The sun rose over the terraced rooftops, signalling a beautiful summer's morning all along the south coast of England. As it climbed higher and higher, the beams of bright light it let off bounced off of the angled buildings, off the road, and into windows. It was through one of these windows that a stray sunbeam hit the face of a sleeping young girl. She mumbled, subconsciously pulling the bedcovers up over her face, but the ray of light persisted through the thin curtains, until eventually she had no choice but to open her eyes.
Something felt odd today. She blinked, trying to make sure she wasn't still dreaming. Her hazel eyes darted towards the large blue clock on her wall. Quarter to eight. A new morning. A new day. Did she need to get up? No, come to think of it, it was a Saturday. No school required. So why did it feel like today was important? She screwed her eyes shut, trying to focus.
It was her birthday.
In a flash she sat up, suddenly remembering – as a nine-just-reached-ten-year old is inclined to in these situations – that she had a multitude of presents waiting downstairs and a trip to the Sealife Centre today. Barely containing her excitement, she leapt out of bed, still clutching her slightly patched-up red stuffed dog in one hand, before running over to her door and bursting out of her bedroom.
She hadn't gone two steps before she was suddenly marauded by a couple of extremely friendly whippets; one red, one black and white. The two dogs twisted round in circles beside her as she stroked them both.
"Ember, Sky, you've come to say good morning?"
Sky licked her hand affectionately, while Ember, her enthusiasm over for the morning, wandered away and hopped downstairs to find a table leg to chew on.
Soon the little girl found herself with even more of a handful than the whippets, as her six-year old brother cannoned towards her out of nowhere, arms wide open. She met his hug request with equal gusto, and the two embraced, laughing. Jack looked up at his sister with a massive grin plastered over his face.
"Happy birthday, sis!"
Another door opened and the kids' father poked his head out, smiling as his children leapt up and down, trying to contain their excitement. Grace noticed him and ran towards him, grabbing him in a hug as well. He chuckled, stroking her shoulder-length chestnut hair.
"Happy birthday Grace. One year older, eh? Finally reaching double digits."
Jack nodded like a hyperactive bobblehead. "In another year she'll be taller than you daddy!"
Grace's dad laughed, just as her mum appeared behind him, wrapped in a dressing gown. "I expect you might well be. Happy birthday, love."
Grace began to jump, but remembered her manners and stood up straight, both arms behind her back. "Please may I open my presents?"
Her mother yawned. "Not right this moment, honey. Give us a chance; we'll get to them."
Grace couldn't contain her disappointment. "Oh. Really?"
"Wait!" Jack spun on his heels and made a dash back into his own room, emerging a second later holding a folded piece of paper. "I made her a card. Can I give this to her now?"
Their mother and father smiled at each other. "Go on then. Then get yourselves ready, and we can make a start, okay?"
The door closed, and Jack held out his hand with the folded piece of paper. "Go on, open it!"
Grace gingerly took it, and held it out in front of her. It was folded neatly, and adorned with a multitude of stickers of boats, trains and dinosaurs, as well as a surprisingly well-drawn locomotive in the middle. Grace opened it, and her gaze was temporarily distracted by the cascade of sequins that fell onto the floor. Jack snickered, and Sky wandered over to sniff at the new multicoloured shiny objects on the carpet. Grace rolled her eyes, before paying attention to the card again. There were more stickers inside it, and Jack's handwriting took up half the most of the inside.
"Deer Grace, best sister in the world. Hapy Bithday. Lov Jack."
The girl blushed. "Aw, thank you. I love you too."
The two grinned at each other, before Grace crouched down next to the sequins. "I think we should pick these up before Ember finds and eats them."
Everybody had started early. After Aaron's decision that they should find out as much as they can, they'd all split up the next day, trying to find some explanation for the mysteries in Silicon City. The clocktower. The assault on the walls. SkullMeramon. Mysterious disappearances. Nothing added up, and everybody, human and Digimon alike, was getting more than a little on edge.
"I'm not interested, thank you."
The Pumpkinmon barged past before Grace could even move out of his way, speedwalking off in a not-so-subtle gesture. Vulpimon glared at the back of his bulbous head, and muttered under her breath, "Arsehole."
"Vulpimon, language." Grace looked around; tired, yet her response almost automatic. "I expect better of you."
Vulpimon grumbled. "I'm sure you do."
The girl sighed, running a hand through her ponytail. "Come on, let's just see if we can find something else."
It was a faint hope, especially as the girl and her canine partner had very little clue what they were veen looking for. There weren't exactly any secret clubs or hidden doorways in the middle of the city, and everybody they'd talked to that morning had either seen nothing, heard nothing, or were just completely reluctant to talk. Even members of the Homemade Army, while usually willing to help, had very little to say.
Grace had been able to put one thing together. It had been about a week now since the SkullMeramon incident, and there had been no news of any more disappearences. Grace shivered; it had probably been the one disposing of them after all. But if it only hung around near the clocktower, why were the citizens going there? She had a horrible feeling she knew that too.
After all, she was still hearing the voice.
She couldn't tell what it was, or who it belonged to. Sometimes it was calm and comforting, other times wicked and sadistic, and yet other times filled with utter fury. Whatever its guise, it had persisted, getting more and more spiteful with every encounter. It never sounded when there were others around, but as soon as she was on her own, even for a minute…
Grace jumped; she wasn't sure whether that had been the voice, or whether it was just her imagination. She shivered, despite her oversized sweatshirt. She felt something cold on her hand and looked down to see Vulpimon nuzzling her.
"You okay there? You sort of blanked out for a minute."
Grace laughed nervously. "Again? Sorry, didn't mean to."
Her partner didn't laugh; instead she sighed, and looked down. "Look, Grace, I..."
The fox rolled her tongue around her mouth, trying to find the words. Grace listened intently.
"Listen, this...you...you're hiding something, aren't you..."
The girl shook her head, but her gaze fell away. Vulpimon narrowed her eyes. "I can tell when you're lying."
"It's not important."
The fox sighed. "How long are you going to keep saying that? You've been like this for several days now. What can be so bad that you can't just tell me?"
Grace hunched her shoulders. "I said it's nothing important, and even if it were, it's not fair on you. You don't need to know."
"I'm directly linked to you by an elemental thread, Grace. It's kind of my job to know."
"I said I'm fine!"
Grace pulled away defensively, before marching off down the street. Vulpimon stared after her, mouth hanging open. "Where do you think you're going?"
Vulpimon watched her walk away, and grimaced. That girl would be the death of her one day. She knew more than anyone the need to hide one's feelings, but even so she could tell this wasn't going to go away. Grace was hurting, and if the fox didn't do something soon, she'd end up losing her.
"Hey wolfy, why the long face?"
Vulpimon closed her eyes. "Perimon, dear, call me wolfy one more time and I will stuff your helmet where the sun don't shine."
Perimon backed away. "Owch. Cold."
Beside him, Jack sniggered. "Heh heh, cold. I get it." He patted Vulpimon's head, before looking around. "Where's Grace?"
Vulpimon gestured. "Wandered off. We haven't found anything and she got stroppy." She paused. "Well...maybe not stroppy. To tell the truth I think there's something on her mind."
Jack frowned, before walking off, calling back, "I'll go and talk with her."
The fox exhaled, and turned to Perimon. "I don't suppose you guys have had any luck, have you?"
"Nope. Nobody knows what the 'mysterious clocktower' actually is, or about anything to do with it. And blowed if I can get up there to have a look myself."
"The anti-flight field?"
"Yeah. I tried asking about that, but nobody seems to know about that either. It just sort of happens. You try and scale the walls, you get sent back to earth." His eyes widened, and he leaned in close, pulling Vulpimon under his wing. "You know, maybe the clocktower's actually a giant antenna that sucks everybody inside and it's gonna turn into a giant war vehicle ready to take down the Fire Kingdom."
Vulpimon raised an eyebrow. "You've been spending too much time around Jack."
Perimon cooed, "Ooh, that was a frosty reception." He pulled back before Vulpimon could bite him, and folded his wings. "You know, maybe my theory is right."
"Or maybe there's nothing wrong with the tower after all; we've just been wasting our time here and I just have a very paranoid partner."
Gently seething, she walked off, kicking up the dust behind her. Perimon tapped his beak nervously, but said nothing.
Some way away, Jack spotted Grace wandering around aimlessly, still with a blank look on her face. He waved at her, walking towards her, but he was suddenly shoved roughly to the side.
"Watch where yer goin'!"
Jack landed roughly on the ground, coughing from all the dust. He sat up and caught a glimpse of a bedraggled looking Pandamon, who was busy brushing himself down.
"Sorry, didn't see you."
Pandamon looked up, a flame in his eye. "Are ya makin' fun of my size, shrimpy?"
Jack was about to retort, when it suddenly dawned on him what he'd unintentionally said. "Uh, no, I didn't mean…" He bowed his head. "I'm sorry, I'm new here. I didn't mean to make fun of you."
Pandamon huffed. "As if. Never do care for anyone round here, do you."
Grace walked over, being followed by a gaggle of curious onlookers. "What's going on here? Jack?"
Jack raised his hands. "I tripped over him. Sorry, it was my fault."
Pandamon sneered. "Dick."
"Hey!" Grace stood by her brother, facing the teddy. "He apologised; can't you leave it there?"
Jack nudged her. "Um, don't-"
But she already had, and Pandamon was more than willing to take her on. He stood up, and began striding towards her, holding out a worn stuffed paw. "No. Can't, won't and will never 'leave it there' . You humans have bin the same since you got here; runnin' up and down all over the place causing havoc. I'm sick of ya. The lot of ya."
Grace put her hands on her hips, squaring off against the stuffed toy in a faintly ridiculous sight. "I don't know if you've been watching, but we've kind of been protecting the city. We've been risking our lives since we got here, trying to keep you safe."
"We don't need ya." Pandamon spat. "Besides, who's sayin' you didn't let that SkullMeramon in in the first place?"
Grace's mouth dropped open. "We didn't...how would we even do that?" she said, more incredulous by the second.
"I know you. You have yer ways. Yer've already gotten Babamon at yer beck and call; yer not protecting us. Yer just livin' off of us. I'd like to see ya in a real fight."
"What do you know? I've been in one. I-"
She was cut off by Pandamon's tirade, as more and more Digimon gathered, Vulpimon and Perimon included. The bird whispered to his comrade, "This looks like it'll get ugly."
Pandamon continued. "Show me one bloody thing ya done. One bloody difference ya made here. Hell, yer makin' it worse, all the time. Yer useless."
"I'm not useless!"
"Bullcrap. Ya never won anyfin' properly. Ya just a bunch of failures, pretendin' to be heroes."
Jack stood up, holding his sister tightly, a hurt look in his eyes. "He's lying, Grace. He's just angry."
Pandamon looked round at the watching crowd like a gladiator, arms spread wide. "Do we need these guys? Or can we live here on our own terms?"
His call was answered by over a dozen cheers, mocks and guffaws, and some of the crowd began to close in, looking decidedly angry. Pandamon turned back to them. "Ya see? Yer nothin' but a failure. You'll never save this world; you should never've come here."
"You take that back!" Perimon strode out, quickly followed by Vulpimon, who stood protectively by her partner. The bird squared off against the bear, who despite everything, smiled nastily. "So ya've all come out together. Ya bloody failures."
It's all your fault.
"It's over. Yer all gonna die, slowly an' painfully. An' it's all yer own fault."
It's all your fault.
"Ya ruined everythin'"
You ruined everything.
"SHUT UP!" Without warning, Grace suddenly ran forward and booted the bear in the chest, sending him skidding away.
The crowd gasped, Jack put his hand over his mouth and Vulpimon ran up towards her. "What have you done?"
But Grace wasn't finished. She stood in the centre of the circle of Digimon, hands shaking with rage. She pointed a finger at the winded Digimon. "What is your problem with me? And yours? And yours?" Here she pointed around at random members of the crowd; those who'd shown their support for the angry bear earlier on.
"We never asked to come here, but we stayed. We're trying to help. We've done what we can, but it's never enough, is it? You're always judging us, every one of you. You're right; we can't make a difference; even if we take down a Commander, the Fire Forces just keep coming. So go on; tell us! What the hell are we supposed to do?"
She glared around at the crowd, who had begun to slink backwards. Nobody answered. Grace gave a hysterical laugh. "Just as I thought, you ungrateful cowards. Why are we even trying to save any of you?"
Vulpimon nudged her in the leg. "Grace, stop. That's too far-"
She whirled round, tears spraying out, before pointing an accusing finger at Vulpimon, her own partner. "How? We can't do anything to save them; we can't even do anything to save ourselves! Tell me, Vulpimon? Why are we still failing? Why won't it ever stop?"
Vulpimon quailed. "I-I-I-I-I-I-"
Grace got down to one knee, her eyes wildly staring into her partner's. "It's your fault as well. You've never been able to fight like the rest of them. You haven't even evolved to Ultimate yet, and I haven't evolved either. Why? What's wrong with you? What's wrong with me?" Her voice broke more and more until she could no longer hold her head at Vulpimon's eye level.
"Why can't I ever get a break? Why can't I do anything right? Why am I not strong enough? Why do I fail at absolutely everything I try? Why? Why? For God's sake, I've done all I can!"
She collapsed into a ball, crying hysterically. Vulpimon was stunned, unable to comprehend what she'd just heard. From all around them, the crowd were muttering amongst themselves, and some began to shout out again.
"What do you know about anything?"
"You're no warrior! You're nothing but a scared little girl!"
With an animal growl, Pandamon sat up, rubbing his chest. His eyes were full of so much fury that even the crowd around him hurriedly got out of his way.
Pandamon stood up, holding both arms out as dull silver spikes erupted from his cuddly round paws. He began to walk menacingly towards them, flecks of spit flying everywhere as he spoke. "Ya really are pathetic. Now I can say I was provoked when I ripped yer eyes out."
Grace and Vulpimon stared in horror at the advancing bear, who was looking more like a rabid animal by the second. Grace could barely speak, but when she did, it was the faintest voice imaginable. "I'm sorry…I...I'm sorry..."
Vulpimon planted herself between Pandamon and Grace, staring down the oncoming threat. Grace held out a hand, but Vulpimon ignored her gaze. "Stop right now. This has gone too far."
Pandamon snarled nightmarishly. "Makes no difference. I want justice. She deserves punishment."
Vulpimon flinched. "She's had enough! Everyone around here's had enough punishment already. Don't you see that?"
Grace looked up weakly. "Vulpimon...?"
Pandamon stopped, and stared at the sight before him: Perimon, Vulpimon and Jack all gathered around the terrified girl. He lowered his claws, looking almost too tired to go on. "Yer companion's a selfish, whiny bitch. Punishment's too good for her."
Without warning, Vulpimon snarled. "Take that back."
Pandamon raised his arms and advanced again. "Get out of my way."
"No!" Jack and Perimon leapt back as Vulpimon turned on Pandamon, her hackles up and her muscles twitching. "I said take it back!"
"That girl is worthless. Get out of my way and I'll put her out of her misery."
"My partner is not worthless you bastard!" barked Vulpimon, and she leapt at the oncoming toy. The two fell to the ground, snapping and slashing wildly at each other. All the while, Vulpimon was yelling at the bear like a wild animal, "She's right! What is the point of saving you? You're the one who needs to be punished!"
With a gut-wrenching scream, Grace leapt to her feet, pushing away everyone around her. "STOP FIGHTING!" Jack tried to grab her wrist, but he was too slow, and she began to run. Jack called after her, "Grace, come back! You can't leave Vulpimon!"
She paid him no heed; instead disappearing into the back alleys of the streets. Jack gave his partner a glance, but Perimon simply nodded. "Go after her. I'll stop the fox."
Jack lowered his head and ran off, as the fight raged on. Vulpimon yelled as Pandamon's claws slashed at her front legs, before bringing her teeth down on the beast's left arm. Fur, blood and stuffing flew everywhere. Vulpimon glared at the bear out of the corner of her eye, still holding on tightly.
"No!" Pandamon slashed again, making her grip slip. The bear crawled away, clutching his wounded arm. "You don't deserve it."
"You don't deserve us." Vulpimon ran forward again, tackling him to the ground. "Give me one good reason why we're fighting to save scum like you!"
Perimon flew in above her, trying desperately to insert himself in between them, while at the same time trying to avoid losing an eye. "Vulpimon, stop! He's not worth it!"
He flinched back as Vulpimon snapped at him. "Stay out of this!"
"ENOUGH! CLAY DIVIDER!"
The shockwave ploughed through the crowd like a cat amongst pigeons, instantly separating the two fighters and sending everybody present sprawling on the ground. All around, Digimon looked up to see Fornaxmon towering above them, blade planted in the ground. He slowly lifted his arm up, as Babamon walked slowly out from behind him, towards the two.
She stopped, her face grave. "I'm very disappointed in you. Both of you."
Vulpimon turned away. "He was going to maim my partner."
"The bitch attacked me!"
"You brought it on yourself."
"Quiet." Babamon slammed her broom against the ground with an ominous bang. "I will not tolerate citizens trying to slaughter each other. This is a place for us to get along peacefully. Or have you already forgotten what lies outside?"
Pandamon folded his arms, his claws fully retracted. "I haven't. Figures you have."
Babamon glared at him beneath her fringe. "What do you mean?"
All eyes were on the bear as he raised an accusatory paw. "Yer all the same. Every single one of ya. Ya say this place is the last stronghold for all of us, but that ain't the case. Open yer eyes; this ain't a city; it's a graveyard. Ya expect us to live together but all we're gonna do is die together. The Fire Kingdom have all but won anyway."
Fornaxmon shook his head in disbelief. "What are you talking about? You have a safe haven here as a citizen. The city saved your life. Why are you fighting against everyone who wants to help you?"
Pandamon closed his eyes. "Sure, back when I came here the city saved my life. But everythin' dies in the end. I used t' have neighbours. They're all dead now. My home and all my profession were all destroyed during the SkullMeramon attack. I've spent the last week walkin' the streets with nothin'. No-one can help me. I don't matter any more. No matter what I do, life always comes back to torment me further. I've got nothin' left now. So don't ya dare tell me that the city did anythin' for me."
He turned, and began to walk away down the street. Some of the other citizens followed him, some just watched. He stopped briefly, and turned back.
"It's all a failure. The city is a failure. We don't need humans no more; we need a miracle. One strong ruler to take back what we've lost."
He smiled maliciously.
"We need a king."
"What do you think?"
Grace hid behind her mother as the two walked into the kitchen. Jack looked up from his bowl of Sugar Puffs and leant backwards on his chair, "Where is she?"
Their dad caught him out of the corner of his eye, and brought his hand down. "Jack, I've told you before; don't lean back on your chair or you'll fall off."
Jack planted all four feet back on the floor, pouting, as Grace shook her head, still hiding. Her mother beckoned her out, and slowly, reluctantly, she stepped out into the middle of the kitchen. Her parents were very much of the mindset that one should dress up nicely for a special occasion. She was wearing a pretty sky-blue dress, neatly pleated at the hem, and a darker-blue denim jacket with silver buttons. Her hair was held back with a simple purple hairband, showing her blushing features.
She looked down. "I look silly, don't I…"
"Of course not." Her dad laughed. "I think you look really pretty."
Jack raised his spoon, unwittingly flinging milk droplets across the kitchen. "Where are the presents?"
Grace looked hopeful, but her father raised a finger. "Didn't we say to be patient?"
"Hang on, Paul, we have a while before we wanted to head off. I'm sure she could open them now."
Mr Gallant looked thoughtful, but with his wife's suggestion and his children showing him the biggest puppy eyes he'd ever seen in his eyes, he gave in. "Okay, why not."
Grace did a little hop, whispering "Yes!", but her father raised a finger. "Hold on. I know you're excited, but you can have some breakfast first."
Grace did so, trying not to choke on her cereal as she tried to get it down as fast as she possibly could. Breakfast took about ten minutes, and in no time at all the family were all sat down in the living room, looking somewhat impressed at Grace's sizeable pile of gifts and cards. Ember and Sky were both enjoying bones in the other room. Jack leaned in closer, "Open them, open them, open them!"
Grace didn't need any encouragement, and immediately got stuck in. In a few minutes there was loose paper everywhere, causing Ember to walk in out of sheer curiosity, nab a piece of foil paper and tear back into the other room before anyone could stop her, where she could demolish her prize in peace.
After all the chaos, the entire pile was revealed, consisting of several cards (some containing money and book tokens), some new slippers, a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle in the shape of a turtle, a couple of new books in a series Grace particularly enjoyed, and a remote-control helicopter. Jack's eyes in particular lit up at the sight of the helicopter, and he began badgering his sister almost instantaneously. "Try it, try it, go on, try it, I wanna see how it works, can I have a go?"
Their father shook his head, "Calm down, Jack, it's your sister's birthday. I'm sure you can have a go later, after we get back."
Grace stood up and hugged each member of her family in turn. "Thank you so much! I love you all."
Her father smiled, but her mother was frowning. "I'm sure we're missing one…"
"There's another one?"
Her father thought for a second, then snapped his fingers. "I remember, Ember was having a cursory chew, so I put it out the way, then forgot about it. Let's see…ah yes." He got up and left the room. Grace and Jack heard him running up the stairs, then down again a few seconds later. He emerged, holding a small box, with a slightly-damaged wrapping decorated with polar bears and penguins. He handed it to his wife, "I think you should do the honours. You picked it out."
Grace's mother grinned, before handing the box over to her daughter, who was looking on in wonder. "We weren't sure if it was the best time to get you this. But you're ten years old now; you're growing up, nearly a teenager. No time like the present. So, here, we hope you like it."
Grace set to work opening the wrapping (rather easy due to Ember's contribution), revealing a small, navy-blue leather-bound box. Gingerly, she opened it, and removed to layer of sponge padding inside. Lying in the soft compartment was a simple silver necklace, which held a small silver pendant in the shape of a teardrop. Set in the pendant was a polished stone, of the most royal blue etched with purple and green as it caught the light; a lapis lazuli, utterly flawless. Grace put her hand to her mouth.
"It's beautiful. Thank you."
Her mother smiled, reached over and plucked the pendant from the box, pulling the chain apart. Grace bent her head slightly and her mother attached the chain around her neck. The girl sat back, straightening her new apparel. Jack squinted at the stone, "It's really shiny. Must be a sapphire."
His mother laughed. "Not quite, but it's still precious. Make sure you take good care of it, and it'll last you a lifetime."
Grace beamed from ear to ear, closing the little box in her hand. Her father looked at his watch. "We'd better get going soon. If we hurry we can make it in time for the sealion show."
Their mother stood up, clapping her hands. "Come on, you two, get your coats on."
"Yay!" Jack leapt to his feet and rushed off to the cloakroom, causing Ember to scoot out of the way, abandoning her hard-won paper.
"I wanna pet the sharks!"
Jack ran through the streets, searching fervently left and right for any sign of his sister. Putting his hands to his mouth, he called out, "GRACE?"
There was no answer, and as he ran further he became increasingly worried as he realised he didn't know where he was. This part of the city was even more alien than the place around the clocktower; tall, ramshackle buildings, mysterious odours and odd graffiti adorning every surface. Being written Digicode, Jack couldn't read any of it; a fact which made him rather grateful. This was not the best place to get lost.
He felt his knee beginning to ache and stopped, catching his breath. The wind blew past and he shivered, before jumping as a nearby door opened with a creak. It swayed as he gingerly walked up to it, seeing something moving behind it. Slowly, he poked his head in, looking all around the darkened room. His eyes settled beneath an antique wooden cabinet, where a shape withdrew slightly, shaking and letting off sobs. He walked his way towards it, biting his lower lip.
She flinched. "Go away."
Jack didn't; instead he leant against the cabinet and slid down beside her. "You shouldn't be here, you know. I think this is someone's house."
"I know. I'll move later."
The boy sighed, blinking as his eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. "So what was all that about?"
Grace looked away, sniffing. "It was my fault."
"No it wasn't!" Jack put a hand on his sister's shoulder. "Well, okay, you did kick him, but he started it. He deserved what he got."
Jack grinned. "It was kinda cool as well."
Grace giggled, and wiped her eyes. "I have to admit, it felt good." She stopped shaking, and leaned back, her eyes distant. "Still, it was wrong of me. I got angry when I could have just dealt with it. Then I just ran away from it; that's not fair on any of you." She closed her eyes. "And I said the most horrible things to Vulpimon."
Jack swallowed, avoiding his sister's gaze. He became vaguely aware of something shuffling outside the boarded window. On a wall nearby, a clock chimed. Three bells. The afternoon was wearing on.
"Vulpimon told me you've been hiding something."
Grace looked away again. "Not you too..."
"Can you all just leave me alone?" snapped the girl, her voice cracking for an instant. Jack pulled back, shocked, but Grace crouched into a ball, staring straight ahead. "It's nothing to do with any of you. You don't need to know what it is."
Jack blinked. "Don't you trust us?"
"It's not that."
"I don't want you to get hurt."
Jack gave a sarcastic laugh. "It's a little late for that. We've been here for weeks, and been attacked loads by random fire monsters. I don't think anyone's gonna be bothered."
Grace turned round, and viciously pointed her thumb at her chest. "Look, this is my responsibility. I can handle it on my own."
Her brother pouted. "You sound like you're talking about me again."
Grace narrowed her eyes at him. "Yeah, well, maybe you ought to listen and not chase after danger."
Jack grunted, and pounded his fist against the floor. "I really hate you sometimes."
Grace buried her head in her arms. "I'm sure you do."
The two sat in silence for a few minutes. Jack eyed his sister as she just sat there, gently rocking back and forth. He squinted, but she remained as impenetrable as ever. He wished there was some way he could see what she was thinking; to enter her mind, find the problem and get rid of it, just like that. But of course that was silly. Even in the Digital World that would be just too convenient.
Grace caught his gaze and looked up. "What?"
Jack stood up, and held out a hand. "Come on, let's go home. I think we've had enough for the day."
Grace blinked, before smiling. "You're right. Let's go back."
Jack made for the door, when he stopped, suddenly aware of the figure standing in the doorway. He froze. Grace looked up after a few seconds, noticed the figure, before standing up herself, sniffing and hurriedly wiping away her tears. "I'm sorry…we-"
The figure raised a hand. "No need. I heard what you were talking about."
Jack and Grace looked at each other, before averting their gazes hurriedly. Jack mumbled, "How much did you hear?"
The figure cocked his head. "Enough." He sauntered in, closing the door behind him. His movements were deliberate and graceful, yet alien, as if he moved with a body that wasn't quite his own. As he got closer, the children realised the stranger was tall; at least ten foot. He let out a solitary laugh. "Can you see in the dark, or did you want me to shed a little light on the situation?"
He nodded, gesturing at an object atop the cabinet. Grace and Jack moved to one side hurriedly, as the figure reached out and touched the object on top. It glowed with an odd purple light, revealing itself to be a large paper lantern that lit up the entire room, and illuminated the stranger himself.
He was roughly humanoid, but seemed to lack any limbs. He seemed impossibly thin; his legs seeming to taper down to a single point. Not that Jack or Grace could exactly see, as his entire body was wrapped in a flamboyant dark cloak, trimmed with red, that flowed around his feet(?) almost like a liquid. Atop his head he wore a silk hat, also in the lavish blue and red. His face was obscured and seemingly featureless, apart from a single pair of lips, that curved up in a friendly smile. The only other clue as to his true nature was a pair of ethereal hands that protruded from the front of his cloak, grasping a cane. The cane itself was ornate; carved wood with golden bands, and a single glowing orb fixed on the top, wrapped in ribbon.
He reached up, his hands seemingly slipping through his cloak, as he doffed his hat. "A pleasure to meet you both. My name is Cerebrumon." He gave another single chuckle. "I was hoping you'd come, actually. This is most convenient."
Grace reached out a hand and clutched her brother's arm. Slowly, they began to step backwards in unison, heading towards the door. Cerebrumon gracefully sauntered around the room, waving his hand and activating various trinkets that began to glow, hum and spin. He seemed completely oblivious to them, but as the two reached the door it gently closed. There was a snap as the lock twisted shut. Jack swallowed.
Cerebrumon turned to them at last, grinning as he admired the room around him, in particular an ornate mirror that took up half a wall. "It's a nice place, don't you think? Very homely."
"Do you live here?"
A hand emerged out of Cerebrumon's cloak and he brought it to his lips, feigning surprise. "Heavens no. Nobody lives around here any more. They were all…relocated, shall we say?"
Grace gulped. "So you…"
Cerebrumon laughed suddenly; a deep bellow that echoed around the room. "I did nothing. These houses were empty when I arrived. I've merely been making out a living as best as I can. Please," Here he gestured towards the centre of the room, where two chairs had suddenly appeared, "make yourselves at home."
Grace nudged her brother, but he shook his head. "Can't we stay just a little? He might be able to help us. He seems friendly."
Grace gulped. "Yeah. Seems."
The children smiled as they sat down, looking up at the tall, cloaked figure. Grace coughed. "What do you do here?"
"Me?" Cerebrumon gestured theatrically to himself. Grace's eyes darted down and she noticed for the first time that he hadn't actually let go of his cane with either hand yet. She wondered how many arms he even had, or what he actually looked like underneath the elegant apparel.
Cerebrumon sighed nostalgically. "I haven't held a proper career in a long time. Nobody really speaks to me here, possibly because I don't go out much. Still, since you asked…" Here he paused, bowing once again. "I am a telepathic linker."
Jack raised one eyebrow. "A what?"
Cerebrumon chuckled. "It's not a common area, to be sure. Basically I can form connections between minds." He moved suddenly, holding out a small, transparent card like object in front of the both of them, enscribed with shifting Digicode.
"Relive memories. Find the lost. Discover more about yourselves, and who you really are. Because when you think about it..." He paused dramatically, as the children listened intently.
"...we're all connected."
Jack giggled. "You can really do all that?"
"Of course." Cerebrumon lifted his cane and tapped his hat a couple of times. "It's all in the mind. You only need to listen to its voice."
Grace started. "You...have you been the one speaking to me? In my head?"
Jack turned to her, "What did you say?"
His sister silenced him with a wave, but the cloaked figure tapped his cane, smiling all the more. "It's not that simple. I need to have a physical connection in order to communicate effectively." He absent-mindedly pulled out his cloak slightly, revealing more inky blackness, before leaning back. "Still, this is intriguing. I've yet to sense another linker in this city. Who could be talking to you, I wonder?"
Jack nudged his sister again. "Grace, what did you mean 'have you been the one speaking to me'?"
Grace put her hand over her mouth, before averting her gaze. "It's nothing."
"Is this what you were talking about, that wasn't my problem?"
"It isn't your problem! It's my head!"
Jack began to pace, placing his knuckles to his mouth. "This is bad..."
Grace held her arms open. "How?"
"Cause it either means that you've gone crazy, or that someone's spying on us." Jack folded his arms. "Whatever it is, it's not good. How long have you been hearing them?"
Grace gulped, unused to being interrogated by her brother in this fashion. "A-About a week? Before SkullMeramon..."
"What does it say?"
Jack put his foot down angrily. "If you're hearing voices it has to be saying something."
Grace quailed for a moment, before stealing herself, standing up tall. "I said this was my problem. Not yours, and not anyone else's. I'm not saying any more."
Jack held his mouth open. "You can't do that!"
Grace took a step towards him. "I'm the older sibling. I know what's best for me, and what's best for you. I'm not telling you any more."
"You're gonna hurt yourself! Or worse! Please, Grace, just tell me! Tell me everything..."
Grace ignored his pleas, turning to the shadow man, who was watching in interest. He raised his hands, "This is nothing to do with me. This is between you two."
"No, it's to do with me and me alone." Grace pointed at the door, snapping her fingers. "We're going. Let us out, please."
Cerebrumon sighed. "If I must, I must. Much though it saddens me."
He glided towards the door, when suddenly Jack held out his hand. "Wait, mister!"
The shadow-man paused, and tilted his head backwards, almost playfully. Jack shivered; it was as if the creature could already tell what he was thinking, and it seemed far too happy. Still, he had to do this. Beside him, Grace looked down. "Jack, what-"
"You said you could link people's minds? How does that work?"
Grace's eyes widened. She grabbed Jack's hand and made for the door, but Jack pulled away, an oddly serious look on his face. She went for the door anyway, but it remained locked. Behind her, Cerebrumon twisted round in a flurry of shadow and knelt down to look Jack in the eye.
"It's quite simple, really. You see what your sister thinks, and vice versa. When you're finished, you can meet back up in the middle, feeling all the wiser. Why? Are you interested?"
Grace whirled round, bearing down on her brother. "Jack, don't you dare!"
Jack bit his lip; he hated what he was about to say, but he had no choice. If he didn't, he might lose his sister for good.
"Cerebrumon, please can you link us? Just once?"
"What are you doing?" Grace grabbed his shoulders and turned him round to face her, shaking him. "We can't trust him! What if he's out to get us as well?"
Without warning, Jack pushed her away, sending her stumbling back. He glared at her with eyes far too bitter for a boy his age. "It's you I can't trust at the moment!"
Grace held her breath, while her brother slowly walked over to her. "I don't want to do this. Maybe he is out to get us, but the voice in your head is definitely out to get us. You keep telling me I can't handle it on your own. Well neither can you."
Grace shook, holding her shoulders. "Jack, you don't understand, I don't-"
"Grace, please! Just tell me, then we can go home and fight whatever it is together. Please...I don't want you to get hurt."
Grace was visibly shaken, but even so she held firm. "I can't. I want to, but I just can't. It's...it's not..." She broke down again, fully aware of what was about to happen.
Jack stepped forward and hugged her, whispering in her ear. "I'm sorry." Then he turned to the shadow-man. "Please...just do it now..."
Cerebrumon gestured at the chairs again, and Jack sat down. Grace's chair moved and positioned itself beneath her; she sat down with barely any resistance. The chairs and furniture manoeuvered themselves, as if by magic, until the two children were facing each other in the centre of the room, surrounded by a carved symbol. Cerebrumon stood between them; he extended his two hands and placed the cane between them, where it remained standing, the orb at eye level. Jack turned to him, "Will it hurt?"
Cerebrumon chuckled. "Trust me, you won't feel a thing."
Jack smiled weakly, before looking down, unable to meet his sister's gaze. Cerebrumon extended his arms again, revealing them to actually be one conjoined arm, twisted together in a helix. His cloak rustled, and the arm began to unravel, each tendril stretching out towards each child's head.
Grace looked up weakly. "Jack, please, no. I can't...you can't...Jack, I'm so sorry…"
Jack mumbled, "It'll be fine." His eyes still remained glued to the floor.
Cerebrumon smiled wickedly as the room began to darken. The hands touched the childrens' foreheads at exactly the same moment, and the room began to swirl. Jack had his eyes clenched shut, not wanting to look. Grace was sobbing quietly, her energy all but gone.
Jack flinched. Grace screamed. The room stopped spinning, and everything went black.
The back roads were quiet this time in the afternoon, and Grace was feeling particularly relaxed. The clock chimed three as she opened her bedroom window just a little further, letting the air in. It had been a good day. Scratch that; it had been one of the best days she could remember. Despite nearly being kissed by a butterfly ray in the open tank.
There was a knock at her door, before Jack wandered in, looking particularly hopeful. Grace grinned. "Where're Mum and Dad?"
"Downstairs." Jack grinned. "You've got cake, sis." He placed his hands behind his back and began to rock back and forth. "So…um…you know earlier when they said I could have a go on your helicopter?"
Grace folded her arms. "What are you supposed to say?"
"I couldn't hear you."
Jack thrust his hands together. "Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeease?"
Grace chuckled. "Alright. I haven't opened it yet though; we'll look at it together."
Jack bounced up. "Yay! I love you, Grace!"
The two kids knelt down together and began to unpackage the toy. Jack was rather overenthusiastic in removing the plastic, whereas Grace was trying to examine what had been left of the box.
"Batteries not included…" She picked up the remote controller, before waving at her brother. "I'm just gonna get some batteries from Mum. I'll be back in a minute."
Jack was too engrossed in the machine lying before him to answer. Grace walked away, then poked her head back round the door.
"Don't you dare break it!"
Grace ran downstairs to the kitchen, where she was greeted by excitable dogs once again. Her mother looked up from what she was doing, quickly hiding a box of coloured items behind her back. Grace gave a little nod. "Mum, please could I borrow some AA batteries? We're just trying out the helicopter."
Her mother grinned. "Of course." She walked over to the drawer. "We'll be having tea in ten minutes though. You'll have to come and show us when you've got it working." She held out a hand with four of the required components. "Be careful now."
"Thanks! We will!"
Grace leapt back up the stairs and burst into her room, where she saw her brother still holding the little machine. He jumped a little as his sister entered the room, and put the miniature aircraft down. Grace grinned, and brandished the batteries, placing them one by one into the remote and turning it on. Jack looked over her shoulder, "Is it working? Can I have a go? Can I?"
"Hold on a minute, I'm not sure how this works. Stand back."
Jack shuffled back a couple of inches as Grace gingerly pressed a lever, and the rotors began to spin. She held it ever so slightly harder, and the aircraft began to bob up and down, before rising slowly off the floor. Jack watched, mesmerised, as the little machine rose higher and higher.
Grace fiddled a little more, and the helicopter began to sway. "Let's see if I can get it to steer."
"Grace, you said I could have a go!"
"In a minute." Grace frowned in concentration, trying to figure out how to control the toy. "It's not as easy as a car."
Jack nudged up beside her. "I can figure it out. Please let me have a go?"
"I said in a minute."
"You said I could!" Suddenly Jack reached for the controller, causing his sister to nudge one of the levers hard down. Grace yelped as the helicopter zipped across the room, its rotors going haywire as it headed for the window. She got up, not quite sure how she was going to catch it, but the device had already rolled along the outside window-ledge, coming to rest about a metre from the window.
Jack bit his lip. "Sorry."
Grace grunted, but remained calm. "No worries. It's light, so if I can get it to fall off then we can pick it up from outside."
She held a lever. The helicopter began to whirr; the motor was definitely running. But the rotors were static. She shoved the lever forward forcefully a few times. Gingerly, Jack tapped her on the shoulder.
Jack shuffled his feet, before holding up a piece of ring-shaped plastic. Grace looked at the stranded aircraft again; the axle was spinning to no avail. The helicopter was well and truly stranded.
With an exasperated harrumph, Grace dropped the remote on the floor. "Well, great." She turned to her brother, who was looking dejectedly at the floor. "Why can't you ever just be patient?"
"I didn't mean to…"
"No, of course you don't!" Grace marched past him, kicking the now defunct packaging away. "You just don't think. You never think, and that's why you ruin everything."
Jack looked up, teary-eyed. She humphed, and looked the other way. Jack diverted his attention to the stranded helicopter. "You know, I don't need a go on it after all."
Grace snorted. "Well, it's too late now, isn't it…"
"I don't think so." Carefully, Jack climbed up on the chair and sat himself on the windowsill, trying to gauge the distance between him and the toy. It looked close enough to reach. Holding tightly to the reinforced window frame, he reached out, running his hand along the stonework. Grace turned and saw what her brother was doing. She yelped, and ran over, clutching his leg.
"What are you doing? Mum and Dad will get mad!"
Jack shook his head. "I've almost got it. It'll be okay."
Grace shook her head. "I didn't mean it, I swear I didn't. Please, get back inside. We can get them to fetch it later."
The wind blew up again, and Jack suddenly stopped, trying to steady himself. He glanced down; the roof of the porch was a couple of feet below him. He gulped; this wasn't exactly the smartest idea he'd come up with. But then again, it was his fault the thing was out here to begin with. Surely he could do this one little thing for his sister.
"Jack, get back inside now!"
Jack steeled himself, reached out and grabbed the helicopter. He held his eyes shut for a second, before slowly pulling himself upright again. He waved the toy at Grace and grinned. She breathed a sigh of relief.
There was a sudden cold breeze again, and she witnessed her brother tilt backwards. His eyes widened just before he disappeared from sight. Grace screamed and held onto his leg, but it lurched away from her, making her brother cry out in sudden pain. She fell backwards, watching the wind upset her room as she heard a clatter, then a dull thud.
She screamed again and got to her feet, leaping down the stairs two at a time. "MUM!" Her mother appeared in the doorway, looking concerned. "No, I definitely heard a bang...Grace? What was that?"
Grace opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Her breathing was erratic. Her eyes were wide, unable to focus.
Her mother seemed to tower over her, a twinge of fear in her eyes. "What happened?"
"JADE! COME HERE NOW!"
Her mother's eyes darted up; the noise had come from outside. She ran past Grace and out the door, both dogs following, barking in unison. Grace heard another yell, and rushed to the porch door herself; not wanting to see, but unable to run away. Clutching onto the doorframe, she poked her head out. Everything seemed to be moving in a blur before her eyes. Her parents were knelt down next to a still body. No, not still. It was shaking. Or was that her? Her mother stood up and barged her way back inside, dragging the still barking dogs with her. 999. Out of the way. Her brother lay on the patio, his right leg at an unnatural angle. There were splashes of something reddish brown on the stonework beneath him. She could hear her father speaking soft, comforting words, and behind that, the sound of a boy in pain, sobbing. A helicopter lay on the ground next to him, broken in several places.
She seemed to be losing track of all time, and all events. Blue flashing lights on a neon yellow van. Other men; paramedics? Grace had heard the word once or twice. Her brother, lying on a stretcher. The van driving away.
Another room. Chairs all around. Her mother's eyes looking into hers. How did it happen? Still no words. Then another room. A strange woman with a serious voice. Lots of large words. Inherited abnormality. Recurring patellar instability. Her father, face perfectly straight, nodding in understanding. His hands are shaking.
One more room. The doctor's smiling. A bed. Her mother smiling as well. Everything's okay. Her mother's eyes red-raw from crying. Her brother lying on the bed, awake, leg in a cast. Smiling weakly. Wincing from pain.
Then the nightmare broke down, just for a second, and gave way to tears.
It's all your fault.
How can you protect him?
Jack clutched his hands to his head as the voices rang out all around him. Whether they were real or just in his sister's head, the boy had no idea. All he knew was that it was pressing down on him; a maniacal laughter that wouldn't go away.
"Who are you?"
The voice ignored him, or perhaps it didn't hear him.
"What do you want with my sister?"
Again, no response. Jack swallowed, surrounded by the unseen apparition, continually spewing bile at him. Was this what his sister was feeling? All the time? The never-ending voice, tearing into her brain, never giving any respite...
The voice stopped mid-laugh, falling away into an echo, but Jack didn't have time to relax as he discovered that he was falling, spinning through space at goodness knows what velocity. He braced himself for impact, but it never came.
Gingerly, he opened his eyes. Lights and colours were flipping past him; there seemed to be no end to this place in any direction. In fact, now that he thought about it, he wasn't even sure he was falling.
As he thought this, everything suddenly stopped. He was just hanging in space; random abstract shapes floating all around him. He frowned, before focusing his thoughts. He fell again briefly, before landing on one of them. Everything else vanished and the shape began to expand, forming an endless plane. Impressed, Jack began to walk.
He heard sounds behind him as the colours began to fade, turning a heavy blue. He could hear the sound of breathing; turning around he saw his sister, curled up in a ball in the middle of her own mind. He immediately felt a pang of guilt; he was the one who'd forced her into this. Forced her through that horrible event again. Just the memory of it immediately brought back the pain. A pain that had never gone away, and from the looks of it, was never going to.
Without a word, he sat next to her, shivering. Her mind was cold, he decided. Probably not a healthy sign, but he wasn't going to bring that up now.
The two sat together for a while; at least, it seemed like a while. There was no telling how much time was passing in here, but at the same time neither of them really cared. Gently, Jack put out a hand, and placed it on her shoulder. She didn't move, but Jack could hear her voice, muffled through her arms.
"You felt it, didn't you…"
Jack nodded. "It's a hard thing to forget." He got onto his knees, facing his sister again. "Sis, it…it wasn't your fault. It was me. I was being stupid. I didn't mean-"
"You weren't to know." Grace sighed, and lifted her eyes above her little cocoon. Jack could see dark marks beneath them, giving her the look of a weary old woman. Slowly, her eyes turned towards her brother.
"I was watching you. I got mad over something tiny; you only wanted to make it up to me. I should have known better. Thank you for your kindness but I'm sorry, it's my fault. It's always been my fault."
Jack opened his mouth, but could only make vague shapes of words. Grace's gaze shifted forwards once again. Jack swore he could see silvery webs of frost forming on her skin. "It could have been different. You could have been a normal kid, like me. Not a care in the world. But I let you fall."
She stood up, hands clenched but head down. "I promised myself back then. I'd never let you go through that again. Your life was ruined once because of me. I can only do my best to make sure it doesn't happen again. I promise, I will protect you."
Jack finally found the words as he stood up and clutched his sister by the arm. "Things are different now! We're fighting for our lives; you can't do it yourself. Grace, you could be killed! Even if you aren't, you'll only hurt yourself more." Jack took a step back, staring his impassive sister in the eye. "Please, just let it go. I don't hate you; you don't need to put yourself through this. Not for me."
With one hand, Grace wiped away the last of her tears. Her body shimmered, just briefly, like looking through broken glass. She beamed, all hints of her weakness gone.
"It's what I deserve."
Jack stood there, shaking his head, but with nothing else he could say. His sister held out a hand. "It's okay now."
"I shouldn't have done this. We need to get out of here." Jack looked around, but all he could see was the empty blackness again.
Grace frowned. "Where's Cerebrumon? I don't like the idea that he's wandering around inside my brain."
Both children jumped and spun round, but there was nobody there. They heard his voice though; loud, clear and booming. "I can sever the connection whenever you're ready. Just give me a few minutes."
Jack held up a hand, as if to say, 'see, we're fine', but Grace shook her head, clutching her mouth in thought. "Something's wrong here."
"How do you mean?"
"I don't know. There's something fuzzy but I can't pinpoint it. What I have figured out is if we're thinking about something here, it should appear."
Jack looked around again. "And we can't see Cerebrumon…"
Grace nodded, and held out a hand. "Think about him, hard. Everything you can remember about him. We need to see where he is."
Jack nodded, and clutched his sister's hand. Together they pictured the tall, dark stranger, the elaborate cloak, the ornate cane…no, the cane wasn't there, but the three hands were. In fact, more hands. Many dozens of hands, all reaching in different directions from beneath his cloak.
And there he was. Standing in the black void, facing the other way, many limbs going in every direction. Suddenly, he let off a loud "Aha!". In an instant his arms disappeared, all but one. He held it up, and inside his grasp he held a small, indeterminable object.
Grace yelled, "Hey!"
Cerebrumon twisted his head, and for once, still smiling benignly. "Hello children. I believe I said I'd be with you in a minute."
Grace stamped her foot, making Cerebrumon turn around in interest. "Put that down, and get out of my head."
"What, this?" Cerebrumon looked shocked, and gestured at the shape. "But you don't even know what it is, do you?"
The girl shook her head. "Not exactly, but I know why it's in here. It's a memory, isn't it?" She pointed an accusatory finger. "You said you were looking for us, but not to help us out. You don't fix memories; you steal them. You're a thief."
Cerebrumon listened in silence, before chuckling ever so menacingly. "You're an astute young lady."
Jack held out a hand. "Give it back."
"And why would I want to do that?"
Suddenly, the shadow-man straightened up as hundreds of icicles erupted all around him. Jack flinched, and looked in concern at his sister, who was wearing a mask of rage. "Don't push me; not any more. I'm sick of creeps like you thinking they can take me down because I'm weak. I'm linked with the element of Ice; I have more power than you realise. This is my mind. These are my memories. You don't belong here. Get. Out."
Cerebrumon looked almost impressed for a couple of seconds, before he laughed again, his body slowly rising up, expanding out. "Have you forgotten? I control the link…"
Grace and Jack took a great gulp of air as they returned to their bodies. The chairs dissolved around them as they leapt to their feet, staggering from the sudden dizziness. Jack looked into his sister's eyes. "What were we…where…Cerebrumon!"
"Looking for me?"
The two kids whirled round to see the shadow-man standing triumphantly in the corner, holding a tiny object in his free hand. He grinned, "You children have no idea what I am capable of. I am the master of memories, and you have no hope of overpowering me. The artefact is mine."
With an angry yell, Jack ran forward, trying to tackle the illusionist, but as he hit the blackness he simply fell through, crashing into the wall the other side. He fell back, and Cerebrumon grinned down at him. His helical arm unravelled once again, planting itself either side of the boy's ears. The shadow-man grinned maliciously up at Grace. "Amusing though you are, it will be more convenient for me if you remember none of this."
Grace ran towards him. "Don't you dare!"
There was a pulse of purple light, and Jack's body jerked, then slumped. Grace cried out, and Cerebrumon turned his attention on her, slowly hovering towards her.
Grace found herself backed against a wall, watching in terror as her adversary advanced. "What's so important about it?"
"Trust me, girl, it's better for both of you if you didn't know. Needless to say, I can bring this war to an end and it's all thanks to you. Now hold still…"
Grace looked either side, but she had nowhere to run. She closed her eyes, waiting to lose it all.
There was a sudden heavy banging, and the entire room shook. Grace saw the door shaking on its hinges, and she cried out. "Vulpimon!"
Without warning, she ducked, leaping through the shadow-man as he stood there, temporarily distracted. He whirled round, but she was already moving. Her brother had gotten to his knees and was looking around, dazed. "Where are we?"
"No time. We need help." Grace began to bang on the door herself, yelling at the top of her lungs. "Vulpimon! Babamon! Anyone, we're in here! We need your help!"
Cerebrumon smiled. "You little trickster. Nothing you do can help-"
All of a sudden, the banging stopped, as a long, serrated blade suddenly appeared through the door. Grace yelped and leapt back, clutching her mouth. Cerebrumon stopped mid-sentence. Jack watched in terror.
Slowly, the blade began to rock back and forth, taking great chunks out of the wood. There was a smell of burning as the substance on the blade, some sort of acid, ate into the antique. There was a grunt, and its wielder managed to pull it out again, taking half the door with it.
There was a moment's silence, before the door flew inwards, broken in two and splinters flying every which way. The figure out side swaggered in, blade held nonchalantly behind his back. His body was tall and slender, covered in acid-green scales, and was wrapped in a couple of belts, on which were mounted various knives, blades, syringes, a golden-edged sickle and a glowing clay pot. His face was flat but serpentine, sporting a huge toothy grin, and he swung his unnaturally long neck from side to side, casually observing the scene. He caught sight of Grace, cowering next to him, and he winked cheekily.
"Hi there, short stuff. Enjoying the holiday?"
His tongue flicked out, briefly wrapping itself around one eyeball, before he pulled it back in and focused his attention on Cerebrumon.
The snake-man tapped his foot. "Well Marvo? It's been a long time. Aren't you glad to see me? Thought up any new tricks?"
For once, the illusionist was not smiling. At all. His lips were contorted in a vicious snarl. Grace and Jack exchanged looks; who the hell was this guy?
The snake-man frowned, folding his arms. "I see, so I'm the one who's got to lead the conversation now. Honestly, everybody's so antisocial nowadays."
"How…" Cerebrumon made a noise, almost as if he were swallowing. "How did you get in here?"
The serpent blinked, and gestured backwards. "Via the door."
"You know what I mean." growled the shadow-man, wrapping his cloak ever tighter around him.
Jack raised his hand. "Um…who are you, exactly?"
"You don't know?" Cerebrumon looked shocked, but Rinkhalmon waved him away.
"Don't stress yourself, Marvo. We've just yet to be properly introduced. Here, allow me." The snake-man gave a bow so low that his face was planted against the floor. He raised himself up again, frowned, and pulled a shard of wood from his left nostril.
"I'm a good friend of Cerebrumon's here, although I must say he appears to have been treating you less than kindly. Also, he's not supposed to be here. Also, neither am I. In fact, and I probably should have mentioned this beforehand, I am supposed to be far away from here, plotting a devious scheme in order to find a way for the Fire Kingdom to enter this great city and purge it of all who oppose us."
Jack and Grace's eyes both widened as it suddenly dawned on them who they were talking to. Rinkhalmon noticed, and his grin grew wickedly wide.
"You catch on quick. You may call me Rinkhalmon, third Royal Commander of the Fire Kingdom under the command of our illustrious ruler, General Surtremon."
He shrugged. "Or you may call me Uncle Wrinkles. Whichever takes your fancy." His face turned solemn for an instant. "Either way, a pleasure to finally meet you."
The children were speechless. Cerebrumon was one thing, but this...? Jack tried to speak, but no words came out. Cerebrumon filled in his speech for him with one single word.
For a moment, Grace simply stared at the living, breathing, terrifying Commander standing not a couple of metres from her. Then, she snapped out of her stupor and ran forward to grab her brother. Rinkhalmon stepped out the way as they dashed out the door and began tearing off down the abandoned street. Rinkhalmon extended his neck out from the archway, watching in amusement.
"Funny little things, aren't they? So easily distracted."
"Shut your vile mouth, you worm. Psycho Blade!" Cerebrumon unravelled his arm and pulled two glowing purple sabres from the shadows in his body, but Rinkhalmon merely sighed and batted them to one side. Cerebrumon winced as his fingers were splashed with acid, and he backed away, clutching his hand, as Rinkhalmon stepped over the cabinet, swinging his blade carelessly.
"Please, Marvo, you'll hurt my feelings. And besides…" He leaned in close, his breath wilting Cerebrumon's hat.
"…you've been a bad boy."
Despite his fear, Cerebrumon smiled once again. "What, you expected us to be obediant little puppies? How did that work out for you with the others again?"
The snake-man licked his lips. "That was the past. I was young and naive."
"Not very smart for a master scientist, are you?"
Rinkhalmon stuck out his bottom lip. "Well, it would have been nice if at least one of you had been friendly. Still, I know where the others are. But that's not important." He grinned ever wider, and waved his serrated weapon in front of Cerebrumon's smug lips. "Because now, I know where you are. Which brings me to business."
He held out a sinewy clawed hand in a beckoning gesture. "First, the artefact you retrieved. Then, your soul. Then possibly your hat. I think it would look rather dashing on me."
Cerebrumon gritted his teeth. "I don't think so, you psychopath."
Rinkhalmon sighed, looking almost disappointed, before unexpectedly lashing out with the flat of his glowing blade. Cerebrumon was sent sprawling, clutching his face, but Rinkhalmon was on top of him in an instant and grabbed his wrist, wrenching his arm backwards. He giggled as he gently picked at the tightly clenched fist.
"Let's see what you've been hiding. We wouldn't want to give you an unfair advantage, now, would we?"
Cerebrumon cried out as the snake-man wrenched his fingers back one by one, counting as he did so. Then, Rinkhalmon let go, and kicked the illusionist over, so he was facing upwards. The Commander's smile was strenuous now.
"Okay, you've had your fun. Where is it?"
Cerebrumon lay there, still choking. Rinkhalmon knelt down next to him, pressing down on his chest, which gave slightly. "Come on, Marvo. Don't make me reach in and break your other hands as well. You know I will. Just tell me straight; where is the artefact you stole from the girl's mind?"
Cerebrumon coughed slightly, before grinning. "I don't know if you noticed, but that human girl swiped it just before you came in. I was as surprised as you are; she's quite the little trickster, isn't she? Anyway, she's at least four blocks away by now. You'd never catch her without attracting some attention, given that she now knows who you are." He choked again, but his voice was triumphant. "Have no fear, old friend. The artefact is still mine."
Rinkhalmon rubbed his tongue along the inside of his mouth, his eyes narrowed. With one skilled hand he swivelled his blade around, until the point was fixed over Cerebrumon's chest. "You know your problem, Marvo? You think you're quite the showman, but I'm afraid you're just ... not ... FUNNY!"
The shadow-man grinned. Rinkhalmon noticed too late that Cerebrumon's hand was touching the mirror. He brought his blade down, but there was a flicker of shadow and suddenly, the illusionist was gone, leaving only his cane behind. The rest of him was standing in the mirror's reflection, signing a farewell. Rinkhalmon lunged, but the illusionist disappeared again, just before the mirror shattered. Rinkhalmon let out a bellow of frustration and brought his foot down, shattering the glowing orb into thousands of fragments. The next moment, he was calm. Then, he let out a snigger.
"Well, well, it looks like this might be interesting after all."
With one hand, Grace clutched Jack's wrist as they ran as far away from the deserted part of the city as they could. She was running low on breath, but she dared not turn around, lest Rinkhalmon was chasing after them. She just wanted to keep running, forget any of this ever happened, like her brother. She wanted to, but she knew she couldn't. Not now. This was the last straw.
With the other hand she held on tightly to the artefact in her hand. She could see it through the gaps in her fingers.; it was a flash drive, but that was all she could figure out. A million things went through her head but not one ofthem was any help. She knew it was important, but she couldn't remember how. Of course she couldn't. That magician had stolen it from her memory.
Beside her, Jack stumbled, and she slowed down momentarily, allowing him to catch up. He looked into her eyes, and his voice was cracking with fear as he spoke.
"Grace...how...what...are we going to do...?"
The two stopped, catching their breath. Grace's hand gripped the flash drive so hard her knuckles turned white.
"Don't worry, Jack. I'll think of something."
Jack could barely hear her; she seemed to be talking more to herself than to him. She gritted her teeth, and the two carried on running.
Grace felt her heart pounding, fear and adrenaline giving her new strength. No matter what, she was going to find out everything. Then, she was going to end this.
She had heard everything, despite her impenetrable trappings. She knew what had taken place. She often heard these little scuffles; every last detail of them. But this one was different. This time, she could feel it. A gut feeling inside her. At last, something had been released. A chink in the city's great armour, and perhaps her greatest chance yet.
For the first time in hundreds of years, the Digimon in the clocktower opened her eyes.
So, the city needed a king?
Well, it was going to get one...