"Well, what do you think?"
Martyaxmon sat thoughtfully, trying to process his colleague's words. Cephalomon had spent the best part of the day explaining tactics and positions to him, and was now waiting for the manticore's professional verdict.
Martyaxmon frowned. "I'm not convinced. It's a lot of work just to kill twelve refugees. I still think I could just wipe them out where they stand."
Cephalomon put a hand to his face in exasperation. "Firstly, this'll get rid of them and the forest in one fell swoop, and we can pretend it was an accident if Surtremon gets wind of it. Secondly, they won't be able to escape like this."
"They wouldn't escape from me."
"We all make mistakes, comrade. If just one human went free, there's no telling how much trouble they could cause. Besides, it wouldn't be the first time it would've happened. You remember Velocimon's little 'rescue mission', don't you?"
Martyaxmon couldn't forget. Somehow, that obnoxious little reptile had snuck into his concentration camp and made off with a load of new soldiers. Inwardly, the manticore groaned. It had been one of the most embarrassing moments of his career.
Cephalomon ignored him and carried on, "Thirdly, I want the satisfaction of killing those infernal vermin myself."
"See, that's where the risky part comes in." Martyaxmon carried on. "We could easily purge the forest and wipe them all out together. What's the sense in splitting them up?"
"Because you and I both know they're more powerful than they look. Who's to know how much more they've grown since you last saw them?"
"Cephalomon, I respect your operation and I'll do the best I can to follow it, but I still think there's no way they can stand up to two of us if we're working together. I think you're being a little too cautious here."
"You say that, Martyaxmon." Cephalomonput his hand under his mask, his voice rasping slightly with the movement.
"However if we're going to do this, we need to do it properly."
The giant squid-man stretched his arm out, revealing the operation behind him; hundreds of heavily-armed Fire forces all snarling and waiting to be let loose, with just a few special forces keeping them in check. There were holes and tunnel entrances dotted all over the rocky terrain, and just behind Cephalomon was stood a giant metal crate, guarded by twelve soldiers. Martyaxmon could hear the contents screeching and banging into the walls; apparently these were some of Cephalomon's most effective killing machines. All part of the plan.
There was a disturbance by Martyaxmon's foot and he stepped to the side, revealing a panting Salamandemon half-poking out of the earth.
"General Cephalomon, sir. Tunnel Network 6 has been compromised, and Unit Overseer 6 has been killed by the humans."
"What?" Cephalomon whirled round, his head-tentacles flying through the air. Martyaxmon slammed a foot to the ground. "How on earth did they compromise an entire tunnel system? What did they do?"
The Salamandemon gulped. "They filled it with some sort of green crystal. Unit 21 was the closest; he said he saw one of them evolve. It must have been him."
Martyaxmon and Cephalomon exchanged a brief look. The manticore tapped the ground again, "Get back to your post, soldier. We'll send a replacement Unit 6."
The amphibian retreated as Cephalomon was beginning to freak out, steam venting from beneath his armour.
"How the hell did they reach Ultimate level already?" He pointed a finger of accusation at his partner, eyes blazing, "You! You were supposed to break them apart. 'Break their spirits', you said. 'They won't cause any more problems', you said. Tell me then, how did this happen?"
"I don't know." Martyaxmon gritted his teeth as his partner struggled to remain calm. "Evidently I made an error of judgement. They're a lot more resourceful than I gave them credit for."
"Do you see now? Why we need to kill them now? And why we need to do it like this?" Cephalomon brushed a couple of tentacles from his eyes; still quivering but mostly under control. "These kids could ruin everything we've worked for. They need to be stopped now."
Martyaxmon lowered his head in submission. "Well, we'd better get a move on then. Send soldiers to keep an eye on them and report back to us; we have enough to spare. In the meantime, let's finish the preparations. We shall be ready to attack by noon tomorrow."
Cephalomon smiled beneath his mask. "That's more like it. I can't wait."
The flurry of frozen projectiles slammed heavily into the oncoming Lynxmon as it raised a flaming claw, but the immense heat lessened their offensive power considerably. Alopemon quickly leapt out of the way as an arc of flame swiped past her, her nimble feet just keeping her away from serious harm so far.
Off to the side, Grace, Aaron and Jack were willing their partners onm trying to face off the dual threat that had appeared out of nowhere. The three champions were holding out, but the number of random attacks the past few days had begun to wear them down.
Mistramon hovered above the Lynxomon with his talons bared, as he swooped down and dug the sharp claws into the backs of one of the flaming lions, swinging it away with a grunt of pain. Jack was beside himself, "Don't touch them, you'll hurt yourself!"
"I know that, just let me deal with them."
"Allow me." Galvamon leapt forward with claws bared, slashing at the beast's neck. The Lynxmon gargled, before disappearing into data. Mistramon hurriedly turned to where the other beast was tussling with his sister's partner.
"Get away from her, kitty! Pressure Wave!"
The air blast sent the Lynxmon spinning away. Mistramon followed up with another charge, talons bared as the cat snarled. Jack was jumping up and down on the sidelines, yelling, "Get him, get him, get him!"
Mistramon gritted his beak and swiped, but the Lynxmon was too fast, as it leapt out of the way, great wreaths of fire spinning out from its mane. Mistramon reeled back, the tongues of flame just licking him, as Jack thrust his head into his hands.
"No! You're doing it wrong!"
Grace put a hand on his shoulder, "Hey, calm down. We're still in a battle here."
The giant red bird was hovering in mid air, as the cat made a swipe at his hanging tail. He readied his wings for an attack, before he noticed Alopemon to the side, running in before Lynxmon could notice. Jack was calling out to him again, "What are you waiting for? Just do it!"
Mistramon made his decision. "Sorry, mate."
He wheeled out of the way as Alopemon barrelled in, catching the Lynxmon off guard. It remained on its feet and prepared to strike again, but before it could make a move it was met with an ice cold tail blade to the face. The flaming wildcat dispersed as if made from smoke, and the last of the data in the clearing settled.
Grace nodded to her partner in approval, but was surprised to find her brother turning on her, anger in his voice. "What did you do that for?"
Grace blinked. "But we won…"
"That's not what I meant. Mistramon was about to win that one; why didn't you call Alopemon back?"
"Because Mistramon might not have done it. Alopemon had the best shot; he just let her take it."
"Oh, you don't get it!"
Aaron stepped in, Galvamon devolving behind him. "Look, we've gotten rid of the Fire forces for now. Don't get uptight just because you wanted a chance to show off."
Jack snorted, but ignored the older boy, instead directing his attention towards his tamer, who was looking slightly irritated at his partner's attitude. Vulpimon and Velocimon watched as the two began to bicker.
"I don't see what you're so annoyed about."
"Well, you never fight properly any more. You always let someone else finish it for you."
Mistramon, devolving to Perimon, looked taken aback as he spluttered with indignation. "I do perfectly fine. I'm not just out to prove myself better than everyone else you know. That's a given."
Vulpimon smirked under her breath. "You wish."
Jack wasn't convinced. "Well I want us to be the heroes just once. We've never been the ones to save everyone. Why can't you take something on by yourself?"
Perimon stamped his foot, genuinely angry now. "Look, mister, I just saved your life here. I tend to do a lot of that. I'm not here to win anything, I'm here to protect you and I swear I'm going to do that, whether you think I'm good enough or not."
Jack pouted. "I knew it. You don't think I'm good enough to fight." He stomped off deeper into the forest, his partner marching after him. Aaron looked at Grace, and sighed.
"You know, I do try, but I really don't think I can deal with this leader business when everyone's so melodramatic all the time."
Grace aimlessly stroked her partner's head, a knowing look in her eye. "I'd better go after him. I think he's just been worn down this past couple of days."
The two of them headed off after her brother, leaving Aaron and his dinosaur alone. The area still smelled slightly of burnt wood from where the Lynxmon had marched in and began their rampage. It had happened so fast that Aaron hadn't had time to call the others, but luckily their Digimon had been enough to quell the menace. This time, at least.
Velocimon glanced up at his partner. "These attacks are becoming more frequent now. I have a bad feeling that Martyaxmon is up to something."
"You and me both, mate." Aaron looked into the deep forest, as if he could see the secrets that lay beyond it.
"I think we need to be prepared, at least. Something big is coming."
With an angry grunt Jack kicked at a stick on the ground, sending it spinning off into the leaves. He looked up and covered his eyes as the sun bore down on him, turning the forest golden. Well, what was left of the forest; the attacks had become so frequent that the whole place was beginning to look incredibly ragged and frayed, with great gaping holes with the lush canopy had once been.
Grumpily, Jack sat down on the ground and brought his knees up close, mumbling to himself. It wasn't fair. Every time he thought he could step in and do something, someone else would come along and do it better.
It didn't help that he had this stupid problem. His eyes glanced down to the sleeve around his knee, and the bony-white joint that it held. It looked so normal, but Jack knew all too well that it was a time-bomb; push it just that bit too far, and it would all collapse, rendering him completely helpless.
He sighed, and buried his head in his arms. He'd always imagined someone would come up one day, touch it and miraculously make it better. He hated being the one person who couldn't play sports with everyone else, and who was never approached for games at lunchtime. It wasn't that people hated him. They just knew he couldn't do it. Hell, he knew he couldn't do it, but that never really softened the blow he felt with each rejection.
He heard footsteps coming up behind him. Grace smiled sheepishly, Perimon and Vulpimon beside her. "You feeling okay?"
Jack sniffed. Evidently not. Grace sighed and sat down beside him. "You know, you can talk to me."
"What's the point?" Jack shuffled slightly. "No-one gives me a chance around here."
Grace ran her fingers through her hair. She could see this was going to be productive.
Perimon sidled up to his partner. "Look mate, I'm sorry I shouted back there. Really I am. It's just…"
He bit his lower beak, unsure. Vulpimon nodded at him for encouragement.
"It's not that we think you can't do anything, it really isn't. You've helped with so many things. But you need to stop rushing into battles thinking we're all invincible."
Jack lifted his head. "I know it's not a game, Perimon."
"I know you know. But it's not a competition either. When we fight, we'll fight together. That way we'll win."
Slowly Jack loosened up. Perimon smiled at him, but he looked away, instead looking over the forest. There were speckles of leaves floating in the air, the sunlight glinting off of them. Jack sighed.
"Tell me though, have I really done anything? Someone's always had to save me; usually you, Perimon. You must be sick of it by now, me always getting into trouble."
Grace shook her head. "Don't say that."
"That's right. I'll always be around to help you if you need it." Perimon nudged the boy. "You're important to me."
Vulpimon hid her gaze knowingly.
Jack leant back, look up at the sky. He raised his hand, as if to grasp the very air itself.
"I know. It's silly of me; I'm just being painful. But I just want one chance. One chance to prove I can win for once. By myself, I mean."
Grace and Vulpimon looked at each other; they didn't know what to say to that. Grace stood up, and was about to head back, when she heard a familiar humming sound. She looked up.
The blue giant, having fully healed now from the Martyaxmon battle, landed next to them and nodded in greeting. "Hello, you four."
Perimon smirked. "Always the one for sudden appearances, aren't you." The giant blue dinosaur had been much more forthcoming with the group now, having gotten over some of the guilt from his earlier attack. However he was still slightly hesitant; he'd only really relax when Grace was around, and even then, he was constantly trying to please them.
Pteramon ignored the falcon's remark. "I have some news. You might find it interesting…what's up with Jack?"
"Me?" Jack shrugged. "Everything's fine, I guess."
Grace nodded, "Go ahead, what's your news."
"I've found the pale boy."
Jack and Perimon double-took simultaneously, Jack scrabbling to his feet. "You found Kai?"
Pteramon nodded. "Well, I saw him. Briefly. It was only for a split second; he was headed into a temple of some kind, some way away from here."
"How far was it? I mean for you to fly?"
The big metal bird thought about it for a second. "About twenty minutes, give or take? Why, do you think…"
Jack turned to his sister, a new spring in his step. "Grace, I can find him! I can find Kai and bring him back to us!"
Vulpimon blinked. "Wait, what are you suggesting?"
"Me and Mistramon; we can fly over and find him, I can talk to him and persuade him to come back to us. We know where he is; Mistramon'll be fast enough to do it." The boy turned, looking expectantly at his stunned partner. "Won't you?"
"Out of the question." Grace shook her head, "You can't go out on your own; not when there are Fire forces preparing to attack us like this."
"But Mistramon's powerful; he can take care of them. And if we get Kai back we'll be powerful again."
"Well, why don't we tell the others and Eloise or someone could go with you-"
"No, please!" Jack grabbed his sister's sleeve, looking up at her with puppy-like eyes.
"I can do this. Please, just let me go and I'll be fine. Please!"
Grace bit her lip. She knew her brother could look after himself, but then again…anything could happen out there…it was a bad idea…
"Let us go, Grace."
Perimon stepped forward, standing by his partner. "I'm strong enough, I can look after him if it comes to it. And if we don't take this chance now, we may not get another. Let's go and find Kai."
"Are you sure? I should really tell someone…"
Jack shook his head, raising his D-Nexus. "I can contact you through this, can't I? If I do need more help, which I won't, I can call you. Please though, let me do this on my own."
Grace looked at her own partner. Vulpimon looked uneasy, "Maybe this isn't such a good idea, Perimon."
"I trust him." Grace nodded, "Okay, I'll keep quiet for now. But be careful, okay? I'm trusting you to come back safe, whether Kai's with you or not."
Jack beamed, and ran towards his sister, throwing his arms around her. "Thank you Grace! Thank you!" He then stood up straight, holding his D-Nexus high. "I won't let you down!"
He turned to the red bird next to him, "You ready, Perimon?"
"Ready as I'll ever be, partner."
Within seconds the tenacious red falcon had been replaced by the majestic crimson eagle, who bent down to allow Jack to climb onto his back. He looked at his sister and grinned again, "I'll be back before you know it."
Grace gave a small smile as Mistramon and Pteramon took off, Pteramon pointing the way.
"I know you will, Jack."
She watched as the two flying giants set off over the treetops, the leaves rustling behind them.
"Please be safe."
Jack loved the feel of the wind as it caressed his hair and clothes, and the view of the forest panning out below him. Mistramon glided with nary a flap of his wings, and Pteramon, flying in front of them, didn't even need to flap; simply propelling himself via air jets.
Jack lifted himself up slightly, putting a hand on his head to prevent himself from losing his cap.
"Whereabouts are we going?"
Pteramon turned his head just a little, his bad eye looking blindly at the two partners.
"It's a temple. Not really sure what for; I've never been inside, but I expect you might find something interesting there."
"What do you think of that, huh?" Mistramon grinned up at his partner. "We're gonna be explorers of long-lost ruins."
Jack shrugged. "I just hope we find Kai there."
"Right." Mistramon smiled uncertainly, before focusing on following the dinosaur ahead.
"Thank you for helping us, Pteramon. We really mean it."
Pteramon closed his eye. "I'm just glad you'll accept me. All I really want is to strike back at the Fire Kingdom. I've never really given much thought to gathering allies."
Mistramon banked slightly when he glided just a little too low, causing Jack to grip on harder.
Pteramon sighed, the air whipping his breath away. "It's hard; being unable to save the ones you care about."
Mistramon turned away. "You're dead right there."
"What is it, Mistramon?"
The bird felt a little ashamed, but he carried on. "I suppose I should tell you. You are my partner after all."
"You don't have to if it's painful."
Mistramon gave a chuckle. "It's not a problem, don't worry. You see…"
Pteramon slowed and angled his wings upwards, Mistramon doing the same. They landed in a clearing; larger than the ones they usually settled in. The trees were taller here; more spindly. At the far end of the clearing was a great stone monolith, intricately carved and etched with ancient Digicode. The three stared in awe at it, Jack letting off a whistle.
Pteramon coughed slightly. "Um, you two go ahead. I don't exactly fit inside, I'll stay out here and keep watch."
"Thanks anyway." There was a flash of red light as Mistramon devolved, and looked at his partner. "Ready?"
"I'm fine. Are you ready?"
Jack looked up at the towering building before him; he couldn't even see the top, and he had no idea how far down into the ground it went. He gulped, "I guess I should tell you I'm not great with dark, cramped places."
He looked worriedly at his partner, expecting Perimon to refuse to go any further. The bird merely shrugged, "You and me both. I'm a bloody falcon."
Jack blinked, and Perimon coughed in apology, "Sorry, language. I know. I'll be good."
Jack giggled. "Just don't let Grace hear you; she'll go nuts." He stepped forward. "Let's go."
Eloise was the first to notice Grace sitting with her back to a tree trunk, her partner lying down beside her. The afternoon was beginning to draw on, and the shadows were stretching far into the green wilderness. Eloise crouched down next to the younger girl.
"You okay there? You look a little lost."
Grace rubbed her eyes. "I'm just a little tired. Don't worry about me."
"Fine. I don't suppose you've seen your brother anywhere, have you?"
"He and Perimon were headed off somewhere to train or something. I don't know; Perimon's probably keeping an eye on him."
Eloise frowned. "It's not like you to be so lax when your brother's concerned." She shrugged. "Oh well, so long as you're sure."
She headed off, and Vulpimon breathed a sigh of relief. She looked up at her partner, who was looking more deflated by the second.
"Cheer up, partner. It might never happen, you know."
Grace laughed. "Yes, but in this world, it always seems to."
"Hmm, I suppose so." Vulpimon readjusted herself and leant her head against her partner's legs, her warm fur brushing against Grace's skin.
"Pardon me for asking, but if you're always so worried about him, why did you let him go?"
Grace sighed. "Because he was adamant. He's never had a chance to prove himself, and I've usually been the one holding him back. I suppose you could say I owe it to him."
Vulpimon looked down dejectedly. "I suppose it's got to be hard on the poor kid."
"That's why I hope he can do this. I really do."
Jack's shoes tapped on the hard stone floor as he and his partner tiptoed through the temple, keeping an eye out for any unexpected traps or Fire Kingdom forces. The temple seemed to go on forever, twisting and turning into an underground labyrinth.
Jack looked around worriedly. "Are we gonna be able to get out of here?"
"Let's hope so." Perimon squinted ahead, trying to make out any sign of a different chamber. No, there was only the same old stone corridor. Stable, yes. Decorative, quite possibly. Absolutely bloody wonderful for a warrior of Air.
Jack stumbled next to him and Perimon started, "You okay mate?"
Jack looked away. "Yeah, I'm fine. I'm fine."
He took another step forward but Perimon stretched out a wing and stopped him. "Don't feel you have to go on right now. We can take a break if that's what you need."
He looked down at Jack's knee; it didn't show any signs of stress, but then again it never did, until it decided to slip without warning. Jack exhaled. "Yeah, you're right. Let's stop for a bit."
The two sat down, leaning against the wall. Perimon still kept an ear out, but there seemed to be no immediate danger. The tunnel was dark, but the light from Jack's D-Nexus was enough to let them seem a fair distance.
Jack fiddled with the device before glancing to the side, catching his Digimon looking up at him worriedly.
"You must think I'm annoying."
"Well, I keep doing stupid things and you always have to come and get me out of everything."
Perimon spluttered, before trying to think up an answer, but Jack simply shook his head. "Don't worry. I've been here long enough to know when I'm not helping."
"Well, I've been here longer than you. I know that you're a much bigger help than you think you are."
Perimon thought for a minute. "Well, for starters, you exasperate Velocimon. That's one good thing."
Jack laughed, quite unlike the usual loud giggles that he burst into. This one was quiet, subdued; almost contemplative. It was as if the stone walls had squeezed Jack's bright and cheerful personality to one tenth of its usual size.
The boy tilted his head, the light from the screen flickering across his face. "You never told me about…you know…"
Jack frowned. "I don't know. You stopped before you could tell me."
Perimon let off his own chuckle as the memories came back. "It's a bit of a long story."
He took a breath.
"I was still young when the war first broke out. You could tell just by looking at me; I was loud, I was obnoxious; I thought I could take on the world."
"You still do." Jack looked around sheepishly at the bird's annoyed look, "…kinda…"
"Anyway, there was only a small group of us. My parents, and their children, me being the second youngest. My parents wanted to defend us, but I was naïve and stupid. I trained every day, waiting for the Fire Kingdom to come so I could beat them off."
Perimon sighed, the light of the D-Nexus glistening in his eyes as Jack listened intently.
"They came. One night, that's all it took. They wiped out everything on that peak, down to the last clump of moss. I was the only one to survive, only because of a small group of freedom fighters. They came just in time as I was fleeing the purge. I still remember walking away from it; I couldn't bring myself to look back."
"That was where I first met Velocimon. He coaxed me to join him with the last great assault on the Fire Kingdom. Needless to say I spat in his face and told him to go to hell." Perimon let off another harsh chuckle. "I never got on with him, even back then. Him or his best buddy Pikamon. In fact I don't think I got on with anybody, except for her."
"Her?" Jack couldn't help but grin slightly. "When you say her, you mean…girlfriend?"
At this Perimon did burst into fits of giggles. He wiped his eyes with his wing, holding the tears back as best he could. It wouldn't do to cry in front of his partner.
"It would never have worked. I was a bird. She was a fish."
"Her name was Placomon. She was tough and thick-skinned, but you've never known a more caring Digimon than she was. She was the one who got through to me in the end, when Velocimon and Pikamon had given me up for a failure. She supported me, convinced me to fight on. It's through training with her that I became as strong as I was today."
Jack was silent, listening to his partner bear his soul.
"I guess that wasn't strong enough after all."
Perimon nodded, "You probably remember. We didn't win that battle. As a last resort nine of us were gathered together to complete one last mission."
"To bring us here with the elements…"
Perimon nodded, the tears welling again. "We were supposed to all meet up, but we decided to take different routes. Just to stop the Fire Kingdom from finding us out. Vulpimon, Placomon and I went around the Southern Daggers, hoping to avoid the last of the Fire Tyrants."
The bird shook his head fiercely, almost shouting now. "It was a stupid plan! It wasn't a Fire Tyrant, it was Cephalomon! He found us, and he cornered us. I tried my best, but even with the power of my element I had no chance against him. So she…she…" Perimon swallowed as Jack put his arm around the bird. "She swam away. I remember, the very last thing she said to me before she dived. 'Buck up, Perimon. It may never happen.' I watched her, as she leapt from the peak and punched Cephalomon square in the face. Then she fell down to the water below, swimming away as he chased after her. Vulpimon and I managed to escape, but…"
"That's enough." Jack stroked his partner's feathers as the bird finished shaking. "I didn't know you'd gone through this much. I shouldn't have asked you to tell me." He felt close to crying himself.
Perimon stood up straight and sniffed. "Guess I'm the pathetic one now, huh."
"No, you aren't, Perimon." Jack shifted around onto his knees. "You're still the coolest partner I could have had."
Perimon smiled, before breaking into laughter again. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to be acting so sappy." He paused. "Promise me one thing, alright?"
Jack nodded. "What is it?"
"You're all I've got left. Just please promise me, throughout all the battles we're going to have, that you won't die on me."
Jack nodded again, fervently this time. "I promise. If that's the only way I can help, I swear I won't die."
He held out a hand towards his partner. "Shake?"
Perimon nodded, holding out a wing.
"What's that, over there?"
Perimon frowned, and looked down the corridor. Now that they'd been in the darkness for long enough, he thought he could make out something in the wall. Perhaps a doorway, or…
Jack stood up, eager to get going. "Let's go and check it out."
The two did so, entering the doorway and into a vast stone chamber. It was domed, and the walls and ceiling were beautifully sculpted and smooth. There was a torch in the centre, but it obviously hadn't been lit in ages, and the dust covering it was visible even from a distance. The only light came from tiny slits, way up high in the ceiling. Jack whistled as he waved his D-Nexus around, trying to shed some more light on the subject.
"Here, what do you think of this?"
Perimon beckoned Jack over to one of the walls, and the two looked closely. There were in fact two sets of markings on the wall; one was an ornate pattern, but the other was a random scrawl, as if somebody had been over it with a marker pen. In fact, it appeared to be some kind of writing.
Perimon shook his head. "This is the same writing as the stuff on the mask. I can't read this; it's too old."
"Well, what about this?"
Perimon looked at what his partner was holding, surprised to see it seemed to be some kind of manuscript, rather lovingly bound and held with a bone pin.
"Where did you get that?"
"It was on the floor. They're everywhere."
Jack shone his device and revealed what he was talking about; piles and piles of manuscripts and parchments. All contained the same scrawled archaic language, bar a few, which instead showed numbers and equations too complicated for Jack to get his head around. Scattered in between the papers were countless long, black, velvet feathers, like those of a raven.
Perimon bent down and looked closely at one. "I've seen these somewhere before." Then it hit him. "Karatenmon!"
"Don't you see? The language, the feathers…I think the Karatenmon who lost his mask lived here."
Jack nodded, his fingers flicking through the manuscript he was holding. "So what for? What was he doing here?"
Perimon scratched beneath his beak. "I don't know. Judging from the parchments, though, maybe he was a librarian? Or a scholar?"
"Or just a nerd?"
Perimon threw his wings up, "Well, probably. I don't know."
Jack accidentally dropped the manuscript and it fell open, revealing more equations, along with a strange drawing of a vaguely human figure, reaching out from the flat page.
"Do you think Kai found this place?"
Before Perimon could answer, there came a rustling. The boy and bird were immediately on edge, Jack hiding his D-Nexus and its incriminating light. He leant towards his partner, "You don't think that could be him, do you?"
"Hope so. Doubt it." Perimon and his partner slowly backed away towards the entrance, fully aware that they had no idea how to get out of this place.
All of a sudden, unexpectedly, the torch in the centre of the room lit up with a brilliant white light. Jack and Perimon shielded their eyes as the chamber seemed to grow in size, showing the true extent of the detail. Any other time they would have been really impressed, but they were too engrossed in the centre of the room. The torch was alight with a great flickering flame. That meant there was a Fire Digimon around.
From within the bowels of the torch crawled four squat, armoured creatures; half insect, half man. Their eyes glowed with the fury of the Fire Kingdom and their butterfly-like wings shone with intricate patterns of red, orange and yellow. They turned to one another, letting off harsh clicks and squeaks, before focusing their attention on the two figures near the entrance.
One of the creatures took a step forward, its body still glowing brightly from the flames of the torch. Jack held out his D-Nexus, scanning the beasts before him.
"Shadramon. Armour Level, Virus Attribute. Attacks: Flash Buster, Psychic Wave, Serrated Screw"
Perimon gritted his beak. "They must have been guarding this place."
Jack grinned sheepishly. "We didn't touch anything, we swear."
The Shadramon didn't believe him, instead unleashing a terrifying crackle and leaping at the two, covered in white-hot fire. Jack scrabbled as he grabbed his partner, heading for the entrance.
Jack held his breath as the darkness swallowed him up again. He forced himself to keep running, expecting to feel the crackling heat of the Shadramon engulf him at any moment.
Beside him, Perimon was calling out, "Just follow my voice! Don't worry, it'll be fine, we'll get out. Just follow-"
There was a flash and a screech from nowhere. Perimon broke off, and Jack looked around frantically.
His voice must have alerted the Shadramon, for the incessant clicking grew suddenly louder. Panicking, Jack ran down the nearest tunnel he could find. This was bad. He had no idea where he was, and the walls were pressing in on him. He clenched his fists, willing himself to keep going. It was all very well him not being able to strain himself physically, but to be lost in a place like this…where his claustrophobia was kicking in as well…
All of a sudden he slammed into something tall and hard. He yelped as he fell backwards, and was surprised to discover that the something did much the same. For a few seconds there was silence, then the something moved, scrabbling around on the stone floor.
Jack got to his feet and held his hands out in a vain effort to defend himself, but all of a sudden the something spoke.
The voice was husky and was barely louder than a whisper, but it was familiar. After all, it had that faint Scottish accent that Jack remembered so well.
Before the introduction could be followed up on, another voice rang out in the darkness, this one belonging to Colchimon.
"There's a way out of here. Quick, or those Shadramon will catch us." Colchimon paused. "Jack? What are you doing here?"
Jack heard the crackling coming closer again. "There's no time. You said you found a way out."
Kai held out a hand, "Grab on. Colchimon can see in the dark, and he knows where he's going."
"Wait, what about Perimon?" Jack looked back, suddenly aware of the danger his partner was now in.
There was another pause.
"Colchimon, can you get us somewhere safe for the moment? Perimon's still stuck back there."
"I'll do what I can."
It was a short journey, but a hellish one. Jack couldn't see a thing, being blindly to goodness knows where by the boy who had walked away. A few times he tripped, and he simply prayed that his knee wouldn't give out, since that would leave him completely stuck with no way of escape. All the while, the vision of his partner being pursued by those…things burned in his mind.
Then, it was over, for now. Colchimon pulled them into another chamber, which thankfully had windows high up, letting in a tiny amount of light to see by. The shadow dragon pulled away and headed back towards the entrance, turning as he did so.
"You stay here for the moment. If the Shadramon come before we do, run for it."
Kai nodded as he lay against one of the walls, seeming more out of breath than Jack felt. Colchimon gave them a worried look, before disappearing back into the dark corridors.
Jack sat down next to Kai, getting out his D-Nexus to try and see if his partner was okay. He was greeted with a red cross.
"No signal…" The boy buried his head in his hands, the enormity of what he'd got himself into pressing down on him.
"Why does everything hate me?"
Beside him, Kai turned his head a little, catching a look at the offending device.
"You shouldn't have come here, Jack. It's dangerous."
Wearily, Jack raised his head a fraction. "Don't you start. Please."
Kai blinked, before letting out a chuckle. "It's okay. It's not exactly like I'm a good role model."
"That doesn't matter," Jack sat up, aware that while he had this chance, he could at least talk to the older boy.
"Pteramon said he saw you come in here. He said it wasn't that far, so I…I decided to come too." He looked down at his feet, shuffling them slightly. "I thought I could bring you back."
He knew Kai was shaking his head without even looking. "You're better off without me. All I'll do is bring you trouble. Hell, that's all I do."
"But we need you, Kai! Please, you've got to come back. We can't fight off Martyaxmon without you're help! They're planning something, we know they are."
"You can win through. Trust me, you don't-"
"WHY AREN'T YOU LISTENING?" Jack stood up and grabbed Kai by the shoulders, trying to force some sense into the boy. Kai raised his head in front of him, and he stopped, for the first time getting a good look at the older boy's body in the dim light of the chamber.
Kai was leaning, almost lounging, up against the stone wall, as if all the energy had been drained from his body. He looked terrible, even more so than when he'd left. His hair was matted; greasy spikes and stray tufts pointing everywhere, more so than usual. His skin was so pale that it seemed almost grey, as if the boy was slowly being drained of blood, and the flesh around his cheeks and jaw had retracted, the sharp bones pointing through. Kai's clothes had been worn and torn, and there were great holes and scorch marks over the thick raincoat. Jack could even see what seemed to be great scratch wounds through some of them, healing slowly but definitely visible.
Worst of all were his eyes. When Jack had last seen them, they'd been as cold and sharp as icicles, but now they'd lost even that little colour; his irises were almost the same as the whites that surrounded them, making him seem not quite alive.
Jack couldn't help but retract slightly when he saw the extent of Kai's deterioration. The older boy smiled weakly, and gently pulled his coat up, as if to hide the worst of it.
"Believe me now?"
Jack's mouth flapped open to speak, but then he thought against it. When he couldn't think of anything tactful to say, Jack simply bowed his head in apology.
"I must look a real mess, musn't I…"
"What happened to you?"
"Too many things."
Jack's arms fell down beside him as he regarded the boy before him. He looked absolutely pitiful.
"I want to come back. Truly I do. I want to come and be with you guys, and join the team again. But something's come up. Something I can't ignore. I haven't been able to ignore it for a while. And until I deal with it, I can't travel with you. Any of you."
He smiled again. "It's nothing personal."
"Where are they?"
Grace was biting her thumb hard as she paced up and down, Vulpimon watching her every step. The girl looked up at the sky; it was beginning to get dark, and there was no sign of her brother returning. Slowly but surely, the others had begun to get suspicious. At least, that's how it seemed.
Vulpimon pawed her ear nervously, "I'm sure they're absolutely fine."
"You say that." Grace stood over her partner, her eyes darting from fox to sky and back again. "I'm the one who let him leave. If something happens to him then it's my fault."
"He's got Perimon with him. And Pteramon's nearby, and they might even have come across Kai by now…"
Grace's eyes widened. That wasn't as good a prospect as she'd have hoped.
The girl sighed. "You know, I need to tell someone."
"Tell someone what?"
Grace jumped as she saw Eloise, Kent and Aaron walk up to her, partners in tow. Aaron had a particularly dark expression, causing Grace's hands to shake slightly.
Velocimon folded his arms. "We've been looking for your brother all afternoon."
Eloise knelt down and put her hand on the younger girl's shoulder. "If you know where he is then tell us. I don't know why you're hiding it but he might be in danger."
"I know he is!" Grace closed her eyes as she blurted all. "Pteramon came and said he'd found Kai, so Jack wanted to go off and bring him back, but he wanted to do it on his own, and I…I let him go."
Aaron looked at the others, "What?"
Vulpimon stepped down, putting herself between them and her partner out of instinct. "Pteramon said he'd found a temple, elsewhere in the forest. That way." At this she nodded her head in the direction the two birds had flown.
Aaron buried his face in his hands. "That little idiot! What does he think he's playing at? This isn't just a game!"
"It's not his fault!" Grace shook her head frantically, much to Eloise's surprise. "I was the one who let him go; it's my fault."
Aaron turned on her. "Okay then, why did you let him go? If you care about your brother so much you should be trying just a little harder to keep him out of trouble."
Grace flinched and Aaron withdrew, aware he'd probably gone too far. Kent looked elsewhere, not wanting to get involved.
"They should still be okay. I think we can assume that Martyaxmon hasn't made his official move yet. We just need to find out where they are."
"I'll go." Eloise got out her D-Nexus, Ladomon poised behind her. "Who knows, maybe Kai'll be there too. At any rate, we need to get Jack back."
Grace stepped forward, "Please, can I come with you?"
Her question was met with a snort from Velocimon. "You've done enough."
"Stop it." Eloise glared at the dinosaur. "Let it go. We've all made mistakes while we've been here."
"Speak for yourself."
"Can it, lizard boy." Vulpimon had her hackles up, growling menacingly at Velocimon. He raised an arm but Aaron held him back, keeping him out of it. "Now's not the time."
Eloise raised her D-Nexus, "Primal Control!"
In a few seconds the sleek, serpentine body of Ladomon had expanded into the muscular bipedal body of Luminemon. She bent down and Eloise clambered onto her back, looking back at the motley group.
"We'll be back soon. Don't worry. Everything's going to be fine."
Grace watched as the dragon and her tamer climbed up into the sky, heading towards the temple.
Back in the temple, the fading light was making the rough stone walls incredibly oppressive. Jack held himself tight in a ball, trying not to think of the temples walls collapsing and crushing them both. There had still been no sign of the returning Colchimon or Perimon.
Suddenly, a noise started up; a faint rustling, like the sound of wings fluttering through the air. Slowly, Kai got to his feet, Jack following suit.
"Do you hear that?"
"Yeah. Do you think it could be them?"
Kai swallowed. "Somehow I don't think so." Holding Jack by the shoulder he backed away towards the second entrance, keeping watch on the first one.
Screaming blue murder, the Shadramon burst into the chamber, sending dust tumbling down from the walls as they collided again and again. Their bodies were covered with white-hot flame, and they scrabbled furiously, having sensed the heartbeats of the two boys from some way away. One of them looked up and saw them standing there, the fire making their shadows dance.
Both tamers made a break for it back into the darkness, the insect-men following in deadly pursuit. Jack hung on for dear life as Kai turned corner after corner; he was sure the boy had no idea where he was going, but he just prayed they'd be able to find some way out soon.
"Please. I promised Grace I'd come back, I told her I would. Please let's just get out!"
Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed something flash in the darkness. At first glance it seemed like one of the Shadramon, but suddenly Kai yanked him back, bringing him into view of the light again.
It was faint, but it was sky. They'd found an exit.
The walls shook as the Shadramon collided again behind them. Jack and Kai ran forward simultaneously as they made their way up the steps and exploded out into the open air.
Jack was ecstatic. "We made it! We're not going to die!"
"Hold off a little, soldier." Kai looked around, looking even more bedraggled in the open air. "I don't think we're quite in the clear yet."
Jack stopped and looked around himself. He couldn't believe it; somehow they'd made their way to the roof of the temple. He hadn't realised how big it was from the front, but now he was up here he could see all around the surrounding forest. He could even see pillars of smoke far away, where the Fire Kingdom must have set up their war camp. The two boys themselves were standing on some kind of elevated stone courtyard, complete with well-weathered statues and grotesques adorning the corners. It was well-constructed and quite pretty, but it did pose one major problem.
"How do we get down?"
As if in answer, their former situation decided to show its ugly head again as the Shadramon burst out from the entrance, screeching in pain as the sun burned their eyes. Jack and Kai moved out of their way, but it soon became clear that they had nowhere else to run. They looked upwards as the first of the Shadramon squinted down at them, hovering on its fluorescent wings.
Kai called over to the younger boy, "Keep moving! Don't let them catch you!"
Jack was already running, calling into his D-Nexus. "Perimon! Perimon, can you hear me!"
No answer. Not even a flicker.
The boy cried out in vain as the feral bug-men descended, claws bared and fires burning, eyes glowing in anticipation of the feed.
Lost. All alone in the darkness, turning in ever tighter and more compressive circles. Each corner only taking him closer to nowhere. Every new decision ending in failure.
What a fitting metaphor.
He hadn't meant for it to happen But one slip, one crash into an unseen wall and that was it. His partner was gone, chased by the creatures. He'd failed, yet again he'd failed. Everyone he'd tried to save, and they'd all slipped through his grasp. Placomon. Pikamon. Mother. Father. Siblings.
He could see it, dead ahead. The lone figure reaching towards him. One hand in accusation.
Except it wasn't a hand. It was a wing. Colchimon nodded.
"You're not done yet. Follow me."
He'd made a promise. He was not going to break it.
The commotion on the roof had attracted Pteramon's attention, and he flew straight up, seeing the Shadramon before he'd even reached their level.
"Get away from them now, you parasites!"
With a roar he aimed his sharpened beak straight towards the largest, but it saw him coming and spiralled out of the way. With a new target the leader one of his comrades, and they both faced off against the dinosaur. On the roof, Jack breathed a sigh of relief, but was quickly shaken out of it by Kai, "Jack, behind you!"
Jack leapt down to the ground from instinct as his own assailant corkscrewed past, burrowing into the hard rock floor where he'd been standing. He scrabbled to his feet yet again.
Kai was busy dealing with his own lone attacker, dodging behind different bits of sculpture and rubble as the insect snarled, its body aflame.
The two had been able to hold out this far, but there was only so much they could do against four powerful monsters. And the Shadramon were getting smarter.
Pteramon humphed and spread his wings wide, preparing to let off a volley off missiles. In immediate response, the Two Shadramon facing him shrieked, letting off devastatingly painful waves of psychic energy. Pteramon bucked from the shock of it, his missiles flying wide. He gritted his teeth, but the psychic was scrambling his head and he began to descend, swearing as he careered down into the treetops below.
His cry could be heard from the rooftop, where Jack and Kai had lost their only source of protection. With no more adversaries, the first two Shadramon got back to their original business. The once smooth temple roof had been dotted with holes and rubble, and while the stone was solid, there was only so much damage the building could take before something gave way.
"Jack, watch out!"
Jack skipped out of the way as the rock beneath him fell away, but he felt something hard pressing against his back; he looked up to see one of the statues leering down at him. There was another shake and Jack covered his head, feeling a brief jolt of pain.
Dust entered his eyes as he opened them, and he coughed and spluttered. The grotesque, weakened by the ongoing battle, had obviously collapsed around him. There were gashes down his bare arms and legs, but thankfully his knee still seemed to be in place. He heard the Shadramon letting out a gutteral rasp, and he made to move.
Except he couldn't. Feeling another jolt of pain as he tried to stand up, Jack looked at his other leg. Or rather, the large fragment of what used to be the gargoyle's wing, which was currently pinning the small boy's limb to the ground. He tugged. No movement. He pulled again, pushing against the large slab of rock, but it was no use. His leg felt numb under the pressure; from what he could tell, it didn't seem to be broken, but it certainly wasn't going anywhere.
It was at this moment that Jack momentarily relieved himself of his sister's ban on swearing.
As the dust cleared, Jack looked up to see the Shadramon now looking in his direction, his sudden outburst having gotten its attention. He sneered, "What are you looking at, you flame-grilled butterfly?"
Said flame-grilled butterfly flew down towards him, and Jack shut his eyes.
"No you don't!"
Kai, having noticed Jack's peril, made a run for it, yelling at the Shadramon and making it turn its head for an instant. Kai barrelled into it, sending it flying away, but he quickly had to run as his actions caused himself to be pursued anew. Meanwhile, the third and fourth Shadramon turned their attentions on Jack, who watched them approach with dread. There was no way Kai was going to deal with these two. He was struggling against his own.
"Why does it have to be me?"
Jack had his eyes tightly closed, waiting for the bug-men to come and rip him to pieces. Hadn't he made a promise against that just a little while ago? Not that he could do anything about it. He never could. It was like with Martyaxmon; he could try and be as brave and independent as he could, but he had no power against this world. If nobody was there to help him, he'd have been dead long ago.
And yet they were there to help him. Jack remembered the other's concern when they'd almost lost him down that ravine, or when fighting the Pipismon. All of them had been there to help him at somepoint; Aaron and Eloise. Kai. Grace. Perimon.
Jack smiled as the danger came closer. It was as Perimon had said. The least he could do was stay alive. For everyone. For the team. For himself.
He gripped his D-Nexus tight. Seconds before impact, he whispered. It was almost inaudible, and seemed to be to nobody in particular, but it was there.
"I trust you, Perimon. I'm here."
With a roar too loud for one his size, Perimon exploded from the temple entrance, aiming straight towards his partner. His prowess as a falcon and a warrior of Air gave him speed, and he barrelled straight into both Shadramon, both of them letting off shrieks of surprise.
He turned to his partner, "Are you okay?"
"A bit stuck at the moment."
"I thought I told you not to die while I was still around!"
Jack smiled, gripping his D-Nexus. "I wasn't going to."
Perimon smiled back, but he soon found himself being pressed into the rock floor by two angered bug-men, their flaming claws burning into him. He gritted his teeth against the pain but held firm, pushing upwards with all his might.
"Don't think you're getting away with this. I made a promise. In my stupid life full of failure, I will always have one thing I can fight to protect."
He was silenced by the Shadramon shoving his beak, hard, into the stone.
Jack leant back, feeling almost dizzy. There was nothing he could do right now. All he could do was will his partner on. His life was in Perimon's claws.
"I believe you, Perimon."
In his hand, the D-Nexus sprung to life, spreading red tendrils all over Jack's body, culminating in the symbol on his chest. Jack felt free; almost as if he'd lost a heavy burden. He raised his arm as the energy grew, spiralling to a climax at the end.
All the Shadramon were transfixed on the bright red light, as Kai looked in awe at the event. Colchimon stared too, unsure what exactly was happening.
On Luminemon's back, Eloise felt it too, seeing the bright red glow in the distance. Despite herself, she smiled.
Perimon's form flickered, then disintegrated, the red data particles burning into the Shadramon as they reeled back. The red static mass writhed and expanded, becoming long and twisting, like a vast serpent. One end extended and taped into a smooth, winged blade, with great bronze rings setting themselves along the length of the body. The other end extended four golden wings and a golden ring from its back, the head expanding into a great toothed beak. The static faded, and the new creature spiralled slowly up into the sky, its great length trailing behind it.
It was massive, at least twenty-five metres long, and as it flew upwards it had the appearance of a Roman standard; majestic and regal, but with a savage and ruthless streak. It levelled itself out and surveyed the scene with its four beady eyes, each one able to pick out the various figures on the rooftop far below. It raised its beak and unleashed a call; a lone, melancholy cry that echoed out across the treetops.
The area was silent for a moment. Then the Shadramon started screeching again and the moment was lost. One by one they burst into flames and made for the humans; perhaps in a last-ditch attempt to piss off the giant sky-serpent hanging above them. Cyclomon narrowed his eyes and began to dive, sweeping his four massive wings and gaining speed.
He needn't have hurried though. The Shadramon had barely moved one metre before another cry erupted.
A volley of small explosives flew into the Shadramon's ranks, scattering them. A heavily-breathing Pteramon slowly climbed to the roof level, having finally gotten off the ground again.
Colchimon was rather huffy about the dinosaur's late appearance, "You took your time."
"Well, I apologise for my inconvenient aviation methods." Pteramon swung his head. "Look behind you."
Colchimon got the hint and swung his tail back, the dark blade connecting with the Shadramon's armour with a loud clang. Kai got out his D-Nexus, "There's a thought. Primal Control!"
Colchimon shifted mid-attack, turning into Achromon as he began to grapple with the bug-man. He glanced at his partner, "I'm fine. You go and help Jack."
The Shadramon were beginning to close in on the boy, but the wind was picking up as, high above, Cyclomon began to spin, round and round in a slowly shrinking helix. The Shadramon were buffeted, and Kai gritted his teeth. Whatever the sky-serpent was doing, they probably didn't want to be caught in the middle of it. Jack felt his D-Nexus vibrate and held it up close; amidst the noise he could still hear his partner's husky voice.
"Get out of here."
Jack nodded and pulled, trying in vain to get his leg out from beneath the rubble. Kai knelt down beside him, trying to manoeuvre it out.
"Hold still. You just need the right angle."
"Okay, I'm trying."
Agonisingly slowly, the statue's wing began to budge through the combined efforts of Kai, Jack and the rising wind. Suddenly, it shifted and Jack pulled himself free, getting up on his feet as soon as he could. He made a few awkward noises, causing Kai to look on in worry. How much damage had been done?
Jack grinned at Kai. "Sorry, pins and needles."
Kai was not impressed by the boy's mirth. "You need to get off this...watch out!"
Jack ducked as a passing Shadramon took a swipe at his head, but suddenly he heard a familiar voice.
The Shadramon screamed as the beam of light hit it, sending it spinning down to the wrecked temple roof. Jack and Kai looked up to see Eloise atop her dragon, glaring down at the both of them.
"You have some explaining to do."
"Perfect timing." Kai pointed as he started running back towards his own partner. "Get on the dragon and get clear."
Luminemon scowled, "I am not a taxi service, you inconsiderate-"
"Not now, Luminemon." She flew her partner closer as Jack stood on the edge of the roof, glancing back worriedly. She called up to him, "Jump. Don't worry, you'll be fine."
"But what about Kai?"
Eloise shook her head, "He's got Achromon. And besides, there's no time." She glanced upwards. "Your partner seems to be planning something big."
Jack closed his eyes and jumped, landing safely on the wyvern's back. She wobbled slightly, before heading off in the other direction. Jack looked back; Pteramon was following them as they escaped the buffeting winds, and Kai and Achromon were also leaving, albeit in the opposite direction.
The Shadramon would have been following them, but they were currently struggling against the rising winds as Cyclomon spun faster and faster. The tornado was localised around the temple, but it was having a devastating effect, as the beautiful stonework and solid foundation was rocked to its very core. Jack gripped his D-Nexus tight as he felt the raging power of his partner. It was a power that had lain dormant for far too long, and the four Shadramon were now feeling the full brunt of it.
Everything ceased for a second. Cyclomon stopped mid-spin, his coils uncurling as he faced downwards. The air below him seemed to ripple and bend, the Shadramon completely trapped.
"Vortex Breaker!" cried the sky-dragon, as he shot a blast of air vertically downwards towards the temple.
The sound was ear-splitting, and the other flying Digimon rocked dangerously as the airblast hit them. The temple was obliterated in one single blow, shards of rock thrown into the earth and walls completely flattened. The four Shadramon were crushed in the space of a millisecond, their glistening data the only sign they'd even existed.
For a moment, the sound of the attack rang in the ears of the surrounding tamers and their Digimon. Then, it was over. Cyclomon's body flickered, then slowly disintegrated away, leaving the armoured form of Mistramon behind. Slowly, almost sheepishly, the bird approached the wyvern, who was still glaring at him.
"What do you think you're playing at?"
Mistramon grinned. "I think you'll find that's called being awesome."
"I think you'll find that's called being dangerous."
"Nah, he's awesome." Jack grinned himself as he clambered over onto his partner's back. "Of course he is. He's my partner."
Mistramon looked surprised for a moment, then closed his eyes, relieved. Just once, he'd been able to save someone.
Eloise looked into the horizon. "We'd better get back before we lose all light."
"Wait." Her partner lowered a little as Eloise looked in the direction her partner was facing. There, on the ground, stood Kai, Achromon hovering just next to him. The waning sunbeams caught his face and revealed his current state. Eloise gasped in shock, but the boy just bowed his head and smiled, turning to walk into the forest. Eloise held out a hand, but it was too late. He was already gone.
Achromon turned himself, stopping to steal one last glance at his life-long companion. Luminemon nodded. This was the way it had to be.
Both boy and dragon were gone. Eloise looked at the red bird next to her, Jack holding on tight to his back.
"So you did find Kai."
"Did he tell you anything?"
"Figures." Eloise sighed as the group flew back to their current home, leaving the wreckage behind them.
They were back in twenty minutes, where the rest of the group was waiting for them. Jack's feet had scarcely touched the ground before Grace's arms were around him, her eyes wet with tears.
"Jack, I'm so glad you're okay. I'm sorry, this was all my fault, I should have been-"
"It's okay, sis." Gently, Jack pulled himself away. His head was low but he was gently smiling, looking around as he addressed the whole group.
"I'm sorry. I was trying to be useful, but I just ended up being stupid. As usual."
Aaron and Velocimon shared looks. They weren't really sure what else to say. Behind Jack, the newly devolved Perimon gave a little loop. "Aw come one, don't be too hard on yourself. Think about it; we got a new evolution to play with."
"Really?" Kent scratched his chin. "That could come in useful…"
Ladomon nodded. "Yeah, it's big and scary and makes some very loud noises. I think he'd get on quite well with Cephalomon."
Perimon grinned evilly, "Oh, I can't wait to meet squid-boy again!"
Jack smiled weakly. "It's been a long day. I'm off to bed." He walked past his sister and through the group towards one of the tents.
Jack turned again, seeing Aaron addressing him. "Look...about this...you don't need to prove yourself to us. You're no weaker than any of us."
Jack's gaze wandered down to the ground. For a moment, he looked much older than he actually was.
He smiled. "Don't worry. Just as long as I'm still alive, I've got nothing else I can prove."
He turned to head inside again, but hesitated, then turned back one last time, his gaze falling on the falcon, the fox and the little girl.
"Thanks, Perimon. You're really so…so amazing…"
He disappeared into the tent before anyone could reply. Confused and a little concerned, Perimon looked down at Grace, at the worried expression on her face.
For the girl was worried. Deathly so. She'd seen her brother go through horrible things, time after time, and he would always pull through with a smile on his face in the end.
This time though, she'd been close enough to see the tears welling in his eyes as he'd walked away.