If there was one thing that Grace had hated above anything else in school, it would have been P.E. It wasn't that she was unfit or particularly bad at sport; it was just that everybody else was so damn good at it. Every time she put her all in to score or set a new jump record, somebody else would steal all the attention. It had been a real pain, since she always had to deal with her teacher breathing down her neck, telling her to push herself harder, to get better.
Grace felt a bit like she was in P.E. right now.
Of course, P.E. was now countless miles away in another dimension and timeframe. Grace herself was now made up of data bits. The usual sports field and school gym had been replaced by the huge looming mountain that she’d been climbing now for goodness knows how long, and her gym teacher had been replaced by an obnoxious red bird who hovered around her head height telling her to hurry up.
The group had been walking for the best part of the afternoon, and had reached the base of the mountain around an hour ago. They had debated whether to stay at ground level or to try and climb up, but then Kent and Aaron eventually agreed that they may as well climb up out of harm's way, since they'd already caused a commotion once in the savannah.
This was a decision that Grace hadn't been particularly fond of at the time. Now that she was clinging onto the side of a narrow ledge, about one-hundred feet off the ground and at the mercy of the wind and cold (the climate had changed yet again between the savannah and the mountain), she disliked it even more.
She gritted her teeth and shuffled up. Around her the others were scaling at their own rates, and occasionally someone would give her a lift up a particularly steep slope. It wasn't a really difficult climb, but it was dangerous and definitely tiring.
"Come on, they're leaving you behind up there!"
Grace sighed at Perimon's incredibly helpful comment. She had gotten stuck with him ever since her brother had skipped up the mountain like a little mountain goat, with Kai helping him on the way. She was worried about him hurting himself, but Perimon had assured her that he was fine and had decided to stay with her for now, since she was finding the climb the most difficult out of everyone.
Grace stepped up onto a more gentle slope, and looked up. They were about two-thirds of the way up, and thankfully she had passed the most difficult part. But there was still a long way to go yet, and she was completely exhausted.
"This isn't any time to sightsee."
Grace glared at the bird, "Look, you have wings, don't you? Maybe you could help carry me up there."
Perimon backed away a little. "Um, I'm not really strong enough to carry people."
"Well this isn't getting any easier by you hovering there and making helpful comments."
"You need a hand there?"
Grace looked up and saw Eloise above her, her long red hair blowing across her face. She was holding out a hand, which Grace gladly took. The two made their way up the slope, with Perimon flying around, bored from the slow progress.
"I take it you're finding this tough going."
Grace kept her head down, trying to ignore the wind that roared past her ears.
"I don't usually climb mountains back at home. This is kind of new to me."
Eloise chuckled. "Me too. Don't worry; we'll make it up alright."
Perimon smirked. "Maybe by midnight."
Eloise whirled round, "Oh, just quit it already! If you're that bored then go to the top or find Jack. Just leave us alone."
Perimon stuck out his bottom lip (beak?), "Just trying to lighten the mood a little."
Grace mumbled. "Just ignore him and maybe he'll go away."
The two girls did so, carrying on up the slope.
After about half an hour they had nearly reached the top. Perimon had piped down a bit and they were all pressing on. Then the path became steep, and the wind and rain increased. Grace focused all her energy into going forward, her teeth gritted and her eyes squinted against the oncoming raindrops.
All of a sudden, her foot gave way from underneath her. Grace felt her hand, slippery as it was, slide out from Eloise's grip. She let out a scream as she fell over and began to slide. She couldn't see where she was going, and try as she might she couldn't get a grip on anything, only scrabbling around on the rocky ground. She braced herself, knowing it was only a matter of time before she reached the edge of the mountain.
Then, suddenly, she felt a hand around her wrist. She came to a halt, and, shaking, she pulled herself onto her knees. Looking up, she saw Aaron holding onto her wrist, his look of concern dissipating into relief. She smiled, and pulled herself to her feet.
"Anytime. I'm just glad we didn't lose you."
Most of the group was huddled in a circle on the flattened summit of the mountain. Kai was stood some way away from the main group, shoulders hunched like a vulture. "I'm starting to think we should have stayed in the warm place."
Kent glanced over at him, "You can talk; you actually brought a coat!"
Aaron, Eloise and Grace reached the others, where everyone let out a little cheer to see them all safely up. Perimon swooped over towards Jack, who ruffled his head feathers affectionately. Then he gingerly hovered over to where Grace was standing, looking very disheveled, and feeling a little embarrassed.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is what happens when you don't wear the appropriate footwear."
Grace looked down at her small, flat-soled shoes, before giving Perimon another death glare. "Will you shut up already?"
Perimon landed in front of her and gave a little shrug. "Well it's not my fault that you're so ill-equipped."
That did it. Grace slipped off her sodden left shoe and brandished it menacingly. Her feet were so wet through anyway that she didn't even notice the hard rock beneath her foot.
"I've told you time and time again. I've just climbed a mountain and all you've done is fly around making stupid comments. You're going down!"
Perimon was backing away sheepishly, "Did you know you're scary when you're angry?"
Grace swung repeatedly at Perimon with the shoe, chasing him around and knocking him into puddles, while the others looked on laughing.
"I'm twelve, stuck in a world where I have to run away from giant monsters and climb mountains, I'm wearing a skirt and plimsolls and you couldn't even be bothered to give me a lift now and again, just stood there laughing at me. Well, who's laughing now? Huh?"
Jack was hopping up and down, "Hey, Aaron! Stop her! She can't beat up my Digimon like that, can she?"
Aaron was trying to stifle his laughter, while Velocimon simply grinned.
"He's the one who walks into these things, you know."
Thankfully, Perimon was spared from any further shoe-related assault by the arrival of Vulpimon and Trilomon, who, not being the best shape for mountain climbing, had gone the long way round to see if they could find shelter for the night. Vulpimon's fur was matted from where she had been squeezing through tunnels and caves.
Grace looked up and saw her partner. "Vulpimon, you're back!"
Colchimon grinned at the two latecomers. "You really missed a show just now."
Then he looked behind them and saw a new face. "Guys, I think we have company."
The whole group turned to look at the newcomer. It was some sort of dragon, with leathery, purple skin and sharp metallic claws. It had two wings growing out from its elbows, yet it was short and squat and didn't seem to be able to fly.
Trilomon nodded. "This is Monodramon. He told us he can give us shelter for the night. Don't worry, he's a friend."
Monodramon gingerly raised a clawed hand. "Nice to meet you."
There were a few Digimon already in the cave when Monodramon and the Digidestined walked in. They turned to look at the newcomers; they consisted of a Gabumon, a couple more Monodramon and a strange, faintly-glowing Digimon that was sat on a small boulder at the far end of the cave.
The Digimon stood up and eyed the new arrivals warily. It looked like a two-legged wolf, only about as tall as Jack, with belts and straps covering its body and black, leathery gloves covering its wicked-looking claws. Its eyes glinted, and its whole body seemed to let off a violet glow.
Cautiously, the humans approached it. Aaron held out a hand, "Thank you for taking us in. We really appreciate it."
The Digimon looked up and gave him an uncomfortable stare. With a firm voice, she said, "I haven't actually said you can stay yet."
Aaron shrank back. "Sorry..."
The Digimon gave a little chuckle. "Don't worry, I won't kick you out. I trust Vulpimon, so I'll trust you guys for now, okay?"
Vulpimon stepped forward, sighing at the purple Digimon. "Try not to confuse them, okay? It's hard enough figuring out which Digimon to trust these days."
The canine Digimon smiled, and glowed a little brighter. "My name is Strabimon. I'm looking after this little family here, just keeping them safe from the Fire Kingdom. You must be the humans that came to save the world or something."
The group felt a sense of pride from these words, but any elation was dashed when Strabimon carried on, "Good luck with that. Personally I doubt you'll be able to do what we haven't done in many years."
She sat back down on her boulder, facing the group's deflated expressions with her claws clasped beneath her chin, like the director of some shady business.
"No offense by the way. Now, sit down and warm yourselves up a little."
Vulpimon looked back at the group and rolled her eyes, "Sorry about that. She means well but she can be a little, um, blunt sometimes."
The group settled down, spreading out as Strabimon glowed ever more intensely, replacing the cold mountain air with a fuzzy warm hue.
Grace sat down next to her partner, whose fur was dripping from the heavy rain from outside.
"I hear you had a bit of a fall then."
Grace lowered her head, embarrassed. Vulpimon went on.
"I'm just glad you're okay. Besides, it's been a while since Perimon got a good kicking."
She chuckled, before settling down next to her partner.
She noticed something was off, and, curious, she looked at Grace, huddled up against the wall, unspeaking. She didn't seem depressed or angry, but there was a strange look of determination on her face.
"Is there something wrong?"
Grace blinked and rapidly shook her head. "No, everything's fine, thank you."
"So long as you're sure. You just spaced out a little there."
Grace was about to answer when all of a sudden a horrendous noise filled the cave. It was a metallic screech that rang in the ears of everything in the cave, and it ended as abruptly as it had begun.
Without hesitation Strabimon leapt up and ran to the mouth of the cave. Vulpimon followed her, with Grace, Velocimon and Aaron close behind.
"Ssh! Don't make a sound!"
Everybody shushed, and they carefully looked out from the cave mouth. The rain had slowed slightly, but the sun was going down and the visibility was poor. Nevertheless, the group still saw it. An opening, in a mountain slightly higher than the one they had climbed up. Another cave, and, hovering just outside the entrance, another Digimon. It was too dark to clearly make out the shape, but it seemed to be some sort of bird. It carefully landed on the mouth of the cave, before swinging its head round, checking its surroundings. The group ducked back inside when it looked over towards them.
A few seconds passed. Then, the lone Digimon waddled inside its own cave.
Everybody relaxed. Strabimon beckoned the group back inside. "Come, it's going to be alright now. That thing shouldn't give us any trouble."
Everybody walked back in, all except for Grace, who, curious, looked up at the cave entrance once again. She jumped, as she saw the hunched figure of the Digimon looking right at her. Its unblinking eyes gave off a piercing yellow glow, and it stood completely still, unmoved by the harsh weather.
Grace felt cold. The rain picked up again and she couldn't see up to the cave any more, but she knew that it was still there. She slowly walked back inside, trying to hide the fear as best as she could.
"So does anyone know what that thing is?"
The six humans, their partners and the other Digimon were all seated in a circle in the centre of the cave. Strabimon was seated on her makeshift throne, and looked across the sea of worried faces.
"None of us have gotten close to it," she said, her brow furrowed. "We don't know what it is, but it comes every night, making the same horrible screech every time."
The Gabumon joined in. "It only came here about a week ago. It suddenly appeared one night and hid itself away."
Eloise brought out her D-Nexus and held it. "We should be able to get that thing's data on this, right?"
Kent shook his head. "We can, but we'd have to get close to it first."
"Maybe it's actually friendly?" Jack gestured to Strabimon, "I mean you guys are alright, aren't you?"
This time it was Ladomon who spoke up. "It's possible, but unlikely I'm afraid. With the Fire Kingdom becoming more and more powerful, it's likely that thing up there has been infected."
"But you don't know that, do you?"
The first Monodramon stood up and raised his arm. The group saw an area of his wing that had been torn and shredded, hanging limply.
"I've probably gotten the closest to it out of everyone. I was walking back here when all of a sudden it flew right by me, tearing my wing. It disappeared before I could get a good look at it."
Aaron scratched his chin. "Whether or not it's been infected, I think we can assume it's aggressive. So now the question is what are we supposed to do about it?"
Before anyone could suggest anything, Strabimon answered. "We leave it alone. Right now it's not pursuing us or actively attacking us. We can only hope it continues not to."
Grace, who had been listening intently, gave Strabimon a strange look. "How can you do that? It could attack you at any time."
"But it hasn't, has it?" Strabimon sighed deeply. "I can't stop you if you want to go and fight, but you're not leading it back here. I have my companions to think of."
Grace looked at her fellow Digidestined, fists clenched. "That's fine, isn't it? Two of our partners can evolve, it should be easy shouldn't it?"
Nobody looked very sure. Aaron looked at her almost apologetically, "I think Strabimon may have a point, Grace."
"But aren't we supposed to be saving the world or something?"
"We don't know if it's malevolent. It's best not to go picking fights for no clear reason."
Grace stood up. "I saw it! It was looking straight at me, it wanted to attack me; I could feel it. How can we just leave something like that?"
"Why do you want to beat it so badly, sis?"
Surprised, Grace looked at her brother. "Jack?"
Strabimon had her claws interlocked and was staring intently at Grace.
"He has a point. You seem very...intent on killing this creature."
Grace could feel everyone's eyes boring into her. She tried to think of something to say, but her mind fell blank. Face burning, she sat down. Vulpimon, worried, gave her a little nudge.
"It was just a thought. You're right, it's best to leave it alone." said Grace, eyeing the floor. The rest of the assembled party looked at her for a moment longer, before relaxing.
Eloise yawned, breaking the silence. "You know, perhaps we'd better get some sleep. It's no good staying up all night worrying; we've got to keep moving inland, remember."
Aaron shrugged. "I suppose so." He turned to Strabimon, "Thank you again for your kindness."
Strabimon gave a little laugh. "It's not the most comfortable place, but it'll do."
Everyone found a spot and lay down, trying to relax and get a few hours. After half an hour, everyone had drifted off. In the distance, the horrendous cry could be heard, echoing over the mountains.
Grace awoke with a start. She could feel the chill of the mountain air, and she had been tossing and turning. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't get the creature out of her mind; every time she drifted off to sleep, she saw its piercing eyes and heard its terrible cry.
She sat up, and leaned against a wall. She looked over at the cave mouth, and saw that the rain had mostly stopped. The mountains were eerily quiet.
She felt something warm rustle up against her. "Can't sleep?"
Grace gave a small smile, and rubbed the back of Vulpimon's head.
"There's no way I'm getting any sleep here."
Vulpimon lifted her head and looked deep into her partner's eyes. Grace could see the pupils flickering in the huge golden pools. Her partner was worried about her.
As if to prove it, Vulpimon nestled up against her partner yet again.
"Why are you so worried about that thing? It hasn't done anything yet."
Grace rested her head against the stone wall. "Maybe it's just me."
"What do you mean?"
"Ever since I got here, all I've done is walk along with the others. I haven't actually done anything helpful; they've been the ones helping me all the way."
Vulpimon, alarmed, shook her head rapidly, "Nobody thinks you're useless, Grace. You're as much a part of the group as everyone else."
Grace sighed. "I know, but I just want to help. I want to know I can protect someone else if I need to."
"Like your brother?"
Grace looked over in his direction; Jack was huddled up under Perimon's wing, sleeping contentedly.
"I worry about him, Vulpimon. He's not as invincible as he seems to think he is." She glimpsed the black neoprene sleeve covering her brother's right knee, and felt an unpleasant twinge in her gut.
She looked back to her partner. "Since he's here, I want to make sure I can protect him. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, but I’ve been doing a really bad job so far."
Vulpimon rested her head on her paws, looking thoughtful. "That's what we're all here for, you realise. Everybody in the team helps each other. You don't owe anyone anything."
"I know that. It's just...well..."
Grace bit her lip. She didn't want to say anything, not here. But her partner was listening intently, and she could just leave her hanging.
Her answer was cut short by a rumble from outside. Gingerly, Grace got to her feet, and walked to the cave entrance. Vulpimon was at her feet, "Please be careful!"
Grace poked her head outside. Stones were rolling down the mountainside, and she could feel a slight vibration. She looked up, and stifled a scream. A great shape flew over her, the Digimon from the cave, clutching a stone in its talons. Its wings were outstretched, like those of a jet plane, and its head tapered to a sharp point. It let out a cry and circled back round, heading towards the other cave mouth.
For a moment, all seemed okay. Then its eye flicked backwards, and saw her and Vulpimon standing watching at the cave mouth. Fast for something of its size, it turned round, heading straight towards them. Vulpimon yelled, "Get inside, now!"
The two ran back and heard the giant creature fly over them, letting off a hiss as it did so. Then they heard a crash and a rumble as the large stone hit the cave roof, making the walls vibrate and the dust fall from the ceiling.
Then, there was silence. Grace held her breath, waiting for one of the others to wake up, or for the creature to circle back overhead again. But nothing happened. The Gabumon lazily rolled over onto its back, but apart from that nobody stirred.
Grace took a step towards the opening again, with Vulpimon trying to call her back, "Come back, what if it's waiting for you?"
Grace carefully poked her head out a second time, and looked at the other cave entrance. She pulled back quickly as she saw the other shape disappear inside, before she stepped out and looked over.
Vulpimon came out and stood by her side, looking up at her partner. "What are you thinking?"
"None of us are safe here, not while that thing's still flying around freely. Someone has to stop it."
She looked back at her partner. "Are you feeling adventurous?"
"What do you mean?" Then it clicked. "Wait, we're not going alone, are we?"
"We're going now."
"We should at least wake up some of the others first."
"They think we should leave it alone, remember. They wouldn't believe me if I told them it just attacked us, they think I'm obsessed over it. Besides, there's no point putting everyone in danger."
"Grace, no offense, but you are being obsessed over it. You're scaring me."
"Vulpimon, I have to prove I'm not useless."
Vulpimon was about to comment on Grace's flawed logic, but she caught sight of her partner's determined expression. She wanted to prove her part, either for herself or for the group. She wasn't going to back down here.
The little fox sighed. "You know this is a bad idea, don't you?"
"Probably. But I have to try."
"Very well." Vulpimon carefully leapt down from their own cave entrance onto the sloping rocks, before turning back to her partner.
"Just watch your footing here. It's a long way down."
They actually made pretty quick progress, Grace hopping over the rocks with much more energy than before, although she still slipped and lost her footing a couple of times. Luckily, Vulpimon was on hand to steady her when she did so.
They took a short rest before the final push to the Digimon's lair, ducking beneath a ledge just in case it came out again. Grace was breathing heavily, the journey having been hard going, but Vulpimon saw her eyes, still determined as ever to win through.
Suddenly, Vulpimon caught sight of something glinting around Grace's neck, "Pardon me, but what's that?" she said, gesturing with her snout.
"What, this?" Grace reached inside her jumper and pulled it out, holding it out for Vulpimon to see. It was a small, silver pendant, in the centre of which was a royal-blue stone, probably a lapis lazuli.
"My mother got it for me when I was 10, told me to keep it with me and keep it safe." She looked up to the sky, memories of home and her past life coming back to her, "along with Jack."
"Grace, you're only one girl." Vulpimon snuggled up to her partner in a comforting gesture. "You don't need to take responsibility for everything, you know that?"
Grace said nothing, but put the pendant back inside her jumper, so only the silvery chain was left visible.
"What about yours, then?"
Vulpimon looked surprised, but Grace pointed to the strange circular stone around her own neck, secured by a golden band. Gingerly, Grace reached over and held the tiny disc. It was cold, but there was also a strangely warm aura emanating from it, and it glowed a faint blue.
"Were you given this, or have you always had it?"
Vulpimon sat down, looking a little embarrassed. "It belongs to my family. They gave it to me for good luck when I first went to receive the element of Ice."
"Yeah, haven't I told you about them...?"
I was actually born into royalty, my mother and father being the Matriarch and Patriarch of the Arctic Kingdom. I don't remember much about it, but it was a peaceful nation, where all Digimon who dwelled in the cold worked and played in the ice and snow. I had brothers and sisters, and we'd often go sliding down the great ice ridges atop the citadel.
Then the Fire Kingdom started to attack. We should have been done for, but luckily our family had mastered Ice for generations, and we were able to hold back the forces and keep the kingdom safe, an equal force against the terror of the Fire Kingdom.
However we knew that it wouldn't last forever. Many of our empire's Digimon were still hunted down and killed. That was when we got the message, brought by Velocimon himself, which said one of us needed to come to the ancient shrine at the centre of the Digital World. My mother wanted to go, being the most experienced, but I volunteered instead. I knew that her power would be needed to hold the Fire Forces at bay.
Before I left, she gave me this necklace, telling me that no matter what, she would still be here for me when I returned. I left the only home I had ever known, not knowing for sure that I would ever see it, or my family, again.
Grace had been listening intently, and she felt a little guilty for asking, "I'm sorry."
Vulpimon turned to her partner.
"There's nothing to be sorry for. I have faith that my family is alive. And no matter what, I'm still here to keep the element of Ice safe."
Vulpimon smiled brightly, but her smile didn't match up with the worry and guilt in her eyes. Grace leant over and gave her partner a hug, "We'll both protect it now. Trust me; you'll see your family again."
Vulpimon smiled again, and this time it was genuine.
"Want to make the last push?"
It was a steep climb, but eventually both girl and fox made it to the top of the cliff. Now they stood, shivering from the cold (and the rising fear), as the cave mouth lay open in front of them.
"Um, Grace, do you have any idea what we're supposed to do?"
Grace steeled herself, trying to stay calm. "I don't know, but somehow we need to stop whatever's in there from terrorising the mountain."
She took a breath, and took a step. Slowly, silently, she and her partner entered the cave.
The dim light from outside quickly faded into near-blackness, but as the two went on, they noticed that there was a different source of light. More strange crystals adorned the walls of the cave, similar to the ones growing on the trees from before. Now she could see them up close, Grace noticed that the colour and intensity of each little nightlight was fluctuating. Any other time she would have been fascinated, but the knowledge of a monster somewhere in the cave was enough to take her mind off amateur geology.
Water dripped from the ceiling; the source of the huge stalactites and stalagmites that were studded throughout the cave. The two crept round them, trying to stay in the shadows, but the huge pillars were more like a labyrinth than a shelter, making it almost impossible to work out which way they were supposed to be headed.
Suddenly, Vulpimon whispered as loud as she could, "Grace! Over here..."
Grace crept over and peered round the stalactite that her partner was hiding behind.
She stifled a gasp at the creature before her, and quickly drew back out of sight. After a couple of seconds, she gingerly took another look.
She recognised the shape of the creature before her from her brother's books on dinosaurs. Standing completely still at the far end of the cave was a pterodactyl. It was about six-feet tall at the shoulder, and its body was covered in smooth, blue armour. Its wings were made from large flat plates rather than leathery skin, and they folded up awkwardly, as if they were supposed to be outstretched. The creature's head was adorned with a crest-like helmet, and its tail tapered away into what looked like the tail of an aeroplane. She scanned the beast with her D-Nexus, making sure to keep the sound muted.
"Pteramon. Armour Level, Data Attribute. Attacks: Missile Storm, Sharp Wing"
Grace felt a twinge of relief when she noticed the Digimon's eyes were closed. It looked almost like a statue (albeit an odd one). She retreated again and looked at Vulpimon. The fox shrugged her shoulders, silently asking the same question she had before, "Now what?"
It was a good point. Grace knew the Pteramon was dangerous, but still she knew she couldn't bring herself to destroy the beast herself. Even if she could, she very much doubted it would be an easy task. She looked around her, trying to gather some inspiration, but there were only the rocky pillars, seeming to press in around her.
The pillars. Grace looked up. The ceiling was severely cracked, hence the water coming through, and it looked like it might cave in at any time. The only things holding it up were the fused stalactites and stalagmites, and even they didn't look particularly stable. Gingerly she touched one, then gave it a slight push. It gave a little, and a cloud of dust fell from the crack in the ceiling.
She looked at Vulpimon, and nodded. They would have to be careful, but if they could knock out one or two of the pillars, they could bring the whole ceiling crashing down and bury the Pteramon in a pile of rubble. Vulpimon nodded towards the entrance; better to get out of the way before they started knocking anything down.
They quietly backed out towards the cave entrance, Grace feeling uneasy. Sure, the Pteramon had attacked them, but she didn't feel comfortable just condemning it to its fate like this. She wasn't sure whether or not she was doing the right thing, and she stopped, trying to clear her head.
Vulpimon urged her on, "Come on, if we hurry we can get rid of him. We won't need to worry about him anymore."
Grace looked behind her, just to get one last look at the dinosaur Digimon, only to find he was no longer standing at the far end of the cave.
Pteramon had disappeared.
Grace stepped back, the fear rising within her again. "He's gone, Vulpimon..."
"He must still be in the cave-"
There was a horrifying crash and the cave shook; rocks, dust and water coming down from the ceiling and showering the girl and her partner. They watched as one of the rock pillars came crashing down the cave floor, shattering into fragments.
Vulpimon had a look of horror on her face as the reality sank in, "It's a trap, Grace."
The Pteramon had had similar ideas to the two would-be assassins. It hadn't been asleep at all; it had known all along that someone would come up to him. He was ready and waiting, the rocky death-trap all set for his enemies.
A grin played over his mouth, although it displayed no pleasure at all, only a burning hate.
"This time you'll die, scum."
Grace fell against the cave wall as the vibrations intensified, "Vulpimon, what do we do?"
Vulpimon had her hackles up, her fur bristling as she looked into the cave.
"We fight, Grace. It's all we can do."
As the great blue beast lumbered into view, Vulpimon dashed forward, ice crystals covering her body as she prepared to pounce. Pteramon turned to see a light blue blur rocketing towards him. With a growl Vulpimon slammed into the armoured beast, latching on with her teeth, which were glowing with a blue aura.
"Get off me!" Pteramon swung himself around and sent Vulpimon flying, but she landed gracefully and turned again.
Charging energy in her mouth, she cried, "Snow Blast!"
The sudden blizzard engulfed Pteramon, freezing his body from the torso up. He cursed as Vulpimon ran towards him, surrounding herself in her white fog. She ran around him, biting and scratching at his unprotected legs, while he struggled to free himself.
Grace held out her D-Nexus behind one of the pillars, knowing she could only watch as her partner battled on. She noticed the Energy Transfer meter was beginning to fill, but it was slow, and she didn't know how long Vulpimon would last.
Vulpimon went in to attack again, but with a shattering of crystals Pteramon broke free, stabbing down with his armoured beak. Surprised, Vulpimon leapt out of the way, only for the dinosaur's clawed foot to strike her in the side, sending her skittering away.
Wincing, Vulpimon stood up again, preparing herself for another attack. Pteramon stood upright, eyeing the small fox.
"When do you plan on staying down?"
Vulpimon snarled again, "As long as I can breathe, I'll keep fighting."
"Vulpimon..." Grace looked helplessly on at her partner. Vulpimon couldn't win against this thing, not as she was. She desperately shook and hit the D-Nexus, a feeling of dread rising in her, "Why won't you work?"
The icy blast impacted with Pteramon's armoured head, but with a flick he shattered the thin layer of ice and glared at the fox. He didn't even flinch.
Vulpimon's eyes widened. She could see the cave entrance in front of her, with an enraged Digimon between her and safety. She attacked again, but again Pteramon just brushed it away.
Vulpimon looked to her side, seeing Grace standing, shaking, a terrified expression on her face. Pteramon let out a rasping growl, and extended his wings to their full length, the smooth metal slicing through the fragile pillars beside him, making the cave even more unstable.
For the first time Grace and Vulpimon could see underneath Pteramon's wings; clusters of missiles, some of which were beginning to spit fire and smoke behind them.
Vulpimon looked at her partner, "Get down!"
Grace dived for cover, but turned round to see Vulpimon running the other way, away from her.
"No, what are you doing?"
"I'm sorry, Grace..."
Pteramon screamed. "Too late! Missile Storm!"
The missiles fired, just missing Vulpimon and impacting with the cave wall just behind her.
The explosion reverberated throughout the mountains, shaking the cave where the group was sleeping. Jack awoke with a start, "What was that?"
Strabimon was on her feet before anybody else, sniffing the air. Her look was severe, "Someone's missing."
The children were slowly getting to their feet, when Jack looked around the cave.
Aaron and Eloise checked the far corners, while the Digimon looked round as well.
"Vulpimon's not here either..."
Sudden realisation kicked in to Aaron's head, "She didn't..."
Perimon's shout from the cave mouth brought everyone running. They looked up and saw the smoke rising from the upper cave. Jack cupped his hands over his mouth and shouted, "GRACE! VULPIMON!"
Aaron turned to the wolf-man Digimon. "You've got to help get us up there, now."
Strabimon bowed her head. "This is out of my hands now. I will not risk the safety of my group for something one of yours has done."
Eloise grabbed Strabimon by the shoulders, the shock of the situation making her panic.
"What about our friends? What about Vulpimon? Don't you care at all-"
She was silenced by a hand on her shoulder. She turned and saw Kai standing behind her, shaking his head. "We can't force her, Eloise. She does things differently to us."
Before Eloise could reply, he turned to his partner. "Colchimon, get up there as quickly as you can. Ladomon, Perimon, you too."
Without hesitating, the flying Digimon sped up towards the cave. Aaron turned to the others, "Hurry and follow me, now." The group followed Grace's path along the rocks, trying to get to the smoking cave.
Strabimon watched as the group took off after their friends. She stared up at Pteramon's lair, as another rumble could be heard from within.
"Vulpimon...what are you doing with these fools...?"
Grace's head was spinning as she got up, trying to find out where she was. There was dust falling from the ceiling and the whole place was shaking.
She cut off as she saw the other end of the cave. The wall was on the verge of collapse, great cracks appearing along it and fragments of rock falling away. Lying beneath a coating of rubble was a small, blue figure, not moving.
Her heart in her mouth, she ran towards her Digimon, only to stop herself in her tracks as the huge form of Pteramon towered over her. The pterosaur turned his head, and spoke.
"You can't escape. I will find you and kill you, like I did your companion."
Grace was puzzled by Pteramon's words. Surely he could see her, his right eye was pointing straight towards her. Then she got a close look, and saw the chipped armour around the eye socket, and the crusted red patch over the once keen, yellow eye. Pteramon was half blind.
She heard a rustle and saw her partner slowly lift her head, dust and chunks of rubble falling away from her. Her voice was weak, but she managed to whisper, "Grace..."
Grace had her fists clenched. This creature had attacked them and had almost killed Vulpimon. She had a split-second to move while she was in Pteramon's blind spot.
Without thinking, she ran forward and jumped, scrambling up the dinosaur's back towards his head. Immediately Pteramon started to screech and buck, causing her to hold on for dear life.
Vulpimon sat up, horrified. "What are you doing? Get off now, while you still can!"
Pteramon barged into a wall, but Grace held firm, her arms wrapped tightly around the great beast's neck. "I'm not letting him go, Vulpimon. Get out before the cave collapses."
"Are you insane? You'll be killed!"
"Please, I can't...I have to do this..."
Pteramon stopped and let out a single, wailing cry, before twisting his head to look at the little girl on his back.
"You will die for this, you wretched creature."
Pteramon suddenly broke into a run, heading straight for the cave entrance. Grace knew where this was going, and shut her eyes tight, still hanging on determinedly.
Colchimon and Perimon had reached the cave entrance and were looking in, when they saw Pteramon heading straight towards them. With synchronised yells they swerved out of the way as Pteramon took to the sky, Grace clinging on for dear life. Vulpimon, having freed herself, ran away from the falling rubble and joined the other two Rookies on the edge of the cliff.
As the cave collapsed behind her, she buried her head in her paws.
"I couldn't protect her..."
Aaron and the others were just making their way over the ridge, coughing and spluttering from all the dust. Aaron looked up and saw Pteramon, Grace just a tiny figure on his back.
"What the hell's she doing up there?"
Velocimon clenched his fist, "We've got to get her down. She was right, that thing is dangerous."
Aaron made to evolve his partner, but Kent stopped him. "Bad idea."
"There's no way we can reach them from all the way down here unless we shoot at them, and then we may hit Grace."
"Well...then what do we do?"
Aaron turned and looked at the others, but no-one said anything.
Jack turned round, "Perimon, where are you? You need to fly up there and save her."
Perimon heard him, but didn't move. Jack ran over to where he was and saw Vulpimon, curled up in a ball, weeping.
"I was supposed to protect her. I thought I was strong enough, that I still had the power I had long ago. But I don't. I'm useless, I can't damage that beast."
Perimon nuzzled his comrade, "Vulpimon...you can't give up on her. Not like this. She may not be the strongest, but she has the strongest heart of anyone I've ever seen."
Somehow, high in the sky, Grace could hear Perimon's words. Struggling against the wind, she took out her D-Nexus, being careful not to drop it. Pteramon swooped and ducked again and again, trying to lose his cling-on, but she held tight. She couldn't give up now...
"No matter how many times I took a crack at her, she kept going, up that mountain. She's up there now, fighting in order to protect her friends. Your partner doesn't give up, and you can't give up on her now."
Jack looked in wonderment at his partner. Perimon looked back at Jack, and smiled. "No matter how many times you're knocked back down, it's never over, unless you give up."
Jack pumped the air. "Yes! You tell her!"
Vulpimon, struggling slightly, pulled herself to her feet, and looked up towards her partner.
"I'm still here, Grace. I'll still fight with you..."
Her voice sounded from the D-Nexus. Pteramon cocked his head, "Your friend is still alive?"
Grace nodded, as she felt the energy rising within her. She and Vulpimon would get through this together.
Pteramon began a dive, heading straight towards the rocks below, crying out once again. "I will be rid of you, Fire scum!"
"Not today, you overgrown sparrow!"
With a cry of his own, a familiar red bird cannoned into Pteramon's side. Grace gave a yelp as she felt her grip slipping, but before she could fall she felt two serpentine tails wrap around her arms, bringing her down to ground level.
Perimon was wheeling around, but Pteramon, the more experienced flyer, easily dodged his attack and sent him spinning off out of control. Then he turned his attention back to Grace, standing next to Ladomon and Colchimon on the bare, rocky ground.
He snarled, "Now I can see you. You won't escape this time." He spread his wings wide and fired up the missiles.
Grace, saying nothing, held out her D-Nexus. The screen was glowing intensely, the energy having reached massive levels.
"You expect to defend yourself with that?"
Grace smiled, hearing footsteps behind her. She gripped her D-Nexus so hard that her knuckles turned white, and she felt the energy within; cold as ice and sharp as a blade.
"No. I expect to defeat you along with my partner."
Vulpimon leapt from behind Grace, running towards the flying dinosaur. Trails of blue energy cascaded from the D-Nexus and swirled around the fox, who was still in mid-run. Vulpimon could feel her strength rising - a familiar power from the days before the war - and she picked up speed. Pteramon flung his wings wide, screaming, "Missile Storm!"
Vulpimon's body grew, lengthening and becoming a much sleeker shape. Her red fur pelt morphed, becoming a thin strip along her back. Her tail became lengthier and bushier, and two vicious looking spikes of ice grew from its end. Ice also encased her four paws, and mystical bracelets appeared around her legs and the middle of her body. A layer of ice grew over her snout, forming a strange mask, and more rings appeared, hanging beneath her head. The ringlet around her neck seemed to fade away as the blue stone embedded itself in her forehead, glowing with cold energy.
She opened her eyes; no longer the warm, golden eyes of Vulpimon, but a cold, yellow stare that pierced through the night. She completed her evolution without even breaking step.
Everything happened in a manner of seconds. Alopemon leapt into the air, flipping herself round away from the oncoming missiles. Her tail glowed with a blue aura and she spoke, in a strangely calm voice.
The missiles were sliced in two, the pieces falling harmlessly to the ground. Alopemon landed cleanly, turning to face Pteramon again.
Pteramon was furious, "Why won't you ever stop? Why do you torment me?"
Alopemon didn't move a muscle. "You brought it upon yourself. You must take the consequences."
Pteramon dived, screaming in fury. "I will never rest until I have wiped out all the scum of the Fire Kingdom, even to my last breath!"
Alopemon dodged out of the way, before running up a pile of rubble. The ice around her feet began to glow, and she seemed to gain speed. With a flick of her legs she launched herself into the air, slashing at Pteramon before he could swerve out of the way. She landed flawlessly, before launching herself high once again.
Alopemon could feel the power coursing through her, the power from her heritage. She glanced down to the ground and saw her partner, still standing strong.
Everyone in the group was stunned by Alopemon's miraculous agility. "This is great!" Perimon turned to Grace, "Your partner's got some moves."
Grace didn't look; she was too busy thinking about Pteramon's last words.
Alopemon flew past Pteramon, who stabbed with his beak and slashed with his talons, desperately trying to hit her. The fox never slowed down; she simply jumped past again and again, landing and leaping off the piles of rubble with the lightest step, and landing terrible blows on Pteramon with her tail and claws. Pteramon cried out in pain and anger, and wheeled away.
"You can't take me on alone."
Alopemon prepared to jump again when she felt something land on her back. A familiar harsh voice whispered in her ear, "Sorry, old friend, hope you don't mind me hitching a ride."
Alopemon jumped once again, as Strabimon stood up on her back, claws glowing menacingly as she flew towards the giant flying Digimon.
"She's not alone, you vile creature."
With a roar Strabimon leapt at Pteramon, brandishing her silver claws. "Licht Nagel!"
Her glowing claw scraped Pteramon's face, sending him spiralling away. The wolf-man Digimon relaxed as Alopemon landed. "Sorry about that."
Alopemon was surprised. "I didn't think you were the kind, old friend."
"Well, your friends are good role models." Strabimon grinned a mischievous toothy grin, "When you're under pressure, it's better to stand together against it than to just hide away."
Suddenly there was an explosion beneath Alopemon's feet. Pteramon had turned round again and fired at Alopemon, just missing. The rubble on which she and Strabimon were stood gave way beneath them, and they slid down the slope. They rolled a few metres before Strabimon dug her claw deep into the solid rock mountainside, gripping Alopemon's flanks with her knees. The two managed to steady themselves, before looking back up at their quarry.
Pteramon was exhausted; the whole group could see that. He hung, swaying in mid-air, trying to focus himself. He had used up his missiles and barely knew where he was, but he saw the little girl in the green sweatshirt, the one who had invaded his home.
Grace called down to Alopemon and Strabimon, "Are you two alright?"
Alopemon tensed herself. "He won't give up, Grace. He's driven by his hate and he won't stop until he's killed us."
Grace looked at the dinosaur, "But...I think he thinks we're-"
Pteramon let out one last screech and flew towards the exposed group. He didn't care anymore who he hit, they could all go to hell as far as he was concerned. He just aimed himself at the girl and tried to fly straight and true.
"Grace, get down."
Alopemon ran at top speed as Pteramon drew ever closer. With a menacing growl, she skidded to a halt in front of her partner, between her and the incoming beast. The rings adorning her body began to glow, and she bowed her head.
Pteramon saw the fox, standing firm. "You can't stop me now! It's too late!"
A row of ice shards formed, seemingly out of mid-air, and floated just behind Alopemon.
The ice shards flew straight towards Pteramon, impacted with his body, wings and head. The shards froze in place and he cried out in pain. Knocked off course, he careered about, unable to steady himself. Aaron turned to the group, "Everyone, get back!"
The assembled party scattered as Pteramon flew ever closer. Finally, he crashed into the rocky ground, completely exhausted and nearly out of energy. Grace could see his body flickering, much like Mandrimon and the Tyrannomon before they disappeared.
Alopemon and Strabimon approached the fallen Digimon. His armour was dented and scratched, and he was rasping, completely unable to speak.
Strabimon knelt down, her right claw glowing.
"One more monster falls today. May this act one day lead to our freedom from tyranny."
She lifted her claw high above Pteramon's head, ready to deal the final blow.
Strabimon's arm stopped just before it impacted. She turned her head and saw Grace, holding onto her clawed arm, preventing her from striking.
"What are you doing, child?"
Grace shook her head, "You can't kill him..."
She shoved the wolf-man away and knelt down next to the fallen giant. Pteramon's good eye looked towards her as she sat there, a solemn expression on her face.
"I think I made a mistake..." Grace was mumbling, maybe to herself, maybe to Pteramon, or maybe to everyone assembled.
Alopemon took a step forward, "Grace, it's not safe –"
Grace looked at Pteramon's near-broken body. "We're not your enemy."
Nobody spoke. They simply watched, unsure what to do. What was going on?
Pteramon moved, the huge body shaking and writhing. Alopemon put her paw around her partner, pulling her back. "Grace, get away now!"
Strabimon gave a disgusted sigh and readied her claws again, but Grace yelled again, "Stop, listen to him!"
"This monster has threatened our lives and our homes. He nearly killed you and your partner tonight; he must face justice for what he has done."
"I said listen. Please..."
Strabimon stopped, and the group looked at the shaking creature before them. Pteramon made no attempt to stand up or attack anyone; instead he lay there, making horrific choking noises, quite unlike his usual cries.
Eloise was the first to realize what was going on.
Slowly, Strabimon relaxed. Alopemon let go of Grace, and she ran forward, kneeling next to Pteramon's head and placing her hand on his crest. She could see the streams of tears running down the grooves in his helmet.
The rest of the group closed round in a circle, completely lost for words. Only Pteramon spoke, in a voice thick with pain and remorse.
"I'm sorry...I'm so sorry..."
Aaron was beginning to feel that sleeping was a rarity in the Digital World, since virtually no-one had had any since they'd arrived here. He leant against a steep ridge, yawning and rubbing his eyes as the sub slowly peaked over the top of the mountain range. The night's events had left their mark; everywhere he looked were piles of rubble and gravel, with a few stubby peaks pointing upwards from the wreckage.
Most of the group was scattered all around him, in various states of exhaustion. Perimon in particular was stretched out on the bare ground, making strange cawing noises in his sleep. Velocimon, sitting beside him, gave the bird an annoyed look, before gently knocking his head to the side. The cawing stopped, but Perimon didn't wake up.
Aaron yawned again, then casted a glance over to Strabimon's cave. He hesitated for a bit, but then he walked over to try and listen in to the conversation.
Out of the way in the cave, Pteramon stood, solemnly looking down at his feet. Grace and Vulpimon were sat down in front of him, listening to his story. When he spoke normally, his voice was actually quite smooth, almost melancholic.
"I thought we would be safe, my family, my friends and I. For a long time, we seemed to be, hidden away from the main army. But then everything changed, just like that. When the Red Beast appeared..."
Grace looked puzzled. "What red beast? One of these...Commanders?"
Pteramon nodded slightly, his good eye closing, pained from the memory.
"He was relentless. He left no survivors, nothing to suggest there had ever been life there at any point. I was able to fly away and escape, but even I was left scarred.
Pteramon blinked his good eye, the other having been too far damaged to move any more. Vulpimon looked up at the creature with wide eyes. She didn't want to imagine how he felt.
"I was frightened. I flew to the nearest mountain range and shut myself away. But everywhere I went, there would be someone there. Someone who would attack, maybe out of malice, maybe out of fear themselves. I began to see enemies everywhere, the anger boiling inside me. I suppose I became the beast that everybody feared in the first place."
Slowly, Pteramon turned towards the cave exit, being careful not to bump the walls.
Grace stood up. "Wait, it's my fault as much as yours..."
Pteramon turned his head. "I don't think so. You acted with noble intentions; you only wanted to protect your friends."
Grace lowered her head, fidgeting with the sleeves of her sweatshirt.
"You're wrong. I only did what I did out of fear, and so I could prove myself to everyone else. I suppose I just ended up looking like an idiot."
"I'm not so sure about that."
Grace looked and saw Aaron, heading towards the trio. Pteramon watched him as he walked up to Grace. She looked even more dejected than ever, but he spoke anyway.
"Okay, you put yourself in danger and you worried everyone. But, no-one got hurt in the end, did they?"
Vulpimon gave him a look, "Thanks, Aaron," she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
Aaron ignored her and knelt down, looking Grace in the eye. "You did well out there tonight. You followed your instincts, kept going no matter what, and in the end you came out on top. I'm actually really impressed."
"Of course. You're just trying to do too much. Trust me; none of us think you're useless."
Grace looked unsure. Aaron stood up again, and ruffled Grace's hair.
"It's okay. You don't have anything to prove."
Grace's expression turned to one of annoyance. "Please stop that."
"Sorry." Aaron withdrew his hand quickly.
Grace's eyes were still on pointed to the ground. "I'm the one who should be sorry..."
"Oh for crying out loud, cheer up! Everything's okay now, you don't need to keep being sorry. Besides, you rode a pterodactyl last night, how is that not awesome?"
Pteramon smirked. Grace looked serious for a few seconds, then gave a small smile.
"Come on, let's get you back to the others."
Strabimon had her arms folded, looking extremely ticked off, "Look, his intentions may not have been evil, but he still wrecked the place. I just don't feel comfortable having that thing around here."
Vulpimon glanced back to where Pteramon was standing, basking his head in the sun. She turned back to her old friend, "Tact, Strabimon. Please try to work on it."
"Say what you want, but if he doesn't go, I'll go instead. Everyone else can do what they want."
Her little posse gave each other worried looks. The Gabumon mumbled to one of the Monodramon, "She doesn't really mean that, does she?"
"Don't worry, it won't be necessary. She won't have to leave."
The others looked up as Pteramon entered the group, watching where he stepped all the time.
"Strabimon's right, I can't stay here. If nothing else, it will put you in danger if the Fire Kingdom appears and I start to fight. You and I must fight back in our own ways."
Strabimon closed her eyes. "Fair enough."
Pteramon turned to the assembled humans and their partners. "You are fighting against the Fire Kingdom yourselves, are you not?"
The group nodded. Pteramon bowed his head as a sign of respect.
"I wish you luck. I can't ask for your forgiveness after what I've done, but maybe I can help you from the skies. I will watch over you and assist you in times when you need it. It's the very least I can do."
Aaron stepped forward. "You don't owe us anything, Pteramon. That said, it would be an honour to have you as our ally. We could use all the strength we can get."
Pteramon's good eye flashed, and he nodded. "Then I will be there when you need me." He spread his wings and turned to Grace.
"Stay strong, Grace."
She nodded, a smile upon her lips. Jack grinned again beside her, and Vulpimon gave a little wag of her tail. Pteramon straightened himself up and held his wings rigid, letting out jets from the back. He ran forward and dived off of the cliff, flapping a couple of times to gain height. For a few moments he circled, slowly spiralling higher and higher. Then, with a short cry, he flew away.
The group watched him disappear over the horizon. As the sun rose steadily higher, turning the sky a bright orange colour, they felt encouraged. Perhaps there was hope for this world yet.