Rinkhalmon blinked. He peered down briefly, looking over his body in feigned surprise. "Am I? I never realised. Thanks for telling me though, I expect it'll be helpful to know."
Grace shook her head. "No. I saw you…I saw you die. You can't be here."
"Sorry to disappoint." Rinkhalmon waved his bandaged arm. "Although to be fair I wasn't able to retrieve certain bits so we can call it even."
Perimon hovered above Rinkhalmon, giving him a dangerous look. None of them risked moving; even in his apparently wounded state the serpent still gave off an air of confidence. In fact, not even that. Carelessness.
"How the hell-"
Rinkhalmon brushed the question away before he'd even heard it. "Nothing special. Prehensile tails; gotta love them. I was hiding out beneath the balcony until you guys went off. Nice job with the lab by the way. You and that cloaked menace really did a number on a poor old scientist's life's work."
He peered to one side, staring at the still smoking armour. "Seems you've had quite a successful day, to be honest. I'll admit, I wasn't expecting such a graphic end. Didn't think it was your style."
"Shut up!" Aaron stepped forward, pointing an accusing finger at the commander. "This was nothing to do with us."
Rinkhalmon held both hands up defensively. When nobody jumped to his defense, he lowered them again and grinned coyly. "Guilty. I like to have a little backup plan. In this case a leech in the helmet worked nicely; just kept him ticking over until he wasn't any use any more. I had old Tentacles put down the same way; you really can't give these people any leeway or they'll end up ending the world."
Aaron shook his head, not believing what he was hearing. "We'd won. We were going to stop this, and you…" He lowered his arm, feeling suddenly tired. "I don't get it. I don't get any of it. What were you doing, all this time? Were you controlling him?"
"Control? I'm hurt." Rinkhalmon peered over at the pile of armour again. "I never really paid attention to what he was doing. He's the one who began the war. Maybe had a little persuasion here and there but the choice was his own. I have my own priorities." He frowned, tilting his head to one side. "Talking of which, I'm not obligated to call him General any more, am I? Maybe something more fun would suffice. Rambo? I like Rambo. Rambo suits him."
Eloise began to walk forward. "You're sick."
The serpent paid her no attention, staring absent-mindedly at the ceiling. "Course, with Cephalomon and Fornaxmon dead and Marty no longer with us, does that make me Fire General now? That could be fun-"
Eloise brought her fist forward, slamming it into his face and knocking him to the ground. Kent and Aaron immediately ran forward, grabbing her arms as she tried to run forwards again, her eyes narrowed to dangerous slits. Rinkhalmon simply huffed, wiping his cheek. "Nah, on second thoughts, it wouldn't work. Fire never really suited me. Too hot."
"What is wrong with you?"
Rinkhalmon made to shuffle backwards, but a couple of flashes of light later and Achromon, Mistramon and Alopemon had him surrounded, ready to attack at any moment. He raised his hands. "I get the feeling you're not happy with me."
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Eloise thrust her arms out as best she could. "This? All this? What the hell was all this for; to make it EASY for you? For a goddamn JOKE?"
She struggled again, but Kent held her fast. "Calm down…you know how he works-"
"No, I don't think we do." Another flash, and Galvamon stood before Rinkhalmon, staring him down. "Just when I think you can't make me any sicker…you never had any morals, did you? No sense of humanity."
Rinkhalmon grinned. "I'm not a human, silly."
Galvamon responded by raising his armour foot and slamming it down on the serpent's leg. There was an audible crack and the serpent howled in pain, which soon turned into a cackle. "Violence! I like it! Carry on; get a little creative, why don't you?"
"You son of a bitch!" Eloise lunged forwards, only just being held back as she yelled at Galvamon. "Do it! End this miserable creature!"
The girl flinched as Kai put his hand firmly on her shoulder, turning her to face him. "You said it yourself, we need to stop this-"
"We did!" Eloise pointed at the downed commander, fury rising in her voice. "We did stop it and then this bastard started it again!"
The serpent laughed. "Ooh dear, seems there're a few arguments going on. Perhaps I should be taking my leave?"
"Don't you dare!"
The Digimon around the snake man stepped forward, leaning over him. Mistramon growled. "Do you know how tempting it is to stab you in the face right now?"
"Sounds fun. But maybe later." The serpent lowered his head, and his soul jar began to glow.
An arc of green flame burst out, knocking everyone in the immediate vicinity back. Galvamon recovered first, shooting at the floor, but Rinkhalmon was already scuttling away, albeit wonkily on a broken leg and a missing hand, but fast enough to reach the door before anybody could stop him. The door slammed shut just as Mistramon reached it, flapping in front. "DAMNIT!"
"Open it!" Eloise rushed forwards and slammed her fists against it. "We've got to get him!"
"Eloise, calm down!"
The girl whirled round, marching down upon Kent who backed away slightly. "I'm not calmed up; that bastard's been playing us and we need to stop him."
"I know." Kent held out his hands. "But we're worn out, and he knows the fortress. Our best bet is to head out and meet up with the others and then come and-"
Eloise shook her head. "Every time…you just don't get it, do you?"
Kent glared at the girl. "I'm trying to think this through. You're just trying to get us all killed."
Eloise stopped, her eyes widening. Then, without warning, she brought her fist forwards again, hitting Kent in the cheek. He stumbled back, shocked, as she yelled again. "I'm trying to get us all killed?"
She crouched on the ground, burying her head in her hands. The people around her could hear sobbing. "We'd done it. We'd actually managed to win and stop this war at its source; Surtremon had nothing left. He'd surrendered." She looked up, staring at the great pile of what was once the Fire General. "Then just like that it disappeared. Haven't we done enough?"
Vulpimon stepped forward, biting her lip. "You've done so much. The Digital World has to be indebted to you-"
"But it's not enough!" Eloise stood up again, staring all around her. "We're supposed to have finished. We were supposed to be able to go home. All of us. The whole Digital World. Nobody else was supposed to die. But he…that snake won't stop unless we stop him right now."
Kent shook his head, aware of Trilomon cowering behind his feet. "Rinkhalmon can't do anything. We destroyed the leeches. The soldiers are all but taken care of. He doesn't have anything, but if we go after him he could be leading us into a trap."
Jack piped up. "But we can't just let him get away with all of this!"
Grace grabbed his hand, pulling him towards her. "This is serious, Jack."
"I know! I know it's not a game!"
"Jack, they're talking about killing him."
Ladomon was shaking her head, staring at the ground. "All this time, it was him. He was pushing the war forward."
Eloise stared at the door. "The longer we leave it, the more people are going to die. I've seen enough of that."
"Then let's get the others!"
"And what if he locks us out? He's got the advantage here, and if we can't reach him that gives him time to work on whatever the hell he's working on."
"He needs to pay!"
Colchimon chimed in. "Please, it's not the right thing. You shouldn't be saying that. Not you."
Eloise whirled around. "Why not me?"
The dragon's gaze hardened. "Kai and I know exactly how the anger feels. The desire for revenge. You're the best of us, Eloise; you need to be the better person."
"Look where being the better person has got us! Nowhere!" She turned, looking at Aaron, who stood still, fidgeting. "Tell them, Aaron. Tell them I'm right. We need to end this now."
Kent and Kai shook their heads. "You know better than this."
Aaron could hear his rapid breath as he felt the gazes of the tamers upon him. He turned to Velocimon, before closing his eyes. "I don't know…"
The raptor looked at the door. "I do." He began running, and Aaron yelled as his D-Nexus began to glow brightly, the seal on his chest opening up. The lizard carried on, charging at full force at the fortified barrier. "It's my duty as a soldier to finish the job! We kill Rinkhalmon!"
"Primal Fury! Evolution Activate!"
Aaron tried to pull it back, but the lizard kept running, expanding and turning into a full-powered charge. Dimetromon roared, lowering his head as he slammed into the locked chamber doors. The wood and metal splintered instantly, as Aaron fell to his knees, overwhelmed by the sudden surge of energy. Dimetromon ground to a halt, turning back into the chamber and devolving to Galvamon. For a moment he stood still. Then his feathers twitched, glowing slightly, and he pointed. "I can sense him; he's moved down into the dungeons!"
"Then we've got him." Eloise ran to her partner, who managed to raise her head, her eyes determined. "Do it."
"Primal Fury! Evolution Activate!"
Before anyone could stop her, Eloise had leapt atop her evolved partner and was galloping after the lizard at full speed. Mistramon took after the three of them, followed by Jack, then Grace and Vulpimon chasing after him. The rest of them began running, Kai leading the group and shaking his head. "No, no, no, this is not a good idea…"
Rinkhalmon's cackling threatened to draw the group in circles, but Galvamon was an expert tracker; in but a few minutes he was headed straight for the source of the noise. He took the steps down beneath the fortress in a single bound, with Lyublanamon following hot on his heels. Eloise sat atop her partner, feeling the burning rage in the dragon's heart and in her own. Lyublanamon's shine illuminated the dank corridors more than they had ever been before, revealing strange inscriptions all over the walls. Mistramon followed, only to crash into a wall and stumble to the floor. He stood up, shaking himself off as Kent and Kai caught up with him. "Where did they go?"
"Where do you think? Come on already!"
The bird marched ahead, slightly fuming at his inability to fly in such tight spaces. Kent, Kai and their partners still rushed ahead, but before Aaron, Grace and Vulpimon could follow Jack stopped them. "Wait…I didn't see this before…"
Grace tugged at his arm. "Jack, we need to-"
"Look! It might be important."
The small boy pointed at the walls, where the strange writing shifted every which way, seeming almost like a carpet of insects. Aaron looked confused. "What is that…?"
"I saw it. Back in Grid Central, when the Obelimon kidnapped me." He looked up, shocked. "You don't think this fortress is an Obelimon, do you?"
Aaron started. Grace and Vulpimon just looked on, confused. "What are you talking about?"
Aaron flustered. "Um…I'm not sure, but…Obelimon are…were these creatures which held the elements." He knocked his head, trying to remember. "Jack said the one he was in showed him something…"
The young boy nodded. "All the symbols disappeared. Except Electricity, which I was in, and Fire. This must be Fire. It…"
He shook his head, stepping back. "Something's wrong. Something different happened to Fire. It looked like it was grabbed by something…something like a leech, only…more…"
Vulpimon tilted her head. "That doesn't sound good. So, is this Obelimon still alive?"
Aaron reached out, stroking the writing as it shifted beneath his fingers. He could feel a heavy sinking feeling in his gut. "I think this may be the last one. After all, Surtremon was taken down by the leeches, or…something."
"Somehow I doubt he used only his own power."
Jack looked up. "Then we need to stop him."
"But we also need to stop the others before they do something they'll regret." Aaron beckoned as he ran after the others. "Come on."
Jack twisted, only to wince and drop to the ground. Grace immediately bent down, glancing at his knee. The skin was almost black.
The boy turned his head away. "Don't look, it's alright. Just help me up, please."
Grace looked around. "I know. We can't stay here. Grab my shoulder."
"It's nothing. It's been a long day. I just wish it was over."
Vulpimon blew cool air on the knee, before the three of them slowly headed further into the darkness.
When they got there, Kent was scouring every inch of the lab, turning over equipment and notes and everything in his way. Trilomon peered up from beneath a desk. "He's definitely been here. Everything was even messier."
A recently-devolved Perimon glared at the bug. "Thanks for the bloody obvious, Trilomon."
Kent whirled round. "Hey, don't slag off my partner."
"Yeah, well he's not helping."
"Neither are you."
"Right, can we all just calm the hell down?" Aaron held his hands out, his voice taking on an edge. "Nobody's helping anyone by yelling. If we're going to find him, let's take it slowly, and think about it."
Eloise folded her arms. "There's nothing to think about. He's just gone."
"No, we know where he's gone." Achromon nodded at the pipes. "There's a room beneath us. There's just no way down from here."
"There must be! Can't we break it down?"
Trilomon pressed his head against the floor, before shaking his head. "Whatever rock it is, it's incredibly solid. Besides, even if we do break through the floor will fall down and block up whatever entrance there is."
Kai rubbed his chin with his gloved hand. "Maybe the entrance is back down the corridor? Or somewhere else in the fortress."
"God, we could be here forever!" Eloise's head fell, and she laid her hands on the central table, staring downwards. "It's not fair. Why does he have to cheat everyone?"
Kai stood behind her, looking down. "Because he's a psychotic commander? All the more reason to plan a way to take him down, rather than rushing in."
"No." Eloise clenched her fists. "No more. I won't let him screw anyone else over."
Everyone jumped back as the central table started moving, sliding backwards. Vulpimon yelped as she was nearly squashed by the moving slab, and joined her partner in staring at the secret passageway.
The stone stopped moving, and everybody gathered at the top of the steps. Lyublanamon nodded. "That would do the trick."
Galvamon stepped forward. "Come on, let's go."
"Oh, for crying out loud…" Galvamon turned, looking his partner straight in the eye. "Don't start, Aaron, we need to do this."
"You don't start either." Aaron folded his arms. "This isn't just your duty, or a chance for revenge. No solo hero-work; you'll just get us all in trouble."
Galvamon huffed, and remained silent. He nodded though, and lent against the wall.
"If we do this, we do it for the right reasons, we do this willingly, and we do it together. Either we all go, or none of us do." Aaron looked around at the waiting warriors. "Are we really all okay with this?"
Kent frowned, but nodded. Kai and Achromon shook their heads. Eloise nodded. Lyublanamon peered down, but stood by her partner. Jack smiled at his partner, before nodding themselves. "Let's finish this." Grace and Vulpimon remained silent.
Aaron looked down. The eerie blue staircase suddenly seemed so very long. He swallowed, and stepped forwards. "Alright then, stick together. And take it slow. There could be anything down there."
He glanced sideways to his partner. "One last battle?"
The dinosaur bowed his head. "One last battle. I promise."
Staying together and holding onto the slippery walls, the group slowly made their way down. It wasn't easy going; the steps were worn and far too small to get a good grip, and the way ahead, despite the eerie blue illumination, was almost impossible to see. Human and Digimon glanced every which way for any sign of their elusive quarry, but Rinkhalmon could be neither seen nor heard. The only sound seemed to be their own footsteps against the endless spiralling staircase. Although as they descended further into the blue hell the atmosphere took on a familiar chill, as if they were being watched by something spectral.
After what seemed like an eternity, the group of twelve reached the bottom, and spread out into the chamber. Lyublanamon flinched, glancing over her shoulder. "There are leeches here."
Indeed there were. A few small groups, huddled up against the walls like stains of mould on the stonework. The writing was present here as well, along with a few patches of the wall that didn't quite fit, as if they were overlapping the same space. Obvious abnormalities aside, however, there was nothing inside the chamber. Nothing physical at any rate.
Grace frowned as she wandered around. "I don't get it? Where's the lab? Where's all the secret work?"
Eloise exhaled, her breath condensing against the surprisingly cold air. "It looks like it was just another store. But Kent, you and Cerebrumon purged most of them. You're right; it looks like there's nothing-"
"Wait a minute."
The others hurried towards Kai, who was bent down in one corner of the room, holding something in both hands. The group gasped as one. It had been a long time since they'd seen it, but it was unmistakeable.
Aaron gulped. "The old Karatenmon's mask…"
Kai held his breath, and gingerly turned the mask over, revealing the glowing etchings on the back. He held it down, low enough for Trilomon to read. The insect ran his eyes over the moulded metal for a couple of seconds, before looking up.
"It says 'Who are you?'"
Kai looked back. "What do you think it is? Is the mask alive?"
Perimon peered forwards. "I don't get it? Is it a Digimon? A ghost?"
"Is it anything at all?" Galvamon looked back. "Are we sure this isn't just Rinkhalmon screwing with us?"
Perimon shook his head. "Rinkhalmon isn't that powerful. Not on his own. You know that."
"Anything's possible." Kent was biting his thumbnail, looking troubled. He peered over Kai's shoulder. "You know what? I have a horrible feeling we may have been played for longer than we thought."
Jack shivered. "Guys…are you sure we're alone in here?"
Aaron gritted his teeth. "No. But Rinkhalmon's nowhere to be seen."
"Just…I think there's something in the corner of the room."
Everyone looked up, but were all faced with a blank wall. The only motion was the strange movement of the Digital stonework trying to push together.
Although, at a certain angle, the stonework didn't seem to be pushing together so much as protruding outwards. Jack blurred his vision, trying to make out what it was. There was a definite shape in the corner of the room, hiding itself. The remaining leeches congregated around it, hissing silently in defiance of the intruders.
"Wait, the writing's changing."
Everyone looked down, as the markings began to shift around as if disturbed by ripples in a pond. Trilomon stepped back, looking at them warily.
The insect's voice was very small.
"It says 'Daddy's here'."
Slowly, the group turned. Rinkhalmon was leant against the bottom of the stairway, crouched over, smiling amiably as usual.
"I had a feeling I might find you in here." He snapped his fingers. "It was getting a little draughty, so I just shut the top door for a while. I hope you don't mind."
"Suits us." Galvamon cracked his knuckles, stepping forward. "You're going to tell us what you've been doing here right now."
"Ooh, fancy." Rinkhalmon chuckled, limping forward to look the lizard in the eye. "And what if I don't?"
Galvamon suddenly felt the point of cold Digizoid against his belly. He looked down, but Rinkhalmon had already pulled the blade back, and was backing away, making a big show out of wobbling on his broken leg. "How many are you going to risk, hmm? How do you know I'm not weakening you all right now without you knowing it?"
"I have a better idea." Kai picked up Karatenmon's mask, holding it out in front of him. Achromon saw what he was doing and immediately grabbed the mask in his bony claw, holding it in front of his face. Kai's face was stern.
"You tell us what you're doing or we destroy this thing. It's obviously important to you."
If the serpent had had eyebrows, he would have raised them. "Be my guest. Although you might have a little trouble. The full purging force of the Fire Tyrants couldn't shatter that little relic, nor could the molecular mastery of Teslamon. Not that she actually tried for very long…"
Achromon lowered the mask, looking at the back. The writing was no going haywire, any semblance of legible language now gone.
Rinkhalmon sighed. "It appears we're at an impasse. I don't want to die, and you don't want to risk killing me."
Grace tilted her head. "That doesn't make any sense."
"Nothing does, dear. But if it makes you happy, I surrender."
Perimon humphed. "Oh sure. Look everyone. We've won. Rinkhalmon surrendered. Everything's okay now."
The serpent smiled. "Yeah, well, I'm feeling generous. You at least deserve to see what I've been working on. Maybe you'll think I'm actually quite a nice guy because of it."
He began to walk around the tamers, who kept their glances and aims focused entirely on him. Achromon growled. "If this is a trap, you'll die first."
Rinkhalmon gave him a look. "You're stuck in an impenetrable underground bunker. You're already trapped, genius, at least see it through to the end."
An air of deep discomfort swept through the basement room as Rinkhalmon stopped, just before the vague shape in the wall. He leaned sideways, giving a stage-whisper.
"It's alright. They're friendly. You can let them see you."
The wall shifted again. Everybody waited with baited breath.
Then, the mass began to press outwards, seemingly bending the very space and matter around it outwards, like pushing a pencil into cling-film. Some threads of space thinned out, snapping away, forming holes and cables leading back to the wall. But the main shape still held solid. Where the wall had been bent was a great semi-transparent mass of leeches and bent space, writhing and pulling the surrounding data in every direction.
Then something leant forward, extending out from the mass of chaos. It was not a leech, but it was still alien. Its impossibly thin body was covered in points and protrusions, and the whole thing attached to the leech pile with what looked like a backbone. It had two long, noodle-like arms, each tipped with three fingers that looked more like antennae than grasping appendages.
Its head was vaguely humanoid, with an enlarged cranium like that of a baby. What was less human were the pale staring eyes which took up nearly half its face, and the four blunt horns protruding from the top of its head.
It leaned forwards, keeping its body up on the spindly arms as it eyed the tamers and Digimon. They stared back; it was hard to make out as its body appeared to shimmer, like liquid, or an old video recording. It was there, in front of them, and yet not quite there after all. But even with the ethereal presence, a few of the onlookers still noticed things. Jack pointed at its face.
The creature flinched, turning even more transparent and pushing its body away from the tamers. Rinkhalmon stuck his lip out. "Well, you're scaring it. Of course it's crying." He grinned. "Come on, tell me the truth; you're impressed, right?"
The onlookers were silent, each one focused as much on the mysterious being as it was on them. Kent put his hand over his mouth. "Unbelievable…"
"Is it a Digimon?"
Rinkhalmon didn't answer. He simply smirked. Jack looked at the serpent. "What's its name?"
Galvamon shot him a look, but the boy shrugged. "What? It's a good question."
"It's not important." Galvamon redirected his glare at Rinkhalmon, who was swaying gently, clearly enjoying every second. "What has this thing got to do with anything? Why was it worth this massacre?" He growled, clenching his fists tightly. "You'd better have a damn good answer."
"I doubt it would satisfy you. I can tell you that no, this is not a Digimon. But luckily for the squirt I did think of a name." Rinkhalmon stood up straight, pointing upwards with a finger. "Beneath the roots of the great tree lies that which feeds on its essence. That which coils beneath the foundations of all life, and gnaws at the bark for its own survival."
"It didn't come from this world, but from just outside it. From the glorious void of the Interface. It's been knocking on the boundary of our world for so long; its only wish is to survive within Yggdrasil itself."
"Yggdrasil…" Trilomon looked down, as if trying to piece things together in his head. "The foundations of the Digital World in chaos. Data itself ripped asunder. The Obelimon dying. No wonder things have been so wrong recently."
Kent looked down. "What are you saying?"
The bug looked up. "It's been trying to get in."
Rinkhalmon smiled. "You're a smart little bug. Yes, you're right." He moved his hands towards the entity, as if presenting it for the first time.
"If we are held by the branches of Yggdrasil, then this is the creature that once resided in the roots. This is Nithhogg."
Lyublanamon growled, lowering her head as she glared at the silent creature. "I don't care what you call it. It doesn't belong here. You had no right to force it through."
"I didn't force it. It asked me." The serpent smiled, reaching out and running his fingers across Nithhogg's face. "It came to me, wanting to be free of the Interface. It wanted to come into this world. It's been trapped."
He sighed, leaning back against the walls with his shoulders behind his head. "But there's a problem; I can't just let it in. I need an enormous amount of energy to break the boundary between worlds. Lucikly it was able to help me."
Kent's eyes darted down at the floor. "The leeches…"
"Wow, you're all on the ball today." Rinkhalmon clapped his one hand sarcastically. "Neat little things, aren't they? Essentially some of Nithhogg's essence taking a semi-living form in contact with data. They excite the data in whatever Digimon they touch. They provide more power."
"Maybe, but they don't affect us." Kent folded his arms. "That's where your plan runs out."
"So it would seem." The serpent curled his lip. "Still, I did what I could. Surtremon was very willing to let me use the fortress; in fact, he just tended to turn a blind eye to it. I tried to create the most powerful Digimon I could but to no avail. The leeches were just too much; they would destroy every soldier I tried them on."
Perimon lowered his head. "And then the leeches spread between the soldiers."
Rinkhalmon shrugged. "That was an oversight on my part. Surtremon may have been under my...influence but then again so was the element. It was corrupted. The Fire Kingdom was burning from within before this war even started. This silly little war was just the inevitable climax."
Eloise ground her teeth, her voice dangerously quiet. "And yet you just kept going..."
"Of course. I'm not abandoning something with so much potential. I had more luck with other elements; random prisoners I gathered from across the continent. But you've already met them, haven't you. In the end they turned out to be less than co-operative."
Galvamon's fists were shaking now. "So that's it. All this…death…the destruction of countless lives…just so you could release this thing…"
"Hey now, I'm being kind to helpless creatures!"
The dinosaur raised an arm and fired a laser. Rinkhalmon bent out of the way, but the electricity rippled outwards, causing Nithhogg to spasm, letting out an unbearably pitched sound. The snake man stuck out his tongue. "You're right. I am interested in my little buddy here but there's something more interesting out there."
He snapped his fingers, before reaching just behind the cowering creature. His hand rippled as it entered the mound of leeches, seemingly distorting in space.
"The Interface. I have to go. I have to know what's there. Somewhere in that vast network of universes, something is waiting for me. I have to go and find it."
Achromon glared at him. "And what about us? What about our world?"
"Honestly? I couldn't give a fuck about this world."
"This world did nothing for me and I feel nothing for it. I want to create something new for myself."
He raised his hands. "Is what I would say. But you caught me, just in time, you little scallywags. As I said, I surrender." He licked his lips, his eyes narrowing. "So tell me, what are you going to do?"
For a moment, nobody moved. Eloise stood at the front of the group, and turned to look at the others. Nobody spoke, but their faces all said the same. She turned back, glaring at the serpent as she raised her D-Nexus.
"Soul Control. Evolution Activate."
Lyublanamon turned as her form began to disintegrate, reverting back to Luminemon. "Eloise, what-"
"One of us has to do it. I don't want anyone else to take the fall." Ljosamon stood at the front, her face impassive as she still stared at the snake man. "I will make sure this ends here."
Rinkhalmon chuckled. "Are you really going to kill me?"
"I thought it wasn't the right thing to do."
"Really? You're begging now?"
Rinkhalmon tilted his head indifferently. "I'm just saying, you didn't kill Surtremon. He was the one who chose to start the war. I merely worked in the background. What makes me different from him?"
Ljosamon raised an arm. "There was hope for Surtremon. Not for you. You feel no remorse, and no compassion for anyone, not even yourself. There's nothing else to do but to kill you."
"Can't argue with that. But what about Nithhogg?" Rinkhalmon pointed sideways at the blue ethereal creature, which was writhing, holding its torso in its arms as it tried to back away into the warped space.
Galvamon growled. "It's just as responsible for all this as you."
"It's a child."
Rinkhalmon raised a hand. "See for yourself. It doesn't want to hurt anyone. It just wants to live." His face took on a serious edge. "Are you going to deprive an innocent being the chance to have a life?"
The dinosaur exhaled, clearly flustered. "It doesn't belong here. It can't be here. If it can't go back to where it came from maybe we don't have a choice."
Ljosamon remained still. "Or maybe killing it will be the kindest thing to do."
Kai raised a weak hand. "Eloise…"
"I've made up my mind." The elven warrior's head snapped sideways, and her illuminated eyes stared into Kai's. "These two nearly destroyed this world. We can't risk that happening again. If we're going to finish this, they need to die."
"But you don't have to do it this way."
"Somebody has to." Ljosamon turned her head back, and raised her right arm, the wings extending as trails of light joined the ends of the feathers. "I'm sick of this. I just want this to end. I want us to win. Just this once. So the rest of us can all go home."
She reached behind her back and pulled out an arrow. The tip began to shine as she loaded it, pointing it at the former commander. He remained where he was, seeming almost disinterested.
"You're the most dangerous. I'm going to kill you first."
"Do what you like."
Ljosamon paused, her gaze darting towards Nithhogg. Those great eyes were now fixed upon her.
Don't kill us.
"I have to."
Don't kill daddy.
"He isn't your daddy."
Kent turned to Aaron. "Who's she talking to?"
Aaron stared at the ethereal creature. "Maybe it's talking to her."
Kent held his breath. "Something's wrong…"
He took a step forward, but Ljosamon's head snapped round again. "Stand back!"
Don't kill daddy.
"I don't care! I'm ending this!" With a sudden burst of anger, Ljosamon pulled her arrow back and aimed it directly at Rinkhalmon's heart.
The watching group flinched, waiting for the flash. But there was nothing. They looked up. Rinkhalmon was still leaning against the wall, looking slightly bored. "Is it over yet?"
Ljosamon stood stock still, arrow poised, ready to launch the killing blow.
Kent braced himself, and stepped forwards again. "Don't force yourself."
"There's another way. You don't have to go through with this."
"It's okay. It's going to be okay."
"I can't move."
Aaron's eyes widened. "What?"
"I can't move anything!"
I won't let you kill daddy.
Luminemon shot daggers at Rinkhalmon. "What have you done to her?"
Rinkhalmon smiled, and launched himself off the wall. His smile broke into a grin, and he leant over, staring into Ljosamon's immobile face.
"SOMEBODY GET HIM!"
Galvamon, Perimon and Luminemon all rushed forwards, but all of a sudden Ljosamon spun on the spot, holding her fists up as both sets of wings exploded outwards.
The force exploded outwards, knocking everybody back along the floor. Ljosamon stood up straight, hands by her sides as her friends struggled to get up.
Kai made it first, pulling out his D-Nexus. "Everyone aim for Rinkhalmon!"
Rinkhalmon moved before anyone could do so, pulling out a sickle and holding the blade directly against Ljosamon's neck. "STOP!"
Luminemon spread her wings, holding the others back as she watched in horror. Rinkhalmon's grin broke into a laugh, and he threw his head back and howled great maniacal bellows around the chamber, all the energy suddenly returning to his voice.
Ljosamon couldn't look at him, but her voice was full of hatred. "What have you done to me?"
"All in good time, sweetheart." Rinkhalmon nodded at the onlookers. "Anybody who tries anything unfriendly against Nithhogg or me will get the best view of your friend's head being separated from her shoulders. So, you know, don't all rush at once or no-one will have any fun."
His tongue poked out, the forked end flickering as his neck stretched around.
"Well, well…I was hoping it might be you."
"Bastard…what have you done to me…?"
"We both know this isn't down to me."
"I never even touched you. But somebody did. You can feel it, can't you? Feel it pulsing through your mind, threatening to pull you every which way."
The serpent stood up straight, smiling over at the ethereal mound in the corner. "Lovely little Nithhogg's formed a sweet little attachment to me. To the point where he won't let anything happen to me."
Aaron gasped. "No way…it's controlling her?"
"Influencing, rather than controlling." The serpent grinned. "But I suppose it's a similar thing."
Ljosamon's head shook as she tried to turn to face him, but the sickle dug just a little deeper into her neck. "But…how? The leeches don't affect us. There's no way it can be moving my body…"
"Well, just a guess, but if it got into contact with you it could send in a piece of itself to mess with your nervous system." Rinkhalmon cocked his head. "Synapses and nerve endings; that is what you humans have, isn't it? Such complex and beautiful creatures you are."
Luminemon stamped a foot, the terror clear on her face. "But that's impossible! We never even saw this thing before!"
"Oh, now you're thinking three-dimensionally. That's no good."
Rinkhalmon sighed, and clicked his fingers. "Nithhogg exists outside this spatial plain. It can only burrow through into places that are closest to the Interface; namely the base levels of the Digital World."
Kent glanced at the creature, who seemed to be in some sort of trance. "You mean the Obelimon?"
"Usually. But occasionally other places open up. And of course, Nithhogg still remains at the original location of contact."
"Where was that?"
"Not where. Who."
He pointed down at the base of the mound, and the warriors followed his gaze. Kai got it first, gasping. "Karatenmon's brother!"
"Wait, what?" Aaron grabbed Kai by the shoulder. "How does that work?"
The older boy shook his head in disbelief. "I don't know how it happened, but Nithhogg must have first broken into the Digital World through Karatenmon's brother. That's the deal with the writing; it's not just a leech, it's Nithhogg itself."
Aaron stepped back. "That camp…where we found it…it wasn't just abandoned there, was it?"
"And the penny drops." Rinkhalmon raised a hand and yawned. "Took you a while. But yes, I chased the others away, stole the swords and left them for you to find, along with the mask. All I needed was for one of you to touch it, and Nithhogg could make contact. And it looks like it chose wisely."
Ljosamon's head hung as low as the controlling spirit would let it, her eyes glowing dimly. "So everything we went through…everything in Silicon City…everything to get here…that was all me being played?"
Rinkhalmon smirked. "What; you seriously think you could deal such a fatal blow to General Surtremon on your own? 'Course you had help. You should be thanking me."
"I thought my power was supposed to protect us."
"You think you're some kind of guardian angel now?"
Now the serpent burst into fits of giggles. Ljosamon's gaze narrowed even further. "What's so funny?"
"Nothing really. But everyone makes this mistake. You seem to think the power of Light somehow makes you righteous; that you're a warrior of pure good."
"I never once thought that."
"But you hoped it." Rinkhalmon scratched his head, searching for the words. "You see, many people believe Light is purely good. Light is pure, sure, but if it's pure, it can't be good. Goodness is a moral, morals create bias, and with bias you can no longer be pure. Light is pure due to the fact that it has no morals. It has no will of its own; no compassion, no kindness, no emotional reasoning; just a prevailing instinct to do 'right'." He leaned in close. "To tell the truth, that fact is what makes them the most perfect soldiers."
Ljosamon had gone silent now; not even the sound of her breathing could be heard. The watching warriors tried to think of something to say, but Rinkhalmon butted in, raising a finger.
"Oh, but I forgot, you're not pure, are you? You never were, and yet you still wielded the power of Light. You formed your own reasons; judging them to be 'right'. No matter what."
"W…What are you saying?"
Rinkhalmon smiled. "You know, Surtremon was a Digimon of Light. He had a vision. He believed he was right. And he found it within his right to kill."
"Surtremon was mad-"
"Uh-uh, I told you, his decisions were his own. As were all of yours. And honestly, for what is right, your decisions are no better than his." He looked up, his face serious. "That goes for every single one of you."
"What?" Perimon bristled, flying up high. "How DARE you! We were trying to SAVE the world!"
"And how many victims did it take?"
Galvamon growled. "Less than the numbers you took."
"A single life is worth no more or less than a dozen." Rinkhalmon raised an eyebrow. "Also, are you sure? Every Fire soldier, every leech, every willing ally you sent to their deaths, all so you could reach here, in this place. General, I'm afraid you more than anyone stand upon a mountain of corpses for the sake of your duty."
Jack leaned forward, his face desperate. "We didn't want to! We just wanted to live!"
"And yet you stayed." The serpent smiled. "You children seem to want to believe you never killed anyone but I'm afraid you're sadly mistaken. You all knew what you were walking into. Right at the beginning, you had a chance to turn away, and leave this world. You chose not to. Perhaps if you had, the resistance would have been crushed and the new world would have come into order. Perhaps fewer would have died. Perhaps not. But the fact is that you joined this war of your own free will. You are all of you as guilty as me for the consequences."
He looked down at Ljosamon, who was very quiet in his grip.
"I make no pretenses. I'm a selfish, evil, manipulative bastard. But at least I'm honest." He pointed with a free finger. "I'm a killer. And so are all of you."
The angel shuddered. "My head…"
"Well now, what was the right thing to do? The best thing for the Digital World? What is it you need to do to killers?"
Eloise tried to close her eyes, her back still turned on the others. But she could still hear them. Jack had begun to cry and Grace was trying to comfort him. The rest were strangely silent.
"Look how they pretend to support you, if only to gain your favour. You're the judge, aren't you? Aren't you going to judge them?"
"They've…they've done nothing wrong…"
"Your element is telling you otherwise." Rinkhalmon smiled. "Think about it. You wanted to bring everyone home, but what will that make you? You'll have seen all this and know the wrongs you've done. It will drive you mad."
"We…we had to…to survive…"
The serpent stepped back. "No you didn't. You didn't enter this war because you were forced. You entered because somebody showed you the horror. They told you that you were becoming heroes, but you knew from the first night that you were mercenaries."
"That's a lie!"
Rinkhalmon looked up, as Kai stood at the front, his face masked with anger and desperation. "We chose to stay because it was right. Because the Digimon needed our help. I know we've made mistakes; we can't change that, but we can choose to follow something new."
The serpent raised his eyebrows. "Right on cue."
Ljosamon stared, unresponsive, as he slowly pulled back from her, unhooking his sickle. He took a couple of steps back, holding it at arm's reach. Then, he dropped it, and held his hands wide.
"I think we both know what you need to do."
Ljosamon loaded her bow, and pointed the arrow straight at the serpent. The snake chuckled. "Go on. You are free to kill the one in this room who destroyed your life. Who turned you into what you are now."
Ljosamon stood stock still. The others held their breath, waiting for the attack.
Kai watched in anticipation. He could see the faintest shiver on the end of her fingers.
And then she turned and pointed the weapon at him.
Achromon rushed forwards, but Ljosamon pulled the arrow back further, her eyes flashing. "Stay back!"
"Eloise, what are you doing?"
"It's not me. It's Nithhogg."
Rinkhalmon smiled. "It's true though, isn't it? It's all true."
"Shut up, you sadistic bastard! I swear when I get out of this-"
"You mean if you wanted to get out of this. Nithhogg has nothing against the boy. You're the one pointing your weapon at him."
"It's controlling me! It should be you!"
"Did I force you to do all this?"
"Of course not, but-"
"Then who did?"
Ljosamon fell silent. She looked at the watching warriors, feeling the strain on her arms as they held the arrow at full draw. Kent was shaking his head; he already knew what she was going to say.
Rinkhalmon lowered his eyelids. "Could it be you resent him more than me?"
Kai said nothing; he merely stared at the crescent blade pointed directly at his heart. At this range there was no doubt. It would be a perfect shot.
Ljosamon's hand trembled slightly, betraying her inner fear. "None of this would have happened if it wasn't for him."
Aaron rushed forwards, but Kai held him back. The Scottish boy spoke hoarsely, "It was an accident. I…I didn't mean to bring you here…"
Rinkhalmon raised a finger to his lips. "But you did convince them to stay. If it wasn't for you, they wouldn't have joined the war. And what was your reason, again? Was it a selfless sacrifice on your part? Or were you simply looking for a thrill? Or maybe atonement?"
The boy gritted his teeth. "Go to hell! You don't know the first thing about me."
"Maybe not. But I know the mental workings of those who've dwelled in darkness. I can tell; when you decided to come all those months ago, it was for yourself. If you hadn't, you wouldn't have turned into what you are now."
Ljosamon's eyes burned. "We wouldn't have turned into killers..." Her head dipped as she stared down the length of her arms, the cold, grey and gold plating glinting right back at her.
Aaron tried to force himself forwards again, to no avail. "Eloise, listen! This isn't you; this is that thing messing around with your head."
"Am I wrong?"
"You know this isn't right. You know he never meant to hurt us-"
"Am I wrong?"
Aaron was silenced. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. Ljosamon pulled the arrow back to its limit. "TELL ME I'M WRONG!"
Kai glanced sideways, aware of Rinkhalmon watching the whole thing, still with his hands in the air. Nithhogg was stock still, with only its fingers twitching. Kai looked back at Eloise.
"No, you're not wrong. It is my fault. And if anyone is to be my judge, it should be you."
Kai raised his own hands, taking a breath. "I know you, Eloise. I know this isn't you. You made the choice not to kill Surtremon. You've been keeping us all going all this time; you've been holding onto that hope."
Rinkhalmon curled his lip. "False hope. Everything you've been doing is wrong."
Ljosamon's eyes flickered. "Everything…is wrong…"
"No it isn't." Kai stared at her with his own piercing blue eyes. "Light doesn't dominate you. You have a choice. You've always had a choice. And even if you make a mistake, you will always have that same choice. Not your element. You."
He stepped forwards, hands still in the air, and closed his eyes. "Do what you want, Eloise."
The air was silent and still. Nobody dared breath. Everyone's gaze was focused on the arrow.
Ljosamon's arm twitched again. And again. And her eyes flickered all the more as tears began to trickle down the stone.
The snake-man curled his lip. "You know what to do..."
"I…I don't want to kill…"
"You don't have a choice!" The serpent's eyes glanced sideways, catching sight of Nithhogg, who was writhing back again, averting its eyes from the shining Digimon.
Ljosamon's head shifted sideways, just a little, then more, until she stared right at the serpent. "I will not kill. Not even you."
Rinkhalmon hissed. "Impossible...even now, I can't get it to work..."
He began to tiptoe backwards, but was suddenly faced by Galvamon, Luminemon and Achromon, squaring off against him. "You've done enough."
"Haven't you beaten me up enough already?"
Luminemon responded by slamming her thick leg into his broken one, causing him to yelp in pain and collapse. "Damnit!"
The watching warriors breathed a sigh of relief. Kai broke out into a smile, as Ljosamon's shoulder began to tremble, her head lowering again. "I…I never wanted to kill…especially not-"
The arrow slipped from her grasp.
Kai flew sideways, unsure what had hit him. He crashed to the ground, rolling and staring up at Ljosamon. She was still shaking. Her bow was drawn. But the arrow was gone.
His gut wrenched and he looked down at himself, but there was nothing. No mark.
He looked up.
And he saw Aaron, arms outstretched, having pushed him aside.
The arrow was sticking through his chest.
Luminemon and Achromon turned. Grace held her hands in front of her face. Jack and Trilomon were looking away. Kent stared in horror. Perimon shook her head in disbelief, and Vulpimon stepped backwards, her face frozen in abject terror.
Galvamon let out a cry and collapsed to his knees, clutching his own torso. Rinkhalmon's grin widened. Nithhogg just kept staring.
Aaron coughed. The arrow was dissolving away, and his chest was following. Small bolts of electricity crawled over his body as he turned to face Ljosamon, just enough for her to see right through the wound. His face changed, into something that might have been fear and might have been pain and might have been a smile. His legs gave way, and he fell downwards, barely supporting himself on his shaking arms as red data trickled out of his back.
There was a flash of light, and a crackle of thunder, and Aaron disintegrated. Gone in a cloud of data. Only his D-Nexus remained, the screen showing static.
There was another flash, and Velocimon staggered, the energy pouring away. He scrambled to his feet and rushed towards Aaron's D-Nexus, grabbing it and dropping to his knees.
Grace was clutching her sides, her pupils racing all around. "This isn't happening…we were so close…"
Luminemon lunged at Rinkhalmon, sinking her teeth into his neck as he writhed, trying to prise her off. Achromon held back, but her piercing eye cought him as she struggled. "KILL HIM, GODDAMNIT!"
Achromon raised his claws, but then winced as pain rocketed through his body. He looked over at Ljosamon, who was raising her shaking hands. She clutched her head, bent backwards, and screamed.
The scream reverberated out as a shockwave, sending everybody flying backwards. It was visceral, painful and biting, immobilising everyone in the immediate radius.
Rinkhalmon raised a blade and slashed at the belly of his attacker. She cried out and collapsed, and he hauled himself out from beneath her.
The scream faded, and the now-human Eloise collapsed to her knees, unmoving. Rinkhalmon humphed, and strode over to her, peering at her stony face. All around everybody was struggling to get to their feet, the onslaught having nearly drained them. Velocimon managed it first, rushing towards the commander with a wild look in his eye.
Rinkhalmon lashed out with a rotating kick, sending the lizard slithering across the floor. He smiled, glancing back down at the girl.
"It's alright, darling Eloise. I know. It was an accident."
She didn't respond. Rinkhalmon bent his head back, nodding at Nithhogg. "This wasn't quite what I had in mind but I'm game for one final attempt if you are."
Kai wrestled himself to his knees. His breathing was ragged and his muscles were on fire but he persevered, trying to reach his friend though his vision swam before his eyes. "Let…her…go…"
The serpent shrugged. "I'm not holding her. She's able to resist Nithhogg's hold, remember?" He grinned. "I wonder though, is she able to resist the power of her own element? Especially now that her own desires have been shattered, and by her own hand no less. She has nothing left but all that untapped potential of that terrible Light."
His hand drifted by his cracked soul jar, and came away carrying something. It looked like a leech, but was so bloated and bulbous it was almost visible, and it writhed slowly, as if it were about to burst at any moment.
Kai strained, the pain coursing through his body with every movement. "No…"
"Miss Teslamon caused me a whole bunch of trouble but she was sweet enough to leave me a parting gift. Now I have access to all of her power, all in a neat little packet."
Kai tried to stand up, but his legs failed him and he crashed to the ground. He could only watch as Rinkhalmon rolled her head back, revealing eyes so dull they might have been dead. The snake-man giggled, and lightly brushed her forehead with his claw. The leech sunk into her head with barely a movement.
Light exploded from her D-Nexus almost instantaneously, and she arched her back, letting out a cry of pain as her body was engulfed. Luminemon curled up, hissing in pain herself as her energy was ripped away from her in great swathes, swirling around the girl and leaving Ladomon, breathless and spasming.
The watching warriors shielded their eyes as the great orb of white light pulsated and rippled and hovered into the air, expanding and morphing into a different shape. White meteors arced around the room, tearing chunks from the walls and roof of the chamber. The noise was unbearable; a rising hum interspersed with incoherent whispers that rung in the minds of all present.
Then the light faded away, revealing a spectacular figure. She hovered five feet from the ground on six glittering golden wings, and every corner of her body was covered in ornate, sculpted plate armour, in pale silver and fiery gold and deep bronze. Tiny spearheads hung from her midriff, wings and shoulder armour. Her hands were tipped with golden claws, and four long silver blades were attached to her forearms; two each, on a swivelling ring. The seal of light burned brightly in the centre of her chest, so brilliant it hurt to look at.
Her hair was deep crimson, and flowed out either side of her, as if suspended in permanent freefall. Her helmet was mostly featureless, set beneath a pointed crown. In place of a face, the only thing set into the mask was a large, flat oval mirror, which shone out faintly, reflecting the stunned onlookers.
TO BE CONTINUED...