't I count?"
"Might be four," said Kokuwamon quietly. "I went that far once. I might do it again."
"Are you sure that's a good idea?" asked Jim. "You know we talked about this, and you said it might do more harm than good."
"I have to protect you," he said. "If that's what it takes, then that's what it takes."
"I wish you could evolve, Patamon," said TK. "You're so cool as Angemon - I bet your Ultimate is awesome!"
"We'll work something out," said Tai, optimistic as always. "It's gonna be quite a fight, I can tell you that... Wish we didn't have to fight here, though. Kari's right - something about this place is starting to give me the willies."
"You're not the only one," said Puppetmon. "I've been here before, and it was never as bad as this... Kinda reminds me of an old story I heard, a long time ago when I was just a hatchling..."
"A story?" asked Mimi.
"Like a ghost story?" asked TK. "Tell it, tell it!"
"It ain't exactly a ghost story," Puppetmon replied, "but if you really wanna hear it..."
"Well, it's not like we have anything better to do," said Matt.
"I wouldn't mind hearing a story," said Sora. "It might take our minds off of things for a while."
"All right, all right," said Puppetmon. "Let's see if I can remember how this goes. It's been a long time. I haven't heard this one since I was a little Hatchling back at Primary Village. You all know about Primary Village, right?"
TK nodded. "I went there with Patamon and played with the babies!"
"Yeah, that sounds like fun. Anyway, back when I was first hatched, Elecmon used to tell us stories around the campfire at night. Most of the time they were happy stuff - you know, where the good guy goes out and makes friends and saves the world and all that junk, but sometimes he'd bring out this other one. It would scare us all... it even scared me pretty bad," he added with a creaky shudder.
"What could scare you so much?" asked Kari.
"Well, you know I wasn't so powerful then. I was just a little-bitty Yuramon, and it was late at night with the fire flashing..." He shook himself. "Anyway, you all know about how Digimon were created, right?"
Everyone shook their heads.
"You don't? And here I thought you guys were supposed to be experts or something," said Puppetmon. "Well, I guess I'll have to tell you. Digimon aren't born the same way you humans are. The first ones were formed out of pure data, and when they died, they got sent back to the Primordial Databank to be reprocessed and sent back as eggs to be born again. It went on that way for a long time, but then something weird started happening. Some of the new Hatchlings never evolved. Instead, they just faded away, and they were never reborn. Nobody ever found out what happened to them, but after a while, some rumors started about a Darkness, the shadow beyond shadows. They say it was so black that anyone who looked into it could never look out again, and would be pulled into it and lost, and it came after little Digimon who didn't digivolve. Do you have any idea what it's like to lie awake at night wondering whether you're going to get eaten by a killer shadow because you couldn't evolve?"
"I can't say I've ever had quite that worry," said Joe.
"Yeah, well, anyway... It ain't just a legend. One of my little buddies got taken by the Darkness," said Puppetmon. "I think that was one of the reasons I was in such a hurry to get to Mega. I sure didn't want that thing to get me."
"I heard that legend, once, I think," said Tentomon. "I'd always thought it was just a story."
"Is there anything you haven't heard of?" asked Izzy.
"Well, we're all safe from the Darkness," said Matt. "I mean, all our Digimon have evolved way beyond Hatchling, so they should be safe, right?"
"I dunno," said Puppetmon. "I was only told it was Hatchlings, but sometimes... sometimes some of Piedmon's slaves, the critters he'd captured to do his work, would just disappear. He didn't kill 'em, and they never could have escaped their cells. They just vanished without a trace, with nothing left but shadows..."
Mimi shivered. "Don't talk like that! Not now. It's creepy enough here as it is."
"Sorry," said Puppetmon, looking sheepish. "Didn't mean to scare you. It's just an old legend, anyway. Who knows, maybe they really did escape. Maybe somebody just made it all up to keep us from being lazy or something."
"That's probably what it was," said Tai. "Isn't that always why they come up with stories like that?"
"I'm still not going to get any sleep tonight," Mimi said, pouting.
"Try," Izzy advised. "We're going to need it.
"Good idea," said Puppetmon, staring up at the sky. "It's gonna be nighttime, soon. You might want to think about settling down."
"It can't be bedtime now. It's not even dark yet!" TK protested.
"You really wanna see what this place looks like after dark?" he asked.
A few people looked around at the already grey and gloomy landscape, and shivered.
"Well, when you put it that way," said Matt.
"Goodnight, gang," said Tai, curling into a hollow in the sandy ground. "I'll see you all in the morning."
"Who's going to take first watch?" asked Joe. "I am not going to sleep until I know someone's watching."
"Don't get your shorts in a knot, kid," said Puppetmon. "I'll stand guard. I don't really need the sleep, anyway."
"Must be nice, being a Mega Digimon," said Matt. "Wish I were one. Imagine not having to sleep if you didn't want to!"
Puppetmon shrugged. "It has it's perks."
"And its drawbacks," Kokuwamon muttered. "I'm turning myself off, Jim. Goodnight, everyone!"
Kokuwamon's motor went off with a soft whirr, and Jim settled himself into the most comfortable patch of ground he could find. All around him, the other Digidestined sought out their own resting places, leaving Puppetmon alone to mind the fire. He sat silently, keeping an eye on his surroundings as night began to fall, obscuring the already dark terrain. Darkness he was used to; he'd spent enough time in Piedmon's domain to know what this place was like after the sun went down. What he was not used to was the way the shadows refused to lie flat and still, but instead wandered in and out of the range of firelight in complete disregard to the way shadows were supposed to behave. Puppetmon watched them, pondering the phenomenon of darkness that moved like a living thing, and for the first time in years, he was deeply, mortally afraid.
High in his Castle in the Air, Piedmon was also noticing that there was something moving in his domain that was unfamiliar to him. He couldn't see it, not yet - he was still the ultimate power here, no matter how badly things had gone wrong in the rest of the Digital World. Nothing would dare come into his castle without his permission. Yet, he had a sense that something was moving around out there, something unfamiliar and powerful. Dark, too, he decided after a while. Darker than anything he had detected in a long time. How so? Ever since he had begun building his powers, he had kept careful watch over the beings that moved in his world, making alliances with some of them, deleting a few more, always keeping careful watch over which Digimon showed the most potential for evolving to powerful Megas that might spell competition for him. There hadn't been anything even close to his abilities in years, so where had this force come from?
Somewhat disturbed, Piedmon peered through his telescope and began scouring the countryside. Yes, everything looked just the way it usually did - bleak and gray, darker than usual in the approaching night. Nothing appeared to be damaged, nor were there any Digimon moving that he didn't recognize. As a matter of fact, the only thing he saw of interest was a small campfire surrounded by Digimon and things that were not Digimon - the human children who had been giving him so much trouble as of late. Well, they would be dealt with. If they wanted to tangle with him, they would find more than they had bargained for. Just because they had outsmarted him once...
Piemon dragged his mind forcibly away from that thought. It was still almost too much for him to bear, that he had been overcome by a teenaged human and two Digimon who were supposed to be on his side. The rage that incident had given him had been enough to send his servant scurrying for hiding places, lest their master destroy them simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He might have, if he had caught them, but not now. Piedmon had not gotten where he was today by letting himself be unhinged by small setbacks - that had always been Myotismon's downfall, and he would not let himself fall in that same trap. Now he was calm again, and ready to fight his enemies with the cool calculation that had made him master of the world.
*I will have a consulation,* he decided.
True, the rest of his comrades were gone now, but he didn't need to consult with them to decide what to do. He had his own sources. After all, wasn't he a wizard Digimon? What good was he if he couldn't take a peek into the future every once in a while?
Rising from his throne, he stepped out of the grand hall and headed down the hall for a tiny door carved over with flowery vines sealed by an elaborate handle, so confused with frilly tomfoolery that some of his servants assumed it was only there for show. Certainly Piedmon wouldn't keep anything important behind something that looked so silly. The few glimpses anyone got to the inside convinced them that there was only a miniature study with barely enough room for a desk and a lamp, a room so small, dusty, and generally dull-looking that not even Puppetmon had ever felt it worth his while to peek inside. Now Piedmon reached into wrist of his coat and withdrew a little gold key, no bigger than a man's thumbnail, and slipped it into the hidden keyhole. The door opened silently, and Piedmon slipped through it.
The room inside was just barely large enough to hold him comfortably, but he settled himself at his desk and lit the lamp with a negligent wave of his hand. He reached down to open the desk's single drawer. Inside it was a red silk sack containing a thick deck of cards. He took them out and shuffled them with practiced ease. Had a human been watching him, they might have noticed that the cards bore a faint resemblance to what they knew as the Tarot, as they were marked with images of stars and planets and other strange things, as well as the more ordinary suits of cards and other things that a person from Earth would not have recognized. When Piedmon had finished his shuffling, he began laying the cards out on his desk and studied the pattern they made.
He frowned; the cards were not telling him what he wanted to know. A card patterned with black swirls informed him that there was an unknown force present - but he knew that already. Similarly, the card marked for traitors was no surprise. A card marked with swords indicated a battle - perhaps more than one - but he had already decided to fight the Digidestined, so what news was that? Likewise, the card for death was clearly visible, but there was nothing to indicate to him whether that death was for him, his enemies, or even if it was metaphorical. The next card was an indicator of great change and unsettlement, and he frowned at it. If he won this battle, wouldn't life continue to go on the way it always had? He knew if he was defeated, the entire Digital World would reset itself to what it had been before he and the other Dark Masters had structured it to their own needs. What but that could be the kind of drastic changes the cards indicated? He frowned and looked at the final card. It was a shining golden light on a dark field, a symbol of triumph against adversity. What kind of adversity? That was why he seldom bothered with the cards; they were so hopelessly vague, their warnings didn't usually make any sense until it was too late to do anything about them.
"The signs are not good," he murmured. "Yet, the victory sign... Despite the signs of danger, I will triumph, and I will claim the powers of the Digidestined as my own and bring about a new age!"
With a sweeping gesture, he collected his cards and dropped them back into the sack. Afire with determination, he left the room, slamming the door shut behind him and hurrying down the halls.
He did not notice that a shadow not his own trailed after him.
Puppetmon sat and watched the flames. They flashed with a comforting warmth, shining on the faces of the young humans and their partners as they slept. Even in their sleep, their faces had a look of determination, as if they fought battles in their dreams, and the girl Kari twitched and whimpered a bit.
"You take it easy, kid," said Puppetmon, with a gentleness in his voice that would have amazed his old cronies. "I'm lookin' out for trouble tonight. Nothing's going to get past me, so don't you worry."
The girl appeared to hear him; she sighed softly and became still. Puppetmon stared, a bit surprised at himself.
"Look what I've gotten myself into," he said. "Babysitting for a bunch of human kids when just a couple days ago, we were all trying to blow each other to bits... I kinda think I like this better that being blown up, though."
If he had to be absolutely honest with himself, he could admit that he liked this situation well enough even when it wasn't being compared to physical violence. It reminded him of the good old days when he'd been a hatchling, and none of the games had any winners or losers, just lots of friends having a good time together, and he'd never had any problems and no worries beyond when Elecmon would get back with dinner. More than that, he thought he liked the Digidestined. They were a good bunch of kids. They never did any of the sneaking and backstabbing the beasties in Piedmon's castle got up to. They were brave and resourceful, and they cared about each other with a depth of devotion that amazed him. If the necessity was there, he had no doubt they would fight and die for each other.
*If these are what friends are like, I wish I'd found some sooner.*
He was just beginning to scold himself for being so sentimental when something caught his eye. He blinked and looked again. There really was something moving around at the fringes of the campfire... or a nothing pretending to be something. It was a shadow, amorphous and perfectly black, always lurking just beyond the range of what could be seen clearly. He squinted and stared, trying to see it more clearly...
Suddenly, it was like he'd been caught in a rip tide and was being tugged out to sea, pulled as irresistibly as the sea was pulled by the moon. His vision was full of utter darkness that tried to engulf him. He struggled against it... and the darkness spoke.
It is pointless to resist, you know. Why should you fight? You have nothing in this world. What is the point of staying? Everything you have ever tried to do has not brought you any happiness. There is no point even in living. All of it is a misery, nothing but futile struggle...
"You're wrong, whoever you are," Puppetmon asserted. "I'm happy helping out the Digidestined. That's worth something."
No. They ally with you only because you are strong, but they do not care anything for you. They will never be able to care about someone who tried to kill them. You will not defeat Piedmon. He is stronger even than all of you together. You will only get hurt, and see them be hurt. What is the point?
"The point is," said Puppetmon, "that I ain't giving up, no matter what you say. This is the first time I've ever had something worthwhile to do, and I'm going to do it. Besides, even if the kids don't care about me now, they might someday. I might make new friends. And if we fight, we just might win. I'm game to try, anyway."
He felt the air shudder around him, as if in revulsion. Forces surged around him again, but this time, they were shoving him away as fast as he could, and he thought he heard the voice make a noise like, "Ptooey!" The next thing he knew, he was tumbling top over teakettle back into the circle of firelight. He looked up in time to see the black shadow slinking away.
Hope, it muttered. Disgusting.
Then it was gone entirely. Puppetmon blinked, thinking the voice had sounded awfully familiar, as if it was one he had known all his life. He sat and stared at the thing, trying to puzzle over what had just happened. Then he jumped to his feet and started shaking the shoulders of the nearest Digidestined.
"Guys, guys, guys!" he shouted. "You'd better wake up, 'cause I think something really important just happened!"
"What?" groaned Matt, still half-asleep. "Can't it wait until morning?"
"No," Puppetmon snapped. "You gotta know right now. You know that shadow I was talking about? It was here."
"What shadow?" asked Tai, rubbing his eyes.
"The Shadow beyond Shadows! The big dark thing that eats little hatchlings! It was right here, and it was talking to me! It tried to eat me, and then it spat me out again."
"What's going on?" Sora mumbled, sitting up and looking around.
Matt sighed. "Puppetmon fell asleep and had a nightmare about that stupid story he told us."
"It was not a nightmare!" said Puppemon, affronted. "It was real!"
"Take it easy on the little guy," Tai said. "He can't be the only one who's a little freaked out at being here. I was having some pretty bad dreams, too."
"So was I," Matt admitted. "I kept dreaming about when my parents split up... thinking it was all my fault..."
"I was dreaming about soccer," said Tai.
"That's no surprise," said Matt. "With you, everything is soccer."
"Yeah... I kept trying to score a goal, but it got blocked every time, and all my teammates kept booing at me... I was just about ready to give it all up and run off the field."
"That would have been bad."
Everyone looked to see that Kari was now awake, staring at them with eyes that flickered oddly in the firelight. They almost glowed.
"What do you mean?" asked Tai.
"There's something dark here," said Kari. "I've felt it all night. Something is trying to break our spirits, so we won't be able to fight." Her expression went distant, and her voice took on a misty quality. "I was dreaming about all the times I've ever been helpless - when I got sick and everyone was so frightened, when Myotismon captured Gatomon and killed Wizardmon, when I first came here and was thinking that I was too young and small to be able to help... I thought I should just lie down here and never wake up again, because there was no point in me even trying to fight. Then a beautiful woman appeared in my dream and told me that if I gave up hope, everything would be destroyed, so I woke up."
By this point, all the Digidestined were awake and staring at her. Mimi shivered a little.
"That's spooky," she said. "I had a dream like that... thinking that I was too weak and silly to get into a fight, that I'd just get in everyone's way because I'm always so scared... I just don't want to see anyone get hurt. Maybe it would be better if we just gave up. Maybe we won't get killed if we don't fight..."
"Don't even say things like that," Joe scolded. "Do you think Piedmon's just going to ignore us after everything we've already done, even if we surrendered now? That would be just asking to be killed! And even if he didn't hurt us, what about the rest of the world? Every Digimon here is in his thrall! If we don't fight, nobody will ever free them! I mean, I know I'm not cut out to be a fighter, but I've been doing it anyway - and so have you!"
"That's right, Mimi," said Palmon. "I can do all the fighting for both of us, but I'd be nothing if you weren't here with me."
"I think I get it," said Izzy slowly. "Someone's sent us dreams to make us lose confidence in ourselves, so we won't fight back. After all, if we're sure it's hopeless, why bother?"
"But that's not right!" said TK, wide-eyed. "If you give up before you even start, you really don't have a chance! The only way to win is to try your best, right?"
Matt looked at his little brother. "Didn't you have any bad dreams, TK?"
"Uh-uh," the boy replied. "Though I did have one dream... Something came up to me and tried to eat me or something, but then it spat me out again." He giggled. "It said I taste yucky!"
The other kids looked at each other.
"That sounds really familiar," said Puppetmon.
"Are you trying to tell me," said Tai slowly, "that there really is a killer shadow out to get us?"
"At present, the data is insufficient," Izzy replied. "The best I can say is... we'd better watch ourselves."
"Looks like we're not getting any more sleep tonight," Matt commented.
Jim grimaced. "Maybe if we're lucky, Piedmon will go ahead and show up so we can get it over with."
"I'm glad to hear you're feeling agreeable," a new voice interjected.
Joe moaned. "Jim, I am going to get you for saying that!"
"I didn't mean it!" Jim protested.
There was a rushing sound, as of applause, and the fire at the center of the circle suddenly shot upwards six feet, blazing with intense golden light. Then the lights parted, and Piedmon himself stepped out. He smiled and bowed mockingly to them.
"Ladies and gentlemon," he said, "welcome to my humble abode. Please, sit back and enjoy the show. I guarantee, it will be the performance of a lifetime... a lifetime, I might add, which is going to end shortly. Until then, please remain seated. During the performance, there should be no flash photography or digivolving in the aisles."
"This guy has one serious actor's complex," said Joe. "Do you think counseling would help?"
"Obviously not an appreciator of the arts," said Piedmon, glaring at Joe. "I suppose one must expect that from a group of uneducated children."
"Oh, we're educated," said Tai. "It's just really hard to take a guy seriously when he shows up wearing ribbons and a tutu."
"Enough! I tire of your insolence," Piedmon snapped. "I was going to offer you one last chance to surrender, but I can see it would be pointless to discuss anything with such pedestrian minds. Prepare to be eliminated!"
"Same to you!" Tai retorted. "Okay, guys, give it all you've got!"
There was a flash of dazzling light, so brilliant that even Piedmon had to shield his eyes from its intensity. When it had cleared, he found that the Digidestined children had concealed themselves, but had left in their stead a collection of three Megas, six Ultimates, and a formidable Champion, all of whom looked extremely annoyed. Piedmon only smirked.
"Well, well," he said. "Isn't this a merry gathering? I suppose you think I should be impressed."
"Face it Piedmon, you're outnumbered," shouted Tai from the pinnacle of a large rock. Give up now, and maybe we won't do more than knock you back to Hatchling-level!"
"Your offer is far too generous. I simply couldn't accept it," Piedmon answered. "Well, what are you waiting for, mighty warriors? Come and get me!"
He was answered by a barrage of attacks that filled the air, momentarily obscuring him. Then the campfire exploded skyward, carrying Piedmon safely with it. He hovered in midair, surrounded by a ring of fire, which he flung in all directions to harry and scorch his enemies. Lillymon yelped as the fire burned her fragile leaf-wings, and Mimi gave an echoing cry of dismay. Angewomon flew quickly to her side, shielding her long enough to tend to her injuries. MegaKabuterimon tried a blast at Piedmon, only to have it caught and deflected. When he tried again, Piedmon made a casual gesture, and the lightning ball curved in midair to go barreling down at Zudomon. The slow-moving Digimon could not get out of the way fast enough to avoid taking a hit. WarGreymon and MetalGarurumon fired at him simultaneously; he vanished and let the fire and ice meet and cancel each other out. The children watched, horrified.
"Are you sure there are no levels higher than Mega?" asked Joe.
"Oh, this guy's a Mega, all right," Izzy replied, tapping at his laptop. "It's just that this guy's had a lot more battle experience - centuries of it, in fact. He knows more about how to fight a battle than all of our Digimon put together. Not only that, but he's got magical powers into the bargain. The laws of physics don't have to listen to him; he can do pretty much anything he wants."
"So are you saying it's hopeless?" asked Tai angrily.
"No, I wouldn't say that," Izzy replied. "Just that he's very powerful, very smart, and very unpredictable, which means we're going to have to be really, really careful. I'm scanning him for weaknesses, but-"
"But your computer ain't gonna pick up the weaknesses that matter," said a voice. The kids jumped; they hadn't realized that Puppetmon had come to join them.
"What are you talking about?" asked Izzy.
"That computer can only tell you so much," Puppetmon replied, "and most of that useless. This guy's the toughest cookie there is - even his weak spots are tough. If you wanna beat him, outsmart him!"
"Like how?" asked Izzy, miffed.
Before anyone could react, he somersaulted onto the field to land behind Piedmon. With a deft maneuver, he pulled out a coil of red rope and tossed it in just such a way that it caught one of Piedmon's feet, making him stumble. Immediately, the other Digimon rained down blasts so heavily that Puppetmon had to back off several feet to avoid being cooked. The smoke cleared over a rather scorched and battered-looking Piedmon, who twisted around to glare at Puppetmon.
"Traitor!" he hissed. "You'll pay for that!"
Angemon tried to throw another Hand of Fate at him, but he rolled out of the way and sprang. Faster than the eye could follow, he pulled a thin knife out of his sleeve and hurled it through the air. Puppetmon turned just in time to see it driving toward him. There was a crack of splitting wood and a wail of pain, and Puppetmon fell.
"No!" Jim shouted. "He killed him!"
"No he didn't," said Tai, peering through his binoculars. "He's not dead, he's just injured. See, he's still moving."
Jim snatched the binoculars out of his hand and stared. Sure enough, Puppetmon was still moving, though feebly, trying to drag himself out of the line of fire. He looked to be badly hurt; the knife had driven a deep crack through his chest, and he seemed to have lost part of one of his gears.
"We've got to go get him," said Jim. "If we get him off the battlefield, maybe he'll have a chance."
"No way, Jim," Joe protested. "It's too dangerous - you'll get killed out there!"
"I don't care," said Jim. "He was willing to come back and rescue me from Piedmon - it's time to repay the favor."
With that, he dashed out of his hiding place and ran as fast as he could across the battlefield. Seeing what he was up to, Megadramon flew over him, shielding him from any stray attacks. Within a few breaths, he was at Puppetmon's side.
"How are you doing?" he asked.
Puppetmon gave a weak shrug. "Not so good. You?"
"Fine. Look, this isn't the time to be funny - I'm trying to help you. Can you walk?"
"Then I'll carry you. Come on."
He scooped the puppet up in his arms, surprised at how light he was. He would have expected something so powerful to be heavier, but no, he weighed no more than an ordinary armload of firewood. It was just as well, because he needed to move fast. Piedmon had seen what he was trying to do, and was trying to stop him. Megadramon roared and spat fireballs to keep the clown distracted until Jim was safely behind the rock again.
"It won't do any good!" Piedmon shouted after him. "He's a traitor, and he will die as one."
"He's right, you know," said Puppetmon, as Jim settled him on the ground again. "I'm not gonna last much longer..."
"Don't talk like that," Jim told him. "You're safe here. We can help you."
"Don't think so," said Puppetmon faintly. "Piedmon's stronger than I am... knew that all along. I'm not gonna get over this."
"Then why did you do it?" Jim demanded angrily.
Puppetmon shrugged. "Guess I just wanted to do something useful."
"You shouldn't have done this," said Jim. "You're worth more to us alive. You shouldn't have to die for us."
"It's okay," said Puppetmon. "Don't you know anything? When a Digimon dies, they get sent back as an egg to start all over again. I'm just getting another chance to do things right, that's all."
Jim bowed his head. "You wouldn't have to die now if you hadn't been protecting us."
"That's where you got it wrong," said Puppetmon. "Listen, 'cause I don't have much time left. The Shadow is ... I guess you'd call it despair. It eats the ones who don't have anything left to live for. If it hadn't been for you guys, well... my life wasn't anything to brag about. It was meeting you guys that made me think it would be worth it, to do it all again. Otherwise..."
He trailed off. He seemed to be having trouble breathing, and Jim stared at him worriedly.
"Come on, hang in there," he whispered.
"Don't worry about me. I'm not the first Digimon to be reprocessed," said Puppetmon. "I'll be fine. You're the one who's gotta worry. If you kids die, you're dead. Whatever you do, don't give up hope!"
"I won't," said Jim. "You sure you'll be okay, then? You promise you'll come back?"
"Soon as you get rid of Piedmon so the Primary Village can be put back," Puppetmon replied. He was quiet for a moment longer. Quietly, he said, "Hey, Jim?"
"Are we friends?"
Jim managed to smile a little. "Yeah, we're friends. You're a very good friend."
Puppemon smiled back, closing his eyes peacefully.
"Good," he said. "Game over... I win."
With that, he faded away into sparks. Jim stared at the space he'd been a minute ago, scarcely able believe what he was seeing. One minute, he'd been talking to one of the most powerful Digimon in existence, and the next minute, he was gone, deleted to save the people he had so recently befriended. It didn't seem possible.
Slowly, he tore his eyes away from the empty place where his friend had been and looked up at the battlefield, where Piedmon was still at war with the other Digimon. He didn't seem at all disturbed by the death of his former henchmon; indeed, he appeared to be having a wonderful time. He laughed as he deflected one of Angewomon's arrows, parrying it easily with a twirl of his sword and sending it ricocheting off towards Megadramon. The dragon winced, and so did Jim. Suddenly, the idea of all his friends dying was not an abstract notion anymore, but a concrete reality that was rapidly progressing toward a certainty. If Piedmon could take out an experienced Mega with just that casual wave of his hand, he could take out the rest of the Digidestined's partners as well. The only one out there who had anywhere near the power Piedmon had was...
"Jim, where are you going?" asked Izzy. "You can't keep running out onto the battlefield like that - you're going to get skewered!"
"I have to," said Jim quietly. "I'm not going to take this lying down. Piedmon has to be destroyed for this."
Tai tried to step out in front of Jim. "That might not be such a good idea. Maybe nobody's told you yet, but losing your temper during a fight is a really bad idea..."
"Let me go," said Jim. He moved Tai gently but firmly aside and continued in the direction he was going. Nobody else moved to stop him. The other children looked at each other with bleak expressions.
"Do you think he knows what he's doing?" asked Matt.
Joe sighed. "He's going to get creamed."
Jim continued his journey across the battlefield, and Megadramon dropped out of the sky to coil around him, shielding him with his scales and wings.
"Jim, what are you doing out here?" he asked. "If Piedmon sees you..."
"I had to be here with you," Jim replied. "Megadramon, I think it's time."
"Time?" the dragon repeated.
"Are you sure?" The look in Megadramon's golden eyes was frightened.
"Don't worry," said Jim. "Just trust me. I think it's going to be all right. It's the only way."
"Well, if you say so..." Megadramon replied. "All right. Let's give this a try."
He closed his eyes tightly. Jim did the same, bowing his head over his Digivice, his face a mask of concentration. From behind his eyelids, he was aware of a brightness that grew steadily more intense, until he was sure he would have been blinded if he opened his eyes...
Then it stopped, swept up in a rush and a roar, and a shadow fell upon him. He jumped backwards, his eyes snapping open in surprise, and his gaze fell on a razor-sharp silver talon. Slowly his eyes traveled upwards, scanning without processing a collection of iron plates, pistons, and winding cables, all the way up to a pair of gigantic silvery canons and the masklike face of a steel dragon. It raised its head and roared, and the earth shook at the return of MachineDramon. Jim stared for a moment... then took off running for the relative safety of the rocks.
"Now he went and did it!" Tai exclaimed. "We're all going to get creamed now!"
Even Jim seemed a little less than certain about what he'd done. He reached the others and slumped against a stone, trying to get his legs to stop shaking.
"Why didn't somebody tell me that was what he evolved into?" he demanded.
"We didn't think you were crazy enough to do it!" Izzy snapped back.
"I didn't really think he was going to... wait a minute!" Jim exclaimed.
He was peering over the rim of the rock, staring back at MachineDramon. The other Digimon were also staring at him, wondering what he was going to do. Even Piedmon looked somewhat uneasy for a moment. Slowly, the steel dragon turned in a circle, looking at each of them through his blank black eyes. He raised his head to the sky, training his canons on Garudamon.
"No!" Sora cried, raising a hand as if to hold him back.
"Just wait," said Jim. "I think..."
Even as he spoke, MachineDramon whirled in place, far faster than anyone would imagine something of his weight could move, and blasted Piedmon with a force that sent him careening through the air and slamming into the side of the mountain. He sat up looking rather scorched and battered, shaking his head dazedly.
"What was that?" he muttered.
"Part payment," said MachineDramon.
"... a bluff," Jim finished. "I knew he wouldn't really let me down!"
"It's too early to celebrate," said Matt. "Look - Piedmon might be down, but he's not out."
It was true. Slowly but surely, Piedmon was hauling his way out of the rubble, glaring at MachineDramon with his mad red eyes. MachineDramon, being what he was, remained expressionless.
"What is this?" the clown hissed. "How can this be? You've returned to your true state; how can you still be fighting against me?"
"My true state," MachineDramon rumbled, "is partner to my Hyumon. Nothing else I am matters."
"I don't get it," said Mimi to Jim. "I thought you were so worried that once he went back to MachineDramon, he'd be all mean again. How come he didn't?"
Jim shrugged. "It's just a matter of the right diet."
"Huh?" Mimi asked, blinking.
"Jim, stop talking like a doctor," Joe scolded.
"Oh, all right. I was guessing that half the reason he turned out so bad the first time around was because Piedmon was the one raising him, forcing him to evolve as fast as he could through fear and anger. I made him evolve because I knew he had to, because I knew what would happen if he didn't." He dropped his eyes a little, embarrassed. "I don't know how I knew how to do it. I just thought of wanting to protect all you guys, and of putting the Digital World right again, so all the Digimon would be free and the ones the Dark Masters killed could come back, and I gave all those thoughts to Megadramon, and he evolved."
"That makes sense," said Izzy. "Different input equals different output. Perfectly logical."
Kari gave one of her knowing smiles. "Or maybe MachineDramon just knows more this time around."
"Never mind how it happened," said Tai. "We still have a fight to win!"
The children quickly turned their attention back to the battlefield. The arrival of the former Dark Master seemed to have turned the tide, and Piedmon was starting to look distinctly hemmed in. His attacks were still hitting as hard as ever, when they landed, but they didn't seem to do much harm to MachineDramon's steel sides. Furthermore, the last attack on him appeared to have done some damage. He didn't seem to be moving as quickly as he had before, favoring one leg, and he was breathing with noticeable difficulty.
Sensing weakness, the three most powerful Digimon moved to encircle him. While they kept their enemy blocked, the others rained down their attacks on him, filling the air with fire and lighting. Piedmon made a final desperate bid for freedom, but MetalGarurumon leaped to block him. He quickly backed away, only to find the other two Megas had closed in on him from the other side. Even as he was sizing up the situation, a pair of lightning bolts, courtesy of MegaKabuterimon and Zudomon flashed down from the sky and struck his hands, making him drop his swords. They hit the ground sizzling. Before Piedmon could react, Lillymon dove down from the sky and snatched them up, tossing them to Angemon, who took them and snapped them in half.
"Would you look at that?" said Matt casually. "Looks like you've been disarmed, Piedmon."
"We'd ask you to surrender," Tai added, "but seeing as how we have to destroy you to put the Digital World back in place, there's really no point in it."
Piedmon's eyes narrowed. "I can still fight back. You don't know the full extent of my powers."
"Then let's not wait around to find out," said Sora. "Hit him with everything you've got, Garudamon!"
Garudamon obliged, hurling down bolts of fire. The other Digimon followed suit, firing off their attacks until the children had to cover their ears against the sound. For a moment, all was chaos. Then, gradually, the tremors beneath their feet subsided, and the Digidestined cautiously opened their eyes and turned to look. In the center of the field was a churning cloud of gray dust through which nothing was visible.
"Is he gone?" asked TK.
"Hang on, and I'll check," Tai replied.
From his pocket, he withdrew his trusty telescope and peered through it. All it showed him at first was a closer view of the dust, but after a few seconds, it cleared, showing him...
"Holy smoke," he muttered. "I don't believe it - all that, and he's still not gone!"
"What?" There was a general outcry, and several hands scrambled for the telescope. Joe won, primarily because he was taller than most of the others, and squinted through the scope.
"He's right," said Joe grimly. "Piedmon's still alive. He doesn't look so good, though."
In the center of the field, Piedmon was trying to haul himself out of a crater. There didn't appear to be much left of him to haul. His brightly colored clothing was scorched and blackened, ripped in several places. One of the blue ribbons he wore had been torn off completely, and his mask had been lost, leaving him looking strangely defenseless. Still, he was undeniably alive... though for how much longer, it was hard to say.
"I don't believe this guy," Tai muttered. He climbed over the rock and went walking toward the field. "Hey, you! What is with you? Don't you know you've already lost?"
"I cannot lose," Piedmon ground out painfully.
"Funny, it doesn't look that way to me," Matt commented, coming to join his friend. "From where I stand, you look pretty beaten."
"Affirmative," said Izzy. "According to these readings your power level at present is approximately... nothing."
Piedmon scowled. "Impertinent boy, always relying on your computer for everything. If I could reach you from here..." He tried to take a step, stumbled, and nearly lost his footing.
"Look at you," said Jim. "You can't even walk. You've got no power, no weapons, no more henchmen to push around..."
"You might as well give up," Mimi told him. "I'm tired of fighting. I'm ready to go home, so just stop it already."
Kari scrambled over the rock and went to join her friends... then walked past them, towards Piedmon. She stopped just out of his reach and fixed him with a stern glare, and he stared back, somehow unable to look away from the strange light in her soft brown eyes.
"So you see," she said softly, "we still win. This time, every time. Surrender."
Piedmon continued to stare at her with a strange expression, as if he were suddenly realizing she was someone he had known before, a long time ago. He opened his mouth to say something - perhaps protest, perhaps ask a question - but no one would ever know what it was, because a hole in the air abruptly opened and swallowed him. Kari gave a squeak of fright and jumped for the safety of her brother's arms.
"What the heck was that?" Matt exclaimed.
"I don't know!" said Tai. "Kari, what did you do?"
"I didn't do anything!"
"Are you sure?" Tai persisted. "You were doing that creepy Queen Kari thing again."
Kari shook her head stubbornly. "She didn't do anything, either. There was just a hole, and it ate him, and I didn't like it."
Izzy did what he always did in times of confusion - turned to his computer.
"Guys, I'm picking up some really screwy readings," he said. "If I were you, I wouldn't go too close to that spot. There's no telling what will happen if you do."
TK stared at the space for a moment. He couldn't see anything strange about it, except that Piedmon was suddenly not there anymore, which he didn't count as a bad thing. Curious, he scooped up a stray pebble and threw it. Instantly, a dark circle opened up, a swirling mass of shadows. Matt shot his brother a glare.
"What did you do that for?" he said.
"I didn't know it was going to do that!" TK wailed.
"I know what it is, now," said Kari, staring fixedly into the center of the shade. "That's the Shadow that came in my dream. It's just like Puppetmon said - it's the Shadow beyond Shadows."
"So that's it," said Jim. "Piedmon knew it was hopeless for him, so the shadow took him."
"What are we going to do about it?" asked Sora, staring at the hole worriedly.
Kari continued to stare silently, her expression distant.
"I think," she said slowly, "it's trying to talk to me."
"It's a black hole," said Joe. "How can it talk?"
"It is Darkness," she said. "It's... my flip side. We're connected. It's telling me... it wants us to come to it."
"You've got to be kidding," said Tai. "We're supposed to just throw ourselves down a hole because it tells us to?"
"It's not just a hole," Kari said. "Don't you see? It's alive." Then she stiffened, looking suddenly surprised. "It's not just alive... it says it's a Digimon."
"A Digimon?" Mimi repeated uncertainly, staring at the hole.
"One moment, I'll check," said Izzy. He tapped frantically at his keyboard. "Uh-huh - she's right. There is some form of Digital life down there, but... I can't seem to get a lock on it. It looks like that portal is the gateway to some other place, maybe even another dimension. If we go in there, I can't promise we'll come out again."
"I don't think we have another choice."
Everyone stared at Joe.
"What?" he asked.
"Are you telling me," said Tai slowly, "that you, of all people, are telling us to jump into a black hole that might have no escape, for no particular reason?"
"There is a reason," said Joe. "Piedmon still hasn't been defeated. He just went through the hole. That means that if we're going to destroy him, we've got to follow him. Or have you noticed that the Digital World isn't re-calibrating itself yet?"
"Maybe it's just taking its time?" Tai suggested sheepishly.
"I don't think so," said Izzy. "Much as I hate to say it, Joe's right."
"What's so bad about saying I'm right?" asked Joe.
"Well, if that's what we've got to do," said Tai with a philosophical shrug. "But, um, maybe we should hold hands or something? So we don't get lost?"
"I'm not holding your hand," said Matt. "Once was plenty, thank you very much."
"All right, then I'll hold Kari's hand," said Tai.
With some reluctance, the group managed to string itself into a line without anyone getting too terribly embarrassed. The Digimon dropped back to their customary forms, hanging close to their partners. Then, with a resolute step, Tai marched into the black hole with the others being pulled behind him.
The results were instantaneous. Suddenly, the group found itself plunged into absolute blackness. Taichi, startled, stopped walking, but it did him no good. As if caught in a strong current, the group was pulled irreversibly forward. They could feel their hands and feet dragging, as if the shadows were so deep as to be palpable, but they could see nothing until...
"Hey, what's that?" TK called. His voice echoed oddly in the darkness.
"What's what? I don't see anything," said Matt.
"That thing up ahead - the sparkly thing. It looks like a little star."
The others looked all around, trying to find what he was seeing. Far in the distance but growing rapidly closer was a tiny point of... not light, precisely, but a break in the otherwise featureless darkness. As they drew nearer, they could see that it did indeed resemble some kind of dark star, an interconnecting collection of pyramids forming a massive geometric construction. With nothing to compare it to, it appeared tiny at first, small enough to hold in their hands, but it continued to grow until it was larger than a house. They hovered beside it, tiny and insignificant.
"Is this it?" asked Sora.
"I think so," said Kari uncertainly. "I can't tell."
"Then allow me to relieve your uncertainty," said a deep voice.
A panel on the top of the structure opened, and a figure rose from within its depths. Like everything in this black world, it was dark and shadowlike, its form vague, but it appeared mainly human. It even looked vaguely familiar - masked like Myotismon, bound to cables that made it strangely reminiscent of Etemon and his dark network. That did not bode well, but since there was no getting away from it now, Tai addressed it.
"Well, we're here," he said. "What do you want from us?"
The dark thing gave him a bitter smile. "Your company."
"Well, thanks for the invitation," said Tai, "but I really don't think we can stay. See, we've gotta go back home, and-"
"You will not," said the dark thing. "You are going to stay here."
"I'd like to see you make us," said Tai bravely.
The dark thing smiled. It was not a nice smile at all.
"All right, then," he said. "Where are you going to go?"
The children looked around. The darkness was the same in all directions. There wasn't anything they could even use for purchase - even the flying things couldn't seem to move. They were suspended like puppets in the center of never-ending blackness.
"Let us go!" shouted Sora, a note of panic in her voice. "What do you think you're doing, keeping us here like this?"
"I cannot let you go. If I knew the way out, I would take it... but there is none. Once you enter here, you never leave."
"What?" Joe yelped. "What do you mean? How is that even possible?"
"These are the depths of despair," said the dark thing, "and I am their ruler and their prisoner, Apocalymon!"
"Apocalymon?" Izzy repeated. "As in, apocalypse? The end of the world?"
"That seems to be my destiny," Apocalymon replied. "I came into existence here eons ago, so long ago that I cannot remember any time beyond it or how much time has passed since then. When I saw that the world had no exit, I sought others who would join me here, others who could perhaps show me the way out or at least abate my loneliness... but they, too, became lost in the shadows. Nevertheless, I continued to seek company, drawing all I could reach into shadows, believing one of them would know the answer. Even after I lost hope, I brought them here that if they could not abate my misery, they would at least feel it with me!"
"That's cruel!" Mimi protested, horrified.
"Is it? Is it not more cruel that this should be my lot, that I should suffer endlessly like this? Why should I abide in endless misery while others live in joy and love? What did I do to deserve this torment?" The creature's voice rose to an agonized roar. "No! I will not permit it! If I cannot have freedom, I will have justice! If I must suffer, all must suffer with me!"
"So you mean you dragged us down here just to punish us for being happy?" asked Matt.
"No," said Apocalymon. He grinned, baring vampire fangs. "Not just you. You nine children are the hope of the Digital World. As long as I have you with me, the beings of that world will fall into despair, and all of the Digital World will be swept in darkness."
"But if you destroy the Digital World..." Izzy began, and stopped. If the Digital World was destroyed... well, for starters, their parents would someday realize that their children would not come home. Would they, too, fall into despair, and be trapped here? More than that, what if the primordial void created by the destruction of the Digital World threw off the balance of other worlds as well? Would that open the gateway for Apocalymon to enter those worlds as well?
"Yes," Apocalymon hissed, as if reading his thoughts. "I will have the Digital World, and your world, and all worlds..."
"And then what?" Tai challenged. "What will you do then? Then you won't even have anything to work for after that!"
It was the wrong thing to say. Apocalymon let out a bone-chilling scream of utter despair, burying his face in his clawed hands.
"You are right," he wailed. "Even then, I am utterly without hope! I cannot escape this torment, ever!"
"Never?" asked Matt. "But - even you have to die sometime..."
"Don't you think I've tried?" Apocalymon snapped. Before anyone could turn their eyes away, he rammed his claws into his own chest, seeming to rip his own heart to shreds. His face twisted in agony, but the wound closed over even as he made it. "I cannot even be destroyed! My suffering is eternal and absolute!"
The children stood silent, unable to think of anything to say to this dark terror. Mimi was unaware that she was crying, but tears spilled down her face. Something in her ached at the fate of this creature. He was right - it wasn't fair...
"Oh, this is horrible!" she said, turning her face in disgust. "He's right, we're stuck down here forever, and we're all going to wind up like him..."
"No, we're not," said Palmon encouragingly. "You'll never be like him, because you'll never be that lonely. Nothing can separate the two of us!"
"You promise?" Mimi asked, sniffling.
"Of course! We're partners, always and forever!"
"And teammates," Sora added, setting a hand on Mimi's shoulder. "You can't be alone with all of us around."
Mimi took a deep breath and nodded, hugging Palmon for support. The other children relaxed slightly. They couldn't be totally lost, even in a situation like this, as long as they had each other to rely on. Apocalymon stared at them a moment, then screamed in overwhelming fury.
"NO! How dare you! How dare you maintain hope even in the depths of despair! Are all the shadows in the universe not enough to stop you?"
Kari gave him one of her unreadable looks. "Even the darkest shadow never put out a candle."
"No?" Apocalymon said. "How about ripping it to shreds?"
A claw shot out of the tip of a pyramid, and Gatomon was just barely able to shove Kari out of the way. Undaunted, the claw shot by again, this time nearly striking Sora. More claws bloomed out of the dark star, shooting by like comets. The Digimon did their best to defend their partners, but they were no match for Apocalymon's power.
As usual, Kokuwamon refused to admit this. Memories of MachineDramon's power were still fresh in his mind, and he was not ready to admit defeat. He shot several thousand bolts of power at the black claws as they rushed by, hardly noticing that they did no good.
"What do you think you're doing?" he shouted. "You idiot! I've met smarter rocks than you!"
"What?" said Apocalymon, momentarily nonplused. He was not used to being insulted, or to being addressed so fearlessly. "What are you talking about?"
"Do I have to spell it out for you?" asked Kokuwamon. "Here you are saying you're so lonely, but the first time you actually get someone down here who doesn't just whither up and disappear as soon as you talk to them, you actually go out of your way to try to kill them! It's no wonder you don't have any friends if that's the way you treat people!"
"That's right!" said Gabumon, picking up the cue. "Why, my friend Matt here is the very embodiment of Friendship! You wouldn't want to destroy that, would you?"
Apocalymon scowled. "I must. No one must have what I do not!"
"Now you're acting like a spoiled brat," Palmon scolded. "Nobody's going to like you if you act like that! Maybe if you showed a little generosity, people would like you better."
"So," said Apocalymon slowly, "you call me cruel, selfish, and foolish? Is that how I am behaving?"
"Well, kind of," said Tentomon, "but maybe they were being a little harsh, so don't be insulted or anything..."
"If that is my nature," said Apocalymon, "than surely you will never do anything but fear and detest me! I am better off alone!"
He moved to attack them, but the Digimon scampered to distract him.
"Wait!" said Gatomon. "Just because you aren't good now doesn't mean you can't change! I changed!"
"So did I," said Kokuwamon. "Look at me! I used to be one of the Dark Masters before I met Jim. If I can change, can't you?"
A startled expression crossed Apocalymon's face... but it quickly faded.
"No," he said. "I have been too long alone. I am too far gone to change now! Even if I did, you would never accept me! You are only trying to preserve yourselves! I will not allow it!"
There was chaos again as the claws shot around the crowd like comets. Jim just barely managed to dive out of the way of one before it struck him - not an easy thing to do in a void. He floated through the nothingness, spinning dizzily upside down, and he landed on something solid. At first, he thought he had been hit by one of the black claws, but it didn't feel quite like metal, nor was it moving with much force. It was something small, smooth, and roundish, floating idly through the void. He managed to twist around, and saw a football-sized ovoid covered in green polka-dots. He stared at it in surprise.
"Did Apocalymon lay an egg?" he asked.
The others turned to look, and Jim held the object up for inspection.
"Oh, I know what that is!" TK exclaimed. "That's a Digi-Egg! I saw lots of them in Primary village."
"What's it doing here?" asked Tai. "That thing sure wasn't here a minute ago."
"You're right," said Jim, frowning. "It must have shown up just in these last few moments..."
He was distracted from his ruminations by a black claw shooting in his direction. He dodged, spun upside down, and caught a brief glimpse of Apocalymon's face. Even in his fear, he found a shred of pity for the dark creature. It looked so hopeless...
"I've got it!" he said suddenly. "It's hope!"
"It is?" said Tai doubtfully.
"Yes," said Jim. "I'm almost sure of it. It all fits together perfectly!"
"Well, if you could explain it to us sometime in the next couple of years..." said Matt in annoyance as he shoved TK out of the way of a claw.
"Yes," said Jim. "It's just like Puppetmon said. The shadow only takes Digimon who have lost hope."
"And then they disappear," said Tai.
"No, they don't!" said Izzy. "Nothing can just disappear - it has to go somewhere!"
Mimi looked puzzled. "But that thing said..."
"They didn't disappear," Jim said. "They joined him."
"Hey, that makes sense!" said Izzy. "It would sure explain the weird readings I was getting. Apocalymon isn't just one Digimon, he's hundreds, maybe thousands, all melded together..."
"Maybe because each one felt like he was alone in the universe?" Matt suggested.
"And in this universe, he is," said Tai, nodding.
"I think I get it," said Izzy. "They went here because they lost hope... but just a minute ago, Apocalymon felt just for a little while that maybe he could be freed..."
"And that's where the egg came from!" Jim concluded.
"So if we get him convinced that he can get out of here, maybe he can - and us with him!" said Tai. "It's worth a shot, anyway. Hey! Apocalymon! Hold up a minute!"
"Do you dare interrupt me?" Apocalymon said. "I will not spare your life; I have no mercy."
"I think you do," said Sora. "Maybe deep down, but you still do. If you were truly heartless, you wouldn't hurt so much. It takes a heart to feel."
"Then I want none of it," Apocalymon answered. "I wish that any heart I had could be taken away so I would no longer feel this anguish!"
"You don't really mean that," said Mimi soothingly. "Be honest - what you really want is to be happy like everyone else."
Apocalymon looked away from her disarming gaze. "It is impossible."
"It is possible," said Izzy. "We think we've learned a way, and we can help you get out of here if you let us."
"There is none! Don't you think I've tried everything already?"
"You shouldn't give up," Jim told him. "Even when everything looks impossible, if you keep on fighting, sometimes things work out better than you expect."
Kokuwamon tugged on Jim's shirt. "I think it's working! Look, there goes another egg! Keep it up!"
"Give us a chance," said Tai. "We'll help you, if you let us."
Apocalymon's eyes narrowed. "Why would you want to help me?"
Matt shrugged. "Maybe we want to be friends?"
The dark creature stared, amazed. Then his expression twisted into a snarl.
"I want none of your lies!" he roared.
"Guys, we're losing him," Joe said. "Someone do something, fast!"
"Like what?" Tai demanded. "At this point, I'm open to suggestions."
There was a moment of silence. Then Kari said, "Make TK do something."
Everyone stared at her.
"Have you gone crazy?" Matt demanded.
"No," she said. "I just meant that he's got the Crest of Hope, right? If anyone can do it, he can."
"What can I do?" asked TK, eyes wide.
Izzy looked at Apocalymon, then shrugged. "Give that guy some hope."
"Well, okay," said the little boy. "Maybe I can do that... I think..."
He reached for his Crest, and held it close to his heart, head bowed almost prayerfully. A bright golden light began to shine from it, beaming through his fingers to bathe Apocalymon in golden light. The dark creature yelped and tried to back away.
"Not quite enough," said Joe.
"Yeah, but maybe we can help," said Matt. "Maybe if we give all our hopes to TK..."
"Like I did earlier with Megadramon?" asked Jim. "It's worth a shot."
One by one, the children and their Digimon bowed their heads, turning their thoughts to the future. They thought of the families they wished to see again, the salvation of the Digital World, their dreams for the future... and gradually, each one was surrounded by golden light. Jim opened his eyes a slit to see if it was working and got a surprise. Everyone was glowing brightly, and in that brightness, he could see indistinct figures. Standing behind each child was a proud man or a beautiful woman. Behind each small Digimon was a larger one. Some he recognized, like MetalGarurumon and WarGreymon, but he saw also a gleaming bird, a beautiful rose-woman, a golden beetle, a mighty sea-beast, and pink dragon, and standing behind TK was an...
An angel burst into view in the place where Patamon had been seconds before - not Angemon, but an unfamiliar being garbed in royal armor of gold, silver, and purple. A sword was strapped to one wrist.
"What are you?" Apocalymon demanded.
"I am Magna Angemon," he replied, "the Angel of Hope. Your suffering is at an end. Behold the Gate of Destiny!"
He flourished his sword, and in the dark void, a golden portal opened, spilling out blinding light. The children tried to look into it, but it dazzled their eyes. All anyone could catch was a fleeting glimpse of Apocalymon staring into the portal with the beginnings of a smile of wonder crossing his face, and then everything exploded into brilliance...
Tai came slowly awake. He was lying on the grass, with sunshine beaming down on his face. Leaves whispered overhead in a breeze he couldn't feel. Something seemed to be sitting o his chest. He had an odd sense of deja vu.
"I don't care how good a job we did; I'm not going to do it again," he muttered.
"Tai, are you okay?" asked a concerned voice. "It's me, Agumon! We're back in the Digital World."
"That's what I thought."
Tai sat up and opened his eyes. They were lying in a clearing, one not so different if not identical to the one where he had first awakened, days or months ago, to find a talking pink basketball sitting on him. All around him lay the other Digidestined, either still sleeping or just waking, being attended by concerned partners.
"I guess we did it," said Tai. "Cool. Is everybody okay?"
Everyone was. After a few moments, the rest of the team was revived, walking around and stretching their legs.
"Man, that was some experience," said Matt. "Not one I'd want to have again, but definitely an experience."
"So, did we win?" asked Mimi.
"I think so," Sora replied. "At least we aren't still in that dark place."
"But what happened to Apocalymon?" asked Joe. "What if he isn't gone? What if we just set him loose to run around the countryside."
In reply, there was a shout from beyond the trees; it sounded as if the youngest Digidestined had made a discovery.
"Hey, everyone!" they shouted. "Come look what we found!"
The older children came running... and then stopped. Lying in the middle of a small glade was a huge pile of eggs, reaching up higher than their heads. They made a fantastic display as the sun played over their myriad colors and designs.
"Here's your Apocalymon," said Jim, smiling. "Ready for a second chance."
"Oh, cool!" said TK. "Let's hatch a few! I want to play with the babies!"
As he spoke, a striped egg came tumbling down the side of the pile, bouncing until it came to rest at Jim's feet.
"Okay," he said, picking up the egg and looking bemused. "How do you hatch an egg? I hope no one expects me to sit on it."
"Nah, you just rub on it," TK explained. "Go on, try it!"
"Oh. All right."
Jim obediently rubbed the side of the egg. Instantly, it began to tremble, and there was a puff of smoke as it burst open, leaving Jim holding a tiny ball of grey fur with eyes.
"Hey!" it exclaimed. "Boy, am I glad to get out of that thing. It is stuffy in there! Hi, there, Jim - told you I'd be back!"
Jim laughed. "Puppetmon, is that you?"
"Well, Yuramon now," the Digimon replied.
Kari giggled. "Aw, you make a cute baby!"
"I do not!"
She picked him up and hugged him, making him blush furiously, and he said, "All right, maybe a little cute."
"That was fun!" said TK. "Come on, let's hatch a few more!"
"I think you had better think more carefully about how you use your time," a new voice interjected.
The kids spun around. Standing where he had not been before was Gennai, regarding them all solemnly.
"What do you mean?" asked Tai. "We aren't on a time clock or anything, are we?"
"In a sense," said Gennai. "You have completed your mission to save the Digital World. For that, I must congratulate you. However, in doing that, you have also released it from the Dark Masters' hold. It will be re-formed into what it once was."
"But that's good, right?" asked Matt.
"Yes," said Gennai, "but it also means that you cannot remain here much longer."
"Why not?" asked Jim. "I was just starting to like it here!"
"Because, if any of you remain here, you will be caught up in the data stream and be absorbed into the Digital World," said Gennai, "and then your data will be deleted. Nothing of you would be left."
"What?" asked Tai. "You mean, we're going to die now? That's a lousy way to pay us back for saving the world."
"You will not die," Gennai corrected. "I have arranged transport back to your own world. A portal between your worlds is opening soon, and you will be able to go home. You have one hour to say goodbye to your partners." Seeing the looks on their faces, his expression softened. "I am sorry. It's all I can do."
"But we can come back, right?" asked Sora.
Gennai shrugged. "That is a mystery, even to me. Perhaps someday the gate will open again... but until then, you should be talking to someone else besides me. Go on, now. I'll be waiting here. Keep your eye on the sun - there's going to be an eclipse. As soon as it reaches its darkest point, the portal will open, so be back before then!"
The children nodded and wandered off, each in their own direction to say their goodbyes to their Digimon. Jim found himself walking along the seaside, hopping from rock to rock with Kokuwamon at his side.
"Kinda reminds me of the place we first met," Jim said.
"A little," said Kokuwamon, "but it wasn't so wet."
"Yeah..." He sighed. "It was only a couple of days ago. Can you believe it? It seems like we've known each other longer than that."
"Maybe we have."
"How do you mean?"
"Well... I think, in a way, I've always known you," said Kokuwamon. "At least, I knew I was meant for you. That's almost the same thing, isn't it?"
"Almost," said Jim, "but now we have to say goodbye... and I don't really know how to say it. I'm going to miss you so much, Koku. You're the best friend I've ever had."
"I'm going to miss you, too..."
"Oh, come on now, don't cry! You'll short your circuits!"
"It's nothing. I've just... got sand in my gears, that's all." He made a grinding sound that reminded Jim distinctly of a sniffle.
"I wish we didn't have to be apart," said Jim, kicking angrily at a stray rock. "I can't stand losing you like this."
"You won't lose me," said Kokuwamon. "Even before I met you, I was always your partner. That won't change if we're apart again. No matter where I am or where you are, I'm always going to be your Koku, just like I promised."
"Thanks," said Jim. "And I promise I'll always be your JimHyumon."
All too soon, it was time to leave. As the sunlight ebbed away, humans and Digimon gathered by the side of the ocean to find a trolley car waiting for them. The children gave their partners final hugs and goodbyes, and then, sniffling and trying to hold back tears, they filed onto the trolley car. As the door closed, its headlights snapped on by themselves, and the car shook. It rose into the air, wheels spinning on nothing at all as it trundled towards the sun. The children leaned out the windows, waving.
"Bye, Agumon! Take care!"
"Stay out of trouble, Gomamon!"
"Patamon, don't forget me!"
"I'll find a way back to you, Tentomon! Just wait and see!"
"Don't worry, Gatomon! I'll be waiting for you!"
"Take good care of my harmonica! I'm coming back for it!"
"I'll see you again, Biyomon! I promise!"
"Goodbye, Palmon! I love you!"
Jim was silent as he waved his last goodbye. There was nothing else he needed to say, but he kept his eyes on that silver glint until it was lost from sight. Then he settled back into his seat with a sigh, watching the sun draw closer. He wiped away a tear. Kokuwamon was right; they'd always be a part of each other, no matter where they were. They'd always bee the best of friends... but looking around, he knew he'd never be completely alone, not with friends like these. He had a lot to look forward to, in his own world, like the chance to get to know all of them better, the knowledge he'd be closer to his brother than they'd ever been before, and the hope that someday, somehow, he would come back to the Digital World....