The rays of sunlight reflected off the glistening spires as the ornate silver gates opened into the courtyard. The young fox marched forward, glittering robes billowing behind her as she was pursued by her parents. The Korikakumon guards looked on, bewildered, as the princess turned round, snapping at her parents.
"You can't stop me!"
The guards shared a quizzical look amongst themselves, but a small cough from the patriarch refocused their attention. He nodded, and the guards saluted, before closing the gates and giving the family privacy.
The matriarch stepped forward, placing a bejewelled hand on her daughter's shoulder. "Please, think about what you're doing. The world is hellish out there at the moment; it's too dangerous for somebody of your status."
The princess threw her arms wide, her multiple bracelets jangling. "My status isn't going to mean anything once the Fire Kingdom get here! You know we're in trouble; the element of Ice is more vulnerable than any other."
"But to risk your life on such a gamble…you don't even know what they're planning! Entrusting the future of our world to a group of children? No, I won't let you waste your life like this."
"I'm not a child!" The princess pointed at the main entrance to the courtyard. "Our people are dying out there, mother. Innocent people, all over the world. I can't just sit here and let them fall, not with the power I've held for so long."
The matriarch straightened up, a stern look in her eyes. "It is our duty to protect the element. Us more than most. I'm sorry, but my answer is-"
She turned as the hand of her husband closed over her own shoulder. The princess's father looked grave, but he spoke firmly. "Matriarch, we may not have a choice."
"But..." The matriarch flustered, looking between her daughter and her husband with panic in her eyes. "But there are many willing warriors among the tribes! Why does it have to be her?"
The patriarch looked down at his daughter, who could have sworn she saw the old fox winking. He turned back to his queen. "Many are willing, yes. But very few, if any, will hold the power our daughter does. And she's more willing than anybody I've seen in a long time."
The matriarch fell silent, her head bowed low as the wind made her robes rise and fall. Gingerly, the princess shuffled forward, clasping her mother's hand. The matriarch looked up, and pulled one hand away as she reached for the pendant around her daughters neck. The ice-blue disc glowed and pulsed as she touched it, the power within reacting to her own. She smiled weakly. "I remember when I first gave you this, when you were still a Vulpimon. You've grown into such a beautiful young Digimon. A worthy heir to our legacy."
The princess looked up into her mother's eyes, the pain clear to see. She gritted her teeth."Please. I can do this. Let me prove I can be of use to you - to the world."
The matriarch looked up, holding back tears, and leant forward, holding her daughter in a tight embrace. "You don't have to prove anything. I love you so much, and I don't know what I'd do if anything happened to you."
Her daughter hugged back, trying to keep her own composure, before the two separated. The matriarch looked at her husband, before sighing. "We should talk about this. Just the two of us."
The patriarch nodded. "Very well." He turned back to his daughter, stroking her under the chin. "We promise, no matter what, we'll always be here for you, and we'll always be thinking of you."
The princess leapt forward and hugged him too, before her parents disappeared back within the confines of the castle. The princess turned, staring up at the sky as she shielded her eyes from the sun's rays. She splayed her hand, sending trails of silver fire licking into the sky, before cascading down as exquisite snowflakes.
She bit her lip, clenching her fist as it froze over. Through the whistling wind and drifting flurries, she whispered to herself.
"This is who I am. Our power was meant to help save this world. Nothing can stop us; I'll make sure of it."
Four days to go…
Rushing winds and biting clouds whipped past as the mighty kirin pushed through the storm, his wings catching the high thermals and sending him gliding effortlessly onwards.
While it might have been relatively easy for him, his riders were finding the journey somewhat more strenuous. Grace held tightly to the dragon's mane with one both arms, while Vulpimon crouched under her right one. Eloise and Lobomon sat a little further back, with Ladomon wrapped tightly around her partner. Lobomon shivered, clutching her elbows. "Are we there yet?"
Vulpimon sighed. "No, not yet. Be patient, please."
The wolf warrior mumbled, adjusting her position slightly. "We've been flying all night, and I swear it's been constantly getting colder for the past few hours. We've got to be close."
"Trust me, you won't miss it." The fox gingerly looked over Chirinmon's shoulder, watching the blackened wastegrounds below gradually giving way to sheets of blue and white. "And you'd better get used to the cold. Although the citadel does shield the wind somewhat. If it's still there."
Grace looked at her partner's worried expression, and pulled her a little closer. "It'll be fine. I'm sure your family are right there waiting for you."
Vulpimon didn't answer, gazing far away into the distance. There was a shuffling behind the girl and Ladomon reached forward, the wind making her squint. "Be careful, Grace. I understand you're trying to keep her spirits up but you don't want to give her false hope."
Grace turned as far as she dared, shaking her head. "I wasn't trying-"
"I know, I know. I'm just saying, we don't know what we're going to find there."
Eloise looked sideways at the dragon, who retracted slightly, her feathers fluttering in the wind. "It's not like you to be such a downer."
The dragon balled her body up slightly. "I guess I don't feel like myself. Hope doesn't seem to get you very far these days."
Grace turned again, her ponytail half covering her face. "We hoped we'd find Kai again, and we did. You found Colchimon. There's nothing wrong with a little bit of hope."
"We also hoped we'd have a chance against Surtremon. And that we could save Fornaxmon." Ladomon closed her eyes. "Sorry, I really am being a downer, aren't I?"
Eloise chuckled, and rubbed her partner's head. "It's fine. I guess all we can do is believe in people." She looked ahead, at the fox sitting in front of her, head still down. "Vulpimon, if your parents are anything like you are, I know they'll be holding on to the last."
The fox didn't answer, but looked back at the girl, a thin smile on her lips.
There was a sudden buffeting of wind and all the riders clutched tightly onto Chirinmon as he began to spiral down. A voice came from up ahead, soft and almost inaudible.
"I see it. It's just a few kilometers away."
Grace looked at her partner in surprise. "So he can talk."
"Of course he can. He's just shy." Lobomon leant forward, patting Chirinmon on the flank. "Well done, mate. Take us down; not too fast, mind you. And give us a bit of room for landing. We don't want to be rude."
The kirin nodded and gently arced downwards, keeping the motion as smooth as possible given the high winds. The weather wasn't helping; as they passed through the cloud bank it became clear that a storm was taking place below, with great flurries of snow and fog rushing up. Still, as they drew closer the Silver Citadel came into view, and it truly was an amazing sight. Great lances and towers pointed at the sky, and the whole thing curved outwards at the base, its sides impossibly smooth. The building glistened with sparkling colours; jade, amethyst, turquoise and sapphire, accentuating the brilliant white all around.
All the onlookers gazed in awe, taking in the majestic sight. They descended again, the weather seeming to get worse the more they did so. Eloise squinted. Somehow, that didn't seem to only be the weather…
A great spurt of fire outside the great gates of the citadel, causing Chirinmon to rear up in panic. Grace screamed as she clutched onto the kirin's mane for dear life, while Lobomon veered sideways, scrabbling for grip herself. "There's an attack going on!"
There was a crash and another flash of fire, and immediately Vulpimon turned round. "Take us down! Land! Now! We have to help them."
Chirinmon nodded, spiraling downwards as fast as he dared towards the ominous cloud of smoke. He landed roughly, sending snow skidding everywhere as his riders dismounted, rushing towards the gates. Lobomon pointed ahead of her. "Clear the smoke!"
Chirinmon leapt skywards once again, releasing a great arc of wind that scattered the blizzard, revealing the skirmish underway. A huge boar, doused in flames, thrust its head side-to-side as far smaller Digimon ran around it, releasing blasts of snow that temporarily froze on their adversary's flaming body. Grace gasped; on closer inspection the smaller creatures appeared to be dozens of other Vulpimon.
"Grace, I need to help!"
The girl nodded, and she reached for her D-Nexus as she ran. Eloise did the same as Ladomon uncoiled from around her.
"Primal Control! Evolution Activate!"
The fox and the wyvern rushed forwards as Lobomon sprinted alongside them, drawing her cutlasses. A few of the local Vulpimon saw them coming and pointed, yelling something to each other. The Boarmon noticed as well, great spurts of flame erupting from its nose. For a moment it looked as if it was going to charge at them, but suddenly it turned tail and rushed at the great gates. One of the local Vulpimon yelled out. "Stop him! He's going to break through!"
The two champions let loose their attacks, but the pig had become a tough target as the falling snow enveloped its flames, releasing buckets of steam. There was a crash and a shattering as the ornate gates crumbled down. Eloise gasped in horror. "It's inside…"
There was a savage grunt and another crash from inside, but all of a sudden the blizzard grew more intense. Grace and Eloise covered their heads, nearly forced back as the storm threatened to throw them off their feet. From within the shattered gates came a squeal of pain, and an old female voice, strong and commanding despite shaking a little with age.
The ground shuddered, blue fire erupting into the sky from the courtyard beyond the wall. There was a squeal and a thud, then quiet. The fighters gazed in wonder as the blizzard all around them slowed, changing into a soft snowfall as the steam cleared. The great gates came into view, or at least what was left of them; the Boarmon's charge had collapsed the central beams, leaving a gaping chasm in the citadel's defenses. Just inside the wall the Boarmon itself lay in a heap; skin covered in patchy ice as it steadily dissolved away into nothing.
Lobomon was about to step forward and ask the locals what had happened, when a tall figure stepped out from behind the frozen Fire soldier and walked out of the gates. The local Vulpimon all bowed their heads. Then one of them stepped forward; one of the taller amongst them, with a chunk taken out of one ear.
"Matriarch, we're sorry. We got distracted, and the intruder broke through-"
The matriarch raised a hand, silencing her subject as she noticed the humans and strange Digimon before her. She walked forward, briskly, despite the use of a cane made from black rock, etched with silver and blue markings.
"Who are you people? Why have you come here?"
She stood, awaiting a response as she stared sternly at the motley crew. She was tall, despite being hunched over slightly, and her features were fully canine; short, pointed ears, gnarled hands and feet, and a long tail that swept the scattering of snow behind her. Her fur was a deep aqua, and was partially covered by an old dress, marbled with spots like those of a jaguar, and a plum shawl draped over her narrow shoulders. Her hair was long and silver, and her eyes, while pale, shone with all the colours of the aurora.
Grace looked aside at her partner, but the fox was trembling. Alopemon looked down, pawing the ground a little.
The matriarch looked in curiosity. "Very well, if you won't introduce yourselves...I am Kwanmon; ruler of this southern sector of the Northern Tribes and protector of this region." With a quick flick she summoned a longsword from the surrounding snow, before pointing it at the newcomers. "Now you had better explain your presence here or I shall deal with you the same way as the forlorn creature behind you."
"Matriarch, wait!" The notch-eared Vulpimon stepped forward, pointing with a paw at Alopemon, who looked up. Kwanmon blinked, lowering her sword as her eyes caught the glinting from the masked fox's crystal ornament. Alopemon sat down, shedding her form as she returned to being a Vulpimon, the pendant in its usual place around her neck.
The matriarch exhaled, gazing down with deep blue eyes. Shaking a little, she bent down, and gently brushed a fine-furred hand down Vulpimon's cheek, before nudging the elemental necklace.
"You've come back…"
Vulpimon began to laugh, tears streaming from her eyes as she leapt forward into the matriarch's arms. "Mother! I thought…I'd never…"
The matriarch crouched down, embracing her daughter as she comforted the smaller fox. "Shush, shush, it's okay. I'm so glad you're alive."
Grace couldn't help but smile as she saw the relief and joy envelope her partner's face. The little princess was home at last.
Grace couldn't help but blush a little as she felt many little Vulpimon eyes gazing at her in curiosity and wonder. After fixing the gaping hole in the wall (giving the newcomers a presentation of her impressive ice manipulation powers), the matriarch had rushed the group inside out of the cold relatively quickly, with the exception of Chirinmon, who it was obvious was too big to fit inside the citadel itself. Lobomon and some of the Vulpimon had taken him to a stable out of the way of the wind and snow, although he hadn't been overly pleased regardless.
Kwanmon and the Vulpimon had led the five newcomers through the great halls and passageways of the citadels, her cane tapping against the smooth floor and making echoes. Vulpimon trotted next to her mother, somewhat nervous but still glad to be home. Grace had walked a little way back, wanting to share in her partner's reverie but also trying to take in the wondrous architecture around her. The citadel was even more glorious inside than out, with twisted patterns and complex sculptures adorning every alcove and every wall panel.
Now the group sat within the old throne room, atop seats of rock, as they recounted their experiences to one another. Grace felt a little lost at some of the conversation, but nodded along regardless.
Kwanmon chuckled at something, before turning to Lobomon, who sat casually, hands on her knees. "I must say, it's impressive to see the both of you have grown into such fine young ladies."
The wolf warrior bit her lip, looking a little embarrassed. "I'm not a lady..."
"You know what I mean." Kwanmon stuck out her tongue, cheekily. "I hear you've been busy build a resistance force ready to take on the Fire General himself."
Eloise nodded, looking worried. "He gave us an ultimatum. We have four days now before he attacks, so we're trying to prepare." She fidgeted a little. "I don't suppose...we were wondering if you could possibly..."
Kwanmon bowed her head. "I'm afraid I can't offer much help. But if any among my subjects are willing, they are welcome to join you. Hopefully we can bring this war to an end."
Vulpimon looked around, feeling the gaze of the locals burrowing into her. "I take it you've been hit pretty hard by the Fire Kingdom."
Kwanmon looked down, her pale eyes glistening. She sighed. "I should have told you the moment you arrived. I'm afraid we're all that's left. The other tribes, the guards...your father..."
For a moment Vulpimon stared, almost longingly. Then her head fell, and her eyes closed. Grace walked over to her and embraced her. "I'm so sorry..."
Her partner shook her head. "I was prepared for this. At least, I thought I was. I don't know." She sat down, feeling unbelievably small, as her tail swung slowly over the marbled floor. "When did he die?"
"He was one of the first. Soon after you left, the Fire Kingdom began attacking. We managed to hold them off, but soon we started to fall. Myself and my own Vulpimon children, we are the only ones left now."
They sat in silence for a little while, trying to take in the enormity of the situation. Ladomon flinched, gently backing away from the circle. She hung her head, biting her lip. The feeling of death was strong here.
She frowned, her attention being pulled by a door on the other end of the throne room. It wasn't just her; she could definitely feel something, more than just the feeling of death. She could feel the presence.
Kwanmon broke the silence, tapping the floor with her cane. "At any rate, whichever of my family wants to accompany you back is very welcome."
Vulpimon looked up. "Would you be willing to come?"
Her mother shook her head, shuffling on the shaped block of stone. "I'm afraid I no longer have the strength to travel. All I can do is stand here and hold fast, like I've done for so long."
Eloise looked forward, interjecting. "Pardon me but I don't quite understand; all these Vulpimon are your children?"
The Vulpimon with the notched ear nodded, giving a small grin. "I suppose that makes us all royalty in a way."
"In a manner of speaking." Kwanmon chuckled, pausing for breath in front of a pair of large, stone gates. "We are all linked by the same data. One of us will become the matriarch, the other the patriarch, and a few others will become heirs and heiresses. Like the one you know."
Here Grace's partner couldn't help but look quite proud. Lobomon simply frowned slightlyand leaned forward. "You're all still affiliated with the element of Ice, aren't you? Like, your entire kind."
Here the visiting warriors turned to the wolf warrior, puzzled by the question. Kwanmon nodded, pressing against the centre of the doors, swinging them open and revealing a large throne room.
"As far as I gather the other elements were scattered before this whole war started. We were slightly different; we held the element complete and safe in this very citadel, deep in the lower levels. We were actually approached by young Chromon beforehand to ask if our daughter would carry it, and the element was removed then."
Lobomon bit her lip. "That's a lot of responsibility to put on one Digimon's shoulders."
The matriarch nodded. "I have faith in all my children. If anyone can protect the element, she can."
Meanwhile Eloise was looked around, confusion on her face. "Hold on...where's Ladomon got to?"
The dragon in question was currently slowly making her way down a set of spiral steps beyond the door at the end of the throne room. The feel of death was repulsive now, and yet still somehow intoxicating, beckoning her away.
The steps opened out, and the dragon gingerly hovered forward, squinting in the darkness. She concentrated, illuminating her body as she looked around. The room was large, with walls of plain stone, obviously a dungeon or cellar of some kind. It was hard to make out with the many black, formless shapes taking up the majority of the floor space.
Shivering a little, Ladomon hovered closer, one of the shapes coming into focus. A two-legged beast with short horns and a muscular build, with two huge double-headed tomahawks slung over its back. Large and unmoving, it stared down at her with frozen, dead eyes.
The sudden scream broke the confusion in the throne room, and everyone's attention turned to the door at the end. Kwanmon struggled to her feet, gritting her teeth. "Don't tell me she went down there..."
"Ladomon!" Eloise rushed after her partner, followed by Vulpimon and Grace, then Lobomon, then Kwanmon and the locals. Carefully yet swiftly, they made their way down the stone steps until they too reached the underground chamber. Eloise looked around, confused. "What is all this?"
"I didn't want you to see this. It's just a memorial room." Kwanmon sighed, and waved her fingers. Jewels embedded in the walls and ceiling suddenly burst into an eerie blue light, illuminating the room and everything in it.
The group jumped back, Eloise more than the others, letting out a little yelp as she did so. Lining the cavern in perfectly placed rows were hundreds of ice Digimon, all frozen in various poses. They were perfectly preserved in their crystal prisons; so well, in fact, that they still seemed alive. Only the dead, glassy eyes betrayed their true nature.
Grace looked away, more than a little disturbed by the sight. Vulpimon stepped forward, scanning the lifeless statues, the nearest one of which was a Korikakumon that she recognised as one of the old guards. "Mother…why are you keeping them like this?"
Kwanmon raised a palm. "I have to keep their memories alive somehow. I shouldn't, I know, but I can't help it. I couldn't bear to see so many of my subjects and my family simply dissolve away into nothing. And my subjects..." Here she glanced back, aware of the eyes of the local Vulpimon all upon her.
"...my children wanted to remember as well. We're all here together."
She stood awkwardly in the entrance, before shaking her head, realising everyone was staring at her. She stepped back, looking ashamed. "We should go. I...don't want you to see any further."
Vulpimon looked down, gritting her teeth. "Is...is Father..."
Kwanmon didn't answer. Instead she simply stepped to one side, beckoning to the exit. Vulpimon exhaled, her breath shaking, but she did as she was requested.
The others looked among themselves, and began to follow the two back up the steps. Eloise heard a flapping of wings and turned to see Ladomon hovering towards her. She confronted the dragon, looking concerned. "What were you doing down here?"
Ladomon looked away. "I felt something. Something wrong. Looks like I was right. This is sick."
Eloise couldn't answer, so she simply walked back up the steps, leaving only Grace alone in the chamber. She shivered, feeling the many dead eyes upon her, and made for the exit herself, but something stopped her. She turned, looking back. Despite being underground, she could feel a definite breeze swirling around the room. That and…something else. She concentrated, her head tilting.
She could hear voices. Ever so slight, but definitely there, chanting something. Through the gentle breeze she could only just make out the words…
Waiting here for scared young foxes
We can't wait to see their shockses
For they soon will feel our trickses,
For they soon shall hear us talkses,
Windows shutses, doors are lockses,
Now we trapses, now we stalkses,
All the while the clocks tick-tockses,
Till they all will die.
Grace shivered again, and ran up the stairs without even looking back, the little voices following her all the way up.
"You heard what?"
Grace sat on the bed, legs swinging back and forth as she repeated what she'd heard in a mumbled voice. She could hear the howling winds outside, and shrank back a little further, her sweatshirt doing little to protect her from the cold.
The repetitive pat-pat of Lobomon's heavy shoes against the stone floor continued as she paced frantically back and forth. "I don't like it. There's something wrong here; I can't help but feel we've walked into a trap."
Vulpimon huffed at her feet, turning her head away from Lobomon, who was pacing frantically. "Lets not jump to conclusions." She looked up at Grace, who was staring worriedly at her. "I don't want to say this, but...are you sure you aren't just imagining things?"
Grace shuffled on the bed. "It felt real. I don't know. I've gotten you all into trouble before with things like this..."
Lobomon stopped and took a breath, calming herself before facing the small fox. "Vulpimon, please hear your partner out. From what I've heard, she's quite in tune with finding these hidden villain types."
She held her tongue, looking over at Grace, who looked genuinely hurt. "I'm sorry, no offense."
Vulpimon sighed, thwacking her tail against the floor. "Can you not imply that my mother's trying to kill us, please?"
"Yeah, well, with all due respect, no sane leader would keep an entire cave full of frozen corpses."
Vulpimon twitched, but Eloise raised a hand. "She's probably upset. I don't think it's right for us to judge the way she's handling things."
Lobomon looked up. "But she isn't handling things. At the very least she's obviously finding this all stressful. It could just be too much for her."
Ladomon turned, her coils shifting as she reared up on Eloise's bedspread. "I think it's a bit of a stretch, to be honest."
"Well it's true!" Ladomon glared down at the fox. "Whatever it is, it can't be healthy for her to keep 'memorials' of everybody like this."
Vulpimon stood up, pointing an accusing finger at the dragon. "I'll have you know it's a tradition over here to remember the righteous and the influential. Preserving them isn't a new thing, you know! It's just how we do things."
"Maybe. But that many? And why hide them in a dungeon out of sight of everyone? And in wartime?" Ladomon shook her head, hunching her wings. "I don't know about your family, but I'm telling you something just strikes me as fishy. What Grace said about the weird voices just backs it up."
Lobomon folded her arms. "If you ask me, the Fire Kingdom's already here, and we've walked right into a trap."
"Now hang on, just a minute!" Vulpimon got up, striding up to the wolf-warrior and doing her best to stare her down. "That's my mother you're talking about! There's no way she's in cahoots with the Fire Kingdom or anyone like that!"
Lobomon growled in irritation. "Good Digimon change, Vulpimon. We've seen that first hand. I can understand you don't want to but you can't dismiss the possibility just because it's your own family."
The fox growled, her claws digging into the floor, but Eloise stood up, hands held up. "Please, let's not start blaming each other. Surely if the Fire Kingdom were to trap us it would have been easier back in Grid Central. Besides, if they had gotten control of this place it would be flat by now."
"You seem to forget the lengths that slimy serpent will go to."
Ladomon nodded her head from side to side. "I suppose, if he can pull a stunt like he did in Silicon City, then he could almost have done something similar here…"
"Shut up!" Vulpimon barked, slamming her foot on the floor. "I thought my family were dead until recently. My father is, but my mother's still alive, and I won't stand here listening to you theorizing on how she's betrayed us. Betrayed me!"
Lobomon knelt down, holding out a hand. "Please, that's not what we're doing. You're not thinking rationally."
"And you're thinking psychotically! Don't touch me." Vulpimon pulled back in disgust, before trotting back and sitting by her partner. Grace held out a hand, gingerly touching her head. The girl looked up. "This can't be right."
Lobomon rolled her eyes, before turning on her heels and stomping for the door. Vulpimon snarled after her. "Where do you think you're going?"
"Away from you. I have no desire to listen to a spoilt little princess have a temper tantrum; I have my own worries to deal with. Good night."
She slammed the door, causing the inhabitants inside to flinch and flecks of snow to fall from the ceiling. Vulpimon stuck her nose up in the air, facing away from the door.
Grace sighed, before looking forlornly at Eloise. The older girl smiled weakly. "I'd better catch up with her and talk some sense into her. No use us all being at each other's throats like this." She nodded. "You deal with Vulpimon."
"Sure." Grace watched Eloise follow Lobomon, with the serpent dragon wrapped around her neck. Then, she swiveled, looking down at her partner. The fox stared down at the floor, not noticing as Grace shuffled down onto her knees beside her. "You know they're not just doing it to be mean, right?"
At first the fox didn't answer, seemingly staring into nothing. Then she sighed, looking up at her partner.
"I know, I know. I shouldn't have snapped. I just don't want to hear things like that."
"None of us do." Grace frowned, looking left and right, before leaning in. "I honestly thought I heard something earlier. They were very quiet, but they almost seemed to be singing."
"Hmm…" Vulpimon frowned, her brow furrowing. "As Lobomon said, you seem to have a knack for these things..."
Grace pouted. "Thanks a lot. Nice to know that everyone's picking on me now."
"Sorry, that's not what I meant." Vulpimon chuckled, before staring sadly at the door. "I was scared to come back here, you know. I was worried I'd arrive and there'd be...just...nothing, you know? But I still have some family left, and it's given me hope again. I don't want to let that go."
"Be careful." Grace sat back on the bed and leaned back, staring up at the ornate ceiling. "I don't want you to get hurt."
"Nor me you." Vulpimon settled down, gently pawing at the pendant around her neck. "I used to think I could handle this war. I used to think I had enough power to end it. Then I started fighting, and realized how powerless I really was. And the more I fought, the more I worried that I was going to fail; that I would let my bloodline die."
Grace listened intently, her eyes moistening as she listened to her partner's tale. "Us two, and my family out there; we're all that's left of the element of Ice. And you're only here because I dragged you into it. If we fall, that's it. Game over."
"Then we won't." Grace held up a hand, as if to grab the very air above her. "I promise, I won't let anything happen to you, no matter what."
Vulpimon smiled. "Thanks. I'm lucky to have a partner like you."
Eloise's footsteps clicked against the icy floor as she chased after the wolf warrior, who continued storming away. "Lobomon, please, don't be like this."
"Tell her. She's being stubborn and she knows it."
Lobomon barged into the main throne room, before slowing, leaning against a wall as she caught her breath. Eloise caught up with her, placing one hand on her hip. "Give her a break; you don't know what's going on any more than she does. You shouldn't just go around blaming Kwanmon for something that might not even be around."
"But do you really want to risk that?" Lobomon folded her arms, letting out a deep, frustrated breath. "I've known her for so long. I used to live up here you know; in a neighbouring tribe. She'd invite me inside and we'd get up to all sorts of mischief."
She turned to the girl, holding out a hand in explanation. "I guess I'm just saying that I know her well enough to know when she's not thinking straight. She was the same when she got the message to join you guys."
Ladomon raised an eyebrow. "Really? You think she made the wrong decision?"
"Oh no, not at all. Well, maybe. I don't know." Lobomon leant back, looking aside. "It's not the kind of call I could have made. But Vulpimon…she's so idealistic that she can cause herself harm. Sometimes I worry about her; I really do."
Ladomon gave an encouraging smile, while Eloise shrugged. "Maybe. But maybe a little idealism is what we need. Look, perhaps there really isn't anything going on here. At any rate, we're leaving tomorrow. Surely we can last the night, at least."
Lobomon pursed her lips. "Maybe. But even if we manage to win through and beat Surtremon, I don't want Vulpimon to come back to a dead family."
"Don't say that-"
The wolf warrior turned to face the girl. "Eloise, stop it. I know you're just trying to be diplomatic but Vulpimon could be in danger here. We all could. I don't want any more deaths on my conscience." Lobomon glanced at the door leading to the underground cavern. "Please. I'll be careful, I promise, but I just want to make sure. For her sake, and for Kwanmon's."
Eloise looked uncertain, but Ladomon gave her a nudge. "I suppose it won't take long. Just a quick check. If there is anything around, it'll be down in the memorial chamber."
The girl frowned for a moment, before nodding. "Alright. Just quickly, though. If there's anything going on here, it'll definitely have something to do with those…things."
Gingerly, the three made it down to the underground cavern, slowing their pace as they entered the cold room. Eloise shivered, holding her elbows as she walked forward, between the frozen corpses of Fire soldier after Fire soldier. She leant back, checking that Lobomon was still in view. "What kind of thing are we checking for?"
"It's possible the Fire Kingdom could be sneaking troops in here. I don't know…maybe they're not frozen properly?"
The two walked along, trying to stay clear of the frozen bodies. All the while they listened out for any signs of strange goings on, but there was nothing. Only the gentle tapping of their own footsteps against the stone. They stopped in front of a Mojyamon, frowning.
Lobomon raised a finger. "You know, something was bugging me earlier and I've just figured out what it is. Do you think all these guys are from Kwanmon's sector of the tribes?"
Eloise looked around at the rows of Digimon, stretching far away in both directions. "There are a lot of them. I...guess not?"
"Then why would they be here? Moving them through the blizzards would be nearly impossible."
Ladomon looked nervously around. "I somehow doubt this is every casualty from the past few months. Maybe just those who passed away on home soil?"
"But then why make a memorial room in the first place? She said she wanted to remember everyone."
Lobomon folded her arms, and turned the corner, squinting as she did so. Eloise sighed and turned to face the Mojyamon, looking pitiably into its staring eyes. Ladomon nudged her. "How far are we willing to go with this?"
The girl reached out, gently caressing the ice. "I suppose until we're sure Vulpimon's family is safe." She sighed, before turning round. "Lobomon, I really don't think there's anything...Lobomon...?"
Her brow furrowed as she looked through the rows, but her companion had gone. Eloise's puzzlement slowly shifted and melded into fear as she hurried back the way they'd come, back through the rows of twisted cadavers until she'd returned to the exit. It was no use. Lobomon was gone.
Eloise's eyes were wide as she looked left and right, aware of the noises beginning to build. Softly at first, then growing, becoming the scraping of a thousand claws on marble, and the wicked little voices as they chanted. The same words. The exact same words that Grace had heard.
Eloise screamed, whirling round with her hands up. Three Vulpimon stood a short way up the steps; one short and squat, one lanky and thin, and another one with a bandage around one paw. The bandaged one stepped forward, looking at the two quizzically. "What are you doing down here?"
Eloise looked desperately at her partner, but Ladomon seemed quite relaxed. "We...we don't know. We've lost Lobomon and we were trying to find her?"
Eloise shrank back, not convinced herself, but the Vulpimon nodded, gesturing at the steps. "Come on then, we'll help. You really shouldn't be here, you know."
They slowly made their way back up the steps, Eloise looking back the entire way. The lanky Vulpimon walked alongside her, tutting a little. "You should learn to respect the matriarch's privacy."
Eloise's mouth felt dry. "Pardon me, but...why is she keeping them here?"
"I thought she told you."
Eloise stopped, unsure how to answer. The Vulpimon in front of her stopped, and turned to face her, smiling sweetly. "We let her keep them. It's good to remember, we tell her. They comfort her. They give her hope."
"Hope for what?"
"That she's going to survive." The little fox scratched its cheek, giving a little indignant sniff. "You're all the same, really."
Eloise froze, her heart in her mouth. The three foxes had now all converged in front of her, all giving identical toothy smiles. The girl struggled to find the words, taking a step back. "I...I don't understand..."
Her eyes widened. "It's you! You're up to something, not Kwanmon. All three of you..."
The short, squat one gave a little laugh. "Finally, she gets it..."
Eloise reached down for her D-Nexus. "Nearly?"
Just as her fingers closed around the small device, she heard a whisper in her right ear, and became aware of the weight on her shoulders.
"All four of us..."
Ladomon's wing was over Eloise's mouth before the girl could even cry out. She jerked, the dragon's coils tightening around her neck, as she fell backwards into the blackness.
Fornaxmon could help but think he was very easily confused nowadays.
Here he stood, about to send another batch of militia for training, when Martyaxmon had bumped into him. The golem had flinched initially, aware of the manticore's harsh reaction to him just last night. He braced himself, ready for another onslaught.
But it didn't come.
Martyaxmon pawed the ground, seemingly uncertainly. "I'm…I'm sorry for last night. I was harsh; none of this is your fault. Please, I hope you can forgive me."
Fornaxmon faltered, unsure how to react. The Red Beast stood low before him, totally submissive. He became aware of the Fire Forces growling behind him, and stammered a reply. "Y-Y-Yes. I mean…Why are you sorry? You have nothing to be sorry for. I should be sorry."
Fornaxmon nodded frantically, desperate to prove his willingness. Martyaxmon frowned for a moment, before speaking up again. "Well, if you really want to give me a hand…"
"Anything. I promise, Commander Martyaxmon, I'll help you with whatever you want..."
"Fine. If you insist." Martyaxmon smiled just briefly, before looking up. "It can wait just for now, but if you'll just meet me tonight, just outside the dungeons, I have a job for you…"
Now Fornaxmon was even more confused as he stood, sentry-like, just outside of Rinkhalmon's laboratory. His head turned, scanning the interior for any sign of the snake-like Commander. Gingerly he stepped inside, taking great care not to knock anything. Not that it was particularly easy; the place looked as if it had been decorated by a tornado, with smashed vials, dangling wires and several pieces of machinery in various states of not working.
Fornaxmon had no real interest in them. What he was aware of were the great vats and several tubes hanging up on the walls, within which something squirmed. Something not quite there. Fornaxmon resisted, veering away as much as he could. The leech inside him was screaming out, wanting to connect with its kin, but Martyaxmon's orders had been very specific. Don't touch anything. It will probably kill you.
The golem smiled internally. It was nice to know that Martyaxmon was still watching out for him, despite his inadequecies.
There was a sudden bang and Fornaxmon jumped, his body swivelling around at the waist. He grabbed the corner of the central table for balance, only to jump again as the whole thing began to rise jerkily upwards, revealing a large square column.
The golem turned, brandishing his cleaver as he backed away, careful to avoid touching the counters. He could feel his limbs twitching; the leech pulsating through every capillary and every joint in his mechanical form, trying to get out, to investigate the new thing.
The table clanked to a halt, revealing a tunnel that led down, with steps curving round into darkness. The mechanical man stepped forward, holding out the cleaver as he peered down. He could hear something. No…the leech inside him could hear something. Something drawing him closer. Suddenly the other leeches around him stopped trying to reach him, and instead reached out towards the staircase. Their buzz quietened, as they waited. Waited for whatever was down there to…
Fornaxmon wasn't sure, but his train of thought was suddenly interrupted as Rinkhalmon danced into view up the steps, his great, lanky legs tip-toeing on point as he happily sang a little tune. Fornaxmon stepped back, and winced internally. For all the leech's modifications, it had yet to make his body immune to terrible music.
Rinkhalmon twirled in front of him, before stopping dead, one leg in the air as he noticed the golem standing in front of him. His tongue flicked out, as it tended to do in these sudden situations.
Fornaxmon stepped back, allowing the serpent to exit the tunnel. Rinkhalmon frowned, looking confused. "I thought you were scheduled to help with the soldiers this morning?"
"Commander Martyaxmon told me he had it covered. But he wanted to speak to you about something, so he sent me to get you."
Rinkhalmon shrugged, and tapped the side of the tunnel. Fornaxmon noted the little translucent flash of a leech as it wriggled from Rinkhalmon's fingers and into the wall, traveling down the pattern. There was a jerk, and the table descended, making scarcely any noise other than the odd groan as the tunnel sealed up again. Fornaxmon watched every movement as the table clicked into place, before Rinkhalmon cleared a space, pressing his palm down on a flat panel. There was another flash and the leech returned to Rinkhalmon, slithering over his body and into the opening on his soul jar. The serpent giggled, clutching his body as he wriggled in place. "They're so cute, aren't they? It tickles the way they slither all over you."
Fornaxmon pointed. "Is that where they come from?"
Rinkhalmon nodded, tapping just beside his left nostril. "It's our little secret. All very complicated stuff. Marty wouldn't understand. But then again, the only way inside would be with one of the little darlings themselves, and he's averse to using them, isn't he?" Rinkhalmon clasped his hands, looking all coy for a moment. "It's for the best to let everyone get on with the jobs they're suited for."
Fornaxmon shook his head, pointing at the door. "Sorry, are you okay to come with me?"
"Just a diddle." Rinkhalmon sauntered over to the large vat and pressed a few buttons. There was a gurgling and a rumbling, before a slick, silvery stream of leeches erupted from the pipes beneath the floor, converging in the great vats. Rinkhalmon smiled, stroking the glass.
"Look at them, Fornaxmon. All that power. The power to create worlds. Create all new life."
Fornaxmon watched as all the little eyes, claws and tendrils swum around, barely visible, even with his enhanced vision. They certainly had an alien beauty about them.
The serpent grinned. "All those possibilities, and we just need to unlock one more thing to reach them." For a moment he stared dreamily at the vat, before he became aware of the golem staring at him. He giggled, scratching the back of his neck. "Enough daydreaming. Let's go find Marty."
They headed up the stairs and towards the barracks, with Rinkhalmon chatting happily all the way. They entered, finding Martyaxmon in the middle of a Tyrannomon and a DarkRizamon, presumably trying (and mostly failing) to get them to shoot straight. Rinkhalmon whistled and the manticore turned round, smiling at his colleagues. "Morning."
"Bloody hell, has hell frozen over?" Rinkhalmon giggled, tapping his foot. "I'm not sure I like you smiling. It doesn't look particularly nice on you. No offense."
Martyaxmon rolled his eyes, padding over. "Well, I am contractually obligated to be pleasant at least once in a while." He nodded backwards. "I just needed a hand with a few of these guys; they're not exactly aiming particularly well."
Fornaxmon turned, giving a humph of agreement as he saw the great plumes of napalm splattered over the end wall of the barracks. Somehow, the targets the soldiers had been using were mostly untouched.
Rinkhalmon bit his top lip. "You think I can offer something to help? A stimulant of some kind? How about-"
"Oh. Well maybe-"
Rinkhalmon folded his arms. "Fine. I'm sure I can whip up a little non-fatal something. But I'll need to grab a couple of things from upstairs."
He went to saunter towards the exit, but Martyaxmon grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back around. "While you're there, bring Surtremon's old schematics, won't you? I want to talk about army layouts later."
Rinkhalmon groaned. "Come on Marty, you know I hate paperwork."
"It has to be done. I would have asked Cephalomon, but you know, he's not here any more. And Fornaxmon, bless him, doesn't exactly have the right mindset for battle strategy."
The serpent blew a raspberry. "Fine. I'll help."
"Good. We wouldn't want you to get in any more trouble, would we?"
Rinkhalmon looked up, aware of Martyaxmon's eyes burrowing into his. He smiled sweetly, licking his lips. "We definitely wouldn't want that, would we?" He leaned in, his long neck curving around the back of Martyaxmon's mane as he hissed in his colleague's ear. "It could be very dangerous. You know, poking around with things we don't know anything about."
He grinned, unwrapped himself and hopped towards his attic ladder. "I'll be back in two ticks."
The serpent blew a kiss and disappeared into his upstairs lab. Fornaxmon and Martyaxmon both watched him disappear, before Martyaxmon exhaled. He turned to the golem, giving a particularly forced smile. "Thank you too."
"Can we talk later?"
"Of course. Anything for you."
Martyaxmon rolled his eyes, trotting back to the two soldiers, who were still wandering around looking dazed. "I don't know, all these Digimon chasing around after me. I'm flattered."
Fornaxmon didn't see the Red Beast grit his teeth, the gears in his head already spinning into overdrive as he began to make plans.
Journal Entry #781. Location, Lapis Cavern
Got distracted on my way to the Spokes by the disturbance here. Very unsettling; the symbols appear to be spreading, and with them the walls are discolouring and beginning to crack. I think one section of tunnel is actually missing, although I don't know where it's gone. A piece of the world has literally vanished, and gives way to solid rock, with barely any signs of how.
While the new markings are nigh on indecipherable, all new records on the walls have been exclamations of pain. The surrounding water seems to have been affected too; the volume has decreased significantly, and that closest to the affected area is boiling and corrosive.
The only clue I have is what appears to be some kind of fungus, pushing its way through the wall in certain placess. I have no idea how long this has been here but I can assume it's been waiting a long time. Perhaps the Interface holds the answers? I have no idea; I know barely anything about that either.
There's nothing I can do right now; I daren't touch the alien substance and my medicine is useless. All I can do is move the element of Water to a safer place; the Spokes archives will have to do for now. As for the Obelimon, I pray it will survive, but my hopes are slim.
I still know very little. Far too little. For the first time in a very long time, I am seriously worried.
Three days to go…
Grace squinted as the morning sunlight refracted through the icy ceiling above, illuminating the room around her with spectacular beauty. She sat up, rubbing her eyes and looking around dazed. "Guys…?"
The door opened and Lobomon walked in, followed by Vulpimon and Eloise, with Ladomon in tow. The dragon grinned. "Sorry, we didn't want to wake you too early. You looked exhausted."
"I'm fine. Really." Grace emphasised her point with a yawn, before reaching for her hairband. "The storm seems to have passed. When were we planning on heading off?"
Vulpimon frowned. "It would probably be best to go soon as we can. That way we should catch the evening thermals when we reach Grid Central again." She looked down, obviously sad to leave. Grace fixed her ponytail, before walking over and stroking her partner's head. She looked up at Lobomon.
"He's, uh, ready to go whenever." The wolf warrior scratched her head, thinking hard. "We should probably get him warmed up before we go."
"Sounds good." Grace knelt down by her partner. "Go and find your mother and see who wants to come. You deserve to say a proper goodbye."
The fox smiled. "Thanks. Really, and thanks for bringing me here. All of you."
She beamed at the small group around her, before running off down the hallway. Eloise beckoned and Grace followed the three as they headed out to the courtyard.
Whether it was the cold or something else, Grace couldn't help but feel a shiver as she walked down the icy halls. Her morning daze was beginning to clear, and with it came the strange feeling from last night. The voices, yet again chanting the same, sinister rhyme.
Waiting here for tired young foxes
Lobomon opened the main doors and the four of them trudged out into the thick snow, heading round the front of the castle
We can't wait to see their shockses
Grace frowned, her eyes drifting down in front of her as she noticed Lobomon and Eloise's feet. The chant repeated itself again and again in her head, and as it did so, the two figures in front of her stepped perfectly in time. One, two, one, two...
For they soon will see our trickses
"We're here." Ladomon smiled sweetly, before Eloise and Lobomon parted, revealing a stone stable. Chirinmon lay inside, motionless. Grace stepped forward, gingerly, reaching a hand out. "Is…he asleep? I don't understand…"
"Don't worry. He'll soon hear us talkses."
Grace's eyes widened, and she whirled round, but her three companions were gone. Vanished in the white wilderness, leaving only her and the motionless kirin. She turned round and checked him again, and that's when she noticed the marks. Great, swathing symbols, drawn in what looked like black ink, that pulsated at regular intervals with a deep jade. With each pulse, the kirin let out a breath, and Grace noticed a spasm in the giant's body. She could see his face, eyes wide open, strained with pain and fear.
"Help! Someone, please, help!"
Grace ran back, kicking up snow behind her as she rushed for the main door to the citadel. But it was locked. She banged her fists against it, screaming for help, but it was thick and stone and no sounds passed through. Helplessly, the girl looked around, but the courtyard was sealed. No way in, no way out.
"Windows shutses. Doors are lockses."
Grace paused, and reached for her pocket, but her jaw dropped as she realised her D-Nexus wasn't there. She remembered putting it down by her bedside last night. It was still there. She was sure of it.
"Now we trapses. Now we stalkses."
The three voices got closer, and Grace shivered, heading back to Chirinmon and shaking him in a vain attempt to wake him. "Please, tell me what's happened. Who did this to you?"
"All the while the clocks tick-tockses."
She stopped, aware of footsteps coming up behind her. She turned, seeing Lobomon, Eloise and Ladomon stood before her, their figures hard to make out against the thick fog. Grace shivered, looking all around for a way out.
"W-W-Who are y-y-y-you?"
They smiled, opening their mouths in unison, and when they spoke, it was with the playful voices of children.
"Now you're going to die!"
In an instant her friends' gentle smiles had vanished, replaced by ghoulish, mask-like grins. Grace screamed and ran to one side, but the three creatures were fast; reaching out with fuzzy, stubby arms, now tipped with bright red talons. The Ladomon one swiped, its claws raking over Grace's forearm and tearing through the fabric of her sweatshirt. She cried out, stumbling as she clutched her arm, but another creature – the one who had been Lobomon – stuck out a leg and sent her hurtling downwards into the snow. She rolled, dazed, as the three creatures darted around her, their forms shifting between the familiar ones of her friends and something far more wicked.
Grace yelled as one of their nails slashed her calf, and before she knew she was running back, the three figures seemingly gliding effortlessly beside her in the snow. She reached the door, turning round in horror as her once-friends danced in front of her, their talons gleaming wickedly.
The door shifted, and she fell backwards, crashing into the smooth stone floor. There was a yelp and the light vanished, and she found herself looking up at the ceiling, just within the citadel itself.
There was a bang and another yelp, and she sat up, only to be greeted by the squat Vulpimon and the bandaged one, who were looking at her with concern. "We thought we heard someone calling for help. What the almighty hell are those things?"
Another bang, and from beyond the doorway came the sound of incessant giggling. The squat Vulpimon looked back, worry on his face. "This isn't going to hold. They're going to pick open the lock any minute now.
Grace stood up, backing away. "I don't know, I was just walking with my friends and then…they were there." She flustered, before trying to calm herself down. "I need to go to my room. And we need to warn the others."
She ran off, the two Vulpimon following her. Through her panic and the sheer size of the citadel, she struggled finding her room, but eventually she made it. There it was; her D-Nexus, where she'd left it, beside her bed. There was no sign of her partner.
Her present company looked at the device with curiosity. "What is that? How is that going to help?"
"It's…" Grace shivered, turning the device on and flickering through the buttons. "It's hard to explain; it allows me to give myself and Vulpimon – my Vulpimon – extra power. And it does other things...I don't have time to explain." SHe stood in front of the door, glaring at the two foxes, who remained in the doorway. "Let me out!"
The squat Vulpimon giggled. "Shiny…"
Grace ducked just in time as two savage ghouls leapt at her in tandem, slashing with their claws. With a yell she swung an arm wide, catching one of the Vulpimon in the chest. He flew backwards, but the bandaged one turned, laughing maniacally. "We want to play with it! Give it to us!"
Grace turned and ran out the door, trying to shove it shut, but scrabbling claws held it open and she gave up, instead focusing on running as fast as she could. She reached the main corridor, turned and rand further into the citadel. By the cold air blasting past her, it was likely her three friends outside had managed to break their way in. Or maybe they'd been let in. She shivered, pulling her sweatshirt closer. Anyone around her could be out to kill her now. All she could do was run.
"Is anyone still out there…anyone…"
She turned a corner, before grinding to a stop as she saw the familiar shape of a Vulpimon just in front of her. The fox bounded up to her, but slowed as she held her D-Nexus out, ready to evolve. "Don't come any closer!"
"Hey, it's me." Vulpimon tapped her neck, the pendant swinging. "I came to find you. Everything's gone haywire."
"I said don't come any closer. How do I know it's you?"
Vulpimon slowed, pointing to her neck. "You were right. Lobomon was right. My mother's behind it all. I should have listened to you, but I was just so...I didn't want to believe it..."
For a moment Grace held firm, trying to recall last night's conversation. She swallowed, before forcing herself to relax, but only a little. "Sorry. I was outside when the others attacked me. I think it was someone else though; these things, I think they use us as disguises."
Vulpimon nodded, looking around carefully. "I was wrong. I was so wrong to come here; my mother's behind it. She changed before my eyes, and tried to attack me. I've locked her in the throne room."
Grace's eyes widened. "What do we do?"
Vulpimon seemed to grasp for an answer, before running off. "I know a secret way out of here. Follow me."
"A secret way? How?"
"I grew up here, didn't I?"
Grace hesitated for a moment, but before she could object the sound of laughter came from behind her and she ran after the fox. Vulpimon carried straight for a few hundred yards, before ducking right, diving behind a pillar. The wall split behind it, leaving just enough room for someone small to squeeze through. Both of the Ice warriors managed, finding themselves on a staircase.
Vulpimon pointed up, to where a shaft of light illuminated the stone steps. "That leads to the roof. We can get away from here."
"What about the others?"
"I…I don't know…"
Grace held the wall, catching her breath. "There's got to be some way we can save them. If something else has replaced them then they must still be alive."
"You could be right…" Vulpimon clicked one paw. "The dungeon, with the frozen Digimon. Surely they're being kept down there."
Grace looked backwards. "How do we get there though? The only way's through the throne room."
"No, we just need to follow the steps down." Vulpimon took off. "Follow me."
Grace paused again, holding a hand out. Vulpimon slowed, looking back up at her. "What is it?"
"How did you know-"
All of a sudden there came a savage scrabbling at the wall beside the girl. She screamed, turning to see the leering mask-like face of Eloise clawing at the gap. They'd been found.
Grace ran down the stairs after her partner, two at a time, until they reached the underground room. Grace looked around, her eyes still adjusting to the darkness. "You think they could be frozen somewhere?"
"We should split up and check. We need to be quick though; my mother could come down at any moment."
Grace stepped back, eyeing the nearest corpse; a Korikakumon, like the one she'd seen yesterday. She shivered, carrying on down the row, but nothing seemed familiar. At the end of the row she leaned in for a closer look. It was an Ikkakumon, pale, fluffy and bulky, but something was slightly off. Something hung underneath the great cat, clinging to its underbelly. A rod of some kind, pale, with golden rings, seeming very seperate from the rest of the Digimon itself.
"Do…do any of these things look…strange to you?"
Grace made her way along the other side of the row, checking each Digimon in turn. Some of them were hidden, but there was no mistake; all of them had the same, strange artefact clinging onto them.
She jumped as she nearly tripped over Vulpimon, who was coming the other way. There was a clattering sound nearby, followed by an animal screeching. The fox's eyes widened. "We don't have much time. Hurry up, Eloise!"
She darted in between two icy forms, but Grace called after her. "Sorry, what did you say?"
The fox turned, padding along the other side of the dead, as Grace followed her footsteps. "Why? I said hurry up, Grace."
Grace bit her lip, and pretended to study the encased Digimon, but instead she timed her movements. With every gap she passed, she glanced at her partner, looking for a sign. For confirmation. By the time Vulpimon turned her head away, she saw it. A notch, out of one ear. Like the local…no, this was the local Vulpimon. And perhaps someone else.
Grace stopped moving, leaning back against one of the corpses. Her hands were shaking, but she reached down and grasped her D-Nexus, which buzzed to life in her hands. She closed her eyes, holding her hands together as she tried to calm down, but it wasn't working. Deep within a labyrinth of the dead, surrounded by savage shapeshifters and with only one weapon.
Vulpimon noticed she was no longer following, and turned, her form merely a silhouette in the gloom. "Grace?"
Grace braced herself, before stepping out, swinging her arm wide.
The sudden flash lit up the room, causing Vulpimon – whoever she was – to hiss, darting out of the way once again as the girl changed form.
The nomad looked around, her yellow eyes dimly illuminating the frozen underworld. "That's enough. I've had it with your games. What have you done with my friends?"
There was silence for a couple of seconds, then a silky laugh emanated from nearby, quite unlike the playful ones from the others. "So you figured it out. I suppose I was a little lax in my appearance."
Chionemon twisted around, catching sight of her partner's silhouette slowly walking away. The fox walked proudly, with purpose. Chionemon went to dash after her, but was loathe to go too near, the fates of her friends playing in the back of her mind. Instead she kept pace, her rings extending into wicked daggers as the two of them approached the end of the hall, still either side of the wall of frozen Digimon. Chionemon glanced at the other figure, and couldn't help but notice the notch in the ear had disappeared.
The other figure must have read her mind because she sighed. "I don't know; I suppose we all make mistakes. Still, it's nice when you get it absolutely perfect, isn't it?"
"Save stalling, lady. What are you doing here?"
The voice broke out into a giggle, and for a moment Chionemon could hear the echoes of the other creatures echoing in the distance. Her faux-partner was changing; the figure was clearly getting larger, standing upright.
"I'm not doing anything. I don't need to do anything. I've already finished everything I came to do."
They were reaching the end of the wall. Chionemon gripped her daggers tightly, ready to spring if needed. She could sense no such tension from the other, who simply continued walking.
"You're the last thing I need to bother with. And even then, it's not important. Just a little fun on the side."
Chionemon reached the end of the row first, and turned round, holding her blades out at the figure before her. "Who are you?"
The figure raised a hand to her chest in mock surprise, before relaxing, slowly stepping forward. She was small and slight; shorter than Grace even. Her body was that of a young human girl, dressed in a purple kimono with a red belt. She wasn't entirely human; her hands mimicked the taloned claws of the other creatures, and her feet were canine. Her long, green hair was mostly tied back in a braid with golden rings, which swayed idly behind her. Her face was obscured by a bone mask in the shape of a grinning fox face, and around her midriff, held in place by the belt, were dozens of little bone rods, all identical to the ones on the frozen corpses.
The figure gave a small laugh, and curtseyed the warrior before her. "I am merely an artist. But I like you, so you can call me Inarimon."
The door to the throne room opened, and Vulpimon entered, seemingly shyly. Kwanmon stood, facing away from her, stooped over an ambiguously shaped lump of ice in the centre of one wall. Vulpimon walked over to her, the others around her noticing her entrance.
"You remember, don't you? What it was like here when you left." Kwanmon sighed, and slowly turned around, her aged body betraying her weariness. She smiled. "I'm sorry; I haven't kept this place as clean nowadays."
"I don't care about the castle, mum. Please, just…I'm happy to see you're safe."
She sat down, and Kwanmon chuckled. "I expect you've come to tell me you're leaving. It makes sense. You don't have much time to get safely back to Grid Central."
Vulpimon gritted her teeth, but said nothing. She felt her mother's shadow pass over her as Kwanmon bent down, stroking down her daughter's cheek. "Look at you. So small, and yet you've grown so much."
Vulpimon sniffed. "I thought I had the power to save the world. But now we're here, at the last stand, and…I can't…it's been so hard…" The fox burst into tears and fell into her mother's arms, months of stress and pain melting away.
Kwanmon held her, gently patting her back, before standing her daughter up straight. "You've done more than I could have hoped for. There's just a few more steps to go, and I promise, I'll be here when you return. We all will."
One by one, the surrounding Vulpimon nodded. The Ice warrior looked around at all of them; they looked so small, but like her once, there was determination in their eyes.
She smiled, and sniffed back the tears. "I won't give up. I'll never give up."
Chionemon swiped, sending blades of ice towards the warrior, but she simply skipped out of the way, laughing coyly. "Please, control yourself. We've only just met."
Chionemon backed away, trying to keep track of the fox girl, but she'd already vanished. "You're nothing but a coward; hiding in the shadows and taking people over like this. How many is it? How many have you taken over?"
Inarimon stepped out some distance away, and pointed with a bone rod. "Well, those five, for a start."
Chionemon turned around as she was bowled over by Eloise, who immediately began slashing and tearing at the nomad, who crossed her arms. "Please…snap out of it…"
There was nothing doing as she spied the others; Lobomon, Ladomon and the two Vulpimon, also barreling towards her. She raised her legs and kicked the Eloise creature in the chest, sending her sprawling back. "Sorry…"
She heard Inarimon laughing and held out a hand, splaying her daggers. "Let them go! Right now, or I swear…"
Inarimon sighed, twirling the rod. "Alright, if I must. Come on out, children; our guest wants to meet you."
One moment Chionemon was being cornered by five savage creatures. The next, they collapsed where they stood, the bone rods attached to them standing high. Chionemon watched in curious horror as something forced its way out of the end of each of them; a mass of green, matted fur, two squat arms, and a hideous grinning mask. They floated, giggling and chattering and suspended by a wisp-like tail. They didn't seem to be completely there, apart from the masks and their curved, wicked red talons.
Chionemon felt an icy form behind her, trapping her. The five creatures floated towards her, poking and prodding her as they laughed with each other. She tried to move, but they blocked her path, turning solid and forming a wall. One of them reached out and grabbed her ankle, digging in with those claws and drawing blood. Chionemon pulled away, cursing, and the other little gremlins laughed at her pain.
Inarimon sniggered again. "Aren't they lovely, my Kankomon? I hold them, and offer them life. They do so love to take it from those with actual bodies, and who am I to deny them?"
Chionemon's focus snapped to the bodies on the floor, who were all still lying motionless. The thin, wispy tails of the Kankomon extended out towards the gremlins around her. "These things are killing them?"
Inarimon placed her paintbrush to her lips. "We all have to make little sacrifices."
"You monster! Petrify Hand!"
Chionemon's fists solidified and she swung around her, but every Kankomon she touched merely evaporated like smoke, simply appearing somewhere else. They giggled in unison, and all dived at her at once, their red talons ripping into her. She cried out, falling to the floor, but she rolled and forced herself up, ignoring the pain. If she couldn't destroy the bodies…
She made to swipe again, but as the Kankomon followed her gesture, she instead ran, making for her fallen comrades. Extending a dagger in each hand, she swiped alongside her, taking great care not to hit her friends. One, two, three, four, five. The bone rods shattered, dissolving into data almost instantaneously.
Immediately Chionemon was down on her knees, shaking each still figure in turn. "Come on, wake up. You have to wake up."
"Someone help!" Lobomon sprung awake, spinning in mid-air, still disorientated. Eloise and Lobomon followed, trying desperately to figure out where they were. Their eyes fell on Chionemon, who was busy shaking one of the Vulpimon. "Come on. You can't…you can't…"
"No…they can't be…"
Eloise reached over and pulled her back, the nomad's form disintegrating as she did so, becoming Grace's slight form. The older girl caught a glance at the still figures of the Vulpimon; dry, shriveled, practically mummified. She shivered, feeling her stomach turn. All the time she'd been possessed, she had felt the Kankomon sucking at her very essence, and that had only been for a few hours. How long had the Vulpimon been trapped, slowly growing weaker, their life draining away...
Her knees gave way, partly from exhaustion and partly from the sheer shock. Grace broke free of her grip, her shoulders shaking. It wasn't her own partner, but still, seeing them in that state in front of her…
Inarimon stepped into view, only to be held at Lobomon's sword-point. "You've got a lot to answer for."
The fox girl tilted her head, swaying slightly. "Dead, are they? You know, you'll be surprised how much juice you can leach out of the dead."
Grace's eyes flashed and she whirled around, roaring. "YOU BITCH!"
She rushed at Inarimon, but Eloise held her struggling body back. "She's trying to rile you up! Don't let her!"
"SHE KILLED THEM!"
Inarimon shrugged. "Many people die. It's how life goes. I'm not particularly strong, so I have to survive by my wit."
"Good for you." Lobomon stepped closer, the blade of light nearly touching Inarimon's mask. "But we know how you work now. We're dragging you out of the shadows."
Inarimon sighed. "I prefer dancing, myself."
"It's too late for you!" Grace gave a short, hysterical laugh. "We know how to defeat those little demons now."
"What, you think they're dead?"
Inarimon giggled, and a flurry of red talons flew up in front of her. Lobomon cried as the sword was knocked from her grasp, and she backed away, confronted by a group of a dozen grinning Kankomon, hovering around Inarimon from the rods around her midriff.
"I really am very nice, you know. I provide for them when they're not busy feeding. In return they provide me with the tiniest bit of protection."
Ladomon growled. "We can still take them. You're finished."
"Perhaps you can take them. But can you really take all of them?"
Inarimon raised a hand and snapped her fingers, and the entire cavern rumbled. Eloise looked around, and suddenly twigged.
Row after row after row of frozen Digimon suddenly snapped into life, their individual faces masked by the grinning visage. They all turned, staring at the four warriors, who stood, backs against the wall. Inarimon shook her hands, squealing with delight. "Look at that! Look at that, little Grace! It's working! They're awake, and they're ready to go! I told you everything was sorted. Sure, it took a long time and a lot of patience, but it was worth it. I've already won!"
She sighed, arms spread wide as she glided in a circle. "Oh, don't they look beautiful?"
Grace's eyes were wide, darting between the fox girl and the hundreds of hulking beasts behind her, all giggling with the same, childlike voice.
"W-w-what are you doing?"
Inarimon stopped mid-twirl, and turned to face her. "Well, it wouldn't be a lot of fun replacing the entire lineage of Ice Digimon if I didn't complete the job, would it?"
"I would, and I will, and it's too late to stop me."
She stamped a foot, pointing towards the exit. "Everybody, to the throne room! Down with the monarchy! It's time to end this!"
For so many, the Kankomon-possessed liches moved impossibly fast, scrabbling their way up the stairs. Grace yelled out. "STOP HER!"
Lobomon made a move, slashing at the nearest lich. She struck lucky, shattering the bone rod, but as the corpse fell to the ground three more took its place. Lobomon cursed, and went to move again but was swiped aside by a glass-eyed Frigimon.
Inarimon had slipped behind the fallen corpse and in an instant had drawn another rod, which appeared to be another paintbrush. A mystical circle of light appeared on the corpse, and the rod attached itself to the centre, followed by a Kankomon who enthusiastically dove inside. The corpse jerked, before rising up again, and heading for the door.
Lobomon backed away, clutching a wounded arm. "We can't…we can't stop these things."
"Then we just stop her!" Eloise rushed forward, not even bothering to evolve as she drew her arm back, but Inarimon simply stepped out of her way. By now most of the liches had escaped, and the sounds of the mayhem upstairs were clear.
Inarimon ran after them, her personal Kankomon floating all around her. "I can't wait to see the looks on their faces!"
"After her!" Grace ran, stumbling a little from the various tears and scratches over her body. The others joined in the pursuit. Ladomon gritted her teeth. "There's got to be some way we can stop her. Tell me there's a way."
Eloise's head fell down, tears streaming from her eyes that she couldn't even feel, it was so cold. "I don't know. I don't know anymore. What the hell can we do now?"
The rumble was the first thing to catch the throne room, sending frozen ornaments skidding and shattering. Kwanmon looked around worriedly. "They're back. They're close this time…"
Vulpimon stepped back, treading gingerly on the stone. "Something's wrong. They're getting nearer…"
The door from the dungeons burst open, and the Digimon inside leapt back as hordes of Ice Digimon stormed inside, grinning wickedly, with claws bared. They spread out, gathering around the group of foxes as they huddled closer together.
"What is this…?"
Kwanmon held out a hand, and stepped forward, gesturing in the air with her free hand.
A sword materialized in front of her; light silver, with blue edges. She moved quickly and gracefully, despite her seeming lack of mobility, and within moments half a dozen Ice soldiers hung frozen in space. She stepped back, gathering her balance, but her position faltered as her targets shook violently, breaking out of their frozen shells and staring her down once again, their blank, dead eyes masked by that mocking grin.
Kwanmon hesitated. "That's not possible…"
"Oh yes it is!"
Inarimon entered the room with a lavish twirl, clapping her hands enthusiastically. "Oh, bravo everyone! Bravo! That was absolutely beautiful. Looks like you've made quite the impression on her highness over there."
The citadel rumbled again, crystals falling from the ceiling, as Kwanmon raised her sword. "Who are you? Are you with the Fire Kingdom?"
"Me?" Inarimon looked almost offended. "I'm my own agent, thank you. Those people are revolting; I much prefer the company of my own family. Wouldn't you agree?"
There was a clatter, and Lobomon, Grace, Eloise and Ladomon rushed inside. Vulpimon's eyes widened behind her mother. "Grace? What's going on?"
"It's her! She's doing all of this; you have to stop her!"
"Very well." Kwanmon stepped back, aware of the many hordes of Kankomon around her. She glared at Inarimon, who simply chuckled. "I don't know what kind of sick, twisted game you're playing, but nothing will destroy our family. Girls, take her down!"
She moved forward, her blade ready to strike, but Inarimon simply stepped out of the way again, brushing snowflakes from her kimono. "Close, I'll give you that. But your family don't seem quite so lucky."
Kwanmon frowned, and turned around. Her twenty-two subjects stood there, unmoving. Slowly, they began to smile. The front one laughed. "We love you, mother."
The matriarch's eyes widened in horror as her subjects crumpled to the ground before her very eyes, as dead and shriveled as if they'd been pulled from the ancient ice itself. Only Grace's partner was left standing, but not for long, as twenty-two now freed Kankomon rushed her at once, dragging her back against the wall.
Grace went for her D-Nexus, as did Eloise, but the liches closest to them dropped their vessels and they too were overrun by Kankomon. The girls screamed as the devices were wrenched away, as were Lobomon's cutlasses. Kwanmon staggered forward, her blade dragging along the ground, as she stared down at the corpses of her children. Inarimon giggled behind her.
"Don't you see? I've already won. You have nothing left, matriarch. Your family, your friends; they've all fallen under my eternal command for the rest of their waking deaths."
She smiled, and wandered into the centre of the room. Everybody but Kwanmon watched her every move. "It was simple, to start with. A few peasants, here and there. Once you've got a small number of people where you want them, the rest of the castle was easy. But you wouldn't be worried about that, would you?"
Eloise glared at Inarimon. "The Fire soldiers…"
"Very astute, girl. They were never here. I went to local tribes, lending their bodies to my children, then I snuck them inside under the guise of Fire soldiers. A little smoke and mirrors and there they were, ready to hide from the world in your little memorial, until such time as I needed them."
The citadel rumbled again as the dead eyes of a hundred Ice Digimon stared at their once ruler, who turned in horror, tears streaking her face. Her look snapped to Inarimon and she raised her sword again, but the end was shaking. "Why? Tell me, why? What do you have to gain? The Fire Kingdom will only hunt you down like the rest of us."
Inarimon sighed. "Fire Kingdom this, Fire Kingdom that. I'm just the poor little girl who's forced to scrabble through their rubble and somehow survive. I never wanted a war, but I never got a say in their war." She folded her arms. "So what if they are coming? If I build my family large enough, I won't have to worry." She sniggered. "If I'm going to die, I'm going to die as the queen I always wanted to be."
"You didn't answer my question!" Kwanmon stepped forward, her legs shaking. "Why have you destroyed my family?"
Inarimon shrugged. "Because you were the first ones I came across. And because it's fun."
Vulpimon struggled, trying to call out through the tears. "Mother, don't listen! She's trying to get to you!"
"Oh, I love it when a piece comes together this perfectly."
The sword steadied. Kwanmon raised it high.
Grace looked away, sobs already racking her body.
Inarimon grinned. "Your husband was the best, though."
Kwanmon's eyes snapped open, and she saw the lich standing behind the fox girl. Vulpimon's eyes hit it as well. Her father. Dead, before her own eyes.
Kwanmon wavered, and that was all Inarimon needed.
The matriarch jerked, the citadel rocking around her as Inarimon placed three circles over her body, the magic flaring up. Three Kankomon appeared, wrapping around the matriarch with their ethereal tails as they clamped onto her limbs with their savage claws. Kwanmon bent double, crying out in pain, but she remained standing. "You…you can't…control me…that easily…"
"I don't need to control you. I just need to hold you in place."
"LET HER GO!" screamed Vulpimon, but it was too late. Inarimon raised a hand, and the Kankomon attacked.
Vulpimon's eyes were forced open as she watched her mother die. The matriarch started standing, managing to swing her sword and cane with remarkable skill, despite the Kankomon attached to her, draining her movements. Eventually, she even managed to remove the vessels on her own body, but the liches had already swarmed her; scratching, tearing, biting. Everywhere she tried to move, several more demons crawled beneath her feet. Some of them piled in above her, using the weight of the corpses to pin her down, to trip her up and block her movements. Yet others of them abandoned their vessels entirely and simply flew in with their bare hands, ripping every clear scrap of fur and flesh they could get their nails into.
Eventually Kwanmon fell to one knee, her fur matted and bloodstained, her robes torn, her sword broken in two. She gave one last look at her daughter, and mouthed something. Two words.
Then she sunk below, and the feeding frenzy continued. The children looked away, but they couldn't cover their ears. Couldn't block out the slaughter; the cries of pain, the sound of tearing skin, or snapping bones. They flinched at every movement, as the earth rocked beneath them.
The sounds faded away, the Kankomon drifting apart. Grace forced herself to open her eyes, to look at the scene. The floor was practically empty. Nothing but a few tufts of fur, a few splashes of blood, and half a sword.
Inarimon casually strolled over and picked it up, inspecting the blade. "Not bad. Not bad at all."
She snapped her fingers, and the Kankomon dragged the five warriors before her. She swayed, her hands behind her back. "Since the faux-royalty is no more, I declare myself the queen of the Northern Tribes. Kneel!"
Lobomon cried in pain as she was dragged down. Grace's head was low, sobs racking her body. Eloise forced herself to look sideways, at Vulpimon, who hadn't looked up.
"You're all cute. Especially you." Inarimon placed the flat of the sword beneath Grace's chin, lifting her head up to look her in the eye. "I think I'll keep you as a souvenir. To remind me of the legacy of the Ice Digimon."
"You sick bitch!" Eloise writhed, but the Kankomon held her fast, their claws digging in as they forced her face into the floor. Still she mumbled. "You murderer! You've killed enough already; you've won."
Grace's eyes widened as she looked up. "Please, stop! You've won! No more!"
Inarimon chuckled. "I'm sorry, my love." She lowered the blade, and wandered over to Vulpimon, who remained motionless. "I'm a completionist, you see. I can't leave a work unfinished. So you three can proudly bear witness to the day when the last guardian fell."
Inarimon giggled, placing the sword blade on Vulpimon's neck. "I'm doing you a favour, girl. At least this way you'll be free from this war."
"I'M BEGGING YOU!"
The fox girl raised the blade, ready to bring it down once and for all. Then she stopped, and instead lowered it slowly, tapping the band around the fox's neck.
"One last little trinket, huh?"
With a quick flick, the pendant fell to the floor, the residual element swirling inside it. Inarimon humphed, and brought the blade down.
The others gasped, flinching as the disc shattered. Inarimon stared, her mask shifting as she smiled.
Vulpimon opened her eyes.
Inarimon raised the blade again. "Too late!"
Vulpimon shouted and the throne room split in two; great chunks of ice falling down as the fox girl fell backwards. She got to her feet, searching for the sword, but she soon became distracted by the chattering cries and hysterics around her as the liches were trapped by the falling rubble.
"You've stolen everything from me! If I'm going to die here, then I'm taking all you monsters WITH ME!"
Vulpimon stood up, her eyes glowing bright white as a blizzard erupted from her body, turning the surroundings white and slicing into the walls and the floor of the Silver Citadel. Ladomon shielded her face. "Vulpimon, no! The pure element; you can't unleash it like this! It'll kill you!"
But Vulpimon was beyond words; she ran, and the ice followed her as she ran, ripping through the walls and spiraling around her in an ever-growing deadly vortex. The walls broke open, and the floor cracked in two, and the Kankomon and the liches and Lobomon and Eloise and Grace and Inarimon fell down into the remains of the dungeon below.
Grace held out a hand, shouting her partner's name as she fell.
But her words were whipped away by the vortex, and there was only silence as the last Ice Digimon ran off to her demise.
TO BE CONTINUED...