Getting shot through the chest was easily the most painful thing Aaron had felt that day, or possibly ever.
He hadn't even noticed when the arrow first penetrated, so quick and clean was the shot. It disappeared moments after, leaving nothing but a sizeable hole in the centre of his torso and one or more of his most vital organs. One by one he'd felt his senses and limbs shut down. He could vaguely remember trying to speak, or gesture, or do something. Maybe something he'd seen in a movie? He wasn't sure.
Then as soon as everyone else disappeared, the pain arrived.
A coarsing, burning, buzzing, ripping, rending, pulsating, agonising onslaught of pain. He felt it in one place and every place at the same time; the tips of his fingers, his chest, his feet, his eyes, in every strand of hair on his head. He couldn't see, couldn't hear, couldn't move or open his mouth to scream. He just stood there, limbs outstretched and falling through space, with the worst pain in the world running through every fibre of his being.
The next thing he remembered, he was awake. The pain had gone. Disappeared as quickly as it had come. There was a ringing in his ears and dull lights dancing in his eyes, like the imprint of a ceiling fan after staring at it for too long, only multiplied by a thousand. He felt nothing else.
It took him a while before he realised he could actually open his eyes. After somehow doing so, he closed them again very quickly, for it didn't seem to help matters. He gently opened them again. It was different. Complete nonsense though. Dimensions and surfaces shifting in impossible ways, every colour and no colour all at the same time. It felt like he was falling, but no matter which direction he looked, the sensation was the same. He looked down at his feet, and, with some effort, pushed down.
To his surprise, he felt a solid surface. He couldn't see one, but it was definitely there. He took a step, and moved a step in...a direction. He wasn't sure where.
Something seemed off. He looked down at his feet again, and realised that they weren't all there. He could see them, or rather, he couldn't see them exactly, but the patterns of hundreds of thousands of points of light. Or maybe sparks of electricity. It wasn't what he looked like when he evolved, but it definitely wasn't how he usually looked. The whole of his body was the same; arms, hands, and chest.
His hand went up almost instinctively, and he physically jerked as his hand went straight inside. He yanked it out, and tried to twist his head. The angle wasn't great, but it was definitely there. A clean opening, straight through from front to back, with his heart, lungs and various other things all in plain view, or in some cases, even cross-sectioned.
He couldn't think of much else to say, or do, or even think, so it was almost a relief when somebody answered him.
"Frozen in time."
Aaron looked up, and found himself looking down upon somebody else. "Huh?"
The figure, who appeared to be sitting on very little, glanced up with pale eyes. "Your body. Frozen in time at the moment of death. No breath, no heartbeat, no data pulse...whatever you humans have, it's stopped."
Aaron waved his arms, and slowly managed to flip himself over to the right(?) way up. Now that he was thinking about it, he could definitely notice the lack of any pulse or breathing. Everything inside him was completely static, as if preserved in formaldehyde.
"So I am dead then..."
He found it difficult to keep the disappointment out of his voice. Still, he realised, just after he'd spoken, he didn't feel anything like panic or despair. No emotion. Just his own presence, floating in nothingness.
The figure didn't answer him. Aaron shuffled a little closer, and noticed that the pale eyes were now closed. The figure was muttering. Aaron coughed. "I'm dead, aren't I?"
The figure shook himself awake, and shook his head. "Of course not."
Aaron sighed. "Of course. Not even dying is straightforward here."
The figure raised an eyebrow. "Shouldn't you be glad you're not completely dead?"
"Oh, so I'm sort-of-dead then. That makes just as much sense."
"You humans can't half be mouthy."
The boy snorted. "I've had a long day. Or at least I had a long day, and now it's just gotten weird and I don't know where I am or where everyone else is or what happened and-" Now the panic was beginning to settle in.
"Well pretend you are. And close your eyes for a minute or two; this place plays tricks on you. You shouldn't even be here."
"Well that makes a change." Aaron muttered, but he complied. He sat in silence, eyes closed, for about five minutes as he tried to collect his thoughts together.
"Are you a Digimon?"
The figure nodded, keeping his own eyes in his lap. "That I am. Or at least I was, before I got stuck here. My name was Karatenmon."
"Karatenmon?" Aaron opened his eyes, despite the warning, and looked more closely. He could see the resemblance, although the creature before him was a mess. His body and legs were a mass of rags, and his arms were sinewy. He had no mask, but a long beard and a great deal of grey feather all around his face, largely obscuring it.
Presently the old tengu chuckled. "You seem familiar with me. Well, not me specifically. I seem to recall you met my brother?"
Aaron nodded slowly. "He mentioned you. Does he know you're alive?"
"I'm not. And sadly, neither is he."
Aaron's eyes widened. "He's not? What happened? What about the others; did Rinkhalmon-"
"Calm down. And close your eyes again; you're staring at nothing. A lot's happened since you were killed. Give me a chance and I'll fill you in."
Aaron scowled, but did as he was told, listening only to the voice of the tengu before him. Karatenmon told him everything; of Eloise's rampage and Rinkhalmon's escape. Nithhogg's rescue, and the beginning of its own tyranny. The fates of the tamers, their partners, and their friends, and of the world that was dying away. The recovery of the elements and the continuous march of Nithhogg. Aaron listened in silence, occasionally flinching or clenching his fists, but not saying a word.
Finally he opened his eyes again, although not by much. "How do you know all of this?"
"I was watching. Look."
Aaron looked up, and his gaze followed Karatenmon's pointing finger. The boy squinted, and through the wall of impossibilities he could see down, as if through a drone or a satellite. Lifeforms, all across the Digital World. Kent. Eloise. Velocimon. Martyaxmon. Phoukamon. Even Nithhogg, walking slowly over the ocean. The images were blurry, but they were there. A portal into their lives.
"What is this place?"
Karatenmon laughed, and held both arms out wide. "You came from the human world and travelled through the Digital World. This is merely the pathway that links them. This is the Interface."
"The place between worlds..." Aaron thought for a minute, and raised a finger. "Isn't this where Nithhogg came from?"
Karatenmon slumped, and scratched his cheek. "I don't know where Nithhogg was from originally, or what it even was. Digimon, human or something else entirely. But it ended up here, and it stayed here far too long."
"Look around you." The tengu gestured at the fantastical surroundings. "This place has no sense of reason or consistency. You are everywhere at once and yet nowhere. You exist until the end of time and from the beginning and in no time at all. It rots your senses. I've seen and heard of many who have seen the Interface, even for a short moment. It's not pretty. At best, it'll send you mad. At worst, it'll fill you to the core; every thought, feeling, even your body will be a part of this place."
Aaron swallowed, and closed his eyes again, not even remembering opening them. "How are you okay?"
Karatenmon blinked, and pointed to his lack of a lower body.
"Oh. I'm sorry."
"I knew as much when I was sent here. And it's alright. While I still have cognition, I can study that which I devoted my life to. This place is terrible, but it is also beautiful and fascinating in its own right." He chuckled. "Besides, I still have a job to do. Meeting up with you tykes who end up getting in accidents."
Aaron grunted. "Thank. You." The boy opened his eyes, just a little, and looked up at the tengu, and then down at his own hands. He clenched his fists, the tiny bolts pulsating a little as he did so.
"I can't stay here. Not when everyone else is still fighting. I decided to remain in the Digital World so I could save it, and I need to make good on my promise."
He looked up. "I need to get back."
Karatenmon nodded. "Of course you do. You've yet to see this through to the end." He reached out with a thin, bony arm and pointed. "And you still have a way."
Aaron raised an eyebrow. "I thought I was supposed to be dead."
"You're sort-of dead. The very fact that you're here talking to me right now means you're not completely dead."
Karatenmon leant forwards, reaching out, his pale eyes blinking. He extended a finger, and tapped Aaron just above the hole in his chest.
"You had a safeguard."
Aaron looked down, watching the energy circulating his body and curling around the tengu's finger. He gasped, a thought coming to him. "The element?"
Karatenmon nodded. "They can be caught, swallowed up, burnt, or lost in the void. But the essence of the elements make up the very fabric of the Digital World. They cannot be destroyed, no matter how hard you try. My colleagues obviously had this in mind when they gave them to you, and to the Digimon they'd chosen to wield them."
"You were told you had to protect the elements. But in all honesty, the elements were protecting you." The tengu splayed his hand. "The very moment your body was under threat, the element of Electricity had to protect itself. It converted your data into energy, and as energy, you slipped through the rift and ended up here." He glanced back, looking through the holes into the Digital World itself. "Funny, really. The element which so often threatened to end your life may have been the very thing which ended up saving it."
Aaron looked down at himself. "But how am I supposed to get back?"
"The same way the others did."
"Pikamon, and Placomon." Karatenmon gritted his teeth. "Just like you, they fell in battle and ended up here. I explained to them what was going on, and they agreed to keep the elements safe. If the Fire Kingdom, and by extension Nithhogg, believed they were destroyed, we had the element of surprise on our hands. So they returned when the onslaught was over, and kept watch over the elements. Chromon was lucky enough to be saved by Phoukamon, but still, he did the same. And now it is time for you to return."
Aaron's hand went to his chest. "I don't think I'd last very long in this state."
"Your soul is intact, albeit in the last form you recognise. If you will yourself back into the Digital World, the Digital World will compensate for your wounds." Karatenmon shrugged. "You're only data there, after all. You just need the will to survive, and your body will follow suit. I think."
Aaron looked back through the holes in space, down at the tamers, and their partners, and his own partner, still fighting his way through. The boy stood up, determination filling his mind.
"Are you sure you won't be coming?"
The tengu shook his head, raising his tattered clothes. There was very little beneath them, and what was there was ragged and sinewed, being eaten away by the Interface.
"Besides," said Karatenmon, "I still have a purpose here. I feel no regret, but I do hold some responsibility for what has happened." He winked at the boy. "Never fear, I will still be here when the time is right."
Aaron took a deep breath, his lungs bursting into life once again as the energy making up his body began to excite and make him glow. He scanned the voids, looking for the place to focus on. He went for the largest one, and concentrated, focusing all his willpower on getting back.
"They're all still fighting. I need to join them. I need to finish this, once and for all."
Karatenmon watched, his eyes half-blind but still able to make out Aaron's glowing form. The boy reached out, and his body shimmered. The element of Electricity flashed once again, and in an instant, he was gone.
Aaron could feel the world around him immediately. The wind on his face, the sun in his eyes, and the throbbing pain coursing through his chest. He looked down, and saw a mass of data swimming towards him, sealing up the wound. He ground his teeth, and slowly got to his feet, looking around. It was a view he'd never forget as long as he lived, the first view he'd seen on entering the Digital World. A wall of red cliffs stretching across the land, with fragments embedded in the sand like enormous teeth. And the other way, the shoreline, though this time far away, slowly getting dragged backwards and leaving the grey seabed behind. And even further away still, just dots on the horizon, was Nithhogg, and its army of golems, still consuming with no sign of stopping.
The boy looked down at his right hand, where yellow lights were congregating. They swirled and pulsed, before forming a shape, the same shape he'd seen on his very first night. The traced image of a tiny device, that slowly grew solid, pulling the pain from his chest as it gained physical form. His D-Nexus, as flawless and unblemished as the day he'd first received it. It beeped, and a message extended from the screen, along with a 3D map.
"Found where Nithhogg's going. I'll see you all there. Kent."
Aaron looked up out at the horizon, and slowly got to his feet. His grip tightened on the tiny device.
Nithhogg's tendrils blew in the breeze as it kept walking, giving a quick gesture. All of its golems stopped immediately, their artificial muscles freezing in place, all around the world. Nithhogg itself kept walking, staring ahead at the lone figure on the beach. It felt a twinge of something; it wasn't sure what exactly, but it had reawakened after spying the lone human. Maybe fear, or anger, or even familiarity. At any rate, for whatever reason, it had to get closer. Confirm its beliefs.
It picked up more about the human as it approached. It was definitely one of them; the ones who'd found it back in the fortress. Though something seemed odd. It racked its brain, the organ visibly pulsating inside its bulbous head. Most things it had come into contact with had died, or disappeared. This one...it had definitely died. It hadn't seen it for ages. It shouldn't be seeing this one. That wasn't how this world worked.
Nithhogg's toes curled up, and it realised it was now in the shallows. It allowed itself to descend onto the sand, the water swilling into its legs as it did so. Still it kept walking, starting to look up now. Finally it stopped, its expression plain and unreadable, in front of the mysterious human.
"Why are you here?"
Aaron's eyes widened. "You can speak?"
"I'm a fast learner." Nithhogg spread its arms wide; an awkward gesture, but one that could be identified as a display of grand possession. It had picked these things up from the brainwaves of its many hundreds of victims. "I learn a lot from my world."
"This isn't your world."
"It isn't yours either."
Aaron kept his grip tight on his D-Nexus, but slowly brought his hands down to his pockets. "So you know who I am?"
Nithhogg puffed its cheeks out, squinting. "A...Aaron. You're a human. You came here to save this world with five others. It has been purged from the control of the Fire Kingdom. Your purpose here is over." It pointed a finger. "Also, you died. You shouldn't be a part of this world or any world any longer, and yet you're here."
The blue child tilted its head. "That shouldn't make a difference. But you're here. And all the others are coming as well. You keep coming even though there's nothing left for you to do here. I don't understand."
Aaron swayed gently, looking down at the wide eyes of this frail, almost innocent-looking creature. "Alright, then let's turn this around. What are you doing here?"
Nithhogg blinked, not out of necessity but imitation. "Surviving."
"But you're not, are you?"
The creature raised a hand, which was letting off waves, like a heat haze. The translucent blue skin crawled, slowly falling apart and repairing itself. "I can't live here. But I can move from here to another world. I can keep moving until I find home."
"Okay. But then what happens to the worlds you pass through?"
"They're no good. I can't live there, so I will take what I need and then move on."
"You're taking this whole world. Don't you realise what you're doing?"
Nithhogg blinked again. "I'm surviving."
"But the people here can't. You're destroying everything you touch."
"But it doesn't matter. I'm surviving."
Aaron folded his arms. "You survived long enough in the Interface."
A reaction. Nithhogg visibly flinched, its skin crawling. It looked up, scared. "No. Never. Not back there. It hurts...everything there hurts..."
The boy sighed. "I know. I saw it myself."
"So you understand."
"You're a pitiful thing. I don't know who or what you were before, but that place changed you. And now you don't belong anywhere else but the place you hate most. You can't live here."
"So you do understand." Nithhogg smiled, raising a hand. "I have nowhere. So I'll keep looking until I have somewhere. Anything that is destroyed along the way was destroyed to help me survive. That's good. That makes sense."
"It does." Aaron pulled his hands from his pockets, and held the side buttons on his D-Nexus. "But I can't let you do that."
Nithhogg flinched again, and stepped back, raising its hands defensively. "I thought you understood. What are you doing?"
Aaron glared at the impossible being. "Surviving."
Nithhogg ran backwards into the surf, putting distance between itself and Aaron. Throughout its body its nervous system was going haywire, reacting to the sudden burst of energy. It extended its tendrils and hissed, watching as the yellow energy cleared and the armoured warrior stood there in all his glory.
"I thought you understood!" Nithhogg reached out, its tendrils lapping at the dwindling water and sucking up more data out of instinct.
Kuaramon stared, raising his own arms as the generator within his body whirred into overdrive. "You're not getting any further. This stops here and now. Don't make me fight you."
Nithhogg cocked its head. "You're doing the same as before."
"They couldn't stop me. Neither can you."
Nithhogg rushed forwards, sending out a web of data behind it, reaching out and threatening to ensnare the electric warrior. Kuaramon's wheeled feet sprang into motion, but the blue entity was fast, nearly as fast as he was. He dodged the razor-like wires just in time, and swung round, only to have his arm grasped by the childlike being. Nithhogg stared Kuaramon up and down.
"You have an advantage in this world. Your element protects you, as does your origin as a human. It's incredible."
Kuaramon tried to pull his arm away, but Nithhogg's grip was tight. "I try not to think about it too much. It's rather confusing."
"But I want to know more." Nithhogg grinned. "How far can I take you apart?"
Its grip tightened, pressing into the armour. Kuaramon grunted, and swung his legs round, knocking the entity over. Still it didn't let go, so he brought his free arm forward towards Nithhogg's face, only to have it intercepted in an equally fast motion. Already he could feel the tendrils that were extending from the blue hand, delving deep into the cracks and gaps in his armour.
"Get off! Quantum Coil!"
The cords sprung into action, reaching out and wrapping around Nithhogg's arm in tandem. The creature yelped as electricity coursed through its body, causing its grip to retract. The moment it had, Kuaramon moved, planting three quick punches into the creature's chest before sending it flying away with a roundhouse. It rolled away over the sand, as Kuaramon angled himself once again.
"You need to learn a thing or two about personal space!"
Nithhogg hissed, and threw an arm forwards, its hands expanding into a vast gelatinous mass. Kuaramon skidded out of the way to dodge it, but it split in two, knocking him down. He lashed back, his whips slicing through the data matter, but before he could angle himself again Nithhogg was upon him, clawing at his arms and chest. "I'm stronger than you!"
Kuaramon brought his arms around and grasped the creature's wrists, but it was telling the truth. Despite his best efforts, the impossibly tiny arms were twisting his around, holding them out wide. Nithhogg stared at him all the while, its own eyes darting back and forth.
"I know how you fight."
Suddenly it lashed out with a leg, catching Kuaramon a sharp blow in the midriff. Kuaramon staggered back, only to find himself on the defensive with Nithhogg landing jab after blow after shattering punch. He wheeled back, before rushing forwards again, using his shoulder to knock the entity back. As he did so, he brought his hands together, the space between them glowing.
He reared up, and released the orb's power in front of Nithhogg's face, but his face fell as a mass of data burst out from the creature's chest, simply absorbing the energy into it. He leapt back, catching another lashing blow from the creature as it stood, barely having moved.
"I know all about how you fight, but you keep finding new things. Keep doing that." Nithhogg smiled, and raised an arm high. "It won't be long now. The tunnel is around here. My partners will find it, and when they do, everything will end. I can move on."
Kuaramon glanced sideways, watching as the dots on the horizon began to shift once again, redoubling their onslaught on the rest of the Digital World.
"Look at me!"
A savage blow to his chest sent him sprawling, and he looked up to see Nithhogg, balling data around its knotted hand. Kuaramon coughed, and got to his feet. "Why don't you call one of your partners to beat me?"
Nithhogg unravelled its fingers, before wrapping them around again, forming a more pointed fist. It smiled. "Because you're worth fighting. You prove yourselves through fighting. I can do the same. I can beat you, and I can win this world. That's what you did. You won this world. You fought for this world, and you grew stronger. I want to do the same." It cocked its head. "That's right, isn't it? That's what you did?"
Kuaramon narrowed his eyes, and his coils grew even more restless. "You really don't know anything..."
Another blow, this one knocking him back several metres. Nithhogg gazed at its hand, and tightened the coil, the tension turning the blue tissue white. It looked down at the fallen warrior before it, and shrugged. "It doesn't matter what you think. I know how you win, and I know how to get to your world. You're only here to help me, whether you think you are or not. You're just an enemy for me to beat. And there's nothing you can do about it."
It walked forwards, raising its fist high and planting it into Kuaramon's form, the impact knocking him back once again, leaving splinters of his armour behind him. Nithhogg chuckled, and held its arms wide.
"So fight me! Fight me until this all ends! Stand once more!"
Nithhogg looked up to see three very large, very angry-looking columns of wind bearing directly down upon it. With a little yelp it practically disappeared, spinning away in the draconic tornado with data bits flying in every direction. The impact sent sand flying everywhere, including all over Kuaramon, who quickly sat up, and watched as the trio of dragons reformed in the sky, and the tiny form of Nithhogg fell back down onto the beach with a flump.
"You? What? How?"
Kuaramon turned to see Grace and Jack atop Alopemon, both gawping. He raised a hand. "Hi again. Sorry I'm late." He nodded. "You seem to have been doing well without me. Why are you here?"
Jack scratched his head. "Kent told us to meet here. Said we were gonna get Nithhogg."
"Oh. That's lucky."
Grace dismounted heavily, her mouth still flapping with various sentences at once. "What are you doing here you're supposed to be dead and you just showed up here randomly what the hell?"
Kuaramon raised a finger, when there was a call from up above, and he looked over to see Cyclomon swinging around in mid-air, and a tiny blue form running across the sand towards the group. Cyclomon called again. "That didn't work as well as I thought it would."
Kuaramon shrugged, and turned back to Grace. "I'm sorry for the confusion. But we should talk later. This thing is way tougher than it looks."
Grace narrowed her eyes, and got out her D-Nexus angrily. "We. Know."
"You look like you've done quite well without me."
There was a flash, and Tupilamon stood behind her, both arms braced in order to catch the fast-moving creature. Nithhogg twisted in mid-run, barrelling into her and sanding her rolling backwards, but the fox-demon was used to its antics by now, and she immediately batted it away and stuck a free paw into the sand.
Nithhogg was stopped midway through getting up, with its hand frozen to its shin. Tupilamon gritted her teeth. "I think we have a choice between stopping it and hitting it at the moment."
"You're no fair." Nithhogg pulled one arm out of its icy prison, and waved it in the air. "I'm going to carry on with what I was doing before, if that's okay."
Jack looked out towards the shoreline, and groaned. "Oh come on..."
Kuaramon and Grace looked, and they saw; the golems were moving again, and at a high speed. Not towards the beach, but spreading out, slamming their appendages into every piece of the world they could find. Nithhogg grinned, its body beginning to light up. "You get more people then so do I. Don't worry, I'll fight you all myself. I'm good at that."
Kuaramon lunged, his whips wrapping around the powered-up Nithhogg as it promptly broke its icy prison. The electricity coursed through it, lighting up invisible veins, but before it could retaliate Tupilamon's massive bulk slammed into it, grasping its chest and freezing as many parts of its body as it could. Kuaramon glanced over his shoulder. "This isn't going well..."
Jack took a step forward, but Grace held his shoulder, and nodded. "Can Cyclomon do something about some of the golems?"
"We're already fighting right here, sis. The more people we have-"
"The less golems it has, the less powerful it is, right?"
Jack opened his mouth, thought, then nodded, promptly running in the direction of the sea and speaking into his D-Nexus. "Cyclomon, can you do something about the golems?"
"Give me a moment."
The great serpent unravelled himself and shot through the sky, aiming straight for the largest cluster. The boy looked back, in time to see the tables turning quickly. Nithhogg had grabbed Kuaramon by the tendrils, and was swinging him back and forth into Tupilamon, who was trying very hard not to freeze her comrade. Kuaramon dug in as best he could, and was finally able to wrench the cables away, skittering away across the sand. Tupilamon backed off as well as Nithhogg flexed its shoulders and each finger joint in turn.
Kuaramon caught his breath, brushing sand away from his blackened armour. "We don't have a lot of time. I don't think there's much of the world left. If Nithhogg gets it all..." He faltered. "What's going to happen?"
Grace held her head as Tupilamon charged forwards again, letting off a blizzard of razor-sharp icicles as she did so. The girl blinked, looking all around. "I don't know what to do. There's not enough of us. If we do that now...we need as much power as we can, and as quickly as we can..."
She looked up at Kuaramon, who was staring at her. "I don't know how much time we have."
There was a distant rumble, and the two glanced over to see a flurry of sand fly skywards, joined promptly by disintegrating bits of golem. Cyclomon's body flew skywards again, his great head scanning back and forth, looking for the next group. Jack ran back to his sister and Kuaramon, his D-Nexus in his hand. "We can't get all of them, and while he's doing that, I'm stuck."
Kuaramon grabbed the two children and hoisted them back, as Tupilamon crashed into the sand where they'd been. She rolled up again, but she was already out of breath, and Nithhogg was advancing menacingly, its eyes darting left and right at its two open hands.
"I'm still going!"
"I can see that. Grave Glacier!"
Tupilamon made to punch, but feinted at the last second, slamming her claw into Nithhogg's abdomen and freezing it instantly. It swiped at her, knocking her hand away, but she used the second or so she had and brought her head down, slamming her mask into Nithhogg's head. The creature was dazed for a microsecond, and Tupilamon opened her mouth.
Kuaramon ran a finger over the seal in his chest, and bowed his head. "We all need to be here. We all need to be here to win this. If we go too soon...it'll just figure us out one by one again..." He glanced sideways, at Grace, who was looking worried, her pale hand clutching the tiny device. She'd grown so much. Both her and Jack. He could see the ideas working in both of their minds; what they could possibly do.
He held a hand out, and stepped forwards. "Keep a look out. I'll buy us some time."
Grace glanced at her brother, then back at the advancing warrior. "You need more power if you're going to make a difference."
Kuaramon's form shimmered, and faded, momentarily leaving Aaron walking there. The children gasped as he turned back, giving them both a wink as his D-Nexus glowed brightly in his hand.
"I think I can find some..."
Nithhogg knocked Tupilamon's jaw with a kick, sending her staggering backwards, when its flesh began to vibrate on one side. It looked to its right, then up, its eyes widening as the very real and very daunting figure materialized before it.
The electric golem slammed down, sending sparks everywhere and turning the sand beneath its feet to glass. Nithhogg hopped backwards, giggling as it did so. "You're taking a gamble! Yes you are! You're not very good at using that thing!"
"...that's what you think..."
Brontesmon's chest pulsed, lighting up his circuits like magnesium. He reared up, his front claws spinning, and without warning rushed forwards. Nithhogg was too mesmerized to react until it was too late, and the beast was upon him, driving a great claw into its shoulder and sending many thousands of volts into the frail little monster.
The sudden pain woke Nithhogg up, and it yelled, sending both legs up and flipping Brontesmon onto his back. The blue entity sat up, feeling its shoulder and the current lack of arm that was protruding from it, its face twisting in anger.
Brontesmon clicked, and twisted his limbs around, righting himself in seconds. Nithhogg cursed under its breath, and concentrated, pulling the data flowing into its body and growing a new arm in seconds, while the old one lay disintegrating on the beach. Some way away, Jack shook his head.
"I really hate this thing."
The creature took no notice of the insult, running forwards with its tendrils waving and its teeth bared. "I'm gonna get you for that!"
Nithhogg was stopped mid-run as the blue wall hit it, and it screeched, its flesh boiling and tearing away as fast as it could reheal. It staggered back, its face temporarily ruined, but before it could retaliate a blast of ice hit it from the side, sending it sprawling. Tupilamon was back on her feet, and she nodded at Brontesmon. "Way to go. We can do some damage control here."
Both ice spirit and machine monster blinked as Nithhogg sat up, apparently in hysterics. Brontesmon's head dipped down. "...i don't wanna know..."
"It's amazing! You're all amazing! You keep getting better, and you keep doing new things to me and it's amazing." It looked at its right hand and curled the fingers, the flesh turning white. It frowned, and opened them again. "I wanna see how far I can go."
Grace balled her fists, and yelled out. "Is this a GAME to you?"
Nithhogg twisted its head to look at her, and shook its smiling face vigorously. "It's not a game. It's a challenge. You're my villains. If I can beat you, I win. I can win this world."
"You're not winning anything! Electron Ripper!"
The blue haze shot out again, but Nithhogg caught it, sending out a sacrificial web of tendrils before rushing forward and giving the goliath a hefty uppercut. Brontesmon tiptoed backwards, rearing back onto his hind legs.
The electrified trails intermingled with the remains of the web and wrapped around Nithhogg's entire arms, holding it tight. Brontesmon strained, his generators going into overdrive as he pulled the entity up, and back down, slamming it into the ground with all his might. He did it again, this time next to Tupilamon, who slashed at Nithhogg's belly with her ragged claws and opened it up. Nithhogg coughed, a stream of data that dispersed, before quickly getting absorbed again.
"I didn't fight you before. This is fascinating."
Through the spasms caused by the electric coils it managed to throw out a couple of sheets of flesh, flinging them forwards like wings. The sudden pull overbalanced Brontesmon and he crashed forwards, the electrical coils vanishing the moment his hands were grounded. Nithhogg grinned, and threw its arms forwards again, sending the sheets spinning towards the goliath.
The flesh dissolved quickly, but it blocked Brontesmon's view for long enough for Nithhogg to land and rush forwards, wrapping itself around one of the beast's shoulder generators. Brontesmon was quick off the mark, slamming its shoulder into the sand, but Nithhogg was quicker, and it quickly transferred to the head, ripping and tearing with makeshift claws as it did so. Brontesmon's single eye flickered, and he let out an electric growl, swiping away above his head.
"I wisxhfio...will...sss...get you-"
The blue entity didn't answer; merely twisting round to the ground underneath Brontesmon and lunging upwards. The impact launched Brontesmon away, his data spinning off as he did, but Nithhogg wasn't quite done, as it leapt up and hit the great metal beast again and again. Finally they both landed, Brontesmon twitching but still conscious. Though only just.
"That's enough! Get off him!"
Nithhogg held out a hand as a large red falcon smacked into it, but a blast of air pushed it back slightly. Nithhogg frowned. "I've fought you before. You're no fun."
The ice blast sent Nithhogg rolling backwards even more, as Tupilamon stood up beside the downed eagle. "I thought you were taking care of the puppets?"
"I ran out of oomph. And they're too spread out now. And you looked like you needed help."
"A lot of help you're going to be like that."
Mistramon chuckled. "Give me a break, I'm trying."
There was a trill, and Nithhogg stood up, its face looking decidedly dejected even if its body was rippling and pulsing like no end.
"This isn't right. This isn't going to help. I need someone stronger so I can evolve."
Grace and Jack looked down at their D-Nexus's, then at each other. Jack opened his mouth. "Maybe...we need to do it..."
Nithhogg rolled away before the attack even came, sending spears of bone at the bird, who flapped up awkwardly, sporting several holes in his wings. Nithhogg stood up again, shaking its arm out as the hand regrew. "See. This isn't helping when you go down to easily. Give me something stronger! I know you have it!"
"Allow us! Spectrum Shift!"
Grace and Jack's eyes lit up as arcs of light and shadow struck the blue creature, knocking onto its rear. Up above, the white pegasus veered around to make another shot, while the gargoyle landed slightly nearer to the humans, jettisoning his riders. "Looks like you started...without..."
He halted, watching along with Kai and Eloise as Aaron got to his feet, having finally shed his armoured form. The electric warrior cracked his neck, and looked over at them, and gave a wave. "Hi."
Kai bit his lip, and looked over at Eloise, who had her hands over her mouth. Her eyes were tearing up, and she was shaking her head.
There was a flash of light, followed by the sound of things getting kicked repeatedly in the head, and a few choice words. Azdajamon glanced over his shoulder, and sighed. "Of all the times..." He whistled, and Kai nudged Eloise. Azdajamon pointed with a finger first at her, then at Aaron. "You, him, sort it out between you now just in case this doesn't work as well as we think it will. I'm gonna go and give Lyublanamon a hand."
He crouched, and leapt skywards, arcing back around to where Nithhogg was quite happily fending off two Ultimates and a Champion all on its own.
Aaron took a step, wincing at his aching limbs, when he suddenly found himself engulfed in an Eloise hug. He accepted it, holding her as well as she thrust her face underneath his neck. "Oh my god I am so sorry for before you have no idea-"
"It's fine, let him breath." Kai wandered over, giving Aaron a smile. "I think you might have beaten me when it comes to 'came back right in the nick of time'."
Aaron shrugged, as well as he could in Eloise's hug. "I heard about what you were doing without me. You were putting your all in. All of you. I couldn't just leave you alone."
Eloise finally let him go, and brushed a palm against the centre of his chest. "You...um...healed up nicely."
Aaron coughed. "It's probably best not to think of it right now."
"Just don't do anything stupid again, will you?" She play punched him on the shoulder, to which he looked hurt. She wasn't buying it. "I saw you playing the hero as Brontesmon. You know it's not good for you."
"Well what was I supposed to do? You were late!"
"We've come all the way across the country!"
Grace tapped Aaron on the shoulder. "Um...guys?" She pointed out at the horizon, which was looking an awful lot nearer than it had been. The beach as well, which had seemed to extend impossibly long when they'd first arrived, now seemed to give way to white, that was ever so slowly creeping towards them.
Kai furrowed his brow. "We're running out of time. We need Kent. Phoukamon said we all needed to be here." He glanced up at Aaron, "I guess they knew about you."
"I don't know if we can last that long." Jack pointed over at the sand, where the battle between Nithhogg and their partners was still raging.
It was a direly desperate struggle. Tupilamon was worn to the bone, barely able to summon an attack but swiping again and again. Mistramon's attacks weren't making a dent, and he too was finding it difficult to move. Even in the air he wasn't safe, and neither were the dragons, as Nithhogg kept sending streams of data far into the sky, threatening to grab them and pull them down, or simply slice them up where they hovered. All the Digimon were sporting wounds now, yet they carried on, away of the weight of their battle.
"Circle of the Void!"
Azdajamon finished his attack as Mistramon dragged the writhing creature upwards, trapping him in the dark sphere. It didn't last long; a mere few seconds before Nithhogg broke out, its arms around Azdajamon's neck. The gargoyle crashed into the sand below, and rolled, using his spikes to attempt to impale Nithhogg to limited success.
"Out of the way!"
Azdajamon twisted, whipping his tail out and smacking the small creature away.
Nithhogg raised its hands as the brilliant blast hit it, forming a shield of gelatinous data, which it promptly scaled, its movements now fluid and athletic. Mistramon shoved the pegasus out the way as Nithhogg grabbed at her, the razor-like wiry fingers scraping across his own feathered chest and turning it bloody. He squawked, and sent a wave of wind down at Nithhogg, but it was already gone. It stood, swaying from side to side as it watched the warriors circling around it. It smiled, and clapped its hands.
"Thank you for this. But I'm going to win. You can't hurt me like this. It's not enough."
Mistramon hovered in mid-air, and gave a hoarse laugh. "I wouldn't be so sure."
The bolus struck Nithhogg where it stood, and it frowned as it looked down, its body impaled in many places. It glanced up at the cliff, where Tectonamon scuttled down, holding two figures on its back.
Eloise clapped her hands. "Kent! Trilomon!" She squinted. "Is that..."
The great insect skidded to a halt at the edge of the battlefield, and Kent and Velocimon hopped off. Both of them looked over at Aaron in an instant. Kent folded his arms. "Why am I not surprised?"
"Looks like you've been doing a good job while I was gone." Aaron gestured. "Do you want to carry on?"
"I could get used to it, I guess."
Aaron smiled, and walked forward towards Velocimon, who was now running at him at full speed, and the two met, the dinosaur falling to his knees as Aaron threw his arms around him. The dinosaur was bony, and weak, and covered in bruises and with a missing tail-blade, but still he held himself upright, with only the very corners of his eyes tearing up.
He sniffed. "Never do that to me again, you idiot..."
Aaron smiled, and bowed his head forward, resting it on the dinosaur's muzzle. "Thanks for not giving up."
"Is that everyone?" Nithhogg gave a sigh-like gesture, and wriggled out of the bony prison, its wounds immediately sealing themselves. It glared up at Tectonamon, and rubbed its left arm. "That hurt. Don't do that."
Tectonamon looked as faux-sincere as a giant hellish insect was capable of being. "Oh my, please, I'm sorry."
Nithhogg grinned. "That's fine. Now you're all here I can get rid of you all together."
Kent got out his D-Nexus, and flicked a couple of buttons, devolving Tectonamon behind him. Together they stepped forwards, looking defiantly at the wicked little creature. "I don't suppose there's any chance you're going to stop this."
"Why would I do that?"
The boy sighed, and looked around at his teammates. "I hope you've all been working as hard as I have."
One by one, Mistramon, Azdajamon, Tupilamon and Lyublanamon devolved, and returned to their partners. All of whom were walking forwards, surrounding the creature, who was watching curiously. The devices were in the tamers hands', and they were glowing, bright and intense. Nithhogg's brow furrowed, and it sniffed. "Something's different. Your elements. Why weren't you using them properly?"
Kent smiled. "We're polite."
But Nithhogg was beginning to put two and two together. It took a step, and then tried to run, when all of a sudden a burst of energy came from Kent's D-Nexus, forming a wall of swirling green. Aaron and Velocimon watched from outside the circle as the other children's D-Nexus's erupted into activity as well; particles of white, black, red and blue joining the swirling mass.
"Stop it! You can't do that!" Nithhogg leapt at the barrier, but it was forced back, the pure uncorrupted data burning its flesh. It looked up again, and there were new colours; pale green, turquoise and lilac. Three elements, long dead, but yet here all along. Nithhogg's eyebrows fell. "You lied to me."
"It's going to end here, you vile little thing." Kent held his device high, the energy coursing through every vein in his body. Everybody called out at once, their voices ringing across the beach.
Aaron and Velocimon shielded themselves as the outburst of energy sent sand flying outwards. They could barely make out the ten figures...no...five...forming in front of them. Velocimon ground his teeth. "Impossible. I didn't know..." He glanced up at Aaron, who was also staring intently, his free hand still grasping his own D-Nexus.
Surrounded by five titans, Nithhogg was not the least bit daunted. In fact, it was furious. "YOU LIED TO ME!"
With a yell it rushed at Eosmon, the nearest of the five, with its arms outstretched and data-spears at its fingertips. But the five moved at once, and Nithhogg found its movements blocked by an outstretched spear. No...not blocked. Severed. Its hands had been sliced off. Before it could even register it was struck by a tail that sent it rolling across the sand.
"You did this to yourself!"
Nithhogg turned as Ouranomon's talons grabbed it, and all of a sudden it was flying high, then low again, then dragged through the sand like a plough. It twisted, leaving its flesh behind as it tried to escape, but it found itself in front of Archaeomon.
"I hate you! Die!"
It thrust its hands forwards, but every move was countered, and it found itself being driven back. A punch came out of nowhere and knocked it off of its feet, and it landed, undignified and in pain, staring at the five elemental warriors before it.
"Too much...too much too much...this isn't fair...daddy help me..."
Astraeusmon hovered just above it, the two-pointed spear pointed directly at its chest. "You can still stop all of this. We're not going to give up on this world, not to our dying breath. It's all on you."
Nithhogg's pupils were shaking, and it got to its feet, staggering a little. Its tendrils twitched, and it glanced up at the sky. The five warriors followed its glance. Ouranomon, hovering above all of them on his great wings, scanned the horizon. "It's getting too close-"
The darkening sky seemed to fracture, mere metres above the battlefield. As the edges of the world crept ever further in, so the sky itself began to give way, with data particles falling down. And in the centre of the world, a tiny rift in space. The weakest point of the world's infrastructure. The portal to the Interface. There was another crack, and the hole widened.
Nithhogg's fists balled up, the blue flesh turning whiter than ever, the haze around its body going into overdrive. "I'm nearly there I'm nearly in another world I won't let you stop me here I need to go I WON'T LET YOU!"
It thrust its hands skywards, and the ground itself began to shake. In seconds the warriors were ducking as streams of data particles rushed through the sky and the ground from every direction, coursing straight into the body of Nithhogg. Skathimon steadied herself, twisting her sword in her hand. "What's going on?"
"The golems!" Ouranomon called down, his piercing eyes scanning the horizon. "They're melting!"
So they were. All across the world, those pieces of Nithhogg were disintegrating into piles of ash and acid and slag, shooting through the sky to return to their source. Not just them either; everywhere Nithhogg's hand had touched was rushing towards that first beach. Eosmon and Astraeusmon slashed at the advancing data, but it was like trying to stop the wind, and it kept flowing straight into that frail little body.
And as it did so, Nithhogg changed. As it slowly filled up with the majority of the Digital World, its body couldn't handle the strain. Its skin bubbled, rippled, and stretched to its very limit, turning from light blue to palest grey. The flesh split; around its abdomen at first, then in its legs, its arms, its chest, revealing pulsing organs that swelled and morphed and beat at an insane rate. Its child-like face, once bulbous and fleshy, now gave way at the jaw, and the very jaw itself was dragged apart, leaving its mouth open in a permanent scream. The top of its head burst too, leaving its brain exposed to the darkening sun. Its bones extended and morphed, changing their positions in this biological nightmare. Its finger bones extended and thinned, and its feet rose up, turning into slender, athletic appendages tipped with fleshy polyps that clawed at the ground. It was hideous; a monster breaking out of its child's body. Even its eyes changed, bulging out of their sockets and turning pale and veined, sunken-in and haunting.
Nithhogg took a step, and then another, already adjusting to its new gait. It stopped growing, though the data streams kept coming in, speeding up the deterioration of the Digital World all the more. It was drooling; bubbles of yellow pus that fell from its top jaw and ate into the ground and its own body. Yet it still spoke, with a voice that was half a curious child's and half a horrific scream of pain.
"I have more power than you. I have all the power in this world. I can win this. I can win everything. There's nothing you can do."
Archaeomon stepped back, glaring at the creature before him. The others raised their weapons, preparing for the fight of their lives.
"Too bad, that."
Nithhogg glanced to its left, as Aaron walked slowly forwards, with Velocimon by his side. His hand was tightly wrapped around his D-Nexus, surrounded with bright yellow lights.
"You've been here long enough to copy us yet you don't really seem to get us." He raised his hand. "See, the thing is, we're incredibly stubborn."
Velocimon smirked. "Even in its dying moments, we're not going to give this world up without a fight."
Aaron glanced up, bolts of energy sparking off of him. "We'll always find a way, no matter what we have to get through. We will get there and we will win."
Nithhogg turned, its enormous skeletal hands hanging low. "I don't get you."
"You don't need to." Aaron stopped, and raised his hand, his hair and clothes billowing in the wind as the seal of Electricity shone brightly on his chest. "But in a few moments, you will."
The discharge was intense, as bolts flew from both human and dinosaur and turned much of the surrounding beach to glass. Their bodies morphed, showing the forms of Kuaramon and Galvamon, Dimetromon and Brontesmon, before twisting together into one great web of bolts that stretched high and wide, making order out of the chaos. The bolts split into smaller threads, forming a network, then a shape, then drawing out the figure of a new elemental warrior in the sky, with the element of Electricity pulsing in the centre of its chest. The bolts glowed brightly, splitting even further, until the figure was complete, and it fell to earth, landing and crouching on the scorched sand.
The figure was vaguely humanoid, yet muscular, with a great tail stretching away and ending with gold edged-feathers. Interlocking armour covered its chest and back, as well as its legs, which were long and ended with claws and whirring runners. Circuitry and armour trailed down its right arm, ending in a gauntlet from which protruded a dagger of bright light. Its left arm was bulkier and heavily armoured, ending with an enormous cannon which sparked and whirred, thousands of millions of volts already building up within it. Its face was masked, with a smooth, sharp muzzle, more spiky feathers out the back of its head, and intense, piercing eyes that immediately locked onto the nightmarish creature before it.
The figure stood up, angled its feet, and pointed its cannon straight at the snarling Nithhogg, as the remains of the Digital World crumbled all around them.
TO BE CONTINUED...