Episode 14: Trick of the Voice

  dark                              light

One by one the group walked from the narrow stairwell, through the equally narrow door, and out into the warm sunlight, so bright it immediately caused them to shade their eyes until they adjusted to the change.

It was warmer outside than it was in the Circle. Inside it had been cool and fresh; outside it was warmer, but still pleasant. A light wind had picked up and it moved the flowers and grasses around them, sending waves of scent through the air. It was like the best of the days between spring and summer.

There was no real sound, aside from the rustle of leaves and the wind. The only other sound that could be heard was that of the low humming of the odd crystals that poked out of the ground.

Everyone stretched. Arms above their heads, letting out satisfied grunts and groans.

“It feels like we haven't been outside in ages!” Anzumon stretched his wings. He ruffled them, and puffed up his feathers on his chest and head. A quick canter and he took flight, swooping huge, lazy circles above them effortlessly.

Muertomon's butterflies fluttered happily, causing the skeleton Digimon to give chase, falling onto the butterflies which escaped him before he flattened them.

Katrina took a breath through her nose. "I'm not exactly a huge fan of being outdoors, but it is nice to feel the sun and see the sky again." She smiled at Grindymon, as the aquatic creature at her feet had begun to pick flowers.

Blaire slipped her hands into her back pockets, rocking back onto her heels. “I'm totally gonna have to agree with that.” She smiled.

Karumon rolled around in the grass, waving his stubby legs above him. Adrian knelt beside his partner, easily ruffling his hands through the bear cub's fur, making playful growling sounds as he tickled Karumon's belly. Ryan was silent, but stood with a small contented smile as he kept an eye on Anzumon.

"The Circle is so stuffy," Muertomon concluded, adjusting his poncho as it had become a little dislodged around him as he had played. "I can't imagine the Gods liked it in there much, all the time. Day in, day out."

"I'm sure they managed to get out sometimes," Blaire told him.

"Even still," Muertomon crossed his arms, "give me the open sky and plenty of room to run around over a stuffy tower, any day."

"I'll keep that in mind if I'm ever offered an ivory tower to live in," chuckled Blaire.

Ryan watched Anzumon return to the ground, as he spoke. "So, what next?" He looked at Rubimon once Anzumon had all four feet on the ground.

Their scarlet dragon guide was hastily drawing her claws along the earth, creating a drawing they had seen before. The glyph that created the gateway that took them to the Digital World in the first place. "We have to hurry. We have to get back and retrieve those vials. We've already wasted enough time," she told the group sternly.

Ryan called Anzumon over from where he diligently preened his feathers, and Blaire nudged Muertomon with the tip of her shoe, ushering the Digimon with her as she walked with the others towards the indentations in the ground.

Karumon shook dirt and dust from his pale coat and padded over with Adrian.

"Stand in the North, South, East, and West positions, please," Rubimon instructed them, pointing in each direction.

Wordlessly and without quarrel, the humans and Digimon followed her instructions, standing together on their specific spots, with the Digimon in the middle of the glyph surrounding Rubimon. Their human partners joined hands, creating a barrier and unbroken bond through which Rubimon's power could travel.

A moment of prayer was all Rubimon took. She expelled a wild ruby flame from her mouth that ignited the glyph in the earth. Her companions all closed their eyes, bracing their bodies for the possibility of a crash landing.

The flames rose around them, speeding across the symbols like they were drawn with combustible material. The heat was there but it wasn't burning. After a few seconds the flames diminished, and finally extinguished themselves, leaving the markings charred into the ground.

"No…," Rubimon murmured softly, a word barely audible to the humans. Without another thought, she breathed a long plume of fire from her mouth wildly, almost willing it to catch. But the charred markings of the glyph only smoldered, and the fire didn't even spread a little around them this time, no matter how hard Rubimon breathed.

Adrian opened one eye after some moments had passed silently. “We home?” the Cajun asked, opening both eyes and looking around.

“I can't get the gateway to work…," Rubimon admitted. Her voice was cracking a little, and there was a sense of defeat in her words.

Slowly, those around her released the hands of the other and walked into the symbol, retrieving their Digimon. Rubimon was slumped in the middle of the four Rookies, rubbing her head with her claws and staring at the ground.

“What happened?" Karumon asked, pawing at the blackened earth. "Why are we still here?"

“Maybe you're a bit stressed out?" Grindymon suggested gently, drifting towards Rubimon. "Why don't you meditate?"

"It won't help," Rubimon sighed.

A few questioning and concerned glances were exchanged between human and Digimon alike.

"I was worried about this."

"About… what?" Katrina pressed.

"Look at your D-Exes," Rubimon told them, her amber eyes rising. "Examine them. Do you notice anything different about them?"

As instructed, the humans each retrieved their D-Exes and looked over them closely. From a strictly visual point-of-view there was nothing strange, no aesthetic changes had occurred on the devices.

 “My D-Ex isn't working.” Ryan's voice stood out over the others as he held out his yellow device. The screen was blank, and no matter what he pushed, nothing appeared on it. It was a vision he and his companions were not used to seeing, and it was an immediate cause for concern.

“Why would it not work?” Adrian inquired, shifting his glasses on his face. “It worked inside.”

Katrina leaned on one hip, pursing her lips.

"I know that face." Blaire pointed at her. "That's your 'I'm-thinking-of-something-techie' face."

"Whatever," Katrina rolled her eyes a little, "but, since you mention it… it reminds me of a University I went to. To stop students using their phones and social media during lectures and lessons, classrooms and lecture halls were somehow installed with this… I guess you could call it a block, to stop signals like four-gee coming through."

Karumon stared at the redhead, his head tilted to one side. A look mimicked by the other three Digimon. The expressions of her human companions weren't much more clued in.

"It is like a force field that blocks a signal," Katrina tried again, attempting to simplify her explanation. "Maybe it's something the Circle gives out, to stop intruders finding a way in and way out." She pointed at the wall, where minutes ago the door had been was just wall. "Like a sense of self-defense."

"You're not far off." Rubimon drew her head up. "The Circle has a unique ability to protect itself from any that would intend to breach it, good or bad. The power it has… I had hoped it may have waned a little, that it would allow me to transport us from here. But it hasn't."

"Meaning…?" Ryan cocked an eyebrow.

"Da' Circle has basically put a stop to any and all signals," Adrian concluded. "Digital, like the D-Exes, or otherwise. No?" He looked at Rubimon, wanting her confirmation.

"Exactly," sighed the dragon. "To even have a hope of the glyph gateway working we need to travel away from the Circle."

"That doesn't sound so bad." Karumon smiled, getting to his four paws.

Grindymon nodded, agreeing. "Absolutely. It's only a little more traveling. With the amount we've done, it isn't a huge problem."

"Yeah," Blaire added, patting Rubimon on the head, "those two other vials have been in the Atlas Corp vaults for who knows how long. They can wait a little longer for us."

Muertomon followed his partner. "So why the long face?" He directed his question to Rubimon.

Rubimon glanced at the skeletal Digimon for a moment.

She knew that traveling further away from the Circle, no matter what direction, would mean they would eventually come across the Garden of the Dead. A place she disliked intensely, and had no desire to return to, let alone to expose this young group of Chosen to.

Only the Digimon of the previous four years had witnessed the Garden, what was there, and felt the power that was dormant. Power that had been used by followers of Mukademon to corrupt themselves and turn them into wild, feral Digimon, lacking any real sense of self, and only with a thirst of destruction and to serve their liege Lord.

If the power in the Circle was still as potent as it seemed, then there was little doubt in Rubimon's mind that the energy in the Garden of the Dead would be just as powerful too. She could deal with it, she was resilient. She knew to keep going, to stick to her path, and never stray no matter what temptation the Garden created. But these humans? And their Digimon? There was nothing to say they would not be enticed by whatever visions and desires the Garden's energy created, feeding off their own fears and doubts.

It was a terrible place; a place that no one should ever have to go.

But there was no other option.

So close to the Circle, Rubimon knew she could not create the gateway to take them home, and the only option was the venture beyond the Garden where the Circle's power would not have reached, and try there.

She was left with only a choice: to tell them what lay ahead, or not to. To inform them of what horrors might appear to them was a logical step, and made sense. Except she knew that if she did that, then it would cause arguments. They would waste time and want to find a different route – a safer route – and she knew there was no other. Not telling them held the sense of deception, they would not know what to expect, and coming across the Garden would probably shock them to their cores… but it would make things more peaceful. They could move quickly, and hopefully the less they knew would mean that they would ask fewer questions, and as a group they could cross the vast dead plains quickly, and leave the Gardens behind them. Far, far behind them.

"Rubimon?" Grindymon spoke to her, touching her shoulder. The concern on the aquatic Digimon's face was touching, and for a moment, Rubimon was tempted to explain where they would have to go.

She swallowed that temptation, buried it deep in her gut.

"I'm fine," Rubimon assured Grindymon, and those around her. "We have a lot of ground to cover, we will have to move quickly… and we won't be able to stop until we're outside the territory of the Circle."

"No breaks?" Anzumon clarified.

"No breaks," Rubimon told him.

She began walking, taking the lead before the group. She heard them all begin to move behind her, stepping into pace, a steady walk that would hopefully get them where they needed to be in good time.

Rubimon stopped suddenly, and glanced over her shoulder. "Whatever happens… you must trust me," she said firmly, and then carried on without another word.

-----------------------------

Night had fallen rather quickly as the group travelled steadily and at a good pace.

True to her word, Rubimon ensured they took no breaks, but occasionally slowed down to let them have a breather. It seemed to her that the Circle had somehow rejuvenated them all. Humans and Digimon alike walked with an extra bounce in their step, a boost of energy, and a positive outlook they had not had before. She enjoyed it; it kept the group in high spirits and arguments to a minimum.

Only Katrina insisted on continuation of the conversation she had been having with Ryan and Adrian in the Circle, before their meeting with the Gods. She was not about to let it go so easily that she had been a topic of conversation.

"What's da' problem with it, cher?" Adrian asked, tilting his head back and walking with his hands in his pockets. "Ain't it nice to be a topic a conversation? When its men talkin' 'bout how yous pretty."

Katrina stared at him for a second, as if trying to determine if the Cajun boy was serious or not. His expression showed no more mirth than normal – though Adrian was clearly entertained by this whole conversation. "It's really… really not."

"Why?" Ryan came to her side.

"Because," Katrina huffed, taking Ryan's offered hand as he helped her over a large boulder, "contrary to popular belief, women don't like being judged simply as sex objects and on how attractive we are."

Adrian shrugged. "It's a first impression though. Everyone makes assumptions based on first impressions. What they see is da' first impression."

"Be that as it may," continued Katrina, "I don't like being judged based on my appearance. I work in a male-dominated environment. A male-dominated profession. I am the only woman in the IT department and I am smarter than all my co-workers. That isn't boasting, that is fact. But because I am a woman I am called 'sweetie' and 'darling' and occasionally 'sexy'. You have no idea how demeaning that is, especially considering how I am better qualified and generally better overall than my co-workers."

"I had no idea we would be opening up a whole feminist can of worms by making inquiries for Rick," Ryan laughed, looking over Katrina's head at Adrian, who returned his grin.

Katrina's shoulders squared. "I don't see it as a feminist stand point. I see it as common decency to not judge someone based on their appearance or gender."

"So… you've never gone out wit' a guy purely based on their appearance?" Adrian inquired, goading the red head.

Katrina was silent for a few seconds. "No." She shrugged. "I've approached people because of their looks to get to know them better. And if there isn't much going on behind the eyes, then I don't bother. It's not really my style to do one-night stands or fuck buddies, or whatever. I actually like to connect with someone."

"You can connect wit' someone on a purely sexual level, y'know cher," Adrian remarked. "Good sexual chemistry can be just as invigoratin' as connecting any other way. It's a very basic, primal, and instinctive connection. One dat' is as powerful as a connection based on intellect or personality."

"I'm not debating that, but what do you have after the sexual chemistry fizzles?" retorted Katrina. "You can't expect just that primal instinct to keep a relationship going. It takes commitment, common interests, as well as different opinions and the ability to be independent of each other while being in a relationship."

"You must be a really interesting person to be with," Ryan said slowly. Katrina looked at him, eyes narrowed but her expression intrigued. "You're a very independent person. You live alone, you don't seem very social, and from everything we know about you, you're happiest in your own company. I bet being with someone, for you, would be hard."

"Who knows?" Katrina shrugged. "I certainly don't."

"You've… never been in a relationship?" asked Ryan.

Katrina rolled her shoulders. "I didn't say that. I have. Not particularly long-term ones though."

"You been awfully quiet on da' topic, Blaire." Adrian turned on the spot, walking backwards a little so he could speak to Blaire.

He saw her, trailing behind them with Muertomon, and he came to a stop immediately.

Blaire walked with Muertomon, keeping his pace. The shorter skeleton Digimon tightly held her hand with his own bony fingers.

As they had walked, Muertomon had remarked on feeling strange once or twice, but no one had commented or made a fuss. They had just continued, expecting the odd feeling to pass.

But there was no doubting it watching him struggle, something was up, and even Blaire was terrified.

"Rubimon," Adrian said quickly.

She stopped. "No breaks, remember?" Katrina and Ryan had both come to a stop and were retracing their steps back to Blaire with their own Digimon.

"I really think we should," Adrian said to their guide. "Muertomon don't look right."

Rubimon examined him from her distance, and concern gnawed at her gut.

"What's up?" Karumon asked, plopping onto his behind.

"I'm not sure," Blaire said uneasily. "He complained of feeling weird. Asked to hold my hand and now he won't let go. He said he felt really hyper, and then really anxious." She spoke for Muertomon because he seemed unable to form a coherent sentence.

His eyes moved quickly, darting from place to place, never settling on anything specific for more than a moment. He giggled maniacally, fast and high pitched, growing louder until he was barking with laughter and his whole body quaked. Around him his butterflies were just as hyperactive, fluttering their wings wildly. They would land for a few moments on those around him, or on Muertomon's head, and then take off again as if a wind had swept them up. 

Blaire knelt to her Digimon's height. "Are you going to be okay?" she asked him.

"I dunno…" Muertomon shook his head slowly. He seemed completely oblivious to any of the others around him, and focusing on Blaire was difficult enough. "I just–" His words stopped and his eyes faded, as if they had rolled into the back of his skull.

His mouth opened wide as his head lolled back, but no sound came out.

"What's wrong with him?" Anzumon asked, making a face. "Why's he looking like that?"

"I don't know," Blaire replied, her voice wavering with concern. She grabbed her partner by the shoulders, giving him a gentle shake. "Muertomon…!"

He was unresponsive, though his mouth moved as if he was trying to speak.

Standing up, Blaire shook him harder. "Muertomon!" she barked at him.

His eyes reappeared as he closed his mouth. He blinked quickly several times in succession. “Stop shaking me!” he demanded and pulled away from Blaire.

Reluctantly, Blaire released him. Try as she might, she could not keep the concern from her face. Muertomon noticed, and poked her cheek, pulling her straight mouth into a forced half-smile with the tip of his finger.

“Que?” the skeleton asked.

“I…" Blaire closed her eyes for a moment and drooped her head before taking a breath. "You're freaking me out, boo.”

"Why?" Muertomon inquired cheerfully. "I'm fine. I feel great!"

"You just lost consciousness," Anzumon said to him. "Or did you forget that?"

"Lost consciousness?" repeated Muertomon. "Nah. Not me. I'm as happy as a maggot in a carcass."

Katrina raised her eyebrows. "Nice visual there, Doctor Death."

"I didn't think we were takin' any breaks!" Muertomon said. "Let's go." He began to walk, marching cheerfully as if nothing had happened. Blaire shifted her weight to her opposing hip, watching her partner go and crossing her arms loosely across her chest.

"You okay?" Ryan asked her.

"I dunno." She shrugged. "Did you see him? It was like he died for a second there."

"Maybe it's da' Circle again?" Adrian suggested. "Maybe as we're gettin' further away its… power is doin' somethin' to da' Digimon?"

"But we're all fine," Grindymon stated. "I don't feel odd or any different to how I felt earlier. Only Muertomon seems to be acting strangely."

Anzumon stretched his wings. "Maybe it's cause he's a death Digimon? Isn't the energy in the Circle meant to be pure? Maybe it's a corruption or something."

"Maybe." Blaire bit her lower lip. "Any ideas?" She looked at Rubimon.

Having watched the whole exchange and kept silent throughout, Rubimon was surprised at suddenly being addressed. She stared at Blaire long and hard, her jaw tightening.

Now would be the best time to tell the truth.

They were closer now to the Garden. It would be less than an hour and they would be within its frozen midst. Already the dark energy that lingered and refused to move on was already having a reaction. Muertomon. She should have known. He was a Digimon made for death. While a cheerful individual himself, he could not and would not be able to resist the pull of the dark energy that the Garden would invade him with.

She should say something. She knew it; it was the right thing to do, to tell them what they were going to let themselves in for, for what was going to happen.

"Rubimon?" Grindymon prompted.

She breathed out. "As Anzumon said. It may just be an odd reaction to the energy of the Circle," she explained slowly, averting her gaze to the ground.

Lying didn't feel good. It never did. But the concern on Blaire's face put her off giving any real information. There was nothing that could be done anyway, the Garden would infect Muertomon and he would have to be strong enough to pull through it.

"Let's just keep moving. Keep an eye on him and his behavior," Rubimon concluded and began to walk again without waiting for a response from those around her, human or Digimon.

The faster they reached the Garden, the faster they would all get through it.

-----------------------------

The Garden appeared to them as if out of nowhere. The moon was high with no clouds, giving full silvery illumination.

The ground had been the first giveaway of how close they were. The grass became dry and brittle; it didn't spring back up when it was stepped on. The earth was dry, as if there had been no rain for years. The trees deadened, at first only a little. The leaves were darker or blackened, but then even those trees with leaves on them disappeared, and only bare, dead trunks remained, with branches that stuck out like clawed hands.

Grass turned black with pollution. Their way was blocked by fallen tree trunks, the ground too weak to keep them up. Roots protruded from the ground, bark crumbled when it was touched or when the wind blew even a little.

Then the dead woods and the black grass were gone, revealing the true horrors of the Garden: fields of glass and crystal formations stretching as far as the eye could see. Thick walls and turrets of the same material seemed to have risen straight up from the ground with no foundation.

The moonlight illuminated the creatures trapped inside, highlighting their scales, fur, and claws, their wide, terror-filled eyes. Creatures that were mutated beyond recognition but looked as if they would come to life at any moment.

Rubimon had hated coming here. When she had been Ryudamon's student she had been forced to come on several occasions and had thought she had grown accustomed to it. Being away for so long, she had forgotten what a truly horrific place this was, and how macabre.

She barely breathed, almost afraid to. She felt as though even the slightest noise, the slightest disturbance, would resurrect the danger here.

Behind her she could no longer hear the movement of the group. No more feet moving at a steady pace, and their conversation had stopped.

"We need to move," Rubimon told them, turning to face them.

Each of them were fearful, though they may have tried to hide it, it was easy to see the truth of their feelings in their eyes. They clustered together for safety instinctively, humans surrounded by their Digimon, who were equally frightened and confused.

"I know you're afraid," Rubimon said, "but don't let it consume you."

"What… is this place?" Grindymon asked. The light on her antennae was almost completely out. She trembled, and hovered only a few inches off the ground.

"The remnants of war," sighed Rubimon. "Digimon who were infected by the Parasite, who fought against the Gods. This their final resting place. Their punishment. To remain here, a warning. Frozen in place, never to be reborn."

Ryan shook his head. "The Gods… did this?"

"To defend themselves." Rubimon nodded. "This was the final battlefield. Where the end began. In the Digital World it is known as the Gardens of the Dead. This is what would have happened to your world, had Mukademon not been stopped."

"There has to be another way to travel," Karumon said, nuzzling up to Adrian's leg. "I don't like it here. It's scary. It makes me feel funny."

"There isn't," Rubimon explained. "If there was, I would have taken you. But there is no other way. Believe me, I wish there was a way for you not to see this place." Her voice cracked a little. "No one should have to."

"I like it," Muertomon announced. He had split away from the group and was up close to one of the crystal formations. "It's homely."

"Homely?" Blaire repeated. "Look, I like the dark and macabre stuff, but this is too much. Even for me."

Muertomon seemed to ignore her, giggling to himself and running off further into the Garden, disappearing between formations of frozen Digimon who stared but did not see.

"Muertomon!" Blaire called, and began to give chase. Rubimon stepped in front of her.

"Listen to me," Rubimon spoke firmly, "and understand that this place and Muertomon have strong ties with the dead. That funny feeling Karumon has is the power that lingers here trying to infect him. Muertomon is more susceptible. We need to cross fast and without pause."

"But Muertomon–"

"He will follow us," Rubimon explained hurriedly. "We move fast and we move together. Don't worry about Muertomon, even with the pull that he feels here, his connection to you is stronger and will keep him close."

Blaire looked doubtful, her brow furrowing as she searched blindly for a sight of her partner. "You're sure?"

"Yes."

Pushing her hands through her hair, Blaire nodded. "Come on. Faster we move the faster he goes back to normal."

"Precisely."

"Muertomon, we're making a move!" Blaire called, cupping her hands around her mouth in an attempt to draw him towards her. Rubimon led the way, and the others stayed close, following her steady, purposeful pace.

"Already?" Muertomon appeared from behind a structure. "But we just got here." He went to Blaire's side, falling into step beside her. "It's a nice place," he added, laughing.

"Sure is," Blaire murmured, watching her partner warily. How his butterflies wavered and jittered around him excitedly. How he giggled and almost skipped across the earth. "How about a piggy back?" She scooped him into her arms before he could agree or protest.

Muertomon wriggled against her wildly, arms flailing and beginning to wail like a squalling child, bringing their party to a stop. The butterflies around his head angrily swarmed Blaire's face and hair.

"LEMME GO. I want to go down!" Muertomon roared, his voice becoming something unlike his own.

"No! Muertomon, stop struggling," Blaire argued with him, trying to hold onto his body as he struggled against her.

"Put him down!" Rubimon ordered.

"What the Hell is that?!" Ryan added. He had been the only one to spot what looked like a cloud in the sky, but moved too fast and swarmed down above them. A horde of butterflies, black and burning as if they were on fire, flew above them, charging for Blaire and Muertomon.

The force of the flock was so much that it knocked both of them away several feet, Blaire onto her back and Muertomon out of her arms. He rolled to one side, landing on his stomach. The butterflies surrounded Muertomon, taking on a form around him, humanoid and tall. From within the thousands of wings, Muertomon screamed and cried, he spoke loudly, saying words that made no sense and gibberish.

"Get out of the way!" Rubimon shouted. Adrian grabbed Blaire and pulled her away from Muertomon despite her protests.

The flames on each butterfly engulfed one another, turning the formation around Muertomon into a burning pillar of a man. Maniacal laughter rose up, drowning out of the sound of the flames and the fluttering wings.

"What's happening?!" screamed Blaire, covering her eyes from the heat as the flames grow higher and higher.

Rubimon shook her head. She had imagined only that Muertomon would grow infected by the power that remained here, not that it would take him over. Not that he would surrender to it completely as he was doing now.

Muertomon's wailing stopped, and all was silent for a moment. Then, in a whoosh of flames, a figure stood before them and stepped forward. The butterflies had become a body of black fire, which burned furiously. Glowing orange eyes peered out from the licking flames, examining those before him.

"Heliomon…?" Rubimon murmured, her voice leaving her throat unexpectedly.

The figure's eyes snapped to her, staring down her at as if trying to place her in some forgotten memory.

"Conquest," he growled, a voice low and inhuman.

The Digimon had forgotten their fear for now, their instinct to protect their partners overriding their instinct to flee danger.

"What are you?!" Anzumon demanded, lighting shifting across his feathers. "What did you do with Muertomon?!"

"Conquest," the figure repeated. "I am. Neither friend nor foe. I speak for those who cannot."

"Where. Is. Muertomon?!" Blaire screamed, tears streaming down her face. "What did you do with him!?"

Conquest faced her, no expression visible, no softening on his features or in his stance. "I am Conquest. A voice for those who have none."

"Answer the question!" shouted Blaire, rising to her feet. "GIVE ME BACK MUERTOMON!"

"Time," Conquest told her. "In time."

"NOW!"

"Blaire." Katrina's voice was cool and calm, heavy, and was enough to break through Blaire's heated and terrified anger.

Grindymon floated forwards a little, flanked by Anzumon and Karumon. "If you're neither friend nor foe, then what do you want?"

"I speak for those who cannot," Conquest explained. "I speak for those who sought redemption and were denied. I speak for those left to linger and despair in living death. I speak for those who were infected. I speak for those who were corrupted."

"A manifestation," Rubimon breathed, her mouth hanging open a little.

"What?" Adrian prompted.

"The data that stays here has used Muertomon as a gateway of sorts. A voice with which to speak," Rubimon explained. "I've heard of such things, but never seen it happen."

"Why Muertomon?" Blaire demanded, crossing her arms tightly across her chest as it heaved with deep breaths. "Why are you using Muertomon?!"

Conquest spoke to them all. "I speak only through one with a connection. He is a specter, a messenger of death. The only one open to my voice."

"What do the dead have to say?" Grindymon inquired politely, floating a little closer. While the others remained a short distance away, she grew bolder, sensing that for now, this visage that had temporary control of Muertomon was not a threat to them.

"Your unrest disturbs them. It stirs their dormancy. Your sadness, the negativity you carry with you, and the weight of your anxiety, it brings them unrest," spoke Conquest, continuing to speak to them as a whole. "They wish for you to stop."

"What are ya' talkin' 'bout?" Adrian grunted. "What anxiety? What sadness? We all cool here."

"One of you is being deceitful," Conquest argued. For the first time his voice rose, and his flames ignited higher and more fiercely around him in response. Grindymon retreated back to Katrina, hiding behind her shoulders. "One of you is hiding the truth."

"Maybe we shouldn't make the man on fire angry," Anzumon suggested, speaking from the side of his mouth to Ryan. "The grass and trees here look pretty flammable."

"Yeah…," agreed Ryan quietly.

"Do ya'll have any idea what he's talkin' 'bout?" Adrian asked, his face confused. "I thought we was all pretty chipper after da' Circle."

"Who?" Blaire demanded. "If the reason you're here is to call one of us out on our true feelings, then do it!" Her voice rose and she clasped her hands into fists. "Do it and give me back Muertomon!"

"Very well…," Conquest agreed. Slowly he raised an arm, outstretched and pointing. His eyes lay on Ryan and remained there. "You are uneasy. Your negativity swims around you like a cloud of darkness. For your disturbance you must be punished."

"Punished?" Rubimon repeated.

The ground rumbled beneath the group's feet and suddenly roots crashed through the dead earth, coiling around Ryan's entire body. Grabbed by his ankles and wrists, the roots lifted him into the air and the earth where he once stood crumbled away into a giant black hole. He yelped as they jerked him downwards, falling to the ground and grabbing for something to hold with his hands and fingers.

"RYAN!" Anzumon bit onto the back of Ryan's shirt, flapping his wings wildly to hold him up as the roots tugged harder, opening the ground and causing the hole to continue to grow.

"Grab my hand!" Adrian ordered, leaning forward. Roots erupted from under him, pulling him back away from Ryan violently, tossing him a few feet away onto the ground.

Ryan clung to the edge of the open hole with his hands.

"HELP ME!" he cried. "I can't hold on!"

Katrina grabbed him, her hands around his forearm, bracing herself on the earth with her boots and leaning back. Grindymon pulled at Katrina's arm, lending her meager strength to try and pull Ryan up.

"Blaire!" Katrina shouted. "Help us!"

The turquoise-haired woman could barely move. Her expression was unreadable, a mess of anger and confusion as the vines held her in place as well just as they did Adrian, Karumon, and now Rubimon.

The roots made their way around Katrina's ankle, ready to pull her apart from Ryan's grasp.

"Grab my arm!" Katrina huffed, pulling back. "Anzumon, try and loosen the roots!"

A blast of lightning shot from Anzumon's antlers, but it was badly aimed and it missed the roots by several feet.

"I'm slipping!"

"Don't you dare!"

Beneath them, the hole expanded and Katrina lost her footing as the root simply let go. Ryan fell back into a bottomless blackness with Anzumon, while Katrina followed, screaming, Grindymon clinging to her arm.

No more than seconds later the earth reformed and the roots dug back into the earth, leaving those that remained staring at where their companions had been.

-----------------------------

Underneath her was damp ground that was soft and grainy. Sand, definitely sand. She was aware, and awake, and had been for several minutes. But it hurt to breathe, and she could feel a regular stab of pain shoot down her left arm whenever she shifted a little.

Around her she could hear the sound of waves quietly lapping on the shore. No gulls sounded or called, but waves, and wind. Funny, when before they had been nowhere near the ocean, and the ground had been dead earth, not sand.

"Are you okay?" Grindymon's voice was above Katrina, and the light of her antennae was bright enough to illuminate behind Katrina's closed eyes.

"Give me a second…," Katrina murmured, opening her eyes a little and catching a glimpse of Grindymon dashing to one side. Breathing deeply, Katrina winced as her torso twinged painfully. "Please don't let me have broken anything…," she muttered, pressing on her ribcage with her right hand. She applied a little bit of pressure across her bones, and found the spot that hurt the worst.

She took a gulp of air, pushed down on the pain, and forced herself into a sitting position with a yell of pain.

"You're up!" Anzumon's voice caught Katrina by surprise, but then she remembered Anzumon and Ryan had also fallen into the crevice created by Muertomon, or Conquest, or whatever it was. The griffin sounded happy to see her, something Katrina had never expected to hear from him.

"Yeah." Katrina winced. Around her were a few randomly scattered rocks of differing size. Before her was an endless ocean and behind, endless beach. Above, the sky was gray and miserable, making everything near enough the same color and equally as interesting to look at. The only landmark she could make out was a lighthouse further down the beach. Much further.

"Take it slow," Grindymon advised Katrina, helping her to move from the ground to a nearby stone. Katrina didn't have the heart to advise Grindymon that holding her left arm was actually causing her more pain – the Digimon was flustered and trying hard to be helpful.

Once sitting on the rock, Katrina sighed. "So, where are we, and where is Ryan?"

"No idea," Anzumon said. "And he's over there." He indicated with a nod of his head. About twenty feet away, Ryan was standing with his back to them, looking out to the blackened sea water. From behind, Katrina could make out his slumped shoulders and how in the openness of everything Ryan actually looked small. "He's been standing like that since we got here…"

Katrina furrowed her brow. "Really?"

"Yeah," said Anzumon. He hid it well, but his voice quavered a little. The little griffin was genuinely concerned about his partner. "He won't respond to me."

With a sigh, Katrina reached out with her right hand and tickled Anzumon under the chin. "Maybe he's a little overwhelmed and confused. I know I am." She smiled a little. "We'll get through to him." Being an optimist did not come easily to Katrina, and she was not someone born naturally to please and calm others, but in this instance she had no choice.

"I certainly hope so," Grindymon added. "This place is unsettling."

Anzumon nodded. "Yeah. Not sure what I prefer. This place or the Garden of the Dead."

"Hm, creepy deserted beach of never-ending ocean, or miles and miles of dead Digimon frozen for all time." Katrina hummed, amused. "Gotta say, it would be a tough choice."

Her words managed to make the two Digimon laugh, which put her at ease too. Even if their humor was forced or minimal, it was something. For now they had to focus on figuring out where they were, how to get back, and how they would inevitably have to fight Conquest without hurting Muertomon. Of course, first, they needed Ryan to snap out of his stupor.

Every step was painful, and it seemed to take a lot longer to reach Ryan than it should have. Considering he hadn't been that far away it had felt like Katrina and the Digimon had had to take ten steps when they should have only needed one.

Even at only a few feet away, Ryan had not noticed their approach, or reacted to the calls of his name. It was as if he wasn't there. It was only when Katrina whacked him on the arm with her right hand that he reacted with a start and looked down at her.

"What–! Katrina?" He blinked and rubbed his eyes with the balls of his hands. "You're here too?"

"Uh… yeah," Katrina said, arching a brow. "I got pulled into the hole Conquest made. Remember?"

Slowly, Ryan shook his head. "I… can't remember much, after coming here." He smiled weakly. "I guess we should try and find a way back."

"Would be nice. My arm is kind of painful, I'd love a sling," Katrina spoke sarcastically, wincing as Grindymon tried to help her and bent Katrina's left arm into her coat as gently as possible so it rested in the nook of the fabric.

"Let's get going then, eh?" Ryan smiled and turned on his feet. Anzumon stood in front of him, holding his ground, and snorted.

"Not so fast," huffed Anzumon, rising up on his wings to be eye-to-eye with his partner. "What was Conquest talking about?"

"Talking what about?" Ryan inquired, attempting to side-step his partner, but finding his way blocked by a quick spark of lightning. "Watch it!" Ryan stepped back, the blast hitting the ground just in front of his feet.

"Tell me."

"We're in a weird place, separated from the others. We need to get back!" argued Ryan growing a little irate. "It's more important."

Anzumon refused to budge. "No. I want to know what Conquest was talking about. When he was talking about all your negativity and doubt."

Ryan rolled his eyes, shaking his head. "Nothing. It was nothing. Just trying to rile us up. Let's just get moving. Adrian and Blaire are probably looking for us, and we have to get those other two vials." When Anzumon didn't move again, and only snapped at Ryan's hands with his mouth when he reached out to move the creature, Ryan looked back helplessly at Katrina.

"I'm with Anzumon here," Katrina announced, surprising Ryan. "Conquest noticed the issue being with you, not with me or anyone else. He sent you here; myself and Grindymon unfortunately just got dragged along for the ride – what I get for trying to save you. Either way, we're here because you have issues you're not dealing with. You deal with those issues, and we can probably head back to the Garden of the Dead."

Crossing his arms, Ryan faced Katrina, his face contorted half in anger, and half in annoyance. "What issues am I supposed to have exactly?"

"How should I know?" Katrina retorted, eyes wide. "I'm a genius, not a mind reader, and they're your issues."

"I don't have any issues."

"Conquest and his sending you here would really beg to differ, Ryan."

"I can see why you and Blaire fight so much." Ryan's mouth quirked a little. "You never back down. Rick would have no idea what to do with you," he said wryly.

"Stop trying to change the subject," snapped Katrina. "Stop running away from whatever crap you're hiding and face it, because if you don't, I think we're going to be stuck here."

"I'm not hiding from anything. Stop saying that I am!"

"The proof is in the pudding, Ryan!" Katrina barked at him. "We're in this place because you have a problem, or something you're carrying around with you which disturbed dead spirits."

"What about you?" Ryan bit back. "Couldn't it be you?"

"What does 'proof in the pudding' mean?" Grindymon whispered to Anzumon, as they watched their partners exchange increasingly heated words.

"I dunno," Anzumon replied softly. "Sounds tasty."

"I have issues, but none that I carry around with me. I've dealt with my problems," Katrina huffed, blowing a stray strand of red hair out of her face. "Besides, Conquest pointed at you. Not me, or Blaire, or Adrian. You. You are the one who has messed up here."

“Messed up?” Ryan raised his voice to Katrina's words, as if they had triggered something. Ryan felt a sharp pain in his head, causing him to wince slightly and grasp the painful spot.

“Yes, Ryan. Messed up," Katrina spoke fervently. "You’re a nice guy. You're very polite, you're generous and kind. But when an army of dead spirits comes together to specifically point out that you are singlehandedly disturbing them, and causing them to rise from the dead, something has got to be pretty off. You're hiding behind some type of charade and you can't do that anymore.”

Ryan was taken aback; his facial expression proved it as the look of shock on his face was almost permanent until it was replaced with a scowl.

“Whatever problem you're having, let's talk about it, get it out of your system. We have a mission and you're messing things up.” Katrina laid her right hand on her hip.

"That's the point! I always mess up!" Ryan exploded suddenly, catching Katrina off guard. He pushed his hat off his head so it fell to the floor and fisted his hair. "Always. I'm tired of screwing up and making things bad for people. For hurting them and causing them pain."

Katrina drew her eyebrows together. "What are you talking about?" Her voice had softened, the anger passing swiftly.

"Anzumon hated me when we first got here, because I screwed things up for him. He didn't want to be my Digimon. Who would!? I'm a total screw up," Ryan spoke, his words hurried and breathless. Like he was trying to speak all he wanted to say in one breath.

"I didn't like it at first," Anzumon told him, "but I like you now. You're my friend. My buddy." He looked at Ryan and nudged his leg with his nose, then waited expectantly for a rub on the head that never came.

"I can't do this. This whole thing with the Digimon, with Heather. I just can't," Ryan explained, speaking to the open air. Though his gaze was on Katrina, he wasn't speaking to her or even seeing her. "I love Heather, more than anything I love her, but I love Anzumon too and I can't have both. It's not possible, it's not fair. But I can't make the choice. I'll be hurting someone. Either way I'll be messing up and someone will get hurt!"

Grindymon could only watch silently and sadly as Ryan seemed to break down before the three of them. And it was only she who noticed how the waves seemed to come in more quickly to the shore, how the wind picked up, and how the surface of the water that had been calm was now growing more ferocious.

"Whatever I do, I'm going to hurt someone. I'm going to have all the guilt of hurting someone, and leaving someone. I can't go through that again," Ryan continued to rant, pausing briefly to take a breath, a moment that Katrina took advantage of.

She grabbed Ryan's face in her hands, despite the pain it caused her left arm, and held his gaze. "Good. This is good Ryan, talk. What happened? What guilt? What made you feel guilty?" He stared at her for a few long moments, a look that made him seem lost, like he had forgotten entirely where he was and what he was doing. "This is the stuff Conquest was talking about. What happened to make you so reluctant to cause hurt to someone else?"

"There…" Ryan breathed in though his nose, deeply and shakily. "There was an accident. A car accident. Me, my brother and sister. I was driving. I was drunk, my brother had had a few too. He was wasted, but I told my sister I was good to drive. She was staying with friends. The other driver was texting, and he had been drinking too. His car collided in ours, my brother was in the passenger seat. He got hurt bad, really bad… Really bad. He had to spend a year in a wheelchair, even now he walks with a limp… I still can't look at him without feeling guilty."

Katrina frowned. "But it was an accident. And by the sound of it the other driver was in the wrong."

"No! It was still my fault!" Ryan snapped, pushing Katrina away roughly. She stumbled back, only stopping her fall as Grindymon caught her. As Ryan paced away from the other three, shapes, dark in color and lacking in size or any real form seemed to drift around him, visible to Anzumon and the others and growing more and more obvious with each passing second.

"What are they?" Anzumon demanded, snorting.

"I'm going to guess dead Digimon spirits who can't move on," Grindymon suggested.

"Get away from Ryan!" Anzumon shouted, charging at one and passing right through its visage.

"They're feeding off his emotions," Katrina remarked slowly, returning her left arm to the crook of her jacket to rest it.

Grindymon nodded. "One other thing." She pointed back at the ocean, where the waves were coming in more furiously than before, creating spray in places. The wind was picking up too, becoming faster and starting to howl as it crossed over voids in the rocks and stones on the sand.

"His emotions are affecting everything…" Katrina shook her head. "Ryan, don't walk away from me!" she snapped and followed him. If getting him riled up was causing this to happen to this unknown and strange locale, then getting him through it, helping him to unload, would hopefully stop it and return them to the others.

At least, that was Katrina's logic and something she had to go with. It was the only plan she had.

"I'm done talking!" Ryan shouted.

"Well, I'm not!" Katrina yelled back. "It wasn't your fault! Yes, you were drunk and yes, you were driving, but the other driver crashed into you. Not the other way around!"

"My brother still ended up in a wheelchair!" Ryan spun on his heel to face her. The specters around him were dark black blobs now, forming vague limbs in places where there had been nothing but air.

"Is he dead?" Katrina asked.

"No."

"Does he blame you?"

"…No."

"Then why are you holding onto this so tightly?! Your brother is alive. He doesn't blame you. You need to deal with this guilt," Katrina explained forcefully. "Hurting people is a part of life. It's not pretty. It's not fun, but everyone does it. Whatever we do someone always ends up getting hurt, even with the best of intentions."

"I can't hurt Heather," Ryan sighed, dropping to his knees and covering his face with his hands. "She needs me."

"I need you," Anzumon told him matter-of-factly, approaching across the sand, his small talons and hooves making marks in the soft ground. "What about me? You think I don't need you?"

"No." Ryan shook his head, looking at his partner Digimon in his intelligent yellow eyes. "I know you do. I care about you. I care about you both, I've never cared about anyone as much as I care about you and Heather. I've never been good at this. I can't stand the thought of hurting another person, especially someone as fragile as she is."

"You and me are partners," Anzumon spoke slowly, deliberately, as if thinking carefully of everything he said before it left his mouth. "You and me are bonded for life. I wouldn't exist without you. I know I wasn't… the nicest Digimon at first, but I didn't think I needed a human. But I do. And I know you need me too." He sighed a little. "I can't make you make up your mind. If you pick Heather over me then… that's fine. I guess. But you know you have to do something. You have to make a choice. A nasty choice, but what you're doing now is bad. For you. You have to put yourself first and I don't want to see you get hurt."

"Get… hurt?" Ryan repeated, his hands dropping from his hair.

"Haven't you noticed them?" Grindymon said, drifting forward a little. "They're all around you."

Ryan leaned back, looking at the air around him. To him it was empty, above him nothing but black sky, but as he looked as his companions' faces, he knew there was something.

"What?" he asked.

"Spirits," Katrina said. "I think. Of dead Digimon. All that pain you feel, that guilt… it's drawing them towards you."

"How can I stop them?" Ryan almost begged, his voice dropping a little.

"You have to let go of it all," Anzumon told him with a weak smile.

"How?"

Anzumon made a gesture like a shrug. "I don't know. Maybe you need to admit to yourself that you didn't make a mistake?"

A little dubiously, Ryan closed his eyes. "Okay…," he sighed. "Letting it all go." Patting his hands on his legs, he swayed a little.

Without warning, he was suddenly thrown back with a wail and hit the ground hard. Some invisible force had shoved him, and a mark began to appear on his chest to prove it: a massive handprint, rising up on his skin like a burn.

"Ryan!" Anzumon and Grindymon took off straight away, firing attacks in all directions, though none of them hit the specters tormenting Ryan, they went straight through them like the Digimon did when they attempted an attack with their bodies.

"Help– me!" Ryan choked. Something, one of the entities had him by the throat, held him a few inches off the ground. Ryan's hands and arms searched for something to grab, while his legs kicked and flailed.

"Let him go!" Anzumon demanded helplessly. "Let him go! Spark Javelin!" He ran forward, the sparks igniting off his horns into the air and hitting nothing. Not one to be thwarted, Anzumon charged once more, his head bowed, only to run into a pile of sand.

"We can't attack things that can't be hurt," Grindymon realized desperately.

"They can't hurt Ryan!" Anzumon shouted. "They want to use your feelings as a way to get out of here! You have to get rid of them!"

"I–" Ryan continued to wriggle and kick, loosing his arms in random directions as if trying to punch his assailant.

"What do we do?" Anzumon's eyes turned to Katrina, who could only watch, helpless and fearful. "Katrina?! What do we do?!"

Perhaps it was the sheer panic and anguish in his voice, and the expression of utter hopelessness on the griffin's face, but Katrina decided on doing the one thing her mind could focus on.

She ran at Ryan, her head low, leading with her shoulder, nearly rugby tackling the larger man out of the air and down to the ground. He was ripped from the grip of whatever had a hold on him. Ryan hit the sand with a dull thud. Katrina knelt over him, her knees on either side of Ryan's torso, and without a moment of pause she slammed her right fist into the side of Ryan's face.

"ENOUGH!" Katrina screamed at him. "You want to wallow in self-pity, because you can't make a choice on something, then that's fine. But don't make people and Digimon who care about you watch it! Especially if you're not going to fight back!" Another punch and Ryan groaned a little, cupping his hands to his face.

"You want guilt? I'll give you guilt. My mom can't have any more children because of me. My dad and I haven't spoken for two years because he's never forgiven me for taking away the chance for him to have his big family! I carry that around with me every day, all day, but I don't let it drag me down because I deserve better than that!" Katrina shouted, pinning Ryan down with her right hand on his shoulder. Blood dripped from Ryan's nose, and from a small cut Katrina had sustained on her knuckle from one of his teeth.

Katrina spoke to him, her voice firm, but it held a softer edge to it. "You had a car accident and your brother was hurt. But he's alive and you're alive and you still have each other. And he forgave you. You don't deserve to be unhappy… No one does. You can't please everyone. You have to understand that. You have to make the hard choices sometimes and inevitably someone will get hurt." She relieved the pressure off Ryan's shoulder. "But that is what life is. It's making the hard choice, it's hurting someone you care about for the betterment of yourself. It's not fair on you or on Heather, I don't want to see her get hurt either. But what you're doing is making things worse for the both of you. You need to grow a pair, Ryan. Do the right thing and hurt her sooner, rather than later. It will be better for the both of you."

"But–"

"Look," Katrina snapped, cutting him off, "Heather will get over you and you will get over her. No one is going to say it will be easy, or that you'll get over her quickly. In fact, I imagine it will take a long time. You've been put in an impossible and unfair situation, but that happens to a lot of people every single day. Life is full of making the hard choices, consider this one a lesson. Think about yourself, what is the best thing for you."

Letting out a breath, Katrina leaned back and climbed off Ryan with a little help from the two Digimon. For a moment Ryan lay on the sand, staring up at the sky.

He knew, ultimately, what needed to be done. He had been agonizing over making a choice he had made some time ago. While he may have loved Heather, Anzumon was a living, breathing part of him. He had come from inside him, a creation from his own soul. The griffin had been drawn out of his chest, and been entrusted to Ryan for a reason.

Katrina was right that it wasn't fair to keep holding on. He could try and hope that one day Heather would come around to the idea of Digimon and Anzumon, but that was never going to happen. He knew that, and there was no point in trying to delude himself, she was too scarred by what had happened to her to see Digimon as anything more than monsters.

"…You punched me," Ryan stated, looking up at Katrina. He touched his nose, checking to see if it was broken. "You punched me twice."

Katrina shrugged a shoulder. "So?" She looked at him pointedly, changing the subject.

"I know what I need to do," sighed Ryan, rising to a sitting position. "I've known all along. I have to do the right thing for us both, but most importantly for me." He got to his feet, and dusted sand off his pants.

Katrina smirked a little. "Hallelujah. The boy listens." She shoved him gently, her fist pushing against the side of his head, Ryan laughed a little.

"You care about me, eh?" He smiled.

Again, Katrina shrugged her right shoulder. "You're okay. As far as guys go." She averted her gaze awkwardly. "I'm kind of fond of you. I guess."

Without warning, Ryan wrapped the red head in his arms. "Thanks for the reality check, Kit-Kat."

Katrina tentatively returned the hug with her right arm, but stepped out of it a few seconds later. "It's what I'm here for. Sarcastic one-liners and to deliver unwelcome but sometimes necessary crashes back to reality."

"Don't forget me!" Anzumon cried from the ground. "I helped!"

Ryan knelt, and engulfed the griffin in his arms, lifting the feathered creature from the ground. "I know you did bud. Thank you for that." He grinned, ruffling his partner’s feathers.

Unexpectedly, the yellow symbol on Ryan's arm that had been burned into his skin by the Gods ignited brightly, and in his pocket the same light shone from his D-Ex, both warm to the touch.

As Ryan held his D-Ex and uncertainly touched his glowing skin, a series of screeches were heard, and black clouds and shadows rushed away from the light as if it burned them.

"Were those the things around me? The things trying to kill me?"

"Yup." Anzumon nodded, his wings raised and electricity shimmering across his back and feathers. "Something's about to happen…"

The griffin Digimon was not wrong. In front of them the different shadows began to merge together, one at a time, just melding together like droplets of water into a puddle, growing larger and taller into a form of a creature they recognized, surrounded by flames.

Anzumon growled, yowling in an almost cat-like manner at the figure.

"More resilient than expected," Conquest said, eying Ryan and ignoring the threatening noises of Anzumon. "To leave this place you must defeat me."

"Fine," Anzumon barked and dashed forward, the bright yellow light of Ryan's D-Ex exploding around his partner while Grindymon became awash with a teal glow.

-----------------------------

The lights dispersed as Melusimon and Perytomon crossed paths, both taking to the sky in opposite directions of their target.

Melusimon surrounded herself with the dark ocean waters, the watery terrain lending itself well to her powers. “Deadly Tempest!”

The orbs in Perytomon's antlers shone brightly through the thick fog that had suddenly befallen, smothering the beach. The lightning from his antlers charged. “White Bolts!”

Conquest's fists were engulfed in black flames. He raised his hands, absorbing Melusimon's incoming attack while he nimbly stepped back, avoiding the white lightning shot from Perytomon's antlers.

Turning in midair, Perytomon charged.

“Thunder Rush!” Perytomon appeared swiftly, head-butting Conquest in the back. Conquest stumbled a little, but quickly caught his footing. He spun, meeting Perytomon's second charge. He grabbed the stag bird by the antlers, twisting his hands around the smooth surface. The two pushed against one another, testing the others' strength and resolve. Perytomon grunted and bellowed, his wings flapping wildly and pawing at the air with his forelegs.

Electricity generated over Perytomon's antlers flooded into Conquest, through his fingers, and around his body with a loud crackle. The fiery being grunted and grimaced against the surge, but stood fast.

From above, Melusimon waved her hands over her head, releasing a cannon beam of black water. “Deadly Tempest!”

The attack hit Conquest directly, but he did not move nor flinch, he barely even noticed it as though it had no effect on him. Conquest continued to push against Perytomon, arms shaking, attempting to twist the head of the other Digimon by his horns.

“Melusimon's attack didn't do anything…," Ryan remarked. He looked at Katrina beside him. "Why didn't it work?" She could only offer a shrug of concern, her lips bitten into her mouth with worry.

Conquest lifted Perytomon by the antlers. He caught his footing and whirled around in the sand, once, twice. On the third circuit he released Perytomon, tossing the larger Digimon roughly across the beach.

The stag caught himself in midair before he crashed. Flapping his large wings, he swiftly took to the air.

Melusimon rushed towards Conquest, slashing her sharp claws. Conquest dodged easily to one side, watching the mermaid creature sail past him. He grabbed her by the tail, slamming her to the ground.

“You are weak here. This isn't your fight,” Conquest warned without looking at her. He stepped over the female Digimon, his eyes fixed upon Ryan. A surge of lightning crashed through his body, distracting him from his objective.

Perytomon's antlers charged once again, releasing another wave of, “White Bolts!”

Conquest crossed his arms over his face in an effort to protect himself from the blow. He slid back over the sand as the attack impacted against him.

Perytomon nosedived from the air, enveloped by a yellow light. “Plasma Shift!” he cried, and Kotenmon took his place immediately, crashing onto the beach and launching towards Conquest with a series of melee attacks. His huge clawed hands physically crackled with suffused energy.

The pair squared off blow for blow.

With a simple side step, Kotenmon easily forced Conquest away with a gust of wind.

“Storm Cyclone!” he bellowed, spinning, creating a tornado of wind and lightning around him. Conquest retreated a little, unable to gain purchase on his rotating target.

Conquest narrowed his eyes and clenched his fists together tightly. With a grunt, gritting his teeth, he stepped into the oncoming tornado, throwing in a well-timed punch that sent Kotenmon out of it, and caused the cyclone to cease.

Kotenmon groaned as he slid across the beach.

Melusimon slowly picked herself up, shaking a little. Seeing her comrade fallen, she launched into the air with a flick of her tail.

“This may not be my battle, but it is a battle I will not allow a friend to lose. I will do what I can to help… Shadow Blast!” She launched the ball of dark energy from the sky above Conquest.

Conquest grumbled on impact, turning to look up at her, eyes narrowed and enflamed. He dug his boots into the ground before kneeling down. The muscles in his legs bunched and tightened, and he launched towards the mer-Digimon. With flame-engulfed fists, he slammed them into her stomach, followed by another to the jaw.

His attacks were quick, fluid, relentless, and constant. Conquest was an enemy the likes of whom Melusimon had never dealt with before. Each attack left her winded and stunned for a second or two, leaving her no time to defend herself or to create some sort of space between the two. She released a cry before Conquest grabbed her by the throat, his burning fingers creating scorch marks on the delicate skin of her neck.

“This isn't your fight. You are weak here." He squeezed. Melusimon began to choke, flapping her tail wildly. She clawed at Conquest's hand with her sharp claws but he did not move even a little. "We are both beings of darkness. These waters do not affect us. We are the same elements.”

“MELUSIMON!”  Katrina screamed from the beach, watching helplessly.

“If you insist on protecting your friend, then you must insist to be defeated with them.” Conquest's fist began to ignite, as Melusimon's eyes widened in sudden panic.

Katrina and Ryan watched in horror as a small explosion came from the sky, and from the black smoke Melusimon's limp body fell into the dark ocean.

Recovered, Kotenmon took one glance at Melusimon's falling form and launched himself into the air, firing shots of electricity at Conquest.

Katrina raced towards the water, watching Melusimon's ragdoll body fall, hoping to get to her in time.

Ryan scooped her up into his arms, something he never thought he'd have to do with Katrina, and carried her back to the beach, away from the sea, as she struggled.

Melusimon hit the water with a large splash, and her body floated lifelessly on the surface.

“LET ME GO!!” Katrina screamed, fighting back. "I CAN'T LEAVE HER!"

“No! You can't go after her," Ryan told her, his voice firm. "These aren't normal waters, it could kill you just by you touching it for all you know!"

“YES I CAN, I CAN SAVE HER– The vial!” Katrina pulled herself out of Ryan's arms, fishing into her pockets. “The vial. The vial will save her!”

“Katrina the vial won't–”

“It has to!” Katrina snapped back, desperation cracking her voice.  She squeezed, breaking the vial with her fingers. The contents dripped onto the D-Ex.

Out on the water, Melusimon's limp body was suddenly awash with yellow light, drawing up out of the water and into the air. Her eyes opened wide, and she threw her head back, shrieking.

"Melusimon, Plasma Shift to…"

Her tail split, forming two long legs covered in scales. Two large feet with toes ending with red claws formed, and a single silver ring closed around each ankle. Melusimon's hair retreated, disappearing from her scalp and seeming to form around her body, mutating into a second furry skin over her head and arms, creating a long tail behind her, scruffy and unkempt. Her long-fingered hands became shorter, with red claws to match those on her feet. At her shoulders, three red spikes stuck out on each side. What hair this new form had was pink, and poked out from beneath a headdress with tusks and short, otter-like ears. Two pink eyes stared out from the eye holes, tufty eyebrows above them.

"Selkiemon!"

Selkiemon stepped onto the beach, releasing a girlish giggle. “Well, time for a bit of fun!” She stretched her arms about her head, catching Conquest and Kotenmon's attention. "Hello boys!" She waved.

Taking their moment of distraction to her advantage, Selkiemon hopped once before she rushed towards Conquest, throwing her elbows into his chest. Kotenmon back flipped out of the way, quickly turning and kicking Conquest in the back of the head.

As Conquest flew back from the impact of both attacks, Selkiemon touched Kotenmon's shoulder.

"Give me a minute with him, eh?" She smiled coquettishly. "He and I need to have a chat."

Kotenmon looked at her hard beneath his helmet.

"There'll still be plenty for you to pummel! Don't worry, I won't take all the fun!" Selkiemon giggled, spinning around Kotenmon's body in front of him. "Please~?"

With a sigh, Kotenmon crossed his arms. "Very well."

She kissed his cheek. "You're a doll!"

Selkiemon dashed across the beach, her long furry tail flying out behind her. Now partly recovered, Conquest saw her coming and braced himself, taking a fighting stance, his weight spread evenly over his two feet.

His hands ignited.

"Whoop!" Selkiemon twirled at the last minute, swiftly out of his reach, and slammed her elbow down into his shoulder blade. She spun, dropping her heel down on to the back of Conquest's neck. He groaned and dropped a little from the impact of both hits.

As Selkiemon went into for a second attack, Conquest turned and grabbed her leg, tossing her to one side.

Picking herself up out of the sand, she huffed. "Well, if that's how you want to play."

Conquest ran at her, his eyes blazing.

Easily Selkiemon snapped her hands onto his shoulders, shoving him beneath her and using his body as leverage to get airborne for a moment. Spinning in midair, her hands swam with pure water, and she grabbed Conquest's head as he recovered from her sudden movement.

"Scalding Rain!"

She punched him, landing jabs all across his body. Extinguishing the fire and burning the flesh beneath with the hot water. She moved fast, impossibly fast, snapping Conquest from every angle possible, knocking him back several feet with an almighty smack to his jaw.

Conquest reeled back, gripping his mouth. Parts of his body were out due to the watery attacks. He snarled at the smiling Champion opposite him.

"You… are interfering!"

"I know!" Selkiemon shrugged her shoulders. "And doesn't it just suck when Digimon turn up when they're not welcome?"

Conquest roared at her. He threw a fist, misjudged his footing, and slipped. Selkiemon took the opportunity to grab his shoulders and brought her knee up into his face.

"Of course, you'd know all about that!" Selkiemon laughed. "Turning up uninvited, I mean." She slammed her heel into the side of Conquest's face, knocking him sideways to the ground. "We were just trying to get across that stupid Garden of the Dead… and you just had to come along and take over my friend."

Snatching Conquest up by his head, grabbing tightly to his skull, Selkiemon's expression turned slightly darker. "Well, that just isn't on. Is it?" She kicked him in the stomach, pulling a wrenching cry from the other being. "Didn't – your – mother – ever – tell – you–" She kicked with each word, each one harder than the last. Conquest gasped on the ground, barely moving. "Not to take over the body of another being without asking them first?!"

Grabbing Conquest from the ground, Selkiemon wrapped a hand around his throat and held him up in the air where he dangled. She squeezed, and smirked, hearing the gasps and faint pleads.

"Not fun when it’s the other way around," she snarled, "is it?"

Kotenmon touched Selkiemon's shoulder, startling her a little and causing her to drop Conquest in a heap on the floor.

"Your turn?" she asked, her bubbly personality returning.

Kotenmon looked down at Conquest, a shadow of his former self on the ground, beaten and bloody. "I think it is time we put these spirits to rest."

Selkiemon glanced between her comrade and her enemy for a moment, and then gave a short salute to Kotenmon. "Okie dokie!"

Kotenmon drew Conquest to his feet, the creature having just enough strength to remain standing. Selkiemon went behind, and Kotenmon in front. Both Champions threw their fists back, charging up and hitting the supernatural figure in the upper back and upper chest simultaneously

Conquest groaned deeply and dropped to one knee, panting heavily.

Selkiemon cartwheeled away, laughing to herself.

Kotenmon stood back. Electricity fizzled across his hands.

“Oh, Conquest!" Selkiemon cooed. Unable to move, Conquest could only look at her out of the corner of his eye. "I know you're many spirits put into one, and yes, you all may have done wrong… but no one makes it in this world alone and we all have problems. I would never allow my friends to face their battles alone… and you should understand that, as you all came together just to take us on.”

Water circulated around her fists and feet. “I hope, after this, you can all rest in peace." Selkiemon threw her fists forward and water exploded forth from them both. "Deep Blue Crushing!”

Each attack caught Conquest perfectly. One in the stomach, another in his chest. Selkiemon released another flash of water from her foot in the form of a round house kick, which smacked against Conquest's face.

Kotenmon fired a ball of electricity from his hands. "Static Claw!"

The attacks together pulled an almighty scream from Conquest's throat, as he toppled back in defeat.

-----------------------------

Certain that Conquest was not getting up anytime soon, Selkiemon and Kotenmon turned their attention to their partners standing a few feet away.

"Katrina!" Selkiemon ran at the redhead and picked up off the ground. "You're so smart! You saved me!"

"Yay?" Katrina replied uneasily. "Okay, put me down now," she added, once Selkiemon had spun her around twice. Obeying, Selkiemon returned the girl to the sand as Kotenmon came up beside her.

"Nice job," Ryan told the feathered beast-man.

"Hm." Kotenmon nodded.

Selkiemon nudged Kotenmon's shoulder. "Teamwork! Go us!"

Katrina stared at the new form of Grindymon. "You are freakishly cheerful."

Grinning, Selkiemon shrugged her shoulders. In a flash of yellow and orange, Grindymon and Anzumon reappeared in their Champion forms' places. Anzumon spread his wings a little, while Katrina took Grindymon in her good arm.

"Good to see you again," Katrina told her, smiling lightly at the Rookie in her arm.

Grindymon smiled shyly. "Good to be seen."

Anzumon flew up into the air, a few feet above Ryan. "Ahh… look at that!" He pointed with a talon, staring off into the distance.

Following his line of view, the others all looked. The world around them, the ocean and the beach, even the light house, were disappearing into streams of data. Ones and zeroes floated away into the sky, exposing the Garden of the Dead around them, and a short distance away, Adrian, Karumon, Blaire, and Rubimon in a small huddled group.

Blaire was sitting on the ground, hugging her knees, while Adrian and Karumon seemed to try and comfort her. Adrian with his arm around her shoulders and Karumon nuzzling at her hair.

"Hey!" Ryan called. He walked towards them quickly, Anzumon flying beside him and Katrina walking at the same speed. "Hey! Adrian! Blaire!"

At the call of his name, the Cajun man lifted his head.

"Ryan!" He waved, and then said something to Blaire that caused her to look up. She rubbed her eyes with the balls of her hands and sniffled a little.

"Hey!" Ryan shouted and broke into a run, though there was very little distance left to cover. Adrian hugged Ryan briefly.

"Now where da' hell did you two get to?" he asked, smacking the other man's shoulder. "We done thought you and Kit-Kat had been swallowed by da' Digital World!"

"We were on a beach," Ryan explained. "Not a nice one. It was all black and dark. It was really horrible."

Adrian frowned a little.

"We fought Conquest there."

Blaire looked at him. "Did you win?" she asked. Up close her eyes were bloodshot and slightly reddened. Tear tracks stained her face. "Did you defeat him?"

Ryan and Katrina exchanged uneasy looks. After the defeat of Conquest, they hadn't paid any attention to where he had gone, or even if he had turned into data. The fact that Muertomon was still missing didn't make either of them feel particularly confident.

"Yeah…," Katrina said slowly.

Blaire blinked. "Then… then Muertomon…" She paused. "What… what happened to Muertomon? Where did he go?" She clenched her hands into fists. "Did you kill him?!"

"No!" Katrina shook her head. "We don't know what happened to Conquest!"

"I do…," Rubimon murmured, catching the group's attention. She stared beyond the group. A short distance away Conquest stood, leaning on one of the crystal encasements, weak and shaking on his legs.

Everyone stood still, waiting and barely breathing. Despite his weakness and his need for support, Conquest was still an imposing figure and the battle had not been an easy one. There was no telling if he would regain his powers here and attack again, leaving only Karumon to be able to fight. The silence was broken only by the sound of Blaire sniffing a few times as she flexed her hands back and forth from open palm to fists.

Without warning, Conquest went to one knee in front of them, bowing his head and clasping one hand to his chest.

"I have been defeated. And those that were awakened are now back at rest," he spoke slowly. "The way you seek is beyond the gateway… my gift to you."

In an explosion of black fire which spread backwards, Conquest disappeared into a pile of ash, leaving Muertomon flat on his back on the ground. The fire moved outwards over the dead earth, and then drew up as if sentient. It burned in a certain way, quickly, and as each flame came to rest they created a doorway. A large burning, gray window through which nothing could be seen sat on top of a burning form of what looked like a Roman chariot.

"Muertomon!" Blaire exclaimed and rushed towards her Digimon, scooping him up in her arms. "Muertomon! Muertomon! Talk to me, boo!" She shook him gently, cradling his body in his arms.

The others crowded around her, eager to check whether their skeletal companion lived or not.

How limp he was in Blaire's arms did not spell a hopeful outcome, and her panicked calls of his name grew more and more strained with each one.

Though, when he gasped in air and groaned, it was a sudden relief to everyone.

"Muertomon!" Blaire sighed, a small smile breaking out on her face as she hugged him tightly. "You terrified me there!"

"Wha' happened…," Muertomon asked, his voice slurred. "I'm so tired…"

Blaire looked at him squarely. "It's okay. I'll explain later." She hugged him again. "I'm so glad you're okay!"

A small frown broke out on Muertomon's face. "Me too?"

"He doesn't remember," Karumon pointed out, sitting on his haunches.

"For now," Rubimon remarked. "His memory will return in time." She spoke to them from the gateway that had formed from the flames and continued to burn. She was examining it closely, with her claws and narrowed, untrusting amber eyes.
"What now?" Blaire asked, hoisting Muertomon onto her back, as he held his arms around her neck and settled his head against her shoulder. "We carry on through the Garden?"

"Didn't Conquest say this was a gateway?" Ryan inquired, touching the flames. They licked and swirled around his hand and fingers, but left no mark and did not burn.

"Yes." Rubimon nodded.

Anzumon added, "But would you really trust that guy?"

Ryan smiled a little, but then it disappeared as he stared hard at the burning gate. "Let's go through it."

Adrian arched an eyebrow. "You crazy, no? That could lead us to anywhere!"

"I don't think it will," Ryan replied. "I… actually think it will take us right where we need to be."

Rubimon stared at him, her mouth open slightly. "And what makes you think that?"

The tall man shrugged his shoulders. "My gut."

The dragon rolled her eyes a little.

"Listen, you guys… I mean, Katrina knows. She was there, but it's time we all stop being so afraid. Stop letting our fears and doubts and guilt have a hold over us." He looked at Katrina and smiled a little. "Time for us to do what's in our best interests… rather than listening to those niggling doubts we all have and trying to avoid the messy stuff."

Katrina raised her eyebrows, but said nothing in return.

"I'm going with my gut here… I'm not afraid anymore. I want to get home. Sooner now, rather than later. I have… something that I need to do and the longer I leave it, the longer I feel it's going to be harder to do," Ryan explained, laying his hands on his hips. "You guys can carry on with Rubimon if you want, but I'm going this way."

Anzumon hopped up onto his back legs, pawing at Ryan's trouser leg. "Well, you'll have me for company."

Katrina arched her head to one side. "And you can count myself and Grindymon in. Facing fears is a good thing." She smiled a little and crossed the small gap between herself and Ryan. The four of them looked back and waited for the others to make a decision.

"You're crazy…," Adrian sighed, closing his eyes and crossing his arms. 

"What happened between the two of you when you disappeared?" Blaire asked, narrowing her eyes suspiciously and looking between the two of them. "Why are you so…" She made a gesture with her hand and left the question open.

"Nothing happened." Ryan grinned. He shoved against Katrina a little. "She just knocked some sense into me. Possibly literally."

Katrina smiled a little at him. "I have that effect on people."

Rubimon stepped away from the gateway and looked back at Ryan and the others. "I can't sense any dark matter emanating from it. It seems perfectly safe to me, and if it is a faster way to get you home and retrieve the last two vials, then I am all for it."

"Alright." Ryan nodded. "After me then."

He approached the burning gray flames and held out a hand. Putting it into the flames they crackled and sizzled a little, but not at his skin, and all he felt was the warmth of the flames around him, a sensation not unlike willingly being submerged underwater. There was a slight heaviness around him, and his ears felt like they filled with something. At his side, Anzumon walked with him, a comforting sight in such strange surroundings.

The gray dispersed slowly, the flames disappearing around him like he was walking through gossamer curtains. Slowly his eyes adjusted, and around him he saw things that were familiar and heard sounds he knew: the sound of a car engine, and the regulated beeping of the safety railings going down at the train crossing.

A smile spread across his face, the gateway had worked and they were home.

 

Next Episode Preview: The group finally find themselves back where they belong, but there's one more thing that needs to be handled before they face the others. Can Ryan overcome his biggest challenge yet? Next time on Digimon Sleepers: Every Man Has His Fault!


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